Angleworm of Repose

8 Jul

For a northern Minnesota kid who grew up among wilderness-going people, certain destinations take on near-mythical status, these intimidating destinations. One of those places for me was Angleworm Lake, a Boundary Waters entry point I’d heard of through my dad and kept in my back pocket for a change of pace from my now-regular Superior Hiking Trail hikes. Angleworm is daunting for one reason: accessing it as a Boundary Waters paddler requires a two mile portage. It is the longest entry portage in the BWCA, and on a weekend when the wilderness’s more famed destinations fill up, most of its one-a-day canoe permits remain available.

Fortunately, there’s another way to see Angleworm: a hiking trail follows the portage most of its length before it loops around the lake and a few of its neighbors in a 13.6-mile circuit. On my longer hikes I often cover that distance in a day, so two nights on this loop should be a calming stroll. A friend who has been sheltering in place in Duluth but will soon head back west and I set our plans for a weekend of Boundary Waters bliss.

Mother Nature, however, has other plans, and we have not picked an ideal weekend to venture to this lake. The temperature in Ely, the nearest town some 20 miles down the Echo Trail, pushes 95 on the day we go in and 90 the next. In the first tenth of a mile we’re already pouring out sweat, thankful most of the trail lies in shade. It’s been dry, though, so the mud patches are forgiving and the bugs are tame outside of the annoying but harmless flies that circle our heads. And on a holiday weekend where many northern Minnesota campgrounds and hideaways are swamped with visitors, this one still offers solitude.

Angleworm, to my delight, lives up to its hype. Long and thin, it snakes its way from north to south and nestles between rocky outcroppings studded with as many mature white and red pines as I can recall seeing across a broad area. The southern half of the trail rises and falls along the ridges of its shoreline, with lovely views peeking through its pines. At times it cuts inland to dodge stream mouths and swamps, and at one point it makes its way over a beaver dam to work its way through. The views coupled with a gentle breeze are enough to make me forget the sweat flowing down my back.

My traveling companion has spent the past several months wrestling with the concept of ambition. It is a fickle impulse, one that can chew us up and spit us out, leave us exhausted after a long hike. It can do ugly things to people we thought we liked. But, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, ambition must be rooted: deep, tangled roots across the trail, the towering pines anchored in place. From here, we accept that, no matter how much we try to shift our perspective, we’ll always be grounded in a certain spot of woods. The forest around us is living and will change, but, barring calamity, will always look something like the world we know.

My own recent ambition has been a modest one, and one well-suited for pandemic life: the purchase of a house, a process that has been at turns both painstaking and exhilarating. I’ve never thought of homeownership as some status symbol I needed to achieve, but rather merely a somewhat more pleasant way to live if one can afford it, with greater control and the opportunity to build some equity and realize some tax breaks while also being on the hook for unexpected repair bills. (I don’t close on until the end of the month and I’m already forking over cash on that front!) And while this student of urban sociology has for some time propounded the value of homeownership for its ability to ground people into stable lives, a virtuous cycle of community and a ladder for upward mobility, I never quite applied that logic to my own life, where it never seemed like a revolutionary step. Now it is real, an illiquid source of wealth that locks in one story of where I’ve been and trades away a few others. Away drift a few more of my itinerant globetrotting ambitions; now comes attention to paint jobs and garage doors and rebuilt reserves. Some people wrap up their third decades by marrying a person; I, meanwhile, have married a city, in part in an effort to strangle the worst of my wandering tendencies. I’ve committed, and now have to figure out the rest.

Home on night one of this hike, though, is about 25 square feet of fabric staked out on the east side of Angleworm Lake, a site at the bottom of a steep slope with some superb rock outcroppings sinking into the lake and just enough shade to tuck away the hammock. Here, Angleworm shows how it gets its name, as it appears more river than lake, a tempting wriggle of bait slithering through the Canadian Shield. Two women trawl past in a canoe as we arrive and later stop by for a swim off our site, but after they depart, we see no one else for over 24 hours. The sun fades away into evening repose, and the heat fades away just enough to achieve something resembling comfort in the night. I wake with the sun and sit out on the rocks for a spell, at times reading, at times writing, but often just free to drift here in the wilderness.

Day two is a slog. While mildly cooler, we’ve lost the breeze of the day before, and the trails ventures up and down ridges away from Angleworm to gaze down at some other lakes and beaver meadows. The trail grows monotonous, sweltering, never more so than on the fifth mile of the day, when we snake painstakingly along the backside of a ridge before we finally tumble back down to Angleworm, just 100 yards across the lake from where we started that morning. At this stage in my hiking life five miles is a walk in a park, but I can’t remember feeling as drained as I do as I gather myself after that circuit.

We refill our empty water bottles, slump up against boulders, refill them again. Some thunder rolls in the distance, but it seems to skirt us to the south and east. In our perch on the shoreline, we can’t see what’s coming in from the west. Onward we go, ready for two final miles to our second camp, and the drops that begin to fall are deeply refreshing. I push the pace to get us down off the ridge lest the thunder grow closer. Sure enough, the downpour begins part way down the ridge. We take refuge under a thick spruce, but the rain is so torrential that nothing short of a cave could have saved us. Never in my life have I been so wet in clothes on dry land.

When the hail starts to fall, it really is the last straw. Soaked to the bone, skin fully pruned, boots sloshing with standing water, we wait until the thunder rumbles further off and make our break for the car. It’s just two extra miles from our planned campsite, and the prospect of warm food and cold drinks in Ely is too much to resist. The mosquitoes, tame for most of the trip, rise up with a vengeance, and I make no concessions in my pace in the rush back to the dry towel and change of clothes waiting in my trunk. Even amid the deluge, though, there are still glimpses of Angleworm’s beauty: more overlooks through the pines, spontaneous waterfalls plunging down rock faces, mists rising from the pond part way along the portage out. It’s a beautiful place, and I’ll return some weekend when the temperature is thirty degrees cooler and more assuredly dry.

The next day, as I make up for lost hammock time in the Tischer Creek ravine back in Duluth, I begin to steady myself for a month ahead, one which will include my longest vacation in years before I settle into my new abode. It is time to seek clear paths, a fresh start in a place I know well. If ambition requires roots, well, here they are now, locked into the ground and not going anywhere. Time to start plotting what the next phase will bring.

An Endion Appreciation

28 Jun

“So what part of town do you live in?”

“The Endion neighborhood.”

“The what?”

“Endion.”

“Where’s that?”

“Uh…kind of between the Hillside and Congdon. Below Chester Park.”

“Oh! That place. I didn’t know it had a name.”

I’ve had some version of this conversation on a few dozen occasions over the past four years. In time, I learned just to give my street corner, an easy source of context on Duluth’s gridded streets, and perhaps even engage in a guilt-inducing act of appropriation and say “just off 21st, near Congdon.” My neighborhood has been a source of mystery even for many longtime Duluthians.

In a month or so I will decamp for some neighborhood a little ways to the east, but before I bid Endion farewell, I figured I’d direct a little appreciation at this sometimes forgotten wedge of Duluth. In many ways Endion is a relic of a time long past, but it isn’t one of those Duluth neighborhoods that has been swallowed up by another or seen its name change in the collective consciousness. Nor does it have any easy analogues. It’s still distinctly its own thing, a funny transition zone between some of Duluth’s wealthiest and most impoverished enclaves, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Endion came of age with grand designs. At the turn of the 20th century, Duluth’s elite left Ashtabula Heights (around 4th Street and 6th Avenue East, a jarring fact to consider today) for the broader expanses between Chester Creek and the ridge that rises in the mid-20s Avenues East, the mansion district once known as East End that most people now just consider an extension of Congdon. For a flash of history, this was one of the wealthiest places in the land. As early as the HOLC maps of the 1930s and 1940s, though, it was deemed in decline by the real estate powers that be. Its grand old homes with servants’ quarters were no longer practical for most families, and Duluth’s wealthy worked their way over to Congdon, where they settled and have mostly stayed put. Endion has been in a permanent limbo between privilege and poverty and the fascinating in-between state that is college life ever since.

I can understand why few people think of Endion as much of a neighborhood. It lacks a commercial node; most of its businesses are along a London Road strip with poor connections to the rest of it, and the Plaza Shopping Center lies just beyond its boundaries. Its eponymous elementary school closed several generations ago, with few to remember what a neighborhood center it might have been. (I had a fascinating exchange on a street corner a couple years back with an elderly man who’d driven in to visit Duluth for the first time in decades and was trying to piece together some dimly remembered locations from his childhood, including his days at the Endion school.) In a city of exceptional parks, it has an acceptable but unremarkable one at its center on the block of the Temple Israel; anyone who wants to recreate locally will venture either over to the Chester Creek corridor or down to the Lakewalk. Endion’s iconic train station, while spared the wrecking ball when I-35 punched its way through, moved down to Canal Park, where it is now a micro-hotel. Many of its residents are transient young renters–it has one of the youngest median ages of any Duluth neighborhood–and few put down roots here. It is mostly a smattering of homes that serve as a waystation for a few years of life before moving on to other things, and that is exactly what it has been for me, too.

That temporary status grants Endion its value. People need places to land for a few years of life, and it’s probably best that these places not be placid residential neighborhoods where residents have some right not to expect loud parties on random Tuesdays. In an ideal world this sort of district would be more centrally located and offer easier walks to a strip of nightlife or an iconic park, but we make do with what we have. Endion’s reuse of its old homes is exemplary, exactly what my urban planner friends have in mind when they dream of incremental increases in density, creating those fourplexes without needing to build anew. The trouble comes when the Endions of the world become a permanent state, lives trapped in limbo for eternity, the failure of late modernity to move people out and up on trajectories that give them meaning.

Endion is a grab bag of character types, rarely exciting but also never quite dull. Directly across the street is a family with young kids in one of the old beauties that remains a single-family home; in the two smaller adjacent houses, a few doddering old ladies sit out on their stoops for their fresh air. The rental kitty-corner from mine has turned over every year, and mostly remained tame, though the dirtbag boys who took it over in 2019 had me grumbling through a few sleepless nights. I still haven’t quite figured out what is going on in the home across the avenue, which clearly has a few permanent residents beneath its towering Queen Anne gables, but also enjoys a constantly rotating cast through its backyard bonfires. A block up, a halfway house adds some grit, but never any real drama. My own abode, a grand estate from another time now carved up into seven tasteful, separate units, caters to a crowd of grad students and young parents and a few young drifters who make enough money to enjoy general comforts but not enough to take any leaps beyond. It’s not a particularly communal place, as we meandering millennials connect only in stray hallway encounters or in shared struggles to scrape off our cars and shovel each other out every winter. It could be a great little neighborhood, but as I’ve observed before, Duluth has strangely weak formal neighborhood structures for a city that is strongly defined by them.

It is most definitely time to move on from those noisy college parties, that lack of a garage, the neighbors who don’t offer much of a greeting when one passes by. But there are parts of it I will miss. I will miss making popcorn on snowy winter nights and watching naive college students flail about as they try to drive up the avenue despite having access to much better-plowed streets just a block away. I will miss my grand columned front porch and massive picture windows and gaudy (though inoperable) fireplace. I regret that I am moving right before the city converts First Street to the two-way street it ought to be and tames the traffic into something that might be conducive to a neighborhood where one can settle into place. I will miss its easy acceptance of a phase of life where one could park out on the front porch and make a casual acquaintance over cheap beers.

Endion is Duluth is a nutshell: faded grandeur, scrapping youth, a few anchors holding fast amid the steady change. A bit anonymous in the face of things, but stable and memorable and often even beautiful. It has served its purpose, and I wish it the best as I find my escape from this stage. But some nostalgia will linger for those front porch nights, those times I packed my apartment with visitors from afar, those seasonal views down to the greatest of lakes. May Endion continue to afford future generations such delights, and may it continue to offer pathways onward and upward.

22

20 Jun

The annual Octavio Paz poem on this date:

Pause

They’ve come:

a few birds

and a black thought.

Murmur of trees,

murmur of trains and engines,

is this moment coming or going?

The silence of the sun

is beyond lamentation and laughter,

it sinks its beak

deep in the rocks’ rock scream.

Heart-sun, beating rock,

blood rock that becomes a fruit:

wounds open without pain,

my life flows on, resembling life.

* * *

Happy 22nd, bro. It’s another stellar Grandma’s Marathon day, even if there’s no marathon to run this year. (Okay, a friend and I ran a spontaneous half anyway.) I’ve just committed myself to our city yet again. Confined here in recent months, I’ve come to appreciate it more than ever before: what beauty surrounds us. We don’t need closure. This dream, it never needs to end.

Gophers Out of Holes

18 Jun

Summer has opened up in Minnesota, and as the coronavirus curve in Duluth flattens out enough for now to allow for some social life, I decide the time has come to head out myself and take a spring Superior Hiking Trial overnight hike. My push takes me from the Temperance River to Caribou Lake, 24 miles according to the signpost, though I tack on a bit more with side treks to vistas that drive up the mileage.

The side trails are more than worth it on this adventure. We might call this the Great Peaks of the North Shore trek: on a list of ten of the most prominent hills lining the shores of Lake Superior, maybe half of them dot the route. Carlton Peak, the first I encounter, features the SHT’s longest vertical ascent and a prominent dome. Similarly iconic are the twin peaks of Oberg and Leaveaux a few miles up the shore; Oberg, with its mountaintop loop trail and picturesque inland lake, might be the most photographed peak on these shores, while hulking Leveaux reaches the same height from its hulking mass next door. Further along, Moose Mountain, well-known to Alpine skiers but less renowned among hikers, is the highest point on the Superior Hiking Trail of immediate shoreline peaks. (There are higher points on the SHT, but they lie inland, and do not offer the same striking juxtaposition.) Mystery Mountain, Moose Mountain’s immediate neighbor to the north, nudges its way just higher and still sneaks a peek of the lake. To top it all off, the hike wraps up at White Sky Rock, which towers over Caribou Lake and looks out toward Lake Superior some five miles off.

The hike starts at the Temperance River State Park wayside on Highway 61 and traces its way up the narrow gorge the river has drilled through the bedrock. The Temperance is deep, narrow, and almost impossible to photograph well given the absence of light in the gorge. (One attempt of mine looking down on a thundering fall that throws up rainbows in the sunlight looks more like I attempted to capture a shallow puddle in a rock.) Further upstream, before it plunges into the depths, the Temperance spreads wide across its valley, though it still carries along at a rapid pace, even at low water in dry conditions.

The crowds thin as my dad (as usual, my chauffeur to one end of these adventures) and I turn away from the river and up Carlton Peak. Named for a local guide who took a surveyor up the supposed first of the Sawtooths, Carlton Peak reaches over 900 feet above Lake Superior. For the first mile and a half or so, the trail is a leisurely one, but it rockets upward from there, first to a wooded ridge and then on a final scramble through some towering rocks up to the anorthosite dome. My dad, one calendar year removed from a hip replacement, marches on up right behind me. My last time here (via the much easier route from the north) led to a mountaintop swallowed in fog, but this time, we can see clear down to Taconite Harbor as we chow down our lunches.

My dad turns back after we come down from the spur to the peak. I stop at the Ted Tofte overlook just past the main peak, which offers nearly as good a view toward the south and east from a slightly lower elevation. From there I head down to the Sawbill Trail and take another spur up a short but steep climb to Britton Peak, which provides a vista out toward the mass of Carlton Peak. From there, the trail settles into a rhythm up of gentle ups and downs through a maple forest as it crisscrosses ski and single-track bike trials. I overtake two parties and pass one in the other direction, but the people don’t pick back up again until I pass the two campsites at placid Leveaux Pond. The main SHT skirts the flanks of Leveaux and Oberg, and I don’t feel compelled to summit them: been there, done that. I’m intent on a campsite and have a date with a hammock.

There are two sites at Rollins Creek just east of Oberg Mountain, and with loud voices carrying up from the one closer to the stream, I settle for the western site set back from the river I set up the hammock and enter a dreamy late afternoon trance, and I eat a leisurely freeze-dried dinner. I jot stray notes in a notebook and read ‘Pursuit as Happiness,’ the newly released Ernest Hemingway story whose title seems an apt description for my weekend hike. A reasonable number of my more useful insights have come while lying in a hammock over the years, and while I can’t claim any such revelation this time, I am just struck by a radical freedom, one with a flow through stages of life, if only for a few hours.

By sunset I’m polishing off my beverage for the evening and assume I have the place to myself when two hikers roll in from the north. My sitemates are two Duluthians making the most of their coronavirus downtime; one is through-hiking the entire SHT, and the other is joining him for as much as he can before he returns to work. They’re about five years older than me, so we have some mutual childhood acquaintances and can chat easily about their adventures to date, which include a brutal barrage of mosquitoes on day one, a Covid-prevention monitor at the Grand Marais grocery store, a delectable hamburger at Lutsen that day, and an encounter with a rogue grouse. It’s hard to ask for better random company. I fire off a few final lines in a notebook in the hammock using my headlamp after they turn in, the bugs mercifully absent from this site.

I wake at dawn the next morning and am nearly done packing by the time my sitemates emerge. Day two begins with a 500-foot upward push up Moose Mountain, its spruce-covered slopes still bathed in darkness. An overlook at the top rewards me, and while the hike from there largely just snakes along the spine of the hill, a few more views peek out both inland and out toward the lake, spruce thickets on the back side of the ridge and green maples on the lake side. I take another spur to the Lutsen ski resort gondola’s apex, its gears quieted by Covid, though its views still excellent. Back on the main trail, I dip down and then start up a meandering series of maple-forested switchbacks on Mystery Mountain. A brief window of a view is the only hint that this peak stands higher than Carlton or Oberg or Leveaux.

I descend Mystery Mountain and come to the wide paths of Lutsen lining the Poplar River. I pause on its wide bridge crossing, which overlooks a roaring staircase waterfall that splits the four peaks of the ski resort. Not for the first time, I picture a North Shore stream as a fountain that collects its waters in the inland wetlands and then cascades down through stone chutes to the lake at the bottom. My next climb takes me up a hill (Ullr Mountain, I later learn from a map of Lutsen) that proves deceptively tiring after the more expected runs up and down the better-known peaks. Eventually the trail dumps me out along the banks of the Poplar again, where a steady flow of people coming from the popular Lake Agnes sites slops past me in these muddy lowlands. When I come to a boardwalk submerged in mud, a mom and her five-year-old stand at the other end, contemplating their plight; ultimately, mom strikes across alone, deposits her pack, and heads back to collect her charge, whose impeccably white stuffed unicorn escapes unscathed. I watch them go with a smile (ready to run in and do any rescuing, if need be), then slog on through the mud and up a gradual, scrubby incline. I’m flagging a bit now, but a series of vistas back across the Poplar River Valley toward Lutsen lift my mood.

Lake Agnes arrives as a sudden surprise at the base of a descent. I pick my way about the lake, sublime in repose, somehow devoid of other parties at this early afternoon hour. Lunch comes on an outcropping above the lake beneath a solitary white pine, and I’m in enough of a reverie afterward that I get to the bottom of the hill before I realize that I’m going the wrong direction. If my geography instincts are failing me, it’s probably time to be done. I reload my water bottle for the ride back at Agnes’ lakefront campsite—my dad and I stayed here once, maybe two decades ago—and then begin up the spur to the parking lot on the Caribou Trail, where I find all the people again picking their way over its rocks and cedar-hewn staircase.

I take the turn for one last upward to push to White Sky Rock. I ended last spring’s hike here as well, albeit in a very different world. An older couple vacates it in time for me to settle in for a few final notes, one final view out over the resplendent lake and out toward Superior beyond. I would say that hiking makes my troubles feel trivial, though current events have done a perfectly adequate job of that lately. Instead, I just appreciate my freedom to take joy in an escape like this, and know that I have reliable maps for my ventures outward. The civilized world I drive back to that afternoon hasn’t changed since I left, but after three months in a coronavirus tunnel, the path that spins this cycle forward is easier to see.

Interesting Reading, 6/8/20

8 Jun

Lots of people are writing lots of things about recent events, and it’s hard to navigate them now: ideas and articles fly back and forth and into my inbox. Sometimes, rather than leaning into the hot takes, it’s better to revisit classics that now seems more relevant than ever. So, for this instance in this series, I’ll start with James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”

Elsewhere, my old professor, Patrick Deneen, reviews Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society. While I generally find Deneen’s application of entropy to human systems one of his weaker critiques of modernity, I found his point on Douthat’s belief in technological progress as the engine of history to be trenchant, and gets at the deeper reason of why I found the book’s conclusion so unsatisfying when I read it myself.

Want someone who’d agree with Deneen, contra Douthat, that we are certifiably in decline instead of decadence? Here’s George Packer at The Atlantic lamenting American institutional rot. The soothing messages from the top, an official quest for understanding, incremental legislation to address the underlying problems: none of this will happen in 2020, he argues, and we’re in for an interesting several months. The American crisis of authority may be complete.

Leaving our protest-filled streets for our still-shuttered academy, the Hannah Arendt Center’s Samantha Hill speaks to the importance of physical campuses for the college experience. The loss of that experience would be a dire consequence of coronavirus: students need spaces that provide a level playing field and allow them to escape the comforts or challenges of where they come from as much as possible. While colleges cannot truly equalize the experiences of their students, they can push in that direction, and in doing so they create opportunities for movement across boundaries and give everyone there some freedom to think. May students continue to have that experience—and as many of them as possible.

Let’s stay in the world of letters before we close out; it’s good for the soul. In the New York Times, A. O. Scott mounts a defense of Wallace Stegner, a great American author whose work, much lauded on this blog (here, here, and here, for starters), doesn’t receive a ton of widespread recognition today. Stegner’s sensibilities are both those of a child of the frontier and a committed communitarian, a founder of a great literary dynasty as a Stanford academic and a man committed to the wilds of the West that formed him. Few writers have as much to say about the American experience as Wallace Stegner.

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.