Good Writing, 12/4/19

4 Dec

In my continued ongoing efforts to collect good thinkpieces and also keep this blog somewhat alive, here’s another collection of interesting reading:

First, in the New Yorker, M.R. O’Connor tells the tale of “dirt road America,” an effort by a man named Sam Correro to map dirt road routes across the country. His project, decades in the making, invites travelers to slow down and drive slowly, to explore the forgotten corners and backcountry secrets of a vast, sprawling country. His meticulous hand-made maps guide curious souls on a very different kind of American road trip.

Sticking with the travel theme, whatever one may think of Roger Cohen’s politics, there’s little doubt he is the finest prose stylist on the New York Times opinion page, and in this recent offering, he gets himself quite lost on a hike in Spain’s Sierra de Guadarrama, I can only hope that, if I am someday lost and losing hope, I too will start meditating on Hemingway’s short stories as I contemplate mortality. Often the greatest way to escape any ruts in the present is to reflect on the wisdom of someone who’s been in that same place.

Perhaps not coincidentally given an impending milestone birthday, I find myself reading a lot about social pressures that lead to delayed family formation and childbirth. Thanks to Ross Douthat at the Times, I went down this rabbit hole this week with three different articles. Douthat himself wrote from his usual conservative Catholic perspective on how the contemporary left, after a period when it was relatively supportive of the idea of strong families as a social good, has begun to rebel against this concept. As a complement and counterpoint, he also shared a 2016 critique from the left by Nancy Fraser, who talks of how neoliberal capitalism undermines family and community social structures. Douthat also recently tweeted this long, sprawling account titled “The Economics of Boomers” by Byrne Hobart. It’s a wonky economist’s perspective on how the economic history of the past 60 years is strongly tied to different phases of baby boomers’ lives, and how the political economy they’ve created defines the life choices of younger generations. Ok, boomer!

Finally, on a lighter note, northern Minnesota author Aaron Brown tells us exactly what an Iron Ranger is. At my core, I’m really not a cultural Ranger at all: I like urban life and have snobby tastes in reading material and food and drink. But I spend a fair amount of time on the Range these days, and I like hockey and beer and the outdoors, so I can usually slide in comfortably. Brown nails it: culture, in the end, forms the basis of these labels.

Until next time…

Puck Drop 2019-2020

20 Nov

We’re finally here: the 2019-2020 season begins with its first few games tomorrow night. A preseason podcast and my AA rankings have already made their way out into the world, and my next task is to write a foreword for a book. If you need more hockey coverage to pass the time between now and puck drop, though, here are five storylines as we head into a new decade of high school hockey.

Changing of the Guard? Three perennial State Tournament contenders, Edina, St. Thomas, and Duluth East, have been decimated by graduation and departure; while they will remain relevant to varying degrees, this season has a chance to bring out a lot of new faces. The top teams in St. Thomas and East’s sections, Rosemount and Andover, respectively, have never been to AA State; Edina’s chief antagonists include a Benilde team that has only been twice in AA and a Blake team that’s never been. These aren’t minor transitions, either: every one of those teams is a state title contender in a pretty open race. History tells us the old powers don’t go quietly, but there is a chance at a lot of fresh blood in the AA Tourney this season.

Eagles in Formation? Eden Prairie is #1, and its collection of star power on the defending runners-up is among the more impressive out there. The questions begin right after that, though. With Mason Langenbrunner arriving from Cloquet, Ben Steeves from New Hampshire, and Jackson Blake up from bantams via Shattuck, there are legitimate questions as to how this team will jell. There’s also very little varsity experience beyond their collection of stars. Can they get enough out of some very green depth players to hold up against the other top few teams, most of which can go at least three lines deep?

Defense wins championships? The unifying trend across the top AA teams is the quality of the defense. Headliners like Eden Prairie’s Luke Mittelstadt (now united with Langenbrunner), Benilde’s Nate Schweitzer, Andover’s Wyatt Kaiser, and Rosemount’s Jake Ratzlaff will get the attention, but these teams are all deep in back, capable of rolling two or three pairs and confident they won’t see a drop-off. Goals could be at a premium in some marquee matchups this season. And in a year when defense may lead the way, who can get the most out of their forwards?

The Lake gets deeper For years, the Lake Conference has been the undisputed cream of the crop in Minnesota, and the small size of this five-team festival allowed its powers to load up on nonconference schedules that were always the best in the state. Now, though, things are changing: St. Michael-Albertville and Buffalo, two interesting though hardly top-tier programs, have joined the fray. The powers now have smaller nonconference slates, which creates less crossover and sets up a little more ranking intrigue; the changes will also spare us three annual Edina-Eden Prairie meetings. I, for one, am glad to see a new wrinkle in a conference that tended to feel repetitive by season’s end.

A Class A Slugfest If AA is fairly open this season, Class A is a different, though equally enticing story: the front-end talent on the top three teams is the best it’s been in years. Defending champ St. Cloud Cathedral returns most of its core, Hermantown boasts Blake Biondi and Joey Pierce, and East Grand Forks has loaded up with some star young talents and an acquisition from North Dakota. If those three make it through to semifinal Friday in March, we’ll have a few heavyweight fights to decide a state title.

It’s not always that easy, though: throw in some added intrigue up north with rising Warroad, ever-present Thief River Falls, Greenway’s continued relevance, and a peaking Eveleth group, and we have the makings of some good races. Outside of steady Mahtomedi, the metro sections of Class A feel as unsettled as they ever have, which leaves an opening for someone new to crash the party. My fun pick to watch this season, though, is a North Branch team that has a shot at being the first seeded team from 5A in its present form.

As always, follow along as you please and send your thoughts my way. I’m headed to the Twin Cities this weekend to catch my first few games of the season, and action in the Duluth area will begin in earnest after Thanksgiving. See you at the rink!

90s Boys, Part II

17 Nov

Part One is here.

While The Topeka School aims to render contemporary America in grand moody sweeps, the book I read in conjunction with it, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations, has seemingly more modest expectations. The allegory is more subtle and less grandiose, the language more measured, more matter-of-fact, a believable rendering of characters’ thoughts. Instead, Tilney worms his way into the mind of Ben Weeks, a third-former (high school freshman to the rest of us) at St. James School, a New Hampshire boarding school not-so-loosely based on the prestigious, if sometimes embattled, St. Paul’s. Ben is a sixth-generation SJS student, the son and nephew of prominent school benefactors, younger brother to a freshly minted SJS grad who was something of a campus legend, and an emerging squash star. On paper, he’s the embodiment of the WASP elite.

It would be easy to take a snapshot of Ben as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He is caught up in an anxious, morally dubious world of high school social striving, and the closest friends he develops have few redeeming qualities. For most of the book, he at best offers compromised advice to Ahmed, his Dubaian roommate with no concept of American social norms; at worst, he enables other kids’ torment of him. The nagging voice in his head does nothing to keep him from getting drunk enough to vomit all over the room in his first month at the school or engaging in any number of other improprieties large and small. He frequently lies to get out of trouble, and he gets away with it.

And yet Ben retains a tender core. Tilney wallows deep in Ben’s adolescent brain, an achievement both relatable and exhausting: in any given moment, his actions make sense, always an effort to find his place in a harsh social world and a long family history. His bluster always tentative, and at no point do we feel his heart is in it; he remains sensitive and industriously tries to make his way through an unforgiving environment. He is overwhelmed by forces beyond him, struggling desperately to find his own self beneath the weight of generations of expectations.

Part of the problem is the world in which Ben finds himself. St. James is caught in a moral paradox best embodied by the St. James Companion, a book of expectations it gives to its incoming students, a relic of a different era that still calls students “boys” even though SJS has long been co-ed. It wants to protect its students from the forces of the world and teach them humility while preparing them to rule it. The isolation from the rest of the world it so long enjoyed is beginning to break down amid modern connectivity. Disciplinary hearings are a farce, tied more to the school’s image than any sense of justice, an attempt to keep up appearances in changing times. Ben’s family situation is not what it seems at the outset, and like any family that finds its social situation fragile, he swiftly develops an anxiety that his complex social world turns into outright paranoia.

The Expectations is an elegy of sorts for East Coast old money. That includes its most redeeming qualities: frugality and taste in the face of gauche free-spending from the likes of Ahmed, its dying moral code an effort to tame the privilege the SJS kids enjoy. The WASPs aspired to their virtues, and often those virtues aligned with the best of the American project, but as that old aristocracy collides with new money and mass democratic culture, it finds the world has left it behind. The Companion isn’t relevant for Alice, Ben’s love interest, nor for Ahmed, who irks Ben with his dismissal of SJS tradition until he suddenly does branch out in a way that could destabilize Ben’s place at the school. Ben has few qualms about breaking rules so long as they are in line with the traditions of SJS mischief, but other forms of impropriety become existential threats.

As with Adam in The Topeka Project, Ben has a smart but ultimately tragic father and a pillar-like mother, an arrangement that seems either oedipal or an indictment of a particular era in American fatherhood. Ben’s mother, a budding academic with a keen and sympathetic understanding of her son’s motives, is the novel’s grounding force; his father, meanwhile, is every bit the sorry heir at the end of the line, riding past glory and fully consumed by a need to keep up appearances. The Expectations is a more sympathetic rendering of how elite hunger for wealth and power overrides a veneer of culture than The Topeka School, and for its efforts may prove an even more searing indictment.

I knew approximately nothing about squash before reading this book—another sign of WASP decline, perhaps—but the squash portions of the book are among its most riveting. Squash is both Ben’s escape and a source of stress, especially as the stakes get higher, and anyone familiar with high-stakes high school sports (or any such activity) will relish the tale of his struggle, at once both in search of prestige and cloistered in a narrow world of little interest to anyone beyond the courts. The SJS squash coach, the aptly named Manley Price, is probably a good barometer for readers’ reactions to The Expectations. Readers who relish his efforts to push his students to the brink probably understand the desire to elegize St. James; those who find him an over-the-top manipulator will probably want to grab Ben and order him to head back to his local public school. But if a culture of excellence is to sustain itself, it needs its manly (or womanly) prices; if there is any virtue in higher moral codes, they need to have arbiters and norms to maintain those standards. That tension sits at the core of The Expectations, and the moral questions it raises are some of the most crucial ones a changing society has to ponder.

The Expectations is a debut novel, and as a result has some of the rangy weaknesses of debut novels. Its third-person limited perspective gives us an exacting portrait of Ben but comes at the expense of depth for some of the supporting characters. Its occasional tendency to wander into other brains or offer sudden insights from on high, while sometimes a welcome break from relentless Ben thoughts, usually rings false; the need to name-check every 90s brand also drained me, especially as someone who is a bit too young to find any resonance in many of them. (This may be the point, of course.) But Ben Weeks is a timeless exemplar of the status struggle of teenage boyhood, and in the final chapter, when he has nothing left to lose, he starts to find himself. ‘Let yourself bleed,’ Price tells him, and Ben pays the price to learn the true nature of the world around him.

90s Boys, Part I

16 Nov

My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.

At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.

Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.

The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?

While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.

I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.

Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.

My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.

Part Two is here.

A Slowly Widening Gyre: Duluth Election Dissection, 2019

7 Nov

First, to explain my silence on local politics to the readers who don’t talk to me regularly: over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the campaign manager for Arik Forsman’s at-large city council campaign. This blog’s ethos has always sought distance from any cheerleading I may do in private, and I much prefer to work with people directly than yell things out at the internet in the hope that doing so achieves things. Now that it’s all over, though, I’ll attempt to step back from my role over the past year and find the bigger picture.

Mayor Emily Larson rolled to a second term, though we always knew that was going to happen. David Nolle did manage to win four precincts, all of them in a row along the riverfront out west, from Irving to Fond du Lac. While political winds blow here and there in many of the other races, Larson holds a dominant center in Duluth politics. She’s heard some grumbling to both the left and the right, and her campaign’s efforts to spend a lot of time out west, knowing it had nothing to lose, didn’t yield stronger outcomes than her even more lopsided win four years ago. For now, though, the mayoralty is firmly in her hands, and she has a chance to see results from some of the longer-term projects that were at the center of her first term, such as the new streets tax and the medical district.

Elsewhere, however, some cracks in Duluth’s governing consensus emerged, and they were most evident in the at-large city council race. A somewhat conservative political newcomer, Derek Medved, paced the field, with Labor-endorsed incumbents Arik Forsman and Noah Hobbs coming in second and third. This at-large race was most notable for its surge in bullet voting, with voters on the left and right choosing only one candidate in the hope of getting theirs across the finish line. Forsman survived this new tactic, while the collateral damage in 2019 Duluth was Hobbs, whose low-key style and prolific policy work didn’t match the moment.

A Trump Era left rejects candidates who aren’t in lockstep with its vision. Mike Mayou, the left’s 21-year-old candidate, ran an interesting jumble of a race, at times displaying some real charisma with soaring rhetoric and at times making unforced errors like 6 AM primary election robocalls. Mayou broke through and seized the DFL endorsement, which seemed to have little short-term benefit but certainly emboldened the progressive wing of the party going forward. His general election performance improved somewhat on his somewhat distant primary showing, but in the end he appeared on a smaller percentage of ballots cast than Rich Updegrove did two years ago; his percentage simply looks a little higher due to all of the bullet voting. One moment he was a “UMD student,” and another he was a “community organizer,” which aren’t mutually exclusive but convey very different things; sometimes he seemed to just follow the incumbents’ talking points, even as some of his supporters trashed Hobbs and Forsman relentlessly on social media. Those supporters will no doubt blame Labor, which did not endorse Mayou, though that argument is difficult to sustain in a nonpartisan race in which one’s candidate is running against two incumbents who have delivered for Labor, and when one’s candidate finishes last among the viable candidates in both rounds; after the primary, I mostly stopped paying attention, as I knew the threat, so to speak, would come from the right. The Mayou campaign seemed an apt mirror for the progressive moment: filled with unbridled passion, devoted to national-level talking points, and at times more fixated on shaming its putative allies than the conservatives whose rise it may unwittingly enable.

City Council At-Large Results by Precinct

A well-funded and organized right, meanwhile, is well-positioned to exploit the leftward internal warfare. Still, Medved ran a vague campaign that really didn’t always align with the tighter messaging of his conservative funders. He won not because he was BizPac’s man (though the money didn’t hurt); he won because he made himself the face of the west side, and that east-west divide is increasingly the fault line in Duluth politics. He even won in deep blue Lincoln Park, and I’m not sure any more money or different messaging would have made a difference. While Medved isn’t particularly Trumpy, the tribal loyalty he inspired does have a whiff of national politics to it, and while both Hobbs and Forsman can claim some working class cred and have taken on bureaucratic red tape, it’s much easier to come across as pure on such fronts when one doesn’t have a track record. As a newcomer to politics, Medved now begins his education in governance.

The district races featured a fascinating mix. Becky Hall, a hard-working also-ran, lost by a substantial margin to incumbent Gary Anderson in the first district, while Janet Kennedy, after twice failing to break through in previous cycles, outworked Jeanne Koneczny in the fifth district. Kennedy improved her performance most notably in the Riverside/Smithville/Norton Park areas compared to her showing against Jay Fosle four years ago and became Duluth’s first African-American city councilor. BizPac’s two district candidates came nowhere near matching its at-large candidate. The third district race, which defied easy categories, saw Roz Randorf pull out the win over Labor-endorsed Theresa O’Halloran-Johnson. The gap closed somewhat after a lopsided primary, but Randorf pulled away with strong showings in the higher-income areas atop the hill and out on Park Point. One presumes Randorf’s loyalties lie more with the leftward core that ran her campaign than her initial BizPac donors, but she offers a potentially fascinating wild card on the council.

5th District City Council: Janet Kennedy (purple) vs. Jeanne Koneczny (red)

On the school board side of the ledger Alanna Oswald proved resilient, winning a second election against a Labor-endorsed opponent despite enduring health challenges in the closing weeks of the campaign. Her early work got her out ahead of challenger John Schwetman, who kept the race fairly competitive but only won in a high-income east side core of neighborhoods and in a few of the precincts outside of city limits. Oswald’s cross-cutting appeal captures both the old Red Plan critics and a new wave seeking to advance greater equity, and the relative blurriness of school politics allows that pitch to succeed in a way I’m not sure can work in a council race.

School Board At-Large: Alanna Oswald (orange) vs. John Schwetman (blue)

In the district races, two anti-Red Plan crusaders of the past failed to win, though the margins map on to the traditional east-west divide in Duluth school politics. Incumbent David Kirby rolled past Harry Welty in the second district, while over in the third district, Loren Martell had his best showing in his many races and gave newcomer Paul Sandholm a decent run despite falling short in the end. Martell carried two precincts, one in lower Duluth Heights and one on the near East Hillside. Welty has signaled this campaign, his seventeenth, may have been his last; after a closer call, Martell may yet give it another go. We are firmly on our path in a new era of school board politics now, and after crossing paths with some of the newer members over the past several months, I’m as optimistic about the district’s future as I’ve been in a while. I look forward to seeing what this group can do with its impending superintendent search.

The past few Duluth election cycles have been dominant for Labor, which usually found a way to hold broad left-of-center center of Duluth politics. Its success isn’t some magical formula: over the past 12 years, it’s coupled union work ethic and business support to back a governing consensus focused on collaboration and incremental progress. It’s overseen a substantial rehabilitation of this city’s outward image, surges in investment with no recent precedent, and incomes rising faster than national averages; while far from flawless, it’s hard to argue with the overall trajectory. The Labor machine, in the words of Don Ness, made Duluth politics boring for a spell.

Labor still won a majority of its races in 2019, but there were some significant defeats and narrower margins. National polarization is making its way into local politics, and when that happens, the center does not always hold. As someone who just managed a campaign that made an effort to rise above national level ugliness one of its core tenets, the end results are not overly encouraging. But centrism (or center-leftism) for its own sake isn’t an inspiring platform, and we can talk about “nuance” and “creativity” all day, but at some point those have to manifest themselves in actual, measurable results. I know the candidate I worked for is committed to that, and I can only hope his interesting collection of new colleagues is as well.

In many ways, my job over the past year was easy: the Forsman campaign was very well-resourced, my candidate worked relentlessly, and he brought together a deep, strong team with good diversity of thought that worked as a unit to keep any one task from becoming onerous. I had plenty of fun with it. At the same time, it was my own education in the rigors of a campaign and the unexpected twists it can take, and at times a striking reminder that politics is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure what comes next for my political life; I’m not one to take deep pleasure at the mere act of being in the arena, but I do enjoy winning, and the real work, of course, is what we can achieve after an election. Time to get to work.

Good Writing, 10/30/19

30 Oct

In this edition of my recurring feature, I highlight articles come to me from friends and colleagues who sent me articles thinking I’d like them. They were right, and each of them ties into some piece of my semi-recent writing. Hey, maybe this whole concept can take off.

First, we pay a visit to James Fallows at the Atlantic, who offers up one of the more impressive Karl-baiting articles I can remember: his theme is one I have played with, both subtly and not so subtly, on here before. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he argues, was not such a horrible thing for humanity. Instead, for most people, life went on. Many of the monasteries and breakaway provinces retained the most valuable pieces of antiquity and formed the foundations of the modern world. If our American moment is indeed analogous to the late Roman Empire, is that really such a horrid thing? Scale makes national politics nothing more than cultural signaling, and the real work of governance happens close to home. Fallows and his wife, Deborah, wrote about Duluth when they traveled the country looking for examples of how this localism could work.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik spends some time in my field of urban planning, and gives some nuanced revisionism of the critiques of mid-century urban renewal. Said renewal gave us a lot of ugly, bad buildings with no concept of the cities surrounding them, but it also aspired to grand solutions. Not all of them were elites glibly or malevolently displacing people of color to facilitate commerce; in fact, many had some of the noblest intentions, and at times they did a much better job of creating access for people than the contemporary ethos of preservation, which often has the effect (whether intended or unintended) of privileging people who already live in a place and making it different for others to break in. As with Pruitt-Igoe, maybe the fault is less with the planners and architects than with a political environment that never gave their ideas a chance.

Gopnik points out many of the ironies of urban political alliances–developers with housing-seeking liberals, conservatives and radical leftist preservationists–and nudges toward a conclusion that attractive architecture and design are what really matters. Our urban moment is very different from that of the past half-century, and Gopnik concludes by abolishing rent control (correctly) and urban planning departments (well, that’s awkward). This kid trained as a planner thinks he is on to something when he says that different times should make us consider rescuing the best of the past era of planning, such as its noble grand attempts to confront pressing issues, while doing away with the ugly architecture and the paternalism. Somewhere in this mess lies an answer, and we can yet find it.

Finally, since I’ve been writing some things about different generations lately, I’ll offer up a New York Times piece by Taylor Lorenz that shows how Generation Z is starting to have some snarky fun at the expense of Baby Boomers (or, at least, a subset of baby boomers that seems particularly naive to some of the challenges that now afflict young people). As noted in my June post, this broad-brush generational portrait is fairly narrow and perhaps enjoys some New York Times confirmation bias, but I am nonetheless amused.

I’ll close with two quotes about writing. The first comes from Zadie Smith, my favorite part of a sparkling, complex essay in the New York Review of Books that explains why fiction is still valuable, particularly in an era when intellectual currents challenge writers’ ability to enter into the experiences of others and accurately represent them.

[I]n our justified desire to level or even obliterate the old power structures—to reclaim our agency when it comes to the representation of selves—we can, sometimes, forget the mystery that lies at the heart of all selfhood. Of what a self may contain that is both unseen and ultimately unknowable. Of what invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences. We also forget what writers are: people with voices in our heads and a great deal of inappropriate curiosity about the lives of others.

Amen.

The second, in much the same vein, comes from Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I reviewed earlier this year:

He knows that a lot of literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw up her hands and said: No politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared in these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt that old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

The Recesses of Downtown Duluth

15 Oct

On a balmy Wednesday in October, I join some fifty members of my Leadership Duluth class on a walking tour of downtown Duluth. This day of Leadership Duluth is no stray leadership lecture: it’s a day that forces us to confront reality in our city. From the CHUM shelter and food shelf to the Damiano Center food kitchen, from the Safe Haven domestic violence shelter to an open house of social service organizations, this day forces us to see people we otherwise might not see.

A one-day orientation doesn’t allow for much close contact with the people who use these resources; that’s not the point of this day. Instead, we hear from those who spend all of their time working here, the personifications of the leadership this program aims to show us. Among the most deeply embedded is Deb at CHUM, who spends her days reaching out to people on the streets of Duluth, always in some effort to bring them back in. She and her colleagues navigate the tortured paths of love and frustration, of empathy and inability to understand what motivates people to lives on the streets, the drastic turns that a life on the edge can take in a few quick minutes. It is at once both impossible and thoroughly believable to follow the logic that leads a person to the transient inconsistency of a life defined by moves from couch to couch, the transactional life on the street, the turn toward some substance to blunt the cold or pain or demons in the brain.

Whether thanks to inspired leadership or the relative ease of convincing donors to support children, Life House, the city’s largest youth shelter, boasts a warm and welcoming modern space so rare among social service nonprofits that target the poorest of the poor. As families crumble and supportive networks fray, the struggles for Duluth’s youth tick upward. And as I approach the start of my fourth decade on this planet, I now find myself looking at kids and seeing some sense of what they might become, a haunted sense that some of these fresh-faced teens loitering around downtown will someday become CHUM’s clients. A place like Life House may be the last hope for rescuing any of them.

As we walk about, it’s hard not to notice the changing face of First Street. On the west end, the News Tribune and Board of Trade Buildings are both moving toward redevelopment; on the east end, Essentia Health’s massive new hospital project stirs to life. In the middle, scaffolding covers a building at Lake and First, another conversion to housing as Duluth’s downtown catches up with where other cities’ centers were development-wise twenty years ago. Even the bland ARDC building, where I officed for a couple of years before my firm struck out on its own, is getting a facelift, its new façade a marvelously depressing shade of grey.

Another potential project looms on the near east side of First, where the city’s Human Rights Officer, Carl Crawford, delivers the tale of the 1920 Duluth lynchings in his stirring baritone. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial plaza frequently bustles with activity, often from visitors to the Union Gospel Mission up the street; today, we share it with just one young woman, who blasts some pop songs as backdrop to Carl’s sermon and sings along in painful off-key tones. None too quietly, she mutters about the white people who have invaded her space. Just the day before, a county court ruled that the Duluth Economic Development Authority may proceed with the demolition of the Pastoret Terrace building across the street, a sad but necessary ending for an architectural icon that has long since crumbled away beyond repair. First Street’s face will change yet again, and I wonder what this woman will think of it when it comes.

Carl asks us to pick out a favorite quotation on the memorial wall. Many are poignant, from Rumi to Oscar Wilde, but I pick out the Martin Luther King quote that stuck with me when I first set eyes on this then-revolutionary memorial over a decade ago: “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Of all the sentiments on the wall, it seems most absent in our current discourse.

King’s words are grounded in a certain Christian theology, a legacy of service on my mind when we walk up to the Damiano Center on Fourth Street. The Damiano is on the site of an old Catholic campus in the heart of the city: it was Cathedral Elementary School before it became a food kitchen. The site of Cathedral High across the street is now a parking lot, while Sacred Heart Cathedral has become a music venue and the priests’ and nuns’ residences are now housing. Even the church has fled downtown in search of new digs, whether east to Congdon and the Holy Rosary campus or up the hill to the Marshall School, now stripped of any religious affiliation.

No doubt faith can feel absent here, and the tale of the Adas Israel congregation, Duluth’s oldest surviving synagogue and a longtime downtown inhabitant, offers a chilling metaphor for those inclined to that line of thought. Their house of worship went up in flames in September, and initial fears of a hate crime fizzled into a much sadder story of a man without a home who set a small blaze next to the building in order to keep warm. I had reached for some thundering quotes from Eichmann in Jerusalem but was left instead back in the pages of The Human Condition, ever in search of meaning in a corner of the world where life risks becoming a tautology.

The scaffolding and wrecking balls across downtown Duluth hint toward a new future, and I am an unabashed supporter: downtown Duluth above Superior Street is largely a relic of a Rust Belt city center, completely at odds with a city looking for a spurt of fresh life. For that matter, it is at odds with a more humane environment for those who drift about it because they have no other choice, and only a narrow, reflexive idea of community would reject this new development as if the status quo were in some way worth preserving. But if it does go, it will take a few stories with it, and we need to keep those stories somewhere if we are to have a true understanding of our past. Whether the it comes from the Adas Israel congregation rising from the ashes or the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial ensuring we never forget the acts of 1920 or a kid at Life House finding stability in a life that previously had none, our knowledge of the darkest moments gives us that much more appreciation for the light.