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Saturday Essay Posts

The Slide

“Are you the announcer or something?”

Corey was standing a few feet from the sled run when she spoke; one hand on her hip, her other mittened hand trying to wisp away the strands of hair run renegade from under her cap.

Corey was 8. She often cut to the heart of matters with me, her nattering uncle — curt queries snapping her into adult demeanor, leaving me bemused and suddenly self-conscious.

“I’m just trying to make this more exciting, like we did when I was a kid.”

Corey only half-listened and then belly-flopped onto her plastic glider, tucking the tow rope under her purple parka. “Push me far this time,” she gasped. One-two-three and she zoomed off.

Her cousin was trouncing up the hill, excited for another run.

“Did I get the world record? Is that the farthest anybody got ever?”

“Ever. Now get snug to the front. Josh, you’ll never beat Corey with your rope hanging out like that. You gotta be smart. It’s the intangibles that get you to the top.”

He only winced. Another three-count and Josh grinned as he slid away. Corey was still at the bottom of the hill, eating snow while flat on her back, feet kicking in the air. I was happy to see her once again acting her age.

We Just Left Her There to Die Alone

When I was a little idiot West Duluth kid in the early 1980s there were many constructive things for juvenile brats to do. Fighting or just generally acting tough was probably the number one pastime, followed by hanging out on the railroad tracks and throwing taconite pellets at each other. When that got boring there were always guns and wrist rockets to load with those pellets.

We also enjoyed riding our bikes to the market, stealing things and breaking them, listening to satanic heavy-metal music and verbally assaulting each other with complete insensitivity. You know, normal kid stuff.

There were also a few wholesome American activities weaved into the fabric of our youth. My friends and I liked to play sports and various chasing games like “Capture the Flag” and “Tin-can Alley.”

All of it really just falls into the category of fighting, though. Strength, speed, agility or physical force-of-will would generally determine the victor in any contest, and if it didn’t there would be an argument about it so the tougher kid could still come out on top. Since the element of strategy was always loosely involved, however, the winner could claim both physical and intellectual dominance. It was a pretty good way to establish and constantly reinforce a pecking order among the boys, but more than that it was an excellent way for the boys to prove how much better they were than the girls. Or so it seemed.

Not Bluegrass

Old-time music is better than it sounds. Old-time, not bluegrass. Of course it’s futile to argue tastes in music. Foolish to judge the listening choices of another. Folly to debate ones’s aesthetic preferences. But having said that, may I add: bluegrass sucks.

Ha! Just kidding, bluegrass. You know we only tease you out of envy for your fancy shirts, and amazing chops, displayed in those talent attacks had most every solo. And you’ve got as many virtuosos per capita as any genre out there, though they be virtuosos with the souls of bean counters. Ha! Did I say that? Just kidding, bluegrass.

Of course there’s some overlap between the styles, bluegrass having “evolved” out of old-time, around WW II. It’s not like there’s a tidy trench between the two, over which we lob our slurs and brickbats. But for the most part bluegrass emerged around 1945 as Earl Scruggs (forgive him Lord) invented his 3-finger style of banjo picking that, along with fairly specific instrumentation, defines the style. Still, the term “bluegrass” is often misused to label anyone playing that assortment of stringed instruments. There’s a local pop band most always labeled “bluegrass” because of the instruments they play, but it ain’t so. How do I know? They don’t suck.

Sorry. I really should see a shrink about this hot-lick envy. Treat these deep-seated fears of Stetsons and bolo ties. Having spent so much of my life high and lonesome you’d think I’d better appreciate those mountain harmonies.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

I will do almost anything to avoid ironing. It’s the truth — I will. I don’t know what it is about ironing that is so abhorrent to me, but I will consider almost any other method of getting wrinkles out of my clothes.

Maybe it’s the ironing board. It’s all big and squeaky, and inexplicably hard to operate. Mine has not one, but two security features — you have to compress this metal … thing … while applying downward pressure on the legs to get it to close. Then, it catches on the second security contraption, which requires that you, maintaining aforementioned downward pressure, and compressing the first metal thing, also compress a second metal thing. It’s next to impossible. It’s actually easier to remove a Volvo 850 engine or a human heart. I know irons are hot and dangerous. But a double lock? There are nuclear silos with less integrity.

As an added feature, or possibly as evidence of the degradation of the ironing board over time, this security feature also activates while you are opening the ironing board, locking the board halfway open, approximately three feet off the ground. Three feet off the ground is too far below my natural waist for me to comfortably iron there, and slightly too high for me to iron at from a kneeling position (ask me how I know) so I must begin a reverse version of the closing the board/security catch deactivation process: I clench both metal doobobbies like I am falling off a cliff, and vigorously shake the whole thing up and down until the legs finally release, like a huge metal crane, and snap into ironing board, full-height position.

Don’t Worry About It

I played football at UMD for two years.

No I didn’t.

I was on the UMD football team for two years. I had a locker and got equipment that wasn’t as nice as what important players got. I received most of the on-and-off-campus benefits that came with being in the football fold. I made it onto the lower tier of the second-string roster for a few practices by the end of my sophomore season in 1990. I was a legit but inconsequential member of the team. I never really played. I haven’t actually played football since November 1989, when my senior season as a Rochester John Marshall Rocket ended with a loss to the Winona Winhawks.

Some fellow seniors cried on the sideline of Winona’s stadium as our high-school football identities ticked away. I felt bad about not being able to muster that emotion. I couldn’t have said it this way then, but now I know I just didn’t much care. I mean . . . I suppose I would have preferred to win. It’s just that losing didn’t really bother me and I wasn’t bereft about that season ending.

No part of football for me had to do with feeling driven to win or averse to losing. Somewhere in my dudebro teenage brain I already knew that many aspects of football are stupid and creepy and “winning” and “losing” are illusory stories we tell ourselves to create meaning we can understand in an existence we can’t.

The Amazing Story of the One Man Gang Middle Finger Photo

Thirty years ago I attended a World Wrestling Federation card at the Duluth Arena … because that’s something teenage boys did in 1987. I went with a group of friends that included Barrett Chase, who co-founded Perfect Duluth Day 16 years later. Seated directly behind us was a complete stranger. Eventually, the three of us ended up in business together … if you count goofing off on the internet as “business.” I certainly do.

As far as wrestling cards go, this one was pretty mediocre. “Macho Man” Randy Savage was in the main event, which was enough to make it worth the twelve bucks or whatever it cost to get in. A number of other well-known wrestling names were on the bill — Honky Tonk Man, Killer Khan, Junkyard Dog, Sherri Martel, Koko B. Ware, Dan Spivey — but the Macho Man was unequivocally the legend in the room.

Years later, all memory of who won or lost those wrestling matches faded. Barrett and I would end up going to five WWF cards in Duluth during a one-year timeframe spanning May 1987 to May 1988. Those events became mostly mashed together in our brains, but we could somewhat distinguish them by remembering main event matches or which other friends came with us to the shows.

Ripped Smoke-free in 2007

[Editor’s note: It’s been a decade since smoking cigarettes was permitted in Duluth bars. The Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act was expanded by the 2007 state legislature to include “Freedom to Breathe” amendments intended “to protect employees and the public from the health hazards of secondhand smoke.”

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. Ten years ago he went out on the first smoke-free night at Duluth bars and published this report for Duluth’s weekly Transistor.]

There’s something strange in the air tonight at R.T. Quinlan’s Saloon. It’s called oxygen. Minnesota’s statewide ban on smoking in workplaces took effect on Oct. 1, and now people like me, who indeed consider bars to be “workplaces,” can breathe easier. As a result, I intend to work even harder now, starting with this gin and tonic.

Although I’m likely to live longer and need to spend less money on laundry thanks to the smoking ban — both of which will allow me to drink more — there are a few negative side effects. For one, the air is now so clear in here that’s it’s possible to see all the way across the room, increasing the odds that my landlord will find me.

Positive Thinking Meets Bad Car-ma

I had one simple objective that fateful day in December 2016. I just wanted to walk my dog before the sun went down. It seemed like a realistic goal.

After a morning spent working, I had a quick lunch, resumed working and before I knew it the clock read 2:30 p.m. So much for my realistic plan.

I had a dental appointment at 3 p.m. and that was a 20-minute drive away, so it was already time to leave. Since the sun sets around 4:30 in Duluth during December, my opportunity to walk in the daylight had pretty much already passed. Still, I clung to hope.

I actually had two dental appointments back to back that day — a scheduled cleaning and a checkup on the progress of a recent implant, which replaced a molar that had collapsed a few months earlier due to the incredible bite-resistance of a simple graham cracker. Stories of dental calamity aside, by the time I got out of the reclining chair and removed my slobber bib the sun was disappearing. I no longer clung to hope, but I had intentions of making the most of the dusk.

My Fancy Foreign Car is a Symbol of Why I’m an Idiot

If you read my previous essay, you already know I bought a used-but-fancy foreign car and suddenly thought I was hot stuff. Now it’s time to acknowledge I’m an idiot. But before I relate my idiocy with relevance to the car, here’s a general description of the global conspiracy against me:

In my daily life I make approximately one really stupid mistake per waking hour. It is my sincere belief that half of those mistakes occur because my brain feeds me rational information for problem solving, which hinders my performance because there are maniacs out there designing products to work in ways that are contrary to human logic. The other half of those mistakes are cases in which someone tells me to do something and explains it in a nonsensical way or assumes I know something I don’t.

So, while I acknowledge I’m an idiot, I refuse to take responsibility for my idiocy. It’s society’s problem, not mine.

For example, when my wife asks me to zip up the back of her dress, and I zip it all the way up, and then she asks, “Did you get it all the way?” I say “Yes” and go about the rest of my day. Then, at the end of the day, when she takes off her dress and points out that I didn’t connect the hinge on the inside, well, I’m an idiot for not knowing there is a hidden hinge on someone else’s clothing.

But I digress.

My Fancy Foreign Car is a Symbol of American Freedom

When the transmission went haywire on my rusty 1993 van on the day after Thanksgiving 2015, it marked the end of a beautiful seven-year relationship. The ol’ GMC Vandura cost me $1,400 to buy, and while it needed some work here and there, it was a major-league transportation bargain. My average annual cost of driving during those years was $2,200.

To clarify: From mid-2008 to the near-end of 2015 I drove wherever I wanted at an annual cost of $2,200. That number includes fuel, insurance, purchase price, repair and maintenance costs and all other fees. Six bucks a day to go anywhere – basically the same price as a daily pint of craft beer at the trendiest joint in town.

For many months after the tranny crapped out on the van, I continued to drive it short distances on flat roads, shifting into neutral when it fell out of gear, then shifting back into drive. If I needed to go somewhere involving hills or highways, I took a bus or arranged to use my wife’s vehicle. I just wasn’t eager to go car shopping. I figured I’d wait for a car to come to me.

And then a car came to me.

Notes from the Wayback Machine

Most of us emerge from infantile amnesia around the age of three. Until then our memories are catch and release. After that some stick, some don’t, until, alas, we come full circle. Unsettlingly, what we do recall is not the original event, but our last memory of that event, not something etched in stone or set in amber, but fuzzing at the edges and swapping facts like stage props, our solo game of “Telephone” played across time.

My first memory, as far as I can remember, is being held on my mother’s hip as she stood in the water at a public beach on the south shore of Lake Superior. I was looking down her one-piece suit at her breasts. Having never been suckled, this may have seemed a novel and compelling sight. Something worth remembering.

Decades fly by and summers pass like weekends. But between the ages of three and thirteen time was much-expanded. Time lost, but if the trigger’s found it’s not for sure forgotten.

My family moved when I finished kindergarten so there’s a clear line defining before and after. Subtract my amnesiac beginnings and it hardly seems possible a home could hold so much. Here we lived in a frame house with a dirt cellar, damp and spidery. There was a big garden, a half a dozen apple trees and a play house near the garage. This was the center of a universe measured in a few city blocks. Occasionally the quiet would be broken by distant explosions at the Dupont plant, where, I was told, they were testing dynamite.

Frog Circus

Dear Mrs. Harleminn,

I realize it’s been quite a long time since we spoke. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but there is a relatively good reason for that. See, I have a confession. In 1982, I placed that four-pound coffee can full of tiny, lifeless frogs, covered in a thin layer of grape jelly, on your porch.

If you’ll indulge it, I’d like to explain.

I’ll start at the beginning. Eddy Griffenbackher and I were going to create a frog circus, wherein frogs would do short, but elegant gymnastic routines. You undoubtedly remember Eddy — he was basically notorious. I have a lot of Eddy stories myself. One time Eddy convinced me to ball up the fresh tar they used to seal cracks in the asphalt and hurl it at the backs of passing cars. Never satisfied with mere mischief, Eddy upped the ante to offer me ten extra points if I could hit Officer Cramer, who was on duty at the time. (That’s how my mom met Officer Cramer, actually. He’s a really forgiving man, and that uniform was a lot more expensive than you’d imagine. My mom knows how to get a lot of stains out of a lot of things, but gooey tar and trooper uniform are unfortunately not in that impressive number, and she owns at least one trooper uniform to prove it.)

Fruit of Newbie Fields

When you start a pick-your-own raspberry farm, people say, “You must eat a lot of berries.” The answer is no and yes.

No, because to me our beautiful fruit tastes faintly of stress and anxiety. Farming is a like skydiving: You leap out of a plane wearing a parachute made of all your spring labors and investments — and it will deploy only if conditions are perfect.

Otherwise, you’ll face a financial splat. That’s the very real danger we faced when my husband Jason and I decided to diversify our chicken farm in Wrenshall by starting Farm LoLa, the pick-you-own berry wing of Locally Laid Egg Company.

And this year the stakes feel higher. We’ve invested in an expanded irrigation system; set posts and wire trellis, hired a larger crew and pruned and weeded (and weeded some more). In a lot of ways, the work has paid off.

Though only our second season, we have eight times the berries of last year. Over three acres that equates to some 15,000 lbs. as estimated by our expert, Dr. Thaddeus McCamant. He believes it has something to do with our sandy soil, organic amendments (like “Liquid Squid”) and fruit-friendly climate provided by Lake Superior.

This all leads to what my mother-in-law would call “a good problem to have.” We are now tasked with getting as many of these berries off the field before they go to waste or attract pests or are demolished by a weather event. All of which is real and could happen at any moment. The other day, a big storm was rolling in over the field and I said angrily, “You’d better not hail on this crop!” And it struck me that I’ve become a woman who yells at clouds.

Witness Relocation

When I moved to Duluth from San Francisco in July 2004, my fiancé Jeremy and I rented a first-floor apartment in a 100-year-old house on Third Street. The elegant flight of stairs inside our foyer was an egress for the upstairs apartment, so we had to keep the door between us unlocked. Jeremy didn’t seem worried; he had been living in Ely, where everyone leaves their keys in the ignition. Turned out our upstairs neighbors were a couple of women who rescued abandoned baby animals and nursed them with eye droppers. I stopped worrying about it, too.

From our back porch we grilled brats, drank Lake Superior Special Ale, and gazed at the brewing company’s namesake. I had never had a porch, a grill, or a view this pretty. As I looked across the blue water I felt my shoulders relax. I felt off the map, like a witness relocated: no one from my past life could find me here unless I wanted them to.

Then one morning in the window of Positively 3rd Street Bakery I saw someone from my past on a poster for the Bayfront Blues Festival: Koko Taylor. Now I was old enough to see her sing. The last time I was not, and that was a long time ago.

Ripped at the Copasetic Lounge in 2007

[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. This piece was originally published one decade ago — in the Aug. 20, 2007 issue of the Transistor. The Copasetic Lounge had just opened at 322 E. Central Entrance. Barstools and operational toilets came soon after.]

I think it was close to a year ago when I first noticed the Copasetic Lounge on Central Entrance. Opening a bar right next door to Taco John’s, I thought, is nothing short of genius.

A sign read, “Coming Soon,” so there was nothing to do but wait. Every time I rode by on the DTA, I’d be sure to check and see if the place had finally opened. And every time, it was the same. “Coming Soon.” I began to lose faith.

But on the Friday of Bayfront Blues weekend when I finally see the boards off the windows and cars in the parking lot, I practically pull that dinger cord right off the fucken wall.

When I walk in, I’m confused for a split second, thinking maybe I came in the wrong door. Sure enough, there’s a bar with taps and people are sitting around drinking whiskey and beer, but this doesn’t look like any bar I’ve ever seen. This place looks more like a dentist’s waiting room than a drinking establishment. And while whenever I visit a bar I’ve never been to, I often feel like I’m about to “get a cavity filled,” it’s never quite so literal.