Image-1.pngDID I TELL YOU ABOUT THE TIME I WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA for a wedding that didn’t happen? Within hours of touching down, the path of Category 5 Hurricane Matthew moved up from Florida to a direct hit on Tybee Island. As the only guests to arrive before the storm tacked, Sarah and I were left to scrap over rental cars and flee the city as it boarded up around us.

That was October. This week I return to Georgia for Island Wedding Round 2 (the chapel grants storm-related do-overs). There’s long-simmering excitement, but also sadness — the groom’s mom recently died after a long illness. No longer outlying tragedies, these events are a Phase of Life. Sarah’s dad, sick with Parkinson’s and cancer, has fewer than nine months to live. In January my own father moved to an Alzheimer’s care facility at the age of 68. I go to Seattle after the wedding to spend seven days with him, our longest visit since I was a kid. I’ll have ample time, between Bingo, field trips, and our fractional, Charades-like conversations, to contemplate my own mortality (and perhaps the inside of a pot dispensary).

Thankful for new beginnings to balance all the loss. My sister, newly married and nearly 40, is pregnant with TWINS, news that’s just now circulating widely. Feels like a miracle with a side order of curse, but if anyone can hack it she can. It’s a family tradition after all: I have twin (half-) siblings, my dad’s a twin, and my Grandma Fran had two sets.

When Grandma Fran died in January, at the visitation my sister whispered the secret news into her embalmed ear. We cry-smiled. 2017 is like that.

WHY SHOULDN’T URBAN PLANNING BE A PARTY? On two nights in November, Minneapolis planners hosted the public for free food, a live quiz show, and a series of art happenings to gather input on the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Public Acts of Drawing (me and Marx Studio in this iteration) traced historical maps of the city and asked attendees to layer on their visions of our future.

So what change do we want to see in the world? Parks, boulevards, bike freeways, sculpture gardens, several gargantuan monuments, and a Doll City, to name a few.

THE WORLD MAY LOOK BACK on the year 2016 as the best one we’ll get for awhile, the deaths of my idols and ruin of our republic notwithstanding. Ours was abundant, at least by the measure of how many photos I shot and shared. Here are a few of the blessings I’m counting in panoramic splendor (click for a big ole view).

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Sarah contemplates the Blue Ridge Mountains after narrowly escaping Hurricane Matthew

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Adventuring on the Superior Hiking Trail with Lucas

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Green Line LRT iPhone experiments on University Ave SE (an homage to Ed Ruscha)

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Downtown and South Minneapolis from atop the Witch’s Tower with Jo’s school in the foreground

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Waterfall at Temperance River State Park, a reward for a cold, wet slog in the woods

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Dangling above Minnesota’s “mountains” with ski buddies

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Drinks with Craig and Matt at Track’s Bar, St. Paul’s least-charming dive

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Next to zero visibility on the Appalachian Trail outside Hot Springs, North Carolina

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Ferrying to Washington’s San Juan Islands for a rare reunion of my dad’s five kids

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The late-night shuffle

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Porch view from our rustic Blue Ridge cabin (roving pit bulls and land yacht are cropped out)

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Exploring Peak DC on spring break with our hosts Marc and Viv

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Prospect Park Business Center in ruins before its 17-story redevelopment in 2017



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LIKE A LOT OF BUBBLE-DWELLERS, I’ve been caught in a dark emotional loop since November 9th: shock, sorrow, regret, shame, anger. These feelings color every conversation, cheapen every gesture. I am drowning in contradictory impulses fed by a flood of panicky opinion: Normalize, Don’t Normalize; Talk more, no Listen moreBlame Racism, no Blame Economic Anxiety, no Blame our Degraded Education System. Every conclusion sucks. My disgust is total. I never wanted to go to space, but it’s looking good about now.

There’s little that hasn’t already been said. But I have some things I want to get off my chest:

It’s our own fault. As much as I want to, I can’t disconnect myself from the causes here. You don’t need to vote for a more regressive, exclusionary system to prop it up. We participate at all levels. When we accept mass incarceration. When we gentrify and self-segregate. When we accept the narrative that immigrants and the poor are “takers.” When we look at gross inequality and say “that’s just the way things are.” Lies accumulate. Truth erodes. The dam breaks and now we’re swimming in shit.

The pain will be radically unequal. White people, especially men, will endure the least of the indignities in the coming years. Not that there won’t be serious consequences for us all — an acceleration of planetary warming among the most dire — but they are less acutely awful than being deported or being attacked in the street by thugs or militarized police. In the near term this will mostly harsh our mellow, not ruin our lives. I need to refocus from my own sense of desperation to those who have everything to lose.

We are not smart. I was caught up in the play by play of this election since 2014. I consumed a super-abundance of information and opinion from all corners, most of it revealed to be clueless garbage. Turns out that up is down, black is white, dumb is smart. This event has undermined my trust in polls, experts, Americans, the democratic process, and my own instincts and acumen. If there is a silver lining to this election, it’s the loss of so many illusions.

I have no words of reassurance this month. But here’s some responsible advice. And an analysis of our new normal that feels true.

I predict this will a golden age of survival guides.

I CREATED A SPIRAL CROSSWORD for a zine I make with Acre Design Co for Able Seedhouse + Brewery, my first foray into puzzle-making after a lifetime of solving. The new issue will hit the taproom in November for Able’s first anniversary (including a photo documentary I did of Frankenhouses in Minneapolis’s Longfellow neighborhood).

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Instructions: This spiral contains two series of words, one reading inward from 1 to 99, the other reading outward from 99 back to 1. Every space is used exactly twice. Work from both sets of clues to complete the puzzle.

INWARD

1-5: She was played by Madonna
6-11: There are several in every family
12-16: Alternative to Airbnb
17-22: It crowds many a café table
23-26: Last stop before the final
27-34: Dessert made with lady’s fingers
35-42: Curt instruction to a barber (3 wrds.)
43-47: Larger than large
48-53: House in Le Havre
54-59: Like trumpets on game day
60-63: Letters after lambda
64-69: Members of the Mille Lacs and Mississippi River Bands
70-77: C6H12O6
78-83: Home of the National Sports Center
84-88: Hanged, _______ and quartered
89-92: Spacious
93-99: 1973 Woody Allen film

OUTWARD

99-94: Strip again
93-85: Assad’s conflict (2 wrds.)
84-79: First stage of grief
78-74: Make foolish
73-68: Time to be home
67-63: Elegant trinket
62-56: 9 or IX
55-52: Loo in Quintana Roo
51-45: Kind of cat or twin
44-40: Smashingly successful
39-32: Incan ruler crowned in 1563 (2 wrds.)
31-24: Nautical
23-20: He has fun with Dick and Jane
19-14: No-frills place to flop
13-9: Windy City stopover
8-1: Tone of SuperPAC ads, often

 

13532901_10209946846968896_7280350848876520718_nBEFORE ALL THE HELIUM ESCAPES from the balloon, I want to revisit the wedding weekend of my sister and (now) brother-in-law.

After less than a year together, Allie and Brian embody every wonderful, sappy cliché … meant to be, crazy in love, hopelessly devoted. I mean, look at them. How could it not be beautiful?

Thank you, Tinder.

I was master of ceremonies, an honor and a tall order. How often do you preside over a loved one’s foremost life event? Allie is an officiant herself and there’s nothing canned about her style. Their partnership is thoroughly modern: he’s been married, she has a kid, neither is religious, both are grownups with a lot of life experience. There would be no mailing it in.

I went for a mix of heart and humor with a cadence I hoped was Obamaesque, scribbling edits up until a few minutes before people were seated. My mic never got turned on, though no one strained to hear. Laughter and weeping were plentiful. I kept it together, but just barely.

It’s hard to describe all I felt after it was over: relief, love, exultation, and a sense that I did the best thing I could, the best way I could, as no one else could do it. A rare opportunity to be sure.

Moments I’m holding on to: My dad, struggling with the effects of Alzheimers but still very present, leaping from his seat after the ceremony to be the first to congratulate everyone. 3-year-old Charley being frog-marched by older kids through the reception squealing before puking wedding cake all over the groom.

13873053_10209316050116333_7440474246778619957_nThe ceremony is not the only job of an officiant. I found this out when I nearly failed to file the paperwork making things official.

13924900_10209316039196060_8245655726947467011_nSarah canvassed the neighborhood garden clubs for the hundreds of fresh daisies required for table settings, bouquets and corsages. They looked perfect in spite of the heat.

Brian_and_Allie-7_3-_Karaoke_02A Karaoke reception at Grumpy’s followed the garden party. My mother and her friend Bonnie belted out some Carole King. I did my recent Billy Joel standby. Kirk cued up “Chantilly Lace” as a tribute (for some reason) to my father in law, Ken. Finding Ken had already left, Kirk called him and sang it through the phone, “Oh, Ken Johnsen, You KNOOOOOW what I like!”

a13872739_10209316062716648_281685251322539926_nMy brother Ben, who usually avoids the limelight, rose to the occasion for a duet with cousin Calla and a foot-stomping rendition of “Just a Friend.

13958173_10209316056636496_8847693251146346112_oUs, satisfied with ourselves. Who else wants to get married? We’re on it.

tumblr_ntretfYj7K1tfpvszo1_400.gifWHAT DO I KNOW? A friend recently interviewed me for his company’s blog. As a freelancer for more than a decade, surely I had some business advice to share, right? It was an odd experience being the subject for a change, and hard to find coherent lessons in a career as unplanned as mine. That feeling was heightened by a sense that great forces — generational, social, financial  — could cause my house of cards to collapse at any moment. Speaking as an expert feels like tempting the cosmos to show me how wrong I am.

Despite my superstitions, I dropped some knowledge… in the spirit of helping others embark on a career of constant, low-level worrying.

What’s great about working as an independent consultant?

For all the risk and uncertainty, freelancing is my dream job. It’s about control: choosing who I work for, the kinds of projects I take on, and how I spend my time. The freedom of freelancing is worth more to me than any promotions or bonuses I’m missing. Plus, I don’t have to deal with being laid off, commuting, or the guy who microwaves fish for lunch.

How did you get started as a freelance writer?

I knew I wanted a creative career, but it was an indirect journey. After college, I cooked hot wings, served legal documents, and made newspaper tear-sheets (a job that barely survived into the 21st century). I got my foot in the door the way a lot of people do, with an internship. I found out what I was good at, started cobbling together a portfolio, and made as many connections as I could. Early on, I saw how many interesting opportunities were out there — not just where I was working. As soon as I felt ready, I used my network to find my own clients and cut the cord with my agency. That was 11 years ago.

What’s hard? What has been different than you expected?

You learn quickly, it’s a hustle. Freelancing demands so much more than talent on the project. I am my own IT, finance department, supplies manager, and motivational guru. No one’s out there lining up my jobs, shaking the trees for payment, making sure my insurance is affordable and my retirement doesn’t evaporate. Just about the time you master all those hassles (or outsource them), something changes.

How has your career changed for you?

It never stops. One year you might have four big clients, the next you have 20 small ones. I never expected to learn so much about agriculture, theatre, or architecture — or that I would ultimately find them fascinating and important. Change either happens to you or you make it happen. The more industry white papers and direct mail catalogs you write, the more you’ll be invited to write. So you have to embrace the work you have or set a new course.

How do you find your clients?

This is a mid-sized city with a huge amount of opportunity if you get hooked in. For me the pipeline has always included creative agencies, large, boutique and virtual. But increasingly I contract directly with clients and work with them for years. People are kind in recommending me to their colleagues; this network effect is strong enough that my work has remained steady. In the last few years, I’ve been carving out a sweet spot: the arts, education and non-profits, companies most aligned with things I care about. That’s meant seeking introductions, building teams and answering RFPs. It’s a longer path to billable work, but easier to love (which is what the best work needs).

Do you ever say no to a client?

During my first few years as a freelancer, I took everything I could fit on my schedule. It was a good period for learning and earning. But I’ve grown pickier. Do I think the world needs what we’re making? Will I enjoy working with these people? Will it make the Twin Cities a better place to live? Most importantly: Will I learn something? When I can’t answer ‘yes’ to most of those questions, I decline the offer. I have a rule of thumb: If I’m not excited to share anything I’m doing with my friends (especially people outside the business), I need some new clients.

What have you learned to look for in a client that’s a good (or bad) fit?

I don’t think there are wrong fits so much as wrong expectations. If everyone agrees to the goals and the process, I’ve found that any conflicts and challenges that arise are not deal-breakers. That said, when someone tells you at the first meeting that they sued the last team they hired, that’s a red flag.

What advice do you have for other creatives who want to strike out on their own?

My spouse is an artist and also works for herself. We have something we call the “F$#k Yeah, Oh F$#k” theorem of independent work: a predictable cycle of big wins that often lead directly to situations of being overwhelmed and in crisis, followed by dry spells and worries your career is dead. Realize this is a normal part of the process and learn to ride the waves, financially and emotionally.

Also, you need a desk. After six months at your living room table, go to BluDot.

What, in your view, has been the key to sustained success?

An obsessive personality that fears failure and poverty. If you aren’t low-level worrying all the time, you may not have it in you.

What’s your all-time favorite client?

I can honestly say the best stuff I have done is not for prestige clients, cool as those are, but for the small, local group that does amazing work but isn’t on most people’s radar. I love going into an environment like that — where no one is looking for great work — and blowing it up. I’m helping launch a new company that can narrow the achievement gap in high-poverty classrooms. I recently collaborated with the counsel of U.S. chief justices on a report about transforming our civil justice system. That wall of pencils we made at Antenna is tough to top.

Sometimes the biggest thing is learning how to be interested. If you can nail that, this gig is unbeatable.