Masters of Reality

I’m not normally one thrilled by public speaking, but for some reason, the idea of giving a commencement speech has a certain allure that would cause any anxiety to melt away in a heartbeat. Alas, that day will have to wait until I’m famous and one of my alma maters invites me back. Perhaps fittingly, I’ll settle for a written version. This has been percolating since last December, and now it’s time to share some collected thoughts from my nineteen years in school, which come to an end this weekend.

Masters of Reality

Hey, we’re done. We did it. We finished graduate school. Now what the hell did we just do for the past few years?

Hard to say. What’s a graduate degree for, anyway? A credential to help us up a job ladder, and little more? On the most cynical of days, when I plowed through some of my less inspiring papers or group projects, it was hard to think otherwise. A pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and nothing more? Spare me. In my own wing of our dear modernist mecca on the Mississippi, the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program, there’s even a common complaint that we don’t get nearly enough practical skills, to the point where I had to suppress a laugh when the first question in a recent job interview asked about my experience reading zoning code. Instead, we get taught how to think, whatever that means. I eat this up, but it’s such a fluffy description that it can crumble under the duress of yet another slog through a group project.

This is a public affairs school, so this means there must be some sort of overarching vision…though anyone who took Intro to Planning with Ryan Allen probably isn’t sure how to define the public good anymore anyway. Still, there are frequent nods underlying mission here, one rife with clichés about public service and human progress and peace and justice for all. To find the most eloquent flavor of this take that’s weighed on me over the past few months, I’m going to commit a Humphrey School sacrilege and quote one of Hubert’s rivals for the 1968 Democratic nomination, Robert F. Kennedy. RFK’s words to an Indianapolis crowd on the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination laid out a simple mission in the shadow of death: “Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1968 might have been the messiest year in American politics this side of the Civil War, but 2016 could be a contender before all is said and done. We’re graduating into a world where reality doesn’t quite cooperate by the rules we’ve tried to impose on it in our studies. Theories of international politics and democratic order that I learned as an undergraduate have never seemed so tenuous. Political upheaval has come to this country in a presidential campaign that shreds all our political niceties and assumptions of proper decorum, and it strikes home here in Minneapolis, where, in the past year, we’ve had glimpses behind our façade of Minnesota Niceness and found a community with rifts we still need to heal.

Moments like this are a reminder of how tenuous our quest for knowledge can be, how all our careful efforts to catalogue each event before us and filter it through our rational methods never quite manage to capture everything. It makes us realize how radical RFK’s project was. Humans are savage creatures, capable of falling to great depths in craven, base lusts for power, and even a constitution with the most meticulous checks and balances may not guarantee any sanity. A master’s in public affairs can only tame so much. The very name of the degree seems oddly archaic, suggests this piece of paper gives us a right to own or at least control other people: what exactly have we mastered, anyway?

As master’s students, we sit around and argue and opine from on high; not that we didn’t do these things already, but hopefully we’re a little better at it now. We learn our history, though there’s little consolation in recounting past failures to ease our inhumanity and bend history toward justice, whatever that might look like. The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and we risk that moment of sheer terror when we realize how small and clueless we are.

And so we find ourselves part of a generation mugged by reality, forced to confront an uncertain world where we don’t have easy answers. And it doesn’t get any easier. We endure tragedy, and before long, none of us are young anymore, marked by a string of steady losses and shocks, some grand and political; the most jarring, deeply personal. It is in these darkest hours when we are often at our most human, our most able to be honest with those around us and hone in on what we truly value. Pain and suffering prove necessary steps along the road to excellence.

So much of freedom, you see, is a myth. We’re forever bounded by who we are and where we come from, and the days of fundamental change are probably gone: we can only become more and more our true selves. But we do have the power to author our stories, to pull all these scattered events that happen to us into a narrative, give it a trajectory that pushes us toward some yet unseen end. We can choose whether we’re tragic heroes or triumphant survivors, whether we drown in hubris or rise up in humility.

GU

Knowledge of this choice requires a rare self-awareness. It requires us to take a step back and assess the whole story, either in a salon of trusted confidantes or alone with one’s mind in the dark of night. This isn’t a skill anyone has innately; it’s something we have to cultivate carefully, time and again, to be able to crawl out of the ongoing string of nothing to remember why it is we do what we do. At times we endure long tunnels of darkness of the soul, or at the very least of a Humphrey computer lab, but it’s all worth it for those little glimmers of light, those little moments of wonder or awe that give life its driving force.

And so the great benefit of this broad education is the power to stop and process everything. It is the ability to recognize these narratives and impose a small dose of mastery, however brief it may be. And if we take that imperative seriously, follow it to its furthest conclusion, it presents a great burden. Every certainty comes under scrutiny, and every last object of worship threatens to fall away. We’re forced to confront our most unsettling worries, and it can bring out the best and the worst in us, depending on how we respond. Down here, we see how our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses so often stem from the same source.

The trouble is, for all of this human drama, few will care what we wrestle with. Any inner turmoil isn’t of much interest beyond our inner circle, and the Humphrey, for all its strengths, doesn’t always set up easy dialogue outside of that circle. The question of our time is how we respond in a world of indifference, and in one where we resort to grabbing attention by the cheapest of means: knee-jerk righteous anger, 140 characters, and snarky dismissal. Delicious as these may be, they are always shortcuts, never quite able to admit nuance or submit to the vulnerability of knowing that, no matter how far we reach, we will never know all the answers. We all have our blind spots, must take our leaps of faith, and none of us can truly master it all.

The diversity of human experience is too great, and if we stop to appreciate the extent of that diversity, we understand just how hard it is to bring people together into some sort of community. It’s so hard because it should be: even people from fairly similar backgrounds come to radically different outlooks, and no amount of imposed education will produce the same worldview. Sobering, perhaps, but maybe a source of hope: it’s all still a mystery, and mystery begets curiosity, an endless, restless search. And as this search continues, we must always cling to that sense of wonder, even amid the daily tides of tiring monotony that come in reliably every day. This wonder takes commitment, and with commitment and love poured into people or a cause, there is always the risk of further heartbreak and pain.

We must choose carefully, make sure those ends to which we direct our lives are worth the faith we place in them. We have a narrative; we might not be able to explain exactly where we’re going, but we need some idea of how to get there, and why everyone else should come along for the ride. If we urban planners can contribute something, it is a scale on which we can think about starting our efforts: right here, in our most immediate communities, where we can know the details intimately and have the power to turn vague wishes into concrete action. Grounded, we’re free to plot out our dives into the arena in search for moments of glory.

murps

I’m reminded of a line from Rollo May: the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. To resist that apathy is not just one option among many, but an imperative, one that requires a moral courage to claim that, in our wanderings, we’ve found something to live for. And while those dreams and ideals help frame our work, no abstraction can substitute for what we learn from living in and among the people closest to us, entranced by the whole spectacle. Instead of living a dream, live reality: realize that what we have before us is all we’ve got, and it’s up to us to take that history we’ve lived and turn it into something coherent, to blend all those disparate threads into one. Somewhere in here lies the mastery of reality, as best we fallible humans can achieve it.

And so we head forth to pursue it. This can’t be a burden, something we do out of some resigned sense of duty. We must do it with panache, with a joie de vivre that fuels the fire through the tremendous barriers we confront and the thousand insidious, nagging bites that drag us down, day by day. Life is not about balance. Balance implies stasis, a resting place; life is instead a constant flow in among any number of streams that pull us along, tugging this way and that and leading us down toward whatever destiny may await. We will waver on our way, and at times it will be anything but tame. Mastery cannot mean an imposition of control, but instead only momentary escapes, and in the times when we don’t have that lucidity, a knowledge of how to ride the waves, catch the swells and surge and retreat as we see fit.

How do we do that? I can’t see far into the future, but right now, it all seems simple enough. It’s time to bring these grandiose words to a close and head out into a beautiful Minnesota spring, to spend time with family and friends and revel in what we’ve done over these past few years. And then, renewed, we can head forth and leave our marks on reality as we see fit. We’ve finished countless assignments over the past few years, but our real work is only beginning.

Red and Grey Till the Day I Die

The Duluth East Class of 2014 made its plodding way across the DECC stage tonight, the students’ last names butchered one last time before they are released out into the world. Six years out from my own graduation, despite a new building and a maze of budgetary travails, my love affair with that school burns as much as it ever has.

East’s strengths are nothing otherworldly. Like any school it has its cliques, both exclusionary to those on the outside and giving rise to tunnel vision for those on the inside. Teenagers still do normal teenage things, and East couldn’t save a number of them from some truly damaging situations. (Anyone who expects a school to be the primary line of defense against these things has a rather disordered view of how these things come about.) Some will no doubt look back on their time there and remember the requisite high school awkwardness and ignorance, blaming the school for those bad memories. No doubt East can do better, as any school can.

East is also fairly homogenous, and many of its comforts stem from the good fortune of being situated on the wealthy, old money side of a town that values education. And that dominant culture can indeed be problematic for those who don’t naturally slide into it: witness Duluth’s brutal achievement gap, along with some of the concerns about diversity voiced in this recent video. (I could mount a nuanced critique of all of this if I wanted, but I’ll save that for another day and say simply that East has its issues. The school supports the troublesome Robert Putnam study that says that, traditionally, a relative lack of diversity correlates with social cohesion.)

And yet, even as it produces plenty of kids who are entrenched in that comfortable majority, East manages to be more than a factory of bourgeois culture. There’s enough questioning of that culture, both from the children of the east side elite free to ask Big Questions and the salt of the earth folks who don’t quite see the point of the whole rat race. (Interactions with the latter are one of the real merits of public education, reminding us relatively pampered kids that there are entirely different worlds out there that we can’t ignore.) It manages to blend the dominant culture necessary for success (under its standard American middle class definition) with allowances for some individual dalliance. There are people actively fighting the isolation felt by those who don’t quite fit in. When I was a Hound, the cliques came down without too much trouble, and the best of the teachers really were transformative. When I went off to college and talked about my high school experience with college friends—some of whom attended some of the country’s most “prestigious” high schools—I still came away with the sense that there was something different about East. Without trying very hard, it put out kids who were ready for most anything to come after, from elite colleges to the local schools to the armed forces to jobs straight out of school. It breeds that success with minimal pretension or self-satisfied claims of greatness, and does not cater to vogue tests or metrics of success while doing so. It doesn’t need to sell itself. As a school, it simply works, and anything that works that well ought to be preserved.

All else held steady, East allows its students to age at their own pace. Sure, some will be living lives of hedonism as freshmen, and most will make gradual forays down that path as the years go by. But it was possible to live another way and not suffer any serious social repercussions if one so chose. Any East alum from my generation will recognize the phrase from the daily announcements—and I do hope they still use it, much as it all drove us all to roll our eyes at the time—“make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” The message sank in. East grads were subject to the same social pressures as kids all across the country, but we Hounds always seemed to have an intimate awareness of our own agency. And for those of us who were a bit too aware of our own uniqueness, it helped bring us back to reality.

In some ways, East does its job too well. I know plenty of my classmates left with everything they needed to succeed anywhere; as a result, East is now just some source of distant nostalgia, with many of its brightest farmed out far beyond Duluth. It’s something to remember, fondly but not worthy of a second thought; something to acknowledge from afar, but not something worth repeated return visits or donations to its foundation. I was very close to heading down that same path, and the painfully earnest quotes from some old high school diaries prove it. I had to go away to realize how lucky I was.

My fervor is that of a convert. When I wandered into its doors as a freshman, I scoffed at all of the “school spirit” pageantry, and was content with fairly insular group of friends. Sure, I had some public school pride after touring Marshall and coming away unimpressed, but East was just a means to an end, four years to get over with as quickly as possible so that I could get out and do what I really thought I wanted to do. By the last day of senior year, I was crying buckets as I walked out its doors, leaving behind the first place I’d genuinely called home.  I’d decided I might as well befriend everyone, branching out enough to try to be that kid who went to every single grad party. I didn’t always fit seamlessly into its culture, but I found that level of comfort necessary for asking bigger questions and pushing my limits. East fed my relentless ambition and got me into Georgetown, but at the same time, the education I got there was complex enough that I was unconsciously starting to question everything about my world while at the same time acknowledging that it had made me who I was. The searching, probing, and frustration of the next five years makes no sense without East at its starting point, and in the end, that journey led a kid who’d been so eager to study international affairs straight back to the east side of Duluth.

Was I a sellout? I suppose I was, after a fashion. I neglected an old friend or two in my rush to climb the ladder, and at times spread myself far too thin. I abandoned a few morals, which left an overly uptight kid with no lack of inner conflict. I’m now more likely to spend a cold winter night watching an amateur hockey game than I am to be tracking election polls in South America. The long journey that began and ended with East led me to back away from earlier grandiose dreams of saving the world and settle for living fully within my own world. And yet I couldn’t be happier. I still ask those big questions and follow those world affairs, but I no longer let them consume me. Everything has its proper place.

Things started falling into place over the second half of my senior year. From academics to extracurriculars to following the exploits of the hockey team, I was at home. As Stuff happened in life beyond school, I began to understand the real power of a community, and what a support it can provide—a lesson doubly important for a kid who was consumed by the solitary pursuit of success. I am forever indebted. In a dream world I’d settle down here and raise a few more little Hounds while working for the betterment of Duluth, but I’m not sure quite what life will throw at me yet, and it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. No matter what, East’s presence will endure. As I wrote in a good-bye note some time after graduation:

No reason it has to be an abrupt good bye to East—because what is East, really? Some reified, odd concept—in a way, it’s the building, but building didn’t make any memories for us. Of course it’s the people, but they’re not static either—some will change, some will drift away, some will die. All we’re left with is a pile of memories. Little snapshots frozen in time, immutable, unforgettable. How can we miss something we never let go of? We can’t. And so long as we let life change with us, and hold on to what we can, we can always go back.

To all of my fellow Hounds who made those memories possible, no matter how large of a role they played: thanks again.