A Patient Cycle’s Greatest Hits

20 May

Over the past week, I’ve been revisiting some of my old posts on this blog. At the risk of seeming narcissistic or simply out of ideas, I’ve decided to collect the ones I find most memorable in one easy-to-find post. I’ll link to this page in the “About” section at the top, and add to it as I write things that I think are worthy of addition. The “Why on Earth Am I Doing This?” post, also linked to in the “About” section, is also a highlight, for obvious reasons.

I left out most of my philosophical ramblings, with the exception of Part I of the ‘Farewell Duluth’ series, since they tend to lack broader context. I like some of them a lot, but putting in a few leads to a slippery slope that would be hard to stop. The better ones tend to have embedded links in the posts here, anyway, and they’re all buried somewhere in this blog’s musty corners if you’re really that interested. I’ve left out film and book reviews, as much as I like some of those posts; perhaps I’ll get around to categorizing them someday when my inner planner comes out. No coverage of Duluth politics made the cut, either. Here’s the list:

On the schools I’ve attended:

Duluth East | Georgetown

Formative Cities:

Duluth (4-part farewell series from August 2014)

Washington DC | Minneapolis


Driving Across Wisconsin | Driving Across Mexico | Zapatistas | Phoenix | Christmas | Utopia (2 parts) | Driftless Area (2 parts)

Formative thinkers:

The Greeks (6-Part Series) | Octavio Paz | Hannah Arendt | Gabriel García Márquez


Duluth East Hockey History: 1950-2013 (8-Part Series) | 2014 | 2015

Mike Randolph: Critique | Appreciation

A History of Twin Cities Urbanism, as Told by High School Hockey

My post-State Tournament pieces haven’t been on this blog, but I like them too much not to link to them: 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015

Art Johnston Prevails

13 May

The exhausting saga of the attempt to remove Art Johnston from the ISD 709 School Board is finally lurching toward conclusion. It was a miserable one to follow, with an unsympathetic protagonist pitted against a vindictive, bumbling board. In the end, the Board majority found either its conscience or its sanity, and withdrew the attempt to remove the eternal thorn in its side. The bringers of the suit appeared resigned; Chair Judy Seliga-Punyko called it “frustrating” that Johnston had filed a lawsuit, while Annie Harala said the effort to remove him had been the right idea at the start, but became a “distraction.” Yes, if only Johnston had just rolled over and accepted his fate like a good little boy. It’s not like he ever fought back before, right? What on earth did they expect?

At the risk of saying I-told-you-so, this is what I wrote immediately after the incident last June:

[T]his seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, [and] drags out old fights in the negative PR…”


There will probably be one more chance for the Board to demonstrate less maturity than its students next week. The majority will move to censure Johnston in what could have been a defensible move at the time of the incident, but eleven months on, it merely looks like grubbing for a few points of extra credit after failing the exam. Johnston will again do his panicky eight-year-old impression, moaning about the bullies—even he has been poisoned by the obnoxious education-speak and victimization game that makes this comparison of the Board to a playground all too easy—and will likely fit in his victory lap. The censure either will or won’t happen, and everyone’s lives will somehow go on, no matter what. After that, there are some loose ends to tie up, most notably the financing of Johnston’s defense, and perhaps some lingering questions about his partner’s status, but the crusade is largely over now.

With any luck, the end of this case will be the last gasp of the Red Plan Wars. Yes, its legacy will linger, and no doubt a few hangers-on will continue to belabor old points. This inconclusive end seems a fitting coda for all of the needless division of the past decade. The leaders of the anti-Johnston campaign appear exhausted; I’d be surprised if Bill Westholm has the energy for another campaign, and Mike Miernicki has already announced he will not seek a second term. Miernicki blamed the negativity for his exit, though self-awareness of his own role in fostering such negativity appears lacking. His story has been a sad one to watch, a case of an otherwise likable man totally out of his element and unable to handle any pushback. Yes, Mern, the world would be a happier place if it were more like your ideal one, but that simply isn’t the case, and we all must adjust to reality.

Seliga-Punyko probably comes out looking the worst of anyone here after her relentless campaign came up short, and her lame attempt to fault the costs of Johnston’s lawsuit for failing to see his removal through is the ultimate white flag. It was a poor choice on the part of the Board to make such an imperious and divisive figure its chair, and I can only hope that some of the Board’s junior members realize they have been taken for a distracting ride by the Board’s mother hen over the past year. Her political future will be interesting to watch. Superintendent Bill Gronseth, after flirting with an escape from all the madness, is now committed to Duluth for the long-term. He has been too much of a passenger in this whole affair in his refusal to exercise any authority, but that does give him a chance to be the one who now collects the pieces and gets people to move on. The Board is in need of some leadership out of its Superintendent.

I am most curious to see how the victorious minority now responds. It is a real win for Johnston and Harry Welty; perhaps the first of any substance they can actually claim in their sometimes noble and often floundering attempts to stand up to the overpowering majority. If they can be magnanimous after this success and return discussion to the pressing issues facing the district—class size, charter school questions, traffic concerns, and so on—without belaboring old grievances too much, they’ll be in great position to seem like the winners of this whole mess, and the momentum could carry them into the November elections. If bitterness over their treatment over the past months rules the day, then we can expect more of the same, and their victory over this past week will be nothing but a hollow settling of personal scores. They’ll spin a narrative in which they’re the defenders of liberty or some such thing, hiding the fact that they have so far been mediocre and largely ineffective legislators. Being a gadfly is all well and good, but anyone who thinks that this is an end unto itself completely misunderstands what Socrates was up to.

Ideally, when the censure motion comes, someone will have the guts to stand up and say that it’s time to drop all of this and move on. Ideally, the Board will then do exactly that. They won’t be reconciled, no, but they’ll at least re-emphasize the fact that they have a mission that is higher than their own petty infighting. But, then, expecting the high road out of people on the ISD 709 Board hasn’t been a winning proposition of late. Perchance to dream.

Nothing Wildly Different

8 May

The Minnesota Wild have perfected the art of losing to the Chicago Blackhawks, with Chelsea Dagger serenading the boys in Christmas colors on their trip to the exits for a third straight year. This one, however, has a different flavor. The first year they were happy to be there, and last year they gave the Hawks a real fight, seeming to show their arrival on the stage of hockey relevance. This year, they went out with a whimper, a crisp sweep in which they were outgunned, outplayed, outcoached, and outdone in every facet of the game. The Chicago juggernaut, perhaps on the verge of the best claim to dynasty in recent NHL history, made sure Minnesota will once again be haunted of visions of Patrick Kane shredding the defense.

It was a frustrating year on many levels for the Wild. Last season’s momentum went utterly flat over the first half of the season, and they very nearly played themselves out of a playoff spot by January. The Devan Dubnyk trade turned the season around, but they spent five whole months in an exhausting desperation mode, trying to make up for an early hole dug with goalies who had been, at the very least, passable up until this season. The second half run was remarkable, and the win over St. Louis in the first round was a solid showing, whatever the Blues’ playoff woes may entail. But there was an ongoing worry that yet another Dubnyk start, and yet another Ryan Suter thirty-minute game, might come back to bite them in the end. The Wild spent most of the season getting back to where they should have been all along.

And once they finally did make it there, they reverted to earlier form. It was no secret the Wild were less talented than the Blackhawks, but the relentless work rate that made last year’s series interesting wasn’t there. Nor were there any real adjustments, or any serious tweaks made to rectify the obvious mismatch. With a litany of neutral zone turnovers and the Hawks sailing into the offensive zone with ease, Dubnyk suddenly looked all too mortal. If last season showed the best of Mike Yeo’s system-based hockey, this season brought out the worst: inane cycling, timid passes in place of shots, and the third forechecker consistently caught out in no-man’s land. They were tactically incoherent, never getting to their game, and making no adjustments once this was readily obvious. Again and again, the square peg met the round hole.

I was always a bit leery of Thomas Vanek, the Wild’s big offseason signing. I thought it might be overpayment; what wasn’t expected was the sheer mediocrity and lack of effort. He brought no added life to an anemic Wild power play, and they are now saddled with two more years of sporadic production and disinterested backchecking. The Wild soft spot for players with Minnesota ties reared its ugly head yet again, and Vanek is the poster child for the decline in the work ethic that had made this team so fun to watch in recent memory.

Vanek is hardly the lone scapegoat, though. Suter looked far too human for a $98 million man late in the season, and Jason Pominville’s finishing still leaves something to be desired. The Darcy Kuemper era came to an abrupt and sorry end, and throughout, Yeo showed a preference to fill holes with mediocre veterans in place of kids with promise, and was never terribly decisive in making any changes. (Oh, that power play.) Yes, they were in a desperate race for the playoffs, but it’s no good sacrificing the future to get there.

After last season, I sounded a cautionary note about some of the kids; they weren’t all going to pan out as brilliantly as they looked last postseason. There were a couple of bright spots, as Matt Dumba showed his dynamism in winning a job, and Marco Scandella’s heavy shot started to find the back of the net. But beyond that, there wasn’t enough growth. Kuemper flopped, Jared Spurgeon and Mikael Granlund (however you pronounce it) treaded water, Nino Niederreiter’s point totals dropped off, Charlie Coyle never seemed to be used quite right, and Erik Haula wound up riding the bench. On the whole, it’s a depressing player development record. A handful of these players probably won’t pan out—that’s just the nature of young prospects—but the Wild need to do better than this.

Dubnyk has done more than enough to earn a contract, though not so much that he’s utterly indispensable. One great half season is lovely, but it’s also just a half season, and when the defense was overexposed, he started to concede some fairly routine goals. The Wild need to find him a genuine backup, too, so that he doesn’t have to play every single night. Beyond that, there’s no single glaring hole, but a lot of room for improvement. In fact, that might be the Wild’s biggest conundrum: there’s no silver bullet here, no obvious hole that Chuck Fletcher has to plug. The kids just have to get better, the veterans have to stay at a productive level, and the coaching needs to get more creative or hear the music. The quickest path to offseason improvement involves flushing out some of the mediocre role players that see too much ice time and committing to further player development.

It’s going to be a long summer; hopefully, it will be long enough to wash away the memories of this turbulent season. The Wild need to rediscover that energy and faith in the future that animated last season’s run. How long till October?

Confronting Baltimore: David Simon at Georgetown, 2012

1 May

Baltimore is in the news this week, and any mention of Baltimore seems to make anyone in my very narrow circle make excited references to The Wire, that pinnacle of twenty-first century television. The Wire, in turn, makes me think of David Simon, the producer and brains behind the whole operation. Three years ago, on a sunny morning in Washington D.C., he gave the Georgetown College Class of 2012 commencement address. It will surprise no one who knows his work that it was a thoroughly depressing speech. Here is the text, coming from his blog named (you can’t make this stuff up) “The Audacity of Despair”:


Alright, that’s misreading Simon’s words. He’s making a deeply existentialist appeal, one that calls on people to continue the good fight in spite of the impossibility. He builds a case for national unity in the face of apparent divergence, and the events in Baltimore only underscore that concern. His diagnosis of Baltimore’s miseries in The Wire proved all too prescient, and it may indeed take a dose of Camus for anyone who has confronted this disorder to believe in any chance of improvement.

Unfortunately, Simon isn’t reading Camus quite right. Camus doesn’t confront the question of suicide because he thinks political change is impossible; he confronts it because he knows that all knowledge is impossible, and because there is always another way to look at things, no single political platform will do. There is no answer, and the world is incoherent. This, and not the possibility or impossibility of progress, is what leads Camus to call life absurd, and to suggest we soldier ahead along the one path that offers dignity, imagining Sisyphus as happy.

Very well; onward we go. Simon certainly offers a worldview; a plan of attack of sorts. He offers one lens that purports to make sense of it all. It uses nihilism, the cheapest of philosophical absolutes, as an attempt to come off as a world-wise sage. Who knows where we’re supposed to reconcile that nihilism with the genuine care for humanity that comes out of his lens. It’s a Western liberal lens concerned primarily with the rights of one’s countrymen. It sees humans in isolation, unequal, struggling for these abstractions we call rights. The policy prescription is liberal boilerplate. Halting steps might be realistic, though the end goal, as Simon readily admits, is impossible.

Yes, impossibility can inspire; I begrudge no one for chasing it. We talk a good game, say we can achieve it, and some people out there really do. But it sets an absurdly high bar, and it’s no wonder the platform faces such long odds. Many people spend most of their lives without daring to contemplate that shadow of doubt, focused relentlessly on what is before them, for good or ill. Many who do recognize it fold before it, unwilling to make Simon’s “absurd” leap. A belief of impossibility, after all, is what drives a teenager in Baltimore to throw a rock through a window. If the call to service requires either naïveté or this high a level of philosophical belief, perhaps the lens shouldn’t be our primary entry to the situation.

This doesn’t mean one who wants to “fix” Baltimore can’t have many of the same end goals or employ some of the same analytical tools as Simon; it’s just that one has to understand their place. They are means to approximate reality, not reality itself. No one lens, nor even any number of lenses deployed at once, can see that. Modern liberalism likes to think it can, and while it may come closer than many others, it still fails. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

There is an alternative. An alternative that avoids the knee-jerk turn to the failed dreams of a narrow worldview. One that dispenses with the grand sociological theory and anger at systems, and turns attention to the immediate. One that sees history not as a blind arc from darkness to light, but caught up in a tumult of connections and feedback loops. Full understanding is impossible, but we can approximate it, and that calls for the full arsenal of perspectives we can imagine, and the humility to never claim complete knowledge. When we admit our own limitations, wonder at the void we do not know can return, and suddenly everything is a bit less bleak, a bit less doomed to failure. It is a happier, healthier place to reside.

It was at Georgetown that I came to see that different lens for what it was, and, haltingly, embrace it, though I have some fear the latest curriculum decision there will only push Georgetown further toward the vogue lens. The rush to see everything through the lens of “diversity,” I fear, will neglect any attention to a moral language that underlies the most basic human relationships, the ones that go deeper than identity-driven labels and thought constructs and settle on reality. People will settle on the established battle lines and war away, without stopping to take a closer look. Camus, for one, never lost sight of this: when while the rest of the French intelligentsia embraced the anti-colonial revolt in Algeria, Camus, an Algerian of French origin, saw more nuance. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was able to strip away all the rhetoric of the age and see the human drama beneath, entranced by the little details that no one has time for.

To his credit, I think David Simon realizes this on some level. His analysis of the state of the Baltimore Police Department, right or wrong, shows keen insight. Beneath all the sociological sharpness of this and The Wire, though, are a lot of paper-thin characters. Simon’s attempt to study deeper human workings just aren’t there. But that, I suppose, would require an audacity far greater than cheap despair.

David Brooks and the Search for Character

25 Apr

David Brooks is one of those talented people who has managed to get himself disliked in many circles. As a resident conservative at the New York Times, he has the unenviable task of defending a political outlook that few of his readers agree with, and makes such an effort to speak to them that he’s pretty easily labeled a Republican In Name Only by the right. Sometimes he pursues balance for its own sake to the extent that seems like one of those annoying kids yelling “yeah, but” on the playground, and his willingness to dabble in anything can lead him to be painfully wrong about some things, most notably foreign policy.

Such is life as a syndicated columnist, as he must churn out new ideas twice a week, every week. Much of his longer work is a far better sample of what his real interests and concerns are, from the acute diagnosis of upper middle class America in Bobos in Paradise to the social science-heavy study of life in The Social Animal. Brooks has been on a steady turn inward as his career has gone along, a process that culminated in his most recent book, The Road to Character. He’s long been capable of profound reflections on the costs of a lack of reflection on one’s own self—see the classic “Organization Kid” essay, which should be required reading for anyone entering an “elite” college—but only recently has he taken the step from detached takedowns of people who don’t do this to exploring what it means to actually do so. (His own recent divorce probably spurred this all along, too.)

I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Brooks when he was in the early stages of conceiving The Road to Character, a 2011 talk called “The Era of Self-Expansion” put on by Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum. In it, he recalled a column he’d written earlier that year, an especially memorable piece for a soon-to-be college graduate in which he talked about how people find their callings. When I asked him about it in the receiving line, he admitted he’d somewhat made it up, but was impressed with how well it had resonated.

In the column, he blasts the tiresome myopia of the follow-your-own-dreams rhetoric so common in life advice today. However noble in its desire to tell us to be ourselves, these words foment a worldview that places the self and its ambition at the center of it all. The universe revolves around me, even as I purport to go forth and do “good” in the world, following the passions I have deemed worthwhile, in my infinite wisdom. And when I do try to do this, life inevitably gets in the way, whether in the form of my own limitations or the failures of other people or forces beyond my control. Suddenly, I’m powerless, and I’m pretty angry about it. Before long, I’m defeated, or perhaps more mundanely, I’ve discovered that the dreams of my younger self are no longer the dreams of my older self, and I’ve spent however many years chasing the wrong thing. The world refuses to cooperate and revolve around me.

The fruits of Brooks’ search don’t come in this takedown of selfishness, though. This is easy, and not terribly original. He needs an alternative, something else to aspire to. He now champions excellence over happiness, and the pursuit of something a bit more complete than just the self-expression celebrated in some of his earlier work. This drive doesn’t come from within, but from something that happens to people: one’s circumstances leave one with passions, and mark people by the things that jar them into awareness, whether as witnesses or the things they endure. It may seem like a small distinction, but it is essential. The turning points in life are rarely moments of great happiness or accomplishment, but instead in suffering and failure, and a desire to overcome it, perhaps even build off of it. This, and not the blind whims of dreams, defines who we become.

It is now fairly easy to go through childhood, and even much further into life, without ever coming face-to-face with this sort of adversity. It’s a triumph of affluence, I suppose, of good health, suburban living, wealthy schools (public or private), and other comforts that allow us to live out that pursuit of happiness extolled in Brooks’ early work. It’s not a bad life, clearly, and I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone for pursuit it.

The trouble comes in pursuing it alone, and nothing else. Deep within this comfort there is a moral poverty: everyone plays out the string as they see fit. Forget complaints about moral relativism; there is no moral dimension at all, as the whole language necessary to even make these distinctions falls away. People become lost and have no means to figure out why. Even the humanities, designed with this express purpose, often fails, aiming instead for aesthetic, utilitarian, or political arguments to justify its existence. It’s no wonder these departments are collapsing left and right. But there are encouraging signs, Brooks’ latest book among them, that people are starting to realize something is missing. Hopefully the new book offers some models, and some ways to cultivate that character necessary to pursue the truly good life. If Brooks can do that for people, it would amount to a legacy far greater than his scattered collection of brief columns.

Sometimes, though, one of the sparks that helps a jaded kid make sense of the disparate threads of life, one that plays off those turning points and fuses them with ongoing interests, comes from an unexpected place. In that lecture I attended four years ago, Brooks dropped in a book recommendation: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I jotted it down at the time, picked it up a year or two later, and the rest is history.

Run This Town

18 Apr

I’ve been a Minneapolitan for eight months now, and I’m slowly starting to mark this city as my own. There is much to like here, though I am skeptical as to how real the Miracle really is when one looks into its underbelly, and don’t know how long I’ll stay after my two-year stint here is up. Still, I’ve been coming to know it in my own particular way, as I have in the past with Duluth and Washington: by foot, running its streets in every direction I can, those runs sometimes degenerating into walks when I stray too far afield to keep up the intensity or find something worth watching at a slower pace.

Home base is in a neighborhood known as the Wedge, both for its triangular shape and the way it shoves itself in between the opulent old money homes of Lowry Hill and Lake of the Isles and the diverse, eclectic, and poorer neighborhoods to the east. It gives easy access to downtown to the north or Uptown to the south, the connections all fluid. It’s spring in Minnesota, that time of year we appreciate best, and it’s time to head back out.

My best-worn route sends me on an architecture tour of the fine homes wrapping around the lakes, though someone long ago had the good sense to save the lakeshore for the public, leaving us with promenades for bikers and walkers, there to see the wealth and to be seen themselves. I’ll meander off the running paths and into the quiet streets beyond, past the Mary Tyler Moore house and out to a landing on Cedar Lake, or over the crest of Lowry Hill and down by the Blake School, one whose façade I’d admire if not for my unshakable pride in that brick building overlooking Lake Superior back home. The Walker Art Center is there, complete with sculpture garden and iconic cherry; just beyond is the Parade Ice Garden, home to Minneapolis hockey, such as it is. Beneath the overpass and over a footbridge is Bryn Mawr Meadows, its ballfields turned to cricket pitches by the latest wave of immigrants.

Beyond the dandelion fountain in Loring Park Downtown stirs to life, as the sunlight sucks people out of the skywalks and on to the streets. The restaurants bring back their outdoor seating, and Target Field opens its doors to further Twins mediocrity. Nicollet Mall bustles, though it’s hard to keep up any speed with all the stoplights and traffic; in time, I make my way up along the riverfront, finally open to the city as the centerpiece it deserves to be. Further down, past the scores of new apartments, the Guthrie Theater, and the rising shell of that financial monstrosity of a football stadium lies the University of Minnesota campus, ideal for springtime people-watching, as everyone emerges from whatever room or study hole or bar they’ve ensconced themselves in over the past year and revels in the sunlight.

Cross a bridge and there is St. Anthony Falls or Nicollet Island, those old icons of Minneapolis now dwarfed by the towers around. Old Main has the best patio seating in the city, and Nye’s, that irreplaceable polka bar, beckons me into Northeast, the old realm of European immigrants now filling with immigrants and hipsters and the like. Changes are afoot to the south as well, where a battalion of new loft apartments forms ranks along the Greenway, Uptown’s transformation near-complete. Further along Lake Street is the Midtown Global Market, plus the stretch were I’m apt to go in search of some genuine Mexican deliciousness. And, of course, that damn K-Mart is still there, ruining the flow of traffic along Nicollet but providing a service no one else can in this low-income district.

To the east of home base, across Lydnale, lies Whittier, the apartments growing a bit larger and a bit more frayed around the edges. There is a little bit of everything here, with Eat Street along Nicollet and little pockets of old grandeur, especially around Washburn Fair Oaks Park, home to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, the stately Classical museum gazing out upon the center of the city. A pedestrian bridge just a block away lofts me over 35W and into Phillips. Urban farms abound, and curiosities such as the Swedish-American Institute poke their way out of a steadily declining housing stock. Now it’s diverse as can be, with even a Native American strip up along Franklin, and over in Cedar-Riverside, just off the West Bank of the U, is the heart of Somali America. They’re stuffed into Riverside Plaza, that tower block of mismatched Legos that is only one-seventh the size it was supposed to be. Why did we ever think it was a good idea to stuff people into these things, I wonder, though at least some have carved out a little oasis for themselves between the foreignness and ignorance of the broader culture and the allure of al-Shabaab. If people can build community here—and I don’t know whether they can or not—maybe all this grumbling about the offenses of brutalist architecture misses the point.

One day I take a path not yet taken, a bridge beyond 394 that carries me into neighborhoods that few people I know have deigned to visit. My surroundings take a turn for the bizarre in Sumner-Glenwood, one of those hyphenated havens of low-income housing. Twenty years ago this was all projects and towers, but they all came tumbling down in the late 90s. In came the next-generation urban renewal scheme: instead of shoving poor people into towers like sardines, we now scatter them about green New Urbanist landscapes, with cheap housing that tries to look like it’s historic and suburban. The result: far fewer units, and acres upon acres of lifeless, empty grass separating buildings that look like they are pretending to be something that they are not. Harsh, perhaps, but it was hard not to look at this space and not think of the bankruptcy of any theory that thinks the design can rewrite these lives. The only life anywhere along these roads are two decrepit people sitting on their walkers across from their senior housing looking positively miserable, and one lady who yells obscenities at her dog as it chases after me for an entire block. The return route down the next street takes me past Bethune Elementary, one my teacher friends describe as “the worst.” It may not be ugly, but it still seems a wasteland.

To the north is North, though there is plenty of Minneapolis north of North. This is the heart of the ‘inner city,’ the place I’m told fills all the stereotypes of crime and blight and a large black population. It doesn’t entirely look the part: the upkeep of some of the historic homes is better than in Phillips or Whittier, and there is nothing remotely threatening about its streets on a Wednesday morning. In the distance, flashing lights make me wonder what is going on, and before long it’s clear the haze in the air is something more sinister. Several streets have been blocked off, and all that I can see from the corner as I peer past the crowd of onlookers is a fire engine’s cherry-picker looming in the smoke. An entire block has gone up in flames. Not wanting to gawk, I run on, though I circle around the perimeter of the cordons.

Up Broadway, a bustling shopping street laden with fatty food options. Down around the bedraggled football field belonging to North High, then doubling back to pass three more schools: a stately and quiet Catholic school, Elizabeth Hall Elementary with its tame and bustling playground, and a crumbling concrete shell of a former charter school just down the block. Nothing quite conforms here, and the face of 21st-Century urban American poverty just doesn’t show the squalor of the past. The forces at work here are deeper, more subtle, but often every bit as pernicious, the cycles of financial struggle and broken families only perpetuating themselves, here in this city with an achievement gap that ranks among the worst of the worst. The Miracle has a dark side, hard as it may seem to believe on my next run, when I’m cruising down along Lake Harriet, darting in and among the beautiful people finally free to break out their summer finery.

I’m sore now. It’s time to head home, check out my latest route on a map, and plot my next venture outward. Every one of them seems to open up another corner, remind me how little I know of this place, even as I head further afield. There’s always more to discover.

Exit John Rothstein

12 Apr

Just two years ago, I wrote about the departure of a Grand Rapids hockey coach. Now I’m doing it again. John Rothstein lasted just those two seasons in place of Bruce LaRoque, both of them ending abruptly in the section semifinals, and finishes 32-20-2.

Rothstein came in with the heavy burden of high expectations. The Thunderhawks’ religious fan base was hungry for another State Tournament. The talent level was on the rise, raising the stakes even higher. There had been some frustration with LaRoque—he wasn’t exactly subtle in saying that rumor-mongering about his handling of his own sons’ playing time was a key reason he stepped down—so maybe someone new could take the Halloween Machine back to its hallowed past.

It wasn’t to be, and I’ll be frank: I thought Rothstein’s teams did less with more than many of LaRoque’s did. Some in the Rapids fan base criticized LaRoque’s teams for going into a defensive shell in key games, but it usually gave them a fighting chance against more talented competition. In 2014, Rapids fans saw what happened when their team tried to skate straight into the teeth of a Duluth East forecheck, and there was never any effort to help out a very inexperienced defense. The result was their most lopsided section playoff loss in recent memory, despite having Mr. Hockey Avery Peterson and a talented sophomore core in the fold. Hunter Shepard was a fine goalie, but no one can be hung out to dry that often. The 2015 team improved defensively but was maddeningly inconsistent; at times flashing great skill, but far too easily knocked off their game and into mediocrity. Flustered by another disciplined East team, they sleepwalked through their first two periods in the playoff game before finally exploding to life in the final frame. But it was too little, too late, and too incomplete an effort to make any claim to victory, despite the absurd shot total. Rothstein tinkered with its lines a bit over the course of the season, an odd choice when he had a ready-made top line of star juniors at his disposal.

This doesn’t mean the inability to get out of the semis was all Rothstein’s fault. It’s hard to get high schoolers on the same page, and two years is hardly enough time to judge a coach with any finality. Mike Randolph didn’t make State until his third year at East, and only went once in his first five; it takes time to learn the ropes, and to get a whole program on the same page. Rothstein also had the misfortune of sharing a section with Randolph’s Hounds, whose recent teams have executed game plans and performed under pressure as well as anyone in the state, to say nothing of their healthy share of talent.

There were some real positives, too. Rothstein seemed widely liked and respected. He has overseen an overhaul of the Rapids schedule, ramping up what had been a fairly soft slate and giving the Thunderhawks a series of road trips to rival those of Duluth East and Moorhead, a necessary step for a team that wants to be on their level. They beat East in the regular season for the first time in twelve years, ending a long rut and likely ending any aura of invincibility. Unlike the 2014 squad, the 2015 team showed genuine signs of improvement over the course of the season. This Rapids return to glory is a slow process, and one that owes much to past coaches and a talent surge in the youth program, but Rothstein has ushered it along, and as was the case when LaRoque left, the future on the northern reaches of the Mississippi looks bright.

On Saturday morning, Rothstein told KOZY radio that he didn’t realize when he started that being a high school coach is a full-time job. He also told the Duluth News-Tribune that he’d never expected to stay for long, either. The former Rapids and Minnesota-Duluth standout is not a young man, and owns a business and teaches at a community college. His experience is proof once again of the amount of effort it takes to run a top high school hockey program, earning just four figures to do an often thankless job. Rapids’ next coach should be a younger guy who understands what he’s getting himself into, and one who is in it for the long haul. While it would be tough to attract an outside big name, there is more than enough hockey knowledge in town to carry the mantel, and with top-ten talent on board for next season–will this be the most talented Rapids team since the early 90s?–it has to be an alluring position. We’ll see who steps forward to claim it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 662 other followers