On Travel

13 May

Liking travel is among the most generic interests possible. Say you like to “travel” in your dating profile and I will find you basic, only a half-step higher than those who say they value “faith, family, and friends.” Of course you like to travel, but travel is a vehicle for other activities, and if your idea of fun travel means standing in a line at Disney World, it means something very different from clambering up peaks in the Sierras or blissing out at a Mexican beach resort or following an Egyptologist around the ruins of Luxor or sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas or—you get the idea. Travel can take many forms: fast or slow, repeated trips to the same destination or somewhere new every time, or themed trips like quests to knock out all of the national parks or ballparks or theme parks. The mere act tells me nothing about you.

When you say you like to travel, you are really trying to say something else: something about what you value, that you are not closed-minded or narrow person, potentially possessed of certain adventurousness or language skills or general competence in life. It’s also an easy conversation-starter, a likely source of an interesting story that may or may not reveal something interesting about the teller. We travel to say we’ve seen things that other people in our circles have seen (or, even better, have not seen) and make ourselves sound interesting at cocktail parties.

For the most cliched of reasons, we travel to expand our horizons. We go to gawk at beauty: the Grand Canyon, the California coast, the rawness of the Badlands, Lake Superior shores. We go to eat things and meet people, and sometimes we take instrumental travel, like extending a business trip by a day to drink in some local culture. Travel can test us, tell us new things about ourselves, whether we want it to or not. A friend of mine likes to draw a distinction between first-order fun, which is fun that is enjoyable in the moment, and second-order fun, which is not fun in the moment but does appear fun in retrospect. Because travel has a habit of committing itself to one’s memory, it comes to include not only frequent experience in the first category but also plenty in the second. If one is apt to spend one’s time thinking, it may give us some idea of who we are and where we come from, and distance from our mundane day-to-day reality may lead us to see things in new lights, ponder new courses, seek out other new destinations.

Sure, one can also achieve enlightenment in one’s own living room, as is necessary more often than not these days, but newness and difference and sensory overload are far more apt to inspire original thought than the same old drudgery over and over again. I have forgotten the happenings of probably about 350 days of 2018, but the remaining 15 all probably involve sports, travel, or both. Angel’s Landing has a way of lingering in one’s memory. If we’re the sort to record our daily thoughts in some form or another, it is these days that we’ll revisit most often, because the odds of it seeming interesting in retrospect are several orders higher than that of the random Tuesday in April when we went to the gym after work, went home, cooked some dinner, and binged a bit of TV before crashing.

Why this reflection now? Well, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Aside from one drive up to Silver Bay and back, I haven’t gone more than twenty miles since one last work trip up to Aurora two months ago. Even on that venture, we knew it was all going awry: “Everything is going to shit!” one of the younger employees of The Hive, Aurora’s superb coffee shop, declared as she reported for work. One elaborate planned vacation went down the tubes, while I nervously check the latest on my scheduled July destinations for updates on openings and campground regulations. Postponed vacations are among the least sad consequences of the coronavirus, but their loss still diminishes the glow of life.

I am fortunate to live in a picturesque city equipped with enough green space that only in certain locations does it feel uncomfortable to recreate outside, even in the midst of a pandemic. Plenty of other scenic attractions are just a short drive away, and I have no worries of exhausting the list of good hiking destinations for each weekend. Travel, paradoxically, can make one more observant of one’s home: more apt to notice how something compares, how there are interesting details in every little neighborhood or jog of coastline. Those skills come in handy during a pandemic.

Even when not traveling, vicarious travel can help fill the void, if imperfectly. I buy the theory that planning a trip can be as much fun as taking one, especially with the resources now at the disposal of us hyper-planners who take care to nail down our locations in each campground or our cultural destinations in each city we visit and take a twisted pleasure in filling every second of every day with something. The key, then, is making sure we can adapt when expectations and reality do not align. A novice traveler plans everything and expects it all to happen that way; a real traveler sets plans knowing it will all go wrong but still loves it anyway.

Travel can also be metaphorical. Anyone who has been somewhere I’ve called home knows that, once I run out of other decorations, I just paper walls with maps. Maps are symbols, fictional representations of a complex reality, an attempt to capture a few useful aspects for useful human consumption. I like maps because they are attempts to understand a slice of the world, to transport and inspire some imagination without any of the cost or hassles of actual travel, and at their best are a form of art as well. But they also put up some guardrails. They tell us what is important and what is not. Some have edges and blank spaces that invite us to see what they hold, and even if we can now go into street view to see what things look like there, the sensory experience is still far short of reality. A good map invites more questions than it provides answers.

Digital versions of maps both expand and constrict our understanding of what they capture. We can zoom in and out endlessly, toggle on and off features that interest us much more easily than on the analog kind. But digital maps are also a crutch, a replacement for situational awareness if one chooses to rely on them for directions, and I am not infrequently stunned by the complete inability of people in my generation to know where anything is without first looking it up. Even for a rigid planner, travel is at its best when it allows for sensory awareness, the ability to drink in the entirety of our surroundings and react to them, to become one with them instead of flailing one’s way through them. Virtual reality can’t come close to that.

Travel for leisure is, effectively, a modern invention. Sure, Herodotus and Marco Polo went on epic journeys, but most of their ilk had ulterior motives, not discovery for its own sake. The very notion that there were new lands out there to discover was somewhat foreign for the medieval mind. Yuval Noah Harari calls Amerigo Vespucci, the man who got a few continents named after him, “the first modern man,” as he was the first explorer who had the courage to say he didn’t know where he was. He wasn’t in the East Indies; he’d found something entirely new, and the maps that followed his travels contained blank spaces for the first time. That willingness to admit uncertainty and go out and try to figure it out, so natural to us moderns, was a radical notion that emerged from the Renaissance, and while it is certainly tied up in all of the imperial and colonial adventures that followed, it is hard not to see it as a stunning human achievement.

For us late moderns, it’s become fashionable to doubt the idea of travel and discovery as something transformative: between technology and the relative ease with which one can (in normal times) penetrate every corner of the globe, it’s easy to presume we have no great discoveries left. We’ve reached the logical extent in the frontier theory of American history, and are now consigned to decadence and ennui. Travel has become a source of Instagram photos, a form of conspicuous consumption and privilege, subtle and not so subtle. Why deal with all the hassle?

Roger Cohen thinks we can still find that edge in our travels, though, and I tend to agree, and hope this virus will remind a few more people of the power of getting lost. Some of us are just plagued by wanderlust, hungry for new answers even though we know the new ones will probably just invite yet more questions and set us off down a spiral of discovery that Vespucci and his contemporaries kicked off over 500 years ago. This is a feature, not a bug: the quest is endless, and that hunger for discovery can continue to be a fountain of the creative thought we need to avoid tautological lives. May we soon be free to travel again, even if it means fewer crowded stadiums or bazaars and more idle strolls down cobblestone streets or nights in lonely tents. There is still more to see.

Living History on Empty Streets

3 May

“Duluth is a bit off-center, both literally and figuratively—something most Duluthians don’t seem to mind at all. After all, this is the city whose skyway system runs partially underground, where the West End is located in the city’s geographic center, and whose annual Christmas City of the North parade is held a week before Thanksgiving. Duluth may be a little bit off-center, but part of what makes Duluth Duluth is that here, true north isn’t always where you’d expect it to be.”

-Tony Dierckins, Duluth: An Urban Biography

Sheltering in place gives a devotee to a city even more time to learn it intimately. I read Tony Dierckins’ new biography of the city, which fits the bill of a pre-founding-to-present history that I pined for on this blog some while back. The Biography really only left me hungry for more: it clocks in at just under 170 pages and could easily have been double that length if it were to thoroughly explore structural forces and the lives of prominent figures beyond a series of mayors and those who crossed their paths. Still, the Biography was welcome step beyond Tony’s previous fun vignettes and collections, most of which peter out somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Granted, Duluth’s history becomes somewhat less romantic in that stretch; the great turn-of-the-century wealth faded, the growth stalled, and the architecture wandered away from an eclectic opulence to something much more mundane. Still, the Biography is a reminder that this city’s history has always been one of awkward lurches, of rises and falls, and a quest for some sort of stability in the aftermath.

Dierckins, citing Arthur W. Baum, likens Duluth to a stumbling prizefighter. (I would have used a hockey analogy, but this one will certainly do.) This city has been battered and bloodied by history: shock after economic shock, a lynch mob that killed its diversity, leadership both bold and questionable. Only rarely has Duluth seemed in control of its own fate, as when its early residents dug the shipping canal (a much more professional and mundane process than some local legends would have you believe), or when late 20th century leadership slowly turned the city back toward first Lake Superior and later the St. Louis River as centerpieces. So often Duluth’s fortunes depend on the whims of others, or no human at all: distant creditors, the American steel industry, the shifts in transportation that came with the interstate highway system. As the coronavirus now ravages the city’s economy, we embark on yet another lurch.

And so I set out to soak up Duluth’s living, breathing history, my mental record of this moment in time. I go for a run—with the sporadic hike on an off day—every day for a month and a half, and never aimed to take the same route twice. At first there was no real rhyme or reason to my wanderings, but once I realized I’d covered all but a handful of Duluth neighborhoods, I decided to knock out the rest over the span of a week and a half. I checked off the last one this morning when I plowed up Vinland Street to Bayview Heights this morning, just far enough to catch a glimpse of the promised land of Proctor across Boundary Avenue. I’m not one to track my distance religiously as I run, nor to lose myself in music or a podcast: I’m just here to run, and to drink in the world around me with my eyes.

In my adventures I find a few more off-center quirks, like the intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue tucked in next to the paper mill deep on the west side. The top of the hill, somehow, is just one monstrous swamp, enlivened by a springtime frog chorus; a few boys in Piedmont splash through the muck in pursuit of the peepers. Duluth is a college town without college neighborhoods, a tourist town whose great landmark came about thanks to some grumpy residents of a sandbar who were peeved their city built the channel that was the source of all its early wealth. One of our showpiece parks is named for an explorer who never came within a thousand miles of the place. As the wind blows, so goes my comfort, at turns frigid or sweaty, guided by a tailwind or slowed by a blast from straight ahead.

Early Superiorites derided Duluthians as cliff-dwellers, and I could see why as I shot up and down the Point of Rocks at the center of the city. I relish the punishment of the runs that just go straight up into Kenwood or the top of the hill in Woodland or up to Lincoln Middle or that nameless bit of the Hillside by the old Summit School. Even a run along the seemingly more level northeast-to-southwest axis offers up an aggressive climb over the Point of Rocks and a more subtle but equally draining rise up to the ridge at about 24th Avenue East. (It’s easier to see now why Duluth’s old money chose this bit of land to throw up its enduring monuments.) When I moved back to Duluth a few years ago, I noticed a change in my leg muscles as my then-sporadic running routine adjusted to constant slopes.

“Duluth is turning into Chicago,” someone groused to me over the phone recently as he griped about crime and undesirables. I cringed at the lack of perspective and the racial undertones, and in mild defensiveness as a Duluthian with Chicago roots. Still, my runs remind me of what a divided city Duluth can be. I witness a drug deal off Portland Square, while a woman in Endion goes through a tearful break-up on the sidewalk over the phone. A kid on the west side tries to hide his cigarette from passersby as he supervises a younger sibling in the yard. In one of the more modest corners of Duluth Heights, a teenager storms out of a house amid loud shouts, and a neighbor edges down his driveway as he looks on in worry. The coronavirus strain is evident everywhere, but most obvious in places where people have little space to escape from the others in their lives, or where they rely on tenuous networks to prop themselves up. Crises like this strain the threads of our social fabric, and the thicker the weave, the better.

Jane Jacobs’ world is in a coma: all social life is now intentional. Downtown takes on a new bleakness without its weekday street life, middling as it may be. Lincoln Park is as dead as it was fifteen years ago, the virus bringing a sad reversion to a lifeless state in which I only pass two other people on the streets, both of whom may live on the streets. Around Denfeld I brush up against a certain charm, a bit dated but comfortable, pride still evident in most quarters, a sense that we’ll be back to normal before long. Old corner stores, most now turned to small houses, lurk here and there, give a sense of past commerce might have been. Fairmount and Irving inspire different reactions as I cruise through them in a sunny snow squall: a corner of the world aging away, lost to time, or at least any seeming need to keep up with it. Part of me is sympathetic, but the rules of the real estate game are rather less forgiving.

I oversimplify. Morgan Park, that fascinating time capsule, spawns new life in a giant townhome project rising into being on the site of its former school. Down the street, a kid blasts away at puck after hockey puck, and calls out a forlorn, human-contact-craving greeting as I pass. Whatever Gary’s giant trailer park may be, it is not old or tired, and that neighborhood’s industrious residents keep adding new features to the public land next to Stowe school. On the day I head down Highway 23 clear out to Chambers Grove Park, the westernmost tip of the westernmost city on the Great Lakes, a diverse, socially-distanced smattering of people explores the site of Duluth’s earliest settlement here at the base of the dalles of the St. Louis.

The classic narrative pits Duluth’s divides in a battle of east versus west, but anyone who knows the city well knows it’s more complicated. The real dividing line, if there is one, is east of center, maybe starting at Chester Creek and fully turning over at 21st Avenue East. But even that is an oversimplification. Duluth is a city of pockets, of unexpected streets of dodge their ways up hills that I’m still finding after years and years of exploration. I find blocks in my native Lakeside I never knew existed, serene riverfront homes in the far west, new twists in Kenwood, and come across a little of everything up in the Heights. A pocket of Piedmont has more McMansions than I knew Duluth could hold, this neighborhood much more divided between new construction and stellar views on the south side of its eponymous avenue and aging bungalows on the north side than I ever knew. Nothing is uniform.

Even on the east side blocks I’ve now run countless times, there’s more to explore. I suss out the different gradations of Lakeside and Woodland, see which blocks fit my vibe more than others. Still, the relative lack of an edge in the lands beyond Endion is apparent. On a socially distanced walk around Chester Park, a friend and I muse on the east side bubble we inhabited as children, our impression of Duluth as a haven of Subaru-driving cross-country skiers, its most glaring disruptions in the exploits of some hockey players or the antics of some college students up the street. I grew up thinking rich people live in grand old Congdon or London Road estates, not McMansions off cul-de-sacs in swamps over the hill, and my taste will probably always reflect that bias. I’ve come to believe that sensibility is a very Duluth attitude: a little maintenance probably required, but worth the effort, more capable of inspiring genuine loyalty and rootedness, not just the disposable products of a liquid modernity. Taste, intricacy, detail, and maybe some subtlety lurk in these woods.

My runs provide a vivid reminder: this city is old, an age all the more obvious with fewer current residents out and about. Of course in the grand scheme Duluth is young, hundreds of years younger even than so-called cities of the future like San Francisco or Los Angeles. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we live history more here because we have less of the new. Duluth has seen glory and its loss, the narrative arc one needs to tell a good story, and the evidence is all around us if we know where to look for it. Relics of different eras abound: grand old Endion homes converted to apartments, empty thoroughfares like pre-freeway Cody Street, the downtown areas where property values tend to push toward either renovation or demolition to keep the engines going. Duluth’s rebellion against totalizing trends requires upkeep, requires care, requires knowing when something is beyond any further practical use and might be better off just fading back into the hillsides.

Nowhere in Duluth do worlds collide more than on Observation Hill, that steep incline just west of downtown dotted with staircases to nowhere and crumbling foundations, the remains of a past Duluth that sprung up along the Point of Rocks and set some of its first foundations here. My first memories of the city are from atop this hill—my mom lived here, briefly, while my dad tidied up affairs in southern Wisconsin before we moved here for good when I was six—and a quarter century later, it still feels like some realm of mystery for a child to explore. A few incongruous modern homes now lord over parts of this hillside, sharing space with some hardscrabble rowhouses and a smattering of aging urban farmers with Bernie signs still lurking in their yards. Here is Duluth in all its complicated glory, past and future and wealth and poverty all intertwined, all on a stunning perch over the most superior of lakes. Duluth’s budgets may rise and fall, and economic forces it cannot control may drive its prosperity or its struggles, but it will always have that view, and because of that it will always have its allure.

Us Duluth loyalists, however, can’t coast on allure alone. I come back to the prizefighter analogy: we need to learn to scrap again, to believe in a place not just for what it has been but what it can be. I admire the sentiment that we all just get along, and the all-in-this-together solidarity that a pandemic inspires. But Duluth arose not through gentility but by a dose of raw ambition that made such future leisure possible. The coronavirus is as good a reminder as any that we can’t hide from history, that it will come for us all at some point or another, and we can only run for so long. If Duluth is to continue punching above its weight, we children of a city freighted with history should know we have a role to play.

Immersed in a Calling

20 Apr

Contemplation is not readily classified as a belief that one fights for, and attempts to squeeze its value into the language of justice or dignity or basic human rights will fall flat. It is better characterized as an object of love and reverence, and a source of fulfillment. For humanists, contemplation is not a cause. It is a calling.

-Agnes Callard, “What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?” in The New Yorker

My latest reading adventure took me through How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, a new book by Scott Newstok, a Rhodes College faculty member, Duluth native, and friend of this blog. In addition to our hometown and some occasional correspondence, it’s become clear that Newstok and I share a lot in how we look at the world, and his new book encapsulates so much of that shared calling.

I do not consider myself an expert in the realm of Shakespeare. Sure, I had the pleasure of playing the title role and donning a sheet with splotches of red paint in a sophomore English class reading of Julius Caesar at Duluth East. In more recent years, I’ve been a sometime attendee of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, an annual excuse for some extended family members to get together to eat a lot and drink a lot and enjoy a couple of the Bard’s plays. I’ve developed an appreciation for just how many Shakespearian aphorisms have made their way into our speech today. But I haven’t come close to consuming his collected works.

A deep familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre is peripheral to How to Think Like Shakespeare, though.The book is not a systematic assessment of education in Shakespeare’s work, nor a thorough overview of Renaissance-era schooling. Instead, it is a defense of a humanistic education, and an ascent into a dialogue down the generations of how best to work one’s way through this thing called life. It is a reminder that expertise and even so-called genius come from discipline, from dedicated work, from immersion in the works of past giants and even occasional outright theft from them. We’re all in this tradition, and the style of the book underscores this on every page. Newstok doesn’t go two paragraphs without citing some great past thinker or literary work, without pulling in one of his friends to show how historical insights all build on one another. He quotes liberally from Shakespeare, of course, but a whole crew of canonical figures insert their insights, from Erasmus to James Baldwin, from Ovid to Hannah Arendt, from Cicero to Bob Dylan. (Newstok is a Duluthian, after all!)

I found myself scrawling down snippets of wisdom from across Newstok’s 14 themed chapters. Of course, I am a sucker for such lines as “if your school says your education has impacted you, ask for a refund—and a laxative,” in an effective early sequence in which Newstok skewers the idea of education as training for jobs that currently exist. But the insights compound on themselves and build to something bigger. Newstok writes of the idea of craft, and the process by which the craftsperson “forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft.” This process, we learn in “Of Imitation,” comes from repetition and careful use of models. Many great writers began by directly re-writing authors they admired, a process replicated across any number of crafts; only by inhabiting existing great writing could they later develop something that measured up to their own idea of greatness. Readers of How to Think Like Shakespeare are immersed in a flow of ideas from very smart people, all of whom together make it hard to claim they don’t have a very strong case.

Newstok’s chapter on place, with its critiques of Descartes’ notion that thinking alone made him who he was, was especially resonant in an age when most education is happening through placeless means. He traces the failed dreams of countless technologies to supplant in-person learning, from correspondence courses to massive open online courses, and shows what a valuable equalizer a classroom can be. Since their dismissal from campuses, privileged college students are free to Zoom in from spare offices in vacation homes while the less affluent sit in shared bedrooms on lousy internet connections in chaotic environments. School, Newstok writes, provides the freedom to think and interact alongside others. The content of communication is what matters, not its medium or speed; computers, to quote Picasso, are “useless,” because “they can only give you answers,” not the underlying questions.

I could go on picking out quotes, but I’ll settle for just telling people to read the book. Its structure proves the point of the Callard quote at the top of this piece. How to Think Like Shakespeare is not the work of an activist militating for his cause but a thinker reveling in his work. Newstok reminds us that this work is, above all, fun, and the calling on display is infectious. People have been attacking the value of the humanities since the humanities came into being (just ask Socrates), but they hold up because again and again. People fall for them and make compelling cases for why we need them in our lives, and again expose the poverty of the belief that a humanistic education is a frivolous luxury. We can wish that more people felt this call, but as Newstok shows, it’s hardly some innate feature. It’s something we cultivate over time, hone and perfect and pass along, and our educations, both formal and informal, decide whether or not we can impose our control on the often-accelerating pace of human life and make it slow down, be masters of our own time instead of letting it master us.

I have a lot of time for contemplation these days. Unlike Callard, I find myself mostly able to pass the humanist test, at least when I am not caught up in lamenting the absence of certain things from my life that would make it more difficult to pass the humanist test. (Solitude, per the Octavio Paz quote in my last post, works well as a temporary condition; it is not healthy as a permanent state.) I am leery of the line “never let a crisis go to waste,” as some people use crises to justify all sorts of nefarious ends, but I’ve been using it in my own internal monologue with some regularity over the past month.

In normal times it’s easy to get caught up in the drift away from thinking about how to think, especially for a rare humanist who, with some notable exceptions, has a day job that offers only occasional brushes up against the academy. (Moreover, coronavirus has cost me the most fertile ground for those exceptional conversations: long, shared car rides with colleagues.) It can be hard to find the time to devote to this activity, day after day. Funnily enough, I’m not any less busy these days: my job still takes up the same amount of my day, at times even more of it; I’ve launched my most aggressive running regimen ever; and an explosion of videochats with friends and family near and far has filled the empty social calendar. But, somehow, the notion that I’m trapped in a crisis-stricken world and ought to make something of it has allowed me to do so.

Sometime about a week ago, the road became ever so slightly clearer. It was a gradual process, one that came in fits and starts and some periods of mental anguish that rank among the less pleasant of my time on earth. I have not achieved nirvana; there are regressions large and small. But, at least in my mind, I am no longer a victim of hard times but an agent capable of using that greatest human capability. It is something I have mustered by knowing that others have traveled this road before, left some signs and guideposts, and any blank spots on the map are adventures to test what we’ve learned, not some fear-inducing void.

Coronavirus Chronicles Continued

5 Apr

[O]n the one hand it is self-awareness, and on the other it is a longing to escape from ourselves. Solitude—the very condition of our lives—appears to us as a test and a purgation, at the conclusion of which our anguish and instability will vanish. At the exit from the labyrinth of solitude we will find reunion (which is repose and happiness), and plenitude, and harmony with the world…Solitude is both a sentence and an expiation. It is a punishment but it is also a promise that our exile will end. All human life is pervaded by this dialectic.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

To write in the time of coronavirus is to become a chronicler of history, whether or not one aspires to such a lofty title. Journaling has, apparently, exploded in recent weeks; people all over now realize their thoughts on these weeks and months will be of interest to posterity. We detail our tedium, our glimmers of hope, the moments that we know will define a generation. The indelible images: a hospital ship steams past the Statue of Liberty into the New York harbor, a very different beacon of hope; Pope Francis, resplendent in white, before an empty St. Peter’s Square under an ominous, rainy sky. Deadened streets, all commerce at a standstill, silence save from the very welcome pets and children in the background on Zoom meetings.

As with any crisis, coronavirus produces some case studies in uncommon heroism. I now thank grocery store clerks for their work in the way I’ve seen some people thank soldiers for their service. When I do takeout or delivery to support local restaurants, I leave the largest tips I’ve ever left. The body shop down the street has a sign offering a discount for healthcare workers, and I look out at the snowboard bro of a FedEx driver who lives across the way in an entirely new light. While my role is somewhat distant from the front lines, a situation that leaves me feeling an odd remove, some of my colleagues in economic development and local government are putting in yeoman’s hours trying to keep their communities’ businesses afloat. My firm was born at Duluth’s economic nadir in the mid-80s, when northeast Minnesota found itself in need of someone to facilitate recovery processes, and we may get to play that role again in the coming months and years.

In my own mundane quarantined corner, I adjust to a work life of marathon Zoom meetings, which means I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my own face on a screen. My attire regresses to that of a ten-years-younger version of myself, and after toying with the idea of growing my hair out again, it now seems safe to say it’ll happen unless I decide to get creative with scissors. My work habits take me back to days spent struggling away at term papers in my glorified closet of a bedroom in Burleith. My life is an eternal return. Perhaps the best piece of advice I read over the first three weeks of working from home: wear real pants every day.

I recognize my luck: I can spout off in droll good humor while a third of the country gets furloughed or laid off, has to navigate a convoluted system of unemployment benefits and business support programs that seems designed to maximize confusion. This crisis has only exacerbated the gap between those of us who trade in the knowledge economy (even for those of us who are not in its more lucrative arms), and the people whose jobs are not so easily sustained via screens. Tech skeptic that I am, I’m not sure my class will get off so easily next time crisis hits—or if this one drags out—but for now, we sit pretty, American divides exacerbated once again.

The biggest divide I encounter myself, however, is the one I find between myself and other people. I live alone, and have not had meaningful contact with another human in weeks. Sorry, those of you who feel like you’re cooped up with your families too much: I’ll trade places in a heartbeat. Individual living may help slow the spread of disease, while multigenerational mixing, as the Italians can attest, can cause more harm than good. But the virus, if we needed one, is a reminder that humans are not built to live like this long-term. “Never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself,” Hannah Arendt wrote in a quote from Cicero attributed to Cato, a bit of wisdom passed down the chain. It’s a sentiment I need right now, because never have I been more by myself than I have been these past few weeks.

“Do you live around here?” one acquaintance calls to me in pleasant surprise as I scoot by on my daily run. “No!” is my cheery reply. I might just run every street in Duluth by the time this is done, or at least all of them on the east side, more easily accessible from my front door. I’ve started tracking my destinations on a calendar, a register of Duluth neighborhoods and other convenient destinations. Even as I run, the signs of a changed world abound. The morning the stay at home order comes out, the streets are eerily dead. I wonder if the young couple I pass sleeping in a running car off Kenwood Avenue are among the newly homeless.

For the most part, though, these runs are my saving grace, a luxury afforded by a blessedly mild Duluth spring. Every few days I scoot past a work colleague or a stray acquaintance, all of us pulled out into various forms of activity as our only release. A profusion of chalk art decorates the streets of Morley Heights and Congdon; in Woodland, kids wish their friends a happy birthday in chalk on the driveway. A few houses throw up impromptu art exhibits in their windows. The Lincoln Park parkway, liberated from traffic, teems with hikers and disc golfers. I idly house-hunt as I cruise the streets, check out lake views and front porches and bay windows, along with those more practical concerns like the quality of the roof and the siding and the garage. Rarely do I feel more alive as when I climb the Hillside in driving sleet; and one evening, I round a bend on the Scenic Highway and gaze down a coastline swathed in a California late afternoon glow, and any weight of the world lifts away into the haze.

I take a vacation that gives me glimpses of the whole world, which means I sleep in my sleeping bag on the spare futon in a second bedroom whose walls are papered in maps. This exotic locale is less a bedroom than a dark, wide hallway to a back door that happens to have a closet, but for one long weekend, it will do. This room has become my refuge now that my living room is part of my office suite: every evening I retreat here for at least a little while with a book or this laptop to inhabit a world away from any of those thoughts. I need just a little more space to endure this easily.

I travel vicariously, learn of the chance meeting between two cyclists crossing Asia, and of the party of rafters on the Colorado who left a world with no coronavirus fears and came back to it when they emerged. I travel away from thoughts of where I would’ve been on my planned vacation by now, away from wondering if a backpacking trip in July will still hold up. The social distancing paradox: if we flatten the curve successfully, the restrictions may go on for longer, the terror of overwhelmed hospitals and pop-up morgues replaced by a low-grade, endless dread, a fitting new normal if we truly are in an age of decadence.

One thing I am not, thankfully, is bored, except perhaps when the Zoom meetings drag on for too long. I will never lack things to read or write. I won’t pretend the coronavirus has led to any great writing projects—there’s a challenge, perhaps—but I have been able to noodle out some mindless stuff, and make a real dent in the pile of books. (The latest addition: an advance copy of a new book by a reader of this blog!) Hearteningly, sales of classic literature have exploded over the past month. We are still indeed all readers, a reminder that deteriorating attention spans are not some congenital defect but an entirely correctable drift forced upon us by our thoughtless consumption of certain forms of media that are ill-attuned to human focus.

Technology has made this misery infinitely easier to bear. Even two years ago, my office would have been hopelessly lost, lacking laptops or file-sharing opportunities. Still, the shortcomings of that world become more and more glaring with each passing day, and my hope is that, instead of accelerating the move to more online existence as some forecasters have predicted, coronavirus will remind us that screens have their shortcomings. Deprivation can lead us to place new value on certain forms of human interaction, better appreciate why it is we go to concerts or sporting events or festivals or bars or even just hang out with large groups of friends or family. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do any of those things, but may we never take them for granted again.

Sweet, Sweet Decadence

1 Apr

A coronavirus outbreak seems an appropriate time to read a book about the fate of the human race, and so I dove right in with the latest from Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lonely religious conservative opinion columnist. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is peak Douthat: a widely roving history of late modernity and its seeming stasis, one that touches on a dozen themes that this blog has also featured over the years because his concerns tend to nibble at me as well, to greater and lesser degrees.

Douthat’s strength as a social commentator is his refusal to accept easy explanations. He makes good cases for how a variety of factors can come together, and he is often among the most original analysts of contemporary American life. Agree or disagree, he can pull out unexpected theories while at the same time resisting the temptation to claim he’s found the answer to everything. He can imagine a variety of different outcomes and explain, succinctly, why each of them might be true. This new book follows in the same tradition as it pulls together all of the possible causes of decadence and explains that decadence may in fact be stable, and then imagines every possible way out of this stable decadence, from environmental catastrophe to the socialist international to a religious revival to aliens, and imagines how they can all work together in feedback loops that reinforce each other. (Well, except maybe for the aliens.)

Jacques Barzun, a French-American historian, supplies Douthat’s definition of decadence:

All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Douthat is also careful to acknowledge that this version of decadence gets a lot right. Modern society is rich, stable, and has eliminated a lot of past prejudices. Despite the seeming political unrest of Trump era America, most of the violence is rhetorical; when someone actually did die in Charlottesville, the right-wing marches did not continue to surge but instead mostly retreated back to a world of online cosplay. The appetite for actual confrontation is low.

But, then, it also features stagnant income growth, lurching political institutions, and general ennui. It offers potential ecological ruin, though we will likely muddle through in ways that are problematic for poor people at lower lines of latitude but bearable for affluent Westerners. Aside from the world of tech, which Douthat convincingly skewers for its minimal meaningful progress and lack of profitability outside of communication platforms and Amazon, human technological innovation is flatlining. Even popular culture is stuck in an endless loop of Star Wars and comic book movie reboots, and now we’re trapped in an algorithmic death spiral in which few unique things can break out into the mainstream.

More worryingly, The Decadent Society shows how the cultural arbiters of an aging society lock in to place attitudes of risk reduction and dull, safe choices in place of youthful dynamism. Here, Douthat makes his most interesting critiques of liberal society: we’re not reproducing much, we’re having less sex, and we’re giving up on shaping our own future. Workforce participation has declined, and a large swath of the population is now more interested in self-medicating through drugs and video games, with the most extreme cases lurching toward deaths of despair. Porn has not driven young men to pursue elaborate sexual feats, but desensitized them to feeling. Our dystopia comes to resemble Brave New World, perhaps not as clean in its horrors but amounting to the same end: numbed to old life-giving forces and subjected to the soft totalitarianism of norm enforcement by a privacy-free online world. What fun.

Douthat’s other useful point is that decadence can be a very stable state of affairs, even if certain moralistic narratives would prefer to predict its imminent demise. Rome endured for 400 years between Nero and the Visigoth sack, and Douthat sees no reason the American empire can’t lurch along for a similar period of time, dull and uncreative but still the clear colossus bestride the world. Our world is neither on the march toward a liberal dream nor (pandemic horrors aside) headed toward the demise prophesied conservative prophets of woe. It plods along, its most obvious alternatives fundamentally flawed, and some anti-decadent responses to this era run the risk of being very bloody or unequal or just subject to a lot of unintended consequences. Perhaps we should just carry on, elect Joe Biden, and keep trying to make people’s lives marginally better.

Douthat rambles on a tour of geopolitics in the book but gives some valuable international context to what is unique, or mostly not unique, about the American condition. He necessarily oversimplifies but points at some trends that will no doubt shape the next century, from the effects of mass immigration on Europe to the African population boom to the question of whether China is an authoritarian, and perhaps eugenicist, threat to the world order or an aging, poor society with a rickety economy propped up by a corrupt regime desperately trying to put on a good face. Japan, for Douthat, is the canary in the coal mine, a step ahead in reaching flat economic growth and political gridlock and weird, tech-abetted sexual fantasylands instead of the real thing. (It has also made some progress in reversing some of these trends under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in recent years, though his marginal success shows the limits in how far a decadent society can move even with skilled leadership.) By and large, the world is converging on its decadent destiny, no matter where we come from or what we believe in our politics or our faith.

The Decadent Society became rather, well, decadent as it went along. Part of the trouble comes from the inherent challenge in trying to predict the future, especially in a broad and yet merely 240-page book that pays lip service to all answers rather than making a concerted case for a handful. The diagnosis is convincing, but the tale of what comes next is so sweeping and eager to check every possible box that I don’t feel any more enlightened as to what may come next. Symbolically, I enjoy Douthat’s riff on the closing of the frontier with the end of the Apollo missions, but as one with a weak interest in science fiction, I don’t buy that shift as a source of existential dread for any but a narrow, nerdy subset of society. There is no shortage of earthly frontiers available to us, if we choose to pursue them; the societal upheaval of the 1960s may well have ushered in some decadence, but they were baked into the cake long before the U.S. began to ratchet down its space program.

I’ve been fumbling over the end of this review for a week now, so I might as well lay out my writer’s block for the world to see. One false start explored Douthat’s religious aspirations for a non-catastrophic escape from decadence, a conservative Catholic’s probably-not-wrong view that a concerted movement will take some surge of faith, in some unknown form, to give enough lives added meaning to flip the script. I don’t have good answers here, but the secular world’s general inability to grapple with that need for myth and wonder at the core of the human psyche is one of its great analytical failures. Another ending took the opposite tack and riffed on Joan Didion, who I’ve read extensively in recent weeks. She gets a passing mention in The Decadent Society as an exemplar of how stuck our culture is, as her 1960s prose still seems strikingly contemporary. Maybe Didion and her generation set a high bar for us in their incredible detachment, and there’s no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants as we reach for the stars.

In a way, I think both are right: flawed as a decadent society may be, anything that breaks through its comforts should have to answer all those droll and rationalist critiques, should have to inspire a deeper sense of faith and mission. You want an Apollo-level mission, Ross? Well, there it is, right there in front of you. Go a bit further, take that argument you make for twinning faith and reason and beef it up into something serious. Make us believe.

State Tournament Look Back: 2010

29 Mar

Here’s this year’s entry in my series of 10-year look-backs at State Tournaments past. This year, we revisit 2010, a year of triumph for Edina and Breck.

Class AA

2010 was not one of those seasons with ranking intrigue at the top: from start to finish, Minnetonka was the team to beat. The Skippers’ leaders were three D-I committed defensemen, Andrew Prochno, Justin Holl, and Troy Hesketh, and while they didn’t have overwhelming scoring depth, Max Gardiner was a front-line star up front, and they had an interesting supporting cast of young forwards such as Max Coatta, Erik Baskin, and Sam Rothstein. They entered the Tourney 25-1-2, and dispatched of defending champ Eden Prairie 7-2 in the 6AA final. The one team that beaten them during the regular season was Edina, fresh off the disappointment of falling short the season before with a loaded senior class. The new-look Hornets didn’t have the senior star power of the Skippers, but their depth was unmatched in recent high school hockey. They rolled four lines, were hot coming the Tourney, and boasted a core of talented juniors including Steven Fogarty, Michael Sit, Max Everson, and Ben Ostlie.

Those two Lake Conference foes may have been the favorites, but the amount of talent in the AA field has to rank among the highest ever: all but one of the teams had five or more D-I players on the roster. An impressive amount of the talent was young, too, as 24 of the 44 future D-I players were sophomores or younger. The upper-class talent set the top four seeds apart in this group, but several young upset threats loomed, and one found its mark and picked off a top team.

Edina drew the one team that did not have an assemblage of D-I talent, Roseau, in the first quarterfinal. It was a matchup of two of the state’s most decorated programs, and a game that hadn’t happened two years earlier when they’d seemed to be on a collision course. The stakes in 2010 were different, however; while the Rams grabbed an early 2-1 lead and stuck around for a period and a half, the Hornets eventually roared to life and won 7-3. The Rams, to their credit, won a consolation round game the next day and finished 6th.

In the second quarterfinal, third-seeded Blaine took on an upstart Apple Valley team. The Bengals’ tradition of power forwards reached its apex in 2010 in Nick Bjugstad, that season’s Mr. Hockey who would go in the first round of the draft. The Bengals had a gaudy senior class and some added young talent in the first two of the four Brodzinski brothers, Jonny and Michael. Their opponent, while much younger, was not a pushover. Two future Gophers, A.J. Michaelson and Hudson Fasching, led the Eagles, who lacked the depth of the higher-ranked teams in the field but had some impressive talent on the back end as well, most notably in goal, where they had a future National Training and Development Program as a backup. But the star of the second quarterfinal was not a future D-I star but Apple Valley junior tender Aaron Gretz, whose 30-save shutout stole the show in the Eagles’ 2-0 upset win.

Minnetonka looked as advertised in its quarterfinal and dispatched of a Lakeville North team that, in retrospect, looks pretty talented: future first round pick Brady Skjei led the Panthers, and they had a second future NHLer in goal in Charlie Lindgren, plus three other D-I defensemen. That talent didn’t really manifest itself, though, and the Panthers had an 8-win regular season but waltzed to State as a 3-seed who upset a Lakeville South team that had twice beaten them in the regular season. Minnetonka, however, was an entirely different challenge, and the Skippers poured 48 shots on goal and won 6-1.

The final quarterfinal of the day also looked to be the best, and lived up to its billing. Hill-Murray, which had surprised and gone to State with a very young team the season before, and now that group was back with the balance to win it all. It was a testament to the quality of the field that these two-loss Pioneers were the 4-seed. While the Tourney had yet to add a 5th seeded team, there was no doubt Duluth East would have claimed that spot if they could have; the young Hounds were led by future NHLer Andy Welinski four D-I sophomores who would form the core of their run toward the top of the rankings over the next two seasons. Led by their sophomores, East jumped out to a 2-0 lead; the game roared to life with three goals in the final minute of the first, first as Hill tied the game and then as East went back ahead courtesy of Dom Toninato. The lead was short-lived, as Hill erupted for two more goals in the first minute of the second, and while East carried a bit more of the play, the game settled in a bit from there. Hill withstood the Hounds before Jack Walsh put away the 5-3 win in the 3rd. East would march methodically through the consolation bracket and take home fifth.

Upstart Apple Valley looked to make lightning strike twice on Friday night, and while Gretz was once again on top of his game and made 35 saves, it wasn’t to be. Single tallies from Blake Chapman and Charlie Taft were enough for Edina, which smothered the Eagles and won 2-0. The second semifinal, meanwhile, was one of the all-time great Tourney games.

The clash between Hill-Murray and Minnetonka was an old-fashioned defensive battle, a heavyweight fight in which there was little room to operate. Hill’s hard-hitting D under assistant Pat Schafhauser, the heroes of Hill’s surprise title run two seasons before, looked like they might just pull it off again. They held high-flying Tonka to just nine shots on goal in regulation, but the teams went to overtime tied 1-1. The referees didn’t call a single penalty in the game, which rolled through a first overtime, and then a second, and then a third. After being outshot in regulation, Minnetonka found some footing; chances (such as they were) became much more even in overtime. Finally, at 12:19 AM, after 86 minutes of hockey, Baskin snuck a backhanded wraparound past Tim Shaughnessy to give the Skippers the win. Outside the X, St. Paul had become a snow globe, and Minnetonka kids ran through the streets screaming through the early morning. It was the sort of night that makes the Tourney mystique.

They Lake Conference collision in the final had all the makings of a great game, but from a hockey standpoint, it didn’t really deliver. Minnetonka, perhaps gassed from their marathon the night before, surrendered two goals in the first three minutes. From there, Edina kept at it as so many great Edina teams had in the past, with their relentless depth coming at the Skippers in waves. After two periods, it was 4-0 Hornets, and while a two-goal Skipper surge in the early stages of the third brought the arena to life for a spell, Edina settled back in from there. The Hornets won 4-2 to claim their seventh title (tenth counting Edina East’s wins) and first since 1997, ending the program’s longest championship drought since its first in 1969.

For Curt Giles, it was sweet revenge: a year after falling short as a favorite, it was Edina’s turn to leave a top-ranked team wondering what could have been. With a young core, the Hornets were primed for a title defense in 2010-2011, while the Skippers would have to navigate through a loaded 6AA once again. Third-place finisher Hill-Murray and fifth-place finisher Duluth East had reasons to look forward to the future, while Apple Valley and Lakeville North would see their young cores suffer early departures and never quite threaten to go further. In the first year of the modern Lake Conference, its powers had made their presence felt: after a decade of the 2000s lacking in dynastic teams, the road to the title in high school hockey would run through the West Metro in the 2010s.

Class A

Class A had a clear favorite in defending champion Breck, whose only losses on the season had come to St. Thomas Academy and Shattuck-St. Mary’s. The Mustangs hadn’t played many other top teams, though, and a chase pack of Mahtomedi, Hermantown, and Warroad all looked capable of putting things together. The result was one of the more open Class A fields of the era that set up some excitement in the final two rounds.

The Zephyrs, seeded second and fresh off a second consecutive section tournament upset of loaded St. Thomas Academy, rolled past Alexandria 7-1 in their opener. Third-seeded Hermantown, then representing Section 5A, drew the most interesting of the unseeded teams, Virginia, in the quarterfinals. It was a fairly even game, but Adam Krause scored a third period game-winner for the Hawks. Top-seeded Breck marauded 11-1 over New Ulm in the third quarterfinal, while Brock Nelson-led Warroad dispatched of Rochester Lourdes in similar fashion, winning 9-0.

After an uneventful first day, the semifinals delivered. The first, between Hermantown and Mahtomedi, was a seesawing affair that was about as entertaining as a hockey game can get. The teams traded goals back and forth: 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, before Mahtomedi got two in a row to go up 5-3; after Hermantown pulled within one, Brandon Zurn scored his fourth goal of the Tourney to put the Zephyrs up 6-4 with just over eight minutes left. But no lead was safe in this game, and Charlie Conmick rose to the occasion for Hermantown, scoring twice in the span of a minute. Replay overturned a Mahtomedi goal at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime tied 6-6, but this wasn’t the sort of game that was going to last long. Just 1:12 into the bonus frame, Jared Thomas won it for the Hawks.

The second semifinal was a rematch of the title game the season before, as Breck and Warroad collided again. Nelson showed why he’d be a first-round pick a few months later with a pair of goals, but the Mustangs sandwiched four of their own between them, their superior depth wearing down the Warriors for a second straight season while the top line of Mike Morin, Riley Borer, and Tyson Fulton taking care of the offense. In the final, Hermantown took an early 1-0 lead and outshot Breck throughout, but the defending champs proved resilient and tied it 1-1 in the second. With 1:40 remaining, a Hermantown clearing attempt went off Morin’s shin and in the net, and the Mustangs had themselves their repeat while the Hawks had the first of what would become a regular dose of Saturday heartbreak at the Tourney.

It was something of a watershed season in Class A. While it offered an entertaining final four and a repeat champion, it also marked the start of a shift toward a handful of teams that would dominate Class A for the first half of the 2010s. Hermantown started in on its impressive but dubious run of six consecutive runner-up finishes, and Warroad’s triple-overtime win in the third place game was the end of their run as the preeminent power in Class A: after 12 Tourneys in 17 years and four titles, the Warriors would need to wait another decade before returning to St. Paul. Until things began to open back up again in 2017, Class A would now belong to four programs: Breck, Hermantown, St. Thomas Academy, and, eventually, East Grand Forks.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

21 Mar

My sixth-grade teacher pulled down the United States map. “This is New York, and this is Washington,” she told the class, on what could only have been our second or third week of middle school. “Not to take anything away from any of the other cities, but they’re probably the two most important cities in the country.” Airplanes had hit several buildings in them, she explained, and our lives were about to change.

I was eleven, and it was my first brush with a global crisis. Even for a hyper-aware kid, one who has a strong enough memory to still retain snippets of news clips about Bosnian Serbs while I played with toys on the floor at three or four at our house in Wisconsin, this was the first time the world had come close to me. Roger Angell’s snippet from the New Yorker that week, discovered years later, still rings true. No longer was history something that happened somewhere else.

But was it really, though? In New York, maybe; for an 11-year-old in northern Minnesota, life mostly just went on. Airport lines got longer (not that I can really remember what came before), and I recall a few some stray episodes of hysteria from others around me; 9/11 certainly informed my geopolitical conscience, but not my day-to-day life in any way. After that, there were snippets, mild crises of inconvenience that were mostly just cause for a little shared fun, like the Snowpocalypse that shut down Washington, D.C. my sophomore year, or the stray brush with a hurricane two years later. Any northern Minnesotan is accustomed to the occasional weather-driven shutdown, a snowstorm that pins us down and then brings out a burst of communal activity as we all shovel out together and then get on with our lives. The most recent, this past November’s snowstorm that ruined my Thanksgiving travel plans, is about as extreme as it’s been. I hardly expect much sympathy.

The arrival of the coronavirus, then, is my first direct brush with any sort of collective national crisis. A holding pattern of dread takes hold. Our sprawling and convoluted healthcare apparatus strains to its limits, and in Washington, at least some people seem to grasp the gravity of the moment and look to escape their regular state of sclerosis. But there’s nothing you or I can do besides wash our hands and lock ourselves in our homes. Perhaps the dread has less to do with the virus itself than the sudden reality of that sense of urgency that I preach to myself every week but have always forgotten by Thursday afternoon. We don’t know what we have until we lose it.

If this is to be my generation’s sacrifice, the postponement of a planned vacation down the East Coast next month is a small burden to bear compared to so many who came before, to say nothing of the scores who are now out of work. Still, it’s hard not to dwell, at least a bit: quarantine takes from me so many of the things that give me joy on this earth, sports and travel and dinner parties and game nights and the freedom to rove and revel and delight in the new. It threatens to leave me with more of the things that do not: devotion to screens, an already bad trend exacerbated; phone calls, which I irrationally hate; correspondence that slowly loses meaning over distance. I am among the world’s most incompetent introverts; or, perhaps, to borrow a phrase from a friend, maybe this sliding scale of introversion and extroversion isn’t worth much to us at all. I live for people, and I will interact with precious few of them in a meaningful way over the coming weeks, maybe months.

I’m still left with a few creature comforts in my 740-square-foot cell. I can see if TV has produced anything good since I stopped paying attention to it a few years ago, and I can delve into a stack of books I have at hand. Being stuck at home may force me to cook, an undertaking I always enjoy but am terrible at making time to do. I have a stash of booze and am learning the merits of the virtual happy hour. I may just have timed my entry into the homebuyers’ market perfectly. My athletic pursuits these days are of a solitary sort, and unless we go into total lockdown, I can still enjoy a good run or hike or ski if the snow should return. Color me torn: should I be pleased this has all come about during Duluth’s least pleasant season, a hope of full enjoyment of the summer ahead, or does staring out windows at drab grayness and fresh dustings just make it all worse? Excuse me while I go pop some more Vitamin D.

I become a creature of habit. Get up at the same time every morning, though I have no commute; just read things until eight, then log in and start my day. Meander the apartment and work in different positions. My normal work-related frustrations feel trivial now, especially for one whose job can go along with relatively little disruption. My tea water comes from a kettle instead of a water cooler and the coffee table holds less mess than my desk, and the company is poorer, too. But I can still plow through and learn how to manage a meeting on Zoom. Run, or at least walk, about the neighborhood after it’s time to sign off. If the routine gets stale, try something new, a midday break, maybe just a drive around for the sake of driving around. I switch it up: park in Denfeld and struggle up hills in Lincoln Park one day, head out to Stoney Point later in the week and scoot up to Knife River and back, take a moment to lose my eyes in the deep aquamarine of a Superior lake.

I tour my city at a safe distance to see how it’s coping. Runners and dog-walkers seem more eager to share a greeting, a glimpse of normalcy. Someone could run a good sociological experiment visiting the various Super Ones across town to see what different neighborhoods choose to horde. Downtown Duluth is dead now, though the people who stand on the corners and fight loudly with one another are somehow still there when I raid my office for a second monitor. I guess it’s reassuring that the Duluthians least likely to heed public health warnings are also among the least likely to interact with people who are jetting off to the global cities that have been the points of embarkation for this virus; I’m not sure if our status as an out of the way city might spare us the worst of this or leave us waiting for the damn thing to show up for another month after other places have recovered and moved on.

My reading choice for the first week of confinement has been Joan Didion, an apt muse for an era of societal reckoning, a literary voice infused with a quiet despair who nevertheless dispenses with the easy nihilisms of her era. She undermines the premises of unlimited freedom, whether Californian American Dreamers or a hippie generation and its offshoots in open rebellion against it, all while pushing to it herself with her omniscience. She’s striving toward something as a writer, some unseen truth behind the veneers, some logic that she, with her authorial power, can bring to bear on a world that would otherwise resist it. It is a Sisyphean task.

To be a witness to quarantine is to be a witness to the deeper chambers of one’s own mind. The process takes its toll: for all her blasé scrutiny of her world, Didion struggled mightily with her mental health. My own peaks and valleys are not so severe, though the topography seems a bit more accentuated from this single vantage point I now enjoy from my apartment windows. It’s harder to leave bed when the commute is just ten feet; harder to communicate with people who don’t always express themselves well in writing. I wake with a start at 3 AM one night and struggle from there, endure inconsistent heat and the croak of a lone crow and some inconsequential hockey revelation coupled with some weird childhood dream, a labyrinth of thought whose exit is hidden but still there for me. I retreat to my fictions to lull myself back toward peace.

Crises force us to find new founts of creativity, new ways to take stock of where we are. I was waiting for a bit of deliverance in Georgetown and Savannah and Key West; instead, I may have to find it right here in an apartment I’d thought I’d outgrown. I don’t know what my world will look like after the coronavirus, but I will take one bit of sage advice from those who have seen real disruption before: some things won’t ever be the same. As for what that new beginning looks like, well, that is a story I still have to write.

Tourney Reflection 2020

10 Mar

The sun came out on St. Paul this year, an early arrival of Minnesota spring. It’s Tourney Time, it seemed to say; time to roll through all the normal routines for that first full week of March. Danny’s dinner party Tuesday, Cossetta’s on Wednesday, St. Paul Grille on Thursday, Friday at New Bohemia, Grand Seven between sessions on Saturday. The rotation of familiar faces here and there, the friends I may see just once a year but feel like I’ve known since birth now. It’s all automatic, a vital corrective to a season from hell for a Greyhound, a reminder that there is still order in a chaotic world. I may have the schedule down to clockwork, but no one can ever script the pieces that come in between.

In a year where three powerhouses headlined Class A, a west wind blew in form the east side to steal the show. Mahtomedi, so long the second fiddle program, stormed back from a late deficit against Delano in the quarterfinals and had full belief from there. They snuffed out the glow of Warroad’s return to the Tourney and played the perfect game for 50-plus minutes against Hermantown, only to see a lead slip away. But in a season in which no team could dominate from start to end, the resilient took the spoils. The Zephyrs went back to work in overtime and wrote themselves a Hollywood finish: Colin Hagstrom, broken leg and all, fought his way back to carry his Zephyrs to their first ever crown. He accepted his Herb Brooks Award from his old teammates the Paradise boys, whose agony was among my defining memories from a season ago.

AA’s wide-open field lived up to its billing, from a seesawing thriller between Blake and Maple Grove to an eye-popping upset from a St. Thomas Academy team that bore little resemblance to their star-studded title contenders of the past. Semifinal Friday, ever my favorite night of the Tourney, provided two thoroughly fun affairs, as Eden Prairie did enough to hold down high-flying Blake and Hill-Murray rallied past plucky St. Thomas in overtime. Like their Metro East conference brethren, the Pioneers only doubled down when they coughed up a lead. That set the stage for Hill’s triumph on Saturday, a complete team effort that left no doubt they had earned their crown. The big-game black jerseys came through again for Bill Lechner and his Pioneers, the team that peaked above the parity at the right time.

As always, a few kids played their way into my memory. Warroad’s duo of Grant Slukynsky and Jayson Shaugabay redefined aesthetic beauty in a quarterfinal against Hutchinson, and Joey Pierce was often an unstoppable force for Hermantown. Ben Steeves of Eden Prairie, new to Minnesota, marveled that the Tourney had lived up to the hype and more. Some years back, when I lived near Lowry Hill, I’d often see a kid up the block in his backyard rink; that kid, it turns out, grew up to be Joe Miller, who gave Blake its first brush with Tourney success. But the headliners in 2020 were the showstopping goaltenders, first Tommy Aitken and then Remington Keopple, but most dramatically in the diminutive form of Ben Dardis, another Zephyr whose tears from a season ago turned to ecstasy on Saturday afternoon.

This Tourney was a homecoming of sorts for me: after three years in exile, I made my way back to the press box, a convenience that spared me the tedium of lines and tickets and fueled me with an endless supply of cookies and popcorn. I’d made peace with watching the Tourney among the fans—how can’t I love the opportunity to climb on bandwagons and brush up with other grassroots lovers of the game?—but I felt a certain vindication in watching from on high once again. For once, they Youth Hockey Hub contributors were all in a row; despite weekly podcasts and calls, Tony Zosel and I had never sat together and watched games together before. I also got to brush shoulders with the grandees of the press box: Harry, who saunters down the row to take names for the press conferences and share his little glimmers of optimism, as he has since probably the very first Tourney in 1945; Fran, the reliable pilot of the elevator; and Julie, our guardian who broke out her pep band bingo card on Friday night. They are the quiet heroes of the Tourney who work behind the scenes to keep it humming along, the necessary antidote to the bureaucracy and painfully repetitive ads that otherwise afflict this event.

Trent Eigner of St. Thomas took time to thank the media in a press conference: high school hockey wouldn’t be what it is without the hype machine, he told us, and needs us to tell its story. If that’s my contribution here, I’ll embrace it, and I find myself in plenty of good company. This writer was delighted to meander through a series of book tours: I attended a signing with Tony at Zamboni’s for his Jersey Project and stopped by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson’s prime location in the hall to the Expo, where they hawked Tourney Time; in the concourse, I met Matt Jasper of Home Ice fame. We live in a golden age of high school hockey coverage, and perhaps, someday, I can throw a cover in front of a collection of my own sprawling work that now spans a decade.

As always, there were some moments of poignance to pierce through the chaos, the flashes that make this essay easy to write. I brought a longtime friend along on Saturday, a Tourney Virgin who ate it all up and let me see it with fresh eyes again. Late on Friday night, Josh from Warroad nursed his sorrows at the Liffey and reminded me how much this game means in those small towns up north. After they won it all, Bill Lechner and his Hill boys lifted their wheelchair-bound assistant, Pat Schafhauser, to the dais so he could share his deserved piece of the glory. And as I packed my bag late Thursday night, I looked down to see Moorhead goalie Hudson Hodges, alone, slumped into the boards. He gazed up and around the arena after the rest of the Spuds had made their way up the tunnel in defeat, searing that scene in his memory forever. On the opposite side, a few Moorhead moms took note, waited him out, and offered a loving applause when he finally left the ice.

One man who is no stranger to such reflection is Lechner, the dean of Minnesota high school hockey, now twice a champion in convincing form. Lex has sky-high expectations for his team, yes, but that demand is just as sincere off the ice, and he conveys it with patience and a graceful humor, a pithy wisdom I can only aspire to. If I am ever to be a coach, let me be a Bill Lechner, the steward of a Pioneer tradition that long predates even his lengthy tenure. And for this Hill team, victory truly was an affair that spans generations: Charlie Strobel and Dylan Godbout’s fathers were on the 1991 title-winning team. This is the Tourney’s gift, fathers down to sons, whether on the ice or in the stands, an offering we can make even as we move further and further away from those glory days.

Age may or may not bring wisdom, but it does at least bestow knowledge of a somewhat pickier body. I packed my bag with healthy snacks and at one point took a moment to wander off down Seventh Street alone to clear my mind, keep my focus. Over four fifteen-hour days, I need it. I’ve just turned 30, but this week is always a draining swing back through stages of boyhood, from eight-year-olds at the Expo to sixteen-year-olds in the 200 level, my brush with a rash of fantasy drafts and off-color chants. On Friday night I made my annual circuit of the upper deck to fully absorb the inanity and insanity; later, I made my circuit through Eagle Street and McGovern’s to find my people toward the end of each night, a reminder that things don’t really change all that much from one stage of life to the next. The boys are all here for the party, in whatever form it may take, and next year we’ll live once again for those four days in March.

Tourney Preview 2020

1 Mar

Yes, Minnesota, it’s Tourney Time. (Not to be confused with the excellent new book by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson of the same name.) Danny, Tony, and I put together our annual podcast yesterday, which includes an interview with LaVaque, and we’ll be ready for the party. First, though, I present my usual rundown of storylines and quarterfinal game capsules:

The Season of Parity After a chaotic regular season, the AA section tournaments had surprisingly few upsets, with a regular power having a somewhat down season, St. Thomas Academy, being the only real surprise in the field. That leaves us with six of the top eight teams in the final regular season poll at State, plus another (Maple Grove) that spent some time in that neighborhood over the course of the season. This Tourney may not promise any of the heavyweight clashes between 1-3 loss teams that have punctuated some recent affairs, but anyone in this field seems capable of beating anyone.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt To underscore the previous note, the AA quarterfinals include two matchups that took place on the season’s final day and saw the lower seeded team win. Blake is the 2-seed but faces Maple Grove, who beat the Bears in what was a vital win to wake up an offense that had been moribund late in the season. Hill-Murray, meanwhile, knocked off Moorhead in their traditional late season meeting; the rematch is a fun nightcap between two Tourney institutions and the two top goalies in the state. In a different sort of rematch, Eden Prairie and Lakeville South reprise their three-overtime affair from a season ago in the second quarterfinal. Even in Class A, where there is generally less history between teams, we have a Monticello-Hermantown clash for the third time in four years.

Class A’s Big Three It’s worth noting that Monticello has given Hermantown good games in those two previous meetings, and Hutchinson is respectable for a 3A entrant, too. But it’ll be a shock if the first three Class A quarterfinals produce winners not named St. Cloud Cathedral, Hermantown, and Warroad. The Warriors, by virtue of a win over Cathedral, have the perk of the top seed, though the winner of Delano and Mahtomedi isn’t exactly a free pass to the final. That leaves Cathedral and Hermantown, who tied each other in a regular season thriller, on a collision course in the semis. In a season in which the top Class A teams are loaded with star power and have been atop the rankings all season, we could be headed for a couple of great games.

Fine Lines There’s only one Mr. Hockey finalist forward in the AA field, and while Eden Prairie’s Ben Steeves is a fine player, he’s also not on some different level from the players around him. No AA team can win on the back of one star this year, but a lot of teams do have good top lines who could tip the balance. Gess-Triggs-Johnson for Moorhead, Steeves-Blake-Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie, Miller-Sabre-Best for Blake, and the Pierre-Strobel combo for Hill Murray: if one of these groups can take over a game, they can carry their team a long way. It’s a bit different on the Class A side, where Warroad’s Grant Slukynsky and Hermantown’s Blake Biondi are the stars of their respective shows, but St. Cloud Cathedral also brings the dominant line approach.

Someone New? Six of the eight entrants have never won a AA Tourney, though there’s some range in there between the total newbies like Blake and Andover and the St. Thomases and Moorheads of the world who know their way around St. Paul but don’t know what Saturday night success looks like. One of the old hands, Hill-Murray, hasn’t had a lot of Tourney success in their past few appearances, either. Even Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite and frequent finalist over the past decade, has some recent struggles to overcome. No one comes marching into this tournament with the swagger of a recent champion, so we’ll see who can find that edge in the next week.

Now, capsules for each quarterfinal:

MANKATO EAST VS. #2 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL

11:00 Wednesday

-The Tourney opens with the defending champs taking on the lowest-rated team in the field. Cathedral has won all five meetings between these two dating back to 1997.

Mankato East (14-13-1, Unranked, 4-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section wins: 5-3 over 1-seed Dodge County, 5-3 over 3-seed Mankato West

-The Cougars had an up-and-down season, but the most talented team in 1A put it together at the end and made its way back to State for a second time in three years. Junior Layten Liffrig (22) is their big star, and Matthew Salzle (6) is also plenty productive and carried the goal-scoring load in sections. There’s a gap after that, but Jake Kazenbach (23) is their next highest-scoring forward, and they’ve got a couple of quality junior defensemen in Brett Borchardt (8) and Jake Schreiber (11) who can contribute offensively as well. There are some pieces to work with here and they may be even better next season, but this quarterfinal will be a long shot.

St. Cloud Cathedral (23-3-1, #4, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Championships: 1 (2019)

Key section win: 8-1 over #8 Alexandria

-The Crusaders are back to defend their title and loaded with the star talent to achieve it. Blake Perbix (27), Jack Smith (20), and Nate Warner (8) form a lethal top line. Mack Motzko (18), back from his one-year adventure in Minnetonka, works with Cullen Hiltner (6) to provide a supporting cast. The defense, led by Reid Bogenholm (2), Jon Bell (4), and C.J. Zins (15), can also move the puck well and contribute to the cause. That said, this team has coughed up a few goals in recent games against top competition, so the pressure is on for them to lock down and keep the heat off goaltender Grant Martin (35). If they can withstand the Hermantown attack, they’ve shown they have the experience in big moments to pull out the repeat.

MONTICELLO VS. #3 HERMANTOWN

1:00 Wednesday

-The Moose and Hawks meet for the third time in four seasons at State, with the Hawks eking out a 2OT win in the state championship game in 2017 and winning 4-2 in 2018.

Monticello (19-7-2, #12, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section win: 6-4 over 3-seed Pine City

-The Moose return for a third Tourney in four years, this time after being the clear favorite in 5A for much of the season and were competitive in losses to a few top ten Class A teams. Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is their top offensive player, but they’ve had fairly good offensive balance, with Brian Cornelius (11), Wilson Dahlheimer (22), and Gunnar Sibley (21) all putting up quality seasons. Chase Bocken (34) is a scoring threat from the blue line, alongside Jacob Sorensen (10). Nash Wilson (33) will need to be on top of his game for the Moose to give Hermantown another good run. They lost in running time in their game to Cathedral and will need to show a bit more than they did in that game to go anywhere this week.

Hermantown (21-3-4, #3, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 16 (last in 2018)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 6-0 over #9 Duluth Denfeld

-The behemoths of Class A return after a one-year absence. They’ve done it with star power, with Blake Biondi (27) among the Mr. Hockey frontrunners up front and junior Joey Pierce (18) one of the most complete blueliners in the state. They have good depth up front, with Zach Kilen (10) and Ethan Lund (24) serving as Biondi’s sidekicks on the top line and an all-junior line of Aaron Pionk (11), Aydyn Dowd (6), and Cole Antcliff (14) providing the secondary punch. Jacob Backstrom (32) is the goalie. The Hawks did blow a 3-goal third period lead in a regular season tie with Cathedral and lost their last two games against AA competition, so there’s some question about their ability to respond when caught up in the moment of a big game. But there’s no doubt this group has the talent to bring back its third title in five years.

HUTCHINSON VS. #1 WARROAD

6:00 Wednesday

-Warroad makes its return to the X and faces a team with whom they have a surprising amount of Tourney history. The Warriors won a 2009 quarterfinal 7-1 and a 1997 quarterfinal 7-3.

Hutchinson (19-8-1, #17, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 5 (last in 2009)

Key section win: 8-1 over 2-seed Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato

-The Tigers head to State with one of the stronger resumes of a 3A champion in recent memory. Like many southern teams, they rely on the star power of a few players. Austin Jozwick (9) is far and away their leading scorer, and Hayden Jensen (11) is a clear number two; after that, they have a jumble of players with point totals in the teens. Austin Hagen (33) has had a strong season in goal. This team gave Delano and Orono reasonably competitive games in their Wright County clashes and rolled through 3A, so it’s not out of the question that they keep it close with the rather unknown Warriors, but it will be a tall order.

Warroad (26-2, #1, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 21 (8 one-class, 13 in Class A; last in 2010)

State championships: 4 (1994, 1996, 2003, 2005)

Key section win: 4-0 over #2 East Grand Forks

-One of the Minnesota’s most iconic programs returns to State after a 10-year absence, and they’ve done it in style, losing only to rival Roseau during the regular season and controlling a very good East Grand Forks team in the 8A final. Grant Slukynsky (27) had an electric senior season, while freshman wunderkind Jayson Shaugabay (17) combines with him to create one of the top lines in Class A. Anthony Foster (19) and Owen Meeker (23) also put up plenty of points, though this team lacks the top-to-bottom offensive depth of Hermantown and Cathedral. Their defense, led by Blake Norris (5) and Carson Reed (37), has been rock-solid, while Zach Foster (35) has been reliable in goal. If their lower lines can hold up against some of the deeper teams in this field, they have the front-end flair to claim their first title in 15 years.

#5 DELANO VS. #4 MAHTOMEDI

8:00 Wednesday

-Two fairly regular recent faces in the Tourney meet in what should be a quality quarterfinal following three games with heavy favorites. Delano won an 8-1 consolation round game between these two in 2017.

Delano (22-6, #5, 2-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 3 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #19 Armstrong/Cooper, 4-2 over #18 Breck

-The Tigers once again went on a second half run and are making something of a habit of these Tourney appearances; this is the second straight season they’ve been the 5-seed. They can roll out three decent lines; Adam Brown (13) was their leading goal-scorer over the course of the season, and Gunnar Paulson (12) and Jesse Peterson (11), Michael Weber (17), and Trevor Oja (18) round out the list of scoring leaders. No one on the defense is a huge offensive force, but Jack Keranen (3) has been a reliable presence. Cade Lommel (35) was solid in goal in sections. Can they break through and win their first quarterfinal?

Mahtomedi (20-8, #7, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 12 (4 in a row)

Key section win: 5-1 over 6-seed South St. Paul, 2-0 over 4-seed Tartan

-The Zephyrs head to a fourth straight Tourney after cruising through Section 4A. Nikolai Dulak (9) is probably the most dangerous goal-scorer they’ve had through this run, while Adam Johnson (10) led the team in points. Ethan Peterson (6) and Ryan Berglund (7) are also steady contributors offensively, while J.D. Metz (11) is their defensive leader. They also enjoy the services of arguably the strongest goalie in the A field, sophomore Ben Dardis (32). A healthy Colin Hagstrom (4) could be a difference-maker here. Expectations this season aren’t what they were the past few seasons; can that help them break their seemingly eternal fate to be a semifinalist and nothing more?

MAPLE GROVE VS. #2 BLAKE

11:00 Thursday

-Blake makes its AA Tourney debut against a deep west metro team that pulled a mild upset to make this game. Maple Grove won a late regular season meeting 5-4 and leads the all-time series 2-0.

Maple Grove (20-8, #17, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2017)

Key section win: 3-0 over #14 Blaine

-Call it a study in perseverance: with an entire unit of elite players in juniors or at the NTDP and their biggest current star out hurt for the year, the Crimson found a way to avenge two regular season losses to Blaine and secure a Tourney berth. They’re one of the strongest skating teams in the state, but even strength offense has been a deficiency at times. Their leading scorer is defenseman Henry Nelson (12), a Notre Dame commit, and Cal Thomas (22) also put up good points as a D. The forward production comes by committee, with Sam Jacobs (21), Tyler Oakland (15), and Chris Kernan (27) leading that group. They’ve rotated goalies between senior Parker Slotsve (32) and junior Jack Wienecke (1), who had a 45-save shutout in the section final. This team did find a vital scoring touch in the season’s final week when they knocked off Blake; we’ll see if they can repeat that performance.

Blake (22-6, #5, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: First in AA (5 in Class A)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #6 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 5-1 over #13 Edina

-The Bears make their AA Tourney debut on the heels of a dramatic overtime penalty shot from Gavin Best (8). Best’s linemates, Joe Miller (20) and Jack Sabre (9), form one of the more dynamic combinations in the state, and they get some scoring depth from the likes of Will Matzke (27) and Brett Witzke (6). Their mobile defense has plenty of talent as well, most notably via Ben Dexheimer (4) and Will Svenddal (19). Aksel Reid (30) mans the net. They can skate with anyone, so if they can get some scoring depth and find some consistency, the path is certainly there to make a final. They’ve already beaten Eden Prairie once this season.

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #3 EDEN PRAIRIE

1:00 Thursday

-The Cougars and Eagles collide in a rematch of this very same quarterfinal a season ago, a triple-overtime thriller won by Eden Prairie. This will be their third Tourney meeting in the past four years, as the Eagles also won the 2017 third place game in overtime. They lead the all-time series 16-1, with much of that damage coming in the early days of South when they shared a conference.

Lakeville South (21-7, #8, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 (OT) over 3-seed Hastings

-The Cougars had to scrape their way out of 1AA, but have shown flashes of front-line quality over the course of the season. Zack Oelrich (7) leads the team in points, while Cade Ahrenholz (16) is the leading goal-scorer. Cam Boche (4) also had a productive season, while Jack Novak (14) is an assist machine. Griffin Ludtke (3) and Jack Malinski (21) are their top defensemen, but this group has reasonably good balance across the board. Cody Ticen (30) came on strong in goal this season. This junior-heavy group has some Tourney experience and isn’t some run-of-the-mill mediocre Lakeville entrant, but we’ll see if they have the horses to stick with the most talented team in the state.

Eden Prairie (21-5-1, #2, 2-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 12 (3 in a row)

Championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 6-1 over #21 Minnetonka, 3-2 over #23 Chaska

-In a season when some of the state’s top recent teams dropped off, the defending runners-up are back for a sixth Tourney in seven years and a chance to atone for recent near-misses, from the blown lead against Edina a season ago to the failure to finish out a championship in the Casey Mittelstadt days. No team can match their six D-I commits, who include Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Steeves (6) and John Mittelstadt (9) on the top line. Junior duo Drew Holt (8) and Carter Batchelder (11) lead the second line. On defense, Luke Mittelstadt (27) and Mason Langenbrunner (22) will need to lead the way in front of Axel Rosenlund (30) in goal. The difference-maker down the stretch, however, was sophomore Jackson Blake (10), who gave their offense another dimension; if the chemistry is intact and they can score the way they should, they are the slight favorite to win it all. Their depth, while fine, is not quite on the level of an Andover or perhaps even a Maple Grove.

ST. THOMAS ACADEMY VS. #1 ANDOVER

6:00 Thursday

-The Thursday primetime bill features a first-time favorite against a Tourney regular who wasn’t supposed to be here. These two have never met.

St. Thomas Academy (18-8-2, #18, 5-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 5 in AA (4 in a row); 8 in Class A

Championships: 5, all in Class A (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013)

Key section wins: 2-0 over #16 Burnsville, 3-1 over #11 Rosemount

-The Cadets had their weakest regular season in years but went on a run at the right time, winning 13 of their last 14 to win 3AA as a 5-seed. First year coach Trent Eigner’s adoption of the Mike Randolph 2-3 has given more talented teams fits. Jackson Hallum (15) is their one legitimate front-line star. Jarod Wright (16) and Riley O’Brien (19) are next in line in productivity. Andrew Boemer (17) is their top scorer on defense, and McClain Beaudette (5) is a steady defensive presence. Senior Tommy Aitken (30) came on strong down the stretch and will be vital to their chances at an upset in their tough quarterfinal draw. Is a unique system and one player’s star power enough to break down the Huskies’ relentless attack?

Andover (24-3-1, #1, 1-seed in 7AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 8-1 over 6-seed Elk River

-The Huskies waltzed through the 7AA tournament with three straight shutouts and have barely been tested over the past month and a half. In some respects, that’s a testament to their quality: this is a team with excellent depth and skating ability top to bottom, and they were the most consistent team in AA this season. Wyatt Kaiser (5) is the top senior defenseman in the state, and Mitchell Wolfe (4) gives them a duo that is as reliable as they come in back. Up front they have no true superstars but the most depth in the state, with two interchangeable top lines and a quality third group. Luke Kron (7) may be the most complete of the bunch, Hunter Jones (11) is their leading scorer, Gunnar Thoreson (12) had a productive year, and Garrett Schifsky (17) is the leading goal-scorer and the rare junior star on this senior-laden squad. Will Larson (35) has done the job in goal when tested. Now, how will they hold up in their first trip to St. Paul, and against quality competition for the first time in a while?

# 5 HILL-MURRAY VS. #4 MOORHEAD

8:00 Thursday

-Two Tourney bluebloods meet in the nightcap in a battle that includes solid defenses and the state’s two best goaltenders. Hill won a late regular season meeting 4-3. They’ve split their four previous Tourney meetings, with the Spuds taking a 2017 quarterfinal 4-2. Hill leads the all-time series 17-11.

Hill-Murray (19-6-3, #7, 1-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 30 (last in 2018)

Championships: 3 (1993, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-2 over #23 White Bear Lake

-The Pioneers weren’t always the most consistent team this season, but they come in with plenty of talent and boast a strong record against Tourney entrants. Sophomore Nick Pierre (7) is their star up front, and Charlie Strobel (27) also helps carry the load; Matthew Fleishhacker (14), Henry Eischen (6), and Dylan Godbout (17) give them some scoring depth across two lines. Their biggest strengths are in back, where Joe Palodichuk (2) had a very productive season and is supported by a deep, steady defensive corps. Brimsek finalist Remington Keopple (1) has the best numbers of any goalie in the Tourney. Their key will be generating enough offense to break a 7-game Tourney losing streak that dates back to the 2013 title game.

Moorhead (21-5-1, #3, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 17 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over 3-seed Roseau

-The steady Spuds may not have the depth of Andover or the star power of Eden Prairie, but they are a well-built team across the board. They continue their recent tradition of dominant top lines with the trio of Cullen Gess (14), Caden Triggs (27) and Carter Johnson (10), while Michael Overbo (19) gives their goal-scoring punch some depth. The Spuds do have some star power in back: Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Gramer (3) runs things from the blue line and Hudson Hodges (31) is a Frank Brimsek Award finalist. They’re liable to get outshot by some of the deeper, better-skating teams in this field, but they’re built to withstand some of that, and if they can impose their style on opponents, they have a shot at a deep run.

See you in St. Paul!

The Art of the Duluth Winter

29 Feb

I have enjoyed this winter. Of course, it has (knock on wood) cooperated more than most so far; after we took a beatdown from a snowstorm over Thanksgiving, it’s been relatively balmy, with a welcome lack of polar vortexes or repeat snow events. The addition of a remote starter to my driving life has also added a new dose of luxury. A pile of blankets and a good book gets me through the routine nights; visitors from afar, so common in and a round the holidays, help the cause as well. But in my fourth year back in this city, I’m coming to perfect the art of the Duluth winter, a necessary challenge for anyone who wants to make this city a true home.

As the absence of most other topics from this blog this time of year shows, much of that free time is devoted to hockey. I average of two games in person a week, plus a few more evenings where I’m home but have a game streaming in the background, and a few hours of podcast work every Sunday. The hockey life also means frequent phone calls with co-conspirators, periodic drinks with the parents before or after games, and the occasional trek to Eveleth or Grand Rapids to see one of the state’s grand old arenas and rub my shoulders against some new friends. From Thanksgiving to the first full week of March, I have a diversion that can get me through any amount of cold, and make myself a part of a sprawling, squabbling, loving community.

Hockey is just one element of my attack on winter, though, and the second these days is my continued progression into a reasonably capable cross-country skier. I’m out twice a week, gliding about the local trail systems: that usually means one evening on the lit course at Lester Park, plus a longer excursion to some other ski area on a weekend. Lester is a home course of sorts for me, as I grew up within walking distance of it, and my younger self would indeed sometimes just pick up his skis and hike over to plow around its lit loop, one of those delights of a Duluth childhood one can only appreciate after losing it. I’ve done the initial loops from the playground up through the first few cutoffs countless times, and I know the unlit Lester River loop so well that I now run it in the dark, its rises and falls encoded in my muscles, and I can pause to gaze down the moonlit slopes to the river below.

Still, I try to get out to different areas. Hartley’s circuits can grow a bit inane for someone seeking to do eight-plus kilometers, but the part of trail that rises up into the pines is magnificent near sunset, and I attempted it with a headlamp once this year and found I was far from alone. Out west, Piedmont provides a reliable loop, while the constant ups and downs of Magney-Snively afford magnificent views of the St. Louis River estuary. To the north is Boulder Lake, an old favorite of my dad’s; for the first time this year I did the entire system, including the prisoner’s dilemma forced by two trails at the end of an esker on the Ridge Runner trail. Up the shore, the Finns have left their mark: Korkki offers some adventurous hill work, while Erkki Harju in Two Harbors allows for some of the smoothest long, coasting downhills. Every course offers some different challenge, some new diversion that can vary with the conditions each week.

My special place remains the Northwoods system in Silver Bay, with its outlet on to Bean Lake and the ever-alluring Tettegouche connector through Palisade Valley, a trek that has become an annual tradition. Palisade Valley feels like a journey in a way no looping trail system can, a quest outward and back through winter in perfect repose. I made the trip in record time this year, even with the trail crumbling in places due to warmth. I pause briefly in the camp on Mic Mac Lake to gaze skyward and breathe in winter as deeply as I can, and linger a while longer on Bean Lake to reclaim life without that breakneck instinct, negotiate the peace between two competing but necessary forces. My furnace burns up all of my calories, and a stop at Cedar Coffee in Two Harbors is in order once again.

After that, it’s back to the blur. Mountain Iron on Monday, Aurora on Tuesday, Eveleth Wednesday, North Branch Friday. Two hockey games where I’ll make my circuit, have five people stop me to chat and fifteen tweets to answer. Board games on Saturday night; hearty meals, wine or stouts or a steaming tea. As February wears on, my reading turns to travelogues, and I might drift off on my couch on a sunny afternoon following some traveler through Delhi or Samarkand, a dose of escapism to feed my wanderlust. I plan a real-world escape sometime in April, in that grotesque Minnesota season when the hockey is done and the ski trails are slop but the weather has yet to release us for summer activities. That, for me, is the only truly challenging season in this city.

We all have our own coping mechanisms, and no doubt this city tries me at times. But I don’t live in Duluth to endure it. I live here because I want to love it.