Minnesota Burning

29 May

2020 is nothing if not relentless, a barrage that takes different forms, sometimes invisible and sometimes in raging flames. Here in Minnesota in late May, the coronavirus’ lingering malaise turns to death and fire in the streets. History creeps closer like a dread storm, the gyre now wide enough to swallow us whole. If this isn’t my generation’s 1968, I shudder to think of what may come next.

Ash rains down on friends’ yards in South Minneapolis. Businesses I have patronized lay in ruin. In a bitter piece of awfulness, an affordable housing development appears to be the most prominent property loss. None of that, however, stacks up against the loss of human life. Some friends struggle to explain this world to their young children; others wonder if their cars are safe in their normal parking spots. Walls go up, defenses come down, raw emotion pours forth. As it should.

I have no great new insight into police violence or riot dynamics, nor can I claim to tell the tale of centuries of systemic oppression. How can I? I’m a white kid from a very white corner of a very white state, and while it is basically my life’s work to understand as much as I can understand about my world, nothing in this life will ever give me the perspective to tell that story as it should be told. I can only fire off an email or two and be a vicarious witness. I lurch down a grotesque social media hole, the revolution Snapchatted live, and pull myself out only after wallowing for most of an evening. These lenses put us in the moment but shut out everything beyond, a skewed perspective that hones in on what some random individual has chosen to capture but offers no narrative, no story, no compelling arc that might guide us incrementally down that path toward comprehension or dialogue or reconciliation. They offer only raw, violent shocks to the system. Violence begets a violence, an eye for an eye, the whole world blind.

What is it we have lost, here in the spring of 2020? Lives, first and foremost, the product of a society that at times seems worryingly callous about human life, a fear that is always there but these days comes in cues from the top. Livelihoods, for those who had the misfortune of living in the crossfire. Many senses of security, at least for those of us who were fortunate enough to enjoy them in the first place. Some never did, though we all have been compromised further in some way. The rational mind can find some distance, sort through which reforms might actually work, move us toward a reduction in violence. But the rational mind has little to offer in an immediate crisis, when people are dead and generations’ worth of rage teams up with a quarantined society on edge to burst forth.

Minnesota may seem an unexpected flashpoint for American racial history: largely white, largely prosperous, rarely on the front pages. But the things that make Minnesota such a pleasant place to live for so many of us remain inaccessible to others all so often, that inequity that much more glaring. Without a reckoning, we will repeat this cycle again in a few months or years or decades, left again with clueless questions of how this could happen and why people behave this way when their own lives have given them no reason to believe things can change. In the coming days and weeks, Minnesota will have the power to rectify some of what has happened, to keep an individual tragedy from becoming a tragedy of history.

This Minneapolis May might seem distant for those of us not there on the ground, but the world that fomented it surrounds us. A few hours north, in my city of Duluth, the first few summer-like days stay calm, though I appreciate the horns a few blocks from my place last night at the site of our very Duluth protest, where there is some confrontation but mostly honks of support and police posing for photographs in solidarity. But this corner isn’t safe either: we are just two weeks away from the 100th anniversary of Duluth’s greatest sin, a horrific act that today feels like just another episode in a painfully predictable, endlessly repeated American tragedy. This time it truly is impossible to remain silent, and even as things smolder, I find a sense of hope, if that can really be the right word, that we’re showing some signs of learning from past mistakes.

It is hardly an original insight to condemn violence and plead for recovery and healing at this stage, a feeble bleat that feels ill-suited for our times. But this conflagration makes me believe anew that the responsibility to respond in whatever way we can is a collective one, a societal need to reaffirm certain values in the wake of brutality and subsequent anarchy. As the fires die down and the rational mind can assert some control again, it is time to make good on Minnesota’s promise, which touches every one of us in this state. 1968 did not bring the necessary American reckoning, but perhaps 2020 can.

On Libraries

26 May

Civilization is doomed without libraries. Okay, I may be a bit biased in this hot take: I am the son of a librarian and spent large parts of my childhood in libraries. At their best, libraries are civic monuments that show a civilization values knowledge; I am who I am because of them. But they are also of incredible value for people who share little in common with me, a rare public space with something for all of us if we know where to look. Anyone who is bored in a library isn’t trying hard enough.

I can track my progress through life in libraries. I have vague memories of the Andrew Carnegie-funded Edgerton, Wisconsin Public Library in my earliest days, its card catalogues lining the wall in the basement. After moving to Duluth, my family lived two blocks from the Lester Park branch library, a little Carnegie-style institution that shuttered a couple of years after our arrival. As a kid, the library was a frequent haunt after school, with coveted slots on the children’s department computers and occasional forced labor to prepare materials for the annual summer reading program. In Mexico City, the Universidad Iberoamericana had an ingenious floor devoted to napping on surprisingly comfortable Ikea furniture, which I used liberally on the days I had a 7 AM class.

Libraries have been cultural centers for the better part of two and a half millennia. The ancients built massive collections like the Great Library at Alexandria, a fountain of early wisdom. Thomas Jefferson’s old library, preserved in the Library of Congress (an icon in its own right), gives a more complete picture of the state of knowledge in early America than any historical reenactment. Cities like New York and Chicago have libraries that can stand alongside any museum or government building in their grandeur. Carnegie’s libraries were one of the greatest philanthropic bequests in history: an extension of opportunity to cities and towns across America (and Carnegie’s native Scotland) with few strings attached that did wonders for literacy. Those old Carnegies, now often phased out as technological needs pass them by, had a welcoming, airy feel tinged with a healthy hint of must. Georgetown’s Riggs Library, a wrought-iron wonder inside Healy Hall, is the stuff of fantasy, and many universities have similar hallowed halls. These libraries invite people in to explore, open up worlds even when other worlds are closed off to us.

Alas, libraries are not always built with the enjoyment of their users in mind, and some are instead products of the artistic vagaries of men and women (mostly men) floating up on idealistic design clouds they find far more important than the people who actually use the building. Duluth’s downtown library is Exhibit A in this trend, an unfortunate attempt to be “architecturally significant” with myriad issues for its users and employees. And, sadly, a healthy chunk of my Georgetown days were spent not in stunning Riggs but in the friendly confines of Lauinger Library, an unfortunate brutalist take on its neighbor, the Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall. The neighboring apartments, which looked like little Lau spawn, were redeemed by their superb rooftop views of the Potomac, but Lau, despite possessing that same view, offered it only from one undersized lounge on the back of the fourth floor and a few stray sought-after windows (usually lacking nearby outlets) and carrels reserved for grad students. Modern libraries can work—in Mexico City I once paid a visit to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a window into what Lauinger could have looked like if they’d brought the modernist theme into the interior—but they cannot forget their fundamental mission.

Lauinger was an oppressive monolith, but I built a fondness for it anyway, perhaps spurred along by Club Lau, an annual soiree that turned a third floor reading room into a sweat-caked dance party. Early on I tended to inhabit Lau Four, with its respectable views on all sides and convenient access to the global history stacks that formed the bulk of my library checkouts; some friends preferred Lau Two, with its group study spaces and coffee shop. Later, a row of bland carrels on Lau One became my haunt for reasons that no longer seem at all clear to me. If one wanted deep isolation, the Lower Level—a full three floors below the main entrance on Lau Three—offered solitude in the catacombs, except when the automatic bookcases came to life and moved of their own accord.

After I graduated from college, I worked at the Duluth Public Library for two years, a job in which I schlepped books between the branches in a van and shelved them for a while each day. For a quarter-life crisis job, it was about as cozy as it gets: likeable coworkers, little interaction with unpleasant patrons, immersion in interesting materials that occasionally distracted me, a chance to sample library employees’ contributions to the break room treat collection in each of the branches. (Librarians are marvelous bakers.) The Duluth Public Library gave me a place to get back on my feet and out of the existential muck I briefly inhabited, and inspired some side projects along the way. I’ve since become a volunteer at its annual book sale, though nowadays I am mostly just a consumer, adding volumes to my own library, whose growing size is on the list of reasons my current apartment has grown inadequate.

People who don’t spend much time in libraries can now be heard doubting the point of them in an age of instant Google and Amazon and Wikipedia. If one can just check out a book on to one’s kindle, what’s the point of these giant, government-run centers to hold the physical thing? Libraries are also often deemed non-essential: coronavirus has turned research librarians into curbside checkout clerks or even forced them into more extreme job functions; here in Duluth, half the staff has been laid off. Whether the cuts come from doubters or believers who think they have no other choice, they amount to much the same.

Allow me, then, to sing the praises of libraries. Librarians remain an underused resource for research, well-versed in digging through to find the things that are not so easily Googled. They are vital for historians, both serious and amateur, especially at the local level: there would be no histories of Duluth East hockey without the services of the Duluth Public Library, and some other libraries that chipped things in through an inter-library loan network. Their volumes will continue to provide marvelous value to those of us who don’t enjoy staring at screens all night. They have become resource centers in innumerable ways for people who have no other internet, no other connection to resources, and few public spaces that are safe, warm, and reliable. (The accommodation of these people is where those design decisions matter, and in subtle ways likely not obvious to casual patrons.) Across the country, libraries have developed creative programming, from rentable technology to seed libraries. I challenge anyone to attend a children’s storytime at Duluth’s Mount Royal branch and walk away thinking libraries are dying. The stereotype of librarians as shushing schoolmarms and utter silence applies only to small corners of them: they bring together and host community groups of all types and open up new possibilities.

And, of course, libraries remain free, a societal acknowledgment that truth and inquiry and learning matter. They are the rare public space that fosters knowledge for knowledge’s sake, create a home for both the most well-read salons and the neediest of residents. They are repositories of deep literacy, a skill that, per a lucid Adam Garfinkle essay, will be vital for any sense of a human future that values abstract thought or empathy. Preservation of such spaces is essential, and those who denigrate them are accomplices in undermining that capacity for the literacy a civilized society requires to function.

On Travel

13 May

Liking travel is among the most generic interests possible. Say you like to “travel” in your dating profile and I will find you basic, only a half-step higher than those who say they value “faith, family, and friends.” Of course you like to travel, but travel is a vehicle for other activities, and if your idea of fun travel means standing in a line at Disney World, it means something very different from clambering up peaks in the Sierras or blissing out at a Mexican beach resort or following an Egyptologist around the ruins of Luxor or sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas or—you get the idea. Travel can take many forms: fast or slow, repeated trips to the same destination or somewhere new every time, or themed trips like quests to knock out all of the national parks or ballparks or theme parks. The mere act tells me nothing about you.

When you say you like to travel, you are really trying to say something else: something about what you value, that you are not closed-minded or narrow person, potentially possessed of certain adventurousness or language skills or general competence in life. It’s also an easy conversation-starter, a likely source of an interesting story that may or may not reveal something interesting about the teller. We travel to say we’ve seen things that other people in our circles have seen (or, even better, have not seen) and make ourselves sound interesting at cocktail parties.

For the most cliched of reasons, we travel to expand our horizons. We go to gawk at beauty: the Grand Canyon, the California coast, the rawness of the Badlands, Lake Superior shores. We go to eat things and meet people, and sometimes we take instrumental travel, like extending a business trip by a day to drink in some local culture. Travel can test us, tell us new things about ourselves, whether we want it to or not. A friend of mine likes to draw a distinction between first-order fun, which is fun that is enjoyable in the moment, and second-order fun, which is not fun in the moment but does appear fun in retrospect. Because travel has a habit of committing itself to one’s memory, it comes to include not only frequent experience in the first category but also plenty in the second. If one is apt to spend one’s time thinking, it may give us some idea of who we are and where we come from, and distance from our mundane day-to-day reality may lead us to see things in new lights, ponder new courses, seek out other new destinations.

Sure, one can also achieve enlightenment in one’s own living room, as is necessary more often than not these days, but newness and difference and sensory overload are far more apt to inspire original thought than the same old drudgery over and over again. I have forgotten the happenings of probably about 350 days of 2018, but the remaining 15 all probably involve sports, travel, or both. Angel’s Landing has a way of lingering in one’s memory. If we’re the sort to record our daily thoughts in some form or another, it is these days that we’ll revisit most often, because the odds of it seeming interesting in retrospect are several orders higher than that of the random Tuesday in April when we went to the gym after work, went home, cooked some dinner, and binged a bit of TV before crashing.

Why this reflection now? Well, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Aside from one drive up to Silver Bay and back, I haven’t gone more than twenty miles since one last work trip up to Aurora two months ago. Even on that venture, we knew it was all going awry: “Everything is going to shit!” one of the younger employees of The Hive, Aurora’s superb coffee shop, declared as she reported for work. One elaborate planned vacation went down the tubes, while I nervously check the latest on my scheduled July destinations for updates on openings and campground regulations. Postponed vacations are among the least sad consequences of the coronavirus, but their loss still diminishes the glow of life.

I am fortunate to live in a picturesque city equipped with enough green space that only in certain locations does it feel uncomfortable to recreate outside, even in the midst of a pandemic. Plenty of other scenic attractions are just a short drive away, and I have no worries of exhausting the list of good hiking destinations for each weekend. Travel, paradoxically, can make one more observant of one’s home: more apt to notice how something compares, how there are interesting details in every little neighborhood or jog of coastline. Those skills come in handy during a pandemic.

Even when not traveling, vicarious travel can help fill the void, if imperfectly. I buy the theory that planning a trip can be as much fun as taking one, especially with the resources now at the disposal of us hyper-planners who take care to nail down our locations in each campground or our cultural destinations in each city we visit and take a twisted pleasure in filling every second of every day with something. The key, then, is making sure we can adapt when expectations and reality do not align. A novice traveler plans everything and expects it all to happen that way; a real traveler sets plans knowing it will all go wrong but still loves it anyway.

Travel can also be metaphorical. Anyone who has been somewhere I’ve called home knows that, once I run out of other decorations, I just paper walls with maps. Maps are symbols, fictional representations of a complex reality, an attempt to capture a few useful aspects for useful human consumption. I like maps because they are attempts to understand a slice of the world, to transport and inspire some imagination without any of the cost or hassles of actual travel, and at their best are a form of art as well. But they also put up some guardrails. They tell us what is important and what is not. Some have edges and blank spaces that invite us to see what they hold, and even if we can now go into street view to see what things look like there, the sensory experience is still far short of reality. A good map invites more questions than it provides answers.

Digital versions of maps both expand and constrict our understanding of what they capture. We can zoom in and out endlessly, toggle on and off features that interest us much more easily than on the analog kind. But digital maps are also a crutch, a replacement for situational awareness if one chooses to rely on them for directions, and I am not infrequently stunned by the complete inability of people in my generation to know where anything is without first looking it up. Even for a rigid planner, travel is at its best when it allows for sensory awareness, the ability to drink in the entirety of our surroundings and react to them, to become one with them instead of flailing one’s way through them. Virtual reality can’t come close to that.

Travel for leisure is, effectively, a modern invention. Sure, Herodotus and Marco Polo went on epic journeys, but most of their ilk had ulterior motives, not discovery for its own sake. The very notion that there were new lands out there to discover was somewhat foreign for the medieval mind. Yuval Noah Harari calls Amerigo Vespucci, the man who got a few continents named after him, “the first modern man,” as he was the first explorer who had the courage to say he didn’t know where he was. He wasn’t in the East Indies; he’d found something entirely new, and the maps that followed his travels contained blank spaces for the first time. That willingness to admit uncertainty and go out and try to figure it out, so natural to us moderns, was a radical notion that emerged from the Renaissance, and while it is certainly tied up in all of the imperial and colonial adventures that followed, it is hard not to see it as a stunning human achievement.

For us late moderns, it’s become fashionable to doubt the idea of travel and discovery as something transformative: between technology and the relative ease with which one can (in normal times) penetrate every corner of the globe, it’s easy to presume we have no great discoveries left. We’ve reached the logical extent in the frontier theory of American history, and are now consigned to decadence and ennui. Travel has become a source of Instagram photos, a form of conspicuous consumption and privilege, subtle and not so subtle. Why deal with all the hassle?

Roger Cohen thinks we can still find that edge in our travels, though, and I tend to agree, and hope this virus will remind a few more people of the power of getting lost. Some of us are just plagued by wanderlust, hungry for new answers even though we know the new ones will probably just invite yet more questions and set us off down a spiral of discovery that Vespucci and his contemporaries kicked off over 500 years ago. This is a feature, not a bug: the quest is endless, and that hunger for discovery can continue to be a fountain of the creative thought we need to avoid tautological lives. May we soon be free to travel again, even if it means fewer crowded stadiums or bazaars and more idle strolls down cobblestone streets or nights in lonely tents. There is still more to see.

Living History on Empty Streets

3 May

“Duluth is a bit off-center, both literally and figuratively—something most Duluthians don’t seem to mind at all. After all, this is the city whose skyway system runs partially underground, where the West End is located in the city’s geographic center, and whose annual Christmas City of the North parade is held a week before Thanksgiving. Duluth may be a little bit off-center, but part of what makes Duluth Duluth is that here, true north isn’t always where you’d expect it to be.”

-Tony Dierckins, Duluth: An Urban Biography

Sheltering in place gives a devotee to a city even more time to learn it intimately. I read Tony Dierckins’ new biography of the city, which fits the bill of a pre-founding-to-present history that I pined for on this blog some while back. The Biography really only left me hungry for more: it clocks in at just under 170 pages and could easily have been double that length if it were to thoroughly explore structural forces and the lives of prominent figures beyond a series of mayors and those who crossed their paths. Still, the Biography was welcome step beyond Tony’s previous fun vignettes and collections, most of which peter out somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Granted, Duluth’s history becomes somewhat less romantic in that stretch; the great turn-of-the-century wealth faded, the growth stalled, and the architecture wandered away from an eclectic opulence to something much more mundane. Still, the Biography is a reminder that this city’s history has always been one of awkward lurches, of rises and falls, and a quest for some sort of stability in the aftermath.

Dierckins, citing Arthur W. Baum, likens Duluth to a stumbling prizefighter. (I would have used a hockey analogy, but this one will certainly do.) This city has been battered and bloodied by history: shock after economic shock, a lynch mob that killed its diversity, leadership both bold and questionable. Only rarely has Duluth seemed in control of its own fate, as when its early residents dug the shipping canal (a much more professional and mundane process than some local legends would have you believe), or when late 20th century leadership slowly turned the city back toward first Lake Superior and later the St. Louis River as centerpieces. So often Duluth’s fortunes depend on the whims of others, or no human at all: distant creditors, the American steel industry, the shifts in transportation that came with the interstate highway system. As the coronavirus now ravages the city’s economy, we embark on yet another lurch.

And so I set out to soak up Duluth’s living, breathing history, my mental record of this moment in time. I go for a run—with the sporadic hike on an off day—every day for a month and a half, and never aimed to take the same route twice. At first there was no real rhyme or reason to my wanderings, but once I realized I’d covered all but a handful of Duluth neighborhoods, I decided to knock out the rest over the span of a week and a half. I checked off the last one this morning when I plowed up Vinland Street to Bayview Heights this morning, just far enough to catch a glimpse of the promised land of Proctor across Boundary Avenue. I’m not one to track my distance religiously as I run, nor to lose myself in music or a podcast: I’m just here to run, and to drink in the world around me with my eyes.

In my adventures I find a few more off-center quirks, like the intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue tucked in next to the paper mill deep on the west side. The top of the hill, somehow, is just one monstrous swamp, enlivened by a springtime frog chorus; a few boys in Piedmont splash through the muck in pursuit of the peepers. Duluth is a college town without college neighborhoods, a tourist town whose great landmark came about thanks to some grumpy residents of a sandbar who were peeved their city built the channel that was the source of all its early wealth. One of our showpiece parks is named for an explorer who never came within a thousand miles of the place. As the wind blows, so goes my comfort, at turns frigid or sweaty, guided by a tailwind or slowed by a blast from straight ahead.

Early Superiorites derided Duluthians as cliff-dwellers, and I could see why as I shot up and down the Point of Rocks at the center of the city. I relish the punishment of the runs that just go straight up into Kenwood or the top of the hill in Woodland or up to Lincoln Middle or that nameless bit of the Hillside by the old Summit School. Even a run along the seemingly more level northeast-to-southwest axis offers up an aggressive climb over the Point of Rocks and a more subtle but equally draining rise up to the ridge at about 24th Avenue East. (It’s easier to see now why Duluth’s old money chose this bit of land to throw up its enduring monuments.) When I moved back to Duluth a few years ago, I noticed a change in my leg muscles as my then-sporadic running routine adjusted to constant slopes.

“Duluth is turning into Chicago,” someone groused to me over the phone recently as he griped about crime and undesirables. I cringed at the lack of perspective and the racial undertones, and in mild defensiveness as a Duluthian with Chicago roots. Still, my runs remind me of what a divided city Duluth can be. I witness a drug deal off Portland Square, while a woman in Endion goes through a tearful break-up on the sidewalk over the phone. A kid on the west side tries to hide his cigarette from passersby as he supervises a younger sibling in the yard. In one of the more modest corners of Duluth Heights, a teenager storms out of a house amid loud shouts, and a neighbor edges down his driveway as he looks on in worry. The coronavirus strain is evident everywhere, but most obvious in places where people have little space to escape from the others in their lives, or where they rely on tenuous networks to prop themselves up. Crises like this strain the threads of our social fabric, and the thicker the weave, the better.

Jane Jacobs’ world is in a coma: all social life is now intentional. Downtown takes on a new bleakness without its weekday street life, middling as it may be. Lincoln Park is as dead as it was fifteen years ago, the virus bringing a sad reversion to a lifeless state in which I only pass two other people on the streets, both of whom may live on the streets. Around Denfeld I brush up against a certain charm, a bit dated but comfortable, pride still evident in most quarters, a sense that we’ll be back to normal before long. Old corner stores, most now turned to small houses, lurk here and there, give a sense of past commerce might have been. Fairmount and Irving inspire different reactions as I cruise through them in a sunny snow squall: a corner of the world aging away, lost to time, or at least any seeming need to keep up with it. Part of me is sympathetic, but the rules of the real estate game are rather less forgiving.

I oversimplify. Morgan Park, that fascinating time capsule, spawns new life in a giant townhome project rising into being on the site of its former school. Down the street, a kid blasts away at puck after hockey puck, and calls out a forlorn, human-contact-craving greeting as I pass. Whatever Gary’s giant trailer park may be, it is not old or tired, and that neighborhood’s industrious residents keep adding new features to the public land next to Stowe school. On the day I head down Highway 23 clear out to Chambers Grove Park, the westernmost tip of the westernmost city on the Great Lakes, a diverse, socially-distanced smattering of people explores the site of Duluth’s earliest settlement here at the base of the dalles of the St. Louis.

The classic narrative pits Duluth’s divides in a battle of east versus west, but anyone who knows the city well knows it’s more complicated. The real dividing line, if there is one, is east of center, maybe starting at Chester Creek and fully turning over at 21st Avenue East. But even that is an oversimplification. Duluth is a city of pockets, of unexpected streets of dodge their ways up hills that I’m still finding after years and years of exploration. I find blocks in my native Lakeside I never knew existed, serene riverfront homes in the far west, new twists in Kenwood, and come across a little of everything up in the Heights. A pocket of Piedmont has more McMansions than I knew Duluth could hold, this neighborhood much more divided between new construction and stellar views on the south side of its eponymous avenue and aging bungalows on the north side than I ever knew. Nothing is uniform.

Even on the east side blocks I’ve now run countless times, there’s more to explore. I suss out the different gradations of Lakeside and Woodland, see which blocks fit my vibe more than others. Still, the relative lack of an edge in the lands beyond Endion is apparent. On a socially distanced walk around Chester Park, a friend and I muse on the east side bubble we inhabited as children, our impression of Duluth as a haven of Subaru-driving cross-country skiers, its most glaring disruptions in the exploits of some hockey players or the antics of some college students up the street. I grew up thinking rich people live in grand old Congdon or London Road estates, not McMansions off cul-de-sacs in swamps over the hill, and my taste will probably always reflect that bias. I’ve come to believe that sensibility is a very Duluth attitude: a little maintenance probably required, but worth the effort, more capable of inspiring genuine loyalty and rootedness, not just the disposable products of a liquid modernity. Taste, intricacy, detail, and maybe some subtlety lurk in these woods.

My runs provide a vivid reminder: this city is old, an age all the more obvious with fewer current residents out and about. Of course in the grand scheme Duluth is young, hundreds of years younger even than so-called cities of the future like San Francisco or Los Angeles. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we live history more here because we have less of the new. Duluth has seen glory and its loss, the narrative arc one needs to tell a good story, and the evidence is all around us if we know where to look for it. Relics of different eras abound: grand old Endion homes converted to apartments, empty thoroughfares like pre-freeway Cody Street, the downtown areas where property values tend to push toward either renovation or demolition to keep the engines going. Duluth’s rebellion against totalizing trends requires upkeep, requires care, requires knowing when something is beyond any further practical use and might be better off just fading back into the hillsides.

Nowhere in Duluth do worlds collide more than on Observation Hill, that steep incline just west of downtown dotted with staircases to nowhere and crumbling foundations, the remains of a past Duluth that sprung up along the Point of Rocks and set some of its first foundations here. My first memories of the city are from atop this hill—my mom lived here, briefly, while my dad tidied up affairs in southern Wisconsin before we moved here for good when I was six—and a quarter century later, it still feels like some realm of mystery for a child to explore. A few incongruous modern homes now lord over parts of this hillside, sharing space with some hardscrabble rowhouses and a smattering of aging urban farmers with Bernie signs still lurking in their yards. Here is Duluth in all its complicated glory, past and future and wealth and poverty all intertwined, all on a stunning perch over the most superior of lakes. Duluth’s budgets may rise and fall, and economic forces it cannot control may drive its prosperity or its struggles, but it will always have that view, and because of that it will always have its allure.

Us Duluth loyalists, however, can’t coast on allure alone. I come back to the prizefighter analogy: we need to learn to scrap again, to believe in a place not just for what it has been but what it can be. I admire the sentiment that we all just get along, and the all-in-this-together solidarity that a pandemic inspires. But Duluth arose not through gentility but by a dose of raw ambition that made such future leisure possible. The coronavirus is as good a reminder as any that we can’t hide from history, that it will come for us all at some point or another, and we can only run for so long. If Duluth is to continue punching above its weight, we children of a city freighted with history should know we have a role to play.

Immersed in a Calling

20 Apr

Contemplation is not readily classified as a belief that one fights for, and attempts to squeeze its value into the language of justice or dignity or basic human rights will fall flat. It is better characterized as an object of love and reverence, and a source of fulfillment. For humanists, contemplation is not a cause. It is a calling.

-Agnes Callard, “What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?” in The New Yorker

My latest reading adventure took me through How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, a new book by Scott Newstok, a Rhodes College faculty member, Duluth native, and friend of this blog. In addition to our hometown and some occasional correspondence, it’s become clear that Newstok and I share a lot in how we look at the world, and his new book encapsulates so much of that shared calling.

I do not consider myself an expert in the realm of Shakespeare. Sure, I had the pleasure of playing the title role and donning a sheet with splotches of red paint in a sophomore English class reading of Julius Caesar at Duluth East. In more recent years, I’ve been a sometime attendee of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, an annual excuse for some extended family members to get together to eat a lot and drink a lot and enjoy a couple of the Bard’s plays. I’ve developed an appreciation for just how many Shakespearian aphorisms have made their way into our speech today. But I haven’t come close to consuming his collected works.

A deep familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre is peripheral to How to Think Like Shakespeare, though.The book is not a systematic assessment of education in Shakespeare’s work, nor a thorough overview of Renaissance-era schooling. Instead, it is a defense of a humanistic education, and an ascent into a dialogue down the generations of how best to work one’s way through this thing called life. It is a reminder that expertise and even so-called genius come from discipline, from dedicated work, from immersion in the works of past giants and even occasional outright theft from them. We’re all in this tradition, and the style of the book underscores this on every page. Newstok doesn’t go two paragraphs without citing some great past thinker or literary work, without pulling in one of his friends to show how historical insights all build on one another. He quotes liberally from Shakespeare, of course, but a whole crew of canonical figures insert their insights, from Erasmus to James Baldwin, from Ovid to Hannah Arendt, from Cicero to Bob Dylan. (Newstok is a Duluthian, after all!)

I found myself scrawling down snippets of wisdom from across Newstok’s 14 themed chapters. Of course, I am a sucker for such lines as “if your school says your education has impacted you, ask for a refund—and a laxative,” in an effective early sequence in which Newstok skewers the idea of education as training for jobs that currently exist. But the insights compound on themselves and build to something bigger. Newstok writes of the idea of craft, and the process by which the craftsperson “forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft.” This process, we learn in “Of Imitation,” comes from repetition and careful use of models. Many great writers began by directly re-writing authors they admired, a process replicated across any number of crafts; only by inhabiting existing great writing could they later develop something that measured up to their own idea of greatness. Readers of How to Think Like Shakespeare are immersed in a flow of ideas from very smart people, all of whom together make it hard to claim they don’t have a very strong case.

Newstok’s chapter on place, with its critiques of Descartes’ notion that thinking alone made him who he was, was especially resonant in an age when most education is happening through placeless means. He traces the failed dreams of countless technologies to supplant in-person learning, from correspondence courses to massive open online courses, and shows what a valuable equalizer a classroom can be. Since their dismissal from campuses, privileged college students are free to Zoom in from spare offices in vacation homes while the less affluent sit in shared bedrooms on lousy internet connections in chaotic environments. School, Newstok writes, provides the freedom to think and interact alongside others. The content of communication is what matters, not its medium or speed; computers, to quote Picasso, are “useless,” because “they can only give you answers,” not the underlying questions.

I could go on picking out quotes, but I’ll settle for just telling people to read the book. Its structure proves the point of the Callard quote at the top of this piece. How to Think Like Shakespeare is not the work of an activist militating for his cause but a thinker reveling in his work. Newstok reminds us that this work is, above all, fun, and the calling on display is infectious. People have been attacking the value of the humanities since the humanities came into being (just ask Socrates), but they hold up because again and again. People fall for them and make compelling cases for why we need them in our lives, and again expose the poverty of the belief that a humanistic education is a frivolous luxury. We can wish that more people felt this call, but as Newstok shows, it’s hardly some innate feature. It’s something we cultivate over time, hone and perfect and pass along, and our educations, both formal and informal, decide whether or not we can impose our control on the often-accelerating pace of human life and make it slow down, be masters of our own time instead of letting it master us.

I have a lot of time for contemplation these days. Unlike Callard, I find myself mostly able to pass the humanist test, at least when I am not caught up in lamenting the absence of certain things from my life that would make it more difficult to pass the humanist test. (Solitude, per the Octavio Paz quote in my last post, works well as a temporary condition; it is not healthy as a permanent state.) I am leery of the line “never let a crisis go to waste,” as some people use crises to justify all sorts of nefarious ends, but I’ve been using it in my own internal monologue with some regularity over the past month.

In normal times it’s easy to get caught up in the drift away from thinking about how to think, especially for a rare humanist who, with some notable exceptions, has a day job that offers only occasional brushes up against the academy. (Moreover, coronavirus has cost me the most fertile ground for those exceptional conversations: long, shared car rides with colleagues.) It can be hard to find the time to devote to this activity, day after day. Funnily enough, I’m not any less busy these days: my job still takes up the same amount of my day, at times even more of it; I’ve launched my most aggressive running regimen ever; and an explosion of videochats with friends and family near and far has filled the empty social calendar. But, somehow, the notion that I’m trapped in a crisis-stricken world and ought to make something of it has allowed me to do so.

Sometime about a week ago, the road became ever so slightly clearer. It was a gradual process, one that came in fits and starts and some periods of mental anguish that rank among the less pleasant of my time on earth. I have not achieved nirvana; there are regressions large and small. But, at least in my mind, I am no longer a victim of hard times but an agent capable of using that greatest human capability. It is something I have mustered by knowing that others have traveled this road before, left some signs and guideposts, and any blank spots on the map are adventures to test what we’ve learned, not some fear-inducing void.

Coronavirus Chronicles Continued

5 Apr

[O]n the one hand it is self-awareness, and on the other it is a longing to escape from ourselves. Solitude—the very condition of our lives—appears to us as a test and a purgation, at the conclusion of which our anguish and instability will vanish. At the exit from the labyrinth of solitude we will find reunion (which is repose and happiness), and plenitude, and harmony with the world…Solitude is both a sentence and an expiation. It is a punishment but it is also a promise that our exile will end. All human life is pervaded by this dialectic.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

To write in the time of coronavirus is to become a chronicler of history, whether or not one aspires to such a lofty title. Journaling has, apparently, exploded in recent weeks; people all over now realize their thoughts on these weeks and months will be of interest to posterity. We detail our tedium, our glimmers of hope, the moments that we know will define a generation. The indelible images: a hospital ship steams past the Statue of Liberty into the New York harbor, a very different beacon of hope; Pope Francis, resplendent in white, before an empty St. Peter’s Square under an ominous, rainy sky. Deadened streets, all commerce at a standstill, silence save from the very welcome pets and children in the background on Zoom meetings.

As with any crisis, coronavirus produces some case studies in uncommon heroism. I now thank grocery store clerks for their work in the way I’ve seen some people thank soldiers for their service. When I do takeout or delivery to support local restaurants, I leave the largest tips I’ve ever left. The body shop down the street has a sign offering a discount for healthcare workers, and I look out at the snowboard bro of a FedEx driver who lives across the way in an entirely new light. While my role is somewhat distant from the front lines, a situation that leaves me feeling an odd remove, some of my colleagues in economic development and local government are putting in yeoman’s hours trying to keep their communities’ businesses afloat. My firm was born at Duluth’s economic nadir in the mid-80s, when northeast Minnesota found itself in need of someone to facilitate recovery processes, and we may get to play that role again in the coming months and years.

In my own mundane quarantined corner, I adjust to a work life of marathon Zoom meetings, which means I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my own face on a screen. My attire regresses to that of a ten-years-younger version of myself, and after toying with the idea of growing my hair out again, it now seems safe to say it’ll happen unless I decide to get creative with scissors. My work habits take me back to days spent struggling away at term papers in my glorified closet of a bedroom in Burleith. My life is an eternal return. Perhaps the best piece of advice I read over the first three weeks of working from home: wear real pants every day.

I recognize my luck: I can spout off in droll good humor while a third of the country gets furloughed or laid off, has to navigate a convoluted system of unemployment benefits and business support programs that seems designed to maximize confusion. This crisis has only exacerbated the gap between those of us who trade in the knowledge economy (even for those of us who are not in its more lucrative arms), and the people whose jobs are not so easily sustained via screens. Tech skeptic that I am, I’m not sure my class will get off so easily next time crisis hits—or if this one drags out—but for now, we sit pretty, American divides exacerbated once again.

The biggest divide I encounter myself, however, is the one I find between myself and other people. I live alone, and have not had meaningful contact with another human in weeks. Sorry, those of you who feel like you’re cooped up with your families too much: I’ll trade places in a heartbeat. Individual living may help slow the spread of disease, while multigenerational mixing, as the Italians can attest, can cause more harm than good. But the virus, if we needed one, is a reminder that humans are not built to live like this long-term. “Never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself,” Hannah Arendt wrote in a quote from Cicero attributed to Cato, a bit of wisdom passed down the chain. It’s a sentiment I need right now, because never have I been more by myself than I have been these past few weeks.

“Do you live around here?” one acquaintance calls to me in pleasant surprise as I scoot by on my daily run. “No!” is my cheery reply. I might just run every street in Duluth by the time this is done, or at least all of them on the east side, more easily accessible from my front door. I’ve started tracking my destinations on a calendar, a register of Duluth neighborhoods and other convenient destinations. Even as I run, the signs of a changed world abound. The morning the stay at home order comes out, the streets are eerily dead. I wonder if the young couple I pass sleeping in a running car off Kenwood Avenue are among the newly homeless.

For the most part, though, these runs are my saving grace, a luxury afforded by a blessedly mild Duluth spring. Every few days I scoot past a work colleague or a stray acquaintance, all of us pulled out into various forms of activity as our only release. A profusion of chalk art decorates the streets of Morley Heights and Congdon; in Woodland, kids wish their friends a happy birthday in chalk on the driveway. A few houses throw up impromptu art exhibits in their windows. The Lincoln Park parkway, liberated from traffic, teems with hikers and disc golfers. I idly house-hunt as I cruise the streets, check out lake views and front porches and bay windows, along with those more practical concerns like the quality of the roof and the siding and the garage. Rarely do I feel more alive as when I climb the Hillside in driving sleet; and one evening, I round a bend on the Scenic Highway and gaze down a coastline swathed in a California late afternoon glow, and any weight of the world lifts away into the haze.

I take a vacation that gives me glimpses of the whole world, which means I sleep in my sleeping bag on the spare futon in a second bedroom whose walls are papered in maps. This exotic locale is less a bedroom than a dark, wide hallway to a back door that happens to have a closet, but for one long weekend, it will do. This room has become my refuge now that my living room is part of my office suite: every evening I retreat here for at least a little while with a book or this laptop to inhabit a world away from any of those thoughts. I need just a little more space to endure this easily.

I travel vicariously, learn of the chance meeting between two cyclists crossing Asia, and of the party of rafters on the Colorado who left a world with no coronavirus fears and came back to it when they emerged. I travel away from thoughts of where I would’ve been on my planned vacation by now, away from wondering if a backpacking trip in July will still hold up. The social distancing paradox: if we flatten the curve successfully, the restrictions may go on for longer, the terror of overwhelmed hospitals and pop-up morgues replaced by a low-grade, endless dread, a fitting new normal if we truly are in an age of decadence.

One thing I am not, thankfully, is bored, except perhaps when the Zoom meetings drag on for too long. I will never lack things to read or write. I won’t pretend the coronavirus has led to any great writing projects—there’s a challenge, perhaps—but I have been able to noodle out some mindless stuff, and make a real dent in the pile of books. (The latest addition: an advance copy of a new book by a reader of this blog!) Hearteningly, sales of classic literature have exploded over the past month. We are still indeed all readers, a reminder that deteriorating attention spans are not some congenital defect but an entirely correctable drift forced upon us by our thoughtless consumption of certain forms of media that are ill-attuned to human focus.

Technology has made this misery infinitely easier to bear. Even two years ago, my office would have been hopelessly lost, lacking laptops or file-sharing opportunities. Still, the shortcomings of that world become more and more glaring with each passing day, and my hope is that, instead of accelerating the move to more online existence as some forecasters have predicted, coronavirus will remind us that screens have their shortcomings. Deprivation can lead us to place new value on certain forms of human interaction, better appreciate why it is we go to concerts or sporting events or festivals or bars or even just hang out with large groups of friends or family. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do any of those things, but may we never take them for granted again.

Sweet, Sweet Decadence

1 Apr

A coronavirus outbreak seems an appropriate time to read a book about the fate of the human race, and so I dove right in with the latest from Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lonely religious conservative opinion columnist. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is peak Douthat: a widely roving history of late modernity and its seeming stasis, one that touches on a dozen themes that this blog has also featured over the years because his concerns tend to nibble at me as well, to greater and lesser degrees.

Douthat’s strength as a social commentator is his refusal to accept easy explanations. He makes good cases for how a variety of factors can come together, and he is often among the most original analysts of contemporary American life. Agree or disagree, he can pull out unexpected theories while at the same time resisting the temptation to claim he’s found the answer to everything. He can imagine a variety of different outcomes and explain, succinctly, why each of them might be true. This new book follows in the same tradition as it pulls together all of the possible causes of decadence and explains that decadence may in fact be stable, and then imagines every possible way out of this stable decadence, from environmental catastrophe to the socialist international to a religious revival to aliens, and imagines how they can all work together in feedback loops that reinforce each other. (Well, except maybe for the aliens.)

Jacques Barzun, a French-American historian, supplies Douthat’s definition of decadence:

All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Douthat is also careful to acknowledge that this version of decadence gets a lot right. Modern society is rich, stable, and has eliminated a lot of past prejudices. Despite the seeming political unrest of Trump era America, most of the violence is rhetorical; when someone actually did die in Charlottesville, the right-wing marches did not continue to surge but instead mostly retreated back to a world of online cosplay. The appetite for actual confrontation is low.

But, then, it also features stagnant income growth, lurching political institutions, and general ennui. It offers potential ecological ruin, though we will likely muddle through in ways that are problematic for poor people at lower lines of latitude but bearable for affluent Westerners. Aside from the world of tech, which Douthat convincingly skewers for its minimal meaningful progress and lack of profitability outside of communication platforms and Amazon, human technological innovation is flatlining. Even popular culture is stuck in an endless loop of Star Wars and comic book movie reboots, and now we’re trapped in an algorithmic death spiral in which few unique things can break out into the mainstream.

More worryingly, The Decadent Society shows how the cultural arbiters of an aging society lock in to place attitudes of risk reduction and dull, safe choices in place of youthful dynamism. Here, Douthat makes his most interesting critiques of liberal society: we’re not reproducing much, we’re having less sex, and we’re giving up on shaping our own future. Workforce participation has declined, and a large swath of the population is now more interested in self-medicating through drugs and video games, with the most extreme cases lurching toward deaths of despair. Porn has not driven young men to pursue elaborate sexual feats, but desensitized them to feeling. Our dystopia comes to resemble Brave New World, perhaps not as clean in its horrors but amounting to the same end: numbed to old life-giving forces and subjected to the soft totalitarianism of norm enforcement by a privacy-free online world. What fun.

Douthat’s other useful point is that decadence can be a very stable state of affairs, even if certain moralistic narratives would prefer to predict its imminent demise. Rome endured for 400 years between Nero and the Visigoth sack, and Douthat sees no reason the American empire can’t lurch along for a similar period of time, dull and uncreative but still the clear colossus bestride the world. Our world is neither on the march toward a liberal dream nor (pandemic horrors aside) headed toward the demise prophesied conservative prophets of woe. It plods along, its most obvious alternatives fundamentally flawed, and some anti-decadent responses to this era run the risk of being very bloody or unequal or just subject to a lot of unintended consequences. Perhaps we should just carry on, elect Joe Biden, and keep trying to make people’s lives marginally better.

Douthat rambles on a tour of geopolitics in the book but gives some valuable international context to what is unique, or mostly not unique, about the American condition. He necessarily oversimplifies but points at some trends that will no doubt shape the next century, from the effects of mass immigration on Europe to the African population boom to the question of whether China is an authoritarian, and perhaps eugenicist, threat to the world order or an aging, poor society with a rickety economy propped up by a corrupt regime desperately trying to put on a good face. Japan, for Douthat, is the canary in the coal mine, a step ahead in reaching flat economic growth and political gridlock and weird, tech-abetted sexual fantasylands instead of the real thing. (It has also made some progress in reversing some of these trends under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in recent years, though his marginal success shows the limits in how far a decadent society can move even with skilled leadership.) By and large, the world is converging on its decadent destiny, no matter where we come from or what we believe in our politics or our faith.

The Decadent Society became rather, well, decadent as it went along. Part of the trouble comes from the inherent challenge in trying to predict the future, especially in a broad and yet merely 240-page book that pays lip service to all answers rather than making a concerted case for a handful. The diagnosis is convincing, but the tale of what comes next is so sweeping and eager to check every possible box that I don’t feel any more enlightened as to what may come next. Symbolically, I enjoy Douthat’s riff on the closing of the frontier with the end of the Apollo missions, but as one with a weak interest in science fiction, I don’t buy that shift as a source of existential dread for any but a narrow, nerdy subset of society. There is no shortage of earthly frontiers available to us, if we choose to pursue them; the societal upheaval of the 1960s may well have ushered in some decadence, but they were baked into the cake long before the U.S. began to ratchet down its space program.

I’ve been fumbling over the end of this review for a week now, so I might as well lay out my writer’s block for the world to see. One false start explored Douthat’s religious aspirations for a non-catastrophic escape from decadence, a conservative Catholic’s probably-not-wrong view that a concerted movement will take some surge of faith, in some unknown form, to give enough lives added meaning to flip the script. I don’t have good answers here, but the secular world’s general inability to grapple with that need for myth and wonder at the core of the human psyche is one of its great analytical failures. Another ending took the opposite tack and riffed on Joan Didion, who I’ve read extensively in recent weeks. She gets a passing mention in The Decadent Society as an exemplar of how stuck our culture is, as her 1960s prose still seems strikingly contemporary. Maybe Didion and her generation set a high bar for us in their incredible detachment, and there’s no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants as we reach for the stars.

In a way, I think both are right: flawed as a decadent society may be, anything that breaks through its comforts should have to answer all those droll and rationalist critiques, should have to inspire a deeper sense of faith and mission. You want an Apollo-level mission, Ross? Well, there it is, right there in front of you. Go a bit further, take that argument you make for twinning faith and reason and beef it up into something serious. Make us believe.