Stranger in a Strange Land: September 2006

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Beer Bottled Reflection

The Girl on the Moon speaks to me. Her voice, sounding uncomfortably masculine, hops through the far reaches of my mind. From her suds-filled glass home she sings, “Sometimes this ol’town feels like a ball and chain,” and advises that I “get away”.

I become excited. Is this a sign? A prophecy, perhaps? While some people experience enlightenment through the voice of God, mine is distinctly missing the flashiness of divine revelation. No, the voice in my head comes from an old-fashioned girl who lives on the moon…one who promises me the high life yet simultaneously mocks me with her champagne nectar.

Awakening from my beer-induced trance, it becomes clear I am in fact having an intimate conversation with a now-empty bottle of beer. Embarrassed I have allowed my bottle to remain empty so long, I look around to see if anyone noticed.

As the haziness lifts, I finally recall where I am: The Busted Lift. It now makes sense. David Zollo sits stocking-footed behind his keyboard, singing about a young boy leaving his hometown, finally able to “get away”. I look at the digital date glowing on my watch. Mid-August. “Has it already been that long?” I wonder, realizing I have now been in Dubuque for an entire year. Time flies.
Even more depressing is the fact it has been eight years since I was that kid who stopped dreaming and finally got away, vowing never to return. But like a cruel joke, sometimes this town is a ball and chain and before you know it you are back to where you started: Dreaming of finally getting away.

I reflect back on the past year and mentally evaluate where I am. I start with the negatives…the first few bored weeknights when this city felt too much like a weekend-only town…the futile search for a bustling café culture…my stomach’s ongoing anger over the lack of an Indian restaurant…the desperate and drunken closing time expedition for a late-night downtown pancake house. I recall missing the constant motion of people and overall diversity of Iowa City. Finally, I try to count the times I have been told Dubuque is “ a good place to raise kids” and wondering whether it was good for anything else.

Then the positives: The excitement of stumbling upon the Art After Hours warehouse event during my first week in town and the later reconfirmation of my vegetarian abandonment at the hands of a savory Taiko steak. I recall the pleasant surprise of the Bijou Theater, the impressiveness of the River Museum and the peacefulness of the river walk. I laugh at my enthusiasm of having discovered PBR on tap at Isabella’s. There is open mike night at Mississippi Mug, café mochas at Miguels and chai tea at One Mean Bean. Finally, there is the ongoing excitement and challenge of discovering new places and meeting new people as your city begins to feel less abstract and more like home.

As I get ready to call it a night, I am drawn into a conversation between two recent young additions to Dubuque. From my obvious eavesdropping, I gather one has returned home while the other is a newcomer. I say “hello” and ask the obvious: “you two just move here?”

After a brief conversation, I bid them adieu and make my way out. As I leave the newbie calls after me, “So, how is it?”

Looking up at the moon, I smile and reply, “It may not be the high life, but at least it’s home.”

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Taking Back Summer

I love the smell of tar in the morning. Slowly I wake up with this bitter scent swirling in my nose. The house shakes slightly as a crescendo baritone of a rumble echoes outside. My heart beats faster as I run to the window. Swirls of orange dance in my mind. Bright, florescent orange. The color of a Dubuque summer.

Then I hear it, the unmistakable, high-pitch beep of a dump truck in reverse. “They’re here!” my pre-pubescent voice screeches. I grab my miniature yellow and green canvass lawn chair and a blue Tupperware cup of cherry Kool-Aid before rushing outside to enjoy the glorious show of summer road construction.

But that was then. Now, as a half-assed adult running late to work, I am speeding down Pennsylvania Avenue (or Asbury or University…) when I see it: that awful, Satanic color orange. “Son of a !@#$%”, I yell as the migraine-inducing beep of a dump truck in reverse pierces my ears. I punch the steering wheel as sweat gathers along my furrowed brow. The clock continues to run and I begin to wait.

Relenting to the superiority of the orange cone, I place my car in park, recline my cushioned chair, and take a gulp of coffee. Looking at my reflection in the crooked rear-view mirror I ask out loud, “What happened? Who stole summer?”

Summer used to be a season of relaxation and simplicity. Summer was sandlot baseball, corn on the cob, cross-country road trips, a day at the pool, new loves and staying up all night. Although school, homework and early bedtimes consumed the rest of the year, summer was ours. It was a time to live life on our terms.

But what happened? Now summer is just more of the same. Full-time work, over-air conditioned offices, too hot days, not enough nights, and quick weekend getaways. Who took summer? I demand to know.

Is it the villain employment? Although work is always a popular scapegoat, we ultimately choose our jobs. Is it the fault of that menace called aging? Even though growing older is unavoidable, growing up is a preventable mental condition. Perhaps family and community responsibilities are to blame? Yet, do we not also have a responsibility to our own well-being?

Ultimately, there is no one to blame but us. We took summer away and therefore only we can give it back. Instead of the perpetual excuse of other things to do, we shall use these last weeks of summer as an excuse to do nothing except live summer as summer must be lived.

Dust off the ball glove, find a new book, head to the pool, stay up all night, sleep all day or get drunk on a Monday. Regardless of age, summer is our time; the time to revert into our inner-child and live a carefree existence.

When you see me outside in the middle of the afternoon sitting in my lawn chair with Kool-Aid stained lips and mesmerized by the orange cones serenading my street, you’ll understand. I have reclaimed what is rightfully mine. I have taken back summer.

The Ticks of Life

Somewhere along the overgrown and annoyingly buggy Eagle Scout Trail, deep in the outer trenches of the Mines of Spain, it bites me. I feel the sharp puncture of its needle-like nose as it rudely violates the sovereignty of my lower right calf. I stop and look down. Too late. A disgusting parasite is now enjoying the sweetness of my blood.

As I carry the quickly inflating tick back towards the car, I think of the miles I have hiked in these woods through the various stages of my life. As an elementary kid I spent my summers catching bugs to add to my obviously geek-related yet nonetheless prize-winning bug collection. In high school I climbed to the top of Horseshoe Bluff to dwell within the loneliness of teenage angst. My legs still ache from the half-marathon, cross-park hike my youngest brother and I did during one college break. And here I am today, in my latest reincarnation of myself, still hiking, my past personas, like a tick, still firmly attached.

I stop and drink some lukewarm water. My eyes wander towards the tick. It is still attached, sipping contently from the straw of my veins. I hike on.

My mind returns to thinking of the many times I have reinvented myself, making my life one of constant inner-exploration and continual self-discovery. For example, there was the science geek child, the aspiring artist kid, the endurance-sport athlete, the student, the politician, the hippie, the preppie, the lawyer…
Since moving home I find myself unable to escape the attachments of the past. When I run into old acquaintances, I am instantly identified by whom I use to be. The Nicks of the past somehow stay attached to the Nick of the present. They are blood-sucking ticks.

Perhaps the most infamous of my many past-selves is who shall be known as the “hippie, tree-hugging, bed-wetting, knee jerking, and bleeding heart liberal Nick”. And although this Nick, with his shoulder length hair, Amish inspired beard, tie-died shirt and too many causes to count on one hand, may be buried in the recesses of my mind, he is forever attached.

Maybe this inability to become unattached from one’s past is part of living in a small town. Yet, regardless of where you live, can you really escape your past? Are we not just an accumulation of who we were? Does the past not remain attached because the present is nothing more then the sum of our past?

As I contemplate the best way to remove the tick, I sense a resurfacing of the science-geek Nick. Walking past a rugged side trail I feel triathlete Nick begin to stir. In the distance I hear the faint sound of a chain saw and am suddenly possessed by the long lost urge to hug a tree.

Back home, I pry the tick from my skin and watch him swirl down the drain. I feel a pathetic sense of pity. For like a tick, without the attachment, I could not be.

Midwestern Winos

Wine is a drink with culture. Beer is good, but wine is inherently better. Throughout history beer has been for the rowdy, uncouth, while wine has been reserved for those who are naturally more dignified. Simply stated, beer is lowbrow and wine is highbrow.

Wine’s culture of class is deeply rooted in history. Socrates and his flock did not engage in the intellectual orgy that produced democracy while singing Irish drinking songs. No, Democracy was born from a grapevine.

On the night of the last supper, Jesus gathered together his closet friends and enjoyed dinner and wine. Imagine how different history would be if instead he threw a kegger, Judas passed out from a keg stand, and Jesus simply went east.

Likewise, the arts have been significantly affected by the potency of wine.
Hemingway found his creativity in a bottle of French Chardonnay. Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, seems to have lost his creative vision in a bottle of bland California red.

Even the places of wine cultivation have names emanating highbrow culture. Places like Italy, Spain, France, and Napa Valley fashion visions of richness and high society. Places clearly not included in this list of luxury are Illinois and Iowa.

It should come as no surprise that outside the corn belt Midwesterners are viewed as low cultured, simple minded, farmers. Yet, here I am, idling away a lovely summer afternoon, enjoying a glass of Galena produced sangria, surrounded by the peacefulness of a midwestern countryside.

Contrary to popular belief, winos are alive and well in the heartland.
Take for example, Galena Cellars, which produces over 40 varieties of wine and grows their own grapes. The vineyard, set in a valley deep in the enchanting Galena Territories, offers regular tours and tastings.

However, in perfect Midwest realist fashion, the vineyard’s production facilities consist of various faded red barns and dust covered sheds, the tasting house is in resemblance of a classic farmhouse and the air is peppered with the crisp sent of bovine.

Lounging in a white-whicker chair on the tasting house's wrap-around wooden veranda, I become lost in the moment. Disorientated as to my exact locale. “Where am I?” I internally question.

My thoughts: I feel cultured, yet there are cows seemingly floating on the horizon. Feeling the effects of my indulgences and not knowing what else to do, I pour myself another glass of fruit-filled sangria and spread smooth Shullsburg cheese on whole grain crackers.

Yes, the wino culture is alive and well in the heartland. Granted, there is no Mediterranean, the weather is crap three quarters of the year, and nobody speaks a lick French.

But what we lack in water, weather, and the ability to affluently say “oui’, we make up for in people. Real people. People who are highbrow enough to refuse any “f!#*^’n merlot”, but real enough to understand the hidden beauty of fresh sangria sipped from a perspiring clear plastic cup, submerged within the twilight shadows of a midsummer’s eve.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Everybody Loves Nick

My life in Dubuque is based on a television show. I call it, Everybody Loves Nick. Let me explain.

Following graduation, the question became, “what next?” My wife, Kara, and I debated at length whether to actually move home. I was reminded of the Everybody Loves Raymond episode where Ray and Debra debate the same issue. We set up our maps and drew seismic rings around both the areas we were thinking of moving to and around our families’ area of influence. We concluded that moving just shy of where the rings overlap would be perfect. Far enough to avoid unannounced visits, yet close enough for regularly scheduled ones. However, like Ray and Debra, we ignored our best judgment, opting instead to live in the familial epicenter: Across town from my parents, down the street from my in-laws, across the office from my father-in-law, and right next door to Kara’s grandmother.

Although most visits to our home are announced by a ring of the doorbell, life back home has required adjustments. For instance, the infatuation people have with shoveling snow flabbergasts me. If you are patient the snow eventually melts. Although I believe this is quite philosophical, my family labels it “lazy”. As a tenant of a family-owned duplex, I too often find myself in sub-zero temperatures, armed with a red plastic shovel, manically chasing snowflakes as a preventative strike against the horrors of accumulation. Even when lost in an “I told you so” sense of vindication, the sun shining and the snow predictably melting, reality rains down as I hear the revving of the lawn mower outside.

Being close to family does have its benefits. For example, I am able to rediscover the father-son bond discarded somewhere in the darkness of a disturbed adolescence. As a young boy I always enjoyed fishing with my father. I have fond memories of late night drives to a Delaware County stream and camping out in the back of our blue, two-toned Aerostar mini-van.

Dad and I would beat the sun out of bed, outrun other fishermen and their fisherboy sidekicks and claim our pool. We would sit patiently, munching on Pop Tarts, for the stock truck’s dusty rumble. Soon the stockman would appear and dump a bucket of trout right before us. We would subsequently spend the afternoon staring at the trout, who were staring back at us.

Now that I’m back home, Dad and I have renewed our vengeance against the trout. Although today we leave a bit later, run a tad slower, and have substituted Pop Tarts with the more nutritious cream-filled doughnut, we still go to the same streams, where we spend our time staring at trout, staring back at us. Yet, I find a sense of tranquility in my fishing failures.

“Perhaps the familial epicenter is not so bad,” I think as I fight a submerged log for my fly and watch Dad try to reclaim his line from the tangles of a barbed wire fence. After all, the eye of the storm is always the calmest.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Howling at the Moon

“Baby, it’s time we got back to the basics”.

That’s what Waylon Jennings says, singing to me through the scratchy speaker of my out-dated Dell.

I wonder, “What are these basics he is singing about?” For some reason I envision a relaxed Midwest summer, the time of year when the sun warms up and the night becomes shy. I get a feeling Waylon’s basics involve getting drunk under twilight stars while dancing to the twang of country guitars. I decide to take his advice and seek out these basic comforts supposedly found in country music. Not new-age, pop-infused, Ford-truck promoting, candy-coated radio hits. I’m talking beer drinking, shit-kicking, tear-jerking, howl-at-the-moon classic country. The kind composed while drunkenly mourning Mama’s demise at the hands of a runaway train before backing your pickup over your dog Duke after a night celebrating your release from prison.

Yes, I’m talking real country music.

I saddle into my foreign-born S.U.V. and start driving, not knowing where I am going but guessing I would eventually end up somewhere. Then, somewhere along Bluff Street, I hear it:

“I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been everywhere man...”

Cash, seemingly serenading me towards the Town Clock. I pull over and turn off my car. The music beckons me. I apprehensively approach the Dubuquefest stage and see a bona fide, vintage country band. Big hats, big belt-buckles and big country sound. A large crowd gathers under a rain-threatening sky. Most seem in the grasp of inebriation, many are dancing, and one couple is performing a questionable, alcohol-incited mating ritual. The Big City Honky Tonk band is cussing and Pupy Costello encourages the kids to “pay attention to the bubbles, not the words.”

Bearing witness to a general return to the basics, even if just for a night, I am ready to assimilate. I saunter up to the Jaycees’ beer tent and order two big glasses of Bud-heavy, take alternating swigs from each and howl at the moon.

Several beers later and lost in the depths of the philosophical lyric, “When I gamble I’m always losing but with drinking I win every night,” I realize I have stumbled back to the basics Waylon was singing about. Perhaps you do not need to go all the way to Luckenbach, Texas. Maybe the basics are right here in Dubuque, Iowa, where all it takes is a perfect combination of summer nights, live music, cold beverages, family, friends, and forgetting all things of fabricated importance.

Waylon was right. We live lives preoccupied with the complexities of careers, bank accounts and misplaced materialism. True happiness can only be understood when we find our way back to the basics of love and of life.

I found my way back through a night of classic country music; through the lyrical prose of a man whose name is pronounced “poopy” and whose twelve-step program to happiness begins with a trip to the bar “to get myself a PBR.”

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Welcome Home

“You’re not from here, are you?”

Instinct tells me to either run screaming into the night or quickly drop to the floor and assume the fetal position. “Welcome to Dubuque” I thought.

“Actually Mam, I’m from here,” I hesitantly reply as I crouch towards the floor.

I gage a sense of confusion. “But,” she furrows her brow and quizzically tilts her head, “you dress up-for dinner?”

I glance at my reflection in the window. “Where am I?” I wonder. Jeans, a t-shirt, and a sports jacket and I am accused of being a foreigner. It was at this moment I understood the adage “you can never go home again”. Try and you shall forever remain a tourist, trapped in your own hometown.

Let me formally introduce myself. Hello. My name is Nick, and I’m new here. Actually I am from here, but due to an extended stay with the University of Iowa, I have been away for a bit. Almost eight years to be exact. Yet, for some reason, after graduation I did the unthinkable. I moved back home to Dubuque.

In his book I’m a Stranger Here Myself, author and native Iowan Bill Bryson compares returning home after an extended period away with “waking from a long coma”. Although you wake up as the same person, everything else has carried on regardless.
Dubuque seems to have done pretty good without me. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to decipher whether it is the same place I departed from eight years prior. Sure, the standard staples still stand, but much has supplemented this historic foundation. For one thing, there is actually a downtown, with actual people going out to actual establishments on an actual Saturday night. Further, the river, the bloodline of the city, is actually being used for recreation and entertainment instead of inartistic industry.

After a nostalgic ride up the Fourth Street Elevator, I take a moment and gaze down at this place I am to call home. Dubuque has clearly gone on without me and I seriously need to catch up.

And so it is, standing on top of a Mississippi carved bluff, towering over the downtown, I declare myself a live-in tourist. My mission, to re-discover Dubuque. In a perhaps futile attempt to regain my previously discarded status as a Dubuquer instead of “not from here”, I plan to do exactly what any tourist would do: go exploring.

Whether it is a visit to a gritty tavern or a glittering nightclub, to a world-class attraction such as the National River Museum or a little known local classic, I plan on chronicling my attempts at assimilation here. And perhaps someday when asked, “you’re not from here, are you?” I will be able to confidently state, “Why yes I am”. I will then strut by wearing a sports coat and bright orange Mighty Morphine Power Ranger shirt, always keeping an eye over my shoulder in case the fetal position is in need.