Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything

One day in late February 2012, Prof. Patrick Deneen of the Georgetown Government Department (now at Notre Dame) modestly told us students that he was going to give us the “answer to everything.” He proceeded to draw three circles on the chalkboard and explain human nature in the clearest manner I’ve ever seen. It’s an oversimplification, of course, as all such representations must be, but it’s an excellent starting point, and now forms the basis of my worldview, such as it is. What follows is my take on the three circles. I’ve also embellished his drawing with some of my obvious artistic genius.

deneen circles

The three circles represent three rough spheres of human possibility. The center sphere is basic human action; above it we find gods who transcend human appetites and obsessions and lead lives of bliss, and below it we find the beasts, who fixate on instinctive and immediate fulfillment of those appetites.

One very large camp of people, most of them on the political left, draws a line through the center circle and focuses only on the top. They see humanity as fundamentally good, but simply constrained by unfortunate social or historical structures, and believe we can better ourselves by liberating ourselves from them. (This being the left, they often don’t believe in explicit “gods,” but the idea is much the same: humans are the masters of their own fate, subservient to no one, and can be the authors of their own salvation.) The general sense is that everyone has great potential, and it can be unlocked with the right combination of incentives and supports.

Most fundamentally, though, it aims to liberate people so that they’re free from the existing order and can just be their own awesome selves, deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves. If we turn people loose and have a safety net ready when they stumble, things should turn out alright. Humanity can be improved in this way, and the world can become a better place; depending on how far you want to go, we might even be able to perfect it. Marxism took this way of thinking to its furthest possible extreme, but the word progressivism, often used to describe the left-of-center agenda, captures the sense here. Humans are capable of progress and are going somewhere, wherever that might be, slowly making the world a better place. Other relevant philosophers here include Rousseau, the French positivists, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel.

The right also draws a line through the center circle, but focuses on the bottom half, not the top. (Deneen, a self-described conservative whose conservatism bears no resemblance to the contemporary Republican Party, used the term “liberal,” though I think my left/right terminology maps better on to current-day politics.) For the right, humans are fundamentally fallen, and while we may put on shows of benevolence and decency, the self-interest underneath can’t be wished away. Absent strong social mores and an established order, humans will rut around and kill each other and generally live in a miserable state of anarchy. No amount of wishful thinking or fanciful social engineering can get rid of those base instincts that we all have, and the manner in which many on the left react when confronted by conservatism is decent evidence of this. Hence the reliance on tradition, and the insistence on a strong state to keep things in line. (Machiavelli and Hobbes are the go-to philosophers here.)

This way of thinking can take other forms, too. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, for example, saw that those in power were just as likely to be corrupted as anyone else, and sought to limit their ability to exercise power. The Constitution is a fairly conservative document; it makes little effort to guarantee any positive rights that can lead toward the good life. It was written in response to some of the worst of human excesses, and only in some of the amendments do we find a more progressive turn. The emphasis is on recognizing and managing the tragedies in life, which no amount of “progress” can stop.

There is third approach here, less often used but alluring to some: just cut out the middle circle. This is Nietzsche. We have a choice, he argues. We can either be impressive Ubermenschen dedicated to living thrilling and fulfilling lives, taking control of everything and ruling nobly, or we can be feeble, weak people carried along only by resentment and grievance, seeking a pitiful life of bland comfort. It was a good thing for Nietzsche’s already frail health that he didn’t live to see suburban subdevelopments and reality TV. Still, this worldview is attractive for those who slog through Nietzsche: who wouldn’t want to be an Ubermensch? It’s a delightful lifestyle, and it makes for a very crisp, self-serving distinction, as the enlightened ridicule the pitiful masses below. (This is where we’d find the Nazis, who tried to hijack Nietzschean philosophy and turn it into a justification for their atrocities.) That’s a bit of a misreading of Nietzsche, but it also illustrates the weakness of this approach: no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to stay on top like that, and very easy to fall back into vindictive backbiting. The divisions aren’t that crisp.

This brings us to the last approach, which encompasses all three of those circles. It recognizes that humans have qualities that overlap with those of gods and of beasts, but that, in the end, we’re somewhere in between, wandering between the two and often in an ambiguous middle realm. We’re not inherently good; we’re not inherently bad. We have moments where we reach toward god-like status, and we have moments where we live among the beasts, and in the end we’re left with a confusing mix that isn’t quite as black-or-white as we’d like. The boilerplate left and the right stances both get part of the picture, but neither one quite grasps it all.

This is a very old notion of human nature, and its modern-day caretakers are, for the most part, Catholics, following in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. I’m not Catholic, but Catholicism has always hovered around my life, from deeply faithful grandparents to Catholic universities to travels in Mexico, so it’s probably no surprise I find this worldview most appealing. (Sticking with Nietzsche, we might say I’m living in its shadow, and quite thoroughly.) The very word “catholic” means, roughly, “about the whole” in Greek: it encompasses the totality of life, and tries to cover everything. To use my current favorite word, it’s holistic.

Theology digression: even if this seems obvious, it really isn’t a common worldview in this day in age. One need only look at the reactions of the left and the right to our current pope and his predecessor: one side loves Francis while the other is skeptical of him, and vice versa with Benedict. This is a pretty good sign that people are coming to the popes not as Catholics, but instead as liberals or conservatives who want Catholicism to conform to their preordained political worldviews. This isn’t to say that one can’t disagree with certain aspects of papal teaching, and that popes themselves may not be influenced by different forms of thought, but it reveals the disconnect, and how wholly we’ve adopted the modern political mindset in how we try to analyze things. Faith, for most moderns, has become a crutch in times of need and a source for inspiration that can give people a little nudge down a preordained path. But rarely is it a way of life, and when it is, it seems fundamentally alien. Moral therapeutic deism reigns triumphant.

Still, the three circles begin long before St. Peter. Prof. Deneen is a staunch Catholic, but he wrote one of his first books not on anything Catholic, but on the Odyssey and how it fit this conception, with Odysseus constantly pulled both up toward the gods and down toward the beasts. Philosophically, the man at the root is our old buddy Aristotle, who said that beasts or gods are unique from humans in that they’re capable of living free from community. But since we can’t ever live entirely in one of those realms, we’re neither. This doesn’t mean we have to submit ourselves solely to a communal order, whether it be of the left or the right; it just means we have to live in constant accordance with that fact. Instead of starting our theories by considering humans in vacuums and making presumptions about their nature from there, we need to understand each other socially. You can find a lot of spilled pixels on that topic elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t belabor it here, but in the end it does boil down to living in community and finding our niches within whatever ecosystem we call home, realizing it is neither heaven nor hell. Instead, it is complicated, and complication deserves respect, though once we’re inside it we can certainly leave our own marks. (Equally important is the need to step out of the community from time to time, in order to gain some perspective, before heading back in.)

Six years ago, when I left Duluth for Georgetown, I cared only for the top half of the diagram. My admissions essay for the School of Foreign Service was a paean to the power of liberal education to change the world. I don’t think my evolution was a complete surprise—in retrospect, I’m pleased with the subtlety expressed in the more thoughtful writings of my adolescent self—but evolve I did, from a fairly activist man of the left to something a lot more murky. Fixing the world’s problems proved a lot more difficult than waving some liberal magic wand, and my personal experience also suggested I was missing something.

Eventually, I found it. This was great for my understanding of the world, but something of a disaster for someone whose pre-college career interests had involved saving the world, and using the progressive agenda as my vehicle. I went home to Duluth, part out of philosophical belief in the community closest to me, and part because it was the only place I could go to figure out what the hell came next without undue stress. “Duluth needs people like you,” Prof. Deneen told me in our final meeting, and I took those words to heart.

I don’t know if Duluth needs me, but I sure needed Duluth. I’ve slowly gotten myself tied up in community affairs over the past two years, and I’ve found that this whole philosophy really does work in practice. I’ve also started down a career path that nurtures those goals; one that seems to have a healthy balance between practical work and the up-in-the-clouds thinking I enjoy but can take too far. It all worked out. I’ve found healthier channels for some of my instincts, both the ones that told me I could be a god and also the ones that had me wallowing in muck. (Channels, I hastily add; not stoic suppression.) I’m only human, so there will be continued temptation in both directions. But for now, I spend most of my time grounded in the middle circle and reveling in my community, where I belong.

Part Two is here.

Cycling Southward

People who know me already know this, but I suppose an announcement for the broader blog following is in order, so here it is: one month from now, I’ll be headed south to Minneapolis, where I’ll spend the next two years in graduate school.

In an ideal world, I’d be back in Duluth in two years and settling into a career. Sadly, I don’t live in an ideal world and you don’t either, so who knows what will come of that plan. The number of things that can change in that time is impossible to imagine. But, no matter what, this is certainly not a definitive good-bye.

So, to business: how does this all affect my blogging?

The hockey coverage can obviously go on as usual from Minneapolis; I’ll try to avoid letting the dreaded Metro Bias leach into my writing. Duluth East heads south often enough that I should be able to see the Hounds with some regularity, and of course there are school breaks and such. After doing my undergraduate studies 1,000 miles away, Minneapolis practically seems next door. Duluth will never be more than a quick bus ride away. My thoughts are already starting to form about the coming season, so stay tuned.

The rambling on culture and philosophy will likely take a hit, but I doubt it will go away, either. I’m in this for the long haul, and I keep my word. I never stop thinking about that stuff, and it can prove a pleasant break from obsessing about other stuff, so long as I don’t get too caught up in that, either. This blog has proven a great outlet on this front, and it will go on.

Coverage of Duluth political meetings will likely drop off, at least in its present format. I’ll definitely be watching from afar, may pay a visit or two when back in town, and could even make use of web broadcasts as time allows. There will definitely still be Duluth coverage; I just can’t commit to the consistency I’ve had over the past year and a half.

I will keep going right up until the end. That means one more meeting of both the city council and school board (both the week of August 18), and my departure will give me a good chance to reflect more broadly on what I’ve witnessed in all those meetings over the past year and a half. There will also be another post on our favorite new voting method, instant runoff (ranked-choice) voting, in the not-so-distant future, as I’ve had a crash course in it over the past few weeks.

This last month also offers an opportunity for lots of sappy Duluth posts and other such considerations of what this city means to me and where it’s going. This is my wheelhouse, so I’ll try to have some fun with it. These past two years back home certainly were not part of the plan when I left here for college six years ago, and while I came around and was happy to come back, I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were some moments of wavering faith. It is time to head back out, too: I’m a Duluth boy at heart, but I’ve always had both the blessing and the curse of being a bit more than that. As always, it’s a cycle, in and out, there and back again. I have a lot to say here, some general, some personal, some inextricably tangled up between the two. But, I’ll save that all for later—no need to ramble here. I’m on Park Point, it’s a beautiful night, I’ve got a wine bottle, and the beach is calling.

Holistic Government: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/21/14

It was a hot and sticky day in Duluth, but a decent crowd still made its way into the humid Council Chamber on Monday night. To kick off the proceedings, CAO Montgomery announced that all Council broadcasts are now closed-captioned, while Councilor Julsrud updated everyone on the Georgetown University Energy Prize, which will be awarded as part of a friendly competition between cities to reduce energy costs and change the culture around its consumption. (Hopefully having an illustrious alumnus in town will sway the committee.)

The Council began formal business with the host of resolutions that had been tabled the prior week, beginning with a move to again table the DECC casino plan. Next came the reappointment of several members of the Spirit Mountain board. Councilor Julsrud had held this one back because she’d originally had designs of splitting it up for votes on each individual, making good on her promise to “crack the whip” on Spirit Mountain’s financial management at a previous meeting. After further review, however, she declared herself confident in the “cultural shift” underway in Spirit’s leadership, and, after all four candidates got an endorsement from Spirit’s board chair, it passed unanimously.

Next up was the case of the Twins Bar, an East Hillside establishment whose liquor license was in danger due to excessive police calls and crime. Mr. Carl Green, who runs the bar, tried to plead his case, saying he’d already surrendered the license, disputing the number of police calls, charging racism, and threatening to sue. The Council, however, spoke with one voice, articulated by Councilors Gardner and Fosle: Mr. Green’s beef was not with the Council, which simply was there to authorize the “very clear” report from the Alcohol, Gambling, and Tobacco Comission. The Council meeting was “not a hearing,” Councilor Fosle explained, and Councilor Gardner spoke of the many complaints she’d received about the bar. The license was revoked unanimously.

Two Park Point residents spoke on the next resolution, which authorized St. Louis County to go forward with the sale of tax forfeit land on the Point. Both complained that past sales had been offered to the neighbors first; this one, which would sell the block-long properties in a single chunk, would like prove too expensive for residents and be snapped up by a developer. Councilor Gardner went to bat for them, drawing an explanation out of Mr. Mark Weber from the County as to the statutes surrounding the land. He was open to dividing the parcels, though this could be done at a later date; the Council, however, exercised caution, with Councilors Sipress and Fosle arguing in favor of tabling so as to allow further discussion and perhaps attach an amendment. It was tabled 8-1, with only Councilor Russ insisting on prompt action.

The longest debate of the night was about a plan to construct a city water main on 85th Avenue West, whose 13 houses are currently serviced by an often faulty private line. The whole process was a debacle: first there was grant money, then there wasn’t, then there was some for the 4 lowest-income households, and the city had to figure out how to assess the residents for the rest. CAO Montgomery recommended assessing everyone the same amount, since house tapped the water line once, while Councilor Fosle proposed an amendment that would instead charge by each property’s foot frontage on the street. There were six citizen speakers; four for the by-foot assessment, one for equal assessment, and one who appeared to oppose the plan entirely. Both sides agreed there was no good answer here, and people would feel jilted regardless; Councilor Fosle said that a majority got a somewhat better deal with his version. He’d done his due diligence and had figures ready for each household, which was enough to sway most of the Council; Councilor Julsrud was one of the few critics, and she came at it from a different direction, worrying that Councilor Fosle’s plan—which would require another return to the neighborhood for review—would only prolong an ugly process that had pitted neighbors against one another. It was a respectful and cautious debate in which established battle lines were irrelevant, and in the end the by-foot amendment passed 7-2, with Councilors Julsrud and Russ in opposition. The amended version then passed 8-1, with Councilor Julsrud as the lone ‘no.’

A discussion on the future of Hartley Nature Center also took a while. There were four citizen speakers, with three in favor and one railing against the disruption of habitat. Mr. Waylon Munch of the COGGS biking group talked about the compromise involved, and Hartley Nature Center Executive Director Tom O’Rourke spoke the importance of environmental education. While the group did not have an official representative at the meeting, he also noted the criticism of Hartley education programming sponsor Gender Matters, which objected to aspects of forest management and the possible restoration of Tischer Creek’s natural, un-dammed flowage.

When the Councilors took up the issue there was much bashing of the original redesign, which included paved trails and seemed to go way too far toward recreation. There was also much happy talk about experiences in Hartley, with Councilor Gardner reminiscing on going berry-picking in Hartley Field (when it was still called that) with her grandmother, Councilor Julsrud waxing about moonlight skis and getting in a Joni Mitchell reference, and President Krug saying that all of her experiences with Hartley involved getting lost. The Hartley Field reference showed how much the site has changed over the years, reminding everyone that humans are indeed a part of the natural habitat, too; Councilor Larson spoke of “stewardship” (an excellent word), and Councilor Sipress thanked people for speaking up and being passionate about parks so as to arrive at a plan most people liked. Councilor Fosle thanked the Hartley staff, and the resolution passed unanimously.

The final resolution on the agenda authorized a consultant to do a review on the main branch of the Duluth Public Library facility; as Councilor Larson explained, it has its issues, from a bad h-vac system to safety concerns to general architectural weirdness. She heartily endorsed the consultant, which pleased Councilors Gardner and Sipress after the criticism of the Hartley consultant; Councilor Julsrud went further than most in saying she wouldn’t mind seeing the thing torn down. Councilor Fosle alone thought the library had architectural merit, and while he supported the resolution, he did warn the Council that they were likely to get a “fancy book” asking them to spend lots of money they probably didn’t have on a redesign. It passed 9-0.

The Council pushed through its ordinances with some scattered debate but no serious disagreement. Matching funds for West Duluth tourism projects passed unanimously, while Councilor Fosle was happy to hear that a sewer-lining process was nearing its close. An ordinance eliminating the redundant posting of rental notices in owners’ homes also sailed through, and while Councilor Fosle wanted more answers and ultimately voted against the plan to annex a portion of Midway Township (mostly parkland), it passed without any other objections. At the end, Councilor Fosle thanked the Councilors and other city staffers for their support in recent weeks, as his granddaughter underwent surgery to remove a lobe in her lung. (After a minor complication, she appears to be fine.)

Despite it being a long night in a room without air conditioning, this was a model city council meeting. Sure, it probably helped that there weren’t any life-or-death issues up on Monday night, but there was an interesting array of topics, and each one got its due diligence. There was serious debate, but general agreement in the end, and on many of the measures the debate transcended the issue at hand and took up broader principles. And yet things remained very even-handed and respectful; it seemed like everyone there genuinely enjoyed their work, even when it was difficult. Both the populist impulse for citizen representation and an interest in intelligent planning from a distance were well-represented, and there was also refreshingly little politicking or grandstanding. This is how local government should work.

I would say it’s a very balanced council, but the word “balanced” has always struck me as a bit lame, aspiring for equity for equity’s sake instead of a higher aim. It is also far from being politically balanced, and the lack of obvious left-versus-right issues on Monday probably helped the good vibes. Instead, I might offer up the word “holistic”: there was a thoroughness to the Council’s work that is not often seen in government, with the varying perspectives and recognition of broader strains of thought, all coming together into something coherent. For one night, at least, the Council deserves a lot of credit, and they now have themselves a midsummer break to rest on their laurels and head out to the beach (where their trips will, hopefully, not be interrupted by a bunch of ugly, piss-yellow signs that have cropped up in some areas). They’ve earned it, but they’ll have to be back at it before too long, and they’ve set a high bar that they ought to aim for again and again.

Active Former Hounds, 2014

Elite League rosters are out, and summer transfer intrigue and early departure watches are underway…it’s time to start writing about hockey again. I’ll start on a light note by dipping into my Duluth East archives. Here’s a list of every active former Duluth East player that I’m aware of who played at some post-high school level last season. Asterisks denote players who left East early.

Nick Anderson (’97 F) Anderson’s hockey career is a testament to persistence and hard work. He wasn’t a star at East, playing a regular shift only as a senior, and even that was mostly in a supporting role on the ’97 2nd-place team. But he stuck with it through 3 years of juniors, played 5 years at Minnesota-Duluth (there must have been a redshirt in there), and went on to spend time in the ECHL, Germany, Italy, and the UK. He didn’t finish out last season with his British team, so the run may finally be over, but no matter what, it’s been an admirable one.

Nick Angell  (’98 D) Angell, the star defenseman of the ’98 state champ Hounds, played 4 years at Minnesota, winning a national championship as a senior. He went to Europe one year after graduation and has primarily played in Sweden since, though he also had stints in Germany and in the elite Russian KHL. He had a productive season in Sweden’s second-tier league in 13-14.

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* Fitzgerald left East for the WHL after his freshman year (00-01) and played there for 4 years. He got a single-game cameo in the NHL with the Canucks in 07-08, but has spent most of the past nine years as an AHL enforcer, racking up massive penalty minutes and the occasional point in the process. He’s the younger brother of ’91 East alum Rusty Fitzgerald, who played parts of 3 seasons in the NHL.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* An offensive defenseman, Fairchild left East after his sophomore year for the National Training and Development Team, and went on to play at Minnesota. Like Fitzgerald he’s had a cup of coffee in the NHL, but has spent most of the past 3 years in the AHL.

Josh ‘Podge’ Turnbull (’07 F)* Turnbull transferred to East from Hayward, Wisconsin as a sophomore and spent two years in red and grey before a year of junior hockey and a 4-year run at Wisconsin. He’s bounced around various minor leagues for the past 3 seasons, most recently landing in with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the Southern Professional Hockey League.

Keegan Flaherty (’08 F)* The much-hyped Flaherty played 3 years of Hounds hockey but left for juniors after flat-lining some as a junior. In the USHL he reinvented himself as a hard-working depth player and had 4 serviceable years at UMD. He was Turnbull’s teammate in Pensacola last winter.

Max Tardy (’09 F) Tardy just wrapped up his 4 years at UMD, and will be best remembered there for his goal in the 2011 national championship game. His overall UMD career was a mild disappointment as he sometimes struggled to crack the lineup in his upperclassman years, but he played with good energy when he did, and could likely catch on somewhere if he so desires.

Alex McLean (’09 D) McLean, one of the more defensive defensemen on the ’09 squad with 4 D-I D-men, played two years of juniors before catching on at Ohio State, where he’ll be a senior this coming year.

Jake Williams (’09 D) You’ve probably never heard of American International College, but it’s based in Springfield, Massachusetts and is a D-I program in the Atlantic Hockey Association. Williams has been a regular there for the past 3 years and will be a senior this coming year.

Julius Tamasy (’09 F) Tamasy transferred to East as a senior and, after a stint in juniors, went to D-III Nazareth College in New York, and was its 2nd-highest scorer in its inaugural season. He’ll be a junior there this fall.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)*  The most hyped of all the Hounds on this list and the school’s only ever 1st-rounder, Forbort played for the NTDP and spent 3 years at North Dakota before making the jump to the AHL this past season. There have been occasional questions along the way, and his NHL debut has probably been delayed somewhat by being stuck in the Kings’ organization, but it should come in due course.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* Welinski, another highly touted defenseman and a 3rd-rounder, played 2 years in the USHL and will be a junior at UMD this coming fall. His development has been fairly steady.

Phil Johnson (’11 F) Johnson, a stalwart on the 2011 runners-up, has had 3 productive seasons a D-III St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Hunter Bergerson (’11 D) Bergerson played one year in the NAHL and has spent the past two seasons playing some for D-III St. Scholastica in Duluth.

Nolan Meyer (’11 F)* Meyer transferred to Cloquet for his senior year, but had two seasons of modest production as a Hound. He is now at D-III Augsburg, where he has played sporadically over the past two seasons.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) A Maple Leafs draft pick, Toninato had a very strong year in the USHL before coming to UMD. He didn’t have huge points in his freshman year, but was often matched against others’ best lines and more than held his own.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) Mike Randolph’s son followed up a quality first year in the USHL with a monster one, breaking the league’s assist record and being named forward of the year. He’ll make his debut at Nebraska-Omaha this winter.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) The third member of the phenomenal Class of 2012 top line, Olson’s progress has been slowed somewhat by injuries, but he looked sharp when healthy at the end of the past USHL season and will start at North Dakota this fall, a school that should fit his edgy style well.

Nate Repensky (’12 D) Like Olson, Repensky’s had his injuries, but was very productive in the NAHL, and was named its defenseman of the year. He’s headed to Yale this coming school year.

Paige Skoog (’12 G) The first goalie on this list, the Forest Lake transfer was primarily a backup in his season in red and grey, but has had two reasonably good seasons in the NAHL.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano has had two reasonably productive USHL seasons, but has yet to grab a D-I offer, meaning he’ll likely be back in the USHL this coming year.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) The shifty defenseman had a slow start to his USHL career, but came on toward the end of the season. He’ll spend a second season there before heading to D-I Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano spent his first year of junior hockey shuttling between the USHL and NAHL.

Jack Forbort (’13 F) Derek Forbort’s younger brother put up decent numbers in the NAHL this past year.

Andrew Kerr (’13 D) Kerr had a strong NAHL rookie season, scoring more than he did in high school, mixing things up, and was picked in this spring’s USHL draft.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) Like Kerr, Davidson picked up his share of penalty minutes as he bounced between a couple of NAHL teams.

Ryan Lundgren (’13 F) Lundgren had been set to play in the NAHL before suffering a season-ending injury. Depending on his recovery, he has some shot at playing at a higher level.

Dylan Parker (’13 G) Parker spent most of the past season in the NA3HL and was briefly rostered in the NAHL, but did not play.

Melodrama in the Board Room Bubble: ISD 709 Notes, 7/15/14

When I was at Georgetown, we students made frequent use of the term “Georgetown Bubble.” Crazy as it may seem, many Hoyas don’t take much advantage of DC; it was very easy to get so caught up in campus life, with heaps of homework and extracurriculars and all of the shopping (and partying) one could ever desire within a few blocks of the front gates. The Georgetown Bubble had a tendency to make small things seem big: campus protests became people’s raison d’etre, and one could practically feel the stress in the air in the library; at the same time, people were often ignorant of the DC beyond them, and all that it encompassed.

The Georgetown Bubble, however, has nothing on the ISD 709 Board Room Bubble, which was on full display on Tuesday night. The Board Members and various hangers-on, positing themselves as saviors of the District no matter which side they were on, battled back and forth, overtly and covertly. The PR operations were in full swing, and even though long stretches of the meeting were fairly routine and even productive, I couldn’t fight off a sense of disgust with it all. I guess I’m just hoping that someone somewhere can truly rise above the fray, but I’m just not seeing it. I shouldn’t be surprised, really, but the board room drama is at such odds with so much of the other stuff going on in the district, which plugs along at a mundane rate—not a great one, mind you, but one that hardly squares with the uniformly celebratory or uniformly apocalyptic language one hears at Historic Old Central.

But, on to the meeting. This time around, we learned just how deep the bench for Superintendent was: Supt. Gronseth was in Baltimore receiving an award on behalf of the District, Assistant Supt. Ed Crawford was revisiting his roots in France, and Deputy Clerk Bill Hansen was at a family function. This left Director of Special Services (whatever on earth those might be) Laura Fredrickson sitting in the Supt’s chair on the dais. She settled for delivering the basic Supt. Report toward the start of the meeting, and otherwise held her silence.

There were four citizen speakers; Ms. Melanie Grune thanked the Board for reaffirming the tenets of civility last month, while the other three all spoke in defense of Member Johnston, who is the subject of an investigation over alleged “abuse.” The first two were eloquent and, refreshingly, posited their concerns within a broader context. Mr. James Youngman worried about use of levy money in a city whose median income is well below that of the state, and emphasized teacher development, while former Board candidate Henry Banks demanded more information on administrators’ salaries and pleaded with the Board to quit its infighting for the good of the students. He said the Board needs questions and a healthy dialogue, and recommended a local mediator in place of a Twin Cities attorney.

Mr. Loren Martell, meanwhile, once again displayed his complete lack of tact in an attempt to shame several individual Board Members for their roles in the Johnston affair and wound up doing a lot of talking about himself and the trouble he’s seen. This whole thing has become incredibly personal for him, which is both impressive (he has put in an astonishing amount of work and sacrificed a lot) and rather sad (someone please put me out of my misery if I ever allow my life to become so tunnel-visioned). It is also why he struggles to convince people who don’t already agree with him to join his cause. As always, catharsis is good fun, but if he thinks antics like that will inspire soul-searching instead of defensiveness, he hasn’t learned the first thing about human nature. His supporters hear what they like to hear (there was a burst of applause at the end), but anyone outside the Board Room Bubble just hears a ranting nutcase. This is a shame.

Once formal meeting business began, though, things were surprisingly tame—in fact, they were so tame that it seemed like everyone was forcing it and trying to act like good, model Board Members. It’s nice to celebrate the people who put in time and work on things, and many of Member Johnston’s questions do add clarity for those of us who are not in the Bubble and don’t get to committee meetings. Maybe half the time these questions and comments seem legitimate; with the other half, there’s a veneer of fakeness and a not-so-subtle agenda underneath.

As usual, Member Harala gave a thorough Education Committee report, whose highlights included an overhaul of social studies curriculum and updates to the bullying policy, both of which are required by state mandate but enjoyed widespread support anyway. Mr. Mike Cary, the new Director of Curriculum, explained some of the revisions on that front, while Member Johnston posed a favorably received suggestion to create an annual report on bullying statistics and actions taken in response to complaints. The Board will hammer out the details of that proposal over the coming month, with further community involvement—as always, plugged heartily by Member Loeffler-Kemp—along the way.

The Human Resources Committee moved along fairly quickly, with Member Johnston asking some very basic questions on wage increases proposed for hourly and substitute district employees. He also pulled item 2B, prompting a “to be or not to be” joke and a much longer quotation of “Hamlet” from Chair Miernicki. (If I may add: “to die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death, dreams of ISD 709 Board meetings may come, and there could be no worse torture.”) He used this to propose working in the same language he’d suggested in the bullying policy for the District’s anti-harassment policy.

The Business Committee report featured the discussions most relevant to the Johnston investigation, including a resolution establishing that board members are not ISD 709 employees and thus not subject to the Data Practices Act. (Pet peeve alert on the language used in the resolution: “IMPACT” IS NOT A VERB.) Member Johnston said this resolution didn’t really matter since he would have waived his right to privacy anyway, but made it clear he was “confused” by it, and why it had come into being. He said one of the attorneys retained by ISD 709, Kevin Rupp, had written opposite language in a similar case in Farmington, and demanded “immediate” answers to a series of prepared questions he had prepared for his accusers. Chair Miernicki (one of the accusers) immediately called the question, however, and Member Johnston went along with it; the question-calling and the resolution both passed unanimously. Member Loeffler-Kemp tried to get in a passive tense non-answer to the question about why it had come up afterwards (“questions were asked…”), but Chair Miernicki cut her off, too.

Member Johnston also jumped on a new insurance contract to point out that the District’s insurance might cover both his and the District’s bills in the investigation (I fail to see why this is odd?), and used this to go into a broader tangent about how “lawyer-happy” the District is. He was also peeved that no one could tell him how much the lawyers were being paid, though he was sort of, kind of promised those answers in time. Both he and Member Welty are suspicious of the lawyers being used, which is understandable to a degree, but one also gets the sense that they know very little of the legal procedure, and there are probably more tactful ways to learn about that than via questions at a Board meeting. Normally, I like the transparency here, but this is one place where a thorough, behind-the-scenes answer is much better than any political capital out of a “gotcha” one.

With the re-zoning of the old Central High site recently completed by the City Council, Member Harala had one quick question: what would happen to all of the stuff the District had stored there? (It would be sold at auction, according to Facilities Manager Kerry Leider.) Mr. Leider also fielded a series of follow-up questions on loading dock and roofing issues from Member Johnston, all of which had basically the same response: they’d been resolved at the contractors’ expense. Member Johnston, continuing with his suggestion-filled night, planted the idea of allowing citizen speakers to come forward to speak on specific issues, instead of just at the start of the meeting. That wrapped up the proceedings, and everyone was free to head back out of their little bubbles and into a beautiful summer night.

And that’s it, really. I have nothing new to say on the Johnston affair that I haven’t already said, and probably won’t until we get real answers. If it sounds like my patience is waning with all of this, well, it is. I guess I’m spending a little too much time in the Bubble myself. For reasons unrelated to that waning patience, next month’s Board meeting will be my last for the foreseeable future. I’ll probably have my own little cathartic moment and get a few things off my chest, but only for one a few minutes before moving on. There is comfort in the Bubble, with clear battle lines and villains to be vanquished, but in the grand scheme of things, there’s a much bigger district out there, one with far more compelling drama than anything that happens in the board room. Sooner or later, someone might discover that, and perhaps take a few people along to explore it as it is, and not as part of an ideological war. Perchance to dream.

Setting the Table: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/14/14

Not much happened at City Hall on Monday night, as the meeting had the feel of a transition from one set of big issues to another. We’re done with street fees and voting methods for the time being, while the drama surrounding the attempted recall of Councilor Gardner will unfold beyond the Council Chamber. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle were absent, leaving just seven people behind the dais. (Councilor Hanson made sure to convey the Council’s support to Councilor Fosle, whose granddaughter is undergoing surgery in the Cities.) The short and sweet meeting did, however, set the stage for several future debates that should be a bit more contentious.

First up was a public hearing on the extension of the Downtown Waterfront Special Service District. This an arrangement by which downtown businesses pay an extra tax to support the safety and beautification of the city center, an aim most notably achieved by the Clean and Safe Team, whose vivid shirts blind potential evildoers. Public hearings normally involve the Council President gaveling them into a session before promptly gaveling them closed, but tonight, the hearing was the most interesting part of the meeting, such as it was. Two speakers, Ms. Barbara Perrella of Labovitz Enterprises (whose holdings include the downtown Holiday Inn) and Ms. Kristi Stokes of the Greater Downtown Council, spoke in favor. They said the benefits of the program justified the cost and celebrated the successful public-private partnership. Mr. Craig Guzzo of Duluth Plumbing Supplies had some qualified concerns, however, including the length of time used to determine the tax, worries about duplication of duties with such organizations as Visit Duluth and the Chamber of Commerce, and the apparent lack of representation for Michigan Street businesses on the advisory council.

Councilors Gardner, Larson, and Krug all acknowledged Mr. Guzzo’s worries when the related resolutions and ordinance came up. They all said that there would be a serious effort to avoid duplication, and Councilor Gardner promised to look into the representation question. Councilor Larson said that over 75 percent of downtown businesses had expressed support for the Service District, a level of support well above the necessary threshold for renewal. The resolutions and ordinance all passed unanimously, with Councilor Gardner channeling her inner Jim Stauber by “recommending approval” on all of them.

Duluth received an award at the start of the meeting, as Mr. Paul Austin of Conservation Minnesota gave the Council a nice chunk of glass commemorating its status as a Legacy Destination for its use of public money to support conservation and the arts everywhere, from the St. Louis River corridor to the Miller Creek trout stream to restoring moose habitat. The two citizen speakers were all familiar faces as well, with Mr. Phil Fournier of AFSCME Local 66 back to complain about the city’s alleged refusal to discuss grievances and avoid arbitration. He complained that these things used to be settled in-house, and said he had polled many city employees who had similar concerns but feared retaliation of if they were to speak out. The Council then tabled a whole bunch of things, with reasons including the need for a Committee of the Whole, an attempt to align resolutions with ordinances, and a request from the absent Councilor Julsrud.

The only other measure to generate any real discussion was a lane change on College Street, which removes a lane in each direction so as to calm traffic and create a bike lane and more parking. This wasn’t controversial, but Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment to temporarily scrap a plan to include “bike boxes” at the intersections with Kenwood and 19th Ave. East. While supportive of biking, Councilor Sipress said that the Council should investigate the need for the boxes—areas in front of traffic at stoplights in which bicycles can wait before making safer left turns—before imposing them, as they prevent motorists from turning right on red. Councilor Larson and CAO Montgomery both got on board with amendment, saying there were many possible options to make biking easier, and there was no need to rush into the boxes when they could be painted on at a later date without any trouble. The amendment and resolution both went through unanimously, and the city will monitor bike usage on College Street.

Councilor Filipovich pulled a couple of infrastructure projects from the consent agenda so as to give them some love—yes, we really are fixing bad roads!—and Councilor Hanson was upbeat about the purchase of some railway land near Wade Stadium, which he figured would open up the area to possible future development. The site of the formal Central High School was also re-zoned, a move that will hopefully help the school district sell it. With that, the Council wrapped up a quick and painless meeting.

There are plenty of things on the docket for future meetings, though. Here’s a tour of several of them:

Hartley Nature Center Master Plan According to Councilor Larson, this will come forward next week.

Duluth Public Library Building Councilor Larson also plans to introduce a resolution that will begin a thorough assessment of the main branch building of the library, which has some issues.

Annexation of part of Midway Township This ordinance, read for the first time Monday, will be the next chapter in an ongoing war between Duluth and Proctor over some land with development potential to the west of the two cities.

West Side Renewal First off, the Council took a first step toward approving its matching funds for projects at Wade Stadium and Spirit Mountain, which received state bonding money, on Monday. Next up is a related ordinance, to be followed by a Committee of the Whole on a broader vision for the St. Louis River corridor later this summer. Councilor Larson made it clear she wants more input from the neighborhoods before moving too far ahead on anything. A Gary-New Duluth small area plan also passed without debate on Monday, with Councilor Gardner thanking the neighborhood for its involvement.

The DECC Casino First proposed by Councilor Hanson last meeting, this ambitious plan to recoup some of the lost revenue from the Fon du Luth Casino by turning part of the DECC into a competing casino will wait until after a closed Committee of the Whole meeting in August, if not longer. It will stay on the table for the time being. There is no real rush, as it requires consideration by the state legislature, which would not happen until its 2015 session.

That should give us plenty of time to mull over the pros and cons of the proposal. Obviously, revenue is good, but this project will have to escape the perception that this is merely a jab at the Fon du Lac tribe, and also that it promotes a vice at a time when the city is otherwise often doing war with vices. For my part, I also have serious doubts about the venue. Sure, the DECC is somewhat underused, but it’s also a unique and important event space; its loss would be a problem, and sticking a casino down there would further overcrowd the waterfront district. It would likely take a drastic remodeling no matter what. If we’re serious about this, why not kill two birds with one stone and integrate it into a redesigned St. Louis River corridor?

That’s all I’ve got for this one. If only tomorrow night’s School Board meeting would be this painless…

Deutschland Victorious

This German boy can be proud of his heritage today, as Deutschland took home its fourth all-time World Cup title. The 1-0 victory over Argentina wasn’t quite a scintillating end to what had been a high-scoring tournament, and the game had slowly degenerated after a cracking start, but it was certainly deserved. Mario Götze’s 113th-minute strike was remarkably similar to Andrés Iniesta’s goal four years earlier, a final stroke of brilliance rewarding the better team and sparing us the misery of a final going to penalties.

The similarities to Spain don’t end there, though: this German side overcame my skepticism over any team’s ability to win by playing possession football in the 2014 Cup. Oh, me of little faith. I didn’t think anyone had the talent to pull it off, especially under the wilting Brazilian heat, but as a staunch defender of that brand of play, I’m happy to be wrong. I’d picked the Argentines before it all began, and across six games and 112 minutes of a seventh, they followed the predictable formula to a tee, relying on their well-organized defense and the occasional moment of magic out of Lionel Messi and company. It was a fine showing for the second-best team on earth, but injuries slowly hobbled Messi’s partners in crime, and Messi himself, despite being the most feared player on the pitch, was not quite at his stratospheric peak. He remains the best player of his generation, but there is still room to add to his legacy.

The German triumph, on the other hand, had nothing to do with any one star; ask five people who their best player in this Cup was, and you might get five different answers. Instead, they played a complete team game, a style not unlike Spain’s famed tiki-taka, only with an added dose of directness that made them even more dangerous. They were hardly a plucky underdog in that regard—they might be the deepest squad on earth, with an embarrassment of riches across the lineup—but, to quote someone I read over the past few weeks but cannot properly attribute, “the ball was the star.” In classic German fashion, they’re a seamless machine, playing a team sport as it’s meant to be played, and at the highest level possible. With the Spanish dynasty at an end, Joachim Löw’s men may be on the verge of their own great run. They’ve been threatening to go on one for years, and with this breakthrough and a relatively young core playing some of the most appealing soccer imaginable, what’s not to like? They’ve proven they can destroy teams that aren’t at their best defensively, and they have the patience to outlast those who are.

Still, the most memorable part of this World Cup was probably the hosts’ unequivocal on-field disaster. Brazil set out to replace the memories of the 1950 championship debacle against Uruguay, and they achieved it in the worst of ways in that 7-1 semifinal demolition in Belo Horizonte. A new generation of Brazilian fans has its own World Cup nightmare.

It wasn’t hard to see this ending poorly. The pressure was brutal from the start, and not once did the Brazilians impress; they always looked wobbly, and the resulting questions had coach Luis Felipe Scolari snapping at the media. The reaction to the Neymar injury likewise did not portend good results; the players holding up his jersey as if he were on his deathbed was a clear overreaction, and underscored the squad’s Neymar dependence. Brazil should have the depth to adjust to that sort of injury, but Scolari’s squad just seemed a disorganized throughout. The defense was filled with erratic players with little interest in defense, while the midfield was an inconsistent, revolving door; among the strikeforce, only Neymar and Oscar were remotely threatening. This Brazil squad had an identity crisis from the start, with no one really knowing his role, and the end result managed to combine the recklessness of o jogo bonito with the goonish defense of a modern, bus-parking squad, the worst of both worlds rolled into one. Brazil is in desperate need of new leadership that can seize control and impose a vision of some sort. If Alejandro Sabella can take an Argentine squad that had been so erratic four years earlier and turn them into a corps of defensive stalwarts, Brazil can certainly do something similar.

The team that dispatched of Brazil with little trouble in the third place match deserves a mention as well. The Dutch, written off before the Cup as both too old and too young, performed admirably, with Louis Van Gaal proving the anti-Scolari with his shrewd tactical moves. The Dutch weren’t always terribly fun to watch, but they got the job done, and Arjen Robben, despite the dives, was a marvel: he manages to be one of the most predictable players on earth, yet still, no one can really stop him. He gives hope to one-footed, prematurely bald bad actors everywhere.

It was a memorable World Cup, from German class to Brazilian infamy, from a very welcome goal explosion to a hungry Uruguayan. The U.S. and Mexico both took a step in the right direction, the French got their mojo back, and the Costa Ricans came ever so close to stealing our hearts with their stout defense. Chile and Colombia continue to climb in the right direction, and the Belgians, with a little more inventiveness, could be dangerous over the next few major tournaments. Spain’s golden age may be over, but there is still plenty of talent in the pipeline, and they’ll be back. In the end, Brazil put on a fine show, and even if their own fate was cruel, they, too, have hope for the future.

For now, though, the enduring image will be a bunch of young, swaggering, sculpted German models who had the ladies at my bar table swooning (and the grudging admiration of us gentlemen). The sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer, the diminutive but dominant Philipp Lahm, the mercurial Mesut Özil, a bruising and bloodied Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the floor yet again. Mats Hummels upped his stock with a superb performance, Tomas Müller scored enough to make people forget his flopping, and Miroslav Klose wrote his way into the history books by surpassing Ronaldo on the all-time goals list, yet another indignity at the expense of Brazil. The crowning moment, however, belongs to Götze, the baby-faced Bayern Munich boy (he’s 22!) who will live in football fame forever. It was a triumph for a great footballing nation, a triumph for lively and attacking football, and also for Götze, who might have himself a northern Minnesota doppelganger when I finally get around to getting a haircut this week.

karl and mario

I can dream, can’t I? And sorry about the mate, Mario; I have some loyalty to all my Latin American countries after spending so much time studying them as an undergrad.

In the Light of What We Know

 “If metaphors increase our understanding, they do so only because they can take us back to a familiar vantage, which is to say that a metaphor cannot bring anything nearer. Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know.”

I don’t always jump on the bandwagon of the hot novel du jour, but one that got favorable reviews across the board this summer did grab my attention: In the Light of What We Know, a debut novel by Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman. It’s a novel that stems from that desire for metaphor detailed in that quote above—a desire “to analogize, to link one thing with another, and to make whole the disparate,” in the words of Zafar, the character who is the novel’s primary subject.

It’s a novel that belongs in the same category as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: it’s a big social novel, trying to talk about the Way We Live Now. With an international flavor thrown in, it can almost seem like the most self-consciously zeitgeisty novel ever. (It’s a novel about the U.S. in Afghanistan! About investment banking and the financial crisis! About the collision of Western and traditional values! Life in the British aristocracy! Math and metaphors and through it all the meaning of writing and therefore of life! And on and on.) But then, of course, you realize that all of this is Zia Haider Rahman’s life, and that he’s just writing in the light of what he knows. Of course, that alone isn’t enough to dismiss the charges of pretension, and every now and then, the quotes at the start of each chapter grow to be a bit much, or the characters’ intellectual asides don’t quite ring true, even given the depth of knowledge they display. It’s clearly a debut novel, carried by the same instinct I first had when I started writing: the author believes he has to pack in as many of his thoughts as humanly possible, lest any one little drop of his brilliance be left unwritten.

The good news is that Rahman is rather brilliant, and knows this. One exceedingly self-conscious pre-chapter quote by Italo Calvino even lays it out: “overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” Indeed, why shouldn’t he go for it? Literature is far more forgiving of possible overreach than the real world, and if the end result gets us somewhere, who cares about the sniping of the cynic from on high? This is a novel as personal exploration, the lines between reality and embellishment obscured; one man’s effort to turn everything he’s known into a somehow coherent narrative arc. To the extent that anyone can meet that near-impossible goal, it does well, and the bevy of glowing reviews shows how sincere Rahman can be, even though his life story can seem so inaccessible.

The tagline for James Wood’s New Yorker review in the print edition called it “a novel of the global elite,” which is true in the sense that pretty much every character is in a position of power, and perhaps all save Zafar from privileged backgrounds as well. But Zafar’s inability to ever find comfort in that elite is the novel’s driving force, the source of his eternal foreignness. Even as he becomes fully conversant in its language and customs and courts a woman who is its ideal, alienation and disgust always simmers beneath. Zafar is a tortured genius, forever someone from somewhere else, and he can share this story only to the unnamed narrator; despite Zafar’s skepticism of bonds built around mere familiarity and his rejection of free will, he is, ironically, pulled toward another man from the subcontinent.

The bond goes a bit deeper than that, of course: Zafar and the unnamed narrator share a brotherhood born of curiosity, an identity as Oxford men and bankers, and a passion for math. In the cleanness of numbers, Zafar can usually escape the ambiguity that overwhelms his daily life, but even there, it doesn’t quite work, with Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem repeated throughout: within any system, there are claims that are true that cannot be proven true.

This is a powerful theme in the novel, with several unique takes on that old Socrates maxim that the wisest man knows that he knows nothing, with greater knowledge only opening up a realization of one’s ignorance. For all of Zafar’s brilliance, he only becomes more and more alienated, and the narrator, while wise not to go quite as far as Zafar in his jadedness, feels many of the same burdens of knowledge. Consider this brilliant turn of phrase: “The faith in having the measure of others really becomes unstuck when you begin to consider how many you’d acknowledge as having the measure of you.” The revelations are often unsettling, and it is not hard to see how circumstances could drive men like these, seemingly so privileged and powerful, into the depths of despair.

For such an erudite novel, it settles into a good pace after some early meanders, and the prose manages to reach a high caliber without being showy. The chapter entitled “The Gospel of St. Thomas” in particular grips the reader, as the details of Zafar’s courtship with Emily Hampton-Wyvern finally come into the light. I especially applaud the decision to eschew quotation marks, a technique that turns dialogue into a sort of meditative trance: the speaker is de-emphasized, and things flow together into a deeper reflection, at times even making us wonder what was really said, and what was merely thought, perhaps in retrospect. (At one point, there’s an explicit mention of this; it also raises the question of how much our narrator—and through him, Rahman—is massaging his depiction of Zafar for his own purposes.) It’s not a tool to be used frequently, but for the tone of Rahman’s novel, it’s ideal.

Readers will likely either love or hate In the Light of What We Know, depending on what they themselves know: how much can we relate to Zafar, a man with such an extraordinary biography? Thankfully, there are a number of ways to approach the enigmatic Bangladeshi raised in Britain, a child of both “a corner of a corner of the world” and Oxford: through lenses of class and race and culture, from intellectual affinity to political or philosophical curiosity. (There was a bit of Zafar leeching into my recent post on the U.S.’s role on the international stage.) Slowly, surely, the bond between the two protagonists emerges as the theme, though its development comes at the expense of the novel’s paper-thin women. For good or ill, they are in a world of their own, along with their author.

There was a time when I probably would have called this the best thing I’ve ever read. The novel’s reach is awesome, that of a social novel raised to the highbrow level; I admire its scope, and a number of lines have been written down to keep. I found some avenues to relate, at times a bit more than I’d like to admit. But now, safely emerged from my phase of overly anxious, morose soul-searching, I can’t help but find it incomplete: telling that narrative about oneself is great, but it’s only a start. To that end, I’ll be very curious to see what Rahman writes next. Now that he’s shed some light on his past, where does he go from here, now that all the self-consciousness is out of the way?

Tales from Across the Alley

Yesterday, I learned of the death of Carl Oveson, who lived across the alley from me during my childhood on the east side of Duluth. Big Carl (with me being Little Karl), who lived to the ripe age of 87, was an anchor in the neighborhood, that guy who kept to his routine with a classic Minnesotan sense of decency, staying on his feet with little projects in his garage and always seeming younger than his many years. For a time his son’s family lived with him, but even after they moved away, he soldiered on at home well into his 80s without losing a step. He tinkered around and fished and kept his lawn more meticulously than most golf courses, most likely shaking his head (though always with a pleasant, if mystified, curiosity) as our yard across the way was swallowed by an ever-growing collection of trees and shrubs. His eventual retreat to an assisted living home had more to do with a search for community than any declining faculties, as he spoke mischievously of the numerous old ladies who baked him cookies.

Carl grew up in Roseau, Minnesota, that hockey mecca in the northwest corner of the state. He graduated in 1944, meaning he missed the inaugural State Tournament by one year, and his obituary informs me that he played for a senior league team named the Roseau Cloverleafs after a stint in the military. Sadly, we’d lost touch by the time I was old enough to think of grilling him for some serious hockey history, but I suspect that Carl wrote his name into some of those early Roseau and Minnesota hockey histories, and given his sharp memory, he would have been the ideal source. Just a couple of weeks ago, after a surprise visit by Carl’s son’s family for the first time in years, the thought came back into my head. I can’t help but think I’ve lost a great opportunity to collect some stories.

And what stories they would have been: Carl was a relentless storyteller. The man could talk for hours on end, to the point that my parents sometimes hurried their walk from our back door to the garage lest they be waylaid for twenty minutes while trying to run a simple errand. He’d always be there, ready to opine on this or that or not much of anything at all. This made him an excellent interview subject for those childhood assignments in which one had to interview an old person; all I had to do was prompt him, and he’d talk for so long that my essays would write themselves.

Most of the stories Carl told me in my middle school days, though, were not of hockey, but about the Second World War. (A Google search on Carl revealed, to my pleasant surprise, that a chunk of one of those interviews has been preserved by the Duluth Veterans’ Memorial Hall.) While he didn’t see combat in the war, he did set out on a boat that would have invaded Japan in the absence of an A-Bomb, and spent a couple of years in the Philippines with a U.S. Navy refrigeration unit. There, he was part of that unglamorous task of rebuilding from the ravages of war, and was a witness to Douglas MacArthur’s fulfillment of his prophecy that he would return to the islands. His time in the Philippines left an indelible mark, and the memories poured forth: humorous cultural clashes, grueling conditions, and the occasional stroke of poignancy. He brought that little bit of history home to us, making real a world far beyond that carefully guarded lawn.

Carl was never one to order anyone off that lawn, though, and his driveway was often the center of neighborhood chatter as we kids raced about. He was a Minnesotan to the core, but he’d traveled far enough to have a sense of perspective about it all, and counted his blessings. Even his final days were well-ordered, as his family from Pennsylvania got one last quality visit in before the end. He is one of those figures who will always hover in the pleasant haze of childhood, and while I’ll keep the trees in my yard, I can only hope my later years will be so well-tended.

Defending Gardner and Succeeding Ness

It’s been a lovely 4th of July weekend in Duluth. While any attempt to bike on the Lakewalk will bring about plenty of cursing under one’s breath about meandering tourists and those God-awful four-wheeled bike cars, it’s still a brilliant time of year for this city, teeming with life and filled with people in all their fascinating messiness. (One last bit of snark, though: did anyone else think the lit-up bridge bore an unfortunate resemblance to the French flag?) At any rate, I’ll wrap up this weekend with that most American of activities: arguing about politics!

With a three-week gap between public meetings, I figured I’d venture a few comments on the two juicier bits of political news to come up in the city over this past week. The first is the recall campaign directed at 3rd District City Councilor Sharla Gardner, a push led by Park Point residents upset over her willingness to defend a plan to re-route the S-curve on the Point.

I have a soft spot for the populist instinct in politics, whatever the flavor. The people at the top should never get too comfortable, and as someone who likes to think things through as thoroughly as possible, I’m rarely one to dismiss people as mere NIMBYs. As I wrote after the meeting on the Point plan, this is local politics in all its glory and messiness…and it worked. There was enough of an uproar that the plan fell flat. And yet, now, people call for Gardner’s head. The victory, apparently, must be complete and total.

The leaders of the revolt, who unconvincingly tried to plead reluctance in the initial News Tribune article, contend that Gardner has not represented Park Point’s interests. (Their words before the Council on May 27 were anything but reluctant, but instead indignant and obstreperous.) That may or may not be true—Gardner had a thorough rebuttal in today’s DNT that effectively shredded the sloppy and unconvincing case made by her accusers—but it’s no grounds for her ouster. Politicians are not elected to ape their constituents’ every whim. We elect people, not platforms. Sharla Gardner was elected to govern as she sees fit, and people will have to learn to deal with that until the next election. If there were a real ethical violation here, or something more sinister, okay—and in that case, a councilor’s removal would likely be taken up by her peers or perhaps the courts—but there just isn’t. In this case, yeah, Park Point, you’re being a bunch of NIMBYs. (I am writing this post from the home of a family member on the Point, so I have some knowledge of the situation.)

All of this confirms a growing sense that the recall is among the most obnoxious tools available in democratic politics. The push for a recall stems from a desperate notion that change, any change, will somehow be better. Instead, the political climate seems to deteriorate from there. Sometimes we’re just on the losing side of debates (or, in the case of the S-curve and even in the case of Art Johnston, the winning side that cannot handle dissent). Smart political players don’t lash out viciously in these situations; they build a base for the next election, so as to turn the tide and create a more positive campaign; a campaign not just predicated on rejecting the past and present, but with a substantive vision for the future. For democracy to work, we need to respect the wishes of voters, even if we think the voters were voting against their own self-interest.

Gardner’s views and politics were never any great secret. She’s been elected twice, including an unopposed re-election in 2011, which means that any opposition to her has either been thwarted, or suffered from a terrible failure to mobilize. She’s often rather long-winded—the comprehensiveness of her defense of the S-curve plan was likely what set a few people off—but she did honestly think she was doing what was best for the city, and she always has the courage of her conviction. The notion that she didn’t fight for the loss of the fire hall also seems wrongheaded; whatever else she may be, Gardner is not one to give up a fight, and she is just one person on a Council of nine that was unconvinced. The critics misread her motives, overestimate her power, and have an entitled conception of democratic politics. There just isn’t any logical reason for this campaign at this time. Save it for the 2015 election, people.

Of course, I have few illusions about logic ruling things in politics; theories often only make sense from a thousand feet up in the air. I know it’s wrong to expect subtlety and careful political calculation out of the average citizen. (That line sounds elitist, but this is reality, and in many ways, I have a certain envy for people who don’t spend much time peddling in the nuances of politics.) The aggrieved parties will get to launch their little campaign and enjoy their day in the Park Point sun. This risk is always present in democratic politics, with the angry partisans waging total war by claiming they somehow represent the repressed or ignored. The system works because most people, thankfully, don’t consider these things life-or-death matters. Can we please just enjoy these beautiful days on the beach instead of seeing this vendetta through to its painful conclusion?

The second newsworthy bit was the revelation that Mayor Don Ness is leaning against running for a third term. Given his popularity and the unity of Duluth’s center and left behind him, he’d likely be a shoo-in to win, and, of course, plenty of people around him want him to pursue higher offices. But, in typical Ness fashion, he’s deflected most of those projections, and seems more content to play the family man.

We’ll see if that holds up when decision time comes, but I, for one, applaud his stance. A smart politician knows he is never bigger than his project, and Ness would be wise to make sure his vision for Duluth—which will outlive his mayoralty no matter what—is well-positioned to outlast him. In most things, it is better to go out on top than to hang on until one has outlived one’s welcome. I wouldn’t be opposed to a third Ness run, but fresh blood—as long as it really is fresh, and not the same old stuff stashed away in a vial in a back corner of City Hall—would make sure his project doesn’t stagnate along the same old questions and battle lines.

I haven’t always agreed with Don Ness, and as with anything, I’m sure I could pick apart his record if I wanted to expend the time and effort. But from a long-term perspective, his six and a half years have probably been the most momentous mayoralty in recent Duluth history. For the first time in my life, the city has a bit of optimism about it, and that should probably be seen through, and taken as far as it can go. There is a window of energy here that ought to be milked for all it’s worth, and Ness is doing that, daring to reach west and plan for the future. It may not turn Duluth into some shining beacon of a modern city, but the gains need not be wholesale to be substantial.

The cynics and critics still have an important role to play. If the coalition gets too comfortable, it will stagnate, and I’d welcome alternative visions and substantive debate. But realistically, and barring a drastic change in the local political landscape, whoever gets elected in 2015 is going to agree with Ness on most things. The day when the Duluth DFL monolith breaks down may come—there are cracks in the walls—but I don’t think we’re there yet. The real question, then, becomes one of how this project will evolve, and what wrinkles a new candidate might bring to Ness’s Duluth. A race to succeed him in 2015 would likely be very competitive, even if not terribly diverse in its political views, and that could inject a healthy dose of life to the system. A city with a dominant party needs that sort of internal debate, lest the vision atrophy. Those outside that party, on the other hand, need to come up with a positive platform, instead of simply raging at the people in power who they believe have wronged them.

Edit: Aaron Brown, who has an excellent Range-based blog on northeastern Minnesota, hits many of the same notes on Ness here, along with some of the points about living in community that I’ve repeated over and over again. Yes, yes, a million times yes. There’s a reason “culture” comes before “politics” in the tagline at the top of this blog.