photo 36IT FLOORS ME HOW LITTLE I understand history. Not capital-H History, but the personal, intimate kind. After hanging around long enough to watch people be born and die, succeed and fail, I expect previous generations to help me make sense of life, if not explicitly then by example. I’d like some feel for how the peculiarities of time, place and personality land us here, and why we should be proud or amazed or defensive or ashamed.

I’m not any of those. I’m just here. Wasn’t I paying attention? Are there lessons folded neatly into lives, like a family cheat sheet?

After my grandfather died last year, I took a few things: his cases full of sharpshooter medals, stained glass tools, a couple of old hats and fishing rods. And suitcases full of photos. They show familiar people, but even in our small family, most I hardly knew. There’s no family business, religion, or common cause to reconcile them against. What were they like? More to the point… what am I like? The suitcases has some clues.

Above is my great-grandfather, Noel, seated and shirtless in the family cabin in Waubeek, Iowa. He worked in a small-town service station and pitched baseball, which made him kind of a big deal. When I was small, I recall Noel taking me on walks to get soft serve, or leading me to “discover” small piles of candy corn he’d placed on the side of the road, like fairy treasure.

He lived with his wife Audrey on the Wapsipinicon River into his late 90s. Sometime in the 1990s, he went for a walk on the river, fell in and died. People have suggested it probably wasn’t an accident, but for what reason that is, I don’t know.

Behind Grandpa Noel is my mom, looking pretty and bored. She’s recalled her time at Waubeek to me fondly. Other times she mentions there was yelling, hot tempers and short fuses with children. Pinochle and cocktails, it seems, were the main activities.

photo 2Noel’s wife, my great-grandmother Wheeler (I called her “Grandma Quasqui” for the town of Quasqueton where they lived) is shown here on her pony. She has a strange middle name I’ve never seen elsewhere: Serepta. There’s something about vintage Iowan women’s names of that era—Vietta, Ardell, Neone—you know aren’t due for resurgence.

Audrey married Noel at 16. In my memory, she is quiet and distant. I don’t what her hobbies or interests were. In pictures, she sits around with her family, talking and not talking, smoking and not smoking. Many years later, Sarah observed this is what my family does, chronically sits around together.

Below are two Christmas pictures, one of my mother and another of Grandma Quasqui. I don’t know what my holidays were like for my mom growing up, but these illuminate my own.

My mother has a thing about perfect Xmas trees. Her collection of hundreds of ornaments, mostly vintage, are stored with immaculate care and pulled out for display each November, a process that can take days. For many years, my sister and I were not allowed to help. This seemed proper to me until decades later, when, with a child-helper of my own, I realized how obvious it is to make them part of the action.

Here’s Grandma Quasqui, handing out presents I think. While the monochrome tree decor is nothing like ours, to me it suggests, “Christmas control freak.” My mother, in the other shot, clutches a favorite doll and strikes a beaming pose in her home in Cedar Rapids. She aims to please and expects satisfaction in return. This pretty much sums up my social philosophy.

photo 3photo 46

One more: Mom, sis, grandma and me visiting Aunt Neone (pronounced “nay-own”) and Uncle Tom Zonneville in San Diego in 1984 or 85. Tom was lazy and a complainer (cardinal sins in my grandfather’s book). I remember his snide comments and air of moral superiority (over what I’m not sure). While he was hard to like as a person, Tom was a great photographer. He documented everyone in the family for decades, including bewitching stereoscopic images of vacations and mundane get-togethers. Looking at these through the special binocular viewer, you are AT the card table in 1947 holding a Tom & Jerry.

Here I am emulating him with a camera around my neck on my only trip to DisneyLand. I don’t remember much: palm trees; a swimming pool in Neone and Tom’s upscale trailer park that did not admit children; learning to play pinochle by candle light. Whether or not it was fun I don’t remember.

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(to be continued)

PEEKABOO My VW’s muffler clean rusted off last month. I pulled over and examined it before putting it in my trunk: probably hadn’t functioned for months. Meanwhile warning indicators say I have no coolant, so I keep dumping it in, which you shouldn’t have to do. Over 60 mph, the car fills with an odor I call “ozone” but it could be smoldering engine wires. I don’t want to detect more problems, so I keep my windows open and the tape deck all the way cranked, a strategy I call “mystical ignorance.” I pray it will cover my ass until winter.

We squander our potential waiting for worthiness. Find a concept, however narrow or tedious, whatever dumb thing is your thing, and be faithful to it. Content has a shelf life of a nano-second. Recognition is all bought or self-awarded. Make it, flog it, take your couple Likes and move on. Even if you’re onto something, what the world wants will change while you’re sleeping. I guess I’m saying, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

Contemplating a project on the Mississippi River next month—a public panoramic drawing to be made on the riverboat Padelford as it moves downstream. Like so much, it comes out of an invitation. Not a burning desire or even an Idea. Who needs those? Someone says they are making a mini golf documentary. And they want to interview the artists behind “Move Your Hole.” Who would come see that? I’ll be at the Walker at 3 Sunday to demo. Caring much will require some effort on both sides of the camera.

With love from outer space, via Detroit and mental illness.

I began drafting my will this week, and in a weird coincidence, I’m experiencing Old Man problems. Three weeks ago I started having back spasms that brought me to my knees. Only now am I coming to the end of the indignity: shuffling slowly, teeth gritted, clumsily grasping walls and chairs. I worked from the floor for days, searching for positions free of pain. At one point, I laid on the side of the road whimpering until Sarah (literally) picked me up.

When did Building Mode stop and Breaking Down start? 20 more years and the problems change from acute to terminal. My dad told me in June that he’s got Alzheimer’s—at 64, the Early Onset kind. He won’t spend the next 25 years growing old, gracefully or ungracefully, however he might have pictured it. He gets maybe 10, quite possibly fewer, without his memories to soothe him. Of all the ways to wind down a life, no one would pick this one. Here’s him in ’73, before bad backs and bad brains.

[fd][believer] 1972

40 years is no time at all. I’m learning this sooner than expected.

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I READ THAT CONTRADICTION AND MENTAL DISSONANCE are the price of our ridiculous modern lives. It’s undeniable in my case. The son of an artist and an engineer, I’m liberal but obedient, cheerfully fatalistic, a staunch anti-consumer who makes his living on corporate largesse. There’s not much I do without some psychic friction. I know I’m not alone.

So I cherish the unconflicted moments. I found my respite long ago in the instinctual act of drawing—blindly, with no grand ambition or promise of reward. When I draw, counter-arguments grow silent. For a few minutes or hours, I know I’m doing the right thing.

That’s what drives the MakeSh!t experiment, now in its third year: low-stakes longing for uncontrolled creativity. We finally found a way to bottle it for mass consumption. To my astonishment, people showed up.

Public Acts of Drawing, first projected on a dark mill ruin in the summer of 2012, made its primetime debut this month on TPT’s TV Takeover, and again during a terrifying July storm. Hundreds of intrepid revelers (The Mayor, piano prodigies, drunks, tykes up way past their bedtime) huddled under our Fleet Farm party tarp, braving lightning and sheets of rain to scribble with us for hours. At 3:30am when the power went out, they were still washing up.

The project is also a thicket of contradictions: Solitary yet social, free-wheeling yet constrained (by media and elbow room), ugly until it’s beautiful. One component of the event—broadcasting on a skyscraper in real time with a Hollywood-grade projector—was shut down on account of weather. With 10 inches of visibility, no love was lost.

The best measure of the project isn’t the final artwork, which I love, but Aaron’s time-lapse vids. Watch us fill in everything, almost without thinking. Hard to say why exactly. Maybe because we have hands.

Another utterly pointless job well done. Thanks, fellas.

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TrafficON JUNE 14 SLEEK ELECTRIC TRAINS start rolling from downtown Minnneapolis to downtown St. Paul around the clock. There are 18 stations in between, including one a few yards from my front door. It’s historic for the Cities and pretty sweet for me: essential services are already popping up nearby, housing values should get a bump, and I get the designated driver I always needed.

So this is how it feels when social investments align with personal gain. Privilege in effect.

I thought that day would be all happy-hour-on-rails, but I got more party than I bargained for. As part of the 4th annual Northern Spark, MakeSh!t is re-upping our Public Acts of Drawing event around the Minneapolis convention center from 9pm to 5am. Each hour is planned as a unique drawing event: vernacular lettering, Minneapolis mapping, life drawing (mixing things up so we don’t get bored, more than anything).

Here’s how we pitched it:

… a real-time art-making event that merges free-form collaboration with large-scale urban spectacle. Participants put pen—and charcoal and stencil and glue stick—to paper alongside local artists, dignitaries, and a few hundred friends. Drawers of all ages, skill levels, and styles are welcome. Guest contributors will help steer and energize the proceedings, but the results are delightfully unpredictable. Over the course of the night the individual marks of many become a vibrant lattice of interpenetrated doodles, the Hive Mind documented in graphite and ink. The draw-a-thon is simulcast on downtown architecture [Ivy Hotel, turns out], turning each small gesture into a heroic act. Public Acts of Drawing made its debut in 2012 on the (now destroyed) Pillsbury A Mill in St. Anthony Main.

Did I mention Mayor Hodges is scribbling with us? What shall I lobby for?

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I caught a talk last month by Canadian artist Jon Rafman. It was on a whim with Paul, Witt and a bunch of students and faculty at MCAD. I wasn’t prepared.

I’m a fan of Rafman’s “9-Eyes” project, a gallery of snapshots, some sublime some disturbing, culled from the ever-expanding archive of Google Street View. I thought of it as a kind of found-object work, but Rafman’s description suggests bigger stakes. Google’s simulacrum of civilzation is just one corner of a vast Internet world—explorable, infinitely seductive and terrifyingly human.

As a fellow cyber-explorer, I’ve felt this. I’ve adventured down internet rabbit holes, tripped headlong into its taboo regions and wondered what it all meant (and what it meant that I was there). But Rafman’s take is profoundly dystopic. His videos reveal (but do not really examine) the perils of Internet-addiction, lives completely given over to desire, mostly sexual. It’s a bleak picture. Hentai meets Abu Graib.

No doubt this world exists. But is that us (or more than a few of us)? Is our private universe so perverse? The audience response seemed to say, “that’s not me. I don’t know that Internet.”

One project fascinated me. Rafman’s avatar is the Kool-Aid Man, the ever-smiling sugar water pitcher/Pitch Man known for walking through walls. As Kool-Aid Man, Rafman is our tour guide to the mostly abandoned online world called Second Life, which had its heyday around 2008. The game’s often beautiful invented landscapes (all user-generated) are filled with dreamy experiences—alien discos, snowy deserts, endless archipelagos of fantasy. While the world evoked by Kool-Aid Man in Second Life can also feel warped and off-putting, it rings truer. By Rafman’s reading, it’s a mirror of the collective id.

When we can be anyone and make anything, this is what we make.

(WARNING: NOT SUITABLE FOR WORK, FAMILY, OR SENSITIVE EYES)

 m1ta665I HAVE SERIOUS SKEPTICS IN MY MIDST. Not rainy-day naysayers like me, but the advanced kind: people so far down the rabbit hole of mistrust that any widely-held conclusion is a flimsy alibi begging to be blown up. Spend too long in their hot house of doubt and the suspicion is contagious.

It’s not like I’m some sheep. I question authority and assume hidden motives. But some things seem beyond argument: the efficacy of childhood immunization, for example, or the need to alter our behavior in the face of climate change. When terrible shit happens, why jump to an evil conspiracy of corporate/government/Illuminati-backed monsters? Incompetence or stupidity is so much likelier.

Yet here they are, seeds of doubt, planted by people who I know to be intelligent (if obsessive and not always reasonable). My father in law, our contractor-in-residence for the past week, gleefully debunked every argument I had in my (admittedly tiny) arsenal in favor of alternative energy and against continued reliance on oil. Solar and wind power are not young technologies with a long way to go, he says. Not at all. They are corrupt government boondoggles enriching well-placed criminals (George Soros is a favorite of his) while threatening animals and even people (“ask a pilot: solar arrays blind and kill”).

Is wishful thinking clouding my judgment? Do I lack for facts? Are facts even relevant anymore? Am I paranoid enough?

Among many myth-busting conversations of late, one that sticks with me is about Flight 370. For 29 days, it seemed plausible to me that a state-of-the-art jet equipped with all manner of transponders, GPS and backed-up back-up systems, could tracelessly fade into oblivion. But after a boozy late-night talk with my friend Aaron, I feel naive. He points to what others claim is undeniable evidence of a coverup. By 11pm I’m half-way buying that we’re not getting the full truth. Then Aaron tells me that three Chinese owners of a priceless semiconductor patent were on the flight. The only other owner is an American with high-level government influence. So that monster called in the hit and the U.S. cloaked the whole deal so we alone can exploit the technology.

Well, duh.

>> Download a new mix, “Normcore Omniverse”

The Cool Kids – Freak City (Outro)
Latyrx – Watershed Moment (f. GIft of Gab & Merrill Garbus)
Annie Nilsson – Gotta Get Up
Donovan – Clara Clairvoyant
Grant Hart – Letting Me Out
Parquet Courts – Tears of Plenty
John Vanderslice – “Diamanthunde”
Dâm-Funk – Mirrors
Melt Yourself Down – Fix My Life
Open Mike Eagle – I Rock
Brand Nubian – Shinin’ Star
Quasi – Nostalgia Kills
Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise
Elastica – Stutter
The Imps – Uh Oh
The Beatles – Boys
Lou Reed – Real Good Time Together
Royal Trux – Liar
Actual Wolf – Victims & Things
Graham Nash/David Crosby – Frozen Smiles
Bill Callahan – Javelin Unlanding
Pentangle – When I Get Home
The Jim Carroll Band – People Who Died
———

Screen shot 2014-03-01 at 7.04.17 AMONE UNDENIABLE JOY of having kids is seeing them discover the things you love. Johanna has found her way to drawing, word games, Vietnamese food and tacos with only gentle nudges from her father. There may be more Nurture than Nature at play here, but it’s not like everything takes. She shows no inclination toward long walks or PBS Frontline.

In the case of music, my own most persistent passion, Jo’s ardor has been slower to form. There was a Michael Jackson phase, an Abba dalliance (Sarah’s doing) and a handful of tunes that get her dancing. But true fanaticism—that intense yearning to collect, listen, decipher and crank the volume—has eluded her.

Until she discovered the Beatles. It started in Johanna’s 2nd grade classroom with a unit called “Beatle Mania!” (one of so many reasons her school rocks). She was coming home full of Fab Four trivia (You know how Ringo got his name? Did you know they had Mop Tops before they got into uniforms?) and inquiring who we thought was cutest.

Things went quickly from Teeny Bopper curiosity to full-blown obsession. By the time of her class performance this month—100 seven year olds talk-singing Yellow Submarine and Let It Be with a live band—she was collecting MP3s, dissecting lyrics, tracing record covers and making Paul paper dolls. More than one morning we’ve awakened to “Back in the USSR” or “Come Together” blaring through her wall. “The White Album is probably my favorite. Except for Wild Honey Pie.” “Is this a John song?” “Why are there so many songs about Sun and Sunshine?” Our budding Beatlologist.

I went to New York for a (unrelated) conference during the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in America, remembered for their performance on Ed Sullivan, even booking the same hotel they stayed at by coincidence. Last week on George’s 71st birthday we gathered for an hour of Harrison deep cuts on Bop Street. Jo’s friend Rey got a homemade Yellow Submarine cake for his 8th birthday. Beatlemania enfolds us utterly. When hand-claps are called for in “8 Days a Week,” none of us can resist.

Any other wall-to-wall cultural phenomenon would make my eyes roll back in no time. But—and I’m only the hundred-millionth person to say this—the Beatles are different. Their catalog is so vast, their style so varied. Four months into Jo’s crazy love affair, I’m hearing it as if with virgin ears, finding new shading in familiar songs, even discovering stuff I overlooked. With the possible exception of “Hey Jude” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it all feels strikingly fresh. I’m fan-boying out on the ultimate rock-and-roll cliché. For the sake of intergenerational harmony, I can’t stop.

For your (re)consideration:

… and a charming novelty track:

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