2015 in Review

It’s four days into 2016, so I’m due to offer some reflections on 2015. I’m grateful for so many wonderful memories I made over those 365 days. The year was significant for me in several ways, some of which I’ll be sharing here, some of which I’ll be sharing over at altarwork.com (where I’m now blogging every Friday). In the latter venue, I’ve already written about my most important day of the year.

But now, in lieu of a more cohesive post, I’ll share some random “tops” and “favorites” of the year.

Favorite New Album: Shockwave Supernova, by Joe Satriani

Other Favorite New Albums: Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson.

Love, Fear, and the Time Machine, by Riverside.

Helios / Erebus, by God Is An Astronaut.

A Head Full of Dreams, by Coldplay

Most Important Book: Life Without Ed, by Jenni Schaefer

Favorite Book: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Other Favorite Books: Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather.

Beyond the Bedroom Wall, by Larry Woiwode.

The Geography of Memory, by Jeanne Murray Walker

Love’s Labors, by Brent Newsom

Favorite Concert: The Choir (playing the full Circle Slide album)

Favorite Movie: The Peanuts Movie

Favorite Weekend Activity: playing keys and singing bgvs at Vista Community Church

Favorite “Athletic” Moments: running a 10k and two 5ks

Favorite Celebrity Meeting: Monty Colvin, bass player/vocalist in Galactic Cowboys, guitarist/vocalist for Crunchy.

IMG_0824

Favorite Interesting Experience: sitting in on a Sunday-school class taught by Oklahoma Poet Laureate, Benjamin Myers @OKPoetLaureate

Favorite Teaching Moment(s): My summer Religion and Literature course (with works by Bret Lott, Tania Runyan, Gina Ochsner, Brent Newsom, Addie Zierman, Larry Woiwode, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Benjamin Myers).

Fun Trip Destinations: Minneapolis, Galveston Island, Kansas City, Lake Michigan, rural Minnesota

Favorite Publication: “The North-Central Iowa Spring Break Blizzard Tour” (published in The Cresset)

Favorite Photo I Took: 

IMG_0880

I’m looking forward to a good 2016, filled with good books and music, lots of writing, good classes to teach, and supportive friends and family.

Aspirations 

In second grade, a new kid named Ryan Meinert joined my class. He befriended me; I befriended him. So far all normal. I’m not sure how it started, from where the idea descended, but I began giving him a weekly handwritten newspaper: Nate’s News. 

I know I included jokes I gathered from other places. I’m confident I included some news stories; whether they were serious or not, I can’t say. Maybe I included baseball scores, football scores. Maybe I included other sections–I’m just not sure. And I only made one copy of each issue: the one I gave to him.

No copies of this august publication remain.

*

Summer of ’86 was hot and dry across Minnesota. There was lots of dust, and for much of the summer, my house didn’t yet have central AC. We utilized the “fan method” of cooling: put the fan in the window at night. We also had a ceiling fan in the living room, which helped move around the hot air.

Just as with Nate’s News, I’m not sure what prompted this, but I drew a one-panel comic strip. In it, a somewhat human-looking individual is sitting in a chair, the ceiling fan spinning overhead. The joke is the juxtaposition of the man saying, “Boy, is it hot!” with the switch marked “Hot/Cool” set to “Hot.” An attempt ironic humor.

I rode my bike downtown to the office of the local weekly newspaper and asked to speak with the editor. For whatever reason, perhaps because my mom worked as a receptionist there, he agreed to see me. Of course nearly thirty years later I remember none of the conversation I had with the editor, but I do know that I handed him the cartoon, and a week later, I had my first official publication.

*

Two years later, I was immersed in the world of reading comic strips and comic books as well as in making my own. My comic strip was Stupid Cowmix, and among my other creations was the comic book Molecule Man. I spent hours in my room first using my wooden ruler to draw panels and then filling them with text and pictures that I thought were funny, clever, and entertaining. My parents humored me.

But in that time from 6th grade through 8th grade when I was dedicated to the comic world, my drawing ability peaked, and the following year other interests grew and continued on through high school: basketball, music, role-playing games, and theater.

*

And what I realize looking back is that it wasn’t so much about the drawing. It was about story. About pacing and timing. About humor. About making something of my own. Taking ideas and materials and creating something that someone else could read and connect with.

Since my mid-twenties, I’ve dedicated my life to making things: poems, stories, essays, blog posts, literary journals. I can trace a line back through those earlier experiences, realizing that they were preparing me for what I love to do.

Even now, all of my efforts begin with a blank page.

[Note: see this prior post about how I came to write poetry again.]

Music Appreciation #3: Joe Satriani

Guitarist extraordinaire Joe Satriani just released his newest album, Shockwave Supernova, and since the album arrived at my house on Friday, July 24, it has been receiving substantial airplay. My son and daughter are already well familiar with several songs, my son singing along with the melodies.

The other night my son and I were playing a game of Dominion (one of our favorites), and at one point he stopped in the middle of his turn and said, “Dad, aren’t you forgetting something?” At first I thought I had violated one of the game’s rules. “What?” I asked. “Joe Satriani,” he answered. (Meaning, play the new album already, Dad.) That was a special moment for me as a dad and as a long-time Joe Satriani fan.

My history with Joe Satriani’s music goes back decades to my sophomore year of high school, when in that glorious Minnesota autumn I purchased The Extremist. The album quickly became my go-to for background music when doing homework since there were no vocals to distract me. It was also the album my band and I learned to play. Or to put it more accurately, the album that turned our guitar player, Matt, into a serious guitar player.

I’ve seen Joe Satriani live three times, the first time when he was touring in support of his self-titled album (in Spring 1996). I saw him a second time on the G3 tour in 1997 with Steve Vai and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. The last time I saw him was on the Engines of Creation tour in Spring 2000. It was during that third show when he played one of my favorite songs: “Love Thing.” This was also a time when I was pursuing a girl who would eventually become my wife, and this song became one we wanted played at our wedding dance two years later.

His music has served as the backdrop to the grading and the teaching prep I’ve done over 12 years teaching college English courses. His music has served as the backdrop for my countless hours of writing. His music has been the backdrop to countless drives, from the short jaunts to the multi-state excursions. His music has been some of the earliest music both of my children heard, and it has become some of their favorite music.

With each successive listen of Shockwave Supernova, I gain a deeper appreciation for the man whose music has been part of my life’s soundtrack for so many years.

On Creative Nonfiction

Much of my writing output is poetry and short fiction. I’m most comfortable and familiar with these two genres, read them the most, enjoy them the most. I teach both of these genres in my role as a college educator; however, I also teach creative nonfiction within the context of a prose creative-writing class. Lately, I have been discovering (rediscovering?) some of the pressing issues in writing creative nonfiction. And I’m thinking about some of these issues because I know an individual who is working on a memoir and asked me, “I’m trying to be as honest as I can, without hurting people I love. Any advice on that?” Whew. That’s a tough question.

Two weeks ago, I received an acceptance of a piece of creative nonfiction, a piece that I presented at the 2014 Texas Association of Creative Writing Teachers’ Conference. I was excited of course. I felt good reading the piece at the aforementioned conference, and I am glad the piece has found a “home” in a magazine I admire. Although I have my share of poetry and short fiction publication, this piece will be my first published creative nonfiction, which is also exciting.

In his excellent creative nonfiction text, The Truth of the Matter, Dinty W. Moore addresses the idea of the writer’s motivation in writing creative nonfiction: why are you telling this story? When teaching this genre to writing students, I pose this question, as well as these two: are you trying to get revenge on someone? Are you trying to make yourself look better than you were/are? For me, these are three fundamental questions in creative nonfiction because the “characters” are real people. I want to be fair, as truthful as possible, and yet in that truth-telling, I must also practice tact. What to include, what to omit, how to say what I want say–these are all considerations, too.

After I received the question quoted above, I began scouring the internet for available articles that I thought might be helpful to pass along. At the same time, I had this feeling in my gut that I needed to reexamine my forthcoming publication. In the piece, I am recounting a series of incidents from my time in a Christian rock band and a weekend tour that was a disaster (from my perspective). In portraying the concert promoter and the visiting evangelist, I realized that I was being uncharitable at the expense of delivering a few more jokes, jokes that were essentially cheap shots. When I read the piece aloud at the conference, it generated a good response. Laughter in the places where I had hoped to achieve laughter. But the promoter is still involved in lay ministry. The evangelist/church planter has a growing ministry. And despite some of my theological disagreements, they were (and still are, as far as I can discern) genuine people, “real” people–not simply “characters” in a story that’s “made up.” I had to think about my motivation for telling this story, arriving at the conclusion that the main target of the piece is really me (as a 21-year-old) and some of my assumptions and my self-inflated ego.

In discussing these matters, I do not intend to paint myself in a more positive light as though I’m some “holy roller” who has it all figured out. I’m only trying to engage the core questions with which I challenge my creative writing students. I am trying to answer these questions, confronted by my own lack of charity. So there is rewriting to do, and I’m grateful that I can do so (since the piece won’t be published until the fall sometime.) As the late Richard Marius wrote in “Writing and Its Rewards” (a wonderful brief essay), “Writing is a parable of life itself.”

On Being a Musician

In this post from two weeks ago (my brief reflections on teaching), I mentioned my long-range goal as a college freshman: becoming a professional musician. Twenty years ago this September, I entered Southwest State University (now Southwest Minnesota State University) intent on studying music which I viewed as the gateway to being a touring musician in a rock band. My view then was that any music education would be beneficial to my dream. So I was in choir. I was in concert band. I was in jazz band. I took voice lessons. I took piano lessons. I kept learning more instruments while trying to become better at the ones I already knew. I kept playing in the rock band with friends from high school, and I also played acoustic music with various college friends.

At the age of 18, excited about college, I imagined myself on the road four or five years later, playing in different cities, different clubs and theaters, seeing so much of the country. I imagined people singing along to the songs I wrote, people becoming fans of my music just as I was a fan of others’ music. Of course, that dream was not realized. As I noted elsewhere, I had my “writing conversion” during my junior year that altered the trajectory of my dreams. Yet even as my direction changed, I never stopped playing music regularly.

From the time I was finishing up my undergraduate degree (and through every step thereafter to now), I found that because writing and teaching became my primary vocations, I experienced more freedom, joy, and satisfaction playing music. Music wasn’t (and wouldn’t be) may day job. I still use all the training I had in those music classes (theory, orchestration, choral arranging, etc.) when I play on Sunday mornings as I have done for all the years.

I would even go so far as to say that I am having the most fun playing music that I’ve had since I was an 18-year-old. On Sunday mornings, when my alarm goes off at 6, I’m so excited to spend my entire morning (and early afternoon) making music and doing what I can to help people worship God. On Sunday afternoons, on Sundays evenings, the songs I played from earlier that day are still cycling through my brain. It helps, I’m sure, that in my current musical “setting” I play with some of the most talented individuals with whom I’m ever played–no offense to other musicians I’ve worked with before. 🙂 I’ve played with a lot of talented folks over the years and count myself blessed. (Here’s an “interview” I did with my current worship pastor, a super-talented, super-humble guitarist and vocalist: Adam Fischer. He also has an awesome EP, Reckless, that’s available on iTunes.)

Lastly, I have found that during the academic year, I look forward to Sunday mornings even more. For the 6+ hours that I’m occupied with music and worship, I am not only spiritually renewed and refreshed but also recharged for the week ahead during which I arrange (and rearrange) words on pages while also teaching others to do the same.