Random Thoughts at a Middle School Concert


Students exit middle school concert at Linn-Mar High School as a performer on stage stows his tools.

I’ve written before about how important a student newspaper is to a university and to students’ experience in school. I firmly believe that one reason student media are important at colleges is the beyond-classroom experiences students gain.

That general idea applies to other areas of school at other levels.

On Tuesday night, I attended a granddaughter’s orchestra concert at Linn-Marr High School. She’s a student at Excelsior Middle School; it was a fifth- and sixth-grade concert.

The music was, well, not always all that musical. The fifth graders are in their first year of formal school music, learning how to hold their instruments, how to read music, little hands and little bodies sometimes dwarfed by their tools.

What a difference a year makes. The change from fifth to sixth grade is pretty dramatic. When these kids get to high school, they’ll be making beautiful music.

And if the chords and harmonies didn’t always excite the pleasure centers of my brain, still, good for you, kiddos. Even if you’re just starting on your music journey, I’m glad that your school provides you with this opportunity and that you are learning.


Teacher conducts middle-school orchestra.

And yet, it also makes me a little sad.

After all, Linn-Mar is mostly a suburban school district with a pretty good property tax base. In school terms, it’s a relatively well-off district, and that is reflected in its facilities and programs. Extra-curricular activities aren’t always so well-funded or robust in smaller, rural districts or poorer urban ones.

Even here, in a fairly well-off district that has opportunities for anyone, a family needs to commit resources to provide an instrument if a child wants to be in orchestra. And there is already a haves vs have-nots stratification even at early levels—in my granddaughter’s orchestra program there is an audition-only group. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that most members of that group have relatively affluent parents who have paid for private lessons that help their children achieve a higher level earlier in life.

I don’t want to seem critical of a mom or dad who is driving junior to evening or weekend lessons at a private music academy. Good for them. I just hope public schools work hard to make sure that the kid from a marginal home where private lessons aren’t an option can get opportunities, too.

Anyway, that’s not really what I want to write about. Mostly, I am thrilled that so many families have introduced their children to music. My granddaughter will probably never be a stat, but she plays the cello and sings in chorus in middle school and seems to enjoy both.

As a parent and grandparent and citizen of a country that needs an educated citizenry, I am a huge fan of school arts programs in all forms. Music, drama, dance, chorus—they all celebrate and encourage creativity, give students a bright peer cohort to pal around with and generally brighten what for almost all of us is a difficult time in life.

Sure, almost nobody will play the cello as a career. The point of the activity isn’t just the literal activity, but the depth of the experience it fosters.

Last week, a student and I attended the Iowa College Media Association Convention. It was a good time, a fun event, and the student paper that I advise got some awards.

Which is nice. Nicer still is the reality I see every day, that the existence of a paper has an importance I appreciate; like a middle school orchestra struggling to get the right notes at the right time, writers at the “Mount Mercy Times” are honing their craft.

Play on, kids. And may every Iowa and every American student go to a school that can offer them many creative arts opportunities—to me, the arts are something that every child should have access to.


My granddaughter’s arm and hand are in this image, as she plays one of the cellos among her fellow cellos.

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A Tale of Two Nights

amy button

My button on caucus night.

Are the Iowa Caucuses dead? Their obituary has been written by many media pundits, and maybe they’re right. I’m skeptical—it took way too long to release results, and here, more than 24 hours later, results are still incomplete. But a caucus is not a primary election.

Pete Buttigieg got a boost from Iowa, Joe Biden got a brush-back pitch. Amy Klobuchar is still alive but on the endangered candidate list. Bernie Sanders will claim victory, but is less popular this year than in his last election.

And the disaster that was the Iowa Caucus was an odd surprise after my caucus experience. I checked in at Harding Middle School. The room was not as full as I expected, but several hundred Democrats crowded into what seemed to an arch-shaped cafeteria.

The mood was way more collegial than I had experienced. In 2016, we were packed together like sardines in Peace Church, and the mood was rather acrimonious between Bernie and Hillary—the caucus took hours, the count kept having to be redone, we were exhausted by the end.

In 2008, the energy of Barack Obama infused the event. We trudged across the snow of Noelridge Park to Harding Middle School. The crowd was large and the energy transformative as the majority of us were there for the new rising political star from Illinois. But despite that positive energy in 2008, there was conflict and chaos, too. Clinton did not go quietly into the night.

In 2020, things were different. For one thing, everybody quickly moved into their candidate corners as soon as they came in. There was not really any area at all of uncommitted or undecided voters—people came already knowing who they backed. The old people seemed to cluster in Joe Biden’s corner, a mix of middle aged and younger old people joined with us in Amy Klobuchar’s tables. Our daughter was over with a mix of young and old, overwhelmingly female from what I could see, in the Elizabeth Warren area.


Caucus crowd at Harding Middle School. Joe Biden was not viable, and many of his supporters joined those of us for Amy Klobuchar.

Between our daughter and us, acting as the great wall of people that our 4-year-old grandson was constantly circumventing on his trips between mom and his grandparents, was the mixed, but mostly young, Bernie crowd.

Pete Buttigieg’s crowd was a good size, but was blocked from my view, so I’m not sure what kind of person showed up for Pete in my area. Other than they were the only group to chant now and then, which was mildly irritating, to be honest.

We waited, we chatted. My wife and I were on the edge of the Amy Klobuchar group, partly because our grandson kept coming and going. We were right next to the Biden Senior Center and adjacent to the Bernie Sanders Day Care. I chatted for a while with a gang of 80-year-old ladies who were clustered around a tall, thin retired Coe College librarian. I lent him a pen, which turned out to be a mistake since it came from my daughter’s bag and was one her favorites and disappeared into the night like Tulsi Gabbard.

A 10-month old baby was standing up in in his buggy just across the border in Sandersland. He looked at me. I grinned at him. He smiled and squealed and I chatted amiably with his parents. The retired librarian shot the breeze with me too, as did his geriatric girl squad.

The spirit was collegial. We supported different candidates, but felt united in a cause. I think for most of us in the room, we know who we wanted, but even more strongly, we known who we didn’t want.

Heck, even if the Democrats went ape crazy and for some mad reason nominated Tulsi Gabbard, I would vote for her. Bernie Sanders has had a recent heart attack and is a socialist—which I am not—but I would vote for Bernie. Joe Biden is a decent man who is way too connected to old, corrupt politics and whose best days were years ago—he’s not the kind of person who would make a great president, in my opinion. I’d vote for him, too.

Some of these people I would vote for with more reluctance. Others I would have more enthusiasm for. But none would have to work hard to earn my vote.

Because the alternative is four more y ears of Donald Trump, worst president in American history.

Anyway, the caucus meeting, compared to ones I’d experienced in previous presidential cycles, went smoothly. We got numbered cards to write our preferences on, which created a paper record and eliminated much of the counting chaos of past caucuses.

Our precinct chair was surprised at how Iowa Nice everyone was. “Nobody has yelled at me tonight,” he marveled at one point.

That was Monday evening. Later, the phone app failed, the call-in line was understaffed and the state party melted like a Russian nuclear reactor. Perhaps it is the death of the Iowa Caucuses, but it’s good that my final one, should that happen, was the most pleasant.

Then came Tuesday. I was a good boy, I was, I watched the weird, dystopian proto-fascist game show staged by our President, who is due to be acquitted by the spineless Senate tomorrow. On the eve of being crowned King Trump, I think the president gave a speech that was long, fairly effective politically, and downright scary.

Immigrants are criminals. Here is a man whose brother was shot. Build the wall! Economic numbers that didn’t add up—but the economy is good, just not good in the way that lying Don described it.

A Presidential Medal of Freedom was given. To Rush Limbaugh. Bah, humbug. You don’t give such a medal during this speech, the President gives it in an official White House ceremony, it’s not meant to be a heart-tugging moment in a Trump TV show.

But it was. The Trump wave was launched. The Democratic Party, in Iowa at least, is in shambles.

It would easy to be depressed. But I recall that baby in the Bernie crowd and his friendly parents. I think of my 4-year-old grandson moving from Amyland, through Bidenville, past Sanders Village into the Warren Terrace, wearing his “nevertheless she persisted shirt,” along with both Warren and Klobuchar campaign buttons. Everyone smiled. Everyone was polite. Everyone was doing it for his future.

Because we all agree.

It’s time for Trump to be retired to Mar-A-Lago. Effective game show or not, it’s time for the Trump TV program to be permanently cancelled. We need a president who is a president, not a schlocky TV host.

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Students Begin Writing Blogs Today

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Today in CO 120, many students begin a new adventure in publishing—they will write their own public blogs.

Twelve new voices are joining the publishing world. I know from experience that results may vary, but I’m looking forward to what students do with their own blogs this semester.

There are, of course, examples of blogs that formed the basis of books or of important publishing careers—think of Jenny Lawson, “The Blogess,” for example. Her humorous blog on serious subjects has launched several best-selling memoiors.

On a smaller scale, Jenny Valiere, who started as a DJ in KZIA, 102.9 FM, in Cedar Rapids after graduating from Mount Mercy, and has moved up the ranks to become the radio station’s program director, credits her career in broadcasting partly to a blog I made her start in a writing class at MMU. Because she had a URL, and because she could show that example of social media savvy, the blog helped launch her media career.

As is the case in all writing, it’s likely student blogs will vary in content and quality. But any writer who has something to say and puts their heart into it can create a compelling blog.

What will students do with their blogs? I can’t wait to see. I’ll share URLs after they set up their WordPress sites—stay tuned, blogosphere. New voices are joining the choir.

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Finding the Beauty of a Gray Winter

Winter in Iowa—low midday sun, icy mornings, limited time outside—despite the fact that we have not really had any heavy snowfalls, the cumulative impact of many smaller storms and consistent morning ice is a bit grating.

Yet, I want to treasure the beauty that can be found in winter in Iowa. To cheer myself up, and hopefully to brighten your day in case you too are experiencing this Midwestern winter, here is a slideshow of what I consider my best beauty of nature images from December and January:

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Amy Asks for Fence-Sitters to Commit


Local TV camera operator at Amy Klobuchar event in Cedar Rapids Jan. 3.

Is Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) surging in Iowa?

I don’t know, although she did well in a recent debate, which helps her. And I saw her in person here today in downtown Cedar Rapids at a campaign rally.


Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, speaks.

Complete sentences. Intelligence. Humor. A comforting Midwestern drawl. She seems such a sharp contrast with the current occupant of the White House. And so, I’m ready to commit. I’ll caucus for Amy Klobuchar at my local party meeting as Iowa again goes first in 2020 in the presidential sweepstakes.

The Iowa caucuses are an interesting institution, and taking part is not like voting in a primary. For one thing, candidate preferences are expressed in an open meeting, not via a private ballot. For another, voting can be in more than one round—in the Democratic party, if a candidate earns less than 15 percent support, her or his supporters can continue participating in the caucus by choosing another candidate.

Given the size of the Democratic field this year, with roughly 300 candidates vying for caucus votes (an exaggeration, I know, but only by a bit), there may be a number of runners-up who don’t meet the 15 percent threshold.

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So even if I start with Amy, I may end up with someone else before the night is over. Still, I am looking forward to the next Iowa caucus. Amy Klobuchar is the candidate I am looking for—a moderate Democrat who has won in Trump country before.

May she win there again, and may she soundly beat Donald Trump in the fall.

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My 2019 Letter to Santa Claus


Santa with marketing crew at MMU at Christmas Club Friday this fall semester. Image by Audrey Sheller.

Dear Santa:

How are you, big guy? Good luck on the deliveries this year. You’ll need to wax the sleigh runners even more this year, there is not a lot of snow to land on these days in our area of the world. Of course, snow is only a 50-50 shot for Christmas in this part of Iowa anyway, but global warming is changing those odds.

For me, asking for a lot of stuff for Christmas makes little sense—my life is brimming with things, and I’m at a time in life when, while I do appreciate a special gift, mostly I don’t have lots of objects to desire.

So, I’m going to go the Amy Grant route and make a more grownup Christmas list.

What would I be asking for if I could ask you, as if you were a magic genie, for anything?

Well, world peace, naturally. Humans have a shocking capacity to tear at each other. Our literature is full of monstrosities that we can fear (if you don’t ever catch Dr. Emily on the PBS Monstrum YouTube channel, check it out), but most of the time, the most fearsome monster that humans face is us. I not only would like us to stop killing each other, but not eliminating other species and trashing the only planet in our neighborhood we can inhabit would be nice, too.

Item one, then, is to achieve world peace partly by humans recognizing the value of the world we have and learning to act together to preserve it.


Volunteer helps to plant a new pollinator garden at Mount Mercy campus in 2019. May there be more of this in 2020.

I would ask for peace at heart, too. For myself, naturally. I do get too stressed at times, and have a natural ability to look at the dark side. When my phone blings with a message tone, I almost always imagine some catastrophe, which the message, thank goodness, almost never is. The imagining is irrational, but that doesn’t make it go away.

Still, I’m blessed, for the most part, with decent mental and physical health. Not everyone I know and love is in a happy zone in their life right now, and I would wish for peace at heart to all my family and friends.


Digging this chick more and more all the time. If the caucus were tonight, I would be standing in the Amy corner. Not a formal endorsement, I am still playing the field, but I”m feeling more like I’m on Team Amy. Image from Wikimedia Commons, a 2019 picture of her by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ.


From The Gazette’s web site, the “Impeached” front page.

I have a few more practical items on my list. We have a president who has been impeached, but the Republican Senate is unlikely to convict and the party of Lincoln can’t seem to free itself from the destructive hypnosis that seems to have descended on it.

I want Trump to not only not be re-elected, but to be soundly trounced. Only a thorough thrashing is likely to help renew our poisoned politics. So, Santa, put a landslide defeat for Tangerine Hitler on my list, please.

Right now, I’m liking Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, so if I get to add more results for the voting in 2020 to my Christmas list, it would be great to have the Senate flipped so that incoming President Klobuchar can look forward to fights within her party rather than being constantly blocked by the GOP.

I have a few smaller-scale items on my list, too. I hope to do better as a professor, to find strategies to communicate with and teach my students to the best of my abilities. I know that their success or failure is not primarily due to anything I do—it’s decisions that these young adults make—but to the extent that I can, I want to be a better role model and mentor to students and help them to decide to succeed. Not sure how to write that on the list, but Santa, I think you get the idea. Or at least I hope I am communicating it clearly enough. Help me get through to my students, but most of all, help me to understand what I’m trying to get through.

I am a biker, and right now the bicycling world in Iowa is riven by civil strife: Iowa Ride v RAGBRAI. I’m on team RAGBRAI in that fight, by the way, and I hope that ride can find a way forward. I also think that it needs reforming, and maybe the current crisis will lead RAGBRAI to be better—but I don’t want it done away with.

So, a successful RAGBRAI 2020 is on my Christmas list.

We welcomed a new grandchild in 2019. I won’t wish for another in 2020 (although I would also be thrilled if it happened)—I think my own children should guide those kinds of big life decisions for themselves—but I hope to see and have fun with all of my grandchildren, somehow, in 2020. Some are at a distance, and how and when I will see them isn’t 100 percent clear, so mark it down, big guy. Joe wants more grandpa time.

Have I been good enough for this list? Hard to say. Unlike President Trump, I can think of things in my life I could do better or should apologize for. And, while many items on my list are beyond my control (world peace), others are more aspirations that I can have an impact on.

So maybe that’s the final item on my Christmas list. A sort of version of the Serenity Prayer. If I can’t change it, help me to deal with it, and if it’s in my power to change, help me do the best I can. And may I and more of us flawed mortal creatures act in 2020 to achieve a place on the “nice” list.


PS: And let’s let Dr. Emily get us into the holiday spirit:

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Two Great Things to Say Thanks For

Thanksgiving 2019—I’m a day late with this post, but Thanksgiving Day was busy and long, in a good—playing with grandchildren, eating way too much dinosaur meat and pie—way.


Craziest wine contest, Thanksgiving day. Apple wine at the right won–it was crazy.

I have a lot to be thankful for this year, and I’m grateful to be writing this blog with no deadline—it’s OK to say thanks the day after Thanksgiving, I think. And this Thanksgiving, I can be full of gratitude for many things, but to me, two things that brighten my life stand out: Family and work.

He’s only 3, but he’s in a hurry to grow up and take on the world. At meals, he pauses regularly to stand by the table and indicate to us how tall he is growing. It wasn’t that long ago that he was the youngest grandson, but now in England he has a male cousin more than a year behind him, and in California, another cousin is on the verge of taking his first breath.

And I don’t value grandsons more than granddaughters—it’s proximity puts this young guy in front of my camera more often than his female and male cousins. So I’ll let his image stand in for the third generation:


Wiping his mouth after Thanksgiving morning hot chocolate break with his cousins.

Family—siblings, cousins, children, grandchildren—we can be a prickly bunch, we tease and tussles and disagree, but there is a deep well of love there, too. So thanks for family.

My job can make me weary at times. I’ve a mountain of projects to try to get done during this Thanksgiving “break” as the end of the semester is coming. But even as I’m buried in student worksheets and papers, there is also so much to be grateful for. I had the good luck, partly due to a timely nudge from my sister Cate, to land a faculty position at a small Catholic college some 18 years ago.

And it continues to be wonderful. Just in the past fortnight, I’ve been able to participate in some delightful events at Mount Mercy University:

I saw a nursing faculty member give an interesting presentation on the health implications of modern agriculture. Some 70 percent of antibiotic use in the U.S., she said, is for livestock. It was a sobering and eye-opening presentation.

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And then, on a recent Friday, several colleagues on the faculty reported on their summer research projects. One has written a book that is coming out in the spring. A math professor did things with numbers and charts that my youngest son would have to explain to me. A biology professor drilled into the mysteries revealed by chemical analysis of human teeth that are thousands of years old. One takeaway—apparently you can fly with a suitcase full of human jaws, even if you can’t take a decent sized bottle of shampoo.

Later, on that same Friday, my wife and I attended an Improv festival at Mount Mercy’s McAuley Theatre. MMU students, high school students and a visiting troupe from the University of Northern Iowa all reminded us of how energetic, bright and funny young people can be.

I’m glad to have been there, and thrilled that Karen, the staff member who leads the Improv group, is planning to bring the festival back next year.

So, I can be grateful for working at a place that keeps me in touch with young people and lets me labor to try to make some positive change in some of their lives. It’s a place that provides all kinds of mental diversions that help keep an old man curious and learning.

A loving wife, a large and active family, a job at a place with a mission I love …

Life is not perfect and has its share of heartaches and struggles, and mine is not perfect, either. But on the whole, it is darn good. All I can say is thanks.

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