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2017-2018 Preseason Notebook

19 Nov

After 255 high school hockey-free days, the puck drops on the 2017-2018 regular season the day before Thanksgiving. The fun starts early, as the opening weekend includes two excellent tournaments featuring some of the state’s finest, and just about everyone else will be under way over the next two weeks, too. I’ll devote a full post next week to a Duluth East season preview, but here’s a heap of things I’ll be looking at right off the bat this season.

You can find additional coverage from me here: Preseason AA Rankings | Preseason Podcast

Early Season Storylines

Can anyone catch the Hornets and Hawks?

Edina’s assemblage of talent is up there with the best teams they’ve ever produced, and that is, of course, saying something. They were already in contention for preseason favorite before they added Demetrios Kouzmontzis, who tore up the fall Elite League, and now that Blake McLaughlin has defected to the USHL, Sammy Walker is the favorite for Mr. Hockey. The sky is the limit for the defense, and if they live up to their potential, this team won’t be giving up more than 15 shots on goal most nights. If they can get respectable goaltending and Curt Giles can instill enough physicality in a somewhat small forward group, they’ll be hard to stop.

In Class A, meanwhile, two-time defending champion and eight-time defending finalist Hermantown is number one yet again. But, for what it’s worth, they do look more beatable this season: they lost a ton of talent, and these next few classes, while still elite by A standards, aren’t quite on the level of the past couple. They’ve got two top-end forwards in Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and the defense is rock-solid, but they don’t quite have the overwhelming depth of the past two seasons. That leaves a couple of other teams with some genuine front-end talent and deep defenses within striking distance, most notably St. Cloud Cathedral—though they’ll have a battle to get past Alexandria in a tough 6A.

The 2AA Free-for-All. There’s a lot to like about Minnetonka’s depth and talent, but they’re no sure thing in 2AA, which is once again the most loaded in the state at the top. Four-time defending section champ Eden Prairie is right there behind them with a deep offense and a coach who can usually get his team to lock down. Holy Family, after falling a goal short in last season’s section final and enduring an offseason filled with comings and goings, still boasts a potent top line and a strong defense. The second tier in the west metro is also very strong, so we’ll be set for an entertaining run here.

The Hill-White Bear War. Stillwater has interrupted one of the state’s great rivalries these past few seasons, but with Ponies in a reload year, White Bear and Hill-Murray have a chance to collide in 4AA again. Both combine a few veteran talents with exciting youth at their core, and if these two make it through to the 4AA final, Aldrich Arena will be a zoo. On paper they’re both maybe a year away from state title contention, but if the kids grow up quickly enough, both could be in the equation. Which of them will show the most potential early on?

Last year’s Class A Tournament: fluke or new reality? Fans were treated to the most entertaining Class A tournament in years, if not ever, last season, as the entrants from 1A, 3A, and 5A, long punching bags for the favorites, were all highly competitive. 1A is wide open after defending section champ Northfield got shifted to 4A, while Luverne is the prohibitive favorite to repeat in 3A. 5A features a North Branch team that has a chance to be this season’s MAML behind Brady Meyer, so long as a high-scoring top line can get some support; Pine City, which returns a deep group, may be their most serious obstacle. The metro area, meanwhile, will have to prove it has a real Tournament contender: Orono has some good talent but didn’t make it out of a section quarterfinal a year ago, and Mahtomedi is deep but needs some players to take the next step. There might be a gap for a rare surprise in 2A or 4A.

Chasing the Northern Frontrunners. Hermantown, Duluth East, and Moorhead are all clear favorites to make their way back to St. Paul, but nothing is guaranteed, as there are large chase packs in both AA sections.  In 7A, Greenway and Virginia may be somewhere in the equation if there are any cracks in the Hawks, though the odds remain long. 8A, meanwhile, is shaping up to be a decent two-team race. East Grand Forks is another top-end Class A team with a rock-solid defense, and Warroad, led by another Marvin, brings back a lot and will look for its first trip to St. Paul since 2010.

Games to Watch in the First Few Weeks

Youth Hockey Hub opener. Outside of Edina’s Lake Conference games with Minnetonka, there are only three regular season games among the top five. Two of those come in the first weekend of the season, as St. Thomas Academy collides with Moorhead and those Skippers. Games against Tonka could well decide the top five, as they’re the only ones who play all of them. It’s a great four-team showcase, as the Spuds look to pick up where they left off last March and take care of some unfinished business, the Skippers look to join the state’s elite under a new coach, and the Cadets try to prove they can overcome their recent playoff upsets. Lakeville North is also in here to play spoiler.

Grand Rapids vs. Greenway. This classic Itasca County rivalry figures to be the first game I attend this season. The Thunderhawks are, of course, the defending AA state champs, but will look nothing like the group that won a title a year ago. They return a number of their depth players at forward and they’ve got a goalie who can steal one in Gabe Holum, but there are a lot of question marks beyond that. They head into the Snakepit to face an interesting young Greenway team that has two D-I commits on its roster. Both have a lot to prove, and should come into this one hungry.

Wayzata’s early run. As usual, the Trojans host the Turkey Trot on the season’s opening weekend, which features a toss-up game with Maple Grove and a follow-up with either Holy Family or Edina, the top-ranked team they’ve eliminated from the playoffs the past two seasons. After that, they take a road trip north to face Hermantown and Duluth East. The 2016 champs have their usual remarkable depth, but we’ll see how their two top-end forwards jell with their defensive style, and if they’ll spend a portion of this season wandering in the wilderness as they did a year ago.

Blaine vs. Centennial and Maple Grove in mid-December. The first round of 5AA battles comes fairly early, and the Bengals, with a strong leading duo of Bryce Brodzinski and Will Hillman, will get a chance to prove they belong up there with preseason section favorite Centennial and defending champ Maple Grove.

East Grand Forks at Orono. An early collision between hyped teams that will have implications for the Class A top 5. The Green Wave doesn’t have a ton of returning scoring, but does have a stout defense, while Orono is deep and had a lot of success at the youth level.

The wait is finally over. Let’s play some hockey.

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Duluth Election Dissection 2017

8 Nov

Another year at the polls has come and gone. Now, as is my wont, I’ll play Monday morning (Wednesday evening?) quarterback for the campaigns. Sadly, I no longer have easy GIS access (unless I have any volunteer GIS slaves out there?), so I won’t have pretty maps like I did two years ago, and will spare my readers the Microsoft Paint maps I made four years ago. You’ll just have to make do with some descriptions of the precinct-by-precinct results.

It was a fairly predictable night in city council politics, as is generally the case. The school board, meanwhile, saw a more dramatic change in direction. Voter turnout was low, even for a non-mayoral off year election. Rates ranged from about 40 percent on the east side to less than 20 percent in a handful of downtown and west side precincts, for a city-wide total of 27.9 percent.

Council Stability Continues

In the at-large city council races, the two incumbents, Zack Filipovich and Barb Russ, carried the day. The end results mirrored the primary. Filipovich’s ground game and ability to lock up labor support separated him from the pack, and he ran comfortably ahead of the field. Russ was the candidate among the four least likely to inspire strong emotions; while the other three all had their ardent supporters and vocal critics, everyone seemed more or less fine with Barb Russ, and that was enough to edge her past the two challengers, Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove. The end result was a vote for continuity, and for two incumbents who may not inspire the activist base of the Duluth left, but are certainly acceptable to most of them and know the ins and outs of local politics.

Kennedy had a core committed supporters, and while there were some strong symbolic acts associated with it, as in her trek from one end of the city to the other, that attention was largely limited to a core of high information voters, and I never got the sense that she generated attention beyond that outside of a couple of core neighborhoods. (For example, I received multiple leaflets from every other candidate on my ballot, but never saw a thing from the Kennedy campaign.) Updegrove generated some strong early momentum, but in the end his campaign didn’t seem to move past generic talking points associated with the leftward wing of the Democratic Party, and while that platform will do reasonably well in Duluth, it isn’t at a point where it will win, either. For me, at least, this was a noticeable juxtaposition with the likes of Russ, who was deep in the weeds on housing policy specific to Duluth. Following the lead of her ally Filipovich, she did the necessary retail politics to pull out the election.

In the Second District, Joel Sipress cruised to re-election over political newcomer Ryan Sistad. It’s possible for a 23-year-old to run a successful campaign—see Filipovich’s effort four years ago—but Sistad didn’t have anywhere near that level of polish. While Sipress’s politics may not be all that different from those of an Updegrove, he has a keen knowledge of how to play the political game, focusing on neighborhood issues and emphasizing his service to a district in a way that other staunch members of the left do not. They have something to learn from him, though the caliber of one’s opponents also makes a difference.

Finally, in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett eked out a win over incumbent Howie Hanson. As the most suburban district in the city, the Fourth is fertile ground for the fiscally conservative platform Hanson ran on; frankly, I think anyone else running on Hanson’s issues in this district probably would have won. But Hanson is a recent adopter of many of these issues, and anyone who has watched him in action knew that he (to put it politely) wasn’t always the smoothest ambassador for his positions. Van Nett brings some newfound diversity to the Council (two out of its nine members are now at least part Native American), and with her emphasis on building consensus and cooperation instead of hard policy stands, she’s one of the more blank slates to enter the council in recent years.

The geography of the votes was also fairly predictable. Filipovich won most of the precincts, while Kennedy collected a handful downtown and on the hillsides, plus Irving out west. Upedgrove led on the UMD campus, which is often an outlier, while Russ didn’t win one. Filipovich and Russ, whose vote totals tended to move in concert, did their best on the east and west ends of the city, and also cleaned up in Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where they likely benefited from not having anyone to their right and were likely considered the least bad options by Duluth’s more conservative neighborhoods. Kennedy’s strength of support was in the center of the city, though she also did passably well on the west side. Updegrove, in contrast, was at his best on the east side but ran poorly on the west side, which was probably his undoing.

In the Second District, Sipress cleaned up pretty much everywhere, with Kenwood being the only precinct in which he was (slightly) under 60 percent. Predictably, Howie Hanson did his best work in Duluth Heights and Piedmont in the Fourth District, while Van Nett owned Lincoln Park. She rolled up her margins in those lower-income precincts down the hill, and stayed competitive enough in Piedmont and the Heights to take down Hanson.

In the end, the results here are pretty clear. While this election removed one of the two semi-conservative councilors in Howie Hanson (if one could even call him that), it also rejected a move further left in the at-large races, in effect staying the course. There was perhaps a slight leftward drift given Van Nett’s breakthrough and the failure of the conservatives to get a candidate to the final four in the at-large race, but there are enough asterisks with Hanson that I don’t think the end result signals any sort of sea change in Duluth politics.

The Great School Board Slaughter of 2017

There’s no real way to spin this one: the 2017 school board elections were a decisive mandate for the DFL-backed candidates, the current district administration, and the present direction of the Board.

The slaughter was most extreme in the two district races. In the First District, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the incumbent perhaps most strongly aligned with the district administration, had no trouble dispatching of Kurt Kuehn. But even more eye-opening was Jill Lofald’s demolition of two-term incumbent Art Johnston in the Fourth District. Johnston has withstood intense opposition before, but this time he suffered a 15-point loss. Things were somewhat tighter in the at-large race, but Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham still comfortably outpaced incumbent Harry Welty and newcomer Dana Krivogorsky.

Heading into Election Day, I wasn’t sure if running as a unified ticket with Welty and Johnston, who have their supporters but also their share of baggage, would help or hurt Krivogorsky and Kuehn. In 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard not to see it as a mistake, as Krivogorsky’s careful attention to finance charts seemed to get lost in her association with the other campaigns. Ten years after the Red Plan became reality, beating that same old drum has exhausted Duluth voters. Longtime readers will know I think Johnston and Welty have raised important points over the years, but the rhetoric here has become so repetitive and so personal that I can see how even many who are not thrilled with the nonstop positivity of the DFL candidates would sour on the same old act. Johnston seemed tired, Welty’s blog posts degenerated into a lot more snipping at opponents, and Loren Martell’s columns in the Reader lately might have come out of a Loren Martell Column Generator. Casting protest votes that never achieve anything concrete gets old after a while, and I’ve long maintained that when the focus is more on the candidates themselves than the causes they represent, it’s probably a sign that their time has come and gone. This district needs newer, more constructive critics of the board’s recent direction.

This victory may prove short-lived for the new, completely post-Red Plan school board. Budgetary issues loom large, and unsold buildings still sit vacant. ISD 709 can’t afford many more cuts. The pessimistic case would say that these new, ever-so-positive board members are naively barreling into a future they are ill-equipped to handle. The optimistic case holds that removing the old Red Plan warriors may be a healthy thing: instead of assuming the same old battle lines, perhaps we can now have more open and honest debates on the issues in front of the board. It’s possible to be critical without being abrasive, as Alanna Oswald has shown us, and some clearer air could do everyone some good. Perchance to dream.

The precinct results still reveal some measure of the old east-west divide in Duluth school politics: the combined total for Trnka and Gorham cleared 60 percent in nearly every east side precinct, while the totals were much closer on the west. Still, Welty and Krivogorsky only combined for the majority in three precincts in the city: the two in Duluth Heights and in Irving, which is traditionally the most anti-Red Plan in the city proper. Normanna and North Star Townships, which they also carried, are similarly on the far fringe of that issue. Factoring in Johnston’s defeat, the east-west divide was actually less pronounced in 2017 than it has been in recent years: Lofald’s win was so thorough that Johnston was only within ten percentage points of her in Irving. Meanwhile, in the First District, Loeffler-Kemp swept the deck in the Duluth precincts in the First District, and Kuehn was fairly competitive only in the low-vote townships and Rice Lake.

Street Tax Success

Duluth voters voiced their support for a sales tax dedicated to street repairs by a margin of over three to one. This was the clear message I expected them to send, but by an even more decisive margin than I might have guessed. No one much likes it, but we have to take our pills, and frustration with potholes seems to unite Duluthians regardless of their political leanings. Another tax increase isn’t the easiest thing to swallow, particularly for voters on fixed incomes—I can only hope that the other shoe doesn’t drop when it comes to a future school board levy—but with a clear need and overwhelming popular support, mayor Emily Larson has the vote of endorsement she needs to move this through the state legislature.

Side Notes

I’ll end with a special shoutout to Jono Cowgill, the new District Four representative on the Minneapolis Parks Board. The MURP Class of 2016 is doing big things. Who’s next?

Muir and Roosevelt

5 Nov

The small lake’s resident loon eyes the sudden disturbance to its serene waters with suspicion. The dull clunks of paddles on aluminum echo across the darkening waters as a pair of tired canoers ply their way toward a low-lying peninsula. After five lakes, a beaver dam-filled creek, and seven portages, the paddlers are alone in the midst of the wilderness. A sudden wind picks up tosses their canoe from side to side, an ominous reminder of how alone they are if something goes wrong.

Evan had hatched this trip just the week before. He’d imagined it as a restorative trip before the start of his senior year, a chance to be alone with his favorite confidante, a rising junior named Mark who’d moved to Duluth the year before. Mark is an outcast in northern Minnesota, the precocious child of a family that had accumulated vast wealth on Wall Street before a string of affairs and divorces had driven them to attempt a refresh along the shores of Lake Superior. His father had paid Evan’s freight to an exclusive hockey camp earlier in the summer, so this invitation seemed the best way he could pay Mark back, even if a canoeing permit pales in comparison to a week with a host of ex-NHLers. But Mark, he knows, appreciates the gesture, and welcomes a chance to escape the juvenile locker room antics that bore him.

What he did not count on was Mark’s complete disinterest in stopping to gaze up at the eagle in the tree on the second lake, or to study the flowers and listen to the birdsong along the creek. Evan had hoped to revisit a couple of lakes he’d paddled with his dad five years earlier, but instead, they’ve pushed themselves to the limit, traveled about as humanly far from civilization as possible. But while Mark has set the pace, Evan finds himself drunk off his longing for ever greater solitude, and takes a perverse pride when Mark is the first one to suggest they bring their day’s journey to an end.

“Okay, would really like to find a campsite before dark, bro.”

“It says there should be one here.” Evan grimaces as he stares down at the sopping wet map while still halfheartedly paddling the canoe forward.

Mark surveys a rock-strewn shoreline that fronts a dense thicket of tamaracks. “There isn’t.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Give it here.” Mark leans over the bulging packs in the center of the canoe, stops to stabilize the rocking craft amid the chop, and snags the map.

“Oh, come on. Learn to read. It’s on the next point.”

“Fine, fine. Maybe wanna help me out here?” Evan paddles frantically to guide the canoe away from the rocks. Their chatter, incessant all afternoon, dies as they swing their bulky craft back outward into the lake and steer it into the next bay, where the waves return to a manageable level.

“The mosquitoes are getting me even with all this wind,” Mark grumbles, his paddle strokes reduced to feeble splashes as he slaps at his barren knees. “I need more bug dope. God, why did we think this was a good idea?”

“You’re cute when you’re angry.”

“Oh, shut it.” Mark resists the urge to pile on. It’s the sort of thing his dad would do on one of their family vacations to the Caribbean when he inevitably lashed out at his mother for being late for dinner or forgetting to buy enough rum. He is not his father. For that matter, Evan is not his mother. Mark’s dad sometimes had a point, even if the way he expressed it usually led Mark to hide in his room, where the goalie-in-training would bounce tennis balls off his wall and try to stop them from getting past him. His release had the added benefit of making an obnoxious racket that would occasionally distract his parents from their yelling. Occasionally.

“Damn, now we’re going straight into the sunset,” Mark complains.

“You could, you know, actually wear your cap forwards to shade your eyes.”

“C’mon Evs, you know I’m too vain for that shit.”

“I’m sure you’re gonna pick up a lot of girls out here.”

“Little sympathy here? Not all of us can have perfect girlfriends like you.”

“I tried to get Bridget to come, but she won’t sleep in a tent. And I don’t think my mom would’ve gone for that anyway.”

“I love how your mom thinks she’d be a bad influence on you, but just loves me.”

“Well, you are scary good at fooling adults into thinking you’re not the little shit that you are.”

“You’re not half bad yourself.”

Evan grumbles but settles for channeling his mixed emotions into a few powerful strokes. Mark is right, of course: compared to much of the hockey team he’s the quiet and articulate one, the one who’s seen a bit more in life than most. He’s built himself an image as the saint. But when he looks at his own conduct over the past year—sneaking out to surf when he can, the stolen moments with his girlfriend, lying through his teeth at those events where role model high school athletes tell younger kids to stay away from parties—he hardly thinks he deserves that reputation. The simple fact that he’s drawn to the likes of Mark instead of some more modest friends, he suspects, shows where his true loyalties lie. No regrets, he tells himself, or at least not any glaring and lasting ones.

“Heyo…look, there’s a campsite,” Mark announces, breaking Evan’s reverie. “Amazing what you can find when you can read a map. Nice big rocks, should block out all this wind.”

“Means we’re gonna get eaten alive by bugs.”

“Crap.”

“It’s this or another portage at dusk. Remember how much you hated the last one?”

Mark swats a mosquito on his arm and eyes the flies circling his head warily. “The portages only suck when you’re on them. Easy to bounce back from. Just like going over the boards for another shift, right?”

“Like you’d know, ya damn goalie. We do that next one, you’re carrying the canoe and doing the cooking in the dark.”

“Actually now that you mention it, this site here looks just fine.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Evan guides the canoe into a rocky landing, and a few clunks of the canoe on the rocks again shatter the silence on the lake. Mark hops out and maintains some measure of grace as he pulls the prow into a small bite in the shore. He dances a mosquito-directed jig as Evan methodically clambers over the bags and on to dry land. They haul their bags and the canoe up on to an embankment and collapse on to the log alongside the fire ring.

“Well, considering how far we came, we made damn good time,” says Evan, tracing their route on the map. “Course it helps when your travel partner only has one speed and is getting D-I scouts looking at him…”

“Would’ve been faster if those dicks at the second portage didn’t take up the whole landing.”

“Not sure if they were more bitter about how we went blasting past them or what you said to them.”

“It needed to be said. Might be my first time in here, but at least I know my freaking etiquette.”

“Glad you paid attention to that Leave No Trace video.”

“Or I’m just a model of decency. East Coast class, baby.”

Evan’s eyes roll into the back of his head, but the buzzing mosquitoes distract him from a retort. They’re out for blood, so he picks out a tent pad and sets Mark to staking it out while he fumbles for the cooking gear.

“Where’d you get all this stuff?” Mark asks as he admires the little-used tent.

“It’s left over from my dad.”

“He was outdoorsy?”

“In a good, Minnesotan way. Camped, fished, hunted. Learned it from his dad, taught me enough to get by.”

“You did all that, too?” Mark asks. Evan has surprised him before, but he has yet to get him to join in one of his trail runs or early morning swims across the lake at a mutual friend’s cabin. For good or ill Evan isn’t ever one to rebel against a group, even as he stays in careful control of himself. He is an utter conformist, if at least a thoughtful one. This invitation into the wilderness was a shock, the closest thing to a risk he’s ever seen. Unless he’s hiding more? Mark has seen Evan’s brooding look just often enough to believe his friend may be capable of things he doesn’t let on.

“I know, I know. Never really liked fishing, thought it was boring. I was way too much of a mama’s boy to ever kill anything. My mom’s sold off the guns now anyway. Your dad ever do much like that?”

“My mom’s family did, actually, but nah, you can’t catch my dad sleeping on anything other than Egyptian cotton. He likes his nature, but from a safe distance. And he’s pro-Second Amendment since he’s a good Republican, but god forbid he actually pull a trigger himself.”

“Figures,” says Evan. This is either the seventh or eighth time Mark has bemoaned his father’s hypocrisy since the start of the day, a habit that long ago wore thin. “Hey, you know how to use a water filter?”

“No freaking clue.”

“Here, I’ll teach you. Come on down here…just watch, it’s not hard.”

“Emma tried to get me to drink lake water straight once. That was a red flag right there.”

“That was your Silver Bay girlfriend?”

“Yup. Total granola girl.”

“Somehow I don’t see that being your type.”

“Eh. Fun to fool around with, but so damn flaky.”

“Now that I can see.”

“We’d go on day hikes so we could make out in the woods and smoke some pot. Or, mostly, she smoked pot and I played along just enough to seem cool so I’d get what I want.”

Evan groans. “Don’t know why you’d need an altered state what you’re already sort of in one just being out here. God, I love it. Or, I guess it would be more of an unaltered state. Untouched by man, cept for us campers.” He smiles, hoping to draw at least some momentary appreciation for their surroundings out of Mark.

“And the loggers who clear cut the whole thing and gave us the forest as it is now. Or the natives who managed it forever before that. Or—”

“God you always ruin things.”

“Plus I hope you don’t mind a little altering after dinner.”

“Shit, man. What’d you bring?”

“Whiskey.” Mark fetches a bottle from his pack and slams it down next to the sputtering camp stove. “Hauled that over all those portages, it better be good.”

“Damn. You ever had Scotch before? Where’d you get it?”

“Nope. But divorce has its pluses.”

“I should’ve known,” Evan says, shaking his head. “Your mom’s little prince gets everything he wants.”

“She’ll do anything to make me like her after what she put me through. Kinda sad, but I’m gonna milk it for all it’s worth.”

“And I’m sure the kind that comes in a plastic bottle is the top shelf stuff.”

“Here, let’s take a swig. Worth celebrating that we made it this far.”

“I’m game.” Evan suppresses his natural fear, cracks the bottle, and knocks it back. “Woah. That’s fiery. Way better than most of the cheap stuff we normally get.”

Mark follows suit. “Yeah, this I can do. Good call, me.” He kicks back and takes a second sip, freed from momentary mosquito annoyance and mustering up his cockiest smile.

“God, we’re terrible.”

“Come on Evs. You and me, we’re some of the most responsible people out there. I’m not gonna feel guilty that I can handle my shit.”

“Good way to put it…but I’m gonna remember that line next time I have to babysit hung over Marky.”

“Harsh, harsh. What’s for dinner, anyway?”

“Pasta. Only thing I know how to make, so I hope you like it.”

“Well, we can wash it down pretty easy.”

“Only then we’ll have to pee when the bugs come out.”

“‘When they come out?’ They’re already draining pints.”

“Oh, just wait till dark when it gets totally still.”

“So much for campfires and marshmallows.”

“I’m sure you’re real sad we’re not gonna get to sit around and tell ghost stories.”

“You know I love my alone time with my Evs. Gotta steal you away from Bridget every chance I get.”

“She does say you’re the best third wheel she knows.”

“What an honor. Real fun for me to hang at your place when you’re banging however many times a week.”

“Oh, shut it. As if you don’t wheel with the best of them.”

“Just…nah. Doin my best not to moan. I’ll get there.”

“That’s my Marks. Hey, we’re boiling here.”

“Thank God.”

Dinner is a rushed affair, one punctuated by the steady staccato of mosquito swats and a chorus of curses from Mark, interspersed by the occasional grumble from Evan. After the dinner Evan washes the plates as rapidly as he can while Mark surprises himself by successfully hanging a bear bag on his first attempt. Confident that he’s completed every task on his checklist, Evan deems their evening a success. The Scotch bottle then heads straight into the tent, where the two boys take long pulls during their search-and-destroy mission aimed at the mosquitoes who have made it in the doors.

“Ah, damn, this one’s inside too. How are we supposed to sleep with all this buzzing?” gripes Mark as he smashes another bug into the mesh door.

“They’ll die down. Maybe if we’re lucky we can go out and look at stars later. Can you grab my book from the bag?”

“Yeah, what you got…a John Muir bio? Hah. Someone’s stickin with the theme.”

“What do you have, backlogged Wall Street Journals?”

“Close enough. Last four copies of The Economist.”

“God, you’re predictable, you tool.”

“As if you aren’t, ya damn hippie.”

“I read one book about Muir and now I’m a hippie?”

“You do kinda have that vibe.”

“What vibe? Like I smoke pot and drive a flower bus?”

“Nah. Just okay spending time with yourself in the woods.”

“Huh, wonder why I’d have that after what’s happened in my life.”

“Not everyone goes that direction when the shit hits the fan.”

“As you always remind me.” Evan smirks at Mark to show his dig is all in good fun, and Mark shrugs in concession and returns to his magazine. His eyes travel across the text, but retain little: the light is bad, and even he has to admit that a bunch of sarcastic Brits’ thoughts on inflation in sub-Saharan African nations doesn’t quite fit the mood of the moment. He takes another swig from the bottle, casts a sidelong glance at Evan, composed and buried in his book. Annoyed, he looks away, and makes the mistake of turning his gaze up toward the mob of mosquitoes trapped between the tent and the rain fly.

“God, that buzzing doesn’t stop.”

“Kinda makes you think you need to pee, doesn’t it?” Evan flashes a grin.

“You’re evil. You’re actually evil.”

“I thought I was the saint in touch with nature.”

“You had your chance up until now. Now, no chance in hell.”

Evan returns to his reading material and Mark reluctantly follows suit, and the two strain their eyes as the sunlight slowly fails. Evan pulls out a mini lantern for a spell, but he can see Mark fidgeting out of the corner of his eye, and suspects he needs to provide some entertainment. Before long, he shuts off the light and gazes out at the emerging stars.

“John Muir was kind of a mystic, you know. Felt like the trees and the waterfalls spoke to him, in a way. Basically all the wilderness people were like that, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson up here when they made the Boundary Waters. It was a big fight to get it. You need some kinda conscience to make that movement happen, some deep faith. You gotta believe in what you see around you. But when I’m out here, just looking out at that sunset and that still lake…I get it.”

The darkness hides Mark’s scowl. Is this Evan taking a poke at his militant atheism, or just him trying to one-up him with his more appropriate reading choice, always-perfect Evan yet again made one with his environment in a way that Mark, for all his worldliness, cannot?

“When people start talking to me about their chats with trees,” he says, “well, we’ve got hospitals for that kind of thing.”

“You’re so joyless.”

Mark shrugs. “Just think the world can be a pretty place without throwing in gods under every little rock.”

“Maybe. But it’s more than that, you know? Out here, all those things we worry about every day just seem…small.”

“Matthew Four.”

Evan shakes his head, unsure what this means. Mark mumbles something about years of brainwashing and Evan doesn’t press it, knowing it will invoke Mark’s typically vulgar reaction to the Evangelical childhood his philandering parents tried to force upon him. Mark is relieved that Evan lets it go, but, knowing Evan, he’ll tuck this away, look it up when he gets back to technology, and subject him to conversation when he drives him home after hockey practice next week. Mark knows all of this; why, then, this need to murmur that verse? Instinct, he figures, and the knowledge that Evan will understand when he does look it up. Evan plays the humble game, but Mark knows that a god complex lurks beneath. Would they be friends otherwise?

Mark knows it because he lives it. He usually took advantage of his mother’s inability to instill discipline in the Sunday school class she taught at their Silver Bay church to play cell phone games with the closest things he had to friends there in the back of the classroom. But, being the overachiever he always is, he’d still memorized all the Bible verses they studied. He’d enjoyed Matthew Four because it was Jesus at his most badass: going straight into the wilderness and thrice thwarting the devil himself. He’d wanted to be tempted in that same way, to prove his worth. For Mark, the allure of wilderness isn’t in the promise of solitude: it is in its war with temptation, a war he must prove he can win. He always wins.

“I still say getting out of tents and into AC was a win for humanity,” he says. “How many freaking people are gonna die in Africa tonight cuz they get bit by the wrong mosquito, and here we are going into the woods to do it to get away from our first world problems.”

“You thought it was a fun idea to come here…”

Mark collects himself before responding. “I did. And I still do. But because I love to conquer shit and push myself, and this is an easy way to do it. And, like I said, gets me some alone time with my Evs.”

“Let’s save the kissing for later. But—how bout this. I just read this chapter on Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy’s like you, East Coast money, total boss, all about conquering the world. But he got it, he knew why we need to do this. When he went to Yosemite, he and Muir snuck off and just spent three nights in the wilderness, deep talks the whole time. Talk about living.”

“That’s awesome, I’ll give you that. Hell, I think anyone we elect President should have the balls to go out and do that. Still…goes to show you can love this without becoming one with the trees or whatever shit like that.”

“But Teddy loved being with Muir. He understood what he was talking about, even though he couldn’t stay. He had this…this feel for things beyond him.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“It’s…” Evan struggles. “It’s like this. Why do you always have to play the hardass, man? I get it and I love it when you do it. But sometimes…I just think you’re so sure that you think you know all there is to know that you just get a little…blind.”

Mark collects himself, again talks himself down from a vicious rebuttal. “Wouldn’t doubt it. You’re not the first person to tell me that. But wonder alone ain’t a gospel.”

“No, of course not. Not sure it needs to be. Still really hurts to lose it.”

“I believe that. And I need to piss.”

Evan cackles. “Have fun! Don’t let too many mosquitoes in when you get out…”

“Gonna leave the door open for a while just to spread the love.”

Evan purposefully kills the unwanted entries as Mark takes his leak. He can lead a friend to wonder, but he can’t force him to see it. It’s a pity; who knows what a god-driven Mark would be capable of? Instead he meanders, forces the issue when he sees fit and practically always wins when he does, but Evan senses no underlying strategy or logic, not even from the smartest kid he’s ever met, the closest thing to a kindred spirit he has. Is there one for anyone? Perhaps not; not entirely, at least. But there can at least be some guiding maps across the portages between these lakes. This is what he seeks in his releases; this is what Evan DeBleeker lives for. Contentment wafts over him, and he lets loose a sudden laugh: somewhere in here is his college admissions essay.

Mark returns, cursing up a storm. Evan joins in the silent slaughter of mosquitoes, but isn’t sure how to convey his sense of serendipity. He arranges a ragged old PeeWee State Tournament sweatshirt as a pillow and zips his way into his sleeping bag. Mark, however, stays sitting upright.

“Do you think it’s good to go chase the wonder on purpose like this?” he asks. “Or should we just let it come when it’ll come?”

Evan sinks further back into his sweatshirt-turned-pillow and closes his eyes. “I dunno that you can force it. You’ve at least gotta be open to it, though, right? And willing to wait, or find it in places where it’s not always easy. Travel does that for me, usually.”

“I get that. Seeing new stuff and all.”

“Yeah, that’s it. And…maybe places that bring out memories, too. Nostalgia.”

“Your dad?” Mark asks. He takes Evan’s silence as assent. “It’s tough for me to feel nostalgia much, honestly…maybe I just gotta build it where I am. Least I’ve got the people to do it with now.”

“Aw. Best way I’ve heard it.”

“Bro, you’re the best there is at breaking me down.” Evan once again stays silent, sure that Mark can read the necessary message from it. Satisfied, he begins to drift off. Sleep does not come as easily to Mark; it never does, his mind still racing along at breakneck pace, trying to make sense of his best friend’s simultaneous poise and lingering grief before his mind wanders off to his old girlfriend Emma, his parents’ failed love life, and whether he should play his senior year of high school hockey or run off to juniors once Evan, one year his senior, has graduated and he loses the only person he’s ever felt comfortable telling the full story of his family. In time the drone of the mosquitoes starts to wane, and the loon resumes its mournful lament. Mark shivers and huddles up in his sleeping bag, but the cool night air only invigorates him. The soft wind pouring through the tent door reminds him of the breaths of breeze through the windows in his father’s ridgetop fortress up on the North Shore of Lake Superior, a place that brings him no joy but still carries the air of some simpler time.

“You awake, Evs?”

“Mmm.”

“Shit, sorry.”

“I’m awake now I guess. Was having this dream, though…”

“What kind?”

“Don’t remember. It was good, though.”

“Damn. Sorry.”

“Nah. Dreams are fun, but they’re not real.”

“Not unless we make them real.”

“Anyone can, it’s you. Go get it, Marks.”

“I will. But man, let’s make sure we keep doing this. Once a summer, once a year, in our backyards or off in some other country when we’ve got the time and the cash…just me and you, getting out and escaping so we can see it all.”

“Just keep the search alive. Ya got yourself a deal, Marky,” Evan mumbles. Within seconds, he’s issuing the deep breaths of sleep. Chagrined, Mark settles back and looks toward the stars. He tries to pick out constellations, but his memory for such trifles isn’t what it should be. What a shame, he thinks. He’ll have to fix that.

Taking Root in Rural America

28 Oct

Take one on rural America, from Brian Alexander in a recent Atlantic article:

The social good of such places, [Arthur] Morgan insisted, was being “dissolved, diluted, and submerged by modern technology, commercialism, mass production, propaganda, and centralized government.” While many big-city residents might not worry about the fate of small towns, Morgan believed they should because the “controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience.” These traits are best transmitted from one generation to the next in small communities, he argued, from where they are then spread throughout entire societies. To erode small-town culture was to erode the culture of the nation.

Take two, from Kevin Williamson of the National Review in the run-up to last year’s election:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

I spend my days working in regional community and economic development, which means devoting a fair amount of time and thought to towns across my corner of the world in northeastern Minnesota. I attend a number of small-town meetings, almost all of which are heartening: from Virginia to Sandstone, from Two Harbors to Aitkin, people deeply committed to their towns come out in force to these meetings and share their love for them. They acknowledge problems but are devoted to fixing them, and in many of them civic engagement seems far more robust than in Duluth, where politics appears to have devolved into vicious tarring of one’s opponents on social media. (Okay, I’m being an election season cynic, but the pettiness is a wonder to behold.)

Even so, it’s not hard to sink into doubt about the future of small towns, either when one looks at macro level trend data or takes a walk down Main Street. Not much is happening, the population is greying, things are boarded up, and yes, in some places, one can find people on the streets high on something at midday. Occasional new development on the outskirts gives some dated facilities a needed refresh, but leaves behind empty space in places where that’s not easy to fill. Many towns can seem trapped in a slow, downward spiral with no clear escape.

On Friday, work took me to Bruno, Minnesota (population 102). There’s not much to Bruno: a bar, a church, a small gas station, a thrift store, a handful of houses, many of which have seen better days. It’s 40-odd miles from Duluth on a beautiful but fairly lonely road, so it’s not one of those small towns that enjoys the spillover from a convenient metropolitan area. But, tucked up a side street sits a former schoolhouse, sits the Nemadji Research Corporation, a world-class medical billing and data mining company with 47 employees on site.

Bruno’s champions are the founders of Nemadji, Gene and Becky Lourey. The late Gene was the brains behind the operation, whose tech skills were decades ahead of his time; Becky, to use her own words, provided the heart. That exuberant human touch was so evident that Becky, whose picture probably appears next to the phrase “bleeding heart liberal” in mid-2000s encyclopedias, got herself elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and then the Senate in this rural district, and also mounted a failed campaign for the DFL gubernatorial nomination in 2006. (Her son, Tony, now holds the Senate seat.) She infuses Nemadji with a deep conviction born of a long and tumultuous life that has never seen her waver in her enthusiasm and grit, even as she endured business failures and lost three children. Its facility includes a daycare, a lunchroom, and an experiment in hydroponics; employees get excellent benefits, which in good times have even included college tuition. Becky Lourey has built a legacy in northern Pine County that will last long after her, though at 74, she’s not exactly showing any signs of slowing down.

Not every town can have a Nemadji, but the Loureys offer lessons for local communities everywhere. Their power is remarkable, and it’s worth nothing that their roots aren’t miles deep in the Bruno area: they grew up in different Minnesota towns, and if Becky had had her way, they would have stayed in Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill East neighborhood, where they lived for a spell and helped found the local neighborhood organization. But once they settled down in Kerrick (just up the road from Bruno), they left a mark. One need not share the Loureys’ politics, but one does need to recognize where Kevin Williamson’s assessment of small town struggles goes wrong.

First off, rural America is not a monolith. And while small towns may not exhibit much demographic diversity, there is a lot of economic diversity both within and between them. Williamson commits the now-frequent fallacy when he implies the people dying from painkillers are the ones voting for Trump when instead it’s usually the relatively well-off rural voters who are reacting to all of the decline around their relative success. For every dying small town, there’s another that’s holding its own and producing its share of decent jobs. Even places like Virginia, the Iron Range town where the population is down while poverty and perceptions of crime have multiplied, still serve as vital links in one of the nation’s most important industries, even if we can now get iron ore out of the ground far more efficiently than we used to. And while I’ll shelve a full examination of this for a later date, the interplay between low birth rates, immigration, and politics has particular consequences for the American rural-urban divide.

The deeper issue with Williamson’s thesis, however, is his conception of economics as a strict matter of “satisfying human wants, not defining them.” This is true insofar as that we should not expect economic theory to behave in moral ways on its own. But even Adam Smith understood the necessity of a moral support structure behind capitalism to build a stable society. Badly aligned incentives can unravel whole cultures, and when culture unravels or collapses, whether into the inner city crime waves of past decades or the silent scourge of drugs and disability in small towns today, the ugliness never ends. It has a direct political spillover, drives migration patterns, and leaves behind wreckage that may stick around for decades. The physical signs of decline may fade away over time, but the pain in the present and in future generations can be a mountain to overcome. Every effort should be made to overcome it, but the odds are hardly stacked in a favorable way.

This brings me back to Brian Alexander’s insistence that small towns do matter, a perspective he renders with proper respect toward metropolitan areas. There is a fair amount of mushy ground here, as the piece paints the suburbs in a lazy trope, and it’s impossible to prove whether or not small towns are a sort of moral compass and proving ground for a nation. (I am, however, generally sympathetic to the notion that forcing people into proximity with other people from a wide range of backgrounds is a healthy thing for personal formation. This doesn’t just come through sharing a town; after my grandfather’s funeral, a cousin and I discussed how having so many aunts and uncles in our sprawling family gave us an immediate window into a broad swath of life.) But there are some essential insights in his piece.

Just as Williamson tell us failing small towns deserve little sympathy, it’s become fashionable in certain urbanist circles to shrug and say that the economy is what it is, and that small towns are doomed to die. No doubt the dwindling, especially in a relative sense, will continue in many places. But decline does have profound political consequences, and the alterations to a national culture that stem from economic and cultural upheaval are not to be taken lightly. Change will continue, and we’ll need as many Loureys as we can get to weather the storm. Relying on that exceptional level of dedication and service is a bit of a Hail Mary; efforts need not go that far to be a success. But they do require a moral commitment to place that goes beyond graphs of economic performance and understands what it means to take root in a community. Cut off the roots, and the tree will die.

Pinstriped Pleasures

22 Oct

Half the fun of being a Yankees fan is the freedom to revel in being rich and evil. By those standards, the Bronx Bombers’ 2017 season was an odd one. With this year’s squad, we had a chance to enjoy things the way most other fans must: with cautious optimism, excitement at rising prospects, and eventually coming to realize that hey, maybe this team can make the playoffs and has a fighting shot once it’s there! This Yankee team was fun to watch, their most entertaining in years, and gave a necessary jolt of life to a franchise that had been treading water for years.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez had both shown their potential at the major league level, and there are always enough high-priced stars in the Yankee constellation to keep them relevant, even if said stars are past their prime (CC Sabathia), having down years (Masahiro Tanaka), or otherwise not living up to their contracts (Jacoby Ellsbury). In the Age of the Bullpen, they had about as impressive an assemblage of talent for the late innings as any team ever. With a young core and a strong farm system, an 88-win season and a chance at the second wild card berth didn’t sound too outlandish at the start. The ultimate result was within the margin of error of that prediction.

It didn’t come easy, though. Many of the things we assumed would be strengths (Tanaka, that bullpen) were surprisingly inconsistent. Injuries depleted the lineup at times, most notably to Gary Sanchez, but also afflicting Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro after fine starts to the season, and ruining most of Greg Bird’s year. The Yankees had the run differential of a team that should have won 100 games, meaning their end total of 91 was in some sense a pretty serious underachievement.

They made up for it in the postseason. After an early deficit against the Twins made the Wild Card game look lost from the get-go, Gregorious had an instant response, and the Yankee offense rolled from there. Down 0-2 to a Cleveland juggernaut after a brutal blown lead, they flipped a switch and restored order in the Bronx behind a rejuvenated rotation and that bullpen. Again down 0-2 to Houston, the offense awoke at home in Game 3, and a late stunner in Game 4 seemed to flip the whole series. Yankees fans had every reason to be confident heading back to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the ALCS, but you can’t predict baseball, Suyzn, and the feisty Astros fought back, while the Yankee bats went cold.

Unlike the Yankees’ ALCS run, a 2012 push that felt like it was running on fumes, this roster was laden with energy and hope for the future. To get the obvious out of the way, there was Aaron Judge, whose record-setting rookie season got most of the national headlines, and gave the Bronx Bombers a bona fide offensive star for the first time since Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez listed into decline. Didi Gregorius set the Yankee record for home runs by a shortstop, and has succeeded at the impossible task of being Jeter’s successor. He and Castro create a dynamic double play combination with plenty of years ahead of them, and combine with Judge and Sanchez to form a multifaceted offensive core.

Some of the more important moves for these Yankees took place off the field. ALDS review snafu aside, Joe Girardi stayed himself, handling the craziness of New York and (eventually) managing his pitchers well, and while I’ve gone up and down on him over his ten(!) years in the Bronx, I believe he deserves an extension. Brian Cashman comes out of the past year and a half looking brilliant, with particularly with his deadline moves. In 2016, he had the guts to admit the Yankees were out of it and held a fire sale that rebuilt the farm system overnight. This season, he shored up the rotation and the bullpen with a couple of decisive moves that made a deep playoff run possible.

They bring back everyone who was anyone on offense, and have Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres lurking in the wings to help in the spots with the biggest long-term question marks. The bullpen will be just as lethal, and if it lives up to its fullest potential, will be practically unhittable. The rotation, the weak spot to begin with, remains the biggest issue, though it’s full of respectable options. They’ll have to make decisions on Tanaka and Sabathia, whose postseason performances may have earned them both extensions; they could do a lot worse than those two, especially with Tanaka, whose rough regular year was probably a blip. Severino is still growing into his role, Sonny Gray is fairly reliable, and if Jordan Montgomery can reprise his respectable role from this past season, they could have a complete rotation, albeit one with little margin for error. Of course they could just go shopping to shore things up, but within a monster free agent class coming up after this next season, I expect they might save their pennies for now.

No season without a pennant is a true success in Yankeeland, but it was hard not to enjoy this one, even with the end result. Yankee Stadium came alive again, or perhaps truly alive for the first time since the move across the street in 2009. It’s been loud, of course, but the intimidating Yankee environment hasn’t quite been the same in the new behemoth, and the ring of ever-empty box seats and paltry attendances (by Yankee standards) at times even this season attest to this loss of the old ideal. But this fall the Bleacher Creatures seemed to find that raucousness that made the old building shake, bouncing around and singing like soccer hooligans. After a phase of gradual decline and painfully long good-byes to old icons, the Yankees and their fans are finding their swagger again. The Yankees won back the Bronx this postseason, going 6-0 at home, and with any luck a couple of its old residents, Mystique and Aura, aren’t far behind.

For now, though, it’s time for a long winter, and for the first time in a while, “maybe next year” is more than an idle wish. And I do believe high school hockey teams drop the puck in less than a month…

Farewell to the Patriarch

15 Oct

John Maloney, the co-founder of a family that included a wife of 68 years, 12 children, 20 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, passed away over the weekend. My grandfather ruled his clan from his suburban Chicago roost, and in his later years from a lake home in northern Wisconsin as well, always a welcome meeting point for the Duluth-based branch of his family. His obituary spends over half its words listing offspring, a fitting tribute to an expansive legacy. He was a true patriarch, a throwback to a now-rare masculine ideal of a father, a breadwinner, a man of faith, and one whose larger-than-life figure left an indelible mark.

My grandfather had a certain curmudgeonly quality, the sort that intimidated me as a young kid but delighted me as I grew into a person who had more than a few things in common with the man. We shared strong literary interests, fondness for baseball on the radio, pleasure in hosting large parties in spite of our introversion, enjoyment in holding court on weighty affairs, the occasional need to escape to a lake, and some skinny ankles. At the most profound level we both aspired a quiet but firm sense of righteousness stemming from an intellectual worldview, and a desire to leave something that lasts. I don’t aim to copy him, either in his unflinching faith or in his reproductive prowess, but his life is evidence that something akin to what I aspire to can be done, and he is as much an inspiration here as anyone I know.

grandpa

My grandfather, composed entirely of pictures of his progeny, now hanging in my hallway.

It wasn’t easy to break through the crust with Grandpa. He was firm in his beliefs and set in his ways, a product of both his times and his faith. While he was rarely one to open up or acknowledge that things were not always right, he did live by example, and set a standard whose consistency said what words sometimes could not. Grandpa lost his own family fairly early, and wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to him. The son of an accomplished PR man whose employers included the Museum of Science and Industry before an untimely and alcohol-driven death, he attended the University of Chicago, where he met my grandmother, and married her at age 19. By the time he was 30, he had nine children. He settled into life as an actuary, became an iconic midcentury father figure who put twelve kids through college, and with his wife instilled in so many of them his fondness for letters, music, liquor, and the finer things in life.

Central to Grandpa’s kingdom was the kingdom of God, and his robust Catholic faith was the foundation of his life. That faith produced remarkable marriage, and all of his certainties on family life the he lived out until the end. He savaged me for going to Georgetown—“that’s a Jesuit school, why aren’t you going to a Catholic school?” he asked when I was accepted—but it was all in good fun; perhaps he even hoped Georgetown might guide one of the wayward members of his flock back into the faithful fold. (I think he thought I should have been a priest, which, given my fondness for sermonizing and asking big questions, might well have been my fate in a different era.) The last substantive conversation I remember having with him before his decline was about a former professor of mine who wrote in First Things, a densely intellectual and traditionalist Catholic journal that he read. His belief was profound, both spiritual and intellectual, a totalizing force that left no room for doubt. I never shared it, but I certainly admired it.

The last chapter of his life was not an easy one to watch. Grandpa never did recover from the effects of prolonged anesthesia two years ago, and most traces of his once formidable intellect faded away. His final years were spent slumped in his recliner, or rolling about in wheelchairs through hallways of several homes for the elderly with increasing levels of care, the institutionalized prolongation of desperate dreams that old age has become. I only had glimpses of this life, but it was still a shocking window into this sad decline; a sort of pain and loss of faculty that I cannot fathom and doubt I’d be able to handle without going insane.

Fortunately, though, we can choose what to remember of those who leave us, and with Grandpa, that means focusing on the rich first 85 years instead of the feeble final two. It’s a string of memories that begins with him forcefully squishing his grandchildren, and shaking our hands with his vice-like grip. It has him sitting at the head of the table and carving up the meat at Thanksgiving at the Lombard house, or seated at the piano to lead carols at the Christmas party. It features him heading out on East Twin Lake in his fishing boat or telling tales over drinks and cards late at night to the tune of the loons of the Northwoods. It meant classical music blasting on a Sunday afternoon as he devoured some large tome; Viennese waltzes on New Year’s Day and Garrison Keillor on Saturday nights. Popcorn at four, happy hour at five, bedtime in the little twin beds he and Grandma had side by side. Mumbled blessings before every meal, and the Cubs on a lazy summer afternoon. What a life well-lived. So I’ll toast my wine, pack my bags for an Irish wake and a funeral mass, and bid farewell to a man who built a family to endure through the flux of modern life. We descendants have big shoes to fill.

Chasing Rings

11 Oct

No, this post isn’t about the practice of athletes joining certain teams that increase their odds of winning championships. Instead, it stems from a C.S. Lewis lecture that has new life thanks to the efforts of a few luminaries in the American semi-conservative intelligentsia. David Brooks writes about it here, and Rod Dreher has a couple of blog posts on it; both drew their thoughts from Alan Jacobs’ modestly titled new bookHow to Think.

Lewis’s lecture to some Cambridge students in 1944 (read the whole thing) was an education on the banality of evil long before Hannah Arendt minted the phrase. His point was that most of the bad decisions made by the talented, well-reared Cambridge students before him would not be out of sheer malice or evil. Instead, it would come out of an earnest desire to prove oneself in certain circles, to move ever upward into vaunted inner rings. Whether those rings involve high school cliques or local political factions or artist collectives or something akin to high society, they are the unofficial circles that people use to measure their status. Exclusion from inner rings leads to alienation; entering them leads only to momentary satisfaction. Per Lewis, it’s impossible to make it.

The hunger for the inner ring, for acceptance and the comfort of doing the same things as others, drives so many decisions in life. This is especially pervasive in a society that likes to think it is a meritocracy: all people who prove their worth in some form or another are worthy of admission into inner rings, with no inherent barriers based on birth or status. When anything is (allegedly) possible, there are rings galore that we might want to enter. It is also probably more likely to afflict people who spend much of their time on quests for knowledge, and who might like that other people will pay attention to the things they say or write.

Lewis has some ideas for how to resist the siren call of the inner ring. He tells the Cambridge students that they should aim to be “sound craftsmen” who do what they need to do in their work not to climb the ladder, but to be excellent in the task before them, and so earn the respect of other craftspeople who do things right. He counsels them to spend time with people one likes so that rings emerge naturally, without any of the self-conscious exclusion of the inner ring. The guilty truth is that, for many of these Cambridge students, those people are generally going to be people who are fairly intelligent and ambitious themselves. But those traits are not prerequisites, but instead byproducts that lead us to take certain leaps and be in the same place at the same time. And rather than pulling up the ladder to anyone else who might join, this sort of circle is always open to new entrants.

Another trait that will keep a circle open is the ability to level of its members to level with themselves, both individually and with regard to the group as a whole. Dreher is at his best in posts such as this one on the inner ring, in which his writing unfolds in a sprawling fit of self-reflection that exactingly examines his own participation in certain rings. I find that I’m willing to forgive a lot of disagreements with, or errors in the lives of, certain people if they are able to articulate a level of honest, raw self-reflection and criticism. That sincerity speaks more volumes about their character as political actors (using that term broadly) than the stances they take. I want the people in my own closest circles to be capable of that sort of reflection, so that we all thereby do all we can to avoid the risk of falling into closed inner rings.

While I’d like to think I’ve generally resisted the need to belong to certain circles in the way Dreher had it, I do certainly recognize that desire in many phases of my life. Lewis also correctly notes that such resistance can be the source of its own form of conceit, and here I try to stay especially aware of any self-righteousness over my decision not to pursue certain career choices, many of which stemmed from an evolving but meticulous view on how to live a good life. Inner rings can be just as restricting in a corner of northern Minnesota, too, and while I haven’t found any that are too frustrating in one year back here, I also have a sense for how easily they could appear or throw things off. Roots are important, but for a tree to grow upward, it must grow outward, adding a new ring each year. It may not always be a speedy growth, but it can’t ever stop.