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Some of my favorite music in 2016, or: Life and how to live it.

I have spent the past year making notes on the relationship between creativity, care, and enthusiasm for a book I will (probably never) write. Given how well this is (not) progressing,  it has been coloring the way I view a lot of my experiences in the world. I’ve been trying to tease out relationships between these ideas and art making, parenting, friendship, and yes, even music. I have found this process as both a difficult and pleasant counterpoint to how difficult the end of 2016 and the beginning 0f 2017 has been for me psychologically. Namely, I am trying to reckon with a couple of events. First, my country saw fit to elect a man to be president whose sole qualification for the job was that he was (and remains) spectacularly unfit to be president. Second, a student on my campus decided to run a bunch of people over with a car and then stab them before being gunned down by a university police officer. This led to these two events colliding in a weird fashion that left me both sad about the state of our world and proud of it. So it goes.

Because of all of this, I have been thinking back a lot to a lesson I learned in the fall of 2005.  Actually, maybe it wasn’t because of all of this; I think about this every fall–at least–since it happened. It is a lesson I need to be reminded of often. Here it is and, as a warning, getting to the lesson is a little upsetting:

I was teaching art classes at Jefferson Community College (among other places) at the time when one of my students had a pulmonary embolism in class and essentially died in my arms. It was, as you might imagine, shocking. In the years leading up to my student’s death, I tried to avoid funerals and wakes as a way of trying to clamp down on my tremendous anxiety about dying but I knew I needed to be an adult about this. My student had a family. I heard her last words. “Going to the funeral is the right thing to do” I counseled myself. I’m glad I made that choice because I learned so much that day.

While at the visitation, my student’s husband told me how much his wife enjoyed taking art classes. He also mentioned how nice she said I was and that it made him happy to know that a nice person was with her at the end. These kind words from someone who had just experienced what must be one of the worst things on the planet…well, I just wish for a small amount of that grace that man had.

To my surprise, he told me something else: they all knew this would happen and not in the ‘we’re all going to die someday’ way. Apparently, my student had some congenital disorder that should have ended her life a lot sooner but she just kept defying the odds. Her husband told me that when she was in her early teens, having been already told twice that she wouldn’t reach the age of 13, she decided to live the time she had with as much joy as possible. And she did. She was close to 40 in my class but was as enthusiastic a student as I have ever had; she put so much time and energy into our first project that I was simply awed. For someone like myself who is seemingly wired to think about death a little more than I might want to, this is important. In this light, my–and our–being here shifts from the ‘we’re all going to die someday’ statement to more of a question: How do I want to live joyfully in the face of all this?

Which, not so obviously, brings me to David Bowie.

Bowie’s Blackstar is one of my favorite things I heard this year. Given the fact the Bowie died shortly after it was released, it has been characterized as his last gift to his fans.  It has been so associated with with his death and dying that I was initially worried it would be impossible to listen to it without getting very upset. It’s been the opposite experience for me for several reasons. First, would you listen to that band? Holy crap. I don’t know that you could call this traditional rock-n-roll or jazz but man, everyone is playing their asses off. The drums on the title track go from powering the song to falling apart into a steady beat to falling apart again like an erratic EKG. Plus, this album sounds fantastic loud. I have blasted it in the car so much this year that it has become synomous with me driving by myself. Why by myself? Well, as you might imagine, I don’t want to try to explain song titles like “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” to Miles, especially when I don’t understand the title or lyrics and I imagine answering his questions about the song by telling him: “Well, hmmm, I, uhhh. Sometimes…no…that’s not right either. Hey! Look! Who wants ice cream?” Anyway, sonically this is just great.

Another reason I like it so much is because of just how vital it feels. What I mean is that I think it is a good as Bowie’s best albums and since I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be an aging artist, it’s great to hear someone really pushing themselves up until the end. I don’t think Bowie is trying to sound young again on this record, I think he is really engaging with his life as he found it at that time and making an effort to do something amazing with it. Blackstar is one of those things I will hold in my mind when I wonder if I will still be able to make work that means something as I get older.

But the major reason I have been thinking about Bowie–Prince too–is because they, from outside appearances, seemed to really enjoy their lives. Part of it is their willingness to laugh and put themselves into humorous situations in popular culture as evidenced by Extras and New Girl, respectively:

But more than this, I have loved reading all the stories about how invested both Bowie and Prince were in their cities, local record stores, and supporting musicians and culture that they cared about. Whether it is Dave Sitek getting called by Bowie and being offered support when the first TV on the Radio EP came out, or Prince throwing a championship party for the Minnesota Lynx at Paisley Park, I find a certain kind of hope in people who use their celebrity to support others. It’s inspiring. There’s something there about creativity, joy, and care…I just can’t find the words yet.

In the meantime, music fills our house. Shannon got a guitar this past year and spent the summer playing and singing, which is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. Lena makes up songs about everything and belts them out with abandon. Miles sings along to Parquet Courts and dances to REM. There’s real joy in all of that and I’m sorry that I forget to notice it sometimes. So here’s to a new year, a year of living joyfully even when it seems hard to find joy in the larger world. Is that what Michael Stipe means when he sings,

“Raise the walls to hide these flaws, the carpenter should rest
So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best”?

Who knows? Crank it up anyway.

Other music I enjoyed in 2016:

America the Beautiful

A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here…Thank you for your service

I can’t listen to this one around the kids but it’s been in the studio with me all the time. This album is ridiculous.

Angel Olsen, My Woman

That voice…nothing like it.

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People and Big Fugitive Life

A new discovery this year from my friend Krista. 50’s doo-wop and punk rock through a poet’s mind.

William Tyler, Modern Country

He may be cynical about the state of the country, but this is bliss:

Matmos, Ultimate Care II

I feel super patriotic to be living in a country where two people can make an entire album about and with their washing machine.

Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke, It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry

Here is another thing that I find profoundly moving and I can’t quite verbalize why.

Parquet Courts, Human Performance

Miles chanting “No city” during breakfast makes a great start to the day.

Cate Le Bon is great

Cate Le Bon, Crab Day

She gets her own category. She deserves it. I got to see her in Columbus earlier this year with Shannon. It was lovely.

And I will always love you

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead appear to have entered the part of their career where they put out albums whenever they want with the added bonus that Paul Thomas Anderson will direct all their videos. Works for me.

Wilco, Schmilco

The title might seem like a throw away but the album’s not.

Let’s grade some papers, aka I guess I like something called “Space Disco.”

Prins Thomas’s record is really blissful.

Lindstrom, Windings

I bob my head when I grade to this. Sue me.

 

Man, forget these papers…I want to dance!

Junior Boys, Big Black Coat 

I don’t know how Junior Boys always end their albums with the best songs but they did it again:

Jessy Lanza, Oh No

Another dance party record with one of the dudes from Junior Boys making all the beats.

I liked a bunch of other stuff this year too but we’re probably both bored by now. Until we meet again…

Gratuitous picture of the kids (they look really sweet sometimes, don’t they edition):

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TBD

I need to start writing again for professional reasons and so here I am to clear some space first.

I spent most of yesterday framing an artwork for an upcoming exhibition in August. Since I have been working at home in the basement and on the kitchen table so much, I really have been enjoying the idea of making something that is necessarily small because of my space at home but, when exhibited, becomes something larger that can only been seen as a whole in a gallery. This piece that I am framing is 30, 9 inch by 12 inch drawings displayed in a grid. Each needs to be individually matted and framed and the time for the exhibition is fast approaching, so that is why I decided to spend my time in our dark basement on a perfectly lovely Sunday afternoon. As I worked repetitively cutting mats and wiping down plexiglass, two different but interconnected things came to mind:

  1. I don’t know if this piece is any good.
  2. I need to quit this shit.

First, the piece itself. It is derived from the sheet music of Bach’s 15 Two-part Inventions. It is the same source material I have been messing around with for a few years now. I first learned to play the pieces when I was training to be a (very awful) classical pianist. That initial experience with the works in the early 90’s lay dormant in my mind until I got my first full time teaching job in North Carolina in 2006. My friend Jamie was two doors down from my office and Jamie is a legit pianist. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgMH9GME8K0

That first winter in North Carolina saw Jamie plugging away at Rhapsody in Blue. Creeping outside his office door taught me what real practice sounded like. He broke down that whole piece into two to four measure fragments and just ran through it, again and again, until the phrasing and fingering were perfect. I would say the dedication to his craft was admirable but that seems insufficient to categorize the way he helped me rethink craft. When I was (sorta) seriously playing, I would just play the whole piece again and again until maybe I had played it at most five or six times and call it a day. In my defense, I didn’t know there was any other way to play. Walking slowly passed Jamie’s office was an epiphany: Oh! That’s how it should be done!

Those Bach Inventions popped in my head around that time and I guess over the past ten years or so I have tried to be more deliberate about what I did with them. Listening to Jamie lock himself into a room and atomize a piece gave me a bit of inspiration to take this thing by Bach and see what I could make of it if I forced myself to know it in as many ways as possible. I have probably made 15 or so works about the Bach Inventions now (many more than that if you count all the parts of the pieces), and I have more on the way, one that Jamie is even helping with (even though I suspect he thinks I am an idiot).

So this 30 drawing grid is another permutation of this relationship with these Bach scores. And I really do like the idea of this piece and all the pieces that have come since I locked myself in a (mental) room with the work. But, and this is a huge but, I am not sure that it is any good.

What do I mean by good? Well, that is a slippery term to be sure. I could say good artwork has value by provoking contemplation and a conversation but, mostly, I would say that good art is what other people make. I don’t write this with any particular joy and I especially don’t write it out of any sense of false modesty. I have the privilege of being friends with a fair number of artists on Facebook and Instagram and I see their work and their work is art; they deal with a richer and fuller universe than I. And while I am happy to see all their amazing works and happy for their success, I also often feel depressed, like I am a dilettante, a hobbyist. All of these people are better at this than me. What kind of way is this to spend my time? I take interesting ideas and manifest them into incomplete artworks that I can’t afford to present professionally. I mean, I don’t even have a real studio and I certainly don’t have gallery representation. When  I am lucky enough to exhibit my artworks, they often return home, to sit in the back part of our basement like some sort of archive of personal failure.

What is the point of writing this? Well, what I do not want is a bunch of people telling me that I am a good artist and I should stick with it, keep your chin up, that kind of thing. I think my hope in writing this down would be that it would help somehow, like just to put a name on it would be a way of moving past it and being able to get back to the task of making things. Hopefully, it would be a way of forestalling item number 2: I need to quit this shit, the “shit” being, in this case, making art. I mean, after all, could I really just quit?

One of my painting professors in grad school was a man named Frank Herrmann. His artworks weren’t particularly my taste and I don’t think my works were to his but I loved the way he taught and lived. He was so direct, joyful, and unpretentious. We would go to his studio and he would talk about finding the top of a Kleenex box interesting and using tracings of it to generate compositions. Anyway, he was talking about one of his colleagues retiring from painting and I remarked, naively, “How can you retire from painting?” His response to me was something like, “Well, you try painting for forty years and tell me how you feel.” He said it without malice or hint of sarcasm, just matter of fact. I sometimes wonder if what I have been going through is the feeling he was talking about; maybe it just grinds you down.

I don’t think I could quit right now if I wanted to because the making of art is too much fun for me. Dealing with these ideas, physically manifesting them, brings me joy and some peace. It is after the work is finished that I begin to second guess everything. Maybe one day that feeling that comes after the work is finished will be too daunting to wrestle with anymore. I guess that’s maybe when I will quit. I’ll just get tired of telling myself that beginning again with a blank page is worth it. Seeing all this written down here is helpful but I don’t think that is the whole reason I am writing this right now.

I suspect the real reason for writing this relates to something that happened a few years back. At the time I was working on my dissertation and I had just gotten some feedback on what I had written. The feedback was brutal. It was not brutal because it was mean, it was brutal because I felt like I wasn’t capable of writing what people on my committee thought quality academic work should be. I remember being in Philip Armstrong‘s office and Philip, being the best, asked me how I was holding up and I almost burst into tears. I told him I just felt like I wasn’t smart enough to do this; specifically, I said, “I just feel so stupid.” Philip, again being the best, said, putting his hand on my shoulder, “Michael, we all feel that way.” I can’t write about the feeling that came from this without seeming like I am understating it, so I will simply say it was the most lovely and uplifting thing someone could say to me at that moment. That it came from him (and, seriously, look at that CV) made it all the more meaningful.

This gets to the heart of what I am feeling right now. I realize there is a decent probability that if you have read this far you too have felt this way about your own thing. And, maybe, if you have felt this way it has seemed a little terrifying to admit it; I mean, really, who wants to claim they feel like they are a total fraud sometimes? (Certainly not some presidential candidates.) It feels weak, and vulnerable, and shameful. But I have decided, right now in writing this, that these feelings have to be a part of being a complete human being. I think we need others to tell us it is ok to feel this way sometimes. Moreover, I think that we need to hear this from other people besides our spouses/significant others/families who already have enough to deal with.

So welcome to my community of people admitting they don’t have their shit together all the time and sometimes feel like they are not good enough. What will we make? Well, that is to be determined, but we will make it.

Gratuitous picture of the day (kids making a secret hideout edition):IMG_2514

 

 

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My favorite music of (mostly) 2015

As the end of year best-of lists rolled out over the past month, I have noticed all the important culture I have missed this year. Maybe I should restate that. As the end of year best-of lists rolled out over the past month, I have noticed how much time I have spent with my family at the expense of other things I also enjoy. The things that have taken the biggest hit for me are movies and TV. I barely watch television shows any more and I think I saw four movies in the theater this year: a collection of rare films on trains at the Wex (Stations of the Elevated along with short films by Brakhage and Pennebaker), Mission Impossible (bananas), Mad Max (spectacle squared), and Star Wars (“cultural event” that was totally fine). This feels criminal to me since going to the movies is something I really enjoy and I love a good TV show but what can I do? I didn’t actively intend to not participate in these two aspects of culture, it just sort of happened. It feels like in 2015, much like every year since we have had Miles and Lena, the year ended and I didn’t make time for this stuff. So it goes…

I did, however, make time for music. I think one of the reasons for this is because music is something we can do pretty easily as a family. Sure we have to take turns but usually due to some serious parental manipulation, my turns tend to last a lot longer than others. Still, family life has affected what music gets played around the house. For example, I have now entered year six of listening to less hip-hop than ever, mostly because all the swears have turned me into a prude around the kids. When I’m by myself I still make time for it but the most recent stuff I dig into is all the work by the Run the Jewels folks and Shabazz Palaces. I am sure Kendrick Lamar is good and I would really like to make my way through the new Pusha T but it’s not happening around the kids. (Drake, though, seriously? Why is he popular? I am at a complete loss on why his music is important to people. Though, if you’re reading, Drake, we can still be friends. I fuck with with Turrell too.) Anyway, sorry hip-hop. I miss you. See you when Lena goes to College.

With all this being said, here are some things I liked a lot that (mostly) came out this past year:

Julia Holter, Have You in My Wilderness

This is my favorite album of 2015. I can’t write about how good I find this, which is probably why I am not a music critic. She is such an interesting song writer and I love the live arrangements of her pieces. There is a lot of saxophone on the record but I guess she is touring with a violinist instead. Whatever. February 28th, Rumba Cafe. I will be there, unless the kids are sick or Shannon is traveling for work. So, likely, I won’t be there. You, though, may be unencumbered; you should attend. It will be worth it.

 

The rest of the list has no discernible order.

Christian Fitness, Love Letters in the Age of Steam

This is another band from Andrew Falkous, the guy from Mclusky and Future of the Left. I guess he has been making records under the name Christian Fitness since he got laid off from his temp job. There are some songs here that have a similar intensity to the FOTL and Mclusky songs but there is a lot of range and emotion as the record progresses. I’m glad I stumbled upon this one.

 

Harmonia, Harmonia Box

Technicality number 1. This box set came out this year but I didn’t buy it because I didn’t feel like paying 150 dollars to have it shipped from Europe. Now it’s sold out and I feel like I should have just bought it. Amazon has most of the MP3’s for sale, so I just got those instead but I’m not happy about it.

I knew Neu! and Cluster and Eno and Kraftwerk and Can before this year but I never spent anytime with Harmonia. I’m glad I did. The Live 1974 is a good place to start if you are so inclined. Why do I feel like I need to apologize for my list already?

I like this but you don’t have to. How’s that? Also, if you like synth music at all, Sam Prekop’s The Republic is actually an album released in 2015 and is worth checking out.

 

Floating Points, Elaeina

Another new-to-me discovery. Apparently it’s a combination of live electronic music and live musicians. There are moments that remind me of Radiohead’s electronic music. It’s great writing/art making music and has a lot of space to it. Plus, this video is pretty nice. See, I’m doing it again. I’m hedging. I like the video; there, I said it. Picturing readers judging you is not a great way to write, I have to say so I am going to stop doing that rrrriiiiigghhhhhhtttttt…now.

 

Wilco, Star Wars

Two things about this, one (kind of) unrelated to the record itself and one not:

  1. In an interview earlier this year Jeff Tweedy made a really nice point about people complaining online that his music had gotten worse since he got off drugs. He spoke about this popular idea that you have to be broken/ill to make great art and how this is a really damaging concept. I appreciated him saying that. I think it is important to say this often because I want to be both healthy and make interesting art. Besides, as everyone already knows, the real damage comes from late capitalism. This message has been brought you by CAN (Citizens Against Neoliberalism: Have you given your neighbor a gift that revives the soul today?)
  2. This record being a secret and then dropping for free seemed to dominate the conversation about the actual music a bit. It is my favorite Wilco record since A Ghost Is Born and I find things to like about every Wilco record. It always feels like it ends too soon so I end up playing it twice.

 

Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars

Speaking of surprise albums, I like Depression Cherry but I find myself listening to this record significantly more. I doubt releasing two records withing months of each other makes good business sense but I’ll take it. It made me feel like I was alive in 1964 and the Beatles and Rolling Stones just keep turning shit out.

Query: If all Beach House songs kind of sound the same then why do I like some so much more than others? Plus, why do I feel the need to really blast some of these songs? If you know the answer, you win a prize of some sort…probably my undying friendship. Lame, I know.

 

Destroyer, Poison Season

I’ll buy anything this goofy bastard does or is even loosely associated with. If you have the time, read this interview. Dan Bejar is the best; please don’t try and bring his poem down.

 

Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs

What does Jim O’Rourke do all day? I imagine he has to eat and go to the bathroom and attend to regular human needs but at what point does he just decide to go be amazing in a studio? The record he made with Oren Ambarchi that came out earlier this year is worth checking out but I always appreciate his more straightforward efforts. Hint: they’re not really that straightforward. This record is sneaky. It took me about 6 or 7 spins to get into it but now I can listen to it everyday.

 

Viet Cong, Viet Cong

Yes, the name is really problematic. They’re changing it. Plus, I own everything by Joy Division so I’m probably part of the problem. This is still a great record. If you make it all the way through the video below you will probably get a sense of how the drummer broke his arm playing earlier this year. I can’t imagine being this intense for a radio show with virtually no one in the room with you (except for the host, who you can catch smiling towards the end).

Side note: Apparently, KEXP hosts just awesome performance after awesome performance. KEXP are you hiring any marginally talented hanger-on types that live 3000 miles away? Call me.

 

Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell

A lot of people have written better than I ever will about this album (here’s one example). I think what I appreciate about this is how emotionally full it is. There is so much loss and desire here; when he sings “My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination” I find myself flooded with something like bittersweet joy, which is to say that it is the joy experienced in a small moment while maintaining some awareness of the difficult journey that led you to this moment. I actually feel like that a lot with this record.

One thing I am curious about is what it is like to preform this album on tour. How does the repetition shape a person’s understanding of all this emotion? I can play the record now and let it sort of hang in the background for a while…eventually something calls my attention and I am sucked back in but I don’t know what this would be like to play it 100 times in a relatively short amount of time. Who knows?

 

Holly Herndon, Platform

Most of the stuff on my  list could be loosely grouped under the term “pop.” I used to bristle at the term when I was younger because all I thought about when I heard it was boy bands, Machiavellian record producers, and payola. Now, I just recognize that most of what I like is only separated from this other stuff by a matter of degree. This is to say that if you believe in the theory of multiple universes, some slight variation of this universe has Destroyer playing to 100,000 adoring fans in Rio while Taylor Swift is booked for an early show at Cafe Kerouac this Sunday. Maybe you would put Holly Herndon in this category of music too, but I wouldn’t.

Herndon’s music, along with people like Oneohtrix Point Never and Fennesz, uses electronic music to disrupt popular musical conventions and just make my head spin. I have a hard time putting it on and not paying attention to it, which is both good and bad as you might well imagine. Often the music feels a little cold to me but it is still invigorating. The closest comparison I can think of is something like reading a novel and reading philosophy. Reading philosophy has undoubtedly changed my life and the way I think about the world and my place in it but I laugh, smile, cry, feel dread and on and on when I read novels. Both have their place; forced to choose between the two, I would take novels but I am glad that I don’t have to choose.

The bridge between these two places of pop and, well, something else, can be found with someone like Matmos. Their new record doesn’t come out until later this year (all composed from the sounds of their new washing machine!) but the last record where they cultivated the compositional material for the songs from ESP sessions was just incredible. The Aphex Twin EP that he issued in 2015, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments, is also really close to being a bridge album too. Maybe Platform will get there for me eventually and I will look back on this list and cringe. That’s ok too.

 

Suicide, Ghost Riders

One of my favorite things to do is to play Talking Heads’ records around Shannon and set a timer. Inevitably, we have the following conversation:

Shannon: Who is this?

Me: The Talking Heads.

Shannon: I don’t like this.

Me: (Laughing) I know.

We will never have this conversation about Suicide because this might be the fastest she ever asked me to stop playing something. This is technicality number 2 on my list. Suicide recorded this at the Walker Art Center in 1981 and I think it was a record store day release this year (or re-release). Come for the weird yelps and sick feeling in your stomach, stay for Alan Vega telling the crowd that, “96 Tears should be the new national anthem.”

Internet tip: Don’t search youtube for Suicide Live clips. Bad idea. Bad, bad, bad idea. Bad idea. I cannot stress enough what a bad idea this is. I feel gross just looking at screen grabs. Man, this culture…

 

Other listening: I also liked the new Sleater Kinney, Godspeed!, Hot Chip, Protomartyr, Ought, Four Tet, Jamie XX, Joanna Newsom, Donnie Trumpet, Courtney Barnett, and Lower Dens records a lot. Biggest regret so far: not giving time to the Kamasi Washington record. I just need a spare four hours of time and I will get there, I promise (Long album slam!). What are you into?

Talk soon (probably not). I mean I really want to talk soon but time is finite and stuff needs attention. It’s not you, I promise, it’s me.

Gratuitous picture of the day (“Shopping with kids is easy if you bribe them every 12 steps” edition):

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Teaching Philosophy

I remember walking into my first college classroom in late September 2001 as a teacher. Due to a series of circumstances, I walked in generally unprepared to teach. The process of training Graduate Teaching Assistants in DAAP at the time involved a morning of meetings discussing syllabi creation and some art projects while subsequently enrolling in a course that would be taken concurrently with your first quarter of teaching. I missed the meeting to take a long planned trip with my then girlfriend (now wife) and so I got everything second-hand. This wasn’t entirely bad though since the meeting was held on the morning of the 11th and things took a pretty quick turn away from pedagogy that morning. I do remember one piece of advice from our mentor in those first couple of weeks: “You’ve just got to be 15 minutes ahead.” This was quickly feeling like tight-rope walking without a net.

What do you teach when you haven’t been given much guidance on what to teach? How do you teach when you have been given even less guidance? I fell back on the tried and true method of teaching the way I was taught. I tried to be an amalgamation (imitation?) of my favorite undergraduate teachers that first quarter and for many years later. The professors I was drawn to were supportive, kind, rigorous, funny, smart, challenging in all the right ways and I tried to be the same. I used projects from my old classes that were modified only because I had to write them from memory. I felt often like I was only 15 minutes ahead but these students…god, these students…well, you should see what they could do with those projects. It was magical. And my students liked me, I think. Maybe this was due in part to my enthusiasm for their work or maybe it was because I was generally nice and supportive. Who knows?

One thing I think about from time to time is how long I could have gone along this way if I just taught at universities in the mid-west. What I mean is that so many of my students were like me: good at school, from middle-class to upper-class backgrounds, simultaneously dissatisfied with the state of the world and unsure of our place in it. It wasn’t that I actively tried to only reach students like me, it’s just that the students who were generally similar to me seemed to be the best students. I wonder if I would have thought about teaching differently without much exposure to difference or if my views on good students would have ossified over time. Again, who knows?

Things did change, though, and a big shift in thinking about teaching came when I started working at community colleges. My assignments were better constructed by this time and I felt more in control of a classroom than when I first started out but the students were just a little different. I think I first noticed that the amount of “good” students I had in any given class seemed to be significantly smaller than at the universities where I had worked. The second thing I noticed was that many of my students had lives that I would describe as, well, hard. I had first-generation college students, students who couldn’t afford the supplies, single parents, 18-year old military spouses living 2000 miles from their home town for the first time, English as a second language students, 16-year old home schoolers, retirees, and more. At the beginning of the semester we would receive letters from the student services department about the accommodations we would need to offer in our class. These ran from extended test and assignment times to having full-time medical and personal assistance in class. I never taught a class at a community college that did not have a student without a learning disability of some kind in it. It was eye opening to say the least.

I can say without any false humility that I was not a good community college professor at the beginning. I would shake my head at my student’s situations. I would collapse, exasperated, in my colleagues offices wondering why these people could just not get their shit together. Why could some people never show up on time? Why couldn’t they ever turn anything in? How did they even get through high school? Were they in some sort of plot against me to see how far a person could be pushed before causing a mental breakdown? I did break, eventually, but not in a way that I ever anticipated and in ways for which I am forever grateful.

First, and I don’t know when this realization really sunk in, I quit thinking that the students were out to get me and started asking questions about their lives. Why are you having a hard time getting to school? Why weren’t you turning these assignments on time, or ever? The answers were often heartbreaking. These students worked night-shifts or two jobs to afford housing and school. They had people in their lives who were medically, financially, and personally dependent on them. They were in abusive situations, or abandoned by families, or were surrounded by addicts. I was surprised what I would hear when I stopped thinking the student was against me and started getting interested in their experience. The relationship was no longer antagonistic. What’s more, I realized I had a lot to learn from them too. More of my students got failing grades than I ever imagined but I came to admire their resiliency and their desire to change their circumstances even if they really didn’t know how to do it yet. We had more discussions about “soft” skills, and finding quality mentors, and finding your way through a system that often feels like it only gives lip service to you. I was not a perfect community college instructor, but I became better at it. By the end I felt helpful to my students, proud of their efforts, and less exasperated; I just was trying to help.

Now I’m back in a university again but I am not the same. I find myself looking around my classroom a little more attuned to the needs of students who might not be the stereotypical “good” students. But I also know that each student I get to work with has something to say if I can just find a way to listen to it. It can be hard to find that time in the flurry of projects and assignments but I think I know that if I can find a way to be open in the classroom that listening happens organically.

I wrote above that my first teaching mentor told us, “You just need to be 15 minutes ahead.” At the time that seemed to be profoundly bad advice. I felt out of control, unsure of how to manage 25 students working on different art projects, and how to run a critique, and how to deal with in-class conflict, and grading, and so much more. As time as passed though I have wondered if he was maybe speaking from his position at that moment. Because, to be honest, I think I might now understand where he was coming from. I don’t worry too much about projects anymore (I know how they are supposed to be structured and I know where to go to find new ones when projects seem to grow stale), or grading (students like rubrics but I also like to address things in comments that the rubric can’t quite measure), or class conflict (everyone wants to be heard and I don’t need to speak unless they are being disrespectful of each other), or being in control (what is control, really, anyway?), or anything else besides just really trying to be in class, present, with the people who surround me with only aspirations for them.

When you apply for a teaching art job, one document they always ask for is a teaching philosophy. I understand why they ask for it but the name of it is really curious to me. I like to think about it not as a teaching philosophy but that I am teaching philosophy. I want a type of attention in classroom that maybe moves a little slower than the attention we give most things. I want to grant permission to linger, or to question, or to be amazed, or to really be in a space together, simultaneously knowing that it will end while being appreciative for the time. I don’t know how to write that yet in three short paragraphs but that is a failing best left for another day.

Gratuitous Picture of the Day (The house feels too quiet edition):IMG_4511

 

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A triumphant return to blogging (don’t hold your breath)

Since I am sitting here on the couch next to a sick kid who insists I never leave his side I figured, “Why not post a blog?”

First, some housekeeping. I promised my reader I would release my best albums of 2014 in the last post. Since it is almost 2015, I guess you have waited long enough: Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. I also liked other stuff too but, really, who gives a shit.

Now that’s out of the way, onto the post at hand. Two stories to share, mostly so I can keep track of them.

The brain of a five year-old will floor you

Miles is in kindergarten this year. There are so many things about this that blow my mind that I can’t seem to chronicle because it feels like my world will collapse in on itself. The combination of pride and cuteness cannot be measured. He is going to Indianola Informal, which is a public school three blocks from our house that sees art, music, and dance and project based learning as crucial to a child’s learning experience. Or, to put it another way, it’s a public school for the kids of hippies, iconoclasts, ne’er do wells, and delusional artists. Needless to say, we fit right in. Actually that’s not one hundred percent true but the machinations and politics of the Columbus public school system can be saved until after tomorrow’s election.

Anyway, we live about 3 blocks from this school. One of the true genuine pleasures of this is that Miles and I walk to school most mornings (except on Wednesdays and Fridays, when I teach) and I walk him home everyday. Oh my god: his back pack, his walk, his stories, the tackles he gives me when I walk in the classroom in the afternoon, his hold on my shoulders the first couple of days when he didn’t want me to leave…like I said, pride and cuteness. I can’t handle it.

But school is not without its challenges. It has proven often to be bubble bursting. For example, last week was “Red Ribbon Week.” What’s Red Ribbon Week you ask? Well, its a week where kids wear a red ribbon as a symbol that they will not use drugs or alcohol. Miles is five. Five. F.I.V.E. While I am naive, I do know that there are kids in his class whose home lives I cannot comprehend. At the same time, Miles seems so impossibly innocent and sensitive, particularly when he cries about experiences like sunsets that he can’t seem to capture with a camera. How do you talk to a five year old like that about drugs and alcohol?

I chose to do it like this: I told Miles that some kids might be wearing a red ribbon all week and that I was going to tie one on his back pack so he wouldn’t have to worry about losing it. I explained that wearing the ribbon was a type of promise to only put things into our bodies that were good for us. I thought that was pretty good and we walked out the door for our morning walk. And that is when the following conversation happened:

Miles: Dad, I have something to tell you.

Me: What’s that buddy?

Miles: You know those drinks we had after my soccer game this year, the pouch one’s?

Me: Yes (he was talking about a Capri-Sun that wasn’t entirely from fruit juice. Shannon and I muttered something about sugar content that day but I didn’t think he was paying attention).

Miles: I had one of those at Grandma and Grandpa’s this weekend. It was a different flavor but it was the same.

Me: That’s ok Miles.

Miles: Well, I just wanted to tell you because I know it’s not good for my body and that maybe I shouldn’t be wearing the ribbon this week.

Me: Oh, Miles…thanks for being honest but its totally fine. There are things that are ok to have on occasion, we just don’t want to have them all the time. Do you understand?

Miles: Well, I just wanted you to know because I know the drinks are kind of close to the beer in the grocery store and I wanted to tell the truth.

Me: Oh, Miles, you’re so sweet. It’s really ok. You can have some drinks from time to time and, as long as you don’t have them everyday, you will be fine. We just want to take care of our bodies. It’s the same for adults even if they are drinking things that kids can’t drink. Adults can have drinks like beer and wine but they just shouldn’t have them all the time.

Miles: Like if they had them too much they would get sick?

Me: Yes, that’s exactly right.

Miles: So, like [redacted]’s dad. Like that time when he had all that beer and [redacted] had to help him.

Me: [Trying not to laugh]. Miles, did you mean when [redacted] was on vacation with [his/her] parents?

Miles: Yeah. We would try to help him, right? We would try to help him not have so much beer and tell him that it’s bad for his body and that he shouldn’t do that.

Me: Yes, buddy, we would help him but he’s ok. I am pretty sure he is ok. [Redacted] might not be ok when [he/she] hears this story, but he is fine.

Miles: I understand.

Five year-old’s are weird and fun and wonderful.

The weight of a not quite two year-old will only crush you if you let it

Shannon’s out of town on work and I set Miles up in his bedroom with an iPad in an attempt not to get Lena sick too. Time will tell if this actually works but I needed to make an effort. Because of this lovely piece of technology, I actually got to spend some one-on-one time with Lena for the first time in a while.

I feel bad for her a lot. She really has gotten the shaft in terms of dedicated attention. Her brother constantly clamors for us to pay attention to him when we try to focus on Lena so she often gets divided attention. If we ever had a third child, that kid might as well raise herself. Despite these trying circumstances, Lena does her very best to make sure we know she needs something. She is particularly good at letting Shannon know when she is sure that Shannon shouldn’t be doing anything by herself. She often does this by hanging onto Shannon’s leg and screaming as loud as she can. Our daughter doesn’t do subtlety right now.

Lena rarely treats me the same way. If she is crying in the middle of the night and I go into her room to check on her she will scream, “No, daddy!” or maybe just “No daddy!”, I haven’t been able to parse the semantics of it; either way, I get her point. When Shannon is trying to do something in the kitchen I will try and present myself as a reasonable alternative to Shannon, Lena will scream, “No, daddy!” or maybe “No daddy!” and push me away. Again, not exactly subtle.

But Shannon wasn’t available tonight. And Miles was, like I said, in his room watching videos, so Lena and I spent some time together. She came over to me when I was cutting sweet potatoes and pulled at leg saying, “I see? I see?” because she wanted to look at what I was cutting. At dinner, I asked her if she wanted me to scoot her chair in and when she said yes, I asked her if that was better and she nodded and smiled. After about two bites of food, she spent about ten minutes getting down from her chair and saying, “Daddy, scoot?” before trying to push my chair close to the table. When she finished, she would go back to her chair and say, “Better?” I would say, “Yes. Thank you, Lena.” and the cycle would repeat again.

We cleared our plates. She took a bath while we listened to music. I cuddled her in a towel after bath and helped her brush her teeth. Then she led me by the finger down the steps to the couch, where she pointed and said, “Daddy, sit” while she grabbed some books. She then climbed up onto the couch and I read to her until it was time to carry her up to bed. It was lovely.

I think I have said somewhere in the periodic annals of this blog that I used to be reticent to hug. Sometimes people just got too close to me too quickly. But tonight Lena leaned into me with all her weight while I read and it was ok. Well, it wasn’t ok at first: I teared up at thinking how fast all of this was going and that my baby girl wouldn’t do this forever; I wanted to squeeze the moment and hold it forever. As I reminded myself to just appreciate this time, her weight didn’t get any lighter but I felt how comfortable she felt leaning into me while I read and that was…something. It was really something.

Gratuitous pictures of the day (Outside lies magic edition):

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My year in music 2014, Part One: The Long Walk Up

I have an idea! Instead of finishing this ridiculous academic article for a journal that I am not sure will even accept it, let me write about some of my favorite music from 2014 for an audience of three. This seems like a productive use of my time. Blurgh. What-ev’s.

The internet is flooded with Best of Lists at the end of the year. Once upon a time I would get my blood boiling when some stupid list didn’t contain my favorite record but I don’t have time for that level of righteous anger anymore. What I look for now in music critics and their year-end lists is one of two things: good writing or exposure to bands that I missed that I might like. In 2014, I rely on these lists more than ever for a few reasons, which I will enumerate before I actually get to my albums in the next post. Taste the excitement.

1. I don’t know if it was the dissertation or the second kid or my marriage or my fleeting friendships or books or what but I don’t feel like I kept up with music in the same way I have in the past. Once upon a time I considered myself a gateway to this world of good music that you might not know about. People who actually did know about this music held a special place in my heart. When I would meet a similar like-minded (usually) fellow, I would nod and say, “Yeah, you’re cool. We can be friends forever.” Over time I recognized that this was so elitist and stupid that I just couldn’t keep it up anymore. I felt superior to people who didn’t like the same thing I did, which is a certain kind of death. It chokes away the chance for a meaningful human experience. I wish I could go back in time and just say “Yes, the drummer for the Dave Matthews Band is very good. It is ok that we enjoy different styles of music and your love of DMB does not negate your worth as a person. I admit to thinking “Back to Being Friends” is a fine song melodically (the lyrics are a little too horny-bro for my taste) and that I hear “Ants Marching” and, while I do not like it, I concede it is an earworm.” Alas. Anyway, issues of taste become less important to me every year and I concede that I am not sure if I really love the albums listed here or if I love the albums they remind me of from this earlier time when music inspired a certain dickishness (is this a word? I like it nevertheless) in me.

2. I have recently been reading this book about John Cage by David Grubbs (yes, the dude from Squirrel Bait and Gastr del Sol…he is a University of Chicago grad and teaches at CUNY, which means he is both an interesting musician and smart person–I am insanely jealous of that skill set) where he, in part, chronicles Cage’s disdain for recorded music. And while I have read works before that are critical of what might be called the culture industry, Cage’s viewpoint made me question what the point of any of this was anyway. Cage didn’t show any real interest in contemporary music and didn’t care at all about recorded music. Grubbs goes on to write that our understanding of experimental music through the recording of it is, at best, a false understanding; the experience of the thing live, in real time, is the attempt at creating a present-ness in people, and this is what Cage and other avant-garde musicians were trying to cultivate. I love that.

And, at the same time in his introduction, Grubbs writes that it is the record that opened his mind to the possibility of all this music in the first place. It is through records, then cds, then streaming mp-3’s that one can fully immerse themselves in repetition. We live in a world where we never have to listen to the same thing twice but we can also listen to the same thing on repeat, forever. It is repetition that Grubbs found a way into experimental music. What first felt so confounding became interesting and intriguing through multiple listens. I love this too. So, I think I oscillate between both of these poles here: the experience of being present and the ability to repeat, ad-nauseam, the thing you love.

3. Oh these kids! I, once again, kept Miles at home this past summer and this, of course, influenced my listening habits. Once July rolled around, I pulled Lena out of her daycare too, further complicating things. We listened to so much music and Miles was reviewing my record collection, which was a million dollar idea that started to feel like a chore so I quit doing it and, instead, built nonsensical train stations and roads out of blocks that Lena would smash with music on in the background. Miles has a couple of his own records now (Peter, Paul, and Mommy, a Disney record with the Bear Necessities on it, and a Sesame Street record that is all beat to hell but still mostly plays) and is adamant that we take turns. It’s charming, kind of, but I miss the days when he would just get excited for whatever I put on. He still surprises me though sometimes, like when he turned to me when I was playing the new Spoon record and said “We can listen to this one again when its over, Dad. I don’t know what to say except that this is a very good record.” He also laughs when Parquet Courts are on because they “sound so silly” and then wonders, “How are they making those sounds with the guitars?” and “Why do they always make the drummer sit in back? They should take turns.”

As the year has gone on, Lena has tuned into things a little more. She likes to sway back and forth to Protomartyr and she loves to clap to Todd Terje. Miles tells me Lena likes his records more, but I don’t believe him. How would he even know? Plus, he folds quickly under cross-examination, which is never a good sign. Truth be told, when they are both smiling, laughing, and dancing I couldn’t be happier. My days of presumed cultural taste-making are dead…except for this audience of two. I use other people’s reviews and year-end lists to find music I might enjoy and Miles and Lena try to remind me, constantly, that there is an intense experience in smaller things that I long ago forgot were even there. There are times at dinner–and these are rare–when we have music on in the background and Shannon is truly finished with her work, that we all sit around at smile and whatever is on becomes the soundtrack to our lives at that moment. I know I can’t put that on repeat, but I wish I could.

Ok, actual music next time, hopefully before June.

Gratuitous picture of the day (“Lena turned one, where does the time go?/Miles won’t pose for pictures any more so I have to trick him” edition):

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Art that simply cannot be art

About a week ago I gave this article by Allan Kaprow to the people I am teaching this semester. The piece is called “Art Which Can’t Be Art.” In the article, Kaprow talks about the experience of brushing his teeth and wonders what it might be like to give that activity the attention of art making. This attention would not be given in the context of a gallery or museum, like Duchamp, but would rather be right there, in the bathroom, as he is actually doing the necessary act of brushing his teeth. As a result of this attentive brushing, he thinks:

“I began to pay attention to how much this act of brushing my teeth had become routinized, non-conscious behavior, compared with my first efforts to do it as a child. I began to suspect that 99 percent of my daily life was just as routinized and unnoticed; that my mind was always somewhere else; and that the thousand signals my body was sending me each minute were ignored. I guessed also that most people were like me in this respect.”

I gave this to the class because their final assignment is to create a personal narrative of sorts and so many of them told me their lives are boring. Maybe they are, who am I to say? But I, like Kaprow, think my body is sending me thousands of signals and maybe I am not exactly ignoring these signals, but I have certainly turned the volume down on them. Sometimes, through a sort of severe act, the volume comes back up. I told the class about how when I have sprained my ankle I get kind of angry with everyone else walking normally–like, don’t they know how good they have it? I told them this because it is (kind of) funny and I know at least a couple of them will laugh. It seems to be good way to get the point across without being overly didactic or emotional. But this time, I carried it a little further.

I don’t remember when or how I learned to brush my teeth. But here comes Miles. Over the last couple of years Shannon and I have been working with him on this whole process. We bought an electric Winnie the Poo toothbrush (this was as about as corporate and gender neutral as I could stand) and appropriate kids toothpaste that can be swallowed. We showed him how to hold the toothbrush and helped him put the toothpaste on it. It was kind of a train wreck. Toothpaste would go everywhere and he would just sort of hold it on is tongue or in one spot and then claim he was finished. Shannon or I (mostly Shannon) would have to come back in and do the whole process again. Slowly, he caught on. Now he can kind of do the process himself, especially since the dentist walked him through some of the finer points of the whole endeavor just a couple of weeks ago. Miles also got his picture on the no cavity wall, so everybody is happy.

So I told my class about this a little bit and how, truth be told, this has been almost a 2 year plus process to get Miles competent at brushing his teeth. Hopefully, one day Miles will be sitting some place like they are right now and have no idea how he brushes his teeth, he will just know that he can do it without much thinking at all. And then, because everything is always right under the surface for me, I started to tear up just a little bit. I thought about his effort and I how proud I was of it. I also thought about Lena and how she is experiencing everything still for the first time and her resilience in the face of so much that appears daunting. I guess they don’t really perceive much of a choice in all this right now, but I am so proud of them nevertheless. And all this effort and pride is in the service of something that will someday be second nature to them. I also felt pride in myself. I never really thought of myself as being patient, but being a parent has granted me the ability to practice being patient time and time again. It has also asked me to be quicker to forgive. Maybe I could have eventually gotten here on my own but I have little doubt that the kids largely made this a quicker possibility. Out of the ordinary experience of something like brushing your teeth I found something that is so simple suddenly so profound. It dawns on me: Allan Kaprow is a genius.

Maybe this is art. Maybe its mindfulness and Jon Kabat-Zinn books. Maybe its being present in the classroom or at home or in the studio. Maybe it’s philosophy, or good fiction or those sublime moments in John Jeremiah Sullivan essays. Maybe its just being kind to others and myself. Art as a term holds the most capacity for me professionally so I use “art” here, but I am working on becoming increasingly comfortable with it just meaning that I am being human. It’s not perfect because there are flaws present, its just that the flaws don’t really seem like flaws.

Again, words fail me.

I guess this means I have failed.

Well, I need to pick myself up and look towards the youngest person in our house and draw inspiration from her slow, defiant, steady attempts at walking. There is a art lesson there too.

Gratuitous Picture of the Day (Skeleton babies are the scariest babies/This kid has no cavities edition):

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