crankyMY DAUGHTER STARTS 8TH GRADE TODAY. There’s a nip in the air. Leaves are getting crispy. Introspection isn’t surprising when seasons change, but fall comes at me with extra layers.

It was about this time…
> 20 years ago I moved to Minneapolis
> 16 years ago we got married
> 15 years ago I went freelance
> 13 years ago JoJo was born
> 7 years ago we bought this house

Are we doing it right? Trying hard enough? Will we be happy with our choices later? The questions linger, but lack urgency. Our (self-reported) report card reeks of self-satisfaction. Life is great on paper and backed up by reality. We’d rather have our pain than anyone else’s. Best not to jinx it. #SmugLife.

I started this blog in 2008 as an extension of my pre-internet scrapbooks. In 2012, social media assumed that role and this morphed into a journal for processing raw inspiration and messy experiences. Two decades into adulthood, our grand scheme feels much less raw and messy. No longer manic ad-libbers, we stick with what works and keep on keeping on. My boldest moves bring me back to familiar conclusions. Once my greatest fear, becoming a cliché now feels beyond my protests.

When I was younger, I thought there was one way to be: skeptic, non-joiner, contrarian, awake in a world of sleeping sheep. This is a hard perspective to hold on to as you age. Truth is, there’s no monopoly on truth. No one is pure. We all have our own contradictions and delusions (Late Capitalism demands them). Each of us is trying to survive our own twisted trip. So live and let live.

Whatever I used to be on about now musters a shrug. I wrote my last post many months ago, a panicky screed about my ambivalent existence. No one needs that kind of performative outrage, least of all me.

Let’s turn the page. See you around in real life as I STFU and try to enjoy it.

I CREATED A SPIRAL CROSSWORD for a zine I make with Acre Design Co for Able Seedhouse + Brewery, my first foray into puzzle-making after a lifetime of solving. The new issue will hit the taproom in November for Able’s first anniversary (including a photo documentary I did of Frankenhouses in Minneapolis’s Longfellow neighborhood).


Instructions: This spiral contains two series of words, one reading inward from 1 to 99, the other reading outward from 99 back to 1. Every space is used exactly twice. Work from both sets of clues to complete the puzzle.


1-5: She was played by Madonna
6-11: There are several in every family
12-16: Alternative to Airbnb
17-22: It crowds many a café table
23-26: Last stop before the final
27-34: Dessert made with lady’s fingers
35-42: Curt instruction to a barber (3 wrds.)
43-47: Larger than large
48-53: House in Le Havre
54-59: Like trumpets on game day
60-63: Letters after lambda
64-69: Members of the Mille Lacs and Mississippi River Bands
70-77: C6H12O6
78-83: Home of the National Sports Center
84-88: Hanged, _______ and quartered
89-92: Spacious
93-99: 1973 Woody Allen film


99-94: Strip again
93-85: Assad’s conflict (2 wrds.)
84-79: First stage of grief
78-74: Make foolish
73-68: Time to be home
67-63: Elegant trinket
62-56: 9 or IX
55-52: Loo in Quintana Roo
51-45: Kind of cat or twin
44-40: Smashingly successful
39-32: Incan ruler crowned in 1563 (2 wrds.)
31-24: Nautical
23-20: He has fun with Dick and Jane
19-14: No-frills place to flop
13-9: Windy City stopover
8-1: Tone of SuperPAC ads, often


tumblr_ntretfYj7K1tfpvszo1_400.gifWHAT DO I KNOW? A friend recently interviewed me for his company’s blog. As a freelancer for more than a decade, surely I had some business advice to share, right? It was an odd experience being the subject for a change, and hard to find coherent lessons in a career as unplanned as mine. That feeling was heightened by a sense that great forces — generational, social, financial  — could undermine my gig at any moment. Speaking as an expert feels like tempting the cosmos to show me how wrong I am.

Despite my superstitions, I dropped some knowledge… in the spirit of helping others embark on a career of constant, low-level worrying.

What’s great about working as an independent consultant?

For all the risk and uncertainty, freelancing is my dream job. It’s about control: choosing who I work for, the kinds of projects I take on, and how I spend my time. The freedom of freelancing is worth more to me than any promotions or bonuses I’m missing. Plus, I don’t have to deal with being laid off, commuting, or the guy who microwaves fish for lunch.

How did you get started as a freelance writer?

I knew I wanted a creative career, but it was an indirect journey. After college, I cooked hot wings, served legal documents, and made newspaper tear-sheets (a job that barely survived into the 21st century). I got my foot in the door the way a lot of people do, with an internship. I found out what I was good at, started cobbling together a portfolio, and made as many connections as I could. Early on, I saw how many interesting opportunities were out there — not just where I was working. As soon as I felt ready, I used my network to find my own clients and cut the cord with my agency. That was 11 years ago.

What’s hard? What has been different than you expected?

You learn quickly, it’s a hustle. Freelancing demands so much more than talent on the project. I am my own IT, finance department, supplies manager, and motivational guru. No one’s out there lining up my jobs, shaking the trees for payment, making sure my insurance is affordable and my retirement doesn’t evaporate. Just about the time you master all those hassles (or outsource them), something changes.

How has your career changed for you?

It never stops. One year you might have four big clients, the next you have 20 small ones. I never expected to learn so much about agriculture, theatre, or architecture — or that I would ultimately find them fascinating and important. Change either happens to you or you make it happen. The more industry white papers and direct mail catalogs you write, the more you’ll be invited to write. So you have to embrace the work you have or set a new course.

How do you find your clients?

This is a mid-sized city with a huge amount of opportunity if you get hooked in. For me the pipeline has always included creative agencies, large, boutique and virtual. But increasingly I contract directly with clients and work with them for years. People are kind in recommending me to their colleagues; this network effect is strong enough that my work has remained steady. In the last few years, I’ve been carving out a sweet spot: the arts, education and non-profits, companies most aligned with things I care about. That’s meant seeking introductions, building teams and answering RFPs. It’s a longer path to billable work, but easier to love (which is what the best work needs).

Do you ever say no to a client?

During my first few years as a freelancer, I took everything I could fit on my schedule. It was a good period for learning and earning. But I’ve grown pickier. Do I think the world needs what we’re making? Will I enjoy working with these people? Will it make the Twin Cities a better place to live? Most importantly: Will I learn something? When I can’t answer ‘yes’ to most of those questions, I decline the offer. I have a rule of thumb: If I’m not excited to share anything I’m doing with my friends (especially people outside the business), I need some new clients.

What have you learned to look for in a client that’s a good (or bad) fit?

I don’t think there are wrong fits so much as wrong expectations. If everyone agrees to the goals and the process, I’ve found that any conflicts and challenges that arise are not deal-breakers. That said, when someone tells you at the first meeting that they sued the last team they hired, that’s a red flag.

What advice do you have for other creatives who want to strike out on their own?

My spouse is an artist and also works for herself. We have something we call the “F$#k Yeah, Oh F$#k” theorem of independent work: a predictable cycle of big wins that often lead directly to situations of being overwhelmed and in crisis, followed by dry spells and worries your career is dead. Realize this is a normal part of the process and learn to ride the waves, financially and emotionally.

Also, you need a desk. After six months at your living room table, go to BluDot.

What, in your view, has been the key to sustained success?

An obsessive personality that fears failure and poverty. If you aren’t low-level worrying all the time, you may not have it in you.

What’s your all-time favorite client?

I can honestly say the best stuff I have done is not for prestige clients, cool as those are, but for the small, local group that does amazing work but isn’t on most people’s radar. I love going into an environment like that — where no one is looking for great work — and blowing it up. I’m helping launch a new company that can narrow the achievement gap in high-poverty classrooms. I recently collaborated with the counsel of U.S. chief justices on a report about transforming our civil justice system. That wall of pencils we made at Antenna is tough to top.

Sometimes the biggest thing is learning how to be interested. If you can nail that, this gig is unbeatable.


tumblr_m5psl1fORI1rxlmf0o1_400This is an excerpt of an interview soon to be included in a little zine I’m helping with. If all I got to do in life was pick the brains of scientists, it would be enough. –Jake


Rivers are ephemeral. Their unique shapes are works in progress, lines continually redrawn by factors large and small. What’s the source of their peculiar behavior and beauty? We sat down with John, a graduate research assistant at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering, to talk about water, people and the dynamics (physical and historical) that bind them together.

What got you hooked on rivers?
As a kid growing up on a farm in Tennessee, streams are all over the place. Romping in rivers has always been part of my life. My “watershed” moment came hiking the Appalachian Trail. On those river crossings, you step through what seem like little creeks, but go up to your waist. You can feel the force, even if it doesn’t look that deep. When you’re IN it, when you feel it, you realize how powerful even small rivers can be. That trip connected me to rivers and flowing water.

What’s your focus these days?
My dissertation is on meandering river dynamics, how rivers move about their flood plains and rework the surface of the earth. You see the effects of winding rivers in very diverse environments: on the Mississippi, on glaciers, on Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, even underwater when fresh water flows into saltwater before they mix. 

So why do rivers wind like that?
All kinds of factors cause rivers to move: landscape, soil, rock, precipitation, human impact. Once you change anything in a system, nature adapts. An interesting study was done in Yellowstone National Park, where the streams were considered wildly meandering. After wolves were reintroduced to the park, the meandering stopped. Turns out that when the animals hunted by wolves were chased off, the vegetation they were eating grew again and strengthened the banks.

Up until the 1980s, people explained the meandering pattern by invoking the river as a conscious entity—“the water wants to move”—without a physical basis. Now there are many good theories. I think the best one is that turbulence in the fluid causes the patterns. But we’re still looking for a unified theory of river meandering.

Tell us about your river.
I study the Ucayali River in Peru. It has very high sinuosity, which is a measure of how winding it is (higher number = more winding). This river has moved 100m per year laterally. That’s comparable to the rate of movement on the Mississippi River pre-settlement. But the watershed of the Mississippi is 10,000-times larger than the Ucayali. This wild migration is a result of lots of eroded sediment from the Andes Mountains to the west and rains from the Amazon to the east.

How are people part of the dynamic?
Rivers are very active. Every time you build a bridge or a dam, you cut off some of the hydrodynamic processes that would affect the channel. When we somehow lock the system into place, we drastically reduce the changes. How does human impact affect meandering dynamics? When we do an activity, how far does it propagate? I want to better understand the dynamics. It’s what the stream restoration industry is all about.

Can we build a better stream?
In the industry now, if you put in a stream and it moves, they say your design has failed. But we need to remember if we want a stream in anything like a natural state, it needs a framework so it can move. We need to learn to design for migration.

Ecologically, it’s very important. Water in a stream will seep into the ground water and then pop up later, and winding its own way encourages that process. They say, “a river is the author of its own geometry”—its own engineer, in a sense. And meandering is the mechanism.

TrafficON JUNE 14 SLEEK ELECTRIC TRAINS start rolling from downtown Minnneapolis to downtown St. Paul around the clock. There are 18 stations in between, including one a few yards from my front door. It’s historic for the Cities and pretty sweet for me: essential services are already popping up nearby, housing values should get a bump, and I get the designated driver I always needed.

So this is how it feels when social investments align with personal gain. Privilege in effect.

I thought that day would be all happy-hour-on-rails, but I got more party than I bargained for. As part of the 4th annual Northern Spark, MakeSh!t is re-upping our Public Acts of Drawing event around the Minneapolis convention center from 9pm to 5am. Each hour is planned as a unique drawing event: vernacular lettering, Minneapolis mapping, life drawing (mixing things up so we don’t get bored, more than anything).

Here’s how we pitched it:

… a real-time art-making event that merges free-form collaboration with large-scale urban spectacle. Participants put pen—and charcoal and stencil and glue stick—to paper alongside local artists, dignitaries, and a few hundred friends. Drawers of all ages, skill levels, and styles are welcome. Guest contributors will help steer and energize the proceedings, but the results are delightfully unpredictable. Over the course of the night the individual marks of many become a vibrant lattice of interpenetrated doodles, the Hive Mind documented in graphite and ink. The draw-a-thon is simulcast on downtown architecture [Ivy Hotel, turns out], turning each small gesture into a heroic act. Public Acts of Drawing made its debut in 2012 on the (now destroyed) Pillsbury A Mill in St. Anthony Main.

Did I mention Mayor Hodges is scribbling with us? What shall I lobby for?


I caught a talk last month by Canadian artist Jon Rafman. It was on a whim with Paul, Witt and a bunch of students and faculty at MCAD. I wasn’t prepared.

I’m a fan of Rafman’s “9-Eyes” project, a gallery of snapshots, some sublime some disturbing, culled from the ever-expanding archive of Google Street View. I thought of it as a kind of found-object work, but Rafman’s description suggests bigger stakes. Google’s simulacrum of civilzation is just one corner of a vast Internet world—explorable, infinitely seductive and terrifyingly human.

As a fellow cyber-explorer, I’ve felt this. I’ve adventured down internet rabbit holes, tripped headlong into its taboo regions and wondered what it all meant (and what it meant that I was there). But Rafman’s take is profoundly dystopic. His videos reveal (but do not really examine) the perils of Internet-addiction, lives completely given over to desire, mostly sexual. It’s a bleak picture. Hentai meets Abu Graib.

No doubt this world exists. But is that us (or more than a few of us)? Is our private universe so perverse? The audience response seemed to say, “that’s not me. I don’t know that Internet.”

One project fascinated me. Rafman’s avatar is the Kool-Aid Man, the ever-smiling sugar water pitcher/Pitch Man known for walking through walls. As Kool-Aid Man, Rafman is our tour guide to the mostly abandoned online world called Second Life, which had its heyday around 2008. The game’s often beautiful invented landscapes (all user-generated) are filled with dreamy experiences—alien discos, snowy deserts, endless archipelagos of fantasy. While the world evoked by Kool-Aid Man in Second Life can also feel warped and off-putting, it rings truer. By Rafman’s reading, it’s a mirror of the collective id.

When we can be anyone and make anything, this is what we make.


[ginormous]mississippi through the ages
 As a kid I remember poring over Tolkein’s handdrawn maps in The Hobbit, an aesthetic experience that, I see now, was a gateway to D&D. Not to play down my dweeb cred, but all I did with Role Playing Games was draw maps—networks of passages snaking across taped-together sheets of graph or hex paper. With some dragons thrown in. Sketching made the fantasy real enough; adventuring there seemed beside the point.

Years later we made a gigantic plywood Risk board in my friend Kelly’s basement, reimagined with new continents and routes (not an original idea). That map made it apparent how much arrangements of land and sea matter (for games at least). A Panama-like isthmus in our world became a bottleneck of perpetual conflict. The State of Stalemate. The Middle East, basically.

My own map collection is modest: a few stuffed shoeboxes and old classroom pull-downs. I have a Wichita train switcher’s map and a large survey of the American Indians of North America (lest we forget America was a place before we mapped it). I always saw them as more than references—composition, color and type; ways to interpret and render space and time—but now paper maps feel like relics. Unfolding one is an atavistic act, like thumbing a phone book or loading film. All the action’s gone online.

I still favor choosing routes based on memory and experience, but the computer in my pocket changes everything. I look at Google even when I know where I’m going: to check traffic, confirm hunches, and calculate ETAs +/- minutes. This mobile mapping thing has become the Internet’s key ingredient. It’s even crept into my job: helping farmers visualize their fields in dollars and cents; apps that get plumbers and cable guys between appointments more efficiently. Maps are money.

Though map media is nothing like it was, abstract admiration still overlays the utility for me. I may be more maps-for-maps-sake than ever. Rob Walker recently made an awesome gallery of digital map art, mostly based on the moments where the technology breaks. Wired’s Map Lab is consistently fun. The guy who does that 9 Eyes Tumblr is a genius. New fictional geographies are everywhere (but how are they for Risk?).

Have you played GeoGuessr? You get plopped down in a Google StreetView someplace on earth and, based on the available information (often scant) you drop a pin on the globe to guess your location. Points are awarded based on how close you get. It’s addictive. I’m getting good, but roadside shanties look a lot alike, whether they’re in Romania, Siberia or Capetown.

Now I’m back to making maps. Real paper ones, I hope, though everything starts digital anymore. My friend Steve Davis’s history book-in-progress, “The Fighting Farmer: John Brown in Iowa,” will include a pull-out map of the spots Old Man Brown stayed on his passages back and forth to Kansas (the contested “final frontier” of slavery). The information’s plotted, but I’m undecided on the design. Should it look like a 19th-century throwback or a contemporary view? A step into the past or a projection of the present 150 years after the fact?

Screen shot 2013-08-07 at 2.37.19 PM

See, that’s the tension with maps: history vs. currency. Both are there, but how to do you capture that? It may come down to the compass rose.


SINCE I STARTED THIS BLOG we got Obama, computer-phones, and one less planetSarah saved a school, Johanna attained literacy, and I had Asian food for lunch at least 250 times. Five years is a fair bit in Internet Time, especially for a project that’s as loose and lazy as a tour diary. By a band that doesn’t actually perform.

We are known to tour, though. Sarah’s on an art retreat in Santa Fe, staying in a casita near the home of “Georgie O’Keith” as Jo calls her (which should be a Who song if it’s not). In a colder, less creative venture, I just got back from interviewing farmers in North Dakota about mobile apps, with unexpected detours into raccoon trapping and trade with Kazakhstan. Strange, complicated work, but the wardrobe fits me to a T.


When it’s not -10°, I’m surveying our new ‘hood. There are impressive vistas and ruins if you know where to look. In this depopulated swath between the Cities, transients and graffiti writers rule. Word is some of the industrial barrens may be cleared to build another brewery & tap room, which are to Minneapolis in 2013 what yoga studios were in 2004 and food trucks in 2009.


The attic’s transformation from cramped bat cave (literally) to airy loft workspace is complete. I have to hand it to Sarah, who pulled off a complicated set of requirements—air, electricity, walls, windows—using half a dozen different contractors, some she had to lean on hard. I did the finishing paint job. As I was not paid, she cut me some slack.


I had my own brief residence in Washington D.C. with old buddy Marc and fam. They’ve added a daughter, Vivian, since last I dropped in, who is not just adorable but highly conductive. They share a sweet, spacious rowhouse in a neighborhood called Columbia Heights, which I noted has a Pupuseria density of 3 per block.


D.C. always gives good art, but I got especially lucky this go-around with Ai Wei Wei at the Hirshhorn and Nam June Paik at the Smithsonian. Until I saw Ai’s work in person—vats of handpainted sunflower seeds, rooms full of reclaimed rebar from the Szechuan earthquake—I didn’t get how gorgeous (aside from lovely ideas) conceptual art can be. To paraphrase writer/calligrapher Job Wouters, Why fear beauty?

Nam June Paik is the patron saint of Obsolete Media Nerds (like me). This piece has an Information Age sheen, but most of the show is (de)constructed from TV sets and monitors made in the 60s, 70s and 80s.


Made it out to Mount Vernon, the period-accurate estate of the Father of Our Country. FoOC and Martha had a nice spread (their slaves, less so). I enjoyed the hobby farm and the composting outhouse George invented that seats three at a time.


6/7 of the MakeSh!t Mini Golf Innovation Squad atop our hole in progress, which at this point is a 14′-wide plywood quesadilla. Can we make this thing playable by Memorial Day? We have man power and competing visions in abundance.


A crowd of Nassifs—my uncle, sister, grandmother, dad and aunt—sharing old family pictures on a recent visit to the Mother Land. On the right is my grandfather, Bernie, surrounded by his parents and 6 (!) older sisters. I’ve known several of my great-aunts and can barely fathom the smothering love that kid must have endured.


Here’s a drawing I did of a man who looks something like me crossed with a rodent. On the right, an unintentional visual rhyme, also the most popular picture I ever put on Instagram.


When not heralding the future of farm technology, I’ve been working with a local non-profit that among other things recycles mattresses down to the staples and springs. I toured their facility in Southeast Minneapolis where ex-cons and people in drug recovery disembowel beds (my role is less hands-on, thankfully). Meanwhile, I’m crushing out another endless winter out on some urban cross-country runs with Lucas. This is about as close as I get to catching that guy.

Jo’s earnestly tuneless Jackson 5 rendition, only a bit more recognizable when sung by 50 1st graders at once. Pardon the destroyed kitchen; we are barely civilized at the moment.

>Dorothy Ashby / Afro-Harping – Soul Vibrations
>> David Bowie – Five Years

I HAVE COMPLICATED FEELINGS about corporate philanthropy. They well up as I read this request from Jo’s teacher:

Tomorrow we are taking a school-wide picture at the grand opening of the Target Library Make-over.  We thought it would be fun to wear red for this picture.  If you see this message in time… please have your student wear something red (or close to red) for our school-wide picture.

Seen one way, this is a benign and understandable request made to show appreciation to people who made our school nicer. Urban public schools don’t have enough money for essential supplies and maintenance. Business sees an opportunity to support education (and burnish its corporate citizen rep) by stepping in. Who could object?

Whether corporations build our social infrastructure or we do it ourselves, we still pay. Tomorrow will be Target Day. Our kids will appear on the news with company volunteers in a branded library environment, and later in photos on websites and annual reports (wearing red, for fun!). [UPDATE: Jo reports students and faculty formed the shape of Target’s logo and were photographed from above]. Hereafter, every time they open a library book, they’ll see bullseyes. All these associations steadily accumulate and, it’s hoped, transmute into unconscious preference.

There’s no such thing as a Free Library. I know. I write the script for events like these.

Johanna is wide-eyed about the “sneak peek” she gets in the morning. I’m bothered. First that corporate messages take up so much air around arts, music, education, and stuff I thought was public, but also that we let private companies get the credit for making our schools “good.” Mostly with myself, though, for making Kool Aid I wouldn’t let my own family drink.

>> Bad Brains — Big Takeover