On the Intellectual World

25 Jan

I embarked on my second semester of graduate school this past week. My degree program, urban planning, is a fairly practical one, and the general tenor of most (though not all) classes is entirely different from the high intellectualism I explored as an undergraduate at Georgetown.

I have a complicated relationship with that intellectual world. I was probably as excited as anyone in my Intro to Planning course over opportunities to debate phenomenology and critical theory and Marxism and whatnot, and as a person who comes at all of this from a fairly different philosophical background from most of my classmates, I rather enjoy the occasional opportunity to push the envelope. (They mostly come at things from somewhere on the political left; I come from here, wherever that is.) I’m the sort of person who will, upon seeing someone like Hannah Arendt on my syllabus, stay up two hours later than I intended so as to read her.

Despite my obvious nerdiness, I’ve never self-identified as a nerdy person, and am rather proud of this. This is in part due to my interests outside of intellectual pursuits—as a kid, I much preferred sports to video games, and never got into the faddish card games that came along—but I think there was something deeper at work. It was one of the great benefits of being formed by a high school where it was perfectly normal for kids to pursue academic greatness and still be well-liked, and by a family where reading fat, heavy books was a routine activity. I might have taken it to an extreme, but I was allowed to do that without anyone criticizing that, and am eternally thankful. It’s just one of the things I do sometimes as I play around with this world around me.

Make no mistake: I do think it is crucially important. It’s an essential foundational block without which culture, society, and civilization itself have no true basis. These questions are essential because they are the ones that lead humans to reach toward great heights, dream great dreams, perhaps even quest for utopia. It’s impossible to do so without some idea of where one is going, or at least a vague idea of how to get there. Debating these things with other well-versed people is one of the fires of life, and anyone with any hope of molding the surrounding world must understand what is at stake. This is why I venture in: there is no alternative. I need answers, or, perhaps better said, I need the right questions.

Too many people interested in that intellectual world, however, can get far too wrapped up in it. When I’ve done that, I rarely look back on those periods of time with fondness unless the philosophical inquiry was done in partnership with other people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of life.

To find out why, we might as well circle back to Hannah Arendt, who made a distinction between active and contemplative life. Both are clearly essential, and Arendt must no doubt have spent many long hours in the contemplative realm to emerge with the insights she found. She likewise accords due respect to private life—another sphere I value greatly—and the need to take care of business at home. Any complete conception of life must include a defense of the mundane, daily things we do, including some simple and even some of the world’s less refined delights. They are part of the human condition as well. But beyond this lies an active, public life, and this is the only realm where humans can find greatness. All of that contemplative thought is useless if it’s never shared with anyone; the private life alone becomes tautological, life for life’s sake and nothing more.

The active life is not always an easy one for those whose first instincts trend inward. I choose my words carefully so as to avoid coming off as a miserably self-absorbed intellectual, and I don’t always pull it off. My abortive novel-writing attempts have, on a certain level, been attempts to take all the philosophy and political theory and filter them down into readily understandable terms, spoken through characters who are nothing like an ancient Greek philosopher, but manage to convey a few of their thoughts in a coherent way. Sooner or later, it had to come out. That call into the arena can’t be written off, despite the many philosophical and religious traditions that try to bracket it, and put it aside.

There are risks, of course: hubris, pride, and a failure to slide back into the reflective cycle. But if the foundation truly is in place, then—and only then—is the well-ordered mind ready to venture out, channel it all in the right direction, and take the lead; with humility, certainly, but also enough confidence to know that, somewhere, things do hold together and make sense, and it’s all being channeled in the proper direction.

Against ‘The West Wing’

16 Jan

Strange kid that I was, I only watched one television show with serious regularity through my teenage years. That show was The West Wing. It was certainly better television than the alternatives, but behind the brilliant acting and clever wordplay was an all too accurate insight into our political world, one covered up by the feel-good veneer of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts. Pete Davis tells the whole story in a fantastic column over on Front Porch Republic. If you’re a Wingnut, click the link and read it.

I won’t rehash too much of the same territory, but my experience was exactly like Davis’s, and at Georgetown, I found myself surrounded by fellow West Wing junkies who would indeed have watch parties and use the show to inspire their political scheming. Its ethos fed Obama-mania, making people think politics was a simple matter of well-heeled liberals using lofty rhetoric and snappy arguments to drive their opponents into submission. Politics becomes something that wise people off in Washington do for us, not something we ourselves actually do. (Unless, of course, we expected to be those people in Washington someday, which many of us did.) Behind the lofty soundtrack we find an administration that has no great vision, yet somehow manages to come across as brilliant in its advancement of wonky, incremental liberal policies. And we wonder why the Obama Administration has had so much trouble being liked.

I don’t think this is a terrible failing of the show that renders it useless; in fact, it is all too illustrative of the siloed nature of the U.S. political elite. It is a pathology especially common among young college grads, in which people like to think they are not elites and care about the people around them, even dedicate their lives to helping them, yet do so from a distance, quickly losing touch. Internet culture aids this phenomenon, as people group together and only read the media they like and interact with like-minded people. Everyone smiles and feels all happy and warm, nodding gravely at the words of one’s fellow travelers. These people then head out into the world and try to do good and show everyone else the right way, and cannot for the life of them understand why their ideas are so harshly rejected. Political opponents are then labeled “dumb” and “crazy,” and the vicious cycle begins anew.

The West Wing is not a window into politics, you see; it is a window into one very narrow, wonkish dreamland conception of politics. The two shows Davis recommends at the end of the piece are far more accurate portraits of politics, despite the relative lack of actual political institutions. They are also the best two shows that have been on television in my lifetime. The raw grittiness of The Wire and the meditative humanity of Friday Night Lights allow TV to do what film cannot, weaving together stories of lives over five seasons, showing how personalities collide and interact and carve out little spaces for themselves, their ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ ever so fleeting. This is politics in the Greek sense, deeply (small-r) republican and lived out in daily life. While not without their flaws, they come much closer to approximating actual political existence within an inner city (The Wire) and exurban/small-town/rural America (FNL) than any explicitly ‘political’ drama ever could.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the stretch of episodes most West Wing fans would label as its pinnacle is the conclusion of Season Two, when the news of President Bartlet’s long-hidden multiple sclerosis slowly comes out. This stretch is only peripherally about political practice, and is much more about the psychological inner drama of the President’s inner circle and, above all, the President, whose re-election decision hinges on his relationship with a deceased secretary and some daddy issues tied up in his faith. I don’t know if Sorkin and company really intended to create a model for how political culture should work, but on that level, the show fails. The West Wing is at its best when it’s a character study in the vein of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, examining the decisions people make in response to circumstances in their lives, and in revealing the thought processes of people caught up within a particular silo. Its reach is deep, but it is not broad, and if we try to pretend it is so, we’ve taken a good show too far and ruined it.

Like Davis, I still enjoy aspects of The West Wing, and have it to thank for much of my childhood political interest. In a roundabout way, it led me to where I am now. But its political culture is a terrible guide, and leads toward some sort of humility-free, revenge-of-the-nerds world that will never get us anywhere. The few reality checks are maudlin, and the characters are too caught up in their destinies as political operatives to ever show the rest of us the way. Washington will never change if we continue to think of it as a battleground, or a prize to be won. That process must start at home, and in practicing a humane politics in the places we live. If we’re looking for the good life, the Taylors of Dillon, Texas are far better guides than Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborn.

Learning How to Win

11 Jan

It’s been an unfamiliar sort of season for the Duluth East boys’ hockey team. With a new core and the burden of history, they’re off to a slow start, and there’s been a bit of declinist hysteria (all from outside the program, from what I’ve seen) surrounding a team that would, in a vacuum, simply be finding its way through a difficult schedule. But this is the burden of putting on the jersey of a six-time defending section champion with a target on its back. That burden can also be a source of inspiration, as was the case last season, when 7AA’s confident bluebloods stole a section title away from rising Elk River. Which story will be that of the 2014-2015 Hounds? My visit to Duluth this past week coincided with three of their biggest home games of the year, a stretch that included a decent win, an ugly loss, and a quality effort in a losing cause. As we enter the second half of the regular season, here’s my report on the state of the Hounds—a team that, in the words of its coach, is still “learning how to win.”

The week began in front of a packed Heritage Center for the yearly renewal of the crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld. Long cannon fodder for the Hounds, the Hunters surged to relevance two years ago when they beat East and made the 7A section final, and this year’s team looks to be on par with that one. The Hunters came out fired up and led 2-1 after a strong first period, but East regrouped in the locker room and went on to play solid system hockey the rest of the way. The only real issue from then on was special teams; Denfeld briefly tied the game on a late second period goal, and East squandered numerous power plays in the 3rd before giving the Hunters a breath of life with two late penalties of their own. Even so, they limited chances effectively, and held on for a 4-3 win.

The stakes grew higher on Thursday, when Grand Rapids came to town in a crucial 7AA battle. The Hounds embarrassed the Thunderhawks in Grand Rapids last season, and Rapids was only too pleased to return the favor this year. Once again, a poor first period was East’s undoing, as they were completely worked over by the Rapids forwards and down 2-0 at the intermission. Once again they did a reasonably good job of getting to their systems in the later periods, but another defensive breakdown made it 3-0. The Hounds got one back in the third and the momentum seemed to swing, with history creeping back into everyone’s minds, but an ill-timed penalty allowed Rapids to score the back-breaker, and they added an empty-netter when Mike Randolph pulled his goalie with 3 minutes to go. The power play goal and the empty-netter were Rapids’ only two shots on goal in the third period, showing that the Hounds could stifle Rapids when they did get to their game, but they took far too long in getting there, and it doesn’t take much for the Thunderhawks’ top forwards to leave their mark. The 5-1 final is more reversible than East’s 5-0 win in Rapids last season was, but it’s a mountain to climb.

Things only got more difficult on Saturday, when sixth-ranked Eden Prairie pulled into Duluth. Not only are the Eagles among the state’s elite, they bear a number of similarities to 7AA frontrunner Elk River with their dominant top line; to retain the section crown, East will have to beat a similar team. Finally, East had itself a good first period, grabbing an early goal and playing the Eagles even, and they kept that energy going through most of the rest of the game, ending with the most complete performance I’ve seen out of them this season. They were beaten on two moments of individual brilliance by Casey Mittelstadt, the state’s top sophomore, and despite plenty of chances, the tying goal just wouldn’t come. Mittelstadt finished his hat trick with an empty-netter, giving the Eagles their first ever win over East that did not require three overtimes.

East now sits at 6-7-1, and is at some risk of its first losing season since 1953. The nasty schedule continues on Tuesday, when the team visits undefeated, top-ranked Lakeville North. Things ease up somewhat after that, with five straight opponents outside the top 20, but this team can’t take any of them for granted, and every one will likely be a battle.

In trying to figure out the Hounds’ lurching start, the biggest difference is almost certainly the absence of Phil Beaulieu on the blue line. As Mittelstadt’s performance Saturday showed, a certain D-I player can make all the difference in a tight high school game. It’s also not coincidental that many of Mike Randolph’s greatest overachievers—1991, 1998, 2013, 2014—have been built around a fantastic defenseman or two who could run games from the back. Most fundamentally, the East system requires that defensemen be able to hold up one-on-one against other teams’ top forwards with relative frequency, for those moments when opposing teams do pierce through the clogged neutral zone. The East defense, young and unsettled, is taking baby steps in that direction, but when it has lapses, they are profound, and undo a team that is not built to overcome big deficits.

East’s meager 2.43 goals per game average might suggest offense is their biggest problem, but the numbers can lie. Randolph teams build from the back, and though they have decent forward depth, they don’t quite have the skill to win a shootout against Grand Rapids or Elk River. The Hounds don’t need brilliance from this fairly deep group of defensemen; they just need steadiness and intelligence, with no ill-advised pinches and basic competence in holding the zone. If they can move the puck effectively out of their own zone and limit the odd-man rushes, the chances will come; that’s when East can start worrying about cashing in on those chances, and improving the uncharacteristically poor power play. It’s a very achievable goal, but not a guarantee.

The other big part of the equation is the Hounds’ youth. With three freshmen and an eighth grader seeing ice time, there are going to be some rookie moments, as was the case on Middelstadt’s first two goals in the Eden Prairie game; the first came with an all-bantam-age third line on the ice, while he walked around defenseman Luke LaMaster on the second. The promise is obvious, though, as the young line had a very respectable showing in the offensive zone on Saturday, and LaMaster has shown some flashes as well. East has had some success over the years with the young guns when they grow up quickly enough (1994, 2000, 2005, 2010), though the last two seasons when they were not a top-3 seed—1993 and 1999, neither of which saw deep playoff runs—were also teams that had a couple of freshmen seeing regular ice time.

East has also had some unexpected goaltending intrigue, as incumbent Gunnar Howg’s rocky Elite League carried over into a pedestrian start. Ever decisive, Randolph benched the senior Howg in favor of sophomore Kirk Meierhoff, who has been reasonably good, if not quite a game-changer, ever since. It now seems to be Meierhoff’s job to lose, and we’ll see how he holds up against the Lakeville North assault on Tuesday. As with the young skaters, it is sink or swim for Meierhoff, and he will have to grow up in a hurry.

For all the travails, 7AA is winnable. Elk River is the obvious favorite with the record and ranking to match, but there are questions about its defense and goaltending, and Grand Rapids gave them a one-goal game. Rapids has the firepower, but appears an emotionally volatile squad capable of great peaks and valleys, depending on their psyche. Dave Esse has Cloquet improving, but they need a few more big wins to prove they’re for real; St. Michael-Albertville has a strong record against poor competition. Even Forest Lake and Andover appear modest upset threats.

Under Randolph, the regular season is a 25-game warm-up for three playoff games. It means learning a system, a process exemplified by the performance of Luke Dow, the junior center who had 34 points at Duluth Marshall last season. He has 12 at East so far, to lead the team; of course a tougher schedule makes things difficult—no 4-point games against Eveleth this year—but he’s also being asked to track back far more than before, and be a more complete player. The Hounds have also spread their scoring some, with the top two forwards, Dow and Nick Altmann, on separate lines to generate the depth necessary to keep pace with the top teams in the state. Player point totals do not tell this team’s story.

The goal is to have a balanced machine going by playoff time. It doesn’t work out every year, but as history shows, it does more often than not. The players simply need to keep the faith and keep at it through tough results, building on things like the Eden Prairie game, despite the loss. The margin for error may be smaller than ever, but they have the formula, and have had some sustained moments where they get there. If they continue to build on that and quickly get back to consistent execution when things do go wrong, they can play with nearly anyone, and if the clock is winding down late in a close game at Amsoil Arena, it’s hard not to like the Hounds.

In Defense of Subjectivity

7 Jan

“The idea of rating ballplayers is an arrogant bit of nonsense, incurring inherent intellectual costs which can lead, if unchecked, to intellectual bankruptcy.”

—Bill James, 1984 Baseball Abstract, in an essay prior to his player rankings

If this is true about baseball players, it is no less true about high school hockey teams. As someone who does this on a weekly basis, it’s something I remind myself of, every single week.

High school hockey rankings are a dime a dozen; everyone has their opinions, and it’s not too hard to broadcast them these days. The most notable is the coaches’ poll organized by Let’s Play Hockey, which, at some point in the mists of history remembered only by Lou Nanne and that State Tourney studio guy who looks like a character from Guess Who?, got “official” recognition in the media. To its credit, the LPH poll’s conservatism keeps it from having the wild swings one sees in other places, and I’d say it’s improved drastically even in the past five years.

Even so, LPH’s method is unexplained and seemingly arbitrary at times, leaving readers trying to figure out the logic behind their methods. In response, a whole bunch of people have created math-based computerized rating systems that perform much the same function. I grew up checking those of my fellow forum admins, Lee and Mitch; MyHockeyRankings uses similar principles for hockey nationwide. Some sports use QRF’s system for section seeding (though I find that one flawed beyond use in hockey), and this year, Doug over at FollowThePuck, who had previously done his own subjective rankings, has introduced an algorithm to do his work. I have a lot of respect for these dispassionate rankings, and check my preferred ones regularly. They’re a welcome antidote to the self-proclaimed hockey “experts” who spew out opinions left and right and invent rankings through narrow logic or facile knowledge of the teams.

At the same time, though, I’ve carved out a little niche for myself over on the forum over the past seven years, where I subject myself to weekly flagellation from the masses while trying to carefully explain my subjective rankings. In doing so, I have at times found myself in the unexpected position of being the great defender of subjectivity over the computer rankings. I’m not saying I’m better than the computers, but I do think I can offer things that they cannot.

For starters, let’s stop trying to pretend the computers are “objective.” They’re not. Sure, they don’t play favorites, care nothing for tradition or coaching, or for some of the excuses one often hears out of a losing team. They can see everything, which no human can do. But somewhere behind it all, a human has to decide how much weight to give to each of the results, and at what point we stop caring whether a team wins by 6 or 8 or 10 goals, and how much to value recent games versus old games, and so on. This replaces one form of subjectivity for another, and while people can study and adjust the formulas to give them even more predictive power, it is all backward-looking, and achieves success by narrowing the scope of study, and ignoring large parts of what goes on in a hockey game to fixate on goal difference and strength of schedule.

To illustrate this point, Doug and I had an amiable Twitter tit-for-tat earlier this week on the merits of weighting A vs. AA teams differently in his mathematical rankings. Over the course of the discussion, we found that Hermantown, who most people would consider the top Class A team, was 20 places apart between Mitch’s system and his when ranked against the AA field. Two “objective” systems spat out ridiculously different numbers. I say this not to slight either one, but to point out the poverty of the belief that these methods, which simplify our understanding by reducing everything that goes into a hockey game into a rating, can definitively answer these questions.

James again:

“My work has been described in a lot of ways, and I don’t like most of them, but one that I particularly don’t like is being called a baseball expert. I am not an expert; I am a student…I am not trying to lecture you—I am not trying to lecture anyone—abut who is good and who is bad. I have my ideas on the subject, that’s all. I offer those ideas because people expect me to do that, and want me to do it…The ratings provide for an organization and framework for comments, and I do have things I want to say about the players.”

He goes on to explain how good scientific analysis tries to contribute to debates, not settle them (an insight that people would be wise to remember in discussions of topics far more weighty than hockey). This is what I try to do, and why I actually enjoy the give-and-take on the forum. Just this past week, I heard from someone who was upset his team didn’t get a mention—and he had a very good point, at least until his team suffered an unexpected loss on Tuesday night. The rankings are part of an ongoing dialogue as we try to make sense of the statewide hockey scene. The process does need one person to take control and shepherd it along, but because I’m just one person, I can’t possibly see everything. But with some help from a few friends, I can see enough of the complexity that goes into winning hockey games (ignored by the algorithms) to say something valuable that they cannot, even though I’m just some lowly, flawed, biased, Hound-loving human being.

That frees me to say something like this: “Hermantown lost to Hopkins and barely beat Roseville, and plays an offensive style that frees them to run up big scores on middling opponents, so they’re probably not quite a top-5 team. However, they have dominated everyone else in Class A, played powerful Wayzata tight, and the top Class A teams would usually crack a two-class top-ten, so they’re probably noticeably better than #25, too. After their annihilation of Grand Rapids on Tuesday, I’d have them around #7 or so—behind Wayzata, since they lost to them and haven’t beaten anybody better, but they have a few quality wins, and that one mediocre loss isn’t too big of a drag when we have teams like White Bear Lake (who lost to East Ridge) in the top ten.”

That may be right, and it may be wrong; I’d listen to arguments in either direction—preferably on the forum, since it’s hard to make coherent arguments in 140 Twitter characters. I’ve made mistakes, and doubtless I’ll make more, but I find the result far more enlightening than an unexplained list of twenty teams that appears in the paper every week. If you want a ranking to give you a definitive answer, you’ve missed the point.

Halfway Home: High School Hockey 2014-2015

5 Jan

The midway point of the high school hockey season finds me in Duluth, home for a week that conveniently lines up with three crucial home games in Duluth East’s schedule. I’ll write more about these new-look Hounds and their search for an identity—and, oh yes, a seventh straight State Tournament berth—at the end of the week. In the meantime, here’s a tour of the state scene at the moment.

Among the AA schools, two undefeated teams remain. One is no surprise: Lakeville North’s team of destiny has dismissed all challengers. The three Poehling brothers remain a well-oiled machine, while the stellar defense in front of goalie Ryan Edquist holds the keys to the lock that any other title contender will need to crack. The Panthers have allowed just fourteen goals in their eleven games since a season-opening hiccup against Farmington, and with only one top-ten team—and a borderline one at that—left on the schedule, it’s time to unleash the hype machine. This group has a chance at a perfect season, and might be the best team since the Bloomington Jefferson dynasty of the early 90s. The pressure will mount, though, and they’re already starting to see uncommon efforts from the opposition, as limping Eagan gave them a run this past Saturday. The past fifteen years have produced a full graveyard of these so-called great teams that couldn’t close the deal, and we’ll soon learn what these Panthers are made of.

Right on North’s heels are the Cadets of St. Thomas Academy, senior-loaded in their second year in AA and also undefeated—albeit against a somewhat easier schedule. (The Schwan Cup Gold, usually the toughest holiday tournament out there, broke fortuitously for the Cadets, as Edina, Hill-Murray, and Eden Prairie all stumbled before they had a chance to meet the eventual champions.) They’re a well-balanced group, and while they may not have quite the star power of North or the depth of Edina, they have enough of both to beat the top teams if they can soldier through.

Edina, meanwhile, lurks there rounding out the top three, with Curt Giles’ scowl threatening to once more cast its pall over the State scene come March. Yet again, he has a Hornets team in his image: feisty, in-your-face, and there not just to beat the opposition, but to wear it down and bury it in a relentless assault. Their lone loss was a close-fought game with North, though they do also have a couple of ties against two of their bigger Lake Conference rivals. They continue to dodge bullets with penalties, and the defense lacks the game-controlling stars of the past few seasons, but they have the depth, they have the firepower, and they have those Hornets on the front of their jerseys. All three of the big guns are heavy favorites in their sections, and the top three seeds at State are theirs for the taking.

Section 6AA is its usual powerful self, with six of its seven teams in the top 25 in the state. What it lacks this year, however, is a certain state title threat. Wayzata is almost there, but doesn’t seem to have quite the identity of a clear frontrunner yet, and one of the many other contenders could easily derail them. The Trojans are slogging their way through what might be the toughest schedule the state has ever seen, and are good in many departments but not quite great anywhere yet. Eden Prairie is explosive but erratic, while Benilde-St. Margaret’s is deep but hasn’t lived up to the hype quite yet; Holy Family is thin but has some real talent, while Hopkins has a goaltender who can steal a big game. Minnetonka also came to crash the party over the Holidays, tying Edina and beating Eden Prairie to announce its return to relevance after a year-long detour. 5AA, while not nearly as strong as 6AA, is in a similar boat, with Blaine, Centennial, Maple Grove, and Anoka all looking like realistic contenders.

The other three AA sections all have tentative favorites. In 4AA, last year’s darlings, Stillwater, will need a similar miracle run to disrupt a return to the classic Hill-Murray vs. White Bear Lake final. A veteran Bears team, which has rallied together after the defection of Jake Wahlin and the death of senior captain Michael Johnson’s father just before the start of the season, looks to have a serious shot at relatively young Hill, 4AA’s perennial favorite. (In one of those moments that happen only in fairytales and high school sports, Johnson—who is not a prolific scorer—buried a goal on the Bears’ first shift of the season.) I like these Pioneers and their four top-flight defensemen as a serious dark horse at State—perhaps in the mold of 2008, when they went in as the 4-seed and crushed favored Roseau and Edina with a series of relentless hits—but they need to get there first. The most consistently entertaining AA rivalry looks to be headed for a delicious renewal on January 31, when the Bears and Pioneers hold their annual regular season brawl.

With Duluth East and Grand Rapids off to faltering starts, Elk River stands alone at the top of the heap in 7AA, though there is a fairly long list of respectable teams here that could cause the Elks trouble. The Hounds and Thunderhawks collide this week in a clash that will be a pivotal not only for section seeding but also for the psyches of the six-time defending champ Hounds and their longtime whipping boys to the west. If not the Elks, one of these two will likely represent 7AA, and someone needs to take the initiative if the crown is to remain in the north. 8AA also may see a changing of the guard, with surging Bemidji already boasting wins over Roseau and Moorhead, who have owned this section over the past two decades. A State Tourney berth for the Jacks would be their first in 29 years, and should add some fun northern energy to the Xcel Center. They’ve been close before, though, and have a ways to go before they finish the deal.

Class A’s usual suspects are up at the top, with Hermantown sitting pretty after solid wins over the next two highest-ranked teams, East Grand Forks and Duluth Marshall, in a Duluth holiday tournament. Perhaps this could finally be the year the Hawks figure out how to close things out, if their five-year runner-up streak isn’t in their heads. As usual, Breck is in the picture also, and explosive Mahtomedi is the clear favorite in Section 4A. 6A is very competitive and relatively good, with undefeated Alexandria leading the way; down south in 1A, New Prague still looks to be the class of the section despite serious losses to graduation. Luverne is also thinner than last year’s undefeated regular season squad, but the front-end talent there is undeniable, and Hutchinson is probably the only team that can upend them. 5A remains a black hole of section with little hype, but Spring Lake Park is positioning itself for a Tourney debut there.

The scripts are set now: we have our favorites and our underdogs, and know which games will set the stage for the playoffs. Six weeks, and then we’re there.

Utopia II: Farewell, 2014

31 Dec

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

—Luisa, Y tu mama también

My 2014 is coming to an end at a villa overlooking the sea in the Virgin Islands. It’s not utopia, but it is a spectacular place, and I am blessed to be here once again.

It’s hard to pretend to know how one becomes fascinated with utopia, and the earliest childhood memories probably lurk behind it somewhere. But if I had to name a place where my own imagined ideal worlds were born, it was probably here, where I first came when I was nine. This led to something of an infatuation with tropical islands, and I can trace the whole arc of my invention of new worlds directly back to that trip.

Few things inspire quite the way travel does, with something new around every corner. This endless opening creates new possibilities, and digging into the details frees the imagination to embellish reality with our own little flourishes. The Virgin Islands were my first real trip into the unknown, and while I’d hardly call them the most exotic or inspiring places I’ve been—my host here cites the local “intellectual wasteland” as the reason he wouldn’t settle here, and I’m inclined to agree—it’s still a bit more than your run-of-the-mill beach vacation. The stories born from that trip, both childish and grandiose at once, slowly became my way of making sense of my world, with everything contemplated there, all great questions with their own place. In time, they made their way out of my mind and into the written word, with countless pages filled.

This time around, I’m not exactly questing for new inspiration. Whatever it was I set out to achieve when I first started writing in fall 2008, I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean I don’t still revisit and build on the past stuff, but it’s all right there before me now. 2014 was a decent year, and a good foundation for whatever may come next. The pace isn’t always ideal, but things are moving.

Where to? Hard to say, though that may be a good thing. Better to avoid the ideal image and instead chip away, somewhere within a framework that makes sense. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have some idea of how to get there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the means, and not at all about the ends—benchmarks are essential to keep things moving, and proper management of the utopian instinct isn’t quite content with simply doing one’s best, no matter the results. That hunger and desire can’t go away. One must seize the moments, stay in control—even when taking control means letting things go a bit. From a thoughtless afternoon in a hammock to an extra rum and coke, there are times when even the most relentless managers must lose themselves in the surf. One can aspire to both ends without contradiction.

I haven’t always managed that balance, and I’m as certain as anyone that we cannot build Jerusalem on earth. But to stand in the face of that impossibility and still carve out something good—what more can I ask for? As I enter my second quarter-century, many of the more fanciful dreams born of that first trip have washed back out to sea. But that doesn’t mean they still cannot be inspiration, and that things cannot all come together in, somewhere between dreams and reality in the flux I live through every day.

And so we move on to the next year. Here’s to continued progress, as the waves allow, and the wisdom to know when to barrel into them, and when to ride the tides. Somewhere in here, there are answers. The search goes on, but I’ll be home at the end of the night, as I always am.

A Cyclical Christmas

24 Dec

I don’t really know what it means to be “home for Christmas.” I never am. Christmas is always part of a journey, one that usually involves a stint as an interloper in someone else’s holiday, or, lately, a sterile hotel. (I suppose it’s a step up from a manger in Roman-occupied Judea, but still.) Trying to make all these disparate threads make sense has become a sort of routine. But routine breeds comfort, familiarity, and no one really seems to mind my intrusions, wherever they may be. I’m always on the road this time of the year, and that is my tradition.

Lately, it hasn’t been just a journey to one place; it’s been a cycle between two different worlds. Just over 100 miles separate these two worlds, and the loose trappings of Christmas, somewhere within the Catholic tradition, are at the roots of both. Beyond that, it is a study in dualisms, twinned within me.

First, Chicago, its crush of humanity making Minneapolis seem quaint and tame. Here, a sprawling family unites en masse every year. It’s not without its skeletons, of course, and the march of time takes its toll. But the cycle goes on, the young carrying forward the best gifted to us by the old. Everyone comes together for a great Christmas festival, cramming the house full by the dozens, the well-earned merriment coming to fruition. We gorge ourselves, we down glass after glass of wine, and then we all settle around the piano and shamelessly belt out all the carols, loving every second. After the party, there’s some time to explore the city, see friends old and new, eat well and live well. A whirlwind caught up in the dream, my mission, if I can be so ambitious as to claim one: entwining the fabric of family with the fabric of a city, vibrant and full of life.

A brief train ride north, though, and the other side of the cycle. Here, things are quiet. No more frenetic energy, no more loud noise; just a couple of us with Grandma in that same old house, chancing the occasional word, little that hasn’t been said before. I read, I write, I dodge all the cats. Before long I’m out on a frigid trek down the country lanes of eastern Wisconsin, up and down the hills of the Kettle Moraine, out to the old stone church in St. Lawrence on Christmas Eve. That nostalgic pastoral scene so dear to my grandmother, if it ever truly existed, is fading away into the fog; the land slowly emptied or turned to exurban sprawl. I won’t have much reason to come back here after she moves on, though I know I will all the same.

It may not be my future, but it is an integral part of my past, and I must understand it, and pass it along, such as I can. On my run through the mists this year, I recalled the words of Fr. Thomas King, the late Georgetown Jesuit who, in his final Christmas Mass, gave the only homily that this unbaptized, intrigued-but-never-fully-inspired cultural Catholic has bothered to retain. In the midst of all the insanity of our lives, he preached, it is these escapes into the wilderness that bring us peace. It is that call inward that allows us to make ourselves whole again, bringing union with something far greater in that paradox we call faith. That thought in the wilderness has proven a great spark, and the most important thing I ever wrote, the foundations of the pieces that taught me who I was, spilled out in one of those dull hotel rooms not far off. Even here, I find myself, and through it, something much bigger than myself.

Roots are tangled, even for us white bread Midwesterners. Mine are a messy trinity with a handful of other currents feeding in: one part Chicago distinction, the American Dream made real; one part Wisconsin farm boy at the end of an era, trying to make sense of the past. One very large dose of Duluth at my core; perhaps small parts Mexico and, yes, part Washington as well. And yet it all holds together easily enough, all with its place. I suppose that’s where I’m at home, making those connections all one. The cycle goes on. A Merry Christmas to all.

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