All of the Clichés ARE True

“The fellowship of true friends who can hear you out, share your joys, help carry your burdens, and correctly counsel you is priceless.”
—Ezra Taft Benson

Life is a journey to be sure. For me, it gets more bewildering as the various “futures” disappear somewhere in my rearview mirror. As I reflect on the past half century, most of the certainties I thought I’d collected along away are gone. They inevitably disintegrate and drift away like stardust when passed through the gristmill of time.

Yea, the older I get, the less I know

When you cross paths with a merry band of fellow travelers on your journey, it’s a gift—a kind of magic actually. Much of any lifetime is necessarily spent alone, and much of that time is spent locked inside one’s own head with one’s one thoughts. It’s blessed relief when you find a compatriot or two to commiserate with. And if a bit of wine & cheese is mixed in with the whining & cheering, then you have conjured a most majestic state known as fellowship.

If you are really lucky, these fellow travelers stick around and your respective journeys intertwine. At times, it’s hard to tell who is journeying on whose path. But it’s hardly material, because having someone, anyone, to interrupt the solitude and carry a bit of the burden is the true priceless treasure of this lifetime.

My wife and I are blessed to have an inviting space where much fellowship occurs. We are also blessed by the relationships we’ve forged over time. Each group of fellow travelers is unique, and the degree and variety of revelry varies accordingly. With some groups we can’t seem to escape the damn kitchen. With others, we spend very little time indoors at all. And with one group, we invariably convene our fellowship at a specific Mexican restaurant just down the road known for their fantastic margaritas.

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter most (especially the little people)

Thankfully, there is a pair of special ladies—fellow travelers to each other—who always force us out of the damn kitchen into our oft neglected living room. With a charcuterie board as a 5th, wine (always red) as 6th, and music as a 7th, the four of us cozy up on the sofa and dueling oversized chairs. As a fire blazes away on the hearth, we nibble the cheese and pour the wine—inevitably, a bit of our respective souls spill out in the process.

After much hugging, our conversations always begin at the surface: What’s new with you? How are the kids doing? How’s the job going? But as we dive deeper into the cabernet, we attempt to tackle weightier issues. We share our hopes and dreams. But most importantly, we laugh our asses straight off. It matters naught what is happening outside of the living room (much less in the world), what is happening between the four of us is some dazzling confluence of enchantment, sorcery, and witchcraft.

Any or all of us could be in shit moods. Any or all of us could be battling ominous unseen demons. Any or all of us could be slightly ticked at each other. Much of that is leveled by the sharing, listening, and fellowship. But mainly, we slay all of those monsters behind the impenetrable shield of love with the undeniable power of laughter. The sort of full-body laughter that heals, and the kind of love that never fades even if we’ve not gathered in months.

Laughter (and a few glasses of wine) is indeed the best medicine

At least for me, the only dude in this gang, these little soirees are gold. It’s refreshing that there is no talk of sports, cars, or sports cars. Women tend to talk about the trials and tribulations of friendship, love, and life. And I’m truly blessed to be “one of the gals” on these occasions. Honestly, it’s like dressing in drag and sneaking into The Golden Girls (without actually having to dress in drag). To have a wife and these two ladies to share the burden is, as the Aussie’s would say, “legend”. I truly adore our little Cabernet klatsch—friends of this vintage are essential and rare.

The last time we all gathered to testify around the meat & cheese board was a few months back. It was a typical get-together—absolutely fabulous! One of our golden girls has the best laugh. You can see it before you hear it. She leans forward, thrusts out her wine hand, presses her free hand into her chest, and fills the room with her signature infectious guffaw as her head bobs up and down. She’s like a kid you can’t help but laughing along with simply because hers is so damn contagious.

Making her laugh is one of this lifetimes great accomplishments and delights. Making all of my golden girls laugh, and then laugh again, and then eventually wipe away the laughter-induced tears was always a secret goal of mine. There is something completely cathartic about laughing until you cry. And we’ve summoned plenty a catharsis over the years.

Spend the time, because someday they’ll be gone

Inexplicably, my golden girl with the infectious laugh was rushed to the hospital a little over 10 days ago. A brain scan showed two large tumors. One of the tumors was inoperable.

Cherish every moment, because you can’t make old friends

Impossibly, just after 10 PM last night, she was gone. You know how they say, “A little light went out of the world,” when the death of a famous person is announced. Our golden girl was not famous per se, but she was famously luminous—she sparkled impressively.

“Shock” is not a strong enough word.

I’m numb.

My wife is devastated.

For our other golden girl, words don’t exist for what she’s feeling.

I think we’ve all (alone and together) tried in vain to wrap her abrupt passing in some sort of reason. I told my wife today that I’ve just only begun to attempt to unravel tiny aspects of this loss. It’s a cruel and bitter loss to be sure. Our luminous golden girl did not deserve this ending. I imagine it will remain unfathomable for a long time.

As I thought of what I wanted to write tonight, I tried to digest the myriad emotions I was suffering. But my angle, my path, became quickly obvious. The biggest cliché of them all is the most apropos…

Only the good die young

Being a New Yorker for a stint, Billy Joel’s music was paramount for her just as it is for the rest of us. As the de facto DJ of our little klatsch, I usually tried to play “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” at least once at every gathering. It fit the mode and the mood brilliantly.

But if given the opportunity to play her sweet soul one last song, it would be Lori McKenna’s “Humble & Kind”—because our fallen golden girl was definitely no cliché. A few years back on a muggy August evening, the four of us saw Lori play at the Atlanta City Winery. Thankfully she played this song, as it’s one we all cherished.

During one of our subsequent vineal therapy sessions, I played everyone the version Lori McKenna and Mark Erelli performed on the Grand Ole Opry stage. We all listened in rapt silence. The memory of Cyndi with eyes closed, swaying, and gracefully conducting the music with her glass of wine will be forever imprinted on my soul. And at least for this lifetime, this will be her verse…

Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you
When you get where you’re going don’t forget turn back around
And help the next one in line
Always stay humble and kind

Lori McKenna also penned this lyric from the song “Happy People”…

Life is short, and love is rare, and we all deserve to be happy while we’re here

Amen & cheers to that!

I will miss our gatherings of the golden girls so terribly much. I suspect that the three of us will still gather for as long as we linger in this lifetime. When we next gather, we will (always) pour a glass for our dear Cyn. She’ll forever be a part of each of us, and she’d never miss an opportunity to eat cheese, drink wine, and laugh.

I know she’ll be there…

Copyright © 2021 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley

America Reversing Polarity

Guest commentary by Russell Brand

A (fantastic) guest commentary by the indomitable Russell Brand,

As a product of blue-collar Britain myself, I don’t believe these people are bigoted or backward, as they’re commonly rendered by the institutions that demonize them. I feel they just know that they’ve been stabbed in the back. Given that politics is now largely about opinions — things you say rather than things you do — the emergence of global online communication platforms has provided a glorious digital brewery in which discontent and division can hideously ferment. Judgment, vehemence and loathing can be calmly dispatched in cold and solitary certainty.

This is probably the best (and most succinct) analysis of global political trends that I’ve read. In America, it’s the same (with few notable exceptions, on both sides): the working class now identifies with the Republican party, and the upper-middle class (and beyond) are largely Democratic—a staggering reversal in polarity in just a few decades.

In reading the NYT Daily Briefing—an embarrassingly liberal rag—this political reversal of polarity is underscored by the lopsided tone of their daily reporting. Simply the title of today’s briefing email, “Falsehoods and threats“, reveals everything. I already know what’s inside without having to peer around the corner. But, inevitably, because I’m a glutton for intellectual punishment, and like to consume equal parts loony liberalism and corrosive conservationism, I read it.

The main story featured a number of cases where election officials have been threatened in some way by “Trump supporters”. In none of the cases are the alleged supporters portrayed as anything but backward, gun-totting, racist thugs. By employing clever language, a subtle yet distinct appeal becomes obvious—these “Trump supporters” are (profoundly) wrong to exercise their rights of assembly and protest. Additionally, by employing the fallacy of composition, they highlight (via numerous bullet points) the actions of a few zealots and tacitly paint all “Trump supporters” with the broad brush of zealotry.

So, am I now supposed to cast a suspicious gaze toward our lovely neighbors with whom we’ve shared too many good times? I mean, they own guns, they are working class folk, and they are—gasp—Trump supporters!!! Clearly they are devolved thugs, am I right David Leonhardt? They are the deplorable souls by association. Or, at least that’s what is being suggested by the NYT and their ilk.

Brand proffers a similar analysis in his guest commentary about the “working class” of the UK. Rightly, he refuses to paint them with a broad brush or blame them for Brexit. Unlike Dave, who was privileged enough to receive an ivy league education, Brand came for slightly more humble circumstances. He possesses something that can only be gained by “being there” and “doing that”—perspective.

And it’s just that: perspective, which organs like the NYT are trying to warp and bend to fit a narrative that unfolds strictly within their online fantasy land. In my world, in my neighborhood, we still all get together and hang out and enjoy life. I’m pretty confident in my ability to profile my neighbors’ political leanings. And I’m positive none of Trump supporters among them fit the stereotype David Leonhardt and his cohorts are peddling.

Ultimately, Brand suggests that demonizing half of the population is a mug’s game at best and perilous at worst. These divisive techniques only drive the wedge further between the two camps. From a distance, it is much easier to view each other as less than human and therefore treat each other badly. This cycle of division and hatred is as vicious as it is perpetual. And the ultimate result is something like civil war.

And in this context, that’s an interesting oxymoron. If you view the two words: “civil” and “war” as separate paths, you see two distinct and opposite outcomes. I meditate about civility daily. But with the current state of mainstream media coverage, social media discourse, and political upheaval, I fear we’re headed for war.

Copyright © 2020 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley

The Gulag Archipelago – A Crucial Excerpt

Without going into the entire story, which is to say the history of Russia from approximately WWI through the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union was a dreadful place to be in the early-to-mid twentieth century.

Without going into the reasons it was a dreadful place to be during that epoch, let’s just say there were a lot of citizens “spying” on one another in an effort to protect themselves from ending up in Gulag for a “tenner” (a ten year sentence in a labor camp). The crimes for which one landed in Gulag ranged from very real to vividly imagined—it mattered naught.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an officer in the Russian Army in WWII when he was arrested in 1945 for corresponding with a friend. Throughout their epistolary relationship, they occasionally exchanged derogatory remarks about Stalin and the Soviet government. For that, Solzhenitsyn spent the proceeding ten years as an unwilling resident of various Soviet prison camps where he witnessed a dozen lifetimes worth of human suffering and carnage.

He miraculously survived and went on to chronicle his experience in a book which I am currently reading titled: The Gulag Archipelago. It’s staggering in both breadth and length. Mostly, it’s rife with lessons of too-quick submission and compliance by the citizenry, which time would judge tragically. Many of these cautionary tales are buried in the minutia of innumerable farcical trials Stalin’s government conducted to either exile, imprison, or execute anyone he considered even a theoretical threat to his dominance.

To say Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus is an incomparable achievement would be faint praise. On the shallow end, it won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1970). On the deep end, it’s largely credited with the eventual (and sensational) dissolution of the Soviet Union. Due to its impact, it’s often cited in Dr. Jordan Peterson’s lectures and is the foundation of many his ideas.

Fresh off the heels of yet another impressive overreach by the governor of one of the states where I sporadically reside, I’m reminded of this excerpt from one of Stalin’s absurdist kangaroo court trials. In order to include them in his book, Solzhenitsyn did decades of research and reconnaissance to unearth the actual transcripts.

Andrey Vyshinsky was one of the state prosecutors in Joseph Stalin’s Moscow trials.

Nikolai Bukharin was a Bolshevik revolutionary on trial for numerous imagined crimes—chiefly not agreeing with Stalin’s totalitarian philosophies.

Keep in mind that at this point in the trial, Bukharin was resigned to the inevitability of execution and just wanted to get on with getting his bullet in the head. That is to say, because it was inevitable in his mind, he was basically going along with Vyshinsky for the sake of an expedient death.

Of note (and particularly relevant today) are all of the spectacular illogical leaps Vyshinsky makes. Also note that when Bukharin says, “According to the logic of things,” he actually means the illogic of things. As by this point in the Soviet Union, all logic had turned illogical.

Andrey Vyshinsky: “Is it true that every opposition to the [Soviet] party is a struggle against the party?”

Nikolai Bukharin: “In general it is—factually it is.”

Andrey Vyshinsky: “But a struggle against the [Soviet] party cannot help but go into a war against the [Soviet] party”

Nikolai Bukharin: “According to the logic of things, yes it must.”

Andrey Vyshinsky: “And that means in the end, given the opposition of beliefs, any foul deeds whatever might be perpetrated against the party: espionage, murder, sell-out of the motherland—”

Nikolai Bukharin: “But! Wait a minute! None were actually committed!”

Andrey Vyshinsky: “But they could’ve been!”

Nikolai Bukharin: “Well, theoretically speaking…”

Andrey Vyshinsky: “Those are your theoreticians for you. But for us, the highest of interests are those of the [Soviet] party?”

Nikolai Bukharin: “Yes! Of course, of course.”

Andrey Vyshinsky: “So, you see, only a very fine distinction separates us. You are required to concretize the eventuality in the interest of discrediting in the future any idea of opposition, we are required to accept as having taken place what could only theoretically have taken place. After all, it could have, couldn’t it?

Nikolai Bukharin: “It could have—”

Andrey Vyshinsky: “And so it is necessary to recognize as *actual* what was “possible*—that’s all, it’s a small philosophical transition. Are we in agreement?”

Nikolai Bukharin: “Yes.”

Today, this notion of leveraging the *possible* and *theoretical* as *actual* is also the justification for the unjust subversion of this nation’s [United States] charter to restrict personal liberty. The parallels are uncanny.

And this twisted logic, like the virus du jour, is contagious. But unlike the early-to-mid twentieth century where is was contained within the Soviet Union, it’s spreading around the globe.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist

It’s seems a scant few souls working in government, media, higher education, or ‘expertville’ have ever read a dystopian sci-fi novel.

—Blake Charles Donley, me

Copyright © 2020 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley,

Our Drowned Cargo

There is a seminal moment every evening just before dusk. For precious minutes, the world is in a state of suspended animation. Sandwiched between the commotion of the day and the mystery of the night, it’s an unnamed snippet of eerie tranquility where neither a drowsy sun nor bestirring moon reigns.

It was the best part of any day during the summer of ’85.

I was 13 years old.

Bathed in the 15-watt glow of a crescent moon that seemed to hang inches above the current circumstance, I crouched in front of the garage door. I was standing sentry at the northeast corner of the white rambler where my mother, brother, and I sheltered during the Reagan-Bush era.

Just off the poured-concrete stairs that lead around to the backyard, I held my position next to the downspout, periodically edging my left eyeball around the corner for a quick southward peek. Although the moon was fair-to-partly-dim that evening, the damn street light at the base of our driveway suddenly burst onto the scene dousing me with its harsh white glare. I suddenly understood how an x-rayed tibia felt. I had no time to give it much thought, however, as I was preparing to run like hell at any moment.

Positioned at the northwest corner of the house opposite me, near the overgrown arborvitae that had swallowed up footballs, baseballs, and snowballs too numerous to count, was my comrade-in-arms: Brandon. When the world, or at least Plymouth, MN, was not obscured in a dusky mist, he was more easily recognizable as my younger, larger, and considerably blonder brother. I could only assume he was strategically edging his right eyeball around the corner for a fleeting glance southward. If not, I’d have to kick his ass later—there was no time for shenanigans, however—we were fighting for our lives.

Together, we were employing the classic “scan and scamper” technique. This was accomplished by respectively covering each other’s unprotected flanks. If flanker #1 (Brandon) spotted the Drill Sergeant’s flashlight off the southeast corner of the house, he’d run like wind to the northwest corner of the house where flanker #2 (yours truly) was waiting. Flanker #1 would then relieve flanker #2 of his post and take up position to scan eastward from there. In turn, flanker #2 would scamper to the southwest corner of the house and find a good spot from which to settle in and also scan eastward. Both flankers would then lie in wait while calming their breathing and peeling their eyeballs. It was flawless. And if you could cajole a partner, you could do it all, night. long.

Having just been relieved of my post by my panting bro, I flew down the stairs to the backyard and hunched down in my new position behind the peaked shrubs that were trying to grow in the 20′ x 10′ patch of desert behind our garage—it was the only spot on the entire property that was seemingly never shaded.

My breath aside, it was deathly calm. As my huffing and puffing faded back into unconscious reflex, I began to marvel at the frenetic serenity that had engulfed me. An orchestra of crickets provided a dull-yet-mellifluous murmur. The occasional flop of a bullhead or slap of a beaver’s tail from the small hidden lake in the backyard would send ripples across the surface of the water and sound waves across the drums of my ears. The omnipotent scent of an early summer evening would fill my lungs, drench my skin, and saturate my clothing, so as to be present long after I went in for the evening.

Only the occasional whoosh of a passing car on the adjacent road would mar all of these natural melodies with a momentary blast of mechanical resonance briefly reminding me that I was not in some Guatemalan jungle or Appalachian forest. And the flittering night wind, that would occasionally swirl and rustle the hairs on my head, seemed an ominous harbinger of something unseen and unknown —a characteristic notably absent from the refreshing breezes that invigorated me on too-numerous summer afternoons.

By sheer serendipity, I found myself in an idyllic setting…to be a kid.

We called it Army—the innocent gamification of something that, unbeknownst to all of us at the time, was considerably more ominous, more ruthless, more deleterious. But it was the era of Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—we all wanted to be “in country” with CCR thrumming in our heads, at least in our back yard for the evening.’

It was entertainment invented by my brother and me with considerable input from our three stalwart neighborhood buddies: Angus, Robin (Rob), and Heath. Together, we divided, explored and conquered our minuscule corner of the planet as a band of misfits, that somehow together, fit.

Our creation was surely inspired by, and a conflation of, numerous outdoor games we played on too many dusky, musky, murky summer nights. It was a little capture the flag mixed with a little kick the can amidst a backdrop of flashlight tag.

I have no clear recollection of how this diversion came into its prominent existence. Like most total awesomeness, it was likely spawned at the crossroads of utter boredom and precipitous imagination. And for at least one wondrous summer, it captured the imagination of five kids from the neighborhood quite utterly.

The game was simple, yet inexplicably the rules somehow became more subjective as we continued to fine-tune them:

  1. Someone was the Drill Sergeant, and for whatever reason, Rob was always the drill sergeant.
  2. Everyone else was a soldier and began the evening at the rank of “Private”.
  3. Drill Sergeant Rob was equipped with a flashlight of his choosing (or bringing — mostly bringing—(he didn’t trust us to equip him).
  4. Privates were allowed no gear other than swift feet, sharp wits, and the clothes on their backs.
  5. If Rob caught anyone in the cross hairs of his flashlight beam, that soldier had to freeze regardless of whether he was 15 or 1015 feet away (his chosen flashlight was no joke).
  6. Upon being caught in the light, Rob assigned the soldier a physical challenge. Judgement, imagination, and mercy were his only guides. These are a few common examples:
    1. Do 30 push-ups
    2. Climb to some specific branch of a tree
    3. Run around the house 10 times in under 5 minutes (oh yea, he also had a stopwatch dangling from his neck)
  7. If the challenge was completed successfully, the soldier moved up a rank.
  8. If the challenge was not completed successfully or refused, the soldier moved down a rank (Private -1, Private -2—these were common ranks)
  9. Here’s where subjectivity crept in: if the soldier was successful in not being caught for a particularly extended period (at least 30 minutes), Rob could simply grant him a higher rank based on his prowess at evading the deadly glare of his flashlight. If a soldier managed to evade Rob for an hour or longer, Rob might move the soldier up multiple ranks.
  10. In general, the reward was significantly higher for being stealthy rather than being able complete an endless series twisted calisthenics. Plus, none of us much enjoyed Rob’s cavalcade of twisted calisthenics unless we were feeling especially masochistic, and it was usually hot as hell outside.
  11. In the end, glory, distinction, and legend came by reaching your final rank not with brawn but with stealth and brains.
  12. The game ended when the platoon was spent, or a soldier was beckoned home by a bellowing mother’s voice from across the ’hood.

We played this game nightly with fervor reminiscent of addicted gamblers consistently returning to the same bank of slot machines. What strikes me now, is that we never bothered to consider that there was anywhere else for a kid to be on a summer’s eve than outside. The very notion of siting inside and watching television when the weather was so nice was anathema to us all.

The backdrop for our collective nocturnal pastime was the kinda-bucolic acre lot upon which our rightsized rambler was situated—a setting where I would tirelessly labor to craft an imperfectly pristine childhood.

The home itself was perched on a substantial hill by suburban Minneapolis standards. In the winter, the embankment just off of the aforementioned poured-concrete stairs was steep enough to get a sled up to about 25 mph just before colliding with the leafless branches of trees, shrubs and vines in the wooded area that too-quickly met you at the nadir. Incidentally, the same speed could be achieved on foot in summer by getting a running start and simply allowing gravity to plunge you down the hill into the awaiting leafy arms of Mother Nature.

On the other end of the lot was a heavily wooded area that stretched for nearly a mile around the small lake in the backyard—a body of water that was given the apt moniker “Hidden Lake” because only those that called its banks home knew it was there. Within this marvelous, magnificent and mystical forest were numerous foot paths worn down by the steady trampling of boys’ and periodically a girl’s sneaker. All paths, plus various semaphoring tree limbs directing the way, eventually led to a fort constructed of stacked logs. This fort functioned quite well as a home base for any “operation” upon which our little neighborhood “battalion” needed to conspire and subsequently execute.

Just past the enchanted forest, at the base of a shallow slope covered in tall grass, was a rather dynamic rail line. This freeway for train traffic provided numerous opportunities for fun including (but not limited to): flattening pennies, collecting railroad spikes and walking the world’s longest balance beam.

In turn, it could be quite inconvenient for reasons including (but not limited to): blaring steam whistles at all hours, pictures vibrating off your bedroom wall as you slept nearly scaring you to the grim reaper’s door step, and waiting for train cars to pass before reaching or returning from the bus stop. Either way, there was something spooky and sublime about watching a locomotive rumble through the evening’s dewy particulate.

The house, being a walkout, had a rather impressive upper deck off the back that spanned the length of the main level with a concrete patio just below it that spanned the length of the ground level. The railing of the upper deck provided a built-in ladder for convenient roof access (much to our mother’s chagrin). The grange was attached to the west end of the house, but there was nothing behind it. Thus, a natural nook or cranny (not sure which) was formed in the backyard directly behind the garage.

There were dozens of climbable trees on the property – most notably a Weeping Willow that grew horizontally from the lake shore spanning 20 feet out and over the lake. Another notorious tree, which like the roof, was accessible from the upper deck railing, always beckoned me with its enticing-yet-scary canopy. Already 10 feet closer to heaven when starting the climb, the daredevil that scaled it had a birds-eye view of the entire backyard and a partial view of the front. At 50 feet from ground level at it most climbable point, it was where only legends (and some birds) dared to perch.

One of my personal favorite moments from our summer “in the army” involved hastily hiding, the aforementioned arborvitae, and a bonnet of bees.

In an effort to find some quick cover from the flashlight beam of doom, I passed the overgrown arborvitae on the northeast corner of the house in a full sprint and proceeded slam on the brakes in order to dive into it.

As I attempted to silence my locomotive breath—the result of chugging up the hill, I watched Rob saunter past my shrubby disguise and then slow down. Although I was in no actual danger, I was immediately stricken with that sinking sensation you get when you first hear sirens and then see flashing lights in your rear-view mirror; I instinctively held my breath. I started to turn blue as Rob more closely investigated the general area in which I was cowering. As he intensified his search, I think my skin shade darkened a bit toward the purple end of the spectrum.

Mercifully, he moved on, as I gulped vast quantities of thick-as-pudding, humid, evening air. When the color returned to my cheeks, I noticed what I thought was a ball lodged in the evergreen branches not more than a foot in front of my face. Having previously retrieved all manner of long-lost recreational items from this particular shrub, I instinctively reached out to grab it.

As I wrapped my fingers around it—it was no larger than a softball—I noticed that it started to vibrate. Seconds later, I noticed that my index finger was throbbing in intense pain. Split-seconds later that, I bolted from the shrub screaming “Bees! Bees! Run! Bees!!!” This immediately elicited a flashing of Rob’s light in my direction. I was busted by the Drill Sergeant, but at least I escaped certain death by multiple bee stings!

On another occasion, one of my fellow comrades decided to scale the previously ballyhooed tree that was instantly accessible from the deck railing. It strikes me today that the obvious threat of ghastly injury was generally disregarded back then, just as I’d dismiss the chance of being struck by lightning on a trip to the mailbox during a thunderstorm today. I guess I’ve always embodied the idiom: “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, and we were all spectacular fools in those halcyon days; little has changed…for me at least.

A broken wrist, arm, or leg seemed a negligible risk for the reward of shimmying up a tree trunk for a million dollar view of the evening’s festivities. And one of my platoon-mates decided to go higher into that tree than anyone had previously dared. So high in fact, that he was not seen on maneuvers by anyone throughout the course of the entire evening.

I often recollect this endeavor when I imagine the most pristine place on earth. Especially when suffering endless hours in a scrubbed-clean, white-noise-filled, chi-destroying cubicle. I imagine the hot dewy air rushing in where trade winds fear to tread. I imagine the view of endless woods from five stories aloft. From that vantage point, I can envision the street that divided the tranquility with the periodic ’78 Buick Regal or ’82 Cutlass Supreme whizzing past and destroying the silence. I imagine what I’d imagine nestled in such a spot in the universe. I imagine the unparalleled beauty of the scene. I imagine perfection…at least on this astral plain…

Anyway, we could nary locate Angus as we decided to pack it in and launch an all out manhunt to pinpoint his coordinates—now four weary, wet, pungent, Drill Sergeants vs. one soldier. As I canvassed the backyard, it was not until I heard Angus’ telltale cackle cascading down from the heavens, that he finally revealed himself. I recall being shocked at his Spider-man-like skills and thinking that he had a real future as an Indonesian coconut retrieval monkey. He definitely claimed the brass ring that night—of that there was no doubt.

This diversion of ours —it caused us to think. It forced engagement of the mind to propel the body which lifted the spirit. It was a magnificent synergy that could only be achieved in the great outdoors, in the heat of summer, in the still of the night.

We were all residents of our respective imaginations each time we navigated this fantastic twilight saga. We were elite paramilitary troopers specially trained in camouflage, quiet, and evasive maneuvers. We were superheroes that could perform amazing feats of agility, speed, and strength. We were stealthy ninjas disappearing in the shadows, melding with the flora (arborvitae) whilst evading the fauna (bees).

Even if we weren’t.

It didn’t matter.

Thant was the point.

Likely, we each achieved varying degrees of legend in our own minds as we traversed our opaque fairy-tale. This shared endeavor unfolded as much in our minds as it did in front of our faces.Despite running, and ducking, and exerting ourselves, there was plenty of time to think, and plot, and plan. We were kings of our hills, masters of our universe, and explorers sans compasses. But that was very much the point. Our imaginations flourished—because we refused to hold them back—because we had to rely on them to persevere.

Today, we seem to be on some bent quest to organize, compartmentalize and homogenize the childhood episode in life’s mini-series. This often results in a sort of institutionalized play that resembles the hour of outdoor activity accorded to inmates incarcerated at maximum security prisons. Ironically, this institutionalized play is often rationalized under the guise of protecting kids from potential dangers posed by the type of folks that end up as prison inmates.

It seems to me that we need to disorganize, randomize, and colorize the childhood installment of life once again. As I sit in my Dilbert-style cubicle during these hazy summer afternoons, I often catch myself daydreaming about things I did decades in the past…outside…at night. In those fleeting weeks of endless childhood summers, my life seemed like an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer—an Odyssey.

Copyright © this hellish fucked up year of the lord, 2020
– ∞ B. Charles Donley

David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books

Open Culture unearthed one of David Foster Wallace’s syllabus from the Fall ’94 semester at Illinois State University. His course was entitled “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction”. I know from reading all of his books and essays, as well as consuming an inordinate number of interviews on YouTube, that Wallace took the teaching gig to pay his bills while he was writing fiction.

Under the heading…


  1. Mary Higgins Clark, Where Are the Children?
  2. Jackie Collins, Rock Star
  3. James Ellroy – The Big Nowhere
  4. Thomas Harris – Black Sunday
  5. Thomas Harris – The Silence of the Lambs
  6. Stephen King – Carrie
  7. C.S. Lewis – The Loin, The Witch and the Wardrobe
  8. Larry McMurtry – Lonesome Dove

I’m sad to say that I’ve read exactly one of these: The Silence of the Lambs. If for no other reason, I now feel compelled to read these based on Wallace’s goal for the course.

In less narcotizing words, English 102 aims to show you some ways to read fiction more deeply, to come up with more interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction, and to write—clearly, persuasively, and above all interestingly—about stuff you’ve read.

OK, I’m in!

Copyright © 2019 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley

Guest Writer: Karli Annmarie Bolduc-Donley – Where I’m From

Where I’m From

I am from red hair
From curly hair and Norwegians
I am from Def Leppard
And the Beatles
I am from shiny records
The Walkman, and turntables that I played some of my favorite music on

I am from scoliosis
From orthotists
And back braces
From funerals
And loss

I am from tulips and lawn mowing
And best friends
I am from bikes with baskets
And Dairy Queen
From salty popcorn
And Mom’s Best cereals

I’m from divorces
And “Lord we thank yous”
From trampolines
Chip, Chirp, and Peep Peep
And “Using you head for something besides a hat rack.”
I’m from Goldfish
And my terrier mix Lily that I have played with and have had some of my best memories

I’m from writing
And a writer dad
And pencil sketches when I am bored
I’m from Guinea Pigs
And dreaming of winning the lottery
I’m from swimming
And leaving school early
From thank you and please

I am from these memories
That I hold close
And will take with me
Wherever I go

Copyright © 2018 – ∞ Karli Annmarie Bolduc-Donley
(age 12 at the time of this penning)

Article: Stephen King and other top authors headed to Minneapolis for new book festival

Stephen King and other top authors headed to Minneapolis for new book festival



Wordplay — a new book festival to be hosted in May by the Loft Literary Center — will open with a rollicking concert at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis starring the all-author supergroup the Rock Bottom Remainders.

The Rock Bottom Remainders is a fluid band, its members changing depending on who is in town, but it’s anchored by King, Tan and Karr, as well as humorist Dave Barry and sportswriter Mitch Albom, all of whom will be in Minneapolis for the festival.

h/t Minneapolis Star Tribune


I mean…I am a failed guitar virtuoso and fledgling author. I live in Minneapolis. I’m home that weekend. I should probably pencil this onto the calendar.

Trojan Tribune Horse


For the past few years, a half-dozen banker’s boxes of my “keepsakes”, to which my mother had unceremoniously transferred guardianship, have been gathering dust on shelves in my garage. On one fateful evening last summer, I decided to rifle through them in hopes of throwing out all of the contents (and the boxes).

Invariably, I ended up having a few drinks while I conducted this archaeological dig. And most likely due to the confluence of G&Ts, nostalgia, and a tacit disdain for my WHS experience, I became rather surly. Since she was sitting across the table from me, I began to regale my 12-year-old daughter with a series somewhat sketchy diatribes on the horrors of my school daze and school in general.

The next morning, as the coffee cleared the cobwebs from my gray matter, I decided my little guided tour though middle and high school—aided by the keepsake props—was maybe a bad idea. Karli argued that I was totally wrong. She assured me that my candor was at times alternately refreshing and hilarious, and that the whole production was a good, if not great, idea (in her opinion).

I still couldn’t shake the pangs of regret for a few select tidbits of unfiltered honesty I allowed to escape my lips. Just because my stint in middle and high school was borderline excruciating, I should’ve known better than to allow it to taint my kids’ outlook on school. They should be able to embark on their own excruciating journeys sans my jaded influence. Hence, I decided to christen the pair of remaining boxes containing the keepsakes that narrowly survived the boozy culling—”The boxes of bad parenting!”

Both kids still periodically point to them, again collecting dust on the garage shelves, and ask, “Hey dad, are those the boxes of bad parenting?”

“Yep…they are…” I answer in a resigned tone.

Anyway, once opened, these Pandora’s boxes yielded all manner of useless historical refuse. I found old book reports, crayon drawings, and “special awards”, which in reality were simply mimeographed half-sheets of mustard-colored paper with some blueish-purple ribbon printed in the top right corner and my name penned onto the line labelled “Student”. Beyond the superfluous compositions, assignments, and artwork (if you could call it that), I also stumbled across too-many painful memories, and too-much pointless angst, which provided ample fuel for my countless diatribes and fast-and-loose profanity.

I recycled much of it. In fact, by the time midnight had rolled around, I’d reduced the volume by two-thirds. But there were a few treasures too absurd to let go: my perfect attendance medal from Wayzata High School, my senior sympathy letter for track and field team participation—I only ever qualified for the JV team, even as a senior I was still eight seconds too slow in the 400 meter dash to officially letter—and those dreadful, heavy, pristine yearbooks. I felt compelled to keep these and a few other items. Ostensibly, so I can look back again someday and reminisce. Actually, so that they can collect dust in my garage until my kids throw them into a rented 20-yard dumpster a few weeks after eulogizing my carcass.

The whole exercise was not in vain, however. For among the piles of profitless propaganda was a stack of sumptuous sentimentality. For whatever reason, when dusk was settling on the decade that was the ’80s, I saved every issue of my high school newspaper: The Trojan Tribune. And while that publication’s moniker could lead one to think it was an industry rag containing the latest news in prophylactics, I promise you it’s something entirely different. Much to my delight, like an episode of Growing Pains, it’s an exhaustive record of what it was like to attend high school from fall 1987 through spring 1990.

Likely, my affinity for the TT could be traced back to my brief stint in Mr. Mahn’s 10th grade Journalism class, wherein I tried desperately to get one of my articles into said paper before the winter trimester (and my time in his class) ended. The closest I got, was an article where I interviewed the ladies who worked in the office to compile a list of the best excuses ever given for being late to school. To my recollection, “I accidentally flushed my baby alligator down the toilet and tried to plunge him back out.” was the hands-down winner. I mean…that’s so ridiculous, it may have actually been true, right?

When Mr. Mahn informed me that my “Best Excuses Ever!” article was slated for publication in the February 1988 edition, I was giddy as a schoolboy. Then, just days before it went to print, my article was summarily “bumped” by the editor. An urgent story on the search for a new principal, after a surprise retirement announcement by our at-the-time principal, needed my article’s precious column inches.

It would be 25 more years until I finally got my first commentary published in a newspaper.

Anyway, I have decided to share all of the relatively goofy, embarrassing, and wholesome coverage of the late ’80s, upper middle class, secondary education experience. Henceforth, I’m going to scan one of these each week and link it here. I did a cursory Google search for these lost relics before potentially wasting a ton of my time; Google found nothing of this sort. So, besides my desire to share, I feel like it’s my duty as a WHS grad to preserve these hallowed documents for posterity.

Maybe some story in one of these old rags will stir up a memory or three from your high school experience. And maybe, like me, you too can pass down some inappropriate anecdote to your kids in the midst of some vineal retroflection…

The full run (new episodes added weekly)

  1. Trojan_Tribune_1987_09_30
  2. Trojan_Tribune_1987_10_30
  3. Trojan_Tribune_1987_11_30
  4. Trojan_Tribune_1987_12_18
  5. Trojan_Tribune_1988_01_25


Copyright © 2018 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley

Happy 50th Fantasia


I was asked to put together a few thoughts and share them on this momentous occasion. Well, folks, there is not enough time left in this day—probably this week—for me to help you fully understand the scope of the impact that “The Shop” has had on my psyche.

I am a writer, so think of this as a public reading of a literary work. I write stories not speeches. I mean I can write a speech in a pinch. This opportunity could not be accurately described as a “pinch”.

I struggled mightily with my attempts to select which of the myriad topics I would present. I could have regaled you all with an eight-year-old’s recollection of the wild and raucous parties held at Iris’ backyard pool.

Along those lines, I could share the same memories in regards to the annual salon summer picnic/gala at the Christmas Lake home my parents shared when they were still married. These were not quite on the same level as Iris’ pool parties, but they were not all that far off.

I could share my memories of sweet Tammy. When she first cut my hair, we were both still kids. She was just starting her career working for Twila and I was just turning ten-years-old. For 25 years we grew up together one haircut at a time. I have encountered select few souls in this lifetime that could approach the level of sparkle and brilliance hers did. Tammy’s was the prototype for the notion: larger than life. A life that would end well short of the capacity left in her soul to spread her unique brand of joy to anyone drawn into her irresistible orbit. I can honestly say today that this world would benefit immensely from a whole hell of a lot more Tammy’s. And it is terribly sad that we no longer have ours…

I could enumerate the vast number of renovation projects with which I have been involved in my 40 years on this planet. I have often told my mother that the overall square footage of the salon is not what it once was due to the sheer number of alternating layers of wallpaper and paint that adorn her walls. So if any of you, Marlene, Iris, Shelly, have ever felt that the walls of the salon were closing in on you over the years, it is because they were, literally…

Along those lines I could enumerate the various positions I have held over the years at Fantasia: head grounds keeper, chief custodial engineer, inventory control specialist, head photographer, webmaster, chief organizationalist, head mechanic, external business consultant, leaf pile removal specialist, day laborer, shampoo vial filler, and the list goes on…

Instead, I chose to focus on three themes that have been omnipresent throughout my dealings with Fantasia Together Salon, Spa, Nails, Make-up, Aerobics Studio, Workout Gym, Tanning, Spray Tanning, Nutritional Consulting and Hair Replacement Center.

Classy Ladies

There is a song by K.T. Oslin entitled “80s Ladies”.

The chorus goes like this…
We were the girls of the 50’s.
Stoned rock and rollers in the 60’s.
And more than our names got changed as the 70’s slipped on by.
Now we’re 80’s ladies.
There ain’t been much these ladies ain’t tried.

And just as there is a song entitled” “80s Ladies”, there is a photo that hung on walls of various salons that I have personally captioned: “80s Ladies”. It is this photo (motion to the photo).

As the 70s were devoured by the 80s, I was eight years old and “the shop” as we know it was just being built. The group of women in this photo was likely thrilled to be moving out of a strip mall into a free-standing building where they would have much more room to spread their wings and be fabulous.

You see, for me, that is what they were: fabulous. Beneath the surface, they were all struggling with the issues of the day, but on the surface, they exuded class. As you looked around 2756 Douglas Dr N shortly after the doors opened for business, you saw a group of women that were the essence of “put together”. They were fabulous divas before the notion became marginalized and eventually meaningless, as it is today. They were, for the most part, approaching middle age. And with age came experience, knowledge and in some cases, wisdom. As a hairdressing collective, they were beyond reproach.

So through the eyes of an introspective, sensitive, older-then-his-biological-age eight year old, these ladies shaped the notion of what is meant to be a professional women. They were confident and put together, they took shit from very few and could dish out a heaping pile when required to do so. And so I could have done much worse for a group of role models…male or female.

They were indeed 80s ladies, and there surely there ain’t been much these ladies ain’t tried…

The Biggest Family Ever

“The Shop” and the souls that graced her hallowed spaces represented much more than a business and the people who worked within, where my mother just happened to sit atop. Over the years, especially during the ‘80s, these women became an extension of my family – as I knew it. You see, there was never a point in my life where my mother was not running a salon full of women. So, to have these ladies play such an integral part in my life was the very essence of normal.

Sure, not every single of the 1,297 employees in the history of “The Shop” were extended family. That notion is as preposterous as it is impossible. But there were a few whose lives intertwined significantly with mine. I’ll touch on them, one-at-a-time, in chronological order.

Some of you know Rosie Oschlager. She was our cleaning lady at Christmas Lake. She eventually became our part-time daycare provider. After that, she went to work as the business manager at Fantasia.

Rosie often provided dinner for my brother and I at her home. Not surprisingly, Rosie made meals that were straight from the USDA food pyramid. I do not ever recall a single meal that did not include a vegetable. One evening, Rosie provided cooked beats as the vegetable. At five years old, I was not a fan; I remember mentioning this to Rosie. She listened to my concern about the viability of beets as actual food source, and put this spin on it: (paraphrasing) “If you don’t like beets, just eat them first. That way you will have the rest of your meal to enjoy without having to worry about the beets.”

This seemingly simple piece of wisdom would eventually become one of my core philosophies. To simplify it greatly, it was the: business-before-pleasure axiom. But whether intentional or not, it was much more profound than that. Rosie provided me a strategy that I would use countless times in my life to de-emphasize the non-pleasurable tasks and emphasize the pleasurable ones. In that tiny snippet of advice was a life-long strategy for maximization of happiness.

Some of you know Betty Coleman. She was my mother’s first employee. My mother and Betty started their respective families right around the same time. Hence, we would have numerous occasions to get together and interact with Betty’s kids Mark and Kendra. Although this was more of a sporadic occurrence, I still distinctly remember one of our visits to Betty’s house to play with Mark and Kendra. Do you know how you have the most vague and random memories of places from your childhood. I have those memories of Betty’s house. I have always felt like my mother had met a kindred spirit in Betty and that Mark and Kendra had an experience somewhat similar to the one my brother and I had while growing up. Although Betty did not work at the salon forever—like the next person about which I’ll speak—she and my mother remain good friends to this day.

Iris is here tonight—God bless her!!! I have more stories about Iris than I have time with which to regale you. So, I’ll just hit a few…We spent an entire summer at her house while her son David—bless his heart–provided part-time daycare for Erik and I. I can recall on numerous occasions where I either lost or broke one of my toys being reminded that if I could just take as good care of my stuff as David did his, I’d have more stuff. David did his best to entertain us that summer. I remember countless afternoons in the backyard pool, listening to Billy Joel LPs in the basement, hanging out in the neighborhood with David’s friends and much, much more.

Some of you may know this, but Iris and her dogs lived with mother, brother and myself for a brief stint in the mid 80s. The house at: 1315 W. Medicine Lake Drive was sort of a mystical place to grow up. It represented what could be accomplished when three people work together to run a house. And, if I recall correctly, we were more than happy to welcome Iris into our happy, harmonious little homestead. I thought that is was really cool that we were all living out a real life Kate & Alley sitcom in our little home on Hidden Lake. It was like a holiday when a bunch of relatives are staying over, only it was not a holiday and it lasted more than a day or two. I looked at Iris as just another adventurer trekking through life with the rest of us @ 1315 W. Medicine Lake Dr.

To this day, my mother still chats with Iris on the phone multiple times each week. Every time she hangs up the phone, she reminds me of the importance of people. Things are as transitory as they are temporary; they provide no permanent happiness. As fabulous as money can be; it provides no intrinsic joy. But people provide memories and memories last forever. Fantasia, for me, has always been about the people…the family…and the memories…

Undying Passion

There is not a day that has passed in the past 50 years where this cute little engine-that-could business has not chugged forward fueled—in large part—on the blood sweat and tears of my mother. I rarely see her in her role as: CEO/president/chief cook and bottle washer at Fantasia. I do, however, get to see her in many of the other roles that she plays: mother/grandmother/friend. From my vantage point, I can say this without equivocation…this business is never more than a thought or two from the one she is having at any given moment. My mother loves this business, she loves the employees that work with her, she loves the clients that choose to patronize it and she revels in the immense happiness, success and memories that 50 years of Fantasia have seen facilitated.

It is often hard for me to see my mother as a super hero, especially when I have to show her how to operate the Comcast universal remote for the 17th time or explain the intricacies of how her internet access actually works. But folks, you must understand that she grew up in some of the most modest settings imaginable. And if you need help imagining, think a couple clicks outside of Little House on the Prairie. She has often told me of the time when her mother told her on the eve of her high school graduation: “you have to leave, there is nothing for you here.” And with literally no notion that opening one’s own business was nowhere near as difficult as running it successfully for 50 years, she did both…

I have often questioned the business decisions that have come to pass over the years. I remember thinking that when we were lugging the exercise machines into the basement of the building that I would be lugging them back out in a few months. I remember thinking that there was much too much clothing and accessories for sale at a place that was supposed to be a hair & nail salon. And I can’t tell you how many questionable coats of paint I have applied at “the shop” that I was positive I would be “refreshing” with a new color in 18 months or less. But the one thing I have nary had occasion to question was my mother’s passion for this business and for the people. For her, the focus was always right and true…the people have been and will always be the focus.

Grandma Ellen and Grandpa Harry would be so immensely proud of you on this day. For I feel that they always knew in some way that your destiny lie outside of the friendly confines of “the country”. And although at the time they could not have envisioned “the shop” as that destiny, it was truly your vision that brought it to life. And it is that same vision that moves it forward today. And so today we celebrate 50 years of that vision. Congratulations, Mom.