A Christmas Wish

I wrote this three years ago. Though the temporal details have changed, the sentiment has not…

As is the custom with my wife’s Norwegian heritage, Christmas dinner and present opening is tonight, Christmas Eve. We host family and friends. This year that number is 12, including my wife’s cousins from Oslo.

This season is one of mixed emotions for my dear wife Bethany. Her mother passed away twelve years ago on Christmas Day. Her father, who joined us at our table every year, passed away this past August.

Yet, we have a 10 year old little girl who still believes in Santa for what feels like the last time. The questions have begun and she reports many of her friends don’t. She even declined the opportunity for a selfie with Santa. The rouse may be up. We’ve told her “If you don’t believe you don’t receive”. That seems to have put off the truth for now. It is her excitement that holds up the joy. For her, Christmas is this full and happy time filled with presents and parties and family and traditions. So many traditions.

Two days ago, I spent the morning peeling, boiling, and ricing potatoes, covered them with cloth, and put them in the refrigerator to dry a bit. This morning, we will make lefse — a nordic flatbread as we have done every year for Christmas dinner since her mother passed, and thus passed the duty to us. I make and roll the dough, Bethany helms the griddle, Beatrix helps shuttle the rounds — delicately wrapped on long flat wooden spatulas, between the rolling and grilling stations. This is when it starts to feel like Christmas to me.

Not when we get the tree — the tallest in the lot. “Not that one, taller still!” I’ll yell to the lot attendant. Because our high ceilings make even a nine foot tree seem small. We need at least a ten footer but eleven is ideal. Twelve, and there’s not enough clearance for the topper…

Not with the shopping or the present wrapping. My inability to wrap well is near legendary. No matter how hard I try my wrapping looks like it was done by someone who’s cross-eyed and lacking opposable thumbs. It’s part of the charm now. You can always tell mine under the tree. My wife is much better at it. But, this year we discovered that Beatrix is a naturally expert present wrapper. Better than my wife even. A natural pro! I’m not sure where she inherited this skill from but it should make for a good seasonal employment opportunity when she reaches working age. I had her wrap some of mine this year…

Not the many many holiday parties all of my wife’s and my clients, and friends, and boards, we’re obliged to attend. So. Many. Parties. Some weekend evenings this season we were triple booked.

It’s when, just a few moments from now as I write this, I grab a handful of flour and begin to work the potato dough. That’s when the feeling of the season begins to wash over me. This is a process that’s very tactile. The only way you can know the dough is ready is by how it feels. The only way is to get both hands in and work it, one handful or pinch or sprinkle of flour at a time until it’s just right. What is “right”? Well, it takes a few years of screwing it up a lot before you get it right. But after enough trail and error, you just know. You can feel it. Once I feel the dough is right, I know the rest of Christmas will be just fine too.

My wish for you is that, no matter where you are, that you find that thing that fills you with the hope, love, community, and joy this season is meant to imbue. I can’t tell you what that thing is for you. But, you’ll know it when you feel it. It’s when it feels “right” to you.

Today is Journal Day

Today, December 9th, is Journal Day.

Journal Day is the day I use to reflect on the year(s) behind me and prepare for the year ahead. I flip through old journals. I take note of the accomplishments of last year. I prepare for the turn of the new year.

Above is my Daily Log, a Hobonichi Techo wrapped in a One Star Leather Goods cover. I’ve used this same setup for at least six years now.

I keep a more traditional journal too — though less frequently this year. The log is for events, the journal for thoughts and feelings. I’ve found myself beginning to record thoughts and feelings in the log instead. Partly because it is always at hand and the size forces brevity. Journal Day is a good time to think about if I really need both going forward.

If you find this sort of thing useful, perhaps you will take the time to mark Journal Day on your calendar. Celebrate this wonderful thousand of years old practice. Develop traditions around this day that align with your values and intentions.

Or, if you don’t currently journal, maybe this is the day to start. Write your story one day at a time.

The Rhone Gift Guide

Having entered the Season of Stuff, many of us feel we have too much stuff. Here’s some ideas for gifts that don’t involve stuff or, at a minimum, involve always useful stuff. I may add to this post as I think of more.

  • Ask them what they really need. Get them that. It’s kind of boring and hardly a surprise but will be used and appreciated.

  • Consider the so practical it barely seems like a gift until they realize it option. An example; most people don’t swap out their toothbrushes enough. How about getting them a year’s worth (3-4)? I often forget to swap out the filter in our forced air furnace and then find I don’t have new filters when I do. If someone were to get me a case of filters I’d be overjoyed.

  • As the cook in the family, I appreciate an at home meal I don’t have to plan and make myself. Plus, my family gets to try something I may not usually prepare. A big frozen pan of vegetarian lasagna that I can thaw, pop in the oven, and serve? A few pounds of long-storage root vegetables with a good recipe inside the bag? Perfect gifts.

  • Experiences and knowledge always make great gifts. Local kitchen stores often offer cooking and/or knife skill classes. REI offers lots of great intro classes for outdoor activities. Some people jam on online classes like those offered by MasterClass, other’s don’t. Know your giftee. Heck, give the gift of sharing your own skills. A friend who passed away once taught me how to make a really good but easy to throw together curry and it’s one of the best and most long lasting gifts I’ve ever received and has the added bonus of a nice memory of her every time I make it.

  • As someone who works on home-improvement projects a whole lot, I don’t really need more tools. Instead, a better gift would be those consumable items for the tools. A box of screws or nails. Sanding disks for the orbital sander. A fresh blade for the table saw. These are things I’ll always need and will get used. So think of the things the people in your life do for either a job or hobby. Get them some of the consumables for their tasks.

Owners and Stewards

There is a difference between those that own a house and those that live in a home. House owners see investment, profit. Home livers feel themselves as stewards, part of a continuum of caretakers for a place for a time in its history.

Not to say one or the other is bad. Nor am I saying they are mutually exclusive. Just to say that one idea/sense usually takes priority over the other and drives the choices one makes about a place.

For instance, if I chose to view the Hague House as simply an owner, it’d be done and back on the market right now. Instead, I’m restoring a home, a place with history and built to house generations (as many of the homes of that time were).

This drives the choices we’re making about it and the time we’re spending on it and, hopefully, we will sell it to folks that will have a similar sense (though we can’t control that, but we can hope). So the money and time become secondary to making it feel like a home. One where they will live for a long time, take appropriate care of, and possibly even hand it down to the next generation.

So, I guess the wrap up thought is this: Are you an owner or a steward? Not just with a house/home but with what you have in general? Because how you view/position yourself will ultimately drive your choices/actions.

When Things Are Done

Dinner is not done once everyone has eaten. Dinner is done once the dishes are washed and the kitchen is cleaned.

The yard is not done when the grass has been cut. The yard is done once the cuttings have been dumped in the compost and the mower put back in the shed.

A deck is not done when the boards are laid and railings installed. The deck is done once the sawdust is swept up and the tools put away.

In fact, just about any project or task has some amount of cleanup afterwords. No task or project should ever be considered complete without doing so. In fact, when breaking a project down to its various steps, cleanup should always be at the end of that list.

Cleanup. Then, done.

Beatrix, not throwing away her shot…

Beatrix, age 13, has a deathly fear of needles. When the vaccine was made available for her age group, I made her a promise: Get the vaccine (both shots) and I’ll take you out to dinner anywhere you’d like.

Beatrix, because she is wise, chose the most expensive and fanciest place in town. The problem of raising a young lady of taste. Tonight, we delivered on that promise.

Beatrix chose to split their signature dish with me, Steak Diane. With some whipped potatoes on the side.

That left enough room for their four layer devil’s food cake with caramel sauce for dessert.

Asked if it was worth getting two shots for, Beatrix said, “Definitely!”

Our wallet is happy we don’t live in Yountville.

Art Always Does It’s Job (Part 2)

We arrived at the restaurant with the best of hopes. The end to a lovely weekend getaway. A good lunch before having to return to our regular lives. We had just heard good things about the place, and the menu options looked promising.

It was a chilly and cloudy day. Though they had a nice patio we’d decided on the ride there to eat inside, due to the weather. it’d be only the second time we’ve eaten inside a restaurant since being fully vaccinated. The previous time being the night before.

When we got there and checked in with the hostess, we were told they were only seating outside. We decided we’d live with it. We were hungry. Looking forward to a good meal. A singer-guitarist was setting up for some live music. We rolled with it.

We sat down, waters were delivered. The server came over and took our order in good time. Then we waited. And waited….

Wow, it’s been a while, we thought. Almost an hour, we figured out. Other patrons were waiting too, we noticed. The mood was… low. Even the musician was playing sad songs.

I’d overheard the hostess mention to others checking in that the kitchen was backed up and there’d be a long wait for food. Why hadn’t we been told? No matter now. What more can we do but wait?

Our server checked in on us. Apologized for the delay. I asked about it. She explained that they are short handed in the kitchen. Having a hard time finding cooks these days considering the circumstances. Hey, I get it. Just wish we’d been told. It’s OK. My wife and daughter went to walk around. I’ll text them when the food arrives.

About ten minutes later, our food came out. About the same time as the hostess was seating a party of eight. Food was OK, not great. My wife’s was warm, not hot. My veggie burger passable. Beatrix’s was fine.

As we sat there eating, our server was bringing out water to the party of eight. A tray full of full glasses. As she rested it on the corner of their table to serve them, the glasses all tumbled off.Soaking a few of the people in the party and splashing a few more. The whole restaurant was turning and looking. They server was clearly embarrassed and apologetic. The people in the party were gracious and understanding. Clearly in a better mood than the rest of us.

Then as things were being picked up and the musician had finished his song, one of the people in the party yelled, “Hey, play something happy!”

The musician, barely being listened to before and sensing the unique opportunity before him, launched into a raucous rendition of Bamboleo. Soon the crowd was smiling, laughing, clapping, dancing in their seats. Many of us who knew the song sang along. The whole mood of the restaurant changed. Suddenly, the wait didn’t matter. We had music and community and fun. The musician even invited one of the people in the party of eight up to sing the next song. It was amazing.

How do you take a bad situation and make it better? How do you turn a restaurant full of hangry and wet customers into a party? Art. Art always does its job.

The Fight You Don’t See

May is Mental Health Month. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a Mental Illness Survivor. That I fight The Piggyback Guy every day.

But, what does that mean? How does that look, in practice? How does that play out? Can anyone tell?

Well, in my case at least, the only one who really knows — who can see the fight — is me. Here are just a few examples:

  • It’s when I’m doing something mundane like driving or the dishes and, suddenly, with no prompting, a memory pops into my mind of a specific time when I said something embarrassing or mean or feel like I did something that made someone uncomfortable. It plays in my head like a movie. Every detail as if it just happened moments ago (when, in fact, it was many years ago). It’s like an involuntary reflex where I re-live every part of the experience and embarrassment. Like someone has grabbed the back of my head and forced me to look at a screen of just one example out of many of what a horrible person I am. A deep shame grows inside and I silently start judging and convicting myself. I utter silent curses. Sometimes, if no one is around, I may pound a fist into my thigh or slap my own face. A punishment for long forgiven bygones. The Piggyback Guy has convinced me I deserve this.

  • There are times I wake up in the middle of the night. Mind racing. Can’t fall back asleep. Determined I’m going to forget something important or that I’ve let someone down but not sure what or who. I’m terrified. My heart is racing and I’m having trouble catching my breath. It takes me a while to figure out, despite the fact I’ve been living with this for pretty much all of my life, that I’m having a full-blown panic attack. And I know from experience that if I just wait, it will stop — just as suddenly as it came. But, in the moment I’m pretty sure the only way it will is if I kill myself. This is what The Piggyback Guy tells me and, at the time, I believe him.

  • I can’t drive by myself over any bridge without imagining what it might be like to suddenly wrench the steering wheel to the left, jump the barrier, and send my car falling with me inside. A movie in my mind plays every frame. I imagine what I’d be thinking, how I’d be feeling, what people might think or say when I’m gone. Never happens when I have other people in the car with me. Only when I’m alone. Or, when The Piggyback Guy is there. And he’s always there when I’m alone.

All of these happen. Daily. Often, many times a day. I’m pretty sure no one around me can tell. Most of the time no one is around when they occur.

And, I know I’m not alone. I know from speaking about it to other mental illness survivors that it happens to them too. Maybe not exactly the same things or thoughts but similar enough to let me know I’m not alone. These are the types of things we deal with while getting through every single day of our lives. A battle so many wage. A fight no one sees.

So, this month especially, take some time to simply be more aware of this. Just based on the numbers we know, you have someone in your life who, like me, is living with this. Living like this. Maybe that is you. Every single task, choice, decision, effort, and breath is happening with things like I described above also going on.

See them.

The Affordable Game

Here in Saint Paul, MN, and in major metropolitan areas across the United States, the demand for affordable housing is very high. The City needs it. The Citizens are demanding it. The Developers… Well, they are in business to make money.

Developers are building at a record pace all over the city. They will tell you they just can’t build a fully affordable new apartment complex economically — it’s too expensive they’ll say (i.e. They won’t make the profit they were hoping for). But the City knows the high demand is there and needs to look like it is doing something about the affordable housing crisis so they’ll hold the Developer’s feet to the fire and only green light a project if a certain number of the units are affordable.

OK, but what is “affordable”. When you hear this phrase, do you stop to ask? Do you do the math? No? Let me help. Because, you should never trust numbers without data behind them.

In Saint Paul, the City and Developer may explain that “affordable” is 60% or less of average median income (AMI). The chart they use to calculate this is one that encompasses Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Bloomington (see this chart). As you can see, AMI for 2020 is $72,350 for one person. It’s $93,050 for a family of three.

So, to meet the city requirements of 60% of AMI for a 1 bedroom apartment, it would have to be affordable to someone who makes at least $43,410 (which is a little under $22 an hour).

So, what does that mean rent wise? Well, the figure Saint Paul uses is that 30% of a person’s gross income goes towards rent. Therefore, rent for that one bedroom would be $1085.25 a month.

Does that seem affordable to you?

Is it affordable for someone making a $15 an hour “livable” wage (don’t get me started on that term)? A person making $15 an hour would make about $31,200. So, in order for that person to be able to afford it, the rent would have to be around $780 a month.

So, whenever you hear Cities and Developers talking about affordable housing, especially here in Saint Paul, know how they are defining “affordable” and know that the people who really, REALLY, need it are not getting it. The Developers will tell you they can’t afford to build it and the City does not force them to.

What they are building — and what we as Citizens keep accepting — is luxury apartments meant for those at 100% of AMI.

What little affordable housing is being built, by the definition they are using, won’t solve the housing crisis. Won’t solve homelessness. Wont solve housing for low wage earners. Won’t even solve it for those making a $15 an hour wage. Won’t solve it for those making an $18 an hour wage.

So, I hope the next time you hear the word “affordable” this will help.