How Duluth Defines ‘Divisive’

27 Aug

Harry Welty is upset. This in itself is not really news, but this time around, it’s for a new reason. The candidate he favors in the at-large race for an open seat on the ISD 709 School Board, Alanna Oswald, was the subject of a withering dismissal in the Duluth News-Tribune’s primary election endorsements. Oswald’s involvement with the district “can leave voters concerned about adding another member to the School Board concerned with exploiting problems rather than solving them and with being divisive rather than cooperative.”

I always read Harry with a grain of salt, so I watched the video of Oswald’s interview with the DNT to see if it was an accurate assessment. If this is the editorial board’s idea of divisiveness, I shudder to think of what would happen if its members were ever to actually meet a divisive person. I wouldn’t say we agree on everything, but she seems like an eminently reasonable west side lifer with admirable commitment to achieving results in education. Her take on Art Johnston—guy with an obnoxious tone with whom she sometimes disagrees, yet sometimes has good ideas that the rest of the Board ignores because they come from Art Johnston—couldn’t be more accurate. It’s the least divisive, most balanced view you’ll hear about Johnston from anyone in the world of ISD 709 (in public, anyway).

Otherwise, she paints herself as an advocate for parents. I hang out with hockey parents, so I can understand being leery of empowering parents who might then start hounding teachers unreasonably, claiming they ‘bully’ their children for having standards or holding them accountable for failings that are much closer to home. However, I doubt Oswald has any of my favorite east side helicopter parents in mind when she talks about giving parents a voice. She’s talking about teaching parents who don’t know the landscape or the language of education the skills to become engaged in their children’s school lives. This should be something that everyone in this race agrees is worthwhile. Beyond that, we’re left with some real, but hardly confrontational, demands for accountability from the Board and administration. Reasonable debate has apparently become a sin.

With comments like the ones about Oswald, the DNT board will only perpetuate the ongoing travesty that is the ISD 709 Board: a group that mistakes imposed conformity for consensus, and fails to find nuance in the views of its political rivals. By tossing someone like Oswald under the bus, the editorial board gives Welty and Johnston all the ammunition they need to keep blasting away and rallying the base. That minority isn’t going away, and voters need to elect candidates who neither define themselves with or against that duo. Oswald isn’t necessarily perfectly neutral either—she obviously some ties to Welty—but if that was a concern for the editorial board, it should have probed a bit more to find out. Guilty until proven innocent, apparently. I fear Oswald’s loose ties to Welty, whose recent silly spat with DNT editorial editor Chuck Frederick probably left him in their doghouse, may cost her the election.

None of this is to cast any aspersions on the candidate the DNT did endorse, Renee Van Nett. Like Oswald, she’s a longtime community activist, and she has an extensive resume working with groups that often struggle in ISD 709. She says all of the right things about the Red Plan being in the past and wanting to move on from that mess. But achieving such neutrality in the current Board would be an incredible feat, and I have my doubts that someone with the clear endorsement of many sitting members of the majority will be able to pull it off.

Whether she likes it or not, Van Nett now has all the endorsements; she is now an appendage of the DFL-backed Duluth political machine. Duluth’s machine is a surreptitious one that doesn’t always know it is a machine, but it is one nonetheless, and it can be a vicious gatekeeper. And lest this sound like an anti-establishment screed, I’m not much of a radical; I can see myself playing the game and operating somewhere within some city’s political machinery someday. But at least I won’t have any illusions about it.

For now, however, it’s hard to believe that an insider can do anything to change the tenor of the ISD 709 Board, which is something that has to happen before anyone can implement any of the noble plans for rescuing the district’s enrollment that candidates of all stripes propose. I submitted my absentee ballot application today. In at least one race, I know who I’m voting for.

A Guide to Minnesota Nice

21 Aug

Minnesotans have plenty of reason to be nice. We’re not in a rush to scrap for spots on ladders for power, as happens out East; we have more space than they do, and lack their extremes and intensity, despite the political affinity. We’re not haunted by history as in the South, or left with much of a Rust Belt legacy like most of our Midwestern brethren. We’ll always be more interesting than the Plains, and do not suffer from whatever it is that afflicts Texans and turns them into Texans. Nor are we restless strivers still on the frontier, like those out West; we’ve tamed the whole state, and like it as it is under our stewardship. Just look at our rather racist flag, with its settler beating off some native to claim his fields. That mostly forgotten episode in the Dakota Wars aside, our history has never been at the center of the American narrative, which spares us a judging past, but we’ve been around long enough to have a cultural legacy that can stand on its own. Things are, simply, nice.

Unless, of course, you dare to find fault in our niceness. A Washington Post article poking fun at some of the nation’s more geographically “boring” counties got zero flak from the other states with a bunch near the bottom of the list, but Minnesotans trashed it en masse, leading to a mea culpa from the author. Perhaps the lack of attention leaves us with an inferiority complex; more likely, we’re just quirky outsiders unaccustomed to much national interest, and ready to defend our turf when someone suddenly tries to drag us in with the rest of the country. For all the champions of progressive politics this state produces, there’s still a deep conservatism at the core here: Minnesotans are proud of what they’ve built, and would rather not mess with it too much.

And we have good reason. We’ve got a white-collar metropolis that has weathered some of the worst trends in cities fairly well. We combine a pretty friendly business climate with a functional state government that, until recently, operated quite independently from the national parties. We have an educational system on par with the nations of Scandinavia. Sure, the winters are cold, but we know how to have fun with them, and they build character. Our summers are gorgeous, our autumns sublime. (Any Minnesotan knows that the one indefensibly crappy season here is spring, that grey void between the end of the State Hockey Tournament and Memorial Day.) We have work-life balance: you’re certainly allowed to enjoy your job, but it does not define who you are, as people who are consumed by their jobs are often not nice. We’re very conscious about the work we do, but at the end of the day, we’d rather be on the lake than anywhere else.

“The lake” defines Minnesota life, and is the place where Minnesotans always go, that one platonic ideal standing in for all 11,842 of them within the state’s boundaries. We have an incredible diversity in lakes, but whether one prefers Calhoun or Kekakabic, Minnetonka or Vermillion, every lake inspires a certain ideal. But the most Minnesotan of lands is the northern realm of the state, where lake life reigns supreme, and even the biggest lovers of the big city will make their way North at least once a summer. Even as its population stagnates and economic role dwindles, the Twin Cities are happy to appropriate the North as theirs. Its appeal reaches both suburbanites in search of space and solitude and crunchy urbanites who have adopted its fashion wholesale. (There were bearded men in flannel drinking PBRs in Bemidji decades before they came to Brooklyn.) The North forever draws Minnesotans back with its more gradual pace of life, inviting one to think both deeply or of nothing. Either way, it cleanses the palette from incessant work and family life. Sit back on the pier, crack open a beer, gaze out across those sunny dancing waters, and lose yourself.

For Minnesotans raised on the sonorous voice of the high priest of Minnesota Nice, Garrison Keillor, that sentiment is never far away. There’s a fair amount of self-hate among Minnesotans of the Lake Wobegon idyll, and not without reason. But even Keillor’s critics often unwittingly embrace the foundations of his weekly news from the edge of the prairie: the need to stop amid the noise of life and succumb to nostalgia, the allure of a carefree childhood of exploration; the freedom to look back from old age and say that one has stayed true to something passed down from generation to generation. Call it the Minnesotan Dream: we may not be able to offer you power or riches, but we can offer you a safe, reasonably priced, spacious house and weekends on a lake. Do you really need much more than that?

For a majority of Minnesotans, this holds true. Not many people leave, and most who come tend to stay. People marry young and settle down, and the people we shared those lake weekends with as children stay friends for life. The result is a dense network of people; even in the Twin Cities, it’s hard to escape into anonymity, and we all know someone who knows someone. (I’ve heard the Twin Cities job market described as “pervasive low-grade nepotism.”) We share enough that we all know how to work together and live together, even if we may not like each other all that much. Hence the famed dark side of Minnesota Nice, the tendency to put on a good face and pretend to like people when, in fact, we hate their guts. It can be tiringly catty and erupt in spurts of passive-aggressiveness, but it also lets everyone get their jobs done with typical Minnesotan efficiency.

Minnesotans expect anyone who comes here to adopt Minnesotan standards: you can share in our nice state so long as you play by our nice rules. It’s a very Scandinavian ethos, which is no surprise in America’s most Scandinavian corner, forever putting the common good ahead individual quirks. This is probably why Minnesota attracts few immigrants save a few strong ethnic enclaves for Somalis and Hmong, and those (especially the Somalis) tend to live in their own separate worlds. It’s also probably why our efforts to educate Minnesotan children who do not look like us tend to suck. Our history with our Native Americans is dark and ugly. It’s easy to claim the high ground when everyone shares a common language, but as in Scandinavia, changing demographics may complicate the tale of Minnesotan exceptionalism.

There’s also the matter of Jante Law, a Scandinavian sentiment akin to that in Appalachia or inner cities in which people heap shame upon those who seem to rise above their perceived stations. (This ambitious, non-Scandinavian kid from the North remembers the two reactions that his college of choice, Georgetown, inspired from a number of local adults: “oh, where’s that?” and “that’s so far away.” Minnesota Nice translation: “you are making a stupid and selfish choice, leaving behind everything you know to go off to some mysterious, no doubt un-Minnesotan ivory tower on the East Coast.”) Foraging one’s own path in Minnesota, unless it is through a literal forest, is not always the easiest thing.

But it can be done. Minnesota transplants must learn to love the lake, and those who leave must show that they still remember it. It need not be the center of life, but it must be a part of it, and so long as we tend the roots of the Minnesota mystique, one will always be welcome. One can even retain some of those quirks learned in the great void beyond, and perhaps even chase some form of excellence. The lake may seem small at times, but its depths can be profound, and sometimes, that respite is something we all need.

Mexico City, Revisited: Road Trips Beyond

14 Aug

As I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts in this series, Mexico City’s constant crowds will force most anyone with means to venture out from time to time. I toured many of the smaller cities in central Mexico during my four months there, usually on long weekend or over the holiday weekends for the Mexican bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, both of which occurred during my stint there. None of my journeys were quite the road trip in Y tu mama también, though they all had at least one memorable moment.

With two exceptions, they were also all by bus. That may sound terrifying, but the Mexican bus system between major cities is one of the country’s more impressive feats. It’s at least as comfortable as its American counterpart, and sometimes more so; on some buses, a few extra pesos will earn one in-flight snacks and warm towels. Buses feed out of four Mexico City bus stations in each of the cardinal directions, all easily accessible by Metro and well-located for swift escapes. These buses, at least, are on time, clean, and populated by pleasant travel mates. The only real annoyances are the dubbed bad American movies inevitably playing on the TVs, and a few realities of Mexican highway life beyond the bus companies’ control, from ugly wrecks that clog traffic to understaffed tollbooths to animals wandering into the road.

I wrote about my Mexican bicentennial journey to Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato some time ago, and it is hard to beat the sheer Mexican chaos of that long weekend. My only other trip to the north took me to Tequisquiapan, where my host family had a cozy vacation home in a gated community. Tequis was a lazy provincial town, though Day of the Dead festivities did drum up an anti-Halloween protest in its zócalo. The north is Mexico’s conservative heartland, and Gonzalo Junior bemoaned the incessant norteño music—Mexico’s answer to country—on the radio. On our full day there we ventured out early for breakfast in a sun-splashed village before a hike up the Peña de Bernal, a stone monolith, one of the largest of its kind. In the afternoon we made our way to a Mexican winery—not bad, for a nation new to the wine cultivation—and whiled away the evening with another game of cards.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

Dreary Toluca rules the first valley to the west of Mexico City, though the majestic Nevado de Toluca with its year-round snows towers over the city and bestows some sense of grandeur upon the crowded plain. (One of my previous trips to Mexico took me up toward the Nevado and into the mountains beyond, though that’s a story for another time.) Some of Mexico City’s most extreme sprawl has been outward into this neighboring valley, though there are some pockets of solitude up in the pine forests that separate the beast from Toluca. One day the host family and some of their friends took my roommate and I up to the Desierto de los Leones National Park, the site of an old monastery, and then moved on for some horseback riding in the rain before a delicious meal in a little hilltop diner.

Further west, Michoacán is a state of great beauty, of rich indigenous heritage, and of serious conflict in the Mexican drug war, the only place in my travels where such qualms ever surfaced. The flavor of the month cartel at the time was La Familia Michoacana, not long after replaced by the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), both noted for their weirdly religious take on drug trafficking. They waver between rebellion and fractious alliances with the national cartels, building loyalty by pumping money into the small towns in the mountains of Michoacán. It was only in Mexico that I began to understand just how much geography—those towering hills and twisting mountains—can make it difficult for a state to assert any authority. La Familia grew bold during my time in Mexico, descended from the mountains, parked buses and trucks across the highways into the state capital of Morelia, and set them alight. Thankfully, my eclectic group from the university had no such obstacles.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

The first stop in Michoacán was Pátzcuaro, a small city on a lake whose utopian origins I’ve discussed before. The Pátzcuaro of 2010 was no utopia, but it was a beautiful place, the wind whispering down its mountain lanes and cooling its plazas. We arrived late at night and wandered the silent streets in search of a hostel, finally stumbling upon one with a few concrete blocks disguised as beds. Woken by roosters the next day, we hiked up a mountain to survey the scene, then descended to the lake, where a boat ferried us out to the island of Janitzio. It’s a famous Day of the Dead destination covered in terraces and quaint homes, though on this weekend it was a poster child for indigenous poverty: there were only a handful of tourists on the island, yet it featured row after row of shops, all selling identical, tacky products, and no business on the way. In spite of it all there was beauty there, a sight best witnessed from the lookout in the upraised fist of a giant statue José María Morelos on the island’s peak.

None of the outlying cities I visited can quite match the scale of Morelia, whose entire city center is a colonial jewel. Our first day there became an endless walking tour of intricate buildings, but there was something worth seeing around just about every corner. We visited on a hopping weekend; an international film festival featuring a few big names was in town, as was a superb bread festival, with championship breads arranged in shapes of trains and eagles and Mexican flags. We split our time there between two hostels; the first was the Tequila Sunset, whose name tells you all you need to know about it, and the second was a far swankier establishment owned by a man who had just come back from a few years in Bloomington, Minnesota. Naturally, we bonded, and the evening of wine and cheese on the rooftop swiftly degenerated when he invited in all his friends.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

One trip south of Mexico City was to a place I’d been before. My dad, a Spanish professor, has been running study abroad trips to Cuernavaca since the early 2000s, and I went down to visit for a time during one of the early years. It had been years since I’d last seen Gerardo, the Canadian expat who runs the program, but it was a seamless slide back into life in the City of Eternal Spring. My first night involved a dinner on the zócalo with Gerardo, who seemed to know everyone in the square and the nearby artisans’ market; after some shopping, I settled into his home on the outskirts for some quiet contemplation.

The next day, joined by Gerardo’s wife and his friend Álvaro the Marxist Economist, we bought some beer and went for a drive up into the mountains for lunch at a trout farm, where we mused about Mexican politics and joked about Rubén Aguilar and loved life beneath the pines. Back in Cuernavaca that evening I made the acquaintance of a young Canadian who knew Gerardo, and he took me on a novelty journey to a spa he often visited with his Mexican girlfriend (now wife). I sat in a temazcal, an Aztec sweat lodge filled with pungent herbs, and sweated away my troubles before a good, hard massage. After that we ventured down into the Cuernavaca club scene, though the pictures of that night have, alas, “mysteriously” disappeared. But there was no time to linger in that realm, as Gerardo took me to breakfast the next day with a woman from an outlying village whose life had nothing in common with the leisure of the past few days.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Somewhat less placid than contemplative Cuernavaca was an arranged trip to Taxco by the university for all the study abroad students. This was also not a first time visit, though this jaunt proved a bit different than a day trip with the parents when I was twelve. On the way down the bus stopped at the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, a large cave complex to the north of Taxco, and wandered through towering stalactites and stalagmites and other features I can’t possibly remember. Down its in depths was a spring pure enough that we could drink straight from it, the only water I’ve had that can rival the stuff that comes from Duluth taps.

Taxco is an old silver mining city, and one of the best-preserved colonial gems of Mexico. Even the major streets remain narrow cobblestone lanes, winding their way up the mountainside to which the city clings. Its centerpiece is the church of Santa Prisca, a stunning baroque icon on its zócalo with awfully translated English signs next to the Spanish ones. Thanks to a rainy season deluge, however, touring much of the city beyond the church and the silver markets proved a chore. We settled in a bar for a Mexican soccer humiliation at the hands of Ecuador, then skirted the raindrops on the way back to the hotel. (Two umbrellas were pressed into service as doors on our van taxi, as the real door was nowhere to be found.) The rain did little to dampen spirits, however, and the party raged on in hotel rooms for most of the night, culminating in a nighttime swim in the pool and an ill-advised journey back down into the city in search of tacos, which somehow managed to go off without a hitch. Most of the group suffered ill effects the following morning, though I was raring to go, ready to push through the mists of Taxco and on to the ruins at Xochicalco. I’d been here before too, and it was a good thing, because the rains drove us from the site far too soon.

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

I never did get to Puebla, another regular stop on the central Mexico circuit, though I did pass through on a week-long journey into the country’s southeastern reaches. The first stop was Oaxaca, yet another city rich in history. We spent our first day at Monte Albán, a large Zapotec ruin atop a mesa-like mountain overlooking the city, but Oaxaca’s real wealth is in its living culture. The city is a culinary paradise, home to the riches moles and the purest mezcal and other delicacies, to say nothing of some good, crunchy chapulines. (Yeah, fried grasshoppers.) Southern Mexico retains its indigenous roots as well as anywhere in the nation, and that night the zócalo was the scene of a whirling pageant of dance. The next day our hostel gave us a wide-ranging bus trip around the area, with a visit to the Árbol de Tule—the fattest tree on earth!—and a Zapotec weaving operation. Next came Mitla, a ruin small in size but intricate in its Zapotec mosaic work, and then, a long, bouncing road up to the Hierve del Agua, a petrified waterfall. The tour ended at a mezcalería, where the Australian in our party won us a free bottle through feats of epic liver destruction.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

That night, I chaperoned us along on to another bus trip, this time to Puerto Escondido, the lone beach trip of my four months in Mexico. It involved normal Mexico beach activities, albeit in a sleepy town with just enough tourism to give it a hippyish edge. (One expat, when asked of her origins, told us she was from the stars, though she’d also spent some time in Cincinnati.) We found a couple of cabins far enough up the shore for some privacy, but close enough to walk into town along the beach. For once, I set my itinerary aside and devoted myself to blissful nothing: leisurely meals in seaside shacks, long nights of festivities on the beach, lazy scrawling in a notebook in a hammock before drifting into a nap and waking without a care in the world.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristóbal de las Casas

The next bus took us up to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, the farthest southeast and the poorest state in the Mexican union. I covered our Thanksgiving day trip to San Cristóbal and the Zapatista community in rebellion in a previous post, but it was a valuable stop, one that made me think long and hard about how to find my place in the modern world. The next day the bus schlepped us along to Palenque, stopping at a pair of waterfalls along winding mountain roads before coming to the great Mayan ruins in the jungle. Its sprawling palaces peek out of the greenery, and its architectural variety and detail surpass anything in the center of the country. After declining numerous offerings of mushrooms and one last long overnight bus trip, my last Mexican road trip came to an end.

*  *  *

These reminiscences on Mexico tend to be gushing tales of discovery and dalliance. That reflects reality, up to a point. But that isn’t the whole story, and I’d be remiss not to mention the other side. In a way, Mexico was liberation: I was wildly free to reinvent myself and surrounded by excess, in which I participated willingly. And yet I still had a vague sense that I was in this world, but certainly not of it. I both poured myself in the fun and remained a detached observer from on high, an exhausting effort that can be hard to articulate. More than once, returning to my Mexico City flat, I’d slump back in the elevator and run a hand through my hair, drained by the fullness of the life I lived, wondering what it all meant. For the first time since I’d started my aggressive writing two years prior, I had writer’s blocks: suddenly it didn’t come naturally, the world I’d built through those words no longer quite held together. In my relentlessness I was missing something; I didn’t always know what, and even when I did, I didn’t have the ambition to seize it. It took a trip abroad to see what was closest to home; a confrontation with different worlds to learn my place within the one I knew.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

People often like to talk about finding their “true selves.” I find this deluded. We have no one true self; we are a wide array of forces and histories, all wrapped up in one body and one mind, trying to make sense of the whole mess. For me, Mexico is one of those parts, thrown in there with everything else.

What did Mexico give me? I can try to put it into words. There was a host family that showed me what family life ought to look like, and a friend or two who showed me the meaning of companionship. Those bonds endure. It showed me how to push outward, how to surrender parts of myself to others, even as I struggled with deeper truths. It showed me a country impossible to paint in black or white, a nation that swallows everything up and makes it all its own. It made me rethink my politics and my worldview, and gifted me with the man I quote more than anyone else. Above all, it turned me loose, however haltingly, and at the same time underscored how much more there is to life than mere freedom. Five years later, I await a chance to go back—but I carry it all with me, part of a living history, and those four months live on, forever renewing an old belief. Viva México, dador de la vida.

Mexico City, Revisited: Exploring the Giant

9 Aug

My last post tells the clichéd study abroad story: fun host family, mediocre foreign university, basic navigation of a different culture. I would like to think that my time in Mexico, however, goes beyond the most basic of study abroad tropes, and it owes that difference to the city I lived in. Mexico City is so gigantic that no one can dream of making their way through it in four months, though I managed to visit practically all of them on the day a pair of old high school Spanish teachers swung through the city on a visit. No East grad’s journey through Mexico is complete without a day on the canals of Xochimilco with Mrs. Bergum and Mrs. Melchert.

My university, the Ibero, gave its exchange students an easy way in via a Friday “class” that took us to sites around the city. The first trip with tour group took us straight into the city center, where a kindly but long-winded gringa used a bevy of props to lead us through some of the city’s more famous attractions. She knew her stuff, and followed her across the great plaza known as the Zócalo—every Mexican ity has one—and into the Metropolitan Cathedral and finally to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the centerpiece of the old Aztec capital, rediscovered only during excavations by the national electrical company in the 1970s. But as we meandered through the site museum and the guide droned on and no promise of lunch came forth, a friend and I bailed. With a few quick steps out a side door, we left behind the self-conscious curation of Mexican history and entered the Mexico of today, a cobblestone street lined by small shops and teeming with the seamless ballet of urban life, as the shoppers stop and start and flow along down the avenue. We disappeared into a taquería, came out with some streetside delicacies, and, two days later, came down with diarrhea.

Leaving aside long nights on the toilet, the journey down the side street kicked off my many unguided wanderings of the city, and the Zócalo was a natural place to revisit. The Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, the center of the great imperial city that rose to glory under the Aztecs and became the seat of Spanish power in the northern hemisphere. At its center, a massive Mexican flag, the eagle on the cactus lilting in the breeze. The government, the church, and those Aztec ruins all spectate from the sides, but this is a living plaza, always the center of the action. Often a protest, sometimes a concert or a party, though never more novel than during my final visit in early December: a skating rink! This Minnesota boy could have watched for hours in delight. The rink featured at least a hundred uniformed attendants, all there to help out the poor Mexicans as they shuffled about the rink, clinging to the walls in desperation. Further along the intrepid city government had devised a mini snowman-building station, and an artificial sledding hill made an appearance as well.

Mexicans on Ice!

Mexicans on Ice!

The rink was one of the more lavish flourishes of mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s urban vision. Ever since it gained home rule in 1997, the Federal District has stayed firmly in the hands of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a left-leaning party that has been decimated in the rest of the country thanks to the egotistical handiwork of Ebrard’s predecessor to the top spot in the Federal District, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. To be fair, López Obrador’s administration helped push Mexico City’s urbanism toward the vanguard, and under PRD rule, the city has had a renaissance of cultural life and chic vigor. A large urban elite allows for a center-left party to flourish, and even if it’s not on the cutting edge of the war on poverty, it runs a fairly clean and efficient ship, which is no small miracle south of the border. But Ebrard lost out to the more ruthless López Obrador in the 2012 succession battle, and the PRD split into two, its moderate core left only in Mexico City. The result: a city whose governing vision has more in line with New York or San Francisco than it does with the villages just beyond the Valley of Mexico.

If the Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, then the Alameda, some six blocks to the west, is its soul. Or so I thought when I first laid eyes on the great Diego Rivera mural back when I was in high school, the one that showed the whole of Mexican history promenading down its leafy walks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. On one of my first Sundays in Mexico City I walked from my place in Polanco up Paseo de la Reforma to the mural. I sat before it for a while before venturing into the square itself. The Alameda of 2010 had no great politicians or artists striding up its walks, but there was a complete cross-section of the country: the wealthy on parade, young lovers in the bushes, beggars, the inescapable rows of vendors, protesting leftists, break-dancers, and every possible shade in between. And on a bench in the middle of it all, a dreamy American kid, enmeshed in that urban fabric and in love with it.

A dreamy Sunday.

A dreamy Sunday.

The rest of the center city has chaotic but ordered streets, and is well-serviced by the packed but slick, highly subsidized, rubber-tired subway system. The urban grid conforms to the Spanish colonial Laws of the Indies, with churches and government centers grouped around plazas of varying importance. There’s a bike share system, a number of pedestrian streets, and little monuments or plaques at every turn. The architecture impresses, from a gilded post office to the Casa de los Azulejos, the original home of the Sanborns owls that now roost about the city on the department store’s logo; from the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts to the iconic Torre Latinoamericana, long the city’s tallest building. To the North is Plaza Garibaldi, perfect for one’s mariachi rental needs, and unrepentant debauchery once the sun goes down.

Paseo de la Reforma is the artery that feeds the body of the beast, a grand avenue that belongs on a short list with the Champs-Elysees, the Rajpath, Broadway, and Las Ramblas. Every major intersection brings a traffic circle and a monument, the statues ranging from Columbus to Aztec emperors to Roman goddesses to the city’s most famous icon, the Angel of Independence. It’s wide enough to handle hordes of both cars and pedestrians, and on Sunday, the whole thing shuts down for bicycles. The neighborhoods along it to the west of the center are the trendy and artsy core: Roma Norte, the gay-friendly Zona Rosa (under Ebrard, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009), and La Condesa, the D.F.’s answer to Williamsburg. The streets in each neighborhood have themes, with national heroes and dates in the city center, European cities in Roma, and Mexican states in La Condesa. La Condesa is at once the most happening and perhaps the least Mexican place in the city, a cosmopolitan neighborhood filled with fusion restaurants and clubs for travelers from afar. It was a popular home for the European students at the Ibero, and I spent many nights in its apartments and parks, dining or heading for the Pata Negra, the club where all twenty-somethings’ paths seem to cross while in Mexico.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

West of La Condesa sprawls Chapultepec Park, a giant green space that makes Central Park look quaint. It hosts many of the city’s great museums and monuments, from modern art to anthropology to Chapultepec Castle atop the hill. Below Chapultepec is the monument to the Niños Heroes, six boys who wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves from the ramparts rather than risk capture when the American army sacked the palace in the 1840s. Los Pinos, home to the Mexican president, is here as well, but so are the unavoidable vendors, brackish lakes, and price-gouging toilets. There is no such thing as a free leak in Mexico.

North of Chapultepec and Reforma, beyond the Parque Líbano, lies my old haunting grounds. Polanco is densely urban, filled with apartment towers and shopping streets, though it’s statelier than La Condesa, and the streets are so robed in trees that it seems sheltered from the oppressive crowds downtown. The streets here, all named for great philosophers or writers, make one want to stroll to a café and discuss some great work with other learned people. I meandered its placid streets whenever I needed to get out of the apartment and breathe, stopping for an ice cream or touring the Tianguis market on Fridays, perhaps flagging down the tamale bicycle. At its heart is the Parque Lincoln, a quaint monument to the American president, who gazes across the street at Martin Luther King. A few blocks north is Presidente Masaryk, Mexico’s swankiest shopping street; a few blocks south, the Campos Elíseos: Champs-Elysees, Elysian Fields, one of those streets that just basks in presumption, playing host to embassies and luxury hotels.

Street corner in Polanco.

Street corner in Polanco.

Further up the hill the men of letters give way to mountains, and the lanes loop around walls that guard the estates of Lomas de Chapultepec. I myself lived right on the line between Lomas and Polanco, on Monte Elbruz, a short wedge between two highways that still managed to fill the obligatory quota of 7-Elevens and Starbucks on a Mexico City block. My tower overlooked the Periférico, the ring highway that loops about the center of the city. At night I’d gaze down from the picture windows as the traffic weaved along the canyon below, threading its way through a small regiment of financial and corporate towers. The cool mountain air poured in through the slits beneath the windows, breathing life back into the giant’s lungs.

To the north, a pyramid, a church, and the State Department share a square. It’s the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, still better known as Tlatelolco. This was once a booming native market town, but now this name recalls a different memory, the moment that ripped the mask off the PRI regime. In 1968, the government gunned down scores of student protesters here. The regime ruled ably for forty years, overseeing an economic miracle that pulled Mexico to the brink of the first world. The 1968 Olympics were supposed to prove that greatness, and celebrate the “perfect dictatorship,” the system that seamlessly transferred power from one party boss to another, all the disparate factions of Mexican society united within one machine. Instead, they kicked off a national nightmare.

The next thirty years saw a slow but steady decline. The party couldn’t buy off the far left the way it could with other groups, and its patronage machine went from competence tinged by low-grade corruption to a downright bloated bureaucratic nightmare. The nation’s fortunes rose and fell with oil prices and presidential terms, and after a stolen election in 1988, the PRI was in crisis. It held on for another twelve years, enough time to oversee the lurching implementation of NAFTA and a privatization scheme that simply put state agencies into the hands of wealthy cronies rather than fostering genuine competition. To the credit of President Ernest Zedillo, he was willing to hand off power when the PAN won the 2000 election. The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012, but it is a shell of its former self, with the El Chapo jailbreak showing the bankruptcy of Enrique Peña Nieto’s pretty PR machine. The ghosts of Tlatelolco have come home to roost.

Further north Reforma splits in two, and the Calzada de Guadalupe and the Calzada de los Misterios lead the way up to the Basilica of Guadalupe. The current basilica is an unfortunate modernist thing, but all the beautiful old churches and chapels on the hill at Tepeyac are still there, and one can still mount it for a view of what a sixteenth century miracle has wrought. The shrine marks the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself to Juan Diego, and the image seared on his tilma became the foundation of a nation. Mexico is a fractured place, filled with hundreds of indigenous tribes and regional cultures, and riven by stark mountain ranges. Many of its Catholics practice something that my Polish and Irish grandparents could never recognize as their own.

Juan Diego's tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

Juan Diego’s tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

But the Virgin courses through all Mexican life, and the flag hanging around the framed tilma drives the point home. While the southern Latin American countries killed their natives and the Andean and Central American ones still live in serious racial tension, Mexico approximates a blended nation. Reality still shows stark divides, but ever since its great revolution in the 1910s, Mexico’s official narrative has aspired to a blended mestizo identity, the raza cósmica that takes pride in both its indigenous roots and its Spanish inheritance. The PRI, for all its failures, built a country around that vision. It is no small victory, and while some racial divides endure, the rest of the world has something to learn from Mexico.

In the far north lie the ruins of Teotihuacan. The name means ‘City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl; the story claims that the Aztecs, still in their exodus phase and wandering the Valley, stumbled through its ruins and figured that no man could have built them. Sitting atop the Pyramid of the Sun today, it’s not hard to see why: its base rivals the Great Pyramid in Egypt. But if the Aztecs aspired to godlike status, they found it soon enough. They found that sign they’d awaited, the eagle perched on a cactus, and build a city to rival Teotihuacan in the center of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan stunned its Spanish conquerors with its size, beauty, and cleanliness, though that did nothing to stop them from slaughtering the lot of them and filing in the lake.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Today, the only living remnant of the Aztec imperial city is on the far south end, in Xochimilco. These canal-filled gardens sum up Mexico simply: a historical artifact kept alive by a raucous party on boats, with vendors paddling along the rented trajineras peddling food and flowers and booze. The traffic is just as hectic as the Mexico City streets, the oarsmen worryingly young, yet no amount of social scrutiny can dim the festive atmosphere. Here Mrs. Melchert showed incredible poise under pressure, earning applause from the Mexicans as she maintained her balance after our trajinera got rammed just as she was leaning out to take a picture.

The south side of Mexico City has more wealth than the north, and it is here that one finds the sprawling campus of the national university (UNAM), home to over 250,000 students; the giant Estadio Azteca is here as well. A little ways further north are two charmingly gentrified neighborhoods with cobbled houses and colorful streets and histories as well. San Ángel features a flower market, a Diego Rivera studio, and a monument to some Irish-American U.S. soldiers who turned on their new county and joined the Mexicans during the U.S. invasion. They all got slaughtered, but they still remember them in San Ángel, and I happened to visit on the day of a remembrance parade that included the Irish ambassador. Better known is Coyoacán, Mexico City’s Greenwich Village of yore, home to the famous blue Frida Kahlo house, where one can learn of all her eccentricities. Just up the street sits the Trotsky museum, where budding little Marxists shepherd the tourists about the bullet-riddled rooms of the exiled revolutionary’s final home. The bullets from Stalin’s henchmen all missed their marks, but later, an ice axe did not.

Not wanting to cause my host family or the university and undue ulcers, however small the real worry, I never ventured on foot into the far eastern reaches of Mexico City. As the city climbs up out of the valley, there in the shadow of the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, the city degenerates into row upon row of concrete housing. The largest slum in the world is here, beyond the D.F.’s border with the State of Mexico, and there’s a ring of badly built homes creeping its way up the mountains on all sides of the city. They’ve come here in search of something more than subsistence farming, the countryside drained of peasants by a growing economy. It is a zone of misery, though Mexico has nothing on the poorest of the poor; in fact, thanks to a growing economy, there are now more Mexicans heading back south across the border with the U.S. The American immigration crisis these days comes from Central Americans, who endure a hellish journey across Mexico to the border. This journey usually avoids the insanity of the capital and instead works its way up the Atlantic coast.

Mexico City faces many issues, perhaps the most worrying being its need to suck up water from all across the country, but otherwise, its problems have solutions. Yes, the mountains that ring the city hold in the smog, though it’s not as bad as it used to be; methods to clean up the sky lurch along. My lungs had no trouble adjusting to the Mexico City air during my workouts, as many past travelers had suffered. The soft former bed of Lake Texcoco, filled in by the Spaniards, causes some structural problems, and leaves the city vulnerable to earthquakes. But the government can and does take steps to stabilize these things, and it’s hard to foresee a catastrophe. The once-worrying taxi system has been cleaned up some. And the drug violence that plagues some parts of Mexico doesn’t really appear in the Federal District: it is just too large and sprawling, and the state has too big of a presence, for any of the cartels to move beyond the run-of-the-mill crime operations found in any big city. At the time I traveled, Washington D.C.’s murder rate was over three times the D.F.’s. I can’t recall a single crime, even minor theft, befalling one of my fellow foreign students—and we weren’t always the most self-aware or cautious bunch.

In a way, my complaints about the traffic how easily it is to lead a comfortable life: the most serious inconvenience of D.F. life is a mundane problem that’s not much better in, say, Los Angeles. Large parts of Mexico City are placid if not downright lovely, which both makes life easier and makes one understand why the Mexican upper classes aren’t terribly bothered with the slums to the east. Their productive, comfortable lives can coexist with the extreme poverty around the city. Seen from the ground, the contradictions that form this city are easier to understand, its vast scale easily gathering it all in. No city did more to drive my fascination with the systems of urban life, and its allure will long endure, no doubt pulling me back before long. For good or ill, Mexico City is without equal.

Next time: Provincial towns and cities of Mexico.

Mexico City, Revisited: The Road to the Ibero

5 Aug

Five years ago today, I arrived in Mexico City for the start of a four-month sojourn south of the border. I was twenty years old, both open to the world and anxious about stepping out of line; a Georgetown international affairs student with strong convictions who was nonetheless feeling more than a little adrift in his studies. And so I headed south for a semester abroad, on a quest for meaning in one of the world’s most difficult cities to comprehend.

I landed in Mexico City in a daze that afternoon, frustrated by wrong immigration forms before a search through the throngs behind the gate for a sign with my name on it. This was my third time in the Valley of Mexico, though the first two visits had been mere snippets to tease me, invite me back for more. This time I’d spend a full semester in the belly of the beast, and put my presumptions of cultural competence and world-wise traveling to the test.

I arrived with a backpack of personal effects and two suitcases filled with a wardrobe heavy on sports apparel that simply screamed “American”—though when one is over six feet tall and white as snow, there’s no disguising it anyway. (For the most part, that is; a handful of people, furnished only with my name, assumed I was German.) This unabashed embrace of my homeland seemed to unsettle my eternally deferential roommate, another American who, in the rare moments we actually talked, sought the experience of an ideal Mexico.

002

Gazing wistfully out my apartment window…

Anti-American attitudes in Mexico, in my experience, were limited to a theoretical corner of the academy. I never suffered anything more than a light ribbing as a guero, and I couldn’t count the number of times a Yankees cap struck up a baseball conversation. There’s no purity in the post-NAFTA world, and yes, something may be lost in the mix. But the whole experience seemed to reinforce a couple of Octavio Paz aphorisms: first, that local culture will always divide us, even in a globalized era; and second, that the visitor ought to integrate, not assimilate. We must settle for dialogue, playing off one another’s quirks and learning to make do. There is no eternal essence of what Mexico is; it’s a living history, always in motion, evolving into some new blend of the stories its people create. I have no Mexican blood in me, but Latin America is an inescapable part of my family history, both for my father and now for me. This trip sought to cement that curious root, and blend it in with all of my other histories into something that aspired to coherence.

*          *          *

I wasn’t without guides: I lived with a two host parents in a cozy ninth floor flat they shared with their adult daughter; an older son lived nearby, and swung by nearly every day. They were veterans of hosting foreign students, there to both provide sanctuary from the insanity and turn us loose to explore as much as we could. I also had the silent roommate, whose aloofness was one of the disappointments to the program. I recognized more of myself in him than I cared to admit, but my exuberant push outward had no place in his Mexican journey. What could have been a brotherhood stayed stagnant; though they hid it well, the perplexed host parents worried over his quirks, wondering what they could do to draw him out.

For my part, I had little trouble sliding in with the Meléndez family. The small-world coincidences made it easy: a good family friend of theirs had married a man from Kewaskum, Wisconsin, not far from where my father grew up. They’d gone to visit at some point, and a Green Bay Packers bumper sticker adorned the doorway into my bathroom. (Another cultural blend: the family loved American football, and the children would often bet on games. The daughter, Gina, always won.) Not only that, Gina had spent some time in Lombard, Illinois, where my mother’s family lived for many years. Her knowledge of English was especially handy on one of my first days in Mexico, when the shower drain clogged up and my normally reliable Spanish degenerated into a lot of frantic gestures and repeated cries of “ducha!”

My host father, Gonzalo, was a retired army dentist. He had the patient, relaxed air and easy smile of a man who’d found his home in the world, and always toyed with his wife and giggled over the world’s absurdities. His jefa, Lupita, cooked up a storm and doted as all host mothers must, doing her best to put some meat on my bones. I never got the full story, but it seemed they came from some money, once inhabiting a house near that of billionaire Carlos Slim before they downsized to the well-heeled flat. The children were both graduates of the Universidad Iberoamericana, my study abroad destination, with Gonzalo Junior now working in IT—free support for the cranky old laptop I had at the time—while Gina developed powdered food products.  It was an easy family to join. In the evenings we’d relax with telenovelas or a football (or fútbol) game, though every now and then they’d invite over some friends for rousing games of dominoes. We’d sip away at our tequilas and have a grand old time, hearing all the gossip there was to hear.

Gonzalo, Gonzalo, and Lupita

Gonzalo, Gonzalo, and Lupita

Tequila gets a bad rap in the U.S. thanks to the tastes of drunk college kids, but the real stuff is a delicacy, unbesmirched by the additives that produce the famous tequila hangover. Proper tequila comes from blue agave in Jalisco; anything other liquor from an agave falls under the blanket term mezcal. Mezcal often takes the form of Mexican moonshine—hence the famous worm, used to mop up its impurities—but true mezcal is a nectar of the gods. Only recently had it really found its way north out of the mountains of Oaxaca and into Mexico City, but the rich smokiness and the delightful lack of headaches made it one of my finest discoveries.

*          *          *

I could have used a bit of that mezcal before the daily bus commute, but by the end they proved an excellent education in willpower. Indeed, there was no greater test of my readiness for Mexico than my daily commute from my apartment to my university on the western fringe of the city. Morning rush hour on Paseo de la Reforma is a daily exercise in gymnastics and human contortion: just how many people can we stuff into this bus? One or two might go by my stop before I’d finally find one with space to clamber aboard. I’d wedge myself in through the back door of the bus, pausing only to make sure that all of my appendages made it also. By the end I’d become a ruthless transit rider, knifing my way in and towering a head above all the Mexicans, making sure I had some space to breathe in the rush hour fumes.

My daily chariot was one of the finer specimens on the Mexico City streets, a lurid orange and green machine that had seats for about twenty and standing room for a good seventy, depending how well we all got in touch with our inner sardine. The bus rides never were very chatty, though it was always a serendipitous day when I got on a bus with the guitar player. There were millions of people in the city, but it was always the same damn guy. His songs were uplifting, poppy dreck that I’d have hated if they were in English, but they unfailingly brightened my mornings. His presence was well-worth the eventual generous tip.

A surprisingly tame Anillo Periférico near my apartment.

A surprisingly tame Anillo Periférico near my apartment.

Two days a week I had a class that began at seven o’clock. Never a morning person, these rides were a daily struggle, but they beat the traffic, and there were small delights here, too: as I got off the bus along the highway in Santa Fe, high above the smog and out on the outskirts, the stars were far brighter than they are in the environs of any American city. I would have stopped to admire them, if doing so hadn’t invited death during the crossing of the highway that separated the bus stop from the gates of the Universidad Iberoamericana.

*          *          *

The early morning bus trips were worth it for the man who held court for two hours in a chilly Ibero classroom. Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela’s modest résumé boasted stints as a Jesuit priest, a leftist revolutionary in El Salvador, and the chief spokesman for Vicente Fox, the right-leaning Mexican president whose 2000 election broke 70 years of rule by the “perfect dictatorship” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Fox was a dynamic campaigner but a bumbling President, and Aguilar is now immortalized in Mexicans’ minds for his oft-repeated phrase, “Lo que el presidente quiso decir” (what the President really meant to say…). But he stuck it out, even though he shared neither his President’s ideology nor his foot-in-mouth disease, because he believed in the democratic transition, and its success transcended such petty wars. He believed what he preached, and devoted his mornings to lecturing college kids with a fairly radical message: the answer to Mexico’s plight came not from expecting the free market to rule all nor belief in the power of the government to rectify things, but in a stronger civil society.

Aguilar found a curious home in the National Action Party (PAN), and no doubt it cost him some allies. The right-leaning party might not have matched his social agenda, but in the early 2000s its free market ideology helped it avoid the machine politics that plagued its rivals, the PRI and the leftist PRD. Its image was about as pure as possible in Mexican politics. By 2010, however, things had begun to sour. President Felipe Calderón’s militarized drug war drew Aguilar’s ire; he called the army’s involvement a farce, and pushed for legalized drugs. Instead, Calderón doubled down, and his party crumbled. Frustrated by the failure of the right, a fractured left, and a tide of PRI revanchism, Aguilar settled for lecturing to the next generation of his nation’s leaders, along with one sleepy American kid whom he’d quiz about Mexican baseball players in the MLB.

*          *          *

The Iberoamericana is a gated maze of long, airy brick buildings—puro ladrillo, in the words of Gonzalo Junior—and a replacement campus thrown up after the 1986 earthquake demolished the old campus location. It has a longstanding relationship with Georgetown, though American students were few in number; just two of us formed the entire Hoya contingent. The two of us were inseparable during that trip, and that friendship endures. Joining us in the exchange student melting pot were a boatload of French and Germans, a few Brits, and scattered Latin Americans, along with some Mexicans on loan from universities outside the Federal District. The head of the program was a Texas dame who used her spurs to shred Mexican bureaucracy at will, though she retired abruptly mid-semester, leaving a quietly efficient German in her place.

The Ibero owes its ties to Georgetown to its Jesuit identity, though I never saw a priest on campus, nor did I ever find the well-hidden chapel. No, the Ibero is a finishing school for the Mexican elite, a place where one goes to be seen. Most spent the entire day at school to avoid the traffic; groups spent much of their days sprawled out in chairs at one of the on-campus restaurants, these rare open, semi-public spaces free from vendors or the noise of urban life. Everyone sat about chatting and watching European soccer matches, taking slow lunches, perhaps venturing up to the gym to work on some muscles to show off for the ladies of the Ibero. Class start and end times were suggestions, though everyone got there in the end, and readings came not from books, but from copy machines in the bowels of the library.

The library was a highlight of the otherwise unremarkable Ibero campus, particularly for the novelty of two of the floors in its tower. These floors, you see, were designed principally for napping. After my morning class I’d pull two of the IKEA chair contraptions together and slump into oblivion, joining the herd of dozing students. In a daze a while later, I’d edge the curtain open a little and read something for class, or perhaps the New Yorker or its Mexican counterpart, Nexos. My Georgetown buddy and I probably drove the rest of the exchange crew nuts with our frequent lapses into intellectual digression, but we were never far from the center of the party, either. Oh, how we lived.

Ibero gate, with the library tower behind.

There was still some intellectual life at the Ibero, spurred along by the most talented of the students and professors. In addition to Rubén Aguilar, I enjoyed the presence Ivonne Acuña Murillo, a sociologist, pushed us through a heap of theorists, some of whom still crop up in my writing. (“Order and progress!”) But there was an unfortunate trend, particularly among the graduates of UNAM, the monstrous national university, to resort to a clichéd, vulgar Marxism. (There was some delicious irony when one of them assigned us an Octavio Paz reading that trashed such people and failed to recognize himself in it.) They also just weren’t very good teachers, and were stuck at the Ibero trying to communicate their desire to save humanity to a bunch of bored rich kids. But oh, did one of them try, and ever so earnestly, flailing as the students tormented him and hauling me up to the front of the room to recount all of the U.S.’s transgressions in Latin America.

Another gem was the art professor, an American expatriate whose name now eludes me. I wasn’t in the class, but this delightful old crone had a fondness for Minnesota accents, and thus invited me to join on a few of their field trips. She’d wander along the gallery, cigarette dangling from her mouth as she dismissed some intricate work with a single droll adjective; any work by Diego Rivera would elicit a muttered “fat man” before moving on. But her knowledge was boundless, and at times it would pour forth on some obscure piece no one else would notice. She also had connections, and made sure all us Americans voted via a federal write-in ballot before inviting us to a penthouse party of expatriates on the evening of the 2010 elections. One of my more formative moments owes her an assist.

*          *          *

Trips home were inevitably even more congested than the rides up the mountain, and during the first two months tended to coincide with the daily storm brought on by the rainy season. This added to the fun, with torrents of water overwhelming the drains and making for precarious leaps in to the bus. The stop outside the Ibero was even more chaotic than my starting point in Polanco, with a steady stream of peseros lurching past, often with kids ordering us to board if we wanted to go to Tacubaya, as if the destination painted on the windshield wasn’t enough. More than once, a fellow exchange student coaxed me away from the stop to the neighboring bar, the inexplicably tagged The Big Yellow.

The constant traffic takes a toll on anyone, and harrowing incidents along the road were commonplace. A crash involving an orange truck scattered citrus all down Reforma, with stains visible for weeks afterward; another day, I witnessed the aftermath of an accident that probably ended the life of a roadside vendor. On one of the dark early mornings, the bus hit something very large; the driver got out, inspected, then kept us going on our way, nonplussed. During one rush hour the bus sideswiped a car, leading to a bickering match between the two drivers while traffic crawled on about us and half the passengers dismounted and hiked up the freeway to the next stop. It became all too clear why Mexicans with means all take weekends away from it all, and my family, with a place in superbly named Tequisquiapan, was no exception.

The smaller cities in Mexico’s colonial heartland can stand on their own as destinations, and proved fascinating cycles outward. This was especially true for someone who is both highly social and introverted, in need of both unbridled life and retreats into that other great Mexican theme, solitude. But make no mistake: they were only temporary respites. The aim of the trip was to sink as deeply as I could into the wonders, and the insanity, of Mexico City.

Next time: Touring the city.

A Midsummer Night’s Hockey Notes

29 Jul

We’re over halfway through the long, dark tunnel of summer without high school hockey, and there have even been some summer tournaments in recent weeks to give a faint glimmer of what’s to come. Still, there’s been no shortage of news of late, so it’s worth rounding some of it up here.

Coaches Come and Go

It hasn’t been a quiet summer on the coaching carousel. Two longtime coaches with 13 State Tournaments between them, Russ Welch at Hastings and Erik Setterholm at New Ulm, made their way to the exits. Welch’s nephew Adam takes over along the Mississippi, while the kings of 3A have gone with Ryan Neuman. Aaron Weber, long a polarizing figure at Lakeville South, gives way to newcomer A.J. Bucchino. Some familiar names came in to help teams return to glory or seek it for the first time: Grant Clafton at Greenway, Billy Hengen at Providence Academy, and Mark Parrish at Orono. (Maybe a big name here will placate the Orono parents in a way their last thirty-seven coaches failed to do.)

Scott Brokaw, an active figure in the offseason training world, moves from Providence Academy to Mounds View. In the theater of the bizarre, Matt Funk takes over at the head of rising St. Paul Academy after Bill Owens got the can in the middle of the playoffs, while Scott Steffen takes the place of Tom Benson, who was rewarded for taking Spring Lake Park to its first Tourney with a pink slip. St. Cloud Cathedral, a regular Class A contender, has a vacancy after Erik Johnson’s retirement. As I covered in an earlier post, John Rothstein left Grand Rapids, and well-regarded bantam coach Trent Klatt has taken the reins.

Exit Tyler Palmiscno

The biggest, and perhaps most unexpected, retirement came from Tyler Palmiscno, the coach of two-time defending Class A champion East Grand Forks. It was a prolific 7-year career for Palmiscno; he came along at the right time, as the Green Wave surged in talent and peaked in his three final years. But his growth over that time was very visible to anyone watching. They went in to the 2013 Tourney raw and survived a Rochester Lourdes comeback in the first round, and after skating fairly evenly with dynastic St. Thomas Academy early in their semifinal, a train wreck ensued. It was 11-0 by the time the carnage was over, and the Green Wave lost the third place game to Breck. Their coach struggled to find words to describe what had happened.

The Green Wave rolled back in with added power in 2014, and this time around, there were no Cadets in the way. A visibly more composed Palmiscno projected a low-key determination as his team marched to a clearly deserved title. And then, in 2015, they came into the Tourney with a team that clearly wasn’t the most talented, but was the most complete team. This is my style of hockey: they weren’t the perfect team, but they knew their strengths and weren’t afraid to flaunt them. Their performance against Mahtomedi was a message to Hermantown, and the rest of the state: the Hawks weren’t in some league of their own. “We wanted to turn it into a man’s game,” Palmiscno told the press after the win. The Green Wave had the swagger of champions, took the game to Hermantown, and had the composure to respond like coolly when things did fall apart in the final minute of the third period.

For now, it sounds like Palmiscno is content with his work and on to other things in life; one hopes there is no more to this story, and that his departure isn’t a rude shock to his program. And if I’m sad to see Palmiscno go, I can’t help but relish the possibility that Scott Oliver will climb back into the saddle. Oliver has a state championship ring from his days at the helm at Roseau, and these Green Wave teams bore his unmistakable mark. The talent pool is thinner than the past few years, but they still have a couple of top-end players, and should be right there with Thief River Falls in the hunt for an 8A title. If they can make it back to St. Paul, they know what to do once they’re there.

Elite League Rosters

The fall Elite League rosters came out last week. As usual, there’s room for some wrangling, especially when it comes to the younger players selected. Unlike some, I’m not one to deny underclassmen roster spots if they’re legitimately good enough to hang with the seniors, but one does hope that no seniors are being left without places to pay because they’ve been cut. Of more concern is the tendency of a handful of teams to dominate the list, and the fact that large portions of the state seem to get shut out; like it or not, this will lead to cries of nepotism.

The biggest surprise is Stillwater’s six players in the league, a figure that ties them for the most in the state. None of these Ponies are can’t-miss studs (pun intended), but it’s worth remembering that their bantam team was one of the two or three best in the state two years ago. There’s no reason that city can’t develop a front-line program, and it may finally be happening.

The others with six are Benilde, always near the top of this list no matter how the team does, and Hermantown, peaking in upper-class talent and a northern team. Team North draws from the smallest pool of players—it’s basically 7A and the four northern 7AA teams, plus the East Grand Forks kids who can’t play for Scott Oliver—so team numbers at the top schools will look inflated. It is here that the choosing of younger players can be most extreme: three of Grand Rapids’ five invitees were bantams last year. (Duluth East is an exception to that trend; all five Hounds are seniors, and I can’t remember a sophomore Hound participant despite some worthy contenders over the years.) When the number of schools is smaller (and alternatives more limited, thanks to geography), there are going to be some more odd figures—even though North has no trouble fielding a competitive team.

The Metro and southern part of the state, meanwhile, has six and a half AA sections and (ostensibly) four Class A sections feeding in to four teams. Given that tight competition, there’s going to be some extra scrutiny on the handful of younger kids who make it, and the lack of variety among the teams represented. I don’t watch the tryouts so I won’t judge if anyone else should be there, but the Elite League could do itself some favors by pulling out some of the people with the most blatant ties to high school programs.

As always, some of the omissions are the most striking, as they clue us into who is playing in the USHL during the fall. Whether they’ll stay there over the course of the season may be another story. No matter what, though, it looks like there will be significantly fewer early departures this season than in recent years. I’ll wait to judge that until we know if it’s a trend or a one-year blip, but it’s worth noting.

Pre-Pre-Preseason Ranking Talk

It’s never too early to get this going, is it?

A vague consensus seems to be forming around Eden Prairie as the top team in AA. Michael Graham (assuming he returns) and Casey Mittelstadt alone are enough to make them a factor, and with the program’s considerable depth, they’ll be well-supported. Add in the past success of Lee Smith’s Eagles when blessed with teams that clearly lead the way in raw talent, they’re the cautious favorites.

Still, this promises to be one of the more open years. Defending state champ Lakeville North returns a fair amount of firepower, but has to replace its heart and soul, that dominant blue line. They’ll be the favorite in 1AA, but it’s hardly the cakewalk it was the past two years. Speaking of cake, Edina is still Edina, but has to replace far more than usual; St. Thomas Academy is also in reload mode. Wayzata or Benilde-St. Margaret’s, if either one can fix long-running and obvious shortcomings at one end of the rink, could dethrone Edina in a retooled 6AA. In 2AA, Minnetonka pushed Eden Prairie to the brink last season, and Prior Lake’s steady rise could continue, too. I have some issues with the new sections, including the indefensible imbalances the MSHSL has left in the number of teams across sections and a couple of weird placements, but I do think the new 2AA and 6AA are more equitable than they were in the past.

Realignment has also given the Cadets the only serious threat to their primacy in a weak 3AA in the form of Bloomington Jefferson; the baby blue, freed of a road to State through Edina, may be relevant again now. Aforementioned Stillwater, and perhaps White Bear Lake, will give Hill-Murray a run in 4AA. 5AA, while lacking an elite team, should be competitive among the familiar faces, and Centennial’s future looks very bright. Up north, Grand Rapids, Duluth East, and Bemidji all return substantial chunks of teams that showed that they—at their best, at least—could hang with the state’s top squads. The well-balanced Hounds need to prove last year’s run wasn’t just a fluke, while the future is now for the Thunderhawks and the Lumberjacks. Both will have their deepest and most experienced teams in quite some time.

In Class A Hermantown remains the perpetual favorite; with a weaker bantam class feeding in they may not be as deep as this past year, but the front-end talent is all right there, and Wyatt Aamodt may be the best player in the class. Hibbing may be good enough to give them a decent run in 7A, but anything less than another title game appearance would be a disappointment in Hermantown. In the Metro, defending section champs Mahtomedi and Breck return good cores, though should have good competition. With their defending champions realigned, 1A and 5A are wide open, while Luverne will try to atone for last year’s slip-up in sections in 3A. The usual suspects will duke it out in 8A.

For my money, though, the best story in Class A this coming year will be St. Cloud Apollo. The Eagles, semifinalists a year ago, return a lot of talent, including three elite-leaguers. They should be the favorites in a competitive 6A. Their program is also fighting for its life. The youth players in St. Cloud aren’t being distributed equally, and Apollo could face a legitimate, unexpected numbers crisis as early as the 2016-2017 season. One hopes they get some exposure and the resources necessary to keep a good thing going on the west side of St. Cloud.

Hockey Day in Duluth

In an announcement sure to delight any Duluthian, Hockey Day in Minnesota will take place in Duluth this year, with a pair of high school games in Bayfront Park on February 6. Denfeld will play Eveleth-Gilbert in the early game before East takes on Lakeville North in a rematch of the AA state championship. The first game, if not as crisp as the one likely to follow, should be a competitive one for a pair of 7A teams with some good history to their names. The East-North game, meanwhile, could well be a top ten clash. No matter what happens, it probably can’t be worse than East’s last Hockey Day appearance, and it will be hard to beat the site. Let’s start the countdown.

Duluth Election Filing Deadline Notes, 2015

24 Jul

Hey, Duluth! It’s been a while. I see your filing deadline for this fall’s municipal elections has come and gone, so it’s time to see who’s looking to shape the city for the next four years.

Mayor

We’ll start at the top, which also looks to be the most predictable of all the races so far. Emily Larson has all the inevitability of Hillary Clinton and none of the baggage that makes Clinton unlikable, and it would be a shock not to see her as the next mayor of Duluth. One by one, the people who could have given Don Ness’s heir apparent a run declared their intent to stay out of the race, and the unfailingly positive Larson hasn’t missed a beat.

She does have seven opponents, though, and the field will need to be winnowed down in a September primary. The most intriguing is probably Chuck Horton, the boxing gym owner; agree or disagree with his nonpartisan populism, he has a very distinct take, and some articulate thoughts flowing on his website. The scourge of drugs seems to be the theme of his campaign, while Thomas Cooper also looks to be draw attention toward a clear cause, the plight of disabled Duluthians. John Socha, who ran in 2007 and aims to continue Ness’ policies, is also in the race. John Howard Evans, Robert Schieve, and James Mattson need to tell us a bit more about themselves. Last, there’s Howie Hanson, the Fourth District Councilor who has yo-yoed in and out of the race over the past year. Howie has kept a fairly low profile since re-entering the race, and his positions remain fairly cloudy. Still, he has enough name recognition that he might sneak through into the general election.

The real question in this race is whether someone can offer a genuine policy alternative that might convince others that Larson isn’t the only realistic option. I don’t see it happening, but one never knows. The good news is that the large field indicates some good civic life in Duluth, and even if they don’t win, some of the other candidates might shed some much-needed light on certain issues.

City Council

It’s a busy election year for the Council, with six of the nine seats up for grabs, including four of the five seats based on geographic districts. One of those, however, is not really a race: Second District Councilor Joel Sipress is unopposed, and will win himself a full four-year term after his two-year appointment to a vacancy. In the early going, it’s hard to separate many of the candidates; most say nice things about the Ness Administration, and suggest mild tweaks here and there. It goes to show how powerful Duluth’s political consensus has become

Two other races involve two candidates, meaning there’s no need for a primary. Gary Anderson will clash with former weatherman Karl Spring in the First District in a race to replace Jennifer Julsrud, whose retirement after one term took me by surprise. Spring has a recognizable name, but my only knowledge of his politics is a recollection of a global warming-denying rant a few years back; Anderson, meanwhile, appears the more likely heir to Julsrud’s left-leaning mantel. In the Third District, Em Westerlund and Barri Love will go at it to replace longtime Councilor Sharla Gardner. Both appear pretty progressive, and will have to differentiate themselves somehow in the coming months.

The most interesting race might be in the Fifth District, where two-term Councilor Jay Fosle faces three opponents in his re-election bid. Fosle has become a Council institution with his populist defenses of fiscal conservatism and some groups who normally don’t get much attention, but he’s also the most obvious target for the Duluth DFL. The DFL-endorsed candidate is Janet Kennedy, who is upbeat and has long been active in the community. It’s hard to find much on other two candidates, Allan Beaulier and Derrick Ellis; assuming it comes down to Fosle and Kennedy, it could be a compelling race.

The at-large field has four candidates fighting for two spots, so there won’t be a primary here. Elissa Hansen—disclaimer: briefly, a former colleague of mine—is an upbeat younger person who follows in the Ness-Larson mold, will likely ride to a spot on the Council. Two of the others are recognizable names. Jim Booth, a losing candidate for the County Board in the past, is the most conservative option of the four; Kriss Osbakken, meanwhile, ran on the Green Party ticket for House seat 7A last fall. The wild card here is Noah Hobbs, a young west-sider who’s very active in the community. One might say he’s looking to ride the Zack Filipovich formula of relentless campaigning energy to the Council.

School Board

Three of the ISD 709 seats are on the ballot this fall, and here, there is actually a race for control of the agenda. Three members of the five-person majority bloc that has called all the shots and tried to remove Art Johnston this past year are retiring, and the longtime minority senses an opportunity for a changing of the guard. Jane Hammerstrom Hoffman, David Kirby, and Charles Obije will require the only ISD 709 race primary to whittle the field down to two.

They’re probably least likely to make any inroads with the Second District seat currently held by Judy Seliga-Punyko. This district represents the wealthiest parts of Duluth, and the people most likely to shell out whatever funds necessary to give their kids a good education.

A real race to watch will take place in the Third District, where Nora Sandstad squares off against longtime Board critic Loren Martell. I’ve picked on Martell on here before, but of late he’s been increasingly coherent. Many of his concerns are genuine. The question is whether he can present himself as a visible champion of his cause, and shake off some of the baggage of his past involvement, which, right or wrong, is very real. Samstad, meanwhile, seems to be digging deep in her early investigations and asking all the right questions without taking sides yet. As a west side resident with young kids, she knows what’s at stake here.

The at-large race, meanwhile, involves some relative unknowns. Jim Unden, Renee Van Nett, and Alanna Oswald all have kids in west side schools, and have deep roots here. (This is Unden’s second run; his first was a mere 36 years ago.) Like Samstad, they seem frustrated with the pettiness of the current Board, know the problems the city faces, and are (for now, at least) trying to hold the high ground, with Oswald being the most pointed of the three so far. We’ll see how they distinguish themselves down the stretch, and will also require a primary.

The new board will include two more west-siders frustrated with the status quo, which could shake things up. Excepting Martell, however, it’s unclear if any of them would become immediate allies of Johnston and Harry Welty. They certainly should do a better job of listening to them than the current Board, but they would do well to stay above that squabble for as long as is humanly possible. It’s definitely time for an overhaul, but if it just turns into a fight for retribution or I-told-you-so or cleared names, who does that help? Not the students, that’s for sure.

Hey Kids, Instant Runoff Voting Is Back!

File this one under “oh no, not this again.” A year after the Duluth City Council made a hash of using instant runoff voting (IRV; also known as ranked choice voting, or RCV) and subsequently voted down a move to put it on the ballot in a laughably over-the-top hearing, a group of committed citizens have gathered enough signatures to get it on the ballot. With just 50 percent of the vote, it will come to pass in Duluth.

I’m not being very subtle here, but my reaction is informed by serious investigation, not just a gut reaction to Duluth’s stumbles with a system that works without all the drama in other places. I came into the 2014 debates neutral, but subsequently got an education from some UMD professors in the realities of IRV in practice. To date, IRV’s supporters have deployed a bunch of canards about “inclusion” and “diversity” and “democracy” and give some anecdotal evidence about its success. The evidence in support of IRV ends there. The cold, hard data reveals a system that only ends up entrenching two-party rule and leads to occasional costly debacles. Cities then wind up making incessant tweaks to their system or abandon the experiment altogether. There’s never any attempt to respond to the more nuanced critiques either, except perhaps with some character assassination. The cool kids in Minneapolis have lapped this up, so Duluth must now jump on the bandwagon, and if we fail, we are a retrogressive city that obviously doesn’t care about representation. Spare me.

IRV, if it comes to pass, probably won’t be a disaster. It just won’t change much, either. It is a waste of time and energy for activists who should direct their time and money to much greater issues afflicting Duluth and the country at large. Trying to fix American democracy with IRV is like trying to fix a sinking ocean liner with some duct tape. Look at the bigger picture.

That’s all for now; I’ll check back in as we approach the primaries and the general election, once we get a better idea of who a lot of these people are.

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