Masters of Reality

I’m not normally one thrilled by public speaking, but for some reason, the idea of giving a commencement speech has a certain allure that would cause any anxiety to melt away in a heartbeat. Alas, that day will have to wait until I’m famous and one of my alma maters invites me back. Perhaps fittingly, I’ll settle for a written version. This has been percolating since last December, and now it’s time to share some collected thoughts from my nineteen years in school, which come to an end this weekend.

Masters of Reality

Hey, we’re done. We did it. We finished graduate school. Now what the hell did we just do for the past few years?

Hard to say. What’s a graduate degree for, anyway? A credential to help us up a job ladder, and little more? On the most cynical of days, when I plowed through some of my less inspiring papers or group projects, it was hard to think otherwise. A pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and nothing more? Spare me. In my own wing of our dear modernist mecca on the Mississippi, the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program, there’s even a common complaint that we don’t get nearly enough practical skills, to the point where I had to suppress a laugh when the first question in a recent job interview asked about my experience reading zoning code. Instead, we get taught how to think, whatever that means. I eat this up, but it’s such a fluffy description that it can crumble under the duress of yet another slog through a group project.

This is a public affairs school, so this means there must be some sort of overarching vision…though anyone who took Intro to Planning with Ryan Allen probably isn’t sure how to define the public good anymore anyway. Still, there are frequent nods underlying mission here, one rife with clichés about public service and human progress and peace and justice for all. To find the most eloquent flavor of this take that’s weighed on me over the past few months, I’m going to commit a Humphrey School sacrilege and quote one of Hubert’s rivals for the 1968 Democratic nomination, Robert F. Kennedy. RFK’s words to an Indianapolis crowd on the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination laid out a simple mission in the shadow of death: “Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

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1968 might have been the messiest year in American politics this side of the Civil War, but 2016 could be a contender before all is said and done. We’re graduating into a world where reality doesn’t quite cooperate by the rules we’ve tried to impose on it in our studies. Theories of international politics and democratic order that I learned as an undergraduate have never seemed so tenuous. Political upheaval has come to this country in a presidential campaign that shreds all our political niceties and assumptions of proper decorum, and it strikes home here in Minneapolis, where, in the past year, we’ve had glimpses behind our façade of Minnesota Niceness and found a community with rifts we still need to heal.

Moments like this are a reminder of how tenuous our quest for knowledge can be, how all our careful efforts to catalogue each event before us and filter it through our rational methods never quite manage to capture everything. It makes us realize how radical RFK’s project was. Humans are savage creatures, capable of falling to great depths in craven, base lusts for power, and even a constitution with the most meticulous checks and balances may not guarantee any sanity. A master’s in public affairs can only tame so much. The very name of the degree seems oddly archaic, suggests this piece of paper gives us a right to own or at least control other people: what exactly have we mastered, anyway?

As master’s students, we sit around and argue and opine from on high; not that we didn’t do these things already, but hopefully we’re a little better at it now. We learn our history, though there’s little consolation in recounting past failures to ease our inhumanity and bend history toward justice, whatever that might look like. The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and we risk that moment of sheer terror when we realize how small and clueless we are.

And so we find ourselves part of a generation mugged by reality, forced to confront an uncertain world where we don’t have easy answers. And it doesn’t get any easier. We endure tragedy, and before long, none of us are young anymore, marked by a string of steady losses and shocks, some grand and political; the most jarring, deeply personal. It is in these darkest hours when we are often at our most human, our most able to be honest with those around us and hone in on what we truly value. Pain and suffering prove necessary steps along the road to excellence.

So much of freedom, you see, is a myth. We’re forever bounded by who we are and where we come from, and the days of fundamental change are probably gone: we can only become more and more our true selves. But we do have the power to author our stories, to pull all these scattered events that happen to us into a narrative, give it a trajectory that pushes us toward some yet unseen end. We can choose whether we’re tragic heroes or triumphant survivors, whether we drown in hubris or rise up in humility.

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Knowledge of this choice requires a rare self-awareness. It requires us to take a step back and assess the whole story, either in a salon of trusted confidantes or alone with one’s mind in the dark of night. This isn’t a skill anyone has innately; it’s something we have to cultivate carefully, time and again, to be able to crawl out of the ongoing string of nothing to remember why it is we do what we do. At times we endure long tunnels of darkness of the soul, or at the very least of a Humphrey computer lab, but it’s all worth it for those little glimmers of light, those little moments of wonder or awe that give life its driving force.

And so the great benefit of this broad education is the power to stop and process everything. It is the ability to recognize these narratives and impose a small dose of mastery, however brief it may be. And if we take that imperative seriously, follow it to its furthest conclusion, it presents a great burden. Every certainty comes under scrutiny, and every last object of worship threatens to fall away. We’re forced to confront our most unsettling worries, and it can bring out the best and the worst in us, depending on how we respond. Down here, we see how our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses so often stem from the same source.

The trouble is, for all of this human drama, few will care what we wrestle with. Any inner turmoil isn’t of much interest beyond our inner circle, and the Humphrey, for all its strengths, doesn’t always set up easy dialogue outside of that circle. The question of our time is how we respond in a world of indifference, and in one where we resort to grabbing attention by the cheapest of means: knee-jerk righteous anger, 140 characters, and snarky dismissal. Delicious as these may be, they are always shortcuts, never quite able to admit nuance or submit to the vulnerability of knowing that, no matter how far we reach, we will never know all the answers. We all have our blind spots, must take our leaps of faith, and none of us can truly master it all.

The diversity of human experience is too great, and if we stop to appreciate the extent of that diversity, we understand just how hard it is to bring people together into some sort of community. It’s so hard because it should be: even people from fairly similar backgrounds come to radically different outlooks, and no amount of imposed education will produce the same worldview. Sobering, perhaps, but maybe a source of hope: it’s all still a mystery, and mystery begets curiosity, an endless, restless search. And as this search continues, we must always cling to that sense of wonder, even amid the daily tides of tiring monotony that come in reliably every day. This wonder takes commitment, and with commitment and love poured into people or a cause, there is always the risk of further heartbreak and pain.

We must choose carefully, make sure those ends to which we direct our lives are worth the faith we place in them. We have a narrative; we might not be able to explain exactly where we’re going, but we need some idea of how to get there, and why everyone else should come along for the ride. If we urban planners can contribute something, it is a scale on which we can think about starting our efforts: right here, in our most immediate communities, where we can know the details intimately and have the power to turn vague wishes into concrete action. Grounded, we’re free to plot out our dives into the arena in search for moments of glory.

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I’m reminded of a line from Rollo May: the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. To resist that apathy is not just one option among many, but an imperative, one that requires a moral courage to claim that, in our wanderings, we’ve found something to live for. And while those dreams and ideals help frame our work, no abstraction can substitute for what we learn from living in and among the people closest to us, entranced by the whole spectacle. Instead of living a dream, live reality: realize that what we have before us is all we’ve got, and it’s up to us to take that history we’ve lived and turn it into something coherent, to blend all those disparate threads into one. Somewhere in here lies the mastery of reality, as best we fallible humans can achieve it.

And so we head forth to pursue it. This can’t be a burden, something we do out of some resigned sense of duty. We must do it with panache, with a joie de vivre that fuels the fire through the tremendous barriers we confront and the thousand insidious, nagging bites that drag us down, day by day. Life is not about balance. Balance implies stasis, a resting place; life is instead a constant flow in among any number of streams that pull us along, tugging this way and that and leading us down toward whatever destiny may await. We will waver on our way, and at times it will be anything but tame. Mastery cannot mean an imposition of control, but instead only momentary escapes, and in the times when we don’t have that lucidity, a knowledge of how to ride the waves, catch the swells and surge and retreat as we see fit.

How do we do that? I can’t see far into the future, but right now, it all seems simple enough. It’s time to bring these grandiose words to a close and head out into a beautiful Minnesota spring, to spend time with family and friends and revel in what we’ve done over these past few years. And then, renewed, we can head forth and leave our marks on reality as we see fit. We’ve finished countless assignments over the past few years, but our real work is only beginning.

On Student Leadership

I’m finishing graduate school in less than a month. This is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, and this weekend’s end-of-year banquet at the Landmark Center in St. Paul made it all that much more real. I’ll have a lot to say about my two years as a Gopher in the coming month, and I will also reserve greater judgment until I’ve had more distance, as I did with my Georgetown blog post some two-plus years after graduation. (Even now, upon rereading, that post seems overly critical.) But first, I want to reflect a little on my time as a student leader for two very distinct student organizations. I didn’t do anything earth-shattering with either one, but in retrospect, they’ll certainly define my time at the U of M more than anything else.

First, I served as President of the student group that represents my graduate program, the Planning Student Organization (PSO). This was one of the true highlights of graduate school. We dramatically ramped up the PSO’s capacity, and cleaned house and left as much positive institutional memory as possible. Some of the work I am most proud of was exceptionally boring, as it involved writing out agendas and doing a lot of bureaucratic slogging in the hope that my successors will be able to apply for larger budgets. Still, it rarely felt like work. I was fortunate to have an excellent team of people with me, all of whom I’d count as good friends, and we managed to have a fair amount of fun along the way.

My time with PSO was also my own little experiment in hyper-local government. I grumble a bit when I learn that both the Dean and Assistant Dean of the Humphrey School have no knowledge that we exist, even though we probably hold as many events as any group in the school. But in reality, we’ve rather intentionally closed ourselves off from the affairs of state in the broader graduate school. Often, a leaner operation with less oversight makes for a much more flexible, less fraught environment. We have the good fortune of having an exceptional new program director, and he certainly made the context easier to navigate. Instead of complaining to a dean when things went awry, we tried to solve them through internal capacity. If we think the admissions office is short-changing our program in its visit days, we politely work with them, but find our own way to rope in new students.  While I’m willing to sign on to a few things and certainly spoke my mind about things that bothered me from time to time, I prefer this only as a last resort. Give me direct action over grumpy letters to the dean any day.

The Humphrey School is at times fractious, its meetings full of controversy and intrigue. In our little wing of the building, there was no such drama. A small program size helps, and we have our own issues of homogeneity and groupthink to work through. Still, it’s an eclectic group with a wide array of academic and experiential backgrounds, but all unified by a vague ideal of community and a desire to have a stake in its future. To the extent that we could invite people in to that and further their goals along this path, we succeeded.

My other commitment did get me out a bit more, as I served as the Managing Editor of the Humphrey Public Affairs Review. We’re still wrapping up our spring issue, and I’m sure I have a few frantic late nights left. Once again, I put in most of my work behind the scenes, going through the same group registration process and writing a syllabus for a class that I kinda sorta co-taught. The day-to-day work involved incessant emails, keeping up with editing teams and tracking down authors and making sure the whole issue is ready to go to press.

HPAR hasn’t always been easy to manage: it’s a new publication still building up its capacity, and its members’ diversity of interests, in many ways a strength, means we’re often not in the same place as the others. Generating submissions can be a challenge, especially when the people who signed up to be PR people never showed up to anything. I’ve never been a salesman, and I probably could have lightened up on my pathological penny-pinching and sprung for a few more marketing materials. Still, we found creative ways to use editors’ talents and connections to fill the void.

A year ago, back before I served on anything, I reflected on how student organization leadership seems both a political training ground and little league at once. I still think that. I honed valuable management skills here, and at times had to work around disinterest, neglect, or just sheer obliviousness from higher-ups. The low-stakes atmosphere lets this come with ease, and students can run things in a low-key, somewhat irreverent way that lessens the stress of commitments and leadership. Without seeming to try very hard, it builds community through ease and proximity.

Half the battle seems to involve just keeping the lights on and constantly having an agenda, looking for ways to do more and achieve those fairly basic goals laid out in mission statements. After that, simply sitting down with people and getting them in the room does most of the rest of the work. This can be especially difficult when everyone has frantic schedules, and there’s something about the calendar-invite era that seems especially counterproductive to having quick, easy check-ins. If everyone part ways with clear roles and distinct action items, things will get done.

My HPAR experience even further underscored the value of human contact. In our paper review process, all our submissions are edited without names attached, so as Managing Editor, it was my job to correspond with authors. This meant a fair amount of softening the sometimes vicious copy-edits that are all too easy to slap on an essay when there’s no name attached to it (something I was just as guilty of the year before) into something more constructive. On a few occasions, this involved setting up in-person meetings with authors and sitting down with them to talk out issues, further humanizing the process. It’s amazing how talking out what points one was trying to make in writing can show exactly what changes are necessary in a paper.

Above all, it’s important to identify when things are sliding off course early and say something right away, otherwise one will be left in one of those situations where one is writing a grumpy or bitter letter. As prolific a writer as I am sometimes, all the pixels in the world can’t convey many of the things that we can share in a conversation. Constant awareness and communication skills, in the end, are what make it all work. By staying transparent in my own operations, I hoped to create an environment where others were free to be transparent with me. There are occasional moments when leadership demands bold stands or declarations, but on a day-to-day basis, it mostly involves the mundane work of gentle stewardship and guidance.

I’ll concede to feeling a bit strange as I close in on the end: I poured myself in for a very brief amount of time, and now I’ll be disappearing (though still in touch). I’m far from perfect; I had a few moments of trial by fire, and a few things that I’d do differently in retrospect. It’s a bit absurd to consider the amount of time I spent doing grunt work for which the only compensation is a bit of sap at transition events and year-end parties. Career ladders are such that leadership skills aren’t always the most relevant things to one’s first post-graduation position, as evidenced by any PSO curriculum discussion in which people worry about their lack of “hard” skills. But even though I’ve wavered, I still learned a lot more about how to work with people and get things done than I ever could have in a classroom. There was never a dull moment, and even if my time here was fleeting, the connections should endure.

Notes on a Tainted Election

With apologies to the vast majority of my readers for whom this post will seem like inside baseball, I felt some need to comment on the recent election scandal for the Public Affairs Student Association (PASA) in my graduate school. The election was canceled and restarted after it became obvious that several people had taken advantage of the thing I noticed when I went to vote (once, and once only!): there was nothing to prevent people from stuffing the electronic ballot box with as many votes as they liked.

The aftermath has produced a number of indignant emails from disgusted students and members of the outgoing PASA administration, and has, predictably, earned the nickname “PASAGATE.” (Ugh, ugh, ugh. Can we please retire that obnoxious idiom?) The wrongdoers, presuming they are not soulless blood-sucking vampires, have been thoroughly shamed—unless they simply do not care about PASA and thought it would be funny, which is the most likely reason for this “fraud.”

As a longtime student of international affairs, I’m well-aware of how precious a vote can be, and how much we Americans can take it for granted. Even so, it also bothers me that voting has now become our most sanctified political act. I wondered vaguely how many of the people upset about this election scandal have ever been to a PASA meeting, or have any conception of what it does beyond organizing weekly happy hours and occasional larger parties. Do we have any right to be indignant about the corruption of democracy if we don’t ever act within that democracy beyond a vote once a year?

I include myself in that category; I’m as guilty as anyone. I also recognize the weird status of student government, as it takes on trappings of importance while acting on issues that are mostly very small in the grand scheme of things. As an undergraduate, I served on a student government at one of the most politically-obsessed schools in the country. I’m proud of the work I did there, and admired the efforts of many of my fellow staffers. Still, it was hard not to sigh and groan over some of the posturing and credential-chasing of some people in and around the student government, and even there in Washington DC, the majority of the campus couldn’t be bothered to care about what we did. It was at once both a thrilling political training ground and little league. It’s the nature of student government to struggle with questions of legitimacy, and there will inevitably be people who find it a self-obsessed joke.

An attempt to hunt down and further shame wrongdoers would likely only confirm that suspicion. Perhaps I’m just being my cynical self here, but it’s at least worth asking whether all the righteousness is merited. I want PASA fight on behalf of grad students for resources and encourage inclusivity and get us out into the community more and, yes, throw some good parties. PASA must avoid falling into solipsism. (What does PASA do? It goes after people who disrespect and abuse PASA!) Student governments certainly can do great work, but its members need some sense of perspective about what is really at stake. (Thankfully, the PASA members I’ve gotten to know in my time here have certainly had that sense of perspective.)

Some of the upset emails demand justice. Yes, justice would be nice, but more than anything, I’d hope for a little engagement beyond the election. If we don’t have that, what’s the point of PASA, anyway?

Disjointed Vomit

I’m not sure when vomit is ever jointed, but the title of this post is just there to convey the sheer randomness. For starters, it’s the first post I’ve ever written in WordPress’s post box, instead of pasting from a Word document. There is no plan here. I haven’t posted in a week, and even with most of those last two posts, I’d done most of the groundwork over the summer. I just need to get something up.

It’s not for lack of effort; I did get halfway through a post that meandered through thoughts on adolescence and American culture and the state of democratic society and so on, but it was dragging, and didn’t seem to say anything I haven’t said on here before. The goal, as always, is fresh content, not endless repetition. I’ll settle for directing readers to the two articles that prompted all these thoughts. The first, by film critic A.O. Scott on adolescence in American culture, hits on themes I’ve mused about in many places, from my thoughts on U.S. foreign policy to book and film reviews. The second is by my old professor, the oft-cited Patrick Deneen, and worries about the decline of democracy in the U.S., diagnosing private obsessions and a bit of adolescence at its root. I appreciate both, but I have some critiques of them, too. If this all interests you, get back to me with a report on the articles and we can talk. Someday, I’ll get around to fleshing all of this out in a coherent way. (Yes, being back in academia is rubbing off on me. Sorry.)

Now, on to some administrative notes and a life update.

A few people had asked if, now that I’m in Minneapolis, I’d move on to covering Minneapolis public meetings. My schedule down here has decided that for me; with few free evenings, it’s not possible. So the answer is no. Likewise, watching webcasts of Duluth City Council meetings is out of the question, at least through mid-October. That said, I am still watching Duluth affairs from afar. Comments will come at some point.

I am, finally, comfortably settled in Minneapolis. My neighborhood, which is somewhere around the place where Uptown and The Wedge and Lowry Hill all come together, is a delight. This is a place where it’s easy to live well, with incredible variety all around and easy access to both the frenetic Downtown and or the relative tranquility of Lake of the Isles. Of course, there’s no Duluth-style community or solitude to be found, which I can miss at times, but I do have enough of network in this area that I’m never too far from home.

My program is a vibrant one. Some of the people involved have incredible niche interests, while others (like myself) are a bit more detached about it all, but it’s easy to see why we’re all here. The workload is not daunting (yet). I’m still feeling out what the standards are, how it compares to Georgetown, and how not to sound like an obnoxious elitist when talking about Georgetown. The lifestyle is fairly different from undergrad, as many students have already had a career of some sort, and people are married or significantly attached and just generally have busy lives away from the school bubble. Still, there’s some camaraderie building, and that should only grow. I expect my coursework will come out in a blog post or two as well. There’s lots to think about here.

The U of M is big. Really big. I’m somewhat isolated from it all on the West Bank, but it’s a change from both Duluth and the very compact Georgetown campus. Life in a larger city is inevitably a bit more fragmented, though all of the opportunities help make up for this. I enjoy being on the campus of a Big Ten (Big Fourteen? Big Sixteen? Big 37? I lose track) school, despite the mediocrity of the football team. Hey, at least they have their integrity, unlike a certain other local sports franchise that wears purple. This past week has left me relieved that I a) root for a team that does its best to do things the right way, and b) consider football inferior to most other sports out there. Maybe the football bubble is finally starting to implode. At any rate, Minnesota’s competent male professional sports franchise gets going in less than a month, and I should get out to see some Elite League high school hockey before then, too.

For someone who enjoys travel as much as I do, I’ve done shockingly little over the past two years, which means a trip to a new destination next month is very welcome. I’m off to Phoenix for a long weekend in early October, in part for a school board campaign victory party (long story), and also to visit an old friend. Blogging will ensue.

For now, though, that’s all I’ve got. Back to work.