Saturday, March 28, 2020

Small Town? Gen X? Social Distancing? Read "Downtown Owl"

"Its all so wonky: I live in a town where everybody supposedly knows everyone else, yet I've never spoken to half the people who supposedly know everything about me. I see them on the street, but don't even know their names. How is living in Owl any different from living in Hong Kong or Mexico City or Prague? Is every place essentially identical?"

So ponders Julia, a young teacher from Wisconsin who has transplanted herself to the the small town of Owl, North Dakota, after graduating from U of W and teaching a semester in the city of Chicago. Julia is one of the primary characters in pop culture journalist Chuck Klosterman's novel Downtown Owl, which reads as a series of vignettes about life in Owl over several months in 1983. Other narratives come in the thoughts of Mitch Hrlicka, a third-string quarterback who doesn't like rock music or his sleazy football coach, and Horace Jones, a seventy-ish widower who spends most of his days drinking coffee and chatting with his "colleagues" at the cafe and pondering American history. The lives of these characters are intertwined in general ways as the story moves toward a culminating event in an epic blizzard, but the tenor and appeal of the novel comes in Klosterman's pop journalist-infused psychological study of people of a certain time and place.

Something about this quirky little book really appealed to me, even despite some critics' jabs at the the style and plodding along of the stories, peppered with pop culture references that are certainly a trademark of the author but can at times seem forced or out of place for the setting and theme. For fans of Klosterman's non-fiction, these details aren't a problem, and for people of a certain time and place, like the Gen X youth who came of age in Midwestern towns in the 1980s. Perhaps it is that hovering bit of nostalgia that I'm always aware of, especially after turning fifty. But, as we're all hunkered down and social distancing lately, I'm glad I ran across this book and checked it out of my high school library before we left for spring break. While I'd read CK's non-fiction for years, I had never bothered to pick up Downtown Owl, and I was rather surprised to see it in a contemporary high school library. It was an enjoyable read, one which had me nodding often in amusement and occasionally in painful recognition or poignant recollection.

Nice job, Chuck.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Finding Life in the Dailiness

Here we are alone. Here we are shut off and shut down, alone with ourselves, alone with each other. And, I'm thinking of Phil Connors.

Phil Connors, if you don't know or recall, is the weatherman played by Bill Murray in the film Groundhog Day, and I'm specifically thinking about the scene where he is sitting at the local cafe counter, reading a book, and he notices the piano playing in the background. Phil, who by now has become resigned to his purgatory reliving the same day in Punxsutawny, gets up and finds a local piano teacher and offers her $1000 to teach him. Stuck in a small town with seemingly no escape, and resigned to his fate of an absurd meaningless repetition of the same life day after day, Phil has decided to spend his days learning new things. And through those regular daily choices, he ends up becoming a better person and probably the person he truly wanted to be.

In the modern lexicon of pop culture references, "Groundhog Day" has come to mean monotony and boredom, and we too often use it to describe the repetitive dreariness of life. Yet that interpretation is not really what the Harold Ramis-Danny Rubin movie is about. The message of Phil Connors' predicament and dynamic personal growth is not one of absurd meaninglessness; the film is, instead, a story of existential re-birth. Phil is stuck in his life, and for a long time he rebels against his seemingly hopeless situation, not knowing what do do, but knowing for certain that it's not fair, and it doesn't make sense. After a while -- between 10-30 years by some estimates -- he accepts his situation and, at risk of sounding trite, makes the most of a bad situation.

And that is what is on our minds as we practice "social distancing," which is clearly set up to become the word of 2020, to say the least. As we read the paper and watch the news and check Facebook and Twitter, we are perhaps discovering an avalanche of advice on how to spend our time in isolation. For that time certainly seems like a sentence, but also has the potential to be a gift - the gift of time.  How often have we talked about not having time? I wish I had more time. I would do that if I only had the time. Well, perhaps the time has found us. And this is not to detract from or minimize the anxiety and fear about the struggle and the dire situations many people are facing in a precarious economic and public health situation. The uncertainty is frustrating and unnerving to say the very least. And a service worker who is facing lost wages or the children who are out of school and missing important support systems can't simply say, "Well, great. This is a perfect time to start learning to play the piano, which I've always wanted to do." But here we are faced with an absurd, bizarre, inexplicable situation that has left us alone with time. Time to think. Time to do. Time to wonder.

In the early nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau "went into the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately." This may be our time to live deliberately, live mindfully, live intentionally. It may be our time to "front only the essential facts of life." It may be our time to explore what really makes us tick, to learn that thing we've always want to know. As John Lennon sang, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." Well, now that those other plans are on hold, we are left with the dailiness of living.

Monday, March 16, 2020

What are the Sounds of Social Distancing?

What are the sounds of social distancing?
When did that become a word, a thing, a step, a plan, a prescription?
What are the sounds of a world trying to come together by staying apart?
What are the sounds emanating through suburban houses and downtown apartments and condos,
as we hear each other, sense each other, try to stay busy, try to stay sane,
and then wonder if it is OK to feel OK with isolation. 
Will we be OK in isolation? Will we be OK with isolation? 
Wasn’t Dr. Putnam’s story of bowling alone a warning?
We are not meant to bowl alone.
Weren’t we just fretting about division and separation and a splintering of our identities?
What are the sounds of a world in uncertainty?
Was that a cough? Can you hear me from six feet away? Can you feel me?
A car on the streets whispers by -- where are they going? 
Is that a delivery truck in the lot at King Soopers? 
Enough with the jokes about toilet paper.
Is there enough toilet paper?
Please don’t fight over the Charmin.
What are the sounds?
What are the sounds of “All Clear”?
What are the sounds of tension easing?
What are the sounds of students and workers returning, of stores restocking,
of cafes and restaurants and coffee shops reopening, of actors acting, of performers performing,
of athletes playing, of airplanes flying, of border restrictions easing, of suspicions fading,
of medical workers relaxing, of bodies healing, of communities healing, of cities healing,
of countries healing, of politics healing, of society healing ….

What are the sounds?

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Coming Together by Staying Apart

It seems counter-intuitive, Harry Smith of NBC observed in a video essay that closed the Nightly News broadcast Friday evening: Americans are being asked to come together in the fight to stem the spread of the coronavirus by practicing "social distancing," by staying apart. In this strange, uncertain time at the dawn of 2020, schools are closing and public events are being cancelled postponed or cancelled as cities and communities attempt to protect our most vulnerable and assist the medical community by trying to "flatten the curve." And staying away from each other to decrease the risk of infection is the recommended path. So, the family and I are at home this weekend, and planning to stay a bit isolated for at least a few days or so. And there is so much to ponder and unpack about this practice and its place in this time.

Some interesting thoughts:

In December and January, will we see a rise in birth rates .... or divorce and increased attendance at AA meetings?

Is Generation X, the so-called "latchkey kids" of the 70s and 80s, the most well-prepared to practice social isolation because it's basically in our DNA, and we've been practicing it our entire lives?

Are many men about the discover what their lives are like beyond sports?

Will I finally learn to play piano and improve my drawing and sketching and painting and perhaps study some more French and Chinese and ask my son to teach me some math and get around to finishing all those essays that are languishing in my Google drive and ....?

How much can you really learn from online tutorials?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Nothing Wrong with Snow Days

Amidst the snowy winter of 2019-20, some school districts in Colorado are facing the possibility of needing to extend their calendar beyond the already established end date because of the large number of snow days and snow delays they've already used. The only reason they might be required to adjust the school year is because of the federal mandate that a "school year" consist of 1080 contact hours for students. Specifically the large school districts in Douglas County, JeffCo, and Cherry Creek may need to add days.

And that is simply a bunch of nonsense. 

In Illinois, numerous school districts made news last year by effectively eliminating the occurrence of snow days by mandating that on weather emergency days, students still "attend" and complete lessons via digital platforms and online learning. For example, the school district of Peoria approved Snow Day E-Learning, during which students will complete online assignments or take home packets according to the choice of their parents. That "choice" is necessary for the simple reality that not all families and students can be assumed to have internet access. Additionally, during snow events internet service could be disrupted. So, the Illinois State Board has approved allowing five "learn from home days" in the event of weather emergencies.

And that is also simply a bunch of nonsense.

Everyone in and out of public education knows, or should know, that "seat time" in schools is an entirely arbitrary number, and nothing is guaranteed by presence in or out of the classroom. Many students actually need more than the allotted time to learn while many other students could master standards and complete curricula in far less than the standard of 175 or so "days of instruction." In reality, all of these decisions should be reserved for and decided by individual schools, or at least by the districts. It is the responsibility of the teachers and school administration to be accountable for the learning and to confirm and validate completion of a year of schooling. And no state boards should supersede that authority. And the federal Department of Education should have no input whatsoever.

There is nothing wrong with snow days or snow delays, time in the classroom is entirely arbitrary, schools and families should communicate with each other, and people far removed from the classroom should simply acknowledge how little they know about what's actually happening in the classroom.

Save snow days.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Astros Owner Jim Crane should return the trophy

As the fallout continues in MLB's biggest scandal since the steroid era, the commissioner Rob Manfred has been criticized by pretty much everyone except the Astros and their owner Jim Crane. Recently, Manfred indicated he would not go beyond the current punishment of a $5 million fine and the loss of draft picks, and he would not erase the Houston Astros' 2017 World Championship, and he would not take back the coveted trophy (insulting basically every baseball fan from the age of four to ninety-four by calling the trophy "just a piece of metal"). And that is frustrating many people in and out of baseball. But here's the thing: he shouldn't have to.

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane should want to voluntarily give the trophy back.

The trophy is a symbol of the accomplishment of winning one of the toughest championships in all of sports. And when winners look at the trophy they should be filled with pride and smile about all the hard work and struggle and sacrifice and tears and pain and joy that went into winning it. True winners would want to look at it every day and be filled with joy again and again. But no Houston Astro can actually do that. The trophy is tarnished. It is stained. It is dingy and dented. Any man of integrity would not even want to look at it, much less show it off to visitors and friends. Any many of integrity would not want a reminder of the embarrassment and shame. No man of integrity would want that in his house.

Granted, there are many other things MLB and Rob Manfred can do to enact some justice in the huge cheating scandal. 

But, as far as the trophy goes, Jim Crane and the Houston Astros players should want to give it back.

Friday, February 7, 2020


I shovel.

Today the Denver metro area woke to inches of snow which had been accumulating all night and were certain to continue throughout the day. And that had led to the granting of snow days across most of the area school districts. So, the kids sleep, and the buses stay nestled in the lot, and the snow builds, and I sip my coffee and skim the paper as I warm up and prepare for the task that awaits ... shoveling the driveway, our common drive, and the sidewalks.

With my snow pants and boots, my heaviest coat and gloves, a bit of chapstick, and a giddy sense of anticipation, I stand on garage stairs as the door slowly rises on command, and I get the first glimpse of the powder just across the garage threshold. It's always different than it looked from the upstairs window. And as I step forward and push the first little path to check the depth, the weight, the water level, I always smile to see the darkness of the wet concrete reveal itself.

I don't understand people who don't shovel. What happened to shoveling? For as long as I can remember, shoveling is just something you do, like mowing the grass, getting the mail, and cleaning the dishes. But in many ways it's so much more than that. It'll certainly get your blood pumping, even as it brings a deep sense of calm and repose. The world just seems more alive at that time. Maybe it's the brightness across the drives, lawns, trees, and sky that accentuates angles you hadn't noticed before. At the same time, the calm muffled air relaxes the world and slows its pace. And as the paths are cleared and the drive comes into view, there is a sense of order and accomplishment to a shoveling job well done.

When we first moved into our townhouse seventeen years ago, our neighborhood seemed to care more about the responsibility and the opportunity that a snowfall provided. My neighbor and I across the way would be out soon enough working on the common drive and trying to clear it before two many cars packed the snow down, perpetuating the time it would take to melt later. Of course, we always cleared the sidewalks and made a path for the mailman as well. As the kids grew, it would always become a family affair, with each taking shifts and sections. And that second cup of coffee or hot chocolate was just so much better after coming in from a round of shoveling.

These days I still shovel, but I mostly take care of the common drive and the sidewalks alone. Most of the other driveways remain covered in snow, with either cars buried, or deep tracks from when the owner just tramped out through the snow to the car and drove away. And the peace that comes from shoveling is missed by all the people who take the weather event to spend even more time in front of their televisions or computers or phones. Kids don't seem to wander the streets with shovels over their shoulder looking for some quick cash, or simply the chance to help out an older resident. And the general consensus seems to be that if the car can drive over the snow, there's no reason to move it out of the way.

But, for me, there is still a reason. The reason is, simply, I shovel. Because that's what you do. When it snows, you shovel.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

No Mississippi River Odyssey for my 50th Year

Coming into two new decades -- the return of the Roaring '20s and the dawn of my fifties -- I can be certain that I will not be achieving two goals I set around the age of thirty. I will not be climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, and I will not be canoeing the length of the Mississippi from Minnesota to St. Louis. And, that's OK.

The El Cap goal was always a bit of a stretch, but it reflected the enthusiasm with which I discovered rock climbing in the late 1990s, as I approached age thirty and began a more settled life of marriage, teaching, and kids. After taking a few classes and learning the basics of ropes and knots, I became a bit of a regular at Upper Limits in St. Louis, and I began reading quite a bit about climbing with non-fiction books like, Into Thin Air by the incredible Jon Krakauer (of course), and novels like Looking for Mo by Daniel Duane. But strangely the climbing started to fade when I moved to Colorado, and now it's only an occasional thing.

The Mississippi River odyssey, however, strikes more closely to home and is embedded deep in my youth, growing up alongside the Ol' Miss in Alton, IL. It seemed like every summer or so, there would be a new story in the Alton Telegraph or St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a person or a group who were rafting or canoeing or kayaking down the Mississippi. And, of course, I read Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi more than a few times, even sitting on the rocks at sunset one summer over a couple weeks and reading as the sun faded across the river in the west. Then, back in 1991, for a class in young adult and adolescent literacy, I ran across a book called Mississippi Solo by Eddy Harris, a Black man who recounts his solitary journey down the River into the South in a search for ... well, America and himself, I guess. It was just one of those books that stuck in my craw and made me want to do something significant, even "vision quest"-esque like that.

When my son was born in 2002, I thought it would be a perfect goal for the summer of 2020, when he is eighteen, and I am turning fifty, that we could do the trip together. Alas, we've grown up together just a bit differently than I might have thought at age thirty. I don't really camp much, or actually at all, we rock climb once a year or so in the gym, and we've only ever canoed or paddleboarded around a lake in Summit County. So, probably not the best foundation for a 1000-mile journey.

But I will paddle down something this summer, even if it's a simple half-day clinic on the Platte River in Denver. Goals and plans can change.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Census - What do you plan to do ...?

People count.

We count people every ten years, and the lesson we should all glean is "people ... count." They really do, even in seemingly small and insignificant ways. So the question for all of us is how do we count? In what ways do we choose to matter? That idea is the lesson of the day for my students as we begin our study of Paulo Cohelo's The AlchemistAnd I begin with a short journal/quick-write from an essay by Robert Fulghum (of All I Need to know ... Kindergarten).

Fulghum tells the story of counting people, then offers some whimsical ideas about people and "matter," and then he puts an interesting twist on the scientific principle of Locard's Exchange Principal. Following that theory, Fulghum posits that "Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away." Basically, no one can exist without impacting the larger system, and, in reality, everything we do or don't do changes the world in small but mysteriously significant ways.

So, I ask my students with a quote from poet Mary Oliver, knowing that everything matters, and you represent a distinct and significant presence in the world: "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Learning to Draw and seeing "like an artist"

I was going to write about how I am "learning to draw," but on second thought I realized the more accurate and important point is "I am drawing." This week I began taking an art class -- probably the first actual art class I have taken since elementary school. And it's been a lot of fun, and it's really cool, and I am happy to be taking a step toward living more artfully. The class is "Abstract Landscape Sketching" at the Curtis Arts Center in Greenwood Village, and the instructor is a fun and rather enthusiastic ("That's brilliant! Really, quite incredible!") artist named Christian Dore.

But that's not all.

The Fine Arts coordinator at my school (who loves to tell us "anyone can draw" and should), told me the first thing you need to do is "get a sketch book" and just start doodling. So, back in November I stopped in Meininger Art Supplies on Broadway and picked out a book. It sat in the basement (my future artist's studio) for over a month before I opened it on January 3 and just started drawing shapes. Of course, like many people, I felt like I didn't really know what or how to draw, so I sought some guidance in a few places. In this day and age, you can find tutorials on nearly anything online; so I did a cursory YouTube search and ran across this guy Branden Shaefer, an acrylic artist, who got me started:

And, I also started checking out books from the library and just started following the step-by-step lessons. Here are a few I have found helpful so far.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain -- Betty Edwards

Drawing for the Utter and Absolute Beginner -- Claire Watson Garcia

You Can Draw in just 30 Minutes - Mark Kistler

Honestly, it's so silly that I felt I didn't know what to draw or how to draw when I grew up drawing all the time. It's like they say: Go in to a kindergarten class and ask how many artists are in the room, and you will see thirty hands in the air. Go into a high school class, and no hands will go up. Or maybe two.

So, if you want to live more artfully, give it a shot.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Can Debate class & school newspapers save "Civics"?

Kids these days.

Like we have for generations, Americans have a pretty dim view of young people and their knowledge of civics and the lack of civic engagement. I don't share the pessimism, though I too can be shocked by how little some kids and teens seem to know or care about government and their community and the issues that should unite and define us.

Being a bit more optimistic, at least in regards to my school and the kids I know, I have occasionally wondered whether classes in speech & debate can save the republic, or at least lessen the caustic divisiveness. I've even considered proposing an article or column about that after I became involved in debate tournaments at my school and was truly stunned by how knowledgeable and insightful some kids could be on national and international issues .... not not mention how fluent and articulate. Now, Natalie Wexler, an education writer and advocate known for her book The Knowledge Gap, has posed that very idea, and I am intrigued by her thoughts.

Certainly, the standard semester of civics or government can generally be seen as inadequate in creating and preparing the "educated electorate," which was envisioned and expected by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. So, in a interesting piece for, Wexler presented some thoughtful analysis on "civics education," and also posed the idea that perhaps we could meet the challenge of fading print journalism by encouraging high school student publications to pick up the slack by covering local news, specifically around civic issues. She also mentions the role of debate class, which obviously cultivates strong skills in reading, writing, research, speaking, and critical thinking.

I love this idea!

Not sure how it might happen or who can lead the way. But I'm intrigued by the practical application.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Walker Fine Art - Denver

Live artfully.

I embraced an artful experience to celebrate my fiftieth birthday by visiting a few galleries around Denver, which is becoming a true fine arts center and literal playground for the art enthusiasts. One particularly engaging locale worth the visit is Walker Fine Art, " ... a contemporary loft-style gallery, featuring contemporary art." I visited just in time to catch the last few days of the "Layers of Existence" exhibition which was written about so eloquently and insightfully (as always) by Ray Rinaldi, a thoughtful and erudite art writer and critic. If Ray writes about it, I will probably have to visit.

Walker's "exploration of identity and existence" is beautifully curated, and I really love the use of space in this loft. There is much to see and plenty of room to take it in from multiple perspectives. Additionally, the staff was a great help in appreciating the art, and I enjoyed them taking the time to talk about the art, particularly the work of Farida Hughes, whose series "Blends" is featured. These abstract "portraits" are captivating in their own right for the use of color and texture; but to explore the artist's statement and intention with these actual portraits of people is to connect with the art on multiple levels.

The Blends series of paintings serve as a way to explore my own multi-culturalism as a uniquely blended individual, as well as collect and combine stories from other friends and acquaintances. This series began as an experiment to use content as a way into abstraction. The paintings develop from solicited lists of real peoples’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the stories that come along with the lists. The blended-ness of people creates interesting identity issues that my “portraits” explore through formal investigation: colors are clean, but layered together they become new shapes, and the paintings develop as I incorporate the parts into harmony. I explore edges where intentions slip and overlap, forming areas of rejection or incorporation, all with shimmering, saturated color and a glass-like surface that leans toward reflection. Each piece is slowly developed in layers, and is as carefully composed as it is considered in light of the individual story from which it originates.