Tuesday, December 18, 2018

don't tell mom

I'll share a story with you if you promise not to tell my mom.

Monique's office is next door to mine.  She's cool.  Just before Thanksgiving break she asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving.  I told her I'd go to my mom's for lunch.  She asked if we had a big family thing there which led to me telling her a little about how my mom cooks for us twice a month.  Which then led to me telling her a little about how my mom does stuff for us all the time.  Which then led to me telling her that my mom still makes jelly from scratch and that my peanut butter and jelly sandwich I was about to eat in my office was made with said jelly.  Monique gave me that "you're such a spoiled child" look.  And I know, because spoiled children know that look.  And then she said that my mom was amazing.  Dude, you have no idea.  Get yourself a drink and make yourself comfortable.  Let me tell you about my mom.

As I sit here at the computer on a Saturday night, my mom is preparing food for Sunday lunch.  Twice each month mom cooks a big lunch for my brothers and me.  Our families get to come along too.  It's worth noting that one of my brothers has nine children.  The other two of us have 4 children between us.  There are also friends/visitors and significant others and spouses that tag along.  Most of us regular people cant imagine cooking in quantities that would feed that many humans at one meal but my mom does it every other Sunday.  She does it alone and she doesn't allow anyone else to bring anything.  Let's just let that be your introduction to her.

My brother Daniel calls mom "The Terminator" after the indestructible robot in the first Terminator movie.  The knickname came from the day the family gathered to clear a large wooded lot for Daniel to build a house.  A group of grown men headed into the underbrush with chainsaws and one guy who was from my sister-in-law's family had never encountered my mom before.  I remember seeing him sitting down, covered in sweat while he took a water break.  He was watching my mom still going strong with her own chainsaw, working circles around the rest of us.  He had never seen anything like this but to the rest of us, this was just mom doing her thing.  Never stopping for a break...nonstop just like the Terminator.
that's mom with a tiny me at Disney 1972ish

My mom worked full time and mommed full time.  When she got home from work around 5:30 she began her work at home with cooking supper (We are southern, I promise this was not dinner.  In the south we eat supper).  This was not a microwaved meal and it was most certainly not fast food picked up on the way home.  This was a home cooked meal.  After supper she would clean up every dish, do laundry, clean up the house, prepare things for the next day and somehow she even found time to sleep.  Thursday was grocery day so for a good hour after work she filled a shopping cart to overflowing with food, often with 5 gallons of milk and then she'd arrive home to cook and do the rest.  Fridays were house cleaning days, so after a full week of work she opted to come home, cook and then spend her entire night cleaning the house.  At this very moment you could walk into mom's house and find the floors cleaner than any dish in my house.  When she cleaned the house, she really cleaned the house.  Saturdays were for bigger projects like canning things, putting up vegetables, shelling pecans and sewing, because she knows her way around a sewing machine and she was always making things and hemming things.  Sundays were church for both morning and evening services and a big cooked lunch in between.  Oh and with three sons she also managed to pick us all up from after-school activities and drive us around the world on weekends.  

So that's how her weeks went on a regular basis as she took care of her kids and husband.  But mom doesn't really say no to people when they need help so she also had a lot of other things to do.  As far back as I can remember she has helped care for her extended family.  She drives people to the doctor, takes them to surgery and waits on them to get out.  She cleans for people.  She cooks for people.  And with 13 grandchildren, some she's had for 20 something years, she does more than her share of babysitting.  If you can imagine a woman putting up Christmas decorations while cooking a full meal while cleaning her house while canning green beans while babysitting four kids while cutting her multi-acre lawn, you'll start to get a bit of a picture of my mom.

As you can tell from the chainsaw story, mom has never been a stranger to working outside.  She's pruned apple trees in her yard for years.  Just a few years ago she fell off a ladder while pruning the top of an apple tree.  She got up, limped back to the house and probably cooked a giant meal and mopped the house afterwards.  

True story:  A few years ago she was preparing to get a Thanksgiving gathering going.  The weekend before Thanksgiving she had intense pain bad enough to force her to go to the Emergency Room.  A surgeon quickly removed her gall bladder and told her to take it easy for the next few weeks.  You know what she was doing as soon as she got home don't you?  That Wednesday I helped her deep fry two turkeys and she cooked Thanksgiving dinner as planned.  I do think she took a nap afterwards, but dang that woman is unstoppable.

Back to that jelly.  I remember mom making jelly from way back in my kid years.  I helped strain the smashed up fruit a few times when I'm sure she was trying to keep me occupied and otherwise out of trouble.  Mom has two rows of muscadine grapes or scuppernongs, or maybe it's both.  She prunes them and tends to them each year and at harvest time, she takes the fruit and makes a fresh crop of jelly in glass jars.  I still remember hearing the lids seal with a pop as they cooled on the counter top.  Throughout the year she will ask if we're out of jelly or we'll bring back a couple of empty jars and she'll send us back home with full jars.  It's a simple way of showing love and this is the heart of what mom does.  Very often through food, but also in a myriad of other ways, she demonstrates her love for others through her actions.  She will cook a meal for you, she will make you the birthday cake of your choice.  She will clean your house, help you move, pick up your kids from school and then offer you a meal when you pick them up.  Not only does she say yes when you ask her anything, she is thoughtful enough to anticipate your needs and volunteer to help you.  It's amazing really.  

Christmas is my favorite time of year and one of the reasons for that is that mom's true gift in cooking is in the realm of desserts.  Each year around Thanksgiving, in addition to all the other truckloads of things she's doing, she will ask you what kinds of Christmas goodies you want her to make you this year.  She's super organized and she always has a list of what she made you last year for reference.  She'll show you the list and ask if you want to change anything.  G and I have our all-time-favorite mom desserts on our list and this week we brought home the last goodies on our list for this year.  Peanut butter balls, pretzel buckeyes, magic cookie bars, chocolate pie, white chocolate covered peanut butter crackers, sausage balls and a cheeseball have all passed through our kitchen in the last few weeks.  People wonder why I run every day.  Y'all, I have to run every day because of all the stuff my mom sends me to eat.  She's doing this for me, but she's also doing the same for my brothers and who knows how many other people in the community.

And then there's butternut cake.  The butternut pound cake was apparently something my mom's dad would bake.  There was a special butternut flavoring he would use that was the secret to the taste.  My entire life, my mom has made this cake for our family.  She always uses a bunt cake pan and when you walked into the house you could smell the cake before you saw the flawless ridges on the browned cake edges sitting on a cooling rack.  My dad had no patience when it came to a hot butternut cake and I remember watching him dig right in as soon as the pan came off.  The hot crusty part on the bottom was always my first bite but nothing compared to the moist, yellow, fluffy cake inside.  As I mentioned, each year mom will ask what kind of birthday cake or pie you want.  G always goes for a chocolate pie and I promise you've never had a chocolate pie as good as my mom's.  And mom makes some stunning Pinterest worthy birthday cakes.  If it's decadent and beautiful, she has made it.  But each year I opt for a butternut cake for my birthday.  The look of it and the taste of it sends me right back to childhood every single time.  

Now, those are just the things I'm most familiar with that my mom does that I consider to be above and beyond regular mom awesomeness.  However, I can assure you that she does even more and it would all blow your mind.  Just when you think there's not enough time in the day for her to do all that, you hear someone say she organized a trip for the old folks at church.  Or maybe she planned a school reunion.  Or she hosted her brothers and sisters for a meal.  We used to hear about things she did and we'd say "Really?".  Now we hear things and we say "Of course she did".

So why tell you all this?  Well, for one thing, my mom's awesomeness is off the scale and people just need to know that there are humans on Earth that are really that great.  But I do not tell you this to make you jealous or to make you feel bad about your mom.  (I'm sure she's great too!)  And I especially don't tell you this to make you feel less-than in your own momming and dadding.  I share the greatness of my mom with you because we all need to be reminded of our own potential for greatness.  You know how you watch an uplifting movie and you want to be a better person for a few days?  I figure the same thing can happen when we see the actions of someone like my mom.  Every single thing she does is based in love.  And it's that real, hard to live out love sometimes.  The kind where you purposefully forget all the bad things that person did to you in the past and you help them.  Or you overlook all the dumb things your three sons did when they were young and you do nice things for them.  Or when you totally realize that there's a chance someone could be taking advantage of your generosity and you continue to offer that generosity over and over again.  That's my mom.  That's the example she's providing for all of us.  That's my motivation for trying to be a good parent, husband and teacher.  Maybe one day I'll be at least a fraction of the awesome she is.  But right now I've to got go eat more of these Christmas sweets my mom made me.  

Monday, December 10, 2018

i feel weird

I had to go to an art thing the other night and I was making my way through the gallery making sure to see and be seen by the right people before making a graceful exit.  On my way to the door I passed a colleague from school.  He's from another department on campus, a really nice guy, and we spoke.  He laughed and said that it always looked like I was having such a great time.  He said he saw me running on campus with some students and saw a class of us at a restaurant earlier in the semester.  

People say this to me a lot.  The highlight reel is always posted on Instagram and I get a lot of comments from friends and family about how it looks like I never "work".  When I had coffee with Donovan a few weeks ago (a religion professor at another university) he made a similar comment and said something along the lines of "you really found your thing".

He's certainly correct.  I've been super blessed.  And man, I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am to be where I am with the people I'm with.  School people, family people, art people...even peripheral people...they're all so important to me.  But social media isn't called "honest media".  Instagram isn't really concerned with how hard something was to complete or what your true feelings are about someone.  They just want to see the good stuff, the happy stuff.  That guy in the gallery, he didn't see the social anxiety that had me headed toward the door in a very calculated manner.  He didn't see that I wouldn't make it home before Violet fell asleep that night.  He didn't see the dishes and laundry piled up because I hadn't been home long enough to do them all that week.  

I was talking to a student last week about balance.  This one is always doing their best and there was talk about feeling like they wasted time over Thanksgiving break because they watched Netflix and ate a lot.  I tried to preach the gospel of rest and balance for a hardworking soul.  I'm not sure if it made a dent.  But I do believe in balance.  If you work hard, you should rest hard.  I even used the not so great illustration of me running and exercising every day and eating ridiculous waffles and sweets.  Balance, right?  

Our art faculty pour themselves into our students and our department.  We go above and beyond teaching to make our department great.  Every semester we go hard and near the end of each semester you can start to see the cracks.  We are all in need of a good break and some time with our families.  This too is balance.  It's just not always on Instagram.  I guess a photo of my feet rested on Zeke while watching something dumb on Netflix just doesn't make a great post.  And while a photo of Violet holding my hand walking out of church might be adorable, it's also not for everyone to see.  That moment is mine and I'm not willing to share it.  Same with sitting down with G for a couple of minutes of quiet.  Or talking to Blue about school and Youtube videos.  If you're not us or our dogs, those times are invisible and the balance is also impossible to see.  

Students love to make statements about how busy they are and how all I have to do is "teach" and go home.  I can hear the quotation marks they put around the word teach.  It's funny to me because they have no idea how much goes into "teaching" the way I do and they also have no idea all the other parts of life that must be juggled along with that teaching.  They only see the one side and think they have the whole story.  

The good ones, the ones that understand what it means to be grateful, may even be thoughtful enough to say thank you at some point.  Some do this often and it is a testament to their character.  Some offer a thoughtful remark at graduation but I feel selfish even accepting their thanks.  The truth is, I get to do what I do because of the other people in my life.  People have helped to put me where I am today.  They made sacrifices of time and energy to teach me and call a friend to put in a good word.  They demonstrated effective teaching at various levels to provide me examples.  They put me in exhibits.  They bought me groceries to take to school.  They picked up the kids, fed the dogs and cleaned the house so I could go to a reception.  They went to bed without a hug, kiss or "goodnight" so I could support my students.  They were a friend to me when I needed it.  These are the people who deserve the thank yous.  

So maybe that's my job.  And maybe that's why I'm feeling weird these days.  It's the holidays, it's dark all the time, it's rained a lot lately and at the end of the semester I'm just plain tired.  A friend's dad passed away recently and I've been thinking about my dad.  Boy do I owe him some thank yous.  I guess I'm feeling grateful.  Grateful to be in a position where people think I'm always having fun.  Grateful for all the people who have lifted me here.  Grateful for the ones who hold me here.  Grateful for my family, my friends, my students....for my life.  And seriously, grateful for you, person on the internet who cares enough to read this.  Thank you for your investment in me.  

I hope we all find the balance that works for us.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

pop's tractor

My parents always had a big garden on a plot of land behind their house.  I hated the garden as a kid.  It was so big and the rows were so long.  During the hot summer months when both my parents would go to work, they’d leave instructions for my brothers and me.  There was always garden work on the list.  Hoeing, watering, picking, breaking, shucking and silking…I hated it all.  It was summer in the south so it was at least 180 degrees and 200% humidity.  I didn’t even eat vegetables so for me this seemed like especially cruel and unusual treatment.  

A garden this size required a tractor and lots of implements.  Those long rows didn't make themselves.  Pop would use the harrow on the big tractor to turn over the soil a few times.  We'd put the plows on the small Farmall tractor and do our best to drive straight.  We had a planter attachment and one that would spread fertilizer.  At the end of the season he'd plow it all under again.

When my dad retired, the garden was one of his hobbies.  I would stop by to visit and within minutes I’d find myself stepping over the rows helping him pick something.  I still didn’t like it. 

When my dad passed away, the garden became a visible reminder of his absence.  There's no one to drive the tractor any longer so instead of corn, green beans and tomatoes, the old garden now grows weeds tall and strong.  My mom has made a much smaller garden closer to the house and she still plants just what she needs there.  She tends to it all by hand. 

In early summer when the weeds are high in the old garden, mom lets me know it’s time to bush hog.  The weeds quickly retake the acreage and keep it until late November when I return again to cut them back.  On these visits, I crank up my dad’s John Deere 2240 tractor and I retrace his tracks around the garden.  It’s a slow, sacred process and I can only think of him while I smell the cut weeds and diesel exhaust.  I like to think that he’d be happy to see me out there on his tractor tending to the garden.  But the truth is, he’s probably laughing his butt off watching me try to remember how to start it up and watching me try to figure out which lever engages the bush hog.  He's probably making fun of my bright green running shoes and hooded sweatshirt too.  

It makes me smile to think about what he’d say.  He had such a way with words.

Monday, November 5, 2018

avett things

 I've been listening to the Avett Brothers for a long time.  G and I saw them live for the first time eons ago at The Handlebar in Greenville, SC.  Langhorne Slim opened for them and we were hooked on both bands since.  In those early days, I had a cool email conversation with Scott Avett about some things we had in common.  Both our dads were welders.  Now the Avetts are famous and I think Saturday Night Live is the only late night show they haven't been on.  

One of the cool things about the Scott and Seth Avett is that they are both also visual artists.  Scott, in particular, is an exceptional printmaker and painter.  Here are a few examples of his paintings swiped from Instagram...

During an artist talk at Soco Gallery in Charlotte, NC a few weeks ago, Scott gave some really honest and interesting answers to questions posed by the host and by the audience.  I was able to listen to a live stream and I was interested enough in some of the ideas he discussed that I wanted to remember them.  File this under "selfish post"...you're welcome to read it but I admit it's mostly for me.

Speaking about portrait painting, Scott said that portraits of others are really just self portraits.  This felt true to me.  I rely on models and photos of people in various poses when I lay out my drawings on wood.  These references are rarely chosen because of who they are.  They are often chosen for the pose of the body, because they fit the compositional need or because they just feel important to me...but almost always, they are referencing some part of me.  Sounds selfish, but it's true.

Answering a question about spiritual content in his work, Scott said "It's all spiritual."  I'm not sure you can ever separate the spiritual from the artwork.  There is something at the very core of creating that is spiritually connected.  This is not really a religious thing, just an indication that there is something more than the visible at work in visual art.

"Fall on canvas"...when asked about how much preliminary sketching and studies he does for a painting, Scott indicated that he does very little planning before getting in front of the canvas.  He said he always wants to get to work and learn from the composition as he goes.  He said it was important for him to be able to fall on canvas, to make mistakes and learn from them during the creation of the work of art.  

He also said that he was working on an album with another of my favorite musicians, Eef Barzelay.  I'm pretty excited about that too.

I'm closing my computer now and going back on fall break.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

field trip!

 Last Saturday my alarm went off way too early for a Saturday morning.  In fact, any alarm set for a Saturday should be illegal.  But it was field trip day for sculpture so I got up and ran and then drove myself to school to meet the sculpture gang.  We loaded up on the rental van and headed north.  North to McDonalds first because my illustrious and esteemed colleague assured me that in the absence of a real coffee shop, McDonalds "fancy coffees" were actually good.  My hopes were not very high but I reluctantly agreed to get a vanilla mocha while Singletary gassed up the van.  

This "coffee" did not even rise to my low expectations.  It tasted worse than gas station coffee and started what will almost certainly become a coffee feud between Singletary and me forever.

The literal bad taste in my mouth was rinsed away with a nice lunch at Biltmore Village paired with an excellent vanilla mocha from an actual coffee shop.  My mood was restored and the day could go on.

 We arrived at the Biltmore Estate and quickly made ourselves at home on the front lawn.  That's Hannah and my new friend Brianna in one of my many "mcselfies".

 We were there to see the art, specifically the glass sculptures created by Dale Chihuly.  This one greeted guests as they arrived on the front lawn.

 We waited out front for Singletary to park the van and to meet up with some of our other travelers.  These are my sculpture people...Brianna, Hannah, Ashley, Alana, Spencer, Hallie, Molly, Gazelle, Bolt and Victor.

 We were waiting on Singletary because the traffic dudes directed us to drive up to the house to unload the van.  What they meant was, we should drive up to where those vans are parked in the foreground.  But once inside the gate, I convinced Singletary to drive us right up to the front door of the house and let us out there.  I assured her this was what the dude meant and that it was totally fine.  We looked like VIPs rolling out of the van up there at the house.  It was great.  Singletary skidded out of there right as an employee was coming over to tell her she couldn't be there.  It was great.

 This is an example of me not wanting to do something until I'm told not to do it.  

 The Biltmore House is located in Asheville, NC  and it opened in 1895 after taking 6 years to build.  It was the home of George Vanderbilt, his wife and daughter for many years.  The house is nothing short of a work of art.

 The juxtaposition of the old and the new provided a little extra life and energy to the house.

 The juxtaposition of the blue sculptures with Alana's red hair also provided some energy.

 We toured the interior of the home and there was plenty of visual information to take in.

 The wall of Albrecht Dürer prints was one of my favorite things.

 About halfway through the first level, the balcony provided a needed break from the visual overload inside.  It also had a great view of the mountains.  Another mcselfie.

 Victor is a hoot.  He's a freshman this year so I haven't even taught him in a class yet and he's already cracking me up.  He's king of the selfie and master of the dramatic pose.

 Even the stairwell is visual overload.

 Brianna with her new friend Bertha.

 Even the indoor swimming pool in the basement was visual overload.  All the tiles were perfectly placed and beautiful.  The idea of this being built in 1895 boggled the mind.

 It was all too much to see in one day but we had perfect weather to see it.

 Another mcselfie with one of the famous Biltmore lions and the sculpture lions...Brianna, Alana, Spencer, Ashley, Hannah and Gazelle.

 Back to the artwork.  We walked outside and down through the walled garden to the Conservatory past several perfectly placed glass sculptures.

 If you're unfamiliar with Chihuly's work, each sculpture is created by placing many smaller glass forms together on an armature.  Picture a steel shaft with lots of smaller steel rods stemming out in every direction.  Then the glass forms are placed over the armature.

 Everyone in the lion photo plus Victor walked together to the Conservatory.  This group included Spencer who is heavy into plants.  This meant we would spend just as much time in the Conservatory as we did in the house.

 And this tour would be guided by Spencer who knew the names of all the plants and flowers we saw.

 This one looked just like my own Gertrude the Orchid.

 Don't get me wrong, I loved the house and the sculptures but the Conservatory was probably my favorite.

 There's something inspiring about seeing the colors of nature at work in their own design.  There was no wrong tint or shade, no color combination that didn't quite work.  It was perfect.

 Eventually we dragged Spencer out of the plants and back up toward the house.  We were supposed to be back on the van by this time but I needed to run out and get some photos on the terrace.

 And since we were already late, we might as well stop and see more of the glass in the sunlight.

 We had tickets to come back after dark and see the glass exhibition under the lights, but I wanted to see them all in sunlight for comparison.

 The sunlight was kind to the glass and if you looked close enough, you could see small details on the surface.

 We tried to get our jumping photo with almost no success whatsoever.  I'm reasonably sure Victor never left the ground.  Still funny though, every single time.

Then we loaded up on the van again to go get dinner.  We had a few restaurants in mind but when we called to reserve a spot they told us flat out they couldn't take us.  I called several places and got the same answer at all of them.  There was a game on TV and everyone had gathered at the local restaurants to watch.  Do these people not have TVs in their homes?  I don't get it.  Either way, we needed a place to eat, so I found a Mexican restaurant nearby that was rated well and we decided to not call ahead and just show up.

 I think a couple of our students were afraid to eat anything from here, but it wasn't bad.  And how can you not appreciate the Minion on the window?  

 Then we were back at the estate with the lights on.

 And everything looked different.

 Which meant that the visual headaches we all had at this point were not going away any time soon.

 The lights made the glass colors really pop.

 And the details were even easier to see on the surfaces of the glass.

 Some of the installations that were easy to miss in the sunlight were absolutely stunning at night.

 I didn't see these at all during the day.

 But now they were glowing.

 Meanwhile Spencer was still more impressed by the plant life.

 The glass in the water now featured great reflections and giant koi fish.

 This was a different mood for art viewing.  The whole group just stood for a while staring into the pools like you stare at a campfire.  Maybe this had something to do with the level of fatigue we were all feeling.

 Then on the way out of the estate, we saw one last Chihuly sculpture out the window.  Singletary stopped the van and I jumped out to grab a photo.

It was late and we had a drive ahead of us.  But sometimes I need ice cream.  The students had my back but we struggled to find an ice cream shop that was still open.  And then it was suggested by my illustrious and esteemed colleague that McDonalds had ice cream and they were open late.  I gave her the meanest look and may have said some unkind words about McDonalds.  But I was desperate for ice cream so we exited the interstate for the golden arches.  We woke some people up and rolled out of the van and slowly walked across the parking lot.  I pulled on the door.  It was locked.  I probably cursed.

 Lucky for us, God created Cook Out and at least 40 wonderful flavors of milkshakes.  Siri was kind enough to take us to the closest one and we were all immediately happy.  If I never step foot into another McDonalds I'll be happier.

I know I brag about how great our students are a lot but really, if you got to hang out with these students like I do, you'd brag about them too.  They really are stellar.  They're great artists, great students and really great humans.  I genuinely enjoy being around them.  I may even travel with them again one day.  

I made it home just after 3am and was in the bed at 3:30.  I don't even remember my head hitting the pillow.  Worth it.


 H-Dawg was kind enough to take some real photos for us.  This one was of the entire group, adult friends and all.

And this one is of our butts on the balcony.  Thanks H-Dawg!  It reminds me of Maxfield Parrish's "Daybreak" below...