Tag Archives: new years

An Increasingly Impatient Cycle

29 Dec

I sat down to reflect on my year a few weeks back, and the first words that went down on paper were “well, that was frustrating.” I’m not sure this is entirely fair to 2017, as a lot of good or at least necessary things happened, personally and professionally. But if I’m frank about it, there were also slow moments, as if I were a hockey team running aesthetically pleasing but ultimately mindless cycles in the corner without ever generating any shots on net. There should be more.

Whatever 2017 was, it was not a year for venturing outward. My longer trips were to places I’ve been before. It involved weddings and funerals and reunions and a lot of valuable extended family time, often filled with explorations of the past. 2017 was my first full year in the working world, and it often left me marveling over how easy it is to slip into a humdrum routine, and how rebellion against that instinct has to be a conscious effort every day, even in a field of relative freedom and flexibility. The struggle is real, and it is endless.

These life changes are probably evident in the content on A Patient Cycle. Over the past few months, this blog has boiled down to my core writing commitments, hockey and fiction. This is in some measure a sign of satisfaction: I’m on the road or out being social fairly often, and I don’t lament the loss of some of this time that might have gone to writing in the past. I try to keep family life out of here, for the most part. Hockey remains my release, a sort of second career that doesn’t feel like one. And the fiction bug remains my most effective method for making sense of my world and just letting my mind go, a tortured and exacting process that tries to make art out of timeless human struggles. The hockey posts are by far my most read, and often spur great dialogue; the fiction is the least read, and often met by vague praise or crickets. It is what it is. Neither of those two is going to stop anytime soon, especially in the middle of a season and now that I’ve generated some fictional momentum in recent months.

But beyond those two topics, A Patient Cycle, much like its author, has now left its adolescence and is trying to make its way in the working world. After four and a half years, I’m not sure there’s much to say about my own theories on the world that I haven’t already said at some point or another. One of the founding principles of this blog was that it should never fall into a routine where it bludgeons the same tired themes over and over again. I’ve tried to honor that pledge of late, and the dearth of philosophy or national politics is a reflection of that. It’s been a pretty tumultuous year, but nothing that happened in it really shook up my worldview in any major way. I have an argument to make here, but I’m also at the point where results feel much more useful than words.

I’m also still deciding what sort of local political voice, if any, A Patient Cycle should offer nowadays. I may drop by here or there, but I’m not going to start attending Duluth meetings religiously like I did a few years back. When it comes to local reporting, I think my friends at the News Tribune continue to do a pretty solid job with the resources they have, and a couple of muckrakers at the Reader and its ilk fill a niche, too. I could turn this blog into more of an opinion mouthpiece, but in many cases I think I have more effective levers at my disposal than yelling these opinions out into the internet, and I’d prefer to use those when I can. I can see some situations when said yelling would be counterproductive, too.

To some extent here, I’m looking for ideas from my readership: is there something that needs covering from a perspective you think I can offer that no one else is currently covering? Where can I still add new thoughts, given my own background and interests? Prompts are always welcome. Lately, they haven’t been coming to me naturally.

I’m not saying it was a lost year, or that I’m in some sort of unpleasant funk. 2017 had its peaks, and I am mostly a contented person. I cultivated a lot of valuable old ties, and will continue to tend to many of them. I have settled into a place at work that is rarely stressful and usually recognizes my contributions. I had some lovely opportunities for reflection, usually in the midst of physical exertion up and down and around the hills and lakes that I love. I visited most of my usual haunts in the Upper Midwest, and a few new ones, too. I was about as fit as I’ve ever been, though that tailed off some toward the end, and I did a better job of taking control of some things that required some control as well. Sometimes this foundation-building work, slow and uneventful as it may seem, can wear down the opposition and create some openings to seize at a later date.

I know a lot of people laugh at me when I lament how I’m getting old. In my professional circles I’m almost always the youngest person in the room, and these self-deprecating jabs are mostly meant in irony. But I also don’t want to wake up and find that I’m 30 or 35 or really any age and not on a path toward making my dreams into reality. I learned early on not to take any day for granted, and it can be way too easy to do that. I have little use for any state of affairs, personal or professional, that fails to move things in that direction. Time is wasting away, and even if I have a lot in front of me, that just means there’s so much more I can do with that time.

2018 will therefore, I think, be a watershed year. Within it, I will learn a lot about what my future in Duluth holds for me, for good or ill. Time to crash the net.

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Illusion and Reality in Uncertain Times

31 Dec

Farewell, 2015. For the most part, the world won’t be sad to see you go, though the future doesn’t necessarily look much clearer. It was a dark year in Europe, whose future hasn’t been this murky since the fall of the Berlin Wall, if not earlier. The West’s adventures in Middle Eastern Whack-a-Mole go on, with ISIS taking center stage. The American political slog, deathly long and devoid of substance, lurched along from one lurid development to the next. Extremist self-righteousness found a home on both sides of the spectrum, and those who hold the middle seem increasingly feeble and unfit for the challenges of these times. Grandstanding and rhetoric take precedence over hard work. The radicals often have good reasons to complain as they do, given how the chips seem to be falling. But no one is really in control, and giving power to fringe figures will only make make the narrative even more incoherent. As Ross Douthat said in his end-of-year column, never in my lifetime has it been more necessary to hedge one’s bets on the stability of liberal democracy and our current world order.

This isn’t news to anyone who reads this blog. Still, even though I’ve been hedging my bets for a good five years now, it’s an ongoing struggle to understand how that looks in practice. Whether this all comes to a head in a crisis or (more likely) just carries on in a banal, decadent muddle, it’s hard to feel terribly excited on a societal level, no matter one’s political orientation or personal beliefs. There are no easy answers, and we’re all in the same boat. Hell, even my favorite hockey team isn’t coming by wins as easily as it used to, though maybe Duluth East’s magical run through the 2015 playoffs is a lesson in how to respond to declinist hysteria: with knowledge of the past, supreme confidence in one’s own efforts, some flashes of artistry, and an overarching grand strategy that pushes the limits of conventional wisdom.

A lot of people will respond poorly to the seeming failures of our times. So, let’s apply our formula, using the wisdom gleaned from the end the Edina dynasty and the 2-3 forecheck.

First, we must learn from the past. There are plenty of examples of how to manage such times (or not manage them), from Athens to Rome to Chinese dynasties to Britain in the twentieth century. These help show us which battles are worth fighting, and when we might be delusional in our dreams. There is no shortage of exasperating aspects of the early twentieth century, and one must fight through all the clutter in search of the more fundamental things that truly matter. Considerations of history let us sort through it all and find the narratives that are most relevant to our current problems.

And make no mistake, the problems are myriad. Anyone who wants to do something about them must ensure that resistance avoids a bunker mentality, or a retreat motivated by fear. It’s not that I oppose the creation of private spaces where people can escape the worst predations of a world beyond a managed liberal consensus; on the contrary, they’re essential. But the manner in which we frame this push, and the language we use to describe it, make all the difference. This can’t come across as a retreat, or settling for what we have, or making do with risk reduction. To do so denies half of human nature, and will never catch on. Even in our cynicism and recognition of the frailty of so many human things, that hunger must still shine through.

Thankfully, there are outlets, and survival in a different sort of world requires creativity. It requires the arts, which can sometimes be far ahead of traditional thinking in how the future might unfold. Whether it’s Brave New World or Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, stories old and new prove instructive. They aren’t gospel, but they give us glimpses of possibilities, and force us to reckon with deeper questions and update old tropes for new eras. Out of this artistry will come the grand strategy, which remains a work in progress.

The way in which we confront this uncertain future will be what decides whether we succeed. This means taking ownership of efforts, appreciating what is good and beautiful, and being willing to take moral stands. This means seeing life as more than the pursuit of mere happiness, but giving it a greater trajectory. The goal isn’t one of contentment, but of leaving behind something that we can take pride in when the curtain comes down. This doesn’t mean neglecting the mundane goals in life; they, too, are essential for making it all hold together.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have some idea of the method. For a quote that gets at the gist of it, I’ll turn to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which should have won a best picture Oscar this year: “Maybe his world had vanished before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” With one caveat, that is: the line between illusion and reality can blur, and if one sustains something long enough. I tried to do that this year, pushing myself to new limits in taking on several billion tasks, and as the year comes to a close, I’m pleased with my work on nearly every front. There’s still plenty to do; some progress is tenuous, and there are still parts of life where I’m far from satisfied with my own efforts. But the anxiety bred by those failings is entirely healthy, and keeps me going. As it must.

As 2016 starts, let’s not have any illusions. I’m a year older, a year more jaded, and another year out from the glory days. And yet I’m more active than ever, better-connected than before, and as inspired to get things done as I’ve been in years. (My ego seems to be nice and healthy, too.) For inspiration, we’ll turn to Tennyson, who captures the sentiment of the oldest tale of navigating human nature between the worlds of beasts and gods, The Odyssey:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Utopia II: Farewell, 2014

31 Dec

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

—Luisa, Y tu mama también

My 2014 is coming to an end at a villa overlooking the sea in the Virgin Islands. It’s not utopia, but it is a spectacular place, and I am blessed to be here once again.

It’s hard to pretend to know how one becomes fascinated with utopia, and the earliest childhood memories probably lurk behind it somewhere. But if I had to name a place where my own imagined ideal worlds were born, it was probably here, where I first came when I was nine. This led to something of an infatuation with tropical islands, and I can trace the whole arc of my invention of new worlds directly back to that trip.

Few things inspire quite the way travel does, with something new around every corner. This endless opening creates new possibilities, and digging into the details frees the imagination to embellish reality with our own little flourishes. The Virgin Islands were my first real trip into the unknown, and while I’d hardly call them the most exotic or inspiring places I’ve been—my host here cites the local “intellectual wasteland” as the reason he wouldn’t settle here, and I’m inclined to agree—it’s still a bit more than your run-of-the-mill beach vacation. The stories born from that trip, both childish and grandiose at once, slowly became my way of making sense of my world, with everything contemplated there, all great questions with their own place. In time, they made their way out of my mind and into the written word, with countless pages filled.

This time around, I’m not exactly questing for new inspiration. Whatever it was I set out to achieve when I first started writing in fall 2008, I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean I don’t still revisit and build on the past stuff, but it’s all right there before me now. 2014 was a decent year, and a good foundation for whatever may come next. The pace isn’t always ideal, but things are moving.

Where to? Hard to say, though that may be a good thing. Better to avoid the ideal image and instead chip away, somewhere within a framework that makes sense. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have some idea of how to get there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the means, and not at all about the ends—benchmarks are essential to keep things moving, and proper management of the utopian instinct isn’t quite content with simply doing one’s best, no matter the results. That hunger and desire can’t go away. One must seize the moments, stay in control—even when taking control means letting things go a bit. From a thoughtless afternoon in a hammock to an extra rum and coke, there are times when even the most relentless managers must lose themselves in the surf. One can aspire to both ends without contradiction.

I haven’t always managed that balance, and I’m as certain as anyone that we cannot build Jerusalem on earth. But to stand in the face of that impossibility and still carve out something good—what more can I ask for? As I enter my second quarter-century, many of the more fanciful dreams born of that first trip have washed back out to sea. But that doesn’t mean they still cannot be inspiration, and that things cannot all come together in, somewhere between dreams and reality in the flux I live through every day.

And so we move on to the next year. Here’s to continued progress, as the waves allow, and the wisdom to know when to barrel into them, and when to ride the tides. Somewhere in here, there are answers. The search goes on, but I’ll be home at the end of the night, as I always am.

Adios, 2013

31 Dec

I’ve never found a good way to express my bafflement of the passage of time. Just trying to answer the question ‘what is time?’ is trouble enough. But yet it goes on, passes us by, even in years like this past one, which for me was one of relative stasis. There were no great adventures, no decisive moves; just the steady rhythms of life somewhere in the vast white north of Minnesota. It’s been an interesting test. I’m a born dreamer, one who often lives in places where I am not, both real and imagined. I’ve always had a tendency to wander, whether down the darkened streets of my neighborhood or through worlds that exist only in my head. There is so much to see, so many little corners to explore and make sense of, and that force has driven most of my decisions to date. But that life up in the clouds of my mind has its drawbacks, and obsessive fascination with the outside can quickly become anchorless, and turn paradoxically inward into self-absorption. And so my retreat to Duluth has, paradoxically, had me fighting against that. So I started to take a few older obligations more seriously. I became a more active citizen. I wrote a novel, and I started a blog; neither one is likely to reshape the world much, but they’ve gotten a few things across, a process that I hope to continue. When it comes to Big Questions About Life, I’ve never been in a better place, and that has started to filter down into other places. Lingering anxieties seem far less important than they once did, old worries rendered trivial by new wisdom and evolving thought, often startlingly simple in its clarity. I had to go home to be set free, but it might, finally, be happening. My twenty-fourth year on this earth will, most likely, involve another venture outward, in one way or another. It’s time. There is no grand vision this time, but that now seems more like a triumph than a failing. It will be less in the ideal and more in the real. I’ll simply ride the moods and try to seize the opportunities that come along. Many of the constants will still be there: Duluth, the family gatherings, the little routines, the old friends worth holding on to, and (of course!) the hockey. I know plenty of people will laugh at the notion of someone my age feeling old, but as the glory days fade into history, I’ll admit to a few moments of angst. This is especially true for someone who’s subjected his own early years to a brutally intense self-examination, and someone who can’t forget the ‘what ifs.’ Still, the time has come, and I’m past the point where I can pretend to be a kid anymore. The good news is that those glory days don’t have to end. That doesn’t mean we don’t grow up; no, we do have to mature, and the march of time will trample anyone who stays for too long. But we can always go back, and as long as we have that, well, what more do we need? And so we head back, for one last time in 2013, for one last evening of youthful delight, a moment frozen in the frigid Duluth night. We carry it with us, unable to forget, no matter how far we wander. I’ll let the last song on the presumptive album of the year have the last word. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKZUQXxM6-Q