Chickens and Clotheslines for Connectivity With the Natural World

clothesline and chickens

Our motley crew of baby chickens and ducks spent the day outside in the chicken tractor while enjoying their first 80-degree day. Fresh air does them good. The sensation of grass and dirt between their toes, spindly chicken legs, and mud-flap-like duck feet/paddles, provides a thrill. A quick breeze ruffles brand new feathers, briefly exposing undergarments. At three weeks old they also delight in discovering the rudiments of flight.

A sunny day emerged within a week of clouds and rain—like discovering a lemon drop in a barren cupboard—presents a fine opportunity to make use of the clothesline. Such favorable conditions are rarely squandered in these parts. As the chief launderer in our household, I look forward to these days with a sense of expectancy. Hanging laundry in the morning is wonderfully cathartic. It presents yet another opportunity to put sunlight to good use—I’m fairly obsessed with learning to maximize it’s potential in every square foot of our yard and rooftop over time— and also for maintaining a connection with the natural world.

Orienting even a small portion of our lives around natural assets, free and abundant to all, fosters gratitude while also establishing a rhythm to our existence. A choir of songbirds transforms the space into a cathedral. Unique aromas of spring fill the lungs with each inhalation. Morning sun warms the back as I carefully handle each individual piece of clothing. I feel thankful for each item while attaching clothespin to line. The adorned line is always a feast for the eyes, as a useful item put to good work always is, with wavelike billowing providing visibility to the wind. At least four senses are enlivened, and a case could be made for all five. These serve to enhance the overall sense of gratitude and knowledge of the richness we’ve been blessed with. You don’t get this while jamming a large wad of wetness into the dryer within a cold, damp basement.

One key to successful clotheslining is not having too many clothes. I’ve learned this from my daughter. Being rather picky with clothes, her entire wardrobe makes up only half a load of laundry! Extremely annoying at first, her pickiness is helping me learn to only surround myself with things I love. Everything else is just clutter. It’s so much easier to care for things when there isn’t a gross overabundance to overwhelm you. Long gone are the days of overflowing laundry baskets and two days of clothes washing that required a herculean effort in order to catch up.

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Now laundry day provides a chance to be thankful for the clothes on our backs. Sometimes I even find myself thanking individual items while handling them and recalling memories. For example, my favorite pair of wool running socks dries on the line today. I fondly remember two epic trips endured while wearing them. Both were exceedingly difficult, exhausting, and discouraging at times. Oddly enough, those three ingredients mixed together and shaken around often produces delightful memories of grandeur.

Read about one of those trips to my secret wilderness cabin here. 90% of that particular experience was dreadful—in fact I vowed never to return during much of that time—but for some reason the sublimity of the 10% was enough to forge a beautiful experience. I still have difficulty understanding how this can happen. It’s magical, really. I think it boils down to gratitude and childlike wonder.

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All this stems from handling a simple pair of stained socks. I could go on about other memories from nearly every other piece of clothing: my favorite pair of threadbare pants, a t-shirt that symbolizes a lifestyle enjoyed even as it is pursued, etc. I acknowledge that it’s odd to derive such pleasure from these mostly unimpressive garments. I’m certainly no metrosexual fashionista, and I believe that many aspects of our materialistic culture are just plain wrong.

Perhaps it’s a paradox of sorts, especially considering that we’re on a path toward whatever semblance of minimalism works for our family. Dancing in the grey areas, exploring and pushing boundaries, is enjoyable. Unceremoniously tossing my wife’s wedding dress into a donation bin at Goodwill recently was certainly ironic given this level of attachment. It’s also possible this tendency comes from a natural tendency to overly love objects to the point of hoarding. Given my genetic stock, this is almost certainly in the mix. That’s ok. Coupled with gratitude, contentment, and perspective, we can work with our flaws—as unformed lumps of clay—while enjoying the process of slowly converting them into works of art that’ll never be quite polished enough on this side of paradise…

Eddy makes another friend! This time artist Adam Swanson is the lucky bastard.

Adam

My quest to network and develop friendships within our local community of artists continues. Pretty pictures, beautiful music, and lovely letters are not the primary criteria. I seek to catch a glimpse into the soul of people who endeavor to live all of life artfully, creatively expressing themselves in all that they do. All of life is art. For Adam Swanson, painting happens to be his most effective method for communicating himself and for expressing complex ideas.

There are layers to his work. You can view them as simplistically or as complex as you’d like. He has captured the imagination of serious art aficionados, children, activists, and normal workaday folks who don’t have a lot of patience for art that is simply about art. Lacking the expertise or mental faculty to analyze such work, I prefer to study it as a child would: with a sense of wonder at the imagination of these visual artists who are able to convey deep thoughts and feelings without using a single word. As a writer whose last piece consumed 74,000 individual words, I find this remarkable.

Adam’s unique voice is worthy of a careful listen, which once again is most effectively expressed visually rather than audibly. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” His take on life—man’s relationship with the world and its creatures—has been shaped through an eclectic set of experiences, of which I only scratched the surface during our visit. He has spent significant time abroad, has a deep appreciation for other cultures, and has spent two years on the one continent without a country. Yes, he spent time in Antarctica doing grunt work, fixing boats for use in scientific research, and obviously derived great pleasure in becoming acquainted with penguins. Adam sat with and held them, quietly observed, and studied the creatures that became a consistent theme in his artwork.

Swanson is ridiculously prolific, is displayed in umpteen galleries, and always seems to be working on some large public installation. Though the man has attained what I’d describe as a degree of prominence, he certainly ain’t rich. Like my friend Charlie, he has no retirement plan yet.

Adam commission

Adam feeds his family while honing his craft with remarkable focus, refusing to become stagnant. Honestly, his story is nothing short of inspirational.

Consumers of art have little concept of the sheer volume of paintings, music albums, or massive quantity of books that one must sell in order to sustainably provide for one’s family. It really is astounding that anybody is able to successfully make a go at this kind of work. There are no safety nets, and you really need to push yourself.

Adam pushes himself, and admirably at that. When he set his mind to becoming a full-time artist, he committed to painting 10-12 hours a day, and then shopped his body of work around at local galleries. He was, and is, focused. Committed. This means of making a living wasn’t handed to him on a silver platter.

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After finding a way to do this sustainably in just a couple years, he decided to temporarily relocate his young family to Duluth’s sister city, Växjö, Sweden, for four months. Utterly fascinated, I peppered him with questions for at least an hour on this topic. Having lost my job, I am reticent to spend money on anything that isn’t absolutely “essential.”

Adam, on the other hand, scraped out nearly the entire contents of his family’s small savings to accomplish this. It was a kind of self-designed artist-in-residence or fellowship sort of experience. He knew what he wanted, and made it happen, to hell with the consequences. It has clearly made him into a stronger artist. One with a deeper well to draw from. He describes the preparation for this, and he is far more of a detail-oriented planner than I expected, as an exercise in financial planning. Adam obtained a grant that covered his family’s airfare to Sweden, but most other expenses he had to find a way to cover himself. Working through contacts, he received a donated studio space within a converted former insane-asylum that is now filled with various artists. Some might say, “What changed?!!!”

For somewhere between $1000 and $1200 per month he rented a nice cabin on a lake. The family that owned the rental lived nearby, became close friends, and there was a wood-fired hot tub (I picture human stew in a large, cast-iron pot) and sauna on the property. They lived a 30-minute bike ride from the city, and a stellar public transportation system was at their disposal. The sister-city leaders generously donated a bus pass and bikes for the family’s use. Life slowed to a simple pace, and they fell into a rhythm.

Adam freely shares many of the financial details, seemingly doling this information out while conveying that it is indeed possible to live outside-the-box. Adam rented out his Duluth home temporarily, which only covered three-quarters of the mortgage. He sold a couple paintings over there, gave a bunch away, and was able to tote home 15 pieces within his 4-year-old’s luggage (and thus paid nothing extra to bring them home).

I’m just blown away with how he made this happen. Think about the risk involved here. More importantly, consider the rewards! These will last a lifetime. They returned home nearly penniless, and he had to quickly crank out more paintings for sale. Astounding. This is incredibly inspiring to me. He’s a real encouragement for all of us to think beyond the limits with which we hem ourselves in, and not to give in and hoard our finite supply of cash. OH HOW HARD THIS IS!!!!!!!!!!!

When I commented to him, “Well, I’ll more than likely have to get a regular job at some point here,” he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “Maybe.” It’s what he didn’t say, his expression saying it all, that I found so refreshing. While other people take it as a given that an alternative lifestyle is all but impossible, creative risk-takers like Adam do not. They are open to other possibilities and encourage me to be as well. My goodness. These sorts of people are so helpful in my quest to stave off a crippling mid-life crisis that seems to be lurking around every corner these days! This is why I am seeking these people out. However, I’m grateful that Adam sought me out in this case. He merely wanted to pick up a copy of my book, offer his support, and enjoy a spot of tea.

I first became acquainted with his work through my wife, an artist in her own right, when she expressed a desire to slowly collect original works of art to display in our home. Being a Neanderthal of sorts, I found it difficult to part with the cash for something “optional” like this. Loving husband that I am, however, we selected a piece that Adam pulled out of his basement for us. Originally obtained for my wife, the piece has transformed into my own. It resonates powerfully with my experience.

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Businessmen making decisions in the background—choices that affect real people—the man held down to the ground while simultaneously being pulled skyward by the balloon (dreams and hopes, perhaps), the bicycle (for Adam the presence of bicycles often represent human ingenuity and our relationship with nature) in close proximity to the penguins, a horizon left open to possibilities, and on and on. I pull new things from it all the time. Often these are primitive feelings. The texture of the paint speaks volumes too, heaped onto the board and scraped around liberally in a manner that hints of Van Gogh. Lets just say that this painting means far more to me than the cash we shelled out to obtain it five years ago when Adam was just becoming more widely known (a ridiculously inexpensive price for an early piece). For us this was a major investment, a real deviation from our normally tight-fisted ways, but the value received outstripped the nominal worth of the currency years ago.

Through my interaction with this artwork, even during a few brief hiatuses when it has been stored in the basement that have  caused my heart to grow fonder of it, I am learning a bit about what art offers to the world. Here’s Adam’s take on the subject:

I think art is important generally because it makes people think about stuff. It gives us a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. It can offer us something contemplative or something energizing. Art definitely has the capacity to inspire people to make changes. Art can make life worth living.

In my work I deconstruct the ideas that are part of our childhood and adult culture. My work addresses the future, fragility of the human presence, perseverance of nature and underlying threads of danger that underpin societies. There is a deep relationship between art and science. The more we learn about our surroundings, where we came from and who we are, the more likely we will thrive in a universe of endless possibilities.

Working as an artist also offers some other things to the world. I am showing my children (and others) that with focus, luck and hard work I can spend my days doing something I love. That is a message that is important for anyone to receive. Of course every person’s means and situation is different, but I do believe we can shape our lives no matter what type of situation we are in. Life is full of trades and compromises, but we have to own those and accept them. 

By making paintings, I am offering the world something to look at. In the era of stock photos and $2.99 art posters at Target, I feel I am offering the world something that is authentic, tangible and contemporary.

Everyone’s voice is important and art is the best way I am able to make mine heard. There is an art to everything that people do, my focus happens to be painting right now. Someday I hope to venture into film or some other type of thing.

Adam Swanson invites the public to the opening of his latest exhibition at the Great Lakes Aquarium, “The Animals and Me.” The opening reception will be held from 5 – 7 pm on Thursday, May 28th, and is free to all. No need to dress up! Just come as yourself and have fun.

When things don’t go as planned or hoped

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By 9:33 (three minutes in) I was already glancing at my wristwatch, realizing this was going to be a dues-paying experience. I was slotted for a 90-minute “book-signing,” but failed to deface a single copy with my autograph. The event was completely unadvertised, and the gracious coffee-ninja running the place had no idea I was coming. I could only chuckle as I staked claim to the only table available, which, being by the window, was conveniently the one table I would have chosen if the place had been empty.

9:43, 9:52, 10:06, 10:16…. The wheel of time seemed to have ground to a halt.

For better or worse, my “job” these days is apparently that of meeting people and appreciating them. Selling books is not my vocation. After years of a solitary existence spent working as a telecommuter in my basement for a large corporation, eventually being jettisoned as useless space garbage, meeting a wide range of people has had the effect of opening the windows on the first spring day. Ah, sweet-smelling fresh air with a bit of earthiness to it….

Set up your wares and display, however, and you immediately become “one of them.” In the minds of passersby I was simply someone trying to sell something they didn’t need, attempting to make a buck. Really, I just desired human contact. 50 minutes in, a feller by the name of Wobby stopped. Yup, it sounds like Bobby, but with a dubya. Boring, conformist, conventional, and “normal,” are not words that apply to this restorer of stringed instruments. He was on his way out, but I look forward to chatting with him further some day and inquiring about the unusual red tattoo emblazoned on his right calf. I thanked him profusely for stopping by and causing my “event” to be a success.

I currently have a virtual inability to talk about myself. In these instances I crave knowledge of the other guy’s experience of life. His or her observations of the world and the fascinating people within it are what interest me. I’m not interested in my own “news.” Perhaps this explains why my recent interview on the telly was such a struggle, or why job interviews have historically been so difficult. Yesterday, in fact, I was taken off-guard when my neighbor asked what I did this weekend. Completely unprepared for the question, I looked off into the distance for a spell, and simply answered, “I don’t rightly know.” I was more interested in his experience with the kids at the cabin. Sigh….this is something I’ll have to get better at if I hope to eke out a living as a writer.

Wobby left to open up his downtown shop, but said we’d get together to discuss the book at some point. I passed the next 45 minutes nursing a fantastic cup of coffee, the beans of which were roasted just the day before in the barrel-shaped item you can see in the above picture. The friendly guy on duty, possessing the fascinating name of Leander, brewed it up special for me. The day before I had wandered into the place, Duluth Coffee Company, and observed a small batch of beans being roasted. The exhaust from these enveloped me in wholesome goodness whilst I stood on the street corner a short spell later, the smell of which clung to the wool fibers of my flannel shirt and followed me home. I wanted to drink this particular coffee, a blend from Papua New Guinea, and the barista was happy to oblige.

I shifted from coffee, water, and to my Moleskin notebook used for cataloging observations. I have no smartphone to distract me from boredom. This is just as well, because creativity often springs from boredom. People run from it, while stifling any possibility of creative expression or thought.

I came to realize why carnival hucksters are such aggressive attention-getters. A gentle person calmly sitting behind a stack of books is way too easy to ignore. If only I could have communicated that human interaction was craved more than money. It was interesting to observe tourists wandering in, eager to spend money on stuff while pouring over a display of merchandise, just walk straight out (carefully averting eye contact) without stopping to talk to the author. I’m not complaining. It’s just an interesting observation. Too intimidating? Awkward? Remember this next time you see some pour soul sitting beside a display that even remotely interests you.

Finally, with three minutes to go, a beautiful young family (tourists on their way up the shore) sat down at a distance of perhaps 42 inches away. The woman was drawn to the cover of the book, displayed prominently on the sign beside me. As I mustered the courage to ask if she wanted to see give it a look-see, for she had no reading material with her, she discreetly began nursing her baby! How could I approach her now???? Finally, I mustered the courage to do so after she switched the baby from the right side to the left. I lingered a good twenty minutes past the end of my event while she examined my work with interest. Eventually we struck up a conversation, and it was the highlight of the morning. Pure, unvarnished humanity. Connection. Sharing. Grateful for the opportunity to meet Caleb and Abby, I asked to borrow their phone in order to take the photograph before I even knew their names.

On the way home I was privileged to get the book placed into my first “radical bookstore.” This was awesome, and had a further redemptive effect on the day (later I curled into the fetal position for a spell, but this comes with the territory). The Jefferson People’s House, staffed entirely by volunteers, describes itself as follows:

A worker-owned, cooperatively-run cafe, progressive bookstore, and community incubator. 

What a privilege. I just adore being a part of the conversation in our community, among diverse people who are completely different from me! We have so much to learn from each other.

At home, our young 20-day-old chickens and ducks spent the afternoon in the chicken tractor for the first time. It’s fascinating to observe that though the ducks are nearly twice the size of the chicks, their wings are under-developed. They remind me of the T-Rex from Toy Story, “My arms are too short,” as they follow my kids around the yard. As drawn to water as they are, I swear they’re part mermaid. The chickens, on the other hand, have already taken to flight. Leaping from the perch they can clear a good three feet at this point….

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A Window Into Food Farm’s Soul

window onto Food Farm

The day before yesterday I pedaled 60 miles roundtrip to make an appearance in a Kickstarter video for the Food Farm CSA. An image I’ll leave you with is spandex and rubber boots. Just kidding friends, I packed a full array of appropriate farm wear.

Nine hours of effort went into the experience, and I’m guessing I might appear in 30 seconds of footage. It occurs to me that nine hours of human activity boiled down to 30 seconds of actual productive use (a ratio of 1080:1) just might be representative of our entire productive lives as humans, meaning how much of what we “accomplish” is useful to others in a measurable way. Perhaps. This realization can be either sobering or liberating, depending on how you look at it. The key is to find joy in the journey, which also can’t help but bring joy to others as well.

Half the day was spent pedaling my fancypants carbon fiber bike, and the other half involved interacting with others. We broke bread together, laughed with and at each other, and I absorbed just a bit of the soul of the place. In short, I was blessed with an experience—simple as it was and perhaps this is what made it special—unlike any other in my life. You can’t measure this. I contend that in many cases how we handle the first number in the ratio of 1080:1 is the most important.

Arriving by bicycle enabled me to appreciate the place in a way that arriving by car wouldn’t have. Mind, body, and soul were seasoned and tenderized throughout the arduous journey, particularly during the climb out of the Lake Superior basin that lasted a full country mile. It also seemed to give me a semblance of street cred with the workers, who thrive on working hard every day. Here they are slicing up seed potatoes for planting:

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I poured a healthy dose of mulligatawny soup into my cup, and the astonishing aroma set them to drooling at 1:00 in the afternoon. Alas, lunch for these farmers wouldn’t come for another hour, so they’d have to wait for nourishment. I only had a few minutes to enjoy my first serving amongst this gathering before everyone dispersed to individual tasks, but found it to be immensely enjoyable. Having been laid off from my own job, I derive a thrill from interacting with people doing useful work that they feel good about.

I find it profoundly interesting to grapple with the realities of farming as it relates to time. This was the first sunny day following a week of rain during their busiest season. They do not have the luxury of meandering throughout their day. Every step is purposeful. It is critical that the crops be planted timely, especially when the weather provides a window of opportunity. I found myself grateful that Janaki Fisher-Merrit (who co-owns the farm with his wife) expended valuable time during a busy day to give me a tour and sit down for lunch at the table he built from wood milled from trees taken from his own property (see picture at the top).

Here’s a picture of Janaki with the bike (obtained from Goodwill) he uses to get around quickly on the property, because it’s cheaper than a four-wheeler.

Janaki

His name is pronounced John-a-key. Interestingly, his two brothers have more common names. It’s a name his mother simply made up after becoming acquainted with him as a baby. His mom still lives on the property, and I hope to ask her about it some day. In college Janaki learned that it’s a common name for females in India, which explains why there’s often a pause of confusion when he calls into the call centers of large corporations based over there.

Janaki is in his fifth year of owning the farm, which he purchased from his parents. This necessitated taking out a large mortgage. It wasn’t possible for him to simply inherit the land. His parents had no other retirement plan at their disposal. In this day and age it truly is difficult for family farms to pass from generation to generation, but it is absolutely crucial for any kind of momentum to continue from generation to generation. The vocational learning curve is steeper than in perhaps any other field.

His salary is shocking for its smallness. Since I’m a member of Food Farm’s CSA I’m privy to this information. A detailed budget is sent out to members each year, which makes for a fascinating read, actually. I commented on his salary, which is rather surprising given that we were complete strangers until this meeting (which speaks volumes about his openness). His attitude about finances is remarkably upbeat, but he recognizes that his income will need to increase with a growing family (he and his wife Annie have recently welcomed a baby into their lives). This is part of the impetus for the large state-of-the-art root cellar currently being constructed to house more root vegetables for sale further into the year. Janaki has them on a surprisingly methodical plan to grow sustainably over a period of years. Organic farming requires thinking years in advance.

As it is they were able to provide organic carrots to the Whole Foods Co-op through the end of March this year (possibly April, but my memory remains fixated on the taste explosion I experienced as a special treat each day and not the exact date in spring). When they sent out word that the last of their carrots were delivered from the fall harvest, I immediately rushed down to stake claim to 10 pounds of them. They really are the best carrots money can buy. This is because they allow several hard frosts to hit before making the last laborious harvest, which causes sugars to concentrate in the carrot. While we eaters benefit greatly, it causes a ton of work for the farm because tens of thousands of pounds need to be harvested quickly (just days before the ground freezes up for winter). It is amazing just how much they put on the line in this and numerous other areas. These are things we eaters take for granted, but may be thankful for.

I was under the impression that carrots were an easy vegetable to grow. They’re pretty much bulletproof in my garden. On a large scale like this, however, Janaki says they’re a gigantic pain in the ass. They require much labor in hand-weeding and there’s the issue of waiting till the last minute for harvest. Also, their carrots are bred for taste and not rubbereyness like the ones you find in the grocery store that have a slightly bitter, metallic taste and are bred for ease of harvest (those carrots can handle the rigors of harvesting better with fewer being damaged through the process). Anyhow, this explains just a bit about why their carrots cost more than those produced by that “lovable” green giant we all are confronted with in the produce aisle.

I could carry on and on about all that I learned. The main point, however, is that I developed an actual connection with the growers of my food for the very first time. This meant more to me than I expected. Like everyone else, I am faced with budgetary realities every day when weighing the additional costs of eating local and organic food vs the corporate food in the grocery store. I’ve been a member of various CSA’s for years and had appreciated the potential for connection, but now I feel as if I have actual roots in the Food Farm in a small passing way. It’s a marvelous feeling, and it helps to know that there is a delightful young family running the place while joyfully struggling along to keep their efforts sustainable in every sense of the word.

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In the background of the above picture you can see their greenhouse, which is currently filled with vegetables that are nearly ready for planting. Janaki’s father keeps a fire going in the woodstove that heats it (waking in the middle of the night as he has done for decades to do so). There is a lot of soul in this place. Not only is it a family affair, but it is uniquely tied to the community. For me, the ability to bike out and shake the hands of good people growing our food is priceless, the very definition of local agriculture and of local economy in general.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on a quest to meet as many artists as I can. Janaki, who interestingly enough is married to Annie Dugan—a darling in the local art community, effectively amalgamates artistic, scientific, and managerial prowess in his fields of plenty. I’ve taken the following verbiage from their website, which says it well:

At the Food Farm our passion is providing high quality food for our CSA members, a sustainable livelihood for our farmers, while improving the productive capacity of our land. This is possible by cooperating with the natural and human communities to which we belong, and unleashing the creative power of human imagination.

Food Farm, located in Wrenshall, is surprisingly close to town. Since I live on the eastern fringe of Duluth, it required a 30-mile ride. However, folks living on the western edges of town are only 10 – 15 miles away. Wrenshall, is a little-known treasure that I encourage you to experience for yourself.

Heading south you would think the land would remain fully forested, as you see in this overlook:

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Without warning, the landscape suddenly turns agricultural in what is a rare pocket of fertility. Here’s the first hayfield you’re treated to, on the left side of the road. Living in the northland, which is home to so little agriculture, I tend to eye the tender grass longingly as a deer might after having emerged—still alive—after a hard winter of starvation…

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Treat yourself to a ride along any county road or along the Alex Laveau trail for rare visual delights of an agricultural variety. Read a post here that I wrote last year about a splendid loop that I commend to you. That particular ride, coming shortly after I lost my job last summer, was positively sublime.

This bike ride, so foolish on paper, abounded in contrasts. I could easily celebrate them over another 10,000 words. As Woody Guthrie presciently wrote:

All you can write is what you see.

Well, this sort of experience not only provides an abundance to feast the eyes upon physically, spiritually, and emotionally, it provides another way of seeing altogether. For some reason it reminds of my first experience of the Grand Canyon (written of in the “emancipation” portion of my book). As others enjoyed rapturous religious experiences, I was actually disappointed. This is because I had walked a mere 150 yards from the bus that conveyed me to the famous and often photographed view from the South Rim. Virtually zero effort was required, and I gained nothing. I captured strong feelings in this memoir, and I share a bit here because they seem to convey a bit of my experience from biking out to the Food Farm. In this scene, following the hike out of the canyon, I’m enjoying warmed canned venison with a kind stranger who offered it to me after carrying it around in his pack for several days (perhaps substitute mulligatawny soup for imagery at the farm):

We sat three feet from the steep cliff in a scene of majesty. We were part of the sublime heavenly setting. This wasn’t just an overlook anymore. My DNA was left in the canyon, and a part of the canyon was in me. It was as if the deer had been sacrificed and was now being offered as a sweet-smelling burnt offering to the Maker of the Grand Canyon.

These are ethereal moments. Words don’t paint a full picture, but they are my most effective means of communicating this idea.

While crossing through the gritty part of town on the return trip, an unvarnished city-scape, an enormous quantity of pigeon poop (presumably) literally fell into my lap. The splatter covered both pant legs of my shorts. That was a first for me, and I could only laugh. Everybody poops, after all.

I’ll leave you with two more photos of beauty from the trip. Since I’m rarely in the vicinity of the neighborhood of Gary, I stopped in to visit with a close friend, who did a fine job of editing my book, by the way. During the visit, I lingered as long as I figured daylight would allow, and I couldn’t help but capture this special father and son moment. At this very moment, Isaac is asking his dad about the possibility of being entrusted with more chores. So special, and worthy of documentation it is…. I am thankful for having witnessed a moment of real family life, and not the artificialness that hospitality often engenders.

John

The closing moments of the ride were spent along Lake Superior, amidst lengthening shadows, sore muscles, and a well-earned hunger. Home. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Always wonderful to return to it…

Lake

Charlie Parr: guitar virtuoso, friend, barefoot prophet

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Charlie Parr is one of the most unusual and fascinating individuals I’ve ever met. He has lived in my neighborhood for years, but for some reason I hadn’t summoned the courage required to knock on his door until only recently. Finding him to be as accessible as an open book, I unexpectedly encountered a kindred spirit while making a friend. I don’t come across many kindred spirits, so this is worth writing home about.

I encourage you to obtain every album (roots, blues, folk, old-timey, soul-infused music that is deceptive in its simplicity) he has ever put out, on vinyl if you’re fortunate enough to own a turntable. He is an absolute virtuoso with his 12-string and Resonator guitars. He is entirely self-taught and hasn’t had a single lesson. This alone might place him fair and square into the lineage of old-school folk musicians, a proud tradition of musical pioneers like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charley Patton, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other luminaries, but his life itself is what makes him so bona fide.

I’d say he owes a lot to his daddy. A fist-fighting union man, he appreciated good music and dearly loved and supported his son. One day the elder Parr brought Charlie down to the music center to inquire about guitar lessons. Charlie started playing on his own at the age of seven, showed signs of promise, so he encouraged his son to pursue this area of interest. The man behind the counter, sporting an epic mid-seventies rock n roller mullet, asked young Charlie what kind of music he liked. Parr, who only listened to his father’s record collection, replied, “I like Lightnin’ Hopkins.” “WHO???????”  His dad took over at that point, lightly directed Charlie to the side, and asked the 20 something hairball, “What kind of music do you teach?” The rocker proceeded to list off all the seventies rock icons you can imagine, and said he could help the kid to play like them. Politely, the elder Parr said, “Um, we’ll think about it.” Outside, he was adamant with Charlie that he was not going to pay 6 bucks for each half-hour lesson so he could learn to play krap like that. And that was the last time Charlie Parr ever considered taking lessons. Absolutely incredible.

Parr dropped out of school on the first day of 10th grade. After repeatedly skipping school in 9th grade, the truancy officer was waiting for him at the door and said, “I’m going to be on you like stink on sh*t, Parr! You’re going to come to class every day, will keep up with your homework, etc…” Charlie unemotionally replied, “No, I’m not,” turned around and walked out, while the truancy guy ineffectively hollered in the background, “PARR! Get back here!!!!!!” He never set foot in the school again.

This was Austin, Minnesota, where Spam is made. School had nothing for him in this small town in the early 80’s. His father’s response was surprisingly laid back about it. He simply said, “Well, you’re gonna have to get a job. I can’t just have you lying around her doing nothing…” The next day Charlie got a job at the filling station, which was staffed entirely by other dropouts. Life has been a winding road for him since then.

Charlie contents himself with a single pair of pants. I immediately recognized them from the cover of his latest album, Stumpjumper:

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This album, recorded in an old barn, is vintage Parr.

The second time I knocked on his screen door, he opened it in pajamas in the middle of the day, saying, “It’s not every day the author walks up as you’re finishing his book!” He was literally on the last page of my book, The Emancipation of a Buried Man. He put Edward Abbey down to read it, and then cruised through in two days. Wow. What an honor. Then he proceeded to explain that he was in pajamas because he spent the morning on his bicycle. His pants were in the wash after being destroyed by rain and mud.

One of Charlie’s comments that day gave me pause. He nonchalantly said, “so and so understands and advocates for people like us.” To be accepted as somehow sharing similar struggles and goals by someone so accomplished as an artist absolutely fills me with gratitude. He is no elitist looking down on the rest of humanity just because they can’t play the guitar. I never considered myself an artist, but I suppose now that I’m producing, working, and honing my craft as a writer that I actually am one. I married a painter, and have been drawn to creative types for years, but spending 12 years in front of computer screens in various office settings had a way of “placing my lamp under a bushel.”

Still only recently liberated from “the office,” I crave meaningful conversations with local artists like Charlie, who feed their families by their wits, creativity, and through an astonishing level of risk-taking. I feel tremendously accepted by these people, taken in as one of them. They understand the struggle. Words aren’t even necessary. I’m not peppered with questions about what kind of job I’m looking for. I find it incredibly fascinating to learn how they feed their family while doing what they love.

Charlie is well-established locally, regionally, nationally, and has a following in various pockets of Australia and Europe, but he continues to eke out a living even though he has opened for such luminaries as B.B. King and Taj Mahal. A traditional job would be much safer. He’d have a retirement plan, for example. Parr does what he loves, is wholly devoted to his craft, and the business side of things is definitely on his back-burner. This is so refreshing!

The man is barefoot so much, only wearing shoes begrudgingly when absolutely necessary, that I think his feet must be the seat of his soul. Shoes seem to cramp more than just 10 wiggly toes. He’s an advocate for the homeless and other downtrodden folk, so the other 10 digits seem equally important in creating a true hands and feet soulfulness.

A while back the insides of the neck of his guitar broke, evidently dropped from the plane to the tarmac, as he embarked upon a 30-day tour of Australia. Hours before his first show he took the guitar apart in a bar. Pieces were spread out as if on a gurney in the ER. While puzzling over what to do, the bartender came up with a brilliant idea. He hauled out a box of popsicles from the freezer so Charlie could make use of the sticks. Popsicle sticks and tape held the neck together, but since he had shows back-to-back-to-back each night of the trip, the sound deteriorated after just two performances. Thus, he was forced to take it apart every other day throughout the month of the tour and go about the laborious process of bracing and piecing things back together. Remarkable. Think about this next time you get on an airplane and the airline representative advises of the following: “By handing this guitar to us, you are absolving ______Airlines of all legal responsibilities concerning the safety of the item…”

While on tour in the States he drives an inexpensive Kia, which sips the gas at 40 miles-per-gallon. A wire on the manifold of the engine enables him to heat up meals under the hood while traveling. He eats lots of bean burritos and sleeps in the vehicle most nights, so Charlie’s definitely getting his money’s worth out of his chariot.

At home he bikes and walks much of the time. I suspect some passersby seeing him walk along one of his circuits may think he’s homeless. This doesn’t bother Charlie in the least. By the way, his teenage son isn’t embarrassed by his dad’s appearance, so he’s doing something awfully right. When asked about his differentness or “weirdness,” he is fond of saying that it is not his problem if other people can’t handle somebody different than themselves. He regularly reminds his children of this as well, and encourages them to embrace their uniqueness while not following the rest of the herd.

Charlie gave me a tour of his stable of bikes that consume most of the space in his shed. Take a gander at the rig in the pictures accompanying this post that he used while running a few errands and to stop by my house for a recent visit, wide handle bars and all. His bikes are definitely quirky, and he’s had them for years and years (since childhood in some cases, such as one with a long banana seat and huge handlebars that has a most unusual feel). This year he also converted one into an ice bike by screwing sheet metal screws through the tires and padding the space between the screw heads and inner tube with remnants of an exercise ball “borrowed” from his wife. It’s interesting that he doesn’t believe in gears or “performance.” As a biker myself, I imagine that it must be tough to not be able to shift gears in a hilly town like Duluth. However, the simplicity of the arrangement reflects the rider himself. He has always been into biking, even in the 1980’s when it was definitely not cool. I’m positive this has influenced his song-writing and playing. It’s one of those things that you can’t put your finger on precisely, saying, “See, right there! Biking influence…” It’s more of an alternative way of being. Charlie exudes this as he strives to live fully in the now. He never seems to be in a hurry, and is always glad to visit with a friend. He’s fully present during these chats, and shuts off his phone when necessary. In our harried culture that is consumed by technology and speed, he is rather anachronistic, a real breath of fresh air.

Charlie Parr reminds me of an Old Testament prophet. His music is absolutely infused with soul and spiritual imagery. More importantly, his persona screams John the Baptist. I candidly shot this picture from my front window. With his hands and feet exposed, I think it’s a window into his soul. IMG_4891

The Duluth “Stumpjumper” release show is coming up on May 27 at the Red Herring Lounge. Brady Perl is celebrating his new release that evening as well. Brady will kick things off at 9pm, doors at 8pm.

Practical Ways to Cultivate Awareness and Gratitude in Daily Life, Part 2

Cultivating awareness can be taken as an activity pursued in solitude for no greater purpose than that of enriching ourselves, as a kind of ego-centric navel-gazing activity. However, this is certainly not the goal. As we become more “aware” and exude gratitude for a multitude of blessings that have been showered upon us, we can more adequately turn outward. Love and thanksgiving naturally overflows into the lives of those around us. There seems to be a ripple effect as the rings expand one’s sphere of influence while our natural orientation slowly morphs from being focused on ourselves and onto our family, neighbors, community, city, region, nation, and the wider world. This is my goal, anyway.

Due to my past, I find myself thrilling in the chase in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the main character in the new Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I’ve only seen the first episode of this engaging comedy, but I found myself relating to Kimmy, who spent the last 15 years in an underground bunker as part of a doomsday cult. Newly liberated, her eyes repeatedly light up as she rediscovers a world that she didn’t even know existed. Everything induces excitement and hilarious childlike wonder: green grass, trees, a horse, candy, a sea of humanity to be navigated, the complexities of city life, etc. Kimmy takes nothing for granted as she becomes newly aware of the wider world. For some odd reason my own experience mirrors her take on the world in some ways. I think we should all strive to maintain a childlike wonder of the world around us. It can’t help but point us to things bigger than ourselves on this terrestrial ball and to our creator. So, I’ll continue this odd list with this understanding. This certainly isn’t comprehensive or particularly well thought out. Go ahead and come up with your own…

  1. Exude gratitude in every area of life while moving through the day. There is so much to be thankful for. It’s difficult to sink into depression when we exude gratitude, but it’s nearly impossible to develop gratitude if we are always racing through life. In our family it’s easy to fall into this trap. We have twins, who have always been a lot of work. At times my wife and I feel pulled along by the kids and stress while merely surviving. Over time we’ve become thankful that life is difficult. It has made us stronger and appreciative of little things that bring great joy, such as a relatively clean house that can handle people dropping in from time to time. I am thankful for the greening grass that seems to become greener every time I enter the yard. Trees are developing leaves earlier this spring than in the past few years. As I pare down possessions, I find myself grateful for the few items that bring me joy.
  1. Exercise outdoors while exploring. Take a hike on a trail through the woods. Run through the woods. Bike through the countryside. This makes us more fully alive in a way that treadmills can never compete with. Do this with eyes wide open and with all your senses tuned into your immediate environment. Consciously leave your heart and mind open with a sense of expectancy of what you’ll discover. You can’t help but be touched by beauty when you encounter it with such a posture. You might be surprised to encounter goodness and beauty in areas you didn’t expect it: perhaps a ditch that would ordinarily be overlooked, a passing hiker possessing a grin that spans from ear to ear, one wildflower thriving in an inhospitable environment, etc. I seem to be touched at times that I least expect it, but the key lies in being available. This is a concept that most people probably gloss over, but I suppose it has to do with being fully present in the moment.2015-05-14 10.08.43
  1. Spend more time doing what you love. Be thankful and expect great things while fishing, reading, writing, quilting, visiting with neighbors, drinking lemonade, walking, running, or whatever it is you do. Seize the day.
  1. Embrace the spiritual aspects of all of life, rather than narrowing this down to a particular day of worship. Two books point us to our maker: scripture and creation. Creation is everything around us, so I’m not just referring to the rare trip to a spectacular setting in the mountains. Once again, childlike wonder is what we should be after here. This leads to love, gratitude, awareness.
  1. Write letters to your friends and loved ones. Use the postal service. Email is great for quickly exchanging information, but is wholly inadequate for sharing your heart. Be vulnerable. Maintain your most cherished relationships as if life depended upon it. I assume that if you own an expensive sports car you maintain it fastidiously. Your relationships are far more valuable than any Lamborghini. Start rekindling one of those special relationships today. You can easily pick up where you left off. Leave out the page of annoying apologies explaining why you haven’t kept in touch. Seriously, they already understand. I mean they haven’t been writing, either. Guilt is a relationship killer and a real non-starter.

Dog, Ducks, Chicks, EVISCERATION, and Making a MESS of Myself on Television!

Life happens, even when we’re not looking. I’m learning to roll with it and enjoy the ride. Here are two rather epic examples that came with the worst timing imaginable. They impacted two of the most important events of my young career as a writer/author/weirdo.

Two hours before my book launching party at a local coffee shop we heard a loud clanking sound in the basement, which set our wheels into motion and upended our lives. While my daughter was outside greeting friends over a mere 10 minutes, excited to bring them down for a little play time with our baby chicks, our stinker of a dog found a way to climb five feet up and into their brooder. The clanking was the sound of our terrier’s noggin banging into the hanging heat lamp. My wife reached the horrific scene first, and it just about destroyed her. Half our baby chickens were eviscerated. Not pretty!

Then my kids walked into the door after school. Everyone was crying and upset. I did what any father would have done. I loaded everyone into the car so we could quickly buy replacements, and hopefully put a band-aid over their hearts. While at the local feed store we also picked up a pair of ducks. This will surely be the sort of impulsive mistake that’ll keep on giving, but the darn things are ridiculously cute. They transformed the situation from despair to excitement.

What a distraction, however! Needing to temporarily separate them from the chickens, I had to run around like the proverbial headless poulter while duplicating our already considerable efforts. Chicks were moved outside to the henhouse, and in a whirlwind I obtained all the necessary waterers, feeders, heat lamps, etc. By the time these tasks were completed I only had a half-hour to shower, eat, and ready myself for the party! I hadn’t planned anything, and didn’t even know what readings to choose from.

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The book-launching party, while not perfect, was a smashing success anyway! I really only had to show up. A fantastic local band carried much of the water as they entertained the crowd, which must have numbered somewhere around a hundred in total. The coffee shop owners took care of everything else. This wound up being an ideal arrangement for me, and there was no time to stress over details. The coffee house was packed to capacity, the bike rack outside was full, and people spilled out onto the sidewalk on a lovely spring day. I felt a tremendous amount of support, and for the first time it gave me cause to simply enjoy the festivities and celebrate. Twas informal and messy, like me.

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Yesterday’s early morning television interview was similar, and yet very different. Under the impression that they wanted my bike and snazzy trailer in the studio, I biked the seven miles to the station because I simply was not going to admit to driving these items to the interview. That would be so embarrassing! Well, it turned out they didn’t need them for the short 3-minute T.V. spot anyway, so the entire effort was an exercise in futility!

First of all, the studio is located at the top of Observation Road at one of the highest points in Duluth, requiring an elevation climb of roughly 600 feet. Add in the fact that there were 40 mph gusts flying in from Lake Superior that nearly blew me over, I was pelted by rain, and it was 36 degrees, I was bloody exhausted! Also, nervous bowels at 5:00 and 5:15 am coupled with a bridge that was inaccessible (requiring a lengthy detour) caused me to be 10 minutes late! In the television world 10 minutes of waiting is an eternity. I very nearly lost my turn in the spotlight due to it. When I arrived, all smelly and wet, they said I only had 2 minutes to clean up in the bathroom!!!

Well, you can see the results in the link to the interview below. I look like one heck of a hot mess! On the bright side, I had absolutely zero opportunity to sit there and worry. On the negative side of things, I was completely unprepared. The big question that stumped me was about bedwetting, and from this experience I learned that I need to develop the art of pivoting by quickly answering the question and redirecting to what I’d rather talk about. This was a good lesson to learn. You see, I’ve never really talked openly about my 19 years of bedwetting. I provide two humorous examples in the book, but writing about a source of embarrassment and shame is different than discussing it on live television!

Additionally, I was completely unable to style my normally awesome hairdo. My thinning hair is normally something I conceal with the ardency of a CIA operative. For some reason, I find these embarrassing moments to be utterly liberating. This is one of the last things that I’ve spent my life hiding, and here I am naked and bare before the world. Such moments bring freedom, actually. That said—FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND OTHERWISE—I’m completely unwilling to discuss this topic and I don’t want any comments about it either! Just content yourself in knowing that I know that you know that I know that you know. We’ll leave it at that for another 10 years, at least. I’ve feared the bald thing my entire life. My grandfather, if you can believe it, was completely bald by the age of 18. He looks 100% like the grandfather of my memories in his senior picture! Lets just say that it has been a source of anxiety for decades. Throughout the ride and interview I found myself envying people like my neighbor, who have fully come to terms with this malady. He bikes to work year-round, and could have ridden to this interview in the rain just fine. Ten seconds and a towel would have him looking clean as a whistle. Perhaps this will be the silver lining at the end of my long road of coming to terms with reality.

Here’s one last note on the experience that absolutely cracks me up, and I’m getting old enough to be able to comment on such things without looking like a complete jerk. The hosts on the show are rather young and attractive. Apparently the gal who does the weather mispronounced the word precipitation (kind of a mishmash of perspiration/precipitation) shortly before I came on. My young daughter commented on it, and my wife says, “Probably because she saw you.” HA HA. YES, my Greek God-like figure was certainly the cause of the distraction as you’ll quickly see by clicking this link! Can you tell I’m not wearing makeup?

Watch my embarrassing interview!

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