Tag Archives: spring

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

21 Mar

My sixth-grade teacher pulled down the United States map. “This is New York, and this is Washington,” she told the class, on what could only have been our second or third week of middle school. “Not to take anything away from any of the other cities, but they’re probably the two most important cities in the country.” Airplanes had hit several buildings in them, she explained, and our lives were about to change.

I was eleven, and it was my first brush with a global crisis. Even for a hyper-aware kid, one who has a strong enough memory to still retain snippets of news clips about Bosnian Serbs while I played with toys on the floor at three or four at our house in Wisconsin, this was the first time the world had come close to me. Roger Angell’s snippet from the New Yorker that week, discovered years later, still rings true. No longer was history something that happened somewhere else.

But was it really, though? In New York, maybe; for an 11-year-old in northern Minnesota, life mostly just went on. Airport lines got longer (not that I can really remember what came before), and I recall a few some stray episodes of hysteria from others around me; 9/11 certainly informed my geopolitical conscience, but not my day-to-day life in any way. After that, there were snippets, mild crises of inconvenience that were mostly just cause for a little shared fun, like the Snowpocalypse that shut down Washington, D.C. my sophomore year, or the stray brush with a hurricane two years later. Any northern Minnesotan is accustomed to the occasional weather-driven shutdown, a snowstorm that pins us down and then brings out a burst of communal activity as we all shovel out together and then get on with our lives. The most recent, this past November’s snowstorm that ruined my Thanksgiving travel plans, is about as extreme as it’s been. I hardly expect much sympathy.

The arrival of the coronavirus, then, is my first direct brush with any sort of collective national crisis. A holding pattern of dread takes hold. Our sprawling and convoluted healthcare apparatus strains to its limits, and in Washington, at least some people seem to grasp the gravity of the moment and look to escape their regular state of sclerosis. But there’s nothing you or I can do besides wash our hands and lock ourselves in our homes. Perhaps the dread has less to do with the virus itself than the sudden reality of that sense of urgency that I preach to myself every week but have always forgotten by Thursday afternoon. We don’t know what we have until we lose it.

If this is to be my generation’s sacrifice, the postponement of a planned vacation down the East Coast next month is a small burden to bear compared to so many who came before, to say nothing of the scores who are now out of work. Still, it’s hard not to dwell, at least a bit: quarantine takes from me so many of the things that give me joy on this earth, sports and travel and dinner parties and game nights and the freedom to rove and revel and delight in the new. It threatens to leave me with more of the things that do not: devotion to screens, an already bad trend exacerbated; phone calls, which I irrationally hate; correspondence that slowly loses meaning over distance. I am among the world’s most incompetent introverts; or, perhaps, to borrow a phrase from a friend, maybe this sliding scale of introversion and extroversion isn’t worth much to us at all. I live for people, and I will interact with precious few of them in a meaningful way over the coming weeks, maybe months.

I’m still left with a few creature comforts in my 740-square-foot cell. I can see if TV has produced anything good since I stopped paying attention to it a few years ago, and I can delve into a stack of books I have at hand. Being stuck at home may force me to cook, an undertaking I always enjoy but am terrible at making time to do. I have a stash of booze and am learning the merits of the virtual happy hour. I may just have timed my entry into the homebuyers’ market perfectly. My athletic pursuits these days are of a solitary sort, and unless we go into total lockdown, I can still enjoy a good run or hike or ski if the snow should return. Color me torn: should I be pleased this has all come about during Duluth’s least pleasant season, a hope of full enjoyment of the summer ahead, or does staring out windows at drab grayness and fresh dustings just make it all worse? Excuse me while I go pop some more Vitamin D.

I become a creature of habit. Get up at the same time every morning, though I have no commute; just read things until eight, then log in and start my day. Meander the apartment and work in different positions. My normal work-related frustrations feel trivial now, especially for one whose job can go along with relatively little disruption. My tea water comes from a kettle instead of a water cooler and the coffee table holds less mess than my desk, and the company is poorer, too. But I can still plow through and learn how to manage a meeting on Zoom. Run, or at least walk, about the neighborhood after it’s time to sign off. If the routine gets stale, try something new, a midday break, maybe just a drive around for the sake of driving around. I switch it up: park in Denfeld and struggle up hills in Lincoln Park one day, head out to Stoney Point later in the week and scoot up to Knife River and back, take a moment to lose my eyes in the deep aquamarine of a Superior lake.

I tour my city at a safe distance to see how it’s coping. Runners and dog-walkers seem more eager to share a greeting, a glimpse of normalcy. Someone could run a good sociological experiment visiting the various Super Ones across town to see what different neighborhoods choose to horde. Downtown Duluth is dead now, though the people who stand on the corners and fight loudly with one another are somehow still there when I raid my office for a second monitor. I guess it’s reassuring that the Duluthians least likely to heed public health warnings are also among the least likely to interact with people who are jetting off to the global cities that have been the points of embarkation for this virus; I’m not sure if our status as an out of the way city might spare us the worst of this or leave us waiting for the damn thing to show up for another month after other places have recovered and moved on.

My reading choice for the first week of confinement has been Joan Didion, an apt muse for an era of societal reckoning, a literary voice infused with a quiet despair who nevertheless dispenses with the easy nihilisms of her era. She undermines the premises of unlimited freedom, whether Californian American Dreamers or a hippie generation and its offshoots in open rebellion against it, all while pushing to it herself with her omniscience. She’s striving toward something as a writer, some unseen truth behind the veneers, some logic that she, with her authorial power, can bring to bear on a world that would otherwise resist it. It is a Sisyphean task.

To be a witness to quarantine is to be a witness to the deeper chambers of one’s own mind. The process takes its toll: for all her blasé scrutiny of her world, Didion struggled mightily with her mental health. My own peaks and valleys are not so severe, though the topography seems a bit more accentuated from this single vantage point I now enjoy from my apartment windows. It’s harder to leave bed when the commute is just ten feet; harder to communicate with people who don’t always express themselves well in writing. I wake with a start at 3 AM one night and struggle from there, endure inconsistent heat and the croak of a lone crow and some inconsequential hockey revelation coupled with some weird childhood dream, a labyrinth of thought whose exit is hidden but still there for me. I retreat to my fictions to lull myself back toward peace.

Crises force us to find new founts of creativity, new ways to take stock of where we are. I was waiting for a bit of deliverance in Georgetown and Savannah and Key West; instead, I may have to find it right here in an apartment I’d thought I’d outgrown. I don’t know what my world will look like after the coronavirus, but I will take one bit of sage advice from those who have seen real disruption before: some things won’t ever be the same. As for what that new beginning looks like, well, that is a story I still have to write.

A Saturday Essay

31 Mar

Today, I offer up a piece for the Saturday Essay feature on Perfect Duluth Day in which I discuss my undying love for spring in Duluth. You can read it here:

https://www.perfectduluthday.com/2018/03/31/imperfect-duluth-days/

This is two cheater posts in a row now. We’ll have to fix that next week.

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.

My Washington

23 Mar

Spring (or the lack thereof) is by far the most miserable season in Duluth, and by late March, it’s not hard to flash back to those four brilliant springs I enjoyed in Washington, D.C. By now everything is abloom, midterms are underway, and Georgetown basketball has already made its annual embarrassing early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Bouncyball angst aside, Georgetown is such a vibrant campus that one can go all four years without venturing far from M Street and the handful of streets that feed down into it. I can hardly describe it to Duluthians without resorting to a string of bubbly clichés. The neighborhood is a storybook village, the brick and pastel rowhouses lining the cobblestone streets interrupted by old trolley lines, a historical plaque on practically every building. (My personal favorite: one that read “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”) The Georgetown Bubble is a college student’s pleasure dome, and few are called to venture out into the wider city: classes consume us, special events abound, and on Friday and Saturday nights, a short walk to The Tombs is all we need.

Of course, everyone gets out for at least one Monuments Tour at night, goes and stands before Lincoln and Jefferson in awe, or in the memorials to Vietnam and Korea in reverence. This time of year, the FDR Memorial is the place to be: its lights shine through the waterfalls and illuminate inspired quotes, the whole scene robed in the soft luminescence of the cherry blossoms, a full moon gazing down on the Tidal Basin. And then, of course, there are the Smithsonians and their various friends, usually toured with a group of friends or visitors from back home, though every once in a while on my own, freeing me to stand transfixed in front of Magritte’s “La condition humaine” at the National Gallery for as long as I choose. The sprawling Mall, where everything looks closer than it actually is, the grassy avenue fading away toward the Capitol, down past that spot where I stood as Barack Obama took the oath of office. Across the Key Bridge in the Virginia are more markers of the past, perhaps less visited but no less impressive: Roosevelt Island, Iwo Jima, the Netherlands Carillon with its peerless view of the city, and Arlington Cemetery.

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Today, though, I write not about the DC of monuments and museums and marble at every turn, but instead of the world beyond. It’s a city of both beauty and sorrow, one that encompasses both the best and the worst of the nation ruled from its center. It was never home, but it became a part of me, its little corners tugging me back and inviting a second look.

First, there is Northwest DC, a common haunt for a Hoya with aspirations of calling himself a runner. Quiet, leafy streets, well-tended homes, and the occasional tasteful business district slipped in to make it all walkable. Just behind campus lies the Glover-Archbold Parkway, an avenue of green that heads five miles north through all the bustle, up toward American University. A side trail leads to Battery Kemble Park, an old Civil War artillery outpost atop a hill, where I’d keep watch over the dog-walkers from a picnic table, free to study away from the cloud of stress hanging over the Georgetown library, away from the distractions of campus life. Further along, another site in the ring of forts protecting the District, this one now a reservoir: Fort Reno Park, a windy expanse where I’d flop in the grass and drift off, jolted to life only when the students of Woodrow Wilson High poured out into the sunlight at the end of their day, spray-painting prom invites on a weathered wooden stage and taking me back to afternoons on the lawn out in front of the old Duluth East.

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Shifting west, the city becomes more unique, more authentically DC. There is the Naval Observatory, its daily bugle calls audible from my off-campus house on R Street; the bars of Glover Park, underused by Georgetown students. Beyond that rises the monolithic Russian Embassy, and then the National Cathedral, a Gothic marvel, and one of the few American houses of worship that can rival anything in Europe or Latin America. Its nave could hold the Washington Monument on its side, but its beauty comes out in the details as well: the quiet chambers in the crypt, the contemplative Bishop’s Garden, and the preppy St. Alban’s campus unfolding below. In the midst of the urban jungle, a refuge where no one will ask any questions.

To the east of campus lies a world of great wealth and aesthetic beauty. Down the brick sidewalk past the Argentine gelato place (now sadly shuttered) one comes to Dumbarton Oaks, a walled estate whose very name suggests grandiose affairs. The name does not lie: it was here that, in 1944, the Allies laid the groundwork for the United Nations. It is a wonder to this day, its sprawling gardens offering romantic allure at every turn, tempting the young to hop its walls with a wine bottle after dark and settle along one of its pools or masterfully manicured courts. Behind its grounds are public parks, filled with flowers and woods and babbling streams, with a footpath snaking its way along Rock Creek up toward the giant parkland separating east and west DC. Beyond it is Embassy Row, its stately avenues filled with little monuments: the Khalil Gibran Memorial, Gandhi in stride, a Brazilian aviator, the Bard of Ukraine, the memorial on the spot where Chilean dissidents were killed by a car bomb. The Spanish Steps, plucked out of Rome and shrunk into a shady cul-de-sac with a fountain that never works. Some of the embassies bustle with enthused energy; others hide behind bars and gates, guarding the secrets of statecraft. This is the DC that dreams are made of, its well-heeled families parading about with their perfect children, its shady streets a short walk from the bustle of Dupont Circle.

That is only one of the city’s many faces, though. Much of downtown DC is a drab wasteland of government buildings and everything that comes with them, a sclerotic mix of government and contractors and the echo chambers of K Street. This is the heart of L’Enfant’s city, but his plazas are now mostly a home for the homeless, a reminder that all is not well, even as the capital’s wealth overflows. At night, all is dead. Even vibrant Chinatown further along is a bit manufactured, but there is at least some life here: the bars, the restaurants, the National Gallery, and the Verizon Center, home to Georgetown basketball. (Let’s please not talk about this season.) There is the government center where we endured Zoning Commission meetings on a proposed campus plan, plus the National Building Museum, where I once spent an evening with Ann Coulter. (Ask Uncle Chuck about that one.) And, to the east, Union Station, its great atrium modeled on the Baths of Diocletian, the site of many of my DC comings and goings, plus that final senior ball the night before I walked across the stage.

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For more interesting environs, head north. To Adams-Morgan, with its bar-lined cosmopolitan boulevard, a pleasant break from the pretension of M Street, though the creep of gentrification looms. Indeed, that is a theme all across the north side, from Hispanic Columbia Heights to the historically black corridors of U Street and H Street Northeast, with a vibrant Ethiopian community mixed in. The food is delicious, the diversity is real, the rents aren’t through the roof—but one suspects they will be soon, and with them will go the vibrant city. But for now it is a delight, teeming with life, melting seamlessly into the bourgeois Northwest by the National Zoo before drifting into the part of the city that is still uniformly African-American. Wedged between Adams-Morgan and that Latino nonprofit in Mount Pleasant where I once doused myself in silvery paint while brushing up a balcony lies Meridian Hill Park, among the greatest of DC curiosities. Up top, a stately lawn reminiscent of a European capital; below, a sprawling fountain and a memorial to the not-so-memorable James Buchanan, to say nothing of the statues of great American heroes like Joan of Arc and Dante. It has a little of everything, attracts some of everyone, though that rare mix may prove fleeting.

To the east lies a DC few outsiders visit, though that is changing, as the money flows in and developers snap up the real estate. The District’s black population, no longer its majority, is drifting eastward into Prince George’s County. The southeast riverfront looks nothing like it once did, with Nationals Stadium and its crisp sightlines rising up on the banks of the Anacostia. RFK Stadium, once the main attraction on the east side, is on its way out, with its last tenant—the DC United soccer club—headed for a soccer-specific stadium near Nationals Park in the not-so-distant future. To the north, one monument stands unchanged while DC shifts around it: the National Shrine, the nation’s largest Catholic church, and one unlike any other with its exquisite Byzantine look.

Across the Anacostia’s polluted waters lie a few sites worthy of a visit. The Anacostia Community Museum, exiled far from the rest of its Smithsonian brethren, and the Fredrick Douglass House, sitting stately atop a hill. Parts of Southeast aren’t nearly as blighted as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Yet the troubles persist. The projects and planning schemes have amounted to nothing; even Marion Barry’s patronage machine couldn’t do much to change the fate of his home ward. Just past the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcom X sits Ballou High, where I spent part of a semester in a class that had us trying to instill some civic engagement in a struggling, all-black public school. Through the metal detectors, down chaotic halls, into a classroom where maybe half of the kids would show up—and these were the survivors, the seniors, the thirty percent who’d made it through from freshman year. Midyear we were thrown from the school, ostensibly for lack of communication, but more likely because we were witnesses to the shock therapy imparted by Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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The status quo was untenable, but the vicious cuts and relentless turnover didn’t make much of a difference. Five years later, not much has changed, save for the changes brought on by the eastward march of urban renewal schemes. A few heroic teachers and community leaders battle on, trying something, anything, that hasn’t been tried before, but one senses that Black DC is slipping away, scattering through suburbs off toward Baltimore. The new District will be beautiful, and offer ideal urban living—for those who can afford it. It will continue to attract the best and the brightest, those who believe they’ve outgrown wherever it is they’ve come from, a transient city for the ambitious of all political stripes. I could have been happy there, in among the interesting neighborhoods and people, perhaps living in a grand old house, raising children amid all that cultural wealth while still being able to show them the other side, and to do what I could to keep the vibrancy alive.

And yet I made no effort to stay in DC after I graduated from Georgetown. I left in part for reasons my old professor and fellow ex-Washingtonian, Patrick Deneen, describes here; in part for more personal reasons. Distance, however, has eased some of my jadedness, and I can now remember all those little details with unburdened fondness. I no longer reject Washington; it left a mark I cannot deny, and in many ways it was a positive one. I’ll happily go back and dip my feet in from time to time. But it was also just one chapter in a much longer book, and the strength of those chapters is measured not in my closeness to power, nor in my rejection of it. It will come instead, I think, in how fully I lived in each of those years, what I learned from them, and how I took those lessons and used them to write the later chapters. In that, Georgetown proved an excellent guide—but it couldn’t have done it without its city, one whose streets my mind will forever wander.