The Walks of December–113.4 Miles

It’s the last night of winter break. Tomorrow it’s back to the extra-extra-long days that go along with planning, creating, and teaching online content. I accomplished my goals for the break. I finished the first draft of GoLII and updated this blog. I’ve decided which projects I’m going to market and which I’m going to give away to newsletter and eventual Patreon subscribers. I’ve made broad plans for upcoming blog series and gathered material. I have big plans.

Plans that are so easily derailed by the mental grind of school. I use time blocking well. I know how to push through and get things done. However, at the end of the long days of screen time, last semester I could hardly stand the sight of my computer, and I didn’t get much writing done during the week.

I also walk every day now. Occasionally, it’s only a mile or two, usually it’s closer to four, sometimes as long as seven or eight. When I was sick in November, all I wanted to do was walk. I’ve always loved walking–with friends, in person or on the phone, alone listening to music, or if I’m hiking, listening to my footsteps interacting with nature.

Walking, like writing, is something people tell me they would do if they could find the time. I get it. I gave up Facebook and Twitter last summer, and when I recovered from a month of being sicker than I’ve ever been in my life, I discovered I’d lost my taste for scrolling entirely.

I feel like I have my brain back. For me that’s where the time comes from.

Walking plugs me into life. It refills what the screenday takes out of me. The commitment I’ve made to myself is that I’ll walk outside every single day no matter what. During these short days, I’ll likely get by on two brief walks since the sun heads for the mountains about the time my school day ends.

Between the walks and the time blocking, we’ll see If I can keep all these plates spinning.

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Writing in 2020– Weight or Fuel?

We are landscape for the virus, the place where it does its virus thing…At every moment of suffocation since this started, it’s been art received and art made–words and music–that has saved me.

Waterhouse-- Windflowers

 I’ve thought a lot about Boccaccio since February. The social disruptions of the Black Death made room for episodic secular tales written in the vernacular.  Prior to the Decameron, tales like the ones he wrote down were told (probably to some degree in song) but not written largely due to class assumptions about who should read. 

The above is literally academic and does not require 2020 experience to understand. However, what the experience of the last few months has helped me see is what drove Boccaccio’s writing of the DecameronI said at the beginning of all this that the fact that we are dealing with something that cannot be seen aligns our psyche’s with the medieval psyche in a way that something like the pervasive fear of sudden violence or nuclear war that I remember as a kid growing up in the 80’s did not. Being afraid of humans is mitigated to some degree by the knowledge that it is possible to communicate and reason with other people and that person to person violence always comes with a degree of mutual destruction. 

Viruses are different. We are landscape for the virus, the place where it does its virus thing. During the worst of the AIDS epidemic there were things people could do that would make it unlikely they would get the virus.  That’s not the case here. Also there’s this weird Janus effect where most of the time, for most people, the virus will be  home with a bad cold, but one in five in my age group will be really sick with a long recovery, and one in five in that group will need hospitalization, and one in five of those will die. Those kind of odds wouldn’t even get a payoff if we were playing video poker in Vegas.

Add to that, recommendations that appear to shift based on resources and economist predictions, and we’re in this perfect artistic storm of broken authority, broken routine, and life that is brilliant and visceral because its tenuousness is close to our consciousness instead of hidden beneath the anesthesia of modern life. Some truly great art will come out of this.

Knowing that doesn’t make me less afraid to sit in my classroom, a closed ventilation system where 150 students pass through each day, let alone walk hallways that see 1700. Many of my students have been, and will be, working as well as going to school. At the bakery where a lot of students go for lunch, every employee was Covid positive at the beginning of the summer.  We don’t know that we’re in building in my district, but DPS announcing they plan to go business as usual, the need for schools to be child care for young children, the difficulty of ensuring appropriate remote learning, and that health recommendations are currently being driven by economic desires rather than health necessities, all mean I have to be prepared to start school as usual a month from now. 

Also, teaching is hard, even under the best circumstances and no matter what, this year won’t be that. No matter what school looks like, kids are going to be asking us how to carry the weight of the present and worry of the future. 

At every moment of suffocation since this started, it’s been art received and art made–words and music–that has saved me.  I’ve been too much on the inside of even small-scale politics to place any faith in the structures that wrestle over power.  Art is the one true through-line for human beings–which is probably why its the first thing attacked in power struggles.

All of these pressures can become either weight or fuel–that’s what I now understand about Boccaccio and what I’ll tell my students. Familiar structures are often not adequate for new needs of expression. We are reinventing ourselves as writers searching for constructions of words able to carry the depth of our feeling.  Our personal fates will be what they will be, but our contributions make up the well of art that has sustained us and will feed others. 

That doesn’t make it easier to imagine going back to school, but it makes it possible.

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Long Time No See & an Hour Long Video

Hello Everyone,

I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been noveling, but if you’re curious about what I’ve been up to you can check it out here.

You Can Feel it All Over #5

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Conversational Burlesque

I just watched the Good Mythical Morning episode alluding to the recent New York Times’ “Modern Love” column that went viral with 36 questions supposed to make anyone fall in love.

GMM went through a few of the questions. When they got to the one about which truth to ask a fortune teller, my response was: I’d argue about the nature and definition of truth. My next thought: That’s why I’m single. Ha ha, cue the self-deprecating laugh and cynical persona. The questions are dumb Valentine’s Day fodder. If it wasn’t for the desire for regular sex, who’d go through the hassle of a relationship?

Except, I don’t really think that way anymore. These days, I find cynics tedious.  I took a look at the whole list of questions. Some are silly. Some are personal as hell. Taken separately, it would be easy to do the usual small talk duck and dive, but answering them all together, there’d be places to risk, falter, blush, and slip. At times it would be incredibly uncomfortable.

There’s a thrill in that discomfort.  It’s an emotional striptease, a burlesque dance of the small stories we hold about ourselves. There’s an eroticism in self-revelation. We’ve been taught to be embarrassed, but we really want to be seen.

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace anticipated the isolating effect of technology that allows us to hide behind masks of edited and revised personalities.  I don’t know if 36 questions can make anyone fall in love, but they can peel off our masks long enough to catch a glimpse of each other. Friending doesn’t make us friends, but that kind of conversation could.

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An Excerpt From My Non Fiction Project

Getting close to the end. There is no Angus Mohr interview material here, just me synthesizing cool stuff. This section is still a draft. It needs a few citations, and I’m not sure I’ve quite connected all of the dots, but look at all those pretty Greek words.

Chapter 8

Waltzing Alone

You’d never want to set your watch by Colorado seasons. I’ve seen spring show up in February. I’ve seen it wait until June. In the winter, looking at the mountains makes me ache for summer and wildflowers—hiking up alpine slopes and long winding drives. The sun is so seductive–blue skies and wind sculpted clouds–it’s easy to believe that a new season has already been born.

Yet, those buds in the branch are just as likely to freeze and die without ever having once unfurled as they are to become leaves that catch the sun and grow. Warm weather signs can be deceptive, and about the time you unpack your shorts, you’re hit with three feet of snow.

And even if it doesn’t, even if the snow holds off, the buds unfurl, and the sun keeps shining. It’s all temporary.  In the end, Hades inherits all.

However, I have a seasonal clock that is much more dependable. Death’s season begins on August 5th, Ronni’s birthday, and lasts till January 1st when we’re well past all the holiday trappings that surround her death date of December 14th. Calendar winter for me is more of a cold spring. Some seasons are harder than others. Years that mark milestones she’ll never pass precipitate a lot of pain. Years where the reluctant turning over of memory brings on some new epiphany lighten the darkness. A lot of times, those are the same year.

There is no love without a willingness to suffer for it. Joy and grief are the two lungs with which we draw and mix our blood. We need to be able to fill them and feel them. They give our hearts a reason to beat.

This is of course, not how we’re supposed to look at it. We’re supposed to treat our grief like a summer cold, something to cover with a hankie because it might be catching, something to get over as quick as possible so you can get back to normal, something that if it hangs around too long is going to need medication.

No matter how much our friends care for us, how deep the well of their empathy, some things no one can “be there” for.  Some weights we carry, we can only carry alone. Sure talking helps. We can run off the surface foam, hear ourselves think, maybe find one of those epiphanies. But pouring out our souls can also leave us feeling like islands. Empathy is a choice, other people can try to feel along with us, but they can also step back whenever they like. Our grief is not theirs. The knowledge that they can’t help, knowing that there are no words, leads to silence. They don’t mean to leave us alone, they just don’t know what to do.

Stephen Pinker calls music auditory cheesecake because he comes from a discipline that labels emotions in terms of excess and their expression as frivolity.  Contemporary culture’s scientifically formulated, easily bought and branded humanity becomes a vessel of numb contentment and polite empty phrases. In the modern mythos: Hearts get broken and need to be fixed.

Yet, I’d point out that our most enduring technologies are not those of war, but of music. It doesn’t make evolutionary sense to devote so much of our species’ resources to something that is, judging by Pinker’s analogy, an indulgence.

Driving home from school on a September afternoon, my chest locked up and radiating pain, I struggled with the utter loneliness of grief. Then like a whisper from whatever guardians straddle the worlds the thought came: Tonight, there will be music.  And everything eased. I’ve gotten into the habit of spending Wednesday evenings at Cannon Mine Coffee here in Lafayette. It’s an open mic, but there’s a core group of musicians that play together like it is play, and they’re good. I like to sit and just listen. “John the Revelator,” a blues song covered by a wide range of bands since Blind Willie Johnson first recorded it in the 1930s, is a particular favorite. It moves me, but there’s no dancing here. I like feeling like I’ve disappeared, like I’ve slipped between the cracks of whatever they’re playing. I like letting go of anything holding me together.


Human memory is extremely suggestible and unreliable. Except for when it comes to music. Most people, even those with no musical training will accurately remember the pitches in their favorite songs.  When it comes to folk songs like “Happy Birthday” where there’s no correct key, a room full of people will follow the key of whomever started singing. Songs take on what Levitin calls a sonic color in our minds, allowing us to not only recognize unfamiliar versions but predict the artist for music we’ve never heard before.

We take for granted our ability to recognize a tune even when performed in radically different ways. Yet, the fact that we can identify the intro of “Hurt” whether it’s the Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails, or the Angus Mohr version has helped challenge long held beliefs about how our brains develop and use memory.

Once, brain scientists argued about whether or not the brain constructed memory from leftover impressions of experiences centered around a prototype idea, or whether memory was a file cabinet of recorded information in discretely labeled manila folders. Because we privilege linear order and hierarchies, the researchers long assumed one paradigm or the other must be correct.  Hierarchy is the supernatural shaper of the western mind. We are taught to construct every meaning in terms of a pyramid with the best and least accessible at the top and the base and common at the bottom. If one thing is right then the other thing must be wrong. Theories, and the people who construct them, must compete like runners making furious strides toward an arbitrary finish line.

Questioning the validity of hierarchy’s omnipotence is as heretical as undermining the power of any other vengeful god. It is an abstraction so ingrained in our culture that we literally have a difficult time seeing the world without its lens. In the Disney film, The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible bemoans the need for his family to hide their talents because, “… if everyone is special then no one is.” The implied assumption is that without hierarchy and competition, there is nothing to individuate us, nothing to aspire to, and nothing to keep society from “descending” into mediocrity.

Doctors have long described culture bound syndromes where people become mentally and physically ill because of their belief systems. Despite the correlations between feelings of failure and worthlessness that precede depression and attempts of suicide, doctors and other professionals would not consider our hierarchical worldview a “syndrome.” They might mention the benefits of competition, but far more likely, they would dismiss the question as silly. To most people, it’s not a world view. It is simply the world.

Except that it blinds us. The most recent research on memory is that both theories when spliced together, do a much better job of describing how the mind works than either of them do alone. We do have vast stores of all of our discrete experiences. We do have a fuzzy network of abstractions that connect our memories to our sense of self. The more connective strands, the easier the memory is to recall. If there are gaps, we fill them with our abstract ideas about what should be there.

In thinking about this research, I started to question whether memory really represented the past. Its Latin root is memor, and it translates to mindful as well as remembering. In Memory and Material Culture, Andrew Jones describes memory as “evoking meaning” rather than simply carrying information, and claims that we should treat “…mind, body, and world as fields of interaction…” rather than, “separate entities.” Jones describes layers of memory. The episodic records, the mimetic representations of the external world, the linguistic and mythic constructions of meaning, and the theoretic extrapolations that come from the rest.

Our hierarchical worldview tends to privilege particular layers. Academics often see theory as thinking of a “higher order” than the episodic record. Artists might place a greater value on the mimetic, writers could be expected to champion the linguistic. Yet when we step back from competitive belief systems, we can apprehend all four interacting layers as parts of a whole.

There are differences in levels of abstraction. To use a metaphor: Episodic memory is forest soil. Memetic memory is the varying root systems of the linguistic plants that feed our theoretical animals. This metaphor itself interacts with your mimetic memory which draws on your episodic memory in order to create linguistic constructions capable of communicating a theoretical understanding. Like all metaphors, it attempts to say more than its words, and like all abstractions attempting to model the concrete, it is incomplete.

Analogies break down. We get to a place where our abstractions cannot contain our experiences. Too often, we try to excise the aspects of our experiences that are incompatible with our abstractions. We pretend that painful episodes don’t exist even though they are recorded in our mental soil. Left ignored, those episodes can concentrate and poison the ground.

According to Daniel Levitin, language and music share some pathways in the brain but where language lights up specific areas,  music, like the wash of a cleansing rain, lights up everything. Aristotle gave us the word “catharsis” for art’s potential to help us release and purify emotions that could poison us if left stagnant too long.

Mimesis is art’s capacity to represent the wholeness of our existence. Where it intersects with catharsis, we experience a sense of completion. We go from feeling disconnected and alone to feeling connected to the very ecstasy of life that Greeks divided into philos, eros, and agàpe, and we’ve simplified to “love.”

The structural pieces: patterns of notes and words can be seen to represent philos, the rational, ethical, aspects of love. The escalations and disruptions of that pattern, as well as its culminations that result in ideas previously discussed, such as beat and groove, are sheer eros: passionate love.  Agàpe is the point in which the two intersect with the listener’s imagination, in-the-moment experience, and memory to trigger feelings of transcendent spiritual love.

In that state we become porous.  Cleansed there are spaces for the stars to wash in. It’s  what Aristotle called “unification with the common cause.”

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Writer People #1: The Prosaic/Poetic Info Dump Technique

I wrote this a while ago. Moving forward,I’m going to be using High Jinks Below Stares to think aloud from the writer’s perspective. Reblogging to prime the pump. See you soon– S

Shullamuth Ballinger

Today, I’m working on the Boston Story that I drafted as part of NaNoWriMo. It’s an urban-fantasy-time-travel epic that demands far more world building than anything I’ve ever done. It’s a pain in the ass.

It starts off as an almost claustrophobic locked room tale. Today, I hit the point where everything opens up, and it’s delicious. I’m plagued by wondering if that needs to happen sooner than 28,000 words in. Yet, if it opens up too soon, it won’t have enough impact.

Because of the need for world building, I think readers of speculative fiction tolerate a longer set up than readers of other genres, as long as characters are developing and you have compelling action all the way through.

The catch-22 with speculitive fiction is that info dumps have to happen, but they cannot feel like an info dump.  I don’t always nail this one. I once wrote a 45 minute PowerPoint presentation  that…

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Strength: A Mother’s Day Perspective

As mothers, we’ve all experienced the joy of holding our children max14_a-1smallerclose, carrying them when their legs are too weak or too tired. We’ve kissed their foreheads and smoothed back their errant curls, feeling the peace of their warm baby breath.

Yet, we’ve also experienced the ache of our own physical exhaustion. Our children grow so fast, and it’s easy to find, one day, that we simply can’t do what we once did. For most moms, this means saying “no” to a cranky toddler who wants “up.” We have to bear the whines and cries, but ultimately, we know we have to be strong in order to set them on the path to physical independence.

The path is a little bit more complicated for Deana Watson. Her son Max’s extremely rare genetic disorder means he is unable to walk or stand on his own. For most of his life, Deana and her husband Steve have picked up, carried, and transferred Max dozens of times each day.

Max is now ten, and he weighs just a few pounds less than his mom. He is not a cranky toddler. He is a ten-year-old boy who loves music, Batman, and bike rides. He’s opinionated and wants to go out and play. He also has frequent doctor and therapy visits.

The Watsons now have to depend on the technological strength of  a variety of assistance devices in order to help Max navigate his daily life. Getting in and out of the house is particularly challenging. Their existing ramp is too steep and has become dangerous as Max has grown.

Putting in a different ramp is not feasible, so they’ve invested their hope in the Scalamobile, a device that will propel Max’s wheelchair up and down stairs. While Max’s genetic disorder will never allow him physical independence, this device is a step toward greater mobility and freedom for a child whose body doesn’t serve the the active mind and spirit held within it.

Something every mother can understand.

Purchasing a Scalamobile for Max is the concrete goal of the Give Max a Lift benefit co-hosted by Defy! Crossfit and Angus Mohr on May 31st.  Come join us for music, fun, and maybe a surprise raffle item or two.


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All I’m saying is: if someone has chicken wire and a kiddie pool we could make this happen. I wrote this a few years ago. My life was very different then, but this post needed only a tiny bit of freshening to still be true.
Firechucking. Fills me with delight.

Come on in, 2014. I think we’re going to be good friends.

Shullamuth Ballinger

“We are born of the world and we are born of the stars.  None of our changing perspectives, religious or scientific, can change that fact.”

The above is an excerpt from astrophysicist Adam Frank’s recent post on NPR’s 13.7 blog, a lovely and well written piece, but if I may interpolate:

Between the world and the stars there is this–winter comes for us all. It’s not just the shiver, the fear of hunger, the barren branches. It’s the fundamental symbolism:  Cold is the corpse’s texture, white its complexion, inevitable and too soon its timing. As the land is, we will someday be.

No matter what happens after, if you don’t grieve the loss of this life, you are a fool. And not the Fool of the tarot, unmapped and awake to infinite possibility, either. The dumbass denial kind. That fool.

It sucks to realize we’re just stock characters on a crowded stage and all the…

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John McKenna’s New Blue Sky

But before we get to that–

You should be writing reviews. You like the freedom to choose books and music without some focus-group-driven-middleman telling you what’s “good?”  You enjoy the digital world’s capacity for instant gratification? You want to help that author or artist that stirred your soul?

Write. A. Damn. Review.

In the digital world, your word carries weight. You have clout. Use it.

Okay, now where was I…oh yeah.

John McKenna’s New Blue Sky–you guessed it–a review.NewBlue Sky front

John McKenna’s New Blue Sky represents what happens when hard rock’s passion grows up and develops, instead of becoming a parody of itself. An album that took seven years to record, filled with songs penned over the course of nearly twenty years, New Blue Sky’s music manages to show you where it’s been without giving up its soul.

I don’t know if the album will, as McKenna says, change your DNA, but listening to these songs feels damn good. When using digital technology to sketch landscapes for the ear, it’s easy to lose the balance between what can be done with technology and what should be done. Yet, on this album, every instrument, sound, and fill strikes the ear as natural and thoughtfully arranged.

Like all of McKenna’s work, New Blue Sky is a concept album. It begins by examining the price we’ve already paid by exchanging our dreams of love for the cold currency of emotional safety. It then sets about exploring the possibilities for reclaiming those dreams and making them real.

Track one, “End Game,” introduces a sacrificial hero prepared to come back and show you the way if he lives through his own journey. Because he will …take the chances you won’t take… he can teach you how to feel. In the next track, “The House,” the narrator’s opening lesson is that the past where you were born and chained is nothing more than paper and glass.

The first thing that saves the album’s concept from hubris is the flawed humanity of the narrating voice. The “Rainbow Train’s” imagery of blood and razors sheds light on the shadows that inspire one to reject institutions of prescribed thought and choose the path of introspection instead. That internal exploration begins with a symbolic death and emergent rebirth in “Buried Under Winter.”

The second thing that saves this album from hubris is that the narrator, after his sojourn through night and winter, may actually be able to deliver on his initial claim. The first time I tried to listen to the sixth track’s “Purple Music,” I was at work and had to turn it off. The song spoke so directly to who and how I have become that I could not surrender my initial experience with it to just a casual listen.

With “That Look” the narrator shares introspection’s discovery that figuring out how to feel means developing the capacity to feel entirely alone. “Maybe One Day” offers both a shared sense of vulnerability and the hope that we can dream the world into how it should be.

The climax of the concept’s narrative comes with “When you See Me.” The voices of the sacrificial hero and the flawed man are united with the listener in the common cause of our shared desire for agape, the absolute acceptance of spiritual love. And yet, with “Maybe Love” the narrator sacrifices his hero’s mantle, and agape circles back to the fragile uncertainty of eros. He finds peace by embracing the storms and tides of a more personal kind of love.

The album’s final song exhorts us to stop looking for an external hero to do for us that which we can only do for ourselves. It exhorts us to stand, open our hands, and bring the light simply by showing others that it can be done.




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Northern Colorado Flood Benefit with Angus Mohr

I didn’t even need to ask if they were going to do a flood benefit show. IRialtoBenefitPaul knew there would be one. Angus Mohr and family are the type of people who, when bad things happen, they try to balance the scales.

The details follow below:

 Saturday September 28th, at the Rialto Theater, we would like you to join us, Angus Mohr, in showing those who have lost so much that they do not stand alone. The show starts at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. We’ll be donating a portion of the money taken in to local organizations helping Northern Colorado’s flood victims. The more seats we fill, the more money we’ll give. We’ll also be donating a percentage of merchandise sales.


 On stage, we’ve long joked about whiskey being the water of life. However, when the waters of life rise, as they did for so many, it’s music that helps us climb to higher ground where we can all stand together. You don’t need to know the words to raise your voice; you don’t need to know the steps to dance. 


 You don’t need a roof either, but we are lucky enough to still have one at Loveland’s historic Rialto Theater. Our Rialto show has always been a celebration of our connection to other Front Range musicians. In addition to sharing the stage with acts like Skansen and Hanssen, Angus Mohr’s line-up always grows by a member or two the night of the Rialto Show. We still rock out, but it’s also a chance to get our art on. We’ll play songs rarely heard at festival or club shows that embody the fullest expression of who we are.

 So, come on, express yourself; come dance and sing along. Let’s do some good while having a good time. 

 Yours in appreciation (as always),

Angus Mohr


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