Where I Want To Be In 5 Years

Since relocating for my partner’s amazing job, I’ve been interviewing. One of the things I decided early, was that while I have an undeniable love of teaching and collaborating with students, guiding them on their quests for a well-composed idea, I was not going to seek out “formal” higher ed teaching jobs. No tenure track, no over-load of adjunct work to pay the bills. Instead, I was going to look for ways to stay engaged with the realm of education, maybe higher ed/maybe not, and look for jobs in the nonprofit world. I’ve been there before and I had a great time. But getting out of higher ed (or distancing myself from the classroom) doesn’t mean leaving it behind.

The problem with loving what I used to do while accepting the complexity of not looking for the same work I had is that people want to know what my (supposedly new) professional goals are. And this morning, after another series of interviews yesterday, I’m ruminating about why I dread this question.

First, I don’t have a clear path with set objectives ahead of me that are easy to list off in soundbite form. But more importantly, I don’t feel that my goals have dramatically shifted. I still want to be a vehicle for change, I still want to have a positive impact on the world, I still want to help others achieve their own dreams and goals. I want to work for a mission- and vision-driven organization, and I want to hold a position that values my relationship-building skills and love of teamwork.

One of the lessons teaching general education writing students has taught me over and over again is that there are many paths one can take. There may not be ONE correct way to get where you’re going. There isn’t one correct way to write an essay, to engage the opposition, to research and build out a scene.  There is actually very little in writing and communicating that comes down to an absolute sense of correct versus incorrect. I’ve lived and breathed this concept for 10 years. So if there isn’t one correct way to work toward your goal, it’s quite possible that there are many ways to become who you want to be. Teaching, for me, was one way.
I wish that I could go back to some of the early interview moments and respond to the questions with this kind of clarity. The “where do you want to be in five years” question isn’t a bad thing to want to know of prospective employees or to consider for yourself every once in a while. However, it’s helpful to acknowledge that the “where” may be more and more abstract than literal for a lot of people now. And, this abstraction doesn’t mean that the goals are any less real.

I’d rather be asked about what I valued in the previous work I did and which values I hope my work reveals in five years, at least as an alternate to the skills or achievement question.

Many jobs today didn’t exist 20 years ago; some didn’t exist 5 years ago or even last year. Living in the global economy, with the speed of technology setting a mind-boggling pace for work evolution, is only going to make this question seem more and more irrelevant to future job seekers if we don’t change the frame for why we ask or how we respond to it.

 

 

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Showing Teeth: Science Night at the University

The brown teeth I’m seeing, fossilized in rock, accompanied by the rest of the animal (of the enantiornithes group of avians), were part of a living bird more than 120 million years ago. The sharp image of teeth nearly fills up the theater-sized screen, and I hear a student I know say that they look scary. (Her fear presumably is of the bite, not the existence of the teeth.) I can’t resist the urge to tell her that they are actually quite small; I bet 4 teeth, maybe more, would fit on her fingernail. The whole Mesozoic bird attached to its teeth is the size of a common songbird today—close to the length and width of a human heart.

Sure enough, as if Dr. Chiappe overhears me, the slide changes from a close-up fossil image to show a photographer at work on the specimens. Her head peers down some anteater-camera device (not unlike a microscope) to take impeccable photographs. Slides of this photographer’s work display the intricacies in fossils of early known avians caught in stone in the Jehol Biota region of China. Feathers, soft tissues, more than I ever expected to see of an animal this old. I join in the chorus of gasp and wow slide after slide, as artifacts older than I can rightfully imagine are “in front of me” in color and detail as if I were the one looking through that camera. We are a group of students, staff, faculty, and community members gathered in the dark to hear about the past so that we may better understand the now.

My friends and I will agree later that the experience would not be the same without the inclusion of the photographer-at-work on these tiny bodies to give us perspective. We had only vague notions of size before we saw her working. A photograph is not a fossil, but they act in similar ways.

After this talk, I will walk out arm in arm with my partner, and drive home to watch the 2016 Iowa Caucus results unfold during hours of political TV coverage. All of those birds squawking, their colors showing. I love primary season and the endless stream of candidate updates. But this primary season has already felt so long, the wingspan of an eagle instead of a goldfinch (or perhaps an enantiornithe). What hasn’t changed in 4 or 8 years is the glossy surface of political image we view through a filter, like a photo. As loud as the candidates are, they are a 2D surface, not a reality in my living room. I seek them out as artifacts that bring me closer to understanding the now, and I realize too that there is always a gap between what we can see and what we can touch.

*

Listening to Dr. Chiappe speak in the Student Cinema, I write “Jehol birds reveal an unexpected degree of ecological specialization.” I will wonder if I got it wrong when I look at my notes later: did I mean to write ecological diversity? But when I search ‘ecological specialization,’ it’s a thing.

The birds have teeth but may not be using them. The phrase comes formed like a prophecy in my mind, but it sounds like a political sound bite.

*

It’s not something about which I’ve spent a lot of time thinking—the fate of scientific research intended by museum staff in the USA being possibly thwarted due to political breaks with countries around the globe. [But] The winner of the Presidential Election may instigate a butterfly effect on the work that people like Luis Chiappe can do a year from now.

A Democratic Iowa winner will only be declared after I have gone to bed.

I won’t read my notes from Science Night for a week.

When I do pick them up, I’ll remember that the night’s last question came from a young man, a student at the university. He stood up and asked Dr. Chiappe, “What’s the hardest part of studying these?” (presumably including the excavating and cleaning and analyzing of avian fossils).

Dr. Chiappe smiled. “The hardest part of studying these fossils isn’t scientific at all.” Even famous Dinosaur Institute Directors worry about politics.

The Chinese have teeth.

*

If you ask most people what archeology is, the results would show we tend to think of it outside the reach of politics (a person standing in either field would be close enough to see the other, perhaps with the help of a lens, but not close enough to touch). Examining slides of photographed fossils and participating in televised political rituals on the same night is like peering at evidence to the contrary. In reality, there is only one field where everything is connected and disrupted by everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how this lion-killing dentist thing is going to play out

Oh man, is this piece by Jason O. Gilbert excellent: a showcase of the speculation technique I try to get my students to use. The piece uses a technique that is so pointed and can be used for humor or understatement but is always used for bad-ass-ery. Yes, please, and thank you, Mr. Gilbert.

Fusion

Look, I know it seems pretty wide open right now, but this lion-killing dentist thing is sailing along just as it’s supposed to:

The killer of the lion was revealed. The social media accounts of the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion in Africa have been mined for information. His Yelp listing has been defamed, his Facebook page has been deleted, his website has been attacked. Some terrible things he did in the past have surfaced.  Many clever tweets have been fired off. Basically everyone has agreed that this was a terrible thing to do.

Now the fun stuff starts. The backlash to the backlash begins. Benghazi will be invoked. A right-wing radio host with an active following will start a GoFundMe page; it will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few hours. Everyone will act surprised. Barack Obama’s birth certificate will be invoked. The Minnesota…

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Grace and Frankie: What’s Different

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the first episode of Grace and Frankie you may want to hold off on reading this.

As a child of the 80s, a teen of the 90s, and a higher ed student of the 2000s–my growth has largely been paralleled to the identity of queerness on TV. I remember the Ellen sitcom, the Rosie O’Donnell Show, and Will & Grace.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out a season before the premiere of The L Word, a show I watched for the first time with a college girlfriend, sitting crosslegged among a den of women on the floor in a queerish sorority group house–I didn’t start watching Queer As Folk until I was in graduate school, stressing about my first live-in relationship (the year QAF was in its final season). These shows changed my life because they were proof that change was possible. There were many other shows too, that had queer characters. These mentioned shows were a bridge. In some ways they were a disappointment, but they ended up leading us away from the token model (i.e. Ross’s lesbian ex-wife on Friends) and pulled the character center stage. But there was still a long way to go.

Much like the integration of people of color onto the small screen in the mid 20th century, the first TV shows that dealt ‘openly’ with queerness did it in a very particular way. Avenue 1: to show that the minority exists as an element of humor–the odd character that is guessed or thought to be queer but isn’t spoken about. (I acknowledge that for characters of color, there didn’t need to be a reveal–TV is a visual art after all–however, this meant that stereotypes were King.) Friends took Avenue 1.

Avenue 2: the overtly mentioned or understood sassy gay friend or the token character to make the show relevant in a demeaning way–thereby upholding the hierarchy of straightness. The French anti-friend coworker Michelle in Gilmore Girls is a good example, but a little late to the party. Will & Grace is an arguable version of this, but you can see the bridge idea working here. Will is both the sassy gay friend and center stage. And by the addition of the second gay man (so crazy!) the show has a new angle. We can already see that some shows worked with queerness on multiple avenues.

Avenue 3: To have a gay character was to show the plight of a character, to showcase how different (troubled, weird, cool, exotic, fabulous) that person’s life was from the mainstream US population; this was finally a way to make the queerness central to a show’s drama. Ellen did this.

Then came Queer Eye–an ensemble cast completely made up of gay men. So new! But you don’t need to inspect closely to see that the show’s origin is the belief that gay men are different from straight men–that in fact gay men can do some things better than straight men because gay men are more like women than straight men. THING LIKE shop for clothes, groom themselves, prepare meals, be thoughtful. Yes, straight men can have gay best friends too–and this way, they can be better for their wives and girlfriends. The show had a LOT of women viewers.  Typing “more like women than straight men” makes my soul gag a little, but the point has to be said. Because without it, I can’t get to why I enjoy the idea of Grace and Frankie so much.

Only yesterday, Netflix unveiled the first season of a half-hour show starring Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin as two women in their 70s whose husbands come out later in life as a gay couple. While the drama of the premise and the first episode (the only one I’ve watched so far) has to do with queerness–it isn’t the ONLY thing that the show hinges on. These female characters are complex. While they aren’t happy about their impending divorces, Frankie (Tomlin) is more heart-broken about losing her best friend than anything else. Grace (Fonda) is livid with Robert–but you can see that she’s upset with herself a bit too. She feels betrayed–for good reason, but she feels guilty for not having noticed the relationship her husband was having for twenty years while she was off doing other things. But the most striking drive of the show is simply about the prospect of being alone later in life. Where do these characters go from here? These characters, like so many other people, find themselves single after decades of togetherness.

Now, come Monday morning, there may very well be a lot of media outlets that call this show fantastic and also a bit “same old” when it comes to treating queer issues like capital-D drama, but there is definitely something different here. First, the main characters may be brought together by circumstances regarding queerness, but they are not queer themselves and their troubles are larger than queer/straight–their trouble is loss of an identity. Second, the fact that the queer characters talk differently about themselves–proud, resilient–is a turn. And, finally, it’s the straight characters providing the comic relief this time, and not at the a queer character’s expense.

Marriage Is What Brings Us Together Today

Subtitle from AWP15 Challenge– 1. We are afraid to write what’s true, but it always seems to be the most relevant.–@CherylStrayed

What’s true?

Today: I get ready for school. I put wax in my hair, a blazer on my shoulders, blush on my cheeks. Everything is routine. I reach for my ring.

February 2015: It’s the first day of school. I greet my classes and talk about my cats and my D. It feels just a tiny bit false when I say fiancé this time. The ring on my finger says otherwise.

Speculation, April circa 1997: When I was in ninth or tenth grade, I got asked to hang out with a group of artsy kids on a weekend night. It was a coed non-sleeping sleep over. We listened to music and talked like we were five years older. I remember a girl leaving her rings somewhere. I can see the image on a shelf or a hearth. I think I told her to grab them. We all wore multiple rings. We trespassed in the neighborhood backyards after midnight. We drove to Waffle House.   She must have taken them off before and never had them in the car. The rings, I mean. The next day, I remember being blamed for her not finding them. It was ridiculous. I knew it was ridiculous, but I still went home, eager to make friends with someone I didn’t like, and I found a ring that my mother had. It was a small diamond, on a white gold setting. It meant a lot to me, and I gave it away. For some reason I thought it was a good idea; I’d sacrifice something I loved, something I knew was valuable to me and my family, to make amends for a wrong-doing I didn’t believe I’d committed. She didn’t say thank you.

*

February 2013: After good years, and bad years, and mountains of love and fighting for what I wanted and what she wanted, and becoming what we wanted, on our sixth anniversary I was asked (at the end of a day long travel trip) to be married. We were in the DCA airport, in the exact spot where years ago, I had heard for the first time that D loved me. It’s a romantic story.

March 2013, San Juan: We purchased an engagement ring on vacation–under sales and friend pressure–even though we both had doubts (about the ring, not each other). The ring was too big, and to this day I still wear the cheaper, beloved ring she bought as a placeholder, the exact match to hers that we both liked more. And the diamond, gorgeous but a size too big, stays in its box.

I have a friend who has a tattooed ring. I keep hoping she will write about it at some point, but she hasn’t. I understand.

What’s true: This week, an old friend, one of the people D and I were vacationing with when said diamond ring was purchased, recently asked us about the wedding. K, like others, admits to feeling awkward about asking but asks anyway (with good reason): “Did you have to change your wedding guest numbers?” The world assumes we are getting married in July (with good reason). That’s what we said, the last time anyone really asked. But this spring is a series of awkward conversations. People have been expecting invitations. We don’t know how to say the things that should have been said months ago.

In the only holiday letter we’ve managed to get out in our eight years of being together–nearly seven years at the time of writing–we mentioned that we were in fact engaged and that we were hoping to get married in the upcoming year. We had been engaged then for nearly a year. Another anniversary has come and gone and so much has happened and nothing has happened. We are not getting married. Not last year, not this year. Not next year. We are not getting married. No worries. It’s okay. Yes, we’re still together. We love each other. Yes, yes.

Speculation: Other people have done this before. They must have. Where are the stories and movies and TV shows about the couple that got engaged and then got unengaged but decided that everything else was good? I’ve seen movies like And Away We Go about non-married couples having babies. We are not having a baby. I’ve seen movies about couples who assume they aren’t getting married, who have a hard time, then accept it, and then eventually get married anyway. That used to be our story.

November 2014, Florida: One week last fall when we went out of town for a friend’s wedding, we felt it was easier to satiate people when they asked or hinted. Yes, we’re getting married. Yes, next year. Over the course of a few nights and a couple of days, we started our own drinking game. When they ask about the wedding nonchalantly, take a sip. When they ask about how you met, get a shot. When they want to know the story of the engagement, finish your drink. People at weddings (with good reason) love to talk about marriage and weddings. We love Love. And people love D and I together. We are an especially good poster child for the straight liberals who like cute queer couples. We are the kind of couple that even not-so-liberal-straight people can’t help but smile at. D wears her suspenders and dances with an eight-year-old boy on the dance floor. I cut in after a few. Pictures snap snap snap.

What’s true: I love our friends and our life. I love wearing this ring. I love D.

What’s true: Before we went to the wedding reception in Florida, we had to get in touch with our wedding planner, whose next pay installment was due, and tell her we weren’t going any further.

Today 5:57 PM: A friend texts from NY “Why’s it easer to be open on paper than in life?”

“Because on paper we have time to prep and primp and rip all the band-aids off–we have more control.” I have D. I have (say it, in your best Elizabeth Bishop) control. I am not getting married.

#AWP15–The One Liners

Here’s a snapshot of my experience measured in sound bites, a dozen one-line reminders, recommendations, and definitions I overheard (or synthesized) at AWP last week. Sure, they’re out of context, but isn’t that part of the fun? I’ll commit to making full pieces out of some of these soon.

12. Listicles are a legitimate form of online publication.–@JamieIredell

11. Writing (capital W) about something is actually about creating distance.–@BenTanzer

10. An essay is a unique expression of universal insight.–@AnnaMarch

9. Regardless of medium, the rules still apply.–@MarlonJames5

8. You don’t get to have a mind without a body.–Eula Biss

7. There is no self beyond the constructed self.–Claudia Rankine

6. It’s not a blog, it’s a sandwich.–@MattSailor

5. If you want to be a writer, you must become teachable–if you succeed, the piece will be your teacher.–@ElyssaEast (I think she’s paraphrasing someone else, but didn’t write it down)

4. You do not need a conclusion.–Joe Hoppe

3. “[Writing] is like being in a dark cave…you have to sense the limits of where you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re going.”–Elizabeth Wiley, reading Robert Root, quoting Arthur Miler

2. Once you know the interlocutors, you have to make a party for all of them to talk: this will be the form.–Maggie Nelson

1. We are afraid to write what’s true, but it always seems to be the most relevant.–@CherylStrayed

Center Stage

The stage of the Chicago Theater went dark after the opener took its leave. But after the customary amount of fiddling time—for folks to grab concessions and get back to their seats—a disembodied musical progression could be heard throughout the theater, building up to Colin Meloy’s entrance. Finally, center stage awash in the spotlight was Meloy in a three piece costume, a guitar slung around his body like a prop. Slowly the mise en scene grows to include the rest of the players in the band, as they perform the opening song of their latest concept album. And, to help literally set the stage, two angelic humanoid creatures lower into the backdrop space, followed in a minute by what seems to be a gigantic drawn quilt, with cut-outs just so as to see parts of the angels. The quilt, of course, is also the cover art of the album.

Everything about a Decemberists’ show has evolved into a meta performance. Performance aware of itself as performance and loving it. Watching, no, experiencing one of their shows is different from that of their contemporaries. Whereas many folk rock musicians appeal to the sense of Artist we take from the Renaissance geniuses of old—men made special by a higher power but still men—whereas they play for you and showing their soul for a brief moment on stage to make a human to human connection, whereas they ask you to see them as mere people with gifts or talent, The Decemberists know better. They want us to see every element of the show as part of a performance. And perhaps they are more genuine then—with this no fuss attitude about what we’re getting.

As this shenanigans was all starting, my mind was still back in the opening act with a group called Alvvays. The lead singer of this band, from my vantage point in the first balcony, was wiry and bleach blonde. She had a deep side part, and I remember thinking about how much time I was spending looking at the top of her head. It was a strange vantage point for a concert-goer who’s used to swaying among much taller patrons on the ground floor. In my experience, when I’m looking at a musician, I’m looking up. So this particular woman, with her baggy dress and spindly legs, with her sheet of hair, deeply parted to one side, struck me as familiar, even from hundreds of feet away. This woman, with bleach blonde hair, and no discernable facial features to me, reminded me of my childhood best friend—who neither had bleach blond hair nor a rock career.

In 1990, we’ll call her Tiffany, and I played soccer together at recess, we rode bikes and played with dogs, we ate with each others’ families on Friday nights, we planned birthday parties for her younger sisters. We painted our nails and talked on the phone about crushes. And then suddenly to me, four years after we met, it was as if we were strangers overnight. A wall had gone up and there was nothing I could do to destroy it. We were too teenage girls playing the parts of teenage girls in a drama about ______? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know exactly what role I was playing, but I knew it had something to do with falling from popularity. I clung to my good grades and extracurriculars as if they could  shield me from disappearing each time the bell rung and I stepped into a hallway.

Only after I had changed school districts, suffered through a three-year depression, and started anew, did I realize that what probably happened was a rumor that I was gay, or a lesbian. I’m not sure what terminology the fourteen-year-olds were using back then in suburban Texas, as I wasn’t too much aware of a terminology myself.

I always assumed that as she grew up, Tiffany would come to her senses and realize that queer or not, I was still me and she had broken my heart. I felt that one day, we’d speak again, and she’d be sad about all the lost time, but I wasn’t sure what I’d say or do. I wasn’t sure which role I wanted to play in the future I created.  I didn’t want to think of her as a cruel person, choosing something else over our friendship for the rest of her life. A loss that big at a age that young ended up defining my adolescence in a way I’m still slowly coming to understand. I did get over it, and in 2010 I’d more than moved-on. I was standing in D’s and my first floor Wisconsin apartment, making the bed, when I got a phone call from a man whom I’d known in junior high, one of the friends I grew closer to after the split with Tiffany. Dan was calling to tell me that Tiffany had died. He wanted me to hear it from someone first before I saw it on social media. Her body was found away from her purse. It was ruled officially a hit and run.

~

I hadn’t thought about her in what was probably years, since the last time my brother or father (still in Texas) had mentioned that they’d seen her working a Italian chain restaurant. There were only a few times I had seen or heard of her since we were in the 8th grade, and I did get my wish. I do remember her trying to get my contact info from family to make a mends. I can’t remember if they gave her my phone number or if they gave me hers—but we never spoke again. In our youth, I had exited stage left long after she had left the building. But perhaps in our adulthood it was me who left her center stage, holding a photograph of us, with identical side parts.

The C Word

I failed today. Just now, in the office.

I overheard a conversation and I didn’t step in to say how inappropriate and offensive it was. So, I’m going to take a lower risk maneuver and write it here.

Overheard at  work:

Man one: Thinking about it makes me so mad again. There’s a four letter word for someone like her. It rhymes with bundt.

Man two: I wonder what that could be.

Man one: Yeah, but I typically call women muffins instead, so I don’t have to cuss.

Man two: But why muffin?

Man one: Well,…

…and so forth.

I know many women have reclaimed the word cunt. Thanks in part to the book of the same name and to the Vagina Monologues, cunt’s use is similar to my use of ‘queer’ to describe myself and my friends who also identify with the term. But still, there is a way to use the word for empowerment and respect and a way to use the word as a demeaning insult. To use it intentionally with malice.

The fact of this conversation–even though they never even said the word–open, loud, in the middle of an office, and around women, is more infuriating than the use or discussion of ‘cunt’ being used.

Along similar lines, I’ve tried to take the word “dick” as an expletive out of my vocabulary–I say jerk instead; it’s more accurate to what I mean.

And, it hasn’t been lost on me that ‘dick’ is more commonly-accepted, a “lighter” word to use than ‘cunt’ in similar instances. Is this because it’s more offensive to be a nasty woman? Since women, after all, are supposed to be sweet and men are supposed to be jerks.

Sigh.

A March Madness Win

I miss you. I learned SO much working with you and days like today make me realize just exactly how much. Or rather, that I didn’t understand exactly how much. 🙂

I was tired and most likely grumbling about the things I needed to do the next day when I got this message from a former student. I hadn’t had this student in a formal classroom since the spring semester of 2013.

Many teachers need a win at this point (March Madness isn’t all about basketball after all), when the academic year is so close and yet so far from over. I needed a win. So, thanks, former student.

Writing is one of those subjects that creeps up on you. A person can improve by leaps and bounds, but it’s a slow process–compared to many other learn-it-or-don’t subjects college students take. This particular student took an upper level course with me, but one of the thoughts that keeps me energized for freshmen comp classes each semester is the idea that somewhere, down the road, they will use these skills and habits formed in my composition class to help them succeed, and that will have made a difference. Teaching writing is not for those who need instant gratification. And that gratification, when it does arrive, is all the sweeter for it.

Moving the Earth

The essay’s engine is curiosity; it’s territory is the open road.–Cheryl Strayed

I was having a particularly awful set of days last week. Thursday morning was all minor set backs and fits. It took a couple of hours after waking around 5:00AM for a the desolate mood to set in. I had a slew of meetings to attend, to prep, to run, or to observe, as I had had every day for the previous two weeks. And I was nearing the end of my push to observe twenty-two of my student staff hosting review sessions for various classes around campus. The observations themselves weren’t the main factor keeping my mind-heart balance in a funk. Maybe it was the full moon. Maybe seasonal depression was finally catching up to me–since it was March and still below 20 degrees. Maybe it was all the things that I’ve been forced to realize in the last year about my life and relationships–you see, this is how dramatic it felt. Like I was some sci-fi extra waking up from a dream-reality to realize I’m sitting in a pod of primordial ooze. Like I’d been foolish to think life was on track.  And yet, even though I could reasonably see and feel that I was simply focusing on the wrong things and that nothing had really changed in the last two days to warrant this sudden jarring of my positive outlook, I couldn’t unthink the things I was thinking. My mood didn’t lift until sometime Friday night.

~

And nothing was ever the same again.

Cheryl Strayed guides her students with the idea that this is the “invisible, unwritten last line” of every essay–that as writers the goal is to move our readers by shifting the earth around them. I like to think of reading experiences–the really good ones–as keys that unlock something inside of us. Something that once unlocked, can’t be locked again.

~

D had been on the side lines of my terrible, horrible, no good very bad day all Thursday, and when Friday morning wasn’t showing signs of being different, she texted: “Seriously. Do something for yourself.” She was trying to get me to take a half day and visit a friend who was enjoying a day off herself in Chicago. I settled for leaving right after my last meeting of the day–which ended at 3:00PM.

I was on the open road by 3:30PM toward Ravenswood and my friend J, armed with my will to be happier and an overnight bag. At some point in the evening, J and I decided to turn the music off and step away from the crackers and port wine cheese. We moved our beers from the couch to the kitchen table and swapped reading material. We were talking about our nonfiction origins and loves–pieces that had awoken something inside of us when we read them, the ones that had stayed with us ever since. I told J that my students had recently read Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” in preparation for a sentence workshop. I told her that I couldn’t say anything else about it until she had read it herself. She sat me down with a copy of David Quammen’s “Strawberries on Ice.”

~

“Joyas Voladoras” was not assigned reading in my graduate studies. I read it only after I’d purchased the Best American Essays 2005, years after graduate school, on a hunt for fantastic nonfiction reading assignments for writing students. I can see myself, in my upstairs office at school, during the last weeks of summer sun pouring in through the broken blinds, books piling up on my desk in preparation for the semester’s syllabi. I was assigning “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog”–a whimsical essay by Kitty Burns Florey remembering a time in American school life when diagramming sentences was king–and there it was. Doyle’s flash essay precedes the Burns Florey piece in the book’s line up. Looking at the table of contents, a mandatory ritual after any Best American purchase, the Latinate title was a flashing sign that said Danger, beware of boredom up ahead! I didn’t recognize Doyle’s name. I was worried that whatever the topic was, it would be out of my realm of interests. I was nervous that the prose would be laborious. I was assuming that I wouldn’t enjoy it. (So, basically, I was thinking like a typical under-motivated student.) And, I was wrong.

Once I had read the first sentence, I couldn’t stop until I devoured the thing whole.

~

D met up with J and I last Friday at some point and we had a family evening–making food together and enjoying the laughter of people you love. I was amazed that only hours before I had felt the world spinning off into a dark place I’ve been before.  With “Joyas Voladoras” as it is with other pieces close to my heart–pun intended (read the piece)–the element of surprise is the main delight. This piece embodies the way nonfiction can start logically, interestingly, and firmly rooted in verifiable facts and concrete science only to shatter the expectations of itself it had just built to end up somewhere abstract and deep in the emotional world. I knew I wasn’t out of the woods, as they say, but I had to marvel at how human expectations are so easily upturned and how a good piece can move the earth ever so slightly into place.