Archive | October, 2018

Interesting Journalism, 10/18/18

18 Oct

This blog has been a bit quiet lately. I intend to rectify that with the culmination of a large project in the not-so-distant future, but in the meantime, here’s another smattering of interesting news for your enjoyment.

First, to get the political hot take out of the way, here’s Masha Gessen from the New Yorker on why it’s probably not a good idea to run DNA tests on oneself to try to prove a political point. Much as I hate to start discussing 2020 when we’re only weeks away from the 2018 elections, it’s the sort of unforced error that leads one to have serious questions about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy from the start. Reactions to Warren’s decision are almost uniformly negative, but Gessen does a better job than most at getting at some of the underlying reasons why.

Next, to get meta, here’s Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic criticizing lazy journalism, which in this case involves a review of a recent book called The Coddling of the American Mind. It’s an excellent explanation of why the critique (in this case, a Guardian author fails to do anything to question the underlying premises of the book, and instead ascribes ideologically-driven motives, almost always in vague and indirect ways, to the authors. It may be great, it may be bad, but at least please address the arguments in the actual book.

For amusement with a touch of poignancy, Rod Dreher writes a requiem for Sears, the now-bankrupt store that one had a ubiquitous presence in American life. Sears self-consciously defined middle class American shopping habits, and its death is symbolic of more than just the rise of Walmart or Amazon or leveraged buyouts.

Finally, a piece that is a few years old but got a plug in this week’s newsletter from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center: an interview between the center’s director, Roger Berkowitz, and journalist Anand Giridhardas. Here, the two discuss Giridhardas’s book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, which follows the lives of two men chasing some of American life in the shadow of 9/11. The sociology through Olive Garden practiced by one of the two is fascinating; the book, if it is anything like the interview, is journalism at its best. Incidentally, I’m on a library waitlist for Giridhardas’s latest book, in which some of my collegiate pursuits get a brief mention. Stay tuned for that review.

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Elite Consciousness

6 Oct

Since Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh emerged, I’ve had a couple of people ask me two related questions: did I know anyone who went to Georgetown Prep when I was in DC, and did the accounts of hyper-privilege and drunken sexual antics seem believable? The answers to those questions are ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’ but I’m not going to wade far into that debate that has been hashed out so thoroughly elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to highlight Ross Douthat’s Wednesday column, which is customarily on-point in its take on the different flavors of East Coast elite. The Kavanaugh affair is in part the product of power dynamics within a rarefied world of classes and sub-classes, and one that I’ve at least passed through in my life, playing Nick Carraway to the Gatsbys and Daisies and Toms around me.

I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the column. Douthat is right to note that the upper middle class strivers (of which there are many more than there are trust fund bluebloods) looking to raise their status are often far more showy in those efforts than those who already know they are on top. I also found that many of the members of these elite classes perfectly pleasant individuals to talk to one-on-one, even as their broader social circles remained difficult to penetrate. Douthat also nails the irrelevance of distinctions between nerds and strivers and the well-heeled, since everyone who goes to an elite college is basically all of these things, with the partial exception of the last one. We attendees of so-called elite colleges are the people who want to be all of the things at once, and whatever else we may say about it, American elite culture does seem to allow for this better than many less prestigious institutions. But, humans being humans, barriers and cliques inevitably arise or are bestowed by certain facts of personal history, and all of these distinctions silently emerge.

They emerge, but they don’t necessarily last: Douthat’s keenest observation is how so many people come to adopt much of the elite preppy culture, whether they realize it or not. I see myself here. While I didn’t come from poverty or a point of extreme naïveté, the world I came from was certifiably not something akin to an East Coast prep school. I spent my freshman year heaping scorn on the Vineyard Vines wardrobes that proliferated, and yet now I confess to owning a pair of boat shoes and multiple pink button-downs. (I have managed to resist the salmon shorts to date.) While I drank across all four of my college years, my partying habits also evolved from cautious remove to unabashed participation in many of the more traditional alcohol-fueled college festivities over time. Unlike a certain Supreme Court nominee, I will not try to pretend that I did not get very, very drunk on a semi-regular basis, and I hope many of my college-era friends are comfortable enough with who they were to admit that, too.

For that matter, I don’t regret those days at all. My move into that world was, on the whole, a force for good in my life. If I ever had an “I’ve made it” moment at Georgetown, it was never really academic, where I was comfortable from the beginning aside from some predictable mild college adjustments. Nor was it in my education in DC political culture; that had its fits and starts, but in retrospect I’m proud of College Me for how I handled most of that. It was instead social, and crystallized when I found myself participating in some good-natured heckling in a bathroom line in one of the senior Disorientation parties in the dining hall. (Yes, college students get drunk everywhere, but the Georgetown’s direct sponsorship of events like this separated it from the blind eye turned by, say, a major public school.) Even in an intoxicated state, I realized that I was suddenly one with the crowd, and probably had been for some time.

Alcohol played a major role in eroding class barriers on the East Coast. We all partied together, gave each other shit for it, and bounced back from any mildly stupid escapades. I am more confident, better-adjusted, and more able to take down barriers because I lived that way for a little while. We came from all over, but we could all slam shots at The Tombs, and whatever ridiculous antics that followed could build bridges and give us common ground, leading us to discover commonalities I never expected. Friendships require more than shared boozing, of course, but the way that lifestyle took down uptight kids’ inhibitions had value beyond basic lubrication.

This is not to say that this culture does not have its glaring dark sides. First and foremost comes the paradox of the necessary hard limits on acceptable sexual conduct while using substances that blur one’s sense of limits. The intersection of alcoholic self-medication, sexual uncertainties, and ambition to prove oneself will probably always run the risk of proving a toxic brew, and I do not have a good answer on how to prevent that beyond the standard demands for consent and a sense of common decency. I also watched alcoholism nearly wreck one good college friend, and had to reckon with how my own enjoyment of those reckless nights enabled his routine descent into a stupor because I was capable of stopping while he was not. (That friend, thankfully, has been sober for years now.) But this should not distract us from the fact that any prohibitions here are probably doomed to fail, and the vast majority of young men who participate in these activities never become alcoholics or commit sexual assault.

I’ve written a lot about the power of preppy East Coast culture on here, from the blurriness of American class lines (especially among the naïve members of the upper middle class) to the perceived failures of our meritocracy to the merits of a so-called elite education. For that matter, a piece of fiction I wrote earlier this year toyed with basically all of these themes and more. I’m not sure the writing in that story is as good as some of the others in this series; it’s certainly the most autobiographical, which can be both a help and a hindrance in fiction. Evan, a visitor to Yale from Minnesota, is a stand-in for me in my early Georgetown years in his stumbling efforts to make sense of his new class consciousness. But after that culture became a part of my own biography, I can now claim some moments where I am more the Mark character in this story, the one who delights in his rarefied world to its fullest extent.

My time at Georgetown, and particularly those times spent in a boozy blur, allowed me to blur between a modest Midwestern childhood and the halls of American power. Over time, it made me sympathetic to people I once resented, and at times still resent. As fun as it is to trash distant powerful people at times, I don’t think an elite class, however defined, is inherently any less moral or capable than any other group of people. Its flaws are simply magnified, given its proximity to power and notoriety. The transgressions of members of that class are far more likely to have consequences that reach beyond their own little circles. It is possible both to have empathy for and recognize the humanity of the people making their way here and at the same time demand higher standards for their conduct.

As generations reared on social media move into the public eye, it will become increasingly harder to hide any youthful transgressions. It therefore becomes essential to find ways to distinguish between juvenile yearbook comments and the facts of the case of an alleged crime. The early returns, with hysterical media coverage even from the few sources of journalism I trust and the histrionics in Senate hearings, are not good. The failings that enabled this crisis have innumerable root causes, but so many of them come from narrowness, from a young Brett Kavanaugh’s worldview to the blatantly political motivations of Republicans and Democrats.

That means pampered prep school kids need to get out and see a bit more of the world, yes; residing only in a narrow world of privilege does up the odds of thinking one can get away with things that everyone else cannot. I saw that firsthand. But it also means that the denizens of the upper middle class need to recognize the power they wield relative to the vast majority of the nation. While perhaps less directly problematic, this lack of perspective is widespread and damaging. And while I’d assign more responsibility for this sort of outreach to people with greater means to achieve it, those nowhere near elite circles should also do what they can to understand everyone else. No one gets off for free.

My own goal, perhaps inadequate but within my control, is to at once understand my place within a class hierarchy and how that feeds into the power dynamics around me, and at the same time recognize that this class-driven lens does not define anyone. We need more ways to look at the world. Maybe that starts with some drinks in a dorm room; maybe it comes up in any number of other improbable ways. The Mark character in my story is privileged by any definition, and sometimes very much plays the part. But he is self-aware enough to know it, and struggles against his worst instincts in search of something else. That, for now, is all I will ask for.

Thirteen Hours at O’Hare

2 Oct

I traveled to Chicago this past weekend to see family at a couple of functions, including a Cubs game that swiftly turned into a second Cubs game when the end of the regular season forced a one-game divisional playoff conveniently timed before my flight back to Duluth on Monday. After the Cubs lost that game to the Brewers, a cousin and I had a text exchange in which he wondered if I might somehow befall some weather that would leave me in Chicago through the next night yet another Cubs game, their one-game Wild Card showdown with the Colorado Rockies. Alas, the forecast looked pretty good. “Shame,” he replied. In retrospect, I should have just bought a ticket.

Monday evening begins innocently enough. The sun comes out by the end of the ballgame, and while a few raindrops fall on me on my walk from dinner to the Blue Line, nothing seems ominous. I get to O’Hare with an hour to go until my flight, fly through security, and board the plane sure I’ll be home by 11:00, a perfectly reasonable hour. Even when parked out on the tarmac due to some incoming weather, no one seems to suspect a long delay. How wrong we are.

This isn’t a total horror story. If I’m going to spend three hours next to someone on a stationary plane, it might as well be Eje Johansson, a longtime Swedish hockey player, NHL scout, and coach who forged a friendship with Duluth’s Tom Wheeler, and sent his kid to play for a year at Duluth East in the 80s. He tells me stories of his hockey travels across Europe and the United States for most of the delay. But after a few hours even that gets old, and we resort to gazing out at the lightning that continues to flicker over us. A bit after 11:00, the pilot announces we must conform to FAA regulations that prevent planes from sitting on tarmacs for more than three hours. We head back to the gate, and shortly after most of the plane’s passengers disembark around midnight, the gate agent announces that the flight won’t go until 8:00 the next morning.

The United customer service line provides an effective method to kill the first of my eight hours of unexpected layover. My fellow sufferers and I wait beneath Concourse B’s watchful Brachiosaurus skeleton, and wonder whether we will become skeletons before we get to the counter. At one point a United employee comes out and yells some just-inaudible details, after which some people walk away with pink vouchers never to return, but other people swiftly latch on to her, and she cannot escape to make her announcement again. The Asian college-aged kid on my flight gloms on to me and asks me a lot of questions that I cannot answer. A guy who probably works for Epic comes up and asks if anyone else in line can chip in $50 on a $200 Lyft to Madison, and another guy who probably works for Epic immediately volunteers. Never has Madison sounded so alluring.

When I do finally get to the service counter, an upbeat yet thoroughly blasé man gives me my options: call a mystery number to get a discount for a hotel room for a few hours, or accept United’s care package of a blanket and a water bottle filled with toiletry fun. I shake off the temptation to stick around for the Wild Card game, take the latter option, and resign myself to a night in O’Hare. Someone comes down the line and gives me a $10 meal voucher in the name of Ruthanna Seidel. Between now and 4:00, though, the only options in all of O’Hare are a Starbucks and a McDonalds. My kingdom for a bar, however overpriced and mediocre it might be. Rumors flit up and down the line of cots available somewhere, but no one says anything of such luxuries to me. I am resigned to my fate.

I wander Concourse B in search of a passable place to sit beneath my blanket and achieve something approximating comfort. This is hard to do. Every waiting area by a gate has an obnoxious TV that still blathers away, and most chairs have arms, as if the designers of O’Hare were afraid that vagrants would wander in and start napping in the concourse. Eventually I find a bank of four chairs with outlets opposite a couple of bathrooms and a United Club, which is dark at this hour. I settle in to the steady drip of water down from the ceiling and into the scattered buckets along the concourse. American infrastructure at its finest. Every ten minutes, a warning orders us not to use unauthorized ground transportation options; only on much rarer occasions do we hear the lines about unattended bags and liquid regulations. Priorities, I suppose.

Around 2:30 a British man ambles up the concourse filming the emptiness. He stops before one of the buckets collecting dripping water and narrates as if it were a nature documentary. “There’s nobody here!” he says as he pans past me. “I’m not nobody!” I want to yell, but the circumstances would suggest otherwise. Narration aside, the concourse is devoid of any talk, with just a few lost souls meandering past from time to time. Repeat passersby include a lost-looking kid in a suit who goes for five cups of coffee, a Santa Claus lookalike in a sweater vest, and a man in cowboy boots and a blouse.

Even in the wee hours of the morning, though, there is steady activity on Concourse B at O’Hare. Most of the people in action are just invisible to many of the ticketholders. The maintenance work is unending, with steady processions of people cleaning floors or bathrooms or just driving small vehicles dangerously close to my feet. Over by gate B4, two men are painting the wall; around 2:00, a couple of women head into the United Club to restore it for the morning business crowd. A man wheels an overflowing bin of garbage bags up to the bathrooms across the way as they’re getting cleaned and demands the basura. Bring out your dead!

Shortly after 3:00 a man from the Madison flight joins me on my bank of chairs. We make brief small talk, but I am increasingly incapable of conversation. He nods off. I huddle beneath my blanket and pull out the laptop to start this account. Just before 4:00, there are some signs of life: new employees check into a locker room next to me, some restaurant prep work begins, and the United Club reveals that its cool-looking dark blue mood lighting is just the glass on the doors, and the interior is bland and tan. I feel somewhat less like a plebe. I’m halfway through my sojourn.

The worst moment of my ordeal comes when I finally start nodding off around 4:30. “Wake up!” some soulless, demon-possessed woman says as she walks by. I start to life and give her a look. Judging by her reaction and rush of apologies, my look has conveyed the desired combination of hurt, betrayal, and murderous rage. No acting is necessary, yet I embellish it with a little more anguish and a near-tears shake of my head. This earns me another cascade of apologies, which goes a very slight distance toward atonement for her mortal sin. I hope her flight got canceled and she was forced to take a Megabus to Omaha.

Now wide-awake, I spend the next half hour contemplating the human capacity for evil. The crowd slowly thickens with early-morning business travelers, and I’m left feeling like a disheveled wreck. I go sit on a toilet for a while, and have the revelation that this is the most comfortable I’ve been all night: it’s actually warm in here, I can recline against a wall instead of an advertising board, and I have privacy and quiet outside of the white noise of stall doors and toilet flushes. I’m not quite at the point where I want to spend three more hours in a bathroom stall, but it is tempting.

I wander the length of Concourse B in a lethargic daze. I reach one of the Starbucks outposts at the far end and make use of Ruthanna’s meal ticket, though its $10 value can’t even cover a yogurt parfait and a grande chai. I consume them with little fanfare in the seating area for a gate across the hall. Here, there are paired seats without bars between them that have allowed the vertically impaired to lay down to sleep, though the seats are coming apart at the seams. I conclude I wouldn’t have survived here anyway, as the incessant babble of inane cable news pours forth nonstop from the speakers. On my next circuit of the concourse, I carefully search to see if there are any seats off the main hallway that are not within earshot of such misery. There are none.

Communication with friends, family, and work colleagues who are now awake distracts me for the next hour. A lack of flight attendants leads the flight to depart the gate some 50 minutes later than scheduled, and we spend another half hour-plus taxiing about the airport and sitting in lines of planes waiting to take off. The flight itself is on the bumpy side, but mercifully short, and I manage to doze off for a chunk of it. Eje Johansson is excited to see that winter is on its way.

As I await my bag at the baggage claim in Duluth, I drop my new United water bottle. It shatters, and water spills all over the floor. This seems somehow fitting, though to United’s credit, the weather was beyond its control and all of the people I interacted with who tried to sort things out did their jobs as they should have, usually with a smile. Sure, there are annoyances with vouchers and lack of communication here and there, but no person can really take the blame for my thirteen hours of O’Hare hell. Except for that satanic woman who had the nerve to wake me up for no reason, of course. I hope her Megabus to Omaha broke down in Iowa, and she is stuck in some sorry motel tonight.

Few places remove identity quite like an airport: first we’re all cattle in the TSA lines, then we get herded on and off of planes. Airports are in some ways rigidly stratified, with pre-check lines and United Clubs and special boarding groups, yet a delay for one is a delay for all. Airports lack the grandeur and street life of a major train station, and just try (often falteringly) to move people around efficiently, with no care for comfort. They are places only in their role in moving people to other places. Up in the Air, the 2009 film that featured George Clooney as a placeless drifter who racks up obscene frequent flier miles as he travels the country firing people, had the diagnosis right.

Somehow, I still found some faltering Zen in that deadened early morning concourse. I write some reassuring words and reclaim air travel in my mind. The view from a window seat can still make my day after many years of flying, and the Duluth airport is the anti-O’Hare in its comfort and ease of use. Some of my more enjoyable travel experiences have come commiserating at an airport bar or in the interminable wait at the gate with fellow travelers. It might never have the romance of a train trip or the freedom of a road trip, but planes do make things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be, like my attendance at that division championship on Monday. Sometimes the journey is very much not the destination, but brings rewards nonetheless.

And I hope that motel in Iowa has fleas.