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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.

Good Writing, 12/4/19

4 Dec

In my continued ongoing efforts to collect good thinkpieces and also keep this blog somewhat alive, here’s another collection of interesting reading:

First, in the New Yorker, M.R. O’Connor tells the tale of “dirt road America,” an effort by a man named Sam Correro to map dirt road routes across the country. His project, decades in the making, invites travelers to slow down and drive slowly, to explore the forgotten corners and backcountry secrets of a vast, sprawling country. His meticulous hand-made maps guide curious souls on a very different kind of American road trip.

Sticking with the travel theme, whatever one may think of Roger Cohen’s politics, there’s little doubt he is the finest prose stylist on the New York Times opinion page, and in this recent offering, he gets himself quite lost on a hike in Spain’s Sierra de Guadarrama, I can only hope that, if I am someday lost and losing hope, I too will start meditating on Hemingway’s short stories as I contemplate mortality. Often the greatest way to escape any ruts in the present is to reflect on the wisdom of someone who’s been in that same place.

Perhaps not coincidentally given an impending milestone birthday, I find myself reading a lot about social pressures that lead to delayed family formation and childbirth. Thanks to Ross Douthat at the Times, I went down this rabbit hole this week with three different articles. Douthat himself wrote from his usual conservative Catholic perspective on how the contemporary left, after a period when it was relatively supportive of the idea of strong families as a social good, has begun to rebel against this concept. As a complement and counterpoint, he also shared a 2016 critique from the left by Nancy Fraser, who talks of how neoliberal capitalism undermines family and community social structures. Douthat also recently tweeted this long, sprawling account titled “The Economics of Boomers” by Byrne Hobart. It’s a wonky economist’s perspective on how the economic history of the past 60 years is strongly tied to different phases of baby boomers’ lives, and how the political economy they’ve created defines the life choices of younger generations. Ok, boomer!

Finally, on a lighter note, northern Minnesota author Aaron Brown tells us exactly what an Iron Ranger is. At my core, I’m really not a cultural Ranger at all: I like urban life and have snobby tastes in reading material and food and drink. But I spend a fair amount of time on the Range these days, and I like hockey and beer and the outdoors, so I can usually slide in comfortably. Brown nails it: culture, in the end, forms the basis of these labels.

Until next time…

Puck Drop 2019-2020

20 Nov

We’re finally here: the 2019-2020 season begins with its first few games tomorrow night. A preseason podcast and my AA rankings have already made their way out into the world, and my next task is to write a foreword for a book. If you need more hockey coverage to pass the time between now and puck drop, though, here are five storylines as we head into a new decade of high school hockey.

Changing of the Guard? Three perennial State Tournament contenders, Edina, St. Thomas, and Duluth East, have been decimated by graduation and departure; while they will remain relevant to varying degrees, this season has a chance to bring out a lot of new faces. The top teams in St. Thomas and East’s sections, Rosemount and Andover, respectively, have never been to AA State; Edina’s chief antagonists include a Benilde team that has only been twice in AA and a Blake team that’s never been. These aren’t minor transitions, either: every one of those teams is a state title contender in a pretty open race. History tells us the old powers don’t go quietly, but there is a chance at a lot of fresh blood in the AA Tourney this season.

Eagles in Formation? Eden Prairie is #1, and its collection of star power on the defending runners-up is among the more impressive out there. The questions begin right after that, though. With Mason Langenbrunner arriving from Cloquet, Ben Steeves from New Hampshire, and Jackson Blake up from bantams via Shattuck, there are legitimate questions as to how this team will jell. There’s also very little varsity experience beyond their collection of stars. Can they get enough out of some very green depth players to hold up against the other top few teams, most of which can go at least three lines deep?

Defense wins championships? The unifying trend across the top AA teams is the quality of the defense. Headliners like Eden Prairie’s Luke Mittelstadt (now united with Langenbrunner), Benilde’s Nate Schweitzer, Andover’s Wyatt Kaiser, and Rosemount’s Jake Ratzlaff will get the attention, but these teams are all deep in back, capable of rolling two or three pairs and confident they won’t see a drop-off. Goals could be at a premium in some marquee matchups this season. And in a year when defense may lead the way, who can get the most out of their forwards?

The Lake gets deeper For years, the Lake Conference has been the undisputed cream of the crop in Minnesota, and the small size of this five-team festival allowed its powers to load up on nonconference schedules that were always the best in the state. Now, though, things are changing: St. Michael-Albertville and Buffalo, two interesting though hardly top-tier programs, have joined the fray. The powers now have smaller nonconference slates, which creates less crossover and sets up a little more ranking intrigue; the changes will also spare us three annual Edina-Eden Prairie meetings. I, for one, am glad to see a new wrinkle in a conference that tended to feel repetitive by season’s end.

A Class A Slugfest If AA is fairly open this season, Class A is a different, though equally enticing story: the front-end talent on the top three teams is the best it’s been in years. Defending champ St. Cloud Cathedral returns most of its core, Hermantown boasts Blake Biondi and Joey Pierce, and East Grand Forks has loaded up with some star young talents and an acquisition from North Dakota. If those three make it through to semifinal Friday in March, we’ll have a few heavyweight fights to decide a state title.

It’s not always that easy, though: throw in some added intrigue up north with rising Warroad, ever-present Thief River Falls, Greenway’s continued relevance, and a peaking Eveleth group, and we have the makings of some good races. Outside of steady Mahtomedi, the metro sections of Class A feel as unsettled as they ever have, which leaves an opening for someone new to crash the party. My fun pick to watch this season, though, is a North Branch team that has a shot at being the first seeded team from 5A in its present form.

As always, follow along as you please and send your thoughts my way. I’m headed to the Twin Cities this weekend to catch my first few games of the season, and action in the Duluth area will begin in earnest after Thanksgiving. See you at the rink!

90s Boys, Part II

17 Nov

Part One is here.

While The Topeka School aims to render contemporary America in grand moody sweeps, the book I read in conjunction with it, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations, has seemingly more modest expectations. The allegory is more subtle and less grandiose, the language more measured, more matter-of-fact, a believable rendering of characters’ thoughts. Instead, Tilney worms his way into the mind of Ben Weeks, a third-former (high school freshman to the rest of us) at St. James School, a New Hampshire boarding school not-so-loosely based on the prestigious, if sometimes embattled, St. Paul’s. Ben is a sixth-generation SJS student, the son and nephew of prominent school benefactors, younger brother to a freshly minted SJS grad who was something of a campus legend, and an emerging squash star. On paper, he’s the embodiment of the WASP elite.

It would be easy to take a snapshot of Ben as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He is caught up in an anxious, morally dubious world of high school social striving, and the closest friends he develops have few redeeming qualities. For most of the book, he at best offers compromised advice to Ahmed, his Dubaian roommate with no concept of American social norms; at worst, he enables other kids’ torment of him. The nagging voice in his head does nothing to keep him from getting drunk enough to vomit all over the room in his first month at the school or engaging in any number of other improprieties large and small. He frequently lies to get out of trouble, and he gets away with it.

And yet Ben retains a tender core. Tilney wallows deep in Ben’s adolescent brain, an achievement both relatable and exhausting: in any given moment, his actions make sense, always an effort to find his place in a harsh social world and a long family history. His bluster always tentative, and at no point do we feel his heart is in it; he remains sensitive and industriously tries to make his way through an unforgiving environment. He is overwhelmed by forces beyond him, struggling desperately to find his own self beneath the weight of generations of expectations.

Part of the problem is the world in which Ben finds himself. St. James is caught in a moral paradox best embodied by the St. James Companion, a book of expectations it gives to its incoming students, a relic of a different era that still calls students “boys” even though SJS has long been co-ed. It wants to protect its students from the forces of the world and teach them humility while preparing them to rule it. The isolation from the rest of the world it so long enjoyed is beginning to break down amid modern connectivity. Disciplinary hearings are a farce, tied more to the school’s image than any sense of justice, an attempt to keep up appearances in changing times. Ben’s family situation is not what it seems at the outset, and like any family that finds its social situation fragile, he swiftly develops an anxiety that his complex social world turns into outright paranoia.

The Expectations is an elegy of sorts for East Coast old money. That includes its most redeeming qualities: frugality and taste in the face of gauche free-spending from the likes of Ahmed, its dying moral code an effort to tame the privilege the SJS kids enjoy. The WASPs aspired to their virtues, and often those virtues aligned with the best of the American project, but as that old aristocracy collides with new money and mass democratic culture, it finds the world has left it behind. The Companion isn’t relevant for Alice, Ben’s love interest, nor for Ahmed, who irks Ben with his dismissal of SJS tradition until he suddenly does branch out in a way that could destabilize Ben’s place at the school. Ben has few qualms about breaking rules so long as they are in line with the traditions of SJS mischief, but other forms of impropriety become existential threats.

As with Adam in The Topeka Project, Ben has a smart but ultimately tragic father and a pillar-like mother, an arrangement that seems either oedipal or an indictment of a particular era in American fatherhood. Ben’s mother, a budding academic with a keen and sympathetic understanding of her son’s motives, is the novel’s grounding force; his father, meanwhile, is every bit the sorry heir at the end of the line, riding past glory and fully consumed by a need to keep up appearances. The Expectations is a more sympathetic rendering of how elite hunger for wealth and power overrides a veneer of culture than The Topeka School, and for its efforts may prove an even more searing indictment.

I knew approximately nothing about squash before reading this book—another sign of WASP decline, perhaps—but the squash portions of the book are among its most riveting. Squash is both Ben’s escape and a source of stress, especially as the stakes get higher, and anyone familiar with high-stakes high school sports (or any such activity) will relish the tale of his struggle, at once both in search of prestige and cloistered in a narrow world of little interest to anyone beyond the courts. The SJS squash coach, the aptly named Manley Price, is probably a good barometer for readers’ reactions to The Expectations. Readers who relish his efforts to push his students to the brink probably understand the desire to elegize St. James; those who find him an over-the-top manipulator will probably want to grab Ben and order him to head back to his local public school. But if a culture of excellence is to sustain itself, it needs its manly (or womanly) prices; if there is any virtue in higher moral codes, they need to have arbiters and norms to maintain those standards. That tension sits at the core of The Expectations, and the moral questions it raises are some of the most crucial ones a changing society has to ponder.

The Expectations is a debut novel, and as a result has some of the rangy weaknesses of debut novels. Its third-person limited perspective gives us an exacting portrait of Ben but comes at the expense of depth for some of the supporting characters. Its occasional tendency to wander into other brains or offer sudden insights from on high, while sometimes a welcome break from relentless Ben thoughts, usually rings false; the need to name-check every 90s brand also drained me, especially as someone who is a bit too young to find any resonance in many of them. (This may be the point, of course.) But Ben Weeks is a timeless exemplar of the status struggle of teenage boyhood, and in the final chapter, when he has nothing left to lose, he starts to find himself. ‘Let yourself bleed,’ Price tells him, and Ben pays the price to learn the true nature of the world around him.

90s Boys, Part I

16 Nov

My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.

At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.

Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.

The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?

While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.

I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.

Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.

My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.

Part Two is here.

A Slowly Widening Gyre: Duluth Election Dissection, 2019

7 Nov

First, to explain my silence on local politics to the readers who don’t talk to me regularly: over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the campaign manager for Arik Forsman’s at-large city council campaign. This blog’s ethos has always sought distance from any cheerleading I may do in private, and I much prefer to work with people directly than yell things out at the internet in the hope that doing so achieves things. Now that it’s all over, though, I’ll attempt to step back from my role over the past year and find the bigger picture.

Mayor Emily Larson rolled to a second term, though we always knew that was going to happen. David Nolle did manage to win four precincts, all of them in a row along the riverfront out west, from Irving to Fond du Lac. While political winds blow here and there in many of the other races, Larson holds a dominant center in Duluth politics. She’s heard some grumbling to both the left and the right, and her campaign’s efforts to spend a lot of time out west, knowing it had nothing to lose, didn’t yield stronger outcomes than her even more lopsided win four years ago. For now, though, the mayoralty is firmly in her hands, and she has a chance to see results from some of the longer-term projects that were at the center of her first term, such as the new streets tax and the medical district.

Elsewhere, however, some cracks in Duluth’s governing consensus emerged, and they were most evident in the at-large city council race. A somewhat conservative political newcomer, Derek Medved, paced the field, with Labor-endorsed incumbents Arik Forsman and Noah Hobbs coming in second and third. This at-large race was most notable for its surge in bullet voting, with voters on the left and right choosing only one candidate in the hope of getting theirs across the finish line. Forsman survived this new tactic, while the collateral damage in 2019 Duluth was Hobbs, whose low-key style and prolific policy work didn’t match the moment.

A Trump Era left rejects candidates who aren’t in lockstep with its vision. Mike Mayou, the left’s 21-year-old candidate, ran an interesting jumble of a race, at times displaying some real charisma with soaring rhetoric and at times making unforced errors like 6 AM primary election robocalls. Mayou broke through and seized the DFL endorsement, which seemed to have little short-term benefit but certainly emboldened the progressive wing of the party going forward. His general election performance improved somewhat on his somewhat distant primary showing, but in the end he appeared on a smaller percentage of ballots cast than Rich Updegrove did two years ago; his percentage simply looks a little higher due to all of the bullet voting. One moment he was a “UMD student,” and another he was a “community organizer,” which aren’t mutually exclusive but convey very different things; sometimes he seemed to just follow the incumbents’ talking points, even as some of his supporters trashed Hobbs and Forsman relentlessly on social media. Those supporters will no doubt blame Labor, which did not endorse Mayou, though that argument is difficult to sustain in a nonpartisan race in which one’s candidate is running against two incumbents who have delivered for Labor, and when one’s candidate finishes last among the viable candidates in both rounds; after the primary, I mostly stopped paying attention, as I knew the threat, so to speak, would come from the right. The Mayou campaign seemed an apt mirror for the progressive moment: filled with unbridled passion, devoted to national-level talking points, and at times more fixated on shaming its putative allies than the conservatives whose rise it may unwittingly enable.

City Council At-Large Results by Precinct

A well-funded and organized right, meanwhile, is well-positioned to exploit the leftward internal warfare. Still, Medved ran a vague campaign that really didn’t always align with the tighter messaging of his conservative funders. He won not because he was BizPac’s man (though the money didn’t hurt); he won because he made himself the face of the west side, and that east-west divide is increasingly the fault line in Duluth politics. He even won in deep blue Lincoln Park, and I’m not sure any more money or different messaging would have made a difference. While Medved isn’t particularly Trumpy, the tribal loyalty he inspired does have a whiff of national politics to it, and while both Hobbs and Forsman can claim some working class cred and have taken on bureaucratic red tape, it’s much easier to come across as pure on such fronts when one doesn’t have a track record. As a newcomer to politics, Medved now begins his education in governance.

The district races featured a fascinating mix. Becky Hall, a hard-working also-ran, lost by a substantial margin to incumbent Gary Anderson in the first district, while Janet Kennedy, after twice failing to break through in previous cycles, outworked Jeanne Koneczny in the fifth district. Kennedy improved her performance most notably in the Riverside/Smithville/Norton Park areas compared to her showing against Jay Fosle four years ago and became Duluth’s first African-American city councilor. BizPac’s two district candidates came nowhere near matching its at-large candidate. The third district race, which defied easy categories, saw Roz Randorf pull out the win over Labor-endorsed Theresa O’Halloran-Johnson. The gap closed somewhat after a lopsided primary, but Randorf pulled away with strong showings in the higher-income areas atop the hill and out on Park Point. One presumes Randorf’s loyalties lie more with the leftward core that ran her campaign than her initial BizPac donors, but she offers a potentially fascinating wild card on the council.

5th District City Council: Janet Kennedy (purple) vs. Jeanne Koneczny (red)

On the school board side of the ledger Alanna Oswald proved resilient, winning a second election against a Labor-endorsed opponent despite enduring health challenges in the closing weeks of the campaign. Her early work got her out ahead of challenger John Schwetman, who kept the race fairly competitive but only won in a high-income east side core of neighborhoods and in a few of the precincts outside of city limits. Oswald’s cross-cutting appeal captures both the old Red Plan critics and a new wave seeking to advance greater equity, and the relative blurriness of school politics allows that pitch to succeed in a way I’m not sure can work in a council race.

School Board At-Large: Alanna Oswald (orange) vs. John Schwetman (blue)

In the district races, two anti-Red Plan crusaders of the past failed to win, though the margins map on to the traditional east-west divide in Duluth school politics. Incumbent David Kirby rolled past Harry Welty in the second district, while over in the third district, Loren Martell had his best showing in his many races and gave newcomer Paul Sandholm a decent run despite falling short in the end. Martell carried two precincts, one in lower Duluth Heights and one on the near East Hillside. Welty has signaled this campaign, his seventeenth, may have been his last; after a closer call, Martell may yet give it another go. We are firmly on our path in a new era of school board politics now, and after crossing paths with some of the newer members over the past several months, I’m as optimistic about the district’s future as I’ve been in a while. I look forward to seeing what this group can do with its impending superintendent search.

The past few Duluth election cycles have been dominant for Labor, which usually found a way to hold broad left-of-center center of Duluth politics. Its success isn’t some magical formula: over the past 12 years, it’s coupled union work ethic and business support to back a governing consensus focused on collaboration and incremental progress. It’s overseen a substantial rehabilitation of this city’s outward image, surges in investment with no recent precedent, and incomes rising faster than national averages; while far from flawless, it’s hard to argue with the overall trajectory. The Labor machine, in the words of Don Ness, made Duluth politics boring for a spell.

Labor still won a majority of its races in 2019, but there were some significant defeats and narrower margins. National polarization is making its way into local politics, and when that happens, the center does not always hold. As someone who just managed a campaign that made an effort to rise above national level ugliness one of its core tenets, the end results are not overly encouraging. But centrism (or center-leftism) for its own sake isn’t an inspiring platform, and we can talk about “nuance” and “creativity” all day, but at some point those have to manifest themselves in actual, measurable results. I know the candidate I worked for is committed to that, and I can only hope his interesting collection of new colleagues is as well.

In many ways, my job over the past year was easy: the Forsman campaign was very well-resourced, my candidate worked relentlessly, and he brought together a deep, strong team with good diversity of thought that worked as a unit to keep any one task from becoming onerous. I had plenty of fun with it. At the same time, it was my own education in the rigors of a campaign and the unexpected twists it can take, and at times a striking reminder that politics is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure what comes next for my political life; I’m not one to take deep pleasure at the mere act of being in the arena, but I do enjoy winning, and the real work, of course, is what we can achieve after an election. Time to get to work.