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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



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.

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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.

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I READ THAT CONTRADICTION AND MENTAL DISSONANCE are the price of our ridiculous modern lives. It’s undeniable in my case. The son of an artist and an engineer, I’m liberal but obedient, cheerfully fatalistic, a staunch anti-consumer who makes his living on corporate largesse. There’s not much I do without some psychic friction. I know I’m not alone.

So I cherish the unconflicted moments. I found my respite long ago in the instinctual act of drawing—blindly, with no grand ambition or promise of reward. When I draw, counter-arguments grow silent. For a few minutes or hours, I know I’m doing the right thing.

That’s what drives the MakeSh!t experiment, now in its third year: low-stakes longing for uncontrolled creativity. We finally found a way to bottle it for mass consumption. To my astonishment, people showed up.

Public Acts of Drawing, first projected on a dark mill ruin in the summer of 2012, made its primetime debut this month on TPT’s TV Takeover, and again during a terrifying July storm. Hundreds of intrepid revelers (The Mayor, piano prodigies, drunks, tykes up way past their bedtime) huddled under our Fleet Farm party tarp, braving lightning and sheets of rain to scribble with us for hours. At 3:30am when the power went out, they were still washing up.

The project is also a thicket of contradictions: Solitary yet social, free-wheeling yet constrained (by media and elbow room), ugly until it’s beautiful. One component of the event—broadcasting on a skyscraper in real time with a Hollywood-grade projector—was shut down on account of weather. With 10 inches of visibility, no love was lost.

The best measure of the project isn’t the final artwork, which I love, but Aaron’s time-lapse vids. Watch us fill in everything, almost without thinking. Hard to say why exactly. Maybe because we have hands.

Another utterly pointless job well done. Thanks, fellas.

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MY LOCAL HABITAT TURNED INHOSPITABLE OVERNIGHT with the kick off of a long-delayed kitchen renovation. The place where just last week I made toast is now a primitive, nail-strewn cave stripped of every amenity (water, stove, Nutella), accessed through an E.T.-like zippered facade. The contents of our pantry and cupboards are piled along all available walls. For the next 12 to 16 weeks we will not cook as much as warm things up. Dishes will be washed in the bathtub.

I don’t deserve pity. Remodeling pain is the bougiest gripe of all time (up there with Finding Good Help). But we are accepting dinner invitations.

Last month I rehabilitated a Polaroid Landcamera, a toy I hadn’t touched in years. While the original company is dead, off-brand peel-apart film is available on Amazon for no more than it cost in 2003.

My first rolls were mostly dark and blurry. I have to relearn how to compose carefully and shoot slow.

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If there’s more mind-warping fun to be had with an iPhone than mis-use of panoramic stitching, show it to me.

14By now it’s old news that my sister had a baby. I’d say she’s doing okay with it.

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We’ve had a lot of family visitors lately on account of ‘Lil Charley, including my half-sister Emily, seen here with my step-nephew-if-my-sister-were-married, Frank. Step-aunts, step-grandmas and multiple half-brothers also showed up. Johanna and her quasi-cousins need to be reminded Who is He (and What Is He to You)?

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I’m in the middle of doing a video for my farm technology client. It involves hiring screen actors, but really only their legs. At the casting we picked five pairs from dozens of auditions, mostly ones whose shoes we liked.

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There wasn’t much for Johanna to do when we said Go Outside and Play, so I and some Work & Company helpers put up a trapeze. It took a ridiculous amount of effort to anchor the rope in our massive oak. Overall it’s an engineering masterpiece, though Jo has to swing carefully to avoid smacking into trees and fences.

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Took a field trip with Witt to the MCAD library, where you can freely paw artists books by legends like Sol Lewitt, Bruce Neumann and Ed Ruscha (though you gotta wear the Mickey gloves).

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I topped off my Summer of Cycling with a balmy (100°+) camping ride to Afton State Park with Lucas. So wrung out were we by the heat and exertion that we barely drained our bourbon flasks. But having brought little food on account of weight, we needed the calories.

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In exchange for helping make a website for his bobblehead empire (Phase 2), I’ve been immortalized by sculptor Bryan Guise. It’s like he’s revealed my essential self: part Eminem, part John Cusack, part graying guy with an over-familiar stare.

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I’ve been binging on Lou Reed and V.U. (and tributes and photos) this week. Waiting for the right moment of cathartic dissolution to throw on Side B of White Light White Heat. Lou hits a deep vein.

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This is an excerpt of a MakeSh!t proposal submitted for artist-designed Mini Golf at the Walker to take place in summer 2013. Fingers crossed! UPDATE 1/9/13: WE’RE IN.

CONCEPT: Once (maybe twice) in lifetime, something happens that transforms a favorite pastime forever. For the sport of Mini Golf, that time is next summer at the Walker Sculpture Garden. Roaming Hole Gardens (RHG) employs the game’s familiar assets and rules but with one crucial twist: the target hole roams. In lieu of taking her usual shot, a player may instead relocate one of 6 topiary plugs into the open hole, thereby opening a different hole—a new target!—for the round. The new hole becomes everyone’s object—that is until another player chooses to move the hole instead of swinging for it. With this deceptively simple change, the sport attains a mind-blowing new level of challenge, strategy and competition while remaining easy enough for anyone to play.

MATERIALS: 6 life-like mobile topiaries are made of outdoor-grade plastic for durability and ease of management. Each is anchored in a welded metal pot that allows it to be moved easily from one hole to another. The arrangement of these artificial trees, shrubs, grasses and bouquets evokes a manicured English garden, reinforced by the symmetrical course design. Other materials are tried and true mini golf: astroturf, plus simple walls and interior obstacles made of bent metal.

PLAYABILITY: Players are greeted at the hole’s start with one rule: “On your turn hit your ball OR move the hole.” The party’s first player may take a shot at whichever hole is then open (subject to the whims of the previous group) or use his turn to move the hole. RHG’s simple design means you are never more than a shot or two away from the target hole. But depending on how merciless your opponents are, it could take several more swings to finish (we recommend a 6-shot limit). Once any player sinks the hole, she collects her ball and stands by as others complete the round.

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>> Silver Jews — K-Hole
>> Patti Smith — Pastime Paradise

 

IN A RAPIDLY WARMING, PETROLEUM-SCARCE WORLD, long-haul road trips may no longer be defensible. But weighing our waste against the lure of a righteous mountain cabin just outside Yellowstone, we said Screw It and got in the van. Having only driven around it before, I worried the Park wouldn’t live up to the hype. Was it just the darling of people who’d never gone elsewhere (my strong suspicion about all Disney Resort-lovers)? Would it pale next to the postcards?

No. Yellowstone proved to be a steaming smorgasbord of vividly bizarre wonders. It’s one of the few times where conventional wisdom knew what was good for me.

Our ride was deluxe, a big honkin’ GM van worthy of my weirdest uncle circa 1980. Six bucket seats. CD/DVD/cassette. Lingering scent of industrial solvent. 1,100 miles flew by, at least up front in the Dad Cab.

We spent a night in western North Dakota, land of fracking fortunes, gargantuan pickups and shockingly overpriced Days Inns. Then a final 600-mile haul through Montana, which looks like this when the maps bleach out.

The park’s surreal chromatics come from heat-seeking bacteria that cluster along thermal springs according to their temperature (above and below). Did that sound convincing? Because I have no idea what I’m talking about. It might as well be made of Jell-O. Click for a better view.

Jo Jo posing elegantly on the Yellowstone River; Her and Isobel in matching Harajuku Mini meshcaps. These two built dams, rode horses, braved whitewater and went all Frontierswomen for a week (we oldsters honed our Picnicking and Wine Guzzling skillz).

So Old Faithful? People go bonkers for that. Intent on capturing all its glory, this dude butted to the front of the crowd with his iPad aloft. It’s like 68°. Where’s your shirt?

Jenney and Sarah hike above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (right). Our crew had some unique flair too, no?

Bouldering! Also known as scampering atop rocks.

An invented topographic landscape, from a series of romantic moonlit drawing sessions Lucas and I did after everybody else crashed.

Me on Boulder. This field was littered with gnawed-on bones and other wildlife traces, though animals in the flesh were scarce. They smell you coming.

Sarah’s cross-stitch parting gift to the Lazy M cabin (left). I knew we’d enjoy the stargazing deck and full kitchen, but the hair salon was a nice surprise.

Hiking the miles of empty ranchland around the Lazy M, Lucas and I ducked into an old homestead abandoned for decades (right). After experiencing the century’s-worth of tourist infrastructure around Yellowstone, I’m reassured by places that may stay wild and neglected forever.

Big thanks to Jenney, Lucas, and his big-hearted patron Emily for sharing all this splendor. I’d say we’ll return the favor, but who would ever loan me something that good?

>> Lightning Bolt – Magic Mountain
>> Fiery Furnaces – Evergreen

I JUST BAGGED MY THIRD AND FOURTH state parks of the summer, and we’re barely four weeks in. I don’t recall when I became a Minnesota park system groupie. Growing up, I went to exactly one Iowa State Park and that was mostly to skirt parental supervision for the day. Now I’m following some unconscious collector’s yen to see all 38. Johanna is racking up patches, for real.

This despite a massive IT failure of the DNR reservation system this spring, which cramped the plans of thousands of park nerds, us included. When they finally replaced the vacuum tubes (or whatever caused the month-long meltdown), I nabbed a spot at Itasca State Park to coincide with a conference where Sarah was presenting. But her gig was actually the following week, an error we only caught after all other cabins were booked. Systems failing all over.

It’s a tribute to Itasca, then, that Sarah’s return the following week (220 miles each way past strip malls, flea markets and fantastic castles penitentiaries) still felt worthwhile (though Jo and I took a pass). One of the nation’s oldest state parks—second only to New York’s Niagara—Itasca is 32,000 acres of lakes, old-growth pine forest and empty, shade-dappled trails knitting it together. There’s also, of course, the headwaters of the Mississippi, though this primeval origin point had its wildness engineered out to look more like you’d expect it to. Just how they did things in 1905.

Family camping, if you’re lucky, is without high drama or surprise. Still you remember things. The two rangers-in-training schooling us about painted turtles and the vicious fisher (sworn enemy of the porcupine). The sunburned kids with North Woods accents I can only describe as marble-mouthed. Climbing a vertiginous fire tower that swayed in the wind under threat of storm.

And lessons learned: a) don’t bother looking for a decent bite in Bemidji, and b) tuck in shirts if you don’t want ticks.

>> Minor Threat – Stumped

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL comes with a peculiar burden for me. The before-you-go rigamarole I’m good with. It’s once I’m there, there’s this nagging compulsion to gain Meaningful Experience. Some see time away as a pause in life, but for me it’s the exact opposite. Vacation is the whole point: figuring things out, seeing my people, doing notable shit and bragging about it. I find the prescription to “just relax” more than useless—it’s terrifying (if time off is merely a way to replenish for work, there is no excuse for me at all). Until I kill off my Value-Creating self for good, vacation is my State of Nature.

This orientation puts a lot of pressure on our trips. Fortunately, my Planner In Chief is even more militant on the point. Sarah’s so convinced every trip should be uniquely spectacular that she builds tabbed spreadsheets around potential itineraries and checks to see that hotel rooms are oriented properly toward the sun.

Yet for all this force of will, our most recent getaway is hard to explain. We spent three months mulling plans in endless combinations* involving numerous failed connections with friends and the Internet equivalent of throwing darts at maps. Facing a spring break alone and childless in Minnesota, we pulled a wild card: the remote desert outpost of Tucson, Arizona. We knew no one and had no reference points aside from the band Calexico.

In full Thelma & Louise mode (not sure which I was) on the trail from Phoenix to Tucson, a 120-mile drive on butter-smooth I-10, roads being one of the few public amenities the libertarians will pay for.

The city is ringed by mountains for hiking, solidly in my Worthwhile Activity category. Some downer lady told us all Tucson’s trails were the same, but we found otherwise. The terrain is gorgeous and varied, assuming you have enough water to push a bit farther. We did a dozen miles over two days, stopping constantly to photograph unfamiliar flora for Sarah’s prints.

Feeling spry, I had us take a casual stroll 3,000 feet up the ridge overlooking Sabino Canyon. A mild spring day in Tucson is 90° by 10 a.m. and clouds are notably rare.

Scary Desert Things: bees swarming in and out of underground hives (left) and saguaro needles tough enough to break boot leather (right). One night I took a walk in the desert and suddenly freaked myself out I was going to kick a rattlesnake. Hustling to get back, I walked into a small cactus that jabbed spines about an inch into my leg, one of which still hasn’t come out.

South of Tucson there’s a 300-year-old mission, San Xavier Del Bac. Here familiar Catholic iconography mixes with stylistic influences from the Tohono Odom, Arizona’s original occupants since before Columbus. It’s a great psychedelic miasma. Brilliant, bizarre and humbling (click to enlarge).

As splendid as they are in person, sunsets never hold up on film (er, pixels). But we took like 700 shots anyway.

After a few days of Tucson, we retired to the deep desert 25 miles west of town. There we read, drew, ate watermelon and—against all odds—relaxed. With Sarah blistered and sun-shy after days dragged through desert, there was nothing else to do. Heat is the enforcer.

Valley of the Kachina Dolls at the Heard Musuem in Phoenix, a truly dazzling collection of Southwest Aboriginal art. This was nearby the awesome Bolo Tie exhibit.

The food in Tucson was just… OK we felt; nothing to write home about (or post to Instagram, the modern equivalent). Though much praise was due to the vegetable-oil-fried marvels that were Le Cave’s doughnuts. One day I shall feast on a Pina Colada filled cake.

We came home to find Johanna living La Vida Iowa—art, barbeque, trainspotting, making bookmarks for babies. After days of play among family and friends, our return barely registered for her.

In the end, Tucson felt less like a destination than a disappearance. May need that again sometime. You never know.

>> Roger McGuinn & Calexico – One More Cup of Coffee
>> Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – Tropical Hot Dog Night

* Our abbreviated list of rejected destinations includes Santa Fe, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Puerto Valljarta, Austin, San Diego, Miami, D.C. and Houston (but only for a second).

 

RECENT MORNINGS I’M UP before sunrise for international conference calls, interviewing the people behind India’s Sesame Street. I’m 11 1/2 hours behind Delhi, so their day is as good as over when we start talking.

I struggle to understand it all (unfamiliar accents and Development-speak), but I grasp enough for the website I’m writing. Their stories are so far outside my frame, it’s startling. I talked to the country’s leading female puppeteer who performed at last year’s Cricket World Cup, like our Super Bowl with 10 times the audience. In her spare time, she teaches puppetry to war orphans in Kashmir. Another woman explained that the kids she helps are much more likely to reach their 5th birthdays if they just learn hand-washing. Many have never seen a radio or TV.

The calls end and I rush off with Johanna to school. We see people shuffling above downtown in heated tubes. Cyclists careening through the river valley in full-cover face masks. Buses disgorging a riot of puffy coats and colossal backpacks.

How weird and unknowable is my own enclave?

We’re spending Saturday mornings at the magnificent M.I.A. Jo takes a class while I wander the galleries alone (my fondest wish).

What appeal does my filthy beater VW hold that I don’t see? This is the second unsolicited offer this year.

Now that Jo can read, we aren’t wasting any time learning word games. They are her birthright.

She’s a ways off from joining my poker crowd.

All class.

Toy versions of full-sized things drawn back into the real world. There’s an idea here somewhere.

Thursday Nights at Craig’s security door; a common sight.

Jo and Lo model funky Chinese swag from Uncle Kirk.

My sister once set a leaf fire under this bridge and the D.M.F.D. had to come put it out. TRUE STORY.

Was I actually someplace this beautiful recently? Man, vacations fade fast.

Oh right, we were with Sarah’s folks. Some memorable quotes for the visit:

> “George Soros was Hitler’s understudy.”
> “Canada has the worst food in the world.”
> “How DO you spell Duluth?”
> “I made the processor that allowed them to broadcast the Sarajevo Olympics.” (this claim has been verified)
> “You know, Walgreens has the NICEST bathrooms.”

We snuck away to do a loop of the Superior Hiking Trail too strenuous for septuagenarians.

There’s a taco place we now love 10x more than our old standby. Three words: HOMEMADE SALSA BAR.

A touching moment with stay-at-home-dad Witt and soon-to-be-dad Paul, hanging out while they can.

Used to think wild turkey sightings were a special thing, but lately Minneapolis is lousy with them.

 

Sass and style to spare.

>> Ronnie Dawson – Action Packed
>> Desmond Dekker – Honour Your Mother and Father