Dulusions Duluth's Weekly Reality Check


Capitalism Ain’t Free

Picking up and moving house is no fun – even if it’s to a better place and thanks to some achievement or good fortune. You become attached to the old place, warts and all. For every obvious hassle, there are probably three or four blessings that you took for granted from Day One: A cross breeze that blows in from the lake. Soft steps that are easier on your hips or arches. A creaky floor that tells you someone is downstairs raiding the fridge.

The moving process also takes time and generates stress. Let me restate that: It’s a pain in the ass, really. And it always costs more money than you think.

Moving when you don’t want to is even tougher – even if you stand to make a buck or two on the deal. Some places just have a good vibe, or bring good luck – the type you can’t buy.  That’s part of the difference between a house and a home. (The other part should be who’s there with you.)

Irrational? Sure, but these feelings are real as rain to those who believe in them. And they drive a homeowner’s decision making to a large degree. It’s human nature.

The arguments you hear from investors and property management companies – whether dubious or data-driven – about the value of a given home (and the impact of what they’re trying to do next door will have on it) always omit this simple fact.

Even for homeowners who understand that real estate always has been and always will be an investment, it’s hard to completely shed your sentimental impulses and don your “investor” hat – especially when events start moving fast, contrary to your expectations or understanding of the law, or in a way you feel threatened by. Nobody likes to feel like their hand is being forced. Thus the emotional electricity in so many of the arguments about housing and land use.

It also sheds light on the central American myth that freedom, capitalism and democracy are all the same thing. The myth that it doesn’t all have to be about the money if you don’t want it to be. That you somehow have the right to think differently about your home - or anything else. That you are free to live your life according to your own values if those values aren't driven by money.

Sorry, but in a capitalist system – EVERYTHING is about the money. Because even if you don’t care about the money, someone else always will, and there’s more they can do within the law to come after what’s yours than there is prohibited by law.

As with the column today: Not complainin’. Just sayin’ we should be honest about the price we pay for the system we’ve chosen.

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Budge Buckshot for May 5

In this week’s Budge column, I discuss the negative effects of clumping all of a city’s poor and the services they need in one neighborhood – which even happens in glittering cities like San Francisco. You could argue that certain portions of Downtown Duluth suffer from this same aggregation. There’s a chicken and egg phenomenon to how such districts get to this point, as well as a mix of planning and market forces at play, so I don’t aim to explore or criticize “how we got here.”

Rather, I’d like to focus on the experience of walking through them. I don’t mean to oversimplify the problem with such areas, but I really think it comes down to the “vibe” you get when you walk down the street. If you feel like you can relate – not sympathize but RELATE – to some percentage of the people you encounter, chances are good that you’ll feel OK walking through. That percentage is different for everyone, and I think it changes with experience. If you can’t relate to most of the people you see, then it’s hard to predict how they will react to your presence or any situation that may arise. If you don’t feel like you can predict what may happen or how those involved may handle it, then you probably won’t feel very comfortable or safe.

Consider the gauntlet you now have to walk if you want to go from Electric Fetus to the Zinema. I can’t say that I fear any one single person who loiters or panhandles in front of Last Place on Earth. But I also can’t relate to whatever draws all of them to the store to buy synthetic drugs – or to ask strangers to help them make up the difference when they’re short. I can’t even say that I am “judging” these folks per se. I just don’t “get” them, and that’s a mildly unsettling feeling when you are suddenly surrounded by them.

In a piece in the DNT this week, the police acknowledged that panhandling is up downtown. It’s good that it’s on their radar – even now with a murder to deal with. It seems like a small thing, but the tipping point between turning a neighborhood around or not just may have more to do with panhandling than the murder rate.

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Budge Buckshot for April 21

Starting this week, I’ll be writing a short companion post on this blog to coincide with my bi-weekly column in the Budgeteer News, as well as any pieces I’m able to place in the DNT. So, in short, anytime you see my work in print, please check here for extra facts, thoughts and tangents that I couldn’t squeeze into my 600-word allotment. You’ll also be able to comment immediately, as opposed to having to wait for Forum’s IT staff to post the column online. Finally, you can e-mail me anytime at mkooi42@gmail.com.

In this week’s column I poke fun at the notion that a little marketing whitewash can change deep-seated – and sometimes false – perceptions about life in the Hillside neighborhoods. There are many euphemisms for this practice – “Making a silk purse from a sow’s ear” and “Putting lipstick on a pig” come instantly to mind. (Do I need to apologize for the latent sexism of that latter iteration? Does “Give this pig a shave,” work better? Perhaps only in some cases…) In any case, the prevalence of the pig in both metaphors probably tells you all you need to know.

(See how fun this new blog practice is: Now all of you pig farmers out there can flame me instantly for disparaging your, er, prize pigs by associating them with a different farm animal’s excrement – i.e. marketing).

Anyway, I’m sure the 10 tongue-in-cheek “marketing ideas” for the Hilisde I provided in today’s column only scratch the surface of what’s possible. If you’ve got more, please share them by commenting below. If I get enough, I’ll put the best ones in a follow-up column.


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More on the Blatnik lights

Some additional info on the Blatnik lights issue, which I wrote about in today's Duluth News Tribune:

1. According to MnDOT, the $600K we'd save on the lights would buy us a little more than two miles of milled and repaved road. That may not sound like much, but I'm sure you can think of a couple of stretches of state road that could use some work. In fact, what ARE the worst sections of state roads in the area? Let me know by posting a comment. Perhaps we can put together a Worst 5.

2. Minnesota Power has increased its ratio of coal to clean/renewable energy steadily since the decorative bridge lights when live in 1996. That year, 95 percent of MP electricity came from coal generation. Today, as the column notes, the mix is 85 percent. According to Patrick K. Mullen, vice president - marketing and corporate communications for MP, the company plans to have that mix down to 75-25 by the end of the year. Given this rate, it would seem that we would gain a lot, in terms of clean energy mix, by waiting a few years to put the lights back up. In fact, a goal of 50-50 for relighting the lights might be a lot closer than we think.

3. Both MnDOT and MP were very helpful in putting the column together, so I want to thank both Mike Tardy of MnDOT and Patrick Mullen of MP for their time and assistance.

You can check out the column, for a week or so, at least, at http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/224087/group/Opinion/

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al-Qaida, Inc.

Within days of the DNT's publishing my piece ridiculing media coverage of al-Qaida's search for a new leader (http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/201511/group/opinion/), the global terrorist network did in fact make a somewhat official-sounding announcement naming Ayman al-Zawahiri as Osama bin Laden's successor. Thanks, assholes.

Here's why I'm glad to be wrong, though: I still think the old al-Qaida, at the height of its mojo, would have made its announcement via some sort of attack - not a blogpost on some cyber backwater. That they didn't have something cued up may offer some insight into how dysfunctional and diminished they have become. Without a plot at the ready, and the media constantly chirping about whether they were still relevant, they decided to feed the beast what it wanted in the most truly American fashion: a lame press release. So perhaps we aren't merely projecting our values on to al-Qaida, but actually instilling them. To turn a popular punchline about making concessions to terrorists around: "If we have to issue a press release to stay relevant, then the Americans have already won."


Rogue Alarm Redux

The window for solving the rogue alarm dilemma is closing! In my previous post, I described how my neighbor's alarm is driving me to violence and asked for suggestions. I even dangled a 6-pack of Lake Superior beer out to the most creative solution. Thanks to the AV switchover, I've got only one response. Worse, I know him, and prefer not to let him poach a free sixer off me just because nobody else chimes in. I'm closing this deal out on SUN, so please put your two cents in soon!


CTRL: Sound of Summer: Beep! Beep! Beep!

Each month, I write a column for Transistor (http://www.transistormag.com) called CTRL+ALT+DULUTH. (Yes, it plays on the "duh-LOOT" pronunciation.) Below is the text from the final printed entry:

I’m guessing that, like me, most of you don’t thrill to the sound of your alarm clocks each morning. After all, if you had something truly worth waking up for, the anticipation alone would probably negate the need for an alarm.

Rather than sounding the clarion call for another day of basking in our self-made Edens, most alarms function more like the jangling keys of a gaoler – yanking us from our escapist reveries and locking us back into our joyless routines.

Now, imagine if this sound came two full hours before you had to get up. Imagine that it emanates not from your clock, your partner’s or even your roommate’s. Imagine, instead, that it’s not even coming from inside your house. Imagine that, to stop it, you’d have to kick down your neighbor’s door, rush up the stairs at two per stride and hack the clock into a hundred pieces with an ax.

I have.

Such are the charms of sleeping with the windows open during summer. It’s an especially cruel business here in Duluth. We spend months smearing semi-toxic goop and gunk into every crack in our houses, sheathing windows in clear plastic film, and lining door jams with rubber gaskets. We breathe recycled air rife with the amplified odors of wet socks, damp rugs and over-stuffed kitchen trash cans.

We do this with the understanding that, for perhaps 10 weeks each year, we’ll be able to throw those windows wide open and allow cleansing Canadian and Lake Superior breezes to sweep out the dank, dust and dander during the day and provide cool, fresh envelopes of slumber at night.

You’d think that braving winter’s brutalities would be payment enough for the simple delight of sleeping next to an open window. Instead, opening the window opens an entirely different can of worms: the flatulent engines of beater cars and motorcycles, the booze-soaked cackles of every gaggle of drunks that stumbles by, and, in my case, the sound at 5 a.m. of a neighbor’s alarm clock.

After a week or so, you can probably recalibrate your senses to ignore or quickly recover from disruptions like the first two above. The alarm, however, is a different animal. For most of us, the hard-wired mixture of startle and dread delivered by its insistent sonic prodding cannot be so easily brushed aside. (That’s why so many TV ads now use the sound to grab your attention. God damn no-count broke-a$$ baby-shaking m*therf*ckers…)

Making matters worse, in my situation, is that NOBODY TURNS THE F*CKER OFF! Frequently, it beeps for 10 minutes or more. I’m not talking about multiple “snoozes”, either. I’m talking about 10 unbroken minutes of grating, syncopated torture.

Sadly, I have some prior experience with this phenomenon. At one of my former apartments, a neighbor’s alarm beeped for four days. She forgot to turn it off before leaving for a long weekend, and it didn’t have an auto shut-off. Needless to say, I didn’t like her very much after that.

Which brings me to my current dilemma: Right now, I like my neighbor – and I’d prefer to keep it that way. So how to broach the subject of the bleating alarm? Annoying as it is, it still seems like a very personal thing to bring up in porch-to-porch chit-chat. (So, when did you stop sleeping in your bedroom?)

Earplugs won’t work, as they will negate the effectiveness of our home security system (which currently is the 90-year-old wood floor).

Got a solution? Post it as a comment below. The most creative one wins a sixer of Lake Superior beer.


In Emmer’s Vision of Social Services, Good Samaritans Pay for Tax Cuts with Personal Time

Tom Emmer’s vision for Minnesota called me up recently. It asked me for a ride down to the Twin Cities to get medical care. I was working against a 5 p.m. business deadline, so I had to decline.

Actually, it was my neighbor who called. He used to get healthcare in Duluth through Minnesota’s now-suspended general assistance medical care, or GAMC, program. Now, he must travel more than 130 miles for care.

If you like the idea of being put in positions like this by your neighbors, take heart: Under State Representative Emmer’s vision of government, you’d get plenty of chances.

Mr. Emmer and his RFL (Republican Fear and Loathing) colleagues are peddling a familiar brand of fools’ gold this summer: that by slashing government and reassigning responsibility for social services to the private sector, we can lower taxes AND get better services. It’s predicated on three classic conservative canards: 1) government can’t do anything right, 2) more choices always yield better results, and 3) people will unfailingly do the right thing if government would just get off their backs.

In Mr. Emmer’s view, government can barely get out of bed to scratch its rear each morning. Rather than providing essential social services to the most vulnerable people in society, it gets in the way of private organizations that are better-suited to provide those services to my neighbor. High taxes merely divert money away from such charitable organizations, while costly and crippling regulations (such as requiring people who work with vulnerable and/or volatile adults to have training or licenses) hobble their efforts.

If we cut government out of the equation, the fairytale goes, we enable people to make their own choices about who to help and we free those organizations built to help the needy do what they do best. Thus, we unleash a wave of charity that meets everyone’s needs more efficiently and effectively than government ever could.

For example, Mr. Emmer told MPR last month that he believes medical professionals would rush in to provide pro bono care to people like my neighbor if we simply cut or eliminated their taxes. I guess we should assume that everyone else in his support system – from pharmacies to grocery stores to taxi companies – will follow suit.

In fact, Mr. Emmer’s model is riddled with assumptions like these. It assumes that everyone will donate most of the income reclaimed from taxes to charities that provides social services. It assumes that, when provided with the opportunity to work less hours for the same paycheck, people will choose to volunteer that reclaimed time – as opposed to spending it with their families or using it to make even more money. And it assumes that everyone’s choices will miraculously correspond to and fill the myriad needs out there – even those of former murderers, rapists and pedophiles.

Far from a sure thing, it’s actually an enormous ideological gamble that will disrupt millions of lives if it fails.

That’s where neighbors like you and me come in. With government pared to the bone and family and friends already doing everything they can (presumably), who else is left to plug in the holes that private organizations either can’t or won’t fill? As neighbors, we’re no longer just supporting this care system with tax dollars and the occasional favor; we’re being recruited as full-fledged members of it – even if we’ve already made our “choices” regarding who we want to help. In some cases, we may even be the difference between whether that person can live on his or her own or not.

In short, we’re potentially trading a ton of personal responsibility for a piddling tax break.

Now, this may seem like a lot to take on as a neighbor. But think of all the choices you’ll have: whether or not to believe a neighbor’s crisis is real, imagined, feigned or exaggerated; whether or not his or her need for treatment supersedes your client’s need to have a document by 5 p.m.; whether or not he or she can walk the four blocks between a bus stop and her doctor’s office.

Does this really beat putting a small portion of our individual tax bills toward ensuring that government – even with the inefficiencies, incompetence and shenanigans it sometimes entails – can provide a robust safety net?

That’s why I hope Mr. Emmer’s bus tour comes to Duluth between now and the Aug. 10 primary. I’m sure my neighbor would love to hitch a ride to St. Paul on it.


CTRL: Snap, Crackle, Poop

Each month, I write a column for Transistor (http://www.transistormag.com) called CTRL+ALT+DULUTH. (Yes, it plays on the "duh-LOOT" pronunciation.) Below is the text from July's entry:

For all of you firecracker enthusiasts out there who failed to work through your entire stocks this weekend, allow me to make a suggestion:

Shove the rest up your f*cking a$$es and light the fuses.

Yes, kids, it’s another installment of “Uncle Mike Shakes his Microbrew at the Unwashed Masses.”

(Fortunately, despite the coming of my 36th birthday on Wednesday, I don’t have a cane to brandish quite yet.)

Few cultural phenomena offer irony quite as sublime as fireworks. Outside of cigarettes (another of Uncle Mike’s faves), can you think of anything else so dependent for survival on the very group of people to whom they pose the most harm?

For you slower readers, I’m talking about kids – in both cases.

When I was young, the weeks preceding the Fourth of July turned our neighborhood into a wonderland for war games and other aggressive fun. When my friends and I weren’t using the constant din of pops and cracks as the soundtrack for our Star Wars reenactments, we’d play a morbid game of “assassination” that could only fly in our white-bred suburban subdivision.

It went like this: With any random explosion, one of us would stop whatever we were doing – whether it was shooting hoops, riding Big Wheels or diving into the community pool – convulse wildly and then hit the ground (or water) as if we had just been shot. The other guys, provided that they also had not reacted similarly to that particular SNAP! (a frequent occurrence prompting many arguments and occasionally some actual bloodshed), would rush to the felled comrade and scan the houses and tree line for the culprit, yelling “Sniper!”

Much like in Minnesota, fireworks with any real punch were illegal where I grew up. Naturally, that only fueled the fascination. On every trip through Indiana, I’d sit with fingers and nose pressed to the car window, peering longingly at the parade of billboards, campervans and corrugated metal sheds (that’s when you’ve made it in the fireworks trade) offering up untold incendiary delights. We never stopped.

(BTW - Fireworks sales, along with cheaper taxes on tobacco and booze, constitute the bulk of Indiana’s economy, as far as I can tell. Credit to Mike Manderino for most of this thought.)

Despite the obstacles provided by the law and intelligent parents, I managed to get my fix as time went on. Friends with means (i.e. relatives in Indiana or Wisconsin) enabled me to work my way up from the classic trick of lighting and holding onto Black Cats until the very last moment all the way to blowing up porta-sh*tters with half-sticks of dynamite in college.

But that, unfortunately, is where the proverbial fuse burned out. Listening to some jackass shoot screamers out of an empty Miller Lite bottle at two in the morning (or, being that jackass) suddenly lost its appeal when I had to get up for work four hours later.

The motto for the, er, home fireworks enthusiast seems to be, “It ain’t worth a damn if it can’t blow off your hand.”

At least we have their grisly injuries to thank for what is now the highlight of my Fourth of July: the ubiquitous TV news piece wherein the local police department destroys a series of storefront mannequins with M-80s.

Enter again, the irony though: Can you think of anything that could make firecrackers look cooler to a kid than that? Hell, it’s almost enough to light my punk for a shopping excursion to Douglas County.


CTRL: Film Fest Mop Up

Each month, I write a column for Transistor (http://www.transistormag.com) called CTRL+ALT+DULUTH. (Yes, it plays on the "duh-LOOT" pronunciation.) Below is the text from June's entry:

“This is the first time we’ve been in Duluth…”

That’s how Solid Gold frontman Zach Coulter kicked off his band’s set at the inaugural Sound Unseen opening-night after-party at Greysolon Ballroom last week.

You could probably say the same for many of the 30 or so people who filled the dance floor just a few feet from the band. Perhaps they were all locals, but they danced and sang along like friends and groupies who carpooled up to support their heroes on this rare foray into the wilderness.

First time in Duluth. Really? A band can become favorites of the Twin Cities music circuit and the darlings of the indie radio station without having to shit sideways at Duluth even one time? They can just ignore a college town like this? Have they been to St. Cloud, at least? Rochester?!

Scanning the rest of the room, however, I found it hard to blame them. Outside of their coterie of loyal converts, very few of the other 200 or so people in attendance seemed to notice they were onstage.

Yes, that’s right. Only 200 people TOTAL for a $14 event featuring free food, free BEER and a band that packed First Avenue in Minneapolis just 48 hours later.

For better or worse, this turnout featured the patented Duluth mix: the sport-coat and mock-turtle entrepreneurial types who funded the affair (and for whom the Solid Gold Dancers might have been a bigger draw), the greenie/indie set (in which I guess I should count myself) and this growing cadre of hipster clowns you see more and more around town. And of course, the ubiquitous middle-aged couple who would have slow-grinded in the exact same rhythm whether it was Solid Gold or Michael Bolton between the amps.

But the issue on Wednesday was one of quantity – not quality. My wife and I ran through the possibilities:

The summer student exodus? You have to admit that scheduling is a tough call. Slate it for April or September and you might have a security problem once word of a $14 beer ticket gets around. Schedule it in June, and apparently, you get an empty ballroom.

Lack of promotion? Upon our arrival, the first things we noticed – after checking out the band’s gear – were the local radio station banners flanking the stage. I couldn’t imagine hearing a Solid Gold track on any of them. Even more conspicuous was who was missing: KUMD. In fact, we only discovered the show on Sunday morning because Northland Voices follows Face the Nation on KDLH 3. (We leave the former on for its impeccable morning background noise.)

Or, perhaps local music fans were saving themselves for what rates as the “real deal” ‘round these parts: a set later in the week by Charlie Parr. I can’t imagine that gig was as sparsely attended as Solid Gold’s.

I hate to harp on Mr. Parr’s popularity because the guy deserves everything he’s got in this town. But I can’t help but see that popularity as the embodiment of the differences between the Twin Cities and Duluth music scenes.

I love Duluth, but last Wednesday, my heart was in Minneapolis…