Westward — back to some more roots

February 9, 2011

I’m in LA now, visiting my sweat-heart, which is a form of rootedness.  Also, there is pain in my knees which roots me to my ageing body.

The pain is the result of skating, of course.   Yesterday I went to where it all started, so the story goes, though where is started, doesn’t exactly look like how it started.  I went to the Venice Beach Skatepark, which is a spanking new, vibrant, fragrant, silky-smooth skatepark inscribed with glyphs of skating’s past, but is formed by the skating’s present, monied hugeness.  The big pool, which I did manage to take couple runs in, was tiled along the coping (the lip of the pool) with graphics of Dogtown,  the name that surfers gave to the neighborhood where the surf-style skating was invented in the late 70’s.  The Dogtown documentary does a good job of telling this story.  The park includes an old-school snake course, a curvy, snaking bowl that skaters here carve down and back.  It gave me a chance to work more on my carving, something I realize I’ve never really learned having skated mostly on street curbs and un-curved half-pipes in my day–doing really basic lip-tricks, very stiff compared to the surf-inspired flow in these bowls.    The flow of  pools was never part of my skating education,  which is a something of a blasphemy here in Southern California, and something I am working to correct.  My skating moment in the late 80’s, as a teen, though I was always preoccupied by it, now strikes me as so cursory and shallow.  I could feel the depth and history of skating culture in this place, despite the fact that the park is only a couple years old.  There were a few guys there older than me, they were first and second generation Dogtown guys and they never quit like I did, they are the contiguous thread.  As one of them said, they are still writing the book, still figuring out how a life in skating goes, thrashing and shredding into their fifties, speaking really in spiritual terms about the practice of skating.

I am really glad that I got to see it and ride on that vibe a bit, despite being sore from the previous day when I tried out a street plaza in Hollenbeck Park, in East LA.  This was a good session for me even though I was disappointed the street-centric design of the plaza when I arrived.  I felt really good, accomplishing some nice board-slides, successful ollies to manual across the manual pads, and even ollieing onto the taller pad.  This is basic stuff and it feels good to get more confident with it.  This whole thing is about balance, not just in the literal sense of staying on the board and not falling, but of confidence and of pushing myself without busting up my body too much.   Man I’m sore today, I wish I could go skate more, but I am afraid I need to take several days off.  There is one more park I want to visit before I leave LA, Belvedere, also in East LA.  One of the kids at Hollenbeck suggested I check it out, with the very kind understanding that I am an older guy who would appreciate all of the transitions and old school possibilities there.

Back in Venice, away from the skatepark, among the t-shirt and bong shops of Muscle Beach I came across a curious installation, presumably a display of toys for sale, but just look at it:

I mean…it’s just…so true.

Anyhow, my folks are out of the country until March so I am out here in their car, my mom’s new Honda Fit.  It’s a good old-fashioned road trip and I got to make some good stops on the way out here, visiting some friends and also checking out some other skateparks along the way.  The first night of the trip was an auspicious start, I stopped in Iowa City for a visit with Nick Brown, Sarah Kanouse, and their hearty, happy daughter Genesee.  We got to catch up on some arty stuff, Sarah threw together a fabulous eggplant dish, and before bed Nick shared some of his coveted Templeton Rye.  This stuff is good enough to make anybody a fan of Whiskey.  The Iowa City skatepark was snowed over so I didn’t do any skating there, but the next day I went to The Saylor Skatepark, an indoor park just north of Des Moines.  This place was fun, not too crowded on a Thursday night, and it was only $8 for a 6 hour session, a better deal than the 3rd Lair in Minneapolis, and I think a better park, though the bowl isn’t as good.   I was absolutely the oldest guy there, but some of the kids spoke with me and one was even pushing me to try some new tricks and use the street course in ways I hadn’t considered.  That was fun until he got too comfortable with me and started getting snarky and sarcastic with me.  I guess I should expect this with teenagers.  Not really having much teaching experience I have very little interaction with younger folks like this.  It’s interesting to be in these parks and see how they do and don’t interact with me.

After Des Moines I got to visit with the amazing Sean Starowitz in Kansas City.  This was a fun visit.  Sean showed me around a bit, took me to Spool, a boutique that his girlfriend owns and operates, then we ate at Arthur Bryant’s a legendary K.C. BBQ joint.   I’m no coneseur but that was delicious!  Then after he showed me his studio and a bit of hanging with his room mates we had a good old fashioned night of bar hopping.  Perhaps a few too many beers but lots of good conversation with Sean.

Between K.C. and L.A. I hit up  a skatepark in Amarillo, TX and another Roswell, NM.  Then at Nick Brown’s suggestion I drove through southern New Mexico and took an afternoon hike in the vicinity of the Gila National Forest, near Silver City, NM.  I missed the ancient Gila cliff dwellings, worried they would take me too far out of my way, but found what I was looking for in about a 6  (or so?) mile round trip hike up the Whitewater Canyon Catwalk Trail and continuing on the connecting Gold Dust  Trail, near Glenwood.   The first part of the trail is a fully accessible, paved trail, some of it suspended up in the canyon, with overhanging rocks.  I thought of how it would be wonderful to walk this trail with Park McArthur who uses a wheelchair to get around.  But I also found the overhanging canyon walls disconcerting, a bit scary and disorienting and I thought of Annie Dillard describing how Victorian people travelling in the mountains would cover their eyes at the chaotic landscape.  That seemed far fetched and unbelievable to me when I first read it, but as I begin to experience the frailty of age (it’s  not that silly to say when my knees feel like this) and see these remote landscapes that I so romanticised as a young guy, it starts to make sense to me.  From the trail head of the Gold Dust trail, the mid-point of my hike, I was able to see my car (parents’) in the parking lot, maybe a mile away and a thousand (or two?) feet below, since the trail looped around and up.  It seemed like I could hop the barbed wire fence and kinda walk down the hill straight to the car, but I really wasn’t exactly sure what was below, out of sight, between me and the car, or whose property I’d be cutting across, so I opted to just take the trail back.  this turned out to be the most valuable part of the whole walk.  Even though I was hungry and thirsty I got into a really great rhythm and wasn’t preoccupied by not knowing where I was going or where I would end up or how much longer the walk would be as I was in the first half.  Passing through the overhanging rocks on the way back, the canyon was transformed.  After the hike that took me far above this canyon and across a few different landscapes I was more settled with the giant gravity defying rock faces and formations.  The  weather and light were constantly  shifting.  At one bend in the canyon I was arrested by sun-light shining through a snow flurry and the bare branches of an old tree reaching up the canyon.  I wished for Park again.  Back at the car I devoured a sleeve of Fig Newtons, slurped down the remainder of my water and continued my westard drive, grateful as always for Nick’s advice.

Meanwhile, of course, we have the inspiration of the people of Egypt and what looks like some deep fucking winter back in my midwest.  I guess I don’t mind missing some of that.

Oh, and I’d also like you to look at what I was doing in Chicago before I embarked on this road trip:


Skating is a reasonable response

December 26, 2010

I took up skateboarding again this past August.  It’s incredibly fun.  I’m in St. Paul for the Holidays and cheap, easy living at my parents house.  There is mucho snow, so I have been going to this indoor skatepark in Golden Valley called 3rd Lair, to get a little exercise and check out the scene.  Here’s a quick little video that a fellow skater kindly shot of me doing some kick-turns in the big bowl.


And here is a link to a slightly longer video on Vimeo, giving a bit broader view of the 3rd Lair:


Dreams in Minneapolis (awakes in St. Paul)

July 23, 2010

It’s a little too early for me to be awake.  I just woke up from a terrible dream.  What was terrible about it was how I, the dreamer,  was acting.  First let me explain what I’ve been up to lately.

For nearly a week now I’ve  been working on a project, or a series of projects at the Walker Art Center, as a part of the collaborative Red76.   The series is called Surplus Seminar, the idea is to work with surplus ideas and surplus materials to create a kind of experimental educational space.  As near as I can tell.  What I have been doing for the past two days–since the project has opened to the public–out on the gigantic lawn of the Walker, has been fun, strange, and a bit exhausting.   We have a pretty big pile of old art crates that the very accommodating and genuinely friendly staff at the Walker have saved for us–instead of land-filling them–as well as an amazing tool chest, a heaping supply of hardware, and just about anything else we’ve asked for to conduct this Surplus Seminar.  Wait, actually the building project on the lawn is called Anywhere Anyplace Academy, and is just one aspect of the multi-fronted Surplus Seminar.

If you know anything about the basement level of the museum world, or the art shipping world you might have seen these crates.   Some art objects have better temporary homes for traveling than many people have on this planet.  Indeed, some of the crates we’re working with could easily be put together to create a perfectly good home.   I was talking to a guy who works in the registrar at the Walker who told me a former staff person at one time used the old crates to construct a barn on his llama farm.  I hope I get to see that sometime.

I mentioned that these first two days have been exhausting, and this has to do with the methods we’re using to transform this material into some kind of spaces for education.  It is a total improvisation with whoever comes to the Walker and chooses to engage with us and the materials, from toddlers to octogenarian folks.   I was showing a ten-year-old how to use a power drill yesterday.  This is not the type of building I’ve been doing in precious isolation in my subterranean studio at Roots and Culture, though that also tends to involve a lot of improvisation, and frankly, a more comprehensive commitment to using surplus materials (I try even not to buy hardware).   Instead this is building that involves intense amounts of socializing, explaining of our intentions, attempting to open space for all different kinds of people to contribute work and ideas.  We’ve been making drawings with kids of all ages, asking them to imagine what they would like a school to be like.  We’ve been talking families, passers-by,museum workers, and  art students.  It is a field  of ceaseless change, already, just two days in.   It is fun and overwhelming, and it is an incredible privilege, I think, on more than one level.   And I think that my dream this morning was related to that.

I was in some kind of apartment, mine I guess (though I don’t literally have an apartment these days), and it was the opening of some kind of art event I was hosting.  Some collaborators and admired friends were there with me, kind of making fun of me for the messy presentation.  We were hanging out drinking, there were piles of change in particular that made the place seem messy.  A shipment arrived, a delivery person brought books which I had printed as  a part of the presentation.  I was excited to see them, but I had to pay the delivery person for them.   I was trying to write her a check and kept messing it up.  I was a having nearly paralytic difficulty writing the check and was incredibly confused and kept messing up and was being berated by my friends, one of whom was a dark, mean dwarf who might have had a Boston accent.  I was particularly frustrated at him.  It was my behaviour towards him that I am most disappointed with, when I said above that I acted terribly in the dream.  Upon waking I thought of the dwarf upon whose back Shiva Nataraja dances, a figure of misery.  (This doesn’t have any relationship to real small people, it seems important to note.)    Anyhow after wasting all of the checks in my confusion and looking for more checks and only finding a bunch of miscellaneous printed paper –perhaps at this point the delivery woman was tired of waiting and may already have taken the books away–I decided to go out and get cash from an ATM.   The streets were teaming with somewhat depressed people, I was certainly one of them, the sky was gray.  I found at the ATM that my account balance was negative fifty-some dollars and I was sure I had enough to pay for the books before.   Some one showed me a chart explaining how there had been some kind of financial collapse.  I immediately understood that I would not get to distribute those books as I had hoped to and thought about how it would be disappointing for the people who had contributed to making the books.  And how the cash card had become useless in that moment, and this was the mind-set in which I woke up.  Wondering what I’m going to do when these things are gone or cease to be useful because the complex systems they depend on are ephemeral and will change and perhaps collapse?   And I thought about the cushions upon which all of my work, my plans, my ideas, my fantasies float, the privilege that allows us to conduct these wild experiments at the Walker, and wonder how much longer it can last.  I wonder which parts of it I still need to learn not to take for granted?  I wonder if the learning we’re doing and the learning we want to help facilitate is of any use?    I suspect that some of it is.  And I remember my dream, all the people out on the street, who despite their depression (my depression?),  already had the wisdom of the collapse I was just becoming aware of and that feeling of knowing that the only thing to do was persevere and work to remember that wisdom and do what can be done with only my body, getting to know these people so we can persevere and remember together.  Their was a gleam in the grey.  I think one of the guys on the street was Jimmy Boggs.   Surely, soon enough, we’ll be celebrating together.

How about that USSF?

July 8, 2010

Yeah, I got back from Detroit over a week ago now.  I was there to attend a little bit of the 2010 U.S. Social Forum.  Of course I was travelling with folks from my group of co-researchers of the Midwest, Compass.  The basic agenda we had was to go there and talk about this idea we are so enamoured with  called The Midwest Radical Culture Corridor.    Over the next few months we will be unpacking the joyous experiences of that confluence.  Some folks from the group have already written lovely reports: Dan Wang’s report-back, and Brian Holmes. But that is not what this post is for.

Instead I am posting a quick text that I wrote for my friend and collaborator Natasha Wheat.  She is making a chap-book that will accompany her “Self Contained” project at the MCA here in Chicago.  Posting it here is an oblique way of reflecting on my time in Detroit.  It was written very much under the influence of the after-glow of that trip. It is a glow of  affection I felt among my collaborators, my temporary neighbors and housemates, my comrades at the forum, and the incredible hospitality of Detroit. Either we’ve been incredibly lucky or Detroit is just about the friendliest place I’ve ever been.  We were exposed to multiple vistas on our journeys to and from Detroit, that ranged from tragic to hopeful.  It was yet more strong experiential evidence that the more you look for people doing interesting work in the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Regions the more you find.

Anyhow the text I wrote for Natasha–I’ve been warned that I often come off as pedantic in my art and writing, I doubt this will be an exception to that tendency.   I’m grateful to Natasha for the chance to contribute.  I look forward to reading what  other folks have written for her, not to mention see her project.

Shed Your Ass and Celebrate

What Good is Ms. Pac-Man?

This guy Dave is very good at Ms. Pac-Man. From my observations it seems he can best the high-score on any machine. I watched him play a game that was moving so quickly that it exceeded my capacity to make decisions, as one sometimes does watching others play a game, asking oneself, “What would I do in this situation?” Watching him play I recalled a state of awe I experienced as a kid watching my older brother play these games. Dave explained to me that he actually prefers the machines that are set to run faster because it makes it easier to watch the whole board. In other words, to play Ms. Pac-Man at this level, you don’t watch Ms. Pac-Man, you watch everything else.

Life is simple (I’m still learning).

As a body’s life begins with it’s first breath of air, I wonder if an alliance begins with its first shared breath? It’s quite simple to observe, for example, a human baby as she takes her first breath when she enters into this world, separating from her mother’s body, becoming her own. But who has the capacity to observe the first breath of an alliance? Who has the nuanced, subtle sensibility to know when an alliance has begun? What is the long path to developing that capacity of wisdom? Who can teach us to walk this road? We also have a very clear understanding of how to nurture and nourish that child, but how do we deepen our understanding for nurturing and strengthening alliances?

At this historical moment, in this place, this might be the most urgent question. What is necessary to form and maintain alliances? Our culture and the dominant economic mode associated with it, namely capitalism, have thoroughly revealed themselves as foolish and short-sighted. Capitalism and it’s culture are much better at sewing the seeds of resentment, depression, and self-destruction than they are at forming alliances. It is a long journey of sinuous and snaking, intertwined paths from this way of making our homes to ways of making homes that recognize, honor and support the humanity and dignity of all people, of the land which is theirs, the power which belongs to them. Power must be returned to them to make their homes on their terms. The commitment to supporting this, and the pragmatic actions to make this transition are the substance of alliance.

The people to look to are the indigenous people of each and every place, of each and every land. Indigenous is a category which might seem inadequate from some vantage points. But it is best to understand that this is not about a so-called ‘native essentialism.’ The concept of native essentialism is a product of a legalistic logic, a set of presumptions that constitute an imaginary universe that is far too divorced from any real or pragmatic relationship with the earth we live on to keep us alive much longer. This universe will shrivel away, and be digested by the healing soil of the earth. We will begin to understand that power was never really the result of violent imposition and control but always a gift from the land which is inseparable from its people, the people who have the subtle abilities to listen to and understand that land, its skies, its waters, and its energy.

We need to listen, maybe we even need to learn to listen, to understand that we are at the beginning of a long road. And to know that because of where we come from, because of our teaching, it is even difficult for us to understand the obvious, plain truth in what we are hearing. We must be patient and develop our capacity for humility. We must have the will to be uncomfortable and learn to deal with inconveniences quietly, without complaint. We must work with each other and teach each other what we know about being allies. When we are sad and feel guilty we must not lash out with this energy, but make a caring place to deal with it.

Not in isolation, we don’t.

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit a place called Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living. I went with a group of friends with whom I’ve been corresponding and collaborating for around three years now, conducting embodied, experiential research to learn about the economies and cultures of the Midwest. At Black Oaks we met a man named Fred Carter who shared a powerful idea with us: “a garden has no value if it’s not part of a system.” He’s right. Right now, he’s right. So go, find your garden and don’t just work on the garden but work on the system in which it is integral. A hint: That system involves celebration and celebration involves singing. One last hint: That system is how people are going to make it out alive.

Mike Wolf

Summer, 2010 — Year of the Metal Tiger

Sunday morning in Noble Square

June 6, 2010

I remind myself today that holding oneself to a standard too high can bring with it a certain paralysis.   So, my first YouTube upload:

Continuities found again, remembering who gave me generosity

May 2, 2010

I still owe this blog a “Big, big West Part Two” post about the first half of my west coast tour, the memories are calcifying and degrading into fiction as I write, but I feel the need to proceed with that still on the to do list.  I just got off the Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago Megabus.  I went to the Twin Cities so I could go to Mankato for my Grandmother’s Funeral, which was on Saturday, followed by a Champaign brunch at the Mankato Golf Club.  She retained her membership at the Golf Club after she knew she was not mobile enough ever to go there again, so we could get a better rate from the club for this brunch.  Mary Virginia Anderson, my mom’s mom, my last living grand parent, died at 94, last Wednesday morning.  Here’s the Mankato Free Press obituary.  Her health had been in steady decline for years and she was in hospice care for maybe a month before she died, so this was not unexpected and has come as a relief for my aunt and mom who have had to do a lot of leg work and worrying over the past couple years.

Leaving Chicago on the bus early Thursday morning I was in a daze, to say the least–a combination of tiredness, chemicals, and emotion. Up on the upper deck of the Megabus (in my favorite seat behind the rear stairwell, it seems roomier somehow). It occurred to me that up there you’re at about the same height as when you’re on the Amtrak.  And In my daze I was disoriented enough that the familiar corridor along the Kennedy Expressway, headed toward Milwaukee, looked unfamiliar and I was able to watch it whizzing by with a renewed curiosity, wondering still about this gigantic urban center, it’s reaches, where all this material came from, what was sacrificed, where does it really begin and end?  And there is continuity in this wonder.  I remembered flying into the Chicago to visit my uncle when I was maybe nine or ten–around Thanksgiving perhaps–and being shaken and awed by the seemingly endless grid of lights below.   A stuporous haze can be quite a wonderful thing.

There was a really uncanny moment after the visitation at the funeral home on Friday.  Andrew, my big brother, and I volunteered to go pick up the pizzas for the dinner with the extended family in the Holiday Inn Express lobby.  We were about 25 minutes early when we got to Dino’s in North Mankato so we decided we would get a beer in one of the bars there on main street.  I suggested we just drink at Dino’s but Andrew wanted something more real.  We headed for the American Legion.  After walking halfway in Andrew turned us around and said, “that was too real.” But the bar tender chased us down and said we couldn’t pop our heads in and not have a drink, and demanded that we come in.  How could we say no?  The Friday evening crowd was pretty decent and they literally applauded us for coming in.  Andrew, being a peculiar form of outgoing, and in a peculiar moment of extraversion, asked an older man if he knew Harold Anderson, our grandfather.    He did, and what’s more it turned out the guy was a distant relative of ours!  We chatted for a bit about our gramma who he visited somewhat regularly.  He was very disappointed that he couldn’t make it to the funeral, due to previous commitments.   He told us about the geneology work he’s been doing on the Swedish part of our family.  He said something that really strikes me as interesting.  He said it’s been difficult to find information about our relatives in the old country, that there seem to be some severed ties there and thinks that one of the reasons is that they may have left on bad terms, that they may have left to avoid conscription, mandatory military service to defend the emerging nation-state.  Andrew and I talked about this a bit afterwards and we had really different perceptions of that possible heritage.  Andrew was disappointed and seemed to think that it was typical of our family to go for the comfortable, safe option.  I on the other hand understood it as being political, that they left because maybe  they didn’t believe in conscription or the nation-state.  It may have been an act of protest.  Of course it’s all speculation, it’s probably quite complex (isn’t everything? [no.]) and we may never understand the specifics of this.  But to me it’s gratifying to have another thread to follow to understand how I became a colonizer of this place–that there were specific pressures and conditions in the old country (hmm, do I want to keep using that phrase?) that were an important part of producing this situation.    Anyway, this guy also bought our grandfather’s army helmet at the estate sale last year when Gramma moved to the assisted living facility.  He brought us down to the basement of the American Legion where he keeps it.  Our grandfather wore this helmet (and cooked in it, and crapped in it, apparently) marching through Europe during World War II.   I mean…what the…?!

The funeral was good.  I say so in part because the occasion opened up other even greater continuities for me that I had maybe not known about, or at least been somewhat unconscious of because I took them for granted.  And that’s not that different from not knowing.   As happens at these things, people spoke of my Grandmother’s positive attributes.  She was generous, generous with money and things (she’s funded a lot of my art), but also generous in spirit.  She was open to giving of her self with people of all backgrounds, in a part of the world that is not exactly thought of as a progressive place.  It occurred to me as people spoke of her generosity that I am incredibly lucky to have had such a woman in my life all these years and that I have inherited the seeds of her generosity.    In my work as an artist–the arena where I work to have the greatest autonomy and do what is most important to me–I have strived to make that kind of generosity and openness of spirit, to practice it and to make places for it.   And now I understand that the extent I have ever been able to do that is due in large part to her.  Thank you Gramma Anderson.  I hope I can keep working to honor your generosity.

Gone Global in Rockford, IL

April 22, 2010

I’m on the familiar Rockford/O’hare shuttle.  I’ve been on this bus a number of times before, to get from Chicago to Dhamma Pakasa–a Vipassana meditation center I go to occasionally.  This time I am going back to Chicago, after attending the third annual Go Global conference–a business conference focusing on the Rockford, Belvedere, I-90 corridor.   The idea is to encourage companies and business ventures in the area to work on making global partnerships.

Why would I go to this?  I registered as part of Compass Group, a cultural co-research group I proudly associate myself with.   Actually, maybe we just call ourselves Compass now.  We talk about regionalism, and specifically a region we call the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor.  Though Compass produces knowledge and cultural capital, the central focus is the production of relationships for their own sake, and well, I guess also for the sake of growing a particular politics.  In and of itself Compass is decidedly not a capitalist or business venture.  At times it is anti-capitalist, really, but I think it is useful to remain mercurial and uncalcified about that for a lot of reasons.  And–though I did do a little thrifting to put together a professional look–I decided there was no need for me to go and misrepresent myself, my agendas, or my work to anyone at this conference, this place where I was in some ways totally out-of-place. (Ironically I feel my education and privileged upbringing were training me for a future at events such as this–luckily that all collapsed in the early 90’s when it became clear that I couldn’t stick with the program even if my life depended on it).  When asked about Compass Group by other conference goers I quickly developed a somewhat standard,  honest response.  The first couple of attempts made for some slightly awkward interactions…

Me wearing my professional-look.

My professional look.

So the bus goes directly to the Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center.   The hotel has two pools which were both empty, to give you an idea of how the Rockford economy is doing.  Oh, the 22 percent unemployment there should also tell you something.  The conference was attended by maybe just less than 200 people. I don’t have much to compare it to–attendance-wise or vibe-wise–since it it’s my first business conference, but it seemed like they had food and seats for a lot more.  I was amazed that the panel presented by national business liaisons from India and China had little more than a pity audience of five or six. I mean, there were people from China and India offering assistance to build partnerships and nobody had any interest?  C’mon Rockford region business people, when do you get to hang with guys from China and India and ask them anything you want about starting businesses in their countries?!

I am not the least bit surprised, but it seems important to say that these people are thinking about economies in the same short-sighted, linear way that got us into most of the catastrophes we face at this moment.  Everybody was still just talking about  “growing the economy to make jobs.”  There was a little bit of banter about the green-collar sector, but even that was mentioned almost begrudgingly in some cases.  What’s more, it’s not even a different way of thinking.  It’s just a misguided cooptation of the environmental movement (…come to think of  it, it’s fair to assume at this point that some of the environmental movement only ever wanted to maintain the status-quo.  I mean that wouldn’t be the only part of the 60’s and 70’s counter-culture that ended up acting that way).   Let’s get it straight, at least right here, this way of thinking has nothing to do with sustainability as I understand it.   That is, it has nothing to do with altering our relationship to the land and people we depend on to live, but everything to do with keeping all of those relationships the same, based in exploitation and extraction.  It has nothing to do with making places where everybody can live and work with dignity and self-determination.  It is an outmoded, old-fashioned way of making an economy and structuring relations, and the longer we continue the sooner it will become a life-and-death situation for more and more people, as it already is for many people around the world.

Speaking of old-fashioned solutions, there was a panel about how to do contract work for the military as well as one about how to export munitions and defence articles.  The keynote speaker on the second day was a former Air Force general and Boeing VP, one of the largest contractors for the military, if not the largest.   This was a useful exposure to reality for me.  Nobody seemed to have a problem with becoming further entrenched in a war-based economy.  In fact people seemed pretty excited about it.    I also learned about a couple of developments in transportation and logistics in the region that I’m not sure what to do with, but they somehow pique my interest.  One, in Rockford (and eight other Illinois towns) there is what is known at a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ), which is a federal designation, an area where the tariff and duty laws work differently.  Basically manufacturers who import parts can get a better deal on these fees if they are in an FTZ.  So the Rockford International Airport is in one of these FTZ’s and it turns out that it’s the 19th busiest air freight airport in the country,  its shortest runway is longer than the longest runway at Midway, and it can even handle one of those super gigantic Russian cargo planes (these are the kinds of factoids trotted out in business promotion).   My point is, interests in the Rockford region business community are working to position Rockford as a growing air freight hub.   Oh, that reminds me, I learned that aerospace is one of the large industries in the Rockford area too.  The other big transport and logistics thing I learned about the greater region is that right now they are building a massive, really massive rail road hub outside of Springfield to move a lot of the rail freight traffic out of Chicago.  One of the speakers indicated that this would open up a lot of prime land for development in Chicago.  Of course I’m just thinking more weeds and abandoned places to explore in Chicago.  But I also can’t help wonder about the rail workers losing their jobs or being displaced, and what’s being destroyed in Springfield?

…Nearly the entire first day of the one and a half day conference was a time of feeling awkward and insecure about being there.  It’s good to be able to live with this feeling.  I wonder if it will ever get easier?  Anyway, the answer I gave people when asked about the Compass Group was that I am not part of a business at all but Compass is a group of artists and academics who have been researching the midwest as a region for a couple of years and sharing the knowledge and understanding gained through different publications and cultural institutions and that I was there to learn about the business world and the Rockford area in general…or something like that.  Some people perhaps perceived the fact that I really was not sure what I was doing there at all and therefore had no interest in talking to me.  One guy seemed to turn nostalgic about his youthful wanderlust and had a short reverie about a trip he made to North Africa when he was my age.  I liked him.  One guy seemed on the verge of offering me a graphic design job to help him with a pamphlet for a virtual business incubator called AgTech that is looking to develop new ways making money using, so-called, low value, agricultural bi-products (oh the assumptions!).   I told that guy he might be interested in the Land Institute.  He made a note of it.  Some folks I spoke with were on auto-pilot and answered any question I asked because they were treating me as a possible client, partner, or whatever, out of habit.  Or they were just friendly and appreciated my curiosity.   This auto pilot is what makes infiltrating this kind of thing for Yes Men type antics all too easy, which I couldn’t help thinking of while I sat, out-of-place at this conference.  I think I will try to return again next year.  At some point though I’d be interested in presenting my ideas as a cultural worker at a conference like this, not as a prank but in total transparent sincerity.  I think it might be an interesting negotiation to be at a business conference and find ways to bridge the gaps between capitalists and those of us more interested in what happens beneath capitalism, to present my agenda as a cultural worker interested in building non-capitalist economies and ways of relating to each other.   Though I can’t see working really hard  make a proposal to this conference a huge priority–I mean I could never get it to work right now for one thing–but a few years down the line it might be a snap.  Anyhow, I’m glad I went global.  G’bye for now Rockford.

Big, big west (part one)

April 14, 2010

It was about two weeks ago that I arrived here in St. Paul, on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, coming from the west on the final leg of my thirty-day rail pass.   I want to give some indication of what happened on my (nearly) first trip to the west coast since I was in high school.  Since I covered quite a bit of it–albeit mostly big urban centers–let’s call it my West Coast Tour.  It was certainly the first time I was there as an artist, doing art work.  I’m just gonna cover some of the highlights.

So, it occurs to me that this is the most time I’ve spent on trains during any given thirty-day stretch in my life.  I guess it was somewhere in the neighborhood of a cumulative seven days on trains.   The fact that I packed all wrong (over packed, over packed!) and that I was somewhat miserable feeling on the first leg of the trip are the result of waking up on the wrong side of the bed, there in my studio, on the day I left Chicago.  One of the reasons I like the train is the strange temporary social world that forms, built of glances, curiosities, brief exchanges, and occasionally, weird, long conversations with people you would never otherwise come into contact.   And of course sometimes there is an ad-hoc,  alcohol-fueled, mini-party of strangers that forms in the observation/cafe car.  I wasn’t feeling that on the west-ward part of the trip, but my final night on the train to St. Paul I met a great little group of folks.  Suffice it to say all kinds of intoxicants (including a shamefully munchie-licious array of junk food) were shared.  Two weeks later and I still feel affection for that temporary crew.  But I was generally quite introverted during these train travels.  Part of me feels like I miss out on something by not being more out going.  But another part of me feels like I was privy to something by spending this time on these trains–that I had  a vantage on the landscape (and the landscape is always people) that made just being there as an observer worth while.

Essex, Montana

A view of Essex from my walk up the hill.

My last stop before this closing train party was in Essex, Montana.  I stopped there because I still had a sliver of time left on my rail pass and I thought it would be good to go for a walk in the woods of Montana.  I have a hard time thinking of Essex as a town from what I experienced.  There is a hotel there called the Isaak Walton Inn.  It was originally  built as a boarding house for railroad workers when the Great Northern Railway was built.  Their job was to keep the lines clear of snow during the winter.  The Great Northern Railway was of course built by and for the gold rush, a key aspect of manifest destiny (The Empire Builder!).   I was in Essex for exactly twenty-four hours.  The Isaak Walton Inn is appearantly named for an Englishman who wrote a book about angling in the 1800’s.  This was my first exposure to the name, but he is well thought of in some conservation circles, I have since learned.  In fact there is a conservation organization called the Izaak Walton League that began in Chicago.  I just learned of this organization after having spent the night in Essex, as it so happens they co-organized a recent, very interesting looking event I didn’t get to go to at the Experiemental Station in Chicago.  This strikes me as one of those moments where something decides to make itself visible in my life by seemingly disconnected circumstances.  I assume the Inn being named after him has to do with trout fishing.  Anyhow, the walls of the inn were covered with tons and tons of rail road bric-a-brac.  I was most intrigued by the images of James J. Hill driving his Model T (or some old car) around the wilds of Montana.  Hill was a rail road baron who financed the construction of the Great Northern Railroad.  I like to see how these rich guys used to recreate.  You can still go for tours of his palatial mansion on Summit Avenue here in St. Paul, just a mile or so from where I grew up.   I think the main clientele at the Inn are train-nuts (there are converted cabooses and even an old freight engine you can stay in) and cross-country skiers.  It was rainy while I was there so the skiers were disappointed.  I went on  a walk and experienced half a dozen forms of precipitation as well as a few moments of bright sun.

Before Essex I was in Portland.  I actually met a somewhat interesting guy on that train ride.  Pete was about my age. It was a packed train so I plopped down next to him and I could tell he was disappointed at having to share a seat.  Who isn’t?  He was reading Sherman Alexie, which for me was an indication that we might have some things we’d like to tell each other about.   The ice got broken, or at least cracked enough.  I think there is a common defensiveness in people in our age bracket (really, bracket?).  Some of us don’t share too easily with strangers. Frankly I think it has to do with the controlling and undemocratic nature of the education system combined with the conditioning of a youth filled with passive media consumption, but I’m not going to try to unpack that right now.  Pete ended up telling me about an organization he helped to start, The Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, to protect one of the last herds of un-hybridized buffalo (non-beefalo-buffalo) in the world.  He told be about how in high school and college he discovered Edward Abbey and that this was central to his early political education.  I can say the exact same thing, in fact, I did.  He also described how the subsequent eco-activism he did formed close bonds with a group of people and that some of them have pooled their resources to buy something like fifty acres of land not far from Glacier National Park, near the Idaho, Montana border.  There they live partially off the grid, they grow food, hunt, and construct and sell yurts (I doubt there are very many yurt companies in north west Montana so I’m betting this Shelter Designs is their’s).  I’m glad Pete and I could get over ourselves enough to talk a bit.

Sam powering Frau Fiber's sewing machine.

I was in Portland for five days or so.  I stayed with the Baldwin-Gould family.  Sam and Laura are old friends from when they lived  in Chicago in the early 2000’s.   At one point Sam and I were explaining how we are old friends to one of his Portland people and we realized we have actually not even known each other for a decade.  None the less, we decided that old friends is the right description, out of a mutual  feeling that is real yet not rational.   While down town for lunch and shopping with Honora and Esme (Sam and Laura’s beautiful four month-old twins!) we ran into a friend of Sam’s  who works at the Museum of Contemporary Craft and she suggested we check it out the current exhibition Gestures of Resistence.  This show has all kinds of Chicago all over it.   The best part was when we ran into Frau Fiber on the street.  She had a bike-powered sewing machine and was making knock-off Columbia jackets out of plastic bags!  The Frau now lives in LA teaching kids how to do radical cultural work (that’s what it sounded like to me anyway),  but she was a powerhouse of Mess Hall programming for a while, organizing the Sewing Rebellion.  It was cool to see her again.

The other real highlight in Portland was meeting Matthew Stadler and having a little book making party with his print-on-demand equipment, for his independent, experimental publishing operation, Publication Studio.  I really liked meeting Matthew.  I am really stricken by his honest generosity.  His home (and business) is one of the most appealing manifestations of a permeable home that I have yet experienced in my wanderings.   Sam and I both had a lot of stuff we wanted to print and bind, but Honora and Esme had different plans.  They had concerns of their own and we found it was hard to operate a guillotine trimmer and hot-glue book-binder while holding slightly cranky baby girls.   Thanks to Matthew though I got to make a second edition (of one) of A Call To Farms, which I traded with him for a copy of Capitalism Inside an Organization by Pravin J. Jain.  A fascinating little pamphlet/book about the fall of Enron written by a former VP.

My bro Louis and his dad Sam (also my bro), on our sparkling day trip to Oceanside, Oregon.

Mankato in Mankato and in Radical Minneapolis

April 4, 2010

This Easter morning I was roused and shepherded myself into the shower and my finest garments for a trip to Mankato, Minnesota. You know, for Easter…brunch at the golf club.   And to visit my grandmother (she likes it when I spell the whole thing out), who is in hospice care at Mankato House, her nursing home.   It was my aunt Judy, my mom, my dad, and my self in the car.  All exceptionally intelligent people who thankfully don’t feel the need to reconcile our differing perceptions of the world, yet we all care about my grandmother enough to tolerate the trip.  That being said, it occurs to me that we were going to the golf club, her former golf club, out of a sense of tradition and deference to her, yet no one was willing to tell her that we were doing so, because we felt guilty that we aren’t on our death beds. (Are we?)  This is the world I was born into, this is the weak-hearted world of Scandinavian settler-culture I’ve inherited.  Ufdah.  None the less I love these people, and I’m sure they will understand if I treat them in the same way, and I’m sure I’ll feel guilty.

Anyway, my expectations were low, but I have to say that brunch was better than ever at the golf club.  My two bloody marys were stiff.  Mankato is the site of the largest hanging (lynching?) in U.S. history.  My mom and aunt who grew up there even talked about it in the car on the way out there.  There is an infamous etching of the event, the hanging of 38 Dakota men.  It was U.S. retribution for the Dakota War of 1862, in which the Dakota fought to defend their homeland from U.S. take over.   Mom and Judy talked about a poster they used to have of the etching.  My mom bought it for fifty cents through her school(?!!).  This shameful moment and its ever shifting memorialization in Mankato is, frankly, very fascinating to me.

Infamous illustration of largest lynching in U.S. History (Abe Lincoln approved).

It came up again this evening out on the upper deck of the Bedlam Theater in Minneapolis.  My dad conscientiously got me back to the West Bank in time to attend the Unsettling Ourselves Discussion Group there,  it’s a discussion “designed to create community, education, and organized networks for non-Dakota allies to act in solidarity with upcoming Dakota decolonization struggles.”  The discussion group is every Sunday until June.  I think there were seven of us there including the facilitator this Easter Sunday.  I am glad I went and looking forward to next Sunday.  Everyone in the group had valuable input answering the questions posed by the facilitator from the Unsettling Minnesota Collective.  How do we benefit from the colonization of this place?   We worked to talk about this question on a personal level, there is clearly a lot to delve into here.  We talked for a little while about the distinction between “settlers” and “colonizers” and I think I came to the personal conclusion that there is not much to be gained from trying to distinguish between the two.  In closing we each briefly addressed the question “What is your identity and why is it important to you?”   It was an interesting question for me because it has never been something that’s felt urgent for me to be able to articulate.  I think this is certainly a consequence of the privilege I’ve experienced in my life.   I am glad to work on the question, but it also has me wondering why so many of the people who I hang around with and admire don’t talk about identity, but talk about subjectivity?

Magic Shoes

April 3, 2010

Please note that the ‘Magic Shoes‘ page over on the right, there.  This is where I am talking about the current spell of good fortune I am experiencing with regard to footwear.  Look at these!

Nike Are Force I's

Purchased at Savers on Lake, Spring 2010