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Drawing the Lines

27 Jan

The Duluth school district, which has not changed school boundaries since the completion of its major school restructuring Red Plan a decade ago, has embarked on an effort to redraw boundaries. While ostensibly an effort to re-balance enrollments between some schools that are overcrowded and some that are underutilized, it has also invited some serious, difficult discussion about socioeconomic inequities and Duluth’s east-west divide. It also comes at a distinct point in time, as we have a superintendent on his way out the door and the most heterodox school board in recent memory. For professional reasons, I will not comment on the decision-making process or the work of the boundary-drawing consultant, Cooperative Strategies; this post look only at what they have produced and its implications for the future of Duluth’s schools and neighborhoods. (The two are, after all, deeply intertwined.)

At this stage, Cooperative Strategies has developed three scenarios for public consumption, though the firm and district have also noted that none of them are necessarily the final plan. The plans don’t do much to change the socioeconomic composition of any elementary schools, mostly because it is very, very hard to do so given Duluth’s orientation along a lakeshore and the location of its most affluent neighborhoods. The changes largely hinge on two considerations: the fate of Lowell Elementary and the question of where to draw the line between east and west side middle and high schools.

First, the Lowell question: Lowell has become home to the district’s two growing language immersion programs in Spanish and Ojibwe and no longer pulls many students from nearby neighborhoods. Scenario 1 turns it entirely into a language magnet and sends its remaining neighborhood students to either Homecroft or Piedmont or Myers-Wilkins; Scenario 3 keeps the language programs but also retains a few neighborhood students, and Scenario 2 splits the difference and moves the Ojibwe program to Stowe while leaving Spanish at Lowell. Scenario 3 has the added wrinkle of splitting the Lowell elementary population between the two middle and high schools, a situation the other scenarios avoid. The Lowell scenarios invite questions over the future of where Duluth Heights and Kenwood (and even bits of Hunters Park and Chester Park) fit into the picture and where to house the language programs. The former one is a complicated one that I won’t delve into here, and I’d need data on where the participating students come from to have an opinion on the latter.

Second, and more controversial, is the middle and high school boundary. Right now, enrollments are significantly higher in the east side schools than those on the west, a result of a decision made in the Red Plan days that somewhat balanced socioeconomics. All three proposed plans now seek to equalize enrollments. Scenario 2 is effectively what the Red Plan could have been with more equal overall enrollments: all Myers-Wilkins students (who currently split between east and west) head west, all Homecroft kids (now including the rural bits that currently feed into Lowell) head east, and the socioeconomic split becomes slightly more pronounced than it currently is. Scenarios 1 and 3 take a step toward equalizing socioeconomics by sending Homecroft kids, including the entirety of the Woodland neighborhood, west, while sending all of Myers-Wilkins to the east. The potential Woodland shift has, predictably, been the most explosive piece of the proposals.

Equity, Equality, and Outcomes

The question of the different demographics in schools sparks a debate about equity and equality, two words that get thrown around a lot in school boundary debates but mean very different things. The easiest way to sum up the difference: equality gives people the same resources regardless of where they all, while equity recognizes inherent differences in where people start and tries to balance them by giving more to those who need more, and (potentially) less to those who start with more. The recent debate about compensatory education dollars doled out by the state to help correct differences between socioeconomic groups, which had previously been divided equally among schools (the same amount per pupil per school) but are now divided more equitably by school (higher amounts to schools with more students are in disadvantaged groups and lower amounts to schools with less) is a good illustration of this divide.

In graduate school, I took a class from Myron Orfield, one of the foremost scholarly proponents of court-ordered integration in public schools. Predictably, Orfield has his share of critics from the right, who question things like anti-segregation busing or creative line drawing in the name of equality as overwrought social engineering. By the time I was in his classroom, however, the most vocal of Orfield’s opponents were coming from the left, and they usually framed their beef in a racial lens. These critics questioned whether mixing people together in the name of integration was a good in and of itself, and argued that shipping kids of color to more white schools in the belief that exposure to kids at such schools would somehow lift their performance was actually rather insulting to students of color. Instead, these critics argue, districts should invest more resources in neighborhood schools that acknowledge and lift up the culture of the people of color. In oversimplified terms, Orfield was a proponent for equality; his new critics wanted equity.

There’s a key difference in the Duluth proposals: by sending Woodland kids on a bus journey across the city to Lincoln Park and Denfeld, ISD 709 wouldn’t be busing kids from low-income families to more affluent schools; it would be doing the reverse. Several people in my circles who I’d generally describe as relatively well-off liberals really like this: they recognize their kids enjoy advantages that won’t fade away if they go to Lincoln Park instead of Ordean East, and they want to send them to mixed schools that reflect the general makeup of the country (or, at least, the area) that they will encounter when they complete their K-12 educations. The loud, angry reactions from Woodland were certainly predictable, though, as were the more practical concerns about logistics and drive times. As the Star Tribune pithily noted, the one thing the attendees at a workshop at Duluth East could agree on was that they didn’t like any of the options.

Fundamentally, these debates run directly along the most pronounced fissures in American society and asks a profound question: can an increasingly diverse school district in an increasingly economically divided metro area find some way to draw lines to mend the fences? Without launching into a discourse on Robert Putnam’s findings on diversity and social trust or the various competing contact and conflict theories of diverse societies, I’ll just say this: diversity, whether racial or socioeconomic, is complicated. And it should be if we acknowledge the full range of human possibility, and that complication deserves respect. In cases like this, I think it’s helpful to strip away the overarching theory for a moment and look at the incentives that changes might create.

What Incentives Do Boundaries Create?

School boundaries are, of course, one tool that communities can control that can shape their divides. But is drawing lines in ways that aim toward balance the best way to achieve that? (When court-ordered across a metropolitan area Orfield’s evidence would say yes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here: people have a lot of other choices.) And is there merit in working to have a critical mass of kids from certain backgrounds in the same place so that they can build a community and so that it becomes easier to deliver any additional support they may need? (If so, what exactly is this “group” we’re talking about?) For that matter, how would the various scenarios affect things such as compensatory education dollars? Redrawing boundaries could reshape the district in myriad ways.

If I sound more cautionary about district-driven integration than one might assume given some of my past writings, part of the reason has to be lived experience: when the Red Plan went into place, it too sought to equalize elementary school enrollments, but trends have not gone the way its architects expected. Some of this is only natural; it’s hard to predict the future, and as many in and around the district have noted, boundaries are something schools should revisit periodically.

But Duluth’s trends over the past ten years were not particularly hard to foresee. The two most affluent elementary schools, riding their reputation, became overcrowded; many of the lowest-income schools, meanwhile, bled kids. I’d need access to more data to say whether this is a product of open enrollment out of the district on the west side or families with kids consciously choosing to live in Congdon or Lakeside—most likely it’s some combination of the two—but it’s a pretty obvious trend. People will vote with their feet no matter where the lines are drawn. The question, then, is how individual schools can act in ways that attract students instead of pushing them out.

I don’t think this observation necessarily has obvious implications. Would Scenario 1 or 3 lead Woodland families to bail on the district, either by enrolling elsewhere or chopping Woodland of the list of neighborhoods they consider? It’s a very real possibility. Or do enough stay put and thereby create positive feedback loops into the western schools, thereby strengthening them (assuming one believes they actually need to be “strengthened”) and leading fewer families to bail out into Hermantown or Wrenshall or private or charter schools? We have a decade worth of data on those enrollment trends from other neighborhoods post-Red Plan to inform forecasts of what might happen here. Whichever option the district chooses, it needs to rely on more than a wishful belief in good intentions.

Fear for the Future

The questions surrounding the Woodland debate feed into a broader trend I observe so often now, whether in school choice or in any number of realms, from youth athletics to friend circles, that affect children’s futures. The logic of late capitalism has led child management for positive outcomes to become a second job, and parents will spend as much of their resources as they can to seek what they believe to be better. I don’t doubt that this has always been true to some extent, just as Duluth has always been divided between east and west, but it seems so much more pronounced now: there is a fundamental panic that things might go wrong, the product of a precarious society where even the well-off do not feel comfortable in their stations. Some west side parents feel forced to defend their choice to send their kids to the neighborhood schools as if it were a risky proposition.

This precarious world is a product of a socioeconomic climate where parents are scared their kids won’t be able to match or exceed their parents’ living standards. In an environment filled with choice, people panic that if they do not make the right choice, they may be setting their children up for failure. They may or may not be right, but perception is reality, and the need to choose correctly creates self-reinforcing loops. In this environment, the typical parent who does not live diversity and socioeconomic theory (and even a healthy number who do) will make the choices that most minimize risk of the concerns they have. They will, once again, vote with their feet.

Part of me wants to roll my eyes at this endless push. On a certain level, kids will be fine; unless it is a truly chaotic environment where no learning can take place, the evidence is pretty clear that factors beyond schools play much bigger roles in kids’ prospects than what goes on in the building itself. In my volunteer role as a college admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I’ve seen no evidence that talented kids with good support networks can’t make it in to the Georgetowns of the world, no matter where in the Duluth area they go to high school. But can I pretend that some of these considerations aren’t present as I decide which neighborhoods to focus on when I buy a house in this city sometime this year? No, I can’t.

School boundary discussions are wicked problems with no easy solutions, perhaps because we can’t quite agree on the question. Even the most committed, well-meaning believers in an integrated society struggle with where to draw lines, literal and figurative, for their own children. To that end, maybe it’s best that we pause and remember what lines cannot do: they cannot reverse people’s opinions on social and economic divides; they cannot make well-off kids dumber or turn students from hopelessly broken homes into college-bound scholars. Maybe that can offer some reassurance to both those in panic over potential changes and the full-throated believers in the transformative power of integration. Still, those who ultimately draw the lines have the task of managing the process with care and understanding for all of the people—and through them, the very fabric of a community—their decisions affect. May they choose well.

In Praise of Cockiness

17 Jan

The power of egotism was on my mind as I watched Louisiana State take down dynastic Clemson for an NCAA football national championship last week. There was an undercurrent of annoyance among the ESPN announcers about the attitude of the Bayou Bengals, a sense that LSU’s cockiness rubbed them the wrong way. This team, they said, expected to win more than anyone they’d ever seen, and they weren’t afraid to tell the world as much.

The exemplar of this brash expectation of victory, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, just looks like the platonic ideal of an all-American boy, and he clearly knows it. His post-touchdown celebrations included a bit where he sized himself for a championship ring; he and his teammates earned the ire of the New Orleans police when they sucked down cigars in the bowels of the Superdome after the win.  He has a bit of a hotheaded streak, as evidenced when he had a momentary squabble with his head coach, the peerless Ed Orgeron. At one point, Burrow even egged on the LSU students through a banned chant about creative acts with part of a tiger’s anatomy. Decorum be damned: I ate it all up. It ain’t bragging if it’s true.

Watching Burrow’s ownership of college football this season made me stop to realize how much I delight in athletes who have that swag. Derek Jeter was perhaps less outwardly flashy than Burrow, but he knew how to quietly demonstrate his flair; his successor as the Yankee standard-bearer, Aaron Judge, has a hint of that too, as when he (rather prematurely) blasted ‘New York, New York’ at the Boston clubhouse in the 2018 playoffs. My bouncyball loyalty is to a Georgetown program that built its reputation on brashness, toughness, and unapologetic blackness under John Thompson, Jr., and has found a hint of it again (minus the blackness) in guard Mac McClung, who is the most entertaining Hoya in my time watching Georgetown hoops. (Now, if only he could play defense.) Even my Duluth East hockey teams, on which ego is so often subsumed in coach Mike Randolph’s machine, have tended to emerge as my favorites when they add in a dash of panache, whether that comes in the form of Garrett Worth’s sniper’s ego or the more poised flair of a Meirs Moore some years before.

I will always have a world of respect for the athletes who are sheer class and grace: a Mariano Rivera, a Roger Federer, an Andrés Iniesta. But as my gaze strays to the flashier stars, most of them in their teens or early 20s when they build this reputation, I can’t help but love every moment of it. This blog has done enough lamenting about lost youth lately, so I’ll linger here only to acknowledge the timeless joy that comes from fully owning a moment. These are the athletes who remind us that it is a game, even as they take it to its highest level, and there’s something refreshing in watching people who know they are good and revel in that fact.

My praise for the egotists of the world is not without limits: there is a fine line between cockiness and straight-up arrogance. The best of these stars know to confine their supreme self-confidence in realms in which they’ve earned it. With the press, Burrow comes off as a quiet, mild-mannered kid who’s slightly out of place, except when he takes time to make a comment that raises half a million dollars for the Athens, Ohio food bank or acknowledges the university dining hall staff in his postgame interview. Jeter, famously, never put a word out of place with the media and was a model of decency when in the public eye. There is an art to finding the self-certainty necessary to succeed in a high-pressure environment and still recognizing the larger world outside of the arena. Some people looked at Jeter and saw a façade; I looked at him and saw someone in complete command of his world, whatever the situation.

The underlying wisdom in a certain form of brashness is most apparent in sports but relevant anywhere. As I began my thirtieth year, I did away with the ten-part strategic life plan I’d written up at the start of the past few years. Not that I don’t have goals of sorts, including several that would be significant milestones; I just decided that those markers should be less central to who I am. Instead, I brought my focus back into the immediate: on to questions of how I carry myself day-to-day, distant aspirations set aside for a manner of living, a true belief in a line I’ve repeated many times in some version or another: that happiness is a byproduct of a life well-lived, and that success does not come through achievement of demonstrated goals but instead through immersion in a mindset in which one can take pride.

No one, whether an athlete or just some civilian, can live in dead-set certainty of purpose forever; at times, its attainment can limit one’s vision, and certain personalities are more in danger of it in excess than in its absence. But those moments when we achieve it can bring clarity for the long haul. That added dose of self-assurance can dispel anxiety when the moment calls for forging directly ahead, finding ways to reset nearly every day, repeating the central claim: this is who I am and what I stand for, and this is my escape from any albatrosses that may weigh me down. That certainty requires a certain self-confidence that can drift in to cockiness, and if it does, why is that such a bad thing? Sometimes we just need that level of belief.

MN HS AA Rankings for 1/12/20

12 Jan

Due to an outage on the USHSHO forum, weekly rankings are appearing here this week. Apologies for the interruption in regularly scheduled programming.

Well, so much for this getting any easier as the season went along.

1. Eden Prairie (11-2-1)

-First off, let’s acknowledge what the Eagles are not: they are not an elite, surefire #1 on the level of recent state champions like Edina or Minnetonka. We should not be surprised that this team needs to fight to scrape out one-goal wins against teams like Cloquet, whatever the rankings may say. That’s just how tight things are this season, and beyond their star players, it gets thin pretty quickly. What the Eagles are, however, is a team that continues to collect plenty of decent wins while suffering only a few losses, and they’re also the only team that can claim to have a cavalry on its way later this season, when Jackson Blake finally becomes eligible and Carter Batchelder becomes healthy. If they can survive four tough games over the next two weeks, they’ll certainly have earned this spot.

This week: Thurs vs. #10 Minnetonka, Sat vs. St. Michael-Albertville

2. Moorhead (13-3-1)

-I almost found it in me to put the Spuds at #1, but an overtime win over St. Cloud, which continues a run of tough games against section opponents, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. They are often even less controlling of big games than Eden Prairie, so hence my skepticism, but the East Grand Forks win was another in a growing collection of quality wins. They head to Duluth in their only action this week.

This week: Sat at Duluth East

3. Blake (12-3)

-Give this team its due as it heads down the stretch: they’ve now won eight in a row, and while the schedule hasn’t been the hardest, they’ve beaten just about everyone with authority, which is not something any other team is doing right now. They deserve some hype as they head into their Hockey Day appearance.

This week: Tues at Burnsville, Sat vs. #14 Blaine (Hockey Day)

4. Andover (10-3-1)

-The Huskies received the kiss of death last week and both lost and tied in the past week. A narrow defeat at the hands of the defending Class A champs isn’t overly concerning in my book; failing to beat middling Totino-Grace, on the other hand, sounds some alarm bells. The Maple Grove rematch this week will be instructive.

This week: Tues at #6 Maple Grove, Thurs at Armstrong/Cooper, Sat at Anoka

5. Rosemount (13-3)

-The Irish had a chance to claim the top spot when Andover lost, but blew it in a loss to Lakeville North. They rebounded with a convincing win over Eastview, which has value in the section. They haven’t allowed more than two goals in their last six, which is the right formula for this squad to make a deep run; they just have to avoid total outages offensively to continue winning. They continue with conference play this week.

This week: Thurs vs. Burnsville, Sat vs. Shakopee

6. Maple Grove (10-3)

-The actually somewhat consistent Crimson picked up a win over Centennial to restore some order to 5AA seeding, but it wasn’t exactly the sort of effort that will quiet any doubters. They got run over by Andover in the teams’ first meeting, but with the Huskies now looking a little more vulnerable, we’ll see if the Crimson can improve on that result.

This week: Tues vs. #4 Andover, Thurs at Elk River, Sat vs. Rogers

7. White Bear Lake (10-2-1)

-The Bears picked up an important section win over Stillwater, but lost a chance to move up with a loss to Minnetonka. On paper they should roll through their next few weeks of section play, so they need to get it done here if they want to stay in the conversation as a top team.

This week: Thurs at Woodbury, Sat at Park (Cottage Grove)

8. Cretin-Derham Hall (11-3-1)

-The Raiders picked up methodical wins over Stillwater and Forest Lake and then rallied to pick up a quality tie with Hermantown. They’ve lost just once in their past 13, and their next four should probably be wins, too.

This week: Thurs at Mounds View, Sat at Woodbury

9. Prior Lake (9-4-2)

-This is the point where I just start making things up. A tie against Burnsville put a momentary damper on the Lakers’ run, but they turned it around with a quality win over Lakeville South later in the week. Statewide parity might just allow this team to arrive ahead of schedule and make a real run at 2AA. Road tests against Duluth East and Lakeville North could allow them to further cement a quality position.

This week: Tues at Duluth East, Thurs at Lakeville North, Sat at Farmington

10. Minnetonka (8-7)

-The Skippers knocked off White Bear Lake and have now won seven of their last nine, which keeps them moving up these boards by virtue of their momentum; while they also have more losses, they’re also among the leaders in quality wins in the state right now. If they can keep that going against the top-ranked Eagles, things will suddenly be looking pretty rosy for a team that had fallen off a cliff about a month ago.

This week: Thurs at #1 Eden Prairie, Sat at Bloomington Jefferson

11. Benilde-St. Margaret’s (7-5-2)

-A shutout win over Hill was a step in the right direction for the Red Knights, and their upcoming schedule gives them a chance to build on it, too. If this offense is ever going to get on track in the way we thought it might back in November, now is the time.

This week: Thurs at Bloomington Jefferson, Sat vs. Chaska

12. Hill-Murray (9-4-2)

-Nothing is trending in the right direction for the Pioneers, who got shut out by Benilde and lost to a Mahtomedi team they’d beaten by five in December. This team is getting increasingly paradoxical after its hot start. The coming week which features a similarly inconsistent opponent and a Hastings team that just made a splash against another traditional AA power.

This week: Thurs vs. #13 Wayzata, Sat at Hastings

13. Wayzata (9-5-1)

-Trojans will be Trojans: a loss to St. Michael-Albertville hurts, and a narrow escape against a Buffalo team that the rest of the Lake has been slaughtering doesn’t exactly help the cause, either. This sort of lurch is par for the course with this program; the coming week gives them a chance to make their customary adjustment back in the other direction.

This week: Thurs at 1#12 Hill-Murray, Sat at Edina

14. Blaine (9-5)

-The Bengals took care of business against weaker Northwest Suburban opponents, which is something we really shouldn’t take for granted this season. An interesting Hockey Day test with chart-climbing Blake looms.

This week: Tues vs. Spring Lake Park, Sat at #3 Blake (Hockey Day)

15. Roseau (12-3)

-The Rams boosted their stock some with an impressive comeback win against previously undefeated Warroad. That’s the only game they’ve played against a quality team in either class over the past month, so they’re hard to gauge right now; their lone game this week will give us a bit more to work with.

This week: Tues at East Grand Forks

[u]The Next Ten[/u]

Edina (7-7-2)

-The Hornets suffered a tie to St. Michael-Albertville but recovered to record a quality win over Lakeville South. After producing little in recent weeks, the offense finally seemed to be on track some. We’ll see if they can keep that rolling against two beatable conference opponents this week.

Grand Rapids (7-5-1)

-The Thunderhawks had themselves a very positive week: they tied a very good Hermantown team, edged Duluth East in a key 7AA fight, and fought past Greenway to reclaim bragging rights in their greatest rivalry. A win over Cloquet on Tuesday can put them in firm control of the race for the 2-seed in 7AA.

Lakeville North (9-4-1)

-The Panthers engaged in the sort of nonsense that has defined this season over the past week, as they upset Rosemount before turning around and losing to Eagan. They can improve their station by doing something against Prior Lake this week.

Lakeville South (9-5)

-A week after looking like world-beaters, the Cougars had a rough week in which they lost to Prior Lake and Edina. Eagan and Eastview this coming week will be telling: is this team a front-liner in the South Suburban, or are they part of one very large, crowded conference?

Stillwater (8-3-1)

-While competitive, meetings with higher-ranked teams did not go well for the Ponies, as they fell to Cretin and White Bear; more glaringly, they tied Forest Lake after all of that. On paper they should win both of their conference games this week.

St. Michael-Albertville (6-6-2)

-The Knights had themselves a quality week with a tie against Edina and a win over Wayzata; at the very least, they’re showing they’re not overmatched by their new conference. Eden Prairie looms this coming week.

Burnsville (9-3-2)

-A tie with Prior Lake is a notable improvement on the Blaze’s previous meeting with the Lakers. This week is a good moment of truth, as they face Blake, Rosemount, and a lurking Eagan team.

Eagan (11-4)

-The Wildcats are starting to build some momentum after quality wins over Eastview and Lakeville North. They really haven’t been tested at all outside of the conference, but are collecting respectable wins and have a chance to make even more noise this coming week against Lakeville South and Burnsville.

Holy Family (7-7)

-Finally, a AA team that won two games with authority this past week! Okay, those wins came against Litchfield and Waconia, but we’ll take what we can get. The Delano game this week could be an interesting one, as the Tigers are coming off a good showing against St. Cloud Cathedral.

Duluth East (7-8)

-The Hounds slid down the table a bit following losses to Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie. The consistency just isn’t there, and they’re still looking for one obvious strength they could ride to more than a distant hope of an upset. The tests keep coming this week as they face sharp-looking Prior Lake and some Spuds.

[u]Sections[/u]

1AA

18 Lakeville North

19 Lakeville South

Hastings

Farmington

-This section has me contorting back and forth as I try to figure out where the Lakevilles stand in relation to the rest of the state and where the rest of the section stands in relation to the Lakevilles. North, with its win over South and South’s recent slide, is back on top; Rochester Century may win 20 games (and may get a higher seed because of it), but if we’re using traditional seeding criteria, the loss to Farmington makes it hard to put the Panthers higher than the 5-seed, despite this past week’s win over Owatonna. Next Saturday will be a defining day in this section, as Century and Hastings face off and the Lakevilles have their rematch.

2AA

1 Eden Prairie

9 Prior Lake

10 Minnetonka

Chaska

-How much does that holiday tournament loss to Chaska have to sting for Prior Lake? Without it, they’d be in the clubhouse with an undefeated record against 2AA competition. Even so, if Eden Prairie and Minnetonka split their Lake meetings, they may yet nab the top spot; if one of those teams sweeps, I’d give it the top seed. I think the top three are clear enough here, but the order they’ll fall in is still anyone’s guess. Chaska is hanging on the 4-seed ahead of Holy Family by virtue of that Prior Lake win right now.

3AA

5 Rosemount

22 Burnsville

23 Eagan

Eastview

-Could St. Thomas be starting the playoffs on the road? With losses to Rosemount and Eastview, it’s now a distinct possibility. Right now, things are making reasonable sense here, as Rosemount and Burnsville are both undefeated in section play and have a meeting looming this week; Eagan has lost to those two but beat Eastview. With plenty of South Suburban games left, though, there’s plenty of time for this section to fall into line and be a mess like all the others.

4AA

7 White Bear Lake

12 Hill-Murray

20 Stillwater

Mounds View

-Finally, a section with relative clarity: the Bears remain in control after a win over Stillwater. The only way I see the Bears falling from the top spot is with a Stillwater sweep of its remaining section games, in which case that Irondale loss would be a factor. The loser of the Stillwater-Hill game will likely be stuck with the 3-seed. Mounds View took a step toward the 4-seed with a win over East Ridge on Saturday.

5AA

6 Maple Grove

14Blaine

Centennial

Champlin Park

-With its sweep of Centennial, Maple Grove is back atop the heap in this one. The Maple Grove-Blaine rematch is next Thursday; both teams still control their own destiny here, while Centennial can go no higher than 2 with a win over Blaine. Champlin has a strong record but went 0-3 against the top 3 and has a test against Totino looming to decide the 4-seed.

6AA

3 Blake

8 Cretin-Derham Hall

11 Benilde-St. Margaret’s

13 Wayzata

16 Edina

-Nothing has fundamentally changed here since our pained check-in two weeks ago: these teams all remain 1-1 or 1-1-1 against each other, and any shifting is due only to placement in the overall rankings. That should change over the next two weeks, as we have the second of three Edina-Wayzata meetings and a big battle between Benilde and Blake. The winner of the Blake-Benilde game, barring a tailspin in non-section play, will have a good claim to the top seed; the Lake teams’ records may end up holding them back and leaving one, or even both, in the 4-5 game. A little clarity, please?

7AA

4 Andover

17 Grand Rapids

Cloquet

25 Duluth East

-A mercifully straightforward section: Andover is the state’s one sure 1-seed, and Grand Rapids has made strides toward the 2-seed. From here, everything really runs through the Jacks, who face Rapids twice and East for a second time in the coming weeks; they also have Forest Lake, which is looming in QRF. East has the Rangers next week also.

8AA

15 Roseau

2 Moorhead

21 St. Michael-Albertville

St. Cloud

-Can a team contend for #1 in the state and not the top seed in its own section? That might just be the case for Moorhead right now, though they have a chance to flip that if they can hang on to this spot over the next two weeks and beat Roseau in the process. STMA, though probably doomed to no more than a 3-seed, is certainly showing it can be dangerous. St. Cloud, with a win and a tie over Brainerd and a good showing against the Spuds, is now in position for the 4-seed.

Beach Boys

9 Jan

This story is a companion to the eleven-part series that began here.

I.

The San Onofre crew is accustomed to week-long interlopers every now and then. Some appear on their little slice of beach every year, others just drift in and out. Some are memorable, but even those are never more than a stray story, a remember when so-and-so and such-and-such that provides a background bass line to the chatter at the Ex-Con-Tiki bar every weekend.

He shows up with a beginner’s surfboard and a wetsuit, and little else. He doesn’t wear any surf shop gear, makes no effort convey any talent or experience. They all agree he is attractive and looks the part of a beach poser: long scraggly hair pulled back beneath a backwards hat, muted tone tank tops and generic board shorts, well-sculpted shoulders and legs that show he’s more than a casual athlete. His wide, brown eyes bear an eternal look of someone peering off into the horizon, someone who gazes toward the light to see what it can reveal. After watching him for four days, Casey decides that this interloper, intentional or not, has become the platonic ideal of the beach. He makes it seem effortless without deploying any effort, a shockingly rare achievement along the California coast.

He has no great talent as a surfer. Not once does he attempt anything bold or inventive, his movements always deliberate and precise. But his form is on point, no wasted effort on his board, and he’s clearly done his homework, knows the nuances of the wave in a way few rookies do. Nor is he one to repeat mistakes, each lesson stored away in a trove of knowledge that Adrian suspects must border on the encyclopedic. Surely he’s been to San Onofre before, Casey asks him, and he shrugs and says yes, years ago, when he was just a kid. Neera suspects this is a lie to enhance his intrigue, but when pressed, the kid pulls up a picture of his preteen self on this very beach, grinning between two parents as he clutches this very surfboard. The memory means something to him, clearly, but what they cannot be sure.

When they break into his cabana to see what else he has, they find no more than a bottle of bourbon, sipped at in moderation; a pile of cheap microwave meals, though of the semi-healthy variety; and a few little notebooks half-filled with unintelligible scrawl. Adrian sees a picture of a girl on his phone background, but Jack, who holes up in the cabin next door, reports only one late night phone conversation, and it with a guy at some East Coast college. He is agreeable enough, shares a few beers with the Samoan proprietor of the Ex-Con-Tiki, can talk about the wave and downplay his own skill with the best of them. But even Neera, the most skilled prosecutor on these sunny shores, fails to fish out any details when she sidles up to him with a drink and her voluminous eyelashes.

Over the boy’s first four days at San Onofre he is tentative, avoids others unless they address him, willingly accepts his position as the rookie on the fringes of the lineup. He simply goes about his wave work within his limits, creates as small of a swell as he can. Neera invites him to a club in San Clemente, but he demurs and spends his night reading some cliched travelogue outside his cabin. His heart isn’t in it.

The interloper is a source of mild interest at the club that night; if Neera weren’t newly single, they wouldn’t have given him much mind. But Alexandra, eager to quash Neera’s intrigue, convenes a meeting of the minds before the boys inevitably disappear to the back alley to toke a bowl. The last thing she needs is to babysit yet another brokenhearted roommate.

“What was the name again?”

“Evan. His bag says Gopher hockey on it.” Frantic googling ensues.

“Sure enough, that’s him. Walk-on. Guess he’s got some talent.” Alexandra shows them his roster profile on his phone.

“He’s got good form for a kid from the middle of bumfuck nowhere,” says Jack, already half out of his seat for his trip to the alley.

“And he’s a cutie,” Neera muses. “Probably real nice. Minnesotans always are.”

“Some midwestern bro living out his fantasy,” says Casey.

“I’ll tell you what he is,” Alexandra says. “He’s a climber. He doesn’t want you to think he’s after anything…but he’s after something.”

“He’ll fit right in in this town,” Casey says, trying to give her a significant look. Alexandra ignores his puppy eyes and instead checks Neera’s reaction: concern, fear that her Minnesota Nice diagnosis may be awry. Yes, that’s exactly what she’d hoped for.

“There’s no fitting in in this town,” she replies. “Either you grab the wave or you end up washed up on the beach.”

II.

“Alright, kids, welcome to Solomon’s Temple,” Mark announces as the procession of cabs pulls up to the beach house.

“Did they add on a new wing since I was here?” asks Matt.

“Yup. New sun room on the side, and another bedroom below it where we can stuff a few more bodies.”

“You’ve been here before?” asks Dante, a newcomer to the group.

“Marky and I go all the way back,” says Matt. “Been dealing with this snob since I was ten, even when he went off to Minnesota and New Haven. Been in the family since way before you, right?”

“That it has. And Matty was one of the few Dirty Jersey friends my parents let me have out here on the island,” Mark says. “No freaking clue what they saw in him.”

“I just remember us out on that beach when we were like twelve, thinking we were hot shit and going after high school girls.”

“Better luck this time, Matty,” Mark teases.

“Why Solomon’s Temple?” Amelia asks from the back seat.

“Parents went through a religious phase. Plus my dad’s gone through almost 700 wives, so it’s fitting.” To Mark’s mild annoyance, the allusion goes over the heads of everyone in the car.

Lost references aside, Mark is proud of his plans for a long Nantucket weekend. He’s made his invites carefully, fifteen in total, six men and nine women, the ratio off-kilter to get the group to the front of bar lines and provide more options for his enjoyment. There are three couples, already paired off, and Leslie, his lesbian work life confidante; to the mix he adds Dante, a Camden-based writer who went to Princeton with Matt, proof this week is more than his own sandbox. No, he’s collected his interesting people, all with some purpose unknown to them. Dante the poet, Leslie the life coach, the couples to provide stability, and Matt, his foil, both a competitor and a partner in the pursuit of the four eligible ladies. They know the unspoken rules of the game they both relish.

The first night goes according to plan. They are all drunk by eight and pile into two cabs Mark has contracted for the week for a venture to a strip of bars in town. Nora, the most attractive and least stable of the four singles, trips on a loose sidewalk brick and goes down in a heap. They are a bit on the drunk side for the finer bars in this outpost, but Mark has curated his guests well enough that he knows no one will go full Jersey Shore on him. They plow through a few fine cocktails before beginning the inevitable push back to the one dive bar on the island, where Mark suspects all their nights will end. The first one has enough novelty that he can ride it through, play his part, head home happily drunk at the end of the night and settle for a few sloppy kisses with Nora. Matt goes to bed empty-handed, and Mark claims pyrrhic sort of victory on night one.

He’s paced himself well. He wakes the next morning with no hint of a hangover and heads out for a ten-mile run along the coastal roads out to Siasconset and back. A handful of his housemates have stirred to life by the time he returns, all in awe of his early morning feat of athleticism. He shrugs off their praise with practiced nonchalance, the borderline arrogance of a man whose achievements require no acknowledgment. He is who he is.

Even so, Mark senses a distance growing between him and the rest of the house as it stirs to life. He has classified himself as a breed apart, and now it is his duty to reclaim his charm. He takes orders for mimosas and coaches Leslie and Dante on the Markian approach to beach life, to dive immediately back in. His disciples laugh and follow his lead. The god has come down from the clouds.

They pass most of the day on the beach. Mark drifts in and out of a few games of volleyball, works his tan, settles under an umbrella to keep his steady buzz and samples the edibles brought by Patrick and Erica, two underlings of his who have managed to hide their romance from everyone else in the office save Mark’s prying eyes. He caught their subtle winks, their well-timed bathroom trips, their aligned vacation schedules. Erica buries herself in the sand and gazes out at the waves in peace, and Patrick nuzzles up against her. Mark nestles near them on his towel, close enough for idle observation but far enough to give them space. They’re a fascinating specimen, this couple that has found love in a desolate office. He’s in a good enough place that he can stave off the wistful thoughts they inspire in him.

Night two involves less pretense, a quick pregame that moves on to a unified beach party with several other homes. This night, Mark expects, will be the most debauched of the week, and he steals a thirty-minute nap beforehand to steel himself for it.

“Game on,” he whispers to Matt as he settles in to bed.

“Remind me how many extra points I get per college girl?”

“Careful, Matty. Can’t talk like that anymore these days. You trying to tell me you aren’t here to find undying love?”

“C’mon, it’s not wrong if they’re in on the game, too.”

By the end of the night they are back in the room they share with two girls who claim they’re headed into their senior years at Dartmouth. In time it comes out that they’re merely Brooklyn baristas, but by this point Mark and Matt are in too deep. Mark thinks Matt wrapped up the proceedings with the slightly cuter one, but his finds just the right level of pleasure to sustain him through the longest finish he can ever remember. He is content to call the night a draw.

Mark wakes to find his new acquaintance wrapped in sheets at his side. Matt’s bedmate, he sees, has slipped off in the night. He deserves extra credit for that. He stays in bed until the girl wakes and politely sees her on her way, though he does not invite her to stay for the brunch Dante has promised to whip up to start day three. She was lovely, but he doesn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. His prize will be no barista, no random encounter on the beach. He’s already culled his herd.

The group applauds Mark and Matt for their conquests, though Leslie groans as they settle in on the beach with Nora’s foul anti-hangover concoction.

“This isn’t the Mark I like. The one I like is the one who was grilling Amelia on what AI is going to mean for humanity.”

“That Mark does get a little tired of always having to be the know-it-all cynic.”

“Okay then. How about the one who kicked all our asses at volleyball then had some pot brownies with me on the beach yesterday?”

“You know I’d go freaking crazy if I tried to live like that.”

“You don’t make this easy, do you?”

“The world is a complicated place. Just…being one with its waves, you know?”

“Hah. Clever turn, I’ll give you that.”

“I’m good for that, if nothing else.”

“You’re in Sad Mark mode again, aren’t you?”

“Me? Sad? I fucking rule my world.”

“Doesn’t seem to do much for you.”

“Does plenty for me. Just hungry enough to want even more. There you go. There’s a thirst no AI can ever have.” He pours himself another mimosa.

III.

On day five, it all changes. The boy barges in to Adrian’s turf on the wave, commands the inside of the tube, pulls a series of hard turns in succession. The conditions aren’t particularly good, and he still has an erratic streak that nearly creates a few collisions. Yet he surfs with reckless abandon, just hanging on to an edge of control. Even Alexandra rises up from her droll position on the beach to eyeball this display of reckless bravado. Later, when he washes up immediately in front of her, just as composed as when he’d emerged from the waves the two days before, she can’t help but flash him a quick smile.  

Evan ignores her. When Adrian snarls at him over his lack of decorum, he rolls his eyes and doesn’t reply. When Casey asks if he wants the video he’s shot of him, he’s downright scornful: he’s not here to be found, to time it just right for the perfect conditions, to pull off any particular move. He’s here to surf.

That night the interloper shows up at the bar for the first time since the second night. After a survey of the room, he gives the boys an awkward nod of respect. They reciprocate, an invitation to become one of them for the night. Evan accepts, but Casey can tell he’s not after their approval. Instead, his eyes flit toward Alexandra at every opportunity.

Alexandra is the queen bee of the San Onofre crew, a daughter of New Yorker socialites who fled west to try show business, found it vapid, and now lives off a trust fund with some beach bums. She’s convinced her parents she’s still seeking out modeling opportunities, and she staved off her mother’s inquiries at the latest visit with a carefully concocted story of her pursuit of some surf magazine. Her housemates are all complicit, bought off with the promise of Alexandra’s influence, and her willingness to pay the freight for the booze and drugs at the parties they host. The girls of the Ex-Con-Tiki have a reputation to keep.

Over the first few drinks of the evening, Evan pulls this story out of his fellow lustful males. Adrian has no interest in her uppity style, though this doesn’t stop him from telling Evan what he’d like to do to her in lurid detail. Evan pointedly turns to Casey and Jack, where he finds contradictory takes: Casey finds the addition of her tight mini-skirts and bottomless purse an unquestioned perk, while Jack tells anyone around him that she’s attracting the wrong type to San Onofre.

“Super high-maintenance.”

“Bunch of valley girls,” Casey admits.

“Exactly. None of the chill natives who actually know their way around a board.” Casey concedes the point, and Evan nods gravely.

That settles it, Casey thinks: the interloper stands for nothing if not purity, so he’s the last person he would expect to seek out Alexandra. He’s free to set up his own play. But it’s too late: Evan buys them all another round, slams his immediately, and marches across the bar to greet her. The boys watch, enthralled: will she eat this new kid for dinner as she has so many times before, or do those searching eyes know something she doesn’t?

Alexandra isn’t even sure why she’s here tonight. She’s cut back her drinking to a light trickle, and the charm of this beach dive wore off months ago. Her tablemates are all shrill harpies, and the crowd is otherwise sparse, a few aging wannabes in the corner and the tiresome Casey there in the middle with his unremarkable friends, headed for yet another stupor. And now up walks this boy who tries so hard to project some air of confidence.

“Slow night here,” Evan muses. It’s a comment for Alexandra alone, not the other four girls at her table.

“We don’t do much speed here,” she answers. “Unless you mean meth. Ask the bartender and he can hook you up for a decent price.” Evan’s eyes flit to the Samoan, who’d told him a tear-jerking tale of his turn to clean living after his release from prison the night before. They make eye contact, and he seems to know exactly what Alexandra just told him. He closes his eyes and musters up his cool.

“Appreciate the reference. Got a trailer we can take it back to?”

“Not much peace and quiet at my place. I hear you’ve got a little hermit cabin down toward the old nuke plant?”

“Out in the wilderness, just like Saint Onofre himself.”

“You’re a smart little fuck.”

“I try to be versatile. A renaissance man. A soldier-scholar. A philosopher king.”

“A drunk college jock who needs a haircut and wants it bad.”

“All of the above. Can I get you something?”

“You can get me out of here, that’s for sure.”

“Now you’re talking.” Evan steps aside to let her out of her booth and leads the way toward the exit. He doesn’t bother looking to see what sort of reaction he’s inspired, but Alexandra makes sure to give Casey a triumphant leer before she slips out behind him.

They don’t head straight for a bedroom. Freed from the need to perform, Evan sets a contemplative pace up the beach, and Alexandra regales him with the inner dynamics of her house. After five minutes of blather, she gets the sneaking suspicion he isn’t paying attention. Casey would have kept fawning after her the entire time, but no, this kid is subtly showing her he’s bored, that he doesn’t need her, that she should be the one seeking him out, not vice versa.

“Let’s head to my place,” she snaps, and he returns his attention to her.

“Not my wilderness hut?”

“Not sure I should trust men who think that sort of thing is fun. Trust me, a night in my bed will be an upgrade.”

Evan shrugs, nonplussed. Only later does Alexandra realize he already knows where she lives, her backstory, her reputation. She’s not sure if his homework should flatter or disturb her.

She drives him the five miles in to a San Clemente neighborhood near the pier. The house is compact but carries a veneer of refinement, laden with the latest IKEA furniture and a mélange of perfumes that trip Evan’s allergies, an upgrade only when compared to the piggish squalor of Casey’s apartment or the eternal pot smell of Adrian’s. He pours them both lemonades to distract himself from her waterfall of apologies.

“Want to watch something?”

“Not particularly.”

“So who are you, really?”

“Some kid who likes to surf.”

“No shit.”

For the first time since he’d swaggered over to her table, Alexandra suspects some uncertainty in Evan. He blows his nose in a tissue and lets his eyes dart about the apartment, not processing anything they didn’t see the first time. He doesn’t seem like a person eager to get on with easy sex.

“You’re such a loner,” she chances.

“I try to surround myself with the right kind of people.”

“What are those?”

“The people who fuel my fire.”

“And who does that?” she asks as she unbuttons her shirt to reveal a pink polka-dotted bra.

“Not many people.” He tugs off his shirt and lets Alexandra run her hands around his chest in gentle massage circles.

“You’re sunburned.”

“Never can escape that, yeah. I’m not a beach kid.”

“You could play one on TV.”

“I’ll remember that if my business career doesn’t work out.”

“Why are you even here?”

“To surf.”

“No, shit. But out of all the beaches…”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“Quit being smart.”

“Fine, fine.” He gazes at their reflection in a window across the room. “My family used to come here when I was young. My aunt lived out this way for a bit and my parents fell for the place. It’s been ten years now, though. Was curious if it had changed.”

“Huh. Has it?”

“Hard to tell whether I’ve changed or it’s changed.”

“For the better?”

“Well, puberty did enhance one aspect of it. But mostly, no. Everything that seemed big back then seems small now. And people are just as petty here as they are anywhere.”

Alexandra isn’t sure if this is directed at her or not. She casts about for a response that will be on his level.

“You see places better when you don’t see them as a kid. You can see what they actually are. Not what you wish they still were.”

Her would-be lover smiles. “You’d be perfect for my buddy at Yale, saying things like that.”

“I went to high school just up the road from there. Choate. Bunch of self-righteous dicks.”

“My point exactly.”

Alexandra cackles and slides a few fingers in beneath his boxers. He reaches down and clasps his hands over hers, a caress that nonetheless stops her progress.

“You never answered my question,” she says.

“It’s not an interesting story.”

“I’m curious, though!”

“Living out some childhood fantasy, I guess you could say.”

“Oh, forget it, you’re impossible. Let’s fuck.”

He turns back toward her, and Alexandra is once again drawn in to those wide eyes.

“Nah.”

“Seriously? You put in that much effort and then you run away?”

“Got a girl back home. I’m loyal.”

“Loyal. Then what the hell are we even doing here? Loyal. Holy fucking shit. Loyal.”

“You make it sound like a foreign concept.”

“You sound like the clingiest kid ever.”

“When you know what loss is, you become that.” He pulls his shirt back on, cocks his cap back in place, and heads out the door.

IV.

Night three is Mark’s night for excess. After an early win, he can let Matt take the lead in the pursuit and just follow along, let instincts do the rest. He makes a few overtures to Carmina, the shapeliest of the four single girls, but her speech is slurring before they even finish dinner, and after three bars, Mark is little better. Matt paces himself better and takes home an androgynous gender studies major from Barnard. Under normal circumstances Mark would find intrigue in his friend choosing an interesting chat over the easiest lay, but is thankful he is so drunk that he can just pass out, his only lasting memory of the night formed through Dante’s reenactments of the girl’s relentless moaning.

Day four is drizzly and grey. Nora stumbles in with a ballet dancer she’d hooked up with the night before just as the group wraps up brunch, and he has the nerve to whine about the temperature of the leftover eggs. Leslie overhears Patrick criticizing the waitstaff at the dive bar and lectures him on his lack of empathy, leading Mark to edge out of the room in annoyance. He gives Matt a nod, which Dante catches as well, and they both follow him into the kitchen.

“Gotta love the white girl from Westchester lecturing us on privilege,” says Matt.

“You said it, not me,” says Mark, relieved that the two people of color in the party can be his confidantes.

“I give her points for trying,” says Dante. “But doesn’t she work at the same firm as you?”

“That she does,” Mark replies as he contemplates the empty Bloody Mary pitcher with a frown. “We’re all sinners here. Cept you, maybe, Dante.”

“Bro, his parents run a hedge fund,” says Matt. Mark cackles with glee while Dante blushes.

“Not where you come from, but what you do with it, right?”

“Sure. Something like that,” says Matt. “Ugh, the fridge is out of beer. I’ll get more.”

Dante shakes his head as Matt goes. “You and Matt together are a hell of a pair.”

“We’ve been playing the same game our whole lives, Delbarton all the way back.”

“I had you pegged as more of an Exeter kid.”

“Dad was a sleazebag. He fit in better in Jersey.” Mark grabs a tennis ball off a nearby counter and bounces it off the floor.

“Hey now, you know I’m in Camden.”

“Gotta get some good material there.”

“Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“I spent a summer in Detroit. Went to an all-black bar most nights. I’ve seen a thing or two.” Mark idly bounces the ball.

“What were you after?”

“Probably the same thing you’re after.”

“Sure, but you ain’t black, dude. Those are my people there.”

“Right. I realize there are things I’ll never understand about that. Why can’t I try as much as I can to make them mine, too?”

Dante looks at him quizzically. “What the hell you doing here, then, getting trashed on this beach?”

“Playing the game, like I told you.”

Dante shakes his head. “Leslie says you should leave Wall Street. Says you need more than an intellectual dead zone.”

“Everywhere seems that way after Yale, really.”

“Let me show you Camden. See if you still think that after. You can get so much more than this.”

Mark’s eyes flit out at the waves through the rain-spackled window. The tempo of the tennis ball accelerates.

“Roots are complicated things. And mine are here.”

Mark’s heart isn’t in night four. He skips most of the day drinking games and plays cribbage in the lounge with Leslie, who knows him well enough to give him space. He halfheartedly coaches Dante as they size up a group of townies at a less popular beach, the best he can do to escape the motions of a tiresome routine, but Dante has no real interest in his game. Matt is back with the Barnard girl, who makes it clear she has no interest in Mark’s droll act; what exactly she sees in Matt, other than perhaps a brown kid with a lower outward privilege score, is unclear. After staying tight for three nights, their group spreads out across three bars in downtown: the couples choose a quieter locale for date night, Dante and Leslie join an edgier crowd at the dive bar, and Mark trails after the single girls intent upon a party, taking no joy in his role as the playboy.

To his relief, Matt slips away from his hook-up from the night before and employs a full court press on Eva. Mark takes his cue that he’s free to do as he pleases and turns his attention to his target for the whole week: Amelia, the prettiest of the bunch in his eyes, less busty than Eva or Nora but eternally poised and prim, an early employee at a start-up who has drifted into its inner ring. This conquest requires no great art, nor any drunken oblivion: merely the two best-credentialed people in the house taking their natural place at each other’s side.

Mark and Amelia cab back to Solomon’s Temple and wander along the dunes. She’s had more than him but is still in control, content to let him drape and arm around her shoulder and let it sneak downward. He can feel the tension draining out of her as they go and lets himself follow suit, a pair of neurotics twinned in escape.

“Isn’t this absurd, getting trashed out here every night?” he asks her.

“It is. How fucked up do we have to be to want this?”

“If this is fucked up, do we want to know normal?”

“Damn. And we’re the successful ones.”

“Just know how to keep up appearances as we play the game.”

“It’s all a game to you, isn’t it?”

“You got a better way to treat this thing we do?”

“Just make sure we don’t always play the game the same way.”

“Oh, I try. Matty and I are in competition all week.”

“I picked up on that. What’s tonight’s challenge?”

“We’re gonna see who can bring a girl home for a night on the beach.”

Amelia stops and glares at him. “I see you’ve won.”

“Always do.”

“Well, tell Matt to get his junk and whatever pussy he’s found to go with it down here with us.”

“The four of us, under the stars?”

“Why not?”

This seems too easy. Mark wants to ask her what exactly it is she’s looking for, but some instinct tells him it isn’t a prudent question. He calls Matt and orders him to the beach, hypes up an impending orgy even though he knows it will be nothing of the sort. He and Amelia pick their way back to Solomon’s Temple and arrive just as Matt and Eva climb out of their cab. The foursome is quiet, and Mark tries to diagnose the mood in the house, some mix of exhaustion and hope for something new; unspoken dreams for transcendence, or merely a release of pent-up drives?

Amelia and Eva collect a few wine bottles from the cellar while Mark and Matt and scope out the dunes for a leeward pocket where they can settle in beneath a few blankets. After the girls arrive, they chug the wine to warm themselves. Amelia is shuddering in the cool night air, and Mark nuzzles up against her. He wants to tell her that he’s been scheming for this moment since he met her two months ago; down the slope, he catches snatches of Matt and Eva’s debate over the most comfortable position with the added variables of sand and dune grass, and is tempted to test their advice.

But he says nothing. Amelia nests her body into his and settles into the rhythmic pulse of sleep, and he can only lie there, wide awake, loath to call it a night but even more reluctant to disturb her peace. He runs his hand gently up and down her side, content drain his plastic cup and meld his body into hers. Something about this feels different, less a conquest and instead a comfortable place to lay his head. He’s not sure he trusts it.

Mark wakes with a start when the first rays of sun creep over the beach, and his shudder stirs Amelia to life. He feels somehow wronged as she peels herself from him, but he musters up a bemused grin that she returns. She lets him kiss her gently.

“I do need to get back to the city today,” she says as she pulls away and climbs to her feet.

“Gotta get outta here before you start feeling something. I get it.”

“You almost sound sad about it, you soulless leech.”

“I can have an emotion every now and then.”

“Cute, kid.”

“Drinks sometime next week?”

“If I’m in the mood.” She swings a blanket over her shoulder and stalks her way back toward the house. Eva yells after her and hurries to follow, sick from how much she drank the night before. Matt sits up on his blanket, rubs his eyes, and looks up at Mark as if he were some heavenly apparition.

“You get all the points. Damn, Marky. She’s such a boss.”

“I guess,” Mark shrugs. “If she were as in control as she pretends she is, she’d say eff the boss and take more of this for herself.”

“She’s got the balls to leave this behind. I give her real credit for that.”

Mark cocks his head. “Dude, you just slept with a Vanity Fair model on a Nantucket beach. You really gonna question all this?”

Matt frowns as he massages his temples with one hand and adjusts his package with the other. “I am. Just too much of the same, day after day.”

“You the last person I thought I’d hear that from.”

“I’m serious, bro. I think you need to start seeing someone.”

“Nah. Not how I operate.”

“You’re allowed to win with help from other people sometimes.”

“You givin up on my game, Matty?”

“Shit, dude, you’re a one-track machine.”

Mark blinks at Matt, shocked to hear his closest comrade abandon the cause. Is he that neurotic, that driven to excess? For all his claims to the contrary, he has to concede the point. His life has taken on a manic pace, its successes more sustained but punctuated by these sporadic crashes when he just loses all self-control and lapses into days of sputtering misery.

Matt is too loyal to leave him alone and march off up the beach after the girls, but even as they collect themselves and their blankets and their empty bottles and begin to walk back toward the house together, he senses a new divide between them. Everyone else has found their stops off this train, but he just plows on toward the end of the line, wherever that might be.

V.

The next day, Evan is back to a life of complete isolation. At first Alexandra just diagnoses cold feet, a retreat from intimacy for a kid who only has a few days left on the beach. She’s seen it before, this fear of commitment. But Jack suspects something different: he looks at all of them the same way, some mixture of intrigue and pity, as if he dreads some great tragedy that he knows will befall them as they party on in their ignorance. Weeks later, when Alexandra looks back on this most bizarre of her summer forays, she will agree: he was a breed apart.

Evan has no knowledge of Jack and Alexandra’s blowout argument at the Ex-Con-Tiki. He is back in his cabin, alone, though alert enough to flash Casey a middle finger when he tries to peek in his window after bar close. As far as Casey can tell, he is only brooding, his notebooks untended, his phone forgotten on the bedside table; those eyes, unable to squint out toward the light, just fixed on the dark void where the nuclear power plant used to be.

Once Evan is sure Casey is gone, he dons all his surf gear again and takes his board down to the beach. He laughs at himself, this necessity of looking the part, even in the wilderness. He’s an actor playing a role, but aren’t they all actors on some great stage?

The waves aren’t right. It’s too calm, too still. He won’t have the final triumph he dreamed of to round out this trip. He turns to leave the ocean; might as well get a full night’s sleep. But he doesn’t get far before another instinct forces him to turn back.

Evan saunters over to where he’d washed up in front of Alexandra the day before. He drives his board into the sand and takes a seat next to it. He holds his knees in his arms and closes his eyes, his sole focus the inward crashes and outward pulls of the surf.

Every step on this beach has stirred up some memory, some past dream. It’s a home of sorts, and it’s tempting to remain in this world, to never leave behind the San Onofre of his youth. Evan could settle into a life here, set up in a little shack and drop his pretense and befriend someone like Jack. He could be happy here. He can just surf.

But this trip has never been about that. He’s passed his test, rode into the jaws of death and tempted himself as he’s never been tempted before. He’s come out triumphant. Back in the cabana a half hour later, Evan jots down a notes for a few calls he’ll make the next day. He’ll go back to Minnesota with no need to linger any further on what this beach means to him, no need to play out a dozen different futures in his mind any longer. He knows how the next chapter in his story will read. Now he just needs to write it.

VI.

Scandal is under way when Matt and Mark return to Solomon’s Temple. Erica, high on cocaine, made drunken passes at Dante in the kitchen the night before. The poet pleads his innocence, but Patrick demands culpability, and the house has separated into Team Patrick and Team Dante. Mark’s natural instinct is to sequester the two of them and order them to find a resolution, but today he feels drained, and for the first time all week, he has no Amelia to perform for. Does he still have time to catch her ferry back to Hyannis?

Mark tells Matt to sort it all out and heads to his room. His hangover, lurking in the backdrop since he woke, roars into full force by late morning, as his worst ones always do. He wants to crawl back into bed, but there is no time, he convinces himself; time, perhaps, is running out. His feelings are too complicated, too cluttered even for a mind attuned to life among shades of grey. He needs to purge any conflicting feelings. He needs to run. Matt can only watch in incredulity as Mark changes into his Yale shorts and a tight athletic top and begins his easy jog out to the beach.

The first mile goes easily enough, but by the time Mark swings inland toward Milestone Road, he knows he’s made a mistake. His stomach churns with the unprocessed concoction of six different types of alcohol, all intent upon making its way out into the world; whether upward or downward he cannot tell. Lightheaded, he slows to a stumble and waits for a slow-moving truck to pass him before he dips into a convenient shrubbery. He squats, wills his digestive tract to act, forces out what he can and wipes his anus with some inadequate sandplain grasses. He is revolted, but he must go on. Perhaps he can cut this short and make a loop down the airport road, though there’s too much traffic there. Maybe this little side lane will do the job?

For a moment he resumes his brisk early pace, seemingly cleansed. But it’s a false reassurance. A quarter mile later, he’s seizing up more than before. He drops his rate to a slow walk, unable to keep a straight line, the world starting to swim before him. A middle-aged woman driving her Prius the other direction gives him a look of concern, but pushes on. Freed from any prying eyes, he returns again to the hedges, this time intent to stay for as long as he needs. He pushes across a grassy plain to another clump of scrub oak, tries to force more out but nothing will come; he fears he’ll vomit, but that too stays down. He breaks out in an intense sweat, feels the color drain from his face, wonders if he’s on the verge of a collapse into the bushes. There’s a house maybe five hundred feet away. Should he call for help? Ask someone to summon an ambulance? Spell out his will and testament in the sand before him?

He’s not quite sure how long his agony lasts, whether it is five minutes or half an hour, but it doesn’t matter. This is more than some stray hangover. He is a piece of trash, a useless scum, a kid with promise who’s pissing it away in a silly performative world of endless nothing. This will be the end of the line, the wake-up call he needs and the liberation of a sickened soul. No more descents into hedonism without purpose, no more sad nights alone in his room. And then there, squatting in a bush, clothing caked in sweat, hands buried deep in his disheveled hair, he turns his gaze upward and his closed eyes perceive the world through those of a child, future or past he cannot be sure, and suddenly he feels the pain easing away, drained out into this sandy Nantucket soil where it can remain.

Mark rises and begins a steady trot back to the beach house, ready to guide his charges out on a tour of the island’s lighthouses and feed them a fresh seafood dinner. His stomach rumbles softly. The wind tugs his hair in and out of his eyes. He smiles a manic smile. He’s found his pace.

Some Decade-Closing Journalism

30 Dec

As I took a pause amid my usual year-end chaos, I decided to pass along some decade-ending reading. We’ll start with Ross Douthat at the New York Times, who put a pretty good bow on the 2010s as the decade of disillusionment and assesses the disconnect between the widespread political sense that everything is in decline and the relative boringness of world events over the past decade. I find it a compelling take on the American moment, and also made me think of a few pieces I’ve read on how most interpretations of late 20th century history can track directly on to baby boomers’ life stages. Much the same could be said about Douthat’s chronology of decades and the lives of millennials, as this soon-to-be 30-year-old can attest. The 90s were the era of optimism and childhood bliss of the post-Cold War world and unquestioned American supremacy; the aughts an era of teenage troubles that we thought we could overcome through battle and righteous angst and a political hero; and the 2010s were a decade of decadence, a steady appreciation of the challenges we face and resignation to twentysomething life. What will the 20s bring us, other than an increased state of Torschlusspanik?

(The Germans really do have a word for everything.)

In a more entertaining though still illuminating retrospective, the Times’ Upshot blog provides pictures of how American cities transformed over the decade, as exurban growth began anew, inner cities revitalized themselves, a logistics economy exploded, transit developments emerged, and cities grappled with natural disasters.

Sticking with the urban planning theme, Celebration, Florida, was to be the New Urbanist paradise when Disney developed it in the mid-90s to fulfill an ages-old dream of a city of the future. So much for that, Tarpley Hitt tells us. The culprit here seems less the urban planning and more a vulture capitalist, but there’s trouble in paradise, and that piece somehow fits nicely with the last two.

On a more upbeat note about cities and wisdom from the past, I’ll grab this Reuters story about Teotihuacan, the great pre-Aztec ruins north of Mexico City that I visited in the first year of this decade. In addition to building some pretty big pyramids, new archaeological evidence is showing us that the people of Teotihuacan built the most egalitarian pre-modern society by a long shot. What secrets might we learn from this city that was so great that the then-nomadic Aztecs, when they found it centuries after its demise, assumed it could only have been built by gods?

And finally, to end it all on a lighter note: I haven’t included much in the way of sports journalism in this feature to date; I don’t know why, because there is a lot of incredible sports journalism, and I read a lot of it. This Yankee fan will restrain his urge to rub in his glee over the Gerrit Cole signing (oops, too late) and instead hype the bandwagon he’s climbed aboard for the college football playoffs: the Louisiana State University Tigers. They toppled the Alabama dynasty in the Southeastern Conference. Their all-American boy demigod of a quarterback, Joe Burrow, turned his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech into a teary, off-the-cuff riff on the poverty in his hometown of Athens, Ohio. Their head coach and owner of the coolest voice in sports, Ed Orgeron, most likely swung a gubernatorial election with his endorsement of a rare Deep South Democrat; this marriage of sport and state is, apparently, something of a tradition in Louisiana politics. The ESPN 30-for-30 will write itself if they can finish off Clemson in a week and a half. Geaux Tigers.

The Best Revenge

25 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

Rebounding Hounds

15 Dec

Few things are as predictable in Minnesota high school hockey as Duluth East contention. The program boasts 67 consecutive winning seasons and hasn’t lost a quarterfinal game since 1993, by far the longest streaks of any team in high school hockey; it has appeared in 11 straight 7AA finals. A few games into the 2019-2020 season, all of that looked to be in jeopardy. It still may be, as one upset win doesn’t change everything. But the Greyhounds’ season is slowly taking shape, and as new players step up and Mike Randolph tries to find the right formula, they may yet have a say in the direction of section 7AA.

A casual observer probably wouldn’t recognize very many members of these new look Hounds. A huge senior class that featured several high-end talents graduated. Logan Anderson and Jacob Jeannette, who would have been two-thirds of a Greyhound top line this season, left for junior hockey. Charlie Erickson is only returning player who had double digit point totals last season, and Zarley Ziemski is the only other forward with anything resembling regular varsity ice time. The defense returns three semi-regular contributors a season ago, but none of them were really the leaders of that unit, and few things are harder to replace in high school hockey than an elite defenseman such as Hunter Paine. This is particularly true in the Duluth East system, which asks its defensemen to both be active in the offensive zone and hold up going the other direction when the forecheck breaks down.

That inexperience was clear in the Hounds’ first few games of the young season. They held up into the third period in games against solid teams from White Bear Lake and Wayzata, but things unraveled in the third period as their opponents wore them down and sprung odd-man rushes. After a win over Bemidji, a 7-1 loss to section rival Andover exposed these shortcomings in the extreme, and Randolph dug deep into his bag of mysterious game plans as the Huskies handed him his worst loss to a section opponent in 31 years behind the bench. Chastened, the Hounds came out looking much more like a traditional East team in a game against Cloquet, but those shaky moments on defense ultimately outweighed a sound forecheck and led to an overtime loss.

With a 1-4 record and no semblance of momentum, a battle with a top ten Blaine team this past Saturday looked to be a tall order. But the Hounds came out and showed they won’t go lightly. They paired the solid system play they showed in Cloquet with improved defensive performance and kept gameplay fairly even. Down 1-0 in the middle of the second period, the game could have slipped away, but instead the team went to work and collected two dirty goals before locking down, popping a pretty third goal, and adding a fluky empty netter to seal their finest win on the young season.

The Hounds’ formula for contention in spite of the changes is evident. Konrad Kausch has looked strong in goal, a vital backstop to the growing pains of a young defense. The top line of Erickson, Ziemski, and Finn Hoops is starting to generate some offense, and a second line anchored by Jack Fellman and Nolan Aleff has its moments of quality. The defense, for all its travails, combines some experienced seniors and a couple of underclassmen who are capable of putting up some points; Isaac Schweiger, inserted into the lineup for the Blaine game, was the unsung hero in that upset. Lest we forget, this junior class (plus Jeannette and Kausch) went on a run and finished second at PeeWee AA state a few years back, so the track record is there.

Elsewhere in 7AA, Grand Rapids opened with wins over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Minnetonka, proving their young guns are capable of playing with some of the state’s top teams. Cloquet has also looked respectable and will ride star Christian Galatz as far as possible. Forest Lake is undefeated as of this writing, which will boost their standing in the QRF system that seeds the section, though they have yet to play a difficult opponent and have a tie against lowly Park of Cottage Grove. Right now, though, everyone is chasing the Andover juggernaut, a group defined by superb team speed and an elite top defensive pair. In their win over East they also showed a newfound physicality, adding an aspect to their game that had been missing in overtime section final losses to East the past two seasons. Taking down the Huskies will require an even more perfect game plan than a season ago; a complete team effort that combines a great goaltending effort, a defense that limits odd-man rushes, and an opportunistic offense willing to scrap for anything.

For now, though, we can delay any requiems for Duluth East: when they put it all together, they can compete. A week of home games that include two respectable but beatable teams, Centennial and Lakeville North, will be telling. They have a heap of important section games in the second half of the season, and will also get more contests against the state’s elite, from Eden Prairie to Maple Grove. With continued game-by-game progress, they could yet be a contender at the end.