For 2019 I Can Still Change


I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. Mainly, it’s because I resist the sort of corporate business management notion that meaningful changes require measurable outcomes—that goals have to be quantifiable to be “real.”

I think that’s a valuable notion for an organization. But I reject it as an individual. In my opinion, all of me is too complex, too bound up with other parts, too connected to past and biology and knowledge and experience to be reducible to such math.

I am more, and less, than the sum of my parts. For example, I could set a goal to lose 20 pounds in 2019 (or, maybe more appropriately, 19 pounds), and such a goal would make sense since I can easily afford to lose that weight and more.

But, to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I just washed down my emotions with a full-calorie beer. Is there any possibility that my habits and tastes will change so much in 2019 that the leaner Joe within will emerge? Yes, yes, I know that in a larger sense the answer is “yes.” But, to be brutally honest, the answer is, honestly, probably not.

And why should that number define me?

Isn’t it more important that I strive to be kind in 2019? To read more new books? To enjoy the latest Tessa Violet or Lake Street Dive video no matter what my students in the Times newsroom think? To be a better husband, grandfather, professor, person?

Maybe lean Joe would be mean Joe, and if there is one thing I hold self-evident, it’s that the last thing this sad planet needs is a other Angry White Male.

So, if you’re into measurable New Year’s resolutions, more power to you. I’m not. Still, whatever, works for you is fine with me.

As for me, I want to experience less irrational anger in 2019. (Rational anger is another story—some measure of anger is simply a sign that you’re aware of the state of the world.) I want to experience more love in 2019, and I think the Beatles where right—the love you take is equal to the love you make.

And Lake Street Dive has it right, too. Their video is interesting, because Rachael Price is changed by others as she sings about how “I Can Change.”

I feel the same way. I can change, whether I bother to quantify the change in some measurable way. Yet at the same time, I can caught in a web of external forces that ensure, in fact, I will change, and if I don’t recognize and direct my own change, that may not always be a good thing.

I’m 60. I don’t look forward to 2019 as a young person would—my life is not always full of all of those possibilities. I will never be a professional musician or rodeo clown. One of my daughters made me proud in 2018 by running her first marathon—a feat that arthritic knees rule out for me.

But I can change. I should not focus on the possibilities that biology, fate and age close off to me—there are too many roads that still remain open. And the world is on its own path, and while I’ll try to do what I can to contribute to the good, to reduce the level of bad—mostly, I’m responsible for Joe.

My main New Year’s resolution? Sort of the serenity prayer. To change what I can and not be brought down by the rest.

Happy New Year, reader. May you not dwell in the new year in the shadow of hate. I hope you and yours find positive change in 2019, and I hope you can take heart in that possibility. We can’t control everything. Yet, we can change.

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2018, an Absolutely Remarkable Green Year


Hank and Tessa

Author Hank Green and singer Tessa Violet, two who have found fame on YouTube, discuss “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” in a video on the Tessa Violet channel.

I do not remember why or how I stumbled into the world of the Green brothers, although I’m sure it was by accident on YouTube.

Hank Green and John Green began exchanging public video chats as the Vlogbrothers more than a decade ago. John Green is a well-establish author of young adult novels, although until I read and enjoyed “Turtles All the Way Down” recently, I had not experienced any of his fiction (then again, I’m rather remote from the target audience for a young adult author, I suppose).

Anyway, I probably read that book simply because I was getting into the habit of viewing Vlogbrothers videos, and they did chat about it. The VlogBro news in fall of 2018 was that the younger brother, Hank, was joining the ranks of published authors, with the release of his first novel, “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.”

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And a few days ago, I finished reading that book. One of my daughters read it at the same time, and pronounced it “weird,” but still a book she would recommend. I agree on the “recommend,” and although I think it’s a bit unusual, I’m not so sure about the weird part. In fact, it was one of my favorite recent reads.

This is not going to be a formal book review, other than to state that I enjoyed the book. I also don’t plan to give away too many spoilers, so if you have not read the book and might, you’ll probably be safe to read this post. Anyway, the book is about a graphic artist named April May who late one night in New York City discovers what she considers to be a cool giant sculpture that has suddenly appeared. Despite it being the wee hours of the morning, she phones a friend, a YouTuber, and they shoot a quick video before the 10-foot figure, which she dubs “Carl.”

Although April does not know this, Carls have appeared in cities all over the world at the same time. And because she encountered it and posted a YouTube video first, April May stars in an instantly viral video that makes her suddenly famous. It turns out (I do not think this counts as a spoiler, it’s too obvious anyway) that the Carls are aliens, not art. (Or maybe they are alien art, but they are not terrestrial.)

While the book is partly a science fiction mystery novel, one of the things I most enjoy about it is the ruminations about the nature of fame in the internet age, as well as a playful romp through nerd pop culture. On the later, one of the hints the Carls drop as to their needs is by changing the Wikipedia entry for “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the Queen song.

Hank, you should have included “Sorry, I’m Not Sorry” somewhere in the book, too.

Anyway, cheesy pop references aside, April finds herself both denying the attraction of fame and being seduced by it, to the point of making sometimes painfully awful personal choices.

Hank Green is a celebrity in his own right, and an interesting thread in the novel is his rumination on how fame is achieved, what it means and what it does. For example, April May struggles to deal with the reality that millions of people who don’t know her strongly love or hate her, which is not the normal human condition.

Hank, in the person of April, describes five tiers of fame:

  1. Popularity—You are popular in a place. A big deal at your high school or neighborhood.
  2. Notoriety—You are well known—mayor of a medium-sized city or local meteorologist. You are one of the million or so people with a Wikipedia page.
  3. Working-Class Fame—People distributed around the world know you. A stranger may approach you in a store. You’re a musician, athlete, etc. You still have to work, but fame is your job.
  4. True Fame—So many people know you that it’s a problem. If you date someone, you may read about it in a magazine. You have no money woes, but have a gate and intercom on your driveway.
  5. Divinity—Everyone on the planet knows you. You started a nation or religion. You are not alive.

In a “Pillow Talk” video with YouTube singer Tessa Violet, Hank Green and she discuss the nature of fame as described in the novel:

The book also includes a rather realistic backlash against April, her friends and the Carls. Fear, which may not be entirely unfounded, motivates a lot of people.

The story started off feeling kind of “normal,” that is, it was just a fun adventure, “The Princess Diaries” with older characters and an alien robot. But it got a bit more eerie as it went on, which I think was both deliberate and rather well done. I’m proud to say I did anticipate a few of the twists before they were overt in the book—but, without going into spoilers, can’t really say which ones. And some did catch me by surprise.

Anyway, I’m on to my next book already (“Dead Wake” by Erik Larson), but I hope more of my friends and family will read “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” I want others to talk with about this book.

I don’t know you, Hank Green, but I am a fan of your writing (as well as you on YouTube). I enjoyed your first novel, and I am wondering where the story goes from here.

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This is a vision of Carl created by comic book artist Rosemary Valero-OConnell, and was displayed on Twitter by Hank Green as a depiction he likes. If you want to see the artist’s work, her site is http://www.hirosemary.com/

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In Praise of Winter Walks


The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can.
“Roads Go Ever On” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In contrast to earlier the season—when we were blasted with cold in late November, December in Iowa has gifted us with some mild days. And by bike and foot, I have taken some advantage of that.

Monday, I was tied up much of the day with finishing semester grades. At least I did bicycle to campus. But on Tuesday, after some errands, my wife and I took a late afternoon stroll. We only walked maybe a total of two miles or so, but it was a pleasant (by December standards) sunset journey.

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Sun setting along C Avenue in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 18, 2018. During a stroll with my wife as we celebrate being married 36 years. It was warm Dec. 18 36 years ago, too.

On Wednesday, I biked to campus to finish some additional odds and ends, and then met my wife and youngest son. We drove down to the NewBo area for lunch at Parlor City, and then went for a stroll along a part of the Cedar River Trail, including the new Sinclair Levee path.

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Dec. 19, 2018, view during stroll along Sinclair Levee trail.

It was breezy, and sunshine was starting to turn to clouds, but again, with a temperature around 40 or so, quite nice for December. We happily chatted as we strolled, enjoying the companionship, the outdoors and the effort of the walk.

John Green created a recent Vlogbrothers video which was a walk through some Indiana woods in cold, wet weather with some friends. I’m not sure I completely agree with his point that the bad weather helped make it a good walk—I’m more of a fair-weather journeyer—although otherwise I think he’s on to something. We are all on a life journey, and sharing that journey with friends as we make our way is partly what it’s about.

And it is important to just get out there, when you can, whether in Indiana rain or Iowa sunshine. A walk outside is a way of enjoying the world beyond our artificial shelters, when conditions allow. We re creatures of this Earth and should feel our connection with it, now and then. Which is one thing a winter walk is good for.

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My Favorite Student Blogs This Term


As I often do in media writing classes, I required some students to establish or update a blog this semester.

Some student blogs never really take off. Others become more personal to the student, and she or he ends up doing some interesting writing.

This semester, I thought three blogs in particular have content that appealed to me.

Lakin Goodman has turned her blog into more of a personal web site, complete with resume information. She has an interest in photography, and I would like her to use more of her images on the blog, but she does have things to say. She notes that she has no theme to the blog—but that’s not really a downside, to me.

Lakin

Chuck Uthe is a self-described nerd, writing about film and games. His reviews are not casual—they have some depth and background to them. I appreciate how reflective he is.

Chuck

Matt Trueblood says he has more caffeine than oxygen in his blood right now—and I hope he can recharge soon. But his writing is honest and has what another blogger once called “emotional nudity,” which is meant as a positive thing. His blog seems to be an honest peek into his psyche—which is an interesting place to be.

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I am sure I will continue this assignment in media writing classes. Now and then, a student who is introduced to blogging via the class will own it and continue their online efforts. Today, when students who wish to be communicators need to consider their online identity and the nexus of social media they can use to showcase and promote themselves, a blog gives them something to tweet about and share on Facebook. It also is a minor taste of web writing for students, which is a key skill.

The three that I am choosing to feature here (and it does not mean that other students have not done interesting work, this is a personal and ideosycratic look at blogs that just tickled my fancy) are all visually interesting, too–it’s a feature of this semester’s crop of student blogs that those who seemed to care the most about their writing also cared some about the presentation of that writing, which has not always been true.

I hope you check out and enjoy the writing that these students are doing!

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Let Us Sustain This Conversation


 

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Dr. Kris Keuseman, associate professor of chemistry, speaks Nov. 19, 2018, during the final presentation in the 2018 Mount Mercy University Fall Faculty Series.

Plastics, it turns out, are a lot likes pasta. The polymers that make up plastics are long molecules, and, like spaghetti, sometimes parts of them can break off—which is one reason that plastic so permeates our environment now.

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Dr. Tracy Tunwall, associate professor of business.

The 2018 Fall Faculty Series was about the central problem of our time—a conversation on the topic of sustainability. Called “Sustainability: Human/Nature & the Future of the Earth,” the series concluded with a presentation by Dr. Tracy Tunwall, associate professor of business; and Dr. Kris Keuseman, associate professor of chemistry.

Called “Addressing Consumerism: The Life-Cycle of Stuff,” it was a sobering final presentation Nov. 19, including video clips that helped describe the issue of what happens to all of our “stuff” when it’s thrown away.

This final presentation followed one earlier this month by Rachael Murtaugh, director of sustainability, on “Iowa Lands and Waters.”

Anyway, I thought it was very interesting in the final presentation to have a business person and a scientist speaking together. Dr. Tunwall has industry experience, while Dr. Keuseman can give you the molecular view.

Dr. Keuseman made it clear he’s not anti-plastic—it’s just that plastic has become the easily used medium to create products that don’t have to be disposable and could be made with other base materials that degrade more naturally.

As for Dr. Tunwall, she used several interesting video clips to illustrate how industry does and does not deal with waste. Most eye opening was a 60-Minutes segment that showed a “recycling” effort in Denver led to a environmental hell hole in Asia where impoverished workers are put at great risk using primitive methods to extract materials from old electronics.

human-nature-logo_0The Nov. 19 presentation brought to a close our fifth fall faculty series at Mount Mercy University. There were around 70 people there, which was nice. Our sequence of series began in 2014 when we talked about the cultural legacy of World War I. In 2015, we tackled the legacy of Vietnam. In 2016, the hot topic was immigration. In 2017, we had a series of presentations on our divided politics. And now our series on sustainability joins that list.

The 2018 series was somewhat smaller than past events, which is probably a good thing. We had some series that had more than 10 events. On the other, hand, some past series included outside speakers and student performances, which would be good to see again in the future, although I am not sure that there was a student performance piece that would go with this series. Maybe art on the topic?

Whatever. The Fall Faculty Series continues to be a valuable event at MMU. What should we do next?

In a PR class, I use a fictional series that I call “Red, White and Brown: Race and the American Experience.” I’m not sure that we would ever use “American Experience” in a series title—too close to the PBS show—but examining the state of race relations would, I think, be a good topic.

But it was also a very serious, very heavy topic. I think maybe MMU should aim to have some fun with the series.

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Rachael Murtaugh, director of sustainability at MMU, described Nov. 1 how much Iowa has changed and how little native Iowa is left.

What anniversaries are important in 2019 that might provide such a theme? It’s the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo DaVinci, although what that would mean for a series, I’m not sure. It’s the 75th -anniversary of D Day, but that will be the summer before the fall. It’s 50 years since 1969—when humans put their first footprints on the moon. Maybe DaVinci and the moon suggest something—the Renaissance sparked Earth exploration, and now we’re looking towards the heavens.

Yeah, not exactly screaming “fun.” Is there a sports or music theme that would work? And 2020 would seem like a natural to look at suffrage—voting rights—100 years after the 19th Amendment.

A 2019 Woodstock series? Sex, love, and rock and roll?

Well, we have some thinking to do and plans to make. Here are images of the Nov. 1 presentation and the Nov. 19 final event. For now, it’s nice to celebrate a series just completed as we consider the next adventure. Sustainability was a good theme—a large conversation that must continue. But that’s one of the nice things about this Fall Faculty Series idea—the large conversation it can help spark.

What ideas would you suggest for a 2019 series?

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The Third Phase of Fall


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C Avenue, rising sun reflected in pond surrounded by snowy lawn–Dec. 9, 2018, 8 a.m. or so.

Like many Iowa seasons, to me, autumn falls into three parts.

There is the sequel to high summer, the final phase of the hot time of year, the September phase one of fall. In the evening there is a cool tinge to the air, but still the sounds of crickets as the day is still powerful enough to keep the freeze at bay.

Spiders are suddenly huge and everywhere.

But the plants know winter is coming—growth in all woody things is over and every plant that aspires to come back after the long sleep is hunkering down. There are still late flowers—mums and others—but the sex season in the plant world is mostly over. Dwarf bushes are starting to turn shades, and sumac, some of which were already crimson in high summer, are in full fall color.

Then the equinox passes and the night is starting to gain on the day. Lows dip into the 30s, and the first, tentative frosts arrive as the season turns to fall, phase two. Many trees begin to show colors and shed leaves. The night sounds begin to quiet, and the daytime insects are big and sluggish—unless they are in the sweat bee family, in which case they are pushy and obnoxious.

A few trees stubbornly remain green in this phase even as most others take on their sleep season look.

Then, sometime at the end of October or in early November, the hammer comes down. I always think the first definite frost is not really “it,” because a surprising number of hoppers and beetles and spiders can still be seen crawling around post-frost—they managed to hide in the night and appear in afternoon sunshine.

But when you get beyond mere frost to a genuine freeze, and for several nights in a row the temperature dips well below the ice point—well, it’s different.

This week, we had a dusting of snow. Lows dipped not just to freezing, but to the upper teens. Some leaves still cling to trees, but those leaves look dead and spent. The bare tree season is upon us. We’re not quite into early winter brown, but the shape of the world around us is suddenly there for us to see, as the green canopy that shrouded the hillside all spring and summer is gone.

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Around 4:30, I arrive home, looking west at clouds now visible, where tree foliage would have obscured the view. Bare trees on Nov. 9, 2018.

I am not usually bothered by the first snow, even if it this year it seems a bit early. I miss the greens and flowers of summer, and it will be a relief in five months when some of the bulbs I buried before the hard freeze become early spring flowers, but the gardens need the winter break. It’s one reason our summers are so full of plant life—we get the cleansing of winter to clear out harmful, plant-eating insects.

So, phase three of fall is here. The snow this morning was not exactly a pretty white blanket yet, there wasn’t enough to hide the green stubble of lawns, but the bit of snow is a sign that the gardens are now in slumber phase, I won’t need to smell like lemon pie for months to avoid blood-suckers, and the cool morning air feels fresh, if a bit brisk.

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The Party of Joe


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Yard signs seems on morning of Oct. 30 during my bike ride to work. Contrasting ideas at work here.

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The day before Halloween was both exhilarating and scary—a bit like Halloween, in a way. On Halloween, kids walk around in costumes to beg for treats. My wife and I dressed in business casual attire and went downtown hoping to get for some rhetorical hope.

I think we got it.

The news was that Joe Biden was coming to town. The former vice president was here for a campaign rally to boost Fred Hubbell, running for Iowa Governor, and Abby Finkenauer, running for Congress.

We had signed up online, as we were urged to do, but that didn’t seem to matter. When we got downtown, it took some time to find a parking spot, so as a mild, cool drizzle halfheartedly tried to start, we trudged a few blocks to wait in a line that stretched for over a block from the entrance to the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium on Mays Island.

The night was damp and cool, but not cold and wet. We sometimes put up umbrellas, but then folded them (a trick our President seems not have learned) because it just was not worth it.

We ended up in line with a couple of other college professors, our colleague at Mount Mercy Dr. Joy Ochs, and her science-teaching spouse at Kirkwood Community College, Dr. Fred Ochs.

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The long line that leads to Joe.

The wait wasn’t all that long, and we had some pleasant chats as we worked our way to the door. At one point, a Planned Parenthood volunteer handed me a sign. I didn’t really want to hold a sign, and regretted my knee-jerk reaction to take it.

We got close. I could see Fred Hubbell chatting just a few people in front of us, and got my camera out—and like a Halloween apparition, suddenly he was gone. Still, there was a state House candidate, Eric Gjerde, next to us, so I snapped his image.

Gjerde

House candidate I will be voting for.

And then we were in the lobby. A uniformed guard was by the door. “You can’t take that in,” he said of my sign, and confiscated it, much to my relief. And then we were in the auditorium. I was surprised at how lax security was—if there was a metal detector, I didn’t detect it.

And we were crowded together. Honestly, we were not squeezed all that much, and the space was large, so it was not uncomfortable, but I was glad I had decided by good camera would be too bulky to hold. At times, moving to take an image with a phone or little camera was challenging enough.

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The crowd inside, and Dr. Joy Ochs.

After a half hour or so, warmup acts began. A state party official spoke. A man in a wheelchair who has appeared in videos supporting Fred Hubbell spoke. A pause. Then, a high school girl doing a fine job with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Next, Sen. Rita Hart, Democrat running for Lieutenant Governor, spoke. I was quite impressed—I had not heard her before. I kind of wish she was running for the top job, but maybe if Fred is elected, that’s the next step.

Next came Fred. He’s a good guy, gave a nice speech, which the crowd enthusiastically received, but to be honest, he’s not the best speaker in politics today. No matter, we liked Fred, and it showed.

And Fred introduced Abby. Rep. Finkenauer maybe sticks to her familiar message a bit too much, at least to my ears, but she is great to hear. She was excited, it showed, and the crowd loved her.

And she got to introduce Joe.

Joe, Joe, Joe. What a great guy. What a nice man. He spoke like warm honey, his distinct voice booming out and becoming animated. He got emotional at times, choking up when he spoke of how Iowans supported him as his son was battling cancer. He compared his early life to Abby’s.

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Joe!

And he took President Trump to task for irresponsible, incendiary rhetoric. It was nice that he himself was never insulting to any Republican, other than noting the President’s excessive language. Even then, his criticism was of what the man says, not of the man.

Unlike Trump, Biden can take a stand without belittling or insulting anybody.

“This is an election for the soul of American,” Biden said. Granted, that’s a pretty typical political line, but I feel that it’s true this time.

We can’t afford to be the ignorant, coarse country represented by the Donald.

I am feeling some trepidation going into the final week of the fall campaign. To me, the core of Trump’s support has been rock solid, despite or because of the ridiculous, hateful things he says. Trump has successfully painted media as “fake news,” and not because it is, but because it’s an easy excuse for the lazy of mind to hunker down in narrow ideological silos.

Well, Biden didn’t cure me, but he helped a lot. I feel a bit better now. I was in a crowd of like-minded souls, and it felt good.

I don’t know if a blue wave is coming, although I hope so. Trumpism is a national disgrace, the modern American nightmare. I hope my country wakes up and tosses off the yoke of xenophobia and nationalism.

I’m not sure it will. But it sure felt good to hear Joe, a nice counter balance to the latest bombastic tweets from the Twit-in-Chief.

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