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I pray like a dog.

We have a dog. Little Rhea is a mutt, a canine of uncertain provenance, a largely unremarkable and persistently shedding presence in the home.

Our newspaper appears every morning (well, Monday through Saturday) sheathed in a thin, blue, plastic wrapper that makes a marvelous, repurposed poop bag when we walk Rhea in the park across the street. When I ‘taught’ Rhea to ‘fetch’ the newspaper every morning (Monday through Saturday), I imagined the entertainment value of training this largely underperforming household companion to do something useful. But I also anticipated saving a few steps in my daily (Monday through Saturday) journey down the long driveway to the side of the road whence the newspaper and its thin, blue, plastic sheath gets hurled from a passing car onto endlessly creative subsections of our driveway and its vicinity.

This was not to be.IMG_1452

Rhea is, as one might say delicately of her if she were enrolled in the first grade and learning to read, ‘easily distracted’.

Just outside the house, at the beginning of the daily (well, Monday through Saturday) pilgrimage towards the Wall Street Journal, lies a set of diverse shrubberies and trees, as well as other ground cover that accidentally grows up in and among them. Our 2016 rabbit guest—a delightfully furry little presence that suffers the demerit of producing extremely vulnerable little rabbit daughters and sons—likes to shelter there. Rhea knows this. One on or two occasions, she has managed to roust our rabbit friend from its relatively protected hovel back there and chase it frantically around the yard.

Sadly, we haven’t seen our rabbit for a few weeks. We fear the worst, mostly because a quick scan of the Internet instructed us that rabbits have a thousand ways to die prematurely. Apparently, it is in compensation of this bias towards an early demise that they procreate like … well, like rabbits. Make’em, lose’em, as they might say in some other industry that has nothing to do with rabbits or front yards. Or dogs.

Still, the potential that our rabbit might still be around is a compelling notion for little Rhea. She obsesses over where that rabbit might be right now. Even as time ambles on and the possibility that our rabbit is still alive somewhere wanes in the minds of the rest of us, the memory for Rhea does not fade. It remains as fresh as her last chase.

Newspaper be damned, there could be a rabbit in there!

Then, as one steps out behind the ‘shrub line’—it makes me feel satisfyingly ‘outdoorsy’ to invent a phrase like that—one’s eye takes in the modestly vast expanse of our Indiana front yard. Rhea and I have taken in this view hundreds or thousands of time. I ponder it quietly, when I ponder it at all. Rhea, however, scans the landscape with head-jerking fascination, as though to say with every new morning (Monday through Saturday), ‘Holy cow, just look at this place … !’IMG_0021

The newspaper lies undisturbed at the bottom of the driveway.

Next up, a pile of wood that I have promised to split in preparation for winter. Creatures, either chipmunks or the aforementioned rabbit or both, have taken up residence in the welcoming nooks and crannies of this rustic structure, no doubt thankful that it shows no signs of being split any time soon. Rhea, of course, knows they are in there or, in any case, might be in there. Though by now five or six (in the latter case, an entire week’s worth of the Wall Street Journal, which the reader may recall arrives Monday through Saturday) newspapers could have been brought inside and placed at the ready. Time, in the sense that humans measure its flow, is awastin’. Yet Rhea is at the woodpile, circling, climbing atop it, peering down with snuffling intensity into its bowels. Anything could be in there, and if it’s in there it is probably chase-able. This place is awesome!

One last shrub line, nicely bordered with wildflowers, awaits before one descends to the edge of the road and the zone in which the newspaper, on any given Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, awaits its reader’s attention. As Rhea moves out beyond this last line of wood and leaves, the whole universe  seems to expand before her. She can now look up and down our street as far as the (dog’s) eye can see. It is as though vast expanses of possibility have opened up to her, and just her. She ponders it all, in that excitable, dog-like way, wondering how she every became this lucky. ‘There are dogs living in cages, dogs living in apartments … But I get all this!’

By this time, rather than saving steps to the newspaper, I have circled around numerous times, berated Rhea repeatedly, reminded her sternly of the reason we’re out here, ordered her back from lethal encounters (for the prey, not the predator) with a rabbit or a chipmunk or a sparrow that happened to fly low. We have been, well, active out here, though not precisely productive.

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Bad dog.

I remind her that a doggy treat awaits her return to the house, paper in mouth. I tell her she’s a bad dog. I change my mind, with each fleeting turn of direction towards the waiting Journal, and affirm that she is in fact a very good dog. I grow bored. I wonder if this is a very stupid idea and whether I’d do better just walking down here and collecting the paper by myself. I imagine the neighbors are watching.

Finally, Rhea can be convinced to pick up the paper in its tell-tale, light-blue cellophane, wrapper. Most days. Even after all this raw canine achievement, on occasion something will distract her on her self-satisfied trot back to the house and she’ll drop the newspaper to run off after this new obsession.

It struck me this morning that this is how I pray. I am infinitely distractible. Like Rhea. I pray like a dog.

 

 

Is it just me, or do Blues and Jazz festivals go best with big water? The wind and the waves improvise in a way that naturally frames the indefatigable improvisation at the core of these most American of musical genres.

Think the Chicago, on the edge of Lake Michigan. The Newport, on the Harbor. Now mix in Duluth, on the Lake Superior Bay that it shares with its Wisconsonian neighbor, Superior.IMG_1401.JPG

They’ve been at it now for 28 years up north, and it doesn’t much better than August 2016, our first—but hopefully not our last—opportunity to take in this inimitable Northwoods event.

Duluth could make a turtle race scenic, its hills rising up from the westernmost tip of the world’s largest fresh-water lake or—better said—inland sea. I was often here as a child on summer vacation, but know my way around little enough to require directions. They were forthcoming, with a smile, whenever needed. Duluthers treat their guests all right. Parking is ample just two blocks from the venue, where music-lovers look through the stage to the Harbor. One-day, walk-in tickets set you back just 50 clams, a quite reasonable price for the line-up on offer.

IMG_1404.JPGWe arrived half-way through the first set on the second of three musical days. Everyone brings camp chairs, and we had no problem making our way forward through the ‘way-back’ folks to a place with a nice view of the stage. The acoustics were great throughout, quite a feat in an open-air venue like Duluth’s Bayside Park.

Bell’s Brewery (‘Inspired Brewing’) served up a full and savory range of micro-brewskis to accompany a food assortment that settled on average in the ‘not bad’ range. The Good Wife warmed to Bell’s Oatsmobile Ale, while I favored their Two-Hearted Ale (IPA).

And the music?

Good grief, this was great live music.

Houston’s Annika Chambers, by her own declaration 38 years old and 2 years sober has a deep blues female voice that puts one in mind of the soulful ancients. She works those pipes in a most amiable way—a word I don’t naturally use in connection with Blues—and her winning personality perhaps as much as her musicianship turns her audience into friends. I stumbled upon Annika in the concessions area, mixing as unpretentiously and comfortably with passersby as you’ll see any professional musician do. Long may she live sober, long may she roar.

Multi-band live performance that is this good  always sets me up to feel that the last band was as good as we’ll hear, and it’ll be a gentle downwards slope from here. Not at Duluth.

Next up on our Bluesy afternoon under partial sun and 84 degrees was Chicago’s splendiferous Toronzo Cannon. Now it will have dawned on the reader by paragraph two that this reviewer is a music lover rather than a music expert, so take this observation with a grain of salt: I have never seen a musician handle both lead vocals and lead guitar with as much compelling edginess and—when necessary—blunt force as Mr. Cannon. This was a great, tight, brassy Chicago sound that had its audience on their feet and in motion.

Cue a setting sun, San Fran’s Tommy Castro & the Painkillers, and a California-cool breeze from the stage. And personality. In buckets, easy to take, welcomed by a crowd that seems to receive Castro’s act back as a perennial favorite. Then, just as the man and his band were lured (it took little aIMG_2292rm twisting for this high-spirited band) into an encore, the 1000-foot laker U.S.S. American Integrity slid noiselessly out of Duluth Harbor right behind the band. You can’t make this stuff up.

The night’s finale on the main stage belonged to the south. And to Southern Hospitality, arguably the quirkiest, most bodacious, and artistically compelling act of the entire day. This high-energy band passes the improvisational lead back and forth among the artists in a way that evoked audible gasps of appreciation from folks near us. They work a theme until it’s been pressed down, distilled, held up to the light, and honored for all it’s got in it. It was, as they say, a rip-roaring day that, at least on the main stage, did not present a single musical low.

As for the audience, we could have loaded up a pallet or two if forced to cough up our AARP cards. There were doubtless some Woodstock veterans, some well-aged hippies, and a sizable warehouse of tie-dye on hand. Yet this is a demographic fact on the ground that challenges live music of these genres anywhere, and some of the break-out exuberance that is not always to be anticipated among understated Northwoodsmen brought its own appreciable entertainment. To be fair, the under-thirty sector was present and accounted for and—one hopes—growing year on year.

You can find more sophisticated venues, and definitely more expensive. You can find some bigger names, and the egos that accompany. You can find the kind of massive crowd that follows the appeal of the elite Jazz and Blues Festivals, and the traffic jams it creates.

But I’m not sure you can do any better, anywhere, than the 28th annual Bayfront Blues Festival, Duluth, Minnesota. Two n’s, one t.

 

 

 

It may be that Esther’s mental state at a crucial moment in her mediated dialogue with her Uncle Mordecai is signaled by one small Hebrew word.

And they told Mordecai what Esther had said.Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4:12–14 ESV)

The English translation quoted above has the merit of attempting to render this little word  explicitly rather than blend it into the verbal construction of which it is a part: ‘Do not think to yourself‘ So, for the translators of the English Standard Version, Mordecai knows that Esther may be deceiving herself behind the curtain of her words. Perhaps she is even attempting to double-talk Mordecai, arguing the impropriety of approaching the Persian king uninvited while secretly seeking he down exit.

The New International Version takes the other possible route:

Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.

The conundrum is the little Hebrew word בנפשך, which could be glossed very literally in context as ‘Do not suppose in your soul that …’ It is possible that the text merely wants to have Mordecai say ‘Don’t imagine …’. But paired with a verb of mental rather than spoken activity (the Hebrew דמה), this looks very much like Mordecai observing that Esther’s objections to assertive action in the crisis at hand may conceal an inner desire for self-protection. Perhaps the text even allows itself to insinuate that Esther would be prepared to see her people perish on a technicality so long as she made it through the storm.

No wonder Bible translators die young.

It would not be the first time an alarmingly daring Hebrew text found ‘help’ from scandalized translators who though the safest path is not to imagine that the Bible’s protagonists could be that human.

Let us suppose that Esther shares with us readers a heart that—especially in an existential crisis—does not know itself well enough to be sure its motives are simple. Let us suppose that, for one white-hot moment, Esther’s own survival looked preferable to securing her people’s future.

Would that make her unlike us? Or too close for comfort?

 

 

Sometimes the tears must flow. To stop them would be to tell the lie that things are not so bad.

The Bible’s masterfully told story of Esther has the unlikely queen’s uncle leading the mournful charge as the Jewish community in exile faces extermination. In that way of cloistered royalty, Queen Esther seems the last to know, the last to come to terms with the imminent extinction of her people. Palaces can be oblivious places.

When she is apprised of her Uncle Mordecai’s extreme behavior in the public square—tearing his clothes, covering himself in sackcloth and ashes—she remedies the situation as the powerful and the naive are wont to do.

Mordecai will not have it.

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry.He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth.And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

When Esther’s young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. (Esther 4:1–4 ESV)

Sorrow tells a truth that cannot be silenced by cheap tricks and new clothes.

Had Mordecai caved to the pressure to lighten up, there would be no Book of Esther, no Jewish people, no cradle of Messiah.

Truth will out, sometimes to the tune of unstoppable groans.

After a positive experience and subsequent review of a different Gardirect insect hotel, the good folks at Gardirect contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to review a second product. With this full disclosure, I launch upon this review of the most recently arrived product.

I’m impressed.91GYoo5zTnL._SX522_

The Insect Hotel, Bee, and Butterfly House is a solid piece of backyard furniture. Though I have not hung it in its permanent location (we’re moving soon, and I’ll save the for the next home), it has a heavy feel in the hand, like the door of a well-built car. It’s handsome too, even more so than the Gardirect product I originally reviewed. The different woods combine to give it a rustic-cabin look, of the kind of rustic cabins that are well looked after. The ‘tubes’ that house many of the insects who we hope will take up residence are glued firmly in place. I mention this detail because I recently ordered a different insect hotel which, though nice to look at, had wooden tubes that fell on the floor as I examined the product.

There’s a slot in the back where the item can be hung from a nail on a cooperative fence or fencepost.

This little bugger has grown on me during the two weeks it’s been by my elbow awaiting its moment.

If this is the kind of product Gardirect is introducing, they’ll be a reliable source for homeowners like this review who love to combine aesthetic appeal with the natural rhythms of the flora and fauna that are eager to make one’s backyard their home.

Truth be told, Lake Superior and the Wisconsin Northwoods have their hooks in us. Every so often, we pack up the dawg, oil up the F-150, and head the eleven to thirteen hours north to a HomeAway cabin on some bedazzling little lake that looks on a map as though it might have fish in it. Our homing instinct and, sadly, our IQ approximate to those of a trout: strong and mindlessly determined, respectively.
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So we book a place a place sight-unseen and head to one of the little points on the map where my mother moved with her family around the Civilian Conservation Corps camps that her father administered during the Depression-era joblessness of the mid-30s.

Iron River, Wisconsin, a tiny village in a region practically submerged in rivers and lakes was our destination this time. For some local color, we headed to Friday night’s edition of the Bayfield County Fair. Something called the Great Frontier Bull Riding Company was on for 7:30 p.m., and it looked like the pick of the Fair’s weekend litter.

The Fairgrounds sit on an expansive property a mile north of Iron River, in the direction of Lake Superior, which itself lies at arm’s length just across the beautifully understated farm and brushlands of the Bayfield Peninsula. They are defended by the same kind of unpretentiously polite Northwoods people we meet every where up here. The man taking tickets at a booth with a sign marked ‘No Pets’ takes a look through the pickup’s window at our little hound lying in the back seat and wordlessly waves us on.

Inside the gates, my first impression is that—near into the end of my sixth decade—I finally understand the fear of carnival workers that my mother tried her damnedest to inculcate in us as kids. There were slightly terrifying, especially the one who worked a ride that blared the same Beach Boys tune incessantly and without so much as a two-second pause in between all night long.

IMG_1392But things begin to look up if a visitor works his way past the ‘carnival’ section. The 4-H is obviously active across the region, and local passions are evident in the horde of displays of ‘Parts of a Fish’ and ‘Parts of a Gun’ that punctuate a tour of enviable flowers, plants, vegetables, and whimsical inventions. One imagines kids looking forward to the Fair as they raise their animals, study their Dad’s deer rifle, and nurse this year’s (will they be champions?) cucumbers from Spring into Summer.

Soft target to flowers and vegetables that my Good Wife is, my intended Beeline to the animal barns is converted into a quasi-Beeline with several awkward detours, but we get there in the end. Unexpectedly, the rabbit and poultry barn trumps the cattle, sheep, and swine departments as our favorite. We never knew there were that many kinds of the little beasties. Many front endearing indications (a hilarious name here, a written observation there) of their owner’s approach to animal-rearing. It’s great to know that this side of americana—largely invisible to us city-dwellers—is still intact and apparently thriving.

Then cometh the bulls. It became clear that, if we wanted a seat at the bull-ride, we’d better hoof it over to the ring. The bleachers filled up around us, a largely young and exuberant crowd that seemed well-acquainted with the event that was about to unfold in the small, Jerry-rigged ring just below us.

The cowboys could be seen limbering up just behind the place where the bulls were eventuallIMG_1396.JPGy prodded up and stacked into the chutes. Ominously, a number of them noticeably limped. That is, the cowboys, not the bulls. Which was telling.

The men were introduced as coming from locations across the upper Midwest as well as from  Mexico and Brazil.

Candidly, I anticipated a scripted performance where everybody behaves, nobody gets hurt, and the bulls in the end look like the dopes.

Not so.

These enormous beasts more often than not threw their riders off within seconds of coming out of the chute and regularly gave the downed rider a good stomp or two before the clowns could move them away from the poor dude who now limped his way over to the fence, then heaved himself up and over the thing. Some stood, catching their breath and willing back their pain for a good five minutes before moving on and getting prepped for Ride Number Two.

It’s not hard to wonder about the humanity of the sport (the bulls, on the other hand, seem to do just fine), but scripted or theatrical it is not. The Great Frontier website lists the modest purse for each event. One can imagine, say, a certain Joe Carmichael narrating over a beer that, ‘Yeah, I broke the right femur in Iron River back in 2016, but I took the show in Brainerd, Minnesota, the week before. Smashed my elbow in three places when I hit the rails on the first ride in 2017. Since then, I just work the hardware store and grow my tomatoes.’

So goes a summer Friday night in Iron River, Wisconsin. Oh, and you can shake off the cobwebs of a good night’s sleep with sturdy coffee from the The Shop on the main drag on Saturday morning, or pick up your homemade breakfast jam by skipping over to B’s Busy Bakery. Also on the main drag. Don’t worry, you’ll see it.

 

 

When I called my Long-Lost Cousin Maggie to tell her we had made another surprise landing in our beloved Northwoods and were renting a cabin south of Iron River (population 1,123 when everybody answers the door), she asked ‘Are you eating at the Delta Diner?’ Long-Lost doesn’t count for much in these northern climes when good eating is the topic.

Though we’d never heard of the establishment in question, the Good Wife and I had within the hour traveled the seven miles down County Road H, duly registered our names, and were outside chatting with the other Northwoodsmen waiting their turn. Good thing. There’s no place like it.

We were soon seated at the counter, the only newbies in a cluster of seven guests who were seated at the same time, the sign out front (‘You waited an hour? Must be our slow season.’) being a modest exaggeration on this Friday morning in August. We were introduced to a just-detailed-enough narrative of the Diner’s new, no-tipping business model and its more famous menu. Both were interesting and appealing from the outset.

The Good Wife elbowed a gaggle of less fortunate visitors aside to claim the last remaining Stuffed Hash Brown of the day: smoked pork, cheese, an egg on top, and a faster clean plate than I am accustomed to seeing in front of my petite lady. She washed it all down, as did I, with enormous quantities of the delicious Delta Dawg coffee (un-diner brew if ever there was such thing) that is roasted at nearby Bayfield’s Big Water Coffee.

My gaze fell upon the subtly understated ‘The Omelet’, and I was soon tucking into a ‘cheeseburger omelet’ of enviable proportions, held up around the shoulders by a side order of hash browns and lubricated by the Delta Dawg.

The bread, which my wife reckons is an unworldly cross between rye and sourdough, is—as one puts it these days—‘to die for’.

Everything was delicious. More impressively, everything at the Delta Diner is done well and with the customer in mind. Even the two Delta Diner mugs we picked up at the counter are solid, four-season-type coffee-drinking instruments.

Northwoodsmen are famous for striking up a conversation with any stranger without the slightest reticence, and our eating companions were—true to form—not strangers for long. But the staff was also cordial, attentive, and kind. One part of the Diner’s business model is the selection, care, and feeding of a university intern. The young woman from the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management’s program who is the Diner’s very first intern will by my lights almost certainly fulfill her desire to own her own restaurant one day. When we engaged her for a chat, she took a seat at the counter beside my wife, the better to converse as humans actually do in the wild, rather than hurrying on to the tasks that without doubt awaited. We made friends. One veteran leaned over and whispered of the Diner in the hushed tones the circumstances made to seem fitting, ‘It’s an institution’.

The establishment, an old railway diner, is immaculate. I can certify that, if the odd mood should strike, you could have your breakfast in the very clean men’s room and emerge to live a long and satisfying life.

The Northwoods will throw a new surprise at you whenever you least expect it. This one, just around the bend on one of those beautiful North Country county roads, is worth stopping for when you stumble upon it. And then driving to repeatedly with earnest determination after that.

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