Archive | August, 2013

Publick Skoolz Rule

30 Aug

The juiciest piece in political blog-land today was an article with the delicious title “If You Send Your Kid to a Private School, You Are a Bad Person” by Allison Benedikt on Slate. I am not a regular reader of Slate, but the provocative piece set off any number of Facebook friends and many conservative commentators, who responded with equally delicious titles of their own, such as “Liberal Cites Virtues of Crappy Education.” So, the article was a smashing success: it got a lot of people to read it and comment on it, and the good folks at Slate are probably thrilled, no matter what they think of the argument. But sometimes it takes a healthy dose of hyperbole to get a good debate going, so here we go.

First off, it’s worth noting that the author’s intended audience is probably very liberal: she probably knows she’s only going to rile conservatives. Her true targets here are the liberals who extol the virtues of funding public education but bundle their own children off to private or otherwise exclusive schools that isolate said children from the “regular” people whom they claim to want to help. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in that stance, though it’s all relative: I may be all for public schools, but after a college course that had me doing work in a Washington, D.C. public high school, I now know there are schools that I could never send my children to in good conscience. Sorry, America: my loyalty to people I love will forever trump any cause of national greatness or abstract devotion to the human race. Judging by the response of even many ardent liberals to the column, most people out there agree, even if they don’t realize it.

And, of course, there are plenty of valid reasons to choose private schools that this article casually tosses aside. A religious bent is an obvious one, and people who respect for the freedom of worship shouldn’t have any qualms with religious schools. Some private schools offer programs or activities that just don’t exist in the local public schools, or are absurdly hard to get into—for example, a varsity basketball roster at a 3,000-student high school—and it makes complete sense for families to seek out such schools. (Unless, of course, the private schools start “stealing” the top-end athletes: then they’re the root of all evil.) I could trail on here, but the reasons are clear enough. I also admire the commitment of many people who choose to homeschool; naturally, there will be some parents who teach their kids kooky things or try to isolate them so much that they fail to socialize with their peers when eventually released out into the world, but the horror stories are overblown. Most of these people belong to cultures that are not entirely comfortable with mainstream American culture, and in most cases, I respect that diversity.

A large number of families, however, will simply say they want “what’s best” for their kids, and choose private schools for perceived academic advantages. To some extent these advantages are due to self-selection, but there are a number of private schools out there with more demanding academic programs, especially when measured against the weaker public schools out there. Somewhere, though, there is a point of diminishing returns. For example, the other night, I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two fathers of middle school kids. One of them said he had “heard nothing but good things” about the local public high school, but if a proposed charter school opens, that will immediately become his first choice for his daughter. Um, okay. This gets even more head-scratching when the discussion switches over to private schools, where tuition costs can go exorbitantly high. It’s not something I resent, but it does make me stop and wonder what exactly these parents are chasing. Having been through the whole rat race fairly recently, I’d counsel a series of deep breaths. A few more AP classes or even a slightly more prestigious college aren’t going to change one’s life prospects. Instead, it’s a matter of making the most of where one finds oneself, instead of subjecting oneself to the constant anxiety of needing to be the absolute best. There is such a thing as “good enough,” and so long as the kid in question has involved parents and is otherwise well-adjusted, most public schools not in economically destitute areas do the job.

Perhaps the most compelling arguments for alternative paths are the kids on both extremes of the academic achievement ladder. Special needs kids by definition need extra attention, and if the public schools can’t give that, those kids need to get out. (A huge part of Washington, D.C.’s education budget goes to paying private school tuition for such students who find woefully inadequate facilities in DCPS.) There are also some students who struggle in public schools for whatever reason and need a change in scenery or a new group of friends, though private schools are no guaranteed fix. (I am always amused by people who rant about the alleged depravity of public schools, as if one would not find sex, drugs, or alcohol at private schools. For that matter, it’s also interesting that both Benedikt and the Rod Dreher rebuttal seem to assume that deeply intellectual learning and less refined “educational experiences” are somehow mutually exclusive; while this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all.)

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the highest achievers. These are the kids who are not always challenged by normal public school pedagogy, and this bit of art from the Walker Art Center pithily sums up the dangers if they aren’t given an alternative. If you can forgive my lack of modesty, allow me to attest to this; there were certainly some moments in my public school education (mostly in the earliest grades) when I was bored and/or isolated because I learned things faster than my peers. This wasn’t at all damaging in the long run; I never got any crap from my classmates for it, and young me was all too proud of myself. But I can easily see how a little bit more of that sensation, or a somewhat less accommodating group of peers, could quickly lead smart students to want out. To that end, I’m a big proponent of tracking in public schools, as it groups kids in with peers of similar ability, sparing teachers the headaches of dealing with students of wildly different aptitudes for a particular subject.

Still, if possible, I think it’s good to keep these students in the same building as those for whom things don’t come so easily. Public schools at their best really can build community in a way that exclusive schools cannot, and lead to greater understanding of those people with whom we must share the planet. For example, due to a series of scheduling conflicts, I was forced to take “regular” government as a senior in high school, instead of the high-end version. I learned very little that I didn’t already know in that class, but I did get quite the civics lesson, as I found myself serving as a de facto T.A. to some of my classmates, trying to find ways to explain Constitution to them, and present my political views in a way that wasn’t over-intellectualized. I got to work with a class of kids I wouldn’t have seen at a private school, and the things I learned about them were probably more valuable than cramming the details of a few more Supreme Court cases into my head.

This, in far less provocative language, is the a valuable point that can be rescued from the Benedikt essay: there can be real upsides to going to school with people from different backgrounds. However, one really has to be open to those upsides going in: I remember a few other peers left in the same scheduling conundrum who were just bitter about the whole experience from start to finish. Throwing a bunch of people in a room together will not make them understand each other. It takes a little more work than that, and shutting down private schools isn’t going to do that work. Looking back on those culture shock experiences later in life, perhaps laughing at them, and admitting they were educational in some respect—that’s one thing. Telling an unwilling kid that “this will be good for you!” is quite another. One-size-fits-all approaches to education don’t work. Instead, I’d simply counsel a little less panic when it comes to question of school choice, and the flexibility and wherewithal to take something away from it all when it doesn’t live up to the ideal. With a few obvious exceptions, things will probably turn out alright anyway. And for people who can’t quite accept that, or have particular needs, there are, thankfully, other options.

Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later

28 Aug

Fifty years ago today, when several hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., I wasn’t anywhere close to the world of the living. I grew up on the whitest end of a town that is over 90% white; questions of race were, by in large, something that happened somewhere else. Imagine my shock when I ventured into The Bronx during a visit to New York late in high school, when my father and I were the only non-black people on a crowded shopping street. It wasn’t fear or discomfort; it was simply recognition of being distinctly different. Perhaps because of that lack of experience with other races, I have never found dialogues on race easy. Indeed, I’ve read that white Northerners can often be cagy to the point of excess when confronted with the topic, and I am probably guilty of that.

Even so, it is hard to think of any Americans who inspired more reverence in my childhood than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK is ensconced in America’s civic religion, complete with a monument on the National Mall and a statue that, while not without its controversy, does capture his deep, searing eyes. He is as much of a hero as we’re likely to find in American history, and deserves so many of the plaudits he receives. But in the worship of past figures, there is a danger of sanitizing people; of turning them into saintly icons rather than the human beings they were. MLK was a complicated man who stood for many things that went far beyond race.

Fifty years later, where is his dream? It’s hard to say. There have been monumental advances in some fields, and in simple, basic civility. But at the same time, African-Americans lag behind whites in any number of indicators, and some cities look just as segregated as they did fifty years ago. Things are more difficult to measure, however: blatant racism is much less common than it once was, and the forces complicating things are invariably more subtle than Southern segregationists of the 1960s. The public policy initiatives used to combat racial inequality in 2013—affirmative action, forced school desegregation, various education reform plans—tend to be crude tools that oversimplify the problem. Ending the single greatest contributor to systemic racism in the current U.S.—the war on drugs—will come with some serious trade-offs; and while I think the benefits outweigh the costs, the costs do exist, and will have to be confronted in a careful manner, if and when the war is drawn down. Rarely are racial issues as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to assume the worst in other people, and seek to pass blame—something that does not strike me as terribly MLK-ish. (Admittedly, MLK’s willingness to forgive sets a very high bar, and it probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to meet it. We have to work with the world we live in.)

What we are witnessing here is the collision of American meritocracy with ongoing cycles of poverty and culture that leave African-Americans, as a whole, on unequal footing. King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” but as James Baldwin noted in a famed 1965 debate with Bill Buckley, for all its claims of equal opportunity, the future-oriented American creed is not well-designed to redress lingering legacies of the past. (I say this simply as a statement of fact, not as a call for revolution. I don’t know what a better alternative would look like.) No one encapsulates the tension between the American Dream and the past better than President Obama himself: whatever one may think of the President’s record, it is now clear he never had a prayer of re-orienting the national debate on race. Even though his election was a sign of racial progress and the possibility for anyone to achieve something, it didn’t erase the past. Ross Douthat’s Sunday column points out how the “post-racial” Obama era has seen more questions of race than most other recent administrations, with affirmative action and voting rights and  profiling issues coming back to the fore (to say nothing of the racial alarmism around the President himself). History prevents us from ever getting rid of these questions.

In a sign of the oddness of our times, Douthat’s column went on to argue that both parties have much to gain from a cross-racial coalition of working class Americans who have been left behind by the business and technology interests that are now deeply embedded in the political establishment. Yes, that’s right: the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist is making what is, essentially, a Marxist argument. Across the spectrum, political pundits are trying to find some source of a sustainable majority in American politics. Some have said the Republican Party will be dead unless it can increase its appeal among minorities, and while this is in essence true, I think it is also a horribly reductionist way of thinking. Aligning parties along racial lines is identity politics at its worst, and is not a recipe for societal health for either party.

Still, I’m skeptical of Douthat’s solution. One of the great lessons of the failure of Communism was that uniting the underclass against entrenched interests didn’t work particularly well. I’d be intrigued by populist candidates who try to lead insurgencies on behalf of Middle America, but even if those candidates should start to win, they would find a hostile environment in Washington. Reading some of the retrospectives on the 1963 March, it is astonishing to see how much the nation pulled together for such a display of collective conscience. Perhaps even more striking is trying to imagine that sort of rally in 2013 America, and failing miserably. Sure, there have been marches on Washington (Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and so on), and as a D.C. resident at the time, there was definitely something different about Obama’s election and inauguration. But the election alone was mostly symbolic in nature, and the militant political movements are a far cry from the unity preached by Dr. King and his fellow travelers.

This nation is deeply fragmented, and I’ve written on here with some sympathy for people who worry about this. Whether it’s the result of self-segregation in suburbs, the atomizing effects of technology, or the failures of the political system to inspire much confidence, some parts of this country seem further apart than ever before—a curious fact, considering how much more interconnected things are due to technology. The few forces that can hold things together—popular culture, national news networks, a handful of sporting events—often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and rarely offer us much in the way  of deep insights or patient reflection.

But, rather than bemoan our fate, I’m going to look for some bright spots in this apparent lack of national unity. The failures of the political class may lead people to hate national politics, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete alienation: as I’ve said before, politics need not go through formal institutions, and re-focusing on things we actually can affect can be quite gratifying. For the first time in a very long time, the American public is deeply skeptical of embroiling itself in foreign wars; whether due to the excesses of the Bush years or the lack of a real existential threat, that skepticism is a far cry from the blind patriotism behind past American military adventures. From localist liberals to communitarian conservatives, there are growing groups of people who find little to like in the crony capitalism/corporate welfare that has become so prevalent. At some point, they may even realize they have something in common, even if it never coheres into a national movement. Keeping political movements on a smaller scale allows for more nuance and attention to particular cases, rather than trying to slap a one-size-fits-all approach over a wildly diverse country of 300 million.

This doesn’t mean an end of attention to national politics: given the state’s power, it can’t be totally ignored, and there are some problems that can only be solved on a national level. Inertia is a powerful force, and the national media isn’t going to change the narrative anytime soon. It will be hard to limit ambition, and many successful local politicians will heed the call to climb the ladder in search of some “greater” opportunity. Still, the untapped potential in local energy for improving everyone’s lot in life is enormous.

Focusing on the immediate also keeps with a key tradition within the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial are what we remember most, but so many of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place in towns and cities across the South, carefully coordinated by civic groups and churches confronting an ambivalent or hostile national political scene. We should remember 1963, but better societies do not come about just because some people decided to hold a march, or because of a great speech or two. The important work is far more mundane.

Hooray for Being Boring: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/26/13

27 Aug

It was an oppressively hot and humid Monday night in Duluth, with several of the audience members huddled up against the windows in search of cold air, and an impressive lightning show flickering away over the darkened harbor. But neither heat nor storms could deter the Duluth City Council from tireless debate over servicing street debt, and after draping themselves over the drinking fountain to prepare themselves, President Boyle brought down his gavel and sent the Councilors off on their marathon.

As usual, community speakers led off the meeting, and there were only two signed up, though one brought his “little elves” with him. Mr. Jeff Mass of the Duluth Children’s Museum was joined at the podium by middle-schoolers Garrett and Jenna, who told the Council about their studies of outer space, which will culminate in a ten-minute radio chat with the astronauts in the International Space Station next week. (Exact time and date TBD; their pretty flyer tells us to check the Children’s Museum website for updates.) The only other speaker, Linda Ross Sellner, wanted a clarification on some road salt purchases, which led the Council to pull the resolution from the consent agenda so that an apparent typo in the agenda could be corrected.

After that it was on to the main event of the evening, the discussion of a resolution that would service $2.23 million in street improvement bond debt via money from the Community Investment Trust (CIT). As CAO Montgomery and Councilor Gardner explained, the city had 3 options to service the debt:

1. Take the money from the general reserve fund, which might jeopardize the city’s credit rating;

2. Raise the tax levy, effectively doubling street-assessed taxes in the city;

3. Take the money from the CIT, which would prevent a tax increase and be less of a threat to the credit rating.

CAO Montgomery thus suggested that Option 3, while not ideal, was the best choice on the table; Councilors Gardner, Julsrud, Hartman, Larson, and Krug all voiced their agreement in similar terms. Taking money from the CIT, however, requires a 7-2 supermajority, and with Councilors Fosle and Stauber raising serious doubts, it became clear that Councilor Krause would be the deciding vote.

Councilor Krause admitted to being “torn” on the issue. His reservations, which were repeated by Councilors Fosle and Stauber, revolved around the city’s frequent forays into the CIT despite claims that it wouldn’t take any more money from it. He was “surprised” and “frustrated” that this had come before the Council just a year after being told the city would find a long-term fix. CAO Montgomery countered that the city’s new, pay-as-you-go street funding plan would, eventually, take this issue off the table. Councilor Stauber replied by saying that the city is still has serious unfunded debts (mostly in pensions) and is also spending money on things such as trails; even if they aren’t accruing more street debts, their approach is not totally “pay-as-you-go,” and debt will continue to be an issue.

Councilor Krug said that all of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” out of the Councilors griping about past funding issues was “useless,” while Councilor Larson asked what realistic alternative they might propose. Councilor Fosle, more on-target than last meeting in his critiques, went back to his favorite hobbyhorse and proposed savings in vehicle maintenance; Councilor Stauber said he’d proposed a street bill that had been shunted aside, but CAO Montgomery argued parts of his proposal “would not apply.” He also disagreed with Councilor Stauber’s suggestion that the general fund had been built up by taking money from the CIT; while technically true, the funds had arrived there in a round-about way. Councilor Fosle wrapped up the hour-long discussion by saying he thought the mayor’s office, and not the Council, should be working on the street plan to resolve the issue for good.

In the end, Councilor Krause decided to vote ‘no,’ and the measure failed, with only six votes in favor. President Boyle asked CAO Montgomery what came next, and he responded by saying Administration would likely push to take the money from the general reserve fund at the next board meeting. The city does have a potential white knight in this whole affair, however: at some time in the next month, a federal court will rule on ongoing litigation between the city and the Fon Du Luth Casino, and should the city win, the $12 million settlement will easily cover the debt. While CAO Montgomery made it clear they cannot count on a positive result, the entire council was likely left hoping for a swift ruling from the courts.

Next up was the authorization of bonds to pay for the Lakewalk expansion, and Councilors Fosle, Stauber, and Krause once again held the line on further spending. Councilor Fosle grumbled about wants versus needs, while Councilor Julsrud reminded the Council that over half the project was being paid for in grant money. A simple 6-3 majority passed the ordinance, and a related second ordinance was tabled.

Several resolutions were then read for the first time, and though there was no voting on the issue, there were two speakers on a trio of proposals amending the city code on the matter of electronic cigarettes. Mr. Brian Annis, a longtime smoker who had weaned himself off tobacco by using e-cigs, told of his failed past attempts to quit, and how his conversion had inspired other smokers to switch over to the healthier alternative. He’d clearly done his research, and the Councilors were swift to invite him to an agenda session, as they had not had any defenders of e-cigs at the Committee of the Whole meeting earlier that day. Ms. Jill Doberstein of the American Lung Association countered his claims by saying electronic cigarettes “normalize” smoking, and that their use is often recreational instead of being a means of quitting. She demanded consistency from the Council in its regulation of smoking products.

The Council concluded its formal business by passing two more ordinances without debate: an amendment of city fine fees (opposed only by Councilor Krause), and a zoning change (approved unanimously). In the closing comments, Councilor Larson reminded the city of Food Truck Fridays at the public library, while Councilor Krause asked someone to look into the heavy attire facilities maintenance workers are forced to wear even in the worst summer heat. Councilor Stauber asked if a biennial actuarial study of unfunded liabilities was under way, which it was, and Councilor Hartman took a moment to thank his colleagues for the policy-driven debate about the CIT fund, even though he was unhappy with the result. He admitted it was probably “very boring for the general public,” but he had an excellent point: instead of endless “theatrics,” the Council really had gone to the heart of the issue, and in government, the boring debates often are the most productive. While the nuttiness of a Duluth School Board meeting may be more interesting to those of us trying to endure 90-degree meeting chambers, the Council continues to quietly inspire confidence, and in such a climate, the minority view may even have a better chance to win out—as Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle showed tonight. Whatever one thinks of their vote, that is an encouraging thought.

Gronseth’s Gambit: The School Board Will Let Duluth Vote (Meeting Notes, 8/20/13)

21 Aug

On Tuesday night, I joined a horde of wilting Duluthians in the Board Room. Historic Old Central High School has no air conditioning, and even though the temperature cleared ninety, the room was full of red-faced people. Many of the school board candidates and usual suspects were lurking around, and several hijacked my normal spot by setting up their own video cameras, forcing me to a sideline seat by the media. An MIA Member Cameron apparently fled to the beach, while Member Johnson celebrated the weather with a Hawaiian shirt, and the middle five people on the dais were color-coordinated in light blue shirts. The mood at the start seemed light, with Member Johnston sharing a joke with Superintendent Gronseth, but with a major debate about which levy options to send to voters on the table, the ending was certain to be different.

For once, Member Johnston did not have a beef with the previous meeting’s minutes, and the District moved on to celebrate the installations of educational gardens at a number of schools. After that, it was on to public comments, and the first four speakers were all candidates in the upcoming election. The first was the only real newcomer to Board affairs, at-large candidate Joshua Bixby, a middle-aged, well-polished man with salt-and-pepper hair who looked like he was fresh off a round at the country club. (Surprise! he lives in Congdon Park.) He asked the Board to support a voter-approved levy in order to restore trust, voiced his pleasure with the dialogue at a business committee meeting, and made the sensible suggestion that standing committee meetings be opened to the public, as Board members often have their minds made up by the general board meetings, rendering public comments nothing but a “moment of catharsis.”

Next up was Mr. Loren Martell, who sounded far more coherent than usual and celebrated the Superintendent’s recommendation that the levy appear on the ballot. He took a shot at Student Member Thibault, who was quoted in a recent News-Tribune article as saying the District should impose a levy without a vote, and grumbled about the civics lessons the Board must have taught him. Mr. Harry Welty came forward next, and in a display that can only be described as Harry Welty-ish, attempted to have a dialogue with Superintendent Gronseth involving head signals, was left confused by the Superintendent’s response, and trailed on in support of a vote on the levy. Ms. Marcia Stromgren rehashed her normal litany of complaints, and Mr. Tom Albright, a volunteer pushing for the passage of the levy, thanked the Board for its thoughtfulness.

The Board then breezed through Education and HR Committee business in record time. Sup. Gronseth gave a progress report on construction at Congdon and Myers-Wilkins Elementaries, and said he had shut down his office today after temperatures cleared ninety. Member Johnston, delivering the Education Committee report in Member Cameron’s absence, said the Committee had looked at pictures of blizzards during its meeting to try to keep cool.

When the Business Committee agenda came up, Member Johnston again broke several issues off from the rest of the agenda for separate discussion and vote. First came some funding for online programming for students who are homebound or at the alternative high school; he wanted to make sure the funding had been pre-allocated, which it had, though only as an estimate. Member Westholm pressed District staffers on the possible fuzziness of online education, and asked if there were models for the program; Assistant Sup. Crawford and Unity High School (the alternative school) Assistant Principal Adrian Norman responded by painting a picture of an interactive program tailored to fit each student’s needs that will be carefully watched in its pilot year. Satisfied, the Board approved the Virtual Schools contract and some AmeriCorps funding, 6-0. After that came the usual complaints by Member Johnston over change orders; he groused that they were voting on projects that had already been started or even completed. Member Seliga-Punyko insisted that the Board did indeed approve these projects in April, and asked if Member Johnston would have them tear up the sidewalks and playgrounds now. Member Johnston insisted that he was simply making a point that this “is not the way you do business,” and was the lone vote against the change orders.

After that, it was on to the main event of the evening: the levy plans. The School Board had three options to vote on:

1. A $300 levy imposed by the Board without a vote, which would also lock down $1.1 million in extra state aid.

2. An existing $212 state equity levy for larger districts, which could either be tabled indefinitely (effectively re-approving it), or rejected.

3. Two ballot questions in the November election, the first of which is a $600 levy that would match the current operating levy and also include (as part of the $600) the $212 equity levy, and the second of which would raise the levy another $200. The passage of the first leg would guarantee the $1.1 million in state funding, but its failure would cost Duluth the entire package, aside from the $212 equity fund (assuming it is not rejected).

The imposed levy was up first, and Member Seliga-Punyko took the stand to make a case that summed up her six years of work on the School Board. It was, effectively, an argument for representative democracy, and what she saw as the school board’s right to do whatever it thinks is best for the district, regardless of public opinion. She listed off a number of other bodies (some elected, some not) that can raise taxes without voter input, and asked why school boards are held to a different standard. “Why would you put the district in jeopardy?” she asked, shuddering at the thought of cutting $7 million in funding if the $600 levy were to fail at the ballot box. She envisioned a District in which all arts and athletics are gone, with 50-plus students in every classroom, and insisted that students came first; the issue was “not about the confidence of the voters, but being a responsible governing body.”

Student Member Thibault echoed Member Seliga-Punyko’s comments, while Member Miernicki respectfully disagreed. There was much confusion about the language of the resolution, freeing Chairman Kasper to deliver the line of the night: “we’re muddled in bureaucracy. Imagine that!” Sup. Gronseth told of his meeting with state legislators on Monday, which left him encouraged that lots of people are on the same page, and he said Duluth needs to move past its past issues and have hope and faith that the community will support it. (The words “hope” and “faith” were thrown around so often tonight that I wondered if I had perhaps accidentally wandered into an Obama rally.)

In a moment of rare agreement, Member Johnston thanked the Superintendent for his words, and offered his support for the ballot measure. He said that imposing the levy would jeopardize later motions and increases, and was responsible to students, taxpayers, and District staff over the long-term. He said it was “symbolic” that he and the Superintendent could agree on this. Chair Kasper agreed, admitting it was a big risk that he did not support lightly, but insisting that responsibility had to be given back to the taxpayers. The imposed levy failed, 5-1, with Member Seliga-Punyko the lone vote in favor.

The meeting degenerated from there, as the discussion over the equity levy swiftly became a mess; no one really knew what was going on. Members Johnston and Miernicki misinterpreted Sup. Gronseth’s intent, leading the Superintendent to hastily try to explain it all: the measure is not board-authorized, but state-authorized, and tabling it would accept the funds, not delay a decision. Member Johnston said that accepting this funding would “confuse” voters, make them think the Board was raising taxes, and “was a sure way not to get this money.” Member Seliga-Punyko lashed out, claiming this was “an excuse” to vote ‘no’ designed by people who are trying to bring down the levy,” “including a Board member.” Member Johnston asked that Chair Kasper reprimand her for impugning him, which he did. Member Seliga-Punyko also asked why this was even up for a vote, which Sup. Groseth answered by saying that it was the only way to have a debate about it. The normally quiet Member Wasson did her best to cut through the confusion and get the simple message: this is not a tax increase, and merely a stopgap to guarantee a few dollars if the levy does indeed fail at the ballot box. Over Member Johnston’s “begging,” the Board approved the equity levy, 5-1.

Angered, Member Johnston voiced his displeasure when the Board opened discussion on the 2-part ballot measure levy. He said the $212 equity levy “does nothing for us,” and thought the confusion of a two-part ballot question would only be “another nail in the coffin” for a measure that faces an uphill battle. He tried to peel off the second question so as not to “muddy the water,” but the rest of the Board voted against him. Member Wasson asked Business Services Director Bill Hansen if the explicit line “this is not a tax increase” could be put on the $600 levy, but was disappointed to hear a “no” in response. Member Johnston continued his parliamentary wrangling by announcing his support for the $600 levy despite the fact that he would abstain from the vote to put it on the ballot due to his opposition to the additional $200 question. After the meeting, Member Seliga-Punyko could be overheard doubting his good faith. The measure passed, 5-0.

Next up was a state-funded bond, and although the bond before the Board had nothing to do with the District’s credit rating, Member Johnston rolled out a series of quotes from Moody’s Analytics’ recent decision to downgrade the District to perhaps the lowest rating in the state. His point really was a good one: the bond downgrade is a real issue, and does indeed show that some of Member Johnston’s concerns over the years were well-founded. But when Sup. Gronseth reiterated that the District’s rating had nothing to do with the bond in question, Member Johnston yet again had to get in the last word. There is no such thing as a time and a place for Member Johnston: he must make his own righteousness clear at every turn, an act that is, frankly, the epitome of “muddying the water.” Nothing is made clearer by interjecting on every single point and going off on tangents, no matter how much they may prove him right; even though he usually adds the necessary caveats, discourses such as this one are not the mark of someone genuinely concerned about the District. They are the mark of a man trying to score political points for his platform so that he can tell people he was right. He claims to support the levy, but will claim vindication if it fails; he insists the public is well-informed about Board matters and will see through the confusion, but no one did more to advance the confusion than he did.

By the end of the meeting, the heat of the discussion and the room was driving everyone nuts. When Member Johnston belabored one particular point, a red-faced Member Miernicki threw his head skyward in exasperation. Chair Kasper twice announced there were no more lights lit and moved to a vote when other Members’ lights were quite obviously on; upon being shot down, Member Wasson shook her head and sighed as if to say “to hell with it.” Chair Kasper’s request that Member Johnston clarify a statement led to an obstinate “I said what I said” from Member Johnston. Member Seliga-Punyko’s mumblings were audible from my seat in the audience. Once the Board moved on to less contentious issues involving election judges and such, Member Miernicki began to second measures before they had been read in their entirety. Chair Kasper told the Board he has “four months and nine days” until his term is up, “not that he’s counting.”

In spite of the dysfunction, the winner of the meeting was Sup. Gronseth, who kept his composure as all of his proposals passed. We will have to wait until November to learn how real that victory is. He avoided the easy way out—Member Seliga-Punyko’s path—and has staked his legacy on the $600 levy. If it passes, the District is in decent shape, and he is the man who moved Duluth past the Red Plan rancor and into a new era in which things might actually get done. (The $200 extra levy is a cherry on top, and while I will support it, I don’t have a lot of faith in it.) If it fails, the losses will be catastrophic, and no one’s hands will be clean. Not Member Seliga-Punyko’s: even though she tried to avoid this path, her support of the Board’s past heavy-handed tactics will have come home to roost. Not Member Johnston’s: while he may try to say “I told you so,” his behavior has always prioritized his own purity over any sincere care over the direction of the District, and his endless parliamentary nitpicking did nothing but cloud matters further. And certainly not Sup. Gronseth’s, whose chumminess and leap of faith will appear naïve.

I’m on my knees in prayer already.

A-Rod’s World Continues to Turn

19 Aug

When I wrote about Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s ongoing steroid suspension saga two weeks ago, I was skeptical he’d have any prayer for success upon his return to the lineup. But I did leave one little caveat, saying one never really knows how fallen mythic heroes like A-Rod might respond. I’m glad I did.

Of course, one game in August between two teams separated by eight games in the standings isn’t going to change much. Nor is A-Rod anywhere close to being out of the woods, as the events on a Sunday night in Boston shared headlines with his blustering lawyer claiming A-Rod did not deserve to be suspended for “one inning” given the evidence against him, and announcing that Team A-Rod is filing a grievance against the Yankees for their handling of his injury.

But when Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster took justice into his own hands (video highlights here), something changed. Joe Girardi, in the midst of his finest season as Yankee manager for his evenness amid a circus of injuries and A-Rod stories, showed a completely different side. He had good reason to be angry: if opposing pitchers are free to throw multiple pitches at his player and avoid ejection, and the Yankees are never given a chance to retaliate, the rest of the season easily could become “open season on A-Rod,” as he described it in an uncharacteristically frank post-game press conference. The incident stirred up some tribal instincts in the Yankees, who rallied around the teammate they really don’t seem to like all that much. And rather than resort to a retaliatory bean-ball, A-Rod and the Yankees avenged themselves in a far more practical way. A-Rod launched an A-Bomb of a home run to dead-center off Dempster to lead off the sixth, and a three-run triple later in the inning turned a 6-3 deficit into a 7-6 lead, one they would build on as they stormed to a 9-6 victory.

After the Yankees took the lead, the Fenway faithful went deathly quiet. Perhaps the reaction to A-Rod’s hubris brought with it a self-righteous hubris of its own, and the Boston fans’ bloodlust came back to haunt them. Perhaps they woke the sleeping giant. It was hard not to watch the game and think back to the last great A-Rod bean-brawl between these two bitter rivals, in a 2004 game around this time of year when the fired-up Red Sox rallied to beat Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning. That game was often cited as the turning point that made the Red Sox believe they could end their 86-year World Series drought, which they promptly did that October.

If ever a game could spark the 2013 Yankees on a run, this could be it. They’ve been making noise for over a week now, with three straight series wins (two against division leaders). After months of mystery names and constant question marks, the lineup suddenly looks like a force. The bullpen has been strong throughout, and the starting rotation does the job more often than not. There are some real concerns; C.C. Sabathia must return to form for the Yankees to have a chance, and so many things have gone wrong for this creaky, old team this year that no player’s production can be taken for granted. But there is still an awful lot of talent on this Yankee squad, and while the gap between the team and a playoff berth will not be easily bridged, it is within their ability.

As for A-Rod, his 38-year-old self may not necessarily be a better person than the younger, philandering, juicing version, but he does seem to have matured in important ways. He yelled a few things and did a bit of glaring after he was hit, but he didn’t take any steps toward the mound, as he did in 2004. In the mid-00s, he would have come up in the later innings and struck out with his eyes closed as he tried to hit the ball to the moon. On Sunday night, he let his bat make the first response, though he did show some emotion as he rounded the bases. A few weeks ago, Ian Crouch lamented the fact that A-Rod “has never embraced the full potential of his villainy” in his hopelessly forced efforts to show he is a good person, but Sunday night’s deliberate imitation of David Ortiz’s skyward gesture at home plate after his home run was the act of a man who wanted to revel in a fresh chorus of boos. Why bother with the self-image obsession anymore? A-Rod is what he is—and, based on a small sample size since his return from injury, he is still one of the better hitters out there. If he produces, the Yankee organization and its fans will come back to him, and to the extent that he can salvage his legacy somewhat, it has to start with (and may be limited to) his own team. He may actually have figured that out.

Even though they tend to relish being the Evil Empire, the Yankees probably aren’t too fond of that. But the team and the player are stuck with one another, and they can either work with one another or go down in flames together. No, I don’t like the man, but I am also not such a vicious moralist that I want him thrown to the curb without due process, and he should be held to the same standard as other players—which he simply has not been. The puritanical urge to make A-Rod the symbol for everything that is wrong with baseball lets too many other people off the hook. As Girardi noted, the current rules were created by the players’ association—on which Dempster served. I don’t think steroids belong in baseball, but some perspective is in order here, and going a step too far in a search for a competitive advantage—something countless players do with nutritional supplements and such—is not on par with some of the worst sins out there. The testing regime that exists, while late in arrival, is getting to where it needs to be, and its suspensions are longer than the NFL’s. A veteran like Dempster should have known to let the system do its work, rather than play with fire. Before the A-Rod saga erupted, the storyline of this season was one of many younger stars (many of them vicious in their criticism of A-Rod) who’d come forward as A-Rod’s generation (of which his own team was the poster child) faded into the past. Anyone who wanted it to stay that way should have done what they could to make sure future A-Rods are caught before they can be anointed the Chosen One as A-Rod was, not single out one man who otherwise seemed to be on his way out the door.

Boo A-Rod all you like, but if you want to see violent on-field retribution for what he did, be prepared to deal with the consequences—which just might end up being an angry, resurgent A-Rod with something to prove, and a Yankee team that can pull together and make a playoff run. Just as the Yankees’ trade for A-Rod gave the Red Sox something to stand up to in that 2004 fight, taking shots at him could ignite this team to believe in itself. Or, of course, the Yankees could still crash and burn. But there is a window of possibility now, and that should make for an exciting final month and a half of the season. To the extent that baseball makes for great theater, it would, admittedly, be a poorer sport without the excesses of A-Rod and Dempster.

Councilor Fosle Takes a Stand: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/12/13

13 Aug

After a month-long recess, the Duluth City Council re-convened on Monday night in front of an unusually small crowd in the council chamber. There wasn’t a single citizen speaker, and the agenda was on the light side, but the Council still found plenty to wrangle about.

The meeting opened with city Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery giving the council two updates. The first regarded repairs planned for the perennially out-of-service Minnesota Slip Bridge, a pedestrian walkway that has become such a financial drain that Mayor Ness recently proposed getting rid of the thing altogether as part of a larger redevelopment of the waterfront area. CAO Montgomery then gave several updates on FEMA funding for damage from the 2012 flood; over half of the funds have now been approved, though some were rejected, a small sum is going through an appeals process, and a large chunk—some $15 million in stream restoration—is still pending approval. Satisfied, the Council proceeded to approve the consent agenda unanimously, and CAO Montgomery asked them to return a resolution on street improvement to Administration.

Next up was a resolution for the purchase of three street maintenance trucks, and Councilor Fosle, who was in a combative mood all night long, voiced his displeasure. “Maybe if I keep saying this, someone will listen,” he said, griping that he had been a mechanic for thirty years and that the maintenance costs and supposed wear-and-tear on the existing city vehicles were out of hand. He figured the city either “asked for lemon vehicles” or that the Facilities Department is “trying to make money for itself.”

Council Stauber said he “appreciated Councilor Fosle’s expertise,” and also announced he would not support the measure. CAO Montgomery said the city had run comparisons to other shops and found the repair rates comparable; Councilor Krause pressed him on these numbers, but appeared to be satisfied by the response. Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Krug expressed support and emphasized how well-informed they were, with Krug detailing her visit to the garage last year to inspect the city fleet. Councilor Fosle, while unconvinced, did agree with the other Councilors over the need to address the billing system. The resolution passed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Stauber in opposition.

The next two topics of debate both involved the issuance of temporary liquor licenses to local establishments. The first was for the recently reopened Hacienda del Sol restaurant, which owes the city over $33,000 in back taxes and utility bills; Councilor Julsrud, while professing her love for Hacienda, noted that “that’s a lot of burritos,” and asked CAO Montgomery about its financial stability. CAO Montgomery lacked exact numbers but said the restaurant had been meeting deadlines for some time, and he also reassured Councilor Krause that a “tenacious” new employee was on hand to flag potentially troublesome businesses and ensure this wouldn’t happen again. Councilor Gardner pointed out that a liquor license would make it easier for Hacienda to pay back its tab, and Councilor Julsrud recommended further short extensions of the license so as to hold the restaurant accountable. The measure passed, 9-0.

The second license concerned the Flame Nightclub, which was seeking to expand its operation, though its owner had admitted to Council President Boyle that recent troubles with crime around the establishment would likely force the delay in the expansion. The police had compared the crime numbers at the Flame to other local bars at a meeting during the previous week, but Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Julsrud did not think it was a particularly good comparison, as the Flame is a fairly unique establishment. Given the confusion, Councilors Krause and Larson said they hoped the resolution would be tabled, but Counsel advised the Council to go ahead and vote. Much grumbling and confusion followed; Councilors Gardner and Hartman suggested they approve the license anyway and give the Flame a test run to see if it had cleaned up its act, while Councilors Krug, Larson, and Krause thought it best to respect the unanimous ruling of an advisory council against the permit until the situation improved, which they were confident it would. Counsel assured Councilor Fosle that it would be easy for the Flame to re-apply, and the Councilors then voted down the license 7-2, with the votes in support coming from Councilors Gardner and Hartman.

The last contentious issue on the agenda involved a resolution supporting an assessment of the main Duluth Public Library facility. Councilor Larson led the charge, noting heavy usage and major inefficiencies in the 33-year-old building, and CAO Montgomery said the existing building is at a “tipping point” due to its serious energy inefficiencies and the evolution in library usage over the years. Councilor Krause asked where the money would come from; while CAO Montgomery’s answer was vague, Councilor Larson assured him funds had already been allocated from the 2011 Capital Fund.

Councilor Fosle was not a fan of the resolution. He noted that there are many buildings older than this one—a charge that Councilor Hartman called “unfair to say out loud” given the differences among the buildings in question—and wondered why the Council should be thinking about replacing a functional building when community centers across the city were still closed. He went on to rail against how the Council was “spending more money every time we turn around,” raising taxes and fees; “this kind of funding has to stop,” he insisted.

Several people in the room responded to his outburst. Councilor Julsrud said that the library is, effectively, a community center, and CAO Montgomery was at pains to counter Councilor Fosle’s portrayal of the city’s tax record. Councilor Gardner said the community centers and the library were not under the same umbrella; this led Councilor to Fosle to ask whether a referendum passed in the 2011 election covered both parks and libraries. CAO Montgomery answered that it only provided money for parks; his response, while technically correct, failed to note that the general fund savings from the referendum’s passage were explicitly allocated for the library. (Full disclosure: I am currently employed in a temporary position by the Duluth Public Library.) He also explained to Councilor Fosle that there was no good way to tell how many library users were Duluth residents.

Councilor Krause, in an effort to hold the middle ground, acknowledged Councilor Fosle’s worries about the community centers, and noted that their usage, when trails and youth sports are taken into account, could easily exceed that of the library. However, given that the funding for the assessment had already been budgeted, he announced his support for the resolution. It passed, 8-1, leaving Councilor Fosle to grumble during the closing remarks about how such resolutions seem to snowball far beyond their initial intent. It concluded a long night of calls for fiscal restraint from Councilor Fosle; while that voice needs to be heard, his complaints often appeared haphazard and not altogether coherent. Until he can pull together his critiques into a well-honed message, he will be unlikely to generate more than a few polite nods from the Councilors who are closest to him in their political views. Otherwise, he comes across as a loose cannon, and it requires serious effort to filter his most cogent points out from all the other noise.

What Is Duluth’s Future?

10 Aug

This is going to be a sprawling post, and I envision it as the start of a series on Duluth, Minnesota, my hometown, that builds on the fairly narrow focus of my posts on city council and school board meetings.  For those of you who have never been there, it is a city of 85,000 on the tip of Lake Superior, and the world’s largest freshwater port; and no, it is not a suburb of Minneapolis. (When I was in the college on the East Coast and told my classmates I was from Duluth, Minnesota, the inevitable next question was, “is that near Minneapolis?” They didn’t know how to respond when the answer was “no.” There were also the girls who once asked me if Minnesota was near Maine. And the one who didn’t believe that ice fishing was a real thing. But I digress.)

At any rate, a few days ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Robert Putnam, a Harvard scholar famous for his book Bowling Alone, which explores the decline of communal bonds in the United States. His work is some of the most fascinating stuff on modern American culture, though as with all scholarly work, there are intelligent critiques and rebuttals and endless back-and-forth nitpicking. While nuance is always necessary, I do worry about fraying social fabric and the increasing isolation in modern America, and perhaps more importantly, the pathologies that afflict an increasingly stratified society, from broken families to drug abuse to cycles of poverty. Without going straight into causes, solutions, and ultimate implications, it is clear there is a problem here. The ability of a city to cope with or adapt to these issues will likely determine its fate.

This particular article was more focused, however; it told the story of Port Clinton, Putnam’s Ohio hometown along the shores of Lake Erie. Like much of Middle America, Port Clinton has not fared particularly well economically in recent decades; its manufacturing base has collapsed, and though its lakeside location has kept some money in the town, it is now very divided, and not the foundation for the American Dream Putnam claims it was when he grew up there in the 1950s.

There is a shoutout to Duluth near the end of the piece, and the parallels are not hard to see. (The results of the Duluth surveys taken for Putnam’s project, while they do not mention many of the things discussed in the NYT piece, are here.) Duluth is much larger than Port Clinton, but for a while, it looked like it was going down the tubes when it lost its U.S. Steel mill and shed perhaps 30,000 residents toward the end of the 20th century. Like Port Clinton, Duluth has weathered the storm somewhat thanks to tourism dollars, and it has been fairly stable for two decades now. For all its troubles, Duluth really hasn’t fallen off the cliff in the way Putnam seems to think Port Clinton has.

If Duluth doesn’t fit so smoothly into the narrative of Midwestern industrial decline, we have to ask what sort of story we can tell about Duluth. In addition to the tourism dollars, I’d attribute Duluth’s resilience to two factors:

1. Due to its size, it remains a regional hub in a way that most small towns in America aren’t. Duluth may not have grown since it stopped shedding people in the early 90s, but it also isn’t shrinking, while most of the rest of the region is; its quasi-suburban areas, Hermantown and several unincorporated townships, have actually seen some growth. While Duluth may not have the opportunities Minneapolis does, it does have some allure when compared to small northern Minnesota towns. It has two 4-year universities, remains a busy transportation hub, and many regional services that cannot be outsourced to a metropolis or Malaysia (health care, certain government agencies, etc.) are based here.

2. Old money. At the start of the twentieth century, Duluth was a millionaires’ playground, and though not all of the grand old houses on the east side are in the best of shape these days, a chunk of the money is still here, doled out from trusts, foundations, and donations from heirs. For example, the revitalization along the waterfront likely would not have been possible without the efforts of the late pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci, whose restaurants anchor the Canal Park area. Putnam’s piece mentions the scholarships set up for many local students; Duluth has a bevy of such awards, and I received one that kept me debt-free through college.

(In a rebuttal to the Putnam piece, Front Porch Republic’s Jeffrey Polet points out that such scholarships may simply funnel graduates out of town, never to return. He may have a point; I am sure some of the recipients I graduated with, happily farmed out to elite colleges, will never be back. In my case, however, the strength of the Community Foundation and my sense of obligation to that history were among the many things that kept me grounded here.)

Duluth does very well in the indicators of social cohesion, which bodes well for the city, though some of Putnam’s later work shows that more homogenous communities tend to have much stronger social fabrics (a fact that so deeply troubled Putnam that he took years to release his data). Duluth, being 92% white and with strong northern European ties, obviously fits the bill. Moreover, it is a fairly segregated city (and not just in terms of race, though most minorities are concentrated in the city center). When explaining Duluth to outsiders, I’ve often described it as two separate cities: a combination college town/comfortable suburb on the east side, and a struggling rust belt city in the west. This is overly broad, of course, and perhaps an uncharitable portrait from a dyed-in-the-wool east-sider. The west side’s civic pride remains strong, and lower-income housing has been creeping eastward somewhat. But a simple look at the public high schools tells the story: three central and west Duluth high schools have folded into one since 1980, and East High remains much larger than that single western high school, Denfeld. (The East attendance area grew somewhat with the closure of Duluth Central a few years ago, but not drastically, and the school-aged population—a good indicator of how desirable an area is for families moving in—is much more dense on the east side.) Duluth East is the home of the “cake-eaters” of the north—it is the wealthy school that has long overshadowed Denfeld in academic and athletic prowess, even though Denfeld retains a very loyal following; perhaps even greater than East, since west-siders are far more likely to stay put while the East kids head off to supposedly greener pastures.

The divide is also made fairly clear by the quality of life and perceived political influence statistics in the Putnam study (see p. 49-54), though the west side does have some real strengths in those numbers. (This write-up also doesn’t mention where the dividing line is, which would be interesting to know.) This invites several questions:

-Duluth sprawls along 27 miles of lakeshore and riverfront, and there is a ridge along the length of the city that makes construction impractical in many places. How much does geography make Duluth’s divisions inevitable? The flip side of these divisions are some very strong local neighborhood identities, and I think these can be very good things. Are the divisions bad in and of themselves? Putnam certainly thinks so, and though I certainly understand that hyper-localism has its downsides, and can lead to discrimination, I’m not entirely convinced—in part for the reasons Polet touches on, though he doesn’t do a very thorough job in that post.

-What role do suburbs (ie. Hermantown) and new construction in Duluth Heights (away from the lakeshore and “over the hill”) play in Duluth’s development?

-Whither Superior? The Wisconsin city across the bridge is sometimes derided as Duluth’s armpit, but it still has a substantial a population and is an important part of the metro area. (And where else would we Duluthians go to buy our liquor on Sundays?) In the parts included in the Putnam study, it scores noticeably worse than Duluth in some respects. How does its fate affect Duluth’s?

-One effort to revitalize Duluth seems to evoke a hipster vibe. The attempt to attract “creative people” to revive the economy is mocked at times, but there is a certain logic here: in many cities (Manhattan, parts of Washington DC, San Francisco, and on and on), urban renewal (or gentrification, depending on how one looks at it) starts with artsy people moving into cheap housing, making the neighborhoods “interesting,” and in turn attracting wealthier wannabe urbanites who gradually displace the poorer people. Given Duluth’s universities, natural beauty, and decent arts scene for a city of its size, it seems to have potential for the hipster crowd. (Witness the dramatic rise in microbreweries and the expanding bike paths.) Mayor Don Ness, who is in many ways emblematic of this movement, certainly seems to be pushing it, as do several city councilors.

But this brings up some necessary questions: is this desirable development, and does the fact that it often just ignores or pushes poor and working-class people elsewhere trouble anyone? This model seems to work in major urban areas, but how well does it apply to a much smaller city? At first glance, a lot of this appeals to me—while I am probably a bit too clean-cut, conservative in temperament, and boring in my musical tastes to be a proper hipster, I enjoy culinary variety and good beer and a vibrant arts scene, and I’d much rather have more localized development than further urban sprawl. But I can still hear City Councilor Garry Krause’s words echoing in my mind: is our obsession with the new and interesting coming at the expense of the mundane, and the people who have called this city home for generations?

While Mayor Ness is a very popular and personable man who won re-election unopposed in 2011, in his initial election in 2007, he won the east side and lost the west side of the city. At the time of that election, I remember a high school teacher noting the unusual fact that Ness, by far the more liberal candidate, did better with the wealthier Duluthians, which seems to counter our normal political narratives. Looking at it from this perspective, it makes a lot more sense now.

-Duluth also includes many newcomers, and if certain critics are to be believed, it attracts a number of poorer people who look to take advantage of its relatively strong social safety nets. Councilor Jay Fosle had a complaint (not well-explained to the broader public) a few meetings ago about U-Haul rental patterns in Duluth; back in that 2007 mayoral election, Ness’s opponent, Charlie Bell, made some sort of remark about people from places like Chicago showing up and causing problems. Can someone give this critique some coherence or empirical backing, or is it just shoddy identity politics? And if it is true, what do we make of it?

This post is getting out of control, so I’ll cut myself off here. I’m throwing this open for discussion, in large part because I don’t know the answers. Urban planning interests me as a field, but I’ve never really pursued it because, eternal critic that I am, I have yet to latch on to any sort of coherent vision for how to revitalize a city. Duluth has considerable potential with its location, strong civic engagement, and unique culture; this city has a soul, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how unique that is. But where do we go from here?

Exit Bruce LaRoque

7 Aug

Bruce LaRoque, who coached Grand Rapids High School hockey for 14 seasons, retired on Monday, citing health and family-related reasons for his abrupt departure. He put together a 215-135-27 record at the helm of one of Minnesota’s most decorated programs in a stint that included six trips to the section final and two State Tournament berths, both of which resulted in second-place finishes. Once the dust has settled, Grand Rapids fans should be able to reflect fondly upon his tenure at the head of the small-town hockey hotbed on one end of the state’s famed Iron Range.

It is worth remembering where the Grand Rapids program was when he took over at the start of the 1999-2000 season. At the time, Rapids hadn’t been to State since 1991, and had only made one section final since. The incredible Rapids dynasty of the 1970s and early 1980s was a distant memory, and though the program still put out a star player every few years, it never mustered up the depth displayed by the rising suburban and private school powers, to say nothing of section rival Duluth East. In his 2001 book Blades of Glory, John Rosengren said that the 2001 Rapids team “played for pride, no longer for glory,” and seemed to be headed for the realm of hockey nostalgia much like their Iron Range neighbors.

LaRoque’s teams changed that. First, they took Duluth East to the brink in a pair of section finals in 2003 and 2004, and in 2006 and 2007, they broke through back to the State Tournament. They represented the program in style while there, knocking off the top-ranked team in the field (Hill-Murray and Edina, respectively) each year. Those Thunderhawk teams were also perhaps some of the last of a dying breed in Class AA hockey: while they had two legitimate high school superstars in Patrick White and Joe Stejskal, very few other players went on to play beyond their senior year. These days, title contenders often have ten-plus players who play after high school; those Rapids teams did it with a group of kids who weren’t hockey specialists, but filled the old northern Minnesota stereotype of hard-working, hard-hitting multi-sport athletes. Grand Rapids proved that small northern towns could still be relevant on the State stage, even with apparent disadvantages in numbers and offseason training.

LaRoque’s final years were weighed down by a series of frustrating playoff defeats. Since 2009, the Thunderhawks have suffered three first-round losses—two of them upsets—and two agonizingly close section final losses to Duluth East. The 2011 loss to East, in which arguably the deepest and best Rapids team of the LaRoque era held the Hounds scoreless until the last two minutes of the third period, was especially galling. Indeed, Duluth East was a constant source of frustration for LaRoque, who had an on-ice record of 3-19-1 against the Hounds, though one of those wins was Rapids’ only victory over East in eight playoff meetings.

Between the disappointment of losing and some of the grumbling that occurred when LaRoque’s sons made the team—whether merited or not, a seemingly inevitable occurrence for any parent-coach—it is not hard to see how stress drove LaRoque from the game. He had to deal with a fiercely loyal but demanding fan base that expects Rapids to add to its storied history regardless of how good the competition might be. Through it all, he leaves the program in better shape than it was when he took the reins; while many other people and outside factors played a role, Rapids’ youth system is now among the strongest in the state, and looks capable of producing high school contenders for years to come.

LaRoque was never an attention-grabbing coach. He didn’t have the personality of other long-term northern Minnesota coaches like Mike Randolph and Bruce Plante, but his even-keeled style made things work. He didn’t blame outside factors for the program’s struggles, and took responsibility for losses instead of passing things off on the referees or other things beyond his control. In an era when many players leave for junior hockey, Rapids has been unique in its ability to keep its star players at home. That is a credit to the power of the community, and LaRoque had a talent for respecting that tradition without over-hyping it or forcing it down anyone’s throat. Whoever succeeds him in overseeing the Halloween Machine will inherit a program that has its house in order as well as any in the state, and that is a testament to LaRoque’s success, no matter how frustrating those narrow losses might have been.

As A-Rod’s World Turns

5 Aug

New York Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, a jovial if somewhat pompous fellow well-suited for the Yankee ethos, is known for his personalized, colorful home run calls for each Yankee batter. Over the past ten years, he has used two different calls on Alex Rodriguez’s 302 homers in pinstripes, one of which now seems more apt than Sterling ever could have guessed: “Alexander the Great Conquers Again!”

A-Rod’s story is, indeed, like that of the famed Greek king. For years he was baseball’s golden boy, the hero who seemed destined to shatter the all-time home run record. He conquered Seattle, he conquered Texas, and won himself the richest contract in the history of American professional sports. When he was traded to the Yankees—baseball’s greatest stage—it looked like one last step to securing his spot on the baseball Acropolis.

The first five years of his tenure in New York complicated the narrative somewhat. He put up some huge numbers, yes, but he also struggled mightily in the playoffs—the only thing that really matters in Yankee lore—and never quite managed to be the model citizen his teammates Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were (and are). The scrutiny only increased when he opted out of his contract after the 2007 season, a bungled affair in which Rivera eventually convinced A-Rod to ditch his agent and declare his intent to stay in the Bronx. His new contract—even larger than his earlier record-setting deal—was negotiated directly with the Yankee ownership, went over the head of General Manager Brian Cashman, and locked A-Rod into a Yankee uniform into his 40s.

In 2009, his story grew even more complicated: first, he admitted to using steroids back during his days in Texas. But the supposedly clean A-Rod then went on to carry his team to a World Series title, finally shaking off the ‘playoff flop’ tag. Perhaps Alexander the Great had finally purged himself of his past sins and would be able to build a lasting legacy.

It wasn’t to be. First, his performance began to decline, and injuries started to mount; now, A-Rod has been suspended by Major League Baseball through the 2014 season for his ties to the Biogenesis steroid clinic. Like most all mythic Greek heroes, A-Rod’s quest for greatness has led him to reach too far, and he now must pay the price for his sins. The hero’s hubris has destroyed him.

In a typical twist of A-Rod oddness, the suspension came down on the day he will play his first game for the Yankees in 2013. After an injury rehab stint so long that some suspected the Yankees were trying to keep him off the field intentionally—Cashman, the GM who didn’t really want him back in 2007, at one point publicly told A-Rod to “shut the fuck up” when he seemed to contradict the Yankee doctors—he will finally take the field in Chicago tonight. He will appeal the suspension, which means he’ll be playing for the foreseeable future.

His return will make the next two months a complete circus for a Yankee team desperately trying to stay in the playoff picture. On the one hand, the Yankees’ third basemen this season have been atrocious, and even a shell of a past A-Rod will likely be an upgrade. But despite his real upside in that sense, it is clear that no one wants him here. His team’s front office almost certainly wishes the Commissioner’s Office had gone through with its threat to ban A-Rod for life, thus freeing the Yankees of his burdensome contract. His teammates say all of the right things, but even the unflappable Rivera grew peeved at reporters last night, when the only thing they asked him about was A-Rod’s impending return. A-Rod was never a popular figure with the Yankee fan base, and though 2009 will keep him from landing in the Yankee Ring of Hell with the likes of Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown, he’s now in a purgatory that will require a mythic performance if he has any hope of escaping. And that is his own team: for the rest of baseball he is a pariah, all of the worst suspicions about his questionable character now confirmed.

Even if he puts the Yankees in his back for the rest of this season, even if his appeal is successful, A-Rod’s legacy is now secure. He could have tailed off after 2009 and slumped to an early retirement; while perhaps not beloved, he would have been respected as a pretty good hitter, perhaps worthy of some sympathy both for the media that marked him as a target and his earnest desire to win that messed with his head when he came to the plate in October. Instead, he struck out again, and cost himself even the defenders who were willing to give him breaks through his playoff struggles and off-field escapades (of which I was one). A-Rod is now the player who got a doctor whom he had never to met—a man once disciplined by the state of New Jersey for irregularities in the prescription of steroids—to go on the interview circuit contradicting his team’s claims about his health.

And so the A-Rod saga has now become a full-fledged soap opera; the sort of macabre spectacle that baseball fans will claim to hate all while riveting themselves to each and every new detail. He has become bigger than his team and bigger than the game, but he still stubbornly believes he can win everyone over and reclaim some of that past glory. Most likely he is deluded, though one never truly knows when it comes to legendary figures. Thinking of A-Rod in such abstract terms may be the only way for Yankees fans to cope with their returning third baseman, as they certainly cannot embrace him as they do with their other stars. The man is now a myth, a lesson to us all of the dangers of excess, one whose ongoing story may reveal yet more about the endless human capacity for self-deception. For all the undeserved fixations over the trivial details of A-Rod’s life, for all of the possibly troublesome tactics the Commissioner’s Office used in its push to find itself a scapegoat for the steroid era it so badly mismanaged, he will deserve every boo he hears.

The Right Regrets

2 Aug

Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.

–Arthur Miller, The Ride Down Mount Morgan

At work today, I overheard one co-worker telling another about her son’s girlfriend, who recently moved to Duluth after living elsewhere her entire life. My co-worker asked the girlfriend what she thought about her move to Duluth.

“I don’t look back,” the girlfriend answered immediately. Both of my co-workers were impressed: that is quite the sign of commitment, especially out of a 25-year-old.

I quietly had a very different reaction.

I don’t mean to rain on this girl’s parade: if she really can cut herself off like that, and this isn’t some way of suppressing deeper issues, good for her. There do seem to be some people out there who can go forever without second-guessing themselves. Some jobs require short memories, and sometimes erasing the past is important, lest one lapse into endless second-guessing and dwelling and even depression. These sorts of people, driven by such clear-eyed resolve, can achieve great things.

I am not one of those people. Moreover, I find that forcing myself to be one of those people is far more damaging than making peace with the past: I have to recognize it, learn from it, and aim for something better in the future. Once you’ve caught the disease of introspection, it’s only something that can be managed, never cured. And, when managed properly, it can bring about any number of new insights. I can’t run away from the dumb things I’ve done, or the mistakes I’ve made: they are a part of me, just as much as my triumphs are, and my response to them is a huge part in shaping who I am. If I move to a new city, I am most certainly going to examine whether or not my life has improved, and take immediate corrective action if it hasn’t been a healthy one. I am also going to hold on to my roots back where I came from, both as a reminder of what formed me while I was there, and perhaps as a safety net that I might need to fall back on. Yes, there is some danger of falling into a nostalgia trap, but so long as one is aware of the danger, one can manage it in a fairly healthy way.

This brings me to the Arthur Miller line at the start of the piece, which I simply adore. When I was in high school, the school would always had out these assignment notebooks at the start of each year, and they always included some sort of inspirational quote on each page. For the most part, I found them sappy and/or cliché. But then, one week, I stumbled across this one, and had my own little moment of dawning realization, right there in Mr. Jones’s English class. For a kid who wasn’t quite sure what to believe, it seemed like such a simple summation of what I was looking for. Instead of immediately saying “no regrets” (or, in contemporary parlance, “YOLO!”), it admits that, at least on some level, we’re going to regret many of the things we do. We all make mistakes, large and small, and we often sit and wonder what could have been had we only found the guts to seize some opportunity that passed us by. It isn’t hard to drown in them.

The question, then, becomes a matter of what a “right” regret is. A right regret might be one that we recognize, upon reflection, was not so serious an error after all: so what if I never did ask that girl out; I found another one who completes me, and I can look back at that and laugh now. Perhaps even more importantly, they can offer life lessons: well, it was dumb of me to take that job, but now I know that I never would’ve been happy there, and I can safely eliminate that career path now. Weighing one’s regrets and deciding how serious they are grants a healthy dose of perspective, allowing one to forget the trivial concerns and hone in on the wrongness of certain regrets one still has to atone for.

There is some danger here in using the right regrets as a way to retroactively justify anything. (Indeed, the line in Miller’s play is an attempt by one character to console another who has just revealed he is secretly married two different women in two different cities. Even if you support polygamy or the blind pursuit of one’s own passions above all else, it’s hard to ignore the rampant relativism here.) It’s a helpful quote, not a creed to live by. But for those of us who cannot forget the past, it can be a tool for sorting through that jumble of memories and deciding what is worth carrying forward. Then, maybe, we can go to bed at night fully aware of where we’ve come from, yet unburdened by that past, satisfied with who we’ve become.