Shunned by the World’s Largest Rubber Duckie

DenisSullivanTallShips 008

The World’s Largest Rubber Duck turns its back on me.

Duluth is hosting a Tall Ships Festival this weekend. A newcomer to the event is the “World’s Largest Rubber Duck.” I put that in quotes because equally large or larger rubber ducks exist in the world overseas. It’s just that the U.S. creator (who happens to be a Duluthian, too) of this particular duck trademarked the phrase.

Even so, I was intrigued to view this giant yellow floating bathtub toy – in part to see if it could nudge me out of my doldrums following my father’s death – but also just because it’s novel. Like others who have attended these festivals over the years, I’ve seen plenty of tall ships, but never a sci-fi movie-sized duck. Also, I needed to attend the festival for work, to deliver some keys to a co-worker who was on one of the tall ships (the Denis Sullivan).

DenisSullivanTallShips 009

A crew member barks orders on the Denis Sullivan.

The duck was participating in the opening ceremony for the festival, called the Parade of Sail. For this spectacle, all of the ships sail into the Duluth-Superior Harbor through the ship canal and under Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge.

I left in what I thought was enough time to catch the parade. But I didn’t anticipate the number of other people who also wanted to attend. I expected a lot of people, and planned my travel route to the festival via a back way, but there were not just a lot of people. There were HORDES.

After being turned away from one event parking lot because I didn’t pre-pay a parking ticket, I ended up waiting in line for 40-something minutes for another lot.

I knew I was going to miss the beginning of the parade, so enterprising me got out of line to bribe a local business to let me park in their lot. They weren’t open to my bribe (or perhaps it was not large enough!), so I got back in line, even father back.

DenisSullivanTallShips 003

The chart room, below decks in the Denis Sullivan.

As I was waiting, and gazing out my car window through a fence and a tangle of tansy weed, I saw the head of a large yellow duck gliding past in the nearby harbor. I was missing the duck!

Alas, failed bribery attempt already past, there was nothing more I could do to improve my situation. I could only hope the duck would still be around once I made my way to the event grounds.

By the time I got to the parking lot entrance, the attendants were only letting cars in once other cars came out. After another 15 minutes or so, I finally got to park my car in a swampy spot and hoof it to the harbor.

The duck apparently did not like that I was late, and would not show its face to me. It was far away by this time, across the harbor at its docking site — its back turned in disapproval at my lack of strategic event attendance planning skills. Sigh.


A crew member climbs the rigging on the Denis Sullivan as it sails under Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge. Image courtesy of Kathy Kline, Wisconsin Sea Grant.

But my spirits lifted when I ended up getting a free tour of the Denis Sullivan. I found my co-worker among the hordes and she let me aboard. The Sullivan’s home port is Milwaukee, and the ship is used for educational purposes. My co-worker had just completed a five-day sail with about a dozen Great Lakes teachers, instructing them on lake ecology and maritime history.

Enjoy the photos!


What the duck looked like to everyone else. Image courtesy of WDSE-TV.

Entering the Virtual World


My youngest son enters the virtual world under the tutelage of my oldest son (in background).

I spent the weekend in a virtual world. Well, okay, it was just a few hours this weekend, but it was a cool few hours. My oldest son, who is a computer science graduate student, used his tax refund money to buy an HTC Vive. He treated me and my youngest son to a demonstration of this virtual reality system at his house.

The easiest way to describe it is to say it’s like stepping inside a video game. You put on the virtual reality goggles and **bam** you’re in another place.

Now, I am a mom, so I think of safety-related messages like these: Be sure to only try virtual reality with people you trust. You can hear the people around you, but you can’t see them once you put the goggles on. Others in the room could easily trip you if they are the mischievous sort, and you’d never see it coming. Likewise, remove all pets from the area that could wander into your virtual space and make you fall flat on your face.

I tried several demos from a program called “The Lab.” I entered a cave, complete with dripping water and piles of snow. Using one of the hand controllers, I found I had the ability to blow up balloons, which quickly rose to the cave’s ceiling and popped. It might not sound that exciting, but when you’re surrounded by the world, and you see the balloons you create actually rise like real balloons, it’s pretty darn cool. Then I was off to a secret shop that felt like a wizard’s lair come to life.

When it was my youngest son’s turn, he started out at Vesper Peak, throwing sticks on a mountain top for his slinky robot dog companion. He also tried Longbow, which had him defending his fort with a bow and arrow against rabid gingerbread men-like raiders. He also got to try his hand at being a line cook in one of the job-related games.

I am a real-world nature-lover, so my knee-jerk reaction to virtual reality games is negative. But after trying it, I can see how it’s certainly better than watching television because it gets you up and moving. Also, I can see how it can be a powerful storytelling tool because it immerses you in the experience more fully than a flat screen ever could.

In short, the virtual world’s not so bad. It might even be useful.

Crawling out From Under my Musical Rock


A Band Called Truman. Photo by Tanja Heckert.

Is there something your community is known for that you aren’t tuned into? It could be a sports team, an industry (like craft breweries), or some other cultural/historical thing. For me, it’s the local music scene. And now I’m making up for lost time.

For years, I’ve been squished under the rock of my responsibilities so I haven’t been able to enjoy the local music scene. I also haven’t had friends or acquaintances who were into it, so I plodded along, deaf to all the musically talented people around me. And Duluth has a lot of them. Case in point: Gaelynn Lea, who just won National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Concert Competition. Her unique style surpassed that of 6,000 other people and wowed the judges.

Sure, I knew about the symphony and high school bands – wider community kinds of music, but not so much individual local musicians. I realized I needed to rectify this. As a writer, I appreciate the creativity involved in songwriting and singing, and I feel it is my duty to become more familiar with the local music scene. Besides, I just like it!

I’ve had the good fortune to meet several local musicians/band members (including A Band Called Truman, Teague Alexy, Michael Monroe, Mary Bue, Georganne Hunter, and Jerree Small) and others I’ve managed to see play live or I’ve plucked them out of the “local music” CD section in the library. These include the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, Cloud Cult, Low, Charlie Parr, Bill and Kate Isles, Ryan Lane, Rachael Kilgour, Sara Thomsen, Woodblind, and Jamie Kallestad.

I don’t know what I would do without the library’s help in catching up on twenty-something years of missed local music. Thank god for libraries! I know I’m missing many local musicians in this list, but I’m only halfway through the alphabet in the library section. 🙂

The thing is, I didn’t even know what I was missing until a series of chance encounters, life changes, and opportunities arose. It’s been a fun ‘research project,’ and the experiences will no doubt find their way into my fiction writing.

Is there something in your life that you don’t even know is missing? Something available in your community that’s being wasted on you? Here’s hoping someday you have the ability to take advantage of this food for the soul.

The Power of Collaboration (and how it Relates to the Pitch Perfect Movies)


Teague Alexy, collaborator extraordinaire.

I admit it. I’ve watched Pitch Perfect 1 and 2 movies. Pitch Perfect 1 helped me escape from a hard time. The humor is truly funny and the singing – well, it just makes you want to walk around performing acapella and dancing all day. I just watched Pitch Perfect 2 and it’s got me musing about the value of collaboration.

In the movie, one of the lead singers of the “Bella” college acapella group ends up collaborating with one of the newest members to create an original song, which not only impresses her music industry boss, it helps the group win the world acapella competition.

This weekend I was privileged to be part of a book launch and music event that was a collaboration between 10 or so local authors. The lead author/singer (Teague Alexy) could have held the event by himself, but he chose to invite others to participate. He even took a chance on someone like me – a local novelist and poet who he just met a week ago (but we share a publisher.)

He held the event in an independent theater in downtown Duluth. Attendance wasn’t huge –a lot of events competed that night – but I’m sure it was larger than if he had been the only one performing. The range of styles of the authors was refreshing and mind-expanding, and I met several new ones.

Earlier in the day I had a conversation with an established author. We talked about how being an author (even one with a hard cover book published by a state university press) doesn’t mean you will rake in the dough. We agreed that the lifestyle is the reward, not the profit.

The night of the performance, I could have been sitting around home banging away at my computer or doing dishes, but instead I joined a bunch of other writers and we shared our work with an audience. The power of collaboration was evident then, and I’ve seen it at operate many times in the past in my day job, when organizations work together to strengthen the reach of their programs and projects.

I truly believe that organizations that try to protect their turf by outcompeting the competition are missing a great opportunity. I just want to say that if you’re an author, don’t be afraid to share the limelight with others – it will be to your advantage. Likewise if you’re an organization.

It takes a village to make a good book launch. And if enjoying Pitch Perfect 1 & 2 is wrong – if collaborating is wrong – I don’t want to be right.

Spending the Fourth of July in . . . the Twilight Zone

William Shatner and the gremlin in

William Shatner and the gremlin in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

While most people in Duluth were finding their way to favorite spots on the hillside or waterfront to watch the night’s fireworks display, I got distracted by the SciFy channel’s Fourth of July Twilight Zone Marathon. I had socialized and visited the beach earlier in the day, and was watching a bit of television before leaving for the fireworks. Problem was, an episode was airing that scared the bee hooosis (Minnesotan for bejesus) out of me when I was young.

I hadn’t seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” since that fateful night my parents were out and I watched a scary television show despite their instructions to the contrary. Would the episode be as frightening to now? Would the face that appears in the airplane window when the passenger draws back the curtain make me hide behind the living room curtains like when I was little?

I had to watch it. Fireworks be dammed. Cue Rod Serling’s opening narration:

Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home – the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.

Robert Wilson is played by a young William Shatner. His wife sits beside him on his plane ride home from the sanitarium.

I marveled at the 1960s clunky airplane backdrop, made with cheap wood paneling, the airline seats with so much room on either side they looked like today’s first-class seats, and the quaint plaid curtains covering the plane windows.

Was I was scared watching the show now? Of course not. I’ve been too jaded by the likes of “Jaws,” and “The Exorcist,” and “Amityville Horror,” and dozens of other horror movies for a little Twilight Zone to scare me. But I understood why the story was so frightening when I was younger; it was the feelings that Mr. Wilson was alone in his belief that someone was out on the airplane wing. The plane is in peril from this person outside. Only he knows this, but he can’t make anyone else believe him because the humanoid (which we later learn is a gremlin) hides when anyone else tries to see him. That kind of emotional tension must have been unbearable to me as a child.

Plus there’s the tension and surprise when Mr. Wilson closes the curtain after seeing the gremlin the first time, but then wants to open it up later, just to check if anything is really out there. His hand hesitates above the curtain as he struggles with his feelings. When he draws back the curtain, the gremlin’s morose yet curious face fills the entire window. (I suspect this is the point where I fled behind the curtains.)

Nightmare_ar_20,000_Feet_GremlinThe gremlin’s appearance in the window is scarier than the appearance of the gremlin itself. He’s more like a wooly clown with a bad make-up job. But it’s all the peril and tension that made this episode so memorable.

This little trip down horror memory lane was worth missing the fireworks show. Even after all these years, it reminded me what makes a good horror story: tension, surprise, peril, and emotional isolation.

Now, if I could just remember that the next time I write a horror story. Who knows? Maybe I will scare the bee hooosis out of a seven-year-old.

Watching Philomena

Actor Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee speak at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

Actor Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee speak at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

I gave into the temptation to hibernate from the cold this weekend by going into the cave of a movie theater and watching “Philomena.” The lure was too strong – the movie stars one of my favorite actresses, Dame Judith Dench (think “M” from the James Bond movies), the setting is Ireland, and the story involves journalism, Catholicism, and a mother’s search for her child.

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I will try to refrain from spoilers, but I feel it’s only fair to warn you that the movie is not about what the trailer would lead one to expect. The trailer conjures thoughts of the mother finding her child, and a happily-ever-after future for all. This is not exactly the case. But that makes the story stronger and more real. Since the movie is based on reality, this is a good thing!

I had tried to see the movie three times with other people, but each fell through for one reason or another, so I ended up going alone before it could disappear from the theater. I was especially intrigued to see it after watching the woman the story is about when she appeared on the Golden Globes.

The acting is wonderful, the story is true, and thus, I give the movie my highest rating of 5 Kleenexes. This is the number of tissues that would be required during the movie if I were brave enough to actually take them out of my purse and use them. As it was, I just let the tears run down my face and surreptitiously wiped them off in casual gestures.

You won’t be sorry if you see this movie, but, unless you are as heartless as the nuns in the story, you may cry. Remember to bring Kleenexes. And don’t be afraid to use them.

Movie Madness

Thanks to the Duluth Superior Film Fest, Duluth was awash in independent films last week. The event offered an interesting slice of culture and some trips down memory lane. I skipped the much-lauded reunion for the Disney movie “Iron Will,” which was shot in the region 20 years ago. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet (!) and I had other things going on during the screening. But I did attend screenings for two other movies.

Fifty Lakes, One Island,” by Chicago-based filmmaker, George Desort, is about one of my favorite places on Earth: Isle Royale National Park. In a quest to visit each lake on this wilderness island, which is itself in the middle of a big lake (Lake Superior), Desort spent 80 nights on Isle Royale. The movie is not so much a lake-bagging countdown as it is an exploration of external and internal wilderness terrain.

Of course, the external wilderness is the island itself. Desort bushwhacked to many of the lakes, a feat complicated by wetlands and the rugged landscape, which he often negotiated carrying his kayak, camera equipment and food. The trip was made further challenging by the island’s mercurial weather and penchant for stealing things (like water shoes) strapped to the outside of packs.

Exploration of the internal wilderness comes with the isolation and lack of distractions. As the film’s Vimeo website states: “Desort’s breathtaking footage is paired with his personal, unvarnished story-telling.” He introduces this in the very first scene, in which he’s kayaking and reminiscing about how the tent he is using ties him to his sister and father. The personal narrative continues through to the end of the film where, punctuated by loon calls, Desort talks about feeling as if the island is about to unveil a great secret. Does he learn the secret? You’ll have to watch the movie to see!

The other screening was for a work-in-progress called “In Winter.” In a freewheeling discussion, local director Alex Gutterman described the process of making the movie and showed trailers and clips. Set against the starkness of a northern winter, the movie deals with the themes of class, culture, and relationships.

One of my friends is an extra and supporter of the film and it was fun to hear his experiences being involved in the production. It’s certainly not glamorous. But I think that makes a person appreciate the finishing and polishing that goes into the final product all the more. This movie is expected to make its debut in November 2013.

My claim to fame is that I was in a movie with Bradley Cooper. “Older Than America” was shot in nearby Cloquet, Minn., about six years ago, back before Cooper became famous for his roles in “The Hangover” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and as “People” magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. I never did see Mr. Cooper on set (sigh) but in my role as an extra I did get to work with the talented Tantoo Cardinal of “Dances with Wolves” fame. I had the privilege of touching her arm as I led her from a hospital room where we were “electroshocking” her niece.

English: Bradley Cooper at the 2009 Tribeca Fi...

Bradley Cooper. Credit – Wikipedia.

But enough name-dropping. The independent film deals with the fall-out from the common past practice of sending Native American children to boarding schools to acculturate them. I got to play a nurse who was assisting with the electroshocking of the aforementioned Native American lady. Although the role was not one I would have chosen, I jumped at the chance to be involved and learn more about the workings of movie production.

I suspect I got the part because I was the only one who could fit into the period nurse uniform they had. Even so, a button popped off when I put it on, and the staff seamstress had to sew it on before I could go on set. The button situation was holding up production, and the seamstress was so stressed, I thought she would stab me with her needle as she sewed while I stood there wearing the uniform. I escaped unscathed.

I learned that movie production is a lot of “hurry up and wait,” and repetition. We must have done that electroshocking scene 15 times. I felt so sorry for the actress who was writhing on the table. She expended a lot of energy! There were also some psychologists on hand who coached the actress about how a patient being electroshocked with 1950s equipment would behave.

I also learned that once you’ve served your purpose, filmmakers tend to forget you. My name does not appear in the credits and I got no notification about the local screening. I heard about it by accident and snuck in unticketed (shhhsh) in a move of stealth I’m still proud of even today. But I get to brag that I was in a movie with Bradley Cooper and I appear in the movie trailer (and the movie). Seems like payment enough.