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Saturday Essay Posts

Time Travel

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? Not to brag or anything, but I have figured out a way to time travel. I can usually manage to go back a few decades, maybe a couple hundred years at most. I can’t stay for long, and I’ve yet to taste or actually touch a cup of tea from 1915, despite a fervent desire. I’m more like a traveler passing through, a tourist in a world different than mine, peering in from the side, presuming to understand what is going on around me.

This world can only be reached through research and imagination, and with the determination of a detective piecing together scraps of evidence. It also depends on helpful archivists, online databases and the support of public grant money and fellow dedicated history nerds. The path is sometimes long and slow, a little bit dusty, but sometimes it pulls us along with the thrill of the hunt and a spectacular find, like a full-on glimpse of faces, journals, conversations and the insides of shops. Tracking down history mysteries is an addicting little hobby.

The recent purchase of a 102-year-old building at 1917 W. Superior St. by the Duluth Folk School led to an off-hand request for more information about the building’s history. I found myself drawn into this request, spending free time browsing 1915 online editions of the Duluth Herald from the comfort of my computer desk, no dusty pages required courtesy of public access grants and diligent scanners. The new owners and I knew some facts, and now we wanted to see what that place had looked like when it was built. I had a hunch some pretty good time travel was possible.

I Wonder

Long it’s been known the galaxy is a big place, but until 1922 it was thought the Milky Way was all there was. Then Edwin Hubble climbed Mount Wilson and had a look-see through the Hooker Telescope and realized those cloudy objects in the sky called “nebulae” were actually galaxies unto themselves. Later, a telescope named for Edwin himself beamed back the Deep Field images of a polkadot infinity. Ten thousand galaxies in a patch of sky one tenth the size of a full moon. Why weren’t people jumping up and down when we went from a hundred billion stars (no paltry sum) to a hundred billion visible galaxies, as far as the Hubble can see? From a distance you could mistake the Deep Field photos for a sky full of stars, but squint and see galaxy after galaxy shimmering in the void. When I notice one swirling down the drain of time, just like ours, I think, “hey — spiral galaxy — my people!”

Aldous Huxley considered the brain and nervous system a necessary reducing valve providing a “measly trickle of consciousness” shunted from “Mind at Large.” Necessary because you can’t go around immersed in Mind at Large while trying to pay the bills. So we float like croutons on the bottomless deeps, and notice what we can.

Two Boulders

Shortly after my daughter was born I watched the movie 127 Hours and had a totally revelatory experience. I’m probably not the only person to have a 127 Hours revelation — the movie is pretty impactful. In it, Aron Ralston, a lone-wolf mountaineer, is forced to cut off his own arm to save his life. It’s memorable, even if you’re not nursing a newborn.

At the time, I was profoundly sleep deprived in the way only new parents and cannery workers can be. I was probably legally crazy. Plus, it was before James Franco got busted attempting to hook up with high school girls. It actually was a time-delayed revelation — a kind of revelation landmine that I stepped on much later, when I reread an essay written by Albert Camus about Sisyphus — a Saturday Essay of sorts, I guess. (“Camus on Sisyphus” sounds like either the awesomest or absolute worst pro-wrestling matchup of all time.)

We all know the Sisyphus story, in part or in parcel, right? Sisyphus angers the Gods (he’s Greek) and they punish him by condemning him to an eternity spent laboriously pushing a gigantic boulder up a mountain.

No Relation of a Dream Can Convey the Dream-Sensation

I’ve had six recurring dreams, all at least 15-20 times apiece:

1
Started when I was about 13 and stopped before I left for college. I’m kneeling on the couch, with my elbows resting along the top of its back, looking out the picture window of Mom and Dad’s split-level house at 1427 48th Street NW in Rochester, MN. I can see the street, the small front yard, the driveway, and the sidewalk that parallels the front of the house and leads to the front door. It’s dark. Probably a Friday evening, because the scene involves groceries and that’s when Mom often brought them home. I watch her pull into the driveway, get out of the dark-blue 1983 Pontiac Phoenix LJ, wave and smile at me, open the hatchback, tuck a brown paper bag of groceries under her right arm, and leave the car open so my brother and I can unload the rest. She’s wearing a khaki trench coat and carrying a purse. This is when she often worked 60 or 70 hours a week in IBM administrative support. She’s about 33 years old. The sidewalk is just under the window, so as she walks toward the door and beams a smile up at me – Mom’s got quite a smile – the angle of her gaze should mean she sees the hunched humanoid-gargoyle-type creature leaning over the eave above the window. But she doesn’t. Maybe she can’t. Won’t? The sidewalk isn’t long – 15 of her short steps? – but it feels like she’s taking forever to reach the door. Even as I’m screaming, “Mom! Look! Mom! Mom!” and flailing toward the creature, which is leering and obviously preparing to hop from the roof onto her, she just keeps smiling at me and strolling. The creature looks something like a tall Green Goblin balled into a languid crouch. Its intention is to kill her. I wake up as it springs.

Lost and Found

It started to drizzle with the kind of fine mist that slicks the pavement into a mirror and seeps steadily through each layer of clothing. Almost simultaneously, the boy and I lifted up our collars, buried our shoulders to our ears, and started to walk without speaking. There was a deserted bridge in front of us. It was a massive steel thing, born of sinewy cables and bulging beams and it perched over the city reservoir. He led us on our way over it, placing himself between me and the edge as we squinted into the idea of the water below. We could hear its agitated turning, but the darkness was so swollen that we saw nothing but an inky black void.

We were so fucking lost.

The boy and I had been introduced to each other hours earlier. Our mothers talked over us with teasing voices while we both stood mutely by, shrinking into our 14-year-old selves and consenting to eye contact in short, apologetic glances as if to say, I know, I’m disappointed with me, too.

The Only Right that is too Often Exercised Alone

The most diverse workplace I have ever known was a nursing home kitchen with workers from age 18 to 82 of many races and genders.

Kitchens breed a complex affection. We saw each other every day, taking two or more meals together. I developed favorite coworkers — the washers who will plow through the dishes quickly, not the washers who realize they are paid the same no matter how many plates they wash in an hour.  We celebrated each other’s joys. The cook might bake a small cake to celebrate a staff wedding, or streamers might appear outside the dietitian’s office on her birthday. On Friday we might go drinking — it was a special challenge to pressure the people working the dinner shift on Friday and the breakfast shift on Saturday to do a “turn and burn.”

It was on one of those Fridays that my coworker Erin told us she was pregnant, that it was unplanned and unwanted, and that she didn’t know what to do. She was likely, she said, to have an abortion.

On another Friday, in my home, maybe a week or so later, I had friends over — friends from both the kitchen and from college. I was 21, I was broke, and I was teased mercilessly for serving Milwaukee’s Best beer. Erin drank three of them in an hour, which I know wouldn’t make a koala bear tipsy. Nonetheless, I was young, I was stupid, and so I said to her: “You’re drinking?” I wasn’t sure she was 21 even, but I was sure she was pregnant.

Hiking the North Country Trail in Wisconsin: Wood Tick Flats

You can’t start hiking the North Country Trail at the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin without first hiking in from one direction or the other. If you want to go southeast through Wisconsin, for example, you need to start on Wild Valley Road in Minnesota and hike in for 3.2 miles.

I don’t know how far into Wisconsin you’ll get if you try that. As of the date of this post, the interactive map on northcountrytrail.org is unclear. It’s hard to tell if the trail ends cold in the woods, dumps out on a highway or carries on uninterrupted.

On the gorgeous Sunday afternoon of June 4, I tried to solve this mystery and failed. It was still a fun scouting mission, though, and that’s what I’ll share in this essay. Obviously I could call the trail association or maybe spend an hour scrolling through Facebook posts to obtain the knowledge I seek about the state of the trail, but I’d still want to see it for myself, so why bother with the hands-off research, right?

It has been thoroughly documented in a series of 13 essays on this very website that I slowly and somewhat methodically hiked all of Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail in sporadic spurts from 2000 to 2016. That journey started at the Canadian border and ended on the Wisconsin border. But the trail doesn’t stop at either of those points. The SHT is part of a much longer trail — the North Country National Scenic Trail — which extends to Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota to the west and Crown Point in New York to the east.

Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

J.D. Vance, in a review of Janesville: An American Story in Commentary magazine:

Having grown up in a blue-collar family that has largely abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, I have an unusually high tolerance for the many profiles of Trump voters in struggling industrial towns. Lately, however, even I have grown weary of what Noah Rothman calls “decline porn.” There are only so many words in the English language, and nearly all of them seem to have been used at least three times to help the denizens of Williamsburg and Dupont understand red-state voters and dying factory towns. Enough already.

Vance penned the most orgiastic piece of decline porn in recent memory, Hillbilly Elegy — apologies for my juvenile enjoyment of this metaphor — but there has been no shortage of titles in this genre, and a survey of my past reading list will find me devouring much of it, from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, from George Packer’s The Unwinding to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Brian Alexander’s Glass House. It need not even be American; I could carry on with examples for a while. Decline porn is a fertile ground in contemporary non-fiction, and its best works tell haunting tales of realities that anyone vaguely involved in the shaping of political or economic trends must wrestle with. They also tap into a into a lament for things lost that speaks to a certain part of the human psyche and permeates my own writing at times. Someone who knows me well can probably psychoanalyze this wistfulness easily enough, but I come back to it for reasons that are philosophical as well as personal, and I could devote a lot of words to defending it in those terms. Meditations on loss go back to Eden and the early creation myths, as Paz so masterfully explains in the last chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It’s a near universal human trait.

Cats and Dogs

My old neighbor — we’ll call her Tonya — verbally abused her pets. It was like living next door to a David Lynch biopic of Joan Crawford.

One summer, I was digging a fire pit in my back yard. It was the middle of a nice, warm day, probably in June. Suddenly, over the fence that encloses my back yard, I heard a woman’s voice talking reasonably to what sounded, inferring from what she was saying, like a small child: “Autumn, remember what we talked about? You promised to play on this side of the yard, away from Callie’s sandbox. If you don’t do what you promised, we’ll have to go inside.” Huh. I must have neighbor kids. Cool. I kept digging my fire pit. Three feet in diameter? Four? I tabulated the number of edging stones I would need. The voice from over the fence started up again. “Autumn! You stay away from Callie’s sandbox, like we talked about!” I had hardly dumped my shovelful of dirt before she started up again, this time plaintively, “Autumn! You are ruining this for both of us! I said NO!” And not even five seconds later, crazy time. Full scream. “AUTUMN! Come back here right now! I told you to stay away from that fence! I TOLD YOU TO STAY!! AWAY!! FROM!!! THE!!! F#*KING!!! FENCE!!!” She was almost roaring now, she was screaming so hard.

“AUTUMN! YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING! YOU RUIN EVERYTHING! WE CAN’T EVEN BE OUT IN THE G%$DAMMED YARD FOR FIVE G%$DAMMED MINUTES BEFORE YOU F#*K  IT ALL UP! WE’RE GOING INSIDE! INSIDE AUTUMN! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? ARE YOU? ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???!!!???”

A Full-body Cry

The UMD Romano Gymnasium men’s lavatory can handle a lot of traffic if it needs to. A small entryway opens into a room of eight or ten sinks and a couple big mirrors; that room adjoins one with five or six stalls and as many urinals. Those numbers might be a bit off but you get the gist; it’s a fairly big space. Every surface except the ceiling is porcelain, glass, metal, or ceramic.

For a few minutes on a June or July weekday afternoon in 1996 I occupied one of those men’s room stalls. I was working on the UMD student grounds crew while on summer break from studying for my master’s degree in English. We were mowing grass or planting flowers or doing some other grounds-crewy thing close to the Sports and Health Center that day.

I was in the M.A. program and doing the on-campus job because they were available and I’ve never been clever or courageous enough to be what I actually want to be. That’s a whole other essay. Not really, though. It’s part or most of every adorable little essay I’ve written and will write. My navel brims with mesmerizing regret, and I feel compelled to type it up publicly.

A Lifetime of Vomit

There was a period of my life — the first 16 years — when I vomited with the frequency of a normal person. Maybe once every 17 months I’d feel sick, yack up my recently consumed proteins and resume a normal life. Over the most recent 28 years, however, my puking résumé is made up of just a pair of mega barfs.

Most people would be challenged to produce a list of the times they have vomited since the Reagan administration, but because my experience involves only two stories, I recall them keenly. So, for the sake of human digestive science … or whatever … I now share my hurling history.

It was Aug. 18, 1988, when I completed my final pre-adult barf. I was a high school sophomore, and preseason football practice was in full swing. I awoke in the wee hours of the morning with a groaning stomach, and soon I was staggering from my bedroom to the toilet, where I dropped to my knees for the first of seven sessions of violent retching. At some point in the middle of it, I called Coach Mooers to tell him I wouldn’t be practicing, but hoped I’d be back to normal for the scrimmages the next day.

Whatever hit me that morning was gone in a few hours, and indeed I traveled with the team to the Twin Cities metro-area scrimmages. After playing in the two abbreviated games, I accompanied my teammates on a trip to Valley Fair, where I rode all of the stomach-churningest rides. Indeed, I had recovered.

What I didn’t know at the time was how well I recovered. I would not vomit again for more than 26 years.

Oh, America

Dave Sorensen - Saturday Essay“I say we better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” — Walt Whitman

Sit down, America, we need to talk. But first take off those jackboots, you look ridiculous. And lose that tricorn hat. It’s cutting off your circulation. Besides, we don’t do history here, America, funny hats or no, and attention deficit aside, you’re a mere adolescent of a nation, slow to learn what goes around comes ’round.

These wars have been going on too long, America. The paper flags have faded in the windows, and folks just plain forget. But we are mired in the quag, so what do you say we shutter Empire Incorporated and retrofit some swords into plowshares, some drones into solar panels, retrain some bombers into builders of durable goods? Enough of bankers, spooks, and missiles, always in that order. Enough raining high-tech holy hell on any brown-skins shunning your benevolent intentions. If you were a super hero what would your super powers be, America? I can think of two: blowing shit up, and manufacturing dreams in Hollywood, not to be confused with reality TV out of North Waziristan.

The Large Hadron Collider, or, I Have Never Met Father John Misty, Irrespective of What This Essay Might Imply

I’ve had a rough couple of years. My dad got sick, then my husband got sick, and I became a lot more curious about the nature of being than I was before. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Large Hadron Collider. In case you are not also wedged firmly between a rock and a firm location, devouring particle physics literature like a Kardashian hoarding Us Weekly, the Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It’s the largest single machine in existence, built in collaboration with more than 10,000 scientists and engineers from around the world.

Maybe I have felt, over the past two years or so, a little sympathetic to the lead electron at the nose of that high-speed electron beam, roaring around an accelerator ring at nearly light speed, every lap incrementally nudging closer to a head-on collision with an opposing electron beam, traveling at equal speed. But, less dramatically, I’ve been thinking more about what scientists have found.

The intent of the Large Hadron Collider is to investigate the structure of the atomic nucleus. (I copied that from the LHC website). But it’s been doing more than that. Like any scientific investigation of the unknown, it has the potential to change everything by altering our perception of the nature of stuff. If, for example, the LHC reveals that energy becomes matter in describable and predictable circumstances, or becomes matter by describable and predictable mechanisms, it would radically change how we see the universe. It’s literally an infinitesimally tiny change, but it would be a boundless change, philosophically.

Small Problems

Jamie White FarnhamRemember when the Sex and the City ladies accompanied Carrie on her non-honeymoon? In one scene, Charlotte (the cute one) swallows water while showering and suffers some not-so-cute Montezuma’s Revenge in her loungewear. Later, while consoling Carrie, Charlotte admits to feeling guilty about her relatively carefree life. She has no real problems, while Carrie was left at the altar and their other friend faced cancer. Even Charlotte’s divorce was not so painful since she fell in love with her divorce lawyer.

Carrie forgives her friend the guilt. She offers some perspective when she reminds Charlotte of a problem she did face: “Sweetie, you shit your pants.”

This point stuck with me because I am a Charlotte. Not in the cute sense, but in the small problem sense. I have a lot of small problems. While I am not here to compare them with illness or death or divorce or anything significant, I do want to tell you about them. Consider a year in the life of a Charlotte:

It’s Winter Break, and the kids are playing in the snow. When I bring a forgotten mitten outside, I pull the front door hard behind me by habit. We’re locked out. The extra keys are inside. We can’t get in through the garage, the side door, or the basement. It takes an hour or so for a network of friends to get a key to us. The kids make a snowman while I huddle on the porch in my T-shirt and PJ pants.

In Spring 1990 in Duluth, Honesty was Worth $75

Chris Godsey Saturday EssayI think we were having fun before a bunch of us hustled downstairs, someone hit the lights, and two or three self-appointed noise monitors started whisper-shouting for the rest of us to “SHHHHHH! You guys! GUYS! SHHHHHHH!” (Do the italics make it sound whispery in your head?)

V was definitely there, but I can’t remember if Tom and E were, because I didn’t hang out with those guys as much as I wish I would have till sophomore year. I wish I’d have done a lot of things differently that year.

I could have moved into K section with Tom after winter break 1989, but for some reason I stayed in 219B Oakland with dudes who almost made me look normal, which says nothing positive about how any of us conducted ourselves. Brief examples:

• I got home late (from diligently not studying) on a weeknight to find one roommate at the kitchen table. “Would you like to explain why you spend more time with your friends in the dorms than with us?” he admonished. “We’re your roommates. You’re supposed to be here with us. Can I expect that to change?” I can’t remember what I said in response, but since I had no courage or confrontation-handling skills at 18 I promise it was more mealy-mouthed than the situation called for.