Category Archives: Writing

Random Thoughts at a Middle School Concert


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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.

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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.

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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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Filed under Grandchildren, Journalism, Writing

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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Filed under Journalism, Mount Mercy, Writing

An Interesting Writer Speaks Provocatively of Place


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Books on a table at MMU Nov. 7, 2019. I bought one and had the author sign it–she spoke about her writing process to a nearly full community room of students and faculty.

Was my father completely an American?

Well, he served in the Army in World War II and was trained by his country as an officer and engineer. He left the military with the rank of captain. He then graduated from Purdue University with a degree in chemical engineering, married an Irish Catholic and proceeded to procreate seven times.

Sounds like an American biography, to be sure. Possibly more American than me, a late baby boomer who was too young to be a hippie, too old to be of the post-Vietnam generation. But my father’s parents were Hungarian, and that was the language of his home when he was young. In Ohio.

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Patricia Parks speaks.

I thought of my father and his experience while I listened to Patricia Park talk about the writing of her novel “Re Jane.” In her case, the character Jane is a New Yorker, but the child of refugees from Korea. As a Korean-American, not a Hungarian-American, Jane has the added bonus of appearing to be Asian in a country were too many assume that if you’re not white, you’re not from here. (Of course, to Native Americans, if you appear Asian you may appear more American than all those washed-out Europeans).

Ms. Park even wrote a column for The Guardian in which she discusses her reaction to the question “where are you from,” Queens not being the answer most are after.

As Americans, to some extent, many of us are partly rootless. Technically, I’m a Southern Man, but Neil Young wasn’t singing about me. Because I really have little cultural connection to the state of my birth (Tennessee). My early growing up was in that anchorless stew of American culture known as California. But by mid elementary school, I was an Iowan.

I guess it would be most accurate to say I think of myself as an Iowan, even if I’m not really from here.

Where is Patricia from? Her parents grew up on a small peninsula of Asia whose ownership was the subject of multiple wars in the 20th century. In America, her skin tone and eye shape marks here as some “other,” possibly Chinese or Japanese in the same easy way that too many of us may think of “Hispanic” as a synonym with “Mexican.”

Anyway, I liked hearing her speak. For a New Yorker, she speaks good American. She sounded more American than that other New Yorker, Donald Trump, but then again English is her native language. Given the hash he makes of nouns or verbs, I am not sure Donald has found his native language yet.

Ms. Park, a university professor from out East, was in her element in front of a largely student audience. She praised students for their ideas, and had a genuine rapport with the audience. It was interesting to hear how long—the better half of a decade—she spent working on her book.

She almost got Iowans to ask a few questions—not something that Iowans seem to naturally do.

Or so I assume. I’m not always from here.

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An Interesting Dive into the Dumpster Life


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Dr. Joseph Hendryx speaks Oct. 3 at Mount Mercy on the politics of dumpster diving.

Lars wrote an interesting article. Dr. Joseph Hendryx, assistant professor of English at Mount Mercy University, covered some highlights of a piece that put the practice of dumpster diving into some new perspective.

People who scour dumpsters often have a system and a reason for what they’re doing. Many dive because they have to, but some are also driven to it by a countercultural rebellion against our consumerist society.

And there is a hierarchy among divers, too—from those who are doing it to survive to those who check through trash looking for  useful items rather than mere sustenance.

But beware the can scroungers, who Lars says will lay waste to a dumpster and make a terrible mess.

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Dr. Joseph Hendryx speaks.

The one article was the jumping off point to a broader exploration of this topic. Dr. Hendryx was the latest speaker in the fall 2019 faculty series at Mount Mercy University. His presentation was called “Eating in the Margins: The Politics and Experience of Dumpster Diving.” He contrasted the experience of Lars with others, including a man who has a “cooking with trash” YouTube channel.

And there is the whole “freeganism” movement that touches on diving with some political and ecological motives.

logoDr. Hendryx’s Oct. 3 presentation was interesting and thought provoking, and it was off the beaten path enough that it took me on routes unexplored and that I did not always understand. Which I like.

One nice note was that the crowd size was a up a bit for this presentation. Dr. Joy Ochs, the series coordinator, estimated that about 55 people attended, which seems about right, to me. It was a bit more than we’ve seen as some other series presentations.

This particular fall series has featured diverse presentations. Food is a provocative and big topic—and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. The next presentation will be “Food and the Making of a People: A Biblical Perspective” by Fr. Tony Adawu on Nov. 5.

Faces from the audience in the Oct. 3 presentation:

 

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Filed under Environment, Food, Mount Mercy, Writing

A Review of Print History in Norwich


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Museum volunteer explains 19th century print technology, which basically was used until past mid 20th century. The keyboard is part of a Linotype machine.

I’ve given up pretending I aspire to daily blog posts during this visit to England, partly because I’ve been too busy recording my adventures in the UK on my bicycle rider blog.

But today was worthy. First of all, Amanda’s friend Lara texted her and invited us over for lunch, which basically was a traditional English breakfast—beans, eggs and toast—but done with flourish and some fresh tomatoes, too. It was quite nice.

But before that, we walked some distance downtown to visit the John Jarrold Printing Museum, a cramped, fascinating place in an old building scheduled to be taken down in an area redevelopment project this fall. I do hope that they find a new home for this museum and save all of the interesting displays; we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

The Jarrold name in Norwich is primarily associated with a downtown department store, but the family at one time were printers, too. In fact, they published the first edition of the children’s classic “Black Beauty.” Today, the small museum preserves many pieces of printing history.

We walked in, and at first were a bit lost in the clutter, until a nice elderly gentleman, one of many volunteers who gather at the museum, took us on a tour. He basically started with Gutenberg press technology, and delighted in telling the stories behind the names of many fonts. Every once in a while, he would would pose a question about print history, and seemed a bit taken aback when I knew most answers. Then again, he didn’t know he was giving the tour to a communication professor who teaches media history, but never mind.

Even if the ideas were familiar, seeing the actual machinery and mechanics of printing was still fascinating. And he knew many more details about how the printing actually works.

We moved quickly to the 19th century and the introduction of the Linotype machine.

The first volunteer later passed us off to a second gentleman, who explained lithographic printing. I didn’t realize that the offset presses most often used today actually use basic technology that dates back to presses using stones for offset printing in the 1700s—so I learned new information.

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Second volunteer explains offset printing, used today. The 2009 local paper he is showing the CMYK plates for reports the news that shocked Norwich–the death of Michael Jackson.

As we were leaving, a third volunteer proudly presented me with a one-page reproduction of Magna Carta, which is pretty cool and which I will probably frame and put in my office.

It was quite a day—the visit to the print museum followed by the pleasant visit with Lara and her daughter, followed by a quick bike ride.

I do hope Norwich has the good sense to somehow preserve this museum. It’s a treasure and is worth keeping.

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At the print museum, they noted Norwich had the first “provincial” newspaper, or English paper not published in London. As we walked home, we passed this marker on a downtown building.

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A Man Walked the Walk Despite Cows


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Books for sale at evening presentation.

The Great Plains seems to be a beautiful place—a place of big skies, great distances and cows.

Beware the cows. A city kid from Buffalo, New York, Ken Ilgunas set out in fall several years ago to walk the route of the Keystone Pipeline, planned to go from Alberta to Texas. His purpose was to write a book about the land the controversial project would cross.

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At the evening speech, in the light.

But his worry, besides being shot for trespassing as he followed the route, was the potential for cattle catastrophe.

Although he did have some scary encounters, cows, it turned out, where not the bad.

And the people he met were mostly willing to help a scruffy looking stranger walking across their land. Ilguan, who spoke March 5 at Mount Mercy University, told both a journalism class and an evening public program that he had a particular approach to strangers.

 

Ilguna would walk up to a house, knock on the door, and then say, “I’m walking across America. Can I trouble you for some water?”

The answer was almost universally “yes.” One-on-one, as it turns out, Americans are not hostile or violent. They’ll invite you in, give you water, sometimes offer a meal or even a couch for the night.

I enjoyed both of Ilguna’s presentations, and hope to get and read his books—I did not have enough cash in my pocket to buy one tonight, but I’ll shop for “Trespassing Across America” soon.

Besides being an interesting and entertaining personal journey, Ilguna was also recording what he called, in scope, one of the biggest of all human-made environmental disasters, second perhaps only to global warming. Great swaths of land in Canada are being stripped to get at the oil tar, and great damage is then done to extract the oil from the sand and clay it is bound to.

The afternoon session, in which a social work professor kindly allowed my introduction to journalism class to sit in, included some interesting thoughts on launching a writing career. Among other things, Ilguna urged students to have their own web site—which validates a requirement I made in my writing classes for students to do that very thing.

The class also included an interesting discussion of the reality that Ilguna was a white man walking across the whitest part of North America, which was to his advantage. He and the students speculated it would be harder for any person or color, and several women noted that it would be difficult for a female to make that kind of solo journey.

It was an interesting day. More images. I’m glad Rachel Murtaugh and the MMU sustainability effort brought this interesting writer to campus.

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Filed under Environment, Mount Mercy, Travel, Weather, Writing

A New Web Site is Headed Our Way


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Web site as of Feb. 28, 2019

10 years, a marketing professional told me this afternoon, is a long time on the web.

That’s about how long Mount Mercy University has had its current web site. It actually has two, which is a minor irritant to me, because when I google MMU seeking our main web site, I sometimes end up in a special online school web site, which is not a terrible fate except when I’m there, I don’t know how to get to the “regular” home of Mount Mercy.

DSC_0012Well, the web is a complex, evolving system, more accessed these days via smartphone than via computers. Which is another point make by Jamie Jones, marketing director, as she spoke to my Introduction to journalism class.

The students are learning about interviews this week, and having a news conference fit into the lesson plan—so thank you, Jamie, for attending my class and subjecting yourself to students’ questions.

I think the question were decent, and I’m glad the class had this experience. I also think that Jamie is right—the MMU site is due for a significant rebirth. Personally, what’s most important to me is ease of navigation—and having a way to get there quickly when I land, by accident, on that online school’s alternative university web site.

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Filed under Computers are stupid, Journalism, Mount Mercy, Writing