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Saturday Essay Posts

One Foot After the Other

Dave Sorensen - Saturday Essay“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” — Yogi Berra

Most days after work I pick up my wife and we spring her mom from memory care for a stroll around the block. According to my wife’s high-tech pedometer it’s almost exactly half a mile. There’s a view of the big lake, and the weather that goes with it, and for fifteen minutes or so the three of us are happy to be walking, and walking to be happy.

My dictionary’s third definition of “pedestrian” describes its figurative sense as, “ lacking in interest or imagination; prosaic, ordinary and dull.” While, at speed, the crosstown freeways of Minneapolis may not be dull, they are certainly ordinary, it being lost on us that driving seventy miles an hour is a violent act, and this we only realize when running into something. We could’ve toured as daredevils a hundred years ago. But existence in our rolling cubicles is mostly quite prosaic, and life encaged is dull.

When I was three years old my friend and I decided to walk to the Ashland A&W, a mile away and across an interstate highway. Hudda Martenson saw us traipsing outside the neighborhood, and gave us a ride home to strict punishment. Grounded! For three days! This proved walking was a precious freedom, indeed, whose revocation was a penalty most cruel and severe.

Chimook Reporter

Chris Godsey Saturday Essay“You don’t know me,” I quavered, barely not crying, bereft of words for explaining who the hell I thought I was to show up in that place, at that time, wanting to ask those questions. “If you knew me you’d know that … it’s just that … I mean I … I just wish you knew me, because if you did …”

The Fond du Lac Ojibwe School principal loomed literally and figuratively large behind his desk. I think I can remember his first name; later I may look for both first and last, but even if I knew them now I wouldn’t type them here. I’m not trying to call him out. I’m trying to express gratitude and admiration toward him and his vice-principal.

At least I think that’s what her position was. She and I sat a few feet from each other in front of the principal’s desk. They’d squared their shoulders on me. Their steady gazes and admonishment and demands for explanation felt hard. I remember some parts of the situation clearly, especially how trembly-sick and shaken I felt. I recall other parts vaguely, if at all: how long I was there; whether I said anything intelligible; whether I’d ever felt so unwanted in a place I cared about being. I was 34 years old in the moment I’m trying to describe. I’m 46 now. I expect my brain to misremember some details from then. I also trust it not to protect me in these matters.

Two-Thing Story

Eric Chandler - Saturday EssayI sat with my kids and played “two-thing story” as I tucked them into bed. This was a game where my kid picked two nouns out of the air and I had to come up with a story that included the two things. Then we swapped and I picked the two nouns and the kid would come up with a story. It was simple. Two kids, two things, and lots of laughs.

I like to make complex things simpler. I usually view my fellow man through a simple, digital filter. Ones or zeroes. Happy Shmo or Angry Shmo. Here’s an example: “There are two kinds of people: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.” (Aren’t I clever?)

Here are some of the filters I use.

The first is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted studies and wrote a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (1999).” They published it in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I gather we live in a post-fact world, but this is science if you still care. This is what it says in the paper’s abstract: “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

The Greatest Inventions of All Time

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayIt’s difficult to pick one invention to stand out as the greatest of all time. There are so many manmade wonders that enrich our lives every day and make us question how we ever lived without them. For example: the wheel, the flushable toilet, beer, Velcro, eyeglasses, the atomic bomb and plastic storage containers.

The printing press and the Internet are certainly great inventions, but they make it just as easy to spread lies as the truth, so I can’t rate them high on my list. They certainly don’t rate above plastic storage containers, which have brought society nothing but positive outcomes.

It wasn’t long ago when people had to go to grocery stores and beg for flimsy cardboard boxes to package their belongings for a move. It was difficult to get a good grip on those boxes and I never knew when the bottom would fall out and all my Smurf glasses would smash at my feet. But plastic storage containers are lightweight, sturdy and stackable, with easy-to-grip handles on the sides. They are one of the greatest inventions of all time.

There are maybe a dozen inventions I would list ahead of plastic storage containers, and all of them are forms of contraception. I’d even put the withdrawal method near the top of the list. I know it’s not very effective, but it was a good start.

What’s in the box? A gift I’ll never open

John Hatcher - Saturday EssaySomeday, hopefully years from now, someone will face the task of going through all the “stuff” in my office and will find a box.
It is postmarked April 2, 2010. It has an address label on the side:

From: John Hatcher
To: Sam Cook

Here’s my request: Don’t open it.

Here’s why.

If you simply have to know what’s in it, I can just tell you that part: It’s one of those sporty Nalgene water bottles. I can’t honestly remember what color or what style, but I do know it has a University of Minnesota Duluth logo on it. What the box contains isn’t why I’ve kept it unopened for nearly seven years now.

The water bottle was a gift, not to me but from me. The intended recipient was Sam Cook, longtime (that’s polite for old) journalist and columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. It was a way of thanking him for coming to my journalism class.

Pornography, or, “Worst First Dates”

Anna Tennis Saturday EssayIn 1999, my ex-husband gave me a computer. I was pretty glad to get it. I had mastered emailing, and was ready to move on to the really exciting things, like AOL and internet porn.

Let’s get this clear right away: I’m not a huge porn fan. My porn experience at that point was limited to the following:

1. A couple of magazines unearthed by a 13-year-old me, in ~1985 in my mom’s friend’s attic. They were evidently from the 1970s. My suspicion was based largely on the unusual prevalence of mustaches and floppy boobies. (Throw in a headshot of Spiro Agnew and my argument is airtight.) They were disturbingly graphic and unaltered. Sans digital enhancement, the naked people all looked like slabs of pork tenderloin. With mustaches and floppy boobies.

2. A porn movie a boyfriend rented to watch with me. Everyone seemed really, really angry in it. With the volume down, their sexing faces all looked like they were watching Newt Gingrich pole dance in assless chaps and an American flag tank top. (He has bootstraps tattooed on his inner thighs, by the way. Interesting tidbit.)

3. My parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex, which was hidden under some sweaters in my dad’s closet. Finding that book in that spot was the single best abstinence education any parent could possibly provide. The idea of my disgusting parents contorting their old disgusting bodies into those disgusting and inexplicable configurations was enough to keep me from so much as holding hands until I was 16 years old.

No Education in Your Violence

Chris Godsey Saturday EssayIn June 2010 I started working with men who have been arrested for using violence against women. (That’s when I also started never shutting up about working with men who use violence or what the work has taught me.) By “working with” I mean co-facilitating critical-dialogue groups in a feminist program designed to foster social change by helping men who hurt women figure out why they believe in doing it and how to stop. A month into having those conversations I’d reached two conclusions: 1. since high school I’ve used a lot of violence against girls and women in relationships; 2. many well-accepted teaching norms are just forms of dominance that teachers use to enforce student compliance regardless of whether it actually fosters or shows learning.

Visit a men’s group sometime then go hang out with a bunch of teachers commiserating over coffee or beers. Listen to how each group talks about the dominance they’re entitled to, the compliance they’re owed, and the character deficiencies they perceive in women and students who won’t comply:

What — am I just supposed to let myself get taken advantage of?

Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail: The Double Finish

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayWriting about hiking the full 300+ miles of the Superior Hiking Trail hasn’t quite taken as long as hiking it, but it’s gone on long enough. At sixteen years and thirteen chapters, the story now concludes.

I had just a dozen miles left to go in 2015, which were divided into four slightly quirky hikes.

The first was a 1.8-mile section from Triangle Trail to Oak Trail near Jay Cooke State Park. Some of it I had probably already covered a few years earlier, I just wasn’t quite certain. So I embarked on a “van-bike-hike” adventure to make sure any possible gap there was covered. This involved driving to the Jay Cooke Visitor Center, unloading a bike, cycling the Munger Trail to bypass parts of the SHT I’d already done, ditching my bike at the Greely/Triangle trail intersection, completing the short hike, and cycling back.

You’ll have to trust me when I say that was fun. The description makes it sound like I was running a complicated errand. The thing is, being obsessive and task-oriented can be a method for forcing one’s self into situations that can be a bit more out of the ordinary. So, compared to hiking the trail behind my house for the 17,000th time, the van-bike-hike was a memorable event.

Two months later I took on what was the newest and southernmost segment of the SHT at the time, the 5.9-mile stretch from Wild River Road to Jay Cooke State Park. This also involved covering some ground I had hiked in the past, because parts of the trail are old segments of long-existing paths in the park, such as Bear Chase Trail. (No bears were chased.)

Hell of a View

Saturday Essay - Dave SorensenNot having grown up in Duluth, I missed the purported crosstown rivalry. My tribe lives next door, across the border: the People of the Cheese.

Duluth: “Where rail meets sail.” Where rustic meets rustbelt. Where woodtick meets moonbeam, and uphill meets down. You’re a microcosmic casserole, a dichotomous hotdish, Duluth, where stone meets water, and water meets sky. Actually, between water and sky is a thin slice of Wisconsin, appearing blue because of the way light scatters across the distance, and sometimes distance is good. You see, people often end a sentence with the phrase, “but there’s always Wisconsin,” as in, “we can’t get no drunker here, but there’s always Wisconsin,” or, “we don’t make lampshades from human skin, but there’s always
Wisconsin,” and so on, lending a certain comfort to the color blue, and the distance it conveys.

Driving into downtown from the west feels like entering an architect’s model, as the street burrows between stubby office buildings along the table of land between harbor and hill. When I moved here, freeway and mall had already drawn and quartered the business district, and it was the nadir of the Reagan recession. The industrial boomtown started busting as the high-grade ore played out in the 1950s, and by the late ’70s competition from abroad arrived, along with bumper stickers reading, “ Eat Your Foreign Car.” While the early ’80s were cloaked in a campaign slogan touting, “Morning in America,” around here we wondered if there was a bottom to this freefall, which might at least afford a dead-cat bounce.

Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail: Loss and Lost

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayHiking through the Castle Danger area in 2013 I came to a sign informing me the Encampment River Bridge was out. No big deal, I thought. I’ll hike elsewhere and pick up this section next year.

To this day there is no Encampment River Bridge. It was washed out in the Historic Summer Solstice Flood Disaster of 2012, along with about $50 million worth of other stuff in northeastern Minnesota. What I found out by talking to other people who had hiked through the area is the Encampment River is not typically deep and gushing, so unless there’s been a heavy rain it’s easy to cross without a bridge.

With that knowledge I made plans for my final hike of 2014, from Silver Lake Township Road 617 at Castle Danger to Lake County Road 301. Saturday, Oct. 11, looked good on my calendar as one of the last days one might confidently expect nice weather before colder days set in.

Of course, there are forces other than weather and natural disasters aligning to alter whatever plans we might have for our lives. Six days before my hike, a great friend and mentor died in his sleep.

Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail: Leaves, Needles, Mud

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayBy the fall of 2014 I had fewer than 50 miles of walking left to complete the Superior Hiking Trail. That might seem easy enough to knock out in a couple days, but it wasn’t a single stretch I had to cover, it was short segments stretched out over hundreds of miles. So I was picking them off three miles here and eight miles there.

An example of how it sometimes broke down: Rather than do the 6.4-mile Rossini Road to Fox Farm Road segment with cars at each end, or hike through and then go all the way back, I chose to break it into two trips on two separate days – Rossini Road to the West Branch of Knife River, then Fox Farm Road to the same spot, going both directions on each hike rather than one 12.8 miler.

Of course, by driving one car to the same area twice, instead of two cars once, I didn’t save any gas or spare the environment any emissions — and I doubled my time spent in the car — so it was a dumb thing to do … even though it seemed intelligent at the time.

The highlight of that first hike in early September was either a mushroom or some kind of yellow porcelain trailside birdbath.

To the Battlements, Wherever and Whatever They Are

Anna Tennis Saturday EssayI think about September 11th a lot. More, lately.

I was working at Duluth’s now-defunct Ripsaw newspaper at the time, and we were confounded for the first hours. Do you remember the world in which an attack on U.S. shores was impossible? The idle impenetrability of the United States? We invaded. The world was our bully pulpit. But that day, the paradigm shifted as surely and as immediately as that of a new mother, who, in the second her child leaves her body finds her heart, her worst fears, vulnerable and exposed to the worst the world has to offer. You could almost hear it, the snap of collective consciousness as the reality became apparent, over the day. One hour at a time, our perceived security, the luxury of our superiority, rolled away like so many layers of fog.

My sister came and picked me up. We drove around, listening to the soundtrack from the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and tuning in to the news for updates. We smoked a million American Spirit cigarettes. We felt scared.

Later, I stood on the balcony of my third-floor apartment, on the phone with my best friend. “We’re going to war,” he said.

“Definitely,” I replied.

Saturday Essay: Select gems from 2016

Saturday Essay logo genericLast week we highlighted the five most-read pieces from the first year of Perfect Duluth Day’s “Saturday Essay” series. This week’s focus is on five essays of similar quality that might have been missed by readers who were cleaning their attics, fixing their hot rods or relaxing at the cabin on the particular Saturdays these stories were originally posted.

The first 50 essays in our series showcased the work of 16 different writers; we hope to expand that roster in 2017. Anyone who has an original piece of literary excellence that seems to fit (or appropriately defy) the established format should email paul @ perfectduluthday.com to get involved.

And now a few select gems from season one, in random order …

The Most Read Saturday Essays of 2016

Saturday Essay logo genericPerfect Duluth Day launched its “Saturday Essay” series at the beginning of 2016 and it quickly became the most popular recurring feature on the website. With the first set of 50 essays now complete, it’s time to take a look back at which pieces have been the most read of the bunch so far, according to the folks at Google Analytics.

Before we get all Casey Kasem, a few notes about how the “Saturday Essay” feature works: Yours truly, Paul Lundgren, is the editor. A small group of writers are featured somewhat regularly, but anyone is welcome and encouraged to submit a piece for consideration. Shoot an email to paul @ perfectduluthday.com to inquire.

And now, the countdown …

Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail: Two Harbors Vicinity

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayThe final four of my 16 years on the Superior Hiking Trail were spent filling in a series of gaps, the biggest of which was an 85-mile stretch from Martin Road outside Duluth to Split Rock State Park. I covered nearly three quarters of that distance in 2012 and 2013 through somewhat random day hikes. The 2012 hikes were in areas that are among the most beautiful on the trail. The 2013 hikes were marred by biting flies and scenery that doesn’t quite measure up to better parts of the trail.

When people find out I’ve hiked the entire SHT, they sometimes form a grandiose opinion of my outdoorsmanship and general machismo. Like I’m the kind of guy who walks around with a Leatherman multitool at all times, practically lives off the land and is prepared for Armageddon. In reality, I wouldn’t have slept a single night in the woods on my hiking trips if there were an easier way around it. Once I’d knocked the northernmost 180 miles off my checklist, there was an easier way around it, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to get dropped off at a trailhead and get picked up eightish miles away just a few hours later.