David Hussman has terminal lung cancer, but that doesn’t keep him from using the word “dude” multiple times when talking about the disease that collapsed his lungs in January, like he’s geeking out about a new guitar pedal. The truth is, all iterations of “dude” have peppered his personal and professional conversations for so long that a few years ago his daughters’ friends started referring to Hussman as The Dude, aka Jeff Bridges’ character from “The Big Lebowski.”
But this Dude is nothing if not an original: Hussman, founder of innovative South Minneapolis-based software company DevJam and the always-bustling bistro/community pub Studio 2 Café (not to mention his alter-ego Nicci Wikkid, guitarist for ’80s–’90s local glam metal heroes Slave Raider), and his positive dude-vibe is serving him well at this precarious moment.
“Nothing makes you be a Buddhist like a terminal disease. Nothing makes you stop and say, ‘Every moment is what matters,’ every little hug, every time you say, ‘I’m sorry,’” said Hussman Tuesday morning, sitting in the living room of the Kingfield neighborhood home he shares with Andrien Thomas, his wife and chef/partner in Studio 2, and Amalie, the youngest of the couple’s two daughters (their oldest, Sage, plays with the Portland Cello Project and lives near Port Townsend, Washington).
After the initial cancer diagnosis and treatment knocked him out and landed him in the hospital for ten days at the start of the year, depression and a feeling of failure set in for the 55-year-old Hussman, which has currently given way to a certain acceptance and hard-core living in the moment.
“I don’t really care so much about working really hard, but working on things that I enjoy doing, whatever I’m doing, is what gives me that existential fulfillment,” he said. “On a great day, I’m super inspired right now. I feel really fortunate. I know that my life may be in terms of months, possibly in terms of years, but I’m still living my life in terms of weeks and months.
“I’m really, really appreciative. My mom is a pretty soulful person. She’s a Lutheran Swede from Duluth, but she’s actually more of like a Unitarian Universalist from India, or something. She lives four houses down. She planted sort of this seed of appreciative grace in me. She’s much better at it than I am, but I just feel that more than ever right now.
“I just feel like, yeah, I’m really, really sick. I’m sad. I have a terminal illness. But I get to do stuff with my family, I get to be home, I live in this great city that we live in, you know? I’m active, I can go for a walk. Two months ago, before I started doing the chemotherapy, I couldn’t go for a walk around the block. That was pretty damning. I sat on that couch right there. Kind of dark for a while.”
Now he’s back at work, doing everything he can to beat the cancer, hoping for the best, and providing bucketfuls of inspiration to anyone lucky enough to run into him on the happening corner of 46th & Bryant that he and Andrien have resurrected. For sure he’s been through a battle, with more battles to come, but at least during our visit, his stillness feels almost monk-like, and a hard-won calm has come over him. A wise guy by nature, Hussman is particularly philosophical and poetic these precious days.
“My brother asked me if I think I’m an inspiration, and I think the best thing I can do right now, for instance for my daughter, who is upstairs, is to show her, like, ‘This is what you do in the face of serious adversity. You don’t fall down. You can’t be naïve, you have to be realistic, but you also can’t let it knock you down.’ So every day I sort of feel like I get up and walk around, if someone like at Studio 2 knows about my history, and they see me … you know?
“When I shaved my head, dude, I was pretty freaked out. I don’t know if you know this, but one time I won the write-in award in the City Pages — not categorical — for ‘Best Hair,’ because our [Slave Raider] fans stuffed the ballot box. You could easily say that at one time in my life, my hair defined me. I used to date girls in high school, and I think I had the same hair color as Ann Margaret, and their mothers would always say, ‘You have such beautiful hair, but it was wasted on a boy!’
“I really expected to look in the mirror and just kind of go, ‘Oh, man, one more loss.’ But my first reaction was just this unfettered smirk, like, ‘Right on!’ Like, it’s better to have nothing and it feels fresh to me. I’m out sporting my chrome dome proudly these days.”
He’s also finding inspiration and solace from reading philosophers like Joseph Campbell and from listening to music — specifically one of his main heroes, David Bowie, who died from liver cancer in January of 2016. Bowie, too, knew he didn’t have much time to live, but he gifted the world with his swan song and album, “Blackstar,” a meditation on mortality that confronts this thing called life while staring into the abyss of death. Chorus:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
“I’m a blackstar, I’m a star star, I’m a blackstar”
“I had a blow-away experience on a plane last week,” said Hussman. “Flipped on the Sirius and stumbled on this thing, ‘David Bowie: The Last Two Albums,’ a BBC thing. And I probably shouldn’t have been watching it, you know, ‘Dying guy watching movie about other dying guy making his last two albums.’ And I’m just sobbing next to the poor people sitting next to me.
“The next day [the cancer] just knocked me down. Once again, dude, it just comes out of nowhere. And for the first time, I got close to ‘Blackstar.’ You know, it’s so dark, and it was definitely Bowie’s requiem.”
Hussman has similar intentions of leaving behind a living legacy — through his family, work and newfound hobby, photography. Ask him what he’s looking forward to and his eyes light up and, as the late summer sunshine streams in through the living room window, the Dude looks positively indestructible, his optimism setting an example for all of us.
“My youngest daughter is going into high school, and I’m looking forward to being part of that and supporting her in that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to becoming more healthy, I’m looking forward to doing more in the community. I’m super proud of what Andrien and I have done at Studio 2. It feels like it’s such a cool vehicle. And it’s such an old guy thing to say, but it’s super appropriate when you’re sick. I used to tell my clients, ‘Sometimes you have to slow down to get more done.’ You know, do less.
“I just had a really good visit to my doctor last week. The weird thing about the disease is that you have to get used to people saying, ‘You have something that’s not curable, but it’s treatable. And that’s true, with almost all forms of cancer. And last week, dude, they found an exact match to my cancer mutation, so there’s three treatments: chemotherapy, which tries to kill the patient less fast than the cancer; then there’s immunotherapy, which targets just the disease and doesn’t kill as much of the patient; and then there’s this thing which I have a chance of going on, which is targeted therapy, which works at the genetic level, and it just stops cancer.
“So today, I’m hopeful and I’m healthy. I’m not quite the person I used to be, but that’s OK.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.