Getting Ready To Go Pick Up Joseph Tambo

While cleaning up the house, getting ready for Joseph Tambo's arrival

I came across my old grade book from the C.E.G. Carnot,

a middle school, though, since there was no high school in the town,

and since there had been three years of teachers' strikes

the students were already teenagers, so it felt more like high school.

And since there were only six classrooms for hundreds of students

we were on a schedule that was more like college.

So, I was teaching only 15 hours a week,

but each of those hours meant dozens more spent in anxious planning, dreading, grading.

How to do this impossible thing?

Here is my grade book from my second year,

when I had a bit better handle on things.

This class had 87 students.

Notice the last one. . .


The Many Hats of Niki de Saint Phalle

Do you know the many hats of Niki de Saint Phalle?
and how she stood in Paris 
before the fountain of a wild dream
while she envisioned
the tarot garden
Jean Tinguely?


In Anticipation of the Arrival of Our Guest

Joseph Tambo is coming on Saturday for a three week visit.  He was my most focused and attentive student when I was a Peace Corps teacher in Carnot, Central African Republic.  He was 12 in 1996 when I gave all the students my address and told them, if they wrote to me, I would write them back.

And Joseph Tambo sent me a letter and he made sure to never lose contact, over twenty years, emailing and facebooking.  He taught himself English and got a job at the American Embassy in Bangui.  And now he has a visa and a plane ticket, and he will be here in two days.

I feel ashamed of our culture already, thinking of how striking it will be to Joseph Tambo, how wasteful we are.  I am ashamed of our culture because I am already worried about how different it is for a black man here than in Africa.

I am excited to take him to the library, to Imagine City Park, to Madison, to Lake Michigan.  I am excited to take him to the high school to share with the students his story.

I try to explain to the kids.  It's not like us going to Paris.  This was not easy for this guy.  This took some rare powers of visioning and determination.  He has lived through some terrible things, and somehow always finds the strength to keep working towards his goals no matter how many obstacles he encounters.

There are so many questions I have for him.  One thing I know for sure: Joseph Tambo is going to be cold.

Carnot's elementary school

Carnot's market near the school

Carnot's middle school where I taught Joseph Tambo

Neighborhood near the school

On my way to school after grading exams.



I didn't take many pictures in Paris
I made it my intention 
not to,

but then we passed this guy after leaving the Pompidou
and I chased him down 
and told him 
I couldn't resist.

"C'est drole?" he asked.

"Oui, oui," I called in the rain. "C'est tres drole!"


Art School Teacher: Visioning Practice

When encountering art works, 
try envisioning the artists making it, 
where they were and 
how the place smelled and 
the sounds all around and
where the light was coming from and 
the shadows, 

that led to this


On Being a Good Listener

While working on a presentation about how to be a better listener,

My husband tells me about his new and improved financial goals.  

But instead of "listening with an open heart and mind", as I recommend in the presentation, I plan how I'm going to tell him, "Yes, it's a great goal!" and then plan how to tell him how he needs to change in order to accomplish that goal and then hold myself back from interrupting him and patiently wait for him to finish while congratulating myself on what a good listener I'm being.  


Questions Posed at last week's Sappho Cafe

(Sappho Cafe
Wednesdays, 8:30-11:30am
The 602 Club, 

Who controls the internet?

What happens to nuclear power plants when governments fail?

Who controls what information we see and don't see?

Did you hear about the journalists who conducted a secret year long world wide investigation into tax evasions of the super rich, including five heads of state?

Did you hear the Prime Minister of Iceland resigned because of it?

Why doesn't 400 people getting arrested in front of the U.S. capital protesting the influence of big money in politics make front page news?

Who controls our access to the internet?

What does a crayon taste like?*

Want to get a printing press?

What if no one voted?

*speculation, based on Jack's expression as he gnawed on a gray crayon.


Art School Teacher: Stumbling Upon Nicolas Lampert

It just happens to be that I come across an announcement and so go to see Nicolas Lampert talk about guerrilla art - Jesse Graves and his mud stencils and the People's Climate March, and the Tamms Prison project, and the role that art plays in propelling social protest movements.

I go home all fired up spouting to the kids as I serve up the soup, that in the next 100 years there are going to be massive migrations north, as the Earth dries.  My 14 year old year argues that he knows for a fact a drier climate is not a 100 years away, but a million.  Plus it doesn't matter because everywhere there's deserts now, will turn into lush forest, he says.  I start to argue with him but quickly grow dejected after my older daughter chimes in that even if it is 100 years off, it doesn't matter because we won't be around anyway.

I hang my head, ashamed of myself and our disposable culture, and we finish our dinner in silence. Finally my younger daughter asks if I am sad. Well, yes I am.  Sad and disappointed in my parenting, that I have not taught my children how to sit together and have a serious discussion about important ideas.  I'm sad that our discussion of climate change is an insurmountable argument before even beginning.

My younger daughter asks, "What's climate change?" and I am about to sigh and say, it's really complicated.  But last week, when the same daughter asked me why I don't like Donald Trump, I found that I did not have a coherent answer, though I felt a visceral anger.  I know why I don't like Donald Trump.  But I was tongue tied trying to explain why to my daughter.

If I only talk to others 
who feel the same way I do about Donald Trump, 
then we can speak in generalities 
and visceral reactions 
and be understood.  

And if that's the only language we use,
than a discussion with people who have different opinions
is only a battle of visceral reactions,
baring our teeth at each other and growling,
sending us deeper into language
that allows only monologue.

I majored in science and though I remember few specifics, what I do retain is how to think about systems and their intertwined complications.  So I find that I can explain climate change, about fossil fuels and pollution and my son clears his plate and leaves the room, followed by the older daughter. But the youngest stays, listening as I talk about greenhouse gases and rising temperatures and melting ice caps and rising sea levels and drying land and water becoming scarce and people migrating north. After a bit, with tears in her eyes, she asks "so that means we're all going to die?"

And my husband and I differ on this and if he would have been home, he would have put the kabosh on the whole thing from the beginning, since he spent his childhood hearing his parents fret about nuclear war and so has an aversion to doom and gloom.

I tell her the truth, which I've told her before.  We are all going to die. That's the nature of life.  But no, not right away.  Not for a very long time.  And it's hard to think about, yes.  But part of growing up is learning how to deal with difficult things.

Like being up in the night, thinking about difficult things, which I am.

And still the next day, there it is, so by the time I get to class, I can't think of anything else.  I ask the students, because I'm curious, "What do you know about climate change?"  That doesn't ring any bells, but global warming gets them talking (hesitantly) about melting polar ice caps and dying polar bears.

What effect does melting polar ice caps have on the rest of the world? 

What happens when the oceans rise?  

But none of these students have ever seen the ocean.  So we talk about coast lines and islands and how the Maldives are disappearing and how half of Florida could be underwater by the end of the century, like many coastal lands and islands all over the planet.

What happens to people who have been displaced by climate change?  

What causes people to leave their homes and go to a foreign land?  

Where are people fleeing today? 

Why the Syrians? 

Is it coincidence that there are so many conflicts in the same land that has so much oil?  

Who controls the oil?

What are the ties between our government and big oil industries?

What is Citizens United? 

What happens if suddenly, we have no more oil?  

What do we use oil for?

What is the cause of global warming?

What is the effect?

Jesse Graves mud stencil
I show them a picture of a Jesse Graves mud stencil and we talk about the power of the image.

And we watch this:

Video of Jesse Graves explaining his mud stencil technique.

I ask, "Should we try making our own mud stencil?"

They say, "Yes!"

Assignment:  Ponder.  What message is important enough to put in a public space?  What do you feel is sad and wrong?  What issues make you react most passionately?  How can you represent an idea as an image?


Art School Teacher: Five Ways to Write Poems, explained

I plan to talk about Austin Kleon and how he came to make his black out poems.

But right before leaving the house I think, why not have them write a poem first?  And why not bring the Hardy Boys book? And why not bring a book for the girl who has been absent but will be back today?

So I do.

But when the bell rings and I say to get out a pen and write a poem, the girl who has been absent walks in with a clear plastic box of what I think are brownies, but turn out to be dirt and her pet tarantula.

The girl who hates tarantulas gasps.  So I say, alright, let's breathe first.

So we do, sitting tall with eyes closed.  Inhaling through the nose for 4 counts, holding the breath for 7, exhaling through the mouth for 8, as recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil.

And then we notice all the stuff going on inside us today.  And imagine all that stuff swirling around and coming out in the form of a poem.

After we finish writing our poems, I tell them about Austin Kleon and how he writes poems like a sculptor, by blacking out all the words he doesn't want.  We practice making our own black out poems from an old New York Times.

I remember David Bowie and his cut up method of writing lyrics.  So we talk about that too and decide to try, cutting 10 words or phrases from pages out of the Hardy Boys book and arranging them into poems.

We are all very absorbed in our poem making.  We listen to Freddie Mercury and David Bowie's acapella version of "Under Pressure."

Then we discuss: What did you notice about each way of making poems?  How are they different? How are they the same?

Some thought the cut up method was hard, others thought the blackout was harder.  Another countered that the blackout was the easiest and trying to write a poem about the thing swirling inside was hardest.

So I give them a choice:  To take their 10 cut ups and put them all together to make a group poem, or to write a poem while listening to a piece of music.  The girl who has been absent recoils at the idea of group work.

So I put on Brian Eno's Music for Airports and tell them this was the music I fell in love to when I was sixteen.

Everyone is focused, working on their poems.

The bell rings and the girl who is terrified of tarantulas snaps out of her poetry making and remembers to be terrified of the spider.

Assignment:  Do something with your poems and document it to share next class.

I remember to give the girl with the pet tarantula the book I brought for her.

She stays after the bell to tell me thanks for thinking of her.  Then she tells a painful thing she's suffering and I wish I had the perfect thing to say but do not.  I am ashamed that I move first, that after there is a pause, instead of staying and listening, I move away from her and towards my backpack.  So we say goodbye.

But I know there was more she wanted to say.  I thought about it all week, several times catching myself wanting to move away right when someone needed me.  I practiced staying.

I was relieved to see the student who had told me a painful thing was back the next week.

After listening and drawing and coloring to Astral Weeks, she again stayed after the bell, and this time I turned towards her and listened and didn't turn away.  And she cried some about the painful thing. And I got to say a couple of cliche things I'd thought of during the week.  Stay strong.  You have a lot to offer the world.  See it as a learning experience.  Things get better.  That type of thing.

I completely forgot about asking if any did the assignment of doing something with their poems from last class.  Later, I notice, tacked to the wall in the back of the room, the beautiful sad poems of the girl with the pet tarantula.


The Unknown Artist: Thoughts on the Arts Focus Group Discussion for the Appleton Downtown Plan Update

At the city planning meeting, Len tells a story about how he showed a class of teens at the high school for the arts, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" and how dismayed he was that the students didn't know who painted it, guessing Picasso.

But I'm not even sure I know much more than Hopper's name, if I even could have come up with that on the fly. *(Full disclosure: I thought the painting was called "Night Cafe", probably because that's what we called it playing Masterpiece.  See note.)

Does that make me less of an artist?

There is consent in the room, that indeed, this is disappointing news.  But who is to say what a seventeen year old should know?

How many people know about the Mercator Projection?

Probably not too many, which is disappointing seeing how profoundly map projections effect our view of the world.

I would know nothing about that if I hadn't randomly landed in a map projection seminar freshman year of college.

Why should we expect a student to know Hopper?

Because it is such an important cultural icon.

Why?  Who chooses the objects that become cultural icons?  Why are certain images shown to us over and over?  Why is a work of art not deemed important until enough people acknowledge it's important?  Why is it that by seeing an imagine again and again, it becomes important? Is being important more than a popularity contest?   And what does that mean for images from communities that have no chance of ever becoming important?

Is it just as dismaying that these same students can not identity the work of even one artist in their own community?

Why is the work of famous dead artists more important than the current work of local unknown artists?  For one, because it is safe to say that the popular dead artist's work is important.  We known it because it's obvious.  We don't have to defend our position.

Mostly, we feel uncomfortable with the messy, failure-ridden process of making art.  Mostly, we don't want to look foolish showing interest in an art work that isn't considered important.  Mostly, we don't know what to think of art works and whether or not we realize it, need an expert's validation in order to feel a connection to the work.  Experts arise from all kinds of places.  Study and reflection and connection and chutzpah, the daring to believe that their opinions are important.

But the vast majority of artists never become "important."  Does this mean we are unimportant?

Why do art communities grow and what value do they offer?  How does a mural change a neighborhood?  How does a poem influence discussions?  What is the roll of the unimportant artist?

When a city decides to honor its artists by naming streets after them, dedicating sculptures to them, stamping their writings on buildings, presenting their works in the concert halls, discussing their philosophies in salons, what impact does that have on a society?  What happens to a society that supports a community of people who concern themselves with art making?

Len tells how he talked to the students about the angles, the light, the loneliness, the influence on film noir.

So now they know about Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks".  Because it is important to an artist working in their community.  Rather than disappointing, I find that inspiring.

Three details from a work of my favorite unknown artist,
my mother who took oil painting classes with Frank Siposic every Tuesday night,
and whose paintings I studied all throughout my childhood.

* The only reason that I even kind of know that Edward Hopper painted "Nighthawks" was due to our childhood obsession with a rare board game called Masterpiece that featured some of the west's most famous  art works.


the universe song

go ahead and dance to a universe song:

tad neuhaus, guitar and drum machine
joanna dane, vocals

What a haunting thing
To look deep into the stars
And to realize we are nothing more than

A speck on a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck of dust that’s invisible to the naked eye and even more insignificant than that.

If we go deep inside, smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller,
We encounter the vastness of the stars.

And what is this connection between this internal infinity and this crazy idea,
the reflection of the universe expanding backwards in time?

Someday we’ll pass back through the swinging doors
And the only thing that will be left will be the echoes of our stories

Echoing and fading
Echoing and fading
Echoing and fading

Until there is nothing left.


Art School Teacher: Astral Weeks Class

An hour before class have no idea what to do for class.  Listen to Astral Weeks to make yourself feel better.  Decide to have an Astral Weeks class.

Roll out a giant piece of paper on the floor.

Hand out black markers.  Demonstrate how to hold the marker with a very loose grip.

Practice allowing the arm to move freely.  Practice letting the capped pen flow across the paper.

With uncapped pen, play title song from Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" (loud).  Practice keeping the arm loose while making lines to the music.

Be free.

Play Astral Weeks again, this time decorating the page with the lyrics.

Hear the shiest student suggest we use a different color for the words.  Have a brief inspiration to stop everything and run to get different colored markers, but reason that it's best to not break the momentum, and then regret it the whole song, imaging how great the words would look in red.

After the song is over wonder aloud, "Should we color it?"

Be surprised by the resounding, "Yes!"

Find a bucket of colored pencils, markers, crayons.

Read aloud the first paragraphs of "Astral Weeks" on Wiki while the students color.

recorded in two evenings
without song sheets
by musicians who had never played together
one of the most influential and unique albums
of linked song cycles
with virtuosic vocals
impressionistic, modernistic
madame george and cypress avenue
written as stream of consciousness
improvised accompaniment

Play the full album.  


Make new compositions by photographing details.