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Saturday Essay Posts

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

If you read last week’s 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.

Bible Translation: Story of Creation

In the beginning, God created the universe. Before that, there was nothing — not even an infinite galaxy of darkness, which would be something. God must have been around before the beginning, but it’s not something he likes to talk about.

At first the earth was without form. Everything was dark and void. This was apparently depressing to God, so he said, presumably to himself, “Let there be light!” And a light appeared. It wasn’t the sun, though. God waited a few days to create the sun. At this moment he needed a special light for creating other things before the sun.

When God saw this light, he thought it was good. It wasn’t too dim or too bright. No adjustment was necessary. God decided to separate the light from the darkness, though, calling them “day” and “night.” Apparently they were all tangled up at first, causing a sort of swirl effect.

On Tuesday God decided to divide the waters, so he said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” God called the firmament “heaven.” Many years later, people on earth would start calling it “outer space.”

Time Travel

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? Not to brag or anything, but I have figured out a way to time travel. I can usually manage to go back a few decades, maybe a couple hundred years at most. I can’t stay for long, and I’ve yet to taste or actually touch a cup of tea from 1915, despite a fervent desire. I’m more like a traveler passing through, a tourist in a world different than mine, peering in from the side, presuming to understand what is going on around me.

This world can only be reached through research and imagination, and with the determination of a detective piecing together scraps of evidence. It also depends on helpful archivists, online databases and the support of public grant money and fellow dedicated history nerds. The path is sometimes long and slow, a little bit dusty, but sometimes it pulls us along with the thrill of the hunt and a spectacular find, like a full-on glimpse of faces, journals, conversations and the insides of shops. Tracking down history mysteries is an addicting little hobby.

The recent purchase of a 102-year-old building at 1917 W. Superior St. by the Duluth Folk School led to an off-hand request for more information about the building’s history. I found myself drawn into this request, spending free time browsing 1915 online editions of the Duluth Herald from the comfort of my computer desk, no dusty pages required courtesy of public access grants and diligent scanners. The new owners and I knew some facts, and now we wanted to see what that place had looked like when it was built. I had a hunch some pretty good time travel was possible.

I Wonder

Long it’s been known the galaxy is a big place, but until 1922 it was thought the Milky Way was all there was. Then Edwin Hubble climbed Mount Wilson and had a look-see through the Hooker Telescope and realized those cloudy objects in the sky called “nebulae” were actually galaxies unto themselves. Later, a telescope named for Edwin himself beamed back the Deep Field images of a polkadot infinity. Ten thousand galaxies in a patch of sky one tenth the size of a full moon. Why weren’t people jumping up and down when we went from a hundred billion stars (no paltry sum) to a hundred billion visible galaxies, as far as the Hubble can see? From a distance you could mistake the Deep Field photos for a sky full of stars, but squint and see galaxy after galaxy shimmering in the void. When I notice one swirling down the drain of time, just like ours, I think, “hey — spiral galaxy — my people!”

Aldous Huxley considered the brain and nervous system a necessary reducing valve providing a “measly trickle of consciousness” shunted from “Mind at Large.” Necessary because you can’t go around immersed in Mind at Large while trying to pay the bills. So we float like croutons on the bottomless deeps, and notice what we can.

Two Boulders

Shortly after my daughter was born I watched the movie 127 Hours and had a totally revelatory experience. I’m probably not the only person to have a 127 Hours revelation — the movie is pretty impactful. In it, Aron Ralston, a lone-wolf mountaineer, is forced to cut off his own arm to save his life. It’s memorable, even if you’re not nursing a newborn.

At the time, I was profoundly sleep deprived in the way only new parents and cannery workers can be. I was probably legally crazy. Plus, it was before James Franco got busted attempting to hook up with high school girls. It actually was a time-delayed revelation — a kind of revelation landmine that I stepped on much later, when I reread an essay written by Albert Camus about Sisyphus — a Saturday Essay of sorts, I guess. (“Camus on Sisyphus” sounds like either the awesomest or absolute worst pro-wrestling matchup of all time.)

We all know the Sisyphus story, in part or in parcel, right? Sisyphus angers the Gods (he’s Greek) and they punish him by condemning him to an eternity spent laboriously pushing a gigantic boulder up a mountain.

No Relation of a Dream Can Convey the Dream-Sensation

I’ve had six recurring dreams, all at least 15-20 times apiece:

1
Started when I was about 13 and stopped before I left for college. I’m kneeling on the couch, with my elbows resting along the top of its back, looking out the picture window of Mom and Dad’s split-level house at 1427 48th Street NW in Rochester, MN. I can see the street, the small front yard, the driveway, and the sidewalk that parallels the front of the house and leads to the front door. It’s dark. Probably a Friday evening, because the scene involves groceries and that’s when Mom often brought them home. I watch her pull into the driveway, get out of the dark-blue 1983 Pontiac Phoenix LJ, wave and smile at me, open the hatchback, tuck a brown paper bag of groceries under her right arm, and leave the car open so my brother and I can unload the rest. She’s wearing a khaki trench coat and carrying a purse. This is when she often worked 60 or 70 hours a week in IBM administrative support. She’s about 33 years old. The sidewalk is just under the window, so as she walks toward the door and beams a smile up at me – Mom’s got quite a smile – the angle of her gaze should mean she sees the hunched humanoid-gargoyle-type creature leaning over the eave above the window. But she doesn’t. Maybe she can’t. Won’t? The sidewalk isn’t long – 15 of her short steps? – but it feels like she’s taking forever to reach the door. Even as I’m screaming, “Mom! Look! Mom! Mom!” and flailing toward the creature, which is leering and obviously preparing to hop from the roof onto her, she just keeps smiling at me and strolling. The creature looks something like a tall Green Goblin balled into a languid crouch. Its intention is to kill her. I wake up as it springs.

Lost and Found

It started to drizzle with the kind of fine mist that slicks the pavement into a mirror and seeps steadily through each layer of clothing. Almost simultaneously, the boy and I lifted up our collars, buried our shoulders to our ears, and started to walk without speaking. There was a deserted bridge in front of us. It was a massive steel thing, born of sinewy cables and bulging beams and it perched over the city reservoir. He led us on our way over it, placing himself between me and the edge as we squinted into the idea of the water below. We could hear its agitated turning, but the darkness was so swollen that we saw nothing but an inky black void.

We were so fucking lost.

The boy and I had been introduced to each other hours earlier. Our mothers talked over us with teasing voices while we both stood mutely by, shrinking into our 14-year-old selves and consenting to eye contact in short, apologetic glances as if to say, I know, I’m disappointed with me, too.

The Only Right that is too Often Exercised Alone

The most diverse workplace I have ever known was a nursing home kitchen with workers from age 18 to 82 of many races and genders.

Kitchens breed a complex affection. We saw each other every day, taking two or more meals together. I developed favorite coworkers — the washers who will plow through the dishes quickly, not the washers who realize they are paid the same no matter how many plates they wash in an hour.  We celebrated each other’s joys. The cook might bake a small cake to celebrate a staff wedding, or streamers might appear outside the dietitian’s office on her birthday. On Friday we might go drinking — it was a special challenge to pressure the people working the dinner shift on Friday and the breakfast shift on Saturday to do a “turn and burn.”

It was on one of those Fridays that my coworker Erin told us she was pregnant, that it was unplanned and unwanted, and that she didn’t know what to do. She was likely, she said, to have an abortion.

On another Friday, in my home, maybe a week or so later, I had friends over — friends from both the kitchen and from college. I was 21, I was broke, and I was teased mercilessly for serving Milwaukee’s Best beer. Erin drank three of them in an hour, which I know wouldn’t make a koala bear tipsy. Nonetheless, I was young, I was stupid, and so I said to her: “You’re drinking?” I wasn’t sure she was 21 even, but I was sure she was pregnant.

Hiking the North Country Trail in Wisconsin: Wood Tick Flats

You can’t start hiking the North Country Trail at the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin without first hiking in from one direction or the other. If you want to go southeast through Wisconsin, for example, you need to start on Wild Valley Road in Minnesota and hike in for 3.2 miles.

I don’t know how far into Wisconsin you’ll get if you try that. As of the date of this post, the interactive map on northcountrytrail.org is unclear. It’s hard to tell if the trail ends cold in the woods, dumps out on a highway or carries on uninterrupted.

On the gorgeous Sunday afternoon of June 4, I tried to solve this mystery and failed. It was still a fun scouting mission, though, and that’s what I’ll share in this essay. Obviously I could call the trail association or maybe spend an hour scrolling through Facebook posts to obtain the knowledge I seek about the state of the trail, but I’d still want to see it for myself, so why bother with the hands-off research, right?

It has been thoroughly documented in a series of 13 essays on this very website that I slowly and somewhat methodically hiked all of Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail in sporadic spurts from 2000 to 2016. That journey started at the Canadian border and ended on the Wisconsin border. But the trail doesn’t stop at either of those points. The SHT is part of a much longer trail — the North Country National Scenic Trail — which extends to Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota to the west and Crown Point in New York to the east.