Instrumental Jazz Construction Zone

As I write this, I am newly 31 years old… on December 31st, 2019- the last day of a decade and my golden birthday. As I write this, I sit at the butcher block counter top of our new boathouse, the one that we have spent the last 1.5 years demolishing, designing anew, and building from the riverbed up. I sit at the butcher block counter that we lathered last night with lubricant laxative “for occasional constipation”… mineral oil from the pharmacy section that is. Apparently, this is the equivalent to the mineral oil used for “butcher block treatment” only incredibly cheaper. At 31, I’m still learning these very important things.

I think back to a decade ago. It was my 21st birthday. A wonderful group of friends and family gathered together for dinner and music. We then went to all the bars in Winona.. yeah I said it: all of them. I rang in the 2010 year by puking into a toilet for multiple hours while my sister’s dog licked my leg. It was lovely… It actually was quite lovely until the puking part, but again, we’re always learning. The birthdays ahead in the 2010 decade included nights spent at work, out and about in Minneapolis, in Hudson, WI, in New Zealand watching fireworks over the Pacific Ocean, in our small northwoods cabin with a dozen best friends, and at the marina last year when we had a bonfire and mule rides in -5 degree weather.

So, as I was saying, I started this decade by hanging my head in a toilet and getting slobbered on by a bulldog. I end it now drinking raspberry leaf tea listening to “Relaxing Instrumental Jazz Cafe” on Spotify while my child, who is still in utero despite his due date three days ago, kicks me in the guts. My husband is using a drill in the other room doing god knows what. I guess you could say that my vibe right now is “Instrumental Jazz Construction Zone”. It’s perfect.

To go back in time one decade is quite daunting. I’m happy to report I’ve maintained a village of family and friends that could never be replaced. I found a husband who is equal parts mischief and equal parts love and entirely my perfect match. I have fallen in love with humanity in multiple ways: in my work as a nurse, in taking time to travel slowly and purposefully inside and outside of the country that raised me, in living with with friends in college and in the middle of uptown Minneapolis where I met “Neighbor Boy”- that equal parts mischief/equal parts love I didn’t know I needed, with my cousin in a cabin on a lake in WI, with my sister and brother-in-law and husband before any of us were married or sure about much, and in a boat in a marina with other liveaboards who demonstrated inexhaustible interest in the world around them.

Michael and I built a cabin in the northwoods of MN, traveled the world for six months of time, took many road trips in the van that Michael converted into a camper van, lived in a houseboat for four years in the middle of the Twin Cities, got married on my grandparents’ farm where my parents and sister had also done so, and bought a boathouse to renovate into our current floating home on a river that we love in a place that feels so peacefully a part of my soul; and now, I sit here cramping across my pelvis because this is the time of the night when Baby Hutch likes to kick like a madman against all of my insides. I am making a human- one that doesn’t want to arrive on time apparently… like mother, like son. To think about all that a decade has done for me is beautifully, overwhelmingly, and magically daunting.

I acknowledged “all that a decade has done for me”. After I wrote that part, I leaned back in my chair– both to alleviate that pain of a presumably oversized watermelon baby moving in a small space but also to reflect on the rebound thought, “Have I done enough for the world?” I sure have received more than my fair share. I try to remember that we give back in small ways. We can’t all be Greta Thunberg, although my ideal self will try. We pick out small moments that arise and capitalize on them; we create greater moments where we can. We might give some change to that homeless guy, or better yet, we stop to talk to him on our way home from work. We learn his name, hear about the life he had in Alaska, bond about our love of nature and sleeping outside, share a common interest in libraries and journal writing, give him some health care advice, and yes, eventually ask about his teardrop tattoo. This man was a face that made me smile often in this decade as I passed him on the same corner for three years of my commute. He told funny stories, reflected on the simple joys of his day, shared his art work, asked about my family and how work was going, and once, when I told him “sorry, I don’t have any money today” after feeling bad about not giving him anything for the last handful of visits, he started pulling out some cash and said, “how much do you need?” I suddenly realized that I’m not this kind man’s benefactor. I’m his friend. So, again, “have I done enough for the world?” because it sure feels like I gained here too.

I started a new birthday tradition a couple years ago. I spend some hoursĀ of the day at a bookstore and inevitably walk out with 1-6 books. I walked out with three today. One of these is “Upstream” by Mary Oliver. I’ll leave you with a few wise words from this great poet to start off your new year, your new decade, and your same wonderful you.

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” -Mary Oliver

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do… Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.” -Mary Oliver

“You must never stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life. I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones, that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe- that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.” -Mary Oliver

Now, no matter how you started this new decade, whether you spent it with your head hung in a toilet or while drinking tea in a more upright position, whether you were surrounded by friends or all alone, there is no telling what ten years of time has in store for you. You cannot plan a life or a decade but you can create small moments of a day. You can choose how many smiles you give in that day or don’t. You can read for an hour of that day or scroll on your phone for that same time. You can stop to visit with your neighbor. You can meditate, pray, go to church or walk outside; you can do none of those things and still know yourself and the power that moves you. You can stretch your mind with whatever book, media, or conversation you put yourself in. You can love the ones around you no matter what they do with their moments. These moments make days. These days become a decade. The decades create your life.

“Have I done enough for the world?” is an incredibly broad inquiry. I’ll just start with finishing this tea, thanking my husband for hooking up the sink in the bathroom as I write this, walk around for ten minutes to give my son and my guts some extra space and exercise, write down my intentions for tomorrow, and text a friend back. After that, I’ll grab those ginger beers and meet Michael on the couch for our 10pm movie date. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll give him a foot massage instead of asking him to fork one over to his super pregnant birthday wife… Nah, that’s overkill.

Moving Port

It is 6:45am on Saturday, August 24, 2019: Day #2 of driving Neighbor Girl down the river to her new port of Latsch Island, Winona, MN. We beached our sturdy steel houseboat on a sandbar last night near Mile Marker 810. One lock and dam down, four to go.

The river treated us kindly yesterday. Perhaps she feared that I would flood her with my tears. We left our home yesterday. More specifically, we drove our houseboat out of her home port. We left Watergate Marina in Saint Paul, Minnesota- our home base for the last four years.

We bought our houseboat there five years ago, left the country to travel to 13 others assured that in six months, we would have this 142 square feet of living space to exist on for the summer. One summer of living aboard turned into a fall, a winter, a spring, and three more years just like that. Michael and I joyfully resided on this tiny floating home together tucked away in a quiet park marina along the floodplains of Saint Paul where even the locals don’t know we exist. (Trust me, getting an Uber pickup had about a 45% success rate.) We continued to exist there purposefully and peacefully with eight other boats year-round and countless more during the seasonable and vibrant summers.

During these last four years of life, I worked at Hennepin County Medical Center at a job that I loved for challenging every part of me and showing me the hardest and most beautiful parts of humanity. Michael and I spent weekends building our cabin up north. We got married. We made a baby. We made a whole family in this marina and some very best friends; I’m looking at you tugboat and sailors. So, as we leave port with Ken and Roger tossing our lines, it’s no wonder that the Mighty Mississippi fears I may flood her waters with these unsupressable tears that well up from the pit of my gut and burn my heart on their way up to my pathetic sniffling face.

Watergate Marina is beautiful on this day- a sky as blue as I’ve ever known it and a sun that casts down an easy 70 degrees.

Video: Leaving Port

As we slowly leave the marina, I hand the wheel to Michael and spend a minute on the stern (slightly embarrassed by the puddle I’ve become) as our home harbor disappears from sight. Michael joins me, and I tell him, “I’m not sad, I’m just so so grateful.” He hugs me and says, “me too.” We agree that there is nothing more we could have wanted out of these last four years. For us, they were perfect. When I finally clear my eyes to look up at Michael, he has two big tears living on his cheeks- a rare sight on his typically cheerful and mischievious face.

Now, on this Saturday morning, we revel in our first day of river boat journey success and last night’s very primal joy of sitting along the river’s shores with our feet in the sand and a warm campfire glow across our faces. Today, we are fresh-faced and confident going in to the biggest test that trusty Neighbor Girl has had to face in her last four years with us and likely in her 49 years of existence: the Lake Pepin crossing.

Lake Pepin is where the Mississippi River becomes it’s widest and deepest for a stretch of 22 miles. Lake Pepin widens to a distance of two miles and has an average depth of 21 feet and a maximum depth of 60 feet.

For those of you who have not done much river travel, I will enlighten you on the treachery of wing dams. The Mississippi River is lined with them. Wing dams are human constructs that were built during the 1930s and ’40s with the purpose of crafting a deeper and more reliable navigation channel. These wing dams were built prior to the present day lock and dam system as a means to control the flow of the river. Wing dams extend partway across a river channel and often go undetected depending on the depth of the water at that time. If the water is low enough, you will see a line across the water that delineates a smooth water surface upstream and a choppy water texture downstream of that wing dam. It takes a practiced eye to identify these.

Now, on to the treacherous part. Wing dams are unmarked. Boats and boat engines are frequently wrecked by these shallow lurking structures. The good news? Wing dams do not exist within the main channel which is marked by red and green steel buoys. “Red, Right, Return” means that the red marker will be on your right as you return north. Since we are traveling downstream, the green is on our right and the red is on our left, or so we expected…

At the head of Lake Pepin where the water widens considerably, the reassuring red and green channel markers suddenly become non-existent. Things had been going very well so far. With a high level of confidence, I thought, “no big deal, the whole width of the river must be open for business.” We didn’t bother to check the river charts that Michael had downloaded on his phone. Within 15 minutes of cruising cockily along the Minnesota shore, I blazed our little houseboat right into a submerged sandbar. The engines grumbled as they tried to process the run-in with sand and thick weeds. My relaxed mood shifted to “shit, shit, shit.” This was not the spot to lose an engine.. or two. Thank God we have two. I inched out of this disaster and let the engines relax. They sounded gruff for ten minutes before regaining their deep calming purr. We lucked out. Michael checked his river charts and sure enough, the elusive submerged bar was marked on there. “What the f***. If that’s been known long enough to include on a chart, why isn’t there a frickin’ marker by it?!” I exclaimed this in defense of my sweet old boat and dented captain’s pride. Michael laughed, and we chugged on.

We had 22 miles of Lake Pepin ahead of us; three hours of white crested waves beating our steel hull from all sides. We were fortunate that the day’s wind came from ahead as Neighbor Girl does not fair well in a side wind. A side wind of today’s speeds would have forced us to sit this day out, but with a head wind, we pressed on. We quickly learned that both of our bilge pumps were in working order… whew. Water was leaking in from somewhere, or everywhere as the decks were fully rinsed with each wave. Thankfully, our pumps had no trouble keeping up and expelling this intake. Neighbor Girl was doing great.

What I did not expect from our Lake Pepin crossing, besides that disruptive submerged sandbar at the start, was that the main channel crosses through the middle rather than along the shoreline; this caused us to be nearly a mile from shore for most of the venture. With the wild wind splashing from ahead, mysterious dark waters for a mile on all sides, and migrating birds overhead, we felt like true river nomads now! We cranked the music, danced at the helm, and celebrated feeling free and dry in our little moving home.

Later that night, following a celebratory dinner at Slippery’s Bar in Wabasha, we ran our boat aground once again in an attempt to beach up for the night. Neighbor Girl made it out of grounding incident #2 unscathed, and we found another, more perfect spot to make dinner and watch the sun set behind the distant bluffs.

Video: Beach Camping

As night fell, a beaver played near our boat. We did our best to keep quiet and observe his antics, but he caught a glimpse of us, slapped his tail, and dove smoothly away.

It is now Day #3 of this river boat adventure. We wake just south of Alma, WI to find that we have no maple syrup for the pancakes I have been dreaming of all night. These are the things that matter at sea- a good warm meal in the morning and a cold hard drink at night.

Since my little growing fetus disallows me from the cold hard night drink, I am living for these warm morning meals. My husband must love me or something, because we backtrack a mile to Alma’s city dock with the mission of maple syrup acquisition and a propane tank refill. We get distracted by good conversation and fresh pretzels at The Alma Bakery where we are introduced to a 50% off closing sale at The Junk Market down the street. Two hours later, we reboard our boat with propane, fresh pretzels, four wooden folding chairs, a canvas painting of a ship, some sort of antique cutting tool, and with the baker himself for more conversations on scheming and dreaming. The baker didn’t end up departing with us. I suppose he had more pretzels to make after we cleaned him out. The syrup never made it on board either. We are far too distractable to ever become pirates, at least productive ones.

We left Alma at 11:15am, made it through Lock and Dam 5 at 1:12pm, and through the final lock, Lock and Dam 5a, at 2:35pm. We were greeted on the other side of the lock by two boats- one with my parents and the other with the Brandon family. It was a lovely welcoming. We made a small parade to my parent’s cabin where my sister and more family boarded for the final stretch to Latsch Island.

We arrived at The Wheel House, our future floating home under construction, at 4:45pm. We docked with a bang… literally. Michael drove flawlessly up until this climatic point when he made a small but very audible dent in the side of our new boathouse. The excitement got the best of him. I’m taken back to over four years ago when we took Neighbor Girl out for her first trip. With a fresh coat of paint, newly placed engines, and not a bit of knowledge on how to drive this big box of steel with twin engines and no keel, we enthusiastically headed for open water. As brave as ever, we felt like two free birds exploring a world of new possibilities; it was a very familiar feeling that resided in us throughout these last three days. Eventually, on this day four years ago, Neighbor Girl’s maiden voyage came to an end; it was time to dock her back in the slip. Michael took the wheel, used both the wheel and the two throttles to steer (We later learned that this was the beginner’s mistake. You must only use the throttles and no wheel if you hope to park without incident.), and not-so-gently rammed in to the bowsprit of our neighbor’s much nicer boat. Luckily, only ours came out with a scar- a four foot gash through the cabin’s port side. Neighbor Girl’s beauty scar still remains today.

The Wheel House now has an upstream scar to match. These two little river homes now live side by side, each with an imperfection to remind us of the joy in our wildest ideas and new beginnings. May we never be ashamed of these scars or scared to make new ones; they each tell a great story. May we continue to live our lives being too novice, unintimidated, a little stupid maybe, and much too eager in all the new and unusual waters that come our way. May we sometimes forget the syrup and come home with pretzels and a new friend instead.

Video: Celebratory Champagne

“Do You Know What You’re Doing?” (the tower tale)

So, Michael just bought a fire tower today…
That’s correct. For a whopping five dollars paid to the Wisconsin DNR, Michael purchased a 116 foot lookout fire tower- the kind that looms above the tree line to see as far as the birds. I woke up this morning to Michael shaking me awake and saying, “five minutes left (in the online auction) and the tower is ours!” I try to process this insane project with my mind still halfway in dreamland… I cannot. We watch as the minutes tick away (Michael excitedly, I with a sense of impending doom), and then suddenly we own a humongous fire tower somewhere in Wisconsin. Michael shares his thrill in a text thread where he starts recruiting his buddies for all weekends over the next 90 days (the time allowed to remove the tower before we get fined). Sam immediately responds, “Nope”; this is definitely a logical response. Calli volunteers Chris to which Chris readily agrees with the clause “just don’t kill me Mike!”. Neighbor Sam has been encouraging this idea all along and told me yesterday “if Michael buys that tower, I’m in”. The answers are varied, and I don’t know what to think.

I think back to cutting down the looming tree limb at the boathouse spot. The neighbor downstream asked Michael, “do you know what you’re doing?”. I know Michael well enough to know he said, “oh yeah, this will be no problem” or something that similarly instills a maybe false but certainly reassuring confidence. I hope I’m not revealing too many of my husband’s secrets here. I haven’t figured out if he truly believes he can do anything, or if he just wants us to buy in to what’s happening here. Either way, the b.s. he’s putting out has yet to fail us. I wouldn’t have half of these adventures without him.

You may be wondering what one does with a 116 foot lookout tower. From my understanding, one looks out from it and that’s pretty much the gist. I’m sure there will be stories to come on how this massive structure makes it’s way from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Two Harbors, Minnesota. I can’t quite wrap my head around the process but Michael claims he’s got it all figured out… typical.

As Michael’s off to the bank to get that five dollars where it needs to be, I’m here writing and reminiscing. I think about the question “do you know what you’re doing?” as so logically asked by our neighbor. I wonder now, do any of us really know what we’re doing? If we truly know what we’re doing each step of the way, are we doing it right? If there’s no challenge or uncertainty, are we doing enough? I can imagine that the ones who’ve made waves before us- ambitious souls like Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr., and Amelia Earhart- did not make waves without failure, uncertainty, and fear. One of my favorite quotes is this by Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I’m certain that Amelia Earhart got asked over and over again, “what are you doing?”; she certainly stepped outside of the box she was put in, and controversy and fear were no match for MLK’s tenacity. Now I know that I’m comparing MK (Michael Kahl) to greats like MLK here but just go with it. Apparently, I put my husband on a pretty high pedastal. Don’t worry, I kick him in the ego once in awhile too; I believe in a balanced life.
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I scribbled out the above on the day that Michael bought the tower: August 20, 2018. Since that date, the hourglass was flipped- the tower must be down in 90 days or we will be fined ten dollars per day; that is two large extra shot lattes per day or one week’s worth of laundry at the laundromat- both washed and dried. I began to wonder- will I have to budget out coffee or clean clothes if this thing doesn’t get down in time? I wouldn’t know which to choose. I still had no idea how Michael planned to remove this looming steel structure. It was tall, heavy, and seemingly permanent in it’s place. While the tower did cost $5, I soon realized that the extras would add right on up. First, gas money. It would be a 170 mile round trip at least once per week. Also, we were finding that on more days than not, one of our two trucks wasn’t running right for one reason or the next. The removal required an insurance policy (understandably so), so Michael called our buddy Paul who also happens to be an insurance guy; he was crazy or kind or both of those enough to insure it. The work also required multiple Menards trips and a trailer that would exist in Eau Claire for three months (thanks Neighbor Sam). A storage shed rental near the removal site was also necessary, oh and time.. lots of time.

Have I said how much I love my husband? I really would do anything for the guy but this whole tower thing… it stretched my limits. One night, with the 90 day cutoff date looming and half the tower still remaining, we sat in Happy Hollow Tavern guzzling a beer and a hamburger after a cold and long day picking at the tower piece by piece. I was exhausted and thoughtlessly spilled out the sentence, “Michael, you bit off more than you can chew on this one.” He was quiet and thoughtful and said “If I could go back in time, I would have never bought it.” This sentence broke my heart. He said this in response to a fatigue and frustration that he knew I was feeling and that was inevitably rubbing off on him. He said this after a very long weekend in abnormally cold fall weather. He said this with a very hungry stomach. Michael had talked about deconstructing and reconstructing a fire tower for YEARS, multiple years. While I’m aware that this is a very odd and specific goal, it was one that never went away. Michael kept showing me towers on Craigslist, admiring towers on road trips, and dreaming about the day he would work on one. Believe it or not, I vetoed a handful of towers for sale before this one fell in our shopping cart. So when this one came along, one that was accessible by road and cost thousands of dollars less than the others, I decided to keep my mouth shut and let him live this one out, for better or worse. That is what I promised, right? “For better or worse, richer or poorer, fire tower debacle or not.” Now, here we were at Happy Hollow Tavern and Michael was confessing to the notion that this project might be over his head. I immediately wanted to backpedal, reverse my negativity, swallow that phrase “you bit off more than you can chew”, and encourage him, cheer him on, slap him on the butt and say “you got it slugger”.. or something like that.

After that brief exchange of guilt or regret or whatever, we did what all the great drunks of past and present do, we left those tortured emotions on the barstool and never looked back. Well, actually, a drunk would probably go back. Also, we’re not drunks… bad analogy. Anyway, we moved forward and moved forward fast- 90 days to remove a tower with no heavy equipment. The tower came down the old fashioned way- bolt by bolt, piece by piece, in both good and foul weather. It had too, or I was going to have to give up extra-shot lattes and clean laundry.

Our 90 day cutoff date was on the horizon when Michael got a phone call. A woman from the DNR office called to say, “We checked the site and it looks like you’re making a real honest effort”… she extended the deadline. Magically, we had three more months. With a ton of help from Neighbor Sam, I am happy to report that the tower did come down in it’s entirety. With climbing harnesses strapped on, ladders rigged with ropes, tool belts tied tight, a grounds crewman or crewwoman to detach and load up the beams, and Kwik Trip pizza for lunch always, the tower removal was a complete surprise.. I mean success. With the extended deadline by the grace of the Wisconsin DNR, the fire tower was removed in time and somehow, someway, without injury. I think back to the night when Michael said “I would have never bought it”… he had never said anything like that before that or after that. I know he never meant that for himself; he meant it only for my sake. He knew I wasn’t utterly jazzed up about the tower idea and the takedown took longer than planned. But Michael, he was never intimidated, never scared, never uninspired. Michael dug in to this project like he does everything else- tenaciously and without regret. While I outwardly hated (not to sugarcoat it or anything) this tower from the beginning, Michael loved everything about it- the challenge, the planning and forethought it required, the heights, the often inclement weather, and the physicality and guts required to reach, unbolt, tie, and maneuver while strung up high in the sky. I have to admit something here: the tower project was a lot of things but the most unavoidable of those things- it was a lot of fun.

At the time Michael purchased his, the Wisconsin DNR attempted to sell eight fire towers. They only sold one. That’s right. Only one human in Wisconsin and the surrounding states decided they would buy a fire tower; that human is my husband. So what do you say when someone asks, “do you know what you’re doing”? I think it’s less about what you say and more about what you do; you do it anyway- tenaciously and without pause, without regret, without internalizing the doubt that the world, and even your wife, might eagerly offer. You might only know what you’re doing when you find 10,000 ways to do it wrong, or you might get lucky- your big humongous looming steel tower might just come down without a hitch.

After I read this blog to Michael, he informed me that, “I don’t really like Thomas Edison though.” When I asked him why, he let me know that Edison didn’t actually invent the lightbulb… I’ll have to fact check that later. Michael went on to share a favorite quote of his that he finds more applicable to his experience, and I have to agree- it’s better than Edison’s. His preferred quote is this: “Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement” as stated by writer and activist Rita Mae Brown. So, allow me to revise my ending: You might only know what you’re doing when you find 10,000 ways to do it wrong, or you might get lucky- your big humongous looming steel tower might just come down with a bit of bad judgement, a lot of experience, and seemingly… without a hitch.