Tag Archives: beauty

Georgetown Beauty, Georgetown Power

8 Jun

My time at Georgetown was a complicated four-year blur, one I’ve struggled to relate back to non-Hoyas without falling into clichés. This past week’s five-year reunion was a chance to revisit it in all its madness: old friends together again, another afternoon of pitchers at The Tombs, of reminiscences of past exploits and ruminations of future plans, plus some hopeless overplaying of “Despacito.” I took a couple of extra days in DC to get some more one-on-one time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and to run the Mall, dine in Union Station, and wander up around Dumbarton Oaks, those old haunts of a wide-eyed college kid. With time and distance the peaks and valleys fade into a haze, and above all I’ve come to realize how ridiculously fortunate I was to live out those four years.

After some time away, the most striking aspect of Georgetown was its beauty. There’s the beauty of the neighborhood, the first thing to strike me upon my arrival in DC ten years ago: pastel rowhouses, lush gardens, brick and cobblestones, perfect urban form, sheer aesthetic perfection. There’s the beauty of the campus, with its historic architecture and well-manicured lawns perched up over the Potomac. Sure, there was an unfortunate brutalist phase, but we’ve moved past that, and the most recent stuff, tasteful blends of modernism with the old brick and stone motifs, will stand the test of time in a way plenty of contemporary architecture won’t. And then there’s the beauty of the people: Georgetownites, both students and townies, men and women, are a remarkably attractive bunch. A walk around Georgetown is a constant brush with high fashion, sunny dresses, bronzed skin, casual elegance, and a certain excess of boat shoes and salmon shorts. My wardrobe for the weekend wasn’t exactly the one I break out for lazy Saturdays in Duluth.

Georgetown also knows how to throw a party to show off that beauty. Nearly any weekend night features a glitzy affair somewhere, with girls wobbling down cobblestone streets in high heels. College-era parties brought together the attractive people on back patios and rooftops and at the occasional event at an embassy. (They’re technically foreign soil, so lower drinking ages apply!) After final exams my senior year, there was a full week of university-sponsored partying, with various bar crawls and sporting events and a boozy journey to a farm somewhere out in Maryland. It culminated in a ridiculous night in which the university shut down Union Station to throw a final ball, its grand classical halls reimagined as elaborately themed rooms. The pomp and circumstance of commencement brought out Kentucky Derby caliber attire from the attendees. Reunion was no letdown here either, with a party at the Ritz-Carlton one night and candle-lit tents strewn around lawns on campus the next. These carnivals of beauty allow Georgetownites to revel in their own awesomeness, as inheritors of a claim to status available only to a select few.

I don’t have any illusions about what makes all this beauty possible: an incredible concentration of wealth. The neighborhood overflows with money and power. My graduating class featured more people from families in the top one percent of American households than it did from households poorer than my (very middle class) childhood. Most of my friends are now either employed by companies or attending graduate schools with very recognizable names. The dumpy off-campus house I lived in my junior and senior years, a rowhouse barely over 1,000 square feet with no garage and an eternal slick of Natty Light on its floorboards, sold for $910,000 last year. I could get myself a mid-level robber baron’s mansion in Duluth for less.

Moreover, a view of the Hilltop takes on a new light that it didn’t really have a decade ago. An electorate motivated by disdain for controlling elites is flexing its muscles, and there are few schools that scream “controlling elite” quite like Georgetown. While it may not have quite the prestige of the best of the Ivies, it has an East Coast bluebloodedness to rival any of them, to say nothing of the fact that it is located just two miles from the White House. Georgetown, with its steady flow of politicians in and out of the front gates, is as well-entrenched as any school in the status quo of the past half-century. The phrase “Georgetown cocktail party” has long been a slur directed at events for an out of touch ruling class, and at times some Hoyas do pretty well to live up to that ideal. Hoyas live a world apart, and Middle America has taken note.

Before heading back, I was curious to see if some of the snobbery I recall encountering as a freshman was impenetrable privilege or merely just the antics of pampered teenagers that one wasn’t apt to find in a Midwestern childhood. Said elitists are a minority, but among at least some, the standoffishness is indeed real. A friend and I theorized that this especially pronounced at Georgetown; for a certain brand of East Coast elite, it’s a second-tier school that comes up short of an Ivy, and the pressure to prove oneself looms large. These strivers don’t necessarily exude active disdain, but such a rigid class consciousness is also not something one finds in a place like Harvard, where simple acceptance is proof enough that one belongs. Whether we’re right or not, that struggle to break down barriers remains the greatest strike against elite schools. Some of it is just a desire to do as well as one’s parents, and to continue in the same orbits or edge into yet higher echelons; it’s hard to blame anyone for that. The trouble comes when those who enjoy Georgetown status fail to recognize it for what it is; when those who were born on second or third base think they’ve hit doubles or triples and make few or facile efforts to understand more. (I’m certainly not saying I started out at home plate, either.)

Even so, it’s a bit strange to now watch my former classmates (and myself, I suppose?) get labeled as the elite establishment, as children of a corrupt breeding ground of power and privilege that reinforces this country’s divides and sneers down at the plebes in Middle America. Above all, it’s just silly to picture most of my old peers that way after I spent four years having sloppy college parties with them, flailing about in certain classes with them, and joining them in a collective effort to figure out what one earth we were doing with our lives. Even though we’re five years older, so little had changed among us Hoyas, either in looks or in temperament: we’re still mostly a group of ambitious but uptight kids in search of the occasional release. Some of them have now maneuvered themselves into positions to make far more money than I ever will, and others of us are reaching out to grasp levers of power. We’ve been groomed for these sorts of lives, and are probably as qualified as anyone to lead them, but that does little to undermine the fragility of human experience, even in a world with so many layers of seeming sophistication. So few of us know exactly what we’re doing, and are often trapped in our own insular little worlds, no matter how outwardly cosmopolitan we may appear.

In spite of these critiques, the pride I have in those four years has only grown as I settle into a life in a land far from Georgetown. I certainly don’t mean to say Georgetown put me on a different level, but it also gave me a perspective that is fairly unique in a place like northern Minnesota, and while the world I now live in is far from Washington, I can still navigate that sea and enjoy it. I now hold a master’s degree from a flagship public university as well, and while that school gifted me with an irreplaceable group of peers and a handful of excellent professors and instructors, Georgetown now shines that much more brightly in contrast to some of the instructional mediocrity and bureaucratic rot I experienced at that institution. (There I go being an elitist again, I suppose.) I came away more convinced than I used to be that Georgetown deserves the status it projects, and that simply being there prepared me more for leadership roles than any sort of management education could have. Its brass runs a tight ship, and the academic and personal support networks are excellent. Georgetown also has a soul: its efforts at moral formation push above and beyond most other elite schools. The Jesuits still linger, even in a world where their level of commitment is increasingly alien.

At its best, Georgetown gives its students a few magical years of self-discovery, and an outlet for the hyper-ambitious among us who wouldn’t feel like we’re testing our potential to the extent that we should if we just stayed close to home. John Thompson Jr. likened Georgetown to heaven, and a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? Any philosophy that tries to suppress that instinct, whether equality-obsessed liberalism or a more conservative ethos that lashes out at people who seem to rise above their stations, is fighting a losing war against the human psyche. I’ve joked that the Georgetowns of the world aren’t part of reality, but they are very real. I lived it, and will continue to live it in certain ways for the rest of my life.

To any northern Minnesotan who wonders how I could defend such a different world, Georgetown fuels my hunger to do what I do, and paradoxically, the intellectual backdrop I lean on to do it wouldn’t exist without these dips back in those swampy waters. To the Hoyas who struggle to understand why someone gifted with all of that privilege would give a measure of it up to head back to some northern Minnesotan woods, remember how fragile Georgetown’s beauty can be, something that I suspect the passing years will underscore more and more. The most powerful determinants of a life well lived lie beyond that narrow world, and its unquestioned perpetuation has consequences far beyond DC. But that beauty is a source of power and wonder, and drives us to heights we’d otherwise never know. Georgetown forever.

Escape to Palisade Valley

9 Jan

There’s a nice coherence in having one’s birthday right up against the new year, even if it did mean enduring a childhood of “Merry Christmas…and Happy Birthday All at Once!” presents. Year-end reflections and any thoughts that come with turning a year older happen all together, and each calendar year lines up nicely with a year in my life. I’ve never been one for resolutions or remaking myself in any fundamental way, but an added year is always a welcome chance to step back to recalibrate some. I’m skeptical of  any overarching sense of human progress as destiny, but I do think the power of introspection and stopping to learn from the past is one of the things that makes human life worth living.

Twenty-seven feels like a heavy one. Maybe because it’s certifiably “late twenties” now, but more likely because it’s my first birthday as a full-time adult with a career and no diversion from that career in sight. This is life now, and I’m just going to pile up the years as I go on with my working life. Each turn of the calendar page just brings me closer to middle age, puts on a little more pressure to check off the next set of boxes on the list of goals, especially after a year in which there was an awful lot of box-checking. Not everything needs to happen at once, and measuring life only by checked boxes is a poor way to think about things. But I won’t pretend that checking those boxes doesn’t set a strong foundation that allows everything else to flourish, and it’s hard to understate the benefits of finally having things all lined up. Wandering through a portion of one’s twenties is only worthwhile if one learns some necessary lessons. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

Before I get to work on those remaining boxes, though, I need to stop for a moment, and to think about what I’m really aiming for next. This holiday season, rich and rewarding in so many respects, left little time for introversion: this was my first weekend at home without houseguests in over a month, following journeys to Minneapolis and Chicago and Wisconsin, and playing host for New Year’s. I need these moments.

So, this Sunday, I set out to find some solitude on a skiing adventure. It was nothing that would trouble a seasoned skier, but it was still a healthy 15-plus kilometer trek over sometimes shaky trails, from the Northwoods ski area north of Silver Bay to a small camp in the heart of Tettegouche State Park on Lake Superior’s North Shore. It’s a trip I’ve long wanted to make, and now was as good a time as any. And so I set out with my skis, a lunch, and a bottle of whiskey with a few sips left in it from New Year’s festivities.

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Northwoods is already the prettiest ski area in the region, thanks to its thick stands of balsams along the Beaver River and its beautiful outlet on to the floor of cliff-lined Bean Lake. (Alas: a sign at the parking lot alerts us to an impending, and probably necessary, thinning of the balsams by loggers.) Just as the trail turns away from the Beaver toward the daunting Herringbone Hill, an alluring spur offers a five-ish kilometer connection to Tettegouche. (Signs and maps offer differing distances, but it’s somewhere between 4.8 and 5.5). The trail is ungroomed, but sees enough traffic that there’s a healthy track at the start. Ungroomed trails offer constant undulations, and occasional needs to skirt frozen pools, or to climb or descend hills covered by small plants that resemble barren sticks in winter. It’s slow going. There are no brutal hills on the Tettegouche connector, and it’s little enough used that it’s never fast, but there are a few slopes that require careful negotiation.

Keeping one’s eyes on the tracks, however, can be difficult on this trail. The reason is simple: this is, by several degrees of magnitude, the most beautiful stretch of trail I’ve ever skied. The trail enters the Palisade Valley and snakes between walls of talus, these rugged ridges that score the earth north of Silver Bay. Pictures can’t quite capture the completeness of the beauty as I slide along between snow-covered boulder fields, frozen ponds dotting the route below. I start to climb gently, the leafless trees allowing views far across the valley. I cross a few snowmobile trails, and come to a spot where some furry animal met its demise from the skies. I climb the steepest hill on the trail to a view between looming twin erratics; a sign welcomes me to Tettegouche. Before long, I come to a long, somewhat narrow clearing, and the trail dies completely. But it seems clear enough that I should cross this opening, and I edge forward with some caution, as I suspect Palisade Creek is somewhere beneath me. I stick to the top of drifted snowy ridges, figuring something must hold it all up beneath. At times I sink deep into the drifts, at times I glide along the top without leaving a track. My geography skills haven’t failed me: a faint trail appears on the opposite end of the long clearing, and I immediately encounter an intersection with a map.

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Perhaps the biggest adjustment to working life has been the structure. Suddenly, there is always a map, and little time to explore its less worn trails. While I’m not busier than I was in school, being in an office from 8 to 5 is just a very different lifestyle from a haphazard student schedule. I hardly expect much sympathy if this is one of my greater worries, and it’s driven by my own ridiculous need to be doing something (and maybe multiple things) every single waking moment. But as valuable as structure can be, it can come at the expense of serendipity, and leaves moments of wonder too few and far between. It seems paradoxical to schedule in time to for beauty and wonder, but in these parts, one doesn’t have to travel far to find it.

Beyond the intersection the trail is packed down by snowshoes, and moves quickly up and down through a silent pine grove. Faster than expected, I sail down an easy slope to the Tettegouche camp, a collection of four cabins and a communal lodge in the heart of the state park on Mic Mac Lake, accessible only by trail. It’s empty when I arrive, but an older couple skis into camp from the north just after I break into my lunch in the lodge. We chat as I eat, colder when stationary in this unheated building than we were when skiing along. (For the non-northern Minnesotans who wonder how we do it, cross-country skiing is enough work that it doesn’t require a heavy jacket, even on a single-digit day like this one.) The woman admires the route I’ve taken, wishes that her body could still handle that many kilometers. I only hope that I, like her, can find someone who will still go with me on spontaneous adventures like this when I’m her age. After they leave me, I wander down to the frozen lake, sublime in repose, and then begin my trip back.

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As always, return journeys are faster, with familiar landmarks dotting the route. A number of stretches are a cross-country skier’s greatest delight, those easy, steady, incredibly long downhills. I can lull into thought here, develop a new plan of attack for adult life. I take my last slug of warming beverage in a spot where I can see hills rising up in all directions: a rock-strewn cliff to the right, the walls of Bear Lake up to the left, lonely Round Mountain and hulking Mount Trudee, subject of many a vulgarity on my post-graduation hike this past summer, visible behind. I don’t need the whiskey to feel a warm burn. The sun, stuck behind a grey wintry haze after some moments of morning clarity, sinks toward the top of the ridge that separates me from Bear and Bean Lakes, even at this early afternoon hour. Back on the Northwoods trails, my muscles start to protest; this stretch seems longer than I’d remembered. The trail system is empty, just me and the balsams, though a large crew with young children is just setting out when I finally coast back into the parking lot. I expect I’ll be doing that in the not so distant future, too.

It’s an hour drive back to Duluth. The morning sea smoke has lifted, and Lake Superior is a steely grey; for once, the clouds are welcome, as they blot out the sun that always seems to hang in one’s eyes during winter drives back down the Shore. I may be a little older now, and my knees are a bit cranky, but as I tune in the Packers’ playoff game and accelerate past Split Rock Lighthouse, I feel the youngest I have in months. As long as I can still blend that ambition with that sense of wonder, I can still channel the best of that kid who left Duluth for Georgetown, the best of those instincts that pulled me home, the best of those thrusts outward and journeys back through this endless cycle I live.

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I already knew all of this, of course. It’s no secret. But it’s so incredibly easy to let that slip away. At the very least, a few sore muscles will remind me for the next few days, and with any luck, this latest jolt will pierce through the dragging everydayness that too often grinds down that ambition and wonder. There’s no stopping now. There’s no telling how many kilometers of unbroken snow separate me from home.

La Grande Bellezza

5 Sep

What is beauty? Is it mere aesthetics, captured simply by wealthy people drifting about and enjoying all their lifestyle has to offer? Does art alone draw people toward higher purpose? Or is beauty representative of something else, something beyond the mundane world we see around us that gives it all a higher purpose? These are the questions that underlie Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty (La grande belezza), the winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The Great Beauty is visually stunning from start to finish, without a wasted frame. The film is a love affair with a city, a dreamlike vision that sets Rome on a pedestal. The real Rome, visitors can attest, is impressive but not nearly as impeccable and clean. And yet it all works, and the flood of color toys with nostalgia, and even the critiques are those of one who knows it dearly. At one point, the protagonist notes that only tourists can see Rome with fresh eyes, something all to resonant for a kid who went to Rome once, but only for a day; one beautifully jam-packed day under a radiant July sun in which I was led about by an exceptionally attractive tour guide.

The film follows Jep Gambardella, a writer who wrote one great book forty years prior and has been resting on his laurels ever since. He lives in Dionysian opulence, stumbling from party to party dancing with beautiful people and rocking one superb suit after another. He arches his eyebrows at all the absurdity around him, at times even blasts the emptiness of his friends in Roman high society, but he is beholden to his life of excess, and resumes the revelry every night. He’s made himself the king of Rome, but as he ages, his throne seems increasingly lonely.

The Great Beauty is absolutely vicious in its takedown of Jep’s fellow travelers. In the most enjoyable scene, Jep makes short work of a vacuous performance artist, an all too accurate skewering of clueless contemporary art.  He also unleashes a vicious takedown of the communist socialite whose “sacrifices” for her family are nothing more than self-serving lies: she is no better than any of these jaded souls partying the night away. At times these Roman elites are downright sad, as in the suicidal mania of Andrea and the young girl forced by her parents to smear paint about for the amusement of the crowd. And there’s the cardinal in line for the papacy, who prefers quoting his recipe book to scripture. Only the dwarf publisher, consigned to an absurd body, comes across as someone who has genuinely earned her high society stature.

By the end, though, a few figures start to poke out above the bitter takedowns. News of an old lover’s death starts to stir a few memories, and ever-dangerous nostalgia makes its move. Jep’s “friend” Romano, a hapless writer there mostly as an object of scorn, suddenly decides to leave Rome and head back to his anonymous hometown. For the first time, Jep’s reaction to an event goes beyond mild bemusement: suddenly, his world faces disruption. And then there is the matter of the Santa Maria, the Mother Teresa figure who comes to visit Rome at the end of the film. She, too, is a hyperbolic caricature, but her ascetic life is about the only one in the film that witnesses any greater beauty. At the end, she climbs a stair to an altar on her knees and looks up in pure wonder, and suddenly one starts to wonder if sleeping on cardboard and serving the Malian poor for 22 hours a day at age 104 is indeed the road to enlightenment.

Santa Maria stiffs Jep when he tries to interview her, instead settling for a night on his floor and some festivities with her flock of flamingoes before she asks the same damn question that everyone else asks him: why didn’t he write another book?  Because he couldn’t find the great beauty, he replies, and Santa Maria orders him to remember his roots. Jep flashes back to a night on the beach with the girl who got away. She flashes her breasts at him, but what lingers is the tantalizing, mysterious look on her face. The wonder returns, Jep finds his beauty, and he can begin to write again.

The epiphany of beauty leaves one question unresolved: is Jep’s nostalgia for a cute girl on the same level as the crawling Santa Maria, the mere fact of wonder enough to give life meaning? Are all these Roman partiers saved if they can simply recall some moment of past beauty that gives them pause? Or is there still a moral order beyond this relativist ability to marvel? My vote, to no one’s surprise, is with the latter: those fleeting moments of great beauty are windows unto eternity, but they are not themselves eternity. Instead, they fuel the mind, and from there, the author must write his own story, remembering his roots and placing his narrative within the thousands of others that float past it down the streets of Rome or along the Tiber.

Sorrentino doesn’t show us whether or not Jep understands this, but at least he has some chance. It’s no coincidence that the hauntingly magnificent closing theme is named “Beatitude,” as it brings together the faith that has sustained Rome and opens the door to transcendence. It lilts down the Tiber and lingers for days beyond, and encapsulates the human core of Rome: at times tortured, burdened with the history of Western civilization in all its contradictions, but capable of stunning beauty, both in the facades it puts up and in the details deeper inside. Both the city and the man are along the road to truth, and while they may not get there, they at least have some notion of how to find their way.