Tuesday, January 8, 2019


We began the new semester - and 2019 - with a staff activity reminding us about the eight "Sources of Strength" that we are emphasizing this year at school. As one of the SOS leaders, I was asked to share the definition of one strength from the wheel and then provide an explanation of how that operates in my life. Here are my comments on spirituality:

“Spirituality is practiced in many ways, but at its core we consider what gives a sense or purpose and connection to our spirit. Thankfulness is a profound way to practice spirituality together, no matter what our cultural heritage and/or spiritual tradition.”

To me, spirituality is our connection to something beyond the physical world, and it can be what gives our lives meaning and purpose. I went to Catholic school and was an altar boy, so early in my life my, spirituality was my faith. But even then I actually practiced a more nature-based spirituality. Occasionally, I would skip mass to go climb the bluffs in my hometown overlooking the Mississippi River, and I’d spend time just being in nature. When I moved to Colorado, it got even better with the mountains, for to me Summit County really is God’s country to me.

So, being an English geek, I’ll conclude with what I think is Henry David Thoreau’sdefinition  of spirituality: I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Tucker Carlson, Rod Dreher, & the soul of the GOP

So, over at the American Conservative, editor Rod Dreher created a bit of a social media stir the other day with his column, "Tucker Carlson For President." Dreher was responding to Carlson's opinion piece at Fox News which used Mitt Romney's op-ed challenging the President as a spring board for his explanation of what's really wrong with America. You can watch Tucker's entire bit below. The problem for Dreher on the social media front is that Carlson's bit came just days after he had explained how he felt no moral obligation to let more poor people into the country (ie. migrant caravan and asylum requests) because, well basically, "it makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided." As could have been expected, the backlash came with advertisers pulling support in opposition to comments that sound pretty racist. Tucker's comments are pretty indefensible, though he'll stand by them; the problem is that by focusing on Tucker's immigration comments, the message of his column gets lost. And Dreher explains, "First, TC is no racist-misogynist. Second, 'Tucker Carlson For President' was my headline over a blog post praising his criticism of GOP market fundamentalism & elitism. My way of saying "I want a Republican presidential candidate who says these things."

In all honesty, Tucker's opinion piece and Dreher's support of it is pretty interesting to me - I genuinely like and agree with many points that these men make, specifically problems with the dissolution of the American family, the stubborn stagnation of wages, and the frightening rise in opioid and cannabis use. Truly, Carlson has outlined some very specific challenges in contemporary American society, and he has synthesized a pretty significant problem for the Republican Party in its unwavering support of the economic libertarianism. Granted, he does have a Gladwell-esque tendency to oversimplify hugely complicated problems that result from personal choices and the nuances of our political system. The other problem is Carlson's general glib, frat-boy reputation and history that makes it hard to take his criticisms of the Republican Party seriously. That's especially true because he peppers his comments with subtle side-bars blaming the Democratic Party for all the nation's social ills and asserting "Socialism is a disaster" because of, ya know, Mao and Venezuela.

That said, Carlson and Dreher are not wrong in their criticisms of contemporary society and our two major political parties. The problem is expecting that the Republican Party will somehow be able to maintain its identity (and long standing platform and political affiliations) as it takes on the political positions and the tough work of addressing the problems and challenges faced by what Carlson calls "normal Americans."

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Be Awesome - make your 2019 Extraordinary

"Make your lives extraordinary."

If you are of a certain age, you certainly recognize those words from the Robin Williams film Dead Poet's Society. So many Gen Xers and older Millennials fell in love with that film in that moment, and in the back of our minds, we always hope to take "Oh, Captain, my Captain's" advice. As I've noted before in previous posts, we are a people who admire and value excellence. That's why our athletes are held in such esteem - they remind us of the human potential, especially when they push the limits of what we think is possible. And, we like to tell ourselves that we can do that too. Like the lyrics from the song by Alesso, "Everyday people do everyday things, but I can't be one of them."

The YouTube site People Are Awesome is a record of those non-everyday people doing extraordinary things. It's a great place to watch and take inspiration.

So, don't just watch. Do. Be awesome in 2019.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Buy Me Coffee? Support the Writing you Read

I access a great deal of free content while surfing the internet. But I also understand and appreciate the need for pay walls on some sites. Content is a product and a service, and for that reason the creators deserve compensation for the work. To that end, I just made contributions to two sites that regularly provide information for free - Wikipedia and The Guardian. Neither of the sites charges for  content, but they do occasionally request donations to help maintain production. If you are a regular consumer of information from a place like Wikipedia, (and who isn't?) I'd recommend throwing a little cash their way. I also really like the model used by the Guardian, and I wish more news organizations like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times would allow payment on an a la carte basis. 

So, in that spirit of giving, if you are enjoying the content on this blog, perhaps you will consider making a donation to support my site by "buying me a cup of coffee," via the payment button at the upper right corner of my blog. I am hoping to expand my writing and content curation to a larger and more individualized site in the future, but it will carry regular costs. So, any financial support you can offer will be much appreciated.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 31, 2018

French Piano Handstand - Living Artfully in 2019

I guess I'm a New Year's Resolution kind of guy.

Looking back at my writing notebooks and blog posts from Decembers and Januarys past, I notice a tendency to make big plans for the "next stage" in my life - writing more, better fitness, learning a language, cleaning up my files at work, etc. Alas, most of my years look the same, and that's OK because I'm pretty happy and in a good spot professionally, personally, physically, and emotionally. And, yet I still have more I want to do both professionally and personally, especially in the field of writing and in the world of the arts. One of the areas I'd really like to grow is in The Arts, and one way I attempted to live more artfully - have more art in my life and all I do - last year was to try learning to play the piano. That's gone fairly well, culminating with the purchase of a keyboard for Christmas this year. I've always been a music fan and aficionado, but I've never actually been musical other than some feeble attempts at guitar like practically every adolescent boy. And I have really developed such a fondness for jazz piano trios, that I figure I've got the next 30-40 years to learn how to do that which I love. So, in 2019 I plan to play a lot more piano.

But there's more. And, I'm calling it French-Piano-Handstand.

Living artfully is my idea of being in the flow and in a groove and living well, doing what I want and need to do with deliberate intention and a sense of joy on the way to always "becoming who you are." Thoreau called it "living the life you have imagined," and there are certainly parts of my life that I have imagined but are still not a reality. Part of it is academic and scholarly in terms of the type of writing I want to do. While I've had a reasonable bit of success with some freelance journalism, and have even sold a few copies of my re-imagined thesis study of the works of Douglas Coupland, I would like to do more long-form writing on both academic and pop culture subjects. I've also done enough travel and food blogging that I think I could find some success in that area. My writing notebooks - as I imagine many writers' are - are filled with ideas for articles and books. If I'm living more deliberately and more artfully, then I will be producing regular pieces, regardless of whether I find a place to publish.

So ... what does this have to do with French or Handstands?

It's a catch-all theme for the areas of growth where I want to devote regular attention. Being comfortable in another language is something I would like to have in my life. And, having studied four years of French in high school, and having lived in Taiwan for five years, I have enough of a background in French and Mandarin Chinese that I ought to be able to achieve and maintain a decent level of competence. To that end I've been tinkering around with a few of the obvious online sources like Duolingo and YouTube tutorials, and of course I have the added benefit of working in a high school where I can always pop in on a class or chat in the halls with teachers and students. But in my view of the life I have imagined, French stands for any academic or scholarly pursuit, including writing. In fact, because I have a son who's a junior in high school (and just scored a perfect 36 on the ACT), I would also like to go back and make sure I can still do the kind of math that is expected on those tests. These days it's so easy to learn so many things online via Khan Academy or Udemy or Master Class, that I'd be a fool not to take advantage. So I plan to.

The "piano" aspect of my French-Piano-Handstand is obviously focused on learning to play piano with a degree of fluency. But I am also re-discovering visual and graphic art, and I really want to add more art in my life in terms of drawing and painting. There are so many amazing opportunities to experience art in and around Denver, including opportunities to take art classes, and I would like to make the visual and graphic arts more a part of my life. I know that I used to draw as a child, but like so many people (especially Americans), I somehow regressed into the belief that "I can't draw." That sort of thinking drives the Fine Arts coordinator at my school crazy because he knows that anyone can be an artist, and I believe him when he claims everyone should be. We should make art regularly. That idea of creation is so valuable - if I do nothing else with the rest of my life, I'd like to create more as I consume less.

And, finally, the Handstand. While my fitness is pretty respectable for a (almost) forty-nine-year-old man, I know I can do better. And, to me, the handstand is the pinnacle of fitness, specifically the ability to pull myself into a handstand from the floor in a yoga pose. So, if I could reach a point where I can comfortably do the crow in yoga, and then be able to do a legit handstand, then I will know that I am in pretty good shape and am physically "living artfully."

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What is "This Thing We Call Literature"?

In literature, words have connotations. And it's worth noting that the word literature has a connotation as well. The general consensus is that it's a bit highbrow, and it's almost expected to be less-than-accessible to the average reader. Literature is that long, complicated boring stuff we had to read in school. The definition I've tended to use with my students has been that literature is "the stuff that matters." I would always draw a distinction between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, I would explain, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak writing, and it certainly won't ever be studied, nor will it even be thought of a generation from now.

Of course, I could be wrong. And there are far more scholarly and erudite people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of those.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and for Winter Break I've been reading and enjoying several of his books of essays and criticism, notably the inspiration for this post: This Thing We Call Literature. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice in the form pondering the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of his targets in the book is the growing idea in contemporary society that literature is whatever we want it to be, or even worse, anything that is written. He draws some insight and perspective from the theory posited in a book of lit crit A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the most well known and significant poet in America today. This perspective is, of course, validated by his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Add to this the news of rapper Kendrick Lamar being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original comment about Stephanie Meyer, Krystal's discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is the crux of differing views about literature. For example, he notes the significance of popularity in weighing a literary work's significance, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were the popular fiction of their time. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Edmund Wilson's classic New Yorker essay disparaging popular crime fiction, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" When I ran across an excerpt from that essay years ago in, of all places, an SAT prep book, it opened my eyes to to the battle over literature and popular fiction. Certainly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality - fast food and reality TV being the textbooks examples of the flaw in that logic.

That said, Pop Culture has a distinctly different status than it did even twenty years ago. As Krystal notes: If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer deserves to be the subject of an academic dissertation ... then you are living in the right time. No doubt. And I am certainly one to elevate Buffy to the body of work worthy of study. For years, I have half-joked to my classes that my first scholarly work of literary criticism will be centered on the three Bs of culture studies: "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy." But I don't disagree with Kyrstal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for that which we deem literature. And, I'd also agree that post-modern obfuscation of ideas like quality and morality and truth are doing no service to culture. There's the good stuff that matters and won't soon be forgotten ... and there's everything else.

Anyway, if you want to read and ponder some thoughts on language and literature, check out some Arthur Krystal.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

AO Scott on Sam Lipsyte novels on the Gen X male

I may or may not read the latest lad-lit semi-ironic satire of the aging suburban Gen X white male from fifty-year-old author and Columbia creative writing professor Sam Lipsyte, Hark. But I certainly enjoyed the clever, erudite, and self aware review from one of my favorite critics, the New York Times' A.O. Scott:

"Sam Lipsyte's Lame Send-up of a Guru and his Acolytes," published recently in The Atlantic.

as someone who has been there—who’s still there, thickening and graying as the Millennials and the Gen Z kids dethrone my idols and refuse to laugh at my jokes—I regard The Ask as one of the most unbearable and hilarious books I’ve ever read. Accordingly, I had great hopes for Hark, which might have been a mistake, given that the cumulative lesson of all of Lipsyte’s fiction (two books of stories, Venus Drive and The Fun Parts, in addition to the novels) is that low expectations are the only reasonable kind.
But somebody might. Most of all, the gestures toward Major Novel status in Hark—Pynchony, Lethem-esque names like Hark Morner and Fraz Penzig, Dieter Delgado and Teal Baker-Cassini; Infinite Jesticles in the form of wacky brand names and inscrutable terrorist organizations; intimations of apocalypse that accelerate in the book’s final pages—have an air of desperation. The impulse to make big thematic statements is accompanied, and perhaps defeated, by a joke-making reflex, as if attempted seriousness has triggered a kind of autoimmune response:

Friday, December 14, 2018

Niche-y Nietzsche

I first discovered Nietzsche in middle school when I read Danny Sugarman’s biography of Jim Morrison No One Here Gets Out Alive. In describing Morrison’s formative years, especially the books he read, Sugarman mentioned the writings of Nietzsche as being hugely influential in the early self-education of the future Lizard King, and for a young suburban kid fascinated by the rise of punk and the rebellious music of the 1960s, the writer-philosopher who developed the concept of the ubermensch and explored the depths of nihilism seemed to be to perfect inroad into the intellectual side of cool.

Over the years, I've been casually intrigued by how many times and ways references would come up time and again to Western Civ’s most challenging philosopher. That consistent presence just deepened and reiterated to me the significance of this complicated man. To know Nietzsche was to know something elitist-ly subversive. Thirty-five years after I first learned of Nietzsche, his presence still pops up in culture and conversation, and the recent publication of John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche has pushed the original Superman onto our cultural radar again. What is it about this man that makes me (us) want to buy the book just based on the title? Mention Nietzsche and you immediately perk interest. We want to know Nietzsche even if we don’t know why. We want to cite him. We want to understand him. We want to be in the know about him.

There is just something niche-y about Nietzsche.

In “Hiking With Nietzsche, ” Mr. Kaag turns from these homegrown, largely optimistic philosophers and considers Friedrich Nietzsche, the German thinker best known for such pronouncements as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Why? What is it about Hitler’s favorite philosopher that holds Mr. Kaag’s attention? Mr. Kaag admits that “Nietzsche’s philosophy is sometimes pooh-poohed as juvenile—the product of a megalomaniac that is perhaps well suited to the self-absorption and naïveté of the teenage years but best outgrown by the time one reaches adulthood.” Mr. Kaag’s own wife, a student of Immanuel Kant, loathes Nietzsche. True to cliché, Mr. Kaag’s fascination with Nietzsche is rooted in his adolescence. Years later, having reached a period of relative calm and happiness in his life, he feels compelled to reclaim and come to terms with a raw, wild element from his past that Nietzsche inspired and exemplified.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gratitude Journaling

Coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday and heading into the holiday season, it's always on our minds to be grateful for what we have. As my school has committed to a culture-building initiative as part of our Sources of Strength program, we implemented a month of gratitude activities, one of which is a daily "Gratefulness Journal." Much has been written about the value and benefit of a regular, daily focus on gratitude; for example, check out this TED Talk on gratitude:

In writing my 21-day "Gratefulness Journal," here are some of the things I'm thankful for:

  • Cookies & pie
  • Cherry Creek High School and all it offers for me and my family
  • Loving parents
  • the right to vote in peaceful elections with smooth transfer of power
  • dependable electricity and clean drinkable water
  • hardworking dependable colleagues
  • my students who are so easy to teach
  • Jazz
  • print journalism and daily newspapers
  • satirists - Saturday Night Live
  • art - abstract expressionism
  • Hettie
  • Post-it notes
  • the seasons - snowy wintery Colorado mornings
  • Greenwood Village Public Works
  • safe air travel
  • books
  • JK Rowling and the Harry Potter books
  • coffee
  • Holiday songs
  • First Bank pens
  • Sudafed, Tylenol, & Advil
  • people like Alex Honnold who push the limits
  • doctors and nurses
  • public libraries
  • naps

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Living Artfully - finding Thoreau in art and the art of living

" .... because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  -- Henry David Thoreau

In the past couple years, I have begun to discover art and the art of living in ways that I'd long imagined, but have never really visualized. And, as I've been working through a unit of Romanticism and Transcendentalism with my classes, I have pondered and discussed the Thoreauvian approach to our dailiness. What HDT described as living deliberately, I've tried to re-imagine as living artfully. Though I never took an art class, and I certainly don't consider myself an artist or even artistic, I am trying to experience more art in my life, and subsequently experience life as art.

Art and the art of living pops up all over the place if we take the time to notice and appreciate it. This morning in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition I was reminded in a column by Frank Wilczek about the brilliance found in the art and research our earliest neuro-scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Before visiting MIT this summer with my family, I don't know that I'd ever heard of RyC, but I was captivated when I discovered the exhibit of his drawings at the MIT Museum. To learn that he was accurately drawing his ideas of what neurons looked like decades before we had the MRI technology to know for sure was practically magical to me. If you've never see Ramon y Cajal's work (and don't have plans to visit MIT soon), it's worth taking a look at his vision of The Beautiful Brain.

I thought again of art's importance while reading Lance Esplund's Masterpiece reflection about his first "life changing encounter with art." For a future art critic like Esplund, it was odd but familiar and gratifying to hear him reveal how his first experience with arts masters left him empty and not connected. Truly we know that Rembrandt and Da Vinci are great - we may just not be moved by them. Then along comes something sublime in a different way - for Esplund that work was Paul Klee's "Howling Dog."  Something in the colors or the style grabbed him emotionally and let him directly experience the art in the way that Klee intended. And that is the sort of living artfully that I seek more of in my life. Not all of us go on to become erudite art critics, but we can all appreciate looking at the world more artfully.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Free Solo - "Alex Honnold and the Pursuit of Perfect"

See. This. Movie.

Knowing of Alex Honnold from previous stories on his free solo climbing accomplishments, I was intrigued and excited to learn not only that he had free soloed El Capitan, the "center of the rock climbing universe" and the most incredible rock wall on earth, but also that a film crew had been there to capture it all. And now that I've seen it, I am all the more amazed. The climb was a monumental task that is a remarkable human achievement and may be the greatest athletic feat of all time. The film does it all justice. Free Solo from filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is, in a single word, breathtaking.

Learning intimately the story of Alex Honnold and the El Cap climb was a fascinating, inspiring, and, for me actually, emotionally draining experience, for it was joining a truly unique human being as he sought the edge of human achievement and pushed that edge to an area many never thought it could go. Man has always been fascinated by dominant physical achievement and the pursuit of excellence. It was integral to the culture of the Greeks, and it was a primary element of the Heroic Ideal found in the stories of early epic heroes such as Beowulf. We love excellence. We are fascinated by it, and in many ways, we revere it. As we should. For by pushing the boundaries of physical achievement, we develop tangible evidence of just what is possible. Experiencing the arduous process of imagining, envisioning, planning, practicing, and finally achieving a free solo climb of El Capitan is a truly gratifying experience. Interestingly, the movie feels like a thriller at times, which is pretty cool considering we know how the movie ends. But, during the actual climb I must say that my palms were literally sweaty. It was a captivating bit of film to say the least.

In some ways, this is a movie about an athlete. But in other ways this is a significant, meaningful, and important film about a legendary moment in time.

It is in Alex's own words "delightful."

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Roger Scruton explains Conservatism

I refrain from using the terms conservative and liberal to describe or refer to people (and even ideas and issues) anymore because I don't feel like people authentically use and align with those terms, or they will mis-apply them to pieces of legislation and the way they vote. No, these days the only valid terms are Republican and Democrat. Americans identify themselves by whom they voted for in the last election. And, that is not the essence of ideas and ideologies like conservatism and liberalism to me.

Roger Scruton, a writer and public intellectual, may be able to help.

The most important piece of insight and distinction is that conservatism is actually classical liberalism. And, the basic premise to keep in mind is that classical liberalism in terms of the Enlightenment (18th century, neo-Classical Age) is committed to the concept of individual and natural rights. At the core of that, of course, is freedom; and the idea of freedom is where the Republicans and the Democrats get into all sorts of trouble leading to confusing disagreements. (By the way, a great source of intellectual debate about this can be found in Patrick Deneen's wonderful book Why Liberalism Failed ). In its soul, the idea of conservatism is about opposition to radical change, and it's about a commitment to norms and traditions of culture. That perspective leads us to a neat little book by Scruton on the essence and history of conservatism - Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. 

One of the most important pieces of insight in the book comes in the last chapter, where Scruton succinctly summarizes the primary canons of conservatism according to the esteemed Russell Kirk. I appreciate Scruton's work for the honesty and integrity with which he explores a line of thought outside of the somewhat obscene partisan politicizing of ideas going on in both the United States and Great Britain these days. Clearly, the election of Donald Trump is both a cause and effect of the mess that has been made of conservatism as a label and the GOP as a brand. For me, the sense of decorum and character which have always been a commitment of conservatives has been so egregiously tainted that it's absolutely necessary to identify the culprits as Republicans, not as conservatives. And, it's subsequently important to look outside the parties to explore and discover the philosophy. Perhaps someday, we can return to the purity of classical liberal thought, and we might even reach a day where people once again can choose between two human beings in an election, and not two entrenched political parties.

From Scruton (p. 144):

Kirk's philosophy is founded in the following canons or states of mind:
  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the 'variety and mystery' of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize 'natural' distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and a recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.