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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.

A Climb into Fog

25 Sep

I have a free weekend in late September, and autumn is upon northern Minnesota. It’s a bit early for fall colors, as the lakeshore remains a verdant green, but inland some pockets of red and orange have begun to emerge, and a good itinerary can pick out a few of them. Why not hike 29 miles? A jaunt on the Superior Hiking Trail is in order.

I’ve hiked somewhere close to half the SHT in countless day hikes and several-night backpacking excursions over the past twenty years. This, however, will be my first solo overnight hike on the SHT. It comes at a time when I need it. My hike offers a bookend to a summer that began with some solo travel in a tent, and another one of those necessary chances to cycle out of the day-to-day routine and take stock of my direction on a much longer hike.

My starting point is Sugarloaf Road, the first access point to the trail in Cook County. My dad, who chauffeured me from my car’s resting place to the start, joins for the first few miles, which roll along a ridgetop that offers occasional looks down to the lake. Come back in two weeks, and this stretch will be spectacular; now, we get occasional hints of lake. We pass a few groups working their way north, including a group of 60-something ladies on a jolly backpacking journey. The trail works its way down to the Caribou River, which dances through a gorge on its way down to the lake. My dad turns around at the bridge, and I turn inland from there.

I quicken my pace. It’s a perfect day for a hike: mid-50s and overcast but with no threat of rain. Nice and cool, nice and easy. Unless, of course, there is a massive, impossible-to-avoid mud patch that threatens to tear one’s foot out of one’s boot, which there is at the base of the climb up to Horseshoe Ridge. After my narrow escape, I kick some mud off my boot and shoot up the 700 feet to the ridgetop. To my left lies the Manitou River Valley, spackled here and there with clumps of red leave amid the green; behind me lies Lake Superior, with rivers of light glowing on the surface along the channels where the sun pierces through the clouds.

I lunch atop one of the telltale moss-covered knobs of George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park, a park with no modern facilities: just a slice of rugged inland wilderness set aside by an old mining magnate who lived a block away from my current Duluth home. I work my way around the full horseshoe of Horseshoe Ridge, with occasional dips down to unexpected ponds. The trees have more color back here, and at one point the trail seems to be the dividing line between lingering green and the red onrush of fall. At about the most remote point of the trail I’m hiking, I encounter another troupe of 60-plus ladies moving slowly but surely along the trail. Traffic picks up again as I start my short but steep descent to the Manitou, where I pass crew of college kids laboring more than the older ladies were. The rushing Manitou is a welcome sight, and I stop to snack a bit after crossing the bridge. Next it’s back up again, climbing up well-trafficked state park trails. A .6-mile road walk out of the park feels like bliss after endless rocks, roots, and hills.

After a brief clamber over Aspen Knob, the trail starts to drag, but in time I hit the east branch of the Baptism River, which brightens my day as it rushes down an array of rapids. I refill my water bottle from its crisp waters and enjoy a mile of delightful riverside walk. I’d initially dabbled with camping at the site at the confluence of the Baptism and Blesener Creek, which looks lovely. Foot traffic picks up again past the two campsites, as I pass an access trail from Sonju Lake Road. A herd of day hikers makes its way back from Sonju Lake, including a group leading a dozen dogs and a woman who has chosen to relieve herself right next to the trail. The trail keeps its distance from Sonju Lake, but a short spur leads out to Lilly’s Island, a small rocky spot with a trail log, which I sign.

I’ve gone sixteen miles now, and reached my planned campsite for the night. I’ve made good time, though, and with a more ominous forecast for tomorrow, I decide to push on another three miles to Egge Lake. Up, down to a beaver pond, up again, and a look down to Egge Lake below followed by a painfully long meander down from the ridge. The first campsite has a crowd, so I head on to check out the second one, which features much less flat space and a young couple that appears intent on solitude. Easy choice: I make my way back to the first campsite and settle in with my five companions. A Duluth man and his sixth-grade daughter are on their second of two nights here on Egge Lake, a quick weekend trip to give her a taste of backpacking with hammocks. Their new friends are party of three retirees from Des Moines who are working their way from Tettegouche to Temperance River over the course of six nights. We share our backstories and settle in with one another for the night.

I reload my water, set up my tent with an audience, and boil some water for my dinner of rehydrated pasta and potato soup. (We’ve all brought meals from the same brand.) The Iowans, all experienced marathoners, share tales of their adventures before they turn in around 7:00. The Duluth dad and daughter combo last longer, and they keep a fire going and sample some freeze-dried apple crisp; he’s a recent arrival in the Northland, and marvels with delight at the ease of escapes like this. He’s already plotting more, and with his wife and younger son as well. His trooper of a daughter starts to fade, so I head to my tent, where I write some delirious lines before I tug on my long underwear and settle in for a night in the 30s. Never before has a Thermarest felt so comfortable. Night brings a few distant wolf calls, and a single, apocalyptic clap of thunder that wakes us all; after that, it’s hard to tell if it’s raining steadily or if it’s just a brief shower followed by drips off of trees.

Sunday morning brings a nonstop gentle stream of spit from the sky, compounded by high winds that send periodic showers down from the boughs above. I crawl in under the Iowans’ tarp to heat up my tea, and we share a damp breakfast. I don’t waste much time taking down camp, and pause only to bid the Duluthians a farewell before following the Iowans out of the site. I turn south and adjust my poncho into something that will keep me more or less dry. The first few miles are a gentle downhill, which feeds a false sense of pleasantness quickly dispelled once I step out on to the gravel-turned-mud County Road 7 for a brief road walk in the wind-driven rain. It’s a relief to turn back into the woods, which here are lush, as I follow a dancing creek and cross the Baptism. I climb some hills amid the Finland Ski Area, and the hike starts to feel like a slog again.

I run into a person for the first time all day near the Leskinen Creek campsite, and inconveniently encounter the next group midway across a narrow boardwalk labeled Lady Slipper Area. (Sure enough, there is a lone, sad black lady slipper left amid the swamp.) I come upon a giant glacial erratic and settle in for a wet lunch; at least one of the neighboring rocks offers up a good seat. Shortly thereafter a man catches and passes me, and I follow often just in sight behind him for the next mile or two, including a boardwalk across the misty Sawmill Bog. Beyond the bog, the cliffs of Section 13 loom up before me. The end is near.

Climbing hills is often my favorite part of hiking, for reasons both metaphorical and owing to long legs that let me push up them faster than most. My choice to end my hike at Section 13 (so named for the section of Crystal Bay Township from which it rises) is no coincidence. I fly past my fellow hiker on the lower stages of the climb, and even have time to admire the beauty of this ravine I share with a creek on my way up. A sense of conquest builds as I come to the rocky domes of one of the SHT’s greatest overlooks. I push on through a little depression and past the clifftop campsite to the next large outcropping, where I pause to gaze out through the mists, with fall colors and a small lake wandering in and out of my sight. I can only see fragments, but that seems appropriate. Unwittingly, life starts to resemble a hint of fiction.

My left knee and right ankle gripe on the way down, but the allure of warmth is too great for any pain to slow me down. I come to my car, towel off, change into sweatpants, and blast the heat. The drive home is an hour of Lake Superior at its finest: monster waves and unbridled power, dramatic enough to entice some surfers out into promising swells at the mouth of the Split Rock River. I pause to reward myself with a stout at Castle Danger before I finish my trip down the scenic highway to Duluth.

Too often, I’ve struggled with re-entry after time on some distant trail. I lapse into useless boredom upon my return, or linger too long when new tasks call. My goal this time: avoid that lull. Keep climbing, even up into the fog. My life has its share of fog, but maybe I’m at my best in the fog, where I have to work to pick out the sights and summit peaks when others would stay home.

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)

Words and Phrases that I Hate

10 Sep

What follows is an incomplete list of phrases I dislike. There is no real rhyme or reason to them; some are things I’ve encountered in my school or work circles, while others are just things I’ve stumbled across here or there. I list them in rough order of hatred, beginning with the most repulsive and concluding with the merely annoying.

Resiliency. This is an awful word devised by someone who deserves to be expelled from the urban planning field. It is a word that says absolutely nothing that the perfectly good “resilience” does not in one less syllable. Even that is overused to the point of emptiness, but at least it doesn’t sound like an invented piece of jargon designed to make one sound intelligent. Which is exactly what it is.

Any scandal ending in “-gate.” This construction stopped being amusing circa 1974. Now it just shows your lack of creativity.

Outstate. This is a Minnesota phrase invented by Twin Cities people to refer to people who are not like them. It implies that people not in the Twin Cities are somehow out of the state, and plays into the conceit that Duluth, Worthington, Moorhead, Grand Marais, and Little Falls all share something other than the misfortune of not being the cool big city. Attempting to use it innocently with a resident of Greater Minnesota (an acceptable alternative) is a good way to lose any credibility you might have aspired to.

Impact when used as a verb. Sadly, most dictionaries have now allowed their standards to erode far enough to accept this flaccid business school concoction as a valid word. Sometimes having a living language has its drawbacks, and this is one of them, when an abstraction is invented to rob a verb of any helpful context. It must die.

Disrupt. Silicon Valley techno-speak at its worst. If you tell me your goal is to “disrupt” your industry, I will refuse to buy your product, even if your field could use some disrupting. Just stop.

Create synergy or synergize. More vacuous techno-jargon. What are you even trying to say?

Creative destruction. Since I’m on a roll, here’s another stupid tech phrase. Also, it doesn’t mean what its users think it means. It was invented by a Marxist to describe the affects of capitalism, and the context is far from positive.

The phrase “public school” or “private school” to refer to a plural concept, e.g. “I would never send my kids to public school.” I’ve seen this even in journalism from respectable sources. I don’t get it. Why? Is it that much more difficult to add an ‘s’ to make something plural like we do with, I don’t know, almost every other plural word or phrase in the English language, including the word “school” in any other context? I especially hate it because it somehow implies that all public or private schools are somehow the same, which anyone who has ever spent any time in more than each type of school can assure you they are not.

Literally. It’s literally become so overused that it’s literally no longer useful to show whether something is literal or not.

Utilize. Why use this clunky three-syllable word when the one-syllable “use” does the job? Probably because you’re trying to convey some sort of technical know-how. Unfortunately, you have failed, and have instead just earned my ire.

Leverage when used as a verb. This comes with an asterisk; it’s acceptable to use it when talking about, say, using a $1 investment into a project to leverage $25 in funding from other sources, or in the context of leveraged buyouts. But when it’s just a substitue for “use,” as in, “We marshaled all our resiliency and leveraged all our resources to disrupt Outstate education and utilized all our capacities for creative destruction to send our spawn to private school,” you probably should have used a different word. (I lost part of my soul writing that sentence. The things I do for this blog.)

Activate (a space). A word used by urban planners to make themselves sound disconnected from the people they are planning for. See also “tactical urbanism” and the somewhat more acceptable but still underwhelming “placemaking.” The general concept these words are trying to get at–doing creative things with a small urban space to encourage activity–is indeed a good thing, but frame the concept in a tautological manner that loses track of the fun necessary to make things work for normal people. It is self-aggrandizing and highlights the planner’s activity, not the activity itself.

Liveable. Another urban planning word whose sole purpose is to add fluff to introductory sections of official documents.

Any word ever used in deconstructionist theory. If you know what I’m talking about, you don’t need an explanation.

I’m not going to touch words that just sound unpleasant but are useful, such as “moist” or “slabs” or “flesh.” But the word “smegma” is worthy of a mention because it is so remarkably bad in so many ways. Look it up.

Cultural appropriation. This one may appear on the list due more to my dislike for the concept than for the phrase itself, but that’s a debate for another time.

The American people. A phrase used by politicians to make it sound like everyone agrees with them when, in fact, probably half the country doesn’t.

Neoliberal. Sticking with the political theme, a word that was once useful but has become so abused by people who are trying to sound intelligent that it has been stripped of all meaning.

A New Deal For ______. You know you’re a liberal who lacks creativity when…

Web site as two separate words, or Internet with a capital “i.” What is this, 1996?

Demonstrate. I’m probably guilty of this one, and it’s not nearly as bad as utilize, but it’s another word that probably only exists so high school students can take up more space on a page instead of just using “show,” which really does the job just fine.

Non-use of the Oxford comma. Not a phrase or a word, but a very easy thing one can do to make things that much clearer. And if you fail to use it, it may just cost you $5 million. Best to be safe, cover your bases, and use the Oxford comma.

I could go on. I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to business buzzwords in particular, but that’s almost too easy a target, and the political world can be somehow even worse. But, I’ll stop myself here and invite others to create some synergies and add some of their least favorite words.

Active Former Hounds, 2018

3 Sep

As I do every year, here’s a check-in on the post-high school hockey careers of all active former Greyhounds. The numbers all come from HockeyDB. Asterisks denote players who left East early.

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* Fitzgerald’s lengthy career, which has included long stints in the WHL and AHL, a single NHL game, and the past four seasons in England, continued much as it had before. The now 33-year-old defenseman continues to amass the penalty minutes, though his 181 this past season was his lowest total in a decade. Maybe he’s mellowing with age.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* The former Gopher defenseman, another early departure who had a cup of coffee in the NHL, completed a second season with Rogle BK in Sweden. This coming season he’ll be making his way back to the Russian KHL, where he spent two seasons earlier this decade back when he first came over to Europe.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* Forbort’s second full season in the NHL was as very similar to his first, with the exact same point total (18) and comparable penalty minutes. Now 26, he’s established himself as an NHL regular top four defenseman, and made good on his much-hyped days as a Greyhound.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* Welinski made his NHL debut this season, appearing in ten games for the Anaheim Ducks (including three in the playoffs) and collecting two assists in the process. The former UMD Bulldog spent the remainder of his season with the San Diego Gulls in the AHL, where he was highly productive, with 10 goals and 24 assists in 51 games, making him their fifth leading scorer. He should continue to get his chances to stick in the big show this coming season.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Toninato was the second former Greyhound to make his NHL debut this past season, as he appeared in 37 games for the Colorado Avalanche. He played a lower-line depth role and had just two assists, but became a fixture in the Avalanche lineup, and perhaps the production will follow now that he’s established himself somewhat. He also had 12 points in 35 games for the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) The ever-consistent Randolph rounded out his four-year career at Nebraska-Omaha with a 26-point season, equaling his production on a deeper team his freshman year, and finishing with 97 in his career. The former AP Player of the Year then signed on with the Worcester Railers of the ECHL, where he played in 11 games before the season wrapped up. We’ll see where his professional career goes from here.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) Olson once again was a lower-line fixture for North Dakota in his senior season, collecting 12 points as he wrapped up his Fighting Hawk career. Like his former linemate Randolph, he made the jump to the ECHL upon the conclusion of his college career, and appeared in eight games for the South Carolina Stingrays.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Moore continues to be a semi-regular presence in the lineup at the D-I Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where the defenseman had four points in 19 games. One of the highest-scoring Hounds defensemen of all time now heads into his senior season at RPI.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano had a second steady season at UW-Stout, where he led the Blue Devils’ three-man Duluth East Class of 2013 contingent with 11 points and cut down drastically on his penalty minutes.

Jack Forbort (’13 F) Forbort also had a respectable sophomore campaign at Stout, where he had eight points in 25 games.

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano matched his longtime teammate Forbort in production in his sophomore year, and also put together a healthy heap of minutes in the sin bin.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) Davidson put together a strong sophomore campaign at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts. He collected 20 points, good for sixth on his team, as it amassed an 18-9-3 record. While he never put up big points as a Hound due to their depth during his time there and an untimely injury his senior season, his productivity beyond high school is no surprise to anyone who remembers his work rate on the ice.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) While Beaulieu had a strong freshman year at Northern Michigan, his sophomore effort was a true breakout campaign, as he led the nation in scoring among college defensemen. He scored 11 goals and added 31 assists for 42 total points. Add this career to the pile that was entirely predictable based on the way he controlled games during high school.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp’s sophomore year at St. Thomas saw more limited playing time, with nine total games and no points to his name.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann had a strong third season in the NAHL, collecting 27 points in 58 games with the Minnesota Wilderness in Cloquet. The 2015 Greyhound captain parlayed that success into a D-III opportunity at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) Nick Altmann’s younger brother also played for the Wilderness this past season, and put up six goals and six assists in 38 games.

Luke Dow (’16 F) Dow, another member of the Greyhounds’ Wilderness club, had the most productive season of any Greyhound currently playing junior hockey, as he finished third on the team with 42 points. Another strong season should lead to a college opportunity of some sort, so we’ll see where he winds up.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) After appearing for the Wilderness in four games, Donovan spent most of the season lending his steady defensive presence to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the NAHL, where he had eight points.

Alex Spencer (’16 D) Spencer divided his NAHL time between Shreveport and the Wilderness, where the defensive defenseman finished with 10 points across 54 games. He’ll join D-III Wisconsin-Superior this coming winter.

Reid Hill (’17 D) The only addition to the list this season from the Class of 2017, Hill spent his season in the NAHL, where he got in four games with the Wilderness (if you’re counting, that’s six ex-Greyhounds who played at least one game there last season), but spent most of his time with the Janesville Jets, and put up seven points.

That does it for the 2018 edition of this feature. We’ll check in again next summer.