Archive | August, 2016

Farewell, Minneapolis

29 Aug

I’m settling back into life in Duluth right now, temporarily back in my childhood bedroom as I find my own place and make some other purchases to prepare me for working life. Before I completely turn the page, though, I’ll say a fond farewell to Minneapolis, my home for the past two years. I only ever expected it to be a short stay; a stint that would simply prepare me for an eventual return to Duluth. I didn’t invest myself too deeply in its politics or inner workings, and kept my attention fixed to the north. One can only handle so many political sagas at a time, though I was there for long enough that I certainly know the lay of the land now. Things went according to plan, so this post won’t approximate my “Farewell Duluth” saga from August 2014. But I did fall for much of Minneapolis in my time here, and I will miss parts of it.

For starters, my apartment and neighborhood were ideal for my situation. I lived in a spacious apartment in an old red brick building with hardwood floors, though the building’s greatest feature was Frances, the elderly, vivacious building manager who kept us all in line. My friend in the apartment’s other bedroom, a fellow Georgetown grad, provided a necessary sounding board, as two people who had their critiques of the Minneapolis mystique could vent freely while pursuing our goals, divergent as they were, with typical Hoya ambition. Lowry Hill East, despite its hopelessly dysfunctional neighborhood board and historic renovation slush fund, gave excellent access to the whole city. It was right between Uptown and Downtown, both a short ride or a long walk away, and express buses to the U took me there in less than ten minutes. A short run was all I needed to reach many of my favorite parts of the city: the lakes, the sculpture garden (RIP), and my favorite refuge here, Theodore Wirth Park. And, next door, Liquor Lyle’s, that magical den where you can find a little something of everything.

I saw nearly every corner of the city in my time here. Downtown, where I worked for a year, threading the skyway hive and watching as the beast of a new Vikings stadium arose day by day. The North Loop, its warehouses all freshly renovated, home to happy hours and Twins games. Northeast, with its ever-expanding network of breweries and dive bars that put Lyle’s to shame. St. Paul, which I frequented on bike rides up Summit Avenue to a winnable trivia, and of course that southwest corner of downtown, which I’ll continue to visit every March. Lowry Hill, Linden Hills, Bryn Mawr, and the Chain of Lakes, where I sized up grand old houses and dreamed of the future. North, site of many a run, and subsequent reflection on race and poverty in this otherwise gleaming city. Quirky, crunchy Seward; the looming towers of Cedar-Riverside. The riverfront, always a convenient escape, whether down along the southern bluffs or from a bar on St. Anthony Main with that incomparable view. All those hockey rinks out in the suburbs that became frequent haunts in the winter months. I could trail on.

The University of Minnesota campus isn’t an aesthetic masterpiece; that’s especially true on the droll modernist West Bank, where I spent most of my days. I enjoyed being part of a power conference school (albeit one that doesn’t win much in the big sports), with all the attendant atmosphere and that infectious buzz of spirit. Comparing it to Georgetown naturally dooms it: they serve different purposes, and of course a large, sprawling research school is going to spawn a few more weak instructors and a bureaucracy that often left me in disgust. Thankfully, they were outshone by handful of committed leaders, and their numbers seemed to grow in my time as a Gopher.

What the U may have lacked in institutional efficiency, however, it made up for in the community it built in my graduate program. My fellow students of cities will stay friends for a very long time, and saying goodbye wasn’t easy. Our social calendar was nearly nonstop, and I’m sure I’ll be watching it forlornly from a distance for a while. I spent so much of my time in this city on the couch in the MURP Lab, where I rarely ever got anything done, but rarely regretted the detour. It was the prefect venue for coming into one’s own.

This is, of course, a brief goodbye. There will be many return visits for nights with old friends, for trips to suburban ice rinks and Orchestra Hall and Target Field. I’m excited to show off my hometown and my new life to many of them, and am ready to open up a mini boarding house for any Minneapolitans in need of an escape northward. Wherever I end up living, there will be plenty of space for guests. (After miserable DC and inflating Minneapolis, Duluth real estate is dreamy.) Thanks for serving me well, Minneapolis, and I expect you’ll always be a pleasant home away from home.

A few housekeeping notes: blogging may be a bit sparse as I settle in to a new job and home. Since I try to maintain a pretty strict work-blog separation—in over three years at this, you’ll never find more than a passing mention of any of my jobs—I also might not resume my Duluth politics coverage on the same level I was at a couple of years ago. Now that I have a job that can have some effect on these affairs, I’ll aim to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest. But I certainly won’t cut myself off entirely, either, and I expect to have some openings for comment now when I’m back in the thick of this cozy political world, where there’s little space to hide. On the hockey side of the ledger, I’m naturally excited to be back in my alma mater’s backyard, and also look forward to touring a number of northern Minnesota rinks this winter. Rest assured that I’ll make a few well-timed weekend visits to the metro, and the podcast should be able to go on with me as a call-in correspondent. If anything, our network is just expanding, and the future looks bright on many fronts. Stay tuned.

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Going Home

19 Aug

Like any good PR person, I had two blog posts written for today, a victory speech and a concession address. This, I’m pleased to announce, is the former. After a long, sometimes dismal summer in which pickiness over potential jobs led to a lot of painful waiting, my patience has paid off. I’m going home, back to Duluth to work a job whose description might as well have wandered out of a dream of mine from two years ago when I started my grad school odyssey. I’ll be working for a consultant on business and community development across northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. I try to be skeptical of things like destiny, but I’m still prone to strong hunches, and if there ever were such a tale of fate in my life, this was it.

It’s a move 20 years in the making: this very week in 1996, I first came to Duluth in a moving van. The story twists through long formative years and an unexpected two-year return, and culminates in one of the best interviews I’ve ever done, easy because it was so genuinely sincere. It took no act, no conscious airs, to convey how badly I wanted this, and how much I believed in my ability to do it, despite my relative inexperience. I don’t consider myself a great actor, but as a kid well-versed in Minnesota Nice and East Coast gentility and a natural introversion, deep expression can be rare. Here, it all came gushing forth.

I’ve had a number of guides in this trip back; some may be aware of their roles, others less so. First off, there are my parents, ever my supports, even if I’ve never properly expressed my gratitude to them. I think back to some of my Georgetown professors; one who opened my eyes to the full array of options before me, and one who told a moody senior who was scared to go home that, indeed, “Duluth needs people like you.” (I’m not sure if it does, but I’m glad to be of service to it.) There’s my grad school friend P., who, over beers at Acadia, made the comment that “I’m not sure that Minneapolis needs me,” a sentiment I wholeheartedly agreed with: while the Twin Cities need work, I think they are in good hands, and I’m in a position to make more of an impact back home, where I have easier access to levers that can make a difference, and which I still know far more intimately than anywhere on earth. If I have any ideals on how to perform public service, they come through rooting oneself in a community and understanding it from the bottom up, and I now get to do that. I have plenty of other friends to thank for their encouragement along the way, with special credit to a handful of old Duluth colleagues who went to bat for me over the past two weeks.

It is strange, I think, to be wedded to a city in the way I am to Duluth. Sure, I’ve built some contingencies, and try not to idolize earthly things, but the nagging call was always there. It flies in the face of some other forces in my life, and I try to view my attachment to a place with clear-eyed dispassion. I’m leaving behind a tight-knit network of good friends in Minneapolis, and I will miss them. A lot. (For those of you reading this, I’ll be down often, and you are all required to visit. Seriously.) Any good-bye, no matter how brief, makes me lament lost chances to go deeper with people I know in a place. I’m not sure what Duluth will be like for a 26-year-old single kid who is now out of excuses for tarrying and ready to find someone to share in, and make her own contributions to, a vision for the future. Beyond that, I’m going to need to find some partners in crime in a small city where it’s hard to keep secrets or stay in the shadows. And, of course, I will have to reacquaint myself with blankets of fog, vicious winds, driving on snow-covered hills, and the unspeakably gross time of year in Duluth that in other places is called “spring.”

I now have an adult life to put in order, and will face my share of challenges in doing so. On the one hand, my path appears routine: kid goes away for college, goes home, accepts solid job, settles down. On the other hand, it’s a bit countercultural for someone who had a ticket to some exotic position in Washington DC or some other major city, but chose not to board that train. Whatever it was that led me down this road, it has always felt natural, and I’m content with that much. There’s a lot of work to do, too. Duluth and some pockets of northeastern Minnesota are doing better now than they have been for most of my life, but that’s not true of the whole region that my work will now cover, and even the successes to date are only a basic foundation. It’s an exciting time to head back and begin anew on an effort to support a regional economy and the people who are its heart and soul.

To everyone who’s been a part of this journey, thank you: you’ve all fed in, often in ways you may not know. I’ve been blessed, and am more than ready to set out on the next journey, on to new heights. Let the work begin.

Exit Alex Rodriguez

12 Aug

The most complicated of Yankees came to a more-or-less mutual agreement with his team last Sunday, and his career will come to an abrupt end when he plays his final game tonight. The writing was on the wall. Alex Rodriguez has been atrocious since the All-Star Break, seemingly spent as an offensive force. The Yankee front office has launched a long-overdue rebuilding operation in the past weeks, as they became sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in my lifetime. They purged a heap of long-term contracts, and Mark Teixeira, another aging star in an injury-riddled decline, also announced his retirement at the end of the season. Now, they are effectively paying the fading slugger to go away, giving him a cushy parachute with a job as an incredibly highly paid advisor.

It was, perhaps, the best way to save face. I’ve always had a nuanced take on A-Rod: I stood up for him when the New York media trashed his early playoff struggles in the Bronx, and said he deserved every boo he heard when the steroid suspension came down in 2013. And so I appreciate his efforts to redeem himself over the past two seasons and atone for the various mistakes of his youth. He came across as humbler; a changed man. Perhaps such an iconic player, just four home runs short of 700, deserved to pick his own time to go. But baseball is a business, and the Yankees are looking to the future. There was no point in wasting a bench spot on him when there are so many young guns to bring along and give a shot at the major league level. Nor is it any fun to watch a former great limp along as a shadow of his former self. It is time to move on.

A-Rod is a fitting face for the post-90s-dynasty Yankees: almost always good, but only able to meet the glare of absurd expectations on rare occasions. Tainted but talented, always hoping there was one good year left in an aging body. His arrival in 2004 marked the end of their run of six World Series berths in eight years, though the drop-off had more to do with the collapse of the pitching staff and the rise of the Red Sox than anything that A-Rod did. He wasn’t a total choke: he got his one ring in 2009, after a superb playoff performance. And after a steroid scandal in which he was nearly disowned by his team, he showed remarkable loyalty. For good and ill, he became the face of the franchise, and his departure, along with Teixeira’s retirement, severs the last remaining ties to those powerful offenses of the 00s. The revolution is at hand, and this Yankees fan is more encouraged about his franchise’s future than at any point this decade.

Once the hysteria fades away, A-Rod should still get some recognition for what he is: the greatest player of a generation. Like Barry Bonds, his predecessor to that title, he took his quest for greatness too far. But instead of rolling with the villain role as Bonds did, A-Rod was always tinkering, trying to make himself even better and manage a tarnished image. He shouldn’t have thought he needed drugs to make himself better, but he paid his dues, and will continue to do so when he doesn’t make it into the Hall of Fame. He had the versatility to switch positions mid-career as he sought out a winning team, and found some contrition in old age. His vanity and ego are part of the package, yes, but he’s hardly alone in such excesses among athletes. At the very least, he won back most Yankees fans, and will wind up with a respectable place in the team pantheon. Just about any judgment of him beyond that, whether scathing or appreciative, is defensible in its own way.

As a baseball fan, A-Rod’s retirement is also a generational marker. One of the final remaining icons of my childhood—and with it, the steroid era that corrupted baseball—is out the door. (It was heartening to see A-Rod’s exit coincide with a milestone for one of the most graceful, awe-inspiring, untainted stars of the past fifteen years: Ichiro’s 3,000th major league hit.) These aren’t my boyhood Yankees, and this is a new Major League Baseball in which the Yankees are sellers and rebuilders. Well, it worked out last time. Bring on the new era.

On Class Divides

9 Aug

Not many people have many nice things to say about the state of our current presidential campaign. But even rotting trees can bear fruits, however, and the Trump candidacy in particular has inspired a rush of quality analysis on people who have had a rough time in an often post-industrial economy. Some even pitch this election along class terms, as the people struggling in 2016 America coalesce around a single figure and a well-educated, well-connected, and financially stable upper class tries to figure out what all the fuss is about. It’s not that simple, of course, but it still points to some important realities that are worth talking about.

The relationship between race and poverty tends to get plenty of press, and has been contested politically (whether out in the open or more subtly) throughout the country’s history. Class warfare, on the other hand, has come in spurts, only surging when led by Jacksonians or turn-of-the-century populists and such. It has long been dormant as a national political force, most likely due to a Cold War consensus that rejected anything that smelled of Marx and claimed it was possible to rise up via hard work, a free market, and some basic supports from the government such as public education, taxation policy friendly to homeownership, and a small safety net. And for the second half of the twentieth century, that was more or less true.

Revolutionary Marxism is fading into history now, and few people seriously believe many of its tenets: most notably, history disproved the idea of a united proletariat. But the people on the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder haven’t gone anywhere, and with overwhelming evidence showing greater separation between the top and the bottom, the class lines are hardening again. There has been a rise of a vague, white underclass. People have been putting out books on this rough topic for some time now, but the pace has accelerated this year, and has culminated in some provocative recent titles, including White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. (The Atlantic reviews both here; the interview with Vance that made the book go viral is here.) The lament is clear: there’s an entire class of people, from the rural South to Appalachia to working-class suburbs, that has mostly been ignored or scorned by the upper classes, and this is starting to come home to roost politically. It also hits home for a northern Minnesotan; while nowhere as extreme as in Appalachia, there are headlines about counties scrambling to combat heroin abuse, and the region caucused for Trump, while the wealthier Republicans of the Twin Cities gave Marco Rubio his lone win of the primary season. Something is clearly happening here.

The Atlantic piece makes an important distinction: tossing anyone who’s white and doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree (or even those with bachelor’s degrees in non-prestige positions) in one big group is going to hide a lot. In fact, it feels like a group that elites might use to denote “white people who are not like me.” This blind lumping of all flyover country white people has led some on the left to accuse poor white people of voting against their economic interests. This misreads the electorate: for the most part, the stereotypical Appalachian doesn’t vote. It’s their neighbors who do who are the core Trump supporters: the people who are managing to get by in these places, as teachers or policemen or in whatever remaining factory jobs there are. Surrounded by people whose lives are going down the tubes, these relative success stories want to pull up the drawbridge to protect themselves and their families from the depravity around them. As people who have made it, they don’t want their hard-earned tax money going to the deadbeat down the street. Middle America is a nuanced place filled with its own networks class distinctions, sometimes more subtle but no less real than on the coasts.

Trump’s appeal goes beyond class, though, and the emergence of a more distinct class divide goes far beyond Trump. The media is now filled with people decrying elites (many of them elites themselves), and the Democrats faced their own sustained anti-establishment insurgency through the primary season. No one can really agree on what the establishment is (Finance? Big government? People with PhDs? Any rich person?), but it sure makes for a convenient bogeyman. Suddenly, longstanding divides are becoming realms of political conflict.

It’s so easy to resort to these generalizations because class is so highly fluid, and we can plausibly accuse most people of being part of some class we don’t like. In 26 short years, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt near the top and toward the bottom. Most people also don’t have a very good appreciation for where they land on this spectrum; even as a very self-aware person, it was easy to think I was “poor” in a place like Georgetown. (In relative terms, sure; in absolute terms, not at all.) For someone in poverty, a 15-dollar-an-hour wage seems like a ticket to the middle class. A couple making over $100,000—successful, clearly, but possible with two jobs that aren’t exceptionally high-paying—is already in the top 25 percent of households. In fact, median household income lands at around $51,000, so a full half of American households are earning less than that. Yet most upper middle class kids—generally, the people I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life—think they come from somewhere much closer to the middle, and for some, there’s a genuine anxiety in needing to preserve some sort of status. People are constantly struggling with ideas of class, and it’s not hard to come to resent a more successful group or fear a less successful one.

Education can prove just as much a source of class as income, as I can well attest as the kid of two parents who have never brought home huge paychecks, but both have advanced degrees: my path to Georgetown felt as natural as it must for children of far greater means. Seven in ten Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees; one doesn’t need a degree from an elite school to get a credential that separates oneself from over half the country. For graduates of high schools from which the vast majority of graduates go to college, this may seem baffling, but that just goes to show what a different world such high schools are in comparted to the ones where people don’t follow these roads. My new master’s degree puts me in the ten percent of the country that has an advanced degree, and I expect I’ll end up in what others might label the “upper middle class” in some way or another, whether I like it or not. The paths set before people can make alternatives difficult to fathom.

And then, of course, there are less tangible ways to signal status, such as clothing and comportment and spending habits. One can now create an illusion of wealth by buying and acting in certain ways, and on the other side of the coin, there are the bohemians for whom scorn of such status symbols is a status symbol in and of itself. The conformity of hipster non-conformity is its own little subculture with its own set of rules now. The “upper class” is just as complicated and diverse as the lower class, as it tends to include anyone from financiers to professors to celebrities to people who just work boring but well-paying jobs. Some think class comes with certain codes of conduct; others use the benefits of class to act as they please.

There are so many gradations, and so many different ways to signal class, that any effort to draw clear lines is probably doomed. Likewise with class-based political action: critical masses of people just don’t usually define themselves by identities that are this fluid, this capable of changing with time. But as those lines grow less flexible, these identities can harden, and the contour emerging in this presidential race will probably only grow with time. Visible voting blocs need not win to have influence, and even if Trump goes down in flames, it’s not hard to imagine a more polished populist successfully stoking this newly visible class divide.

I’m not totally opposed to such a campaign. Elites ignore the masses at their peril, and while stratification is unavoidable in complex economies, those on top need to do everything in their power to stay in touch with the rest. Class consciousness creates a necessary dialogue, and could perhaps yet lead to sensible policy outcomes. But it also comes with inherent risks and threatens to expose deeper divides, and the rhetoric of class warfare (from all sides) isn’t always conducive to a stable republic. The growing divide compels people who care about the American body politic—particularly those with greater means to do so—to keep a pulse on both and to cycle in and out, comfortable in both chic restaurants and dive bars, in the box seats or in the bleachers.

America’s classless history may be a myth, but that need not lead us to assume battle lines. Even if we do, they likely won’t last, given the messiness of it all. Class distinctions can help us understand a society, but we shouldn’t mistake them for reality. Yes, money and credentials can take a person far in life. But they are still no substitute for virtue, and we cannot reduce people to what they earn, where they’ve gone to school, or the signals they send. If all we can see are divisions, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a fragmented state.