Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by Celebrating Great Artists

Today is Cinco de Mayo.  How many of us know how this holiday came to be?  The Writer's Almanac web site tells us, "It commemorates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In a David-and-Goliath confrontation, the 8,000-strong, well-armed French army was routed by 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers, and though it wasn’t a decisive battle in the course of the war, it became a symbol of Mexican pride. It’s also become a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture in the United States."

For many of us, it's just another excuse to drink, like Saint Patrick's Day.  But what if we looked at this holiday with new eyes?  Today, I'll be thinking about how great odds can be overcome.

I won't think as much about the actual battle that gave us this holiday.  My school will celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a festival.  The International Club will be doing something Mexican themed, as will the Culinary Club.

The rest of us will be celebrating Frida Kahlo.  Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale has a display of her work through the end of May, and we decided that we wanted to do something in conjunction with that.  So we'll be having a Festival of Frida.

The high point will likely be the fashion show, with garments, jewelry, and head ornaments that are inspired by Frida Kahlo.  Before the fashion show, I'll be meeting with a poetry class in the library, which is decorated with Frida inspired art.  We will have a scavenger hunt of sorts, with some of her lesser known art reproduced on boards, and students challenged to find the names of the art.

Our Festival of Frida will end tomorrow with a talk given by one of our art historians.  I hope she'll talk about the obstacles that Frida Kahlo overcame.

I think of Frida Kahlo and her miscarriages.  I think of her excruciating pain of all sorts, and her 35 operations to try to rid her of the pain.  I think of her troubled marriage.  Through it all, she painted with fierce determination.

So, this Cinco de Mayo, I will be celebrating Frida Kahlo and her ability to carry on, even as her life gave her one obstacle after another.  I will be hoping that we can all do the same.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Seasonal Shifts

Some days, we may feel like a partly frozen pond.

Maybe we see ourselves as an orchid blossom trapped in a strange prison.

Some days, we wander down a dimly lit path.

But then we realize that new life has taken root in improbable places.

We see the ways we have been supported.

We see the great gifts that have been brought to us.

We are ready to ascend.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Poet Ponders Teaching Art Appreciation

One of the challenges of being an administrator at my school:  I'd like to have a wide pool of potential instructors, but because I have so few classes to offer, I can't keep people employed.  After 6 months of not teaching, faculty are removed from the roster, and if I need them later, I have to go through the hiring process again, which is cumbersome.

And thus, I don't have a pool of instructors beyond those who teach for us already.

Ordinarily, that's fine.  But I do shudder at the thought of someone getting sick or getting a better offer or any other kind of life event that would be so compelling that they'd leave the class half-taught or I'd get to the first day to find a class unstaffed.

Worst case scenario:  I could teach the class.  Well, I could teach most of the classes in my department.  I'd have trouble with Physics.  The others might take a lot of scrambling on my part, but I could teach them. 

Lately, I've been thinking about Art Appreciation.  The students who would be taking the class in an upcoming start would not be students going on to Graphic Design or Animation.  Most of them will be Culinary students.  If I had to teach Art Appreciation, how would I do it?

Yesterday, during a conversation with a graphic designer colleague friend at school, we came up with such good ideas that I want to record them here, just in case they're useful to someone else, and so that I remember them later.

I would not want to teach the course the way I was taught it, as an Art History overview course with lots of slides.  That would require far too much scrambling on my part.  Plus, I think there are more interesting approaches.

My Art Appreciation class would combine techniques:  field trips, guest lectures, and hands-on activities.  The class objectives direct the class to cover a variety of types of 2D and 3D art; luckily, I know a wide variety of those kinds of artists.

I'd want to begin by discussing how we define art and who decides what makes art great.  Early on, I'd want to take a field trip to a museum.  Then I'd divide the class so that each day, we'd be exploring a different aspect of art.  We'd talk about the history of painting, I'd hope to have a guest lecture by a painter, and we'd do some painting.  For sculpture, I'd talk about both traditional sculpture and assemblage; I see a simple exercise with clay for that day too.  I think collaging could make an interesting session.  We have filmmakers on staff; I'd love to talk about film for a day or too.

And then I'd end by talking about the broader definition of art and what we'll be studying 100 years from now.

I think this approach would work, plus I think it would be more interesting than a traditional, here's art from prehistory to present, approach.  I think it would foster an appreciation of art in a much vaster sense of that word.

It all began as a trouble shooting, contingency session, and now I find myself intrigued--and wondering what other types of courses could use a fresh approach.

Friday, May 1, 2015

An Evening with David Brooks

Last night was a perfect night.  I had gotten tickets to see David Brooks.  The first e-mail seemed to say they would cost money--not the requirement to buy a book, which I could be OK with, but a ticket purchase.  I hesitated.  My dad told me what a great speaker Brooks is and said I should go. He had paid to see Brooks speak at the Smithsonian and said it was worth every penny.

When a follow up e-mail came, I clicked on the link to buy tickets.  But they were free!  So that was the first thing that made the night delightful.  Did I just misread the first e-mail?  Did they not have enough people buy tickets and so they gave them away?

Anyway, the thought that we got free tickets made me so happy.  What didn't make me happy was the thought of getting to downtown Miami.  Someone asked me once why we don't do more in Miami, and that's my answer--we can never be sure what the traffic will be.  Last night, we left 2 hours before the event began.

Last night it was heavy, but it kept moving, even when we were only going 25 mph.  We found the Miami Dade College campus easily and parked the car.  We walked around the campus to figure out where we'd be, and then we went into a restaurant, DRB 180.  They had a great happy hour menu, so we made our dinner out of that food:  sliders with blue cheese, fries, and an amazing grilled cheese sandwich with bacon. 

How have I not thought to put bacon on grilled cheese before?

It was a wonderful meal, and then we were off to the Chapman Center.  We got there early because I didn't want to have to stand through the presentation, but I needn't have worried.  There were plenty of seats.

So, we watched the people.  I'm assuming that most of us were in the 50-70 age range, mostly white, probably fairly affluent/middle class.   I thought it was interesting that most of the men looked fairly similar, while the women varied differently:  a wide range of hair styles and colors, many different make-up styles, lots of types of glasses and handbags, and a wide variety of clothes, most of them non-form-fitting.  Not many high high heels--which is strange for a Miami event.

And then it was time for David Brooks.  My dad was right--he's a marvelous speaker.

If you've heard recent interviews with him, you already know the thesis of the book:  that we live in a culture that values what we put on our resumes--which is not necessarily what we'd want people to remember us in eulogies at our funerals.  We live in a culture where there's lots of talk about economics and politics, but not much about how and why to be a good person.  And so, Brooks has contributed to that conversation.

Brooks was funny, especially at the beginning, where he described his own journey.  He's smart and clearly done his reading--but the intellectual material was nicely balanced with stories of other people who mastered the art of being virtuous.  He had a sheaf of papers on the podium, but he never looked like he was reading.

All too soon, it was over and time to go home.  The trip back was easy--never a sure thing, with all the road construction. 

I feel like I used to go to author presentations more often.  Perhaps I did, or perhaps I'm not remembering long stretches of time between outings.

Still, I'd like to do more.  We have lots of opportunities here, and I need to take more advantage of them--especially when they're free.

I need more perfect nights out like last night.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Helicopter from Saigon

On this day 40 years ago, the last helicopters left Saigon.  I've been listening to a week of commemorations; I particularly enjoyed this episode of On Point about April 29 and 30, 1975, as the U.S. did its final exit from the capital city; troops were already gone.  Even though I heard this story about Operation Babylift days ago, my thoughts return to those airlifted children, many of them Vietnamese orphans.

I love this stories about how humans try to do the right thing, and how these efforts sometimes actually do work out.  One of the people interviewed for the story was a child who was evacuated; he has gone on to engineer planes for Boeing.  Obviously, if he had been left to his fate as an orphan in Vietnam, his story would have ended very differently.

I think of those children who were evacuated, how they were similar ages to me and my sister.  We were born in 1965 and 1970.  But unlike those evacuated children, I don't have many memories of the war.

If you look through family photos, you will see one year of Christmas pictures when we all wore our POW bracelets.  On the silver cuff was the name of a prisoner and the year he was captured.  We were supposed to wear them until the prisoner was released.

I wonder what happened to those POW bracelets.  I wonder how many of those captives came home.

I have memories of going to Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama to see troops return.  But did I really see that?  Or is my brain claiming classic photos of children and wives throwing themselves into the arms of returning men as memory?

My dad served in the Air Force as a navigator, but the closest he got to Vietnam was Thailand, I think.  He did join the Air Force because he knew his draft number was coming up, and he didn't want to be in the Army.  And because he did that, he met my mom--otherwise, he'd have never made his way to the Dallas area, where she had her first job as a parish worker.

During my childhood and teen years, I was surrounded by veterans, but they seemed to be relatively unscathed by their experiences.  It was only later that I heard about an older friend's brother's death from diseases that had their origin in Agent Orange exposure.  Still, when I count up the Vietnam era veterans that I "know," I see people who seem relatively undamaged.

It's sobering to think about how old these veterans are getting.  In my brain, they are forever 20, lanky, smoking cigarettes as they move through distant jungles.

It's also interesting to me to think, as I so often do, about how these wars and various conflicts, motivate migration.  I heard one of the commentators talk about getting on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon and looking down at the sea below.  He saw all those tiny boats, people fleeing in any way they could.

I have more memories of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees than I do Vietnam vets.  The churches of my youth were always helping to resettle refugees.  The churches of my adulthood are not doing that activity, at least, not as openly.

In fact, as I look around, I'm not seeing anyone with similar commitments to resettling refugees these days.  Perhaps that's a good thing.  Maybe it's because we're doing a better job at figuring out ways that people don't have to leave their homes.

I'm too much of a realist to let myself believe that for long.  It's more likely because refugees are washing up on different shores these days.  I'd have a different view if I lived in Spain or Italy and saw significant numbers of refugees coming from various war-torn places in Africa and the Middle East.  This year, refugees are drowning in a different sea.

Years ago, I thought about the Cambodian refugee who rode my school bus in the 7th grade.  At the time, I knew that she must have been overwhelmed by her experiences.  But she didn't speak much English, and I certainly knew no way to communicate beyond smiling at her. 

Long ago, I wrote a poem that spoke of her.  I don't like the whole poem, but I think the first stanza is striking.  I'll end with it.  The whole poem, "Seventh Grade Refugees," was published in The Julia Mango.

They fled from Cambodia to Charlottesville
during one of the coldest winters of the twentieth century.
They left that harvest of corpses to come to the fertile
crescent that created vibrant democracy, Jefferson’s back yard.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Burning of Baltimore

My inner sociologist has found the last few days interesting, as the crisis in Baltimore grew worse and worse.  Despite having a B.A. in Sociology, I really don't understand riots that end in people burning their own neighborhoods.

Oh, I understand the anger.  Most of us do.  I understand the frustration of the slow pace of social change, of feeling unvalued.  I understand the nihilistic joy that comes from destruction.

It intrigues me that so seldom in U.S. history do we see people torch government buildings.  Perhaps they are more protected or perhaps riots escalate and no one says, "Hey, let's move this demonstration to the true source of our misery."

It's hard to move a group, especially a group that's in a bad mood.

In these days, those of us who have ever worked for a better world may be feeling discouraged.  We may wonder if anything that we do will make a difference.

So, I wanted to offer two quotes of consolation.  I listened to the latest episode of the radio show On Being; Margaret Wertheim is part of a huge project, Crochet Coral Reef.  She talks about why the project is important and how it is a metaphor:

"One of the things about the reef project that I feel is important is that it's a constructive response to a devastating problem. I think most people, as I am, are completely freaked out about the problem of global warming. What can we do? Can we do anything? And the reef project — the Crochet Coral Reef project is a metaphor, and it goes like this: if you look at real corals, a head of coral is built by thousands of individual coral polyps working together. Each coral polyp is a tiny insignificant little critter with almost no power of its own. But when billions of coral polyps come together, they can build the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth and the first living thing that you can see from outer space.

The Crochet Coral Reef is a human analog of that. These huge coral reef installations that we build with communities are built by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people working together. So the project capitulates, in human action, the power and greatness of what corals themselves are doing. And I think the metaphor of the project is, look what we can do together. We humans, each of us are like a coral polyp. Individually, we’re insignificant and probably powerless. But together, I believe we can do things. And I think the metaphor of the project is we are all corals now."

And to return to theology, which often informs my thinking on social justice:

Easter promises us that our efforts will not be in vain. In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright says forcefully, " . . . what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208).

For many of us, the most difficult part of Jesus' mission that he gives us will be the willingness to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King reminded us. The arc of history also bends towards beauty and wisdom and love and mercy.

Some of us are so beaten down that we forget. Some of us would have no problem being crucified for our faith, but it's much harder to believe in God's vision of a redeemed world and to work to make that happen. But scripture and thousands of years of theology makes it clear, as Wright says, "We are called to live within the world where these things are possible and to agents of such things insofar as they lie in our calling and sphere" (248).

I'm glad to wake up this morning to hear that Baltimore was quiet last night.  But clearly, we all still have work to do in bending our current arc of history towards justice.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Small Efforts in a Similar Direction, Trusting the Trajectory

I have finally submitted my full-length poetry manuscript to Jacar Press.  I was very impressed with Sandy Longhorn's The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, both the poems themselves and the book as a physical artifact.  The submission fee of $15 is very reasonable, and the press also considers the non-winners for possible publication.

I rarely submit to a press that charges a fee unless I get a book in return, but for $15, I'll do it.  If the fee was $30, I would likely not submit.

I am not the first person to observe that if I counted up all the submission fees and postage I've ever spent, I could have self-published.  I could start a press of my own and publish a few other books too.  The technology makes it easy.

What's not easy:  having a full-time job and teaching online classes as a part-time job and having writing assignments for the Living Lutheran site and still having time to self-publish.  I'd like a press to make some of those decisions:  what paper to use and how to format the text and making sure it all looks right on the page.  I am willing to do a lot of the promotion, but the actual production is the tough part for me to undertake. 

After all, I've had my manuscript ready to go (I had to create an anonymous copy and a copy with a variety of information included) for several weeks, but finding time to actually complete the submission didn't happen until this morning.  The time crunch that is my life makes me decide, at this point, not to self-publish.  I just don't have the time for that sustained focus that self-publishing would take.

It won't always be this way, but it is now.  Happily, a writing life can still be constructed with the bits of time I have.  I wrote a poem this morning.  I submitted a manuscript.  Yesterday, I had lunch with my writer friend, and we brought short stories we had written.

She's a friend who works at the same place that I do, which makes it a bit easier to connect and exchange fiction.  I have other writing friends, and coordinating schedules to find time for lunch is tougher.

I am hoping the time will soon be coming when we coordinate time to do readings and sell books.  Should I be so lucky as to have a new book, I will clear time for those efforts.

But for now, I will keep making these small efforts in a similar direction, each day, trusting the trajectory I have chosen.