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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.

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

MY MIND IS UNUSUALLY SERENE LATELY (hardly cause for complaint, except that I blog best under duress). I’m furnishing that surplus mental real estate with reading: most recently a 1000-page novel about proto-scientists in the age of Enlightenment (oof; thanks, Kev!), a gift subscription to the New York Review of Books (best eva, Marc!), and, just this week, the revelatory rock crit manifesto I might have written if I knew 100x more (thanks for getting the hint, sis!).

It’s not just me. Sarah’s mainlining Self Help and alternative health books as Johanna inches toward that moment where she can pick up and read stuff unaided. Betting we’re obsolete by February.

In other timesucks, I’m compiling an unscheduled mixtape for my club, “FOLK-HOP,” a set of alternating rap and folk tunes that’s sure to displease fans of both. I’m also closing shop next week to chill and ski with the in-laws while jumping on all Happy Hour invitations until January.

How much leisure can one man handle? Here, I’ll show you.

Jo and Sarah churn out ultra-vivid monoprints at the Highpoint Center. Mine suffered from a lack of ink and inspiration.

The great-granddaughter with our beloved Nassif Matriarch, still a formidable bridge player at 89.

Lo, Jo, Louis, and Two Dads In Loungewear.

No idea what inspired this, but I’m adopting it as my 2012 mantra.

Paul’s Ai Wei Wei rubylith design, a leftover Make Sh!t project to bookend our first full year.

With no ice or snow, we’re running all over.

Catching yellow-hued views at dusk from the Guthrie.

For months, Sarah’s been saving “special” bottles for kombucha (a more vile beverage I’ve never encountered), only to have every last one freeze and break. Repulsion averted!

A modest wishlist posted to the front door.

Allison, newly 34 with Beef Bourguignon, at her second birthday celebration of the night. Steady there, sister.

A panda inspects the work of beavers on the East Bank of the Mississippi River.

I sit here so contentedly.

>> Redd Kross – Look On Up At the Bottom
>> Dylan – Watching the River Flow

SOMEBODY WISHED ALOUD that July could be twice as long (on Facebook, of course, where summer’s progress is logged competitively, so I see the 1,000 camp-outs, festivals, and bike/bar crawls I didn’t do). It’s an appealing thought, even sweating through sixty-two 90° nights. The calendar being fixed as it is, we made July the longest month purely through high-capacity living.

Winthrop

A family visit in Mazama and North Cascades NP in Washington State was not our first pick, but a solid Plan B (parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite fill up quick, way quicker than my extended family can make decisions). This alpine valley is inaccessible half the year, and still feels sparse in the high season—mostly populated by that weird Western mix of cowboys, extreme-sports buffs, Harley riders and affluent retirees. Round here, the marshal drives an IRoc-Z.

Don’t these peaks just make you want to yodel?

I left Seattle eons ago, so joining the hordes at Pike Place Market (left, with Sarah and my sister Emily buying, like, 10 lbs of salmon) no longer feels like a gimmicky yawn; I see it all anew. Like the brilliant S.A.M. sculpture garden (center, with my brother Ben in front of Richard Serra’s Wake), which I remember as an walled-off graveyard for shipping containers. Our Associated Friends of Ballard—who all live on the same block, considerately, and even have a killer cottage where we can flop—threw us an Independence Day party, finished with a Family Pack of Chinese fireworks (right), all duds except for the Bang Snaps.

Four days later we were in Clermont, Iowa, for Xmas In July #4—different family culture (red meat, weaponry, ATVs), different climate (fierce sun, biting flies, minimal shade). Sounds fun, right? This year my grandfather devised a relay race: two teams move empty 2-liter bottles using only yard sticks. Not likely to be a runaway fad, but there was enough absurdity and smack-talk to keep it interesting.

Gramps and Johanna, in amazing hats, before the kite flying competition. I won, but when my kite was nearly invisible, the string broke. My cousin and I scoured 10 acres on an ATV looking for it, but the kite seemed bound for another county.

Back in Minneapolis, with favorite visitors from Des Moines at Lake Nokomis—another great place to be if you hate shade.

Backyard Bananagrams (left, a novel performance with PYRO ZOOTS and PUBIC CLOT) and successful Make Sh!t sculpture experiments: Beer, Detergent, Baby Bottle, Lemon (along with some busted failures: casting an intact whiffle-ball bat and lightbulb using concrete proved beyond our powers).

Johanna’s weeks at Urban Arts Academy have produced art by the armload, like a misty shadowbox with butterfly puppets (left). At Highpoint Center for Printmaking for Sarah’s 38th birthday (note the cake, lower-left), a group of us cut rubber blocks to make stamps and practically got kicked out for having too much fun.

Brontosaur

This monster in Lake Hiawatha has its own website.

Exhausted yet? I haven’t even gotten to re-roofing my garage (me dressing the part, left). As an able-bodied person, I didn’t relish watching others suffer through my hot, backbreaking work—a position I regretted as soon as I’d sweat through my leather boots. For the interior improvements (right), I called in some low-wage backup.

In other unpaid labors, I helped mow the Walker Art Center’s lawn as part of a half-baked performance by L.A. collective Machine Project. Something about the elaborate ritual of American lawncare? Mastery over nature through technology? The triumph of suburban values? For the performers, it was as captivating as… mowing the lawn.

“The American Lawn and Ways to Cut It.”

Art Mowing followed by rooftop drinks with your crew. Isn’t Minneapolis grand?

>> Chuck Berry – Come On
>> Vast Aire – Take Two
>> The New Pornographers – July Jones