‘Boyhood’ and Life in Time

Near the end Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the protagonist’s mother, Olivia, has a breakdown. Her son, Mason, is just about to head off to college, and she suddenly realizes that her life, long defined by the routine events of her children’s growth, will now lack any such signifiers.  A droll remark from Mason eases her back off the edge of the cliff, but—aside from making any boy away from home immediately want to call his mother—her moment of realization shows how we make sense of the passage of time. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same actors, this is Boyhood’s revelation: it distills a childhood into a series of memories, flashing by in jarring little vignettes, exactly as we’d all remember it all as we look back on our first eighteen years.

Some of these moments are obvious, shared across many lives: family moves, fights with stepfathers, a first drink, a memorable 15th birthday, first sex. Others are distinct to Mason’s memory: his sister’s mannerisms, a haircut forced by a stepfather, a camping trip with real dad just after Mason’s voice drops, a change that coincides with his acceptance of his wandering father’s role in his life. There is no serious attempt to build a narrative through them all, but it all fits together seamlessly because this, we know, is how life flows. Meaning only comes out in retrospect, and often in the strangest of places. Boyhood knows this intimately.

Boyhood, for Linklater, is far from a youthful idyll, and one suspects it would have been the same even if the protagonist hadn’t been the child of a single mother who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. It is often defined by its most painful moments, and awkwardness and social struggle abounds. Those moments of boyish bliss are there from time to time, but the film persistently reminds us that innocence is far from the starting state of human life. Even so, nostalgia builds as the moments flash by, the past always seeming a bit less complicated simply because there was less for us to remember. Memory is the root of complication that breeds frustration, yet only by fitting those memories into a story does anything begin to make sense.

Manhood is just as much of a theme as boyhood in the film. Olivia’s three lovers are all sorry weaklings, two alcoholics desperately trying to impose order on a world that won’t cooperate, and Mason Senior, who spends the first forty years of his life just going with the flow, failing to take on anything more than the most routine responsibilities. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Senior is aware enough to recognize this, but only in time does he move past his self-absorption and see his son as a partner in a journey, one who is very much his own son, and in need of a guide who has been down this road and learned a thing or two. His growth over the course of the film is as dramatic as Mason’s, and his time away from his son gives him a sense of perspective that Olivia, forever down in the trenches, cannot match.

Mason doesn’t find much in the way of male peer companionship, either. As an introvert whose family is often on the move, he builds little that lasts, and his friends rarely aspire to anything more than instant gratification. It’s no wonder that his relationships with girls come to predominate the last hour of the film. He plays along with the dalliances of his peers without any serious discomfort, but he aspires to something else and wanders alone, his father coming out in him as he loses himself in photography. Here, finally, he finds an outside adult who takes interest, a photography teacher who tries to give his work ethic a bit of a nudge. Somewhere in here are the beginnings of a serious investigation of manhood in modern American life, a fascinating topic never far from my mind whose delicacy has kept me from tackling it head-on in this blog to date. (Too often, the fate of boys is tied up in a comparison to girls. While this has considerable merit—as the prevalence of certain gaps and some of the teenage misogyny in the film shows—the experience of growing up male needs to be confronted on its own terms, not just in relation to the opposite sex.)

Boyhood takes cinematic realism toward its furthest possible extreme. There is nothing at all remarkable in the circumstances of Mason’s childhood; sure, his home life is far from ideal and he dabbles in drugs at a relatively young age, but none of this goes to the extreme. It is just the story of a childhood, only one step removed from a documentary. The film looks good, but there are relatively few artistic and philosophical flourishes, separating Boyhood from the “self-conscious grandiosity” (in the words of Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) of the similarly-themed Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Malick takes ordinary life and tries to find transcendent meaning; Linklater takes ordinary life and revels in the simple idea of being ordinary. If Malick echoes Kierkegaard, Linklater echoes Camus.

Of course, some critics would rather have their grandiose gestures (and lest I sound opposed to them, I adore Tree of Life). In a withering takedown of all things that attempt to be “relatable,” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker blasts Boyhood as “the apotheosis” of art aiming to speak to viewers on a solipsistic level, with the novelty of the passage of time covering up a “the banality of the plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization.” This trouble will confront any work of art that tries to describe things as they are, and trying to pin down an “average” American childhood or other such experience will inevitably hit upon a number of well-worn themes.

There is more to Boyhood, however, than just relatability and the novelty of the twelve-year project. Parts of Mason’s childhood are clearly relatable, but that’s hardly true for every viewer, and there is just enough instability in his life that a happy ending isn’t quite a given. There is something else going on here. The philosophical musings of Mason and his teenage friends, while often half-formed and not entirely original, are also not thoughts straight out of a can. The struggle is evident, and if that’s what is most “relatable” here, it is because this really is a universal: we all face these questions in life, and they do not come along as platonic ideals placed in front of us by some philosophy professor up in the sky, but within the muck of daily life as we confront obstacles with which we have no prior experience. We’re frustrated and we don’t quite see the full picture, and thus the things Mason and company observe don’t seem hackneyed; they’re genuine struggles. Unlike most any other film, they really don’t know where their story will go.

This is how the Big Questions in life come to us, and Boyhood captures that lurching evolution in a novel, precise manner. If the goal of social realism is to show us how we live, Boyhood gives the ‘how’ a new dimension, grappling not just with the passage of time, but the manner in which we perceive and remember it. It’s not relatable just because people can see bits of themselves in Mason, but because their very experience of living is just like Mason’s. Boyhood is art that seeks to make sense of life, and while that is not all that art can or should do, its power in this field overwhelms any weaknesses elsewhere. It is a triumph.

Utraque Unum

To date, I’ve avoided discussing my alma mater, Georgetown University, in much detail on this blog. My thoughts are convoluted, and I wanted to gain a little more distance from those four years before doing so. I think I’m finally there, and a new book provides a great vehicle for writing about my time as a Hoya. This summer, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz penned a book entitled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. It’s a variation on an old theme, one confronted by Allan Bloom’s closing American mind, David Brooks’s Organization Kid, and any number of cultural critics over the past few decades. The premise is simple: so-called ‘elite’ universities are failing students, turning intellectually sharp kids into corporate drones who ask no great questions who are just obsessed with climbing the ladder of wealth and power.

The vast majority of these essays are incredibly personal in nature; the main piece will describe the author’s time at University X and the troubles he or she has seen, and everyone else associated with any school that is vaguely comparable to University X is then obligated to opine. (Opining is, after all, what academics are good at.) I now present my offering in that noble tradition, though I hope this meta-awareness keeps me from falling into some of the more familiar traps.

I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, of course, but my alma mater isn’t far off. Particularly for the politically inclined, Georgetown is that shining city on a hill above the Potomac, its allure sometimes surpassing that of the Ivies. It has the admissions rate to match, even if the endowment lags; relying on the Catholic Church to fund one’s first few centuries kept the school from seeking donations as aggressively as its Ivy friends, leading Georgetown to expend a lot of effort in recent capital campaigns. It qualifies as an “elite school,” whatever that exactly means.

There was a time when I was rather critical of my alma mater, and I agree with a number of Deresiewicz’s critiques. In my senior year, I actually discouraged a high school friend from applying, and I stand by that call. The most surprising thing to me was what I perceived as a general lack of intellectual curiosity on display. I went in thinking Georgetown students were in some higher class of brilliance than my high school peers; some certainly were, but many were not. They’d just been raised in families with higher expectations, and come out of private high schools and SAT tutoring programs that specialize in funneling kids into elite colleges. They knew the landscape better, but their minds didn’t appear any sharper for it.

Careerism pervaded many aspects of university life. Dating, while possible, was rare: few felt it worthwhile to put in the effort, especially with grad school and travel and a decade of way-finding to follow. It was much easier to just find a good weekend hook-up and then get back to our frantic studies once the hangover had worn off. And while there was a small cadre of radicals, political debate was pretty rare, too. Elite American universities are nothing like the politically charged incubators of protest they might have been in past generations, with a vague social liberalism and fiscal moderation just accepted as the general culture. The primary aim of a Georgetown student is to “be productive;” it doesn’t really matter what they think of the things they produce, so long as they are producers.

At one point, I also became aware that a certain professor generally regarded as the don of campus intellectual life had opined that the decline in student interest in certain fellowships and related pursuits was related the increase in middle-class students from the center of the country. These students, lacking the comfort of the old money elites that had traditionally populated schools like Georgetown, were a bit more careerist and didn’t have as much time for intellectual pursuits. At the time this sentiment pissed me off, and I still think our dear professor ought to have descended from his ivory tower and made a better pitch to those of us who didn’t know what sort of path we’d have to take to pursue such things, but I don’t think he was wrong. It is very difficult to be a detached intellectual without a certain degree of material comfort. Still, I think there was an untapped market there for him, and for a somewhat hotheaded college student, those sorts of words are alienating. It’s a shame, because I usually respond well to hard-asses, and could have used him in my life.

This unexpected careerism caused some culture shock, which was heightened by questions of money and hometown. In high school, I’d never found class to be a serious barrier for communing with other people; in college, I was hyper-aware of my status as the kid on heavy financial aid from a small city somewhere in flyover country. (A conversation repeated numerous times: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Duluth, Minnesota.’ ‘Is that near the Twin Cities?’ ‘No.’ This elicited shock, as the person tried to fathom life beyond the suburban ring.) I’ve playfully mocked the University of Minnesota for having a course in “Understanding Minnesota Nice,” but I could have used a crash course in DC culture before I got there.

In retrospect, I was a bit uncharitable to many of my classmates and the old guard professors, and my Duluth pride may have understandably come off as rather obstinate, or just quirky. I was just someone from somewhere else; an occasional object of curiosity, but most people were too busy to sit about and ponder these things. I don’t blame them; outside of a fairly close circle of friends, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering them, either. I had all the same concerns, and might have looked just as intellectually disinterested as the rest. Most of us were in the same boat.

The reasons for that often had little to do with Georgetown. This is life in America’s quasi-meritocracy, and the school is swept up in that; sure, it can and should do some work around the margins to tone that down, but only so much. (What’s it supposed to do, reject applicants with awesome resumes? Paternalistically crack down on students’ love lives? Good luck with that.) In the grand scheme of things, my struggles were pretty minor, and by graduation I’d more or less found my niche. That’s adolescent life, really. In this, I agree with the Robert Nisbet critique, detailed in Nathan Heller’s New Yorker review of Excellent Sheep: expecting a university to be a place where people focus on shaping their souls inflates its role, and also takes a rather solipsistic view of education. It’s not all about us.

Likewise, some of my frustrations with Georgetown had a lot more to do with me than with Georgetown. My rural Ohio roommate, for example, had a much smoother transition. I went in naïve about certain aspects of college life; throw in some family upheaval, and it wasn’t hard for an already introspective person to tip over into hyper-awareness. Add in a temperament generally skeptical of cliques, one that is equally at ease discussing Aristotle over wine one night and watching football over cheap beer the next, and it’s no surprise that I was adrift by sophomore year. Building community is tough when you don’t always share some of those lowest-common-denominator cultural norms, yet aren’t happy drifting off into a narrower counterculture, either.

Reading all this, you’d probably get the sense that I wasn’t very happy at Georgetown. There were definitely some frustrating moments. But if I could go back and do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat, and I’d push any kids of mine who share my temperament to do the same. Why? It’s a matter of ambition; for some of us, nothing short of this will ever do. Ambition and anxiety are joined at the hip, and I had to get beyond college to learn how to negotiate that interplay. That drive is too much of who I am to imagine a different life, and I expect it’s the same with many of my peers. It might not make sense to someone from the outside, but some of us are just wired this way, and there is no alternative.

On that front, Georgetown really did get a lot right. It prepped me well and got me to think deeply. The vast majority of the time I had real professors (not grad students), most of them brilliant. Sure, the students were career-focused, but the best of the professors knew how to pull them out of that and tap into some well-hidden intellectual energy. Anyone claiming they weren’t getting that out of their students probably wasn’t trying hard enough, or was failing to communicate or command respect. I also saw that my focus on the superficial was often just as bad as that of others, and that I had to dig deeper to find more.

Georgetown’s emphasis on faith, diversity, and social justice did seem like window dressing at times, but in a world hyper-saturated with opportunity, the school probably had to be a bit repetitive to get its point across. The Office of Mission and Ministry might not have quite satisfied the hardline Catholics, but it did leave a door open for exploration and allow for the creation of healthy minority communities. (In this day in age, any religious group on campus is a minority.) The same could be said for racial or sexual minorities, who had their spaces on campus. The Center for Social Justice likewise was pretty robust, and did a decent job of getting Hoyas out of the Georgetown Bubble to realize there was a wider world out there. Maybe there was no ideal spot for me there since I didn’t quite fit in any of the above, but I refuse to be a whiny victim about that. If Georgetown was indeed supposed to help me find my soul, it really did that. I’m probably in the minority there, but the path was open for anyone willing to take it; I wouldn’t even say it was particularly hard to do so. Even though I’m a Minnesotan at heart, I needed to get out and see Rome, and there were things I learned about myself there (and in that sublime semester in Mexico) that I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else.

I’ll throw in one last cynical twist, though: frankly, I went overboard in finding myself, often to the detriment of my relationships with the people around me. Add in some excessive pride over doing things my own way, and it’s no wonder I came out of there without any sort of career path. The debate between career readiness and soul formation is a false dichotomy. A university can’t do either one alone, but there’s no reason it can’t contribute to some of both. Hence the Georgetown motto, ‘Utraque unum’—‘both one.’ The eagle on the Georgetown seal holds the world in one talon and a cross in the other, uniting faith and reason.

The people who best embodied this were the professors. They imparted wisdom both personal and practical, and also taught us in things that were not relevant to our immediate careers. For some Hoyas that meant courses with people with real-world experience, like Madeleine Albright or Chuck Hagel; for me, it meant finding the university’s best minds. My path involved the Classicist icon Fr. James Schall, rising stars like Fr. Matthew Carnes and Desha Girod, the incredible detachment of Eusebio Mujal-Leٚón, the badass Barbara Mujica, and Patrick Deneen, that old guard conservative who was the great defender of liberal education. They’re the enduring images of my undergraduate academic career. The best of their number were all authorities who commanded respect, even as they invited us to fumble about with our own two cents.

It’s also not coincidental that a couple of them were Jesuits; in fact, I think they were all Catholic. As tiresome as some of the university’s canards on faith became, that unending presence made Georgetown unique. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve directed all of my (puny) donations to date to Georgetown mission and ministry. That unique identity is worth cultivating, and is essential in keeping the university from becoming a factory of careerist automatons. When it comes to reining that in, schools rely on what they know best, and keep with a mission that survives the march of time. If you can’t stand being in the presence of Catholics, don’t go to a Catholic school. There should be diverse options among colleges, and that diversity should mean something, instead of it just being a cheap selling point.

Georgetown and its ilk are not for everyone, nor should they be. We don’t want a world where everyone is a hyper-driven Hoya; we need people with different temperaments. I’m at a big state school now, and while it’s too early for me to say much about it, they certainly have their strengths: size begets diversity and sub-cliques that aren’t possible at smaller schools. Liberal arts colleges have their place as well, for those who really want to go all-in on the soul formation and have the resources to make it work. Vocational training is also essential, and deserves higher repute; perhaps more than anything, higher ed in this country needs to revive traditions such as the apprenticeship, and give kids easier roads from school to career so that they don’t come out panicking about what comes next. Paradoxically, a more direct career focus could free people up to spend more time on those questions of the soul that usually get forgotten when we have to figure out how to put food on the table.

But for those of us who can’t live without that constant pursuit of greatness, whatever that might be, the Ivy League and its ilk are necessary. Somewhere underneath it all, there’s usually a desire for a completed soul, and that too can be the object of our pursuit of excellence—and just like careerism, it can go overboard. There is nowhere better than these schools to find that holistic place where the both become one. Maybe I’m a sellout in my acceptance of all this blind ambition, but if I am, I make no apologies. The trouble is not in the chase; it is in refusing to look back to see where we’ve come from.

A follow-up on my thoughts on Georgetown is available here.

Reaching Zen: Duluth School Board Notes, 8/19/14

On Tuesday night, I attended my final ISD 709 School Board meeting before heading south to Minneapolis. I had a rant prepped for the citizen speaker session, but after a good day I was feeling Zen about it all and decided that it would be hypocritical to belabor my points in lashing out at Board Members for belaboring their points. At a certain point the vitriol in the room just becomes tiresome, and I didn’t want to cross that line. I’m in a good enough place that I don’t need that catharsis.

It took 38 minutes to approve the agenda at this meeting, which tells you everything you need to know about it. Member Welty tried to make two amendments to the agenda, the first of which demanded a thorough review of the soft costs of the Red Plan, and the second of which sought to insure that the District would pay any legal costs incurred by a Board Member in the event that they are investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing. I won’t rehash all of the painful exchanges, but I will offer a few conclusions on an all-too-familiar night in the Board Room:

This Board operates under a tyranny of the majority. It just does. They refuse to let Members Johnston and Welty get anything on the agenda at all. This doesn’t give the minority free reign to use any guerrilla tactic they like, but it does make their reactions more understandable, even if they don’t serve any constructive end. The stonewalling of any questions also breeds resentment, and despite the stated aims of the majority of moving past the Red Plan debate, it is a sure way to make sure the aggrieved parties do not drop their case. It’s a bad move, both for the Board’s short-term image and its long-term aims of moving past the Red Plan. They leave Member Welty, a reasonable man, with the undesirable options of submission or relentless protest.

The bunker mentality in the majority reigns supreme. It would be so much easier for the majority to fork over the information Members Welty and Johnston want, then put it all to rest. Admittedly, I am a bit skeptical of Member Johnston’s claim that he’d just let things rest if they had the conversation before voting his proposals down; his track record there is against him, and this may be why some don’t want to have these discussions. There is a lot of posturing and point-proving going on here that may or may not serve any constructive purpose, and the strict emphasis on soft costs is curious. Still, it’s a lot easier to claim the high ground when one does make a genuine effort to be reasonable. Excepting Member Harala and, on one or two occasions, Member Loeffler-Kemp, the Board’s majority has not done that.

Despite one claim by Member Welty, I don’t think the Board’s actions are illegal. They’re allowed to come up with their own ways for putting things on the agenda. (The same could be said for the decision to impose the Red Plan without a vote way back when.) It’s just a poor PR move for them to act in the way they do, and is certainly not in the spirit of a cohesive democracy.

On a broader level, the lack of transparency is disappointing, and pervades the administration beyond the complaints of two dissident Board Members. Try being a journalist looking for some pretty straightforward information ISD 709. (No, I’m not talking about Loren Martell.) Even Superintendent Gronseth’s updates often sound like canned press releases—perhaps because he is, indeed, reading straight from a canned press release. The attempt to control the narrative is way too heavy-handed.

Having the Board pay Member Johnston’s legal fees was never going to fly. It’s a noble idea, but it just isn’t done. From my rudimentary research, there is some possibility that Member Johnston could recoup some of the costs if exonerated, but that would require further legal proceedings. In the case of the Clintons’ Whitewater investigation, for example, a federal court ruled that there was a good chance the charges against them would have come up with or without the role of government representatives in bringing about the charges, and they were thus on the hook for the bill. The proposal brought forward by Member Welty was far too vague, and he needs some serious legal consultation if he wants to get a more complex version that actually would work, if that’s even possible.

Chair Miernicki is in over his head. This meeting was a painful display of inept procedure, with the Chair quickly growing flustered by the protests of Members Welty and Johnston. It is tough to watch an otherwise jolly and easygoing man get flummoxed by the criticism directed his way, and when the minority presses his points, he comes across like a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats. Given the added fact of his involvement in the case against Member Johnston, I think he should resign his chairmanship. The position would be passed to Member Westholm, who agrees with Chair Miernicki on everything policy-wise, but has yet to ever lose his calm in a meeting. This would be beneficial for the Board as a whole.

Given the persistent intransigence of Member Johnston, I admit this is a hard job to hold. In retrospect, I may have been overly harsh on Tom Kasper’s attempt to balance everything. He did a much better job of choosing his battles with Member Johnston, and because of that he usually held the high ground when they had their disputes. The same cannot be said of Chair Miernicki. He’s hurting his own case, and continues to do so at every meeting.

What’s going on at Laura MacArthur?

For a third time, an update from Laura MacArthur Elementary principal Nathan Glockle was on the Education Committee docket. For a third time, it was tabled, ostensibly because Mr. Glockle could not make the meeting. One conflict is understandable; three starts to get a little suspicious. There were legitimate concerns about the curriculum being offered at Laura Mac, and now the Board will not get an update before the start of the new school year. That’s disappointing.

For all the craziness in the Board Room, there’s a lot to be proud of in ISD 709.

I’ve noted this before, but it’s worth emphasizing again: there’s a giant disconnect between the cattiness in the Board room and the reality in much of the District. It hired 55 new teachers for this coming year. (Even with retirements and such, that’s a lot.) As usual, Member Harala brought enthusiasm to the Education Committee report, plugging great things like Head Start expansion and community gardens. Local philanthropy for the schools remains excellent. New policies on bullying, harassment, and violence went into effect; while there are some fine points there to be ironed out in each of them (for example, why has the Board requested reports on all harassment cases, but not on incidents of violence?), but this is important for accountability and building better school environments. Everyone enjoyed the presentation they’d received from the East and Denfeld robotics teams, with Member Welty in particular waxing over the bridging of the east-west divide done by the students involved. I could go on and on. These positive developments don’t necessarily make up for large class sizes and cut courses and test score gaps, but that strong civic culture will keep ISD 709 strong, no matter what lunacy the Board Members pursue. Schools are about more than test scores, and in most (though certainly not all) of those intangible categories, ISD 709 is exemplary.


And so I bid the School Board farewell, at least for now. Thanks to the three Board members who are my loyal readers. It’s probably not coincidental that you three are, in my mind, the most objective on the Board, and the most likely to guide it into a post-Red Plan era. My following among the Board Members was much smaller than my following among the City Councilors (which, without over-inflating my own role, is rather telling when it comes to Board members’ openness and willingness to engage citizens), but at least there was something, and I thank you for that. Thanks also to Jana Hollingsworth, my News Tribune partner in crime; I admire your ability to endure these meetings for years on end while remaining objective, and I hope I’ve given you a good outlet for some of those reactions that you can’t fit within the sometimes narrow lines of contemporary print journalism.

I’m not sure my alma mater is in a better place than it was when I left it six years ago, but thanks to some lurching progress in recent years, it’s not demonstrably worse either, and the bar was pretty high to begin with. For all the Board room madness I’m still very proud of it, and I’ll still be back to visit when time allows. Hockey season is just around the corner, isn’t it? In the meantime, I’ll leave it with the words of guest speaker Cassandra Dahnke of the Institute for Civility in Government. They’ve been said before, but they are excellent advice for the Board members: “You don’t want to be a community that falls apart because you can’t talk to each other.” Daunting as it may be, it is in the interests of both sides to come to one another in good faith, and hopefully the few that do so can build some sort of coalition. Perchance to dream.

One Last Time: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/18/14

It was a tame last night for me in the Council Chamber, with a small crowd and a light agenda. Councilor Julsrud and President Krug were both absent, meaning Vice President Larson got to assume the center seat. There was no report from the administration, and introductory Councilor comments were limited to Councilor Gardner’s celebration of summer break.

The first public speaker was Ms. Karen Lewis, who returned to the Council Chamber to express her concerns about a smattering of public safety issues, including sinkholes and other walking hazards, Park Point zoning, and a good balance in safety lighting. There was also a second public speaker, though we’ll get to his words later.

After again tabling Councilor Hanson’s proposed DECC casino, a resolution on the sale of tax forfeited properties on Park Point came off the table for consideration. As Councilor Russ explained, there had initially been much concern over the plan to sell all of the land between 13th and 16th Streets as one parcel, so the county land department had chosen to divide it up. The land will be offered at auction sometime around November, and while neighbors will not get to bid before anyone else, they will get complete information sent to them on the opportunity. Councilor Gardner added that everything from here on out will be handled by the county, which is running the sale. The resolution passed unanimously.

Councilor Fosle pulled a resolution on stoplight funding from the consent agenda, but only so that he could give a concerned constituent a proper explanation. The $500,000 to be spent on stoplights had already been funded by the existing street light fee, and even though Councilor Folse “hated” that fee, he said it was “part of the plan all along” and would increase efficiency and save money in the long run. It too passed unanimously.

A resolution approving $2 million in funding for the Wade Stadium restoration brought out the most comments, though they were all in agreement. Councilor Hanson, a former Wade employee and baseball player whose district includes the stadium, was especially excited, noting numerous possible economic opportunities. Councilor Filipovich talked up the Wade’s historical value, while Councilor Hanson sang the praises of artificial turf; Councilor Russ was disappointed to hear a scoreboard upgrade wouldn’t happen until phase two (presumably next year). Councilor Fosle was “happy the state finally listened” to their pleas for Wade money, and was pleased to learn that the tourism tax for the St. Louis River corridor could be directed to the stadium. It passed unanimously.

Councilor Gardner gave a few more details on an ordinance detailing regulations for microdistilleries, but that was it for the meeting. Councilor Sipress talked up a resolution on a Lakewalk taskforce that would come forward in next week’s meeting, while Councilor Russ shared her excitement over the NorShor Theater’s restoration. Councilor Gardner gave an update on the Park Point beach accesses, saying there were “legitimate concerns” about the health of dunes at some of the Tier Two accesses. The plans for the Tier One accesses will move forward, while Tier Two will undergo review from a citizen group. Councilor Larson praised a pair of new bike trails, Councilor Hanson plugged a possible new sports dome, and with that, my work was done. They let me off easy at the end here.


The second citizen speaker was me. (Props to VP Larson for asking how to pronounce my last name before calling me up.) Here are my prepared remarks:

Good evening Councilors, I’m Karl Schuettler, and as you may know, I’ve been lurking in this hall for the past year and a half and writing about your meetings. This will be my last one for the time being, as I’m heading south for graduate school later this week. I’d just like to take a moment to thank you all for your service. I’ve had my moments of disagreement with all of you, but I’ve heard insights and profound observations out of everyone here. Duluth is fortunate to have a cohesive Council that manages to think broadly, even though nearly all of you belong to the same political party. There is always room for more opinions, but this Council has a good, healthy debate at nearly every meeting, and it listens to citizens who approach it in good faith. There’s a lot to be said for that.

I’m also encouraged by a lot of what I’ve seen in this city lately. As I’ve left Duluth and come back several times, the changes that happen gradually are more striking to me than they might be to those who never leave: Duluth now seems cleaner, safer, and more vibrant, with a rich and unique local culture taking off. We’ve come a long way from the post-industrial mire of the 1980s that still afflicts so many Midwestern manufacturing centers. Still, I’ve found myself drawn to urban planning not just by enthusiasm for the new developments. Sustained growth requires a detached weighing of priorities, and must also make sure that longtime residents’ mundane needs are not neglected in the rush toward the newer, more inspiring ideas. Whatever direction it takes, Duluth needs to maintain a holistic vision of city government that encompasses both idealistic planning and popular concern about the consequences of that planning. With that vision in place, the next cycle in Duluth’s history holds great promise.

Thank you, and with any luck, I’ll be back at it here in two years’ time.


We’ll have to wait and see about that. Thanks to the Council for its welcome and support over the past two years, and thanks to the many of you out there who I know read this. (Hey CAO Montgomery, approve that job action form for the library delivery driver position. Seriously, they need it.) I’ll do my best to keep up from Minneapolis as time allows, though I’m not nerdy enough to drop other Monday night plans to watch a webcast. For the most part it’s been good fun, and even when it wasn’t, it was enlightening. I wish the Councilors luck, hope a few citizens can pick up the slack, and beyond that, I’ll never be too far away. We’ll be in touch.

Farewell Duluth IV: The Walk

Eighteen years ago Saturday, a moving van bearing my father and I rolled into Duluth to join my mother, who’d already made the trek. I now have less than a week left here—this time around, anyway. My departures are never very permanent. Even so, a proper good-bye was in order. So I headed out the front door and started walking.

I begin in Lakeside, an idyllic middle-class neighborhood on the far east end, and my home for most of my life. It isn’t uniform; there are some gaudy houses along the lakeshore and scattered about, and many of the homes are older, bringing with them some character and occasionally some shabbiness as well. It just seems healthy, my own childhood repeated before my eyes from block to block. At times perhaps too sheltering, as evidenced ongoing temperance 80 years after the 21st Amendment, but it’s also easy to escape out into the woods or up the shore and find some freedom. The business district has hollowed out some over the years; the second grocery store and the pharmacy is gone now, though many of them plug along, and a new coffee shop is set to come in. For the most part, it seems timeless.


At the end of Lakeside is the new Duluth East, in the building where I went to middle school; the setting is second to none, with the expansive views of the lake. The building itself, though, can’t quite match the old one, which I come to in a short while: that old gothic brick academy with giant windows perched right in the heart of Congdon Park. To the west, Duluth’s mansions and old money core, tucked beneath the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Longview tennis courts. Say what you will about Duluth’s elite, but their commitment to this community down the years has been unquestioned, and that Congdon sensibility rubbed off on me during my time at East. Class, unapologetic appreciation for high culture, and sympathy for that noble approach to the world: political wars and resentment are so below us, and instead it is all our plaything, here to be enjoyed in all its finery. A defense of time-honored traditions and inheritances worth passing down, stewarding, and bringing to fruition. It has its shortcomings, of course, and I’ve got enough Wisconsin farm boy in me that it’ll never quite be me. It is a fine place to call home, though, and I have its largesse to thank for so much.

I leave the mansions behind, and a protest is afoot on 4th Street: the towering maples lining the route are on the chopping block due to planned street repairs, so the neighbors have wrapped them in clothes arranged to look like tree-hugging people and added some speech bubbles from the trees themselves. I grab their flier, turn north off 4th, and slide into the Hillside. This is often Duluth’s cutting edge, with many possible futures on display: incoming college students, the growing gardens of those who want to raise their families in the heart of a walkable city, lower-income rentals, and the sudden appearance of minorities, all in relatively close proximity. Variety begets vivacity, though it comes at the expense of some stability. The strength of neighborhoods such as this will be the bellwether for the future, not only in Duluth but across the nation: how do we adapt to the thinning of the middle class? How do we make do with our roles in life, knowing most of us aren’t destined for those Congdon mansions, and how do we adjust to neighbors who may not share our culture? The Hillside likely holds the answers to these questions.


I swing down around a reservoir, past a slope where I once went to count butterflies, now overgrown, and reach the Lower Chester hockey rinks. The place where the Williams brothers and Mike Randolph learned to skate has been given a new lease on life, thanks to the closure of the rinks in Congdon; it looks sharp, though today its only occupants are a couple of skateboarders. I pause to admire the towering building across the street; ex-mansion or some great hall I do not know, but it’s hard to tell if it’s occupied today. I plunge down the hill, through the tangle of the Hillside, and there is the lake: this walk wouldn’t be complete without a brief venture into the realm of the tourists. There’s the Armory and the walls of the old Duluth Arena beneath the Super One, and there is the brick next to the Rose Garden fountain where I must kneel and brush off the dirt. Onward, past two statues: one of a man who had nothing to do with Duluth but is honored here anyway (Leif Erickson), and the other of a robber baron who had everything to do with Duluth (Jay Cooke). How curious our historical memories can be.

I head down Superior Street, past bustling Fitgers and into the east end of Downtown. It’s come a long way since I last made this walk: Duluth has outlasted the Last Place on Earth, and the Kozy Bar offers no respite. Now, a Sheraton, classy restaurants, and a shiny independent theater. (As if I needed another trigger for childhood nostalgia and rumination on the passage of time, “Boyhood” has just opened here.) This is looking more and more like a cultured downtown, the commercial hub of northern Minnesota, many of the buildings lining its brick streets still graced with turn-of-the-century detail. It’s not a steady march into the future, though: the Fond Du Luth Casino’s lurid lights still flash all over the place, and a walk one block up to First Street is a step back into a different Duluth. The memorial to the 1920 lynchings sits vacant opposite the burned-out shell of the Kozy, and a woman stumbling up the street in an apparent drugged daze offers a halfhearted hello.


A light mist has kept the crowds at bay, and now as I get into the very heart of the city, it begins to rain properly. I seek brief shelter amid the ever-intriguing crowds in the Holiday Center, people who have caught my attention since my youth, left me to puzzle out lives that are not mine. I do a few stretches, then take to the skywalk for a brief spell. I can’t get far on a Saturday, but by the time I step out next to the Missabe Building, it’s all stopped, and I can admire the façade there and on the Board of Trade before plodding on to City Hall. I’ve spent my share of time in the halls of power over the past two years, but Duluth is too small for anyone to live in a bubble here. A block away, the ore ship of a library sits in port with its cargo of knowledge and collection of unsavory characters who needed a new home after the Last Place on Earth closed its doors, and beyond it, the real harbor, ever the root source of this city’s identity.


It’s time to head up. Fifth Avenue West is Duluth’s steepest street, but I conquer it with the help of the sidewalk railing, and stop to admire the view down toward the harbor and the DECC, another place where I’ve seemed to practically live at times, from hockey to concerts to other formal functions from high school on up. I hike the crest of Observation Hill, observing that house where my mother stayed when she first moved here ahead of the family seventeen years ago, and come to the Twin Ponds and Enger Tower. The park is busy, but I don’t linger for the view. Instead, I retreat to the woods, and head down the Superior Hiking Trail. Here, too, there is great variety: a stand of pines, an alpine meadow with views of the harbor, a babbling stream to hop across, and a forgotten old basketball court and baseball diamond, slowly being swallowed up by the woods. I cross Piedmont Avenue, then descend through Lincoln Park. As a ribbon of greenery it’s similar to the more familiar Lester Park, but it seems a bit less tamed, a bit more wild, and I have the upper reaches to myself.


Down below, in the heart of the park, there are a handful of picnickers and two fishermen; a pair of young lovers guide each other across the bridge. Then, back out to civilization, and a host of worn-out rental properties, some legitimately blighted. A little festival at a mid-block church apparently requires the presence of three police cars, and “Beware of the Dog” signs proliferate. More than anything now, I want lunch, and the Duluth Grill, that quintessential local restaurant, calls out. Even in the midst of Lincoln Park, a beloved restaurant of locally sourced food thrives, one of a few signs of change here. It’s packed as always, but it’s not hard to find a spot for one at the counter, and I recharge with a salmon burger.

My next steps take me along West Michigan Street, up to the Heritage Arena, my usual winter haunt and another of those signs of life out here. For once, the parking lot is empty, and I only briefly peek into the lobby. I’ll be back here in December and January, no doubt. Then it’s back along the backside of Lincoln Park, all industrial storage space and the like; lifeless on a Saturday. Up above, the gaudy new west side middle school lords over it all. I go underneath the railroad bridges and come to Wade Stadium, the ballpark in desperate need of the forthcoming state aid. The Huskies’ season has just come to an end, though I never did make it out there this year; what this park really inspires are fond memories of the Dukes, that old independent professional team that had a couple of entertaining title runs in my childhood. It’s one good remodeling away from being a real gem.


I step out on to Grand Avenue, the main artery of the west side and a simple summation of the plight of working-class America. It’s not blighted, but there’s nothing to make anything stand out here, either. It’s just uniform, everything of the same age and showing that age. The neighborhood around Denfeld offers a bit more, with the high school serving as the anchor. The houses here could all be in Lakeside, though the streets are in worse shape, and there’s action in the businesses. The girls’ soccer team is practicing on the field, the high school season just around the corner, and there’s a party in Memorial Park, too. Plenty of people come and go in the West Duluth downtown, but no one really lingers anywhere, so I don’t, either. On past the businesses, through the library parking lot, and down into Irving. Here again the housing stock takes a dip downward, though the street is pleasantly leafy, and there’s a herd of screaming children running along. The street suddenly fades into a dirt track through a copse, and I have to skirt a little stream that makes its slow way down to the St. Louis River.

Here is the west side charter elementary school, undergoing some summertime renovation, and I weave a bit more, dodging a kid on a bike and drawing closer to the river, where the houses are newer. The last time I was here, the far end of the Western Waterfront Trail was closed for pollution clean-up; now it’s open again, though I skip the first loop of the trail before joining it on Indian Point. I wind around the campground, breaking into a jog just to show myself I can do it as I close in on 17 miles. A family spends a sleepy afternoon on a pier jutting into the river, while I am accosted by a sudden swarm of mystery insects.


I’m nearing the end. It would be nice to plow on out to Gary, ruminate on the old steel mill and Morgan Park, and end it all by running up Ely’s Peak one last time, but it’s growing late, and I have a goodbye party to throw for myself. The destination for now is the former home of a high school teacher and Denfeld grad who, despite marrying a wealthy lawyer, remained true to the West Side, and had a point to prove about this city’s east-west divide. She doesn’t live here anymore, but it still seems like a fitting endpoint: a grand, modern house on the river, a sign of what might be to come in the redevelopment for the river corridor imagined by Mayor Don Ness. As I look around, I see the vision is already a fait accompli on the lower side of Norton Park: there’s a whole subdivision of nice, newer houses across the bay. Perhaps it won’t be as hard as it had seemed, though this budding urban planner has no illusions about the road ahead. There is much work to be done.

That is a debate for another time, though. My rescue wagon awaits me. I need to head home and freshen up, and after that, it’ll be time for one last Canal Park dinner and one last bit of mild debauchery on the Park Point beach. I’ll miss it, of course. But I’ve seen so much of it that I can’t help but leave satisfied. It’s all there, right before our eyes, and even after eighteen years, there’s always something new to find.

Instant Runoff Voting and its Discontents

Instant runoff voting (here abbreviated IRV, and also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV) offers what seems, at least, to be a plausible alternative to our current electoral system. It has become a popular cause, particularly in progressive circles, where people see election methods as reinforcing existing power structures. It comes as little surprise, then, to see the IRV debate resurface in Duluth this year: first, when the city council failed to use it properly in an attempt to fill a vacant council seat, and later, when it voted down a proposal to explore its implementation in local elections. I’m also about to head down and spend two years in Minneapolis, a city that has adopted it, so I’ll be curious to see what it looks like from the inside, and hear from people with direct experience. For now, though, I’ll lay out why I remain a skeptic. While I certainly don’t think the system we have is great, I don’t see any dramatic benefits from a change.

Thanks to fortuitous seating arrangements at the council discussion on IRV, I got myself a solid crash course in election algorithms and the critiques of IRV over the past month and a half. My guide throughout was UMD professor emerita Kathryn Lenz Peckham, who was joined by Prof. Barry James and instructor Rachel Breckenridge, all of the math and statistics department, at our final meeting. (Full disclosure: Prof. Lenz’s son was a high school friend of mine.) My teachers obviously had clear issues with IRV, but they’d been genuinely curious when they first heard about its application for political elections, and came at it with the detached, academic curiosity that I appreciate.

Most elections in the U.S. use a system known as plurality voting: each voter casts one vote and  the candidate with the most votes wins, sometimes with the help of a plurality primary in which the top two candidates advance to a general election run-off. IRV dispenses with the primary, asks voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, and conducts an instant runoff. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and that candidate’s supporters’ second-place votes are then counted. This process continues until someone clears the 50% bar.

The most immediate critique of IRV is its confusion: it’s different, and requires a bit more thought than just casting a vote for one’s favorite candidate. IRV defenders, however, can mount a strong case in response, relying on good voter education. The evidence on voter turnout and understanding of the method is a bit mixed, though it isn’t completely damning, either. The statisticians’ greatest concerns were not really with the act of voting itself, but the manner in which those votes are counted.

One of their greatest concerns was the possibility of a tie. With so many rounds, IRV greatly enhances the possibility of a tie; there could be an election-determining statistical tie at each round.  A tie at any round could potentially be enough to trigger a recount or other such election intrigue as the order in which candidates are eliminated affects the way second- and third-place votes come into play, and could theoretically lead to a completely different result.

Transparency in reporting election results is also difficult. Since IRV elections often feature 10 or more candidates, it is practically impossible to publish a ballots table that lays out the rank-order voting data. With just 5 candidates, there are 85 distinct ways in which ballots could be marked; with 10, there would be 820. This creates challenges for accurate reporting and analysis, and data from each precinct in the voting district would have to be aggregated before the runoff process can begin.

This makes things very hard to track, and has led to delays in the counting of ballots in some cases. Even if unjustified, people may grow more suspicious of such complex procedures. This all says nothing of the fact that most standard vote-counting machines are not designed to handle IRV ballots. This would probably be a one-time cost, but it can still be substantial—Minneapolis’s first IRV election ran significantly over budget—and the machines would require new software if election officials continue to tweak the parameters, as has happened in numerous situations.

There are a few other claims by IRV advocates that seem logical enough, but struggle under further scrutiny:

IRV always elects a majority winner. This is only true if one takes a rather contorted view of what constitutes a majority. In the Minneapolis election, Betsy Hodges, despite being the clear leader from start to finish, never actually got a majority of the votes. She only cleared the 50% threshold in the 33rd round of counting, when 15,573 people (19.6% of the electorate) had seen their ballots entirely eliminated from consideration. Her final IRV total was 38,870 votes—almost 10,000 more than she’d started with, but still less than 50% of the initial votes cast. And this was in an election that was not at all controversial.

Eliminating the primary reduces costs. Primary elections are not especially expensive, and cost savings in running elections would be counteracted by the amount of money candidates would need to spend to stay in the race all the way to election day. It just spreads the cost around to different places. Moreover, a longer election season inherently favors candidates with deeper pockets. Primaries have their shortcomings, but they also channel party funds toward the most popular internal candidate. Some in the IRV crowd have argued that this just means some of the candidates were never serious anyway, and that perhaps there should be higher barriers to entry, through fees or petition requirements. This seems a rather curious way to go about making things “more democratic.”

Primary elections certainly have their issues, with small turnout and extra emphasis of activist fringe groups, though there are plausible counterarguments to these points, as Councilor Julsrud explained when the Duluth city council considered IRV. If we are to replace it, though, we should make sure the new version is certifiably better.

IRV improves behavior and minimizes mudslinging. This may be true at first, as people figure out how IRV works. In the long run, however, it’s a probably a placebo effect, to the extent that it can even be measured. No one really campaigns to get second place votes; they’re in it to win. Voters learn to play along and still vote strategically. Cynicism is just a fact of life is modern electoral politics, and it will take a lot more than a new voting method to change that.

IRV empowers minorities and candidates from underrepresented groups. Australia’s experience with IRV does not bear this out; instead of empowering minority candidates, its two major parties are more rigid than ever. If you want do give minority groups more power, you probably should consider proportional representation, but that’s a debate for a different day. The only way this argument works is by relying on the contention that minority groups are less likely to vote in primaries or runoffs, but this does nothing to guarantee that such candidates will actually run.

IRV’s greatest troubles, however, tend to come when there are more than two serious candidates. A favorite example of this trouble is that of the Burlington, Vermont 2009 mayoral election, in which the winner of the election did not have the most votes in the first round, and when matched up against the other two major candidates head-to-head in a ballot table (a method used to determine the Condorcet winner, another measure of electoral effectiveness), he lost to both. But, thanks to the round structure of IRV, he won. Burlington voters, baffled, did away with IRV shortly thereafter. Several other cities have also dumped it, and its implementation never ends the debate: Minneapolis is discussing tweaks after its first run with IRV, and San Francisco seems to have a constant string of amendment and repeal attempts underway. IRV’s adoption often leads to a protracted struggle over voting methods when there are probably more pressing issues in front of local legislators.

IRV might work well to counteract cases in which a small minority candidate saps just enough support away from a major one to flip an election (see Ralph Nader and Al Gore, 2000), but once things become more complicated, it’s not much better than plurality, and perhaps even worse. Depending on who gets eliminated first, there are actually scenarios in which it makes more sense to vote up one’s least favorite candidate over one whom the voter might prefer.

IRV advocates will retort that many of the complicated scenarios don’t happen all that often, and therefore this is all nitpicking. We could say the exact same thing about plurality voting, though, and while there are merits to IRV, it ultimately seems like much ado about very little. It also probably just distracts from some of the issues its proponents are probably most passionate about, such as voter turnout (where it cannot match the impact of a serious get-out-to-vote campaign) and money in politics (where voting methods are ants compared to the Citizens United gorilla). It seems an odd battle to choose.

Is there a better voting method? Perhaps, the professors tentatively suggested: score voting. In simple score voting, voters simply vote “yes” or “no” on every single candidate on the ballot. They can vote for everyone, no one, or any combination of them all. More complex forms allow voters to score each candidate on a scale of zero to four or five (or conceivably any number). The idea here is that the candidate with the broadest support would generate the most votes. It abandons the obsession with majority, which is increasingly difficult to come by in a pluralistic society with many candidates running for office, and settles for the broadest possible consensus. The method is compatible with standard voting machines, leaves a clear paper trail, and could work with or without a primary.

The main objection to score voting is that it appears to violate the “one person, one vote” principle, but this really isn’t the case: everyone gets one vote on every candidate, and a blank is equal to a zero. Every voter has the opportunity to cast judgment on each candidate one time. The algorithm is also mercifully easy, sparing us trouble with endless rounds and eliminations and ties. Just add the votes.

It also resonates with younger voters who are used to a world in which everything gets a rating on the internet. (While it’s obviously far too small a sample size to say anything definitive, Rachel Breckenridge’s Contemporary Mathematics classes—Math 1024, a non-major math course at UMD—named it their top choice after experimenting with several different voting methods.) Don’t expect to see it before the Duluth City Council anytime soon, though; that’s not how the professors want to push this through. They’re not in any rush to implement it, and think it ought to be tested on much smaller scales before a city goes ahead and imposes it, but it’s worth a shot somewhere. With some careful experimentation first, a new method would come across as being far less politically motivated, and might generate more organic support—hopefully from across the spectrum, and not just one wing of one political movement.

One last note: at the last meeting, we figured that the method the City Council used to elect Joel Sipress was, in fact, something akin to the Bucklin Vote, in which 2nd- and 3rd-place votes are added when no candidate receives a majority of 1st-place votes. (Under both plurality voting and IRV, the Council was deadlocked 4-4, and everyone who cast a 2nd-place vote gave it to the third candidate who got zero first place votes. However, two of Sipress’s supporters did not fill in 2nd or 3rd choices, and the Council erroneously used this to give him the IRV victory.)  While doing some profound research on the Bucklin Vote (aka reading its Wikipedia page), I learned from the Minnesota Bar that Duluth actually experimented with the Bucklin Vote about a century ago, only to have it declared unconstitutional. As the Council’s experience showed, a variation on the Bucklin method applied to IRV could conceivably resolve some ties, though it does nothing to relieve the problems of transparency and paradoxical results that emerge in all ranked-ballot methods that use rounds. There is no quick and easy fix that will quiet all dissent and make IRV instantly palatable.

Farewell Duluth III: Solitude

You’re a believer in community, you buy all that sentimental stuff you peddle every day, that life is found in intertwining your history with those of the people closest to you. And yet. And yet there are days where it wears you down, where you get too caught up in whatever bubble you inhabit, grow annoyed by the little tics of those around you. Community is one of the greatest sources of life you know, but it is not the only one. You have to get out. Just you, and you alone.

This is another of your town’s triumphs: nowhere is it easier. There are parks at every turn; some packed, some more wild; some well-worn, some neglected. A short drive can take you to places where you won’t meet a soul, if you so desire. You head out to recharge, to find distance; perhaps to cast judgment from afar, perhaps to head for a realm where judgment has no meaning.

You are swift to retreat into these moments; at times you were perhaps too swift, but even now as things come together, you cannot neglect this. This is your cycle inward, necessary before you pull back out. You must go. Back out to some little corner you’ve claimed as your own simply because it cannot be owned. Time is short, so you hurry upward, the jagged rocks in the path turning your feet as you climb. You could stop here or there to admire the view, but not here, this isn’t the place. Across a road, past the spot where you once saw a bear, ever winding upward. A few signs of youthful dalliance, carelessly hidden in the woods; was that you not so very long ago? How the time goes, how much more precious youth now seems.

Out you go, hurrying to time this journey just right. Before long you’re hopping from rock to rock, down a staircase carved in stone. Through the birches, across a boardwalk, the deer far back in the woods flushed, bounding back through the underbrush for only a moment before they’re silent, and then all is silent for you, too. Up a hill, though the view disappoints, back through another stand of wood, a mysterious half-hidden trail, whether from deer or teenagers or something much older you do not know, up to that oak tree near the top of the ridge where you once stood there trying to make sense of what exactly it was you’d done, brandishing a manifesto from an earlier self and proclaiming its wrongness, though now you’ve come full circle and have forgiven yourself. Your younger self deserves more credit than you ever gave him. Who could you have been if you’d gotten over those crippling anxieties, acted on that self you always wanted to be? God only knows now, though that impulse is still inside of you, can still be channeled into something good. Onward, you press, on to the outcropping, site of many a picnic and also your first goodbye to this place, a sunrise at dawn beneath a different oak, this one now as dead as the finality of that goodbye. Take the right fork, you haven’t been that way before. You make your way down the path, looping in and out behind spruces, careening downward so easily you can’t help but run. You bend to pick at a malformed raspberry, sample the latest thimbleberry, scarf the smattered juneberries, a regular forest feast.

Down a field of talus, across the bit that gets muddy when it rains, and you’re nearly there: or maybe you’ve come from the other direction, up from the wider path, past the ruin of an old mill and the side creek that you once waded up for a mile or two, picking crayfish out of the shallows with a couple of people you chose to share this garden with, down the path where one great story reached its peak and another arose; where it led was never entirely clear, but still it has its roots here, high on the bank above the little stream. The destination is always the same. This little patch of woods birthed so many of the convoluted thoughts of the past seven summers, your blessing and your curse, a burden you could not live without. Here is where the last story came to an end, and here too you hope to end the last and worst of the stories you’d rather pretend were not yours.

You reach the gates, push aside those tumbled branches and finally, there it is before you: the cathedral, the dying pines towering up above an open glade, the sun dancing between the trunks, the blinding light of the sinking sun pouring through, setting it all ablaze, and you set out gingerly through the waist-high grass, your hand trailing through it as you go. Perhaps you should drop to your knees, make a show of it all? No, you cannot linger, the mosquitoes nip and the sun sinks. Now, it seems, that time is over, gone without any obvious moment of revelation. It all makes sense now. You complete your duty without any fanfare, and life goes on as if it had never been more than a fleeting thought. Victory.

You head off the path and into the heart of the little stand. Not quite a sacred ground: you’re still in a city, after all, and the reminders of life beyond never quite die. Wilderness is a myth, or perhaps a state of mind. Yes, death comes only to the pines, nearly half of them now just towering empty trunks, lonely pillars supporting a ceiling of fading blue. Et in Arcadia ego. Spruces rise up in their place, and even here before you, a solitary oak tree, fighting above the tangles of thimbleberries and announcing its arrival on the scene. Bring your children here someday, and it might all be gone: just another clump of wood in a forest that buries its past. You could move on to the next hill, where the pines stand a bit more resolutely, but no: yours are these ones, right here, the ones that remind you that you don’t have long. Everything seems more immediate, both the triumphs and the tragedies of life given a vivid edge, and you relish them that much more because you know how much it means to feel all of these things, to live with that joie de vivre that overwhelms all weakness and fear. The more you lay claim to these trees, the more you sense that they are not yours alone, that another set of eyes watches. You’re not quite sure yet where one story begins and another ends; perhaps they all just blend together here; here, in this garden of all your dreams.

You’re free here, though you don’t quite feel it. Gone are the days when every little victory was cause for rejoicing; now you just take it all in stride, natural, the next step along this little chasm through the grass. All is right, all goes on, and as long as you may linger, this is not you: you must share this, come down from your messianic ideal not into a nihilistic doom but into reality where you belong, where you can still be the author of a story that aspires to everything you might desire, even as you know you might not ever quite get there. The pursuit is enough, and with moments like these, you’ll have the wits to make sure the chase never eats you alive.

It’s time to move on. The sun sinks away, and you have far to go before you can rest your feet again. You’ll miss this spot, but you are forever changed by what it’s gifted you, and that is enough: it belongs to you, you belong to it, and whatever shall come will be in the shadows of those towering pines. The light will filter through, blinding but bearing that gift of life all at once, all of those apparent contradictions borne together into something that is, quite simply, you.

Part 4 is here.

Farewell Duluth II: On Culture

Culture is a notoriously murky term, one that can be used to explain just about anything without actually proving causes or relationships or anything of the sort. Trying to define a culture is a frustrating exercise that throws a lot of unlike things into the hopper that then spits out a vague, abstract Thing that we claim has some substance. An awful lot of bad social analysis has used it to glorify or defame a group of people, and “cultural studies,” while potentially valuable, can also become repositories of mediocre thought and self-absorption.  At its most fundamental level, culture is a shared identity, which just goes to show how hard it is to pin down; no one person’s identity can be summed up by a few simple words, and it’s only going to get worse as we add more people. There is also a good chance that, even at a time where people are more and more likely to surround themselves with others who share their views, half the people on one’s block wouldn’t qualify as sharing one’s culture. There are a million different ways to measure it, and it’s tough to argue that one has any more intrinsic value than another.

Just because it is hard to capture something, however, does not mean that it is not real, or that it does not have considerable power. Duluth, Minnesota has a very distinct culture, one that makes it undeniably unique, and just about everyone from the city who ventures out and thinks about this knows it.

We can try to list some stuff that makes up the culture. There’s a hardiness and stoicism in the face of long winters, with a strong Scandinavian ethos to it. There’s a blue-collar legacy of a transportation hub near the Iron Range in there, and there’s also a strong element of Congdon Old Money and its resultant noblesse oblige. There’s an outdoorsy ethic, from biking and boating in summer to skiing and pond hockey in winter. There is relative racial homogeneity, the ruling DFL coalition, and an obsession with talking about the weather. There are neighborhoods and schools and businesses, all generators of their own sub-cultures; some predictable, some less so.

Culture, however, is never static, and Duluth has undergone a considerable shift over the past decade. It didn’t begin with mayor Don Ness—before him, there was Canal Park and the Munger Trail and a number of other efforts (of varying success) to get Duluth past its 1980s post-industrial mire. But Ness’s cool Duluth energy is part and parcel with the surge of renewal in recent years. In his own words, it plays to “authentic strengths” of this city, instead of trying to pretend we’re something we’re not. And so we have booms in biking and beer and indie music, plus the rise of urban farming and the industrial chic architecture used to revive derelict lots and crumbling old buildings. All the artsy quality of life stuff is moving in tandem with legitimate economic expansion, from the aviation sector to engineering to some good, old-fashioned manufacturing. Duluth has character, and a genuine sense of direction, too.

Another of Duluth’s strengths is its civic engagement, which has fueled the recent renewal. People love this city and want it to succeed, and will spend endless hours prepping for public meetings on school and park plans and so on. At the same time, though, some of its greatest outbursts are in opposition to new planning, and that’s definitely not always a bad thing. It is an erratic and often untamed force, as evidenced by the overzealous attempt underway to recall city councilor Sharla Gardner. Still, it’s a force that slows some of the more harebrained schemes and preserves some of the better aspects of local culture. At its best it’s simply a direct application of common sense, a counterbalance to the plans from on high that manages a strong voice without going into excess. It’s exemplar at the moment is Jay Fosle, the west side city councilor whose populist conservatism stands in sharp but (usually) respectful contrast to the left-leaning visionaries. As I wrote in my account of the first Council meeting I attended, he can waver between wise insights and serious head-scratchers with little warning. But Fosle is not there simply to say no; he is willing to work with people, and no one does a better job of effectively organizing citizens and bringing them forward to speak to the Council. The authenticity of the voices on both sides of Duluth’s political debates keeps things from falling into the stale platitudes of national politics, and that complexity is another source of life.

Still, as I’ve said many times—here in culture, here in politics, here in education—there’s an elephant in the room that threatens the whole project. This is, of course, the east-west divide. It’s always been there, of course. But the most obvious thrust of the current renewal, with its cultural enrichment and “creative class” cultivation, does not produce evenly spread results. If things just plug along as they are, it’s not hard to predict a split in which east side (and Hermantown) reap the benefits of a vibrant city, while the west side sinks into stagnation, a place without a future. Families with children are an excellent bellwether, and nothing is more haunting than this map of the city’s last school board levy. It’s also what makes Don Ness’s seeds of a vision for the west side so worth watching: if Duluth is going to transcend the common narratives of renewal by gentrification, this is where it will have to take place. It won’t be easy.

The plight of the debate around Duluth’s public schools is a sign of what can go wrong when the enlightened planners impose their vision while dodging public debate. Many of the critiques of that plan and its opaqueness had merit, even though I have little patience left with many of its foremost critics. Duluth’s echo chamber of education debate is a bizarre and unpleasant place, filled with catfights and resentment and overblown egos. Funnily enough, through it all, Duluth remains a pretty good place to raise some kids. It has enough big city stuff to be interesting and keep them engaged, has just enough variety to show them all walks of life, yet is small enough that they still get that much-hyped small-town feel. Every week, someone in the media laments the fact that kids don’t get to play freely anymore, but that’s not what I see when I look out my window. Children roaming and playing are one of the most obvious signs of communal health, and it was heartening to hear a recent visitor to the economic development agency where I intern gushing about all of the families she saw out and about on Duluth’s streets. A little part of me died when the Congdon hockey rinks got cleared out to make room for a parking lot.

This discussion of education and childrearing brings me back to the thrust of this post: the primacy of culture, from which everything else follows. Set things in motion early on, build a supportive environment, and your odds are as good as any, even if your background isn’t one of great wealth or education. Duluth does that well for most people, but as with anywhere, there are exceptions, and when they’re relatively few in number, the contrast can be glaring. There is still a substantial amount of poverty in Duluth, and while I’ll leave aside most of that debate about subcultures and pathologies and other things that bog people down, poverty and its associated ills often leave people incapable of participating fully in the broader culture and reaping its benefits.

To be sure, part of this problem comes from the culture itself. Aspects of culture can be both good and bad when it comes to business climate, and despite Duluth’s attentiveness to many of its ills, good intentions do not always beget good results; sometimes it can make things worse. Minority populations here (racial and otherwise) are so small that it’s hard for them to generate their own vibrant, self-sustaining cultures; they can either assimilate into the general culture, or be alone. It’s hard to know what can be done about this; if we did know, we’d have solved a lot of problems long ago. (Perhaps the most important point here is that these are not problems to be solved, but the stories of lives of real people to be unspooled into the fabric of a community.) Duluth has no shortage of well-intentioned people who want to overcome these troubles, and with the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie group and a vocal group of activists, there are real dialogues, though it’s not hard to ignore them, either. In time, demography will probably make these questions more relevant. One would hope that Duluth’s general tolerance will make this smoother than in other places, but it’s easy to claim tolerance when it’s rarely put to the test. Culture will always divide us, for good and ill.

In the eyes of some, the divisions coming out of culture are reasons for its dismissal. Better to cast away these things that tie us to imperfect places and people. An afterlife or some ideal form of human life takes precedent. Doing this, however, chokes off many of the greatest sources of earthly happiness. There are things I could do without in Duluth’s culture, but, in looking around the world, there is so much here that is worth preserving and enhancing. It has a strong sense of self, and now it also has a trajectory to match. It’s fighting the standard narratives of decline and measurements of success in cities, and these days, more often than not, it’s winning.

That makes Duluth unique, and explains why some people who aren’t native Duluthians find it hard to ever quite settle in here. But it works for Duluth, and it is, of course, never static. It goes along, guided by both inertia and a lot of hands that have claimed it as their own. It is a city with a soul, a sheer sense of being; a sense of motion through time, cyclical, coming and going, life and death flowing in and among one another. It has a rhythm, a pace, perhaps unique to each who walks its streets, yet felt like a beating heart, grounding one within it, leaving no doubt: a sense of place. It’s home.

Part 3 is here.

2014-2015 High School Hockey: The View from August

With the Elite League around the corner and a bunch of summer scrimmages in the book, hockey doesn’t seem so far off. It’ll still be a little while before I start seriously digging into preseason ranking research, but there’s been enough idle speculation that I can offer a few thoughts at this point.

On paper, this looks like it’s a pretty easy year to distinguish the early frontrunners in Class AA, and they’re the two teams that met in last year’s title game. Edina and Lakeville North both return hosts of front-line talent at every position, with Edina getting the early nod due to their depth and momentum. Add in a pair of relatively easy sections, and they’re both primed for another March showdown. The Hornets stand on the brink of the state’s greatest run since Bloomington Jefferson in the early 90s, while relative upstart North will look to peak with its best squad ever.

Beyond those two, though, it gets muddled. As usual, 6AA contributes a bunch of top-ten contenders. Benilde-St. Margaret’s has a stockpile of quality players, but lacks the truly elite forwards of the past couple years; they will likely have to adapt their freewheeling playing style to succeed in 2015. Wayzata, on the flip side, needs to find a bit more scoring punch without abandoning the defensive solidity that has become the hallmark of Pat O’Leary’s regime. But they’re not the only two contenders there, and I could trail on through each of the Metro sections, but the point would all be the same: things are pretty open for the taking. The same could be said for 8AA in the state’s northwest, where Roseau suffers heavy graduation losses. The real question is how well these teams can compete with Edina and North.

In the far northwest, meanwhile, a preseason Mr. Hockey favorite has passed up an opportunity to play a full season in the USHL to stick around in high school. Warroad’s Jared Bethune has chosen to play a before-and-after in the USHL, an arrangement used periodically by some players who want the best of both worlds; last season, Grand Rapids’ Avery Peterson and Duluth East’s Phil Beaulieu took that route. With a top line featuring Bethune and Kobe Roth, Warroad will put up some huge numbers, and is right there in the running for a Class A crown. Northern communities certainly aren’t immune to the early departure, but at times there is something in some of these towns that keeps kids at home when others might leave. It’s a trend especially revealing in players like Bethune and his Warroad predecessor T.J. Oshie, who are not natives of the town, but fell for it anyway. For good or ill, things often run a bit deeper outside of the Metro area.

The allure of that depth may have played some role in the offseason’s most significant coaching shift, as Dave Aus left Blaine after 13 seasons and moved up to Brainerd. He took Blaine to six state Tourneys over that time, building on the base of the Bengals’ 2000 Tourney win the year before his arrival on the scene. The past few years had ended in playoff frustration, however, and Aus elected to head north for an entirely different type of challenge, as he looks to take a rebuilding Warrior squad and get them to State for the first time ever. This first season may be lumpy, but there’s some decent talent in the Brainerd youth ranks, and 8AA could be ripe for the taking before long. The Blaine job, meanwhile, falls to Chris Carroll, a longtime Bethel assistant who will try to get the Bengals back atop 5AA and end that section’s ugly Tourney drought over the past five years.

Farmington and Forest Lake will also welcome in new coaches this coming season, while East Ridge has brought in a big name in former Wild captain Wes Walz to build up their young program. Up on the east side of Duluth, however, there will be no change: Mike Randolph returns for a 26th season, despite having passed retirement age from his teaching duties. His forward corps got a boost with the addition of former Marshall Hilltopper Luke Dow, a small but shifty forward who put up huge numbers with the State runner-up East bantams two seasons ago. The mini-exodus from Duluth Marshall this summer cuts against the usual transfer trends in high school hockey, and the departures of Dow and Denfeld-bound Cam McClure sap some serious scoring from what would have been (and still well could be) the best Marshall team since their run of three straight Class A 2nd place finishes in the mid-00s. Whether it’s a disinterest in shelling out private school tuition when Hermantown blocks the road to State or something deeper, the Toppers have a rare opportunity to play the underdog card this winter.

Dow’s arrival at East, meanwhile, adds a new element to a crew of forwards that already returns most of its bigger contributors from last season. With the Altmann brothers Nick and Ash, Brian Bunten, and Ryan Peterson back in the fold, the Hounds should have two very productive lines; add a deep group of seniors with some experience and the usual infusion of a few quality bantams, Randolph has no lack of resources up front. East’s hopes at a seventh straight Tourney berth, however, likely hinge on the defense in front of goalie Gunnar Howg. Gone are the days of Nate Repensky, Meirs Moore, Phil Beaulieu, and Alex Trapp ruling games from the blue line and putting up huge points. This being Duluth East, there is depth and some talent here; they just need to sort it all out, and meld the parts into a cohesive hole.

For a second straight year, the team best-positioned to end the East run is Elk River. Jake Jaremko and Reggie Lutz lead the attack up front, while Matt Kiersted is the best defenseman in 7AA; their youth teams have been at least as good as East’s in recent years. Amsoil Arena has been a house of horrors for the Elks the past two seasons, though, and getting over the hump may take something extra. Grand Rapids, meanwhile, should have a thrilling top line, and their defense can only get better from where it was last season. If they can fill the gap in goal and generate some depth, they’ll be right up there with the big guns. Further down the charts, Cloquet looks to be rising back toward contention, and St. Michael-Albertville is also climbing into respectability. While Andover and Forest Lake may be on the downswing, they have the numbers to keep the middle tier of the section crowded.

Amid all this speculating about the future, I need to give a nod to the past: Glenn Rolle, the coach who first brought hockey glory to Duluth East High School, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 93. Coach Rolle led the Hounds from 1953-1967, earning four State Tourney berths and a 1960 state title; you can find a more thorough accounting of his tenure in this post from last summer’s series on East hockey history. Like so many of the midcentury Minnesota greats, Rolle was an Iron Ranger, growing up in Eveleth in its hockey glory days. He served in the military, graduated from the University of Illinois, and taught in Hermantown before making his way down the hill to a new high school on East Fourth Street. His teams did not always have the overwhelming talent of their Iron Range rivals, but depth and discipline allowed them to compete, and East slowly began to churn out hockey talent, first to UMD, and then beyond. He also served as AD during his time at East, and continued to teach after his retirement from hockey. Just two years ago, he managed to trot out on to the ice at a ceremony honoring the 1960 team at the Heritage Center. He and Bob Fryberger are the twin founding fathers of Duluth East hockey, and without that base they built, nothing would quite be the same.

Speaking of things not being the same, my hockey coverage this winter is in for a change. I’ll be operating out of Minneapolis for the next two winters. Being a Duluthian to the core, I’ll miss my hometown, but there’s much to be said for a venture down into the midst of all the Metro madness, and Duluth East’s travel schedule ensures that I’ll still see plenty of the Hounds. I’m excited to wander through many of the Metro-area rinks, and it’ll be interesting to see how things look from down in the tropics. Time to start the countdown and ready myself for some Elite League scouting. It’ll be hockey season before we know it.