The Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous

Glamorous. That’s the best word I can think of to describe life as a struggling author with a family to feed.

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Oh if these painter pants could talk! They’ve been with me since 1999—approximately 40% of my lifetime. That summer after graduating from college I took a job as a crew foreman for a house painting outfit in an attempt to lay up cash immediately prior to getting married and being a grownup.

This past weekend my wife and I celebrated our anniversary, and it’s somewhat ironic to have fallen back on this previous occupation to make a buck. By shear coincidence I found myself using the rag pictured below throughout the duration of my latest job. Tattered and threadbare, what you see below is all that remains of my very first big boy shirt. I bought this shirt with my then-girlfriend at the campus art museum, shortly after we began dating, in an effort to be more artsy like the fascinating artist I was infatuated with (you can see some images of her art here). The t-shirt was emblazoned with Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I loved it very much. Believe it or not, I find myself needing to eulogize this rag prior to saying goodbye, thanking it for 18 years of faithful service. Having grown up in a hoarding environment, and possessing many of the genetic traits myself, I am a little more attached to things than the average person. Alas, I remind myself each day that the cumulative content of our character and cherished memories are not bound up in the material world.

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However, I believe this “handicap” in my life can be used positively. For example, I am loathe to acquire anything, attempt to only keep the things that bring me joy, and then use them until they are completely obliterated—as opposed to blindly participating in a throwaway society that takes vast stockpiles of wealth and possessions for granted. It’s important to have a sense of gratitude for everything we’ve been entrusted with, while being careful not to hoard them greedily. So, with that, I thank you dear shirt for clothing me with class for so many years. Thanks for imparting a deeper appreciation for art whenever I wore or carefully folded and put you away, and for helping me land my very first love interest. You helped make me whole, so each of those holes in you now were transferred from me to you in a sense.

Yeah, anthropomorphizing objects is weird. I know. Can you tell that I’ve never been to therapy????

I sat in the back of church recently, dressed exactly as you see above. I stopped in during a break I had taken from a painting gig in order to see my kids take part in a children’s program. Those pants are far filthier than you can make out in the photo. I should get new ones, but I keep hoping that writing will become a bit more lucrative. These have served me well for most of my adult life.

As I sat there loudly chomping on two cucumbers I had snatched from the church’s community garden out front—I eat them raw and whole like apples—it suddenly struck me that this was the sort of embarrassing thing my dad would have done (readers of my book will appreciate this). Amazingly, my twins who are about to enter 5th grade weren’t humiliated in the least, and I felt entirely at ease.

Since I bike to my jobs, I must provide quite a sight for onlookers. Frequently I have a pole extending four feet in front of me like a joust, wear a backpack bursting with necessities, and will pull an overloaded trailer containing a step stool, drop cloth, ladder, bucket, etc. I suppose the experience is humbling, and my hope is that I’ll figure things out financially and become a better dad and husband in the midst of the struggle. There is sadness and despair at times. Nearly every day, in fact. It’s all part of the journey, I reckon, but I am grateful to be beautifying a small part of the world and of people’s lives with my own two hands. Glimmers of hope abound when we keep our eyes open, outward, and upward.

The Power of Place

I’ve been quiet lately. That’s ok, I think. Probably the most memorable experience of the past month was a trip the family took to pick strawberries together. We took the country route, rather than the busy highway. I was inspired by several farms, and stopped for grass fed beef and a full gallon of maple syrup along the way. Talking with the farmers was inspiring as it warmed my soul, which remains somewhat confused and unsure of the future. I even fantasized over a plan to work for the cattle farmer for free for a decade (or for low pay) while learning the ropes prior to somehow buying the place. Alas, my wife isn’t interested. We’ll figure something out.

My book is selling really well at one location, a restaurant called the Duluth Grill. This is due to high traffic, and because the display has high visibility as you walk in. Elsewhere things have slowed down. It’d be nice to get things cranking on Kindle or the audiobook more, but people simply aren’t aware of it among umpteen other options. Life goes on. We’ll keep trying. An encouraging visit with a book club, along with the experience of local farms mentioned above, inspired the following column running in the paper today…

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Place matters. It is our soil for sinking roots. Each contribution—150 years of them in Duluth—has been like individual leaves falling to the ground, gradually producing a rich, alluvial-like cultural soil.

We are all responsible for conserving culture, while simultaneously adding to its richness.

Economy and culture in the Twin Ports, though the two need not be distinguished, is increasingly based on neighborliness rather than on a cutthroat sense of competition. Wendell Berry, in essays like “The Work of Local Culture,” and “Economy and Pleasure,” has written ruefully about the loss of diverse, local economies for decades. Slowly, like the growth of a tree, there are signs of it coming to fruition here.

If a community is unable or unwilling to produce much of its own art, entertainment, healthy food, or appreciate local beauty in all its forms, it has lost its identity.

What you take from the earth to fill your stomach, along with gleanings from culture to fill your mind, are enjoyable places to start. Think of the sense of fulfillment gained while eating locally grown food at a place like the Duluth Grill. The quality of food is noticeably higher. Ingredients are not sourced from a semi truck delivering industrially grown food from far away that is heavily reliant on the input of chemicals.

True nourishment comes from a full stable of vegetables grown in fertile soil that is worked and cherished in love, hooved beasts grown sustainably on pasture rather than knee-deep in their own excrement, and from the lifeblood of trees tapped in our region. This bounty comes from nearby farms that you are welcome to visit, by farmers you may grow to love.

This goodness is available for you to experience each day in the comfort of your own home. Local agriculture continues to expand, fueled by intense demand.

During a recent visit to the Food Farm I was impressed by the level of cooperation, friendship, and sharing among organic farms in nearby Wrenshall.

Food Farm has mentored and incubated numerous competitors during its existence. Northern Harvest Farm, for example, spent its first two years on the property. They, in turn, have shared equipment and friendship with their original mentors over the years, while also helping in the establishment of other farms, such as with Stone’s Throw Farm located just across their country lane. This sharing of knowledge, rather than the hoarding of it, is refreshing.

Food Farm will soon put a root cellar into operation that will store over three million individual servings of scrumptious veggies, such as the sweetest and crispiest carrots on Earth.

During my stay I caught a glimpse of the toil required to produce a superior crop. I spent 90 minutes hoeing a single 435-foot row of broccoli. The soil was light, airy, and easy to work—evidence that it had been treated well. Contrast this with an image of a “farmer” in full HAZMAT gear spraying unknown chemicals across acres of florets of the industrially grown variety. Does this convey health and goodness to you?

The same goes for our entertainment. An unhealthy consumption of entertainment produced far away in the “cultural centers” has a deleterious effect on local character. Great forces seek to homogenize all of us into a level of sameness that is alarming.

Annie Dugan, executive director of the Duluth Art Institute, boils it down by saying, “A healthy Duluth will eat food we make ourselves and engage with art our neighbors have created. There is a real power to making, eating, and enjoying each other, rather than having it done for you.”

We all help keep the Duluth in Duluth by identifying and supporting artists of all mediums that resonate. For example, I was recently invited as a special guest of two book clubs that read my book. The level of support and encouragement I received as a fledgling author was tremendous. Remarkably, they seemed to benefit as much as me. It was a win for everyone involved, and something you should consider retrofitting to your own interests.

Rather than looking to overpaid and arrogant celebrities and corporations for mental, spiritual, and physical nourishment, there are plenty of healthier options right here.

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Here’s what those 435-foot rows of broccoli looked like a month ago. Now they are producing, and have a bumper crop. Knowing EXACTLY where they come from has helped me to enjoy them all the more. Our CSA box contained three heads this week, due to an overabundance brought on by heat. Get to know a farmer near you. Learn how they invest in the soil and in your community.

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I will admit to battling significant discouragement. These meaningful encounters have helped keep me going, and are an example of just how important it is sink roots down deeply into your community. Not only will you survive when the storms of life lash violently against your very soul, but each day will be that much more satisfying.

A tale of three organic farms defying the odds, and one on the way

Throughout the summer months, Duluth is regularly carpet-bombed by boxes of vegetables. The popularity of CSA’s (community supported agriculture) has exploded in recent years in these parts. Where previously this sort of labor-intensive, organic farming comprised a small, niche market, it now seems to be penetrating the outer periphery of the mainstream.

Not only are consumers increasingly choosing to source their food locally, it is becoming more common for young people to pursue organic farming as a legitimate career and lifestyle. These farmers are possessed by a certain chutzpah that enables them to dig in against long odds. Blood, sweat, and tears are poured into the land in a quest to make a sustainable living. This is a beautiful sight to behold. Sure, the scenery is often marked by awe-inspiring beauty, but I am most fascinated by the unique landscape of humanity making it happen each and every back-breaking day. We all can learn much about perseverance from them, whether or not we have an interest in farming.

Low pay is exchanged for endless work, stress, responsibility, and vulnerability to forces beyond one’s control. In an effort to understand these diehards better, I am currently in the middle of an author-in-residency at the Food Farm that I dreamed up in an effort to become better acquainted with three sets of couples (all in their 30s and farming within close proximity to one another in Wrenshall, Minnesota) who have fully committed to this lifestyle. Twenty years ago one would have been hard-pressed to find a single person in this age group farming this way, but here I am within two miles of three significantly-sized operations. I’ll be staying here for three days while seeking an unvarnished view of this unusually difficult lifestyle.

The Food Farm is the most established of the bunch. You can read more of this amazing farm in previous posts I’ve written here and here. Interestingly, they’ve been instrumental in mentoring future competitors. Northern Harvest Farm, for example, got its start 10 years ago right here at the Food Farm. Rick and Karola Dalen, the farm owners, began by cultivating land owned by Food Farm. They required just 1.5 acres to supply 30 weekly vegetable boxes. This was provided in exchange for their work as interns at the established farm, where they gained knowledge and experience over two seasons. Not only were they provided with land, but they were blessed with the use of Food Farm’s equipment. However, they had two farms to look after, in essence. Rick worked three full days, and Karola put in two days for the Food Farm each week. The rest of their time—ALL OF IT—went into establishing themselves as legitimate vegetable growers in their own right. Two years went by like this. Since they didn’t hate the work, and dare I say even loved it, they took the plunge by purchasing their own land. Their example of apprenticeship prior to diving in head first is one that is worthy of emulation in plenty of other fields as well. They have built the farm slowly and sustainably, careful not to get in over their heads. Rick tallied up his hours last year and determined that he earned a whopping $11 per hour, a great increase over earlier years at around minimum wage, while bringing in a profit of about $15,000. And yes, they have kids. Remarkable, isn’t it? Karola has held a full-time job as the recycling coordinator for Carlton County for the past three years, which greatly decreases the family’s stress. After talking with Rick at length today, though, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that they would have found a way to make things work even without his wife’s income from conventional employment.

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In the above picture Rick is on the tractor while carefully pulling a tined instrument that helps control the weeds. In the next photo you can see the results of this efficient weeding method. In the background, atop the hill, they are beginning an orchard. Somewhere around 300 apple trees are in various states of growth. The Dalen’s are ambitious while planning ahead toward a future in which the farm will provide a more sustainable income for the family. I have no doubt that this will happen.

Rick and weeding aftermath

Stone’s Throw Farm is also a fascinating story for its utter craziness. Catherine Conover has built this CSA from scratch. Armed with three years of intensive work spent growing vegetables while working for other farmers, including a stint as an intern at the Food Farm, she felt she had the experience necessary to take the plunge and invest in 40 acres of her own. Now in its sixth year of existence, the farm has the equivalence of 55 members. Full shares go for $500, and half shares cost $300. You can do the math pretty easily, I reckon. Clearly she isn’t in it for the money either.

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In her 20s, following college and graduate school, Conover found herself deeply unhappy in jobs that did not suit her. By the age of 29 she reached a turning point and had to question what she wanted to do with her life. All she knew was that she wanted to be outside. Feeling as if she had nothing to lose, and possessing an adventurous spirit, she began her third decade while earning a low wage as a farm intern. After enjoying lively conversations with both Catherine and Rick, I am struck by how remarkably valuable these low-wage internships are for would-be farmers.

The level of sacrifice and determination displayed in Catherine Conover is impossible to exaggerate. For instance, she didn’t purchase a farm, but merely bought 40 acres of mostly wooded land. It was completely undeveloped. A well was drilled first thing, greenhouses erected, a single outbuilding has been built, and now she revels in the luxury of a working bathroom every day. Her deer fences have a homemade quality to them. Unlike Food Farm’s 10-foot-high fence that circumnavigates the property and never fails to protect the farm’s livelihood, her’s isn’t completely impenetrable, but does the job well enough.

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The infrastructure of her farm is cobbled together with ingenuity, wit, and perseverance in the face of a difficult environment. Only seven of 40 acres are under cultivation. The rest is wooded. She hopes to build a home with her partner and love, Eldon, in the near future. Currently she finds herself both in Duluth and out on the farm. Long days on the farm keep her apart from Eldon several days each week. He lives and works in the city, and has supported Catherine in her obsession ever since the early days when she moved east for her first stint on a vegetable CSA. It’s interesting to note the level of sacrifice that comes with small-scale organic farming. As a community we should all be grateful, whether or not we’re members of these particular farms, because of the incredible value that these gems of humanity are adding to the community.

This greenhouse was converted from an old garage hoop building obtained on Craigslist for $100:

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Early in the season when it’s cold, this greenhouse is heated with a kerosene heater to be kept at just 33 degrees. Seeing my incredulousness, Catherine responded that, “Only the toughest plants survive spring at Stone’s Throw Farm!” She cannot be wasteful of anything.

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Eldon works as an architect for a small firm in Duluth. He isn’t raking in gobs of money, but I get the sense that life could be more comfortable for them both if Catherine didn’t have this need to farm. If she were to calculate her hourly earnings it would be somewhere around minimum wage. Is it mental illness? Obsession? Amazingly, she really REALLY believes in the importance of what she’s doing (as do the other farmers I’ve spoken with).

She freely notes that she couldn’t do it alone. Her parents have been indispensable in helping her get the farm off the ground. Not only did they donate some equipment they no longer needed on their own farm, but they even bought a house in Wrenshall so they could help her during the summer months. Hours are spent with a hoe, packing vegetable boxes, and other necessary grunt work. Catherine runs her farm with only minimal mechanization. Nearly everything is done by hand.

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One of the common elements among the subjects of the three farms I am profiling during this stay is the steadying presence of POOFS – Parents Of Organic Farmers. This is what they call themselves. Parents of each of these couples recognized that their kids needed help, and they generously moved into tiny Wrenshall so they could provide daily assistance in many instances.

My gosh these farmers work hard. Last night I enjoyed a very late dinner with Annie and Janaki at the Food Farm. At 9:41 pm I asked if they always eat at 19 to 10. The answer was, “Oh, this was early!” After a lively conversation I turned in and caught Janaki watering the turkey chicks at nearly 10:30 pm. Farming is definitely a lifestyle and not just a job.

I am nearing the end of my first day out here. I’ve learned a great deal, but I get the sense that only the surface has been scratched while attempting to learn what makes these fascinating people tick. Take, for example, a fourth farmer I wasn’t aware of until today. Adam is now in his 8th year as a farmhand for Northern Harvest Farm. All those years have enabled him to command a wage somewhere in the neighborhood of $11.75 per hour. It’s hard for a small family farm to even pay this amount, though they would love to pay far more. Rick says he wishes he could pay Adam $20/hour. Not only is Adam not bitter about the arrangement, but he purchased his own land directly across the street from his job! He is in the very earliest stages of establishing a berry farm, the fruits of which will eventually be offered to Northern Harvest Farm members in the form of fruit shares. Both Adam and Rick are grateful for their working relationship, which could potentially last for decades. His focus for the time being is on developing healthy soil. This requires nurturing and care over a period of years. There is no magic wand.

Adam’s land is immediately adjacent to Stone’s Throw Farm. He and his wife have a small child under the age of one. They have recently completed building a garage on the property, which currently serves as their living quarters. Eventually they’ll build a proper home on the property. This will be done slowly, methodically, and sustainably, which fits in with the overall lifestyle.

Here you can catch a glimpse of this odd little neighborhood that is developing. Stone’s Throw Farm is on the right. You can see the greenhouses. Adam’s garage/house is the brown building somewhat right of center, and Northern Harvest’s impressive operation is largely concealed by the trees on the left. You can make out some of their outbuildings if you squint hard enough. Knowledge is not hoarded within the organic farming community, but is freely dispersed. Each of these farmers want to see their friends and neighbors succeed. This has been key to the growth of the local food movement.

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Here are my accommodations during my brief stay…

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And I get to eat with the family at this table. I’m writing from this location right now:

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This is the Food Farm’s resident dog guard. Despite his voluminous appetite that is fitting for a polar bear, Chester more than earns his keep. He makes rounds throughout the night, barking along the way (all night long, for which I was given ear plugs by Annie before turning in!) while scaring off predators who would otherwise tear into the various flocks of chickens or young turkeys.

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I am deeply grateful for this time. I gain so much more than I’ll ever be able to give to this place. Please take a look at Food Farm’s Kickstarter video here. This is an important means by which our community can help ensure the long range viability of significant quantities of locally produced food. We are on the cusp of something great in local agriculture both here and across the nation as more and more of us are finding value in local agriculture vs the old, worn out industrial agricultural model that is sickening society in every conceivable way.

Practical Ways to Cultivate Awareness and Gratitude in Daily Life, Part 3

Rather uncharacteristically, I worked 100+ hours over the past 10 days without a break while painting a beautiful house and rushing to get it done before a lovely young family returned home. It seems fitting to post the conclusion to this list, begun last month (you can peruse the living intentionally category if you like), at this time. Awareness and gratitude are absolutely vital when we are overworked or busy.

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  1. Regularly go on adventures. In what seems like a previous lifetime, I worked in a large, boring office. If you peeled the top off with a can opener it would cast the appearance of the world’s largest waffle iron. The hundreds of cubicles and low murmur of conversation were also somewhat reminiscent of a beehive. Not knowing what to do during 15-minute breaks, I learned to maximize the time by slowly walking through the woods that butted up against the parking lot. There was no trail. Only brush and unremarkable forest to step through, among, over, and beneath. It wasn’t scenic in the least, but I thrilled in this connection to the real, natural world during a day that otherwise had me glued to a computer screen for hour after hour. There was plenty of time. I had no particular place to be or destination. I wandered slowly. Observantly. Expectantly. These woods were otherwise ignored and unappreciated. I delighted in small discoveries like colorful mushrooms, wildflowers, odd growths and burls on trees, and in spying a nearby industrial junkyard from afar, in secret. Even though I never wore a watch, my internal clock always seemed to bring me back to my desk on time. Refreshed. Of course beautiful trails along ravines, rivers, and overlooks are more enjoyable, but sometimes you need to work with what you’ve got rather than wish for something better.
  1. Establish secret places where you may retreat for refuge and sanctuary. For me these places have tended to be one-room shacks in the wilderness. I have ventured back to these secret places for years, often bringing a friend, and have thrived in the stillness of these environments. I even constructed the writer’s shack that houses me at this very moment so I can experience this at will. On this cool, rainy day, the fire in the woodstove is most comforting and satisfying. Other secret places can be a secret nook along your favorite lake. Perhaps it’s a private reading area in your home. Contextualize this for yourself. For some men 18 inches of private space under a jacked up car is all they need. Figure it out and return often.
  1. Climb a tree. If you have kids this one will be easy, and no one will look at you funny. If you climb by yourself, without regard for what others think, you’ll get bonus points! John Muir, the great naturalist, was fond of climbing trees during wild thunderstorms so he could gain better perspective and really feel the wind and rain. Go ahead and make this metaphorical if you wish. Surely there’s some way for you to “climb a tree” in your life that provides an alternate perspective.
  1. Have an open mind. Don’t be so closed off to new ideas. We all need to be continually reminded of this.
  1. Observe. Every single day there are changes taking place all around you. See them. Don’t just hurry past.
  1. Opt out of the throwaway society, which leads to spiritual impoverishment and a complete lack of gratitude and awareness. Think on this. It’s true. As a child of a hoarder I experienced it daily, but I see it in others who live more “normal” lives too. How can you be grateful for anything if your general posture is to buy anything your heart desires, and toss it out with nary a thought later?
  1. Compost! Instead of disposing of fruit and veggie scraps or lawn debris, let it rot. The slow process is fascinating. It’s good for the environment, and even better for your soul. When we throw organic matter away we are being wasteful. Observe these materials for their entire life cycle, and joyfully make use of the proceeds.

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  1. Get to know your neighbors and local businesses. Invest in these relationships, and come to know your “place” really well.
  1. Learn to appreciate beauty in every area of life. You’ll see it in people, the natural world, animals, insects, artwork, and nearly anything. Try not to overlook what is lovely, for this can harden one’s heart and make it increasingly difficult to admire beautiful things that are all around us.
  1. Spend more quality time with your family.
  1. Wash dishes by hand, slowly, intentionally, and with care. Last summer, days after I lost my job, our dishwasher broke. My wife curled up into a ball and cried. I became the dishwasher. By and large the experience has been extremely positive. I became much more involved in the goings on in the kitchen, and it provides opportunity to connect with the family whilst tidying up together. It’s also yet another opportunity to slow down and avoid multitasking. This provides space for your brain to take a deep breath apart from all the stimuli it must process all day, which promotes creativity.

Wow. This list got long. You could easily lengthen it to a hundred items. Most of this is basic and intuitive. Adapt these to your unique lifestyle or come up with your own. You might even start out with just one. These ideas are just rough and off-the-cuff. It’s not rocket science. All of us intuitively realize these things. It’s just a matter of building some of them into daily life.

Some Thoughts On Usefulness

Useful people are enchanting. In the days following my job loss, seeing the postal service truck drive by caused my heart to beam in admiration. Even today, the sight of the man walking from house to house—touching lives with every stop—makes me happy. Rather than whine about not having many useful examples while growing up, I am admiring a variety of individuals today as I grapple along while finding my way.

I still recall delivering my book by bike to a former co-worker on April 8th. It was 33 degrees, wet, and I rode straight into a relentless headwind coming off Lake Superior. This was one of my first deliveries, and I wrestled with what the heck I was doing and why. I don’t suppose I came up with any “answers,” but kept pushing forward anyway. SLOWLY. It’s a lot like life in this crisis conveniently occurring at mid-life, during which I’m attempting to lead my family down an unconventional path.

After being warmed by the fire of conversation and basking in the well-wishes of my new friend, I turned down the gravel road that would lead me back down to Lake Superior. A truck, no doubt driven by a useful person, thundered by that triggered longings of usefulness. The tailgate was emblazoned with the slogan, “Welders on Wheels.” Now that kind of work is practical. Useful. Productive. Constructive. I longed to chat with the man over coffee, but no doubt he had places to be. It’s funny how such quick encounters can affect someone in my shoes.

I also admire the man in the pickup truck that stopped to help the woman traveling alone with three kids, stranded along a busy road with a car that had broken down. With his calm demeanor, he exuded competence. With a tool box at his side, Leatherman on his belt, and head bent down beneath an opened hood I found his act of service to be touching. Having grown up with a single mother, I have a strong sense of what such actions mean to a mom in such desperate circumstances. Ten seconds of observation were plenty enough for me to get a sense of the woman’s gratitude.

For years I was unable to adequately describe for my wife and kids what I did for a living, even though I toiled away for up to 10 hours at a stretch in the basement. I shoveled out hundreds of emails embedded in a virtual world. For 12 years I worked for two corporations. Without warning the plug was pulled. Nothing remained for me to point to and say something along the lines of, “I built that.” Like Neo from The Matrix, I was naked and bare in a strange world, wondering how I got there.

At the end of this week I’ll be looking forward to showing my son and daughter where I’ve been laboring for such long hours recently. I’ll walk them through a beautiful home that I’m in the process of painting for a lovely couple. My kids will easily understand what I offered to someone else in exchange for money. This is important for men, in particular. I have a master’s degree, and this work is definitely not rocket science. There’s something to be said, however, for persevering through difficult manual labor.

I’ll probably have 15-20 hours put into washing walls, sanding woodwork, speckling holes, and other glamorous work, before doing anything remotely satisfying. Such work is useful, nonetheless. I feel this deep sense of gratitude and respect for the house and the people who are entrusting me with it. This is their first home—just recently purchased—and they have entrusted me with it while traveling out of the country. This is an honor I don’t take lightly. In many ways they’ll be returning to a new home this weekend. I’m going the extra mile on this project with the hope that they will remember their reaction upon walking in for the rest of their lives. Our work should mean something to others. Something more than the trickle of cash into our bank accounts. This is what I’m longing for as I wade through what work and vocation will look like in this new stage of life.

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And yet, art is also useful to others. Here’s a picture of a lovely group of women (By the way, I’m 39 years old and still have trouble calling a collection of females in my age group “women.” It sounds so grown-up and mature, and I still feel childlike in many ways). I attended this book club’s gathering at the end of last month after they read and enjoyed my memoir. What an honor it was to sit among their smiling, jovial faces. These are beautiful individuals collectively striving to be better people. I’m grateful for touching their lives in a small way on this journey. The evening was a delight. I encourage you to consider my book for your own book club. It’s the sort of story that promotes effervescent conversation organically. We stayed right up to closing time, and I biked home in the dark. Under my book tab I’ve added a link for some discussion questions. They are certainly not refined questions, but they may be a starting point for you at any rate. We only had time to formally discuss a few of them, because the conversation and discussion points occurred naturally.

Finally, here’s an interesting idea for you. I am offering myself to write the stories you’ve always dreamed of writing but know you’ll never have the time. For example, perhaps you’d like a short book about a grandparent, of your family’s unique experiences, or about the history of your small business. What I bring to you is an innate ability to become intensely impassioned for your subject through the lens of a third party with keen observational skills. I am a great conversationalist, will travel out to your location, and will spend hours chatting with or about your subject. The point of this isn’t to merely glean facts, but to find footholds of interest for myself so I may write an engaging story. This is immersive writing. I will immerse myself into the story, become utterly fascinated, and will write it at your location over lets say 1 – 3 days. There’s also the benefit of it being from the perspective of a third party. I have a gift for seeing the big picture. The “essence” of people and things, if you will. Take a look at some past blog posts I’ve been doing on interesting people in order to get a general flavor.

I will write the book, perhaps 60 -100 pages or thereabouts, and will handle the publishing. You will then be able to order an actual paperback book from the print-on-demand publisher. The book will be available for years and years. Order one copy or a thousand. It doesn’t matter. I should be able to crank out the text of the book over a three day period and then come home to deal with the publishing details. Somewhere around $2000 for this seems like a fair price to me, and I’d also have to charge travel expenses. If you live in southern Minnesota, for example, I’d prefer to take the bus while reading Grandpa’s favorite book (just to use that time to begin to get into his head). I don’t expect to get a lot of takers on this, but I’d be thrilled to find even one interested party out there. If you aren’t needing an actual book I could go down to $500, depending on your actual needs. It will all start out with gregarious conversation, and I’ll be writing in your spare bedroom or kitchen table. And no, it won’t be polished to the point of zero errors in punctuation. I will, however, be conveying powerful feelings that will last a lifetime. This is more important than a pointless pursuit of perfection that would cost far more than the product is worth. Take a look around the blog here for a general idea on the sort of quality you can expect.

Of course, I can also paint your house if that’s what you actually need…

Reflections on a great activity, inadequacy, thrilling in the chase.

bikes and bridge

This post is in response to a reader who passed along a thoughtful comment in reaction to my newspaper column (pasted below). Her comments were rather encouraging, but they provide an opportunity to expound on something I’ve been thinking a lot of these days.

The barrage of social media in our lives can produce an overwhelming sense of inadequacy—a feeling of not measuring up. The greater sense of connection with loved ones is tremendously positive, but we must not fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. If the average person has say 300 – 500 “friends” on Facebook, they will see dozens of pictures of beautiful families doing awesome things together every time they log in. Fabulous vacations, trips to restaurants, and laudable achievements are displayed, which are often unachievable for the rest of us. Our minds devilishly convince us that we are failing to measure up if we can’t afford the vacations or restaurants. Perhaps we haven’t had a lot of quality time with kids of late. Well, just remember that everyone else out there has these same feelings of inadequacy. They are generally posting photos of the extraordinary, as we all do. Everyone has humdrum moments when they aren’t looking gorgeous, kids are melting down, and we are too darn exhausted to do much that’s “meaningful.” I just want you to know that I can relate.

When it comes time to crank out a column for the paper, I write about such events. I ponder the fact that the average reader may think I’m some sort of hyper-energetic and engaged Dad-of-the-year sort. My strength lies in the planning of fun and engaging events. I’m darn good at these. One of the best, in fact. BUT, I bet these occur maybe 2 – 4 times per month. It’s the stuff of daily life that overwhelms me: an emotional kid circling the drain, being consistent as a parent, being fully present while simultaneously stressing over what the future may or may not hold, etc. I don’t have space in the column or in these blog posts to go into these—the real stuff of daily life—and neither does anybody else. I’m merely trying to convey another way of being, a certain feeling and zest for life, and to encourage people to think creatively about how they fill their time. I certainly haven’t “arrived.” I definitely feel mediocre as a parent, in my spiritual pilgrimage, as a husband, etc. Basically, I’m fairly average. While I strive to be better, and will continue in this, “average” places me among the great throng of humanity that also struggles in this. Rather than bemoan the fact that we haven’t arrived, lets all rejoice in the journey. We’re all in this together. There is so much that I can learn from you, and I’m so thankful for that!

For kicks I’ve pasted my friendly reader’s comments here. Also, read about one of our experiences that worked out pretty darn well, even though there was huge potential for utter disaster…

I’ve been thinking about this all day, since I read it this morning. “I stacked the deck further by inviting the neighbor kids. It often helps to bring a friend. Due to my own deficiencies as a parent, perhaps, my kids don’t jump at the opportunity to go to art shows and museums.” I’m not sure I see the deficiencies of parenting here. It sounds like you sized up the limitations, addressed them and everyone wins.

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Art and creativity come naturally to children. Drawings and paintings burst out spontaneously as they learn to interpret their world. However, around fifth or sixth grade it’s fairly typical for these same kids to give up because they are unable to produce images that are comparable to a photograph.

As my kids enter this transitional age, I seek out anchor points to encourage them to remain tethered to their innate creativity and playfulness. Today’s students endure a world of testing. Specific answers are required. An inordinate amount of instruction time is devoted to preparing for these all-important tests (which aren’t going away, though everyone seems to hate them). Thus, the left brain develops while the right brain may languish.

Ideally, both hemispheres of the brain should grow and mature at similar rates. Each is equally necessary for successfully navigating the real world. They should work in tandem. Problem solving requires creativity—not rote answers.

As a parent, it’s my responsibility to expose them to the arts, while simultaneously encouraging them to use and develop their own innate talents. Duluth possesses a remarkably vibrant community of artists. Easy access to great, culturally relevant artwork provides immediate advantages to our children.

I happened to marry a talented painter, but I still feel like a neophyte in my knowledge of the visual arts. Even for someone like me, and you, it is surprisingly simple to expose kids to great art in this town.

Adam Swanson, for example, currently has 27 exquisite pieces on display at the Great Lakes Aquarium. His work is full of whimsy, bright colors, texture, humor, and animals. These attributes make his work tremendously kid-friendly. Swanson’s paintings provide both highbrow and lowbrow accessibility.

When I recently received an invite to attend the free opening to his show at the aquarium, I seized on the opportunity. Due to the aquarium’s close access to Playfront Park and Bayfront, it was an ideal family activity. If the kids were to get bored, the playground would be available sooner rather than later. This took the pressure out of the equation.

I stacked the deck further by inviting the neighbor kids. It often helps to bring a friend. Due to my own deficiencies as a parent, perhaps, my kids don’t jump at the opportunity to go to art shows and museums.

Feeling strongly that brains and bodies function best when both are exercised, I hatched a plan for us all to bike six miles each way to the show. This sounded like a great idea when it was 83 degrees the day before, but the day of the opening saw the temperature plummet to half that. Forty-two degrees, fog, and wind, made for a unique spring bike-ride that only Duluth can provide. To my astonishment, the kids thrived through this adversity. They felt proud to complete the ride on a mostly empty Lakewalk, and learned that fun is more dependent on attitude than on external factors.

Arriving at the art-opening shorty after we cruised under the Lift Bridge mere feet from enormous rolling waves in the canal, the kids were refreshed and jazzed. More importantly, they were ready to do something relaxing indoors. My requirement was that they put in at least 10 minutes, but they lasted more than twice that.

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All I did was point out that Adam’s works are not overly realistic. They are creative and playful, while containing easily recognizable animals. It’s vital for children to see adults creating vibrant, imagination-pricking artwork.

Viewing it firsthand—having the opportunity to greet the artist—stretched the kids in unique ways. The work is impressively rich in person. More vibrant. More alive. The paintings are three-dimensional—boldly textured with scrapes and brush-strokes. Bright, vivid color is eye-puckering. Subtle humor presents itself on large paintings, which is lost on small two-dimensional screens.

Our kids need more of these experiences. Bodies warmed by the ride and spirits by a dose of culture, the kids contentedly ate supper picnic-style outside in the fog in brutally cold conditions. They felt more alive than usual. Such activities are plentiful in Duluth, and usually free. Families and friendships flourish while enjoying them together. Be creative. Together.

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Contrast is the SPICE of Life!

A recent 65-mile bike ride was a study in contrasts. These came in both the human and natural variety, although I reckon that the family of humans is indeed a part of nature. Along with the rest of creation, we are all in it together. Dear reader, please follow me along on a marvelous journey, during which we become well-acquainted with two fascinating individuals doing unconventional work in difficult ground. One works among the poorest of the world’s poor, and the other is a hops farmer who fled a desk-job in the city. You will be inspired!

The beginning of the ride to the Two Harbors area was a familiar, well-worn path for me. The ride along Scenic Highway 61 is relatively flat and straight, being immediately adjacent to Lake Superior. A stiff northeasterly breeze was my adversary, but eventually I contented myself with a slower pace. The temperature hovered in the 40s, but I stubbornly refused to swaddle myself in the comfort of the jacket being uselessly carried in my backpack. Being a full hour later than planned, I found myself in a bit of a hurry all day (a most unwelcome feeling). I was on my way to deliver a single copy of my book to Joe and Pat Richter. Oh the lengths to which I will go to get The Emancipation of a Buried Man into the hands of readers!

Immediately upon turning left to head north up the hill away from the Lake, my outlook brightened considerably. The lake breeze and fog disappeared, a cheery sun brightened my spirits, and the temperature skyrocketed into the 60’s within five minutes of climbing out of Lake Superior’s basin. Most non-bikers are incredulous about the exertion required to climb 600 or more feet up the big hills that dominate the northern rim above the Lake, but I find the experience to be most heart-warming at this time of year. Fog and a persistent, cold lake breeze can dominate for weeks at a time down here. Climbing up the hill is like traveling to another region. It’s glorious to sense the changes as the topography is slowly crested. Humidity lowers, goose bumps stow themselves back into my flesh for future use, and the brightness of the sun showers and envelops as if you had just emerged from an underground mine. I’ll never cease to be amazed by a 20+ degree temperature change that occurs in short order:

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I do not own a cell phone. Some day I’ll splurge on the luxury item, but for now I prefer being untethered to communication devices. I believe I have a greater sense of freedom than my friends who must stop and consult their phones every 20 minutes or so. Additionally, I find satisfaction in relying on the kindness of strangers now and again. On this day I stopped into a lovely café that I never knew existed, asking to use the phone to let my hosts know I was running late. Some day I’ll stop back with a friend. It’d make a fine destination on the bicycle for a visit over some variety of yumminess in a bowl, plate, or glass. After nearly an hour on the road, battling wind and cold, I found the brush with humanity to be most welcome.

My directions to the highlands above Two Harbors were simple. No map was required. Take County Road 9 to 10 to 11 to 12 and finally to Co Rd 123 prior to making a final leftward turn. Those were my marvelous directions. Almost immediately I came across a black bear directly in my path. The animal, black as night and sleek as a model, was walking toward me on the shoulder. Perhaps he or she thought I was one of those “harmless” automobiles that hum by from time to time. Fifty feet prior to colliding with the beast, I was the first to swerve in our game of “chicken” as I sought to give the animal a wide berth. This stunned the animal out of its trance as the creature bolted into the forest with all its might. Fueled with adrenaline, it was a remarkable sight to behold. Seeing the bear’s muscles flex and sway beneath its sleek blackness was a real treat, and a good reminder of just how terrified these creatures are of us. A remarkable specimen, indeed. I’m thankful for the encounter.

Seeing the bear pulled my mind out of the stupor as I neared the bed and breakfast run by the Richter’s. Being so far out in the sticks, my expectations were rather low, to be honest. Boy was I ever surprised! The log cabin they built with their son is a site to behold with wonder. Standing out front, I felt like I had arrived at a grand lodge nestled between mountains in Montana. Enormous white pine logs were the chief building material. Not seeing many trees of this size in our part of the world, I was surprised to learn that their son logged the hundred-plus-year-old trees in northwestern Wisconsin himself.

Joe in lodge

Sensing my exhaustion and hunger, my gracious hosts ushered me to the dining room table where they entertain guests daily. They possess an admirable gift of hospitality that is worthy of emulation. I greedily sucked down two large glasses of orange juice, a full plate of a divine Bavarian concoction I had never heard of, freshly baked rolls, and an interesting fruit salad for desert. The meal and conversation made the long bike ride worthy of the expenditure of energy, and then some.

The B&B, Superior Gateway Lodge, is a sort of retirement plan for the couple, who have been involved in missions for decades. Joe and Pat met in the Peace Corps, and Joe later came upon what many would have considered to be a dream job while working as a freshwater scientist for the EPA in Duluth. A conventional existence wasn’t his calling, however. He resigned in order to go back into full-time mission work. In the decades since then he has served as the Executive Director of Farms International, which is a faith-based ministry serving the poor around the world. As the name suggests, there is a special place for agricultural projects in their work. However, they also fund numerous projects in urban areas. They primarily focus on entrepreneurial loans for the poor, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the capital required to lift them out of poverty.

Contrary to various micro-loan programs you may have heard of, such as through the Grameen Bank, Farms International focuses on larger loans that are generally somewhere around what would be about an average year’s salary. This kind of money (often between $100 and $2000) has the power to change lives of entire families forever, because the poorest of the poor otherwise would have no opportunity to save money toward substantial business investments. These funds are used to buy welders, get set up in an agricultural endeavor of sufficient size to produce a significant stream of income, etc. The revolving loans are delivered through what are termed as “projects” within the various countries, going through committees led by local church people and other leaders in the community. The projects are wholly indigenous, and Farms doesn’t pay any salaries. Additionally, the committees themselves determine the terms of the loans (such as the amount of the small administrative fee that’s assessed for covering various expenses and for building their capacity to help more people). Loans are repaid at a rate that modern banks in the western world can only dream of, and these funds are plowed back into the lives of more people. It really is an ingenious system. Additionally, I know of no other organization doing such work where one may so easily contact the actual Executive Director (who reports to a board of directors, by the way) with questions.

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Suffice to say, there was plenty to talk about during our two-hour visit. The Richter’s provided me with another example of a family deviating from the cultural norm for their life’s work. I found it rather amazing that they so deftly balance the demands of a bed and breakfast with their ongoing work with Farms International. It appears to be yet another example of complimentary gifts at work. Joe’s wife, Pat, is able to put her passion for hospitality into good use while Joe continues on with Farms along with improvements to the property, etc. If you get the chance, I wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Superior Gateway Lodge.

Being so far from home, I was pleased to explore the contours of another unconventional family on the same trip. Since Joe and Pat are teetotalers, I found it interesting to pedal 20 minutes further down the road to a hops farmer. I offer no lesson for the reader. I just personally enjoy hearing from a variety of voices, and these two families are different in nearly every conceivable way. It is refreshing to avoid huddling up exclusively within a like-minded, everybody-is-the-same tribe. How boring that would be!

Ryan Melton, his wife Lori, and two kids, moved from Duluth to the Two Harbors area in order to pursue an alternate existence in a kind of back-to-the-land experiment. Being fully disenchanted with his career in the city, he purchased land containing a ramshackle farmhouse along the Stewart River a few miles north of town, and started a pick-your-own hops farm called Harbor Hops. Though he is still left with uncertainty, Ryan says it was the best decision he ever made for his family.

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Previously the man was mired in an office job for a government agency. Unhappy. Dried up and withering. Unfulfilled. The work involved with maintaining two incomes carried additional stress into the home. For example, an unexpected sick day for one of the kids produced arguments between husband and wife over who would incur the sick day at work. For the benefit of marriage and family, they voluntarily scaled back—choosing quality of life and love over money—in pursuit of simplicity. This is a decision that families are increasingly making today. More and more of us are rejecting stress-filled lives and decades of unfulfilling family life in exchange for 10 or 20 years of “luxurious retirement living” down the road in the distant future.

Ryan doubles as a stay-at-home dad and farmer. Perhaps I could simplify his vocational work into one word: grower. He grows kids and hops. His wife commutes to Duluth for a day-job in marketing that currently sustains the family financially. Deftly balancing the demands of a two-year-old daughter and a son entering 5th grade, Melton finds a way to pour himself into his work growing hops. His story is inspiring for how he identified a niche just waiting to be filled, and for how he continues to wholeheartedly go after it. There are essentially no local hops for the many small microbreweries and beer brewers in our area. Ryan hopes to become a reliable supplier to meet the significant demand that exists for a locally grown, fresh product. It’ll take years to build the crop to that point, but he’s going after it.

father and daughter

The Stewart River, just down the hill from their home, is absolutely beguiling. This is a reliable source of irrigation. Full of life, it tumbles down small waterfalls and around rock of varying shapes and character through a mixed forest of older growth pines, aspen, birch, and spruce. The family’s fire pit, picnic table, and grill, are positioned in this lovely setting a short three-minute walk from their home near the county road.

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At the top of the rise near the home is his burgeoning hops farm/hobby/obsession. Forty of these poles (tree trunks) puncture the earth, ascending to a height of 20 feet. Think of the work involved in auguring each hole to a depth of four feet and sinking them all in! Individual hops plants will scale the ropes. The plant you see here, well-established and currently about 2 feet tall, should climb to the top in about a month.

Reach for the sky

Hops store their energy below ground in the rhizomes. The vigorous vines, growing 20 -25 feet in a season, die off at the end of each growing season. Newer plantings will reach half that height this year, but should reach the top next year.

This past winter, cold and lacking in adequate snow cover, was hard on the crop. Some plants were lost, but such setbacks serve a significant purpose. Ryan is learning which varieties thrive in a difficult climate (zone 3) above the north shore of Lake Superior. He currently has 17 varieties, but is slowly narrowing this down to only the hardiest plants.

His long-term view of the operation is admirable. While several micro-brewers from Duluth and on up the shore have expressed interest in his crop, he is focusing on developing a consistent harvest that can be depended upon year after year prior to going after significantly-sized customers (brewers that will develop a seasonal, locally-sourced ale and may require 100 pounds of high-quality hops, for example). The most lucrative success seen thus far has come through selling rhizomes of the vigorous plants to small backyard growers looking to produce fresh hops for their own small batches of home-brewed beer. This helps cover many of his costs as he continues to plow resources and effort into the long-term sustainability of the operation (i.e. a healthy root-stock that is disease-resistant and effectively rides out extreme winters).

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Continuing on in a theme of sustainability, Ryan is committed to organic growing practices. These are put to good use in everything he does, from disease and pest control to fertilizing. For the latter, he brews up a rich fish-guts-infused tea/concoction along with molasses and lactobacillus that smells FANTASTIC, but is great for promoting beneficial microbial activity in the soil. As with any farm committed to even the slightest whiff of sustainability, soil health is the first priority. Ryan obtains his supply of entrails and other unused fish part for free from Lake Superior Fish Company.

The Melton’s have been living in the high country above Two Harbors for 11 months now (though he began work on the farm back in 2011). Amazingly, a year ago the family lived across the street from a remarkably busy park that is thoroughly used year-round. Their son played hockey there, and they do miss the convenience of watching hockey practice from their living room. They also miss using the nearby bike path that carried them to many parts of Duluth, quickly and conveniently, but overall they are pleased with their move to a serene country setting. Complicating matters, however, is a ramshackle farmhouse that is unbelievably drafty and beyond the point of repair.

home and shack

They do not know what the future holds. Much uncertainty abounds concerning their living arrangement. The farm is a long-term investment, but other than that there is a great deal up in the air for them. That being said, their perseverance and outside-the-box thinking is inspiring and worthy of emulation—contextualized to your own passions and interests, of course. I greatly admire them for taking this step, a risky one, while pursuing a lifestyle of choice for their family. Far too many of us fall into lives mapped out by social convention, status quo, and convenience. It takes courage to forge a new path through wilderness when a family is involved. Such bravery and long-term thinking is transforming a significant swath of our generation of young families. For this, I am thankful and fascinated.

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