On Cutting Down Sunflowers

After my parents divorced in the late 80’s, my mother, brother, and I spent the next decade moving in and out of numerous rental houses, condominiums, and apartments in my hometown. Our first rental house was located on the north edge of town, just south of an abandoned subdivision project. Because of the oil industry bust in the early 80’s, the planned expansion of my new neighborhood had stalled out, with only one house ever being even partially built.

The subdivision’s roads had been built, paved, and given street signs. Nearly pristine blacktop streets, laid out in a rough grid, criss-crossed five city blocks. Because they weren’t being used for anything other than a make out spot for teenagers late at night, the unpopulated city blocks made perfect bicycle race tracks on which to settle heated neighborhood rivalries between prepubescent boys desperately trying to evoke unquestioned machismo.

In between each street was a cleared tract of land, absolutely devoid of trees, mounds, or anything but long grasses, thick brush, and random rocks. These weren’t bucolic meadows bounded conveniently by city streets. These were long fields filled with thousands of cockleburrs. As much as I loved walking through the fields, I hated the cockleburrs. I hated the sound they made when I tried to pull them off my shoelaces. I hated pricking my fingers a hundred times in a vain effort to pluck them off with my pink, tender little digits. I’d eventually resort to using my mother’s needle-nose pliers to tug them free of their tenacious grip on my shoes.

Xanthium-strumarium-1

Olive-sized pellets of pure, unadulterated, spiteful evil.


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The Jaguar Shark

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted. The usual bout with end-of-semester stress was a bit tougher than I’m accustomed to. I’m not special, though. Each of our lives carry natural crests and troughs of stress. Expectations ramp up, sometimes when we’re ill-prepared to rise to the challenge, and we spend a few frantic weeks scurrying about in a desperate effort to restore order to chaos. Time and time again, the wave rises and falls. Time and time again, we endure it because we must.

There isn’t a soul reading this that can claim to have always gracefully endured such moments. Part of what makes us human is the imperfectly adequate manner in which we meet these periods of stress. It’s seldom pretty and it usually requires a few apologies for bruised toes, but the job gets done. We promise ourselves that we’ll get it right the next time, knowing full well that we probably won’t. The cycle repeats and from somewhere deep in our cultural consciousness, Sisyphus mumbles an incoherent lesson about futility. The static in our heads sometimes splices the message with other sage advice.

Sisyphus_by_von_Stuck

You’ve got to know when to hold it, know when to roll it, know when to curse the gods, know when to slump.


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The Past Is Never Dead. It Isn’t Even Past.

In my current position, I’m tasked with the goal of convincing highly distracted, unconfident college students to write effective, argumentative essays over a variety of topics. Some days, that task is more enjoyable than others. Admittedly, I could make my job much easier by employing topics of discussion that are more accessible to a group of inexperienced 19 year-olds. I could talk about current events. I could design units around high-stakes-but-well-worn topics like abortion, gay marriage, and legalizing marijuana. I could even look to appropriate the work of my colleagues and simply try out curricular flavors of the month. I don’t, though. I ask students to write about topics that produce papers I’m interested to read.

Yesterday, we framed a discussion in around the misplaced presence of revisionism in certain historical accounts, thus calling those accounts’ veracity or academic usefulness into question. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but the bulk of the lesson involved discussing two wildly divergent accounts for the origin of “the separation of church and state,” in the hopes that the students might see these accounts as politically motivated narratives as much as they see them as important records of the past.

What made the lesson fun for me was that we eventually worked our way around to a discussion of one of my favorite topics: nostalgia. Nostalgia comes from two Greek root words, nostos and algia, which almost literally translates into “an ache or pain to return home” or “homesick.” Originally coined as a term to describe the specific sadness that soldiers felt after having spent too much time away from home, the term has broader connotations now. Continue reading

The Opposite of Hate Is Indifference

It’s not necessarily the domain of this particular blog to weigh in on political or current event issues. I usually post reflective, long winded, superfluous assessments  on the events that punctuate my weird life. The reasoning behind this isn’t that I don’t have opinions on such issues. I do. In fact, I often obsess over current issues and events.

A few weeks ago, I found myself lost in exploration of reports that helium was escaping from the ground all over Yellowstone National Park, which might be a precursor to a supervolcano that would fundamentally alter the course of human history. Last week, when I should have been constantly grading, I found my attention drawn away by the Gordian Knot of confusion surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which is still an ongoing mystery and a raw wound for the families of all those involved. Between taking part in crowdsourced scanning of satellite images and reading about wild, speculative theories, I was as wrapped up in the drama as anyone could be.

Some current events are interesting, not for their content, but for they reactions the elicit from the masses. One event that is unfolding as we speak involves the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, who is reportedly on his death bed. Reactions have been varied and swift. Even Grumpy Cat, the now-passé internet meme, had a predictable reaction.

Eloquent, timely, and full of compassion.
What else would you expect from the internet?

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I Wonder If I’ve Made a Huge Mistake

It’s been a long week. I know that with the beginning of Daylight Savings Time, it’s technically been a shorter week than the other 51 weeks of the year. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t felt like a much longer week. I’ve had fever off and on during the week, a stomach firmly set on revolting against me, and strange muscular twitches in my arms that are probably due to stress. I’ve been grading a lot of papers and tending to a lot of other tasks.

There are plenty of stressors in my life. I don’t feel particularly inclined to list them all here because I don’t feel like being bluntly honest about all of them at the moment to anyone that might be reading this. Blunt honesty is incredibly powerful when handled carelessly. Much like the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, heedlessly cracking into it at any given time can be incredibly dumb.

 Incredibly dumb, but also kind of adorable.

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The Best Friends Are Honest Friends

When I’m on campus in Norman, students come by my humble office on a regular basis. They’re usually seeking advice or an unflinching evaluation of their draft. Because of my position and my relative value to the department, my office is rather small. The students are always surprised by the state of my professorial domicile. It’s a 7 x 7 cell, with peeling baby blue paint on thick concrete walls and two large windows looking out onto a parking lot. I have virtually no art or posters on the walls and only one bookshelf, ironically containing very few books. I don’t mind it though. The space is primarily meant to use to meet with students or catch up on a little work in between classes. I’m lucky to have it and the space functions precisely as I need it to, with little embellishment.

One of my four walls isn’t actually a wall at all. The office opens up to another, slightly smaller room occupied by my office mate. He carefully decorates his half of the office with desk ornaments, student-made art, and a bookshelf overloaded with a variety of texts that he doesn’t have room for in his apartment. Papers are scattered around, there’s usually a derelict container or open book on his desk, casually left behind for the night. We’re something of an odd couple and we’ve shared an office four out of the 5 years I’ve been teaching at OU.

Most days, two other colleagues stop by our office and shoot the bull while enjoying brown-bag lunches in each other’s company. It’s a nice time to socialize with other adults while not having to perform the role of exuberant, enthusiastic adjunct professor in front of a classroom full of cynical, disaffected students. Our conversations range from bitching about grading essays to the odd similarity between raising small children and house pets. Make sure they don’t break anything, make sure they eat something that isn’t garbage, and be sure to help them use the bathroom periodically.

The other day, my office mate posted a picture to his Facebook timeline. The picture featured seven cardinal rules by which one should live their life. These kinds of things appear in my news feed often and they’re largely unremarkable, but well-meaning. Most of the rules made sense, with the exception of #2- “What other people think of you is none of your business.”

#8- Never, under any circumstances, should you ever
 be in the bathroom while your spouse is pooping.

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Shake, Shake, Shake, Señora!

I enjoy the fact that my professional life is punctuated by new beginnings every few months. Each semester promises a new tableau of faces and perspectives against which my successes and failures will play out. This sort of continual change suits me well. At times, I’ve had difficulty in maintaining close relationships over long periods of time, but I thrive in new and uncertain social situations. It brings out the adaptive, improvisational, relatable parts of myself that are positively magnetic.

It should go without saying that there’s a slight period of adjustment at the beginning of any new semester. I teach a lot of classes, eight this semester, and I have a variety of other self-imposed obligations to balance. That explains why I haven’t posted in a while. It takes a few weeks to learn the routine. There’s no obligation this semester to which that adjustment period applies to better than my fitness course.

Starting last summer, I’ve made a concerted effort to work a sort of fitness activity into my weekly schedule. I have a sedentary occupation, which involves a great deal of sitting on my b.w.a. I’m also not the healthiest eater, so it’s important that I do something to resist my body’s genetic tendency towards being “big and tall.”

 You’re not going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.

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If You Blink, You Might Miss it

If you ever find yourself driving north out of Tulsa on U.S. 75, the last Okie town you’ll see before crossing the Kansas state line is a tiny little hamlet called Copan. Copan is one of those much-maligned small prairie towns quickly being bled dry by population shifts and the aging of its citizens. There’s nothing there to speak of, except for a few hundred good ol’ folks and a dam-created lake. In fact, you can barely see Copan from the highway. As the old idiomatic expression goes, if you blink, you might miss it.
Beautiful downtown Copan, OK.

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Aim Low, Shoot High

I used to love the first day of school after Christmas break. The cool, crisp winter days coupled with residual happiness from the holidays to inflate my optimism about the new year. I’d meticulously set out an outfit of new clothes and lie in bed, resisting sleep with all the excited anticipation of being dealt a new hand of good cards after having lost big with the previous one.

This time things would be different. This year, I’d transcend my inborn awkwardness with a previously untapped sense of savoir-faire. I’d walk through the hallways with new-found swagger, overcoming my oversized nose, ears, and mouth with unassailable cool. This year, I’d come out on top. Eventually I’d fall asleep, drifting away on a sea of baseless optimism and elevated expectation, only to soon run aground on the grim shores of the uncaring, unfeeling reality of the universe.

Today marks the beginning of my fourteenth semester as a college instructor. In a few days, I’ll also turn 35. I’m fast approaching the midpoint of average life expectancy for an American male and I’m acutely aware of the fact that my most elastic and energetic days are probably behind me. Consequently, I’ve long since abandoned that heedless hopefulness that lulled me to the sleep of bright, expectant dreamers.

First days after Christmas break are now exercises in anxiety. I’ll meet approximately 160 new faces whose names I need to memorize for my classroom ethos. I’ll go through the next round of conversations in which I explain how little I accomplished over the break and how delightful it was to do nothing at all. Because of my body’s psychosomatic peculiarity, I’ll perspire during the first few class sessions like I’m Miss Teen South Carolina on an episode of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

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You Don’t Have to Drink to Have a Happy New Year’s Eve, but Sometimes It Helps

I secretly hate New Year’s Eve celebrations.

I usually don’t let people know this about me, as it might affect their appreciation of certain moments in our shared lives, but there it is. The drinking, paper horns, and butchering of Auld Lang Syne are all celebratory of a moment that feels oddly similar to closing a coffin lid for the last time at a long funeral. You’re glad the process is over, but there’s a bittersweet moment where the passage of time hurts more than you’d like to admit and all you want to do is fall out of reality and never let anything pass from your life ever again.

In spite all that morbid heaviness, I celebrate every year with all the expected pomp and circumstance. I happily don pointy hats, count backwards from ten with unmatched revelry, and occasionally pop champagne party poppers at the night sky to remind the universe that no happy moment deserves to pass silently. In my head, it sounds a bit like this video.

Here’s to you little, wonderful reminders of existential defiance.

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