Pure, unvarnished joy. Rosy red cheeks. Pearly white teeth. This photo, snapped from a neighbor’s iPhone, captures the evening and spirit of Cornucopia better than any I’ve seen. Hosting the event was like running with wild horses.
Pictured above is Duluth’s Mayor, Don Ness, now in his final month of service. The lovely woman at his side teaches Honors English in one of our local high schools. Both of these individuals are blessed with remarkable talent. Is one more important than the other?
Don leaves office as a political rock star, has been profiled in several national magazines for his unique style of governing, and is retiring into private life in a manner similar to Seinfeld’s exit from television: at the top of his game. The teacher, presumably, will continue in her role for years to come. Full of energy and love for her students, she radiates ebullience while connecting with her students in a manner that I have never encountered at the high school level.
Recently I delivered her a batch of books for some of the teachers in her department. It was the first time I had crossed the threshold of a high school since my own horrific experience back in Wisconsin, something I hated each and every day. Observing this educator interact with her students, who obviously adore her, was like observing a rare, elusive, sought-after creature doing exactly what they were built to do in their natural habitat. Though my visit occurred a full six weeks ago, it continues to fill me with hope for the high school experience that awaits my children just four years from now, which will be gone in the blink of an eye.
Both Ness and the teacher are equally valuable and necessary to society. Here you can see she’s excited to obtain a copy of his book, Hillsider. As with all the books he has signed and personalized, Don made the purchaser of his book feel special and important. He even remembered where they had first met: 2004’s Homegrown music festival, where she had served as a roadie for her husband’s band, Lookdown Moon. The image above demonstrates just how accessible the supposed “celebrities” in our community really are. One of my goals was for everyone in attendance to experience this. There are no little people.
Last Tuesday, at Cornucopia, we celebrated a small cross-section of our community’s talent. As seen above, The Red Herring Lounge was filled to capacity. Their busiest Tuesday evening on record, the place bursted at the seams. People of all ages and all walks of life were filled with unrestrained joy. Even Patty from Marshall Hardware, a helpful and normally reserved woman with perhaps six decades of life experience, found the evening to be enjoyable. With few seats available, I asked if she had to gouge somebody’s eyes out to get a seat at the bar. It was wonderful to have numerous non-hipster types from 18 – 80 partake in the festivities.
Mayor-elect Emily Larson gave a fantastic toast and introduced Don Ness to the crowd. The crowd was transfixed by both speakers, who were completely non-political in tone. Charlie Parr, Dave Hundrieser, Tin Can Gin, and Teague Alexy, performed some of the very best music our area has to offer. Jeredt Runions, who previously has painted on stage with Cloud Cult and Trampled By Turtles, provided live art along with his friend Dusty. Each of these performers seemed to effortlessly carry the water for the evening.
As the evening’s host I intended to say a bunch of fancy words, but found myself rather tongue-tied. Lofty words were completely unnecessary. I attempted to read from my book before a raucous bar crowd for a full eight minutes. Lets just say that the experience was character-building! As a wordsmith this is both humbling and grounding. I’d reduce myself to simply “smith,” but the word by itself carries a complex melange of feelings for me, being the last name that was nearly affixed to my mother’s name. I’ll leave some mystery there. It’s complicated.
Duluth is where I’m proud to be a local. This is the place where I’ve been formed and continue to be. Since losing my job with an enormous corporation last year, I’ve sunk myself into a project of immersing myself into the community in all aspects of life. Friendships. Neighborhood. Eating locally grown food. Being enriched by local music and visual art. Cultivating friendships with local politicians and community leaders. The rabbit hole just keeps on going, and I’m loving it even though we have very little wealth. This is the topic of my next book. Though our family’s current income places us below the poverty line, we are striving to align all of life around our immediate community. This is what makes this project unique.
I’d like to see the vast majority of our family’s life spent in appreciation of the immense talent to be found in the people all around us. Folks who don’t begrudge a knock at the door. These are the people we should be fixating our attention on, rather than far-off celebrities who do not share our values or care about much of anything beyond themselves. As a society we are slowly waking up to the fact that we need not look toward distant lands at a drab monoculture, simultaneously withered and bloated from its own excesses, for our cues. To illustrate this, here’s an image of Beyonce dumping a bottle of champagne worth thousands of dollars into a hot tub. The amazing thing to me is not that she did it, but that she is essentially bragging while making it public. Feel free to mentally replace this image with one of hundreds you’ve seen in recent months of the Kardashians….
Contrast this with Charlie Parr and Dave Hundrieser playing an incredible set, much to the delight of the crowd, as part of Cornucopia. Forgive the poor photography, but if you look closely you can see my wife’s original painting in the background. That is the image that’ll be emblazoned upon the cover of Charlie’s upcoming album, which will be released as a limited edition album on vinyl next April on Record Store Day:
This past week I had the privilege of knocking on Emily Larson’s door and visiting with her for an extended period of time. Though I am a man of little influence or wealth, she granted me an exclusive interview. This is utterly remarkable when considering that she has been declining nearly all such requests as she ramps up to her inauguration. The fact that she granted such time and access to someone like me speaks volumes about her appreciation of even “the least of these.” In a couple days I’ll have thoughts and photos posted from our visit and walk through her neighborhood. Be sure not to miss it!
Cornucopia was a lavish feast and celebration of local talent. Tickling all the senses, it serves as a suitable foreword to my upcoming book. Though unwritten, it is currently being lived. I hope to have it finished and published by spring.
The fact that an unemployed, independent writer with no budget could pull off such an event that attracted such luminaries is a miracle. The evening was magical, and exceeded the lofty expectations written about in my last column in the newspaper a couple weeks back. My point in saying this is not to take a victory lap or brag in any way. If I can make these kinds of connections, and find such fulfillment in my community over the course of a single year, you can too. Prior to this I felt nothing but isolation while telecommuting from my basement. Toiling away in the deep, dark bowels of Corporate America, I was like a polyp. The act of being snipped off was painful, but now I’m free to become embedded within our community in a more healthy way.
Wherever you are, go ahead and partake in the bounty. All around you is a feast just waiting to be had.
I’d like to thank Jeff McCabe for sharing this excellent picture of Tin Can Gin bringing down the house last Tuesday. They were fantastic!