Friday, May 26, 2017

the difference between mermaids and noise

I'm sitting at my dining room table.  Ten feet in front of me several teams of hummingbirds are warring over the favored nectar bank.  The window that separates us is one of the best features of the house.  Just beyond the window is the front porch and hummingbird traffic zone.  Beyond that is the front yard and beyond that is a field of high grass and wildflowers.  You can see the majority of the 10 acres from this seat, including the eastern sky that funnels the morning sun into the dining room.  

The first day I ate breakfast here six years ago I looked up between bites and saw a baby deer frolicking across the front yard.  I often see our hawk looking for his breakfast from the top of the tall pine.  On the very best mornings the kids scarf down their food and run off to adventures, leaving G and I to sit at the table talking and daring one another to have another sugar filled coffee.  I do love to eat, but I've learned that eating is not the best thing about sitting at the dining room table.  

That first morning six years ago, I learned to watch and enjoy the silence.  It was a great lesson and one that has treated me well.  

Right now, while I'm typing, Blue and Violet are sitting in the living room watching TV with volume up way too loud.  Each of them also has an iPod in their hands simultaneously playing some game.  Two things at once.  Every now and then one of them will begin to narrate their game out loud.  Then they'll fall out of their chair where they were sitting upside down and use the opportunity to cuddle with Timber.  

And last week, last week I observed the most heinous of all sins.  During our sand sculpting class we spent several days on the beach all day.  We were surrounded by the most gloriously wonderful of sound mixtures.  The wind, the surf, and the occasional gull or gleeful child laugh made a beautiful cocktail of sound.  Sitting on the beach with only these sounds is one of my favorite things about a beach vacation.  But you can always count on some Philistine to lug a speaker or radio out and plop it down beside you to try to drown out all the "noise" of the natural surroundings.  

My kids and my students have become dependent on the noise of distraction.  We can't drive to Walmart without Blue wanting to put his headphones in.  My students can't take their earbuds out long enough to weld.  I explain that they need to learn to hear the different sounds of the machines so they'll know when things are going well or going wrong.  They respond, "What?!" and then they pause their music until I walk away.  

Last week the beach reminded me of the need to listen.  When I returned home and caught up on emails I saw that my Dean had shared an article she wrote about the importance of poetry.  In her article she quoted T.S. Elliot in his story about a man who lived his life filled with the busy-ness of noise and never stopped to take the time to observe and listen to what life was saying to him.  Near the end of his life he lamented his choices and imagined that he could "hear the mermaids singing" while knowing that he had never taken the time to listen and it was too late for him. 

I believe we are all afraid to listen.
What if we get a great idea?  What if we have to act on it?  What if we try and fail?  What if we look ridiculous?  What will people think?  Fear hands us the earbuds.  Fear turns up the volume.  Fear keeps us exactly where we were yesterday.  Fear keeps us comfortable.

From my dining room table, I can hear the mermaids singing.  I can hear them from my front porch swing, from my beach chair and sometimes I can even hear them over the shrill shouting of the grinder.

I realize it is my job to help others hear their song.  So I'll drag my kids into the woods and across the lake, forcing them to leave their iPods at home.  I'll pull my students' earbuds out so they can actually think.  And I'll do my best to steer them all away from the figurative noise that tries to steal away their creativity.  

And at night, I'll put my own ridiculous phone down and take a break from endless scrolling until the mermaids sing me to sleep.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

that time we had class on the beach

Two years ago I was building a sand fort on the beach with my kids.  We had spent the week in the sand building new and interesting things each day.  Beach walkers would stop and ask questions and say nice things.  I joked with G while I was carving a skull on the front of the fort that my dream job would be to find a way to get paid to sculpt on the beach.  Last week, that dream came true.

Last Monday I waited on Luke and Molo to arrive at my house early so we could take off for Charleston.  We had to deliver a couple of drawings for the Piccolo Spoleto Juried Exhibition on our way to our sand sculpture class in Pawley's Island.  When we arrived about an hour earlier than the van full of the rest of the class, I tossed my luggage on the floor and walked out to the beach to survey the situation.  My classroom and sculpture studio for the week would be my favorite stretch of land on Earth.  

Last year I pitched my sand sculpture class to the department.  Everyone was on board.  Sandy is the go-to trip maker in the department so I asked her to make this happen.  She handled all the wrangling, finances and organizing of things.  All I had to do was go and teach the class.  

I know how this sounds.  You have to be thinking "Really?  That's a college level class?, You mean they paid you for that?"

And Yes.

And I can promise you it lived up to the academic rigor of any studio class in terms of time, work and effort put into each project.  My students earned their course credit.  They have the blisters, muscles and sore backs to prove it.

When the van arrived on Monday afternoon and luggage and bodies were wrangled upstairs to rooms, we gathered on the beach for a quick demonstration.  While I'm sure you all know how to pile up sand or dump a bucket upside down, our projects were going to be a bit more complex.  Students had been preparing for several weeks before stepping in the sand.  They researched some very accomplished sand sculptors and looked into several different methods of using sand as a sculptural material.  Each student started a sketchbook for the class and began designing things they wanted to make for the class.  But now it was time to actually start learning a new medium.  

They took to it very quickly.  You could almost see them revert back to childhood as they shucked off any sense of being cool or grown up.  They started digging and we all quickly piled up a mound of sand.  Within an hour it had developed into a skull with a wing and a crab claw and a sculpture logo on its back.  Instantly people started gathering to take photos and ask how we made it.  A mom brought her kids and was so happy to hear we would be there all week sculpting.  They vowed to check in after school each day.  People staying in our hotel were also excited about the prospect of seeing our work develop all week.  My students had all experienced showing their work in a gallery or in a critique and getting feedback from me, but for many this was their first time putting things out in the public eye and hearing feedback from regular people.  I could see my students responding to the smiles and laughter their work was providing.  

After a day of travel with a few hiccups and moving around some heavy, wet sand, they were ready to eat.  As a lover of all things beach, I planned for each day to feature a little hard work and a little fun.  We brushed the sand off quickly and loaded up to find some seafood.  We found Litchfield Beach Fish House very close to us and we piled in to see if they had room for 18.  The first words out of the host's mouth were "holy crap".  But after a couple of minutes they had tables pushed together and we all ate conference table style for our first family meal.  Bob, the owner came out to greet us.  His wife graduated from Lander years ago so he treated us like close relatives.  He made sure we all had paper pirate hats before we left and he insisted on taking our photo on his old fish truck.

There are many logistical things to consider when making sand sculpture on a public beach.  We wanted students to work close together so we wouldn't have to walk for miles just to check progress and critique.  But we also wanted to make sure everyone else had room to enjoy the beach.  We also talked about where to begin making each project.  The tide was always creeping in or out, providing the moisture you needed or threatening to destroy your work.  With their first solo attempt at making ephemeral art, most students opted to work above the high tide mark.  Still, they knew that each night they would need to flatten out their work so that the sea turtles would not have their paths impeded as they came in to lay eggs.  On this first full day of work, they made me proud.  They moved tons of sand (perhaps literally) and made some very good sculptures.  More and more beach walkers came up to ask what was going on.  Older Lander alumni would find us and bring their friends to see what we were doing.  Everyone smiled.  Everyone was happy.  Everyone was encouraging.  We worked from 9am to 3pm and my people were beat when they were done.  There was some sunburn and a lot of sore sculpture muscles.  After work we had another family dinner and then drove up to play mini golf.  We had a ball.  

As the days rolled by, everyone learned the importance of reapplying sunscreen often.  They learned to put on a shirt for a few hours.  They learned that eventually you have to stop pouring buckets of water on your sand and trust that it will hold.  They also learned about the positive power of public art.  We talked about the importance of sharing something positive with viewers and how they had the power to change someone's mood with their art.  We talked about making a positive contribution to their community.  These things started to register with my students and I think it may even change how they approach art making in the future.  

One night we thought our work was small enough to leave out all night.  We figured the turtles could navigate through easy enough in the unlikely event they decided to nest here.  So we accumulated 2 full days of sand sculptures in one small area.  It became our own little outdoor sculpture gallery and on the second day I watched from my balcony as crowds of people moved through the space carefully taking photos and talking about the art.  No one smashed the sculptures or messed with them.  It was as if they were in a museum.  Of course, the turtle patrol lady gave us a sketchy look so we made sure to flatten the area the next night.

We also learned about marketing.  After the first day Sandy and I talked about not only using social media to spread the word about what we were doing, but we also decided to send out press releases to the local media and even some news sources back home.  This was a great success for us.  The first TV news station showed up the following day to do interviews and take video and still photos.  The second and third stations showed up the next day to do the same.  One did a "happy news" segment to run after we would leave to talk about the impact we had on the entire beach area.  Several of my students were featured on the Official Myrtle Beach Instagram account and the Fox station out of Greenville ran a slideshow of our work on their Facebook page.  We also were the subject of countless personal photos.  Everyone brought their cameras and either drove to our hotel or walked from their residence to see the work.  Some of the visitors came out specifically to see our work.  It was truly a wonderful and encouraging response.  Not one single person complained about what we were doing.  Can you even imagine in this day and age how miraculous that is?  Of course we were careful to share with the hotel management just how much free publicity we arranged for them.  They were quietly keeping up with it all and were already aware that they had been mentioned in all the press.  We are currently in negotiations for discount pricing for next year!

We also sprinkled in a couple of educational field trips.  We took a half day to visit Brookgreen Gardens where we learned about renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her contribution to South Carolina.  We took a tour of the sculpture garden and learned about several other American artists as well.  We also spent a day in Huntington Beach State Park and after working on the beach there, we got to tour Anna's summer home and sculpture studio.

On the last full beach day, we recruited a new student to Lander.  A young lady was on the beach with her family and I kept hearing them talk about the art and how the girl was interested in art.  She came over with her mom and talked to a few students and eventually to me.  She was in high school but already knew that she wanted to be a nurse.  She also has a big interest in art.  I happily explained that Lander has a great nursing program and that we offer a minor in art.  She was sold instantly.  We gave her some art department swag and got her hooked up with our school social media and she can't wait to apply.

I started out with the intention of posting a ton of photos of my students' work from the week.  There were so many great projects it was hard to narrow down the photos.  After a great deal of careful selections, I still had over 100 photos to upload here.  I decided that was ridiculous so I opted for more text and a minimal amount of pics.  I'll paste in some links to the news releases at the end and you can find several photos of sculptures there.  I decided it was more important to use words here because the thing that struck me most about that week was not the visual impact of my students' work.  I know they're good so producing great work in a new material was not that surprising.  What impacted me the most was how my students behaved.  

When you think of a group of 15 college students spending a week at the beach you may think of a pretty rowdy group of drunks trashing their rooms and needing bail money.  You might think they would be prone to making slightly obscene things in the sand and just generally being loud and obnoxious.  With this group, you would be very wrong.  They understood they were there to work and to have a little fun and they approached both with respect.  I asked them to get themselves up for breakfast at 8am and to be on the beach at 9am every morning and they did it.  We had no complaints to the hotel about behavior or noise and every sculpture made could have received a G rating from Disney.  

But here's where they went above and beyond expectations:  Our group featured just about every type of personality you can imagine.  There were students going through tough times emotionally, physically and mentally.  There was the interpersonal dynamic of a group spending every hour together for 6 days.  And in the midst of all that, they watched their tempers, edited their words and sometimes just sucked it up and took one for the team.  We couldn't make everyone happy with our meal choices or room assignments but they took it all in stride.  I watched as more than a few students saw other students feeling left out or bored and they went out of their way to befriend them and include them.  New friendships were made, closer friendships were made and some just learned to appreciate and love parts of people who used to annoy them.

Our schedule was made to allow for a couple of group dinners where we would all eat together at the same restaurant.  I figured the students might need some time to get away from the group and from the professors.  As it worked out, we ate all but one meal together as a family.  And that one meal that we were not all together, all but 4 joined us at the same table anyway.  Half of the group walked around with us all night when we went to Broadway at the Beach.  It was such a great group of students.  They are wonderful people.

Each day featured a hefty work schedule and shoveling sand all day is not easy.  I worked them hard every day just as I would in the sculpture studio.  But having fun is an important part of my philosophy of education.  I believe that creating fun in an educational environment is one of the major strengths of the Lander Visual Art Department and it's one of the reasons our department is so close knit.  On the beach we took breaks to toss the frisbee and cool off in the ocean.  We made our dinners fun by playing games and singing and making new friends.  I brought my surfboard on the trip so that students could give it a try.  No one knew how to surf but after I surfed just before dark one night, Luke was brave enough to give it a try.  The next day several others tried it and by the end of the week more than half had tried.  Adam got up a few times and was so proud of himself.  Changing people's moods, making people smile.  Happiness is crucial.  

On the last night we met in "The Spirit Room", a conference room offered to us by the hotel and showed the students a slideshow from the week.  Then we gave out silly awards.  I came up with a goofy award for each student, usually based on something funny that happened during the week.  Singletary spent some time at the local Dollar General buying cheap, goofball objects that she then spray painted metallic silver or gold in the alligator pit behind the Dollar General to use as "trophies".  We gave Singletary the "Best Mom Award" which was an actual trophy from the cheesy tourist trap and they presented me with a paper pirate hat signed by all the students.  It was all very fun.  

(Food Appendix)
Y'all know I love food.  G and I make lists of places we want to eat before we go on trips and we eat our way through town.  Last week we enjoyed the Litchfield Beach Fish House (crabcake sandwich and hushpuppies are a must), Habanero's (where we met singer songwriter Will Ness), The Grilled Cheese and Crabcake Company (where everything is amazing but I had the crabmelt with old bay fries and when G came down the next day she brought me a bbq brisket melt that was just as great), Graham's Landing (where our own Sabrina works and we enjoyed crab legs), Extreme Pizza at Broadway (the boar'der pizza with pulled pork and bbq sauce) and Moe's Original BBQ (pulled pork, ribs, baked beans and banana pudding).  My only regret is that I didn't get to take them all to Russell's.  Next year maybe.  

Singletary eats seafood only once per year.  She checked it off her list for 2017 at Graham's Landing.  Also, this is the only photo for 2017 with her eyes open.

Links for photos:

Thursday, May 11, 2017

barrier island trip

I've been hearing about the barrier island trip for at least 5 years.  Blue and Violet's school takes a big field trip in 5th grade.  It's the first overnight trip which, I assume, is why they start pumping the trip to students 5 years early.  

Like any good hermit, I live a pretty insulated life.  I don't watch the news and I don't have a Facebook so information has to travel to get to me.  Unless it's art or music I don't go looking for it on my own.  The information that gets to me usually comes second hand and I've learned how to weed out things that don't add up.  Each time Blue mentioned the trip to "barrier island" I understood that there are many barrier islands and I would ask which one.  No one seemed to know where this mystery island was.  When the abstract trip became a little more concrete this year when Blue entered 5th grade, still the information did not flow my way.  Right up until a couple of weeks before the trip, a trip that I had been volunteered to go on, I had no idea where this island was.  G could have gone as a parent chaperone, but cabins were divided by gender so he needed it to be a dad trip.  As luck would have it, when the dates finally made their way to me, my school schedule had the exact space in it for the trip.  I'd finish up school on Tuesday, do the trip Wednesday through Friday and roll up on graduation Saturday morning.  

Those of you who know me, will appreciate my disdain for traveling with people other than my immediate family.  Make those people a herd of 5th graders accompanied by their parents and you've got the second circle of hell.  I accepted my fate.  After all, I do love the beach.  Literally 2 days before the trip, I read the handful of sheets of paper that were sent home.  The only tangible information I had about this trip.  

 This would be Blue's first overnight field trip.  He's a homebody so I wasn't sure how that would play out.  But the more he learned about the trip at school, the more excited he grew.  There was a lot of talk about "the mud pit", I big pool of thick mud that students were encouraged to get in as deep as they wanted.  For weeks I heard about the mud pit.  I started to realize this was some sort of rite of passage for 5th graders.  

Upon arrival groups were divided up and assigned their adventures.  Our very first adventure?  The mud pit of course.  We met our naturalist and she guided us about a mile down the beach inspecting finds along the way.


 The kids learned about the tide and the shifting of sand from one end of a barrier island to the other.  They learned about the beach, the estuary and the salt marsh.  

 We reached the crooked tree that marked the spot where the beach walk ended and the mud trail began.  For months I had heard about the mud pit.  For months Blue had asked me over and over again if I was going to get in the mud pit.  As we stood at the edge of the salt marsh, all the adults stepped back on the beach except for two.  One other dad and me.  Everyone else bailed and took the dry path up to a spot where they could watch.  

 The rest of us followed the naturalist into the marsh.

 Right down into the marsh.

 There was an established trail through the salt marsh to the mud pit.  We were instructed to stay on the trail so we wouldn't harm the delicate ecosystem.

 Our feet suctioned down into the mud and all the nasty goo slimed down into our shoes as we walked.

 Soon the trail opened up into a large brown pool.  The mud pit.  

 Not exactly what I pictured in my head as a mud pit, but it was muddy.  

 Some of the kids rolled in it and smeared the mud on their entire bodies.  

 I'm not sure if you've ever smelled a salt marsh, but it's a powerful, distinct stench.  And we were going to smell it for the next couple of days.  

Immediately after leaving the mud pit, everyone got into the estuary to wash off.  I put my phone in some kind of waterproof bag for the adventure and was able to take photos.  While the entire group was in the estuary washing off, a pod of dolphins swam up very, very close to the group.  I quickly got out my phone and started recording as they approached, disappeared under the water as they were just a few feet away from us and then reappeared bobbing up and down.  Later when I went to watch this amazing video I realized that I wasn't recording.  My video started at the end when I thought I was stopping the recording.  So my amazing video was of me putting my phone back into my pocket.  

 Our night activity was a campfire with silly songs and stories.

 The "barrier island" was actually Seabrook Island just below Charleston.  The camp was St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center and the specific type of 3 day camp we signed up for was "barrier island".  

 The camp staff was great.  All the naturalists seemed to enjoy the kids and their jobs.  

 And they were always ready to stop whatever they were doing to admire the natural beaty.  During the campfire event several white tailed deer ran up on us.  Once they saw us they ducked out toward the beach and then reentered the dunes not far away from us.

 The naturalists stopped, told everyone what was happening and took the time to talk about the deer and other native animals that we might encounter.  Two of the deer are sprinting in the photo above.

 After the campfire, it was time for "dance".  The kids were led in several different dances.  Blue is dancing in the photo above.  It was interesting to see him interacting in his natural environment.  As a parent, you don't get to see how your kids act in school.  This was a nice little window into his world.  

 After the evening activities were officially over, most of our school informally met on the beach to terrorize ghost crabs.  The kids loved this.  The crabs not so much.

Then came the night.  It was a long day and the kids were tired.  The cabin we had been assigned had a maintenance issue when we arrived so we got split up between two smaller sleeping areas.  One group got a small cabin.  Our group got the side room of some sort of meeting area.  We got fold up cots to sleep on.  In addition to the kids in our room we also had 4 dads.  Fun fact about dads:  they snore.  Some dads snore really loud.  Frighteningly loud.  After about three hours of trying to get to sleep, I grabbed my sleeping bag and retreated into the meeting room next door.  Sleep was just as elusive in there.

 Operating on about 45 minutes of restless sleep, I knew that running and coffee were the only things standing between me and violence.  So just before 6:00am I quietly put on my running shoes and slipped out to the beach.

 The salty air eased my headache as I ran and the beautiful light made me feel relaxed.  As I ran down the beach I noticed a couple of dolphins moving down right behind me.  Then as I turned to run back up the beach, they turned and continued to follow me.  On the bright side, they did not snore.  

 Blue insisted that I go on this trip with him.  He wanted me there for comfort.  But as soon as he stepped off the bus he ditched me.  Of course, that's exactly what he should have done, but it was comical for me.  He was up and dressed when I got back from my run and after a shower we slipped outside so we wouldn't wake everyone else early.  He understood the importance of us walking all the way over to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee before we walked on the beach.  He even understood when we needed to walk back for a second cup.

 That smile was brought to you by running and coffee.

 For our first adventure on Thursday they got to hold a very curious box turtle.  

 Then the naturalist grabbed a baby alligator.

 And everyone got to touch it.

 Then they all got to hold the rat snake.

 The second adventure was seining in the estuary.  

 The kids dragged the net several times and then they all raced to pick up the sea creatures and put them into the bucket.

 After lunch it was a couple of hours of team building exercises.  These were physical and mental challenges and the kids did well with the first two.  After that they were hungry and tired and they just didn't care much about being a team.  That made it even more funny for me.

 Before dinner there was an optional "beach rec" time.  Of course to Blue this was not optional.  He couldn't wait to get in the water.  

 While I monitored them, I also got to look for beach treasures.

 We learned that female Blue Crabs have red markings on their claws.

 And ghost crabs are just as grumpy during the day.

 This was a gnarly live oak that Blue demanded that I take a photo of before we left.

The night activity was "games".  This consisted of noodle hockey (think hockey with a big ball and pool noodles) and a vicious game of dodgeball.  Some rain and wind moved in during the night activity and when the games were done we opted for the short dash back to our room to bed down for the night.  I didn't have high hopes for sleep that night either.  When the chief snorer fell asleep within seconds of lying down, I was sure it was over.  But around 2:00am the snoring miraculously stopped and I got a full 3 1/2 hours of sleep.  

 The morning run was very windy and the fast moving clouds cast everything in a blue light.  

 You find the coolest things running on the beach before anyone else is up.

 After the daily dose of coffee and a little breakfast, Blue and I donated our mud pit shoes to the collection.

 The school gathered the kids on the beach for photos.

 And we set out on our final adventure of the trip, a hike through the maritime forest.

 The best part of the hike was arriving at "the slough".

 It was apparently a freshwater pond with all sorts of critters in it.  It was very green and the blue skies had opened up and the color there was great.

 The hike ended up at the aquarium where they had a complete bottlenose dolphin skeleton.

 And a female Blue Crab...along with lots of other impressive creatures.

Blue had thoroughly enjoyed himself on this trip.  He did not miss home and he did not want to leave.  At least not until the only thing left was a cafeteria lunch.  Then he was ready to skip out and grab fast food on the way home.  So we said our goodbyes and made our way to Bojangles.  I'm still catching up on my sleep.