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 to 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.

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 to know 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 neatly folded into lives? Where’s the 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.

photo 26

(to be continued)

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