Tag Archives: navel gazing

Shards of a Broken Sublime

22 Mar

I have been a writer, in some sense of the word, for over a decade now. On paper, this development was no great surprise. I’m the son of an academic and a librarian, and one side of my family has a strong literary strain to it. I read voraciously as a kid, and had snobby tastes even then. I invented worlds throughout my childhood, some of which endure in recesses of my brain like long-lost friends or fondly remembered vacations. Sometimes I wrote these worlds down, and sometimes they lived only in my mind, but never did I imagine myself a writer as an adult. I was just a somewhat creative kid who grew up in a literary milieu.

That all changed during my freshman year at Georgetown. One night, in the dark of a New South dorm room long after my roommate had passed out, I began to pound out a few lines of a novel. For the next year and a half, I continued to chip away at it every day. While I finished that draft and made some halfhearted efforts to edit it, I immediately undertook additional writing projects as well. My fictional universes grew. I invented people, towns, races, even full-blown theologies, all of which fed on themselves and grew outward even as I went about my daily life as a student. I quietly churned out hundreds of thousands of words that I shared with no one.

My writing birth came at a time when I had no shortage of material. I was astute enough to recognize that, decades later, I might look back on my eighteenth year as the most dramatic of my own life. (I had an older fictional character share this possibility with a teenage protagonist.) From my own journey out of high school to the East Coast to family upheaval to broader a political drama in which I was a bit player, I careened across a full range of emotion, and I had to write about it, both to process what it all meant and to capture it all for my memory. My twentieth year, which included four months in Mexico, brought forth a similar sense of urgency. The intensity of life demanded an outlet, and I’m not sure I would have found it if I hadn’t gone through or done some of the things I did in those handful of years where ambition became reality.

In retrospect, I am in awe of how naturally all of that came. While I still finish most of my nights writing or rereading some of my past writing, my output is a fraction of what it was in those prolific early years. For a long time, I had no concept of writer’s block, no sense of what it was like to ever sit down to write and fail to produce. It was absolutely uninhibited, which may have been the source of its ease. While there were vague pretensions of publication floating around in my mind, I was writing strictly for myself. Not a soul knew about my little project, and there were no expectations.

Maybe some unconscious awareness that I’d lose that freedom was the reason I told no one of my writing life for years. When I finally did start my halting explanations of my efforts, that ease came crashing down, and I began suffering from the aggravating blocks that still plague me to this day. I’d gone from a person who wrote in secret to someone who aspired to the title of writer, and I had to perform. There was no turning back, though: it had become too much a part of my life to hide, and if my writing had half the insight within it that I thought it had, it deserved more than one reader. My writing life aged out of carefree childhood and found its teenage angst.

Recently, as I transferred files from an old laptop to a new one, I took some time to revisit some of those old musings. They had their moments of insight and their moments that don’t deserve to ever be read by anyone else, but above all I was struck by the intensity of the emotion of that teenage author. At that point I was still entranced by the possibility of everything that Georgetown represented to me, still had a sense of unquestioned destiny and a certainty that I would write history. In time I came to doubt this sense, but it never truly left me. That captivation with the power of words and with my youthful dreams has, with distance, returned with renewed strength, albeit through a world-weary recognition of how ephemeral it can all be.

As I looked for an easier outlet for my writing than unmanageably large works of fiction, I started to blog. Or, more accurately, I became an essayist, and had the good fortune to come of age as an essayist when it became the easiest it’s ever been to do so, thanks to a platform that allows for easy dissemination. I wrote my earliest essays from the perspectives of my various fictional characters, an attempt to respond to developments in the 2010 elections from a number of different angles. In time, the stronger of those writing voices emerged as my own, and I decided I had enough material to share on a semi-regular basis. On to a WordPress platform it all went, and has stayed ever since.

As I’ve shared before, blogging comes with its challenges, but is a welcome outlet. Essays allow for much more precise reflection on specific topics, which did a lot of good for the writing development of someone whose fiction tends toward the all-encompassing. (I write novels that look to explore a full swath of society! That plumb the depths of the human psyche! And meta-allegories! And coming-of-age stories! And…you get the idea.) Essays were a valuable bridge between the academic writing I’d honed in school and the fiction I’d honed in isolation. They taught me to be far more precise and concise, two qualities that I have since sought to infuse into both my fiction and my research-related writing in my work life (and really just into life in general). All those styles come with distinct voices, but the fundamentals beneath them never change.

Once I gave up the idea of making a living as a writer, certain things grew easier again. While I still sought to perform for an audience, it was a slightly less existential push, though existential it remained. I also just got older, and developed some maturity as I moved from a passionate sharer of all emotions toward a craftsman trying to perfect his art. Such a claim comes with a certain pretension, clearly, but so, too, does any attempt at authorship. The privilege of writing is accessible to all with a certain level of comfort with the ideas they seek to share; the privilege of being read comes to those who have found some way to consistently craft something memorable.

My writing life was made possible by good fortune and support from parents willing to put up with literary experimentation, and I’ve put in my ten thousand hours since. I wish I could say it gets easier over time, but it doesn’t. Standards rise, the critical eye grows ever more discerning, and when it becomes an expectation, failure to write is a burden. I suspect many writers must first learn how to over-write and over-share, and only with time come to learn how to cut out the excess and hone in on the core message with a deliberate precision.

Good writing, I think, benefits from a natural reticence. There’s a reason we writers have chosen the written word to express our thoughts instead of saying it all aloud to anyone around us. I don’t like to over-share, and while I think stream-of-consciousness has its virtues, the good stuff isn’t something I’d idly write on a lazy Tuesday night. At our best, we find ways to cut through the clutter and form coherent story arcs, and impose order on a world that otherwise can so often lack it. One of my first posts on this blog quoted Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize lecture, and I can’t think of any truer words on the function of good written storytelling.

My writing life, after some time out in the working world, is now at a crossroads. I’m perfectly content to write for myself, and will probably continue to do so on some level for as long as I am able. It’s a method of processing, a method of exploration, a cathartic release. But if I am going to write for an audience beyond my hockey work (where I’ve got my little cult following) or the occasional reaction to a life event (which gets reliably read by people who know me), it needs to evoke a reaction.

Writers may respond differently to the array of responses their work inspires, but for me, nothing is more aggravating than silence. Straight praise, while welcome, also often feels incomplete. My writing has never been a claim to perfection but instead a struggle toward it, a struggle that demands engagement and criticism, and without it, writers are left guessing, or worse, looking at view counts and turning their output into a crass popularity contest. Did we make you think? What about our writing draws you in, or puts you to sleep? On which topics are we at our best or worst? Where to next? If we didn’t want people to engage with us, we would have left our writings in those vast unpublished archives of our minds.

This rambling setup is all a way of saying that I’m going to invest some time over the next few months to see if my writing life can progress beyond the state it’s inhabited for several years now. I don’t know quite what this means yet beyond a certain level of time commitment. I have no shortage of material that is probably a good editor away from publication, from things I could adapt from past essays to a novel draft I finished before grad school to the episodic story collection that I put out on this blog. I need to explore the worlds of writing submissions and publishing, which is foreign to me, and apparently requires one to be comfortable with rejection, which has never been one of my strong suits. I also need to do all of this while keeping up my day job and a couple of other pursuits that will still be central to my life.

No matter where this little experiment goes, though, I will go on writing. The title of this post comes from the New Yorker review of one of my favorite films, Y tu mamá también: the protagonists, writes Anthony Lane, “may spill over with sauce and silliness, but that is the privilege of the young; and it is the job of the adult artist to dig back into that time, and to unearth, from the ridiculous, the shards of a broken sublime.”

Aside from capturing the theme of so much of my writing, that sentiment sums up my writing itself. If I have a task, perhaps even a calling, well, that’s it. Unreason and entropy threaten to drag down lives into despair or apathy, but we have the power to take those downward spirals and turn them to insight, to humor, and to those glimmers of revelation that allow us to reclaim that sublime. It’s time for me to try to share that, such as I can.

Advertisements

An Epigraph

29 Nov

If the series of stories I wrote on this blog were to be made into a novel, this quote would go at the start of it:

The life span of man running inevitably toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction were it not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The follow-up post I wrote to that fictional collection noted that the thrust of its contents were rarely if ever reactions to recent happenings in my life. They were the results of nearly a decade’s worth of thought and experience and experimentation that slowly marinated into the state in which they appeared on this blog. But the most recent evolution within that thought, however, centered somehow around the sentiment expressed in this quote.

The notion of beginning anew has undergirded this whole blog since it first got off the ground. It’s inherent in the idea of a cycle, and at times this blog has had posts that reference explicit new beginnings or resets in my life. As I age, I find a new appreciation for a fluid life; one that does not fit into easy boxes, and one that knows that people evolve in gradual ways, and that there is no such thing as a fixed way of being. While I’ve always thought this, I’ve come to embrace that sentiment as being somewhere near the very core of who I am. And more than ever, I’m finding successful ways to make sure I don’t fall into ruts of routine and give most every day the sense of immediacy it deserves.

At the end of 2017, I wrote a blog post on my frustrations with that particular year. I expressed impatience, and made a hockey metaphor: I was running a mindless cycle in a corner that looked good but wasn’t producing anything in the way of chances. That offensive zone cycle continued for much of 2018, and while I still might be waiting for the perfect shot a little too often, the cycle now has purpose. I’m setting up some good looks, and a barrage of shots may be just around the corner. My writing life played no small role in that process, and will pile up the assists when the goals start to come.

Even as 2018 comes to a close with all the usual trappings of holiday season tradition, I’m at a point of many beginnings. A new political cycle, some shifts in my workplace that could presage some big things, a new possible side venture, and a new hockey season: my activity level might finally near a place where I’m content with my efforts. Well, maybe. Here’s to those new beginnings, the cycle refreshed yet again.

Ouch.

30 Oct

The New Yorker accurately skewers my writing life:

ouch

So excuse me while I stay true to form and go drown my sorrows in a wine bottle.

Anyway, I took the past week off from writing after finishing my marginally autobiographical plot-lite exploration of driven-yet-wandering teens who later become twenty-somethings who express their wants and needs in fits and starts. (See? I’m not totally typecast!) It was strange, and somehow resulted in me having no more free time than I normally do. I couldn’t see it when in the middle of that week, but I was directionless.

I think I can officially declare myself an addict. I write to make sense of the world, but for all of the sense-making I do, I’m not happy unless I continue to write and continue to make more sense of my world. Except in rare spurts of stream of consciousness, or when I write about topics that require less mental exertion like hockey or horse race politics, I’m an exacting writer. My process is slow, choppy, and full of long tunnels of frustration punctuated by very rare spurts of certainty and inspiration. (Somewhere in here is yet another obnoxious metaphor for life.) Rarely would I call myself happy as I write, but one of my characters did have a pretty good quote about happiness in that last installment in my story, so maybe he has some wisdom for me there.

The busier I am in my day-to-day life, the more value I place on finding time to write. I suspect this is because a hectic life gives new value to opportunities for slow thought. The instant reaction, the hot take, the sound bite or Tweet: so many demands of contemporary punditry militate against the slow, careful reasoning necessary to parse through different arguments or reflect on the past. (For a take on why this is important, revisit this Joseph Epstein quote factory on what it takes to be cultured.) Writing, which forces me to put care into thoughts, is the perfect vehicle for working toward that pursuit of understanding.

Fiction is the most satisfying writing I do because it is in many ways the slowest. There was no timeline on any of the posts in that series, and no need to come up with my own quick response in the dialogue. Not once did I slide something into one of those stories in response to some recent development in my life; many of the thoughts had been forming for years, while many dealt with things I have never experienced. It was patient, exacting, and had no need to answer to anyone or anything other than my own curiosity over how certain debates and situations could plausibly play out. Fiction is a playground to explore realities like our own without actually living through them.

None of it happens in a vacuum, of course. This latest installment had handful of guides, including books like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Peter Matthisen’s The Snow Leopard, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and films like La Grande Bellezza and Y tu mamá también and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Film weighs heavily here, I suspect, due to the episodic nature of the story; curiously, I can’t name a single novel that directly influenced my efforts, though I suppose there are hints of Gatsby and Wallace Stegner lurking in there.) Deep in my memory, I can probably recollect some stray conversation about Havasu Falls and the tale of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and while only one of the eleven installments had any direct autobiographical undercurrents, my own life certainly courses through much of it in subtle ways.  Fiction can come to seem like an incoherent hodgepodge of influences, or an author’s attempt to show off a vast knowledge. My previous efforts often came across that way, so this story collection tried to rectify that.

Beginning with that first story about Evan on his surfboard, which still might be my favorite of the bunch, there was a deliberate attempt to strip away all artifice and focus only on the world inhabited by the two characters. “Less is more,” I told myself time and again, purging away useless details and chopping out aimless dialogue. I intentionally avoid most all markers of time; other than establishing their use of cell phones and perhaps some of their slang, there’s very little in the stories that can pin the characters at any point over the past fifty years. I used some descriptive language to set scenes and interrupt long runs of dialogue, but I tried to live in the characters’ minds and in the tasks immediately before them that consume their thoughts. If I haven’t put readers directly into their minds instead of some obvious extension of my own, I haven’t succeeded.

When I was fully invested and writing well, my fiction almost becomes an out of body experience. Mark and Evan have existed in some form since my undergraduate days, but they took on new life over the past year and a half, when they became two influential and sometimes warring factions in my head. As a writer of fiction, I sometimes feel like I’m living four or five parallel lives, and if I ever seem lost in some other world, it may be because I’ve wandered down one of those other paths that I’ve invented, at least for a little while. I tend to reject strict methods of categorizing people or a sense of a “true self” because I can inhabit several different, sometimes conflicting selves, and I don’t see this inherent tension as necessarily problematic. If anything, it expands horizons, and makes the rich variety of the world and human experience possible, if only in a fleeting way, to someone who otherwise can get bogged down in the lurches of emotion of day-to-day life. Fiction, in its ability to transport readers, makes us free.

So, perhaps in that spirit, this blog will now move on to some very different ways of being. I have to offer up some bread and circuses to go along with the invented worlds, so we’ll gear up for elections in my next post, and hockey season is just around the corner, too. Thanks, as always, for bearing with all of this eclectic slow thought.

An Increasingly Impatient Cycle

29 Dec

I sat down to reflect on my year a few weeks back, and the first words that went down on paper were “well, that was frustrating.” I’m not sure this is entirely fair to 2017, as a lot of good or at least necessary things happened, personally and professionally. But if I’m frank about it, there were also slow moments, as if I were a hockey team running aesthetically pleasing but ultimately mindless cycles in the corner without ever generating any shots on net. There should be more.

Whatever 2017 was, it was not a year for venturing outward. My longer trips were to places I’ve been before. It involved weddings and funerals and reunions and a lot of valuable extended family time, often filled with explorations of the past. 2017 was my first full year in the working world, and it often left me marveling over how easy it is to slip into a humdrum routine, and how rebellion against that instinct has to be a conscious effort every day, even in a field of relative freedom and flexibility. The struggle is real, and it is endless.

These life changes are probably evident in the content on A Patient Cycle. Over the past few months, this blog has boiled down to my core writing commitments, hockey and fiction. This is in some measure a sign of satisfaction: I’m on the road or out being social fairly often, and I don’t lament the loss of some of this time that might have gone to writing in the past. I try to keep family life out of here, for the most part. Hockey remains my release, a sort of second career that doesn’t feel like one. And the fiction bug remains my most effective method for making sense of my world and just letting my mind go, a tortured and exacting process that tries to make art out of timeless human struggles. The hockey posts are by far my most read, and often spur great dialogue; the fiction is the least read, and often met by vague praise or crickets. It is what it is. Neither of those two is going to stop anytime soon, especially in the middle of a season and now that I’ve generated some fictional momentum in recent months.

But beyond those two topics, A Patient Cycle, much like its author, has now left its adolescence and is trying to make its way in the working world. After four and a half years, I’m not sure there’s much to say about my own theories on the world that I haven’t already said at some point or another. One of the founding principles of this blog was that it should never fall into a routine where it bludgeons the same tired themes over and over again. I’ve tried to honor that pledge of late, and the dearth of philosophy or national politics is a reflection of that. It’s been a pretty tumultuous year, but nothing that happened in it really shook up my worldview in any major way. I have an argument to make here, but I’m also at the point where results feel much more useful than words.

I’m also still deciding what sort of local political voice, if any, A Patient Cycle should offer nowadays. I may drop by here or there, but I’m not going to start attending Duluth meetings religiously like I did a few years back. When it comes to local reporting, I think my friends at the News Tribune continue to do a pretty solid job with the resources they have, and a couple of muckrakers at the Reader and its ilk fill a niche, too. I could turn this blog into more of an opinion mouthpiece, but in many cases I think I have more effective levers at my disposal than yelling these opinions out into the internet, and I’d prefer to use those when I can. I can see some situations when said yelling would be counterproductive, too.

To some extent here, I’m looking for ideas from my readership: is there something that needs covering from a perspective you think I can offer that no one else is currently covering? Where can I still add new thoughts, given my own background and interests? Prompts are always welcome. Lately, they haven’t been coming to me naturally.

I’m not saying it was a lost year, or that I’m in some sort of unpleasant funk. 2017 had its peaks, and I am mostly a contented person. I cultivated a lot of valuable old ties, and will continue to tend to many of them. I have settled into a place at work that is rarely stressful and usually recognizes my contributions. I had some lovely opportunities for reflection, usually in the midst of physical exertion up and down and around the hills and lakes that I love. I visited most of my usual haunts in the Upper Midwest, and a few new ones, too. I was about as fit as I’ve ever been, though that tailed off some toward the end, and I did a better job of taking control of some things that required some control as well. Sometimes this foundation-building work, slow and uneventful as it may seem, can wear down the opposition and create some openings to seize at a later date.

I know a lot of people laugh at me when I lament how I’m getting old. In my professional circles I’m almost always the youngest person in the room, and these self-deprecating jabs are mostly meant in irony. But I also don’t want to wake up and find that I’m 30 or 35 or really any age and not on a path toward making my dreams into reality. I learned early on not to take any day for granted, and it can be way too easy to do that. I have little use for any state of affairs, personal or professional, that fails to move things in that direction. Time is wasting away, and even if I have a lot in front of me, that just means there’s so much more I can do with that time.

2018 will therefore, I think, be a watershed year. Within it, I will learn a lot about what my future in Duluth holds for me, for good or ill. Time to crash the net.

An Alternative History

30 Aug

I have survived one year back in Duluth. My first year back, I think, has charted on to what a sober assessment of it would have looked at the start. When I look back on the “why I should and shouldn’t move back to Duluth” chart I drew up last summer, it’s all accurate, the good and the bad. Obviously I’m here, so the good outweighs the bad, but I won’t pretend this has been a flawless return, either. I didn’t expect it to be.

As I pondered one complete year of adult life during a weekend of fiction-writing and raindrop-dodging in northern Itasca County last weekend, I revisited the two essays I had ready to go at this time a year ago, as I awaited a decision on my current job: the one that appeared here, overflowing with pride that a quixotic path was cycling back home, and the concession speech that was left unpublished. Much as I love the success story that became reality, the more depressing version hit home in new ways. It was one of the most unsparing pieces of self-examination in a life rarely lacking in such examination. I share it here:

*   *    *

Like any good PR person, I had two blog posts written for today, a victory speech and a concession address. Alas, what you are about to read is the latter. Losing out on a dream job, for all its disappointment, gives me a chance to look back on these three months, and let out a little more than I normally do.

If nothing else, this period of post-grad school marginal employment has given me some understanding of life on the edge. I humor myself, of course: I have safety nets ready for me. Outwardly, I’ve probably seemed my usual self, and I’ve traveled some and stayed highly social and spent many a relaxing afternoon reading in a park or running around lakes. I’ve developed strong coping mechanisms to keep me from lapsing into depression, or the hyper-anxiety that was a feature of my uncertain prospects after my undergraduate days (this blog being one of them). Much of my frustration is blatantly of my own making, as the earnest desire to have a rewarding first post-grad school job unites with the entitlement of a Georgetown graduate to make me exceptionally picky, perhaps too disdainful of the entry-level work that would earn me my dues.

But the peaks and valleys are so much more extreme amid this waiting game, ranging from exhilaration over possible life courses to despair over a lack of breaks from one second to the next. One grad school professor, commenting on a survey he did of public housing residents, said the biggest takeaway from the survey was the uselessness of surveys: his subjects of study ran the gamut of emotions about their experience based on how their ever-so-tenuous financial, health, and emotional situations were playing out on a given day. Over the past three months, I’ve come to understand how violently a person can lurch from one extreme to the other.

My valleys usually take the form of detachment and removal, in long hours staring at a screen. Much of this procrastination is enlightened, as I survey reams of articles on the Trump campaign or the fate of Western Civilization or some distant conflict, but it loses touch with some of the more fundamental things I believe. It substitutes ivory tower analysis for opening up my eyes and seeing the world around me. I’m not getting out enough, and while finances are a fine excuse here, they are just that: an excuse.

I’m headed back to Duluth shortly, though it’s hardly the triumphant return of my dreams. My return may also prove very brief, depending on job prospects in different places. I love the place, but I also know not to make an idol of earthly things, and as time goes on, different options start to seem more attractive. I wonder vaguely if I’m invested too much in a fleeting dream for a childhood that never was. It may be time to soldier outward; perhaps to take full advantage of that Georgetown degree in certain circles, perhaps time for something a bit more unexpected. I’m open to ideas.

Near the end of my time in graduate school, on a day when I felt particularly drained by the onslaught of school and work and life-related stresses, I sent out an email to everyone in my program. Its premise was simple: I’d find time to meet with anyone who needed a beer, a coffee, or even just a walk around a lake. We could talk about these important decisions we needed to make in the coming months, or about nothing related to them at all; whatever the other person wanted. There were a handful of takers before it petered out, and while the sentiment was and is genuine, too often, it seems to fade as new issues emerge. The more I venture into the adult world, the more I marvel at how many things hinge on communication, and how often that communication winds up being so sadly incomplete, if not downright bad.

I’m writing about this not to show off my altruism, but to remind myself that this commitment didn’t die with commencement, and that it extends to my many connections beyond graduate school. These are the sorts of connections to reality that too many of us don’t exemplify often enough. On the verge of a new round of good-byes, however fleeting they might be, I often lament how little we know about each other, even if we’ve spent significant time together. It is these human stories, these genuine connections, that are still the foundation of everything I believe in and hope to work for someday, and if I can’t live that out, why am I here?

And so I head north to continue this absurd quest to live out a life of virtue in a world that barely knows what the word means anymore. My appeal to virtue may be the fallback of an uncertain kid; God knows I’d rather be making a solid salary than go the way of Diogenes. But the choice isn’t always mine to make, and I’ve approached most interviews under the assumption that my questioners would rather hear more about skills than a meticulously argued philosophy on life. That may be a mistake: there is no substitute for sincerity.

This could have been a triumph, but things are never so easy, even for us careful planners: the virtuous road is a murky one. My summer wanderings, whether in a car across the country or around my Chain of Lakes here in Minneapolis, have provided little clarity beyond short-term spurts. I must continue to make peace with uncertainty, to depose of false idols, and to reach always toward that excellence that I always aspire to but, too often lately, have fallen short of. I can only hope to recover the wonder, still there beneath all these layers of frustration and cynicism, but just not visible often enough. What other choice do I have?

*   *    *

Heavy, but true. If there is a lesson from my first year in the working world, it’s that being a member of that world does not answer any of those more existential questions I asked in this history that wasn’t. I’m very good at critiquing, but my record at putting a positive vision into place is a bit more mixed. So, if you’re in Duluth, let me know if you’re in the mood for a beer or a coffee or a walk, and if you’re not, you’re always welcome here. I still have a lot of work to do, and need a lot more people to be part of it.

Four More Years

5 Apr

Hey, I’ve managed to keep this blog thing alive for four years. I had no idea where this was going to go when I started barfing thoughts on here four years ago, but whether due to continued spurts of inspiration or sheer stubborn inertia, I’ve kept plugging along with this ever-so-natural blend of Duluth affairs, philosophizing, and high school hockey. Thanks to those of you who put up with the stuff you don’t like or even take some time to learn about it, and congratulations to the handful of you who come for it all on your excellent taste.

It’s been a grand experiment in self-discipline, staying fresh, and seeing how the things I write resonate with different people. (I don’t do this for views, but it can be fascinating to see what does get read and what doesn’t. Long story short: the hockey stuff gets at least ten times the views of everything else, especially these days since this isn’t the Duluth politics destination, such as it was, a couple years back.) I’ll continue to plug away, and may also think outside the box a little going forward. I also won’t pretend that I don’t aspire to a certain level of influence—talking to empty rooms is never fun—though certain fundamentals won’t change. This blog does aspire to a certain ethos, a blend of some fairly scattered threads of life that have gone into creating me as I am today, all channeled through a voice that aims to be creative, easily readable, and makes it clear I’m having fun with all of this. Above all, this has to stay fun, or it won’t be worth it.

This blog is also only the tip of the iceberg of everything I write. I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of words I’ve produced over the past nine years or so. The majority has actually been fiction, though there’s also a fair amount of non-fiction and autobiography lurking in the shadows. There is still a layer to my writing that is very much for my eyes only. Funnily enough, the blog—the only real stuff I’ve written that’s made it into the public—began at the exact time I decided I wasn’t going to go down the road of trying to make a living off of writing. That was one of the wisest choices I ever made, both for my sanity and my bank account. But I’m also a perpetual wanderer who needs somewhere to come home at the end of the day, and that’s what this blog is for: to organize thoughts, frame them in a way that other people can follow, and to provide an avenue to bring a little bit of that submerged ice out into daylight.

I’ve been a lot of different places over these four years: recent college grad, returnee to Duluth, struggling writer, aspiring intern, harried grad student, unemployed and driving the American West, and now, gainfully employed in both a field and a place that I don’t see myself leaving. The world beyond this little corner of the internet has changed plenty over the past four years, too. Through it all, though, I don’t think my outlook on life has changed all that much. Things have crystallized, and with my house now largely in order, who knows, maybe some of that other stuff I’ve written will make its way out into the world someday. I’ve never felt better about the direction of my writing, both for the humbling amount of respect my hockey stuff gets and the increasing certainty in the direction of my more political stuff.

And so I look forward to four more years of adventures in investigative journalism, from Emily Larson’s coalition construction to Mike Randolph’s line construction, from travel journals and thinkpiece reactions to my quest to discover where the hell Duluth keeps its single, cute, well-read, civically engaged, genuinely open-minded, ambitious, and yet well-grounded mid-to-late 20-something women. (Who, me? Picky? Never!)

Enough about me, though. Whatever brings you here, thanks for coming along for the ride, and I hope you stick around for the next four years, too. It’s been a delight.

Why High School Hockey?

19 Nov

Some people who read this blog know me first and foremost as a commentator on high school hockey. Others, who come for the other stuff, tend to skip over it, with reactions ranging from bemusement to downright incomprehension. I don’t blame them; I know this place is eclectic, and a high school sport may seem a strange obsession for someone whose other interests include local politics and intellectual musing. So why do you do it, Karl?

The easiest explanation is that it’s just an accident of history: I grew up on the east side of Duluth during a time when that part of the city put out plenty of hockey talent. I went to a high school blessed with a strong hockey legacy, and even the kids who didn’t much care for the sport would come to a few games and join the party in the stands. The juicy storylines surrounding our coach—Mike Randolph was headline news my eighth grade year when he temporarily lost his job—added to the intrigue when I went to Duluth East. Those stories only got crazier my freshman year, as a tumultuous season on and off the ice resulted in a surprise playoff run. The Hounds missed the Tourney my last three years in high school, but those section losses, each more excruciating than the last, left a feeling of unfinished business. Those years also aligned with the peak of the East’s rivalry with Cloquet, a legitimate war that was on par with any high school sports clash in the country. The program seemed bigger than life, and came to define the East experience.

East has made the State Tournament every year since my graduation, which has made it easy to stay in touch. Even when I lived on the East Coast, I’d fly back for the Tourney, and it was always an impromptu reunion, a way to keep those old ties going as I crashed on friends’ couches, bumped into them in the upper deck, or joined them for drinks after the games. That tradition now has a life of its own, and I expect it to endure no matter the Hounds’ fortunes in the coming years. It’s a ritual that keeps me true to my roots.

And so I’ve been sucked in. I’m not the sort who can half-ass anything, and so I couldn’t just be a casual fan; I had to learn everything I could about every team, and before long I was posting about it on an internet forum, and one thing led to another. I now moonlight as a high school hockey talking head, putting in many hours, compensated only with the occasional beer and some nasty anonymous comments. Those internet ties kept me in touch when I moved away, and are even more important as my own time at East fades into the rear view mirror. There are moments where the madness of it all wears me down, but they never last long, and I’ve built some real connections with people through my work, too.

Still, hockey goes deeper than a mere childhood backstory. It has quirks that are downright fun, from hockey hair to public-private rivalries to opportunities to remind Edina that they’re still cakeaters. Hockey is also a marker of regional identity, and an eternal point of pride for those of us who hail from the North. American hockey was born here, and while the tropes of hard-working northern boys can wear thin, there’s still enough truth to it that we take this mantel seriously, and there’s always that air of allure when an entire town heads south and shocks St. Paul in March.

On another level, the allure is aesthetic. Hockey is a beautiful sport. This will baffle anyone who immediately associates it with fights and lost teeth, but where else can one find such consistently smooth play? It has much longer stretches of action than football or baseball; scoring is neither as incessant as in basketball nor as sparse as in soccer. Two minutes on the clock actually take about two minutes. To even begin, hockey players must master movement on two thin blades of metal and glide easily across a rink. Next come the soft hands and slick passing, the ability to wield a stick and flip a puck across the ice on instinct. Add a layer of strategy, and you have units of players floating about in forty-second spurts, making extreme exertion look seamless. High school skills on all these fronts run the gamut, making it that much easier to enjoy the best of them.

And then, yes, there is the violent side. Hockey combines its grace with some punishing body blows, though unlike other contact sports, it’s possible to play it well without the brutality. While there are obvious limits—no kid with repeated head trauma should stay on the ice—I also think there’s an unfortunate, growing societal stigma around raw, physical activities, as the parental sheltering becomes ever more oppressive. Sports like this are not for everyone, but they are wonderful releases of pent-up forces, particularly young men with an excess of testosterone. It taps into that primal urge without putting it center stage, and channels it toward a greater goal.

So why high school, in particular? College and NHL hockey are also big in Minnesota, and my loyalties could have progressed with my own added years. High school is cleaner in a number of respects, but there’s no shortage of things to decry about the state of youth hockey today, from exorbitant costs to some unseemly searches for greener grass. (Note that I certainly don’t lump all transfers or early departures into that category.) Defenders of the sport, including a famed Sports Illustrated piece from a few years back, point to its purity. To an extent, this is true, though as I’ve noted before, few things are less pure than the minds of teenage boys. But if purity isn’t quite the right word, it does hint at something: the sheer, unbridled joy of doing what one loves. High school hockey has a special panache to it; a combination of raw force and light artistry that fuels a fire on the ice, and taps into a restless hunger that I hope I never lose. At the high school level it spills over into the stands, where student sections let loose and feed an atmosphere that can sweep up an entire community. All of the petty divides that often define high school fall away behind a common mission, if only for a few hours. It helped turn an often awkward stage in life into something I now recollect with nothing but fondness.

A few people are weirded out by the fixation on high school kids, but hockey in Minnesota is cross-generational, something that ropes in parents and grandparents as much as the kids. I also think it’s a healthy thing to take an interest in people outside of one’s often myopic age group, and high school is a particularly formative time. The experiences many of these kids have here are some of the most important forces in shaping a life, and hockey can push them to achieve things they never could have before. Readers of my Tournament reflections will know that some of the most crystallizing moments for me have been those press conferences after losses where I see kids contemplate life beyond high school for the first time, now that a run for one of their greatest passions has come to an end. It’s an essential part of a coming-of-age story, and the commitment and work ethic and sense of camaraderie many of these boys build do indeed serve them well in whatever comes next. The attention we heap on high school students can go far; I’ll admit to some squeamishness about media outlets that fixate pre-high school hockey (especially if they try to rate or hype up individuals), and take my role on the Forum as a defender of high schoolers from slander or libel more seriously than anything else I do in the hockey world. But this is also a time to begin that transition into life in the public eye, and once again, I’m skeptical of anything that shelters anyone for too long.

Hockey intertwines with my own story, too: it can’t be a coincidence that my two greatest sports loyalties crystallized immediately after the two most disruptive incidents in my personal life. For a little while, it was both a release and a distraction, and those bright spots endure. No doubt sports obsessions can grow unhealthy; people make dumb decisions that prioritize sports over life, or fall victim to a broader athletic culture that doesn’t always have its priorities right. But for every skipped test or Twitter dust-up, my hockey work has become one of the healthiest things I do: it puts it all into perspective. Just as it pushes us out into the world, it also lets us retreat from it, if only for a few moments. It’s an entirely different realm from school and work life, and it’s a blessed relief to come down from weighty real world affairs and watch a bunch of kids scoot around in pursuit of a piece of rubber. Anyone wanna join me at a rink this winter?