Archive | March, 2014

One Hundred Years in the Labyrinth

31 Mar

I’m not a big believer in heroes. There are obviously people I admire more than others, and some who have certain exemplary character traits that I can only hope to channel. But for the most part, in a paraphrase of the guy pictured below, people should not be placed in heaven or in hell, but here on earth, where they belong. Here on earth, where they are a jumbled mess of admirable and unfortunate traits, many of which are two sides of the same coin. No one can stand too far above anyone else.

One who does stand a bit higher, though, is Octavio Paz, who was born 100 years ago today.

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Image credit:

 http://gestioncultura.cervantes.es/COMUNES/13298_I_octavio%20paz.jpg

Paz led one of the richest lives of the twentieth century. First and foremost he was a poet, but he was also a diplomat, an essayist, and a philosopher. By the end of his career, he was the mandarin of Mexican intellectual life, collecting awards left and right before finally claiming a Nobel Prize in 1990. He became the epitome of a public intellectual, and he took that mantel seriously, refusing to kowtow to anyone or anything. He was no ideologue, yet he had his principles. After the Mexican government massacred student protesters in 1968, he resigned his post as Ambassador to India. At a time when the Mexican academy was almost completely uniform in its Marxist orthodoxy, he came to be a fierce critic of the Soviet Union and of all authoritarian socialism. This made him persona non grata in Mexican intellectual circles, but he challenged it at every turn, and he lived long enough to see most of his theses proven correct.

Paz defied definition. He was fascinated by dualities, contradictions, and dialectics, and held them all together in his head. He wasn’t overtly religious, but he spoke with much respect for Christianity, and for the religious and mythical human impulses. He was obviously no Marxist, but he was willing to say a few kind words about Marx, and thought socialism’s emphasis on justice ought to be rescued from the wreckage of communism’s collapse. At the same time, he denounced the anti-communist military juntas in Latin America. This led some to label him a liberal (in the Mexican and European sense of the word, meaning a capitalist who favored democracy and personal liberty), yet he made thorough critiques of the philosophical underpinnings of liberal society. The Marxist Mexican professor who introduced me to Paz dismissed him as “very conservative,” presumably due to his rejection of both the history and the materialism of Marxist historical materialism. While he certainly wasn’t a conservative in any contemporary understanding of the word, there are some vague aristocratic airs in his approach to the world—a certain delight in taking it as his plaything for further study. Anyone who tried to stick a label on him missed the point.

I could quote from Paz’s magnum opus, The Labyrinth of Solitude, in order to show off some of his brilliance, but it’s a bit too heavy to confront in one simple blog post. Instead, I’m going to pull from a little-known interview that I was assigned to read by that dear old Marxist Mexican while at the Universidad Iberoamericana at Mexico City. This was my introduction to Paz, and while it may not have the coherence of some of his longer works, it is loaded with brilliant little gems, and succinctly pulls together so many of the themes I struck on this blog over the past year. (I’ve added links to those that come most directly to memory.)

The interview was conducted in 1992, as part of a series commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas; the interviewer, a Chilean named Sergio Marras, was primarily interested in Paz’s thoughts on the idea of Latin America. He got that, plus an awful lot more. Take this riff on identities (interview is in italics; my interjections are in normal font; translation mine):

You’ve said that Mexico is different from the rest of Latin America several times in this interview. How would you define mexicanness?

The word “mexicanness” is one that I avoid. It strikes me as dubious. It traps a reality in motion in a prison of concepts and adjectives. Mexico is an invention that, like all inventions, has two sides, or faces: one is the discovery of a hidden reality, not visible at first glance; another is a design, a project. To discover what we are we need to question our past and examine our present but, at the same time, give a sense and a direction to that more or less static reality. The future is an essential part of our present.

In that case, do you believe the famous Latin American identity is possible? What does it consist of?

I don’t like the word “identity.” I like the currently fashionable phrase even less: “search for an identity.” What we now call identity and what we used to call, more precisely, “character,” “soul,” or the “temperament” of a people, isn’t something one can have, lose, and recover. Nor is it a substance or an essence. Latin America is neither an entity nor an idea. It is a history, a process, a reality in perpetual motion and continual change. Words that I would apply to anyone who is “searching for an identity.” Who are we? Our histories—a living and incomplete history, but one that cannot negate the past. Nor should it try to whitewash that past:

We cannot forget that history has always been tragic. Joyce said that history is a nightmare. No, history is a reality, but it is a reality that has the incoherence and the horror of a nightmare.

Even so…Something from the past always remains. It’s very arrogant to condemn our ancestors: they don’t need simply our judgment, adverse or favorable, but our faith. And faith means sympathy: maybe I would have done the same as you, if I’d been there. There’s a norm we’ve forgotten: respect the adversary and honor the defeated. For a while I’ve rebelled against the official histories.

Speaking of Latin America, but applicable to anything with a less-than-ideal past: I think our history–more precisely, that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–has been an immense failure. But defeat does not degrade; the real degradation is not knowing what to do with the defeats. Turning a failure into art is beautiful. We’ve made a few very admirable things out of our failures: a handful of poems, a half dozen novels and collections of stories. Moreover, we’re not dead: we’re a living culture. This has been a great triumph. Latin America has character; it has a soul. This is our great victory.

Those histories lead to the formation of different cultures, and when it comes to culture, Paz strikes a somewhat more cynical note than his more universalistic colleagues. He still finds some room for hope all the same:

Culture will always divide usThe great civilizations have been made through dialogues between different cultures. I’m a believer in dialogue because I’m a believer in diversity. When unity transforms into uniformity, society petrifies. This is what happened to the communists. To live, democracy needs to accommodate contradictory elements so it can make permanent criticism a part of itself. Dialogue, critiques, the exchange of opinions: that is the political life, and that is culture. It’s easy for talk of dialogue between cultures to fall into clichés and a sappy universalism, but Paz avoids that with constant criticism. He most certainly is not an ideologue, and though he does reflect on revolutions fondly at times (his father was a backer of the Mexican Revolution, which was raging at the time Paz was born), he sees better ways to resolve problems:

He who rides a burro [common people, that is] doesn’t believe in utopias nor in ideologies. He believes in heaven and hell. Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people…I don’t lament the end of the myth of revolution. It lived for three centuries and left us both admirable and abominable things; but it has lost all its power. Now it’s not even a ghost: it’s a relic. What we need to do now is clean the dust off our minds with the feather duster and the broom of critiques, not with hysterical moaning about the end of the utopia…Today we don’t have anywhere to take refuge; we’ve run out of universalist ideologies and we have to reinvent everything. A great loss? More like an enormous possibility.

At the time, Paz was trying to be hopeful for a more cohesive hemisphere; history hasn’t really gone in that direction. But he was aware of that, and could salvage some things here, too. Here’s his take on the existential uncertainty of a world after revolutions, one in which philosophical liberalism has, in large part, triumphed:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

Paz suggests Kant, for his critiques of reason; this makes good sense, though my own bias is toward the Greeks. Still, the Greeks don’t always speak clearly about modernity, and it has to be studied on its own terms. For that, we move to a quote that has appeared on this blog before, and perhaps my favorite in the entire piece:

If we think of that trio upon which the modern world was founded–liberty, equality, fraternity–we see that liberty tends to turn into tyranny over others; thus, it needs to have limits; and that equality is an impossible ideal that cannot come to be without the use of force, which implies despotism. The bridge between these two is fraternity.

if we don’t rediscover fraternity, we’ll come to the real devil: the Last Man.

This is one of those apparent contradictions that Paz embraces. He’s a believer in democracy and modernity, for the most part; he knows they’re flawed, but he can’t see a better alternative. The world would be a better place if everyone lived in modern liberal democracies…and yet, even there, he can’t be happy. The world loses something when bourgeois, democratic norms take control; everyone is content to live out their routine suburban lives, and there is no pursuit of glory, no more human greatness. (The phrase “Last Man” was Nietzsche’s contemptuous take on such people.) Paz, despite his general support for the modern project, can’t quite accept this: hence his continued fascination with revolution, with people in the middle of the arena, even if he doesn’t quite agree with them. He reconciles all of this on an existential plane: yes, material comfort is important, but that isn’t what we live for. We live for something more:

Happiness is not, nor can it be, terrestrial. Nor can it be a permanent state. Humans can be happy but for an instant…But its brevity does not matter: an instant can be a window unto eternity.

If you read Spanish, the wonderful Nexos Magazine has a great series of reflection pieces here.

Spring Fútbol in Spain

29 Mar

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to find a way to endure the gap between high school hockey and the baseball season. The NCAA Tournament is some consolation, but not much of one for us jilted Hoya alumni, and I’ve never liked basketball all that much to begin with. Instead, I let my attention wander overseas, where a pretty nice race is shaping up in Spain.

The European soccer leagues are now in their respective stretch runs, and on Sunday I was treated to an exemplary installment in European soccer’s biggest rivalry. The goals flew left and right, and while the referee imposed himself a bit more than one might like, Barcelona came out with a crucial 4-3 come-from-behind road victory over Real Madrid. The win rescued Barcelona’s chances at the La Liga title, and gives them reason for optimism heading into their other two trophy competitions—a Copa del Rey clash with Madrid in a few weeks, and in the quarterfinal stage of the European Champions League. The match-up had been hyped as a changing of the guard, with aging Barça perhaps finally relinquishing the crown Spain’s most expensive team. It wasn’t to be.

The man who grabbed the headlines was, of course, Lionel Messi, whose hat trick answered any questions about his recovery from injury, and quieted the tiresome efforts of the Madrid backers to suggest that Cristiano Ronaldo might have surpassed him. Messi breaks records nearly every time he scores these days (and he’s still just 26!), and his performance in his prime is a once-in-a-generation joy to watch. But just as dominant in Sunday’s win was Andrés Iniesta, the sublime midfielder with a flair for the dramatic. Iniesta’s goal in the seventh minute set the tone for the rest of the night, and his effort to wriggle through a pair of Madrid defenders earned the decisive penalty kick late in the game. At Barcelona he will forever be in Messi’s shadow, but the man who scored the game-winner in the 2010 World Cup final and was named the Player of the Tournament in the 2012 European Championships would be a legitimate superstar anywhere else, yet the quiet man from La Mancha is content to humbly play the wingman to Messi.

While Barça isn’t guaranteed of anything yet, they look much better heading down the stretch this season than they did a year ago, and the reasons lie in the wrinkles introduced by new coach Tata Martino. They’ve done a much better job of rotating their squad this season, keeping the top players fresh, and while they still rely on their bread-and-butter passing game and the peerless all-Spanish midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, and Sergio Busquets, they’re a bit more willing to play with pace on the counterattack now. Oddly unimportant in all of this is Neymar, the 22-year-old Brazilian record offseason signing, but he has some excellent flashes, and will slowly find his way into the system. Their demise, as has been the case of late, could be on defense, where Martino joins his predecessors in wishfully thinking that Javier Mascherano can hold down the back line against the best in the world. (I like Mascherano, but a central defender he is not, especially on a team whose fullbacks are often found bombing down the wings.) Goalkeeper Victor Valdes’s season-ending injury midweek could also dent Barça’s title hopes.

Real Madrid has also evolved tactically since last season, with new boss Carlo Ancelotti adopting a much more direct approach than José Mourinho’s dull counterattacking game. Against inferior opponents, it does look better, but the natural tradeoff here is a thinner midfield, where Xabi Alonso alone cannot quite cut it against an attack of Barcelona’s caliber. The front line of Ronald, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale piles up a lot of goals, but it isn’t clearly better than Barcelona’s somewhat deeper front line; like his fellow expensive transfer Neymar, Bale has been hit-or-miss in his first season in Spain, and Benzema, despite scoring twice against Barcelona, probably should have had himself another goal or two. Real’s saving grace may be the less-hyped midfield duo of Luka Modric and Angel di Maria, both of whom are having stellar years.

The thing is, neither of these teams is leading La Liga right now: that honor instead goes to Atlético de Madrid, the Spanish soccer equivalent of the New York Mets, the team that just sort of hovers there in the shadow of a giant crosstown rival. Atleti doesn’t have the firepower of the two perennial contenders—they’ve scored 14 fewer goals than Real, and 21 fewer than Barça—but they make up for it with rugged defense. Time will tell if they can hold up for another eight fixtures, plus a Champions League quarterfinal showdown with Barça. Those two also play on the regular season’s final day, so the race could be in for a thrilling conclusion. If Atlético can pull it off, it would be the first championship by someone other than Real or Barça in ten years.

Real has a somewhat easier road both in Spain and in the Champions League, where they drew injury-riddled Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. The favorite to win the thing, Bayern Munich, also has a pretty easy path forward, having drawn reeling Manchester United. (David Moyes, given the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, is allegedly facing open revolt in the dressing room, while opposing fans unfurl banners applauding his coaching skills. Once again, American sports fans have nothing European football fans.) The last quarterfinal, between Chelsea and Paris-St. Germain, is perhaps the most intriguing. PSG is very talented but has yet to win anything of any magnitude (the French league doesn’t count), while José Mourinho will look to rediscover his specialness and help English football save some face. I’ll admit it, I’m rooting for him: there is no more delightful mixture of arrogance, style, and coaching brilliance anywhere in the world.

Spain’s La Liga doesn’t draw the American audience that England gets, and that was true even before NBC snapped up the Premier League; the language barrier probably plays a role there, as does the league’s very real issues with competitive imbalance. But while Spain doesn’t have England’s depth of decent teams, it does have the best stable of top-end teams of any European league. The Brits and Italians have not fared particularly well in Europe over the past two years, while France and Germany are both dominated by one lonely powerhouse. Spain, meanwhile, has three serious contenders every year between Barcelona, Real Madrid, and one rising interloper, whether that be Atlético, Málaga last year, or Valencia in the not-so-distant past. In the Champions League, it is Europe’s best.

All is not well here, though, with debt burdening many of the lower-tier teams. Spanish soccer gives a taste of the best of the sport, but also more than its share of the worst, with its giant financial inequities and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Superficially, it’s easy to like international club fútbol: there are good teams in so many countries, and those teams draw from everywhere. Yet for all the apparent cosmopolitanism, this global sport is more ruthlessly capitalist than any major American sports league. While I actually prefer a bit of imbalance to some of the more rigid salary-capped leagues–sports need dynasties and villains– and one wonders just how strong the foundations really are in European soccer. The good news: we have a World Cup in less than three months!

In Which Councilor Fosle Is Very Happy: Duluth City Council Notes, 3/24/14

24 Mar

It was a fast and rather uneventful night in the Duluth City Council Chamber on Monday. The meeting opened with a public hearing on proposed tax increment financing (TIF) for the planned rehabilitation of the former Lincoln Park Middle School into housing units and community space. Mr. Rick Ball from the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and Mr. Andy Hughes of development partner Sherman Associates gave a brief overview and fielded questions, explaining that the lower-than-market-rate rents in the building did not make it financially feasible without tax help. Several Councilors wanted to be sure the TIF qualification had passed a test run by an outside agency, which it had, though the discussion didn’t go much further than that; the public meeting will remain open at the next meeting.

The Council then received updates on various ongoing issues. CAO Montgomery briefed them on frozen waterlines, which have been unusually common this winter due to the cold temperatures, and hoped for some relief in the coming weeks. Councilor Gardner gave a status update on proposed charter revisions to fill Council vacancies; she said the special election changes would be “sticky,” but said the committee had another meeting on Friday. Councilor Larson said that U.S. Sen. Al Franken would be willing to take up legislation on the logging truck rerouting plan when it came forward. The community speakers were both repeats, though Ms. Alison Clark’s continued push for a lakefront Lakewalk by Beacon Pointe included a pointed question over how much a paved path there would cost.

Councilor Fosle pulled one resolution off the consent agenda, but only to offer his praise for the administration: after six years of endless lobbying, the city has finally brought in a consultant to study its fleet services operations. Councilor Fosle has long contended that the city spends far too much in this department, and was pleased to see the review would be done by an out-of-state consultant with no skin in the game. Councilor Gardner thanked Councilor Fosle for his persistence, and Councilor Hanson expressed his confidence that savings would cover the expenditures for the review. It passed unanimously, as did the rest of the consent agenda. The review, according to CAO Montgomery, should be done by the end of summer.

Naturally, the next resolution up was a purchase of several trucks for the city, and a laughing Councilor Fosle turned around and said “this is exactly what I’m talking about,” noting the low mileage on the three trucks being replaced. CAO Montgomery explained that the trucks were high-wear vehicles and that the new ones were slightly larger, while Councilor Sipress gave a nod to Councilor Fosle’s concerns but said he’d show his support for the administration’s planned review by voting in good faith on these trucks. The resolution passed 8-1.

The Council then appointed Councilor Sipress to the Public Utilities Commission, an exercise that involved a lot of repetition of nice words about Councilor Sipress. He committed himself to the Commission for his full term, which pleased Councilor Julsrud; Councilor Hanson terrorized the Council by asking if they’d use ranked-choice voting if someone else were to enter the race, and Councilor Filipovich, now a battle-scarred veteran of the Commission after his appointment two months ago, welcomed the new junior member aboard after a 9-0 vote in his favor.

Once again a grant application for a portion of the cross-city mountain bike trail was on the agenda, and as usual it inspired some mild dissent, with Councilor Hanson joining Councilor Fosle in the ‘no’ column, saying the city’s $63,000 matching contribution would be better used filling potholes. President Krug noted that these funds had to come out of a portion of the parks budget reserved for capital projects, and the resolution passed 7-2.

Two citizen speakers came forward on the next resolution, which implemented a master plan for the Gary-New Duluth Recreation Area; Mr. Dan Hinnenkamp and Mr. Mark Boben, both longtime activists in the area, shared their excitement for the project. Mr. Boben explained that the project would include new soccer fields, picnic areas, a skating rink, a community garden, a dog park, basketball courts, and a skate park—this last feature being one of the highlights, with professional planners coming in to create the design. (Mr. Hinnenkamp said that he’d driven by the current, mediocre skate park recently and saw a group of boys who had shoveled off three feet of snow so they could use it.) Councilor Larson praised Councilor Fosle for his involvement throughout the planning process, and he in turn praised Mr. Boben’s leadership and commitment. The resolution passed unanimously.

In the closing comments, Councilor Russ announced that a plan to formally establish Ranya, Iraq as a Duluth Sister City would be coming forward at the next meeting. Councilor Larson previewed a “trails damage ordinance” she planned to introduce in April, which will seek to educate citizens on how to protect trails and use them as intended. She also asked about results from the recent housing summit, and was promised a follow-up by CAO Montgomery. Councilor Fosle closed the meeting by plugging a steering committee meeting on ATV trails on March 31 at the Fire Training Center at 6:00 PM, and wished his mother a happy birthday and passing along his love.

It was a quick and painless night in the Council Chamber, and even Councilor Fosle, usually in the minority, was all smiles as he moved through a pair of resolutions he’d long worked for. It’s an encouraging sign: it would be easy for everyone else in the room to marginalize him, but instead they’re taking up some of his ideas, and that makes him happy to work with them. The collegial Council will enjoy two weeks off before returning to solve all of Duluth’s ills, and hopefully all the snow will melt away in that time. Perhaps then someone can take down the reindeer and the Christmas tree still sitting atop the fountain in Government Plaza…

My Washington

23 Mar

Spring (or the lack thereof) is by far the most miserable season in Duluth, and by late March, it’s not hard to flash back to those four brilliant springs I enjoyed in Washington, D.C. By now everything is abloom, midterms are underway, and Georgetown basketball has already made its annual embarrassing early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Bouncyball angst aside, Georgetown is such a vibrant campus that one can go all four years without venturing far from M Street and the handful of streets that feed down into it. I can hardly describe it to Duluthians without resorting to a string of bubbly clichés. The neighborhood is a storybook village, the brick and pastel rowhouses lining the cobblestone streets interrupted by old trolley lines, a historical plaque on practically every building. (My personal favorite: one that read “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”) The Georgetown Bubble is a college student’s pleasure dome, and few are called to venture out into the wider city: classes consume us, special events abound, and on Friday and Saturday nights, a short walk to The Tombs is all we need.

Of course, everyone gets out for at least one Monuments Tour at night, goes and stands before Lincoln and Jefferson in awe, or in the memorials to Vietnam and Korea in reverence. This time of year, the FDR Memorial is the place to be: its lights shine through the waterfalls and illuminate inspired quotes, the whole scene robed in the soft luminescence of the cherry blossoms, a full moon gazing down on the Tidal Basin. And then, of course, there are the Smithsonians and their various friends, usually toured with a group of friends or visitors from back home, though every once in a while on my own, freeing me to stand transfixed in front of Magritte’s “La condition humaine” at the National Gallery for as long as I choose. The sprawling Mall, where everything looks closer than it actually is, the grassy avenue fading away toward the Capitol, down past that spot where I stood as Barack Obama took the oath of office. Across the Key Bridge in the Virginia are more markers of the past, perhaps less visited but no less impressive: Roosevelt Island, Iwo Jima, the Netherlands Carillon with its peerless view of the city, and Arlington Cemetery.

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Today, though, I write not about the DC of monuments and museums and marble at every turn, but instead of the world beyond. It’s a city of both beauty and sorrow, one that encompasses both the best and the worst of the nation ruled from its center. It was never home, but it became a part of me, its little corners tugging me back and inviting a second look.

First, there is Northwest DC, a common haunt for a Hoya with aspirations of calling himself a runner. Quiet, leafy streets, well-tended homes, and the occasional tasteful business district slipped in to make it all walkable. Just behind campus lies the Glover-Archbold Parkway, an avenue of green that heads five miles north through all the bustle, up toward American University. A side trail leads to Battery Kemble Park, an old Civil War artillery outpost atop a hill, where I’d keep watch over the dog-walkers from a picnic table, free to study away from the cloud of stress hanging over the Georgetown library, away from the distractions of campus life. Further along, another site in the ring of forts protecting the District, this one now a reservoir: Fort Reno Park, a windy expanse where I’d flop in the grass and drift off, jolted to life only when the students of Woodrow Wilson High poured out into the sunlight at the end of their day, spray-painting prom invites on a weathered wooden stage and taking me back to afternoons on the lawn out in front of the old Duluth East.

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Shifting west, the city becomes more unique, more authentically DC. There is the Naval Observatory, its daily bugle calls audible from my off-campus house on R Street; the bars of Glover Park, underused by Georgetown students. Beyond that rises the monolithic Russian Embassy, and then the National Cathedral, a Gothic marvel, and one of the few American houses of worship that can rival anything in Europe or Latin America. Its nave could hold the Washington Monument on its side, but its beauty comes out in the details as well: the quiet chambers in the crypt, the contemplative Bishop’s Garden, and the preppy St. Alban’s campus unfolding below. In the midst of the urban jungle, a refuge where no one will ask any questions.

To the east of campus lies a world of great wealth and aesthetic beauty. Down the brick sidewalk past the Argentine gelato place (now sadly shuttered) one comes to Dumbarton Oaks, a walled estate whose very name suggests grandiose affairs. The name does not lie: it was here that, in 1944, the Allies laid the groundwork for the United Nations. It is a wonder to this day, its sprawling gardens offering romantic allure at every turn, tempting the young to hop its walls with a wine bottle after dark and settle along one of its pools or masterfully manicured courts. Behind its grounds are public parks, filled with flowers and woods and babbling streams, with a footpath snaking its way along Rock Creek up toward the giant parkland separating east and west DC. Beyond it is Embassy Row, its stately avenues filled with little monuments: the Khalil Gibran Memorial, Gandhi in stride, a Brazilian aviator, the Bard of Ukraine, the memorial on the spot where Chilean dissidents were killed by a car bomb. The Spanish Steps, plucked out of Rome and shrunk into a shady cul-de-sac with a fountain that never works. Some of the embassies bustle with enthused energy; others hide behind bars and gates, guarding the secrets of statecraft. This is the DC that dreams are made of, its well-heeled families parading about with their perfect children, its shady streets a short walk from the bustle of Dupont Circle.

That is only one of the city’s many faces, though. Much of downtown DC is a drab wasteland of government buildings and everything that comes with them, a sclerotic mix of government and contractors and the echo chambers of K Street. This is the heart of L’Enfant’s city, but his plazas are now mostly a home for the homeless, a reminder that all is not well, even as the capital’s wealth overflows. At night, all is dead. Even vibrant Chinatown further along is a bit manufactured, but there is at least some life here: the bars, the restaurants, the National Gallery, and the Verizon Center, home to Georgetown basketball. (Let’s please not talk about this season.) There is the government center where we endured Zoning Commission meetings on a proposed campus plan, plus the National Building Museum, where I once spent an evening with Ann Coulter. (Ask Uncle Chuck about that one.) And, to the east, Union Station, its great atrium modeled on the Baths of Diocletian, the site of many of my DC comings and goings, plus that final senior ball the night before I walked across the stage.

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For more interesting environs, head north. To Adams-Morgan, with its bar-lined cosmopolitan boulevard, a pleasant break from the pretension of M Street, though the creep of gentrification looms. Indeed, that is a theme all across the north side, from Hispanic Columbia Heights to the historically black corridors of U Street and H Street Northeast, with a vibrant Ethiopian community mixed in. The food is delicious, the diversity is real, the rents aren’t through the roof—but one suspects they will be soon, and with them will go the vibrant city. But for now it is a delight, teeming with life, melting seamlessly into the bourgeois Northwest by the National Zoo before drifting into the part of the city that is still uniformly African-American. Wedged between Adams-Morgan and that Latino nonprofit in Mount Pleasant where I once doused myself in silvery paint while brushing up a balcony lies Meridian Hill Park, among the greatest of DC curiosities. Up top, a stately lawn reminiscent of a European capital; below, a sprawling fountain and a memorial to the not-so-memorable James Buchanan, to say nothing of the statues of great American heroes like Joan of Arc and Dante. It has a little of everything, attracts some of everyone, though that rare mix may prove fleeting.

To the east lies a DC few outsiders visit, though that is changing, as the money flows in and developers snap up the real estate. The District’s black population, no longer its majority, is drifting eastward into Prince George’s County. The southeast riverfront looks nothing like it once did, with Nationals Stadium and its crisp sightlines rising up on the banks of the Anacostia. RFK Stadium, once the main attraction on the east side, is on its way out, with its last tenant—the DC United soccer club—headed for a soccer-specific stadium near Nationals Park in the not-so-distant future. To the north, one monument stands unchanged while DC shifts around it: the National Shrine, the nation’s largest Catholic church, and one unlike any other with its exquisite Byzantine look.

Across the Anacostia’s polluted waters lie a few sites worthy of a visit. The Anacostia Community Museum, exiled far from the rest of its Smithsonian brethren, and the Fredrick Douglass House, sitting stately atop a hill. Parts of Southeast aren’t nearly as blighted as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Yet the troubles persist. The projects and planning schemes have amounted to nothing; even Marion Barry’s patronage machine couldn’t do much to change the fate of his home ward. Just past the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcom X sits Ballou High, where I spent part of a semester in a class that had us trying to instill some civic engagement in a struggling, all-black public school. Through the metal detectors, down chaotic halls, into a classroom where maybe half of the kids would show up—and these were the survivors, the seniors, the thirty percent who’d made it through from freshman year. Midyear we were thrown from the school, ostensibly for lack of communication, but more likely because we were witnesses to the shock therapy imparted by Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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The status quo was untenable, but the vicious cuts and relentless turnover didn’t make much of a difference. Five years later, not much has changed, save for the changes brought on by the eastward march of urban renewal schemes. A few heroic teachers and community leaders battle on, trying something, anything, that hasn’t been tried before, but one senses that Black DC is slipping away, scattering through suburbs off toward Baltimore. The new District will be beautiful, and offer ideal urban living—for those who can afford it. It will continue to attract the best and the brightest, those who believe they’ve outgrown wherever it is they’ve come from, a transient city for the ambitious of all political stripes. I could have been happy there, in among the interesting neighborhoods and people, perhaps living in a grand old house, raising children amid all that cultural wealth while still being able to show them the other side, and to do what I could to keep the vibrancy alive.

And yet I made no effort to stay in DC after I graduated from Georgetown. I left in part for reasons my old professor and fellow ex-Washingtonian, Patrick Deneen, describes here; in part for more personal reasons. Distance, however, has eased some of my jadedness, and I can now remember all those little details with unburdened fondness. I no longer reject Washington; it left a mark I cannot deny, and in many ways it was a positive one. I’ll happily go back and dip my feet in from time to time. But it was also just one chapter in a much longer book, and the strength of those chapters is measured not in my closeness to power, nor in my rejection of it. It will come instead, I think, in how fully I lived in each of those years, what I learned from them, and how I took those lessons and used them to write the later chapters. In that, Georgetown proved an excellent guide—but it couldn’t have done it without its city, one whose streets my mind will forever wander.

A Meeting that Cannot Be Summarized Pithily: Duluth School Board Notes, 3/18/14

19 Mar

Despite Chair Miernicki’s earnest pleas that the ISD 709 School Board hurry through its meeting so as to get home before too much more snow fell on Tuesday night, the audience was instead subjected to a marathon of a meeting. The Board crammed a lot in to its two and a half hours of business, and it wound up being one of the more memorable meetings I’ve seen.

The night began on a musical theme, as the Duluth East Choralaires and Sterling Strings both performed in honor of Music in the Schools Month. (This former Sterling Strings bassist was pleased with the performance of his successor.) Ms. Teri Akervik, the schools’ Music Curriculum Specialist, then put in her plug for music programming in the schools, talking of the “roller coaster” of funding cuts over the past decade. A citizen speaker who gives private music lessons, Ms. Jana Blomquist, gave an even more pointed plea. She compared Duluth to her former home in Iowa, where children began on instruments at much younger ages, and claimed there was a large gap between the talents of young musicians in surrounding districts and those in Duluth.

Another speaker gave a brief update on the schools’ community garden project, happily noting the strong attendance at a recent meeting and hoping for a future opportunity to give a longer update. In the Superintendent’s report, Supt. Gronseth acknowledged the success of several teams in interscholastic competitions, including the high school robotics competition held in Duluth two weekends ago and the Destination Imagination improv competition for younger grades. He also plugged the two teams nearest to my heart: the Duluth East hockey team, and also the East Knowledge Bowl team, which is sending two teams to State this year. (Live it up at Cragun’s, kids…I was fortunate enough to go three times, and each one was a blast.)

After that, it was on to the Education Committee report, which was lengthy this time around. There was some brief discussion of the busing in the District’s HeadStart program, though the funding there does not come from the District, so it didn’t go very far; Member Johnston expressed his relief that Piedmont Elementary’s HeadStart was up and running again after temporarily falling victim to the sequester. Next, Member Welty apologized for misrepresenting historical graduation rates in past comments; after doing further research, he’d noted the District was in somewhat better shape now than it was ten years ago. Member Johnston was happy to see some goals set for improving graduation rates, though he also took a moment to once again point out Duluth’s brutal achievement gap for African-American and Native American students, with the added caveat that he is “not blaming anybody but [himself] as a Board member” for that situation.

Next up was a plan to align District curriculum with broader standards, which Supt. Gronseth had announced would be happening at a much faster pace than previously planned at last month’s meeting. If this had struck anyone as a curiously fast acceleration, the reason became all too clear over the past weekend, when a story broke in the News-Tribune claiming that Laura MacArthur, the west side elementary school lauded for its dramatic turnaround on state test scores, had effectively abandoned social studies and science curriculum in order to reach that goal.

The issue is a complex one. For starters, there were plenty of complaints about overbearing dictates from higher levels of bureaucracy. Member Johnston decried the “top-down” orders from Washington, and both he and Member Westholm talked about the troubles of using test scores as the judge of a school’s quality; Member Westholm had an anecdote about the particularities of geometry curriculum from his time at Denfeld. Chair Miernicki noted the irony in the fact that ISD 709 is allegedly an “independent” school district when there are 44 benchmarks from on high for one single elementary school. Some of the most scathing remarks came from Member Seliga-Punyko, who blasted the “hypocrisy” of the state Department of Education for chastising Duluth over its curriculum standards so shortly after identifying Laura MacArthur as a “priority school” based on its test scores. The District had taken its grant to turn the school around and done exactly that, earned national recognition, and now they were being criticized for doing it all wrong? She also took a rather delicious (though also not exactly accurate) shot at the Dept. of Education for “approving a charter school for hockey” while coming down on Duluth at the same time.

As usual, Member Johnston went a step further in his criticism. He “hope[d] the accusations are false,” but was upset about hearing about the confusion from the newspaper, not the Administration, and said he had made many inquiries in emails to the Supt., many of which he did not respond to, while the Department of Education had always responded to his queries within an hour. “We’re the last to find out anything,” he complained, repeating the gist of his comments about five times. Supt. Gronseth disagreed with some of these characterizations, saying he had indeed presented several updates as plans evolved. Member Welty, while more diplomatic in his remarks, expressed similar sentiments. He worried that the District had “panicked” over the test scores and cut corners to fix the issue, and thought the situation demanded further review by the Board. He hoped the Administration would cooperate on the matter.

The Board then took up a reconsideration of last June’s vote to move ahead with a plan to close high school campuses during the lunch hour. Chair Miernicki suggested rescinding the plan, saying he’d been “opposed from the outset,” and had worries about the costs, use of personnel, and the ability of the schools to enforce the policy. Joining him in criticism were the two non-voting Student Members. Member Manning said it made schools feel like a “prison” and would probably burden students who are already disadvantaged, and that forcing people to be in a place is not effective for education; Member Tremble said he’d spoken with many Denfeld students who disliked the change, and added that “a small percentage are ruining this” for everyone else. Member Welty talked of his exchanges with Officer Mike Tusken on the matter, and said he was at least open to the idea of a closed campus, but did not think the District had committed the resources necessary to ensure that the closed campuses would not be prisons. “We don’t have our ducks in a row,” he said, adding that the Board should “wait to do it the right way.”

The defenders of the open campus were led by Member Seliga-Punyko, who came out with guns blazing. She said it would decrease truancy, allow for less substance abuse, make for better neighborhood relations, and lead to fewer accidents. She questioned the motives of anonymous administrators who gave the program a $200,000 price tag, saying most of the expenses had already been accounted for by the Long-Range Facilities Plan, and scoffed at the notion that a half-hour in a lunchroom with one’s friends was akin to a prison sentence. She and Member Harala also talked of upholding the past Board’s precedent, though Member Welty pointed out that he hadn’t been on that Board, and Member Manning said there was nothing wrong with going back to re-visit something after gaining more information.

The Board spent a fair amount of time talking about a mysterious thing called a “power hour,” which momentarily freaked me out, because anyone in my generation associates that phrase with the excessive consumption of alcohol. (I’m not exactly a member of the temperance brigade, but if that’s happening during school lunch hours, closing the campuses is a no-brainer!) To my relief, it was instead some sort of enriching way to fill that time during the lunch hour that some schools use, though no one ever bothered to explain what this might entail. (But seriously, do people not Google these things before they name them?) There was much vague talk of implementing this sort of thing, though it never moved beyond that.

Member Harala, noting that these things could be talked about forever if nothing decisive was done, called the question; the measure passed. The margin was apparently 4-2, with Members Welty and Miernicki in opposition and Member Johnston abstaining because he was on the fence, though it was hard to tell, as Chair Miernicki made no effort to count the votes, and Member Johnston’s abstention only came to light much later in the meeting. Member Loeffler-Kemp moved to put the funding for the program into the Business Committee report, which frustrated Member Johnston; Member Welty worried that sort of move would cut off further debate, while Member Westholm said it didn’t lock them into anything. It was placed into the Business Committee report by a 5-2 margin, with Members Welty and Johnston opposed; once there, the measure passed 6-1, with Member Johnston again in the opposition, and pointing out that the District could pay the salaries of three teachers with the money spent on closing campuses.

Next up was the proposed make-up of some of the seven days lost to weather this year, which tacked on two full school days and added 12 minutes to each school day for the remainder of the year starting next week. Member Johnston said the twelve minutes “seemed kinda silly” but couldn’t think of a better method, and announced his support; Member Welty seemed to agree, pointing out potential lost funding due to lack of school hours. He and Student Member Manning also asked if something could be done to accommodate students with after-school jobs, but Supt. Gronseth nixed this with the mother of all education euphemisms (“every conversation is worth having, but…”), and noted that all students would mysteriously get after-school jobs if this allowance were made. Chair Miernicki said that, as a former teacher, twelve minutes could make all the difference in the world. There was much inspired talk about what can be made of twelve minutes, with Member Harala noting that most TED Talks are that long, and Member Welty saying he’d learned a novel new shoe-tying method from a TED Talk in three. The rest of the Education Report was then approved unanimously.

The Human Resources Report was up next, and there was some rare debate there, as a three-year renewal of Supt. Gronseth’s contract was on the table. Member Johnston suggested they table the measure to allow for more debate, but no one seconded the motion; Member Welty said he’d been tempted, but he deferred to the wisdom of the previous Board, which had conducted an evaluation of the Supt’s performance the previous year. Member Johnston asked if he might have a private forum to air some of his concerns, but Chair Miernicki told him the process had to be public; with many qualifications and apologies, Member Johnston said this was the “last chance” to bring up a number of issues. He then went down a laundry list of his concerns about the District, including cuts in staff, curriculum, the credit rating; rising class sizes, deficits, tax burdens; and no progress on bringing lost students back to the District. He also noted that the Supt’s salary ($168,000), while flat, was the highest of any non-Metro Minnesota districts. He claimed Supt. Gronseth had not been vetted properly, though the rest of the Board disagreed; Member Harala also pointed out Duluth’s size as justification for the higher salary, and Chair Miernicki called the Supt’s performance in the evaluation session “outstanding.” Member Welty said he thought many of Member Johnston’s concerns deserved attention, but reiterated his support, and the contract passed 6-0, with Member Johnston abstaining.

The rest of the Human Resources Report passed unanimously, as did everything in the Business Report other than the previously discussed funding allocations. In the closing comments, Supt. Gronseth thanked his colleagues on the podium for his new contract, and Member Harala thanked the work of those on the Education Equity Advisory Committee. Student Member Manning brought the night full circle by worrying about the effects of the 6-period middle school day on the District’s music programs; Member Seliga-Punyko agreed wholeheartedly. Member Welty also concurred, but said he wasn’t sure how the District could save its music programs without a “serious re-evaluation of how we do these things…talk is cheap.” Member Miernicki closed the proceedings with a tongue-in-cheek moment of prayer for no snow day the next day, and had his wish granted, as the storm skirted Duluth.

***

I know this post is already long, but there was a lot to digest in this meeting and I’m in an opinionated mood today, so I’m going to offer more commentary than usual.

First off, compliments for everyone: there is a superb diversity of views on the School Board right now. The debate is great, and while there are heated exchanges, they are not personal. That’s a night and day difference from the last term, and it’s a big step in the right direction.

Now, some critiques and opinions. I’ll begin with Ms. Blomquist’s comments on the music programs, in which she said Duluth’s instrumental music programs were worse than those in neighboring districts. This was certainly not my experience when I was in ISD 709 6-10 years ago; in fact, it was quite the contrary, and as I participated in a regional youth symphony, I had pretty good grounds for a comparison. Several members of Sterling Strings open enrolled from Hermantown, in large part because of the music program. That said, the recent move to a six-period middle school day is indeed grave for the music programs. If I were an ISD 709 8th grader today, foreign language almost certainly would have taken precedence over music, and my orchestra career would have ended there. I’m not sure the trickle-up effects of the schedule change have had enough time to make the impact suggested by Ms. Blomquist’s alarmist language, but if something isn’t done soon, it will get there in time. This is a real concern.

I don’t have a strong opinion on the closed campuses; there are benefits to doing it, and I don’t think anyone will really be unduly burdened by it. That said, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of financial sense right now, and I think there are far more pressing issues on the District’s plate.

Also, to be blunt: Chair Miernicki is a good man, but there were way too many procedural errors in tonight’s meeting. I understand he was trying to get through things quickly because of the weather, but the amount of time lost due to missed lights, misstatements, and parliamentary confusion far exceeded any time he might have saved by trying to hurry things through. It is far better to pause for a second to make sure one has allowed everyone to have their say and has the proper procedure lined up than it is to go barreling ahead to save a few seconds here and there.

On the Laura MacArthur situation, it’s hard to say much without all the facts, but it’s worth noting that the Administration never denied the charge, and the rapid response certainly suggests there was a serious, if not total, cut to programs outside of reading and math. I can only imagine what my reaction would have been if I had a kid there and that happened, and I’m especially concerned for the plight of the Laura Mac students who already were doing reasonably well in reading and math. There’s plenty of blame to go around. No one is really wrong here; federal standards, education bureaucracy, excessive testing, Red Plan-related cuts, and a contradictory Department of Education all come into play. Ultimately, though, I find Member Welty’s characterization the most accurate: if true, this was a sad overreaction, and the buck has to stop with the District.

Not knowing the details, I can’t comment too much on the communication dispute between Member Johnston and Supt. Gronseth, but there is obviously room for improvement there on both ends. I’ve said this before, but things that Supt. Gronseth seems to think are clear and transparent are sometimes anything but—and if they aren’t to me, they certainly aren’t to the general public. Member Johnston, meanwhile, still has his moments of tiring obstreperousness, but to be fair, he is practically falling over himself trying to be polite and qualify his comments. For all his disruptive history, I don’t doubt he’s acting in good faith so far in this new term, and whether or not we agree, some of his questions deserve answers.

The problem is that the Board doesn’t really have a good mechanism for raising the big picture questions he and Member Welty want to raise. It’s very easy for the majority of the Board to go along with business as usual, and that rarely gives chances for big picture questions, since so many things happen in such a piecemeal fashion. With the Red Plan rancor starting to fade away, it might finally be possible to have a serious conversation here that doesn’t devolve into the blame game it has been for the past six or seven years. That would take some maturity out of certain debate participants that isn’t always there, but I have some confidence it would work.

Half of the time, I want to roll my eyes at the critics, many of whom are running around like Chicken Little and creating a big fuss, which in turn creates a self-fulfilling PR prophecy for the District. If you really think this District is in bad shape, especially considering its demographics, get out of Duluth for a bit. On the other hand, relentless positivity in the face of real problems, including some new problems that (whatever the cause) have popped up in the past few years, gets to be pretty grating after a while, and gives the impression that some heads are buried in the sand. With our diverse and fairly civil Board, I’d be curious to see what comes out of a serious big-picture appraisal of the District. Yes, there would be some risk of picking at scabs, but I’d be inclined to give all sides credit no matter what comes out of it.

UMD Hockey 2013-2014 Post-Mortem

17 Mar

The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs’ playoff run came to an abrupt end on Saturday night, as a 3-2 lead entering the 3rd period slipped away, leading to a first-round sweep at the hands of Western Michigan. I have no real direct ties to the UMD program, save some loyalty to the numerous Duluth East players who make their way up the hill for college, but they do offer convenient high-level hockey for a Duluthian, and I end up at a number of games every year, including the season-ending loss this time around.

The result wasn’t a terrible tragedy for UMD. It was an improvement over last year. They were an incredibly young team still building up a new core to replace the one that won them a national championship three years ago; the regular season had its highlights, and a .500 record in the nation’s most balanced conference and against one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules is no great shame. The way it ended does leave a sour taste, though, as they were swept at home despite dominating long stretches of both playoff games.

The Bulldogs had one of the deepest stables of forwards in the NCAA this past season, as they showed when they had no trouble skating with powers like Minnesota and St. Cloud State. In fact, they may have suffered from an overload of quality forwards, with few who stood far above the rest. After a stellar freshman years, Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley didn’t score quite as much, and there was much mixing and matching on two of the top three lines, which were interchangeable by the end of the year. Taking the place of the two sophomores as the lead producers were juniors Justin Crandall and Caleb Herbert, while Kyle Osterberg, the first of three big-time freshman forwards, impressed with his energy and knack for finding the back of the net.

By February, the one stable line all season long had emerged as the best: the line anchored by freshmen Dom Toninato and Alex Iafallo. They shut down other teams’ top lines and generated plenty of zone time, though in the end, they could have scored a little more; a more dynamic offensive player than Adam Krause might have been a more sensible third member for that line. To be fair, that could have come at the expense of some defense, and would have made the line noticeably younger, but while I respect Scott Sandelin’s principle of having each line feature two players with good chemistry together, the third guy needs to have a logical role within the scheme. The fourth line seemed under-utilized at times, too; it generated good chances when it did see the ice, but Sandelin usually leaned on three, and that sometimes seemed to hurt them late in games. The end result was a team that possessed the puck and moved it as well as anyone in the nation, but the chemistry for the finishing touch wasn’t always there. With another quality crop of forwards coming in next season, Sandelin and company will face a continued balancing act as they try to find ideal roles for everyone.

The struggle to finish can be especially troubling when a team’s defense isn’t stellar. Again, this isn’t a scathing critique; it was a young team, and there will be mistakes as players learn on the fly and the coaching staff tries to figure out exactly what it has. The team only has one complete, two-way defenseman right now: sophomore Andy Welinski, who was strong, but perhaps didn’t progress quite as much as one might have expected after his hype coming in and a strong freshman campaign.  Freshmen Carson Soucy, Willie Raskob, and Dan Molenaar should get there, as all three had some flashes and some eminently forgettable moments this season. When at its best, the defensive corps was quite dynamic, though it could do with an added dose of beef. Despite the unfortunate de-commitment of Blake Heinrich, they have a few players coming in over the next couple of years who should correct that imbalance.

When a team outshoots its opponent 37-11, it’s easy to scapegoat the goalie, but often, he isn’t the culprit, and that was the case with Aaron Crandall on Saturday night against WMU. The goals were all the products of power plays or odd-man rushes, and the game-winner was a combination of the two. It’s a frustrating refrain that Duluth East fans will also know all too well: the team dominates play for long stretches, only to see a defenseman pinch too far in or backchecker play without quite enough zeal, and all of the sudden, the other team has a rush going the other direction, and generates a better scoring chance than anything the team had in several minutes of offensive zone possession. Part of the trouble there is youth and inexperience, which UMD will simply have to outgrow, but such fundamentals are the sort of thing a college-level team should be able to anticipate and protect against. Still, the point here is that UMD’s style of hockey can unfairly burden goalies and skew their stats, and Crandall had some big games for the Bulldogs this past season. He is the only graduating senior who will be a loss of any great size.

One other trend this season deserves a mention: the Bulldogs were bad at home, going an ugly 5-10-3 at Amsoil Arena. Of course much of the blame falls on the players and coaches there, but the fans ought to share a chunk of the blame as well. UMD had the 7th-highest attendance of any team in the nation, but you wouldn’t have known it most nights, as tickets sold far exceeded the number of seats filled, and those bright yellow empty seats were pretty conspicuous. The student section had good numbers but usually had to be coaxed to life by the scoreboard; there was very little in the way of creativity or rowdiness. The rest of the fan base does little to pick up the slack. (The crowd had to be practically dragged to its feet late in the season finale, as a few fans tried to coax a little energy into a team fighting for its playoff life.) Duluth is a great hockey market, and anyone who’s been to a 7AA section final knows just how loud Amsoil can get when it has some fiery fans in the arena. With so many seats right on top of the ice, the place should be rocking in big games, and one of the most intimidating arenas in the nation. But I’ve been to Badger games at a cavernous, half-empty Kohl Center with far more energy. The atmosphere at most Bulldog games seemed like a dinner party, with everyone chatting politely and perhaps offering up some musing commentary on the action out on the ice. It’s disappointing.

At any rate, the season was a step in the right direction for the Bulldogs, and if they build on some of these foundations, the future certainly looks bright.

The Man in the Arena

16 Mar

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” from a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, 23 April 1910.

Fighting words there, Teddy. There’s an obvious tension between these lines and the tone of many posts on this blog. I am often a critic, and rarely go overboard for particular causes. It sounds inspiring, of course, but when you think about it, the chivalrous attitude one sees in TR and his European contemporaries rubs thin. After all, it’s exactly what kicked off the First World War just a few years later. It drips of hubris. It carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, breeding resentment and fueling the collapse of the old world order. And while I think there are obvious things to admire in Teddy’s politics, whether he knew it or not, his machismo and controlling demeanor contributed quite a bit to America’s imperial ambitions and gradual centralization. It’s the blustering bravado of a man who can’t accept the fact that there’s a dark side to everything, even in the seemingly most enlightened projects. It turns life into a roller coaster of victories and defeats, a bipolarity ill-befitting of anyone just trying to get by.

And yet, despite that withering dismissal, I’m still on board with TR. My favorite people are those who are in the arena: the star athlete, the charismatic leader, the far-reaching visionary. It’s not that I can’t enjoy the company of other critics, but after a while that life wears thin, and it’s not uncommon to find people using cynical detachment as a cheap excuse for not doing anything. Just as wholesale commitment to life in the arena fails to provide any perspective, so too does a life that never enters it come up short. Call it ambition, eros, transcendence, whatever you like: cynical detachment alone denies an unavoidable part of human nature that we cannot suppress or wish away.

All this talk of arenas reminded me of a David Brooks column that is now several years old, but has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Here it is—and to my pleasant surprise, upon rereading it, I found it was based around All Things Shining, a book that I read last spring, and blogged about here and here. Anyway, Brooks’ point is that, in the modern world—and especially for those of us who struggle with religious truth—it can be hard to find transcendent, unified meaning in the universe. Instead, we have to look for it in the fleeting moments of daily life, and in communion with other people in those institutions that bind us together. That is, in arenas.

This is pretty much how I’ve lived for the past few years. I’ve outsourced much of my emotion to, in Brooks’ words, “activities often dismissed as mere diversions [that] are actually central.” I am, obviously, a big sports fan, and use that as a main channel. I also get the “wooshing” sensation in plenty of other places—in nature, in the company of family and good friends, and so on. Most of my pleasures and ambitions are not all that grandiose, and I intend to keep it that way.

Politics, however, occupies a somewhat more complicated place. Most of those other things I get swept up in have no vast consequences, but as Brooks writes, the excitement of politics offers no “satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.” Lives and livelihoods are at stake here, and anyone who thinks deeply about these things probably fears becoming too partisan, since they know that virtually all political platforms oversimplify. From there, it’s not too big of a leap to head into political ambivalence. It’s all too complicated, too distant; why bother?

Since the moment some three and a half years ago when I realized my happiness is not tied to politics, I’ve reveled in the resultant freedom. Yet somehow, I can’t tear my eyes away. I play the detached observer, parsing the rhetoric and shaking my head at all these yelling and screaming politicians, sometimes letting an emotional outburst or two slip through. I couldn’t retreat, even though part of me wanted to do so completely. I’ve re-focused my energy on the areas I can have an influence, and I’m still motivated by a sense of duty; perhaps the word “stewardship” would be an apt one for the compulsion I feel toward political action. I plan to have kids some day, after all, and I want them to inherit a world—or, at least, one corner of it—that is worth inhabiting. So long as I’m a part of this world, I can’t get rid of that pull, no matter how much I claim disinterest.

I say all of this because I am re-entering the arena right now, after a fashion: an old college friend has asked me to reprise my role as his PR man, this time on a campaign he’s managing for a school board candidate in Phoenix. It’s hardly a daring leap into the gladiatorial ring, and my decision was driven more by loyalty than by an ideological commitment to a cause; I haven’t met the candidate yet, and will be doing my work from 1800 miles away. I’m intrigued by the situation in Phoenix, but I’m at some remove from it all, too.

Clearly, this isn’t a rush into the center of the arena. I could probably get there if I put everything I had into it, but instead, I’ve slowly come to accept that I am better suited for being the guy behind the scenes. I may point out where the strong man stumbles, but I don’t do it out of spite; I do it because I don’t want to see him make that same mistake again. I want to make sure he doesn’t become blinded by all the dust and blood and forget what it is he’s fighting for, or how to conduct himself while doing so. And if he needs to lose a battle to win a war, I want to be there to talk him through it. Why would anyone enter the arena if he doesn’t have someone behind him?

There needs to be a bridge between the arena and the world beyond it. What I aim for is balance, or a smooth cycle between two poles, both essential, but incomplete on their own. When one finds that perspective, it’s not too hard to see that all things really are shining.