live musings

ME: I live in a house of cards perched on a sand hill.

ALSO ME: What’s that now?

ME: I owe my standard of living to a bubble economy held up by non-renewable resources, unchecked borrowing, and systematic oppression

ALSO ME: But what exactly are you worried about?

ME: Awful leaders. Corporate looting. Accelerating climate effects. What should reassure me?

ALSO ME: Ruling class wealth is built on the same system as yours. They won’t just let it go to hell.

ME: They nearly did — with gusto! We’d be in full Greece Mode if not for some 11th-hour Hail Marys.

ALSO ME: Exactly. Somebody has a hand on the controls and is determined not to fail.

ME: You mean the cartel in the White House? The “adults in the room” who aren’t accountable to anyone? No one is even pretending anymore. The rich are buying up land out west for When The Shit Goes Down. They know something we don’t.

ALSO ME: You know people out west. Eke out The Great Decline with them.

ME: The west is a giant tinder box. At least we have water (for now). Can I even survive without a grocery store?

ALSO ME: You have camping skills. Forage for mushrooms. Catch some fish. Build a fire. Shoot your dinner.

ME: Guns scare me. Especially people with guns. Can I play the Artist Card? Maybe I could do an oral history of the apocalypse. My wife’s pretty handy…

ALSO ME: See, you have currency when capitalism is over. 

ME: You become something you’re not just to survive capitalism. Then you’re helpless to survive without it.

ALSO ME: Still, it’s a bad look to complain about a system you’re winning on when most people lose.

ME: All looks are bad anymore. Maybe the collapse can redeem me — I’ll be an educator or a life-saver.

ALSO ME: You can barely save yourself. Anyhow, who’s to say you’re more resilient than your neighbors? They might be bailing YOU out.

ME: Hope they like shabby drawings.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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)


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

Paul Ford — What Is Code? (Bloomberg News)


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.

 m1ta665I HAVE SERIOUS SKEPTICS IN MY MIDST. Not rainy-day naysayers like me, but the advanced kind: people so far down the rabbit hole of mistrust that any widely-held conclusion is a flimsy alibi begging to be blown up. Spend too long in their hot house of doubt and the suspicion is contagious.

It’s not like I’m some sheep. I question authority and assume hidden motives. But some things seem beyond argument: the efficacy of childhood immunization, for example, or the need to alter our behavior in the face of climate change. When terrible shit happens, why jump to an evil conspiracy of corporate/government/Illuminati-backed monsters? Incompetence or stupidity is so much likelier.

Yet here they are, seeds of doubt, planted by people who I know to be intelligent (if obsessive and not always reasonable). My father in law, our contractor-in-residence for the past week, gleefully debunked every argument I had in my (admittedly tiny) arsenal in favor of alternative energy and against continued reliance on oil. Solar and wind power are not young technologies with a long way to go, he says. Not at all. They are corrupt government boondoggles enriching well-placed criminals (George Soros is a favorite of his) while threatening animals and even people (“ask a pilot: solar arrays blind and kill”).

Is wishful thinking clouding my judgment? Do I lack for facts? Are facts even relevant anymore? Am I paranoid enough?

Among many myth-busting conversations of late, one that sticks with me is about Flight 370. For 29 days, it seemed plausible to me that a state-of-the-art jet equipped with all manner of transponders, GPS and backed-up back-up systems, could tracelessly fade into oblivion. But after a boozy late-night talk with my friend Aaron, I feel naive. He points to what others claim is undeniable evidence of a coverup. By 11pm I’m half-way buying that we’re not getting the full truth. Then Aaron tells me that three Chinese owners of a priceless semiconductor patent were on the flight. The only other owner is an American with high-level government influence. So that monster called in the hit and the U.S. cloaked the whole deal so we alone can exploit the technology.

Well, duh.

>> Download a new mix, “Normcore Omniverse”

The Cool Kids – Freak City (Outro)
Latyrx – Watershed Moment (f. GIft of Gab & Merrill Garbus)
Annie Nilsson – Gotta Get Up
Donovan – Clara Clairvoyant
Grant Hart – Letting Me Out
Parquet Courts – Tears of Plenty
John Vanderslice – “Diamanthunde”
Dâm-Funk – Mirrors
Melt Yourself Down – Fix My Life
Open Mike Eagle – I Rock
Brand Nubian – Shinin’ Star
Quasi – Nostalgia Kills
Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise
Elastica – Stutter
The Imps – Uh Oh
The Beatles – Boys
Lou Reed – Real Good Time Together
Royal Trux – Liar
Actual Wolf – Victims & Things
Graham Nash/David Crosby – Frozen Smiles
Bill Callahan – Javelin Unlanding
Pentangle – When I Get Home
The Jim Carroll Band – People Who Died


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.

IMG_8880TOPICS I MEANT TO COVER WITH YOU SOONER in no particular order.

Inheritance: My exalted grandfather Charles J. Klima died in May. I wrote his obit, delivered a eulogy and MC’d at his funeral, bearing more raw, heartfelt emotion than I’d let loose in a decade. I did the guy’s memory a solid at the time, so I’m done with the tributes for now. Beyond missing him, what keeps coming back to me is a sense, totally unexpected, of “succession.” With that generation of our scary-small family now gone, there’s this void. Who will be the steady presence? The one who thinks beyond narrow interests and steps up to deal with family business—even just preventing us from ignoring each other? In a field of fewer than 8, I feel like a candidate. We bury Old Chuck’s ashes next weekend; I find my back straightening at the thought. That’s how these things happen I guess: almost before you realize it’s your turn, you’re ready.

Disability: I have a usual commute of fewer than 15 feet and a general distaste for danger. So I wager my odds of serious injury are slim. Yet my sense of prudence now whispers, “insure thyself.” Disability coverage, that depressing symbol of fragile middle-class survival, costs less than I expected and requires only the sacrifice of my blood and urine (I was due for a cleanse anyway). What pains me is contemplating when I’d use it: a calamity severe enough to shut me down but not severe enough to kill me. Here I am being cautious and all I can picture is Johanna holding a drool cup for “Vegetable Dad.” At least the cup will be paid for. Far from easing my worry, this deal is harshing my mellow.

Congenital Weirdness: Last month’s trip to Oregon was jammed with close encounters—over 50 friends and family members visited by Sarah’s count. In that Twilight Zone of our existence, drama is endless and ever-escalating, especially as the old get older (us included). In a week full of arched eyebrows and near-spit-takes, I’m left with vivid images—some funny, some terrifying: a brother cruising the ‘burbs flaunting his Taekwondo Green Belt (now that’s reppin’ the WTF); a patch of peaceful family farm converted to motorbike dirt track; Papa Ted commanding 6-year-olds to memorize his favorite bits of “The Lays of Ancient Rome” (Johanna was a real sport, going along with it but shooting me glances like “when will this end?”).

On my last night, I received a stern warning about currency devaluation and the cataclysm to come: “Mark my words, there will be blood in the streets. And it won’t be mine.”

>> Dave Van Ronk – Whoa Back Buck
>> The Mountain Goats – Palmcorder Yanja

IMG_6779I WAS PARTY TO AN ARGUMENT this week about New Year’s self improvement. It was on the Internet, where cynics and contrarians are way overrepresented. They said our good intentions are mostly in vain when we choose to change at such an arbitrary time. Resolutions have to spring from profound crisis, they said, from needs that heed no calendar.

I hear that. I’ve bailed on my share of January fitness kicks and penned lists in the holiday afterglow that seem absurdly pie-in-the-sky a few days later.

But I’m fine making a date with renewal (no crisis, please). The moment isn’t so arbitrary. Winter Solstice is a turning point for every culture outside of the tropics, occurring, not by coincidence, right around New Years. And the cynics seem to miss the social component of intention: it gains force when everybody has it.

At the risk of going all “positive vibes” and “the universe has ears” on you, the moment feels fortuitous. After 3 months of acute self-absorption in New House Land, I feel sparks of genuine interest. Colleagues are writing me into proposals for worthwhile work. Make Sh!t is poised to revolutionize mini golf. I’m using the hell out of some second-hand ice skates, the direct result of a Christmas visit from my brother-in-law (passion transmission in action!).

Then there’s the Book. I’m hesitant to say anything about it because my hopes are embarrassingly high. It’s all very preliminary, except that amazing arch amigo Steve Davis has in his spare time written a history tome (no effing around) about his hero John Brown, Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad in Iowa, which he researched by visiting county historical societies and cemeteries from Council Bluffs to Burlington. I’m doing maps, illustrations and production (my bit’s starting to take shape on Google).

I’m positive this book will make my year. And I haven’t even read it yet.

It’s a New Year’s miracle. 

>> Pslam One – Better Than My Last