Twelve Takes on a Transition

24 Jan

As we roll through another transition in American power, here are 12 semi-related opinions on what we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, and what may yet come.

1. The 2020 inauguration was surreal–and yet it wasn’t at all, either. A who’s-who of a greying political elite that has dominated the American stage for the past 30 years was strewn about a socially distanced stage, masked up before an empty Mall to perform its quadrennial ritual. In many ways it signified a return to boring politics, a development that may not be cause for celebration but at least offers a more familiar, navigable script. There was some fresh poetry and a very elaborate Lady Gaga brooch and some fuzzy Bernie mittens to liven it all up, but otherwise it seemed, in the end, what one might expect this moment to offer: the old gang back together again, and making deep concessions to a changed world.

2. I don’t have a ton to say about Joe Biden that I didn’t say back when he visited Duluth in September or immediately after his win over Trump. As one of the most entrenched establishment presidents ever, he is in many ways a bizarre figure to take charge in a moment of great crisis, amid a pandemic and on the heels of an insurrection, at the seeming end of Reaganomics and amid the highest racial tensions in 50 years. But here he is, anointed by history to take charge, and he has a great opportunity before him. The bar is relatively low: get people vaccinated and back to work and the national mood will lift considerably, and the opposition party has a fascinating struggle ahead of itself as it figures out where it stands in relation to its departed leader. Biden has a chance to be the president who really delivers.

3. The necessary caveat: never underestimate the power of the left eat itself alive. If the vaccine rollout gets bogged down in attempts to target narrow groups (as it already has in some states) or if Biden takes heavy internal heat for a stalled progressive agenda that needs Joe Manchin as its 50th vote, this could wind up as one of the most sclerotic presidencies ever. There is some reason to expect that it won’t. Unlike the Republicans, whose insurgency went straight to the presidency in 2016, the Democrats are a comparatively unified caucus right now; their loudest internal critics wield little actual power. But as the events of 2020 show a roiling frustration with incremental progress on American streets, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Democratic center fails to hold.

4. The two previous points ask a fundamental question: is this the start of a new era, a swing in the American pendulum that went from New Deal consensus to Regan consensus and now turns toward something new? Or is it another lurch in a nation growing more and more ungovernable, one which the 2022 midterms will promptly offset? Transition or decline? The next two years will, I think, provide a definitive answer on the direction.

5. Pedantic international affairs major insertion: what happened on January 6 was not a coup. Coups d’état involve the active collaboration of the armed forces. The reaction of the American military establishment was basically the opposite of a coup. One could even argue that the events later in the day were constitutionally questionable, because the order to call in the national guard did not come from Trump. Mike Pence, in order to prevent the subversion of the democratic process, seemingly took control; we can only assume that a threat of the 25th Amendment extracted the eventual Trump semi-concession. It took a small dodge of the constitutional order to maintain the larger constitutional order, and was the only logical endgame for a form of politics built around trolling existing order.

6. Whatever failures occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the reaction of the American security state has been overwhelming. The FBI is hunting down the perpetrators with systematic precision, and with a military occupation in Washington DC, the inauguration passed without a hint of returned insurrection. (That said, as someone who once attended another inauguration, I can assure people that the monster security presence, while expanded in 2020, is no new development.) Let no one question the vast power of the American state when it mobilizes, and while it can be terrifying in its reach, it provides a reminder that the old Max Weber maxim, that the state is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can be a force of great stability. Stability can be unfair and unequal, but it also tends not to kill very many people, and it usually offers ladders to those who can play its games. It has its discontents, no doubt, but it also has its merits.

7. On a similar note, the power and the social media giants to silence Trump shows their overwhelming ability to control the so-called public square. I have some low-level minor league experience in this world: as someone who has moderated a silly little hockey message board for over a decade, I apply a set of online content moderation standards on a semi-regular basis. (At one point, before I got my admin powers, my board even spun off its own little Parler of disaffected users, though that forum has since gone the way of the dodo.) The language of the Facebook and Twitter plutocrats over the past months is all too familiar because I have said some of the same things to justify some decisions: my message board is a private space, to be moderated by its owner and his designees; we are like bouncers at the bar, not a government, and our users have no inherent right to anonymity or unrestricted speech on our platform. I try to be consistent and just in this space, though I am only human.

8. In short, I think Twitter made the right decision. No one should be above the established standards of content moderation in an established space. What is galling, however, is the inconsistency: if Trump can get tossed for inciting an insurrection, why are oppressive if not outright genocidal regimes still around? The answer, of course, is profit, a trend that the flight of capital from Trumpland post-insurrection underscores further. On the one hand, this seems like a depressing comment on access to a major source of contemporary discourse; one the other, maybe we need to dust off Adam Smith’s old arguments about the moral underpinnings of markets. One can dream.

9. One of the greatest joys of the Trump social media ban: getting Trump out of the heads of the media. A relatively small number of Americans uses Twitter (they are no monopoly, so let’s stop pretending like breaking them up would do any good), but it is very much a major source for everything the news broadcasted over the past five years. No more Trump Twitter means no more real-time lib-owning and the glee or exasperation that came with it. The quiet is so, so very welcome. If a side effect of social media crackdown is that more people spend less time on social media, I will shed no tears.

10. The world will, I hope, become several degrees less crazy when Covid-driven lockdowns cease to be a thing and life frees people from refreshing their news feeds every five minutes, and this trend applies to the left, the right, and the center. Life has blurred more and more toward virtual reality over the past year, with people increasingly reliant on technology for so much of their social lives and their escapes. In some ways technology will only continue this trend, but we have also seen the horrible limits of this world over the past year. In a weird way, I take some solace in the number of people who are just done with lockdown measures. It’s a sign that, when some sense of normalcy returns, a lot of people will embrace that analog reality.

11. On a less obviously political note, I’m very curious to watch and see what happens with real estate markets and American migration patterns when Covid becomes less of a thing. Over the past year, the headlines have been dominated by flight from crowded cities as people seek escapes; anecdotally, some northern Minnesota locales that haven’t seen population growth in a long time have seen an uptick in interest. As someone who thinks that neither $3,000-a-month Manhattan rents nor $30,000 Iron Range homes are signs of healthy economic competitiveness, this pleases me. Now, can it keep up?

12. It seemed somehow fitting that the man who delivered the inauguration convocation was a figure from a strange, dream-like past. I spent my college days eating in a dining hall named after Father Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president who I’d simply assumed was long dead. Instead, there he was: aged but still vigorous, insisting that a critical moment was upon us. Tennyson’s Ulysses seems an apt metaphor for the start of this new administration.

USVI III: Tropic Solitaire

13 Jan

Part 1 | Part 2

Early in the pandemic, I resolved not to let 2020 be a lost year. I mostly succeeded. I bought a house, managed a great summer trip, strengthened some local ties, filled my newfound downtime with some productive and athletic pursuits, and tacked on this spontaneous Caribbean adventure at the end. It was a trying year at times, certainly; never have world events felt so immediate, in spite of my isolation, and the pandemic put my most pressing search into a deeply unsatisfying pause. But I came through it all the same, and the Virgin Islands provide some catharsis ahead of a quest for more satisfying releases in 2021.

When I went on this summer’s road trip, I went with pretensions of grand discovery. I got a sense of it, perhaps, but little more. Before I left for this one, though, I looked back on how I started 2020 and realized I already wrote the only beach story I needed to write for the foreseeable future. I am not on a plaintive search for anything besides the obvious sun, surf, and rum. I can zone out as I gaze into the waves, write down little nothings, let this account come naturally over time, let it stand as a testament to two weeks of freeing, clarifying escape in a strange era.

Traveling alone is nothing new for me, but that travel usually comes in a tent, not in a L’Esperance. Seeing the view, a friend calls me Citizen Kane, though I’ve arrived at this Xanadu merely through good fortune and general competence. I also undertake this journey amid an ongoing pandemic, which comes with obvious limitations. Many Virgin Islands activities, given the weather and buildings designed to beckon in the breeze, can go on with only minor changes; a beach is still a beach, and there’s plenty of space on the ones here. But with a few exceptions, there are fewer opportunities for a long afternoon of casual banter at the bar, or a night out on the town: except one somewhat later ferry ride back from St. John, I’m back at my hilltop perch for the sunset each night. With a view like this, why not?

Even in paradise, life settles into the same rhythms of the past nine months, albeit with better Zoom backgrounds and more novel diversions. I start my mornings in the exercise room; when the internet goes down briefly one day, I hop in the pool until it reboots. I rotate my work stations between the great room couch and the pool house and the kitchen counter, while evening reading or writing happens on other stray patios or seating areas. On nighttime Zoom calls, the fauna are so loud that one friend thinks an alarm is beeping in the background; dog barks and rooster crows give the night some life. For a few days during the first week, a vicious wind rips across Flag Hill. Said flag whips in the wind outside my window, and I settle into a rhythm of trade wind management, bartering between cool air flow and keeping my work papers from flying off to Venezuela. I spend inordinate amounts of time locating kitchen implements and figuring out which light switch is where.

My job proves entirely doable from thousands of miles away. I miss my second screen and feel an odd limbo in being two hours ahead of my work calendar on central time, but any annoyances are fleeting. At one point, my distance even proves beneficial, as most of the internet goes down in Duluth while I can jump in and manage a focus group with my pretentious background. (I got in a debate with the woman I meet at the St. John brewery: do we rub our tropical lives in, or try to hide it with blank wall backgrounds?) On the flip side, malfunctioning data tools are just as anger-inducing whether one has snowbanks or palm trees in one’s backyard. Work ends, happy hour begins, and I rinse and repeat the cycle the next day.

I mostly cook for myself in the villa, forking over the price for food commanded by an island that must import practically everything. I do chance a few meals out, most memorably at Duffy’s Love Shack, an open air tiki bar and a Red Hook institution that proved educational for nine-year-old Karl when his adult companions got “lei’d” here for ordering exotic drinks. Sadly, this time around, its confines feature just five tables and my lonely stool at a bar; the fun drink glasses have been replaced by plastic cups for the duration of the pandemic, and the mechanical shark gazes down on the proceedings in forlorn silence. I settle for enjoying the ever-colorful view of the parking lot around Duffy’s. Just in front of me, a college-age girl vomits in a bush (this is four in the afternoon); across the street, a security guard and a few good Samaritans chase down and corner a shoplifter. “Dinner and a show,” muses the woman at the next table.

My solitude continues on New Year’s Eve, a strange night to be alone. After wrapping up a Zoom around 11:00 local time, I launch a cathartic solo dance party to a college-era playlist, then head down to the pool deck and dive in at midnight. The pandemic has killed the usual festivities at the cable car platform just around the hill, but stray fireworks erupt here and there across Charlotte Amalie, while a villa below me supplies a soundtrack and another launches a few lanterns into the sky. Car horns honk, and somewhere, a lonely flute player pumps out Auld Lang Syne. Later, a drum circle erupts down the hill, and I stand out in the prow of the balcony and revel in my perch above it all.

I get plenty of reading done, from Zadie Smith short stories to some grazing off my aunt and uncle’s shelves: a book on St. John, an autobiography of the paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey, a brief delighted dive into some convenient Wallace Stegner. On the weightier side, I give myself equal doses Jerusalem and Athens: first, through Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the blur of divine ecstasy under the moonlight, and later, as I move toward a return to my earthlier concerns, yet another return to Hannah Arendt and The Human Condition. At the end of the dream is action, and a time to begin.

It is an incongruous time to enjoy two weeks in paradise. The pandemic rages on, and several close friends or their spouses contract the coronavirus while I am on St. Thomas. Others in my life are consumed by work, lockdowns, or other various annoyances. Early in my stay, my 94-year-old grandmother’s intestinal woes lead to a touch-and-go emergency surgery; with characteristic steadiness, she plows through it and is on the road to recovery. To sit and talk to a hospital-bound woman who can count the number of times she has left Wisconsin in her life on one hand is a jarring contrast for her grandson who alights to villas atop Caribbean islands on a whim. Toward the end of my stay, I find myself watching a news feed of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol while helping facilitate a tribal entrepreneurial focus group taking place in Minnesota while gazing out on the sun-splashed harbor of Charlotte Amalie. How’s that for cognitive dissonance?

A less self-assured soul might feel some guilt over the good fortune that allows me to enjoy these two weeks in paradise. But throughout this trip, as I knew it would be, my composure is basically a constant state, even with chaos elsewhere. I’d like to think this is some new equanimity, but history suggests there will still be lurches, and a little well-timed anxiety can be a healthy corrective at times. But if that ferocious ambivalence is the threshold of freedom, I took another step toward the door on this trip.

At times, this adventure just feeds my wanderlust. The sailors I meet on the Ram’s Head on St. John bring to mind C.P. Cavafy’s Ithaca, a poem anyone returning home from a great journey should revisit: that freedom to put into “harbors new to your eyes” isn’t limited to the ancients, is something I too could do in a sailboat down the Antilles to keep this dream alive. There’s so much of the world I have yet to see. Someday, perhaps. But fixating on that as the end goal would miss the point. “It’s been one my best escapes ever, but escaping alone ain’t life,” I text my Duluth brain trust on my final night.

The fisherman I talk with on the Hull Bay beach tells me of his lifelong escape: endless surfing and fishing, traveling up and down the island chain, a home on the hill peeking out over the bay. “Living the dream,” I tell him; “I never need to act for anyone,” he assures me. It’s a dream, yes, but not my dream. I am here to play that game, to accept different roles on different stages, to know that my life contains multitudes, not some essential trait that I can find if I boil everything else away under the Caribbean sun. But there are moments when it all coheres, when all the different threads twist together, and whether they come on a picturesque ruin on St. John or on a moonlit ski trail in Lester Park, they show how to fend off any lurking demons and open up the complete range of possibility. And so, refreshed and tanned and one step further along a twisting, potholed island road, I begin anew.

USVI II: Beached

11 Jan

Part One is here.

The pandemic may drain people away from the crowded shopping streets of Caribbean islands, but life prostrate on a towel has the same allure it always does. Here we are free to get sand all over ourselves and glug mouthfuls of saltwater, to sweat unnecessarily and court the inevitable sunburn. This is, of course, the point. During my two weeks on St. Thomas, I sample beaches both old and new to me in my ventures outward, plus add two days of hiking on neighboring St. John. Each venture ends with a seat in the sand or a swim in the sea, a beached state of bliss that kills worries nearly as well as the rum.

On one of my first free days on the island I head to the far west end of St. Thomas. Here, the arching island tumbles down to a gated community kind enough to allow the unwashed masses to sign in at the guard hut. From there, it’s a little over a mile by foot down the road past some obscenely large houses to the westernmost point on the island. Its name is the Mermaid’s Chair, and while I never quite figure out if I should be looking for seated mermaids on the spit of land that gets covered at high tide or beneath the lone palm tree on the little isle connected by the spit or on the rocks where waves crash beyond it, the place provides a serene respite. The sunset here is sublime, and the waves crash harder than anywhere else on St. Thomas. It’s not really a beach in the traditional sense, but I find some shade behind a rock and wade into a small inlet and along through the surf, alone here at the seeming end of the earth.

My second St. Thomas beach may not be a pristine beauty, but it has the best vibe of the ones I’ve sampled. Hull Bay on the island’s north shore sits somewhere between the solitude of a St. John beach and the built-up resort offerings. If the beachside bar hadn’t been sadly shut down, it would have taken me back to Puerto Escondido. When I arrive late morning, the only occupants seem to be locals. I chat with a commercial fisherman who is measuring out his kite and learn the basics of fishing these waters. Two men with metal detectors make their way up and down the beach, while a child associated with them digs a hole to Tibet in the sand. I join two middle-aged surf bums in incredulous gawking as a pristine-looking yacht tender plows straight into the beach so it can disgorge a few picnickers. Nonplussed, its pilot and an assistant work their way off the sand with some haphazard pushing and rocking, and in time head out on their merry way. “The year is only ten hours old and we have a contender for dumbass of the year,” says one of the surf bums.

Hull Bay has a reputation as a surfing beach, though only two people venture out while I’m there. The first is a teenage boy who looks every bit the surf star with a shock of sun-bleached curls, but after a few tentative steps into the breakers he settles for swimming out into the calmest part of the bay and riding his board back in on his chest before calling it quits. The second is a greying stand-up paddleboarder who stays out on the larger swells for at least two hours, bobbing away on the horizon. Score one for those of us advancing in age. The fisherman says I look like a surfer; in a different life, perhaps, I muse.

There isn’t much in the way of surfing on Magens Bay, the giant bite out of the north side of St. Thomas and its most famous beach. It’s a busy one, but large enough that people can strew themselves out along its length and splash around in the gentle turquoise waters. I traipse from one end to the other and admire the bodies on display, skimpy bikinis and pretty boy swag, plus some things that people would be better off putting away. It’s been too long since I last sampled humanity in this way. That night in bed, I feel the rocking sensation of the bay’s waves carrying me off to sleep.

Secret Harbor, which protects its secrets with about 40 speed bumps and a parking lot unnecessarily atop a hill nowhere near the beach, is an intimate stretch of sand, the sort that would be great with a group but leaves me feeling exposed when there alone. Snorkelers work their way out to its convenient reef, and the blasé servers at the seaside restaurant eventually get around to feeding me. I vaguely regret heading here on my final full day instead of ponying up for the ferry to neighboring St. John for a third time, but a little unfulfilled desire can’t hurt. I’ll be back for Maho Bay some other day.

A second stop that day, Smith Bay, restores me to my beach equilibrium. Sure, my newly developed beach snobbery leads me to conclude it’s nothing special. But there is plenty of shade, and both local and tourist families splash about in its waters and snorkel out to its buoys. Sailboats work their way back and forth into the bay, and I wrap up a book in peace and solitude. It’s a fitting final destination, though not this trip’s apex. On the drive back, I cast one last look of longing toward the island where dreams and reality blurred on this trip.

That place would be St. John, a sparsely populated isle half an hour to the east of St. Thomas by ferry. The city of Cruz Bay, its main gateway for ferry traffic from St. Thomas, is a couple of clusters of shops near the docks, and then a series of villas clinging to the hills up above it. Beyond that, the majority of the land is devoted to the Virgin Islands National Park, and after I escape the ferry traffic, I head straight for the hills.

St. John’s roads are even more painfully tortured than those of St. Thomas; I’m not sure whether to admire the engineers for their accomplishments or recommend them to the asylum. Being a driver on St. John deprives one of some marvelous scenery, since one’s eyes are always fixed on the next hairpin turn and leerily checking that tailgating garbage truck in the rear view mirror. Additional obstacles include a leisurely herd of goats, a monstrous feral pig, and some burros who look miffed when a car traveling the opposite direction gets too close. The pace of life on St. John is a world apart.

The Reef Bay Trail is one of the island’s best-known hikes, and it plunges some 900 feet from Centerline Road along the spine of the island to its namesake bay on the south shore. Ruins line the route: pull back the jungle on St. John and you find a less serene part of the Virgin Islands’ history than its pastel buildings and its cobblestone streets. Like most of the Caribbean, they were once a hub of the slave trade, and the ruins of its sprawling estates litter the landscape: a crumbling wall here, an old storehouse there, a cluster of old homes back in the thicket. Right before the Reef Bay beach is an old sugar factory, whose owners kept it going on steam power after abolition. And for truly deep roots, a side trail leads to a trickling waterfall and a pair of pools beneath some petroglyphs from the pre-Columbian Taino, who drew themselves a cartoon squid his crustacean friends. On the way back up I see how fast I can move in tropical heat, my sweatiness unnerving some not-particularly-fit hikers I meet near the top of the ridge.

On the far southeast end of St. John, a crowded trailhead leads down to the Salt Pond Beach, an idyllic, calm cove that hosts a small armada of snorkelers. I join a family who has sailed here from Georgia for a few false starts further down the beach as we seek out the Ram’s Head Trail, which climbs over to a rocky beach before ascending a bluff that juts out into the sea and gives 360-degree views. There’s little shade, and when I get back to Salt Pond Beach, I am content to lounge in the shade away from the water’s edge, a second sweaty journey of the day complete. Yes, I think, St. John is worth the hype.

St. John’s greatest gems may be on its north shore, the white sand beaches of Hawksnest, Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Maho Bay. The road here is stupidly pretty; the second-best North Shore on earth, I crack to friends back on another one now covered in snow. My birthday destination, however, is the end of the road at Annaberg, where the ruins of St. John’s largest plantation sit in repose over Leinster Bay. I follow a trail along the beach for a bit over a mile and briefly thrash around the ruins at the base of the hill where the trail turns away from the famed snorkeling spot of Waterlemon Bay. I first found this trail when volunteering with the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, on an outing for which we chopped out some of the brush along the trail and the ruins here; now, the jungle is encroaching again. Sufficiently scratched up by the undergrowth, I switch up to the ruined foundations of the Windy Hill House, the estate that once lorded over this whole expanse.

From there, I set out on a loop that takes me over the ridge from the north shore to the large southeastern bite out of St. John named Coral Bay. I follow the Brown Bay Trail further along the shore to another small beach a bit over a mile beyond. I have this one to myself, and tuck in beneath its encroaching undergrowth for a few minutes of shade. I only see one person on this entire trail, a relentless trail runner with whom I share a sweaty grin as we crest the hill with views both north and south. A few more ruins lie off the side near the end of the trail, which dumps me out on a road that runs along the East End peninsula. From there, it’s another mile along pavement through the hamlet of Zootenvaal, the easternmost reach of the United States.

I come to crossroads of Coral Bay, a collection of houses up on the hill and rundown shacks along the road, placid in the midday heat. I’d hoped to stop for a snack and to down some water next to its historic Moravian church, but the burros have occupied the spot beneath the one shady tree. Resigned, I turn and march 500 feet directly up a relentless grade; this is allegedly a road, but I’m not sure any vehicle could survive this thing. Naturally, the sun comes back out for its most intense burst of heat of the day while I’m slogging up. I crest the hill and saunter down the Johnny Horn Trail, which carries me back to the Windy Hill Great House.

I stop for lunch on a shaded set of steps on the ruins of the estate. The old house’s perch may be unbeatable: Leinster Bay and its sailboats to the left, Tortola of the British Virgin Islands across the Sir Francis Drake Passage to the right, shapely Great Thatch and quaint Little Thatch in front, and beyond it, Jost Van Dyke. The ruins are shrouded in pink flowers (which are, alas, an invasive Mexican creeper), its past lives as an overlord of slaves and a boarding house and a reform school now taken back by the wilds of St. John. A light rain pushes through, and I welcome the cleansing shower. I snack away, sip at a flask of rum, jot down a few notes, and attain something resembling nirvana.

At the bottom of the hill, I strip off my sweat-caked shirt and wade into the bay. I edge out gingerly, leery of urchins, and then strike out to a depth where I can float and tread water in peace. A few fish flit past my ankles, and I peer into the depths in this snorkeling haven as well as I can without goggles. A few motorboats come and go. The sun drifts in and out from behind the clouds. Hikers process up and down the beach in no real rush. I wonder just how long I can tread water, even though I know I must move on.

When a large family occupies the beach directly next to my bag, I decide it’s time to leave Leinster Bay behind. I do so with great reluctance. I stick with flip-flops for the beachfront stroll back to the car, where I change out of my sweaty hiking gear and take a brief spin through the Annaberg plantation. On a previous visit, it was packed, with docents and a little booth where a woman served juice from the plantation’s old kitchen; today, it is just me and a picnicking couple. Last time, I remember standing here, transfixed by a vista through the branches of a tree toward the sea; today, I find that spot again and internalize it as deeply as I can.

I make my way back into Cruz Bay. After a parking odyssey, I find the St. John Brewing Company’s tap room, which is tucked away on an upper level of the labyrinthine Mongoose Junction shopping area. The beer does the job, and I befriend Jim and Kate from Connecticut at the next table, the three of us reveling at the joys of dining in a restaurant and working remotely. How we’ve all missed this spontaneity, this liberation afforded by the most pristine of Virgins.

I take the ferry back at sunset. I’m at once hungry for more and fully satisfied: I could spend weeks on St. John, most likely, but I drank enough from its well on this trip to keep me going for years. How can I miss a place that provides a window unto eternity?

Part 3: Solitude in Paradise

USVI I: Among the Virgins

10 Jan

I am restless, cooped up by a grey Duluth winter and a pandemic that has stolen away my primary winter diversion. My days are inane circuits between my bedroom and my home office and my kitchen. I idly search for direct flights from Minneapolis, lusting for some affordable escape. To my surprise, Delta has just launched a new service to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here, I think, is a real option, and in a year that has snuffed out spontaneity, I decide to end with a burst of it. A few emails and a negative Covid test later, I make my way to the Virgin Islands for two weeks of sun and remote work.

The Virgin Islands are at the fulcrum of the Caribbean, the point where the Greater Antilles come to an end and swing southward to become the Lesser Antilles, the island chain that dangles down to South America. The British control the eastern islands, while the Danes sold the western collection to the United States in 1917. St. Thomas is the principal island of the bunch, home to the airport and the capital of Charlotte Amalie, which wraps around a large harbor that beckons in visitors in search of a tropical retreat.

The realm has its share of history, from ancient pictographs to exploration age outposts, from slave-filled plantations to a strategic sale to the U.S. during World War I. Charlotte Amalie bears the name of an old Danish queen, its strades and gades still evidence of that nation’s forgotten colonial phase. Blackbeard and Bluebeard had castles—or, at the very least, some stumpy turrets—here, and the city hosts a collection of pretty historic houses of worship. Now, however, most of that history is dead and buried, and this place exists as a great escape where Americans can enjoy the virtues of the Caribbean without sacrificing too many comforts of home. (Until one gets herded into the airport’s cattle pens on one’s departure, at least.) In normal times, as many as five cruise ships drop anchor in Charlotte Amalie, seemingly hundreds of jewelry and trinket shops lined up to greet them. These jagged islands have little flat ground, and not far from the top of the cable car up from the Havensight dock on Flag Hill sits L’Esperance, the villa that hosts me for my stay.

L’Esperance has a commanding perch from which to survey this realm. Its great room and patios provide sweeping views of the harbor to the west, where Charlotte Amalie rises from the waterfront like a red and white-spackled backsplash that fades into green as it works its way up the hill. The main floor bedrooms peek down the east side, giving the property views of the sea in three directions. I open the hurricane shutters and sliding doors to beckon in the sweet trade winds, which ease their way between balconies on either side of the villa through the glassed-in arcade: no conditioned air here. Every evening, the sun plunges to the horizon in the west, lighting up the whole harbor below me; on a rainy morning, rainbows erupt here and there. I could stare at this view for eternity.

My experience of St. Thomas is, of course, exceptional. The island is in a state of development limbo, a paradise found and hardly virginal anymore. The Virgin Islands are the last eastward outpost of the American empire, a colonial leftover that welcomes in thousands of Americans for vacations or second (or third or fifth) homes. Charlotte Amalie may be the only city in the traditional sense, but there are urban clusters around the east end ferry docks at Red Hook and in the built-up inland portions where one finds box stores and more basic necessities than those on offer at the duty-free shops along the wharves. Pothole-riddled roads strewn about the hills like haphazard silly string connect these clusters of homes. Resorts sprawl along the beachfront, while villas cling to the hills in varying levels of precarity, with only the steepest slopes remaining untouched.

Between the waterfront beaches and the hillside villas, a majority-Black, high poverty population clusters in cement apartment blocks or trailer-size homes along highways or tucked in the nooks of the hills. On my first full day, I go out for a spin to get used to left side driving and get momentarily lost in the back alleys of Charlotte Amalie. I bump around a maze through crumbling concrete homes, their paint chipped away, men shuffling around and sitting on stoops. Circling the islands’ roads makes me wonder if there are more broken vehicles than functional ones in the territory. Beauty and sorrow move in tandem.

The Virgin Islands are propped up by tourism, which, as is its wont, creates plenty of seasonal sales jobs but far fewer career paths or high incomes. Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which decimated Puerto Rico, also punished the islands and left part of L’Esperance’s great room temporarily roofless. The islands have weathered the pandemic well enough from a health perspective, but the economic toll took out the tail end of last year’s tourist season and has drastically altered the start of this one. No cruise ships ply the harbor this winter, and many of the tourist traps in Charlotte Amalie are shuttered. But life goes on; the usual regatta of sailboats and yachts dots the sea below me, and the rental car guy tells me their business has not suffered at all. Grocery stores conduct temperature checks, beaches close at four on weekends, and I retreat to the social distance of the villa.

Despite these travails, St. Thomas makes its way back to the dreamy lull of paradise. I’m told a hotel or two are still rebuilding, but I see no real evidence of the hurricane at haunts for tourists. Some of the locals’ homes are still looking pockmarked or covered in tarps, but the damage is quickly being paved over or fading away. The vegetation has come back with a vengeance. The lush tropics swallow everything back up, always growing but never really changing. Even the spurts of activity like the intense pandemic watchfulness come from an instinct to keep things as they are, not to change. The ecosystem reverts to stasis.

This is my sixth time in the Virgin Islands, a repeat destination made possible by the generosity of an aunt and uncle who own L’Esperance. The first visit came as a nine-year-old, back when they were still a little ways down the hill in a villa named Overlook, my first trip away from the U.S. mainland. I came again in high school and twice in college, and, most recently prior to this trip, as a first-year graduate student over New Year’s 2014-2015. This time I come alone.

The islands haven’t changed drastically over those twenty-two years. A few more villas and bigger cruise ships and a couple of new breweries, perhaps, but many places look as they did in my mind’s eye from the past. The temperature still oscillates in the same range of highs in the low 80s and lows in the mid-70s, days after day. The occasional unpredictable rainstorm erupts so as to reward us with some rainbows. Beaches remain beaches. The sea and cliffs still collide all around the islands, setting up those stunning views back from every angle. Scores of Americans arrive each year in search of the same things.

I, meanwhile, have changed. As a nine-year-old haunted by recent loss, I was content to ogle the views and the beaches and use this first trip into the unknown as a foundation for my fictional world-building. Later, on a return trip immediately after a semester in Mexico City, I felt like I’d gone right back: the people were Black and not brown and spoke English instead of Spanish, but the colorful, narrow streets and the gated outposts and the urban slums were just what I’d come to know south of the border. Now, as a working adult, I blur my worlds: remote worker, wilderness seeker, lover of a spontaneous party, amateur sociologist, history buff, single boy on a beach. My return to St. Thomas is a return to bliss, an escape I’ve had the great fortune to enjoy at times when life called for renewal or reflection and just a simple dose of fun. At the start of 2021, I come again for all those reasons, certain I’ll find it all because I know it’s all right here.

Part 2: Beach life in the Virgin Islands.

A Christmas on Pause

25 Dec

This Christmas is defined by absence. No work parties, no glances out my office window at a lit-up Bentleyville. No hockey games for collective celebration. No explosion of family exuberance on the far south side of Chicago; no wine tasting, no off-key caroling, no vats of meat or Brandy Alexanders. No meet-ups with old friends who are also in the Windy City. No train ride north to Milwaukee, no venture into my dad’s family’s roots, no quiet Christmas Eve among the cats at my grandma’s place in rural Wisconsin.

Until the week of Christmas, no snow, either. A bleak, grey Duluth December, a steely lake beneath ominous clouds, my 2020 running regimen steady to the bitter end. A dash through Irving and Fairmount out west feels like a run through a Rust Belt coffee table book, the drab conditions drawing my eyes to the drabber houses, the color that can light up the west side washed out in a winter rain. I head home to sit and stare at Zoom for a few more hours, more restless than ever, ever so exhausted of staring at my own face yet again. I summon various friends on walks; I dive back into the meme-filled text strings that have passed as my social life for much of this year. My stir-craziness hatches an impulsive plot. (More on that in a week or so.)

When winter finally hits, life arises anew. Backyard rinks pop up all over Duluth. I ski Lester Park after a dump of snow on the Solstice. It is neither lit nor groomed, and after the first partial circuit I shut off my headlamp and plow along by moonlight. I know this course well enough to ski it blindfolded, and in darkness I can catch more anyway, my eyes free to see beyond a few lit feet in front of me. The moon pierces through and glints in the trees’ snowy sheen, brings its beauty down to earth, freshens this year of toil. A good, old-fashioned blizzard hits the night of the 23rd, and I watch the snow cake on to the windows of my house and listen to my furnace chug away as it tries to keep up with the plummeting temperature, and think, yes, this is home.

I dig myself out the next morning, head to Hartley for an afternoon ski. It’s frigid, barely above zero, and at times here I’m breaking fresh snow, but no gust of wind can ruin the moment. A few quick kicks and I’m cruising in comfort, zipping down the hills, a course to myself. If a Christmas must be solitary, let it be beautiful. For once, social media becomes not a political cesspool but a collection of people I’m fond of finding paths to goodness, to little joys, to some panache amid the ruins. Christmas Eve with my dad, Christmas Day with my mom, two constants grounded in reality instead of virtuality. If I had to be anywhere for a pandemic, I’m glad it is here.

Home each night, I go back to the well that keeps me going, night after night. Some Christmas fiction from my college days, for my eyes only; old essays on my own journeys this time of year. Finally, two stream-of-consciousness accounts, one of my usual Christmas circuit some years back, one of a trip to Minneapolis during this season the year after I finished grad school. We were all just striking out on our own, gathering amid a snowstorm in a farewell party for one of our number, the night ending at Liquor Lyle’s as they always did in those days. A few people I visited on that trip were expecting or had just had first children; now, some of those same families’ Christmas cards hang from my walls with second children on display.

My tour through wisdom from Christmases past ends with The Human Condition, a return to those words on birth and renewal, on beginning anew and making good on hope. And so we pause now, acknowledge the past and make peace in the present, and turn our eyes toward what comes next. “Action is, in fact, the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus of Nazareth…must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.”

Merry Christmas.

Pandemic Rankings: Players of the Past 15 Years

20 Dec

In this week’s pandemic rankings, I come up with a top 15 skaters of the past 15 years. Because this was hard, the honorable mention list also includes 15 players. This list emphasizes high school performance; if a kid was a high-round pick but didn’t have an exceptional high school performance, he probably doesn’t make the list.

[u]15 Honorable Mentions[/u]

Joey Benik, St. Francis (2010)

-Benik scored 65 goals as a senior in 2010 and ranks sixth on the state’s all-time points list and second in goals. He was also a case study in what a great player can do on an otherwise awful team; while the Saints played a thin schedule and were never better than a 6-seed in 7AA, he went on to a strong college career to prove his success was no fluke.

Jake Randolph, Duluth East (2012)

-Flip a coin between Randolph and his linemate Dom Toninato here; Toninato, with his size and two-way play, was the better pro prospect, but I’m going with Randolph here for his great high school productivity, which made him the de facto runner up to Justin Kloos for Mr. Hockey in 2012.

Zach Yon, Roseau (2014)

-Yon delighted when the Rams made the Tourney in 2014, working with linemate Alex Strand to come tantalizingly close to an upset of Lakeville North in the first round. Avery Peterson won Mr. Hockey this year, but Yon made a compelling case in his performance at State.

Jake Bischoff, Grand Rapids (2013)

-A star on both ends of the ice, Bischoff teamed with a couple of other skilled players like the aforementioned Peterson and Hunter Shepard to lead Rapids’ rise early in the teens and came ever-so-close in two 7AA finals.

Ryan Poehling, Lakeville North (2016)

-The Poehlings are hard to handle here; they were arguably the greatest line of this era, but it can be hard to pull out their individual accomplishments. (A similar problem plagues the great Grand Rapids line of 2017, whose best two players left early.) Ryan makes the list because he was always the most hyped of the bunch, and had a chance to prove his dominance in his junior/accelerated senior year in 2016, when North was a top 5 team for most of the season but got done in by Farmington in the playoffs.

Tommy Novak, St. Thomas Academy (2013)*

-Not many players on this list left high school early; it’s hard to build up enough credentials without the productivity of a senior season. Novak is an exception to that rule with his flashy two seasons at St. Thomas, where he won it all twice and scored a game-winner with six seconds left against Hermantown in 2013. Bruce Plante is still recovering.

Nick Wolff, Eagan (2014)

-Wolff was a heavyweight who rarely came off the ice and played a key role in guiding Eagan to one of its best ever finishes, a surprise third place run in 2014 that came after a few deeper teams had fallen short.

Riley Tufte, Blaine (2016)

-Just a great, solid power forward who took his team to a Tourney in 2015 but came up short as a senior.

Garrett Worth, Duluth East (2018)

-As with Randolph above, there’s a case here for Worth’s more complete linemate, Ryder Donovan. But I’m going with Worth because of his level of influence and unique skillset. As a pure goal-scorer, the ever-adventurous Worth has maybe only one peer on this list, and he backed that up with a great State Tournament performance in 2018.

Josh Ludtke, Minnetonka (2019)

-The leader of a state championship Skipper team, Ludtke paired with Grant Docter to make for one of the greatest defensive pairs of this era.

Luc Snuggerud, Eden Prairie (2014)

-2014 was a banner year for defensemen, and Snuggerud was one of the most offensively skilled blueliners of this era. He left it all on the ice in his Eagles’ double-overtime loss to Lakeville North in the state semis that year.

Phil Beaulieu, Duluth East (2014)

-The smooth-skating Beaulieu made things look effortless and is largely responsible for extending East’s reign over 7AA in 2013 and 2014. He was rostered on four Tourney teams, all of which won two games while there.

Matt Gleason, Cretin-Derham Hall (2020)

-The most prolific forward of the post-Mittelstadt era, Gleason recorded over 200 points on some Cretin teams that were pretty good, but struggled to break through in challenging sections.

Tyler Nanne, Edina (2014)

-Nanne was probably the most essential member of the Hornets’ back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014, and his big hits in the 2014 rout of Lakeville North are my enduring memory of that one. He had a bit of help with that supporting cast, of course, but

Dylan Samberg, Hermantown (2017)

-Samberg was the greatest Hermantown player over this period, and he has a state championship-winning goal to his name to boot. Under his watch, the Hawks finally shook the bridesmaid status that plagued them in the years before and that has returned somewhat since.

[u]The Top 15[/u]

15. Nick Bjugstad, Blaine (2010)

-Bjugstad’s Bengals never quite achieved the Tourney glory of some of the other teams on this list—his final year in high school saw an upset loss to Apple Valley at State—but that takes nothing away from his dominance, which included 181 points despite accelerating his senior year.

14. Sammy Walker, Edina (2018)

-Walker made a name for himself when he was one of the best players on the ice in the 2015 Tournament, and by the end of his time at Edina, he was the leader of one of the most lethal offenses the state has ever produced. The one regret: he never added his name to that list of Hornet state champions, as his seasons ended in two semifinal losses to Duluth East sandwiched around two section final losses (one upsetting, one not) to Wayzata.

13. Hank Sorensen, Wayzata (2016)*

-Few players had high school careers as entertaining as Sorensen, whose physical play led Wayzata to its upset of Eden Prairie in the 2016 championship game. No one hit harder or changed the complexion of a game more by the mere fact of his physical presence, and for that, he makes the list.

12. Ben Hanowski, Little Falls (2009)

-This Little Falls Flyer electrified the state in the late 00s, and he later proved he was no small-school flash in the pan after high school as well. His name litters the record books, including career points (405), career goals (196), and points in a single season (135). He carried his team to four Tourneys; they won their first-round game twice and gave St. Thomas its best test in 2008 despite the unfortunate first round draw. They never could crack through to a final, though, as the undefeated Flyers fell in a clunker to Breck in his senior season.

11. Dylan Malmquist, Edina (2015)

-A two-time state champion and the offensive leader of the Hornets’ dominant run during the middle of the decade. While not as great a pro prospect as his 2015 teammate Sammy Walker, he is the all-time leading scorer in the state’s most decorated program. Could they have won three in a row if he’d been able to go against East in 2015?

10. Pat White, Grand Rapids (2007)

-Few players took the State Tournament by storm as much as Patrick White, who carried a couple of Rapids teams that didn’t have stunning depth to back-to-back runner-up finishes. His teams came out of very deep 7AAs and knocked off arguably the top team in the field both years, beating Hill-Murray in the 2006 semifinals and Edina in the 2007 quarterfinals.

9. Justin Kloos, Lakeville South (2012)

-Kloos’s 238 points across three seasons against pretty good schedules at South put him in select company. His team wasn’t as strong as some of those of his compatriots here, but he was the architect of a great State Tournament upset and got a third-place finish for his efforts. His 103 points as a senior are the most for a AA player in the two-class era, with the asterisk that Dave Spehar had two fewer in three fewer games in 1995.

8. Brock Nelson, Warroad (2010)

-Nelson is the greatest player to come out of a Class A school over the past 15 years, and it really isn’t close. He put up absurd point totals and carried Warroad to three Tourneys, finishing third twice and second once.

7. Anders Lee, St. Thomas Academy/Edina (2009)

-A five-time State Tournament entrant and the best transfer in the history of high school hockey, Lee was one of the state’s greats both during and after his high school days. He won it all as a freshman at St. Thomas in 2006, but couldn’t tip some great Edina classes over the top after that.

6. Nick Leddy, Eden Prairie (2009)

-It was pretty simple: when Leddy was on the ice in 2009, the other team didn’t score. He carried an otherwise sophomore-dominated team to a title that season, scoring a goal in the title game win over Moorhead.

5. Aaron Ness, Roseau (2008)

-As entertaining a defenseman as the state has ever produced, Ness owned both ends of the rink in high school. He took home a state title in 2007, though the dream of a repeat and an undefeated season came up short the next year.

4. Grant Besse, Benilde-St. Margaret’s (2013)

-The state’s greatest goal-scorer of the past 15 years wrote his name into the record books in the 2012 Tourney, when he scored five times in the title game against Hill-Murray. His 163 goals against good AA competition made him a modern-day Dave Spehar.

3. Ryan McDonagh, Cretin-Derham Hall (2007)

-After a run of forwards from #7-#12 on this list, there are a bunch of defensemen near the top here, as a dominant high school defenseman can rack up absurd minutes and completely control a game. I’m putting McDonagh at the head of that list, as he carried his Raiders to a title despite not having an Edina or Eden Prairie-style supporting cast. Like the two players immediately behind him on this list, he won it all as a junior but came up short on an arguably better team as a senior.

2. Kyle Rau, Eden Prairie (2011)

-Rau simply is Minnesota’s Mr. High School Hockey: a two-time state champion, both as a sophomore alongside Leddy in 2009 and with his deep core of senior sidekicks in 2011, where he scored the most famous goal of this stretch on a diving effort in triple overtime. His story is what dreams are made of. He, Leddy, Nanne, and Samberg in Class A are the only four players on this list who won it all as seniors, showing just how hard that dream is even for the best.

1. Casey Mittelstadt, Eden Prairie (2017)

-No player was as total in his ability to do insane things than Casey Mittelstadt, whose offensive skillset is unrivaled in this era. He put up 204 points over three seasons of Lake Conference hockey and took his team to three Tourneys, where they were twice the top seed. The one knock, of course: Casey never won it all, while the five players right below him on this list did. Should it be enough to drop him? In my book, no, but it’s an open debate.

Pandemic Rankings: Mascot Edition

13 Dec

In this week’s edition of random Sunday morning pandemic rankings, I rank and categorize every active boys’ high school hockey program’s mascot, plus a handful from recent history. We’ll roll through a bunch of categories before we get to the authoritative top 15.

Nameless Wonders

We start with the mascots that don’t exist: some co-ops have decided to not even bother with one. In some ways I prefer this to a meteorological or celestial phenomenon glued on top of a group of schools with their own unique mascots, which seems to be the standard operating procedure for co-ops.

Minneapolis

Minnesota River

The Inane

These schools take pride in stating the obvious.

Prior Lake Lakers

Detroit Lakes Lakers

White Bear Lake Bears

St. Francis Saints

Red Wing Wingers

Buffalo Bison

Elk River Elks

-This one is the winner of this category: not only is it inane, it’s grammatically wrong. The plural of elk is elk. Unless they were naming themselves after the fraternal organization, I guess, in which case their mascot should be a group of 70-year-old dudes running a bingo game or something.

Mixed Messaging

Am I supposed to be intimidated or amused by these ones? Nobody knows!

Stillwater Ponies

-There has to be a good origin story here.

Winona Winhawks

Grand Rapids Thunderhawks

-Slapping prefixes on to poor, unsuspecting hawks is a surprisingly common theme.

Thief River Falls Prowlers

-Is it a cat, or something more…questionable?

Burnsville Blaze

-Like Grand Rapids, a replacement for a now decommissioned Native American mascot; unclear if a reference to a fire or a subtle nod to the use of an illicit substance.

Kittson Central Bearcats

-Is it a bear, or is it a cat? Actually, the proper name for it seems to be a binturong!

Flocking to Boredom

Birds, for some reason, make for attractive high school mascots. With ten entries, “Eagles” is the most common name in the state, though the southern part of the state sure loves its cardinals.

Apple Valley Eagles

Becker-Big Lake Eagles

Eden Prairie Eagles

New Ulm Eagles

Red Lake Falls Eagles

Rochester Lourdes Eagles

Totino-Grace Eagles

St. Cloud Apollo Eagles

Windom Eagles

Alexandria Cardinals

Coon Rapids Cardinals

Fairmont Cardinals

Luverne Cardinals

Redwood Valley Cardinals

Willmar Cardinals

Chaska Hawks

Hermantown Hawks

Faribault Falcons

Waseca Bluejays

East Ridge Raptors

-For the first several years of this school’s existence, I assumed this mascot was a dinosaur, and I was sorely disappointed when I learned it was just another stupid bird.

Osseo Orioles

St. Louis Park Orioles

Cat People

Like senile old ladies, high school mascots have way too many cats. Also, since when is a Royal a cat? All three teams named “Royals” are cats.

Chisago Lakes Wildcats

Dodge County Wildcats

Eagan Wildcats

Waconia Wildcats

Albert Lea Tigers

Delano Tigers

Farmington Tigers

Hutchinson Tigers

Marshall Tigers

St. Cloud Tech Tigers

Lakeville North Panthers

Park Rapids Panthers

Rochester Century Panthers

Spring Lake Park Panthers

Centennial Cougars

Lakeville South Cougars

Mankato East Cougars

St. Paul Como Park Cougars

Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars

Blaine Bengals

Legacy Christian Academy Lions

Providence Academy Lions

Hopkins Royals

Rogers Royals

Woodbury Royals

Shakopee Sabres

-Questionable, but their mascot is a saber-toothed tiger, so they get stuck here.

Dead Old Soldiers

Along with birds and cats, vague historic military references make for a large category.

Brainerd Warriors

Henry Sibley Warriors

-We’ll see if the name change for the high school changes the mascot. It wouldn’t hurt.

Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders

Greenway Raiders

Hastings Raiders

Northfield Raiders

Roseville Raiders

Crookston Pirates

Champlin Park Rebels

Moose Lake Rebels

St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders

Irondale Knights

St. Michael-Albertville Knights

Orono Spartans

Richfield Spartans

Rochester Mayo Spartans

Simley Spartans

St. Paul Academy Spartans

New Prague Trojans

Wayzata Trojans

Worthington Trojans

North Branch Vikings

Other Commonly Used Names

Say hello to various dogs, horses, frequently repeated animals, and meteorological or celestial phenomena. While not quite as common as all the birds and cats, these names evince little creativity.

Cambridge-Isanti Blue Jackets

Hibbing Bluejackets

-Is it one word, or two? The debate rages.

Andover Huskies

Owatonna Huskies

Pine City Dragons

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato Dragons

Blake Bears

Lake of the Woods Bears

Bagley Flyers

Northern Lakes Lightning

Eastview Lightning

Breckenridge/Wahpeton Blades

Forest Lake Rangers

Rock Ridge Wolverines

Wadena-Deer Creek Wolverines

Chanhassen Storm

Morris/Benson Storm

North Shore Storm

Sauk Rapids-Rice Storm

Breck Mustangs

Mora Mustangs

Mounds View Mustangs

Robbinsdale Wings

Academy of Holy Angels Stars

River Lakes Stars

Prairie Centre North Stars

Southwest Christian/Richfield Stars

Adding Some Color

Some of these just slap an adjective on a boring mascot, but even that makes things much better, and some of the best—Scarlets, Crimson—do generate pretty strong images. I still don’t know what a Green Wave is.

Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears

Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights

Minnehaha Academy Redhawks

Mound-Westonka White Hawks

Maple Grove Crimson

Mankato West Scarlets

East Grand Forks Green Wave

More Unique, but Nothing Special

At least someone tried.

LaCrescent Lancers

Holy Family Fire

Park (Cottage Grove) Wolfpack

St. Thomas Academy Cadets

Virginia Blue Devils

Sartell-St. Stephen Sabres

-In Shakopee, sabres are cats; in Sartell, they are swords.

Tartan Titans

-Bonus points for alliteration.

Riding Reputation

These ones would be in the previous category, but they get bonus points for being iconic in hockey.

Edina Hornets

Hill-Murray Pioneers

Duluth East Greyhounds

Roseau Rams

Historical/Local Relevance

Call these the honorable mentions: they often aren’t the most creative names on earth, but at least they have some obvious tie to the school or local community that just makes sense, and they get credit for that. Some honor local blue-collar or ethnic roots, or, in Minnetonka’s case, white-collar yacht-piloting roots.

Austin Packers

South St. Paul Packers

Rosemount Irish

St. Paul Highland Park Scots

Bemidji Lumberjacks

Minnetonka Skippers

Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers

-Marshall is, indeed, on top of a hill; I go back and forth on whether this one is creative or belongs in the inane category.

Princeton Tigers

-How many people in Princeton get the reference with this one?

The Top 15

15. Rochester John Marshall Rockets

-I just like this one for no apparent reason.

14. Proctor Rails

-If your town was built around a railyard, you might as well have some fun with it.

13. Monticello Moose

-The Moose chant at the X a few years back made this one legendary.

12. Duluth Denfeld Hunters

-Fun fact: not named after people going hunting, but instead for a guy named Hunting.

11. Fergus Falls Otters

-This one is just…fun.

10. Anoka Tornadoes

-As is this one.

9. International Falls Broncos

-Not named for the animal, but for famous son Bronko Nagurski. A few bonus points for history.

8. Little Falls Flyers

-Another name that honors a local of historical significance, Charles Lindbergh.

7. Warroad Warriors

-It may seem like a generic name, but the backstory and living culture here gives it some serious cred.

6. North St. Paul Polars

-Second-best mascot image. RIP.

5. Cloquet Lumberjacks

-The lumberjack dude is pretty hard to beat, and somehow the purple makes it that much more endearing.

4. St. Paul Johnson Governors

-Could go in the “historic/local” category, but this is the best of the bunch.

3. Mahtomedi Zephyrs

-The west wind is a winner, both as a mascot and now on the ice.

2. Ely Timberwolves

Best mascot image out there.

1. Moorhead Spuds

-Could it be anything else?

Pandemic Rankings: Greatest Duluth East Regular Season Games, 2006-2020

6 Dec

As we settle into hockey quarantine, I find myself plagued by a compulsion to continue to rank things on Sunday mornings. My first take: the most memorable Duluth East regular season games over the 15ish years I’ve been following Hounds hockey. I plan to do something like this every week of what would be the hockey season until I can rank actual hockey teams again, and I promise that not all future takes will not be this East-centric.

As usual, I’m going to list 25 entries, with a top 15 ranked and ten honorable mentions though I’ll put them in reverse order to add to the drama or something.

The Honorable Mentions

Edina 3, Duluth East 1, 2008

-A random game of no great consequence, but I just remember this as an incredibly well-played, fairly even game between the eventual runner-up and a Hounds team that was finding its stride defensively. Edina’s Marshall Everson was the difference-maker with two goals, including a late one to put East away.

Duluth East 7, Superior 0, 2018

-Like the Edina 2008 game, this game probably won’t be one most people commit to memory. It stands more in my mind as one of aesthetic near-perfection, with the Hounds’ control about as a total as a team’s can be. I also have a strange fondness for watching games at Wessman Arena, where the high bank of stands just let the total domination unfold before me. It was a beauty to watch. Garrett Worth scored twice in a four-goal first period, while Austin Jouppi had himself a hat trick by the end as well.

Duluth East 7, Elk River 0, 2018

-It’s not often you see a seven-minute power play, but this game managed to achieve that. Austin Jouppi scored twice to pace a relentless Greyhound attack that had the Elks in a dour mood by the third period. East’s play down the stretch in 2018, as repeated games from that era on here will show, was probably the most complete late-season showing by a Hounds team in my time watching the program.

Duluth East 2, Cloquet 1, 2008

-Get used to seeing these two team names on this list. This version wasn’t the most dramatic of the bunch, but a key victory late in one’s senior year is a good bet for the list, and this one, decided by Dillon Friday’s dump-in goal from center ice, secured the top seed for the Hounds.

Cloquet 3, Duluth East 0, 2006

-The gameplay of this one wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but in my memory, it is the East-Cloquet rivalry at its most fevered pitch, a time when going into the Lumberdome was a legitimately scary experience for an East student. At one point, the Cloquet fans threw a golf ball across the ice at us; in response, the ever impartial Cloquet security people ejected a few East kids for no real reason. To be fair, we probably deserved it for some of the things we were yelling.

Duluth East 4, Cloquet 0, 2011

-Like the 2006 game, this wasn’t a real thriller, but Jake Randolph going off on the Jacks was memorable, as was the on-ice scrum at the end featuring East-to-Cloquet transfer Nolan Meyer and a sophomore enforcer-in-the-making in Andrew Kerr.

Andover 7, Duluth East 1, 2020

-Ugly and not particularly surprising, given the teams’ respective talent levels, but this game was a decisive sign that East’s reign atop 7AA from 2018-2019 would be coming to a close.

Duluth East 6, Cloquet 1, 2009

-After a long string of frustration and tight games with their great rivals of the 00s, including a playoff thriller the Jacks won the season before, the Hounds busted out and buried Cloquet. It touched off a run of 12 East wins in a row over the Jacks before a loss in 2014 brought the rivalry back to a more competitive level. The fracas at the end was also the most dramatic of this era, with East leaving the ice before returning for the handshake line and a charming exchange of pleasantries between Mike Randolph and Dave Esse.

Andover 2, Duluth East 1, 2019

-This game was not a sign of things to come, as East avenged Andover’s first-ever win over the Hounds in sections, but it was a very entertaining, back-and-forth affair in front of a packed house in Andover. Luke Kron popped the overtime game-winner for the Huskies, temporarily avenging the section final loss the year before in this low-scoring game that started as a chess match but turned into a burnburner over time.

Edina 7, Duluth East 1, 2015

-I include this game simply for the shock value of how completely Edina dominated East, despite nine Hounds power plays. As I watched the stream from a couch in the Caribbean, I was ready to throw in the towel. A little over two months later, the Hounds would complete one of the most dramatic script-flips in the history of high school hockey.

The Top 15

15. Duluth East 5, Grand Rapids 0, 2017

-If Cloquet was East’s great rival in the 00s, then Grand Rapids took that title in the teens. This game drops down the list a bit because Grand Rapids was down a few players, and it sits sandwiched between the Thunderhawks’ thrilling section final wins in 2016 and 2017, but in this regular season meeting, the Hounds got some sweet, sweet revenge, who were paced by three-point nights from Garrett Worth and Ian Mageau.

14. Duluth East 4, Eden Prairie 3, 2011

-Add this to the string of games in this section that were fun, memorable, and a reverse of what would happen in the playoffs. In a game played at the newly opened Amsoil Arena, Dom Toninato won it for the Hounds in overtime, despite East being outshot 32-14. Toninato scored twice for the Hounds, while (who else?) Kyle Rau had two for the Eagles, including a tying goal with just under three minutes left in regulation. This one was just a sneak preview of the three-overtime thriller these two would give us that March.

13. Blaine 7, Duluth East 6, 2015

-This might have been the most dramatically see-sawing game I’ve ever seen. Blaine jumped out to a 3-0 lead, East fought back to go up 4-3, Blaine popped three more to lead 6-4, East tied it 6-6, then Blaine won it in overtime. While it was a loss, it was a sign of fight from an East team that was about to go on an epic playoff run. This was also the night some random dude named Danny Ryan sought me out and introduced himself to me. I had no memory of him when he re-introduced himself to me at the State Tournament a month later.

12. East 6, Cloquet 6, 2018

-Talent-wise, this was a game that shouldn’t have been this close, but it was also one of the most massively entertaining games I’ve ever watched. Cloquet came back from a 5-3 deficit to grab a 6-5 lead with 15 seconds remaining. The Hounds’ Brendan Baker then scored with three seconds and change left to salvage the affair. Two of the team’s five regular season blemishes in 2018 came at the hands of their rivals.

11. Duluth East 2, Cloquet 1, 2006

-Ryland Nelson’s overtime game-winner in front of thousands at the DECC avenged the 3-0 loss earlier this season and secured the top seed for East in one of the best seasons 7AA has ever had. The game was a nervy thriller, with Ben Leis making 36 saves for East in the win. He’d allow just one goal in the section semifinal matchup as well, but that time, the East offense drew a blank, and the Jacks collected the third of four playoff wins over East in the 00s.

10. Duluth East 4, Edina 1, 2013

-East’s seven-year reign over 7AA that began in 2009 could have easily come to an end in 2013, a season after the Hounds’ Tourney upset loss to Lakeville South. Rising Grand Rapids was at the Hounds’ heels, and the team came out to a pretty pedestrian start to the season. Then, in the second game of the Schwan Cup, the Hounds burst to life to defeat a favorite. The Hornets, however, would have the last laugh when these two teams met in a Tourney semifinal.

9. Duluth East 4, Minnetonka 2, 2013

-If the aforementioned Edina win was the game that turned the 2013 season around, this late-season victory was the one that cemented the style of this Hounds edition. Their power play late in the season, which ran through defenseman Meirs Moore atop the umbrella, was perhaps the most lethal I’ve seen on a high school team: it hit 42% in the regular season that year, and this game was no exception, as Moore bombed away for an all-power play natural hat trick to overcome an early 2-0 deficit. This team wasn’t blessed with D-I talent (Moore and Phil Beaulieu were its only two), but those two defensemen and total team buy-in took this group a long way.

8. Duluth East 4, Maple Grove 1, 2012

-After beating #2 Minnetonka in the Schwan Cup Gold championship game, the top-ranked Hounds faced a second #2-ranked team the next week, and was every bit as convincing in victory. This one is lower in the rankings than the Minnetonka game since that Skipper team was legitimately better and because that game came in a tournament, but East’s puck control in this game was so thorough that it was what I had in mind when I picked a name for this a blog.

7. Grand Rapids 4, Duluth East 3, 2016

-An overlooked game, but an important one in retrospect: though Rapids had beaten East in the regular season in 2015, the Hounds’ win in sections that year showed they had something to prove. In regulation, it seemed like East might still have Rapids’ number, as the Hounds came back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits in the third period to force overtime. This time, however, the Thunderhawks found a way to win in overtime, which would set the tone for the next two section finals. East’s invincibility in close games against Rapids had come to a close. The unlikely hero for Rapids was defenseman Drake Anderson.

6. Minnetonka 9, Duluth East 3, 2012

-The great Hockey Day debacle: undefeated East went down in a heap at Pagel. There were a lot of asterisks at the time; East was down a bunch of players and the game had been moved indoors on fairly short notice due to bad ice on the planned outdoor rink, but it was the first warning sign that this dream season was not to be.

5. Duluth East 1, Cloquet 1, 2007

-Maybe the best-played of the great East-Cloquet duels of the late 00s that litter this list. The Jacks were down injured star forward Tyler Johnson, so if the Hounds were to grab the top seed in the section and avoid a semifinal clash with Grand Rapids, this was their chance. They didn’t quite do enough. The game was a goaltending clinic: Cloquet’s Reid Ellingson, that season’s Brimsek Award winner, made 53 saves, while East’s Ben Leis, no slouch in his own right, made 39. We thought this game would be a section final preview, but Grand Rapids had other ideas when it faced East in the semis.

4. Duluth East 1, Elk River 1, 2015

-The game I will forever remember as the 2-3 game: East, coming off a loss to Anoka and sitting at 10-9-2, the Hounds busted out their funky forecheck and played the clear 7AA favorite pretty even. Freshman Garrett Worth scored the Hounds’ lone goal, though we still need a replay on whether the Hounds’ effort in overtime went in the net. It was a preview of the Hounds’ double overtime win over the Elks in the 7AA final and the storybook playoff run that will follow. This was the night that turned the season around, and I walked out with a sneaking suspicion that this group might just pull something off.

3. Duluth East 4, Minnetonka 2, 2018

-A delicious clash and preview of the eventual state championship game. A strong second period was the separator for the Hounds, who rode two Garrett Worth goals to a 3-1 lead that they hung on to in the 3rd. They wouldn’t repeat the feat at State, but for one night in January, East rose to #1 in the state for the first time since 2012.

2. Duluth East 6, Minnetonka 2, 2012

-Another battle for the top spot between the Hounds and Skippers, but this one was even more decisive, with East running out to a 2-0 lead after one and a 5-0 lead after two. Back when the Schwan Cup was a sort of midseason championship, this game was a coronation for the East team that, when on its form, was the most dominant one the Hounds have produced since the golden age of the late 90s. Ryan Lundgren scored both first period goals, while Dom Toninato had himself a four-point night at the X.

1. Duluth East 5, Grand Rapids 0, 2014

-Grand Rapids had reason to believe 2014 would be the year the Thunderhawks finally broke through. They had Mr. Hockey winner Avery Peterson up front and Frank Brimsek winner Hunter Shepard in net, both as seniors, and the supporting cast was nothing to sneeze at, either. Heading into this game at the IRA Civic Center, it was time for a Rapids team that had fallen just short in the 2013 section final to make a statement against an East team that didn’t have the overwhelming depth of talent of previous years. Phil Beaulieu and friends, however, had other ideas. Before long, the rout was on. For shock factor in a hostile environment against a rival, this one takes the cake.

Ferocious Ambivalence

28 Nov

This story is a companion to the eleven-part series that began here and had an additional episode here.

Mark almost ignores the call from his mother. He’s not planning any human contact until Evan and family arrive tomorrow afternoon, and this is not the inspiration he needs as he heads into the wilderness. Her calls tend to be idle recollections of trivial episodes from his youth, or, if she’s had a few hard seltzers, unsolicited relationship advice drawn from her days as an escort. He could do without a seventh telling of the greatest hits. There was the saga of Ronald, the financier with a secret second life in a heavy metal band, and Pedro, who passed her off as his estranged wife to his blind mother; perhaps this time she’ll linger on Jack One, the effeminate mobster, or Jack Two, who had a fetish for socks. At least the sock story is mildly funny. Maybe he could use something mildly funny? He answers the phone.

A chorus of wails greet him on the other end.

“Mom? Mom, come on. What is it?” After three minutes of incoherence, she finally forces the words out.

Her breast cancer diagnosis should be a shock. She’s only 53, a generation younger than many of his friends’ parents, to say nothing of her late ex-husband. But for Mark, it seems like only the next logical signpost along this entropic highway. He knows the road well. He seeks out the off ramp, even as he knows her bleating will force a new route for what was supposed to be a meditative vacation.

Mark’s soothing tones do little to slow her tears, but he knows she just wants to hear his voice. His mere presence has always been enough. She’d never been entirely comfortable around him after her cute, pampered boy became a hard-edged teenager, complete with his father’s ruthless streak. But she’d never said anything about that, never dared question him to his face. In a rush, he realizes how much he loves her in spite of it all: she let him be a total shit in high school, imposed no curfews, bought him booze, trusted his ability to keep himself under control even as he spewed angst back at her every chance he got. She was unconditionally supportive of anything he did, and he knows how much pride she took in telling her backwoods boyfriends about her Yale grad Wall Street son. She omits any mention of his father in this story, an oversight that both makes her look like a superhuman mother and Mark a much more self-made than he actually is. It’s a convenient lie for both of them.

“Take good care of yourself. Sounds like they caught it early. You’re in good hands. If you’re ever not happy with what you’re getting, I’ll get you something better. And send me all the damn bills, of course.”

His mother sniffles. “You don’t need to do that.”

“Of course I do. Dad screwed you over, you know that. Least I can do is use some of his old money to keep you alive.”

Silence. He thought she’d like that dig. Mark casts about for the right words.

“I’ll swing through before I head back to New York.”

He can hear his mother warming on the other end of the line. “That would be great.”

Mark eases her worries to a halt so he can hang up. After a giant exhale, he tosses the car door open and surveys a trailhead deep in the worn-down open hills of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The lot is empty aside from him, and a few coyotes call in the distance. Dusk already looms, and he has to hustle to find a backcountry spot to pitch his tent. He pulls the straps on his pack into place, cocks the cap on his head, and hefts a water jug out of the trunk and into his arms. This will do. He locks the car and trundles along the banks of a dry wash, his eyes fixed on a distant gully that will serve his purposes.

In her own way, Hope Salonen Brennan’s story is far more impressive than that of any girl Mark has ever dated. She’s worked her way up, put herself in elite circles in New York, somehow made an investment banker with a wife and three kids believe he’d be happier with this uncouth Finn from northern Minnesota. She’d even had the good sense to escape his clutches when she saw what he was. Sure, her climb had been an unsettling one as she sold her own body in higher and higher circles of Wall Street wealth, but how unique did that really make her? The Brennans’ ancestral fortune had probably been built on sold bodies in one way or another; hadn’t his dad said something about ties to the British East India Company? Mark’s own additions to that ledger are filtered through a few institutions of polite society, but he has no illusions about what goes on lower down on the food chain. She’d gamed the system and won, and he should be proud of her.

He thinks back to a time in high school when he’d had Evan over for a couple of beers. It was a tame night, just two friends escaping the drama to imagine a more worldly. His mother stumbled in from a girls’ night and thrust her protruding breasts in Evan’s direction, left him with some advice: you’re a cutie, Evan, but you roll over too fast. You need to make them beg. Make them show you they’ll give you what you want. Know that you’re the one in control. She reached in and fluffed up his hair, kissed him on the cheek, and strode away with a ravishing backward glance.

Mark has never forgotten that look in Evan’s eyes, both queasy and hungry, a first great temptation for the friend Mark had only ever known to exude sainthood. Evan’s wide eyes somehow captured everything Mark ever felt about his mother, and for the first time, he understood what his father had seen in her. He’d bumped his knee on the table in shock, but she was too drunk to notice his revelation. He and Evan turned away from each other in shame. They never spoke of that night again.

The sun wakes Mark as it pours up his valley the next morning. He lies in his tent and listens to stray bird calls, closes his eyes, and lingers in bed for the first time in months. Evan would describe this experience in metaphysical terms, a tale of being one with the land, his Minnesotan pagan rite. Mark has absorbed enough of his friend’s ritual that he subconsciously follows suit, filters it through a few related Brennan family instincts: that hunger for exploration, for conquest, or at least some place where he can get away from the short-selling leeches, the loveless sex. He’s always attributed those instincts to his father, but now he realizes they’re just as much his mother’s story, too. The three of them shared a quest for purity, for rebirth, and while they may not have found that in their many escapes, they’d at least stripped away the worst of what came before. Mark pours his coffee, gazes out at the badlands of the Little Missouri, says what the fuck to himself and tips in a splash of bourbon. He grins as he takes a deep sip.

He wonders if his mother ever expected to find real love when she went to New York. At turns she seems both naïve and ruthless, a believer in happily ever after and a fighter who knew to look out for herself. Has his own pursuit been all that different? He runs through the litany of his most serious prospects: Jackie, Victoria, Magda, Amelia, Indira, Amy. All these could-have-beens that never came to fruition, some reason or another they came up short: too caught up in the past, too boring, too cautious, too ruthless, too career-driven, too put off by that monster ego or that New York drive or that contrarian Midwestern rootedness.

They were all probably mistakes anyway. Not one of them was right. Is that belief an acknowledgment of a hard truth or a symptom of a perfectionism that plagues everything he does? He trails on through the failed endgames: a walk down a wooded trail, a stolen moment in a kitchen at a graduation party, a backward glance on a Nantucket beach, amid a downpour on the steps of St. John the Divine, at a drunken post-finals party. Now, the most recent addition to the saga, the most mundane, on his couch in his new place in Westchester, a palace far too large for a single man and yet she was not the one to help him fill it and he told her so and that was that.

Mark flew into Rapid City at the start of the trip to spend a night with an old high school friend named Jake. Back in their glory days, Jake had been a deeply earnest kid who nonetheless attached himself to athletes like Mark in a tentative search for a party. He’d written a fawning profile of Mark in the school paper their senior year, one that articulated Mark’s blueblooded panache in a way that had both tickled his ego and made him more conscious of the nobility that came with the Brennan name. Mark followed from a distance as Jake chased his dream in journalism, and for the past year his old friend has embedded himself on the Pine Ridge Reservation to send dispatches to the learned classes.

Jake shows up in mismatched flannels and with a scruff all over his face, a disheveled look with no resemblance to the pretty boy Mark remembers from high school. They still get along amiably, but every time Mark tries to turn the conversation to a mundane concern, some question about his writing method or his girlfriend back in Minneapolis, Jake always finds some way to turn his life into some stilted microcosm of their cultural zeitgeist. Maggie’s apartment in Minneapolis may have flooded last month, but it has nothing on the trailer he now occupies near Wounded Knee; their last trip together, to New Orleans, underscored the ongoing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow; reflections on his career path and college life lead to expositions on college debt and the decline of traditional media. Mark can hold court on all of these subjects if he so desires, but he looks at this man in front of him and can’t see any trace of the kid who used to sketch out classification systems of their high school’s girls in the lunchroom. The absence of the old Jake jars him. In a last-ditch effort he asks after Jake’s parents, but this too just brings out grumbles about how they sit glued to their TV every night and don’t read his work.

“They at least still reading the paper? I bought a stake in it, it you know.”

“I don’t think—wait, what? No way. Are you working on that a lot?”

“Not really. Just trying to give it some life and editorial direction. Let the reporters do their jobs.”

“I knew you had money. But not that kind of money.”

“My dad died a few years back. I came into some. I invested a lot in pet projects like this. Not big returns. Happy to break even.”

“Wow. Why not just coast and live off of that?”

“My dad did a lot in his life that I’m not proud of. Trying to make up for that, as much as I can, and put that money to use.”

“But you still work for…”

“Yeah, I do.”

“How’s that any better?”

“I never said it was. Anyway, if you wanna move home, I can probably get you a reporting job.”

“I…” Jake breaks off, perplexed. “I—thanks. Really. Hadn’t even considered something like that. And Maggie’s a city girl. But—I’ll consider it.”

“Consider it a standing invite. Duluth could use you.”

Jake seems unsettled, but Mark isn’t sure what else he could have done. Pretended he isn’t who he is? Perhaps just sat and listened, a fly on the wall? Jake is full of gut-wrenching tales of reservation life, and before bed that night, Mark slides some funds he’d earmarked for a New York charter school into a scholarship fund for Pine Ridge kids. But that raw empathy has never been his specialty, his power-as-birthright certainty once again colliding with his desire to dismiss opinions as the province of the unwashed masses. Give him either a chance to solve the problem or accept that he won’t burden himself with things beyond his control.

Mark leaves his encounter with Jake puzzled. In every way he admires his friend for his work, meant everything he said about becoming his patron. But Jake has made Pine Ridge his cause célèbre, while Mark knows that, as much as he may now contribute, he can always walk away from it, or anything else. He has no Pine Ridge in his life.

A storm brews on the horizon, a looming tempest that threatens to cut down Mark’s planned hike. He battens down the hatches on his tent, nervously tests the slack on the stake lines in the crumbling dirt, and tuck his gear in beneath the leeward side of the rain fly. He considers a run for his car, but is a veteran enough hiker to know not to tempt a storm. He stands atop a nearby rock to watch its advance, retreats only when the first drops start to fall, and zips himself in. The wind rips at the tent, does everything in its power to tear it up from the ground. He splays out his body to hold in all in place, his breaths coming sharply as he tests the corners for incoming water. When he’s confident it will hold in place her curls up into a ball, a fetal coil here in this lonely wet womb.

Solitude does not suit Mark. It never has, even if he’s lived alone most of his adult life. That image of his father fading toward death in his clifftop fortress is too visceral, far too close to home, and that nightmare looms up before him again now. He can never be that. But he can’t stay on the run, either, out into more distant wilds and lonely prairies. Evan will make sure of that. His old friend can’t arrive soon enough.

The drive north from Rapid City had been bleak, as he’d expected. The open plains and endless road he can do; the shock comes when he stops for dinner in Belfield, North Dakota. He finds himself at the end of a bar opposite a drunk clump of oil field boys at least five years younger than him, decked out in Carhartts and trucker hats and Confederate flag belt buckles, constantly reaching for their tins of dip. At some point in his life, Mark thinks, he would have seen them as a potential conquest, a proving ground for a slick city boy to slide in and go drink for drink with these people from a different world. He’s done it in Detroit and Nepal and half of Europe; these boys bear some resemblance to some relatives on his mom’s side of the family. But after Jake’s tales of Pine Ridge, he cannot in good conscience put on that blithe bravado. Indira had called Mark the poster child for the privileged patriarchy, but his ever-probing, hungry style has nothing in common with these misogynistic tools. Or is that only wishful on his part? Either way, he has never felt as foreign in his own country as he does on that bar stool in that moment.

Mark has started hanging out with politicians. His dad always told him not to, but then, one of his first contacts was the son of his dad’s ex-associate, a New York Republican Party functionary. What better way to honor Preston Brennan than through hypocrisy? Mark enjoyed toying with the kid, a pudgy hothead two years younger than himself who’d simply assumed Mark was red meat. Mark can speak the language well enough, and saw a much faster road to prominence here than on the left, but he walked away repulsed by this profit-hungry devotee to a losing cause.

A meet-and-greet with Manhattan Democratic activists left him with the opposite impression: the attendees were legion, eager to spread their gospel, and company he struggled to keep. One had recoiled when he gave his employer, though they was all too happy to let Mark pick up their tab. Another, who assumed he was gay, lectured him on how his career destroyed Black bodies, and it took all of Mark’s self-control to avoid telling him that he’d seeded an urban farming microfinance operation in Detroit and a vaccination drive in Senegal. Who in this group could claim to have done so much, he stewed as he donated another ten thousand dollars to the vaccine drive with a few casual flicks at his phone’s screen. Score one for his reserve.

Mark was born in the wrong era. In the past he’d have been the ideal inheritor of the Kennedy or the Roosevelt mantel, a traitor to his class; for that matter, he could have at least worked with a Bush. Now, though, noblesse oblige seems a lost cause. The masses have the power but none of the wealth, and what’s a good, old-fashioned aristocrat to do?

“You could renounce it all and become a radical,” says Lezlie, his work life confidante. “If the Democratic Socialists are a step too far to you, you could at least go all Gandhi on us.”

Mark snorts. “Yeah, I’m definitely gonna start fasting and swear off sex.”

“It’s more you than you think, Mr. Wilderness Hiker.”

“My hikes aren’t exactly leisurely strolls in the woods.”

“Fine, I guess. It’s a reach,” she concedes. “And maybe that’s okay. You might be able to do more where you are anyway.”

“Should use some of the inheritance to buy myself a politician or two.”

“I think they come pretty cheap these days, especially if you’ve got some co-investors.”

“Let’s go in on one,” Mark laughs, shaking his head.

“Why do you even want to do this?” Lezlie asks, boring her eyes through Mark’s veneer. “What are you in it for? Guilt over your career, or your dad’s career? That doesn’t seem like your style.”

Mark shrugs. “Guess I just always gotta be that man in the arena.”

“Ever the hockey player, aren’t you?”

“Something like that.” Mark chooses not to share his next thought: ‘Or, at least, I like myself better when I am.’ That’s it, he thinks, ever the self-improvement machine. This was the distinction with Amy, the reason that one too fell short: she loved him for who he was, not who he wanted to be. That current self was fun, but always a step behind the goal.

The rain moves on around noon, and Mark sets out on his planned trek. He marches up a plateau and marvels at the openness, this vast expanse of waving grass without a soul to be seen. He ignores the trail and plunges out across the meadow in no direction in particular, his hyper-awareness just enough to keep him alert but bury his anxieties beneath his immersion of the whole scene. He gets to this point more often than he gives himself credit.

The DeBleekers will arrive later this afternoon. Evan, Brendan, pregnant Bridget in tow, their three-year-old son’s first real road trip and the first time Mark has seen Bridget in over a year. He and Bridget had squabbled a bit after his breakup with Indira—they’d always squabbled a bit, really—and Mark will forever wonder just how different Evan would be if he hadn’t committed so young. Getting Evan alone was always a challenge, and now with Brendan added to the equation, it’s borderline impossible. Even his New York friends, though, are pairing off now, throwing up the same barriers. Has he even aged a day?

Mark orients himself by the sun and starts to pick his way back toward the spot where he parked his car. He’d committed too at that age, he figures, just in a different way. Evan chose a woman; Mark chose a road, one with no real end, a hurtling cycle of ambition and achievement and revelation and subsequent exhaustion or irritability or just plain old annoyance. It seems so small. He reads books of great men, towering midcentury Wasps who shared his pedigree, and occasionally some of his flaws. But even that doesn’t seem to get there. His troubles seem pettier, less attuned to an era when sheer force of reputation and power of will alone can’t do it. Could it ever? Or was that just hagiography, or having an army behind one’s back? Mark can’t be sure, and he sure wouldn’t mind a bit of either. But there it is, a question that needs an answer, and he has summoned the one person he knows who can provide one.

An hour before the DeBleekers are slated to arrive, Mark heads into town and checks into a motel room so he can shower. He decides not to shave, figures he needs to leave some scruff to show he’s been roughing it out here, but otherwise perfects the look. When the call comes, he heads back into the park and meets them in the campground.

“Marky!”

“Evs. Bridge. Bren-Bren.” Mark strides into the campsite and throws an embrace around each of them.

“Ya look good, bro. How’s the stay out in the wilderness?”

“Damn good time. Saw some buffalo. Got to think. Slept like a log. Almost got blown into Saskatchewan in the storm this morning. How was the drive?”

“Smooth enough. Brendan was big into the giant cow.”

“Uncle Marky, it was the biggest cow ever!” Brendan informs him.

“Legit. You get to milk it?”

Brendan scoffs. “Naw. It was so big!”

“Hm. Just remember, dude, you gotta milk things for all they’re worth. I got a present for you.”

“Yeah?”

Mark pulls a stuffed bison out of a bag and tosses it to him. “Named him Teddy. Take good care of him, okay?”

“But he’s not a teddy bear. He’s a buffalo!”

“When you go to bed tonight, tell your dad to tell you about Teddy Roosevelt. And about his buddy John Muir, too.” His eyes flit toward Evan to catch the grin from their inside joke.

“Aw, it’s actually cute,” says Bridget as she rescues the bison before it descends into a mud pit.

“I got some taste sometimes,” Mark shrugs.

“In buffalo, if not in women,” Bridget laughs as she holds the stuffed animal just out of the reach of her jumping son. “Honestly, you’d make a good dad. I’m just thinking of how you’d pour yourself into it.”

Mark hides his shock and channels his best Evan shrug. “Thanks. Someday.”

“Any closer lately?”

Mark mulls his response. “Just let another one go, so I’m gonna go with a ‘no’ there.”

“Why this time?”

“Exactly what you said. She’s not the mom.”

“What’s it gonna take?”

“I’m looking for answers. The bison didn’t have many. But this kid might.”

Bridget beams at Evan, who’s been watching this exchange silently, transfixed. “You two go do your thing. I’ll see if Brendan’s any good at setting up a tent.”

“Sweet. Let’s go.” Mark guides Evan down the roads through the campground and down toward the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri, his usual resolve lost behind a simple smile.

“Bridge was in a good mood.”

“Much as she gets on you sometimes, she really does like you.”

“Prolly knows you bring out the best in me. Even if I lead you into sin and evil sometimes. Guess that’s harder when your kid’s along.”

“Right on all fronts there.” Evan pauses and lets Mark lead him down toward a sandbank along the brown, fast-flowing river. “So what were you saying about me having answers?”

“I need you to level with me. Is the reason I’m like this because I’m…me?”

Evan laughs. “Slow down and rewind, bro. Tell me what’s really on your mind.”

“Nothing you haven’t heard before. Tryna live my life to the max, getting there in most people’s eyes, but still feeling empty. My own giant ego, wanting to run everything, make it all perfect. And because I stay caught up in that shit, I never get to what I really want.”

“And you recognize that.”

“Yep. Every fucking day.”

“Then why don’t you do something? You, of all people…”

“It’s like…when I get to a place where I want to, I’m out of gas. Or I don’t remember till too late.”

“Marky…you taking enough time for yourself?”

“I take plenty. Got my runs, my hikes, my—”

“No, not like that. I mean quiet time. You and yourself. You and—”

“Bro, I’m an extrovert. That’s not how I process.”

“It’s not that simple. We all need other people time and we all need ourselves time. No matter where we are on that spectrum. And you do need to pause. To lose yourself. Remember that Marky you want to be.”

“Problem is, I’m less sure than ever what that means.”

“You really? I think you’re getting there, mostly. Look at what you’ve done with your money, with your career, with your new place…you are getting somewhere, I think. And you’re mostly good with all that, right?”

“I am. But let’s not pretend this picture ain’t missing things.”

“Course not. That’s why you have to ground yourself. Remember that.”

“I mean, what do you think this trip is?”

“Just make sure it’s not some manic chase across the prairie. I know you too well.”

“Aw, fuck off.” Mark grins in spite of himself. “Here’s another way to put it. I want to be free. I’ve never felt free. Not really. I had so much pressure of expectation.”

Evan bends over and skips a stone across the Little Missouri. “Funny. In a way I don’t disagree. It’s been heavy on you. But you also love standards. That, let’s be honest, that kinda snobby end goal. Even when you lived with your mom, who let you do whatever. And I don’t think you should disown that.”

“Do you see a tension between that and freedom? Or do I just have daddy issues?”

“It’s not totally smooth, I don’t think. But I can’t see supercool Mark on the beach just chillin, ruling his world, and not think of you as free.”

Mark grins again. “Yeah. Yeah, I like that.” He brushes his hair into place and wanders on ahead of Evan, savoring the idea of that beach life freedom.

Mark’s mind flits back to the Nantucket house. (Is he wandering more than ever before now?) Last year he’d bought one of three shares in it along with two of his half-siblings when his dad’s first wife finally sold it. ‘I’m not him,’ he’d been careful to tell the original Mrs. Brennan in her retirement lodge along the Hudson. He showed her pictures of him with his mom, of his wanderings with Evan, of him with whichever love interest he’d had at the time. She didn’t need to know that part, and since there was no other potential partner to keep the house in the family, no one tried too hard to correct the record.

Yes, he feels free there, though sometimes thanks only to alcoholic oblivion. He thought Amelia would show him true freedom on the beach, but since that failure, he’s been loath to burden his funhouse with anything serious. He’s never been one to allow a failed relationship to tarnish his memory of a place; maybe he’s just reached a point where he’s too cynical to even bother setting the stage for anything serious.

He’d run into Amelia again recently at a wedding reception for a mutual friend in the Hamptons. She was with a bearded hipster who did content curation, whatever that was; she caught Mark’s otherwise imperceptible eye roll and smirked at him, gave a little head-nod that said, ‘I’ll see you later.’ He’d failed to hide his grin, and they found each other later along the pier at the far end of the lawn.

“How long have you had Blackbeard the Pirate there?” he’d said by way of greeting.

“We met maybe two months after you and I moved on. Hooked up and the rest was history.”

“Hitched yet?”

“It’s a matter of time. I’ll invite you if you want. I’ve got the balls for that and he won’t give a shit.”

“Depends on the venue, you know I’ve got standards there. I’m flattered, though. I’m the last finance bro you dated? Figured you needed some nice boytoy as your real soulmate after all that shit?”

“You know, I’d never thought of it that way, but you might be right.”

“Hurts me to admit it, but I had you pegged wrong. Thought you wanted power as much as I did.”

“Think I don’t have it in this relationship?”

Mark snorts with laughter. “I guess if you’re happy with a one-way street…”

“I appreciate not doubling down on the neuroticism.”

“An instinct I’ll never quite understand.”

“I guess we just weren’t meant to be.”

“We weren’t. Though I’m still proud of Nantucket.”

“Never had anyone roll it out for me quite like that.”

“The things I do for love.”

“Doesn’t seem to be working, unless you’re hiding someone.”

“Am I wrong, to be as demanding as I am?”

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

“I do sometimes get second opinions.”

“Yeah. You always had that side. And I admire that in you.”

“But only so much.”

“But only so much.”

“What are you thinking?” Evan asks. They’ve come to the end of the sandbar and have no choice but to turn back.

“Off on some girl that got away, as usual.” If there’s one thing he can’t share with Evan, it’s his tortured love life. For all his friend’s empathy, this is a world Evan does not know. He wants to ask Evan what he thinks of the Jake episode, of his dabbling in politics, if he can picture Mark firing up a crowd or playing out his cutthroat game in the public eye. But he already knows Evan will be supportive of anything he suggests, will find ways to work past any blocks he faces, and he’s not sure he’s worthy of that confidence. Better to say nothing at all than drive up false hope. He kicks at the ground, scuffles his feet. When did he become this weakling afraid of his own potential glory?

“It’s more than that. I can tell,” says Evan after a while.

“Meh.”

“Goddamn, spill it, Marks. I come chase you all the way down in North Dakota…”

“Hey, I chased you down in Nepal once. You owed me!”

Evan grins. “What a trip that was. I mean, I loved every moment of it, the mountains, the monasteries…but my favorite part was probably seeing you come rolling in to Tengboche and holding court liked you’d been there a thousand times before…”

“I was thinking about that the other night. How awesome it was to cut completely loose from the outside world for that long. And then, of course, I got back to civilization and found out my dad was in hospice.” He pauses. “My mom just got diagnosed with cancer.”

“Aw, shit.” Evan wraps an arm around Mark’s shoulder and shakes him gently. “No wonder…”

“No wonder what?”

“It explains a lot. About why you’re here. Why you’re back in Nepal in your mind. Why you feel the way you do.”

“I don’t exactly hide it when I brood, do I?”

“Gotta ride the waves, Marky.”

“That’s what I do every day. I mean, my life is all perpetual motion. Isn’t that what your red friends would tell me? The late-stage capitalist in his element…”

“I think you have more socialist friends than I do when you have those artists over.”

“Yeah, you Minnesotans at heart are too boring to be revolutionaries.” Mark laughs and shakes himself out from under Evan’s arms. He fishes at his pockets and grimaces. He’s left the flask behind.

“You keep trying to build this image of yourself as the hard-ass rich fuck, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure that’s you at all. Maybe just…let it go.”

“So what should I do? Quit my job? Give it all away tomorrow?”

“No. None of that. Maybe just start by acknowledging that you are who you are.”

“I’ve never believed I can just throw away part of who I am. We’ve talked about this.”

Evan shrugs. “You said you wanted to find freedom.”

“I’m…” Mark trails off. “Problem is, I don’t know what that means.”

“Maybe, as you ride the wave, you need to seize it.”

“I’m sure you’re a master surfer, Mr. Metaphors.”

Evan turns away to hide his blush.

“What?” Mark demands.

“Nothing.”

“Your turn to spill it.”

Evan turns away from Mark and walks off the dirt path and into the tall grass, still damp from the morning’s storm. He toys with a few of the nearest blades and turns around.

“You remember those people who used to surf off Stoney Point in big storms on the lake?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m…a low-grade celebrity in that group.”

“Shit. No fucking way. You? Really?”

“Learned a little as a kid on those California trips. That’s why I went back there a few years back. Dabble when I can on the shore.”

“I don’t believe it. What does Bridget think?”

“She has no idea. My old board just lives in the garage. Easy enough for me to sneak it out and come up with excuses.”

“I’m…fuck. Who else knows?”

“I’ve been doing it for fifteen years and you’re the first person I’ve told. I don’t ever talk to anyone when I’m out there. Don’t go if there’s a crowd. I’m just the mystery dude.”

Mark splutters. “Bro, that’s fucking awesome. So much makes sense now. Why the hell did you have to hide it?”

“It was…just my thing, you know?” Evan gives a very Evan shrug, folds his arms, and wanders back to Mark’s side. He scrutinizes him closely and sees something he’s missed for too long in those eyes, that unburdened delight he’d chased halfway around the globe. Mark drops his head into Evan’s shoulder and throws his arms around him, and Evan stands in stock-still shock as Mark chokes up. He returns the embrace, pats Mark on the back, looks out at his taller friend, his eyes drawn tight in a tearless sorrow.

“I’ve got you. You’ll get through this,” Evan murmurs.

Mark closes his eyes, exhales, and pulls back so he can look Evan in the eye. “Getting through is fine. I got that down. But I want to do so much more than that.”

Evan opens his mouth to counter Mark’s demand for achievement. He wants to calm him, remind him yet again that there’s another way. But this, he knows, is not Mark’s wave.

“And you will,” he says. “Look at what you’ve got behind you. Look at everything you know. You got all the tools you need. You will.”

“I just need the will.”

They head back to the campsite, where Bridget has wrestled the tent into place in spite of Brendan’s help. They cook a dinner over the fire and let the child divert them from any heavy thoughts, and the DeBleekers, drained from a long day on the road, crash after a brief, non-alcoholic nightcap. Mark gives himself a second splash of bourbon and wanders down to the river again, but chooses to go no further. This is enough, he thinks, and for the first time all week he stems the tide of nonstop drifts into the past. The past provides wisdom, but wisdom alone is no agent of change, of new beginnings, of instinct on Evan’s waves.

No: he needs to be free again. Not free like Brendan, untroubled by the weight of his home in the world, but freed by belief his capacity for change, to twin dream and reality, to make good on some promise that lurks beneath all these visions he pulls from the past. He turns his eyes up to the stars and digs for the charts he’d been careful to memorize before his last hike with Evan, that flair of brilliance he’d stashed away strictly to show off but now, as he gazes upward, allows him to recover his awe. His pursuit has freed him yet again.

Sad

15 Nov

One story of the past decade of my life has been a general failure of an attempt to escape the highs and lows of national politics. I’ve spun this yarn on this blog before, from the moment I realized I could be free in a park in Mexico City ten years ago to an attempt to say goodbye to all that at the start of the Trump Administration. I made halting progress at times, especially when events closer to home came to fill my life. But in 2020, that endless mirror of a Zoom call that forces us to stare at our faces and contemplate our warts, an election day that turned to an election week forced me to use every weapon in the arsenal in an attempt to stay sane. It worked, at the price of exhaustion that has carried through for another week.

The outcome of the 2020 election was clear enough from the moment the New York Times’ Needle, that data-mining triumph and harbinger of doom, flipped on Georgia on Tuesday night. The eventual result was clear by Wednesday morning, even though it took three more days for the networks to declare a winner. The polls have taken a justified beating for their inaccuracy, but the data people—especially, I think, when one leaves aside their attention-grabbing probability numbers and focuses instead on what they write—were otherwise by far the best sources of information as the count dragged on. The two sage Nates, Nate Cohn of the Times and Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, laid it out clearly. The count was a simple math problem, and every piece of evidence showed that it would not be kind to Trump.

And yet, somehow, I couldn’t stop the endless refreshes in search of new results or interpretations. It was addicting, an endless string of hits off a drug. Part of it was the fact that I faced most of this alone: sure, my phone was blowing up incessantly, but there was no one right in front of me to distract me. Part of it is pent-up quarantine energy, restless at the tedium of life at home. In my work circle, a tacit pact emerged to enable this mindset: show up to your meetings and perform your basic tasks, please, but we don’t expect much more of anyone this week. We’re all in this together.

A descent into political obsession wasn’t all negative. My knowledge of the random county names across the U.S. has grown exponentially. The Twitters on my doom loop were universally insightful, with deep knowledge of random pockets of the country and instant, sharp analysis. At certain times of day, I learned to pull up the Twitter feed of a guy in Arizona with the avatar of The Count from Sesame Street who crunched numbers quickly. (“I cannot be stopped,” The Count calmly replied, after Trump emitted one of his “STOP THE COUNT!” tweets.) The endless stream of memes added some much-needed levity, with anything involving Nevada or Gritty taking the cake; the Four Seasons Total Landscaping adventure, meanwhile, will give me reason to chuckle years from now. I connected with old friends here and there, and enjoyed a socially distanced exhale on Saturday when our fate was, finally, sealed. Well, at least it was if you don’t live in the Trumpian fantasyland of unexamined conscience.

A lot of people thought Donald Trump was a descent into authoritarianism, and while he sometimes acted the part, it was only ever that: an attention-consuming act. Instead, his presidency was defined by weakness. It was a world-beating marketing campaign elevated by the puffed-up rhetoric favored by people whose self-confidence vastly outweighs their competence. Trump was never a third-world strongman: he was a reality TV imitation of one. His flaccid performance showed both the enduring power of American institutions and the overwhelming power of the entertainment complex to smother everything else.

The hoopla masked both the ineptitude and some of the more interesting nuanced achievement. We’re still waiting on that Obamacare replacement and that infrastructure package. The only major policy win was a milquetoast tax cut that any Republican could have pushed through, and Trump had the fortunate timing to get himself three Supreme Court picks in four years, while most recent presidents got two in eight. His foreign policy has been an incoherent slop, but it has avoided any catastrophic blunders and at times achieved some qualified successes. His trade policy likewise has proved a useful, if scattershot, corrective to the free trade bromides that dominated the previous quarter century. There’s reason to believe a more nuanced trade policy could be a point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. The economy, which is usually beyond a president’s control, was good until it wasn’t, thanks in part to the Republicans’ drift away from their longtime fiscal and free trade orthodoxy. I expect them to rediscover it under the Biden Administration, but there is now potential common ground on a more middle-class friendly economic policy that didn’t exist four years ago.

If that were the extent of Trump’s legacy, it would be judged as fine, perhaps on par with other one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George Bush: a vital corrective to certain excesses, perhaps doomed by its heterodoxy and outside forces. But what will endure from the Trump Era is not any policy, but the scorched-earth warfare that politics became. It didn’t start with Trump, but it accelerated rapidly under him, enabled by the virtual world we increasingly inhabit: a barrage of tweets and own-the-libs raging that stayed relatively peaceful but opened the door to something different in the future. The left, in its sloppy and infighting-plagued and characteristic panic-over-anger fashion, responded in kind. American politics is now a battle between a Republican Party with no interest in being right so long as it wins and a Democratic Party with only a passing interest in winning because it must be right all the time.

The United States’ two major parties right now are reflective of a society scared of losing what it has built, scared of losing its culture, whether it’s that of a white settler nation with its myth of frontier liberty or a liberal empire bestride the world. Trump had a core of true believers who lapped up his rallies, but the vast majority of Trump voters I know are instead longtime Republicans who find the guy somewhat ridiculous but are willing to tolerate that because he more or less supported the causes that made them Republicans in the first place. (If you think abortion is murder or are scared Democratic policies are going to kill the industry that supports you or just value holding on to your own money above all else, a few nasty tweets aren’t a big price to pay.) The Biden campaign was perhaps an even more potent vessel of negative partisanship than the Trump campaign. It didn’t really matter what Biden stood for; it just mattered that he had the best odds of beating the other guy, which he did. Such is life under an empire teetering at the end of its apogee, at times calamitous but more often just decadent.

The coronavirus pandemic, for what it’s worth, did not prove much of a boost for Biden. Even people who know it’s bad just seem exhausted with it all now, few more so than those with kids. After reading of how low-income kids are falling through the cracks more than ever before and the extent of the mental health burden on kids who have lost their most formative years, I’m sympathetic to a desire to wish it all away. We live in dark times, and there will be lasting scars for many of us, especially our young. It is a great loss. But the fact that Trump’s approval did not rise, even as those of some relatively incompetent governors did, shows the emptiness of his effort. With leadership focused on resolve, we might have risen up united, as has happened in places like Germany or South Korea; clear expectations and national preparations could have at least this entirely predictable fall eruption. Instead, we got some tweets. Previous generations endured rationing, drafts, and mass mobilizations to endure wars with a vision of a better world; in 2020, people revolted at the notion that the government might tell them they need to wear a piece of cloth in public. That cue, of course, came from the figure at the top, not authoritarian but feeble and shallow, self-image elevated over real life, an American celebrity culture home to roost.

Given the polling errors, it is hard to know what exactly tipped this election. Biden surged in the polls after Trump bungled the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, but “defund the police” proved an effective talking point in the Republicans’ favor, particularly (and paradoxically, given their distance from urban unrest) among the rural white people who the polls missed again. A not insignificant number of Hispanics are religious and found something to like in the Trump economy and, as a reminder, came to the U.S. for a reason, and as such may be less inclined to view it as the sin-steeped failure that a binary discourse on race relations implies. Biden, meanwhile, enjoyed the suburban surge that turned Georgia and Arizona blue, and did enough to stop the Democratic bleeding in the Midwest. The race was remarkably stable in polls, suggesting that opinions on Trump and Biden (and, let’s be honest, it was mostly Trump) were baked in so long ago that no manner of outrage over 2020 could change much.

One theory that fits with this narrative suggests that, since polls about a year ago were pretty much spot-on, the virus didn’t change many votes, but it did change who responded to polls. With so many liberals stuck at home and more willing to socially distance, a group of people suddenly had the free time or flexibility to respond to answer phone calls or join the ranks of the Very Online. Once there, they became more and more ensconced in their algorithmic circles, deprived even of the brushing interaction with different swaths of the country. Oh, how I have felt this drift in my own life into that virtual realm over the past few months, an unwitting necessity that has had the expected consequences, even for someone well-attuned to the dangers.

A move away from a virtual life won’t cure all that ails America in 2020, least of all the virus that is now ravaging the American Heartland at unprecedented levels. But avoiding that path of least resistance can tamp down somewhat on the anxiety that comes with it, and it can offer something other than the echo chamber: perhaps some new pursuits, perhaps some dives back into old ones, perhaps some reckonings with the chambers in one’s own mind. National politics will lurch along, and I now accept that I won’t ever fully escape it. Nor should I want to: I am a political animal, and I have the tools to keep it all in perspective, to put my foot on the scales here and there.

And with any luck, a Biden Administration will feel somewhat less existential in its stakes. Four years of politics as a TV series culminated in a story to save for the grandchildren, a week I’ll never forget. But after it, I am ready to return to the joys and sorrows and the exhilaration and the tedium of good, old-fashioned reality.