Game of Groans

25 Jun

SPOILER ALERT I just completed a five-season Game of Thrones binge, a swift tour through Westeros that finally allowed me to reclaim some bougie pop culture cred (as if I’d ever aspired to a lot of it in the first place). I was late to the party because this is not really my favorite genre; I am not terribly compelled by armies of frozen zombie men (I’m a Minnesotan, I see enough of those already), smoky assassins that conveniently take out contenders for the throne, or franken-knights. But I’d heard enough praise to suggest it was more than some run-of-the-mill fantasy dreck, and while I wouldn’t call it a masterwork, it delivers more often than not.

Game of Thrones also generates its share of negative press for its gratuitous sex and gore, most of it justified. I’m hardly the morality police on this front, but it is so incessant that it quickly becomes banal. At a certain point, it stops making Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton seem more evil and just turns them into cartoonish villains, simplifying an otherwise complex drama. And does the show really aim to deaden the very idea of intimacy in its relentless sexposition, to suggest that love is the first victim of this Hobbesian world? Or is this just Fifty Shades of Grey for the fantasy crowd? The strength of many female characters also seems to belie their treatment as walking vaginas by the other half of Westerosi society. This all makes for an interesting statement on the state of American sexual voyeurism, but we’ll save that debate for another day. In the end, it leaves one oddly ambivalent: are we sure these people would really be worse off if they were all gored by the White Walkers?

Still, beneath the tiresome HBO trope is some serious human drama, as the show finds great strength in ambiguity. The characters are complex, and their motives believable. Here, I must admit that my favorite characters are not the Starks, the ostensible heroes of the series, but instead the Lannisters. Lena Headey was not always my favorite actress in the series, but she stole the show in season five, as the show traced Cersei’s arc of Greek tragedy. She wins nearly every battle she fights, but is slowly losing the war, failing the only three people who matter to her: her children. The first, a spoiled sadist, is dead, and her moves to protect the other two backfire: she sends Myrcella away before realizing the danger she faces in Dorne (ugh, Dorne), and Tommen is much too young, sweet, and innocent to rule over anyone besides Ser Pounce or claim any glory beyond his exploits under the covers with Margaery. Cersei’s walk of shame through the streets of King’s Landing was superbly executed, and she is a brilliant mess of a person; at once haughty and haunted, a careful schemer and a sorry pawn.

Cersei is hardly alone in excellent Lannister story arcs. Peter Dinklage’s slick performance has made Tyrion the star from the start as everyone’s favorite cynical and sharp-tongued dwarf. But I also fell for Tywin, the patriarch, so clearly the father of his three children. In his own way he is as duty-bound as Ned Stark, though he is much more utilitarian than his northern rival, and suffers no illusions beyond the ones beneath his very nose. While the show makes short work of its idealists, the realists aren’t much better off in the long run. The Lannisters’ undoing is not their cruelty or elitism, but instead their humanity: they see only what they want to see in their children and (in Tyrion’s case) their lovers. Even the coldest schemers have their sacred cows, and they all bring them down in the end.

If it weren’t clear that the political drama is the true fulcrum of Game of Thrones, the show offers obvious reminders, usually in lofty throne room speeches between Petyr Baelish, Varys, and various witty interlocutors. These scheming councilmembers and aides are master manipulators, and a potential Baelish-Varys showdown in the final fight for the throne would be one to relish. Baelish, so Machiavellian that he makes the Lannisters look like happy little Hodors, might be the most formidable character of them all; maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think Tommy Carcetti—err, Aiden Gillen—quite inspires much confidence. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to see an endgame in his lonely maneuvers.

Varys, meanwhile, has chosen the devil he does not know in Daenerys Targaryen, and with Tyrion in tow, perhaps he figures they can cover for her lack of governing skills. Conleth Hill and Dinklage radiate chemistry whenever they’re on screen together, and I’d be perfectly content to see them running the show in the end. I’m also a sucker for the journey of their new ally Jorah Mormont, the world-weary Lawrence of Essos given sudden religious purpose by his obsession with the woman he cannot have. While Daenerys’ claim to the throne still has its share of holes beyond the ability to birth dragons and some badass liberations, the cadre forming around her is enough bring me on board ahead of all the other pretenders. Now if we can just sign up Diana Rigg’s Oleanna Tyrell for the Targaryen restoration, I’m all in. Daenerys’ victories tend to be the show’s most dramatic pieces, though it’s hard to know if this reveals the true heroine, or if this is just Game of Thrones messing with us again. They’ve gotten into our heads.

The Starks, on the other hand, have always seemed out of their element in a world with all the schemers of King’s Landing. It helped that I knew to expect unexpected deaths when I started in, but Ned’s early demise was telegraphed all too clearly by his naïve nobility. The Robb character never developed enough for my liking, and Jon Snow, for all his screen time, mostly oozes toward becoming the father’s son we always thought he would be. Maisie Williams is superb as Arya in her haunted journey, and I appreciate the moral ambiguity of her story as she slowly turns herself into a vengeful killing machine, but that arc still feels a bit tangential to the central drama. Of all the deaths so far, the one that most disappointed me was Catelyn’s: at least she had some idea of how to play the game, albeit imperfectly, and for it became the most complex and interesting Stark. Sansa offers some hope on this front as well, presuming she has not joined up in the family tradition of shattering limbs upon falling from high places in Winterfell. (Otherwise, I’m afraid Hodor is going to need a bigger cart next season.)

Even if Jon Snow is a bit of a bore, his death would be irksome given how much we’ve invested in The Wall, and I immediately suspected it wasn’t permanent. There are too many loose ends in that storyline, and Melisandre, who has witnessed a man return from the dead and is clearly playing a longer game than the one Stannis offered, is still lurking about Castle Black. Melisandre has mostly annoyed me to date, but she now has a tantalizing role to play. Her mercy for Davos, the one redeeming character in the Stannis arc, still needs an explanation, too. So far, the different deities of Westeros have managed to coexist, but sooner or later things will come to a head, and the war among faiths and reason remains one of the more compelling plot lines left. One hopes there is no godly deus ex machina that will save the whole continent (don’t ruin it for us, Stark children), but I appreciate how the various faiths and magical acts are real enough in their power to seem plausible, while all incapable of capturing a total truth.

Beyond that, there are still a lot of choices left for the relative free agents of the story. Breanne of Tarth is clearly going to swing someone’s fate before she’s done, and she’s due for a reunion with Jaime Lannister at some point, too. Jaime has some big decisions to make now that he’s failed on his mission for Cersei; I’ve always gotten the sense that Jaime’s story should be a good one, but hasn’t quite been fleshed out well enough on screen. Gendry, who is by rights the heir to the Baratheon claim to the throne, is still rowing somewhere out in the east. Kevan Lannister has lived up to his brother’s standard in his occasional screen time, and I hope for more of him. (Is there any chance that Lancel’s conversion to fanaticism is just part of a tricky power play by that branch of the Lannister clan?)  I also want more Tyrells, who from most any objective standpoint are the most qualified noble family to do any ruling in Westeros. Someone get Margaery out of that damn jail cell and let her do her thing. I guess the Iron Islanders still exist out there somewhere, too.

I’m prepared to be disappointed by the rest of Game of Thrones. I fear long battles against the zombie snowmen and Franken-Mountain, and more inane Ramsay Bolton torture. I expect more Dorne; well, at least the set for the Water Garden is pretty. I pray Arya and Bran’s adventures with otherworldly powers don’t stumble away from that tricky balance of faith I praised earlier. There’s even the terrifying possibility that Stannis isn’t dead, since the cameras cut away before Breanne brought down her sword. The sexposition will, no doubt, trail on.

And yet I’m still hooked. I suppose that makes George R.R. Martin a greater schemer than all of his characters, the true winner of the Game of Thrones. He’s a world-builder of epic proportion, and he’s done a brilliant job of turning to real European history to enliven a genre that too often apes its handful of genuine talents. It makes for a bizarre fusion of fantasy and hardcore realism, which may be why the sexual aspect has proven so troublesome and gives birth to arguments about its seeming “realism.” (Sex is hard enough to depict in a sincere, fresh way in the present.) The waters are sufficiently muddy that nothing is easy to predict, and it’s transcended genre and become a fairly intelligent cultural touchstone in an age when such touchstones too often appeal to the lowest common denominator. I want to see if this show can pull it off, though even if the end result proves wanting, the reaction to the train wreck should be amusing enough to make it worth it.

Always

20 Jun

001

“oh life to live, life already lived,
time that comes back in a swell of sea,
time that recedes without turning its head,
the past is not past, it is still passing by,
flowing silently into the next vanishing moment”
― Octavio Paz, Piedra del sol

***

Seventeen years since those three short months, and yet those short measures of time do it no justice. Everything that came after is in your shadow. First, haunted; now, renewed in timeless joie de vivre. You are mine, and I am yours.

Happy 17th, bro.

Denfeld’s Missing Students

15 Jun

Less than ten years ago, Duluth embarked on a controversial school restructuring plan. I won’t rehash the bitter debate here, but the decision to close Duluth Central High did bring one promise with it: the new, two-school arrangement would help make sure that one Duluth public high school wouldn’t seem to dwarf the other, as Duluth East so often did to Central and Denfeld, both in terms of enrollment and in academic and athletic achievement. Yet here we are in 2015: Duluth East’s enrollment has been climbing steadily higher over the past half-decade, while Denfeld’s has sagged. East now clocks in around 1,500 students, while Denfeld can’t scrape up 900. How on earth did things get so lopsided? I dove into some census data to find out.

First, though, I should start with the things that the census can’t explain in full detail. The first is the poverty rate, which, while imperfect, tends to have very strong implications for how likely kids are to finish school. I calculate the poverty rates at 14.0 percent for East and 21.3 percent for Denfeld, respectively; that’s a pretty substantial difference. Moreover, I suspect the data over-reports actual poverty on the east side due to its large population of college students; for example, the poverty rate for the Hunter’s Park and Hartley areas, which I would have guessed are among the most well-off in the city, is actually over 15 percent, or nearly triple that of neighboring Woodland. Unity High School, the District’s alternative high school option, almost certainly draws in more west side kids, further driving down the numbers. Transience, which is not well-studied, also plays a huge role, with the constant disruption in students’ lives preventing lasting commitments to schools. Simply based on its demographics, Denfeld is going to end up with fewer students than East, even if the lines are drawn to give east and west side schools the same number of students.

Moving the Line

The boundaries, of course, are not even. The current line, which heads up 6th Avenue East and Kenwood Avenue, gives a majority of Duluth’s land area to Denfeld. Even so, East’s attendance area has about 1,000 more K-12-aged kids (6,900 versus 5,900) in the area it draws from. This hardly explains the whole difference, but it certainly explains some of it. As one west-side politician frustrated with the imbalance once told me, just move the line east!

If only it were that easy. When the Red Plan was put into place, 6th Avenue wasn’t the dividing line. It was noticeably further east, at 14th Avenue East, and having it in that rough area would effectively equalize the populations (6,394 in the East area versus 6,427 in Denfeld’s). However, some people quickly noted that 14th Avenue East was the old red-lining boundary in Duluth—that is, the line used to enforce a racial zoning code that prevented minorities from buying houses on the east side. Understandably squeamish about harkening back to that legacy, the District moved the line to 6th Avenue. The neighborhoods between those avenues are among Duluth’s poorest, with poverty rates all in excess of 30 percent; the 6th Avenue line made East more diverse and gave it a greater number of low-income students. While reverting back to a line somewhere in the mid-teen avenues would perhaps be the easiest fix for the enrollment disparity, it would only exacerbate the have-have not dynamic between East and Denfeld, lowering East’s poverty rate to 10.5 percent and raising Denfeld’s to 23.6 percent.

The only alternative line-drawing method to equalize populations would likely have to go north, reaching into Rice Lake Township and perhaps beyond. It’s a bit of a gerrymander that would make for some long bus rides or drives, but it would still make some geographic sense, and has the added benefit of pulling from a fairly wealthy township with a relatively large student population. But exactly for that reason, it might prove less politically possible: hell hath no fury like wealthy members of a township who are threatened with possible contact with other types of people, especially when it comes from the dictates of an urban bureaucracy. This is the planner’s paradox, as they aim for both equity and public participation, and often find that the two are at odds.

Bad Projections?

The school district might also have incorrectly predicted future population trends. In my digging, I stumbled across a very detailed mid-2000s population projection requested by then-Superintendent Julio Almanza. In typical ISD 709 fashion, it was a total mess: upon receiving it he chose not to share it with anyone because it was “confusing,” which understandably had the School Board feeling a bit insulted, and everyone was left in disagreement and nothing got done. (Some related press clippings are at the end of the PDF.) The researcher expects a loss of over 30 percent of the school-age population in East’s attendance area between 2000 and 2015, while the rest of the city loses maybe 10-15 percent. If this seems baffling, well, it should: my calculations show that Denfeld lost slightly more between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, with both hovering around an 18 percent drop. The narrative does flip some if we use the (somewhat less reliable) 2013 ACS data; East’s decline rate increases a tiny bit to 20 percent, while Denfeld suddenly adds a few potential students thanks to growth in Duluth Heights, and its 2000-2013 decline rate is only 15 percent. Still, one data point that breaks from longtime trends is hardly vindication, and with the reports of overcrowding in east side elementaries, I remain a skeptic that this uptick in the Heights will lead to a sizable shift in high school populations down the road. Whether or not the Keith Dixon administration employed these stats in the making of the Red Plan, they do not appear to be a reliable guide.

I’m not trashing the researchers; their methods are standard and solid, and they hit all the right caveats. The thing they can’t account for is human nature. This includes internal migration trends, and the extent to which the east side remains the home of Duluth cake while the west side retains a Rust Belt stigma. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in school choice, where people flock to the “good” schools and flee the “struggling” ones. The fate of one’s own children is often where the faith of some of the greatest believers in equity goes to die—and, to an extent, I can’t fault anyone for that.

The Weakness of Boundaries

Still, if this is why East is gaining students while Denfeld sheds them, it must be coming from people who physically move; the District’s internal open enrollment numbers show only a very modest net gain for East. Marshall doesn’t seem a likely culprit for imbalance either, given its hefty price tag more easily paid by east side families. Charter schools might explain some elementary disparities, but Harbor City is Duluth’s lone charter high, and it too draws from both sides. Of course, that will change when the new Edison behemoth opens up on Rice Lake Road, most likely furthering the disproportionate whacking of Denfeld’s numbers. If it can make its enrollment projections (and this is no guarantee), it may be as large as Denfeld once the dust has settled.

The real cause of the missing Denfeld students has to be open enrollment out of ISD 709 and into neighboring communities. The only readily available numbers are from 2010, which was probably the top year for bailing on Duluth amid Red Plan upheaval, but they are stark. (I suppose I could ask for newer data, but considering the District’s record on data sharing, I might get it by 2047 if I begged really nicely.) The biggest beneficiary of open enrollment is affluent Hermantown, which is at capacity and building its own new facilities to accommodate more Duluth transplants. They alone gained over 200 Duluthians (grades K-12) in 2010, many of them from Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where some homes are closer to the Hermantown schools than they are to Denfeld. But there’s also open enrollment into Proctor, which is well over half Denfeld’s size despite drawing from an area that has at best one-quarter the population. It goes into Esko, the wealthiest municipality in northern Minnesota (yes, you read that right). And into tiny Wrenshall, practically kept afloat by Duluth flight. There’s a steady drain out of the District and into these neighboring towns, and demographic analysis has serious limits in this era of free school movement. By their nature, open markets create winners and losers; in Duluth’s case, the loser is obvious, and it is up to each person to decide if the gains are worth the costs that will be borne by the losers.

The Red Plan’s Shadow

I suspect Duluth would have lost kids regardless, but it probably didn’t have to be this way, and this hints at what is, ultimately, the most enduring damage of the Red Plan saga. It’s not the price tag; without re-opening the debate over the various plans, Duluth needed a fix, and it wasn’t going to be cheap. That, along with the refusal to put the Red Plan on the ballot, has largely blown over, as the results of recent elections show. It’s not the architecture, much as we amateur critics may complain. It’s not quite the decision to sacrifice Central, that ugly and inefficient box on an isolating piece of prime real estate, though that’s getting closer to the truth. It’s not in an exacerbated east-west divide; East’s shadow over the other high schools has always been long, and moving its boundaries further into the Hillside actually made East more economically diverse than it had been.

The Red Plan’s greatest damage came in the disruption it caused for so many students, fostering just enough chaos to drive many from it for good. The vicious cycle goes from there. It was school restructuring as shock therapy, as it took the axe to neighborhood schools and gave Duluth a bunch of pretty, hulking shells with large attendance areas. (What better exemplar of the trend than the new Lincoln Park, which lords over the west side at the top of its steep hill, nearly inaccessible by foot and drawing from Kenwood to Fon du Lac.) In a laboratory the new lines and divides would have been fine, but the Dixon Administration and its allies failed to account for how their drastic plan would disrupt families’ incentives. The old order may not have been sustainable, but the rollout of the new one was poor, especially on the west side, where students were jostled from Denfeld to Central and back to Denfeld to accommodate construction. But even now that the dust has settled, East has added students in recent years, while Denfeld dwindles. The damage has been done.

Still, the Red Plan happened, and it’s done now. Readers of my past ISD 709 stuff will know that there’s nothing I hate more than continued belaboring of that old, stupid argument. Duluth needs to hope that the surge was temporary, and not the start of a snowball rolling down a west side ridge. But more than hope, it needs action. There have been baby steps, from some of the events at Lincoln Park to the intense focus on Laura MacArthur. Perhaps if more data were readily available, it would help us amateur students of ISD 709 and lift the perceived veil of secrecy deployed by the District. Ideas like exit interviews and further studies get tossed around at Board meetings in the rare moments that people behave like adults, but those moments are frustratingly rare, and usually buried behind ledes about the dumb things people are yelling at one another. I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of perpetuating that, and would love to see other people who cover the local education scene focus on what really matters instead of the ongoing personal battles. I’m also not sure that either of those would help; while exit interviews wouldn’t hurt, I don’t think the reasons behind departure are any great secret for anyone with their ears to the ground, and the District definitely shouldn’t waste money on consultants when a lazy grad student can bang out an analysis like this in a couple of days.

What Next?

Even if the recent uptick in school-aged kids on the west side is a blip on the radar, its long-term prospects are probably the best they’ve been in a quarter-century. Duluth is shaking off its long era of decline and stagnation, and with an active focus on west side development and some large chunks of undeveloped land, there’s good reason to suspect the school-age population on the west side will grow in the coming years. The question is, in an era of high-volume student movement that is unlikely to change, can the west side schools stem the flow outward into alternative destinations? A bit more leadership from the top would obviously help, and there are certainly opportunities to better connect with the opportunity and raise test scores. There are no excuses for the District not doing everything it can.

Still, there are only so many top-down things the District can do. Fundamentally, it comes down to parents believing in Denfeld and investing themselves in a school that, traditionally, has overcome demographic destiny and built a solid community. If that goes, the school will fail. This is hardly a brilliant policy prescription, but I have some faith in it, and I think it’s the only one that can counteract the existing incentives. The solution must come from within. Otherwise, the steady losses will continue, the vicious cycle will feed on itself, and those who have the means to get out will do so. It would be a loss for the west side, a loss for any sort of belief in public education, and one could only pity the kids left behind.

On Bad Architecture

10 Jun

A wise professor once told me to never trust architects. He was only half-joking. Architects do good work, of course; they’re visionaries who manage to translate vague ideas into the solid, real buildings that we use every day. I’ve met, and even studied under, some brilliant ones. (“Some of my best friends are architects!”) That said, the downsides of the profession are all too obvious. Studying architecture gives some people a certain sense of power and superiority, an inflated belief in the ability of buildings to change the world of people. They become religious crusaders for principles of design or exemplify some of the worst traits of those solipsistic modern artists for whom self-expression is the only thing on earth that matters. Seven attempts to defend awful architecture in a recent New York Times magazine piece show just how obnoxious they can be.

Alright, alright, they’re not all bad. The most compelling of the seven is the response to the Tour Montparnasse: yes, it is a bad design, but it was also the only hope for keeping central Paris from becoming anything but a living museum. Haussmann’s city, all uniformly dated and with little variety in the housing stock, does not have the density necessary to make it affordable. The middle classes and poor have been priced out of the city center, leaving it as a playground for the rich and a realm for tourists to wander, but otherwise dead. The reviewer of the Empire State Plaza also has some decent ideas for doing something with an otherwise awful space. Beyond that, sadly, no one really takes a human element into account beyond a facile ideological treatment. It also shows the importance of getting the design right, or else the hope of the affordable city will be dead upon arrival. Washington D.C., take note.

But then we come to things like the defense of the Centre Pompidou, which more or less boils down to saying that, for something to be “democratic,” it must be “shocking”, which is a code word for “ugly.” We’ve had a stable democracy for a few centuries now, so why on earth should a “democratic” building be shocking? Democracy implies public participation, not some conceited architect marching in and imposing a design on the unsuspecting populace. The result is incoherent: it’s democratic but imposed, shocking in the name of a form of government that aims to make politics boring by channeling it through institutions and equal rights. If this is the sort of architecture we must suffer if we want to be democratic, then long live the aristocracy. At least they have standards.

Wedging humans into soulless concrete silos or shocking them repeatedly, it turns out, does not make them very happy. Most people have little appreciation for the vagaries of modern design unless they have practical implications, but unlike modern art, which can be consigned to forgotten corners of museums when it is bad, bad architecture gets imposed on everyone. And yet architects continue to spew vomit about the importance of ‘liberation’ in their creations, as if this were the highest ideal. I don’t want a building I am in to liberate me; in fact, I’d rather it keep me safe from liberation. And when buildings are designed to “reject” neighborhoods, no one should be surprised when the neighborhoods reject them in turn. People and places all must weave their way into an urban fabric, and this requires subtlety and creativity, not tiresome double-speak employing a bevy of buzzwords to make an idea sound like it’s on some cutting edge.

This is where architects will claim to be misunderstood, and nod toward the ideals they aim to uphold. See the defense of the Vele di Scampia and the utopian socialist-modernist thinking behind it, in which Ada Tolla informs us that the architecture is actually brilliant, but it was everything that came afterward that turned it into the setting for the Neapolitan version of “The Wire.” This is all rather fitting, since it sounds like the argument made by many socialists after their project went all wrong: the idea was perfect, but all those stupid humans being human got in the way. Realities of human nature have never been a very important point for idealists of any stripe. If we’re sympathetic, we might be able to view Le Vele as a cute experiment and lament the poor implementation, but it was all in vain if no one bothered to learn anything from its categorical failure.

Tolla at least recognizes this, and is right to note that simple demolition isn’t necessarily the answer. My old professor learned this first hand, as he once played a role in a Minneapolis scheme to demolish crowded, drab public housing units. The architects came in touting the transformative power of New Urbanism and built a bunch of pretty houses that improved no one’s lives and left the city with far fewer housing units than they had to begin with. The designs have changed, but the rhetoric remains the same, as does the end result. Witness a map of how poverty has bloomed outward in Chicago since the destruction of its hellish projects, or how the misery of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe has been replaced by the sad drama of Ferguson. The buildings may have exacerbated problems, but they were never the root cause, and anyone who treats them as such is in for a rude surprise.

Throwing aside the ideology, there is one other claim that appears several times in the Times piece: hey, at least it’s big and impressive! (One wonders if architects need a certain blue pill in their lives.) This isn’t to say monumentality and austerity can’t be impressive in a modern building. Consider the austerity of the Vietnam Memorial, or perhaps the empty room overlooking Boston Harbor at the end of the John F. Kennedy presidential library; the massive new Freedom Tower, a symbol of defiance, also comes to mind. What all those spaces share, however, is a sense of history; the monumentality and austerity conveys something specific to that particular space, and it is usually a sense of loss. Something haunts these spaces, and fills the emptiness with meaning. Without that meaning, monumental architecture is bleak and sterile. The defense of the Berlin Airport makes some sense in this context, whereas the Empire State Plaza recognizes no great part of history other than Nelson Rockefeller’s ego.

This isn’t a rejection of grand or monumental things. Grandness inspires and serves as a rallying point for cities and nations. But it should be worthy of the name: if everything aspires to grandeur, does anything at all manage to be grand? Aspiring to grandeur creates a natural hierarchy of places, and the ones that claim the top spot must truly be special. Make no mistake, we need these places to orient ourselves, and they can and should inspire. Of late, some revisionist historians have started to look back on Robert Moses with some sympathy: sure, he steamrolled over a ton of people as he ran the show in mid-century New York City, but at least big things actually got done. Certain problems require big thinking, particularly in third-world countries where population growth is so explosive that a lot of people need housing very quickly.

Grandeur and monumentalism don’t imply a lack of interest in detail and intricacy. Consider the precision of the beauty of European cathedrals or Islamic mosques, full of niches or corners where every little detail is ornamented in some way. Contemporary architects such as César Pelli usually mind the details and make sure their buildings’ nods to the past aren’t stupid artistic abstractions. Their work shows genuine care and attention, and they go beyond simply slapping up blank walls that try to speak for themselves. Walls need to have seen things to be able to speak, and no architect can manufacture history or community.

Those must emerge themselves, often slowly, and over time. Frustrating, perhaps, to those whose egos compel them to go forth and shock the world. And we urban planners probably shouldn’t throw stones, considering our own checkered past. No one has all the answers. This calls for debate, not ideology, and a careful understanding: who are we building this for, and why are we building it anyway? Anyone who aspires to build things for other people ought to have an answer.

Barcelona, Triumphant

6 Jun

Barcelona are champions of Europe for the fourth time in ten seasons, and the first since 2011; by Messi Era Blaugrana standards, a long three-year gap is at an end. Barça has run through its share of adversity in recent years—four coaches in four years, one of whom passed away—and got off to a slow start this season. Adrift in La Liga and struggling with a drop in form from top players, it seemed as if Luis Enrique might last just one season, too. Instead, the squad evolved, and it turned out there was a method to his madness after all. Barcelona becomes the first team to win more than one treble, slipping past Real Madrid in La Liga and undressing Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey before slamming the door against Juventus in the Champions League final.

As the squad aged and its midfielders—the heart and soul of the great tiki-taka run of Barcelona and Spanish football from 2008-2012—lost a step, the team’s once rhythmic passing devolved into inane, slow cycles around the back. The parked bus proved too much for the beautiful game, and Luis Enrique finally produced the answer. Suddenly there was a new weapon in the arsenal, a vicious counter-attacking force that created the highest-scoring front line of all time. When other teams began to take control in possession, as Bayern Munich did in the opening leg of the Champions League semifinal, the front three blew them open and turned tense games into laughers. Neymar took a step forward as a goal-scoring star, and Luis Suárez slid in seamlessly to a selfless squad guided by a timeless ethic of unity. But in case there was ever any doubt, the star of the show was Lionel Messi, who bounced back from an injury-plagued 2014 to revive his bid for “greatest of all time.” The world media long ago ran out of superlatives to describe his performance (Ray Hudson’s “magisterial” remains my favorite), but two of his goals in the past two months, his humiliation of the vaunted Bayern backline and casual slalom through all of Bilbao, are on the level of any he’s ever scored. With those three in form, Barcelona had the world at its heels.

Still, it was an evolution, not a revolution. Barcelona’s opening goal in the Champions League final, a statement just three minutes in, was a nod to that old midfield precision. Andrés Iniesta, rising to the occasion to be man of the match yet again in a final, picked the perfect pass to Ivan Rakitic to set the standard. Barça looked ready to run Juventus off the pitch in the early stages, but the veteran Italians slowly settled in, began to assert their own deep midfield, and finally broke through in the fifty-fifth minute, courtesy Real Madrid slayer Álvaro Morata.

The second half was a rollicking, back-and-forth affair, with Juventus finding some possession and Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian icon in goal still seeking his first Champions League title, making several key saves. But for every surge forward, Barça had a terrifying odd-man counter, and as he is want to do, Messi finally picked the lock and set up Suárez. The enigmatic Suárez was a model citizen in his first season in blue and red, keeping his teeth to himself and letting those relentless legs make the necessary incisions.

When it came time to lock things down, though, it was once again the midfield that made the difference. On came Xavi for one final time, the most decorated player in Spanish history replacing his best friend Iniesta to captain the squad across the finish line. The fulcrum of these Barcelona and Spanish national teams still has it, even at 35. Their versatility on display, the Blaugrana settled things down, defended with confidence, and turned the three-headed monster loose one last time. Neymar lasered home the exclamation point at the end of stoppage time, then kicked off the celebration as only a Brazilian can.

The Barcelona defense shouldn’t be lost in all the praise of the attackers. First Gerard Piqué, and then Dani Alves, rediscovered their past form and once again created an elite back line. Set pieces, so long a worry in Barcelona, finally became a strength, even with Javier Mascherano, the diminutive tackling machine, on the pitch at Piqué’s side at center back. Jordi Alba remains a rock on the left side, and Barça added Jeremy Mathieu to the mix to give themselves an adequate substitute defender. The firm back line excused occasional shakiness from keeper Marc-André ter Stegen in his rookie Barcelona campaign, with the odd couple in the middle in total world-class form.

It was an emphatic return to the pinnacle of world soccer for Barcelona, as they took down the defending champions of every major European footballing nation in their run to the title. Many fought bravely, none more so than the Vecchia Signora, but they were all outclassed. True, the road to the final didn’t go through Real Madrid, but the Galácticos are embroiled in their own bit of turmoil, left without any trophies and a very grumpy fan base and president, which sacked poor Carlo Ancelotti just a year after they took home the Champions League title. Real has just one league title and one Champions League in the past seven years, and the impatience and impulsive buys have brought the Blancos down a notch. Barcelona reigns supreme, and while they will miss Xavi’s steadying presence and may lose Dani Alves, the rest of the core will be back with a vengeance. It will be tough to bet against Messi, Suárez, and Neymar in the near future.

While the Catalans who made the trek to Berlin once again reminded the world that Barcelona is “mes que un club” with their pregame mosaic, the squad’s exceptionalism has taken some hits over the past couple of years. Of course, they still look honorable next to the petulance and free spending of Real Madrid, Paris-St. Germain, and Chelsea, but that’s not a very high bar there, and there are cracks in the walls. The shady finances of the Neymar deal and the one-year transfer ban show a slide to the dark side by the outgoing Barça board, and their once-unsullied kits now advertise the airline of some Middle Eastern despots instead of UNICEF. The Barcelona B team, often good enough to be promoted to La Liga if the senior team weren’t already there, had a horrid year and was relegated to the third division, despite its bevy of attacking talent. And while half the starting squad is still La Masia born and bred, there’s no doubt that it was not the youth team, but instead the monster signings of Neymar and Suárez, that pushed them back to supremacy. Purity is impossible in modern sports, and there is still much to be proud of in this club, but its thousands of owners must remain vigilant, and ensure Barcelona does not sell its soul. The aftermath of the upcoming club elections will prove an interesting bellwether.

For now, however, the party is on in Barcelona. The enduring image of 2015, after the highlight reel of Messi wonder goals and mesmerizing passing out of their midfield and front three, will be of Xavi and Luis Enrique striding off the pitch together, arm-in-arm as they belt out the Cant del Barça one last time. Visca Barça, Visca Catalunya.

Reverie by Rail

31 May

I took my first Amtrak adventure when I was fourteen, a largely miserable affair that should have led me to swear off trains for all eternity. My mother and I went west to visit some family friends who had decided to give themselves a little culture shock by moving from Madison, Wisconsin to Ogden, Utah. We made a national tour out of it, from Minneapolis to Chicago to Salt Lake, and then on out to Sacramento and up the West Coast before heading back to Minnesota. It included obnoxious people, five near-sleepless nights, and a newfound hatred for freight trains. And yet, in spite of it all, it won a convert.

The first leg was a fairly quick jaunt from Minneapolis down to Chicago, though even that start was inauspicious, with the train rolling in a few hours late to the dismal station in St. Paul, one that has thankfully been put to rest since. The route follows the Mississippi and visits Wisconsin Dells, and there are docents on board to enlighten riders in the glass-encased observation car. It went smoothly enough, and after a night with relatives in Chicago, we were ready for the westward leg of our adventure.

The next day we set out on the California Zephyr, plowing across the prairie and readying for our first night on the rails. Unenthused by my seat, I tried to relax and sleep in the observation car, a window-filled car where one can stretch out across several chairs in a feeble imitation of a bed. That night is etched in my mind thanks to a loud teenage girl holding a deep, meaningful cell phone conversation with some distant friend. “Hello? What? Hello? What?” she bellowed for several hours on end, desperately seeking service as we wove across Iowa and Nebraska.

I woke the next morning in the gloom of eastern Colorado, a desolate stretch of factory farms and cattle ranches. There was a chance to get out and wander a bit in Denver, where the sun poured down through a high-ceilinged station. The train then began its steady meander into the Rockies, and before long, it snaked in and out of tunnels and clung to the side of the Colorado River gorge, us and I-70 and the moon-happy river rafters all flowing along. I ate the best peach I’ve ever had in Grand Junction, Colorado, and in time we were closing in on the State of Deseret. We spent a week in the Beehive State, climbing mountains east of Ogden and venturing down to do some August desert hikes in Capitol Reef National Park.

The adventure really got going on the way west from Salt Lake. We’d planned to meet some friends from the Bay Area in Sacramento when the train arrived in the early afternoon, but the freight train-induced delays began somewhere in the dusty wastes of Nevada. We sat on the tracks in the town of Sparks for eons, but that did little to prepare us for an endless wait atop the Donner Pass just across the California border. To be fair, it was a beautiful spot to get stuck, but as the delays mounted and the obnoxious guy further down the car got progressively more drunk, I began to find a little sympathy for the Donner Party and their decision to sink their teeth into the more useless members of their party.

We finally came to Sacramento just before midnight, over nine hours past the scheduled arrival time, and with just forty-five minutes to make our connection north to Portland. But no, it couldn’t be that easy: there had been a tunnel fire somewhere up the route, and the train wouldn’t be going through. My mother said some words I’d never heard her say before, and we were bundled on to a bus headed for Eugene, Oregon. It was a miserable ride made even more miserable by the need to stop in all the small towns along the Amtrak route north into Oregon, many of which are not along a convenient major highway. Still, it was a sight to awake from my fitful night’s sleep to Mount Shasta looming over us in the morning sunlight, and the coach rolled on through Klamath Falls and past Crater Lake through the endless forests, and once we finally got back on the train to Portland, I managed to catch a Yankees-Mariners game on a travel radio. (Remember those things?)

The last leg of the trip, on the Empire Builder back to St. Paul, was a blur; I have only vague memories of the Columbia River gorge, Glacier, and Havre, Montana. We mercifully slept through North Dakota before bringing our odyssey to an end. One would think I would have learned my lesson after that one. Yet as time passed the absurdity of the story became an object of laughs rather than misery, and when I was going to school in DC, an idea wormed its way into my head:  Amtrak is the perfect way to cart a lot of cargo across the country without a car or excessive airplane baggage fees, isn’t it?

That bright idea would take a little fine-tuning, as my freshman year roommate can attest. At the end of the year, I was somehow compelled to try to pack my entire life into two monstrously heavy boxes for the ride back to Minneapolis. The terrified taxi driver helped me get them out of the trunk, but the Union Station porters refused to even touch them, so I somehow managed to heft the two of them—well over two hundred pounds in total—on to a decidedly inadequate cart and get them to the counter, where a sympathetic ticket agent waited patiently through one of the less dignified moments of my life, full of sweat and panic and miserable pleas. My two large boxes, battered by their adventure from one end of Union Station to the other and hopelessly over the weight limit, were summarily broken down into ten Amtrak baggage boxes. I spent another unexpected night in DC and went out on the train the next day.

Years later, I’m still using those same Amtrak boxes to cart my junk around when I move. And once I got it down, the train ride between DC and Minneapolis became a delight. Amtrak’s schedulers wisely time sleep for the Indiana and Ohio bits of the trip. Head east, and one wakes to the mists of the Ohio River and the steel mills of Pittsburgh; head west, and the lights of the Steel City are the last thing one sees before nodding off. The Maryland-West Virginia leg is especially pretty as one heads west, snaking along the Potomac and through historic Harpers Ferry before coming to picturesque Cumberland, Maryland for sunset. The western route always dumped me in Chicago early in the morning, and sometimes I’d meet up with family or old friends during my layover; other times, I’d just wander the canyons between the skyscrapers, maybe foray down to Buckingham Fountain, and, in one memorable instance, pass out on a stone bench in a garden next to the Art Institute. One other memorable journey had me on an alternate route out east that wound through the hills of West Virginia, a frighteningly slow race between the train and Hurricane Irene to DC. My boxes and I all made it ahead of the storm, and my roommate had some hurricanes and dark-and-stormys waiting for me as we bunkered down at the start of my senior year.

Amtrak’s greatest romance comes in its people, who all come together in a place where time matters little. We’re all stuck together, we have nowhere to be, and talk flows freely. Yes, there’s the occasional clod, but they’re cause for commiseration for the rest of us, free to roll our eyes and laugh at the shrieking self-righteous homeschooler or the Mexicans who fail to understand that the coach is meant for sleeping after midnight. I paid the price for the dining car dinner once every trip, and it never disappointed. My best seatmates were a British couple on holiday in the U.S., and we talked for hours on matters great and small as we climbed into the Appalachians. There was also the personal trainer for former New York Giant and Philadelphia Eagle Steve Smith, who rearranged his medicine balls to let me into a seat and joined me in watching some old Duluth East hockey DVDs, marveling at the spectacle.

The observation car brings out even more conversation. I once sat with a Canadian guy on a month-long train journey with his son, and a couple traveling back along routes they’d visited as kids, with vague memories of the parks along the way. One lady shared her love for Jane Jacobs, and an eccentric grandmother gushed about some flower festival that I—the horror!—had never heard of. There are often Amish, using the lone long-distance form of travel available to them, always showing a delicate mix of reserve and curiosity when confronted by us moderns. I had a number of drinks bought for me—a debt I’ll have to pay forward someday—and whiled away many nights with people I’d never seen before and will never see again before settling in my seat, scrawling a few meditative lines in a notebook (interspersed with stream-of-consciousness curses directed at anyone in the car who wouldn’t shut up) before the train’s steady rumble lulled me to sleep. For days after each ride, I feel that gentle rocking when I settle in to bed at night.

It was only fitting that Georgetown’s senior ball took place at Union Station, giving us a chance to waltz about its grandiose halls, dressed in the opulent costumes its riders might have worn in a bygone era. Or maybe it was all just a dream after all? A few days later I was on the train home one last time, slamming beers with a jolly man from South Bend and penning one last reverie by rail. Amtrak has its share of ills, as recent crashes and funding crises show all too well. But its allure lingers, that escape from time into a shared journey past so many of this country’s marvels, and the timelessness should keep the dream going for years to come. Anyone else ready to climb aboard?

Beyond Understanding

28 May

“I don’t try to change the world. I just try to understand it,” a sage Georgetown professor once told me. It was the credo of a true intellectual, and an important grounding mechanism for a man whose life story was intimately tied up in his area of scholarship. He knew that no good could come of his meddling in certain affairs, and settled for digging into all the details from a safe distance, learning all he could, perhaps influencing a few thoughts here or there, ever a critic of all involved.

My professor wasn’t overtly seeking converts, but his words certainly stuck. It’s a simple summation for anyone jaded by good intentions gone awry and the seeming relativity of all truths. What good is change when our idea of what is good is too thin to offer a real reason to pursue it? His scholarly detachment allowed him to speak lucidly on anyone and anything in a way no one else could.  The thirst for knowledge burned within, and he dedicated his life to seeking it.

Truly believing this requires an awesome distance, a detachment that lets one view all through a cool eye from on high, even as it might affect one’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean a faith in reason, either; the more mature seekers of understanding are aware that they may never get there, no matter how hard they try. It puts the pursuit of knowledge above the self, which tames the ego some and provides a sort of guiding light, dim as it may sometimes be.

It seems a sensible ethos for a postmodern age, one that frees one of any commitment to anything other than the truth. It frees the seeker to attain some authority on subjects that are often fraught with harsh battle lines. It leads a certain Zen, as one makes peace with things as they are and soldiers along down a lonely but noble road. It can also free one to have some fun: sigh with disappointment when things go wrong, but head home at the end of the day and forget it all. Drop the earnestness and the world becomes a plaything, ripe for exploration and delight.

A road worth taking? Perhaps. It would be an honorable life, and some great good may come of it. After a while it comes easily, and it provides peace in its retreat from the arena of battle. A safe place to carve out a little haven for oneself and may a few others as the other ideals out there go on buffeting one another.

Or perhaps there’s another step that follows. One that draws on the lessons of that detachment, and uses them to some further end. Sometimes that distance may not really be cold aloofness or naïveté, but instead extreme caution and skepticism, a determination to get it right. Not a righteousness of hubris, perhaps, but a supreme confidence nonetheless, and belief in something higher. Maybe that ideal will never come, but maybe it’s a chance worth taking, rather than making do. The fire to find it lies within, perhaps long suppressed, never given a chance to show its true self, troubled as it is. Ambition and anxiety remain intertwined, inseparable, and so long as they are present, mere contentment with retreat will never quite be enough. And roots, no matter how gnarled, never go away: complete detachment is an impossibility.

And so one may go along; at best a blasé, judging scholar, and at worst a meek nobody who observes but never offers a word. It is a mask. What lies beneath is not really the ‘true self’—all sides of a person are manifestations of their true, very complicated selves—but there is more there. Beneath is not a person who seeks to change the world, nor one who seeks to understand it. No, that person seeks to embrace it as it is, to do all the above and so much more; to leave a mark, in some little way. The means will come out in the details. The path, however, could not be clearer. The cycle goes on.

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