A Merge to Nowhere?

In most Minnesota hockey communities, the youth program it tightly aligned with the public high school whose boundaries it shares. This model has created pipelines from mites up the high schools that compete for State Tournament berths every season. High school teams go out of their way celebrate their associated youth teams. Young hockey players wear jerseys with the same name as their high school heroes, and they get groomed as future Jefferson Jaguars or Edina Hornets or Hermantown Hawks. It is not without its frustrations: of course, not every kid in a public school’s attendance area goes to said public school, programs can sort into haves and have-nots, and there are some who would rather skim off the cream and not have to deal with community boundaries. But this has been, implicitly or explicitly, the foundational model for the sport in Minnesota.

The Duluth Amateur Hockey Association has long put its own twists on this story. The city is famed for its Mite and Squirt-level neighborhood rinks, which have then filtered up into PeeWee and Bantam teams divided by the two public schools, East and Denfeld. But times are changing: this past season, Duluth debuted a unified, citywide Squirt A team. On the heels of this move, DAHA has proposed the merger of its PeeWees along the same lines, followed by a subsequent merger of the Bantams. Duluth East and Duluth Denfeld youth hockey will, effectively, be dead.

Only a blinkered nostalgist would say nothing had to change. The youth rinks have been slowly but surely shrinking in number, pressured by declining player numbers in many neighborhoods and hyper-concentration in others. Some rinks have strained to keep the volunteer bases that keep them viable, and in others, school boards have decided that parking lots were better uses for places where kids once played. By PeeWees and Bantams, Denfeld’s numbers are worryingly low, and while East’s are substantially better, the Hounds aren’t fielding teams at all levels, which creates some talent mismatches. It also shows in the results: despite fairly large youth numbers at the youngest levels, the city’s talent output has dropped off visibly over the past decade, even as a certain neighboring community reaches new heights. Something about the current system is not working as well as it could.

Unified Youth Programs, Sputtering Public School Hockey

But is a single, city-wide youth program the answer? We have some evidence from other communities that feed multiple high schools from a single youth program might be of some use. And a rundown of the case studies exposes a simple fact: in not one case does the hockey landscape in these places with multiple public high school hockey programs fed by a unified youth program look like that classic model.

St. Cloud may be the most immediate analogue, as a similar-sized small metro to Duluth with two public high schools and one private school and a single youth program. It’s hardly a perfect fit, as the St. Cloud schools had little statewide success outside of some very early Tourney appearances by St. Cloud Tech. But because of that, it’s a bit of a canary in the coal mine, as its schools’ hockey numbers dropped as development moved into more suburban areas. Apollo High, after dropping to Class A, did manage to claw out a couple of Tourney berths despite low numbers in its final years before it was forced to merge with Tech and create one single public high school team. The merger had no discernable impact on St. Cloud public school hockey success: the dominant force throughout has been private Cathedral, which has been the magnet for local front-line talent for going on two decades now. The unified public school team, meanwhile, typically putters along in the lower half of 8AA.

In recent years, Rochester has had one single youth program feeding four high schools. It is weaker hockey country, but it has historically had a bit of State Tournament success; John Marshall won a Tourney in the 70s, Mayo had some legitimately good teams in the 90s, and the newest school, Century, scraped together a few Tourney appearances in the 00s, even as the Lakeville schools rose to dominate Section 1AA. But since 2010, there was a brief period when private Lourdes was the talent collector, and ever after it has been fairly bleak. With the likely demise of John Marshall hockey forthcoming, it does not look like it will get better. The fact that a uniquely wealthy, large city with four high schools has landed with a model that cannot muster more than one Bantam AA team does not inspire confidence.

Woodbury is a well-off East Metro suburb, and on paper should be good enough to follow the trajectory of some of its peers like Plymouth and Eden Prairie and Andover and produce hockey powerhouses. Woodbury High did have some abbreviated success in the mid-2000s, but after that burst and the subsequent opening of East Ridge High in 2009, its high school teams have been mediocre at best. The two public schools, while sometimes scrappy mid-level seeds, have mustered little in the way of sustained success, all as the rosters of Hill-Murray and Cretin-Derham Hall and some other East Metro powers are littered with Woodbury kids. Perhaps not coincidentally, an East Ridge group has emerged to advocate for a breakaway that would create separate youth programs for both.

The unified Chaska-Chanhassen youth program is somewhere on the Woodbury trajectory, just a decade or two behind in the cycle and just now rising to potential greatness. And yet, just like these other examples, the youth program has seen a steady drain of talent, and a substantial herd mentality seems to take hold, with the bulk of the good players going to Chaska for a few years, and now with many of them off to Chanhassen. While it is entirely possible that this Chanhassen group will break through in the near future, the two schools have yet to land a State Tourney berth for their efforts.

The story of Minneapolis over the past few decades is unlike that of any other Minnesota city, and major demographic shifts and reactions to it changed the hockey environment more drastically than anywhere else. A city that once constituted almost an entire section and now musters just one hockey team for the entire public school system. (I told that story of urban change and high school hockey in a post some eight years ago; some details could use some updating, but the overarching narrative is as true as ever.) In some ways, this is the most uplifting story of what a unified youth program can do: after a long time in the wilderness, youth numbers started recovering maybe 10-15 years ago. Under Joe Dziedzic the high school team has become a semi-contender in Class A over the past few years, including a 2022 State Tournament appearance. Such success would not be possible without the allowance that they play in Class A, though: Minneapolis’s best players routinely attend Benilde, Blake, Breck, and Holy Angels. The city schools have not produced a D-I player in over 20 years.

Other Roads Taken

Not every youth program that feeds multiple high schools has gone the route of unified Bantam and PeeWee teams. The results here are scattered, suggestive of potential but far-from-guaranteed advantages. Separate youth programs on their own aren’t enough: both Bloomington schools, including former blueblood Jefferson and blue-collar Kennedy, have been on a steady downward trajectory, with all their talent draining outward, even without Minneapolis-style demographic change, especially in the Jefferson attendance area.

But there does appear to be some limited success when separate feeders for high schools can remain viable. The Lakeville schools, which split into North and South a bit before East Ridge and Chanhassen Highs opened, are not as large as some of the west metro powers and benefit from a weak section 1AA. But they have managed to put out some very good hockey teams and some very high-level talent, despite having separate youth teams. St. Paul has faced many of the demographic pressures Minneapolis has, but kept its youth teams separate for as long as it could. While its teams have also struggled for a while now, it has at least maintained more high school programs with a smaller population, and even with weak numbers, the soon-to-be-late St. Paul Johnson has still put out some sporadic stars and pulled the occasional playoff surprise. Now, however, even that long play seems to have run out.

What This Means for Duluth

I am in no way saying it is a sure thing that a unified youth program will cause the demise of local public high school programs. But the claim that it may forestall such trends appears unsupported by evidence from comparison cases, and there is at least some evidence that a single youth program serves instead to weaken any ties to the public schools and strengthen funnels to a place where all the good players can come together (namely, private schools) or just leads to a general dispersal far and wide. Of course, it is not the goal of a youth program to prop up public high schools; it is to develop hockey players. But we can’t pretend that this shift isn’t a concession to a change in the landscape.

Maybe hockey roots are deep enough in Duluth that the city can buck some of these trends: maybe Denfeld can find the resources it needs to stay alive through a time of thin numbers, and maybe the new East regime has the desire and the design to harness the program’s great legacy and keep it what it has been. But it is also entirely possible that we see a merged public high school program in the next few years, and no one should be too surprised if that product ends up being very mediocre amid a general talent exodus. With Stella Maris looking to get hockey off the ground, the vultures are already circling.

Maybe that’s how it will be anyway. Maybe political and economic changes in Duluth are too significant; the city is in a strange and complicated place right now, and my thoughts there are too complex to summarize pithily here. Maybe the escalating costs and year-round cycles that increasingly define this sport are too powerful, and this is just another marker in a slow but steady death march for community-based hockey that no realignment within a youth program could ever stop. The drift toward hockey domination by private schools and a few affluent talent magnet publics may continue, and that itself may just be a waystation on the road to the AAA hockey that a small but influential core of hockey maximalists desire. The forces are what they are. (For that matter, maybe the forces at play are such that even Stella hockey will be stillborn and Marshall will remain mired in the tough place it has landed since the loss of Brendan Flaherty. The AA landscape has become hard enough for even good, deep East teams to compete with, and Hermantown hegemony in local Class A hockey blocks the easier road some privates have used as a stepping stone.)

My point, then, is that decision-makers should be clear-eyed about what has happened in other places. Relying on the exceptional efforts of committed volunteers is not a long-term strategy, and all the celebrations of unity that will come with a single Duluth jersey for the youth ranks will mean little if broader incentive structures for families aren’t in alignment. The strategy is in the much harder work of growing numbers, retention, and finding ways to make sure this sport is accessible to people who aren’t just a who’s-who of the wealthiest locals and well-connected hockey people.

Easy for me to say, I know. I will remain a loyal, no matter which course DAHA follows, and I am sympathetic to anyone who has to struggle with these decisions. But as someone who still thinks Minnesota is the State of Hockey because it has followed the old Herb Brooks maxim on building the strongest possible base of the pyramid, I can only think of this merger as another chink in the armor of the culture that makes this state unique.


California 2023, Part III: Enriched

This is the third in a three-part series. Part I | Part II

Morro Bay is a sleepy midway point on this push up the coast, and while I take another pause along the harbor over chai and a muffin from a funky shop, it is time to move on from this inquisition into memory. Next, I am obliged to visit that land variously known as San Simeon, La Cuesta Encantada, even Xanadu: the castle built by William Randolph Hearst on the southern end of Big Sur. Alas, I see no zebras, and the Casa Grande never quite shakes a layer of the absurd for me, this Mexican cathedral of a house overloaded in tapestries and collected ceilings and art to a plutocratic excess. But the guest villas are on point, the Neptune Pool stuns, and the setting, artfully interwoven into the estate by architect Julia Morgan, lives up to all the wishful dreams of its builder.

Joan Didion may have biased my view of the place. In “A Trip to Xanadu” she calls it “exactly the castle a child would build, if a child had $220 million and could spend $40 million of it on a castle: a sand castle, an implausibility, a place swimming in warm golden light and theatrical mists, a pleasure dome decreed by a man who insisted, out of the one dark fear we all know about, that all the surfaces be gay and brilliant and playful.” But I also agree with her sentiment in “The Seacoast of Despair,” where she compares it to the monumental abodes of some East Coast barons of industry: “San Simeon, whatever its peculiarities, is in fact la cuesta encantada, swimming in golden light, sybaritic air, deeply romantic place.” In no place else could an estate like this look somewhat reasonable.

The romance comes from Big Sur, where spring landslides have now twice foiled my hopes to traverse the whole route. I settle for going a few miles past San Simeon to turn around at a lonely lighthouse at Piedras Blancas. All of the crowds have disappeared here, and my Mustang is alone, nestled into the chaparral, the surf once gain mesmerizing. From there, I swing inland to the 101, a pleasant but unmemorable drive excepting a tasting at a winery in Paso Robles. Upon hearing this city name issue from locals’ lips, I conclude that Spanish speakers, when trying to figure out how to say the name of a California city, should imagine the worst pronunciation possible and will thereby be correct. I sigh theatrically and shoot north on the 101.

The Monterey Peninsula, home to Monterey and Pacific Grove and the gated communities at Pebble Beach, is the only native habitat of the Monterey pine, a graceful giant that reaches outward in accordioned layers, all sculpted by coastal winds. Nestled just above the dunes on the edge of a grove is Asilomar, a resort built as a conference ground for the YWCA and designed by none other than Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame. Here, with a somewhat less eccentric patron (Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who just so happened to be William’s mother), she created an Arts and Crafts beauty, wood and stone blending with the landscape and later bleeding into many of the Pacific Grove bungalows. My room is a period piece, a proto-modernist retreat of raw materials and crisp angles and balconies, outfitted simply and no TV. My kind of refuge—or asylum, depending on how one translates the Spanish. It lives up to the feel, a cool piney retreat where no excitement happens. Pacific Grove is “the sort of place where you worry you’ll knock over a grandma,” my friend Mike later opines. I unwind on the dunes of Asilomar, my best extended writing of the trip coming on its benches over the sea, before I begin northward again.

First, however, an interlude. I’m not sure what I expected when I arrived in Santa Cruz with only a vague knowledge of the town, but it was not what I encountered: a boardwalk amusement park right on the beach, children everywhere screaming and eating fatty foods and general chaos. This beach could not be any more different from the placid one I just left in Pacific Grove, and it strikes me that this boardwalk, with its gaggle of Hispanic and Asian families and harried parents escaping to the beach and wandering, segregated clumps of teenage girls and boys all putting themselves on display, is more representative of the full swath of California than any other coastal community I’ve visited this week.

By this point I’ve had enough of the solitary phase of this trip and am ready for a sojourn in the Bay Area with my college friend Mike and his wife Lizette. They live in leafy Menlo Park, an ideal-type suburb wedged between the Stanford campus and tech mogul retreat Atherton, the second-wealthiest zip code in America. Food comes at cafés on walkable streets, and I spend an hour weaving in and out of the arcades on the Stanford campus, past the engineering and computer science departments that feed the furnaces of industry and beneath Herbert Hoover’s bell tower and into the church at the heart of the campus, at once beautiful and yet discordant with all the earthly pursuit around it, an inscription on its wall both a warning and a premonition of the godless tech engine the Peninsula has become.

On the night I stay here, Mike takes me to a party of Stanford graduate students. When the first person we meet introduces himself with a discourse on his cold bath habit, I know we’ve hit the motherlode.

It has been a long time since I felt like this much of a fish out of water. Simply figuring out how to introduce myself takes several tries. I can slide in with rural Mexicans or Trumpy Midwesterners or East Coast political elites or any number of other groups easily enough, but here, I face an entirely new task. These Cardinal are remarkably diverse on the surface, but they inhabit a singular world, one that brushes up against my life every day but that I have never explored at any depth. Aside from one lonely biology student, these people are all deep in the Silicon Valley game, and while the level of polish varies dramatically—the lack of any sort of dress standard at this party would have been laughable at Georgetown—they all share an easy icebreaker: what start-up concept are you working on, when might it be ready for launch, and where will it go from here?

With this demographic, the answer is almost certainly somewhere impressive, in some form. Their ideas have the power to drastically reshape certain industries, from health care to computing; while these particular iterations may not pan out, they are laser-focused on specific problems. Whether there is enough thought about the systemic effects of these individual, money-making investments is the open question, and the one that will ultimately frame my opinion on them. Afterward, as I lie in bed and flip through my pictures from the day, I wonder how all this disruption will affect the lives of the kids on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Few, if any, of those kids will ever march into this world, experience its wealth; all of them will use devices and apps created here. All this tech will make their lives easier in concrete ways. But will it make them better?

Mike takes me into San Francisco to meet up with my cousin Rob, my final stop on this tour. Dinner for the three of us is a culinary orgy at Rob’s favorite restaurant in the city, and I revel in crashing my college and family worlds together. From there we add Lizette and a few more old friends to the hopper in Chinatown, have fancy drinks at Cold Drinks (which, it emerges, has inherent limitations in its ability to serve coffee), and descend into an underground lair at a dive bar where the menu consists mostly of generic straight alcohol, plus its famed mai tais, which taste terrible but are a necessary part of the journey across sticky floors and through the San Francisco menagerie. Rob and I round out my stay with a few more ticked boxes: the stunning redwood groves of Muir Woods, a sojourn in Sonoma, a cable car ride, and a stroll from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Marina District on a brilliantly clear day.

“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension,” writes Joan Didion in “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work out here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” Here we are indeed out of continent, and many things do not seem to be working. In 2016 and 2019, the aspects that made California seem extreme to me are now commonplace in my Midwestern redoubt: tent cities, upward bidding on real estate, even a looming fear of fire. The water wars will come for the shores of Lake Superior in different ways than they come for the Central Valley, but I expect them to come nonetheless. Having colonized a continent the California ethos is now trying to colonize the future, in the process abandoning the present in search of a new frontier, the self-justifying game played out in the fullest. I am enough a child of this pursuit to feel the hunger yet at enough remove from it to hate the possibility, left dabbling in ChatGPT and hoping I can master it before it masters us all.

And yet, on brilliant spring days like these, it is hard to picture California as the crime-ridden hellscape that feeds a certain media narrative. After a wet winter, the state is resplendent in green, the meltwater doing some work to restore depleted aquifers and possibly sparing us a brutal fire season. No one I meet talks about Silicon Valley bank failures or the headwinds confronting the entertainment and tech industries. The romance of the state still holds, and maybe there are enough innovative minds to make things work here, where resignation is harder to find and an aesthetic standard still reigns.

Above all else, California is a state of collisions. Mountains and sea, wealth and poverty, tech and agriculture, pursuit of the future and stubborn reality. It is here that the great contradictions of 21st century America are most visible, and for all the fear of drought and fire and exodus to Texas or Florida, it is here that answers are most necessary because it is both the harbinger of the future and a place of such beauty and cultural cachet that it will never lose its draw, even as so much of the world punches as it. No suburb of Austin or Atlanta will ever surpass Beverly Hills or a perch in Marin. I have fallen for this state because it is so contradictory, so bound up in the story of a country that is stunning and admirable and yet troubled, feeling in the dark for answers even as it barrels ahead at eighty miles per hour in a Mustang.

The friends I visit this week all have their off ramps. All three pursue interesting work somehow tied up in the fate of the state. One has a family to frame everything, and another is beginning down that road, too; the third has made an art of filling a schedule in ways that would overwhelm most mere mortals. All three explore faith in a place where it is not much of a discussion topic, from intellectual dabbling to full-on belief. My own road trip goes on, with stops to sponge up all they have to offer in an endless quest for more material, both for the words I write and the larger story over which I have some authorship. And I would like to imagine that, if I should return to Morro Bay again in another ten or twenty years, I will make this current version of myself proud of the story I’ve written since. For now, though, I will drift off, my mind back on the beach, one with the crashing waves.

California 2023, Part II: Released

This is the second in a three-part series. Part I is here.

There are four American cities that aspire to global greatness. Many others are lovely to visit or live, have their own unique cultures and topographies, and I admire many of them. A few claim certain statuses: Portland is the capital of one American byway; Nashville, another. Miami is a borderland striving to be many things. Chicago tries to take New York and filter it through Midwestern sensibilities, with mixed results; Boston is an experiment in blending European built form with unnecessary aggression. Las Vegas is not a city of this globe at all, but an escapist window into a virtual future.

That leaves the big four: New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Of these, New York remains the center of the empire, straining but hegemonic, truly its own thing among American cities. DC’s prestige is a simple power play, a magnet for wannabe influencers of a particular stripe and all of their hangers-on, even though beneath that there is a beguiling city of nuance and details and homage to both the richness of a national past and the complex world in which it is enmeshed. Anyone from abroad can understand why these two giants are the way they are.

California, meanwhile, is an altogether different matter. The pithy analogy of my grad school friend Parker remains the best: San Francisco is utopia gone wrong, while LA is dystopia gone right. Here are the two cities where manifest destiny, straining to the coast, sought new frontiers, collided with reality, and tell us something profound.

The Bay Area is a stunning place, hills rising from the mists, shimmering glows on the Golden Gate, and I return here on this trip for my deepest immersion yet. It is, more than ever, the central processor of the American zeitgeist, the chief engine of technological breakthrough and a laboratory for preening moralism over how the world must be, from a masturbatory libertarian singularity to the woke corporate commune. The child of tech genius and sixties radicalism is now both fabulously wealthy and yet strung out on something, its various aspirations toward utopia now crashing up against unattainable housing and an army of the homeless and sudden tech dread. That dream, it turns out, is a frontier only a select few may cross; for the rest of us there are endless swipes and AI-generated content, the opiates of the 21st century masses.

Edit a few details and many of these same critiques apply to LA. The difference is that LA is a few decades further along in the cycle, a late empire Rome that by now has dropped some of the pretense. Yes, it is still a vast cultural capital, home to the entertainment industry and a paean to the postwar era of suburban development and American dreaming. But there is a general sense that the jig is up. The golden age of Hollywood is long behind us, the traffic is a nightmare, and in the shadow of race riots and OJ and Skid Row, Los Angeles is at least a generation beyond any intelligent claim to utopia. It is all the stronger for it.

There is some kind of Sisyphean triumph in LA’s acceptance of its fate. Yes, it can be superficial in its obsession with surface-level beauty. So what? We’re human; we want to look good. Yes, the traffic sucks: well yes, we all want to be here, and we want to live in a well-appointed rambler, not stacked in tiny boxes, free from bad weather and creaky old buildings. Give us a remote job or a TikTok house and we don’t need to bother with the commute. In bizarre and not altogether reassuring ways, it may be attuned to this moment. The artifice is still there but we all know it is there, and can perhaps use that knowledge to build a city that still feeds on some very human impulses and tempers them with an appreciation for reality.

It is of course easy to write in these grand sweeps about cities and an altogether different matter to experience them firsthand. I’ve lived in DC and visited New York and the Bay Area numerous times, but this trip is my first venture into southern California. On my drive north I break off my coastal route at the industrial swamps of Long Beach, surge into Los Angeles to see the USC, a gorgeous campus where I never have been welcome given my lack of skateboarding skills. I check out the Rose Bowl, get lost amid Glendale and Pasadena, tucked away from all the rest. I give myself a half hour of Hollywood Boulevard, which is plenty to get the picture, meander down Mulholland and gawk at the estates on Sunset.

In the end, LA is about what I expected. Its poverty is less ubiquitous than San Francisco’s, but more tightly concentrated; a drive through Westlake is like a tour through a Mexican roadside market, only with garbage littered everywhere. A vicious wind casts a palm branch beneath the Mustang and it sticks there, dragging on the ground, before I stop to extract it. The traffic still sucks. I am intellectually ready to appreciate LA in a way I was not five years ago, but dystopia properly enjoyed would seem to require fellow travelers into the underbelly, and in this state I am not inclined to linger.

My destination on this night is instead Santa Barbara, and I am immediately suspicious that it is a city designed by AI to appeal to me. It settles between sandy beaches and the Santa Ynez Mountains, that collision of land and sea, the Channel Islands floating out in the distant haze. It is a Spanish colonial revival town, laid out in pristine urban form, and its architecture reflects that ideal, exquisite tile work and white adobe and red roofs and Moorish flourishes, all lined by lush trees. The State Street pedestrian mall bustles with families, and there are layers of surfer culture and college town funk to keep it from resort town sterility. I could spend a very long time here. As it is, I settle for watching the men’s NCAA basketball final at a brewery, a night in a gorgeous bed and breakfast, hiking up Rattlesnake Canyon, swinging past the old mission, and spending far more time than planned just strolling those stunning streets. As with so many beauties, the pictures only do it partial justice, failing to drink in the nuance and the power of full immersion.

Late on my night in Santa Barbara, sated by beers, I learn just how this city maintains its aesthetic. As I scroll through the channel guide, I stumble on a recording of a meeting of the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review. I endure about ten minutes of five older white people telling a Hispanic man they are pleased with his thematically appropriate elements and the relocation of the trash bins to the rear, though it would be really nice if we could do something about that carport, wouldn’t it? The prices we pay for beauty, and the dangers of looking under the hood.

My next stop is along the central California coast, in the environs of San Luis Obispo. I was here once before, half a lifetime ago, when a grade school science teacher brought me and a few other kids to present at a national conference on monarch butterflies. My journals on that venture, perhaps the first of my mature writings, still exist, and I fish them out ahead of this trip to peek into my 15-year-old brain. In them, I find some keen observation, a healthy degree of dry humor, meticulous notes on the science of the butterflies that overwinter in these areas, and titanic levels of latent horniness. It is at turns enlightening and cringey, and often fairly mundane. But above all I am struck by the rapturous details I saw in the world around me, of the love for the human and natural realms I inhabited, and a refusal to waste any time. While the succeeding 17 years have enriched my ability to craft prose, the journals are unmistakably the work of the exact same person, still ravenously hungry for his world, his successes and failures not so far off from those of his kid self. We are who we are.

I make the most of my trip down memory lane. I swing through the absurdity that is the Madonna Inn, where the other boys and I stood guard over the men’s room with that waterfall urinal so the girls could go in and take pictures. I return to the elephant seal beach, and while the more melodious males are out to sea for migration this time of year, plenty of females flop about on the beach, delighting the gathered crowd. “The deep, guttural sounds they issue are, horribly, a combination of the worst belches and flatulence,” I wrote in my 2005 journal. At Montaña de Oro State Park, I seek out the cove where we found rich sea life in tide pools; here, I shared a moment with the late Lincoln Brower, the world’s foremost monarch scholar, reveling in the beauty of our world. Dinner comes on the water at Morro Bay, staring out at the town’s eponymous rock, and make a temporary friend in a Brit working the other way down the coast, telling him snippets of this tale as we trade travel stories.

As I settle into my room with a view of Morro Rock that night, I wonder what that “smart kid with loads of ambition but no courage to do it all,” as I put it so very bluntly in December 2005, would think of the 33-year-old version who retraces these steps. Upon hearing the story, he would, I think, be proud of my journey, especially if he could hear how I’ve managed to draw down some of the anxieties that paralyzed me at that age. He’d nod in respect at the Mustang and my ability to actually follow through with some fashion sense. He’d be a bit distraught to learn the Yankees have won just one World Series since, and of course he’d also ask why the hell I’m still single, and I’d ask him just how much time he has if he wants to hear that whole tale. But whatever my 15-year-old self might think of me now, he would be proud of one thing: I have never lost the wonder.

That specter of its loss for others, however, has been on mind deeply for the past two months. On my drive I listen to some Jonathan Franzen essays, including one I’d remembered loving when it came out 12 years ago but whose particulars had faded: “Farther Away,” an account of his visit to remote Alejandro Selkirk Island in the South Pacific after the death of his friend David Foster Wallace. But it was more than that: Wallace’s death was the suicide of a brilliant, scheming, deeply damaged friend, and this piece hit differently when I could relate firsthand. In it, Franzen appreciates the loneliness of his quest to understand, gives up his pursuit of an elusive bird as he recognizes the gift of his own limits. Here, at the edge of the continent, may I do the same. At our best we do not forsake limits, nor bend the knee to them as supplicants: we become one with them, make them ours, use our words to order them within our lives and gain some measure of control, against all odds. Somewhere in here is the answer to the quest I’ve been on for a generation, that I now seek to revive through a renaissance. Yes, in here lies peace, not farther away but close at hand in the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

Part III is here.

California 2023, Part I: Authorship

For the past three years or so I have been living somewhere in the long shadow of Joan Didion’s prose. I came to her in a search for meaning in this American reality we now inhabit, both for the troubles of 2020 and a jaded phase of toil through work life that is, thankfully, behind me. But I stayed because I fell in love with her sentences, her artistry, her skill with the English language, whether I cared about what she wrote about or not. Her detached cool became my ideal authorial voice.

Nowhere did Didion fix her gaze more than her native California, this daughter of a settler family and witness to the state’s change from frontier outpost to the dream state of the late twentieth century to something a bit more complicated as the dream started to run out. Because she was from an earlier era she was a keen critic of what her state became, from the postwar boom to the Summer of Love to the Reagans, always at a remove and rarely comfortable with the direction of things. Her lingering dread became part of her persona, but it was always counterbalanced by a certain glamor, the way a provincial aristocrat from a dying order learned to keep up appearances and move with her times instead of languishing into laments for the way things were. This is, I suppose, the inherent Californian in her, and a mindset I can only admire.

I head back to Joan Didion’s native land for my annual escape from Minnesota non-spring. While I have visited California several times before, I have enough ties here and enough things to see that it remains fresh. I land in San Francisco and immediately break south, pausing for an overnight south of San Jose before a long push down toward San Diego, from which I will work my way back up the coast over the course of a week. I escape Bay Area traffic swiftly and rise through the California coastal range, those ever greater undulations up from the sea. After a winter of great rain the golden land has been reborn as emerald hills, and I go in search of glimmers in a red Mustang convertible.

This trip is a break from some of my idle wanders across the American West in recent years: I spend no nights in tents, and while I’ve scheduled a few days of relative solitude, I go to both see some familiar faces and drink in the crowds. In certain ways it feels like an arrival, a trip for someone in a new phase of life free from some of the gnawing worries that gripped past trips and the start of a year of plentiful ventures outward. After the long push on day one, its pace is leisurely, with few concrete plans: I go to explore, to see where the road and my fellow travelers will take me.

The first day slog down I-5, however, is every bit as interminable as I feared it would be. The Central Valley is rich in its output, the California Aqueduct and the state’s water works a stunning feat for anyone into that sort of infrastructure (Didion is instructive on both topics), but at eighty miles per hour it mostly feels like Wyoming with some almond trees. Californians, I learn, are useless when confronted with roundabouts, and are even worse than overly polite Midwesterners at the zipper merge. I also learn that Tesla drivers are obligated to go twenty miles per hour faster than all other traffic, though as I sit behind the wheel of a vehicle that purrs when I accelerate, I rather understand the allure.

Mostly, though, Californians sit in traffic. Traffic chokes the Tejon Pass over the Tehachapi Mountains, the one real passage from northern to southern California. I sit in traffic here and then I sit in traffic above Chavez Ravine and I sit in more traffic down by Norwalk; I even sit in traffic in the Glendale In-N-Out Burger parking lot. To top it all off, the narrow strip between San Clemente and my destination in Oceanside, some twenty miles in distance, takes a full hour. At least it is a prettier to sit in traffic here than between sound barriers in Los Angeles, the sun sinking over the San Onofre beach and incongruous Camp Pendleton, a relic of an era when real estate dollars did not rule all on the coast. Southern California makes complete sense and zero sense: I get exactly why people would want to perch up on these subtropical hills on rolling estates, and exactly why the traffic is as shit as it is on these ten-lane ribbons that knit together innumerable valleys with no actual reason to form one coherent metro. The secret of the beauty is out, and the Joan Didions of the world are left to scrutinize the replacement of the ranches they knew with endless tract housing, elegiac but accepting that this is the world that now exists.

After I free myself from the freeway I pick way along the coast, where I will spend most of this week, its own little world with great variety among the beachfront towns. La Jolla glimmers with wealth on a hill, while Del Mar opens up to reveal Torrey Pines; Encintas and Leucadia are a blur of shopping, while I am too annoyed by a poorly signed road closure in Carlsbad to give it a fair shake. Oceanside seems more democratic than most towns on the coast, a healthy mix of people strolling its beach or fishing off its pier. To the north, San Clemente is the surfer stereotype on steroids, while Dana Point is a tryhard; Laguna Beach seems the platonic beach town, Newport Beach is a cut-and-paste Orange County suburb, and Huntington Beach is one giant timeshare. Malibu’s unrelenting development along the Coast Highway render its views mediocre, though a stop on one of its beaches brings a dazzling blur of sand and sea amid an unrelenting gale-force wind. Oxnard is a discordant slice of Central Valley agriculture transported to the coast, a fitting place to stop for gas and nothing else. There is something for everyone here, even if we can’t afford to live on it.

I land for two nights in Oceanside, where Georgetown friend Ben and his wife Etienne have doubled their brood since I last saw them in Sacramento four years ago. In a family with four kids under seven nothing happens quickly, ambitious plans swiftly reordered in the face of reality, and this new rhythm is an excellent corrective to my normal rigid scheduling and relentless travel pace. We bike to the beach and stroll up the pier, which is more than enough excitement for most of the kids, and do dinner at a brewery with ample space to turn them all loose. We sneak in life updates and insights between storytimes and toy deployment, and inevitably any building project with trainsets or connecting blocks or trimmed palm fronds turns into the adults wrapping it up while the kids have moved on to something else. The world looks different when one’s concerns are one’s kids’ schools, what they learn and how they learn it, how the world chooses to treat childhood. Any philosophical debate has immediate application, the inner world all-absorbing.

Greater San Diego, Ben observes, has a sort of opt-out culture, a great suburban city with no strong political identity anymore, having shed the old Orange County and military base conservatism that built up these areas south of LA. Here, one can enjoy the creature comforts of suburban homes and beach access and breweries while working from home to escape the miseries of the southern California commute. In my friends’ case an immediate family network is crucial to making it happen, the tight bonds of that inner world able to consume all. Without these anchors life here could trend toward anomie, but part of me admires the escape from the deeply political and the relentless progress-seeking, the choice instead to pursue the rhythms of the beach, a steady cycle of waves, bliss within reach.

I start my road trip north from Oceanside at San Onofre State Beach, an iconic California surf spot. Two lonely men work the Trestles on this grey Monday morning, committed to the relentless slog outward but nailing ten-second rides down the Middles. I am mesmerized by this unrelenting quest, the pursuit of a glimmer of sublime. Without ever seeing it, I made this beach a place of deep reverie for a fictional character, and I marvel at how I thereby manufactured its significance to myself. Such is the authority of the author, possessed of a power to shape a world.  

Part of me will always be a beach child, lured by the escape promised by the narratives here: freedom from all that overthinking I am prone to do, peace before the crashing surf, whether on Lake Superior rocks or St. John white sand beaches. The beach is its own little world with its own social codes, its outward displays that mean everything until they dissipate into the enormity of the sea and mean nothing. We find our wave here before the void, straddle it and accept our position between worlds. Somewhere here the myths of progress and eternal return collide, the inevitable march of time and the depth of memory that will always cycle back, resolving into a rare vitality. The moment lasts only an instant, but the right words can sustain it forever.

This is the first in a three-part series. Part II is here.

Angels and Demons in an America Left Behind

It is dangerous to ask fiction to always be relevant, but when skilled writers reach for themes close to the heart, I can’t help but pick them up. Tales of Rust Belt cities or rural former mining towns have immediate resonance for me, and based on the evidence of thirty billion Trump era thinkpieces and resulting Ohio senatorial campaigns, I am not alone. Fiction at its best can tie themes together on more emotionally resonant levels than exacting reporting ever can, and two recent novels dove straight into this territory, telling two stories of children who come of age in forgotten places and cope in diametrically different ways.

The Rabbit Hutch is the tale of Blandine Watkins, nee Tiffany, who shares her apartment in the titular affordable housing development with three boys who, like her, are fresh out of foster care. She has a tortured relationship with her hometown, a fictional Indiana Rust Belt relic named Vacca Vale. (This city name, alas, only made me think of Vacaville, a wonderful Spanish-English mash-up of a name for a California city just north of the Bay Area.) She wanders the streets and tells the tale of her city’s decline, endures floods as its climate shifts, and becomes the lonely defender against a planned development in a cherished park named Chastity Valley. She takes on the name Blandine to channel one of her heroes, the early Christian female mystics who stood as lonely voices of protest against corrupt, crumbling systems. Whether she is a martyr like the real second-century Blandine is a question left to readers of this debut novel by Tess Gunty.

Like many first publications of American MFA program offspring, The Rabbit Hutch tries to do a lot, its voices not all consistent. Gunty, a South Bend native and Notre Dame alumna, clearly knows her territory, recasting Studebaker’s decline in that city through the tale of the Zorn Automobile Company in a wrenching examination of the remaining ruins. (Vacca Vale seems to lack any golden domes that might keep the outside money pouring in.) On the flip side, the threatened redevelopment of Chastity Valley is cartoonish, the sadness of Blandine’s teacher seducer an eternal cringe. I thought the whole thing could have held together just fine sans the amusing, meandering story of Moses Blitz, the exhibitionist who spurs along Blandine’s rapture. (Perhaps this should have been novel number two.) The undercurrent of absurdity built through digression after digression takes oxygen away from the reality of the rabbits in the hutch, too many of them left to too small parts in Blandine’s drama.

Blandine’s drama, however, can carry a story on its own. She brushes up against the other Rabbit Hutch inhabitants, all seeking some stability in chaotic lives, in a series of poignant set pieces. Her three roommates fall into tropes but all illustrate something valuable: social media pretty boy Malik, aloof Todd, and everyman Jack, who takes the narrative reins to rationalize the absurdity of the whole affair. Gunty’s decision to let Todd illustrate the novel’s climax in drawings adds a twist to Blandine’s long-foreshadowed fate, one of many bold thrusts by our author, whose creative range is wide enough to make the thing worth reading and hope she returns to Vacca Vale for more.

Gunty had the misfortune of emerging at the same time that a great institution of American literature took up some of the same themes. Barbara Kingsolver has been churning out bestselling literary fiction for years, and last fall she provided an update on Dickens’ David Copperfield in Demon Copperhead, its characters reborn in turn-of-the-millennium Appalachia, stripped of their Victorian morals and cast adrift in a sea of heroin and meth and Oxy. A 67-year-old woman surges out in a teenage boy, keen in his insight and dry in his humor, wrenchingly tender and hard as nails, descending into the deepest recesses of an American hellscape to produce one of the more compelling narrative voices I’ve encountered. Kingsolver’s book was one of the most absorbing I’ve read in years.

Demon Copperhead, nee Damon Fields, is born to a drug addict mother in a single-wide in Lee County, Virginia. His dad died in a place named the Devil’s Bathtub, and until the foster care system intervenes he is raised largely by his neighbors, the Peggotts, who are themselves raising a grandchild of the same age left behind by an incarcerated mother. He bounces from home to home, treated horribly, his only support from other kids, most notably the alluring Fast Forward, a magnetic high school football star who introduces ten-year-olds to pharm parties. Even when Demon secures an intervention from his rigid paternal grandmother and seems to reach a clear road through middle school, his own athletic success writes a prescription for his undoing. What follows is a brutal tale of addiction and life on the edge, an immersion in the inner workings of a boy still somehow seized by an instinct to persevere.

Demon and Blandine are twinned orphans of American collapse. Demon gets subjected to exploitative foster parents, though finds some support in inspiring teachers; Blandine wins the foster parent lottery, but gets wrecked by the teacher who takes her under his wing. Eminently practical Demon learns how to play the game and get by in any situation, which in Lee County leads him straight toward trouble; Blandine seeks a transcendent plane above her besotted surroundings, only to have them come crashing down on her naiveté. Hopes and dreams for either of them would imply an escape from their stations, yet Demon comes to own his roots, while Blandine is Vacca Vale’s most ardent environmental champion and/or ecoterrorist. The U-Haul escape is never so easy as any outsider might think, especially where there is a creepy snake of a man named U-Haul filling the role of Uriah Heep to Demon’s David Copperfield.

It is worth pondering Demon’s fate for a moment to see how far the world has come since David Copperfield. Dickens’ orphans, after all, did not have to contend with the pill mills of Appalachia, and that era’s concerns about sex look quaint in retrospect. There is a quiet but present Wendell Berry-style lament about modernity in Kingsolver’s prose, as successive generations of Appalachians lose touch with the skills necessary for self-sufficiency and the deeper cultural byways (sustained, in Demon’s world, by a Black transplant form Chicago), all flattened by mass media and consumer capitalism and doped-out societal collapse. But at the same time there are more ladders out, more however imperfect supports, more pathways for the Angus Winfields and June Peggotts to rise up and then return and tackle injustices head-on. And while New York Times reviewer Molly Young finds Demon’s eventual fate sorry in comparison to Copperfield’s ascend to Dickensian fame, it is also far more realistic: maybe Damon Fields can’t be a global celebrity, but maybe he can be a clean, decent guy with a loving girl who looks out for his people and provides stability in a place that needs it. If that is a condemnation of this era, may we all be so damned.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that contemporary fiction is at its best when it can take the slightly longer view. I have yet to read a tale of the Covid-19 pandemic or Trump Era America that truly compels me; these works always seem freighted with a try-hard quest for relevance, and wear their politics a bit too brazenly, and the climate change and redevelopment angles of The Rabbit Hutch fall right into that vein. Far more powerful are the retrospectives like Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads and now Demon Copperhead, which look back across a few decades with sage eyes. Somewhere in here lies the enduring power of the social novel in an era of information and new media overload: it allows for meditation, for slow thought, for careful processing of what has transpired in a lifetime. It escapes the noise of the zeitgeist to pick out what should endure. (The great novelists who do write in the present, like Sally Rooney, achieve the same state by stripping out the superfluous details and allusions, boiling their prose down to the essentials.) Twenty years on from the start of the opioid epidemic, Kingsolver’s thundering moral authority punches harder because we, as readers, know exactly what will come of it, and while some of her jabs at the system that created hillbilly elegies land better than others, they all add up to an undeniable truth about the nation it has wrought. Her work is no less political than The Rabbit Hutch, but time allows it to get the perspective a bit more right.

Both The Rabbit Hutch and Demon Copperhead are deeply invested in their young protagonists. There is a risk here of sentimentality, of falling too far in love with these kids battered by forces beyond their control who nonetheless dream of more. But while not all fiction can have happy endings, neither can it all be portents of doom: it can instead tell a story that stands alone outside of any great arcs of progress or decline, speaking for itself and any relevance felt on a deeper plane by its readers. Moreover, great social novels not only reveal reality as it is or was, but can also nudge their readers, however gently, toward belief in something more. Somewhere in here lies the triumph of storytelling, an experience both immersive and thought-provoking that is more necessary than ever in a world of endless digital distraction. This is what good fiction should do.

A Winter to Remember

It is never easy to say goodbye at the end of a great run. None of it quite feels real, even if we know this was it, that everyone must ultimately go their separate ways for the world to go on. This season’s Duluth East boys’ hockey team went on one of those runs, exceeding every expectation I had and bringing me a barrage messages from hockey friends across the state: are we really going to see those black jerseys and red breezers in St. Paul again? (The jerseys aren’t black anymore, I patiently explained.) Suddenly it seemed possible, a rebirth at hand. But the time for those goodbyes arrived abruptly, one step before a team could reach its ultimate dream.

But if it wasn’t going to be a storybook ending, it was still a tale to remember. A 5-1 December win over Andover served notice that Duluth East hockey was back, and a 6-0 blitz of Grand Rapids slew any demons with that old rival. The team was potent, fun to watch, going off on lesser competition and rattling off a 17-1-1 stretch ahead of the section final. Two improbable wins near the end, a dramatic comeback against Champlin Park and a defensive survival against powerful Rogers, gave off team of destiny vibes. This team didn’t have top five talent, didn’t run some genius scheme, but it just seemed rock solid from top to bottom, free to play good hockey, a whole host of good things running together and building toward playoff success.

I had my lurking doubts that I didn’t dare voice too loudly. The less charitable interpretation of the Champlin Park and Rogers games would suggest they struggled with a borderline top 15 opponent and couldn’t quite skate with one of the state’s elite. The offense was clearly a beat off after Thomas Gunderson’s injury in the final game of the regular season, and though he gave a valiant effort in the section final, the prolific top line never quite got on track against Andover. The regular season meeting had perhaps given the impression that the Hounds could skate stride for stride with the Huskies, but when Andover’s three bringers of doom came off their leashes in the second period, there was no keeping up. The Hounds started to press too hard, while the Andover defense, noticeably improved since their December effort, swatted aside the comeback push. Before long it had spiraled out of reach, a rare laugher of a playoff defeat for a good Hounds team, and a tough pill to swallow after all they had built. For all the steps taken this season, the final one was a bridge too far.

It is the nature of these season wraps to linger on what could have been, but what simply was did the job this year. Coach Steve Pitoscia and his staff buried the ghosts of last season and built a team that played exciting, clean, consistent hockey. The ever-ratcheting pressure of the Mike Randolph years was conspicuous in its absence; this team was going to win or lose with what it had, no more, no less. What they had was considerable, and such a positive season should dispel much of the peddling of decline and fall, or any instinct toward exodus at the youth level. This group can now confidently build toward the future now, and while the East of the mid-90s or even the mid-teens can’t be remade overnight, they can continue to build the foundations and open the doors for another virtuous cycle of upcoming and inbound talent.

As always, I thank the seniors. There are the four defensemen, all varsity players for at least three seasons, who leave behind a large hole: Grady Downs, the puck-eating redemption story; Aidan Spenningsby, the dangling sparkplug; Henry Murray, so often the steady rock who blossomed into a great high school defenseman this past season; and Grant Winkler, who played five years for the Hounds, by the end becoming the two-way force at the center of everything the team did. Nathan Teng was the fan favorite, Hunter Cooke put in the work, and Boden Donovan had his bursts that sometimes reminded me of another Hound who once donned number 22. (How strange will it now be to have the Hounds without a Donovan boy?) Makoto Sudoh developed into a true horse, logging heavy minutes and making his presence felt. And Cole Christian was the true catalyst, a long way removed from his pretty freshman dangles as he exploded with a monster senior year that I’d hoped would get him more Mr. Hockey Finalist consideration but at the very least showed the world what he is capable of.

With belief in this program restored, next season looks bright, even without Christian and the four stalwarts on D. The team brings back an interesting array of offensive toys, including Gunderson, Wyatt Peterson, Noah Teng, Caden Cole, and Ian Christian. Kole Kronstedt offers stability in net, and his backup, Drew Raukar, will also be back in the fold. There are a few other pieces worth a look from the ranks of the JV and the swing liners, and a respectable season from the bantams provides added reinforcement. Moreover, 7AA is in flux, with comings and goings amid opt-ups and an excess of teams to begin with. Andover will remain the favorite as long as it is still in the section, but it does have to replace its sublime trio, which is no small feat. Grand Rapids will be on the young side, down the rigid back side that kept it relevant this season; Blaine’s rebuilding road is long, Coon Rapids still has some gap to close, and Rock Ridge has to prove it can hang in AA. Even with the defensive rebuild at hand, East is in good shape to be right there again next season.

* * *

I close this postmortem on a personal note. After three straight rough seasons, I had begun to wonder if it was time to start taking some steps back from this East hockey fixation of mine. I have plenty of other demands on my time, so many things I want to do, and producing content on bad hockey felt less and less compelling. The team’s success this season helped correct for some of that, of course. But it went much deeper.

This was the sort of season that took all of that blather about community in hockey, the sort of thing we reserved skeptics are supposed to shrug off or pick at, and made it real. It came through Mom Bus road trips and late night beverages with the dads, via chaotic karaoke and casual warm-ups at Clyde. Whether through the works of the old hands looking to restore a program to its former glory or the newcomers seeing it with fresh eyes, and by all accounts through the concerted effort of a very tight group of boys, it all became what so many of us dream a sport can be. And in that final week, which was among the toughest I have ever lived, hockey became a balm and an escape for me, the final result in no way dimming the glow of a brilliant ride. Thank you, fellow Greyhounds, for a winter to remember, and even for those who are moving on, let’s come back together again next season. These goodbyes, it turns out, are never truly the final word.

In That Sleep What Dreams May Come

I pour out the last glass from the bottle of wine we opened together last weekend. I head upstairs, where my guest bed is stripped, its sheets still drying from the wash; the towel he used still sits here. In a family picture on my wall, one smiling face looms out, that image forever freighted with a different meaning now. There is an empty space in my house, a sense of loss even though he was here for only a few short days. I am gutted, angry, filled with a fire to go forth and never waste another precious moment, to heal a broken world with whatever power I might have. And so I sit down to write.

My cousin Andy had the power to fill a room with his presence. He was magnetic, aglow with opinions, eager to share his latest objects of fascination. Like many of us Maloney cousins he was a Renaissance man: an electrical engineer, a voracious reader, a skilled chef, an eager skier, a card and pool shark, a determined sailor, and a devoted lover to his high school sweetheart, along with a host of other pursuits he would be sure to tell us about whether we were interested in them or not. He and I always shared a bond, even if we only saw each other a few times a year; though he was over four years my junior, he was precocious enough to keep pace from a young age. On an unstated level, we were the only living children of parents who knew loss, perhaps living out a sort of surrogacy for the younger brother I barely knew and the older one he never did.

Andy was voracious in his appetites, and so many of our times together are vivid: in the Northwoods by Minocqua, snorkeling off St. Thomas, on that family Mediterranean cruise we were set to relive this summer; teenage pillow talk when we were supposed to have been asleep, a bourbon-infused night after a Shakespeare festival in La Crosse, too many euchre marathons to count. One night, after I unwittingly enabled his tip into drunken excess, I suddenly saw the danger in the relentless course he charted. But I was myself enchanted by that push, wanted to ride along with it, even as I remained firmly bounded by an unshakable sense of limits. He was refreshingly open about the troubles he did eventually face, sought out the help he needed, was bounded by a loving network of support.

Some diseases, however, are too deep to cure, and Andy careened toward the edge in his final months. My journal entries on the four times I saw him in 2022 read like a steady progression. In February, when he descended on my house with a gaggle of friends for a ski weekend, it was a rollicking party, good food and happy stories and a few nightcaps for just the two of us, united in our thirst for those moments. “His company is so very easy to keep,” I wrote in a contented blur on one of those nights. A May backpacking adventure on the Superior Hiking Trail left me a bit put off by certain conversation topics and the regularity with which he self-medicated with THC, but he was a trooper through relentless rain and mud, not once complaining at this brutal slog that would have broken many other backcountry rookies. By Thanksgiving, I wrote with annoyance at the seeming evacuation of his social awareness; by Christmas, I was having asides with relatives, bluntly asking if he was okay. He was not.

Andy was supposed to come visit for New Year’s, but instead spent it in a hospital. He was bitter over the intervention, our lone conversation during that stretch a rant-filled call in which I could not get a word in edgewise. It was, however, necessary, his ultimate passing in no way invalidating the wisdom that something had to be done. I now recognize that he was by this point deeply sick, on a path to ruin in one form or another. I started to wonder if this story could ever have a happy ending, a cascading series of concerns that, alas, proved preparatory for the end result, a thought that is in no way comforting but did allow me to glide past the shock phase in the cycle of grief and begin the effort to heal.

He finally made that planned New Year’s trip in mid-February and spent his final weekend in my guest bedroom. It was a low-key affair, reading time and board games, me apologetic for being pulled six different directions by hockey and a ski race over those days. Of course all the what ifs flit through the mind. Was this a goodbye? No: he was going on with life, making reading lists and travel plans, and by then I knew his evasions well enough to be sure it was no act. Could I have said more, done more? No: I have enough faith in my instinct that he was not ready to talk, and this intuition has since been backed up by those who did try to broach the topic. But there was a visible void there, a missing spark of the old manic energy and rebellion, the fuel that drove him to the edge and sometimes over it. I chalked it up to medication and hoped he would, in time, find a better equilibrium. He did not have that time. His case was terminal.

This suicide is the closest and rawest to me in recent years, but it is far from alone: there have been far too many in my orbits, too many friends and relatives left in grief. It is hard not to look around for things to blame. There is something to a late modern anomie, a lack of meaning or sanctity in a cold-hearted and status-obsessed world; an uncle and I who had been just trying to watch a football game were subjected to snippets of this malaise amid a meandering December rant. There is a news environment that preys on fear and despair for profit, a doomsaying world in which Andy at least dabbled. There is the Covid-era exacerbation of isolation that has compounded so many of these trends and pushed too many over the brink. There are the guns, the sickly offshoots of an American fetish that draw headlines for mass carnage but more often than that prove deadly accessories that turn dark thoughts on bad days into irreversible fates. There is the lingering cloud of generational trauma, the specter of addiction, the accumulating weights that trouble people across all cultures and eras.

And still. So many of us live through the same general conditions and come out well enough, and I ask him the question on a ski the night I learn of his passing: fuck, man, why couldn’t you see some of what I see, feel some of what I feel that lets me take every crisis I face and crush it beneath a resolute certainty of purpose? I’m not sure if I will ever know that answer, and I am, true to form, at peace with my efforts with Andy. I have found counsel in the words of both friends near and thinkers afar, and I have, perhaps eerily well, scripted my ability to process the unthinkable in my words on here over the years. I wish I could impart that equanimity to his parents, to the love of his life he left behind, to everyone else in our sprawling clan, but their journeys are their own. May we all find what we need to persevere, in speech or in writing or in unsaid feelings, in embraces and little memorials that convey what words cannot.

I head upstairs and remake the bed. The towel goes in a laundry bin, the wine bottle into the recycling. The picture, of course, remains on the wall. The fondness over the good times we lived will never die; nor, I think, will a certain anger over his final choice. But the rant-laden phone call from the hospital in January did end with a sudden, tender “love you,” a jarring reminder that the incandescent soul was still there, clinging to something as it lost its war with a fatal disease. That is still Andy, here both to haunt and bring forth a smile, the eternal presence burning through us. Like Hamlet, we do not know what dreams may come in his sleep of death, but those of us who live on know he will endure in ours.

Racing Hounds

For the better part of three decades, Duluth East hockey had a particular brand. Aside from the occasional exploits of a Dave Spehar or a Garrett Worth, there were certain things one could always expect out of those black jerseys. A tough, gritty style. A firm defense. A willingness to wear down the opposition, to outhit them and grind them up with an intense forecheck and a suffocating neutral zone. There were wrinkles here and there to adapt to the talent at hand, some of which yielded great results, but even in relative down years, people in the stands knew exactly what to expect.

In 2023, Duluth East hockey bears little resemblance to that age. Gone are the clogged neutral zones, the yells for the second forechecker to beat a hasty retreat back to the blue line. Even the black jerseys are gone. (Sorry, Coach, I’m going to struggle with that one for a while.) This team is a group of racing Hounds, flying up and down the ice, and behind a surging top unit and a Mr. Hockey finalist-type season out of Cole Christian, East is 13-1-1 in its last fifteen, back among the serious contenders in Minnesota.

No team ever wins anything in early February, but these Hounds have already made real progress. The air has fully cleared from the misery of the past few seasons, and the hockey is just straight-up fun to watch. Anyone who wandered away from East hockey after the past few seasons and has not yet come back is missing out. The Hounds bury lower-tier opponents with regularity, and even if they have an off period or two, they have the firepower to come roaring back. The offensive output has been like clockwork, never really slumping, even if they do get caught deep and sometimes bleed a few too many goals for comfort. The signs of potential were there in a 3-5 start; frankly, they were there at times last season too, albeit buried beneath a lack of discipline and long periods of slop. This team has always had talent at every position, and the pieces were there, just waiting to be unleashed. In his second year as head coach, Steve Pitoscia has engineered a reversal.

In mid-December I posed a few scenarios on how East, then 1-4, might rise out of the realm of moral victories and start logging real ones. One of these involved the stars putting the team on their backs, and that has most certainly happened. Christian’s heroics (58 points in 23 games) have led the way here, but Thomas Gunderson has developed some good chemistry with his linemates over the course of the season, while Wyatt Peterson does some of the dirty work that frees up Christian and Gunderson to fly. They may not have the sheer high-end potency of Worth-Donovan-Mageau or Randolph-Toninato-Olson, but they are carving out a space among the great Greyhound lines, with few able to keep up such a ferocious pace. On the back end, Grant Winkler has become a dominant force, and Henry Murray has also grown into a reassuring presence. The East top unit can now stack up with just about anyone’s.

There has been growth in other areas too, with players like sophomore Caden Cole making his way into double-digit goals and Makoto Sudoh throwing his weight around, along with some respectable lower line work and a stable second defensive pair. In December I also said the team needed to prove it could win a big, close game, and it has started doing that down the stretch, holding off pushes from Centennial and Cloquet and, most recently, mounting a stirring comeback against Champlin Park in a game in which they’d looked dead to rites for a spell. These Hounds continue to check box after box, finding ways to win and bringing the Heritage Center back to life.

It all started with a win over Andover in December. These Huskies are not the Huskies who won the state title a season ago; gone are the leaders of a stout defense, the Brimsek-contending goalie. But their top line remains otherworldly, and the program is gushing with talent that should allow it to fill holes with relative ease. But when the Hounds took it to them in a 5-1 home win, it was clear the gap in 7AA was not what most of us thought it might be. When East followed that up with a 6-0 win over Grand Rapids on Friday Night Ice, the Hounds were off to the races. Their only loss since came at the hands of top-ranked Minnetonka.

Andover, after a choppy start to season, has joined the Hounds in finding an offensive groove. The Hounds and Huskies are clearly the class of 7AA, as Grand Rapids has flatlined some; the Halloween Machine’s early defensive prowess has not always held up under relentless pressure, their offense too hit-or-miss to sustain a top 20 status. Still, the Thunderhawks remain ominous, capable of finding the formula to shut down a semifinal opponent. A feisty Cloquet team, meanwhile, has scored a few respectable wins, and will look to leave a mark in its final season in AA. The section is far from the state’s deepest, but it provides some intrigue, and if it does come down to East and Andover on a Thursday night at Amsoil, it will be another great heavyweight fight.

This team isn’t a finished product yet. Goaltender Kole Kronstedt would no doubt appreciate fewer odd-man rushes coming his way, and a few fewer stretches where they lapse into chasing teams around their own zone. The top line plays a lot, and long shifts always unsettle me. A rigidly structured opponent can leave them struggling for answers, though other than Minnetonka, not one of them has managed to keep East down for three periods since early December. Regular season winning streaks mean nothing in late February or early March, when teams truly leave their legacies. But belief is a dangerous thing, and after three seasons in the hockey wilderness, these Hounds have restored it on the east side of Duluth.

Making it Count

On a night in late March I mummified myself in every garment I had. Ice pellets pelted my tent, whose central pole was held up only by an elaborate pile of rocks nervously heaped along its base. I was miles from the nearest human, and a cruel wind ripped across the exposed ridgetop where I’d made my home. My sleeping bag liner was in the trunk of a car some twelve miles off, and any extra water would have to come from melted snow. I was exhilarated, never more alive and yet still able to settle into some just-warm-enough restfulness that would carry me through the night. At dawn, a glittering golden light burst over the mountains of southern Utah. I had reached Zion.

That night, and the reflections that built upon it over the remainder of that trip, have often been on my mind since. It was the culmination of a journey, or so I believed, that began in pandemic grit and then burst outward on a series of great adventures in 2021, from St. John to Montana, from New York to Tucson and various stops in between. My return to Zion was to be a final step up a Grand Staircase, a surge into a new layer of time in my life, to borrow my metaphor at the time. No more need for ventures like this, I proclaimed: I’d done what I’d set out to do, and now I could go all in back home, building the life I imagined.

On the surface, the next nine months went well enough. Yes, my work life was at times all-consuming and stressful, but I learned and I grew and I knew where I was going with it. I still went on some worthwhile ventures, from a college reunion to the peaks of Colorado. Perhaps most gratifyingly, out of loss, I found new pride in one half of my family history, and the joy with the other half continues. My Duluth networks, from politics to hockey and beyond, grew deeper, richer. And yet if you were to ask me how I was doing at nearly any point during this stretch, I would have almost never responded with joy or even self-satisfaction. I was drained, yearning for things I did not have, turning a Joan Didion quote from “Goodbye to All That” over and over in my mind: “It was in that year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and procrastination, every mistake, all of it.”

Perhaps I was lapsing into melodrama. My audiobook choice for my most recent drives across northeast Minnesota might provide some evidence here: Finding Everett Ruess details the story of a 1930s-era Into the Wild figure, a teenage boy who completed epic traverses of the American Southwest before he disappeared into the Escalante canyon country, never to be seen again. I have in me some of that romantic, wandering soul on some solitary transcendent quest, and while I count myself fortunate to be free of Ruess’s melancholy and any yearning for eternal escape, I can identify with those impulses to place oneself amid a grand narrative of destiny, driven by powerful feeling.

To make sense of that narrative I have tended to lean on classics and a web of metaphor. My loose outlook on the world, and perhaps my staid reserve that keeps me from any emotional overdrive, comes from Aristotle, who observed the world as it was and understood what was good in it in light of that reality. But a duality has always hovered, and it was no coincidence that, upon my decent from that ridge in Zion, I quoted Plato’s Symposium on true beauty, a true form of unsustainable yet ever-alluring perfection. I leaned deeper into that pursuit this year, as did several people around me, often with mixed results. I cannot regret it: paths were there to take, and we must nurture both Athens and Jerusalem, reason and faith twinned, and find them both. Living in the shadow of a modern-day Roman empire this can at times be hard to do, and it is in fiction (all tagged ‘Rome’ on this blog), that I have tried to sort it out. And as I do so I feel compelled to extend my metaphor: at the end of a murky middle age, it is now time for a Renaissance.

My artistic output this year has been less than I hoped for, a common writer’s lament. This blog has far fewer posts than in any year since its launch, and my fiction on the side is stillborn. And yet I am almost universally happy with what I did put out, a rare feat indeed, and am lately enjoying the mere act of writing as much as I ever have. I’ve supplemented this progress with a new toy: this post was written almost entirely on a reMarkable, a writing-only, paper-like tablet that has already proven an ally in a quest for focus. When there is focus I can write, and when I can write I can shape my fate, and from there I can thrive.

Nine months after Zion, as an even more vicious storm battered my home in Duluth, I was just as solitary, burrowing into my blankets with equal purpose, and rather less excited about the looming shoveling than I had been about the hike down out of the clouds. But the triumph of that night hovered in my mind, a warm glow that carried me to sleep as the wind howled around me and toppled a neighbor’s tree. Zion, it seemed, had not marked a firm layer in time—that will yet come—but it was very much a moment that did count, and I was proud it had.

So, as I begin my thirty-third year, I will look for more moments that count. Many of the old excuses no longer hold, and the opportunities to flourish through a Renaissance are all right there, perhaps as literally as can be, with Venice and Rome and Florence all on the calendar for this coming summer. As I complete another pause before tacking all my Duluth winter activities I find myself liberated from chic doomsaying, filed with gratitude, and ready to live more fully than ever.

Rich as an Argentine

Destiny is a dangerous phrase in sports. Many suspect they know it when they see it, most of them blinkered partisans who believe in what they know. It’s impossible to capture fully, scorned not without good reason by the quants who have distilled so many sports down to the barest essentials that can separate wins from losses. To call a squad a team of destiny is to make an irrational leap, to claim to see something others cannot, likely in athletes one has never met, seen only on a TV screen from half a world away. It is perhaps even more ludicrous for someone who is only a passing fan of a sport; someone who’s followed on and off over the years and has down the names of the main protagonists, but has no claim to deep expertise.

As this World Cup went on, however, it became clear that Argentina was one of those teams. It didn’t guarantee they would win the thing, but it did mean they would be there at the pivotal moment, would rise to the occasion, would push to the brink in ways others could never will themselves because they just felt it in their bones. It simply meant more in Argentina. They have known they have a window for a championship ever since Lionel Messi began showing the world what a different level of skill meant, and as the five-foot-seven magician from Rosario turned thirty-five, knew this would be his last chance. Their fans, after 36 long years of waiting, overflowed with raw emotion. Argentine tears flowed out at every goal (insert Evita joke here), and as they fought past the resilient Dutch in the quarterfinals, triumph felt more like relief, like completion of a solemn mission, than the mere victory enjoyed by other nations.

By that point, I was fully on board the bandwagon for the ride, using unspent work personal time to catch their remaining matches. After the sky blue and white carved up Croatia in the semifinals, they earned a clash for the ages against France. The final was about the juiciest imaginable: perhaps the greatest of all time against the golden child of the next generation, two otherworldly talents trading blows on the world’s most dramatic stage, the defending champions against the fútbol-bleeding nation determined to send out a sporting deity on top. It somehow outdid all the hype.

Messi had the supporting cast in his quest; the Argentines, unless defending a late lead, were the most cohesive unit of this tournament almost all the way through. The work rate in the midfield, from Alexis Mac Allister to Rodrigo de Paul to Enzo Fernández, took apart their vaunted French counterparts. On the sideline, the other Lionel, the little-heralded Lionel Scaloni, pressed all the right buttons as he molded his squad, boldly putting a few stars on the bench in favor of the right supporting cast for Messi’s skills. His master stroke: starting the wily veteran Ángel di María, who had the half of his life in the final, as he drew the penalty converted by Messi for Argentina’s first goal and finishing off a majestic passing sequence on their second. The Argentines were in complete control against the world’s deepest footballing machine, and in normal times, this would have been enough for a coronation.

Destiny, however, demands drama. No podía ser de otra manera sino sin sufrir, sobbed Andrés Cantor to his Spanish language audience at the end of the night: they had to suffer, there couldn’t be any other way. The source of that drama, aside from suddenly ragged defending: Kylian Mbappé, the French virtuoso who drifted through most of the game who needed just 93 seconds to knot the score. His vicious strike on the second goal hushed the singing Argentines for the first time all tournament; soccer, perhaps, was ready to pass the torch to a new superstar. But after that it was sheer, magical chaos, the teams powering up and down the pitch trading chances at reckless abandon, substitutions one-upping another, a net-crashing Messi seemingly winning it all before Mbappé snatched it back again in the dying minutes of extra time. So often in soccer penalty shootouts seem unspeakably lame, a way of euthanizing a game that has long since run out of energy, but it felt like the only sane conclusion here. One by one, the Argentines came forward and clinically finished their penalties, while their keeper, Emiliano Martínez, rose to the challenge once again.

When Gonzalo Montiel sealed the Cup with the final penalty, Argentina went into a catharsis to end all catharsis, a pure release, from the pitch to the broadcast booth and everywhere beyond. Montiel ran around cluelessly before his teammates swarmed him, di María bawled for the third or fourth time in the span of two hours, and Messi raised his hands to accept the worship of the masses and channel it through him. On the other side, abject shock, with dazed stares of exhaustion and Emmanuel Macron down on the pitch to console Mbappé. (I here picture Donald Trump coming down to the pitch to inform a United States team in a similar spot that they are all losers, or Joe Biden forgetting who all these people are anyway.) Who needs great conquests or wealth when a two-hour game can provide the apogee of human emotion?

The next night I found myself ignoring Monday Night Football to pour myself a Mendoza Malbec and watch footage from Buenos Aires: a drone sweeping over the Avenida 9 de Julio, the view from a lonely cyclist peddling up a deserted street as the city suddenly explodes, relentless song and dance, a few insane souls scaling the obelisk in the Plaza de la República. Then came the scenes from the victory parade, which had to be abandoned and completed by helicopter to get around the crowds. Oh, to someday be able to party like an Argentine.

And then it occurred to me: a few months ago, I’d been offered a spot on a trip that would have begun in Argentina in late December. I declined: a bit too much money, a bit too complicated logistically. I looked back at the old string of emails and, sure enough, if I’d accepted, I would have been in Buenos Aires on the day of the final. FOMO, you have consumed me.

Life goes on, though, and rewards in Christmas parties and holiday retreats and good hockey. And before long there will be new windows into that full range emotion, life to the fullest, joie de vivre in the face of everything. May the bursts never stop coming.