Et in Arcadia Ego

4 Feb

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

-Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

The purity of memory never lasts. Those happiest of moments become tinged by time, whether abruptly or by a slow and steady march. The markers of a carefree youth age away, and the impermanence of all things becomes all too real. Cause for defeat, for fear? No: an added sense of urgency, a realization that every little moment is precious. Reminders that we can build something real; even if it only lasts an instant, we can cherish it for a lifetime. We cannot control history, but we do have at least some control of the narrative that emerges from it. It takes time. But time, just as it can wear things down, brings wisdom, and renews itself in cycles that defy the linear logic we’ve imposed on it. Everything dies and nothing dies, and we are left with neither heaven nor hell but earth, where we belong; here, in all its absurd messiness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Mario Vargas Llosa in Winter

22 Jan

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We  are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

These words came to mind as I wrapped up Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest essays, Notes on the Death of Culture, in which he exercises his prerogative as a grumpy old man and complains about what has gone wrong in the world. His lament here is on the decline of high culture and its replacement by a sorry substitute of an anti-culture of the masses. He is unashamed to defend the old elites and use terms like ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ to draw distinctions between the good and the bad. His diagnosis has nuance, but it boils down to this: the democratization of culture has left us with incoherence, and no means of elevating truly great work above the rest of the noise. We live in a society of spectacle, in which the biggest, flashiest sights eclipse all work of any quality. In spite of our great advances in technology and political progress in many parts of the globe, the cacophony may drown out the narratives we need to sustain our societies and thereby jeopardize the entire project.

Vargas Llosa is a classical liberal figure, one that was never in vogue in his native Peru—alas, he lost the 1990 presidential election to eventual autocrat Alberto Fujimori—and his type has become increasingly endangered elsewhere, too. He’s unique among Latin American literary giants of the late twentieth century in his firm embrace of open markets and rejection of leftist revolution. He is also one of those intellectuals with tremendous respect for the religious and the societal role of faith who nonetheless does not identify with any place, perhaps revealing the weakness of his stance in the process: if faith is just some guarantor of social order and does not place any demands upon its adherents, why should anyone else buy in? He knows he takes a lonely stance, but also knows that people like him have long served as the curators of culture, and worries about what may come next.

This worldview leads the Peruvian Nobel Laureate to embrace some fairly standard positions that prioritize a secular political order and existing institutions, including critiques of Muslim headscarves and WikiLeaks. Regardless of his positions, this is hardly the most gripping part of the book; authors philosophizing are a dime a dozen, and Vargas Llosa is witty but never revolutionary. His work is stronger when he delves deeper into the trappings of faith and in a mediation on the death of eroticism (cue Rollo May), which are somewhat more transgressive themes. Here, he mounts a defense of ritual and the private sphere in an attempt to keep some sense of mystery and wonder alive in the world.

Vargas Llosa is at his best when he talks about the arts, and the value of the canon in which some of his finest works (Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goat) surely belong. The excerpted section that concludes Notes on the Death of Culutre made bolder leaps than his 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address that pondered some similar themes, but it does better drive home the thrust of his argument: that literature is particularly suited to inspire reflection, rebellion, and the pursuit of ideals, and does so in a way that newer technology cannot. Here we see the depth of his mind, and how he has taken many great works and used them in ways that again prove their greatness: by serving as windows into the soul, an inspiration toward human action in the service of a greater cause. This, he tells us, is how a curmudgeonly “dinosaur in difficult times” can still impart some wisdom.

Our intrepid author is otherwise short on advice for how to sustain culture; he even admits that the future does not concern him much. (This must be much easier when one is 79 than it is when one is 26.) This, perhaps, is what brought me back to MacIntyre today: the need to build communities (and I use that term loosely) that can preserve the best of this great cultural inheritance, even as we make our way in a modern world that often has no regard for it. We do this not to repeat the past or stay stuck in it, but to make sure we don’t lose touch with the more insightful things people have said in the past, and to ensure we stop and reflect on the broader narratives in which we situate our lives. I suppose I ought to get to work.

What’s “Wrong” with Duluth East?

11 Jan

A year ago, I wrote a post that tried to explain why a powerhouse program seemed to be struggling so much over the first half of a season. I had my theories then, and in retrospect, they look pretty good. Many of the details of that post, from the 6-7 record to the ugly upsets to the results against the same three opponents over the course of a week, could all apply to this season’s Duluth East team as well. This time, however, there wasn’t supposed to be an inexperience card to play: many of these players are veterans of last year’s Tournament run. Why, then, is this squad so seemingly mediocre, despite its talent?

First off, yes, this is life under a coach who uses the regular season to tinker in anticipation of playoff games. Mike Randolph is still playing around with different strategies and combinations of players to find what works best with the group he has. This is apparent to anyone who watched the Hounds spend most of the first two periods trapping against Grand Rapids before finally turning them loose in the third. This is a strategy East has used before with some success, and rests on a clever premise that allows the Hounds to frustrate talented opponents and then suddenly unleash their offensive talent when they have the mental edge. It very nearly pulled out the Rapids game, as East pulled out a third period comeback, but I think it also accorded a little too much respect to Rapids. It failed to attack them at their weakest, which is on defense in their own zone. It let Rapids dictate things for a little too long, and didn’t quite have the effect of winning the mental war that it can against teams that expect to win.

Randolph’s record speaks for itself, but there are risks in endless string-pulling and tinkering. It can backfire sometimes, and anyone who’s watched East hockey for long enough can point to games here or there and grumble about apparent micromanaging. I hinted at this last year, and think it’s more pronounced this year: the emphasis on systems at this point is probably holding the offense back some. Still, the only real recourse is to keep the faith. The man knows what he’s doing, and the worst thing that could happen to this team would be internal division, with players or parents whispering and pretending they know better. There’s no guarantee of success, but in recent years, Randolph has shown he knows how to adapt his teams to their strengths and get them where they need to be by late February.

Next, this team isn’t nearly as experienced as it may seem. Despite the apparent experience of last season, there are only three junior or senior forwards who played a regular shift last year, and with all of them on the top line, the “experience” on the lower lines is very young; Garrett Worth is the only one of them who really had a regular shift for most of last year. In addition, Randolph has tossed a few more sophomores and freshmen into the mix this year, most notably on defense; there will probably be more of that in coming weeks following the scary injury to Nathaniel Benson on Saturday. The youth movement is also something Randolph has done a number of times over the years, and often with some success, though it’s been less of a theme in this most recent run of Tournament teams.

East has no glaring weakness, but there’s also room for improvement everywhere. The top two lines are scoring some, but must up their output to meet their potential, and we’ll see how the Hounds handle the third and fourth lines down the stretch. Like last year, the defense has some talent and can control games fairly well (they’ve only been outshot once this year, by Eden Prairie), but like last year, they have to clean up the periodic lapses that leave them exposed in back. Kirk Meierhoff is the man is goal, and he’s been passable, but there’s certainly room for a little more.

Section losses have all but guaranteed they’ll play a team that’s at least something of an upset threat in the first round, just like last year. Nothing will come easy. The 7AA State Tournament entrant, however, will be one of three teams, and Elk River and Grand Rapids aren’t running away with anything yet. Rapids just played its most complete game against East since the 2011 section final, with some added (controlled) physicality and a Gavin Hain-reinforced blue line making a difference, but the Hounds still nearly won. Their meeting with Elk River awaits near the end of the season, but we all know the history there, and for all the Elks’ success so far, I’m not sure they have the star player that can break things open against an East system in the way that the teams beating East recently. Riley Tufte with Blaine, Mitchell Mattson with Rapids, and Casey Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie were all the primary protagonists in their wins, and raw talent is one of the best ways to overcome the integrity of an East system. Elk River might—might—have that in a healthy Jax Murray, but otherwise a game between these two will be a grind-it-out slugfest, and with the clock winding down and a State Tournament berth on the line, where would you put your money?

Finally, there’s one other, less tangible thing that last year’s team had that this one may or may not. Randolph lauded his 2014-2015 captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, in a way I’ve never heard him praise his players before. That kind of leadership is tough to replace, and this isn’t necessarily to indict the current captains, all of whom had some big moments in last year’s run.

Still, there is a risk here of complacency. A risk of “we’ve done it before, so we can do it again” becoming a crutch and a wish instead of cool confidence. A risk that comes with growing up barely knowing what it’s like to not make the State Tournament, and assuming it is one’s birthright. (These seniors were in 4th grade at the time of the David Brown Incident, which was the last time East lost in sections.) These kids are the kings of East after last year’s run, but a bunch of hungry teams are out there to take them down, and they’ll have to embrace that target and find that fire that spurred them along last year. They must keep working and denying losing, or the 7AA crown will find a new home.

Duluth’s Comings and Goings

5 Jan

I cycled through Duluth this past weekend, and while I couldn’t hang around long enough to attend all the inauguration festivities, yesterday marked the transition from one set of elected officials to another. Whether this means the start of a new era is probably an entirely different story, but for now, we can dream (or lament, or shrug indifferently, as we see fit). It’s been some time since I covered many of these people regularly, but I’ve been keeping up from afar, such as I can, and have a few final words. (Initial reactions to the election are here and here.)

The ISD 709 school board, my favorite hobbyhorse, saw some serious turnover, as all three incumbents retired. Nora Sandstad, David Kirby, and Alanna Oswald all enter the board sounding all the right notes about moving past the old divides, and now have a chance to prove it. Given the radio silence in recent debates and even on Harry Welty’s blog, it seems like there’s a cease fire in place for now. Whether this becomes a lasting peace is a different story, but I’m more optimistic than at any point in the past eight years.

As always, I’ll say a few words about the outgoing members. One, Judy Seliga-Punyko, leaves after two terms as the great champion of the Red Plan. She nursed it through countless political wars, left her own mark on it with advocacy for swimming pools, and led the internal effort to bring down Art Johnston. While that part of her legacy may be the most obvious, she also stood up and fought for any number of issues, and would at times demand answers from the administration. Even among those who always voted for her, none of the remaining board members quite have her combative spirit, so we’ll see if the tenor of board meetings changes in her absence.

Bill Westholm always voted with Seliga-Punyko, but was in many ways her polar opposite. He often stayed quiet through board meetings, playing his cards close to his chest and speaking out only when he could make an effective point. Given his gravitas, I’d wish we’d heard more from him. He retires after one term, which is no great surprise; he wasn’t exactly speeding around the board room by the end.

Mike Miernicki also voted in lockstep with the old board majority, but his legacy is also a rather different one. The jolly Miernicki was the activities director at Duluth East during my freshman year, and hovered around the school for the next three; he always seemed an agreeable man who’d do good work for the district. His time on the board, however, tested his limits. In more peaceful times he might have been a model board member, but conflict did not suit him, and he failed to hide his exasperation and general sense of defeat. (I’m still proud of the time I described him as “a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats,” which drew praise from all sides of the debate.) It was sad to watch.

My opinions are probably leaching through here, but I’ll wrap this up by thanking them all for their service and once again praying that the new board rise above the old wars.

On the city council side of things, there’s no need for caution in the optimism: people seem genuinely excited about the new wave of energy in Duluth politics, which looks to build off the last one. Two of the six people elected last fall are familiar faces; Jay Fosle returns for a third term, while Joel Sipress begins his first full one. Elissa Hansen and Noah Hobbs continue the youth movement among the at-large seats, and bring new but distinct brands of energy. Em Westerlund follows in much the same vein in the Third District, and there’s also something very distinctly Duluth about Gary Anderson, who takes over on the far east side.

Among the four retirees, council veteran Sharla Gardner leaves after a distinguished career of advocacy for the center of the city, though I doubt she’ll disappear from view. Even if we disagreed, I admired her integrity, particularly when she stood down a mob of angry Park Pointers and defended city staff. Jennifer Juslrud, whose decision not to run again still surprises me, was a strong voice for her district, and probably has a political future somewhere if she wants to get back in the game. Linda Krug brought a strong commitment to processes to the council, and also wasn’t afraid to fight or take controversial stands. While that did at times lead to a few dust-ups, one of which effectively cost her the council presidency, she was consistent and stuck to her guns, and had the wisdom to step down when pressured.

The final figure to mention here is Emily Larson, who now accedes to the throne. As the new mayor, she’s riding a tide of goodwill and a council that should be happy to work with her. Don Ness might be a tough act to follow, but he’s also left the house in much better shape than it was. Larson certainly is primed to carry forward that energy, but I doubt she’ll move in lockstep, so we’ll see what unique twists she brings. As long as she surrounds herself with smart people and keeps the fiscal house in order, there’s no reason to expect the positivity to fade.

As for Don Ness: well, damn. You took a city that time had left behind and made me believe in it again. As is always the case, we haven’t agreed on everything, and this more jaded soul couldn’t didn’t always share your persistent idealism. But I suppose that’s exactly what made you so easy to like for so many people, and what it took to turn the ship around. You’ve left quite the legacy, and I hope you continue to build on it in your career outside of formal politics. Also, “will your new non-consulting consulting firm be hiring?” asks the kid who finishes graduate school in May.

And, lest we thought we were done with local political intrigue for a little while, the Duluth congressional delegation is due for a shake-up. Roger Reinert, who sounds quite busy with a number of ventures in his personal life, will step down from the Minnesota Senate after six years this coming fall. Erik Simonson, the current state representative for District 7B, immediately announced his candidacy for the seat. Simonson is a strong DFL figure with working class cred, so he has the political clout to run away with this race; presuming he does, the real question becomes one of who will emerge in the now open west side house district. That one, on the other hand, could be a lot more interesting.

Good luck to all the newbies. I’ll try not to be too mean when I breeze in to offer my comments.

Midseason Musings 2016

4 Jan

The high school hockey season is around its midway point, and the next two months should offer their share of high drama. If you haven’t heard enough of my blather on the Cold Omaha podcast, here you have it in prose.

The field is almost always an unpredictable open brawl, but this 2016 takes it to the extreme. Of the four most regular Tournament entrants of the two-class era, none are presently favored to win their sections. Moorhead is buried behind Bemidji in 8AA, while Edina is in the running but has top-ranked Benilde in its section, and may have to deal with rival Wayzata in a semifinal as well. Hill-Murray is serviceable, and has the benefit of a pretty thin section, but will have to get past some Ponies. Duluth East, meanwhile, is attaining new levels of weirdness. (More on the Hounds next week, after they play some big games against Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie.) Still, an unranked Hounds team looked perfectly capable of beating #2 Blaine this past week, showing just how wide open things can be.

Part of the trouble comes from no team having a truly elite defense. The closest to having one is Benilde-St. Margaret’s, so that’s a big part of why they’ve beaten the odds to remain undefeated into January. Still, the margin for error is thin: with Connor Mayer out hurt during the Sports Authority Holiday Classic, they looked awfully beatable. Benilde has treated fans to some wildly entertaining games in St. Louis Park over the past month; maybe they know how to win, or maybe that just shows how thin their margin for error is. The Red Knights deserve their #1 ranking, but it also probably means less than any other #1 I’ve ever handed out.

Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite, has largely lived up to its billing. They were always a flawed favorite, so their two losses shouldn’t be any great shock. Casey Mittelstadt and Michael Graham are doing their usual thing, and the defense and rest of their top two lines do the job, but there are some rough spots around the margins. And as big as those two Eden Prairie stars are, they’ve been eclipsed by another so far: Blaine’s Riley Tufte is running away with the Mr. Hockey race with a monster start to the season. I don’t think a forward has ever carried an elite AA team as totally as Tufte is doing right now, but his wingmen are all able, smart players, and the Bengals have their formula down.

Elsewhere in AA, the teams jostle about: Holy Family’s fine puck possession game has them in the top five, while Lakeville North’s troubles in back drove them from it. Minnetonka is quietly rising through the ranks, and Stillwater could be dangerous if they ever played a serious opponent. With all of these teams, success seems possible on any given night. But nearly all of them are equally at risk of a tumble in the section semifinals. Wayzata can’t quite seem to decide if they want to be a front-line contender or a total train wreck, and could use some decisiveness as they make up their minds.

This was supposed to be a banner year for the northern AA schools, but most of them haven’t quite lived up to the billing. Bemidji lost to Cloquet in a battle of Lumberjacks, and isn’t winning with quite enough authority to leave me sold. Grand Rapids has had flashes with its wins over Edina and Minnetonka, but the familiar Rapids demons on the blue line still rear their heads from time to time. And then there is Duluth East, still trying to shake off a spate of questionable mid-December losses.

Class A northern teams, meanwhile, have a better story to tell. Hermantown is being its usual self; they may not be quite as deep as last year’s favorites, but the front-end talent is there. The only unbeaten and untied team in the state is Hibbing, led by the sublime Scott Perunovich; the Bluejackets should, at least, be able to give Hermantown a game. Greenway, too, is on its way back up, and gave Hibbing a good game. It’s been a dark year on the Iron Range, but there is newfound life in some of its most historic arenas. Even North Shore, the Silver Bay-Two Harbors co-op, has a gaudy record. And while they may not be elite teams, Thief River Falls and two-time defending state champ East Grand Forks should battle to the wire for the 8A crown.

Down the stretch, a lot of big games will come down to those old sports clichés about coaching and knowing how to win. In those cases, it’s not a bad idea to bet on the old favorites, even if they seem a bit down. Being conditioned and battle-tested will matter, and whoever wins it all isn’t going to do it by overwhelming the opposition, but by taking these games and gaining the confidence to pull out the tight ones, as Benilde has been doing so far. To that end, I’m wary of betting on anyone who has a weak schedule toward the end. Running it up on conference opponents just doesn’t quite cut it.

So, where do we go to find the teams who will emerge in March? Look to see who is battle-tested, and pulling out wins in tight games. Look to the play on the blue line; defense really does win championships. Watch to see who’s putting things together, and in a year when everyone is flawed, look to see whose issues look most correctable. Look to see which coaches are adjusting their systems to their talent, and which ones are beating the same old themes in desperate hope that it will work. Even in a year of parity, the cream will rise to the top.

Illusion and Reality in Uncertain Times

31 Dec

Farewell, 2015. For the most part, the world won’t be sad to see you go, though the future doesn’t necessarily look much clearer. It was a dark year in Europe, whose future hasn’t been this murky since the fall of the Berlin Wall, if not earlier. The West’s adventures in Middle Eastern Whack-a-Mole go on, with ISIS taking center stage. The American political slog, deathly long and devoid of substance, lurched along from one lurid development to the next. Extremist self-righteousness found a home on both sides of the spectrum, and those who hold the middle seem increasingly feeble and unfit for the challenges of these times. Grandstanding and rhetoric take precedence over hard work. The radicals often have good reasons to complain as they do, given how the chips seem to be falling. But no one is really in control, and giving power to fringe figures will only make make the narrative even more incoherent. As Ross Douthat said in his end-of-year column, never in my lifetime has it been more necessary to hedge one’s bets on the stability of liberal democracy and our current world order.

This isn’t news to anyone who reads this blog. Still, even though I’ve been hedging my bets for a good five years now, it’s an ongoing struggle to understand how that looks in practice. Whether this all comes to a head in a crisis or (more likely) just carries on in a banal, decadent muddle, it’s hard to feel terribly excited on a societal level, no matter one’s political orientation or personal beliefs. There are no easy answers, and we’re all in the same boat. Hell, even my favorite hockey team isn’t coming by wins as easily as it used to, though maybe Duluth East’s magical run through the 2015 playoffs is a lesson in how to respond to declinist hysteria: with knowledge of the past, supreme confidence in one’s own efforts, some flashes of artistry, and an overarching grand strategy that pushes the limits of conventional wisdom.

A lot of people will respond poorly to the seeming failures of our times. So, let’s apply our formula, using the wisdom gleaned from the end the Edina dynasty and the 2-3 forecheck.

First, we must learn from the past. There are plenty of examples of how to manage such times (or not manage them), from Athens to Rome to Chinese dynasties to Britain in the twentieth century. These help show us which battles are worth fighting, and when we might be delusional in our dreams. There is no shortage of exasperating aspects of the early twentieth century, and one must fight through all the clutter in search of the more fundamental things that truly matter. Considerations of history let us sort through it all and find the narratives that are most relevant to our current problems.

And make no mistake, the problems are myriad. Anyone who wants to do something about them must ensure that resistance avoids a bunker mentality, or a retreat motivated by fear. It’s not that I oppose the creation of private spaces where people can escape the worst predations of a world beyond a managed liberal consensus; on the contrary, they’re essential. But the manner in which we frame this push, and the language we use to describe it, make all the difference. This can’t come across as a retreat, or settling for what we have, or making do with risk reduction. To do so denies half of human nature, and will never catch on. Even in our cynicism and recognition of the frailty of so many human things, that hunger must still shine through.

Thankfully, there are outlets, and survival in a different sort of world requires creativity. It requires the arts, which can sometimes be far ahead of traditional thinking in how the future might unfold. Whether it’s Brave New World or Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, stories old and new prove instructive. They aren’t gospel, but they give us glimpses of possibilities, and force us to reckon with deeper questions and update old tropes for new eras. Out of this artistry will come the grand strategy, which remains a work in progress.

The way in which we confront this uncertain future will be what decides whether we succeed. This means taking ownership of efforts, appreciating what is good and beautiful, and being willing to take moral stands. This means seeing life as more than the pursuit of mere happiness, but giving it a greater trajectory. The goal isn’t one of contentment, but of leaving behind something that we can take pride in when the curtain comes down. This doesn’t mean neglecting the mundane goals in life; they, too, are essential for making it all hold together.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have some idea of the method. For a quote that gets at the gist of it, I’ll turn to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which should have won a best picture Oscar this year: “Maybe his world had vanished before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” With one caveat, that is: the line between illusion and reality can blur, and if one sustains something long enough. I tried to do that this year, pushing myself to new limits in taking on several billion tasks, and as the year comes to a close, I’m pleased with my work on nearly every front. There’s still plenty to do; some progress is tenuous, and there are still parts of life where I’m far from satisfied with my own efforts. But the anxiety bred by those failings is entirely healthy, and keeps me going. As it must.

As 2016 starts, let’s not have any illusions. I’m a year older, a year more jaded, and another year out from the glory days. And yet I’m more active than ever, better-connected than before, and as inspired to get things done as I’ve been in years. (My ego seems to be nice and healthy, too.) For inspiration, we’ll turn to Tennyson, who captures the sentiment of the oldest tale of navigating human nature between the worlds of beasts and gods, The Odyssey:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Memories on the Moraine

26 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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