Archive | September, 2013

The Duluth School Board Levy: A Manifesto

30 Sep

Disclaimer: when I launched this blog, I used its first post to say it wasn’t my intent to make this thing a call to arms for any particular cause. Today, I’m going to violate that principle for a cause that is, I believe, worthwhile. I’m going to do what little I can do to get the voters of ISD 709 to pass the operating levy that will be on the ballot this November.

Two of the biggest levy proponents out there are ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth and at-large school board candidate Harry Welty. I don’t really know either of them personally, though I sometimes read Welty’s blog and had a mini-dialogue with him last week, and Gronseth was the assistant principal at my high school once upon a time. But while both men have the same goal and seem to respect one another on some level, they are coming from radically different places.

Gronseth’s PR campaign for the levy has been relentlessly positive. A gaudy handout touting all the successes of ISD 709 came out in a recent Duluth News Tribune, and if you read it, you’d think there wasn’t much of anything wrong with the District. At Board meetings, Gronseth will acknowledge challenges, but will quickly try to turn them into opportunities for improvement, insisting the District is on the right path. I don’t think this is some cynical spin operation: Gronseth genuinely believes he can help guide this District to a better place, and that sort of positive message can be a real asset to a District trying to move past a divisive era. His pitch attempts to show the voters of Duluth that the District is moving past the Red Plan rancor, and that voters can have confidence in its administrators to keep the momentum going.

Welty, on the other hand, sees a rather different picture when he looks at ISD 709. His blog collects plenty of horror stories of troubles that afflict the District: a paltry general fund, sagging graduation and enrollment rates, a glaring achievement gap, classes with over 40 students, and anarchic west side schools. His campaign theme is “honesty,” which for him involves acknowledging everything that is wrong with the District, and then confronting it head-on. Without the levy, he argues, it will be near-impossible to do so. There is no scenario in which “starving the beast” leads to more sensible financial policy, and should the levy fail, the task of trying to build a decent District will take a herculean effort.

Both of them are part right and part wrong. Gronseth is right to see some real positives: for all of the turmoil, the test scores and post-secondary success of kids from the east side schools remain strong, and the recent turnaround at Laura Macarthur Elementary proves that demography need not be destiny, and that west side schools can succeed with strong leadership and innovative teaching. Having seen some truly dysfunctional public schools during my time in Washington DC, I can assure Duluth that its schools still have a long way to fall before they’re a total train wreck. But at the same time, Welty’s worries can’t just be swept under the rug; his concerns don’t come from nowhere, and as I argued last week, a longtime critic like him might be able to reach out to voters who are otherwise jaded with the District.

There are drawbacks to each man’s approach. Gronseth’s shiny packaging could easily come across as untrustworthy spin tactics, especially for voters who think the District took them for a ride with the Red Plan.  His unqualified optimism can appear naïve, and perhaps ignorant of the unfortunate but very real divisions that have sprung up over the past few years. Welty’s use of the sinking ship metaphor runs some risk of making the whole thing sound like a lost cause, especially as he repeats stories of struggling classrooms and announces his sympathies for voters who won’t support the levy under any circumstances. Both Gronseth and Welty are on to something, but neither one quite paints a complete picture.

You know what I would love to see? These two men go door-knocking together in support of the levy. It’s a naïve wish, perhaps, but these two men really do need each other. It will be hard to put a positive spin on Gronseth’s stint as Superintendent if the levy fails, and Welty has said quite clearly that his job will be a miserable one if he’s on a Board that has to make deep cuts.

There are risks for each of them. Gronseth has to admit that not everything is quite right, and while he’s done a good job of inviting citizens to learn about the levy and made himself available to speak to groups, this is a rather self-selecting approach; he’d have to go out there and meet face-to-face with people who do not like what he stands for. Welty might alienate his old Let Duluth Vote base, which includes (though is necessarily not limited to) a bunch of people who hate the notion of working with the Board so recently after the Red Plan was rammed through.

Still, if we take both men at their word (and I do), the risks are worth the potential rewards. Gronseth could prove he believes in community engagement in the fullest sense of the term, not just inside a pro-education echo chamber. Welty would show just how much he believes the good of the schools transcends any past divisions, even if it comes at some risk for his political career.

It would have been a real coup for ISD 709 if Art Johnston would have been willing to join this sort of effort. I had my criticisms of Johnston before he came out against the levy, but they had more to do with style than substance: I think he is a legitimate representative of a portion of the community that is understandably upset with the Board, and there is something to be said for holding true to one’s convictions. In the moments when Board debate ranges away from Red Plan affairs, he has come across as a well-informed, thoughtful man who raises some real questions. His stint on the School Board had real potential, and for a moment at the August meeting, when he found it within himself to praise Gronseth for putting the levy to a vote and noted how significant it was that the two of them had found common ground, I thought he might yet fulfill that promise. He could have transcended the pettiness of some of his critics, and such an act of humility might have bought him some good will in the eyes of other Board members, leading him to perhaps actually pass a thing or two. He could have even upped his odds for re-election, as he would’ve had an answer to the biggest criticism thrown at him: that he is too intractable, too zealous in his pursuit of purity, too willing to alienate people who were willing to work with him if only he’d concede a tiny bit of ground. (And I’m not just talking about Gronseth here; I’m talking about people like Welty and Loren Martell, with whom he has plenty of views in common.) Alas, Johnston has allowed his distaste for some small tax increases to overpower any desire to work with others, even though (according to Tom Kasper) he once thought those taxes might be necessary evils in order to stabilize the district’s general fund. Looking at the likely composition of the next School Board, he is doomed to remain a voice in the wilderness, even if he is re-elected and the levy fails. He will have been proven correct, but is that really any consolation to a man who truly does care about the fate of the schools?

So, there is my plea to the individuals most able to sway voters to the ‘yes’ side of the levy, if they so choose. Let’s see some real leadership here. I’ll try to do my part. I’m going to write a letter to the News Tribune that will make my pitch for the levy the only way I know how, with a story of my love for the schools that gave me a world-class education, and my sincere wish that, should I someday raise a family here, my children can have as good a time in Duluth public schools as I did, if not a better one. I’m going to email this post to Gronseth and Welty, and even Johnston. (What do I have to lose?) I want to believe in Duluth’s future. Is anyone with me?

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A Hero in a Sport without Heroes: Farewell, Mariano Rivera

26 Sep

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I’ve been meaning to write a post on the impending retirement of Mariano Rivera ever since I started this blog. Much to the chagrin of my Minnesotan friends, I grew up a diehard Yankees fan, and my earliest baseball memories are of their late 1990s dynasty. Derek Jeter was, naturally, my childhood idol, and I still have a deep respect the Yankee captain; I’m sure I’ll write some glowing words when he retires, too. But as I grew older and more jaded, my pantheon of athletes whom I was willing to call a hero slowly shrank to include just one man. That man is Mariano Rivera.

Writing this post wasn’t easy, in large part because I’m not sure what I have to say that hasn’t already been said. Dave D’Alessandro wrote a masterful column about Rivera in 2011, and the god of all sportswriters, the 93-year-old Roger Angell, used Sunday’s game to remind the rest of us mere mortals of our places. I could trail on about his dominance, both across 19 regular seasons and 16 postseasons, or wax about that single pitch he used to it all, that untouchable cutter. There are the five World Series championships, the All-Star games, and the admirable sendoffs heaped upon him by his opponents over the course of this season’s long good-bye. (The Twins’ “chair of broken dreams,” made entirely of bats broken by Rivera’s cutter, was the best gift he got.) There are also those few moments when some emotion snuck out from behind his serene façade, like when he flopped over in exhausted ecstasy on the Yankee Stadium mound after three shutout innings in the 2003 ALCS against Boston, or his composure when the Red Sox finally got to him the next year. There is also his winning smile, his profound faith, his care for his Panamanian hometown, and his farewell tour in which he spent time with the unrecognized workers and fans at every park. D’Alessandro nails it: Rivera’s statistics are phenomenal, but he became the most universally adored ballplayer in an otherwise troubled era because of his character, his class, and his dignity.

Better writers who know Rivera far better than I do have told those stories superbly, so I’ll settle for simply sharing a memory. I’ve been to a ton of baseball games over the years, including a number of very memorable ones; many stars in their prime have had great days, and I’ve seen some extra-inning marathons and some brutal weather. I saw one of Roger Clemens’ tries at a 300th win in person, and any Yankees fan’s first trip to Yankee Stadium (the old one in particular, though the first visit to the new one was pretty cool, too) has to rank right up there among one’s favorite baseball moments.

But my most cherished memory is one that, on the surface, appears utterly mundane. It happened during my first ever Yankees game, a 2000 win against the Twins. The game itself was smooth sailing for the Yankees, and the paltry Metrodome crowd included more backers of the Bronx Bombers than loyalists to the hometown team. My seat, however, was not terribly far from the Yankee bullpen, and in the top of the ninth, the last ballplayer to ever wear number forty-two rose to his feet and began to warm up.

It was as if the entire game behind him had stopped. My ten-year-old self was absolutely mesmerized. While Rivera was great at the time, he was still a few years away from being as universally lauded as he is today. But even then, there was something different about him. His windup was swift and graceful, yet he unleashed the ball with so much power that it popped in the catcher’s glove in a way no other pitcher’s did. He was the platonic ideal of a ballplayer, and only a handful of other modern athletes can match that blend of dominance and aesthetic beauty embodied by the lanky Panamanian with a soothingly smooth name. Perhaps Lionel Messi, though he still has years to go before he is on Rivera’s level of consistency; perhaps Roger Federer in his prime, but he rose and then began to decline all while Rivera kept plugging away. He leaves the game at age 43, just as dominant as he was when he first settled into his setup role in 1996. It is never fun to watch a former great tail off and struggle some at the end of his career with some other team, as with Michael Jordan or Brett Favre; Rivera didn’t do that. He simply remained Mariano Rivera.

No one does ceremonies quite like the Yankees, and Rivera had his Lou Gehrig moment in front of the fans last Sunday in the Bronx. They trotted out all of the greats of the 1990s dynasty, deluged him in gifts, unveiled his Monument Park plaque, brought in Metallica to give a live rendition of “Enter Sandman,” and even Jackie Robinson’s family took the field to honor the man worthy of being the last to ever wear wearing Jackie’s number. It went for fifty minutes, yet Rivera’s surprise and gratitude never wavered. On the same day, Yankee great Andy Pettitte made his final home start in the Bronx, and he was almost an afterthought. Yet Pettitte wanted it that way, and in fact only announced his retirement because Rivera told him to; so great was his respect for Rivera that he didn’t want to steal a second of his time.

Gehrig called himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” to be showered with such praise, but with Mariano, one got the sense that there was never all that much luck involved. He is a reminder of everything that is good about sports; the sort of human being who deserves every ounce of recognition and fame he’s received, a poor Panamanian kid who used a silly game to make something of himself, and to inspire millions.

His mantra was a simple one.

I know where I come from. And when you always have in mind where you come from, the rest will be easy.

We’re going to miss you, Mariano.

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Photos from yankees.com.

 

Onward and Upward with Art Johnston’s Scorched-Earth Campaign: Duluth School Board Notes, 9/24/13

25 Sep

The ISD 709 School Board gathered for its monthly meeting for an unusual 4:30 start on Tuesday. The time, apparently, was not agreeable for Member Seliga-Punyko, who was absent; Member Westholm was also MIA at roll call, but snuck in fifteen minutes after the meeting had started. Many candidates in the upcoming election were on hand, including several of those who had lost in the primaries.

As usual, Member Johnston held up the minutes, this time catching a misprint and complaining that his point of order at the previous meeting, in which he asked Chair Kasper to reprimand Member Seliga-Punyko for impugning him, was not in the minutes. Member Miernicki pressed him on this contention, wondering what exactly Member Johnston had found so impugning about her words and reading back Member Seliga-Punyko’s quote, which did not mention Member Johnston by name. Member Johnston dodged the question, simply insisting that his point of order had to be in the minutes. It was not entirely clear what Member Miernicki’s motive was, except perhaps to extract a concession that the reprimand was not warranted. (One can only imagine what sort of reprimand would have been necessary had Member Seliga-Punyko been in attendance at this month’s meeting, given Member Johnston’s subsequent actions.)

The Board then congratulated an East High School student for an award she’d won on a paper about the dangers of texting and driving. The sole community speaker was Mr. Dick Haney, who came before the Board for a second time to ask them to approve an easement for a bike trail across the property of the former Central High School. In his report to the Board, Superintendent Gronseth talked about the positives at the start of a new school year, particularly the opening of the new Congdon Park and Myers-Wilkins Elementaries; he was pleased to announce the District was now “out of the construction business,” and could focus directly on student achievement. He invited the public to learn more about the levy options on the ballot in the upcoming elections, and said he was happy to speak to any groups with questions. Chair Kasper thanked him, and Member Miernicki waxed about the sense of community he saw at the opening of the new schools.

By in large, the Education Committee report consisted only of test score reports and grant announcements. Member Johnston, however, took a moment to show what a constructive voice he could have been on this Board had he not chosen to chain his reputation to his scorched-earth campaign against the Red Plan. He singled out the test score disparities between East and Denfeld High Schools, and Ordean-East and Lincoln Park Middle Schools, wondering why gaps in scores ranged from 33 to 50 percent, and asking what could be done about it. He also congratulated Laura MacArthur Elementary for its drastic improvement, and Supt. Gronseth agreed, and congenially told Member Johnston that efforts to fight the east-west achievement gap were ongoing. It would be interesting to hear more about those efforts, which are a serious issue for Duluth schools; it’s a topic that deserves a real debate. Sadly, Member Johnston thinks that raising hell over things that have already happened is a better use of his time.

The Human Resources action items sailed past the Board, 6-0, but the Business Committee report was another issue. First, a few items were hauled out for discussion; Member Westholm had some questions on snow removal contracts answered to his satisfaction, and Member Johnston relayed some concerns from parents about the cubbies being installed at Congdon, which Facilities Management Director Kerry Leider attempted to answer. As usual, Member Johnston pulled out a few items for his support, and as usual, he tried to make a motion to not approve change orders on the Long Range Facilities Plan, which was not seconded.

Next, the District looked to certify the maximum funding levy, which sets an upward bound on the amount of money the District is able to levy for taxes at the December meeting. This is standard procedure for school boards, and is the action recommended by the state Board of Education. Member Johnston, however, decided this would be a good time to inform the public that passage of the first levy question on the ballot would result in a six percent tax increase for Duluth taxpayers. He grumbled that he’d been told the District was going to “hold the line,” and that it was “inappropriate” to now raise taxes.

Supt. Gronseth, sounding as upset as he ever has, said the only “inappropriate” thing here was Member Johnston’s “unfortunate” comments. The tax hike, he explained, had nothing to do with the levy on the ballot, but came about due to the District’s inability to sell old school properties. Rather than further draw down the much-diminished general fund, the District was looking to raise property taxes somewhat, and could make up for it by under-levying once the properties have been sold. He said Member Johnston was “trying to confuse the issue.” The Superintendent’s alarm was understandable; the obvious conclusion to be inferred Member Johnston’s sudden stand on taxes was “if you don’t want your taxes to go up, don’t support the levy,” which, as both men know, would have grave consequences for school funding. This is what Member Johnston wants, now that he has reversed his past stance and come out against the levy.

(If he were to read this post, Member Johnston would likely claim that he simply ‘said what he said,’ and was trying to be transparent, and nothing more. Such a claim would, of course, be hopelessly naïve of how public perception works. Member Johnston might then claim that he has no use for politicking, as he has from time to time, yet he also often acts as the ultimate politician, manipulating words so as to divorce the “truths” he claims to uphold from a broader context. And, as later events proved, his interest in transparency is highly selective.)

Predictably, Member Johnston fired back, claiming he was the only person “talking reality,” and that the levy’s passage would mean a tax increase. Business Services Director Bill Hansen answered that it was still in flux, and Chair Kasper grew peeved at Member Johnston, as he repeatedly tried to throw questions at Mr. Hansen without waiting for the Chair to recognize speakers. Supt. Gronseth reiterated the fact that the first question on the ballot levies the exact same amount of money as the existing levy, and said Member Johnston was making things even more confusing as he pressed on and brought bonds into the issue.

At this point, the long-silent Member Wasson exploded. She said the District employed finance specialists who knew what they were talking about, and said she had some things to get off her chest now that her time on the Board is coming to the end. “To muddy these waters is absolutely crazy,” she said, and was “no good” if “we are at all serious about our jobs as School Board members. I’m appalled.” She said she was sure a certain, unnamed member would “find a way to have the final say, as he always does,” but she “guaranteed” that Mr. Hansen and Supt. Gronseth “have the right answers.”

In response, a simpering Member Johnston played the victim card, accusing the rest of the Board of “lacking in positive energy” and that they were acting as if “putting on a light [indicating his desire to comment] is something negative.” (Curiously, he did not ask Chair Kasper to reprimand Member Wasson, even though her attack was far more scathing than Member Seliga-Punyko’s at the August meeting.) He then asked whether the money making up the gap left by the unsold schools would come from the general fund or tax certifications; Mr. Hansen, reminding the Board that things were still in flux, said he anticipated it would come from the tax certification, as had been obvious from the beginning. This response did not satisfy Member Johnston, and he would repeat his initial question three times over the next few minutes, each time receiving a slightly different wording in response from a patient Mr. Hansen. The agendas at play were clear enough: Member Johnston wanted a soundbite in which a District employee plainly said taxes would go up; the District representatives were unwilling to oblige him.

Chair Kasper, the closest thing Member Johnston has to a sympathetic ear on the Board, then called him out for confusing everyone, including himself. He said that, in their many discussions over the years, the two of them had often agreed that a tax increase was a sensible way to avoid diminishing the general fund further. Tellingly, Member Johnston did not deny the charge, but instead whined that he’d thought those discussions had been confidential, a claim Chair Kasper quickly dismissed. It is a curious stance for Member Johnston, considering he purports to support transparency in the Red Plan debate, and a revealing one: he has reached the point where he is so zealous in his fervor to make his point that he wants to sweep his past ideas on what might actually improve the district’s financial situation under the rug. A man who once supported higher taxes as the least bad option has been born again as a man who refuses to see them budge—not out of some great philosophical change, but because he feels so wronged by his colleagues who either supported, or are simply aware of the reality of, a plan that already happened. He has no alternative proposal, and knows he will not sway the Board. I am genuinely curious to know he thinks he is achieving for the good of the Duluth schools.

Finally, Member Miernicki managed to get a word in edgewise, and pointed out that many people had turned on their lights to say positive things. He said that Member Johnston was “dealing with conjecture,” and that the “ping-pong match” between him and Mr. Hansen wasn’t going anywhere. He called the question, a parliamentary procedure designed to end the debate; his motion to do so passed, 5-1, ending the absurd charade.

The levy certification also passed, 5-1, and the Board also passed a utility easement at East High. Poor Mr. Haney, who’d endured the entire circus, then finally learned the fate of his trail easement; it passed, 6-0, though Member Wasson added that the District was waiting on the City Council to pass some zoning changes. An exhausted Board thus wrapped up its business. In the closing comments, Student Member Thibault proved himself the sanest person in the room, as he lectured the entire Board for its “name-calling” and “whispering,” its “childish” and “unprofessional” outbursts, which “damage the District’s reputation and hurt the community.”

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In case you didn’t notice, Harry Welty was kind enough to respectfully acknowledge my post about him, and a couple of subsequent posts on his blog referenced my points. This one seems particularly appropriate in the aftermath of this meeting. This post is already long, so I’m not going to try to continue the dialogue now, but I will do so later in the week.

A Long and Awkward Good-Bye for Councilor Krause: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/23/13

23 Sep

It was an odd night at City Hall. The crowd was modest in size, there were no citizen speakers, and there were no grave disputes between the Councilors beyond the usual, civil back-and-forth. Yet somehow, it also wound up being the ugliest meeting I’ve seen since I started attending them. It was also the end of an era, so to speak, as Councilor Krause’s resignation was set to take effect after the meeting; indeed, his departure was at the root of the evening’s troubles. The Council’s bloc of fiscal conservatives has now shrunk from three to two, but the frustrations had nothing to do with Councilor Krause’s principled stands, nor the ideology of his successor. In fact, thanks to a heap of Council confusion, he has no successor.

President Boyle began the night by convening a special meeting to appoint Councilor Krause’s replacement, in which Councilor Krause was not allowed to participate. (Councilor Krug was also absent, leaving the Council with seven voting members for the special meeting.) President Boyle announced that the Council had interviewed two candidates, Mr. Zachary Radzak and Mr. Gary Eckenberg, found them both impressive, and invited the Councilors to share their opinions on each.

Councilor Stauber went first, but instead of endorsing one of the two candidates, he shared his serious concerns about the selection process. He was upset there had been no public hearing, that the process was being conducted via resolution (and hence technically open to a veto by Mayor Ness), and thought it was pointless to appoint someone only until the November 5 election. Councilor Gardner defended the process, saying it had worked for past vacancies (including two for Councilor Krause’s 4th District seat in the past four years), and while she agreed there was room for improvement, she said it would have to do for this particular situation. She then endorsed Mr. Eckenberg for the position, as he is a past member of the Council and would be able to hit the ground running.

Next, Councilor Fosle demanded an answer as to when the appointed Councilor’s term would end. City Attorney Gunnar Johnson replied that the Council would sit the person elected in November at the next Council meeting; it was his interpretation that past Councils had violated the City Charter in not doing so. Satisfied, Councilors Hartman, Julsrud, and Larson all told Mr. Radzak he was an impressive candidate, but expressed their support for Mr. Eckenberg.

At that point, Mr. Eckenberg came forward, held a whispered conversation with Atty. Johnson, and then took the stand before the Council. He said he had been under the impression that the person appointed to fill Councilor Krause’s seat would stay on the Council until January, when the Councilor elected to the seat in November would normally take office. A one-month appointment, he said, made zero sense, and would not allow him to do anything of substance. The 4th District could survive for a month without representation. He thus withdrew his name from consideration.

This rather understandably threw off the entire meeting, and Councilor Boyle brought forward yet another confusing point: Councilor Krause’s name will appear on the ballot in November, and if he were to win, the seat would then be his. If that were to happen, the Council would need to go through the re-appointment process yet again. Councilor Fosle asked if the resolution could be amended to allow Mr. Eckenberg to serve until January, but Atty. Johnson said it could not, as that would be a violation of the Charter.

For his part, Councilor Stauber was rather pleased with this development. He agreed that a one-month appointment did no good, and that the Council could simply appoint someone to fill the seat if Councilor Krause were to win. This irked Councilor Gardner, who said there was nothing “simple” about the whole process. She accused Councilor Stauber of selective interpretation of the Charter, which insists that vacancies on the Council must be filled in a timely manner. She implored Mr. Eckenberg to reconsider his position, but Mr. Eckenberg politely declined, saying he had been misled about what he was applying for.

An exasperated Councilor Julsrud apologized to Mr. Eckenberg, and suggested the Council pull the measure and follow Councilor Stauber’s suggestion. Councilor Hartman disagreed, admitting a one-month appointment made “no sense,” but that, due to the Charter, “sometimes we have to do things that make no sense.” The Council, however, chose to make sense. It pulled the resolution, 4-3, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, Stauber, and Boyle in support. Councilor Krause’s seat will thus remain open until after the November election.

With this sloppy affair mercifully over, the Council kicked off its actual meeting, in which CAO Montgomery began by presenting Councilor Krause with a plaque thanking him for his service. Councilor Krause in turn thanked him, the Council, the City Hall staff, and the city employees who are on the front lines of resolving city problems. The consent agenda then passed, 8-0. A resolution creating a pedestrian underpass under Haines Road passed, 6-2, with Councilors Fosle and Krause complaining about unnecessary expenditures.

The major topic of debate for the meeting proper was a plan to finance a phase of construction of the cross-city trail. This particular section, extending from Canal Park to 30th Avenue West, would cost $1.3 million, though a chunk of that sum would be paid by federal and DNR grants. Once again, there was some exhausting bureaucratic wrangling, as the ordinance authorizing the bonds to pay for the project and the resolution awarding the contract were in an illogical order on the meeting agenda. Once Atty. Johnson resolved the confusion, debate ensued.

To no one’s great surprise, the Council’s three fiscal conservatives shared their doubts about the plan. Councilor Krause called Duluth a “large city with many cities in it,” whatever other people might try to say, and that the residents of his district appeared not to value the trail as much as the still-shuttered community centers. (This phase of the project is primarily in Councilor Krause’s district.) He and Councilor Stauber questioned the wisdom of incurring more bonding debt when the city had already taken on more debt over the previous year; CAO Montgomery countered by saying the city had reduced its debt since 2007. Councilor Fosle went so far as to challenge the Council’s power to use bonding to fund trails, but both CAO Montgomery and Atty. Johnson refuted his point.

Councilor Hartman pushed CAO Montgomery for more details on the other funding sources, and he replied by saying that roughly 70% of the project would be paid for in grants. The project, he argued, was a good way to leverage the city’s money, as it turned $450,000 worth of money into $1.8 million in trails, whereas using that same $450,000 on streets would only result in $450,000 worth of street improvements. He also noted the value of trails as a tourist attraction, and Councilor Hartman added that commuters using the trail reduced wear and tear on the streets.

Councilor Krause said all of this leveraging was well and good, but in the end it still added to city long-term operating costs, and he therefore could not support it. Councilor Stauber repeated his dissatisfaction, and Councilors Fosle and Gardner both complained about the inadequate map they’d been given of the plans. Mapping issue aside, both measures related to the cross-city trail passed, 5-3; predictably, Councilors Krause, Stauber, and Fosle were the dissenters.

The Council wrapped up its business with the unanimous approval of a zoning reclassification, and a brief but contentious meeting came to an end. In the closing comments, Councilor Hartman pleaded that Atty. Johnson inform the Councilors of changes in interpretation of the City Charter before the meeting if at all possible, as the evening’s developments had left them in a “very awkward position,” and “didn’t look good.” Once again, his closing comments accurately summed up the mood of the meeting, in which dysfunction over Councilor Krause’s seat overwhelmed any substantive achievements later on. It was also an unfortunate end to Councilor Krause’s tenure on the Council; while I have to respect him greatly for his reasoned critiques and attempts to compromise, this entire process was not pretty, and the timing of his departure was poor, to say the least. The eight-member Council will now have to press on without him, and must clearly find a way to streamline its process for appointing replacement Councilors. Duluth deserves something far cleaner than what it got in this meeting.

Jonathan Franzen, Fiction, and a Novel of My Own

23 Sep

Jonathan Franzen fascinates me more than any other contemporary author, though at first glance, it’s hard to figure out why. He’s not necessarily my favorite writer, nor the most talented one out there, and not even the most insightful. His dour lifestyle doesn’t really sound all that pleasant to me, and when I had the chance to attend a book reading of his at the National Cathedral, he came across as, well, weird.

I suppose that leaves us with his fame, which I’ll admit is a bit captivating to anyone with any pretension of writing fiction. This man is guilty of making me think novel-writing can still be relevant, and sure enough, there are countless glimmers of insight in The Corrections and Freedom that really speak to “the way we live now,” that vogue phrase used to describe great contemporary literary fiction. I think those sorts of work are valuable, and while I suppose my writing makes some effort to do that, I also find it limiting in some ways. What good is a novel about “the way we live now” in forty years, other than as a historical artifact? Granted, it’s not a crisp division; no story can really be removed from the time and place it’s set in, and we can learn far broader things from even the most myopic case studies. But with Franzen there’s a serious risk of drowning in the details of the present, and it’s hard to know how relevant some of his insights might be down the line. He is so relentless in his attempts to capture the moment with his ironic, self-conscious detachment that it can grow tiresome, even to people like me, who have a certain appreciation for that sort of thing.

Franzen’s power, however, emerges in his ability to bury himself in the misery modern life for ages and ages, and then come up with a brilliant ending that transcends all the previous grumbling. He’ll go on and on making you feel utterly depressed about the state of the world, and then he’ll drop something on you at the end that makes everything seem good again. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. I really liked the premise of The Corrections, and still have an autographed copy sitting on my bookshelf, but about midway through it I was distracted by something else, and it remains unfinished. If and when I ever get through it, I suspect I’ll love the ending, but I have to be willing to go through the beginning bits again, and Franzen spends so much time making his characters so profoundly flawed that one almost has to feel a personal connection to them to see them through. I found enough of that in Freedom that I sped through it, and felt rewarded afterwards. Even so, though I was moved by the ending when I read it, later reflection led to some doubt about the sincerity of the final transcendent moment. (This incisive, if overly harsh, Ruth Franklin review explains why better than I can.)

Sometimes, I think he’s actually more effective as an essayist. My favorite thing he’s written was “Farther Away,” a New Yorker essay on human solitude (which, like every other New Yorker piece I want to link to, is not online). His manifesto on literature in the digital age, “Perchance to Dream,” is also masterful, though I have my quibbles with parts of it. And now, in The Guardian, he offers an excerpt of an upcoming work of non-fiction that modestly sets out to explain “What’s Wrong with the Modern World.” It follows the classic Franzen formula to a tee. It diagnoses many Bad Things, uses examples of varying strength to make that point, and employs a caustic wit; it all makes Franzen seem rather misanthropic, and by the end he’s snuffed out most of your hope for the future of our species. (This is especially true if you like to write and are a mediocre self-promoter.) But then he turns around and points out how the apocalypse won’t be so bad after all, and gives you a chance to find some hope for humanity again.

Franzen’s escapes from his own despair make so many readers want to believe in him as a voice of redemption. We all want to think we can do that, too. He has so much potential. And yet, for me at least, he doesn’t quite get there. He is too consumed by his misery, his fleeting glimmers too brief, and too constrained by his times. Much of my inspiration for writing fiction comes not from Franzen himself, but from the critiques of him: I want to close the deal.

So, this seems like as good a time as any to make an announcement: I have a novel draft that I am, finally, more-or-less ready to share.

I’m an unpublished 23-year-old kid who’s just finished his first draft, and who hasn’t taken a formal English class since high school. I don’t pretend to be some sort of new-and-improved Jonathan Franzen. No, quite the contrary: my stumbling efforts owe a debt to him. Art, in my mind, is not a work of genius that emerges from a vacuum. It is wedded to literature that has come before it, forever in dialogue with the past. Hence my epigraph for the novel:

Man is…essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’ve named the thing The School of Athens, and there is a lot going on here. The basic premise—kids growing up in a small northern Minnesota town—has some things in common with my life, though I’m also pleased to say that is far less autobiographical that some of my previous attempts at fiction. None of the characters are really based on anyone from my childhood, and my fictional town of Arcadia certainly has its differences from the east side of Duluth. As the epigraph suggests, it asks what it is we’re supposed to do with our lives, and explores the tension between individual ambitions and commitments to a community. It is a coming of age story, and there is a healthy dose of teenage angst. There are clashing cultures, love stories, and of course there is some hockey. As the title suggests, there is some Greek philosophy allegory, though I hope that readers can enjoy the novel without knowing much about Plato or Aristotle.

As in many “contemporary literary fiction” novels, it confronts some problems of the modern world: the emptying of the American countryside, broken families, moral uncertainty, and an atomized society. There is plenty of skepticism about sentimental or easy solutions, and some healthy mockery of the notion that some characters have anything in common with the Greek heroes who are their namesakes or inspiration. On the other hand, though, it tries to avoid some of the pathologies that afflict Franzen and other modern novelists. While it seems to be happening sometime in the present, I never name a year. There is little to no name-dropping of brands or current events; instead, it focuses on conversation and direct contact, and the timeless traits of human interaction that haven’t changed all that much since Alexander the Great conquered the known world. All the characters are flawed, but they all have some redeeming traits as well, and contra Franzen, you won’t have to wait until the end to see glimpses of that—not that the ending will necessarily hit that note, though. You’ll have to read the thing to find out.

Still, I’m not going to measure this novel’s value by its place within some grandiose literary debate over postmodernism or literary theory or what “great” novels should talk about. (In fact, my ambivalence over that sort of theorizing is a secondary reason why I chose not to attend an MFA program that accepted me.) I’d love for this thing to succeed, but I have no illusions over making a living off of writing novels in this day in age. I just hope I’ve told an interesting story that people can relate to.

So, drop me a line if you want to read it: I need all the criticism I can get. That’s the only way it’ll get better, because I know it’s far from complete. Thanks for reading.

The Harry Welty Paradox

18 Sep

I’ve been reading  the blog of erstwhile School Board candidate Harry Welty some recently. This is probably dangerous for my health, but I’m adventurous that way. And, to his credit, he has some interesting stuff to say. His most recent posts (as of this writing), on the aftermath of wars and his meetings with Superintendent Bill Gronseth, are superb. Reading Harry requires some stamina and thought, and not all of his posts are created equal. But if you dig deep, there are some real insights in them.

Harry hovered around ISD 709 affairs throughout my childhood. My first memories of him involve regional spelling bees in middle school, in which he was the reader, and had a certain talent for mispronouncing things. In fact, there is a Duluth News-Tribune photo from sixth grade in my childhood bedroom, with me standing at the microphone with my arms crossed as “the judges discuss a point of pronunciation,” according to the caption. So Harry and I go way back, sort of. Also, that bedroom could use some re-decorating.

Later, after I got sucked into the Duluth East hockey culture, I read his thorough account of East coach Mike Randolph’s temporary dismissal from his post in 2003. It was an impressive attempt at objectivity, even if that objectivity was only born of prior ignorance of anything hockey-related, and while I do not agree with him on everything, I appreciate his efforts to get to the bottom of a nasty mess of accusations and counter-accusations. Later, once the Red Plan debate had begun in earnest, I recall an intense (though respectful) back-and-forth between him and a high school teacher I admired after a School Board meeting. I might not have been on the same page as Harry very often, but he was clearly a thoughtful man who meant well.

Harry has also done a lot of writing, is not afraid to put his opinion out there, and leaves it up no matter what. He sticks to his guns, and that takes some guts. It also may be the sign of a large ego, and there is a noticeable dose of self-righteousness in many of his posts. But there are also moments of subtlety and even contrition, and as his yard signs say, he is honest; sometimes brutally so. I don’t really like the phrase “I call it like I see it,” which is too often employed by people puffing out their chests to make their uninformed opinions seem worthwhile, but Harry is complex enough to be able to make that sort of boast. Egos can actually be good things, so long as their owners are self-aware and can deliver on their promises.

Of course, the dark side of that willingness to put out an opinion is a long paper trail, especially for someone who’s been in or around local politics for as long as Harry has. He’s written so much stuff that his careful reasoning can seem contradictory at times, and he can harp on certain things that would probably best be left to lie. Moreover, there’s the issue of the company he’s kept. I understand it may not be fair to lump all the Red Plan critics into one boat—just as it would be wrong to assume anyone who favored it is in bed with former Superintendent Keith Dixon—but in his zeal to fight back against Dixon, he joined forces with some “interesting” people. One he explicitly endorsed was Loren Martell, and whatever merits Mr. Martell might have, his ability to cultivate an attractive public image is not one of them. Harry is committed enough to his worldview that he’s not afraid to court controversy in the lengths he’ll go to promote it.

All of this brings me to his pitch on his School Board campaign website. It is vintage Harry: full of exhausting personal backstory and hyperbole via extended metaphor, but all in the pursuit of truth. We could bicker over his rhetoric or some of the finer points, but the narrative he so vividly tells is a strong one. Even if it turns you off, you can see his sincerity. And that’s why his voice is a genuine, necessary plea: skeptical Duluthians probably don’t believe current Board members or Red Plan backers when they say the failure of the levies would have dire consequences. They don’t trust them. Harry, on the other hand, is one of theirs. He’s casting himself as the savior of the District, and if he really can bring enough skeptics on board to support the first levy, he just might be.

Harry’s potential downfall, I think, could come in being cast as the town eccentric. Red Plan supporters could easily dismiss him for his past stances; they see all the yelling in that essay, not the more nuanced stuff on his blog, and conclude he’s all hot air.  Red Plan opponents will vote for him because he’s the candidate most sympathetic to their wishes, but their collective disgust at the School Board could lead them to ignore his pleas over the levy. Most voters, however, probably aren’t hardened into either camp. So is Harry a voice of reason who can convince them of the levy’s necessity for the future of the community, or is he just that weird guy who has loud opinions on the schools?

The answer to that question could just swing the election. I’m also not sure which two at-large candidates I’ll support in the general election. I voted for Annie Harala in the primary, and I really like her emphasis on community schools and think she’ll win a seat no matter who I vote for. Henry Banks’s campaign hasn’t really taken off yet, but I think he has potential, and the Board could really use some diversity. But in addition to racial diversity, it could also use diversity of opinion; Harry offers that, and in a much less nutty manner than Art Johnston. (I don’t expect Art to be re-elected, anyway.) Unfortunately, I can only choose two of those three.

I’m tempted. Convince me you can help close the deal on the levy, Harry, and you’ll have my vote.

Deep in the Heart of Mexico

16 Sep

Today is the 203rd anniversary of Mexican independence. Not a particularly significant milestone, but not far removed from the Bicentennial of the nation so aptly described by its former dictator, Porfirio Díaz: “so close to the United States, so far from God.” Over one long weekend in 2010, one American kid got to see the whole paradox of a nation summed up in one little road trip. This is the story of my Mexican Bicentennial.

The semester I spent in Mexico City wound up being four of the more important months in my young life, and I could easily turn this blog strictly into a string of reminiscences and have plenty of content to keep it going. I was enrolled in the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Catholic university on the west side of the city, safely perched in a glitzy new neighborhood up in the mountains, far above the bedlam below. I didn’t live on campus, though; instead, I was down along the dried-up lake floor in the heart of the Valley of Mexico, living with a superb host family and a kindly but rather mute roommate. Every day, I pushed myself in through the back doors of a green-and-orange bus and gave my four pesos to the person wedged in next to me; the fifty standing passengers between me and the driver would pass my fare forward, and five minutes later, someone would hand me an utterly useless ticket proving that my fare had made it to the driver. It was a fascinating, and rather heartening, insight into the human condition: it would have been absurdly easy to not pay a single bus fare while crammed onto those buses, yet every single person aboard would pass their fare forward and clutch their stupid little ticket when it finally made it back to them.

Even so, Mexico City is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a certain type of foreigner to be crazy enough to stay for four months amid that teeming mass of humanity. There were only six Americans in my program, and plenty of people back home expressed their worries about my chosen location, though telling them that Washington DC’s murder rate (at the time) was nearly quadruple that of Mexico City did get their attention. Indeed, reality suggested Americans have been conditioned to panic over Mexico by grisly news reports from across the border: Europeans still came to the Iberoamericana in droves, and I can’t remember a single story of even minor theft among the friends I met. The terror of drug-related violence is largely confined to a handful of border and Pacific coast states.

Still, Mexico City isn’t somewhere you go because it’s a default fun study abroad location; it’s somewhere you go because something pulls you there. And so I was thrown in with a group of people who, despite some very disparate backgrounds and personalities, shared a desire to be right in the middle of everything, and the wherewithal to be able to reflect on the meaning of the leap we’d taken. It was no surprise, then, that four of us (one fellow Georgetown Hoya, another American, an Australian, and myself) decided we were going to do the Mexican Bicentennial the only way it could be done.

We knew where we had to be for the Bicentenario, and planned a road trip accordingly. Our destination: Dolores Hidalgo, a city that has officially taken on the rather pretentious name of Dolores Hidalgo cuna de la independencia nacional (Dolores Hidalgo: the Cradle of National Independence; the “Hidalgo” is also an add-on to the city’s original name of Dolores.) It was in this city that, at dawn on September 16th of 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bell at the church to rally the first revolt against the Spanish Empire. The revolt fell flat, but inspired the independence movement, and has the distinction of being one of the few moments of popular rebellion in the Latin American independence movement. (Most other countries gained it amidst political intrigue and/or invasions following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.)

We set out from the university on Wednesday the 15th, and sailed our way up a Mexican interstate north out of Mexico City. As is my wont, I had an atlas open, noting every little town and crossroads we passed in the scrubby, mountainous country high in the central Mexican plateau. Before long we were shooting down a two-lane road toward Dolores Hidalgo, and a suddenly we passed a torch runner flanked by a bunch of slow-moving cars. An Independence Day torch relay, we assumed. How lucky that we’d chosen that route!

The novelty wore off the fourth time we passed one of these torch relays, which we now realized were not remotely official. Trailing behind each group of runners was a pickup truck with a whole bunch of people in the back, happily downing beers and getting an early start on the festivities. Oh, Mexico: what a delightful mix of tackiness and transcendence you are. We snapped up some pictures of the runners, and in time, a giant Mexican flag alongside the road greeted us to Dolores Hidalgo.

This being Mexico, our arrival was anything but smooth. First, we learned that the Mexican Army, on hand to provide a massive security presence lest any drug cartel grow ambitious, had shut down the entire center of the town. We eventually found our hostel, but there was nowhere to park, and, of course, the hostel had found some way to lose our reservations. They were apologetic, but there was only one open bed. We snapped up that one bed, and some hostel employee’s family member offered us parking at some spot on the outskirts of town. Two of our party went to park the car, and the other two of us, wondering vaguely if we’d ever see our friends again, set out in search of lunch. We found a lovely colonial-style hotel with a buffet right off the main Zócalo (plaza), which, to our chagrin, would later prove the culprit for a case of diarrhea.

Once the car was successfully stowed in some mysterious garage, the four of us spent the day wandering the city center, maneuvering our way through bored soldiers on buses and the obligatory army of vendors hawking every piece of Mexico swag imaginable. I snapped up a Mexican flag (later forgotten in a port-o-potty during the diarrhea outburst) and a silly Christmas ornament, both of which complemented my overpriced Mexican soccer jersey superbly. We struck up a conversation with a Mexican-American about our age, a kid who’d grown up in the States but was back in Mexico due to immigration limbo, and watched the less-than-stellar Guanajuato Orchestra. After that, we drifted back to the hostel, where the Mexicans were throwing a party as only Mexicans can. Given our lack of beds, our plan for the night was a simple one: don’t bother with sleep, and crash when beds open up in the morning. Traditionally, Mexicans celebrate Independence Day the night of the fifteenth, as Porfirio Diaz didn’t want to bother with getting up to lead the ceremonies at 7:00 AM, when Father Hidalgo had called his countrymen to arms. On this occasion, however, they decided to go back to the old way in Dolores. We’d have to be back in the Zócalo by 4:00 AM anyway if we wanted to watch the main event, so why bother?

Needless to say, much of the rest of the night was a blur. My vague memories involve dancing about the hostel rooftop-turned-bar, some German girl offering me scotch, a rap battle between our Australian and our new Mexican friend, catching some of the festivities from Mexico City on television, and a fireworks display over Dolores Hidalgo. One of our number got the diarrhea and retreated to our sole bed, but the rest of us made it through the night. We kept to our 4:00 departure time, staked out an excellent spot in the Zócalo, and awaited President Felipe Calderón’s arrival.

My diarrhea hit around six.

I made a few desperate trips to the 5-pesos-per-use port-o-potties, but couldn’t make it. I passed off my camera and retreated to the overbooked hostel, where I made the intimate acquaintance of a seatless rooftop toilet and then tried to rest on a couple of couch cushions lain across the concrete patio. I joined a herd dazed and/or passed-out guests lying on benches or under tables to escape the cool mountain air, desperately trying to block out the norteño music still blasting from the speakers at the bar.

One miserable hour later, five helicopters went screaming directly overhead, maybe twenty feet above the roof. They landed a block away, and in time I could hear President Calderón in the distance, giving the famed Grito de Dolores: “Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos! Viva Allende! Viva la independncia nacional! Viva México!” The bells on the cathedral peeled, and the crowd roared. In spite of my sickness and my sleepless delirium, I grinned in awe.

After a fitful morning of sleep we set out for San Miguel de Allende, a colonial beauty of a city popular among American expatriates. Once again, parking was a chore, but we found a quiet churchyard down a hill from the city center and spent an evening wandering the streets and admiring the architecture and the abnormally high concentration of attractive women. Dinner proved something of an ordeal, as we sat for nearly two hours awaiting our pizza as the tables around us were served; our waiter, who simply could not understand our frustration, patiently explained that we could not get a refund because our pizza came with salsa.

I took over the driving duties that night down the desolate road back to Dolores Hidalgo. The next morning it was barely recognizable, back to being a sleepy central Mexican town, all the revelers and vendors and soldiers long-gone. After a delicious meal, we were on the road for Guanajuato, winding through the mountains en route to the old silver mining city.

After dumping one of our number at the airport, we proceeded to spend the next four hours driving in a loop around downtown Guanajuato in search of parking. We soon learned every last detail of the city’s meandering underground tunnels, tight one-way colonial streets, and bustling cafés. Eventually we found a near-empty parking ramp that had been hiding just off the main drag, and, having seen the entire city center during our parking odyssey, were content to spend a leisurely evening dining and drinking wine at a restaurant on an open-air, second-story bridge over a street. After two straight days of madness, we could watch the revelry down below from a contemplative distance, laughing with delight as some of the same characters from that first night in Dolores went by. So many things had gone wrong for us in the past few days, I mused, and yet we were still having the time of our lives. Mexico in a nutshell.

Before heading home the next morning, we hit up the Guanajuato Mummy Museum (a bit overrated, but sufficiently gruesome, and worthwhile if only for the ridiculous souvenirs available at the end) and a preserved silver mine with several areas that had not been closed off to the public nearly well enough to keep out intrepid Australians. Then we got back on the Mexican freeway and drove back to Mexico City, through the remnants of Hurricane Karl and past a bevy of roadside stands, all of which specialized in strawberries and cream. (Economic diversification hasn’t quite caught on among Mexican vendors quite yet.) After that, it was back to the university, where our dear leftist professors would sigh and wonder what the point of all of that merriment was, there in a nation with rampant poverty and corruption and brutal violence brought about by the drug cartels. The promise of Father Hidalgo’s revolt, they said, had never come to fruition, and some of them thought it never would. We were celebrating a checkered past with mindless debauchery in the present, doomed to the same cycles of mistakes.

So much of my time in Mexico was devoted to that study abroad cliché of “broadening horizons,” and I really needed that push into the unknown. But, perhaps more importantly, it also cycled back, and made me look inwards, to ponder what is worth our time and love in such a vast and complex world. At the beginning of my trip, my writings were grandiose and political; a few days before I set out on the Bicentennial trip, I wrote a little reflection on my first 9/11 outside of the United States. In it, I reaffirmed my American identity, not out of any respect for traditions of the past or the delights of the present, but out of a commitment to its dream for the future. The American Dream. It was an understandable stance for a kid who’d spent his entire life trying to live it. By the time I got to the beach town Puerto Escondido in November of that year, my writing had drifted into meditations on love and place in the face of the absurdities of modernity.

It took me a while to understand what was going on—perhaps a year, I’d say—but in time, I learned Mexico’s greatest lesson for an ambitious college kid, both for himself and how he thought of his own country. My Mexican professors were missing something in their worldview, as was I, when I thought only of what the future might bring. Instead, we have to embrace that past, in all its messiness, and do what we can to make sense of it. That wave at the top of this blog is not on Lake Superior; it is rolling up out of the Pacific Ocean near Puerto Escondido. They are those waves that, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, bear us ceaselessly back to the past.

Mexico will always take me back to the past, whether that means those four months of madness or a deeper reflection on how Aztecs and Mayans and Spaniards came together to form a troubled yet vibrant nation. But it will also push me outward, and it’s important to remember that, as I settle into this city that represents my own past, and bury myself in the vagaries of local politics. It requires constant balance; a cycle, you might say, as I try to make sense of my dreams, my memories, and the immediacy of the here and now. Thanks to Mexico, that won’t ever be too difficult.