Archive | November, 2020

Ferocious Ambivalence

28 Nov

This story is a companion to the eleven-part series that began here and had an additional episode here.

Mark almost ignores the call from his mother. He’s not planning any human contact until Evan and family arrive tomorrow afternoon, and this is not the inspiration he needs as he heads into the wilderness. Her calls tend to be idle recollections of trivial episodes from his youth, or, if she’s had a few hard seltzers, unsolicited relationship advice drawn from her days as an escort. He could do without a seventh telling of the greatest hits. There was the saga of Ronald, the financier with a secret second life in a heavy metal band, and Pedro, who passed her off as his estranged wife to his blind mother; perhaps this time she’ll linger on Jack One, the effeminate mobster, or Jack Two, who had a fetish for socks. At least the sock story is mildly funny. Maybe he could use something mildly funny? He answers the phone.

A chorus of wails greet him on the other end.

“Mom? Mom, come on. What is it?” After three minutes of incoherence, she finally forces the words out.

Her breast cancer diagnosis should be a shock. She’s only 53, a generation younger than many of his friends’ parents, to say nothing of her late ex-husband. But for Mark, it seems like only the next logical signpost along this entropic highway. He knows the road well. He seeks out the off ramp, even as he knows her bleating will force a new route for what was supposed to be a meditative vacation.

Mark’s soothing tones do little to slow her tears, but he knows she just wants to hear his voice. His mere presence has always been enough. She’d never been entirely comfortable around him after her cute, pampered boy became a hard-edged teenager, complete with his father’s ruthless streak. But she’d never said anything about that, never dared question him to his face. In a rush, he realizes how much he loves her in spite of it all: she let him be a total shit in high school, imposed no curfews, bought him booze, trusted his ability to keep himself under control even as he spewed angst back at her every chance he got. She was unconditionally supportive of anything he did, and he knows how much pride she took in telling her backwoods boyfriends about her Yale grad Wall Street son. She omits any mention of his father in this story, an oversight that both makes her look like a superhuman mother and Mark a much more self-made than he actually is. It’s a convenient lie for both of them.

“Take good care of yourself. Sounds like they caught it early. You’re in good hands. If you’re ever not happy with what you’re getting, I’ll get you something better. And send me all the damn bills, of course.”

His mother sniffles. “You don’t need to do that.”

“Of course I do. Dad screwed you over, you know that. Least I can do is use some of his old money to keep you alive.”

Silence. He thought she’d like that dig. Mark casts about for the right words.

“I’ll swing through before I head back to New York.”

He can hear his mother warming on the other end of the line. “That would be great.”

Mark eases her worries to a halt so he can hang up. After a giant exhale, he tosses the car door open and surveys a trailhead deep in the worn-down open hills of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The lot is empty aside from him, and a few coyotes call in the distance. Dusk already looms, and he has to hustle to find a backcountry spot to pitch his tent. He pulls the straps on his pack into place, cocks the cap on his head, and hefts a water jug out of the trunk and into his arms. This will do. He locks the car and trundles along the banks of a dry wash, his eyes fixed on a distant gully that will serve his purposes.

In her own way, Hope Salonen Brennan’s story is far more impressive than that of any girl Mark has ever dated. She’s worked her way up, put herself in elite circles in New York, somehow made an investment banker with a wife and three kids believe he’d be happier with this uncouth Finn from northern Minnesota. She’d even had the good sense to escape his clutches when she saw what he was. Sure, her climb had been an unsettling one as she sold her own body in higher and higher circles of Wall Street wealth, but how unique did that really make her? The Brennans’ ancestral fortune had probably been built on sold bodies in one way or another; hadn’t his dad said something about ties to the British East India Company? Mark’s own additions to that ledger are filtered through a few institutions of polite society, but he has no illusions about what goes on lower down on the food chain. She’d gamed the system and won, and he should be proud of her.

He thinks back to a time in high school when he’d had Evan over for a couple of beers. It was a tame night, just two friends escaping the drama to imagine a more worldly. His mother stumbled in from a girls’ night and thrust her protruding breasts in Evan’s direction, left him with some advice: you’re a cutie, Evan, but you roll over too fast. You need to make them beg. Make them show you they’ll give you what you want. Know that you’re the one in control. She reached in and fluffed up his hair, kissed him on the cheek, and strode away with a ravishing backward glance.

Mark has never forgotten that look in Evan’s eyes, both queasy and hungry, a first great temptation for the friend Mark had only ever known to exude sainthood. Evan’s wide eyes somehow captured everything Mark ever felt about his mother, and for the first time, he understood what his father had seen in her. He’d bumped his knee on the table in shock, but she was too drunk to notice his revelation. He and Evan turned away from each other in shame. They never spoke of that night again.

The sun wakes Mark as it pours up his valley the next morning. He lies in his tent and listens to stray bird calls, closes his eyes, and lingers in bed for the first time in months. Evan would describe this experience in metaphysical terms, a tale of being one with the land, his Minnesotan pagan rite. Mark has absorbed enough of his friend’s ritual that he subconsciously follows suit, filters it through a few related Brennan family instincts: that hunger for exploration, for conquest, or at least some place where he can get away from the short-selling leeches, the loveless sex. He’s always attributed those instincts to his father, but now he realizes they’re just as much his mother’s story, too. The three of them shared a quest for purity, for rebirth, and while they may not have found that in their many escapes, they’d at least stripped away the worst of what came before. Mark pours his coffee, gazes out at the badlands of the Little Missouri, says what the fuck to himself and tips in a splash of bourbon. He grins as he takes a deep sip.

He wonders if his mother ever expected to find real love when she went to New York. At turns she seems both naïve and ruthless, a believer in happily ever after and a fighter who knew to look out for herself. Has his own pursuit been all that different? He runs through the litany of his most serious prospects: Jackie, Victoria, Magda, Amelia, Indira, Amy. All these could-have-beens that never came to fruition, some reason or another they came up short: too caught up in the past, too boring, too cautious, too ruthless, too career-driven, too put off by that monster ego or that New York drive or that contrarian Midwestern rootedness.

They were all probably mistakes anyway. Not one of them was right. Is that belief an acknowledgment of a hard truth or a symptom of a perfectionism that plagues everything he does? He trails on through the failed endgames: a walk down a wooded trail, a stolen moment in a kitchen at a graduation party, a backward glance on a Nantucket beach, amid a downpour on the steps of St. John the Divine, at a drunken post-finals party. Now, the most recent addition to the saga, the most mundane, on his couch in his new place in Westchester, a palace far too large for a single man and yet she was not the one to help him fill it and he told her so and that was that.

Mark flew into Rapid City at the start of the trip to spend a night with an old high school friend named Jake. Back in their glory days, Jake had been a deeply earnest kid who nonetheless attached himself to athletes like Mark in a tentative search for a party. He’d written a fawning profile of Mark in the school paper their senior year, one that articulated Mark’s blueblooded panache in a way that had both tickled his ego and made him more conscious of the nobility that came with the Brennan name. Mark followed from a distance as Jake chased his dream in journalism, and for the past year his old friend has embedded himself on the Pine Ridge Reservation to send dispatches to the learned classes.

Jake shows up in mismatched flannels and with a scruff all over his face, a disheveled look with no resemblance to the pretty boy Mark remembers from high school. They still get along amiably, but every time Mark tries to turn the conversation to a mundane concern, some question about his writing method or his girlfriend back in Minneapolis, Jake always finds some way to turn his life into some stilted microcosm of their cultural zeitgeist. Maggie’s apartment in Minneapolis may have flooded last month, but it has nothing on the trailer he now occupies near Wounded Knee; their last trip together, to New Orleans, underscored the ongoing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow; reflections on his career path and college life lead to expositions on college debt and the decline of traditional media. Mark can hold court on all of these subjects if he so desires, but he looks at this man in front of him and can’t see any trace of the kid who used to sketch out classification systems of their high school’s girls in the lunchroom. The absence of the old Jake jars him. In a last-ditch effort he asks after Jake’s parents, but this too just brings out grumbles about how they sit glued to their TV every night and don’t read his work.

“They at least still reading the paper? I bought a stake in it, it you know.”

“I don’t think—wait, what? No way. Are you working on that a lot?”

“Not really. Just trying to give it some life and editorial direction. Let the reporters do their jobs.”

“I knew you had money. But not that kind of money.”

“My dad died a few years back. I came into some. I invested a lot in pet projects like this. Not big returns. Happy to break even.”

“Wow. Why not just coast and live off of that?”

“My dad did a lot in his life that I’m not proud of. Trying to make up for that, as much as I can, and put that money to use.”

“But you still work for…”

“Yeah, I do.”

“How’s that any better?”

“I never said it was. Anyway, if you wanna move home, I can probably get you a reporting job.”

“I…” Jake breaks off, perplexed. “I—thanks. Really. Hadn’t even considered something like that. And Maggie’s a city girl. But—I’ll consider it.”

“Consider it a standing invite. Duluth could use you.”

Jake seems unsettled, but Mark isn’t sure what else he could have done. Pretended he isn’t who he is? Perhaps just sat and listened, a fly on the wall? Jake is full of gut-wrenching tales of reservation life, and before bed that night, Mark slides some funds he’d earmarked for a New York charter school into a scholarship fund for Pine Ridge kids. But that raw empathy has never been his specialty, his power-as-birthright certainty once again colliding with his desire to dismiss opinions as the province of the unwashed masses. Give him either a chance to solve the problem or accept that he won’t burden himself with things beyond his control.

Mark leaves his encounter with Jake puzzled. In every way he admires his friend for his work, meant everything he said about becoming his patron. But Jake has made Pine Ridge his cause célèbre, while Mark knows that, as much as he may now contribute, he can always walk away from it, or anything else. He has no Pine Ridge in his life.

A storm brews on the horizon, a looming tempest that threatens to cut down Mark’s planned hike. He battens down the hatches on his tent, nervously tests the slack on the stake lines in the crumbling dirt, and tuck his gear in beneath the leeward side of the rain fly. He considers a run for his car, but is a veteran enough hiker to know not to tempt a storm. He stands atop a nearby rock to watch its advance, retreats only when the first drops start to fall, and zips himself in. The wind rips at the tent, does everything in its power to tear it up from the ground. He splays out his body to hold in all in place, his breaths coming sharply as he tests the corners for incoming water. When he’s confident it will hold in place her curls up into a ball, a fetal coil here in this lonely wet womb.

Solitude does not suit Mark. It never has, even if he’s lived alone most of his adult life. That image of his father fading toward death in his clifftop fortress is too visceral, far too close to home, and that nightmare looms up before him again now. He can never be that. But he can’t stay on the run, either, out into more distant wilds and lonely prairies. Evan will make sure of that. His old friend can’t arrive soon enough.

The drive north from Rapid City had been bleak, as he’d expected. The open plains and endless road he can do; the shock comes when he stops for dinner in Belfield, North Dakota. He finds himself at the end of a bar opposite a drunk clump of oil field boys at least five years younger than him, decked out in Carhartts and trucker hats and Confederate flag belt buckles, constantly reaching for their tins of dip. At some point in his life, Mark thinks, he would have seen them as a potential conquest, a proving ground for a slick city boy to slide in and go drink for drink with these people from a different world. He’s done it in Detroit and Nepal and half of Europe; these boys bear some resemblance to some relatives on his mom’s side of the family. But after Jake’s tales of Pine Ridge, he cannot in good conscience put on that blithe bravado. Indira had called Mark the poster child for the privileged patriarchy, but his ever-probing, hungry style has nothing in common with these misogynistic tools. Or is that only wishful on his part? Either way, he has never felt as foreign in his own country as he does on that bar stool in that moment.

Mark has started hanging out with politicians. His dad always told him not to, but then, one of his first contacts was the son of his dad’s ex-associate, a New York Republican Party functionary. What better way to honor Preston Brennan than through hypocrisy? Mark enjoyed toying with the kid, a pudgy hothead two years younger than himself who’d simply assumed Mark was red meat. Mark can speak the language well enough, and saw a much faster road to prominence here than on the left, but he walked away repulsed by this profit-hungry devotee to a losing cause.

A meet-and-greet with Manhattan Democratic activists left him with the opposite impression: the attendees were legion, eager to spread their gospel, and company he struggled to keep. One had recoiled when he gave his employer, though they was all too happy to let Mark pick up their tab. Another, who assumed he was gay, lectured him on how his career destroyed Black bodies, and it took all of Mark’s self-control to avoid telling him that he’d seeded an urban farming microfinance operation in Detroit and a vaccination drive in Senegal. Who in this group could claim to have done so much, he stewed as he donated another ten thousand dollars to the vaccine drive with a few casual flicks at his phone’s screen. Score one for his reserve.

Mark was born in the wrong era. In the past he’d have been the ideal inheritor of the Kennedy or the Roosevelt mantel, a traitor to his class; for that matter, he could have at least worked with a Bush. Now, though, noblesse oblige seems a lost cause. The masses have the power but none of the wealth, and what’s a good, old-fashioned aristocrat to do?

“You could renounce it all and become a radical,” says Lezlie, his work life confidante. “If the Democratic Socialists are a step too far to you, you could at least go all Gandhi on us.”

Mark snorts. “Yeah, I’m definitely gonna start fasting and swear off sex.”

“It’s more you than you think, Mr. Wilderness Hiker.”

“My hikes aren’t exactly leisurely strolls in the woods.”

“Fine, I guess. It’s a reach,” she concedes. “And maybe that’s okay. You might be able to do more where you are anyway.”

“Should use some of the inheritance to buy myself a politician or two.”

“I think they come pretty cheap these days, especially if you’ve got some co-investors.”

“Let’s go in on one,” Mark laughs, shaking his head.

“Why do you even want to do this?” Lezlie asks, boring her eyes through Mark’s veneer. “What are you in it for? Guilt over your career, or your dad’s career? That doesn’t seem like your style.”

Mark shrugs. “Guess I just always gotta be that man in the arena.”

“Ever the hockey player, aren’t you?”

“Something like that.” Mark chooses not to share his next thought: ‘Or, at least, I like myself better when I am.’ That’s it, he thinks, ever the self-improvement machine. This was the distinction with Amy, the reason that one too fell short: she loved him for who he was, not who he wanted to be. That current self was fun, but always a step behind the goal.

The rain moves on around noon, and Mark sets out on his planned trek. He marches up a plateau and marvels at the openness, this vast expanse of waving grass without a soul to be seen. He ignores the trail and plunges out across the meadow in no direction in particular, his hyper-awareness just enough to keep him alert but bury his anxieties beneath his immersion of the whole scene. He gets to this point more often than he gives himself credit.

The DeBleekers will arrive later this afternoon. Evan, Brendan, pregnant Bridget in tow, their three-year-old son’s first real road trip and the first time Mark has seen Bridget in over a year. He and Bridget had squabbled a bit after his breakup with Indira—they’d always squabbled a bit, really—and Mark will forever wonder just how different Evan would be if he hadn’t committed so young. Getting Evan alone was always a challenge, and now with Brendan added to the equation, it’s borderline impossible. Even his New York friends, though, are pairing off now, throwing up the same barriers. Has he even aged a day?

Mark orients himself by the sun and starts to pick his way back toward the spot where he parked his car. He’d committed too at that age, he figures, just in a different way. Evan chose a woman; Mark chose a road, one with no real end, a hurtling cycle of ambition and achievement and revelation and subsequent exhaustion or irritability or just plain old annoyance. It seems so small. He reads books of great men, towering midcentury Wasps who shared his pedigree, and occasionally some of his flaws. But even that doesn’t seem to get there. His troubles seem pettier, less attuned to an era when sheer force of reputation and power of will alone can’t do it. Could it ever? Or was that just hagiography, or having an army behind one’s back? Mark can’t be sure, and he sure wouldn’t mind a bit of either. But there it is, a question that needs an answer, and he has summoned the one person he knows who can provide one.

An hour before the DeBleekers are slated to arrive, Mark heads into town and checks into a motel room so he can shower. He decides not to shave, figures he needs to leave some scruff to show he’s been roughing it out here, but otherwise perfects the look. When the call comes, he heads back into the park and meets them in the campground.

“Marky!”

“Evs. Bridge. Bren-Bren.” Mark strides into the campsite and throws an embrace around each of them.

“Ya look good, bro. How’s the stay out in the wilderness?”

“Damn good time. Saw some buffalo. Got to think. Slept like a log. Almost got blown into Saskatchewan in the storm this morning. How was the drive?”

“Smooth enough. Brendan was big into the giant cow.”

“Uncle Marky, it was the biggest cow ever!” Brendan informs him.

“Legit. You get to milk it?”

Brendan scoffs. “Naw. It was so big!”

“Hm. Just remember, dude, you gotta milk things for all they’re worth. I got a present for you.”

“Yeah?”

Mark pulls a stuffed bison out of a bag and tosses it to him. “Named him Teddy. Take good care of him, okay?”

“But he’s not a teddy bear. He’s a buffalo!”

“When you go to bed tonight, tell your dad to tell you about Teddy Roosevelt. And about his buddy John Muir, too.” His eyes flit toward Evan to catch the grin from their inside joke.

“Aw, it’s actually cute,” says Bridget as she rescues the bison before it descends into a mud pit.

“I got some taste sometimes,” Mark shrugs.

“In buffalo, if not in women,” Bridget laughs as she holds the stuffed animal just out of the reach of her jumping son. “Honestly, you’d make a good dad. I’m just thinking of how you’d pour yourself into it.”

Mark hides his shock and channels his best Evan shrug. “Thanks. Someday.”

“Any closer lately?”

Mark mulls his response. “Just let another one go, so I’m gonna go with a ‘no’ there.”

“Why this time?”

“Exactly what you said. She’s not the mom.”

“What’s it gonna take?”

“I’m looking for answers. The bison didn’t have many. But this kid might.”

Bridget beams at Evan, who’s been watching this exchange silently, transfixed. “You two go do your thing. I’ll see if Brendan’s any good at setting up a tent.”

“Sweet. Let’s go.” Mark guides Evan down the roads through the campground and down toward the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri, his usual resolve lost behind a simple smile.

“Bridge was in a good mood.”

“Much as she gets on you sometimes, she really does like you.”

“Prolly knows you bring out the best in me. Even if I lead you into sin and evil sometimes. Guess that’s harder when your kid’s along.”

“Right on all fronts there.” Evan pauses and lets Mark lead him down toward a sandbank along the brown, fast-flowing river. “So what were you saying about me having answers?”

“I need you to level with me. Is the reason I’m like this because I’m…me?”

Evan laughs. “Slow down and rewind, bro. Tell me what’s really on your mind.”

“Nothing you haven’t heard before. Tryna live my life to the max, getting there in most people’s eyes, but still feeling empty. My own giant ego, wanting to run everything, make it all perfect. And because I stay caught up in that shit, I never get to what I really want.”

“And you recognize that.”

“Yep. Every fucking day.”

“Then why don’t you do something? You, of all people…”

“It’s like…when I get to a place where I want to, I’m out of gas. Or I don’t remember till too late.”

“Marky…you taking enough time for yourself?”

“I take plenty. Got my runs, my hikes, my—”

“No, not like that. I mean quiet time. You and yourself. You and—”

“Bro, I’m an extrovert. That’s not how I process.”

“It’s not that simple. We all need other people time and we all need ourselves time. No matter where we are on that spectrum. And you do need to pause. To lose yourself. Remember that Marky you want to be.”

“Problem is, I’m less sure than ever what that means.”

“You really? I think you’re getting there, mostly. Look at what you’ve done with your money, with your career, with your new place…you are getting somewhere, I think. And you’re mostly good with all that, right?”

“I am. But let’s not pretend this picture ain’t missing things.”

“Course not. That’s why you have to ground yourself. Remember that.”

“I mean, what do you think this trip is?”

“Just make sure it’s not some manic chase across the prairie. I know you too well.”

“Aw, fuck off.” Mark grins in spite of himself. “Here’s another way to put it. I want to be free. I’ve never felt free. Not really. I had so much pressure of expectation.”

Evan bends over and skips a stone across the Little Missouri. “Funny. In a way I don’t disagree. It’s been heavy on you. But you also love standards. That, let’s be honest, that kinda snobby end goal. Even when you lived with your mom, who let you do whatever. And I don’t think you should disown that.”

“Do you see a tension between that and freedom? Or do I just have daddy issues?”

“It’s not totally smooth, I don’t think. But I can’t see supercool Mark on the beach just chillin, ruling his world, and not think of you as free.”

Mark grins again. “Yeah. Yeah, I like that.” He brushes his hair into place and wanders on ahead of Evan, savoring the idea of that beach life freedom.

Mark’s mind flits back to the Nantucket house. (Is he wandering more than ever before now?) Last year he’d bought one of three shares in it along with two of his half-siblings when his dad’s first wife finally sold it. ‘I’m not him,’ he’d been careful to tell the original Mrs. Brennan in her retirement lodge along the Hudson. He showed her pictures of him with his mom, of his wanderings with Evan, of him with whichever love interest he’d had at the time. She didn’t need to know that part, and since there was no other potential partner to keep the house in the family, no one tried too hard to correct the record.

Yes, he feels free there, though sometimes thanks only to alcoholic oblivion. He thought Amelia would show him true freedom on the beach, but since that failure, he’s been loath to burden his funhouse with anything serious. He’s never been one to allow a failed relationship to tarnish his memory of a place; maybe he’s just reached a point where he’s too cynical to even bother setting the stage for anything serious.

He’d run into Amelia again recently at a wedding reception for a mutual friend in the Hamptons. She was with a bearded hipster who did content curation, whatever that was; she caught Mark’s otherwise imperceptible eye roll and smirked at him, gave a little head-nod that said, ‘I’ll see you later.’ He’d failed to hide his grin, and they found each other later along the pier at the far end of the lawn.

“How long have you had Blackbeard the Pirate there?” he’d said by way of greeting.

“We met maybe two months after you and I moved on. Hooked up and the rest was history.”

“Hitched yet?”

“It’s a matter of time. I’ll invite you if you want. I’ve got the balls for that and he won’t give a shit.”

“Depends on the venue, you know I’ve got standards there. I’m flattered, though. I’m the last finance bro you dated? Figured you needed some nice boytoy as your real soulmate after all that shit?”

“You know, I’d never thought of it that way, but you might be right.”

“Hurts me to admit it, but I had you pegged wrong. Thought you wanted power as much as I did.”

“Think I don’t have it in this relationship?”

Mark snorts with laughter. “I guess if you’re happy with a one-way street…”

“I appreciate not doubling down on the neuroticism.”

“An instinct I’ll never quite understand.”

“I guess we just weren’t meant to be.”

“We weren’t. Though I’m still proud of Nantucket.”

“Never had anyone roll it out for me quite like that.”

“The things I do for love.”

“Doesn’t seem to be working, unless you’re hiding someone.”

“Am I wrong, to be as demanding as I am?”

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

“I do sometimes get second opinions.”

“Yeah. You always had that side. And I admire that in you.”

“But only so much.”

“But only so much.”

“What are you thinking?” Evan asks. They’ve come to the end of the sandbar and have no choice but to turn back.

“Off on some girl that got away, as usual.” If there’s one thing he can’t share with Evan, it’s his tortured love life. For all his friend’s empathy, this is a world Evan does not know. He wants to ask Evan what he thinks of the Jake episode, of his dabbling in politics, if he can picture Mark firing up a crowd or playing out his cutthroat game in the public eye. But he already knows Evan will be supportive of anything he suggests, will find ways to work past any blocks he faces, and he’s not sure he’s worthy of that confidence. Better to say nothing at all than drive up false hope. He kicks at the ground, scuffles his feet. When did he become this weakling afraid of his own potential glory?

“It’s more than that. I can tell,” says Evan after a while.

“Meh.”

“Goddamn, spill it, Marks. I come chase you all the way down in North Dakota…”

“Hey, I chased you down in Nepal once. You owed me!”

Evan grins. “What a trip that was. I mean, I loved every moment of it, the mountains, the monasteries…but my favorite part was probably seeing you come rolling in to Tengboche and holding court liked you’d been there a thousand times before…”

“I was thinking about that the other night. How awesome it was to cut completely loose from the outside world for that long. And then, of course, I got back to civilization and found out my dad was in hospice.” He pauses. “My mom just got diagnosed with cancer.”

“Aw, shit.” Evan wraps an arm around Mark’s shoulder and shakes him gently. “No wonder…”

“No wonder what?”

“It explains a lot. About why you’re here. Why you’re back in Nepal in your mind. Why you feel the way you do.”

“I don’t exactly hide it when I brood, do I?”

“Gotta ride the waves, Marky.”

“That’s what I do every day. I mean, my life is all perpetual motion. Isn’t that what your red friends would tell me? The late-stage capitalist in his element…”

“I think you have more socialist friends than I do when you have those artists over.”

“Yeah, you Minnesotans at heart are too boring to be revolutionaries.” Mark laughs and shakes himself out from under Evan’s arms. He fishes at his pockets and grimaces. He’s left the flask behind.

“You keep trying to build this image of yourself as the hard-ass rich fuck, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure that’s you at all. Maybe just…let it go.”

“So what should I do? Quit my job? Give it all away tomorrow?”

“No. None of that. Maybe just start by acknowledging that you are who you are.”

“I’ve never believed I can just throw away part of who I am. We’ve talked about this.”

Evan shrugs. “You said you wanted to find freedom.”

“I’m…” Mark trails off. “Problem is, I don’t know what that means.”

“Maybe, as you ride the wave, you need to seize it.”

“I’m sure you’re a master surfer, Mr. Metaphors.”

Evan turns away to hide his blush.

“What?” Mark demands.

“Nothing.”

“Your turn to spill it.”

Evan turns away from Mark and walks off the dirt path and into the tall grass, still damp from the morning’s storm. He toys with a few of the nearest blades and turns around.

“You remember those people who used to surf off Stoney Point in big storms on the lake?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m…a low-grade celebrity in that group.”

“Shit. No fucking way. You? Really?”

“Learned a little as a kid on those California trips. That’s why I went back there a few years back. Dabble when I can on the shore.”

“I don’t believe it. What does Bridget think?”

“She has no idea. My old board just lives in the garage. Easy enough for me to sneak it out and come up with excuses.”

“I’m…fuck. Who else knows?”

“I’ve been doing it for fifteen years and you’re the first person I’ve told. I don’t ever talk to anyone when I’m out there. Don’t go if there’s a crowd. I’m just the mystery dude.”

Mark splutters. “Bro, that’s fucking awesome. So much makes sense now. Why the hell did you have to hide it?”

“It was…just my thing, you know?” Evan gives a very Evan shrug, folds his arms, and wanders back to Mark’s side. He scrutinizes him closely and sees something he’s missed for too long in those eyes, that unburdened delight he’d chased halfway around the globe. Mark drops his head into Evan’s shoulder and throws his arms around him, and Evan stands in stock-still shock as Mark chokes up. He returns the embrace, pats Mark on the back, looks out at his taller friend, his eyes drawn tight in a tearless sorrow.

“I’ve got you. You’ll get through this,” Evan murmurs.

Mark closes his eyes, exhales, and pulls back so he can look Evan in the eye. “Getting through is fine. I got that down. But I want to do so much more than that.”

Evan opens his mouth to counter Mark’s demand for achievement. He wants to calm him, remind him yet again that there’s another way. But this, he knows, is not Mark’s wave.

“And you will,” he says. “Look at what you’ve got behind you. Look at everything you know. You got all the tools you need. You will.”

“I just need the will.”

They head back to the campsite, where Bridget has wrestled the tent into place in spite of Brendan’s help. They cook a dinner over the fire and let the child divert them from any heavy thoughts, and the DeBleekers, drained from a long day on the road, crash after a brief, non-alcoholic nightcap. Mark gives himself a second splash of bourbon and wanders down to the river again, but chooses to go no further. This is enough, he thinks, and for the first time all week he stems the tide of nonstop drifts into the past. The past provides wisdom, but wisdom alone is no agent of change, of new beginnings, of instinct on Evan’s waves.

No: he needs to be free again. Not free like Brendan, untroubled by the weight of his home in the world, but freed by belief his capacity for change, to twin dream and reality, to make good on some promise that lurks beneath all these visions he pulls from the past. He turns his eyes up to the stars and digs for the charts he’d been careful to memorize before his last hike with Evan, that flair of brilliance he’d stashed away strictly to show off but now, as he gazes upward, allows him to recover his awe. His pursuit has freed him yet again.

Sad

15 Nov

One story of the past decade of my life has been a general failure of an attempt to escape the highs and lows of national politics. I’ve spun this yarn on this blog before, from the moment I realized I could be free in a park in Mexico City ten years ago to an attempt to say goodbye to all that at the start of the Trump Administration. I made halting progress at times, especially when events closer to home came to fill my life. But in 2020, that endless mirror of a Zoom call that forces us to stare at our faces and contemplate our warts, an election day that turned to an election week forced me to use every weapon in the arsenal in an attempt to stay sane. It worked, at the price of exhaustion that has carried through for another week.

The outcome of the 2020 election was clear enough from the moment the New York Times’ Needle, that data-mining triumph and harbinger of doom, flipped on Georgia on Tuesday night. The eventual result was clear by Wednesday morning, even though it took three more days for the networks to declare a winner. The polls have taken a justified beating for their inaccuracy, but the data people—especially, I think, when one leaves aside their attention-grabbing probability numbers and focuses instead on what they write—were otherwise by far the best sources of information as the count dragged on. The two sage Nates, Nate Cohn of the Times and Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, laid it out clearly. The count was a simple math problem, and every piece of evidence showed that it would not be kind to Trump.

And yet, somehow, I couldn’t stop the endless refreshes in search of new results or interpretations. It was addicting, an endless string of hits off a drug. Part of it was the fact that I faced most of this alone: sure, my phone was blowing up incessantly, but there was no one right in front of me to distract me. Part of it is pent-up quarantine energy, restless at the tedium of life at home. In my work circle, a tacit pact emerged to enable this mindset: show up to your meetings and perform your basic tasks, please, but we don’t expect much more of anyone this week. We’re all in this together.

A descent into political obsession wasn’t all negative. My knowledge of the random county names across the U.S. has grown exponentially. The Twitters on my doom loop were universally insightful, with deep knowledge of random pockets of the country and instant, sharp analysis. At certain times of day, I learned to pull up the Twitter feed of a guy in Arizona with the avatar of The Count from Sesame Street who crunched numbers quickly. (“I cannot be stopped,” The Count calmly replied, after Trump emitted one of his “STOP THE COUNT!” tweets.) The endless stream of memes added some much-needed levity, with anything involving Nevada or Gritty taking the cake; the Four Seasons Total Landscaping adventure, meanwhile, will give me reason to chuckle years from now. I connected with old friends here and there, and enjoyed a socially distanced exhale on Saturday when our fate was, finally, sealed. Well, at least it was if you don’t live in the Trumpian fantasyland of unexamined conscience.

A lot of people thought Donald Trump was a descent into authoritarianism, and while he sometimes acted the part, it was only ever that: an attention-consuming act. Instead, his presidency was defined by weakness. It was a world-beating marketing campaign elevated by the puffed-up rhetoric favored by people whose self-confidence vastly outweighs their competence. Trump was never a third-world strongman: he was a reality TV imitation of one. His flaccid performance showed both the enduring power of American institutions and the overwhelming power of the entertainment complex to smother everything else.

The hoopla masked both the ineptitude and some of the more interesting nuanced achievement. We’re still waiting on that Obamacare replacement and that infrastructure package. The only major policy win was a milquetoast tax cut that any Republican could have pushed through, and Trump had the fortunate timing to get himself three Supreme Court picks in four years, while most recent presidents got two in eight. His foreign policy has been an incoherent slop, but it has avoided any catastrophic blunders and at times achieved some qualified successes. His trade policy likewise has proved a useful, if scattershot, corrective to the free trade bromides that dominated the previous quarter century. There’s reason to believe a more nuanced trade policy could be a point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. The economy, which is usually beyond a president’s control, was good until it wasn’t, thanks in part to the Republicans’ drift away from their longtime fiscal and free trade orthodoxy. I expect them to rediscover it under the Biden Administration, but there is now potential common ground on a more middle-class friendly economic policy that didn’t exist four years ago.

If that were the extent of Trump’s legacy, it would be judged as fine, perhaps on par with other one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George Bush: a vital corrective to certain excesses, perhaps doomed by its heterodoxy and outside forces. But what will endure from the Trump Era is not any policy, but the scorched-earth warfare that politics became. It didn’t start with Trump, but it accelerated rapidly under him, enabled by the virtual world we increasingly inhabit: a barrage of tweets and own-the-libs raging that stayed relatively peaceful but opened the door to something different in the future. The left, in its sloppy and infighting-plagued and characteristic panic-over-anger fashion, responded in kind. American politics is now a battle between a Republican Party with no interest in being right so long as it wins and a Democratic Party with only a passing interest in winning because it must be right all the time.

The United States’ two major parties right now are reflective of a society scared of losing what it has built, scared of losing its culture, whether it’s that of a white settler nation with its myth of frontier liberty or a liberal empire bestride the world. Trump had a core of true believers who lapped up his rallies, but the vast majority of Trump voters I know are instead longtime Republicans who find the guy somewhat ridiculous but are willing to tolerate that because he more or less supported the causes that made them Republicans in the first place. (If you think abortion is murder or are scared Democratic policies are going to kill the industry that supports you or just value holding on to your own money above all else, a few nasty tweets aren’t a big price to pay.) The Biden campaign was perhaps an even more potent vessel of negative partisanship than the Trump campaign. It didn’t really matter what Biden stood for; it just mattered that he had the best odds of beating the other guy, which he did. Such is life under an empire teetering at the end of its apogee, at times calamitous but more often just decadent.

The coronavirus pandemic, for what it’s worth, did not prove much of a boost for Biden. Even people who know it’s bad just seem exhausted with it all now, few more so than those with kids. After reading of how low-income kids are falling through the cracks more than ever before and the extent of the mental health burden on kids who have lost their most formative years, I’m sympathetic to a desire to wish it all away. We live in dark times, and there will be lasting scars for many of us, especially our young. It is a great loss. But the fact that Trump’s approval did not rise, even as those of some relatively incompetent governors did, shows the emptiness of his effort. With leadership focused on resolve, we might have risen up united, as has happened in places like Germany or South Korea; clear expectations and national preparations could have at least this entirely predictable fall eruption. Instead, we got some tweets. Previous generations endured rationing, drafts, and mass mobilizations to endure wars with a vision of a better world; in 2020, people revolted at the notion that the government might tell them they need to wear a piece of cloth in public. That cue, of course, came from the figure at the top, not authoritarian but feeble and shallow, self-image elevated over real life, an American celebrity culture home to roost.

Given the polling errors, it is hard to know what exactly tipped this election. Biden surged in the polls after Trump bungled the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, but “defund the police” proved an effective talking point in the Republicans’ favor, particularly (and paradoxically, given their distance from urban unrest) among the rural white people who the polls missed again. A not insignificant number of Hispanics are religious and found something to like in the Trump economy and, as a reminder, came to the U.S. for a reason, and as such may be less inclined to view it as the sin-steeped failure that a binary discourse on race relations implies. Biden, meanwhile, enjoyed the suburban surge that turned Georgia and Arizona blue, and did enough to stop the Democratic bleeding in the Midwest. The race was remarkably stable in polls, suggesting that opinions on Trump and Biden (and, let’s be honest, it was mostly Trump) were baked in so long ago that no manner of outrage over 2020 could change much.

One theory that fits with this narrative suggests that, since polls about a year ago were pretty much spot-on, the virus didn’t change many votes, but it did change who responded to polls. With so many liberals stuck at home and more willing to socially distance, a group of people suddenly had the free time or flexibility to respond to answer phone calls or join the ranks of the Very Online. Once there, they became more and more ensconced in their algorithmic circles, deprived even of the brushing interaction with different swaths of the country. Oh, how I have felt this drift in my own life into that virtual realm over the past few months, an unwitting necessity that has had the expected consequences, even for someone well-attuned to the dangers.

A move away from a virtual life won’t cure all that ails America in 2020, least of all the virus that is now ravaging the American Heartland at unprecedented levels. But avoiding that path of least resistance can tamp down somewhat on the anxiety that comes with it, and it can offer something other than the echo chamber: perhaps some new pursuits, perhaps some dives back into old ones, perhaps some reckonings with the chambers in one’s own mind. National politics will lurch along, and I now accept that I won’t ever fully escape it. Nor should I want to: I am a political animal, and I have the tools to keep it all in perspective, to put my foot on the scales here and there.

And with any luck, a Biden Administration will feel somewhat less existential in its stakes. Four years of politics as a TV series culminated in a story to save for the grandchildren, a week I’ll never forget. But after it, I am ready to return to the joys and sorrows and the exhilaration and the tedium of good, old-fashioned reality.

2020 Election Quick Takes

4 Nov

As of this writing, Joe Biden appears to have leads in enough states to earn at least 270 electoral votes in spite of some substantial polling errors, which would allow him to edge past Donald Trump and become the next President. The Democrats’ hopes for winning the Senate, meanwhile, appear to be slipping away, and their majority in the House of Representatives looks likely to shrink a bit, but remain intact.  A lot is still up in the air, but I can’t resist the urge to play Wednesday morning quarterback some, and venture a few conclusions:

Trump is a unique force in American politics. He turns out his base like no other, thereby consistently outperforming his polls. The fact that we didn’t see this in the 2018 midterms suggest it is very much a top-of-the-ticket effect. Love him or hate him, he has completely re-scrambled American politics. It further underscores the power of charisma from the top, as Democrats saw in the Obama years as well.

Even if this is it for Trump—and I’ll have more to say on the subject if it is—these results clearly aren’t a decisive rejection. What that means depends on what exactly Trumpism is without Trump. Is it all about style and personality, or is it more of a shift in the Republican Party toward being the party of the working class? For that matter, he might not be going anywhere, since this one has been so close.

American cultural divides are deeply entrenched, and the result is, for all the insanity, stability. 2020 did everything it could to throw wacky wrenches into the race: coronavirus, racial reckonings, social unrest, Supreme Court drama, and on and on. And yet, so many things seem to be reverting to the norm. After Trump’s major inroads in 2016, Minnesota lurched strongly to the Democrats in 2018, but now seems to have found a middle ground, with some of the 2018 margins sliding back: solid, increasing urban Democratic majority offset by some gradual Republican gains further afield. Minnesota remains a divided state, though at a statewide level, it remains the Republicans’ white whale. Wisconsin seems to be mirroring its narrow Democratic win in 2018 as well. At the end of the day, most people are so locked in to their cultural categories that there isn’t much room to move in American politics. Only charismatic changes at the top seem to overpower the near-stalemate, and that only briefly.

The blue suburban swing is more of a gradual shift. The Democrats will most likely have gains in suburbs to thank if Biden does pull this off, but it’s not a tidal wave. They’re losing some of the house seats they won in 2018, and here in Minnesota, we’re seeing Republican gains in the state legislature. We should, if it wasn’t already obvious, be able to put the old narrative of the emerging Democratic majority to bed. 2008 and 2018 are high-water marks in our current alignment, not harbingers of a new permanent majority. The Democrats may continue to make gains in certain areas, and on the whole their position in American politics, with victories in the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, is the stronger one. But there is almost always an equal and opposite reaction to victories in one place somewhere else, sooner or later. This is, of course, how the rules of the game pretty much work in a two-party system. And, on a related note:

Current discourse on the left about race and ethnicity is inadequate. After four years of Donald Trump, one demographic category where Biden has clearly outperformed Hillary Clinton is…white men. This, of course, may say something about gender politics. But the lede in this election seems to be Trump’s performance among Hispanics, and to a lesser extent Black men. Without that shift in Florida alone, the state goes to Biden and we all might have been in bed early last night. I don’t know exactly what this means, but it probably means people on the left should listen to these people a bit more instead of imposing their academic theories on how they should behave upon them. The simple reality is that most people do not look at every aspect of their lives as potentially racist or antiracist, and if analysis gets too caught up in that lens, it will miss a lot of other things. Identity is a complex, multifaceted thing, and not everyone moves in lockstep.

The Democrats nominated the best option they had. No, Joe Biden was not a fount of charisma, and that probably came out in the tighter-than-polled races and down-ballot Democratic losses. But that wasn’t really a strength for anyone in the Democratic field, with the semi-exception of Bernie Sanders, and if Biden gets destroyed by Cuban-Americans in Florida because he’s seen as a stalking horse for socialism, I don’t see how an actual socialist would have done any better. Biden, meanwhile, seems to have clawed some votes back in enough of the Midwest, which was always his supposed strength as a candidate. Not in the rural areas, seemingly, but some of the mid-sized cities like his native Scranton in Pennsylvania and some of Wisconsin’s small industrial centers are showing stronger results. His margin was also noticeably better here in my home in St. Louis County, Minnesota, which fits the same category. Biden was able to pull back some blue-collar roots while at the same time consolidating suburban gains around Phoenix and Atlanta. I’m not sure who else in the Democratic field could have managed both of those trends simultaneously.

Biden ran his campaign with military precision and stayed the course. This is Joe Biden we’re talking about, so of course the end result isn’t going to be exciting or world-changing. But politics is the art of coalition-building—even a base-heavy campaign like Trump’s knows this, based on the efforts among Hispanics—and, in 2020, it looks like Biden’s is a winner. For whatever it’s worth, he’s going to have a commanding win in the popular vote, and may yet win despite the substantial polling errors. If the Democrats’ goal was to nominate the person who best matched up with Donald Trump, they did so.

Other random notes:

  • Sad to see my one very passing acquaintance in Congress, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, fall. The fact that she flipped that seat two years ago was astonishing in and of itself.
  • A few St. Louis County notes: Ashley Grimm’s win in a county board on the west side of Duluth shows that Democrats continue to shore up that part of the city, winning a race that may have gone to a more independent, blue-collar white guy in the past. On the Iron Range, the story is the demise of ticket-splitting: even though Biden held up fairly well on the core Range considering how much effort the Trump campaign expended here, the Democratic legislative candidates all saw their margins shrink, and Julie Sandstede, the state representative for the Hibbing area, won by less than 50 votes after winning comfortably in the past. Basically, existing trends are getting more pronounced.
  • Many congratulations to Grant Hauschild, Hermantown’s newest city councilor!