Archive | September, 2019

Flawed Education and Millennial Nostalgia: Good Writing, 9/30/19

30 Sep

A quick digest on what I’ve been reading now that I’m back in Duluth after two weeks on the road:

Sometimes I think I could just spend my entire blogging life commenting on George Packer’s work, and he shows off his characteristic range of observation in his account of raising children within the New York school system. He captures the absurdity of the tracking system that tests two-year-olds for admission to preschools, the anxiety suffused through the American meritocracy, and the Trump era over-politicizing of everything by well-meaning progressives and its ensuing effect on children. The opening paragraph is as brilliant a summation of the conscientious parent’s paradox as I’ve ever encountered.

Sticking with the education system, you’ve probably heard about STEM education and how it is supposed to prepare students for the jobs of the future. In American Affairs, Jared Woodward marshals the best data and literature available to show that injecting technology into classrooms has a detrimental effect on actual learning and is a colossal waste of money. One could argue this conflates STEM with a more general influence of technology on learning, but the results are clear enough: the emerging system serves technology, instead of technology serving students.

As an undergrad I frequently took Amtrak back and forth between Minnesota and Washington DC, a wonderfully leisurely way to start or end a semester and move large amounts of personal goods. One of the great highlights of these journeys was a meal in the dining car, where I got to meet random people and share a reasonably good meal. To this, I bring you the deplorable news that Amtrak is beginning to eliminate its dining cars. Most disgustingly, Amtrak is justifying the death of the dining car on the backs of millennials because its officials think we enjoy leading harried, cheap lives devoid of human contact. (Or maybe they know this lifestyle is more a product of being overworked and enduring stagnant incomes, but they also know lazy tropes can help them justify cost-cutting.) This millennial is incensed, and so is Rainesford Stauffer in the New York Times.

On a lighter but still millennial-focused note, Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker’s Official Scribe of the Millennial Zeitgeist, starts a review on the film “Hustlers” but ends up discoursing on her nostalgia for 2008 pop music and its ability to capture that pre-recession moment. If your memories of 2008 also involve slurping on jungle juice while “Love in this Club” pulses away at an underage party, this article is for you. And yes, other generations, you now must endure millennials finding nostalgia for the stupid pop culture moments that defined our quickly fading youth, just as you subjected us to these reminders as we grew up. How fleeting it all seems now. And does anyone else think M.I.A’s “Paper Planes” is a glaring omission from Tolentino’s list?

Let’s close with a quote from Wendell Berry in a semi-recent New Yorker interview:

The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on. The historian John Lukacs, whose work I greatly respect, said that “the indiscriminate pursuit of justice . . .  may lay the world to waste.” And he invoked modern war, which kills indiscriminately for the sake of some “justice.” He thought the pursuit of truth, small “t,” much safer. I want to remember—and this comes to me from my dad, to some extent—that our system of justice requires a finding of truth, and it labors to see that justice is never done by one person. There’s a jury of twelve. There are two lawyers, at least, and a judge. It doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the result is injustice. But, the effort to discover the truth that goes ahead of judgment is extremely important. It requires us to think about the process and what’s involved.

It’s a very humbling thing, finally. People speak of “the environment.” They don’t know what they’re talking about. “The environment” refers to no place in particular. We’re alive only in some place in particulars.

The Towns Down the River

29 Sep

My education on the travails facing St. Louis was a swift one. On a road trip there for a wedding last weekend, several family members, seeking some beer with which to amuse the group, ventured across the street from the hotel to a Circle K gas station. Each six-pack came to them one-by-one through a drawer from an attendant behind bulletproof glass, a security provision deemed necessary even on this unassuming commercial strip right off an interstate. Next to fried ravioli and Budweiser, St. Louis’s lingering image is one as perhaps the most complete representation of the crumbling of Middle America, a sign of what might await downriver for the rest of us if we’re not careful.

The population of St. Louis is down to about 300,000 from a high of 850,000 in the middle of the 20th century. Streets and buildings frequently nestle behind gates, the divisions of a third-world city brought right into a metro whose urban evolution has followed the same trends. Its many brick facades, I learn, are now often the most prized part of a house, and many get removed and shipped off for use elsewhere. Unlike many Rust Belt towns, St. Louis’s fate wasn’t tied to the rise and demise of a single industry; its struggles stem from the gradual decline of a range of industries and a steady stream of buyouts by larger multinationals. I now understand why Jonathan Franzen named one of his early novels about his hometown The Twenty-Seventh City to note its decline from a great American metro to a middling status. (My copy made this trip with me, but I never opened it.)

St. Louis also lacks the perversely romantic ruin porn of Detroit. Its greatest testament to urban planning failure, Pruitt-Igoe, is now partially repurposed and partially a vacant field. Pruitt-Igoe was to be the modernist model for how to build public housing: 28,000 units designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the celebrated designer of the World Trade Center in New York. Less than twenty years later the whole thing was demolished. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe is often billed as a failure of architecture; Charles Jencks, an architecture critic, called its demolition “the day modern architecture died.”

It’s certainly true that the complex suffered from shoddy construction, and that architecture alone cannot make good citizens in the way some of the more absurd modernist dreamers in that field liked to believe, to ruinous effect. But the greater tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe stems not from its design but from an environment that doomed it to failure: a crumbling economy, blatant segregation, poor city management that destroyed St. Louis’s tax base, and a political climate that had no desire to see public housing succeed. For those who defend those systems, explicitly or implicitly, the architects are a convenient scapegoat. The failures of Pruitt-Igoe endure, its ghosts appearing on the streets of suburban Ferguson in recent years.

As with Detroit, there is still plenty of growth and commerce around St. Louis. It enjoys a large ring of well-off suburbs where plenty of people, including some members of my family, have settled in to happy lives. But it is also an ideal study in how major trends, from economic centralization to government division, can be the lasting difference between cities that are challenged but thriving and those that have come to exemplify the worst of contemporary America. The St. Louis experience offers a compelling case for regional governance and an indictment of a range of incentives and policies, whether malignant or merely misguided, that created the divides of a power in decline.

I don’t want to linger on the negatives for too long. St. Louis has a dramatic arch, and two Grade A large city parks that date to its World’s Fair days, complete with a zoo and a botanical garden. The City Museum, which I explore with a couple of relatives after the reception, is a true marvel, a playground for all ages in the shell of an otherwise vacant old building, the wreckage of a shrinking city repurposed into tunnels and slides and other stray sources of amusement. I’ll be back here in the future, and I hope to find a few more worthy sights. But on this weekend I settle for rolling in and out in a heartbeat, with long drives across downstate Illinois and Iowa to slow down the time along the way. Rarely is it memorable, save for windows into the less dramatic but equally damning rural decay that line the four-lane rivers of commerce that have replaced the Mississippi as the lifeblood of these towns.

*          *          *

Some two hours north of St. Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi, sits Hannibal, the boyhood hometown of Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain. He didn’t live there long, but this town of 17,000 left an indelible mark on one of America’s most celebrated writers. Like any small town that has had a brush with fame (and many that haven’t but would like to think they have), Hannibal is all in on its famed son, with Twain kitsch and a full cottage industry around him on full display. We enter town down rather dismal, run-down streets amid a rainstorm, but downtown Hannibal is cute and well-kept, and the Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which sprawls across several buildings and blocks, is worth the $12. We get a full overview of Clemens’ early life, and the town smartly keeps its emphasis on his early years which were so formative for his two best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Those two icons of American literature are clearly children of Hannibal, and each of the major figures in those books had direct real-life parallels.

Beyond Hannibal, Twain’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time. The museum acknowledges the controversies surrounding Huck Finn, both for its transgressive language at the time of its publication and its contemporary fall from grace for its repeated use of a word we now consider vile in polite speech. A panel in the museum shows dueling quotes from writers on this flap, with Toni Morrison blasting anyone who’d shy away from an accurate account of historical language and Jane Smiley suggesting that, if Huck Finn is the book that sets the context for discussions of race in America, it’s letting us set an awfully low bar.

Both points can probably be true. There are certainly more effective and searing testaments to the reality of racial conflict in America than the writings of a white man from over a century ago. The problem comes from trying to see Huck Finn only through that lens: it’s a major theme in the book, yes, and there’s certainly something to Huck’s growing understanding of racial divisions that readers can learn from, perhaps especially because Huck is by no means privileged but can still see injustice in front of him. (An exhibit in the Becky Thatcher House does a good job of laying out 19th century Hannibal’s class boundaries for a young audience.) And Twain also deserves judgment by the context of his day: sure, some language no longer resonates, but he was a dedicated and consistent champion of racial equality at a time when that was often a bold take. He wrote a book-length diatribe against the atrocities of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, and he blasted injustice around the world, from Boers in South Africa to servitude of Pacific Islanders in Australia. He also oversaw the rehabilitation of Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation through the publication of his memoirs, a vital corrective to a Southern narrative of Reconstruction as a failure and Grant as a bumbling and corrupt commander-in-chief. I have little patience for armchair critics of a man who consistently used his station to combat injustices everywhere.

Twain endures because he embodies the best of the American narrative. He is often wickedly funny, an astute observer of American reality using a vernacular, that, if sometimes less accessible now, was a vital step in literature’s move away from endless highbrow blather to something accessible to all classes. His realism was for everyone, and dedicated to a democratic spirit. He burst on to the scene documenting the freshness of American thought against stodgy Europeans in The Innocents Abroad, and he set his country to overcoming such ugliness as slavery and racism, which he himself had benefitted from as a child. In this vein, his great characters are adolescents: not yet fully formed, burdened by family history and their instincts but still capable of greatness or redemption no matter their backgrounds. Tom and Huck speak to the possibility of boyhood, and Twain’s nostalgia for his early days when a small-town American childhood blurred very real class lines. That formative experience may no longer be possible in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and if that is indeed the case, it’s a major loss.

A dive into a Hannibal childhood stirs some agrarian corner of my soul, itself grounded in an early-life sojourn in a town of 4,000 where I formed my first memories. As with Twain, that small town was my sandbox for my first steps into writing. This road trip’s final day includes a push through the land I associate with those early years: the hilltop farms and meandering coulees and oak savannas of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The towns here seem better kept, better able to avoid the shabbiness on display in Iowa or Missouri or, for that matter, northern Minnesota. On a golden early fall morning, I don’t much mind getting stuck behind a house on wheels as I wind up and down these verdant hills. These hills are reminders of a time when I, too, had no sense of the divides I can’t help but see now, and remind me that the dream embodied in Twain’s characters isn’t useless nostalgia, but a dream of how things could be.

30 Hours in Vermont

23 Sep

Airports are normally among the more placeless places in existence, but upon my arrival in Burlington, Vermont, I know I’m in a different sort of place. Wooden reliefs with maps and quotes cover the walls, and a row of rocking chairs runs down the center of the concourse. Most stunningly, a series of quotes on the state’s opioid crisis lines the glass skywalk to the parking garage, a raw admission of a glaring issue and a call for redemption all at once. I develop an immediate appreciation for Vermont’s willingness to confront reality and be itself. If jetting in and out in 30 hours can really give one a true appreciation for a state, I got one in my two quick nights in the state last week.

I make the 40-mile drive from Burlington to Montpelier beneath a giant moon just past its full stage, gently coasting down I-89 through the Winooski River Valley. The Vermont State House is lit up for the night, but the town is silent, and half a block away I find my resting place at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, a grand old thing with rich red carpeting and textured wallpaper and some intricate woodwork here and there. It also shows its age at times, with its questionable elevator and inconsistent updates to some of fixtures in its bathrooms, but I decide this slightly-past-its-prime grandeur is exactly my style. The night desk attendant, a middle-aged man in a sweater and suit coat one might mistake for an English professor, sets me on my way, and after a lengthy but successful struggle with an iron, I turn in for the night.

I wake to find Montpelier blanketed in fog, but get out for a quick run so I can see the town before I confine myself to a conference and then bid it farewell. The downtown is picture book New England quaint cuteness, a couple of main streets lined with restaurants and bookstores and a few church steeples rising above it all. The side streets are lined with more slightly shabby grandeur, old Victorians and Federalist homes, many of them with peeling paint or carved up into separate apartment units. I struggle up a hill to the Vermont College of the Arts and make my way back down around town before an aggressive climb up a steep hill in Hubbard Park, which lords over the city and offers a few vistas through the mist.

I’m in Montpelier to speak at conference on opportunity zones, a federal tax incentive that tries to make everyone happy by giving rich people a tax break for investing in projects in designated low-income or high-poverty zones. The incentive, a product of the 2017 tax cut bill, certainly can be abused, as recent accounts highlight all too clearly. But with up-front community planning we can also drive conversations to focus these funds on projects with a social impact, and in Minnesota, a couple of colleagues and I have worked to do just that. Our grassroots effort is, to my pleasant surprise, one my new Vermont friends would like to emulate.

While I don’t know if anyone explicitly planned it this way, a northern Minnesotan is a good fit for a conference on economic development in Vermont. The state’s chief metropolitan area, Burlington, is roughly the size of Duluth, and both cities are regional centers for some old towns tucked away in the hills. Despite its cool vibe, some of the figures wandering downtown Burlington wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Duluth. Outside of those two outdoorsy metros, the poverty isn’t extreme, but not much is growing, either. The opioid crisis afflicts them all, but they also have rich histories and a promise of renewal. I find no shortage of common ground with the conference attendees, even though the visit is brief.

After the conference I take the scenic route back to Burlington. It follows U.S. Highway 2, the same road that works its way through Superior and Duluth, and it weaves around the interstate and the Winooski and through a few more classic New England downtowns before it heads into suburban Burlington. I head downtown after checking in to my hotel, and after an initial rush of envy over the Church Street pedestrian mall and a molten gold Lake Champlain at sunset, I start to do some calculus on how Burlington stacks up to my hometown. Duluth wins on stunning natural environment: its lake is superior, its ridgeline more prominent, its parks full of more hidden gems. It seems to have more prominent neighborhoods, while Burlington devolves into more of a series of urban strips out toward its airport and beyond. Burlington, meanwhile, wins for its compact urban form: a walkable downtown, a college campus with immediate access to said downtown, a planning regime that has figured out that bike lanes are not some great menace to urban commerce. Church Street is a gem, its food and beer scenes are superb, and the attractions are all in one general area instead of sprawled out across and segregated between a tourist-heavy Canal Park and a dead-after-five downtown and up-and-coming Lincoln Park. Duluth’s leaders should spend some times comparing notes with their brethren on Lake Champlain.

In many ways, Vermont exemplifies northeastern liberalism at its best: tight-knit democratic communities, a sense of history and order and progress, a belief in education and knowledge for its own sake, connections to the natural world. The downsides: arcane state-level zoning limits that stifle any development or drive it further outward, part of a broader struggle to reconcile a wish for personal freedom with that puritan sense of order; an abstract commitment to humanity that upholds laudable principles but sometimes forgets that societies must meet their constituents at both their best and worst, and also sometimes forgets that leaving a better world for future generations means actually cultivating said next generations. All of those traits, the good and the bad, are all too familiar from my own circles back in Duluth.

My early flight the next day gives me one last glimpse of beauty, with a bank of morning fog spilled like a river of milk down the valley of the Winooski. Vermont and I, I realize, have much to learn from one another. Yes, I want to measure my Minnesota work against the efforts of a comparable place, and I also hope to explore some Green Mountain hamlets, cruise Champlain, strap on some skis at Stowe, meander Middlebury, and eat more food like that incredible burger with foie gras and drink more beer from its many excellent breweries. Vermont, I shall return.

The Devils We Know

17 Sep

Before the 2018 hiking season comes to a close, I want to get in at least one good overnight weekend Superior Hiking Trail trek. The timing isn’t ideal; it’s late enough to be a bit cold, but too early for most of the fall colors. I’m going to spend most of the next two weeks away from home for various reasons. But down time never seems to fulfill its desired function, and a 25-mile march will give some focus to diagnose his writer’s block, to say nothing of his whole long quest, some ten years in the making, that guided him back to this shoreline he knows so well.

I leave my car at the scenic Pincushion Mountain lot above Grand Marais, and my dad drops me at the other end of my hike. We park at Judge C.R. Magney State Park, the eighth and final of the state parks the SHT traverses heading northward. Magney, named for a conservationist mayor of Duluth from a century ago, lines the Brule River on its way down to Lake Superior. Its star attraction is the Devil’s Kettle, a mile upstream along a path that rises gently until it plunges down a 200-step staircase to a few waterfalls. The Devil’s Kettle is a famed split in a waterfall, half of which behaves like a normal waterfall, and half of which plunges into a deep hole that long baffled geologists as to where the water actually went. Alas, there is no devilry on display when my dad and I arrive: the Brule, torrential in its force after a week of rain, overwhelms the whole cliff and bounces out of the kettle and back into the main channel. Instead of a unique geological feature, we’re left with a pretty waterfall.

We return to the parking lot, and I strap on my pack and bid my dad farewell. After the rain there are countless small streams to hop, and sometimes the trail itself becomes a small stream, especially in the unremarkable first few miles out of Magney, where it follows a ski trail and then rigidly follows property lines up and down a hill. Things brighten at the Little Brule River, a small stream that still manages to carve a deep North Shore ravine on par with its more voluminous peers. The trail hugs the high bank and passes stray white pines before it breaks southward to the Lakewalk.

The Lakewalk is a 1.5-mile stretch along the shore of Lake Superior, the only wilderness portion of the trail that runs along the Great Lake. Its vast openness unfurls in stark contrast to the dense woods that line so much of the trail. The sun dances across rolling waves, the golden glow of the North; a bit larger and these rolling swells would be a surfer’s dream. The sound of the rocks pulled back with each retreating wave isn’t quite as powerful as the Pacific, but the dreamlike effect is the same. I eat a leisurely lunch from a seat atop a pile of rocks across a narrow channel from a small island.

I fancy myself a veteran beach hiker after my Lost Coast adventure in July, but that experience only takes me so far: there are a few easily traversed rock ledges, but much of the hike comes across bands of small rock that only last for so long. Frequently, I’m forced to scramble up to higher ground. The lessons of California do not apply, and the lake, at its highest levels is recorded history, doesn’t offer a retreating tide to make passage easier. At one point the trail disappears completely into the waves, and I’m forced to crash through a thicket, perhaps the most challenging bushwhacking I’ve ever done. One last beautiful stretch of beach follows my emergence from the brush, though I wonder if the rising lake will allow this stretch of trail to last.

My mind wanders to a debate that began over Grain Belts at Liquor Lyle’s, as all great pop debates do. A West Coast friend who’s guided my view of California as the mythic American frontier did battle with a fellow Georgetown grad, who stood his ground in defense of East Coast hierarchy. Our elites in Washington and New York may have their flaws, but at least they don’t pretend to be saving the world. That elite is wrapped up in a self-inflicted legitimacy crisis now, and while I too will lean in the direction of the devil I know, I’m more convinced now than ever that answers will come not from Park Slope or Pacific Heights but instead from wilds where we can restore ourselves, if only for a little while. The lessons of California again do not apply, mugged by reality; the East helps only in its acknowledgment of history, not in a pathway forward. As a society divides, Octavio Paz writes, “solitude and original sin become one in the same…When we acquire a sense of sin, we also grow aware of our need for redemption.”

The Lakewalk complete, I plow upward and pass a couple of young grouse hunters, a sure sign of coming autumn. The Kadunce River had been my tentative goal for the day, but the campsite atop a ridge with no view of the river doesn’t strike my fancy, so I stop to refill my water bottle below some falls past the site and push on. The trail here is immaculate, the fruits of a diligent trail crew that I encounter rebuilding a bridge over the west fork of the Kadunce. I thank them for their work, skip past their site, and waffle over taking the passable campsite on Crow Creek before deciding to trust the guidebook’s glowing description of Kimball Creek 1.2 miles onward.

Kimball Creek rewards my patience: after a long descent down from a road, I come to a pleasant site perched above a rushing creek. I set up camp, read and write in peace, content, and decide to prepare my dinner. I then discover my grave error: somehow, I’ve managed not to pack a lighter or matches; even if I’d wanted to make a fire, all of the wood around me is wet. I settle for a freeze-dried meal made with lukewarm water, all but the rice in my “Himalayan” lentil dish reconstitutes passably, and I wash it down with some bourbon. After spending a night at a site with 12 other people in May, I appear to have Kimball Creek to myself tonight, and I’m delighted at this chance to write in peace.

That all changes at dusk, when Jerry stumbles into camp. He’s a middle-aged hiker with a t-shirt that proclaims him a “Drunkle,” and he’s parked his car along the road at the top of the bank and is using this site as a base for a hiking adventure up toward the Boundary Waters. There’s no escape from my chatty new sitemate, but he’s an amiable veteran of wilderness adventures and he shares some of his various sinful goodies with me, which further wipes away the taste of my mediocre dinner. I write long into the night after we retreat to our tents, and struggle through a fitful, cool night’s sleep.

Jerry asks me few questions. He walks away from our encounter with no idea of my family life or what I do for a living or what I do for fun besides traipse around the woods. At the time it annoyed me, but there’s something freeing in frivolous talk, and the disappearance of my easiest talking points allows my mind to get past them and on to something more existential. This summer, my mind has often been caught up in a battle between pride in what I’ve built in my three years back in Duluth and a gnawing sense that I made a mistake and came back home too soon. It would be easy to lapse into careerism, or to obsess over various power plays. Tonight, I end my night looking at the last line in a passage from an old story I’d screenshotted the day before so I could have it even when I’m unplugged on the trail: “even the eternal striver knows his place.”

Jerry and I set out at the same time the next morning, him up to his car, and me across the two branches of Kimball Creek before a long climb up through a lush, mossy spruce forest. The rain that had loomed in the forecast never materializes, but it is oppressively humid, and I’m drenched in sweat despite a second day of ideal hiking temperatures. Faint views of the lake peek out from the ridge beyond Kimball, and the rising sun paints a band of orange across the horizon between the greys of the clouds and the lake. The trail drops through groves of spruce to Cliff Creek, then passes over a seemingly interminable stretch of peaks and valleys over nine gurgling streams, one of which features a descent so muddy that one can only settle one’s boots into it and slowly ski down, grasping at the trees lining the path for stability.

A crossing of wider Durfee Creek signals the end of this endless up-and-down, and it’s followed by a much steadier up. The reward at the end is a beautiful Alpine meadow with views all along the shore and an array of flowers lending color for the scene. The trail then loses itself in some ridgetop woods, and Woods Creek comes as a mild surprise, its rushing waters audible down below long before I can see it. The trail then plunges 800 feet down alongside the creek, and I stop to reload on water when it makes its way down from the top of the ravine to the side of the stream. I cross Lindskog Road and work my way away from Woods Creek before abruptly coming to the gorge of the Devil Track River.

The North Shore has no shortage of gorges, but that of the Devil Track, I quickly decide, may be its grandest. Red cliffs tower hundreds of feet over the river, and the trail works its way up the east bank with scattered views. The climb up along the ridgetop is the most exhausting of this trek, but a steady string of red pine stands, natural cathedrals that have always been my favorite of northern forests, keep my mind off my burning quads. The trail wraps around a couple of tributaries, beautiful ravines in their own right, and finally plunges down to the river past a pair of excellent campsites, one right on the riverbank and one right across the bridge. I pass some other backpackers eating lunch and have one of my own on a convenient rock beneath some cedars just before the trail rises up again. My delight at this gorge justifies any muddy feet, any forgotten lighters, any lack of sleep. The North Shore restores and redeems yet again.

The climb up a long staircase away from the Devil Track punishes me, but at the top the SHT joins a mercifully smooth ski trail. Half a mile onward I come to a quick spur up Pincushion Mountain, which angles up a sheer rock face and traverses a giant granite dome to offer views in three directions. I find a seat and put pen to paper as I gaze out over the Devil Track gorge, silent from this high up, and back across toward the meadow I traversed a few hours earlier. The breeze here on the exposed dome cools me, and I wander about it freed of my pack to drink it in from every angle. Mission accomplished, I trudge along ski trails for the last 1.7 miles of my trek.

This hike is bookended by devils, the Devil’s Kettle and the Devil Track River, names that my dad guesses are the result of poor Christian translations of Anishinaabe spirits. Devils don’t have a lot of purchase for a religiously sympathetic agnostic clambering past these roiling waters in the twenty-first century, but the concept, when stripped of stereotypical accoutrements like tridents and horns, still has some value. Whether we call it original sin or human nature, our species retains its dark and destructive sides that are difficult to shake, something that no love-is-all-you-need faith nor Silicon Valley change-the-world claptrap nor narrative driven by human power structures alone will ever overcome. Most of us blessed with some capacity for self-reflection can name the things that hold us back; the courage to find our way out remains both our greatest challenge and the transcendent task that makes us human.

Nostalgia is a complicated force, one that can both fuel or drown a life. I decided I wanted to go home out of nostalgia, both to honor a past that was and atone for a past that wasn’t. At times, I’ve achieved it; at others, I still have many miles to go. On to the next campsite, and may it bring me not a plaintive musing, but gratitude over what I’ve found.

In Search of a Millennial Normal

2 Sep

Some novels seem like they’re written with the sole purpose of luring me in, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the greatest recent addition to that category. Normal People does not pretend to be a sprawling social novel, telling us how we live now. Short but precise and easily inhaled in a quick weekend, it tells us how two Irish teenagers lived then, and in so doing, she can speak, if not for a generation, at least for an inwardly-probing and literary-inclined segment of it. Rooney has set the bar for a new wave of writers, and the rest of us need to get our acts together.

If Rooney is a sign of what we millennials will bring to fiction, I have some hope for us yet. Normal People is about two fellow millennials’ interactions between 2011 and 2015, so yes, they send texts and emails and check Facebook and so on, but at no point does it feel like a forced statement on use of technology, or any sort of commentary on how technology is changing lives. It’s just a fact of the characters’ existence, and one gets a sense of how little those details matter up against the more powerful, interpersonal challenges that drive Normal People: love, longing, betrayal, hurt. And while the characters have political lives, Rooney (an avowed Marxist) uses them smartly, and lets them bubble up only when it would make sense for them to appear. (The one digression she does allow, a brief discourse on the political limitations of literature, at least fits with a protagonist’s own struggles.) This is a novel about two people and their relationship, period, and its understatement allows it to say more than an overwrought Great Irish Novel could have.

Rooney’s tightly wound novel is a millennial love story, the on-again, off-again tale of two Irish kids from Carricklea, a fictional town in provincial County Sligo. Connell is a well-regarded, jovial athlete in high school who would rather keep to himself and read books; outcast Marianne is an odd duck rich girl who can’t wait to flee her backwater hometown. Their relationship is fraught by class, as Connell’s mother, Lorraine, cleans the expansive home of Marianne’s icy family. Both lack fathers; Connell’s never figured in his life, while Marianne’s is deceased, and they both bear some scars that their high school social circles will never understand. But Connell and Marianne are the two most driven students in Carricklea, which leads them to find one another and then make their way to Trinity College, Ireland’s most esteemed university. At Trinity their roles begin to shift, as Marianne starts to find her crowd while Connell is suddenly out of his element among the Irish upper crust, his basic decency and quiet smarts unable to attract much attention in the breeding ground of the Dublin elite. The pair struggles to make its way in the world, never formally attached but always drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, united by ties they cannot shake.

Long stretches of Normal People are dialogue, but Rooney eschews the use of quotation marks, a tactic I’m rather fond of: it forces the reader to track it carefully and breaks down some of the barrier between the third-person narration that drives the novel forward into a sort of haze, one that both lulls the reader into the rhythms of Marianne and Connell’s complicated love life and forces one to keep track of who exactly said what. Rooney’s prose rides along with a droll simplicity, and its matter-of-fact statements that belie their own gravity. It’s not hard to picture her as the sharp, snide girl injecting venom from the back of the classroom, and there was certainly a phase when this kid who sees a lot of himself in Connell would have been attracted to her Marianne.

Normal People is a superb bildungsroman, a genre of novel that remains my favorite. It takes young people from a state in which the world’s possibilities open before them through the growing alienation when reality does not match dreams, through times in life when doors begin to close and they must learn who they are, where they come from, and just what they might become. Jaded outsiders will probably always be best at capturing the halls of power, and much like Fitzgerald in New York, Rooney knives through her characters’ social circles in Dublin with a brilliant exactitude. Even as Marianne and Connell bust out of Carricklea, it pulls them both back; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of grief, and finally in something that may begin to approach catharsis.

As any great novel should, Normal People reaches its peak in its final pages, a rush to a climax followed by a struggle toward resolution. For all its world-weary cynicism, for all its characters’ brokenness and painful missteps, it still knows that intimacy is not impossible, that people still have jobs to do in spite of it all. My generation’s great artistic calling compels us to find the shards of a broken sublime, and Sally Rooney does just that.

Active Former Hounds, 2019

2 Sep

Here’s the annual better-late-than-never accounting of former Duluth East hockey players who played post-high school hockey this past season. Stats come from EliteProspects. Asterisks denote early departures.

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* The longest-tenured ex-Greyhound, now 34, continued his career with a fifth season in England, this time with the Glasgow Clan. The longtime enforcer put up 17 points, his highest total of his professional career, which began in 2005-2006. His 178 penalty minutes, while still basically double anyone else on the team, was his lowest ever total as well. The legend lives on for Fitzgerald, whose nephew, Jack Fitzgerald, graduated from East this past spring.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* Fairchild returned to the Russian KHL, his first overseas destination, but only stuck for six games with Riga this past season. He then took his services to KalPa in Finland, where he was reasonably productive. Now 30, the former fourth-round pick has now spent five seasons on the European circuit.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* The former first-round pick completed his third full season in the NHL and continued to log steady numbers despite his Kings team finishing in the cellar. He’s now successfully established himself as an NHLer.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* In other former East defensemen now plying their trade in Southern California, Welinski split his season evenly between the Anaheim Ducks and the AHL’s San Diego Gulls. He had four points with the big club, including his first NHL goal, and 19 in 27 games with the Gulls. He also had a productive postseason run for the Gulls, with 10 points in 16 games as they made it to the semifinals of the playoffs for the Calder Cup.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Like Welinski, Toninato collected his first NHL goal, though he played just two games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2018-2019. He spent most of his season with the Colorado Eagles of the AHL, where he put up a workmanlike 29 points in 57 games. He’s now moved on to the Florida Panthers’ system for 2019-2020.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) Randolph’s first year out of college took him to Jacksonville of the ECHL, where he put together his usual collection of assists and a 20-point season. He’ll now follow in the tradition of Hound headed across the pond and is slated to play in Sweden this coming season.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) Randolph and Toninato’s former linemate also went to the ECHL for his first full season of professional hockey, and put together a strong 32-point season for the Orlando Solar Bears. He’ll be back with them in 2019-2020.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Moore wrapped up his four-year tenure at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a four-point effort. He never put up the big points in college like he did in high school, but put together a strong enough career to get a shot in the ECHL with South Carolina this coming season.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano’s junior campaign at D-III UW-Stout saw him collect a respectable 16 points, which was good for third on his team. He’ll wrap up his college career this coming year.

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano, another of the many Hounds who have made their way to Menomonie, Wisconsin at Stout in recent years, had 11 points in his junior year, his highest total to date. He also dramatically reduced his penalty minutes.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) The Hounds’ old agitator had another strong season at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts, where he finished tied for second on his team with 18 points. He’s got his senior season ahead of him.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) A year after he led all NCAA Division-I defensemen in scoring, Beaulieu was right there again with a strong campaign for Northern Michigan. He logged 35 points in 38 games for the Wildcats, and now heads into his senior year.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp’s junior season at St. Thomas was his best to date, as he settled into a regular role and collected 10 points from the blue line. He even put in a bit of time at forward, demonstrating his longstanding versatility.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann had a quality freshman season for D-III Williams College in Massachusetts, as he finished fifth on his team in scoring with 14 points.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) The younger Altmann brother wrapped up a three-year run with the Minnesota Wilderness with a 14-point effort. He’ll join the D-III ranks this coming winter as he heads to St. Olaf.

Luke Dow (’16 F) Dow had a strong third season with the Wilderness, where he amassed 38 points and wrapped up his tenure as the NAHL club’s all-time leading scorer.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Patience paid off for Donovan, who will be joining his younger brother at Wisconsin this fall. The steady defenseman wrapped up his 3-year NAHL campaign with a solid 16-point campaign for Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and will now add his name to the Hounds’ D-I ranks.

Alex Spencer (’16 D) The Hounds’ big man began his collegiate career by appearing in five games for Wisconsin-Superior.

Reid Hill (’17 D) Hill appeared in just one NAHL game this past season, though he did collect an assist in that appearance with Janesville. He has now made his way to the University of St. Thomas.

Garrett Worth (’18 F) Worth’s post-college debut did not go according to plan, as he failed to stick in the USHL and wandered among three different BCHL teams over the course of the season. There’s too much talent here to waste, though, and he’ll get a crack with Des Moines of the USHL this coming season.

Luke LaMaster (’18 D) The Hounds’ second 2018 Mr. Hockey finalist also had a lost season, though in his case, it was entirely due to injury. The Badger recruit will join Sioux City’s USHL squad for 2019-2020.

Ian Mageau (’18 F) Worth’s compatriot on the Hounds’ top line in 2018 put up 16 points with Austin in the NAHL, and rather than labor on in junior hockey, he’s chosen to head to St. Thomas for the next stage of his hockey life.

Austin Jouppi (’18 F) Perhaps surprisingly, the most impressive post-high school performance from a Class of 2018 Greyhound came from Jouppi, who carried his torrid finish to his high school career through into an impressive 41-point season with Bismarck of the NAHL. His performance earned plenty of accolades, and he’s played his way into a 30-man roster spot with Des Moines of the USHL this coming season, where he could play alongside three former East teammates: Worth, 2019 grad Hunter Paine, and early departure Logan Anderson.

Nick Lanigan (’18 F) Never a big scorer in high school, Lanigan scrapped his way to a very respectable 17-point season with the Magicians of the NAHL.

Will Fisher (’18 D) Fisher bounced around a bit in his first year of high school, as he played 16 games with Bismarck in the NAHL, followed by two with New Jersey and then a six-game stint with the Boston Junior Rangers of the Tier III Eastern Hockey League.

Porter Haney (’18 F) Haney, a part-timer on the 2018 Hounds runner-up squad, put up 31 points with the Rochester Grizzlies of the NA3HL.

Dropping from the list this past season: Jack Forbort (2 years at UW-Stout). Expect plenty of additions to this list next season as well.