The Best Revenge

25 Dec

Due to a double-punch of winter storms, I spent this past Thanksgiving in Duluth. It was the first time I’d celebrated this holiday in my hometown, and while I got together with both of my parents and made do and had some fun, in all honesty, I did not cope well with this deviation from the norm. This gathering of people has become so central to my idea of a good life that I spent the first few unexpected Duluth days in a colossal rut. Warm and pleasant as several smaller-scale events with family and friends were, there was something missing, and it wasn’t the sous vide turkey or the wine from Uncle Mike’s cellar.

One perk to that unexpected Thanksgiving staycation, though, was a chance to catch up on backlogged issues of the New Yorker, both in my preferred print form and in some of the gems from the vault that the magazine sends in regular emails. This time, one of those glittering lights came from “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” a 1962 Calvin Tompkins article on Gerald and Sara Murphy, the people on whom F. Scott Fitzgerald based the glamorous couple at the heart of Tender Is the Night. The Murphys, in Tompkins’ telling, had all of the good qualities of Dick and Nicole Diver in the novel, with none of the tragic descent: that story belonged to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, two mentally unstable strivers. Sara never quite forgave F. Scott for his inventions, though both could recall their time carousing about France with fondness.

While they were deep in the social circles of the Lost Generation, the Murphys did not share the grandiose aims of their artistic friends. Gerald created a few well-regarded paintings but did not produce a large output; his family business back home provided his income, and later became his life’s work. Instead, they sought to enjoy their lives. They surrounded themselves with interesting writers and artists, and they threw the best parties on the Riviera. In sharp contrast to the neuroses of the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways around them, they were dedicated family people and built an idyllic environment for their three young children. They were consistently ahead of the curve, finding corners of France before the American crowds arrived and cruising the Mediterranean on their sailboat.

The Murphys’ dream did not last. Disease claimed two of their children. One of the most celebrated American authors wrote a novel that made them seem unstable. The 1920s European playground curdled into the atmosphere that set the stage for the Second World War. Tompkins’ mention of their arrival by sailboat in fascist Italy has an air of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” an elegy for a golden age mugged by reality. Their world crumbled, but at no point in the article do the Murphys seem bitter over the decline in their privilege. They had lived to the best of their abilities.

Archibald MacLeish, one of the friends in the Murphys’ orbit, called them “masters in the art of living.” That phrase was on my mind this past week as I blurred Duluth life and my annual holiday circuit back through my roots and in to potential futures. I struggle to articulate a better goal, difficult as it may sometimes seem.

The weather cooperated for my annual Christmas travels, and I made it to Chicago for one of my favorite nights of the year, the Maloney family party. It’s a revelation of wine, good company, caroling, and brandy Alexanders, though it’s only the tip of the iceberg for what that sprawling group of people can offer me. Later, with some relatives on my dad’s side, we unearthed the graves of my great-great-great grandparents from the detritus of the ages, a forgotten cemetery plot in a forgotten corner of what is now inner-city Milwaukee. I can now trace the full extent of the Schuettler family tree back to its arrival in eastern Wisconsin 160 years ago, roots of two very different families now clear for the first time. Pride in roots doesn’t always come easily, but when it does, it’s a blessing.

That circuit now complete, I’m back to Duluth life: more hours at the office or on the roads of northeast Minnesota, a world in which I am at least content at the moment; more Duluth East hockey games, where I live out another cycle back into a tight-knit community tied up in my roots. I have a host of friends from afar, many making their own homeward cycles, to see in the coming days. And if I’ve achieved one thing over the past year, it’s been a better job of carving out the time I need to recharge before heading back out to the party. A few trips to the gym, some late-night skis, a dip into a book before bed, my apartment lit up with a few strings of lights that give the season its mood. With any luck, this will be my last Christmas in this apartment: it’s time for the next stage.

As I jogged down the streets of Irving Park and meandered through the mists of the Kettle Moraine and wandered Congdon upon my return home, I made the mental list: I have a new year to ring in and a milestone birthday to plan. I hope to escape to Palisade Valley again, and I have some arenas to pace in the coming days. I have books to read and road trips to scheme, not to mention some more ambitious 2020 goals: a new home, a Sara to my Gerald, and revenge for any lost time with a conscious design, day after day, to live out certain ideals.

Merry Christmas.

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