Retiring Partners

November 16th, 2016

I received a note asking me to write a few words about a friend, and former business partner’s career for his upcoming retirement. My earliest memory of Harold, might have been at the old MTL office on 32nd St. South. I was brand new to the firm, had completed my first year teaching, and had been given my weekly “to-do” list from Fred. I was to clean up redlines for Harold on Mondays I think it was, work on a model of downtown Fargo for David on Tuesdays, go in the field with Seth on Wednesday’s, clean up the catalog library for Bob on Thursdays, and work on a project of my own on Fridays. A busy schedule, but they promised my worklife would make it easier to pass the licensing exam so I signed on.

I think it was at the first coffee break, people were discussing getting tickets to the baseball game in Minneapolis, and as walked down the stairs, Harold caught me and said “You know, they won’t be able to serve beer at the Twins game” I looked at him, puzzled, as a life long Cub fan, I was accustomed to beer, hot dogs, and baseball always going together. So I said to Harold “Why?” He said “because the Twins lost the opener” and walked away. I had to think about that for a bit, as Harold said it with a straight face, as he always does. I finally got it.

Dry humor was kind of an indicator of what I learned was an endless supply of calm that Harold projected outwardly. He was always the professional, even on the office’s softball team, when I was having a hard time making good throws from my position at third to first base (meaning over Steves head), Harold walked over and calmly said, “we really need your glove in short center field” relieving me of the long throw, but doing it in a way that wasn’t demeaning. That’s Harold. He’d always find a way to accomplish a greater good without stepping on anyone in the process.

I modeled a fair amount of my behavior (the good parts) on Harold, when I find a way to turn a problem person into a team asset, and my lovely wife notices, I tell her its the North Dakota way, always be as nice as you can, there’s a positive in most every negative. I think I learned that from Harold. Something maybe the country could use…maybe in retirement Harold needs to run for Governor or higher office!

As an architect, Harold was a consummate professional. Clients came first, good work in the office made for good work in the field, which made for good outcomes for the client. He asked the same from the people who worked on his projects. But again, quietly, persistently. Harold wasn’t the kind to storm out of his office and throw a spec book across the drafting room. No. Harold would redline the correction that needed to be made to the drawings, and if a person improvised and changed the design, he’d redline it again, and again, and it would ultimately get done right. His buildings stand across the upper midwest today, In Fargo, Whapeton, Moorhead, and many small towns where today, older people live in decent places thanks to his projects. He is a good architect.

But Harold didn’t buy into the eccentricities that many architects seem to clothe themselves in. No perfectly round eyeglass lenses for him, no all black sportscar (unless we count the Fairmount) He was a regular guy when I knew him, easy to talk to, a good listener, and you knew he valued your conversation.

I’ve missed all of you up there in the North, the solid grounding you all share in doing the right thing is what made my years in Fargo so important to my life. Harold, Judy, Steve, Joanna, Mark and Remar, Kerry and Sue, Chuck and Judy, Dave and Diane, you were my community and I think of each of you often. I’m glad you’re gathering to celebrate Harold’s retirement, I’m glad Steve has found his church, and that this holiday season you’ll all be surrounded with family and grandchildren.

I’m thankful to have been a part of it for a few important years in my life.

Take care of each other, be good to each other. Do good work.

just sayings

May 11th, 2016

Sayings are a kind of shorthand we carry around with us. They are part of our culture, and are kind of unique to times and places.

I connect them with people who say them often, like my friend Chuck who’d say “well a guy could do worse” or “the heck” or “a guy should think about that”, and “thats kind of a mess isn’t it?” or my dad who would be a bit more colorful “that guy could screw up a one man parade” or “a blind man would be glad to see it”. I’d hear that one a lot when we were building together, it was his way of saying the work was good, suitable for the project. I still hear those words from time to time as I undertake my clumsy carpentry, it helps me remember.

Today I’m remembering “O ye of little faith”, thats something VG would say often, sometimes after he successfully exited the car or got up from the chair when you were moving to help him. And “he’s not hurtin anybody” if you tried to chase a mouse out of his “compound”. One of his best ones was “Love many, trust few, and learn to paddle your own canoe.” That one underscores the importance he placed on an independent spirit, something he taught to the one who holds my heart.

I’m remembering VG today, I didn’t get to know him all that well, but believe he was a pretty special man, but I’m missing him, and my mom and dad, and Chuck and Dennis. I’m thinking I don’t have many sayings to impart wisdom the way they did, I’ll have to work on that.

Remember your loved ones passed on, hold your living loved ones close,
Look after each other, be good to each other.

Wanting to be there

March 4th, 2016

I think life just doesn’t let us be in more than one place at a time, well maybe its physics thats at fault there but you get my meaning.

Each of us has responsibilities and relationships that sometimes pull us in different directions, sometimes we can respond to the pull, sometimes we can’t and sometimes we’re en-route to being there with someone when the unthinkable happens. This happened to me with my dad’s passing, I was on the road when I got the call.

There’s not much a person can do at that point. You know you’re trying, but it just didn’t work out. You feel the frustration and guilt of being close but not close enough. I have a partial memory of a line from a movie or a song maybe, it’s an exchange between two people, one who has been away for a long time, the other who has carried on life. The one who was away says they wished they had been there for all the life events they missed, and the one who has carried on takes their hand and tells them “you were there”.

I want to believe that I was there in Dad’s mind, maybe it’s just to relieve some guilt, or to believe I meant enough that he’d think of me just before he passed.

We carry the loves of our life with us, the friends, the family, and the one that holds our heart, we carry them inside us everyday whether they can tell or not. They are there.

I think about my Dad and my Mom each day, about my daughters out east each day, about my family in Chicago, El Campo and Iola, every day. I think of how they’re doing, I hope they’ll keep me in their lives as they go about doing the things life asks of them. I think about the challenges they face and wish I was there, not that I have any magic answers, but just there to share a bit of life with them.

And when we can’t be there in person or in voice or skype or whatever, I hope they know that I carry them with me, as I’m sure you do.

Be present when you can, be there and know its them who hold you there when you can’t be physically present. Hold on to their memory, talk to them (when no one can hear you) and be still, some answer from them will appear in time. They are always with us, telling us, “I’m proud of you”, “I love having you in my life”, “I’ll remember you always”.

Be good to each other today and all days.

We’re in this together.

life, lives, living

March 1st, 2016

I’m working on the twin monitors today, building digital models of historical constructions on one, keeping up with email on the other. The office I have is cozy I guess you’d say, and I can hear pretty much everything that gets said for the next two offices down the line so I wear headphones usually while I work. Not that the conversations my fellow faculty have are uninteresting but its hard to work while they talk so I wear the headphones and listen to music. I was listening to John Williams’s compositions for the film “Saving Private Ryan” as I built stud walls and windows and siding, and of course the music is powerful, very powerful if you pair the music with memories of the film.

The ending of the film is what most popped into my mind. The scene has Private Ryan, now an older man, with children and grandchildren at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. A very moving place, if you can afford the trip across the ocean, I highly recommend it. The French keep it pristine. not a blade of grass out of place, and you can tell from the body language and hushed tones that every visitor knows what the men and women buried here did in the name of freedom. In the movie, the elder Ryan finds the grave marker for Captain John Miller, the Ranger sent to bring Ryan back to be sent home as the only surviving son in his family. Ryan finds the marker and speaks to it, saying he hopes the life he lived was worth the cost paid by John Miller and his squad. As the scene closes, Ryan is moved to tears, his wife comes to his side and he asks her to tell him he’s lived a good life and is a good man.

Its a question.

We do the best we can. But we never know, is it enough? Sometimes things happen in life, things that cost someone else their life, and as we visit them, as we remember them, we wonder, have I paid this back? Can I ever pay this back? And of course we don’t know, we’ll never know. Looking out across the sea of crosses, stars and crescents at the American Cemetery and Memorial, I had that in mind. Am I doing enough to pay them back?

This time of year is typically a hard one for our family, towards the end of the month I’ll be remembering Tyler Binsted, a young man killed at my daughters side for refusing a gunman’s order to get in the trunk of a car with my daughter. He said no and they started walking away, they shot him in the back, she tried to get help, ran back to where he fell, where the shooter was, to try and help but he had passed. A few days after, my mom passed as well, I wasn’t there. You can’t be everywhere all the time i guess. But am I doing enough for them?

Live a good life (not to be confused with “the” good life)
Be fair
Be honest
Be honorable
Help those in need
Work hard

It might be all we can do. I hope it’s enough.

Be good to each other
Look after each other

Life story

January 2nd, 2016

Tell me your story

Tell me the story of your life

This is what I would ask my Dad and Mom if I ever had the chance, its the request I would make in the final days.

It can’t be answered in less than a lifetime, thats why I would ask it of someone getting ready to pass. Because answering it would keep them here, with us.

Its a selfish thing to do, i know. But, I’d ask so they would stay a bit more.

You can picture the conversation, monitors beeping slowly, a frail hand being held. Most of us can picture it, many of us have lived it. No words are in the air, but the story is being told. Through memories, gentle squeezes of the hand, a careful brushing of thin hair from the forehead, no words pass between, but once anger has passed, once the pleadings are done, we begin assembling our memories of them as we hold that hand.

The hand that was strong, the hand that was skilled, the hand that was stern, and the hand that lifted you up when you had fallen. Thats the hand you hold now as you ask “Tell me your story.”

They can’t of course, the tiny blips on the monitors make it clear, the experts have said that they’ve gone in mind, and just remain in body. But the spirit, the story of their life remains. It passed from them to you through the holding of their hand, as it did to each person they touched throughout the years. The story of their life is distributed, in the cloud as the computer people say, in the cloud that was their life, swirling around so many of us every day.

Now the last chapter of their story has been passed to you. You may not have wanted it, you may want to give it back to them, but you can’t. Its in your hand now.

In the difficult times that follow the handing of their life story to you, your job is to gather the pieces of their story, from family, friends, caregivers, anyone who comes by to offer their respects. An offering they make because a life touched theirs.

Gather the story as best you can. It may take years before you can tell it. But it is important. Because its now part of your story.

So before you leave, tell me your story. Tell me about that time they lifted you up, how they sympathized with you but were gently (or directly) telling you to get your life going again, or the time they sang with you, or got you back in line, or made something with you. Tell me about their favorite foods, what they loved about the holidays, and how those birthday parties you organized for them warmed them for much of the years that followed. Speak about their families, and the stories they told about growing up. Tell it all so others hear about them, so you hear it too.

And in the future years around this time, think of the story of their life. Its fullness. Its depth. Tell it with friends and family as best you can. Friends will add to it when you get to the hard parts, thats what friends will do if you let them. We all need help that way, especially during the hard parts, let friends and family tell part of the story then. It will help them too.

And in between, live your story. Pass it on to others when life gives that chance.

Our lives wind around each other every day. The winding helps strengthen life I think.

Be safe and listen to their stories,

Thinking inside the box

November 9th, 2015

I had a chance to view some work done by students here at Texas A&M this past saturday, it wasn’t the usual though, this design work didn’t have the twists, turns, blobs or shards that we so often see in the design studio classes, this was a box.

Actually it was quite a few boxes, you’d know them as shipping containers, amazing steel constructions made for shipping almost anything all over the world. These containers weren’t different on the outside, they were different on the inside. Swing the big doors open, flip the lights on (yep these have power) and you’re standing in a medical screening space. Take a few steps and you’re in an exam room, and go through a door and you’re in the treatment room. This would be a pretty straightforward project in the design studio, but I was walking through the clinic container itself, not a digital model, a physical space.

Then I learned they had built 4 of these and were preparing to ship them to refugee camps in Greece, and to Hati, Hondouras, and Kenya. The students were hosting a reveal of the finished and in-progress clinics saturday, very proud of what they did and looking forward to doing more!

Our three architecture students were the design/construction planning team, and there were nine teams total, looking after everything from project accounting, marketing, operations on site, materials acquisition, and funding. Other Aggies join them to build, paint, assemble and load as they prepare to fill the clinic containers with medical supplies and ship them out.

So is this a 3 credit class or a 6 credit class? Nope, no credits. No credits, no pay, no time off from classes, all done for the greater good, done as a global memorial to students from Texas A&M who died in the bonfire collapse in 1994.

Our university just kicked off a capital campaign to raise a few billion dollars, building a pretty big (even for texas) tent to house a kickoff dinner with music by Earth, Wind, and Fire I think. The campaign theme is “Lead by Example” I couldn’t help thinking that while the big event was going on, the clinic builders were scrambling through the downpour to get ready for their reveal. Tired, wet, but still, come saturday they were prepared and gracious hosts.

The billions they hope to raise will be nice to have I’m sure, but I guess just the scene was such a study in contrasts, one the one hand, spending, a bunch to build a big party tent, and bring in big name entertainment in the heart of campus for one night of hand shaking and check writing and on the other hand proud, wet, tired students putting clinics together on the edge of campus to help people with no motive other than helping make the world a little better. I can’t say either was more important, just that the approach of the students seemed more appropriate to the theme “Lead by Example.”

This kind of thing goes on all around us, people dishing out food at shelters, bringing hot meals to the elderly, buying holiday gifts for the angel trees, dropping coins in salvation army buckets its a good thing. Having a nice dinner under a dry tent is a good thing too, making donations to support good causes is an effective way to leverage the hours of volunteers into more help in more places.

As we approach our bonfire remembrance, as we approach thanksgiving, and the season of holiday lights, its important to keep others in mind, the ones we give our hearts to, the ones we give our hands to, and those we try to reach with a few hours or a few dollars donated.

We’re the only ones who can make a better world, each of us, a little at a time.

If you’d like to learn more about the BUILD program making the clinics, look in on this link.

Happy Fall Y’All!
Be good to each other

The Tablet of your Heart

October 28th, 2015

The one who holds my heart and I were down south for a wedding last weekend. It was a rainy drive there and back, grey sky, and a misty kind of light filled the landscape softening the cool colors of the trees and intensifying the warmer colors of the grasses that were coming back to life after the three-day soaking.

At the wedding, the celebrant, a grandfather of the groom read a passage and for some reason his words, “the tablet of your heart” struck a chord. The words were “write this on the tablet of your heart.”

I could picture it. A stone tablet, a permanent record, that each of us holds deep within us, and written in stone, those words that mean the most to us. The celebrant read “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.” Its all from the book of Proverbs, I’d read it before but hearing him say it, in the silent church, with the bride and groom looking deeply at each other, it made me think. What words are on the tablet of my heart?

His recommendation “kindness, truth” are a good start. It wasn’t until I started life again and gave my heart to the one who holds my heart, that I experienced kindness every day. Its odd to say, but true, she does things for me, for others, just out of thoughtfulness, out of kindness. We all should have some of this each day, and of course, you can’t repay kindness with a gift card, you can only repay it with a payment in kind…a kindness.

The dictionary says kindness is a quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Acts that in our polarized political landscape are not really valued. Watching the news, listening to the rhetoric (even spouting some from time to time) one can understand that its hard to be kind and courteous when railing on and on about something or someone. I get reminded that to be kind, considerate, or generous one has to step back from the heat of the moment, look at the people around you and think “wouldn’t they feel better with a cold glass of water right now?”

Well its not always water, sometimes its chocolate, or an unexpected gift, or a hand to hold.

The tablet of ones heart is hard to read. We don’t often look that deeply inside, partly because its hard to do, partly because the tablet has some not so nice things on it. Its part of being human, we can’t always be the best of ourselves. But when we’re not being the best of ourselves, maybe thinking of the tablet, and what’s being etched on it just then, might help us step back, take a breath, and shine a light on the words we want to represent us, kindness, honesty, humility…

I used to have a daydream where the Cubs won the world series. It was with the 1969 team, Banks, Beckert, Kessinger, Santo, as the infield, Jenkins and Hundley as the battery, Williams, Phillips and Hickman as the outfield. It was only a daydream, but that team, it was pretty humble, no superstars, just hardworking team players.

I thought once I’d make a logo of the logos that I’d hope had made me. That Cubs team, the driver of the number 6 in trans am, a driver/engineer named Mark Donahue, Dad’s company logo, the North Dakota State Flag, Virginia Tech’s logo, a collection like that. Some way to remind myself, work hard, be kind, contribute to the team, “us” first not “me” first… Things I aspire to, but don’t always live up to. Maybe those things are on my tablet.

Anyway, the rain is gone for a few days, the air is cool-ish (low 70’s!) and its a good day to take a moment or two, breath the air, look around, and see what could be done to make it a little better.

Be good to each other, be kind to each other, read your tablet!

say what you mean and mean what you say

October 2nd, 2015

The one who holds my heart and I went to see “Everest” last night. I expected the scenery to be incredible and it was, the 3d glasses made many of the scenes too real, I found myself catching my breath, especially as the climbers crossed a crevasse on a bridge made of ladder sections roped together, what a crazy thing to do!

I pretty much knew that it wasn’t going to be a happy ending type of movie, I had heard about the storyline and so I knew not everyone who went up the mountain would come down the mountain. The most incredible scene (spoiler alert) was when the climb leader, stuck on a rock shelf, out of oxygen, frostbitten, understood he wasn’t going to be going home to his wife and soon to be born daughter. His team at base camp improvised a way for his wife to speak to him over the radio, at first motivating him, and when a rescue attempt failed, saying goodbye.

Most of us do that every day, say goodbye as we head out the door, or hang up a phone, or head off on a mission to the grocery store. We say “good bye” and “I love you” as we part. Maybe some people would get used to that, always believing that we’ll be back with them soon, and not giving the words another thought. But, next to our prayers, these actually are some of the most important words we say every day.

I can picture ten families in Oregon today, remembering the words their daughter, son, mother or father said as they headed off to community college, probably wishing they said more, probably wishing they’d have said “wait, don’t go today” but we always go, we have to, go to work, go to the store, wherever, we go because for many of us we don’t get to live each day of our lives together.

So we say how we feel about the person we’re leaving. And we mean what we say.

You never know what a day will bring, be sure to say the words, be sure to mean them.

Take Care of each other, Think well of each other.


September 9th, 2015

I’ve noticed that quite a few of my paintings lately were focused on seams. Mostly the focus is on seams between layers of clouds, some on landscape seams between stands of trees or crops but mostly clouds.

Thinking about it, I’ve always had an interest in looking between or looking into things. My favorite christmas ornaments were the ones that had a recess with a red dot or other emphasis deep inside, my favorite rocks were clusters of crystals or geodes that could become an imagined landscape, my favorite model railroad buildings were ones where inside you could see a silhouette of someone working behind the counter. Maybe seams are just another way to activate imagination.

I live in a part of Texas where we’re not too far from the gulf, so most of our weather seems to come and go from there. Mornings are humid, and the banks of clouds flow inland like water on the beach, advancing and retreating as they push up against the air masses that come down from Canada. The piles of clouds push and pull and leave gaps inbetween. Those are the seams I seem to focus on.

This weekend, the one who holds my heart and I drove to the hill country for a family wedding, as we headed west in the early evening, the seams in the clouds were especially spectacular. Maybe its the humidity, maybe I just never really saw carefully enough when I lived back east but here, those seams in the sky will sometimes have lines coming through them. Rays I guess you’d call them, Crepuscular Rays are what science calls them, but just plain folks call them God Rays. If you’ve seen them you know why, the combination of a backlit cloud and the brilliant lines radiating from the sun make it so you can almost hear a choir sing.

This morning I took the little dog who holds my heart out for her morning ball toss, and when I walked back in, facing the east, the sun was just popping above the trees across the way, I took a picture and painted it when I got upstairs. The painting turned out ok, but made me think about the seams in the sky. Whats on the other side? Are they windows to another world? Who’s looking back at us from there?

I can’t say I know much about God or heaven. I study, I try to say my thanks every night, but you know, you don’t really hear back, thats not how it works.

We all lose people from our lives, we remember the ones we love, try to forget the ones that caused us pain, but I’d guess most of us would like to hear from loved ones who’ve passed on. Maybe not words, I’m not sure I could handle that, but little signs would be nice, a turtle, an old hammer, the way a daughter or son moves their hands or the particular sound in their voice that reminds us our loved ones live in them, when these signs appear, it makes our heart skip for a moment, then their memory washes over us, we take a deep breath and keep going.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my dads passing after a long time in a coma. He fell off a roof and landed badly. He never got say goodbye, and I don’t know if he heard our goodbyes either. But we said them, like we say thanks, sending our words, our thoughts out into where? I’m hoping the seams in the clouds let those thoughts pass through, and that like the magic of email, I hope they get to the right spirits on the other side.

I’m lucky to live in a place where the clouds make these little openings, I can see the light from beyond them, the blue sky of peace around their edges, and I can remember a little every day. I’m hoping you can too.

Its especially important to look outside yourself a little each day. To see a beautiful shadow, a blossom, or layers in the landscape, or the magic of seeds growing in your yard. Its important. It helps us remember the things that keep our side of the seam wonderful in the face of ornery bosses, miles of traffic, endless appointments, or ugly energy thrown our way. Its important to remember the love that got us where we are, the love that keeps us, us.

Be good to each other.
Be good to you too.
Be safe.

conversations below the astral plane

August 18th, 2015

There is a moment after you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you’ve been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.

You’ve stopped being here in the world.
You’re in a different place,
a place where human life has no meaning.

You’re not a creature in a body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.

Those are the words of Louise Gluck, Poet, from the poem “telescope.” Garrison read them this morning on the writers almanac. Its funny how words stick with you sometimes, maybe I was just ready to hear them. We’re in the anniversary of Dad’s coma period which followed his fall from the roof back in 2006. He would pass in a few weeks in the hands of hospice. During those weeks our family had a campsite set up in the icu waiting room, taking turns sitting with dad, each having our own conversations, holding his hand, talking about memories, what the cubs were up to, who had sent cards, telling him how important it was that he come back, each of us making our own pleadings, saying rosaries, being stern with him, all the while hoping for his fingers to curl around our hand, or his eyes to open, or the EEG to make a little spike, some indication that the conversation wasn’t just one way. We did that for weeks, hoping.

The hospital had sent their ethicist to talk to us and mom when there were no more options neurologically, we were told we’d have to move dad, and given an impossibly short time to find a suitable care facility, or the hospice unit of the hospital. I had been driving back and forth from Virginia, sometimes alone, sometimes with my thenwife who seemed pretty put out by it all. She had insisted on being driven back for a meeting of her writers group the day before he passed, and i made the mistake of listening to why she shouldn’t fly (too expensive?) and we were about an two hours away when the call came in. I wanted to be there with dad and my family and i wasn’t. You can’t do much about the past but i wish i had been there when he went into whatever is after this life.

I had not packed well when I went on one of those visitations and had to buy a warm raincoat. The local sporting goods store had one with a fleece liner and rain shell. I wear that fleece regularly to stay warm in the overly cooled a/c environment at work, and had it with me on the beaches at normandy this summer in the cold windy rain. I think of that time sitting with dad in the icu when i wear it. Its not always sad thoughts, it helps me remember working with him in the rain, fishing with him in the mosquitos, driving with him through the wisconsin countryside. I used to talk with him on saturdays and I remember him telling me how he planned to go up on the roof on his homemade scaffold and work on the chimney. I had said it sounded like a bad idea and that the chimney would go through the winter just fine without his putting the thinbricks back on it. He was sure he could do it, 79 years old and he was sure that his plywood platform with a ladder on it would work fine. Something happened up there, we’ll never know, bees? dizziness? a wiggly platform? reaching too far off the ladder? we’ll never know, all we know is he fell, hit the roof edge, pitched over and hit his temple on the round rock border he put along the sidewalk, the rocks he hauled home from the chimney we took down in minnesota, from the cabin he and mom had honeymooned in some fifty years earlier…

Fall is coming to Aggieland and to most of North America, summers heat will break, the trees will begin to turn, leaves will be raked, furnaces prepped for the winter, snowblowers tuned up, but if you have any inkling to go up and fix something on your roof…don’t. Get a professional who ties themselves off against falls.

And if you have a chance, tell your parents hello, thank them for what they’ve done for you, on the phone, in person, or speak it to the stars.

Be good to each other, we’re all we’ve got.