Singing in the light

Singing in the light
Singing in the Light Barbara McAfee
Minneapolis singer-songwriter Barbara McAfee is the founder of Singing in the Light, a monthly community sing where anyone can participate, regardless of musical ability.

I just see what happens to people when they sing together. It’s an old way of being humans together and we don’t do that much anymore. — Barbara McAfee

As a kid, I loved to sing, but I never did any serious voice study. There was a brief moment where I even sang on stage with Bob from Sesame Street when I was in the fourth grade. But mostly singing was a fun thing to do at summer camp, or later as an adult, in the privacy of my car while listening to Erykah Badu.

I remember auditioning for some kind of choir in college, but I didn’t get in. By that point, my singing ship had sailed. I had no ability to read music, and I couldn’t reliably sing on key. The choir rejection was disappointing but not devastating. Soon I discovered dance as a hobby, and I didn’t think much about finding ways to sing together with other people.

Then in the deep, dark Minnesota winter of 2011, a friend told me about a monthly community sing called Singing in the Light. You could just show up, even if you had no singing skills whatsoever. I decided to check it out.

Singing in the Light is run by singer-songwriter Barbara McAfee. She’s always reminding the group that there’s no way to be wrong in the space. If you sing off key, who cares? If you mess up the harmony, no big whoop. It’s not about perfection or rehearsing for a performance. The point is to make music with and and for each other right then and there, and also to (God forbid) have some fun.

Singing in the Light singers

That first time I went to Singing in the Light, I wept like a baby. It was such a relief to use my voice and not be judged. I could make mistakes and it didn’t matter. I think as adults we’re horribly starved for those kind of experiences. As Barbara says, this collective fixation on perfection has us wearing girdles all the time.

I was curious what Singing in the Light has meant to the other people who’ve shown up for it. So I decided to make this radio story to find out. It turns out that I’m not alone in my reasons for wanting to sing with strangers.

Editor’s note: This radio story originally aired in October 2014 on KFAI community radio in Minneapolis and was produced with support from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Many thanks to Catherine Winter for her editorial guidance.

Unlikely Entrepreneurs: Lawyer K.M. Davis on the power of authenticity

K.M. Davis on being authentic

“Everyone who’s here really is authentic and kind of weird…and that’s what makes you want to work with them.” – K.M. Davis, Founder of Davis Law Office

K.M. Davis describes herself as a lawyer “who apparently doesn’t look like a lawyer.” In this clip, Davis talks about the power of authenticity and not hiding parts of yourself to fit in and please other people, especially at work.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Davis about her experiences as an unlikely entrepreneur at CoCo Minneapolis, where we’re both members and where Davis runs her firm Davis Law Office which is the only GLBT-certified law firm in Minnesota. Unlikely Entrepreneurs is an occasional live event series I started that features one-on-one interviews with people who became entrepreneurs unexpectedly and under unlikely circumstances. This is an experimental conversation project and I’m excited to see how it will evolve.

You can watch the full interview with Davis here. Many thanks to videographer Jeff Achen from CallSign51 for producing this video.

The power of personal projects

photographer Jenn Ackerman

Photographer Jenn Ackerman

On a Sunday morning in the middle of a Minnesota winter, you’re likely to find photographer Jenn Ackerman out on a frozen lake somewhere, peering through her camera lens with a broad smile on her face. She’s not there on assignment. No one has given her a deadline. She has simply chosen to show up.

From the earliest beginnings of her career, Ackerman has maintained a fierce dedication to doing personal work — long-term projects that are driven by her own interest and curiosity. Even now, it’s a commitment she prioritizes alongside running a thriving commercial and editorial photography business together with her husband in Minneapolis.

Ackerman’s belief in the power of personal work holds lessons for us all. It’s about showing up for ourselves and affirming that our ideas matter, no matter what anyone else might think.

“It helps when people start noticing some of this work,” says Ackerman. “But they don’t notice it before you create it. You have to create it first.”

The Power of Personal Projects: Jenn Ackerman’s Story

It all started in grad school. Ackerman, who’s now 33 was only 26 then, and pretty green as a photographer. She’d gotten accepted into a visual communications program at Ohio University and quickly concluded that she was by far, the worst shooter in her class. When I pressed her on this, she told me that she’s not just being hard on herself. She was really and truly bad.

Ackerman’s embarrassment about her weaknesses as a photographer drove her to pursue self-initiated projects, separate from what her professors were assigning. Initially, she kept this a secret. But after a few months, she revealed what she’d been up to:

“We had a portfolio review and I came with these projects that no one had ever seen images from. And everyone was like, ‘What? When did you do this?”

Jenn Ackerman documentary project
As a grad student, Ackerman began documenting a family of 12 living in poverty. This was one of her first self-assigned personal projects. She would later win an award for her work.

Soon, Ackerman’s images got stronger and her confidence blossomed. She started dating another photographer in her cohort named Tim Gruber. The couple began doing projects together. They married in 2009, a year after earning their Master’s degrees.

“There’s no place for us in this world”

Ackerman and Gruber’s graduation coincided with the Great Recession. They’d been groomed as newspaper photographers, but that world was unraveling. They both landed internships at The Dallas Morning News where they observed the hemorrhaging of photojournalism jobs up close. It didn’t take long for Ackerman to conclude that there was no place for them in the newspaper industry.

After Ackerman finished one last internship at the mothership of newspapers — The New York Times — the couple decided to put the breaks on their job searches. They were unsure about how to launch themselves as freelancers and had grown tired of waiting around for jobs that never turned into anything real.

So in the fall of 2009 they packed up their things and headed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where they could live rent-free in a beach house owned by Ackerman’s grandparents.

Retreating to the Outer Banks

They anticipated that their time in North Carolina would be short-lived; maybe a few weeks or a month. They stayed for seven. It was a pivotal period where they wrestled with the biggest questions of what they really and truly wanted for their lives as photographers and as a couple –- not just what they thought they were supposed to want:

“We never really sat down to say what do we really want with our photography? It was just, ‘I want to be a photographer because I enjoy it.’ But you don’t really think about what it brings you in your life.”

During those winter months in North Carolina, they gave themselves intense writing assignments. For two entire days, they wrote out long lists of all the things that made them happy — memories, places, people — anything they could think of that made them excited about life. Ackerman remembers that there were  “lots of tears and lots of fights.” Patterns started to emerge that forced her to reckon with some uncomfortable truths:

“I always assumed that I just wanted to travel. I thought I could be a nomad. It would be so glamorous to travel from country to country and meet new people and learn new languages. How beautiful would that be? And then when you start realizing — that means you’ll have no friends and you won’t have a home base. I started realizing those are things I wanted as well.”

Accepting her feelings also meant giving up some fantasies:

“I think sometimes you think your life is going to be glamorous. But when it really comes down to it, you just want to be peaceful. And you want to be happy. And you want to have an amazing marriage. That’s ultimately what I wanted.”

Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber

Happiness = Minneapolis?

Ackerman and Gruber wanted to create their home base in a place where they’d have creative and financial freedom. Slowly and painfully, it became clear that affordable Minneapolis was the best fit. Minneapolis offered a mix of nature, potential Fortune 500 company clients, and family (Gruber grew up in Minnesota). On paper, the biggest downside was the long winter. Also, as a Virginia Beach ocean-dwelling native, Ackerman was apprehensive about moving away from friends and family on the East Coast.

Ackerman says that she never would have chosen the Twin Cities out of the gate: “Going to Minneapolis was not an idea that I was going to have or allow in my mind.” It took her about three months to fully accept the choice they’d made.

Jenn Ackerman photographing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

“It’s something that appeals to us”

During those winter months in North Carolina, Ackerman and Gruber reaffirmed their commitment to personal projects. It was a fertile period where they thickened their portfolios with fresh work.

We recognized that we loved the projects that we were doing. They’re projects that maybe don’t have a commercial appeal, maybe don’t even have an editorial appeal but it’s something that appeals to us. And so if we didn’t do them, we would not be creatively fulfilled and we probably wouldn’t get the work that we wanted.

And because she and Gruber had continued to steady themselves creatively with this personal work, by the time they arrived in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010, they felt confident about making it as professional freelance photographers, even though they were starting from scratch in a brand new city with no contacts:

In the midst of you working on a personal project, you become very confident that you can do this — this whole thing. That you can be a freelancer that you can be a photographer, you can be satisfied with it. Because you are being satisfied with your work.

Ice fishing in Minnesota
A still from Ackerman’s project “Frozen” about wintertime life in the Midwest.

“What’s your dream assignment?”

Early on, Ackerman encountered an editor who asked, “What’s your dream assignment?” Neither she nor Gruber could quickly answer the question. But then they realized that the personal work they’d been assigning themselves all along constituted a portfolio of dream assignments. The editor’s question motivated them to keep going:

“We realized that whatever we wanted to be doing, we should just be doing on our own. We can’t wait for someone to assign it to us. And we realize that now. We love our clients and we love the work that we get from them, but if we wait around for them to give us our dream assignment, it’s probably never going to happen.”

Ackerman says that personal work and paid work don’t have to live in isolated galaxies; that in a best case scenario, personal work can attract unexpected opportunities. That’s what happened when the organizers of the Miss Universe pageant hired Ackerman and Gruber to tell the story of their pageant after seeing Ackerman’s Emmy-award winning project about mental illness inside a Kentucky prison:

“You can’t just wait for a perfect opportunity

Since launching their business in Minneapolis in 2010, Ackerman and Gruber’s careers have soared. Their client list now includes the likes of of GQ, Bon Appetit, and Fortune. They recently photographed Rahm Emanuel for Esquire and traveled to Turkey on a commercial shoot for Target. In 2012, Ackerman was awarded a $25,000 McKnight Artist Fellowship to support her independent documentary work. She used the funds to pursue a long-term personal project called “Frozen” about the experience of winter in the Midwest.

Ackerman acknowledges that her devotion to personal projects would be more challenging if she couldn’t share these experiences with her husband:

“It helps that we’re a couple. We do this on our free time. We’re out there on a Sunday going to ice racing and photographing it. Whereas I think for other couples — your spouse is not going to go to ice racing with you, probably.”

Jenn Ackerman in the field in Minnesota

Ackerman’s advice is simple. Just begin.

“Ultimately people always ask us, ‘how did you start this project?’ Well we just started it. I mean you can’t just wait for a perfect opportunity to start a project. You just have to go out there and start photographing or start writing.”

And she says not all projects necessarily endure. The litmus test is whether or not she’s having fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?

“You know when you’re enjoying something if you’re just pushing yourself really hard and you don’t have to be. Like you’re out in a negative 30 degree day and you have a smile on your face and you’ve been out there for eight hours, you know that you’re doing something you want to be doing.”

Photographer Jenn Ackerman

Jenn Ackerman is a photographer based in Minneapolis. She is one half of Ackerman + Gruber —  which she runs together with her husband Tim Gruber. She says she uses her camera “to show people and social issues in the US that are often overlooked or ignored.” Her photographs have been recognized by the Inge Morath Award, Review Santa Fe/CENTER, Magnum Expression Award, the Honickman First Book Prize, Communication Arts Photography Annual and others for her ability to gain access to people and situations that the public rarely sees.

 (All photos courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber)

Editor’s note: Special thanks to my friend Ellen Guettler for her help with editing this feature.

Standing up: finding a “new normal” as a comedian after facing loss in midlife

Gregory Joseph stand-up peformance
Gregory Joseph stand-up peformance
Gregory Joseph performing stand-up at Over the Eight comedy club in Brooklyn, New York. Photo courtesy of Gregory Joseph.

You realize that when you lose people you love that life is short — the whole cliché. I was 41. It was like if you’re not going to do it now, you’re not going to do it.

A few years ago, political campaign veteran Gregory Joseph stood on stage at a comedy open mic in Washington, D.C. for the first time and told a handful of jokes to a mostly empty room. He wasn’t expecting this singular event to change his life, but it did.

Gregory’s decision to step on that stage came on the heels of some difficult years.

Ever since he graduated from college in the early 1990s, Gregory had worked in politics and government –- mostly as a democratic campaign operative. His political career took root when he signed up as a campus organizer with the Clinton campaign in 1992. He would later travel around the country to work on congressional, senate, and presidential campaigns.

But by the time Gregory reached his 40s, he’d grown weary of his nomadic life on the campaign trail. “It’s tough to have a job where you have to go away for eight months of the year,” he explains. “It’s tough to establish a relationship. It’s tough to be a part of a community at home. You come back and you feel like a stranger.”

So by the time Gregory landed in Minnesota to work on Mark Dayton’s campaign for governor in 2010, he was contemplating how he could build a more stable existence that was rooted in one place. He was considering a pivot of some kind — “not a new career path per se” he says, but perhaps a regular staff job in worlds he already knew, such as public policy, nonprofits, and government.

Things didn’t exactly turn out that way.

I didn’t know if I was going to like doing it. I was going to give myself a good chance of seeing whether I liked it or not. And so that was the only thing that I was opening myself up to: not to see if I was good at it, but just to see if I liked it.

Gregory’s tenure in Minnesota was short-lived. His mother had been sick with cancer, and less than two months into the Dayton campaign, he received word from his family in New Jersey that her health was declining. He quickly made the decision to leave Minnesota and return home.

“I didn’t have any intentions of coming back,” he says. “I moved to the house I grew up in and spent the next couple of months just coping with the fact that at some point in the near future — month-wise, week-wise — that I was going to be losing my mother.”

He would stay living in his childhood home for nearly two years.

Gregory and I grew up together in New Jersey. We lost touch after high school graduation but reconnected during his short time in Minnesota. His story reminds me how going through loss – whether it’s the loss of a parent, job, or something else — can strangely make us more receptive to trying out new things. Whether by choice or by force, life as we were living it has ended. The sober fact of that reality opens up a space, however uncomfortable, to cast a line in a different direction.

Today, Gregory is proud to call himself a stand-up comedian. Here’s an edited account of how his transition into comedy unfolded, as he shared it with me in a Skype conversation we had last month.

Continue reading “Standing up: finding a “new normal” as a comedian after facing loss in midlife”

A ‘life reset’ at sea

a-life-reset-at-sea-emilie-hitch-beach-shoes
a-life-reset-at-sea-emilie-hitch-beach-shoes
In 2013, Minneapolis entrepreneur Emilie Hitch embarked on a two-month sabbatical at sea. One of the stops along her journey was Sandefjord, Norway, pictured here. Photo courtesy of Emilie Hitch.

In the spring of 2013, Minneapolis entrepreneur Emilie Hitch put her life on hold to spend two months on a ship. Over 50 days, she visited 19 ports, mostly in Europe, as part of Semester at Sea, which runs global study trips for college students and adults.

Emilie refers to the experience a “life reset.” She’s no stranger to those — she likes to shake things up about every five years. When she was 32, she quit her job at a Minneapolis advertising agency to start her own consulting business. Before that, she moved abroad to attend graduate school in London. When she was in her 20s, she left New York City for a job opportunity back home in Minneapolis.

So by the time she turned 35, Emilie was itching for a change.

I met Emilie, who’s now 36, in the summer of 2013 after she’d just returned to Minneapolis from her adventures at sea. I was preparing to embark on my own version of a life reset –- a three-month career break to Brazil. I remember Emilie warning me about the slog of reentering your life on the other side of a travel sabbatical. When I had to face the reality of that slog, I reached out to her to commiserate. But to my surprise, Emilie was no longer here; she’d up and moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I was curious to find out what Emilie was doing in Cambodia, and how she’d catalyzed her two-month life reset into a longer international living experience. So in late January 2014, I interviewed Emilie to find out. As we peered at each other through our Skype-equipped laptop screens, I could see that a steamy day was just beginning in her tropical world while a bone-cold winter darkness had descended upon mine in Minnesota. Here’s an edited slice of Emilie’s story, as she shared it with me from over 8,000 thousand miles away.

a-life-reset-at-sea-emilie-hitch-cover
Emilie Hitch in Sandefjord, Norway, 2013. Photo courtesy of Emilie Hitch.

Emilie Hitch’s ‘life reset’ at sea

I turned 35 that and I kind of have this five-year rule where every five years I take a good look at what I’m doing. I called it a ‘life reset’ trip. It started out more as an adventure and a vacation.

I’d been in my business three or four years and was at that point where I was deciding where I was going to go next. I really wanted to get out of my space in order to reexamine what my priorities were and what direction I wanted to take: ‘Which types of clients am I going to stick with, and which ones am I not going to pursue anymore? How am I going to do that? What city do I want to be in? How do I feel about my house?’ So I had all of that brewing.

I created this parking lot and put all those life questions in it. When I got to the ship I thought I would examine all of them. It went in a different direction because I met a boy and that put a monkey wrench in the whole situation. A lot of my time was spent with him instead of just with myself. But that was fine. For a lot of reasons, it was perfect timing for that as well. I hadn’t been a romantic relationship in a really long time.

A lot of the things I was thinking about like: ‘Sell my house,’ ‘travel again, live abroad again,’ I wasn’t ready to put a line in the sand and say, ‘Yeah I’m doing that.’ So that’s what I did on the trip. I didn’t need the full two months. I needed the time to get away to examine each of the decisions as separate things and not as things I was currently living. I took each of those decisions out of the box and made the decisions pretty quickly — It was like ‘I’ve already made this decision in my heart.’ I came home validated in the direction I thought I was going.

I created this parking lot and put all those life questions in it…I needed the time to get away to examine each of the decisions as separate things and not as things I was currently living.

I have a very strong community in Minneapolis. I have an amazing group of friends and an amazing family. I have good work. And so making a decision to live abroad again — a lot of my friends thought it was kind of crazy. I needed a good solid sabbatical life reset to have the time to think, ‘Okay I didn’t change my mind today. Let’s see what happens tomorrow when I’m just with myself.’ I was able to have a good two months in a row where it still felt like the right decision.

The hardest part of reentry was having recognized, yes, this is the plan that I want, yes these are the changes I want to make and fuck, it’s going to take four or five months to make them. And that’s four to five months of living the pre-changes that I’ve already decided I don’t like. I didn’t want to be in that house anymore. Because of the house I couldn’t just up and leave. I’m really impatient. Once I make a decision I really want it to happen. I came back from the life reset and I wanted it now. I wanted to be living abroad.

a-life-reset-at-sea-house-sale
While she was on her two-month sabbatical, Emilie Hitch decided to sell her house in Minneapolis. “Selling a house is a pain,” Emily says. But she found it easier to make a big decision like this one because she’d already made big ‘life reset’ decisions before.

When I got home it took me a week to find the job in Cambodia. And it took less time than that to call a realtor. It was very fast how quickly I was able to put that plan into motion. The pieces just fell into place for it to be a good time to make the decision for my career and my consulting practice. And the timing was also good emotionally for me to revisit my traveling self and my expat self. My friends are all getting married and having babies. That’s not where I am. I don’t love infants. I do love toddlers. By the time I get back, their kids are all going to be fun again.

This is the third time I’ve lived abroad. I know myself pretty well. I don’t anticipate that I’d live in a place other than the U.S. for more than six months to a year at a time. That’s as long as I am interested in it and then I want to go home. The idea was one year in Asia.

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Emilie Hitch visits a pagoda in Koh Dach, Cambodia, 2013. Photo courtesy of Emilie Hitch.

Moving to Cambodia

I didn’t romanticize, ‘I’m going to move to Cambodia and it’s going to be this wonderful experience.’ It’s just a choice that I’ve made.

It’s pretty much like a job in a city anywhere other than the contextual things like the food is different, my motorcycle is a pain in the ass sometimes, traffic is ridiculous, pollution’s not awesome, the Wi-Fi cuts out all the time. For me the things that are more of a challenge are being away from a really strong community and sitting in loneliness in a different way. Every time I’ve moved abroad it’s been a bit lonely.

I’m being reminded that I don’t need to be productive socially or economically at every moment of the day. The city shuts down at 8 or 9 o’clock and I’m a night owl. And I have to be up at 6 or 7 every morning to come into a day job again. When I come home at 9 or 9:30 my block is empty and there are barely lights on. It’s quiet. The neighborhood is asleep. I don’t have that many friends. The process of making friends takes time so I don’t have plans every night. I don’t have plans every weekend. On a Friday night I’m at home sometimes thinking, ‘I don’t want to play this video game anymore. I’ve already read the three books on my Kindle. What else am I going to do for the next three hours?’ But then I remember, ‘Oh I don’t have to do something.’

I would never take a 9-to-5 job at home again. I just won’t do it. And here I did. And I like it. And I like the work. It’s a consultancy model. We’re kind of in and out. Having a 9-to-5 job here doesn’t stress me out the way that it does at home because everything else is so new. At the top of the list of priorities for moving abroad was the career experience and I needed a 9-to-5 job to do that.

The best way I’ve set myself up for success was to remind myself not to have expectations. I think having low expectations is pretty much the key to anything; to relationships, to being happy. That doesn’t mean be a pessimist. It’s just having expectations can be very troublesome.

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Emilie Hitch gets her passport paperwork in order, in preparation for relocating to Cambodia, 2013. Photo courtesy of Emilie Hitch.

Emilie’s ‘life reset’ advice

Travel — even if it’s in your home country. Just travel. Create space for yourself even if it’s just for a day or a morning or a weekend. Get out of your usual traffic patterns. Go to a coffee shop in a neighborhood you never go to. Read the paper somewhere you’ve never been before. Break your habits and patterns so you get used to breaking habits and patterns.

Break your habits and patterns so you get used to breaking habits and patterns.

Once you make a life change, it’s a lot easier to do the second time. I’ve life reset quite a bit. Like I said, I have this five-year thing. Selling a house is a pain in the ass but just do it. It was so easy to make the decisions this time around because I’d already made big decisions like that before. As long as you have some core values that you’re living and a direction that you want your life to take. There are a lot of decisions and choices that are going to come at you. Making the first decision is probably always the hardest. But it gets easier to shift direction and life reset to make big changes once you realize that starting over is not so bad.

a-life-reset-at-sea-emilie-hitch-headshotEmilie Hitch is currently living and working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as the Strategy & Design Fellow for the Human-Centered Design i-Lab at iDE Cambodia, which pioneers and practices human-centricity in designing market-based solutions for the poor. A classically-trained cultural anthropologist, Emilie is founder and CEO of the anthropology-driven strategic consultancy, Thinkers & Makers.