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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.

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



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_nmcpwgTSiR1qzk2apo1_500WE’RE HITTING A RHYTHM these swampy, swamped summer weeks.

Sarah is aggressively organizing neighbors against the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, which lobbied to tear down the perfectly functional public housing project in our backyard (one of the country’s oldest) and sell it to private developers. Her alliance of tenants and homeowners is winning for the moment. Though now MPHA is like, “Okay, YOU find a solution for long-term maintenance” and none of us know what that looks like. Sarah is two-for-two in preventing local government from demolishing community assets (glad she’s on my team). Meanwhile, I’m flogging grain-free bread, debt-free business financing and stereotype-free teacher training. It’s the kind of variety and volume I thrive on (leaving me too busy to wonder what the hell it all means). I’m dotting i’s and crossing t’s right up ’til 5pm today, when we drop everything and head for Iceland, Holland and Germany for 21 days.

Having signed my own Will this week, I feel ready for anything.

WATCHING

Love & Mercy (a story of two lovable, troubled Brian Wilsons)

Page One: Inside the New York Times (featuring David Carr, “that most human of humans”)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (come for the music, stay for her dancing)

Dinkytown Uprising (Not yet released, but Lucas got a copy from the filmmaker — about the 1969 local protest movement to prevent a corporate burger chain from opening on 4th Street. It was shot mostly by the documentary filmmaker himself, now in his 90s; we enjoyed it at double speed, Chipmunks-style.)

Mad Max: Fury Road (At Jenney’s urging, I caught this in a suburban theater in a recliner with a cocktail; the best-most-boneheaded thing I never knew I needed)

READING

Ta-Nehisi Coates — The Case for Reparations (Atlantic)

Paul Ford — What Is Code? (Bloomberg News)

LISTENING

The Raincoats — No One’s Little Girl

Beach Boys – I’m Waiting for the Day

Pavement – Give It A Day

Camper Van Beethoven — Jack Ruby

Dusty Springfield – Warten and Hoffen

Wir sehen uns im nächsten Monat!

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.

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.

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.

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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)