Archive | April, 2014

Blustering Outside, Calm Inside: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/28/14

28 Apr

A vicious wind has howled through Duluth all day on Monday, and the City Council made similarly breezy work of its agenda tonight. There was nothing remotely controversial on the docket, and Member Gardner, busy hobnobbing with Michele Obama, was absent. (Councilor Julsrud had also been in D.C. this week and just made it back in time, and earns a gold star from me for mentioning her visit to Georgetown.) It all made for a rather tame night. Maybe everyone was sick of this God-awful weather, or maybe everyone just wanted to get home in time to watch the Wild in Game Six. (Mission accomplished.)

While the evening lacked in serious policy debate, it did bring out one of the more diverse slates of citizen speakers in recent memory. It was an eclectic group: some familiar faces, some new ones; some very predictable issues, others less so. Three of their number came to discuss potholes and street repair, and they all took the city to task for floating the idea of raising taxes to pay for these projects. Mr. Jim Booth was the most eloquent of the trio, laying out a budget for Duluth seniors on fixed income and worrying how they might survive the steady stream of tax increases. He and his colleagues also complained about the use of TIF districts to finance so many projects, and said the tax burden might drive young families to surrounding communities instead of Duluth.

Two speakers, backed by a group of supporters, came to demand action on homelessness in Duluth. Ms. Rebecca Domagala of the Human Rights Commission reminded the Councilors of their move toward a homeless bill of rights in January, but said nothing had been done since, as the HRC has only two sitting members and needs people appointed to its open seats to fulfill its function. Mr. Joel Kilgour echoed these sentiments and openly questioned the city’s commitment to its project, citing a Mayor Ness quote from a recent interview and passing out a petition in support of the bill of rights.

One of the more unique speakers was Ms. Ashley Wallace, a social work student at the College of St. Scholastica, who was joined by a row of classmates in the Council Chamber. She used her three minutes to bring further awareness to human trafficking in the Duluth area and Minnesota in general. She broke out a few memorable statistics, saying that roughly half of Minnesota’s prostitutes are trafficked, and that their average starting age is 14. The issue remained under the radar due to the lack of organizations specifically committed to combating human trafficking, though she did cite PAVSA for its work and plugged the FORTE Act making its way through Congress. Beyond that, one other speaker spoke against raising the minimum wage, and a few of the usual suspects were back to repeat familiar talking points.

Everything on the agenda on Monday night passed unanimously, with the exception of the railway land purchase for the Cross-City Trail that was pulled back to the Administration now that Mayor Ness has backed off the original trail route immediately west of Lincoln Park. Councilor Larson took a moment to talk up the work done by partner organizations on Spirit Mountain trails, while Councilor Sipress explained that a budget amendment for pothole repair this spring used previously allocated funds and had nothing to do with the broader debate on possible taxation for a long-term street plan.

In the closing comments, most of the talk revolved around the street repair plans. Councilor Julsrud counseled the people worried about rising taxes to “relax,” saying they were just beginning the public input portion of the streets plan, and that she expects to come to a deal that makes most people happy in time. Councilors Larson and Filipovich sounded similar notes, and Councilor Filipovich told of his fun weekend spend putting out (literal) fires at a Fire Ops 101 event. Councilor Fosle rumbled to life near the end of the comments with a meandering speech on a number of fees and taxes on electricity-related services, complaining of double taxation and asking to know where all the money goes. While it might appear to be “micromanaging,” he said it was important to dig into these details to avoid spending money on “frilly things,” as the city has done in the past, and also complained of “top-heavy employment” in the Ness Administration’s decision to fill and create several high-paying city government positions. President Krug nodded to some of his qualifications and said his voice would be an important one in future debates, bringing a conciliatory end to the evening after the two of them had sparred some at the previous meeting. With that, the Council’s work was done, and everyone went back out into the elements, which were far more likely to inspire vulgar reactions than anything said inside City Hall on Monday night.

Wes Anderson’s Nostalgia

25 Apr

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” 

–Zero Moustafa on M. Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Last week I wrote about the nostalgia underlying the work of Gabriel García Márquez, which gives me a nice segue to talk a bit about Wes Anderson, who is the platonic ideal of a nostalgic artist. Whether they nod back to childhood (as in Rushmore or Moonrise Kingdom) or noticeably heavier affairs (Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the basic theme is not hard to miss. Anderson carts his viewers into a past world; an absurd one, and sometimes a very depraved one, but always a funny one that develops a curious warmth to it.

That’s how nostalgia works. The time we look back on with such fondness wasn’t all love and roses. Childhood is often tumultuous and awkward, but in retrospect its struggles seem like novelties, so we forget those and remember only the supposed freedom and innocence. (For somewhat different reasons, I’m a pretty big high school nostalgic—I love high school sports and coming-of-age stories and am fiercely loyal to my alma mater for what it did for me—but a trip back into my high school journals is still pretty terrifying.) Historical nostalgia is often even worse; yes, grand old hotels and British country estates look pretty, but that prettiness is often only possible due to an absurd concentration of wealth, and forgets that most of humanity is toiling in the muck while a handful of lucky ones live in luxury.

Anderson knows all of this. His nostalgia certainly isn’t a shiny, happy one, and one gathers from his childhood-themed films—which do have autobiographical elements—that he had a rather bizarre childhood. The films wrestle with that, and with any number of struggles great and small. His coping mechanism, clearly, is humor: he takes reality and embellishes it with nutty flourishes and over-the-top satire. Indeed, his films’ greatest weakness may be their tendency to lapse into a theater of the absurd and lose everyone in the goofiness. It’s a way of laughing off past injury, and it’s wonderfully postmodern in its rejection of anything too earnest, but beyond that façade, one really has to look for anything concrete.

It is there, though. The escape from postmodern emptiness comes in a return to the past. In a return to roots, and to acceptance of reality not as it’s been idealized in theories, but as it has become through history. That means heading back to roots and acknowledging them, even if there is a fair bit of mockery involved, too. Rushmore Academy in Rushmore may be a strange and in many ways unappealing place, but it’s still a source of dignity and pride.

Likewise with the world created in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s easy to take civilization and refinement and decorum for granted, and forget how tenuous they often are. Yes, they may seem more than a little silly when you look at their core, but ritual need not make complete logical sense to be sincere. When framed against the invading fascists and bloodthirsty heirs, the Grand Budapest looks wholesome and innocent, and M. Gustave’s exploits are a sort of child’s play; the triumphant tinkering of a man who’s gamed the system and won. He may seem an absurd character, but he’s so alluring because he has something figured out about life; something that ropes in everyone around him and makes them believe in him.

This brings us back to the quote at the top of the piece, and it’s one that applies to Anderson as well as his protagonist. He’s not exactly trying to bring back the past, nor is he even trying to create a fantasy past that never really was. He knows it wasn’t. Instead, he creates an homage to the past through his work, and gives it a timeless life of its own. Wes Anderson characters become masters of their own little realms, and run them with honor and dignity. I don’t really buy the claim that these traits are rarer than they used to be, but they certainly don’t come around every day, and that is probably why they endure. Sure, it can often be a façade; all of Anderson’s heroes have their foibles, and one could certainly claim that this is enough to condemn them. But there is also a sense that class and presentation matter, and that this is the way to build a legacy.

Does that alone go far enough? No; not in my mind, which is why Anderson will likely remain a hipster curiosity, and not an enduring icon of cinema. But it is a start, and a thoroughly enjoyable one for those of us whose minds are prone to search history for guides to the present.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel? Duluth School Board Notes, 4/22/14

23 Apr

Spring was in the air for the ISD 709 School Board’s April meeting; it wasn’t even dark out when things got going. (Hey, little things like that matter in Duluth.) A number of students were on hand to do their public meeting duties for government classes, and after a prolonged absence, Ms. Marcia Stromgren was back at augmenting her home video collection of school board meetings. The TV broadcast had some sound issues that required Chair Miernicki to stick a little sign up in front of his seat, but otherwise, it was a fairly routine night at Historic Old Central.

There was an unusually large amount of wrangling over the minutes, and things also got interesting when Members Johnston and Welty tried to get a review of several Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP) change orders on the agenda. Frustrated by their inability to do so, they had apparently resorted to a grumpy flyer distributed at the Business Committee meeting the previous week. An exasperated Member Seliga-Punyko tried to immediately call the question, saying the process was “déjà vu” of endless arguments over the previous five years, and that District practices had clearly been “examined by lawyers” and found proper. Only Member Loeffler-Kemp sided with her, though, freeing Member Johnston to say that he simply wanted a discussion in public, and that “people don’t have to agree with me.” Member Harala stepped in to say the Board needed to “sit down and decide how to get things on the agenda” and suggested they give the Administration time to be able to give a proper presentation on the question at hand. The Board agreed with her by a 5-2 margin, and after a brief back-and-forth with Member Loeffler-Kemp, Member Johnston decided to withdraw his attempt to discuss how things get on the agenda until next month.

Thus thwarted, Member Johnston took to the stand as a citizen speaker to explain his interest in these particular change orders. He said there were “at least five” LRFP change orders totaling at least $11.2 million that the Board never voted on, cannot be found in meeting minutes, and that six current and past Board Members were “unaware” of them. Of the $19.3 million increase in LRFP funding passed in March 2012 by the Board, he claimed that $8.7 million—a whopping 45 percent—went straight to Johnson Controls. Member Johnston announced his intent to bring these mysterious figures before the state auditor, the attorney general, and the state Department of Education. After he finished, the issue wasn’t mentioned again.

Otherwise, the early stages of the meeting were upbeat. The Board recognized the Duluth Aviation Institute for its support for science education in 6th grade classes, and Superintendent Gronseth told tales of his new acting career. He also said a survey exploring the possibility of late starts for weather delays will be going out soon, and there was some celebration of Earth Day by both he and Member Loeffler-Kemp. Member Harala took the Board and viewing public on a tour of the Education Committee report; highlights included a presentation on the District integration plan, whose funding cycle had undergone a large change; presentations on Head Start; and new policies on the process for adding athletic programs, though Member Harala lamented the lack of Quidditch among the proposed programs. The whole report sailed through without any real debate, though several Members recommended that citizens with any interest in the topics come to the committee meetings to learn more. (Okay, okay, I’ll get there someday.)

Member Welty introduced the HR Committee Report by saying they’d set a record by going for an hour and a half in the committee meeting, but with the teachers’ union contract pulled for further consideration, we were spared any such repeat on Tuesday. It too breezed through without any trouble, though one suspects that the special session to discuss this contract, tentatively set for May 1, will be a bit more of an adventure. (Member Welty, for one, has expressed some reservations.)

Two Business Committee items inspired the longest debates of the night. The first was a resolution to further re-zone and subdivide the old Central High School site so as to make it more marketable for sale. Member Johnston raised some doubts; first, he wanted to know if there had been any offers over the past three years (none, though there had been “many” conversations), and later, he worried the District might flush more dollars into the site in “pre-development” to make it more marketable. He recommended simply lowering the price to hurry the sale along. Supt. Gronseth countered that there was “no lack of interest” and that zoning and the recession were the biggest obstacles. Several Members thanked DEDA and the City for their support, while Chair Miernicki expressed optimism and pointed to BlueStone Lofts as a sign of how quickly a mixed-use development can take off and succeed. Member Johnston was on the fence until the end, but ultimately voted to support the resolution, and it passed unanimously.

Next, it was on to the monthly discussion of enrollment numbers, though this time it was more involved than ever before. Member Johnston, as usual, pointed out some losses, grumbled about the attitude of some in the Administration who seemed to not think it terribly serious, and insisted it should be an agenda item. Member Welty concurred on this last point, nodding to Mayor Ness’s goal for increasing city population as a similar ideal worth striving for. (Just so long as they didn’t cheat and try to annex something, Member Johnston added.) Supt. Gronseth pointed to some positive trends, including several projections the District had beaten and a preliminary OK for the District’s new online programs. Members Harala and Loeffler-Kemp emphasized the importance of positivity and focusing on the many good things happening in schools to draw people back, a point Member Johnston conceded, and said his goal of 9,000 students in five years was in fact an ambitious and positive goal. In a rare spurt of loquaciousness, Member Westholm talked of the cycles of enrollment, improvements in the lowest grades, and a “light at the end of the tunnel.” He also added that uncertainty over which schools would be open, not the quality of the education, was the primary cause of the “exodus,” particularly in his own Piedmont neighborhood.

Member Seliga-Punyko seized on this point to emphasize the instability of the last 20-30 years, with school closures being proposed all over the place, and said the LRFP would rectify these troubles now that no one was on the chopping block, and that facilities finally supported curriculum. Member Johnston then pointed out that the District has been slashing curriculum, and that it needs money it doesn’t have to fix this, while Chair Miernicki pointed out that something is always being cut, no matter what. Member Seliga-Punyko blamed the financial situation on unfunded mandates for special education; if the state and federal government put in a fraction of what they claimed they would, she said, the District wouldn’t be in this financial conundrum. (This freed Chair Miernicki to say that Jesse Ventura had once gotten something right as governor of Minnesota, in his demand that the federal government fund its mandates.) This rubbed some people the wrong way since it seemed to blame special education; while that was obviously not Member Seliga-Punyko’s intent, it’s worth pointing out that unfunded mandates, while awful and deserving of further lobbying at higher levels of government, are reality. It would be wrong to budget for this money when we all know it’s not coming.

After a brief discussion of a re-roofing project at Congdon Elementary, the Board wrapped up its business. Student Member Manning thanked the rest of the Board for its comments on curriculum and mandates, and there was talk of getting Board Members into schools whenever possible. Member Loeffler-Kemp also plugged a neighborhood meeting at Lester Park Elementary on April 29 at 5:30 to discuss the future of the old Rockridge Elementary site.

All in all, it wasn’t a very conclusive meeting. The pulling of the teachers’ contract left the Board without anything terribly controversial on its plate, and while Member Johnston’s accusations at the start of the meeting are certainly worth watching, it’s probably best to await the Administration’s reply before speculating any further on that front. That left us with an interesting talk on enrollment, though the talk has yet to really amount to much. After his flame-throwing at the start of the meeting, Member Johnston was in a relatively agreeable and constructive mood, while Member Welty held his silence more than usual. Most of the topics touched on tonight will be up again in the not-so-distant future, and perhaps for more newsworthy reasons.

This is life with the Post-Red Plan Board: there is still some clear lingering animosity, and everyone has their own theory on what caused recent financial troubles and enrollment declines. Still, there is also a sense from all sides that there’s a lot of other work to be done now, and there is an ongoing tension between acknowledging the difficulties and being the salespeople they all need to be to improve District enrollment. It’s a balancing act, and it’s easy to wobble off into woe-is-us moaning or smarmy blind optimism. As Member Westholm noted, there are good reasons to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and to therefore follow the track that has made Don Ness such a popular mayor: a positive, consensus-building agenda that brings many parties to the table in the pursuit of a somewhat vague but certainly brighter future. As with the Ness agenda, there’s a lot to be said for this; staying in the tunnel of backbiting negativity only increases perceptions of dysfunction, and no amount of yelling will magically turn on the lights. But positivity alone won’t get anything done. The District does need careful reviews of existing practices, due diligence on new proposals, and to make sure that, in the words of a famed philosopher, the light at the end of a tunnel is not in fact a train.

Exit Gabriel García Márquez

18 Apr

“Death really did not matter to him but life did, and therefore the sensation he felt…was not a feeling of fear but of nostalgia.”

—Gabriel Gárcia Márquez on death, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez died at 87 on Thursday, depriving the world of one of its greatest writers. I first met his work as a senior in high school, when I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude and devoured it in short order. Within a year, I’d started writing my own novel, and in the opening scene, the protagonist had his nose buried in One Hundred Years of Solitude. There was no coincidence in my decision, nor in that of my protagonist.Image

Among foreign critics, it’s normal to cite García Márquez for his portrayal of the “exotic” side of Latin American life. That’s true to an extent, as he wandered far from his home and probably had some appreciation for the apparent absurdities of life in rural, northern Colombia. But we must remember that, for him, these were not unusual and exotic locales: they were home. His hometown of Aracataca gave him fertile ground for writing, sure, and in interviews, he always modestly played down his own inventiveness. Yet García Márquez took a nondescript town in the middle of nowhere, Colombia, and made it into perhaps the widest-reaching allegory in all literature. Out of the little details of his home, out of the vagaries of local history, he created something both timeless and placeless. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a monument to the possibility of literature, one that shows how the novel can tell our stories—many of them at once—in a manner nothing else can match. No wonder I was sucked right in.

Glancing back through the opening lines now, I’m struck most by the simplicity of the writing. It’s not overly verbose—my edition is in Spanish, and I have no trouble with it despite the rather rusty state of my Spanish at the moment—and flows effortlessly into little glimmers of literary play, part silly and part poignant. Sure, there are elements of Hemingway and Faulkner and Borges wrapped up in there, but the voice is so distinctly his own.

It was a voice that came to define a literary movement, and for good or ill, most Latin American fiction since has been in its shadow. It also stirred up its share of political controversy; a number of the metaphors on that front are anything but subtle, and García Márquez added to his legend with his habit for hobnobbing with Latin America’s most powerful leaders. Chief among all of these, of course, was Fidel Castro, a man he counted as a friend, to the extent that Fidel has any friends. García Márquez’s leftism is easy to malign now, though Jon Lee Anderson’s 1999 New Yorker profile (temporarily freed from their paywall) suggests the author abandoned any serious belief in revolutionary Marxism some time ago. He was sympathetic, certainly, but he maintained his ties because he was still a reporter above all else, trying to get to the heart of the story, perhaps so as to ultimately have the final word. But once again Castro has outlived one of his more prominent contemporaries, and perhaps the only one who could have given his biography justice. However serious his political views, and however much we might judge them, García Márquez’s best works transcended political consideration and spared no one.

Life did indeed matter to García Márquez, and his work is infused with nostalgia. It is a collection of histories, from his parents’ romance in Love in the Time of Cholera to his exposure of long covered-up massacres of striking banana-pickers by the United Fruit Company in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The stories are personal, and that provides an added dose of care, despite his frequent use of the gruesome and the macabre. Perhaps that is why, despite his dark and often grisly works, despite the failure of his political views to gain much traction, he remained a genial optimist. He lived richly, and that wealth is evident in his prose. He had a strong memory and was willing to probe its depths with neither adulation nor disdain, but with an entirely different attitude: the world was his plaything, both in its triumphs and its absurdities, and the fruits of his delight will long endure. And while nothing I write will ever endure in that way, I do hope that, so long as I have life, I can share in that nostalgia-tinged wealth.

Of all of the ink spilled in remembering García Márquez, the best thing I’ve come across so far is this essay by Edwidge Danticat. As usual, the Spanish language Nexos magazine is delivering some quality content as well. If I find more good reflections, I’ll add links here.

Image credit:

Building Trails to West Duluth and Also Iraq: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/14/14

14 Apr

The City Council Chamber was a bustling place on Monday night, with a full house in the audience and a wide variety of issues on the table. A Boy Scout troop led the hall in the Pledge of Allegiance, and many of the usual suspects made their way to the podium before the night was over.

The meeting opened with a pair of public hearings, both of which, surprisingly enough, actually had speakers. Four people all somehow involved in the project spoke in support of the tax increment financing (TIF) district for the former Lincoln Park School, reiterating the importance of city support in subsidizing low-income housing and space for use by local nonprofits. (The resolution supporting this project passed unanimously, with the only discussion being a failed joke by Councilor Hanson about Councilor Filipovich’s golf skills.) The second hearing dealt with the assessments for street repair made in the Morley Heights neighborhood, and the speaker demanded answers on why he’d been charged for something he thought should have already been covered in his taxes, and why he’d been charged when he didn’t live on one of the repaired streets. CAO Montgomery gave him a general history of assessments in the city and explained that halves of blocks beyond a repaired street were also subject to a smaller tax burden so as to spread the costs.

Three of the four general citizen speakers were familiar faces. Ms. Linda Ross Sellner resumed her campaign against the heavy use of road salt, Mr. Loren Martell returned to his anti-Red Plan soapbox, and Ms. Alison Clarke kept up the pressure on the Beacon Pointe Lakewalk extension. The final speaker was a unique one, though, as Mr. Paul Thornton, having just survived his first Duluth winter, bemoaned the lack of indoor recreation facilities for children. He announced the launch of a campaign to bring a play area to Miller Hill Mall as a possible cabin fever reliever. In case anyone needed a reminder of how stir-crazy young children can be, his young daughter helped his case immensely by bouncing up and down around the podium in her tiara and dress, tugging at her father’s arm. Mr. Thornton will seek sponsors for the play area, and his campaign’s Facebook page can be found here.

After the passage of the consent agenda and the usual Councilor Fosle protest vote against a new vehicle purchase, the Council moved on to discussion of establishing a Sister City relationship with Rania, a city in the Kurdistan province of Iraq. Three speakers came forward to plug the arrangement, and many of the Councilors spoke highly of bridging gaps between people and learning of common humanity. (Having hosted several visitors from current sister cities, Councilor Russ cracked that “fifteen year old boys are fifteen year old boys no matter where they’re from. They want to be where the girls are.”) Councilor Russ, who has long been involved with the Sister Cities Commission, emphasized the grassroots push to build ties with Rania and numerous delegations that have gone back and forth over the years; there was also much congratulation of Ms. Michele Naar-Obed for her work in bringing the partnership to fruition. The measure’s unanimous passage was greeted by cheering (lightly chided by President Krug) and Iraqi flag-waving (happily endorsed by President Krug).

The longest debate of the evening involved the plans for the cross-city trail. At the beginning of the evening, CAO Montgomery explained that the portions up for vote at the meeting did not relate to the contentious routing through the Irving Park neighborhood near the NewPage paper mill. He agreed the existing plan was “problematic,” said the city was close to an arrangement with NewPage and the Department of Transportation to avoid routing the trail through the Central Avenue interchange, and that there would be further discussion with the neighbors on the route through the neighborhood itself. Councilor Fosle, a critic of the existing plan, then moved to formally send that resolution back to the administration.

The first discussion involved the purchase of some land from the BNSF railway near Wade Stadium to allow access from the stadium parking lot to the trail. CAO Montgomery shared the backstory on the project, but Councilor Fosle remained unconvinced the sale was necessary when nearby 35th Avenue West would likely serve the necessary purpose. Councilor Sipress asked whether it might make sense to explore a cheaper alternative, and when informed there was no pressing deadline, the Council moved to table the issue, and did so 8-1, with President Krug being the lone dissenter.

After citizen speaker Dick Haney (a familiar face from school board meetings) emphasized the importance of the cross-city trail for a healthy city, the Council took up the acceptance of a grant for Phase II of the trail, the portion between 24th and 37th Avenues West. Once again, Councilor Fosle had objections; he bemoaned the city’s inability to secure the entire old BNSF rail bed for the project, and complained that the new plan instead went down Superior Street and took away parking and land from businesses (including his own employer, the school district’s bus repair facility). He did not find the new route particularly safe, and figured that if it went down city streets, it might as well go through the Grand Avenue business district. He asked if the current design was locked in if the Council accepted the grant, to which CAO Montgomery replied with a ‘no.’ This was enough to satisfy the rest of the Council, with Councilors Sipress and Larson saying they’d be happy to look through some of Councilor Fosle’s concerns in the future. Councilor Fosle then complained about a lack of public input, which brought about strong pushback from CAO Montgomery and several other Councilors; Councilor Fosle apologized for his absolutism, but insisted there was room for better communication, and tried to ask when a plan had to be submitted. President Krug, however, had tired of his questions, and cut him off amid grumbles about the second-guessing of the city’s engineering staff. The resolution passed 8-1.

Two other items on the table got some press via Councilor Julsrud, who explained their benefits to the city. The first accepted a grant to start a biomass project at the city steam plant, which will use sawdust to drastically reduce the plant’s coal dependence. The second gave the city broader authority to use criteria other than price in the awarding of contracts, which will, ideally, allow the city to vet contractors to make sure they actually do their jobs well, instead of just cheaply. (This had been a problem in the Glenwood Street redesign in Lakeside.) Councilor Filipovich also took some time to explain a property sale that will allow the Port Authority to accept a $10 million redevelopment grant for Rices Point. All three passed unanimously.

There were several updates on Council open issues and closing comments. Councilor Gardner said her committee was “very close to consensus” on its City Charter amendment for Council appointments, while Councilor Larson said her trails damage ordinance will be along at the next meeting. She also plugged the “One Book, One Community” library program, while Councilor Fosle grumbled about being cut off, and Councilor Filipovich reminded everyone to get their taxes done. After a hectic two hours, the Council wrapped up its business, and the five people who’d survived the whole meeting packed up their notebooks and Iraqi flags and headed for the exits—exits now mercifully free of snow and Christmas reindeer, though the forecast for Wednesday already has me on my hands and knees. Someday, Duluth, spring will come, and maybe some cross-city trail plans that everyone can agree on will come along with it.

NCAA Frozen Four: The State of the Union Is Strong

13 Apr

NCAA hockey crowned a new champion on Saturday night, and this time around it truly was a new one. Union College, the pride of Schenectady, New York, ousted the University of Minnesota, 7-4. The Dutchmen had one NHL draft pick to the Gophers’ fourteen, and their entire school could fit in a large U of M lecture hall. Even so, it wasn’t much of an upset: Union hadn’t lost a game since January, and had dispatched of another co-favorite, Boston College, in the semis. By the end, there was no doubt who deserved the crown.

As the old Nanne-ism goes, the team that controls the blue line wins the championship, and that was most certainly the case on Saturday night. The man of the hour was that lone Union draft pick, Shayne Gostisbehere, who was an absurd +7 on the night, and could do no wrong; even when he seemed to make an ill-advised pinch, the puck bounced his way. At a tournament in Philadelphia, the Flyers’ draft pick put on a show for his future employers, ruling all 200 feet of the ice sheet. Though it was a bit wobbly in front of its own net–eight goals is an awful lot to give up in a Frozen Four–the entire Dutchman defense was mobile and moved the puck well, with Mat Bodie and Sebastian Gringas also flashing into the fray on the offensive end. They supported each other well, and were rarely fooled by the dekes and pretty passing pulled out by the Gophers’ skill players. Their involvement left opposing defensemen in uncharted territory, and the mistakes followed from there.

Add in a prolific top line and just enough depth to sustain pressure across the board, and Union was just flat-out fun to watch play. So often, championships by less-heralded teams involve great goaltending and narrow survival, but Union did it the opposite way, taking it to the opposition with reckless abandon. They beat arguably the top two programs in the nation in back-to-back games, and their aggressive, up-tempo play is a reminder of how enjoyable hockey can be when puck movement takes priority. Herb Brooks would have been proud.

Being a good northern Minnesota boy, though, my favorite game of the three (all excellent) Frozen Four games was the North Dakota-Minnesota semifinal. While the Union games were fun because anything was possible, the collision between the longtime rivals just dripped with tension and anxiety, with the knowledge that just one little mistake could make all the difference. Yes, it was tentative at times, but the drama, slow build-up, and patient prodding in that sort of game all have their own alluring rhythm. The game-winning goal with 0.6 seconds to go was a study in little details, from the initial face-off win by Kyle Rau to North Dakota’s lackadaisical backchecking to Rau’s pass to onrushing defenseman Justin Holl. Rau and Holl twice faced off in Section 6AA championship games back in high school, but on Thursday night, the old rivals combined to launch their team to title game.

The Gopher defense was sharp against North Dakota, but it was their undoing against Union. Too often they seemed caught in no-man’s land, managing to give the Union defense clean shooting lanes while also failing to clear out the forwards in front of the net. For all the talent on the Gophers, their inexperience showed at times, and they weren’t nearly physical enough to slow down the Dutchmen. Goaltender Adam Wilcox was hung out to dry, and though the Gophers twice battled back to within one, they didn’t quite have the firepower to overwhelm Union in an up-tempo game. Give some of their young guns a few more years and they might get there, but in 2014, experience won out over touted youth.

One Minnesota veteran deserves credit for his effort throughout: Kyle Rau. As a Duluth East alumnus, I’ll never forgive him for 2011, but three years removed from that absurd double-ricochet, triple-overtime game-winner in the state title game, I’ll concede this: there is no player in the nation with more panache. He is a lippy, chippy instigator, always right at the center of the action, and he does all the little things right, from faceoff dominance to diligent defense. The Gopher captain was the heart and soul of his team, and if he returns for his senior year, the Gophers’ offensive depth will be second to none.

The loss is a bittersweet end to the Gopher season. Sure, they lost a lot off last season’s squad, and were a very young group. But they were also among the preseason favorites, and were the top-ranked team for most of the regular season. Pending a couple of possible early departures for the pro ranks, they don’t lose much that can’t be replaced, and should be loaded for another run next season. Still, college hockey is among the least predictable sports, and this program hasn’t been lacking in talent over the past ten years, which did not yield a single appearance in the title game. They may yet rue this wasted opportunity. It’s not easy being the Gophers; even though they attract as much front-line talent as anyone, the perpetual threat of early departure keeps them from ever building a Union-like group of seniors, with players always keeping one eye on their next career move. With the likes of Rau, Taylor Cammarata, and Justin Kloos—small players who don’t project quite as well to higher levels—Don Lucia may have finally found a recruiting strategy that lets him build off the previous year’s results, instead of perpetual reloading with yet another class of talented youngsters. Time will tell.

For now, though, the moment belongs to Union. This college hockey season was dominated by talk of realignment, with the giant Big Ten schools splitting off and forming their own conference with a big TV deal, while the rest of the western teams settled into new tiers based on their size and influence. It may yet prove the beginning of the end for some of the sport’s smaller programs, but in the short term, the parity is phenomenal, with a second straight title for the allegedly lowly Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Union’s win cuts against my own cynicism over the direction of the NCAA, which the results in the other major sports did little to assuage. Hockey is different. Here, a team with zero athletic scholarships can still win it all over the big-time powerhouses with enough experience, pluck, and Gostisbehere. It’s a reminder of what college sports were meant to be back in the golden age of amateurism, if that ever really existed. It’s hard to say just how much the landscape might change in a world of money-chasing conferences and unionized (small-u union) players and an unending rush to develop for the next level, but for the time being, college hockey is one of the nation’s best-kept sports secrets. May God continue to bless it.

On Diversity

9 Apr

At times, I’ve complained that words like “liberal” and “conservative” have been so overused to mean so many different things that they’ve been drained of all meaning. Another such word is, without a doubt, diversity. It’s a very delicate topic, as it addresses identities that people sometimes take to be the core of their very existence, and is broad enough to encompass so many different spheres of life. Race is the most commonly mentioned aspect of diversity, but faith, regional identities, socioeconomics, and sexual orientation all come into play.

Just in the past week and a half, it’s been everywhere. From Stephen Colbert to Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, from the grandiose debates of bloggers like Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates to a scuffle over the owners of a market in Portland, all the way down to anti-bullying legislation and a Condoleeza Rice speech here in Minnesota, this sort of thing fascinates a segment of our population. (Another, probably larger segment could care less, though those who care will point out, not without some reason, that this is a large part of the issue.)

The debate is especially ubiquitous in the academy, and from there, it tends to flow easily into journalism and the arts. There are endless debates about affirmative action, of course, and questions about the diversity being brought in. Most every university has what might be called a diversity lobby, constantly pressuring the administration to recognize the unique plight of groups that do not constitute the majority. Core curricula have collapsed under the push to recognize voices from every corner, and the humanities are now filled with a vast array of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-focused departments. For the voices within those departments, it’s a golden age of recognition; the trade-offs come in the cacophony of voices from different corners that are now fighting for attention, and in the struggles faced by those who do not fall easily into one of those categories, or who would prefer to transcend it all.

This much is true: diversity does not yield harmony. Social science even backs this up: much to his displeasure, Harvard Scholar Robert Putnam found a correlation between diversity and lower levels of social trust and civic participation. Diversity is challenging. Frankly, it should be, if we’re going to give different backgrounds in life the respect they deserve. Diversity makes the world rich and interesting, but it is also at the root of so many conflicts.

Diversity should also not be confused with tolerance. Consider this paradox: “to have a tolerant society, we cannot tolerate racism.” I’m not saying that’s wrong; extreme tolerance leads itself to an empty form of moral relativism, and moral standards are probably necessary to protect diversity.  But in setting up those standards, we do need to recognize that we are indeed abandoning some measure of tolerance. Liberalism (in the broad sense of the word) aspires to neutrality because its adherents recognize it’s the most sensible way to live in a diverse world, but it is not perfect, and it is not and never will be fully neutral. Liberals are often guilty of failing to make that distinction, and their commitment to diversity and their commitment to freedom of speech and expression is in ongoing tension. Some of the least tolerant people I have ever met, people who wage eternal war against anything and anyone who disagrees with them, are self-professed fighters for equality and inclusion. It’s almost funny. Almost.

This is all compounded by modern discourse, which is filled with what I rather inelegantly like to call “outrage porn.” You can find this on any issue, of course, and every cause has its provocative radicals, but it is especially ironic when the anger is brought on by proponents of “diversity.” Social media gets much of the blame for its trolling, inane debates, and like-minded echo chambers of affirmation, though in many respects the traditional media, trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle with lots of things that are not newsworthy, is by far the biggest culprit. The emphasis is on calling out the offender, and rarely on actually doing anything to rectify the problem (if it is indeed a problem), save maybe a vague call for “dialogue” on one’s own terms. Everyone yells about what a horrible or misguided person so-and-so (whom they have probably never met, and never will) must be, complaining on and on until they reach the climax, go through a bit of catharsis, feel the pleasure of release, and then it’s over. Vicarious righteousness. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.

It’s tiresome, and it strains people and relationships without ever attacking the roots of whatever malaise might be at play. I’m not saying there aren’t some things worth decrying at the top of our lungs, but the amount of noise makes it nearly impossible to separate the worthwhile causes from the rest of the din. Not only that, the emphasis on hearing many different voices means that no one really agrees on the things that are worth decrying. The trouble is not the sentiment but the instrument used to achieve it, and too often that instrument is a crude bludgeon that just leaves destruction and deeper misunderstanding in its wake.

A recent graduate school application asked me to write an essay on how I might contribute to the diversity of the campus. Not necessarily the easiest task for a straight white guy with college-educated parents from the very white and comfortable side of a town in northern Minnesota. This essay was primarily for a series of diversity-based fellowships (none of which I qualified for, nor expected to), but I still had a point to make to the admissions committee. In short, diversity isn’t found by checking boxes. It’s found in observing life, and in living it. Go stand at the Holiday Center in downtown Duluth, the heart of this supposedly homogenous city, and try to wrap your head around the variety you see, and imagine what must lie behind it all. If you can, you’re probably cheating. It’s too complicated. And that complication deserves respect: recognition that there is a story behind everything, no matter how tortured the logic behind it may be, and while they may be important constituent parts, chopping those stories up and making them all about race or faith or a single key life event is an impoverished view of humanity.

I’m running the risk of turning this into a “we’re all special in our own little way” essay, which irks my inner cynic. Those stories mean we humans are never blank slates, and that will naturally include plenty of prejudices, along with a bunch of other things, good or bad or both or neither. Diversity is messy; diversity is hard. It takes time, and no one who believes in diversity for its own sake should be in any rush to impose a purity test. And then, when we do decide a battle is worth fighting, we might be able to generate a response worthy of the task at hand.

A Charles Barkley Appreciation

7 Apr

“Sometimes that light at the end of a tunnel is a train.”

                                                                —Charles Barkley

When I was in college in DC, my housemates and I played trivia at a local bar every week. We finished second an absurd number of times, but we never missed the last question of the regular round. This was because that question never changed, and it was always a ridiculous quote preceded by the line “Which former NBA player and current basketball announcer said this?” The answer, of course, was always Charles Barkley.

“You got to believe in yourself. Hell, I believe I’m the best-looking guy in the world and I might be right.”

A lot of people like Sir Charles for his entertainment value, which is considerable. This shouldn’t hide the fact that he is also one of the best studio analysts out there. I haven’t watched a ton of this year’s NCAA Tournament, but every time I have, he’s picked the winner correctly, and concisely given the reason. (He’s pretty much the only reason I’m bothering to watch tonight’s championship game between two programs for which I have little respect.) He knows his basketball as well as anyone. He is blunt, arrogant, and pushes the limits of what’s allowed on television. He’s brilliant.

“I don’t hate anyone, at least not for more than 48 minutes, barring overtime.”

I understand why some people don’t like him. His act would probably get tiresome after a while, and he’s offended plenty of people over the years. He’s gotten into some fights, and wastes a ton of money gambling. He is anything but politically correct. He’s not quiet about his political views, and seriously considered a run for Governor of Alabama this year. (He once identified as a Republican, but no longer, and would have run as an independent.) It’s hard to know how deep his political knowledge goes, and he would probably alienate a lot of allies pretty quickly. But at the same time, he certainly wouldn’t take any crap from anyone, and whether one agrees with him or not, he had some clear views on where government should direct its focus. People have been elected to political office with less.

“My initial response was to sue her for defamation of character, but then I realized that I had no character.”

One of Chuck’s more famous moments was a Nike shoe commercial in which he said quite bluntly, “I am not a role model.” A cynic might see this as an effort by a controversial man to avoid any responsibility, but—with a handful of exceptions—I think he’s right about athletes not being role models. Too often, they are put on pedestals they don’t deserve, and there’s a tendency to hype up good players as perfect until they do something wrong, when suddenly they become villains; it’s a rather bipolar outlook, and seems to forget that they’re humans like the rest of us. (And they’re usually males just out of adolescence at that.) His candor makes him much more relatable than the players who mount vast PR campaigns in an effort to enhance their status.

“These are my new shoes. They’re good shoes. They won’t make you rich like me, they won’t make you rebound like me, they definitely won’t make you handsome like me. They’ll only make you have shoes like me. That’s it.”

No, Sir Charles is no role model. But he does have a few admirable qualities that people can learn from. In a field overwhelmed by canned clichés, his honesty is a breath of fresh air, and while he can be pointed, he still has fun with it all. His approach is crisp and direct, and no one ever comes away not knowing what he thinks. He knows to draw a line between what happens on the court and everything else, and keeps it all in perspective. A world full of Charles Barkleys would not be a very fun place, but one of him adds some much-needed life and cuts through all of the other noise one hears. He’s one of a kind, he leaves his mark, and sometimes he teaches us things that are well worth learning; things that can be relevant far beyond basketball. Keep it up, Chuck.

“I know I’m never as good or bad as one single performance. I’ve never believed in my critics or my worshippers, and I’ve always been able to leave the game at the arena.”

A Year-Long Cycle

5 Apr

I’ve had this blog for a year now. I’ve spilled out 138 posts and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 words. I’ve shared my thoughts on a year’s worth of political meetings, the past and present of a hockey team, broader sports issues, scattered-but-somehow-ultimately-related philosophical prompts, dead Greek people, and a handful of other bits of randomness. They all have audiences of varying sizes, and a committed core reads all three. Thanks, readers, no matter what draws you here.

The honest truth is that I don’t care much about the audience size. I write what I want to write, and do this as a fun outlet for lots of thoughts. I’m not here to launch some sort of journalism career, and while I don’t mean to belittle everyone who writes for local papers or blogs, I don’t exactly want to turn into the sort of person who jumps up and down on his weekly soapbox in the Reader Weekly. I’ve always written a lot and will continue to write a lot, but I don’t want my writing to become my sole public persona. This is something I do for fun, no matter who reads. And if I ever stop having fun and turn into some local crank or even simply find that I’m just blogging for the sake of blogging and nothing more, I’m done.

Still, it is never any fun to yell at empty rooms, and writing for an audience forces a bit more refinement than when writing for oneself. The result is almost always more pleasant, with none of the earnest moaning and far less blathering jargon than in some earlier stuff. Presentation matters. I won’t bore readers with too much self-absorption, but that’s just some of what I’ve learned, or had reinforced, by doing this. I’m glad I’m doing it, and I take pride in the handful of cases where this blog has made a modest impression or led to connections beyond a computer screen. The internet is often a poor substitute for live interaction, but at its best it can be an excellent extension of life when face-to-face contact isn’t practical, and I’m also happy to cover things—political meetings, hockey games—that other media may not have the time to cover, or at least not in great detail due to time and space constraints. I’d like to think I’ve found a nice little niche, or perhaps a series of semi-related niches.

Most importantly, though, this allows for reflection that isn’t always possible in the midst of a spirited conversation. I like being able to step back, think a little bit, and put things together slowly, without rushing to meet a deadline. That has always been the goal here: patient reflection instead of a rush to judgment. While I make no claim to objectivity, I really do try to look at things from every possible angle, and only move to judge when I’m confident I understand what’s going on. I choose my battles carefully and prefer to play with things from a distance—and keeping that distance is usually a good way of reminding oneself what really matters in the grand scheme of things.

But, of course, even that balance needs a counterbalance: a life out in the land of detachment and reflection can get pretty lonely and boring. Aside from the obvious financial difficulties, that’s another reason why I don’t really aspire to a writing career; I don’t enjoy the person I become when I spend too much time in that world. I see it as a necessary complement to a life oriented around the very real dramas in life, both great and small. So it’s time to wrap up this self-conscious post, toast to another year, and head out there and enjoy what (finally!) looks like a fine spring evening in Duluth.