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Saturday Essay Posts

Schwinning and Losing

When I was a kid I had a blue Schwinn Sting-Ray Fastback 5-speed banana-seat bicycle with ape-hanger handlebars. It was classic and beautiful. I hated it.

That bike was a relic handed down from my significantly older brother, Scott, who bought it in the late 1960s with his paper route money and used it to expedite his collections process. I took it over just as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, and by then banana bikes weren’t cool. Freestyle bikes were the new rage.

In West Duluth at the time we called freestyle bikes “dirt bikes,” a term that would get them confused with motorized dirt bikes in other neighborhoods or other periods in history, but there was no confusion among us. The Huffy BMX is a popular dirt bike I remember, along with Diamondbacks. I wasn’t really tuned into what all the hot brands were, nor was I much of an enthusiast for stunt biking, I just knew I wanted one of those bikes so I could blend in and not look ridiculous when it was time to jump over stuff and race through mud or whatever. But I didn’t want one bad enough to get a paper route and pay for it, I just wanted fate to hand me one. Because if fate hands you anything in this life, it immediately entitles you to think it will hand you things over and over again.

I Knew A Guy …

I knew a guy named Aman who had been a commander in the Mujahideen, the predecessors of the Taliban in Afghanistan, back in the ‘80s when Islamist militants were on our side in the Cold War effort to kick the Soviets out of their country. One of the things Aman did back home was defuse Soviet bombs and rewire them for later use — thus his Coke bottle glasses and missing digits. I met him when he was washing dishes in a Minneapolis restaurant with a couple of his cohorts, one of whom, being an example of the crossroads which is Afghanistan, looked like any Irishman you’ve ever met. In those innocent, pre-9/11 days, Aman came into the kitchen one morning, and a young jewish cook said, “Hey, Aman, how’s the jihad going? Have you killed the Great Satan yet?” Aman merely waved his hand, and groaned, “Ah, Jewish,” and from there, as usual, we all got along quite swimmingly. A controversy at the time began when the president, George H. W. Bush, for some reason told the press he didn’t like broccoli, and the local TV station came to the restaurant for some counterpoint. Aman was enlisted for some filming which, alas, didn’t make the final cut, but there he was, our Mujahideen commander, eyes bulging behind thick glasses, ascending the stairs from the cooler with a case of broccoli on his shoulder. Coming to get you, George! God is great! And broccoli.

Hillside Breeders

“Ooohh, Poppy’s going to do it!”

Poppy is our seven year old’s Mini Rex doe rabbit. Poppy has a date with a buck named Frodo with velvet black fur and a dwarf gene. I hadn’t seen him in-person, but his owner up the hill texted me his photo. Electronic match-making extends to other species, too.

“Wait, Nibbit,” the ten-year-old asked her little sister, “Do you even know what ‘do it’ means?”

“Uh, well. Not exactly.”

I thought we had already gone over this, or I assumed the eldest would have filled her in. So much slides with a second child. It was time for dinner, so over tacos I described ovulation, intercourse, fertilization, implantation, etc. I couldn’t tell if the seven-year-old’s eyes were glazing over with boredom or embarrassment.

Her father Jeremy knows that if you want to get a kid’s attention you light up a screen. He found a video of rabbits mating. It is actually worth watching. Forgive me for the spoiler, but when the buck comes he actually goes into a momentary trance and falls over.

Ripped at the Chinese Garden in 2008

[Editor’s note: This week we’ve pulled out another relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s connoisseur of drinking establishments from 1999 to 2009. In this essay we travel back ten years to a time before Duluth’s Black Water Lounge existed. A restaurant called the Chinese Garden occupied that part of the Greysolon Plaza, and our inebriated anti-hero paid a visit. This article was originally published in the June 30, 2008 issue of the Transistor.]

If there’s one thing I hate about being sober it’s how polite I become. Here I am, standing next to the cash register at the Chinese Garden, waiting for a fucken waitress to come over and choose a table for me. This wouldn’t happen if I were drunk.

Obviously, if had any spirits in me at all, my choice would be to flop into the closest available booth, even if someone else is sitting there. Tonight, that would mean interrupting what appears to be a magic night of romance for a pair of chubby 60-year-olds who are silently finishing their dinner.

The man, whose grey hair is pulled back into a ponytail, breaks their conversational lull by asking the woman, “So, are we going to stay here and drink all night?”

Her answer is, “I think so.” And so the stage is set.

Three Duluth Stories

I moved to Duluth in March of 1998. It was during the El Nino winter, in which every single human with whom I interacted informed me that this winter was NOT NORMAL FOR MINNESOTA. It came up in every conversation, which, over the course of the six months that normally would comprise one Duluth winter, provided a more vigorous facsimile of the suspended, punishing experience; only instead of shivering from the cold, I was shivering from collective dread, carefully cultivated by the city’s entire populace. In the wake of such calamitous portent, simple freezing fucking winter was actually a relief. Thus it was that I spent an entire terrifically warm winter in Duluth scared shitless, forming alliances and hoarding dry goods, waiting for real winter to come, like Duluth was some kind of folksy, sitcom version of Game of Thrones.

In fairness, Duluth is a really strange place. It was going to be strange, whether or not the winter was briefly co-opted by an exotic air current. I have a hundred examples of Duluth’s magnificent wackiness, but that’s too many for today. So here are three.

Dancing About Architecture

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.
Martin Mull, maybe?

All good writing strives to say the unsayable.
— Louis Jenkins

I stupidly want to do that thing, and I am ill-equipped for doing it as well as I would prefer, but here we go.

If I still owned a bunch of record albums I’d probably still do a version of what I did with Mom and Dad’s collection when I was a kid: lay or kneel on the carpeted floor in front of the cabinet where the records were stacked vertically spines facing out; flip through the stack, bathing in whooshes of sacred aging-cardboard air as they albums gently slapped against each other; hold worn cardboard covers to my face and inhale in the same way any decent human being does when they pick up an old book; pull out single records or small stacks or maybe the whole collection to flip the covers back and forth back and forth while reading the long notes on the back or the inside and try to figure out how all those words and images and that musty-seductive smell relate to the sounds in the vinyl grooves and the lives of the people who created the sounds; try to figure out what it all meant. What it all means. All of it.

Nature Always Bats Last

Blood and bone, rivers and stone, are all of a piece, you see. For millennia we knew this, knew we belonged to the Earth, until some tinhorn prophet came along boasting the Earth belonged to us, a gift from God, of course, of which we’d be good stewards, of course, then all things holy left us, last seen heading skyward, and magic absconded on angels’ wings, up, up and away.

So how’s that working out? Still waiting on the Second Coming, the Third Temple, the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse? Still telling old stories which buried stories older still? Tall tales of a bronze-age god who smote the competition. He himself quite recently smote by the Enlightenment and science. Yet, though we now know the Aurora Borealis is lit by particles, not spirits, mystery abides, and it carries us without needing us while we are needing stories.

Mystery abides. Our planet and the depths of space are but its outward face. Though bits of life itself have been patented for sale, we don’t understand what we’re messing with. As Cat Stevens sang, “The soul of nobody knows / how a flower grows.” We may know chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules are within a few slim atoms of identical — all the green in nature so close in composition to our own ruddy animal blood, and we can manipulate both until Frankenstein’s monster seems like the boy next door, but mystery abides and it’s going nowhere, whichever new sherif’s in town.

Glossary of Music Genres

There’s pretty much no such thing as a rock band anymore. A rock band couldn’t possibly be as cool as a screamocore post-punk dream-rock math band. The proliferation of such terms, however, has created some confusion among casual music fans. “What in the world is grindcore?” some wonder.

That’s why the Homegrown Music Festival steering committee commissioned the handy list of meaningless music-style descriptors with vague definitions that appears below. The glossary was originally compiled for the 2007 Homegrown Field Guide, and appears here as a refresher course.

Obviously it’s not necessary to include well-known genres like rap, soul, techno, country, hip hop, blues and reggae in the list because most people are familiar with those terms.

Also, since the list of music-writer lingo is seemingly endless, and this particular writer is lazy, numerous terms such as trance, electronica, reggaeton and synth pop will have to be left undefined. The goal here is not to be comprehensive, but simply to be helpful.

American roots music is basically folk music, but saying “American roots” or “Americana” instead of “folk” leaves the impression the artist is more like Woody Guthrie than like Joni Mitchell.

Black metal is thrash metal played by people who dislike mainstream culture and religion. The goal is to show contempt for anything conventional by distorting and otherwise mangling song structures while shrieking a lot. You know, get mad at the man, take it out on music in general.

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.