Category Archives: People

We didn’t weed out racism when we should have

Behold the blackberry root

The racism I grew up with was subtle. Not so subtle I didn’t recognize it, but subtle enough that it could live there in the background without offending too many people.

Without offending me enough to do something about it.

And I’m convinced that is why it’s still around in 2018 and factoring into a national election.

Racism is like Himalayan blackberry bushes. A thorny species in the rose family, these plants were brought in for fruit production in the 1800s, but they quickly spread out of control and changed the landscape by out-competing native plants. Each spring they pop up through the bark dust like other weeds, but you can’t just pull them out. They’re stubborn, and they have thorns. So you weed everything else and swear you’re going to come back for it. But you don’t, and they grow bigger. Continue reading We didn’t weed out racism when we should have

Note from 1–49 W Calhoun Pl in Chicago

Homeless Man (oil & wood)

The old man with long, brown and grey-streaked hair stood outside the train station muttering to the world.

It was three degrees. I could feel it, because I took my gloves off to check the temperature on my iPhone.

I could feel that familiar sting of air with barely a few degrees to it in spite of the bright sunshine overhead.

I could hear his words clearly, as I walked closer to the man.

“I don’t belong here anymore,” he said in a thin tenor to start the verse.

“You don’t know what they’re like, you don’t have a single clue,” he continued.

“I’m actually all right, all right,” he finished, as if practicing the words to a garage-rock song for a Friday-night pop-up show.

Continue reading Note from 1–49 W Calhoun Pl in Chicago

A Friday Evening with Mr. Bridgeport

Paulie Walnuts
Paulie Walnuts

Our favorite bartender was on duty, mixing up killer $5 martinis as big as fishbowls.

The bar wasn’t crowded, and we landed our favorite seat against the window where I could catch the White Sox and she could watch the cops pulling people over on Harlem Avenue.

This is our Friday night, like it or not.

Friday is our date night.

Sometimes we talk a lot. Like crazy stuff. Heavy duty relationship stuff.

And sometimes we just people watch.

This little barbecue joint in the burbs is good for that. So is our relationship.

Continue reading A Friday Evening with Mr. Bridgeport

The art of mushing

I think a lot about Hemingway’s passion for bull fighting. He was an aficionado in an era when that meant something.

Sometimes I wonder what led him to his passion for the fights. Was it the Spanish countryside, the pace of life and the affinity that the people shared for what was then the national sport of Spain?

I’ve read and reread Hem’s bull fighting material many times, but I don’t live near enough to a bull ring to relate to the sport.

Recently I experienced, if it can be called that, a sport that I could very much find myself becoming an aficionado of. To Alaskans, it is the national sport. At times, it seems it’s the only sport.

It has almost nothing in connection with bull fighting, but had Hemingway made it to Alaska, he might have found similarities.

Papa wrote a lot about the kind of man it took to fight the bulls. About the mental tenacity required to bring down such a large beast so delicately. But he also wrote about the beauty of the beasts and the role they played in what is essentially a death ballet.

Dog sled racing traces its roots to necessity, to survival. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that bull fighting can trace its roots back to something similar, to man’s great dance with nature.

I have never been dog sledding before. My only exposure to the sport came from covering the start or end of the Race to the Sky, Montana’s premier mushing event.

So on an extraordinarily cold December morning, I traveled to the home of Dallas Seavey to try my hand at a sport that is so much more than just endurance. A sport that just might be the most beautiful embodiment of man’s great dance with nature.

There are no beautiful accouterments in dog racing. Survival clothing is very grounded in practicality and its most basic function.

The first thing you must know about racing dogs is that they bear very little resemblance to those massive huskies, samoyeds or malamutes you might think of when you imagine sled dogs.

Great sled dogs are not generally a single breed from what I can tell. The Alaskan Husky is not in fact a breed, but a category of dog.

And to look out on Seavey’s racing dogs is to see what look like smallish, husky-esque muts.

The dogs spend their non-running hours in a pseudo pack chained nearby to one another on a large, flat pad. The snow is meticulously cleared of their poop, while the chilled air smells distinctly of their urine.

Their excitement reaches a sharp crescendo as they realize it’s time for a run. Below the shadowed kennels is a large snow-covered marsh lit up like a concert stadium by a bright northern sun. When the teams are hitched to the sleds, they are run down a large shoot out into the open track.

I rode a trailer sled the first time around the loop. It’s a way to let people experience the feeling of driving the sled, while an experienced musher guides the well-trained dogs. Sort of like parachuting for the first time tandem with an experienced jumper.

The low sun is extremely bright shortly after rising to its zenith in the northern sky, just a little over the tree tops. It will set by 3:05 p.m.


Contrary to popular beliefe, mushers do not usually say mush. It’s too soft a word to be an effective command word for these dogs.

We set off directly into the light with the dogs tugging and then smoothly pulling us out onto the track. I grab on to the sled hard and attempt to find something akin to sea legs as the sled shifts across the uneven snow.

Soon the sled starts to circle the wide marsh, and we turn our backs on the sun and gaze at its blinding reflection. I can sense the dogs’ anticipation of a good, hard run as they surge forward. A fork appears in the snow, demarcated by a slight shadow.

“Gee!” the driver shouts and the dogs veer right. I attempt to shift my weight to the left runner as the driver does. Because of the full circle of the track we were running, we don’t here the command for left, Haw!

The driver asked if we thought we could handle a thousand miles of this. I gazed out across the sun drenched snow-palace marsh and briefly thought, “yes.” But the penetrating cold physically hurt my toes, which were encased in boots advertised to be comfortable to 40 below. The sting of cold on my face numbed me to the point where it was difficult to sound coherent.

The driver explained that he frost-bit his toes a week ago after taking the dogs on a run in something other than his normal boots.

Shortly after this, I fell through the ice into a small creek. I soaked one leg good, and I was at least a quarter mile from the house. I took off running, the slosh turning to slush in the -7 degree air.

Dallas Seavey, the youngest person to ever run the Iditarod, and whose dogs pulled me around this marsh, looks young. To know that he’s finished one of the most grueling races in the world is enough to respect him. To know he finished in 6th place in 2009 is astounding.

After running the dogs, we sat inside his yurt, which is outfitted like an Ikea catalogue. Three Alaska husky pups are receiving a king’s pampering in the arms of visitors. But they’re soon put back out into the cold they are bred for.

Seavey talked about his grandfather, who raced in the first ever Iditarod

His wife, Jen, sits on the floor and cradles their young daughter. Jen ran the Iditarod too. It’s what they talk about in the summer when they’re not racing. And in winter they’re living it every minute of every day.

Mushers don’t live on a schedule like normal people. They work always and always in increments. Six hours of running, four hours of feeding and resting the dogs and then another six-hour run.

Even when they train, they keep to no schedule but the pull of the dogs on their harness.


Cheechako in Alaska

When you travel, when you live in many places, you remain forever a newcomer. In Hawaii I was a Haole, in Fiji, a Kavalagi, in New Zealand I was Paheka.

Now I’m Cheechako in Alaska.

I talk to people who’ve been here in Anchorage for 25, 30 and even 50 years. I see advertisements for businesses that were started by gold prospectors 100-years-ago.

I hear talk of the Sourdoughs, those who’ve been around for a while.

Seems you have to put in a hard winter or 10 before you become a Sourdough. The winters today don’t count for much.

Meanwhile, I’m a Cheechako.

And like nowhere else I’ve ever been, I feel like one.

This morning I followed two cars down a side road leading away from my son’s school. I thought maybe I’d find a shortcut to C Street, a major thoroughfare that takes me to my job in Midtown.

It worked. I learned something. Institutional knowledge gained by exploration.

Yesterday Cheryl found a free clinic so Carson could get two shots required to enter the Anchorage school system. She noticed it when she turned down a one-way street near Benihanas in downtown.

On Sunday we found a local, favorite sledding hill that we plan to get back to now that the snow is falling hard.

In a week, I’ve been part of the coverage of one of Alaska’s biggest election cycles in many years. At stake: a Senate seat and all the unanswered questions of the Tea Party Movement, traditional state politics, pork barrel spending, taxation, native affairs and numerous other complex issues important to Alaskans.

I’m reading as fast as I can, and yet I feel like it will take me years to understand this. There is no “Alaska for Dummies.”

So I hang out with our news director Steve Mac Donald whenever I can. Institutional knowledge gained through questioning the locals, especially newsies who’ve been at it for a while.

After his first day at school on Tuesday, my son Cole told me Alaskans are too nice.

“How so?”

“When I tried to sit out of the indoor hockey game because I don’t know how to play, they kept giving me the stick and telling me to take their place.”

Yesterday a local realtor took my wife and daughter on a tour of the city’s neighborhoods and explained a little about each place. The demographics, the schools, the age and general condition of the housing.

Institutional knowledge gained by experiences.

I am a Cheechako here in a dark, cold place, but if you put a heat map over the city of Anchorage, you’d find a red-hot glow in southwest Alaska, and I’m guessing you’d find a lot of red-hot dots all over this land.


Talking Story

This whole journalism thing started out with a desire to be a storyteller. My dad is one of the best auditory storytellers anywhere, and I wanted to be just like him.

I remember writing poetry and short stories many years ago. I have numerous journals filled with my notes and stories from childhood. I never made a big deal about it, because it was a compulsion I didn’t really understand at the time.

But I remember my brother wrote a story about fighter planes and dog fights that really captured the interest of my parents. They lavished praise on him, and rightly so. He wrote an exciting story that had a beginning, middle and end with an exciting climax and lots of action.

I remember feeling really jealous of the attention he got for that story. I felt that I was the writer in the family and that he was good at so many other things.

Eventually I realized that he wrote that story from an interest in planes and dog fights rather than any interest in being a writer. My brother has a very scientific mind that relates to complex ideas in a way that breaks them down into usable chunks.

His story fascinated me because of the way he used his own words to relate what he understood about airplanes.

I wanted to tell stories like that.

Print journalism seemed a natural fit for me with its adherence to form and style. But early on I realized that print could only tell part of the story based on the audience.

I knew that many people glance at the newspaper and maybe read the headlines or view the photos. A smaller percentage actually read the front page of the newspaper from top to bottom, and an even smaller minority read beyond the front page.

And yet news still is disseminated. Some of it is word of mouth or water-cooler conversation. Sometimes articles are clipped out or forwarded via E-mail. Little bits of information get out into the wider population in spite of newspaper reading habits.

One of the reasons I gravitated toward online journalism is because of a desire to tell stories and reach people where they are at. I always felt a little useless writing stories about the county that were read by county workers and subscribers over 65 who still had the habit of reading every story in the paper.

Videos and podcasts and multimedia Web stories fascinated me in their ability to reach a wider audience, and I quickly realized that online storytelling could erase the boundaries and stretch the canvas of storytelling to infinity.

People often ask me about why I chose online journalism instead of sticking to writing stories.

Stories are pieces of life that when put together artistically form our collective history. More than that, good stories become part of the fabric of society upon which we build our empires.

Stories are pieces too, and most storytelling today puts the pieces together quickly and tries to distribute that story to as wide and audience as possible. But so many pieces are missing still.

A good story teller uses many tools. If an elder telling stories wants to capture his audience, he uses the inflection of his voice and hand movements. He makes himself small at times to emphasize the vastness of his tale. The visuals of his storytelling are as important as the words he uses to tell the story.

That has remained the same since the beginning of time. The printing press changed that somewhat as text dominated illustration.

Today a good storyteller has options well beyond a text-based story. In fact good storytelling includes many elements beyond text.

I think of how many stories were written during the recent election about the impossibility of winning a write-in campaign. Text-based stories sought to explain that certain sections of Alaska’s interior were united in their support for one candidate, while other enclaves in larger cities supported another candidate.

It was all very confusing to try and read between the lines to see where the state of Alaska actually cast its vote.

Good storytelling finds the best tools to tell each story.

So in yesterday’s news meeting, someone suggested making a visualization of how each part of the state of Alaska voted for the contentious U.S. Senate seat held by Lisa Murkowski.

I came back to the Web team and asked the designer, Jeff Rivet, if he could cannibalize another flash map he’d made of the state and show us how each section of the state voted in what could be a historical win for a write-in candidate.

It’s not the whole story, but it’s a piece that contains elements of the whole story, and it’s both visual and text based with moving parts.

I love thoughtful storytelling. I love when a visual can replace a bunch of text in explaining a complex idea.

Journalism is far from dead. And as storytelling has evolved from the beginning of time with small changes and history changing movements, we are in a transitional phase where the art and craft of story are moving beyond older technology on the shoulders of new technology.


Apparently the recession ended in 2009, but someone forgot to tell the economy

According to some strange committee with an exceedingly Soviet-era name, the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession actually, officially ended in June 2009.

Let’s see, in June 2009 I was three months into a new job for which I had received a $10,000 raise. For the first time in our lives we actually talked about buying a house, and the cars had their first oil changes in almost a year.

I spent the remainder of 2009 learning how newspapers don’t work, at least under the current system of trying to sell ads into something with a shrinking circulation and free online advertising, if you know how to get it.

I watched mills close down, which was actually good for business, because everyone wanted to read about how this mill closure would affect our mountain community. Car dealers couldn’t sell cars and Realtors acted more desperate than usual.

Ripple effect. Apparently Missoula isn’t anywhere near the center of the pond, therefore a rock, in this case, the recession, makes waves that won’t hit us for many months, and which will continue to hit us for many months after the pond has settled.

But there are almost five million people on some form of extended unemployment insurance in America. Did someone forget to tell the economy that the recession is over? Why are employers so reticent to hire?

Why are malnourished newspapers still cutting their workforce and cannibalizing their future in reactionary measures tied to quarterly earnings?


Who are we?

I remember growing up in the waning years of the Cold War. We had Ronald Reagan and Star Wars and warheads pointing at Russian satellites and cities. We were Americans working hard because we had freedom and a dream with no limits.

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we had a national identity. We had a purpose and a common enemy in Communism.

Today we have two wars and a murderous idealism as an enemy. But you can’t bomb that out of caves, as we have come to learn. And you can no more force freedom on people than you can force Communism on them.

Our identity is no longer that of automaker, iron worker, mill worker, logger, empire builder. I see mill workers learning how to become IT managers in school, government retraining for their lost jobs.

Our leaders won’t create health care reform, because we don’t know we’re sick. Our schools are suffering, because we’ve invested in everything else under the sun except for our children.

We’re in an identity crisis of epic proportions. But then nearing 300 years as a national conscious is a long time when you’re at the top of the food chain. If struggle shapes your identity, perhaps we haven’t struggled enough lately.


Feeling the music: Tom Waits and Empire Building

I was working in the kitchen all afternoon making clam chowder and listening to Tom Waits. Some days are just right for a process soup and Tom’s straight-to-the-gut renditions of life. Like sandpaper on a newborn’s belly.

My wife and kids can’t stand Tom. It’s that way with a lot of people. I think Tom is something you feel more than you listen to.

An old friend, Bjorn, sent me this video this morning. And though I don’t yet need a dime, there is something very haunting in the lyrics. In the way he talks about building an empire.

No more finger pointing

Thirteen years ago I had a small house painting business that I ran mostly by myself. My wife would help me tape windows and sand window sills occasionally, but I mostly spent long days working by myself inhaling paint fumes and spraying some variant of bland eggshell paint on the walls of new homes.

Not having a lot of income from this particular job, I tried to get a few more coats out of an old spray tip that malfunctioned often, which caused a large drip of paint to partially block the spray pattern. I’d swipe my index finger across nozzle to clean this excess paint and go on with my business.

My left index finger as it appears 13-years after surgery.

On this particular day, I think it might have been a Tuesday morning, I found myself cleaning the nozzle more often than I had in the past, and in one angry moment, I caught my finger in the nozzle guard, and when I went to pull back to release the stuck finger, I inadvertently pulled the trigger lever, which my other hand held in a pistol grip.

Thirteen cc’s of bland eggshell paint blew my finger up like a huge, pale balloon. Surprisingly, it was rather painless at first, and I dropped the spray gun and grabbed the finger trying to push the paint back out the punctured opening. Nothing happened.

I called my father and asked his opinion of the matter. He suggested the emergency room, and so I drove myself there.

Ordinarily you’d have to line up with everyone else in the waiting room, and since I wasn’t bleeding, and I was breathing just fine, I figured to be there for a few hours before hearing my name called. But during triage, the nurse looked at my finger and said, “My, my, that is a bad bee sting.”

“Umm, Ma’am, that’s not a bee sting, I shot my finger full of paint.”

The nurse Betty smile faded from her face, and she turned my arm over to reveal a bright red line heading up the normally blue veins on my forearm.

It was all action from that moment on. I was hoisted onto a gurney and stripped of my clothes and dignity, while a team of people pontificated on the seriousness of my injury.

At one point, I managed to gain the attention of the surgeon.

“Excuse me, doctor, can someone get a hold of my wife for me?”

“Sure, how should I reach her?”

“She’s on a job site, so can you leave her a message on our answering machine?”

Had I not just had a large does of some drug injected into an IV I didn’t even know they’d put in, I would’ve realized that my method of contacting my wife was not that smart.

The answering message went as follows:

“Hello, my name is Dr. Leonard, and I’m a plastic surgeon at the Salem Hospital. I’m the attending emergency room physician on call today, and I just finished a surgery on Tim Akimoff. He’s in recovery and resting well. You can have the hospital page me if you have any questions.”

Had my wife heard that message, she might have just figured that my face had been removed by a rough patch of asphalt, or that my limbs had gone missing in some crazy wood chipper accident.

The top of my left middle finger is now the bottom of my index finger.

Luckily, my dad managed to find her at the job site, and he told her I’d taken myself to the hospital for some kind of finger injury.

Four surgeries later I had a shortened, yet usable index finger on my left hand. Dr. Leonard had used a relatively new technique called a deep tissue skin graft to grow a new section of meat and skin to my index finger, which was missing a quarter or more due to tissue destruction by the injection of all that paint.

I was sick for days because of the paint in my system, but the effects eventually wore off enough for coherency and the realization that I would not be able to work much during the six-month process of fixing my finger.

Indeed, I lost my business and had to sell off all my equipment, while the bills piled up in the corner of the kitchen counter.

The ensuing months are lost in a fog of pain killers, depression at having no direction in life, much less a career and punctuated periodically by big news events like the death of Princes Diana in a French tunnel.

Much of the next five years were spent wandering around the globe in pursuit of something permanent and fulfilling. But that time constituted the first real unemployment period of my life, and the differences between those helpless days and these are that I have purpose and direction now that sustain me, even if I don’t have a paycheck to qualify them.

And while I don’t use my short finger to type, I’m still glad I got to keep it. Thank you Dr. Leonard.