Sunday, October 20, 2019

Alton, IL: a giant, little river town

I recently began referring to myself more regularly as an "Altonian" after I took a class about race, ethnicity, education, and identity. The inclination was heightened a bit after I spent a bit more time in Littleton and Arvada and Golden, a few foothills towns outside of Denver, where I realized I just felt more at home, or at least nostalgic. Those little communities just seem familiar in a comforting way. And part of those feelings led to a simple bit of travel writing I was trying out. While I couldn't get any publications interested in the feature, I did recently publish the full piece on

Located at the foot of massive limestone bluffs running alongside the ole Miss’, Alton has been home and host to giants of all sorts. Robert Wadlow, at 8 feet 11.5 inches the tallest man to ever live, was known far and wide as “Alton’s Gentle Giant,” and the River City is also the birthplace of jazz legend Miles Davis. Visitors to Alton can appreciate statues of both these icons, with the Miles Davis statue located in the downtown area on Third Street and the colossal life-size Wadlow statue in North Alton on the campus of Southern Illinois University’s School of Dentistry. The loftiest of monuments to the giants of Alton, however, is reserved for Elijah P. Lovejoy, an abolitionist writer who is considered by many to be the first casualty of the Civil War. And that historical connection of Alton is just one of myriad reasons to visit — it’s a small town with big stories.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

I Went to the Wrong College ...

"I went to the wrong college."

It was never even a doubt that I was going to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because I'd been going to football games with my dad there for years, and my mom went there, and for a high achieving student at a small little Catholic school in southern Illinois, the U of I was pretty much the obvious choice. Just me and about 36,000 students (though it has now just passed 50K).

In reality I should have gone to a small liberal arts school where I wouldn't have become lost amidst all the distractions. I should have gone to Wash-U in St. Louis or perhaps Northwestern or definitely Miami of Ohio, though I'm probably overestimating my brain and credentials. For, even going to a school like DePauw in Indiana, where I had a potential opportunity to keep playing soccer, would have been a really good fit for me. A small school with smaller classes and, perhaps, a better opportunity at a more cohesive sense of community might have kept me more focused on the reason we go to universities - educating ourselves. After being a straight A student my entire life, I graduated from my program in secondary education with a none-too-impressive 2.9 GPA. Yep, I went to the wrong college.

In a place like the U of I, it was too easy to get lost and pursue anything but an education. For example, at Illinois my mandatory government class, Poli-Sci 150, was held in Folinger Auditorium -- just me, the professor, and 1500 classmates. I attended that class approximately five times. Clearly attendance wasn't mandatory, the professor wrote the book and study guide, from which he directly lectured, and my discussion section with the grad student TA at the end of the week was less-than-engaging (though I'd put that on me as much as he). So, I bought the study guide, took the mid-term and final, turned in a paper that I had written for my government class during my sophomore year of high school ... and got a B. That experience -- and showing up late to a final in educational psychology because I was driving back from a Grateful Dead show the night before in Milwaukee -- reflects most of my undergraduate experience.

Yet, I should neither complain nor lament my experience in college. I went to the wrong college, though it turned out to be the right one because that is where I met my wife. Julie and I have been married twenty-two years, have two wonderful children who absolutely amaze and impress and inspire me, and we live just outside of Denver, where I work at and my children attend one of the top high schools in the country. They are the loves of my life, and my career is so satisfying that I often marvel as I walk to school about how exactly I got here. Julie and I met in Speech Com 141, where I thought she was a flighty sorority girl, and she thought I was a disengaged loner, neither was remotely close to true, as she wasn't even in the Greek system and is the furthest thing from flighty, and I happened to be in one of the largest fraternities on campus. Funny how that goes.

I think a lot about college and career choices and how we end up where and who we are as adults, and I try to share some insight with the many students I encounter and the many parents who ask about these things. In terms of colleges, there is not just one, but dozens if not hundreds of options for students. And, in all honesty there is no perfect fit. Nor is the place we choose to study for four years the primary determining factor in the rest of our lives, a reality that was adroitly explained by columnist Nicholas Kristoff in his book Where You Go is not Who You'll Be: an Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. I'm sure I would have had a much richer educational experience at a small college, but it's not all about the classes and the grades. I met so many interesting people at the U of I, all of whom were influential in who I've become. And, granted, much of who I've become was set by who I already was at the age of two or three. Perhaps those qualities are what enabled me to connect with my wife who became the most important influence in my education and personal growth into the adult, husband, father, neighbor, and friend I am. I still recall a roommate telling me after Julie and I had been dating a while -- "She's good for you, Michael. She softens your edges." Oh, how true.

From that initial class together to a few more, a beautiful friendship developed over the next couple years, though neither of us was remotely aware that we would end up married. Interesting to note, many of our friends seemed to know long before we did. That's apparently not an unusual story. So, as it goes, we started dating a few weeks before graduation, moved abroad together to teach English and see the world for five years after graduation, and have been living happily together for nearly three decades.

So, I went to the wrong college. And, at risk of offending the literary types who will groan and roll their eyes as I appropriate and over-interpret the words of Robert Frost, I went to the wrong college "... that has made all the difference."

Thursday, September 19, 2019

What is your Natural Default Setting?

Strangely, I recently noticed that I begin each day, even and especially at work, relatively happy and content. While work awaits and challenges arise, and I admit that many early Monday alarms leave me staring at the ceiling thinking, "No, I don't want to do this today and again," I must concede that my smiles and "Hellos" to the kids and teachers in the hallway are authentic expressions of joy and comfort with my existence. And, I'm fairly certain that my relatively new attempts at beginning most days with about ten minutes of meditation are a key factor in my general ease with the struggles of dailiness.

That's probably a bit surprising for people who know me, for I tend to operate on a fairly intense level, and it wouldn't be wrong to admit that "drama queen" and  "neurotic princess" have been uttered in reference to me, including by myself. My Natural Default Setting, a term I'm borrowing from David Foster Wallace's brilliant graduation speech entitled "This is Water," given at Kenyon College's commencement in 2005, is "on edge" and in fight or flight mode. It's certainly not a calm demeanor at ease with the world. And, to clarify DFW's term, it is the belief that I am the center of the universe and my beliefs are the only true ones and my needs and desires are the only thing that matter. I tend to come from that viewpoint.

But I'm getting better, I think.

I am moving, hopefully, in the direction of greater awareness and, perhaps, closer to my goal of "living deliberately," a reference from Henry David Thoreau from Walden about living simply and authentically. And, it's so strange that DFW's speech has come back around to me this week because I've honestly been thinking about general contentment and meditation and understanding people in ways that enable me to feel less angsty and intense about traffic or grocery store lines or people I disagree with. For, "The true freedom acquired through education is the ability to be adjusted, conscious, and sympathetic." And that idea reminds me a bit of the insight from Patrick Deneen who challenges our contemporary notions of freedom and reminds us that  early thinkers actually intended the sanctity of freedom not as freedom to do what we want but actually freedom from the most base instincts and qualities that compromise our happiness and contentment.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Are Students Bored ... or Boring?

I'm probably a bit full of it when I try to turn the tables on my students and their ability, or inability, to appreciate the classic literature I've assigned. The crux of the claim is that a book like 1984 or Pride & Prejudice is neither interesting nor boring -- each just exists as an artistic creation. Their value and quality varies depending on the reader. However, the claim cannot be that they are awful or boring or weak or poorly written. And, if they come across as "boring," it may simply be that the reader who feels that way is the only boring entity in the exchange. Thus, I try to emphasize that my greatest hope as a teacher is that my students come to appreciate the work as a quality work of art and social commentary, even if they don't really like it. And, I hope they won't call it "boring," but simply concede that it's not their preference and, perhaps, they can't fully "appreciate" its brilliance. Because I am certainly not going to use class time to engage with any piece of art I don't believe is brilliant.

So, each year at some point we have this exchange, and each year I grow a bit as well. This year a student wanted to know what work I found "boring" -- because if I didn't like it, there was no way she was going to invest the time. I laughed, but it did make me a bit sad, for I don't want to be that curmudgeonly presence in anyone's education. That said, we had an interesting chat about works from our curriculum they were bored by. When the classic archetype for all modern superheroes, Beowulf , came up, I felt compelled to defend the famous Geat and help them understand why the poem is anything but boring. The gap, I believe, is the ability of people to connect with and grasp the written word as entertainment. If I can bridge that gap, I will truly be educating. And, perhaps one day my students will not only "appreciate" Beowulf in some similar way to Iron Man and Captain America, but they just might be inclined to buy my, yet-to-be-written, scholarly study of allusions and the epic hero, "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy: allusion and archetypes in popular culture."

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Novelists & the "Voice of a Generation"

When I was in college in 1991 and discovered this new funny-looking novel by Douglas Coupland called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, I was intrigued and became a fan, even going as far as writing my Master's thesis on the early works of Coupland in 2002. However, I was also surprised after finishing the book to read on the back that some reviewer had offered the blurb: "A Modern day Catcher in the Rye." That just seemed wrong. Coupland was the first to agree and to reject the notion that he was the "voice of Generation X," and he even went as far as declaring the "death of Generation X" in an article for Details. While Coupland's novel was certainly a zeitgeist novel that captured a moment in time and reflected the general ennui of people in their 20s in the early post-Reagan years, the comparison to an iconic generation-spanning novel like Salinger's work, which has sold roughly 65 million copies, just seemed absurd.

So, what exactly do we mean by the voice of a generation? That's been on my mind since encountering the work of Irish novelist Sally Rooney. It just seems odd to anoint a writer as the "Salinger of the Snapchat generation" when her books have sold roughly 60,000 copies, and the whopping majority -- I'm guessing 95% -- of people under the age of thirty-five have never heard of her and will never read her book. So, can we really say she "speaks for a generation"? What does that really mean anyway. Certainly, it is possible to speak in a voice that reflects a collective experience without the need to be famous, popular, and recognized by the entire group. Truly, the same can be said of Coupland, for it's a safe bet that most Gen Xers never read the novel, don't know how their label originated, and couldn't even identify the author.

In thinking about the generational voice idea for Millennials and Gen Z (or Generation neXt as I like to call them), I've also encountered the insight and literary work of writer/novelist Tony Tulathimutte, who has the distinction of writing what the New York press termed "the first great Millennial novel," while also penning an insightful bit of cultural commentary for the New York times where he posited "Why There's No Millennial Novel." The English teacher and sardonic literary critic in me loves the ironic dichotomy of those two pieces, and it helps extend my interest in the idea of a novel as the voice of a generation.

So, what do you think?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

It's Never Going to Be OK

Life is managed; it is not cured.

Each fall in the early weeks of school, I read to my class a list of "Life Strategies for Teens" from a book by Jay McGraw, who happens to be the son of Dr. Phil. It's an amusing little bell starter, and I book talk it a bit, mock warning them I'm going to recommend it to their parents, so they may expect one as a gift sometime soon. I also tell them I'll encourage their parents to purchase two copies, "so you can read it together and discuss it over dinner." The list of strategies form chapters of guidance, and the aphoristic nature needs some explanation:

  1. You either get it, or you don't.
  2. You create your own experience.
  3. People do what works. (successful, happy, well-adjusted people at least)
  4. You cannot change what you do not acknowledge.
  5. Life rewards actions.
  6. There is no reality, only perception of it.
  7. Life is managed; it is not cured.
  8. We teach people how to treat us.
  9. There is power in forgiveness.
  10. You have to name it before you can claim it.

The one bit of guidance I like to key in on is the one that opens this post:  Life is managed; it is not cured. I honestly, but somewhat regretfully reveal to the students the most important lesson we can ever learn -- it will never be OK, never done, never perfect. Life is a continual process of rises and falls and many lateral movements, and some time after early childhood we start to experience that. However, in a naive desire to get back to that mythical time of innocence when everything was OK, we start setting arbitrary and transient milestones and finish lines for ourselves.

It probably starts in middle school when most of us first begin to deal with the "stuff" of life that isn't so pleasant. And, we tell ourselves if we can just get through this and on to high school, "it'll all be OK." Once in high school, when the stuff closes in again, we tell ourselves, "I just need to get my license, and then it'll be better. It'll be OK." But of course, the stuff closes in again, and we repeat the cycle. I just need to get through this week of tests, or whatever, and then I can regroup and get organized and focused and never fall behind again. And, then I just need to be eighteen, just need to get into college, just need to move out, just need to get my own place, just need to turn twenty-one, just need to graduate, just need to get a job and a place of my own, just need to get this one promotion, just need to get to that next level ... and then it will be OK. Then I'll be satisfied. Then I can relax. Then I can calm down. Then I can stop worrying.

But it will never be OK. And, the only disappointment in our life comes from believing that we can get to a certain point, and that will fix what ails us. Life is managed. It's every day a new task, a new situation, a new something. And, when things are going well, you can be fairly certain they will eventually go south, or at least sideways. And, when things are really ... sucking, you can be fairly certain that it won't last, and things will get better, if even just marginally.

It'll never be OK. And when we realize that, it's really going to be fine.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Labor Day -- Spring Cleaning in the Fall

Americans are always ripe for reinvention, and ideas like New Year's Resolutions and spring cleaning when we recharge and remake ourselves in the image we have imagine are embedded in our DNA. Several years ago I read a column where the author described Labor Day Weekend as his New Year's Eve -- wish I could still find it. Anyway, that idea resonated with me, for the middle of winter is never really a good idea to reset and "clean out the garage," literally or metaphorically. But that traditional end of summer is a time to clean up and reset.

Labor Day really is perfect for spring cleaning of the house and life. We've grown up with the first weekend in September as the end of summer when the pools close, the kids return to school, and the days & nights cool off. Though many schools and communities are long past the days of school starting after Labor Day, it's still a great weekend for one last hurrah of play and carefree whateverness. The weekend activities dial back a bit, and we can turn inward for how we will make this school year our best yet. The natural connection to the seasons changing and a move toward hibernation can open our minds ... and our closets.

I've been in and out of the office this weekend, emptying files and filling the recycle and shredding bins with the remains of last year's work. For, the spring is really too busy to do an adequate inventory, and by the arrival of June, I simply don't want to dig through the mess. And, then, of course, the summer closes, my contract renews, and we prepare for the arrival of kids. So, not much cleaning and recharging happens then. But now, on this somewhat carefree weekend, I've taken some time to reflect, drink wine, clean up the yard, read a couple novels (I tend to multitask my reading), do a couple hikes, and think about the year.

For those who've read my work from early this year, I am not that much more adept at playing the piano, nor have I perfected a yoga handstand. And I'm certainly not more competent in French. But I did add a bit more art to my life with my first ever purchase of original artworks at the Affordable Arts Festival, and that makes me very happy. And, this year I did manage to place one piece of pop culture writing with Pop Matters; but most of my other work remains only self-published on Medium. That gives me pause, as I wonder if my writing will ever really become something more than this blog and the occasional piece in a non-paying website. But, whatever. I've decided to keep writing.

And, that's what this is. Happy Labor Day. Good luck in becoming who you are.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Singles: the seminal film of the Gen Xperience

As a twenty-something in the 90s, there was one film that aptly and accurately reflected the experience of Generation X, and, for me, it wasn't Reality Bites. After the film passed twenty-five years, and Chris Cornell passed away near the anniversary of the film's soundtrack featuring Soundgarden and other Seattle bands, I took a look back at the stories of the friends and neighbors that made me smile and laugh and nod in recognition.

Singles as a film captures that moment when Xers became the first generation for whom the idea of “twenty-something” was a legit moment in time and an identifiable demographic. It wasn’t necessarily a transition phase. For many in the early 90s, that window of time after school but before careers and marriage felt like all there was, and that was really fine because it was about the most stable that many latch-key kids had ever felt. The most hopeful of the group, Bridget Fonda’s Janet, captured that twentysomething-ness with her observation that she was twenty-three and that “somewhere around 25 bizarre becomes immature.” So, she is focused on making something of that moment in time. And Janet’s journey is the simplest yet most profound as she moves from innocent and giddy with her ideal of the perfect guy — one she’s willing to undergo plastic surgery for — to a wiser, calmer Fountainhead reading woman just looking for a man who’s human enough to say “God Bless you” when she sneezes. The friends in Singles grow in understated but significant ways as they move not from twentysomethings to adults, but from searchers to human beings.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Jack and Diane: a little ditty about Generation X

As age fifty approaches for me, I am no doubt beginning to look nostalgically upon the significant times and unique influences in my life, and the music of the 80s tops that list. While driving to pick up my daughter from a friend's house earlier this year, the song "Jack and Diane" by John Cougar (Mellencamp) came on the radio, and I couldn't help but ponder how evocative of growing up in the early 80s that song became for me. And, a title for a piece of commentary occurred to me: "A Little Ditty about Generation X." That pondering became writing, and I was fortunate to find placement for it in the online pop culture magazine, Pop Matters. Here's a small preview:

In the summer of 1982, a "little ditty" about growing up "in the Heartland" became the most unexpected of anthems for a group of young people in the US later known as Generation X. At a time of emerging New Wave and the early rise of synthpop, John Mellencamp's breakthrough and most enduring song opens with an innovative guitar hook merging a raucous anthem rock chord that's quickly tempered with an innocent and oddly appropriate twangy clip. The contrast between the two sounds almost sweetly reflects the contrasting themes of the ditty – the loud brash promise of youth with a melancholy realization of the fading days of passion and innocence.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

"Returning the Gaze" -- In good hands with Jordan Casteel

Art, more art.

That's been a bit of a theme in my dailiness lately, as I focus on living more deliberately and artfully in my choices of how and where I spend my time. Denver is an engaging place now for fans of the arts, and by checking in with The Know and following the work of Ray Rinaldi, I've been following the newest art exhibits. That's how I discovered the work of Jordan Casteel, a Denver-born portrait artist who was featured earlier this year in her first solo museum exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Casteel's work is captivating, and I was moved to make a written attempt at art review. While I was unable to find an established publisher for my thoughts, I've posted the entire piece at Here's a small section:

Every painting is a storybook of time and place, and the museum exhibit offers a brief five-minute video interview with Casteel in which she offers insight and commentary on her inspiration and techniques. When she first moved to the city, she subconsciously fell into “the natural New York thing,” looking down or at her phone and avoiding eye contact. Then she realized and acknowledged she was “doing disservice to myself and the experience of being out in Harlem,” and she began an earnest effort to notice people. Jordan truly sees people, and it’s a great homage to have Ralph Ellison’s words adorning the wall -- from Invisible Man: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Casteel’s exhibit does not allow such refusal, as her portraits and scenes welcome and even demand attention with her rich colors and bold brushstrokes that create a strong impression of lives worthy of our attention. From the first step inside the show, viewers are drawn warmly into scenes of Harlem, such as in Bayum, a neighborhood Ethiopian restaurant visited by Casteel. Getting in close on the painting, it’s almost possible to inhabit the scene, smell the spices, hear the clink of dishes, and even feel compelled to request a table and menus. Up close, you can also experience and appreciate the richness of Casteel’s complex style of layers, lines, and textures that bring life to her subjects.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Generation X -- Life After 40

So, ... I ran across a tweet from Tanzina Vega which read, "If you're in your 40s and more tired than ever before because you are juggling life, money, aging parents, aging yourself, not wanting to play games anymore, etc., raise your hand. How are you coping?" It became a pretty extensive thread for Vega, host of The Takeaway on New York City public radio, and I've been pondering the answers of my generation as I consider the challenges and opportunities of middle age. And, I was amused and intrigued  and even gratified by the responses and consideration of my answer, which read:

At the age of 49 with “all of the above,” I’m trying to live deliberately & have more art in my life on a daily basis. Trying to write daily, meditate regularly, & choose my battles. Valuing sleep & quiet time, cutting back on carbs & sugar, & seeking a kinder, gentler self.

Vega's question and her subsequent thoughts on how research indicates "happiness" drops in our forties as demands on our time peak were the impetus for some sincere reflection, philosophizing, and perhaps griping from members of Generation X, and they actually became a positive use of social media to ponder and "connect." As I creep up on the half-century mark, I don't feel my sense of happiness or contentment has dropped, and, in fact, I've been thinking about a favorite line from John Denver's song Poems, Prayers, & Promises where he opines, "It turns me on to think of growing old."

Truly, I find myself wondering why I am so tired these days, though as a school administrator and parent to two teenagers, I can say that demands on my time are high ... and it's been a pretty tough year to work with teens. But I also try to remind myself almost daily just how wonderful the people in my life are, especially the young people, and how amidst the messiness of daily life are continuous moments of beauty and goodness. I think the daily meditation I've been trying to practice has been pretty integral to that insight, as I quiet my mind and step back objectively from the drama queen that I can so often be. It's true, I realize, that no matter how I'm feeling, "in time, this too shall pass." The Serenity Prayer of my Catholic youth is also as true now as it's ever been.

There is much we can do to handle our lives as we embrace the new definitions of normal. Certainly our physical as well as our social-emotional health should be a priority. As we take care of our aging parents and are continually dumbfounded by the rising costs of health care, as well as living in general, I think we have to make health and wellness central to our lives. That said, I worry about my generation's "habits," so to speak, and I'd love for moderation and simplicity to guide more of our recreation and relaxation. For our children, I know that the one thing we should do is simply to love them. Start with love in every interaction and decision. It's a complicated world they are inheriting, and it will be better for all of us if they enter it having known that they are loved.

I don't think it has to be so hard. But it does have to be life .... and life is a complex system that is never an all-or-nothin' proposition. It is a process and a cycle and a gift. And, thus, taking a line from a meditation practice, I am regularly reminding myself to "Simply begin again."


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

I went to a museum today, because, you know ... Art

Yesterday at work we ended with a secure perimeter lockout based on a credible threat to schools in the Denver metro area. Today, we woke up to all schools in the metro area closed while police and the FBI conducted a massive manhunt for a young woman who flew to Colorado from Florida and purchased a shotgun and ammunition after making verbal threats about school shootings.

So ... yeah.

With no school and no desire to spend the day watching the weirdness unfold on television and social media, I went to the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, where I spent a few hours immersed in beauty and light and color. MCA is hosting a fascinating exhibit of Amanda Wachob, whose "innovation in tattoo art" has opened a new frontier in abstract art and body painting, and I spent some time just pondering how we can occasionally think nothing new can happen in the abstract world until someone comes along and leads us down a new trail, looking over her shoulder with that "yeah, what about this" kind of glance.

And, then of course, I meandered through the showing of "Aftereffect: Georgia O'Keefe and Contemporary Painting," in which numerous artists are exhibited with a focus on their connections to O'Keefe and her influence.

Aftereffect: O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting brings together a select group of artists whose work resonates with that of Georgia O'Keeffe. From her formal innovations, to her ambition to transcribe her ideas and emotions, to her distinctive approach to abstraction and the landscape of New Mexico, O'Keeffe's legacy is identifiable in the work of several generations of painters. These artists share her interest in capturing what Jerry Saltz refers to as the "objective and subjective all at once." That is, in their art, the physical world is neither subjected to, nor victorious over the imagination of the artist, but rather, the two are continuously at play.

And things are better now.