We’re finally here: the 2019-2020 season begins with its first few games tomorrow night. A preseason podcast and my AA rankings have already made their way out into the world, and my next task is to write a foreword for a book. If you need more hockey coverage to pass the time between now and puck drop, though, here are five storylines as we head into a new decade of high school hockey.
Changing of the Guard? Three perennial State Tournament contenders, Edina, St. Thomas, and Duluth East, have been decimated by graduation and departure; while they will remain relevant to varying degrees, this season has a chance to bring out a lot of new faces. The top teams in St. Thomas and East’s sections, Rosemount and Andover, respectively, have never been to AA State; Edina’s chief antagonists include a Benilde team that has only been twice in AA and a Blake team that’s never been. These aren’t minor transitions, either: every one of those teams is a state title contender in a pretty open race. History tells us the old powers don’t go quietly, but there is a chance at a lot of fresh blood in the AA Tourney this season.
Eagles in Formation? Eden Prairie is #1, and
its collection of star power on the defending runners-up is among the more
impressive out there. The questions begin right after that, though. With Mason
Langenbrunner arriving from Cloquet, Ben Steeves from New Hampshire, and
Jackson Blake up from bantams via Shattuck, there are legitimate questions as
to how this team will jell. There’s also very little varsity experience beyond
their collection of stars. Can they get enough out of some very green depth
players to hold up against the other top few teams, most of which can go at
least three lines deep?
Defense wins championships? The unifying trend
across the top AA teams is the quality of the defense. Headliners like Eden
Prairie’s Luke Mittelstadt (now united with Langenbrunner), Benilde’s Nate
Schweitzer, Andover’s Wyatt Kaiser, and Rosemount’s Jake Ratzlaff will get the attention,
but these teams are all deep in back, capable of rolling two or three pairs and
confident they won’t see a drop-off. Goals could be at a premium in some marquee
matchups this season. And in a year when defense may lead the way, who can get
the most out of their forwards?
The Lake gets deeper For years, the Lake
Conference has been the undisputed cream of the crop in Minnesota, and the
small size of this five-team festival allowed its powers to load up on nonconference
schedules that were always the best in the state. Now, though, things are
changing: St. Michael-Albertville and Buffalo, two interesting though hardly
top-tier programs, have joined the fray. The powers now have smaller
nonconference slates, which creates less crossover and sets up a little more
ranking intrigue; the changes will also spare us three annual Edina-Eden
Prairie meetings. I, for one, am glad to see a new wrinkle in a conference that
tended to feel repetitive by season’s end.
A Class A Slugfest If AA is fairly open
this season, Class A is a different, though equally enticing story: the
front-end talent on the top three teams is the best it’s been in years.
Defending champ St. Cloud Cathedral returns most of its core, Hermantown boasts
Blake Biondi and Joey Pierce, and East Grand Forks has loaded up with some star
young talents and an acquisition from North Dakota. If those three make it
through to semifinal Friday in March, we’ll have a few heavyweight fights to
decide a state title.
It’s not always that easy, though: throw in some added intrigue
up north with rising Warroad, ever-present Thief River Falls, Greenway’s
continued relevance, and a peaking Eveleth group, and we have the makings of
some good races. Outside of steady Mahtomedi, the metro sections of Class A
feel as unsettled as they ever have, which leaves an opening for someone new to
crash the party. My fun pick to watch this season, though, is a North Branch
team that has a shot at being the first seeded team from 5A in its present
As always, follow along as you please and send your thoughts
my way. I’m headed to the Twin Cities this weekend to catch my first few games
of the season, and action in the Duluth area will begin in earnest after
Thanksgiving. See you at the rink!
While The Topeka School aims to render contemporary America in grand moody sweeps, the book I read in conjunction with it, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations, has seemingly more modest expectations. The allegory is more subtle and less grandiose, the language more measured, more matter-of-fact, a believable rendering of characters’ thoughts. Instead, Tilney worms his way into the mind of Ben Weeks, a third-former (high school freshman to the rest of us) at St. James School, a New Hampshire boarding school not-so-loosely based on the prestigious, if sometimes embattled, St. Paul’s. Ben is a sixth-generation SJS student, the son and nephew of prominent school benefactors, younger brother to a freshly minted SJS grad who was something of a campus legend, and an emerging squash star. On paper, he’s the embodiment of the WASP elite.
It would be easy to take a snapshot of Ben as a thoroughly
unlikeable character. He is caught up in an anxious, morally dubious world of
high school social striving, and the closest friends he develops have few
redeeming qualities. For most of the book, he at best offers compromised advice
to Ahmed, his Dubaian roommate with no concept of American social norms; at
worst, he enables other kids’ torment of him. The nagging voice in his head
does nothing to keep him from getting drunk enough to vomit all over the room
in his first month at the school or engaging in any number of other improprieties
large and small. He frequently lies to get out of trouble, and he gets away
And yet Ben retains a tender core. Tilney wallows deep in
Ben’s adolescent brain, an achievement both relatable and exhausting: in any
given moment, his actions make sense, always an effort to find his place in a
harsh social world and a long family history. His bluster always tentative, and
at no point do we feel his heart is in it; he remains sensitive and industriously
tries to make his way through an unforgiving environment. He is overwhelmed by forces
beyond him, struggling desperately to find his own self beneath the weight of
generations of expectations.
Part of the problem is the world in which Ben finds himself.
St. James is caught in a moral paradox best embodied by the St. James
Companion, a book of expectations it gives to its incoming students, a
relic of a different era that still calls students “boys” even though SJS has
long been co-ed. It wants to protect its students from the forces of the world
and teach them humility while preparing them to rule it. The isolation from the
rest of the world it so long enjoyed is beginning to break down amid modern
connectivity. Disciplinary hearings are a farce, tied more to the school’s
image than any sense of justice, an attempt to keep up appearances in changing
times. Ben’s family situation is not what it seems at the outset, and like any
family that finds its social situation fragile, he swiftly develops an anxiety
that his complex social world turns into outright paranoia.
The Expectations is an elegy of sorts for East Coast
old money. That includes its most redeeming qualities: frugality and taste in
the face of gauche free-spending from the likes of Ahmed, its dying moral code
an effort to tame the privilege the SJS kids enjoy. The WASPs aspired to their
virtues, and often those virtues aligned with the best of the American project,
but as that old aristocracy collides with new money and mass democratic
culture, it finds the world has left it behind. The Companion isn’t
relevant for Alice, Ben’s love interest, nor for Ahmed, who irks Ben with his
dismissal of SJS tradition until he suddenly does branch out in a way that
could destabilize Ben’s place at the school. Ben has few qualms about breaking
rules so long as they are in line with the traditions of SJS mischief, but other
forms of impropriety become existential threats.
As with Adam in The Topeka Project, Ben has a smart
but ultimately tragic father and a pillar-like mother, an arrangement that
seems either oedipal or an indictment of a particular era in American
fatherhood. Ben’s mother, a budding academic with a keen and sympathetic
understanding of her son’s motives, is the novel’s grounding force; his father,
meanwhile, is every bit the sorry heir at the end of the line, riding past
glory and fully consumed by a need to keep up appearances. The Expectations is
a more sympathetic rendering of how elite hunger for wealth and power overrides
a veneer of culture than The Topeka School, and for its efforts may
prove an even more searing indictment.
I knew approximately nothing about squash before reading
this book—another sign of WASP decline, perhaps—but the squash portions of the
book are among its most riveting. Squash is both Ben’s escape and a source of
stress, especially as the stakes get higher, and anyone familiar with high-stakes
high school sports (or any such activity) will relish the tale of his struggle,
at once both in search of prestige and cloistered in a narrow world of little
interest to anyone beyond the courts. The SJS squash coach, the aptly named
Manley Price, is probably a good barometer for readers’ reactions to The
Expectations. Readers who relish his efforts to push his students to the
brink probably understand the desire to elegize St. James; those who find him
an over-the-top manipulator will probably want to grab Ben and order him to
head back to his local public school. But if a culture of excellence is to
sustain itself, it needs its manly (or womanly) prices; if there is any virtue
in higher moral codes, they need to have arbiters and norms to maintain those
standards. That tension sits at the core of The Expectations, and the
moral questions it raises are some of the most crucial ones a changing society
has to ponder.
The Expectations is a debut novel, and as a result
has some of the rangy weaknesses of debut novels. Its third-person limited
perspective gives us an exacting portrait of Ben but comes at the expense of
depth for some of the supporting characters. Its occasional tendency to wander
into other brains or offer sudden insights from on high, while sometimes a
welcome break from relentless Ben thoughts, usually rings false; the need to
name-check every 90s brand also drained me, especially as someone who is a bit
too young to find any resonance in many of them. (This may be the point, of
course.) But Ben Weeks is a timeless exemplar of the status struggle of teenage
boyhood, and in the final chapter, when he has nothing left to lose, he starts
to find himself. ‘Let yourself bleed,’ Price tells him, and Ben pays the price
to learn the true nature of the world around him.
My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.
At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the
power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our
world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate
championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent,
rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none
too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics.
(The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter
delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as
dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional
debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the
Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka
called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the
narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the
most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann
Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated
feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with
carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital
relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise
for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of
that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even
if he often failed to see it.
The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to
diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s
imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly
of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony,
an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The
novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the
conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high
school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of
well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and
gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren
Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes
one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire,
Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?
While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,”
Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of
guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so
far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it
suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one
small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While
reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative
analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that
people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say,
is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and
Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted
corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence.
When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is
there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the
mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life,
Lerner finds hope.
I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One
is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade
later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East,
I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character;
maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red
state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka
at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost
concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a
character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it
skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old
Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the
supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious
products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and
Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression
through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally
fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue
ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;”
Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor,
Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product
of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and
culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without
end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad
terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But
I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough
credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we
see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through.
The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.
My second critique, related and more serious, is of the
ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty
twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first
chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the
subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its
vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its
quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary
American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a
simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back
out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the
Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.
First, to explain my silence on local politics to the readers who don’t talk to me regularly: over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the campaign manager for Arik Forsman’s at-large city council campaign. This blog’s ethos has always sought distance from any cheerleading I may do in private, and I much prefer to work with people directly than yell things out at the internet in the hope that doing so achieves things. Now that it’s all over, though, I’ll attempt to step back from my role over the past year and find the bigger picture.
Mayor Emily Larson rolled to a second term, though we always
knew that was going to happen. David Nolle did manage to win four precincts,
all of them in a row along the riverfront out west, from Irving to Fond du Lac.
While political winds blow here and there in many of the other races, Larson
holds a dominant center in Duluth politics. She’s heard some grumbling to both
the left and the right, and her campaign’s efforts to spend a lot of time out
west, knowing it had nothing to lose, didn’t yield stronger outcomes than her even
more lopsided win four years ago. For now, though, the mayoralty is firmly in
her hands, and she has a chance to see results from some of the longer-term
projects that were at the center of her first term, such as the new streets tax
and the medical district.
Elsewhere, however, some cracks in Duluth’s governing
consensus emerged, and they were most evident in the at-large city council race.
A somewhat conservative political newcomer, Derek Medved, paced the field, with
Labor-endorsed incumbents Arik Forsman and Noah Hobbs coming in second and
third. This at-large race was most notable for its surge in bullet voting, with
voters on the left and right choosing only one candidate in the hope of getting
theirs across the finish line. Forsman survived this new tactic, while the
collateral damage in 2019 Duluth was Hobbs, whose low-key style and prolific policy
work didn’t match the moment.
A Trump Era left rejects candidates who aren’t in lockstep with its vision. Mike Mayou, the left’s 21-year-old candidate, ran an interesting jumble of a race, at times displaying some real charisma with soaring rhetoric and at times making unforced errors like 6 AM primary election robocalls. Mayou broke through and seized the DFL endorsement, which seemed to have little short-term benefit but certainly emboldened the progressive wing of the party going forward. His general election performance improved somewhat on his somewhat distant primary showing, but in the end he appeared on a smaller percentage of ballots cast than Rich Updegrove did two years ago; his percentage simply looks a little higher due to all of the bullet voting. One moment he was a “UMD student,” and another he was a “community organizer,” which aren’t mutually exclusive but convey very different things; sometimes he seemed to just follow the incumbents’ talking points, even as some of his supporters trashed Hobbs and Forsman relentlessly on social media. Those supporters will no doubt blame Labor, which did not endorse Mayou, though that argument is difficult to sustain in a nonpartisan race in which one’s candidate is running against two incumbents who have delivered for Labor, and when one’s candidate finishes last among the viable candidates in both rounds; after the primary, I mostly stopped paying attention, as I knew the threat, so to speak, would come from the right. The Mayou campaign seemed an apt mirror for the progressive moment: filled with unbridled passion, devoted to national-level talking points, and at times more fixated on shaming its putative allies than the conservatives whose rise it may unwittingly enable.
A well-funded and organized right, meanwhile, is well-positioned
to exploit the leftward internal warfare. Still, Medved ran a vague campaign
that really didn’t always align with the tighter messaging of his conservative
funders. He won not because he was BizPac’s man (though the money didn’t hurt);
he won because he made himself the face of the west side, and that east-west
divide is increasingly the fault line in Duluth politics. He even won in deep
blue Lincoln Park, and I’m not sure any more money or different messaging would
have made a difference. While Medved isn’t particularly Trumpy, the tribal
loyalty he inspired does have a whiff of national politics to it, and while
both Hobbs and Forsman can claim some working class cred and have taken on
bureaucratic red tape, it’s much easier to come across as pure on such fronts
when one doesn’t have a track record. As a newcomer to politics, Medved now
begins his education in governance.
The district races featured a fascinating mix. Becky Hall, a hard-working also-ran, lost by a substantial margin to incumbent Gary Anderson in the first district, while Janet Kennedy, after twice failing to break through in previous cycles, outworked Jeanne Koneczny in the fifth district. Kennedy improved her performance most notably in the Riverside/Smithville/Norton Park areas compared to her showing against Jay Fosle four years ago and became Duluth’s first African-American city councilor. BizPac’s two district candidates came nowhere near matching its at-large candidate. The third district race, which defied easy categories, saw Roz Randorf pull out the win over Labor-endorsed Theresa O’Halloran-Johnson. The gap closed somewhat after a lopsided primary, but Randorf pulled away with strong showings in the higher-income areas atop the hill and out on Park Point. One presumes Randorf’s loyalties lie more with the leftward core that ran her campaign than her initial BizPac donors, but she offers a potentially fascinating wild card on the council.
On the school board side of the ledger Alanna Oswald proved
resilient, winning a second election against a Labor-endorsed opponent despite
enduring health challenges in the closing weeks of the campaign. Her early work
got her out ahead of challenger John Schwetman, who kept the race fairly
competitive but only won in a high-income east side core of neighborhoods and
in a few of the precincts outside of city limits. Oswald’s cross-cutting appeal
captures both the old Red Plan critics and a new wave seeking to advance
greater equity, and the relative blurriness of school politics allows that pitch
to succeed in a way I’m not sure can work in a council race.
In the district races, two anti-Red Plan crusaders of the
past failed to win, though the margins map on to the traditional east-west
divide in Duluth school politics. Incumbent David Kirby rolled past Harry Welty
in the second district, while over in the third district, Loren Martell had his
best showing in his many races and gave newcomer Paul Sandholm a decent run
despite falling short in the end. Martell carried two precincts, one in lower
Duluth Heights and one on the near East Hillside. Welty has signaled this campaign,
his seventeenth, may have been his last; after a closer call, Martell may yet
give it another go. We are firmly on our path in a new era of school board
politics now, and after crossing paths with some of the newer members over the
past several months, I’m as optimistic about the district’s future as I’ve been
in a while. I look forward to seeing what this group can do with its impending
The past few Duluth election cycles have been dominant for
Labor, which usually found a way to hold broad left-of-center center of Duluth
politics. Its success isn’t some magical formula: over the past 12 years, it’s
coupled union work ethic and business support to back a governing consensus
focused on collaboration and incremental progress. It’s overseen a substantial
rehabilitation of this city’s outward image, surges in investment with no recent
precedent, and incomes rising faster than national averages; while far from
flawless, it’s hard to argue with the overall trajectory. The Labor machine, in
the words of Don Ness, made Duluth politics boring for a spell.
Labor still won a majority of its races in 2019, but there
were some significant defeats and narrower margins. National polarization is
making its way into local politics, and when that happens, the center does not always
hold. As someone who just managed a campaign that made an effort to rise above national
level ugliness one of its core tenets, the end results are not overly
encouraging. But centrism (or center-leftism) for its own sake isn’t an
inspiring platform, and we can talk about “nuance” and “creativity” all day,
but at some point those have to manifest themselves in actual, measurable
results. I know the candidate I worked for is committed to that, and I can only
hope his interesting collection of new colleagues is as well.
In many ways, my job over the past year was easy: the
Forsman campaign was very well-resourced, my candidate worked relentlessly, and
he brought together a deep, strong team with good diversity of thought that
worked as a unit to keep any one task from becoming onerous. I had plenty of
fun with it. At the same time, it was my own education in the rigors of a
campaign and the unexpected twists it can take, and at times a striking
reminder that politics is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure what comes
next for my political life; I’m not one to take deep pleasure at the mere act
of being in the arena, but I do enjoy winning, and the real work, of course, is
what we can achieve after an election. Time to get to work.