Friendly Competition

Remember when I started applying for jobs in Madison, graduate degree and five years experience in hand, thinking how easy it would be to outshine sorry hopefuls who thought they had a chance? How quaint my résumé shined on twenty pound off-white sheets, cotton stranding imperfections. I was going to be a shoe-in, I tell you.

Then, an interview. No problem. Just charm ‘em. Didn’t work out? A fluke. Another one? Must be a superstar getting this one. A third? Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe…

Ahhhh, maybe I don’t belong here, not good enough. Never was. Yeeeeesssssss, let the doubt shake me by the neck like the terrified chicken I am. Let it fester, let it rule. It’s a sweet feeling, because it’s a perfect explanation. I. Am. Not. Good. Enough.

As a writer, in this same damn town ten years later, it’s easy to look back on a not easy year of unemployment in Madison with health insured nostalgia, but I also made mistakes. Missteps. Faux pas, if you will, that probably made it a tad more difficult to land on my own two feet.

Madison is a Small. Fucking. Town. Small enough that, in a profession that requires putting words in a place where people read them — like, say, an internet website — it’s easy to discover who else does this thing. There aren’t a lot of us.

Today, if you put a garden hoe to my head and asked me who the best 20 writers in Madison are, in no particular order, I could do it. It’s a limited geographical area with a modest population, after all. Some of these colleagues have a ton of God Given Talent, some Hustle to No End, and most do both.

In fact, the city just lost one of them, Terry Devitt, UW–Madison’s head science writer, to retirement. His kicks can’t be filled, as they say, but there exists a small handful of people who could don different sneaks and take the university’s comms team to really cool places. I hope it happens.

So here’s the thing. The Madisonians on that list — the best of the best — are really obvious to me because of the silly fact that I measure myself against them. I am old enough and have done this long enough to know that I have a little bit of the things that make a person have word skills. With ten years of perspective, though, I can see now that growing doesn’t have a whole lot of context if you don’t know who else is putting notches on the door, too.

Mastering skills leads to fulfillment, so I say. And by knowing who can craft quality sentences in this place, I can pick up a new move now and then, and hopefully keep pace somewhere in the general vicinity of the pack.

See, now we’re doing a running metaphor.

I don’t call myself a runner, but I am a slow jogger. And when I pay money to slow jog a set distance against other slow joggers, I have a few rules to quantify a good Saturday morning on a trail: 1) don’t get injured; 2) finish the race; 3) don’t finish last.

Number 3 isn’t all that important at the beginning of the race, but by the end, I’m always glad when I did a little better than that one other guy. Is that vanity? Fine. But it’s also a small drive to hit the pedal a little harder on that next run home from work.

I’ve made conscious choices to not lead the pack — on the trail, and in the words game. I’m proud of those choices. Shit, maybe someday I‘ll make other choices. But that doesn’t keep me from looking up to the best scribes around here while still calling them my peers. Every once in awhile I read their work and can say, “hey, maybe I could write that good, too.”

But really the thing that brings me joy is knowing who those people are. Because if I can’t tell who’s good at what I do, why bother? This metropolis is growing, but still meager enough that we will inevitably be in competition for readers’ attention, and maybe for the same job.

Knowing who gives a shit enough to keep improving was the biggest hole I had in my skill set when I moved here. These days, I make it my business to know who’s the best. If I’m going to keep keeping up, I have to.

So, 30-year-old me, here’s a little advice: get the lay of the land. Find out who’s good at this stuff, find out why they’re good, and emulate it. Then, in ten years, write about it on a free blogging website on a Saturday night.

It’ll feel good.

Smooth Moves Moving

The temperature on the cartoon thermometer outside your kitchen window has already popped the needle off the gauge, and it’s only 9 AM.

The stars circle your head like you’ve been hit with a mallet. Still, you take a drag of the stagnant mist. The truck will be here in an hour.

It’s moving day. Men show up, but they’re boys to you: an aging hipster with a baby on your hip, a list of heavies in your hand. Everything is out of sorts and in boxes. These boys show up and bring levity, gut strength, and a whiff the outside world.

They tote dark blankets to wrap up your stuff – and it suddenly all looks like useless junk. You wish you could just throw it all away and start over. But they swim across your porch, through the kitchen, into your bedrooms and the basement. It turns out, you’ve used your abode as a clutter magnet far more often and for far longer than you remember.

But they continue. Disassembling, wrapping, lifting, arranging, rearranging, removing. For hours. Until somehow, the truck is full. “That’s it,” they say. And you agree. It’s time to move on.

But before you start your new life a few blocks away, you take that view, from the top of the tallest peak, where the Absence Of Things can be seen from all sides. You breathe a breath of freedom.

The clouds have rolled in. Rain is coming. “Take a break,” you tell the boys, who have treated your life’s possessions with tenderness and care, and who are preparing to unload it all into your new life, with your new porch and your new keys. But you know what their answer will be before you even ask.

They smile and grunt, grab a lamp or two, and get lifting.

It’s moving day. Nothing is broken. It’s just all in a different place now.

The Town Center

When you were little, you threw rocks up against the shore that ricocheted with meaningless violence off of larger boulders settled by time. You did this without cause and without regard for anything but the boredom that forced you to do it. Some of these stones careened past your ear as they found their way back into the shallow waters. Some stuck hard in crevices between the heavier rocks.

The men disappeared down the street to drink coffee and the women weren’t invited. Some of the men disappeared because their wives were drunks and divorce wasn’t an option back then. Not if they had retired with distinction from the service and certainly not if they survived tours in two different wars.

Sometimes they met there to escape the shadows of their own fathers, and sometimes they followed those shadows into the same familiar dark places with hope that maybe if they could fuck it up just a little bit less, it would be ok. 

Sometimes they just needed a paper and some night crawlers or a six pack. All of these things could be found at the Corner Store.

The men talked. They talked about sports. They talked about their artesian wells. They talked about politics. They also argued about these things and more. Arguing here was safe and acceptable. They sometimes argued for so long that they were ejected from the very premises in which they sought solace. Sometimes, one or more of these men was banned from the corner store for a period of weeks or months for poor behavior. But they were always allowed back, because stubbornness doesn’t apply to a small business owner in the geographical center of a small town. Such was the nature of things.

Think about this for a second: this was a community so close-knit that you could be banned from a corner store for argumentativeness. A community that enforces norms of behavior – some, admittedly with negative consequences – but norms that make a small community that quadruples in size for three months every year feel like one you’d still want to be part of when it was just a really small town the rest of the time. This corner store wouldn’t just be a corner store then, would it?

It would be a Town Center.

The coffee was good, too. There’s no way for you to know that – you were searching for minnows and crayfish under those rocks near the shore back then. But the coffee was good. Those men found solace in that coffee in that place and in that time and so do you because some things get passed down. And the taste of that coffee more than 30 years ago is one of those things.

By the time you were old enough to experience it yourself, there was a new sign above the front door at the place on the old maps that says Wolfeborough Center. It won’t change that much, they said. The tables in the corner stayed for a few years, then without warning, they were gone.

Without a table to sit in, the men stood outside by their trucks for a few minutes then returned to their families. Habits changed, but the store still stood. A place to get gas, a paper, some scratch tickets, a banana. And they still had the coffee.

One day, years later, you came back to this familiar place and noticed the night crawlers were gone, the home-made snacks were gone, the beer was a little more generic – no more Molsen Golden and no more LaBatts. You poured yourself a cup of coffee in a branded cup and waited in line while 2 men, discussing a business matter, hurried out the door. It was just another fucking 7-Eleven.

Back in the car, you took one sip, then billowed the soot of years of worn down machinery and malaise out the already open window of your rental car. 

The coffee had gone bad.

It was sour. Maybe you can wade through the jewelry and the yoga pants and preteens who have never felt such as a cold breeze across their shoulders and grab a cup at Lydia’s on your way out of town. That woman with the golden doodle puppy might be there.

Back at the lake, the wind has grown a little colder. Soon the stones will get smashed and turned over by the bowl of ice and snow, conjuring frostbite in your unprepared fingers. But for now, the minnows and crayfish dance across the shores in unison, arguing about one thing or another for no reason at all.

You look down at your phone and pull up a map of your current location. A few miles down the road, in the geographic middle of the town, a little dot that says “Wolfeboro Center” still pops up where the building stands.

But the town center is gone.


Ceil Bialek January 24, 1923 — August 4, 2017

When does a story begin?

When does a story end?

Does your story begin when you are born to those of little means?
Or does it begin when your father is captured and kept prisoner.
Does it begin with your very existence depending on this prisoner returning from Siberia after 5 years?

Does your story begin playing games with your twin sister in black and white.
Or does it begin when you hear your brother play the fiddle for the first time?

And when does your story end?

Does it end after kristallnacht wondering if your father will be free again as your temple smolders in Vienna.

Or maybe it begins with furniture.

Furniture! The $200 you saved from working in the factory sewing dresses, when the electric sewing machine ran away.
Maybe it was in Trinidad, where your escape plan becomes a reality.
Or maybe it begins on a note to your parents on the back of a photo that reads:

Do not forget about us.

Where does your story begin?
Maybe it begins when you sang Hatikvah on the boat when you hit international waters, refugees having escaped the purest of all evil.
Maybe it end the last time you remember that moment, and tell a stranger who cares for you why it meant so much.

Maybe your story begins when you learn how to care for others around you with intense selflessness.
Maybe it ends when those around you begin to emulate that selflessness, out of pure joy and a desire to truly care for you.
Maybe it begins with a little sprig of dill and a small beef bone that goes in the chicken soup you serve your family on a Friday night.

Your story may begin with daughters. Daughters and grandchildren. Grandchildren nieces and nephews. Cousins.
Maybe it begins in the new world you build for them. The world you gave to them.

Maybe your story begins in new cities. In Washington, D.C. or Tulsa or San Francisco or Boca. Maybe your story ends when you are at peace in a museum, as you walk quietly from exhibit to exhibit, regarding the beauty around you.

When does a story end?

Does your story end when you see your peers disappear or when you see new ones arrive? Does it end in twilight, laughing with your sister in full color — or does it end with a whisper to a nurse who goes home a little brighter, because it turns out you cared for her, too.

Does your story end with documents, symbols of your life, enshrined in those same museums you once stood in?

Maybe your story begins in a far off place, today, in the eyes of a young girl who decides against the tragedy and hardship around her, against war, and bigotry, and fear — against all that seeks to tear the world apart — maybe your story begins in the eyes of a young girl who decides to love and care for all those around her, such that these things are extinguished, if just for one small moment at a time.

Or does your story end every year, when your family gets together to talk about your bravery, your selflessness, your strength?

Your story begins at a table. A group of your kin — some of whom you never met — sits around this table and tells the story of a woman who survived.

Deer Tick or Deer Don’t

Ryley Walker
I told myself after I missed Deer Tick at the Somerville VFW in 2007 that I’d never bother to actually go see Deer Tick again. Nine years later, officially branded social media channels guided my decision to head down to the ‘ole Majestic with my fellow cis-gendered white folk and check out the opening act, a man by the name of Ryley Walker (no relation). I spent the week binging on Walker’s music, which ranges from pre-Lonelyland Bob Schneider to Steven Stills 2 to anything Tim Buckley ever did all the way back to Nick Drake.

The first thing I noticed about this person is that he looks a little bit like Eddie Vedder, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, just in an observant way. I mean, I don’t think it’s intentional, but maybe it is and is it ironic or not? I don’t know.

While I was hoping for the full band in the tune of his most recent album, Primrose Green, we only got Mr. Walker and his friend, the brilliant stand-up bassist Anton Hatwich, who kept up with Walker’s every little twist and turn, of which there were many.

The first thing that happens is that Walker didn’t seem entirely sure how to introduce himself. Is he high? Again, I don’t know. And I guess I’m not in a position to worry.

But then the music starts. At times, it seems like there are three guitarists on stage, a rhythm strumming the open D chords capo-ed to wherever Walker seemed to be fidgeting in that moment, an acoustic lead, noodling its way up the fret, and another combo, riffing on the chords adding more dimension when it seemed no longer possible.

But it was just Walker there. And Hatwich, bopping his head like it was nothing. Does that make sense?

Walker comes across as angry in his songs, riffing and strumming as if we don’t exist and the drool and trance he works himself into is his own folly, or strength. He’s desperate for something, and that pleases me, and makes the bros lighting up the room with their instagrams yowl with delight for just a moment.

Is this what emotion is? Who knows.

Walker and his stand up bass companion have a full 45 minutes on stage, and during that time, the room goes from pleasantly full to obnoxiously overcapacity, appropriately bringing a little more anxiousness and paranoia to the moment.

Down the street, at the Up North Bar, where shakes are always a dollar and drink specials include $2 something and $4 something else, a band called Bathtub Spring from Viroqua inspires their way through a set of covers and originals, true country, with three guitars. I can’t help but think of what they have in common with Ryley Walker, in that they sound like the Earth, and the place you came from, but from a different place on the mood spectrum: they’re desperate, but not angry.

And they make it work. They’re friendly and their friends are there, urging them on, while strangers cackle about their schoolboy crushes.

Back on stage at the Majestic, Walker makes a joke about crappy bar food, then rips into the hit: Roundabout, which is not a cover of the Yes song. The intro is another riff in Drop D with tons of hammers and pulls, rips and runs, during all of which Hatwich not only keeps up, but keeps us moving forward into a further madness of harmonics that end up sounding just as much like Ravi Shankar as a dude in a knit cap on stage who’s about to lose his mind.

He laughs a little as we cheer. Is he on to us? Is the jig finally up? Do we even have a chance? Then his eyes go dead again, leaning into the mic, and he’s looking past us again, leading us into his madness. We’re going in circles and getting dizzy.

There’s no question this man is intensely talented and passionate, and I hope that takes him far. I don’t know if we deserve it, because dessert is a dubious philosophical construct, but I do think the people on earth need more of this madness.

Because these are angry times.

Yes, we need this man, but I’m not sure he needs us, and I’m not sure Ryley Walker is a person who’s destined to remain on this Earth too long. But for the sake of all of us I hope I’m wrong.

I didn’t stay for Deer Tick.

By Mark E Griffin

Hillbillies in Disneyland

Theory: Disneyland is a frightening place. It’s a representation of something – a country, a flume, a spaceship – but it’s all made of plastic. It’s scary because we know it’s not real, but we act like it is. Fantasies are spooky like that.

Sometimes I feel this way when driving through little towns in the Midwest. Is this main street real – or is it just a facsimile of What The West Once Was? Or am I just a Coastie tourist for whom this picture of Main Street USA is still novel after spending my youth on crusty-but-overcrowded Boston streets?

All these questions streamed through my head as I booked a stay for the Lady Friend and I in a log cabin at the Little Switzerland Inn in McGregor, IA. Just across the Mighty Mississip from Prairie du Chien, a mere 2 hours from Madison, the 19th century log cabin was painstakingly moved from another part of the state to the end of the main drag in this little town. It’s a step back in time, a small erection placed right next to what we think of as Main Street. Or maybe just the image we all have of Main Street?

Maybe it’s just the image that Disney put in our heads.

But there it sits, a restored log cabin, just feet away from the bottom of a bluff that makes that part of Wisconsin and Iowa unique, right next to the sweets shop we’ll eat our breakfast at in the morning, and right across the street from a beauteous gas station/convenience store. The owners make no qualms about the juxtaposition of a centuries-old log cabin across from the bastion of modern transience.

Kwik Stop

And neither did we.

The town of McGregor is charming. The town’s population maxed out in the mid-1800s at about 2000, and rests at about half that today. Parts of it are nice. Parts of it are rundown. Parts of it seem like they are designed for tourists. Just like Madison. Or Boston. Or Boca Raton.

It’s just part of the scenery. So is Jones’ Black Angus, an Old Fashioned Supper Club just across the river in Prairie-du-Chien. This darkly-lit haven has just the right amount of maroon of both the velvet and vinyl varieties. Told the wait wouldn’t be “too long”, we sat for an hour in the upholstery sipping wine-by-the-glass.

And it was pleasant – the kind of pleasant that comes from not knowing or really having any way to judge the people we saw in front of us, and knowing they were in the same boat. Once seated and greeted by our waitress, Bunny, we took advantage of the salad bar, featuring two blocks of cheese, soup, and deep-fried croutons.

This feels like a Supper Club. Or does it feel like the image of a Supper Club I have in my head.


We didn’t ask what farm the steak came from, and whether it was grass-fed or grass-finished, or corn-free or hormone free. We just ordered and ate. And it was good. So good that it was impossible to take advantage of the Giant Chocolate Cake for dessert. So good, that the only thing left to do, was go back to our cabin in the woods across from a gas station/convenience store, snuggle up by the fireplace, and put a quarter to that $5 scratch ticket purchased just a few hours earlier (a LOSER, by the way).

A tour of the town the next morning did little to assuage my spooky feeling, which was compounded on account of our heavy tater-tot casserole breakfast. Yes, a walk in the Autumn-Sun-That-Will-Soon-Disappear-Forever was the right thing to do. As our proprietor made jokes about being a hillbilly, we realized that whatever it looks like, this place is home to somebody. And it felt that way.

I have a theory that the American Dream is not about having it all – the house, family, dog, yard – but having the freedom to walk away from it all. And smelling the open road through gas stations, supper clubs and log cabins in someone else’s home, even for just a day or two, can fulfill that dream, whether it’s real – or just a figment of a childhood spent dreaming of Disneyland.

The Main Line

It’s creepy out there, like October creepy. And driving up 51 feels a little lonely. On my way to the Fed-Ex pick up spot up the street,  I have anxiety for a few reasons:

1) I’m going to the place that is supposed to deliver something to me seems like a small step towards a labyrinth (not the kind with David Bowie!) of confusion and frustration.

2) I’m there to pick up a new iphone to replace the old one I got to replace the one I lost to replace the one I broke to replace the other one I broke. It’s not my fault. We’re not here to blame.

But things go on without a hitch and then I can go back to my addiction as soon as I activate my new phone as soon as I back up the old one as soon as I update the – you get it.

But hey, we’re here, so why not skip across the street Karben4 and have a beer and a snack.

There is popcorn. Plus.
It has spices and shit on it. Minus.

Then I get offered a Packer shot. Plus? Oh yeah, football. Midori and soda and other things. I feel like I’m in middle school again! Shots for everyone! Phil Simms is talking about how someone who weighs 341 pounds needs to gain more weight to really excel at his position. That guy works for the Vikings, I think. I’ve distanced myself from football as of late. Polls show that I’m one of about 15% of people who are less likely to watch football based on recent events (assaults by players of their family members and the NFL being a little inconsistent with the punishments. But I ask you: how many people get fired from their jobs working in offices because they are abusive towards others?  Far too few, but I suppose none of those people are in commercials for hair products.)

The Octoberfest – excuse me – Oaktober Ale, is really smooth and only a little dark. HOWEVER! One of my favorite things about Wisconsin is the sampling culture. But I make that request for the Oaktober, since I’m not a huge fan I the genre. BUT, NO sampling allowed on the seasonal. REALLY? So I order the pint anyway cause fuck that guy, and it’s fine. Nice brownish smooth taste that reminds me of a burning oak leaf.

Now I get it. Oaktober.

I’ve been looking forward to Oaktober since last Oaktober when I went up north and lost my phone to a Hodag looking for trouble. Since then, I’ve promised myself to stay at least two hardware versions behind. It’s better luck that way.

They have horse heads here so that means they’re up on the latest internet memes from about 8 months ago. 27 for the packers breaks a tackle on two consecutive runs  – the second for a 27 yard gain.

The bartender who served me my drink has completely abandoned the bar, so I am beginning to abandon my interest in ordering food here. It’s not about that though. We’re here for Oaktoberfest and that’s the end of it. Have I mentioned that I do not prefer harvest-style beers unless they have pumpkins in them? Well there you go. For my money, by the way, the Winter Warmer by Harpoon is the best cinnaminny beer of this genre, but you usually have to go to Boston for that.


A bartendress begins to pay me attention! And asks all about my conditions. She brings more popcorn (with no shit it it!, just butter and salt!)! So she lets me order something, and because she’s wearing A Donald driver jersey, I do not demur.

The packers scored but the Vikes are content to methodically March it down the field. Christian ponder seems to suck at sports but I don’t have time for this shit. NBA training camp is underway and the Celtics are looking good! Our star player broke his hand at a trampoline park (taking a shower after he went to a trampoline park).

My bartendress returns and brings me a Tokyo Sauna! Which is Karben’s APA offering. For those uninitiated, APA’s are like IPA’s for those who like to reserve puckering for the bedroom. That’s my style, so I go with it. Bearded hipster dude has moved on to the other side of the bar and that’s fine with me. We had a difference of philosophies and nothing’s going to change that.

I ask about the size of the TVs (there are 9 clients here). She thinks 68. Nice round number. I am rewarded for my curiosity with another packer shot. I feel like I’m in middle school again.

Rodgers hits the white wide receiver for an easy td against a porous Vikings secondary. Did I ever tell you about the time I met him?

Beer cheese soup and flat bread pizza arrives. The former is subtle and doughy, like the Vikings O line. Ponder gets sacked.

The pizza (flatbread) is fine but I don’t care too much about it. I’m not all set, but I’m ambivalent enough to take note of it. There’s just nothing notable about it except that it’s really just half a pizza cut into little triangles.

A Southwest commercial comes on. I am drawn to commercials because I don’t have TV and commercials are fascinating if you only see them once a month.

Rodgers fires another one down the field. The white wide receiver flubs and the packers punt. Ponder gets a chance to do something.

Mike Zimmer, the Vikings coach, seems confused. Ponder takes a low hit to the knee. He’s the third string qb and starting a game. If he goes down it’s Timberwolves rookie phenom Andrew Wiggins to the rescue.

I never had the guts to play football. It was my temper. I didn’t trust myself not to kill someone who tried to tackle me. Plus, my mommy said I couldn’t because it was a dangerous sport.

20 years later (Jesus, was that 20 years ago?)  I called my mother to thank her. It turns out that playing football in high school can cause brain damage. That’s high school, friends, and following. We’re learning that repeatedly getting hit in the head is bad for you. WEIRD!

The Tokyo sauna pale ale is light, but hoppy enough to feel like and APA. I like it enough, but it’s no Berkshire Brewing Company Steel Rail Pale Ale, the best beer known to man.

The waitress tells me I can purchase a growler for $3.50 or something. Good deal, but I’ll pass tonight. Time to mainline, I mean activate my new phone. And put this old girl to rest for now. Until I lose the new one and have to revert back to this one. We’ll have a good run together either way.