Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mark’s 2013 Scrapbook of All the Things

So I’m a dad, which means that half of the stuff on this list was released in 2012 or before, but I finally got around to reading/watching/listening to it this year. I'd like to preface this by saying that at no time have I ever watched a show concerning the manufacturers of high-quality waterfowl lures, nor am I completely sure what the fox say. Nevertheless, even up to my eye- and earballs in PhD coursework and teaching my own first semester's load of classes, I managed to absorb my share of sweet, sweet brain candy this year. And because I'm just that narcissistic, I think I'll share it with you. In a ranked list. Because the internet doesn't have enough of those. 
Without further ado: here’s the best of what I came across in 2013.

The best film I saw this year:

Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier’s halting apocalyptic masterpiece is beautifully filmed, well acted, and, as his other films, deeply affecting. As usual, von Trier seems to cast his films by taking one person he's worked with before, one aging character actor, and throwing open a copy of E! Magazine to random pages to choose the rest. As if eliciting startlingly good performances from Kiefer Southerland and Kirsten Dunst weren't enough, Melancholia is as suffocatingly slow and bursting with inexorable dread as the rest of von Trier's films. Except this time, for once, the world really does end. Along with Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, I think this is one of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century so far, and it will stay with you for a long time after you watch it.

Other excellent choices:

Oblivion (2013) - A miscast and unevenly-paced film that nevertheless manages to be balls-out gorgeous. One of the most visually-impressive films I’ve seen in a very, very long time. It’s like watching a concept artist’s portfolio come to life.

World War Z (2013) - A rare instance where I felt the film improved on the book. I liked, but didn’t love, Max Brooks’ novel, and I thought the film was a superb adaptation. Zombie fiction is about far more than just thrills and gross-out horror, and is quickly becoming the thinking-person's horror genre. To a successful extent (if not as much as The Walking Dead) World War Z taps into what catastrophe means to an economically-fragile, globalized, late-Capitalism world.

Elysium (2013) - I remember enjoying District 9, but feeling like Neill Blomkamp could have pushed his plot layering a lot harder and written scenes that interacted more fully with his premise than he did. Elysium goes the distance, and it’s glorious. Many scenes where actors interact with humanoid robots are some of the most realistic-looking scenes of that sort ever filmed, and Matt Damon is terrific. Jodi Foster, of all people, manages to sound the only sour note in the film.

Ender's Game (2013) - I’m still not 100% sure how to feel about this. It felt to me somewhat like the film adaptation of The Road. A great movie faithfully adapted nearly verbatim from a great book ends up feeling like a zero-sum game somehow. Watch it with the confidence that it does the book justice, but don’t expect it to improve in any way upon the book. Is that a recommendation? I don’t know.

Film that was way better than it had any right to be:

Dredd (2012) - On paper, this film should have sucked badly, but it turned out to be one of the more entertaining surprises that I came across this year. Innovative cinematography, pitch-perfect pacing, a Blade Runner-like look, and cameos by Lena Hedley and Wood Harris sold me, Olivia Thirlby put in a solid performance, and Karl Urban stayed out of his own way. I know, I know. Judge Dredd. Just trust me.

The best TV I watched this year:

The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and Girls - Despite the general bitching on Facebook that the plot of The Walking Dead drags at times, and the villains in Sons of Anarchy become more and more cartoonish as the show progresses, I think these first two shows put together some of the most consistently entertaining and meaning-laden television out there this year, eclipsing even some other great offerings from HBO, AMC, and Netflix. These two shows, more than any other, are encapsulating what life as an American in the Great Recession is all about. Girls is amazing for other reasons. It, too, is a Great Recession austerity narrative, but it's much more unevenly plotted and focused on a smaller scope. For smart scripts, great acting, and some of the most biting satire around, you’ll not find a show better than Girls.

Other great TV to check out:
The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, Archer, Family Guy, Downton Abbey, Hell on Wheels, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Justified and Lilyhammer.

Shows you can skip:

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Getting On, and the Netflix reboot of Arrested Development. Boardwalk Empire has been limping on for two seasons after the series-crushing departure of Michael Pitt, and there’s very little sense to any of it anymore, and Getting On is like watching Nurse Jackie if Nurse Jackie wasn’t funny and smelled like a nursing home. I’m not sure why I don’t like the new season of Arrested Development. It’s just noticeably less feisty than the older episodes, and the cast seems not to interact as well as they once did. Which is sort of a bummer, really.

The best book I read this year:
George Saunders’ Tenth of December (2013)
If I had to pick a favorite, and I don’t like to, but if I had to, this would be it for me for the year. Not only does every story in this collection swing for the fences, but it had my favorite short story of the year (“The Semplica Girl Diaries”) in it, as well. I got to interview Saunders last winter, and he’s just as charming, witty, unpretentious, and brilliant as his fiction. If you only read one thing this year, read Tenth of December.

Runners up:
Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985)
A late addition to the list, as I just finished it yesterday, but this book totally blew me away. One of those books that you use to mark your maturation as a reader. As in “this was the first book since so-and-so that changed the way I look at novels.” I didn’t give it the top spot because it’s so fresh in my mind and because I need more time to digest it and think about what it means and how or whether I’m going to allow it to inform my own work, but it’s easy to see why so many critics regard Blood Meridian as a game-changer of a book.

James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941)
Despite its dull premise, Cain (who also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) managed here to write one of the most sharply mimetic female protagonists I’ve ever seen. Mildred, the down-to-earth and likable lead, is saddled with an exceptionally gifted daughter named Veda, with whom she has a turbulent relationship. Set in the tail end of the Great Depression, when economic hard times dragged into the better part of an entire decade (sound familiar?), I found this, and the novel’s eponymous main character, impossible not to like.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011)
I was certain—absolutely certain—that this book was going to suck. After all: I AM a gamer dork from the late 1980’s, and I didn’t think any dopey parody of it was going to be able to tell me anything about those years and growing up at that time that I didn’t already know. I was so wonderfully, hilariously wrong. This book (and I read the audiobook version, narrated by Wil Wheaton of all people), had me laughing and smiling and giving myself unselfconscious air high-fives from almost page one. It also has a remarkably poignant dystopian message about net neutrality and the commodification of leisure. Highly, highly recommended for anyone who grew up in the 80’s. This book is like a little energon cube of fun.

Other excellent choices:
Daniel DaFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Jack London’s The Star Rover, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of A Dangerous Idea, and Angela Pneuman’s short storyOccupational Hazard.”

Biggest disappointments:
Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011). These two came highly recommended to me by several sources and they were both just wretchedly terrible. Cronin’s bloated, thousand-page mess read like it was written by a hormonal Mountain Dew-guzzling teenager fresh off a Dean Koontz/Mad Max binge, and Zone One was like reading the lifeless, book-length backstory of the corporate villains from a Paul Verhoven film. Given that Cronin and Whitehead are both Ivy League academics with eye-popping intellectual pedigrees, someone at some point should have known better than to greenlight these books.

My favorite musical discovery of the year:
PHOX- A late addition to Lollapalooza this year, and evidently a huge hit there, they opened for (and slightly outshined) Jose Gonzalez’s band Junip when I saw them at Lincoln Hall earlier this year. Their EP Confetti is terrific, and they’ve got some of the best YouTube music videos I’ve ever seen. Imagine a multi-instrument ensemble playing nerdy, Pink-Floyd-infused-Mumford jams with an adorable lead singer who sounds vaguely like Nina Simone, in all the best senses of whatever the hell that is. When I complained via Twitter that their EP had disappeared from Spotify, one of the band members immediately tweeted me back recommending I pirate the tracks I wanted. PHOX is awesome.

Other excellent choices:
"Nashville" Noah Gundersen, “Who You Love” John Mayer feat. Katy Perry, "Annabel" The Duhks, "Some Nights" Fun, "Walking Lightly", "Line of Fire" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" Junip, "The Lost Boy" Greg Holden, "Coal War" Joshua James, "The Final Trawl" Back of the Moon, "Bothan airigh am braigh raithneach," Julie Fowlis.

Guilty Pleasures:
This was also evidently the year I stopped being much of a music snob, or the year that poppy female starlets started producing unusually good music. I say it with some sheepishness, but I listened to quite a lot of Katy Perry, Lorde, and Miley Cyrus this year. Their respective new albums managed to be just catchy and punchy enough to strike the right tone for a twice-weekly commute to Milwaukee in a car by myself. I’ll wait a moment while you picture me singing along.

Favorite stage shows of the year:
Wicked (the Broadway in Chicago cast, at the Oriental Theater) - It seems like I always get to see musicals onstage long after their heyday. I missed two chances in the late 80’s and early 90’s to see Les Miserables and Miss Saigon with Colm Wilkenson, Alan Ball, Frances Rufelle, and Lea Salonga, some of the greatest stage talent of their generation and the originators of the roles. And of course I missed Kristen Chenowith and Idina Menzel’s Wicked when I had the chance, sadly. I’ve seen Les Miserables twice since then, and Miss Saigon, with alternate (and far inferior) casts, and I was pretty sure I was in for the same with the current cast of Wicked in Chicago, but Allison Luff and Jenn Gambatese owned the living hell out the show, and made it so much theirs that it sent me to YouTube to find their version to listen to rather than the original. Gambatese was hilarious throughout and she and Luff got the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at a musical after her rendition of “Defying Gravity.” Her Elphaba seemed far more girlish, vulnerable, likable, and lived-in than Menzel’s stiffer (if maybe 5% vocally stronger) Elphaba. It’s a toss-up which cast is “better” but the new cast doesn’t give an inch of ground in the quality department and the current tour of Wicked is one of the most thoroughly entertaining things I’ve ever seen on stage.
The Steppenwolf production of Stephen Adly Gurgis’ The Motherfucker With the Hat, starring Jimmy Smits and John Ortiz was also tremendous. Full disclosure: I’m distantly related to director Anna Shapiro, but this was a wonderful departure for Shapiro in terms of both content and pacing, and seeing her stretch her usual wheelhouse to accommodate Adly Gurgis’ snappy, raunchy, and clever script was one of the most impressive creative wins I saw this year. The set design was terrific and Ortiz, in particular, was great. I don’t know anyone who saw this that didn’t enjoy it.

Favorite video game of the year:
I’m not even sure this deserves its own category, but this was the year that John and I discovered Minecraft, a deceptively simple-looking game that turned out to be one of the most fun video games I’ve ever played. Ostensibly plotless, Minecraft sets you down in the middle of a cartoonish but fully-interactive world and dares you to survive. During the day, blocky clouds drift past, trees can be chopped down to make shovels, pickaxes, hoes, and various other basic tools, and you can even start a little farm for crops and livestock. When the sun goes down, though, the monsters come out. Zombies, giant spiders, skeletons, and terrifying Enderman and Creepers lurk in the darkness and you’ll need a sword, armor, a bow and arrow, dynamite, and plenty of torchlight to keep them at bay.
And here’s the beauty of Minecraft: despite it’s blocky and primitive appearance, you can interact with every single object in it. Every piece of ground can be delved into, every pool of standing water can be scooped up in a bucket, every animal can be tamed, bred, befriended, ridden, or hunted, and you can build, as if you had the world’s largest box of Legos, anything you want. Want to make an entire castle out of transparent glass? Done. Want to recreate King’s Landing? Can do. Currently the world that John and I have built (because the game is much more fun in multi-player mode) contains a town of interconnected towers, a massive farm, a seaside-town, a skyscraper, a pirate ship, a minecart roller-coaster, a floating pyramid, several castles, and of course miles and miles of underground mineshafts and paths that we’ve cut into, around, and through the massive, endless wilderness of Minecraft. Fun for all ages, especially 35.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Long Live Us is here!

I'm thrilled to announce that my most recent book, a collection of short stories titled Long Live Us, was released today by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. As always, Jason Pettus and the gang over at CCLaP have done a superb job of putting together the book, which is available in hardcover, Kindle, iBooks EPUB, and even standard PDF format to purchase here: http://www.cclapcenter.com/longliveus/

The hard copies are gorgeous, and CCLaP has come a long way since the earliest days of the hand-stitched "hypermodern editions" with these. The new hardcovers have closed spines and wrap-around cover images, and are available in about 25 bookstores nationwide and at their website. I would suggest checking out their Kindle, iBooks, and PDF versions as well, if only because Pettus is a master of digital publishing and CCLaP is known for putting out some of the best looking eBooks in the business.

Here's the book's jacket copy, from the publisher:

A family tensely waits out a meningitis scare in a quarantined home during the Great Recession. Small-town farmers in pre-war America battle a tree the size of a skyscraper. In a day-after-tomorrow dystopia, the new naughty contraband among rebellious teenagers is starchy carbohydrates. And in a barely recognizable far future, enlightened humanoids debate the implications of a mother who has smothered her child. These are just some of the speculative visions collected in the new Long Live Us by Chicago writer Mark R. Brand, author of the previous CCLaP hit Life After Sleep. Known primarily as a science-fiction author, this new collection will certainly not disappoint Brand's existing fans, with pieces set among lunar colonists and blue-collar astronauts among other fanciful situations; but this is also Brand expanding his scope and vision for the first time, treating us with more down-to-earth stories set among contemporary families and even offering up a Great Depression tall tale. A multiple past winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award, Brand is at the height of his creative power in Long Live Us, and the stories found within are sure to delight, disturb and thrill you long after you've finished reading.

"Authors like Roald Dahl, Joe Hill, and Chuck Palahniuk come to mind[,] a great crowd to be in when it comes to short stories....[D]iverse and good for readers who are looking for something peculiar, but not overly filled with fantastic elements." --Odd Engine

"Steals your heart right away....Trust me, it's unique!" --Love At First Book

Saturday, August 17, 2013

I'm not saying my obscure music is better than yours, but... No, you know what? I actually am saying that.

I discovered Noah Gundersen on Pandora and the soundtrack to Sons of Anarchy. His big song is called "Family," but I think this one is my personal favorite. He evidently performs with his sister Abby and a number of other folky-harmony types. Check it out.

Beth and I caught Phox opening for Junip earlier this summer, and they totally blew me away. Their sound, loads of different types of instruments blended together, with frontwoman Monica just awesome-ing up the place, was a high point of my summer.

I discovered earlier this year that my Brand ancestors were originally from Glasgow, Scotland and came to the US in the late 1800's. Since then I've had sharp ears for anything that smacks of the northern UK, and this song sung by Julie Fowlis came up at some point on Facebook. It's gorgeous.

It goes to show how long it's been since I've meaningfully updated this page, since Southeast Engine was my favorite discovery of the year in summer of 2012. Still awesome, though, like a hillbilly, Depression-era Allman Brothers, in all of the best senses of whatever the hell that is.

More Noah Gundersen. This time with his sister in some little venue sounding as good/better than the studio recording of this song. "Fire"

Another Scottish song, this one about a fishing boat, though it's not terribly easy to pick that out. A bunch of people have done this one, but this was the best version of it I could find on YouTube. There's a couple on Spotify I like better.

One of my favorite songs of the entire summer, Phox's "Laura (Oh Girl)"

 Noah and Abby Gundersen do a medley of folk-gospel-sounding O' Brother Where Art Thou-ish stuff. My favorite comment from the YouTube page "How do people like this even exist?"

Another one by Phox. This funny little tune starts off in a strange way and then builds into one of my favorite songs of theirs, only revealing at length that they know what the hell they're doing.

You've seen Sons of Anarchy, haven't you? If so, you know why Greg Holden's "The Lost Boy" is unforgettable. If not WHY HAVEN'T YOU SEEN SONS OF ANARCHY?!? IT'S THE BEST F*CKING SHOW ON TELEVISION. STOP READING THIS BLOG AND GO WATCH SONS OF ANARCHY.

I heard this on NPR a few months ago while I was pumping gas and it just captured my attention somehow. I like it more every time I listen to it.

I'm all over the place about Junip. They suck live, their albums are amazing, and this video is creepy as shit. Still...

Ike Reilly is a fairly recent discovery for me, but he's growing on me slowly and steadily like The Hold Steady. Listen a few times, I bet you'll agree.

Kina Grannis and Hunter Hunted do the Lumineers' "Ho Hey", a brighter, sweeter version of the original. They haven't done much lately on their YouTube channel to write home about, but I did like this one quite a bit.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Partly Cloudy

So I've spent a whole lot of time recently trying to catch up. Not to any one thing, in particular, but more like catching up to the entire world that's been moving swiftly on without me for what feels like too long. Some examples of the things I've been catching up on include the books I should have read years ago were I a normal specimen of the type of scholar I am (hello, Heart of Darkness), the television shows people told me I had to watch sometime between 2010 and 2011 (Downton Abbey is as rad, somehow, as everyone says), a giant pile of writing and website-related material including this poor neglected blog, the functionality of my new digital SLR camera which baffled me at first with its odd little 18-55mm kit lens that acted like a zoom, but really only actually serves as an adjustable close and short-range lens and on top of that had no aperture ring thereby sending me scrambling to the library to figure out what the hell happened to manual photography in the 20 years since I've done it, and finally, I've dipped my toes into the world of cloud computing.

"Dude," you say. "Cloud computing was a new thing like seven years ago."

Photo by Second Mouse @flickr
Dude, I reply, I have a six and a half year old. You do the math. So I'm sure that in true aging dad-guy fashion I'm far, far behind in expressing my astonishment at how terrific a technology it is, but bear with me. The last two years have been a slog
through a graduate degree and I barely took my head out of my books and my writing to look around and notice that I'm literally living in the future. I parked my car this morning when I went to the Evanston Public Library with John, and we parked directly in front of a recharging station for all-electric cars. Not only was there a station there; there were cars parked at it, using it. I took a step back and snapped a photo of it, trying to wrap my head for a moment around the reality of such a futuristic gadget juxtaposed with such a mundane, or even perhaps waning, institution, especially when the charging station appeared to be quasi-municipal (I think it's probably one of the IgoCars-sponsored things, but there didn't appear to be any reason a privately owned car couldn't park there or use the station). I have lived most of my young adulthood under the general cynical assumption that big business and the Baby Boomers had almost certainly used up all of the inheritable legacies of the world that they could not overtly hoard, and then gang-raped the economy to protect their fortunes and retirement funds so
thoroughly that any high-tech space-age technology we were shown in Popular Science when we were kids was pushed off the table for my lifetime. With a few exceptions, like Napster or Youtube which were/are incredibly useful and seem not to carry much of the corporate come-hither-Benjamins leer, I assumed that we only had a ghost of a chance of ever seeing any of it if a Boomer-run company figured out a way to make a shitload of money off of us by implementing it.

And yet I'm writing this right now from a keyboard-equipped iPad that's smaller and lighter than a library book, and it's connected to my Macbook and my iPhone with something I'm just now bothering to even turn on. The Cloud, it turns out, is very, very cheap. Democratizingly cheap, even. It might be a different sort of cynicism to compare the relative costs of things, but if there's a consumer price index that includes necessities both creature and intellectual, the Cloud does magical, Five Forks-quality things at Happy Meal prices. I am not speaking figuratively here; Google Drive is free, Dropbox is free, iMessage makes texting (telecom's biggest screw-job in history) free. Gutenberg.com and Librivox.com put free texts and audiobooks at your fingertips without even having to own the computer you're listening to/reading them on. Even Spotify and iCloud are mostly free, unless you want premium features and even if you do you're talking about Happy Meal prices at worst. Spotify is $10 a month if you want it on your phone or iPad. More space on iCloud because you're tired of backing up your photos on your hard drive is $20 a year. If you're feeling stingy, Flickr offers a terabyte-a unit of storage unthinkably huge when I was in college-to every user, free. Netflix is $7.99 per month for more television and movies than you could ever watch. If you need something from your home or work computer, you can remotely control it free from any other computer, or your mobile device, with Logmein.

I'm not going to lie, I sprang for a few of the premium niceties. I bought the $10 Pages app so I could actually work on Word documents on iCloud. I tried out Audible briefly for new audiobooks before canceling it because it doesn't yet have a big enough library to justify the $14.99 pricetag. But really, aside from the internet access itself, those three little radar bars in the upper left hand corner, and the devices to access them from, cloud computing applications are the new great equalizer. They let the basic, entry level devices do what used to be purely the realm of the most expensive ones. With cloud-based mobile devices, there's never any need to use anything but the seamless calendar/reminders/messenger, and photo tools included with the iOS. I never have to buy the biggest iPad or iPhone, or even the laptop or desktop with the biggest storage capacity again. There's nothing to store on my end except the very largest video files, which live on backed-up external hard drives anyway. I can reduce my regular data hard drive backups from every two weeks on a neurotic "I'm terrified of losing my work" regimen to basically once a year. If Apple and Google and Flickr and Dropbox with their clean-room, climate controlled server farms can't reliably back up my data, I might as well stop fooling myself that the $60 external hard drive I bought at Office Max is a safer option. I might as well hide my files under my mattress.

I guess the point of writing this isn't so much to describe what cloud computing can do. Everyone from the year 2007 already knows this. I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the fact that somehow, like the electric cars, a technology that doesn't seem blatantly bent on maintaining the status quo or lining the pockets of the people who have a stranglehold on the world's resources and influence, is now not just in a magazine about how awesome our grandchildren's lives are going to be, but is actually in my hands, under my fingertips, right now as I type this. Maybe there's hope for flying cars after all. I'm still young.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Life Update 2013 (Part Four): Long Live Us

(So it's been a painfully long time since I've updated my blog, but as a consolation prize I have an unusually news-packed series of updates for you. This is part four.)

Am I wearing you out, my faithful reader, with my continuing onslaught of major life changes? I hope you've left room for desert, because I've got one more thing to tell you about: approximately mid-way through last year, I successfully pitched the idea for a short story collection of my new work from my time at DePaul to CCLaP creative director and founder Jason Pettus. The collection, titled Long Live Us, will be released in mid-September. 

One of the commitments I made to myself when I began at DePaul was to try and work with humor more in my stories. They're all heavily satirical, these shorts, and I found that the lighter-hearted I was willing to go with the stories, and the more risks I was willing to take with working humor into them, the more biting the satire became. It wasn't all easy, of course; writing humor is exceptionally difficult and the line you walk between cheesy/flat and spot-on is exceedingly fine, but I had some terrific help with this from my DePaul mentors Dan Stolar, Rebecca Johns-Trissler, Hannah Pittard, Amina Gautier, and Miles Harvey, as well as my friends and colleagues at the DePaul Writers Guild that were very supportive of the stories, and of me, along the way.

When I pitched the book to Jason, it included a number of shorts that were cut in favor of more serious pieces, and the end result is a book that feels, to me, like a nice blend of funny and serious, and benefits from the blend as opposed to the hard gear-change that a more wholly-lighthearted book would be from my current body of work. It's a departure of sorts, though, and not even editing and deliberate inclusion of far-future sci-fi stories can hide that. There's a lot of where I am now as a writer in this book, even though it includes two stories that have already been published in other books, and were written in the summer before I started at DePaul. I took a lot of what felt like chances at the time with these stories, working with different narrative strategies and voices, and abandoning the futuristic settings and comfortable topics at times, but eventually these experiments enhanced, rather than diffused, my ideas, and I ran with them.

We eventually trimmed the book down to eight short stories, most of which revolved around people dealing with difficult economic times, people fighting through adversity out of simple fear, or for reasons they're not sure they believe in anymore, or people promised something that they're just now figuring out isn't coming. It's a collection about the Great Recession, essentially, and why such a phenomenon at once frees and murders, ennobles, and annihilates us.

Here's the cover image on the Goodreads page, a special sneak-peek for those of you who bothered to read this. Look for it in mid-September at cclapcenter.com. If you'd care to get a further peek into a couple of the stories included, you can always check out the collections American Wasteland (CCLaP, 2011) and Daddy Cool (Artistically Declined, 2013), each of which feature one of the stories from Long Live Us.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Life Update 2013 (Part Three): Goodbye massage therapist; hello professor of English.

(So it's been a painfully long time since I've updated my blog, but as a consolation prize I have an unusually news-packed series of updates for you. This is part three.)

Less of this.
And what would a major transition from one graduate school to another be without an equally major change in my working life? I've held off announcing this publicly until I had a chance to handle the professional end of things, but right here, right now, I'm announcing my retirement from massage therapy and from the medical field entirely, as of Saturday, August 17th. I've accepted a position as adjunct professor of English at Wilbur Wright College, and I was offered two sections of English 100 and 101 to teach in the Fall, which I suspect will take up most or all of my time not otherwise spoken for by studying for my own coursework at UWM. I've loved my time as a massage therapist. I've met many terrific people and I feel like over the last eighteen and a half years in various healthcare jobs I've done a lot of good for a lot of people in pain, but it's time to move on, and even the one day per week that I've held onto this year will be too much for me to handle when UWM and Wright College are both back in session.

More of this.
Now with that out of the way, I'd love to share with you a little bit about my new department. Wilbur Wright College is one of (some say the best of, but I couldn't tell you from personal experience as I haven't visited them all) the City Colleges of Chicago. If you're not familiar with the CCC, think the community college CUNY schools in NYC: compact urban commuter schools offering some Bachelor but mostly Associate degrees, populated by people reaching beyond themselves in one way or another. First generation college students, career-changers, newly retired veterans, first-generation immigrants or their children, students trying to figure out if college is for them or trying to dodge the high price tags of four-year schools. They're a scrappy bunch, ready for a challenge and ready to work for their grades, and for themselves. They hand in papers representative of a wide variety of pre-existing skills and preparedness, but uniformly drenched in the sweat of hard work. They are engaged and very teachable. Some of them have been told they can't write, or have had a variety of bad experiences with school in the past that have soured their opinion of academic writing, but this ironically makes them more fun and rewarding to teach. They frequently surprise themselves at how well they can write when given assignments that matter and make sense. They have few bad habits to unlearn, and the new skills they discover in ENG 101 are the basic tools they need to complete the rest of whatever degree they choose.

I completed an internship at Wright College in May with a terrific mentor named Tim Doherty, and I found that I thoroughly enjoyed working with this student population. The English faculty at Wright are friendly, easygoing, pragmatic, professional, and fun, and they take themselves as seriously, on par, as good seasoned doctors do, which made me feel right at home. Plenty of DePaul graduates have taught or are currently teaching there, and the college itself is quite well appointed and seems very sensibly administrated in its resources, layout, mission, and the general tone of its day-to-day life. It's in a nice, quiet neighborhood called Dunning on the far northwest side of the city, and the college manages to have a very campus-like feel despite being located in a huge sprawling city. A lot about it appealed to me, in other words, and I'm excited to see where this opportunity leads, and how I can make the most of it while I finish my PhD. 

Oh, and I don't have the syllabus for ENG100 complete yet, but my ENG101 section will be reading early 20th century American adventure stories and examining how the history of American literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was tied intimately to the emerging voices of modernist writers who frequently chose various forms of adventure as their themes and plots and topical matter. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Shirley Jackson, Robert E. Howard, Ambrose Bierce, Ralph Ellison, and more. Sound fun? Take my class! Wilbur Wright College is a great school.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Life Update 2013 (Part Two): Doctor, my eyes

(So it's been a painfully long time since I've updated my blog, but as a consolation prize I have an unusually news-packed series of updates for you. This is part two.)

Something else happened this year that was wonderful, exciting, and slightly terrifying all at once: In March, I was accepted into the PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My Facebook followers probably remember my astonishment at the complexity of the application process for UWM and UIC. My application for UWM, for example, was well over 100 pages long. Samples of creative and academic work, curriculum vitae, applications for various sorts of funding, applications for teaching assistantships, transcripts of every shred of college experience I'd had up to that point, half a dozen recommendation letters, additional recommendation letters for the various funding applications, the generalized checklists and general information forms, the dreaded Statement of Purpose, and copies of everything to the grad schools as well as the departments, which are two separate offices. It was like applying for school, a job, and a scholarship all at once, all of which were more extensive than the similar processes for getting into an M.A. program.

This thing was longer than my last novel.
I had mixed feelings about the process because, unlike many of my friends who also applied, I could only practically apply to the schools that were physically close enough for me to commute to. Beth has an excellent job with good benefits in Chicago, and we've just settled John into a school district that we like, so the only realistic way I could actually complete a PhD was to get into one of the two schools within driving distance, both of which are consistently highly ranked and very, very competitive to get into. Most of my DePaul colleagues who applied sent applications nationwide to dozens of programs and chose from the one or (if they were lucky) two programs that accepted them, some of which were dotted all over the country from Nebraska to Georgia, and one friend even moved his wife and newborn child from Chicago to Lincoln, NE to accept a spot in a PhD program. It's an accepted fact that most (or all) schools will reject your application for a huge variety of reasons. Poorness of fit, lack of faculty that specialize in the things you want to write, particularities of intellectual approach, an imbalance of genres that means an acceptance of more of one type of writer over another; all of these could sink an otherwise stellar, spotless application. So here I was, playing long odds only applying to two schools, two of the best and most competitive schools, and with my only backup plan being waiting a year to try again with many more of these difficult, complex applications to schools in places I'd have to uproot my family to attend if they'd even have me.

I thought I had a decent shot at getting into UIC. Their Program for Writers is very well regarded and I have some personal connections with a number of current faculty and students there. I figured if I was lucky my time spent participating in the Chicago literary world might mean something to the admissions committee. UWM was a longshot; so much so that one of my mentors at DePaul gently assured me that no matter how good I was it was very unlikely I'd get in due to their relative infrequency of admitting fiction writers as opposed to poets and other genre writers, and I should focus on either UIC or just applying next year.

I got, in early March, a two-sentence long perfunctory rejection letter from UIC, and I inwardly steeled myself to get the same from UWM. When my decision took longer than expected, I called the admissions office directly and I was told that my application was incomplete. This was months past the deadlines and I'd already started to see people posting that they'd been accepted on grad-school draft websites. I talked to a few friendly but not-very-encouraging administrators and they told me after reminding me that the deadlines were months ago that if I could overnight them the missing pieces of my application (two copies of transcripts from St. Lawrence University that I requested and SLU failed to send - thanks a million SLU) they could give me a decision. I overnighted the transcripts for $30 or whatever it cost, sure they'd have already chosen the half dozen people they planned to admit while my application languished in limbo, and were just going through the motions before tossing my application into the trash. I heard nothing for another two weeks, and I called again, feeling like I at least wanted $30 of someone telling me to my face that I was rejected and avoiding the misery of another clipped, emotionless UIC letter. Inadvertantly, the person answering their phones let it slip that I'd been admitted. "It looks like you were accepted. Did you know already?" she asked. "No," I said, stunned. "Thanks!" She told me my letter was in the mail and I didn't hear anything else she said. I hung up the phone and, for perhaps only the third or fourth time in my adult life, I sobbed.

So this is all well and good, right? Everyone who gets this far and gets this sort of acknowledgment when it comes to something they love has a story about how hard it was and how close they came to seeing their dreams evaporate, so what else is new? It happened that my wife had spent, a few months ago, a substantial amount of time researching our family histories. We were able to establiish that the Brands were originally from Glasgow, Scotland via a paper mill laborer named David Brand and his domestic servant wife Helen Creed from Cheltenham, England, and in over 150 years there have been no Brands in my bloodline to hold a Doctorate. Many of the members of the two most recent generations of my large extended family have gone far in college, and I wasn't the first, or even the fifth or sixth to have a Master's degree, but I will be the first to earn a PhD. In a little less than a month, I'm starting, and I'm breaking new ground. This was, and continues to be, amazing, and a little bit scary. I've made the trip to Milwaukee (a trip I'll be making twice a week in September) twice now and met many of the faculty members, all of whom were very friendly and welcoming, and I've been preparing my calendar and getting ready in a hundred other ways for the back-to-school rush, but I'm discovering that this time, like the MA, the BA, and even high school if you want to look back that far, has its own unique flavor of excitement that comes with it. It's wonderful that way, and I feel very, very fortunate to be able to savor it.