California 2023, Part II: Released

This is the second in a three-part series. Part I is here.

There are four American cities that aspire to global greatness. Many others are lovely to visit or live, have their own unique cultures and topographies, and I admire many of them. A few claim certain statuses: Portland is the capital of one American byway; Nashville, another. Miami is a borderland striving to be many things. Chicago tries to take New York and filter it through Midwestern sensibilities, with mixed results; Boston is an experiment in blending European built form with unnecessary aggression. Las Vegas is not a city of this globe at all, but an escapist window into a virtual future.

That leaves the big four: New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Of these, New York remains the center of the empire, straining but hegemonic, truly its own thing among American cities. DC’s prestige is a simple power play, a magnet for wannabe influencers of a particular stripe and all of their hangers-on, even though beneath that there is a beguiling city of nuance and details and homage to both the richness of a national past and the complex world in which it is enmeshed. Anyone from abroad can understand why these two giants are the way they are.

California, meanwhile, is an altogether different matter. The pithy analogy of my grad school friend Parker remains the best: San Francisco is utopia gone wrong, while LA is dystopia gone right. Here are the two cities where manifest destiny, straining to the coast, sought new frontiers, collided with reality, and tell us something profound.

The Bay Area is a stunning place, hills rising from the mists, shimmering glows on the Golden Gate, and I return here on this trip for my deepest immersion yet. It is, more than ever, the central processor of the American zeitgeist, the chief engine of technological breakthrough and a laboratory for preening moralism over how the world must be, from a masturbatory libertarian singularity to the woke corporate commune. The child of tech genius and sixties radicalism is now both fabulously wealthy and yet strung out on something, its various aspirations toward utopia now crashing up against unattainable housing and an army of the homeless and sudden tech dread. That dream, it turns out, is a frontier only a select few may cross; for the rest of us there are endless swipes and AI-generated content, the opiates of the 21st century masses.

Edit a few details and many of these same critiques apply to LA. The difference is that LA is a few decades further along in the cycle, a late empire Rome that by now has dropped some of the pretense. Yes, it is still a vast cultural capital, home to the entertainment industry and a paean to the postwar era of suburban development and American dreaming. But there is a general sense that the jig is up. The golden age of Hollywood is long behind us, the traffic is a nightmare, and in the shadow of race riots and OJ and Skid Row, Los Angeles is at least a generation beyond any intelligent claim to utopia. It is all the stronger for it.

There is some kind of Sisyphean triumph in LA’s acceptance of its fate. Yes, it can be superficial in its obsession with surface-level beauty. So what? We’re human; we want to look good. Yes, the traffic sucks: well yes, we all want to be here, and we want to live in a well-appointed rambler, not stacked in tiny boxes, free from bad weather and creaky old buildings. Give us a remote job or a TikTok house and we don’t need to bother with the commute. In bizarre and not altogether reassuring ways, it may be attuned to this moment. The artifice is still there but we all know it is there, and can perhaps use that knowledge to build a city that still feeds on some very human impulses and tempers them with an appreciation for reality.

It is of course easy to write in these grand sweeps about cities and an altogether different matter to experience them firsthand. I’ve lived in DC and visited New York and the Bay Area numerous times, but this trip is my first venture into southern California. On my drive north I break off my coastal route at the industrial swamps of Long Beach, surge into Los Angeles to see the USC, a gorgeous campus where I never have been welcome given my lack of skateboarding skills. I check out the Rose Bowl, get lost amid Glendale and Pasadena, tucked away from all the rest. I give myself a half hour of Hollywood Boulevard, which is plenty to get the picture, meander down Mulholland and gawk at the estates on Sunset.

In the end, LA is about what I expected. Its poverty is less ubiquitous than San Francisco’s, but more tightly concentrated; a drive through Westlake is like a tour through a Mexican roadside market, only with garbage littered everywhere. A vicious wind casts a palm branch beneath the Mustang and it sticks there, dragging on the ground, before I stop to extract it. The traffic still sucks. I am intellectually ready to appreciate LA in a way I was not five years ago, but dystopia properly enjoyed would seem to require fellow travelers into the underbelly, and in this state I am not inclined to linger.

My destination on this night is instead Santa Barbara, and I am immediately suspicious that it is a city designed by AI to appeal to me. It settles between sandy beaches and the Santa Ynez Mountains, that collision of land and sea, the Channel Islands floating out in the distant haze. It is a Spanish colonial revival town, laid out in pristine urban form, and its architecture reflects that ideal, exquisite tile work and white adobe and red roofs and Moorish flourishes, all lined by lush trees. The State Street pedestrian mall bustles with families, and there are layers of surfer culture and college town funk to keep it from resort town sterility. I could spend a very long time here. As it is, I settle for watching the men’s NCAA basketball final at a brewery, a night in a gorgeous bed and breakfast, hiking up Rattlesnake Canyon, swinging past the old mission, and spending far more time than planned just strolling those stunning streets. As with so many beauties, the pictures only do it partial justice, failing to drink in the nuance and the power of full immersion.

Late on my night in Santa Barbara, sated by beers, I learn just how this city maintains its aesthetic. As I scroll through the channel guide, I stumble on a recording of a meeting of the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review. I endure about ten minutes of five older white people telling a Hispanic man they are pleased with his thematically appropriate elements and the relocation of the trash bins to the rear, though it would be really nice if we could do something about that carport, wouldn’t it? The prices we pay for beauty, and the dangers of looking under the hood.

My next stop is along the central California coast, in the environs of San Luis Obispo. I was here once before, half a lifetime ago, when a grade school science teacher brought me and a few other kids to present at a national conference on monarch butterflies. My journals on that venture, perhaps the first of my mature writings, still exist, and I fish them out ahead of this trip to peek into my 15-year-old brain. In them, I find some keen observation, a healthy degree of dry humor, meticulous notes on the science of the butterflies that overwinter in these areas, and titanic levels of latent horniness. It is at turns enlightening and cringey, and often fairly mundane. But above all I am struck by the rapturous details I saw in the world around me, of the love for the human and natural realms I inhabited, and a refusal to waste any time. While the succeeding 17 years have enriched my ability to craft prose, the journals are unmistakably the work of the exact same person, still ravenously hungry for his world, his successes and failures not so far off from those of his kid self. We are who we are.

I make the most of my trip down memory lane. I swing through the absurdity that is the Madonna Inn, where the other boys and I stood guard over the men’s room with that waterfall urinal so the girls could go in and take pictures. I return to the elephant seal beach, and while the more melodious males are out to sea for migration this time of year, plenty of females flop about on the beach, delighting the gathered crowd. “The deep, guttural sounds they issue are, horribly, a combination of the worst belches and flatulence,” I wrote in my 2005 journal. At Montaña de Oro State Park, I seek out the cove where we found rich sea life in tide pools; here, I shared a moment with the late Lincoln Brower, the world’s foremost monarch scholar, reveling in the beauty of our world. Dinner comes on the water at Morro Bay, staring out at the town’s eponymous rock, and make a temporary friend in a Brit working the other way down the coast, telling him snippets of this tale as we trade travel stories.

As I settle into my room with a view of Morro Rock that night, I wonder what that “smart kid with loads of ambition but no courage to do it all,” as I put it so very bluntly in December 2005, would think of the 33-year-old version who retraces these steps. Upon hearing the story, he would, I think, be proud of my journey, especially if he could hear how I’ve managed to draw down some of the anxieties that paralyzed me at that age. He’d nod in respect at the Mustang and my ability to actually follow through with some fashion sense. He’d be a bit distraught to learn the Yankees have won just one World Series since, and of course he’d also ask why the hell I’m still single, and I’d ask him just how much time he has if he wants to hear that whole tale. But whatever my 15-year-old self might think of me now, he would be proud of one thing: I have never lost the wonder.

That specter of its loss for others, however, has been on mind deeply for the past two months. On my drive I listen to some Jonathan Franzen essays, including one I’d remembered loving when it came out 12 years ago but whose particulars had faded: “Farther Away,” an account of his visit to remote Alejandro Selkirk Island in the South Pacific after the death of his friend David Foster Wallace. But it was more than that: Wallace’s death was the suicide of a brilliant, scheming, deeply damaged friend, and this piece hit differently when I could relate firsthand. In it, Franzen appreciates the loneliness of his quest to understand, gives up his pursuit of an elusive bird as he recognizes the gift of his own limits. Here, at the edge of the continent, may I do the same. At our best we do not forsake limits, nor bend the knee to them as supplicants: we become one with them, make them ours, use our words to order them within our lives and gain some measure of control, against all odds. Somewhere in here is the answer to the quest I’ve been on for a generation, that I now seek to revive through a renaissance. Yes, in here lies peace, not farther away but close at hand in the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

Part III is here.


Memories on the Moraine

I’ve made my annual Christmas road trip across Wisconsin, to the rolling hills on Milwaukee’s exurban fringe. Here, I spend time with my grandmother, who soldiers on in a decaying old house, and my uncle, who now has eight cats living with him in the garage. (They’ve got nothing on their neighbors, who burn sticks and toss rocks about to learn what the spirits are telling them.) We peck at the vats of food as we stomach and exchange basic pleasantries, and I go for long runs up and down the Kettle Moraine, off to an old stone church in Saint Lawrence, resolute as this little crossroads of a town fades away. My dad and I retreat to a hotel before we get too deep into the sentimental goo of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m left clattering away on this keyboard in the dark when the internet fails yet again.

The life I live day-to-day is distant from rural Wisconsin, but I have roots here. I also have roots in a city with Rust Belt memories, even if my own childhood was fairly isolated from them; not far to the north of Duluth lie towns where the mines are once again in dire straits. This isn’t really my story, but it’s always been peripheral to it. I grew up on an island of relative comfort, surrounded by an America that looks nothing like the yuppie cities or affluent suburbs that were homes to most of my current friends, and could well define my own future. But I can’t avert my eyes from these places, which come to define more and more of the American experience. There are stories here, stories worth telling and passing down, and a tale of decline has its own tragic bent with real psychological implications. As I sit in a slumped chair coated in cat hair and delve into George Packer’s The Unwinding, it’s not hard to draw connections between foreclosures and dying industrial cities and the story of a family on a little Wisconsin farm.

Philosophically, I’m a child of reluctant modernists, from Hannah Arendt to Octavio Paz; people who never ceased to see flaws in modernity, but recognized that they had little other choice. They see all the flaws in placing faith in rationality, whether it purports to run an efficient economic market or benevolent government work. At the end of a year that was a rousing success personally, it’s hard not to look at the tumult about and feel justified in this pessimism about national or global solutions. Despite an ego the size of a small state, this is why I’ve never felt comfortable chasing a traditional road to status. I may yet find my way there, but it won’t be without reservations and escape routes. I lack the necessary trust.

There’s a certain fatalism here; an intimacy with death, and an appreciation for how fleeting our windows of joy may be. I can appreciate aesthetics and revel in certain creature comforts; I eat well and drink well and value few things as much as a journey to some exotic locale. But while they refresh and inspire, they are forever in the shadow of something more profound. An appreciation for loss makes one realize how valuable it is to keep ties going, how much we cannot whitewash the past. This is why I go back to Wisconsin at least once a year. Memory runs too deep, and I cannot swear off a part of who I am.

It is just one part, though, and I’m no slave to memory. I must channel it, and even if I can’t make it all right, I can at least draw inspiration. Perhaps the whole premise of these cozy middle class lives missed something. No, comfort alone won’t quite do: I need more. I’m still working out what this fresh channel for ambition means, and naturally, it will never abandon its roots. But there’s a newfound energy in these runs up and down these hills, one that wasn’t here when I wrote my first sad elegy in this same bland hotel four years ago. The project born that night is starting to come full circle.

So this Christmas season, I’ll offer up something other than a clichéd wish for peace: a wish for continued pursuit of excellence, in all that we do. We don’t have much time; before long, it’ll all be memory. Time to get to work.

Red and Grey Till the Day I Die

The Duluth East Class of 2014 made its plodding way across the DECC stage tonight, the students’ last names butchered one last time before they are released out into the world. Six years out from my own graduation, despite a new building and a maze of budgetary travails, my love affair with that school burns as much as it ever has.

East’s strengths are nothing otherworldly. Like any school it has its cliques, both exclusionary to those on the outside and giving rise to tunnel vision for those on the inside. Teenagers still do normal teenage things, and East couldn’t save a number of them from some truly damaging situations. (Anyone who expects a school to be the primary line of defense against these things has a rather disordered view of how these things come about.) Some will no doubt look back on their time there and remember the requisite high school awkwardness and ignorance, blaming the school for those bad memories. No doubt East can do better, as any school can.

East is also fairly homogenous, and many of its comforts stem from the good fortune of being situated on the wealthy, old money side of a town that values education. And that dominant culture can indeed be problematic for those who don’t naturally slide into it: witness Duluth’s brutal achievement gap, along with some of the concerns about diversity voiced in this recent video. (I could mount a nuanced critique of all of this if I wanted, but I’ll save that for another day and say simply that East has its issues. The school supports the troublesome Robert Putnam study that says that, traditionally, a relative lack of diversity correlates with social cohesion.)

And yet, even as it produces plenty of kids who are entrenched in that comfortable majority, East manages to be more than a factory of bourgeois culture. There’s enough questioning of that culture, both from the children of the east side elite free to ask Big Questions and the salt of the earth folks who don’t quite see the point of the whole rat race. (Interactions with the latter are one of the real merits of public education, reminding us relatively pampered kids that there are entirely different worlds out there that we can’t ignore.) It manages to blend the dominant culture necessary for success (under its standard American middle class definition) with allowances for some individual dalliance. There are people actively fighting the isolation felt by those who don’t quite fit in. When I was a Hound, the cliques came down without too much trouble, and the best of the teachers really were transformative. When I went off to college and talked about my high school experience with college friends—some of whom attended some of the country’s most “prestigious” high schools—I still came away with the sense that there was something different about East. Without trying very hard, it put out kids who were ready for most anything to come after, from elite colleges to the local schools to the armed forces to jobs straight out of school. It breeds that success with minimal pretension or self-satisfied claims of greatness, and does not cater to vogue tests or metrics of success while doing so. It doesn’t need to sell itself. As a school, it simply works, and anything that works that well ought to be preserved.

All else held steady, East allows its students to age at their own pace. Sure, some will be living lives of hedonism as freshmen, and most will make gradual forays down that path as the years go by. But it was possible to live another way and not suffer any serious social repercussions if one so chose. Any East alum from my generation will recognize the phrase from the daily announcements—and I do hope they still use it, much as it all drove us all to roll our eyes at the time—“make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” The message sank in. East grads were subject to the same social pressures as kids all across the country, but we Hounds always seemed to have an intimate awareness of our own agency. And for those of us who were a bit too aware of our own uniqueness, it helped bring us back to reality.

In some ways, East does its job too well. I know plenty of my classmates left with everything they needed to succeed anywhere; as a result, East is now just some source of distant nostalgia, with many of its brightest farmed out far beyond Duluth. It’s something to remember, fondly but not worthy of a second thought; something to acknowledge from afar, but not something worth repeated return visits or donations to its foundation. I was very close to heading down that same path, and the painfully earnest quotes from some old high school diaries prove it. I had to go away to realize how lucky I was.

My fervor is that of a convert. When I wandered into its doors as a freshman, I scoffed at all of the “school spirit” pageantry, and was content with fairly insular group of friends. Sure, I had some public school pride after touring Marshall and coming away unimpressed, but East was just a means to an end, four years to get over with as quickly as possible so that I could get out and do what I really thought I wanted to do. By the last day of senior year, I was crying buckets as I walked out its doors, leaving behind the first place I’d genuinely called home.  I’d decided I might as well befriend everyone, branching out enough to try to be that kid who went to every single grad party. I didn’t always fit seamlessly into its culture, but I found that level of comfort necessary for asking bigger questions and pushing my limits. East fed my relentless ambition and got me into Georgetown, but at the same time, the education I got there was complex enough that I was unconsciously starting to question everything about my world while at the same time acknowledging that it had made me who I was. The searching, probing, and frustration of the next five years makes no sense without East at its starting point, and in the end, that journey led a kid who’d been so eager to study international affairs straight back to the east side of Duluth.

Was I a sellout? I suppose I was, after a fashion. I neglected an old friend or two in my rush to climb the ladder, and at times spread myself far too thin. I abandoned a few morals, which left an overly uptight kid with no lack of inner conflict. I’m now more likely to spend a cold winter night watching an amateur hockey game than I am to be tracking election polls in South America. The long journey that began and ended with East led me to back away from earlier grandiose dreams of saving the world and settle for living fully within my own world. And yet I couldn’t be happier. I still ask those big questions and follow those world affairs, but I no longer let them consume me. Everything has its proper place.

Things started falling into place over the second half of my senior year. From academics to extracurriculars to following the exploits of the hockey team, I was at home. As Stuff happened in life beyond school, I began to understand the real power of a community, and what a support it can provide—a lesson doubly important for a kid who was consumed by the solitary pursuit of success. I am forever indebted. In a dream world I’d settle down here and raise a few more little Hounds while working for the betterment of Duluth, but I’m not sure quite what life will throw at me yet, and it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. No matter what, East’s presence will endure. As I wrote in a good-bye note some time after graduation:

No reason it has to be an abrupt good bye to East—because what is East, really? Some reified, odd concept—in a way, it’s the building, but building didn’t make any memories for us. Of course it’s the people, but they’re not static either—some will change, some will drift away, some will die. All we’re left with is a pile of memories. Little snapshots frozen in time, immutable, unforgettable. How can we miss something we never let go of? We can’t. And so long as we let life change with us, and hold on to what we can, we can always go back.

To all of my fellow Hounds who made those memories possible, no matter how large of a role they played: thanks again.