Of Congressmen and Mockingbirds

17 Feb

Time to make a rare foray back into political commentary on two Duluth area stories that have made national attention this past week.

A Congressional Free-For-All

Well, everyone else is doing it, so I’d like to declare my candidacy for—nah. Not a chance in hell.

Rick Nolan threw the race for Minnesota’s 8th congressional seat for a loop with his abrupt decision not to seek re-election last week. (For much more timely and thorough coverage than mine, visit Aaron Brown’s blog.) I pointed to Nolan as a survivor after his 2016 win despite the Trump tide in his district, but the center he held to pull together the MN-8 DFL—economic and social populism to satisfy the base, and unabashed support for mining projects to preserve the Iron Range votes—began to fray this term. He faced a spirited primary fight from Leah Phifer, a 30-something former intelligence analyst who argued it was time for a fresh voice in Washington. Gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto’s win in the MN-8 DFL caucuses was a sign that Nolan was going to face an real battle, though my own suspicions about his candidacy began to creep in a few weeks earlier when he called off a Duluth fundraiser.

I found it fascinating that Phifer became the rallying point for environmental causes when her public stance on non-ferrous mining is actually a fairly muted endorsement of existing processes. It goes to show just how jaded the DFL’s environmental base was with Nolan’s attempt to defund a U.S. Forest Service study that that came along with a late Obama-era moratorium that it flocked to a moderately more acceptable candidate. This is the wedge issue in the MN-8 DFL, and Nolan’s rock-solid liberal credentials neither assuaged the environmental left nor drove away Iron Range blue collar social conservatives. To her credit, Phifer also scored authenticity points with her early entry and trailblazing around the district, and a young, female political newcomer was a better fit for the DFL base’s current mood than some of the male longtime politicians like Nolan, and some of those who could now oppose her. Time will tell if she is a serious contender or merely playing Eugene McCarthy to Nolan’s LBJ, but she’s certainly made a splash.

There is room on several sides of Pfeiffer within the DFL for competition to emerge. If the pro-non-ferrous mining camp wants a champion of its own, its foremost options are Jeff Anderson, a native Ranger and Duluth city councilor in the 00s, and Jason Metsa, the state representative in the Virginia area. North Branch mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, the first announced new entrant to the race, has loosely come out in favor of non-ferrous mining, and if no one from the Range chooses to enter, she could be the beneficiary, though she has a fairly large name recognition gap on the rest of the field. Meanwhile, we have an entrant to Phifer’s left, and it’s an intriguing one: longtime Duluth TV anchor Michelle Lee. She has the media savvy and the positive general perception that she could perform well, especially in a crowded primary where turning out a base will be key. Her announcement also made it clear she isn’t going to try to “thread the needle” on the big wedge issue, as she will oppose non-ferrous mining. Candidates who leave no room to one side of themselves on this issue, for or against, are going to get some vocal supporters.

On the list of people who will probably try to thread that needle, one candidate has already declared for the race: Joe Radinovich, a former one-term state congressman who had just taken a job as chief of staff to new Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey. Like Mayor GentriFrey, he comes off as a polished young candidate groomed for politics who will take some principled stands here and there—his support for gay marriage probably cost him his House seat—but otherwise speaks in sweeping, optimistic generalities. I could see his candidacy finding the middle ground, or crashing and burning in a crowded field. Duluth area senator Erik Simonson has opposed non-ferrous mining, but does have some union bona fides that might not totally doom him on the Range if he were to enter the race. If there’s a safe pick to bridge divides, it’s probably state senator Tony Lourey, who has a long track record in the legislature, has consistently won in a very rural district, and carries a valuable family name in liberal circles. But we’ll see if he has any real interest, and if his style can succeed in a political environment that would seem to reward turning out core supporters.

No one has an easy path. Skip Sandman still looms there to drain votes away from any Democrat who supports non-ferrous mining, but any DFLer who doesn’t support it is going to take some blows on the Iron Range. A Michelle Lee-type figure would need to limit the damage there, turn out the base in Duluth, and try to make inroads in the Twin Cities exurban portions of the district that don’t much care about mining debates. Lourey and maybe Radinovich might have the best odds in a general election, but 2016 reminds us that candidates need to inspire enthusiasm in addition to seeming electability, and they’ll have to get through a crowded primary. If the DFL has a saving grace, it is probably its ground game in the Eighth; if the primary winner comes through without too many burned bridges, he or she will have the backing of a very strong infrastructure.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have a much cleaner field right now. Pete Stauber, who has a lot of potential, remains the only declared candidate. Stewart Mills is apparently pondering a third run now; while he has the money for it, he feels like an also-ran at this point. That leaves Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt lurking in the shadows as the only likely person who could both win the nomination and the general. Conventional wisdom says Nolan’s withdrawal ups Republican odds of a win, since Nolan has proven resilient in past election cycles, but Nolan’s left flank on mining (and mining alone!) was exposed enough that I’m not sure that will be the case until we know who the Democratic nominee is. At this point, all Stauber can do is try to build familiarity as the Democrats squabble with one another, and we’ll revisit this if someone else jumps in.

To Kill a Reading Assignment

The other newsmaker in Duluth recently was a decision by the Duluth school district to strike two classic texts, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, from the curriculum due to their use of racial slurs. I’ll concede that my initial reaction was visceral: I cringe at any seeming attempt to wash away unpleasant histories, and I’m a graduate of this district who read and was moved by both. The world of Mockingbird may be an idealized version of the South, but the standard it sets for childhood recognition of injustice and moral conduct in the face of it deserves the credit it has earned. I struggle to think of a book that inspired a more emotional reception from the classroom in my high school years.  Huck Finn, while probably less beloved, is still perhaps the most complex work of one of America’s most delightful authors, and is the rare novel with literary merit that unabashedly captures the voice of an adolescent boy. And while I acknowledge that there was a fair amount of discomfort among some (white) classmates of mine in reading a certain word over and over again, I would like to think that a high school classroom should aspire to be exactly the sort of safe space where students can come to recognize the full extent of racist sentiment in American history, and hold a productive discussion about what it means, and how far we have (or haven’t) come. If not here, then where?

Of course, I know nothing of what it is like to read these books as a black kid. (For that matter, there wasn’t a single African-American in either of my Duluth East English classes in which we read these books.) And while I will defend the concept of a historical literary canon that captures the best of literature, I also don’t think that these things have to be static, with certain books taught in perpetuity. Canons grow and evolve, and there are a lot of good books that can touch on similar themes without losing literary merit. Books in English classes shouldn’t just be “relatable,” as good writing needs more than that, but there are points at which books become so inaccessible that there are better alternatives. I’ve seen plenty of suggestions bandied about already, and would have a couple of my own, too, if there were space for a productive community conversation here. The district could have that very debate internally, perhaps while including community stakeholders such as the NAACP at the table, but instead decided to make the decision first and then respond later.

What irks me most about this was how it was handled. No teachers, nor even the school board, had any say in the matter. It was an edict handed down from on high, as has become the norm in this district. (I’ve usually heard good things about curriculum director Mike Cary, but how naïve did he have to be not to realize this would happen, as he seems to suggest in his claim that this “took on a life of its own before having a chance to talk about it,” when the very first talk anyone outside of a district office heard on this was the announcement that the books were gone?) All too predictably, this drew some fairly negative coverage, and now the district gets itself splattered across national headlines, and occasionally used as a punchline. I sometimes think that ISD 709 could find some way to turn getting the best test scores in the state into a PR nightmare. This is the direct result of its manner of engagement with its most important stakeholders, its students and its teachers. Some things never change.

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Maplelag

13 Feb

One of the unexpected delights of my writing life has been the occasional opportunity to make real-world connections with readers who share some of the same scattered interests that motivate this blog. This past weekend, one of those connections became real through Jim Richards, whose life story takes him from a childhood in Edina to his hockey-playing days at Dartmouth to a professional life before he and his wife, Mary, decided to go back to the land and move to 350 acres north of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. They started out with a maple syrup operation and eventually ramped it up to a resort, which now hosts weddings and Concordia language villages in the summer and has become a cross-country skiing destination in winter. The resort, Maplelag, has now been in operation for 45 years. Jim and Mary’s son Jay and his wife Jonell are also involved in its operation, and their four sons have divided their athletic talents evenly between skiing and hockey. They found me through the latter and learned of my interest in the former through my blog, and were kind enough to invite me to spend a weekend in their company.

Maplelag is a little slice of cross-country heaven, with untold kilometers of maze-like trails meandering their way up and down rolling hills and around small ponds and lakes.  The hills are more modest than my usual haunts in the Duluth area, but one never knows what lies around the next corner as one glides along the immaculately groomed narrow tracks through the woods. Despite the frigid temperatures I put in three lengthy skis over two days, at one point even heading back out and putting my skis back on for another loop shortly after I thought I’d finished for a day. It was an ideal escape. Even at a resort full of guests, one can slip out and find solitude on a lonely stretch of trail, and I can’t remember enjoying so many spells of silence and peace in years.

This is not to say that Maplelag is an altogether tame place. The meals are all communal, as guests are thrown together in the dining hall; on this weekend most of my acquaintances were extended families or siblings or parent-adult child combinations escaping for a brief reunion. The age range of the guests went from grandparents to 12-day-old who could practically fit in her mother’s hand, and 3-year-old Ben was among the stars of the weekend as he rode about behind his parental sherpas in a carrier. Maplelag also hosts groups such as high school cross-country ski teams, a sure source of energy, though on this weekend the only large party was there for a yoga retreat. When I wandered into the hot tub on Saturday afternoon, I found myself the lone man among ten wine-drinking women, all of whom were just slightly too old for me. C’est la vie.

The Richardses are a family that seems to have found precisely the right place in life, and in turn share their little slice of happiness with a new crew of visitors every weekend. There are no TVs at Maplelag, and only a handful of the rooms have attached bathrooms. They are simple lodges that take care of the basic comforts and turn the focus back on to the people who occupy them. On the first night we’re all feeling each other out, but by the second we’re sharing beers and the tables are rolling in laughter and we’ve made ourselves a bunch of short-term friends. Who knows, we may run into each other again next season: Maplelag does not seem like the sort of place a person visits only once. Cross-country skiing welcomes all comers at all times, and repeated retreats become tradition.

Tradition is a part of Maplelag’s lifeblood. The rhythms of resort life become routine here. The walls of the main lodge bear bear the fruits of Jim’s explorations to learn the histories of ethnic settlement across the Midwest, with signs from small towns all over the region littering every open space. This being a Nordic skiing resort, the Scandinavian influence is obvious, with a Sunday morning smorgasbord rolling out a delectable array of cheeses to go with the lefse and those delicious little cookies. There is a piping hot sauna, of course, and a hole in the ice down on Little Sugarbush Lake where people with a higher tolerance for cold water than myself can purify themselves. Maplelag pays homage to the best of Minnesotan culture, that inheritance that us children of this state are charged with passing on: simple beauty, restorative escapes, a culture of diligent craftsmanship, and, once the work is done, the freedom to both delight in the sports afforded by a harsh climate and to huddle around a hearth and find warmth in one another once the sun has gone down. There are many other sides to Minnesota, but this life on a lake still captures the best of it, and is something we ought to continue carrying forward for as long as we can.

*    *   *

I chose not to enter the Saturday evening talent show; I would have been upstaged by the young musicians who took the stage, anyway. But if I had, I might have been compelled to do a brief reading from an older piece of fiction I spat out a few years ago. In this scene, the protagonist, a high school senior named Alex, has just moved (much to his dismay) with his father from a fairly cushy childhood at a private school in the Twin Cities to the fictional town of Arcadia, which sits on a lake somewhere in northwest Minnesota, likely not too far from Maplelag. This being my fiction, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, but I don’t think that the looming complications of my characters’ lives do anything to diminish the truth in this passage:

Of Alex’s three new friends, Anders stays in the trouble-free indifference of the present better than any other. Anders Andersen lives two miles north of Arcadia, on a property where his parents own a small cluster of lakeside log cabins designed to welcome in those visitors seeking a sleepy sojourn in the Northwoods. The youngest of three children, Anders took on a healthy share of the property upkeep after his sisters moved out, and as his parents grew older and more sedentary. More than any of his hockey teammates, Anders has to work to balance his various interests, and his schoolwork nearly always takes a back seat to chopping firewood and shooting pucks. But he’s bright enough to scrape by, and he does not feel the parental pressure his teammates do; he simply plods along, and does his weight training with an axe instead of a barbell.

In truth, Alex struggles to relate to Anders; hockey aside, they don’t have much in common. Anders is an avid outdoorsman, while Alex was raised in a germ-fearing bubble; Anders has few reservations, while Alex is careful never to rock any boats; and on a more fundamental level, Alex relentlessly pursues opportunities that come his way, while Anders lets everything come to him. But, as he explains to the half-interested Blake, he needs an Anders in his life to snap him out of his uptight, nervous self. His future may not be any clearer, and he certainly hasn’t made peace with his past; with a father he ignores and friends who barely know him, his present isn’t a dream come true, either. But even so, the tumult of these past few months is a bit less oppressive under the starry Arcadia sky, and Alex goes to bed every night with a feeble smile on his face.

Alex and Blake spend the last week of summer doing odd jobs around the Andersens’ cabins. The quaint log lodges along the lakeshore have all been given names like Loose Moose or Fat Goose or Crooning Loon, and though they exude a timeless rustic charm, they require constant upkeep, especially with the winter looming. The boys patch up the holes between the logs and clean out the wood-burning stoves, and with the tourist season winding down, they also paint some of the boats moored along the dock just below the Clever Beaver.

“They know that doesn’t rhyme, right?” Alex asks Blake.

“Meh. Ya see…hey, what number are you, anyway?”

“What number am I?”

“In hockey.”

“Oh…ten.”

“Perfect, we don’t have a ten. From now on, you’re Ten.”

“Um…okay. Anyway…”

“Right. Ya see, Ten, that’s the sort of thing you gotta stop caring about, if you want to let Arcadia do its thing.”

“Alright, but what if I’m not sure if I do?”

“It’s gonna do it whether you like it or not.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Alex grumbles.

“It can be, as long as you let it. Seriously, Ten. No shame in taking a shift or two off to get your head back in the game.”

The Andersens pay Alex and Blake in cash, and by ignoring anything that disappears from the extra refrigerator in the lodge. At the end of the day they often slip down to the dock with cans of beer and dangle their legs in the lake, washing away any soreness after their labor. And sore they are: there is nothing simple, nothing relaxing, in the endless caulking and log-rolling under the August sun. At the end of the week Alex’s skin is bronzed, his cap caked in sweat, and he barely has the energy he needs to shoot pucks in the basement after dark. He and Blake gripe about the work as they go, but with generous compensation and school starting next week, they can also laugh at it, knowing their work is not their life.

From their perch they can look across a large bay back at the town, where cars crawl along Lakefront Drive and the Johnson House’s green-gabled roof peeks up above the treetops, lording over the boats edging out of the marina. Sometimes the resort guests will join them, fishing rods in hand, and the ease of anonymity lets them make light of most anything in life. As the distance in time comes to match the distance in miles, Alex is freer to think of St. Ignatius not as some identity stolen away from him, but merely a well of old stories from a different life. In some ways a better life, certainly, but also one he’s lost somewhere out in the murky waters of Lake Arcadia, and for the time being it seems best not to dive in after it, but to simply sit on the dock and remember the one that got away.

A Team on the Brink

7 Feb

Duluth winters crawl along, unless one measures them by hockey: somehow, just a week and a half remains in a high school hockey regular season that feels like it began just yesterday. Those of us in the stands get to know a team over the course of a season, and suddenly it seems like we may be done with them all too soon. Back in November I figured this would be one of the more entertaining Duluth East seasons in a while, one way or another, and it has certainly delivered on that promise. The team hasn’t left the top four all season, and while it’s had its bumps in the road, the promise of something special remains, too.

East demolished Elk River 7-0 on Saturday, a performance that showed just how thoroughly this team can dominate. Elk River stuck around for a bit and kept it 0-0 through one period, but the Hounds’ relentless three-line push quickly wore them down, and the goals began to pour in from there. The game left Elk River resorting to some less-than-savory tactics in an effort to slow down the Hounds, including an incident that resulted in four penalties on a single Elk player and produced a seven-minute power play. You see something new every day. But the statement win capped off a run of nine straight wins in which East was basically never not in control of a game.

Fast forward two days to a standing room only Heritage Center for the second regular season battle with Cloquet. After a 6-6 tie in the meeting at the Lumberdome in December, this would be a good barometer of how much each team had improved, and would tell us if that first meeting, with a gaudy East shot margin and four Cloquet power play goals, was a bit of a fluke. In the early stages, that seemed more or less right: East cycled with authority for long stretches, plugged away to collect a pair of goals, and had some chances to build an even bigger lead.

But it wasn’t to be. The Lumberjacks, after lying in wait, sprung for two goals to tie the game. East seemed to restore some order with an immediate answer from Austin Jouppi, but two ensuing bad penalties gave the Jacks the chances they needed to tie and take the lead. (East’s penalty kill, which clips along at a 93.9% rate against all other opponents, is an atrocious 3 of 9 against the rivals in purple this season. The Jacks have scored six power play goals in two games to East’s other 21 opponents’ four.) After that, momentum was firmly on the side of the Lumberjacks, and an empty-netter sealed East’s second loss of the season.

Cloquet’s win helps push the Jacks out of a convoluted middle tier in section 7AA and into pole position for the 3-seed, which creates the tantalizing possibility of an East-Cloquet section final. Somehow, it’s been 13 years since we last had one of those, and despite the regular season meetings, this East fan is hungry for another one. If any of the uninitiated think the atmosphere for East-Grand Rapids these past two years was fun, well, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.

Both teams have a ways to go to get there, though, and for East, that road will likely start with their old friends the Thunderhawks. While the Hounds will likely put 60 shots on net in that prospective quarterfinal, Gabe Holum makes Grand Rapids more interesting than your average 8-seed, to say nothing of the history between those two teams. The regular season meeting was a 3-1 East win that was about as thrilling as a colonoscopy. If the Hounds get by that exercise in carpet bombing a bunker, they’d likely face the winner of a Duluth Marshall-Elk River quarterfinal. Both of those teams are reliant on a single top line for most of their offense, but are capable of playing top teams tough if enough goes right; I have more faith in one of those teams’ ability to prepare for East than the other, but that one too will involve some rivalry intrigue. Upstart Andover, despite its 9-3 December loss to East, has been on a tear and will collect the 2-seed; the Huskies pounded 7-2 Cloquet in January. For that matter, 6-seed Forest Lake is no safe quarterfinal for Jacks, having beaten them 1-0 just last week.

Prior to crumbling against Cloquet, East had been on one of its more impressive runs in my time watching Hounds hockey. Their ownership of most opponents was complete. The productivity of the second and third lines over the past month has been exceptional, and in recent games, the second line has been outscoring the vaunted WMD line. Not that WMD isn’t racking up the accolades, as Garrett Worth has the most goals by any Hound since Dave Spehar in 1996, and Ryder Donovan could end up in select company on the single-season assists list as well once all is said and done. But there are still times when WMD gets bogged down in its own zone, which can limit its chances to do what it does best. The top four defensemen have crystallized into a very solid puck-moving core that can stack up with just about any in the state. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the performance of Parker Kleive in goal; Cloquet game aside, he’s been on a tear down the stretch, and has won the job convincingly after a lengthy battle with Lukan Hanson.

East closes with a home game against Lakeville South and a visit to Maple Grove, two respectable teams that play the defensive style East will need to solve to get by the likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet, or Andover, or even Marshall in sections. These teams pack it in defensively and look to capitalize on frustration and over-commitment by sneaking out in well-timed counter-attacks. It’s not much fun to watch, but a few of East’s opponents this season have done it effectively, and knowing how to handle those teams could make or break this playoff run.

Heading into the Lakeville South game, East coach Mike Randolph is sitting on 615 wins, one short of Edina legend Willard Ikola for third on the all-time list. In some respects this has been one of Randolph’s easier years, as he has a bunch of kids who execute his preferred systems to near-perfection, and most everyone seems to be on board for a fun ride. But Randolph hasn’t separated himself from other coaches by plugging players into a system alone; he’s also done it by knowing how to press the right buttons when games hang in the balance. The next few weeks will tell us if this group has that last little spark to get it over the finish line.

God and Evan at Yale

6 Feb

This is the next installment in a fiction series that began here.

“See, Evs, the point of a Yale degree isn’t to say you have a degree in economics or English or political science,” says Mark. “It’s to say you have a Yale degree. It’s all about finding your ticket, wherever it is you want to go. Same for any school like it. It’s the fast track to the top.”

Evan has just spent an entire day wandering Yale’s quads. He’s eaten up the university’s mystique, and felt the proper reverence for the great things that have been and will be done on this campus. In their more raw conversations over the past two years, Mark has conceded some discomfort at no longer being the big fish in the small pond. But as he holds court from the end of a dinner table in a modernist box of an apartment in downtown New Haven, Evan can’t help but think his best friend has found his kingdom here.

“So much for learning things because there’s actually value in learning them,” he sighs.

“We do that, too,” says the blonde Boston girl as she slops another helping of risotto on to Evan’s plate. “Well, some of us. But one of my professors literally wrote the book on gender theory.”

“No reason we can’t have it all,” says Mark as he flips his hair back and out of his eyes. Evan thinks he looks preposterous in his pink button-down and the roguish new stubble adorning his cheeks, but here, surrounded by people who know nothing of their rapport, he can’t muster up his normal snarky retort. He instead makes a show of refilling his wine glass, and pours the rest of the bottle into those of his two neighbors around the table. The three of them toast to one another, and Evan lets the boozy warmth distract him from his best friend’s wanderings.

“I don’t know shit about wine, and I know this is good,” says Owen, an apartment-mate of Mark’s. He’s a fellow Minnesotan from a Twin Cities suburb Evan hadn’t heard of named Deephaven.

“Brought that one back from Sonoma when me and Evvy were out there last week. Wine Country was freaking awesome,” says Mark.

“You said you threw up in the cab,” says the tall, chiseled boy with salmon shorts and a hair parting that Moses would envy. Evan thinks this is the one Mark told him is a Vanderbilt descendant, though he loses track. He certainly has a noble air down to perfection as he leans up against the kitchen counter, safely removed from the peasants around the table.

“Not exactly Marky’s finest moment,” says Evan. The table cracks up at Mark’s expense, though he just grins shamelessly. When Evan tells this story to their high school friends, their immediate reaction is bemused horror at what the bill must have been, especially when they learn that Healdsburg is an hour’s drive from San Francisco. But here, no one even blinks at the thought.

“The two of you road tripped out there all the way from Minnesota?” the blonde asks.

“Yep! Badlands, Wyoming, three nights in Zion, Tahoe, then the Bay, all in ten days,” says Evan.

“We do a trip like that once a year,” Mark says. “Our little way to keep ourselves sane.”

“Shit, that’s awesome,” says Mark’s backup goalie, a bulky, affable, racially ambiguous New Jerseyan. “What was the best part?”

“Gotta be San Francisco,” says Mark. “Goddamn, the food, the wine, the girls…” Evan would have said Zion, but he’s too uptight about how that would play with this crowd. Though he did sneak out and watch the surfers on Ocean Beach the morning Mark was hung over after the visit to Sonoma, and that had been sublime.

“Best city on earth!” says the Salvadoran girl who Mark says comes from some politically powerful and potentially questionable family. “Maria and I were there for Pride Weekend last summer. It makes New York’s look like a county fair. Just a little slice of everyone there, together, all for unity…it’s what the future looks like.”

“Ugh. Cosmopolitan bullshit.” Mark adds a yawn for effect.

“You’re such a damn contrarian,” gripes the roommate, Owen. Evan had taken an immediate liking to Owen, as he’d welcomed in another Minnesotan and offered whispered agreement that the East Coast seemed so pretentious compared to modest and sensible Minnesota, where everyone enjoyed a pleasantly above average childhood that opened doors to the full range of possibilities. Then Evan had looked up Deephaven, and learned how much more above average some communities are than others.

“That’ll happen when you grow up in a place that’s whiter than all the snow that’s on the ground there all year,” the Salvadoran jabs, adding a none-too-subtle eyelash flutter at Mark. Yes, Evan thinks, she’s just his type: petite, precise on the details from her eyeliner to her heels, and clearly no rookie.

“Not like there aren’t heaps of evidence showing that we’re not very good at getting along with each other,” says Mark. “It’s just humans being humans. Not that I won’t do my part to spread the love…”

“But you said you loved San Francisco…”

“Personally, yeah. I like nice things. But not everyone can afford nice things.”

“You’re saying only rich people can enjoy cities like that?” asks the Boston blonde.

“I mean, look at the evidence,” Mark shrugs. “The world’s splitting apart. Rural-urban divides, racial divides, American power in decline, grand narratives getting drowned out in endless noise…we’re not living at a happy time, kids. Doesn’t mean I won’t do what I can to fix it—”

“Speak for yourself,” laughs the backup goalie.

“—But I’m not gonna let myself get left behind, either. And if anyone in this room isn’t the same way, you’re either a saint or a goddamn hypocrite.”

The goalie nods in approval, while the Boston blonde frowns and looks to Evan for a response. He can only shrug; he’s long known Mark’s stand, and while he’d like to aspire to sainthood, he’ll concede that he is in no way ready to renounce any measure of material comfort to make a point. He’s just doing a much poorer job than his Yale economics major friend to make sure he actually attains that material comfort.

“Gotta take care of our own first,” says the goalie.

“There’s a lot we can do, though!” says the Salvadoran. “And have done…look at all the progress just in our lifetimes. We need people who can see everything that’s wrong with it but still go and fix it.” She gives Mark a significant look and plays with a stray strand of hair across her chest. Evan isn’t sure if she’s flattering him or really does think he has a political future. Both seem equally plausible.

“Yeah, we do,” says Mark. “We’re gonna rule all this someday. But for now, I’ll take my nice things. Me and Evs, we’re headed out to Nantucket tomorrow. My sister said no one has my dad’s first ex’s place for the weekend. She got it out of the pre-nup.” The group laughs, Evan again marvels at the collective lack of awe at this privilege, and how easily Mark speaks of his family’s wealth here in a way he never does in Minnesota.

“Awesome,” says the backup goalie. “That the half-sister you met up with last spring?”

“Yep, hadn’t seen her since I was ten. She’s the black sheep of the three my dad had with wife number one, so we actually hit it off. She can out-drink me, no problem.”

“I’m scared for my life. Or at least my liver,” Evan quips. “But hey, it’s worth it to live in that world for a weekend.” He’s not entirely sure he believes this, but it seems the appropriate thing to say.

“You take a cross-country road trip together, and now you’re out here visiting a week later, doing a romantic getaway to Nantucket?” asks Owen. “When’s the wedding?”

“Yeah, fun partying with you kids, but Evvy and me need some space to whisper our sweet nothings to each other on the beach for a couple days,” says Mark.

“Hard to time it otherwise with hockey,” Evan sighs.

“Evvy’s a walk-on for the Gophers. Gets decent minutes,” Mark explains. He shoots Evan a look that shows he’s annoyed he’s not playing along.

“Damn,” says the backup goalie, the one other person in the room who understands the reputation of the University of Minnesota’s hockey team. “You actually play?”

“Fourth line.”

“Dammit, take some credit, Evs,” Mark chides him. “He dressed way more games than a whole bunch of scholarship kids last season. Shameful they haven’t given him a ride with the way he works. I keep telling him to transfer out this way, but…”

Evan shrugs again, at a loss for words. He’s a Minnesotan to the core. He wants to tell them that Duluth is his own little slice of heaven, the Lake Superior Riviera, with air-conditioned summers and magically crisp autumns and open skating rinks all winter long. If only they’d come to visit, they’d understand.

“We need people like Evan who stay loyal to Minny,” says Owen. “Can’t drain out all the talent, no?”

“I know, I know,” Mark concedes. “Someone’s gotta fight the noble fight against people who never want to change…”

“Duluth’s actually pretty far to the left,” Evan says by way of explanation to anyone who might assume it’s full of rednecks or whatever else it is Coastal people think of small Midwestern cities.

“In a stupid, backwards way that never lets anything new happen,” Mark retorts. “That part’s got nothing to do with politics.”

“You’re really selling them all on Duluth, bro.”

“Reality is reality. I don’t have any gods. Did good things from me and I can always go home there, but c’mon, man, you know it’s not my future.”

“I could go back, but I wouldn’t live outside the Twin Cities metro,” says Owen.

“What is there beyond that?” the Salvadoran asks. “I mean, I saw the pictures of Mark’s dad’s place, but that can’t be normal…”

“Rural flyover country’s basically a third-world country,” says the Alleged Vanderbilt. “We just don’t see it that way because we’re so used to seeing America as all the same.”

“Guess that makes me a refugee or something,” Evan grumbles.

“You sort of are,” says the Alleged Vanderbilt. “You might have more stuff than a starving Mexican, but the culture’s all gone to shit out there. Bunch of single moms cuz their trashy men hopped themselves up on meth or shot themselves, all the factory jobs are gone so they’re just being sad nurses cleaning up the dying old people and hoping their kids don’t do drugs or knock up their girlfriends in high school. And we’re surprised when they vote for big, tough men they think are gonna tell them like it is and keep them safe.”

Evan, the son of a single mother who very much fits this description yet remains a bleeding heart liberal, struggles to resist his urge to throw a punch. He gives Mark a significant look, and Mark gives him a little nod.

“Careful now, Evvy’s doing field work on Elis in their natural habitat. He’s gonna think all those stereotypes are right.”

“Don’t lump Minnesota in with the rest,” says Owen, rising to the occasion like any good Minnesotan. “It’s like the last hope for the American Dream. Maybe you won’t get rich, but you can still get yourself a nice house with a decent public school and have a nice spot on a lake for a weekend.”

“It got us here,” says Evan. “Wouldn’t trade my high school time for the world. I just hope that path’s still there for my kids, too.”

“To Minnesota!” says the Salvadoran. “To finding the spot on a lake in all our lives.” Those who still have some wine left drain their glasses.

“Alright, cool talk. We actually going to do something tonight?” asks the Boston girl.

“Yeah, enough of this wine shit, get out the Natties,” says the Alleged Vanderbilt. Owen heads for the beer fridge and begins handing out cans.

“Make sure Evvy gets a Narragansett, he’s gotta have the best we’ve got,” says Mark.

“Yeah, sure. Hang on, bathroom.” Evan scrutinizes the tall can Owen hands him and heads for the toilet to collect himself.

Well, there you go, he thinks: there’s the Ivy League at full blast. Sheer cognitive dissonance: Mark’s friends show flashes of brilliance and lulls of sheer ignorance, both deserving of their status and perfect exhibits of how blind status can make people. One or two of them probably have secret burdens, secret traumas they’re hiding from him. Most do, in one way or another, especially those who come into Mark’s orbits. But they are still people from a different world who enjoy perks Evan never had, and the Alleged Vanderbilt’s jab about third-world countries cut closer than he’d care to admit. He wasn’t poor by any measure growing up, though they had downsized after his father died since his mother couldn’t bear the mortgage on the old house by herself. Still, he thought he’d done enough to become the inheritor of a promise, one his mother had made explicit: if he carried himself correctly and kept up his work rate, he’d have all the support he needed. But here in New Haven, he’s learned he never had a prayer of making it to the top. He’s been lied to. The class and power that some of Mark’s friends radiate—and even Mark, when in their company—terrifies him, though he’s almost more annoyed by the Owens of the world who can’t even recognize their own good fortune.

He doesn’t like this judgmental person he’s become on this trip. He gazes at himself in the mirror, his face still boyish, especially with his hair fanning out beneath his cap with the Gophers’ 1970s hockey logo. He feels like a boy among men. But when else will he ever have a chance to pretend he’s a student at Ivy League student, however fleeting it may be? When else will he be able to get what this means for Mark—Mark, who’s doing everything in his power to make Evan at ease here? He owes it to him to make this work. He cracks the beer, slams a sip, and marches back out into the incipient party.

The night degenerates from there. The blonde repeatedly demands trips to the bars; how else will they show Evan New Haven at its finest? As Evan is the only 21-year-old in the crowd this is a questionable plan at best, but once the group achieves a collective volume of liquor, all practical concerns disappear. They head to the bar that is lax in its carding, but the Salvadoran girl’s foreign ID tips off the bouncers, and only Evan, the Alleged Vanderbilt, and Mark make it through. Evan mumbles something about the friends they’ve abandoned, but Mark has already ordered a round of tequila shots for the three of them, and Evan settles in at the bar, resigned to his fate. The Alleged Vanderbilt clearly has no interest in him at all, and while Mark steals Evan’s cap and starts reminiscing on their high school team’s greatest hits, he seems most interested in out-drinking the bulkier Alleged Vanderbilt. The two of them go back and forth, buying round after round. Evan feels guilty he never buys one himself, but this trip is taxing his shaky finances enough. He settles for doing what he can to keep pace, and tips some of the later beers down the toilet when he makes periodic bathroom runs.

The night drags on. Mark rhapsodizes over the Salvadoran girl, and the Alleged Vanderbilt offers Evan the blonde’s number (“didn’t you see how she was falling over you, bro?”), but Evan sighs and explains that he has a girlfriend back in Minneapolis. He usually enjoys playing counselor to Mark’s girl problems, but he’s no fan of this interloper in their relationship, much less one who keeps pressuring him to cheat on his girlfriend. Exhausted and drunk, Evan decides to cut off this conversation and guide his two compatriots on to the dance floor. The three of the cut a wide swath across the bar, and here Evan can play off of Mark, whose moves always make him the center of attention. Finally, he starts to feel like he fits in. But Mark never stops guzzling rum and cokes, and when he and the girl he’s grinding up against both collapse in a heap on the floor, Evan takes this as his cue to bring a long day to an end.

The walk back to Mark’s apartment takes at least double the time it should, as they meander lawns and stop twice to pee in bushes. Mark, his crisp shirt coated in the primordial ooze of the dance floor, is long beyond any semblance of coherence, and makes the occasional attempt to wander off toward some other bar. Once they finally reach the lobby of the apartment building, Evan has to coax him out of a confrontation with two students on their way back from the library who make the mistake of expressing strong opinions on postmodernism in front of him.

“Dammit, man, we’re done here,” Evan insists.

“You’re a beauty, Evs.” Mark tries to plant a kiss on Evan’s cheek, misses, and smacks his ear instead. “And fuck Jacques Derrida!” he yells after his studious peers.

“You should probably just go to bed.” It’s the only thing Evan can think to say. The Alleged Vanderbilt is giving him a side-eye as if to ask if there really is some substance to Mark and Evan’s homoerotic jokes, but Evan has no patience for that line of inquiry now. He bids the Alleged Vanderbilt a less-than-courteous good-night and steers Mark, who is still grumbling about the dangers of deconstructionism, into the next available elevator. Once in the apartment Evan pours them both glasses of water, but Mark ignores him and stumbles straight for his bedroom. If only he’d set up the air mattress in the common area, Evan thinks as he trails after his wasted friend.

“Dude. I’m gonna call Emilia,” Mark says, trying to fish his phone out of his pocket and take off his shirt at the same time.

“That’s probably a bad idea.”

“You saw her. She’s a goddess, Evs. A goddess.”

“Goddesses don’t think much of kids who are too drunk to take their clothes off right.”

“Shit. You’re right. Evs, I’m drunk.”

“I’d kinda noticed that.”

“I should sober up. Wanna order food?”

“No, I want to go to bed. And you should, too.”

“Fine. You’re the boss,” Mark slurs. He flops over on his bed and closes his eyes.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fucking fine.” Mark pulls the sheets over himself, pants still on, Evan’s hat slowly falling off his head and into the pillow. Evan sighs and fills another cup of water from the bathroom sink. He leaves it on the bedside table, but Mark has passed out already. He picks up Mark’s shirt and undershirt from the floor and tosses them toward the closet. He pulls the sheet back on his air mattress, but a sudden urge overtakes him. Enough of this, he grumbles, and slides his shoes back on. After ten days on the road with Mark a week ago and now two nights of this in New Haven, he needs some time to himself.

Just as he locates Mark’s keys, though, Owen stumbles back in through the door with a girl Evan does not recognize. He tucks himself in a closet while Owen and the girl make a scene of turning on the TV and attempting to cook omelets, but when she runs to the bathroom and he announces his intent to search his bedroom for condoms, Evan slips past them and out the door. He shivers when he heads outside; a chill breeze has picked up, and he notices how cold it is now that he’s not occupied with guiding Mark home. If only he’d brought his sweatshirt. Nah, he’ll endure.

Evan quickens his pace, his longer strides stomping out his bitterness. Mark has play-acted as his guide here, and he always regales him of the joys of pushing life to its limits and staying there. But yet it always ends up like this, with Mark plowing straight over those limits and devolving into an incoherent blackout, his ambitions with girls thwarted by his own excess. Once again, he is left guiding this stumbling drunk home, his own happy state wasted by a need to babysit. So much for his brilliant guide.

Perhaps tomorrow Evan should demand that he be the one who goes overboard, and make Mark be the responsible one who takes care of him. It would only be fair. But somehow he’s not sure he’s capable of this sort of honesty. And, once the surge subsides, he admits he needs this version of Mark in his life, both to drive him from his comfort zone and serve as a foil. Mark has pushed him to enjoy life in a way he never could have without him. Yet he can’t escape a sense that it doesn’t have to be this way, perhaps some vague guilt that his own adventures enable Mark’s descents into a semi-regular stupor.

He worries too much, another voice tells himself. He’s making Mark sound like an alcoholic, but just a week before the two of them had spent three days in Zion without any drinks, and they’d had that magical chat over beers at Tahoe before they’d gone out with the snowboard bums and come home back to their tent in a sloppy but satisfied state. Only here and in Wine Country had Mark truly gone over the edge. Still, his traveling buddy’s flaw is undeniable: what pushes this kid whose intellect surpasses that of anyone Evan has ever known to abandon it all? Is he just hard-wired that way? This is too simplistic, though there may be a hint of that, and Mark certainly went through enough as a child to drive him to the bottle. But this version of Mark doesn’t come out when he’s down on himself. On the contrary, it’s his moments of joy that seem to invite his excess.

Evan tries to make his way back toward Yale’s aesthetically pleasing quads, but the streets that would carry him there still have some late-night life to them. He’d rather avoid unnecessary human contact. He wants to escape for himself for a bit, reflect on the jumble of America he’s seen over the past two weeks, wonder how well Mark’s famously bulletproof fake ID will hold up on their trip to Nantucket. But he can’t take his mind off his wasted friend: this, he thinks, is the natural outflow of a philosophy of life with no limits, of belief only in one’s own ambition. Mark will claim there’s more to it, but the nihilism beneath is undeniable, and it’s slowly poisoning him. This is why he believes the way he does, Evan pontificates to the audience in his mind, murmuring beatitudes to himself that he’s only right in all he does.

It’s all an insidious lie, though: he’s no saint. He’s enabled Mark and countless others for years now, and has no intent of giving up his own love for that game anytime soon. He’s just the lucky one who knows when to stop. Nor would his sexual ethics earn him much respect from the conservative Christians he reads on occasion, those loyal men and women of faith whose commitment he admires but cannot bring himself to copy. He believes what they say about the power of a steady family and a supportive congregation, but for all that respect he’s never felt a need to apologize for his many years of love-making with Bridget. His appetite, while perhaps more healthily channeled, is no less intense than Mark’s. And when he does toe the line from time to time, he always had the ability to recognize it and admit it and confess, often without any lasting pain. He has cycle of purification down, something so smooth that it sounds more like a mechanized filtration system than a soul-cleansing human ritual. Is his own success a standard too impossible for others to meet? It would certainly soothe his ego to think so.

He’s reducing the source of his desires to his sex drive, and this seems wrong. Human triumph, he would like to think, comes from transcending those basest instincts. This is something that people of faith know well, and the reason he will always respect them more than he does Mark, no matter how well he seems to be pushing his way into a select circles here, always worming his way into the front row at guest lectures or sneaking into donor events to shake hands and flash that winning smile. He loves watching Mark in his pursuit, can’t help but root for him, but he could never do it himself. Unlike Mark’s passel of cocky friends, he’s not so pretentious as to think he can rule the world. But he can make things right in his own little slice of it, and that he will. He needs to purge away that ambition, free his soul of that impatience, and accept himself as he was meant to be.

He stops before a colonial era Methodist church and searches the façade for answers. Simple and austere, just as he likes it, with some Gothic hints of mystery in the spires towering above it all. This is a worthy hall to seek absolution, or at the very least an understanding. He tries the door, but it won’t budge. Figures, he muses: he’s always been curious, but never can make his way in.

God has not been easy to find lately. Evan believes with all his might, knows there is something out there, but could never concede to Mark the degree of doubt that lingers beyond that. He plays up platitudes of leaps of faith, resorts to Pascal’s wager and other such half-assed attempts to impose rationality on something whose sole purpose is to supersede it. He joins his mother at church when he goes home, and feels right in doing so, but it rarely comes off as more than a pleasant but formless nostalgia. Too many of his mother’s fellow Congregationalists are vapid moralists, or instead seem to be social justice fighters at prayer, a cause he supports but finds oddly empty: where’s the need for God in all these appeals to love and community? He vaguely suspects a church more devoted to ritual and liturgy might speak to his fondness for beauty and order, but that level of investment seems a bridge too far, the sort of leap taken by some struggling person facing an existential crisis. For all he’s been through, he isn’t that.

Why not? he asks himself. He has a right to be, after his childhood was wrenched from him by his father. He certainly could have in those early years, but he had enough good friends and hockey to distract him, and then along came Bridget, whose steadfastness ever since has gifted him with an idyllic second family. Evan musters up some pride: he had conquered that fear that he could never make things normal again, won over a girlfriend’s skeptical parents, and through it gained access to her family, which so often met that ideal he had lost. Evan laughs, knowing his mother was over at his girlfriends’ parents for dinner tonight, bonding as their children travel the world. What more can he ask for?

Evan finds a late night taqueria and decides to grab a bite. He settles into line behind a troupe of wasted lesbians and spends a moment pondering Mark’s sloppy kiss before zoning back in. Whatever it was meant to be, there is no future there, and they both know it. Instead, he’s pulled in by the eyes of haunted exhaustion in the girl behind the counter. He chances a smile as he requests his tacos, wonders if she’s American or Mexican by birth, what stories she might have to tell. She’s probably his age, though looks far more tired than he can ever remember being. She has a cross on her necklace; perhaps she could teach something to a white bread Minnesota boy about her faith. Or maybe it’s just for show, a gaudy gift from a boyfriend or a standard she holds up for herself but never meets. He’d like to imagine it’s the former.

Maybe party in front of him isn’t all lesbians, despite all appearances: one is eyeballing him as he leans up against the condiment counter and awaits his order. He’d like to think he’s just their type: attractive in a conventional and athletic way, but his Minnesota wardrobe plays down any hint of pretension, and his scraggly hair suggests a hint of rebellion. If he had a little more energy he’d summon up some game, but he’s still absorbed by the girl behind the counter, and this seems a pointless exercise for any number of reasons. But no, she turns away: no doubt he’s just being a stupid horny boy, starved after two weeks on the road. His taco inexplicably comes before those of the young women, and he offers the girl behind the counter an apologetic look as they start to hassle her for it. Evan hurries toward the door. A hasty retreat, exactly what he deserves for thinking those thoughts. He misses Bridget.

Two blocks along, Evan finds a quiet set of steps where he settles in to wolf down his late-night meal. Never has he felt this far from home. He’s always had a little wanderlust, an instinct spurred along by his mother, a yoga dabbler who could be drawn in by any product or menu item that had some foreign-sounding adjective slapped on the front of it. Part of him wonders how she ever married such a staid, pure Minnesotan as his father, but beneath her occasional flightiness is a profound dedication to order, and he cannot picture her raising a child outside of the careful world she’d built for Evan—carefully crafted until his father’s suicide ruined it all.

Not that it had been all happy and carefree. Evan, ever precocious and timid, was much more his mother’s son. Did his father resent this? The question hadn’t occurred to him before. He can certainly see how, in her self-absorption, his mother would have missed his father’s warning signs. He’d been a sensitive child, in retrospect can now see the dark cloud hanging over his father, but couldn’t quite put two and two together at that age. His father had no one to turn to. How Evan wishes he could have been that person.

It strikes him suddenly that, unlike ever-questioning Mark, he’s never really asked why. He wonders what went through his father’s mind, certainly, and wishes he’d had the power break his fall, been given some insight into the sickness that plagued the man so that he could have expended every ounce of his energy into saving him. Easy to say now, he thinks, but he does like to believe he could have done so, and even if he couldn’t, would have been able to make peace knowing he did all he could.

This is his style, he thinks to himself, a smile growing on his face. He is comfortable in reality, knows his limits, all guided by his faith. Faith in what? It almost doesn’t even matter since it just works for him, day in and day out, the lows never too low.

He wishes he could talk to his dad again, yes. He knows he carries some part of him inside him. He will never know what could have been. And yet, there it is: from the start, he’s managed to accept that nothing he can do can change what is done, and that it is his solemn task to take tragedy and turn it into something that can empower him. It seems almost cold. He can picture himself trying to explain this to his mother or Bridget and coming off as robotic, the self-improvement machine moving on with no need for pity. Perhaps this is why he can’t say a word about it.

He is fine. And yet he isn’t: a well-adjusted person, he figures, would have crashed in bed alongside Mark when they got back from the bar. He’s not quite sure if an unburdened Evan would have no inhibitions in joining Mark in drunken oblivion, or if he’s just hard-wired to know his limits and would have settled for closing his eyes and dozing off, content to keep watch over his friend. It takes a different form, but he’s just as much of a seeker as Mark is. He must chase meaning in an entirely different way, must not make unending demands of a distant and unknowable force, but instead lose all his fighting instincts and become one with it.

Satisfied, Evan hops to his feet and trots back toward his home for the night, though he wishes he had a chance to better prove his freedom from the conformity around him. A long-dormant longing stirs up within him: he wonders if he can track down a surfboard on Nantucket and sneak out some morning before Mark wakes, ride the waves and purify properly, with a rush of fear that his normal cycle of highs and lows has dulled into nothing. He’d spent some time learning up on the waves when Mark was passed out in the Wyoming motel. As quickly as it came, though, it fades: he has a duty to his friend, and above all he senses that the time for reckless rushes is past. Is this the wisdom of a man who’s now seen all that those adrenaline surges have to offer and is ready to move on? Or just a meek kid giving up on his one outlet for greatness?

He isn’t young anymore, whatever his mother may say. He has two years of college left, and with Bridget a year ahead of him and safely en route to her nursing degree, adulthood will be upon him before he knows it. His mother can’t stop dropping wedding venue hints, and, at Mark’s behest, he even has a list of Duluth employment connections that he’ll need to start exploring sooner or later. All he’s ever wanted to happen should come to pass.

Why, then, all this uncertainty? He is nothing if not committed, but commitment, he now realizes, exacts a toll. He glides into the atrium of the apartment building, eyeballs its angular modern furniture with skepticism, and jabs repeatedly at the elevator button. This stage in life feels like it only brings the closure of doors, and he isn’t sure he likes this. Maybe he hasn’t ventured far enough outward. Maybe he’s too quick to commit himself to Bridget, and she’s just a safety blanket for a scared kid who’d had his life torn apart. There’s a much larger world beyond good old Duluth, and everything that once seemed large there is now small.

Evan slumps into the side of the elevator, runs a hand through his thick mess of hair, and gazes at himself in its mirrored walls. Sorry, Mark, he thinks to himself: this is who he is, and no matter how hard his friend pushes him to make the world his toy and nothing else, he can’t quite follow him to the edge. He needs his moments like this, his time with just him and God, wherever he is, when he can lose his soul. It’s a side not even Bridget is allowed to see. He needs his secrets, his own little war to win, to prove his worth to himself and his maker alone.

Maybe not quite alone, Evan thinks as he swings open the bedroom door and wanders past the bed. He has one person in his life who he can talk to about this and who just might get it. He smiles down at Mark, his mouth agape and breathing heavily in the exact same position Evan had left him when he set out. Nantucket will give him a chance to articulate all these convoluted thoughts, and even if they don’t quite get there, the search will be worth his time. As long as he has a fellow traveler, he can go to bed content.

Leaving the Garden

18 Jan

This is the next installment in what I’ve been calling a short story collection, but is really coming to resemble more of a serialized novella. I recommend reading the rest first, beginning here.

Mark rises from his bed as quietly as he can. His roommate is already snoring lightly in the next bed, but he can’t sleep. There are too many emotions, too many complicated feelings running laps around his brain. He stands before the window of his hotel room and gazes down on downtown St. Paul, dead at this hour of the night. His jersey lies strewn over the chair in the corner, carefully arranged to show off his school’s name. He’d finally taken it off two hours after the game ended, and even now is half tempted to pull it back on and sleep in it so as not to let it go. So much for all those illusions of his senior year ending in a state championship. He’s failed. But his old impossible standard for himself doesn’t have the same power anymore: he knows he’s fought valiantly, put his team on his back, made 37 saves in a losing effort tonight. He checks his reflection in the window and chances a smile for the first time since the final horn sounded. He’s done alright for himself, all in all, and even he might yet fall for all those clichés about glory days. Now, he just needs one last confirmation of his pride. He checks his phone again. The call comes on time, as it always does.

“Evvy.”

“Marks.”

“God, thanks so much for doing this.”

“Always for you. How’s the team?”

Mark glances at his stirring roommate and pauses. Yes, this conversation is more important than the curfew. He throws on his shoes and heads for the hotel hallway.

“Down, but proud. Exactly how I want them to be,” he says as he slips out the door.

“They know their captain.”

“Did what I could, telling em I was proud of em. Even if I was pissed for all that blown coverage. Should’ve had the second one, too. But, hey, we gave it our all and I think I can accept that.”

“You’re playing for third in the state tomorrow. Hardly any shame there.”

“I know. Course I’m proud of us. And like you said at the start, it was worth coming back to be a leader, pull all those boys along. Even if it wasn’t the same without you.”

“Aww. You gonna miss it?”

“Hard to say, honestly.” Mark gathers his thoughts and finds words he knows Evan will like. “I’m ready to move on. Duluth saved my soul, but it was never entirely me, either.”

“I get that. Didn’t realize how much of a Duluth boy I was until I left.”

“Ha. It was obvious to some of us all along…”

Evan lets out a loud laugh before covering his mouth. He, too, is the only person awake now: his Fargo billet family is sound asleep, including their eleven-year-old who shares a wall with the junior hockey player he worships. Evan is sore from an hour of evening knee hockey on top of the nicks and bruises that bedevil him late in a long season, but the look on the kid’s face makes it all worth it.

“What did you tell them afterwards?” he asks.

“There wasn’t much to say. I just said thanks, said I’ll have my thoughts sorted out a little better by the banquet. I mean…God, you know how much a lot of them drove me insane. I had to learn to hide that. Had to learn your Minnesota Nice shit. But…I love em all for it, even now. It taught me a lot, how to deal with a group. Even when you’re the goalie, you’re not all alone back there. I was telling that to Carson after the game and he just sort of smirked at me like I finally figured something out that I should’ve known years ago. And maybe I did.”

“But it took this to make it real,” says Evan.

“It’s been a strange feeling. I’m just…kind of reflective about it all now. Nostalgic, you know?”

“I know exactly how you feel. It hit me hard toward the end of my senior year.”

“I even behaved myself and didn’t sexile Reuben tonight. No postgame pussy like last year.”

“I take that all back. You’re the worst.”

“I know.” Evan can picture the evil grin on Mark’s face and smiles at the thought. Prior to this year, Mark was the aloof goalie par excellence, and couldn’t be troubled to comment on his teammates’ performance unless they’d hung him out to dry. He had one job, and it was to stop the puck, to the point where he could seem indifferent to wins or losses so long as he performed to the level he expected of himself. He’d never exactly been a model teammate. Now, though, Evan can tell he’s completely invested. He’d particularly enjoyed the sequence caught on camera after the first period when Mark hunted down the referees and looked to have sent them into peals of laughter.

“What did you tell the refs at the first intermission?” he asks.

“That one kid should’ve gotten an embellishment call after Austin bumped him. I said that I could hook them up with someone from the Yale Drama School if they wanna learn how it’s done right.”

“Goddamn.”

“Your chirp game’s never been your forte, Evvy. Gotta know how to work em.”

“There’s nothing worse than a chirpy goalie.”

“Hey, the team loves it, hearing that from me.”

“I don’t doubt it. Maybe that’s what made you all so good this season, just knowing how to stay loose.”

“I wasn’t always great at it, but I learned not be picky. If you can relate, relate, even if it’s on their level.”

Evan marvels at this version of Mark he’s hearing. “Next thing I know you’ll be turning down Yale and playing for UMD so you can stay with your boys,” he cracks.

“Let’s not get too carried away. Some of them didn’t even realize this was the end, you know? Most of em will never get it the way that we do.”

“I don’t think high school’s formative for everyone as it was for me or you. We both went through a little more than most.”

“Me, you, and our daddy issues.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” says Evan. He sighs, unwilling to say more, and Mark waffles on whether to press any further. A door down the hall clicks, and he jumps in shock before recovering his poise. He slips into an alcove next to the ice machine, makes sure the coast is clear, swallows, and asks a question he’s always longed to ask.

“Evs, if you don’t want to answer you don’t have to, but…did you have any idea? Did you get a chance to say goodbye?”

“I didn’t. No.”

“Was there a note?”

“No. I didn’t see any of it coming. There was some stuff here and there maybe, looking back he probably wasn’t himself for a month or two before, but…no. Nothing. No final words. He just said bye to me that morning when I left for school like I always did. I probably didn’t even look at him, it was just…” Evan trails off, but Mark remains silent, and he can’t help but go on.

“It’s stupid. We don’t think these things matter until they suddenly do. Hell, I’m not sure he’d even made up his mind at that point.” Evan cracks, and appreciates the time Mark gives him to collect himself. He’s done everything in his power to pick up the pieces over the past five years, accept the loss of his father and give that loss a place in a well-organized life. He’s made peace as well as he can.

But one nagging worry lingers. Now that he knows loss, he can’t ever fight the sense that he’s wasting time. Every minute is vital, and every moment not spent in full pursuit is just waste on top of waste. He’s nineteen and yet he already feels like he’s let far too much time go by without doing every possible thing there is to do, without telling all the people in his life what he needs to tell them. He lives in eternal fear that his debts will come due before their time.

“Whatever you do, Marky, don’t make that same mistake,” says Evan. He doesn’t say exactly what the mistake was, but the silence on the other end of the line assures him he’s made his point.

Evan’s words weigh on Mark. He knows Evan means this broadly, but in most spheres of life this isn’t much of a concern for him. Mistakes are a rarity in his life. But his mind can’t help but turn to his father’s fortress up the shore from Duluth. He dreads every visit there, and goes only often enough to meet basic obligations. Hockey, at least, gives them something to talk about. His father does push him on colleges, and as a Yale graduate himself, that legacy tie certainly set the table for Mark. In his own way, his father’s terrifying iciness is a necessary antidote to his permissive, weak-willed mother, who only ever aims to give him exactly what he wants. If only there was some middle ground instead of these two polar extremes.

“My dad sent me a text that said ‘good job’ today. Invited me up to have dinner with him at his place next week.”

“That’s good to hear, I guess.”

“I’m not sure you get how crazy that is. He’s never said anything like that. Ever.”

“Why is it that the things we most mean to say are the hardest things to say?”

“I’m not sure how much he actually means it.”

“He does. Trust me. Whether he knows it, whether you know it…I know it’s there.”

“If you say so.” Mark wants to disbelieve Evan, but he can’t quite do so.

“I do.”

“Sorry to drag you down that road.”

“No. It’s good for me.”

“Seriously, how you doing beyond all that? How’s junior life lately? Wait, hang on.” Mark pokes his head out of his alcove to investigate the footfalls down the hall. One of the assistant coaches makes his way toward him with an ice bucket, stopping by each of the players’ doors to listen as he goes. Mark tenses, poised, and waits until the coach puts his head just far enough into one of the doorways that he can’t see the ice machine. He bolts for the stairwell opposite him in four bounding strides, edges the door open, and slips through. Sneaking around the homes of love interests late at night is a specialty of his, after all. Safe and back in control, he exhales and invites Evan to reply.

“Honestly? It’s been frustrating lately.”

“Why?”

“It’s not my style. And…I just, I don’t know. It’s kind of like what we were just saying. If I learned one thing from the shit with my dad, it’s not to take any day for granted. To always make sure I’m building toward whatever comes next. The other kids, they don’t get that. They think they have all the time in the world. I know I don’t. And too often I just feel like I’m spinning my wheels here. All for what? Just a game?” Evan surprises himself with his own fervor, the ease with which half-formed thoughts start pouring out.

“The things we do for hockey. You know you love it, though. This time we boys all get together…can’t trade that for anything. You taught me that more than anyone.”

“Right, I know. But, juniors isn’t high school…it’s a business now. Not that it wasn’t some there, but we had well-rounded lives. You don’t get that when you’re stranded on a junior team in freaking Fargo. You’re such a lucky bastard, heading straight to Yale next year.”

“You might find some willing takers if you looked east, you know.”

“Nah. I can’t leave. I’m too much of a Midwest boy, and I’m smart enough to know it.”

“You just don’t want to be too far from Bridget.” Mark pauses, expecting a rejoinder, but when none comes, suspicion sets in immediately. “She was at the game tonight, you know.”

“Yeah, we were going back and forth as it went along. Wish I could’ve been there next to her to freak out through it in person.”

“You two are such rocks,” Mark probes. Again, silence.

“Something up?”

“It’s…shit, Mark. I hate this place I’m in. Hate it with a passion.”

“What happened?” Evan has never heard such alarm in Mark’s voice.

“I did something really fucking stupid, that’s what.”

“Oh God. Does Bridget know?”

“Not a clue.”

“You just…”

“Yep. Got drunk, was feeling starved, knew I could find someone…so I did.”

“That’s…that’s not what you’re supposed to do.”

Evan sniffs. “I’m a piece of trash!”

“When was this?”

“Yesterday, after watching you win in the quarters.”

“Did you know her?”

“We’d met.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What I said. She’s been around the team. We’d made small talk in a group. Nothing more.”

“Talked to her since?”

“That I did. Told her I’d made a horrible mistake and that was it.”

“That’s…well…at least you did that.” Mark cannot ever remember being this lost for words. He feels violated, as if Evan has killed some sacred trust that he’s pushed upon him ever since they first met. Evan is the saint who does not sin, the compass who orients everyone he touches toward some moral pole.

It’s laughable, now that he realizes how much he’s idolized him. Their first meeting had been at a party designed to welcome Mark, the goalie recruit with a conveniently timed divorce in the family, to Duluth. It was a debauched affair that became the subject of legend, and ended with Mark setting the reputation for licentiousness that would follow him through high school. Evan had been complicit in its creation, and was never one to avoid the party. But the morning after, with Mark feeling woozy and for once somewhat regretful of his exploits, Evan had taken him aside and grounded him on a walk through a silent, dewy ribbon of park along a dancing stream. Mark had recognized a kindred spirit instantly, and his sophomore self had the wherewithal to latch on and never let go, even if he couldn’t quite articulate why. That Evan who’d taken him under his wing was far too modest, far too responsible, to ever do what this Evan has just done. His world is broken.

“You think you’ve been bad,” Mark says. His hollow laugh echoes up the stairwell, but he refuses to cut it off. He’s forcing this too much, and he isn’t blind to the irony of a serial philanderer coaxing someone like Evan off the ledge. But he is here in this moment, and he must find a way to fill this emptiness somehow. “Remember when we went for that walk the morning after we met? When you told me relax, to not feel pressured, that you’d always have my back and we’d find a way to map out where we were both going next?”

“I was mostly just in awe of you and how you went for it the night before. I knew I couldn’t live that way, but I wanted to get to know someone with the balls to do that in my life.”

“Goes both ways,” Mark says. “You were my hero, Evs. Seriously, you did so much to ground me here. And this team’s been the world to me for the past three years. Wasn’t the same without you this year, but knowing I could pass on what you gave me on to a few of the other boys…it’s an incredible thing you did there. Don’t forget that.”

“Thanks. I needed to hear that. And I needed to tell someone this. I need to figure out what I’m going to say to Bridget now.”

“You could just…let it go. I know you won’t do this again.”

“No. I’d never live with myself. Hang on, the light just went on down here. I’ll call you back in a few.”

“Don’t mind me, I’m just standing in a freezing stairwell. Call back soon.” Evan hangs up on Mark without responding, and Mark sticks his nose back into the hallway. The coast is clear, and the hotel is silent. He rubs his forehead in shock as he tries to register everything he’s heard in the past ten minutes. If it had to come, though, this was the time. This is a moment for weighty affairs, one of those nights where he can step out of the daily drift and feel the full force of the passage of time.

Mark learned early on not to rely on anyone. His father is a mercurial tyrant, his mother a sycophant. His half-siblings ignore him. As a goaltender, he grooms himself mentally by assuming his teammates will screw up everything in front of him, and that he must rise to every occasion. He’s earned his share of vicious social media detractors over the course of high school, both for his cold dismissal of boys who can’t keep up with him and amid circles of girls for his refusal to commit to anything beyond instant gratification. He tells his friends he doesn’t care what the critics think, even as he hones in on their every critique and plots ways to prove them wrong. He always does.

And yet, through it all, he’s found himself a home here in high school, if only for a little while. More than a few people have earned his gratitude, in spite of his moody swings and high demands. He’s grown over these past three years, and Evan has, too, even if he’s just made a colossal mistake. Evan was there for him in his darkest hours, and now it is his turn to return the favor.

Evan, meanwhile, quietly assures his billet mother that everything is fine, that he’s chatting with one of his old high school teammates after the game, that Mark kid he’s told her all about. She smiles at his loyal friendship and wishes him a good night, and he breathes a sigh of relief to know she hadn’t overheard any of his angst. He can’t let them think he’s anything less than perfect. A fool’s errand? Perhaps, but Evan will never apologize for setting standards for himself. It’s who he is. He really is the decent, reliable one. The one who’s adopted their kid as the younger brother he never had. The one who shovels the stoop for them without being asked. The one who goes to parties only out of a sense of duty to his teammates, who always comes home sober and safe. The one who calls his high school sweetheart every night.

Even though he knows Mark is waiting, he doesn’t call back right away. He needs a moment to collect himself, to get over his instinct to recoil in horror as he again probes the depths of the male sex drive, this crude desire for conquest that can consume even his well-ordered mind. It’s always loomed there, ready to take control of him whether he wants it to or not. Not for the first time, Evan thinks this ethical high ground he’s tried to carve out is a wishful illusion. He was timid with Bridget, careful to do it right, and worried about the consequences, but never on any profound level did he judge his acts as immoral. He wanted to have it all, just as Mark said he should, and now he’s not sure he can ever make it.

Where has he made it? A basement bedroom in a nondescript split-level somewhere out on the prairie, hours from any of the people he values above all else. Maybe he should just hang up his skates and move on with life, scholarship chase be damned. He can go back to his people, back to the cradle in Duluth where everything had been fine before it wasn’t. But that’s all gone now. He has to soldier on. He can already guess what Mark will counsel, but he needs to hear it anyway.

“Okay, I’m back. Host mom didn’t hear any of what I said.”

“Good, good. Now, what are we going to do about you?”

“I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been…ejected from the womb or something. I’m not a kid anymore, Marks.”

“You don’t think your childhood died with your dad? I always thought mine did when my parents’ marriage fell apart.”

“Maybe it did. I wasn’t exactly innocent…but I felt like there was always this sense of direction to what I was doing. I never felt bad about screwing Bridget because that was genuine. But then that became normal, and the appetite just got bigger, and…”

“You don’t need to tell me that story.”

“Can you really separate that our ambitions out from…that?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“God, humans suck.”

“Well, I don’t know if you can separate it. But you can probably channel it.”

“Like into sports?”

“Exactly. Put all that testosterone to good use.”

“Maybe. I like that. But I also don’t think I would’ve jumped in so quickly if I hadn’t been around all that locker room shit and teammates who were getting it before I was.”

“Maybe not, but you would’ve gotten there eventually. We don’t stay kids forever.”

“I’ve always had this side of me, but I thought I could control it. Turns out I can’t.”

Mark pauses in frustration. This isn’t going the way it needs to go. He paces up and down the stairs and makes a few false starts before he finds the words he wants.

“You sound like you’re drowning in guilt. Guilt and shame. That’s not healthy. There was a lot of that in the world I grew up in. You’ve gotta move past that.”

“Are you trying to say I shouldn’t—”

“No, no. You dug yourself a grave. But it is what it is. We fall, but then fuck it, we get back up and find a way to keep going.”

“I can’t just shrug this off.”

“No, you can’t. You’ve gotta atone or something. But…whatever you do, don’t be a victim. Don’t ever let yourself think you are one, even if you are. Suffering isn’t a virtue. Learning from it is.”

Evan smiles to himself. He can hear the fire in Mark’s voice, and bathes himself the righteousness he preaches. He’s not sure if the voice he hears is some philosopher off of Mark’s reading list or just the unrelenting ego of a kid who knows how to push his mind and body to their utmost limits, but either way, it has set him ablaze. He will make things right. He just needs to settle it all, to ground himself and remember everything he stands for.

“Appreciate that,” he says. “You’re right, of course. But…what do I fall back on? I think I should know how to do things, but I don’t, and when I fail, I can’t even say why I’ve failed, or how I can fix it. My mom spent half her days meditating after my dad died, my aunt tried recommending Bible passages…I don’t have anything like that. I believe in a God, you know that, but not one who gives me easy answers. I just feel alone.”

“Some things you gotta handle alone. As for the Bible, I’ve read the whole damn thing, and you know what I think of it. But you know what the one bit of good advice is in there? The whole ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ part. It’s what we do. We take control. And, know what, the fall has to happen when you say that. And wrecking the garden is fun.”

Evan laughs. “Of course you’d say that. I’ve fallen alright.”

“Let Bridget be the judge of how far. Getting through that would be its own conquest, wouldn’t you think?”

“She deserves better.”

“Lovers are never deserved. They’re earned.”

“It’ll take a while for me to trust myself again. I feel so alone here.”

“You’ve got me anytime you want. And I guess if I’m not good enough, you’ve got your God for shit like this, don’t you?”

“Don’t be too respectful of my faith now.”

“I’m serious, man. Shouldn’t you go to confession or something?”

“I’m not Catholic…”

“You know what I mean. Go sit in a church somewhere and clear it all out. I mean it. It’s what you do.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“All I ask.”

“Love ya, Marky. Thanks so much for this.”

“Likewise. Let’s talk again tomorrow. Night.”

Mark heads back to his room, more awake than ever but certain he’s done his duty in a way that not even his performance in goal tonight could account for. Two-hundred fifty miles away in Fargo, Evan turns off his phone and wanders his bedroom in his billet home as he flows through rapid cycles of despair and anger and resolve and love, over and over again.

He flashes back to a rainy summer day in high school, a moment when he’d wrestled up the courage to admit to his mother that he and Bridget were copulating with some regularity. He’d paced around the house for half an hour before he found the courage to track her down on the front porch. He’d brought them both some tea and for a while they just stood and listened to the tinkling on the wind chimes, a sound forever seared in his mind. He could tell she knew he was about to say something she didn’t want to hear, but she hadn’t forced it. Evan’s confession poured out of him in a few quick lines. He steeled himself for disappointment or anger, but was in no way prepared for the breakdown that followed, his mother lamenting the end of her son’s innocence. She’d cried into his shoulder and he’d stood there and taken it, offered what little hollow consolation he could, and that had been that. She’d conceded his adulthood and welcomed Bridget into her life.

‘Love you,’ he writes in a quick text to his mother. It seems woefully inadequate, perhaps even cause for concern on her part to get this sudden expression of emotion at two in the morning. But he can’t help himself. He can’t go back to the cradle, but so long as he knows this, he needn’t fear the wisdom that comes with the instinct. That woman had moved heaven on earth to protect and guide him after she’d lost her husband. She was the one who’d always ordered him to treat girls with respect, to resist the base instincts that consumed so many of his friends and be the model young man he knew he could be. He can’t fail her again.

He’s tempted to send Bridget the same message, but that’s not nearly enough. He’s going to drive to the Twin Cities tomorrow. He’ll pick her up from their dorm at the University of Minnesota and take her for a walk around the St. Paul Cathedral, say whatever he can say, and if she has some mercy within her, they’ll go watch Mark play in the third place game together. He’ll miss a game, but no matter. He could tell his coach he’s sick, but no, there will be no lies. He will either understand or Evan will pay the price. This is a cross worth dying on.

Mark said he needed a church, but this bedroom seems sufficiently spare to lay himself bare. Whatever deity may be out there, he will hear now from his haunted sinner, and will have to deem whether to offer some counsel or leave him in silence. Evan sinks to his knees at the side of his bed, clasps his hands in front of his forehead, and renews his search.

Mark makes his way back to his room and slips in, but he’s too restless for bed. He has far too many thoughts to ponder, so much of this night to commit to memory. It’s as if his body knows not to waste one second of this day, one of the few when he’s lived to his fullest extent. He brushes his hand over his jersey again, and turns his eyes to his soundly sleeping sophomore roommate. The kid is a Mark disciple, a charmed natural who’s barely known a day of adversity in his life. He’ll learn before long, though. Nothing lasts forever, and all he can do is keep fighting his way forward toward some unseen doom.

Mark grabs a pen and paper from the hotel desk and lets his thoughts flow forth. He writes by the light of the urban glow at the window, and doesn’t bother to re-read any of it. He knows it will all flow out exactly as it should. ‘Open after the last game of your senior year,’ he writes on the outside. He tucks it into the kid’s bag and settles into bed, his normal pride replaced by something much warmer, a gentle tingling sensation that flows through his whole body. Is this what Evan feels when he talks of his god? he wonders. No matter: he’ll milk it for all it’s worth. This sensation can carry him through to the morning, sleep or no sleep, and carry him it will.

Continued here.

My Professor and My Prose

12 Jan

I’m compelled to write a quick post to acknowledge the publication of a new book by Patrick Deneen, a college-era professor of mine now at Notre Dame. I’ve written approvingly of his take on human nature in the past on here. He was certainly a contributor to the philosophical framework that now roughly guides my worldview, and when he told an uncertain Georgetown senior that Duluth needed people like him, he also may have given a dithering kid a necessary kick in the butt.

His book, which effectively distills many of the topics we covered in a Georgetown seminar named “A Humane Economy,” comes with the provocative title Why Liberalism Failed. (Note here that he is not talking about Democratic Party liberalism, but rather the broader definition that includes not only those liberals, but also most of what we in the United States call conservatives.) Not that it’s failing, or might fail in the future: he thinks it is dead. The thrust of Deneen’s argument, as summarized in a recent interview with Rod Dreher, suggests that liberal society is slowly devouring itself as it chips away at the moral and ethical foundations that propped up early modern societies. The left claims that stronger state support will guide people toward freedom while the right believes open markets will do the same, but those two narrow ideologies only tend to reinforce one another, and leave people with less and less control over their own lives. The Trump administration is merely a late stage symptom of a decline set in motion long ago. The solution, though it will not be easy, lies in a return to local cultures; his overarching philosophical framework will help, but is useless without the necessary work on the ground to cultivate something that can last.

Like Dreher, his interviewer here, Deneen is a religious conservative, and that comes out in places in the interview. They’re both following the same strain of political thought as they try to imagine a post-liberal society, but Deneen, I think, may be a better vessel for that message. He acknowledges the remarkable successes of liberal society, and is not about to pine for some lost past era. Dreher’s Benedict Option had very little to say to people who are not already members of committed religious communities, but Deneen, having spent most of his days trying to impart his worldview to skeptical children of the winners of the liberal system at Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, understands what he’s up against in the broader culture. Of course, he’s also an academic, not a prolific journalist, so we’ll see if this book gets the exposure it deserves beyond a certain corner of the intelligentsia. While I do not share Deneen’s religious views, I think recent events only confirm that he and his fellow travelers have been on to something all along. If people who are honestly trying to grapple with the direction of this country aren’t entertaining this sort of argument in good faith, they’re missing the boat.

The questions Deneen asks are also, believe it or not, the motivating themes behind the collection of short stories that I’m chipping away at on this blog. Sometimes fiction seems a more effective way of making points about the reality we inhabit than writing a philosophical treatise ever could. Ideally, it can also be much more accessible, and much more fun. Grand theory falls away, and we are left only with people, trying to make do. With my characters, who are often gifted but flawed, I seek to give an all-too-human face to the questions that people like Deneen have forced me to ask. They negotiate tensions between self and community, ambition and rootedness, faith and reason, agency and destiny. I tend to write about adolescents and young adults because they, more than anyone, have to confront these questions before they inevitably settle in to the selves they become. My recent arrival into undisputed adulthood has only confirmed this sentiment.

If we’re going to find a guide for how to live in this world, whether we accept Deneen’s post-liberal diagnosis of our current condition or not, we need ways to explore different approaches. Telling people’s stories, real or imagined, is the most effective way to do this. The people in our lives can be superb guides, but humanity’s more impressive achievements often come through imagining an alternate reality, or telling stories of how things could be. These stories can be dangerous; the stakes are higher than we might think. But unless we are perfectly satisfied with what we’ve got, failure to explore different options is a defeat. This is why I write.

Hounds Unleashed

9 Jan

Duluth East hits the halfway point in its 2017-2018 season undefeated, and a tentative #1 in the state. The first half wasn’t without its travails, with a few shaky ties and narrow wins. The Hounds’ crowning moment to date was a 4-2 win over previously undefeated and top-ranked Minnetonka last weekend, a strong effort that, after some rough early moments, allowed them to show off their depth, power, and flashy top line. They followed that with a 13-0 shellacking of rival Duluth Denfeld to roll to a 9-0-3 record through 12 contests, one of the better starts in the history of a program that has had a winning season or 64 over the past 64 years.

The flaws early on varied from game to game. The Hounds put together an incomplete effort against White Bear Lake in their first game, with a fast and furious first period and mediocrity after that, and a rough penalty kill that empowered rival Cloquet into a tie. Struggles to finish kept them from putting away Blaine, and forced a game with Duluth Marshall into overtime. But gradual progress on just about every front has helped clear out most of those cobwebs, and while January is far too early to crown anyone, East can look as complete as anyone when on its game.

The East offense has slowly rounded into form, and the WMD line of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan showed its class among the state’s best in the Minnetonka win. Donovan has been the assist machine, playing his center’s role with aplomb and finally finding the back of the net a couple of times against Denfeld on Monday, while Garrett Worth is the sniper par excellence. If he keeps up his current scoring pace, he’ll be in some select company among all-time East goal-scorers by the end of his senior season, which currently looks like it warrants a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination. Mageau, meanwhile, is the bull moose who glues the line together, working hard in corners and always putting himself in the right spot.

East’s second line is picking up the scoring pace and has contributed some memorable moments, such as Brendan Baker’s goal to tie the Cloquet game with 4 seconds left and Austin Jouppi’s penalty shot against Marshall. Ricky Lyle is the team’s highest-scoring forward not on the WMD line, and has slotted in on the top line when necessary. A healthy Nick Lanigan adds some scoring punch to the third line, which hasn’t put up big numbers yet, but has certainly done its job carrying play in the offensive zone. Those two lines play classic East possession hockey, and add some necessary stability when WMD isn’t going coast to coast and lighting the lamp.

The defense, after a few shaky moments toward the start of the season, has largely locked in. Luke LaMaster quarterbacks this team from the blue line, while Hunter Paine’s thunderous hits provide him with the ideal partner. The second pair of Will Fisher and Carson Cochran has held firm, and Mike Randolph has rotated a healthy cast through the third pair as well. Between that group and a fourth line that gets semi-regular ice time even against other teams’ best players, East is rolling as deep a lineup as anyone in the state, which should help with freshness down the stretch.

Goaltending was a question mark coming in, and while Lukan Hanson and Parker Kleive had both bright and forgettable moments in the first month of the season, Randolph isn’t one to keep a rotation going deep into the second half. Hanson got consecutive starts over the weekend against Stillwater and Minnetonka, and for now seems to have won the job with his performance against the Skippers, in which he made several key saves when East was down 1-0 early.

The Hounds’ second half schedule is somewhat easier than the first: they’ve played eight top 20 teams to date, but have just four such games in their final 13.  A lot of their other opponents are lurking somewhere just beyond there, able to cause some trouble if they have an off night, so nothing will be easy. This Saturday’s date with Eden Prairie is one of the biggest, along with the Cloquet rematch and an important home game with 7AA foe Elk River. Before they get that far, though, they have a date (weather permitting) this Thursday with the Grand Rapids team that ended their season a year ago.

Statewide, the Hounds are in a tier of four teams that has separated itself from everyone else. East, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Edina have separated themselves from the pack, with losses only to each other. The Hornets have the most talent here, but haven’t really played like a cohesive unit in the three times I’ve seen them; St. Thomas and Minnetonka don’t have the front-end firepower of the Hornets or Hounds, but are plenty deep and balanced, and have reliable goaltenders. That would make for an exceptional final four in St. Paul, though these things rarely go according to plan.

First things first: 7AA is its usual interesting self this season, and while the Hounds are a clear frontrunner, nothing much is obvious after that. Elk River is probably the next-deepest team in the section, and has shown some improvement in its weak defense of late. Andover struggled with East and the Elks but pounded Cloquet, and is looking good in the QRF rating system the section is using for seeds this year. Duluth Marshall was off to a fine start, but fell to Cloquet just before I published this post, and the Lumberjacks have brought a complete Jekyll and Hyde act to the table so far. Based on QRF, defending section champion Grand Rapids may get saddled with the 8-seed and a potential first round collision with the Hounds unless it improves markedly over the second half. If ever there were a 1-vs.-8 7AA game worth watching, it would be that.

*    *    *

High school hockey punditry can be a tiring line of work. It takes a lot of time on a weak pay grade, and includes its share of dealings with people who come out of the woodwork and force one to develop some thick skin. The kids are what keep it fun, both the ones who entertain us on the ice and the ones in the stands who give high school sports an incomparable atmosphere. And, over time, a community builds. This past weekend’s road trip to Minnetonka encapsulated that perfectly, from brunch before the game at Ike’s to dinner afterwards at Maynard’s on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. During the game I had the chance to talk with an unending rotation of friends and acquaintances, old and new: loyal readers, podcast listeners, hockey enthusiasts, and loyalists of both teams on the ice. It’s a pleasure to meet genuine people with the same diversion, and I have to thank all of you for your passion and commitment. You make it all worth it.

Now, here’s to a second half with an even bigger helping of Worth (Garrett, that is) and his teammates.