Disjointed Vomit

16 Sep

I’m not sure when vomit is ever jointed, but the title of this post is just there to convey the sheer randomness. For starters, it’s the first post I’ve ever written in WordPress’s post box, instead of pasting from a Word document. There is no plan here. I haven’t posted in a week, and even with most of those last two posts, I’d done most of the groundwork over the summer. I just need to get something up.

It’s not for lack of effort; I did get halfway through a post that meandered through thoughts on adolescence and American culture and the state of democratic society and so on, but it was dragging, and didn’t seem to say anything I haven’t said on here before. The goal, as always, is fresh content, not endless repetition. I’ll settle for directing readers to the two articles that prompted all these thoughts. The first, by film critic A.O. Scott on adolescence in American culture, hits on themes I’ve mused about in many places, from my thoughts on U.S. foreign policy to book and film reviews. The second is by my old professor, the oft-cited Patrick Deneen, and worries about the decline of democracy in the U.S., diagnosing private obsessions and a bit of adolescence at its root. I appreciate both, but I have some critiques of them, too. If this all interests you, get back to me with a report on the articles and we can talk. Someday, I’ll get around to fleshing all of this out in a coherent way. (Yes, being back in academia is rubbing off on me. Sorry.)

Now, on to some administrative notes and a life update.

A few people had asked if, now that I’m in Minneapolis, I’d move on to covering Minneapolis public meetings. My schedule down here has decided that for me; with few free evenings, it’s not possible. So the answer is no. Likewise, watching webcasts of Duluth City Council meetings is out of the question, at least through mid-October. That said, I am still watching Duluth affairs from afar. Comments will come at some point.

I am, finally, comfortably settled in Minneapolis. My neighborhood, which is somewhere around the place where Uptown and The Wedge and Lowry Hill all come together, is a delight. This is a place where it’s easy to live well, with incredible variety all around and easy access to both the frenetic Downtown and or the relative tranquility of Lake of the Isles. Of course, there’s no Duluth-style community or solitude to be found, which I can miss at times, but I do have enough of network in this area that I’m never too far from home.

My program is a vibrant one. Some of the people involved have incredible niche interests, while others (like myself) are a bit more detached about it all, but it’s easy to see why we’re all here. The workload is not daunting (yet). I’m still feeling out what the standards are, how it compares to Georgetown, and how not to sound like an obnoxious elitist when talking about Georgetown. The lifestyle is fairly different from undergrad, as many students have already had a career of some sort, and people are married or significantly attached and just generally have busy lives away from the school bubble. Still, there’s some camaraderie building, and that should only grow. I expect my coursework will come out in a blog post or two as well. There’s lots to think about here.

The U of M is big. Really big. I’m somewhat isolated from it all on the West Bank, but it’s a change from both Duluth and the very compact Georgetown campus. Life in a larger city is inevitably a bit more fragmented, though all of the opportunities help make up for this. I enjoy being on the campus of a Big Ten (Big Fourteen? Big Sixteen? Big 37? I lose track) school, despite the mediocrity of the football team. Hey, at least they have their integrity, unlike a certain other local sports franchise that wears purple. This past week has left me relieved that I a) root for a team that does its best to do things the right way, and b) consider football inferior to most other sports out there. Maybe the football bubble is finally starting to implode. At any rate, Minnesota’s competent male professional sports franchise gets going in less than a month, and I should get out to see some Elite League high school hockey before then, too.

For someone who enjoys travel as much as I do, I’ve done shockingly little over the past two years, which means a trip to a new destination next month is very welcome. I’m off to Phoenix for a long weekend in early October, in part for a school board campaign victory party (long story), and also to visit an old friend. Blogging will ensue.

For now, though, that’s all I’ve got. Back to work.

Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches, Part II

9 Sep

As promised, here’s part two, including sections 6AA-8AA and all of the Class A coaches that I have something to say about. Part One is here.

Ken Pauly, Benilde-St. Margaret’s Pauly, now entering his 24th season coaching, is a high school hockey institution. He first took the Benilde job at the time when many private schools were on the rise, and he took his opportunity and ran with it, building the school up from nothing and having the ambition to quickly make the jump to AA. He left Benilde for a brief tenure at Minnetonka, where he also lifted that program to one of its two State berths in the past 20 years and set up a foundation for future success. His return to Benilde brought continued steady improvement, as the Red Knights are now the west side’s preeminent private hockey school. His teams play up-tempo, exciting hockey that lets players flash their offensive skills, though sometimes this has obvious consequences on the other end of the ice, with halfhearted defense and goalies hung out to dry. He’s a driven man; no one works the refs harder, and as the head of the Coaches’ Association, he’s been one of the most vocal defenders of high school hockey against other development models. That fire gets him into some trouble, but he’s certainly been one of the most influential coaches of the past two decades.

Lee Smith, Eden Prairie Smith makes for an interesting contrast to Pauly; he’s not one to actively grab the spotlight, and he doesn’t really have a distinctive style. What he does do, however, is get more out of his top players than any other coach. From Leddy to Rau to Spinner and Snuggerud, his teams revolve around those big guns, and the supporting cast usually knows its role and makes for a cohesive unit. His teams don’t do many memorable things when they don’t have those front-end stars in their primes, but when they do, few deliver as consistently and reliably. More often than not, favored, senior-heavy teams struggle with the pressure. Smith’s don’t, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Brian Urick, Minnetonka Urick seems to have a good handle on how to build a deep, successful team; there is no over-emphasis in any one particular area, and he’s had a couple of truly great teams. Minnetonka, which had been up-and-down in the past, is now a regular in the title conversation. That has only manifested itself in one trip to State, and that in a year when they had an overwhelming array of talent, though 6AA is very unforgiving. He has been outcoached tactically on occasion in big games.

Pat O’Leary, Wayzata O’Leary is one of the shortest-tenured coaches on this list, but he’s already made a distinct mark with his heavy defensive emphasis. His Wayzata teams just don’t give up much, period. He appears to be personable and well-liked, and as a young guy, he could have a long career ahead of him. The unsurprising flip side to the defensive emphasis is a lack of offensive dynamism, despite some considerable talent coming through. We’ll see if that evolves as the years go on.

Noel Rahn, Holy Family Rahn has done a good job of attracting talent to the Fire, and his players attract attention by putting up some big numbers. The move to AA was an ambitious one that probably helped that process, though it has also made it difficult to break through against the deeper suburban teams. They’ve also had some trouble keeping some of the top players they’ve attracted around until graduation. It’s all a work in progress, so we’ll see where the Fire go in the coming years.

Mike Randolph, Duluth East I could, of course, write an entire book about Randolph, who built East up from relative mediocrity and has kept the Hounds near the top of the heap for a quarter century. He couples his intensity with a complete command of the details of the game, and as a result is a very hands-on coach, always tinkering and correcting and looking for some little edge. He has learned things and evolved over the years, though there are certain constants to his complex systems that keep East relevant even when front-end talent dips. Defense comes first, the special teams are always excellent, and his teams are physical without going overboard. His weaknesses are, basically, his strengths in excess: he can be hard on his players, and try to pull too many levers instead of just turning them loose. This can create the high-pressure environment that will rub some the wrong way, and a number of his teams have caved under that pressure. Still, it’s hard to argue with the supreme confidence and the consistency of the results.

Dave Esse, Cloquet Esse does well with a program that doesn’t always have an overwhelming array of talent, and usually gets his Lumberjacks to play a complete, defensive team game. No high school coach works the trap as well as he does, and he gets his teams up for big games against rivals. In the years when he actually has had front-end talent, though, it hasn’t always come together. His fieriness has also gotten him into a brief bit of trouble.

Gordie Roberts, Elk River Roberts has the difficult task of filling Tony Sarsland’s boots; even when he wasn’t successful, Sarsland was such a distinct and memorable character that he casts a long shadow. Roberts is much more even-keeled; he’s not one to do anything radical, and has had his teams playing fairly well down the stretch, only to see things end in heartbreak two straight years. We’ll see how he responds to that, and how he evolves as time goes on.

John Rothstein, Grand Rapids Rothstein pushed the pace a bit more than his predecessor, Bruce LaRoque, did in his long stint in Rapids; the result was serious over-exposure of a thin defense. It’s still early, though, and Rapids has enough upcoming talent to make some noise.

Mark Manney, Andover It’s been up-and-down for this program, but Manney has gotten some good runs out of middling talent when they all buy in and play good defense.

Andy Lundbohm, Roseau The size of the program means Lundbohm has some challenges that most AA coaches don’t. He expects his big players to carry the load and leans on them, which is probably necessary to compete with the deeper teams out there. There were some rocky moments in the past few years, but the team held its own with some much deeper teams at State in 2014.

Jon Ammerman, Moorhead Ammerman succeeded Dave Morinville this past season, and will have to replicate his defensive success to keep up the Spuds’ strong tradition in 8AA. It’s too early to say much here. Seemed to be well-regarded in his brief stint in Windom.

Dave Aus, Brainerd (formerly of Blaine) Blaine won State the year before Aus showed up, but they’d yet to really establish themselves as a consistent contender. Under his oversight, Blaine achieved that, and is now a top-ten team year in and year out. The playoff results often did not always match regular season success, especially in his last few years in Blaine, when things seemed to snowball some. The Brainerd job should prove a very different sort of challenge, but the program has some potential, and Aus’s lack of stylistic rigidity should be a plus there.

Roy Nystrom, Albert Lea Like Lorne Grosso, Nystrom is an institution in southern Minnesota hockey, and usually does a good job of keeping his teams relevant, despite a fairly thin talent pool. He’s one of those people that make high school hockey unique, plugging along in a southern Minnesota town and putting out an entertaining squad, year after year.

Derrick Brown, Luverne Brown is very raw, but he has the confidence of someone looking to build something serious in the state’s southwest corner. He’s one worth watching.

Les Larson, Breck Despite a successful tenure to date, I just don’t have much to say about Larson. He isn’t very distinct. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also a perk of running the premier Class A program in the southern half of the state.

Mark Loahr, Totino-Grace Has had a very long tenure with many wins and numerous State berths, though he hasn’t been nearly as aggressive in building his program as some of the other private school coaches.

Jeff Poeschl, Mahtomedi A long-tenured coach, Poeschl has helped build arguably the strongest Metro Class A public program, and could be a real beneficiary of St. Thomas’s move to AA. I don’t know his work well, but he appears to be well-regarded.

Tony Couture, Little Falls Jared Festler and Ben Hanowski will help one’s coaching career, but Couture has done a nice job with a small-town program, building it into relevance and making State in 2012 without any such stars.

Bruce Plante, Hermantown Plante is the ultimate player’s coach. Easygoing and easy to play for, he turns his players loose and gets the best out of them, making for great team cohesion and some genuinely fun hockey. He’s overseen the growth of his program into a state power, and has Hermantown in a very good place going forward, with resource advantages that no Class A public school can match. I will admit that I’ve never been terribly impressed with his tactical chops, and while his shtick is amusing, his private school rants probably became a distraction after a while. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which is great when the environment is loose and upbeat, but may not help when trying to escape a frustrating string of 2nd-place finishes.

Brendan Flaherty, Duluth Marshall Flaherty built up Marshall from doormat status in the mid-90s, and his teams have been consistently relevant for the better part of a decade, with the best teams coming when they had a couple of legitimate stars to lean on. Beyond that, nothing much jumps out; he’s not especially creative, and will look to rely on his above average depth on hand to wear down thinner Class A opponents. He’s a sharp contrast to the other Duluth area coaches, most of whom are distinct characters.

Kevin Smalley, Duluth Denfeld Smalley is one of the few people on this list who’s never been to St. Paul in March, but he does well for himself, all things considered. He coaches a feisty team that, while not especially talented, gets itself up for big games against local competition, giving these teams fits with some regularity. His teams are a bit rough around the edges, and that shows when playoff time comes around, but if he keeps at it and shores up a small youth program, he’ll get there in time.

Tyler Palmiscno, East Grand Forks Palmiscno has done it by the book these past two seasons, relying on depth and great defense to win a state title. The wheels fell off against St. Thomas in 2013, but he obviously learned from that, and the confidence this past season was obvious. There’s enough talent left in the chute that he could go on a run and really make a name for himself, though some other strong 8A teams will have something to say about that.

Al Oliver, East Grand Forks assistant (formerly of Roseau) Despite not being an active head coach, Oliver is just too good of a character to be left off the list. He brings the intensity and fire, making up for his lack of a hockey background. He’s learned a few things over the years, too: while not a tactician by trade, EGF’s style bears a lot of resemblances to the great Roseau teams from 06-08, particularly in its defensive emphases. The man just screams “northern Minnesota hockey.”

Tim Bergland, Thief River Falls Bergland is not one I claim to know well, but I’m impressed just about every time I see his teams in action. His teams are scrappy and fight hard, consistently entering the Class A top ten, even though they’re not blessed with great riches. Whatever he’s doing up there, he’s doing something right. Also coached in Fergus Falls toward the tail end of their run of six straight tourney berths in the late 90s/early 00s.

Jay Hardwick, Warroad He has a couple of very talented players, but Hardwick’s Warriors were arguably the 2nd-best team in Class A last season despite not being able to match the depth of East Grand Forks. There’s something to be said for that, and he bears watching in the coming seasons.

Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches, Part I

7 Sep

The Breakdown, which puts out a superb high school hockey preview guidebook each season, recently asked me to make a fool of myself with a series of preseason predictions. In among the usual questions about who will win State and Mr. Hockey and who will be a surprise this season, there was a straightforward but very difficult question: who is the best coach in Minnesota high school hockey? I took the easy way out and was a total homer about it, but it got me thinking about the many options, and will ramble some about them here.

It’s a tough question. A coach who is right for one program at a certain time might be useless for another, and vice versa. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and bring interesting mixes of skills to the table. They also change over time, learning lessons and adapting to the different teams they have. When measuring coaches, it can also be very difficult to separate them from their programs: how on earth do you compare the work of Edina’s Curt Giles with the work of the coaches in River Lakes or Owatonna?

Instead of trying to devise a ranking, I’ve settled simply for some short descriptions of many of the most prominent coaches. I’ve tried to be fair with each of them, though that doesn’t mean I’m entirely neutral. I’ve focused on the coaches I know best; if I’ve omitted someone prominent, it’s probably because I don’t know them all that well, not because I’m trying to slight them. They’re listed in rough order by section.

Trent Eigner, Lakeville North Eigner walked into an ideal situation as the community-chosen successor to Randy Schmitz, who had been run out of town. He inherited a team that was just about ready to take off, with a rising golden generation and a section ripe for the taking, and take off it has, making the state final last season. He’s not one to over-structure things; he simply turns his players loose. This has its downsides—see last year’s state final, when the wheels fell off and people were flopping all over the place—but he’s also young and still on the learning curve, and there is plenty to be said for letting players play with their emotion. No one will be under heavier scrutiny this upcoming season.

Kurt Weber, Lakeville South Weber has been on the receiving end of some criticism over the years; in 2010 and 2011 the Cougars were favored to win 1AA, but fell to mediocre North teams. South has also seen some talent migrate north over the past few years. Still, when he did break through in 2012, he coached a game to define a career, putting in a lot of video work and planning to orchestrate the upset of Duluth East. Top players have also done pretty well under him.

Lorne Grosso, Rochester Mayo Grosso has been around forever. He’s not nearly as intense or territorial as some of the other long-tenured coaches, and seems to go with the flow. Back when he did have some serious talent in the mid-90s, his teams did quite well, finishing 4th in 1995 and giving undefeated Duluth East a one-goal quarterfinal game in 1997. Lately, there’s been so little in the pipeline that he just can’t be compared with the others here.

Curt Giles, Edina Giles is blessed with an embarrassment of talent, making him hard to measure him against the others on this list. He made some mistakes early in his career, riding his top line too often in the Budish-Everson-Lee days, and failing to deliver a title with that golden generation. One of the best marks of a successful coach, though, is his ability to learn from his mistakes, and Giles has done exactly that. He now uses all of that incredible depth at his disposal, and with three titles in five years, the results speak for themselves. He’s also drawn some criticism for reliance on younger players, but again, it’s hard to argue with success, and Edina has so many talented players that some will inevitably be jilted. He’s left his own distinct mark with Edina’s physicality—no soft cake here—and he’s also a master at line-matching. It’s hard to say how he’d do if he were thrown in somewhere else, but right now, he’s mastered the art of coaching Edina, and he’s got the hardware to back it up.

Janne Kivihalme, Burnsville Kivihalme burst on to the scene in 2007, when his Blaze went on a surprise run, beating Holy Angels in sections and made the State semis. The Finn had a bit of an aura around him, but the results haven’t quite followed since. A lot of this is due to the misfortune of sharing a section with Edina, but there have been a number of very narrow calls over the years. In spite of it all there doesn’t seem to be too much criticism in Burnsville, though they also lose top players to juniors at a faster rate than perhaps any team in the state. Nothing about his in-game coaching jumps out at me, for good or ill.

Jeff Lindquist, Bloomington Jefferson Lindquist has had the unenviable task of succeeding a legend in Tom Saterdalen, and his time at Jefferson has coincided with a drop in the talent pool on the west side of the Twin Cities’ largest suburb. He made State once and has had a couple of other teams threaten, but have usually been overwhelmed by Edina. Also had some success with Blake in the 1990s.

Joe Pankratz, Prior Lake Pankratz has quietly turned the Lakers into a relevant team, building things from the ground up. This past season was the first real bump in the road, but the future remains bright.

Mike Taylor, Eagan Taylor has been brilliant over the past few seasons, getting a lot out of teams that were supposed to be dropping off in talent. Eagan has never had the youth success of many of the top programs in the state, but the high school teams have been right there over the past five years (though some transfers do help there). He brings a strong but not excessive defensive emphasis, great tactical chops, and a complete team system that has teams looking very fluid. If there’s an obvious flaw, it’s in the poor special teams, and it’s hard to go too far with someone who’s never made a state title game. Still, he comes across as one of the most intelligent coaches in the business, and isn’t one to rock any boats. We’ll see if the success continues now that the well is drier than ever before.

Tom and Greg Vannelli, St. Thomas Academy The Vannelli brothers have built STA up from nothing, turning an also-ran into a state power. Their personalities complement each other well, with one doing the yelling and the other being more even-keeled. They run a tight ship and are good ambassadors for STA’s image, and stayed above the fray when lots of people were griping about their presence in Class A. Their style, which doesn’t vary a whole lot and places its emphasis on strong transition play, was great for Class A domination, but I wasn’t surprised to see it undone by a physical Eagan team in the first year in AA. Their success in the big school division will likely be determined by their ability to adapt to the different situations, many of which they did not see in Class A. They did a great job of building STA up, but the jury is still out on any further verdict.

Drey Bradley, Eastview Made a splash in 2013, and has built a contender out of a team without overwhelming skating talent. Tried some unique little tactics in the Tourney against Hill, though it didn’t amount to much in the end.

Jim O’Neill, Cretin-Derham Hall The Raiders under O’Neill have never become the hockey destination that other Twin Cities private schools have, but he does quite well with what he has, winning a title with a team that didn’t have much prolific talent beyond Ryan McDonagh in 2006, and making the semis again in 2009.

Bill Lechner, Hill-Murray Lechner’s even-keeled demeanor is well-suited for the Hill ethos; he comes off as a confident blueblood who stewards a storied program with ease. His biggest triumph was in 2008, when he knocked off the top two teams in the state en route to a title, and his best teams bring an intense physicality and stout defense. (Assistant Pat Schafhauser often gets some credit here.) He’s also developed a reputation strict disciplinarian with high standards for off-ice conduct. He’s good at building a winning atmosphere, which helps make up for a relative lack of tactical innovation or creativity. He inherited a great situation at Hill, but does not strike me as someone who would be great if thrown into a job with a struggling program and asked to grow it from the ground up.

Tim Sager, White Bear Lake Perhaps the most notable thing that can be said about Sager is that he is a survivor. No one has taken more heat over the years, yet he hangs in there, and has had some seasons of legitimate overachievement, as in 2011. His teams rarely have Hill’s talent, but by the playoffs they can almost always give the Pioneers a good run, usually by relying on emotion and a neutral zone trap. There has been some maddening inconsistency over the years, but through it all, the Bears put out some good talent remain perennial 4AA contenders.

Matt Doman, Stillwater He’s only had one year, but in that one year he did what no previous Pony coach could do, from Bill Lechner to Phil Housley: he got them to State. Their run through 4AA featured lots of good energy and ambition, though they were quickly throttled by Edina at State. With some talented youth teams feeding in, he’s one to watch in the coming years.

Ritch Menne, Centennial Menne also has a very short résumé, but it’s an excellent one, with two State berths in two years, both as a lower seed. His Cougars have done it with tight defense, good discipline, and just a bit of an edge. He’s another one to watch in the coming years.

Tom Starkey, Maple Grove It’s way too early to say much about Starkey, but his team was consistently in the picture last season, and given the strength of the program, he’ll be under the spotlight. He has a chance to leave his mark in a section that is fairly open for the taking.

I’m breaking this post into two so that it isn’t overly long. Here is part two.

‘Boyhood’ and Life in Time

31 Aug

Near the end Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the protagonist’s mother, Olivia, has a breakdown. Her son, Mason, is just about to head off to college, and she suddenly realizes that her life, long defined by the routine events of her children’s growth, will now lack any such signifiers.  A droll remark from Mason eases her back off the edge of the cliff, but—aside from making any boy away from home immediately want to call his mother—her moment of realization shows how we make sense of the passage of time. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same actors, this is Boyhood’s revelation: it distills a childhood into a series of memories, flashing by in jarring little vignettes, exactly as we’d all remember it all as we look back on our first eighteen years.

Some of these moments are obvious, shared across many lives: family moves, fights with stepfathers, a first drink, a memorable 15th birthday, first sex. Others are distinct to Mason’s memory: his sister’s mannerisms, a haircut forced by a stepfather, a camping trip with real dad just after Mason’s voice drops, a change that coincides with his acceptance of his wandering father’s role in his life. There is no serious attempt to build a narrative through them all, but it all fits together seamlessly because this, we know, is how life flows. Meaning only comes out in retrospect, and often in the strangest of places. Boyhood knows this intimately.

Boyhood, for Linklater, is far from a youthful idyll, and one suspects it would have been the same even if the protagonist hadn’t been the child of a single mother who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. It is often defined by its most painful moments, and awkwardness and social struggle abounds. Those moments of boyish bliss are there from time to time, but the film persistently reminds us that innocence is far from the starting state of human life. Even so, nostalgia builds as the moments flash by, the past always seeming a bit less complicated simply because there was less for us to remember. Memory is the root of complication that breeds frustration, yet only by fitting those memories into a story does anything begin to make sense.

Manhood is just as much of a theme as boyhood in the film. Olivia’s three lovers are all sorry weaklings, two alcoholics desperately trying to impose order on a world that won’t cooperate, and Mason Senior, who spends the first forty years of his life just going with the flow, failing to take on anything more than the most routine responsibilities. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Senior is aware enough to recognize this, but only in time does he move past his self-absorption and see his son as a partner in a journey, one who is very much his own son, and in need of a guide who has been down this road and learned a thing or two. His growth over the course of the film is as dramatic as Mason’s, and his time away from his son gives him a sense of perspective that Olivia, forever down in the trenches, cannot match.

Mason doesn’t find much in the way of male peer companionship, either. As an introvert whose family is often on the move, he builds little that lasts, and his friends rarely aspire to anything more than instant gratification. It’s no wonder that his relationships with girls come to predominate the last hour of the film. He plays along with the dalliances of his peers without any serious discomfort, but he aspires to something else and wanders alone, his father coming out in him as he loses himself in photography. Here, finally, he finds an outside adult who takes interest, a photography teacher who tries to give his work ethic a bit of a nudge. Somewhere in here are the beginnings of a serious investigation of manhood in modern American life, a fascinating topic never far from my mind whose delicacy has kept me from tackling it head-on in this blog to date. (Too often, the fate of boys is tied up in a comparison to girls. While this has considerable merit—as the prevalence of certain gaps and some of the teenage misogyny in the film shows—the experience of growing up male needs to be confronted on its own terms, not just in relation to the opposite sex.)

Boyhood takes cinematic realism toward its furthest possible extreme. There is nothing at all remarkable in the circumstances of Mason’s childhood; sure, his home life is far from ideal and he dabbles in drugs at a relatively young age, but none of this goes to the extreme. It is just the story of a childhood, only one step removed from a documentary. The film looks good, but there are relatively few artistic and philosophical flourishes, separating Boyhood from the “self-conscious grandiosity” (in the words of Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) of the similarly-themed Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Malick takes ordinary life and tries to find transcendent meaning; Linklater takes ordinary life and revels in the simple idea of being ordinary. If Malick echoes Kierkegaard, Linklater echoes Camus.

Of course, some critics would rather have their grandiose gestures (and lest I sound opposed to them, I adore Tree of Life). In a withering takedown of all things that attempt to be “relatable,” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker blasts Boyhood as “the apotheosis” of art aiming to speak to viewers on a solipsistic level, with the novelty of the passage of time covering up a “the banality of the plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization.” This trouble will confront any work of art that tries to describe things as they are, and trying to pin down an “average” American childhood or other such experience will inevitably hit upon a number of well-worn themes.

There is more to Boyhood, however, than just relatability and the novelty of the twelve-year project. Parts of Mason’s childhood are clearly relatable, but that’s hardly true for every viewer, and there is just enough instability in his life that a happy ending isn’t quite a given. There is something else going on here. The philosophical musings of Mason and his teenage friends, while often half-formed and not entirely original, are also not thoughts straight out of a can. The struggle is evident, and if that’s what is most “relatable” here, it is because this really is a universal: we all face these questions in life, and they do not come along as platonic ideals placed in front of us by some philosophy professor up in the sky, but within the muck of daily life as we confront obstacles with which we have no prior experience. We’re frustrated and we don’t quite see the full picture, and thus the things Mason and company observe don’t seem hackneyed; they’re genuine struggles. Unlike most any other film, they really don’t know where their story will go.

This is how the Big Questions in life come to us, and Boyhood captures that lurching evolution in a novel, precise manner. If the goal of social realism is to show us how we live, Boyhood gives the ‘how’ a new dimension, grappling not just with the passage of time, but the manner in which we perceive and remember it. It’s not relatable just because people can see bits of themselves in Mason, but because their very experience of living is just like Mason’s. Boyhood is art that seeks to make sense of life, and while that is not all that art can or should do, its power in this field overwhelms any weaknesses elsewhere. It is a triumph.

Utraque Unum

28 Aug

To date, I’ve avoided discussing my alma mater, Georgetown University, in much detail on this blog. My thoughts are convoluted, and I wanted to gain a little more distance from those four years before doing so. I think I’m finally there, and a new book provides a great vehicle for writing about my time as a Hoya. This summer, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz penned a book entitled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. It’s a variation on an old theme, one confronted by Allan Bloom’s closing American mind, David Brooks’s Organization Kid, and any number of cultural critics over the past few decades. The premise is simple: so-called ‘elite’ universities are failing students, turning intellectually sharp kids into corporate drones who ask no great questions who are just obsessed with climbing the ladder of wealth and power.

The vast majority of these essays are incredibly personal in nature; the main piece will describe the author’s time at University X and the troubles he or she has seen, and everyone else associated with any school that is vaguely comparable to University X is then obligated to opine. (Opining is, after all, what academics are good at.) I now present my offering in that noble tradition, though I hope this meta-awareness keeps me from falling into some of the more familiar traps.

I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, of course, but my alma mater isn’t far off. Particularly for the politically inclined, Georgetown is that shining city on a hill above the Potomac, its allure sometimes surpassing that of the Ivies. It has the admissions rate to match, even if the endowment lags; relying on the Catholic Church to fund one’s first few centuries kept the school from seeking donations as aggressively as its Ivy friends, leading Georgetown to expend a lot of effort in recent capital campaigns. It qualifies as an “elite school,” whatever that exactly means.

There was a time when I was rather critical of my alma mater, and I agree with a number of Deresiewicz’s critiques. In my senior year, I actually discouraged a high school friend from applying, and I stand by that call. The most surprising thing to me was what I perceived as a general lack of intellectual curiosity on display. I went in thinking Georgetown students were in some higher class of brilliance that my high school peers; some certainly were, but many were not. They’d just been raised in families with higher expectations, and come out of private high schools and SAT tutoring programs that specialize in funneling kids into elite colleges. They knew the landscape better, but their minds weren’t any sharper for it.

Careerism pervaded many aspects of university life. Dating, while possible, was rare: few felt it worthwhile to put in the effort, especially with grad school and travel and a decade of way-finding to follow. It was much easier to just find a good weekend hook-up and then get back to our frantic studies once the hangover had worn off. And while there was a small cadre of radicals, political debate was pretty rare, too. Elite American universities are nothing like the politically charged incubators of protest they might have been in past generations, with a vague social liberalism and fiscal moderation just accepted as the general culture. The primary aim of a Georgetown student is to “be productive;” it doesn’t really matter what they think of the things they produce, so long as they are producers.

At one point, I also became aware that a certain professor generally regarded as the don of campus intellectual life had opined that the decline in student interest in certain fellowships and related pursuits was related the increase in middle-class students from the center of the country. These students, lacking the comfort of the old money elites that had traditionally populated schools like Georgetown, were a bit more careerist and didn’t have as much time for intellectual pursuits. At the time this sentiment pissed me off, and I still think our dear professor ought to have descended from his ivory tower and made a better pitch to those of us who didn’t know what sort of path we’d have to take to pursue such things, but I don’t think he was wrong. It is very difficult to be a detached intellectual without a certain degree of material comfort. Still, I think there was an untapped market there for him, and for a somewhat hotheaded college student, those sorts of words are alienating. It’s a shame, because I usually respond well to hard-asses, and could have used him in my life.

This unexpected careerism caused some culture shock, which was heightened by questions of money and hometown. In high school, I’d never found class to be a serious barrier for communing with other people; in college, I was hyper-aware of my status as the kid on heavy financial aid from a small city somewhere in flyover country. (A conversation repeated numerous times: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Duluth, Minnesota.’ ‘Is that near the Twin Cities?’ ‘No.’ This elicited shock, as the person tried to fathom life beyond the suburban ring.) I’ve playfully mocked the University of Minnesota for having a course in “Understanding Minnesota Nice,” but I could have used a crash course in DC culture before I got there.

In retrospect, I was a bit uncharitable to many of my classmates and the old guard professors, and my Duluth pride may have understandably come off as rather obstinate, or just quirky. I was just someone from somewhere else; an occasional object of curiosity, but most people were too busy to sit about and ponder these things. I don’t blame them; outside of a fairly close circle of friends, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering them, either. I had all the same concerns, and might have looked just as intellectually disinterested as the rest. Most of us were in the same boat.

The reasons for that often had little to do with Georgetown. This is life in America’s quasi-meritocracy, and the school is swept up in that; sure, it can and should do some work around the margins to tone that down, but only so much. (What’s it supposed to do, reject applicants with awesome resumes? Paternalistically crack down on students’ love lives? Good luck with that.) In the grand scheme of things, my struggles were pretty minor, and by graduation I’d more or less found my niche. That’s adolescent life, really. In this, I agree with the Robert Nisbet critique, detailed in Nathan Heller’s New Yorker review of Excellent Sheep: expecting a university to be a place where people focus on shaping their souls inflates its role, and also takes a rather solipsistic view of education. It’s not all about us.

Likewise, some of my frustrations with Georgetown had a lot more to do with me than with Georgetown. My rural Ohio roommate, for example, had a much smoother transition. I went in naïve about certain aspects of college life; throw in some family upheaval, and it wasn’t hard for an already introspective person to tip over into hyper-awareness. Add in a temperament generally skeptical of cliques, one that is equally at ease discussing Aristotle over wine one night and watching football over cheap beer the next, and it’s no surprise that I was adrift by sophomore year. Building community is tough when you don’t always share some of those lowest-common-denominator cultural norms, yet aren’t happy drifting off into a narrower counterculture, either.

Reading all this, you’d probably get the sense that I wasn’t very happy at Georgetown. There were definitely some frustrating moments. But if I could go back and do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat, and I’d push any kids of mine who share my temperament to do the same. Why? It’s a matter of ambition; for some of us, nothing short of this will ever do. Ambition and anxiety are joined at the hip, and I had to get beyond college to learn how to negotiate that interplay. That drive is too much of who I am to imagine a different life, and I expect it’s the same with many of my peers. It might not make sense to someone from the outside, but some of us are just wired this way, and there is no alternative.

On that front, Georgetown really did get a lot right. It prepped me well and got me to think deeply. The vast majority of the time I had real professors (not grad students), most of them brilliant. Sure, the students were career-focused, but the best of the professors knew how to pull them out of that and tap into some well-hidden intellectual energy. Anyone claiming they weren’t getting that out of their students probably wasn’t trying hard enough, or was failing to communicate or command respect. I also saw that my focus on the superficial was often just as bad as that of others, and that I had to dig deeper to find more.

Georgetown’s emphasis on faith, diversity, and social justice did seem like window dressing at times, but in a world hyper-saturated with opportunity, the school probably had to be a bit repetitive to get its point across. The Office of Mission and Ministry might not have quite satisfied the hardline Catholics, but it did leave a door open for exploration and allow for the creation of healthy minority communities. (In this day in age, any religious group on campus is a minority.) The same could be said for racial or sexual minorities, who had their spaces on campus. The Center for Social Justice likewise was pretty robust, and did a decent job of getting Hoyas out of the Georgetown Bubble to realize there was a wider world out there. Maybe there was no ideal spot for me there since I didn’t quite fit in any of the above, but I refuse to be a whiny victim about that. If Georgetown was indeed supposed to help me find my soul, it really did that. I’m probably in the minority there, but the path was open for anyone willing to take it; I wouldn’t even say it was particularly hard to do so. Even though I’m a Minnesotan at heart, I needed to get out and see Rome, and there were things I learned about myself there (and in that sublime semester in Mexico) that I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else.

I’ll throw in one last cynical twist, though: frankly, I went overboard in finding myself, often to the detriment of my relationships with the people around me. Add in some excessive pride over doing things my own way, and it’s no wonder I came out of there without any sort of career path. The debate between career readiness and soul formation is a false dichotomy. A university can’t do either one alone, but there’s no reason it can’t contribute to some of both. Hence the Georgetown motto, ‘Utraque unum’—‘both one.’ The eagle on the Georgetown seal holds the world in one talon and a cross in the other, uniting faith and reason.

The people who best embodied this were the professors. They imparted wisdom both personal and practical, and also taught us in things that were not relevant to our immediate careers. For some Hoyas that meant courses with people with real-world experience, like Madeleine Albright or Chuck Hagel; for me, it meant finding the university’s best minds. My path involved the Classicist icon Fr. James Schall, rising stars like Fr. Matthew Carnes and Desha Girod, the incredible detachment of Eusebio Mujal-Leٚón, the badass Barbara Mujica, and Patrick Deneen, that old guard conservative who was the great defender of liberal education. They’re the enduring images of my undergraduate academic career. The best of their number were all authorities who commanded respect, even as they invited us to fumble about with our own two cents.

It’s also not coincidental that a couple of them were Jesuits; in fact, I think they were all Catholic. As tiresome as some of the university’s canards on faith became, that unending presence made Georgetown unique. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve directed all of my (puny) donations to date to Georgetown mission and ministry. That unique identity is worth cultivating, and is essential in keeping the university from becoming a factory of careerist automatons. When it comes to reining that in, schools rely on what they know best, and keep with a mission that survives the march of time. If you can’t stand being in the presence of Catholics, don’t go to a Catholic school. There should be diverse options among colleges, and that diversity should mean something, instead of it just being a cheap selling point.

Georgetown and its ilk are not for everyone, nor should they be. We don’t want a world where everyone is a hyper-driven Hoya; we need people with different temperaments. I’m at a big state school now, and while it’s too early for me to say much about it, they certainly have their strengths: size begets diversity and sub-cliques that aren’t possible at smaller schools. Liberal arts colleges have their place as well, for those who really want to go all-in on the soul formation and have the resources to make it work. Vocational training is also essential, and deserves higher repute; perhaps more than anything, higher ed in this country needs to revive traditions such as the apprenticeship, and give kids easier roads from school to career so that they don’t come out panicking about what comes next. Paradoxically, a more direct career focus could free people up to spend more time on those questions of the soul that usually get forgotten when we have to figure out how to put food on the table.

But for those of us who can’t live without that constant pursuit of greatness, whatever that might be, the Ivy League and its ilk are necessary. Somewhere underneath it all, there’s usually a desire for a completed soul, and that too can be the object of our pursuit of excellence—and just like careerism, it can go overboard. There is nowhere better than these schools to find that holistic place where the both become one. Maybe I’m a sellout in my acceptance of all this blind ambition, but if I am, I make no apologies. The trouble is not in the chase; it is in refusing to look back to see where we’ve come from.

Reaching Zen: Duluth School Board Notes, 8/19/14

20 Aug

On Tuesday night, I attended my final ISD 709 School Board meeting before heading south to Minneapolis. I had a rant prepped for the citizen speaker session, but after a good day I was feeling Zen about it all and decided that it would be hypocritical to belabor my points in lashing out at Board Members for belaboring their points. At a certain point the vitriol in the room just becomes tiresome, and I didn’t want to cross that line. I’m in a good enough place that I don’t need that catharsis.

It took 38 minutes to approve the agenda at this meeting, which tells you everything you need to know about it. Member Welty tried to make two amendments to the agenda, the first of which demanded a thorough review of the soft costs of the Red Plan, and the second of which sought to insure that the District would pay any legal costs incurred by a Board Member in the event that they are investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing. I won’t rehash all of the painful exchanges, but I will offer a few conclusions on an all-too-familiar night in the Board Room:

This Board operates under a tyranny of the majority. It just does. They refuse to let Members Johnston and Welty get anything on the agenda at all. This doesn’t give the minority free reign to use any guerrilla tactic they like, but it does make their reactions more understandable, even if they don’t serve any constructive end. The stonewalling of any questions also breeds resentment, and despite the stated aims of the majority of moving past the Red Plan debate, it is a sure way to make sure the aggrieved parties do not drop their case. It’s a bad move, both for the Board’s short-term image and its long-term aims of moving past the Red Plan. They leave Member Welty, a reasonable man, with the undesirable options of submission or relentless protest.

The bunker mentality in the majority reigns supreme. It would be so much easier for the majority to fork over the information Members Welty and Johnston want, then put it all to rest. Admittedly, I am a bit skeptical of Member Johnston’s claim that he’d just let things rest if they had the conversation before voting his proposals down; his track record there is against him, and this may be why some don’t want to have these discussions. There is a lot of posturing and point-proving going on here that may or may not serve any constructive purpose, and the strict emphasis on soft costs is curious. Still, it’s a lot easier to claim the high ground when one does make a genuine effort to be reasonable. Excepting Member Harala and, on one or two occasions, Member Loeffler-Kemp, the Board’s majority has not done that.

Despite one claim by Member Welty, I don’t think the Board’s actions are illegal. They’re allowed to come up with their own ways for putting things on the agenda. (The same could be said for the decision to impose the Red Plan without a vote way back when.) It’s just a poor PR move for them to act in the way they do, and is certainly not in the spirit of a cohesive democracy.

On a broader level, the lack of transparency is disappointing, and pervades the administration beyond the complaints of two dissident Board Members. Try being a journalist looking for some pretty straightforward information ISD 709. (No, I’m not talking about Loren Martell.) Even Superintendent Gronseth’s updates often sound like canned press releases—perhaps because he is, indeed, reading straight from a canned press release. The attempt to control the narrative is way too heavy-handed.

Having the Board pay Member Johnston’s legal fees was never going to fly. It’s a noble idea, but it just isn’t done. From my rudimentary research, there is some possibility that Member Johnston could recoup some of the costs if exonerated, but that would require further legal proceedings. In the case of the Clintons’ Whitewater investigation, for example, a federal court ruled that there was a good chance the charges against them would have come up with or without the role of government representatives in bringing about the charges, and they were thus on the hook for the bill. The proposal brought forward by Member Welty was far too vague, and he needs some serious legal consultation if he wants to get a more complex version that actually would work, if that’s even possible.

Chair Miernicki is in over his head. This meeting was a painful display of inept procedure, with the Chair quickly growing flustered by the protests of Members Welty and Johnston. It is tough to watch an otherwise jolly and easygoing man get flummoxed by the criticism directed his way, and when the minority presses his points, he comes across like a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats. Given the added fact of his involvement in the case against Member Johnston, I think he should resign his chairmanship. The position would be passed to Member Westholm, who agrees with Chair Miernicki on everything policy-wise, but has yet to ever lose his calm in a meeting. This would be beneficial for the Board as a whole.

Given the persistent intransigence of Member Johnston, I admit this is a hard job to hold. In retrospect, I may have been overly harsh on Tom Kasper’s attempt to balance everything. He did a much better job of choosing his battles with Member Johnston, and because of that he usually held the high ground when they had their disputes. The same cannot be said of Chair Miernicki. He’s hurting his own case, and continues to do so at every meeting.

What’s going on at Laura MacArthur?

For a third time, an update from Laura MacArthur Elementary principal Nathan Glockle was on the Education Committee docket. For a third time, it was tabled, ostensibly because Mr. Glockle could not make the meeting. One conflict is understandable; three starts to get a little suspicious. There were legitimate concerns about the curriculum being offered at Laura Mac, and now the Board will not get an update before the start of the new school year. That’s disappointing.

For all the craziness in the Board Room, there’s a lot to be proud of in ISD 709.

I’ve noted this before, but it’s worth emphasizing again: there’s a giant disconnect between the cattiness in the Board room and the reality in much of the District. It hired 55 new teachers for this coming year. (Even with retirements and such, that’s a lot.) As usual, Member Harala brought enthusiasm to the Education Committee report, plugging great things like Head Start expansion and community gardens. Local philanthropy for the schools remains excellent. New policies on bullying, harassment, and violence went into effect; while there are some fine points there to be ironed out in each of them (for example, why has the Board requested reports on all harassment cases, but not on incidents of violence?), but this is important for accountability and building better school environments. Everyone enjoyed the presentation they’d received from the East and Denfeld robotics teams, with Member Welty in particular waxing over the bridging of the east-west divide done by the students involved. I could go on and on. These positive developments don’t necessarily make up for large class sizes and cut courses and test score gaps, but that strong civic culture will keep ISD 709 strong, no matter what lunacy the Board Members pursue. Schools are about more than test scores, and in most (though certainly not all) of those intangible categories, ISD 709 is exemplary.

***

And so I bid the School Board farewell, at least for now. Thanks to the three Board members who are my loyal readers. It’s probably not coincidental that you three are, in my mind, the most objective on the Board, and the most likely to guide it into a post-Red Plan era. My following among the Board Members was much smaller than my following among the City Councilors (which, without over-inflating my own role, is rather telling when it comes to Board members’ openness and willingness to engage citizens), but at least there was something, and I thank you for that. Thanks also to Jana Hollingsworth, my News Tribune partner in crime; I admire your ability to endure these meetings for years on end while remaining objective, and I hope I’ve given you a good outlet for some of those reactions that you can’t fit within the sometimes narrow lines of contemporary print journalism.

I’m not sure my alma mater is in a better place than it was when I left it six years ago, but thanks to some lurching progress in recent years, it’s not demonstrably worse either, and the bar was pretty high to begin with. For all the Board room madness I’m still very proud of it, and I’ll still be back to visit when time allows. Hockey season is just around the corner, isn’t it? In the meantime, I’ll leave it with the words of guest speaker Cassandra Dahnke of the Institute for Civility in Government. They’ve been said before, but they are excellent advice for the Board members: “You don’t want to be a community that falls apart because you can’t talk to each other.” Daunting as it may be, it is in the interests of both sides to come to one another in good faith, and hopefully the few that do so can build some sort of coalition. Perchance to dream.

One Last Time: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/18/14

18 Aug

It was a tame last night for me in the Council Chamber, with a small crowd and a light agenda. Councilor Julsrud and President Krug were both absent, meaning Vice President Larson got to assume the center seat. There was no report from the administration, and introductory Councilor comments were limited to Councilor Gardner’s celebration of summer break.

The first public speaker was Ms. Karen Lewis, who returned to the Council Chamber to express her concerns about a smattering of public safety issues, including sinkholes and other walking hazards, Park Point zoning, and a good balance in safety lighting. There was also a second public speaker, though we’ll get to his words later.

After again tabling Councilor Hanson’s proposed DECC casino, a resolution on the sale of tax forfeited properties on Park Point came off the table for consideration. As Councilor Russ explained, there had initially been much concern over the plan to sell all of the land between 13th and 16th Streets as one parcel, so the county land department had chosen to divide it up. The land will be offered at auction sometime around November, and while neighbors will not get to bid before anyone else, they will get complete information sent to them on the opportunity. Councilor Gardner added that everything from here on out will be handled by the county, which is running the sale. The resolution passed unanimously.

Councilor Fosle pulled a resolution on stoplight funding from the consent agenda, but only so that he could give a concerned constituent a proper explanation. The $500,000 to be spent on stoplights had already been funded by the existing street light fee, and even though Councilor Folse “hated” that fee, he said it was “part of the plan all along” and would increase efficiency and save money in the long run. It too passed unanimously.

A resolution approving $2 million in funding for the Wade Stadium restoration brought out the most comments, though they were all in agreement. Councilor Hanson, a former Wade employee and baseball player whose district includes the stadium, was especially excited, noting numerous possible economic opportunities. Councilor Filipovich talked up the Wade’s historical value, while Councilor Hanson sang the praises of artificial turf; Councilor Russ was disappointed to hear a scoreboard upgrade wouldn’t happen until phase two (presumably next year). Councilor Fosle was “happy the state finally listened” to their pleas for Wade money, and was pleased to learn that the tourism tax for the St. Louis River corridor could be directed to the stadium. It passed unanimously.

Councilor Gardner gave a few more details on an ordinance detailing regulations for microdistilleries, but that was it for the meeting. Councilor Sipress talked up a resolution on a Lakewalk taskforce that would come forward in next week’s meeting, while Councilor Russ shared her excitement over the NorShor Theater’s restoration. Councilor Gardner gave an update on the Park Point beach accesses, saying there were “legitimate concerns” about the health of dunes at some of the Tier Two accesses. The plans for the Tier One accesses will move forward, while Tier Two will undergo review from a citizen group. Councilor Larson praised a pair of new bike trails, Councilor Hanson plugged a possible new sports dome, and with that, my work was done. They let me off easy at the end here.

***

The second citizen speaker was me. (Props to VP Larson for asking how to pronounce my last name before calling me up.) Here are my prepared remarks:

Good evening Councilors, I’m Karl Schuettler, and as you may know, I’ve been lurking in this hall for the past year and a half and writing about your meetings. This will be my last one for the time being, as I’m heading south for graduate school later this week. I’d just like to take a moment to thank you all for your service. I’ve had my moments of disagreement with all of you, but I’ve heard insights and profound observations out of everyone here. Duluth is fortunate to have a cohesive Council that manages to think broadly, even though nearly all of you belong to the same political party. There is always room for more opinions, but this Council has a good, healthy debate at nearly every meeting, and it listens to citizens who approach it in good faith. There’s a lot to be said for that.

I’m also encouraged by a lot of what I’ve seen in this city lately. As I’ve left Duluth and come back several times, the changes that happen gradually are more striking to me than they might be to those who never leave: Duluth now seems cleaner, safer, and more vibrant, with a rich and unique local culture taking off. We’ve come a long way from the post-industrial mire of the 1980s that still afflicts so many Midwestern manufacturing centers. Still, I’ve found myself drawn to urban planning not just by enthusiasm for the new developments. Sustained growth requires a detached weighing of priorities, and must also make sure that longtime residents’ mundane needs are not neglected in the rush toward the newer, more inspiring ideas. Whatever direction it takes, Duluth needs to maintain a holistic vision of city government that encompasses both idealistic planning and popular concern about the consequences of that planning. With that vision in place, the next cycle in Duluth’s history holds great promise.

Thank you, and with any luck, I’ll be back at it here in two years’ time.

***

We’ll have to wait and see about that. Thanks to the Council for its welcome and support over the past two years, and thanks to the many of you out there who I know read this. (Hey CAO Montgomery, approve that job action form for the library delivery driver position. Seriously, they need it.) I’ll do my best to keep up from Minneapolis as time allows, though I’m not nerdy enough to drop other Monday night plans to watch a webcast. For the most part it’s been good fun, and even when it wasn’t, it was enlightening. I wish the Councilors luck, hope a few citizens can pick up the slack, and beyond that, I’ll never be too far away. We’ll be in touch.

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