An Open Letter to 2021

The year 2021 written into the sand on a beach in the foreground with a wave approaching in the background.

Dear 2021,

My letter to 2020 ended on a hopeful note. However, what little hope I had going into the new year was spent on the page. I have little joy in reporting how miserable I felt throughout, 2021. It’s laughable now looking back at my full list of intentions for the year because so few things were accomplished.

There are some intentions on the list I was able to accomplish, for instance, staying smoke-free. To be completely honest though, that’s a small quick win. All I needed to do was nothing. Not go to the store, not spend money on poison. Year three as a non-smoker was easy.

The other accomplished intentions were also small. Gutters got installed on the house. I renewed a passport without the means to or destination for travel. Finally, after 17+ years, visited my parent’s cabin. Oh, and I didn’t catch Covid-19 and/or die.

Another year at home, 2021, felt like more of the same we saw in 2020. We remained inside and each new day felt a lot like the old one before. Now we’re here and as much as we want 2022 to be different, I’m not sure different is where we’re at yet. After all, the year’s most read story in the New York Times: There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. Ugh. Not a great recap on the year.

That’s not to say there weren’t changes, 2021.

In early January we watched in horror as an insurrection, led by Trump-supporters, unfolded at the US Capitol. That was new and terrifying. Of course that was only the first week of 2021. There were a lot of other things that happened. Like a week later… President Donald Trump was impeached. That was new too, because he’s the only US president to be impeached twice. Yet he wasn’t removed from office…

Which brings me back to why it was difficult to be hopeful, 2021. The pandemic’s death toll is above 5.5 million. Our collective mental health is in critical condition. Our planet is dying. Lies are relabeled as “misinformation” and the truth is “fake news.” Fear, isolation, suspicion, depression, anxiety and a host of others continue to grow in this shitty fertile soil widening already gaping divisions…

Before I left China some 6+ years ago, a student gave me a postcard with this simple expression: “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” While I didn’t know it until I searched for attribution this week, the quote comes from author and St. Paul native Melody Beattie.

(While it feels silly I had to go to China to learn what someone from my adopted hometown wrote, I’m grateful to know it now.)

The postcard continues to hang on the refrigerator. A little reminder to meditate upon. This year, 2021, I’ve oscillated between feeling like I am enough and not enough.

But at the end of things, I am grateful to be here. To breathe in and out, to gesticulate and mosey, to think and feel and be. It’s that simple: I’m grateful. Because it could be a lot worse…

I’m not on a ventilator. I’m not in the hospital or ICU. I did the laundry today. Despite being confined to the house, life is seemingly moving forward stitched together piece by piece despite the eerie feeling that it’s also standing still.

I’m still here. Some of us, like our friend/neighbor Jason Sowards, weren’t so lucky.

On July 5, Jason was returning home from a long 4th of July weekend in Wisconsin on his motorcycle. At 10:12PM his motorcycle clipped a car being towed — without lights — on the interstate. Jason was thrown from the bike and killed instantly.

Twenty minutes later I passed the scene of the accident. I was returning from a solitary poetry picnic at Kinnickinnic State Park where Alex Dimitrov’s Love and Other Poems was the main course. The second to last poem in the collection is “Notes For My Funeral.”

I met Jason in the fall of 2016. We were housemates starting new chapters. I was recently divorced. He was closing Harriet Brewing, the pioneering taproom, which led the way for every brewery and brewer in the city.

At the time I remember being so taken aback by his fire and intensity. His passion and excitement and zest for all the things the living do. He was the embodiment of the poem’s last line: “I loved being alive.”

When I passed the scene I didn’t know the motorcycle on the ground belonged to Jason. The last time I saw his bike, April 2021, it was disassembled in our garage. He was a tinkerer, too.

In the far left lane on the interstate, the line of cars slowed to squeeze by the accident. Looking past the flashing emergency lights I saw the faces of the first responders.

Then I knew what they knew. The crash was fatal.

While I didn’t know who was involved in the accident then, I drove home in tears. I can’t explain how palpable that pain was because I didn’t understand it then and I don’t now. I ached for the victim and their family and their life.

The next morning Jason’s partner and my adopted sister, Christi, informed me Jason was killed.

Death is powerful. Death turns the whole world upside down. Everything stops for death. In the process it’s difficult to not become consumed by the pain of living in a world without the person you’re missing.

As such, July was a blur. All we could do was show up and cry together before driving to Ohio for the funeral. When we returned home we spent a week packing Jason’s life into boxes, moving his possessions, and selling the last of his brewing equipment.

Christi and I loaded Jason’s brewing equipment into a buyer’s box truck. Beakers, tubing, carboys… Everything he used to build his business and in the process start a craft brew craze… We tried to tell Jason’s story to the buyer, but every word we worked to share got caught by the lump in our throats. As the buyer drove away we were again confronted by a reality without Jason. More tears came. When I started the car to drive home, the radio played this ditty. It felt like a direct message from Jason. Tears of sadness replaced by tears of love and appreciation…

When you know and love a person, saying goodbye is difficult. Especially if their death is unexpected. The problem with knowing and loving many people is that the more you love, the more you lose.

On Christmas day, our family gathered at my brother’s house for a meal and to exchange gifts. Dad brought along a few pounds of sunfish our family friend, Eugene, caught and filleted for us. We breaded and fried Eugene’s fish and they were excellent. Not only because of the large meaty portions, but Eugene’s fillet skills as well…

But two days later came the final kick in the pants, 2021, when our friend Eugene Grimm died. His family has been part of ours since before I was born. From camping trips and snowmobiling excursions to concerts, and anniversaries, we have many memories together. In fact, the first funeral I remember attending was for Eugene’s father, Norman. Our stories are intertwined.

But if you asked Eugene how he was, a reassuring smile returned, “Finer than frog’s hair.” For a long while I thought it was just Eugene’s way of being a smartass. As I’ve grown older, I can finally see that he embodied and modeled the message for everyone. I want to carry that forward into 2022.

Because while a lot of time was spent working (and not) on the house, in the short 2.5 years I’ve owned the joint I’ve learned multitudes. As a result: I have less money, my patience is shot, the leaks keep dripping, the corners aren’t square, the floor isn’t perfect, but I’m learning how to make what was better. Slow going, but better.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the forest through all these trees of progress. That’s when the negative self-talk starts taking my mental health down dark paths where self-care is too afraid to follow. Yes, the pandemic is lasting longer than anticipated, but in 2022 it can no longer be an excuse to not take care of oneself.

If anything, 2021, you reminded me to be gentle with myself. Looking back, it’s been a tough year for all of us, but there were still moments of growth. Choosing to celebrate those small successes offers just a small glimmer of light to shine through this darkness reminding me being “finer than frog’s hair” isn’t just a silly phrase, but an entire mentality to shape and change me.

As you’ll see below in the 1 Second Everyday video diary, that’s the feeling I end 2021 with and crusade in 2022: Maybe everything isn’t hopeless bullshit.

Much love to you, yours, and the struggle to keep on keepin’ on. Let’s connect again a year from now and see how things landed.

1 Second Everyday Video Diary

Enjoy this snapshot of 2021 one second at a time.

Noted Happenings & Intentions Met in 2021

  • Participated in a ‘fun run’/bet with family
  • Started a podcast, Thoughts Ahoy, with my friend Everett and produced 1 entire episode (Ep 2 coming soon!)
  • Volunteered at the Morels & Memories Alzheimer’s Fundraiser
  • Appeared as a model for Sportsman’s Guide
  • BFF and I won first night of back-in-person trivia
  • Worked a LOT on the house
  • Received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine
  • Went to brunch at least three times
  • Portrayed a Russian General in an episode of a History Channel program
  • Volunteered as a precinct election judge in 2021 municipal election and appeared as “Michael Vense” on the University of St. Thomas news channel
  • Walked 261 miles playing 127 rounds of disc golf and in the process scored an ace and reduced the average score from 9.53+/par (2020) to 6.43+/par (2021)
  • Participated in a disc golf tournament in February during a blizzard
  • Helped free a random motorist stuck in the snow during the first epic snowfall the Twin Cities received in 2021
  • Bid adieu to coworkers as they resigned
  • Helped friends move westward
  • The day job company sold and spun colleagues in multiple directions
  • Haven’t caught Covid-19

What were your intentions in 2021? How’d you do?

And what are you most looking forward to accomplishing in 2022?

Open Letter to 2020

Dear 2020,

You began with a group of neighbors mumbling through a disjointed countdown and tired “Happy New Year.” Then the host of this gathering, a 60 year-old flirtatious redhead from Ireland, asked when we were going to get to know each other better by finishing a bottle of scotch. Unfortunately, NYE wouldn’t be the night. Offended, she offered this advice: “Don’t be a drip!”

A few hours later, mid-New Year’s Day, a notification appeared on my phone:

These two moments left me a bit worried at the onset, 2020. What is this nonsense — foreshadowing!? Was I going to be “a drip” all year? What did my phone know that I didn’t?

Like a lot of people at the start of the year, I was hopeful. I felt like you were the year, 2020, that was going to change my life in a profound way. You did, but not in the way I expected…

For instance, I decided to grab the reigns of my flabby life and join a gym. This isn’t necessarily a “new thing” — trying to get in shape in January — what was new was my commitment: I went more than thrice and paid for the privilege of this membership. The handful of times I managed to scrape my body off the sofa for a 30-minute workout felt productive and empowering. In little increments I could see the fruits of my labor and was encouraged to continue for times four, five, and maybe even six, seven, eight…

Then the Fates decided it was not to be and sent a pandemic to Earth.

Of the surprises that rocked the world, 2020, most weren’t super lovely. Some surprises were tragic. Others downright evil. Each subsequent reveal seemed just a bit worse than the calamity which proceeded it. But it’s easy to nitpick, 2020, on the slow-motion dumpster-fire that held us as captives during 9+ months in isolation. After all, we did have a lot of time to reflect.

Looking back, 2020, should cement how in-this-together we are. I’m grateful for those who stepped up and carried on: our essentials. Those who left the safety of their homes, masked up, and went to work to help others despite the risk. From doctors and nurses to grocery clerks and waste disposal specialists: thank you.

Across the world humans were prevented from doing the thing we’re hardwired for: being social. Visiting friends and family felt like simultaneously breaking the law and committing the immoral act of socializing. Fear created a barrier between everyone. The fear of being a carrier, but not knowing. Or coming into contact with a carrier, becoming infected, and not knowing

Even before the US was fully immersed in rising death tolls, we were scared. This created a bubble around family and friends. You, dear 2020, made me miss being close to people and long for their hugs, high-fives, and hangs around the campfire. Add to the list: festivals, concerts, theatre, travel, and vacationing…

To weather the storm and support each other when the pandemic struck, the BFF and I joined forces at the homestead. To pass the time home improvement projects were initiated and then later abandoned without proper tools, knowhow, or pep. Like all things, 2020, it was very much one-day-at-a-time. We — along with anyone who’s visited us — are just happy to have a door back on the hinges in the bathroom.

Of the creative intentions set at the beginning, 2020, most were abandoned — I simply didn’t have the emotional capacity or headspace to create. Quarantine wasn’t a writer’s retreat and I struggled with feeling less than because I wasn’t cranking out material. The gift of grace was well received in my heart, 2020.

At the end of it, 2020, you will likely be a story of survival — for me, for many — how we made it, what we learned along the way, and how we’ll move forward with all we’ve been shaped by. What a relief to be done, 2020. No, that doesn’t mean problems are solved immediately by 2021, but there’s a feeling of a new kind of hope lingering in the air.

Hopefully yours.

1 Second Everyday Video Diary

Enjoy this snapshot of 2020 one second at a time.

Noted Happenings & Intentions Met in 2020

  • Friendly game of Cards Against Humanity played on New Years Day with friends and their dirty aunts & uncles
  • Watched my locker-buddy, Courtney, petition and receive township & county approval for RecuperAcres, the Twin Cities only outdoor/nature-based facility used for therapeutic purposes
  • Traveled northbound to Duluth, Minnesota, to celebrate all the amazing qualities possessed by scone-maker extraordinaire, Ms. Mahoney, during her annual birthday dinner
  • Experienced what its like to be inside a snow globe while enjoying a cocktail at a revolving restaurant on the top floor of a hotel overlooking Lake Superior during a snowstorm
  • Returned safely to Saint Paul the following-day in blizzard-like conditions; memorable only due to all the cars passed in the ditch, the company, and massive White Castle order enjoyed along the way
  • Reconnected with a long-lost friend/coworker/improviser/writing partner, Kyle, and met/became friends with his spouse and daughter
  • Visited the dentist and doctor like a real adult
  • Remained a non-smoker for all of 2020’s days
  • Listened to a total of 1,940 artists — 639 new-to-me — across 497 genres (including 152 new ones) which equated to roughly 32,177 minutes of music on Spotify. Here are my top songs of 2020.
  • Volunteered for Dakota County’s Trails By Candlelight event and plan to do so again…whenever that is…
  • Explored Lake of the Isles with the BFF and a Scorpio for the Luminary Loppet
  • Annual trek to 98 Pound Buffet with the Murtha’s and BFF
  • Accidentally muttered the f-word on live TV when shot by an air-gun
  • A bit later in the year inadvertently flashed America in the shower
  • Worked on the house: learned how to strip and refinish wood, run wire, and demo a lot of everything
  • Refinanced the house (2x) and car (1x) saving thousands in interest
  • Met 75% of savings goal while also paying off three credit cards
  • Accomplished financial goals by switching to community-member friendly Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union
  • Gave antidepressants a try again, yet still no luck shaking the blues away (which may be good considering depression is now being thought of as a vital part of our biological defense mechanism)
  • Enjoyed fellowship during Rib Night with friends who are now family at Yarusso Brother’s just before everything shut down in March
  • Baked more potpies, pot roasts, and pots of chili than I anticipated — but all with pleasant results
  • Essentially replaced my entire normal wardrobe with pajamas
  • Took first place during the first week of digital Trivia Mafia
  • Recorded a handful of voiceovers for the Your Life Iowa campaign
  • Grew a pretty offensive moustache
  • Learned more songs on the ukulele
  • Spent more time on the fence line shooting the breeze with the neighbor(s)
  • Finally got around to trying Johnnie Walker Blue (not worth it) and noshing at Jun Szechuan Kitchen (worth it)
  • For the BFF’s b-day we ventured east across state lines where we fell asleep on a lazy river, lost/won money at a casino, camped & got rained out (twice) yet the last night was clear and we slept under stars, savored everything at Wisconsin’s top supper club, experienced the terror of the Lunar Loop, slow danced to a private patio performance by Mike Droho, all so we could be tourists next to a swim-up-bar where drinks are bigger than your head
  • Volunteered as an election’s judge in the primary & general
  • Organized our block’s snow removal service
  • Helped my aunt, Tammy, pack up her life and move further west of the city
  • Appeared as a model in Sportsman’s Guide
  • Rekindled a love for disc golf playing 56 rounds with an average of +9.53/par
  • Discovered the simple meditative joy of creating cairns
  • Camped with friends and family, saw the Amish, and swam in a creek
  • Learned the pears on the pear tree out back shouldn’t be eaten by me
  • Privately mourned the deaths of a titan, a goofball, and the neighbor next door
  • Experienced the frosty baptismal waters of Lake Superior
  • Shared the table with friends celebrating their success slingshotting around the sun
  • Became better at regularly soaking in suds

What were your intentions in 2020? How’d you do?

And what are you most looking forward to accomplishing in 2021?

Delight In What You’re Doing

Yesterday marked the 17th year since the death of Fred Rogers, beloved host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and minister to children, adults, and a gorilla named Koko.

Mr. Rogers has been on my mind and heart a lot lately. It’s not entirely out of the norm as he’s a personal hero. Most of the closest confidants know this about me. And now you do too.

At any rate, I’ve been thinking about this quote from his book, The World According to Mister Rogers:

“The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.”

-Fred Rogers

Everyday I try to be the person Mr. Rogers knew I could be. I fail a lot, but I don’t stop trying.

On the Bulldog Shopping Network I try to play with delight and let others see it in action. Thankfully I’m not alone. The rest of the team from visuals to producers, directors, crew and control room to hosts, models, and guests alike seems to on the same page. We’re very lucky to get to play in the world together.

Here’s a bit from last night with a subtle nod to Mr. Rogers at the very end of the segment.

May we all live with delight so others can see us in all our special ways.

A Decade of 10Q: 2010 – 2019

A Decade of 10Q

Now that we’re in a new decade, it’s time to look back. Thankfully, I’ve got the personal archives of 10Q to help discover what was happening in my life a decade ago. 

If you’re not familiar with 10Q, it’s a website/movement/practice where every day, for 10 days, you’re emailed a question. Ten days, ten different questions. The answers are then sent to a secure online vault. One year later, your answers are unlocked and returned and the process begins anew. 10Q is a project of Reboot, an arts and culture non-profit that reimagines and reinforces Jewish thought and traditions.

If you haven’t participated, you should. It’s free and provides a lot in terms of capturing a slice of your life in time. 

Rather than share all 10 years worth of answers — it’s 96 pages of printed text — I’m sharing answers and years chronologically. There are 10 answers for 10 questions spread across 10 years. Got it? Good. Let’s go!

2010 – Day 1: Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

The past year has been marked with subtle realizations regarding the world and myself.

Turning 25. My 25th birthday was less a celebration and more a moment of reflection with family. Thinking about the 24 years I’ve lived, what I’ve done, and where I want to go caused me more concern than celebration. Part of me finally realized that I’m not getting any younger. Another part realized that I am the only person that can cause my dreams to become a reality.

The relationship I was in ended in June after I realized we were each wasting the others time. She doesn’t want children, I do. If after a year’s time we can’t see eye-to-eye on such a crucial issue, why are we together?

In November I was given the opportunity to co-teach a film acting class. While I had considered teaching children in the past it wasn’t until I was placed in front of my students that I realized how much passion I have for sharing information that’s become second nature. I love teaching and look for more opportunities to share my passions with others.

2011 – Day 2: Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you’re especially proud of from this past year?

If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have moved out of the condo.

In late 2010 I was terrified and ashamed about the impending “foreclosure.” I reasoned that if I could be approved for a loan modification through President Obama’s Home Loan Modification Act I would have a reduced mortgage payment. With a reduced mortgage payment I would be able to rent out the condo and set the rental rate high enough to cover the mortgage and the home owner’s association fee. I began the underwriting process in November 2010. It wasn’t until June 2011 when the Wells Fargo underwriters finally reached a decision on the file.

When I initially began the underwriting process I was behind on my mortgage by a month and a half and owed the home owner’s association nearly two-thousand dollars. I turned to my parents for help. After a lengthly discussion with both Mom and Dad, they agreed to loan me $6,000 to cover my expenses. I was 25 years old.

I’m 26 now and have finally begun to repay the loan incrementally. It will likely take nine years until they’re paid back. I don’t want to ever borrow money from them again. I appreciate knowing that I can come to them with my problems, but I’m an adult now. These problems are mine.

I wish I hadn’t borrowed that money from my parents to “save” the condo that now, a year later, is now up for bid at a Sheriff’s sale.

I’m proud that I auditioned at the Twin Cities Unified Theatre Audition. For years I had put so much stress and pressure into those auditions that I just didn’t audition. Fear froze me and I refused to audition with a piece I hadn’t workshopped or felt 100% comfortable in.

Even all these months later, when I go back and think about my monologue – it wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing. Next year I’d like to audition again. Perhaps do two monologues, maybe a song. Or not, I don’t know. My career depends on auditioning, so I’m gonna keep doing it…

I’m also proud that I’ve begun repaying my parents. It’s a long road ahead, but every epic journey just begins with a simple step.

2012 – Day 3: Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?

In mid-July shortly before 2AM I was at a bar drinking with Ryan. We were at Muddy Waters on the patio. It was a relaxed moment. My phone rang. It was my brother, Daniel. Knowing my brother there were only two reasons for his call: 1) he was driving his big-rig and needed company to stay awake, or 2) something terrible happened.

When I answered the phone call first thing I heard was my brother crying, “Mike, I need you! If I’ve ever needed you before in my life I need you now!” Something terrible happened.

At first I thought my brother had been in a car accident. He was so upset I couldn’t tell at first what the problem was.

The short story is that my brother needed his spare keys.

The long story is that my brother and his friends were camping in Wisconsin along the Apple River and after a long day of drinking frustrations escalated shortly after 11PM and he needed an exit strategy. Apparently my brother attempted to leave the campground, however, a woman climbed into the cab of his pick-up and he pushed her out.

A young man saw my brother push the woman out of the pick-up and angrily approached my brother. Then the young man’s friends gathered around my brother and my brother was feeling cornered.

Just then, the wife of the couple my brother was rooming with, told everyone to leave Daniel alone, but her husband saw his wife in the middle of all those guys and assumed my brother was getting his wife involved in a fight. So the husband started fighting with my brother.

The police were called.

The police broke up the fight and told my brother to “sleep it off” in the cab of his truck. However, they also confiscated his keys. My brother wasn’t allowed to access the cabin he paid for and wasn’t allowed to leave the campground on his own.

So he called me.

Ryan and I cabbed home from the bar. I borrowed Ryan’s car and drove to my brother’s house 40 miles west of Minneapolis, retrieved his spare set of truck keys and drove back to the Twin Cities and onward to Sommerset, Wisconsin. For more than an hour I spoke to my brother on the phone calming him down and listening to him as he vented.

It scared me to hear my brother so upset. Not just angry, but deeply saddened — like he didn’t have a friend in the whole world. Like I told him on the phone and like I know in my heart — my brother was my first friend and he will always be my best friend. We may not always get along or agree with one another, but we love each other and there isn’t much we wouldn’t do for each other.

I arrived in Wisconsin shortly after 4:30AM. We talked and he asked if I’d go get his stuff from the cabin. So I drove down to the cabin, snuck in and retrieved his most precious belongings: a cooler full of beer.

Afterward we went to a deserted Perkins. Then Daniel farted in the booth and it smelled like he shit his pants. We laughed for a long time in that empty dining room.

I love that guy.

2013 – Day 4: Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?

(10Q for 2013 was not completed due to a crisis happening with a loved one in Zibo, Shandong, China.)

2014 – Day 5: Have you had any particularly spiritual experiences this past year? How has this experience affected you? “Spiritual” can be broadly defined to include secular spiritual experiences: artistic, cultural, and so forth.

I am so thankful for the spiritual connection K and I share.

When we were separated during the 2013 winter/spring/summer for five months we emailed everyday, multiple times a day. We chatted on Skype for hours each day. We were separate, but together — or working on growing together. During that time we often talked about astral projecting ourselves across the world to snuggle in bed.

From September 17 – October 2 we were a part. I was in America. She was in China. And it was difficult. But there were so many moments where I felt her spirit with me. I felt her presence.

At Courtney and MJ’s wedding — a bit after midnight, long after most wedding guests called it a night — I was standing looking up at the thousands of twinkling stars in the night sky. I felt K’s love. I felt her presence.

And I thanked God, the Holy Wow. Thank you for You. Thank you for K. Thank you for allowing our souls to have found each other. Thank you for all the heavens above. Thank you for allowing me to look up and see her. Thank you for helping us not feel so alone. Thank you for helping us and working on us and being with us through all we’ve struggled with. Thank you for being ever present.

If I hadn’t gone to China, I wouldn’t have noticed all the natural beauty of where I grew up. Realizing this was its own nugget of gold. Things seemed to click a bit more. The “why” about why I needed China made sense. I needed China to find K. I needed China to appreciate home. These were moments that rocked me, slapped me on the ass, and helped me.

Performing Courtney and MJ’s wedding ceremony was another moment of grace. Another spiritual experience shared intimately on a hill on a beautiful day overlooking Mud Lake.

Courtney and MJ didn’t want a religious ceremony, but when you look at the text of the service and the setting, it was probably more religious than some church weddings. It was a beautiful day and the ceremony really came together and seemed to fit the surrounding and couple. I am honored to have been asked — despite the distance traveled to be at the wedding and being away from my wife — and look forward to helping other couples begin their own spiritual journey in marriage.

2015 – Day 6: Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?

Booking of the China Show on a college campus.

If I can get one, I can get two.

If I can do 12 a month, I could do 120 a year. That would make me a full-time artist and enable me to provide for K and start a family.

2016 – Day 7: How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Is there a piece of advice or counsel you received in the past year that could guide you?

Be a warrior for love. -A

Tackle the motherfuckingshit out of your life. -A

Quitting smoking. Riding the bike again. Writing. Creating. Painting. Picture taking. Hanging prints.

Make Cool Shit.

2017 – Day 8: Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in the coming year?

Owning a dog.

Storytelling.

2018 – Day 9: What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?

Being alone. Not capable of holding down a relationship with someone who is kind to me. Not progressing the relationship, not getting married, not starting a family.

These things limit me by placing the focus outward rather than inward. I should be looking inside myself first and finding and learning and knowing that I am enough. For myself. For others. Start with what I have — me — and be happy and confident with it. I am amazing. Yes, a work in progress, but I deserve a relationship that brings both of us joy — and not constant pain — and ultimately, a child or children.

The only way I can let go of this fear is to be alone. I am alone right now. I am not going to relationship-hop. Date, maybe, sure. But not from one to the next. Sammi and Dan both told me I need to be alone for 3 months. Focus on me and my inner world/life. Get comfortable with myself.

And when it’s the right time, someone special will find me and I’ll be ready.

2019 – Day 10: When September 2020 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you’ll feel? What do you think/hope might be different about your life and where you’re at as a result of thinking about and answering these questions?

I hope I feel somewhat accomplished. I’m tired now. It’s 11PM on October 13th. Hopefully next year I’ll be like, “Holy wow, there’s been a lot of growth since then. I’m proud of you, me.”

I hope my house is more put together. The trim is up and the walls are painted and the kitchens been updated and the basement sealed and there’s money in the bank and the backyard is gorgeous and —

I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

I hope I’m doing something I love which helps make the world better and brings joy to other people.

Open Letter to 2019

2019 written in sand

Dear 2019 —

A whole year elapsed without so much as a peep from me. Truth be told, I’ve spent a large percent of the 2019 licking wounds. The carnage of 2018 left me oscillating between feeling destroyed and destroying myself.  At the beginning my head was in the sand and I wanted nothing more than to disappear, hurt and broken. But by the end 2019, the flashes of hope, joy, and love interspersed among the grief grew.

The surprise for me, 2019, was the kind of despair and mourning that followed me.

The first part of the year was living in the aftermath of an unhealthy relationship, a misinformed scorched-earth campaign on the content of my character, and the continual fear of reprisal. Aside from last year’s Open Letter to 2018, this is the only thing I said publicly.

Then as we reached the mid-way mark, 2019, Grandma Venske was issued a palliative care plan which quickly spiraled to hospice and finally eternal rest. The 9 days Grandma and I shared together before she died were important. Not only to love and hold and be with her as her story winded down, but to witness how to gracefully close out one’s chapter with faith and strength, sing-songing the whole time through.

I remember the moment when I realized Grandma wouldn’t be getting better.

Up to that moment I had hope she would continue to fight and be. Because that’s all I knew. Grandma (and Grandpa) were always there. We lived right next to each other in Watertown. From infancy I grew knowing they were watching over and taking care of my brother, Daniel, and me in the little rambler on Angel Avenue they’d shared for 60 years…

And then on one not so special day, while working remotely from her apartment squeezed among the 88 years of memories and mementos, my brother appeared. It was especially surprising to see him because mister-working-all-the-time doesn’t take time off. But there he was in the middle of the day — on a Thursday — in his work uniform: steel toe boots, dirty jeans, and a reflective vest. It’d be an understatement to say he stood out.

Twenty-four years ago, as part of the chapel choir at the church Grandma and Grandpa made their spiritual home, Daniel stood in front of the congregation and fainted. That is to say: my brother doesn’t sing.

But back in Grandma’s room, we, her boys — grandsons / neighbors / snow shovelers / lawn mowers / joke tellers / Sunday school protégés — sang. Not any songs though, hymns — songs as much a part of Grandma’s soul as Grandma is part of ours. And to the merriment of Marion May, my rough and tough little brother, chirped away.

And that’s when I knew: there is no coming back. Daniel is singing and Grandma is dying and this is the end. There is nothing to be hopeful for anymore. There is no hope.

I thought, originally, that because I was present for the dying process and the load out and the funeral planning and actively involved with the service both eulogizing and carrying Grandma to her final resting place that in the immediate aftermath every feeling would naturally wrap itself into a sad small souvenir where it would sit in my heart never to stir again. But months later, I am gripped by the constant ache of missing Grandma. There are not tears enough for this heartbreak.

So. 2019 was tough.

Yes, there were mistakes made, and I know I didn’t do my best by calling it in. There are things I regret; poor choices, and bold moves alike. Laughter continued to fight for a seat at the table, but not all fights have winners this year.

In spite of it all, there grew greater devotion and appreciation for family, friends, and health. There were new adventures and many simple pleasures; sighting Scott Seekins, trying at trivia, and Mangione’s magic music.

Friends and family shared precious love and time. These moments are carved in and out of all the pain, sadness, and grief I lugged around. They pushed, carried, and lifted. The load became lighter and I felt brighter.

So to you, dear friends who are family and family who are friends, thank you. For checking and seeing and being with me. For reminding me you’re there and here and at times, everywhere. Holy wow thanks for the help.

Rainer Maria Rilke left stains on my heart in 2018 and dragged me though 2019 with this:

Let everything happen to you:
Beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Everything happened: all that beauty and terror of simply existing? Check!

The only cure in an uncertain world is to distract oneself with some sort of momentum. Keep going until you can’t. I saw that this year and I know what it looks like.

I can still keep going. That’s what I did. And for doing that I am proud of what I worked through and overcame. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

Now here we are in a whole new year (and decade).

As Chuck would say, it feels so good.

So, with gratitude, go I.

Let’s do this 2020!

1se Video Diary

If you don’t have 10 minutes to watch all of 2019’s 1 Second Everyday video diary, here’s the synopsis:

Revelry. Trivia. Trains. Firetrucks. Bell ringing. Bubble baths. Soul searching.

Enjoy this snapshot of 2019 one second at a time.

Noted Happenings & Intentions Met in 2019

  • Traveled to Chicago on a whim to see Max & Rebecca
  • Went on a blind date and was reminded that I’m worthy of something magical
  • Enjoyed a family dinner with old friends the Moshe’s
  • Saw The Lemon Twigs in the most dramatic show at First Ave with my BFF
  • Checked out the Luminary Loppet with neighbors
  • Attended a Super Bowl Party for yearly sports quota
  • Started regularly playing trivia with friends
  • Volunteered for Ziggy’s Art Bus
  • Saw Elton John in concert 
  • Went ice skating
  • Sported a mustache for January
  • Consulted for a high school drumline team
  • Attended Mr. Murtha’s Theatrical Debut in Little Mermaid
  • Enjoyed company and conversation at 98LB Buffet w/ Lora
  • Met and officiated the weddings for two amazing couples: Shannon & Tyler / Steph & Bryan 
  • Finally attended the Community Fish Fry at St. Albert’s with my BFF (& her folks)
  • Saw Fred Armisen & Mary Lynn Rajskub @ First Avenue with BFFs
  • Volunteered with the Morels & Memories Mushroom Hunt Alzheimer’s Fundraiser
  • Spent Memorial Day w/ Murthas
  • Finally experienced the joy of receiving a pedicure after a long winter at the urging of BFF
  • Saw Vampire Weekend with BFF at the urging of my grandmother
  • Shared Grandma Venske’s final 10 days
  • Found solace in Jeremy Messersmith’s “11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele” which Grandma and I listened to together
  • Delivered Grandma Venske’s eulogy
  • Bought a house
  • Volunteered for Kevin Allison’s Risk Podcast
  • Went camping with BFFs at Pattison State Park
  • Shot a commercial, some training videos for Target and a handful of voiceovers for YourLifeIowa.org
  • Bathed in a waterfall
  • Caught dinner with Mrs. Murtha
  • Dated women who took me on adventures great and small
  • Traveled north to Duluth and spent quality time with Number Two, Number Two’s Hubby, & Chani
  • Finally saw The Trash Cats in concert
  • BFF took me to see the Violent Femmes & Ben Folds in concert
  • Said goodbye to my work-wife as she started the next chapter
  • Camping trip in southern Minnesota allowed me to sleep in a hammock under the stars in the rain, sleep in a lawn chair in a stream, and do all of it with BFFs (& family)
  • Toured The Remember Project through Wisconsin
  • Participated in No Shave November and raised $190 toward the fight against cancer
  • Traveled for work: Phoenix, Nashville, Denver, Orlando
  • Rang in my 3-year work anniversary at a suite in the swanky Ritz-Carlton in Denver
  • Hiked the Royal Arch Trail outside Boulder
  • Took in the Burnsville Fire Muster Parade & Flugtag on the same exciting day
  • Successfully completed “Sober October,” and then threw it all up (and away) on November 1
  • Visited the dentist and doctor like a real adult
  • Experienced the wonder of Wise Fool Theater’s “Hamlet” in Duluth
  • Reconnected with neighbors at the annual Chili Cookoff on Humboldt Avenue
  • Volunteered at the Twin Cities Marathon
  • Saw my (little super tall) cousin, Johanna, get married to a dude who makes her super happy
  • Saw Mike Birbiglia’s The New One
  • Encouraged my inner-child to come out pumpkin carving
  • Pitched show to APM/MPR & started a podcast…kinda
  • Started a new side-gig as an on-air guest at a home shopping network
  • Reconnected on better terms with A
  • Dinner with Shamus‘ parents, Anne & Lowell, followed by the annual memorial service at Saint Joan of Arc
  • Voted for the first time in my new district of St. Paul
  • Cooked for and attended multiple Friendsgiving events
  • Celebrated Thanksgiving date-night at the best Chinese restaurant in the Twin Cities, Tea House
  • Made new friends at Yarusso’s dinner table on rib night with the Murtha’s
  • Checked out a craft fair to see Mrs. Murtha’s artistic endeavors up close
  • Drinks out with previous work-wife, JC
  • Saw Scott Seekins in the wild, his natural habitat
  • Remained a non-smoker for all of 2019’s days
  • Learned how to make: kettle corn, candied: bacon, walnuts, pecans
  • Traveled upstate New York and visited the Angry Orchard distillery
  • Reflected on all that was during the darkest day of the year at First Universalist
  • Honored the annual tradition of raising a glass to Grandpa Zimbrick at his bar, CC Tap, on his death day/Chuck Mangione’s birthday and Christmas eve
  • Listened to 53,243 minutes of music on Spotify
  • Got a roof rake so Grandpa Venske and Zimbrick would be proud
  • Enjoyed the last breakfast of the decade with Lauren and her daughter
  • Rang in the new year with neighbors and BFFs
  • Spent more time on self-care than ever before and feel better for it

What were your intentions in 2019? How’d you do? What about the DECADE? What happened?

And what are you most looking forward to accomplishing in 2020?

Open Letter to 2018

Dear 2018 —

They say it’s not how we start that matters, it’s how we finish…

Well, the Whole 30 is how I started, but I’m pretty sure gaining 30 is closer to how I’m finishing. Eh, such is life! Peaks, valleys, living, being, and feeling: alive — so it goes, there you went, 2018.

And before I get too far into things, 2018, I’m sorry to report this letter will be less than illuminating. This letter is intentionally vague. I miss specificity, too, but for the time being this is where we are. One day the truth of the matter will present itself.

What I can say is that things felt topsy turvy, familiar but out of sync. There was a disconnect somewhere. A switch that hadn’t been flicked or flicked in the wrong direction. Perhaps it was a planetary issue? After all, there were 10 retrogrades this year: Mercury (3x), Mars (1x), Venus (1x), Saturn (1x), Jupiter (1x), Uranus (1x),  Neptune (1x), Pluto (1x).

So it’d be an understatement to say I have questions, 2018, about the hows and whys. Questions rooted deep in the marrow and sinew, eating away, poking and nudging toward the blurting of quarries, but rest assured, I won’t ask. Ultimately, the questions don’t matter because the answers don’t matter. I’ll live without and perhaps by living I’ll find them…

Which reminds me of a quote an ex shared with me years ago:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” -Rainer Maria Rilke

Some things just didn’t and don’t make sense. That’s okay. They don’t have to make sense. I don’t need to get ‘here,’ to be ‘here.’ 

Twelve weeks ago my inner life was a rolling boil of distress and doing the work of calming the sea was on me. The only thing I could do was release what I was holding on to in order to make room for love and hope and a better tomorrow. Thankfully, for this journey, I didn’t have to wander far alone. My chosen family rallied, listened, and wrapped me in their arms. They didn’t give up on me. And neither did I.

I’m still here. Wherever here is.

In 2018 I was busy trying to drown the sound of doubt and concern bubbling from my gut. I covered for others, giving the benefit of the doubt perhaps more than I should have, and was bit in the process repeatedly. It’s taken all year and parts of my reputation, but I learned to let go of anything and/or anyone that no longer contributes kind or loving energy to my life.

So, I close 2018 with eyes wide open toward all the wonders coming next. And as we countdown the seconds to welcome 2019, know  I’m simply excited to keep moving forward, continuing to set and accomplish intentions for whatever time I have left here on this tiny blue dot. Things are moving more info focus — filling an eyeglasses prescription helped — and I’m able to see where I have more work to do. It’s electrifying and I can’t wait to share more soon!

Alright, 2019, let’s do this!

1se Video Diary

Ideally there’d be 365 1-second snippets, but came up short this year after removing 60.

Enjoy this snapshot of the year one second at a time.

Noted Happenings in 2018

  • saw a server drop an entire tray of food
  • after 2017 chimney fire, the chimney was cleaned
  • saw The Killers in concert with Shamus’ dad, Lowell
  • traveled to Bagley to perform an early version of “Home” as part of Farm By The Lake’s Storytelling Series
  • Went to Mexico
  • Saw opening night of Mike Daisey’s “A People’s History” at the Guthrie with my BFF Sammi
  • Cast in Sex, War, and Syphilis as part of Raw Sugar Theatre and Theatre Unbound’s WTF: The Women/Trans/Femme Playwriting Festival.
  • Recorded a voiceover for the Iowa Department of Public Health
  • Had a performance of cancelled due to the weather (a first for me)
  • Saw Bill Murray live
  • Got to climb around on a firetruck
  • My cousin Cadi graduated high school = we’re both old
  • Drove a ’66 Mustang for the first time
  • Officiated 10 weddings for ten amazing couples
  • Saw Brother Ali & Ice Cube in concert
  • Wrote, produced, and performed “Home” at the 2018 MN Fringe
  • Had a performance of “Home” cancelled because no one showed up (thanks, National Night Out)
  • Painted Grandma Zimbrick’s nails
  • Randomly sang a 90’s power ballad with my little sister
  • Saw Murder By Death in concert
  • Ken & Joni got married
  • Finally went camping with Lora, Matt, William, and Gwendolyn – not once, but twice
  • Did more solo-pink-robe dancing in my apartment
  • Dated some wonderful humans
  • Partied on the lawn for Halloween
  • Enjoyed many Whiskey Wednesday’s with friends and a nip of bottle 1, batch 1  of a local distiller
  • Voted
  • Spent the evening with Shamus’ parents, Anne and Lowell, discussing life
  • Relaunched The Remember Project and toured the show to La Crosse
  • Celebrated another year with Grandma Venske & Zimbrick
  • Friendsgiving, Thanksgiving, and all the gratitude for still being here
  • Decorated the Christmas tree with Grandma Venske
  • Became real comfortable tying bowties
  • Randomly won a “Best Actor” award during a Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre performance
  • Drank a lager out of a boot
  • Bought a new car
  • Celebrated Rebecca’s birthday on Lake Michigan at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Still Bend home
  • Randomly drove to Duluth to see a light show and spent the night being silly with old friends all over town
  • Ventured back to First Universalist on the Winter Solstice
  • Had long overdue conversations with individuals from my past
  • Reconnected with my heart, self

Intentions Set & Met in 2018

  • Be more social: attend events, reconnect with friends
  • Update michaelvenske.com
  • Apply to Minnesota Fringe
  • Earn an award of some kind
  • Negotiate a raise at day job
  • Officiate 10 weddings
  • Finish writing storytelling show on “home”
  • Start storytelling show on Grandma’s letters
  • Begin thoughts on “death” show
  • Create https://www.patreon.com/ account
  • Quit smoking
  • Lose 20 pounds
    • I bought a scale…that counts for something, right?
  • Visit the dentist
  • Bike 1,000 miles
    • Only made it 110.7
  • Eat more vegetables
  • Participate in Whole 30
    • I participated for a few days, but then was lured back to unhealthy ways with the offering of cold delivery pizza in a family waiting room at Gillette Children’s Hospital
  • Save $12K / 6 months living expenses in savings
    • Technically, I saved $12,738.35, but somehow spent $12,387.44 along the way.
  • Have a great trip with A to Mexico
  • Rock out at The Killers
  • Visit a new country (in addition to Mexico)
  • Read one book a month
    • Population 485
    • Hope of the Unknown
    • Every Brilliant Thing
    • Bird by Bird
    • Goodbye Things
    • The Secret Magic of Tidying Up
    • The World According to Mr. Rogers
    • Braving The Wilderness
    • The Zappos Story
    • The Customer Rules
    • Joe Public III: The End of Hospital Marketing
    • The Surrender Experiment
    • The Power of Habit

What were your intentions in 2018? How’d you do? What are you most looking forward to in 2019?

Reflecting On Yes: The Storyteller Series

One of the core tenets of any improviser’s training is “yes, and…” The ability to say “yes” to the opportunities presented and build upon them. This “yes, and” mentality changed my life.

It caused me to jump out of plane…

Move to China…

Outside the Drum Tower, Beijing, China. 2013.

And just last week: almost join a cult.

“Yes, and” creates an immediate response. This doesn’t leave a lot of space to become bogged down thinking about what you’ve just agreed to or the opportunity to explore any fears surrounding the thing. “Yes, and” removes the thinking and the choice. “Yes, and” is the choice and there’s nothing to think about.

Last week way up north in Bagley, Minnesota, I shared a new solo show as part of the Farm By The Lake Storytellers Series. What brought me north was their mission, “a natural retreat that offers visitors the opportunity to increase their understanding of themselves, their spirituality, their community and their connection to the environment.” It resonated with me.

Back in October 2017 when I shot Dawn and Marty at Farm By The Lake an email I didn’t have a show nor did I know if they had a space for me to do a show I didn’t have yet. When Dawn sent me a message in November and asked if I’d like to be part of their Storytellers Series I had no choice but to say yes!

The same is true when members of the Bagley community, Jami and Danny, reached out prior to the event inviting me to their home for a meal. “Yes, of course!” Though my excitement was tempered on the four hour drive north by the fact that I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me, we might not get along, and/or they’d kill me. But fear is just another four-letter f-word.

Danny and Jami are wonderful! They welcomed me into their home and I immediately felt a kinship with those old-soul hippies. We shared a meal, chatted, and I discovered a number of things we had in common ranging from fireplaces to politics to China! You can read more about our afternoon and the performance on Jami’s blog.

Danny, Jami, and Michael following the performance of “Home” at Farm By The Lake’s Storyteller’s Series. February 11, 2018.

The stories I put together and shared at the event were focused on home. Is home a person, place, thing, or feeling? What happens when “home” goes away? The show is by no means “finished,” but at least now I know it touched the people who heard it last Sunday.

Then the audience shared their home stories and it all felt perfect. Because art is supposed to open and compel us to share. Last Sunday I felt the audience and I in some sort of symbiotic relationship where my sharing led to their sharing creating a perfect circle of communion.

I’m so grateful to everyone who came to the event and said “yes” to spending an afternoon listening with an open heart. If you’re reading this, Bagley community members, I felt very much at home with you. You warmed my heart to the point that it didn’t feel so much like I was driving home, but soaring. You can bet if I’m asked to return to another Farm By The Lake event my answer will emphatically be YES.

A Regret I Learned From

In the spring of 2016 I was booked with The Theater of Public Policy to perform for a few days in Grand Marais. Not only would T2P2 be performing, but we’d also be teaching improv workshops for high schoolers.

I was pumped! I’d get to perform … I’d get to hang out on the north shore … I’d get to teach … There were so many things I was excited about with this gig.

Then my agent called.

I got booked as a model for a national brand for an out-of-town shoot happening during the same time.

I shook a proverbial fist toward the heavens, “You think you’re so funny, don’t you Universe!”

The shoot was for the Timberland Pro Series.

I took the gig and I’ve regretted it since.

At the time my head was swimming with the idea of increased exposure naturally leading to more national work and bigger pay checks.

But. That. Didn’t. Happen.

These are the only images I appeared in:

Timberland PRO #Workwear. Comfort, Durability and Performance.

A post shared by Timberland PRO (@timberlandpro) on

Perhaps this is why my ‘star stock’ didn’t skyrocket.

The worst part of the entire experience wasn’t that more national brands weren’t calling. No, that’s silly.

The worst part of the experience was backing out of the gig with T2P2. This put them in a bind and they didn’t need that. If I had a time machine I’d go back to right a lot of wrongs. This is one of them.

Hindsight being what it is though I’m glad I know now what I should’ve known then.

Open Letter to 2017

Dear 2017,

I know it’s been a difficult year for many people and unsurprisingly, I am not the exception. Thankfully, however, the majority of the struggles I faced were intrapersonal and interpersonal.

This was the year, however, when our family said goodbye to Grandpa Venske after his death in July. He and Grandma lived right next door my whole life and perhaps, subconsciously, I thought that would always be the case. It’s been six months and I still can’t believe he’s gone. But it’s the man he was, life he led, family he raised, and impact he had in my life that have comforted me most and were the point I wanted to emphasize during his eulogy.

Grandpa’s words come back to me now, specifically in a card he sent me years ago where he noted, “It’s funny how things work out…” That’s kinda 2017 in a nutshell. There are pangs of disbelief in all that’s transpired, where I was and now the overwhelming relief to be here in 2018.

When I look back on 2017 I see a year of growth and transformation. Frederick Douglas was right, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” It hasn’t been an easy year. But I feel much better about the man I am because of the struggles experienced and shared. I’m doing the work and the efforts are showing.

One of the biggest areas of my life I’ve changed is the practice of offering forgiveness. Because: I’m not perfect and neither are you. We all make mistakes; so what a special joy it is to share grace (and patience and understanding) with myself and others. In this process my heart and capacity to love is growing… Now, when I look in the mirror I see a man who will make my grandfather proud.

I just feel so hopeful for 2018 and it’s a great feeling!

Let’s go, 2018!


Noted Happenings in 2017

1 Second Every Day Video (from the last few weeks of 2017)


A reminder of the happier moments in 2017:

Open Letter to 2016

Dear 2016,

I’ve started this letter no less than a dozen times. My intention was to send this before yesterday, however, it didn’t feel right clicking ‘send’ because I was still reflecting on and experiencing all that you were.

When I look back on the year I see a lot of “life stuff.”

I got divorced…Which led to new home because of a new job…Grandpa died…And — in perhaps the most surprising event of the year — I’m stupid-in-love with a woman I met in an elevator courtesy of Billy Joel!

And rather than rehash things, I just want you to know how we ended.


Last night, just before midnight, I wandered outside the house party and looked up at the stars; staring into infinity and all who may be awake staring back.

Inside party guests drunkenly began the countdown. 3…2…1…!

And alone on the sidewalk my heart, falling up into the heavens of sideways-eights and Holy Wows, filled with awe, love, and the most grounding of gratitudes.

2016: At the least, I survived. At the most, I received everything I ever wanted.


Thank you for taking my hand and guiding me exactly where I needed to be. Thank you for helping me reconcile the past and reminding me of the hopeful future.

Thank you for the people who showed up. Family. Friends. Coworkers. Agents and yes, a therapist, too. They took me under their collective wings, ready to defend and shelter me from whatever was coming next. Their love gave me the strength to endure and for that I am forever in their debt.

Without them I’m not sure where I’d be. With them I’m here and healing and so grateful.

In some not so small way, 2016, you helped me rediscover me. Because you gave me my life back. And that’s an important thing to realize about life. That it’s yours. Sure, parts were a total shitstorm, but there’s no rainbows without the rain.

So. From the bottom of my heart: thank you, 2016. Couldn’t have done it without you.

Ready, 2017? Let’s dance!


Losing Job Led To First Film

Eight years ago I lived a real cubicle lifestyle.

It was a real job. I had a real boss. I was making real money and had real paid-time-off.

So I bought a real condo, took on real debt, and was a real adult.

Then in the fall of 2008 the mortgage industry — my industry — started hemorrhaging employees. Hundreds of thousands of people were out of work through no fault of their own. I was laid off along with all of my other co-workers. Our office building became a graveyard.

I did exactly what I thought Society demanded and was caught in the crossfire. Rightfully, I was angry.

Getting laid-off did teach me, however, that there are no safe jobs. Everyone is disposable and replaceable. (That’s a lot of black/white thinking, I know!)

That’s when I decided to pursue acting. I knew the statistics. I knew it’d be tough. But really, at that point in my life: how could pursuing a dream be any more risky than not pursuing a dream to work a 9-to-5?

It was two weeks after my last day in corporate America when I started working in front of the camera.

Not only did I not know how to act on camera (you’ll see), I also didn’t know how pursuing acting could bring so many talented amazing people into my life…

Like the students at MCTC who directed/shot/edited this first film in November 2008.

MCTC film, To Rest In Peace Our last shot together

In the many years since, I’ve worked with these folks repeatedly. From independent shorts, full lengths, music videos, and commercials — we keep running into each other and working together.

I love these guys. Especially Alex, Biruk, Matt, Muluken, and Ryan. They make everything fun. The conversations and experiences we’ve shared over the years have shaped me into the man I am today. I am forever grateful to them…

And it all started with this short film.

Why We Must Understand Before We Judge

mental-health-disorders
This is what my head looks like during training.

Today I’m in Hinkley, Minnesota, at Grand Casino with the Barbara Schneider Foundation’s Mental Health Crisis Response Institute for the Mid-America Regional Conference of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators performing in verbal de-escalation (CIT) training scenarios.

Yeah, it’s a mouthful so I’ll keep this short appropriately-long.

However, if you want to learn more about what CIT training is click here to read a very dry explanation.

Or simply read on: it’ll be more interesting.

Okay, so one component of CIT training is live role-playing exercises.

You guessed it, that’s where I come in.

Actors receive a real* scenario of an individual. And the scenario is just that: a general outline stating what’s happening with the character.

For instance, today I’m playing a bipolar character who’s creating a disturbance on a city street. That’s my scenario.

In the past I’ve portrayed individuals experiencing:

  • hyper-vigilance
  • delusions
  • hallucinations
  • aggression

  • irritability
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • paranoia

  • depression
  • suicidal ideation
  • PTSD
  • drug withdrawal

  • drug dependency
  • med withdrawal
  • alcoholism
  • self-mutilation

hello my name is mental illness
Because mental health crises are exhausting, so too is portraying an individual in crisis.

How do I prepare? Plenty of water, a big breakfast, and more details to be shared for another day.

Regardless of how exhausting playing someone with mental illness is, the job is still Acting 101:

  • Develop a backstory/flesh the character out
  • Present signs & symptoms (emotional/psychological/behavioral) accurately
  • Be as realistic as possible.

Oftentimes “realistically as possible” involves saying mean things at whomever is trying de-escalate the situation. Which, periodically, leads the participants in the room to comment on what an asshole I am…

…and this mindset occasionally leads the participant to “poke the bear” and do something like this:

And when the participants say or do things that make the situation worse: things escalate. Any trust or rapport is washed away and the character reacts accordingly. It’s not** pleasant to sting the participants, but it’s what I’m trained to do.

What got me thinking about this was last week’s training with the Minneapolis Police Department. In the scenario my character was hyper-vigilant with no prior mental health diagnosis and for no apparent reason.

When the coach asked participants what they thought was going on with the character a number of them responded, “Nothing. He’s just an asshole. He’s a prick who hates cops.”

Now during the first few years part of me took those comments personally, the other half took them as compliments. As I’ve gotten more experienced as a crisis actor/teacher/trainer, it doesn’t bother me if they call my character an asshole.

What bothers me is if they’re not asking why the character is behaving like an asshole. What’s really going on with this person? And in order for that process to happen participants need to defer judgement.

Unfortunately, deferring judgement is hard and judging is easy. Heck, judging can even be fun! That’s why Katie and I watch The Bachelor! (You were so enjoyable to judge, Olivia!)


via GIPHY

For a small number of participants the judgement process happens long before they even enter the classroom! They’ve already decided crisis intervention team/de-escalation training is a joke. Or that CIT training takes away the ability for them to do their job.

What I wish those officers realize is that CIT training adds another tool to their belt. If that’s their mindset they’re able to participate in the process instead of judge*** it.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t get it though.

In high school I thought Mr. Rosholt’s**** Algebra II class was a complete waste of time. Because I decided imaginary numbers were useless and not relevant to actors, I didn’t learn anything.

Hence: why I don’t understand algebra.

It’s a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Thanks to a poor attitude learning and skill building are next to impossible. But I digress…

a-empathy-words

All the clues and hints my character was dropping for the MPD weren’t picked up on because the officers passed judgement. In 60 seconds they decided I’m not a threat to myself or others, but I am an asshole.

And I don’t blame police officers for rushing to judgement; cops got a lot on their plate! Police officers work in a high-stress life-threatening environment everyday. Now add public scrutiny to the mix and thrust them into no-win scenarios*****. How do you think you’d do as a police officer?

With that said, I do expect more from law enforcement. Police officers are Society’s guardians. They have great power and a responsibility to use that power appropriately.

Yes, they’re human and make mistakes; but it’s also why this training is so imperative. To reduce those mistakes and connect on a compassionate a human level******.

As an actor in the scenario, I know how the character is behaving like an asshole. However, I know something the participants don’t know…yet. (Most actors already know the following.)

Each of my characters has either: some thing that incited the incident causing the character pain OR a very clear, relatable, human quality participants (and myself) will be compelled to empathize with.

It’s the payoff in the scene.

Usually — and especially last week with the Minneapolis PD — the “reveal” changes everyone’s perspective on the character.

And it happened last week. You could feel the energy in the room change. The character wasn’t just some asshole anymore.

It only happened though after the trust was built and a rapport was established. That’s when the character opened up. The officer(s) in the scene was quiet. He listened. He gave space for the character to speak.

We learned why the character was doing what he was doing. Why he was hyper-vigilant. Why he felt shame. Why he was taking it out on himself.

That’s when “the asshole” became a human being again. That’s why we must understand before we judge.

The character was de-escalated. The scenario was over.

And I was exhausted.


At the end of particularly difficult scenarios I like to say two things: “I’m sorry. And. Thank you.”

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all the swearing and yelling my character did. I’m sorry for the horrible things my character said and that you had to listen to. I’m sorry if something the character said upset you. I’m sorry if things got too real. I’m sorry you have to regularly see the worst of society.

And.

Thank you.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for actively participating in the process. Thank you for trying something new and difficult and different. Thank you for being vulnerable. Thank you for taking all you’ve learned and applying it in the field. Thank you for taking care of the people who cross your path. Thank you for potentially one day helping one of my friends or family in crisis. Thank you for your strength and courage. Thank you for the work you do.

From the bottom of my heart.

Michael


* = I’m not sure what kind of scenarios other CIT training companies provide their actors. With exception given to clients requesting customized scenarios, all of the scenarios the Barbara Schneider Foundation’s Mental Health Crisis Response Institute employs are based on actual events and real people.

** = Okay, sometimes it’s pleasant.

*** = Judging is easier than allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

**** = Mr. Rosholt, if you’re reading this, I still believe imaginary numbers are completely useless to me professionally. However, as I’m using imaginary numbers in the example above, let’s call it a draw. Thanks for arguing with me in class and your passion for mathematics. If neither of us were so passionate in our beliefs, I doubt I would’ve remembered the exchange. Thanks again, Mr. Rosholt.

***** = More on why this is true next week.

****** = If there are any officers or skeptics reading, please know the number one concern in CIT training is officer safety. Don’t allow flowery language to dilute the importance of this training. (I also know that the longer you’re on the job the more likely you’ll encounter the worst of humanity. Thank you for the work you do, the things you’re brave enough to encounter and endure, and the burdens you bear. I mean no disrespect when I remind you: mental health crises and mental illness aren’t crimes. Individuals in crisis and those living with mental illness deserve and need the compassionate help of Society’s guardians. We put our faith in you.)

See Something Hear Something Do Something

After living in China I can’t not see race. As a foreigner in China you’re four-ten-thousandths (0.0004) of one percent of the total population. The minority. Being the minority was an eye-opening life-changing experience.

Months ago I took an Uber to a multi-level marketing scam job interview. Elias, the driver, and I were discussing race during the ride. Elias told me that as a young boy his mother explained race in the following way:

“Look at the flowers in our garden. Do you see the different colors? They beautiful. And just like flowers have different colors, people have different colors. We’re all beautiful flowers in a colorful garden.”

At any rate, a few weeks ago I finished a film project called The White Ally Video Series (videos coming soon). As you may have guessed the project calls on white people to be allies for people of color. Simply: If you’re a white person and you see/hear another white person say something that’s racially charged, say/do something to remind them it’s not okay.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about race in America…especially as political pundits and candidates alike continue to escalate racial tensions through their incendiary hate speech.

Anyway, I stumbled across Chivas Sandage’s Why I Can’t Say I’m An Ally to People of Color. This quote of hers sums up what I’m thinking.

Credit: Chivas Sandage
Credit: Chivas Sandage

Listening led me to 11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies.

In the linked article above Brittney Cooper, co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, regular contributor to Salon, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers offers this message to white people:

“White people should recognize that the best way to be good allies is to go work among their own people (white people) to create more allies. Too frequently, white allies think we are asking them to come into our communities to affirm our account of racist acts and structures. What we are really asking is for them to 1) affirm that account boldly among other white people; and 2) use their privilege to confront racial injustices when they see them happening, whether in the grocery store or the boardroom.”

And yeah, confronting people for the horrible things they’re saying and doing isn’t comfortable. It’s not supposed to be. Let your discomfort with someone’s racial microaggressions fuel you.

Rather than end here — though I probably should — I want to share a few examples from my own life where I felt compelled to speak up.


It’s not 1949 anymore, Grandma

In the fall of 2008 I was dating a white woman with thick curly dark hair. Kate.

One Sunday we drove out to my grandparent’s home to take them to church. Kate and I arrived at their home early so as to make introductions.

Things were going well when Grandma remarked how lovely Kate’s hair was and asked, “Do you get your curls from your mom or dad?”

Kate thanked Grandma and said she didn’t know as both her parents have straight hair.

Without missing a beat Grandma said, “Must’ve been the nigger in the woodpile!”

I yelped, “Grandma! You can’t say that!” I don’t care if it was a common expression while you were growing up, but it’s not okay. Ever.


I regret not saying something

Fast forward to 2012.

Three years ago when I told people about moving to China I heard a lot of racial microaggressions.

“You’re going to be the tallest person there! Won’t you get sick of rice? Or will you develop an appetite for bow-bow on a stick? How are you going to understand anyone, you don’t speak ching-chong-ching. You’ll have the biggest dick in China!”

That stuff came from everyone everywhere. It didn’t matter if I was in line at Target remarking on the impending move to the cashier or talking to a friend at a coffeeshop.

It’s like all Americans view China* as the common enemy. Thus: it’s okay to say horrible things about China because everyone know China’s horrible.

And when people said these terribly offensive things I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been to China. Could they be right? (They weren’t.) I felt like if I stood up for China I’d be attacked for being unpatriotic or have “yellow fever” or… I don’t know. I was afraid to say something, especially to my friends.

Thinking back on those off-the-cuff remarks, I feel shame for not saying anything. I just let people beat on an entire country and culture I’d later come to love.

I miss China every day.


Hi, I’m Minneapolis’ Faggot Bastard

In January 2008 I was at The New Uptown Diner for dinner.

While waiting in line to pay my tab I couldn’t help but overhear the middle-aged white guy in front of me barking across the counter at a young server. He was degrading the employee, “You understand me? You speak English? Listen, can you hear me Padre?”

The man then tried to communicate with the server in very bad, broken, offensive Spanish.

All the while that little voice inside was screaming for me to do something, but all I wanted to do was leave. I was uncomfortable. The man moved to the side of the register to continue harassing the employee.

The server motioned me forward and I paid my bill. I’m assuming the jerk sensed I wasn’t okay with what he was saying because as I turned to leave the man leaned into me and said, “Hey man, it’s all cool.”

As I was staring back at him something inside of me snapped and I snarled “No, it’s not cool. You don’t have to be such an asshole.”

He started to respond, “Hey, I’m –”

And I said it again, “Yeah, you’re being an asshole!” I turned and walked out the door.

The last thing I heard was him calling after me, “You fucking Minneapolis faggot bastard!”

Yeah, I could’ve handled that one better. But it takes practice.


You can’t win them all

The last time I was involved with the One Act play competition I had acne covering the majority of my face and back. The Supreme Court just elected George W. Bush to his first term and I finally had a driver’s license.

One Act play, Watertown-Mayer High School, 2001
A scene from Watertown-Mayer’s One Act piece in 2001. Yes, that’s me kneeling before the Queen.

Despite the fact neither my high school (Watertown-Mayer) or I ever advanced to the state level — ever — attending the two-day Minnesota State High School League’s One Act play event at St. Catherine University’s O’Shaughnessy auditorium remains one of my favorite activities every year.

But due to living abroad and all I missed the past few years. So this year was special…until the festival’s Oral Critic, Gregg Sawyer, let his racist freak flag fly.

Following the performance of “Rocky’s Road” — a play based on a true story of a white teenager killed by a police officer — Minnesota-State-High-School-League-Official-Gregg Sawyer was critiquing the all-white-cast’s portrayal as “protestors” protesting a boy’s death when he said, and I’m paraphrasing here —

“I know we all have this Minnesota Nice thing, but the judges thought the protestors could’ve been talking over each other more. But they don’t know how to do that because they’re all white! AND I can say that because I’m white!

Mr. Sawyer didn’t say this to five people. He said these words to an auditorium primarily filled with caucasians, most of which happened to be students.

What I heard in the subtext of what Sawywer said:

“White kids don’t know how to be loud, only people of color know how to be loud. And it’s okay I’m saying this because I’m white in a room full of other white people, most of which are minors. So not only do I have power over them because of my age, gender, station, income level, and education, but I also have a microphone and close relationships with a lot of the movers and shakers in the high school/community/semi-pro theater world.”

When he said that I felt like I was punched in the gut. Because — and maybe I’m wrong, but — that’s some racist shit.

After not hearing anything from anyone via Twitter I sent a long email with the above to the MSHSL One Act Play Festival Director, CC:d the MSHSL’s Executive Director, Associate Directors, Coordinator of Officials, as well Mr. Sawyer’s superiors at the Academy of Holy Angels.

No one responded to me about Mr. Sawyer’s remarks**.


light at the end of the tunnel

Two weeks ago I stopped in at North Shore Vape. While waiting in line I overheard a young white male bemoaning to his friends about a rental rate he was charged at a hotel.

“They jewed me on the room!”

I turned to the man and said, “Excuse me. Did you just say ‘jewed’?” He and his friends stared at me.

The man replied, “Does that offend you? Are you Jewish?”

I said, “Don’t say ‘jewed.’ It’s offensive. There are other words you can use.” That was that. Silence.

Then last week I popped back into North Shore Vape. Just as I was about to leave the owner asked, “Remember those guys last week? After you left they talked about you for a good 30 minutes. What you said affected them. They really thought about what you said and they’re going to try to be more aware.”

And that’s the point.

See something, hear something, do something.

Thanks for reading.


* = insert current enemy
** = Chris Franson, the MSHSL One Act Play Festival Director, did respond to a handful of the 16 observations I emailed regarding the festival, however, Gregg Sawyer’s comment was not one of them.

Reflecting on The (Alzheimer’s) Remember Project

The Remember ProjectIn late November The Remember Project, a series of three one-acts touring through the St. Croix Valley, came to end.

At the table-read in early August I was excited, but terribly afraid of this project! Combine a lack of understanding about Alzheimer’s disease, the general fear of communicating with people suffering from memory issues and you have a pretty good picture of where I was coming from.

However, I knew that by using theatre to educate audiences about memory loss we could reduce the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s disease and help communities be more dementia friendly. In short: make the world a better place.

The Remember Project was a transformative experience, unlike any other show I’d ever been involved. Not only were these one-acts relevant to the communities we toured through, but after every performance the cast and audience engaged in a facilitated conversation to more deeply understand dementia.

The audience — otherwise complete strangers — shared beautifully heartbreaking stories about caregiving for loved ones and the struggles accompanying this terrible disease.

Conversations weren’t always easy because society sees vulnerability as weakness. The stoic men in the audience experienced the toughest time. We did our best to create a safe space to share openly. Soon big tough guys started talking about their fathers/brothers/mothers/sisters/wives — perhaps for the first time — and cried. This project offered some catharsis.

I think the project also shifted the audience’s preconceived notions about what theatre is.

We performed on chancels in churches, nursing homes, libraries, a barn, and hospitals. We didn’t have a stage, curtains, light cues, or any other kind of barrier separating the audience from actors. Everyone shared the space.

Denise & Jim
Denise & Jim

Each venue offered a new set of challenges for the business of entering, exiting, and blocking. I think this helped add spontaneity and upped the risk factor or raised the stakes, somehow.

There’s immediacy with theatre. Somehow The Remember Project carried more. It was gritty and answered questions in ways the audience hadn’t seen before. These shows affected them. And me.

Participating in The Remember Project was an honor.

Of course, the amazing thing about live theatre is that things go wrong! The Remember Project wasn’t without it’s hiccups…

 

But…

 

I do have three wishes.

  1. Younger* audience members. Because those are the future caregivers for a society which is seeing exponential increases in new Alzheimer’s diagnoses.
  2. More social media involvement to further engage with audience members to direct them toward resources and support groups.
  3. To keep doing this work.

The Remember Project — and all the people it touched — spoke to my heart, lifted me up, and took away the fear I had about dementia and for that I am so very grateful.

Kris, Jim, Andrew, Heidi, & Michael
Kris, Jim, Andrew, Heidi, & Michael

Our director, Matt, helped bring the best out of each actor in every show. Our tour manager, Kris, kept everyone sane even as the schedule became more insane. The acting company — Jim, Andrew, Heidi, Denise, and Charles — were patient and fun and kept things light when they were heavy. Everyone listened to me vent about the wacky goings-on in my personal life and without their love or support the project wouldn’t have worked. I’m so grateful to have worked with these kind, talented individuals. I’m grateful they’re now part of my stage family.

The Remember Project had a bittersweet end. The day after the last performance I accompanied my ex-wife and her family to the internment and memorial service for her aunt, Mary, who suffered with Alzheimer’s and died because of Alzheimer’s.

There is no medical cure for Alzheimer’s, but I learned compassionate caregiving comes close.

Thank you for the experience, St. Croix Valley Foundation!


* = During the entire run of the show I’d been praying for younger audience members. Suddenly — as often happens with prayer — it was answered!

 

 

An Open Letter to 2014

Dear 2014,

You were a year full of surprises!

Sending Chinese lantern into the sky
Katie sends a wish into the sky during the Lantern Festival. February 2014.

We imagined spending Spring Festival in Thailand. Then come summer exploring China’s Tianzi mountains. Eventually returning to the United States for the next adventure: reverse culture shock, reverse homesickness, and getting back to our lives.

Surprise! Those things didn’t happen…

In January 2014 our Thailand travel itinerary changed. Something was stabbing at Katie’s insides. It couldn’t be a baby. Babies don’t come with knives.

We rush to the hospital in Zibo. But the doctors aren’t doctors like you’d want them to be doctors. I keep expecting the physician to say, “I’m not a doctor, I only play one in China.” *Rimshot* Instead he says, “Women’s troubles. Drink more warm water.”

In search of a second opinion we board a bullet train to Beijing. In China’s capital city we discover United Family Healthcare. A beacon of hope for expats with medical needs.

The hospital is clean!* They have specialists! The specialists speak English†!?

We learn Katie doesn’t have babies with knives or mere women’s troubles. Her pain is identified and treated. Finally, answers to questions!

Unfortunately, we blew our Thailand travel cash and most of our savings. A week later we’re back in Zibo, broke and on bed rest.

Overall, a frustrating start to the year, 2014. We couldn’t travel. We were bitter. You would’ve been, too!

To free up our weekends we quit our part-time teaching gigs. Our employers weren’t happy about our decision and threatened us.

The boss says, “Michael, I am like your sister. And I have to tell you the honest thing. You do something to the school, the school do something to you.”

Overlooking Forbidden City
Exploring Jingshan Park, with the Forbidden City in the background, during Tomb Sweeping Festival. April 2014.

Being threatened while living in a foreign country isn’t pleasant.

Thankfully, the school only fucked with Katie’s‡ teaching schedule. Instead of being off Friday afternoon through Tuesday morning, now she had to work late Friday and early Monday. And due to its size, 48 hours are not enough time to explore all of China.

So we waited. Until April. To take our first real vacation during China’s Tomb Sweeping Festival.

The first three months, 2014, were rough. But I finally noticed — with Katie’s help — our Chinese employer, Zibo Century Talents Foreign Languages School, was being a Chinese employer.

During my first year in China I did whatever• the school requested. I was in China for an experience. Turns out my experience was working a lot.

expat drinking out of coconut with a colorful hat
An idiot on vacation in Xi’an, China, during Labor Day. May 2014.

Sure, I’ll judge your English speaking competition! Yes, I’ll record voiceovers. You bet I’ll pose for your marketing blitz! Fun! I always wanted to tutor all of your friends’ kids! Do I really get to proofread and edit all these personal letters to your friends in Canada? Thanks! I’m so honored that you chose me to forge a letter of recommendation and falsify next years foreign teacher’s credentials! Yes, of course, I’d love too! We’re friends!

Apparently I set a bad precedent during year one. Though the precedent wouldn’t have mattered if I left China as I originally planned… But I’m an idiot and fell in love with a woman on the other side of the world. Whom, as it turned out, was interested in teaching in China.

She signed a contract, I re-signed mine. Then bad precedents bit us in the ass.

With Katie in-country I wasn’t the school’s lapdog anymore. Our relationship was the focus of our time abroad, not work. We’d decline requests beyond of the scope of our contracts and suddenly we were the bad guys. The school didn’t like being told no.

At the end of the year when we tried to make the school year special** for our students the school shut us down. Revenge!

We couldn’t win. But we’re not supposed to. We’re foreigners.

School photo ZBCT Zibo China
Staff and graduating students of Zibo Century Talents Foreign Languages School. June 2014.

By the time June rolled around I was so happy! After two years abroad I was ready to come home. The end of our Chinese adventure was in sight! And there was no way in hell I was going to stay another year…

Unless…the person I love wants to stay.

Katie received a job offer to teach English literature at the Shandong Zibo Experimental High School. Not only was she excited about a bump in salary, but also the opportunity to teach what she was passionate about. We both knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

We decided to stay. Because we had each other.

Foreigners in China holding their Chinese marriage license
On July 1, 2013, Katie picked me up at the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport and we said, “I love you.” One year later we were married in Zibo, China, and said “I love you, forever.”

 

And as long as we have each other we’re golden. So we made it official and got married.

We got married. In China!

MARRIED! CHINA!

We were the first foreigners to ever be married in Zibo, Shandong, China! Which is pretty awesome†† considering there’s 4.5 million people living in the area.

After our courthouse wedding the summer dragged.

We couldn’t travel — again — because this time we didn’t have our passports. The Chinese government needed the passports to update our visas. Which is just fine, 2014, because really — who wants to travel over summer vacation anyway…

Despite being stuck in Zibo, we did have our own little adventures. We moved apartments. Twice. We bought ebikes. Later, Katie was hit by a taxi on hers. I was nearly decapitated on mine. We even met a Mexican tequila salesman who helped us get wasted for free!

We did venture to the outskirts of town once. Our friends Danielle and Nikki brought us to a fascinating place they called “an amusement park.” Though it looked like the setting to a horror movie.

Swings ride at the Chinese amusement park
Enjoying the dog days of summer at an amusement park outside Zibo, China. August 2014.

There was even a horror house! We were told by the barkers it was very scary inside. After bartering on price — because you pay cash at every ride, there are no tickets — we paid and were led inside.

We were ushered onto a 10′ x 10′ mechanical platform in a dark room. Hanging in front of us were large photos of buildings on plywood sheets. Then the floor began to shake. The Chinese teenagers behind us screamed. The plywood sheets fell forward a few inches. Par cans flashed red and blue across the buildings. Sounds of screams, sirens, and crumbling buildings blared through the PA.

The entire exhibit was devoted to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 69,197 and left 18,222 people missing. The dozen tableaux throughout were horrific and crude. We couldn’t help but imagine someone deciding to make a “9/11 ride.”

Then summer was over!

As the school year started things kicked into high gear. Katie was busy designing curriculum for her new students at her new job. And as we learned, Katie’s new school hasn’t been particularly awesome.

Her school is very concerned with face and status, but the school doesn’t seem to care about other things like teaching students in a way that would benefit them. The students have checked out. Because they’ve got wealthy parents who’ll take care of them.

But what are these kids planning to do? Go to the United States, attend college, plagiarize essays, and hope to be okay? Because that’s what they’re doing in Katie’s classes. Okay, not all the students, but most of them couldn’t give a fuck.

Michael officiates wedding between Courtney and MJ
Officiating Courtney and MJ’s wedding. September 2014.

And as soon as school started for Katie, I flew back to the United States to officiate a wedding. And in a lot of ways, it was torture. We’re not sure how couples can be apart for any amount of time — short or longer — because we just need each other. We need to see each other and make each other laugh. We have to. We’re each other’s biggest fans. And we just need to be close.

When I think about adventure, I can’t complain too loudly. In terms of concrete adventure I did fly over 15,000 miles this year. I got to see the Detroit Airport for the first time. (I wasn’t impressed.) I started working out. I re-read Allen Carr and stopped smoking…again. Katie and I bought ebikes. I bought a bike.

New bike
Purchased a new bike to help me get in shape. November 2014.

We hosted our first Thanksgiving in China! If we can host Thanksgiving in China, we can host Thanksgiving anywhere. Katie and I can do anything, so long as we’re together. I suppose that’s what you meant to teach us, 2014. Right?

small oven big turkey
Hosting our first Thanksgiving in China. November 2014.

The year has been bittersweet. There’s been highs and lows. Certainly.
In the last few months Grandma Venske’s health has sharply declined. Now Katie’s dad is experiencing a health scare. Our families aren’t in perfect health and it’s a thought neither Katie or I can shake. We don’t want to live with the regret of being away from family should anyone take a turn for the worst.

And we’ve been lucky. I’ve been lucky. In the 2.5 years I’ve been here everyone’s maintained their health. The grandparents and their health situations have ebbed and flowed, but they’re still here.

That doesn’t change the fact we’re on the other side of the planet twiddling our thumbs. Waiting for the next bit of bad news. If we needed to leave we could though. The only thing separating us is a Chinese contract, 6,800 miles, and 28 hours of nonstop travel. Then we’d be home.

Family is more important. Not something you realize until you haven’t felt part of your family for a couple years. I’ve been wanting to come home for a while…

We’ve got a decision to make now. Do we stay or do we go? If we stay we’d be able to continue to save money — because let’s be honest, the cost of living in China is cheap. But if we had to, we could be back in the states in two weeks. Granted, we’d have no money. We wouldn’t have jobs or a place to live. And that’s scary. But we’d be with our families. Again, that’s the important thing.

Anyway, enough of this stream-of-consciousness. Back to the matter at hand!

New Years photo Katie and Michael
Celebrating New Years in Qingdao, China. December 2014.

Thank you, 2014, for the understated adventures we’ve brought into our lives. We’ll never forget how you’ve changed our lives and will be part of them forever. You get to live on in us! That’s a little heavy handed, but you get my meaning.

Thank you for safe journeys across China, flying over the world, and back briefly in the States.

Thank you for a great visit with family and friends this fall.

Thank you for aligning the stars and bringing Courtney and MJ together. I’m lucky to call them friends, but forever honored they asked me to officiate their wedding ceremony.

The only wish we have for 2015 — please pass it along — is when we return to the United States to be employed. It’s difficult to say when and where we’ll be on American soil, but start sending leads and offers. We’re open.

Thank you, 2014, for the laughter and love and magic moments!

Sending you this message from the seaside city of Qingdao. Enjoying the luxurious king-sized bed, western movie channels, and more or less recuperating from all you’ve brought us, 2014. Thank you, again!

Alright, 2015 — let’s dance!

(Click here to send job leads!)

wave washing away 2014 in sand

* = and no one’s smoking!

† = many of UFH’s specialists speak multiple languages!

‡ = by changing Katie’s schedule, the school also changed the schedules for a handful of Chinese teachers

• = the exception

** = times we weren’t shut down: serving 300 students homemade mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, making 140 milkshakes for seventh graders, buying candy for 600 students on Halloween, water balloon fights for grade four in 2013

†† = “how to get married in China” is covered in the upcoming solo show

Begin Transmission…

Wow, a lot’s happened in the past six months! Here’s a quick recap…


To sidestep bad Chinese haircuts I shaved my head.
Michael's shaved head

Katie and I headed west toward Xi’an to check out the Terracotta Army.
Terracotta Army

AND buy this hat and coconut drink.
Idiot Abroad

Pretty soon it was June and picture day!
Stoic Students and Staff

Then the school year was over!
Bye, Henry

It was difficult to say goodbye to students. I wanted to leave them with a song that always comforts me. At the end of our last class we all joined hands and sang:

 

“Go now in peace, go now in peace
May the Spirit of Love surround you
Everywhere, everywhere
You may go.”

 

Katie and I packed our bags and started looking for apartments in Minneapolis. Then she was offered a job teaching English literature at the best high school in Zibo!
Excited for golden opportunities

Well, crap. Do we stay or go?
Difficult decisions

We decided to stay in China another year so we can dress like this every day.
One year anniversary couple
We also celebrated our one year anniversary!
the happy couple


Had you asked me in July 2012, “Do you want to come to China for three years?” The answer would’ve been no. I didn’t plan to come to China. It just happened… A lot like falling in love with Katie while she was 6,000+ miles away in America. And now she’s here and we’re together.

None of this fit into either of our “plans.” We’re flexible though so we’ll go with it.

I would like to take a moment to reassure you that we’re not going to live in China forever. Just one more year. I promise.

Of course I miss you, too!

I’ll be coming back to Minnesota for a short visit in September. Maybe we could go for a walk around the Lakes or crash Courtney & MJ’s wedding?

Or you could come and visit us in Zibo, Shandong, China!

That is always an option.

Or you could wait until February 2015 when Katie and I return to the USA for winter vacation.

Or if you’re really really patient let’s just plan to get a drink on a patio in the summer of 2015 when China officially kicks us back to America.

Deal? Deal.

As for myself, I’m doing well. I just started tutoring a lovely Chinese woman. I’m on two wheels again in the form of an ebike. I’ve got a bunch of material for my next solo show and I’d like to write a book in the coming year.

We’ll see. Anything can happen and usually does.

An Open Letter to 2013

Dear 2013,

Last year around this time I had one request and that was for you not to suck. And you, dear friend, delivered!

You’ve been a great year!

From adventuring in Hong Kong…

To exploring Beijing and it’s most historic sites…

And exploring America with my best friend…

It’s been an AMAZING year!

And if you could do me one last favor, 2013, please let 2014 know that I expect all these types of adventures and more.

Thank you for all you’ve done to make things so unforgettable!

Sincerely,

Michael

6 Things That Happen When You Do What You Love

BACKSTORY


Something Something Juliet
In November I was asked to help with the school’s Christmas pageant on December 24th. Each grade, sixth through eighth, would present two 10-minute plays: one in Chinese, the other in English.

Sixth graders were doing a scene from Pride and Prejudice, seventh graders were rocking Hamlet, and eighth grade wanted to do a comedy. They also wanted the comedy to be Romeo and Juliet.

Huh.

As you may have guessed I was unable to find comedy gold in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Instead I wrote a short about a group of eighth graders rehearsing R & J for the first time, specifically the balcony scene. The short featured a Romeo completely unfamiliar with the play, a Juliet uninterested in Romeo, miscast understudies, an overbearing director, and a stage manager close to a nervous breakdown.

Maybe a week or two before the performance the eighth grader playing the director decided the play wasn’t for him. This happened the same day our play needed to be previewed for the leaders of the school. With no student familiar with the part I jumped at the opportunity to be an over-the-top overbearing director!

The reason I’m telling you this so late after the fact is because last week I was trolling the school’s website and found this article about the Christmas pageant performances. (You can use Google Chrome to translate their site for free.)

Unbeknownst to me the short play I wrote, “Something Something Juliet,” won two awards: best performance and most creative. Three of the students in the play won awards for being the best and outstanding actors. I won a “best actor” award too!

Teacher Michael personally appeared in “Something Something Juliet,” winning the scene bursts of applause.

Throughout the rehearsal process an increase in hours were spent at school working on each play. The casts would meet over lunch and we’d run their show. We’d meet before dinner and run their show. We’d walk through it, run it, and run it again. The students worked really hard!

Though the other teachers worried I was working too hard without much rest or an increase in compensation. What I had to continually explain to my Chinese friends was:

WHEN YOU DO WHAT YOU LOVE…

  1. Money doesn’t matter
  2. Awards don’t matter
  3. It’s invigorating
  4. Time always passes quickly
  5. Excitement is contagious
  6. It never feels like work

Whenever I return to the United States I’m going to focus more on the above. Not just these six things, but continuing to work with kids on stage. The process of developing new work collaboratively with student actors rocks!

What is it that you love? What are you pretty damn great at?

Miss You While You’re With Me

Michael in BeijingIt’s scary missing people, places, and things.

Scary to be without the people you love, trust, and depend on. Scary to be so far from home. Scary to not have the comforts of home.

But no matter where you go the people, places, and things of your past are always with you. They’re a part of you. They’ve changed you and shaped you.

Friends, family, and even that shitty apartment with the radiators that never worked remain in your heart and mind. If you listen you can hear their laughter and see them smiling back at you beaming with pride.

It’s comforting to know wherever you roam you’ll always have company.

But I miss you, even while you’re with me.

Where Are You Going?

Still a few kilometers from the Forbidden City I stood at a crossroads.
Rickshaw
As I was looking down at the map a wiry middle-aged Chinese man approached and asked, “Forbidden City?”

“Yes. Forbidden City,” I said.

He pointed across the street and said, “Rickshaw. Two yuan.” The U.S. equivalent of 32¢.

I declined.

He insisted, “Too far!” He produced a map from his pocket and showed me it was — indeed — too far for any one person to ever walk unassisted.

Smiling I said, “I like walking.” I pointed to the map and showed him the hotel I walked from. We both knew I was at the halfway point in the journey.

He saw my resolve. “Okay. Bye bye.”

After touring the Forbidden City another man at the exit wanted to give me a ride in his rickshaw. I again said no. He asked, “Where you going?”

I slowly exhaled, “I don’t know.”

And I still don’t.

An Open Letter to 2012

Dear 2012,

You passed so quickly it seems like only yesterday I was writing a letter to that bastard, 2011. But this letter isn’t about 2011. It’s about you, 2012.

It’s 3:45AM and I’m staying up late because I don’t want to let you go. Because you were a great year! I had so much fun!

Thank you for all the memories and adventures! Thank you for all the kind, outgoing, compassionate, patient, forgiving, loving, hilarious people you shared with me. Thank you for all the lessons you’ve taught me and all the things you’ve helped me learn about life, people, culture, me. Thank you for having a great sense of humor. Thank you for helping me feel and experience the Holy Wow in new and exciting ways.

Just look at all these fun things we did!