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Saturday Essay Posts

Boys

I’m done. In a little more than a month I’m going to stop hanging out with men who mistreat women. Kind of.

Let me try to speak more precisely: after the next few weeks are up I will still be spending a lot of online and IRL time — pretty much every day — among boys and men who, most often without realizing it, expect girls’ and women’s deference, use whatever level of force is necessary to ensure it, and punish girls and women who defy those normative expectations. When I say “normative expectations” I mean that the dominant social and cultural expectation for girls and women to please boys and men is so normal that it seldom gets questioned because it rarely really even gets noticed. It just is. It’s always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not, like oxygen. It permeates. It’s definitive. It defines our culture to such an inherent degree that folks who dare to name it look crazy to everyone but each other. Folks who publicly question or defy it on the regular court repercussions along a continuum more broad and real than you might realize.

None of that stuff is going to change in a few weeks.

Womaning

At first it’s impossible to understand — this thing happening to you. Imagine yourself at 12, or maybe 13 — or God help you, 19 — whenever puberty finally gored you with its long-awaited tusk. Maybe you’re the girl waiting for her breasts, standing with her shoulders back behind Tammy, the girl who got her boobs in fourth grade, praying it’s somehow contagious, and your proximity will tit you up before your Cup Noodles even fully soften. Maybe you’re the girl who thinks she’s pissed herself on the playground, only to look down and see her crotch a deep, angry red: you’ll have to be done with four-square now, because you’ll need to change into your gym clothes, or call your mom to come get you. Maybe you’re the girl who imagines the lips of other girls, who stands as close to Laurel as possible in lunch line, to smell her delicious hair, and you’re waiting to develop what all the movies and all the people say is inevitable: an exclusive taste for boys.

Maybe you held hands with Ben one time on the way home from swimming, and you were too young, and it made you feel dirty to do it, like you stole the money out of the collection bin at church, or got caught touching your privates in the unlocked bathroom by your father. You are on one side of this thing, but also on the other. You are neither and both.

It feels bad.

Ripped at Midget Wrestling in 2008

[Editor’s note: The NorShor Theatre operated as a strip club from 2006 to 2010, and all manner of amoral activity took place there. 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. Ten years ago he paid a visit to the NorShor to take in the rasslin’ matches.]

Lovers of the fine arts, like me, know it doesn’t get any better than strippers and midget wrestling. If you can see them both in the same building, and there’s a guy with a backpack who is graciously offering to share his hallucinogenic mushrooms with you, it’s time to chant U-S-A! U-S-A!

Yes, tonight the stars of the Micro Wrestling Federation are bringing their “MidgetPalooza 2009 World Tour” to the NorShor Experience strip club. Of course, it’s still 2008 on my calendar, but it’s probably not a mistake that the year 2009 appears on my ticket in three places. I like to think the MWF is like an auto manufacturer and releases the next year’s line of midgets early, so fans feel like they’re on the cutting edge of wrestling innovation.

The Wilbury Index

There are certain dignities and indignities that come with old age. Most of us would like to be considered wise, but we also want to run fast and be sex symbols. All of that is relative, of course. There are plenty of intelligent teenagers and elderly imbeciles. I ran a half marathon when I was 31 and people twice that age were passing me.

The word “old” is as relative as the attributes associated with it. You can join the American Association of Retired Persons at age 50, collect Social Security at 62 and retire from your job at a wide range of ages or never. I think I was 27 or 28 the first time one of my friends seriously commented that we were “getting old.”

Well, sure, we’re all getting old. But when are we actually old? Do our looks and physical/mental fitness have anything to do with it, or is “old” just a number?

I say it’s just a number, because I can’t, in seriousness, walk up to more wrinkled people my age and ask, “what’s it like to be so old?”

Tribes

You will know the tribes by their bumper stickers. Those watch-your-back talismans affixed to our minivans. We’re social animals, desperate for extended families, but tribalism which served us well in ancient times now splinters a humanity hungry to be whole. The myth of the staunch individualist ignores accomplishments of our collective will, yet individualism is precious, and herd mentality both dangerous and dull. Think of that frightful tribe, motivated by unconditional loyalty, its mindless chants filling stadiums in crude rituals of domination. I’m speaking, of course, about Green Bay Packers fans.

Thankfully, Vikings fans are a pale imitation of their namesakes from Scandinavia, those longboat marauders, as vicious and cruel, it is alleged, as many a hedge fund manager. But the Vikings got over it. They traded their battle axes for Volvos and social democracy. Instead of kidnapping they’re exporting cheap furniture, because Us against Them will get you only so far.

A handful of close friends is a blessing beyond measure. How do we hold onto that without circling the proverbial wagons? How can tribes expand and blend like living Venn diagrams without falling into in-group ethics? How do we “coexist” as one tribe’s bumper sticker suggests? “Don’t Tread On Me,” says another’s, twisting the sentiment of revolution for reactionary effect. A rattlesnake, poised to strike, illustrates the theme. Along with this less-than-veiled threat, drivers approaching our blindside must be warned we are insured by Smith and Wesson, and deputized for vigilante justice. Tailgate at your own risk, and don’t step on my snake.

In the Company of Men

I recently heard the name of a man I hadn’t thought about for a quite a while. He’s someone of little consequence to me, but he said something on the day I met him that I will never forget.

I can’t help but view what that man said to me through the lens of our current news cycle. We are hearing a lot about men who behave badly toward women. Very badly in some cases. The current political climate is also reminding me that the men who do bad things are often protected by other men who hide or minimize that bad behavior. I am hopeful our political, economic and social structures that have allowed men to get away with bad behavior for many millennia are changing. But the fact remains that we live in a world where some men see women as inferior, and that kind of thinking can lead to some pretty terrible things.

Hearing that man’s name triggered a traumatic memory. I’ve managed to not interact with that man since the day we met, but chances are good that my luck will run out and I will see him again someday. I hope I’m lucky.

This man did not hit me, or hit on me, or sexually assault me. But his behavior did cause me harm. It happened a little over three years ago. I met him through a mutual friend. We were walking together with our friend and having a conversation about the similar work that we do. In the midst of our conversation, the man, who I had met just hours before, called me a bitch.

Only Three and a Half

I felt homesick. Lonesome for Ms. LaCount and the soft comforts of our home. Gloomy in my stomach and behind my eyes because of some absence or presence I couldn’t discern. I’d expected all that. I also felt like I might barf every time I looked at or just thought about food. That was unexpected.

It was Wednesday, August 14 of this year. On Sunday the 11th I’d paddled away from Crane Lake, MN, headed east toward Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry point #12 on Little Vermilion Lake. I planned to reach Lake Superior by way of the Grand Portage on Saturday the 17th or maybe the day after that.

The anticipated homesickness had come on full-force during the second day. I didn’t enjoy the sensation, but I knew I could deal with it, and I did, by reminding myself of how lucky I was to be in that place doing what I was doing and just continuing to move forward. The unanticipated pukiness had imposed itself midway through the first day. It got worse any time I tried to choke down a mouthful or two of sustenance and it was, partially because of the mental state a relative lack of food helped create, a tougher problem to solve.

Words and Phrases That I Hate

What follows is an incomplete list of words and phrases I dislike. There is no real rhyme or reason to them; some are things I’ve encountered in my school or work circles, while others are just things I’ve stumbled across here or there. I list them in rough order of hatred, beginning with the most repulsive and concluding with the merely annoying.

Resiliency. This is an awful word devised by someone who deserves to be expelled from the urban planning field. The perfectly good “resilience” says the exact same thing in one less syllable. Even that is overused to the point of emptiness, but at least it doesn’t sound like an invented piece of jargon designed to make one sound intelligent. Which is exactly what it is.

Any scandal ending in “-gate.” This construction stopped being amusing circa 1974. Now it just shows a lack of creativity.

Outstate. This is a Minnesota word invented by Twin Cities people to refer to people who are not like them. It implies that people not in the Twin Cities are somehow out of the state, and plays into the conceit that Duluth, Worthington, Moorhead, Grand Marais, and Little Falls all share something other than the misfortune of not being the cool big city. Attempting to use it innocently with a resident of Greater Minnesota (an acceptable alternative) is a good way to lose any credibility you might have aspired to.

So long, West Duluth Kmart

The Kmart store in my neighborhood closed last weekend. Now there’s a giant empty space in the Spirit Valley Mall in West Duluth, with a faded area above the doors where a sign once read: “Big Kmart.”

It took more than 30 years for the store to run itself out of business, and I’d probably need a degree in finance and a long look inside the books of parent company Sears Holdings Corporation to ever understand. How does a neighborhood’s only department store — a place that’s known for always having lines at the cash registers — go out of business?

The answer to that question might be that retail stores are struggling in general, and any store with massive overhead costs that provides a lousy shopping experience doesn’t stand a chance. And the West Duluth Kmart was a lousy shopping experience.

The lines at Kmart perhaps weren’t due to the high volume of traffic, but instead the understaffing at the store. Target or Wal-Mart might have a dozen checkouts open at once; Kmart seldom had more than two.

1,186 Days

It’s been three years since I drank alcohol. More, actually: in fact, for the past three years, two months, 29 days (counting today — I’m feeling optimistic) I have abstained from alcohol. For 1,186 days, I have not had a single drink. Not a single beer, shot of tequila — not one lone glass of wine.

Which is sort of amazing, because during the 20 years before that I drank my face off.

Typically, I drank between three and five beers a night. By the last year I was drinking, most weekend nights, I drank five. I’m not the Incredible Hulk over here, either. I’ve always been a tallish, thinnish lady, and I never had miraculous, superhuman tolerance, like Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Marion in that bar in Nepal. Five beers made me drunk. Which was the whole idea. I was a heavy drinker.

In spite of my volume of alcohol consumption, I’m not an alcoholic. Some of you might be thinking, “So, you just quit drinking for nothingAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH???” And I get that. I’ll give you a moment to shriek into the throw pillows of nearby Barcaloungers for a moment while you assimilate that terrible and inexplicable chunk of information.

Ripped at Little Angie’s in 2008

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve pulled out another relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. In this adventure, Slim gets ripped at Little Angie’s Cantina & Grill for an article that was originally published in the July 28, 2008 issue of the Transistor.]

Walking through Canal Park, I feel totally out of my element. There are teenagers everywhere. A few of them are skateboarding aimlessly, weaving in and out of groups of other teenagers who are standing around together talking on their cell phones. Apparently, they are making calls to find out where else in town teenagers are standing around doing nothing. The whole thing is way too wholesome and family-oriented for me. The only way I like to spend time around people under 21 is when I’m ordering from a pregnant bartender in South Range.

As I approach Little Angie’s Cantina & Grill, however, all I can see and hear is an old, fat woman on the deck who is colossally inebriated. “I feel like I’m drunk,” she says to a group of young women who appear to be her daughters. “We’re leaving without paying.”

Now this, dear readers, is my element.

Heat and Humidity, Fences and Dogs

Shilo is lethargic in this Duluth heat. Curiosity that once jetted her off the ground at the potential of capturing what made the random noise in the brush has quelled. She has become a passive witness. Her eyes dart in interest, maybe a quick turn of the head, but nothing is important enough to coax her legs into a sprint. Not on August days when temperatures are 80 to 90 degrees and she can only expire heat while sweating through paw pads or panting.

I brush her almost daily. Removing at least a little of her hair layer may help some trapped heat escape. She has taken to lying on the cement slab in the garage, two large doors remain open letting what exists of the midday breeze wave in, a welcomed visitor.

The other loyal companion, Bear, aka Mr. Bearington, a newfoundland mixed with lab, is still on constant guard. Heat does not deter him from his mission. He remains focused on what happens on the other side of the fence. He must protect us from intruders that might sneak through the boundary. Most of the time it’s another dog, sometimes it’s a skater, a horse, a biker, or the most ferocious intruder this summer, a snapping turtle so small it could fit in the palm of my hand. Still, a snapper is a snapper. Once I realized we were being invaded by such a fearsome beast, I scooped it into a bucket and escorted it to the pond on the back 15.

Teamwork

Five late-40s white guys, all former University of Minnesota Duluth athletes, walk into a bar:

1. War: a Sheridan, Wyoming, EMT, gunsmith, vegetable gardener, log-home builder, cancer survivor, and mead-maker who deadlifts more than 500 pounds, has a powerfully agile and bibliographic brain, and could probably still start at D-II defensive tackle;

2. E: a northern-Twin Cities-suburbs cop who moonlights for the Metro Transit Police because his adolescent boys’ college won’t pay for itself, who once worked as a guard at Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater, who thinks deep thoughts but keeps everyone else from getting too serious about anything, and who knows things most people will never want or have to know;

3. Big Daddy: a northern-suburbs dad, high-school ceramics teacher, and coach — football (defensive line), hockey, track and field (shot and disc throwers) — who’s also a bicycle geek, music nerd, fishing addict, and, as nearly anyone who’s met him will tell you, a supreme raconteur;

4. Tom: a southern-burbs dentist and dad who’s done the Superior Trail 100, the Death Race, and a bunch of other insane endurance events, who’s unfailingly steady and kind (unless he drinks a quick handful of beers, in which case he gets pleasantly lippy), and whose family includes a pug elder, a middle-kid bulldog, and a brand new Jack Russell terrier;

5. G: an anxious Duluth college writing teacher (a lifer toward the bottom of the academic hierarchy) who’s got no idea how to leverage his newish Ed.D. in teaching and learning, spends unwise time trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and why, finds solace in music and bicycles and physical labor, and sometimes thinks he wishes he’d had the foresight to become a full-time firefighter who travels and reads as much as possible instead of whatever he feels like and is.

First guy walks up to the bar. Looks at the bartender and says …

Lake Superior Wants to Kill You

Pardon the alarmist headline. Lake Superior doesn’t really want to kill you, but you should know all bodies of water are oblivious to your tiny existence and will absolutely steal you away any time you make the slightest error in judgement. So I’m not apprehensive about issuing stern warnings as if I’m your mom.

I know how seductive that big lake can be. And I know how much fun it is to dive off various bridges, rocks, swinging ropes or whatever it is you can propel yourself from into whichever refreshing river or stream awaits. I’ve done it, and I’ve lived through it. I’ve also seen it go wrong over and over and over again.

I’ll be the first to say when it goes right it’s a thing of beauty. You can’t let danger keep you off the water; we all know water absolutely gives so much more life than it takes. Just sitting on the shore looking at it, whether it’s perfectly calm or violently raging, is the easiest way to put yourself into your place on this planet. But it’s natural to want more than that. You have to at least put your toes in. And that sets you on the path to all manner of thrill seeking. Your ability to pick which point along the way to show some self control will determine whether you have the maximum good time or utterly wreck yourself.

My People

If I walk west there are mansions along my way, with lawns most green and lovely. As I cross a certain avenue things start to get shaggy, and if on a corner lot there’s a for-sale sign on a cairn of truck tires my diaphragm expands with the deep breath of belonging, and I think to myself — my people!

America, so it’s said, is the land of meritocracy, social mobility, and a playing field both level and just. Here any child can grow up to inherit a hundred million dollars, pump it through Manhattan real-estate, fluff it in the casinos of Atlantic City and Wall Street, and end up leveraged to the balls with the Russian mob.

But the most accurate predictor of where you’ll wind up socio-economically — in America more so than any other wealthy country — is where your parents wound up. Social mobility exists, and was expanded by the GI Bill after WW ll, and cheap (even free) college through the ’70s, but the ladders have been withdrawn over starter-castle walls, and rising stars belie the rule.