Tag Archives: cycles

The Best Revenge

25 Dec

Due to a double-punch of winter storms, I spent this past Thanksgiving in Duluth. It was the first time I’d celebrated this holiday in my hometown, and while I got together with both of my parents and made do and had some fun, in all honesty, I did not cope well with this deviation from the norm. This gathering of people has become so central to my idea of a good life that I spent the first few unexpected Duluth days in a colossal rut. Warm and pleasant as several smaller-scale events with family and friends were, there was something missing, and it wasn’t the sous vide turkey or the wine from Uncle Mike’s cellar.

One perk to that unexpected Thanksgiving staycation, though, was a chance to catch up on backlogged issues of the New Yorker, both in my preferred print form and in some of the gems from the vault that the magazine sends in regular emails. This time, one of those glittering lights came from “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” a 1962 Calvin Tompkins article on Gerald and Sara Murphy, the people on whom F. Scott Fitzgerald based the glamorous couple at the heart of Tender Is the Night. The Murphys, in Tompkins’ telling, had all of the good qualities of Dick and Nicole Diver in the novel, with none of the tragic descent: that story belonged to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, two mentally unstable strivers. Sara never quite forgave F. Scott for his inventions, though both could recall their time carousing about France with fondness.

While they were deep in the social circles of the Lost Generation, the Murphys did not share the grandiose aims of their artistic friends. Gerald created a few well-regarded paintings but did not produce a large output; his family business back home provided his income, and later became his life’s work. Instead, they sought to enjoy their lives. They surrounded themselves with interesting writers and artists, and they threw the best parties on the Riviera. In sharp contrast to the neuroses of the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways around them, they were dedicated family people and built an idyllic environment for their three young children. They were consistently ahead of the curve, finding corners of France before the American crowds arrived and cruising the Mediterranean on their sailboat.

The Murphys’ dream did not last. Disease claimed two of their children. One of the most celebrated American authors wrote a novel that made them seem unstable. The 1920s European playground curdled into the atmosphere that set the stage for the Second World War. Tompkins’ mention of their arrival by sailboat in fascist Italy has an air of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” an elegy for a golden age mugged by reality. Their world crumbled, but at no point in the article do the Murphys seem bitter over the decline in their privilege. They had lived to the best of their abilities.

Archibald MacLeish, one of the friends in the Murphys’ orbit, called them “masters in the art of living.” That phrase was on my mind this past week as I blurred Duluth life and my annual holiday circuit back through my roots and in to potential futures. I struggle to articulate a better goal, difficult as it may sometimes seem.

The weather cooperated for my annual Christmas travels, and I made it to Chicago for one of my favorite nights of the year, the Maloney family party. It’s a revelation of wine, good company, caroling, and brandy Alexanders, though it’s only the tip of the iceberg for what that sprawling group of people can offer me. Later, with some relatives on my dad’s side, we unearthed the graves of my great-great-great grandparents from the detritus of the ages, a forgotten cemetery plot in a forgotten corner of what is now inner-city Milwaukee. I can now trace the full extent of the Schuettler family tree back to its arrival in eastern Wisconsin 160 years ago, roots of two very different families now clear for the first time. Pride in roots doesn’t always come easily, but when it does, it’s a blessing.

That circuit now complete, I’m back to Duluth life: more hours at the office or on the roads of northeast Minnesota, a world in which I am at least content at the moment; more Duluth East hockey games, where I live out another cycle back into a tight-knit community tied up in my roots. I have a host of friends from afar, many making their own homeward cycles, to see in the coming days. And if I’ve achieved one thing over the past year, it’s been a better job of carving out the time I need to recharge before heading back out to the party. A few trips to the gym, some late-night skis, a dip into a book before bed, my apartment lit up with a few strings of lights that give the season its mood. With any luck, this will be my last Christmas in this apartment: it’s time for the next stage.

As I jogged down the streets of Irving Park and meandered through the mists of the Kettle Moraine and wandered Congdon upon my return home, I made the mental list: I have a new year to ring in and a milestone birthday to plan. I hope to escape to Palisade Valley again, and I have some arenas to pace in the coming days. I have books to read and road trips to scheme, not to mention some more ambitious 2020 goals: a new home, a Sara to my Gerald, and revenge for any lost time with a conscious design, day after day, to live out certain ideals.

Merry Christmas.

An Epigraph

29 Nov

If the series of stories I wrote on this blog were to be made into a novel, this quote would go at the start of it:

The life span of man running inevitably toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction were it not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The follow-up post I wrote to that fictional collection noted that the thrust of its contents were rarely if ever reactions to recent happenings in my life. They were the results of nearly a decade’s worth of thought and experience and experimentation that slowly marinated into the state in which they appeared on this blog. But the most recent evolution within that thought, however, centered somehow around the sentiment expressed in this quote.

The notion of beginning anew has undergirded this whole blog since it first got off the ground. It’s inherent in the idea of a cycle, and at times this blog has had posts that reference explicit new beginnings or resets in my life. As I age, I find a new appreciation for a fluid life; one that does not fit into easy boxes, and one that knows that people evolve in gradual ways, and that there is no such thing as a fixed way of being. While I’ve always thought this, I’ve come to embrace that sentiment as being somewhere near the very core of who I am. And more than ever, I’m finding successful ways to make sure I don’t fall into ruts of routine and give most every day the sense of immediacy it deserves.

At the end of 2017, I wrote a blog post on my frustrations with that particular year. I expressed impatience, and made a hockey metaphor: I was running a mindless cycle in a corner that looked good but wasn’t producing anything in the way of chances. That offensive zone cycle continued for much of 2018, and while I still might be waiting for the perfect shot a little too often, the cycle now has purpose. I’m setting up some good looks, and a barrage of shots may be just around the corner. My writing life played no small role in that process, and will pile up the assists when the goals start to come.

Even as 2018 comes to a close with all the usual trappings of holiday season tradition, I’m at a point of many beginnings. A new political cycle, some shifts in my workplace that could presage some big things, a new possible side venture, and a new hockey season: my activity level might finally near a place where I’m content with my efforts. Well, maybe. Here’s to those new beginnings, the cycle refreshed yet again.

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.

Out of the Woods

25 May

A hike in the woods is always a dangerous thing. What begins as a pleasant stroll down a leafy path can quickly become a death march across interminable ridges. It promises sore shoulders, sunburns, and blisters; go for long enough, and at least one other body part, be it an ankle or a leg or a hip, will become a bother. There are bugs, and maybe bears. Any self-conscious search for freedom or wilderness is probably doomed to disappointment when it doesn’t quite deliver the expected rush, when the annoyances of the real world fail to go away.

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So, naturally, I love a good hike. Hikes were a regular part of my northern Minnesota childhood, one of those things I took for granted so readily that they seem mundane. Quality trails are so convenient that they’re practically begging to be hiked, and trails lend themselves to both deep companionship and moments of solitude, both of which I value immensely. This is just what I do, and will continue to do, even if I’ve never exactly looked the part of a woodsman.

I spent the last weekend on the Superior Hiking Trail, a spur-of-the-moment getaway after completing my last year of school, and the first of what I hope to be several travel adventures in the near future. It was a two-night hike, nothing too extreme, though we were all experienced enough to set a strong pace and march aggressively over the ridges of Tettegouche State Park. The hike triggered a torrent of memories, some from my own first backpacking trip in the summer of 1998 using the very same tent, which I’ve since inherited from my dad. This particular hike took two friends and I past Wolf Ridge, the site of an elementary school retreat, and past Bean Lake, which lies at the tail end of one of Minnesota’s most pristine cross-country ski trails. I was hardly alone, as my partners also spilled out past memories, all of us united by past calls into the woods.

Backcountry camping lends itself to dualities, a study in how quickly the mundane becomes joyous. Well, either that, or it just brings out our inner bipolarity. With nothing but the trail before us, we can pour all of our delights and frustrations into our next few steps. When a trail seems to be skirting a large hill before suddenly turning directly for the summit, the vulgarity issues forth. Arrival at a large river after nine miles of incessant ridges prompts elation, bare feet, and a feast of strawberries. Sitting down, even if on a barren rock, is a pleasant release; just don’t ask me to stand back up anytime soon. And after five climbs, the sixth becomes a dull routine. Life revolves around meals, the simplest of which satiate us with ease after a long day’s march, and a water bottle reloaded from the nearest stream brings out a rediscovered love for the simplest of drinks. I understand why the appeal is hard to fathom for many, and exactly why so many who try it are sucked in for life.

Activities along the trail range from silly trivialities to opportunities for rumination, from attempts to Tinder in the woods to readings from Thoreau. (The Tinder thing was a new one.) Chatter flows steadily to distract us from the latest turned ankle, but at times it lapses into a natural silence, too. Whether or not we snap pictures at every view, the postcard moments appear around every turn. A dinner at an overlook graced with a gentle lake breeze probably belongs in a backpacking ad somewhere, and our party looks properly intrepid or just memorably silly every time the cameras come out. More enduring, however, are the things we can’t pack into a single frame: a night along a lakeshore that settles in to liquor-fueled gazes at the stars and pillow talk, histories both grand and minor recounted with equal ease. We’re at home here, if only for a short while.

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On the last morning, I wake up beside a still lake, stretch my aching muscles, and stumble along the shore in solitude. I’m miles from where I was a week ago, when my only hike was across a stage to claim a master’s degree, eating well and living well and wrapping up a grand statement on what I’d achieved. Out here in the wilderness, that all seems so trivial now: those now-clichés from Walden about simplicity all ring true, and it becomes hard to articulate my worldly goals without sounding grandiose or melodramatic. But that, I suppose, is the price one pays for a belief in human ambition and pursuit of greatness, all while tempered by a recognition of how small it all is in the face of all those stars above.

The moment doesn’t last long. The flies are out in force this morning, and the allure of a giant, fattening meal and a cold drink back in civilization provide an added jolt. The best I can do, then, is to slide between both worlds, at ease in formal regalia with all its attendant pomp and circumstance, and again out here in the woods, coated in grime and blissfully free from any obligations beyond the immediate chores of camp care. Both are one. In and out we go, the cycle renewed yet again.

How to Maintain Your Sanity While Being Overworked

29 Sep

This blog is lapsing into self-improvement listicles, which should perhaps be a red flag, but ‘blog’ was on my schedule for tonight, so blog I shall. Here are eight suggestions for staying sane if, by chance, you ever find yourself taking a full load of graduate-level courses, running two student organizations, and working two jobs at once. It’s a common problem, right?

I’ll skip over the clichéd advice—get enough sleep, eat healthy, get some exercise—because that’s well-covered ground. Here are eight pieces of advice I’ll allow to flow forth from my fountain of infinite wisdom:

1. Master the art of filling a schedule and following it. We all schedule in different ways. Lots of my colleagues are Google Calendar adherents, with their phones spewing out eternal reminders of where they ought to be. Dinosaur that I am, I still use paper; it’s good to be able to scrawl new tasks or the odd reminder in the margins, and there’s something deeply satisfying about crossing things off the list. The medium doesn’t really matter; what matters is that every little task you need to do is documented so that your scattered mind doesn’t forget it. Check off tasks with gusto and move on to the next thing.

2. Clean out the email inbox right away. Nothing looms like unanswered messages and a sense that other people expect things from you. Not only does getting through them all tend to go faster than you’d think, it takes a load off. Not only that, you’ll find that responding promptly is actually a somewhat rare and valuable skill, and it’s one other people notice. They realize you have things together, or at least are good at projecting that illusion. There is nothing wrong with projecting illusions, so long as they are in the realm of sanity. Project it long enough and it might just become reality.

This doesn’t mean you have to check the damn thing every ten minutes. In fact, I’d highly recommend taking a minimum of a few hours away at times, especially on weekends. But when you do dive back in, plow through it relentlessly. Leave nothing for later—unless, of course, you’ve budgeted time for it on your schedule.

3. Never let work be the last thing you do before bed. No matter what deadline I face, no matter how late it is, I do something blissfully unrelated to school or career before the lights go out. It works wonders.

4. Multitask wisely. Don’t lie, you know you do it. You can’t cut yourself off completely. But if you are going to multitask, make sure it makes sense. If you’re watching TV, do work that requires less intellectual capacity, like spreadsheets or statistics or more inane writing tasks. If you’re drunk, write or work on the creative side of things. If you’re supposed to be reading or writing, distract yourself with other reading or writing, and preferably of a high caliber so that you’re reading good writing.

Enlightened procrastination is a valuable skill, and will serve you well in bar trivia. No, you won’t be as efficient, but you’re a human who has to remain sane, not a cog on an assembly line. If you finish a project two hours more slowly but also watched a football game during that time, chances are you’ll remember it much more fondly. Don’t beat yourself up over a slow pace; build in the breaks, accept them, and then get back to it.

5. Surround yourself with people who fuel your energy. I’ve found I’m particularly prone to channeling the mood of people around me, but everyone does this to some degree. Unless you’re ready to disrupt an organization (which can be good, but choose your battles wisely), you’ll adopt its general means of practice, to varying degrees and with varying levels of awareness. So, make sure the people around you are as committed as you are to getting things done; those who bring out the best in you, and drive you to do more. There are limits, of course, but that’s what #6 is for.

6. Know when to stop. There comes a time when no amount of agonizing will do any good. No one innately knows where this is. It’s a feel, and you have to find it for yourself, be able to recognize it, and enforce it with an iron fist. You are done. No, staring at it for another half hour won’t make it better. No, you will not die if you don’t get to that last reading, even if someone calls you out. You’re done, and you’ve done your best. Now go do something non-work related, and then go to bed.

7. Cycle in and out. Spend time with other people; spend time alone. Plan the future; go back to your roots. Think about the big picture, and lose yourself in the details. Again, surround yourself with people who complete you, and complement your skills. Take time for each of them, lest it seem like you’re spending too much time in one world and neglecting important parts of yourself. And yet…

8. Don’t aim for balance. Balance is lame. Work-life balance, social life balance…these terms all make you feel like a juggler who has to be doing ten things at once, and induce panic. That is exhausting, and leaves you further unbalanced. Instead, aim for excellence. Attack each piece with energy when the opportunities present themselves, and you’ll find the anxieties slip away. Stay hungry, even if you know you’ll never quite satisfy that appetite. It’s what keeps you going. Suddenly, you’re not overworked at all. You’re doing what you are driven to do, and feel weirdly good about yourself, even you should have lost your mind by objective standard. Who knows; maybe you have.

There you go, I solved all of your problems for you. Wasn’t that easy? I’ll start my motivational speaking tour as soon as I find time on my schedule.

Beyond Understanding

28 May

“I don’t try to change the world. I just try to understand it,” a sage Georgetown professor once told me. It was the credo of a true intellectual, and an important grounding mechanism for a man whose life story was intimately tied up in his area of scholarship. He knew that no good could come of his meddling in certain affairs, and settled for digging into all the details from a safe distance, learning all he could, perhaps influencing a few thoughts here or there, ever a critic of all involved.

My professor wasn’t overtly seeking converts, but his words certainly stuck. It’s a simple summation for anyone jaded by good intentions gone awry and the seeming relativity of all truths. What good is change when our idea of what is good is too thin to offer a real reason to pursue it? His scholarly detachment allowed him to speak lucidly on anyone and anything in a way no one else could.  The thirst for knowledge burned within, and he dedicated his life to seeking it.

Truly believing this requires an awesome distance, a detachment that lets one view all through a cool eye from on high, even as it might affect one’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean a faith in reason, either; the more mature seekers of understanding are aware that they may never get there, no matter how hard they try. It puts the pursuit of knowledge above the self, which tames the ego some and provides a sort of guiding light, dim as it may sometimes be.

It seems a sensible ethos for a postmodern age, one that frees one of any commitment to anything other than the truth. It frees the seeker to attain some authority on subjects that are often fraught with harsh battle lines. It leads a certain Zen, as one makes peace with things as they are and soldiers along down a lonely but noble road. It can also free one to have some fun: sigh with disappointment when things go wrong, but head home at the end of the day and forget it all. Drop the earnestness and the world becomes a plaything, ripe for exploration and delight.

A road worth taking? Perhaps. It would be an honorable life, and some great good may come of it. After a while it comes easily, and it provides peace in its retreat from the arena of battle. A safe place to carve out a little haven for oneself and may a few others as the other ideals out there go on buffeting one another.

Or perhaps there’s another step that follows. One that draws on the lessons of that detachment, and uses them to some further end. Sometimes that distance may not really be cold aloofness or naïveté, but instead extreme caution and skepticism, a determination to get it right. Not a righteousness of hubris, perhaps, but a supreme confidence nonetheless, and belief in something higher. Maybe that ideal will never come, but maybe it’s a chance worth taking, rather than making do. The fire to find it lies within, perhaps long suppressed, never given a chance to show its true self, troubled as it is. Ambition and anxiety remain intertwined, inseparable, and so long as they are present, mere contentment with retreat will never quite be enough. And roots, no matter how gnarled, never go away: complete detachment is an impossibility.

And so one may go along; at best a blasé, judging scholar, and at worst a meek nobody who observes but never offers a word. It is a mask. What lies beneath is not really the ‘true self’—all sides of a person are manifestations of their true, very complicated selves—but there is more there. Beneath is not a person who seeks to change the world, nor one who seeks to understand it. No, that person seeks to embrace it as it is, to do all the above and so much more; to leave a mark, in some little way. The means will come out in the details. The path, however, could not be clearer. The cycle goes on.

A Very Cyclical Double Feature

2 Apr

This past week, courtesy an absent roommate’s Netflix, I enjoyed a rather absurd double feature involving sincere philosophy, adolescent sex, and excessive smoking: Hannah Arendt and Y Tu Mamá También. Neither one is new: I hadn’t yet seen the Arendt film, but I’ve read her work extensively and written about it here and here; I first saw Y Tu Mamá También last summer, and reviewed it here. As this blog reaches its two-year anniversary, what better way could there be to celebrate than with a sprawling synthesis between two wildly different strains of thought?

The Arendt film (2012) is a dramatization of the defining moment in the career of a great thinker, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the worst Nazi war criminal to escape Germany after the war. The Israeli secret police tracked him down in Argentina, and he went on trial in the new Jewish state, locked in a glass box to prevent anyone from finishing the job too soon. Arendt, a German Jew living in America and the first great theorist of totalitarianism, seemed the perfect correspondent, but her ultimate verdict set off a firestorm. She declared that Eichmann was not the embodiment of some demonic form of evil; she called him banal and frighteningly normal, and also pointed out the role of many European Jewish leaders in enabling the Holocaust. She was called a traitor and a self-hating Jew; an arrogant and emotionless woman who used a tragedy to make an esoteric philosophical point.

Trying to make drama out of a philosopher’s work is a formidable task, but one director Margarethe von Trotta achieves ably with smoke-filled rooms and acid dialogue. There are a few moments where it comes off a bit fake, but the circle around Arendt is entirely believable, and Janet McTeer makes a superb Mary McCarthy. The flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful affair with Martin Heidegger, the brilliant existentialist who became an unrepentant Nazi, add another dimension; they run the risk of making her brilliance seem like an offshoot of an old flame gone bad, but they also reveal a greater commitment to an idea, a belief in the centrality of human reason that not even Heidegger could sustain other pressure. He caved to the Nazis, banally accepting his role as university rector under the totalitarian regime. Arendt did not, twice escaping their clutches only to suffer a final exile imposed by many of her old friends for publishing what she believed. But fifty years later, she is the one who achieved immortality, exactly the worldly end she thought public figures should aim for in The Human Condition. Her speech to before a hall of skeptical Princeton students at the film’s climax hearkens to some of the great moments of courtroom dramas, her oratory an impassioned defense and rallying cry for her belief.

The film verges on hagiography, though I’ll leave it to critics who don’t think Arendt was one of the Twentieth Century’s two or three greatest minds to say if it goes too far. It shows the value of her relentless quest, not just to identify the nature of evil but also the pursuit of truth; the recognition of good and evil and beauty and ugliness and other such terms that thoughtful contemporary discourse is often afraid to use for fear of being judgmental. The young Arendt tells Heidegger that the split between reason and passion is a mistake: she believes in impassioned reason, the search for something approaching reality. It’s not hard to see why her political theories tend to reach back to the Greeks. Arendt is on the same fundamental mission for truth, asking questions where others take things for granted, her loyalty only to that truth and those who join her in her search.

A film about spoiled, horny teenage Mexicans may seem as far as one can get from grand philosophical debate about why it is we’re here, but the message of Y tu Mamá También (2001), in the end, isn’t wildly different. In some ways it’s a necessary antidote: “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” one of the boys intones, and they settle for an adolescent manifesto that collapses before them. It taps into a psyche run down by the banality of it all; a narcissistic pursuit of instant gratification. (In one delicious moment, a mutual lover tells the two boys their exploits aren’t worth bragging about because they both come so quickly.) This is banality epitomized, even as it’s dressed up as adolescent swagger.

The story rises above the sex jokes in the character of Luisa, but even then, it’s smart enough not to let them fade into irrelevance. It’s all intermixed, a crucial recognition that those base drives don’t go away. Once again, impassioned reason: we need to understand this side of the human psyche as well, not to repress it but to understand it, and channel it in ways that fuel the fire. The boys are extremes, but they captivate because they hit a bit closer to home than many of us would like to believe. A full life takes these appetites, tames them, guides them, and makes sure there is a place for everything.

This is, of course, a wickedly difficult balance; even those who aspire to it find themselves caught in cycles of blind passion and limp detachment, stronger or weaker depending on their temperaments and personal histories. I have no idea what the end state will look like, if there even is such a thing. But the pursuit is on, and nothing else compares.

On the Intellectual World

25 Jan

I embarked on my second semester of graduate school this past week. My degree program, urban planning, is a fairly practical one, and the general tenor of most (though not all) classes is entirely different from the high intellectualism I explored as an undergraduate at Georgetown.

I have a complicated relationship with that intellectual world. I was probably as excited as anyone in my Intro to Planning course over opportunities to debate phenomenology and critical theory and Marxism and whatnot, and as a person who comes at all of this from a fairly different philosophical background from most of my classmates, I rather enjoy the occasional opportunity to push the envelope. (They mostly come at things from somewhere on the political left; I come from here, wherever that is.) I’m the sort of person who will, upon seeing someone like Hannah Arendt on my syllabus, stay up two hours later than I intended so as to read her.

Despite my obvious nerdiness, I’ve never self-identified as a nerdy person, and am rather proud of this. This is in part due to my interests outside of intellectual pursuits—as a kid, I much preferred sports to video games, and never got into the faddish card games that came along—but I think there was something deeper at work. It was one of the great benefits of being formed by a high school where it was perfectly normal for kids to pursue academic greatness and still be well-liked, and by a family where reading fat, heavy books was a routine activity. I might have taken it to an extreme, but I was allowed to do that without anyone criticizing that, and am eternally thankful. It’s just one of the things I do sometimes as I play around with this world around me.

Make no mistake: I do think it is crucially important. It’s an essential foundational block without which culture, society, and civilization itself have no true basis. These questions are essential because they are the ones that lead humans to reach toward great heights, dream great dreams, perhaps even quest for utopia. It’s impossible to do so without some idea of where one is going, or at least a vague idea of how to get there. Debating these things with other well-versed people is one of the fires of life, and anyone with any hope of molding the surrounding world must understand what is at stake. This is why I venture in: there is no alternative. I need answers, or, perhaps better said, I need the right questions.

Too many people interested in that intellectual world, however, can get far too wrapped up in it. When I’ve done that, I rarely look back on those periods of time with fondness unless the philosophical inquiry was done in partnership with other people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of life.

To find out why, we might as well circle back to Hannah Arendt, who made a distinction between active and contemplative life. Both are clearly essential, and Arendt must no doubt have spent many long hours in the contemplative realm to emerge with the insights she found. She likewise accords due respect to private life—another sphere I value greatly—and the need to take care of business at home. Any complete conception of life must include a defense of the mundane, daily things we do, including some simple and even some of the world’s less refined delights. They are part of the human condition as well. But beyond this lies an active, public life, and this is the only realm where humans can find greatness. All of that contemplative thought is useless if it’s never shared with anyone; the private life alone becomes tautological, life for life’s sake and nothing more.

The active life is not always an easy one for those whose first instincts trend inward. I choose my words carefully so as to avoid coming off as a miserably self-absorbed intellectual, and I don’t always pull it off. My abortive novel-writing attempts have, on a certain level, been attempts to take all the philosophy and political theory and filter them down into readily understandable terms, spoken through characters who are nothing like an ancient Greek philosopher, but manage to convey a few of their thoughts in a coherent way. Sooner or later, it had to come out. That call into the arena can’t be written off, despite the many philosophical and religious traditions that try to bracket it, and put it aside.

There are risks, of course: hubris, pride, and a failure to slide back into the reflective cycle. But if the foundation truly is in place, then—and only then—is the well-ordered mind ready to venture out, channel it all in the right direction, and take the lead; with humility, certainly, but also enough confidence to know that, somewhere, things do hold together and make sense, and it’s all being channeled in the proper direction.

A Cyclical Christmas

24 Dec

I don’t really know what it means to be “home for Christmas.” I never am. Christmas is always part of a journey, one that usually involves a stint as an interloper in someone else’s holiday, or, lately, a sterile hotel. (I suppose it’s a step up from a manger in Roman-occupied Judea, but still.) Trying to make all these disparate threads make sense has become a sort of routine. But routine breeds comfort, familiarity, and no one really seems to mind my intrusions, wherever they may be. I’m always on the road this time of the year, and that is my tradition.

Lately, it hasn’t been just a journey to one place; it’s been a cycle between two different worlds. Just over 100 miles separate these two worlds, and the loose trappings of Christmas, somewhere within the Catholic tradition, are at the roots of both. Beyond that, it is a study in dualisms, twinned within me.

First, Chicago, its crush of humanity making Minneapolis seem quaint and tame. Here, a sprawling family unites en masse every year. It’s not without its skeletons, of course, and the march of time takes its toll. But the cycle goes on, the young carrying forward the best gifted to us by the old. Everyone comes together for a great Christmas festival, cramming the house full by the dozens, the well-earned merriment coming to fruition. We gorge ourselves, we down glass after glass of wine, and then we all settle around the piano and shamelessly belt out all the carols, loving every second. After the party, there’s some time to explore the city, see friends old and new, eat well and live well. A whirlwind caught up in the dream, my mission, if I can be so ambitious as to claim one: entwining the fabric of family with the fabric of a city, vibrant and full of life.

A brief train ride north, though, and the other side of the cycle. Here, things are quiet. No more frenetic energy, no more loud noise; just a couple of us with Grandma in that same old house, chancing the occasional word, little that hasn’t been said before. I read, I write, I dodge all the cats. Before long I’m out on a frigid trek down the country lanes of eastern Wisconsin, up and down the hills of the Kettle Moraine, out to the old stone church in St. Lawrence on Christmas Eve. That nostalgic pastoral scene so dear to my grandmother, if it ever truly existed, is fading away into the fog; the land slowly emptied or turned to exurban sprawl. I won’t have much reason to come back here after she moves on, though I know I will all the same.

It may not be my future, but it is an integral part of my past, and I must understand it, and pass it along, such as I can. On my run through the mists this year, I recalled the words of Fr. Thomas King, the late Georgetown Jesuit who, in his final Christmas Mass, gave the only homily that this unbaptized, intrigued-but-never-fully-inspired cultural Catholic has bothered to retain. In the midst of all the insanity of our lives, he preached, it is these escapes into the wilderness that bring us peace. It is that call inward that allows us to make ourselves whole again, bringing union with something far greater in that paradox we call faith. That thought in the wilderness has proven a great spark, and the most important thing I ever wrote, the foundations of the pieces that taught me who I was, spilled out in one of those dull hotel rooms not far off. Even here, I find myself, and through it, something much bigger than myself.

Roots are tangled, even for us white bread Midwesterners. Mine are a messy trinity with a handful of other currents feeding in: one part Chicago distinction, the American Dream made real; one part Wisconsin farm boy at the end of an era, trying to make sense of the past. One very large dose of Duluth at my core; perhaps small parts Mexico and, yes, part Washington as well. And yet it all holds together easily enough, all with its place. I suppose that’s where I’m at home, making those connections all one. The cycle goes on. A Merry Christmas to all.

Driftless

2 Jun

This past weekend I made that road trip again, this time only as far as an idyllic little town west of Madison. It is a lush, green country draped about the steady marches of sandstone hills, untouched by the glaciers that leveled the rest of the upper Midwest. It feels old; it is old, and though change does come, it comes at its own pace. In a few places the virgin oak savanna endures, though nowadays it is mostly a relic of the past, still tucked away off a winding ribbon of road. The farms hidden away in the valleys carry on in a peaceful slumber, and the Main Streets are more than some talking point repeated by a politician in desperate search of folksy cred.

Of course, I can’t help but see it through colored glasses. So much of my story starts in and around Madison. That story isn’t always a happy one, and it feels incomplete in several ways as well, a sense recently reinforced by a second rejection of Badger red and white.  I probably won’t ever share my parents’ alma mater, with money and friends winning out over nostalgia. And yet somehow my Wisconsin roots still somehow tie me to the land there in a way no other place can. One side of my family comes from a farm I was never a part of and can’t really go back to; the other owes its considerable strength to its people, not to any real place. I may seem a Duluthian to the core now, but until fairly recently I was torn, never quite sure where I was from. (More on that in a couple of days.) Memory here runs deep, even as new developments go up and the people move on. It is still that enchanted garden of childhood, where all of nature has a soul and wonder still seems commonplace, distant enough that each visit is a novelty, yet close enough that it isn’t too hard to remember the details.

There are plenty of tangible ties that bind. There’s the quintessential Madison: Farmer’s Market on Capitol Square, or a walk up State Street for a bit of summer bliss on Memorial Union Terrace. The thunderclouds roll in and out on humid summer days, but somehow, the weather is always perfect in the center of the city, and the lakes offer some respite from the sweltering heat. A bratwurst off the grill, a bag of cheese curds, a beer, fruits and vegetables reminding that their ilk are not all created equal: some taste so much crisper, so much more real. A curious little observation from the latest trip: even the parking ramps have their own smell. And, of course, the endless people-watching in this city full of curiosities.

Too much of that? Head west. The place I know best is Mount Horeb, a quaint town of Norwegian and troll kitsch that somehow still manages to welcome in a world-weary cynic, both in its small-town feel and its easy access to Madison. A town where one can wander up from a worn but cozy motel to a coffee shop or a bar named The Grumpy Troll. But there is so much more out here. Glacial Devil’s lake, otherworldly Parfrey’s Glen, parks atop the highest bluffs and caves beneath them, the Wisconsin River. New Glarus; Mineral Point. A hill or a stream or a stand of trees tucked away in some recess of childhood memory, a back corner that barely seems like the same life. Bob Uecker on the radio, the bugs splattering all over the windshield, and a few miles stuck behind a tractor or some other slow-moving piece of farm machinery. American Pastorale.

This time around, it’s a high school graduation, yet another event that pulls me back into youth. The moment comes. A moment where the mind, perhaps aided by the sticky heat and a bit of beer, imagines a world that could have been. In the past it’s been a source of anguish, but no more: now it simply is. Reality blurs into something that defies everything we’ve come to know, and even if it is only a fleeting instant, it endures, lingering without overstaying its welcome. An anchor, a reminder that we humans, for all our dreams and aspirations, are always part of a story whose authorship we can’t quite control. Roots may bind, but they nourish in a way nothing else can. We may be stuck with them, but we do have some measure of control over how we interpret that list of facts of who we are and where we come from. Finally, I’ve managed it, even as it  all fades further into the summer haze.

The world of enchantment may be gone now; it may never even have been. Just something that only exists in a nostalgic corner of the mind. Chasing those waves for their own sake will only bring about frustration. But they are no lie, and when they do come along, spontaneously, they are to be cherished; affirmations that, whatever it is we’re doing here, it’s a delight. And then, recharged, we can cycle back out for a night of revelry, too deep in to even be conscious of that reverie, the disparate strands of our complicated selves becoming one. As it should be.

(Driftless II)