December Duluth Roundup: Big Names on the Move

20 Dec

In this edition my semi-monthly summary of big Duluth news, I will avoid sounding like a broken record on the School Board and instead talk about two powerful Duluth women who are moving in different directions.

The first, At-Large City Councilor Emily Larson, has become the second person to officially enter next fall’s race for mayor. She immediately becomes the establishment pick to succeed the outgoing Don Ness, and the only chance she has of losing that title might be through an Yvonne Prettner-Solon candidacy. Throwing her name in the ring this early is a shrewd move that may head off potential competition from other center-left DFL figures. I’d label her the favorite (sorry, Howie), and that might not change even if YPS enters the race.

Larson is hard not to like. She is warm, considerate, open, and tireless. She’s been a relentless advocate for parks and libraries in particular, and it was no surprise to see her make her campaign announcement in front of the library. She has that charisma that can make a difference in a local campaign, and performed well across the city in her race for the Council in 2011. Larson is still a relative newcomer to politics, and is probably the youngest among the names that get tossed around. She definitely would keep the Ness vibe of youthful, optimistic energy going. Lack of executive experience is probably her most obvious shortcoming, and there is some risk of overabundant enthusiasm getting in the way of more detached assessment. But if she surrounds herself with the right people and has a good grasp on the budget, she will be a formidable figure in the race.

A bit further up the hill, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a hockey controversy is brewing. Shannon Miller, who has overseen the UMD women’s hockey program since its inception and won five national titles, will not be back next season. UMD chose not to renew her contract—which, at $215,000 when perks are factored in, is the highest of any women’s hockey coach at a public university, and probably the highest in the nation—and will hire someone new, probably for about half the salary.

UMD athletics are in a financial crunch, and has one profitable program—men’s hockey—that subsidizes the other fifteen. Miller’s behemoth of a contract stuck out like a sore thumb, and UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo has used the market as his explanation: Miller is grossly overpaid in a sport that makes nowhere near the revenue that could justify such a salary. Miller, citing equity concerns, grouses that she is not paid as much as Scott Sandelin, the men’s head coach. And so we tread into that ever-contentious territory around Title IX, and while Miller doesn’t really have a legal case here, the effects of this one could linger.

Neither side seems to be handling the affair especially well. Miller has come out guns blazing, ripping UMD for failing to even propose a pay cut, which she claims she was willing to accept. (A 50 percent pay cut, though?) She also criticized the timing, saying it was a terrible thing to heap upon her team midseason—and during finals week, no less. After first saying he was just trying to be up-front and honest with Miller, Berlo has now gone back to say the university was required to give her six months’ notice. There are stories suggesting that Miller had burned a number of bridges in the Athletics Department over the years; she’s always been one to make sure others know her opinion, loud and clear.

Miller’s departure also may not bode well for the future of UMD women’s hockey. While they are doing well this year, the program has been trending downward since its last national title in 2010; as Bruce Ciskie notes here, they are now a clear step behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, and perhaps even North Dakota. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall here, as college sports continue down the road toward the rich getting richer. Miller’s departure has upset many players, and there is some chance of a transfer exodus, or perhaps de-commitments from the recruits she has secured. In this climate, she will be a very difficult act to follow.

Another factor lurking somewhere in this decision might be Miller’s recruiting strategy. The Lady Bulldogs have long relied on a steady stream of foreign talent from Europe and Canada to beef up their lineup. The scholarships she gives these girls end up being much more costly to the university than those given to in-state players, as they need to cover out-of-state tuition. And, while understandable given the collapse of borders in most college sports, it is enough to give us Herb-Brooks-strengthen-the-base-of-the-pyramid acolytes some pause. Does importing foreign superstars really do much to grow the game locally?

Whatever the root cause, UMD women’s hockey has not been drawing big numbers to Amsoil Arena. Attendance is down. It is all tied up in the odd and frustrating state of women’s hockey, where the costs and the rat race for special training and scholarships is just as crazy as on the men’s side, only without any of the potential payouts at the end. (Here, one is reminded of the retirement rant of former University of Minnesota and Finland standout Noora Raty.)

With money playing such a prominent role, it’s unlikely there is any way UMD will recant. At this point, one can only hope that Bulldog women’s hockey proves bigger than its current coach, and can endure without her.

Utopia

15 Dec

To the west of Mexico City, in the mountains of Michoacán, lies a small city that once aspired to utopia. Its champion was a man named Vasco de Quiroga, a sixteenth-century bishop who was among the heroes of the miserable tale of colonial America. Tata Vasco, as he is affectionately known among the indigenous Purepecha who still populate the region, did all he could to save the natives from the predations of imperial Spain. The contemporary city of Pátzcuaro, of course, is no utopia; it’s in one of the less stable states of a tumultuous nation, gripped by the poverty that afflicts so much of Mexico. Yet even so, something from that past lingers in the proud indigenous communities that still make the handcrafts Tata Vasco divided among the villages, and in the timeless cobblestone streets that carry in the wind off the nearby lake.

There is good reason to be leery of utopia. The last century has been defined by the horrors perpetrated by people who thought they were creating utopias, and anyone with any sense of the tragic side of human life knows what a delusion those dreams of earthly paradise may seem. How easy it is to dismiss utopian thought as naïve, or even reckless, as the true believers barrel ahead with their agenda without a thought about what they’re doing to the world. How often do we hear vague appeals to ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ without any concept of what these words actually mean? They are the canards of sorry souls who try to invent broader meaning for their lives, placing themselves in some grand sweep of history; a desperate attempt to make life relevant in a world where we cannot share transcendent meaning and are left to invent things for ourselves.

The skeptic’s stance is a scathing one, vicious in its demolition of that utopian instinct. And yet, just as much as the tragic impulse, the drive to utopia is part and parcel of the human condition. It can take curious or even sorry channels, but no amount of cynicism can bludgeon it to death. Retreat from utopia is just as much of a utopia itself, an impossible ideal inseparable from nihilism and all its attendant contradictions.

Dreams are not reality, and should never be mistaken for it. But they are an integral part of the cycle, ever reminders that our rational thoughts, when carried to all their logical conclusions, cannot even begin to answer all of our questions. They inspire awe, and even fear. As they should. To die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep what dreams of death may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

***

Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the maze of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

***

My own relationship with utopia is a tortured one, filled with both wild dreams and relentless reasoning. I’ve also been skeptical of it, often even downright hostile, and justifiably so. Yet I can’t quench the thirst. I’ve written my own utopias in search of one, populated entire worlds that I could disappear into forever, if I so chose. Much of this has been a lonely search, though not always so; at times I’ve dragged unwitting victims along, as in my own journey to Pátzcuaro, and at times I’ve managed to convene a little salon with no limits on what it might ask. The conclusion is always the same.

Utopia is something that these paltry, inadequate words will never quite capture. The Socratic critique rings true: the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And the more aware we are of utopia before us, the more hollow it all seems when we can’t quite find it. No one can, for too long. Small wonder so many believers in utopia are also prone to disappointment and even rage, when it all falls short. The glimpse is ever a dangerous one.

One must push things, to find that glimpse; live a bit, and tread on untested ground. But the search needs grounding. All journeys have a beginning, and all have an end. We have stories that write themselves; things we can bend, yes, but never break. We are what we come from, and in these bounds, we must find whatever it is we search for. Utopia is right here before us, if only we open up our eyes. Perhaps that defeats the point of utopia, but if that’s the case, it’s no great loss.

A Storm Gathers Strength

12 Dec

The team in its road blues pops in another goal. A groan goes down the line. One of the assistant coaches calls out the numbers of the five boys on the ice, and tells the girl with the scoresheet to circle one particular culprit. “We need to realize that just because someone does well in a drill, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in a game,” muses another. Someone asks a much younger kid, the son of former Wild winger Antti Laaksonen, if he brought any gear and might be available to suit up. It’s all in good fun; part of the long and slow process of building up a hockey program into relevance.

Most of my hockey-watching involves matchups between the very top high school teams in Minnesota. I usually only see those outside the top 20 or so when they play Duluth East, and even then, I tend to be more intent on what the Greyhounds are doing. On Thursday night, I enjoyed a welcome change of pace and, on the invitation of a member of the forum I moderate, immersed myself in a program I hadn’t seen before.

Chanhassen High School broke off from Chaska just five years ago, and its fledgling hockey program under coach Chris Wilson has had just one winning season to date. They still share a youth program with Chaska, and have the added difficulty of being in AA; while Chaska became small enough to play in Class A after the split, the Storm are left battling the likes of Edina and Burnsville in the first round of the 2AA playoffs. This season also brings the Storm some new challenges, as the old Missota Conference dissolved, leading to the formation of the Metro West. Chanhassen now has perennial title contender Benilde-St. Margaret’s on its schedule, plus another longtime state power in Bloomington Jefferson. They entered this game at 2-2-1; one of those wins was over a decent Hopkins squad, but they were coming off a humbling 7-1 loss to rising 2AA power Prior Lake earlier in the week.

Their opponent on Thursday was Class A heavyweight Breck, and while the game wasn’t quite as lopsided as the 6-0 scoreline made it look, the Storm were certainly on their heels for most of the contest. They held their own for substantial chunks of the first period, but were bottled up whenever the Mustangs’ top line hit the ice, and Breck—not an overwhelmingly deep team themselves—exposed the lack of depth on both goals in the period. Things began to unravel in the second, with all three goals coming in painful ways: off a juicy rebound, on a shorthanded rush, and a very soft shot just before the end of the period. A victory was probably out of the question, but a rematch might bring out a better fight.

With the game out of reach, Wilson and his staff shook things up in the third. They loaded up their top line, pairing together their two more skilled junior forwards in search of a little more offense. Running up against the age-old high school hockey conundrum of age and experience versus youth and promise, they put in a freshman goalie, who performed ably. (Their best skater on the ice was also a young gun, a sophomore defenseman.) The Storm had some of their best chances in the game’s dying minutes, finally applying some serious pressure as the clock ticked down to zero.

This was some consolation to the group I joined in a perch behind glass at one end of the rink. While Chanhassen’s stats and video operation can’t match Benilde’s small army of backroom staff, a group of student managers kept meticulous stats and shots, and the assistant coaches at their side kept a running commentary, delighting in improvements from some players and sighing in defeat when others repeated old mistakes. They rushed down to the locker room between periods to relay things they’d seen from their perspective, doing all they could to correct errors and dissect trends in Breck’s approach. (This was all new to someone used to the Duluth East method for collecting details on games, which mostly involves Mike Randolph’s memory.)

After the game, the Storm staff huddled in the small coaches’ office next to the locker room, looking to regroup after a second straight game ended in running time. I diagnosed a work in progress; the players are hearing the right messages, but have yet to have them drilled into their minds. The learning curve is long, and after a pair of lopsided losses, the coaches have to play that delicate game of ego management. They want the top players to be confident and creative, but one can only tolerate so many attempts to dangle through traffic when there are open teammates, or blind backhanders that gift-wrap the puck to the opposition. The coaches want to play appealing and aggressive hockey, but how much does the opponent dictate what a team does, at what point do they content themselves with a neutral zone trap—or even simple damage control? They want to put pressure on the bubble players so they know their jobs are on the line, but at what point does juggling mess with their minds? There’s no easy formula for any of those questions, and Wilson’s staff has to experiment on the fly. Their approach for Friday night? A pasta dinner for the team.

Most of the conversation themes were familiar to anyone who’s been around youth hockey, but I was left with an appreciation for how much thinner the margin for error is with a team like Chanhassen. Where an elite team might be able to withstand a slight lack of hustle on the forecheck, a defenseman out of place, or an attempt to dangle straight through the heart of a defense, such lax play does in the Storm. So much of the game still comes down to fundamentals: if the breakout isn’t swift enough, it’s only a matter of time before someone is caught running around, and even when they do clear the blue line, there’s the whole matter of gaining the other team’s zone. The challenge comes in turning hesitation into instinct, and in getting a group of boys to buy into a complete team concept that might get them somewhere by February.

What path might this Storm take? Realistically, they can use their two games with Bloomington Jefferson and one with Holy Angels to earn a 4- or 5-seed in 2AA. There’s a very capable core of players here, and if they come together, they have some chance of winning a playoff game for the first time in school history. Beyond that, they simply have to keep strengthening the foundation, building a young program shift by shift.

Early Hockey Thoughts 2014-2015

8 Dec

The Christmas lights are up, Lake of the Isles has iced over, and a new high school hockey season is starting to take shape. In the AA field, eight teams have emerged ahead of the pack, locking down their places at the top of the rankings. The most anticipated regular season game has already come and gone, as Lakeville North took down the team that beat them in last year’s state title game. The Panthers’ top line of Poehling, Poehling, and Poehling gets the headlines with their unmatched chemistry, and goalie Ryan Edquist, a Shattuck import, stood tall against the Edina onslaught. But the real key to victory last week was the defense, whose three veteran seniors let them take control early and did enough to hang on as the game wore on.

Another team making an early move up in the rankings, Hill-Murray, follows a similar script, with four top-flight defensemen. These teams that control the blue line are often the ones left standing in the end, and while the two-time defending champs have no shortage of quality defenders, they don’t have anyone who can control games quite in the way of Jack Sadek and Matt McNeely of North, or Jacob Olson and Davis Zarembinski of Hill. Edina still has the depth to win it all, but Curt Giles must find the right ways to utilize it, or the run will come to an end. North is now the team to beat, and one senses that Hill, after two title game disappointments and a flop in sections last season, may be due to get their swagger back.

The remainder of the top eight includes yet-untested St. Thomas Academy and high-scoring Elk River, plus the usual slate of 6AA talent. Wayzata looks a bit more potent than years past, and if they can couple that added offensive push with their usual lockdown defense, they may be back at State for a second time in three years. Eden Prairie, despite the loss of two Mr. Hockey finalists, has reloaded overnight, with young gun Casey Mittelstadt leading the charge. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, meanwhile, has plenty of depth, but no superstar scorer as in recent years, and the defense once again is a bit too loose, with a host of flashy puck-moving prospects but no one to lock down in front of their own net.

The Duluth East Greyhounds are not among the teams off to a speedy start, and enjoyed the delights of a 6 AM bag skate this morning. The slow start isn’t entirely unpredictable, even on a team that returns four of its top five forwards from last season. They aren’t healthy on defense, and the defense was inexperienced to begin with. It will take time for a few freshmen to adjust to the speed of varsity hockey, though they didn’t look overmatched in the season-opening 3-0 loss to Wayzata, which is cause for encouragement. Similarly, new toy Luke Dow, the Duluth Marshall transfer who was declared eligible just this past week, may take a little while to adjust to a new system and level of competition. And, of course, slow starts tend to be the norm on East teams not blessed with overwhelming top-end talent. This is life under Mike Randolph, as December results are sacrificed for system integrity come February.

Even so, the bag skate suggests Randolph is hardly pleased with the results so far. Most concerning, perhaps, are the blown 2-goal leads in each of the past two games. When the Hounds stick to their formula, they should be wearing teams down late and grinding them into submission, not giving them lifelines. This is still an interesting team, one that should be fairly deep defensively once everyone is back, and has potential for two potent offensive lines. Goaltender Gunnar Howg is an asset no one else in the section has, and can steal a game when at his best. This team has potential for a seventh Tourney berth in a row if they can adapt to the old East formulas and add their own little wrinkles on top.

Section 7AA’s pecking order is slowly coming into shape, with the pressure on the Hounds’ dynasty greater than ever before. Elk River’s offense, as expected, is lighting the lamp at an incredible pace—one that may only be matched by the speed with which the Elks give up goals. They will presumably settle on a goalie in time, but winning 7-5 is not a championship formula, and Elk River will have to tighten up to survive a long playoff run. Grand Rapids was chugging along at a similar offensive pace before a loss to Warroad on Saturday; a battle with Lakeville North this week will give us a better idea if that Swiss cheese defense of a year ago really has improved. Andover, fresh off a tie with Duluth East, isn’t deep but has a few stars, the newest of which is goaltender Maddie Rooney, a UMD women’s recruit who stopped 40 shots against the Hounds. Rising St. Michael-Albertville makes the trek to Duluth this coming weekend, but not before the Hounds face off with archrival Cloquet, ever a threat even with the Jacks limping in on a four-game losing streak.

Things are usually a bit more rigid atop the rankings in Class A, but even the small schools aren’t quite as clear as usual at the start of this season. The usual suspects are all still there, but Hermantown has dropped a couple of games despite its unmatched depth, while Breck isn’t quite hitting on all cylinders yet, either. Defending titlists East Grand Forks are loaded up front but thin on defense, and even Luverne, undefeated in the regular season a year ago, took a tumble against St. Paul Academy. The teams making some noise early include Duluth Marshall, which has been stout in back despite a spate of departures over the summer, and Mahtomedi, whose ceiling may be the highest it’s ever been.

At this point, of course, nothing is set. Some will improve, some will stagnate, and there will be some late-season surprises that throw everything off. Time to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Over the Edge

1 Dec

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

-Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

There are certain moments make us realize how close we are to going over that cliff. When they do arrive, they come as a shock, even for those of us who think we know better. It’s now possible to go a very long time in life without knowing anyone who has died, or suffered some other serious calamity. Only on rare occasions do we—and by ‘we,’ I suppose I mean Westerners who live relatively comfortable daily lives—get these terrifying windows into the fragility of everything we’ve built.

It is a noble desire, that wish to be the catcher in the rye. Holden fancies himself the protector of the innocent from the horrors of the world. He’s aware of the danger, and wants to make sure no one goes over the edge. He takes on the burden for the good of all, and he can keep the children from ever knowing that fear.

It won’t work forever, though, as Salinger well knew, and his protagonist slowly came to learn. No one can possibly keep the horde of naïve kids from running toward the cliff, and no one person can hold them back. Humans are not born into perfect innocence, and will inevitably wander toward various edges. The precipice always looms, and learning more of it is both the way over the edge and the way to learn not to go near it.

Perhaps, then, it is best to let the kids wander toward the edge. Be there to offer a hand if they get too close, maybe, but let them see it for what it is. There’s a compelling case here, one that says it is on the edge where we push limits and find meaning, daring to do great things. The world is a plaything, meant to be explored with curiosity and delight—even its darkest parts. All those dull measures of life’s worth like money and years lived mean nothing when stacked up against those moments of enlightenment. Or so you’d wish to believe.

There is danger here; danger in the hubris in believing that you know where the edge lies for each and every person. It’s never in quite the same place, and the edge will bring out extremes in people, whether fragile or resilient. There’s also the question of choosing when to go for it; seeking the edge for itself alone is recklessly aggressive, before long lapsing into ennui. Toying with the edge will tempt fate before long. We must choose our battles wisely.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. It involves a careful, even brutal, self-examination, one that rises above the field of rye and lets one see beyond, at the same time aware of what we cannot see. To the well-ordered mind, this is a healthy process, not cause for inward obsession. Reflect, learn, move on, forever gauging where the edge is. Venture to the brink, and try to prepare those kids running about for what lies beyond—but always head home afterward. A brief glimpse is all we need, and our minds can do the rest.

Life cannot be found in the suppression of passions, but it is as much of a mistake to let passions rule it all. They must be channeled, carefully tended, and watched with vigilance, with immediate action when things do go awry, as they most likely will. We do not fear the edge, but we respect it, understand its power, and carry on with our quests, wherever they may lead. The true task of the catcher in the rye is not to save blindly, but to teach, to demand an honest reflection, and then to turn the children loose again, this time more prepared to cope with what lies beyond.

Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality

24 Nov

Sunday brought the news that Marion Barry, the “mayor for life” of Washington, D.C., passed away at the age of 78. He was a living legend by the time I arrived in Washington, serving on the DC City Council long into his old age. Most people know him for his 1990 arrest for smoking crack. It was an especially awkward incident at the height of the inner city drug epidemic, one that epitomized DC’s dysfunctional government and broken culture, a sorry statement on life in the shadow of the Capitol.

Still, Barry was much more than the Rob Ford of his day. His popularity, from his first election to his final days, was genuine, as anyone who actually bothered to talk to people in Southeast DC would have learned. He was a real Civil Rights movement leader in his early days, and he did things to break down glass ceilings for African-Americans in DC. He had charisma, a winning charm that even allowed him to do well in snow-white Northwest in his first election, and his followers were rewarded handsomely.

I am always hesitant to walk on ground where racial questions loom so large, especially as I write on the night of the Ferguson verdict. But the style of politics Barry practiced transcends race, and has been around since the dawn of time. It is a style that substitutes charisma for institutions, and steamrolls any sense of genuine equity beneath a cynical patronage machine. In the end, the man became bigger than his project, and few things he does can outlive him. Perhaps it seemed the only method available in a city that had long before lost its compass; there in the heart of our imperial capital, where so many succumb to the desire to allow ends to justify means. It allowed him to rise above the rest, yes, but in the end, we are left with a distinctive character but little else. He was hardly alone even among DC politicians in harnessing the political machine; witness Jack Evans, of opulent Ward 2, who uses an absurd campaign war chest to bully any potential opposition into submission.

Barry had his moment, but did not know when to let go, and justified his political comeback in brutally honest terms: he needed power to keep himself sane. It had consumed him. By the end he was a dinosaur from a different era, still playing the same old cards as the DC he once led slipped away. The city’s African-American majority has disappeared behind the forces of gentrification, and will not be coming back anytime soon, barring a drastic change. The new DC is not necessarily a better place, but it is in need of a new champion, not someone whose politics revolves around himself.

***

An over-inflated sense of one’s own role is a common affliction in politics, and it is one I have diagnosed at times in Art Johnston, the embattled Duluth school board member. As the thousands of words spilled on this blog have shown, I’ve struggled to make sense of Johnston over the past year and a half. For the past seven years, he has fought a long and often very lonely battle against a school facilities plan and a number of other perceived failings of ISD 709.

The attorney hired by the District to investigate several accusations against Johnston has delivered her report. This past week, the Duluth News Tribune received the redacted version, which tells of Johnston’s alleged transgressions. The ultimate verdict is about what one might have expected. The supposedly racial comment, which always seemed the least plausible of the charges, was not substantiated. In a heat of rage, he did indeed loudly confront Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Board Chair Mike Miernicki at the Duluth East graduation in June, demanding to know why his partner, Jane Bushey, was being shuffled off to a different school. Having seen Johnston’s episodes when particularly incensed by Board proceedings, this is entirely plausible. It is out of line, and makes it easy to understand others’ discomfort in him. Is this bit of discomfort enough to supersede the will of the voters and axe a man from the School Board? That seems extreme.

We’re not done yet, though. The most interesting of the charges coming out of this is the alleged conflict of interest, in which Johnston sat in on many meetings on Bushey’s behalf. It was never entirely clear if he was there a school board member or a spouse, leading to some very understandable discomfort. Harry Welty, Johnston’s erstwhile Board ally, claims it would have been easy for the District to pitch Johnston from these meetings if it so desired; while true, this does not justify Johnston’s actions there.

We don’t have the full account, and may never actually have it. I’ll agree with Welty that the investigating attorney does indeed seem to have her narrative wrapped up awfully tightly. On the flip side, I’m not nearly as skeptical of her professionalism as Johnston’s defenders, whose willingness to believe the worst in people knows no bounds. (It’s been a while since I’ve been accused of having an overly rosy view of humanity.) The self-styled defender of truth in Duluth and his staunch allies remain incapable of getting out of the cave in which their truth exists.

Still, in the end, I’m left exactly where I started when these accusations first came out. I remain sympathetic to Johnston’s willingness to raise serious questions and (based on what I know) would not vote to remove him, but believe he himself has become too toxic to ever be an effective voice for his cause. This is bigger than him, and while the board’s majority may not act justly and should face the consequences at the ballot box, any defender of fiscal sanity or underrepresented voices should also be ready to move on. Johnston’s mediocre accusers may be the ones pulling the trigger, but he handed them the gun all too willingly. I am left only with a few questions for everyone involved, save Johnston, as my experience suggests he is unwilling to listen to somewhat divergent viewpoints, even when carefully qualified. (Nor do I really blame him for lashing out at this point in the saga; what else is he supposed to do?)

To the board majority: is this worth it? Let’s say you do go through and axe Johnston. What comes next? The fight for his cause will go on, you know. Don’t kid yourself; there will be some blowback, no matter what. He has a loyal following and a mouthpiece in a weekly local paper in Loren Martell. Do you really want the next election to be a referendum on this decision? You may find Johnston obnoxious and tiresome, and at times terribly wrong, but is a single voice in the wilderness really a serious threat to your agenda as a board member?

To Harry Welty: well, it’s pretty much up to you to try to get as many answers as you can during the hearing on December 2. Still, let’s say the Board does go through and remove Johnston. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Do you really want to escalate this war, with so many pressing issues at stake in the district? Obviously justice is a worthy ideal, but it also runs the risk of turning into a hopeless circus act. Think Mike Randolph 2.0, since I know you weren’t too fond of some of the perhaps unexpected consequences of that whole affair. Tread carefully.

***

I’m not naive. I know politics is personal, and that it will inevitably lead to results like this. It’s part of the game. But, as I sit here watching things go up in flames in Missouri, it puts things in perspective. For all the madness, for all my acceptance of messy reality…there are situations that just cry for someone to rise above it all. Neither of the men detailed in this post ever did so. I don’t expect it, but the Answer to Everything does allow for it, from time to time. Perchance to dream.

What’s a Minnesotan, Anyway?

19 Nov

Earlier this week, the Star Tribune reported on a forum planned for Wednesday night at the Walker Arts Center, at which a series of panelists would grapple with the question of whether Minnesotans are “Midwestern” or not. This might seem like tiresome semantics, and an exercise in one of the more stupid definitions of “culture.” But as one read the article and dug down into the motives at play, there was a lot more going on here than the headline lets on. Another commitment prevented me from attending, but that won’t stop me from having an opinion.

Growing up in Minnesota, it was always easy to call it part of the Midwest, sometimes with the qualifier “Upper” before the Midwest to indicate our higher latitude and relative lack of corn fields. Still, my idea of the Midwest didn’t line up with everyone else’s; for example, I’d never have called Ohio “Midwest,” but that seems to be exactly what East Coast people associate with the word. There’s an awful lot of stuff wrapped up into Midwest, and Minnesota, as one of its most distant extensions, sits more awkwardly in that region than many other states. The phrase has some less-than-stellar baggage (flyover country, empty cornfields), so I can buy the need for a new region.

So when it comes to the proposed alternatives, “North” does have a nice ring. I appreciate the way it’s pitched as a shameless embrace of our cold. So what if it’s cold? We have fun with it. Still, I will quibble: Eric Dayton claims the U.S. doesn’t have a “North,” but, well, we did. It was a combatant in the Civil War. We no longer think of that North as a region because it doesn’t have the historical memory of its antagonist, the still-extant South, but claiming the Northern mantel might have some unexpected connotations. (Minnesota was an infant state at the time of the Civil War and certainly contributed to the Union cause, though it can hardly claim a central role.)

There’s also the question of whether anyone else actually belong to Minnesota’s region, and could unabashedly embrace the North. The parts of North Dakota along the Red River Valley make some sense, but anything to the west is decidedly Great Plains, and would be an odd mix culturally. Iowa isn’t quite North in the way that Minnesota is. That leaves us with Wisconsin, which I do think is a reasonably good fit once we get over the Packers’ ownership of the Vikings, and perhaps the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is very North. It’s not much, though. Are we really celebrating our region, or just our state? For that matter, are we even still bothering with the half of the state that does look a fair bit like Iowa?

Here I will confess a fair amount of unease around the real motive here: this attempt to stake out a regional identity seems to slide into a marketing campaign for Minneapolis and St. Paul. I live in and like Minneapolis, but there are still worlds of difference between it and northern Minnesota, which is essentially what the people quoted in the Strib are after. It sounds as if these scions of the creative class want to appropriate all of the Lake Wobegon homeliness and the wilderness allure of Greater Minnesota for the MSP brand while at the same time dismissing small-town Minnesota as “slightly hick.” Those towns are just relics of history, insufficiently vibrant for any properly urbane “creative” person, but we’ll gladly claim their boots and backpacks as ours, because aren’t we so rugged here in Northeast? Spare me.

I’m at some risk of turning this into a Wendell Berry rant about how the cities strip-mine rural America, a relentless brain drain that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (We’ll save that discussion for another day.) I’m not sure how much we can fight the tide. Regional power would be a valuable thing for MSP, and if it snaps up some of the cultural cachet of its surroundings for its own, at least that’s being valued and passed along in some form. My own city, Duluth, is aiming to follow the same path on a more modest scale, and I have no burning desire to open up a kangaroo court and judge people by some measure of alleged authenticity. On the whole, the hipster ethic at the heart of the New North blends vestiges of local culture with cosmopolitan city life, making for a richer experience for the rest of us. If done right, it really could shore up the foundations of a regional economy.

Still, I feel the need to sound a few alarm bells. The creative class theory currently in vogue has serious shortcomings. It is a mindset fully in the thralls of current economic winds, and it can further the split between this new elite and those on the outside. It’s enjoyable if you’re an upper middle class liberal (that is, the people who run Minneapolis and St. Paul, or any of the people who appeared on the panel), but for other groups, it’s a trickle-down effect at best.

So by all means, MSP, claim the mantel as the capital of the North. I may gripe, but better here than anywhere else. Just remember that your relationship with your region ought to have some give-and-take, rather than you simply being the metropole sucking all else to the center. Remember that people who are not on the cultural vanguard deserve a spot at the table. And don’t think for a moment that branding yourself as more “varied” and “diverse” will be some engine of balanced growth. It can certainly help, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And if you can acknowledge that fact, us kinda hick people from the hinterland might be a bit more willing to come along for the ride in your great new North.

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