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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)

PEEKABOO My VW’s muffler clean rusted off last month. I pulled over and examined it before putting it in my trunk: probably hadn’t functioned for months. Meanwhile warning indicators say I have no coolant, so I keep dumping it in, which you shouldn’t have to do. Over 60 mph, the car fills with an odor I call “ozone” but it could be smoldering engine wires. I don’t want to detect more problems, so I keep my windows open and the tape deck all the way cranked, a strategy I call “mystical ignorance.” I pray it will cover my ass until winter.

We squander our potential waiting for worthiness. Find a concept, however narrow or tedious, whatever dumb thing is your thing, and be faithful to it. Content has a shelf life of a nano-second. Recognition is all bought or self-awarded. Make it, flog it, take your couple Likes and move on. Even if you’re onto something, what the world wants will change while you’re sleeping. I guess I’m saying, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

Contemplating a project on the Mississippi River next month—a public panoramic drawing to be made on the riverboat Padelford as it moves downstream. Like so much, it comes out of an invitation. Not a burning desire or even an Idea. Who needs those? Someone says they are making a mini golf documentary. And they want to interview the artists behind “Move Your Hole.” Who would come see that? I’ll be at the Walker at 3 Sunday to demo. Caring much will require some effort on both sides of the camera.

With love from outer space, via Detroit and mental illness.

I began drafting my will this week, and in a weird coincidence, I’m experiencing Old Man problems. Three weeks ago I started having back spasms that brought me to my knees. Only now am I coming to the end of the indignity: shuffling slowly, teeth gritted, clumsily grasping walls and chairs. I worked from the floor for days, searching for positions free of pain. At one point, I laid on the side of the road whimpering until Sarah (literally) picked me up.

When did Building Mode stop and Breaking Down start? 20 more years and the problems change from acute to terminal. My dad told me in June that he’s got Alzheimer’s—at 64, the Early Onset kind. He won’t spend the next 25 years growing old, gracefully or ungracefully, however he might have pictured it. He gets maybe 10, quite possibly fewer, without his memories to soothe him. Of all the ways to wind down a life, no one would pick this one. Here’s him in ’73, before bad backs and bad brains.

[fd][believer] 1972

40 years is no time at all. I’m learning this sooner than expected.

Screen shot 2014-03-01 at 7.04.17 AMONE UNDENIABLE JOY of having kids is seeing them discover the things you love. Johanna has found her way to drawing, word games, Vietnamese food and tacos with only gentle nudges from her father. There may be more Nurture than Nature at play here, but it’s not like everything takes. She shows no inclination toward long walks or PBS Frontline.

In the case of music, my own most persistent passion, Jo’s ardor has been slower to form. There was a Michael Jackson phase, an Abba dalliance (Sarah’s doing) and a handful of tunes that get her dancing. But true fanaticism—that intense yearning to collect, listen, decipher and crank the volume—has eluded her.

Until she discovered the Beatles. It started in Johanna’s 2nd grade classroom with a unit called “Beatle Mania!” (one of so many reasons her school rocks). She was coming home full of Fab Four trivia (You know how Ringo got his name? Did you know they had Mop Tops before they got into uniforms?) and inquiring who we thought was cutest.

Things went quickly from Teeny Bopper curiosity to full-blown obsession. By the time of her class performance this month—100 seven year olds talk-singing Yellow Submarine and Let It Be with a live band—she was collecting MP3s, dissecting lyrics, tracing record covers and making Paul paper dolls. More than one morning we’ve awakened to “Back in the USSR” or “Come Together” blaring through her wall. “The White Album is probably my favorite. Except for Wild Honey Pie.” “Is this a John song?” “Why are there so many songs about Sun and Sunshine?” Our budding Beatlologist.

I went to New York for a (unrelated) conference during the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in America, remembered for their performance on Ed Sullivan, even booking the same hotel they stayed at by coincidence. Last week on George’s 71st birthday we gathered for an hour of Harrison deep cuts on Bop Street. Jo’s friend Rey got a homemade Yellow Submarine cake for his 8th birthday. Beatlemania enfolds us utterly. When hand-claps are called for in “8 Days a Week,” none of us can resist.

Any other wall-to-wall cultural phenomenon would make my eyes roll back in no time. But—and I’m only the hundred-millionth person to say this—the Beatles are different. Their catalog is so vast, their style so varied. Four months into Jo’s crazy love affair, I’m hearing it as if with virgin ears, finding new shading in familiar songs, even discovering stuff I overlooked. With the possible exception of “Hey Jude” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it all feels strikingly fresh. I’m fan-boying out on the ultimate rock-and-roll cliché. For the sake of intergenerational harmony, I can’t stop.

For your (re)consideration:

… and a charming novelty track:

X02EPARTING THOUGHTS FOR JANUARY.

Since a fierce tendril of frigid air arched over Canada earlier this month (said to be colder than Mars), Minnesota has been testy, if not from the black ice and dead batteries then about widespread school closures. While the 3-, 4- and 5-day weekends cured me of any impulse to home school, a lot of the reaction was mean and stupid—calling district leaders “wimpy” and even suggesting it was a conspiracy to drive mall traffic. I, for one, was glad to see kids in the workplace, twirling on office chairs, dry-erase coloring, and dispelling any illusion that the work we do is serious.

Polar vortex or no, January in Minnesota blows. Unless you’re working or living outside, the inconvenience is only a matter of degree(s). Below -10°, I confess I can’t feel the difference.
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Sarah awoke yesterday morning to hear NPR announce that China has expelled our friend Austin from the country after refusing to renew his visa, almost certainly because of his newspaper’s reporting on gross corruption in the family of former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiaobao. Austin’s in Taiwan for the indefinite future, despite high-level pleas to Chinese officials and even tough talk from Joe Biden. We are wishing the guy a swift resolution to his exile, but secretly hoping it means we’ll see him this year.
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I head to New York City Tuesday to attend the world’s largest gathering of legal technology professionals. I’m not one, but the immersion should help me better understand my newest client. As you would expect, the industry in question is dry, wonky, legalistic and dull to explain to almost anyone I know. Which is why making something really good from it feels like a worthy challenge.
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As of this week the hole in our home now has walls, windows, a wooden floor, can lights and wires poking out where appliances and outlets will be. The refrain of my inner monologue, and ultimate answer to all questions I face in life at the moment, is “March,” the month after which I will never again scrub dried oatmeal or degrease a skillet in my bathtub.