Monthly Archives: December 2019

Darius the Great – K-State Common Read

This fall our Mastering Academic Conversations course that I am co-teaching with several colleagues for first-year students adopted the book Darius The Great is Not Okay as our common read. Actually, K-State has a common read book program university-wide, but we don’t always participate since we are on a separate campus from the main campus in Manhattan, KS. This year we got on board and read the same book everyone else was reading. As a class, we watched by teleconference Adib Khorram deliver a speech to K-Staters. You need a K-State login to see the entire recorded presentation, but you can see the trailer here:

Students in our class were required to read the book and reflect and respond through various assignments and activities to the diversity and mental health themes present in the story. Each student was to complete a project related to the book for a significant grade in the course. There were several project options from which to choose, including making art, making media recordings, writing alternate endings, writing poetry, and writing a letter of advice and encouragement to the main character, Darius. Writing a letter was the most popular approach chosen by students.

Most of the letters were thoughtful and demonstrated familiarity with the main character and his story. I’d like to share here one of the original works of art and one of the letters submitted for this assignment.

Above is a drawing made by a student in my class, Dustin B. It is the Gate of All Nations mentioned in the book:

A lamassu is pretty much the Persian version of a sphinx: a mishmash animal, with the head of a man, the body of an ox, and the wings of an eagle. As far as I knew, no riddles were involved in mythological encounters with lamassu, but there was probably some extremely high level taarofing.

This lamassu was one of a pair. Its mate had been decapitated at some point, but still, the statues towered over us, mute sentinels of a fallen empire.

“The Gate of All Nations,” Sohrab said. He gestured around to the lamassus and pillar surrounding us. “That’s the name in English.”

It wasn’t much of a gate anymore, since anyone of any nation could have easily stepped around it instead of walking through. But it was still amazing.

For me, the artwork of Dustin is what has been amazing. Throughout the semester I have given students opportunities to write and create art and Dustin never disappointed me. This final project was the icing on the cake for me.

Darius, the title character of the book, suffers from depression along with other things typical and not so typical of growing up. He more or less belongs to two cultures, the American culture of his father and the Persian culture of his mother, so his trip to Iran to meet family and to explore that country was life-changing. So another of my students, Daniel F., wrote a letter to Darius explaining things from his perspective. Here is what he wrote:


Dear Darius,

I hope you are doing well. I am currently pursuing my Professional Pilot degree at the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus in Salina, Kansas. I have been here for about four months now, and everything is new to me. I decided to write this letter to you after getting to know your story of depression and visiting a new country (Iran). Having past experiences, I want to let you know that depression and anxiety are not worth your time and effort. If you ever want to get through it, you will keep your head high and try to put it in your past. One of the biggest challenges of life is overcoming depression. I know you feel like the world is all on you. And that feels like a million pounds. You don’t know if you’re going to split. The fact that you cannot express your feelings is the worst feeling someone can go through, and yet you still get out of bed and face life each day. Since I am from Pakistan, studying in college in a different environment has been a new experience for me. Especially coming from a city of 15 million (Karachi), Salina seemed very quiet and reserved. Coming from a very social culture where I hang out with friends every day is common. I told my parents about it, but they told me to look at the good things in life. I can assure you that I have felt and seen the good that is concentrating on what positive can bring. But before this, let me ask you a question. Can you think about what the most successful and happy people think about all day long? Healthy and happy people think about what they require and how to achieve it. In this way, developing a positive attitude can truly change your entire life. You have to push yourself to look at the glass as half full and crossing oceans for people when they wouldn’t cross a river for you. Start saving your money a little more. Travel and find happiness in the little things and love as much as you can because life is beautiful. I know coming from Iran was not a pleasant experience for you after finding a rare friend like Sohrab, but everything is temporary. I know you probably don’t see it that way, and you might not think that anything good will happen, but it is coming. I promise. You are here for a reason. You are doing the best you can. I hope you reach the day when you look into the mirror and see yourself as the warrior you are. Sincerely, Daniel Felix

Sister Melinda’s Birthday

I made this watercolor and ink picture using an old photograph I found and sent it to my sister Melinda Jo for her birthday earlier this month.

The setting is Grandma’s living room. This space is home to many fond memories but it exists now only in our photographs and memories. The house was torn down not long after Grandma’s passing. From the date on the photo I learned that this was Christmas morning in 1972. Melinda turned 3 in December of that year. I can remember this day very well and after visiting with my sister recently she has some detailed memories too of that Christmas even though she is two years younger than me.

As I studied the scene one of my favorite memories is sitting in that yellow Lazy Boy recliner on my grandmother’s lap, reading one of the many storybooks she kept in the cupboard to our right. We can see the book cupboard in this picture beneath the shelving that is holding the framed photographs. My grandma always had pictures on display. I remember seeing my mom’s high school senior portrait somewhere in that room every single time I visited it, from the early 70s even to the time we brought our daughter, a great grandchild for visits in the early 2000s. Now that my daughter is a senior this year and we proudly and prominently show her photo off, I wonder how long we will do the same thing?

Since I went to Lynda Barry’s Writing the Unthinkable class in November, memories like this one are all the more cherished. Lynda shared with us that no one ever read to her as a child so she takes special care and interest in listening to the stories written by and read aloud by her students. When she chooses someone to read, she goes and plops down on the floor next to the reader to make up for those missing childhood stories that people like my sister and me take for granted. That experience of having Lynda Barry listen to a story of mine in this way and then seeing this picture of my sister standing in our favorite storytelling space, such a beautiful child evoking such warm memories, I knew I could do something special with this picture, so I painted it and sent it to her for her birthday.



More Pen and Ink Drawings

Still getting used to the new dip pen.

You can see a smudge on the top one where I stuck my pinky in a still-wet line of ink. Oops!

Both of these are photos that I found in a box of my grandma Peg’s pictures. I don’t know if there are any relatives in these, I imagine the family in the second one is probably related in some way. While I don’t know anyone in either photo, I loved both of these pictures and decided to draw them.

*edit. I learned from family member Wava that the second picture is indeed of our family. The two adults are my great grandparents on my mother’s side along with four of their ten children. The second smallest person, the one with the big hair is my grandmother Bernice.

Real Pen Tool

I’ve had a few fountain pens, but I have never really used a dip pen and ink before. I have to say, I really like this. I don’t know why I haven’t tried it before. I ordered this stuff from Amazon. I spent some time reading reviews, but ultimately just picked some things that seemed like they might work to draw with.

Here is what I purchased:

The first drawing I tried with this pen, I used a mixed-media paper that had some texture to it. The pen wound up catching every little bump and crevice. So I tried again using a sheet of bristol board paper which has a very smooth surface made for pen drawing. I think it turned out pretty nice for an early attempt. I love how the lines vary with the pressure applied. I think I’m going to like using this pen.

And here is my third ever drawing using a dip pen and ink. For this one, I used the smooth surface on the back of a regular index card. Index cards are great for practicing. I really love how much you can vary the line quality using this pen.


East of Eden

I purchased the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden after I read Grapes of Wrath this summer. It sat around untouched for many months. Last month I went on a 18+ hour road trip to Wisconsin and decided to take along some audio books. One was enough, as I picked up the East of Eden audio book. It had 22 CD disks and I just finished it this week.

I’m not enamoured with audio books but they serve a purpose. I probably should listen to more of them because I commute over 2 hours every day round trip. I’m more of a podcast guy right now. But in addition to the 18 hour road trip, it took a week of listenting on my daily commute to get through East of Eden.

One reason I prefer actually reading a book instead of listening to it is I find myself fading in and out of paying attention while it is playing. If I do that while I’m reading, I wind up reading the same passage over and over, but an audio book plays on if I listen or not. Consequentially, there are some fairly large holes in my understanding of the novel. But at least I have the majority of it now.

The mother in East of Eden reminded me very much of the true-to-life villain Kate Bender, of the Bloody Benders fame. A killer for fun and profit. In Kate Bender’s case, no one knows what happened to her in the end. The Bender’s just up and disappeared when they thought the law was closing in on them.

I enjoyed East of Eden, but I think I liked The Grapes of Wrath quite a bit more. The first Steinbeck book I ever read wasn’t a novel at all, but the travelogue Travels with Charley in which he documents a road trip across America. It’s been so long ago, I don’t remember much about it, so I might read it again at some point.