Saturday Essay Posts

Living History on Empty Streets

“Duluth is a bit off-center, both literally and figuratively—something most Duluthians don’t seem to mind at all. After all, this is the city whose skyway system runs partially underground, where the West End is located in the city’s geographic center, and whose annual Christmas City of the North parade is held a week before Thanksgiving. Duluth may be a little bit off-center, but part of what makes Duluth Duluth is that here, true north isn’t always where you’d expect it to be.”

— Tony Dierckins, Duluth: An Urban Biography

Sheltering in place gives a devotee to a city even more time to learn it intimately. I read Tony Dierckins’ new biography of Duluth, which fits the bill of a pre-founding-to-present history that I pined for on my blog some while back. The biography really only left me hungry for more: it clocks in at just under 170 pages and could easily have been double that length if it were to thoroughly explore structural forces and the lives of prominent figures beyond a series of mayors and those who crossed their paths. Still, it was a welcome step beyond Tony’s previous fun vignettes and collections, most of which peter out somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Granted, Duluth’s history becomes somewhat less romantic in that stretch; the great turn-of-the-century wealth faded, the growth stalled, and the architecture wandered away from an eclectic opulence to something much more mundane. Still, the book is a reminder that this city’s history has always been one of awkward lurches, of rises and falls, and a quest for some sort of stability in the aftermath.

Little Free Library Movement Still Growing

Eight years ago the concept of neighborhood book exchanges made its way to Duluth. The original Little Free Library was built in Hudson, Wis., in 2009. Duluth had its first in 2012, and by 2013 there were about 20 in the city. Today there are roughly 40.

It’s a global movement. The nonprofit Little Free Library organization estimates there are now more than 100,000 registered book exchanges in more than 100 countries worldwide.

If you’re unfamiliar with these little libraries, their appearance consists of a bird-house looking box, around 20 inches by 15 inches by 18 inches, typically with a Plexiglas door. Inside is an array of books assembled for the purpose of sharing. Anyone is welcome to take a book or leave a book.

There are 38 book exchanges in Duluth cataloged on littlefreelibrary.org, and several more are in surrounding communities. If you’re interested in where to find them, visit the Little Free Library website and search “Duluth,” “Superior” or the area of your choice. The locations will pop up and you can find the one closest to you.

Nurses and COVID-19

“The world breaks everyone and afterward
many are strong at the broken places.”

~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms

Donna Heil is a registered nurse working in Duluth during the Covid-19 pandemic. Every morning or night, depending on the shift, she wakes up and goes to work. Earlier in her career she took care of children in an intensive care unit, and would fly in helicopters when needed to help pediatric patients. Now she works in radiology, helping people who are sometimes very sick.

She became a nurse after living through a horrific automobile crash in which her husband died. That is why I turned to Hemingway and his words, “many are strong at the broken places.” He wrote those words in his novel about the first world war and the time he spent in Italy recovering from a wound he suffered as an ambulance driver and the nurse who took care of him while he was convalescing. Donna is a tremendously strong, loving, caring woman which is why she is a great nurse filled with compassion and empathy.

To the Women Who Raised Me

I was raised by immigrants from a big Turkish-Armenian family. It’s an old family, sprawling across Istanbul, across Turkey, across the globe. If I mention reading a study from New Zealand or Brazil or Lithuania or Poland or wherever, the response is inevitably, “Oh, we have cousins there!”

It takes a village to raise a child, and while most of our village was overseas I still felt their presence. I was singularly blessed to have a veritable metropolis of strong role models supporting me. Despite having been born and raised in America, my roots grew too deep in foreign soil to be pulled free.

Now I have a daughter of my own. A wide-eyed, strawberry-haired little gummy bear. She already loves dolma and a lengthy duduk solo. She is being raised not just by her Mama and Papa, but by a rambling expanse of extended family. In raising her, I have a new appreciation for the love and devotion of my grandmother, my aunt, and my mother.

Convivial Memories of an Epicurean Hedonist Con Mucho Gusto

My whole life was organized around going out for drinks. The party’s over.

The Duluth art and music scene seems preserved in amber. I can see it in my mind’s eye from every angle, but I can’t touch it.

Has the virus infected time?

I was days away from participating in a group art show in Duluth Coffee Company and its Roasteria taproom. The Facebook event page was hours from launching. All the art is on the walls. I left a hammer there I was going to go back for, just before the stay-at-home orders unfolded. It’s probably right where I left it, timelessly suspended as if let go by an astronaut in orbit.

The Embassy art-church had just opened, promising untold events, unseen sights, and unheard sounds. It reached as if for the hand of God in the Sistine Chapel — a frozen gesture.

Ripped at a Wet T-shirt Contest in 2000

[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. Twenty years ago the 3rd Rock Bar at 1201 Tower Ave. held weekly wet T-shirt contests. The Sultan of Sot was there to document the action for an article that appeared in the April 19, 2000 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper.]

The 3rd Rock Bar is Superior’s newest nightclub. It is a hard-rock venue, similar to the old Pacific Club, where Metallica cover bands and easily deceived women gather to negotiate unwanted pregnancies. Connected to 3rd Rock is the Bourbon Street Blues Saloon, which was completely patronless when I peeked in the window.

Every Wednesday night, 3rd Rock hosts a wet T-shirt contest. This is an excellent marketing choice because the type of person who really enjoys a wet T-shirt contest is also the kind of person who really enjoys doing the same thing every Wednesday night.

Paper Tiger

I’ve been trying to write this fucking essay for three weeks, but my brain won’t stay allegiant to my body. I feel like the inside of my head is a giant scribble, like Charles Schultz’ confusion thought bubbles or Rowling’s Obscuris.

I keep rolling the word around in my head, like that will somehow make it dissolve: pandemic. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We’re having a pandemic.

The problem, I think, is that I have no frame of reference. It’s like trying to imagine a new color. And sitting down to write, the world is so loud that it’s hard to hear my own thoughts. I feel this ball of energy gathering — this terrible welling of grief and fear, tragedy and panic. I know this is crazy, or fantastically pessimistic, but it feels like we’ve been careening toward this for years. Maybe it’s an artifact of all of the government preparation for the inevitable disaster we received. As a Generation X kid, I spent so much time preparing myself for Soviet invasion or nuclear war that it’s bound to have permeated my subconscious in some insidious way.

Even Good Dogs are Still Dogs

A tan, 120-pound mastiff growled through the crack in the door, barely held back by a 12-year old boy. I was knocking at the door of this rural home to let the residents know I’d be working in the stream nearby. Even if the stream bed is technically public, nobody likes being surprised by a stranger in their backyard. As a 27-year-old female graduate student, I didn’t feel very intimidating, but the13-year-old boy was creeped out by me knocking. I told him I’d be taking some measurements in the stream and handed him a flyer about my research to give his parents. He said OK and slunked behind the door, but not before first letting his huge growling dog squeeze outside. As I turned to go, the mastiff immediately lunged and chomped down on the flesh of my ass. I yelped in pain and I looked back at the silent closed front door for help. But the boy was gone, and the dog seemed satisfied with his bite and also retreated, still growling. I walked quickly back to the car on the road where my field assistant was waiting, my heart pounding wildly.

By that time in my life, I was a full-fledged dog lover with two dogs of my own, Rooster and Arlo. I had adopted Rooster from a shelter, and he was the absolute best dog ever. Perhaps you’ve heard this before, but listen, this is the real thing.

The Duluth Psychedelic Sermon – UPDATE with Video

Sentient Duluth awakens! Praise it!

When did I come to consciousness? Its bars and venues the wombs I gestated in, the booths and stages framed my embryogenesis. Birthing me to myself, I walk between trees. Light and water conspire mysteriously. My shadow stretches to the lake and covers it in the setting sun. Praise it!

I am bridges staring down into darkness and depth. I am mirrored streams carving the hillside like molten silver from a furnace pour, the lake a great ingot. More than anything, I am the lake. Gleaming as if the sun has transferred its powers to Lake Superior in guardianship, Lucifer abandoning hell to an angel of water. The lake is a tectonic plate of fire subducting at the shoreline, trapping the light in water like amber, a bowl of liquid light. Golden honeyed light, silver light like photographic emulsion, sepia light. Ore boats sailing the surface of white stars, red giants, blue neutron stars. Ore boats sailing out of faded, flaking photographs. The lake like Io, blinding bright, sea planet of perpetual ice cover, Jupiter blots out the sky rising over Superior. The lake a reflecting mirror like a planetary laser defense system, peering into every south-facing window on the hillside, light pouring into every home as the lake searches them with its blazing eye. Praise it!

Social Connection in a Time of Social Distancing

As we’re facing social distancing for the next little while, it’s looking more and more like social media will be important to many of us for remaining socially connected. As a technology ethicist focusing on social technology and interpersonal relationships, this falls under my area of research. What follows isn’t everything that could be said about relationships and social media, of course, but might be of use as we strive to maintain connection in spite of physical distance. And in case you’re interested in following this up with some of your own research, I’ve included plenty of links to further work on this subject.

First, while it might not be everyone’s first choice as a way to connect with others, reject the narrative that interactions mediated by social technologies aren’t “real.” You can really talk and share and tell jokes and play games together remotely as well as in person. Yes, some things about these interactions will be different, but context is going to color any of your interactions. And don’t think of this as just substituting for “real” interaction: comparing, say, Skype to having lunch with a friend might be frustrating, but there are things you can do in computer-mediated communication that have no in-person equivalent: playing with filters and goofy overlays, daily “roll call” with a bunch of friends all sharing pictures of their pets, Your imagination is the limit. These can be enjoyed on their own merits.

Ripped at the Kom-on-Inn in 2000

[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. Twenty years ago he visited the Kom-on-Inn in West Duluth and published this report for the April 5, 2000 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper.]

Granted, it does not take much to amaze me, but when I entered the Kom-on-Inn my spine just about shot out of the top of my head. I had always been under the impression that the Kom-on-Inn was a boring bar that was empty most of the time. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was … I don’t even know where to begin, so let me just walk you through the place.

First of all, it is important to know that everyone—every last person in the bar—was smoking a cigarette. I am not exaggerating when I say it was difficult to see across the room. At the very back of the bar, where I came in, a bunch of Tommy Boys talked on cellular telephones and shot pool with heavily hair-sprayed and lip-linered girls drinking bottles of Mountain Dew. Apparently they were stationed there to give newcomers like me the wrong impression of the place, for just past them, everything became drastically different.

My Partner is Starting a Cult

There’s a church revival going on in Lincoln Park, but it’s inspired by art, not God. My partner of nearly 25 years is one of the instigators of a self-proclaimed “cult.”

I guess you could say I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago because I can’t say I was shocked when he announced his plans.

Life with Troy Rogers, aka Robot Rickshaw, is never dull. He builds musical robots so that he can cart them around Canal Park and the Lakewalk for pop-up performances while wearing a hazmat suit and gas mask with a teddy bear strapped to his chest.

“What have you been up to lately?” Troy’s aunt asked recently, trying to make conversation at a family event. “I’m starting a cult,” he deadpanned.

There were no follow up questions or small talk. Just a perplexed expression from the pious Catholic and an uncharacteristically quick end to the conversation as she escaped to the next room.

Painting Moments with Words

I’m driving north on Interstate 35 after a day spent in Columbia Heights, Minnesota. The sun is gone. Winter clouds have parted, exposing a well-missed speckled dome. White lights from vehicles traveling south dart passed on my left. Amber tail lights and yellow blinkers dot the lanes in front of me. The rear-view mirror reflects what is behind. From above the treeline north of the Finlayson/Askov exit, radio antenna towers flash red warning lights while others remain constant. My direction is a meandering north-by-northeast heading, but my aim is home, my aim is to return the woods.

I look to the sky, and poised stoically in the Northern hemisphere is the Big Dipper. The constellation is tipped so perfectly I can’t help but send a smile back. A small smile with a slight nod that says, “Yes, I agree.” I lean forward in the seat, wrap my arms around the top of the steering wheel, and lay one hand over the other, the common driving pose one assumes for meditative and ponderous thought. My eyes trace the stars that make up the handle of the constellation, and maybe I’m projecting, or want a physical message from the grand galaxy, but the handle, low and clear arched toward the earth, points directly at home.

I Demand a Lakewalk

I demand a Lakewalk.

Retired engineer and geologist David Hoag wrote in a Jan. 22 Duluth News Tribune op-ed piece that he feels, “It would be much better to retreat,” than to “shore up, harden, and improve the lakeshore in areas near the Lakewalk and Brighton Beach that were battered by recent storms.”

Retreat to where? Are we going to let the lake have the rail line, and Fitger’s? Are we going to cede Canal Park to the lake? Are we going to abandon all infrastructure because it needs fixing? Are we going to tear down the bridge and the canal and move them to higher ground? Set fire to the ports? Should we flood the highway and designate it “boats only”? Is Leif Erikson Park to be abandoned to the waves, and we’ll just watch as it crumbles? Should we watch as Lake Superior undermines and claims the Rose Garden? Are our Park Point citizens to be forgotten?

Mud

The mud in Southeast Alaska is everywhere. From Vancouver to Skagway a lush, near-ostentatiously green forest covers every conceivable surface with a teeming, tumbling, vulgarity of foliage. The Tongass National Forest is like a skunky Eden, ancient pine and spruce trees standing clustered tight as hair on a head, their verdance made that much more outstanding by the complement of thick, gray sky. It’s a North American rainforest. It rains 300 days a year, in one fashion or another, in my hometown. If the Inuit people have more than 200 words for the various elegant permutations of snow, the fishermen in Southeast Alaska have half again as many swear words for rain.

There is the putative rain that everyone knows, a tumbling shower from amassed clouds, a mixed blessing of ruined hairstyles and refreshed lawns. Then, there is the torrential downpour, bending fat blossoms under the combined weight of nectar and water, cracking peony stems and laying ferns flat against the ground like splayed bodies clinging to the surface of the earth. Drizzle — the most onomatopoeic word for a weather phenomenon, that half-hearted report from the heaven that everything, everywhere is gray and dull — is the meteorological equivalent of “meh,” spelled in water. But there is another type of rain, a sort of surreptitious precipitation that starts as gentle and refreshing as the misty spray from a waterfall, tiny cool droplets tickling the skin and seemingly innocuously disappearing. But there, along your eyebrows, a heavy bead of water leans ominously toward your eye, the ponderous descent changing its trajectory to head it straight along your nasal fold into your mouth. And there, along your temple, droplets as sure and regular as cold, portly beads of sweat begin to accumulate and race down your face into the neckline of your inadequate sweater. And your sweater! Wool and practical, has suddenly gone from misted with tiny, fruit-fly-sized droplets to saturated, impregnated on the very molecular level with water. Water fills your boots this way. Water drips from your nose like a dysfunctional faucet. Water drips between your teenaged breasts and makes the underwire of your bra cold and wretched. By the time you get to school, just a 30-minute walk — you are as wet as a newborn calf, and every bit as disoriented and gangly.