Friday, November 29, 2019

EXHIBIT: Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature


The paintings of nineteenth century French Impressionist painter Claude Monet are truly sublime. And if that's the case, then a visit to "Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature" exhibit currently showing at the Denver Art Museum is a necessary pilgrimage for art lovers, or even the curious art novice. It's like going to church, and the devout should not miss it.


I've always known Monet as one of the iconic Impressionist painters, but I don't really think I understood the scope and significance of his career, his vision, his innovation, and his influence until I visited the Denver Art Museum for what is a vast, impressive, and nearly overwhelming exhibition of some of the most incredible paintings in history. The show covers 12 separate galleries featuring roughly 120 paintings which focus on numerous facets of his style and development over a career. And, the really cool thing is the inclusion of 22 pieces from private collections. This exhibit may be the only opportunity to ever see some of these works, such as this fascinating early picture of the harbor in Monet's hometown: "The Port of Le Havre, Night Effect." I am struck by the style, which seems almost abstract at times, and I'm intrigued by the movement he creates with his brush strokes.


The scope of his career simply wows me, as I learned how he sold his first painting at eighteen, after a brief experimentation as a caricaturist. And he painted continuously, almost obsessively, for a career spanning nearly seventy years. He traveled extensively for the purpose of painting the local landscapes and truly pursuing the ability to capture nature -- in fact, his frustration was that light and perspective is ever-changing, and he could never be sure he'd captured the moment. Stunning dedication to craft and vision -- that's Monet. He was a student of painting, as much as he was its master, and his craft and study of color and shifting light took a lifetime to develop. On my visit to the show, I spent nearly three and a half hours exploring the subtle and deeply complex way he layers colors into a scene, such as this image from his time on the Italian coast: "Villas at Bordighera"


We all know the water lilies, of course. And the hay stacks. But I was fascinated with his study of water, both the Seine and the ocean in numerous series and studies he completed over his lifetime. One gallery focuses on the time he spent in one home in the village of Vetheuil, a suburb outside of Paris. It was a refuge for him, and it was a place where he truly began to explore nature, getting away from any urban influence. I was regularly brought in to Monet's focus on reflection and image, especially with the way it plays on water and even snow. The richness of this focus is exquisitely captured in his study: "Vetheuil in Summer"


I could have spent a whole day with Monet and this exhibit, which may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Monet this way. While I've seen numerous Monet paintings in galleries and museums around the world, I cannot fathom another time or place to spend an afternoon with so many masterpieces. It is a beautifully curated show, which honors the career and legacy of one of history's most important artists. Thus, if you're near Denver, or you can travel here sometime in the next couple months, don't miss the chance. This show is only making one stop in North America, and that stop is the Mile High City.



Thursday, November 14, 2019

Abstract Colorado +10


“Hey, I could have done that.” Maybe, I think. But you didn’t.

That’s the comment I hear and my internal response whenever someone under-appreciates, or fails to find value in, a piece of abstract art. 

Abstract art and abstract expressionism can be difficult for people not instantly engaged with an artist’s manipulation of color, perspective, depth, dimension and even materials. Yet for someone who may not fully understand or “get” the art of abstraction, but who is open to learning, this weekend provides an opportunity to engage with the best that Colorado has to offer in the world of abstract expressionism. The exhibit “Colorado Abstract +10: a History and Survey” is finishing its run at the Arvada Arts Center on November 17. A sister exhibit at the Kirkland Museum in Denver runs through January 12.

The exhibit was particularly meaningful to me for what it revealed about Colorado’s place in the history of abstract art, and the unique role the state’s geography plays in the lives and creation of the artists. Colorado’s landscapes lend themselves easily to the creation of abstract art. Anyone who has marveled at the breathtaking sunsets over the Rockies or the rich colors coming off the peaks and foothills in the early morning can appreciate an abstract artist’s desire to simply play with color. Whenever I witness the literal “purple mountain majesty,” I feel compelled to capture it with my phone. If I could paint it, I would. The layered colors and textures of the clouds, trees, rocks, and flora are captivating images and moments that are forever shifting in the changing light; the views are an obvious inspiration for artists. 

The “+10” of the exhibition’s title is a reference to the tenth anniversary of the book Colorado Abstract: Paintings & Sculptures by Michael Paglia and Mary Voelz Chandler with an introduction by Hugh Grant, the noted curator for the Kirkland Museum and the Denver Art Museum. For anyone interested in the art form, the book is an open invitation to investigate the history. And the Arvada exhibit has a video series running regularly in the main gallery that frames the genre beautifully. Realistic landscape art is an obvious subject for painters in the Rocky Mountain region, but the transition to abstraction has a clear connection to the rise of the form in America. Starting in the 1930s with the arrival of Vance Kirkland, the city of Denver and the Rocky Mountain region became a compelling location for artists to draw inspiration and create art. It picked up in the fifties when post-WWII found many European abstract artists moving to the United States and eventually heading west as so many immigrants and settlers do. 

Colorado is an abstract place, a locale where light and perspective in the shadow of the Rockies is particularly prominent. Abstract art is about color and shapes and space and impressions. It’s feelings more than images, and the experience of visiting an abstract exhibit, or even just viewing an abstract piece, is a moment of meditation on the ethereal. The iconic abstract artist Mark Rothko believed that his paintings, and art in general, is more than just two-dimensional representations of color. It should be a spiritual or religious experience in which the viewer experiences the painting directly without additional meaning or commentary. For the people and artists of Colorado, the move to abstraction and the connection to landscape art offers an opportunity to understand and connect to that belief.

Truly, abstract art just is. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Essay & Robert Fulghum

Ahh, the essay and the art of writing.

For those of us in the field, we understand the complicated nature of the word essay. It can be such a beautiful art form, yet it is the bane of existence for many a student. It's not their fault - the students or the essays - but the nature of standardizing and institutionalizing practically anything. I've been thinking recently about the negative connotation of that thing I love because I've had to concede to my students in AP English Language the contrived nature of the composition class I teach and the formulaic manner in which I too often ask them to write.

But that's not the point of this post. The art of writing actually is.

Writer Rebecca Renner tweeted this morning a simple request: "If you had to pick one book that has shaped your writing the most, what would it be (This essay is worth 50% of your grade)." It is a great question, especially with the tongue-in-cheek jab at the teaching of rhetoric and composition. And the thread is intriguing for all the diverse influences. Some obvious writing texts like Lamotte's Bird by Bird are contrasted by some epic pieces of fiction such as Catch-22. Obviously those types of books "influence" in distinct and different ways. My response was two-fold, as you can probably expect I'd respond. The op-ed is definitely my genre of choice and specialty, a situation I did not fully realize or pursue until my peer group during the Colorado Writing Project pointed it out to me. To that point, the primary text that has influenced me is actually the columns of three writers: Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun Times & Tribune; George Will of the Washington Post; and David Brooks of the New York Times.

However, if I had to choose one book that influenced, it is a quirky little collection of essays that took the publishing and reading world by storm in 1988. It's All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum.  The book, which he subtitled "Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things," captivated and engaged and entertained me in every way. But more importantly, it taught me to look at "the essay" in an entirely different and positive way. I came to appreciate the art of storytelling as a way of engaging an audience with topics and issues, and I experienced the beauty of narrative in non-fiction. For many years now, I've used Fulghum's book, and his others like it, in my class to great benefit. They are bell starters and writing prompts and digressions and more. I know his book influenced me most because I'm on my second copy, and it too is falling apart from usage. Additionally, I know a piece of writing is special when I wish I had written it. And, I have long thought I want to be Robert Fulghum when I grow up.


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 Medium.com.

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 while 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 Medium.com. 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."

Peace.


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.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Ferlinghetti Turns 100


"Some time during eternity
                                                some guys show up ..."

And one of those guys who showed up 100 years ago today became an iconic figure in the world of American poetry and publishing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is celebrating his one-hundredth birthday, and the accolades justly honor this man of American letters.

Perhaps there was a special moon dust in the air that year, the Great War just ending. For 35 years and $500 later, Mr. Ferlinghetti was in the same business. Only in his case, he’d create a home-away-from-home for anyone who felt like an ex-patriate in their own country. City Lights the store, the journal attached to it, and the publisher which grew out of it has changed the face of American letters almost as much as Harlem.
While much of the country was falling in love with “The Ten Commandments,” Ferlinghetti’s store and what it stocked beckoned its visitors to think, to be socially engaged, to challenge the monstrosity that America had become (and in many ways, always has been). “If you would be a poet,” Ferlinghetti wrote in Poetry as Insurgent Art, “create works capable of answering the challenge of/apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.”
Mr. Ferlinghetti has dedicated his life to this project in all forms. While the US was passing a highway bill that would destroy much of the country, he was publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. When his store could have become a lucrative museum of the Beats, he redirected City Lights to publishing writers from around the world, such as Daisy Zamora and Semezdin Mehmedinovic. When a great many in the US were accepting the smoking gun that could be a mushroom cloud, City Lights was hosting anti-war vigils that spilled out into Jack Kerouac alley.

I somehow discovered Ferlinghetti in my early teens after my introduction to the Beats via Danny Sugarman's biography of Jim Morrison, and it wasn't long before I was reading Howl and looking for more poetry like A Coney Island of the Mind to rattle my small town suburban existence of a 1980s Gen X youth. While never truly a poet at heart, despite my attempts to develop a withdrawn poet ethos at various times in my life, Ferlinghetti was someone I came back to whenever I need him, like when I memorized "Sometime during eternity" for a college class in oral interpretation. It may be the only poem I ever performed.

Ferlinghetti matters to American literature and culture, and it's right that we celebrate his one hundred years.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Snowplow Parenting? Yep, that's a thing

As an educator and school administrator, I've been pretty attuned to the increasing messiness of the college application process. So, I'm not really shocked by the news of the Lori-Loughlin-Felicity-Huffman college admissions cheating scandal. Is it really any surprise that the system was vulnerable to rigging and manipulation by the wealthy and connected? We already know that standardized test scores are a better predictor of socioeconomic status than they are of college readiness, and we also know that tutors and test prep programs already skew the standardized test component in favor of the upper-middle and upper class families who can afford them. Once you add in the questionable industry of private college counselors for the application process, and it's a short leap to cheating on test scores or bribing sports programs and coaches into falsifying a student's application to get into the school of their dreams.

The really sad thing is that USC was not even the dream school for Lori Loughlin's daughter - she didn't actually want to go to college. So, the scandal is really all about the status for the parents, regardless of whether the kids knew or not. And I tend to believe they did.

Which leads to the stories of a few days ago in which a new parenting term has hit the lexicon -- snowplow parents. Snowplow parents are people who do everything they can to "clear the road" of any obstacles for their children. These choices in the parenting game are, of course, complicated in some ways because we all want what is best for our kids, and no one wants to see his child struggle in unnecessary ways. At the same time, most reasonable people understand that struggle and adversity are all part of growing up, and that often "what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly," or so noted Thomas Paine in The Crisis. When our children are very young, it is right to protect them from the harsh realities of the world -- even if we think it's fun to introduce them to death, destruction, and betrayal at an early age by showing them Disney movies. Beyond that minor indiscretion, we want their childhood to be relatively pleasant.

School complicates that.

Once kids are into the adolescent years, and the rules of competition and living by comparison come into play, we must begin to evaluate those "sink or swim moments," as our kids learn to take care of themselves. The snowplow parents, however, won't allow the sinking, and they mistakenly believe that preparing and smoothing out the road for the kid is more important than teaching the driving skills and coping strategies to prepare the kid for the occasionally harsh rules of the road. There are varying levels of snowplow behavior, with the Loughlin-Huffman version being the most insane. And, the scandal will perhaps provide a moment of reflection for many parents and kids .... and college admissions officers .... to reevaluate just what sort of Faustian system we may have set up.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Art of the State - 2019, Arvada, CO


The “Art of the State 2019” exhibit at the Arvada Arts Center is a strong testament to the state of the the arts in Colorado. With three galleries featuring impressive works from 154 colorado artists in multiple media from oil on canvas to wood block to glass and mixed media, there is something for everyone. It’s worth the drive to Arvada to experience the third rendition of a juried exhibition on seeing the world through Colorado artists’ eyes. The Arvada Arts center is leading the inclusiveness of Colorado’s art scene, sponsoring its exhibit with an open call to more than a thousand Colorado artists, and then hosting the free exhibit for two months inviting everyone to come see the abounding talent in the Mile High state.

If you’re like me, and you’re hoping to live a bit more artfully and infuse more art into your life, the Art of the State exhibit is a great place to start exploring what you like about art. With still lifes and abstracts and sculptures and photographs, numerous forms of art are available to explore. As a newly developing novice of the arts and the Colorado art scene, I pondered what I liked and why and what I might say about the art when looking at it. Certainly some of the more abstract pieces like the one made of partially-inflated inner tubes hanging in a blob may give some viewers pause. What’s the point? Is it art? It’s called “Well Hung Butyle Remains” by Jessica Moon Bernstein-Schiano of Nederland, and it demands attention as a textural piece assigning significance to discarded objects.

In the main gallery, the eye-catching peacock greenish-blue figure “VOSS” by Roger Reutimann is identified as Best in Show by the curators, and it does not disappoint. Presented in bronze, automotive paint, and Carrara marble, the sleek style and futuristic swagger emphasizes what Reutimann describes as his inspiration of “fashion for strong and independent women.” Looking over her shoulder, viewers are invited into a well-choreographed display of paint, drawing, sculpture, and various pieces of found art. There, a beautiful backdrop to VOSS is a hanging arrangement of glass fragments entitled “Homecoming” by Lara Whitley, and the structure emphasizes Whitley’s intent to draw attention to “the potential -- and the quiet persistence -- of the things we discard.”

In Colorado we walk the fine line between engagement with nature and obstruction of it, and the intersection of nature and art and technology and media is a clear theme developed throughout the selections of the Arvada Arts Center. To that end, the display “135 Milkweed Pods” by Yoshitomo Saito is compelling in its use of arrangement, the pods standing out from the wall, solid and fragile at the same time. Around the corner is a pictograph and text on “The Lichen Map” by Andrew Beckham which becomes art through a stark visual image and poetic rhapsodizing on a unique ecosystem. It’s worth spending some time reading Beckham’s summary of the mystery of the lichen, which may just be “the only life form on Earth that cannot be called a species.” Other noteworthy pieces include two oil on metal pieces from Susan Blake including “Artifice and Nature” that meld nature and technology reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’ classic modernist work “Anecdote of the Jar.” In the upstairs gallery, I was drawn to “Magwa,” an oil paint on stainless steel by Mai Wyn Schantz with a silhouette of a bruin in a painted forest, and the landscape piece is worth seeing for what isn’t there. It seems as if the forestry image on stainless steel is saying much about man’s encroachment on nature, and the healthy blend of still life realism with thoughtful abstract asks us to think of dimension and color, of science and nature.

Numerous pieces in the Art of the State led me to pause, smile, ponder, and even shake my head. A mixed media piece by Sam Smith definitely wins for best title with his piece, “What You Need to Know About Brain Eating Amoebas.” The collection of colored pinwheels of mixed media is saying something about nature and science through art, but I’m not sure exactly what. Woodblock is a style of printing familiar to many, but the arrangement of thousands of mini blocks of wood becomes a thoughtful piece of natural art in “Oak Floor Study” from Chris DeKnikker. The intricate arrangement in three multi-hewed panels spotlights the beauty in the functional, and I couldn’t help but dwell on my laminate wood floor when I returned home, appreciating the patterns and the symmetry. Finally, as a high school teacher, I am quite familiar with the calming effects of doodling, and thus I was quite captivated by the Matt O’Neill’s ink on paper piece “Big Bambu.” The intricate designs of ball-point pen on several pieces of loose leaf paper is a geometric exploration I could get lost in as I gazed at it. Finally, Tony Ortega, a well-known Denver painter, is back in the exhibit for a second time with a colorful mixed media piece that captures the Latino experience and demands attention with its bright pastel colors of anonymous urban scenes. Having appreciated his work at the Red Line Gallery in RiNo, I know it really wouldn’t be a Colorado show without him.

Appreciation of art is a personal experience, and the challenge of interpreting art is first answering the questions: How does it make me feel? Does it hold my attention? And why. The huge number of pieces on exhibit at the Art of the State allows viewers to explore those questions and their experience of art. The paintings and prints accentuate the interplay of color and perspective, especially in abstracts like Ellen Moershel’s “Valdez” where the viewer can simply explore the lines, shades, and dimensions of acrylic on canvas. The artists at their most basic sense ask us to notice and appreciate the world. For me the abstract and the ab-ex works are the most compelling, and it’s because of how the interplay between color and texture and dimension ask me to notice the work. The thing I’m realizing is that art is meant to be appreciated in the same way we look at a sunset or the horizon or a majestic valley or even the way we stare at water in a brook running past or waves crashing on the shore.






Saturday, February 23, 2019

Are You Sitting on your Ticket?

Having come of age in the late 1980s and entered the world of English education shortly after that, it's not surprising that I'm a huge fan of essayist Robert Fulghum's work. Most of us know him from his first essay collection All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things. Fulghum's common sense folksy wisdom resonates with all ages, and his essays make for great "bell ringers" and prompts for daily journals. One of my favorites that I use regularly with my "find yourself" unit on Paulo Cohelo's The Alchemist is from Fulghum's second book, and it's about the subtle ways we stand in our own way.

Somewhere out there in the world is a young woman who, if she reads the letter that follows, will sing out, "Hey, that's me - that's my story!" This letter is written out of gratitude from me and all who have heard her story from me. Out of one person's moment of comic despair has come perspective for all.

Dear Fellow Pilgrim:

There you were, Hong Kong airport, end of the summer of 1984, tensely occupying a chair next to mine. Everything about you said, "Young American Traveler Going Home." You had by then exchanged jeans and T-shirt for sarong and sandals. Sensible short hair had given way to hair long and loose. The backpack beside you bore the scars and dirt of some hard traveling, and it bulged with mysterious souvenirs of seeing the world. Lucky kid, I thought.

When the tears began to drip from your chin, I imagined some lost love or the sorrow of giving up adventures for college classes. But when you began to sob, you drew me into your sadness. Guess you had been very alone and very brave for some time. A good cry was in order. And weep you did. All over me. A monsoon of grievous angst. My handkerchief and your handkerchief and most of a box of tissues and both your sleeves were needed to dry up the flood before you finally got it out.

Indeed, you were not quite ready to go home; you wanted to go further on. But you had run out of money, and your friends had run out of money, and so here you were having spent two days waiting in the airport on standby with little to eat and too much pride to beg. And your plane was about to go. And you had lost your ticket. You cried all over me all over again. You had been sitting in this one spot for hours, sinking into the cold sea of despair like some torpedoed freighter. At moments you thought you would sit there until you died.

After we dried you off, I and a nice older couple from Chicago, where also swept away in the tide of your tears, offered to take you to lunch and talk to the powers that be at the airlines about some remedy. You stood up to go with us, turn around to pick up your belongings. And SCREAMED. I thought you'd been shot. But no .... it was your ticket. You found your ticket. You had been sitting on it. For three hours.

Like a sinner saved from the very jaws of Hell, you laughed and cried and hugged us all and were suddenly gone. Off to catch a plane for home and what next. Leaving most of the passenger lounge deliriously limp from being part of your drama.

I've told the story countless times. "She was sitting on her own ticket," I conclude, and the listeners always smile or laugh in painful self-recognition.

Often when I have been sitting on my own ticket - sitting on whatever it is I have that will get me up and on to what comes next - I think of you and grin at both of us and get moving. So, thanks. You have become, in a special way, my travel agent. May you find all your tickets and arrive wherever it is you want to go, now and always.

Each year I read this and ask my classes to write about ways they have been sitting on their tickets and how they can get up and get on to what comes next. It's a question I ask myself too. What can I do this year, this month, this week, today, this moment, to get back on the path I'm traveling toward living the life I have imagined.

So, are you sitting on your ticket?


Monday, February 18, 2019

The Eyre Affair - a pop culture, classic lit carnival ride

It took me until the age of forty to discover Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece and signature work Jane Eyre, despite the achievement of a Master's degree in literature at the age of thirty-two. And, now it's taken me sixteen years after its publication to discover a delightfully wacky, post-modern, pop-culture-infused, meta-fictional extrapolation of the adventures of young Jane, our nineteenth century riot grrl. Jasper Fforde's first installment of the Thursday Next novels, The Eyre Affair is a true joy for fans who spice their love of classic literature with a taste of popular culture.

The basic scoop on Fforde's literary detective novel is that Thursday Next is a LiteraTec in an alternative 1985 Great Britain where time travel is possible, England and Czarist Russia are still fighting the Crimean War, and people can slip in and out of novels. For lovers of literature, Fforde's setting is appealing for the reverence and significance that all-things-literary are paid, with a civilization somewhat ruled by literary societies whose very public debates are the pulse of the times. The Eyre Affair is a world that critics have described as perfect for fans of Hitchhiker's Guide author Douglas Adams if Adams had been a Ph.D. in literature. (He wasn't, was he?).

Anyway, I recall hearing of this fun read years ago, and I'm sure it was on my nightstand or bookshelf at some point, though I never got around to reading it. But that's OK, because I found it, and I was not disappointed. Now, I'm diving back into the original work to revel in the comparisons. Jasper Fforde is a quirky literary dude who has had great fun with one of English's literary treasures. He's the kind of author whose playful ideas lead me on to other works, such as an academic work from scholar Erica Hateley, who explored the satire and popular culture at the end of Thursday's first adventure.

Definitely worth your time.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

In Praise of Helicopter Parenting

Helicopter parent.

It's such a loaded term with cynical pejorative connotation, especially in the world of educators. We look with contempt at those parents who quite literally care too much. That is the general consensus anyway. Though I'd add a bit of a qualification. As an educator and an administrator I have always noted: "Give me a helicopter parent any day of the week over a parent who just doesn't care." I've seen both sides -- and the painful side of both sides -- and the risks of disengaged, careless, or even resentful parenting are just too damaging. For, as Elie Wiesel made clear  back in 1986, "The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference."

Now, it appears, there is a bit of validation for helicopter parenting. According to an opinion piece in the New York Times by Pamela Druckerman "the bad news about helicopter parenting" is "it works." Now, I would imagine most critics would immediately key in on the word "works." How exactly does it work, and at what cost to the child? We've all seen and heard ridiculous examples of over-parenting that either coddles kids to a point of bratty, privileged incompetence or pushes kids to anxiety-riddled mania and incapacity. The stories of over-zealous mothers contacting college professors about grades or employers about interviews and even raises are not entirely urban legends. There are parents that unhinged. However, more active, and even "authoritative," parenting is actually linked to more successful, balanced, and productive kids with fewer social problems.

The most effective parents, according to the authors, are “authoritative.” They use reasoning to persuade kids to do things that are good for them. Instead of strict obedience, they emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence — skills that will help their offspring in future workplaces that we can’t even imagine yet. And they seem most successful at helping their kids achieve the holy grails of modern parenting: college and postgraduate degrees, which now have a huge financial payoff. Using data from a national study that followed thousands of American teenagers for years, the authors found that the offspring of “authoritative” parents were more likely to graduate from college and graduate school, especially compared with those with authoritarian parents. This was true even when they controlled for the parents’ education and income. The benefits aren’t just academic. In a British study, kids raised by authoritative parents reported better health and higher self-esteem. In the American study, they were less likely to use drugs, smoke or abuse alcohol; they started having sex at older ages, and they were more likely to use condoms.
Now, I've never really advocated for helicopter parenting, even as I seek to understand it and compensate for it. That approach seems to reflect the Baby Boomer style which sought to protect their Millennial kids from taking all the risks and making all the mistakes they did. I much prefer the structured and supportive but more free-range parenting style associated with Gen Xers who want their children to have the freedom and develop the resilience they did as children in the '70s and 80s. At the heart of it is the idea of loving them, but not obsessing over them. It's caring for them by teaching them and expecting them to care for themselves ... and others. It's also about trusting them to be the human beings we raised, even if that means knowing they will make mistakes and occasionally disappoint us and themselves. That's when they'll need the love and support.

Just love them.


Friday, February 1, 2019

Groundhog Day - “An Existential New Year



It’s not about monotony -- it’s about re-birth.

Twenty-six years ago, an unassuming little film about a cantankerous weatherman on the most random of holidays became a pop culture phenomenon that ingrained itself in our consciousness. The title became a metaphor for reluctantly acknowledging the dailiness of life. With the silly story of Phil Connors waking up everyday in Punxsutawney, PA, with Sonny and Cher singing “I’ve Got You Babe” on an endless string of February seconds, Groundhog Day entered the lexicon as a way to describe the drudgery and repetition of daily life. But the movie was never simply about the mundane nature of existence. It was always about self-awareness and second chances and reinvention and hope.

Let’s face it, by February 2 the New Year’s resolutions are fading, the fitness centers are back to the regulars, and we’re all bogged down in the drudgery of winter. These moments are ripe for a bit of pop culture existentialism, and the quirky film from Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin puts that long cold winter, the odd little holiday, and the repetitiveness of daily life in perspective. Watching the story of a disgruntled weatherman pondering the absurdity of a weather-forecasting rodent provides a second chance at mid-winter self-reflection and re-invention. The conceit of the film is not only the ridiculous holiday but also the inexplicable weirdness of Phil Connors’ predicament.

The film Groundhog Day is actually a wonderful primer for the wisdom of existentialism, and when I taught the philosophy in my college literature class, I would often lead or conclude with a viewing of Bill Murray’s brilliant portrayal of a man trying to bring some sense of meaning to a life that seems nothing short of absurd. Clearly, the idea of living the same day over and over again in an unfulfilling, dull, mundane place and repeating the seemingly mindless tasks of a pointless job is portrayed as a curse and a cruel joke, and that realization is at the heart of existentialism. Life makes no sense. Phil spends many years in disgruntled fashion viewing his life as exactly that, a cruel meaningless joke of an existence.

However, the movie shifts when Phil considers his situation as an opportunity and a second chance at reinvention with the opportunity to get it right. Of course, Phil’s initial reaction to his epiphany of a life without consequences is to indulge his most base fantasies. It’s understandable -- who wouldn’t at least consider that? He truly seizes the day, drinking to excess, smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women, and even robbing an armored car. Of course, the freedom and control he ultimately achieves is freedom from and power over those primal and materialistic urges. For even unrestricted access to hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while.

Initially, Phil’s attempts at betterment are jaded with ulterior motives -- he learns French simply to seduce his producer Rita. Later on, however, his attempts to change become about improving his quality of life. A pivotal, but often overlooked, moment in the film is when Phil is sitting quietly in the cafe reading, and he notices a piano playing in the background. Rather than simply enjoy the music, he seeks to develop the ability to create such beautiful sounds and immediately begins learning piano, offering his piano teacher “a thousand dollars if we could get started today.” He also masters other art forms like ice sculpting, but most importantly he learns deeply the details and hope and dreams of the people in his life.

The film is more than an entertaining romantic comedy, and numerous writers have explored how Rubin and Ramis incorporated key elements of existentialism into the film, notably the idea that in a life devoid of meaning, it is up to man to create it for himself. The film draws on Nietzsche’s idea that existence is a cycle of eternal recurrence, and it incorporates insight from Albert Camus who theorized in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” that despite the apparent misery of the subject’s situation, he actually imagined Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus, as you may recall, was the Greek king whose punishment by the gods was to push a huge rock up a steep hill only to see it roll back down as he neared the top. Camus framed Sisyphus’ situation as a reflection of the human condition -- stuck in a repetitive cycle which would seem absurd to the outsider. When he “imagines Sisyphus happy,” he shifts the narrative from judgment and punishment to liberation and empowerment. Both Sisyphus and Phil transition through the act of acceptance -- embracing their inescapable dilemma and finding joy in the meaningless absurdity.

Groundhog Day is a film with a message -- each of us will wake up again and again to the same existence that at times seems pointless. The only point is that you have the rest of your life to make it exactly what you want it to be. Bringing meaning to our daily lives was a focus of the numerous American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose poem “A Psalm of Life” advised us that “neither joy, and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point is progress; the goal is getting better. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” was simply the eternal quest for the ideal, for striving to become our own best selves. Life is an endlessly repeating opportunity to improve. In Bill Murray’s role as Phil Connor, we can find a second chance at New Year’s resolutions and an opportunity to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “live the life you have imagined.”



Tuesday, January 22, 2019

What is Art?



At the age of forty-nine, I am getting into art appreciation, and I'm messing around with ways to live more artfully, looking at and pondering and reading on and writing about art. As a newly developing art novice and critic, I'm visiting galleries and exhibits and pondering what I like and what I might say about art when looking at it. On a recent visit to the Art of the State 2019 exhibit at the Arvada Arts Center in Colorado, I had time to ponder 154 different pieces of art and determine how I feel about it. Certainly some of the more abstract pieces like the one made of inner tubes may give viewers pause. What’s the point? And is it art?


The piece is a work of found art entitled "Well Hung Butyle Remains" by Nederland artist Jessica Moon Bernstein-Schiano who seeks to spotlight the significance of discarded objects. In college I would have called this junk art, and I was always a bit mystified by artist friends who practiced it. As an older person, I am now appreciating it a bit more, even if it's not something I would hang on the wall at my house. Though I'm not opposed to the idea of abstraction in art; in fact, the types of art I'd be inclined to curate and purchase tend toward the ab-ex view like Ellen Moershel's piece "Valdez," which is acrylic on canvas, or the naturalistic "Magwa" by Mai Wyn Schantz who painted the oil on stainless steel and made her statement on nature and technology by emphasizing through silhouette what is not there.

 

So, I'm exploring the visual and textural and structural arts and asking myself what I think about them. A great resource for getting into the experience of art is a book I recently checked out called The Art of Looking by Wall Street Journal art critic Lance Esplund. I appreciated Esplund's story of how as a child he'd received a book about the great masters such as Rembrandt, and he knew that he was supposed to appreciate their works, but he simply wasn't really moved by them. It wasn't until he first saw the work "Howling Dog" by abstract-expressionist Paul Klee that he discovered a painting, a piece of art, that affected him in a deeply emotional, even spiritual, way. At the same time I was reading Esplund's story, I was also working through a fascinating piece of art reflection called The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art by Mark Rothko. His views opened my eyes to the multiple ways we can experience art.