Archive | October, 2018

Ouch.

30 Oct

The New Yorker accurately skewers my writing life:

ouch

So excuse me while I stay true to form and go drown my sorrows in a wine bottle.

Anyway, I took the past week off from writing after finishing my marginally autobiographical plot-lite exploration of driven-yet-wandering teens who later become twenty-somethings who express their wants and needs in fits and starts. (See? I’m not totally typecast!) It was strange, and somehow resulted in me having no more free time than I normally do. I couldn’t see it when in the middle of that week, but I was directionless.

I think I can officially declare myself an addict. I write to make sense of the world, but for all of the sense-making I do, I’m not happy unless I continue to write and continue to make more sense of my world. Except in rare spurts of stream of consciousness, or when I write about topics that require less mental exertion like hockey or horse race politics, I’m an exacting writer. My process is slow, choppy, and full of long tunnels of frustration punctuated by very rare spurts of certainty and inspiration. (Somewhere in here is yet another obnoxious metaphor for life.) Rarely would I call myself happy as I write, but one of my characters did have a pretty good quote about happiness in that last installment in my story, so maybe he has some wisdom for me there.

The busier I am in my day-to-day life, the more value I place on finding time to write. I suspect this is because a hectic life gives new value to opportunities for slow thought. The instant reaction, the hot take, the sound bite or Tweet: so many demands of contemporary punditry militate against the slow, careful reasoning necessary to parse through different arguments or reflect on the past. (For a take on why this is important, revisit this Joseph Epstein quote factory on what it takes to be cultured.) Writing, which forces me to put care into thoughts, is the perfect vehicle for working toward that pursuit of understanding.

Fiction is the most satisfying writing I do because it is in many ways the slowest. There was no timeline on any of the posts in that series, and no need to come up with my own quick response in the dialogue. Not once did I slide something into one of those stories in response to some recent development in my life; many of the thoughts had been forming for years, while many dealt with things I have never experienced. It was patient, exacting, and had no need to answer to anyone or anything other than my own curiosity over how certain debates and situations could plausibly play out. Fiction is a playground to explore realities like our own without actually living through them.

None of it happens in a vacuum, of course. This latest installment had handful of guides, including books like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Peter Matthisen’s The Snow Leopard, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and films like La Grande Bellezza and Y tu mamá también and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Film weighs heavily here, I suspect, due to the episodic nature of the story; curiously, I can’t name a single novel that directly influenced my efforts, though I suppose there are hints of Gatsby and Wallace Stegner lurking in there.) Deep in my memory, I can probably recollect some stray conversation about Havasu Falls and the tale of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and while only one of the eleven installments had any direct autobiographical undercurrents, my own life certainly courses through much of it in subtle ways.  Fiction can come to seem like an incoherent hodgepodge of influences, or an author’s attempt to show off a vast knowledge. My previous efforts often came across that way, so this story collection tried to rectify that.

Beginning with that first story about Evan on his surfboard, which still might be my favorite of the bunch, there was a deliberate attempt to strip away all artifice and focus only on the world inhabited by the two characters. “Less is more,” I told myself time and again, purging away useless details and chopping out aimless dialogue. I intentionally avoid most all markers of time; other than establishing their use of cell phones and perhaps some of their slang, there’s very little in the stories that can pin the characters at any point over the past fifty years. I used some descriptive language to set scenes and interrupt long runs of dialogue, but I tried to live in the characters’ minds and in the tasks immediately before them that consume their thoughts. If I haven’t put readers directly into their minds instead of some obvious extension of my own, I haven’t succeeded.

When I was fully invested and writing well, my fiction almost becomes an out of body experience. Mark and Evan have existed in some form since my undergraduate days, but they took on new life over the past year and a half, when they became two influential and sometimes warring factions in my head. As a writer of fiction, I sometimes feel like I’m living four or five parallel lives, and if I ever seem lost in some other world, it may be because I’ve wandered down one of those other paths that I’ve invented, at least for a little while. I tend to reject strict methods of categorizing people or a sense of a “true self” because I can inhabit several different, sometimes conflicting selves, and I don’t see this inherent tension as necessarily problematic. If anything, it expands horizons, and makes the rich variety of the world and human experience possible, if only in a fleeting way, to someone who otherwise can get bogged down in the lurches of emotion of day-to-day life. Fiction, in its ability to transport readers, makes us free.

So, perhaps in that spirit, this blog will now move on to some very different ways of being. I have to offer up some bread and circuses to go along with the invented worlds, so we’ll gear up for elections in my next post, and hockey season is just around the corner, too. Thanks, as always, for bearing with all of this eclectic slow thought.

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Amor Mundi

21 Oct

This is the eleventh, and (probably?) final, piece in a fictional series that began here.

Evan always dreads the end of his travels with Mark. It’s not because he’ll miss the places he’s visited, or even the increasingly rare time spent with a friend whose infectious charisma still entrances him after all these years. He’s lived to the fullest, and these brief windows can’t go on. That would defeat the point. Instead, Evan fears his inevitable lapse when he’s back to his humdrum routine. His mind will be elsewhere this week, part the product of exhaustion, part the wistful wonder over other lives that could have been or could yet be. His mind opens to different possibilities, and he will dwell longer than he should.

This time, however, Evan suspects his own comedown has nothing on his friend’s. Mark jabbered most of the way down to Havasu Falls about his ongoing exploits in New York, and they’d bonded with their fellow travelers and Havasupai guides on their night beneath the falls before the two of them escaped for their customary bout of moonlit, bourbon-fueled philosophy. He’d seemed as self-satisfied as ever. But this morning, Mark is a different creature entirely. His moodiness is not in itself a strange development, but Evan’s usual tools to coax him out prove useless.

Frustrated, Evan hangs back with the chatty Mormon couple they’d dined with the day before. He needs human companionship, and stray stories of hiking adventures are ample fodder for fellowship in these circles. He rhapsodizes over their night in a tent deep in Zion eight years earlier, and his fellow hikers nod in delight at this story of friendship sustained over time and distance. But his words belie the growing gap between them as they plod up out of the canyon. When he sees Mark accelerating, he knows he too has to turn on his jets and keep up, and the Mormons know to let him go. Mark may not want to talk, but he clearly wants Evan’s presence, and Evan answers the silent call.

Evan trudges along at Mark’s side in the baking heat, but Mark remains intent upon his feet. Even in a state of melancholy, Mark still pulses with power. He’s barely even perspiring. Despite his lighter complexion he somehow manages to bronze instead of burn, while Evan already knows he has a date with a bottle of aloe upon his return to civilization. If this were a week-long trek, Evan could likely outpace Mark, but on a long weekend with just two ten-mile bursts into and out of a canyon, Mark is in a class of his own. Evan feels strangely inadequate, as if he must bring Mark to heel.

“Quit thinking about Indira,” he says. “It’s done.”

“I’m not on Indira at all. I’m actually thinking back to Jackie.”

“Woah. Back to the start?”

“Sure. Just…let me process for a bit, okay?”

“Of course. Here for you, bro.”

Mark’s nods to show his appreciation of Evan, but his mind is already back in high school. It’s the summer after his junior year, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Jackie, hosts a few friends in her back yard on the day before she heads off to college in Chicago. They’d long since given up any pretension of romance—though they weren’t above servicing one another from time to time—but while their friends bubble over with heartfelt high school farewell clichés, Jackie keeps casting significant glances his way. Finally, Mark retreats to the kitchen and Jackie steals away for one last moment with him. Mark grumbles about another year in Duluth without his graduating friends, but Jackie reminds him it’s worth playing the game, keeping up the illusion. He is the best there is at playing that game, and it would be a shame to waste his skills.

Somewhere along the line, Mark thinks, the illusion became reality. He really is something resembling the boy he’d pretended to be: poised, powerful, an old money heir who’s nonetheless built his own formidable reputation. He’s achieved his dreams as well as anyone he knows. He’s made his world his own, collected its wealth and eaten its best food and gone to some of its most beautiful places with the best friend he has. And yet where has it left him? Still searching, still restless, still unsure what the final destination may be.

In his more brash moments, Mark tells himself this is exactly the point. The pursuit itself is the goal, the wisdom to know he’ll never get there yet continue to push with all he has toward that destiny he’s always known is his. That drive is the secret behind all his success, and he must love it for what it is. Camus had it right. Or did he?

The moments when that mindset takes hold are all too rare, and the sheer effort he needs to sustain it wears down even his nonstop motor. Half the time Mark fails to notice his lapses, and even when he does, no number of canned lines can always break him out again. He’s not sure if he’s bipolar, or if he’s settled on a philosophy of life that is too demanding for any human to reasonably attain; one that will leave him rich, attractive, and utterly broken by the time he turns thirty. He’s in too deep to quit now.

Evan is relieved to see Mark perk back to life when they reach the parking area. Mark volunteers to drive, and throws on a series of underground rap albums as they rocket back to Vegas, educating Evan on the nuances of the New York scene that he samples on his free weekends. They make good time, and still have a few hours before they diverge on separate flights. Evan expects Mark to suggest a detour down the Strip, but Mark assures him he has no interest in crass postmodern pastiche, and heads straight for the rental car return. Evan doubts he would have been so dismissive of the Vegas party with his friends out east, but appreciates the gesture nonetheless.

“Let’s find ourselves an airport bar and get some class into this cesspool,” says Mark. “They gotta have some top shelf shit for all the rich fucks trying to live it up on their way out of town.”

“Eh, I’ve gone through so much money on this trip already.”

“It’s on me.”

“But you pay for too much—”

“Forget about it, Evs.”

Evan follows along in tow as they return the car, shuttle to the airport, and work their way through the security lines. Mark researches their beverage options during the wait and leads the way down the slot-filled concourses without a sideward glance at any distractions. Once they arrive, he pulls himself up into a barstool and reaches down to massage his aching knees, battered from his hike on top of a lifetime of goaltending and trail runs. It’s a price worth paying for what he does, his more vivacious self says as it takes back the helm. He has no choice but to push through the pain.

“What’s the best thing you’ve got?” he asks the bartender.

She laughs at him. “Got a twenty-seven year old bottle of—”

“Younger than me? Sad. We’ll take two anyway.”

The bartender looks Mark over as if to ask if this still boyish-looking kid, scruffy after a few days without a shower, won’t drink and run. Mark levels a stare so scathing that she swiftly delivers the drinks as promised. Evan shakes his head.

“What?” Mark demands.

“I’m just thinking back to that wide-eyed goalie we pulled in from Silver Bay who showed up and needed a home. He’s come a long way.”

“Whatever you say.” For once, Mark resists the urge to disagree, as he knows disagreement won’t paint him in the most flattering light. He’s not sure he’s aged a day since that chat with Jackie in high school. He still operates in the same exact way.

“Wow, this is good.”

“Drink it up, Evs. We’ve earned it. After all these years, we still know how to live.”

“Remember that first time we drank Scotch, when you snuck that bottle into the Boundary Waters for us?”

“How could I not? I’ve still got some mosquito bites on my legs from that trip.”

“Damn, Marky. You did more to get me out of my shell than anyone ever did. Even after all we’ve been through, I’m not sure you know how much I owe you.”

“Eh. I’ve always felt like I’m the one in debt here. You’re my rock, man, and you know it.”

Evan sets down his glass and turns away. He is unworthy of Mark’s praise. Bridget wasn’t thrilled that he’d planned this vacation, and Mark has chastised him repeatedly over the course of the hike for his frequent check-ins with his wife and one-year-old son. This trip has prompted alarm on several fronts: his body aches more than it used to, his upper-body strength isn’t what it was, and when he looked in a mirror in the airport bathroom for the first time in days, he realized he can’t pretend otherwise: his hair is thinning. He’s the one who supposedly lives the more stress-free, slower-paced life, but he’s not sure anything Mark has ever done can possibly approximate the life-and-death immediacy and nonstop demands of parenthood.

It has tested Evan more than he can ever tell anyone. His life over the past year has been a blur of his son’s incessant demands and Bridget’s fraying nerves. The two of them fell into spells of silent brooding, unable to say much beyond the necessary acknowledgment of their son’s needs. He can’t quite remember what inspired him to start swiping, or to propose a date to that girl with a summer job leading canoe trips up north. He hadn’t been drinking, nor was his day particularly bad. Baby Brendan was out cold, Bridget was curled up in front of the TV, and life had come to lack that imperative to treat every second as borrowed time.

He didn’t show up to the date, and erased any trace of his sins. Revolted, Evan declared war on anything in his life that might let him lapse again. First and foremost, his own father’s abandonment loomed over him: he’d strapped his son to his back and gone for a long hike along the shore, complete with long time at prayer. (He didn’t tell Mark that he’d gone up the driveway to cast a skeptical glance at the new owners’ renovations of the Brennans’ old home, and whispered Brendan some tales of Uncle Marky.) He’d started a book club with a smattering of other closet intellectuals he’d found around town. He got a key to one of the local rinks from an old friend who now manages it, and skates at odd hours of the night. And he and Bridget have purposefully started scheduling date nights in stray sections of woods to make sure they can always bring back the fire.

One other event had compelled Evan into action: Indira and Mark, after two years together, had broken up on the steps of St. John the Divine some three weeks prior. Evan had provided immediate therapy while Mark rode the subway home that night, but only on this hike did he get the full story. They’d gone to the opera together and then set out for a late-night drink with some friends at Columbia, but they’d never made it that far, and devolved into a vicious war of words beneath the old church. To hear Mark tell it, the split was mutual, the only sane outcome after repeated collisions of two high-strung egos. But Evan suspects Indira was the one to cut and run, and Mark has spent the past three weeks justifying it to himself. Mark, for all his wanderings, is unflinchingly loyal when he does choose to commit.

“I should do something for Duluth,” Mark muses. “What do you think about me buying a stake in the paper? It’d be small. But I’d be hands-on, at least.”

“Newspapers are dying.”

“Sort of. But we can keep em alive if we work at it. You control the story, you control the world.”

Evan finds himself deep in an unexpected well of derision. “That really true? How much did we put into telling this story about progress for everyone, this dream of a better world we were building? And what’s come of it? People don’t trust anyone anymore. No one controls the story, unless you can buy it with enough money, I guess.”

“Well shit. All the more reason for me to buy it, then.”

Evan rolls his eyes, and Mark sighs and tries a different tack.

“I guess it does kinda feel like the barbarians are at the gates every day these days.”

“At the gates? They’ve been living right next to us for a while now. We’ve sealed our own doom. Didn’t need any help from barbarians to get there.” Evan’s eyes bore into Mark, but Mark gazes back with firm resolve.

“Sure, we may have fucked up. But look what we built before that, though.”

“It was incredible, yeah. But we lost something along the way. I’m scared of the world I’m raising my son in, Marks. That cabin in the woods that Bridget wants is sounding better and better every day.”

“Eh, you’d never be happy there.”

“No, you’re right. I’ve got a job to do. I wish I had more to work with.”

“Well, pretty soon you’ll have an in at the paper, I can tell you that much.”

“I wish you’d just come home. You could be the best weapon in our arsenal.”

“You think Duluth would take back an elitist asshole like me?”

“You’re an asshole, but you’re our asshole. And the two of us together, we could figure out how to play the game.”

“You know how to work my ego, that’s for sure.”

“Marky Mark, I know how to work your soul.”

Mark and Evan stare at one another in mutual fear of the other’s reaction. They both avert their eyes. Evan has penetrated Mark to his core: as he always does, he has found a way to twist in beneath his myriad defenses, perhaps never deeper than this.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be. It’s true.”

“I mean it, though.”

“I know you do. But I’ve got a good life for myself, girl thing aside, and I’m gonna work that out eventually.”

“Are you sure you’re not…you know…digging your own grave?” Evan chances.

“By being so cynical about love?”

“Not quite. By…sleeping around as much as you do.” Evan gulps. He’s wanted to level this critique for ten years now, so many times has come so close to sharing his fears over his best friend’s excesses. Some combination of envy and a rooting interest has kept him from ever saying a word. He looks up carefully, worried Mark will lash back at him. But Mark is cool and collected, and speaks with icy precision.

“Look at it this way, Evs. Remember Landon? That roommate I had before Indira moved in? Dude’s in tech, loaded family, getting his Columbia MBA so he can keep climbing that ladder. He works full time, he’s in school, he’s got no time to date. Know what he did to put himself to sleep every night? Jerked off. Same old porn every night. You’ve been with the same girl since high school. Not sure you realize how fucked up our generation is, drowning itself in alternate reality. Hour after hour, day after day. Dudes don’t know the first thing about intimacy. I wasn’t gonna let that happen to me.

“So I’m not sorry if I’m a fuck-up in your eyes. I’m damn proud of myself for having the guts to go out and do this, get the real thing again and again. It takes actual skill, gives ya real pleasure. I might not be the easiest to handle all the time, I’ll admit that. But I always ask what they want, I never cheat, and I always make sure we’re on the same page. I’ll never apologize for that.”

“Oh, it’s all noble, I see,” Evan laughs. “Is that really what it’s come to, you twisting yourself like that? Nah, Mark. I’m not saying you’re wrong to be cynical. I’m saying the way you live’s made you a cynic. You don’t need to keep doing things this way. This isn’t healthy.”

“That’s the world I live in now.”

“Come home, man. Just come home.”

“To what? All due respect, Evs, there ain’t much for me there. My dad’s dead, my mom’s running around with her redneck boyfriend and we’re not close. My dad was a dick, but at least he was on my level. She can’t get me at all. You’ve got your mom, your in-laws…don’t get me wrong, Minnesota made me who I am, but there’s nothing left there now. It was always more yours than mine.”

“You’ve got me, dammit. And what’s yours instead now? Chasing the finance life? Really? Thought you didn’t want to turn into your dad.”

“Fuck it. I’ve got friends there, and there are actual marriageable girls…”

“I remember a kid from high school who plotted for half a year to lure in Jackie Donovan. Went after that cute, real smart girl a grade ahead of him. Worked her carefully, got her to let go of her old ex, made her believe love could be real again after she’d been burned. Lived a dream for a few months. Where’d that kid go?”

“Jackie left him for her ex, that’s what.”

“Aw, you still crying over the one that got away junior year? Come on. That wasn’t the point. The point was that I know you know how to make that effort.”

“That was a long time ago. I’ve seen a lot more of the world now. Buried some people, seen those couple happy years we had in high school fade. It’s just a memory now. I can’t be sixteen again, and I never will. I’m not going to try to bring that back. You call my methods spin, okay, it’s all spin. But I’ve gotta find something here.”

“I thought you had something going there with Indira.”

“I did, more than I ever have. But, what’s the best way to put it? I had a sense of loss that she just didn’t. Our lives were motivated by different things.”

Evan’s brown eyes pierce through him, and Mark has the uncanny feeling that his thoughts are no secret.

“More than you ever have? Even with Jackie?”

Mark nods. He’s never told Evan the story, but he knows Evan has pieced enough of it together.

“She was the only girl I ever loved for who she was. The rest? It’s always been chasing something or other.”

“Like what?”

“Status, beauty, some idea of a life I wanted for myself. I’ve never found that.”

“You just sound so…defeated.”

“Me? Defeated? C’mon, man, do you know anyone who’s done more to get what he wants than me?”

“Because it’s all you know how to do!”

“Bullshit.”

“Seriously, where’s the belief in something better?”

“Look at this world, bro. How are you optimistic? You, of all people, should know the darkness around us. You’ve seen it in your own life, you’ve seen it in your travels, you see it in the news every day…”

“And that’s all true! But Marky, I know what I can control. I’ve decided I can settle down with the girl I love in a place I love and we can do it all right out there.”

“Evs, I love you, I get it. But someone like you, who’s taken me places I never would’ve gone otherwise…I think that’s you at your best. You can change this world, Evs. You sure you’re not running from it when you head to the woods like that?”

“I don’t really know where I’m going, Marks, but I do know that this place I’m going is a hell of a lot healthier than the one you’re running toward.”

Mark calls for a second round from the bartender, who has edged her way to the far end of her fiefdom to avoid the bickering men. Evan glowers, unsure if the intended audience for his anguished cries is Mark or himself. He needs to believe it. He searches their fellow travelers in the airport for some humorous hint of Vegas excess to distract him from all this self-important blather. Down the bar, an Irish tourist has made friends with two young women with Southern drawls. Behind them, two parents with five children in varying states of obesity struggle to find an acceptable meal option for their charges. There is nothing particularly Vegas about this scene; just the typical placelessness of a place designed strictly to move people to other places. He’s ready to go home.

“What kills me about you, Evs, is that you could’ve had power, but you don’t. You work a decent job, live a decent life, cool. I just think you were cut out for so much more than handing out a few scholarships here and there. And I know you’ve got that drive somewhere in you to want it.”

“I do! Look at the life I’m living. Everything thought out, lined up in this great big idea of how to live that we’ve been arguing about for a decade.”

Mark closes his eyes and nods slowly. “See, that’s it. I’m the same way, man. I know you think I’m some shitty corporate raider, but I’ve got power and I’ve used it.” He stops, looks around, and lowers his voice. “I sabotaged a merger that would’ve killed a few hundred jobs in Detroit. I spent that summer there—those are my people. I put my job on the line and won. You wanna make this world a better place for your kid, you need some people on the inside. Not even your cabin in the woods is safe these days.”

Evan’s eyes bulge. He takes a drink and taps the counter as if sounding out some answer in Morse code. “I’m impressed. I really am. But can you honestly say that everything you’ve done is right and good?”

Mark stews and Evan nods, knowing the answer.

“This isn’t easy,” says Mark. “I have to make hard choices sometimes. But it comes with the territory. Gotta take the fight to the arena. Do what you can to change that narrative.”

“It’s rotten. Rotten to the core.” Mark has no answer, and Evan is again afraid he’s gone a step too far. Is he losing his filter as he ages? No, not really; they have both become hardened as they go their separate paths, and have always been stubborn in their own ways. Gone are the shared stages of school and growth, and now they are on their own, their freedom to travel their own roads a threat to undermine everything that has gone into their bond. Evan hates his era, and the only way to gain the power to fix it comes through complicity and corruption.

More and more, Evan sounds to Mark like some of the people caught up in the evangelical church he’d attended before his parents’ divorce killed whatever belief he had. Those committed believers had been so earnest, so convinced of the world’s perfidy and their own righteous ability to resist it. Mark wonders if he could find a Biblical way to justify his life to Evan, tap into that last relic of a fading faith to speak a language that makes sense to a believer. He has little memory left of it, not that it wouldn’t come all back to him if he put in a little effort. There are always answers in the wilderness.

“Honest question,” he asks. “Are you really as happy as you sound?”

“Happy, not always. But I’ve always thought happiness is a byproduct of a well-lived life.”

“Are you living your life as well as you want to, then?”

“Yes and no. I love my wife, I love my kid, I love my city, I do good work and like the people…but yet.”

“But yet what?”

“Sometimes I just feel…”

“Shit, this is like pulling teeth.”

“It’s hard to describe.”

“Is it work-related?”

“Yeah. Though it’s more than that. It’s vocational, you might say.”

“Existential Evvy at his finest yet again.”

“What I’m here for.”

Mark stirs his drink with a finger and fixes his lips together to force Evan to go on.

“It’s hard to stay motivated,” Evan chances. “And when I am, too often it’s because of fear, or anger at other things around me. If you’re looking for panache amid the ruins, I’m looking for panache through gratitude.”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

Evan takes a moment to collect his words. “All of the love of life with none of the angst.”

“Even after all this, all your listening to me, all the doom and gloom…you still manage to stay so…pure.”

“Having a kid helps.”

“Sure, but you were like this before that.”

Evan again takes his time to answer. “I waver a lot. I think you know that. But I also remember what it was like to be pure, once. And now I can see that in Brendan, every time I look at him.”

“A faith, sort of?”

“I know you won’t like that, but sure, yeah. That gets there.”

Mark shrugs. “It is what it is.”

“Do you feel it too, then?” Evan asks.

“Not really.”

“Think back to the early days before we were aware of everything. When the whole world and everything in it was sacred, in a way.”

“I’m not sure I ever had that.”

“You did, at least for a moment, somewhere, sometime. Just think.”

Mark opens his mouth, but Evan silences him with a flick of a finger. Mark reaches back into him memory and tries to find some hint of childhood delight that he can’t filter through a lens clouded by everything that has happened since. He fixes on a wedding for one of his father’s associates in his elementary school years, a glamorous affair on a sprawling Westchester estate, lush gardens and terraces galore. But for young Mark, none of those trappings matter: he just runs out and tears up the dance floor with the flower girl, and smile on his mother’s face as she bounces over to join him is forever seared in his mind. Delighted, Mark dares cast a glance at his father, who stands watch from a terrace balcony above. Preston Brennan musters up a thin smile, one of those three or four moments in his life when Mark felt his father’s love. It was possible, if only for a moment, a rare star that Mark can name.

For his part, Evan is back in San Onofre, fresh off his first surfing lesson, drenched but proud that he’s managed to stay upright for a few seconds. He and his parents settle in at a beachside diner for a seafood feast, and Evan boasts of his ride and regurgitates facts from the book on marine life he’s been reading the whole trip. His dad, a few beers deep, pokes fun at Evan’s nerdiness, while his mom grumbles about how she married a philistine. In retrospect Evan will notice how his dad tensed up when his mom tried to make those jokes, and how she would swiftly backpedal as if she’d never meant them. But at that time he’d just laughed along, and soon he has them all laughing along, back in the thralls of happily ever after. He wants nothing more than for Brendan to believe in that possibility.

“What are you thinking of?” Evan asks.

“Hockey,” Mark lies. But it isn’t a falsehood, not really: there he’d been allowed to pour unbridled passion into everything he did. It all feels like child’s play to Mark now, while Evan has the task of convincing his wife that a childhood of checks and tournament road trips is a good pursuit for their one-year-old boy. Evan wants Brendan to have that passion, even if he has to find ways to ease him into the knowledge that it cannot last. Mark simply wishes he could have it back.

“Can you believe what we had there?” Evan asks.

“That’s all over now,” says Mark. “What are we left with, once we can see the world for what it is? Everything that comes after…it’s in the shadow of what we’ve lost.”

“To lose it, someone had to build it in the first place. And me and you, we’ve been part of some great things that we built together.”

“That we have.” Mark drains his glass. “When we were sober enough to remember them.”

Evan laughs. “Left our own legend, in our own little way.”

“Evs, my man, we’ve lived well.”

“And we’ve got a full life of good living ahead of us, if we know where to look for it.”

Mark’s thoughts range far and wide, from Emma to Jackie to Indira to fifteen others in between, from backyard rinks to New Haven to Rome to a gorge high in the Himalayas, from his dying father’s words to Brendan’s fumbling first steps. He smiles up at Evan. “Since the day I met you, I’ve had some idea where. And I know you’ve got it, too. There’s your gratitude.”

Evan and Mark go quiet. Their argument has exhausted itself.

“Well, I’ve got a flight to catch,” says Evan. “Thanks for the drinks. And for everything. Seriously. And think about what I said…just remember if you ever want to come home, you know I’ll move heaven on earth to make it work for you.”

Mark closes his eyes and smiles. “Love ya, Evs. Keep bein you.”

Evan and Mark embrace in silence. Evan hoists up his backpack and makes his way down the concourse without a backward glance. He’s given it his all, and finally said was he’s meant to say to Mark for years. He is at peace with his efforts, at peace with his wanderings, and now he’s headed home to see the loves of his life. He is blessed, here amid strangers in this no-place of a concourse, and while he’ll no doubt lapse again, he has more than enough to carry himself through. He is happy.

Mark watches Evan go until he’s out of sight. “I’ll take one more,” he tells the bartender, and tosses his card on the counter. He takes a sip from the drink, swirls his glass, and raises his eyes to the bottles along the top shelf of the bar. A smile starts to play along the corners of his mouth.

He knows what he must do now, and the rest will follow. He is only beginning.

Interesting Journalism, 10/18/18

18 Oct

This blog has been a bit quiet lately. I intend to rectify that with the culmination of a large project in the not-so-distant future, but in the meantime, here’s another smattering of interesting news for your enjoyment.

First, to get the political hot take out of the way, here’s Masha Gessen from the New Yorker on why it’s probably not a good idea to run DNA tests on oneself to try to prove a political point. Much as I hate to start discussing 2020 when we’re only weeks away from the 2018 elections, it’s the sort of unforced error that leads one to have serious questions about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy from the start. Reactions to Warren’s decision are almost uniformly negative, but Gessen does a better job than most at getting at some of the underlying reasons why.

Next, to get meta, here’s Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic criticizing lazy journalism, which in this case involves a review of a recent book called The Coddling of the American Mind. It’s an excellent explanation of why the critique (in this case, a Guardian author fails to do anything to question the underlying premises of the book, and instead ascribes ideologically-driven motives, almost always in vague and indirect ways, to the authors. It may be great, it may be bad, but at least please address the arguments in the actual book.

For amusement with a touch of poignancy, Rod Dreher writes a requiem for Sears, the now-bankrupt store that one had a ubiquitous presence in American life. Sears self-consciously defined middle class American shopping habits, and its death is symbolic of more than just the rise of Walmart or Amazon or leveraged buyouts.

Finally, a piece that is a few years old but got a plug in this week’s newsletter from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center: an interview between the center’s director, Roger Berkowitz, and journalist Anand Giridhardas. Here, the two discuss Giridhardas’s book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, which follows the lives of two men chasing some of American life in the shadow of 9/11. The sociology through Olive Garden practiced by one of the two is fascinating; the book, if it is anything like the interview, is journalism at its best. Incidentally, I’m on a library waitlist for Giridhardas’s latest book, in which some of my collegiate pursuits get a brief mention. Stay tuned for that review.

Elite Consciousness

6 Oct

Since Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh emerged, I’ve had a couple of people ask me two related questions: did I know anyone who went to Georgetown Prep when I was in DC, and did the accounts of hyper-privilege and drunken sexual antics seem believable? The answers to those questions are ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’ but I’m not going to wade far into that debate that has been hashed out so thoroughly elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to highlight Ross Douthat’s Wednesday column, which is customarily on-point in its take on the different flavors of East Coast elite. The Kavanaugh affair is in part the product of power dynamics within a rarefied world of classes and sub-classes, and one that I’ve at least passed through in my life, playing Nick Carraway to the Gatsbys and Daisies and Toms around me.

I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the column. Douthat is right to note that the upper middle class strivers (of which there are many more than there are trust fund bluebloods) looking to raise their status are often far more showy in those efforts than those who already know they are on top. I also found that many of the members of these elite classes perfectly pleasant individuals to talk to one-on-one, even as their broader social circles remained difficult to penetrate. Douthat also nails the irrelevance of distinctions between nerds and strivers and the well-heeled, since everyone who goes to an elite college is basically all of these things, with the partial exception of the last one. We attendees of so-called elite colleges are the people who want to be all of the things at once, and whatever else we may say about it, American elite culture does seem to allow for this better than many less prestigious institutions. But, humans being humans, barriers and cliques inevitably arise or are bestowed by certain facts of personal history, and all of these distinctions silently emerge.

They emerge, but they don’t necessarily last: Douthat’s keenest observation is how so many people come to adopt much of the elite preppy culture, whether they realize it or not. I see myself here. While I didn’t come from poverty or a point of extreme naïveté, the world I came from was certifiably not something akin to an East Coast prep school. I spent my freshman year heaping scorn on the Vineyard Vines wardrobes that proliferated, and yet now I confess to owning a pair of boat shoes and multiple pink button-downs. (I have managed to resist the salmon shorts to date.) While I drank across all four of my college years, my partying habits also evolved from cautious remove to unabashed participation in many of the more traditional alcohol-fueled college festivities over time. Unlike a certain Supreme Court nominee, I will not try to pretend that I did not get very, very drunk on a semi-regular basis, and I hope many of my college-era friends are comfortable enough with who they were to admit that, too.

For that matter, I don’t regret those days at all. My move into that world was, on the whole, a force for good in my life. If I ever had an “I’ve made it” moment at Georgetown, it was never really academic, where I was comfortable from the beginning aside from some predictable mild college adjustments. Nor was it in my education in DC political culture; that had its fits and starts, but in retrospect I’m proud of College Me for how I handled most of that. It was instead social, and crystallized when I found myself participating in some good-natured heckling in a bathroom line in one of the senior Disorientation parties in the dining hall. (Yes, college students get drunk everywhere, but the Georgetown’s direct sponsorship of events like this separated it from the blind eye turned by, say, a major public school.) Even in an intoxicated state, I realized that I was suddenly one with the crowd, and probably had been for some time.

Alcohol played a major role in eroding class barriers on the East Coast. We all partied together, gave each other shit for it, and bounced back from any mildly stupid escapades. I am more confident, better-adjusted, and more able to take down barriers because I lived that way for a little while. We came from all over, but we could all slam shots at The Tombs, and whatever ridiculous antics that followed could build bridges and give us common ground, leading us to discover commonalities I never expected. Friendships require more than shared boozing, of course, but the way that lifestyle took down uptight kids’ inhibitions had value beyond basic lubrication.

This is not to say that this culture does not have its glaring dark sides. First and foremost comes the paradox of the necessary hard limits on acceptable sexual conduct while using substances that blur one’s sense of limits. The intersection of alcoholic self-medication, sexual uncertainties, and ambition to prove oneself will probably always run the risk of proving a toxic brew, and I do not have a good answer on how to prevent that beyond the standard demands for consent and a sense of common decency. I also watched alcoholism nearly wreck one good college friend, and had to reckon with how my own enjoyment of those reckless nights enabled his routine descent into a stupor because I was capable of stopping while he was not. (That friend, thankfully, has been sober for years now.) But this should not distract us from the fact that any prohibitions here are probably doomed to fail, and the vast majority of young men who participate in these activities never become alcoholics or commit sexual assault.

I’ve written a lot about the power of preppy East Coast culture on here, from the blurriness of American class lines (especially among the naïve members of the upper middle class) to the perceived failures of our meritocracy to the merits of a so-called elite education. For that matter, a piece of fiction I wrote earlier this year toyed with basically all of these themes and more. I’m not sure the writing in that story is as good as some of the others in this series; it’s certainly the most autobiographical, which can be both a help and a hindrance in fiction. Evan, a visitor to Yale from Minnesota, is a stand-in for me in my early Georgetown years in his stumbling efforts to make sense of his new class consciousness. But after that culture became a part of my own biography, I can now claim some moments where I am more the Mark character in this story, the one who delights in his rarefied world to its fullest extent.

My time at Georgetown, and particularly those times spent in a boozy blur, allowed me to blur between a modest Midwestern childhood and the halls of American power. Over time, it made me sympathetic to people I once resented, and at times still resent. As fun as it is to trash distant powerful people at times, I don’t think an elite class, however defined, is inherently any less moral or capable than any other group of people. Its flaws are simply magnified, given its proximity to power and notoriety. The transgressions of members of that class are far more likely to have consequences that reach beyond their own little circles. It is possible both to have empathy for and recognize the humanity of the people making their way here and at the same time demand higher standards for their conduct.

As generations reared on social media move into the public eye, it will become increasingly harder to hide any youthful transgressions. It therefore becomes essential to find ways to distinguish between juvenile yearbook comments and the facts of the case of an alleged crime. The early returns, with hysterical media coverage even from the few sources of journalism I trust and the histrionics in Senate hearings, are not good. The failings that enabled this crisis have innumerable root causes, but so many of them come from narrowness, from a young Brett Kavanaugh’s worldview to the blatantly political motivations of Republicans and Democrats.

That means pampered prep school kids need to get out and see a bit more of the world, yes; residing only in a narrow world of privilege does up the odds of thinking one can get away with things that everyone else cannot. I saw that firsthand. But it also means that the denizens of the upper middle class need to recognize the power they wield relative to the vast majority of the nation. While perhaps less directly problematic, this lack of perspective is widespread and damaging. And while I’d assign more responsibility for this sort of outreach to people with greater means to achieve it, those nowhere near elite circles should also do what they can to understand everyone else. No one gets off for free.

My own goal, perhaps inadequate but within my control, is to at once understand my place within a class hierarchy and how that feeds into the power dynamics around me, and at the same time recognize that this class-driven lens does not define anyone. We need more ways to look at the world. Maybe that starts with some drinks in a dorm room; maybe it comes up in any number of other improbable ways. The Mark character in my story is privileged by any definition, and sometimes very much plays the part. But he is self-aware enough to know it, and struggles against his worst instincts in search of something else. That, for now, is all I will ask for.

Thirteen Hours at O’Hare

2 Oct

I traveled to Chicago this past weekend to see family at a couple of functions, including a Cubs game that swiftly turned into a second Cubs game when the end of the regular season forced a one-game divisional playoff conveniently timed before my flight back to Duluth on Monday. After the Cubs lost that game to the Brewers, a cousin and I had a text exchange in which he wondered if I might somehow befall some weather that would leave me in Chicago through the next night yet another Cubs game, their one-game Wild Card showdown with the Colorado Rockies. Alas, the forecast looked pretty good. “Shame,” he replied. In retrospect, I should have just bought a ticket.

Monday evening begins innocently enough. The sun comes out by the end of the ballgame, and while a few raindrops fall on me on my walk from dinner to the Blue Line, nothing seems ominous. I get to O’Hare with an hour to go until my flight, fly through security, and board the plane sure I’ll be home by 11:00, a perfectly reasonable hour. Even when parked out on the tarmac due to some incoming weather, no one seems to suspect a long delay. How wrong we are.

This isn’t a total horror story. If I’m going to spend three hours next to someone on a stationary plane, it might as well be Eje Johansson, a longtime Swedish hockey player, NHL scout, and coach who forged a friendship with Duluth’s Tom Wheeler, and sent his kid to play for a year at Duluth East in the 80s. He tells me stories of his hockey travels across Europe and the United States for most of the delay. But after a few hours even that gets old, and we resort to gazing out at the lightning that continues to flicker over us. A bit after 11:00, the pilot announces we must conform to FAA regulations that prevent planes from sitting on tarmacs for more than three hours. We head back to the gate, and shortly after most of the plane’s passengers disembark around midnight, the gate agent announces that the flight won’t go until 8:00 the next morning.

The United customer service line provides an effective method to kill the first of my eight hours of unexpected layover. My fellow sufferers and I wait beneath Concourse B’s watchful Brachiosaurus skeleton, and wonder whether we will become skeletons before we get to the counter. At one point a United employee comes out and yells some just-inaudible details, after which some people walk away with pink vouchers never to return, but other people swiftly latch on to her, and she cannot escape to make her announcement again. The Asian college-aged kid on my flight gloms on to me and asks me a lot of questions that I cannot answer. A guy who probably works for Epic comes up and asks if anyone else in line can chip in $50 on a $200 Lyft to Madison, and another guy who probably works for Epic immediately volunteers. Never has Madison sounded so alluring.

When I do finally get to the service counter, an upbeat yet thoroughly blasé man gives me my options: call a mystery number to get a discount for a hotel room for a few hours, or accept United’s care package of a blanket and a water bottle filled with toiletry fun. I shake off the temptation to stick around for the Wild Card game, take the latter option, and resign myself to a night in O’Hare. Someone comes down the line and gives me a $10 meal voucher in the name of Ruthanna Seidel. Between now and 4:00, though, the only options in all of O’Hare are a Starbucks and a McDonalds. My kingdom for a bar, however overpriced and mediocre it might be. Rumors flit up and down the line of cots available somewhere, but no one says anything of such luxuries to me. I am resigned to my fate.

I wander Concourse B in search of a passable place to sit beneath my blanket and achieve something approximating comfort. This is hard to do. Every waiting area by a gate has an obnoxious TV that still blathers away, and most chairs have arms, as if the designers of O’Hare were afraid that vagrants would wander in and start napping in the concourse. Eventually I find a bank of four chairs with outlets opposite a couple of bathrooms and a United Club, which is dark at this hour. I settle in to the steady drip of water down from the ceiling and into the scattered buckets along the concourse. American infrastructure at its finest. Every ten minutes, a warning orders us not to use unauthorized ground transportation options; only on much rarer occasions do we hear the lines about unattended bags and liquid regulations. Priorities, I suppose.

Around 2:30 a British man ambles up the concourse filming the emptiness. He stops before one of the buckets collecting dripping water and narrates as if it were a nature documentary. “There’s nobody here!” he says as he pans past me. “I’m not nobody!” I want to yell, but the circumstances would suggest otherwise. Narration aside, the concourse is devoid of any talk, with just a few lost souls meandering past from time to time. Repeat passersby include a lost-looking kid in a suit who goes for five cups of coffee, a Santa Claus lookalike in a sweater vest, and a man in cowboy boots and a blouse.

Even in the wee hours of the morning, though, there is steady activity on Concourse B at O’Hare. Most of the people in action are just invisible to many of the ticketholders. The maintenance work is unending, with steady processions of people cleaning floors or bathrooms or just driving small vehicles dangerously close to my feet. Over by gate B4, two men are painting the wall; around 2:00, a couple of women head into the United Club to restore it for the morning business crowd. A man wheels an overflowing bin of garbage bags up to the bathrooms across the way as they’re getting cleaned and demands the basura. Bring out your dead!

Shortly after 3:00 a man from the Madison flight joins me on my bank of chairs. We make brief small talk, but I am increasingly incapable of conversation. He nods off. I huddle beneath my blanket and pull out the laptop to start this account. Just before 4:00, there are some signs of life: new employees check into a locker room next to me, some restaurant prep work begins, and the United Club reveals that its cool-looking dark blue mood lighting is just the glass on the doors, and the interior is bland and tan. I feel somewhat less like a plebe. I’m halfway through my sojourn.

The worst moment of my ordeal comes when I finally start nodding off around 4:30. “Wake up!” some soulless, demon-possessed woman says as she walks by. I start to life and give her a look. Judging by her reaction and rush of apologies, my look has conveyed the desired combination of hurt, betrayal, and murderous rage. No acting is necessary, yet I embellish it with a little more anguish and a near-tears shake of my head. This earns me another cascade of apologies, which goes a very slight distance toward atonement for her mortal sin. I hope her flight got canceled and she was forced to take a Megabus to Omaha.

Now wide-awake, I spend the next half hour contemplating the human capacity for evil. The crowd slowly thickens with early-morning business travelers, and I’m left feeling like a disheveled wreck. I go sit on a toilet for a while, and have the revelation that this is the most comfortable I’ve been all night: it’s actually warm in here, I can recline against a wall instead of an advertising board, and I have privacy and quiet outside of the white noise of stall doors and toilet flushes. I’m not quite at the point where I want to spend three more hours in a bathroom stall, but it is tempting.

I wander the length of Concourse B in a lethargic daze. I reach one of the Starbucks outposts at the far end and make use of Ruthanna’s meal ticket, though its $10 value can’t even cover a yogurt parfait and a grande chai. I consume them with little fanfare in the seating area for a gate across the hall. Here, there are paired seats without bars between them that have allowed the vertically impaired to lay down to sleep, though the seats are coming apart at the seams. I conclude I wouldn’t have survived here anyway, as the incessant babble of inane cable news pours forth nonstop from the speakers. On my next circuit of the concourse, I carefully search to see if there are any seats off the main hallway that are not within earshot of such misery. There are none.

Communication with friends, family, and work colleagues who are now awake distracts me for the next hour. A lack of flight attendants leads the flight to depart the gate some 50 minutes later than scheduled, and we spend another half hour-plus taxiing about the airport and sitting in lines of planes waiting to take off. The flight itself is on the bumpy side, but mercifully short, and I manage to doze off for a chunk of it. Eje Johansson is excited to see that winter is on its way.

As I await my bag at the baggage claim in Duluth, I drop my new United water bottle. It shatters, and water spills all over the floor. This seems somehow fitting, though to United’s credit, the weather was beyond its control and all of the people I interacted with who tried to sort things out did their jobs as they should have, usually with a smile. Sure, there are annoyances with vouchers and lack of communication here and there, but no person can really take the blame for my thirteen hours of O’Hare hell. Except for that satanic woman who had the nerve to wake me up for no reason, of course. I hope her Megabus to Omaha broke down in Iowa, and she is stuck in some sorry motel tonight.

Few places remove identity quite like an airport: first we’re all cattle in the TSA lines, then we get herded on and off of planes. Airports are in some ways rigidly stratified, with pre-check lines and United Clubs and special boarding groups, yet a delay for one is a delay for all. Airports lack the grandeur and street life of a major train station, and just try (often falteringly) to move people around efficiently, with no care for comfort. They are places only in their role in moving people to other places. Up in the Air, the 2009 film that featured George Clooney as a placeless drifter who racks up obscene frequent flier miles as he travels the country firing people, had the diagnosis right.

Somehow, I still found some faltering Zen in that deadened early morning concourse. I write some reassuring words and reclaim air travel in my mind. The view from a window seat can still make my day after many years of flying, and the Duluth airport is the anti-O’Hare in its comfort and ease of use. Some of my more enjoyable travel experiences have come commiserating at an airport bar or in the interminable wait at the gate with fellow travelers. It might never have the romance of a train trip or the freedom of a road trip, but planes do make things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be, like my attendance at that division championship on Monday. Sometimes the journey is very much not the destination, but brings rewards nonetheless.

And I hope that motel in Iowa has fleas.