Archive | September, 2015

How to Maintain Your Sanity While Being Overworked

29 Sep

This blog is lapsing into self-improvement listicles, which should perhaps be a red flag, but ‘blog’ was on my schedule for tonight, so blog I shall. Here are eight suggestions for staying sane if, by chance, you ever find yourself taking a full load of graduate-level courses, running two student organizations, and working two jobs at once. It’s a common problem, right?

I’ll skip over the clichéd advice—get enough sleep, eat healthy, get some exercise—because that’s well-covered ground. Here are eight pieces of advice I’ll allow to flow forth from my fountain of infinite wisdom:

1. Master the art of filling a schedule and following it. We all schedule in different ways. Lots of my colleagues are Google Calendar adherents, with their phones spewing out eternal reminders of where they ought to be. Dinosaur that I am, I still use paper; it’s good to be able to scrawl new tasks or the odd reminder in the margins, and there’s something deeply satisfying about crossing things off the list. The medium doesn’t really matter; what matters is that every little task you need to do is documented so that your scattered mind doesn’t forget it. Check off tasks with gusto and move on to the next thing.

2. Clean out the email inbox right away. Nothing looms like unanswered messages and a sense that other people expect things from you. Not only does getting through them all tend to go faster than you’d think, it takes a load off. Not only that, you’ll find that responding promptly is actually a somewhat rare and valuable skill, and it’s one other people notice. They realize you have things together, or at least are good at projecting that illusion. There is nothing wrong with projecting illusions, so long as they are in the realm of sanity. Project it long enough and it might just become reality.

This doesn’t mean you have to check the damn thing every ten minutes. In fact, I’d highly recommend taking a minimum of a few hours away at times, especially on weekends. But when you do dive back in, plow through it relentlessly. Leave nothing for later—unless, of course, you’ve budgeted time for it on your schedule.

3. Never let work be the last thing you do before bed. No matter what deadline I face, no matter how late it is, I do something blissfully unrelated to school or career before the lights go out. It works wonders.

4. Multitask wisely. Don’t lie, you know you do it. You can’t cut yourself off completely. But if you are going to multitask, make sure it makes sense. If you’re watching TV, do work that requires less intellectual capacity, like spreadsheets or statistics or more inane writing tasks. If you’re drunk, write or work on the creative side of things. If you’re supposed to be reading or writing, distract yourself with other reading or writing, and preferably of a high caliber so that you’re reading good writing.

Enlightened procrastination is a valuable skill, and will serve you well in bar trivia. No, you won’t be as efficient, but you’re a human who has to remain sane, not a cog on an assembly line. If you finish a project two hours more slowly but also watched a football game during that time, chances are you’ll remember it much more fondly. Don’t beat yourself up over a slow pace; build in the breaks, accept them, and then get back to it.

5. Surround yourself with people who fuel your energy. I’ve found I’m particularly prone to channeling the mood of people around me, but everyone does this to some degree. Unless you’re ready to disrupt an organization (which can be good, but choose your battles wisely), you’ll adopt its general means of practice, to varying degrees and with varying levels of awareness. So, make sure the people around you are as committed as you are to getting things done; those who bring out the best in you, and drive you to do more. There are limits, of course, but that’s what #6 is for.

6. Know when to stop. There comes a time when no amount of agonizing will do any good. No one innately knows where this is. It’s a feel, and you have to find it for yourself, be able to recognize it, and enforce it with an iron fist. You are done. No, staring at it for another half hour won’t make it better. No, you will not die if you don’t get to that last reading, even if someone calls you out. You’re done, and you’ve done your best. Now go do something non-work related, and then go to bed.

7. Cycle in and out. Spend time with other people; spend time alone. Plan the future; go back to your roots. Think about the big picture, and lose yourself in the details. Again, surround yourself with people who complete you, and complement your skills. Take time for each of them, lest it seem like you’re spending too much time in one world and neglecting important parts of yourself. And yet…

8. Don’t aim for balance. Balance is lame. Work-life balance, social life balance…these terms all make you feel like a juggler who has to be doing ten things at once, and induce panic. That is exhausting, and leaves you further unbalanced. Instead, aim for excellence. Attack each piece with energy when the opportunities present themselves, and you’ll find the anxieties slip away. Stay hungry, even if you know you’ll never quite satisfy that appetite. It’s what keeps you going. Suddenly, you’re not overworked at all. You’re doing what you are driven to do, and feel weirdly good about yourself, even you should have lost your mind by objective standard. Who knows; maybe you have.

There you go, I solved all of your problems for you. Wasn’t that easy? I’ll start my motivational speaking tour as soon as I find time on my schedule.

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The Tragedy Writes Itself

22 Sep

Review: Show Me a Hero (SPOILER ALERT)

David Simon is among the last people I would turn to in search of a portrait of a hero, but the man behind The Wire undertakes that very task in his latest project, a mini-series that aspires to give us one. And yet, with some help from an incessant Springsteen soundtrack and some of The Wire’s old bit players, Simon transports us back to Yonkers, New York, in the 1980s, and makes us believe, if only for a little while. Show Me a Hero is Simon at his peak, all of his Wire themes boiled down into six quick hours as a city grapples with its own soul. In a novel burst that shows a different side of Simon, the city finds that soul.

The apparent hero is Nick Wasicsko, the kid mayor who becomes the unlikely force to push through a court-ordered public housing plan. The wealthy denizens of Yonkers’ east side want no part of these units, and the opportunistic Wasicsko plays to that fear to steal an election from a longtime incumbent. But Judge Leonard Sand orders the city’s desegregation full-stop, and Wasicsko quickly comes to see he is powerless to stop the construction. He becomes the reluctant champion of public housing. In just a few hours he endures riot-like council hearings and cantankerous councilors who’d rather go to jail for contempt than face reality, to say nothing of KKK graffiti and a pipe bomb. It takes courage to persevere here, or at the very least an unassailable sense of pride. Wasicsko may or may not have the former, but he certainly has the latter, and as such, heroism is his to claim.

It’s been said that it’s impossible to write a book or a television script that is both broad and deep; one must err on one side. Simon’s work always falls on the broad side. He gives us a rich tapestry of life in the Yonkers projects, and even if viewers only get to know bits of characters and can’t remember their names, they endure. This is politics at its most profound, the human relationships rising above any policy platform or high ideal. On occasion there are back room deals in gruff New York accents, but most of the time the drama plays out through frantic conversations in community centers or living rooms, and no one knows how they’re going to turn out. These people must find their way in the dark, act as if they have history on their side when no one really knows how it will all turn out. They show us the full range of human emotion as the world around them compels them to show us their best and worst sides.

Nick Wasicsko, in the end, is a fairly static figure, and only in the final two episodes do we come to see how sadly shallow he is. The goofy kid who jumped into politics at the beginning of the series has not matured one bit, and instead thinks his heroism has entitled him to glowing love. His steady decline is both glaring and painful, and while he may be a bit one-dimensional, the deep dive into that one dimension is all too real. Nick has fallen for the political game. Even in the narrow world of Yonkers intrigue, which reverts to the public works department totem pole once the housing war blows over, he is too far into the cave.

Those of us with the political bug likely know the power of this allure, and how easily pride can destroy someone with no other anchor for self-worth. When validation comes from votes or political favors, happiness is even more illusory than usual, and life becomes nothing but a series of battles, all life-affirming victories or soul-crushing defeats. Any cycle between the two is dead, and a when the breaking point comes, doom is not far off. For Wasiscko, this most likely comes on the day when he visits the projects he nursed to life and learns that no one cares who he is. Fitzgerald may have come up with the quote that gives the series its title—show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy—but the Greeks were on to this a few millennia ago. Simon, presumably, knows this, and the tale follows the classic arc with exacting precision.

I’ve maintained for some time that there are no heroes; no one can stay on the pedestal for long. No, there are only heroic acts, and we can all aspire to them from time to time, when circumstances align—just as surely as we can sink into the darkness that consumed Nick. But even more heroic than Nick Wasiscko, perhaps, are people like Doreen Henderson and Mary Dorman, women with no claim on the political life before the housing situation thrusts it upon them. Both women find their voice over the course of the series, and in radically different ways: Doreen escapes the crack epidemic and organizes the new housing tenants into a cohesive community, while Mary, first spurred to rally against the housing plan in public debate, becomes its most committed advocate once she sees the human face of her new neighbors. There is no pretense here, no gamesmanship; only people coming examine their conscience and see the world with eyes wide open. Reality doesn’t always work this way, but it’s refreshing to see Simon show this side of the story in addition to the well-worked tragedy.

An aspiring planner can’t help but acknowledge the other star of the show: Oscar Newman, the architect, planner, and father of defensible space theory. His formula is shockingly simple: spread out public housing to reduce the effects of concentrated poverty, and eliminate common spaces that no one can care for. By giving residents ownership of their new townhomes and eliminating the public hallways or stairwells, the Yonkers projects give them the necessary stake in the protection of their territory. The feared blights never arrive, and the series leaves us with children playing in their new lawns, their wonder is the perfect foil to the staring, fearful white neighbors. Simon appears to have more faith in public housing scholarship than anyone I’ve ever met in the academy, and seems to believe a few smart planners can make things right. This is a more mature Simon than the one who went to (literally) absurd lengths to find any decency in the world in The Wire, and in a certain 2012 commencement address. Maybe the man is a softie after all.

Duluth Primary Election Results, 2015

15 Sep

The results are in! I offer my decidedly un-expert opinion on all of them below. Here are my previous comments on the field.

In each race, the top two candidates advance to the general election. I list percentages followed by actual vote total.

Mayor

Emily Larson 67.32 (5,456)

Chuck Horton 18.57 (1,505)

Howie Hanson 9.03 (732)

James Mattson 2.18 (177)

John Socha 1.37 (111)

John Howard Evans .63 (51)

Thomas Cooper .56 (45)

Robert Schieve .33 (27)

We’ll start with the most predictable of all the races, where Emily Larson steamrolled a field with a lot of bodies but very little in the way of actual competition. Anyone who might have been a remote threat to her stood aside, and for all the people involved, there has been very little in the way of genuine debate or serious alternative visions for the future of Duluth. Don Ness’s heir apparent should sail on to another victory in November.

Her opponent in the general election is Chuck Horton, whom I considered the most interesting of the bunch. He’s a bit scattershot and perhaps a little paranoid, but he speaks strongly on issues that others don’t, and is a fairly accurate spokesman for a small but significant slice of the Duluth electorate. Howie Hanson, the only other household name here, came in a distant third. Vague and sporadically directed bluster, it turns out, is not a solid campaign strategy. No one else had much of a prayer of making a name for himself.

City Council District 5

Jay Fosle (I) 56.08 (945)

Janet Kennedy 39.82 (671)

Allan Beaulier 2.61 (44)

Derrick Ellis 1.48 (25)

There are six Council seats up for grabs in the election this fall, but only one required a primary, and I’d suspect it’s also the only one with a realistic chance of shaking up the Council’s political composition. With tonight’s results, however, even that may be a long shot. Incumbent Jay Fosle, the often cantankerous west side conservative, put up a very solid primary showing. He has a well-honed feel for that populist vein that Horton nursed into a spot in the mayoral general election, and his district is in the part of the city most receptive to that message. He’s a very genuine representative of west side political sentiment, and is now in line for a third term. Janet Kennedy has the potential to be a strong opponent, but her campaign will need to pick up considerable ground to overcome a 16-point gap. The other two people in this primary put up negligible vote totals, so she can’t just poach their supporters; instead, she’ll have to turn out the vote and probably convince a few Fosle supporters. It will be an uphill battle.

School Board At-Large

Renee Van Nett 44.70 (3,351)

Alanna Oswald 32.51 (2,437)

Jim Unden 22.79 (1,708)

All three candidates for this open seat had respectable showings here, with Renee Van Nett, the candidate endorsed by the establishment, as the current frontrunner. Still, it’s not impossible to see a path to victory for Alanna Oswald, and if she can pick up the Unden votes and turn out more people in November, it could be a very tight race. This election, which I’ve discussed here, could well swing the composition of the school board.

School Board District 2

David Kirby 56.85 (1,044)

Charles Obije 25.90 (461)

Jane Hammerstrom Hoffman 15.45 (275)

Kirby, another establishment-endorsed candidate, doubled up the opposition in this district, and looks fairly safe to win a seat on the Board. This is the district in the city most likely to support public education at any cost, and was always going to be the most difficult of the three races for anyone outside of the Board majority’s consensus to make any headway. Objie now faces long odds here.

Big picture school board notes: I’d break down the six remaining candidates (including the two in District 3, Nora Sandstad and Loren Martell) into three categories. I see one, Martell, as a likely ally for the current minority of Harry Welty and Art Johnston. Two, Van Nett and Kirby, seem to have little interest in talking to Welty or Johnston and are thus likely allies for the current majority. Three—Sandstad, Oswald, and Obije—are trying to stake out the middle ground. If the primary results hold in the general election, the current majority will retain at least four seats, and we can expect more of the same, albeit with maybe a little less margin for error: the majority imposes its will while the minority makes a lot of angry noise. This strikes me as the most likely outcome, and not a terribly desirable one for anyone who wants to see any change in the tenor of the board.

Things get more interesting if either Obije or Oswald—more likely Oswald—can turn around the primary results. An Oswald win would give the minority a path to electoral victory, albeit far from a guaranteed one, and might force the board members into genuine debate and recognition that they can’t simply fall back on their past positions if they want to get anything done. Yes, there’s a risk that this could encourage yet more infighting, but given the track record of the past few years, I’d be willing to take that chance. On to November.

Karl in the Humphrey Public Affairs Review

11 Sep

This will perhaps be the shortest post in this blog’s history, but busy grad students have to find creative ways to keep their blogs going. Here is a link to a piece I just published in the Humphrey Public Affairs Review.

Okay, that sounds a little more impressive than it is. I’m the managing editor of HPAR and get to decide what gets published and what doesn’t. I wrote a quick piece to serve as an example for a new type of submission we’ll be publishing this year, a series of 500-800 word op eds that will, hopefully, stimulate debate and help keep HPAR active year round, instead of just putting out issues heavy on academic articles every semester. The subject matter is hardly new to anyone who’s followed this blog for long, and mostly rehashes my summer reading. But if you’re feeling deprived of my writing, here’s a quick spurt of it. And don’t worry, Duluth primary election comments will be along later this week.

The Last First Day

7 Sep

Tomorrow I start what will probably be my last year of formal education. Once I’m done, I’ll have spent 19 of the past 21 years in school, and there was never any doubt during that two-year gap that I’d be going back for something, somewhere. While I’m ready to get on with life and head into the full-time work world, it’s still the end of an era.

I’m the son of a professor and a librarian, so it’s probably no great surprise that I enjoy school. The environment I grew up in took school success so naturally I never really needed to be pushed to do well there. It’s always been home, a place where I am at ease, and I’m fiercely loyal to the schools I’ve attended, even if I am sometimes critical of them. Sure, I can see the flaws in everything, but I’ll still scowl at anything or anyone who might besmirch their reputations. They made me who I am. I spend some of my free time reading up on education, learning about other schools, and speculating idly on the pretentious books and philosophies I’ll subject my own children to someday. School is in my blood.

There’s something especially warm and familiar about the first few weeks in fall, when the weather is still warm and the grind has yet to start. It all seems fresh, a comforting cycle that will always be there for us. It is this renewed promise incarnate, passed from generation to generation, that gives life the edge it needs to push toward greatness, and at the same time allows us to descend into the recesses of our minds where we sort out who we are and what we stand for. I feed off that youthful energy, perhaps because I once worried I’d wasted it before finally discovering how to hold on to it.

From time to time, I’ve had people wonder why I don’t go into teaching or somewhere in the education world. I like being around high school and college-aged people, old enough to have learned a thing or two and pressed by a billion possibilities but still in possession of that youthful swagger. I enjoy passing along wisdom and making people think, and education (for now, anyway) offers stability in which one can rule over a little domain and do some good in the world, year after year. I’m confident that I could push kids to do at least a few impressive things, and a past fear of lecturing in front of people isn’t what it once was.

And yet there is no desire here. I could speculate why, with reasons ranging from my worries about the future of education to the world of campus politics to my ego. In the end, it’s probably a healthy separation: even for a voracious learner, it is important to remember that life is not like school. For too long, I labored under the delusion that all life was an exercise in getting an ‘A’ on everything. I was the poster child for a stifling quest to please, living as if some omniscient grader up in the sky was rating my every move on a 100-point scale. It’s not as if my parents or my schools forced this on me; my ambition did it all by itself. I had to be the best, and so I strove to be, whatever the cost. Later, disillusioned, it took me some time to realize that any fault didn’t lie with the ambition itself, but the way I’d directed it. It was easy to figure out what was wrong, but figuring out where to go next was an entirely different challenge.

But figure it out I did, to the extent that anyone can, and now it is time for one final year. It promises to be a packed one, with a normal course load, two jobs, two student organizations to run, my normal hockey duties, and this little blog to keep alive. It will be one last chance to enjoy the school calendar and run the gamut of on-campus events, and fix up the one or two remaining affairs I need to put in order before joining the adult world full-stop. More importantly, though, it’s a time to go all in with the people around me, the true foundation of any program, and I will have to tend to older ties as well. It will be a whirlwind, but these years of clear finality are always the most rewarding, the ones most likely to strengthen lifelong bonds and inspire deep thoughts. It’s a well I’ll return to time and again after this year, but never again will I be able to plumb its depths quite like this. Once more unto the breach, dear friends; once more.

La Grande Bellezza

5 Sep

What is beauty? Is it mere aesthetics, captured simply by wealthy people drifting about and enjoying all their lifestyle has to offer? Does art alone draw people toward higher purpose? Or is beauty representative of something else, something beyond the mundane world we see around us that gives it all a higher purpose? These are the questions that underlie Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty (La grande belezza), the winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The Great Beauty is visually stunning from start to finish, without a wasted frame. The film is a love affair with a city, a dreamlike vision that sets Rome on a pedestal. The real Rome, visitors can attest, is impressive but not nearly as impeccable and clean. And yet it all works, and the flood of color toys with nostalgia, and even the critiques are those of one who knows it dearly. At one point, the protagonist notes that only tourists can see Rome with fresh eyes, something all to resonant for a kid who went to Rome once, but only for a day; one beautifully jam-packed day under a radiant July sun in which I was led about by an exceptionally attractive tour guide.

The film follows Jep Gambardella, a writer who wrote one great book forty years prior and has been resting on his laurels ever since. He lives in Dionysian opulence, stumbling from party to party dancing with beautiful people and rocking one superb suit after another. He arches his eyebrows at all the absurdity around him, at times even blasts the emptiness of his friends in Roman high society, but he is beholden to his life of excess, and resumes the revelry every night. He’s made himself the king of Rome, but as he ages, his throne seems increasingly lonely.

The Great Beauty is absolutely vicious in its takedown of Jep’s fellow travelers. In the most enjoyable scene, Jep makes short work of a vacuous performance artist, an all too accurate skewering of clueless contemporary art.  He also unleashes a vicious takedown of the communist socialite whose “sacrifices” for her family are nothing more than self-serving lies: she is no better than any of these jaded souls partying the night away. At times these Roman elites are downright sad, as in the suicidal mania of Andrea and the young girl forced by her parents to smear paint about for the amusement of the crowd. And there’s the cardinal in line for the papacy, who prefers quoting his recipe book to scripture. Only the dwarf publisher, consigned to an absurd body, comes across as someone who has genuinely earned her high society stature.

By the end, though, a few figures start to poke out above the bitter takedowns. News of an old lover’s death starts to stir a few memories, and ever-dangerous nostalgia makes its move. Jep’s “friend” Romano, a hapless writer there mostly as an object of scorn, suddenly decides to leave Rome and head back to his anonymous hometown. For the first time, Jep’s reaction to an event goes beyond mild bemusement: suddenly, his world faces disruption. And then there is the matter of the Santa Maria, the Mother Teresa figure who comes to visit Rome at the end of the film. She, too, is a hyperbolic caricature, but her ascetic life is about the only one in the film that witnesses any greater beauty. At the end, she climbs a stair to an altar on her knees and looks up in pure wonder, and suddenly one starts to wonder if sleeping on cardboard and serving the Malian poor for 22 hours a day at age 104 is indeed the road to enlightenment.

Santa Maria stiffs Jep when he tries to interview her, instead settling for a night on his floor and some festivities with her flock of flamingoes before she asks the same damn question that everyone else asks him: why didn’t he write another book?  Because he couldn’t find the great beauty, he replies, and Santa Maria orders him to remember his roots. Jep flashes back to a night on the beach with the girl who got away. She flashes her breasts at him, but what lingers is the tantalizing, mysterious look on her face. The wonder returns, Jep finds his beauty, and he can begin to write again.

The epiphany of beauty leaves one question unresolved: is Jep’s nostalgia for a cute girl on the same level as the crawling Santa Maria, the mere fact of wonder enough to give life meaning? Are all these Roman partiers saved if they can simply recall some moment of past beauty that gives them pause? Or is there still a moral order beyond this relativist ability to marvel? My vote, to no one’s surprise, is with the latter: those fleeting moments of great beauty are windows unto eternity, but they are not themselves eternity. Instead, they fuel the mind, and from there, the author must write his own story, remembering his roots and placing his narrative within the thousands of others that float past it down the streets of Rome or along the Tiber.

Sorrentino doesn’t show us whether or not Jep understands this, but at least he has some chance. It’s no coincidence that the hauntingly magnificent closing theme is named “Beatitude,” as it brings together the faith that has sustained Rome and opens the door to transcendence. It lilts down the Tiber and lingers for days beyond, and encapsulates the human core of Rome: at times tortured, burdened with the history of Western civilization in all its contradictions, but capable of stunning beauty, both in the facades it puts up and in the details deeper inside. Both the city and the man are along the road to truth, and while they may not get there, they at least have some notion of how to find their way.