The Geography of Happiness
This year has been one of transition for me. At the beginning of 2015 I left my employer after ten years, though I had been happy there much of the time. My role was changing – again – but the future was far too nebulous. I’m not a big fan of uncertainty. By some stroke of fate I happened upon a position with another software company that was almost a surreal fit for my skills, experience and interests. As though the job posting had been written just for me. That the company is headquartered in Denmark – with an office near my home – was of interest. But mostly a novelty. Having European co-workers initially just meant factoring in the time difference when attempting to communicate. The idea of our HQ in Copenhagen became much more relevant and real when I was invited to join the entire company for three days of team-building activities there last month. This seemed bizarre and generous, especially by American standards, but there are valid reasons the Danes are at the top of the UN’s World Happiness Report. And I’m learning more and more about Hygge – the art of enjoying the good things in life with good people. Now I’m so happy to have spent some quality time with my European colleagues. This 2014-2015 Corporate Social Responsibility report highlights what a great bunch of people we’ve got. And below is my personal take on our adventures together.
Some of my American colleagues headed to Europe early, for bonus sight-seeing, and were able to overcome their jet lag before our jam-packed itinerary kicked in. Others, like myself, were a bit discombobulated at first. I endured two layovers on my way to Copenhagen but thankfully had enough time to nap for several hours before our first event. We were amused to discover our company had rented a couple of double-decker buses to shuttle us all around, and had them vinyl wrapped with our logo. For the first item on the itinerary we were shuttled to an amazing evening at The Blue Planet, a cool vortex-shaped aquarium. We mingled with our colleagues, enjoyed some excellent catering and drinks and Europe’s largest school of piranhas and other ocean creatures.
Our second day in Copenhagen, and our first full day there – began with a lovely breakfast at the hotel followed by some presentations. Including an amusing and relevant talk by Colin Moon, about international and cross-cultural team building. Afterward we split into eight groups for an Amazing Race style scavenger hunt through the city. It was a great way to see some of the tourist-y landmarks I had planned to visit anyhow, like the Rundetårn – an old observatory with a spiral corridor used as a racetrack. And the Queen’s palace and some gorgeous parks. In the afternoon we headed to the beach for “The World’s Largest Blind Tandem Bike Ride” hosted by Siteimprove in conjunction with the Danish Association of the Blind to promote Global Accessibility Awareness Day. And we wrapped things up in the evening with a fun BBQ and home brew at the super cool Siteimprove HQ.
We were up bright and early and back on the bus for a day of sailing and hygge at Skovshoved Havn. I tend to motion sickness so I skipped the sailboats with the lightweight hulls in favor of the smoother riding schooner, which was most pleasant. After our time on the water there were push-up and planking contests (I only observed). Then we were served some delicious smørrebrød. After it was back on the buses to get some much needed clean-up time at the hotel, to make ourselves presentable for a gala at a castle! It’s hard to do the experience justice. We were treated to a tour of Kronborg Castle – where Hamlet was set – and then a lavish four course meal, paired with amazing wines. At the doorway to the banquet hall we each pulled a number out of a bowl, determining which table we’d be placed at and thus who our dining companions would be. I enjoyed the randomness of it. The event unfolded from 5pm until 4am. So much happened in that time span. Both magical and ridiculous. At one point I was standing in line at the bar, just to get more water, when a tall person near me was jostled and wound up depositing a full cocktail on my head. But it didn’t matter. Because I was in a castle! And I just went right back to the dance floor after chugging some water.
Saturday I intended to sleep in after getting to bed so late, but it was my last day in Copenhagen. I was sleep-deprived but managed to shower (I had to shampoo after having that mojito unceremoniously dumped on my head) and get down to the hotel restaurant just before breakfast was ending. Then some lovely co-workers joined me for a peaceful canal tour of the Nyhavn, with a most adorable tour guide. Afterward we enjoyed lunch at one of the many restaurants on the Nyhavn, and tried Danish Aquavit for the first time. Then it was off to check out Christiana but there wasn’t much going on. I had hoped to get there when bands were playing at the venue, Loppen, but the timing didn’t work out. So instead we set off for Tivoli Gardens to enjoy some rides at the amusement park with some more co-workers. Getting around by metro and bus was really quite easy but I would have loved to have my own bike with me. The bike lanes in Copenhagen are great! Separated from the auto traffic in the street by a substantial cement curb. But maybe biking there would be moderately terrifying just because of the sheer number of bikers, and how close to one another they get. Perhaps I’ll find out next time I visit.
The Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden has long been one of my favorite places in Minneapolis (along with the Walker itself). I clearly remember my first visit, on a field trip with my suburban (but nearly rural) school. It just felt magical. Like a creative oasis. I started visiting on my own as a teenager. Over the years some installations have changed while others remain. I’ve shown it off to friends visiting from out of town. And throughout my son’s life I’ve taken him there fairly regularly. He particularly enjoys the artist-designed mini golf in the summer time. I’ve photographed friends and family there, including a wedding, and more than one family portrait session. Now spring has finally sprung, sort of. My seasonal allergies say yes, the current gloomy-cold weather says no. But there was one gorgeous weekend recently where Minnesotans shed their outer layers and enjoyed mild temps outdoors in short sleeves. And I had the pleasure of photographing another adorable family in one of my favorite spots.
Ray of Sunshine
February in Minnesota can be a tough month. Technically it’s the shortest one but we’re so deep into winter it can really drag. So it’s best to look for bright spots. I found one last weekend. A lovely family asked me to meet them at the Mall of America to take some photos on their daughter’s first birthday. Normally the MOA would be a fairly quiet place at 9:30am on a Saturday, before the stores open. Little did we know there would be a Walk to Cure Diabetes happening at the same time. Thousands of walkers arrived at the mall before we did, to register and begin their event. That certainly made the shoot more lively. But we were able to go with the flow – or sometimes fight our way upstream – and get some great shots.
The Ancient Oak
Last winter seemed to be never-ending. There were far too many of those soul-sucking Polar Arctic Vortex days with dangerous windchills. So severe that classes were canceled on multiple occasions. A rare thing for Minnesotan schools! This winter has been far gentler (knock on wood). Mild enough that I was able to shoot some family photos outdoors recently. I’ve been a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities, and on and off again Minneapolitan – it’s been a tug of war between St. Paul and Minneapolis all of my adult life. Yet somehow I never knew the story of the oldest tree in Minneapolis. It was an ancient burr oak. Sadly it died a few years back but what remains is still impressive, and commemorated with a plaque. And it made a beautiful backdrop for this adorable family of four.
Salt and Light
Last weekend we attended the annual Winter Kite Festival on Lake Harriet. The weather has been remarkably mild, which makes the winter more bearable. But it’s been awfully overcast. And the mild temps might not hold so I’m adding to my previous list of activities to get us through until Spring:
- Each Wednesday St. Paul’s Union Depot hosts a free game night featuring oversized chess sets, Jenga, dominoes and more.
- At the end of this month my friend Luke is putting on the second annual Drone Not Drones 28-hour drone fest, a benefit for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The 2015 line-up looks amazing. Last year’s event was thoroughly enjoyable.
- I’ve been hearing about The Salt Cave in Minneapolis. While there are no proven health benefits, the anecdotal evidence is that the experience is quite relaxing. Especially for Minnesotans looking for a respite from winter.
- Our household has a Walker Art Center membership, so we can get in for free to the 2015 Film Independent Spirit Awards Screenings. But it’s also open to the public! Tuesday and Wednesday evenings for several weeks.
- Not exactly an activity, except it takes a lot of effort to eat…my favorite fruit is in season. Pomelo! For me, it’s one of the highlights of winter. I’ve been nerding out for them for over a decade now (according to flickr).
- For the lovers (or good platonic friends perhaps), there’s a Valentine’s Day Picnic at the Bell Museum. My partner and I enjoyed it a couple of years ago. This year’s theme is “Across the Universe” and it looks like fun. We’ve already got other plans that night. Some serious 90s riot grrrl era nostalgia, with Sleater-Kinney.
- Speaking of music, warm things up with some surf rock! Local favorites The Blind Shake teamed up with Rocket From The Crypt’s Swami John Reis, Listen here.
- For fans of Bob’s Burgers and H. Jon Benjamin, the cast will be touring with a live show.
Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere
Today we observed the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Listening to the radio this morning I was reminded that many Americans – myself included – were born after his assassination in 1968. But I’ve told my son that when I was in high school, MN schools were still in session on MLK Day. My friends and I received permission from our parents to skip school. We would take the bus from the suburbs to St. Paul, where we’d join an annual march from the State Capitol to a nearby church to listen to some rousing speeches. I always found the event equal parts disheartening (hearing about so much injustice) and inspiring. Fifty plus years after King’s march on Washington, gaps between white Americans and black have only widened. In terms of income and wealth. But in so many other ways as well. Several decades have passed since I became involved in the social justice movement and black lives are still being deprived of basic human rights and dignity. It’s overwhelming. But I try to do what I can. I am aware. I am present. I have conversations. Particularly with my son, about socioeconomic status and his privilege as a white presenting male. And he walked by my side at the Black Lives Matter / Reclaim MLK march.
Random items of note:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
The shortest day of the year is behind us now, in the Northern Hemisphere. As are the holidays and the distractions they bring. Now what’s a Minnesotan to do? Sadly it looks like the Art Shanty Projects are taking this winter off. But the St. Paul Winter Carnival is right around the corner. And the 8th Annual Art Sled Rally is happening at Powderhorn Park Saturday, January 31st.
If you are more inclined to stay indoors, there are plenty of other options.
- It’s possible to enjoy indoor activities even at the Winter Carnival. One of my favorites is the Saintly City Cat Show, held inside the RiverCentre. This year it’s Saturday, January 24th and Sunday the 25th (disregard their site’s typos).
- Minnesota is under another Wind Chill Warning. That sends me burrowing under the covers. Though I have other friends who enjoy winter camping during the deep freeze. They must be part-Sasquatch. If I were to venture out it would be for a visit to the humid Como Conservatory. Being around all the lush plant life allows me to forget the harsh elements outside, for just a little while.
- My pal Theresa brought her signature series, Trash Film Debauchery, back to the Turf Club last night with a showing of Masters of the Universe featuring Dolph Lundgren (A LOT of Dolph – ooof, that outfit). Looks like this will be a regular event every first Monday of the month at the Turf. Along with the other screenings at the Trylon.
- Another more physical option is SkyZone – the chain of indoor trampoline parks. A great way for the kids to burn off excess energy but also good for grown-ups. Possibly in smaller doses. And I’m seriously tempted to try their trampoline aerobics class, despite the injury/embarrassment risks.
It’s far too tempting to just stay inside all of the time. Especially since Netflix made the Fireplace For Your Home series available. What are your winter coping strategies?
The Weather Outside is Frightful
What a funny Fall. The fine weather stuck around a good long while which was fabulous. We enjoyed a lovely long weekend in Lake Pepin. But then, BAM. Sudden cold snap. January in November. Thanksgiving was bitterly cold. Naturally all the snow melted just in time for Christmas. And didn’t return until Boxing Day. Go figure. Before the holidays hit this year I squeezed in one more family portrait session. And it was a fun one! Three adult siblings, their partners and/or children. The solo shots of the kids wound up being my favorites. Here they are trying out their best The Thinker poses.
A Tribute to Tim Burton
Some years my son and I intentionally coordinate our Halloween costumes. Like when we were Mario & Luigi. Or Squid & Frog. Or Inspector Clouseau and the Pink Panther. This year we opted for costumes from different fictional universes, but created by the same person. Tim Burton. My son perfected his Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas while I tried to pull off Lydia (played by Winona Ryder) in Beetlejuice.
We also hosted our annual pumpkin carving party the weekend before Halloween. Lucked out with gorgeous weather so we were able to enjoy the backyard firepit, while keeping most of the mess outside. Some friends brought turnips to carve (which is traditional) in addition to pumpkin and they turned out really well. I’ll have to remember that for next year.
September Swan Songs
We’re on borrowed time people. This is for real. Summer is OVER. There were a few more bursts and blasts of summer-like weather but nope. It is Fall. Today the region is being drenched in a cold rain that may morph into a rain-snow mixture all too soon. Frankie Teardrop’s song End of Summertime Blues is appropriate. Don’t get me wrong, I adore autumn. But last Winter was beyond brutal and I have no desire to endure that again (fingers crossed for a milder one). It feels like Spring and Summer 2014 flew by in the blink of an eye. But I know it was action-packed. Our household moved from St. Paul to Minneapolis. We traveled quite a lot together, and a bit individually. We attended area arts and music events. There was some camping. Just one Pizza Farm visit. My son started HIGH SCHOOL. We ran out of time and missed out on the Renaissance Festival, but I see that as a once every five years thing. And now it’s a race to the finish line, trying to pack in some other activities before the snow flies. I’d still like to get to the Fawn Doe Rosa wildlife park. On the way there is Franconia Sculpture Park. And there’s a corn pit and pumpkin patch at Country Sun Farm. We had season passes for ValleyFair but barely used them. The Halloween themed Valley Scare is running for several weeks yet though. A return to the Landscape Arboretum would be lovely, particularly for the apple tastings. But time is limited. Winter is coming.
Thankfully there are plenty of happy memories from the warmer, lusher times.
Seattle, with my son
We rented a lovely AirBnB house in the Ballard neighborhood, hung out with my friend Kim and her family, and my son’s Aunt and newborn daughter.
Square Lake Film & Music Festival, Stillwater, MN
Total Fest 2014
Random Out and About in MN