Sunday, February 18, 2018

a love story



Do y'all have a Waffle House restaurant where you are?  Google says they're in 25 states in the US.  I know they started in Georgia, so I'm not sure if it's mostly a southern US thing or if it's an east coast thing or what.  If you have a Waffle House near you or if you've ever had the joy of eating in one, this will be a funny story.  If not, I guess you just need to know that Waffle House is a roadside diner/greasy spoon.  While the word "waffle" is in the name, I lived half my life before I witnessed anyone actually ordering a waffle in the restaurant.  When they did, I laughed out loud.  They specialize in breakfast plates, heavy on the grease and they used to brag that they sold more steaks than any other restaurant (think thin, flat and tough).  They're usually plopped beside almost every other interstate offramp and it's the kind of place you can expect to be called "honey", "sugar", "sweetie" or some other syrupy knickname while you're inside.  It's a dinner and a show kind of place, but the show is free.  One time years ago, our waitress told us the story of how she stabbed her ex husband while she served us and called us "sweetie".  

If you're unclear, we love it.  The food may not be healthy, but we love it.  And you know how we love to people watch.  In fact, the Waffle House is an important part of our family Christmas tradition.  They're open 24/7, 365.  

A couple of years back I remember walking out of our local Waffle House and seeing a pink piece of paper advertising a special Valentine's Day special and inviting customers to make plans to bring their date to the Waffle House.  I pointed it out and laughed with G about it.  Back in high school, the ironic kids would take their dates to the Waffle House to be funny and cool.  I assumed no one, ever, in the history of mankind would have taken their date to the Waffle House on purpose, for real.  


G and I don't really do anything big for Valentine's Day.  We've been married 20-something years and we're pretty much over it.  After about 10 years we stopped buying into the nonsense and started spending money like semi-responsible people.  This meant no more overpriced roses.  Grocery store roses or tulips were more economical and tulips could be planted.  G would rather have a pack of Hershey bars than any of the finest chocolates from Belgium anyway.  And once kids came along, we pretty much had constant 3rd and 4th wheels on our Valentine's dates.  

So last Wednesday on the 14th, G was tired and not in the mood to cook.  We considered our limited local options for food and quickly settled on Waffle House, figuring the other places could be more crowded for dinner on a big date night.  We rolled up one interstate exit and when we rounded the corner past the trees we saw the small parking lot full of cars.  That's when we remembered the little pink paper from a couple of years ago.   As we turned in and looked for a parking space, G and the kids were already running through a list of alternative restaurants.  But it was too late, I was interested.

The blinds were pulled down making it appear dark inside.  There were hearts and decorations all over the windows.  The place was packed and the people inside were dressed up.  No one dresses up for Waffle House.  The manager was inside with a black suit and his kid was working as the doorman also wearing a suit.  This was awesome.  I had to go inside.  I pulled the seatbelt off and looked at G.  She said, we're not waiting forever just to eat at Waffle House.  I argued we wouldn't have to wait long because there was only one family waiting in front of us.  She said, "We don't have reservations."  I laughed so hard.  The very idea of getting reservations to eat at Waffle House is still hilarious.  I was still laughing as the little kid opened the door and asked if I'd be dining with them this evening.  All I could think to say was "Look at you!".

I walked in and the manager approached me with a smile.  "Happy Valentine's Day, Sir!  Do you have a reservation?"


I didn't laugh in his face.  But I did laugh.  But y'all, all the lights were covered with pink paper for romantic lighting.  There were pink and white tablecloths on all the tables.  There was a red and white Christmas tree in the corner with red hearts hanging all over it.  There was a photobooth set up for couples.  I was going to eat there so I could take it all in.  

We waited about 15 minutes to sit down.  Without a doubt this is the longest I've ever waited to eat at a Waffle House.  Heck, I've had entire dining experiences there that didn't last that long.  But we waited and watched people.  People seemed to be eating salads, which we didn't know Waffle House served.  Some were getting desserts.  When couples would finish eating, the manager would walk them over to the backdrop and take their photo with one of those hipster instamatic cameras.  There was a youth group from a church.  There were several white haired couples.  There was a young couple who seemed just as surprised as us.  But everyone was smiling, laughing and happy.  

We were seated at the lower counter in four consecutive stools.  There was a white plastic tablecloth with lace hearts glued on it.  There was a candle romantically flickering for about 10 seconds before Blue blew it out.  They handed us special menus with salads, steaks and desserts.  Of course we opted for the traditional greasy breakfast but it was every bit as enjoyable as anything else.  With counter seats it's easier to watch the show as you overlook the open kitchen.  One of the waitresses and one of the cooks had a secret thing going on.  There were a couple of low key touches and brushes as they passed.  Not sure if this was a secret from the manager, so don't tell on them.  It seemed appropriate for the day.

The cool thing was, everyone was so happy.  It was like we were all in on the joke and no one was really the butt of the joke.  Waffle House knew it was quirky and weird and they went all in on it.  The patrons knew it was goofy and they dressed up and held hands and played it up.  Everyone was winning.  It was so great.  This was marketing genius.  This restaurant that truly suffered on one particular night of the year developed a goofball idea to bring in customers and it worked.  I was so proud of them!

When we got up to pay, we got the whole family in front of the backdrop for the instant photo.


The manager thanked us for coming and handed us our photo and we laughed all the way home.


Also, I bought G a pack of Hershey bars, so we're good.



Tuesday, February 13, 2018

my brain is mushy

I've got critique brain.

If you don't teach studio art classes at the college level, that may not mean much to you.  What I mean is, in the last 24 hours I've critically analyzed and thoroughly discussed 30 projects in a critique setting.  

Critiques are fearsome events.  Students dread them for weeks.  This is the time when an art student turns in a project they've worked on for many weeks.  They've invested blood, sweat and tears to create what they hope is their newest masterpiece.  Then we gather as a class and look at each project one at a time.  The student artist will explain what they've done and how they've used the elements and principles of design to create an effective composition.  This is the manipulation of space that causes the viewer to want to look at the work of art.  The behind the scenes magic that designers use to influence your actions on large and small scales.  Once the design is presented, the group then provides feedback and analysis, breaking down each and every part of the design.  They make judgments based on visual evidence and suggest ways to make the designs more effective.  If there's a conceptual problem involved, the success or failure to communicate the concept is also discussed at length.  When all of the formal and conceptual qualities have been sufficiently analyzed and discussed, we move on to the next student's work.  

This can be a treacherous process for students.  After spending so much time creating your design, it can be difficult to separate yourself from the work of art.  Any negative comment about the work can sting on a personal level.  There can be frustration, anger and many, many tears.  Sometimes a student will be overcome with emotion and quietly leave the room in order to shed their tears in the privacy of the hallway or the bathroom.  Less often, the tears fall on the studio floor.  On the really interesting days, students can become offended and lash out at each other's artwork in personal ways.  While this act can be funny to me, I do try to stomp out those flames when they appear as this is not a helpful or professional characteristic of critique. 

The student is not completely off the hook after presenting their design and emotionally surviving the feedback.  Students are also expected to provide analysis and feedback to their peers.  Some offer more observations and feedback than others and their critique grades will reflect this participation.  


However frightful and energy depleting this may be for the students, I will argue that the teachers must give even more energy to the process. 

Let's take a second.  All my students just slammed their laptops down, tossed their phones across the room and whispered an obscenity as they left.

If you're still here, consider the plight of the studio art teacher in this process.  There's the obvious participation in the critique, of course.  We stand there in front of the work and break it down into the most basic components just like the students do.  We follow along, trying to understand each perspective offered and each suggestion, fact checking as we go in case someone is off base.  If so, we offer correction and keep things moving.  Then, when the students are finished talking about an individual work of art, the teacher speaks up to offer the more definitive feedback.  We take all the evidence into consideration and more or less offer a judgment for or against the work of art.  Then, taking it further, we may offer observation and feedback on the student's work ethic, attitude or potential...all things we've carefully observed and even more carefully worded right there on the spot.  At the end of the critique of the first student's artwork, the teacher's brain is warmed up and working just like everyone else's in the room.  

Then we do it again and again until the entire class has been properly critiqued.  That's what the students see.  When class is over I get the feeling they assume we retire to a teachers' lounge ensconced in velvet and drink champagne from our "best teacher ever" coffee mugs.

But they missed a few things.  What they didn't see was how carefully the teacher was also observing students and listening to comments during the critique.  See, those have to be graded, so the teacher has to be paying close attention and perhaps even making notes about each student.  And then instead of retiring to the posh teachers' lounge, we instead walk fast to our offices and answer 40 emailed questions, prepare for the 3 faculty meetings we have that week and when we get home after dark, we kiss our kids goodnight, eat a pop-tart over our computer while we enter grades and grade comments for each student's artwork.  Then we enter grades and grade comments for each student's participation in critique.  In a class of 12 students (the capacity for a space hogging 3D studio) that can take a few hours if you rush.  I currently have 3 classes of the same subject, so after doing this on a Monday, I get to do it again with even more students on a Tuesday.  This semester, my student total for this particular course is 31.  So for every one critique a student must suffer through, the teacher must do that 30 more times.  Then those next two classes must be graded as before and you know those students are going to expect that their grades be ready for them to question the next time class meets, right?  So you go home and yell at the dogs for barking and close the door to your studio so you cant hear the kids playing video games and you get it done.

Of course I can hear the scoffing of the lecture oriented professors from here.  "31 students?  Oh please, I have more than 31 students in each of my 4 or 5 classes!"  That's true but also misleading.  Because you spend 2 or 2.5 hours with those students each week.  I spend 6 hours face to face with my students in the studio each week.  And don't get me started about your little Scantron tests that are graded by a computer for you.  Or maybe you are really classy and you require essay questions on your tests.  That's cute.  You read those and check for accuracy and understanding.  We mentally and emotionally wrestle with each student in critique in order to figure out how to inspire and motivate each one on an individual level.  Really though, I only mock you out of respect.  I know you work hard in your teaching and grading as well.  I just have to take crap from people who still think all we do is sit around and draw little pictures, so I'm a little sensitive.  

My point is only that at the end of a critique/grading cycle I've solved more difficult problems than any one person should have to solve in a year.  I've had to think fast on my feet and come up with some really impressive ideas - ideas I've given over to a student and I'll never get to use for myself!  My brain feels like a wet sock that squishes water inside a shoe with every step you take.  


In spite of this small complaint and my slightly mushy brain, teaching is still the best job ever.  In some weird way, I get energized by the whole process.  I love critiques and how they can be the most effective ways to teach certain things to students.  I love watching students change their behavior in a critique and learn to really dig in and see all the mechanics at work in a design.  I love having them in a critique years later and hearing them still use some of the same language I helped to teach them.  I love it when they email me after 12 years and tell me they still hear my voice repeating critique lines.  I love being a small part of what they become.



But again, my brain is tired.  I'm not even sure those were complete sentences up there.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

can you meet for pizza?

Ali came through town last week.  Do y'all know Ali?  I met Ali about 8 years ago when she was introduced to me while she was applying to our MAT program.  She had a kid on her hip and she was quick to say it was not her kid.  The next year she became my student and served as my studio worker (Queen of Sculpture) for a good while.  She's good people.  We got to know each other pretty well during that time and then I shipped her off to grad school for a while.  Then she got married.  But every now and then she drives past Gwood and she'll text me to see if I'm free for pizza.  So last week I cleared an hour to catch up at Millhouse.  These kinds of chats can be so scattered as we have to catch up on everything that has happened since the last time the planets aligned.  In this case it was 7 or 8 months.  There are mutual friends to catch up on, people to make fun of, funny stories and general life updates.  

I have a couple of different topics for the blog open on my computer just gathering dust, waiting on the right mood to either finish them or share them.  But they're not ready yet.  And since things are still happening all around us, I thought about stealing the rambling life update approach from my conversation with Ali and using it here with y'all.  So maybe grab a coffee or a slice of pizza.


 I'm a parent.  Those are my kids hiding inside cabinets at either Lowe's or Home Depot.  I scratch my head in wonder every single day at this parenting thing.  Sometimes you feel like you're the king of all dads and your kids are saints.  Twelve seconds later you can feel like you're a miserable parenting failure.  Blue and Violet are happy kids and they're nice to people.  I'm going to consider that a win so far.


 When I get home each day from school I do a yoga based exercise called PiYo.  It's a combination of pilates and yoga.  I've tried several things for strength and cardio and this one seems to work best for me.  It feels right.  But it's hard and after the long days when I've been on my feet all day and I'm feeling my age, it's a struggle to exercise when I get home.  Then, I turn around and look behind me and find these lazy mutts asleep.  


 Both of these photos were taken at the end of a PiYo session.  I was tired and sweaty.  They were cozy and well rested.  Punks. 


 Ok, so a couple of weeks ago this delivery guy pulls up directly outside my windows at school.  That's him in the red shirt behind the stop sign.  It was either his first day on the job or it was his worst day ever.  He jack-knifed the truck trying to back it up and was delivering it in the wrong place.  The truck shook as he pinned the tires against the curb.  He got out of the truck already exasperated and it was still morning.  He thew up the back door to find the entire contents of the truck in a giant dog pile.  Boxes everywhere.  It was a mess.  Oh and this is a food delivery service.  Inside the boxes are fragile and perishable items being delivered to our restaurants on campus.  When he saw the mess he braced against the truck and hung his head.  Then he started muttering and cursing.  

At this point, I was hooked.  I pulled up a chair, told the students still in the room to gather and we prepared to watch the show.  He climbed into the truck and started to try to restack the boxes in some kind of order.  He set up his ramp for unloading and after throwing several things around pretty recklessly, he gathered himself enough to start packing the order on his cart.  But instead of using his hand trucks to roll the boxes down the very steel ramp a few at a time...safely...he opted to use a large cart which he then proceeded overload with very poorly stacked boxes of fragile, perishable food products.  Even while he was loading it, the boxes were on the verge of falling off the cart.

Our excitement was palpable.  When he started down the ramp with stacks of rocking boxes that were towering over his head, we started giggling.  To our amazement he made it to the bottom of the ramp without disaster.  But then...the moment the cart wheels hit the bottom all the weight shifted and the towers of boxes started falling in all directions.  The look on his face was unforgettable.  He grabbed at the boxes but it was far too late.  They crashed to the ground in heaps.  A couple of boxes ripped open.  Many more were crushed.  The best box erupted, spilling it's contents - large, gallon plastic containers of mayonnaise onto the sidewalk.  Some of those containers also gave up the ghost and exploded gobs of mayo onto the sidewalk and grass.  We were absolutely rolling with laughter.  

He cursed and threw his arms around in a fury.  Then he got himself together enough to restack the boxes on the cart.  He attempted to clean up some of the mess but his stacks of boxes fell another couple of times before he made it to the building doors.  There were several other small mishaps on his second and third trips inside, but the only one worth mentioning was when he split the butt of his pants.  Dude was having a very bad day.  He's been back a couple of times since and I'm happy to report he's gotten a little better and a little smarter each time.  He still blocks the entire road when he parks but he's dropping less food.  And Friday he even learned to use the brake on the cart after the fully loaded cart took off rolling down the sidewalk without him when he went to get something out of the cab of the truck.  

I am thankful for his contributions to our Fridays in class.  


 I'm working on finishing up the painting on a steel bowtie for a life sized rhinoceros.  While I was working on cutting out pieces of steel for that project, I happened across an idea and I think I'm going to have to steal away some time to sculpt soon.  After spending the vast majority of my studio time last year working on drawings, I'm suddenly excited about working on sculptures again. 


 Our students in the art department are exceptional in every way.  Each week it seems new people come out to slog with us.  Not only do we get to breathe fresh air and do something good for our bodies and our minds, but we also get to know each other during our slog chats.  I don't know of any other art department that has the kind of environment that we have.  It is a very intentional thing and we work hard to create it.  Best of all, it works.  It forms an atmosphere where the students can get the most out of their education.  I really like my students.  (That's Bolt, Jocelyn, Katherine, Cali and Yessica posing with my head)

Not only is Timmy lazy, he also sleeps like a human.  Most nights when I go to bed I'll find G under the covers with her head on her pillow.  Timmy will be asleep beside her, also under the covers with his head on my pillow.  Spoiled mutt.



 Thursday we had our annual celebration of our students' creative work, the Annual Juried Student Exhibit.  We make this event a big deal for our students by having tons of place awards, merit awards and purchase awards.  Jax thought I was taking that photo of her.  I don't want to get anyone in trouble so I wont say why I took it but I think it's funny.  



 Laura Brown took these photos and you can tell because they're actually great photos.  That's Jamea with her drawing.  Jamea is a quality human.  She will graduate in May and I will miss her.  She says she has never been mad at me and I'm sure any of my students would tell you that's a miracle.  


Adam won Best In Show.  That's Jimmy, jonny, Singletary, Adam, me and Esnipes.  Adam's family was present for the reception so his mom, grandma and aunt got to see him win this and another award.  There were tears.  It was great.  I'm happy for him and very proud.  But this photo....this photo is all about Esnipes the superhero.  Take a good look at the photo.  If you look carefully beside my left hand you'll see a tiny foot dangling from behind Esnipes.  What you can't see is the rest of the toddler body attached to that foot.  There's a whole tiny human hanging on to Esnipes' back while this photo is being taken.  Esnipes posed, smiled and completely hid the kid on her back for the official photo because she moms so hard.  It's a small visual reminder of the juggling acts our art faculty members all practice each day.  Parents, animal trainers, teachers, committee members, spouses, artists, public relations experts, agents and managers - we have to be all those things during any given day.  Esnipes makes it look easy.  It's not.


When Ali and I had that pizza lunch, I have to say that we managed to talk fast and eat our two pizzas without being totally disgusting.  She and I share a fondness for the movie "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" where one of the characters states that while he has the "gift of gab" he prefers a conversational hiatus while eating.  I think he said he finds talking while eating "vulgar and rude".  Maybe it was "course and rude", I forget.  I'm happy to report that we kept most of our food in our mouths.  If I had any in my beard she didn't tell me.  Hopefully we didn't gross anyone out.  Maybe next time we'll just get coffee.