Archive | December, 2015

Illusion and Reality in Uncertain Times

31 Dec

Farewell, 2015. For the most part, the world won’t be sad to see you go, though the future doesn’t necessarily look much clearer. It was a dark year in Europe, whose future hasn’t been this murky since the fall of the Berlin Wall, if not earlier. The West’s adventures in Middle Eastern Whack-a-Mole go on, with ISIS taking center stage. The American political slog, deathly long and devoid of substance, lurched along from one lurid development to the next. Extremist self-righteousness found a home on both sides of the spectrum, and those who hold the middle seem increasingly feeble and unfit for the challenges of these times. Grandstanding and rhetoric take precedence over hard work. The radicals often have good reasons to complain as they do, given how the chips seem to be falling. But no one is really in control, and giving power to fringe figures will only make make the narrative even more incoherent. As Ross Douthat said in his end-of-year column, never in my lifetime has it been more necessary to hedge one’s bets on the stability of liberal democracy and our current world order.

This isn’t news to anyone who reads this blog. Still, even though I’ve been hedging my bets for a good five years now, it’s an ongoing struggle to understand how that looks in practice. Whether this all comes to a head in a crisis or (more likely) just carries on in a banal, decadent muddle, it’s hard to feel terribly excited on a societal level, no matter one’s political orientation or personal beliefs. There are no easy answers, and we’re all in the same boat. Hell, even my favorite hockey team isn’t coming by wins as easily as it used to, though maybe Duluth East’s magical run through the 2015 playoffs is a lesson in how to respond to declinist hysteria: with knowledge of the past, supreme confidence in one’s own efforts, some flashes of artistry, and an overarching grand strategy that pushes the limits of conventional wisdom.

A lot of people will respond poorly to the seeming failures of our times. So, let’s apply our formula, using the wisdom gleaned from the end the Edina dynasty and the 2-3 forecheck.

First, we must learn from the past. There are plenty of examples of how to manage such times (or not manage them), from Athens to Rome to Chinese dynasties to Britain in the twentieth century. These help show us which battles are worth fighting, and when we might be delusional in our dreams. There is no shortage of exasperating aspects of the early twentieth century, and one must fight through all the clutter in search of the more fundamental things that truly matter. Considerations of history let us sort through it all and find the narratives that are most relevant to our current problems.

And make no mistake, the problems are myriad. Anyone who wants to do something about them must ensure that resistance avoids a bunker mentality, or a retreat motivated by fear. It’s not that I oppose the creation of private spaces where people can escape the worst predations of a world beyond a managed liberal consensus; on the contrary, they’re essential. But the manner in which we frame this push, and the language we use to describe it, make all the difference. This can’t come across as a retreat, or settling for what we have, or making do with risk reduction. To do so denies half of human nature, and will never catch on. Even in our cynicism and recognition of the frailty of so many human things, that hunger must still shine through.

Thankfully, there are outlets, and survival in a different sort of world requires creativity. It requires the arts, which can sometimes be far ahead of traditional thinking in how the future might unfold. Whether it’s Brave New World or Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, stories old and new prove instructive. They aren’t gospel, but they give us glimpses of possibilities, and force us to reckon with deeper questions and update old tropes for new eras. Out of this artistry will come the grand strategy, which remains a work in progress.

The way in which we confront this uncertain future will be what decides whether we succeed. This means taking ownership of efforts, appreciating what is good and beautiful, and being willing to take moral stands. This means seeing life as more than the pursuit of mere happiness, but giving it a greater trajectory. The goal isn’t one of contentment, but of leaving behind something that we can take pride in when the curtain comes down. This doesn’t mean neglecting the mundane goals in life; they, too, are essential for making it all hold together.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have some idea of the method. For a quote that gets at the gist of it, I’ll turn to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which should have won a best picture Oscar this year: “Maybe his world had vanished before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” With one caveat, that is: the line between illusion and reality can blur, and if one sustains something long enough. I tried to do that this year, pushing myself to new limits in taking on several billion tasks, and as the year comes to a close, I’m pleased with my work on nearly every front. There’s still plenty to do; some progress is tenuous, and there are still parts of life where I’m far from satisfied with my own efforts. But the anxiety bred by those failings is entirely healthy, and keeps me going. As it must.

As 2016 starts, let’s not have any illusions. I’m a year older, a year more jaded, and another year out from the glory days. And yet I’m more active than ever, better-connected than before, and as inspired to get things done as I’ve been in years. (My ego seems to be nice and healthy, too.) For inspiration, we’ll turn to Tennyson, who captures the sentiment of the oldest tale of navigating human nature between the worlds of beasts and gods, The Odyssey:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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Memories on the Moraine

26 Dec

I’ve made my annual Christmas road trip across Wisconsin, to the rolling hills on Milwaukee’s exurban fringe. Here, I spend time with my grandmother, who soldiers on in a decaying old house, and my uncle, who now has eight cats living with him in the garage. (They’ve got nothing on their neighbors, who burn sticks and toss rocks about to learn what the spirits are telling them.) We peck at the vats of food as we stomach and exchange basic pleasantries, and I go for long runs up and down the Kettle Moraine, off to an old stone church in Saint Lawrence, resolute as this little crossroads of a town fades away. My dad and I retreat to a hotel before we get too deep into the sentimental goo of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m left clattering away on this keyboard in the dark when the internet fails yet again.

The life I live day-to-day is distant from rural Wisconsin, but I have roots here. I also have roots in a city with Rust Belt memories, even if my own childhood was fairly isolated from them; not far to the north of Duluth lie towns where the mines are once again in dire straits. This isn’t really my story, but it’s always been peripheral to it. I grew up on an island of relative comfort, surrounded by an America that looks nothing like the yuppie cities or affluent suburbs that were homes to most of my current friends, and could well define my own future. But I can’t avert my eyes from these places, which come to define more and more of the American experience. There are stories here, stories worth telling and passing down, and a tale of decline has its own tragic bent with real psychological implications. As I sit in a slumped chair coated in cat hair and delve into George Packer’s The Unwinding, it’s not hard to draw connections between foreclosures and dying industrial cities and the story of a family on a little Wisconsin farm.

Philosophically, I’m a child of reluctant modernists, from Hannah Arendt to Octavio Paz; people who never ceased to see flaws in modernity, but recognized that they had little other choice. They see all the flaws in placing faith in rationality, whether it purports to run an efficient economic market or benevolent government work. At the end of a year that was a rousing success personally, it’s hard not to look at the tumult about and feel justified in this pessimism about national or global solutions. Despite an ego the size of a small state, this is why I’ve never felt comfortable chasing a traditional road to status. I may yet find my way there, but it won’t be without reservations and escape routes. I lack the necessary trust.

There’s a certain fatalism here; an intimacy with death, and an appreciation for how fleeting our windows of joy may be. I can appreciate aesthetics and revel in certain creature comforts; I eat well and drink well and value few things as much as a journey to some exotic locale. But while they refresh and inspire, they are forever in the shadow of something more profound. An appreciation for loss makes one realize how valuable it is to keep ties going, how much we cannot whitewash the past. This is why I go back to Wisconsin at least once a year. Memory runs too deep, and I cannot swear off a part of who I am.

It is just one part, though, and I’m no slave to memory. I must channel it, and even if I can’t make it all right, I can at least draw inspiration. Perhaps the whole premise of these cozy middle class lives missed something. No, comfort alone won’t quite do: I need more. I’m still working out what this fresh channel for ambition means, and naturally, it will never abandon its roots. But there’s a newfound energy in these runs up and down these hills, one that wasn’t here when I wrote my first sad elegy in this same bland hotel four years ago. The project born that night is starting to come full circle.

So this Christmas season, I’ll offer up something other than a clichéd wish for peace: a wish for continued pursuit of excellence, in all that we do. We don’t have much time; before long, it’ll all be memory. Time to get to work.

December 16, 2015

17 Dec

The day Duluth East hockey died.

I jest, of course. Mostly. It’s a single game in mid-December. As horrible as the Hounds’ recent tailspin has been, they still have a long season in front of them, still have plenty of chances to remind the state who they are, and what talent they have. One game alone will not flip the balance of power in a city where the private school has finally, after a decade of dallying, assumed its mantel as a northern hockey power.

But the stakes grow higher, and the pressure only grows. After so many years of preeminence, it now seems like every week brings a new statistic showing decline. Even last year, for everything that went right at the end, now looks like an aberration.

Was it? That, I suppose, is up to the players. It’s up to them to ignore all the noise and hype, to forget the rankings and section seeds and focus on the task before them. Once again, they have the target on their backs. It’s East against the world, and all they can do is embrace it. This is what it means to follow in this tradition, and to do what one can to carry it forward. To escape the panic, return to that old self-assurance, and most importantly, to have fun with it all again. For all the bag skates and relentless drills, for all the burdens in the shadow of the past, it all still comes back to a bunch of boys playing a game. One these boys have with great success, with runs toward titles as Bantams and PeeWees. It’s all still there within them.

They won’t get it on reputation. They’ll get it by blood and sweat alone. Back to work. It’s time to prove it.

Breaking Radio Silence

10 Dec

This blog has been far too quiet in recent weeks, so here is a post for the sake of a post. The end of a semester in graduate school, coupled with some hockey duties clogging up the normal times for free writing, will do that.

In one of my final class meetings today, an instructor gave us all printed copies of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote, which I wrote about on this blog in March 2014. At the time of that post, I was still coming out of the self-reflective shell I’d encased myself in during my return to Duluth. It’s certainly more tentative than my approach to life these days, and now sets up a more admirable ideal. The quote (which I’ve seen associated with East hockey in the past) will now go up on a wall in my room.

The friend from Phoenix mentioned in that post came to visit me in Minneapolis this past weekend, and my roommate and I (all of us Georgetown alums) had a grand time showing off our state, which our friend termed ‘the last bastion of the American Dream, if it ever truly existed.’ We mused long into the night on matters great and small, and I confided my own goal, which is to perpetuate that dream, such as I can. Of course I remain a critic on a certain level, and will feel comfortable retreating into a little Minnesotan fortress if it all goes wrong. But there is a goal here, and one around which to build a public life. The weekend renewed that push outward, one I explored last fall when I made the trip south for a visit to Phoenix.

My aversion to  the arena wasn’t out of timidity, per se, nor  was it the product of Minnesota stoicism. I had questions I needed to answer, and that required  lengthy retreat from the public realm. It did its job, but left me a bit rusty, and some things take practice anyway. I could make a lovely intellectual case for TR’s hunger, but living it out was a different story. The step forward has to seize upon convictions, and embrace power when it presents itself. So whether we aim to blend great dreams with reality or merely push through the last few weeks of a long, grinding semester: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.