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Saturday Essay Posts

Cats and Dogs

My old neighbor — we’ll call her Tonya — verbally abused her pets. It was like living next door to a David Lynch biopic of Joan Crawford.

One summer, I was digging a fire pit in my back yard. It was the middle of a nice, warm day, probably in June. Suddenly, over the fence that encloses my back yard, I heard a woman’s voice talking reasonably to what sounded, inferring from what she was saying, like a small child: “Autumn, remember what we talked about? You promised to play on this side of the yard, away from Callie’s sandbox. If you don’t do what you promised, we’ll have to go inside.” Huh. I must have neighbor kids. Cool. I kept digging my fire pit. Three feet in diameter? Four? I tabulated the number of edging stones I would need. The voice from over the fence started up again. “Autumn! You stay away from Callie’s sandbox, like we talked about!” I had hardly dumped my shovelful of dirt before she started up again, this time plaintively, “Autumn! You are ruining this for both of us! I said NO!” And not even five seconds later, crazy time. Full scream. “AUTUMN! Come back here right now! I told you to stay away from that fence! I TOLD YOU TO STAY!! AWAY!! FROM!!! THE!!! F#*KING!!! FENCE!!!” She was almost roaring now, she was screaming so hard.

“AUTUMN! YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING! YOU RUIN EVERYTHING! WE CAN’T EVEN BE OUT IN THE G%$DAMMED YARD FOR FIVE G%$DAMMED MINUTES BEFORE YOU F#*K  IT ALL UP! WE’RE GOING INSIDE! INSIDE AUTUMN! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? ARE YOU? ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???!!!???”

A Full-body Cry

The UMD Romano Gymnasium men’s lavatory can handle a lot of traffic if it needs to. A small entryway opens into a room of eight or ten sinks and a couple big mirrors; that room adjoins one with five or six stalls and as many urinals. Those numbers might be a bit off but you get the gist; it’s a fairly big space. Every surface except the ceiling is porcelain, glass, metal, or ceramic.

For a few minutes on a June or July weekday afternoon in 1996 I occupied one of those men’s room stalls. I was working on the UMD student grounds crew while on summer break from studying for my master’s degree in English. We were mowing grass or planting flowers or doing some other grounds-crewy thing close to the Sports and Health Center that day.

I was in the M.A. program and doing the on-campus job because they were available and I’ve never been clever or courageous enough to be what I actually want to be. That’s a whole other essay. Not really, though. It’s part or most of every adorable little essay I’ve written and will write. My navel brims with mesmerizing regret, and I feel compelled to type it up publicly.

A Lifetime of Vomit

There was a period of my life — the first 16 years — when I vomited with the frequency of a normal person. Maybe once every 17 months I’d feel sick, yack up my recently consumed proteins and resume a normal life. Over the most recent 28 years, however, my puking résumé is made up of just a pair of mega barfs.

Most people would be challenged to produce a list of the times they have vomited since the Reagan administration, but because my experience involves only two stories, I recall them keenly. So, for the sake of human digestive science … or whatever … I now share my hurling history.

It was Aug. 18, 1988, when I completed my final pre-adult barf. I was a high school sophomore, and preseason football practice was in full swing. I awoke in the wee hours of the morning with a groaning stomach, and soon I was staggering from my bedroom to the toilet, where I dropped to my knees for the first of seven sessions of violent retching. At some point in the middle of it, I called Coach Mooers to tell him I wouldn’t be practicing, but hoped I’d be back to normal for the scrimmages the next day.

Whatever hit me that morning was gone in a few hours, and indeed I traveled with the team to the Twin Cities metro-area scrimmages. After playing in the two abbreviated games, I accompanied my teammates on a trip to Valley Fair, where I rode all of the stomach-churningest rides. Indeed, I had recovered.

What I didn’t know at the time was how well I recovered. I would not vomit again for more than 26 years.

Oh, America

Dave Sorensen - Saturday Essay“I say we better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” — Walt Whitman

Sit down, America, we need to talk. But first take off those jackboots, you look ridiculous. And lose that tricorn hat. It’s cutting off your circulation. Besides, we don’t do history here, America, funny hats or no, and attention deficit aside, you’re a mere adolescent of a nation, slow to learn what goes around comes ’round.

These wars have been going on too long, America. The paper flags have faded in the windows, and folks just plain forget. But we are mired in the quag, so what do you say we shutter Empire Incorporated and retrofit some swords into plowshares, some drones into solar panels, retrain some bombers into builders of durable goods? Enough of bankers, spooks, and missiles, always in that order. Enough raining high-tech holy hell on any brown-skins shunning your benevolent intentions. If you were a super hero what would your super powers be, America? I can think of two: blowing shit up, and manufacturing dreams in Hollywood, not to be confused with reality TV out of North Waziristan.

The Large Hadron Collider, or, I Have Never Met Father John Misty, Irrespective of What This Essay Might Imply

I’ve had a rough couple of years. My dad got sick, then my husband got sick, and I became a lot more curious about the nature of being than I was before. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Large Hadron Collider. In case you are not also wedged firmly between a rock and a firm location, devouring particle physics literature like a Kardashian hoarding Us Weekly, the Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It’s the largest single machine in existence, built in collaboration with more than 10,000 scientists and engineers from around the world.

Maybe I have felt, over the past two years or so, a little sympathetic to the lead electron at the nose of that high-speed electron beam, roaring around an accelerator ring at nearly light speed, every lap incrementally nudging closer to a head-on collision with an opposing electron beam, traveling at equal speed. But, less dramatically, I’ve been thinking more about what scientists have found.

The intent of the Large Hadron Collider is to investigate the structure of the atomic nucleus. (I copied that from the LHC website). But it’s been doing more than that. Like any scientific investigation of the unknown, it has the potential to change everything by altering our perception of the nature of stuff. If, for example, the LHC reveals that energy becomes matter in describable and predictable circumstances, or becomes matter by describable and predictable mechanisms, it would radically change how we see the universe. It’s literally an infinitesimally tiny change, but it would be a boundless change, philosophically.

Small Problems

Jamie White FarnhamRemember when the Sex and the City ladies accompanied Carrie on her non-honeymoon? In one scene, Charlotte (the cute one) swallows water while showering and suffers some not-so-cute Montezuma’s Revenge in her loungewear. Later, while consoling Carrie, Charlotte admits to feeling guilty about her relatively carefree life. She has no real problems, while Carrie was left at the altar and their other friend faced cancer. Even Charlotte’s divorce was not so painful since she fell in love with her divorce lawyer.

Carrie forgives her friend the guilt. She offers some perspective when she reminds Charlotte of a problem she did face: “Sweetie, you shit your pants.”

This point stuck with me because I am a Charlotte. Not in the cute sense, but in the small problem sense. I have a lot of small problems. While I am not here to compare them with illness or death or divorce or anything significant, I do want to tell you about them. Consider a year in the life of a Charlotte:

It’s Winter Break, and the kids are playing in the snow. When I bring a forgotten mitten outside, I pull the front door hard behind me by habit. We’re locked out. The extra keys are inside. We can’t get in through the garage, the side door, or the basement. It takes an hour or so for a network of friends to get a key to us. The kids make a snowman while I huddle on the porch in my T-shirt and PJ pants.

In Spring 1990 in Duluth, Honesty was Worth $75

Chris Godsey Saturday EssayI think we were having fun before a bunch of us hustled downstairs, someone hit the lights, and two or three self-appointed noise monitors started whisper-shouting for the rest of us to “SHHHHHH! You guys! GUYS! SHHHHHHH!” (Do the italics make it sound whispery in your head?)

V was definitely there, but I can’t remember if Tom and E were, because I didn’t hang out with those guys as much as I wish I would have till sophomore year. I wish I’d have done a lot of things differently that year.

I could have moved into K section with Tom after winter break 1989, but for some reason I stayed in 219B Oakland with dudes who almost made me look normal, which says nothing positive about how any of us conducted ourselves. Brief examples:

• I got home late (from diligently not studying) on a weeknight to find one roommate at the kitchen table. “Would you like to explain why you spend more time with your friends in the dorms than with us?” he admonished. “We’re your roommates. You’re supposed to be here with us. Can I expect that to change?” I can’t remember what I said in response, but since I had no courage or confrontation-handling skills at 18 I promise it was more mealy-mouthed than the situation called for.

Vulgar Graffiti

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayThe most common word in graffiti is “fuck.” It often appears by itself — a single word left for others to ponder for decades or else paint over. It is probably meant to express general dissatisfaction with life. An expanded version of the sentiment might read: “I wish to say ‘fuck you’ to every random person who passes here. Such is my anger with the state of affairs in this world and the specific circumstances I deal with in my personal life. Though most people are not necessarily responsible for the things that upset me, I nonetheless hold everyone in contempt.”

It is also not uncommon to see the word “shit” spray painted as a one-word message, which leads me to believe the act of graffiti is often more about exercising the ability to be profane in a public and semi-permanent way than about getting across an idea. At least, I hope so. It seems unlikely that graffiti artists write “fuck” and “shit” as instructions to encourage public fornication and defecation. If they did, they could be much clearer by writing, for example, “shit here.”

There are actual graffiti artists who paint brilliant and thought-provoking murals on concrete pillars, the sides of train cars and so on, but their rebel collages are a bit less common than the scribbled words of the artistically challenged.

Flackers and Kombucha

Anna Tennis Saturday EssayI’ve been eating pretty conscientiously lately. I have good reasons, so don’t get douchey. (Although, now that I think of it, when do people eat conscientiously for bad reasons? “Eff it. I’m gonna cut back on meat and sugar to really stick it to my mom. That’ll show her.”)

Some of the stuff has been pretty revelatory. For instance: spaghetti squash is better than pasta for pesto, in my opinion, and while pinto beans can still go straight to hell, cannellini beans are like little butter bombs full of protein and velvety goodness. I could drink olive oil, and 36 percent of my adipose tissue is actually guacamole. (My love handles are deeeeeeelicious.) Parsley is a vegetable and makes everything better, and although I respect you, vegetarians, grass-fed, farm-fresh ground beef is probably a good enough reason to at least seriously consider killing a cow. (Although, I’m not sure I could do that—they are really tall. Much taller than you’d think.) Kale chips are mouth-watering, Swiss chard wants to kiss your face (yes, with tongue) and don’t even get me started on what eggs can do. Don’t even.

However.

Have you ever had “Flackers?” or “kombucha?” Both are very strange.

One Foot After the Other

Dave Sorensen - Saturday Essay“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” — Yogi Berra

Most days after work I pick up my wife and we spring her mom from memory care for a stroll around the block. According to my wife’s high-tech pedometer it’s almost exactly half a mile. There’s a view of the big lake, and the weather that goes with it, and for fifteen minutes or so the three of us are happy to be walking, and walking to be happy.

My dictionary’s third definition of “pedestrian” describes its figurative sense as, “ lacking in interest or imagination; prosaic, ordinary and dull.” While, at speed, the crosstown freeways of Minneapolis may not be dull, they are certainly ordinary, it being lost on us that driving seventy miles an hour is a violent act, and this we only realize when running into something. We could’ve toured as daredevils a hundred years ago. But existence in our rolling cubicles is mostly quite prosaic, and life encaged is dull.

When I was three years old my friend and I decided to walk to the Ashland A&W, a mile away and across an interstate highway. Hudda Martenson saw us traipsing outside the neighborhood, and gave us a ride home to strict punishment. Grounded! For three days! This proved walking was a precious freedom, indeed, whose revocation was a penalty most cruel and severe.

Chimook Reporter

Chris Godsey Saturday Essay“You don’t know me,” I quavered, barely not crying, bereft of words for explaining who the hell I thought I was to show up in that place, at that time, wanting to ask those questions. “If you knew me you’d know that … it’s just that … I mean I … I just wish you knew me, because if you did …”

The Fond du Lac Ojibwe School principal loomed literally and figuratively large behind his desk. I think I can remember his first name; later I may look for both first and last, but even if I knew them now I wouldn’t type them here. I’m not trying to call him out. I’m trying to express gratitude and admiration toward him and his vice-principal.

At least I think that’s what her position was. She and I sat a few feet from each other in front of the principal’s desk. They’d squared their shoulders on me. Their steady gazes and admonishment and demands for explanation felt hard. I remember some parts of the situation clearly, especially how trembly-sick and shaken I felt. I recall other parts vaguely, if at all: how long I was there; whether I said anything intelligible; whether I’d ever felt so unwanted in a place I cared about being. I was 34 years old in the moment I’m trying to describe. I’m 46 now. I expect my brain to misremember some details from then. I also trust it not to protect me in these matters.

Two-Thing Story

Eric Chandler - Saturday EssayI sat with my kids and played “two-thing story” as I tucked them into bed. This was a game where my kid picked two nouns out of the air and I had to come up with a story that included the two things. Then we swapped and I picked the two nouns and the kid would come up with a story. It was simple. Two kids, two things, and lots of laughs.

I like to make complex things simpler. I usually view my fellow man through a simple, digital filter. Ones or zeroes. Happy Shmo or Angry Shmo. Here’s an example: “There are two kinds of people: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.” (Aren’t I clever?)

Here are some of the filters I use.

The first is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted studies and wrote a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (1999).” They published it in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I gather we live in a post-fact world, but this is science if you still care. This is what it says in the paper’s abstract: “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

The Greatest Inventions of All Time

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayIt’s difficult to pick one invention to stand out as the greatest of all time. There are so many manmade wonders that enrich our lives every day and make us question how we ever lived without them. For example: the wheel, the flushable toilet, beer, Velcro, eyeglasses, the atomic bomb and plastic storage containers.

The printing press and the Internet are certainly great inventions, but they make it just as easy to spread lies as the truth, so I can’t rate them high on my list. They certainly don’t rate above plastic storage containers, which have brought society nothing but positive outcomes.

It wasn’t long ago when people had to go to grocery stores and beg for flimsy cardboard boxes to package their belongings for a move. It was difficult to get a good grip on those boxes and I never knew when the bottom would fall out and all my Smurf glasses would smash at my feet. But plastic storage containers are lightweight, sturdy and stackable, with easy-to-grip handles on the sides. They are one of the greatest inventions of all time.

There are maybe a dozen inventions I would list ahead of plastic storage containers, and all of them are forms of contraception. I’d even put the withdrawal method near the top of the list. I know it’s not very effective, but it was a good start.

What’s in the box? A gift I’ll never open

John Hatcher - Saturday EssaySomeday, hopefully years from now, someone will face the task of going through all the “stuff” in my office and will find a box.
It is postmarked April 2, 2010. It has an address label on the side:

From: John Hatcher
To: Sam Cook

Here’s my request: Don’t open it.

Here’s why.

If you simply have to know what’s in it, I can just tell you that part: It’s one of those sporty Nalgene water bottles. I can’t honestly remember what color or what style, but I do know it has a University of Minnesota Duluth logo on it. What the box contains isn’t why I’ve kept it unopened for nearly seven years now.

The water bottle was a gift, not to me but from me. The intended recipient was Sam Cook, longtime (that’s polite for old) journalist and columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. It was a way of thanking him for coming to my journalism class.

Pornography, or, “Worst First Dates”

Anna Tennis Saturday EssayIn 1999, my ex-husband gave me a computer. I was pretty glad to get it. I had mastered emailing, and was ready to move on to the really exciting things, like AOL and internet porn.

Let’s get this clear right away: I’m not a huge porn fan. My porn experience at that point was limited to the following:

1. A couple of magazines unearthed by a 13-year-old me, in ~1985 in my mom’s friend’s attic. They were evidently from the 1970s. My suspicion was based largely on the unusual prevalence of mustaches and floppy boobies. (Throw in a headshot of Spiro Agnew and my argument is airtight.) They were disturbingly graphic and unaltered. Sans digital enhancement, the naked people all looked like slabs of pork tenderloin. With mustaches and floppy boobies.

2. A porn movie a boyfriend rented to watch with me. Everyone seemed really, really angry in it. With the volume down, their sexing faces all looked like they were watching Newt Gingrich pole dance in assless chaps and an American flag tank top. (He has bootstraps tattooed on his inner thighs, by the way. Interesting tidbit.)

3. My parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex, which was hidden under some sweaters in my dad’s closet. Finding that book in that spot was the single best abstinence education any parent could possibly provide. The idea of my disgusting parents contorting their old disgusting bodies into those disgusting and inexplicable configurations was enough to keep me from so much as holding hands until I was 16 years old.