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.