I write. I edit. I talk into microphones. I point cameras at things.

Dec 6, 2014

I’ve had the good fortune over the past 17 years to see a lot of great bands in concert. From small club shows to massive festivals, up-and-coming bands to established behemoths of music. It all started my very first “real” concert - Pearl Jam at the Target Center in Minneapolis in 1998. (with opener Frank Black!)

Ever since that show, I’ve been hooked. The experience of seeing a band perform and connect with a crowd, being a part of that exchange of energy and emotion, can be transcendent and beautiful. Pearl Jam may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s hard to deny that they put on a consistently great live show and love their fans. That night, they had the Target Center rocking — literally. I couldn’t hear properly for a few days afterward and lost my voice until halfway through the next day. It was an amazing show with a band I loved and I got to experience it with good friends. I’m not sure it gets much better than that. 

Recently, though, I’ve started thinking about bands that I’ve been into and have seen live multiple times, but would not really consider seeing again. 

We all have those bands or artists who, in hindsight, we’re a little embarrassed by. While I’m not necessarily embarrassed by most of the bands I’ve seen, there have been a few clunkers here and there. Shifting tastes and all that. 

So I decided to put together a list. The criteria include — 1) it has to be a band that I have seen multiple times, and 2) the band must still be active and touring. Pretty simple. Here we go. 

  1. Counting Crows. Concert count = 5 Let’s start as close to the beginning as possible.  Sure, August and Everything After was the record that got them noticed and led to insufferable amounts of airplay for “Mr. Jones,” but *Recovering the Satellites *was the one that got me hooked. I was a teenager, full of overwrought emotion, the perfect time to fall for a band like the Counting Crows. For that time in my life, they had everything— songs about intense romantic entaglements, songs about the dissolution of intense romantic entanglements, and accordion solos.  Now, though? In all honestly, I’m shocked that they’re still around. Still singing about relationships at a teenage-level as you amble toward 50? Still trying to maintain a Sideshow Bob hairdo well into middle age? Meh. Of all the bands I’ve seen through the years, this one I regret the most. But hey, I was young. I didn’t know any better. And in defense of my younger self, “A Long December” still holds up pretty well. 

  2. eels. Concert count = 5 We move on to another band that found moderate mainstream success in the mid-90s.  From the moment I first heard “Your Lucky Day in Hell,” I was hooked. I’ve always had a misanthropic side and Mark Oliver Everett (the E in eels) wrote songs that had were right up my alley.  eels put on a fun, lively show and try to make every tour a unique event. Whether it’s dressing up like mechanics and playing fuzzed-out garage versions of their catalog, or touring with a string section, the eels were always been a band we looked forward to catching when they came to town. I’ll never forget the band trundling onto the stage in pajamas as the crowd was already streaming out the doors. They had already played two encores and had brought up the house lights and “time to leave” music. It was a spectacular fake-out and added a bit of whimsy to the typical concert template.  I don’t really know when the switch happened, but the spark isn’t there anymore. And again, in many of these examples, the cause might not be 100% on the band. People grow out of music all the time. What was cool and hip when you were 15, 20, 25 years old can start to lose it’s luster by the time you turn 35.  But part of me feels like Everett may be coasting just a little bit at this point. Their last few records have been uneven and treading over well-worn ground. While I know I’d probably still have a good time at an eels show, I’d rather spend my money and time on something else. 

Let me take a quick aside here. I’ve always been the kind of person who believes that comfortable, well-adjusted artists are often not great artists. I believe that conflict, external or internal, is necessary to create great art. There has to be a catalyst. Once an artist settles into a comfortable life, whether from monetary success or familial bliss or kicking a drug/alcohol problem or what-have-you, they tend to lose the edge that made them great. It doesn’t mean that they lost their talent. The Rolling Stones still put on great live shows, even if they haven’t put out a truly great record in decades. 

We can all point to an actor or musician that was a hell-raiser in their early days who settles down and starts to make bland, comfortable music. COUGH Eric Clapton COUGH.

One of my favorite examples is Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Those early Wilco records, right up to A Ghost is Born - were fueled at least in part by Jeff’s insecurity, drug problems, migraines, and in-fighting with Jay Bennett. Once Jeff got his migraines and substance abuse issues under control and settled in as one of the most critically-acclaimed and respected alt bands of the mid-2000s, he started making dad-rock. Comfortable, albeit incredibly technically proficient, dad-rock. 

In a way, it’s too bad that we no longer have the driven, tortured Jeff Tweedy pushing musical boundaries and writing incredible songs like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” or “Via Chicago.” But it’s also insanely selfish and shitty of me to wish that Jeff, or any artist, was miserable just so he could create amazing art again.  Regardless, my point stands. Conflict creates great art. Comfort does not. 

Anyway, back to the list. 

  1. The National. Concert count = 4 I can’t think of a band which I have fallen for and become thoroughly bored by in quicker succession. It was that quick one-two punch of Alligator and Boxer that hooked me, and by the time High Violet rolled out, I was all but done. The National are first band on this list that has fallen prey to what I like to refer to as “Hold Steady Syndrome.” Basically, it’s the idea that certain bands fit certain venues, and once they go beyond those venues, they lose part of what made them great. (more on that later) For example, I first saw The National at a small club, then a mid-sized club, then a larger venue, and then at an outdoor festival. They were too loud for a small club, and too intimate for a larger venue. At the festival, they just didn’t connect. But in the mid-size club, they were perfect.  Even if I haven’t been into their last few records, I’d consider catching them if they came through town and played a mid-sized club. Unfortunately, all they tend to play these days are larger venues and festivals.

  2. The Black Keys. Concert count = 3 Now that I think about it, these last three bands all succumbed to “Hold Steady Syndrome.”  With The Black Keys, though, the combination of playing larger venues and a shift in their core sound was a tough one-two punch.  I liked The Black Keys the way they were at the start — just two guys from Akron kicking out gut-bucket blues. After a few records of just that, they wanted to morph into something else, started working with Danger Mouse, and the rest is history. Don’t get me wrong, Brothers was a great record, but that was the exception, not the rule.  Outside of The White Stripes, I’ve never seen two people make so much glorious noise on stage. Then they started touring with backing members, adding layers to their sound when it wasn’t really needed, and, frankly, resting on their laurels.  Jack White at least had the good sense to drop the White Stripes and move on to a solo career, realizing that the music he wanted to make couldn’t fit within the red and white candy-cane construct he’d created.  While I’m happy for them for their success, I’m just plain not very interested in the music they have to make these days. (unless they’re going to do another Blakroc record, then I’m all in)

  3. The Hold Steady. Concert count = 5 The last time I saw The Hold Steady in 2011, it was pretty apparent they were going through the motions. It was sad.  One of the best live shows I’ve ever been in attendance for was a show they played in 2005 at Berbatis Pan in Portland. Tim Fite and The Constantines opened and both played out of their minds. By the time the Hold Steady took the stage, the whole place was buzzing — as much from the alcohol as from anticipation. And they did not disappoint. Friends of the band set up a conveyor belt of shots and beers running from the bar to the stage, and by the encore, Craig Finn was desperately holding onto the mic stand to stay upright. Every time he missed a line, the crowd served it back to him, and we got through that show together, sweaty, inebriated, and euphoric. Lately it feels more and more like Finn is holding onto his gallery of misfits and miscreants (whether it’s Charlemagne in his sweatpants or Holly or Katrina and Nightclub Dwight…) a little too tightly.  Finn is an amazing lyricist. Listen to his 2012 solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes. It was a definite return to form.  In my humble opinion, the Hold Steady is a band that should’ve existed for 2–3 records and then disappeared, with the members going on to other fulfilling projects. Their last few albums sound stifled and forced. They’d have been better off packing it up after Boys and Girls in America.  Yes, I know that makes me sound like a music snob, bashing a band’s latter-day catalog as inferior to the records that hardy anyone listened to, but go back and listen to Separation Sunday and then listen to Heaven is Whenever or Teeth Dreams and try to tell me I’m wrong.  The other part, unsurprisingly, is the aforementioned “Hold Steady Syndrome.” The Hold Steady is the bar band-iest of bar bands. The idea of seeing them outside of a dirty, low-ceilinged bar or club is just odd. That’s their sound. That’s their audience. Again, I’m happy for their success. But I fear the only time I’ll see them again is on their way back down, and that’s a damn shame. But that audience connection that Craig and crew cultivate just isn’t the same in a massive venue full of faceless fans. I hope that they move on to something new, because I’m sure it would be fantastic.  Of course, a part of me is hoping for a quick LIFTER PULLER reunion tour before that happens…

Nov 10, 2014

The older I get, the less inclined I am to think of age in yearly increments. I’ve moved on to five-year increments. Sure, it makes the in-between years a little less painful. But the main reason I’ve started looking at aging this way is because age just means less the older you get. The years seem to stretch. 

Remember when you were, say, six years old, and being friends with a kid in the class above you (or, wonder of wonders, two classes above you!) was a mark of being really cool? It was outside the norm. Those seven and eight year olds knew so much more than you did. Third grade was light-years ahead of first grade. They were doing fractions, learning about vowels, and all sorts of other crazy shit.

The older we get, though, the less a single year matters. My friends who are 36 and 37 aren’t fundamentally any different than I am. They haven’t been privy to some magical secret that I, on the cusp of 35, have yet to learn. They’re just other adults. Differences don’t seem to really crop up until I’m dealing with 25 year olds or 45 year olds, less so with 40 year olds and 30 year olds. 

So I’ve come to this nice little rule of fives when dealing with age. Turning 30 marked the end of a decade of change — graduating college, getting married, moving away from home, buying a house, finding my place in the world. But 31, 32, 33, 34? Meh. Who cares? You’re just a person “in your 30s” or in “their early 30s” then. Big deal, move on, how’s about that weather we’re having?

35, though, is a hinge point. From now on, I’ll be “in my late 30s” and increasingly “almost 40,” which isn’t awful in and of itself or anything. It is what it is. We all get older. No one out there is aging slower than anyone else. (with the exception of Keanu Reeves, of course)

I am not particularly looking forward to 35. But it’s upon me regardless. Time marches on and all that. I like to think of age as just a number. It’s a cliche that works for me. One day I’ll wake up and feel like I’m 24. The next, I’m 54. As long as the days where I look in the mirror and am stunned by the emerging wrinkles, receeding hairline, and, increasingly, slight touch of grey outnumber the days where I see that same scene and think “yep, that’s what should I look like” I figure I’m doing alright.

Like most everyone, I avoid thinking about the inevitable result of getting older. But I admit to climbing up into my own head every now and then to contemplate the fact that this is a one-way trip and we’re chewing up track with each passing day, chugging toward our destination, right hand firmly on the throttle. 

It’s not I fear being dead. There’s no point to fear it, really. The process of dying is a frightening enough prospect. Whatever it is that comes after? I think Mark Twain may have put it best— 

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Of course, I’m not dying. I’m turning 35. There’s no need to get into a drawn-out, navel-gazing dissertation on death. I need to settle the fuck down. 

Instead I should be reflecting on the positives I’ve managed to pick up over the course of my 35 years. The friends I’ve made, the family I have, the wife I love and the life we’ve made together. 

What does 35 mean to me, aside from the obvious (that I’m on the downward slide to 40 now)? I guess it means that I have to come to terms with the fact that it will always feel weird that I’m an adult.

When I was a kid, I assumed that adults had a different mindset. That they had everything figured out and had a handle on their lives. Adults had all the answers — or most of them, anyway — so they had to know something us kids didn’t know, right?

The further I get into “adulthood,” the more obvious it is that this assumption was bullshit. Sure, there are things I’ve managed to figure out and stuff I’m pretty certain of. Mostly, I’ve accumulated a list of “well, I should try not to make that mistake again.” 

The most important lesson I’ve picked up over these past 35 years? Life is more or less a crap shoot, and that’s okay. Do the best with what you have, try not to get hung up over stupid shit, and enjoy yourself. And never forget that 90% of the people you meet are just as confused as you are.

Oct 14, 2014

It’s hard to pinpoint the genesis of my love of the outdoors because, as far back as I can remember, I’ve been outside. Whether running around the five-acre farmstead where I grew up, family camping trips to Turtle Mountain State Park, playing in the pastures at my uncle’s farm, or the dozens of camping trips, canoe trips, and hikes I participated in as a Boy Scout — the great outdoors was a constant part of my life.

In fact, the majority of my memories of the house I grew up in don’t involve the house so much as our yard, the woods behind the house, and the farmland that stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction around it. Regardless of the season, that was where I spent my time, that was where I felt most comfortable.

I remember spending hours in the woods around our house, either alone or with my poor little sister in tow as I constructed forts from discarded wood, pretending to be Robin Hood, or any number of odd little games that only make perfect sense when you’re a kid.

It hardly mattered if it was an endless summer day or a harsh December afternoon, I was outside doing something. Those elaborate snow forts aren’t going to dig themselves, you know.

I can count so many milestones in my life on the outdoors —

  • My first experience leading others was on a Boy Scout canoe trip through Quetico Provincial Park in Manitoba. We spent an entire week canoeing over 80 miles, setting up camp from scratch every night, completely isolated from the outside world. The silence and the peace in that place is beyond words.
  • Or our family trip to Glacier National Park. I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the Rockies. For a flatlander from the Great Plains, seeing those snow-capped peaks fill the horizon brought 10 year-old me to tears. I was bawling and laughing at the same time, I was so happy.
  • Going for long drives in the countryside with Sara when we were dating in college. The way that we experienced the rolling grassland of North Dakota and the Minnesota lake country together made me certain we were a good match.
  • An impromptu Christmas hike up to Mirror Lake in Mount Hood Wilderness outside of Portland, just six months after we’d gotten married and sprinted to the west coast. Our new puppy, Marley, revelled in the powder. And we tromped past snowshoers and hardcore hikers in hooded sweatshirts and tennis shoes.

There are scores more. Most of them just brief, fleeting moments of peace and tranquility, usually sparked by something seemingly small and insignificant. Like a slight hesitation at a fork in the path or a leaf falling from a tree that catches the corner of your eye. Delicate, pristine instances where I am reminded of how essential and primal our connection with nature is, and how easy it is in a world increasingly detached from that connection to forget how important being a part of nature can be to our well-being.

Despite all of this, I’m no naturalist. I can’t really recognize bird calls, identify or tell you what wild plants are edible or anything like that. Those sorts of pursuits were never as important to me as just being present in wilderness. That’s not to say that I’m helpless out there. I can still start a fire off a single match and put together a makeshift shelter if I have to. I have a relatively good sense of direction and know enough to be able to enjoy myself and stay safe. In the end, I try to adhere to two basic things when I’m in the outdoors-know my limits and do no harm. Stick to those and 99% of the time, you’re golden.

Some people feel like being in nature brings them closer to god. I’m not religious, but I certainly hold nothing against those who do. It’s just not for me. But the outdoors? I need it like I need food and water. If I spend too much time cooped up in buildings and cars, I get irritable and depressed. Even if it’s just a quick walk in the park or riding my bike to work, I need to get out. The outdoors is my church, my sanctuary.

Yet, by some twist of fate, I’ve always been drawn to the city. Don’t get me wrong, I think my rural upbringing was absolutely essential in making me who I am today. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Regardless, I was always drawn to population centers. Be it the 350 person village of Alvarado, the bustling metropolis straddling the Red River, Fargo/Moorhead, or my current home of Portland.

Too often I think we equate “the outdoors” with big, grandiose places like Yellowstone or the Boundary Waters. But it’s really only a few steps and a change in mindset away. There are few things as sublime as cycling down tree-lined city streets on a lovely autumn day or walking in the park in high summer, the buzz of the city muted and dusty in the background.

As it gets harder and harder to “stop and smell the roses,” we need be more mindful of striking a balance between our created world and the actual world we live in. Look up — really look up — at trees as you walk under them. Track a bird as it swoops down in front of you. Let yourself smile when you see a squirrel circle a tree trunk and dive around a branch.

I don’t mean this in some hippy-dippy, a ‘get in touch with nature, maaaan’-sort of way. It’s really two just messages that I personally mash into one — take some time for your own mental well-being and appreciate the beauty of nature. I do this unconsciously because, going for hikes, biking to work, sitting at the foot of a waterfall, strolling on the beach, walking in the park — any of that stuff, is how I can disconnect, if only for a minute or two, from the everyday. And that’s something we all need every now and then.

Sep 15, 2014

It has been just a little more than one year since I made the decision to go "gymless." I allowed my gym membership to lapse and walked away from a place that I had called home for two decades of my life.

This past weekend I went back, just to see if I missed it.

From the time that my dad would let me tag along with him to the YMCA to those early morning training sessions before school with my football coach and neighbor, Don Stoner, when I was in the 7th grade, weight rooms just felt right. But today, after a year away (which is by far the longest I've gone in the last 20 years of my life without setting foot in a gym), I just felt bored.

It wasn't the lifts. The movements that I've performed thousands of times came back almost instantly. It wasn't the space, either. I've always been comfortable with the bitter smell of iron and sweat and the sharp, harsh clang of weight plates. It was something else. At first I couldn't really put my finger on it. It wasn't until a couple of days later, when the DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) set in, did it hit me - the weightroom wasn't where I wanted to be anymore. That got me to thinking - what is it I want to achieve from a fitness standpoint, anyway?

In my younger days (I can use that phrase now, right?) it was for sports - football, basketball, track. I went to the weight room to get stronger, jump higher, run faster. Once I was out of school, I switched to lifting to stay in shape. The ended up becoming a means to it's own end. Because I'm a competitive person, I quickly started trying to be the "strongest guy in the gym." Anytime I saw someone bench pressing or squatting or whatever more than me, I used it as motivation to out lift them. While this was fulfilling, it was also self-destructive. Yes, I was putting up pretty big numbers on major lifts, but I was also grinding down my body and packing on unneeded muscle, straining my chronically crummy knees.

For good or bad, all of that led to where I am now. I've seen the older guys in the gym, the grizzled gym rats in their 50s and 60s, replete with wraps and braces for every joint, moving stiffly from one staton to the next, grunting and straining. That wasn't where I wanted to end up. But that was the path I had put myself on. So I decided to make a change. To make myself stick to it, I knew I had to cut myself off from the gym.

Nowadays, I still work out to stay in shape and be strong, but my definition of what that means has changed. So where do I want to go from here? Let's go to the bullet points -

  • Continue my work with kettlebells. What started as a lark based on general curiosity has really blossomed. Many kettlebell lifts are true full-body movements that require coordination, control, and strength. Whether it's a simple swing or more complex movements like the snatch or turkish get up, the thing I like most about using kettlebells is that you're working with the weight, instead of battling it. Until my little foray back last weekend, I hadn't picked up a weight heavier than 62lbs in a year. My focus with kettlebells is less power and more endurance and technical proficiency. They're a great way to build core strength and burn fat. Also, my back and knees - which were the biggest casualities when I was lifting heavier and heavier - haven't felt this good in a long time.

  • Expand and continue to build upon bodyweight exercises. I just recently started being able to do handstand presses. I still have to be near a wall so I don't fall on my ass, but still, it feels pretty cool to have that kind of control over my body. That's really the thing I like the most about bodyweight fitness - I feel so much stronger in a more practical way than I have in a long time. I may not be able to deadlift a small car or bench press a ton of weight anymore, but I can move myself around much more efficiently and with more confidence.

  • Speaking of regression in typical weight room lifts, one of the most interesting takeaways I had from heading back to the gym last weekend was that I'd actually gained more upper body strength. I had no problem whatsoever with the bench press or overhead press or barbell rows. In fact, I could lift heavier weight more easily than before.

  • Lower-body lifts like the squat and deadlift were another matter, though. My numbers on both went way down. But I expected that. My legs in general have gotten much smaller over the past year. After a lifetime of having thick, chunky, tree-trunk legs, I've slimmed down considerably, relatively speaking. Consequently, biking to work is easier and my knees feel healthier. I'll gladly give up some raw strength for that trade-off.

  • From a health standpoint, this change has been incredibly beneficial. Three years ago, I weighed between 225 and 235 pounds, the heaviest I've been since my senior year of high school, when I packed on weight to be an offensive lineman and middle linebacker. When I stepped on the scale at the gym last Sunday, I was 195. My heart rate is in the low 60 beats per minute and my blood pressure is also right in the sweet spot, 110/65.

All in all, pulling away from the weight room and changing my approach to fitness has been incredibly positive for me. Everyone has different goals and different approaches to fitness. Mine has morphed from packing on muscle to wanting to still be fit and active when I'm twice the age I am now.

Physical fitness has always been a very important part of my life. Hopefully, it always will be. If I'm lucky and play my cards right. If I can still enjoy an active liftstyle at 68 and beyond, I'll know I've done something right.

The biggest thing I've learned over this transition to being "gymless" is that fitness - if you're truly dedicated to it - has to be adaptable. The best fitness regimen is one that you're excited about and one that pays both physical and mental dividends. If you're fit, but unhappy, it's not sustainable. You have to enjoy what you do if you want to keep it up long term. And what keeps you excited and wanting more changes over time, so you have to adapt. Will I still be singing the praises of kettlebells and bodyweight exercise five years from now? I hope so, but have no idea. As with anything, the only constant is change. I'm excited for where the journey leads, no matter the path I end up taking.

Aug 12, 2014

Robin Williams is dead.

Goddamn that's hard to write. It's hard to even comprehend, but it's especially hard to write. Now all we get of Robin is memories. Lucky for us that those memories include stuff like Dead Poet's Society and Mork and Mindy and The Fisher King and Aladdin and hours of standup and guest appearances and Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting.

Not that anyone's work could encompass the fullness of their being, but every little bit helps. From time to time I'll take a quiet moment and try to focus on a random memory of someone in my life who has passed on, like my grandfather, my great-grandparents, or some of my friends who died too young. It feels good to know they're still there, even if I have to search for them. What I wouldn't give to have hours and hours of audio and video to revisit when their absence is particularly acute.

I was introduced to Robin Williams first by reruns of Mork and Mindy. It's been years since I've watched the show, but the zany, manic humor definitely had a hand in molding my own sense of what was funny.

When Dead Poet's Society and Good Morning, Vietnam came out in the late 80s, they were prime "family movie night" material, and I loved them. I wanted a teacher like John Keating and I wanted to be Adrian Cronauer. In fact, when my dad bought the soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam, I quickly confiscated the cassette as my own (or made myself a copy, I can't remember which). I'd spend hours soaking in the golden oldies and clips of Robin Williams doing his thing.

When I learned that you could record over cassettes by putting masking tape over the top of the cassette, I ruined that soundtrack by recording myself doing my own "funny" ramping between songs. I still remember counting out how much time I'd have between songs and timing out my own schtick so that I wouldn't cut off any of Martha and the Vandella's "Nowhere to Run" or Them's "Baby Please Don't Go."

That movie and that tape played a big part in the foundation of my love of radio. So I guess, in a small way, Robin Williams played a role in why I work in radio today. So, thank you for that, Mr. Williams.

Speaking of cassettes, I also had a habit of falling asleep listening to tapes as a kid around this time. As soon as the lights went out, I'd hit play and tuck my headphones under my pillow and drift off to sleep to the dulcet tones of Sam Kinison and Richard Pryor and, of course, Robin Williams. I was in love with standup comedy and even though - at 10, 11, 12 years old - many of the jokes went right over my head. The tone and pacing and phrasing and timing were all there and so I understood that what was being said was funny, even without understanding exactly why.

I could have recited Robin William's "Live at the Met" album word-for-word, complete with pre-pubescent attempts at all of the accents and voices that Robin was always prone to fly into. As a matter of fact, I'm sure I did do that more than a few times, or tried to anyway.

My poor parents...having to listen to their darling son's half-witted attempts to sound like Robin Williams, with snippets spouted at random, entirely devoid of context outside of my own twisted train of thought. They probably thought they were raising a crazy person. I thought I was hilarious. Because Robin Williams was hilarious and if it worked for him, my take on it just had to comedy gold. At least I was smart enough to censor out all of Robin's swearing and some of the subject material. If there's anything worse than your ten year old trying to be funny, it's their jokes being peppered with "fuck," "shit," and random references to cocaine.

I was 17 when Good Will Hunting came out in 1997. Seeing the frantic, manic force of nature I'd come to know as Robin Williams deliver that performance was transformative. It was beautiful to discover that a man who had first reached me with his humor knock me on my ass with a very powerful, very personal portrayal.

No matter what I saw him do or saw him in, Robin Williams never felt like anything other than authentic. Some entertainers hide behind a wall, even when they pretend they're breaking it down. It never felt like Robin Williams was hiding. It felt like he was sharing, sharing his flawed, imperfect, bombastic, energetic persona with the world.

Robin Williams always felt real. You could hear it. Even when he was riffing on something that seemed like a whim, you could tell he wasn't just doing it for effect. He was doing it because he had no choice but to experience the world in his own unique way and to share that perspective with the rest of us. And that sharing was the fun part. That sharing was what was important.

Obviously, we can never know what led Robin to take his own life. Depression is a motherfucker. Robin Williams suffered from it, just like many millions of us do, to varying degrees. And anyway, I don't want to dwell on that part of Robin Williams' story, because there is no way any of us can know what brought him to that point. Depression fucking sucks. Fuck depression.

I want to remember a person who inspired millions of people, who shared himself with the world. I want to remember a man who was charitable with his time and frequently lended his fame to causes to try to make the world a little bit better. Those are reasons to remember Robin Williams. Not how he died.

We only get one life. That ticket is punched when you're born and there's no getting off, it's a one-way ride. But the destination isn't what matters. What matters is what we do while we're on that ride. Robin Williams was someone who made other people's rides better.

Aug 9, 2014

I mentioned a few months back that we were expecting to get a new puppy in the wake of Marley's passing. Initially, we wanted to wait a few months to get a new dog. We needed time to grieve and move on and get comfortable with welcoming a new pet into the house. It's hard to explain properly if you're not a childless pet person, but while our dogs aren't our "kids" they are very much a part of our family. Fargo is integral to our lives. Marley was, too, moreso.

And now, Sammy is, and her arrival has ushered in the Summer of Sammy.

From afar, it's easy to forget the problems and frustrations associated with adorable things. Be they babies, kittens, dogs, or any kind of cutesy thing, if they're not ours, we tend to only see the fun side. Or when we do get a glimpse of the drudgery, we're magically opted out.

Your friend’s baby has a dirty diaper? Hand the little squirt back over to their parents. Not your kid, it's not your problem, no reason to get any poop on your hands.

Someone's fluffy kitten destroys a couch cushion? Welp, sucks to be you guys. Cute kitty, though.

That adorably dopey puppy with the floppy ears shits in the middle of the rug? Oof, I'll come back once you've aired out the living room.

But when that furry little hellion is yours? Yeah, not quite so cute. Not quite as adorable. Just a touch more infuriating. Sammy is most assuredly a little hellion. Whether it's waking up at the butt crack of dawn and giving you a less-than-playful paw smack to the face; to randomly attacking poor, half-blind Fargo; to chasing a neighbor's car down our street - she certainly makes herself into an unholy terror from time to time. Sammy is a handful. No doubt about it.

A big part of the reason that she’s a handful is also why we wanted another puli puppy. She is smart as a whip, just as pulik are known to be. You know that uneasy feeling when you know someone is watching you and studying your every movement? Yeah, Sammy does that. It is mildly unsettling to have a rambunctious puppy stop what she's doing to stare intently at you as you tie your shoe, or make coffee, or any other mundane daily task. It’s like she's taking mental notes, filing away her observations for a later, likely nefarious use.

More than anything, though, she's a puppy. A furry little being of boundless energy and appetite, the center of her own universe, moving in every direction at once.

As she has grown, her personality has started to take shape. Sammy is an athlete, for sure. She also seems to be pretty clever and loves to try to outsmart us. Most pulik are willful and independent, so that part is really no surprise. She's also incredibly vocal. I've never heard a dog make so many noises. Her vocal range goes from growls to howls to annoyed grunts and what I can only describe as primate-like tutting. Imagine the classic monkey "ooo OOO oo OO oo!!" but made by a puppy. It's...weird. Where Marley didn't even make a peep for the first few months we had her - literally, no barks, whimpers, nothing - Sammy, on the other hand, has been talking at us from day one.

And boy how she's grown! At just six months old, she's already easily taller and longer than Fargo. Sammy is a lanky girl and she's starting to fill out. Female pulik usually weigh 23-25lbs fully grown. I don't know exactly what she weighs right now, but when we took her to the vet for her four month checkup, she was already 20lbs. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say she's nearly 30lbs at six months, and she's already as tall as the average fully-grown female. This is before her coat (which can weigh 10lbs on it's own) has grown in. Sammy is going to be a big girl.

I'm kind of excited that she's on the larger side. As much as I love our dogs, I grew up with larger breeds and being able to rough house with my dog is something I've always enjoyed. I can't do that with delicate, dainty little Fargo, who coughs if you pat him too hard. I could playfully smack the thick-chested Marley around all day long and she'd come back for more. Sammy is the same way, but even larger. She makes me wish I could still go for runs in the park, so I could take her out and blast down some forest trails with Sammy pounding at my heels. But my knees just aren't what they used to be.

More than anything, these first four months with Sammy have made me appreciate the time we had with Marley even more. Over the last year Marley was with us, it became hard to remember the healthy, powerful, vibrant dog she was for much of her life. Those memories got plastered over by the blind, arthritic, worn-down dog who fought hard on the losing side of life. Sammy has brought back so many memories of a young, healthy Marley that we'd both forgotten at the same time that she has become a part of our family in her own right. In that way, she's doubly enriched our lives this summer. So here's to many, many more "Summers of Sammy."


Jun 29, 2014

It's that time of year again. June is almost at a close. The real heat of summer is yet to come. And a deluge of "Best Album of the Year...So Far" blog posts and articles are flooding the web.

As usual, I've spent this month hemming and hawwing over whether I want to throw my hat into the ring and cobble together my favorite records along with seemingly every other Joe and Jane Internet. In the end, I guess I'm more or less powerless to stop myself. Besides, there have been some surprises this year and some highly anticipated records that have fully lived up to the hype. 2014, at least up to this point in the year, has been a very good one for music. These choices aren't at all objective or often even based on anything other than my own personal enjoyment of the music. If you're looking for cut and dry critiques, you can find that elsewhere.

Let's get right to it, shall we?

Here are my ten favorite records so far for 2014, in no particular order.

Augustines - Augustines This is a record that sounds like a rainy, foggy night in the midst of the city, yet doesn't fall into the trap of being weepy and full of melacholy, even though there are plenty of both throughout. Augustines create a huge sound for just three guys. This is what I'd imagine U2 would sound like, were they still at all relevant.

Aan - Amor Ad Nauseum Aan took their time in making this record, and it was well worth the wait. There are standouts all over this record, starting with the opener, "Wet and Dripping" and running all the way through "Spiritual Provisions," "Bubble Bath Pop," and "Somewhere's Sunshine."

The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream Another record filled with stretched out, ethereal jams from The War on Drugs find them honing their sound. Hauntingly remeniscent of the glory days of FM radio and it's standard-bearers like Tom Petty and Springsteen, yet strikingly original.

Future Islands - Singles It's been said over and over again, but there's really no better way to describe this Future Islands record - it's dad rock at it's finest. The audaciously-titled "Singles" is filled with just that, perfect pop singles that, were this still the 1980s, would be plastered all over the radio dial and MTV.

Afghan Whigs - Do to the Beast The first new material from the Afghan Whigs in over a decade was well worth the wait. Sure, Greg Dulli has been busy on his own during that time, churning out music as The Twilight Singers, The Gutter Twins, and as a solo act. But the 90s kid in me loves that the Afghan Whigs reunited, and that they still sound as unique and powerful as ever.

The Both - The Both It's no surprise that two artists so well-versed in writing hook-laden songs mesh so well. Ted Leo and Aimee Mann compliment each other perfectly as The Both. It's not groundbreaking or a massive artistic departure, but that's fine. Sometimes, you just want to tap your foot and lose yourself in something that sounds vaguely familiar.

Black Prairie - Fortune The fifth album from Portland's purveyors of bluegrass-ish supergroup, Black Prairie, is a true gem. Though they started out as a side-project for members of The Decemberists, it's hard to argue that they haven't made a name for themselves in this iteration. Fortune is less bluegrass and more alt-folk with pop leanings, there are still some of those bluegrass elements, and they're often perfectly timed for maximum effect.

tUnE-yArDs - nikki nack When Merrill Garbus burst onto the scene with tUnE-yArDs a few years ago, she was a breath of fresh air that took the music world by surprise in 2011 with w h o k i l l. It's often hard to follow up such a surprising debut, but nikki nack does just that. It's just as inventive, while at the same time building off of the style and sound she laid down.

Kishi Bashi - Lighight I admit, I had no idea who Kishi Bashi was a few months back. But this record (and the stellar debut 151a) are filled with lighter-than-air moments a plenty and so much wide-eyed joy that they are hard to put down. Behind the pure pop awesomeness, there are some serious chops and quite a few nods to 70s prog rock that create a surprisingly perfect mix.

Sharon Van Etten - Are We There Heartbreak and depression can be to heavy to bear for a listener. It's easy to just tune it out after awhile, yet somehow Sharon Van Etten keeps it compelling on Are We There. From the defiant opener "Afraid of Nothing" to the bleakly wistful closer "Every Time the Sun Comes Up," she weaves us through an all-too-human rollercoaster of love, loss, redemption, and perserverence that pushes you away while begging you to come closer.

Black Pistol Fire - Hush or Howl Sometimes, you just want to turn the stereo up to 11 and be gloriously overwhelmed by fuzzed-out, distorted guitar, thundering drums, and yelped vocals. No pretense, no overarching message, just raw rock and roll that has no other purpose than to fuck you up in the best way possible.

Jack White - Lazaretto Jack White is a singular character in the music scene. He helped to usher in the garage rock revival in the late 90s/early 2000s with his "sister" Meg thumping away on the drums, to spending a few years floating around as a guitar-for-hire with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, to dabbling as a more than capable producer for nearly-forgotten icons like Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, and setting up his own label, Third Man. He's a man who wears many hats and manages to look dashing under every brim. Lazaretto is a true tour-de-force by an artist that knows what he's doing and doesn't give one shit what you think. A fine record in it's own right, it somehow still feels like White (or Jack White III, as he now seems to be calling himself) is only scratching the surface.

And for good measure here are some of my favorite songs of the year so far. I just can't seem to get these tracks out of my head, and I keep going back to them over and over and over again.

Play each of the following tracks here:

Against Me! - True Trans Soul Rebel: Laura Jane Grace made this record a tour-de-force after coming out as a transgender woman in 2012 and this track in particular just kills.

Augustines - Nothing to Lose But Your Head: I love this entire record, front to back, but this song always gets stuck in my head.

Aan - Wet and Dripping: It's rare that a band can capture the fervor of their live performance in the studio, but that's exactly what Aan did with this track (and most of the album, too!)

St. Vincent - Birth in Reverse: St. Vincent is a frustrating artist for me. One minute I love her music, the next I'm frustrated by her apparent desire to be weird for the sake of being weird. Occasionally, she ties it all together.

The War on Drugs - Eyes to the Wind: Red-eyed, weary, hopeful, and gorgeous.

Perfect Pussy - Driver: While the back half of Perfect Pussy's debut record is a bit of a mess, Driver kicks the record off in arresting fashion.

Future Islands - Doves: Future Islands often feels like a suburban dad singing songs that Cyndi Lauper would've rocked back in the day. This is a perfect example of that, and it's catchy as hell.

Howler - Don't Wanna: It's hard for me not to love a Minnesota band aping The Replacements.

NO - Leave the Door Wide Open: NO played a studio session for opbmusic earlier this year and this song in particular just wormed it's way into my head.

Tom Brosseau - Today is a Bright New Day: Bittersweet and full of hope is Brosseau's wheelhouse. If you like folk music and haven't picked up a Tom Brosseau record, you're missing out.

Afghan Whigs - The Lottery: Greg Dulli doing Greg Dulli things. Enough said.

Black Prairie - The 84: I dare you to find a catchier chorus. In fact, I double dare you.

Wye Oak - The Tower: A little different sound from Wye Oak on their new record. This one just wormd it's way into my head.

Pink Mountaintops - Ambulance City: This record is a mish-mash of styles, but the driving opener just howls.

tUnE-yArDs - Water Fountain: Unique.

Black Pistol Fire - Hipster Shakes: As long as bands like Black Pistol Fire are around, The Black Keys can keep diddling around with refining their sound for maximum commercial appeal all they want. Raw, rough, and catchy without giving a single fuck.

Kishi Bashi - The Ballad of Mr. Steak: Delightful, silly fun.

Sharon Van Etten - Every Time the Sun Comes Up: Heartbreaking and gorgeous.

Bob Mould - The War: In his 50s, Mould can still rock harder than most half his age. This song proves it beyond a doubt.

Jack White - That Bat Black Licorice: Jack is at his best when he's pissed off, and on this track, he comes off as flat-out furious.

Glass Towers - Halcyon: Bright and shimmering, a wonderful song for summertime.

Strand of Oaks - Goshen '97: A surprising record and surprisingly rollicking opening song from a band that is usually sparsely beautiful.

May 25, 2014

pills It's Memorial Day weekend. People are out at the lake, out camping, out at the ocean, the vacation home, the rental cottage, the timeshare. They're grilling out and mowing lawns and sitting in hammocks. They're hanging out with friends and family, playing softball in the park, playing volleyball on the beach. They're relaxing, enjoying themselves, and trying to make the most of one of the few holidays between now and Labor Day.

Some are attending parades where veteran's organizations march down the street in between a restored firetruck from the 1920s and the newest model John Deere from the dealership, both driven by dapper old men. We still think about veterans on Memorial Day, but not really. We think about them as a mass, a disembodied entity encapsulating everything we want our country to be - brave, just, sacrificing, tough, virtuous. We celebrate the idea of veterans more than the reality.

In reality, many of our veterans are struggling. This is true today as it was when soldiers came back from Vietnam. We have spent over a generation forgetting about our vets as people once they return from our wars of choice.

Yes, the majority of vets come back and, either with no trouble or a little help, are able to slip right back into society and live their lives. But we also live in a time when more of our soldiers killed themselves than died in combat. That's disgusting.

We need to stop thinking of our soldiers and veterans as faceless masses and more as people. We need to demand that our veterans and soldiers are going to be taken care of when they return from war. It is morally reprehensible to send young men and women off to war and then not take care of them when they come home. If we have the will and money to fight a war, then we ought to find the will and money to take care of those fighting it. Especially when they are wars of choice, and especially when they are two of the longest conflicts in US history.

It's stories like this one that make my blood boil. A young man, a veteran, hooked on heroin because he was give Oxy and other painkillers after being wounded, like those solve anything, long term. We're creating addicts. And we're watching them die, either by their own hand or from the addiction. It's despicable, given what we know about painkiller addiction, to do this to anyone, much less our vets.

What can we do? Well, you can call your representatives and demand better. You can volunteer to help. But most of all, you can get informed and talk about it. Getting out and doing is always the most valuable option, if it's available to you, but simply being informed and discussing the problem, keeping it top of mind and educating others so that perhaps they might stay aware - that is important. Because unless we acknowledge the problem exists, we can't have a conversation about how to fix it. And we can't have a productive conversation unless we understand, to some degree, the problem at hand.

I know it's not a pleasant subject. I know that you'd rather be relaxing on this three-day weekend instead of thinking about suicide and addiction and PTSD and war. I would, too. But if we really want to celebrate Memorial Day, it's not all flag-waving and parades and burgers on the grill at the lake. It's also thinking about the actual, individual men and women who fought on our behalf, whether we wanted them to or not and whether we supported those wars or not. We owe them that much. Not just because they are soldiers, but because they are people.

Dec 27, 2013

While I'm as big a union supporter as the next guy, I'm not sure that the lack of unionized labor in the fast food industry is the main problem I take away from this article. Should fast food workers make more than $7.25, and on top of that, isn't $7.25 an unfair wage for anyone in this day and age? Of course the answer is yes. Now, of course, there are parts of the country where $7.25 will be enough to get by alright. And $15 an hour would be simply unfeasable for a fast food place in a small rural town, or a similar place with a low cost of living.

But before we get caught up in the numbers, which we could argue about forever and not come to a resolution, let me tell you my big takeaway from this article, since it's not "more unions" or "they don't get paid enough." Not entirely, anyway.

My takeaway is larger, and it's laid out pretty clearly in the article.

The fast-food industry says that what is going on here is a structural anomaly: that its wages were not intended to sustain a permanent work force — especially adults supporting families — and that it is happening because of larger economic forces. “The minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage,” said Steve Caldeira, the president of the International Franchise Association, a trade group for restaurants and other franchised firms. “It was meant, from the start, for entry-level workers and for those with lower skills.”


There is a growing hole in our economy where the middle class used to be. The structure of our income distribution isn't pyramid shaped, with a disappointingly large poor class but at least a solidly-sized middle class, it's more like a flagpole. A narrow shaft of wealth and prosperity founded on a large, heavy base of the poor. The pole is greased, too, causing an increasing number of Americans who were clinging to that middle class to slide inexorably downward, until they land with a thud at the bottom, with nowhere else to turn. Those already on the bottom are likewise unable to get a decent foothold to climb up.

This is why an increasing amount of older fast food employees are flooding the market, taking jobs that were never really meant for them. Unionization of fast food workers won't fix this problem. Raising the minimum wage won't fix this problem. They would both do good, in measured steps, for the industry as a whole, but they aren't going to fix the larger issue.

How do we fix this problem of the disappearing middle class and the increasing difficulty to "get by?" I don't know. I'm no economist, so anything I throw out as a solution would fail to account for any number of factors, since I'm not conditioned and trained to see the whole scope of the issue. But I don't have to be an economist to see that there's something wrong. I don't need miles of data to understand that people shouldn't have to work 70-80 hours a week just to make ends meet, be it in New York City or in New Ulm, MN. On top of that, someone shouldn't have to move from New York City to New Ulm or anywhere else, just to eek out a life.

Of course, sometimes we learn the hard way that certain places or walks of life aren't in the cards for us. Not everyone gets everything they want in life. Often, we don't even get what we deserve. But that doesn't mean that the opportunity shouldn't be there, that it shouldn't exist. That it shouldn't be attainable. Our country is falling farther down the pole of economic mobility, while a precious few are sliding up that pole, giving us the gap between the rich and the poor that we've seen since the 1920s.

This is not sustainable, and it very well could lead to cascading problems in the job market. For example: younger people can't get experience because the older workers can't afford to retire or they have resorted to fast food-type jobs to get by. It clogs up entry-level jobs. It stunts the growth of younger employees, because there's nowhere to move up to. Meanwhile, the wealth gap grows and grows, and we resort to bickering over crumbs instead of wondering why we no longer get our own slice of bread to eat.

Not the whole loaf, mind you, just a slice, so that there's enough to go around. A rising tide lifts all boats. When we all do better, we all do better. Et cetera.

Dec 6, 2013


My heart hurts.

Yesterday, as I was shooting the shit with our midday host, Jason Sauls, in the control room at OPB, the news broke on the BBC Newshour - former President and leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was dead.

I could barely breathe. Eventually, we tried to crack a few morbid jokes to break the silence (literal silence, because there were microphone problems during the announcement...awkward...). A profound feeling of loss came over me. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, straining to justify the emptiness. Why did it feel like a gaping hole had opened up? Why was the death of this one man - albeit a great man - hitting me so hard?

I first heard of Nelson Mandela when I was 10 years old. It was early 1990, and he had just been released from prison after 27 years. He was the first contemporary international figure I can remember learning about in detail in school. As we learned about Mandela, we learned about apartheid, and, consequently, America’s own shameful history of racial inequality. Nelson Mandela was my generation's chance to see societal change writ large in real time.

It’s long enough ago that I can’t remember details, but I do remember being confused. Why were South African whites, who looked just like the adults I saw every day, persecuting other people just because of the color of their skin? My ten year old self simply couldn’t fathom how this was possible in this day and age. I'd learned about slavery and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, but that was in the past. Apartheid was happening now! That adults could be so fundamentally wrong and misguided and hateful was hard to take.

To ten year old me, adults were authority figures. Paragons of knowledge and right and wrong. It’s one of the first times I can recall being upset at adults for their actions - not just superficially so, like when I couldn’t stay up past my bedtime or get a toy I wanted, but deeply, fundamentally so. What had been done to this man, Mandela, was wrong, and he was just so...gracious about it.

That he wasn’t overcome with with deep-seated anger and even rage was unfathomable. That he didn’t seek out vengeance against those who had imprisoned him for 27 years was, and still is, unimaginable to me. Such supernatural decency and empathy cut me to my core. I was a bullied kid, full of anger and fear and self-loathing, and here was this man who had gone through 10,000 times what I could even imagine...and was still strong.

And the backstory to it all, how he had tried at first to protest and push for change with non-violence. But after years of no progress, he was left with no other option than to resort to violence. That struck me, too. It was reinforced by a lesson my parents taught me about dealing with bullies during this time. Try everything to get them to quit peacefully - ignore them, laugh with them, try to befriend them - if they won't stop, appeal to authority figures, and if they still won't stop, after you've exhausted all other options, punch them in the mouth. Here was a man who had gone through all of that, finally struck back at his aggressor, and came out on the other side desiring a "Rainbow Nation" instead of scorched earth.

It may have taken a few years to sink in, but Nelson Mandela inspired me to look for the best in people, despite how they treat me or others. To search for compromise instead of conflict, if it's available. These values were ingrained in me, as they are in most of us, by my parents. But this man half a world away let me see the best of humanity in action.

He wasn't a perfect man by any means. None of us are. An imperfect world will never produce a perfect man, but that doesn't mean we can't try. Nelson Mandela tried harder and got closer than most, and he left the world a better place than he found it.

So that's why my heart hurts. That’s why tears welled up in my eyes. That’s why it feels like there is a hole in the world right now. We will recover and move on. We always do. But we will not soon forget Nelson Mandela. We lost a great man, but what we gained during his 95 years on this earth ensure that he will be remembered long after each and every one of us has been long forgotten.