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."


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.