Current events

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.


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.

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.

SignsI’M OFFICIATING MY SISTER’S NUPTIALS this weekend using credentials I bought for $25 on the internet. The event is giving me overwhelming feels I don’t have words for (hopefully they’ll arrive in time for the ceremony).

I’ve gathered a set of songs for the occasion. Not anyone’s idea of a wedding mix. More a way to summon joy, tears and chills on demand, when they can be controlled.

$ # $ # $ # $ # $ # $ # $ # $

Download UNITWEEN (6/30/2016).

01 Ramsey Lewis – Cry Baby Cry
02 Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – Astonished Man
03 Shopping – In Other Words
04 Is/Is – Loose Skin
05 The Db’s – Neverland
06 Clean – Anything Can Happen
07 Lee Moses – Time and Place
08 Zombies – Maybe After He’s Gone
09 Roxy Music – The End of the Line
10 Peter Schilling – Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)
11 Stargard – Which Way Is Up
12 Beyoncé feat. Jack White – Don’t Hurt Yourself
13 Grip Grand – Holding My Breath
14 Action Bronson & Meyhem Lauren – Mr. 2 Face
15 Kendrick Lamar – untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.
16 ESG – My Love for You
17 Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – Bottled in Cork
18 Frightened Rabbit – Old Old Fashioned
19 PJ Harvey – The Community Of Hope
20 Xenia Rubinos – Lonely Lover
21 Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan – Circles
22 Quasi – Skeleton

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 8.14.28 PMTHE OTHER DAY I WAS INTERVIEWING a young person (after 40, you get to call them that) who told me, “if you’re not working to solve racial inequity, what are you doing?” She said it like we obviously agreed on everything. Her company trains teachers to double-down on their most challenged students, usually poor and black, in an effort to reduce disparities in education kid by kid. I agreed with her and said so. But it gave me pause. Whatever I tell myself I do to make a system skewed in my favor more fair, being paid handsomely to write websites about it surely isn’t enough.

Like a lot of white people in 2016, I’m struggling to get my head straight about White Supremacy and my place in it. History let me off at at the comfiest intersection of race, gender, geography and class. Now that I’m done with whatever minor struggles I had covering my own needs, I see how many chips I always had stacked in my favor. Even the narrative of “outsiderness” I toyed with growing up seems laughable now, if not offensive. Privilege is like air: unearned, little acknowledged, yet more or less responsible for everything.

From rates of incarceration to police killings to my own white-as-hell design/marketing industry, systemic racism is no more arguable than global warming. What am I doing about it?

Not much. Reading and listening, mostly. The show RadioLab, which is usually about science culture, went off topic last month with an episode called Debatable, about a team of African-American college debaters who themselves go off topic. Instead of arguing about the season’s assigned issue (like space exploration or domestic surveillance), they steer their match-ups into “debates about debate,” calling out the racism inherent in the structure of these events and society generally. The team makes it all the way to the national championship using a rap/spoken-word delivery and in every other way rejecting debate convention. You’ll never guess what happens (spoiler: they win).

The Ivy-League debate world isn’t an accidental target. While this isn’t laid out in the story, part of the genius of this strategy is that debaters see themselves as a pure meritocracy, masters of brain-to-brain combat where only the arguments matter, one of the reasons debate is a refuge for geeks and misfits (me included). By flipping the script from the assigned issue to the forum itself (with a jolting departure in style), everything debaters take for granted is undermined: rules, shared context, civility, topicality, rationality. It’s like throwing a stink bomb and pantsing everyone at once.

Thrilling as it is, the black team’s triumph isn’t as crucial to me as the institution’s disgrace. For a few tense minutes, the opposing team (who aren’t always white, it should be mentioned, though RadioLab doesn’t) is marginalized, their hard work, assumptions and sense of justice are undermined. People are refusing to play by our rules in our house! Why might that be?

For all the guilty tears the majority culture sheds over minority oppression, white people largely fail to acknowledge or reckon with injustice. When we lose at our own game, that changes.

MuseumCAN I TALK SHOP FOR A SEC? In the toolbox of corporate communication are a couple of slippery items known as “mission” and “vision.” I wrote them off for a long time as naval-gazing or propaganda created by executives to give employees a purpose that isn’t pay. If companies were real about it, “maximize profit and cash out” would sum it up, right?

My cynicism softening in mid-life, I see now that a mission, in some form, is critical for everyone—be it a corporation, a community non-profit, or an individual. There’s so much to be done and so many ways to go about it; without parameters, every opportunity might as well be a Yes. Profit alone isn’t enough. The more businesses I get to know, the more money looks like the lowest rung on the ladder of value, a price of entry instead of a raison d’être (outside of finance, of course).

Feeling your purpose is easier than expressing it. Few mission or vision statements amount to more than “be the best at what we do.” So what’s a good one sound like? Google is organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. That’ll keep you busy. Sesame Street recently updated theirs, from a rather academic definition to “Sesame Street helps kids grow up smarter, stronger and kinder.” Simple. Directive. Challenging. While I didn’t write that line, it clarities the ones I do.

This month I started working with Penumbra Theatre, a beloved regional arts institution. Their example has me thinking about a mission’s role in focusing and catalyzing effort. When you put on 6 plays a year for four decades, something more than “delighting audiences” has to hold things together (if only because you fully understand what delights those audiences). Penumbra’s mission, to “create professional productions that are artistically excellent, thought provoking, and relevant and illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African American experience,” while less succinct than Sesame’s, sets a high bar. It could go further (they also want to create a just society) but defining what each and every play needs to do is enough.

All that is to say: if you’re going to do something, you should know why you’re doing it. I haven’t always, career-wise. As a freelancer, I’m at the mercy of short-term motivations and endless random opportunities. All the more reason I need guardrails. Years ago, I decided I “create foundations for good communication.” It nods to what I like (helping companies early; big, strategic contributions they can use for a long time) and what I don’t (advertising, ephemeral crap). But as a mission, it’s transactional, all What, no Why.

What gets me out of bed in the morning (when coffee isn’t enough)? Intellectual challenge. True believers. Artists. Underdogs. Finding alternatives to our unjust, oligarchic social shitstorm. After 11 years of running a business, this needs nailing down. At least I’m feeling it.



An artist-led architecture for urban self-reliance.

Self-reliance and connection to the land are common threads in the history of this place—from pre-settlement societies to European farmers to the early industrial era that harnessed the bounty of the soil and water.

But modern living is erasing so much land-based knowledge and skills, as well as our identity as growers, savers, and rugged survivors. We are now citizens of the corporate-retail-financial complex, more oriented to stadiums than seedbeds. Push too hard on our modern assumptions and they crumble like an interstate bridge. American cities are one major security breach or climate event away from disaster.

Renewing our self-reliance—and our relationships with each other—is increasingly a matter of self-preservation. We are (again) a diverse population of people struggling to make a home together in a challenging place, with many mouths to feed and little more than our collective wits to protect us. What actions will we take to prepare? We believe the Creative City Challenge—with its goals of promoting health, community connection, and vital exchange through art in the city’s center—is the perfect vehicle to address this question.

Artists, as usual, can show the way. Minneapolis makers, growers, architects, technologists, and other creative toilers have long been out front preserving knowledge and skills—and forging new ones—outside the mainstream cultural conversation. From urban farming and sustainable architecture to alternative transportation and homemade textiles, our artists know how to make it for themselves.

This summer in the center of the city, we want to amplify their voices and transmit their knowledge. We call it “Self-Made Mpls”: an iconic complex, part garden, part workshop, part classroom, part prototype, where citizens and visitors rediscover together what we’re capable of.

Will it happen? We’ve proposed sillier things. Never count MakeSh!t out …

safeWHY AM I WORRIED? Forboding creeps on me even (especially) when my world is okay on paper. Maybe I’m on the Internet too much or, more likely, I’m bored. At the slightest slackening of my workload, my mind fills with dire scenarios of poverty, loss and (worst of all) irrelevance. You’d think a light schedule on a nice afternoon would be welcome.

Eff that ish. I’ve initiated a bunch of distractions from doominess: tutoring neighborhood kids, more maps about John Brown, a comic book about Des Moines in the early ’90s (this one’s embarrassingly self-involved, even for me, but I’m focused on “universal themes”—not just teens drinking vodka-Mt. Dews under bridges… though it has that, too). Sarah and I are contemplating an artisanal mustard business to pair with the local crazes for artisanal beers and sausage. Her 5th cousin in Germany thinks we have a future importing fine European senf. What if he sees something we don’t?

Doubt is seasonal. Maybe partying will help.

NIGHTGYMSOMETIMES YOU WANT TO GO WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME. To flex before a wall of mirrors unjudged and unjudging. You will not be checked in or asked out or told to Spot me, Bro. It’s just you and CSI reruns on silent mode, your ears filled with grunts and longing. Each triumph or shame is private. In fluorescent isolation, selfness evaporates. All is material, mechanical… A rank duffle. A lone free weight. You are wet meat strung taut over last year’s machines.

Download NIGHT GYM (Mp3).

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01 Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Ain’t No Sunshine
02 Shannon & The Clams – Gremlins Crawl
03 Ex Hex – Don’t Want to Lose
04 The Raincoats – Running Away
05 Donny Hathaway – Jealous Guy (Live)
06 Them – My Little Baby
07 Foxygen – Mattress Warehouse
08 Young Fathers – Rain or Shine
09 Jonwayne – Time Trial
10 Son Lux – Let Go
11 The Raveonettes – Sisters
12 Teddy Robin & The Playboys – Fever
13 The Soft Boys – Only the Stone Remain
14 The Red Crayola – Hurricane Fighter Plane
15 The Slits – So Tough
16 Shabazz Palaces – Gunbeat Falls
17 Lizzo – Bus Passes and Happy Meals
18 Kate Tempest – The Truth
19 Frank Black – You Ain’t Me
20 The Dave Clark Five – Good Love Is Hard to Find
21 Fugazi – Life and Limb
22 Parkay Quarts – Pretty Machines
23 Trans Am – Night Shift