Sunday, January 26, 2020

No Mississippi River Odyssey for my 50th Year

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

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

People count.

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

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

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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Learning to Draw and seeing "like an artist"

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

But that's not all.

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

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

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

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

You Can Draw in just 30 Minutes - Mark Kistler

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

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

Monday, January 6, 2020

Can Debate class & school newspapers save "Civics"?

Kids these days.

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

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

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

I love this idea!

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

Friday, January 3, 2020

Walker Fine Art - Denver

Live artfully.

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

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

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

Thursday, January 2, 2020

5-0 ... and Away We Go

I'm a sucker for milestones and landmarks, even though I don't make a big deal out them other than to take notice. So, turning 50 in 2020 is a treat worth acknowledging and relishing. Having recently said final goodbyes to my Mom and Dad, who are truly testaments to "lives well-lived," I can do nothing but cherish the half century I've had to this point. Thus, looking forward to today and tomorrow and days to come is a gift.

Living more artfully is certainly a goal and an opportunity, not only for my fifty-first year but the era of my fifties, the new decade of the '20s, and all the days out in front of me. I envision and imagine the artful life, for the arts are the essence of life. I recently bought a sketch book, have begun doodling from time-to-time, registered for a class on drawing and sketching, try to visit as galleries and shows as often as possible, and regularly seek to learn and understand more about The Arts. 

I also have goals for the one art, that of the written word, that I have cultivated and developed in my first fifty years, and definitely over the past decade. For, currently, my writing practice is not all that I envision it to be, and I'd like to progress and improve and expand it. One plan is to finish developing the website version of A Teacher's View, which has been parked for years. Along with that, after twelve years of blogging and occasionally publishing pieces, some other plans and goals are to increase my fully developed pieces of long-form writing. If I'm doing it effectively, I'd like to end the year with a habit or routine of one long-form piece for this blog or Medium or even a commercial site. 

And, if I am really ambitious, and perhaps a bit overconfident, I'd like to publish (probably independently) a book length manuscript of some of my best or most popular writing over the past decade. It will be the collection of "A Teacher's View," though I will also add in some new pieces, intermittent reflections, lists and collections, perhaps even some artwork. And, I guess I'll just put this out there, my most ambitious goal is to develop and perhaps even find support for the book-length version of this personal essay, "McLife: a Gen Xer Looks Back at Fifty Years."

We'll check back on this post in about 363 days.