A journey along the edges of the Land of Wonder

Last night the Duluth Art Institute hosted the opening for my wife Shawna’s largest and highest profile art exhibition ever: Land of Wonder. Writing up the following diddy for the backside of the price list helped me see just how much her work influences our lives for the better. The event was mobbed last night, and the feedback spectacular. I can’t say enough about how gratifying it is to observe her work being seen and felt by a wider audience. Most of her work, until recently, has mainly been confined to our home while she honed her craft with incredible diligence and focus.
The following piece is fairly representative of the show. As with all her works, the title enhances one’s appreciation for the work immensely.
Adventures in Lapland….
Our family is surrounded and confronted by my wife Shawna’s ever-growing body of artwork each and every day. Our lives are enriched through a daily inoculation against the joylessness of bean-counting—an unhealthy obsession with commodities coming in and going out. Her work, a stunning visual representation of her playful attitude and approach to life, provides a portal into other worlds and even an alternate way of being.
Shawna helps us revel in joy, passion, and mystery, down a trail of wonder through both the mundane and the magnificent.
It is a reminder that all of life is art. Experienced and informed by the magic of a fertile imagination, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
It is exciting to see her work—produced in her home studio, the length and breadth of which is entirely viewable through a window beside our front door and is accessed from the main living area—gradually reach a wider audience.
Shawna in studio
Look carefully and you’ll see one of the many incarnations of Star Trek is on in the background. I feel like I’ve heard that theme song 500 or more times. I used to be annoyed, but now it’s the sound of creative productivity. This picture was taken around Halloween as she prepped for her current show, consistently putting in 8 – 10 hour days even though she not only has twins to contend with, but me as well (this is her therapy). Anyhow, I was tasked with the duty of passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, many of whom oohed and awed at this painting in progress on the easel. Her work is appreciated equally by both children and adults, a rare magical element…
(Photo credit: Stacie Whaley)
This show is a real breakthrough, for which we are grateful, but she has also lent her talents in synergistic fashion to other art forms recently. Shawna painted an incredible cover for my recently published book (see sidebar image), which paints a perfect visual picture of the story. Her addition to the front-facing cover is of incalculable value to the finished product, and provides some much-needed confidence when I’m out hawking the book to movers and shakers.
Shortly after this show comes down in April, you’ll also discover an imaginative painting of her’s on the cover of Charlie Parr’s next album, set to be released on Record Store Day. It’ll provide a stunning sheath for the bright green ten-inch vinyl record inside, and will no doubt add significantly to your experience of the album.
Here’s the image for Charlie Parr’s next album, to be released on April 15th. When this picture was snapped the paint was still drying. I’m eager to see what Red House Records does graphically with it. You’ve seen it here first! (FYI, Shawna does plan to sell the original painting. We’ll probably auction it off on Ebay or something…)
This cross-pollination between art forms is a sort of microcosm of life infused and enriched by art of all kinds. It begins in the heart and culminates in one’s mind.


Our son was pretty exhausted by the end of it all, but the experience wouldn’t have been the same without him. At one point, next to the cheeses and cold cuts in the snack line, we stood behind renowned watercolorist Cheng-Khee Chee. Everybody eats…

He adds a unique eye…
Josiah eye
It helped immeasurably to turn him loose with the camera, which resulted in several hundred snaps. Also, Japan just happens to be a place of significant fascination for him. Due to a happy coincidence, the adjoining gallery featured several photographs taken by Ken Bloom (director of the Tweed Museum of Art) in Japan way back in the year of my own emergence into the wider universe. His exhibit, Public Domain, is also worthy of your time. Most of the photos are black and white, some of which convey the transition from an older to a modernized Japan. It provides a nice contrast to my wife’s offerings. These shows will be on display through April 2nd.
Ed Newman shared some solid observations in advance of the shows here.

48 degrees north!

IMG_3678This past week I made the annual pilgrimage to this abandoned shack that lies astride the Canadian border. The newbie on the trip brought along one of those fancy Garmin GPS things. Preferring zero connectivity and an apparent affinity for buttons over zippers, this made me uncomfortable. I must admit that change can be good, however, in the right doses.

I was stunned to learn that the cabin rests at exactly 48.00 degrees north. So exciting! This is now my 21st year of journeying to this spot, and this knowledge spawned brand new observations in territory that I’ve explored perhaps 50+ times. It also enabled me to further sense that our planet really is smaller than you might think. Stand on a tall building, for example, and you can see the curvature of the Earth quite clearly with the naked eye. During this journey I felt the effect of being just a bit further north on this curve more than I expected. Being relatively close to Duluth, which sits at 46.5 degrees north, I never considered the fact that there really is a noticeable difference in both day length and the angle of the sun, which remained surprisingly low in the sky. To back up my visible observations, I did some quick studying after returning home.

Each degree of latitude is separated by just 69 miles, probably half the distance I would have guessed. This mileage, owing to the curvature of the earth, significantly reduces daylight as you move north of the equator this time of year. The sun is visible for 8 hours and 38 minutes during the winter solstice at the 46th parallel, and just 8 hours 22 minutes at the 48th parallel. Conversely, the 48th experiences 18 MORE minutes of daylight during the summer solstice. Plus there’s the notable change in the angle of the sun. It’s remarkable, really, when considering just the distance of the sun from Earth (92.96 million miles). Anyhow, I got a big kick out of it.

I’m surprised, and even a bit chagrined, to learn that the city of Paris lies a bit north of this spot, being just nine miles south of the 49th parallel. The two most populous cities of Canada, Toronto and Montreal, fall significantly south of here, however. The capital of Canada, Ottawa, is also further south.

Per Wikipedia, much of the supply of hops grown in the northern hemisphere come from a band at approximately this latitude. There’s even an IPA named in honor of this little-known-fact called Latitude 48. You can read right here about one such hops grower I biked out to last summer. He’s a real pioneer. To my knowledge, there are no other hops growers of this scale in this part of Minnesota (the middle of a continental climate with severe zone 3 winters and all that). The grower is featured in the second half of the article. That day I rode 65 miles while delivering one copy of my book, and crammed as much into the experience as possible.

As usual, we completed the journey after it became dark. This time we went in via a new route for the first time, much of which was on the edge of a clearcut. Once again, it was crazy to experience how much things slow down after the sun sets. You avoid putting on the headlamps as long as possible, because at the very instant the beam of light goes on your entire field of reference narrows down to the small area of illumination. The broader context is lost, and we did lose our bearings for a time…


The snow up there was surprisingly plentiful for a poor snow year, about knee-deep. Here we are standing on our side of the border, but virtually the entire backdrop is Canadian.


In the following picture, Canada sits on the right side of the river. If you look closely, in the distant center, you can see smoke rising from the site of the cabin. This place is the subject of two full chapters of my book, because much of my mental, emotional, and spiritual formation occurred right here. I described it as being a stone’s throw from the border. As you can see, this is no exaggeration. In my mind, this is one of the most unique and precious places on the planet.


IMG_3687We skied directly on the river for a time, on top of the international boundary. Being a human, eventually I was forced to relieve myself. In an astounding display of penismanship, I wrote my name in the snow with greater neatness than I routinely produce with pen and paper. Afterward I pondered whether or not somebody watching drone footage would analyze the bright yellow message in the snow.

The next day I received my answer when we were buzzed twice by the Border Patrol, flying very low directly above our heads. This has never happened before. It made me wonder how much longer this secret cabin will continue to exist. Some day we might arrive cold and exhausted in the middle of the night, in sub-zero temperatures, and find nothing but a pile of ashes.

The history of the area is incredible, but in this case I rejoiced most in the discovery of a drawing my wife made of the original woodstove nearly 19 years ago. It was located deep within the annals of the place. She’ll probably never make it back again, so it was nice to find this small memento reminding me that she did share the place with me once…

P1020116So many good (and hard) times have been enjoyed both inside and outside the cabin. The place is the perfect marriage of interior and exterior worlds (both physical and emotional)…

P1020112Stories from this place are worth the price of The Emancipation of a Buried Man by themselves in my opinion, but for now take a look at some great blog posts I’ve written about it: Journey To the Top of the 48 and My Secret Cabin Deep in the Wilderness. They contain some swell pictures that I love to share.

Now get out and enjoy the rest of winter wherever you live. In the blink of an eye it’ll be time to tap the maples, then it’ll be ticks, planting the garden, the mosquito invasion, and lovely walks on the beach…


20th anniversary of a great day

60 degrees below zero. February 2, 1996. The temperature zoomed all the way up to -36° by afternoon. What a day! On this very memorable day I scaled Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota. To mark the occasion, and also to lend a little support to a letter I recently sent, I’m sharing a portion of my book, The Emancipation of a Buried Man. Though the season of these snapshots are wrong, here they are anyway. This is a small portion of the view from Eagle Mountain, inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness:

Scan 2016-2-2 0002

Here’s my cabin, just a few miles away…

Scan 2016-2-2 0006And here’s the opening of chapter 34, Winter in the Big Woods:

I picked the mother of all winters to hole up in a cabin in northern Minnesota away from the normal cares and stresses of the “real world.” The winter of 1995-96 went down as the coldest and snowiest on record to that point. When this occurs in border country it is worth noting. What passes for extreme elsewhere is often a daily occurrence in this frigid realm. For a boy from southern Wisconsin it was doubly extreme and marvelous. I relished each minute of it. Every winter of my life since, and no doubt for the rest of my life, is measured against this winter to determine its severity. It is my benchmark.

My cabin was located in a fairly remote setting well inland from the popular tourist town of Grand Marais and its quaint harbor on Lake Superior. A mere handful of alluring miles separated me from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which lies astride the international border. I was also a 10-minute drive and a three-and-a-half mile hike from

the tallest point in Minnesota, Eagle Mountain, which is located in this federally designated wilderness. From the top of this vantage point all you see are lakes and miles and miles of untouched forest.

Quiet. Marvelously silent. This is the hallmark of winter in the Northland. I had no access to television, and only three radio stations. One of these was a French-language channel from Thunder Bay, Ontario. The lack of listening options helped me abandon the radio altogether.

A month of riding the rails and exploring the west was the perfect preparation for the quiet of the north woods that awaited. My body and mind had finally slowed enough to appreciate silence. This noiselessness became a great symphony, one with many movements. On paper the train trip was the high point of my nine months away from the bustling world. However, in many ways the great hush of stillness had the greatest impact on my transformation inside the womb. I really do consider myself to have been in a womb as I was reknit together as a whole human being during this period. Often the changes were unnoticeable, but day-by-day and hour-by-hour I was rebuilt.

There were absolutely no interruptions. I had no phone. I received mail at the lodge on the days I worked. Whole days strung themselves together like pearls in which I received no “news.” Major headlines were delivered by the wind. Opening the door in the morning I’d discover that a major snowstorm had blanketed the region. Headlining the gossip column were cheerful chickadees. Pileated woodpeckers—striking in appearance, nearly as large as a crow, and the type Woody Woodpecker was patterned after—loudly hammered out a beat in the standing dead wood of the forest. On one exciting day in late January, I thrilled in cheering on competitors in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon making their way across the lake in front of my cabin. Throughout the day and night they battled extreme wind chills approaching 70 degrees below zero on a brutal 500 mile course (years later it was shortened to 400 miles) paying tribute to the son of an Anishinabe chief who delivered the U.S. mail along a similar route during the last 20 years of the 19th century. John Beargrease had completed this trip weekly, with loads weighing as much as 700 pounds, by dog sled throughout the bitterly cold winters along incredibly rugged terrain.


If anyone wished to reach me they had to use the U.S. mail. This is the form of communication I most appreciate and trust to this day. Coming home from work with one or two letters in hand was a major event to be cherished. I eagerly anticipated receiving these dispatches from the outside world for weeks at a time. They were well worth the wait. I spent hours crafting letters in response as well. This caused my interest in writing to grow, and was ultimately the seed that grew into the book you now hold.

My appetite for reading good books became more voracious than ever. I could easily spend an entire day reading, followed by an hour or two of writing family or friends to tell them about it. The odd thing is that I usually snuggled up in the cabin on mild sunny days with temperatures in the teens or 20s. Bitterly cold days well below zero nearly always found me out in the woods experiencing the cold and loving the challenge. I took pride in my attire while swimming in a head-to-toe sea of wool, fully girded for the frigid blasts.

February 2, 1996 was the coldest day of the year. The mercury plunged all the way down to 60 degrees below zero at a weather station in a nearby community. This was the coldest temperature ever recorded in the continental United States at that time. Our thermometer corroborated the good news that we were about equally as cold. The high that day reached a balmy 36 degrees below zero. Weeks had strung together with the temperature never climbing above 0°F, and this was the climax.

The excitement was almost too much for me to bear. I donned my best wooly clothes for a big adventure: union suit, wool bib overalls, thick wool socks, Steger Mukluks for cozy feet, and a sheepskin hat with earflaps that tied under my chin. I thrilled in snowshoeing seven miles round-trip to the top of Minnesota on Eagle Mountain on the coldest day of winter ever recorded. This kind of thing still excites me. A difficult challenge is incredibly satisfying when you’re well-prepared.

The snow was four to five feet deep in the woods. I cruised along at a steady reasonable pace with my snowshoes. The steeper inclines of the ascent, and later the descent, were more difficult to navigate. The snowshoes tended to slide at an angle into the snow, and I’d laughingly fall into the fluff all the way up to my neck. It helps to have a pair of ski poles along for such a thing. I was able to pole myself back up, after some struggle, back onto my two feet. With the cautiousness that comes after having kids, it seems outlandish

that I ventured out on such day trips without notifying anybody. I also had no communication device for the journey. Getting stuck deep in the woods could have quickly resulted in freezing to death, but the thought never occurred to me. I never felt alone. I considered these journeys to be quality time with my father and protector. Major challenges that might bring some to tears would honestly make me laugh and trust in him. I didn’t get to that point overnight. Perhaps I’m not even there now, but I had been through tremendous adventures with God in that season. He had proven himself faithful. Like a little child bouncing on a father’s knee, I trusted and delighted in him.

At the top I sat in silence as a gentle breeze washed over me on top of the mountain. The wind chills were astronomical (somewhere around 80 below zero). I felt surprisingly comfortable due to all the exertion and the cozy wool that enshrouded me. It was a rather pleasant day, in fact. Bitter cold indeed, but the sun was out and it wasn’t overly windy. As a result of this experience I remain highly motivated to get outside and feel eventful weather like bitter cold, blizzards, windy days, Nor’easter storms on Lake Superior with 15-foot waves crashing into shore, etc. Being out there alone in challenging weather causes your natural laziness to step aside as the stronger aspects of your character emerge.


For all you fact checkers out there, it appears I may have flubbed the one and only “fact” in the book. The record low was a state record, though I could have sworn that it was reported at the time as being a continental record. It matters little, however. On that day I thought it was a record for the 48 (lets even say 49), which heightened the festive atmosphere in my warped mind. It felt like I was participating in history, and I do know that I was the only one at the highest point in the state that day. The trail was fresh, untrammeled, and delightful… That’s all that really matters.

Gaelynn Lea. Wow. Just, WOW!

Gaelynn Lea possesses an indefinable spark that is impossible to capture in a short vignette. It’s like attempting to capture lightning in a bottle. A multifaceted diamond that I’ve only begun to fully appreciate, it’s difficult to settle on a place to begin. Perhaps I’ll start by sharing her entry, recorded live in her office just last week, for the NPR Music Tiny Desk Contest:

An accomplished solo artist, she has also collaborated with other musicians in various bands and side projects. Here she is with Alan Sparhawk (frontman of Low) in their duo, The Murder of Crows, performing the very first song she ever wrote…

I knew I had to seek out an interview with this compelling subject after attending the “Thank You Duluth” concert hosted by Duluth’s outgoing Mayor at the end of 2015. Gaelynn and Sparhawk opened the show, which was a rather magical evening featuring many of our region’s most accomplished musicians, many of which you can see here (the Boomchucks are missing, as is another last-minute addition that was solid) …


I brought along a friend who possessed zero knowledge of the local music scene, and though a number of these performers have achieved national and even a degree of international prominence, he was most taken by Gaelynn. Transfixed, in fact.

In a day and age where image appears to be everything in the music business, Lea is a breath of fresh air. Gaelynn possesses a slight frame approximately three feet tall, and I’d have to guess she might tip the scales at around 50 pounds. Good things often come in small packages. Her packaging, similar to that of caviar, doesn’t even come close to defining her, however.

I met with her at a local coffee house called the Amazing Grace Cafe, which is located five levels below Lea’s office high in the sky within the Dewitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park. Since she gets around in a motorized wheelchair, having a workspace within a handicapped-accessible building that houses numerous businesses and creative-types is a real boon to her independence. She is grateful for it in the winter especially, a particularly challenging time of year for folks with disabilities.

I found her to be unusually confident and warm. A fount of stimulating conversation. She’s the sort of person with whom you feel you may confide, and get to the heart of any matter with quickly. Here she is at the moment we sat together, a few days before her 32nd birthday:

Gaelynn at the GraceAs always, I arrived with no prepared questions or agenda, viewing the occasion as more of an opportunity to make a friend than to mine a story. I happened to bring some baggage to the meeting, in the form of a persistent depression over personal obstacles needing to be scaled as I continue to pursue self-employment. I can think of no better person to bare one’s soul to over such matters. For obvious reasons, she has come up against significant challenges in her quest to make an independent living. And no, she cannot fall back onto a safety net of disability payments. She’s married now, and since the couple’s combined income sits above the ridiculous income limits imposed by the Social Security Administration’s limits (which are limited to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1400/month), her disability benefits were completely cut off. Such dilemmas routinely force people with disabilities into sham divorces and other unpleasantries, which are downright shocking. Unfortunately, the issue runs way beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but the system really does need to change. Even when it “works” for people, it has a way of isolating individuals in a life of poverty. Frankly, it’s a disgrace.

Interestingly, people with disabilities are about twice as likely to start their own businesses than their able-bodied counterparts (according to Department of Labor statistics). Here’s what she has to say about the matter on her blog, located on her website, violinscratches.com:

The reasons to go into business for one’s self are no doubt varied. In my case, it was partly because the 9-5 working world was not conducive to someone who doesn’t drive, has lots of doctor appointments, and takes forever to use the washroom. But I also made the switch because it’s exciting to be the author of my own professional future, even if success isn’t guaranteed. I love to create, and starting your own business makes this possible on almost every level.

On a more subtle level, perhaps having a disability forces you to get more comfortable with living life outside the box. You’re used to standing out in most situations, so why should one more societal difference be a big deal? Maybe in a society that doesn’t really value accessibility (paying lip-service to “inclusion” or “acceptance” is different than actually building a ramp), you feel like to some extent you’re always fending for yourself anyway. It might be less stressful and more fulfilling to fight your own battle on the periphery instead of working so hard to make it in the mainstream.

Half of Gaelynn’s income comes from teaching fiddle lessons (which at $80 for five 30-minute sessions is a real bargain), 20% from her music in the form of gigs and album sales, and 30% comes from public speaking. She aggressively pushes herself to succeed on all three levels, and is also planning on writing a book. Lea sets a fine example in not only pushing through obstacles while leveraging your talents, but also in diversifying one’s income stream so as not to become too reliant on any one thing. Not that she has arrived or anything. Lea works really hard each and every day, and the obstacles are numerous. Her husband has a steady job, but both incomes are necessary. As an example of how they make do with the resources at hand, consider that tonight after her husband finishes his second-shift job, he’ll pick Gaelynn up in their old minivan with the aid of two wood planks set down as a “ramp.”

The other day I reached outside the door to retrieve the mail at the very moment my elderly neighbor did the same thing. At 9:30 am I was still in my pajamas, and the retired neighbor was in her nightgown. Lea inspires me to try harder and not give in to despair and difficulties so much, though I must confess to typing this in bed while lounging in my pajamas right now just after lunch! Something that seems to help her is having an office outside her home. She recently calculated her 2015 income from music and came to a whopping figure of $3.75/hr, so I asked her about this significant and arguably unnecessary expense.

Gaelynn feels the rent is worth every penny, although any increase in the future might be more than she can bear. She is profoundly grateful for being able to occupy the space for the time being. Having this office outside the home forces her to adhere to a schedule, it’s easily accessed through public transportation, she doesn’t work in her pajamas, there’s a stimulating community of stimulating people and businesses throughout the building, it provides a professional space for providing fiddle lessons to her students who range in age from six years of age to 65+, and more.

From the basement of the building, where Amazing Grace is located, I rode the elevator with her up to her office where one of her students was waiting inside. It’s a pleasant space with an inspiring view that encourages creative expression…

Gaelynn officeGaelynn recently released her first solo album, All the Roads that Lead Us Home. Most of the songs feature just one instrument, her violin, and she adds layers through a live-looping enabling Memory Man pedal (demonstrated in the live piece at the top submitted to NPR). She sings lovely vocals on two of the pieces, including one she wrote herself. I find it interesting how she often starts with an unremarkable string of notes, and builds beautifully from the underlying structure. While packed with many traditional tunes, she improvises freely while wandering in and out of the original tune.

I’ve listened to the album quite a bit while doing the dishes, a contemplative act that I recommend heartily to you. The sixth track of the album features a medley of Amazing Grace and Down to the River to Pray. I started hearing the familiar lyrics in my head from Allison Krauss from the Down to the River portion, having heard it so many times in the past. And then, somehow, Gaelynn led me way down deep into the old African-American spiritual, which dates back to slavery and had layer upon layer of meaning for slave singers and hearers. While on the run, for example, slaves ran through the river to cover their scent from the bounty hunters’ dogs that pursued them. “Oh Lord, show me the way,” is both a desperate prayer to be shown the way through the Underground Railroad and also a timeless, fervent plea for supplicants of all eras and circumstances, one to which I greatly relate. Lea plays the piece instrumentally, leading me through the feeling of the piece, beyond the beautiful words. As I stood at the sink, arms submerged to the elbows in cleansing water, I stifled the urge to cry. I do not cry often, perhaps once a decade at most, so I stifled the urge this time. Ah, but it would have felt so so good. Cleansing. Renewing. The last time I cried was also at a kitchen sink, about a year ago and with arms submerged at another sink, on the morning of my grandmother’s funeral. I’m slowly coming to the realization that a good cry can be healing to the soul.

Lea says, “I added Down to the River to Pray as a Medley with Amazing Grace because to me the songs are like two sides of the same coin, chained to earth and set free, hopeful and sad at the same time. So they just seemed to fit together.”


Audiences have been known to break into tears at Gaelynn’s performances. Shows with Alan Sparhawk, playing together as The Murder of Crows, have been described as being so overwhelmingly soul-stirring at times as to prompt grown men and women to weep openly. Ben Barneveld, who posted one of their early performances above, describes the effect of seeing them live really well:

The murder, which consists of Alan Sparhawk and Gaelynn Lea, usually plays long, wilting, (mostly) instrumentals that somehow engage the mind and soul in ways that cannot be explained. The result of this musical alchemy is a life-altering experience that binds the audience and performers to an unforgettable moment in time.

Gaelynn and Alan have one album on the books thus far, called Imperfecta, which is a reference to her genetic disability, Osteogenesis Imperfecta. As you finish reading this, give a listen to Bird Song right here, which is not only uplifting, but just may cause your spirit to soar.“Bird, why do you sing? Fate has clipped your wings…”

The Murder of Crows produces a sound that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Their song, When We Were Young, was featured on the soundtrack for “Rectify,” a Sundance TV original series, alongside such luminaries as Drive-By Truckers, Mazzy Star, and others. And yet, it’s just a small side project for both Lea and Sparhawk.

By necessity, Gaelynn plays the violin up and down like a cello. Using her foot to help hold the base of the instrument steady, she seems to use not only her entire body to make music, but her soul as well. Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, has caused nearly 50 broken bones in her body. 30 of these known breaks occurred in utero, which is why her arms are shaped the way they are (since they healed without the aid of a cast or splint while still in the womb). Knowing that, it’s incredibly ironic that she only sustained minor injuries when she was hit by an SUV a few years back, though her wheelchair was totaled. It took significant time and therapy to recover emotionally, however.

Talking to Lea caused me to face the reality that people with disabilities are a significantly disadvantaged minority group in our society for perhaps the first time in my life. I suppose most of us realize this intuitively, but it’s easy to overlook just how inaccessible much of our society really is.

kingADA0726c3xJohn Nousaine, the director of a local independent living agency, was quoted in a newspaper piece last summer about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act “A step is the same as a sign saying, ‘You’re not allowed here. No people with disabilities allowed.” I honestly never thought of that, but it’s true. It took an encounter with this fascinating individual for me to really internalize that. The same article features many of Gaelynn’s thoughts and experiences of accessibility issues as well.

While we spoke, I made note of the stage with a very small step of perhaps two inches. Amazing Grace built a ramp, inspired by her, called the “Gaelynn ramp.” While playing around town she frequently must submit to being carried onto the stage, which places the issue front and center in the minds of the audience. She doesn’t enjoy the process, but does appreciate the opportunity to inspire people to promote real change. There is a tendency for able-bodied people to think along the lines of, “It’s great that a disabled person can be out here doing that, out here in society, etc…” One of her goals is to encourage folks to ponder instead, “What can I do to make things more accessible for them? Can I build a ramp to make work more accessible?” She says, “Little things really do make a difference. If it doesn’t involve you now, it will later as we all age.” Most of us will indeed encounter accessibility issues at some point in life. For now, at the very least we can all shovel our sidewalks adequately. Unshoveled sidewalks are an insurmountable barrier at this time of year, one which keeps the disabled indoors more than they’d like.

I think this was probably the most significant conversation I’ve ever had with someone contending with a significant physical disability. On the cusp of 40, this hardly seems possible, but I can’t recall any others beyond the occasional exchange of pleasantries. For many years people with disabilities were mostly isolated from society, and though strides are being made, Gaelynn rightly notes that the disabled community is significantly behind the rest of society in every conceivable social and economic measure. While some of this may be unavoidable, clearly we can do better.

Rather than wait for government to legislate solutions, we can all begin by appreciating just how much we all may enrich one another. Gaelynn is just one shining example, but she’s not alone. By the way, she was picked by the Duluth News Tribune to be among the 2014 class of 20 under 40 (20 of the most influential community leaders under the age of 40). Her voice isn’t valuable solely for disabled individuals or accessibility issues. She has a tremendously unique perspective based upon her life experience, which can’t help but enrich those around her. I know I definitely feel enriched, and I suspect she might even feel the same about me. Each of us is imbued with remarkable value, possessed with a one-of-a-kind ability to enrich those around us.


A local artist, Lee Zimmerman, painted this image on silk live on stage while The Murder of Crows performed together a couple years back. The style captures a bit of the essence of what I’ve attempted to accomplish here, which feels so incomplete and imperfect (not that the artwork is!). I have spent a couple weeks attempting to wrap my head around the many facets of Gaelynn, what our visit meant to me, how I was challenged, etc, but there isn’t enough time or space for me to portray her adequately (yes, I liken my work on these profiles to that of a portrait artist). There’s so much more to be told, and there’s so much mystery beneath the surface. I look forward to seeing her around town and getting to know her just a little bit more each time.

In Duluth, you can see her perform on the first and third Tuesday each month at Bulldog Pizza from 8 – 10 pm. She also has an upcoming show at The Red Herring Lounge on March 18th, and I believe there are plans for The Murder of Crows to make appearances together in the near future. The duo has also completed recording their contribution to the next Duluth Does Dylan album, which is the fourth in the series and will be released in May. If you’re lucky, you might come upon her busking alongside the Lakewalk this summer, when she also has plans to organize a short tour in the Midwest. That’ll pose several logistical challenges, to be sure, but she is working hard to organize support. Additionally, she has hopes of doing some house shows, which would be organized by a host with somewhere between 20 and 40 people attending on a donation-basis. Go ahead and contact her if the notion of such an evening sparks interest in you. She has her contact information located right on her website, violinscratches.com.

Gaelynn Lea Busking on the Lakewalk

I suppose her music won’t appeal to the masses. In fact, it’s ironic that every song I’ve selected to share here contains vocals, when perhaps 90% of what she does is instrumental. Gaelynn Lea is every bit as soulful when she leaves the singing to the violin, if not more. It’s difficult to convey by sharing a single track, however. For that, I commend the aforementioned tuning fork of washing dishes by hand and devoting heart and mind to the task of listening.

Here’s an excellent blog post  from the Current about her work with Alan Sparhawk and The Murder of Crows. It goes into how he discovered her one day at a farmers market where she was improvising alongside Charlie Parr, and more. At the bottom of the piece you can hear Imperfecta in its entirety.

I also encourage you to like her Facebook page here. She posts there rather frequently, and a little dose of Gaelynn into your life will do you good. I recently enjoyed snuggling up with my daughter at bedtime while watching one of Gaelynn’s “Fiddling Fridays,” which are posted weekly. Not only did it get my spirited girl to bed on time, but it proved to be tremendously inspiring for her, provoked outstanding conversation, etc.

I asked Parr about Gaelynn, and he got a faraway, contemplative look in his eyes before saying, “Oh, I love Gaelynn,” and followed this with a long pause. It takes time to really experience why that is. She really is that compelling, and no amount of words brings that across adequately. Since I’m having such a difficult time bringing this to a close, I’ll consider this as the beginning, rather than the end of the story…


One family, many businesses: Max Organics, Ben’s Blooms, Duluth Trading Company, and more!

Out on the world’s largest freshwater sandbar—the point of demarcation between the greatest lake in the world, Superior, and the enormous St. Louis River estuary—resides one of the most fascinating families you could ever meet. Two boys, one 16 and the other 12, operate tremendously ambitious and entrepreneurial businesses that are inextricably tied to this land and the water that sustains it. Their dad is the inventor of the Bucket Boss tool organizer and also the founder of Duluth Trading Company. Might it be something in the water?

park-point-beach-brett-groe-11It’s remarkably fitting that the Fierek’s would live out here between great bodies of water. They live on the harbor side of Minnesota Point (aka Park Point), facing the largest inland harbor in the world. Located at the western terminus of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Seaway system, it’s also the furthest inland seaport in the entire world. With close proximity to abundant natural resources, the word “strategic” is an understatement. This is the sort of coveted land and water that wars are fought over.

Max on tundra

Lying dormant within this soil are 3,000 cloves of garlic. Max Fierek placed them there this past Fall, as he has done each year since he was a mere eight years old. As kids are known to do at that age, he began clamoring for an allowance like his friends were getting. His dad declined, choosing to teach him how to make money through entrepreneurship instead.

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Robert Fierek is unusually suited to provide these lessons to his two boys. He grew up in the Morgan Park neighborhood of Duluth, originally formed as a company town by US Steel. His grandfather worked for the steel mill for 44 years, his father put in 33 for the company, and it was just assumed that young Bob would continue the tradition. The mill was larger than life in this neck of the woods throughout much of the 20th century. The steel from this mill, for example, was used in the production of 230 ships in local shipyards that were pressed into service during WWII. U.S. Steel, formed by the legendary J.P. Morgan, seemed as permanent as bedrock. And then it wasn’t.

Strong, burly men wept in public when the mill’s closure was announced. Bob recalls seeing one such man looking straight up into the air for answers,with tears in his eyes, dreading the reality of a move to Gary, Indiana, with his family so he could work the remaining years required to collect a pension. A skilled worker, perhaps a foreman, he would now be reduced to pushing a broom following his relocation. As much of Morgan Park packed up to leave, Bob realized a bit ahead of his time that a big company couldn’t be counted on for one’s sole livelihood. It was then and there that he determined to make a living by his own wits and the sweat of his brow.

While working as a carpenter he recognized an opportunity by observing that tools were being sold by people in suits who weren’t aware of the evolving landscape of tools and building techniques. Tool storage was based on dated concepts, such as tool belts for hammers and nails. Nail guns were just coming out, and carpenters were just laying these expensive tools on the ground with no place to put them.

He invented The Bucket Boss tool storage system, which is a canvas apron strapped to a five gallon bucket. Simple. Inexpensive. Easily reproduced. Brilliant…


From there a full array of products were developed and marketed through a company called Portable Products, which began as a simple eight-page catalog. Eventually he and his brother formed Duluth Trading Company, which specializes in workwear designed and tested by actual tradesmen. The company has thrived through one-of-a-kind design (such as the Longtail T shirt that covers the longstanding problem of plumber’s butt, “Ballroom Jeans,” etc.) and a humorous style of marketing that defies convention. Check out this hilarious television spot that pits their Firehose work jeans against an unruly bush as a case in point.

Duluth Trading recently went public through an IPO on Wall Street under the ticker symbol DLTH, and has a market capitalization of over $500 million. It’s one of the few bright spots on the stock exchange currently, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to retain their identity while facing the necessity of reporting to shareholders. For now, at least, the company continues to be infused with its original genetics, which can easily be seen in the strategies and methods being employed by the Fierek boys. A company of this size doesn’t interest Mr. Fierek so much. He sold his stake in Duluth Trading 20 years ago, because he wanted to be a dad rather than a CEO. He obviously has retained an interest in small, nimble entrepreneurial endeavors, however, and relishes his role in instilling these skills in his kids.

Max and garlic

Max Fierek, now 16, is the owner and operator of Max Organics. The 3,000 heads of garlic won’t just be picked and sold as bulk garlic, but will be cleverly marketed and packaged. In addition to standard heads of garlic available seasonally at the Whole Foods Coop and Mt Royal Fine Foods, he also markets his hardy strain of garlic for gardeners. His seed stock has proven its resilience through some of the harshest winters found in the Lower 48 by thriving in the unique climate beside Lake Superior (practically in it). For Duluth gardeners and foodies, his high-quality garlic is as local as you can get.

beside harbor

The real money-maker, requiring tremendous effort, is in his hand-crafted-from-start-to-finish garlic salt. Grandma’s Sports Garden generously allows him use of their kitchen early in the morning for the herculean endeavor, which fills the restaurant and neighboring Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant with the pungent aroma. He sells it in a salt grinder, retailing at $7.99, and it’s worth every penny. There really is a difference between this potent product and the cheap stuff that sells for a fraction of the cost.

garlic salt

Max uses the money earned from Max Organics to pay for his mountain biking addiction. An accomplished rider, he travels a racing circuit and has even earned some sponsorships. Racing-quality, carbon fiber mountain bikes aren’t cheap, however, so garlic continues to pave his way for now….

IMG_2352I stumbled upon this video of him from back in 2014 riding crazy trails at our local ski hill, Spirit Mountain. It’s hard to believe this is such a young boy in the footage.

My visit with the Fierek’s churned up significant turmoil within me. Max and his brother Ben, who we’ll turn to in a moment, receive their education at home. The flexibility afforded by homeschooling has enabled them the time to pursue their passions at a higher level than they’d attain after arriving home from school exhausted and spent each day. Max Organics, in and of itself, has taught him more life skills than just about any organized class could ever hope to. Add in his experience traveling the country with his dad in a Volkswagen camper van on tour with his mountain bike, and you catch a glimpse of a most uncommon childhood that should benefit him for life. Currently he’s also branching out into cinematography, for which he recently received his first paying gig by doing some filming for Spirit Mountain.

All this opportunity, excitement, and business acumen, is rooted within a supportive home and family life. Frankly, this is a lifestyle I’d like to embrace within my own family, but we’re not able to homeschool at this time. Alas, there must be transferable lessons here for equipping kids more adequately within traditional school settings and supplementally at home.


Ben Fierek is 12 years old, and has already logged significant business experience. He is the owner and operator of Ben’s Blooms, which is far more involved than what you might expect from a kid selling flowers.


He does sell fresh blooms seasonally at the Whole Foods Coop, of which gladiolus are the best sellers, but he was an absolute force to be reckoned with down there over the holidays. Pardon the poor photography, but I was so stunned by his presence in the store that I had to capture it here. Unfortunately I snapped this photo after Christmas, so you’re only seeing the few items left over. Prior to the holiday both these prominent shelves near the front of the store were loaded with some of the most unique, homespun gifts I’ve ever seen, and they were priced incredibly reasonably in the $9.99 – $12.99 price range. It’s astonishing that a 12-year-old boy captured the most coveted gift display space in a store that grosses over $16 million dollars annually at the height of the Christmas retail season! Here were seed bomb kits, marimo ball kits, homemade ornaments, various flower bulbs beautifully packaged in large vases atop Lake Superior rocks, and more.

Ben's tableOn this particular day I snatched up one of the bulb kits for my mother-in-law. The gift was a big hit, is blooming right now in the dead of winter, and only set me back $11.99. I commented on the attractive price points with Ben’s mother, Maria, and asked how much he could possibly be earning per unit. After she hemmed and hawed a bit, I asked, “A dollar?” She chuckled and said, “Sometimes, but often not even that.” The point isn’t the money, but in the real life lessons learned through marketing, merchandising, packing, invoicing, bookkeeping, and everything else that goes into running a business. Ben uses the money he earns to buy Legos primarily, which of course affords further tactile, hands-on learning.


Ben shares garden space with his older brother, Max, and they work hard to amend the soil through composting, rotate crops for long-term viability, etc…


Here are the items I currently have in my possession from both Max Organics and Ben’s Blooms. They merely scratch the surface of this dynamic duo’s offerings, but you can catch a glimpse of their clever marketing and packaging prowess. The Vampire Garlic was left over from the Halloween season, and I’ve cherished the garlic salt in just about every dish of late….

giftsI reckon there’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of a “Marimo Ball Pet” or “Seed Bombs.” While neither is essential to basic living, they each proved to brighten the day of my children. Marimo balls are essentially algae balls. They love to be held or rolled between the hands, and have been known to live for up to 200 years! Our kit came with a baby Marimo, a container to raise it in, and some decorative items. I laughed hysterically when Ben and Maria carried over a container filled with 15-year-old specimens for me to handle, each of which were just under the size of a tennis ball. So bizarre. And yet, beautiful. They’re a bigger deal in Japan apparently.


My son gravitated to the seed bomb kit, which includes a slingshot. From the clever notes on the package:

Seed bombs are magical little nuggets of clay, compost and native seeds used to surreptitiously improve areas you’re unable to reach. Seed bombs are the staple of the guerrilla gardener’s arsenal. Seed bombs are the basic weapon of choice for guerrilla gardeners who want to transform a disused, neglected area of land into a colorful oasis……Just add water and Kabloom!

There is so much more to this unique family, which could easily fill the contents of an entire book. I’m still learning how to instill greater responsibility and self-sufficiency in my kids, and often it feels like my parenting skills are lacking. My encounter with the Fierek’s was profoundly challenging in multiple areas, and also has provoked me to think creatively while considering how I may best earn a livelihood with and for my family.

Look for Max Organics and Ben’s Blooms at the Coop this upcoming growing season, and remember these remarkable kids as you enjoy their products. Wherever you live, buy local whenever possible. By doing so, you not only support unique families and individuals like this, but you also promote a further depth of creativity and culture within your own community.

Finally, I hope to get out to another farm soon. Josey Weik is a pig-farming, professional mountain biker, who was also homeschooled. He details his own experience of unschooling right here on his website. Riding bike and growing food are things I’m super passionate about. For some reason I’m drawn to these crazy homeschoolers as well. Since we’ll probably never pull the plug on traditional schooling over here, this interest of mine might just be self-destructive. My hope, however, is that I’ll be challenged to not rest on my laurels and leave all of my kids’ education to the professionals. Yes, this is a point of contention in our home. That being said, we can all agree that learning is a lifelong endeavor that doesn’t begin and end only on certain days and times of the week. Rather, it should be wholistically applied to all of life: mind, body, and soul. My goodness, this provokes such wrestling! Due to my own odd past, which continues to manifest residual consequences despite the rebirth and transformation I speak of so freely in my book, I feel hobbled in many ways. I’m forever groping forward it seems, but the adventure of discovery continues unabated and sometimes even joyfully….

Max on bike

Brief reflections before turning in on MLK Day

The last known American slave, Sylvester Magee, died in 1971, just five years before I was born. Now, at 9:19 pm on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m finally stopping to reflect on how slavery’s reality is much closer to us than we might think.


My kids, who were off school today for the holiday, are in bed. I’m sad to say that we barely discussed slavery, civil rights, etc. There’s always tomorrow.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the fact that men and women with scars on their backs from the slaver’s whip, lived long enough to experience radio, telephones, television, the atomic age, and the space program. The reality is that the world they died in looks a lot more like our’s does today than the one in which they were born. Remarkable.

Here’s a rather interesting interview with a former slave, Fountain Hughes, which was recorded five years after the birth of my dad. My grandmother was born just 51 years after this man was emancipated, and here he is in 1949 at the advanced age of 101. There are numerous interviews out there for you to discover, but I offer this to you. He begins by telling of his grandfather, Wormley Hughes, who was owned by Thomas Jefferson. Good stuff…

If Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t been assassinated, he’d be 87 years old and perhaps still vigorous as ever. I wonder what type of message he would wish to convey today. Something to ponder…


Chickens in bitter cold, and The Smartest Guy in the World

I was tempted to title this post I’m the Smartest Guy in the World, but I decided to wait until another life-changing epiphany flows from my extra large brain. Two in a row ain’t no accident folks, so that’s when I’ll stake my claim.

Today’s act of greatness—one which arose from a unique moment of procrastination fused with perceived need—consisted of placing one of these patches of wheat grass directly inside the chicken coop. I know. Revolutionary! With temperatures plummeting well below zero of late, I was becoming concerned about leaving the crew all cooped up for so long…

chickens 1Chickens simply do not handle boredom very well, and my chicken coop is so small that my entire strategy rests upon getting everyone outside on all but the very coldest of days. The footprint of their coop is just 4 x 6 feet, so 24 square feet is pretty tight for this many birds. When the temperature finally climbed all the way to zero degrees today, I finally opened their door, after which they fell all over each other to get outside. They’d be out in far colder temps if I let them, but zero and only the lightest of winds is my cutoff point. Since my chickens have such large combs atop their heads, even this is probably pushing it as far as minor frostbite goes. But now I’m digressing. Back to boredom…

Since their 40-watt light bulb turns on at 1:30 am (to keep them laying eggs, but it also provides substantial heat for their small living arrangement), they had nearly 12 straight hours of virtually no stimulation today. Tomorrow they might not be let out at all, and over a relatively short period of time this can lead to serious problems. For example, my last flock seemed to get along with a female mallard duck just swimmingly, but during the polar vortex of a couple years back and persistent temps far below zero, they turned on her. Two straight weeks of being cooped up were too much for them. One day I opened the coop before clocking in for work and was shocked to discover that the cannibals had pecked a hole into the back of the duck of alarming size.

I brought the duck into my basement, where she convalesced beside me whilst I toiled away on the company’s computer. That evening I was lucky to get her placed in poultry paradise at the Duck Whisperer’s little slice of duck heaven over in Hermantown. He wound up letting the animal recuperate in his bedroom, and even set her up to watch television from the comfort of his bed while he was away! As far as I know, she continues to enjoy a place within his menagerie of geese and ducks, which enjoy luxurious accommodations astride a generously sized pond. Freaking paradise…

So, as you can see, staving off the boredom is rather important. I placed one of these large 18-inch long patches of wheat grass into their tight quarters, and they devoured the whole thing, roots, dirt, and all. Fantastic! It’s also quite a bonus to continue receiving bright orange, nutritious yolks even in the dead of winter. The hanging bucket you see is our water delivery system, through nipples screwed into the bottom. A drop-in electric tank heater keeps the drink from freezing. This method is the only way to keep ducks alongside chickens in the coop. Otherwise the waterfowl make too big a mess with the water. They love water even more than sex, which of course they enjoy only while frolicking in the water bath outside! I haul them the extra water when it’s 15 degrees and above, and not overly windy.

chickens and grass

Another trick I’ve heard of is the placement of suet into the coop when the temperatures become bitter. I plan on nailing up a makeshift suet feeder from chicken wire soon for the purpose.

As far as their exterior world goes, my best suggestion is to place large amounts of hay throughout their run. Prior to a big snowstorm I rake it all into a pile so the job of shoveling will be easier, and because I’m cheap. Six to eight inches of hay makes for a cozy environment outside, which they appreciate snuggling up in. It also provides them ample opportunity to scratch and hunt for goodies. One $5 bale lasts a month or more, and is a wise investment if for no other reason than for the pleasure of enjoying an island of greenery within the vast tundra. It definitely gets the birds outside, so I’m consistently surprised to discover that most people miss this opportunity to make the winter more enjoyable. Otherwise the birds probably won’t venture far outdoors, which isn’t good for anybody. Leaves can be used in a pinch. One year I saved 30 bags for the purpose, but I like hay for both its beauty and nutritional value.

These overripe grapefruits should fend off scurvy for a while. The regular bringing of treats also causes them to revere me as some sort of god, which is good for the self-esteem.

chickens and grapefruit

Do you have any tricks for getting through winter with your flock? The season can be brutal, and I find that the coldest periods require a level of obsession that most people are understandably not willing to engage in.

Now if you’ll permit a little bragging, I’d like to share my latest victory. You might recall my reference to an enormously sized brain, which of course requires a large enough cranium to be up for the task. Keep this in mind when judging the size of the melon-sized rubber band ball that now rests in a landfill until the end of time.

rubber band ball

I got the idea for making that thing back in the 1980’s from watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and have held onto it for a quarter century for no apparent reason. It’s one of those ridiculous vestiges from my hoarding past, which I’ve inexplicably held onto. Gently placing into the garbage released one more burden from my back. I like to believe that I’m not overly attached to things, but reality shows that there’s a process of healing and of letting go. Now that it’s gone it boggles my mind that I would hold onto a thing that gave me no joy, and contributed to clutter. One of my goals in the current quest to redraw life in the midst of this crisis occurring in mid-life, is to be clutter-free and enjoy the simplicity and clarity of possessing little. The fact that I took a picture of an object of minor sentimental value and took the time to write up this short obituary for it, indicates that I have a long way to go! I am thankful for a home that is open for hospitality, however. My childhood home, well, that’s another story…

old shot winter