On Loyalty

This political season has led me to reflect on my moment of political de-awakening in 2010, back on that Mexican night when I stood before a statues of Abraham Lincoln and freed myself from overreaction to election results. I swore that I would never let politics define my fundamental happiness: family my immediate network, my community, would come first. While there have been bumps, particularly amid Covid isolation, I have managed that, through a volcanic Trump era and some peaks and valleys closer to home. Despite a lifetime of fascination with this world, I have simultaneously held it at a certain remove, forever intrigued and even active but never quite attaining full immersion.

This tension begs the question of why I still spend a fair amount of time hovering around the political arena. I certainly have some opinions on things, and would like to see my milieu move in certain ways. But more than that it is a way to meet people who believe in action, who believe in the betterment of their worlds and who recognize they have a role to play in it. Some of the people who are most full of life that I have ever met are politicians, at their best when they channel others around them and use their wit and charisma to achieve results against long odds. They enter some of the most brutal, unsparing competitions a person can find: failure is public, they place targets on themselves, and their choices affect not just their own selves or circles but stray random individuals who may have nothing to do with them. The winners in politics get to touch the levers of power, and power requires great care. Few situations say more about people than how they react when so exposed.

Hanging around politics is a social activity, and the people who are attracted to politics are always looking for something. The best of these are the committed, hardworking volunteers; the people who are scrapping their way up out of committed belief or who have free time to give to things they believe in. But one will also find a few awkward hangers-on who cling to campaigns in cringey forms. There are the attention hounds, those who are more interested in the image of appearing useful than actually doing so, and the grudge-holders who get caught up in the inane drama within these small circles. And there are the climbers, who will work hard for those who can give them something in return but offer little when they suddenly do not. Some of these political animals are using electioneering to fill an inner void, a turn to a flawed, earthly pursuit for meaning against which my 20-year-old self instinctively rebelled; others are merely the thin and vain who would never even recognize a void that swallowed them whole. Too many others are true believers who get caught up in the machine, float into a place that combines some of those two strains, and wind up in too far deep before they have a chance to realize how adrift they are.

Now, twelve years removed from that visit to Lincoln, I find my political self not loyal to a party or even so much to a real set of policies (though I have my preferences), but to certain people. To the people who engage in politics because they think they can do some good in the world, who see opportunities in front of them and leap in despite some trepidations, rather than those who barrel ahead because they’ve convinced themselves that this is who they are and what they must be. To people who are excited by what they can do in office, not the mere act of running. To the people who display loyalty, to people who recognize that loyalty is a two-way street, and to the people who cultivate it in turn. To the people whose loyalties remain true through victory and defeat. To the people who stay loyal even if my own reality takes me in a direction that limits my chances for direct engagement, as this year’s has.

That loyalty is ever so important because politics can consume people, even those who start out with the best of intentions. In a world where the end goal is always in the eye of the beholder, the ground on which people stand shifts faster than anyone could expect. The outcomes of political work are all filtered through public opinion, significantly murkier than the clean profit motive in running a business or the carefully honed mission statement of a well-run nonprofit. Politicians have to sell not a product with a discrete use but themselves in their flawed human forms, imperfect vessels to funnel into positions with narrow paths to achieving outcomes. Money can help, but it alone cannot buy success, nor can one ever have enough. Many politically active people are plagued with an eternal craving for more that even the greatest policy achievements will not satisfy. It is the ultimate Sisyphean goal, the promised eternal renewal of human affairs.

And so, instead of a series of hot takes on the political trends in northeast Minnesota or a rumination on national polls, this year I choose simply to offer my thanks. There are some wonderful people in my network, and after a year that pushed many of them to the brink, may we continue to pursue greatness with the levers we have in our hands. Our moments are here for us to seize them, and as long as we have these ties, we will survive, no matter the outcome.

In retrospect, I may have made a mistake twelve years ago, when I said community, not politics, would be that source of happiness. Politics might just have been the conduit to find a community, and those ties go far deeper than the results of one stray election. The pursuit can reap rewards we never could have imagined.

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Out of Arcadia

It is easy enough to say that we will remember people who have left this world, but an altogether greater challenge to say what exactly that will mean in practice. Over time, the mental images of those who have left us acquire a sepia tone and fade into nostalgia. Pictures and words may carry forward the more poignant snapshots, but another’s presence in the moment is not something any of us can replicate. This is the way of the world, not cause for sadness but a reality that requires adaptation. How, exactly, do we sustain memory?

In my home office, a quest for a passable Zoom background became, unwittingly, a shrine of sorts that gets at the answer.

Pictures of my paternal grandparents sit beneath Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, a depiction of Arcadian shepherds discovering a tomb, a realization that even in Arcadia, a fertile paradise of myth, death looms. My earliest memories of Alfred and Mary Ann Schuettler are a rural Wisconsin idyll: a venture across a corn field to a collection of bee boxes, hide-and-seek through their tangled gardens, throwing a baseball around with Grandpa in the back yard, decking the house for Christmas. All of the trappings of childhood simplicity and happiness, it seemed, could be found tucked away on Division Road.

Time and growing knowledge undid those images, and while aging shatters many youthful illusions, in few other places was the fall as obvious. Like the shepherds in Arcadia, I discovered death and human suffering, and knew there was no going back to the idle play that preceded it. I saw how escaping that world had allowed my dad to thrive. My grandparents aged, lost their faculties, and passed on. An uncle was there to care for them, but battled his own demons. The cats proliferated. The vegetation swallowed the home, the smell grew worse, the conversation more stilted. There was no going back, and it became some emblem of a fallen world.

To be cast from this garden is among the most fundamental facts of human life. It will take different forms for everyone, but come it will, even if some may never acknowledge it. When faced with this reality, the reactionary mind rejects the garden as a lie; the mature mind looks back on the garden and sees in it things that are worth perpetuating, even as it knows its impossibility as a permanent state.

It took me years to come to this place. I am leery of the word closure because it implies an ending that may not fully be, but this past weekend, on a venture to spread the ashes of my grandparents, I completed a project over a decade in the making. Distant relatives came out of the woodwork to pay their respects. An eight-foot family tree came forth, and stories about everyone on it followed. A drive past the family farm where it all started seared its way into my mind: the house burned years ago, but something of mine remains out on County LL north of Port Washington. Pictures revealed a time before the thickets swallowed up the world of the people who had planted them, a time when its flowers and gardens were meticulously tended and put on stunning display. We flipped through hundreds of old photos and sipped booze out of the Elvis figurines that secretly contained bourbon all along. My grandparents’ stories followed the full cycle, from some prelapsarian myth deep into purgatory, but now it can rise again not up into the clouds but instead into that rich Wisconsin earth where it belongs.

My maternal grandparents sit beneath Don Quixote. This piece came directly from them amid late life downsizing; I remember its old resting place above an entertainment stand in the house on Edgewood in Lombard, Illinois. (The stand was dominated by a radio, a fact that now would seem to suggest it was a relic of the Ming Dynasty.) From that pair of 1940s University of Chicago lovers I needed little in the way symbolism: the dynasty they founded and the lives they lived have stood on their own. But the words in which they immersed us all provide guides, too.

When, in my senior year of college, I took a full-semester course on Don Quixote, my professor, the formidable Barbara Mujica, repeatedly noted the cyclical nature of the novel. The common image of the knight errant as a symbol of freedom is only half his story. Don Quixote ventures out and then returns home, eternally searching, trying to recover the world of the chivalric novels he devoured, a performative seeker of an impossible dream. His journey shows not only what he strives for, but what he is missing, rising in pursuit of glory and falling into madness all at once.

The final chapters in Don Quixote are not a paean to the hero’s quests, but instead a lesson in how to die. Cervantes gives his readers some ideas on how to prepare for that unshakable fact: surround ourselves with a dense network, appreciate that our journeys are complete, free to cast aside any final illusions and go forth not as Don Quixote, but as Alonso Quixano the Good. With him, literature left behind the trifling Arcadian novels that preceded Don Quixote and discovered modernity, a mandate to pursue truth and move through time in a linear march.

That march of modernity loomed heavily over the past two years, a reality that includes both progress and inescapable loss. Fortunately, a few people have ruminated on this reality, and some of the best of them were my grandparents’ contemporaries or immediate forerunners: creative minds in the aftermath of calamity who dared envision a new world while still retaining some wisdom of the past. The names here will be of no surprise to people who know my reading habits: Wallace Stegner and Joan Didion, children of pushes to the frontier who appraised what their worlds had wrought with a keen skepticism, or Hannah Arendt and Octavio Paz, who harshly judged the machinations of modernity while still knowing that it formed the basis of the world in which they lived. Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century Don Quixote’s quest came full circle, and a few wise minds of that era stopped to gaze back on that Arcadian garden even as the world hurtled ahead. Too often now we have lost the ability to recognize it for what it is.

A generation is gone to me now, but I am at peace with it. Grandparents often have the freedom to bestow unconditional love, to spoil their grandchildren and never have to deal with the consequences of misbehavior or the grating tension that so often arises between parents and children who share the same home day after day; to create a world in which children can be knights errant on their own little quests. And yet they are in some ways inaccessible, will never be a peer in the way a parent can be once a child reaches some modicum of a stable adulthood. Several boomers in my life, now past the age when high school or college-aged kids could be considered peers of their own children, have noted how they have lost touch with the youth, can no longer relate in a way they once could. Two generations of separation in a world whose technological and cultural markers change at breakneck speed leave a gulf that can be bridged but never quite pulled back together.

There are ways to strengthen these bridges, to build ties across generations, and I will certainly submit that our world needs more for them. But there is forever a gap of space and time. That separation gives us a sense of our own time, tells us who we are. We do not have forever. Moments of influence are thrust upon us, and we can take different roles at different stages, finding the contributions most relevant to our specific moments. The passage of a generation teaches us something about these stages, and it may fuel our urgency to play our own parts, to preserve the best of it and pass it on.

With my grandparents’ ashes scattered, my dad and I head home in the company of six boxes of photos, which we will sift through in the coming weeks and months. But I also head home with a story about what my grandparents meant, the world they came from and what they can unwittingly teach. They have settled into that earth now, and from them another Arcadia can start to grow.

The Twilight of the Official Myth

The passing of Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, has little bearing on my life. To my knowledge, I have no British ancestry. I have spent all of five days of my life on British soil, and have not set foot in one of the various Realms or Territories since a lunch at a Canadian golf course a decade ago. For that matter, I live into a country that came into being by throwing off the yoke of British rule. Like most Americans, I could content myself with reading a news story or two about the passing of the crown and move on.

And yet I confess a fascination with the late monarch. My weekend devolved into long Wikipedia dives down the lineages of royal families and their estates, a quixotic quest to understand the arcane layers of royal titles and role. Elizabeth II earned respect, even among anti-monarchists, for her longevity and ability to project a stable, dutiful image even as Britain convulsed its way through the dissolution of its empire, 15 prime ministers, the lurches of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and, finally, Brexit. But she represented more than just good health in the age of modern medicine and her meticulous decorum: she was the living symbol of what it meant to be a Briton, the whole churn of history and greatness and oppression and everything else that comes with being an obscure island off the coast of Europe that has shaped world history as much as any other place.

Such symbols are in decline. One of the former Commonwealth countries, Barbados, took its own path to Brexit in 2021; now a republic, it no longer recognizes the British royals. Others will likely follow, and while the outpouring of British mourning has no parallel in American life, even in Britain there appears to be a generational gap in real appreciation. For that matter, republicanism, the cause for which millions died over the course of two and a half centuries in a revolt against the power of monarchs, faces its own crises amid charges of aloof elites and out-of-touch representation, or perhaps a descent into dithering dysfunction that fails to get anything done. Politics devolves into rage or apathy, neither of which has much time for unifying symbols. To hold one’s nation-state in great esteem comes off as a special brand of naïveté, perhaps noble in the case of some members of the armed forces but also quaintly antiquated in a world that is supposedly beyond borders.

The nation-state is far from the only realm where unifying mythologies of the modern era are falling away. To be religious in the educated or fashionable circles of society is now passé, a stodgy formality akin to a fondness for corsets or three-piece suits, and that once-universal language of Biblical references that litters midcentury popular culture now draws blank stares from younger generations. The great media brands of the postwar era are being eaten alive by the cacophonous inanities of social media, the only exceptions being niche interests like the Wall Street Journal or companies that have become one with the beast and turned themselves into full-on lifestyle brands like the New York Times and, in different ways, Fox News. The only national arbiters of culture seem to come through momentary fads, a quick TikTok craze that comes and goes in a blink, the most notable of which we may recall in twenty or thirty years, but disconnected from many broader statements about our times.

The rational mind likes to think this death of myth is a victory: we are dispatching of fictions and living in reality. Leaving the merits of this worldview aside, the evidence that this mindset is actually taking power is wanting. Religiosity finds fascinating new outlets, some of them much less worthy of respect than an omnipotent deity. A dating app now sends me weekly astrology advice; I swipe left in disgust, though apparently there is a market for this. The middlebrow epic film on themes of historical resonance may be in decline, but the myths of Middle Earth and Hogwarts and Westeros and A Galaxy Far, Far Away keep cycling back in a meta-myth that would no doubt chagrin Joseph Campbell. Financially, these reboots pale next to the searches for superhero figures to save us from an ever-grittier perdition of the supposed real world, a childhood wish extended in a none-too-subtle quest for redemption. Vladimir Putin channels a certain czarist revanchism in his Ukrainian adventure; lesser actors on the world stage, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Narendra Modi, likewise gesture toward an imperial power they would surely like to wield.

Putin’s floundering offensive, however, is just one of many markers that suggests old myths, once dented, cannot simply revive themselves with a few well-directed artillery rounds. (I will spare this post any discussion of Make America Great Again or a resurgent socialism.) The absurdity of social media as a news source speaks for itself, and meditation for its own sake is hollow solace when darkness comes. Rock consigned classical music to a niche realm of high cultural appreciation, but now seems to be drifting that way itself as its Boomer progenitors age out of the limelight. The humanities revolted against the white maleness of Western Civilization and have wound up not as newly empowered multicultural wealth of knowledge but instead stumbled into the wilderness. Humanities majors have gone into precipitous decline, with a few loud voices sucking up the oxygen for the culture wars while more and more students spend less and less time in any well-structured place where they can figure out what this whole life thing is for. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

There is nothing particular to the death of Queen Elizabeth, or to the uncertain future of the British Empire, that fills me with sadness. And yet, as I look to a world where more and more people around me seem at a loss for things to ground them in a liquid world, ever more consumed by paralyzing anxieties or resignation in the face of it all, I cannot help but feel a slight tug of emotion when William Blake’s lyrics to “Jerusalem” ring out at Westminster Abbey next week. The Queen, for all her monarchy’s flaws, was a stable part of the world we had, and her passing leaves a void. In some ways it may be a welcome void, but it is a void nonetheless. And any project that does not seek to fill the void with something as compelling, whether national or cultural or educational or personal, will see it filled by something else.

The Two Mountains

I use mountain metaphors with a regularity that long ago gave up any pretense of originality. Such allusions come naturally to a hiker, a striver, someone who values both the art of finding the route and exploits of physical skill, to the point that they become rote. They leech through my travel writing, my fiction, and my political advice. “We have other mountains to climb,” I tell a friend who, like me, has suffered a setback in what I have started to call a summer of disappointment. It has been a summer of deferred dreams and stalled-out ambitions, though any frustration is only the product of the lofty heights we have sought for ourselves. The pursuit alone is part of the allure, though after a view from higher up, the same old woods may not feel quite as satisfying.

My annual hiking trip with my uncle Bob, cousin Rob, and friends Amy and Ed takes me to the highest reaches of Colorado. It orbits around Leadville, the only settlement of over 1,000 people at an elevation over 10,000 feet in the United States, and to call Leadville colorful would only start to tell the story. An early silver rush turned it into the second-largest city in Colorado for a spell; even today, a healthy chunk of the world’s molybdenum comes out of the nearby Climax Molybdenum Mine. On the way up, this northern Minnesotan explains tailings basins to his fellow travelers and geeks out on this operation. Large parts of the town look rough, trailers and bedraggled bungalows along some streets that are practically sand, but at its core is some boom era architecture with lively hues, and an outbreak of new construction has created a ski town-style tumor on its northern edge. “Keep Leadville Shitty,” exhorts a local bumper sticker, a window into the battle for its soul now under way.

I am swiftly smitten by this city on an eternal frontier. Our arrival coincides with the closing stages of the Leadville Pack Burro race, the second leg of the pack burro racing triple crown and one of its most daunting courses. It is a magical spectacle. Every five minutes, the town police car circles back through to guide in another exhausting and sweaty human tugging on the rope of a burro, which may or may not have any interest in cooperating with the exercise. Onlookers cheer as the burros amble to the finish line by the booth from the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation. One collapses into a chair next to us, his fifth 22-mile race complete, spent from the effort of coaxing his mighty steed across the line. The closed-down main street through Leadville hosts grand old architecture, placid burros willing to be petted, and t-shirts spanning the full gamut of ass puns. A week later, on our way out of the wilderness, cyclists for the Leadville 100 have replaced the burros, another reinvigoration for a small, rural town finding its late modern footing.

Our hike covers two segments of the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile path from Denver to Durango that takes its travelers through some of the nation’s most dramatic high country. We begin at the Tennessee Pass between Leadville and Vail and work our way south to a trailhead between Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, the state’s two highest peaks. Our campsites place us at the high-altitude Porcupine Lakes, an alpine meadow beyond Turquoise Lake, and among the wooded roots of Massive. With a tree line at 12,000 feet, the views from this part of the CT are not as stunning as last year’s jaunt on the Beaten Path, but the lodgepole pines provide pleasant hiking cover, and it takes little time for this group to settle into the rhythms of wilderness release.

As trails go, the CT itself is relatively benign. It is wide and well-maintained, sometimes with the feel of a hiking superhighway. On this stretch there is plenty of water, and resupply opportunities are abundant in nearby towns. There are just two great challenges to hiking the CT. The first is elevation, and with the entire hike happening above 10,000 feet, five flatlanders take some time in adjusting to the thin mountain air. Our first day is mercifully easy, but even then sleep comes terribly, and day two beats up the entire party, with me feeling about as gassed as I ever have on a trail after far-from-awful 400-foot climb midway through the day and fellow hikers collapsing in a grove at the bottom of the following 1,500-foot descent, all before the subsequent 1,000-foot march up to the alpine meadow where we make camp. A constant sense of dehydration looms over the trip, occasional lost appetites and bad sleep turning a routine hiking distance into a genuine chore.

The second looming threat throughout the week is the weather. Colorado has a short hiking season, and even now in midsummer, there is a chance that thunderstorms may roll in off the mountains every day. Early starts are necessary, lest the oncoming storms bear down while on some exposed stretch of trail. Our luck holds on the first three days, and though dime-sized hail does rain down on us high above the tree line on Mount Massive and lightning strikes behind the hulking peak, we make it back to camp without any ill effects and ride out the remainder of the lone storm to hit us. The wettest I got on the trip was on a hike from a restaurant to the hotel in Denver.

Mount Massive is the third-highest American peak outside of Alaska, standing shorter only than Mount Whitney and its immediate neighbor to the south, Mount Elbert. It also lives up to its name: while it may be 12 feet shorter than Elbert, it is far bulkier, a sprawling behemoth of false summits and lengthy approaches feeding up to one great ridge atop it all. We make camp for two nights at Willow Creek, which sits at 11,000 feet and cuts off six miles of the round-trip ascent from the nearest parking lot. The climb starts through the region’s characteristic pine forests, but in time the trees thin out into scrubby willows and then into rocky slopes studded with grasses and mosses. This stretch above the tree line is the longest part of the ascent, a steady march up and up through steadily choppier terrain. A saddle between South Massive and the main peak gives a stunning view down to mountain lakes and smaller mountains below, and a clamber takes the hiker up a ridge to a false summit and then on to the twin logs marking the point 14,427 feet above sea level.

Our group plods at a determined, if hardly speedy, pace. On the way down, we are promptly waylaid by a mountain goat, who takes his sweet time in vacating the path. Twenty feet onward, we encounter mama goat and baby. Baby plops down in the middle of the trail for a spell, and mama takes a leak on the path to further get the point across. By the time they finally move, the clouds are beginning to gather, and the goats provide further entertainment through a lunch stop back at the saddle. The Massive menagerie continues as we head down from there, as ptarmigans stroll past and a crew of marmots, some of them appearing rather obese, trundle about the slopes.

The human zoo on display on this trip, somehow, exceeds the variety of the wildlife. At the parking lot at the start, we get our picture taken by a British cyclist who began in Denver and is now working his way down to Mexico, an adventure that he expects will take him until March of next year. (Excepting the wilderness bits, which include the two segments we hike, the Colorado Trail welcomes cyclists.) When we roll into our camp for our first day, we come across two Missouri Mennonite newlyweds in traditional garb and their salt of the earth cowboy guide, riding horses up and down peaks for their honeymoon. One could mistake the image of the three of them for one taken in 1872. On that first night, we share the site with the Gu Girls, three through-hiking young women who have formed a trail family; on a resupply run in Leadville earlier that day, they chased down a truck distributing Gu, the energy gel for distance athletes, and they share some of their rather large haul with us. It all tastes awful.

We pass twenty Outward Bound kids for whom a 3-mile trek is torture, and later meet a teenage girl councilor for another group of OB boys who decides the route up Mount Massive, which she has just casually summitted in no time flat, will not do for them. A University of Florida biologist acclimates herself to hiking at elevation before she heads to Argentina, where she will work to preserve endangered chinchillas high in the Andes. We pick her brain on the diets of local rodents. Inevitably, we encounter a man wearing a shirt from the Bonfield Express, a now-defunct Thanksgiving 5K in Downers Grove, Illinois that Bob, Rob, and I often ran; this is the second straight year of a Bonfield moment of recognition a thousand miles from suburban Chicago, and we sing the praises of its shirts for hiking. Another Mt. Massive day hiker has just bagged his 27th fourteener this year, while the two guys who summit just behind us crack beers together at the summit. No one, however, can top Nora, the 19-month-old through hiker. Her parents are carrying this intrepid traveler clear from Denver to Durango, each with 42-pound packs (Nora weight included), and report she is in good cheer after the first 185 miles.

The trip begins and ends in Denver, a city that inspires mixed feelings. The airport, a monument to 90s sprawl, is a contender for worst in the country, though Blucifer and the lizard people lair do liven things up. Its rapid growth is apparent everywhere, and at least the dense housing is going up in droves, albeit often in far-flung tracts of identical boxes. There is a charming district of craftsman bungalows south of downtown, and grand institutions like the capitol, Union Station, and a lush botanical garden give some status to the capital of the Mountain West. The food scene, with Rob as our guide through it, is solid, and of course I cannot complain about the beer. The American future on display in Denver is more comforting than that of other western American cities, freed from California world-saving hypocrisy or Vegas alternate reality or Phoenix total defiance of nature, but it remains choked by dust and ozone warnings and unattainable real estate, the sort of qualified success story that defines the nation’s epochal lurch. It’s a fun place to visit, but it isn’t home.

Shortly before this trip, I polished off David Brooks’ The Second Mountain, the columnist’s midlife crisis book in which he distinguishes between the mountain of earthly success and the mountain of moral formation that people can pursue in life. In my tension-obsessed way, I have made efforts to climb both peaks in the first third of my life, striving both for a home life worthy of an American Dream and a well-ordered life where I believe in what I do. At thirty-two, I find myself frustrated with my progress on both, in many ways proud of my progress but still clearly still gazing up at a false summit. I decide it is somehow fitting that my venture left the conquest of a second peak such as Mount Elbert for some future journey. We do, indeed, have other mountains to climb. But we are on a well-maintained path, and we have fellow hikers to go with us.

Up in the Air

It is with some regret that I choose to fly for this year’s western hiking venture instead of taking to the western roads yet again. Rereading the account of my brooding deep-pandemic self in 2020 or my more mundane appreciation of such roads during my 2021 jaunt has me yearning for some of those cliches about western travel that are true because they are real. A recent Ross Douthat column whose sentiment I support seemed to scold my decision-making: “If you do not drive your country’s highways and byways, what path do you have to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble? If you have strong answers to both questions, good. But lacking them, you should give the open road another look.”

A Saturday spent shuttling my dad from one end of northern Minnesota’s Kekekabic Trail to the other only renews this hunger for ribbons of asphalt and gravel. It is a nine-hour dive into the wilds of Minnesota’s north, and I bob and weave along two-lane highways through small towns, some humming with midsummer tourists and others fading back into the woods. Isabella has become a ghost town, while the cluster of bustle on the central Gunflint Trail could use a name on a map, and Ely straddles two worlds. Car travel frees me to eye the wreckage of the Greenwood Fire and drink in the cool lake air of Grand Marais, and to swing off to Sugarloaf Cove, where I can meander down the beach and flip open a notebook to record a few stray ideas. We writers are suited to modes of motion with spontaneous spurts and chances to suck up little details; it is only from these mined nuggets that we can later create grand arcs and sweeps.

While much of America has retreated from air travel, I have spent more time on planes over the past year and a half than at any point in my life. A healthy chunk of that was work-related puddle-jumping to Milwaukee, but I’ve found my way to destinations across the country, too. For the seasoned veteran, air travel is both simpler and more refined, inspiring in its God’s eye view but sapped of the details that allow for immersion and meditation. By plane I give no mind to the fortunes and failings of the towns along the highway, to the Native American reservations I skirt, to the stray roadside attraction that may worm its way into my mind. I bliss out, catch up on some reading, and flip the mental switch to begin living in the world where I’ve landed. It is a simpler, more self-absorbed way to travel, any interactions bounded by the metal tube we share and devoid of any relationship to the landscape around us.

Nor have I ever known air travel as a venture of true leisure and opulence. I have only dim memories of flights before 9/11 and its subsequent security cattle pens, most of which involve my nine-year-old self vomiting into a bag on a bumpy flight from Duluth to Chicago. I’ve had only brief brushes with business or first class, and while a free drink or two is nice, it is hardly a signifier of great luxury. For most of my plane trips, I join the unwashed masses in crunching my knees into ever-shrinking spaces and hoard my bag of nuts and cup of juice. Air travel is also prone to occasional great indignities when the plans go awry, whereas the driver will simply audible and find a detour or sub out a cranky rental car.

I romanticize the road trip, of course. This year’s hike is in Colorado, and somehow the tamed fields of Iowa and Nebraska do not inspire the same sense of frontier freedom as the Dakotas or Montana; time, scarcer and more precious amid a series of new pushes in life, has me settling for the two-hour hop to Denver. I will not miss the zombified state brought on by the eastern Great Plains, nor jockeying for space with long-distance truckers, nor the increasingly antsy push toward home of a final day on the road. These ventures have resulted in two busted windshields in the past three years, and at times I am left with a choice between splurging on an uninspiring roadside hotel or setting up a tent in a campground where I will be serenaded all night by the dulcet droning of RVs. But this decision is more profound than any convenience-seeking or aesthetic impulse: on my last solitary venture I decided that it would be my last one of that nature for a spell, and that is that.

Taking to the air seems a fitting way to head for some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states. This year’s hike, on the Colorado Trail west of Leadville, will take place entirely above 10,000 feet in elevation, in the shadows of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, Colorado’s two highest points. It will be a test of the lungs, and if we do indeed try to summit both peaks, a test of the legs as well. I will achieve a new cruising altitude and see just how hungry I am to reach new heights. Off I go, a new adventure beckoning.

Elegy for a Pastoral Dream

Visits to my paternal grandmother were studies in chiaroscuro. They always came in the dead of summer or at Christmastime, either vines and shrubbery slowly swallowing the home on a sweltering August day, or amid the bleak empty fields of a Wisconsin winter, perhaps with a dusting of snow. They came after a long drive across the state, past yellow brick churches whose steeples rise above the plain, German industry and weekend brat fries and bars with Pabst Blue Ribbon signs devoid of irony. They felt like trips into a time machine, back into some past American dream, a dive into a memory of a time half-forgotten yet indelible. They were in my world but not of my world, and with Mary Ann Schuettler’s passing this past week at the age of ninety-five, the lenses through which I see those visits do not seem like my own.

At their best, trips to visit my grandma were a passage out of Wendell Berry: a return to a simpler economy, diligent completion of household tasks, satisfaction from simple work in a bucolic farmhouse haven. She tended a sprawling garden and cared for too many cats and had enough birdfeeders out the window to host a small aviary. Holiday dinners were the same year after year, always the duck and the cranberries and the various side salads that I never really ate. Woe unto any visitor who dared express fondness for any dish on the table, for it would be sure to reappear at every single meal thereafter. She tended to her weekly soap operas and watched the news every night so that she could shake her head at whatever was going on in Milwaukee. Any chat on the phone began and ended with a discussion of the weather, which was always too hot or too cold or too snowy or not snowy enough, but always too something. She held off the passage of time through devotion to simple rhythms, to memories of what had been and what still could come out of them.

She carried herself with a quiet dignity, some cross of Catholic devotion and midcentury decency code morals, both demure and unbending. A visit to my Uncle Pat’s blended family one Christmas, a venture in which I was a fish out of water but suitably entertained by the sociology of it all, had her shaking her head over “how people could live like that.” She barely ventured out of Wisconsin in her ninety-five years, though she and my grandfather made regular retreats to the Northwoods near Eagle River. Later, my dad and I would work to get her out of the decaying house, whether on a tour of family history or just on a drive up the Kettle Moraine of eastern Wisconsin, those oak-studded eskers and kettles that I will always view with elegiac eyes.

At other times, life with Grandma could have been scripted by Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, a Midwestern Gothic made all too real by a supporting cast of witch-worshipping neighbors and the excess of cats that spiraled out of control. Visits were vigils through long passages of wordless silence, and if anyone made any effort to improve her lot it was too much trouble, even though subsisting in a tenuous state was far more troubling than any effort to clean up the place. In a visit after a year and a half of Covid isolation my dad, Uncle Pat, and I went at the dried-out cat shit with an ice scraper and cleaning fluids, and as we worked she looked away in shame. Her anxiety at our visits took on an entirely different flavor.

Grandma’s life was not just the sedate passage of time. At one point, my Uncle Chris produced a news clipping with a photo of her and a friend at a Liberace concert; I’m not sure what will happen to the Elvis memorabilia in the dining room display case. Immersion in NASCAR and the Packers livened up her weekends. My dad and I both relish the memory of the night when, after enduring an hour of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Uncle Chris’s behest on Christmas Eve, she shut it off promptly after he went out the door. Hints of spontaneity and verve occasionally peeked out from a life so often buried beneath nerves over the slightest alteration of routine. She was at her best when she cracked that bemused smile and muttered a “God” at some interruption we offered to her otherwise immutable procession.

Above all, she was a survivor. She outlived her rock, my eminently patient and kind-hearted grandfather, by thirteen years; she outlived her entire generation in her family, and all of her friends, too. Even as the trials of life mounted, she kept plodding on, at peace with her pace. She was born in West Allis when it was still a somewhat rural outpost; later, it became a postwar boom suburb and now it is a shifting segment of the Milwaukee inner ring. A similar story took place out in Ozaukee and Washington Counties, where she settled later in life. The farm near Port Washington became a dead end, and later burned; the house they rented after that, near Slinger, became one of two lonely relics at the end of a dead-end road as McMansions sprouted on giant tracts around it. (I’m not sure how often she actually voted, but in sentiment Grandma was a lifelong Democrat, a Catholic still loyal to the party that gave her the Kennedys and disgusted by one that would nominate Donald Trump.) She spent her later years in a state of reminiscence for times gone by, her world now gone, if it had ever truly existed.

Mary Ann Schuettler was the last of my grandparents, three of whom lived into their nineties. The two sides of my family, as I’ve noted in the past, could not be more different. They are two emblematic tales of the divergence of twentieth century America, two different tales for nineteenth century northern European immigrants. My mom’s side moved from the city to the suburbs and, while not lacking a few skeletons, passed along its considerable and accruing advantages to subsequent generations of a sprawling dynasty, a divide made all the more jarring this past week by a rush of emails forming plans for a European cruise. My dad’s side, meanwhile, saw its family farm drift away and clung on afterward in rural poverty. The exception to that trend is my dad, the kid who left the farm for the University of Wisconsin, traveled the world, and, with my mother, created a life for me that had no chance of resembling the one he’d left. My grandparents, while not always fully understanding, were loyal and proud of him, with my grandmother’s letters addressing him as Dr. Schuettler after he got his PhD.

I struggled to bridge this divide, and did so only haltingly. When my grandfather was still alive, I drew some family trees out of them and we visited an ancestral cemetery on her side; in the years after his passing, my dad and I would put Grandma in the car and go on those drives around the sun-splashed hills of the Kettle Moraine, and it was in the back seat on one of those rides not long out of college that I found the jolt that lifted me out of a temporary morass. Later, a more distant relative in nearby Mequon tracked us down after extensive genealogy research, and we came to enjoy visits with a branch of the family with a very different life story, at times even enjoying their generous hospitality instead of the joyous West Bend AmericInn. The addition of the Bridges-Wuesthoff branch to our extended clan showed me my architect great-great grandfather’s legacy in such landmarks as the Schlitz brewery, the dressmaking of another relative for the Pabst family, and the cemeteries dating to the mid-1800s. It was a new window into my Schuettler inheritance that until that point had been one I sometimes struggled to embrace.

The cyclical life brings serendipity: in my grandmother’s final months, my work took me several times to Port Washington, the closest town of substance to the old family farm, and where my dad went to grade school. I got the call that she had passed just before I jumped on a plane for Milwaukee, and later that very day I listened as some of Port’s current leaders reminisced about what the city had been while making peace with its new burst of life on its cozy historic streets and the bluffs that line Lake Michigan. Late the next night, I strolled from my waterfront hotel at one end of a gem of a main street and up to the Catholic church that commands the view of the harbor. I stood before it and felt the burdens of time lift away.

There will be return trips, of course. A memorial at Holy Hill this fall, another work venture or two, likely a few trips down into history for someone who has always experienced the past vividly. With her passing goes a generation, perhaps even a way of life, and a chapter in my own little drama, too. I am left with a gentle hug, a reminder to take care, and a repetition of my mantra from Hannah Arendt: we are not born in order to die but in order to begin.

Twenty-Four

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

– Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Happy 24th, bro.

Ten Years

1. Pageantry

The sun sinks down over the Neogothic towers of Healy Hall and bathes the front lawn in a pink sheen to match my dress shirt. A gentle hubbub rises from the tents. A soundtrack from yesteryear cranks up, and I am surrounded by faces from a past that grows hazy, all familiar but at what point do we introduce ourselves, break down those inhibitions? Groups begin to form and orbit about each other, old networks coming into contact, and over time they coalesce into a pulsing mass, lonely anxieties forgotten in an identity that gives me as much pride as any. We are back in DC for a reunion, here to revel in our greatest shared loyalty, Georgetown Hoyas for life.

2. Brotherhood

The four onetime occupants of 3731 R Street reunite, along with our honorary fifth roommate. The house still stands in Burleith, despite the horrors we inflicted on it, and somehow the powers that be have allowed four of us to become homeowners ourselves in the past two years. The Tombs has a new menu, which we appraise with narrowed eyes, but it’s still wine night on Mondays and trivia on Tuesdays and the pitchers still roll out to satisfy us adherents to this boat-themed catacomb on 36th. Late nights ensue, our minds still twenty-two but our bodies not quite that anymore, though we get ourselves back into shape as the weekend goes along. No beats missed, easy reminiscences and all the old giving of shit, and a certainty that we need to do this more often.

3. The March of Time

The clock hands tell us Georgetown is timeless, but evidence to the contrary does slip through the cracks here and there. I share a hug with my dean, who went on maternity leave while I was an undergraduate; her son is now 13, which seems impossible even though the math does indeed check out. All five-year reunion increments attend for the same weekend, so we get to see our future progression in a steady march through the different tents across campus. One day we too will be the aged souls whose parties wrap up at nine, the middle-aged parents boring our young charges with campus tours and impositions of Hoya swag. But for now we are still among the fresher faces, here for a party and dip back into a time that still seems like just yesterday.

4. Minutiae

DC is a city of trivia. Around every corner sits some monument, literal or figurative, that teaches us who we are. Identify the flag, name the embassy, learn which obscure historical figure has earned a statue or plaque in this little niche. This is a town for lovers of arcane facts, or just those who look for stimulus on every block. The wealth of knowledge expands one’s sense of what it means to be an American, a citizen of the world. I often eschew Ubers and do a lot of walking in inadequate boat shoes, a full sensory experience: red brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, pastel rowhomes and federalist manors, thick leafy trees and hidden back gardens. I’m not sure another neighborhood can ever top the beauty fixed in my mind’s eye here.

5. The Eternal City

Minneapolis feels radically changed by the past two years. New York, too, has been hollowed by the pandemic. In Chicago, savvy relatives now counsel me to avoid the El. But in DC? It all feels the same. The gentrifiers north of the Capitol keep drifting east, Rosslyn has added a building or two, and the homelessness that has long been ubiquitous has certainly not gone away. M Street seems down from where it was a decade ago, with fewer bars and restaurants and more direct to consumer retail. The gas station at the base of the Exorcist Stairs is no longer, and as we head for the piano bar, we find a wild new urban phenomenon, the murder of rats by trained dogs under the direction of a vigilante pest control. Is a rat carcass in the middle of the sidewalk really an upgrade over a live one inside the trash can?

But otherwise, the city is its lively old self, the streets of Dupont and Adams Morgan teeming with life. New York may be America’s financial capital and the Bay Area may be the cutting edge, but the power of this dear old swamp only seems to grow with every new denunciation of it. DC is perhaps the most stable of great American cities, fed by that ever-growing beast. Porque aquí está el poder, I overhear a man tell his wife on a stroll down Prospect Street. Because this is where the power lies.

6. Rubbing Shoulders

Georgetown knows how to throw a party, but it also hooks us in for some education along the way. The first panel I attend features successful young entrepreneur alumni in realms from college mental health support to lobster restaurants. (This former dining hall regular might suggest a correlation between the two.) In DC there must be political commentary, so a second brings a lively debate ahead of the 2022 midterms. Opinions flow from the lips a straight-talking former Elizabeth Warren campaign hand and a biting Republican adviser who claims she owns Mitch McConnell’s brain. Nancy Pelosi drifts through; will Bradley Cooper show up? Has anyone in our class earned their way on to one of these lists yet? How about some infamous alumni to go with the list of our famous compatriots in the program?

7. The One Percent

Georgetown remains a beautiful people’s club. I thought I’d see a bit more thinning hair, a few more widening paunches, but no, this is a world apart from the toll of time I see in other friend circles. Skin remains unblemished, hair perfectly teased or coiffed, and ambient in the air is a sense of ownership that can only emerge from long years of life in a ruling class. Seated on a bench, I am glad I wear sunglasses to hide my eyes as they follow a bronzed beauty in an orange sun dress, her hand alas held by a lacrosse player and a specimen in his own right. Preppy attire remains the de facto state, but there is also a whiff of elite disdain for care, as with the bro whose definition of cocktail attire features a bathrobe. With beauty comes the power to set one’s own standard.

8. Busy

One of the chief markers of being a Georgetown student, I observed as an undergraduate, was being busy. When asked how one was, the appropriate response was “busy,” and levels of busyness became badges of pride among the hard-charging Hoya climbers. At the time, I swore to never describe myself as busy. I have failed to keep this commitment over the past few years, and am not proud of my lapses. This, I think, is our generation’s great failing: a manic obsession with productivity for productivity’s sake, and falling into patterns that normalize 80-hour work weeks, or worse. There is nothing healthy about this life, and high incomes hit diminishing returns when they crowd out the time for the other pursuits that make a life worth living. But we are Hoyas, so we continue our manic pursuits, certain we can arrive at a place where we have it all.

9. Rebel Against the Sort

At the School of Foreign Service reception, I chat with an acquaintance in the Class of 1972, a former federal relations official at the university. He introduces his freshman year roommate, a Hoya who moved home to Indiana and built a life there, including a failed primary bid for congress in a race ultimately won by a young Mike Pence. A kindred spirit. We part with me admitting how much I waver, and him pushing me to stay the course. My path remains a noble exception among fellow Hoyas.

Later, over gelato in Kalorama, two of my greatest sparring partners take up the question of the Big Sort, the notion that the well-educated strivers are self-isolating in a few specific places. So many of my classmates have drifted to New York, DC, or the Bay Area for jobs in tech or finance or consulting or law, and those intense jobs or advanced degrees they were pursuing at the five-year are now bearing fruit in stepping stones and large salaries. I am far from the lone exception, and there may be some self-selection in who returns for a reunion. But I may be the most obstinate in my pride at what I’ve done, even as I try to find new wells of strength in my Hoya inheritance. What was once a source of social anxiety is now a simple certainty that I belong.

10. Ease

I head straight from the airport to a tour of the Fond du Lac Reservation, and attend a funeral for a great Native woman the following day. This is what I do, though. Further out in either direction my schedule will find a muddy hiking trip, a speaking gig at a conference at a resort on a lake; a garden party at an old money club and political dinner, to say nothing of a work calendar that likewise pulls in ten different directions daily. Busyness? No: richness. In no place did I learn more about how to live richly than I did at Georgetown, how to drift between worlds with ease, adjusting to each to fit in while still retaining some core self. I am still in love with this school, and while there are certain decisions over those four years that I wish I could change, it is also the source of everything that has come since, and everything that could yet be. It was at Georgetown that I found the tools that direct the flow of an ever-churning life, and the self-assurance to ease into the next great push.

In Memoriam: Renee Van Nett

As I got to know Renee Van Nett, I learned the important thing was to listen. She didn’t need my advice, nor to hear my convoluted backstory, at least not unless she wanted to. I was there to learn from her. She had seen things that I never would, had opinions formed in ways that my life would never allow me to do, and through that journey she had become a force.

Renee was a fiercely independent woman. She hid her past pain and suffering from the world, even as she was open and welcoming to others who had endured struggles. Few knew how much she had already been through, how she’d learned to live a life on borrowed time. She never wanted her story to be about her, and always built it around what she stood for, and the often unseen people she sought to lift up.

She accepted political advice but did things her way regardless, her campaign operations lean efforts that relied on a few key allies and her own force of will. A narrow defeat in her first run for office did nothing to dissuade her, and she twice won a Duluth City Council seat over opposition that wasn’t afraid to take serious swings at her. She governed from the heart, building fierce loyalties that led her on one quixotic final campaign to primary a sitting state senator. Her moves unnerved some when she dared to stray from the progressive orthodoxy that some white Duluth liberals apparently expected out of a Native woman, and at times exasperated even those of us who considered her an ally, too. But we knew that this was what made Renee such a genuine politician, such a person who could take a complex collection of facts before her and form an unflinching belief that only made sense from where she was. She was no one’s pawn, nor was anyone Renee’s pawn. She moved through the world with an authenticity of self whose rarity belies the term’s use.

As I came to know Renee, I took that authenticity as a model for how to move through the world, a lesson all the more compelling when it came from a woman who ventured into realms that were far from what she’d known. It was exemplary. I am a better person for having known her, and I trust that her daughters will know they always have supports who are there for them; may they learn to channel their mother’s strength in their own endeavors.

Renee’s death came far too suddenly, a far too abruptly for a life still bursting with potential. But the vagaries of time and life have no heed for such untapped wells, and it is up to the rest of us to find something in what has been lost and turn it into a beginning once again. Her passing is another reminder to never waste one more precious moment.

An Hour Forty Well Spent

This weekend, whilst recovering from some excessive fun, I was pleased to find a distraction that rekindled my thinking after a stint of limited writing output. The New York Times’ Ezra Klein did a lengthy interview with Patrick Deneen, the erstwhile Georgetown professor who’s been mentioned in my writings more than a few times. It had been a while since I had a new dose of Deneen in my life, and the discussion was as fascinating as ever, worthy of pondering even when his arguments don’t quite land.

The interview is about as wide-ranging conversation as can be, a gentle sparring match between two people who on paper seem drastically opposed: a staunchly Catholic political philosopher whose isn’t fond of many developments since the Enlightenment and a technocratic liberal policy wonk and internet-era media personality at the Times. Klein prods and probes at Deneen’s idiosyncratic views, sometimes landing some real punches. The two circle each other, working toward common ground, or at the very least an understanding. It’s a model of civil debate between two people who generally agree on what is wrong with American society but see both the causes of and solutions to this malaise in radically different, though not always irreconcilable, ways. It is two worldviews, in the richest sense of that word, colliding.

Klein’s interviews are never dull, but this one is particularly wide-ranging. They debate whether Deneen has grown harsher over time, and what Deneen views as a liberal attack on the family as an institution. They spar about divorce law and the drift of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, about what Joe Biden represents and what Deneen’s philosophizing might look like in a political platform. Later, Deneen gets to the core of his critique of the managerial elite and the prestigious universities he has inhabited for most of his professional career, and he offers some words very similar to the ones he shared with this kid ten years ago in office hours at the end of a senior year. (I find it a timely reflection, as I’ll be back in DC in a few weeks to revisit the institution where that chat happened.) They end with some musing on the interplay between culture and politics, a divide that perhaps most fundamentally splits the two of them.

Give it a listen here.