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Saturday Essay Posts

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.

With Apologies to Carl Rogers and His Work

Carl Rogers was a significant psychologist and teacher. He was 85 when he died in 1987. The humanistic approach he’s known for gets applied across a variety of fields including therapy and politics. In education the approach is the basis of a process often called “learner-centered” teaching. Rogers describes its basics in five hypotheses that start with, “A person cannot teach another person directly; a person can only facilitate another’s learning.” He wrote a bunch of books including Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become, which spends 300 or so pages discussing learner-centered teaching. I have two hardcover copies of the 1969 edition. I revere what they say to a probably unwise degree. I also cherish them as objects, partially because they smell exactly as books of their vintage ought to smell. They also contain a version of the short essay “Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning,” which has been published in various forms in a lot of venues since the 1950s.

New Study Indicates Science Wrong about ‘Pretty Much Everything Health-Related’

A recently published study in Scientific Facts Daily has scientists around the world shaking their heads in befuddlement and dismay. Marshaling the combined data from more than 50 years and 73,000 scientific papers summarizing more than 100,000 scientific studies, the work concludes that scientific studies on the efficacy of consuming more or less of certain food types, adding nutrients or nutritional supplements to one’s diet, or using certain medicines to treat disease are all “pretty much wrong.”

“Like, almost completely wrong, every time,” chief researcher Dr. Martina Ferkes-Boothe, an international expert on hypertension, indicated. “Seriously,” Ferkes-Booth continued, “If I wasn’t a scientist myself, I’d think someone was making this shit up. First, we tell everyone not to eat fat or cholesterol, or they’ll have a heart attack and die. People were choking down those cardboard Lean Cuisine low-fat pizzas for like a decade. Totally wrong. Could have been eating real cheese, instead of that weird soy snot, the whole time. And don’t even start in on butter made out of yogurt. So many fucked up mashed potatoes. I feel just awful about it now.”

Saturday Essay and Selective Focus Programming Note

Like a bunch of old timers stuck in some newspaper-era, schedule-oriented, deadline-consumed mindset, the brain trust at Perfect Duluth has been locked for several years in the notion that every Friday we need to publish our Selective Focus feature and every Saturday we need to publish our Saturday Essay. No more. It was fine for a while, but we’re done with that rigid scheduling.

Entering the Devil’s Triangle

In late September 2018 it would have been a challenge to read a newspaper or watch a television news program without encountering the phrase “Devil’s Triangle.” In case anyone has already forgotten, I’ll briefly explain. It was related to Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court and Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against him. With Kavanaugh’s character in question, everything about him became subjected to analysis, including his 1983 high school yearbook, where the phrase “Devil’s Triangle” appeared in a long list of Kavanaugh’s accomplishments meshed with a slew of inside jokes.

This is a pretty typical thing. My own 1991 high school yearbook lists my involvement in luge. My high school didn’t have an official luge team, of course. But the entry isn’t entirely a joke. I organized several sledding events with my peers — just the traditional riding of orange Paris and red Norca plastic sleds down the hills of Duluth. We referred to ourselves as the Denfeld High School Luge Team.

As you can probably guess, the odds are 100 percent in favor of a search for “luge, sex term” on the internet generating an eye-opening result. It turns out that mentioning in my yearbook the simple act of going sledding with my friends could be interpreted as bragging about fellatio skills.

Lost in the Woods

Under cozy plush sheets and a thick comforter, I wait for heat from a newly lit fire to reach me. Chilly mornings in Lakewood Township, and by chilly I mean winter cold, have a different meaning to me than to most. I didn’t realize how accustomed I had become to this way of life until a visitor asked why I get ready for bed with a light winter hat nearby. I show my guests how to start and feed the fire. I tell them the alternative to rising from their warm cocoon is to simply yell through the blanket, “My head is cold,” and I will resolve the situation.

Mornings aren’t tough here. There are no winter boots that get put on to tend to livestock or sled dogs. I do not crawl into a chicken coop to gather breakfast. There is running water, but I don’t drink it. Instead I fetch water from the natural spring off Highway 35 and Midway Road. There is electricity, but no Wi-Fi or television. Life here is a little, alternative, I shall say. Alternative in a slightly archaic fashion, but by no means, difficult. I only notice my gradual slip into this alternativeness when I open the door to the outside world and along with it comes a want for “normalcy” that has become unfamiliar to me.

Ripped at V.F.W. Post 137 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. After the Fox-Sutherland V.F.W. Post 6320 in West Duluth closed, it merged with the Lincoln Park neighborhood post. The town’s infamous drunken scribbler paid a visit in February 2009 to file this report for the weekly Transistor. Historical note: One year later, V.F.W. Post 137 was renamed the McConnell-Modeen Post. It remains open at 2023 W. Michigan St.]

It seems camaraderie among Veterans of Foreign Wars is on the decline. Duluth is down to its last V.F.W. club, the Duprey-Alexander Post 137 in the friendly West End neighborhood. There’s no sign on the front of the building, or any other visible indication the club exists, but the V.F.W. is indeed still there, open every day from 3 p.m. until the volunteer bartender decides to lock up.

Tonight, the clientele consists of a young couple at the bar playing cribbage and a small group meeting in the next room. My arrival does not excite the volunteer bartender at all, and I can’t blame her. Working on tips alone, she must be pulling in $4 an hour. It’s only 8 p.m., but she clearly wants to close up shop right now. I think I’ll try ordering a margarita just to watch her reaction.

Mockingbird

I think I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time as a Rochester John Marshall 10th grader sometime during the 1986-87 school year. My most prominent memory of the academic experience is writing five-paragraph essays about the book for three buddies who got higher grades on the assignment (all A-minuses) than I got (solid, respectable B). I also remember watching our teacher, the white, perpetually flustered Ms. Green, have no idea what to do when Scott, the only black kid in that sophomore English section, reacted with outrage after the first time she shakily uttered the word “nigger” while reading an excerpt aloud to us.

The book is seldom far from my conscious thoughts. Partially because it’s culturally omnipresent. It’s tough to have a college degree, love reading, work in education, watch public television, or just be alive and engaged in certain aspects of dominant Baby Boomer and Generation-X zeitgeist without seeing, hearing about, or discussing the book (or the movie version of it) fairly frequently. I’m also sure I would think about it fairly often even if it weren’t ubiquitous. I don’t recall much about my actual experience of reading it that first time. I do know I immediately revered the story and many of its characters. I still do. And I’ve consciously thought about it more than usual for the past year or so, after Duluth Public Schools (Independent School District 709) administrators announced the book would be removed from ninth-graders’ English reading list. A lot of people in Duluth and a lot of other places have had a lot things to say about that decision.