Archive | June, 2018

A Return to Good Journalism, 6/26/18

26 Jun

After an unfortunate detour into rage-blogging inspired by a piece of bad journalism over the weekend, we now return to our normally scheduled array of good journalism I’ve read over the past week.

For a far more illuminating portrait of changing election trends in northeastern Minnesota (beyond Duluth), I turn to Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s visit to Duluth last week, he penned an article on trade policy and its effects on the rural mining region in northern Minnesota, and why the argument about trade isn’t actually about trade. He followed up with a piece on immigration over the weekend. I always enjoy Brown’s work, but he’s been growing punchier of late, and his on-the-ground reporting from a region that is on the brink politically is vital reading, and I expect it’s illuminating even for someone who knows little about the Iron Range.

Speaking of communities that are in decline, The American Conservative’s New Urbs series has a bit from photographer Vincent David Johnson, who relates his travels in photographing the ruins of rural America. It’s a fascinating dive into towns that are fading from memory. Also, one of the reasons I enjoy TAC is the fact that it is the rare site where one can usually safely violate the cardinal rule of internet comments sections—which is, of course, Never Read the Comments Section—and come away not feeling awful about humanity. Instead, you’ll find that the vast majority of the commenters are intelligent people bringing a wide variety of usually interesting perspectives to the article, and this post delivers on that front.

Sticking again with our theme of small towns facing hard times: from Bloomberg News, about a month ago but still interesting, and related to the above articles: why do people stay in towns that are in decline?

And, to switch gears at the end, here’s a remembrance of longtime Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who died this past week, from Peter Wehner in the New York Times. I don’t share many of Krauthammer’s view on foreign policy, which was his main focus, but he was an idiosyncratic thinker who never quite fell into clean categories, and a powerful prose stylist. But the picture that emerges here, as a person in possession of great intellectual humility and in endless search of reality. He also handled both personal misfortune and his impending death with laudable grace. I will always celebrate such traits in people, no matter where they landed politically.

While this post is, alas, far less cathartic than my last one, I hope people find something of actual educational value in it.

Advertisements

How to Write Terrible Trump Era Journalism

22 Jun

There is a lot of terrible journalism out there, and normally I don’t bother my time with it. Ana Marie Cox of Rolling Stone, however, made the mistake of writing a piece of terrible journalism about Duluth, and will thus endure the full wrath of this blog. I know nothing of Ms. Cox’s work; who knows what she was directed to do by editors or higher-ups, or what wound up on the cutting room floor, or if she just had a bad day. I write, so I get it. The rest of her work may be sterling. But she has produced a remarkably lazy and awful piece, and while Mayor Emily Larson has already offered a much politer response than mine, City Pages responded with its usual elegance of a drunken elephant, and Perfect Duluth Day has devised a brilliant creative writing contest around it, it deserves to be dissected, line by line. Some opportunities are just too golden to miss.

The original article is in bold; my comments are in normal text.

Minnesota’s lonely island of electoral blue in the midst of Donald Trump’s upper Midwest Republican bloodbath was on the minds of nearly everyone inside Duluth’s Amsoil Arena Wednesday night. Every speaker, including President Trump, referred to it, though perhaps no one quite as dramatically as state GOP chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who warned the thousands in attendance about a “red tsunami rolling across Lake Superior.” (Just add it to the list of greasy Wisconsin imports, I guess.) 

Most of the eastern end of Lake Superior is Canada, which has interesting implications for both Ms. Carnahan’s claim and Ms. Cox’s witty repartee, but let’s not quibble with that stuff.

Trump does not tend to visit states he cannot in some way claim as his – blue states that fail to jibe with his hoary recitation of Election Night. If you’re wondering why the president came to Minnesota anyway, that’s because Trump did come within just a couple percentage points of taking the state. (He told the crowd this, of course.) If you’re wondering why Trump came to Duluth, that’s because Duluth is a reverse oasis in a place known for its natural beauty, good health outcomes, relatively low crime and high standard of living. Like the more prosperous areas of Minnesota, Duluth is strikingly white. Look deeper than skin and you’ll find Duluth is a struggling post-manufacturing cipher with the highest drug overdose rate in the state. U.S. Steel closed its gigantic Morgan Park plant in 1981, causing a slow cascade of desolation that stilled the concrete and hardboard plants and emptied out the grain elevators.

I wonder if Ms. Cox was time-warped to 1984 while on her visit. Duluth has certainly been to hell and back over the past few decades, and the opioid epidemic is real. I also understand how someone who drives in on I-35 from Minneapolis, winds past the paper mill and the port area, and stops only at Amsoil for a Trump rally before heading back south could come to this sort of conclusion. (Knock down some big retaining walls and put up a hill to block the view of downtown, and someone driving into Minneapolis from the west on I-94 would probably conclude the same thing.) An effort to attack these problems is no small part of why I chose to move back to Duluth and try to do some good. But, as I’ve noted elsewhere when discussing Decline Porn, Duluth is in many ways an exceptional Rust Belt city for the road it has traveled since the depths of the 80s. Some of this is probably just due to dumb luck and accidents of history, but it’s reality.

A few other blown details: as far as steel mills go, the Morgan Park operation was not large. Grain shipping trends have approximately nothing to do with the loss of the steel plant, and the regional wood products industry does only insofar as it fits into a concurrent rush of deindustrialization. Correlation is not causation.

Today, the small city of 80,000 scrapes by on tourism and as a port. There’s a paper plant that has been on the verge of closing for 10 years. Duluth has a poverty rate (21 percent) that would rank it among the most desperate counties in West Virginia and per capita income just below that of Wheeling.

This is a great example of bad use of statistics. Minneapolis (where Ms. Cox lives) and St. Paul both have poverty rates that are a tiny bit higher than Duluth. Other semi-comparable regional centers such as Mankato and St. Cloud have even higher poverty rates. If one knows anything about how urban development works, this is not a remotely surprising statistic, and comparing cities (instead of, say, metro areas) is pretty disingenuous. This is perhaps even more true for income statistics, which, if viewed in proper context, will show that Duluth is perhaps slightly below the average for other small Midwestern regional centers, nestling just below much faster-growing places like St. Cloud and Fargo, but hardly destitute.

Oh, crap. With this next paragraph, we have to go sentence by sentence.

Lake Superior’s merciless beauty crashes up against a town whose shoreside skyline is dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics and precarious-seeming industrial shipping contraptions, rusty and mostly silent.

This amateur architecture student is very curious to learn where these examples of brutalist architecture are in Duluth. The Holiday Center, there’s one, sure. A few buildings on the UMD campus? Maybe the Radisson, though I’d say that’s more modernist inflected. The vast majority of the buildings in downtown and along the waterfront long predate brutalism as an architectural trend, and our handful of later-stage office buildings are fairly tame. Otherwise, yeah, grain elevators do in fact look like grain elevators. Ore docks are ore docks no matter where they are, and Duluth’s are pretty busy these days, with the exception of the one that’s under consideration for some pretty fun ideas.

But, if you want a catchphrase for how liberal America has completely lost any sense of what people in the working class actually do with their lives, “industrial shipping contraptions” does a pretty good job of capturing it. How lazy can you get?

Downtown, every surface is covered with a thin layer of grime.

Every day when I walk out of my office downtown, I brush off a layer of grime off of myself and wonder why I live here.

It is, in other words, potential Trump Country.

This is already a revision on Ms. Cox’s behalf: she added the word “potential” after a few people pointed out that Duluth went 2-to-1 for Clinton in 2016. However, even the revised version is bizarre and difficult to defend. Census estimates show Duluth has grown somewhat more diverse and somewhat younger in recent years, neither of which would predict a drift toward Trumpism. If anything, city politics have taken a noticeable left turn over the past few years. What exactly about this city makes it potential Trump country, then? The simple fact of whiteness? The fact that it has some things in common with other cities in other states that broke for Trump?

But, if you bother to look closely, places like Flint and Youngstown and Scranton remain strikingly blue on election maps. Rust Belt cities themselves did not carry Trump to victory in Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania. The suburbs to which some of their former residents fled, on the other hand, are a different story, and deeply rural areas another story still. Duluth has not experienced much suburbanization (see the decline porn piece linked to above), so that’s perhaps of interest; maybe there’s a good article that could be written about Hermantown, the suburban home of the Republican candidate in this year’s eighth congressional district race. Or maybe not; I believe Hermantown still went for Clinton by a pretty solid margin. But that might, at least, be worth exploring. Instead, we get a lazy narrative that is also flat-out wrong pretty much everywhere.

“I can’t believe he’s here in DULUTH,” one woman at the rally told me. When I asked another if she’d been to any other rallies, she thought for a moment and said, “Reagan. When I was little.” Another gentleman told me he’d seen Bush.

Um, okay. Why are these people’s past presidential sightings relevant?

Unlike other parts of official Trump Country, Duluth hasn’t received the disproportionate attention that comes with strategic electoral or even symbolic import.

Does this mean we’re a part of “Official Trump country?” Woohoo! That said, Minnesota’s eighth congressional district has gotten a fair amount of play in national media for its role as a swing district. The parties sure noticed too, given that it was the most expensive congressional race in the country in 2016. Its result also bucked the narrative Ms. Cox is trying to write, at least temporarily.

There haven’t been any deep dives into the local psyche by national reporters and it is far afield of any normal campaign trail.

As Mayor Larson noted, the Fallowses with CBS and Outside magazine have weighed in on the local psyche. I’m not saying they’re dead-on, but the claim as made here is untrue. Maybe there haven’t been any political exposés because…Duluth’s politics are pretty much unchanged? And because, only now that Trump has brought it to their attention, the national media is starting to recognize that Minnesota has a serious chance to flip to the GOP column in 2020? (I don’t totally blame the media for that; Clinton’s narrow escape here in 2016 wasn’t exactly the headline on election night.)

The next few paragraphs aren’t really about Duluth, so they don’t get my hackles up. Instead, they are standard fare of liberal reporting in the Trump era, in which our brave correspondent ventures in among the unwashed Trump masses to report back to the liberal denizens of metropolitan areas who are safe from contact with such mysterious people. Nothing we haven’t heard or seen before, but certainly not horrible journalism by any stretch. Moving on:

[The crowd] knew their [sic] lines: “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”and “CNN sucks!” all rang out at the appropriate cues. When Trump indicated a pause for laughter – it’s hard to describe anything he says as a “joke” – they delivered the syllables with disciplined crispness, like we were on the set of a studio in Burbank and not in a musty arena named for a small-time lubricant manufacturer. Then again, there’s the Amsoil slogan: “First in synthetics.” 

A moment ago, Ms. Cox said the attendees “weren’t even especially practiced Trump supporters.” Now they are well-trained actors. Which is it?

Also, Amsoil Arena opened in 2011, and has typically been lauded as one of the nicer college hockey arenas in the country. (If we’re really measuring, these people even call it #1; I can’t attest to many out east, but I’d agree it’s equal to or better than most of the other Midwestern ones that inhabit the top of the list.) Amsoil pays homage to Duluth’s industrial past through an intentionally industrial feel with the exposed concrete blocks, but any mustiness is an awfully new development.

And Amsoil the company, for what it’s worth, is doing well, and provides over 300 fairly good jobs to people in the Duluth area. It’s the sort of enterprise we should celebrate if we want to see small cities succeed. But of course if Trump sets foot in an arena it sponsors, it’s important that a national audience’s exposure to it come through a quick potshot.

By the time Trump reached the end of his speech, it felt familiar even if you hadn’t heard it before. The phrases had the too-neat, predictable parallelism of a jingle: “We will never give in, we will never give up … we will never stop fighting for our flag, or our freedom. We are one people, and one family, and one nation under God.” The last lines were chanted out in half-unison, half-hum, the way you might mumble-vamp through the verse of “Sweet Caroline” only to land with ecstasy at the chorus: “We will make America safe AGAIN! We will make America strong AGAIN! We will make America GREAT AGAIN!”

That’s the way the end of democracy sounds, I think: People so eager to join a chant they do it before they know all the words.

I award a few points for poignancy here, though the actual words quoted sound like something any president ever has always said when firing up a crowd at the end of a speech.

There is a domestic violence center in the shadow of the Amsoil arena. When I stopped in on the afternoon of the rally, a mildly harried woman manning the desk behind the bulletproof glass did not need to tell me they were busy. A string of women were buzzed in and out the security doors in the 15 minutes I visited. Someone was picking up a set of dishes. Another wanted to know about the free dental clinic. Someone asked if her advocate was in – she needed to know if the restraining order had come through. The woman who worked there told me the beds at the center were always full and they get 12-to-14 referrals a night. 

This seemed impossibly high for such a town not much bigger than the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington, but I checked the city’s crime statistics – an imperfect measure, since referrals don’t necessarily come from the police or involve an arrest. But still: In 2016 in Duluth, there were over 900 arrests for what Minnesota terms “violence against families/children.” There were 84 such arrests in Bloomington.

I asked the woman at the center what she thought of the scene at the border. Did she think it was fair to be paying so much attention to that, given what she was dealing with? Did she think what Trump was doing to those families was abuse? 

She looked at me gravely: “Trauma is trauma.”

Ms. Cox also made a correction to this part of the piece to fix another earlier error. But aside from how pedantic we could be about “being in the shadow” of an arena that is across a several parking lots, a freeway, and most of downtown from the location described, this is actually the hint of a good article. The facts about domestic violence are jarring and real, and she gives a bit of nuance to her crime statistics, though they are still crappy. (Don’t compare suburbs to central cities, please.) Juxtaposing a festive political rally with nearby trauma can be compelling. Weighing concern for people thousands of miles away against forgotten people just down the street is an interesting philosophical question. There are the makings of a very good piece here.

Unfortunately, that good piece is not the one Ms. Cox wrote. Instead, it is a cheap shot at a city that gets so much of its context so fundamentally wrong that no number of little edits here and there could possibly rescue it. It is exactly the sort of thing that a Trump supporter can hold up to show how out of touch those Metro Elites are from the places they breeze through and attempt to describe. I doubt Ms. Cox intended to do that, but the fact that it came off this way just shows how out of touch she was when she wrote it. It is emblematic of many of this country’s divides, and only reinforces them.  It is a shame it was published.

If Ms. Cox ever returns to Duluth, I’d be happy to give her a tour that includes equal parts decline porn and rebirth, and all of the murky ground in between. I hope that, then, she could write something more attuned to reality. In the meantime, I’m going to head out on to my porch and have a beer on a perfectly air-conditioned Duluth evening, and maybe wander down to the lake while I’m at it.

After I wipe the grime off my chair, of course.

Of Fruits and of Dust

20 Jun

A lot of people’s minds in Duluth will be on a visit from the President today. Given the current political climate, I get that. Mine, however, will be elsewhere.

When I was eight years old, my parents had a second son. He was born on this day in 1998. He died three months after his birth. The cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—SIDS—which is a fancy way of saying that all the power of modern medicine hadn’t the slightest clue what went wrong.

I’ve written posts to mark this day every year since I started this blog, and a careful reader will find veiled references to him scattered elsewhere, too. Still, I write this post with some reservation. It’s not a story I share often; I don’t like to be maudlin or dwell too much, nor do I enjoy woe-is-me tales or to seek over-emphasize my sufferings, which, on the whole, are few compared to most people on this earth. But my own story is impossible to understand without his story, and so much of me, from guarded opinions to fatalistic tendencies to a belief in brotherhood and community as my highest ideal, stems from him.

Eight years old is old enough to bear witness to everything that happens, but not really to process grief in a mature way. My coping methods were myriad, from distracting myself with baseball to a restless search for a deity that could make sense of things for me. They sometimes brought momentary peace, but never closure. It took me maybe fifteen years to get over certain triggers of bitterness such as questions over what it’s like to be an only child or even just answering the “do you have any siblings” question. Trauma steeled me, and because it forced me to confront terrible questions head-on, I can perhaps only be truly, intimately comfortable around those who also confront them, in one way or another. Commitment hasn’t come easily because I only commit myself to people or things that can live up to this ideal.

The outpouring of support that followed my brother’s death was overwhelming, and is no small reason why I became such a loyal Duluthian. (Hence my decision to quote this line on this day four years ago.) There are a few stray plaques and markers around Duluth that bear his name, or note donations made in his honor. If you’ve ever seen me in a suit, there’s half a chance I was wearing a lapel pin gifted to me by then-mayor Gary Doty at the funeral, or at least had it tucked away in a pocket, ready at hand. I went back to school the day he died because that was the place I felt most comfortable, and my loyalty to my various alma maters probably has some roots in the unwavering support I found that day.

I remember the events surrounding his death as if they were yesterday, but retain only a few details of his life: the delivery room in St. Luke’s, overlooking his crib with the tune of a musical cow toy tinkling away, meeting him and my mom at a state park up the Shore after my dad took me on my first backpacking trip that summer. And since, there have been vivid glimpses of what could have been, if only in my mind: a hazy summer day atop Blue Mound in Wisconsin, a moment of solitude in Zion, standing at the start line of the half marathon in Duluth. (My brother was born the day of the marathon, and in a spurt of serendipity, the last name of the winner of the race that day was the same as his first). The day that would have been his Duluth East graduation day, and the stray dream here and there. At this point, it all feels like dreams; some conscious, some less so.

My mother and I will spend the evening far from any political happenings in downtown Duluth. This is no retreat, though. A life in the world is built on these ties, in what it means to love people or a place or overcome those moments when all hope or reason seems gone from the world. Without them, we have little to build from, and nothing to pass on.

I close with an Octavio Paz poem, as his words have so often seemed fitting for this day.

“The Simple Life”

Call bread bread and that it appear

on the tablecloth each day;

give to the sweat what it wants and to the dream

and the brief heaven and hell

and the body each minute what they ask for;

smile like the sea smiles, the wind smiles,

without laughter sounding like broken glass;

drink and in drunkenness seize life,

dance the dance without losing a step,

touch the hand of a stranger

on a day of hardness and agony

and that that hand have the firmness

that that of a friend never had;

try solitude without the vinegar

that makes my mouth contort, nor repeat

my grimaces in the mirror, nor the silence

that bristles with teeth that grate:

these four walls – paper, plaster,

thin carpet and yellowing bulb?

are still not the promised hell;

may not that desire hurt me more,

frozen by fear, a cold wound

burned by lips unkissed:

clear water never pauses

and there is fruit that falls once ripe;

know to break the bread and share it,

the bread is a truth common to all of us,

the bread sustains us all,

through its leavening I am a man,

a neighbor among neighbors;

fight for the life of the living,

give life to the living, to life,

And bury the dead and forgotten

as the earth forgets them: in fruit …

and at the moment of my death may I reach

death like men and that to me come

forgiveness and the everlasting life of dust,

of fruits, and of dust.

Good Journalism, 6/10/18

10 Jun

Here is a seeming resumption of the weekly series of interesting articles that was rudely interrupted by my vacation a month ago and never recovered. There are only two this week, but they deserve to be read.

When it comes to writing grand summations of the failures of recent history, no one does it better than George Packer. The New Yorker writer pumped out the definitive books on the Iraq War (Assassins’ Gate) and the Great Recession (The Unwinding), and his not-frequent-enough articles in the magazine never disappoint, either. He’s back this week with a review of  a memoir by Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s longtime speechwriter and confidante.

When it comes to cataloging the failures of liberal dreams, no one does it as poignantly as Packer does. Rhodes provides the perfect set of eyes for the Obama Era: young, raw, optimistic, and a true believer. He believes his words are guiding the arc of history, even more so than Obama, who usually had a fairly good grasp of his limits, even when surrounded by worshipful choirs. (There is also a call-out to Anthony Bourdain as an inspiration for the Obama Era worldview, which comes across as eerie given Bourdain’s suicide within a week of the publication of this piece.) This makes it all the more jarring when an idealistic foreign policy settles into a “don’t do stupid shit” realpolitik, and when transcendent messaging about a united nation succumbs to the reality of calculating opponents both in Congress and abroad. Hence the title of the book: The World as it Is. It’s the Trump Era liberal’s lament of innocence lost.

If our hypothetical jaded young liberal decided to get all existential as he tried to figure out where the world is going, he might wander off into Nietzsche, who, according to Ian Marcus Corbin, is “fundamentally concerned with how we will thrive in a post-theistic universe, one that emphatically does not care for us, was not made for us, offers icy silence in response to our pleas for solace and succor.” (He’s in a pretty dark place, you see.) Nietzsche is no liberal, and in an essay in the Weekly Standard, Corbin rightfully skewers a recent book that acknowledges this threat to the liberal order, but does little to explore why people would find it attractive, thereby committing much the same error that Rhodes and Obama did. Corbin and I come from very different background, but I suspect we wind up in more or less the same place. Nietzsche offers a valuable critique, though he, too, is incomplete, and paths forward may be both obvious and maddeningly hard, even for committed believers. But we just have to keep chipping away.

A History of Duluth?

7 Jun

A friend who recently moved to Duluth for a job in Superior posed a question to me upon her arrival: how did Duluth become Duluth and Superior become Superior, so to speak? I looked through some of the Duluth history books I have sitting around, browsed the shelves at the Zenith Bookstore, and reached out to my inside source at the Duluth Public Library’s reference department (aka my mother). I didn’t really find a satisfying answer, other than a throwaway line somewhere suggesting that the digging of the Duluth ship canal sealed the two towns’ fates. I could also speculate about the role of iron ore wealth, which came down from points north in Minnesota and had little need to cross the bay. But my friend’s question, and my inability to answer it, left me pondering another thought: where can we find a true, full history of Duluth? Because I think someone needs to write it.

Any such effort would stand on the shoulders of people who have already done a lot of good work. Thanks to people like Tony Dierckins and Maryanne Norton, we have a wealth of resources on historical Duluth details such as historical and lost buildings, and a decent account of the founding and growth of many of the city’s neighborhoods. Their book Lost Duluth does a good job of capturing Duluth’s early days and the first half of the twentieth century, though most of the things highlighted in the book are, well, lost, and by definition not part of its current urban fabric. Others have also tracked the city’s rich architectural resources, and its park system justifiably gets some good ink, too. This city is pretty photogenic, so there are some good contributions in more of a coffee table book format. We can also find books on some prominent Duluthians such as the Congdons, and the Zenith City Online people have once again done a good job collecting scattered stories here and there of prominent Duluthians and other fond tales associated with the city. Perfect Duluth Day reliably spits out some interesting tidbits; there’s clearly no shortage of people dabbling in Duluth history.

But, as someone who often writes and thinks in grand, sweeping narratives, I think there’s a gap for someone to write a true history of Duluth. I don’t really mean a definitive history—can there be any such thing?—but I would love to see an effort to weave together some of these disparate stories and colorful characters into a trajectory, something along the lines of Tony Judt’s Postwar or even The Power Broker, which is almost as much a history of New York as it is a biography of Robert Moses. The thing doesn’t need to be a thousand pages long, but it does need to make a bold effort to capture the totality of history, even as it humbly admits the impossibility of its task.

Such a history would not only need to say a lot about the past, but also feed into the present day, and even give some hints as to the future. A lot of the existing historical perspectives on Duluth end sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, perhaps only with some passing references to declining industry and a handful of urban renewal projects (Gateway, I-35 extension, Canal Park) thereafter. I recognize that some of this is because the late 20th century is still pretty recent history in the grand scheme of things; good historians usually let the dust settle some before passing too much judgment. Duluth’s economic fate over that time frame coupled with a fairly bleak architectural era leaves us with relatively little to commemorate fondly from the 60s to the 80s. As someone who carefully avoided the 1980s, however, I think the time is ripe for a history that gets us members of younger generations up to the point where we appeared on the scene. Where are the definitive accounts of Duluth-style suburbanization, of Jeno Paulucci and John Fedo, and of the lurching changes in an industrial economy?

I’ve gestured in this direction with a long, data-driven post on this blog detailing some changes since 1970, and have followed up on that some, too. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, and well-used data is only ever a piece of evidence to support some broader framing. In addition to the focus on the past half century, a good history would tell Duluth’s stories both through its prominent figures and its lesser-known characters, and explain how it fits in with its surrounding communities and greater region. That way we can answer my friend’s Superior question, explore the intricate dance between Duluth and the Iron Range, and figure out what it means to be a small city on a Great Lake in the North Star State.

So, yes, I could see myself getting suckered into some sort of project here—though certainly not one I would undertake alone. Don’t expect anything overnight, or a diversion from some of my other projects. But the wheels are turning here. If you have any thoughts, or if I am blissfully unaware of someone else who is already moving in this direction, feel free to reach out.

Crossing to Safety

3 Jun

One year after a return trip to Georgetown for a reunion, a couple of excerpts from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety:

Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn’t expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else—a pathway to the stars, maybe.

*   *   *

Once, at a Cambridge dinner party, I had an imaginary debate with the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who was holding forth on upward mobility. He called it “vertical peristalsis in society.” Obviously he liked the phrase; he thought he had invented something pretty good.

Since he had been born nameless in a nameless Russian village and had risen to become a member of the Council of the Russian Republic and secretary to Prime Minister Kerensky, I granted that he knew more about upward mobility than I did. I had only my own limited experience to generalize from, and three martinis to make me skeptical of other evidence. But I didn’t like his metaphor, and muttered to the lady on my left that social scientists should stick to semantically aseptic language, and leave metaphor to people who understood it.

Peristalsis, I informed this lady or someone else, consists of rhythmic contractions in a tube, such as the gut, that force matter in the tube to move along. In Sorokin’s trope, society was the tube and the individual the matter to be moved, and the tube did the work of moving him. I thought the individual had something to do with moving himself, not necessarily rhythmically.

And why that word “vertical”? Man being an upright animal, at least in his posture, any peristalsis he had going was bound to be vertical, unless we conceived him to be lying down, which there was no reason to do.

Finally, I had the impression that normal peristalsis worked downward, not upward. Upward peristalsis was reverse peristalsis, whose name was emesis. Did Professor Sorokin mean to suggest that he had been vomited up into revolutionary prominence, and later into an international reputation and a distinguished position on the Harvard faculty? Probably he didn’t. But there was no way out of his metaphorical difficulty. He couldn’t extricate himself by reversing directions and accepting the normal alimentary flow, for that not only ruined his upward metaphor but left him looking even worse than if he had been vomited up.

Professor Sorokin never figured in my life. I had never seen him before that night and I never saw him afterward; and our argument never took place except in my head and out of the corner of my mouth. But we had just returned from a Guggenheim in Italy, and in Italy I had discovered, rather to my surprise, that I had myself been ferociously upward-mobile since my first day in school. In reducing my strenuous life to a social inevitability, and giving it that taint of routine communal digestion, Sorokin had insulted me where I lived.

Until Italy, I had been too busy to notice what I was. I was learning, and interested in the learning. Or I was diving into a hole and pulling the hole in after me. Or I was simply trying to survive. But even in our most oppressed times, I was a cork held under, and my impulse was always up.

According to Aunt Emily’s theories, I should probably have been led to walk in my father’s footsteps. I loved him, we got along, I worked off and on in the shop. There was no reason why I should not succeed him as proprietor and make a life out of transmissions, brake bands, ring jobs, lube jobs, yard chores, neighborhood barbecues, baseball, and beer. But I had no intention, ever, of doing that. It wasn’t snobbishness. I was never ashamed of him. Nothing in dusty Albuquerque led me to envious comparisons. I just expected more than Albuquerque offered. I took it for granted. And everybody important to me—my parents, my teachers, my professors in college, Sally when we met in Berkeley, and for that matter the Langs when we met in Madison—made the same assumption. I was headed somewhere.

Without knowing what I was after, I pursued it with the blind singlemindedness of a sperm hunting its target egg—now there is a metaphor I will accept. For a long time it was dark, and all I could do was swim for my life. Union and consummation finally took place in the fourth-floor front room of the Pensione Vespucci, an old palazzo on the Lugarno a little below the American consulate in Florence. There, one September morning, it hit me that things were altogether other than what they had been for a long time. Wherever it was that we were going, we had arrived, or at least come into the clear road.

*   *   *

Time to find the clear road.