Yeo-man’s Work

The Minnesota Wild is headed to the second round of the playoffs, drifting in after a thrilling Game 7 overtime victory over the favored Colorado Avalanche. The man orchestrating this run from behind the bench is Mike Yeo, a sprightly 40-year-old with an unfortunate look of uncertainty seemingly stuck on his face. (I suspect it’s the glasses.) He’s had his ups and downs, and there were cries for his head during some of the team’s in-season slumps.  Still, it’s hard to fight the sense that he’s on to something. After the second half collapse in his first season, the Wild have twice improved their playoff result, and this is already the second-best finish in the Wild’s short and not-so-illustrious history. Three years in, he has them looking like a real contender.

I know, I know: all that improvement also traces back to July 4, 2012, the day the Wild opened the checkbook and brought in two legitimate stars, Ryan Suter and Zach Parisé. The front office has made a pair of trades to bring in two more top-six forwards, and for the first time in a while, the young talent really is flowing in. 21-year-old Charlie Coyle has established himself as a top-six forward, and two of the other young guns, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, were the overtime heroes of the series with the Avs. This team has a solid veteran core and a good group of rising young talent, and they have a window for serious contention over the next few years. Any coach should be able to show some improvement now that the Wild actually have good players.

Still, the shortcomings aren’t hard to find. Only one of their top four defensemen (Suter) is over 23, and while they all have their flashes—Jared Spurgeon in particular—they are not yet a real strength. Sure, the forward corps is deep; Granlund and Niederreiter look like stars in the making, and of course Parisé’s work rate is second to none. But it’s hard to pretend the Wild belong in a category with Chicago or Pittsburgh and their ilk when it comes to skill, and the lower lines never were—and still really aren’t—settled. The Wild’s goaltending odyssey, meanwhile, has been the stuff of nightmares. Can someone actually keep the job for more than two weeks?

And yet here they are, in the second round for the first time in eleven years. The credit goes to the gameplan, which was ideal for this series with the Avs, and for the Wild’s skill set: possess the puck. The Wild held it for long stretches, putting up lopsided shot counts in a number of games, giving that decent collection of forwards as many cracks at Semyon Varlamov as it could, while keeping the action away from the question marks on the back end. When a team plays like that, they don’t need their goalie to be, well, Patrick Roy; they just need him to make the saves they need to make. While there were a few breakdowns and maddening stretches of failed clearances, the Wild tenders didn’t break, and the team managed to control the flow of play more often than not. If you don’t let the other team dictate the pace and go to work in the offensive zone, the results will usually follow.

The Wild were once again Patrick Roy’s bête noire, as they repeated the 7th-game overtime knockout that ended his storied playing career in 2003. The rookie Avs coach deserves much of the praise he’s had this season for turning a floundering franchise into a division winner, but there is a learning curve here, especially in the playoffs. In Game 7 he played into the Wild’s hands by switching to a passive forecheck after grabbing the early lead, and while good defensive hockey is obviously a must in the playoffs, it should never come at the expense of a team’s real strengths. The Avs are at their best when flying up and down the rink, and when they made their concession to the trap, they let the Wild set the pace. Minnesota’s growing confidence was evident from there, and they came from behind four times before pulling off the win. The heroes were on the re-worked third line, which was on the ice for the last three goals, plus chipped in another just after a power play by the oft-maligned Dany Heatley. Unable to use that line to match with Colorado’s best as he had in the home games, Yeo instead went with three guys who could generate some offensive pressure, and they did just that.

It was a real triumph for Minnesota, both in the final results and in the style column, with Yeo’s patient cycles eclipsing the Avs’ trap. Moreover, one gets the sense that this franchise, now in its 14th season, is finally coming into its own. While Jacques Lemaire will always have a well-deserved place in Wild history for his early efforts, his imported, dull style and (mostly) ragtag collection of players never had the verve of this group. This Wild team has a couple of stars as its faces, a rising group of homegrown youngsters, and some hard-working depth players whose efforts keep the team on the attack and able to recover from short-term setbacks. It’s a fitting formula for a Minnesota team, and one its fans should have no trouble embracing: it’s not flashy, but it can still be very pretty, and with enough work thrown in, it produces results. After decades of wandering in the wilderness in the pros while the amateurs carry the load, the self-proclaimed State of Hockey may finally have an NHL team worthy of the title.

Of course, it could easily come to a crashing halt in the next round. Some have contended that the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t as good as they were a year ago, when they disposed of the Wild in five tidy games. I’m not buying it. It’s the exact same group, most of them are still in their primes, and they’re all playoff-tested; when they turned it on after going down 2-0 to St. Louis, they looked just like their old selves. The Hawks are the Avalanche on steroids, with depth, experience, and some overwhelming elite talent.

This Wild is certainly better than last year’s Wild, though, and they’ll have a fighting chance if they can continue to limit the burden on their goalies and defensemen not named Suter. Yeo will need to find a comfort zone with his line-juggling act, and perhaps add a few wrinkles in his chess match with Joel Quenneville. He’s not the second coming of Scotty Bowman; he has his flaws, and though he had some experience on Roy, he’s still a kid in the game. But he does have his team moving in the right direction, and when his back’s been up to the wall, he’s found a way. By Minnesota Wild standards, that’s a real achievement, and he’s done enough to earn some time to prove what he can do.

The Man in the Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” from a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, 23 April 1910.

Fighting words there, Teddy. There’s an obvious tension between these lines and the tone of many posts on this blog. I am often a critic, and rarely go overboard for particular causes. It sounds inspiring, of course, but when you think about it, the chivalrous attitude one sees in TR and his European contemporaries rubs thin. After all, it’s exactly what kicked off the First World War just a few years later. It drips of hubris. It carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, breeding resentment and fueling the collapse of the old world order. And while I think there are obvious things to admire in Teddy’s politics, whether he knew it or not, his machismo and controlling demeanor contributed quite a bit to America’s imperial ambitions and gradual centralization. It’s the blustering bravado of a man who can’t accept the fact that there’s a dark side to everything, even in the seemingly most enlightened projects. It turns life into a roller coaster of victories and defeats, a bipolarity ill-befitting of anyone just trying to get by.

And yet, despite that withering dismissal, I’m still on board with TR. My favorite people are those who are in the arena: the star athlete, the charismatic leader, the far-reaching visionary. It’s not that I can’t enjoy the company of other critics, but after a while that life wears thin, and it’s not uncommon to find people using cynical detachment as a cheap excuse for not doing anything. Just as wholesale commitment to life in the arena fails to provide any perspective, so too does a life that never enters it come up short. Call it ambition, eros, transcendence, whatever you like: cynical detachment alone denies an unavoidable part of human nature that we cannot suppress or wish away.

All this talk of arenas reminded me of a David Brooks column that is now several years old, but has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Here it is—and to my pleasant surprise, upon rereading it, I found it was based around All Things Shining, a book that I read last spring, and blogged about here and here. Anyway, Brooks’ point is that, in the modern world—and especially for those of us who struggle with religious truth—it can be hard to find transcendent, unified meaning in the universe. Instead, we have to look for it in the fleeting moments of daily life, and in communion with other people in those institutions that bind us together. That is, in arenas.

This is pretty much how I’ve lived for the past few years. I’ve outsourced much of my emotion to, in Brooks’ words, “activities often dismissed as mere diversions [that] are actually central.” I am, obviously, a big sports fan, and use that as a main channel. I also get the “wooshing” sensation in plenty of other places—in nature, in the company of family and good friends, and so on. Most of my pleasures and ambitions are not all that grandiose, and I intend to keep it that way.

Politics, however, occupies a somewhat more complicated place. Most of those other things I get swept up in have no vast consequences, but as Brooks writes, the excitement of politics offers no “satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.” Lives and livelihoods are at stake here, and anyone who thinks deeply about these things probably fears becoming too partisan, since they know that virtually all political platforms oversimplify. From there, it’s not too big of a leap to head into political ambivalence. It’s all too complicated, too distant; why bother?

Since the moment some three and a half years ago when I realized my happiness is not tied to politics, I’ve reveled in the resultant freedom. Yet somehow, I can’t tear my eyes away. I play the detached observer, parsing the rhetoric and shaking my head at all these yelling and screaming politicians, sometimes letting an emotional outburst or two slip through. I couldn’t retreat, even though part of me wanted to do so completely. I’ve re-focused my energy on the areas I can have an influence, and I’m still motivated by a sense of duty; perhaps the word “stewardship” would be an apt one for the compulsion I feel toward political action. I plan to have kids some day, after all, and I want them to inherit a world—or, at least, one corner of it—that is worth inhabiting. So long as I’m a part of this world, I can’t get rid of that pull, no matter how much I claim disinterest.

I say all of this because I am re-entering the arena right now, after a fashion: an old college friend has asked me to reprise my role as his PR man, this time on a campaign he’s managing for a school board candidate in Phoenix. It’s hardly a daring leap into the gladiatorial ring, and my decision was driven more by loyalty than by an ideological commitment to a cause; I haven’t met the candidate yet, and will be doing my work from 1800 miles away. I’m intrigued by the situation in Phoenix, but I’m at some remove from it all, too.

Clearly, this isn’t a rush into the center of the arena. I could probably get there if I put everything I had into it, but instead, I’ve slowly come to accept that I am better suited for being the guy behind the scenes. I may point out where the strong man stumbles, but I don’t do it out of spite; I do it because I don’t want to see him make that same mistake again. I want to make sure he doesn’t become blinded by all the dust and blood and forget what it is he’s fighting for, or how to conduct himself while doing so. And if he needs to lose a battle to win a war, I want to be there to talk him through it. Why would anyone enter the arena if he doesn’t have someone behind him?

There needs to be a bridge between the arena and the world beyond it. What I aim for is balance, or a smooth cycle between two poles, both essential, but incomplete on their own. When one finds that perspective, it’s not too hard to see that all things really are shining.

State Tourney Reflection 2014

This post originally appeared on mnhockeyprospects.com and on the USHSHO forum.

The seventieth State Tournament has come and gone, its whirlwind collision of nostalgia and renewal consuming us for four days before melting away into a Minnesota spring. The best team in each class was obvious, but it was still more competitive than last year’s, particularly on the Class A side. We had one instant classic, a double overtime thriller with drama and intrigue at every turn, as stars dropped like flies with injury and exhaustion late in the game. Gary Thorne graced the Tourney with an added dose of gravitas, and the referees made their presence felt a bit more than usual. Edina’s repeat at the top of the heap lets us use the word ‘dynasty’ for the first time in many years, and with an all-public AA field, the Hornets had little trouble claiming the villain tag.

Some of the best stories in this Tourney came far from that small town on the west side with a dream, though. Feisty Luverne proved its doubters wrong and proved it can compete on the highest stage, while New Prague recorded the South’s first top-3 finish in over ten years. Roseau added to its proud Tourney history with a very competitive 5th place showing in AA, its stars once again coming south to dazzle the St. Paul crowds. The biggest of the small-town winners, though, was East Grand Forks, and with its seamless breakouts and a relentless Green Wave of powerful hits, the Class A champion’s mysterious mascot only seemed apt. There is room for all types at the Tourney, but the growth and sustenance of hockey in small towns keeps the Tourney in touch with its roots. There were good storylines among the big city schools, too: Stillwater made its debut, Lakeville North’s thrilling overtime victories put AA’s southernmost section in the title game for the first time in 25 years, and while their faces are a bit more familiar, section wins by Eagan, Centennial, and Duluth East were a reminder of what good coaching and smart defense can do in the playoffs.

As always, the players make the Tourney. There was the delight of Eddie Eades, posing theories on cookies and ice cream, and then there was the agony of Luc Snuggerud, the wounded warrior bowed in defeat. Tyler Nanne channeled his grandfather’s ease with words, while Nick Wolff probably still hasn’t finished his latest shift for Eagan. Zach Yon of Roseau made a last-second pitch for Mr. Hockey, while Luverne eighth-grader Jaxon Nelson gave us a glimpse of the future. Erik Gadbois proved an unlikely hero for scrappy St. Cloud Cathedral, and Eden Prairie’s Michael Parrish mustered a heroism that transcended hockey, putting together a hat trick in the shadow of his father’s death.

The coaches, too, add their own distinct flavor. The old guard was on hand, still plugging along; Bruce Plante was understandably chastened after a fifth straight second place finish, but still managed to show why he is beloved in Hermantown, and a vintage Mike Randolph pulled all the levers he could in a losing cause before making “embellishment” the word of the Tourney. The bubbly and quotable Trent Eigner took his program to the next level, while Luverne’s rising star, Derrick Brown, did a victory lap for all of small-town hockey. But the clear-eyed focus of Tyler Palmiscno (with an assist from the peerless Scott Oliver) and the supreme confidence of Curt Giles carried the day.

Giles is normally one to run a tight ship; he’s not one to furnish reporters with juicy quotes, nor does he hold strong public opinions on the endless debates over private schools and junior hockey. Such is the luxury of Edina, of course: he presides over a program of unmatched depth, and he knows he’s blessed not to have many of the worries facing others. Back at the pinnacle yet again, though, Giles let the façade come down and channeled that old Herb Brooks line, saying the emotion of a Tourney win rivals that of the Stanley Cup. Repeats may tire some fans, especially when they taste of cake, but sports need dominant powers to serve as the measuring stick. Edina sets the standard for all of hockey in Minnesota, and it’s up to the rest of the state to find a response to this latest Hornet run. They came in with the flair and swagger of champions, a fast and edgy team unafraid to show off its talents and let the world know who is number one. Oh, to be young and a Hornet.

The whole weekend overflows with youth, even for those whose follicles have forsaken them, rendered them ineligible for the Hockey Hair Team. This year there was no one quote that fixed itself in my mind, no one poignant moment that pierced through the din. Instead, it was a steady, sustained buzz, fueled by stops at bars between sessions and those incessant Hornets. There are the kids doing what we once did: plotting an off-color chant, smuggling in a beach ball, fighting the crowds at the Expo, bumming around the upper deck, perhaps going on a run through the St. Paul night in the ecstasy of victory, or off to a party in some hotel room, all pretense of dignity and decorum forgotten for a weekend at the start of Lent. For those of us with some remove from the glory days, we have the impromptu reunions, the ease of chatting up anyone knowing we have common ground, the gathering of generations, the march of time and a ceaseless cycle bearing us back to the past. Those of us in the stands can lose track of the constant turnover, forget the rawness of emotions that come out no matter who is on the winning or losing end. That part never changes, and even as we head into summer or perhaps out into the world beyond high school, it long lingers, waiting to be brought forth again for four more days next March. No matter where the world takes us, the memory endures.

Don Ness Goes West

I took a break from packing for the State Tourney to watch Duluth Mayor Don Ness’s State of the City address tonight. It was vintage Mayor Ness: upbeat, ambitious, and optimistic about Duluth’s future. Indeed, Ness has good reason to be optimistic; he began by listing off some of the city’s big wins over the past year, from record-low unemployment to the demise of the Last Place on Earth, and said the city is “showing signs of population growth that Duluth has not seen in sixty years.” It would be good to know more about that, but it’s an encouraging sign.

Next, it was on to a few broad challenges facing the city. One is the housing stock, which is already old and strained, and will need to grow if the city does indeed grow. Ness established a few goals and celebrated last month’s housing summit among community leaders, which was a decent start toward addressing a real issue. He also spent some time talking about income inequality, to which possible solutions included “engaging labor,” primarily in the building trades; granting equal access to communities of color; and making sure schools and colleges are teaching the skills students need. There isn’t really anything concrete in among these buzzwords, though there is only so much a local government can do on these fronts.

The bulk of the speech, though, focused on a vision for Duluth’s western end, and the St. Louis River corridor in particular. As Duluthians have learned over the past few days, the St. Louis River is the “world’s largest freshwater estuary,” and the string of neighborhoods dotting the riverbank—many of them separate enough from their neighbors to feel like their own small towns—do indeed have potential if the city “taps into its authentic strengths.” Ness noted the ongoing environmental restoration efforts along the river, and said they went hand-in-hand with economic development. He wrapped up the pitch with four legislative goals: the Spirit Mountain water project, further flood relief for the zoo and Irving Park, the re-implementation of a recently expired tourism tax, and housing incentives. He concluded by saying 2014 was the start of a “virtuous cycle” for the city, and said that “all we have to do is accelerate.”

The most striking thing about the Ness plan is its comprehensiveness. There are any number of ways a city like Duluth might try to improve its economy. It could try to follow the “creative class” theory and attract interesting people who will develop a rich cultural scene. It could focus on Duluth’s historic strengths, manufacturing and transportation, and try to create blue-collar jobs. Or it could embrace the post-industrial service economy and train most of its efforts on tourism, perhaps with some health care thrown in as well. In Ness’s Duluth, the choice is “all the above.” That’s an impressive commitment, and ultimately probably the right one, though the city does need to make sure it doesn’t spread itself too thin and wind up with a lot of some things but no critical mass in anything.

It’s also an incredibly ambitious plan on many levels. First off, Ness does deserve credit for going out there and pitching such a big plan; as I’ve observed before, the west side is not his political base. He doesn’t need to do this. Aside from flood reconstruction and city-wide projects like the expansion of trails, it’s hard to think of any development large development projects on the west side in recent years; most of the attention has been focused downtown, up in the Duluth Heights area, and in a few pockets on the east side such as the BlueStone Lofts. This is a leap into new territory; one he truly believes is the next step in bringing this city toward whatever destiny it has in mind.

It also makes complete sense intuitively. As someone who’s spent some time wandering the western neighborhoods, I agree there is clear untapped potential: natural beauty, empty space left over by dying industry, tight-knit neighborhoods, and a somewhat tired feel that could use some updating. Further neglect will only deepen divides between east and west, and it’s important to act while the west side’s civic pride remains strong.

With great opportunity, however, comes the great possibility of screwing things up. There will be competing visions going forward, and the people who don’t get what they want will have to be placated somehow. Economic and environmental incentives may align for now, but there’s no guarantee that will last. The end result isn’t going to look like the west side of forty years ago, even if there is a decent manufacturing base out there. Community input is essential; this can’t just be something the (mostly east side-based) city administration imposes on the west side. Ness’s nod toward “authentic strengths” is a step in this direction, but people have different perceptions of authenticity, and for many, it involves keeping things the way they are. This is going to cost money—probably a lot of money—and if people don’t jump on the incentives the Administration thinks they will jump on, it will be a financial sinkhole.

On that front, the biggest battle is probably going to be one of perception. For many who don’t live out that way, there’s no real animus the west side; people just don’t feel the need to go there. It used to be big manufacturing area, but not anymore, except for that smelly paper mill; it seems long and spread out and no one can remember the neighborhoods; the schools’ test scores and such are lower than the east side or Hermantown. It’s just there, without any real draws aside from a few trails and a small-city zoo. It has to fight the perception that it’s a part of the city that history has left behind.

That’s a very unfair generalization, of course; there are plenty of bright spots out west, and plenty of people who are fighting for it. (The late Charlie Bell immediately jumps to mind.) There are also plenty of residents who don’t care at all about grandiose things like arcs of history, and simply want to get on with their lives; that could be good or bad for the redevelopment plans, depending on how they’re presented. The point here is that perception moves slowly. It isn’t going to shift with more trails or a co-op or a niche manufacturer. It’s a long process, one that will long outlive the Ness Administration. It can work (witness Canal Park), but it’s no guarantee.

I could blather on for a spell with more questions (for example, why does the credits music sound like it’s from India?), but I’ll stop myself. I don’t have a definitive take on Ness’s vision for the west side, perhaps because I can swim in both seas. My inner developer loves it all, and wants to start drawing up plans on a map while dreaming of the future. Another part of my brain orders me not to be so presumptuous as to say I know what should be done with the side of the city I don’t know well, that history should take its course. Duluth needed a Ness at this point in its history to get it to think past the post-industrial mire it’s been in for my entire life; it will also need its critics acting in good faith, though, or else it will end up with another half-baked, expensive mess that creates more problems than it solves. The vision must remain comprehensive at all steps, and not just pay lip service to certain areas.

I hope Ness is right; I hope this is the start of a new virtuous cycle for Duluth. I also hope it is a patient one. There’s a lot of work to done before we go barreling ahead, but if we do it right, it might just work out in the end.

Why We Travel

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my winter reading in Duluth often involves adventure stories set in places that are not currently buried in snow. As this winter has been a particularly harsh one, my impulse for vicarious travel has only grown stronger. And so the three works of non-fiction I’ve read over the past month (plus a work of fiction, though I’ll leave that out for now) take place nowhere near an iced-over Lake Superior.

The first book was The Lost City of Z by David Grann, and it’s the sort of book that made me think I was born a hundred years too late. It’s the story of a British explorer who fulfills many of my childhood fantasies in his explorations of the Amazon for the Royal Geographic Society. It was an era of glamour in mapping and exploration, with genteel Brits trotting about the globe to its empty spaces and painstakingly mapping them, risking life and limb to do ethnographies on previously uncontacted tribes. Nowadays, geographers sit fly over things in planes or around in front of computers, and we’re rather lacking in untouched earthly frontiers. Even as we read the words, it’s hard to process the fact that it isn’t one great big romantic adventure: the hero of the book, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett, became consumed by his search for the mythical city of Z, and vanished without a trace into the jungle. We all want to be adventurers, but we also want to be the ones who came back, and it would be nice if we got a book deal out of it, too.

Next, I read a book by the closest thing to a modern-day Fawcett out there: Shadow of the Silk Road, a mid-00s travelogue by Colin Thubron, a Brit who set out to trace the old trade route from China west to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps the best travel book I’ve ever read, beautifully crafted and overflowing with sharp insights about the people the author meets on his adventures through Central Asia. Like his predecessors, Thubron aims to see the world as it is, but for entirely different reasons: he has no aspersions of fame and riches, nor does he see himself as the vanguard of the civilized world, venturing into the backlands to establish contact and pave the way for future discovery (or perhaps colonization). While there are a few moments of self-examination, with Thubron speaking to an imagined Sythian trader trying to understand why he has undertaken his journey, his story takes a back seat to his exquisite observation skills.

And so his readers are given windows into the souls of the nations he visits. Central China, modernized in stunning fashion over the previous two decades, with questions emerging as to what comes next. The ethnic Uighur Chinese province of Xinjiang, its people clinging to a fading identity as waves of Han Chinese migrants pour in, with only a few outposts of culture left. The former Soviet Stans, populated by people without a history, their ethnicity invented by the Soviets and new national myths manufactured to hold it all together, uniting all on the surface but failing to pull at the nomadic core beneath. Afghanistan, crippled by war, thus rendered even more fractured and tribal. The Iranians, so fearful of Western smut yet disdainful of their authoritarian regime, the myths of the mullahs long dead. The Kurds, brashly proclaiming their identity at one moment, but beaten into submission when among their Turkish overlords. In the end, Thubron finally comes to the Mediterranean coast near Antioch, alone, and his return to the West is no homecoming: instead, the dark clouds remind him only of his restlessness, his reality as a wandering soul unable to find home in any single place. He can dabble in any place, visit old friends in China or Uzbekistan, share in a delightful night of vodka and yogurt in Kyrgyzstan, but he is still some other, forever the solitary soul on his lonely path.

The lonely path is a theme in my last book as well, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s infectious humor dominates every page, and as an out-of-shape recent returnee to the United States, he’s among the least likely hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Yet he endures long marches up and down mountains through brutal weather, mocking his fellow hikers and Americans in general with his delicious snark. He celebrates the environment preserved along the route, yet maintains a certain distance from the solitude of the Trail, and he captures the contradictory relationship so many wilderness adventurers have with their surroundings. I can relate completely. I go hiking or canoeing just about every summer, and the actual experience usually involves a lot of grumbling about why we’re abandoning our comfy beds to exert ourselves and do all these chores in the woods. I’ll admit it, I’m hardly an outdoorsman; my trips are rarely more than a long weekend, and I possess an unfortunate talent for staying awake all night for no good reason when sequestered in a tent. But yet, somehow, the trips are always a delight in retrospect, and memories of blissful afternoons in a hammock or staring at the stars through a tent screen always overpower those of the sleepless nights.

That’s how travel works. Every now and then, we have moments where we become truly aware of our surroundings—moments when we realize that This Is Water—but for the most part, our perceptions of things are either formed in anticipation or in memory, not in the moment. I’ve read that the process of planning a trip is often more pleasurable than the trip itself; it’s the idea of what is going to happen that captures our minds. After the trip is over, our memories pull out the most distinct moments and give them extra meaning. That’s what makes travel so powerful, for good or ill: it is so obviously a break from the monotony of daily life that it can’t help but be significant, especially for those of us whose minds are often racing into the future or lingering on the past.

There’s an underlying theme in all of these books: a sense of loss, a fear that these places are slowly being stripped of their novelty. Fawcett-esque adventurers would be laughable nowadays, and much of the Amazon he once explored is now open farmland. Thubron watches any number of people try to square their past with the march of modernity and development, whether in Chinese or Western form; most everyone thinks something is being lost, but the material gains are so great and often so necessary that no one is going to stop the process. Despite his love-hate relationship with the wilderness, Bryson fears its destruction at every turn, and is careful to educate his readers about environmental policy decisions on and around the Appalachian Trail. On the most basic level, they all fear the same thing: sameness. They worry that the world will lose some of those contours that interrupt an often numbing plain, a repetition of events that one cannot rise above—or sink below—in order to gain perspective.

That perspective is essential, and it’s why I’ll continue to go on journeys, either on my own or through the words of other people. Some journeys must be undertaken alone, and no two travel companions will come away from an adventure with the exact same conclusions. As the old cliché goes, life is a journey, and there is freedom and power to be found in taking up the mantel of the adventurer: one sets one’s own pace, keeps a record of the sights, and charts a course through the unknown.

It isn’t that easy, though. The best example of that might come from one of the most famous adventurers of all time, Don Quixote. The popular image of Don Quixote celebrates him as a knight errant, boldly going off and chasing the impossible dream. It’s admirable, to an extent. But at the end of the book, the protagonist comes home from his journey, and concedes that he never was the hero he claimed to be. We can only invent so much, and if travel becomes routine, then it too becomes a lie, a false reality from which we cannot see the contours. Life is not a progression from point A to point B; it is a cycle, in and out, forward and back, requiring both spontaneity in the moment and the cold remove of distance. This is why travel stories make such good books: they allow for plenty of both. But it can’t all be vicarious. We need to go live it too, if only for a little while. That little spark makes all the difference.

Where My Demons Hide

“If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

—Rilke

During my series on Dead Greek People, I tried to avoid using Greek words or an overload of philosophical jargon. That’s usually a good way to get people to ignore what you’re saying. There is one word, however, that I think deserves a little exploration. That word is eudaimonia.

This is Aristotle’s word for…something good. No one has ever really found a satisfactory translation. It means “happiness” or “welfare” or “human flourishing,” or something along those lines. It’s hard to know exactly what it is, but it sure sounds like something that would be nice to have, though. It makes sense that Aristotle would make this thing the end goal of all human life; the state to which we all aspire.

But let’s take an even closer look at the word. Take a look at the word sandwiched in between the two vowels on either end of it. Daimon. That’s right: demon. At the center of Aristotle’s good life, one finds demons.

To be sure, these aren’t demons the sort of demons we normally hear about today, with the possible exception of the “daemons” in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. They’re not horned creatures running around causing mischief, and they aren’t necessarily evil. A better translation of “daimonic” into modern English would be “spiritedness,” or something like that.

Still, the daimon is dangerous. There’s no room for apathy in it. It has the power to take over people and consume them. It is an urge that rebels against any form of submission, and seeks to assert and perpetuate itself at every turn.

Our old friends Socrates and Plato and Aristotle saw the dangers in that drive, but they never advocated its repression. Plato called it a form of “divine madness,” a natural force that went beyond good and evil that was at the center of each person’s individuality—both the good and the bad.

To frame these daimons in modern terms, we turn not to a Dead Greek Person, but to a Dead American Person who knew a lot about them. His name is Rollo May, and he has the rather grandiose title of “existential psychoanalyst.”

May’s seminal work is entitled Love and Will, and it is one of the more compelling attempts ever made to make sense of the malaises of modernity. Rather than pretending these drives don’t exist or trying to cover them up, he advocates confronting them head-on, and trying to live in accordance with them. This isn’t easy, of course, and requires a lot of support. But they can be harnessed, and that is exactly what May calls for. And while there are probably many demons, named and unnamed, May focuses on one: Eros.

Eros, mind you, is not straight-up eroticism—though it can certainly entail it. It’s a bit more complicated. It’s a force that pulls people outward, animates them, keeps them dreaming and aspiring for more. In the ancient Greek myths, Eros was the child of Ares and Aphrodite, both warlike and beautiful, but willing to assert itself. Erotic love can consume people, but it’s also a force that makes life worth living, its risks always worth taking.

Since incredibly good sex doesn’t come around every day, it can be tough to find outlets for one’s Eros. May looks to art as an obvious means; he also says that writing “comes from maladjustment to life,” and while this raises some awkward questions for those of us who like to write, I think there’s something to that. Some of us just cannot stop thinking and always have to sit about trying to understand things, often getting lost in the mire. If you’re not one of those people, I envy you, though at the same time, I can’t imagine things being any other way. May doesn’t mention this, but I would argue that sports and physical activity can also be a very good channel for that inner spiritedness. They allow for controlled aggression and set off all sorts of hormones that satisfy some of the more primal human urges without causing great harm to other people.

Whichever form it takes, the important thing is that Eros not be repressed. This, May insists, only causes lots of problems later on, as the demon comes to control people, exploding in sudden, ugly fits. The opposite of love, he writes in his most famous line, is not hate: it is apathy. People who suppress their urges do not learn how to harness their will, and are in turn compulsive and neurotic, perhaps even to the point of self-destruction.

On this blog, I’ve made a big deal out of detachment. There is, however, a danger of detachment drifting over into apathy. The key, then, is in placing that detachment into the service of Eros. I stay detached not because I don’t care—quite the contrary. It’s very important to me that I get things right, and I think every possibility has to be explored to get there. That, I suppose, is how the patient cycle is supposed to work.

Image of Rollo May from http://www.listal.com/viewimage/3006433h.

Deep in the Heart of Mexico

Today is the 203rd anniversary of Mexican independence. Not a particularly significant milestone, but not far removed from the Bicentennial of the nation so aptly described by its former dictator, Porfirio Díaz: “so close to the United States, so far from God.” Over one long weekend in 2010, one American kid got to see the whole paradox of a nation summed up in one little road trip. This is the story of my Mexican Bicentennial.

The semester I spent in Mexico City wound up being four of the more important months in my young life, and I could easily turn this blog strictly into a string of reminiscences and have plenty of content to keep it going. I was enrolled in the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Catholic university on the west side of the city, safely perched in a glitzy new neighborhood up in the mountains, far above the bedlam below. I didn’t live on campus, though; instead, I was down along the dried-up lake floor in the heart of the Valley of Mexico, living with a superb host family and a kindly but rather mute roommate. Every day, I pushed myself in through the back doors of a green-and-orange bus and gave my four pesos to the person wedged in next to me; the fifty standing passengers between me and the driver would pass my fare forward, and five minutes later, someone would hand me an utterly useless ticket proving that my fare had made it to the driver. It was a fascinating, and rather heartening, insight into the human condition: it would have been absurdly easy to not pay a single bus fare while crammed onto those buses, yet every single person aboard would pass their fare forward and clutch their stupid little ticket when it finally made it back to them.

Even so, Mexico City is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a certain type of foreigner to be crazy enough to stay for four months amid that teeming mass of humanity. There were only six Americans in my program, and plenty of people back home expressed their worries about my chosen location, though telling them that Washington DC’s murder rate (at the time) was nearly quadruple that of Mexico City did get their attention. Indeed, reality suggested Americans have been conditioned to panic over Mexico by grisly news reports from across the border: Europeans still came to the Iberoamericana in droves, and I can’t remember a single story of even minor theft among the friends I met. The terror of drug-related violence is largely confined to a handful of border and Pacific coast states.

Still, Mexico City isn’t somewhere you go because it’s a default fun study abroad location; it’s somewhere you go because something pulls you there. And so I was thrown in with a group of people who, despite some very disparate backgrounds and personalities, shared a desire to be right in the middle of everything, and the wherewithal to be able to reflect on the meaning of the leap we’d taken. It was no surprise, then, that four of us (one fellow Georgetown Hoya, another American, an Australian, and myself) decided we were going to do the Mexican Bicentennial the only way it could be done.

We knew where we had to be for the Bicentenario, and planned a road trip accordingly. Our destination: Dolores Hidalgo, a city that has officially taken on the rather pretentious name of Dolores Hidalgo cuna de la independencia nacional (Dolores Hidalgo: the Cradle of National Independence; the “Hidalgo” is also an add-on to the city’s original name of Dolores.) It was in this city that, at dawn on September 16th of 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bell at the church to rally the first revolt against the Spanish Empire. The revolt fell flat, but inspired the independence movement, and has the distinction of being one of the few moments of popular rebellion in the Latin American independence movement. (Most other countries gained it amidst political intrigue and/or invasions following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.)

We set out from the university on Wednesday the 15th, and sailed our way up a Mexican interstate north out of Mexico City. As is my wont, I had an atlas open, noting every little town and crossroads we passed in the scrubby, mountainous country high in the central Mexican plateau. Before long we were shooting down a two-lane road toward Dolores Hidalgo, and a suddenly we passed a torch runner flanked by a bunch of slow-moving cars. An Independence Day torch relay, we assumed. How lucky that we’d chosen that route!

The novelty wore off the fourth time we passed one of these torch relays, which we now realized were not remotely official. Trailing behind each group of runners was a pickup truck with a whole bunch of people in the back, happily downing beers and getting an early start on the festivities. Oh, Mexico: what a delightful mix of tackiness and transcendence you are. We snapped up some pictures of the runners, and in time, a giant Mexican flag alongside the road greeted us to Dolores Hidalgo.

This being Mexico, our arrival was anything but smooth. First, we learned that the Mexican Army, on hand to provide a massive security presence lest any drug cartel grow ambitious, had shut down the entire center of the town. We eventually found our hostel, but there was nowhere to park, and, of course, the hostel had found some way to lose our reservations. They were apologetic, but there was only one open bed. We snapped up that one bed, and some hostel employee’s family member offered us parking at some spot on the outskirts of town. Two of our party went to park the car, and the other two of us, wondering vaguely if we’d ever see our friends again, set out in search of lunch. We found a lovely colonial-style hotel with a buffet right off the main Zócalo (plaza), which, to our chagrin, would later prove the culprit for a case of diarrhea.

Once the car was successfully stowed in some mysterious garage, the four of us spent the day wandering the city center, maneuvering our way through bored soldiers on buses and the obligatory army of vendors hawking every piece of Mexico swag imaginable. I snapped up a Mexican flag (later forgotten in a port-o-potty during the diarrhea outburst) and a silly Christmas ornament, both of which complemented my overpriced Mexican soccer jersey superbly. We struck up a conversation with a Mexican-American about our age, a kid who’d grown up in the States but was back in Mexico due to immigration limbo, and watched the less-than-stellar Guanajuato Orchestra. After that, we drifted back to the hostel, where the Mexicans were throwing a party as only Mexicans can. Given our lack of beds, our plan for the night was a simple one: don’t bother with sleep, and crash when beds open up in the morning. Traditionally, Mexicans celebrate Independence Day the night of the fifteenth, as Porfirio Diaz didn’t want to bother with getting up to lead the ceremonies at 7:00 AM, when Father Hidalgo had called his countrymen to arms. On this occasion, however, they decided to go back to the old way in Dolores. We’d have to be back in the Zócalo by 4:00 AM anyway if we wanted to watch the main event, so why bother?

Needless to say, much of the rest of the night was a blur. My vague memories involve dancing about the hostel rooftop-turned-bar, some German girl offering me scotch, a rap battle between our Australian and our new Mexican friend, catching some of the festivities from Mexico City on television, and a fireworks display over Dolores Hidalgo. One of our number got the diarrhea and retreated to our sole bed, but the rest of us made it through the night. We kept to our 4:00 departure time, staked out an excellent spot in the Zócalo, and awaited President Felipe Calderón’s arrival.

My diarrhea hit around six.

I made a few desperate trips to the 5-pesos-per-use port-o-potties, but couldn’t make it. I passed off my camera and retreated to the overbooked hostel, where I made the intimate acquaintance of a seatless rooftop toilet and then tried to rest on a couple of couch cushions lain across the concrete patio. I joined a herd dazed and/or passed-out guests lying on benches or under tables to escape the cool mountain air, desperately trying to block out the norteño music still blasting from the speakers at the bar.

One miserable hour later, five helicopters went screaming directly overhead, maybe twenty feet above the roof. They landed a block away, and in time I could hear President Calderón in the distance, giving the famed Grito de Dolores: “Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos! Viva Allende! Viva la independncia nacional! Viva México!” The bells on the cathedral peeled, and the crowd roared. In spite of my sickness and my sleepless delirium, I grinned in awe.

After a fitful morning of sleep we set out for San Miguel de Allende, a colonial beauty of a city popular among American expatriates. Once again, parking was a chore, but we found a quiet churchyard down a hill from the city center and spent an evening wandering the streets and admiring the architecture and the abnormally high concentration of attractive women. Dinner proved something of an ordeal, as we sat for nearly two hours awaiting our pizza as the tables around us were served; our waiter, who simply could not understand our frustration, patiently explained that we could not get a refund because our pizza came with salsa.

I took over the driving duties that night down the desolate road back to Dolores Hidalgo. The next morning it was barely recognizable, back to being a sleepy central Mexican town, all the revelers and vendors and soldiers long-gone. After a delicious meal, we were on the road for Guanajuato, winding through the mountains en route to the old silver mining city.

After dumping one of our number at the airport, we proceeded to spend the next four hours driving in a loop around downtown Guanajuato in search of parking. We soon learned every last detail of the city’s meandering underground tunnels, tight one-way colonial streets, and bustling cafés. Eventually we found a near-empty parking ramp that had been hiding just off the main drag, and, having seen the entire city center during our parking odyssey, were content to spend a leisurely evening dining and drinking wine at a restaurant on an open-air, second-story bridge over a street. After two straight days of madness, we could watch the revelry down below from a contemplative distance, laughing with delight as some of the same characters from that first night in Dolores went by. So many things had gone wrong for us in the past few days, I mused, and yet we were still having the time of our lives. Mexico in a nutshell.

Before heading home the next morning, we hit up the Guanajuato Mummy Museum (a bit overrated, but sufficiently gruesome, and worthwhile if only for the ridiculous souvenirs available at the end) and a preserved silver mine with several areas that had not been closed off to the public nearly well enough to keep out intrepid Australians. Then we got back on the Mexican freeway and drove back to Mexico City, through the remnants of Hurricane Karl and past a bevy of roadside stands, all of which specialized in strawberries and cream. (Economic diversification hasn’t quite caught on among Mexican vendors quite yet.) After that, it was back to the university, where our dear leftist professors would sigh and wonder what the point of all of that merriment was, there in a nation with rampant poverty and corruption and brutal violence brought about by the drug cartels. The promise of Father Hidalgo’s revolt, they said, had never come to fruition, and some of them thought it never would. We were celebrating a checkered past with mindless debauchery in the present, doomed to the same cycles of mistakes.

So much of my time in Mexico was devoted to that study abroad cliché of “broadening horizons,” and I really needed that push into the unknown. But, perhaps more importantly, it also cycled back, and made me look inwards, to ponder what is worth our time and love in such a vast and complex world. At the beginning of my trip, my writings were grandiose and political; a few days before I set out on the Bicentennial trip, I wrote a little reflection on my first 9/11 outside of the United States. In it, I reaffirmed my American identity, not out of any respect for traditions of the past or the delights of the present, but out of a commitment to its dream for the future. The American Dream. It was an understandable stance for a kid who’d spent his entire life trying to live it. By the time I got to the beach town Puerto Escondido in November of that year, my writing had drifted into meditations on love and place in the face of the absurdities of modernity.

It took me a while to understand what was going on—perhaps a year, I’d say—but in time, I learned Mexico’s greatest lesson for an ambitious college kid, both for himself and how he thought of his own country. My Mexican professors were missing something in their worldview, as was I, when I thought only of what the future might bring. Instead, we have to embrace that past, in all its messiness, and do what we can to make sense of it. That wave at the top of this blog is not on Lake Superior; it is rolling up out of the Pacific Ocean near Puerto Escondido. They are those waves that, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, bear us ceaselessly back to the past.

Mexico will always take me back to the past, whether that means those four months of madness or a deeper reflection on how Aztecs and Mayans and Spaniards came together to form a troubled yet vibrant nation. But it will also push me outward, and it’s important to remember that, as I settle into this city that represents my own past, and bury myself in the vagaries of local politics. It requires constant balance; a cycle, you might say, as I try to make sense of my dreams, my memories, and the immediacy of the here and now. Thanks to Mexico, that won’t ever be too difficult.

Forward, and into the Past

It is just over 450 miles from Duluth, Minnesota to the western suburbs of Chicago. Growing up in the former and but coming from a family built around the latter, I cannot count how many times I’ve made that drive. It is not a particularly thrilling ribbon of road; while the Northwoods of northern Wisconsin and the rolling hills around Madison are pleasant, they don’t stand out in any obvious way, and as with most any freeway in this country, there are long stretches of blah suburban sprawl. But it’s a drive I’ve made so many times that even the most indistinct farmhouses and office buildings lining the road take on a certain familiarity. With familiarity comes comfort, comfort lends itself to repetition, and before long, improbable traditions are born.

There’s the cheese barn in Tomah, where we always stop for a hunk of 5-year cheddar; there’s the rest area near Black River Falls with a hiking trail up a convenient bluff—the perfect way to get one’s legs moving after several hours in the car. Sadly, the Rocky Rococo’s Pizza Parlor is no longer in Wisconsin Dells; it wasn’t particularly remarkable pizza, but we always stopped there anyway, and now have to improvise, either by heading on to another Rocky’s in Madison or going to the sit-down pizza place up the road with the fantastic giant moose atop their delivery cars. (The Dells are still an attraction in themselves, being one of the most impressive monuments to American consumer kitsch this side of Vegas.) There’s the ABS Beef billboard with its witty slogans, the offbeat coffee shop in Eau Claire, and the Illinois border, always a welcome sight despite the looming tolls and inevitable construction clogging up the last hour or two of the drive.

In southern Wisconsin, there are places that have a deeper place in my psyche than merely passing amusement. There is Madison, where my parents met and went to school; even though I’ve never lived there, it still brings out all the nostalgia of a former home. No summer is quite complete without an afternoon basking in the sun on the Memorial Union Terrace, or wandering up State Street in search of the most obscure possible culinary experience. (“Nah, we went to one of the Afghan places last summer; let’s try the Nepali restaurant this time.”) I see a lot of Madison in myself: a mix of Midwestern homeliness and university life (including both its intellectual and, um, “less refined” delights), interested in both the wider world and every move of the local sports teams. (I adopt the Badgers for sports in which my alma mater doesn’t compete.) It all adds up to one of the most vibrant small cities this country can offer, and on this road trip, it’s always a reassuring sign to see the capitol dome rising above the skyline.

After filling my granola quota in Madison, a short drive south takes me past the place where our old Honda once broke down and on to Edgerton. Edgerton is a town of some 5,000 residents, and in many ways couldn’t be further from the cosmopolitan pretension of Madison. To the passerby, it’s no different from any of the other towns lining the freeway, and the one or two facts one might learn of it—home to the world’s largest Culver’s restaurant! home of an annual “Tobacco Days” festival!—hardly inspire the casual driver. Further digging might reveal some things that might intrigue a few people: say, the home of children’s author Sterling North, or perhaps the intriguing political dynamics of a town halfway between lefty Madison and its industrial southern neighbor, Janesville—the hometown of Congressman Paul Ryan. Still, Edgerton seems exactly the sort of town people imagine when they hear the words “flyover country.”

But Edgerton will always be more than that: it was where my first memories were formed. I wasn’t born there, and it proved a fairly brief stop, convenient for its location between my mother’s graduate program in Madison and my father’s work in another Wisconsin town. I don’t know anyone who lives there anymore, and the memories are so distant that I only barely recognize the landmarks. What remains is a profound sense of rightness, one that comes rushing back when we make a pit stop at the old gas station, swing past the handful of places I remember: the house with the little creek in the back yard, a land I claimed as my kingdom; the school where I tormented my kindergarten teacher by making her look up the names of bizarre dinosaurs while other, more sensible children picked normal spelling words; the park with the pool whose water slide I was never quite tall enough to use; the library with its card catalogues; the daycare where I’d sit in the kitchen on a cot with pile of books during naptime because I couldn’t sleep.

On my most recent drive along this route, down from Duluth to Chicago with my mother to visit her mother on Mother’s Day, we listened to a book on disc, as we often do on these road trips. Our selection this time was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. It was an ideal book for this drive: a story of pioneers that takes its time, buried in so much rich detail that one can zone out along the road for a spell without missing much, but also drift back in to find a sudden gem of brilliance. It is the story of a retired history professor who, at an advanced age, finds himself divorced and unable to relate to his own son, alienated from the modern world he lives in. Lost in the present, he returns to the past, and sets out to write a fictionalized family history, following his grandparents across the American West. It’s a very long book, so we only made it halfway through, but the incisive opening passages were all I really needed to set my mind thinking about the past.

Perhaps Edgerton is the reason why, despite a lifelong fascination with the countries whose cuisine one finds lining State Street, I am still most at home in Middle America. Perhaps it is why I can take these apparently plain little towns and see not a cultural waste, but a diversity just as rich as that of any other place, all hidden in the details and waiting to be discovered. It is almost certainly why my own lurching attempts to write fiction always come back to places not so very different from Edgerton.

I try to be suspicious of nostalgia. It can lie, make us believe we should go back to a past whose faults have faded from memory, leaving only a false, pleasant haze. But we also shouldn’t dismiss it as irrational; instead, we need to reflect on it over time, recognize that it ties us to things that are part of who we are, and things that are worth carrying forward. There is value in any history if we read it carefully, and that is exactly what that drive across Wisconsin invites, no matter how distant my life may wander from it.

Why on Earth am I Doing This?

I always told myself I’d never start a blog. Blogging seems to capture so many of the worst narcissistic tendencies of people in this day in age, with endless blathering about things that are often best kept to oneself. Not every trivial thought I have needs to be broadcasted to the world, and it’s probably a good thing that many of them aren’t. Twitter has only exacerbated these explosions of personal information, which drown out anything meaningful in a deluge of irrelevance. Apparently, it’s too much to ask people to keep a journal or develop a filter. The world must know.

But I’ve finally caved, and here I am. I have things to say; sometimes they might be interesting and original, sometimes they might not, but as long as I give them some intelligent thought before spewing them forth, I don’t have much to lose. Tailoring my writing to a broader audience will force me to edit my work in a way that writing for myself never would. I will try to avoid details of my daily life; in the rare moments when I do feel the need to announce what I’m eating for dinner or what the annoying person on the bus said, I’ll use social media or even—gasp—voice it aloud in conversation to another human being.

Instead, this blog will reflect on any number of my eclectic interests. I enjoy an afternoon of keeping up on world affairs followed by an evening of pacing about a hockey arena; I might spend the next day reading a novel and before heading out to reacquaint myself with college-era debauchery. The one constant through everything is writing: for work or leisure, I almost never stop pecking away at this keyboard. While I appreciate a witty one-liner, I’m more the type who needs to think about something for a while and perhaps hear another opinion or two before forming my own thoughts into something coherent. This blog will allow me to do that.

There will be plenty of sports—most notably some commentary on high school hockey, as I currently moderate the USHSHO hockey forums and am a contributor to mnhockeypropsects.com. Baseball should also figure prominently, and coverage will revolve around the New York Yankees, who always seem to be doing something newsworthy, no matter what one thinks of them. Other sports will no doubt creep in as well. And even if sports aren’t your thing, I’ll look for parallels between what’s going on out on the field and the world outside of those cleanly drawn white lines. It’s always more than just a game, if one knows where to look.

Still, I suspect the majority of my posts will talk about culture and politics, in some way or another. When speaking of such affairs, we can never escape our own roots; I was born in Minnesota and spent most of my formative years in the city of Duluth, so I have an awful lot of thoughts about the cultures unique to that part of the country. But I’ve also spent significant time out of the Land of 10,000 Lakes: I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a decent amount, and I am a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, which apparently qualifies me to speak with authority on any geopolitical issue. Georgetown, a so-called “elite” university with a Catholic identity and a global focus, certainly has its own unique culture, and I’ll reflect on that world and the worldview it instilled in me. I’ll talk about U.S. politics as well, though the horse race that consume the twenty-four hour news cycle tires me. My musings on U.S. affairs might better be called cultural commentary than anything political, though I won’t ignore the realities of contemporary government completely. Instead, I’ll look to tie it to some broader philosophical point, and hopefully do so in a way that doesn’t involve an overload of academic jargon. Call it whatever you want, but understand that this blog isn’t set up to be a call to arms for any cause or set of causes. If anything, it should do the opposite, and make the partisans stop and think a bit. The world is a complicated place, and while we can’t spend all of our lives in detached analysis, the world could use an awful lot more of it.

This brings me to the title of the blog, “A Patient Cycle.” This is, in part, a hockey allusion: I’ve always found the offensive zone cycle one of the most aesthetically pleasing plays in hockey. When run well, it generates excellent puck possession for the team on offense, wears down the opposition, and eventually leads to good scoring chances. The best cycles give opponents nightmares, and grind them into submission.

But there’s a lot more to it, too. The “patient” disclaimer is a nod to the need for perspective and skepticism, rather than a rush to black-and-white judgment. Instead of looking at events as isolated incidents, I’ll try to incorporate them into broader narratives. There is always more to the story, and stories tend to move in cycles. History repeats itself, life begins and ends, and on so many occasions, it oscillates between highs and lows, comings and goings, times of rest and bursts of activity. A virtuous life forces us to see these cycles, rather than grasping at one simple viewpoint and repeating it ad nauseam. I’ll return to this theme time and again on this page, and I invite you to yell at me if I ever fall off the wagon and start harping on some stupid issue.

So, welcome aboard. I welcome any comments, feedback, or prompts you might have. Time for the cycle to begin.