Tag Archives: minnesota


13 Feb

One of the unexpected delights of my writing life has been the occasional opportunity to make real-world connections with readers who share some of the same scattered interests that motivate this blog. This past weekend, one of those connections became real through Jim Richards, whose life story takes him from a childhood in Edina to his hockey-playing days at Dartmouth to a professional life before he and his wife, Mary, decided to go back to the land and move to 350 acres north of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. They started out with a maple syrup operation and eventually ramped it up to a resort, which now hosts weddings and Concordia language villages in the summer and has become a cross-country skiing destination in winter. The resort, Maplelag, has now been in operation for 45 years. Jim and Mary’s son Jay and his wife Jonell are also involved in its operation, and their four sons have divided their athletic talents evenly between skiing and hockey. They found me through the latter and learned of my interest in the former through my blog, and were kind enough to invite me to spend a weekend in their company.

Maplelag is a little slice of cross-country heaven, with untold kilometers of maze-like trails meandering their way up and down rolling hills and around small ponds and lakes.  The hills are more modest than my usual haunts in the Duluth area, but one never knows what lies around the next corner as one glides along the immaculately groomed narrow tracks through the woods. Despite the frigid temperatures I put in three lengthy skis over two days, at one point even heading back out and putting my skis back on for another loop shortly after I thought I’d finished for a day. It was an ideal escape. Even at a resort full of guests, one can slip out and find solitude on a lonely stretch of trail, and I can’t remember enjoying so many spells of silence and peace in years.

This is not to say that Maplelag is an altogether tame place. The meals are all communal, as guests are thrown together in the dining hall; on this weekend most of my acquaintances were extended families or siblings or parent-adult child combinations escaping for a brief reunion. The age range of the guests went from grandparents to 12-day-old who could practically fit in her mother’s hand, and 3-year-old Ben was among the stars of the weekend as he rode about behind his parental sherpas in a carrier. Maplelag also hosts groups such as high school cross-country ski teams, a sure source of energy, though on this weekend the only large party was there for a yoga retreat. When I wandered into the hot tub on Saturday afternoon, I found myself the lone man among ten wine-drinking women, all of whom were just slightly too old for me. C’est la vie.

The Richardses are a family that seems to have found precisely the right place in life, and in turn share their little slice of happiness with a new crew of visitors every weekend. There are no TVs at Maplelag, and only a handful of the rooms have attached bathrooms. They are simple lodges that take care of the basic comforts and turn the focus back on to the people who occupy them. On the first night we’re all feeling each other out, but by the second we’re sharing beers and the tables are rolling in laughter and we’ve made ourselves a bunch of short-term friends. Who knows, we may run into each other again next season: Maplelag does not seem like the sort of place a person visits only once. Cross-country skiing welcomes all comers at all times, and repeated retreats become tradition.

Tradition is a part of Maplelag’s lifeblood. The rhythms of resort life become routine here. The walls of the main lodge bear bear the fruits of Jim’s explorations to learn the histories of ethnic settlement across the Midwest, with signs from small towns all over the region littering every open space. This being a Nordic skiing resort, the Scandinavian influence is obvious, with a Sunday morning smorgasbord rolling out a delectable array of cheeses to go with the lefse and those delicious little cookies. There is a piping hot sauna, of course, and a hole in the ice down on Little Sugarbush Lake where people with a higher tolerance for cold water than myself can purify themselves. Maplelag pays homage to the best of Minnesotan culture, that inheritance that us children of this state are charged with passing on: simple beauty, restorative escapes, a culture of diligent craftsmanship, and, once the work is done, the freedom to both delight in the sports afforded by a harsh climate and to huddle around a hearth and find warmth in one another once the sun has gone down. There are many other sides to Minnesota, but this life on a lake still captures the best of it, and is something we ought to continue carrying forward for as long as we can.

*    *   *

I chose not to enter the Saturday evening talent show; I would have been upstaged by the young musicians who took the stage, anyway. But if I had, I might have been compelled to do a brief reading from an older piece of fiction I spat out a few years ago. In this scene, the protagonist, a high school senior named Alex, has just moved (much to his dismay) with his father from a fairly cushy childhood at a private school in the Twin Cities to the fictional town of Arcadia, which sits on a lake somewhere in northwest Minnesota, likely not too far from Maplelag. This being my fiction, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, but I don’t think that the looming complications of my characters’ lives do anything to diminish the truth in this passage:

Of Alex’s three new friends, Anders stays in the trouble-free indifference of the present better than any other. Anders Andersen lives two miles north of Arcadia, on a property where his parents own a small cluster of lakeside log cabins designed to welcome in those visitors seeking a sleepy sojourn in the Northwoods. The youngest of three children, Anders took on a healthy share of the property upkeep after his sisters moved out, and as his parents grew older and more sedentary. More than any of his hockey teammates, Anders has to work to balance his various interests, and his schoolwork nearly always takes a back seat to chopping firewood and shooting pucks. But he’s bright enough to scrape by, and he does not feel the parental pressure his teammates do; he simply plods along, and does his weight training with an axe instead of a barbell.

In truth, Alex struggles to relate to Anders; hockey aside, they don’t have much in common. Anders is an avid outdoorsman, while Alex was raised in a germ-fearing bubble; Anders has few reservations, while Alex is careful never to rock any boats; and on a more fundamental level, Alex relentlessly pursues opportunities that come his way, while Anders lets everything come to him. But, as he explains to the half-interested Blake, he needs an Anders in his life to snap him out of his uptight, nervous self. His future may not be any clearer, and he certainly hasn’t made peace with his past; with a father he ignores and friends who barely know him, his present isn’t a dream come true, either. But even so, the tumult of these past few months is a bit less oppressive under the starry Arcadia sky, and Alex goes to bed every night with a feeble smile on his face.

Alex and Blake spend the last week of summer doing odd jobs around the Andersens’ cabins. The quaint log lodges along the lakeshore have all been given names like Loose Moose or Fat Goose or Crooning Loon, and though they exude a timeless rustic charm, they require constant upkeep, especially with the winter looming. The boys patch up the holes between the logs and clean out the wood-burning stoves, and with the tourist season winding down, they also paint some of the boats moored along the dock just below the Clever Beaver.

“They know that doesn’t rhyme, right?” Alex asks Blake.

“Meh. Ya see…hey, what number are you, anyway?”

“What number am I?”

“In hockey.”


“Perfect, we don’t have a ten. From now on, you’re Ten.”

“Um…okay. Anyway…”

“Right. Ya see, Ten, that’s the sort of thing you gotta stop caring about, if you want to let Arcadia do its thing.”

“Alright, but what if I’m not sure if I do?”

“It’s gonna do it whether you like it or not.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Alex grumbles.

“It can be, as long as you let it. Seriously, Ten. No shame in taking a shift or two off to get your head back in the game.”

The Andersens pay Alex and Blake in cash, and by ignoring anything that disappears from the extra refrigerator in the lodge. At the end of the day they often slip down to the dock with cans of beer and dangle their legs in the lake, washing away any soreness after their labor. And sore they are: there is nothing simple, nothing relaxing, in the endless caulking and log-rolling under the August sun. At the end of the week Alex’s skin is bronzed, his cap caked in sweat, and he barely has the energy he needs to shoot pucks in the basement after dark. He and Blake gripe about the work as they go, but with generous compensation and school starting next week, they can also laugh at it, knowing their work is not their life.

From their perch they can look across a large bay back at the town, where cars crawl along Lakefront Drive and the Johnson House’s green-gabled roof peeks up above the treetops, lording over the boats edging out of the marina. Sometimes the resort guests will join them, fishing rods in hand, and the ease of anonymity lets them make light of most anything in life. As the distance in time comes to match the distance in miles, Alex is freer to think of St. Ignatius not as some identity stolen away from him, but merely a well of old stories from a different life. In some ways a better life, certainly, but also one he’s lost somewhere out in the murky waters of Lake Arcadia, and for the time being it seems best not to dive in after it, but to simply sit on the dock and remember the one that got away.


Road Trip Journal V: Seattle to Minneapolis

5 Jul

(Part IV)

Day Ten: Reasonable and Prudent

We wake early in Seattle the next morning. My friend goes out to grab a better breakfast, while I make do with mediocre hostel fare. We’re on the road shortly thereafter, headed east on I-90 over Lake Washington and through Bellvue before our final date with the Cascades. The mountains are shrouded in clouds today, with the sky a steely Seattle grey; the lowest of the peaks are lost in white, and some peek out above their airy halos from time to time. The passes here aren’t nearly as extreme as they are along I-80, and it’s a straightforward descent into central Washington, where the sun comes out and the temperatures rise.

Washington east of the Cascades just isn’t a place I’ve ever given much thought, and I’m surprised by how empty it is, its vacant highlands and amber waves of grain none too distant from Nevada or Wyoming. There are a few more towns, and the Columbia River gorge and crossing are a welcome and impressive break from the plains, but a mountain range leaves this area a world away from Seattle. This is the only place on the trip where we see a serious number of Trump signs along the highway, which says something considering the amount of deep red territory we’ve covered. Spokane passes quickly, and we leave Washington behind.

We make our lunch stop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a lake resort town that we’re drawn to by pretty pictures we’ve seen before. Coeur d’Alene, it turns out, is no secret. Just thirty miles from Spokane, it’s packed on the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, with traffic backups and multitudes milling around its high-rise hotels. We eat a quick lunch along some cement steps leading down into the lake as boats buzz by beyond us and a seaplane comes in for a landing. But even if it’s not wilderness, it’s a welcome break. My friend takes a dip at the beach, while I wade in a little and admire the Idaho beach bums and the cartoon moose statuary.

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This is another day of extensive driving, and another one that leaves me impressed by the extent of the interstate highway system. It was a colossal infrastructure project, and while its story has its dark sides—ask anyone displaced by freeways punched through poorer parts of cities—it’s also a triumph of engineering and a marvel for interstate commerce. Even when clogged up by construction or congestion, it moves people with remarkable speed. Its construction radically remade small towns everywhere, as businesses shifted out of the core to little stops at exits. In Wallace, Idaho, we pass one of the towns that refused to bend to these changing tides. The residents of Wallace held out for years to resist the destruction of their historic downtown, and had it registered as a landmark in 1976. It took until 1991 for the government to complete a viaduct around it.

After some crawling traffic due to construction, we enter Montana, where speed limits are an afterthought. So much of one, in fact, that for a spell in the 1990s, speed limit signs along highways simply instructed drivers to go “reasonable and prudent” speeds. When the courts found this too vague for enforcement, the state settled on a poorly monitored 80 MPH limit. We rocket around bends and over mountain passes, though we’re far from the fastest car on the road. We pause in Missoula, where we continue our visits of college campuses and make a loop through the University of Montana.

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Through much of Montana, the road follows the Clark Fork, a river among the many features in this part of country named for Lewis or Clark. If there had been vacancies, we would have camped at the Missouri Headwaters State Park east of Butte, but with our tent long gone, it’s just as well that we’re now forced to plow on. We catch up with a storm near sunset, one that opens up in little spurts here and there in the hazy sky over the mountains, creating little sheets of rain with rainbows here and there along the route. Behind us, the sky is brilliant hue of pink mixed with sinking clouds. Another burst of energy to carry us through the final few miles.

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It’s dark by the time we arrive in Bozeman, where we’re the guinea pigs for a new Airbnb host. He delivers for us, and we grab a quick bite at a bar that caters to the Montana State crowd, one of the few places that still has an open kitchen. It’s too late to see much, and my friend is tired, so our list of Bozeman sights to see goes, regrettably, untouched. This may have been our most relentless day of driving, with few stops and no real thrilling destination at the end. The trip is definitely winding down, but we’re not close enough to the finish that we’ll miss any of it yet.

Day Eleven: Born to Run

We wake refreshed after a comfortable sleep in Bozeman, and Bruce Springsteen serenades us on the way east across Montana. The ranges of the western half of the state give way to craggy badlands and little ridges flecked with ranches. We catch our last glimpses of snow-capped peaks along the way, and pass just a bit too far north for a stop at Little Bighorn. I take over the driving somewhere east of Billings, after we’ve split north onto I-94. Today, I’m in a driving zone, just cruising along without distraction and drinking it all in. As is so often the case in the west, the freeway is in a valley along with a river (this time, the Yellowstone) and a train track, the rivers, roads, and rails all united in the easiest passage through the rough land all around.

We cross the North Dakota border and stop for lunch at a rest area, where we’re greeted by the most North Dakotan of scenes: an endless green plain of farmland, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Things change up a little further along, though, as we come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It wasn’t in the cards for this trip, but it’s toward the top of the list of sites I want to see in the West. We make do by pulling over at the Painted Canyon overlook, where we’re treated to endless marches of painted badlands bubbling up over creeks and gulches. The spotty cloud cover adds to the contrasting colors, harsh and beautiful. Just a long day’s drive from Minneapolis, this park beckons me back in a way others haven’t. I feel that same pull that must have sucked in T.R. over a century ago.

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The badlands peter out shortly thereafter, and then it’s just North Dakota in all its glory. The state is particularly proud of its large manmade objects. We catch a glimpse of the bird-and-eye sculpture at the Enchanted Highway, pause for gas by the world’s largest sandhill crane, and see signs for the world’s largest buffalo. Our only real stop, however, is for the world’s largest Holstein cow, a beauty named Salem Sue, who stands proudly atop a hill outside tiny New Salem. Sue gazes out from what has to be one of the higher points in the state relative to its surroundings, and longs to graze on those endless green fields.

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The original plan had been to spend our final night on the road at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which is just south of Bismarck. Now that my tent is the property of some homeless San Franciscan, however, we’re forced to make contingency plans with my friend’s aunt outside of Fargo. Still, we have ourselves a pre-paid pass to Fort Lincoln, so we stop in for a brief visit. The visitor’s center tells us the tale of the Mandans, who once had a large village on the banks of the Missouri here. A few of their round earthen homes, deceptively large, have been rebuilt for us tourists. We wander down to the river, where a sandbar just out from the bank is overloaded with locals on boats enjoying the water. Opposite the wide Missouri is Bismarck, and the bizarre tower that passes for a state capital in North Dakota lords over it all. On our way out, we drive by the fort’s buildings, their unassuming architecture belying their historical significance. George Custer set out from here on his ill-fated final trek, off to the fields of Little Bighorn in southeast Montana. This outpost was the end of white civilization in the 1880s; now, it’s the end of the West for two travelers.

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The road east from Bismarck is a blur, and my friend’s aunt is ready to spoil us with dinner and drinks and political conversation late into the night. Her town, Casselton, is as sleepy as they come, and a single mother of two Harvard students is happy to pass the night a couple of Georgetown grads with steak and ice cream. It’s late, but I’m up writing anyway. I have a lot left to recount, and the final thoughts for tomorrow are already writing themselves.

Day Twelve: Return to Lake Wobegon

Throughout my childhood, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion was required listening on Saturday nights. We weren’t a churchgoing family, so the News from Lake Wobegon was the closest I got to a weekly sermon. We’d begin dinner sometime around the start of the show’s second hour, and I always sat and listened, even if dinner had ended. I haven’t listened regularly since I left home, and I won’t pretend to enjoy his singing or his seeming exhaustion by the end. But this weekend marks Keillor’s final show, so it’s only fitting that we listen to his final episode as we drive back into Minnesota.

The last morning of our road trip only adds to the above average idyll. Our host for the night, my friend’s aunt, is a Lutheran pastor, so we sit in on her Sunday service before going out to brunch in Fargo. Her homily on her son, who just had his wallet pickpocketed while backpacking through Peru and the kindness he encountered from strangers, resonated with a couple of travelers fresh off their own encounter with theft. We leave Elim Lutheran not to cross the Red Sea, but merely the Red River of the North, back into Minnesota.

At first, the landscape in the western half of the state resembles North Dakota. But slowly there are more towns that seem positively dense after the Great Plains, and more deciduous forests for the first time since we left this state twelve days ago. All is thick and green, and the smattering of the 10,000 lakes that line I-94 are all packed with holiday weekend boaters. As if we need any more reminders of that small-town Minnesotan literary legacy, we pass signs for Sinclair Lewis Avenue in Sauk Centre and the Lake Wobegon Trail just beyond.

The Minnesota myth has its demons, and Garrison Keillor is probably complicit in its creation. I’ve poked at it on this blog before, and I’ll never embrace it fully. But it’s become part of that vague haze of childhood rightness that I’ll never shake, and has a place somewhere in my loyalty to this state, even as I grumble about it. I’m sure I owe Garrison more than a few assists for the novel draft I cranked out between undergraduate life in Washington and graduate life in Minnesota, one focused on a town in Lake Wobegon country, filtered through the eyes of a jaded teenager from Minneapolis. The draft needs some work, but the story it told grounded a drifting kid in this state that a visiting Georgetown friend once labeled “the last bastion of the American Dream.” It allowed me to understand home.

Minneapolis suburbia comes gradually, the woods and freeway walls all but hiding the fact that we’re in a city until we can see the Minneapolis skyline. One last round of construction delays a few blocks from home allows us to get through the final News from Lake Wobegon, in which Garrison reflects on some townfolk who have passed on, and on the anonymity that follows death. My roots here aren’t that deep in years, really, but they’re deep enough to have seen some tragedy. My late brother, on my mind frequently over the past two weeks following what would have been his eighteenth birthday, had the middle name Garrison. A somber note as I end this trip, perhaps, but it’s all part of a broader narrative, complicated and rewarding all the same.

I’ve spent these twelve days as a tourist, a shopper among cities, a consumer of superb experiences. It was delightful, and I’m ready for another trip soon. But no package of fine living and cultural intrigue and and weather can ever define home. The land can evoke a sense of home, but for all its permanence, it isn’t what makes a place. That will always be deeper.

In true Keillor tradition, I’ll close with a poem, with my usual Greek twist on things:


C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pear and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you have reached the island,
wealthy with all you have gained along the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


It’s good to be back. On to the next chapter.

A Cycle Renewed

13 Mar

I’ve been slacking in my writing of late, which will happen when one is fairly busy and also coming off a rush of hockey-related activity that reached new heights this past month. I’m backlogged beyond belief on interesting articles that I’ve read and would like to comment on, though I’ll knock two out of the way in this post. I also have yet to opine on Donald Trump, which I’m told any self-respecting blogger must do or forever forfeit his credentials, as if everything there is to say has not been said already. (Worry not, I’ll let myself get sucked in at some point.)

Now that hockey is over this should conceivably be easier, though I’m afraid this alleged “spring break” I am now on will offer few such opportunities. With one last graduation looming, I have a lot on my mind, and a lot people with whom I want to spend time before venturing out into the world again. And in some of my rare free moments, I may opt for sloth instead of patient cycling, as was the case yesterday, when a 70-degree March afternoon found me beached on a towel in Loring Park. It was a dreamy escape. This freedom is only momentary, though, and it had my mind wandering back to a Roger Cohen article from a couple months ago on “ways to be free.”

In the article, Cohen describes the “ferocious ambivalence” that drives people in pursuit of freedom, with references to his own road trip through central Asia in his youth and the sublime surfing writing of William Finnegan. (I’ve never surfed in my life, but an excerpt in the New Yorker last year left me transfixed.) Cohen’s son seems skeptical that such freedom is possible in this day in age, but Cohen disagrees, and I think he’s right: for all our attempts to impose control on the world, vast swaths of it remain unconquered from the well-ordered Western mind. It will forever be this way, and we owe our sanity to it: the moments when we tap into that freedom beyond are some of the most formative moments imaginable.

Careful climber that I am, these moments aren’t always easy to find; as much as I may yearn for them and seek them out at times, they tend to be fleeting. My semester in Mexico certainly had some stretches that approximated it, but my self-discovery journey, such as it was, proved a far more inward affair that dug deep instead of roaming broadly. And, now that I am on the brink of a move to the 9-to-5 life, that hunger for adventure roars up again. It wants me on the road, or at the very least to wander through a few more Minnesota state parks to drink in the little details. For all my cynicism about journeys of self-discovery and the self-centered direction that inward turns can (though do not always) take, their power is genuine. We always seem to value things most when we’re about to lose them.

Perhaps, then, it’s helpful to read about a different sort of journey. Take the case of a Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham, who used some Department of Agriculture data to rank all of the counties in the U.S., and declared that Red Lake County, Minnesota, was the country’s worst. The other states with counties near the bottom of the list ignored it, but Minnesotans, being Minnesotans, lashed out in polite but scathing anger. Ingraham visited, came away absolutely charmed, and now, several months later, is packing up his family and moving to Red Lake County. These moments are effective because they are so spontaneous or serendipitous, and they are life-altering in large part because they are so unplanned.

Ingraham’s story will no doubt cue its share of Minnesota smugness. Still, it’s a refreshing tale for someone who’s been dwelling on questions of status lately, and who’s trying to remember what’s worth valuing as he starts a career. It does run the risk of lapsing into complacency, a contented niceness that will forever leave me a bit restless in this state. We still need outlets for that roaring daimonic desire that every now and then surges up and reminds us what it means to be free. But in the meantime, a Minnesota spring is on its way, and it’s to renew belief in what we hold closest, no matter how small or mundane those things may seem. For that, northern Minnesota remains the perfect reminder.


Why High School Hockey?

19 Nov

Some people who read this blog know me first and foremost as a commentator on high school hockey. Others, who come for the other stuff, tend to skip over it, with reactions ranging from bemusement to downright incomprehension. I don’t blame them; I know this place is eclectic, and a high school sport may seem a strange obsession for someone whose other interests include local politics and intellectual musing. So why do you do it, Karl?

The easiest explanation is that it’s just an accident of history: I grew up on the east side of Duluth during a time when that part of the city put out plenty of hockey talent. I went to a high school blessed with a strong hockey legacy, and even the kids who didn’t much care for the sport would come to a few games and join the party in the stands. The juicy storylines surrounding our coach—Mike Randolph was headline news my eighth grade year when he temporarily lost his job—added to the intrigue when I went to Duluth East. Those stories only got crazier my freshman year, as a tumultuous season on and off the ice resulted in a surprise playoff run. The Hounds missed the Tourney my last three years in high school, but those section losses, each more excruciating than the last, left a feeling of unfinished business. Those years also aligned with the peak of the East’s rivalry with Cloquet, a legitimate war that was on par with any high school sports clash in the country. The program seemed bigger than life, and came to define the East experience.

East has made the State Tournament every year since my graduation, which has made it easy to stay in touch. Even when I lived on the East Coast, I’d fly back for the Tourney, and it was always an impromptu reunion, a way to keep those old ties going as I crashed on friends’ couches, bumped into them in the upper deck, or joined them for drinks after the games. That tradition now has a life of its own, and I expect it to endure no matter the Hounds’ fortunes in the coming years. It’s a ritual that keeps me true to my roots.

And so I’ve been sucked in. I’m not the sort who can half-ass anything, and so I couldn’t just be a casual fan; I had to learn everything I could about every team, and before long I was posting about it on an internet forum, and one thing led to another. I now moonlight as a high school hockey talking head, putting in many hours, compensated only with the occasional beer and some nasty anonymous comments. Those internet ties kept me in touch when I moved away, and are even more important as my own time at East fades into the rear view mirror. There are moments where the madness of it all wears me down, but they never last long, and I’ve built some real connections with people through my work, too.

Still, hockey goes deeper than a mere childhood backstory. It has quirks that are downright fun, from hockey hair to public-private rivalries to opportunities to remind Edina that they’re still cakeaters. Hockey is also a marker of regional identity, and an eternal point of pride for those of us who hail from the North. American hockey was born here, and while the tropes of hard-working northern boys can wear thin, there’s still enough truth to it that we take this mantel seriously, and there’s always that air of allure when an entire town heads south and shocks St. Paul in March.

On another level, the allure is aesthetic. Hockey is a beautiful sport. This will baffle anyone who immediately associates it with fights and lost teeth, but where else can one find such consistently smooth play? It has much longer stretches of action than football or baseball; scoring is neither as incessant as in basketball nor as sparse as in soccer. Two minutes on the clock actually take about two minutes. To even begin, hockey players must master movement on two thin blades of metal and glide easily across a rink. Next come the soft hands and slick passing, the ability to wield a stick and flip a puck across the ice on instinct. Add a layer of strategy, and you have units of players floating about in forty-second spurts, making extreme exertion look seamless. High school skills on all these fronts run the gamut, making it that much easier to enjoy the best of them.

And then, yes, there is the violent side. Hockey combines its grace with some punishing body blows, though unlike other contact sports, it’s possible to play it well without the brutality. While there are obvious limits—no kid with repeated head trauma should stay on the ice—I also think there’s an unfortunate, growing societal stigma around raw, physical activities, as the parental sheltering becomes ever more oppressive. Sports like this are not for everyone, but they are wonderful releases of pent-up forces, particularly young men with an excess of testosterone. It taps into that primal urge without putting it center stage, and channels it toward a greater goal.

So why high school, in particular? College and NHL hockey are also big in Minnesota, and my loyalties could have progressed with my own added years. High school is cleaner in a number of respects, but there’s no shortage of things to decry about the state of youth hockey today, from exorbitant costs to some unseemly searches for greener grass. (Note that I certainly don’t lump all transfers or early departures into that category.) Defenders of the sport, including a famed Sports Illustrated piece from a few years back, point to its purity. To an extent, this is true, though as I’ve noted before, few things are less pure than the minds of teenage boys. But if purity isn’t quite the right word, it does hint at something: the sheer, unbridled joy of doing what one loves. High school hockey has a special panache to it; a combination of raw force and light artistry that fuels a fire on the ice, and taps into a restless hunger that I hope I never lose. At the high school level it spills over into the stands, where student sections let loose and feed an atmosphere that can sweep up an entire community. All of the petty divides that often define high school fall away behind a common mission, if only for a few hours. It helped turn an often awkward stage in life into something I now recollect with nothing but fondness.

A few people are weirded out by the fixation on high school kids, but hockey in Minnesota is cross-generational, something that ropes in parents and grandparents as much as the kids. I also think it’s a healthy thing to take an interest in people outside of one’s often myopic age group, and high school is a particularly formative time. The experiences many of these kids have here are some of the most important forces in shaping a life, and hockey can push them to achieve things they never could have before. Readers of my Tournament reflections will know that some of the most crystallizing moments for me have been those press conferences after losses where I see kids contemplate life beyond high school for the first time, now that a run for one of their greatest passions has come to an end. It’s an essential part of a coming-of-age story, and the commitment and work ethic and sense of camaraderie many of these boys build do indeed serve them well in whatever comes next. The attention we heap on high school students can go far; I’ll admit to some squeamishness about media outlets that fixate pre-high school hockey (especially if they try to rate or hype up individuals), and take my role on the Forum as a defender of high schoolers from slander or libel more seriously than anything else I do in the hockey world. But this is also a time to begin that transition into life in the public eye, and once again, I’m skeptical of anything that shelters anyone for too long.

Hockey intertwines with my own story, too: it can’t be a coincidence that my two greatest sports loyalties crystallized immediately after the two most disruptive incidents in my personal life. For a little while, it was both a release and a distraction, and those bright spots endure. No doubt sports obsessions can grow unhealthy; people make dumb decisions that prioritize sports over life, or fall victim to a broader athletic culture that doesn’t always have its priorities right. But for every skipped test or Twitter dust-up, my hockey work has become one of the healthiest things I do: it puts it all into perspective. Just as it pushes us out into the world, it also lets us retreat from it, if only for a few moments. It’s an entirely different realm from school and work life, and it’s a blessed relief to come down from weighty real world affairs and watch a bunch of kids scoot around in pursuit of a piece of rubber. Anyone wanna join me at a rink this winter?


A Guide to Minnesota Nice

21 Aug

Minnesotans have plenty of reason to be nice. We’re not in a rush to scrap for spots on ladders for power, as happens out East; we have more space than they do, and lack their extremes and intensity, despite the political affinity. We’re not haunted by history as in the South, or left with much of a Rust Belt legacy like most of our Midwestern brethren. We’ll always be more interesting than the Plains, and do not suffer from whatever it is that afflicts Texans and turns them into Texans. Nor are we restless strivers still on the frontier, like those out West; we’ve tamed the whole state, and like it as it is under our stewardship. Just look at our rather racist flag, with its settler beating off some native to claim his fields. That mostly forgotten episode in the Dakota Wars aside, our history has never been at the center of the American narrative, which spares us a judging past, but we’ve been around long enough to have a cultural legacy that can stand on its own. Things are, simply, nice.

Unless, of course, you dare to find fault in our niceness. A Washington Post article poking fun at some of the nation’s more geographically “boring” counties got zero flak from the other states with a bunch near the bottom of the list, but Minnesotans trashed it en masse, leading to a mea culpa from the author. Perhaps the lack of attention leaves us with an inferiority complex; more likely, we’re just quirky outsiders unaccustomed to much national interest, and ready to defend our turf when someone suddenly tries to drag us in with the rest of the country. For all the champions of progressive politics this state produces, there’s still a deep conservatism at the core here: Minnesotans are proud of what they’ve built, and would rather not mess with it too much.

And we have good reason. We’ve got a white-collar metropolis that has weathered some of the worst trends in cities fairly well. We combine a pretty friendly business climate with a functional state government that, until recently, operated quite independently from the national parties. We have an educational system on par with the nations of Scandinavia. Sure, the winters are cold, but we know how to have fun with them, and they build character. Our summers are gorgeous, our autumns sublime. (Any Minnesotan knows that the one indefensibly crappy season here is spring, that grey void between the end of the State Hockey Tournament and Memorial Day.) We have work-life balance: you’re certainly allowed to enjoy your job, but it does not define who you are, as people who are consumed by their jobs are often not nice. We’re very conscious about the work we do, but at the end of the day, we’d rather be on the lake than anywhere else.

“The lake” defines Minnesota life, and is the place where Minnesotans always go, that one platonic ideal standing in for all 11,842 of them within the state’s boundaries. We have an incredible diversity in lakes, but whether one prefers Calhoun or Kekakabic, Minnetonka or Vermillion, every lake inspires a certain ideal. But the most Minnesotan of lands is the northern realm of the state, where lake life reigns supreme, and even the biggest lovers of the big city will make their way North at least once a summer. Even as its population stagnates and economic role dwindles, the Twin Cities are happy to appropriate the North as theirs. Its appeal reaches both suburbanites in search of space and solitude and crunchy urbanites who have adopted its fashion wholesale. (There were bearded men in flannel drinking PBRs in Bemidji decades before they came to Brooklyn.) The North forever draws Minnesotans back with its more gradual pace of life, inviting one to think both deeply or of nothing. Either way, it cleanses the palette from incessant work and family life. Sit back on the pier, crack open a beer, gaze out across those sunny dancing waters, and lose yourself.

For Minnesotans raised on the sonorous voice of the high priest of Minnesota Nice, Garrison Keillor, that sentiment is never far away. There’s a fair amount of self-hate among Minnesotans of the Lake Wobegon idyll, and not without reason. But even Keillor’s critics often unwittingly embrace the foundations of his weekly news from the edge of the prairie: the need to stop amid the noise of life and succumb to nostalgia, the allure of a carefree childhood of exploration; the freedom to look back from old age and say that one has stayed true to something passed down from generation to generation. Call it the Minnesotan Dream: we may not be able to offer you power or riches, but we can offer you a safe, reasonably priced, spacious house and weekends on a lake. Do you really need much more than that?

For a majority of Minnesotans, this holds true. Not many people leave, and most who come tend to stay. People marry young and settle down, and the people we shared those lake weekends with as children stay friends for life. The result is a dense network of people; even in the Twin Cities, it’s hard to escape into anonymity, and we all know someone who knows someone. (I’ve heard the Twin Cities job market described as “pervasive low-grade nepotism.”) We share enough that we all know how to work together and live together, even if we may not like each other all that much. Hence the famed dark side of Minnesota Nice, the tendency to put on a good face and pretend to like people when, in fact, we hate their guts. It can be tiringly catty and erupt in spurts of passive-aggressiveness, but it also lets everyone get their jobs done with typical Minnesotan efficiency.

Minnesotans expect anyone who comes here to adopt Minnesotan standards: you can share in our nice state so long as you play by our nice rules. It’s a very Scandinavian ethos, which is no surprise in America’s most Scandinavian corner, forever putting the common good ahead individual quirks. This is probably why Minnesota attracts few immigrants save a few strong ethnic enclaves for Somalis and Hmong, and those (especially the Somalis) tend to live in their own separate worlds. It’s also probably why our efforts to educate Minnesotan children who do not look like us tend to suck. Our history with our Native Americans is dark and ugly. It’s easy to claim the high ground when everyone shares a common language, but as in Scandinavia, changing demographics may complicate the tale of Minnesotan exceptionalism.

There’s also the matter of Jante Law, a Scandinavian sentiment akin to that in Appalachia or inner cities in which people heap shame upon those who seem to rise above their perceived stations. (This ambitious, non-Scandinavian kid from the North remembers the two reactions that his college of choice, Georgetown, inspired from a number of local adults: “oh, where’s that?” and “that’s so far away.” Minnesota Nice translation: “you are making a stupid and selfish choice, leaving behind everything you know to go off to some mysterious, no doubt un-Minnesotan ivory tower on the East Coast.”) Foraging one’s own path in Minnesota, unless it is through a literal forest, is not always the easiest thing.

But it can be done. Minnesota transplants must learn to love the lake, and those who leave must show that they still remember it. It need not be the center of life, but it must be a part of it, and so long as we tend the roots of the Minnesota mystique, one will always be welcome. One can even retain some of those quirks learned in the great void beyond, and perhaps even chase some form of excellence. The lake may seem small at times, but its depths can be profound, and sometimes, that respite is something we all need.


A History of Twin Cities Urbanism, As Told by High School Hockey

18 Mar

Want to know the socioeconomic health of a Minnesota town or city? Look no further than its high school hockey teams.

The comparisons are almost too easy to make. The first high school hockey Tourney was in 1945, so the evolution of Minnesota’s sports crown jewel tells the story of postwar American urbanism as well as any economic study. The history of the Tourney and its participants is the same as the history of local economies, from manufacturing collapse to suburban growth to rebirth along economically segregated lines. This is my attempt to tell that story.

Hockey is an expensive sport, and even though Minnesota keeps things relatively cheap with its community-based development model and plethora of municipal rinks, hockey success still tends to follow affluent areas. Wealthy areas with growing populations are typically the places to look for waves of hockey success. The exception to this rule has long been small northern towns—though even here things still more or less line up, with the Iron Range falling off from its early dominance along with the decline in mine employment while towns with more diverse economies (Grand Rapids, Bemidji) or an anchor industry (Polaris in Roseau, Marvin Windows in Warroad) remain relevant despite their size.

To study these trends more properly, I divided all high schools in the state into several categories: (1) Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools; (2) First-ring suburbs—that is, suburbs built in the first wave of suburban migration, from the 1940s-1960s; (3) Second-ring suburbs—suburbs that were built up from the 70s-90s; (4) the urban “periphery,” which includes suburbs/exurbs settled in the past 20 years and small towns in that area that have become part of the Metro as it expands; (5) Twin Cities private schools; (6) small Northern towns; (7) northern city schools—that is, schools that are part of small metro areas such as Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, and Grand Forks; and (8) the rest of Greater Minnesota, which I realize is a very large catch-all category, but fits together for our purposes due to its relative lack of AA hockey success (with some exceptions) unless given its own weak section.

From there, I looked at the number of State Tournament entrants from each region by decades since the Tournament’s inception in 1945. I ignore the Class A Tournament/Tier II tournaments that began in 1992, as their teams are not necessarily reflective of the strengths of teams in each section relative to the state as a whole. In a perfect world I would have studied teams’ records and ratings over the years—as any sports fan knows, the best team doesn’t win every year, and sometimes a single dominant team can hide the successes of other good teams trapped behind them in their section—but that data just isn’t available for the early years. I’ll present a line graph of each region’s Tourney berths by decade, and then sprinkle in maps of the Twin Cities Metro area by decade.

Tourney Apps by Category tc45-55

Metro Area State Tourney Entrants,1945-1955. Number indicates State Tournament berths; numbers after semicolons indicate State Championships. Click images for enlargements.

In 1950, most of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area population lived in the Twin Cities themselves, though there was a growing ring of suburbs such as Richfield, Bloomington, Edina, Roseville, and South St. Paul. Minneapolis’s population peaked in the 1950 Census, with 521,718 residents; St. Paul’s peaked a decade later, at 313,411. At the time, the cities’ hockey conferences were highly competitive; while St. Paul Johnston established itself as the Twin Cities’ preeminent public hockey school and the one Metro team that could go toe-to-toe with the powers of the North, there was relative parity beyond that, and things were always competitive.



The second half of the twentieth century saw the gradual hollowing out of the inner city. Minneapolis lost 29.39% of its population between its peak year and 1990; St. Paul lost a more modest 13.14%, but the damage was real, and the hockey teams reflected it. By the 1970s, the Minneapolis section had largely devolved into a 2-team race between two of the most affluent schools, Southwest and Roosevelt; similarly, St. Paul was largely ruled by Johnson and Harding. But not even they were safe. Southwest won Minneapolis’s last big-school Tourney berth in 1980; Johnson managed to scrape together two berths in the 1990s, though they came out of weak sections and did nothing once they got to State. All of the Minneapolis public schools now co-op into one middling program; three St. Paul public high schools field hockey teams, with Johnson the only one coming even remotely close to some rare playoff success.



The first-ring suburbs were the early beneficiaries of the cities’ decline. Edina’s triumph in the famed 1969 title game, the one in which Warroad superstar Henry Boucha limped off hurt following an allegedly dirty hit, was the first title for a suburb, and ushered in an era of superb competition between the suburbs and the North. Alongside mighty Edina, South St. Paul established itself as a Tournament regular; Mounds View, Henry Sibley (of Mendota Heights), Irondale, and the Roseville and Bloomington schools all left their mark on the Tourney in the 70s and 80s.



By the 1980s, however, things began to shift yet again. While Edina and the Bloomingtons often ruled the scene and the North had fallen off substantially, schools further afield in the Metro began to appear at State: Anoka, Apple Valley, and Minnetonka made multiple appearances, while Burnsville won back-to-back titles in the middle of the decade. That trend only accelerated into the 1990s, with Blaine and Eden Prairie joining the fun. There were even some berths for far-flung schools out on the Metro periphery, such as Hastings, Elk River, and Lakeville. Blue-collar South St. Paul, still one of the most decorated programs in state history, made its last Tourney in 1996 before dropping to Class A, where it has done little; Richfield, a title threat behind Darby Hendrickson in 1991, now struggles to field a team.



The decline of the first-ring suburbs becomes even more profound when one looks at which first-ring suburban schools have been doing all the winning over the past 25 years. 9 of the 13 berths from 96-05 came from Bloomington Jefferson and Edina, and all 9 from 06-15 belong to Edina. Edina is the exception that proves the rule here, the one first-ring suburb that has used its long-established prestige to maintain economic dominance and continue to attract young, fairly affluent families. In the late 1980s, blue-collar Bloomington Kennedy and Duluth Denfeld were every bit as good as, and often better than, their white-collar counterparts, Bloomington Jefferson and Duluth East. A decade later, Jefferson and East were the state’s premier powers, while Kennedy and Denfeld were struggling to stay relevant. Even the west side of Bloomington, home to Jefferson, has undergone some demographic change in recent years, though the Jaguars remain a relevant program despite the lack of State berths. America’s working class has been hollowed out, and its once-strong hockey teams have felt the strain.



As populations in Minneapolis and St. Paul have started growing again for the first time in 60 years, there have been encouraging signs for the inner city teams; Minneapolis and St. Paul youth programs are climbing toward relevance, and St. Paul Highland Park brought its dead program back to life in 2010. But the most important trend over the past 25 years in these cities and in the first-ring suburbs is the rise of private schools, which tend to be where most of these youth kids wind up playing in high school. (Most, I suspect, have gone to private schools their entire lives.) This might seem to throw off the whole theory, but on the contrary, I’d argue that this only underscores the divisions in 21st-century American cities. While the 1992 two-class split and the story of Greg Trebil (a wildly successful Jefferson youth coach who took over the Academy of Holy Angels in 1996 and brought several top Jefferson youth players with him) may also play roles, the 1990s saw the sudden appearance of the privates (excepting Hill-Murray, which has always been good). This trend fits in with broader narratives of a self-sorting society. Inner cities, while growing, are increasingly divided, with the ultra-rich and the mostly-minority poor split into different neighborhoods, and only a small “middle” class (often involving young people who have yet to start families) serving as a buffer in between. Hockey parents with the means to do so bail on Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, and often on schools in Richfield, St. Louis Park, or Brooklyn Park as well. There will be no hockey success for inner-city public schools until inner cities find some way to retain or grow their child-bearing middle class families.



So, what might we predict for the future? The second-tier suburbs will peak at some point, with greater success in rising exurbs like Stillwater, Orono, Prior Lake, and St. Michael. Inertia and hockey culture will carry on in places like Edina, and perhaps in some other places whose leadership or natural amenities keep property values high. Communities that build a genuine sense of place, as Edina has, will prove more stable in the face of natural cycles of urban growth and decline. Places along lakes or rivers, from Elk River to Stillwater to Minnetonka, seem likely candidates.

Naturally, there are factors that have nothing to do with urbanism that affect who heads to the State Tourney. The manner in which the State High School League draws boundaries, to say nothing of great coaches or freak individual talents, all play a role. (How many more state berths would exurban Elk River have if it hadn’t been stuck in a section with Duluth East over the past decade?) Decisions to open and close schools or youth programs will leave their mark, and there’s some chance that the repopulation of inner cities might eventually manifest itself in some way. We’ll also have to see how private alternatives to community-based youth hockey progress, and how these might eat into the pools that high schools draw from. But the correlation is undeniable, and I don’t think any of the above trends will do anything to undermine this whole picture.

Statewide trends reveal a more straightforward numbers game, as power has shifted from smaller towns to larger metro areas. In most of the North, culture allows teams to stay relevant and even thrive with smaller numbers, so long as the economy is stable. Duluth operates as a microcosm of the Twin Cities, with “inner city” Duluth Central now closed and working-class Duluth Denfeld fighting to stay alive, while exurban Hermantown grows, private Duluth Marshall consciously moves to collect regional talent, and Duluth East looks to follow the Edina formula and ride the considerable power of past prestige to stay on top of the heap.

There is one last elephant in the room here that I haven’t mentioned: race. Due to its cultural origins in Canada and Scandinavia, hockey is an overwhelmingly white sport. And, as recently as half a century ago, Minnesota was an overwhelmingly white state. But that is changing, and hockey has been slow to follow. Minneapolis proper was 98% white in 1950, and is now 63% white; most first-ring suburbs are now following the same demographic shift. On that note, I’ll make a bold claim: whichever suburb, town, or neighborhood manages to get the most minorities on skates is going to be the model for the future of Minnesotan urbanism. It isn’t that hockey is some magical vehicle to social equity, but it does have considerable cultural cachet, and its adoption by new arrivals would imply genuine integration and social cohesion. If anything is going to resist the unending push outward and into greater self-segregation (or even the privatization of hockey training, a story for an entirely different post), it is to be found here, where there is still low-hanging fruit. Any high school that can get a group of talented minority athletes together on a successful hockey team is going to break down any number of barriers, and will almost certainly win the hearts of the state. Inertia can do the rest.

In the meantime, enjoy the continued rise of the urban periphery and the private schools, and the continued relevance of the old powers with enough economic vitality to keep their numbers going. For everyone else, take it as a challenge to buck the trends and prove that other, more subtle factors matter, too.


What’s a Minnesotan, Anyway?

19 Nov

Earlier this week, the Star Tribune reported on a forum planned for Wednesday night at the Walker Arts Center, at which a series of panelists would grapple with the question of whether Minnesotans are “Midwestern” or not. This might seem like tiresome semantics, and an exercise in one of the more stupid definitions of “culture.” But as one read the article and dug down into the motives at play, there was a lot more going on here than the headline lets on. Another commitment prevented me from attending, but that won’t stop me from having an opinion.

Growing up in Minnesota, it was always easy to call it part of the Midwest, sometimes with the qualifier “Upper” before the Midwest to indicate our higher latitude and relative lack of corn fields. Still, my idea of the Midwest didn’t line up with everyone else’s; for example, I’d never have called Ohio “Midwest,” but that seems to be exactly what East Coast people associate with the word. There’s an awful lot of stuff wrapped up into Midwest, and Minnesota, as one of its most distant extensions, sits more awkwardly in that region than many other states. The phrase has some less-than-stellar baggage (flyover country, empty cornfields), so I can buy the need for a new region.

So when it comes to the proposed alternatives, “North” does have a nice ring. I appreciate the way it’s pitched as a shameless embrace of our cold. So what if it’s cold? We have fun with it. Still, I will quibble: Eric Dayton claims the U.S. doesn’t have a “North,” but, well, we did. It was a combatant in the Civil War. We no longer think of that North as a region because it doesn’t have the historical memory of its antagonist, the still-extant South, but claiming the Northern mantel might have some unexpected connotations. (Minnesota was an infant state at the time of the Civil War and certainly contributed to the Union cause, though it can hardly claim a central role.)

There’s also the question of whether anyone else actually belongs to Minnesota’s region, and could unabashedly embrace the North. The parts of North Dakota along the Red River Valley make some sense, but anything to the west is decidedly Great Plains, and would be an odd mix culturally. Iowa isn’t quite North in the way that Minnesota is. That leaves us with Wisconsin, which I do think is a reasonably good fit once we get over the Packers’ ownership of the Vikings, and perhaps the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is very North. It’s not much, though. Are we really celebrating our region, or just our state? For that matter, are we even still bothering with the half of the state that does look a fair bit like Iowa?

Here I will confess a fair amount of unease around the real motive here: this attempt to stake out a regional identity seems to slide into a marketing campaign for Minneapolis and St. Paul. I live in and like Minneapolis, but there are still worlds of difference between it and northern Minnesota, which is essentially what the people quoted in the Strib are after. It sounds as if these scions of the creative class want to appropriate all of the Lake Wobegon homeliness and the wilderness allure of Greater Minnesota for the MSP brand while at the same time dismissing small-town Minnesota as “slightly hick.” Those towns are just relics of history, insufficiently vibrant for any properly urbane “creative” person, but we’ll gladly claim their boots and backpacks as ours, because aren’t we so rugged here in Northeast? Spare me.

I’m at some risk of turning this into a Wendell Berry rant about how the cities strip-mine rural America, a relentless brain drain that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (We’ll save that discussion for another day.) I’m not sure how much we can fight the tide. Regional power would be a valuable thing for MSP, and if it snaps up some of the cultural cachet of its surroundings for its own, at least that’s being valued and passed along in some form. My own city, Duluth, is aiming to follow the same path on a more modest scale, and I have no burning desire to open up a kangaroo court and judge people by some measure of alleged authenticity. On the whole, the hipster ethic at the heart of the New North blends vestiges of local culture with cosmopolitan city life, making for a richer experience for the rest of us. If done right, it really could shore up the foundations of a regional economy.

Still, I feel the need to sound a few alarm bells. The creative class theory currently in vogue has serious shortcomings. It is a mindset fully in the thralls of current economic winds, and it can further the split between this new elite and those on the outside. It’s enjoyable if you’re an upper middle class liberal (that is, the people who run Minneapolis and St. Paul, or any of the people who appeared on the panel), but for other groups, it’s a trickle-down effect at best.

So by all means, MSP, claim the mantel as the capital of the North. I may gripe, but better here than anywhere else. Just remember that your relationship with your region ought to have some give-and-take, rather than you simply being the metropole sucking all else to the center. Remember that people who are not on the cultural vanguard deserve a spot at the table. And don’t think for a moment that branding yourself as more “varied” and “diverse” will be some engine of balanced growth. It can certainly help, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And if you can acknowledge that fact, us kinda hick people from the hinterland might be a bit more willing to come along for the ride in your great new North.