Archive | April, 2015

David Brooks and the Search for Character

25 Apr

David Brooks is one of those talented people who has managed to get himself disliked in many circles. As a resident conservative at the New York Times, he has the unenviable task of defending a political outlook that few of his readers agree with, and makes such an effort to speak to them that he’s pretty easily labeled a Republican In Name Only by the right. Sometimes he pursues balance for its own sake to the extent that seems like one of those annoying kids yelling “yeah, but” on the playground, and his willingness to dabble in anything can lead him to be painfully wrong about some things, most notably foreign policy.

Such is life as a syndicated columnist, as he must churn out new ideas twice a week, every week. Much of his longer work is a far better sample of what his real interests and concerns are, from the acute diagnosis of upper middle class America in Bobos in Paradise to the social science-heavy study of life in The Social Animal. Brooks has been on a steady turn inward as his career has gone along, a process that culminated in his most recent book, The Road to Character. He’s long been capable of profound reflections on the costs of a lack of reflection on one’s own self—see the classic “Organization Kid” essay, which should be required reading for anyone entering an “elite” college—but only recently has he taken the step from detached takedowns of people who don’t do this to exploring what it means to actually do so. (His own recent divorce probably spurred this all along, too.)

I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Brooks when he was in the early stages of conceiving The Road to Character, a 2011 talk called “The Era of Self-Expansion” put on by Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum. In it, he recalled a column he’d written earlier that year, an especially memorable piece for a soon-to-be college graduate in which he talked about how people find their callings. When I asked him about it in the receiving line, he admitted he’d somewhat made it up, but was impressed with how well it had resonated.

In the column, he blasts the tiresome myopia of the follow-your-own-dreams rhetoric so common in life advice today. However noble in its desire to tell us to be ourselves, these words foment a worldview that places the self and its ambition at the center of it all. The universe revolves around me, even as I purport to go forth and do “good” in the world, following the passions I have deemed worthwhile, in my infinite wisdom. And when I do try to do this, life inevitably gets in the way, whether in the form of my own limitations or the failures of other people or forces beyond my control. Suddenly, I’m powerless, and I’m pretty angry about it. Before long, I’m defeated, or perhaps more mundanely, I’ve discovered that the dreams of my younger self are no longer the dreams of my older self, and I’ve spent however many years chasing the wrong thing. The world refuses to cooperate and revolve around me.

The fruits of Brooks’ search don’t come in this takedown of selfishness, though. This is easy, and not terribly original. He needs an alternative, something else to aspire to. He now champions excellence over happiness, and the pursuit of something a bit more complete than just the self-expression celebrated in some of his earlier work. This drive doesn’t come from within, but from something that happens to people: one’s circumstances leave one with passions, and mark people by the things that jar them into awareness, whether as witnesses or the things they endure. It may seem like a small distinction, but it is essential. The turning points in life are rarely moments of great happiness or accomplishment, but instead in suffering and failure, and a desire to overcome it, perhaps even build off of it. This, and not the blind whims of dreams, defines who we become.

It is now fairly easy to go through childhood, and even much further into life, without ever coming face-to-face with this sort of adversity. It’s a triumph of affluence, I suppose, of good health, suburban living, wealthy schools (public or private), and other comforts that allow us to live out that pursuit of happiness extolled in Brooks’ early work. It’s not a bad life, clearly, and I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone for pursuit it.

The trouble comes in pursuing it alone, and nothing else. Deep within this comfort there is a moral poverty: everyone plays out the string as they see fit. Forget complaints about moral relativism; there is no moral dimension at all, as the whole language necessary to even make these distinctions falls away. People become lost and have no means to figure out why. Even the humanities, designed with this express purpose, often fails, aiming instead for aesthetic, utilitarian, or political arguments to justify its existence. It’s no wonder these departments are collapsing left and right. But there are encouraging signs, Brooks’ latest book among them, that people are starting to realize something is missing. Hopefully the new book offers some models, and some ways to cultivate that character necessary to pursue the truly good life. If Brooks can do that for people, it would amount to a legacy far greater than his scattered collection of brief columns.

Sometimes, though, one of the sparks that helps a jaded kid make sense of the disparate threads of life, one that plays off those turning points and fuses them with ongoing interests, comes from an unexpected place. In that lecture I attended four years ago, Brooks dropped in a book recommendation: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I jotted it down at the time, picked it up a year or two later, and the rest is history.

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Run This Town

18 Apr

I’ve been a Minneapolitan for eight months now, and I’m slowly starting to mark this city as my own. There is much to like here, though I am skeptical as to how real the Miracle really is when one looks into its underbelly, and don’t know how long I’ll stay after my two-year stint here is up. Still, I’ve been coming to know it in my own particular way, as I have in the past with Duluth and Washington: by foot, running its streets in every direction I can, those runs sometimes degenerating into walks when I stray too far afield to keep up the intensity or find something worth watching at a slower pace.

Home base is in a neighborhood known as the Wedge, both for its triangular shape and the way it shoves itself in between the opulent old money homes of Lowry Hill and Lake of the Isles and the diverse, eclectic, and poorer neighborhoods to the east. It gives easy access to downtown to the north or Uptown to the south, the connections all fluid. It’s spring in Minnesota, that time of year we appreciate best, and it’s time to head back out.

My best-worn route sends me on an architecture tour of the fine homes wrapping around the lakes, though someone long ago had the good sense to save the lakeshore for the public, leaving us with promenades for bikers and walkers, there to see the wealth and to be seen themselves. I’ll meander off the running paths and into the quiet streets beyond, past the Mary Tyler Moore house and out to a landing on Cedar Lake, or over the crest of Lowry Hill and down by the Blake School, one whose façade I’d admire if not for my unshakable pride in that brick building overlooking Lake Superior back home. The Walker Art Center is there, complete with sculpture garden and iconic cherry; just beyond is the Parade Ice Garden, home to Minneapolis hockey, such as it is. Beneath the overpass and over a footbridge is Bryn Mawr Meadows, its ballfields turned to cricket pitches by the latest wave of immigrants.

Beyond the dandelion fountain in Loring Park Downtown stirs to life, as the sunlight sucks people out of the skywalks and on to the streets. The restaurants bring back their outdoor seating, and Target Field opens its doors to further Twins mediocrity. Nicollet Mall bustles, though it’s hard to keep up any speed with all the stoplights and traffic; in time, I make my way up along the riverfront, finally open to the city as the centerpiece it deserves to be. Further down, past the scores of new apartments, the Guthrie Theater, and the rising shell of that financial monstrosity of a football stadium lies the University of Minnesota campus, ideal for springtime people-watching, as everyone emerges from whatever room or study hole or bar they’ve ensconced themselves in over the past year and revels in the sunlight.

Cross a bridge and there is St. Anthony Falls or Nicollet Island, those old icons of Minneapolis now dwarfed by the towers around. Old Main has the best patio seating in the city, and Nye’s, that irreplaceable polka bar, beckons me into Northeast, the old realm of European immigrants now filling with immigrants and hipsters and the like. Changes are afoot to the south as well, where a battalion of new loft apartments forms ranks along the Greenway, Uptown’s transformation near-complete. Further along Lake Street is the Midtown Global Market, plus the stretch were I’m apt to go in search of some genuine Mexican deliciousness. And, of course, that damn K-Mart is still there, ruining the flow of traffic along Nicollet but providing a service no one else can in this low-income district.

To the east of home base, across Lydnale, lies Whittier, the apartments growing a bit larger and a bit more frayed around the edges. There is a little bit of everything here, with Eat Street along Nicollet and little pockets of old grandeur, especially around Washburn Fair Oaks Park, home to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, the stately Classical museum gazing out upon the center of the city. A pedestrian bridge just a block away lofts me over 35W and into Phillips. Urban farms abound, and curiosities such as the Swedish-American Institute poke their way out of a steadily declining housing stock. Now it’s diverse as can be, with even a Native American strip up along Franklin, and over in Cedar-Riverside, just off the West Bank of the U, is the heart of Somali America. They’re stuffed into Riverside Plaza, that tower block of mismatched Legos that is only one-seventh the size it was supposed to be. Why did we ever think it was a good idea to stuff people into these things, I wonder, though at least some have carved out a little oasis for themselves between the foreignness and ignorance of the broader culture and the allure of al-Shabaab. If people can build community here—and I don’t know whether they can or not—maybe all this grumbling about the offenses of brutalist architecture misses the point.

One day I take a path not yet taken, a bridge beyond 394 that carries me into neighborhoods that few people I know have deigned to visit. My surroundings take a turn for the bizarre in Sumner-Glenwood, one of those hyphenated havens of low-income housing. Twenty years ago this was all projects and towers, but they all came tumbling down in the late 90s. In came the next-generation urban renewal scheme: instead of shoving poor people into towers like sardines, we now scatter them about green New Urbanist landscapes, with cheap housing that tries to look like it’s historic and suburban. The result: far fewer units, and acres upon acres of lifeless, empty grass separating buildings that look like they are pretending to be something that they are not. Harsh, perhaps, but it was hard not to look at this space and not think of the bankruptcy of any theory that thinks the design can rewrite these lives. The only life anywhere along these roads are two decrepit people sitting on their walkers across from their senior housing looking positively miserable, and one lady who yells obscenities at her dog as it chases after me for an entire block. The return route down the next street takes me past Bethune Elementary, one my teacher friends describe as “the worst.” It may not be ugly, but it still seems a wasteland.

To the north is North, though there is plenty of Minneapolis north of North. This is the heart of the ‘inner city,’ the place I’m told fills all the stereotypes of crime and blight and a large black population. It doesn’t entirely look the part: the upkeep of some of the historic homes is better than in Phillips or Whittier, and there is nothing remotely threatening about its streets on a Wednesday morning. In the distance, flashing lights make me wonder what is going on, and before long it’s clear the haze in the air is something more sinister. Several streets have been blocked off, and all that I can see from the corner as I peer past the crowd of onlookers is a fire engine’s cherry-picker looming in the smoke. An entire block has gone up in flames. Not wanting to gawk, I run on, though I circle around the perimeter of the cordons.

Up Broadway, a bustling shopping street laden with fatty food options. Down around the bedraggled football field belonging to North High, then doubling back to pass three more schools: a stately and quiet Catholic school, Elizabeth Hall Elementary with its tame and bustling playground, and a crumbling concrete shell of a former charter school just down the block. Nothing quite conforms here, and the face of 21st-Century urban American poverty just doesn’t show the squalor of the past. The forces at work here are deeper, more subtle, but often every bit as pernicious, the cycles of financial struggle and broken families only perpetuating themselves, here in this city with an achievement gap that ranks among the worst of the worst. The Miracle has a dark side, hard as it may seem to believe on my next run, when I’m cruising down along Lake Harriet, darting in and among the beautiful people finally free to break out their summer finery.

I’m sore now. It’s time to head home, check out my latest route on a map, and plot my next venture outward. Every one of them seems to open up another corner, remind me how little I know of this place, even as I head further afield. There’s always more to discover.

Exit John Rothstein

12 Apr

Just two years ago, I wrote about the departure of a Grand Rapids hockey coach. Now I’m doing it again. John Rothstein lasted just those two seasons in place of Bruce LaRoque, both of them ending abruptly in the section semifinals, and finishes 32-20-2.

Rothstein came in with the heavy burden of high expectations. The Thunderhawks’ religious fan base was hungry for another State Tournament. The talent level was on the rise, raising the stakes even higher. There had been some frustration with LaRoque—he wasn’t exactly subtle in saying that rumor-mongering about his handling of his own sons’ playing time was a key reason he stepped down—so maybe someone new could take the Halloween Machine back to its hallowed past.

It wasn’t to be, and I’ll be frank: I thought Rothstein’s teams did less with more than many of LaRoque’s did. Some in the Rapids fan base criticized LaRoque’s teams for going into a defensive shell in key games, but it usually gave them a fighting chance against more talented competition. In 2014, Rapids fans saw what happened when their team tried to skate straight into the teeth of a Duluth East forecheck, and there was never any effort to help out a very inexperienced defense. The result was their most lopsided section playoff loss in recent memory, despite having Mr. Hockey Avery Peterson and a talented sophomore core in the fold. Hunter Shepard was a fine goalie, but no one can be hung out to dry that often. The 2015 team improved defensively but was maddeningly inconsistent; at times flashing great skill, but far too easily knocked off their game and into mediocrity. Flustered by another disciplined East team, they sleepwalked through their first two periods in the playoff game before finally exploding to life in the final frame. But it was too little, too late, and too incomplete an effort to make any claim to victory, despite the absurd shot total. Rothstein tinkered with its lines a bit over the course of the season, an odd choice when he had a ready-made top line of star juniors at his disposal.

This doesn’t mean the inability to get out of the semis was all Rothstein’s fault. It’s hard to get high schoolers on the same page, and two years is hardly enough time to judge a coach with any finality. Mike Randolph didn’t make State until his third year at East, and only went once in his first five; it takes time to learn the ropes, and to get a whole program on the same page. Rothstein also had the misfortune of sharing a section with Randolph’s Hounds, whose recent teams have executed game plans and performed under pressure as well as anyone in the state, to say nothing of their healthy share of talent.

There were some real positives, too. Rothstein seemed widely liked and respected. He has overseen an overhaul of the Rapids schedule, ramping up what had been a fairly soft slate and giving the Thunderhawks a series of road trips to rival those of Duluth East and Moorhead, a necessary step for a team that wants to be on their level. They beat East in the regular season for the first time in twelve years, ending a long rut and likely ending any aura of invincibility. Unlike the 2014 squad, the 2015 team showed genuine signs of improvement over the course of the season. This Rapids return to glory is a slow process, and one that owes much to past coaches and a talent surge in the youth program, but Rothstein has ushered it along, and as was the case when LaRoque left, the future on the northern reaches of the Mississippi looks bright.

On Saturday morning, Rothstein told KOZY radio that he didn’t realize when he started that being a high school coach is a full-time job. He also told the Duluth News-Tribune that he’d never expected to stay for long, either. The former Rapids and Minnesota-Duluth standout is not a young man, and owns a business and teaches at a community college. His experience is proof once again of the amount of effort it takes to run a top high school hockey program, earning just four figures to do an often thankless job. Rapids’ next coach should be a younger guy who understands what he’s getting himself into, and one who is in it for the long haul. While it would be tough to attract an outside big name, there is more than enough hockey knowledge in town to carry the mantel, and with top-ten talent on board for next season–will this be the most talented Rapids team since the early 90s?–it has to be an alluring position. We’ll see who steps forward to claim it.

Wilderness

9 Apr

“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”

—Aldo Leopold

As a native of the North, the wilderness has always enticed me with its immediacy. Some of my most distinct early memories are of Wisconsin State Parks during those pre-Duluth years, and once my family settled in that last great outpost between Minneapolis and the Canadian Border, it was never far away. I have fond memories of canoe trips and hikes with my dad, even if my skills as a woodsman have never come close to his, and as I grew older the woods within walking distance of my childhood home became a retreat, both to share with friends and to have my own little Walden moments from time to time. Without ever really realizing it, I grew up intimately tied to those parts of the map that didn’t have much in the way of detail.

At Georgetown, I began took on a new appreciation for those escapes, even as I dove into Washington. The late Jesuit Fr. Thomas King said it best, counseling us students consumed by fast-paced climbs up the ladder of ambition to seek out escapes into the wilderness from the restless noise of university life. Whether literal or metaphorical, we needed these moments to orient ourselves. I set out to find such spaces for myself, and while D.C. could never quite accommodate the sensibilities of a Northern Minnesotan, I certainly found a few gems during my wanderings there. My thoughts meandered with my steps, and I vacillated between intense commitment and lonely wandering, a duality that now seems extreme.

Other Catholics at Georgetown spoke of a different sort of wilderness; a spiritual and moral wilderness in which they found themselves in a postmodern world, unable to speak the language of the culture around them. I didn’t always agree with the particulars, but they had a point. We’ve lost much in our rush to embrace the newest shiny ideas, too often rushing ahead, unthinking, as we proclaim some lofty ideal that aspires to justice and human greatness. I embraced the greatest teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of those twin pillars supporting Western thought: we are all in exile, doomed to wander with no hope of permanent peace on earth. Perhaps all we could do was carve out a little spot for ourselves and live in accordance with our conscience, making peace with what we could.

After college I spent two years back in Duluth, still wandering as Athens and Jerusalem waged a silent war in keystrokes on this computer. I was never really a threat to truly go all Into the Wild; I enjoy my creature comforts a bit too much, and take my obligations to family and community a bit too seriously. My cynicism was a bit too meta to take the leap into a “finding myself” journey through the woods or some other country. But a cloistered life of letters had its allure, too, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that sort of future.

In the end, Athens won out. It’s not an unqualified victory, but it is a clear one, and the somewhat more infrequent blog posts here are a sure sign of an increasingly busy life beyond the world of letters. (Very little of my writing happens without some time to think about it beforehand.) I embrace this newfound life in the world, though I will still seek occasional escapes. They’ll come in different degrees, from runs around Minneapolis lakes to returns to the well-trodden parks of my youth to the occasional adventure into genuine backcountry. I need those moments to examine my conscience, to remind myself of my own smallness in the grand scheme of things.  They are reminders of mysteries beyond our grasp, and the falleness of human nature. But mystery gives rise to wonder, and we can still aspire to something in the face of impossibility. This is the great human project in a world beyond the old philosophical absolutes, none of which can reign supreme in this new Rome.

It’s hard to find wilderness anymore in the true sense of the word. Longing for that sort of wilderness can turn into wishes for purity and paradise lost, for a black-and-white worldview that won’t ever quite do its nuance justice. Even pre-Columbian America, we are now learning, was no pristine and untouched paradise, with the natives living in perfect harmony with nature. They certainly respected it more, recognizing the broader connectedness and often believing in a spiritual unity. But they were still very conscious managers, acting as stewards of the world around them, altering landscapes to their will as they saw fit. We have much to learn from them.

Just as we are stewards of the land, we are stewards of our minds. We’ll never have complete control over them; we can’t write off the past or give rise to a new future out of nothing. But we can tend them carefully with moments of retreat from the relentless noise, and with respect for the corners of the world beyond human reason that we will never tame. This takes patience and time, and I won’t begrudge anyone who commits themselves to living in this wilderness fully. For me, though, it is a place to reflect upon everything we do in the public realm, and to make sure that we truly believe whatever it is we’re doing. We must preserve that space with our lives.

A Very Cyclical Double Feature

2 Apr

This past week, courtesy an absent roommate’s Netflix, I enjoyed a rather absurd double feature involving sincere philosophy, adolescent sex, and excessive smoking: Hannah Arendt and Y Tu Mamá También. Neither one is new: I hadn’t yet seen the Arendt film, but I’ve read her work extensively and written about it here and here; I first saw Y Tu Mamá También last summer, and reviewed it here. As this blog reaches its two-year anniversary, what better way could there be to celebrate than with a sprawling synthesis between two wildly different strains of thought?

The Arendt film (2012) is a dramatization of the defining moment in the career of a great thinker, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the worst Nazi war criminal to escape Germany after the war. The Israeli secret police tracked him down in Argentina, and he went on trial in the new Jewish state, locked in a glass box to prevent anyone from finishing the job too soon. Arendt, a German Jew living in America and the first great theorist of totalitarianism, seemed the perfect correspondent, but her ultimate verdict set off a firestorm. She declared that Eichmann was not the embodiment of some demonic form of evil; she called him banal and frighteningly normal, and also pointed out the role of many European Jewish leaders in enabling the Holocaust. She was called a traitor and a self-hating Jew; an arrogant and emotionless woman who used a tragedy to make an esoteric philosophical point.

Trying to make drama out of a philosopher’s work is a formidable task, but one director Margarethe von Trotta achieves ably with smoke-filled rooms and acid dialogue. There are a few moments where it comes off a bit fake, but the circle around Arendt is entirely believable, and Janet McTeer makes a superb Mary McCarthy. The flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful affair with Martin Heidegger, the brilliant existentialist who became an unrepentant Nazi, add another dimension; they run the risk of making her brilliance seem like an offshoot of an old flame gone bad, but they also reveal a greater commitment to an idea, a belief in the centrality of human reason that not even Heidegger could sustain other pressure. He caved to the Nazis, banally accepting his role as university rector under the totalitarian regime. Arendt did not, twice escaping their clutches only to suffer a final exile imposed by many of her old friends for publishing what she believed. But fifty years later, she is the one who achieved immortality, exactly the worldly end she thought public figures should aim for in The Human Condition. Her speech to before a hall of skeptical Princeton students at the film’s climax hearkens to some of the great moments of courtroom dramas, her oratory an impassioned defense and rallying cry for her belief.

The film verges on hagiography, though I’ll leave it to critics who don’t think Arendt was one of the Twentieth Century’s two or three greatest minds to say if it goes too far. It shows the value of her relentless quest, not just to identify the nature of evil but also the pursuit of truth; the recognition of good and evil and beauty and ugliness and other such terms that thoughtful contemporary discourse is often afraid to use for fear of being judgmental. The young Arendt tells Heidegger that the split between reason and passion is a mistake: she believes in impassioned reason, the search for something approaching reality. It’s not hard to see why her political theories tend to reach back to the Greeks. Arendt is on the same fundamental mission for truth, asking questions where others take things for granted, her loyalty only to that truth and those who join her in her search.

A film about spoiled, horny teenage Mexicans may seem as far as one can get from grand philosophical debate about why it is we’re here, but the message of Y tu Mamá También (2001), in the end, isn’t wildly different. In some ways it’s a necessary antidote: “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” one of the boys intones, and they settle for an adolescent manifesto that collapses before them. It taps into a psyche run down by the banality of it all; a narcissistic pursuit of instant gratification. (In one delicious moment, a mutual lover tells the two boys their exploits aren’t worth bragging about because they both come so quickly.) This is banality epitomized, even as it’s dressed up as adolescent swagger.

The story rises above the sex jokes in the character of Luisa, but even then, it’s smart enough not to let them fade into irrelevance. It’s all intermixed, a crucial recognition that those base drives don’t go away. Once again, impassioned reason: we need to understand this side of the human psyche as well, not to repress it but to understand it, and channel it in ways that fuel the fire. The boys are extremes, but they captivate because they hit a bit closer to home than many of us would like to believe. A full life takes these appetites, tames them, guides them, and makes sure there is a place for everything.

This is, of course, a wickedly difficult balance; even those who aspire to it find themselves caught in cycles of blind passion and limp detachment, stronger or weaker depending on their temperaments and personal histories. I have no idea what the end state will look like, if there even is such a thing. But the pursuit is on, and nothing else compares.