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Saturday Essay Posts

Ripped at Horseshoe Billiards in 2006

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. As construction continues on the new Ursa Minor Brewery at 2415 W. Superior St., this article harkens back to the days when the building was home to a pool hall and drinking establishment called Horseshoe Billiards. The article was originally published in the May 8, 2006 issue of the Transistor.]

I should know better than to expect middle-aged hustlers. I want to hang out with someone like Minnesota Fats tonight, and instead I’m surrounded by a crowd of mostly 25- to 35-year-olds who fall into two categories: 1) Unattractive men. 2) Unattractive women.

Now, I don’t require pretty faces to have a good time. But see, these creeps at Horseshoe Billiards are unattractive for reasons other than what nature dealt them.

There are a lot of men here wearing jerseys who obviously don’t play sports, for example. About half of these guys are wearing hats, and the ones who aren’t should be.

Such Magnificent Ghosts

Back in January, Don Ness emailed me something like, “Hey, Anna. I’m hosting a party at the NorShor Theatre on March 3 and I’d like you to tell some stories. Would you do a reading?”

Ness, as you probably know, is the former mayor of Duluth and, as you might not know, a positive master of understatement. I figured he was inviting me to perform at a little reading party. You know, 50 people or so in the NorShor’s mezzanine. And then a friend of mine messaged me a poster for a Low concert in the NorShor’s 632-seat theater. I zoomed in to see the date, to see if I could go, and saw MY NAME ON THE BOTTOM OF THE POSTER — and I, embarrassed and panic stricken that my name had somehow gotten on the bottom of this poster, looked at the date, and was like, “And I can’t even do it then, because I’m gonna be at Don Ness’s party!” Took me like ten seconds to figure out this was the thing Don had invited me to. Lord.

The truth is, when Don asked, I responded that it meant a lot for me to be a part of such an event — and I knew he knew exactly what I meant by that. I was honored to do it. The following is a transcript of what I read to that 632-person crowd.

Devil’s Right Hand

So then I went and bought myself a Colt 45
Called a peacemaker but I never knew why
I never knew why, I didn’t understand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Steve Earle

A couple-three years ago, after telling public truth about a violent bully in a way I knew would enrage him (and earn him aggressive, ill-informed fealty among people who saw me as the real bully doing the real violence), I slept with a thick, hickory ax handle within arm’s reach of my bed for more than a month. I feared violent retribution. I thought I had credible reasons. I may have been overreacting.

I don’t necessarily know how to defend myself with wooden sticks or any other weapons. The last time I got in a fight, about this time of year in 1984, Mike Aikens kicked my ass in Allendale Park, on 18th Avenue NW across from John Adams Junior High, in Rochester, MN. Feeling unsure seems antithetical to fighting well. I felt unsure during that fight. I didn’t yet — wouldn’t for many years — know how to stop pondering ambiguity and just be where I needed to be in any specific moment. I still feel unsure very often. In the interest of trying to understand as many perspectives as possible, I ponder ambiguity a lot. A lot. At least I think I do. Maybe not. I don’t know. Or maybe I do. I see it in a lot of different ways.

Imperfect Duluth Days

I realized I was a northern Minnesotan on my first return trip home during my freshman year of college at an East Coast school. My mother collected me from the Minneapolis airport, and we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Forest Lake. The waitress came to our table, opened her mouth, and began to talk. I was immediately horrified.

The accent. It was real. The Fargo stereotype was true. I’d just spent an entire semester trying to project an image of someone who wasn’t from bumfuck nowhere. I’d patiently explained to scions of the Acela Corridor elite that no, Duluth was not a suburb of the Twin Cities, and that no, ice fishing was not a fictional pursuit, but something that real people actually did. And now, here was this polite, cheery waitress taking my order, and the poor woman had no way of knowing that the words issuing from her mouth filled me with dread.

Through trial and tribulation, I overcame my fear of the northern Minnesotan accent. Even though I’d sworn I’d never come back when I was in high school, I found my way to a home with the same sliver of a lake view I’d enjoyed as a child in Lakeside. The story of what led me from one point to another is tedious, its details ranging from the mundane to the intensely personal, and the source of far too many of my own words spilled out on blogs and in the lonely, booze-fueled journals of late adolescence. I am here, a Duluthian first and foremost among any commitments I may have to places, and ready to bore any unfortunate soul with an hours-long nuanced account of why this has come to be. I have even come to accept the accent, mostly. But there are still, admittedly, moments of doubt.

All of these moments come in the time of year that in other lands goes by the name of “spring.”

Eat Yourself Help

The biggest mistake you can make after deciding to eat yourself is to start with the hands. The hands are the easiest part of the body to eat, so they seem like a good place to begin, but that is exactly why you should save them as long as possible. Remember, once your hands are gone, those hard to bite areas become an even bigger strain.

I suggest you start with your thigh, just above the knee. Chew through both legs, severing them. This allows you to eat your calves and feet like two big, sloppy corncobs. (Should you begin choking on an Achilles tendon, remember that a self-applied Heimlich maneuver can be just as easily performed when you are rolling around on the floor with severed legs as when you are standing on your feet.)

You might find the area from your thighs up hard to reach with your mouth so it’s important that you still have your hands and arms. Don’t eat them yet! After you have chewed open your legs, you will easily be able to use your hands to scoop out heaping portions of the rest of your body.

Many people ask me, “Paul, how do I eat my own mouth?” The answer is simple. Just push it down your throat and swallow. It’s that easy.

Better Late Than Never

When my wife reads this she’s gonna kill me dead. You see, we’re not into public displays of affection. A peck on the lips at the airport is about the extent of it, and to say we’re understated would be an understatement. But I’ll tell you this straight away, as I often tell my wife: I like her more than a medium amount.

In middle-age I became a novice married man, and we found our balance on the scales of wedded bliss, with my wife being smart on the one hand, and I, on the other, able to lift heavy things. With she being cute, and I able to lift heavy things. With she having miraculous powers to actually consider the future and I, in the moment, lifting.

Fifteen years later we refer to the present as “the good old days,” and I’m still rounding the learning curve of coupledom. We continue to expand our glossary of secret terms and their acronyms, a code uncrackable by the NSA. An abrupt maneuver while driving, most often a U-turn, is known as a “Hang On Deary” or “H.O.D.” Dusk in winter is the “Blue Snow Hour.” Friends of our neighbor have become the biblical “Tribe of Dan,” and our cats have more nicknames than the Gambino family.

Naming the Problem

In a downtown tourist shop, my daughter Claire admires a sparkly jacket. It’s gold with embellishments on the shoulders. She says she loves it, it would be perfect for some imagined scenario. “Mmm — maybe for Halloween?” I say, unthinking.

The woman at the counter, the owner, approaches us. I smile, ready to make small talk. I am caught off-guard when she says: “Most women don’t come in here to criticize the clothes. That is an expensive jacket.” It takes a few seconds for my face to fall. My realization is slow. What I said was belittling. “Halloween.”

She stares me down and wins. I realize she’s kicking me out of her shop. I don’t let on to Claire as I direct her outside.

Embarrassment and shame are the worst feelings. Our visit to this town is only half over, so I stumble through the rest of the day, the exchange with the woman obsessing me. This is so stupid, I think. She threw me out? I’m a jerk? or a snob or something? Please.

Handrails

The house was built before the end of World War I, finished room by room by my great grandfather after a hard day’s work at Kurth Malting in Milwaukee, where I grew up.

When was a child at the kitchen table doing homework in the 1980s, the house still wasn’t finished. The porch was sinking into the earth, and every spring I climbed beneath to crank the jack that lifted the sagging southwest corner.

There were no handrails on the steep staircase from the first floor to the basement or winding alongside the stairs from the first floor to the attic. Maybe handrails were luxuries they could not afford, or maybe handrails never crossed his mind, the way that he died without ever wearing a seatbelt.

Every day his wife, my great-grandmother, fetched a can of veggies from the root cellar for dinner. Tinned vegetables did not require the cool air of the basement to stay fresh, but old habits died hard. Cans of beets and corn and beans were still stored downstairs.

Guns

We all know the joke, and you can fill in your own punchline: it’s harder to ________ (vote, fish legally, join Girl Scouts) than it is to get an assault rifle in the United States. It’s funny because it’s so true.

Or at least it was funny until kids — so many kids — started getting killed. It’s February, at the time of this essay, and there have been seven school shootings in 2018 so far. In total, there have been seventeen firearms incidents in schools in the same timeframe, when you include suicides on school grounds, and the accidental discharge of a weapon in school. To teachers, parents, and kids, this means that every couple of days — three times a week — there is another incident where school is interrupted by gunfire.

Teachers and administrators are running drills in their classrooms as though we were in WWII England, listening for bomb raids. So, in addition to hearing news every few days of another firearms incident in schools, kids are reminded every couple of months that someone might come into their school and kill them and all of their friends.

Bad Student

‘Cause I survived the ’80s one time already
And I don’t recall it all that fondly

— Craig Finn

The bemulleted boy in that senior portrait over there came very close to not graduating with his Rochester John Marshall high school class of 1989 mates. One semester more and the rage that had fueled his self-destructive approach to school since 1983 would have elicited an anticlimactic letter explaining why he couldn’t walk in the ceremony and what he’d have to do if he wanted a diploma.

His K-6 career had suggested potential. Then a few months into seventh grade his interest in caring or trying seemed to evaporate. He embodied adolescent apathy. He also transcended it in ways that made very little sense to himself or anyone else. One example: he so bitterly resented being placed into advanced science and English classes (for reasons he could articulate no further than, “I just want to be in the normal classes”), that he intentionally got crummy grades on assignments until people who made such decisions had no choice but to bust him down to non-advanced sections.

At least that’s how I think I remember it. I know he was pissed — furious — about school in general, and still pretty far away from having vocabulary or perspective required to process what he was feeling or why. I know he self-sabotaged, sometimes so willingly it seemed wanton, and sometimes while watching it happen and wishing he knew how to stop it. In those situations, the latter often presented as the former. I also know it’s possible he got kicked out of those advanced sections because he just wasn’t equipped to stay in them. It’s not taking shots at him to say he might just not have been smart enough in ways the classes required students to be.

Unreceptive

It’s been about 12 years since I’ve had cable television. My only exposure to it these days is when I’m on vacation and lodging somewhere it’s offered. My wife will search the channels for some kind of garbage to watch, then she’ll fall asleep and I’ll flip the channels, eventually stopping on network television unless one of those ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries is on.

When I was a kid I loved cable television, basically for three reasons — old sitcom reruns, professional wrestling and music videos. I still kind of like those things, but certainly not enough to pay for them. I never liked them enough to pay for them.

I had access to cable television for most of the era spanning roughly 1980 to 2006. I use the word “access” because throughout that period, one thing remained constant: I never paid a cent for it. Don’t get me wrong, I never stole cable (other than trying to watch scrambled HBO). I was just fortunate enough to live with people who were willing to pay to watch television. First it was my brother, then my dad, then various roommates and finally my wife. When Netflix hooked her it was the end of cable in our house.

Considering a Crocheted Afghan: What is an Immigrant Life?

My grandmother, an immigrant from Belgium, gave me a thick, crocheted afghan in my senior year of high school. I’m fifty years old now. I still have it. This black, white and gray acrylic afghan—one among hundreds she gifted family members—holds in its hooked stitches the last breaths of the life that she wove into mine. I don’t keep it on my bed today, but my kids will have to figure out what to do with it when I die; I won’t let it go during my lifetime.

Families are big and complex. They can gift us things we don’t understand until many years after they are given. I had the great fortune of living in Omaha, Nebraska, with my grandmother during my junior and senior years. She was in her seventies, alone, and no longer able to drive because of deteriorating vision. I was a grandson who desperately needed refuge from an abusive dad. I’d lived with an aunt and uncle for the second half of my sophomore year. They had already raised three children from another aunt (a story for another time) and had three of their own kids at home. They both worked—he was a cop, she was a secretary. Even then, in the early 1980s these were not high-paying jobs.

Some General Instructions

“Ships sided against a canal’s side may be touched and
Patted, but sleeping animals should not be, for
They may bite, in anger and surprise.“
— Kenneth Koch

Treat others as we treat those who are dying — with tenderness and kindness — as we are all, at our own pace, dying. Avoid telling others what will happen to them after they die, especially to threaten them, because this smacks of eschatological terrorism. Both idealization and devaluation of another person can be a defense against envy, and putting someone you consider an asshole on a pedestal is doubly troublesome.

Don’t pretend that large groups of people are all the same, as simplistic opinions about others are the source of much grief. There is beauty in diversity, but danger in division, as we can be conquered when divided, and manipulated by irrational beliefs. Beware the competition among various one-and-only gods, it is also the cause of much trouble. It’s best to avoid pretending to know the will of God, and to not pass laws reflecting his taboos. It’s not good to remain in an infantile state, accepting dogma at face value, or to confuse symbolic and literal truth. Of course we are free to believe Zeus runs the show from Mount Olympus if that makes us happy, and does no harm to others.

Cabin Fever: Reconciling with -2

I’ve spent the past few weeks obsessively feeding the fire, clearing out ashes, hauling more wood in, and worrying the dogs might have cabin fever. I know they crave the chase of scents that waft over tracks in the snow. They crave the adrenaline rush during the run, the explosion of speed after paws dig into resistance, and the freedom of the wilds. Fifteen acres of land in Lakewood, just north of Duluth, awaits them, they know this. Two fenced in acres seems like a prison in comparison. But they don’t think about frozen paws and hidden sticks looming under the snowline.

I however, with extreme abnormality, do not desire my usual trek amongst the trees where I walk into peace, clarity, and the calmness that mingles between the earth and stars. My feet are solid on the hardwood floor that covers a cold cement slab over frozen ground. It’s been cold for too long. A cold not worthy of dressing in layers: wicking socks, Smartwool socks, fleece leggings … only to capture a fractional moment of meditative silence amongst the freeze.

I admit it, I’m tired. I’m tired of putting on my left glove, tucking it into the jacket cuff, then attempting to do the same to the right with a thick awkward moving gloved hand. Only to unglove when I figure out I forgot to start the zip of the jacket and can’t achieve the initial detailed alignment of zippered teeth. Try and try again, the glove inevitably will be poutingly removed, zipper aligned, and the uncoordinated procedure of glove replacement aggressively completed, again.

Poo, of the Non-Winnie Variety

I’ve really grown a lot, since turning 40. Particularly in relationship to my willingness to talk about poop.

Let me back up. (Have you noticed how, when you lead with poo, everything that follows becomes a double-entendre?) Anyway. Up until my late 30s, it was a well-known and oft-ridiculed fact that all things concerning defecation made me wildly, morbidly uncomfortable. I knew it was a natural, essential, healthy bodily function. I also realized that everyone (including me, heaven forgive me) did it. But it was so disgusting, so private and feral and ghastly, that I could not acknowledge it in anyone else’s company.

I did a lot of very silly things to avoid mutual recognition of poop situations.

I famously repaired a toilet while pregnant to avoid calling anyone else into the vestibule, lest they deduce what might have caused the trouble in the first place. For five full years, I used a restroom in a gas station next door to the building in which I worked because the bathroom at my job was right next to the lunchroom, and that was monstrous. I have had entire business trips in which my body mysteriously began apparently absorbing my waste, rather than eliminating it, until I returned home, lest I be forced to do any pooping on an airplane, or, for the love of all that remains holy, in a stall next to a client. I have left a lover’s house and driven home and back again, under the ruse of requiring medicine I did not need, take or have in my possession to avoid any implication of my defecatory habits.