Archive | February, 2014

The Dynasty Lives

28 Feb

It was supposed to end last night. Five in a row was quite enough. The Elk River Elks had beaten the Duluth East Greyhounds during the regular season, and whatever the seeds said, everyone knew they’d had a slightly stronger season. The Elks were feted on Hockey Day in Minnesota this year, touted as a team returning to glory. When a star player left midseason, they pulled together. They weren’t remotely intimidated by the hostile environment in Amsoil Arena, keeping the mood light during pregame introductions and controlling the opening minutes of play. Star goalie MacLean Berglove was on top of his game; it took two rebounds for East to finally get a puck past him late in the second period, and the Elks had an immediate response just ten seconds later. It was a tight game at 2-1, but the Elks were in control. The clock ticked down on the Duluth East dynasty, and up in the stands, I was already writing a requiem in my head.

Not so fast.

East plugged away methodically for much of the third period, but despite a widening edge in shots, Berglove held firm. Then, with four minutes to go, a break: a penalty, the first one of the game. The refs had let the teams play, but Dylan Bouten’s takedown of East’s Alex Trapp was a bit too obvious to ignore. East’s lethal power play went to work, but the top unit, which included a wounded Jack Kolar, didn’t generate much. Out came the second unit, a line of three sophomores, including Alex Spencer, a converted defenseman whose primary purpose is to screen the opposing goaltender. Trapp very nearly found Spencer on a long breakaway pass, but the referees called it back. No matter, Hounds: back to work. With 2:08 on the clock, Spencer swatted a back-hander past Berglove to tie the game.

The clock ran out on regulation. Overtime. The Hounds smelled blood. Two minutes in, leading scorer Nick Altmann spotted daylight between Berglove’s pads, and fired his shot. I couldn’t see it from my angle, but I didn’t need to. It was bedlam at Amsoil. Sticks and gloves exploded in every direction, the student section toppled into a black-clad mass up along the glass, while Mike Randolph barreled out on to the ice to hug his student manager. The party went on through the awards ceremony and on into a frigid Duluth night, car horns echoing through the parking ramp and giddy kids hanging out of windows, jawing back and forth. The Hounds will head back to St. Paul for a sixth straight year, and the fifteenth time in the past twenty-one.

The odds had rarely been longer. Yet somehow, this Hounds team that needed overtime to beat an awful Cambridge team in November found a way. Their coach, Altmann said, told them to “deny losing.” The finish was a carbon copy of their stunner over Grand Rapids in 2011, and not terribly far off from an even more excruciating upset of Cloquet in 2005. Randolph’s record in section finals speaks for itself: 15-1, those fifteen wins now tied for second-most in state history, behind only Edina legend Willard Ikola.

They did it with a team with only four seniors, and with only one returning player who had scored more than 15 points last season. Their offensive numbers were hardly dynamic, and the defense, while strong, had its occasional lapses. Goaltending was also a large question mark heading in, yet East got it done all the same.

To be sure, these Hounds were hardly the little sisters of the poor. They were in the top 15 all season long, and defenseman Phil Beaulieu is one of the state’s finest talents. His partner, Trapp, is also an elite high school defenseman, and the Hounds have their customary organizational depth, with no shortage of quality forwards. Yet once again, they are playing in March, while a host of quality teams will watch from the stands.

This East group found its share of improbable heroes, including Spencer and the scorer of the first goal, Bryton Lutzka. While talented, Lutzka prompted his share of head-shaking on my part over the course of the season; on Thursday night, he played his best game of the year. Before the third period, I joked with a friend on whether Beaulieu might just go out there and play the whole period. There was no need for that this season. Randolph had full confidence in his complete bench, and his bench bought what he’d been selling all season long. There are valid critiques that can be leveled at the storied coach, but a man doesn’t stay on the same job for twenty-five years without changing, and the current version of Mike Randolph seems to have struck the proper balance. His intensity is inspiring instead of overbearing, and his wry humor is peeking out more often; more than anything, he is having fun. And when a man can couple a life of hockey knowledge with a confident, fiery swagger, it’s no wonder when the results follow.

The Hounds will learn their opponent for Thursday’s quarterfinal on Saturday morning. For once, East will not be among the favorites; instead, they will head south with nothing to lose. It’s an unfamiliar position, but one in which East could thrive, so long as they stick to their game. While they have a couple of lopsided losses to top teams, they’ve also had a couple of very close games with them, and no one team stands head and shoulders above the rest in this field.

Elsewhere in the state, the playoffs have produced their share of thrillers. Eden Prairie beat Benilde-St. Margaret’s in double overtime to win the always difficult 6AA, while Roseau—whose population is smaller than the enrollment of Eden Prairie High—outlasted Moorhead in a back-and-forth barnburner. There was a fair amount of schadenfreude when St. Thomas Academy, the private school power that had overstayed its welcome in Class A, blew a 2-0 lead and fell to Eagan 4-2 in the 3AA title game. While not entirely unexpected, as the Cadets are a fairly young team, the loss meant at least one of my preseason predictions was right: AA playoffs really are an entirely different story. St. Thomas simply didn’t play deep and physical teams like Eagan in Class A, and beating that sort of team is going to require some adjustments from their default transition game and efforts to set up perfect shot. A few sections were less surprising, as emerging power Lakeville North rolled through 1AA, and an upset loss by Burnsville left Edina with smooth sailing to an eighth straight Tourney.

In Class A, the field may not necessarily be as strong as usual, but it is a unique one with a number of new faces. With St. Thomas in AA and Breck losing a stunner to Orono, only Hermantown remains among the class’s traditional powers. Top-ranked East Grand Forks barely scraped past an excellent Warroad team in double overtime, and another top-five team, Duluth Marshall, was stuck in the same section as Hermantown. That leaves the Hawks and East Grand Forks as odds-on favorites to meet in the final, but there is intrigue elsewhere. Undefeated Luverne rolled through 3A, and while they haven’t played anyone difficult all season long, they do have some talent, and have at least some chance of making some noise. Orono has already proven it can take down giants, and New Prague looks to be a dangerous, physical team as well. The Class A teams will kick off the action at 11:00 A.M. on Wednesday, and after that, it’s four straight days of endless hockey. I’ll have an update on where to find my coverage of the Tourney in the coming days.

We Now Speak Ojibwe: Duluth School Board Notes, 2/26/14

26 Feb

The ISD 709 School Board convened on a frigid Duluth night for its February meeting Tuesday night, and got right down to business. Chair Miernicki called upon himself as the first citizen speaker, and left his seat to address the Board as a citizen. He did so to acknowledge the passing of local businessman and political activist Charlie Bell, and in particular thanked Mr. Bell for his efforts to push through the renovations to Public Schools Stadium, in addition to his work on other pro-education campaigns. After returning to the dais and thanking himself for his comments, he called up the next speaker, a bus driver who came forward to decry the District’s management of disciplinary issues on school buses. She called the disciplinary procedures “inconsistent,” noted a time lapse in school action, and noted at least one serious case that had gone unpunished. She requested supervisory helpers on troubled routes and an updated, clearly established policy in the district handbook. Next, four speakers pushed the implementation of an Ojibwe language immersion kindergarten class starting next school year; two addressed the Board in Anishinaabe, and two talked up an immersion program at UMD that had been a positive experience for their relations.

During the Superintendent’s update, Supt. Gronseth celebrated the District’s climbing graduation rates and falling achievement gap. He announced that the District was accelerating a 4-year plan to better align curriculum with state and national standards, and hoped to have a plan in place by the summer. The Board also thanked a representative from Kwik Trip for a donation to the District.

Member Harala then delivered the Education Committee report, explaining each of the items in detail. The Board decided to table the addition of several weather-related make-up days to the school year, as there are still negotiations going on there, and there is also a very real chance that more school days will be canceled in the coming weeks. Four other items on the Education Committee report inspired some debate, though all were approved unanimously.

While he supported the measure, Member Johnston had some qualified critiques of the plan to establish an online schooling program through the alternative Unity/ALC High School. He reminded everyone that computers are not replacements for teachers, and worried that, if not implemented properly, the program would leave “a whole bunch of students somewhere out in the ozone.” He added his worries about over-emphasis on “digital stuff” and talked about getting “kids outside boxes and playing in snow.” Chair Miernicki agreed with Member Johnston (prompting some humorous shock on his part), saying he’d seen how Unity teachers can turn lives around, and Member Harala also agreed with these general sentiments.

Member Westholm took a few moments to talk up the Scott Anderson Leadership Forum, for which the Board had filed a grant application. Member Welty had some good things to say about a plan to re-do the Administration’s organizational structure, and brandished several intricate charts while ribbing Supt. Gronseth about his position on said charts. Members Seliga-Punyko and Harala had some minor questions that Supt. Gronseth handled, and after that, it was on to the Ojibwe language program. Member Seliga-Punyko wanted to know what would happen if not enough students signed up, or if funding sources dried up. Supt. Gronseth replied by saying that kindergarten classes could handle relatively small class sizes, and said there were numerous streams of revenue available. (Right now, the District will pay only for the teacher.) Member Seliga-Punyko also wanted to know when the District will choose a school for the program, and suggested it would be best to use one of the less full schools, such as Myers-Wilkins or Laura MacArthur; when called forward, Supervisor of Indian Education Edye Howes said that decision process would begin immediately after approval. She also told the question-filled Member Seliga-Punyko of her experience visiting a K-5 immersion school that saw over 90% of its students pass standardized tests. Member Loeffler-Kemp thanked Ms. Howes for the research and focus on the budget that had gone into the planning process, and its unanimous passage brought a spurt of applause out of the crowd.

The HR Committee Report sailed through without any holdups, and the Business Committee report was also handled with relative ease, despite its length. Member Welty had a few questions for Business Services Director Bill Hansen on the financial report, but their technical nature had Chair Miernicki suggesting the two of them meet one-on-one. Member Johnston said he’d like to hear these questions, and suggested they save some time by having the discussion at a committee meeting; without really coming to a conclusion on that front, the Board moved on. Member Johnston had a question on why district enrollment figures varied by 700 between the weighted number used by the state (WADM) and a number in a District report on special education; in a tedious exchange, Mr. Hansen attempted to explain that this was due to weighting, as WADM uses lots of fractions to account for part-time or lower-grade students, thus making the number of raw, enrolled students seem smaller than it really is. Despite his continued confusion, Member Johnston voted in favor of the Business Committee report for a second straight meeting, and it passed unanimously.

The closing comments involved further confusion from Member Johnston; he wondered why he hadn’t heard anything about graduation rates and learned about them from the newspaper, but was eventually informed by Member Harala that an email had indeed gone out the previous week. Student Member Manning informed the District that he’ll be bringing together a forum of students to allow them to dialogue with the Board, and Member Johnston invited him to use any connections he has with the school papers (which Member Johnston reads) to comment on District affairs. Member Johnston also asked that the busing issues mentioned by the citizen speaker be put on the agenda, and also repeated his request to do something about the plight of the paraprofessionals.

That brought an end to a long but fairly agreeable night with the Board. The meeting was bogged down by some procedural issues and a few questions probably better suited for different venues, but I’d rather see the Board err on the side of meticulous tedium than glib rushes to approval. Everyone more or less agreed on everything, but there were still some good questions, and the Board did a good job of keeping the concerns of a variety of groups on its radar. The proponents of the Ojibwe language program reaped the results of that tonight, and while it’s just one small issue in front of a Board with countless things on its plate, it means the world to one particular constituency. As long as it keeps the big picture in mind and asks the right questions, these sorts of programs can be real winners for the District.

Loose Ends and Old Debates: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/24/14

24 Feb

After two weeks of drama following its last regular meeting, the Duluth City Council had a tame night on Monday. The agenda was short, the crowd was light, and Councilor Sipress was happily settled into his new seat on the far end of the dais. The meeting opened with some mundane announcements, as President Krug plugged the State of the City address this coming Monday (6 PM, Spirit Mountain Chalet), and there were mentions of snow removal and the need to fill vacancies on the Human Rights Committee.

After the speakers (all repeat appearances) and the passage of the consent agenda, the Council moved on to a resolution of intent to amend the city charter in order to address Council vacancies. The resolution had no specifics, and simply established the four Councilors (Gardner, Hanson, Julsrud, Larson) who will take the lead on the effort to work with the charter commission. Councilor Russ had some issues with the vague language, but Councilor Gardner reassured her that there will be plenty of time to explore all options; she also suggested that, if feasible, any elections in off years should be held concurrent to state and national elections in November. Councilor Gardner reminded her colleagues that they needed nine votes to amend the charter, and invited everyone to bring forward ideas, while Councilor Filipovich urged caution and patience. Councilor Larson asked for a Committee of the Whole meeting on the process before the proposal is finalized, and Councilor Sipress reiterated the emphasis on the non-binding nature of the proposal. It passed 9-0, which Councilor Gardner called a “good start.”

Next up was a resolution for the purchase of a hydro-excavator, which is a machine that uses hot water to clear dirt around natural gas pipes without risking damage to the pipes. Councilor Fosle had pulled it because he figured the new Councilors hadn’t heard his spiel on vehicle purchases yet; as he has several times during his time on the Council, he cited his 30 years as a mechanic in declaring the repair costs of machines far too high, though he also added some cautious optimism about a new plan by the administration to review these costs. Councilors Julsrud and Filipovich talked up the job done by the city’s Public Works Department, while Councilor Gardner explained that all the depth of the frost this winter is part of the reason behind the number of breaks this year. President Krug asked CAO Montgomery for an update on Councilor Fosle’s request for a more thorough inventory, and was told that a fleet consulting firm will do an assessment on the city. An exchange between Councilor Russ and CAO Montgomery had CAO Montgomery explaining the criteria the city uses when deciding whether to repair a vehicle or purchase a new one. The resolution ultimately passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle providing the dissent.

The Council moved on to a resolution applying for a grant for the cross-city bike trail; as Councilor Larson explained, they had not received a grant they’d applied for last fall, which would have funded the trail through the lower parts of Enger Park. Councilor Fosle, maintaining his stance against trail funding, was the lone ‘no’ vote there. Two ordinances selling city property passed unanimously, as did a pair of permits for the new Duluth Transit Authority center on Michigan Street, though Councilor Hanson abstained from those two votes due to his business relationship with the DTA. The permits created a ramp and a skywalk, Councilor Gardner explained, and were unanimously approved by the Planning Commission.

Councilor Russ celebrated Duluth’s snow removal when compared to Minneapolis in the closing remarks, but most of that period was devoted to discussion of the Lakewalk extension plan that was on the table two meetings ago. CAO Montgomery explained that engineers were working on plans for both the paved Lakewalk along Water Street and a path along the lakefront, behind the Ledges and Beacon Pointe developments, as requested by the Council. Councilor Gardner shared her suspicions that the plan they produced would be cost-prohibitive, but figured the city would hammer out a more sensible plan in time. Councilor Hanson then had a lengthy back-and-forth with CAO Montgomery as he sorted out the details; he asked if there was a funding source, and was told that there was one in place, but the funds had been diverted during a budget crunch in 2007 and 2008, and restoring that funding would mean taking money from something else. There were also questions about some fencing in that area that may be on city property, though CAO Montgomery couldn’t provide a definitive answer on that front, and promised further updates in time.

It wasn’t a terribly exciting night, but the Council did take a much-needed first step toward cleaning up the process for filling Council vacancies, and tonight’s resolution laid the groundwork for a lot of debate in coming weeks. It was also good to see the Lakewalk issue revisited in a substantive way. After a brief departure, Duluth is back to Don Ness’s favorite type of government—boring government—and while I don’t always endorse that, it was a blessed relief this time around.

The Exceptionalism of Herb Brooks

21 Feb

I’ve just started into a three-week stretch of wall-to-wall hockey. The U.S.-Canada hockey duels over the past two days kicked it off; the U.S. women just lost a heartbreaker to the Canadians in the gold medal match in Sochi, while the men were decidedly less impressive in a 1-0 loss that was much more lopsided than the score makes it look. But, time to move on: it’s nonstop high school sections now, with 7AA’s excellent semifinal Saturday in Duluth, the section finals next week, and the State Tournament the week after.  Fittingly enough, the book that turned up on my reading list this past week was about a man who knew both Olympic and high school hockey glory: Herb Brooks.

Herb Brooks: The Inside Story of a Hockey Mastermind is a collection of memories by John Gilbert, a Duluthian who covered Brooks’ teams as a journalist for over thirty years and built a tight bond with the coach. They met during Brooks’ seven-year stint at the University of Minnesota, during which he won the school’s first three NCAA titles, and Brooks went so far as to ask Gilbert to be his PR man for the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Gilbert declined, but wound up being the only writer with direct access to Brooks during the Miracle on Ice run after Brooks walked out of an early press conference in disgust. They remained close friends as Brooks crisscrossed the world for various coaching jobs over the next twenty years, with Brooks frequently spilling out his thoughts to Gilbert. It may not be the most crisply written book about Brooks, but it is certainly the most intimate.

Brooks was a larger-than-life figure, one whose legend came to overshadow reality. He’s best remembered for his mind games, inspirational speeches, and the brutal conditioning drills immortalized in the film Miracle. No doubt he was a master motivator, and his individualized approach had a way of bringing out the best in everyone; the most poignant moment in the book comes in Gilbert’s account of an incident during the 197-76 Gopher season, when Minnesota was swept by Michigan in Ann Arbor. The team usually had some freedom on Saturday nights after series, but this time, Brooks ordered the entire team to meet in the captains’ room at midnight. Brooks waited in the hallway, hands on hips, ordering players into the room…where they discovered a few beers and a lot of pizza. Once the team was all inside, Brooks left, leaving Gilbert to explain his methods to team captain Moose Younghans. “I suppose he’s really a hell of a guy, if you could ever get close enough to know him,” said Younghans, and that wistful comment stuck with Gilbert. Brooks created his authority from a sense of distance, and while no one can deny his success or doubt that he did genuinely care about his players, there was a sort of sad loneliness to his actions.

But while Brooks could tug at his players’ emotions and sense of destiny, he was so much more than a fiery, demanding coach. He was one of those few coaches who combine that charisma with a brilliant tactical mind, and that combination put him in a league of his own, and he made sure those tactics were very much his own. Sure, he borrowed some from the open, “progressive” brand of hockey played in Europe and always tried to bring some of its elements to his teams, but it was always a hybrid system, Brooks to the core. He attacked North American hockey orthodoxy wherever he went, disdaining dump-and-chase and the use of lanes and instead insisting on puck possession and circling. His tactics didn’t always take as easily as they did with the Olympic team, but they left lasting impressions, and Brooks was long ahead of his time in advocating for rule changes to open up play in the NHL.

Brooks is also well-known for his wars with USA Hockey and its predecessor, AHAUS. He scoffed at its efforts to naturalize Canadians so as to beef up U.S. Olympic rosters (a trick AHAUS successfully pulled off with Lou Nanne), and later blasted its waste of resources on a single National Training and Development Program when it could instead spread its efforts across the entire country. “The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak,” he said time and time again, and as coach at Minnesota, he practiced what he preached, following in John Mariucci’s tradition of only recruiting Minnesotans.

There were to be no shortcuts in building a great program, no poaching of top players from elsewhere: Brooks understood that hockey’s long term success depended on grassroots recruiting and creating a broad pool of quality talent rather than identifying talent at a young age and focusing only on the best. He later proved instrumental in St. Cloud State’s move to Division-I hockey, again expanding opportunities for Minnesotans to play high-level hockey past high school. Toward the end of his life, he supported the creation of the high school Elite League and took shots at junior leagues for poaching top high school players when they should, in his mind, have focused on older players still looking for college scholarships. There was an ideological consistency to all of his actions, and while his views still have plenty of loyalists in Minnesota, one suspects his side of the argument lost a crucial spokesman when Brooks died. Understanding Brooks’s project helps explain the famous moment when Brooks corrected an unsuspecting reporter to say that winning the Minnesota State Tournament, not the gold medal, was his greatest hockey memory. He truly believed that, given enough time, he could take any talent pool and built it into a successful program from the ground up, whatever the level. In that timeless title run, he saw hockey in its purest form.

It’s impossible for me not to read a book about Brooks without also thinking of Duluth East’s Mike Randolph. A few similarities make it an easy comparison, despite their very different career paths; both were the last men cut from a U.S. Olympic team, and both are noted for their intensity and their supremely high expectations, a rigid certainly that can at times seem imperious. Gilbert arranged for a conversation between the two of them in the mid-90s, one that Randolph recalled fondly when I interviewed him for Minnesota Hockey Hub last summer. (Indeed, Brooks was the second name Randolph cited when I asked him for the biggest influences on his coaching style, coming in only after—true to form—his own high school coach, Del Genereau. This was despite the fact that Randolph never played for nor coached under Brooks.) Gilbert saw some elements of Brooks in Randolph’s tactics, and after the meeting, Brooks, despite his general disdain for Duluth, adopted the Hounds, at one point traveling with Gilbert to Grand Rapids to watch a memorable East-Rapids game in which East prevailed in the final minute.

Plenty of things separate the two men as well. Brooks was always seeking out new frontiers, while Randolph was content to settle and leave a legacy in one place. Brooks pulled one of the greatest upsets in sports history; though Randolph has scored some upsets over the years, his teams have never exactly been lacking in talent, and usually play the role of favorite. There are noticeable tactical differences, with Randolph being more willing to resort to dump-and-chase if need be. People also change over thirty-year coaching careers, and both drifted into different personas over the years. But in the end, their singular senses of authority make them iconic names in their respective milieus, and this Hounds fan can only hope Randolph channels a bit of his old friend tomorrow afternoon.

Sipress Retains Seat

20 Feb

The Duluth City Council held a special meeting Thursday night to review the confused appointment of Joel Sipress to the 2nd District City Council seat. (See my notes on the meeting here, and my questions after the meeting here.) President Krug opened the meeting with a lengthy monologue, saying she had “never seen something quite as unseemly as this past week,” both in her time on the Council and during her work with University of Minnesota-Duluth faculty union.

After this opening, President Krug was at pains to insist she did not have any conflicts of interest in the vote, as some rumors had suggested since the initial meeting. (Kathy Heltzer is married to Krug’s spouse’s aunt.) She said that sort of tie was no different from the professional relationships several of the Councilors enjoyed with other candidates for the open seat, and said that, since the marriages were relatively recent—both couples in question are gay, and thus were not legally recognized as married until this past year—she hadn’t even thought of things in that way.

This explanation complete, President Krug then said that she called the meeting because the Council “did not follow established rules” and “filled the vacancy on a tie; integrity demanded a revisit. She went on to explain that the city charter does not allow for a special election, and that while Councilor Gardner will push a change to the charter at the next meeting, it “cannot be done in time.” She finished by suggesting that keeping the result would “silence” the voices of four members of the Council, and moved to reconsider the resolution appointing Sipress.

A tense pause followed before Councilor Julsrud moved the motion, and after a longer pause, Councilor Larson seconded it “for the sake of conversation.”

Councilor Fosle began the conversation by disagreeing with President Krug’s premises. He said that the Council should respect the initial ruling of Clerk Cox and Attorney Johnson, and that there were alternative ways to count votes via ranked choice voting. Echoing a point I made in my last post, he noted that Sipress had taken the oath, and asked Atty. Johnson if they could really unseat a Councilor in this manner. Atty. Johnson replied that they indeed could.

Councilor Julsrud then repeated many of President Krug’s points. She took care to explain her vote had nothing to do with Sipress, but was instead a “matter of justice” and wondered if half of the council was “comfortable with silencing the other half.” She also decried how political the whole process was behind the scenes, and said she had received “arm-twisting phone calls” by people trying to influence her vote.

Councilor Larson offered somewhat more tentative support for re-opening the vote, while Councilor Filipovich, after detailing his lengthy consultations with local politicians and citizens, came out against revisiting the resolution. “Why overturn a unanimous vote?” he asked, referring to the resolution to approve Sipress once he had been declared the winner via RCV, and listed several other challenges he would rather move on to face.

With no more comments, President Krug moved the reconsideration to a roll-call vote. The four Councilors who had supported Sipress (Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson) voted against reconsideration, while the four who had supported Heltzer (Julsrud, Krug, Larson, Russ) voted for it; Councilor Sipress, for obvious reasons, abstained. The move to reconsider thus failed to achieve the necessary five-vote majority, and Councilor Sipress will retain his seat.

***

The even margin confirms my concern heading into this meeting: nobody had budged, and it is very easy to construe the motives on both sides as being political. I don’t fault President Krug for at least raising the question; this was an instance in which the Council was damned if it did and damned if it didn’t. Still, the result was predictable, and we can only hope that grudges don’t linger.

If I may repeat an earlier criticism, I’m still bothered by the complete lack of comment by the Councilors over their initial votes. Some said the candidates were all lovely, but never went any further. On a certain level, this is true; both Sipress and Heltzer are well-qualified, and there are few, if any, ideological differences between them (or between them and the rest of the Councilors, save Councilor Fosle). But reading between the lines, it was pretty clear there were large gaps between the Sipress camp and the Heltzer camp, and that each group was hardened into their voting bloc. No one ever explained why, which leaves the rest of us guessing or relying on rumors. This makes everything seem rather catty; a case of Minnesota Nice at its worst. There’s a fine balance to be found here, of course; we don’t want open warfare on the Council either. But there is plenty of room for tactful comments that might help lessen the claims of politics somewhat. If there were deeper divisions here than were obvious, the public deserves at least some knowledge of them.

With some reservations, I can accept the results of the meeting. This conclusion is more a practical one than anything; I don’t see how any effort to open it back up again would bring about any sort of resolution. Four Councilors were not going to budge from their support for Sipress even if the Council had re-opened debate, and dragging this out any longer only would have opened up further opportunities for ugliness. It’s a crude tiebreaking method, and I agree that some of the arguments for moving on are a bit thin, but I do worry about the precedent of removing a Councilor appointed via resolution by reconsideration of said resolution. For good or ill, the Council sealed its fate when no one objected to the initial interpretation of RCV, and once they’d seated Sipress, going back to remove him would have only compounded the issue. It was important to acknowledge the error, but sometimes one has to cut one’s losses rather than carry on with an obviously flawed process in the desperate hope that things might somehow work out.

At any rate, Councilor Sipress is now safely ensconced in the Council, and can go about his work. It’s time for Duluth to get to know him; ultimately, it will be up to his constituents to judge him. It is time to move forward, beginning with the much-needed push to amend the city charter to allow for a special election in future circumstances such as this one.

Scribblings on Sochi

18 Feb

We have less than a week of Winter Olympic fun left, and aside from a few faulty hotel doors and temperatures to make northern Minnesotans jealous, Sochi has delivered the goods. It has been mercifully free of geopolitics, which is a blessed change from the run-up to the Games, which included terrorism fears and an awful lot of criticism of and fixation on Vladimir Putin. (Though I agree that Russia has its share of woes that deserve attention and that Putin is, for the most part, an unpleasant autocrat, it isn’t hard to detect a nasty edge in some of the coverage of Sochi that wasn’t around in Beijing, and almost certainly will not appear in Rio.)

That is a topic for another time, though: at the Games, the focus should be on the athletes above all else. While the U.S. is right up near the top of the medal count table, it doesn’t seem like the Americans are winning a whole lot so far. Aside from the ice dancing duo of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who floated to gold dancing to “Scheherazade,” the U.S. doesn’t really have the elite skaters it’s used to. Shaun White didn’t deliver, Bode Miller is old, and the American speedskaters aren’t that good, no matter how much they try to use their suits as excuses. American breakthroughs have come in sports like skeleton and bobsled, which don’t usually grab headlines.

But that is part of the delight of the Olympics: it gives a sudden spurt of attention to countries that have become known for certain sports, often in ways one would never guess. There’s the Jamaican bobsled, of course, but watch events in some of the more obscure time slots and you’ll learn all about Latvian and German sledding, Slovenian and Polish ski-jumping, and the Dutch speedskating fans. I’m not sure what to think of some of the representatives of tropical nations, who often moved to the U.S. or some other first-world country at a very young age, or even might be wealthy foreigners who have somehow managed to gain dual citizenship somewhere. (Mexico’s Olympian is Exhibit A of the latter.) At times this looks more like a publicity stunt or a way of sneaking into the Olympics and avoiding stiffer competition in one’s own country, but if it’s accepted and boosts interest in the home country, there’s no need to impose a purity test.

The Games also focus the spotlight on sports that are otherwise mostly ignored, and sometimes these sports are genuinely fun to watch. Snowboardcross, despite sounding like something a group of kids made up while sledding in their backyard, is great fun, with snowboarders racing down a hill and crashing, their performance free from the whims of judges. Short-track speedskating has similar thrills, and the biathlon makes things exciting by adding firearms. Being a cross-country skier, I enjoy the races, particularly the storied 4×10 relay, the skiathlon that forces skiers to both skate-ski and do traditional skiing, and the 50k marathon on the final day of the Games.

Figure skating has its moments of artistry but is often overrated; the new team competition did nothing for me, and the men’s free skate was an anticlimax, with all of the top contenders falling all over themselves. Curling looks like something that would be fun to try—and it’s a pretty big deal here in Duluth, which has put people on the past two Olympic teams, and seems to be an excellent excuse for drinking while allegedly doing physical activity—but, I’m sorry, it is deathly dull as a spectator sport. Moguls look fun enough, but the scoring system—a garbled formula involving time down the hill and judges’ marks—seems about as arbitrary as it gets. Judged sports in general are more susceptible to confusing outcomes, though there was nothing arbitrary about the skating of Russians Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar, or in the monster jump by the Belorussian aerials gold medalist. There’s another unique country strength for you: Belarus swept the aerials, and is right up among the leaders of most gold medals at the Games.

The hockey tournament is reaching its climax as well; the U.S. women will play archrival Canada for gold on Thursday, while the men, fresh off the heroics of Warroad, Minnesota’s T.J. Oshie in a round-robin game with Russia, will take on the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. I’ll admit to being a bit of a skeptic of this year’s U.S. team, but the Russia win is the sort that can bring a team together; while the road will be about as tough as it gets, the Americans have the skill to play with anyone, and as long as they can do that, anything can happen. It only took one period of Latvia-Switzerland to remind me why Olympic hockey is so enjoyable, as the big ice sheet opens up more space for creativity and free-flowing play. While I wouldn’t go quite as far as Adam Gopnik in his takedown of contemporary North American hockey—just win, baby—I do love hockey when it’s played in the tradition of Anatoli Tarasov, with perpetual motion and puck possession. The more we see that style of hockey, perhaps with some Herb Brooks-esque tweaks, the more hockey wins.

Oshie’s Sochi heroics even made it into primetime on NBC, a rare occurrence for the sport. Of course it is chic to deride NBC’s coverage, particularly when it comes to the inevitable tape-delays, though to be honest, I’d rather have the Olympics in the hands of NBC than any other network. In most sports, they deliver, with a classy look and veteran commentators; in hockey, football, and Premier League soccer, their A teams are as good as any. They have a deep bench of quality commentators, though even they can only go so far, and some of the more obscure sports employ former athletes who don’t exactly provide enlightening commentary. (Are they really getting paid to say “oh!” in alarm every time a skater falls?)

Still, I do have one big critique of NBC’s coverage: sometimes it feels more like the Today Show than an actual sporting event, a problem that was only exacerbated when Matt Lauer was hauled in to substitute for Bob Costas when he went down with his eye affliction. (Why not Al Michaels?) Public interest stories are nice, but they have a habit of catering to the lowest common denominator, and there are only so many ways to hear athletes say certain canned clichés. The focus on a handful of select Americans expected to do well is good for their publicity—we’d probably never hear of them otherwise, and non-major sports need icons to get some attention—but it makes for painful theater when they lose, and NBC’s sideline reporters track down the fallen stars.

The end result has its flaws, but with those flaws, it isn’t a bad portrait of the world we live in. It’s a planet of quirky diversity with visible but malleable hierarchies, united by a handful of universals, many trite or empty, but a few which penetrate much deeper. There are always glints of gold to be found.

The Strange Case of Achiever Academy

15 Feb

Every hockey season, it seems like there is at least one huge event that momentarily overwhelms every other story, and turns my duties on the forum into a full-time job. Whether it’s as serious as a paralyzing injury or as laughable as a team’s self-pitying backup goalie scoring on his own net before skating off the ice and flipping off his coach, something happens every year that just makes us stop and ponder it all. This season’s catalyst is the girls’ hockey team at Achiever Academy, an inanely-named, Twin Cities-based private school.

Achiever Academy, for those of you not following along, is a new player on the state high school scene. In fact, it looks nothing like any other high school with a hockey program in the state. It is a sports training academy that is attached to an accredited online high school. It offers training in multiple sports, though its flagship operation is in hockey. It is now in its second season fielding a boys’ varsity hockey team in the Minnesota State High School League, and added a girls’ team this season.

If you are not caught up in the hockey world, this may seem preposterous to you. It might seem like a thin cover for overzealous parents who toss aside academics out of their obsession with a sport. Plenty of hockey people had similar reactions, or at least raised their eyebrows. Achiever’s decision to join the MSHSL in particular came under scrutiny; as a year-round training program, they were certainly tiptoeing around the rules that clearly establish school sports seasons. As a school that drew in players from out of state, it seemed a bit odd that they were matching up with small-town public and tiny private school hockey programs in Class A, where some schools struggle to even field a team. The schooling method was naturally the subject of some derision, and charges of recruiting followed as well.

I had misgivings, but I figured the school deserved a chance. I’m very skeptical of online education—I’m young enough that I’ve had online components to a number of my classes in school, and I could count the number of times I found it genuinely enriching or comparable to a classroom experience on an amputated hand—but I think it can be of great use to kids who struggle in normal classroom settings, and indeed I heard at least one good story about a kid who was getting his getting his academic life back in order thanks to Achiever. Still, rumors about the academic program persisted, and as the season went along, it became clear that academics were only the tip of the iceberg.

Things started going sour in January, when it came out that Achiever’s financial state was far less stable than it was letting on. Their plan to purchase a financially troubled Vadnais Heights arena fell through, and the school teetered on the brink. It was rescued at the last second by a parent with deep pockets, who bought out the original owners. Several of the school’s sites around the Metro area were shuttered as the school consolidated.

On the ice, Achiever’s teams had their ups and downs. The boys’ team has been passably good; they’re not among the favorites to win their section, but they’re not totally out of the picture either, despite having to weather the departure of a couple of their players for other hockey opportunities. The girls, on the other hand, beat a number of the top teams in the state, climbed up to #4 in the end-of-regular-season Let’s Play Hockey poll, and were odds-on favorites for a State Tournament berth. They cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and were set for a section final showdown with St. Paul United.

They never got to play in that game. At least six girls on the team, it turned out, were ineligible. They have forfeited their entire season.

The ensuing scandal has rocked the hockey world, with a fair amount of vindictive glee on the part of Achiever’s critics. Most of the blame lands on the Achiever administration, coaching staff, and the parents of the ineligible players: with such widespread ineligibility, it clear this was a concerted effort to flaunt the rules, not an honest mistake. It is sad for the Achiever girls who did follow the rules—some, it is rumored, were ready to walk off the team in protest ahead of the section final when they learned they’d been scammed, but before the forfeiture became  formal—but everyone else, the sentiment goes, got what was coming to them all season long.

The MSHSL is in a bit of a bind here. In most matters they expect schools to self-report issues, as they should: they are much closer to the situations, and most activities directors aren’t in the business of sabotaging its mission. It doesn’t have the resources to investigate every single player, and it might be intrusive to give it such power. But in this case, catching the culprits required an anonymous vigilante rummaging around for the girls’ residency statuses and combing through their social media accounts. And while there were rumors all season long, and I expect to learn more in the coming weeks, the timing is a bit suspect as well. One wonders if the investigation would have gone anywhere had Achiever been a mediocre team, instead of a state title contender. It’s a troubling situation, and with online education only growing, this issue will likely dog the MSHSL in the coming years. (It already happened in soccer two years ago, with the similar Prairie Seeds Academy.)

Achiever hasn’t exactly been humbled by the proceedings, either. This past week, they announced plans to pursue legal action against Minnesota Hockey, which bars the formation of U.S. Hockey-sanctioned Tier I youth teams so as to protect the state’s community-based model. This brings into the open the presumed mission of this organization from the day of their foundation: the creation of a special program focused on the truly elite players in the state, one that puts hockey above all else in life, and focuses on national and international competition for the select few. Any noble intentions the Achiever founders may ever have had are long gone, and they are left waging an ideological war against the Minnesota hockey model, using the dreams of children as their weapon. Fortunately for the model, they’re doing a rather awful job of it, though I doubt that will keep them from digging in their heels and fighting on and on.

This isn’t to say that the Minnesota model is without its flaws; most of us have our critiques, and there will always be a space for outside organizations to fill the gaps that Minnesota Hockey and its affiliates cannot. Those affiliates, however, are much better served if they try to form a cooperative relationship with Minnesota Hockey and the MSHSL, or at the very least coexist, as Bernie McBain’s Edina-based Minnesota Made program usually manages to do. (Usually.) Achiever, on the other hand, took it a bridge too far, and is learning why the torch-and-pitchfork method of revolution has never been much of a winner.

Questions on the Duluth’s 2nd District City Council Appointment

13 Feb

The Duluth City Council’s 2nd District vacancy drama took another twist on Wednesday night. It turns out that, according to FairVote Minnesota, the Council erred when it declared Joel Sipress the winner of the vote to fill the seat. The News-Tribune has the details here. I have a bunch of questions.

Joel Sipress took an oath of office. Isn’t that a binding action?

This is a procedural question, but it’s worth asking. Sipress said the right thing in the News Tribune article, and said he’d let the other eight Councilors decide his fate. But now that he’s actually part of the Council, can they legally do that? Without consulting the Charter, I would think that he’d need to resign his post for that to move forward. If this isn’t the case, that is a weird loophole: conceivably, the Council could revisit the appointment of a Councilor at any time, and on a whim. This isn’t like a decision to revisit some random resolution; it’s about a man who is, rightly or wrongly, a member of their Council now, and that leads into my next question.

Might not “revisiting the matter” only politicize it?

The two Councilors quoted in the DNT, it is worth noting, did not support Sipress. I trust their motives, and I would think most people would agree there was something deeply flawed with what happened on Monday. Still, if some of the Sipress supporters don’t think the matter should be revisited, it would be very easy for both sides to claim the other side is playing politics, rightly or wrongly. While it only takes a simple majority to revisit the issue, I would argue the Council needs at least 7 votes in favor of revisiting the appointment to legitimize the process. If there is concerted opposition to revisiting the matter, it will only make an ugly process look uglier.

If the Council revisits the appointment, how does it avoid ending up with the exact same deadlock?

In the DNT piece, Councilor Julsrud said the Council should vote anew on its three finalists. Does anyone actually think that anyone will change their mind? Won’t we just end up in the exact same place we were on Monday night? Unless they all know that one of their number has had a change of heart, I don’t see this ending well at all.

The alternative that might—possibly—break the deadlock would be to start the process anew and take applications and conduct interviews again. Even that would carry the threat of a similar outcome, though.

How quickly can the Council change the City Charter to allow for a special election?

If we’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s this: the Council’s attempts to appoint replacement Councilors have been unqualified disasters. An otherwise thoroughly competent and professional Council has been made to look silly twice. No amount of fine-tuning the process will fix this. The problem isn’t with the process. It’s with the very premise. Eight people should not be deciding who represents a district of over 15,000. The people of District 2 need to elect their own Councilors.

The obvious long-term solution here—as several Councilors readily acknowledged on Monday night—is a change to the City Charter to allow for a special election. They need to make it happen, and as quickly as possible. If they are worried about making a post hoc change, Councilor Sipress could conceivably remain on the Council (while ideally abstaining from everything) before resigning once the changes have been made. That would require his cooperation, but I think it’s the most sensible way forward.

What is FairVote Minnesota’s role here, and where’s the accountability?

This is a bit of an aside, but it should be mentioned: the statement from Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota in the News Tribune claims that “the Duluth City Council deviated from the prescribed process” for ranked choice (IRV) elections. The Council arrived at its process, however, after consultation with people at FairVote Minnesota. This would seem to suggest that someone at FairVote Minnesota erred, and the organization should probably own that mistake.

FairVote Minnesota also claims it is “not attached to the outcome” of the vote. If this is the case, why were the City Clerk and the City Attorney calling them? The city needs to figure out what its relationship with this organization is, and should obviously not be relying on them for legal opinions if the organization does not purport to offer them.

That’s enough for now. I welcome comments, replies, and further questions…we need to sort out this mess as quickly as possible.

The Delights of Instant Runoff Voting, Plus Minimum Wage Debate: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/10/14

10 Feb

The Duluth City Council kicked off its business two hours early on Monday night, as it sought to fill the 2nd District seat vacated by Patrick Boyle, now of the St. Louis County Board. The Council had narrowed a field of ten applicants down to three, and brought those three before them for a second interview. Councilor Gardner, the chair of the Personnel Committee, oversaw the proceedings.

The three finalists were Ms. Kathy Heltzer, Ms. Angie Miller, and Mr. Joel Sipress. The results from the first round suggested it would be a tight race, with three first-place votes for Ms. Heltzer and Mr. Sipress, plus one for Ms. Miller, who is probably the best-known of the group; she recently completed a four-month interim term on the County Board in the stead of her late husband, Steve O’Neil. All three appeared reliably liberal, which—worries about Council uniformity aside—seemed in keeping with the intentions of the voters of District 2, who had re-elected the unopposed liberal Councilor Boyle last November.

The process was messy from the start, as the Councilors invited the three candidates up to the table to take a few questions. Four Councilors asked questions relating to the role of councilors, dealing with land use disputes, availability to constituents, and the most pressing issue facing the city (along with a solution). Instead of asking the candidates the same questions at once and rotating the person to first take the questions, they asked each individual all four questions in succession. Predictably, the first candidate to answer, Ms. Miller, was somewhat vague and stumbled through the questions, while Mr. Sipress, who went last, had plenty of time to think up precise answers and build off of what the first two had said. He was exacting and meticulous, citing the city charter in his responses on Councilor roles, and did not dither with multiple issues facing the city as the other two did. Still, it wasn’t hard to see the appeal in Ms. Heltzer, who also had very clear and sensible answers, and all three appeared thoroughly competent and had fairly similar answers. It appeared the vote would come down to the two who hadn’t supported Sipress or Heltzer in the first round, Councilors Fosle and Julsrud.

Without bothering to explain their choices, the Councilors went into the voting. The City Clerk, Mr. Cox claimed the form was “a little zealous” with its many columns for votes, but in the end, the form was rather sensible. The first vote failed to achieve a 5-vote majority, with 4 votes for Sipress (Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson), 3 for Heltzer (Krug, Larson, Russ), and 1 for Miller (Julsrud). And so there was a second round, in which Councilor Julsrud switched her vote to Heltzer, leaving the Council deadlocked.

The Council then proceeded through two more rounds of voting, but no one blinked. It was a tedious process, with the Councilors finding humorous ways to fill the time as Mr. Cox tabulated the votes. Councilor Hanson told a bad joke, while President Krug plugged a few press conferences she’d attended; the Olympics got a mention, as did the anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, which had Councilor Russ reminiscing on the time she went to see them in Milwaukee in 1964, when she was 14. (She couldn’t hear a thing.) Councilor Garnder had everyone running for cover when she threatened to give a history of the councilor appointment process.

With no decision in four rounds of simple majority vote, the Council moved to an instant runoff vote (IRV; also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV). This is a process in which voters rank candidates in accordance to their preference; the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and people who voted for that person have their votes transferred to their second choice, and so on until the process produces a winner with the majority. The immediate question is why the Council didn’t just use IRV to begin with; the first round would have produced the same result as a majority vote, and would have spared us several rounds of electoral games of chicken. Moreover, now that the Councilors had been through four rounds of voting and knew where everyone else stood, they predictably voted strategically, as everyone who ranked all three put their top choice at #1, Ms. Miller at #2, and the other contender tied for first at #3. Once again, Sipress and Heltzer each had 4 votes. Of course, this could have happened had they done IRV at the start of the process (as I think would have been more logical–why use it only as a backup?), but there’s at least a chance that the second-place votes might have been a bit less strategic and more reflective of the actual order in each person’s mind. (Forgive my cynicism, but I doubt that every single one of them thought Miller should have been #2.)

But wait! There was more confusion. Despite Mr. Cox’s insistence that everyone should rank all three, not everyone did: Councilors Fosle, Hanson, and Julsrud only ranked their top choice, and left the rest of their ballots blank. This meant that Sipress had three third-place votes, while Heltzer only had two. There was some confusion over whether this apparent technicality really could swing the vote, so Mr. Cox and Attorney Johnson retreated to a back office and called an IRV expert at Fair Vote Minnesota for a ruling. (This is where I slip in my obnoxiously pompous comment to say that there was someone in the room who learned the details of IRV as a political science undergrad and knew what the correct interpretation was, but I suppose I’m not exactly qualified to issue a ruling on this sort of thing.)

At this point, President Krug suspended the special meeting so that the poor men from the steam plant, patiently waiting in back, could come forward for their Committee of the Whole report. The Council plowed straight on into the regular meeting, and was halfway through the citizen speakers when Mr. Cox finally emerged with a verdict: Mr. Sipress’s extra third-place vote was enough to get him the last spot on the Council. (Under standard IRV this is not correct…see the follow-up posts for more.) He took his oath and assumed Councilor Boyle’s empty seat.

Despite the bizarre tiebreaker, no one protested much; everyone just seemed relieved to arrive at a resolution. Councilor Hanson was all for violating the charter and having a special election to fill the seat; Councilor Gardner told him they couldn’t do that, and worried it might come to a coin toss at one point. This idea repulsed President Krug, though there was consensus that, after two straight messy Council appointments, a change to the city charter appears necessary. In a case such as this one, with nearly two full years until the next Council election, a special election seems by far the most sensible choice; as frustrating as it may be to constituents, in short-term cases such as the one this past fall, it may make more sense just to leave seats vacant. This is one case in which the stakes are high enough that no process at all may be better than a bad process. At any rate, this process did—stumblingly, haltingly—deliver the candidate I considered most qualified, based on the brief interview I saw.

***

The meeting itself breezed by. Among the citizen speakers, Ms. Alison Clark was back to again demand the construction of the Lakewalk around Beacon Pointe, while a man told a long story of bureaucratic red tape surrounding his fire-damaged home, which Councilor Gardner and CAO Montgomery offered to look into, if only to find some resolution. Former Councilor Boyle came forward to reflect a bit on his four-plus years on the Council, talked about how far the city had come since 2009, and offered continued support from his new position across the way in the St. Louis County Building.

The only issue on the agenda to generate any debate at all was a resolution supporting a statewide push to raise the minimum wage. There were single speakers for and against the resolution, and Councilor Gardner mustered a reply to the critic of the measure. She cited polls suggesting 70 percent support for an increase and explained that giving poor people money was a sure way to get the money back into the economy, as they’d spend it on fairly basic needs. She noted that wages have been stagnant despite increased productivity over the past thirty years, and said the measure was important despite its symbolic nature, as it started a conversation and showed the Council’s priorities. Most of the rest of the Council, flexing its liberal muscles, repeated her points, with a few additions: Councilor Larson explained that the proposal would index the minimum wage to inflation so as to prevent drastic shifts, and Councilor Sipress suggested that higher a minimum wage would help taxpayers, as it would lessen stress on government safety nets.

As expected, Councilor Fosle was the lone dissenter; he proudly claimed the conservative mantel and worried that the measure would backfire, and have an especially heavy effect on people on fixed income who might not be getting more money relative to inflation. Councilor Gardner countered this claim, saying people on fixed income have seen more adjustments for inflation over the past 30 years than people working minimum wage jobs. After President Krug’s endorsement of the resolution as a judicious use of symbolic resolutions, it passed, 8-1. The Council wrapped up its business with a few minor ordinances that passed unanimously, and everyone welcomed Councilor Sipress to the fold. He will, hopefully, be the last Duluth City Councilor appointed by his peers, and not chosen by voters.

Why We Travel

9 Feb

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my winter reading in Duluth often involves adventure stories set in places that are not currently buried in snow. As this winter has been a particularly harsh one, my impulse for vicarious travel has only grown stronger. And so the three works of non-fiction I’ve read over the past month (plus a work of fiction, though I’ll leave that out for now) take place nowhere near an iced-over Lake Superior.

The first book was The Lost City of Z by David Grann, and it’s the sort of book that made me think I was born a hundred years too late. It’s the story of a British explorer who fulfills many of my childhood fantasies in his explorations of the Amazon for the Royal Geographic Society. It was an era of glamour in mapping and exploration, with genteel Brits trotting about the globe to its empty spaces and painstakingly mapping them, risking life and limb to do ethnographies on previously uncontacted tribes. Nowadays, geographers sit fly over things in planes or around in front of computers, and we’re rather lacking in untouched earthly frontiers. Even as we read the words, it’s hard to process the fact that it isn’t one great big romantic adventure: the hero of the book, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett, became consumed by his search for the mythical city of Z, and vanished without a trace into the jungle. We all want to be adventurers, but we also want to be the ones who came back, and it would be nice if we got a book deal out of it, too.

Next, I read a book by the closest thing to a modern-day Fawcett out there: Shadow of the Silk Road, a mid-00s travelogue by Colin Thubron, a Brit who set out to trace the old trade route from China west to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps the best travel book I’ve ever read, beautifully crafted and overflowing with sharp insights about the people the author meets on his adventures through Central Asia. Like his predecessors, Thubron aims to see the world as it is, but for entirely different reasons: he has no aspersions of fame and riches, nor does he see himself as the vanguard of the civilized world, venturing into the backlands to establish contact and pave the way for future discovery (or perhaps colonization). While there are a few moments of self-examination, with Thubron speaking to an imagined Sythian trader trying to understand why he has undertaken his journey, his story takes a back seat to his exquisite observation skills.

And so his readers are given windows into the souls of the nations he visits. Central China, modernized in stunning fashion over the previous two decades, with questions emerging as to what comes next. The ethnic Uighur Chinese province of Xinjiang, its people clinging to a fading identity as waves of Han Chinese migrants pour in, with only a few outposts of culture left. The former Soviet Stans, populated by people without a history, their ethnicity invented by the Soviets and new national myths manufactured to hold it all together, uniting all on the surface but failing to pull at the nomadic core beneath. Afghanistan, crippled by war, thus rendered even more fractured and tribal. The Iranians, so fearful of Western smut yet disdainful of their authoritarian regime, the myths of the mullahs long dead. The Kurds, brashly proclaiming their identity at one moment, but beaten into submission when among their Turkish overlords. In the end, Thubron finally comes to the Mediterranean coast near Antioch, alone, and his return to the West is no homecoming: instead, the dark clouds remind him only of his restlessness, his reality as a wandering soul unable to find home in any single place. He can dabble in any place, visit old friends in China or Uzbekistan, share in a delightful night of vodka and yogurt in Kyrgyzstan, but he is still some other, forever the solitary soul on his lonely path.

The lonely path is a theme in my last book as well, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s infectious humor dominates every page, and as an out-of-shape recent returnee to the United States, he’s among the least likely hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Yet he endures long marches up and down mountains through brutal weather, mocking his fellow hikers and Americans in general with his delicious snark. He celebrates the environment preserved along the route, yet maintains a certain distance from the solitude of the Trail, and he captures the contradictory relationship so many wilderness adventurers have with their surroundings. I can relate completely. I go hiking or canoeing just about every summer, and the actual experience usually involves a lot of grumbling about why we’re abandoning our comfy beds to exert ourselves and do all these chores in the woods. I’ll admit it, I’m hardly an outdoorsman; my trips are rarely more than a long weekend, and I possess an unfortunate talent for staying awake all night for no good reason when sequestered in a tent. But yet, somehow, the trips are always a delight in retrospect, and memories of blissful afternoons in a hammock or staring at the stars through a tent screen always overpower those of the sleepless nights.

That’s how travel works. Every now and then, we have moments where we become truly aware of our surroundings—moments when we realize that This Is Water—but for the most part, our perceptions of things are either formed in anticipation or in memory, not in the moment. I’ve read that the process of planning a trip is often more pleasurable than the trip itself; it’s the idea of what is going to happen that captures our minds. After the trip is over, our memories pull out the most distinct moments and give them extra meaning. That’s what makes travel so powerful, for good or ill: it is so obviously a break from the monotony of daily life that it can’t help but be significant, especially for those of us whose minds are often racing into the future or lingering on the past.

There’s an underlying theme in all of these books: a sense of loss, a fear that these places are slowly being stripped of their novelty. Fawcett-esque adventurers would be laughable nowadays, and much of the Amazon he once explored is now open farmland. Thubron watches any number of people try to square their past with the march of modernity and development, whether in Chinese or Western form; most everyone thinks something is being lost, but the material gains are so great and often so necessary that no one is going to stop the process. Despite his love-hate relationship with the wilderness, Bryson fears its destruction at every turn, and is careful to educate his readers about environmental policy decisions on and around the Appalachian Trail. On the most basic level, they all fear the same thing: sameness. They worry that the world will lose some of those contours that interrupt an often numbing plain, a repetition of events that one cannot rise above—or sink below—in order to gain perspective.

That perspective is essential, and it’s why I’ll continue to go on journeys, either on my own or through the words of other people. Some journeys must be undertaken alone, and no two travel companions will come away from an adventure with the exact same conclusions. As the old cliché goes, life is a journey, and there is freedom and power to be found in taking up the mantel of the adventurer: one sets one’s own pace, keeps a record of the sights, and charts a course through the unknown.

It isn’t that easy, though. The best example of that might come from one of the most famous adventurers of all time, Don Quixote. The popular image of Don Quixote celebrates him as a knight errant, boldly going off and chasing the impossible dream. It’s admirable, to an extent. But at the end of the book, the protagonist comes home from his journey, and concedes that he never was the hero he claimed to be. We can only invent so much, and if travel becomes routine, then it too becomes a lie, a false reality from which we cannot see the contours. Life is not a progression from point A to point B; it is a cycle, in and out, forward and back, requiring both spontaneity in the moment and the cold remove of distance. This is why travel stories make such good books: they allow for plenty of both. But it can’t all be vicarious. We need to go live it too, if only for a little while. That little spark makes all the difference.