I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and my mother was a working woman who didn’t like to cook. Although she dutifully made dinner for us every night, these were perfunctory and repetitive meals: meatloaf made with Catalina salad dressing, spaghetti with tomato sauce and occasional meatballs (also made with Catalina salad dressing), roast chicken (overcooked), and instant chocolate pudding or Jello for dessert. I looked with envy at my friends whose stay-at-home moms prepared things like veal parmigiana and shrimp scampi, baked alaska and pineapple upside-down cake.

At the time, convenience foods were sparse, limited mostly to canned foods. For many years, my idea of vegetables were greenish things floating in yellowish liquid that were dumped in a saucepan for 30 minutes so whatever taste and nutrition they contained had been boiled away. Another familiar adjunct to our meals was cream of mushroom soup — flavored lard to be added to casseroles, dips, or anything that needed a fat and sodium boost. Also, pork and beans: snippets of fat drowning in a salty mush and introduced alongside the occasional boiled hot dog (my mother saw hot dogs as low class but made an exception by serving them under the name of frankfurters). Finally, there was the much-loved macaroni and cheese — elbow macaroni and Velveeta — served to us when our parents went out for dinner. More… “Dinnertime and its Discontents”

If you ask me, there were quite a few cringe-worthy moments in the movie La La Land but one moment especially hit home. Early in the story, Emma Stone’s character, Mia, apprehensively confesses to Ryan Gosling’s idealistic jazz pianist that she “hates” jazz. It’s probably intended to show Mia’s relatability for the audience, but this viewer at least winced with recognition. The fact that Mia eventually discovers that she likes jazz after all is less about digging the music than about giving the viewer the Hollywood ending they want. She’s not alone in her defensiveness when it comes to America’s music — believe me, plenty of people tend to give us jazz fans the side-eye whenever the topic comes up.

The sad truth is that all too often jazz suffers the same kind of casual dismissal that hip-hop, country, and EDM used to get before they took over the mainstream. Granted, this might be something only a jazz lover would notice but since at least the ’70s, jazz has become something of a niche market, to put it mildly. In terms of yearly record sales, jazz usually sells as much as classical music does, one of the many things the two genres have in common. Far too often jazz comes off as dated or quaint; it’s your granddad’s make out music. Worse, there’s an implied snobbishness often projected onto loving jazz — it’s a little like explaining that you prefer to spend your Saturday nights translating Hegel or making artisanal cheese. More… “Giant Steps”

There is nothing that pleases me more, nature-wise, than walking through a forest and coming to find sand displaced from a beach underfoot.

You smell the brine, you feel the wind going through your hair, the same wind that brought the sand there. The faint crash — a thudding diffusion — of the surf follows in your ears, and you know that if you proceed through the next copse, you’ll be at the edge of one thing and the start of something else.

I do not make my living from it. I don’t own a boat. I know no one who does, but the ocean has played a central role in my life. Little, really, has informed my life more. The music of the Beatles, probably. My quest with what I try to do as a writer. A handful of intense emotional experiences that I suspect might even be viewable upon my soul, with the right equipment, much like an EKG reveals an earlier heart attack. More… “Wishing Oceans”

About an hour west of my house is the Carlisle Barracks, where, from about 1879 to 1910 there existed something called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. A boarding school designed to educate Native Americans, the school’s goal was to immerse its students in Western European culture, so they could fully integrate into American society.

To that end, its founder, Richard Henry Pratt, espoused a philosophy of “kill the Indian . . . and save the man.” Those enrolled in the school had to renounce their name, religion, and culture for the sake of integration. More than 10,000 American Indians were educated at the school from 50 different tribes and nations. Some were forced to attend. Others were sent by their families, hoping for a better life for their children. Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, who was famously stripped of his medals, was a graduate of the school. More… “Socially Conscious Sci-Fi”

I hoped my daughter wouldn’t be detained by the immigration officials. I hadn’t seen her in a long time and I wasn’t sure what was happening. Finally, she emerged in her tattered jeans and sweatshirt and called to me from down the hall, “Hey Mom, I made it through.” I felt myself exhale deeply, physically relieved.

Earlier that morning, my daughter and I arrived at the front of the middle school, the middle school named Haven, no less, to find the Statue of Liberty — a teacher in a green painted gown, with a crown and torch — reading those immortal words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . . ” Classical music, swelling with emotion, played from the boom box at her feet.

The other moms and I smiled at one another. This was going to be fun. The eighth-grade social studies department was hosting a historical reenactment of Ellis Island during the Gilded Age. We’d be playing the guards tasked with guiding our children – just arrived refugees who understood no English — through the large school turned processing center. Before entering “the country,” these immigrants would have to negotiate check-in stations where they had to pass tests of medical wellness, physical rigor, cognitive acumen, and vocational potential. More… “Popsicles and Dreamers”

I think about shame a lot. I wonder when and why I began to care so much about stuff — my body, my face, my intellectual ability. Did it start when I was bullied on the bus in kindergarten? Was it some sort of pseudo-consciousness mind trick passed down from my parents? Was it because I picked up a Seventeen magazine when I was 11? For whatever reason, I remember a lot of low and high-key shame moments from my younger years. I didn’t want to wear shorts as a preteen, because I was starting to sprout leg hair and was too embarrassed I hadn’t started to shave. Clothes shopping in high school was never fun because I couldn’t find anything to adequately fit my body. I’d enter a dressing room with a pile and leave with nothing, because (what I imagined to be) my grotesque body wouldn’t cooperate. And while I was feeling so dejected and ashamed, I rarely vocalized. For years, I assumed everybody else had figured the body out. More… “For Shame”

In “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” Randy Newman takes some potshots at rock stars continuing to grind it out long past their prime. The joke, of course, is that the chief target of the satire is he himself. Although the cleverness and self-awareness of the song belie the indictment, “I’m Dead” invites the suspicion that in recent years each Newman album (to paraphrase the lyric) has tended to sound like the one before – just not as good. But Randy Newman peaked much later than many of his peers from the Woodstock Nation. Never having been a hippie, he could embrace middle age without embarrassment, and in 1988, at the age of 45, he brought out his best collection of songs ever, the rueful, sardonic, and teasingly autobiographical Land of Dreams. More… “Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams

“Tonight is Prufrock,” I say. My friend and colleague, Em*, and I are sitting over cooling coffees in the Student Center.

Her nose scrunches in a way that says that maybe this isn’t such a good idea, “Are you sure you want to start with that one?” she says, “Prufrock is a tough poem. I’ve had some real disasters with Prufrock.”

My coffee is sludge, but I gulp it down anyway, “I’m going in,” I say, “Any last words of advice?” Em is a poet and a scholar of Modernist poetry and thus my go-to person for poetry pedagogy.

She leans forward over the table, all seriousness now, “Guide them through a close reading of the first couple of stanzas yourself before having them take a crack at interpretation. The first stanza seems to be where they get into the most trouble.” More… “The Love Song of Hey Prof”

Michael Andreasen’s first book, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, is one part Twilight Zone, a hint of Twin Peaks, with a dash of Booshian surrealism. Anchoring his short stories is one of my favorite sensibilities in film and literature: the extraordinary in the ordinary, whether that is making the banal fantastic or normalcy perverse. Below, Andreasen, graciously addresses some of the questions I had about Sea Beast, gearing up for his first book, and his inspiration.

More… “Sailing with Michael Andreasen”

No one would ever peg Betty Wright’s funky 1972 hit, “The Clean-Up Woman” as a heartbreaking ballad. From its first emphatic chords on an electric guitar, followed by Wright’s soulful delivery, the song is one to rock your hips — not rock your heart. Wright sings about taking her man for granted and then losing him to the woman who swoops in to clean up the pieces of the neglected fellow’s ego. Indisputably, it is a song about loss; it is also a top-40 tune with an insistent beat that makes it nearly impossible to keep from dancing.

But dancing was the last thing on my mind on a recent afternoon when I finally left my classroom to go home, the sun dazzlingly low in the winter sky. I slid a shiny disc into the CD player, and the small space of my car welled up with that bright rhythm and Wright’s snappy delivery. Suddenly, I was shaking with sobs I had been holding back for months. More… “In Chapels of Music and Steel”