IMG_7493OUR BIANNUAL CAROUSEL OF FAMILY VISITS in the Pacific Northwest starts tomorrow. It’s bound to be bittersweet. Sarah’s father and mine have illnesses that won’t get better (hers Parkinson’s, mine Alzheimer’s) and in getting worse, they create unpredictable turbulence in the lives around them. Seeing our families only sporadically makes each encounter unbearably expectant, as if bracing ourselves for something we’ve never seen or heard and trying to hold on to everything like it’s the last best memory we’ll get.

Adulthood is unstable. Just when you think you have a handle on it—family dynamics, independence, duty—tragedy scuttles the order and you have to renegotiate. It will take all my focus and compassion; can’t waste it being bummed.

My parents’ mortality is a test I don’t know how to prep for. Is it enough to just show up?

I’ll get back to you on that.

tumblr_m5psl1fORI1rxlmf0o1_400This is an excerpt of an interview soon to be included in a little zine I’m helping with. If all I got to do in life was pick the brains of scientists, it would be enough. –Jake

A RIVER IS THE AUTHOR OF ITS OWN GEOMETRY

Rivers are ephemeral. Their unique shapes are works in progress, lines continually redrawn by factors large and small. What’s the source of their peculiar behavior and beauty? We sat down with John, a graduate research assistant at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering, to talk about water, people and the dynamics (physical and historical) that bind them together.

What got you hooked on rivers?
As a kid growing up on a farm in Tennessee, streams are all over the place. Romping in rivers has always been part of my life. My “watershed” moment came hiking the Appalachian Trail. On those river crossings, you step through what seem like little creeks, but go up to your waist. You can feel the force, even if it doesn’t look that deep. When you’re IN it, when you feel it, you realize how powerful even small rivers can be. That trip connected me to rivers and flowing water.

What’s your focus these days?
My dissertation is on meandering river dynamics, how rivers move about their flood plains and rework the surface of the earth. You see the effects of winding rivers in very diverse environments: on the Mississippi, on glaciers, on Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, even underwater when fresh water flows into saltwater before they mix. 

So why do rivers wind like that?
All kinds of factors cause rivers to move: landscape, soil, rock, precipitation, human impact. Once you change anything in a system, nature adapts. An interesting study was done in Yellowstone National Park, where the streams were considered wildly meandering. After wolves were reintroduced to the park, the meandering stopped. Turns out that when the animals hunted by wolves were chased off, the vegetation they were eating grew again and strengthened the banks.

Up until the 1980s, people explained the meandering pattern by invoking the river as a conscious entity—“the water wants to move”—without a physical basis. Now there are many good theories. I think the best one is that turbulence in the fluid causes the patterns. But we’re still looking for a unified theory of river meandering.

Tell us about your river.
I study the Ucayali River in Peru. It has very high sinuosity, which is a measure of how winding it is (higher number = more winding). This river has moved 100m per year laterally. That’s comparable to the rate of movement on the Mississippi River pre-settlement. But the watershed of the Mississippi is 10,000-times larger than the Ucayali. This wild migration is a result of lots of eroded sediment from the Andes Mountains to the west and rains from the Amazon to the east.

How are people part of the dynamic?
Rivers are very active. Every time you build a bridge or a dam, you cut off some of the hydrodynamic processes that would affect the channel. When we somehow lock the system into place, we drastically reduce the changes. How does human impact affect meandering dynamics? When we do an activity, how far does it propagate? I want to better understand the dynamics. It’s what the stream restoration industry is all about.

Can we build a better stream?
In the industry now, if you put in a stream and it moves, they say your design has failed. But we need to remember if we want a stream in anything like a natural state, it needs a framework so it can move. We need to learn to design for migration.

Ecologically, it’s very important. Water in a stream will seep into the ground water and then pop up later, and winding its own way encourages that process. They say, “a river is the author of its own geometry”—its own engineer, in a sense. And meandering is the mechanism.

10360212_10152479194111573_6733113443566222091_nSAFE TO SAY I THINK about my daughter’s education more than my parents thought about mine. I can’t imagine my mother worrying about the “learning environment” or “teacher accountability,” or even saying those words. Granted, in 1980s Des Moines where I grew up, there wasn’t much to complain about. Solid and safe public schools with mostly good teachers and challenge and resources for all kinds of students. There was bullying, drugs, sex and discipline problems to be sure. But you wouldn’t pin that on the school. The world isn’t perfect.

I’ve been loyal to the public school ideal since way back, even choosing to attend a public university when most of my friends went private. Along with travel, I see urban public school classrooms as one of the few reliable places to learn about the world outside of your own cultural bubble. I want Johanna to understand that, as special as she is, she’s not that special. I think she’s learning about her place. Whether she learns much else, I’m unsure.

For the last four years, I’ve been on the sidelines of Jo’s school life. My knowledge of who’s smart and who’s bad (and who’s both) is mostly hearsay. Until this month when I chaperoned her 3rd-grade field trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (after a feel-good criminal background check). It was like time-traveling back to 1983. All the old gang was there: super-shy guy; big loud girl; shady kid looking to bolt; the wisecracker; the inseparable BFFs; the over-eager hand-flailer (my own archetype for a time).

It was a fast outing. The tour guide didn’t attempt to illuminate, only asking the kids, “tell me what you see.” Being challenged to really look and have your personal reactions honored can be a revelation, especially if you don’t see much art. For Johanna, who’s done this museum 150 times, it was pretty forgettable.

I worry that most of her 3rd grade time is like that. Last week was conferences. Her teacher, a 30-year veteran, could tell us nothing specific about our daughter’s progress, strengths or weaknesses. Sarah asked her whether Johanna is getting any extra challenge since she was identified for “talent development” (the new nomenclature for “gifted/talented” is supposed to be inclusive, but it seems vague—more an aspiration than a concrete program). Her teacher told us her “team” was “navigating” the new “standards”; for example they do “pull-outs” on some “sites.” We know they aren’t doing pull-outs at this site. If there are any efforts made to tailor the curriculum to students of different abilities, she couldn’t describe them. It was like we were asking about something she didn’t think was her job, even though it is. We felt embarrassed and dropped it.

The achievement gap between whites and students of color in Minneapolis is notoriously wide. The district superintendent resigned over the issue in December. This week, after the Atlantic heaped praise on our city‘s “economic miracle,” many were quick to note who’s left out. Closing this gap is the right priority, though for all the plans and energy expended, it hasn’t changed. I don’t underestimate the challenge or pretend to know the solution. But in contrast to the rosy mutual enrichment of my own public school education, some days it feels like every child is left behind.

12340HEADS UP. On a rare trip to Minneapolis without his kids, my friend Kirk seemed like a different person, noticing details and cues he usually ignores. We laughed that the difference was just 15°—the angle between a person’s eyes chasing a three-year-old and ones raised to a grown person’s face. This struck me as poignant and a little tragic. Keeping your head down and doing what you think you’re supposed to may prevent everyday shit from derailing. But it’s entirely at odds with finding new experiences and challenging the status quo, our own or the world’s.

My angle of repose may be higher than Kirk’s right now but lower than I’d like it. The conditions of my work—ever-shifting, emergency-prone—keep me mired in the moment (or actively trying to suppress it). But the future looms larger to me lately. Maybe it’s turning 40, or Johanna’s transformation from a little kid to a half-adult who asks less of me each year, freeing me to ask more of myself.

So what else is supposed to happen? My sister’s friend David, who does things and knows things, spoke persuasively of the advantages of employment over of carrying all your own water. No doubt he’s right, but just the thought of wedding myself to a company or a job makes me panicky. My agenda may be muddled, but it’s my own, dammit.

Braver people are going there. Linda X. wants to start a Lao food truck. A lady I know just bought a store in South Minneapolis because it sounded fun. Travis O. is shopping around his pet project to get it funded. My sister is reducing her hours to focus on becoming a yoga teacher, or maybe a professional officiant. Lucas will become the Twin Cities’ next architect-impresario of the Autonomous Dwelling UnitWith the value of Portland real estate through the roof, Travis D. is seeing a retirement endgame in 5 to 10 years (business keeps you busy, but land is forever). Paul has launched a national conference on arts criticism. What are you up to, slacker?

This month Sarah was awarded a grant to develop her artistic practice, recognition of awesome stuff she’s been simmering for the past year—from textiles to teaching artist to community/social engagement. My hopes are pinned on hers and all the others. May their changes change me.

photoTODAY MARKS 40 YEARS since the Big Bang of my personal universe, that slide into self-ness when sand began spilling through an hourglass of unknown size and dominos began cascading in a pattern so intricate and pleasing (so far), I’ll forever pretend to take credit.

Sarah made me an almond-lemon cake with five roses (for my first four decades plus my next) and six candles (not sure). My mother, sister, wife and daughter each recited 10 things they admired about me—small but important observations no one otherwise bothers to make. It could be the best gift I ever got.

I’ve planned a week-long, mostly musical celebration. Sang karaoke Friday at the Vegas lounge (“Electric Avenue,” “Fever”). Seeing Quintron & Miss Pussycat Tuesday at the Turf with Craig, then New Pornographers the next night with Sarah. Thursday, Kev and I are seeing Jem Cohen’s “Instrument” doc about Fugazi at the Sound Unseen film fest. I know what trips my pleasure triggers.

Going around the sun forty times is a show of endurance if nothing else. I seized the excuse to celebrate, spearheading a damp gathering of old bros in the North Woods. Over Labor Day weekend, 13 of us hiked into a forest to be slowly stewed in rain, smoke and spirits (including Malört, a Chicago liquor so rank it involuntarily contorts the face). It was a long, idle, sometimes beerless slog that might have been judged a failure if not for the beautiful people who showed up… just because I asked.

pano1_40in  pano3_40inpano2_40in

Whatever 40 is—a landmark, a tick mark, an end to childish things, a new beginning—I shudder to imagine going it alone. Thanks for coming this far with me, friends. The trip may not always feel worthwhile, but I’m trying.

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