Up North, Wisconsin

I was Up North for the 4th of July weekend.

When I say ‘Up North’ people in New York look at me quizzically.

“Like, Montreal north…or like Catskills north?”

“Neither, I was Up North, not, up north.”

In Wisconsin ‘Up North’ is a proper compound noun referring to a particular recreationally active section of the upper half of the state, where waterskiing skills are a calling card to social approval and the size of your jetski matters. Shirts and visors are emblazoned with phrases like “Up North chick” and pontoon boat titles incorporate the location: “Hoffmans’ Up North Cruiser.”

In Wisconsin ‘Up North’ isn’t a geographical distinction; it’s a cultural one.

These facts are the basis of a new theory  of mine called the “Rule of Cultural Chauvinism.” When, through ritualized activity, a place gains the distinction of being a cultural site, the ignorant visitor must tread with caution for there will be landmines deployed to destabilize them in an effort to reinforce cultural differences.

My recent trip to my wife’s family’s cabin Up North was as an ignorant visitor, and I hadn’t yet gained the wisdom of what would become the Chauvinism Rule to defend myself. I imagined Up North being an innocent community of kitschy leisure watersports rather than the fierce contest to master the terms of cabin-vacation culture. In other words, I thought I was merely up north, when actually I was Up North.

My trial-by-fire started when I arrived at the cabin, where 23 other friends and family members awaited the privilege to assert their outdoorsy superiority. When the waterski boat came out on the first day I agreed to give it a try. I thought I might be able to stay on my feet because I was an alright snow skier. Forty-six eyes watched me fail in spectacular fashion three times, skis whipped violently in different directions, body folded like a rag doll—you know the image. I didn’t necessarily expect success, but I did expect a little encouragement. Instead, I got uproarious laughter and persistent backhanded reminders of my failure.

“Last time I saw a body bend like that I was at a Cirque du Soleil in Vegas!”

“Man you would’ve been better off being shot into the water with a canon!”

The reminders continued as I also failed to correctly light fires, filet fish and even shit in the woods. One might think that shitting is primal and intuitive, but apparently it can be done wrong.

Up North Family

My breaking point came when we were lighting fireworks for the family’s annual party. Not Roman candles and bottle rockets, but Class B sky blooms that come in boxes the size of milk crates. I politely and curiously asked my father-in-law to explain how to ignite a Class B.

“I don’t know what you guys use in New York, but we use these here, ever seen one of these?!”

He held up a wind resistant propane torch like a caveman with a mammoth bone.

“What do ya use in New York? Matches?”

To be fair, all these jabs come with a sort of locker room affection, but really, New York..fireworks?

The ribbing was getting to me but I bit my tongue and took my complaints to my wife.

“How does moving to New York six years ago make me its official spokesperson? Why does having a New York address turn me into Woody Fucking Allen?!”

Then I went for beer. My indignation subsided as the Leinies took hold. Groggy the next day, I thought I’d gain some rugged-guy credits by building shelves in the garage. One of my nieces decided to follow me in and watch. Her curiosity paid off as she witnessed me slice through the power cord of the saw I was using to cut the wood. For a moment I thought the power went out until she handed me the severed, chewed up cord. After howling every word on the ‘off-limits list’ (a real list posted prominently in the cabin), I grabbed young Josie, looked into her young, brown, Christian eyes, and begged her to keep her mouth shut. Then I took the entire circular saw and buried it in the woods, like a reckless serial killer might a body.

And we all know that if one gets caught burying the body, they’re cooked. Circumstances don’t matter at that point. “She died from falling down the stairs, but I didn’t want to call the paramedics because I had a small amount of crack on the nightstand, so I decided to tie a cinder block to her ankle and drop her in the lake,” doesn’t cut it. Guilt oozes from poorly executed cover-ups. One’s only chance is good containment.

Young Josie’s secret knowledge churned inside of her like a bucket of mussels in the stomach of a queasy man on a roller coaster. It projectiled out of her in a couple minutes and spread quickly across the family. They even recovered the saw and have it displayed as an ignominious anti-trophy out on the porch.

I felt they’d turned me into a monster. Who cares about how well one water skis? Who cares about how good one is at horseshoes or baiting a hook or outboard motor conditioning? Few, perhaps, who weren’t Up North or at other lakeside retreats across the country, but still, I buried a saw a foot deep in the forest. And I paid dearly.

After the hazing that afternoon, the adults in the family escaped for a rare dinner without the children in Minocqua, the urban hub of Up North. Apparently, someone was feeling classy so we settled on a popular tapas restaurant instead of the usual Sysco orgy in a red basket or pizza parlour. I was ecstatic—boquerones followed by an Estrella Damm pilsner produces a burp that in itself is a culinary masterpiece. A plate of Pimientos de Padrón is like gambling and eating at the same time. A mess of assorted cephalopods—at once so mysteriously intelligent and so incredibly tasty— would take me to heaven that night against all odds.

Disaster struck when I saw the menu and lasted through my prolonged rant about how a live act shouldn’t be able to play John Mayer at a tapas bar. They served jalapeno poppers, spinach dip and truffled popcorn, but not a single Spanish dish. Apparently, the sangria and the small plates made it tapas. Still, no one, not even my loyal wife, stood by me as I sniped at every audible compliment about the scrumptious little plates.


Chicken Satay Tapas

“Oooooh, that chicken satay looks gooooood.”

“It’s not tapas..it’s not even satay. There’s no peanut sauce. That’s a plate of chicken strips and bowl of soy sauce. Is that supposed to pass as ‘Eastern’?” Why not serve Lucky Charms and call it tapas? No, serve the Charms with some Big Red chewing gum and call it tapas…then it’s both ethnic and spicy. All that on a small plate magically becomes tapas. Better, why don’t you just grill up a bunch of lies, serve them on a mini plate and call it tapas? They’d only be little lies, because they’re on little plates…and then they’d automatically be tapas, too.”

“Geez, who cares about whether it’s Spanish or authentic if we all like it?”

“And who cares how good I am at waterskiing if I’m happily failing at it?”

I guess the question is: who looks sillier? A happy fool being dragged across the water like a ragdoll, or someone enjoying the hell out of miscategorized food on small dishes..or the idiots complaining from the sidelines.

“Tapas” menu