Monday, December 31, 2018

French Piano Handstand - Living Artfully in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What is "This Thing We Call Literature"?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2018

AO Scott on Sam Lipsyte novels on the Gen X male

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2018

Niche-y Nietzsche

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

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

There is just something niche-y about Nietzsche.

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gratitude Journaling

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

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

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