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Saturday Essay Posts

Teamwork

Five late-40s white guys, all former University of Minnesota Duluth athletes, walk into a bar:

1. War: a Sheridan, Wyoming, EMT, gunsmith, vegetable gardener, log-home builder, cancer survivor, and mead-maker who deadlifts more than 500 pounds, has a powerfully agile and bibliographic brain, and could probably still start at D-II defensive tackle;

2. E: a northern-Twin Cities-suburbs cop who moonlights for the Metro Transit Police because his adolescent boys’ college won’t pay for itself, who once worked as a guard at Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater, who thinks deep thoughts but keeps everyone else from getting too serious about anything, and who knows things most people will never want or have to know;

3. Big Daddy: a northern-suburbs dad, high-school ceramics teacher, and coach — football (defensive line), hockey, track and field (shot and disc throwers) — who’s also a bicycle geek, music nerd, fishing addict, and, as nearly anyone who’s met him will tell you, a supreme raconteur;

4. Tom: a southern-burbs dentist and dad who’s done the Superior Trail 100, the Death Race, and a bunch of other insane endurance events, who’s unfailingly steady and kind (unless he drinks a quick handful of beers, in which case he gets pleasantly lippy), and whose family includes a pug elder, a middle-kid bulldog, and a brand new Jack Russell terrier;

5. G: an anxious Duluth college writing teacher (a lifer toward the bottom of the academic hierarchy) who’s got no idea how to leverage his newish Ed.D. in teaching and learning, spends unwise time trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and why, finds solace in music and bicycles and physical labor, and sometimes thinks he wishes he’d had the foresight to become a full-time firefighter who travels and reads as much as possible instead of whatever he feels like and is.

First guy walks up to the bar. Looks at the bartender and says …

Lake Superior Wants to Kill You

Pardon the alarmist headline. Lake Superior doesn’t really want to kill you, but you should know all bodies of water are oblivious to your tiny existence and will absolutely steal you away any time you make the slightest error in judgement. So I’m not apprehensive about issuing stern warnings as if I’m your mom.

I know how seductive that big lake can be. And I know how much fun it is to dive off various bridges, rocks, swinging ropes or whatever it is you can propel yourself from into whichever refreshing river or stream awaits. I’ve done it, and I’ve lived through it. I’ve also seen it go wrong over and over and over again.

I’ll be the first to say when it goes right it’s a thing of beauty. You can’t let danger keep you off the water; we all know water absolutely gives so much more life than it takes. Just sitting on the shore looking at it, whether it’s perfectly calm or violently raging, is the easiest way to put yourself into your place on this planet. But it’s natural to want more than that. You have to at least put your toes in. And that puts you on the path to all manner of thrill seeking. Your ability to pick which point along the way to show some self control will determine whether you have the maximum good time or utterly wreck yourself.

My People

If I walk west there are mansions along my way, with lawns most green and lovely. As I cross a certain avenue things start to get shaggy, and if on a corner lot there’s a for-sale sign on a cairn of truck tires my diaphragm expands with the deep breath of belonging, and I think to myself — my people!

America, so it’s said, is the land of meritocracy, social mobility, and a playing field both level and just. Here any child can grow up to inherit a hundred million dollars, pump it through Manhattan real-estate, fluff it in the casinos of Atlantic City and Wall Street, and end up leveraged to the balls with the Russian mob.

But the most accurate predictor of where you’ll wind up socio-economically — in America more so than any other wealthy country — is where your parents wound up. Social mobility exists, and was expanded by the GI Bill after WW ll, and cheap (even free) college through the ’70s, but the ladders have been withdrawn over starter-castle walls, and rising stars belie the rule.

Squirrels

There are squirrels near downtown Duluth sitting cross-legged on alleyway tree limbs, picking their teeth with plastic shards carved out of trash bins.

There are squirrels in my neighborhood, Chester Park, who sit atop my garage roof and blithely stare below. Then they climb to the peak and play patty-cake.

I am seeing distinct packs of squirrels in the city as I walk from pocket to pocket. Those downtown squirrels are nothing to mess with. I imagine them waiting to pounce on any passive east side brethren that get lost and wind up sniffing around trash bins clearly marked for toughs. Each one has a squirrel-sized hole gnawed out of it. You don’t see that in the less dense, leafier neighborhoods.

And it’s not just the squirrels in alleyways from Fourth on down to Superior Street. Crows dive-bomb. Chipmunks clatter with menace. Skunk smells waft. Pigeons cluck disapprovingly. Even the flies are stickier.

A Smiter Smote a Sinner While Smitten with Smiting

Smite is a funny word.

My husband Jesse and I were talking about Leviticus (the Quentin Tarantino chapter of the Bible) last night. We don’t spend much time musing about Leviticus (lest you think we are piouser than we are) but were discussing this letter from a gentleman sardonically applauding Dr. Laura’s use of Leviticus 18:22 to rebuke homosexuality. Naturally, we began inquiring into other modern applications of less referenced lines of the book.

After discussing our own Leviticus reflections (scariest band name, ever), we started re-imagining the Christian adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Jesse suggested, to comply with Leviticus, that we change it to, “Hate the sin, scorn the sinner?” We agreed this was too far from the spirit of the book. Leviticus is very specific (e.g., “How to Build an Altar in 1,347 Easy Steps”). And the truth is, it’s tough to read cubits allegorically, no matter how stoned you are.

I suggested, if we were going Full Monty, that we just go straight to “Love the sinner, hate the sin. Then smite the sinner. Usually to death.” Jesse piled on, “If a sinning sinner smites a loving sinner, that sinner should be smitten, also.”

The fuck?

Ripped at Baja Billy’s in 2008

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay 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 article we travel back ten years to the time of the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 — before Duluth’s Mexico Lindo restaurant existed — when the ol’ “sultan of sot” paid a visit to Baha Billy’s at the Fitger’s Brewery Complex. The article was originally published in the June 30, 2008 issue of the Transistor.]

Have all you motherfucking patriotic cheesedicks got your economic stimulus checks from the IRS yet? That’s valuable drinking money, you know. While a few misguided Duluthians might use that free cashola to pay down their massive credit-card debt or save up to fix their sewer lines, the rest of us know what it’s really for: top-shelf liquor.

And so I walk into the Fitger’s Brewery Complex with three crispy hundos in my pocket, which is pretty much the only way you can walk into a shopping mall on Grandma’s Marathon weekend. My destination is Baja Billy’s Cantina & Grill, the tourist trappiest of the four drinking establishments in the building. Sure, my money would go a lot further at, for example, the Rustic in West Duluth, but I’m not dealing with real money today. I’m going to sit outside on Duluth’s best deck, look out at the full moon over Lake Superior, and slowly get hammered, all on the U.S. taxpayer’s dime.

I. Was. Running.

On a mellow midsummer evening in 1992 — back when the Whole Foods Co-op was still next door to the Chester Park Laundromat at Fourth Street and Fifteenth Avenue East — I emptied a big mesh bag full of dirty laundry into three or four front-loading washers, tied my apartment key (for the basement of 1516 East Fourth Street, a little more than a block away ) to the hockey-skate lace holding up my cutoff UMD sweats, and started jogging up the east side of the Chester Creek trail. My plan was to take that side up to Chester Bowl, follow the pavement back to the soccer field, then reverse the process down the west side of creek and return just as the wash cycle ended. The laundromat wasn’t crowded, but I still didn’t want to be the guy who takes up a bunch of machines then disappears. I also don’t like people touching my stuff, even if it’s just to move my wet clothes into a rolling basket with a janky wheel or two so they can use the washer.

I wasn’t taking classes that summer, so I’d probably thrown a small stack of unread Sports Illustrated issues on top of the dirty clothes along with a jug of Tide. I assume my plan for after the jog was to transfer all the clothes into one or two of the laundromat’s huge, nuclear-heat dryers, grab some chocolate-covered almonds and a fizzy drink at the Co-op, and settle in to read about sports things that were starting to seem a lot less important than they had seemed since I was a little boy.
Good sports writing about more than sports is the stuff that had drawn my attention since elementary school, when Grandma Eva started giving me an annual SI subscription every Christmas. I really liked the long stories that focused more on people and culture and ideas than on stats and player trades and the stuff blowhards now shout about on TV and the radio. I should probably start reading the Best American Sports Writing anthology series again. Or maybe re-buy and re-read (if for no other reason than the story “Popper”) the George Plimpton anthology I once owned when I thought I was preparing for a career as a newspaper or magazine sports columnist.

A Summer Musing

A pre-dawn thunderstorm. What a treat. Don’t get them much in Duluth. There’s a cat fight going on outside. When I arrived home late last night, the lightning bugs were dancing. The air was thick and I could smell my childhood.

Which is all very bemusing because I hold little nostalgia these days. I used to sit on bushels of it when I was younger. An example is — and I think I may have relayed this to you in passing or maybe in some strange post-apocalyptic note — the events of June 17. It passed this year and I once again failed to think of you.

We had a date for that night in 1983. June 17 is also the anniversary of the break-in at Watergate, which never registered with me until recently. I was so obsessed with my own Waterloo.

You had gone to Florida and promised we would see each other upon your return and before the early pea pack. Our farm country hometown, like Paris, is such a romantic place.

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.