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Saturday Essay Posts

New Kid

I have moved a lot of times. Like, a witness-protection number of times. By the end of my freshman year of high school I had moved across the country eight times — twice in that one school year alone. I whipsawed between various small communities in Maine and Alaska, spending the preponderance of my time in Alaska.

But 1988, my sophomore year, was a real cake-taker. I lived in three different cities, and attended two separate high schools in two states. I moved from Juneau, Alaska to Kennelwick, Maine in early November. Kennelwick is not a real place, by the way — just in case I inadvertently reanimate anyone else’s decades-old trauma.

Changing schools in November is like showing up for a surprise birthday party at the same time as the birthday girl. It doesn’t matter why you’re there, or how awesome you are, you’ve arrived with such impossibly shit timing that literally no one is happy to see you. To whit: The school year was well underway and the brutality of the initial social sorting process was fading, but the blood was still drying. The cliques had already galvanized, defensively, prepared for the inevitable breakups and infighting bloodshed typical of a closed, captive society. High school is like the Thunderdome, only with less clothes made out of human skin.

Ripped at the Laundromat in 1999

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. In this essay the ol’ Sultan of Sot went out for a “soak and spin” at the Chalet Lounge, 4833 Miller Trunk Highway. The article originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of Duluth’s then-monthly Ripsaw newspaper.]

I hate doing laundry. It’s just one of those exceedingly practical things that isn’t any fun in the least and does nothing but stand in the way of gettin’ ripped and having a good time. Luckily, I found the Chalet Lounge — Duluth’s only Laundromat that is attached to a bar.

Actually, the place isn’t in Duluth, but Hermantown. “Laundromat Hermantown, MN” the sign outside boldly states. On the sidewalk beneath it lay two battered and broken washing machines.

I hauled my basket of dirty clothes inside, eager to get the wash going so I could start drinking. A big guy in a leather jacket leaned against a dryer reading a copy of Real Estate Viewer magazine. I tried really hard not to let him see my Snuggle fabric softener. The thought entered my mind that it might actually be more fun to have a few drinks and then do the wash, but I quickly dismissed this idea, imagining dire consequences.

Million-dollar Wound

This is a small town. So, we’ll probably meet and shake hands. You’re going to come away from it thinking, What the hell was that?

I’ll see it on your face. So, I’ll say, “It’s Dupuytren’s contractures.”

And you’ll say, “Doopa what?”

“My hand is screwed up. I’m not some perv going ‘deedle-deedle’ into your palm with my middle-finger. It’s an ailment.”

“Oh, I see. Sure, man,” you’ll say as you slowly back away. “Sure.”

So, I’m sorry for that. This is an open letter of apology.

It’s a real thing, though. Dupuytren’s contractures. Collagen collects in the fascia of my hands. It forms ropes and cords that slowly pull my fingers inward toward my palm. It started twenty years ago with the middle finger of my right hand. Then my left thumb got in the game. Not wanting to be left out, the ring finger of my left hand joined in. Somewhere along the line, hands weren’t enough so it started up along the bottom of my feet behind each of my big toes. Most recently, my right ring finger curled up next to my right middle finger. I guess he missed his neighbor. Now, I’ve got a fresh rope pulling my left middle finger inward. The good (maybe bad?) news is I can’t flip anybody the bird anymore.

Hillside Grievers

This is an epilogue to a previous Saturday Essay, published in 2018.

Poppy the Mini-Rex rabbit doe never had babies. She pulled out her fur and made nests for nothing. It wasn’t her fault: the buck we tried to breed her with was past his prime. His owner called to apologize.

“I am sorry I didn’t notice that Frodo’s man-parts shriveled up. But good news: he has a son!”

Whenever I thought about calling the number on the sticky note labeled “Buck,” I remembered we had something to do in thirty days when the kits would be born. Then came winter and another summer. Now it’s too late.

In the middle months, that time people in other places call “Spring,” we adopted a puppy.

Lola showed us that the rabbits were just a warm-up. So were our own babies, for that matter. Once again, Jeremy and I took turns waking through the night and keeping track of bowel movements. Soon we found ourselves having those ridiculous, sleep-deprived “I’m doing all I can!” arguments of yore.

Freediving the Edmund Fitzgerald

It would be possible to dive to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the strength of a single breath. Even at the wreck’s depth of 530 feet, it might actually be safer to dive unsupported by scuba tanks than to scuba dive to it. This essay is intended to hypothetically explore the intersection of different types of diving, the wreck itself, and the lake in general. At a minimum, I am suggesting that the freediving possibilities of Lake Superior have not been fully explored.

My interest is provoked because I utilize some freediving breath-hold techniques in my underwater videography as Lake Superior Aquaman. I have never scuba dived, and so I think of the lake in freediving terms. I do not intend to offend the families of the deceased by invoking the Fitzgerald tragedy. However, its iconic stature as a deep wreck in Lake Superior makes it ideal for these illustrative purposes.

I am not suggesting any actual dives to the Fitzgerald. For one thing, both freediving and scuba diving present significant risks, especially beyond 100 feet deep. Also, it has been illegal to dive to the wreck since 2006, unless approved by the Canadian government in whose waters it lies. This is because of successful lobbying by the victims’ families to keep the wreck sacrosanct.

Breaking the Law

All names in this story have been changed. You know, just in case.

In my hometown of Petersburg, Alaska, there is one road that stretches from one end of town to the other, traversing but not circumnavigating the island on which my hometown is located. I think generally people tend to think of islands as little round circles of land in the ocean, which one might conceivably drive around and around forever, like a brass ball in a roulette wheel. But that’s not how things are, and islands are often shaped inconveniently, or pockmarked with gigantic mountains or bodies of water or even volcanoes, which can make logical traffic accommodations wacky. Anyway. In Petersburg, the road goes from one end of the long, arrow-shaped island to the other. This straight-line trajectory has even led locals to refer to driving toward the rural end of the island as “going out the road.” Interestingly, the city limits do not extend to the end of the road, but rather, end some several miles earlier. This means that the city police cannot legally enforce the law beyond those city limits, creating a kind of rogue, lawless wilderness on one end of the island.

This is, as you can likely imagine, terrific news for teenagers.

Ripped at the Boogieman Project in 1999

[Editor’s note: Before the NorShor Theatre became a spiffed up Duluth Playhouse venue it hosted a variety of concerts and parties, such as the annual Boogieman Project at Halloween time. For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Twenty years ago he paid a visit to the NorShor and filed the report below, originally published in the Ripsaw newspaper.]

I was completely ripped. To the north of me stood a minotaur. To the south was Ernie from Sesame Street. To the east was a person dressed in about four hundred flashing colored lights. To the west was Kool-Aid Man. No, it wasn’t a bad case of delirium tremens, it was the NorShor Theatre’s fourth annual Halloween party, otherwise known as “The Boogieman Project.”

The NorShor was all decked out for a party of massive proportions. Live bands rocked the house in the main downstairs theater while all manner of freaks and weirdos got funky on the dance floor — a space in front of the stage where the seating was long ago removed. There was a bar setup in the theater to complement the usual one in the balcony mezzanine lounge, where even more bloody surgeons and Star Wars characters drank it up and raised hell to even more live music. God, I love Halloween.

I Made You Say Underwear

I still own all the underwear I’ve ever bought, probably. Like, 85 percent of it. But why? you might legitimately ask yourself. The answer is simple. Underwear is inexplicably expensive. And it takes a long time to wear out, since I don’t do very many things that would cause excessive wear-and-tear, like, say, a lot of butt-scooting on the carpet or skivvy-only horseback riding. I know I’m not alone in this, because over the years I’ve shared this fact and discovered that pretty much everyone is stockpiling ancient underwear.

As a result, I own underwear that is so old that it’s vintage — essentially archaeological artifacts. I’ve got garden-variety skivvies, of course, but I also have floppy and faded high-cut bikinis from 9th grade, lady boxers whose elastic waistbands announce their brand affiliation, and transparent lacy stretch briefs that make my ass look like a low-rent bank-robber. What I don’t have is g-strings. Not anymore.

Ahhh, the g-string. The g-string came to popularity in the late 1990s, first on strippers, then on twenty-somethings, and then, finally, on Donna, the 60-year-old cashier at ShopKo who is suprisingly racy and not interested in what you think about her undergarment selection, thank you very much and have yourself a lovely day minding your own fucking business.

My Parachute

On the day before Thanksgiving 2018, the small airplane I was piloting experienced an engine failure.

It didn’t quit, exactly, though I wish it had. Rather, the engine’s power oscillated uncontrollably every three seconds between idle and nearly full. This is not an easy way to fly an airplane.

The arc of the oscillations slowly moved to the idle side of the curve. Eventually, as the airplane and I approached Earth without the privilege of an airport below, the engine finally gave up altogether.

Fortunately for me, the airplane was equipped with a device engineered to lower the entire aircraft to the ground in an emergency, while providing a measure of survivability for the occupants: a parachute, which is deployed by the occupants via a rocket so they may live to tell their story.

After my rendezvous with the ground, I left the disabled aircraft in a frozen field, broken and askew on a large center-point irrigator, and went home and wrote down my experience. I then posted it on the internet. A few days later, Paul Lundgren, a proprietor of Perfect Duluth Day, asked if I would share my story here. I replied, “I will. But not yet. Maybe not for awhile.”

Mind your Business

On my way to see Burning, the Korean movie adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, playing at Zeitgeist Zinema in January, I heard a woman yell “Somebody help me!” from the bus stop. I couldn’t see her well; she had made herself small, the way a rabbit might make itself small for fear of a predator who has entered the garden, too.

A man was looming over her while she cowered against the wall of the Greysolon Plaza. From behind, I couldn’t see much of him, either. He wore a jacket that looked not-quite warm enough; his agitated movements were likely keeping him warm. I felt my city instincts kick in.

I’ve lived in a city all my life: Milwaukee until I was 22, St. Paul until I was 32. Duluth is the smallest community I have ever lived in, and most days, it barely feels like a city. In the quarters of a city where poor people live, anytime someone calls “help,” I think, we check it out. We need each other.

Someone called for help. I needed to check it out. I started to cross the street, putting on my most booming voice.

“What’s going on over there?”

Indecent Exposure

Walking from the car to the beach, it suddenly occurred to me that in the hustle to leave the house I neglected to take off my underwear. It’s not even clear to me why I was wearing boxer shorts under swimming trunks to begin with, but it didn’t matter until I was on the verge of jumping into Lake Superior.

The whole idea of a swimsuit itself is pretty asinine, really. It’s a small layer of clothing people wear while submerged in water, so no one can look at their delicate body parts as they enter and exit the lake. Once out of the water, the swimsuit dries faster than a pair of jeans, but still … to prevent people from seeing my Lake Superior-shriveled wiener I’m supposed to walk around for a half hour in wet shorts. Wetter yet if I’m a dimwit wearing boxer shorts under his trunks.

Still, I understand why society frowns on exposed penises. They are unsightly. But I can go to the beach with a giant oozing scab on my face and not be arrested, so let’s say there’s room for argument here.

Clearly, it’s not because genitals are ugly that society frowns on their public display. It’s because clothing is a perceived barrier to sexual thoughts.

The Good Ship Ridiculous

Last spring, a friend texted a picture of a plywood shanty boat to my husband, Jason. A tiny craft, its 13 feet sat trailered on a Superior side street. And at 5-feet wide, it gave off a garage-built, “I made this myself!” feel with outlandish colors and faux iron scrollwork screwed into the side. It also had balloons and a “For Sale” sign.

Squinting into my cell phone, I said, “That’s ridiculous!” Another friend, looking over my shoulder, suggested it looked like a floating puppet show. I laughed, I mean, it was meant as a joke — all of it.

That text was a response to a conversation with other middle-aged parents. Around a bonfire, we gave bold lip service to the idea of living on the water. Late into the evening, we chatted about houseboats and travel — big talk from people made of obligation, staked to mortgages and children and pets. Then, as the embers died down, we wiped the counters, fed the cat and went to bed. There would be work tomorrow because … there is always work tomorrow.

Quitter

Just about a year ago, I wrote an essay detailing my own reasons for abstaining from alcohol. (If you’re also a stickler for reading a series in order, you can find “1,186 Days” in the archive. Don’t rush. We’ll try not to get too far ahead before you rejoin us.) It was a relief to talk about it, frankly, having stewed it over for a few years. It was also surprisingly cathartic to put it on paper, since it was substantially more chaotic swirling about my brain box than it was organized and detailed in that essay. Ah, the curious, inscrutable liberation of constraint.

Before I published it, I labored for months over the implications of my admissions: would friends judge me? Would they rewrite the stories of our relationships with this new information, indelibly staining our shared moments with my arrival at this murky end? Would they see evidence in my behavior, view our debaucherous moments with hindsight bias, convinced they could see now the unfortunate trajectory that would lead me to quit drinking? Would they feel weird around me? Would they glumph me into the world of addicts, a ticking time bomb that might dive headlong into a vat of gin and tonics and never resurface? Would I lose friends? Job opportunities? And did any of this matter to me, really? Because in this case, the truth was the truth. The only variable was other people seeing me as I actually was. So I published it.

Why Some Men Kill Women

This essay speaks graphically and honestly about men’s violence against women. Please take care.

The house I live in sits about three blocks up Chester Park Drive from the one where Ryan Jazdzewski stabbed the life out of his wife, Nicole, as at least one of their daughters watched, a bit after 8:00 on the evening of Sunday, June 2. While he was doing that, then when he stopped because the daughter asked him not to kill her mom, and while he called his own mom to say, “Mom, I think I just killed my wife,” while an across-the-alley neighbor called 911 after encountering the blood-covered seven-year-old behind their houses, as cops showed up and the girl ran back to her dad and asked cops not to kill him, while officers entered the house to find Nicole dying on the kitchen floor, and while Nicole was pronounced dead at St. Luke’s, my wife, Shannon, and I were watching TV. We live at 1126. They lived at 818.

From our couch, looking northwest through living-room windows to the right of our TV, Shannon and I can see into a neighbor’s front yard and up a 40-meter stretch of Chester Park Drive two houses before it dead-ends. Chester Bowl hiking and mountain biking trails begin just past a barrier of big rocks. Every now and then that Sunday night, a cyclist or two chugged up or flowed down the hill, or a dog with a couple humans strolled by. Fading sunlight was beginning to glow golden in cedars on the edge of the neighbor’s front yard, where two or three rambunctious grey squirrels and a couple tiny rabbits bounced around looking for snacks. A frenetic chipmunk zoomed by every so often. The pleasant, almost-too-chilly breeze coming through the windows could have been from late September instead of early June. We had a small fire going. The combination of cool, fresh air and a warm woodstove felt nice. I might have been sipping a Glendalough Irish whiskey, neat. All seemed lovely and serene on our part of the street.

Dividing Duluth: The Abandoned Car Test

I’ve lived in West Duluth for the vast majority of my life. The most significant exceptions are the year I lived in the Endion neighborhood near the Duluth Armory and the three-and-a-half years I lived in the Central Hillside at Washington Studios Artist Cooperative.

Though my experiences are largely seen through western Duluth eyes, I like to think of myself as a somewhat impartial observer. I bleed the maroon and gold of a Denfeld Hunter, but I have empathy for Trojans, Cakes, Hilltoppers and those funny little home-schoolers and international magnet arsty-fartsies or whatever they are. We’re all Duluthians, Americans and humans. But we’re also part of many tribes, and our neighborhoods can define us in ways we don’t often think about.

Around the time I graduated from high school, a popular pastime among my friends was to pile into a car and simply drive around with no purpose. We were young, full of enthusiasm, and generally unfamiliar with the world outside of West Duluth. Simply driving east of Lake Avenue at that time seemed like a minor adventure, and if we were creative or lucky enough we could turn it into a significant adventure. At the time, the young women of Duluth had very different hairstyles on each side of town, so there was a visible sense of exploring a new culture in just an eight-minute drive.