Friday, March 25, 2022

Bid Farewell to Class Rank & Valedictorians

When a simple decision by a single school district in Colorado goes viral, and the talking heads suddenly become experts on education and the college admissions process, well, you know something is amiss. After Cherry Creek Schools decided to formalize a policy of not publicly ranking students by GPA and not selecting a valedictorian based on GPA, you'd have thought they decided to eliminate grades and give everyone a cookie. A local attorney and aspiring politician criticized the district in a crass, poorly written, and inaccurate op-ed column for the Denver Post. I've responded with a counterargument that explains the truth of the matter.

Elon Musk was not valedictorian in high school. Neither was Bill Gates whose 2.2 GPA at one point alarmed his parents. Ronald Reagan graduated with a C-average. None of these esteemed men were mediocre in intelligence or achievements, regardless of their high school grades.

Despite what Denver Post opinion columnist George Brauchler believes, high school rank is an irrelevant measure of success, especially when the individual distinction is often mere thousandths of a percentage point. Critics of Cherry Creek School District’s decision to retire valedictorian titles and ranking students by GPA couldn’t be more wrong, and the district should be lauded, not maligned.

Rather than moving toward mediocrity, the district’s action acknowledges and honors widespread high achievement ...

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Art of the State 2022

I did another piece of art review and commentary for the Denver Post YourHub. The Art of the State is at the Arvada Center through Sunday, March 27. 

The tri-annual Art of the State exhibit returned to Colorado this year, setting up at the Arvada Arts Center and featuring 149 individual art pieces from 142 artists across the state. Art of the State 2022 is the fourth rendition of the show, filling three galleries and 10,000 square feet of the Arvada Center Galleries, which continues to spotlight and promote some of the best local talent on the art scene. As always, the show is an eclectic and diverse offering of artwork across multiple media including oil and acrylic painting, prints, drawings, woodblock, found objects, and more. Led by the vision of Collin Parson, the Arvada Center’s Director of Galleries, the show is beautifully curated with fellow jurors, Louise Martorano, Executive Director of RedLine Contemporary Art, and Ellamaria Ray, Professor of Africana Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. The three meticulously evaluated more than two-thousand submissions on the way to selecting this year’s featured artists.

As Colorado and the world emerged from two years of pandemic living, the art produced in the state was bound to evoke themes of the fractured state of the world and a desire to find beauty amidst the chaos. An obvious theme throughout this year’s show is one of disruption, with countless pieces and perspectives slightly askew, as if we’ve spent the past two years viewing the world from a distance, catching glimpses here and there of life but never fully connecting with anything or anyone. In pieces like Neil Corman’s “Balconies” and Chuck McCoy’s “Form One Configured,” viewers only get bits and pieces, odd angles and shifting perspectives, that offer hints of life and the world. A similar effect is found in Deborah Jang’s “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” which won the MeowWolf Award. The haphazard sculpture of wooden chairs, poles, and metal creates an intriguing spire in the main gallery.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

George Will on Baseball

I look to, trust, and respect George Will on many things, but perhaps none more than baseball. As people debate the new CBA, the shift, the pitch clock, the DH, & everything else, GW clarifies the issue at hand with reasoned rational commentary.

Now MLB must tweak its rules or find a slew of Rod Carews. He wielded a bat with the delicacy of an orchestral conductor’s baton. The first time Tony La Russa managed against Carew, he moved his shortstop up the middle. So, Carew singled through the spot that La Russa’s shortstop had vacated. In Carew’s next at-bat, La Russa, chastened, left the shortstop where he normally played. So, Carew — don’t tug on Superman’s cape — singled through the spot where La Russa had placed the shortstop in Carew’s first at-bat . Carew’s third at-bat: a bunt so perfect he reached base without a throw.

Today’s analytics could not have helped opponents cope with Carew. He, however, was a genius. Better to change baseball’s rules than to count on reviving the game with an abundance of genius, which is always scarce.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

A Trip down Fascination Street

I'm a bit of an art geek and visiting galleries is one of my favorite activities when I have the time. Denver is an excellent place to indulge that interest, as its vast and vibrant art scene has been cooking for years. Lately I've been doing a bit more writing about art, and after a particularly engaging gallery visit, I've felt compelled to write it up and share the experience. My most recent piece, "Fascination Street Continues to Elevate Cherry Creek North's Art Scene," is the second I've had published by 303 Magazine in Denver. 

A stroll through Cherry Creek North provides boundless opportunities to pop in out of specialty shops, clothing stores, and restaurants. Numerous galleries also await fans of the fine arts, making the posh streets of the southeast Denver neighborhood one of Colorado's best art scenes. Thousands of residents visit the well-known Cherry Creek Art Festival, but regular visitors can experience a festival-like offering every day of the year. Browsing Cherry Creek can be casual window shopping, but wandering into Fascination Street Fine Art will be no short trip. The esteemed gallery in the heart of Cherry Creek is truly a fascinating experience.

While the gallery’s entrance on Third Street is a welcoming storefront, the official address of Fascination Street is 315 Detroit Street, just around the corner. Alice Crandall, the Senior Gallery Director, explains the gallery recently went through an expansion uniting three stores in “a year-long process to design and develop the spaces, including the addition of the dedicated frame shop.” The dual entrances and multiple rooms are just the first hint of the gallery’s vast store of paintings, giclees, sculptures, drawings, and more.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Cherry Creek High School put on a wonderful production of "Mamma Mia!" this weekend. My review is this week's column for The Villager.

Musical theater is back at Cherry Creek High School, and their production of “Mamma Mia” played to packed houses last weekend. Based on songs from Swedish pop band ABBA, this festive musical tells the story of 20-year-old Sophie on a Greek island about to marry her fiance Sky. Sophie doesn’t know her father, but wants him to walk her down the aisle, so unbeknownst to her mother Donna, Sophie invites Donna’s three former boyfriends, and drama ensues.

The lead roles were perfectly cast with Bella Mitchell, bringing an adorable charm and powerful, melodic voice to the role of Sophie. Mitchell, who’s been accepted for musical theater to NYU’s elite Tisch School, put on an impressive performance, masterfully connecting soulful solo scenes to energetic ensemble pieces. “Mamma Mia” has a girls night vibe with Sophie, Donna, and Donna’s lifelong friends Tanya and Rosie, known as the Dynamos, laughing, longing, and loving their way through a tumultuous weekend.

Donna was beautifully played by Miranda Joyce, and her two backup Dynamos literally brightened the stage every time they were on it. Lexi Casey as the sassy, fun-loving Rosie and Eliana Yokomichi as the sardonic thrice-divorced Tanya absolutely owned their roles with vaudevillian-like humor. Yokomichi’s portrayal of Tanya’s clumsy elegance charmed audiences, and her boisterous flirtation with barman Pepper, played by Alex Mitchell, was hilarious. Yokomichi danced across the stage with class and sass in four-inch stiletto heels. “I’d have broken my ankle just walking in those,” one woman in the audience quipped.

The stage was literally filled all night with a huge ensemble of “Dancing Queens,” and Emily Fisher’s choreography led by dance captain Chloe Mazenko was truly a spectacle to behold. During “Voulez-vous” nearly fifty dancers smoothly glided past each other in mesmerizing layered movements, and the true beauty of the scenes was the seemingly natural and effortless interplay of the singers and dancers. Scenes with villagers just spontaneously breaking into song and dance is the magic of well-done musical theater.

The show was an emotional roller coaster from the energetic, joyous “Dancing Queen” to the dramatically artful “Under Attack.” In a poignant mother-daughter scene, Sophie and Donna reflect on the past, singing “Slipping Through My Fingers,” while dancers Catherine Healy and Becca Dwyer performed a poetic ballet, visually mirroring the characters' emotions. It was a hauntingly beautiful scene of love and nostalgia. Moments later Miranda Joyce nearly brought down the house with her rendition of “Winner Takes It All.” Her soaring voicing, filled with soulful angst was a stunning moment, as her suitor Sam, played so smoothly by Jack Diamante, stands stoically across the stage, feeling her pain and longing for connection. “It literally gave me chills,” said Terri Margolies, who saw the show twice.

Donna’s other suitors wonderfully complimented the drama, with senior Caleb Meyerhoff bringing a cool vibe to former musician “Headbanger Harry,” and Hayden Noe filling the stage with his warm “aw shucks” schtick of the kind-hearted Bill. The scene where Noe’s Bill is audaciously, seductively wooed by Casey’s Rosie singing “Take a Chance on Me” was a sassy, saucy, laugh riot. It’s easy to forget these thespians are just high school kids with their mature stage presence.

The set was masterfully designed with the Fine Arts Theater transformed into a small Greek village and taverna, complete with white stucco, blue shutters, and shifting backdrops reflecting the Grecian sky. Associate set designer Dylan List and his crew created a warm, hip Mediterranean vibe, and the audience half-expected the cast to emerge soaking wet from the Aegean. They came close when the groomsmen suited up in scuba gear for a hysterical chorus in “Lay All Your Love on Me.”

Creek theater is an all-student led production, including the exquisitely detailed costumes. It’s no surprise costume designer Sarah Manos is also headed to NYU’s esteemed Tisch School. The directors pulled out all the stops at the end of the show when the entire cast hit the stage for an extended ten-minute dance extravaganza in eye-popping 70s disco costumes for the party anthem “Waterloo.” As confetti fell from the sky, some audience members waving glow sticks and wearing feather boas danced in the aisles. “I’m literally speechless,” said Creek administrator Marcus McDavid, who attended with his two Creek kids. “That was just so fun.”

Burkhart and musical director Sarah Harrison both said of the show, “We just wanted to have fun. We needed to have fun.” Mission accomplished. The thespians of Cherry Creek gave their community a night to remember. With Burkhart in just his third year at Creek, and the school’s seemingly endless line of talented kids, it appears musical theater is in great shape for many years to come.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Neither Joy, nor Sorrow

As part of my unit on Transcendentalism, and later with my students thinking about their personal legends while reading Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, I like to draw upon the wisdom of Henry Longfellow's poem A Psalm of Life. That topic is this week's column.

Heather Mallick, a Canadian writer, recently observed “Canadians are catching the American disease: expecting personal happiness.” In fact, she speculates that for Americans the situation is even worse because they have moved from expecting happiness to actually demanding it.

This uniquely American affliction, the expectation of bliss and happiness and aversion to discomfort, has been brewing for a while. In fact, it is ironically the result of the positive and optimistic belief in the American Dream. Somewhere along society’s progression over two hundred years, Americans moved past simply valuing the opportunity for prosperity and happiness. Personal comfort and satisfaction are now expected, even perceived as a Constitutional right. When our lives are not perfect and endlessly rewarding, we assume something is wrong, or worse that we have been wronged.

Political philosopher and Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, author of the book Why Liberalism Failed, believes the national condition is a natural and expected side effect of success. Deneen asserts that classical liberalism based on the concept of individual liberty has failed because it succeeded. Both offshoots of classical liberalism, the progressives and the conservatives, promise more than just opportunity. They promise ideal societies free of any disappointment. In pursuing individual liberty as the greatest value and right, people have become unmoored from the virtues that enable them to responsibly handle and appreciate liberty. The classical concept of freedom includes being free from base self-absorbed instincts that can cause harm.

In the poem “A Psalm of Life,” the Transcendentalist New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed “Neither joy and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point of life is not to be happy, though there’s nothing wrong with that outcome. Of course, the point of life is not to suffer either, a claim Wadsworth made in protest to and rejection of Puritan beliefs about suffering on Earth while waiting for joy in the afterlife. Instead, Longfellow asserts the point of life is simply progress. It’s about getting better day to day. So, we should regularly ask ourselves: am I a better person today than I was yesterday? A better husband or wife? A better mother or father? A better son or daughter? A better friend? A better practitioner of my faith? A better citizen? A better member of my community? A better person?

I’m just guessing, but I suspect many people who are suffering do so because they have unrealistic beliefs about happiness. Some people suffer because they mistakenly believe they are supposed to be blissful, comfortable, and thriving all the time. And if life is not all sunshine and roses, then something must be wrong. But there’s nothing actually wrong – that’s just life, which is neither great nor awful. It just is. Feeling anxious is not the same as suffering from anxiety. Feeling sad is not the same as being clinically depressed. Feeling stressed is not unto itself a bad thing – in fact, it’s often good. Stress is what tells the body and the mind to be aware, mindful, and attentive to significant, even urgent matters. It is a natural defense system. However, contemporary society is too quick to diagnose a pathology for discomfort and medicate the natural ups and downs of existence.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is considered the happiest man in the world, yet he has no possessions, and seemingly no worries. He is a Nepalese Buddhist monk whose brain has been extensively studied to understand his incredible calm and contentment. The most interesting part of his story is that as a young man he suffered from incredible anxiety and debilitating panic attacks. And he suffered despite having a close, supportive family. As a child he says, “my life in general was wonderful.” It was when he turned to a lifetime practice of meditation that his anxiety lessened and his well-being increased.

The daily ups and downs of life, including achievements and failures, stressors and joys, are natural and to be expected. The downsides of life often teach us as much or more as the positives. Granted, when stress and anxiety go into overdrive, they can become like an autoimmune allergic reaction where the body or mind’s response is disproportionate to the threat. The challenge is figuring out when we are overreacting to the natural rhythms of life.

Thus, happiness is a blessing, and disappointment is inevitable. The point is simply to acknowledge and move forward.