Driftless II

19 Oct

Devil’s Lake and Parfrey’s Glen, Wisconsin, where cynicism turns to goo. The park beckons all in with brilliant golden gates, carpets and walls and ceilings of maple leaves all at their peak, another layer fluttering to the ground in the October sun, all aglow. Up into the glen, where the icy waters guard the sanctity of the rock walls, force me to hop from rock to rock as I pick my way back through the gorge. The detritus of the ages, all on display; the trees far above whisper with a breeze that does not reach down into this damp, cool gash in the earth. Deeper into the caverns of memory, calling up some old spirit tucked away amid the knotted roots of a mind. A fall at the end and it’s all over, or perhaps it is merely the beginning.

Into the park proper, its bluffs orange and red and brilliant in repose. Stand atop a ridge: I’ve been here before. A different time, but the view is the same, and the company ever so familiar. The rim revisited, this time with easy stone steps up and down, through scattered pines and back to an oak grove dotted by grottoes and glimmers of the lake beyond. Its waters are deep, its history well-kept. The story of all truths.

It would be easy to be maudlin, to lament paradise lost here at the Devil’s Lake. The narrative of tragedy is there for the taking, the vivid romantic mind tricked by plays of light among the leaves. Things seemed pure here once, and those who seek it can bring that back for a fleeting instant, take that energy as foundation for faith in something else. But after that glimpse, it lingers; all is in its shadow. It looms through a setting sun in this season of setting suns, a long descent into night that keeps the orange tree tops aglow, the embers of their blaze still catching the erratics and cranberry bogs on the road back north. I drift away. I no longer fear that journey, but it is not my time to take it.

No, I’m still here. This driftless land reminds me of all I cannot see, even if it is all in my head.  In the end, though, I am left with what I have, all in stark relief. The leaves all fall but the cycle goes on, and all dreams come to an end, back to reality, where we belong. To call it a tragedy would admit defeat. I cannot freeze time. The glacier is doomed to retreat, and in its stead lies great beauty, great opportunity; something I can share now, pass along to anyone else who might be eager to see it. Those moments of drift, that embrace of reality, twinned in a burst of life. Delight and reflection, past and future, all affirmed. What next?

(Driftless I)

Exit Don Ness (Eventually, and For Now…)

15 Oct

Don Ness will not seek a third term as mayor of Duluth. This is old news by now, but, then, I’m not here to break news; I’m just here to comment on it. He spilled out his thoughts in a Facebook post yesterday, conceding that it’s time to move on. In usual Ness fashion it’s a bit long and earnest, but the sincerity is clear. It’s a bit silly to write a political obituary for a man who still has over a year in office, but there are a few things I want to say about the announcement.

At first blush, I do think he concedes too much to “critics,” which are relatively few and far between. Ness is possessed by a sincere desire to please everyone, and while he knows on a certain level that no one can do this, it still bothers when he encounters negativity. I don’t really blame him; I know that feeling well myself. He is so dead-certain that he is doing the right thing, and so honest in his attempts to reach out and do so, that failures to connect get to him some.

I’m also of two minds on one of his reasons for retirement, which is to “protect” his children from hearing negative things about him. It’s impossible to criticize the importance he places on his children, and I wouldn’t have raised this point if he’d just said he wanted to spend more time with them. But it is possible for love for one’s children to go so far as to be over-protective; sooner or later they will come to understand who their dad is and what he means to Duluth, and that he is not adored by all and may have a flaw or two. Ness tries hard to be a normal guy, and that’s obviously a big part of his appeal, but his rapid rise through the city’s political system will forever mark him as a bit different so long as he lives in Duluth. I don’t think he should shy away from that.

His concern may also over-inflate his role. I graduated from East with the kid of a prominent city councilor; no more than a handful of students had any idea her dad was a city councilor, and it wasn’t a big deal to those who did know. Ness is clearly the biggest local political personality, but in the grand scheme of things, being mayor of Duluth isn’t something that’s really going to stir up a bunch of schoolkids. I know this is all easy to say for someone who isn’t a parent yet, but I do believe pretty deeply in not sheltering kids from reality. I don’t think another term would have led to any serious damage.

Ness’s other explanation—his fear that city politics will calcify without some change—rings much more true. He’s right on in his belief that city government needs renewal with new ideas and new people. Twelve years would be an awful long time for one person (and his loyal followers) to take charge, especially now that their opposition is very insignificant. This is even more true in a city like Duluth, which has a strong mayor system. I wouldn’t have opposed a run for a third term, but I applaud anyone who has the foresight to know when to go—or, at the very least, take a break and recharge for a spell, perhaps until after the kids are out of the house. It’s always important to cycle back out.

Similarly, I’ll be Ness’s staunchest defender against the charge that he’s somehow shirking his responsibility by not running for higher office. The Star Tribune lamented the fact that he’s not showing much interest in heading down to St. Paul or Washington, suggesting it’s a sad sign of a toxic political culture. In part, yes. But it’s also a reflection of what made Ness such an effective mayor: he knows his limits, and the skills that make him such a dynamic force in Duluth might not apply so well elsewhere. It’s important to remember that he has never really left.

The world could also use more politicians like Ness; more people who dedicate their lives to one very small corner of the world that they love dearly, and shepherd it along. Local politics would be a sorry place if it were just a launching pad for higher-level positions, and when it comes to day-to-day effects on people’s lives, the local stuff is far more immediately relevant. It may lack the glamour, but it can be incredibly rewarding. Ness gets to see and live in the city he’s helped bring back from the post-industrial morass, and, barring an unexpected turn, a thankful city will likely show its appreciation for years to come. Even most of his critics (a category that occasionally includes me) seem to like him here. He’s left a legacy in a way no congressman or senator ever really could.

This doesn’t mean that all seekers of higher office are soulless strivers. Some people have priorities that transcend locality or are less tied to a sense of place; some people have that burning ambition, and can’t ever settle. With some important asterisks, it takes all types. Don Ness, for the most part, seems to know which type he is, and there is a lot to be said for that.

We’ll see what he can do in his final fifteen months in office, where he’ll head next, and whether he’ll ever get that itch again. (I’m guessing he will, though it might be a while.) In the meantime, let the succession intrigue begin!

Puck Drop 2014-2015

10 Oct

Hockey season is officially underway, and the Minnesota Wild has Minnesotans salivating with their performance on Thursday night. The 5-0 demolition of defending division champ Colorado was the most thorough performance imaginable, with the whole team looking like a well-oiled machine. This was the cycle as an art form, and pure puck possession hockey at its highest level. The top line of Zach Parisé, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Pominville led the charge with a big night, but every line was in on the act. Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter both scored from the blue line, showing just how seamlessly fluid the Wild was. There should be no need for Suter to log absurd ice times this season now that the second defensive pair is a bit more mature, and Spurgeon offers a second legitimate offensive threat from the point. The penalty kill, a serious weakness last season, was more active and thoroughly neutralized the Colorado power play. This is the way hockey is meant to be played.

It would be a mistake to get too high off one game, and this version of the Avalanche was probably far from their best. While they’re unlikely to repeat their surprise run to the top of the Central from a year ago, they’ll still be a tough team in an incredibly tough division. If the Wild really is anywhere near as good as they looked on Thursday night, it may not be a stretch to say that three of the five best teams in the NHL—Chicago and St. Louis being the other two—are all in the same division. The future of Minnesota professional hockey has perhaps never looked so bright.

Friday saw the start of the NCAA hockey season with a game between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, an enticing opening matchup that was made much less enticing by a 1:00 start time at an arena in Indiana with 54 people in it. The top-ranked Gophers return nearly everyone from last season’s national runner-up squad, and they looked very much the team to beat in the first five minutes of the game, poaching a pair of goals off bad UMD turnovers. After that it was a relatively flat game until a 3rd period UMD comeback made things interesting. The early lead had set the tone, with UMD trying to walk that awkward line between mounting a comeback and not exposing their weakness in back any more than it already was, and the Gophers largely content to sit back and rely on the transition game. Unlike the Wild game, this one definitely looked like a season-opener, with rust and sloppiness among the major themes.

The stars of the game were the two top-line centers, Kyle Rau and Dom Toninato. Rau had a hand in three of the four Gopher goals and was his usual antagonistic self all afternoon, winning battles all over the ice. While there’s a lot of talent around him, this is clearly Rau’s team. He, Sam Warning, and Hudson Fasching make for a lethal top unit. When the secondary scoring comes–and it will–this team will be very hard to stop.

Toninato, meanwhile, looks poised for a breakout year. He didn’t get quite as much attention as some of UMD’s other freshmen forwards last season, largely due to a lower point total, but he did a lot of things that don’t show up on the scoresheet with his strong defense, penalty-killing, faceoff wins, and presence in front of the net. Now, the Duluth East alum looks ready to become a force for the Bulldogs. (All 3 UMD goals were by former Greyhounds.) To really maximize the offensive potential that he and linemate Alex Iafallo bring to the table, they may want to move a playmaking forward to the top line in place of Adam Krause, whose grinding abilities may help out one of the lower lines that were occasionally caught too deep.

The Gophers may be #1, but there is work to be done. Two of their lines were largely invisible over the course of the game, and the defense had a few lapses as well. They also looked to be coasting some after grabbing the early lead, and the midseason energy wasn’t quite there yet. There’s no reason to suspect that they’re not the best team in the nation after this win, but the gap is probably not a large one. Don Lucia has a lot of bodies to sort through as he works out his lower lines and third defensive pair, so it may take a while before they really look championship caliber. With the length of the college hockey season, that’s no big issue.

UMD got better as the game went along, generating the majority of the zone time. That’s important, given their freshman goaltender and somewhat spotty defense; even the veteran defenders had some forgettable moments on Friday afternoon. Despite the loss, it was largely an encouraging performance from the Bulldogs, who enter the season one spot out of the USCHO preseason rankings. As they work things out over the course of a long season, it’s easy to see them moving up the ladder.

We’re a month away from the start of high school practices, and the Elite League season is nearing its end. While there’s usually some sort of October surprise to throw things off, I’ve started scratching out some early thoughts on preseason rankings, and will have plenty more work to do before they come out in about 5 weeks. Start the countdown…

Standing on the Rim

7 Oct

No picture of the Grand Canyon can do it justice. It can be a fantastic shot, capturing all the color and the vastness and perhaps even the entire panorama. But the power of the Canyon lies in what we can’t see: it stretches for miles beyond sight even from the best of the vistas, and there are only occasional glimpses of the bottom. The more the mind ponders its reach, the greater the awe. It’s not an uncommon sense in Arizona, where so many things are big beyond belief. The canyons, mountains, and heat trigger such opposed emotions: a sense of power and triumph, as we stand at the rim of the Canyon or the peak of a mountain and proclaim this dominion as our own; a sense of smallness and frailty, as we teeter on the edge of the abyss and realize just how small we really are. A paradox? No; they are inseparable, twin sides of the peak of ambition.

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My trip to Arizona this past weekend was, by some absurdity, the first trip of any great distance that this travel-lover has taken in a couple of years. It was officially a business trip, a mission as part of my life as a secret operative who manipulates Arizona politics from somewhere up in the woods of northern Minnesota. For the most part, though, it was a chance to explore freely, to reunite with the kid who taught me the meaning of charisma, and to finally meet my partners on a campaign that successfully launched an exciting young woman into a position on the Phoenix Union High School District Board.

It began with a road trip up to the Grand Canyon, a drive that surprised with the sheer variety of the Arizona landscape. Yes, the area around Phoenix is a desert, and there are the expected mountains. But a short drive up I-17 leaves one suddenly out on an open mesa, and the region around Flagstaff has pine forests and stretches of prairie that look like they belong in Wyoming or thereabouts. On the way north we swung through Sedona, a beauty of a town nestled in between red rock cliffs, though the booming tourist trade has likely taken some toll on the New Agey vibe. Beyond Sedona was one of the most delightful drives I’ve ever done, one that whips through a narrow river valley filled with pines and plunges down a winding road that eventually switches its way back up to a view over the stunning (though not quite Grand) canyon below.

After a long day on the Arizona Autobahn, we came to the Canyon, which lived up to its billing. The trail along the South Rim gives a tour of the Canyon’s history over the past two billion years, showing the geological history and pointing out the little peaks and buttes, all named for pagan gods. Even that panoply of deities couldn’t quite fill the chasm, and in only two places could we see the muddy waters of the Colorado down at the bottom. Someday I hope to return and seek out that path that leads down to it; the allure of those slopes is too hard to pass up.

My enjoyment was sullied by one little observation that left me feeling a bit of shame on behalf of my country.  Somehow, four out of every five tourists on the path were not Americans. They were almost all Europeans, with French and Germans being the most obvious, along with some Portuguese and Spaniards and some Poles who struggled to take our picture. The Americans were nowhere to be seen beyond the overlook at the parking lot. Are we really that incapable of walking down a flat, paved path? Has the genuine experience of drinking in the landscape and feeling something deeper really been replaced by the dull routine of snapping a picture and checking off a box that says ‘I’ve been here’? There is so much more to see, and it takes embarrassingly little effort to see it.

Phoenix itself is unlike any city I’ve ever seen, a sprawling grid of near-endless suburbia. There is so much space; to borrow my travel partner’s simile, it’s as if someone poured the development across the flat plane, and it has spread like water as far as it could. The downtown is similarly spread out, and it’s hard to find any sort of node or center of action. A Friday night street festival, however, did bring out a stunningly diverse crowd, and there were certainly pockets of wealth and poverty, from the mind-boggling array of tennis courts and private pools below Camelback Mountain to the parts on the west side that might as well have been lifted out of Mexico.

Whatever one thinks of its development patterns, Phoneix still seems like a city on the leading edge of American culture. When I call the U.S. an adolescent nation, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. (Well, not entirely.) It has its downsides, clearly, but there’s a life to it, too. There is a sense in which Arizona is still the frontier. There is so much space that it still has that feeling, even if most people go home to their perfect little subdivisions. There’s a love for guns and a boom in nondenominational Evangelical churches, tapping into a strain of religious belief that again looks to cut off the past and build something new. A majority of residents are transplants. History doesn’t mean a whole lot here, but there’s an awful lot of belief in the future. Phoenicians, one senses, are not a resigned folk, as us northern Minnesotans can be; their schools may be much worse off on the whole, but at least in some circles there is an energy dedicated to attacking problems that I haven’t always seen in the north. Phoenix’s dreams for the future will rest on its ability to take this energy and harness it and build things that last in place of the investment in the immediate that now predominates. That will take time, and a recognition of limits that are hard to see, but it will come, sooner or later.

Saturday brought a delicious authentic Mexican meal, a campaign victory party in the most eclectic club I’ve ever seen, and a hike up a mountain for good measure. What began as a leisurely hike escalated quickly, with sharp inclines difficult (but possible!) to scale without the railing, and constant reminders that mountains are always taller than one thinks. It was 95 degrees and cloudless, yet I couldn’t help myself from setting a brisk pace, barreling up and down the mountain to see it in all its glory. Flat Phoenix unfolded like a carpet below, and I was back on the edge as I’d been at the Canyon, once again in awe of the expanse of it all.

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One might think that all of this vastness lends itself to broad thinking, but in reality, the deep thought needed no such catalyst. Instead, it came from a reunion of three Georgetown friends, back together to wrestle with questions great and small, keeping our little salon going until 4 AM, tearing into each other without a hint of malice as we probe at the foundations of our thought. Unsettling to those not a part of it, perhaps, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We need to know.

There’s a common experience to Georgetown grads—especially for those of us who have taken somewhat less traveled paths after graduation—that we struggle to share with anyone else. We’re floating between two worlds, too aware and proud of our roots to cut them off, but too consumed by that chase and the things we’ve learned along the way to ever go entirely home. Call it the burden of ambition: how do we harness that restlessness, that frenetic energy that feeds on itself and makes us who we are? Even the numerous Hoyas who have gone straight for the halls of power—consulting, banking, law school—are often self-aware enough that they are fighting similar wars, trying to stay grounded while immersing themselves in worlds that will let them reach those dreams.

As most know, my position at the end of the day is on the side of the roots: it is my way of making sense of the world’s madness, and of resolving those older issues that need resolution. I know that going home saved my sanity, and it has also done wonders for my Arizona friend, whose relentless drive in certain areas threatened to derail his promise. Still, it was hard not to feel that twinge of allure when back in with that Georgetown energy, and, being a Hoya, I’m not going to run and hide from that, or worry that it’ll mess up my little narrative: it’s an important part of me too, and the story is still writing itself. It makes me think, it pushes me, and I live for those moments when we sit there and argue about it all, lurching toward something approaching understanding, at once both earnest yet able to laugh about it all.

As for my friends who are ready to go back to the climb, I have nothing but encouragement: it would be folly to cut off that drive. It’s exhilarating, and the view from the top can’t be matched. But that the mountain is always higher than it seems, and that it’s a mistake to run too far ahead of the people carrying the water bottles. A few breaks along the way do wonders (and Minnesota will always welcome those who look to take one.) After every climb comes a descent, and it has to be measured, taken carefully; it is all too easy to go plunging to a dramatic death. But it’s worth the risk. Once again: the trouble is not in the climb, but in the refusal to look back along the way we’ve come.

A Curtain Call for Captain Clutch

25 Sep

Derek Jeter was my childhood hero, the first and greatest of my various sports man-crushes. I became a Yankee fan because of him. I’d go to bed cuddling a Jeter beanie baby bear, and I copied his stance in backyard baseball. I was crushed when I learned that lefties don’t play shortstop. (End the discrimination!) I admired his versatility, his prowess in every facet of the game, and in his life off the field, too. He may not be the greatest player ever, but he was certainly baseball’s most enduring champion in my lifetime, and his likes may never be seen again. He was the face of one of the most recognizable franchises in all of sport, enduring the brutality of New York scrutiny for twenty years, and in an era when many baseball stars were besmirched by the steroid scrutiny, he remained a pillar of decency.

Only in retrospect did I realize how much Derek helped form my ideal of what a man should be. Patient and respectful, words always carefully measured, yet consumed by a relentless drive toward greatness. Classy, and with an appreciation for finer things, though not overboard in flaunting it; just living it as it came, naturally, and with pride. A commitment to a clean and decent image, though not afraid to have a bit of fun, too. In hearing from the many fans of other teams who poured out their respect to Jeter this season, I felt a childish bit of possessiveness: Derek never meant to you what he meant to me. He was my idol in my fullest sense of the word, exactly the diversion a lost little eight-year-old needed, and while I grew older and deeper and stopped looking to sports for heroes, he never did anything to betray that trust.

At the heart of the Jeter mystique was his flair for the dramatic, something that made his 9th inning walk-off in his final Yankee Stadium game all too predictable. He had something others didn’t. Just reflect on that list of moments. There was his rookie season in 1996, when he always seemed to be the catalyst of every Yankee rally, most famously on that home run assisted by an 11-year-old; by 1999, he was one of the greatest offensive weapons in the game. His home run on the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series snuffed out any momentum the Mets might have had after finally beating the Yankees, and that Subway Series left no doubt who was the king of New York. He’d built a dynasty, and was the face of the greatest run by a major sport franchise in 40 years. Perhaps his greatest moments came in 2001, when he made that sublime flip play in the ALDS against Oakland, a play whose ingenuity I never expect to see topped. His “Mr. November” home run that year won the 4th game of one of the greatest World Series ever played, an emotionally draining and ultimately crushing run in the shadow of 9/11.

That was hardly the end, though. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is synonymous with Aaron Boone, but the man who started it all was Jeter, who cranked a double with the Yankees down by three in the eighth to ignite the game-tying rally. While the team imploded against Boston in 2004, he was still fighting to the end, showing some rare extra emotion when swatting a key hit in Game 7. The Yankees’ fortunes dwindled over the rest of the decade, their fate tied to increasingly worse pitching and stars who had no measure of Jeterian class, but there was still room for one last spurt of brilliance in 2009, when he collected his fifth ring. Naturally, his 3,000th hit left the park; even when the injuries began to mount, it seemed like every return to action was punctuated by some little reminder of that flair.

Over the years the worship of Derek’s clutch performance became near universal, and the gushing at times went overboard; in turn, there arose a group of snarky critics who pointed out the flaws in his game—his lack of range, his inevitable gradual decline, and the emptiness of that vague, undefined ‘clutch’ adjective. No wonder that by the end it all became a bit tired, a perfunctory string of praise in which everything there was to say had already been said. It didn’t help that Mariano Rivera had gone through the same retirement rigmarole the year before Jeter, and that the team he captains, too, seemed a bit tired. Jeter leaves the Yankees in a state unworthy of his legacy, an iconic franchise sliding into mediocrity due to its failure to nurture that farm system that once produced Jeter and Rivera. The end of these farewell tours lifts a burden from the shoulders of this franchise, and frees them to take the first few steps into a very different era of baseball.

Losing was new and foreign to Jeter, and at times his steadiness in the face of it all seemed aloof and uncertain. Beneath the façade was a man with an unshakable belief in his own self, and unlike the serene Rivera, aging did not come naturally to him. His career paralleled the passing of the years that so many of us go through: invincible in his youth, living the dream and building that legacy before he had to come to terms with the steady march of time, the realization that he was no longer the man he once was. Time was the last and greatest enemy that not even Jeter’s mystique could conquer. But it couldn’t kill those memories, nor prevent another chapter in that fairy tale life from writing itself every now and then. As with Rivera’s stirring sendoff last year, tonight’s Yankee Stadium finale was a homage to all that is good in sports, one that can send us back into childhood without a hint of shame. Dream and reality blur, and whatever we call that state in between, it’s one of pure delight.

I’ve heard a few other Yankees fans say that Jeter’s retirement marks the end of their childhood. I’m not sure how my own story lines up with that, but it was hard not to feel another little twinge of age tonight. Tonight, when I got the goosebumps and, yes, the hints of tears when Bob Sheppard’s immortal voice echoed through Yankee Stadium for the last time ever: “Now batting for New York, numbah two, Derek. Jetah. Numbah two.”

Howie Hanson and the End of Boring

24 Sep

Well, we have a race. I didn’t really want to write about it, largely out of protest over the excruciating length of political campaigns launched fourteen months ahead of the election, but a few people have goaded me into it. For the first time in many years, there will be a politician in Duluth opposed to the current administration who aspires to something more than a protest vote.

City Councilor and local blogger Howie Hanson has chosen to go in for the race for mayor of Duluth, mounting a pseudo-challenge to incumbent Don Ness, Duluth’s champion of boring government. Ness, of course, hasn’t decided whether he’ll run again yet, and was put in an awkward position by Hanson’s direct challenge to him. (Sort of. Despite coming out guns blazing, Hanson also gave Ness plenty of credit, and admitted he would be difficult to defeat.) In response, Ness stuck to his guns and kept to his original decision-making timeline, while also saying he was ready for a debate. The entire drama played out on Facebook comment boxes, prompting the expected sniping and grumbling and misunderstanding and so on and so forth. (I know, I know, it’s hypocritical for a blogger to gripe about the rise of social media. Deal with it.)

Cards on the table: I have never been a very large fan of Hanson’s work, a sentiment that goes back to a kerfuffle some five years ago on some of his writings about local hockey. (There was a time when his name was something of a punch line in local hockey circles, though this might have faded some since he abandoned opinion writing about hockey after these incidents.) It’s nothing personal, and I try to maintain a strict division of hockey and state in my thinking. By and large, Hanson’s heart is in the right place. He’s trying to be a voice for citizens in Duluth who aren’t thrilled with aspects of the Ness Regime, and I’m all for principled opposition.

That stance is a total about-face from where he was a year ago—see the end of this post for some critical comments about his predecessor for not being on the same page as Ness—but I think that’s a genuine conversion that he’s gone through in his first year on the Council, and as he’s learned more about local government. He may not be the smoothest operator, but there’s a political vacuum that he’s in a great position to fill, and he’s given himself enough time that he could, theoretically, pull it all together. On paper, a west-sider with deep stakes in the community who relies on fiscal restraint and common sense sounds like a serious contender.

Hanson, however, has done little to suggest he will be able to seize that mantel. Flexibility and common sense are good things to a degree, but with Hanson, the underlying philosophy just seems formless. He is quick to come up with new proposals, which he paints as outside-the-box thinking, but many of them are so poorly vetted that they are difficult to take seriously. Above all, he has just seemed more ill-prepared to govern than any other city councilor in recent memory, with a glaring lack of understanding of how things work in city government. That isn’t all bad—his resistance to bureaucracy-speak is sometimes an asset—but any politician put in charge of an executive department needs to know how to speak this language, otherwise the whole enterprise will fall apart. He has a folksy sort of charm, though he also has some blustering bravado that comes out in spurts, only to be quickly covered up when he realizes he’s rubbed someone the wrong way. It could be a winning combination in the hands of a tactful politician. All of the evidence up to and including this flap over his announcement suggests that Hanson is not one right now.

He has a lot of time, though, so I won’t dismiss him out of hand. We’re going to have a painfully long campaign ahead of us, and if Ness does indeed run, we may have our field set a year in advance. If he doesn’t, Hanson has probably forced the other possible successors to make up their minds soon. (I’ve heard names, but I won’t speculate publicly.) Hanson will be a long shot even if he doesn’t have to face Ness—a near shoo-in for re-election if he runs—but with enough confusion among the people aiming to capture the Ness coalition, he might be able to make things interesting.

Boring government was fun while it lasted. With Hanson in the field, it certainly won’t be that.

Hey Duluth Politicians, I’m Still Paying Attention

20 Sep

Yes, Duluth, I’m still paying attention to you, even from afar. Here are a few thoughts on two issues that have been in the news back home recently.

The Proposed Lester Park Golf Course Development

One of the more interesting debates to surface has been about the fate of the Lester Park Golf Course (LPGC), the public course on the far east side for which the city has started fielding proposals from developers. The LPGC has operated at a loss in recent years, and with its superb views of Lake Superior and relatively undeveloped environs, it sits on an attractive piece of real estate. But this decision has, of course, spurred some backlash, with local historian Tony Dierckins rallying the troops in a series of posts over on Zenith City Online. (History of the course here, pointed critiques here.)

Before we get into the merits of this particular plan, Tony makes one point that is especially bothersome when he floats the notion that this somehow detracts from the plan to revitalize the west side. This is the sort of attitude that reinforces the east-west divide, turning development into a zero-sum game. There is plenty of room for development on both sides of Duluth; nothing should be off the table simply because it is on a certain side of the city. Imposing some sort of moratorium on east side development so the west side can play catch-up would be a heavy-handed tool that would likely just leave us with less of anything in the end. Closing LPGC would actually eliminate an east side amenity, and if (if!) it is indeed a profitable move, could free up some cash for the west side. Signs of flexibility and openness to creative ideas would be a positive for the city as a whole, and could improve the overall development climate. Though Duluthians should be proud that their city tends to stop and think before rushing to throw up every new plan placed before it in shiny wrapping, this mindset is exactly what gets Duluth a reputation for being stuck in the mud when it comes to development. There’s room for many different options.

I’m also not entirely sold on a number of his other defenses of LPGC. Yes, it’s public, and gives green access to golfers who can’t afford Northland or Ridgeview Country Clubs. But it’s also not a free amenity open to anyone, and calling a golf course ‘nature’ or an opportunity for serious physical activity is something of a stretch, especially in a city like Duluth. Golf courses are odd ducks in the planning world: they’re recreational, but very specific in purpose, and take up a lot of land area. Tony gives a massive job loss number, but it’s worth noting that many of them are seasonal and not exactly careers, such as caddying. These jobs are great for kids starting work and a few seasoned pros, of course, but it’s not comparable to closing a factory.

Tony’s financial numbers seem fishy at best. It’s certainly not the government’s job to subsidize golf at whatever cost, and if the market’s not there, the local golf community either needs to pony up or face reality. It may be a bit premature to throw LPGC under the bus—Tony does have a not-so-very-old quote from CAO Montgomery dismissing any financial concerns about the courses that needs an explanation—but things do need to add up here. Tony has a pretty clear personal interest in LPGC, and while there’s nothing wrong with that—I’d be putting out some prolific venting if the city, say, tried to do away with Fryberger Arena—let’s not pretend he’s laying out these facts without a clear agenda.

All of that said, barring an offer the city can’t refuse, I do think it would be shortsighted to just shut the place down and put up a new, strictly residential subdivision. Overcrowding at the Enger course would be a serious issue, as would the loss of a venue for major charitable events. Golf does have genuine cultural value, and generates some tourism. Weather might have played a role in recent financial struggles, and LPGC is also sadly burdened by the hopelessly arcane liquor sales ban that lives on in Lakeside. The public needs to learn a lot more about the course’s operations before it accepts that it just has to go.

The good news is that some of the proposals apparently do not involve the total loss of the golf course. Preserving 18 holes while allowing for some modest development might prove a sensible compromise. Ideally, any redevelopment will maintain some parkland and public access to the excellent views along LPGC, no matter what fate befalls the course. The ideal plan would also probably bring some space for business along with it, instead of isolating a group of houses out on a cul-du-sac off Lester River Road. I’m intrigued to see what comes out of this. Tell me more.

September School Board Meeting

Oh, yeah, that thing. I’m afraid it still exists, and is just as absurd as ever. I made it about halfway through the Youtube video before giving up. It started off as usual, with Members Johnston and Welty doing lots of grandstanding for entirely understandable reasons, as they still have not been given any clear path to get anything on the Board’s agenda. Chair Miernicki continues to be the greatest PR operation the minority could have dreamed of on their behalf, persistently bumbling through everything.

At one point, Member Johnston said that Chair Miernicki had told him that he was “scared” of him in an email, which is telling. Many adjectives could be applied to Member Johnston, a number of them not very nice, but “scary” is not really one of them. Years of battles have left the majority paranoid about the man, and even his more mundane critiques give rise to defensiveness. Everyone is so well-trained at taking those who they do not agree with in bad faith.

This fear of minority critiques came out later in the meeting, when Member Harala lost her cool and snapped at Member Welty for his (real, but fairly mundane) grandstanding on minority students’ poor test scores. So much for the one person on the majority who I thought was making a concerted effort to see things from the other side. Predictably, this sent Member Johnston off the rails with accusations of harassment and lack of care for minorities, in turn sending Chair Miernicki into justified indignance. After that bit of ugliness, I stopped watching. Member Johnston said the Board has done nothing for underserved groups, but this is patently false. Whatever one thinks of it, the Laura MacArthur curriculum flap is obviously an effort to cater directly to groups that need extra help in school, and from my time there onward, there has been a very concerted effort on the part of the East administration to directly engage with minority students. (In fact, there were even a few jokes in poor taste about how this was the only thing the administration cared about.) I doubt East is unique there. Just because it isn’t being announced with trumpets doesn’t mean it isn’t getting done. Its efficacy may be another story, though, and everyone seemed to be in violent agreement that this is a conversation worth having.

The trouble is that the conversation will likely go in the exact same direction. Members Welty and (especially) Johnston are full of depressing facts but short on solutions, in turn leading to defensiveness and qualifications from the rest. I’m all for the accurate reporting of the statistics, but just reading off the numbers does little to advance the conversation. Stupid as it may be, Members Johnston and Welty may have to cater to their colleagues’ fragile sensibilities if they really do want to have this conversation (which they already do somewhat with a lot of qualification), and some brevity might do them a world of good, too. Unfortunately, the success of Laura MacArthur may be leading some on the Board to believe that this is an easy problem to solve. Member Welty says he won’t be happy with mere incremental success, and the Board should obviously aim to do all it can, but in the end, I’d be relieved with some slow, steady progress. While he may just have been in a state after Member Harala’s outburst, Member Johnston’s suggestion that the achievement gap exists because people aren’t trying is just his bad faith reading of people he does not like. This is a brutally hard issue to fix.

The same could be said of the east-west divide, which also came up in relation to test scores after everyone got all of their hating on testing and No Child Left Behind out of the way. (If there’s one thing that seems to unite everyone in the room, and can even get Chair Miernicki to praise some of Marcia Stromgren’s words, it’s a hatred of tests.) The concerns about equity between East and Denfeld came up again, and while I’ve already said plenty on that, I’ll again point out what a bind the District is in as it tries to correct for some of these issues. The new curriculum director has his work cut out for him, though as I suggested in that past post, there are some creative ways to offer greater equity while also working within reality.

I’m not going to defend the Board’s existing efforts fully, though, and at their worst, some Members do sound like patronizing teachers when they acknowledge problems but do not share any further details, or dismiss them in facile ways. (See Chair Miernicki’s suggestion that, because something appears in the curriculum guide, this must automatically mean there is equal access to classes at both high schools. Please. And what is this nonsense about a full year of lifeskills—by far the most useless class I had in ISD 709, though that was perhaps related to the teacher—instead of offering Spanish at Lincoln Park?) It’s all part of the culture of secrecy inside the District. It may not look like it exists from inside the bubble, but it does, and it’s glaring. Read this DNT op ed and some of Harry’s correspondents for more details.

The public speaker session included Linda Puglisi’s jarring story of a pool rescue, once again showing the horrors of teachers trying to do the best they can with large class sizes. Another speaker hammered this theme home when discussing Lester Park, and I’ve heard similar stories out of Congdon. Not coincidentally, these schools are on the east side; in addition to serving the area of the city with the most young people, they are the ones families are trying to transfer into, often blackmailing the District with threats of withdrawal if they don’t get their way. Even so, class sizes are still a problem, despite a few added teachers here and there thanks to the levy money. This Board has some work to do, and it needs to do more than “have conversations”–though in some cases, it isn’t even doing that.

On that happy note, I’ll cut myself off. Writing about Duluth politics is cathartic. I miss it, in a twisted sort of way.

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