Tag Archives: reflection

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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Escape to Palisade Valley

9 Jan

There’s a nice coherence in having one’s birthday right up against the new year, even if it did mean enduring a childhood of “Merry Christmas…and Happy Birthday All at Once!” presents. Year-end reflections and any thoughts that come with turning a year older happen all together, and each calendar year lines up nicely with a year in my life. I’ve never been one for resolutions or remaking myself in any fundamental way, but an added year is always a welcome chance to step back to recalibrate some. I’m skeptical of  any overarching sense of human progress as destiny, but I do think the power of introspection and stopping to learn from the past is one of the things that makes human life worth living.

Twenty-seven feels like a heavy one. Maybe because it’s certifiably “late twenties” now, but more likely because it’s my first birthday as a full-time adult with a career and no diversion from that career in sight. This is life now, and I’m just going to pile up the years as I go on with my working life. Each turn of the calendar page just brings me closer to middle age, puts on a little more pressure to check off the next set of boxes on the list of goals, especially after a year in which there was an awful lot of box-checking. Not everything needs to happen at once, and measuring life only by checked boxes is a poor way to think about things. But I won’t pretend that checking those boxes doesn’t set a strong foundation that allows everything else to flourish, and it’s hard to understate the benefits of finally having things all lined up. Wandering through a portion of one’s twenties is only worthwhile if one learns some necessary lessons. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

Before I get to work on those remaining boxes, though, I need to stop for a moment, and to think about what I’m really aiming for next. This holiday season, rich and rewarding in so many respects, left little time for introversion: this was my first weekend at home without houseguests in over a month, following journeys to Minneapolis and Chicago and Wisconsin, and playing host for New Year’s. I need these moments.

So, this Sunday, I set out to find some solitude on a skiing adventure. It was nothing that would trouble a seasoned skier, but it was still a healthy 15-plus kilometer trek over sometimes shaky trails, from the Northwoods ski area north of Silver Bay to a small camp in the heart of Tettegouche State Park on Lake Superior’s North Shore. It’s a trip I’ve long wanted to make, and now was as good a time as any. And so I set out with my skis, a lunch, and a bottle of whiskey with a few sips left in it from New Year’s festivities.

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Northwoods is already the prettiest ski area in the region, thanks to its thick stands of balsams along the Beaver River and its beautiful outlet on to the floor of cliff-lined Bean Lake. (Alas: a sign at the parking lot alerts us to an impending, and probably necessary, thinning of the balsams by loggers.) Just as the trail turns away from the Beaver toward the daunting Herringbone Hill, an alluring spur offers a five-ish kilometer connection to Tettegouche. (Signs and maps offer differing distances, but it’s somewhere between 4.8 and 5.5). The trail is ungroomed, but sees enough traffic that there’s a healthy track at the start. Ungroomed trails offer constant undulations, and occasional needs to skirt frozen pools, or to climb or descend hills covered by small plants that resemble barren sticks in winter. It’s slow going. There are no brutal hills on the Tettegouche connector, and it’s little enough used that it’s never fast, but there are a few slopes that require careful negotiation.

Keeping one’s eyes on the tracks, however, can be difficult on this trail. The reason is simple: this is, by several degrees of magnitude, the most beautiful stretch of trail I’ve ever skied. The trail enters the Palisade Valley and snakes between walls of talus, these rugged ridges that score the earth north of Silver Bay. Pictures can’t quite capture the completeness of the beauty as I slide along between snow-covered boulder fields, frozen ponds dotting the route below. I start to climb gently, the leafless trees allowing views far across the valley. I cross a few snowmobile trails, and come to a spot where some furry animal met its demise from the skies. I climb the steepest hill on the trail to a view between looming twin erratics; a sign welcomes me to Tettegouche. Before long, I come to a long, somewhat narrow clearing, and the trail dies completely. But it seems clear enough that I should cross this opening, and I edge forward with some caution, as I suspect Palisade Creek is somewhere beneath me. I stick to the top of drifted snowy ridges, figuring something must hold it all up beneath. At times I sink deep into the drifts, at times I glide along the top without leaving a track. My geography skills haven’t failed me: a faint trail appears on the opposite end of the long clearing, and I immediately encounter an intersection with a map.

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Perhaps the biggest adjustment to working life has been the structure. Suddenly, there is always a map, and little time to explore its less worn trails. While I’m not busier than I was in school, being in an office from 8 to 5 is just a very different lifestyle from a haphazard student schedule. I hardly expect much sympathy if this is one of my greater worries, and it’s driven by my own ridiculous need to be doing something (and maybe multiple things) every single waking moment. But as valuable as structure can be, it can come at the expense of serendipity, and leaves moments of wonder too few and far between. It seems paradoxical to schedule in time to for beauty and wonder, but in these parts, one doesn’t have to travel far to find it.

Beyond the intersection the trail is packed down by snowshoes, and moves quickly up and down through a silent pine grove. Faster than expected, I sail down an easy slope to the Tettegouche camp, a collection of four cabins and a communal lodge in the heart of the state park on Mic Mac Lake, accessible only by trail. It’s empty when I arrive, but an older couple skis into camp from the north just after I break into my lunch in the lodge. We chat as I eat, colder when stationary in this unheated building than we were when skiing along. (For the non-northern Minnesotans who wonder how we do it, cross-country skiing is enough work that it doesn’t require a heavy jacket, even on a single-digit day like this one.) The woman admires the route I’ve taken, wishes that her body could still handle that many kilometers. I only hope that I, like her, can find someone who will still go with me on spontaneous adventures like this when I’m her age. After they leave me, I wander down to the frozen lake, sublime in repose, and then begin my trip back.

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As always, return journeys are faster, with familiar landmarks dotting the route. A number of stretches are a cross-country skier’s greatest delight, those easy, steady, incredibly long downhills. I can lull into thought here, develop a new plan of attack for adult life. I take my last slug of warming beverage in a spot where I can see hills rising up in all directions: a rock-strewn cliff to the right, the walls of Bear Lake up to the left, lonely Round Mountain and hulking Mount Trudee, subject of many a vulgarity on my post-graduation hike this past summer, visible behind. I don’t need the whiskey to feel a warm burn. The sun, stuck behind a grey wintry haze after some moments of morning clarity, sinks toward the top of the ridge that separates me from Bear and Bean Lakes, even at this early afternoon hour. Back on the Northwoods trails, my muscles start to protest; this stretch seems longer than I’d remembered. The trail system is empty, just me and the balsams, though a large crew with young children is just setting out when I finally coast back into the parking lot. I expect I’ll be doing that in the not so distant future, too.

It’s an hour drive back to Duluth. The morning sea smoke has lifted, and Lake Superior is a steely grey; for once, the clouds are welcome, as they blot out the sun that always seems to hang in one’s eyes during winter drives back down the Shore. I may be a little older now, and my knees are a bit cranky, but as I tune in the Packers’ playoff game and accelerate past Split Rock Lighthouse, I feel the youngest I have in months. As long as I can still blend that ambition with that sense of wonder, I can still channel the best of that kid who left Duluth for Georgetown, the best of those instincts that pulled me home, the best of those thrusts outward and journeys back through this endless cycle I live.

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I already knew all of this, of course. It’s no secret. But it’s so incredibly easy to let that slip away. At the very least, a few sore muscles will remind me for the next few days, and with any luck, this latest jolt will pierce through the dragging everydayness that too often grinds down that ambition and wonder. There’s no stopping now. There’s no telling how many kilometers of unbroken snow separate me from home.

David Brooks and the Search for Character

25 Apr

David Brooks is one of those talented people who has managed to get himself disliked in many circles. As a resident conservative at the New York Times, he has the unenviable task of defending a political outlook that few of his readers agree with, and makes such an effort to speak to them that he’s pretty easily labeled a Republican In Name Only by the right. Sometimes he pursues balance for its own sake to the extent that seems like one of those annoying kids yelling “yeah, but” on the playground, and his willingness to dabble in anything can lead him to be painfully wrong about some things, most notably foreign policy.

Such is life as a syndicated columnist, as he must churn out new ideas twice a week, every week. Much of his longer work is a far better sample of what his real interests and concerns are, from the acute diagnosis of upper middle class America in Bobos in Paradise to the social science-heavy study of life in The Social Animal. Brooks has been on a steady turn inward as his career has gone along, a process that culminated in his most recent book, The Road to Character. He’s long been capable of profound reflections on the costs of a lack of reflection on one’s own self—see the classic “Organization Kid” essay, which should be required reading for anyone entering an “elite” college—but only recently has he taken the step from detached takedowns of people who don’t do this to exploring what it means to actually do so. (His own recent divorce probably spurred this all along, too.)

I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Brooks when he was in the early stages of conceiving The Road to Character, a 2011 talk called “The Era of Self-Expansion” put on by Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum. In it, he recalled a column he’d written earlier that year, an especially memorable piece for a soon-to-be college graduate in which he talked about how people find their callings. When I asked him about it in the receiving line, he admitted he’d somewhat made it up, but was impressed with how well it had resonated.

In the column, he blasts the tiresome myopia of the follow-your-own-dreams rhetoric so common in life advice today. However noble in its desire to tell us to be ourselves, these words foment a worldview that places the self and its ambition at the center of it all. The universe revolves around me, even as I purport to go forth and do “good” in the world, following the passions I have deemed worthwhile, in my infinite wisdom. And when I do try to do this, life inevitably gets in the way, whether in the form of my own limitations or the failures of other people or forces beyond my control. Suddenly, I’m powerless, and I’m pretty angry about it. Before long, I’m defeated, or perhaps more mundanely, I’ve discovered that the dreams of my younger self are no longer the dreams of my older self, and I’ve spent however many years chasing the wrong thing. The world refuses to cooperate and revolve around me.

The fruits of Brooks’ search don’t come in this takedown of selfishness, though. This is easy, and not terribly original. He needs an alternative, something else to aspire to. He now champions excellence over happiness, and the pursuit of something a bit more complete than just the self-expression celebrated in some of his earlier work. This drive doesn’t come from within, but from something that happens to people: one’s circumstances leave one with passions, and mark people by the things that jar them into awareness, whether as witnesses or the things they endure. It may seem like a small distinction, but it is essential. The turning points in life are rarely moments of great happiness or accomplishment, but instead in suffering and failure, and a desire to overcome it, perhaps even build off of it. This, and not the blind whims of dreams, defines who we become.

It is now fairly easy to go through childhood, and even much further into life, without ever coming face-to-face with this sort of adversity. It’s a triumph of affluence, I suppose, of good health, suburban living, wealthy schools (public or private), and other comforts that allow us to live out that pursuit of happiness extolled in Brooks’ early work. It’s not a bad life, clearly, and I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone for pursuit it.

The trouble comes in pursuing it alone, and nothing else. Deep within this comfort there is a moral poverty: everyone plays out the string as they see fit. Forget complaints about moral relativism; there is no moral dimension at all, as the whole language necessary to even make these distinctions falls away. People become lost and have no means to figure out why. Even the humanities, designed with this express purpose, often fails, aiming instead for aesthetic, utilitarian, or political arguments to justify its existence. It’s no wonder these departments are collapsing left and right. But there are encouraging signs, Brooks’ latest book among them, that people are starting to realize something is missing. Hopefully the new book offers some models, and some ways to cultivate that character necessary to pursue the truly good life. If Brooks can do that for people, it would amount to a legacy far greater than his scattered collection of brief columns.

Sometimes, though, one of the sparks that helps a jaded kid make sense of the disparate threads of life, one that plays off those turning points and fuses them with ongoing interests, comes from an unexpected place. In that lecture I attended four years ago, Brooks dropped in a book recommendation: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I jotted it down at the time, picked it up a year or two later, and the rest is history.

Wilderness

9 Apr

“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”

—Aldo Leopold

As a native of the North, the wilderness has always enticed me with its immediacy. Some of my most distinct early memories are of Wisconsin State Parks during those pre-Duluth years, and once my family settled in that last great outpost between Minneapolis and the Canadian Border, it was never far away. I have fond memories of canoe trips and hikes with my dad, even if my skills as a woodsman have never come close to his, and as I grew older the woods within walking distance of my childhood home became a retreat, both to share with friends and to have my own little Walden moments from time to time. Without ever really realizing it, I grew up intimately tied to those parts of the map that didn’t have much in the way of detail.

At Georgetown, I began took on a new appreciation for those escapes, even as I dove into Washington. The late Jesuit Fr. Thomas King said it best, counseling us students consumed by fast-paced climbs up the ladder of ambition to seek out escapes into the wilderness from the restless noise of university life. Whether literal or metaphorical, we needed these moments to orient ourselves. I set out to find such spaces for myself, and while D.C. could never quite accommodate the sensibilities of a Northern Minnesotan, I certainly found a few gems during my wanderings there. My thoughts meandered with my steps, and I vacillated between intense commitment and lonely wandering, a duality that now seems extreme.

Other Catholics at Georgetown spoke of a different sort of wilderness; a spiritual and moral wilderness in which they found themselves in a postmodern world, unable to speak the language of the culture around them. I didn’t always agree with the particulars, but they had a point. We’ve lost much in our rush to embrace the newest shiny ideas, too often rushing ahead, unthinking, as we proclaim some lofty ideal that aspires to justice and human greatness. I embraced the greatest teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of those twin pillars supporting Western thought: we are all in exile, doomed to wander with no hope of permanent peace on earth. Perhaps all we could do was carve out a little spot for ourselves and live in accordance with our conscience, making peace with what we could.

After college I spent two years back in Duluth, still wandering as Athens and Jerusalem waged a silent war in keystrokes on this computer. I was never really a threat to truly go all Into the Wild; I enjoy my creature comforts a bit too much, and take my obligations to family and community a bit too seriously. My cynicism was a bit too meta to take the leap into a “finding myself” journey through the woods or some other country. But a cloistered life of letters had its allure, too, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that sort of future.

In the end, Athens won out. It’s not an unqualified victory, but it is a clear one, and the somewhat more infrequent blog posts here are a sure sign of an increasingly busy life beyond the world of letters. (Very little of my writing happens without some time to think about it beforehand.) I embrace this newfound life in the world, though I will still seek occasional escapes. They’ll come in different degrees, from runs around Minneapolis lakes to returns to the well-trodden parks of my youth to the occasional adventure into genuine backcountry. I need those moments to examine my conscience, to remind myself of my own smallness in the grand scheme of things.  They are reminders of mysteries beyond our grasp, and the falleness of human nature. But mystery gives rise to wonder, and we can still aspire to something in the face of impossibility. This is the great human project in a world beyond the old philosophical absolutes, none of which can reign supreme in this new Rome.

It’s hard to find wilderness anymore in the true sense of the word. Longing for that sort of wilderness can turn into wishes for purity and paradise lost, for a black-and-white worldview that won’t ever quite do its nuance justice. Even pre-Columbian America, we are now learning, was no pristine and untouched paradise, with the natives living in perfect harmony with nature. They certainly respected it more, recognizing the broader connectedness and often believing in a spiritual unity. But they were still very conscious managers, acting as stewards of the world around them, altering landscapes to their will as they saw fit. We have much to learn from them.

Just as we are stewards of the land, we are stewards of our minds. We’ll never have complete control over them; we can’t write off the past or give rise to a new future out of nothing. But we can tend them carefully with moments of retreat from the relentless noise, and with respect for the corners of the world beyond human reason that we will never tame. This takes patience and time, and I won’t begrudge anyone who commits themselves to living in this wilderness fully. For me, though, it is a place to reflect upon everything we do in the public realm, and to make sure that we truly believe whatever it is we’re doing. We must preserve that space with our lives.

Over the Edge

1 Dec

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

-Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

There are certain moments make us realize how close we are to going over that cliff. When they do arrive, they come as a shock, even for those of us who think we know better. It’s now possible to go a very long time in life without knowing anyone who has died, or suffered some other serious calamity. Only on rare occasions do we—and by ‘we,’ I suppose I mean Westerners who live relatively comfortable daily lives—get these terrifying windows into the fragility of everything we’ve built.

It is a noble desire, that wish to be the catcher in the rye. Holden fancies himself the protector of the innocent from the horrors of the world. He’s aware of the danger, and wants to make sure no one goes over the edge. He takes on the burden for the good of all, and he can keep the children from ever knowing that fear.

It won’t work forever, though, as Salinger well knew, and his protagonist slowly came to learn. No one can possibly keep the horde of naïve kids from running toward the cliff, and no one person can hold them back. Humans are not born into perfect innocence, and will inevitably wander toward various edges. The precipice always looms, and learning more of it is both the way over the edge and the way to learn not to go near it.

Perhaps, then, it is best to let the kids wander toward the edge. Be there to offer a hand if they get too close, maybe, but let them see it for what it is. There’s a compelling case here, one that says it is on the edge where we push limits and find meaning, daring to do great things. The world is a plaything, meant to be explored with curiosity and delight—even its darkest parts. All those dull measures of life’s worth like money and years lived mean nothing when stacked up against those moments of enlightenment. Or so you’d wish to believe.

There is danger here; danger in the hubris in believing that you know where the edge lies for each and every person. It’s never in quite the same place, and the edge will bring out extremes in people, whether fragile or resilient. There’s also the question of choosing when to go for it; seeking the edge for itself alone is recklessly aggressive, before long lapsing into ennui. Toying with the edge will tempt fate before long. We must choose our battles wisely.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. It involves a careful, even brutal, self-examination, one that rises above the field of rye and lets one see beyond, at the same time aware of what we cannot see. To the well-ordered mind, this is a healthy process, not cause for inward obsession. Reflect, learn, move on, forever gauging where the edge is. Venture to the brink, and try to prepare those kids running about for what lies beyond—but always head home afterward. A brief glimpse is all we need, and our minds can do the rest.

Life cannot be found in the suppression of passions, but it is as much of a mistake to let passions rule it all. They must be channeled, carefully tended, and watched with vigilance, with immediate action when things do go awry, as they most likely will. We do not fear the edge, but we respect it, understand its power, and carry on with our quests, wherever they may lead. The true task of the catcher in the rye is not to save blindly, but to teach, to demand an honest reflection, and then to turn the children loose again, this time more prepared to cope with what lies beyond.