Archive | February, 2018

Panache amid the Ruins

28 Feb

This fictional collection begins here.

Evan tosses his backpack on his bed and exhales, drained after a long day. “Can we spend a night in? Just me, you, and a bottle of wine?”

Mark stares at him with narrowed eyes. “But, bro. Roman girls.”

“Can’t you keep it in your pants for one night?”

“Fine. Know how hard this is for a married man.”

“Tied down or not, I don’t know why you’ve gotta go chase it every single place we go.”

“Because it’s my birthright?”

“God you’re awful sometimes.”

Mark grins, goading Evan into further critique, but Evan knows not to take the bait. He leads Mark up to the rooftop of the hostel, which gazes out down a narrow Roman street throbbing with nightlife. They exchange pleasantries with some festive Germans at the rooftop bar and settle in at a small plastic table in the corner where they have some space to themselves. Evan pulls out a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew and goes to work on the cork in a bottle of wine while Mark idly plays with the two plastic cups he’d gotten from the Canadian kid they’d been traveling with for the past three days. Their Quebecois companion schooled them in Tuscan wines and they’d schooled him on the top nightclubs in Rome, though he left his regrets that afternoon and set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to Monte Cassino, where some ancestor had served in a Canadian armored division in the Second World War.

“Think Jean-Claude managed to hike all the way to the top?” Mark asks as the cork crumbles amid Evan’s efforts.

“He’s got the energy to do it, that’s for sure.”

“For a fat kid, he sure knows how to keep moving.”

“Oh, come on. He’s just kinda bulky. A lot of that’s muscle.”

“Sure, sure. I just gotta say, we’ve met people from like 20 different countries on this trip, and his English is hands down the worst of anyone’s.”

Evan concedes, punches what remains of the cork down into the bottle, and doles out the drinks. “Maybe,” he says, “but he was still the most fun of any of them.”

“Damn right. He gets it. To Jean-Claude,” Mark toasts. “To the pursuit.”

“To tracking down history.” The boys both sip and share a synchronized frown as they down the cork-filled Chianti.

“Good thing I don’t have standards when it comes to booze,” Mark muses. “Chasing history, though? Never thought of you as someone who dwells on the past.”

“Me either really, till we came here…seeing a city like this, it’s just something I never got as an American.”

“Maybe they’re all about the past cuz they suck at the present. Can’t believe how much trash and shit there is all over this city.”

“Well, they did peak a couple thousand years ago. But, guess we Americans have something to learn from them.”

“Oh, here you go again.”

Evan beams at Mark and sets his cup down on the table. Since the start of this trip, Mark has endured several attempts by Evan to explain a series of convoluted theories on how human adolescence and the American Dream somehow coincide. Despite his high tolerance for pop intellectual debate, Mark finds this version of his friend grating: Evan, he thinks, is much more effective as a witness for a way of life than as a lecturer. Evan knows who he is and where he comes from, and no number of days in Paris or Barcelona can change that. Why are people compelled to be more than they are? But that, he supposes, is why he was drawn to Evan in the first place. He knows Evan’s humility is a convenient lie, and he plans to expose it.

The very same thought has troubled Evan since the previous morning, when he woke in a tangle of sheets in a Tuscan villa and basked in the birdsong and sun. This was what it meant to drink the milk of paradise. He wishes he’d spent a semester abroad in undergrad instead of chasing hockey pucks, wishes he could stay here and come to know it in a meaningful way, instead of breezing through and snapping pictures. Maybe he could talk Bridget into some sort of post-grad adventure before they settle into real jobs, though he knows as soon as he begins to ponder it that she’s far too staid to ever make that leap.

Perhaps she’d just need a taste to get sucked in. Evan is still marveling at how the Forum had drawn out Mark’s inner nerdy kid. Away went the blasé dismissals of his theories, and out came a buried knowledge of emperors and classical battles that bubbled up before each temple. For Evan’s part, the most moving part of Rome had been St. Peter’s, where he stood before the Pieta for a good ten minutes and lit an offertory candle, a wishful prayer to both his father and his Father. Nothing much had come to him then, but he knows the memory won’t fade, and who is he to deserve some immediate answer from above? Nothing should be easy, and his freedom to take this trip is just another reminder of what a blessed life he leads. What right does he have to ask for anything more?

“It’s funny, I almost feel sad, looking at all the ruins,” says Mark. His words jolt Evan to life. “Really? Sad?”

“Yeah. I guess it’s good that something’s left for us to think about. But all the people who built that, the most powerful empire in the world…all that’s just, well, gone now.”

“Why does that have to be sad? Things come, things go, time goes on.”

“That’s just how the world works, you mean?”

“Right. Empires rise and fall, people are born and die, the world keeps moving. We get used to it.”

“Or do we just get so beaten down that we get used by it?”

Evan pauses. “Sometimes you do just have to make peace with things.”

“I’ve never been very good at that.”

“Oh, I know.” The boys laugh, and Evan turns his gaze up toward the stars that manage to fight through Rome’s urban haze. He feels small, dwarfed both by the world around him and by his best friend’s ambition. Mark, meanwhile, senses an opening.

“I’m serious, though. If we wanna build things that last, build something real, we can’t just sit here making peace.”

“Fair enough,” Evan concedes. He registers Mark’s disappointment, and knows Mark wants him to argue back. Instead, his mind turns closer to home.

“You think America’s gonna look like this someday? The ruins and all? Are people gonna wander around our hockey rinks someday the same way we wandered around the Colosseum today?”

“Shoulda come to visit me in Detroit, bro. It’s already here.”

Mark had spent the first half of his summer working an internship for an investment bank with a branch in Detroit. It was strange venture for a Yalie; most of his classmates are down the road on Wall Street, but his dad’s old ties had led to connections in the Detroit office, and Mark, saddled with his unending fascination for dying lost causes, had gone along to the Motor City. He’d taken more than a little pride at being the primly dressed white boy with perfectly coiffed blonde hair who’d work later than anyone to prove his worth and then venture in to the all-black bar down the block. He did it more to unnerve his peers, and perhaps above all his father, than out of any commitment to bridging divides. But how he’d lived for those few months, slamming shots with the 40-year regulars and spitting some rap to the delight of the younger crowd. He’d won them all over.

Forget these travels through past ruin: that was what it meant to be alive. He’d never felt a rush like that, not even that one time he’d tried snorting a line. But it also isn’t a life he can sustain. By the end of the night he was always exhausted, too foreign-feeling to ever ask a girl back to his place, his debonair front hiding his terror that he might get jumped on his way home. He never was.

“True, I don’t have to go far even in Minneapolis or Duluth to find ruins,” says Evan. He stares off at the laughing Germans at the other end of the rooftop, oblivious to the weighty ruminations at this table in the corner. “It’s amazing just how shaky it all feels sometimes.”

“That’s because it is. Takes special talent to break through that.”

“Ego much?”

“I’m not saying it’s easy, even when you mostly get things right,” says Mark. “I mean, sometimes it even feels like that path I just took for granted for so long is just falling apart. Dominate in school, get into a great college, set yourself up for a great job, and it turns out over half the country actually thinks you’re an elitist asshole for achieving goals in life.”

“To be fair, you do sometimes sound like one, and if anything I think you’re proud of it.”

“Why shouldn’t I be proud of my life?”

“You should be. But that doesn’t entitle you to more than other people.”

Mark stews for a moment. “I didn’t say that.”

“Not in so many words.”

“But…dammit, Evs, if you’re scared of how shaky our world can be, if you want to do what you can to keep it all alive and out of the ruins, you need people who get that to take charge. Not many people do. Even at Yale, not many people get how it all fits together…we need grand strategy. We need to play the long game. We need to get how economics and politics and culture all work, and how you pull all the right strings to get to where we need to go.”

“I mean, yes. Of course. But history’s just a graveyard of people who thought they could do that. A lot of them couldn’t. Just because you know more than most people doesn’t mean you can make decisions about other people’s lives.”

“I thought you liberals liked making decisions about other people’s lives.”

Evan stares Mark down as he gathers himself. He’s surprising himself with his own honesty. He’d learned to just shake his head at Mark’s self-confidence long ago, but as life after college becomes less and less certain, he has less and less faith in any well-worn path through life.

“The more I see, the less faith I have in anything big, government or business. Too big to fail is too big to exist.”

“Alright, I’ll just give up on all my big plans now.” Mark downs a deep sip of wine, pushes back his chair, and climbs to his feet. His eyes follow a crowd of revelers down on the street, and the bar across the way cranks up its thumping dance music. There are no signs of ruin here. He doesn’t need to care about the moral case for his life, or aspire to any grand strategy beyond his own happiness. He could simply take the Wall Street job waiting for him, make heaps of money, enjoy the finer things in life, and build himself a world free from inquiring Evans. He has the power to cut that cord, and has the belief in his own righteousness to do it. And yet he doesn’t.

“I’m not saying you’re not qualified,” Evan says in measured tones. “I’m just saying…maybe you’re not as special as you think you are. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but…intelligence shouldn’t necessarily mean power over other people. You know there’s a lot about life you don’t know, and never will. And for everything your path did right—I mean, I agree with you about education and I admire your chase, agree you need that ambition—at some point, you gotta ground it in something, or somewhere, or someone.”

“Like what?” Mark asks, though he keeps his back to Evan.

“Like a place, like a family, like a faith in power beyond you…because the second you think you’re in control, the second you set aside the things closest to you because you believe in some ridiculous destiny…that’s the moment you lose. You can’t let that happen.”

“So that would be what you’re doing, I suppose?”

“Well, yeah,” says Evan, warming to Mark’s interpretation after a moment’s thought. “I do kinda like my life choices.”

“I dunno, Evan. You’re a smart kid, and you’ve got some restlessness deep in there. We wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. And you’re trying to tell me that you just wanna go settle down and pump out some kids with Bridget back in Duluth? You’ll be happy with some social services job that pays you tens of thousands less than what you’d get somewhere else, just cuz you think that’s the right thing to do instead of using all your potential? I know you too well. You’ll go insane.”

“When have you ever seen me crack like that?”

“So what are these trips we take, then? Your little freaking rumspringa?”

Once again, Evan is left marveling at how swiftly Mark diagnoses him. He grabs on to his defensive reflex lest he show any signs of fading. “My personality’s allowed to have more than one side. I’ve got my outlets. Maybe that’s enough?”

Mark snorts in derision.

“Well, you got things figured out any better?”

“I think you know I’m still working on that. But you can’t cut that side of yourself off. You’ve got the disease, man. Can’t separate the angels from the demons.” Mark swings around and paces up and down the roof while Evan swirls his glass and averts his eyes.

“Maybe you’re right. It’s hurt me sometimes, though, so I’m trying to pull it in. But as much as I love living it up with you…what’s the endgame here? Honestly. Best you can say right now, what’s your goal in life?” Evan turns his gaze back to Mark, who stops in his tracks.

“Kicking ass.”

“For someone as smart as you, man, that just sounds so fucking crude.”

“Maybe it is. But, what else do I got? I spent just as long staring at that ceiling in the Sistine Chapel as you did, but it’s not gonna make me believe. Respect for other people, all that decent shit, going through the motions? That really gonna give your life meaning?”

“I don’t know if it’s meaning, but it’s grounding. Seeing what other people did, motivated by faith…”

“That’s just so…weak. Where’s the power in that? You’re denying yourself, and you know it. You gotta go get it. Like I did in Paris.” Mark folds his arms and smirks as he recalls the look on Evan’s face when he’d asked him for an hour in their room so he could enjoy his ménage a tois in proper Parisian style. It wasn’t a look of annoyance. Evan is a loyal friend, and wanted some time to himself for journaling anyway. It was a look of regret, an admission he couldn’t join in on the fun himself. He stares Evan down and waits for the chance to drop the hammer he’s held since he started them on this debate.

“So what are you even saying? This world is so wrecked that all you can do is just chase after…what?”

“Panache amid the ruins.”

Evan stops short.

“You always could turn a phrase.”

“I am kind of proud of that one.”

Mark drains his cup. He’s in his element in this intellectual battle with Evan, and pours himself a second helping to keep the neurons firing. He picks out the largest chunks of cork and smiles to himself. He’s found a healthy number of sparring partners in his travels; those capable of debating the merits of late-stage capitalism or the most effective ways to influence government or the virtues of the neutral zone trap straight through the night until dawn. And yet good old Evan still does more to help him make sense of all this mess than anyone he knows. Struggles like this, probing toward a truth they cannot see yet seek out anyway: yes, this is how to live, and the answer to Evan’s question lies somewhere in here.

Evan, meanwhile, stares at Mark, and feels a sudden surge of fear. It strikes him how eerily it sounds like Mark is tempting him into a life of delightful sin, of brash self-love that ignores any higher calling. Could his best friend on earth be the one who derails him?

“God, I love this,” Mark says with a grin. He throws his arms wide open and drinks in the full sweep of Rome at night.

Evan gazes upward at his friend. The fault, dear Evan, is not in the stars, but in our hearts, he muses. He cracks a grin in spite of himself.

“There you go, using his name in vain again. Maybe Rome’s gonna make a believer out of you.”

“Old habits die hard. And you saying it every other sentence doesn’t help the cause, either,” Mark sniffs.

“I know, I know. It’s just never far from my mind…even if I forget it in the moment all the time.”

“You know you can’t escape my world.”

“Just like you can’t escape mine.”

“Aw, fuck off.”

“Screw you, too!”

“All good? May I help?” an Italian asks them in broken English from across the rooftop. The dance music thumps on, but the hostel’s other guests have all stopped to stare at the loud Americans in the corner. Evan blinks at the surreal scene for a moment, then doubles over in laughter.

“Todo bien,” Mark replies with perfect poise. “Simplemente dos amigos, llenos del amor mundi.”

“Wasn’t that Spanish?” Evan asks as the other rooftop revelers roll their eyes at them and return to their previous pursuits.

Mark shrugs. “With a dash of Latin. Close enough that she got the picture. It’s all in the act, Evvy.”

“You’ve never had any trouble with that act.”

“Maybe too little.”

Evan nods and gives Mark a wry smile. Mark certainly knows how to diagnose his own ills without ever letting his self-criticism rise to a level that requires action. Evan laughs to himself, knowing he is much the same way. But his willingness to ask these questions shows the possibility of something, and that, for Evan, is enough.

“What?” Mark demands, trying to parse Evan’s serene smile.

“Ah well. Let’s toast.”

“Damn right. To my bro for life, wherever I wander.”

“To the smartest damn kid I know.”

“To us.”

“To life well lived.”

“To God and country.”

“To panache amid the ruins!”

“To the freedom to live out our dreams.”

“To death!” They finish their cups.

“To death? There’s a downer.” Mark doles out the last of the bottle and narrows his eyes at Evan.

“Only if you make it be that way. Death, well, it’s an old friend of mine,” Evan says.

“You creep me out when you talk that way.”

“I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. What more can I do?”

“You telling me you’re not scared of it? That you know about what’s gonna happen when you go?”

“Not exactly. That’s not what I mean. It’s more…we don’t think about death. Not really. We talk around it, talk about people who have died, sometimes. But when it comes to leaving a legacy, figuring out how you’ll be remembered yourself…”

Mark frowns and pushes his hair off his forehead. “I dunno. I’d like to think my life’s kind of been a middle finger to death, no? You know it’s there, but you go and live life to the fullest anyway. You know you don’t have much time, so you might as well go for it.”

“Sure. But that just seems like such a, I don’t know, juvenile response. It’s what you say when you think you know what death is, but you really don’t. It’s what you say when you don’t respect it. That’s what I mean when I say I know death. I’ve met him in battle and I know what he can do. I wouldn’t say he scares me, but he does make me stop and think about what he means, how he touches us all.”

Evan takes another cork-filled sip and swells with a strange pride at the authority he conveys. For once, he sounds like the learned one. Mark has no words, so he settles for gazing into Evan’s eyes, searching his soul for some of that wisdom in the face of unreason that remains so foreign to him. The music and revelry all fade away into oblivion.

“All these statues, all these memorials…sometimes I think all we build is a monument to resist death,” says Evan. “To keep it off, to remember it, to build things that make us forget it. Fly in the face of it.”

“I guess it’s like you say. Gotta find the beauty in what we’ve got. I know I do.”

“You are a beauty, Marky. You’re already there.”

“Hah, preciate it. And, know what? I’m starting to feel it, even when it’s in ruins. It’s everywhere. I am surrounded by beauty. Especially on that beach in Barcelona.”

“Leave it to you to reduce beauty to girls…”

“I mean, what’s beauty if not that?”

“There has to be something more to it. Something more…transcendent. Something—”

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to be a pedant about this.”

“A what?”

“Oh, just keep going.”

“Seriously, though. Beauty in the service of a higher power. Beauty that makes you believe that all of the muck we slog through is all worth it. Beauty that kills any doubt that there’s a purpose here.”

“Yep, you’re a pedant.”

“God, shut up.”

“Fine, fine. But I finally buy in and you just give me…this?”

It’s not that easy. You’ve got to build something strong that can last.” Evan flashes back to his waking thoughts in the villa the previous morning. “A fortress, you know? Those monasteries we saw in Tuscany, they’ve stood the test of time. They’ve endured, even as everything else rose and fell around them…some things can guide us through all the ruins and death.”

“Unless it’s Monte Cassino, cuz we blew that to hell in World War Two.”

“They rebuilt it, didn’t they?”

Mark stops short, and smiles at Evan. “Did they?”

“They did.”


Pyeongchang Pursuits

25 Feb

Another Olympics has come and gone. As usual, it began with stupid political talking points, which this year took the form of lurid fascination with Kim Jong Un’s sister, who represented North Korea at the games. All the geopolitics, as usual, came to nothing. The Games themselves, on the other hand, had their ups and downs amid drama and intolerable talk show-style coverage. Through it all, though, there were still plenty of golden moments in which I could appreciate people attaining greatness in whatever pursuit they’ve chosen.

This was not a banner year for American Olympians, but by the end it proved a respectable one, thanks to a surge in a couple of sports the country has not medaled in much in the past: Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins’ rush to the finish in the cross-country team sprint, immortalized by the call of Duluth’s Chad Salmela, was the U.S.’s first Nordic medal in over 40 years, and a ragtag group of curlers, all but one of whom calls the Duluth area home, set off a night of revelry at the Duluth Curling Club when they stunned the curling world en route to gold. The women’s hockey team’s upset of longtime rival Canada in the gold medal game was backstopped by Maddie Rooney, the former Andover High School star now at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. (Are you sensing a theme here? You’re welcome, America: we Minnesotans, and Duluthians in particular, are your saving grace.)

The one sport where Americans did clean up as expected was snowboarding, where Shaun White cemented his Olympic legacy in the half pipe, and Jamie Anderson and Chloe Kim also took home the top prize on the women’s side. Red Gerard, who seemed every bit a 17-year-old boy as he claimed gold in slopestyle, rounded out the American domination. Gerard’s performance was impressive but a little jarring: he’s a decade younger than me, and for the first time, it seemed like the vast majority of the Olympians are younger than I am. I guess I’m doomed to never be an Olympian, unless I up and move to some Pacific island nation that wants to send a mediocre cross-country skier to some future Games.

The skiing hero of the games was Johannes Klaebo, Norway’s 21-year-old wunderkind who will be its next in a long line of Olympic superstars. (How awesome is a country where cross-country skiers become superstars?) Klaebo won golds in the classic and team sprints, and put on perhaps his most stunning performance in the 4×10 relay, one of the more storied events in cross-country skiing. He played with his food for a spell as he skied the anchor leg, and let an Olympic Athlete from Russia hang around, gliding along effortlessly while the Russian poured out all his effort to keep up. With a few kilometers to go, though, he left his trailer in a powdery dust, flying up a hill that had been named after him before he ever even skied it. He pulled into the viewing area with enough time to grab a Norwegian flag on his way by the stands and cruise across the line towing it behind him. It was a statement of national pride in a nation that usually eschews such pageantry: Norway restored order in the 4×10 after a three-Olympics drought, cleaned up the medals in cross-country, and set a new record for total medals in a single winter games. In Pyeongchang, a nation about the size of Minnesota put the rest of the world to shame.

If Klaebo brought the youthful power, the grace came in the form of German Aliona Savchenko, who, as a figure skater in her fifth Olympics, defied the march of time to deliver perfection. I’m usually a halfhearted skating follower, but every now and then, a performance is so obviously a gold medal that I can forget the vagaries of the judging system and Johnny Weir’s efforts to look like a Hunger Games character and admire sheer artistry. This time around, it was Savchenko and her pairs partner, Bruno Massot, who made me drop everything and watch in awe, and the commentators had the good sense to go quiet when it became clear just what we were watching some ways into their performance. In a year in which the Olympics allowed songs with lyrics and had us drowning in Coldplay and “Hallelujah,” Savchenko and Massot’s performance to La terre vue du ciel, a mesmerizing classical score, fit perfectly with the moment. It was the best-judged pairs free skate in history, and erased a deficit from the short program to earn the pair of immigrant Germans a gold. Savchenko fell to the ice, heaving and spent, after her performance; as the scores of their rivals rolled in she seemed nonplussed, but the emotion finally poured forth when she learned she’d finally claimed a prize that long eluded her. It was as golden a moment as you’ll ever see.

While the U.S. women’s hockey team took home the hardware, the men weren’t much to write home about, with a loss to lowly Slovenia in group play and an ultimate defeat at the hands of the Czechs. I liked the idea of going back to amateurs, but let’s stick with the kids, please: washed-up ex-stars do nothing for me. It’s back to the drawing board for the American men in Olympic hockey, who need to do a lot more to garner the attention the women earned in Pyeongchang.

And so the curtain comes down on another year of Olympic glory, from Klaebo’s power on skis to Savchenko’s sublime skating to a bunch of Duluth guys who can throw rocks and sweep ice better than anyone on earth. And sometimes glory comes in several forms for one person, as in the case of Ester Ledecká, the Czech athlete who seemed genuinely surprised when she won a gold in the downhill Super-G: she is, after all, a snowboarder who also won gold in that sport’s parallel giant slalom. We have an entertaining world, though the closing ceremony could probably survive without a painful rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, as we heard back when we started two weeks ago. Cross-cultural sharing at its finest, I suppose. Thanks for the fun, PyeongChang, and let’s do it again in another four years in Beijing.

Of Congressmen and Mockingbirds

17 Feb

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

A Congressional Free-For-All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Kill a Reading Assignment

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

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

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



13 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

*    *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What number am I?”

“In hockey.”


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

“Um…okay. Anyway…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Team on the Brink

7 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


God and Evan at Yale

6 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you said you loved San Francisco…”

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

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

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

“Speak for yourself,” laughs the backup goalie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fourth line.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s probably a bad idea.”

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

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

“Shit. You’re right. Evs, I’m drunk.”

“I’d kinda noticed that.”

“I should sober up. Wanna order food?”

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

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

“You sure you’re okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This series continues here.