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Saturday Essay Posts

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.

Ripped at Thirsty Pagan Brewing in 2007

[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 recognition of Thirsty Pagan Brewing’s recent move from its longtime location on Broadway Street to a newly renovated home at Winter Street Depot, we dust of this drunken report from 2007, when the business was in its first year of operation after taking over Twin Ports Brewing Company. This story originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2007 issue of the Transistor.]

Like the word “Christian,” the word “pagan” makes me vaguely uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t want to think about the gods when I’m drinking; it’s that I don’t want to think about bearded guys in wool stocking caps who smell like a sheepdog. Unfortunately, as I walk into Thirsty Pagan Brewing, it’s difficult to think of anything else.

The TPB, located on the corner of Broadway Street and Ogden Avenue in Superior, is the brewpub formerly known as Twin Ports Brewing Co. Walking inside is a lot like walking into some stoner’s basement grow-room. The main reason for this is the hoard of thickety furbags slumping over tables and drum kits. Tonight, however, the grow-room mood is enhanced because one side of a Hamm’s beer sign on the ceiling seems to be out for repairs, leaving its exposed fluorescent rods to blaze with retina-searing intensity. While one side of the room enjoys the classic sign, naked bulbs shine down on all the shadowless, drunken truth on the other side.

North Country Trail in Wisconsin: Crossing the Border

This is the third chapter in my quest to hike the North Country Trail across Wisconsin, but logistically it probably should be the first. As I’ve explained in previous chapters, the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota and the North Country Trail in Wisconsin aren’t properly connected yet at the border. The best thing a purist can do to fill the gap is hike on Minnesota State Highway 23 and a pair of county roads to get to a trailhead. So that’s what I did. Because I’m an annoying purist. Sort of.

It’s not so much that I’m determined to be annoying and pure. There are basically three reasons I wanted to hike on the roadways. 1) I know from experience that having a somewhat methodical goal inspires me to stay active. 2) If the pieces don’t all connect, it’s easy to lose track of where I’m at in the process, thereby thwarting reason #1. 3) Hiking on a trail in May is less fun anyway because of mud and ticks, so roads might be the best option anyway. (And if I were a true purist I’d strap on a backpack and hike across the whole state in a few days instead of breaking it up into numerous easy hikes.)

With all that in mind I parked my car on the side of Highway 23 near the Wild Valley Road sign and set out to connect my Superior Hiking Trail adventures to my fall 2018 North Country Trail hike at Nemadji River Valley.

Adult Braces

Last year, I got adult braces, which are distinct from kids’ braces in several ways. They were the tooth-colored kind, made of ceramic, so you could not call me metal mouth, just brace face. No one did, which is the first way they differ. I was 14 the first time I had braces. They did their job, but the effects had a statute of limitations.

Getting braces a second time became a priority when midlife seized me. About to turn 40, I had a classic crisis during which I asked the important questions: Who am I? Am I living my best life? And: ugh, can I get my teeth fixed?

I could, actually. My two girls had gone through orthodontic treatments one after the other, and because I was such a good customer, the orthodontist gave me a deal: the price of one person’s braces in addition to two other people’s. Paying for braces three times is another way adult braces differ from kids’.

At first, I was surprised at the pain. Tylenol couldn’t touch the deep soreness the braces caused. Advil, Aleve, margaritas, nothing helped. The pain caused me to hold my mouth half open and make weird hand-shields while talking at work. I apologized to people repeatedly during this period, asking for my grossness to be excused.

Best Practices

— a loose companion to a previous essay about teaching

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.”
— Robert M. Pirsig, from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

I understand why a lot of teachers lust after “best practices.” I get why so many of us grasp at supposedly foolproof methods for making students do exactly what we want them to do. A lot of us have been taught that assigning work then rewarding or punishing students according to how they do it is the gist of teaching. (A lot of students, understandably and heartbreakingly, believe those rewards and punishments are the gist and evidence of learning.) From a certain perspective it makes sense for us to seek information about how to reward and punish as effectively as possible. It also, in some ways, makes sense for administrators to dictate practices they believe will create consistent punishments and rewards throughout a particular course, major, college unit, school, district, or state. The actual of process helping fellow human beings learn — as opposed to the process of meaningless, faux-rigorous punishing and rewarding — is a task of privilege that’s incredibly difficult to do well. I know my own version of feeling desperate for some method or approach that just works.

Mousecanceheimer’s

Tig Notaro famously did a stand-up routine in which she announced she had cancer. It was lauded as one of the most incredible moments in stand-up history, and she was extolled as a pioneer in comedy for really working the fine edge of the tragedy + time = comedy equation many comics venerate as the best method of joke construction. I’ve listened to the routine — it’s as good as it’s rumored to be. Better, maybe, because of Notaro somehow putting into the fewest possible words the absurdity of human life in an undeniable way. A laser cut around the heart, but in the shape of a fart.

In this magnificent routine, Notaro jokes that people always say that “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and then goes on to imagine the angels watching God handing down Notaro’s few months of life, questioning God’s sobriety: in just a few months, Notaro almost died from an intestinal infection, her mother died in a household accident, and then she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in both breasts. The space between these events was long enough for her to make the phone calls necessary to tell anyone that one of the things had just happened. It’s preposterous. And inexplicably shitty.

Ripped at Score Sports Bar & Grill in 2009

[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. Few people will remember Score Sports Bar & Grill; it existed for a brief period spanning 2008 and 2009 at 21 N. Fourth Ave. W. in Downtown Duluth. The location is best known for Duluth Athletic Club Bar & Grill, but six different bar/restaurants occupied the space during a 15-year span at the turn of the millennium. Ol’ Slim paid a visit in April 2009 to file this report for the weekly Transistor.]

Considering the proximity to Duluth Police headquarters, not to mention the cops actually working right inside the door, it’s a bit surprising to see the sidewalk outside Score Bar slippery with a fine, fresh spray of urine, and littered with an array of beer cans. Then again, I’d bet that none of the kids sucking on Michelob Golden Light inside the place are attending the University of Minnesota Duluth on a scholarship.

And sure enough, as I walk in the door, some sorry tyke is leaning against the wall and mopping tears from his cheeks as one of Duluth’s finest writes him up. The crime undoubtedly has something to do with pulling out his trouser snake right there on Fourth Avenue West, which will be his claim to fame in the newspaper’s “Matters of Record” column, his greatest achievement before flunking out of business school, hopping into the 2009 Chevy Silverado his proud parents bought for him and driving back to Anoka or wherever the fuck sorry losers like this spring from.

U.S. Administrator of Standards

The middle of Donald Trump’s presidency might be a strange time to make a pitch for establishing a new cabinet position. Or it might be the perfect time. Either way, I have little to lose by suggesting the new job is needed and insisting I’m the best person to fill it. A more rational and reputation-conscious president might not give my ideas serious consideration. The Trump Administration is likely the best hope I have for acquiring short-term autocratic power.

I’m not interested in any of the existing cabinet positions. Those jobs are pretty much filled anyway, although some are “acting” cabinet members — and it’s understood the door is figuratively revolving at the White House and heavily treated with WD-40.

The various secretaries, directors, ambassadors and administrators who serve at the pleasure of the president are already busy at work to make America as great as it was at some undefined point in the past, and they aren’t really clamouring for my help, but I do have a few simple ideas that could improve America and the whole planet Earth for that matter, and I feel like it would really only take me until noon on my first day at work to sort those things out. That would leave plenty of time for cleaning out my already empty desk after hearing on the news about the tweet announcing the termination of my employment.