The Long Road Back to Red Wing

In the Spring of 2014, 8 years after resigning the Augsburg presidency, Anne and I retired. We stopped hoping for interim posts or consultancies, and started thinking hard about how to live without the cash and connections of employment. Age 80 had come into view for both of us, but we had yet to develop a strategy for replacing colleagues with neighbors, acquaintances and relatives with friends, and house with home. In fact, we had yet to decide where we were going to attempt this exercise in home-making.      

We took up Planning, the art regularly practiced in our work but never in our lives. We began by abandoning our long-standing determination to live in America’s Pacific Northwest—fewer acquaintances and more of them attached to a part rather than the whole of our lives—and moved on to shedding whimsies that had more to do with place than people—to live in foreign cities, large Victorian houses (with a lot of rehabilitation projects), suburbs and small towns. Instead, we conceived of a series of household moves that would lead us from diaspora to our own new and final Jerusalem. We thought wistfully of starting in Chicago, the first city of both of our diasporas and of our meeting and courtship, and swerved back to the Twin Cities. We had friends in both places, but the Chicago ones were from banking and other careers that had lost their currency with us. The Twin Cities ones were fresher; they had been gathered in the course of accomplishing the Augsburg presidency—the most thrilling work of our lives.

To address the home-making task, we drew up a list of Retirement Questions, presuming to answer them with the attentiveness eventually liberated from the duties of employment: Whom had we each so far become—as spouses, parents, friends, selves? What now were our respective prospects for personal growth and new life—and how could we best realize them?

The peripatetic lives that both of us had so far lived had denied us comprehensive and integrated narratives from which we could extract identities confirmed by a core of close relatives and friends with whom we had shared the formative encounters of our respective autobiographies. The Retirement Questions thus became the starting line of our retirement ramble. We were thrilled at first by the creative freedom implied by the fact that we had no answers to them—until we realized that we were fleeing just such freedom in order to end our diasporas in a community that we could serve and that would be willing to serve us.

The inquiry demanded by the Retirement Questions was especially daunting for me.  Growing up on the farm in the Ohio foothills of the Appalachians had taught me that “work”, well and quickly done, was the source of any standing at all as son, peer and rival. Even when my later study of political science revealed the Commercial Republic itself as the source of this teaching—and drew me to a much greater respect for the diagnostic and therapeutic prowess of theory and, ultimately, of philosophy—I addressed my professoriate with the convictions of my youth: Work was what I had been put on earth to do, and doing it better and faster than the next guy was the only assured route to salvation in this life as well as the next.

Hence, I was easy prey to the classic misapprehension of our time: I understood my work as my Calling. The permanent unemployment of retirement therefore precipitated a profound crisis of identity in me and, as I am regularly learning now, in most males of my and earlier generations. I anticipated the crisis but not its severity. Fussing during the Augsburg years with the idea of Vocation had convinced me that in retirement I could “write myself out of” the crisis. The disciplines of forensic rhetoric would guide me willy-nilly to the best ways of living rightly in retirement.

But the deep dysthymia that came upon me with retirement confused both the resolve to write and what to write about. Should I address the disorientation itself, or should I launch a project touching on Vocation and aimed at publication in a refereed “academic journal”? I chose the latter.

I set out to contrast Max Weber’s idea of Vocation—the source, I suspected, of my confusion of work and Calling—with Martin Luther’s. After a couple months of hard trying and three or four dry chapters, I gave up. I found too little enlightenment in it to persevere, and no joy whatsoever.

I know now that I wasn’t really trying to “write myself out of” the critical confusion of work and calling; instead, I was rummaging through texts for sentences and clauses to help me “prove” an argument of no use whatsoever for right living or morality but publishable in a “refereed” journal! The argument I was anxious to construct was less a comparison of Weber’s version of vocation with Luther’s than a demonstration that the “best” features of Luther’s vocation had been lost in an initial fusillade by the founder of modern social science and his minions.  I wanted to land a bruising blow against the epistemology to which the dominant dispensation of modern academe entrusts the Advancement of Learning.

And that argument is well worth making—but not by a fresh retiree reeling from an identity crisis! And so I turned instead to memoir writing—imbedding my reflections upon the Retirement Questions in the narrative record of reunions, the high-school and college graduations and weddings of grandchildren, and other such banal incidents of the examined but unemployed life. This that you are reading now is a memoir. It is a form that allows me to hunt through my experience of our life together for narrative and insights that warrant publication to our families if not to you and wider audiences.

I made the turn to memoir writing about six months after we moved in the Summer of 2014 into a 1,400 sq. ft. apartment in the converted Pioneer Press Building in downtown Saint Paul. At its original 12 stories in 1890, it was the first “skyscraper” on the Prairie. It was built to honor (and, almost incidentally, to house) the Saint Paul press. The size and frontier location of the building attracted the attention of Harper’s Bazaar, which deputed a reporter and draughtsman to Saint Paul to see whether the building had, by any chance, escaped the rude circumstance of its birth. What they found was a gracious, beautifully proportioned commercial center that immediately marked Saint Paul as the architecturally superior of the twin cities and a pretender to the Midwestern throne firmly occupied by Chicago and sought by Saint Louis.

To keep up with the First National Bank Building, just across Robert Street at 4th, four stories were added in 1910, and after several transfigurations, the Pioneer Building was converted in the 21st century from professional-service offices (the Pioneer Press folk and their presses had moved to other quarters long since) into “market-rate” (i.e., rental) apartments by Rich Pakonen, a remarkable developer of “historic” buildings who had early seen the opportunities for his vocation in Saint Paul.

Our particular apartment (#1623) was one of several literally suspended above the building’s spacious antique atrium. From our dining room, we could see above us the roof access from an iron staircase spiraling up 16 floors inside a glassed-in well set between two elevator banks whose modernized cars retained the original rheostat controls and swing-out stools once used by liveried operators. We could look down to the lobby clock, which was mounted horizontally (for viewing from above) on the staircase at the 2nd floor; a glance over the bannisters supplied a common time to the Pioneer’s dentists, doctors, lawyers, accountants and their clients. Anything more than a glance brought Alfred Hitchcock “Vertigo” forcefully to mind.

We moved in on the morning of August 1, 2014, having retired the evening before from a two-year stint as Interim Chief Financial Officer of Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, the largest of the eight seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and the least alert to the predicament all of them had been sharing for at least a decade). David Tiede, who had led the Seminary through 2005 (and successfully adapted its curriculum and finances to the changing needs and circumstance of the church) and then brought his profound commitment to Lutheran higher education to Augsburg in my last year as its president, and Loren Anderson for whom I worked at Pacific Lutheran University both before and since Augsburg, helped Anne and me move the few household goods on which we had relied for the Seminary stint from Saint Anthony Park to downtown Saint Paul.

We finished the work at mid-morning. David was needed back home in White Bear Lake, and Anne, Loren and I sat down to lunch in the restored ticketing venue of Union Depot, about a block and a half from the Pioneer. We had arranged a furniture delivery for about noon. I called the driver to see how close it was. The driver said that he had arrived but couldn’t approach the Pioneer building because it was surrounded by fire trucks. I excused myself from the lunch and headed right up there to help get the delivery through the crush and into the building.

As I strode along the flank of the Pioneer Building on the way to its front door, I passed a thick gaggle of apparent evacuees. I recognized one of these as a resident of our floor whom we had met that morning. I remarked that something pretty serious must have caused such an inconvenience.  His response very nearly sent me into a dead faint: “Yes,” he said, “and I’m afraid it started in your apartment!”

As soon as I was able to resume, I went in frantic search of the fire chief. He confirmed that a fire had begun within a half hour of our lunch run—in a box of kitchen stuff I had left on the ceramic stove top. The conflagration was extinguished by the building’s sprinkler system—which continued at full flow thereafter for 30 minutes, wetting down our apartment and the three immediately below. Forensic evidence suggested that three of the four burners had been turned “on” (which required depressing the control knobs and then turning them. Two had been turned to the right and one to the left. We never figured out exactly when or how it happened but felt constrained to include among the “could-have-been’s” the jutting hip of a box-bearer bumping against and rubbing over the burner controls along the stove-front.

Pakonen, the owner (who had appeared at the Seminary on my watch as a potential investor in its financial salvation), quite generously moved us into a 1 bedroom apartment down the hall while our place was cleaned up and restored—a process that he and we thought might take a couple of months. It took six months, entailed the replacement of the floor and the kitchen appliances, and a good amount of repair in the apartments beneath ours.

In the meantime, our household furnishings (which had been languishing in a Tacoma storage carrel during the seminary assignment), arrived and moved with us into the little apartment. And so we lived for five months in 800 square feet with our inaccessible goods stacked to the ceiling,  leaving just enough space for us to get, single file, from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen.

The fire was the most galling surprise to befall us in the 20 years of our marriage; harder to recover from than a poor speech once proclaimed, the worst surgery, the most disappointing news of child or grandchild, the most confidence-dousing trip-and-fall incident.  The spectral thought that our negligence might have endangered a National Historic Register icon, to say nothing of the very lives of our new neighbors, exacted a heavy toll on our—particularly on my—self-confidence. Household insurance helped us avoid destitution but not the haunting reviews of conscience.

The saga succeeded in puncturing an illusion that we didn’t realize we had (such, of course, is the nature of illusions)—viz., that we had God on our side. Every experiment we launched—in career (from professing a liberal art to practicing corporate finance), in relationships (from volatile acquaintanceships to solid marriage), in personal competencies (from administration to institutional leadership; from strumming the guitar to playing the notes)—seemed to vindicate the decision to undertake it. These “successes” had dissolved a good portion of the sizable and ancient reservoirs of uncertainty that each of us had collected in youth. The fire restored all that had been dissolved—and then some. Could I really be trusted to sail safely in uncharted waters—or even charted ones? Could I properly perform the domestic duties of husband and parent, the public responsibilities of consultant and volunteer?

In the strained deliberation we conducted in the weeks after the fire—especially during the long drive back out to Tacoma to commence the sailing venture that was to introduce retirement—we worked our way around to the conclusion that we had lost the God-on-our-side illusion just in time. The search for vocational identity, we reasoned, would be successful only if we took fundamental responsibility for figuring out right living for ourselves and executing the conclusion. The fire freed us from the notion that “everything will work out in the end. Let’s not worry about it!”

About mid-August, of 2014, we arrived in Tacoma, provisioned and boarded Irolita (our 40’ yawl) and sailed her up to Port Townsend for the 2014 Wooden Boat Festival, the first leg of what was to be an extensive exploration of the inside passage to Alaska. Each part of the itinerary for this journey became a test of our new-found personal responsibility (rather than “luck” or “destiny”) for living rightly.

The first stop on this voyage was to visit the retiring chair of the Luther Seminary Board, who had long led a prospering ELCA congregation on Whidbey Island. When we left him and his spouse from the east flank of the island with the world’s longest coast line. We motored south and then west across Puget Sound to spend our last night before the Festival at a snug little marina on the Kitsap Peninsula. As we left our mooring the next morning, moving astern, we backed over the dingy painter, fouling Irolita’s propeller. We went immediately dead in the water. Fortunately, the 20 knot wind that morning blew us onto a dock rather than aground. Even more fortunately, acquaintances of ours were out on the dock and, in response to our stentorian shouts, seized Irolita by the bow and guided her and her embarrassed and unnerved crew to a jolting but safe moorage. We spent the rest of the day awaiting rescue by a wet-suited diver from a marina two hours’ drive to the South. When we pulled out late that evening for Port Townsend—poorer but wiser—we  used every one of the auxiliary engine’s 40 horsepower to free Irolita from the dock, onto which the 20-knot wind was holding her fast against flattened pneumatic fenders.

Irolita was again a “hit” in this her third appearance at the largest annual convention of wooden boats on the West Coast. She continues to receive visits at the festivals from her own and her rivals’ crews from the San Francisco Bay regattas in which she performed impressively for a full half of her 60-year life.

She brought to us, and especially to me, the prospect of a world-class blue water cruise across the fearsome straits between employment and retirement, between a life of action and one of review and reflection. To ready her and me for this watershed event, I spent a considerable part of the five years between her purchase and my retirement scrubbing, polishing, painting, repairing, studying and occasionally sailing her. It was fascinating work—in its own right and because it served as relief from the tentative-meetings-filled life that had become mine when I left the classroom for corporate finance and college administration. The sailing outings were thrilling. She slipped in silent smoothness along the pristine passages of central and south Puget Sound, perfectly obedient to her helm, and increasingly to her helmsman. Eventually, we found the courage and confidence to take her through the San Juans and part way up the eastern flank of Vancouver Island. We guided her into ports, anchorages and marinas entirely unfamiliar to us—gratefully casting her mooring lines to the invariably helpful strangers who were attracted to her yare lines and gleaming brightwork. A significant part of what pleased us about her was that much of her appearance and some of her performance were the fruits of our own work and daring; we have prayed that this pleasure amounts to a Pride of Ownership that is acceptable to both God and man.

When the Festival wound up, Anne peeled off to visit her children in Oregon, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and two seasoned sailors (one recruited in Minnesota and the other in Washington) and I took Irolita to Desolation Sound and points north for the six week sail that I had been planning since acquiring the boat in 2012.

A couple of months before we were to commence the sail, and in order to broaden our mutual familiarity, Anne and I invited the Minnesotan, a U of MN physician, and his spouse, a psychiatrist in private practice, over to our apartment for a Chinese dinner. I decided to make Peking Duck for the occasion. I hadn’t attempted the dish for several years, and forgot that the first act of preparation involves the separation of the duck’s skin from its flesh. This is done by actually inflating the duck to about 10 ppsi. The air is administered through the butchered bird’s anus and prevented from leaking out anywhere ahead by a tight knot tied in its flaccid and headless neck. I had nothing at hand for the purpose, and set out for a local auto-parts store to buy an air pump. I found a manual one on the shelves I brought it up to the cashier, who asked me what I needed it for. I prevaricated: “Flat tire.” “Oh,” said the clerk, “what you need is a tire-repair kit!” Straight away, he swept the pump off the counter, put it back where I’d found it, and returned with what appeared to be a cleanser-sized can of compressed air. It was not until I got home that I discovered that the “kit” included a tarry, black compound that would follow the air into the tire—or the duck—and remain there to seal the leak. I set the kit out for any neighbor that might need it for its designed purpose, and went to another store from which I bought a tire pump, determined to answer no question about my need of it. It worked, and my culinary reputation became yet more…inflated!

The voyage to and back from Desolation Sound crisscrossed an abandoned seascape; the “season” had ended even before the Festival, and many of the key marinas and supply stations were closed. Hence, we had easy access to spectacular fjords, bays and anchorages that would have been crowded and noisy a month earlier. (It’s true that on a couple of occasions we were nursing our last gallon of fuel when we found enough to fill our 25-gallon tank. (Running full out and making 7-knots through the water, the diesel consumed about 2/3rds gallon per hour!))

We had all the right material with us for rich reflection on and during our adventure—Melville, Conrad, London—but the best for us in those northern climes was the Yukon poetry of Robert Service: “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. Melville and Conrad needed a seminar; Service needed no more than an audience—and at the end of a typical day afloat, an audience was the best we could make of ourselves.

The diesel broke down as we started back to Seattle from The Johnstone Strait. When we laid Irolita up for repair in Campbell River, the three of us made our respective ways home—I with a painful herniation at Lumbar # 4 to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. As I recovered from the sail and the back injury, a friend retrieved Irolita, made the three-day sail to Seattle, and left her in the care of the yard where I had found her in 2009. She’s been for sale from there (again) ever since. She is frequently visited, lavishly praised for her appearance and condition, and widely respected for her Olin Stephens/H. Heidtmann pedigree. But her charms have so far elicited no serious purchase offers.

On January 9, 2015, just as we settled down from the retirement, the fire, the sail and the family visits, Anne and I moved back into our rehabilitated Pioneer apartment. The next morning, we cleaned and returned to management the one-bedroom interim apartment and came back up the hall to our renewed place. Ten minutes later, Anne tripped over a throw rug and fell—mostly onto her knees and hands. The pain didn’t dissipate over the weekend, and on Monday morning we drove the 10 blocks to Regions Hospital to learn that her left tibia was cracked. Two weeks later, when we were loading up for a trip to check that the embolism that had formed from the fall was dissolving, I suffered a cardiac short-circuit that slowed my pulse to 27. I could get it no higher than 71 bpm during a Mayo stress test.

The device prescribed “paces” my heart between 60 and 150 bpm, depending largely on how strenuously I breathe. Although this remarkable device restored me to near normalcy, the experience left me with a sharpened sense of my mortality. It was Anne’s and my close reading of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (as well as of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air) that kept this new sensitivity from becoming a numbing morbidity for either one of us. A friend who had been on the frontier of medical technology in the 1950’s also helped. He told us that I might have lived for six months with such a condition in those “old” days. Since those were, in fact, the days when my father died, at age 47, from a heart attack, I was tempted to pray that he had lived a generation later. But that would have required wishing that my life be postponed for a generation. Among other things, wishing thus would have been to agree with one of the more witless platitudes of both my and my father’s time: “If you have your health, you have everything!” And so the incidents recommitted us to the times we were given and to full vocational engagement in them.

We held a housewarming party in our Pioneer Building apartment in February, 2015—in the midst of Anne’s recovery from her fall. Son Sam and his beloved Jennifer came up from Chicago to help us host the event. The party made of our commitment to The City a public affair—allowing us to cleave to our Augsburg-born conviction that Vocational life is lived “in the open”, so to speak, its course charted by memorable events that mix and expose the domestic, occupational, and neighborhood elements of life to each other. We held firmly to that conviction—even when we decided six months later that we couldn’t afford any longer to “carry” our empty Red Wing place while renting the Pioneer apartment. The decision to leave Saint Paul forced itself upon us just as we had found an easy familiarity with Lowertown and joyous exploration of the Twin Cities—and just as I was settling into my writing strategy.

We had transformed our Red Wing property from “cabin” to home in 2006 when we left the Augsburg presidency. With the help of Terry Korman, the architect spouse of Barbara who had tricked the Augsburg world during my tenure into thinking that its president knew what he was doing, and Myron Alms, whose highly prized construction talents were secured to us by his cousin who was also a neighbor of ours, we added a couple of rooms, a new roofline and a spectacular new perspective across Lake Pepin onto the Wisconsin bluffs near the town of Maiden Rock.

But—in terms typical of our nomadic life—we left Red Wing for Tacoma, WA even before the improvements were complete—to accept Loren Anderson’s invitation to run the PLU School of Business for a year and find a dean to run it for a longer stretch. Five years later—during which I strained to re-align the school with the university that had given it birth, found an effective dean for it, and helped initiate a couple of capital projects on the campus and in the adjacent village—we came back to Minnesota. This time, it was to help Luther Seminary repair a large tear in its balance sheet through which a critical part of its liquidity had drained away.

We didn’t make Red Wing the base for the work at the Seminary (even though it is only 50 miles from either of the Cities) because the assignment as offered was for six weeks; 3 months at the most. That would be enough, it was initially thought, to “fix” the problem and launch the search for long-term amelioration. Hence, I arrived in Saint Paul on December 2, 2012 (a day after sailing Irolita around Vashon Island in South Puget Sound’s Winter Regatta), leaving Anne in Tacoma to continue her service to a leasing company owned by old friends in Gig Harbor. Within weeks of my arrival, the on-campus Seminary apartment into which I had moved for the “temporary” assignment became home for what turned out to be a two-year assignment; Anne arrived to comfort her husband and support the effort in February of 2013.

My first attempt to explain the Seminary’s financial crisis was published to the board and faculty two weeks after I arrived. It concluded that the recession of 2008 metastasized an array of illnesses systemic in both seminary and church. Expenses were continuing to rise even though enrollment and revenue were falling. Credit lines had been exhausted, and several millions of the Endowment were being used each year to pay salaries and other operating costs. I brought every available ounce of my rhetorical ability to this document and its successors, thinking that I had to find and use a language that would wake the place to its predicament without precipitating a public debate over what and particularly who had caused it. Only then, I thought, could we invent the measures through which progress could be reliably predicted over a 5-year horizon without amendment or substitution.

Thus did a six-week triage turn into a two-year reconstruction of both income statement and balance sheet, in the course of which the Seminary’s instructional roster was halved, unfunded annual depreciation expense was acknowledged as rising deferred-maintenance debt, and “fiscal sustainability” became a board-authorized institutional objective.

This was distinctively “interim work”, which I had tasted for the first time as dean of PLU’s School of Business. Only temporary employees can do it—because doing it exhausts more authority than it generates and inevitably results in political suicide.  It earns the gratitude of the board and invested (not governing) owners (e.g., the church), and the distrust and criticism of most employees. If only it were guided by a vision, interim work could become “permanent” and redefine the institution. But the crisis, which cries out for vision, empowers only emergency “turnaround” action; vision connects salutary policy with the very constitution of the community—and the policies suggested by this connection are anything but interim, emergency, or merely corrective. In fact, the only action of the interim that reaches beyond the immediate is the replacement of itself by the dispensations of a successor.

And so our interim life at the Seminary was alienating and self-depleting. However crucial the work was to the welfare of the community; however honored were we, personally, no home was made for us in that community. (Such also is frequently the fate of college presidents.)

It was, therefore, in the midst of this interim assignment that Anne and I woke fully to our need of home and hearth and of a late-life strategy to create them. The pre-retirement decision in behalf of the City and against Red Wing was smart but lacked the experiential wisdom of actual retirement. In particular, we didn’t know then that we couldn’t sell our Red Wing property however hard we tried and however low we depressed the price. And we discounted the advantages of “familiarity of place” in creating home—the dialectical kind of familiarity in which we both know our neighbors and are known by them.

As the two-year maturation of our lease in the Pioneer Building loomed, we reversed direction. We refinanced our mortgage of Red Wing, reintroduced ourselves and our revised intention to our friends and to our neighbors in Red Wing; surprised (and largely pleased) our families, and took to spending a day or two a week readying Red Wing for our reappearance.

We moved back in on August 1, 2016, two years to the day of the feared Retirement—and of the apartment fire.

Our economy is better on account of the move, and our sense of being “at home” is slowly beginning to emerge. I look forward to reporting how we’re doing in a year’s time.

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