Tag Archives: millennials

Flawed Education and Millennial Nostalgia: Good Writing, 9/30/19

30 Sep

A quick digest on what I’ve been reading now that I’m back in Duluth after two weeks on the road:

Sometimes I think I could just spend my entire blogging life commenting on George Packer’s work, and he shows off his characteristic range of observation in his account of raising children within the New York school system. He captures the absurdity of the tracking system that tests two-year-olds for admission to preschools, the anxiety suffused through the American meritocracy, and the Trump era over-politicizing of everything by well-meaning progressives and its ensuing effect on children. The opening paragraph is as brilliant a summation of the conscientious parent’s paradox as I’ve ever encountered.

Sticking with the education system, you’ve probably heard about STEM education and how it is supposed to prepare students for the jobs of the future. In American Affairs, Jared Woodward marshals the best data and literature available to show that injecting technology into classrooms has a detrimental effect on actual learning and is a colossal waste of money. One could argue this conflates STEM with a more general influence of technology on learning, but the results are clear enough: the emerging system serves technology, instead of technology serving students.

As an undergrad I frequently took Amtrak back and forth between Minnesota and Washington DC, a wonderfully leisurely way to start or end a semester and move large amounts of personal goods. One of the great highlights of these journeys was a meal in the dining car, where I got to meet random people and share a reasonably good meal. To this, I bring you the deplorable news that Amtrak is beginning to eliminate its dining cars. Most disgustingly, Amtrak is justifying the death of the dining car on the backs of millennials because its officials think we enjoy leading harried, cheap lives devoid of human contact. (Or maybe they know this lifestyle is more a product of being overworked and enduring stagnant incomes, but they also know lazy tropes can help them justify cost-cutting.) This millennial is incensed, and so is Rainesford Stauffer in the New York Times.

On a lighter but still millennial-focused note, Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker’s Official Scribe of the Millennial Zeitgeist, starts a review on the film “Hustlers” but ends up discoursing on her nostalgia for 2008 pop music and its ability to capture that pre-recession moment. If your memories of 2008 also involve slurping on jungle juice while “Love in this Club” pulses away at an underage party, this article is for you. And yes, other generations, you now must endure millennials finding nostalgia for the stupid pop culture moments that defined our quickly fading youth, just as you subjected us to these reminders as we grew up. How fleeting it all seems now. And does anyone else think M.I.A’s “Paper Planes” is a glaring omission from Tolentino’s list?

Let’s close with a quote from Wendell Berry in a semi-recent New Yorker interview:

The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on. The historian John Lukacs, whose work I greatly respect, said that “the indiscriminate pursuit of justice . . .  may lay the world to waste.” And he invoked modern war, which kills indiscriminately for the sake of some “justice.” He thought the pursuit of truth, small “t,” much safer. I want to remember—and this comes to me from my dad, to some extent—that our system of justice requires a finding of truth, and it labors to see that justice is never done by one person. There’s a jury of twelve. There are two lawyers, at least, and a judge. It doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the result is injustice. But, the effort to discover the truth that goes ahead of judgment is extremely important. It requires us to think about the process and what’s involved.

It’s a very humbling thing, finally. People speak of “the environment.” They don’t know what they’re talking about. “The environment” refers to no place in particular. We’re alive only in some place in particulars.

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In Search of a Millennial Normal

2 Sep

Some novels seem like they’re written with the sole purpose of luring me in, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the greatest recent addition to that category. Normal People does not pretend to be a sprawling social novel, telling us how we live now. Short but precise and easily inhaled in a quick weekend, it tells us how two Irish teenagers lived then, and in so doing, she can speak, if not for a generation, at least for an inwardly-probing and literary-inclined segment of it. Rooney has set the bar for a new wave of writers, and the rest of us need to get our acts together.

If Rooney is a sign of what we millennials will bring to fiction, I have some hope for us yet. Normal People is about two fellow millennials’ interactions between 2011 and 2015, so yes, they send texts and emails and check Facebook and so on, but at no point does it feel like a forced statement on use of technology, or any sort of commentary on how technology is changing lives. It’s just a fact of the characters’ existence, and one gets a sense of how little those details matter up against the more powerful, interpersonal challenges that drive Normal People: love, longing, betrayal, hurt. And while the characters have political lives, Rooney (an avowed Marxist) uses them smartly, and lets them bubble up only when it would make sense for them to appear. (The one digression she does allow, a brief discourse on the political limitations of literature, at least fits with a protagonist’s own struggles.) This is a novel about two people and their relationship, period, and its understatement allows it to say more than an overwrought Great Irish Novel could have.

Rooney’s tightly wound novel is a millennial love story, the on-again, off-again tale of two Irish kids from Carricklea, a fictional town in provincial County Sligo. Connell is a well-regarded, jovial athlete in high school who would rather keep to himself and read books; outcast Marianne is an odd duck rich girl who can’t wait to flee her backwater hometown. Their relationship is fraught by class, as Connell’s mother, Lorraine, cleans the expansive home of Marianne’s icy family. Both lack fathers; Connell’s never figured in his life, while Marianne’s is deceased, and they both bear some scars that their high school social circles will never understand. But Connell and Marianne are the two most driven students in Carricklea, which leads them to find one another and then make their way to Trinity College, Ireland’s most esteemed university. At Trinity their roles begin to shift, as Marianne starts to find her crowd while Connell is suddenly out of his element among the Irish upper crust, his basic decency and quiet smarts unable to attract much attention in the breeding ground of the Dublin elite. The pair struggles to make its way in the world, never formally attached but always drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, united by ties they cannot shake.

Long stretches of Normal People are dialogue, but Rooney eschews the use of quotation marks, a tactic I’m rather fond of: it forces the reader to track it carefully and breaks down some of the barrier between the third-person narration that drives the novel forward into a sort of haze, one that both lulls the reader into the rhythms of Marianne and Connell’s complicated love life and forces one to keep track of who exactly said what. Rooney’s prose rides along with a droll simplicity, and its matter-of-fact statements that belie their own gravity. It’s not hard to picture her as the sharp, snide girl injecting venom from the back of the classroom, and there was certainly a phase when this kid who sees a lot of himself in Connell would have been attracted to her Marianne.

Normal People is a superb bildungsroman, a genre of novel that remains my favorite. It takes young people from a state in which the world’s possibilities open before them through the growing alienation when reality does not match dreams, through times in life when doors begin to close and they must learn who they are, where they come from, and just what they might become. Jaded outsiders will probably always be best at capturing the halls of power, and much like Fitzgerald in New York, Rooney knives through her characters’ social circles in Dublin with a brilliant exactitude. Even as Marianne and Connell bust out of Carricklea, it pulls them both back; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of grief, and finally in something that may begin to approach catharsis.

As any great novel should, Normal People reaches its peak in its final pages, a rush to a climax followed by a struggle toward resolution. For all its world-weary cynicism, for all its characters’ brokenness and painful missteps, it still knows that intimacy is not impossible, that people still have jobs to do in spite of it all. My generation’s great artistic calling compels us to find the shards of a broken sublime, and Sally Rooney does just that.

The Life of a Not-So-Angry Millennial

30 Jun

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Rural Economic Development (RED) Group in Minneapolis that focused on my much-maligned generation. (Or, rather, one of my millennial colleagues and I saw that we were on the agenda and invited ourselves, entitled millennials that we are.) Media narratives about millennials are dominated by discussions of highly educated urbanites who made social media over-sharing, excessive student debt, and avocado toast go mainstream. That life isn’t reality for most of the millennials we talk about in a forum on rural economic development, and any discussion of this age groups usually involves the objects of study griping about how they’ve been painted with an absurdly broad brush. Even so, it’s certainly true that generations, formed by certain common experiences and changing demographics, and many millennials have developed a righteous sense of anger over our inheritance from past generations.

Unlike some panel discussions in which people talk about issues faced by certain groups of people without inviting said people into the room, this room featured real life rural millennials as the main focus. We listened as nine of our colleagues, including several whom I work with regularly, shared their life experiences to date. Almost all operate somewhere in the community development world or are otherwise very active in public service, so they aren’t a representative cross-section of a generation either, but there was enough variety to give the enterprise some weight. Some of these rural millennials are rooted in communities they’ve never left, others left for a spell but found their way home, and others came as immigrants and have looked to build a new life. Their stories were compelling, and the subsequent report-out session was cathartic, as participants reveled in a forum where they could speak freely.

In broad terms, the panel revealed a generation in search of places to put down roots but struggling to do so. Financial anxiety underlined many of their considerations, and they were often willing to make sudden job leaps or commute long distances in search of something that worked. Housing and job markets pulled them in different directions. People of color struggled to resist both loneliness and tokenism. And most fundamentally, the millennials were frustrated when they found themselves shut out of certain situations, their youthful ambition to join community groups at best a curious novelty and at worst a play to steal their elders’ positions. With the 30-year career path at a single employer largely dead, there need to be new ways up and forward, and millennials therefore require conscious engagement in a way their predecessors perhaps did not.

The torrent of millennial passion at the forum had the effect making me feel ridiculously well-off, unable to say much as others spoke eloquently about their travails. I am the rare millennial for whom the system more or less worked. I’m a white, straight, able-bodied dude. By and large, my rewards in life have followed my effort. I’ve taken a few odd turns, perhaps, but my wandering journey of self-discovery was very much an inward, self-inflicted thing for which I hold no grudge against broader society. The pay sacrifices I’ve made in my career path are the consequences of conscious choices, and I’m fortunate to have a light enough debt load to be able to do that.

While my path more or less worked for me and can for other people, I also recognize that I can’t project it too far. I had a lot going for me, and was lucky enough to have the freedom to dabble along a few different paths before diving in to my current course. Some of our most powerful motivators are the bad things that happen in life, and I also have some more unique experiences to draw from there as well. The worst characteristic of any generational analysis is the belief that one person’s success is somehow a model for everyone else, when instead it was often the product of particular circumstances that made it possible.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my laments about millennial life. We’re right to have serious economic and ecological concerns, and our troubles run the risk of lapsing into despair. I’m something of a tech skeptic. I have a bit of student debt, and if I were in a particularly self-pitying mood, I’m sure I could muster up some woe-is-me tale about modern love. (Note to fellow millennials: acknowledgement of challenges is valuable, but wallowing in such places is not attractive.) I think critics who have characterized my generation as drowning in freedom are on to something, and many millennials live out a tension between wanting to be given direction by some outside force and also not wanting anyone to tell us how they think the world works. An old David Brooks column captures this paradox as it attacks the stupidity of the “follow your dreams” advice that proliferated when we millennials were graduating from college (the 35-40 percent of us who did graduate from college, anyway): our lives were often very structured until they suddenly weren’t, and we came out ill-prepared for a world that is far more competitive and unpredictable than the one our parents inhabited.

The need to resolve this millennial paradox is the reason I’m a fierce defender of the liberal arts and a holistic education, and shuffle my feet uncomfortably when economic development panels start bashing the utility of four-year degrees in favor the trades, as they often do. The value that comes from learning how to think instead of just learning to perform tasks has myriad benefits both in career and in life, and while there are high-demand trades that pay well and bachelor’s programs that are questionable paths to gainful employment, the statistics on the lifetime earnings gap between the two are still stark. Viewing education as an accumulation of skills is a bankrupt idea of what it means to be a human moving through life. The fact that many people may not have the means to pursue knowledge and virtue through education does not invalidate that path as a worthy goal.

We’re probably nearing the end of the millennial thinkpiece era, as Generation Z is starting to render us as old news. If you believe the broad-brush pictures, Gen Z has learned from some millennial flailing and takes a more practical, stability-focused approach to career and life decisions, and has lower rates of drug abuse and teen pregnancy. (Some of this is probably generational: we millennials are the children of Boomers formed by 60s tumult and radicalism, while Gen Z members are the kids of allegedly apathetic Gen Xers.) We millennials have some memory of a rosy world before tech seemed ubiquitous and before the late 00s recession, while both loom large in Gen Z members’ lives. Their world is also even more hyper-competitive, more fraught by winner-take-all competition, more economically uncertain. Rising teenage anxiety and suicide rates are symptoms of these extremes, and point to a malaise that public policy alone cannot solve.

The consistent response to the troubles of contemporary life, both from my millennial peers and our Gen Z successors, has been one of anger. Anger has value as a motivator, clearly, and we certainly have a right to lash out at commentators who trade in cheap, context-free generalizations. But anger alone can lead people to blame vague past others, and too often today, even many practitioners of the humanities are more interested in judging the past by contemporary standards than learning from the mess of past successes and failures. If those of us who have come out of the millennial coming-of-age travails with few scars have something to offer, it might be some stability here: in place of anger, we can offer a steadfast commitment to gauging the emotion around us and putting it to productive use. We can isolate root causes amid all of the noise and go to work. And we can live in ways that make sure we model lives that aspire toward knowledge, toward decency, and toward constructive ends for more and more people.

Twenty-Something

2 Jan

The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled nineteen-twenties lawns, dazed sixties streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.

–Nathan Heller, The New Yorker,Semi-Charmed Life” (January 14, 2013)

I turn twenty-nine this week, so I have just 365 more days to enjoy life as a twenty-something. The sensation Heller describes here is one I’ve known intimately over the past nine years; it’s that sort of vague feeling that is especially alluring to us writers and aesthetes with good memories, and drives us to wax nostalgic at every possible turn. The experience of life is so rich and vivid that reaching ages when such spontaneity seems harder and harder feels like a genuine loss, even as we tell ourselves we’ll be able to bring it back on command. (If my New Year’s rotation of friend groups from every stage of life through my apartment is any guide, it’s something I can indeed do.)

I won’t pretend otherwise: I idolize youth. It may seem an odd fixation for someone with a risk-averse, intellectual bent and a mild Luddite streak. But it’s undeniable, and courses through my fondness for a high school sport, through my fiction, through the commitments that keep me at my work each day, believing in better options for the kids in the communities I work in. I don’t think the inevitable march of age is any reason not to revel in youth for as long as possible, and perhaps because I picture youth as a state of progression through stages of awareness and not some static state of innocence or naïveté, I’m not one who thinks it must be cast aside with time.

Those who know me well wouldn’t find it hard to concoct some sort of Freudian theory as to why I might think all of this, but I also just like kids. I’m drawn to the energy of people who haven’t been beaten down by routines, who still can see the potential of the future; for that matter, give me angst-ridden explosions of emotion over the resigned apathy of people committed to their paths in work and in life any day. This joie de vivre lies somewhere at the heart of my idea of the good life, and I will always be happiest around people who share it.

As I bring this mad, wandering past decade to a close, I have plenty of lost time I could lament; at twenty-seven, a birthday that left me oddly depressed, I did plenty of that. This time, though, I can take some time to marvel at it all, and know that I’m taking the best of it and putting it to some use. So here’s to twenty-nine, and to that thrilling sense of nowness, and to everything that may yet come in moments like that, even as I age. May those dreams continue for years to come.

WRTII, Part 1: Riding the Waves

14 May

The next three posts will tell the tale of my recent West Coast adventure, as detailed in this introductory post.

My wanderlust is calling, and I’m ready to answer. I spend my Friday at work chomping at the bit. I was supposed to have a meeting halfway between Duluth and Minneapolis today and bought plane tickets accordingly, but alas, the meeting was canceled, so I’m stuck in the office, watching the clock. I drive down to Minneapolis late in the afternoon, and meet a big group of old friends for dinner and games. After a leisurely Saturday morning, I head for the airport and make the four-hour journey to San Francisco, where I will spend a weekend in the company of my cousin. I visited him on my road trip two summers ago, and this will be my only repeat destination on this trip, but as it’s a city that no brief weekend jaunt can do justice, it’s a welcome return.

My cousin collects me from the airport and we jump right in with a swift tour of a few sites around the city that one won’t find in a guidebook. First, a tree swing with a stellar view of Billy Goat Hill; alas, this time around, the guerrilla swing-hangers lost their war with the Parks Department, and it has been cut down, spoiling the fun. Next, a concrete slide in a vacant lot on a hillside, complete with cardboard to scoot down the slope, the brainchild of a neighborhood kid some decades before. Finally, a labyrinth at Lands End laid out in stones in the model of the one in the Chartres cathedral, which we meander through in full. San Francisco is a complete adult playground; even, we lament, as the city prices out most young families.

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Sticking with the playground theme, our mode of transportation for much of the weekend will be the most San Francisco thing imaginable: a moped app named Scoot. Much like bikeshares, Scoot allows users to unlock mopeds stashed around the city (either in scattered garages or on the streets, where past users have left them), put on a helmet from an otherwise locked compartment, and Scoot to their desired destinations. I take a little while to get used to it, as the proximity of the brake and the throttle make for a few awkward lurches, but before long I’m Scooting with confidence. It’s also entirely practical for San Francisco, where traffic is never too fast, and where hills make a traditional bikeshare much more of an ordeal for the causal peddler. A twenty-minute series of introductory videos coaches users on the mechanics of mopeds and basic safety, and thanks me for being part of a movement to change the world. Such pretention is one of the reason the tech world drives me insane. Isn’t it ever enough just to be a good, fun idea for a particular city?

This being San Francisco, though, Scoot is only the tip of the iceberg. The current craze (or infestation, depending on whom one asks) involves electric scooters, which zip along on streets (where they are supposed to be) and sidewalks (where they are not) and get dumped in all sorts of odd places around the city. Somehow, these aren’t even the most preposterous transportation options in the city. That award goes to the GoCars, the yellow three-wheeled two-seaters that putter about a couple of inches off the ground. It all feels awfully gratuitous, but all these options get us where we need to go in the end.

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After a delicious dinner in the Sunset District, Saturday night features a beer tasting with a few familiar faces from my previous visit to the Bay Area. The conversation turns to local politics as we down stouts and nibble at smelly cheese. San Francisco’s impending mayoral election will follow familiar plot lines to the 2016 Democratic Party primary, as an establishment figure tries to break the city’s glass ceiling while some rebels nip at her heels. Beyond that, the Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) movement tries desperately to break through the cynicism of well-heeled Bay Area liberals who reject greater density and development so as to preserve their perfect little neighborhoods, thereby driving some of the city’s absurd property values. I can’t help but be sympathetic to the cause, though my inner contrarian raises a few objections. Are we really right to pack more and more people into San Francisco, an earthquake-prone metropolis in a state that has its water issues? And this country already has a problem with concentration of wealth in too few major cities; might not the pricing out of San Francisco be a natural corrective that forces the tech engine of the American economy to spread the wealth and talent elsewhere? Duluth would be happy to have the services of a few refugees looking for a foggy, hilly city with much more reasonable real estate. I suppose I can dream.

Speaking of dreams, it crosses my mind several stouts in that my cousin and his friends are living a sort of millennial dream. They enjoy comfortable (if somewhat crowded) urban living, delicious food and drink, weekends at Tahoe, and travel around the world for both work and play. College, work, and church provide networks that form little communities within a larger city. We even got some avocado toast as an appetizer without a hint of irony. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that living it for a few days stirs up a little desire to start searching the job listings, as that magnetic Fear of Missing Out, so ubiquitous in an age of social media, rears its head again. A cursory look suggests I could double my salary, and while much of that gain would get swallowed up by rent, Bay Area money would still go awfully far, especially in travels or some eventual move elsewhere. Tempting, isn’t it?

There are a lot of reasons why that won’t happen, from family to temperament to some conviction over what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. But the allure tugs at my ambitious side, and only a week after my return, after a run around Congdon on a Perfect Duluth Day, do I fully remember why I don’t want to go down that road. I have my own little world to tend to here.

The delicious San Francisco life continues the next morning with a delectable brunch at Zazie in Cole Valley. (A pleasant West Coast offering: thanks to time zone differences, one can go to the bar next door and watch East Coast baseball while enduring one’s hour and a half wait for a brunch table.) The wait is worth it. And then, after further Scooting, we settle in at an authentic San Francisco crawfish boil, as one of my cousin’s friends has imported a stash of crustaceans and cooked them all up in a park with a view of the Golden Gate.

Sated, we Scoot over to Washington Square, see the old Italian neighborhood, and marvel at the public notice signage necessary to announce the planting of trees in San Francisco. I shake my head at my profession as we clamber up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The urban planners here probably have as much power as anywhere, and use it for all the wrong purposes. The panoramic views from Telegraph Hill blot out that annoyance, though, as they show us the bay to the north and east, a glistening city in the sun to the west, and the Financial District, complete with the remarkably phallic new Salesforce Tower, to the south. (This seems fitting in so many ways for the city’s contemporary aesthetic.) The streets that descend down from Coit to the various numbered piers are nothing more than stairways, with cozy but luxurious homes tucked behind their gardens. We board a ferry for Alcatraz and head over for an evening tour.

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The prison at Alcatraz has been closed for over 60 years, but its symbolic power remains, thanks to both its high-profile prisoners and its unique geography. An audio tour recounts the experiences of guards, prisoners, and the families that grew up on The Rock. I did not know, however, about the subsequent Native American occupation of Alcatraz, an attention-grabbing move in the 1960s still in evidence today in the graffiti they left behind. The occupation played a role in ending assimilation policies at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and freeing these groups to pursue greater self-determination.

The landscape, however, provides the greatest surprise of this visit: Alcatraz is a beautiful place. Sure, I expected a good view of the city and the Golden Gate, but Alcatraz itself has well-manicured gardens, graceful walks with stellar views, a few picturesque ruins, and offers up a sanctuary for thousands of birds. If not for the background noise in the audio tour, it would be impossible to remember that this place was once what it was. It is somehow heartening to see such an institution restored to the placid state of a seaside estate.

Following the tour, Alcatraz’s rangers offer a series of programs in various places around the island, recounting tales of famed prisoners or demonstrating the operation of the cell doors. The most memorable one, though, comes from a ranger who tells the tale of two inmates who dreamed of freedom. One, an escape artist whose attempts were foiled, figured out that he could brew beer in the milk bottles using the basic ingredients in the prison kitchen, where he toiled and found his escapes in hooch for years. The second, who came along after the guards had caught on to the milk bottle method, came up with an even more ingenious solution: beer fermentation in the prison’s fire extinguishers. Freedom, the ranger explains, is always possible with a change in perspective.

My cousin and I take the ferry back to the mainland and grab a late-night meal at El Farolito in the Mission. The street, filled with storefronts covered by garage doors, feels more Mexican than American, and save for the avocados on our burritos, the taquería itself has that vibe, too. We sit beneath a large painting of the Basilica of Guadalupe, and a lone mariachi minstrel makes his way up and down the length of the narrow restaurant. We devour our burritos and enjoy El Farolito’s excellent people-watching: young revelers on a Sunday night, complete families looking for an evening meal, gay couples, bougie white kids like us looking for an authentic bite. I’m at home here. Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

I bid my cousin farewell early Monday morning and take a BART train down to the airport. (How can such a wealthy metro have such a dismal train system?) I collect my chariot for the week, a white Jeep Renegade, from the cheery staff of Fox Rental, and begin my road trip. My first leg will give me my fill of ocean, as I swing south along the California coast. I head out on The 101 (highways come with articles in the West), intent upon seeing Silicon Valley and the Stanford campus with my own eyes. My enthusiasm for a window into the seat of technological power wanes amid thick traffic, however, so I pull my first audible of the trip and make a turn straight for the coast. I encounter The 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, at Half Moon Bay, and head south from there. I don’t regret my choice for a second.

At first The 1 runs somewhat inland, and I’m going through green cow pastures instead of beaches. Then, however, it rolls over a ridge, and the shoreline explodes before me, with ranks of perfect breakers making their way into shore as far as the eye can see. I make my first pit stop at Bean Hollow Beach, and while there’s not much to separate it from the beaches I’ve passed before or the ones that will follow, it seems an appropriate place to stop and admire some tide pools. I pass through Santa Cruz, and stock up on some camping gear at the REI in Marina. A late lunch comes at a cute café in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a stucco-spattered town that preserves its original character about as remarkably as any American city. Here one will find no parking meters, no street addresses, no stones out of place: just rows of cute houses, art galleries, and wine tasting rooms. Life must be rough here.

South of Carmel is Big Sur, that beautiful and sparsely populated streak of coast where mountains and sea collide. The 1 weaves along clifftops and drops down to beaches, and offers a stunning view at every turn. Most of my fellow travelers are tourists, though locals with surfboards head for a few well-chosen spots. The driving pace is leisurely, with frequent turn-outs, and while it is hard to tire of this scenery, I just go until I’ve had enough, and then work my way steadily back north toward my accommodations for the night on the Monterey Peninsula.

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I have the audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur for my listening pleasure on this stage of the journey. This is later-stage Kerouac, when his protagonist has become world-weary and tires of beatnik kids hunting him down for autographs. He drowns his sorrows in boozy binges. His solitary trip to Big Sur to clear his mind only leaves him lonelier, and sends him crawling back for more parties in San Francisco. All of his old friends from On the Road have aged, too. Cody Pomeray (Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and Neal Cassady in reality) has gone from the carefree epitome of cool to a family man trying to get out of the shadow of a stupid prison sentence for marijuana possession and live a decent life. Repeated later journeys down to the Big Sur cabin with various hangers-on always start out seeming like good ideas but are a mess by the end. While plenty of uncertainties afflicted Kerouac and friends in their early adventures, it came along with fevered searching and a sense of destiny. Now, the quest just ends in hangovers, and manipulation of words no longer does the trick, or at least not until the book ends in a deluge of stream-of-consciousness.

Big Sur, wrote Lillian Ross, is not a place at all, but a state of mind. Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz clearly did not inhabit that state of mind; he wasn’t able to shift his perspective, as the beer-brewing prisoners of Alcatraz had. Another semi-jaded aging writer traveling solo across Big Sur, however, can still pull it off, as he stops at Garrapata Beach and meander along the surf for a spell. Beauty alone may not bring enlightenment, but it is a powerful force in the moment.

I return to the Monterey Peninsula, stock up on food for my week of travel, and check in to my cottage in Pacific Grove. It’s a quaint, well-appointed place, and I throw open the windows to invite in a sea breeze. Next, I meander down Pacific Grove’s placid streets and start a two-mile hike to downtown Monterey along a beachfront path. Waves roll in to my left, Victorian homes watch over me to my right, and a man proposes to a woman along the path. I pass the Monterey aquarium, which is closing up shop at this time of day, and head down Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s old manufacturing district is now a collection of expensive shops and restaurants, though at least there’s still a bust of the author and a fountain honoring the canners midway down the street. I consume overpriced fish at a place that advertises itself as a brewery but just serves other people’s beer. With little else to do, I return to my cottage along inland streets, and Pacific Grove feels almost unnaturally placid. It’s a lovely place, but highly sanitized, its business district almost too quiet. Sure, it’s a Monday night, but the telltale vacation rental licenses hang prominently on the corner of many houses. I wonder if Duluth, another waterfront town of a similar size and distance from a wealthier metro, might someday lurch toward a similar fate. It could be worse, but it isn’t exactly abuzz with life, either.

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On this first of five nights of solitary travel, I reflect on my choice while drinking in some wine and sea breeze in my cabin. This is what I signed up for: a chance to take on everything between here and Zion by myself. I can either conquer it, or watch it go by. If I come back to these seaside towns I’ve seen today, I doubt it will be alone. But I have my solitary side, and a periodic need to prove myself in the wilderness, if only to myself. And when I come back, all will be well.

I arise early the next morning, and check out before anyone in the neighboring cottages stirs to life. I head down to the ocean one last time. Large bodies of water always pull me in, even though I’m a mediocre swimmer whose weak stomach is easily upset by bobbing on waves. Endless expanses of water impose themselves on people who live by them, and make clear our place in a grander scheme of things. I’ll miss the sea, and will welcome back vast expanses of water when I return home to Duluth in a week. For now, though, I turn inland, and look for inspiration away from the comfort of watery vastness. Freedom requires different perspectives.

Adventures of a Not-Quite-Luddite Millennial

7 Aug

I am a crappy millennial. I have never been on the driving edge of tech savviness, and have no desire to be there. I was a somewhat late adopter to Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat—though I will confess to enjoying all three once on them, especially the latter two—and am only now climbing on the Instagram train. (Here it is, in all its glory. It took me seven years to get over my disgust of those obnoxious filters that overwhelmed early Instagram.) I am one of the few people in my generation who uses an alarm clock, as my phone goes off when I go to bed. I don’t even own an e-reader, preferring to fill my apartment with the old-fashioned kind of book. I have sports on as background noise with some regularity, but outside of that my TV is usually only on for an hour or two a week. When I forayed into the online dating world—a world I found facile and underwhelming—I was disappointed by the number of young women who think that talking about how much they watch Netflix makes them seem interesting. (And yes, I know what “Netflix and chill” means.) I have never owned an Apple product.

While some of my inadequate representation of my generation stems from personal preference, I can spin out a more thought-out backing for all of this, too. Our tech infatuation runs the risk of leading us to forget important things. STEM majors are all well and good, but I vigorously oppose any effort to divorce them from broader study of the humanities. I am easily suckered in by articles warning of Silicon Valley moguls who are plotting to alter human nature or pursue Singularity, and find such instincts about as fundamentally repulsive as any. I find any effort to hold up these modern-day monopolists as heroic model citizens worthy of emulation at best crass worship of consumerism, and at worst a deeply troubling attack on the idea of a virtuous life. If Mark Zuckerberg runs for President, I will order myself a MAGA hat.*

Still, I’m not exactly a candidate to lead the local Luddite Society. As I confessed earlier, I’m a satisfied user of plenty of new platforms. Social media has been a boon for someone with a friend network that has scattered all over the globe, and has helped preserve some deep ties despite great distance. As a millennial in a workplace that trends much older than I am, I am automatically designated the tech expert. Despite being a liberal arts kid to the core, I have come to be pretty comfortable in the world big data, at times even known as the “data person,” a title that leaves me wondering how I’ve been pigeonholed into something I never considered a strength, at least relative to some of my other skills. (Either that or I just have an inflated opinion of my skills as a writer, geographer, hockey pundit, and student of political thought.) I like to think, however, that my natural skepticism of big data and all of this supposedly-newfangled-but-not-really information is what allows me to be a passable interpreter of such information, and to know what it’s actually saying instead of making a simplistic first reading. I will continue to make that push.

My instincts also tend to downplay the extent to which technology changes us. A statement issued by an organization on its Facebook page is no different from a press release from a few decades ago, save for the speed with which it is spread; Presidents have likely said Trumpish things since the dawn of Presidents, but only now can they go public thanks to Twitter. Same with this blog and some of my other forays into online writing: the medium is different and the audience more accessible, but there’s nothing at all groundbreaking about writing one’s thoughts and throwing them into the public square for broader consumption. These are questions of magnitude, not radical new means of communication, and lead me to doubt the claims over how much tech has changed our lives.

Every now and then, though, some alarm bells go off that make me worry this natural conservatism is all wrong. Take this recent Atlantic article, chock full of alarming stats about today’s teenagers and the extent to which phones have come to rule their social lives, leading to drastic drops in traditional kid activities and replacing them with lonely interactions highly correlated with depression and a surge in suicide. I’m not that much older than these kids, and use the same basic platforms that they do, but many are apparently incapable of interacting in other ways. This life, as the article shows, is defined by atomism and anomie, trends that I have long feared pose a greater threat to human flourishing than the whims of any political leader. A truly sorry fate for humanity emerges, our demise not found in nuclear war but in our own beds, where we lie for hours chatting with people we cannot see and drowning in porn instead of genuine pursuit of intimacy. Who knew that soma, the drug from Brave New World, would turn out to be an electronic object?

And yet it’s entirely possible to use smartphones in moderate, healthy ways. The danger comes not from the technology itself. It comes from the erosion of the wall between a public and a private life. Both are important, and need their own separate realms. The public side involves all of the stuff I throw out on here and on my other social media accounts, and any notoriety I achieve through some of my other pursuits, whether in work or in local political circles or even the world of hockey. This public persona is partially curated by myself and partially forced on me by how others perceive it, but all ultimately designed for the consumption of others. And then there’s the private side, which will remain out of the public eye for me and close family. I’m not going to elaborate on that here, because that would defeat the point.

But I will share how I’ll maintain this divide, just in case there are any fellow travelers out there. I will continue to use that alarm clock, and turn the phone off (yes, totally off) when I go to bed. The only sorts of crises that cannot wait until the morning are the ones that will wake me up anyway. I will continue to own two cell phones, which may seem like overkill at first, but allows for a clear separation: one is for work, and one is for life. My future children will be subjected to real books and athletic or outdoor endeavors instead of screens in their early years—just as many of Silicon Valley’s elite do with their kids—and while I’m sure they’ll get smart phones or whatever the hell we’ve replaced them with at some point, the standards will be clear early on. (Thankfully, I live in a city where one still sees children roaming freely with some regularity, and where people tend to live with modern technology, yet never really on the cutting edge. These were far from minor factors in my decision to move back here.) The extent to which I showcase things like my family on social media will be inversely related to the amount of public attention I receive on it. I will continue to take days and even strings of days where I unplug completely. And I will continue to keep up with what the cool kids are doing, both to stay relevant and so I can continue to pass judgment.

Enough with the polemics for one day, though. Time to get myself out of the soft glow of my phone and out into a moonlit Minnesota night.

 

*I’ve used this line before, and have been told that my opinion of Zuckerberg sounds like it was formed by The Social Network, not his actual persona. This is probably true, especially since Aaron Sorkin wrote that film in a way that conformed to my preconceived biases. I will also confess to a visceral reaction to his fashion; why have we let this schlub who pretends he doesn’t care but in fact does care immensely define our design standards? Still, I think Zuck is an awful potential candidate given his political naïveté and his vague techno-optimism that displays a worrying lack of capacity for self-reflection or acknowledgment of negative consequences.

I’m hating on Silicon Valley a lot here, perhaps in part because the ethos of that elite is so different from the East Coast elite with which I rubbed shoulders in DC. The faux cool strikes me as more insidious than good old-fashioned Acela Corridor aristocracy, as it makes ridiculous claims about saving the world and “disruption” (how I hate that word) while aspiring to pretty much the same ends. The old order has its hypocrisies, but at least it’s predictable and rooted in philosophies with a somewhat better grip on reality. Still, I don’t lump them all in the same box: there is a world of difference between Peter Thiel, the crown prince of atomism, and the likes of an Elon Musk, who actually builds tangible things and shows genuine recognition of technology’s dark side. But empowering this lot runs the risk of opening Pandora’s Box, which I believe our current President has already opened far enough. Such is life in an ever churning world.

The Case for Small Cities

30 Dec

Many talented people around my age or slightly younger are drawn to large cities. It only makes sense: they’re interesting places filled with interesting people, with easy access to cultural amenities and excitement that just don’t come around in suburbia or small towns. I’m skeptical that this supposed millennial “back to the city” movement will endure once my generation (or, rather, the highly educated fraction of my generation) starts having kids en masse, and even now, suburban growth still outpaces urban growth. I’m certainly not going to rain on the progress made in cities in recent years, many of which have enjoyed renewed life after decades of declining populations and disinvestment.

I am, however, going to make a case for the cities that I think are the best for young adults. These are what we might call the second tier cities: metropolitan areas between 100,000 and 500,000 people; places that stand alone as their own functioning economies, but will never capture the national imagination of our biggest cities. They may not be as glamorous, but the opportunities they provide young people are second to none. They are also the cities that need injections of smart, talented young people who can carry them forward and keep them thriving. Big cities will have that no matter what, but these smaller cities can face more complicated futures, and their ability to adapt to the 21st century economy could well make or break this country: are its benefits confined to a few scattered enclaves, or can it reach across the country and include these supposed flyover towns that have suddenly become a source of political angst?

And so I will make my case for smaller cities, as someone who has just gone home to a small city after spending six of the past eight in large cities. The target audience here is well-educated white-collar millennials, but I think these can be tweaked to apply to other groups, too. Here are 12 things they have to offer that larger cities don’t:

  1. The cost of living is much lower. Sure, the starting pay also may be lower, but the overall financial picture often works out well. My savings in rent alone since coming to Duluth are probably equal to about $3,000-$5,000 in annual salary compared to Minneapolis; if I were in DC or New York or San Francisco, we might be talking tens of thousands of dollars.
  2. Commute time: nonexistent. Do I really need to elaborate? I live a few miles from work, yet it literally takes me longer to walk from my car to the office than it does to drive from home to the place where I park. The savings in time and mental anguish are remarkable.
  3. Access to positions of influence is significantly easier. In a few locations, good old boys’ networks can act as gatekeepers, but for the most part, anyone who wants an in can have it. Most of these cities love seeing fresh young blood come in to serve in leadership positions. For the politically inclined, reasonably talented people can win elections in their 20s, and don’t need to raise tons of money to do it. Provide some basic initiative, and you’ll be well on your way.
  4. As one gets older, those interesting things about cities that drew one in at the start become less important. Good restaurants, cultural opportunities, big dating pools…most people come to have less time or need to explore these things as they age, and as other family-related commitments arise. A small city will still have enough of these to keep most people going, too; don’t underestimate the amount of creativity a small place can produce.
  5. Speaking of family commitments, smaller cities are great places to raise kids. Access to reasonably good schools doesn’t cost an arm and a leg in real estate, and even the bottom end of educational options is probably a lot higher than in most big cities. Sure, the top end might not provide the easy pipeline to elite colleges that you see in wealthy suburbs, but if a kid comes from a strong home environment, the sky is still the limit. Factor in family-friendly neighborhoods, where crime and speeding traffic are negligible concerns, and it all adds up to a pleasant home life without trying very hard. Moreover, these places are small enough that even “wealthy” schools will give kids access to a fairly broad socioeconomic range. There’s much less of a bubble effect when everyone is thrown in together.
  6. Access to nature is so much easier. You need not be a tree-hugging hippie or a backwoodsman to appreciate this: free space means clean air and escapes from crowds and their annoyances, and facilitates everything from an adventure in the wilderness to an easy drive along picturesque country roads. This is refreshing for everyone.
  7. In smaller cities, it’s much easier to escape political or social bubbles. Even if the city itself may be a bit of an island, it’s probably surrounded by something else, and again, things are small enough that you’ll have some interaction with everyone. This may not always be fun, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on in several different swaths of the country. It’s hard to do that in the suburbs, and even in a large city with lots of surface level diversity, it’s very easy to cloister oneself, intentionally or not, and only interact with like-minded people.
  8. You can do more for the place you live, immediately. The utility of adding a talented new person to a small city is much greater than adding a new one to a metropolitan area. Being one of twenty people with an Ivy League degree in your small city provides way more influence than the 1,000th in a large one. Band enough of these people together, and you’ve got yourself a movement. A small core of committed people can completely turn the tide for an entire city. (Sidebar: not every local leader needs to go off to some elite school. It’s valuable to have some who do, so as to provide perspective, but it’s equally valuable to have some lifers who really get all the details. People who have seen the outside world are conversant in a common language and culture that’s useful in dealing with national issues, but credentials from distant schools say nothing about a person’s professional or political talents, or ability to harness them.)
  9. If you start a career in a smaller place, you’re highly unlikely to be pigeon-holed into one task or job function. You’ll probably be in an office that’s small enough that forces you to take on a variety of tasks, some of which will probably get you out of your comfort zone and make for a great learning experience. Jobs are far less likely to be “safe,” and that’s an excellent thing for résumé development, and generally just for enjoying one’s job.
  10. At the same time, though, people in smaller cities value work-life balance. There are no 100-hour-a-week slavish jobs here, unless you enjoy it so much that this is what you actually want to do. And if that is what you want to do, people will probably respect that.
  11. People like stories of converts or prodigal children, and anyone who can make that outsider’s case for a place is going to be compelling to outside audiences. Small cities need this so as to make their appeal clear to people who aren’t already singing along with the choir. Move to one of these places and accept it as it is, and you’ll have a chance to be its champion. Big cities don’t need such champions; inertia provides this on its own. But in choosing to take a different path, you instantly become a leader of sorts.
  12. You get to say you are actually “from” somewhere, instead of pretending that your suburban childhood connects you with a larger center city that you visited only for sports and museums when growing up. Sure, there are some mild quirks that separate most middle-to-upper-end suburbs, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the same. People may not know what it means when you say you’re from Duluth, but you do, and other people who are also from Duluth get it. If you value a sense of place, that’s huge.

I won’t pretend it’s all easy. Moving to a smaller city takes a conscious rejection of the easy trends for most young people, which push them to familiar networks and the largest paychecks. If you’re not from a place, it can take a little while to break in. And yes, the dating pool really is smaller. (Sigh.) But there is so much wealth to be found here, and these cities are practically begging for ambitious young people to sweep in and leave their mark. Take the jump. It’s worth it.