In Memory of James Alan McPherson

Jim McPherson wrote the foreword to one of my favorite books, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Actually, to say it’s one of my favorite books is inaccurate; it’s one of the books–maybe the book–that made me become a writer. As such, Jim McPherson was one of the big reasons I wanted to come to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I wanted to get as close to someone who knew Breece Pancake as I could and hopefully learn something. I did so much more than that.
Among the teachers at the Workshop, there were task masters who tore your work down to the bones so you could build it back up, and teachers who could talk about the shape and sinew of the work and explain to you the story you wanted to tell in a way you couldn’t previously imagine. But none of them were like Jim.
Jim didn’t talk about craft. He didn’t spool out the unrealized perfect version of your story from thin air. Jim talked about your story like it was part of the world, as important as any chapter from the great works. He helped me see the connections to my soul and the larger world that existed in my stories. He put the soul of the writer together with the soul of the writing and connected it to the larger world, the currents that run between us and pass on to others through the written word.
Jim taught the unteachable. His classes almost seemed like conversations. He’d spool from a discussion of a story to his interviews with Richard Prior, play you an excerpt from a cassette he kept handy, and back again and it all made some kind of quiet sense. When you left and went to dinner with your classmates, or woke up the next morning you realized he had placed your work inside something greater than just you or the classroom. I learned many lessons about the form and shape of stories at the Workshop. I learned what errors to correct and that the work is its reward. But from Jim I learned to allow my work to live unbound by my expectations, hopes or dreams for it. It was me and it was more than me.
People often wonder what makes The Iowa Writer’s Workshop a special place to learn writing. One of the answers is James Alan McPherson.
A great man has left us. These words don’t do justice to the gifts he gave to everyone who knew him and to the larger world.
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Our High School Boundaries: Backsliding won’t move us forward


I’ve stayed silent as I watched the most recent high school boundaries discussion unfold. I was disappointed when a coalition of board members reversed boundaries that offered balance in our classroom for a plan that provided less equity for our students. Well, more than disappointed. Their actions have set us on a dangerous, myopic path, one that may seem right in a bubble, but in reality it’s detrimental to the overall learning environment, constitutes a social injustice perpetrated on the children of our district, and in the long term leads us blindly down a path our community has walked before–one that is actually at the root of our balance problems in the first place: Systematic socioeconomic segregation.

This backsliding on boundaries continues that pattern and will only harm our efforts for inclusionary housing, improved transportation infrastructure and real, lasting acceptance of every member of our community. There are certain elements baked into how we do business now that encourage this segregation, not the least of which the “affluent migration” of those with means and agency to move further and further out from our urban cores, away from our existing neighborhoods. What’s left behind ceases to be supported as we grow outward and these areas are allowed to die on the vine.

My neighborhood on Iowa City’s southeast side is a prime example. In 1968, my home was a Parade of Homes showcase property. I live on Hollywood Blvd., half a block from Taylor Drive. In the last few decades the neighborhood has degraded, in part because of decisions made by municipal governments, but also because of the aforementioned migratory tendencies. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors. I stand by them and work to improve it as best I can. It takes courage to stay and work to improve a neighborhood. It’s easy to cut and run. We can bring my neighborhood and others like it across the district back to prosperity, and maybe even celebrate our diversity. Adopting high school boundaries that encourage a tiered education system that separates socioeconomic groups will never help our communities grow and repair the damage done.

Our municipal governments exacerbated our growth problems over the last 50 years by enacting policies that have not supported sustainable growth in every area of our community. We concentrated low-income housing a few locations instead of working toward inclusionary housing that integrates people of all backgrounds. The Iowa City Council’s decision on inclusionary zoning for Riverfront Crossing is a huge step in the right direction and we need the other municipalities to step up with similar initiatives if we truly want to solve the problem.

The current argument over high school boundaries has not engaged the real problem we face. We have to fix the systemic problem our housing practices have brought on. Not a short term fix. It’s going to take a concerted, collective, long-standing effort from the school district, the county government, and all the municipalities. And that change will happen glacier-slow in comparison to how quickly our children move through our schools. We have to do what we can to provide them with the education they need. We owe it to our students and and teachers to provide the best possible environment for learning. Socioeconomic balance is a key component to that environment. In the short term, moving some students to schools further from their homes is one way to foster that environment.

I want to stress that this solution should not be considered the end of the struggle. It’s a stop-gap that should be seen as a way to provide the best learning for the most students. Will it be challenging? Yes. Will some families and students sacrifice convenience for the good of all? Yes. Do I understand the impact that inconvenience will have on the low-income families who are affected? Yes. I grew up in a low-income household and attended a school far from my home. It was hard at times, but it was the best solution for my education needs and I am glad for the opportunities it afforded me. Is it imperative that low income families not be the only people impacted? Yes. It’s the job of the school board to guide us through these hardships and remain focused on our long-term goals while easing the burden of all our families.

My daughter just graduated from 6th grade at Mark Twain Elementary, a school where over 70% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, last I heard. She received an excellent education there, so yes, I know it’s possible for schools to do a great job no matter how they are made up demographically. My family has lived it. We made a conscious decision to stay at our neighborhood school when the district and the federal government encouraged us to bail to a school that didn’t have the challenges that Mark Twain has. We stayed, became members of the Twain community, and hopefully helped make it a welcoming, vibrant oasis for learning and community-building.

The problem is not in the job Twain or any of our schools are doing. The problem is opening the door for the ICCSD to become an even more socioeconomically tiered district and exacerbating the already difficult challenges many of our schools face. If these boundaries stand, at some point–and it won’t take long–those in our community with the agency to advocate for themselves will do so, and as time passes those who are advantaged will draw more and more resources to their schools to the detriment of the schools and neighborhoods that have less agency. We will have made the same mistake our forebears made with low-income housing and other initiatives that served to divide our community based on income brackets. We will have made our schools worse. And that’s an injustice perpetrated on those who have the least agency in our community: our children.

At the moment, balancing our schools by shifting boundaries is the most prudent way to provide the best for the most. We must look at it as a short-term solution and dedicate ourselves to electing candidates who understand that the school district doesn’t exist in a bubble, it’s part of a whole that has been dysfunctional and driven by class and wealth toward a tiered community at nearly every level. We must elect people who will work with the rest of our leaders to fix the root of our problems and not simply rearrange the deck chairs on a slowly sinking ship. If these boundaries stand, the ICCSD will have helped make a difficult, tenuous situation worse. This upcoming special election is a referendum not only on how we fill our classrooms, but on what kind of community we really are, one that makes hard choices for the greater good, or one that hides behind the status quo. This community calls itself progressive, but our collective decisions always favor the status quo. Let’s make our actions follow our words and pave the path to real change.

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What we lost when we lost Prince

prince-540It’s been more than a week since Prince Rogers Nelson died. It’s been a heavy year for celebrity death and yes, we’ve lost what seems like more than our share of beloved performers so far. And the year’s not even half over. I usually don’t get too messed up over the death of a celebrity, but Prince’s death has hung on me. I haven’t been able to shake it. I’ve listened to almost nothing but Prince since he died. Last night I went to a Prince karaoke night and sang “Let’s Go Crazy, ” which I hoped would be cathartic, but instead I spent today in a haze.

It’s been rainy today, which got me off the hook for a lot of what I would have done with the day, so I spent a lot of it sleeping. I spent a little time roaming around the mall with my son, but tonight after everyone’s gone to sleep I find myself still thinking about Prince. I just watched his 2004 guitar solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock Hall of Fame. I’ve watched this video over the past 10 years maybe a dozen times and every time it dumbfounds me.

I’m not big into music as spectacle and the guitar solo has never really been my favorite part of the rock song. I like solos when they aren’t so flashy that they overshadow the song itself. They too often become showcases for dexterity more than musical expression. But Prince’s performance on that tune in 2004 is something I think we will show to students in decades to come to show not only how brilliant and under appreciated a musician Prince was, but how effortlessly he could walk the line between spectacle and transcendent mastery.

The man was able to put on a show, but as I learn more about who he was behind the purple curtain, the more I realize he was more than the show. He had two personas, like so many brilliant people. He was a showman. He could redefine and reinvent himself almost at will, but he was also somehow introverted and hid himself away from the world and that’s where he really did his work. I don’t know if we’ll ever know who he really was behind that curtain, who the man was, how he thought or approached his work or what drove him. And it’s clear something drove him, because you don’t master art the way he did without being driven beyond reason.

But what was it exactly that he did? I’m pretty confident that what we saw as fans and consumers of his work was barely a glimmer of what he really was as a performer and artist. That’s what the Rock Hall performance gives us a brief glimpse of, the man who’s guitar vocabulary and his ability to synthesize his influences and his own language were beyond that of all but the most rare performers. If you watch the video, as he steps into the spotlight and begins the solo, you hear him briefly quote the original guitar line, but after that brief grounding, he strikes out and proceeds to run through nearly ever guitar style from the moment Harrison first recorded the song to the moment those men stood onstage honoring George’s work.

Prince could somehow express history through his guitar and at the same time his raw emotion, respect–maybe even reverence–for the source material was never lost. He at once took over the entire proceeding, asserting his place on that stage as the best musician in the room, but he also reached out and brought the others along with him and the entire moment transcended the realm of flaccid all-star floggings of hits from days gone by. Prince found a way in that moment to bring the crystalline brilliance of The Beatles forward into the present day and let us feel it again in a way none of the originators have since the group disbanded. In a way that for a brief few moments reminded us why that song and those moments were so meaningful and have continued to have such a lasting impact.

That it was Prince who achieved this defies all expectations. We like to put our stars in neat boxes, labeled with the ingredients we expect to encounter each time we open the box, even if the mixture loses its potency over time. But Prince somehow never did lose his potency, nor did our attempts to define him really ever stick. I don’t know what we would have heard from him if he hadn’t passed away last week. I don’t know if he would have ever aged in the way the rest of us do. Maybe we’ll be able to glimpse more of the entire circumference of his genius if his hundreds of unreleased works make their way into the world. Reports say they drilled the locks to his vault yesterday.

But we lost not just an iconic performer. We also lost one of the rarest of birds in this world: a true virtuoso, one we never appreciated because our expectations for our stars are so low. Popular conception could have never embraced the full ability of Prince. As I watched footage of him over the past week I realized his ability was so much beyond what we saw and what we could have ever appreciated. People like that don’t come around very often. In some ways his life mirrors that of savants like Mozart in that he was preternaturally gifted and the world could only appreciate a fraction of his ability. And now we’ve lost him before we had a chance to really understand what we had.

Maybe that’s why his death won’t let go of me. I wish I knew what I was losing before I lost it, just like the rest of us. We woke up last Thursday in a world where Prince existed and we had filed him away, but as the day wore on we all came to realize what a grayer place the world is without him. But there’s no going back.

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Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice–Haters gonna hate?

Just saw Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have a few thoughts:

1. Zach Snyder is incapable of directing subtle emotions. Man, just trust your audience to understand love a little and stop beating us over the head. We get it.
2. Wonder Woman was incredibly awesome.
3. Too long by at least 30 minutes (hint: cut the multiple dream sequences).
4. I absolutely loved all the action sequences. Very impressive mechanics. Made it feel like a comic somehow. Made the violence seem real. The whole “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” thing is brought out in this film and Man of Steel in a way no other comic films have achieved.
5. Wonder Woman was amazing.
6. I really love the dark, brooding, conflicted world of these DC movies. So much more satisfying to my sensibilities than any of the Marvel films. I admire Snyder for trying to raise the stakes on that level.

Oh, and Wonder Woman. Awesome. Best female character in a comic book film by far. I want to grow up to be Wonder Woman.

The Marvel movies are always too cartoony for me and I never believe a single emotion that any character attempts to portray on screen. Conversely, The DC movies, this one in particular, are rooted in a real sense of tragedy and peril. From the opening scenes, where Metropolis is decimated in a 9/11-like cataclysm, I was in it. It felt real and I could relate to it. Buildings falling down, huge debris clouds rolling up the street…it connect the comic world to something we have experienced in the real world and gave us an entry point, a touchstone. Snyder took it right up to the edge there and for me, it paid off.

The backlash against this film is really interesting. I think it’s part Batfleck backlash, part Zach Snyder hate, part throwing a movie under the bus for the sins of many other movies and the overall overload of Super movies. But to my eyes, the criticisms have been unfair. This movie isn’t perfect, but the characters and the action are much more real and visceral to me.

For the record, I thought Batfleck was really good. He did a great job of always seeming like he was ready to rip someone’s head off. I loved the anger, the rage, and how barely under control it was. Kind of subtle, but kind of over the top at the same time. And violent as hell. It’s a comic book movie. All of those things work for me in that world.

So all-in-all, yes the movie was uneven and over-long, but I really enjoyed it and I really enjoy where Snyder is going with the world. It’s strange to me that by and large DC characters have always seemed the most two dimensional to me–Superman in particular–but they are turning out to be much more satisfying on screen than any of the Marvel films.

I say screw the critics and the haters. I liked it a lot, warts and all. In the comics world, I’ve always been more of a Marvel guy, but on screen, DC is just about starting to eat Marvel’s lunch.

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Cereal was created to help curb masturbation. My son got in trouble for saying so in school.

OK, I know most teens—and my teen no less than others—can get kind of giggly at the mention of sex. It’s annoying, for sure. And I know teachers struggle from day to day to maintain control of their classrooms. Usually, I don’t encourage my kids to bring up subjects like masturbation in class. But yesterday something happen that underscore for me one of the real problems of our education system. Quite frankly, it really ticks me off. So I’ma gonna speak out.Stuff you need to know first: My son is 15 and in the 8th grade. He was in the foster system for a long time and came to live with us when he was 12. We adopted him a little more than a year ago. For as long as we’ve known him he’s taken a fistful of pills twice a day to help him meter his profound behavior problems. I don’t like it, no one likes it, but that’s how it is. He has had a really tough time over the years. If it’s a medical condition with an acronym and it’s related to behavior, he’s got it and takes a pill for it. I won’t go into detail right now, but suffice it to say that he’s had it harder than any kid should have had it.

He spends a good bit of his day in a behavior classroom at school. He’s done well at times and had more classes out with the general student population only to screw up again and get pulled back into the behavior classroom. And the teachers who have worked with him have been really great. He’s gotten in fights. He’s stolen things from teachers, he’s told them to fuck off…it’s a long list…but they have continued to work with him and for that I’m grateful.

Yesterday he was in FCS class. Don’t ask me what FCS means. I’ve asked him several times and every time he’s told me I forget because the acronym is so bland an meaningless I slips out of my head like oil. For those of you from my generation, it’s basically Home Economics, as far as I can tell.

I guess they were somehow talking about foods yesterday and cereal in particular. Coleton pipes up with the humorous factoid that cereal was in part created as a larger anti-masturbation therapy by the Kellogg Brothers. I told him this. Now, he didn’t have all the facts at his fingertips and I’ll stipulate that he probably did it to get a giggle, but the result of his comments was a reprimand and being marked down on his behavior report for the day.

My problem is this: Coleton has behavior problems, yes. But he also has learning challenges, not least of which he’s behind most students in achievement and his test scores show it. He acts out and seeks attention because he’s uncomfortable and embarrassed. He’s older than everyone else in the 8th grade, but he’s below grade level in almost every subject.

His comment in class yesterday was an opportunity for his teachers. Instead if marking him down for behavior (or maybe in addition to) the teacher could have dug deeper into Coleton’s comment, found the kernel of truth in it and provided the whole class with a chance to learn some real history in context and turn the whole thing into a positive for all the students, but especially Coleton. He could really use a few moments where he can feel like he adds to the conversation.

The behavior kids have a very specific day-to-day. Kids walk around all day getting checks on point sheets to prove they didn’t act out in each class. At the end of the day, they fill out a DCS Report (again, I have no clue what DCS stands for). The DCS details all the good and bad for the child that day. The parents sign the form and the whole process repeats. I’ve often thought that “DCS Report” was way too close to the “TPS Report” from the film Office Space. They overall utility seems about the same. I understand the purpose of the system. It helps kids like Coleton learn to be accountable for their behaviors. But used without interrogation or awareness, they’re just another tool the schools are using to beat kids into submission.

Was it OK for Coleton to mention masturbation in class? I say yes. Should he have done so in a mature way? Again, yes. Did he do that? Probably not. But here’s the thing: the likelihood of Coleton making it through high school successfully at this point seem very slim. That he shared any information above and beyond the stultifying curriculum should have garnered two responses. One, if he shared it to get attention, he should have been redirected. But two, he should have also been encouraged for participating and the information should have been interrogated and explored. That’s how students learn. That’s how teachers teach.

I have nothing but respect for teachers, especially the ones who have to work with Coleton, but in this case he was the victim of a failure to educate. He had something to offer, no matter how misguided, and he got his hand slapped for it. It makes me wonder are we educating our kids to be compliant and to only offer the pre-ordained correct answers, or are we truly seeking to create inquisitive life-long learners? The job if the teacher is a hard one, but it also requires heightened vigilance. When teachers lose their curiosity and courage, students learn a lesson we don’t intend to teach.

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9/11: The Smell

I don’t like to think about 9/11, especially not on 9/11. Nothing about my life has been the same since that day. I can see it clearly 14 years later as a demarcation point, where my life ceased to be what I thought it was going to be, what I hoped it might be and slowly became–something else.

I don’t say that it became a bad something else. I have a beautiful family that I might not have had if not for the events of that day and the days immediately after. Everything was going great on 9/11. My band had made a new record that folks seemed to like. We’d been on tour a couple times that year and on 9/12 we were going to head out again to share some dates with Brent Best’s band Slobberbone.

I walked out of the subway that morning looking for my uptown bus, late for work, as usual. There was a woman screaming. I could hear her from the stairwell and when I emerged, she was running south, with a toddler in an umbrella stroller. The whole things looked desperate, precarious. She was hysterical and the child didn’t look safe. That’s what I thought as I watched her pass. I saw a plume of smoke rising above the buildings to the southwest. The plume was large enough that I thought there was a fire somewhere close, maybe a few blocks away, 12th and 2nd Ave, maybe. I got on the bus.

When I got to the office I entered through the mailroom, as I usually did. I never remembered my keycard. Bruce the mailroom manager told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Not long before a baseball player had slammed into a building in a plane. Or did that happen after? I can’t recall. Another unfortunate accident, but the day goes on.

It didn’t take long to realize that it was more than an unfortunate accident. There was another plane. And one in DC. And one in Pennsylvania. My office was a couple blocks from the UN. Theresa’s was a couple blocks from the Empire State. I started considering scenarios, dirty bombs, more planes. There was a time when it seemed like any horrible thing could happen. Meanwhile, our bosses told us to stay put. No one could get phone calls out. It wasn’t clear what was happening, so we rolled TVs into the cubicle farm and watched.

One of the towers fell. A collective gasp. The other building fell and a sense of panic set in. The feeling of imminent danger had subsided, but panic was there in its place. And it wasn’t panic over what was happening or might happen. It was more like a slow cold knowledge that everything was different. There was no coming back from something like this.

People started leaving the office. I had been on the phone with Theresaseveral times and then I couldn’t get her anymore. And I thought about the Empire State, and those other planes in my head. I called and called and there was no answer. Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to leave, but I was scared. I had no idea what was out there.

It’s hard to explain the fear. I imagine it’s something like dementia. Nothing was as it should have been. Step out the confines of that building and anything could happen. But I had to go. My friend Gerry walked me. Thinking back on that act, it seems so strange, to have one grown man walk another a few city blocks to his wife’s office, but it’s one of the kindest acts anyone has ever blessed me with. So thank you, Mr. Schramm.

Theresa was fine. Walt, the guy who was playing bass for us on the impending tour, found his way uptown to us. Slowly, you could make cell phone calls again. People reconnected and the gauzy fabric of the reality we superimpose started to knit itself back together. We started walking home mid-afternoon. The streets were unlike a NYC I’ve known before or since. Everyone was stunned, damaged, in shock. It was going to be a long walk back to Brooklyn.

As we approached 14th St, there was a homeless guy in the middle of the street signing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. and probably had been for a while. His voice was blown and he stood in the middle of 3rd Ave and just screamed the chorus over and over again. In my mind, our nation has been that guy ever since–damaged, a little crazy, confused, belligerent.

The subway was running somehow, for some reason. We piled onto an L train and left Manhattan alive. Walt was dusty. He had emerged from the subway that morning blocks away from the Trade Center just as the first tower fell. He had to outrun the wreckage, P bass in one hand and briefcase in the other. Walt was some kind of an IT guy freelancing in the financial district. He lived outside of Philly and took the train in a few times a week. He was going to leave with us on tour the next day. I can’t remember Walt’s last name.

That night I wanted to get drunk. Williamsburg was alive in the late afternoon. It was a beautiful September day. We walked down to the riverside and watched the dual plumes of smoke rise and then we went to Muggs Alehouse and ate and drank. Because we were alive.

The tour was cancelled. The band never recovered. My career as a musician never recovered either. It’s nothing compared to those who lost loved ones on that day. The people attached to the handbills advertising lost family members plastered on the plywood construction barriers outside hospitals, or anywhere else available in the weeks after the attack. I often think of the co-worker whose fiancé was a firefighter. He died in one of the towers. When he knew he wasn’t going to get out he called her office phone. She was probably out in the halls watching TV with the rest of us. He left her a voicemail that said goodbye and that he loved her. My boss bought a tape recorder and recorded it for her a week or so later.

Everyone has a story from that day. Everyone who lived in New York, everyone across the nation. But now, on this day I think about my day. I think about that woman who ran by me as I came out of the subway. Who did she lose? Or was her loved one OK? I think about Walt and feel bad that I cant remember his name. I think about that person I might have been; maybe I would have been the successful singer/songwriter I thought I was on the way to being, or maybe it would have fallen apart some other way. All that stuff is held together with spiderwebs. It just takes the slightest breeze.

But mostly–and this is what I want people to think of when they hashtag ‪#‎neverforget‬–what I think about is the smell. For weeks afterward the smell of the still-smoldering buildings was everywhere. It got so I knew the patterns of the wind currents on the east side of New York because of where I could smell the smell. In the mornings it was strong in Manhattan and I could smell it as I walked into the office. In the evenings the current shifted and I could smell it outside our apartment or on the street just before I went into the bar. It was the smell of burning plastic, something oily, a hint of woodsmoke, and somewhere in there, though I could never discern it specifically from the other scents, the tang of burning flesh, of those bodies never recovered. It was there in the city for weeks as the holes in the ground still burned like giant char pits.

There’s something important in that memory, something we’ve lost as the years have passed or the events of that day have been coopted for other uses. But I’ll #neverforget the smell. And the rest of us shouldn’t either.

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Puppet plays drums for Rush

Things I like about this video:

  1. Puppet plays Rush
  2. Puppet plays drums with traditional grip.
  3. Puppet drumset has working foot pedal.
  4. Puppet plays Rush.

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New Song Demo

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Bread…for you, Internet

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