Remembering Justin Townes Earle

On August 20 of 2020, in the middle of the lockdown that had kept most Americans in their homes for months, Justin Townes Earle died of an accidental overdose in Nashville. I read the news three days later, when it was announced on his facebook page. At first, I felt certain I was reading some kind of vicious internet hoax. As I thought about it, though, I realized that the news was almost certainly true. After all, Justin Townes Earle never made any secret of his struggle with addiction. For months, live music venues had been closed, which meant that Earle’s creative outlet was unavailable to him. He would have been bored, depressed, and in possession of enough money to buy plenty of drugs.

No celebrity death has ever struck me as soundly or stuck with me as persistently as the death of Justin Townes Earle. For more than ten years, I bought his records and listened to his music. I saw him in concert seven times that I can remember specifically, and I’m certain there are a few other shows I can’t quite pin down in my mind. He was an insightful songwriter, a charismatic singer, and the best guitar player I ever saw. I keep the complete catalog of Justin Townes Earle on the USB drive in my car, and even now, a year after his death, I sometimes feel the gut-punch of realizing he’s gone when one of his songs comes on random play. 

I have thought about JTE a lot lately, and I want to record what I remember of him before anything else gets lost in the fog of forgetfulness.

I first saw Justin Townes Earle in concert by accident, when he opened for Old Crow Medicine Show at the Texas Hall of Fame on May 8th of 2009. A few days later, I wrote about that show and my reaction to listening to his early albums. Interestingly, the picture of JTE that I included in that blog post is now a broken link, but the caption I wrote remains: “Just picture him with a thin, barely discernible mustache.” I was pretty sure he’d had a mustache, but I couldn’t find a photo of him wearing one. Over the years, I have doubted my memory of this event because I never saw him with a mustache again. However, I recently discovered online this photo of JTE that was taken just a few days before the show at The Hall, and my memory is confirmed.

Re-reading my reaction to the 2009 concert brings a smile to my face, even as it saddens me a little. I immediately noticed his “nervous, twitchy demeanor,” which seemed like an idiosyncrasy at the time but now seems to me like it was probably an effect of his addiction.

A month after the show at The Hall, during my yearly visit to my family in Minnesota, I heard on the radio that JTE was playing a show at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Even though the show was that night, June 17 of 2009, and tickets weren’t available (remember that? having to buy paper tickets in advance?), I grabbed my youngest brother, Cameron, and drove to St. Paul, where we bought two good seats from a scalper outside the venue. The show was presented by Minnesota Public Radio, and JTE performed as the opening act for Kasey Chambers. I don’t recall the specifics of this show except that I loved it. After JTE’s set, Cameron stepped outside the theater to have a cigarette in the alley before Kasey Chambers came on. When he came back to our seats, he told me that while he was in the alley having a cig, JTE came out the side door and lit one up, too. Apparently, they made some small talk before they both came back inside. I’m not a smoker, but god do I wish I’d needed a cigarette that night. After the show, JTE manned his own merch table, as up-and-coming artists are often asked to do. I don’t recall him actually running a cash register, but he was definitely there signing things. I was too broke to buy any merchandise after paying the scalper, but I swiped one of the concert posters off the billboard outside the building. JTE gave me a look while he signed it. I can’t find any pictures or videos of this show. 

A few months later, on the 5th of February 2010, I saw JTE again. This time, he played the Mucky Duck in Houston, and Scott and Bart came with me to the show. I remember that the venue had a policy of selling seats at dining tables and requiring guests to have dinner and drinks as part of the experience. Anybody who didn’t get to buy one of those very limited table seats was forced to stand at the back of the room, near the bar. Bart, Scott, and I were prepared to stand, but when we got to the door, Bart overheard some people talking about how their friends hadn’t made it to the show. They were coming from somewhere in Louisiana but got held up by bad weather, as I recall. I had stepped into the restroom, but when I came back, Bart had made a deal with the friendless group that resulted in the three of us having a table! I remember that we had cocktails and dinner, but the only specific dish I can recall is the Scotch eggs, which were served with grainy brown mustard and were excellent. JTE was the headliner for this show, and his supporting act was Dawn Landes, who I had never heard of before. Together, they recorded a cover of the Dolly Parton classic “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.” I don’t recall Landes’ set particularly, except that I felt kind of lukewarm about it. I do recall, though, that Scott thought she was pretty cute. After she left the stage, JTE played a great show. He started with a three-piece band, then sent them off to play a solo set on the acoustic guitar before calling them back to the stage for the final leg of the show. At one point, he had arranged to perform the duet with Dawn Landes. I saw her come from somewhere at the back of the room and begin to work her way toward the stage. Either JTE didn’t see her, though, or she showed up early. He launched into another song just as she passed our table. Rather than standing in the middle of the room and obstructing people’s view, she quickly sat down at our table…right next to Scott, in fact. When JTE finished his song, she ascended the stage, and they performed “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.” I can’t swear that this video was recorded at the show I saw. The youtube description doesn’t give a location, but JTE and Dawn Landes didn’t play many shows together, and the background definitely looks like the interior of the Mucky Duck. Also, the stage banter and the weak audio of Dawn Landes’ vocals match my memory of the show I saw, so I’m pretty certain this was recorded that night. 

In the gap between the Mucky Duck show and the Gentlemen of the Road tour, I’m sure I saw JTE in concert once or twice, but I don’t remember the details. I hope to be able to update this post with memories of those shows some time. I feel like one of these shows was the occasion when he signed my vinyl copy of Midnight At the Movies.

In September of 2013, Caleb and I drove to Guthrie, Oklahoma to see a summer concert festival called Gentlemen of the Road. The festival spanned two days, with the first act taking the stage at 6 p.m. on Friday. I recall that we took Friday off from school and drove the six and a half hours to Guthrie. We set up a tent in a dusty field, along with several thousand other people who did the same. A complete recollection of Gentlemen of the Road would require a blog post of its own. Caleb and I roamed Guthrie, took photos, ate at a pretty good all-you-can-eat burger bar, and enjoyed a fantastic lineup of bands. Mustaches were the theme/running gag of the festival, and the whole town was decorated with them. While I was a bit too broke to buy official concert merch, I bought a knock-off t-shirt that says, “The Mustache is the key to this outfit.” I still wear it occasionally. Friday was headlined by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Saturday’s headliners were Alabama Shakes and Mumford & Sons. Every one of those big-name bands was amazing in concert, but Mumford was the best. Sadly, Caleb and I found ourselves beset with some really drunken women from the campsite next to ours. They found us during the Mumford & Sons set and made asses of themselves the whole time. JTE’s time slot at Gentlemen of the Road fell at 7 p.m. on Friday, and I remember being a bit baffled by his performance. His early records featured a combination of fast, finger-picked neo-bluegrass, bouncy rockabilly, and slow blues. At GoTR, he performed mostly songs from his most recent album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, and his upcoming record, Single Mothers. These albums signaled a shift in JTE’s style, incorporating much more soul and jazz influence. The albums are wonderful, but they’re a far cry from what I call the “stomp and holler” music of his earlier records. As it turns out, festival crowds prefer to stomp and holler, and most of the attendees, Caleb included, seemed underwhelmed by the show. For me, the strangest part was watching JTE perform outdoors in daylight instead of inside a dimly lit bar. This photo is from the next stop on the tour, but I swear I remember him wearing exactly this same outfit when he performed in Guthrie.

On May 15 of 2014, I saw JTE at Fitzgerald’s, a music venue inside of a converted house in Houston. I recall with certainty that Pratt was with me, and I think either Bart or Scott, or maybe both of them, were also there. We arrived early and worked our way up onto a balcony, where we watched the show from stools that stood right against the rail. Besides standing at the foot of the stage at The Hall in 2009, this was the best seat I ever had for a JTE show, I think. I can’t find any photos of this show, but some kind soul recorded most of it from a floor seat near the stage and has posted it to youtube. At 0:37 in this video of “My Starter Won’t Start,” you’ll hear somebody in the crowd shout “Yes sir!” I’m pretty sure that’s me. JTE’s performances of this song remain the most incredible moments of live music I have ever witnessed, and when he played the opening notes, I was pumped. You’ll also hear me shout “Damn!” at 0:54. That’s probably also me freaking out at 3:02. Really. And 3:17. I mean, listen to his playing. How can one guy make that much noise on a single guitar? It sounds like at least two people playing together. Because Pratt is a guitar player himself, I thought he was going to be blown away by “My Starter Won’t Start,” but he surprised me. After the show, Pratt said that “Starter” was amazing, but his favorite performance of the night was “Mama’s Eyes.” He didn’t offer any explanation except to look me right in my face and say, “That song was beautiful, man.” He wasn’t wrong. This cellphone recording features the drums too prominently, but you can still hear what a gorgeous song “Mama’s Eyes” is.

I saw JTE again a few months later, on November 11, 2014 at Emo’s in Austin. Cory Branan opened. Bart was with me, along with either Scott or Chris Fox, or maybe both. We were all blown away by Branan. He’s one of the most captivating singer/songwriters I’ve ever seen. After the show, we bought all three of his CDs, which he signed at the merch table. Several of his songs are still in my regular rotation, including “Cracker Jack Heart,” “Miss Ferguson,” and “Crush.” I remember this show distinctly because JTE talked about being married and happy. I don’t remember what led up to it, but he said something about how people complain about the new songs he was writing or the recent shows he’d been playing. Anyway, the point is that someone complained that they missed his dark, edgy side. He said, “I’m married now. For the first time in my life, I’m happy. If you don’t like that, fuck you.” I think about this show often because he did seem genuinely happy. I remember thinking that the many troubles he had talked about in interviews might finally be behind him. I can’t find any photos from Emo’s, but this shot is from the show on November 20, about a week later.

The last time I saw Justin Townes Earle was June 6, 2018 at Heights Theater in Houston. Bart was with me. Someone else was, too, but I’m not sure who it was. Maybe Pratt. He played a fantastic show that night, featuring many songs from his “Family Trilogy” of albums, Single Mothers, Absent Fathers, and Kids in the Street. These are introspective albums that explore many musical influences and genres. There are few echoes of the “stomp and holler” music of his first records, but the songwriting is better, and more autobiographical, than ever. Introspection seemed to be on JTE’s mind at this show. At one point, he hushed the crowd to say a few words about addiction and how we treat addicts as a lead-in to a song about Billie Holiday, the great jazz singer who died young as a consequence of her addictions. Someone filmed his sermon. They missed the beginning, but the message is clear. He says that we ask addicts, “What’s wrong with you?” when the correct question is “Why do you hurt?” I wrote earlier that I think a lot about the 2014 show, when JTE said he was happy. I think about this show even more. I think about him telling us to ask addicts “Why do you hurt?” and then dying as a result of his addictions a few years later. This is as close as I can imagine a performer coming to actually confessing his pain to his audience and asking them for help. Two different people have posted this video online. One of them lists no location, and the other claims that it was filmed in Kalamazoo on May 17. However, this is exactly how I remember the show I saw, including JTE cursing at the crowd when they tried to interrupt him and the way he transitioned into “White Gardenias.” I suspect the Kalamazoo uploader may be mistaken. After reading concert reviews, though, I’ve found that he gave this speech often on this tour, so it may be me who is mistaken. The photo below is from the 2018 tour.

I have long since forgotten which show it was, but one time when I saw Justin Townes Earle in concert, he talked about some of the wildness of his younger years. He told a story about living in an apartment building next to a drug dealer. Over time, he came to learn that the drug dealer had a lot of money in his apartment. In a moment of desperation, he broke into that apartment when nobody was home, stole the money, and immediately fled the city. I remember him saying, “I bet that guy probably got shot over that missing money.” An unimpressed murmur passed through the crowd. After a moment, JTE said, “You don’t cry for gangsters when gangster shit happens to them.” It wouldn’t be hard to see Justin Townes Earle’s death as gangster shit happening to a gangster–or rather, junkie shit happening to a junkie–but I can’t let it go that easily. I saw him in 2014, when he was happy. I saw him in 2018, when he was preaching a new way to talk to addicts. I can’t help but wonder whether he’d still be with us if he hadn’t been confined to his home by the pandemic, stripped of his creative outlet, and left with so much time and boredom that he overdosed on cocaine laced with fentanyl. In an essay published a few days after his death, Rolling Stone writer Amanda Petrusich wrote about JTE’s “tragic charisma” and his “steadfast determination to transmute suffering into beauty.” Toward the end of that essay, Petrusich writes that her favorite JTE performance is a cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” I had never heard it before reading the essay, so I clicked over to youtube. Man, this video guts me. JTE looks rough. He’s twitchy and vulnerable, but he’s also playing the song masterfully. I’m echoing Petrusich, here, but sometimes a correlation is so obvious that it can’t be avoided: Watching JTE repeat “I’m going to Graceland” while he seems very likely to be high on the drugs that would eventually kill him is haunting and prophetic. I’m also echoing a common platitude, but some platitudes are rooted in emotional truths: I hope Justin Townes Earle is, indeed, in his Graceland now, and I hope it’s peaceful.


Valediction 2017


For the second time in my career, I was one of the names on the final ballot for faculty speaker at graduation. For the second time in my career, I was not elected. I’ve already done rather a lot of thinking about what I would say at graduation, though, and it seems a shame to let all that thought go to waste.

Since I’m not actually delivering a speech, this will be more a good-bye letter than an actual valediction. I trust you’ll forgive me. Here we go:

At the beginning of this school year, my wife and I bought a house. It was a huge investment, and taking out a 30-year loan at 39 years old is terrifying, but it’s a wonderful house and we’re thrilled to have it. The story behind buying this house is important. My wife and I got married when I was 34 years old. At that time, I already owned a small—very small—house. When she and the kids moved to College Station, the five of us lived in a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom, 1100 square-foot house. That means my wife and I had a bedroom, and the three kids had a bedroom. One of the bathrooms in the house had a shower and bathtub in it, but the other was just a sink and a commode. I have literally lived in apartments that were bigger than my first house. We were really, really cramped. That was in March of 2012. We bought our new house in August of 2016. We lived in uncomfortably close quarters, rotating through the shower each day, and stacking kids (a boy and two girls, nonetheless) into three-person bunkbeds for four and a half years before we bought our new house. Honestly, some of our friends started to think we were a little crazy; however, we knew what we wanted in our new house, and we knew that we couldn’t afford to make that kind of investment without saving up some serious money first. When buying a house, the buyer makes a down payment and then borrows the rest of the balance from the bank. As a result, when the buyer makes a larger down payment, the monthly payments are proportionately smaller. Teachers can’t rush into huge mortgage payments, so we saved money. And we saved money. And we saved money. For four and a half years, we saved money. In August, we made a big down payment and bought a house we love with monthly payments that we can afford.

I’d understand if you were wondering right now why I’m telling you about my financial life. As I think back on this experience, though, I can see several ways that you might learn from it and some bits of advice that I can pass along.

First, learn to delay gratification. I know four and a half years is just about a quarter of your lifespan right now, but trust me when I tell you it’s not that long. I know there are things you want. Please realize the power of buying them responsibly. Rather than overextending yourself to buy something today, save money and buy it later. My wife and I set a goal—we weren’t going to buy a house until we saved $40,000. It took us four and a half years. As a result, we had time to consider exactly what we wanted in a house and find one that we both love (which was not easy, by the way). Saving money requires sacrifice, and you’re much less likely to spend money earned by sacrifice on something trendy or superficial or impulsive. This applies to many purchases besides houses. Even if it’s a fairly small purchase like a new laptop, pick something, save money, and buy it when you can lay the cash on the counter instead of buying it on credit. This is a habit that far too few people cultivate. I have friends who own big houses and new cars but can’t afford to take a weekend vacation because they have huge debts that eat up their paychecks each month. Do not start down that road. Learning to delay gratification is a strong first defense.

The story of buying my house also leads me to this bit of advice: learn to live with inconvenience and physical discomfort. Believe me when I tell you that waiting to be the fifth person to shower is not my favorite activity. Neither did I particularly enjoy the fact that the living room was also the kids’ playroom in my old house. I didn’t watch adult television for several years because the kids were always in the room. However, here I am, happy and unscathed after inconvenience and physical discomfort. We live in an age where we can, with rare exceptions, be comfortable and pain-free all the time, but I tend to believe that has made us weaker. For example, my friend Mr. Taylor took his students to A&M for a tour of some of their facilities a few weeks ago. At one point on the tour, they walked from Kyle Field to University Drive. He told me afterward that the students whined and complained the whole way about how hot it was, how thirsty they were, and how they were just dying. The walk from Kyle Field to University is about two blocks. Learn to live with inconvenience and physical discomfort, friends. Realize that thirst, hunger, aggravation, bug bites, heat, cold, and minor physical pain are not emergency situations. The ability to function despite these maladies is part of having strong character.

Although it might seem like a lifetime before this is useful to you, my third piece of advice is this: once you start your career, start saving money to buy a house. My first house, as I have told you, was not a great place for five people to live. When I bought it, though, it was the perfect size for me and my cat. I lived there quite comfortably for several years before I got married. The whole time I lived there, I was making mortgage payments and building up a magical thing called equity. Equity is the money that you have invested in your house that you can expect to recuperate when you sell it. Here’s how it works: when I sold my house, I made money two ways. First, property values had risen in the years that I owned the house, and the market price was considerably higher when I sold it than it had been when I bought it. Second, by making mortgage payments, I had paid off quite a large chunk of my loan. When I sold the house, I recuperated that money. I cannot stress how important this is. Money you invest into buying a house is money that you can get back. Money you spend on renting an apartment is money flushed down a toilet. My first house was small and fairly old and in a slightly sketchy neighborhood, but the equity I built up in that house and recuperated when I sold it was a huge contributing factor in my ability to buy my new house. Buying a house, even a small one, and keeping up with the payments is an investment that will make your eventual transition to your long-term home much easier. It may be the wisest financial decision you can make.

That’s enough about the house. Let me address a few other topics.

Please be aware of how silly trends and fads are. I’m not saying that you should be as fashion-blind and pop-culture-averse as I am, but find the division between what has substance and what is just noise. There’s an enormous amount of noise in our world. The latest make-up trends, the best sneakers, the 86-day Snapchat streak you have with your friend—none of these are inherently bad, but please realize how little they matter. I’m well aware of the fact that my wardrobe is a bit of a train wreck, for example; however, I’m also aware that it doesn’t affect my teaching, my relationship with my family, or anything else in my life that actually matters. You’ve almost certainly looked at me at some point in the past couple of years and wondered to yourself whether I actually own and know how to use a mirror. When you look back at my class in the future, though, that’s not what you will remember. You will remember substance. Personally, I choose to opt out of fads and trends altogether, but I’m not advising you to do the same—go ahead and do the mannequin challenge if you want, but remember that fads don’t actually mean anything. Do not invest any serious meaning or emotional capital in them. Following this advice may make you seem a bit lame to your contemporaries, but you’ll spend your energy on pursuits that matter. Living a life of substance is rewarding, fulfilling, and quite a bit less common than you’d think.

(The above paragraph also applies to music. For the love of God, please listen to good music. It’s as important as reading good books.)

You will find very few areas of your life where you can exert complete control. Although you want to be the best, there will always be someone in the room who is more athletic than you, more physically attractive than you, or even more naturally intelligent than you are. This is the way of the world. I’m certainly not here to tell you that you shouldn’t invest time or energy into athletic pursuits, your appearance, or your studies. Any and all of those are reasonable goals to pursue, if you so choose. What I want you to know, though, is this: somebody will always have the slight edge over you in these pursuits. Genetics dictates it. This is beyond your control. Strive to improve, but realize that you will always fall short of perfection. Also, take heart in this: there are some aspects of your life over which you can exhibit total control—parts of your character that don’t rely at all upon genetics or natural talent. Here are a few such character traits: honesty, punctuality, respect, and kindness. You can always, always be the kindest person in the room. You can, simply by deciding to do so, treat every person you meet with decency, dignity, and respect. Similarly, you can always be the most honest, punctual, and respectful person in the room if you decide for yourself that these are your priorities. In fact, cultivating personality traits like kindness—traits that are entirely under your control and don’t rely at all on innate talent—is not just an optimistic goal; it’s your duty as a human.

Finally, I’d like to thank you. As I leave my classroom to continue my career in the library, I am happy to have the class of 2017 to look back on as my last class of seniors. You are an incredible group. You’re smart and athletic and creative—but more importantly, you’re kind and loyal and decent. As a teacher, the number of waking hours I spend with students during the school year is roughly equal—and many weeks, much greater—than the number of hours I spend with my family. You genuinely have become a second layer of family. I was worried about you when you were down. I was overjoyed as you came and told me all the amazing places you’ve been accepted to college. I was proud when you wrote brilliant papers, and I was probably a bit too disappointed when you turned in work that wasn’t your best. I attended your games, concerts, and performances as often as I could. I read your newspaper, chaperoned your field trips, and tried to teach you about life outside of school.  I’m not quite as attached to you as I am to my own stepchildren, but it’s close. I’m not telling you this to create some sense of indebtedness or guilt in you; I’m telling you this because it’s easier than just coming out and saying what I really mean: I love you. There is nobody, outside of your family, who is more firmly on your side than I am. I haven’t told you that out loud, but that’s not because I have trouble expressing emotion; in fact, it’s because I’m absolutely certain that I’d end up crying in that conversation. I’m much better at showing love than talking about it, so if you need anything after high school, please find me and let me help. In past years, I have offered former students relationship advice, disc golf partnership, occasional help with college writing, conversation over coffee, and even a 3 a.m. sober ride home after some bad decision-making. I will be genuinely happy to do all of these things again (but you only get one sober ride, so choose carefully). The quasi-parental level of care that I have tried to offer you thus far and will continue to offer you in the future, if you like, doesn’t come without a cost, though. Like your actual parents, I have high hopes and expectations for you. I know that you are smart, creative, kind, and talented, and I fully expect you to make the most of those talents to live a life of goodness. My long-term goal as a teacher has always been to send students out into the world with the intent and ability to see beauty, to work for positive change, and to respect and love their fellow humans. Everything else is secondary.

So go out into the world after you graduate with optimism, hope, big plans, and the confidence that I’m still here at Consolidated proudly cheering your achievements and ready to help if you ever need it. Be well, friends.

(Also, if you’re so inclined, send me a friend request on facebook.)


The Force Awakens My Disappointment

This post contains information about The Force Awakens. If you don’t want that information, stop reading now.

I watched The Force Awakens late last night. I wasn’t blown away. I know that Star Wars fans have waited years (or in some cases, their whole lives) to see another decent Star Wars movie at the theater, and I know that they will, by default, LOVE this movie. In fact, they’re going to be righteously indignant if they read this post. It will be an act of heresy, in many people’s eyes, to speak poorly of the newest Star Wars film. To those hardcore fans, I say I’m glad you enjoyed the film. I seriously am. You waited a long time for it, and it’s finally here. Go nuts. See it five times.

I’m not as impressed by it as those fans, though. Here’s why. (If you don’t want to hear your favorite film franchise criticized, don’t read any farther.)

If the Star Wars franchise was a musical career, the first three records would be brilliant masterpieces. The next few albums would be mostly disappointing, although they’d contain occasional nuggets of goodness. The Force Awakens would have been advertised as the band’s return to earlier form, getting back to their roots and releasing a new record that sounds like their best work. Then, when the album was released, it would not turn out to be a new record. Instead, it’s a greatest hits album…one of those greatest hits albums that sneaks in a couple new tracks at the end. Almost everything you’ll see in The Force Awakens, you’ve already seen in another Star Wars film.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy greatest hits albums. I just don’t think they deserved to be heralded as Great New Additions To The Catalog.

Here are a few of the familiar songs you’ll hear on the greatest hits record that is The Force Awakens.

  • As the film begins, the Hero, who is of course unaware of the impending adventure, is living on a far-flung desert planet and doing menial manual labor.
  • The Hero’s family is a mystery, hinted at in tragic tones but never discussed openly.
  • Elsewhere in the universe, the Good Guys are in big trouble. The Bad Guys are getting pretty powerful. How should they communicate with their fellow Good Guys? They should hide a message inside a droid.
  • This droid will soon end up wandering the sands of the desert, where some aliens will try to grab it and sell it.
  • There’s a giant creature beneath the sands in the desert. It eats things. It burps.
  • Meanwhile, the Bad Guys have a powerful Jedi who wears a black mask and is tangled up in some serious father/son issues. This black masked man really likes to use the force to grab people by the neck.
  • The Bad Guys serve a supreme leader who basically looks like a withered old man.
  • When the Good Guys get really stuck, they go to a scummy and villainous cantina full of wonky-looking aliens, where a band is playing an instrumental. There, they find a way to continue their adventure.
  • Secret jedi stuff is revealed by a tiny, wrinkly being who looks like a 700 year old human.
  • The Reformed Reprobate, who has become a friend to the hero, decides this whole situation is somebody else’s problem and figures it’s time to escape alive, whether the Good Guys succeed or not.
  • Of course, the Reformed Reprobate doesn’t stay gone for long. As it turns out, he has a good heart. He actually ends up playing a pretty big role in the eventual Good Guy victory.
  • There are hints that the Reformed Reprobate has a crush on a girl who is really important to the Good Guys.
  • We get a scene in which a Good Guy jedi uses the force to make a Bad Guy look silly, repeating everything he’s told and defying his orders.
  • The Bad Guys have built a weapon: a Big Round Gun that can blow up entire planets. Unfortunately, this gun takes a long time to get charged up.
  • Luckily for the Good Guys, the Big Round Gun has a major design flaw, and their ships are just small and quick enough to exploit it.
  • Oh no! The Bad Guys are going to use the Big Round Gun to blow up the Good Guys and thus end their attempts overthrow tyranny! The Good Guys get in their spaceships and fly off toward the Big Round Gun so they can exploit its weakness and blow it up.
  • There’s a fat guy with a beard flying one of the Good Guy ships. Fat guys are funny.
  • As the Good Guys versus Bad Guys conflict plays out on a large scale, the father/son issues surrounding the guy in the black mask come to a head, acting as a microcosm for the whole light versus darkness thing.
  • The clock ticks very slowly toward doom as it is announced many times how much longer it will take before the Big Round Gun is ready to fire.
  • The father/son issues get definitively resolved on an extremely unsafely designed bridge that crosses over a seemingly bottomless chasm. During this scene, we get the obligatory “There is still good in you; I know it” line.
  • Naturally, the Good Guys blow up the Big Round Gun at the very last moment before it can fire.
  • This is clearly just the beginning for the Hero. Greater power and grander adventures clearly await.

Every single one of the above bullet points occurs in The Force Awakens AND in one of the previous films. There’s so very much recycled material.

I promise I’ll say a few positive things in a moment, but first I need to get a couple more complaints off my chest. These are not moments in which The Force Awakens reuses old material; they’re just things that bother me.

  • First of all, when Kylo Ren takes off his mask, he looks like Andy Samberg. I can not take this guy seriously as a villain. That’s just a casting complaint, but it still irks me. On to more substantive gripes…
  • At one point, Finn (who is black) looks at BB-8, that little round droid, and says “Droid, please.” I am dumbfounded that we have a “Nigga, please” joke in a Star Wars movie. The Star Wars franchise finally casts a black actor in a major heroic role, and THIS is the joke the writers put in his mouth? This is the single lowest point of the film for me.
  • Also, the scene in which Rey realizes she can use the force, presumably the source of the movie’s title, comes completely out of left field. What makes her suddenly believe she has jedi powers? How does she know how to use them so effectively? It’s really convenient, but it’s not very well explained.
  • What’s the deal with Kylo Ren? One would think that a major development like Han and Leia’s kid turning into Vader 2.0 would warrant more than a brief moment of conversation between his disappointed parents. One would be wrong, though.
  • Finally, there’s no explanation whatsoever for the evil Supreme Leader. Who is he? Where is he? Why does he appear only as some kind of hologram? How did he come to power? Nobody knows. He’s big and spooky. That’s all you get.

Now, as I said at the outset, I wasn’t thrilled with The Force Awakens. On the other hand, I wasn’t disgusted. There are quite a few details of this film that I like a lot. For example…

  • It’s beautiful. The CGI and special effects are better than they’ve ever been in the previous films.
  • Lots of familiar faces pop up. It’s fun to see major characters and objects from the original films (Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Luke, R2-D2, C-3PO, Vader’s mask, the Millennium Falcon, wrecked hulks of Star Destroyers) on the big screen again.
  • Old Han Solo seems to have gained some perspective on his antics as a young smuggler, and the scenes in which he looks knowingly at Finn or offers him advice are really well acted.
  • BB-8 is a lovable little guy. Every shot he’s in is fun to watch. I particularly enjoyed watching him conquer stairs.
  • Casting has become more inclusive. We get a tough, bad-ass female lead. We also get a seriously heroic black character. There’s even a storm trooper, who’s clearly some kind of lieutenant, who’s female.
  • Kylo Ren is a petulant child who screams and randomly trashes things with his light saber when he’s frustrated or angry. That’s a new spin on the usually tightly controlled, emotionless bad guys we’ve had in past Star Wars films.

So there you have it. The good, the bad, and the ugly of The Force Awakens, as I see it. As I said, I don’t think it’s a bad movie, but I really wanted it to be more. It feels like a victory lap for the old films, not a new addition to the series. Naturally, it’s going to be HUGE at the box office. The filmmakers know their job, after all: get people in the door. They did so by giving older fans of the original films a trip down memory lane and by allowing younger fans the chance to see the classic characters on the big screen. As a piece of nostalgia (and marketing), it works very well. As a continuation of the series, I don’t think it’s especially good. I watched it once. I don’t think I’ll watch it again.




Extended Listening: My Favorite Albums

I like to listen to whole albums. Sure, there are a few one-hit wonders that never get old (see Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and Exhibit C), but I generally prefer to put on a record and let the whole thing play. I feel like this habit both pays duly deserved homage to truly talented artists who work for more than hit singles and rewards me with an ongoing aesthetic experience, more like reading a good novel than like catching a thirty-minute sitcom.

That being said, there aren’t very many albums I can sit down and listen to, end to end, without wanting to skip a single song. There’s a clunker on almost every record. A record that’s engaging all the way through is a beautiful thing indeed. Therefore, I present to you some of my favorite records, albums I consider true, sustained artistic achievements.

Blood Sweat & Tears, eponymous (1968)


This album blows my mind. The fusion of rock, soul, and jazz is decades ahead of its time. A bold horn section is the most prevalent instrumental presence in most songs, layered against the gravely, confident, soaring vocals of David Clayton-Thomas. The arrangements on this record are continuously interesting because of the incredible variety of instruments involved. Here’s the list of band members and their responsibilities, excerpted from WikiPedia:

David Clayton-Thomas – lead vocals except as noted
Lew Soloff – trumpet, flugelhorn
Bobby Colomby – drums, percussion, vocals
Jim Fielder – bass
Dick Halligan – organ, piano, flute, trombone, vocals
Steve Katz – guitar, harmonica, vocals, lead vocals on “Sometimes In Winter”
Fred Lipsius – alto saxophone, piano
Chuck Winfield – trumpet, flugelhorn
Jerry Hyman – trombone, recorder

There’s a flugelhorn! On a rock and roll record! You don’t see that every day.

The two most popular tracks on this record are “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” both of which are fantastic, but my favorite is “More and More.” The vocal power and the funky horns in this track surprise me every time.

Sadly, while the band continued to record for many years, the personnel changed constantly, and they never again sounded as inspired as they did on this record.

East Nashville Skyline, Todd Snider (2004)


Todd Snider is a latter-day hippie who’s got a quirky sense of humor and a keen eye for the ridiculous and bizarre goings-on of everyday life. Most of his songs are straightforward guy-and-a-guitar Americana, but occasionally he breaks out a blues tune, a romping rock and roller, or an intensely poignant ballad. He’s a musical renaissance man, and I kind of think he’s a genius. This record is his finest work.

I don’t know that Snider has ever had what I would call a radio hit. “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” got some air time in the mid 90s, and I recall hearing “All Right Guy” a few times when I was a teenager, but I’d imagine most people don’t remember those songs very well. I’m not too surprised that Todd Snider isn’t played much on the radio. His brand of political and social commentary tends to anger people. Before you decide this is a reason to avoid him, though, listen more closely. Even as he ridicules one side, he subtly pokes fun at their opponents, too. The song “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” is plainly and obviously a criticism of the people named in the song. That’s not all, though. The chorus contrasts the title characters against “Tree huggin’, peace lovin’, pot smokin’, porn watchin’ lazyass hippies like me.” Nobody is immune from scorn.

This kind of “everyone–including me–is ridiculous” humor reminds me of Mark Twain. The artist criticizes the society in which he lives, and of which he himself is a product. It’s as much introspection as it is social commentary.

Of course, that’s not to say every song on the record is serious. Some of them are just fun. Take for example “Iron Mike’s Main Man’s Last Request” or “Tillamook County Jail.” They’re perfect driving-with-the-windows-down-and-singing-along songs.

Blue, Joni Mitchell (1971)


As I was saying to FlashCap over lunch today, if I had to choose just one album to listen to for the rest of my life, I think I’d choose Blue. It’s just heart-wrenchingly beautiful from beginning to end. The arrangements are simple. Most tracks are just Joni and one of the instruments she plays: guitar, piano, or dulcimer. The most notable secondary musician on the record is James Taylor, who plays guitar on “California,” “All I Want,” and “A Case of You.”

This is not a record most people enjoy on the first listen. Joni’s voice is high, and she modulates frequently. Of course, that’s my description. Those who don’t like it describe her voice as “screechy and warbly.” I’d encourage you to listen to the whole album at least twice before making a judgment. What I hear is total control.

My love for this record stems from one simple truth: I’ve never heard a single artist who is so clearly at the peak of her creative powers. Every song on this album stands alone as a remarkable achievement; together, they create a musical collage that perfectly captures the complex, pained, exuberant, hopeful mind of a creative genius. The stripped-down production forces Joni’s playing and singing to the forefront, and nothing else (not even James Taylor) is important.

The one track from this record that most people have heard is “River.” My favorite is “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” I feel compelled to quote the lyrics in full because they’re perfect:

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday:
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.
“You laugh,” he says. “You think you’re immune, go look at your eyes
They’re full of moon.
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies, pretty lies.
When you gonna realize they’re only pretty lies?
Only pretty lies, just pretty lies.

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said “Drink up now; it’s gettin’ on time to close.”
“Richard, you haven’t really changed,” I said.
“It’s just that now you’re romanticizing some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreams.
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet.”

Richard got married to a figure skater,
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator.
He drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright.
I’m gonna blow this damn candle out.
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table;
I got nothing to talk to anybody about.
All good dreamers pass this way some day,
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes.
Dark cafes:
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away.
Only a phase, these dark cafe days.

Listen to that song and read the lyrics. Tell me it doesn’t speak to you.

Rubberneck, Toadies (1994)


A lot, and I mean A LOT, of good rock and roll happened in the 90s. Now that the dust has had 15 years to settle, I find that this is my favorite album of the decade. Here’s complete list of the reasons why I love this record:

  • It kicks ass.

Well, that was easy. To expand a bit, Rubberneck is everything I want in a rock and roll record. The playing is fast and catchy, and the lyrics beg you to sing along. There is no political undertone. There is no social commentary. There’s just the standard four-piece rock band having a good time and playing loud.

I’ve heard many people explain why they don’t love this record. They say it’s too pop-y. They say it doesn’t address important ideas. They say it’s derivative of Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. They say lots of things. They’re wrong. None of those is a good reason to ignore a killer rock and roll record. Quit thinking so hard about rocking and just ROCK, people.

The well-known tracks from this record are “Possum Kingdom” and “Tyler.” If I had my way, “I Come From the Water” would have been a huge hit, too. It’s a fantastic song. It’s got that stop/start dynamic that makes people jump around and wail on the air guitar.

Rain Dogs, Tom Waits (1985)


What, you thought the 80s was all about catchy pop songs and ill-advised fashion choices? Au conrtraire! Rain Dogs is the precise opposite of 80s pop. It’s gritty, strange, raw, and kind of atonal. Tom Waits is no crooner, either. Jeff Dunn writes:

Waits’ voice was described by music critic Daniel Durchholz as “sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I’ve described him as sounding like he swallowed an angry cat that is now clawing its way out of Waits’ throat. Tony Bennent he ain’t. But that’s what makes him so real. He records songs exactly the way he wants to. He makes instruments from things he finds in junkyards and records on old tape recorders that really should be in junkyards. On his latest album he sings a duet with Keith Richards. Waits’ voice is so raw he actually makes Keef sound good. Oh, but he is real.

That sense of being “real,” being emotionally invested in the songs and not caring whether it’s pretty or not is the trademark of Waits’ sound. For a sample of Waits’ wonderful not-beautiful singing, sample “Cemetery Polka.” Many of the sounds on this record aren’t sounds you’d normally associate with music at all. For instance, the percussion in “Gun Street Girl” sounds like somebody hitting a pipe with a wrench. If you give these songs an honest chance, though, you’ll find that they’re interesting, entrancing, and even brilliant. Even while they’re jarring, many songs on this album also feature an incredible variety of instruments: marimba, bowed saw, saxophone, accordion, trombone, banjo, pump organ, congas, and violin.

Before you decide that this album is all about celebrating artistically appropriate ugliness, listen to a couple of other songs. “Time” is a beautiful poetic love song that would be at home on any radio-friendly album, and the melodic contemplation “Downtown Train” is so catchy that Rod Stewart re-recorded it 1989 to notable radio success. Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Bob Seger have also covered the song.

This album makes me thump on the dashboard while I drive, dance in the seat, and growl the lyrics in my nastiest baritone. It’s glorious and liberating. I suggest you try it.

Several other albums also fit the criteria of this post, and I’ll likely add to it in the future. In the meantime, track down some of the records I’ve listed above. Let me know what you think.


Turnabout is fair play.

Every year, I have my students create blogs and then respond to weekly prompts. The idea is to keep their metaphorical pens moving–to give them space to think and write about things besides class. Recently, after some of my classes read The Scarlet Letter, I asked them to consider Hawthorne’s final advice

Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait by which the worst may be inferred!

and then put his advice into action by writing about one of their own flaws, something they’re not proud of.

If I’m going to ask my students to engage in such a personal revelation, I should do the same. It seems fair. So I intend to confess to some of my flaws and weaknesses in this post, with the intent of owning up to them and starting to work toward correcting them.

First of all, I’m not very patient with people. As a parent, a teacher, and an adult, I’ve learned to disguise this weakness, but I’m often frustrated that the kids can’t remember to hang up their wet towels after they shower. Why should this bother me? They’re kids! I’m bothered by people who sit at a stop sign with their blinkers on and wait until there’s not one single car on the road from horizon to horizon before they turn left. Why am I so annoyed? They’re trying to be safe! I’m angered by students who take out their phones during class to snap selfies or check Facebook. Who can blame them? Every media outlet tells them that constant connectedness is one of the most important parts of their lives! All of these people deserve more patience from me than they receive. As I said, I don’t act out against them, but I certainly do grind my teeth and clench my fists. Acting like I’m patient with people is not the same as being patient, and I need to work toward genuine patience.

Next, I’m prone to jealousy, particularly of well-to-do people. I know that I chose my career with a full awareness of the pay scale. If I wanted to be rich, I should have chosen another profession. Still, I find myself looking at people who make eighty thousand dollars a year, thinking that I work just as hard as they do and feeling slighted by the difference in our paychecks. In truth, everyone who has a career works hard, and I knew what I was getting into when I started teaching. It’s time to make peace with the fact that teachers will never be paid as much as most other professionals, or at least to quit feeling jealous of them because that certainly doesn’t change anything.

Finally, I’m cheap. I won’t buy a new pair of jeans if I have an old pair that still fits. I won’t buy a new car until the old one literally stops running. When I was single, this wasn’t a problem. Now that I’m married and have a house full of kids, though, I find myself projecting my cheapness onto them. When a new school year starts, they want new backpacks and lunchboxes. My first reaction is “Why? We still have the backpacks and lunchboxes from last year.” Honestly, three backpacks and three lunchboxes would probably cost me a total of sixty dollars. Why not just go buy them? Similarly, my wife likes to get her hair done (and in fairness to her, she does NOT have an extravagant salon regimen). Even though I know that getting her hair done makes her feel good, and even though I’m happy when she feels good about her hair, I still have a voice in my head that says “That hair appointment cost like eighty bucks!” I think all of this is rooted in my MidWestern upbringing. MidWesterners are notoriously cheap people. It’s time to let it go, though. I have a job and my family deserves to be treated to things they want.

Well, as my students noted, that wasn’t a lot of fun. Now that it’s in type, though, it’s real and I can start to deal with it. Hawthorne’s novel asserts that only by facing our shortcomings publicly can we own them and work to overcome them. I don’t know if it’s the only way, but it’s way, and I’m willing to give it a shot.

If you see me grinding my teeth in frustration, grousing about my salary, or being unnecessarily cheap, remind me that you read this post and that I’m supposed to be working on those things. It will help me.


For Cameron & Ann on their Wedding Day

For Cameron and Ann on their Wedding Day

These northern woods and shores seem filled with signs
of everlasting love: the solid walls
of stone that line the lake and shape the falls;
the deep determined roots beneath the pines
that draw abundant life from rocky sand;
the lake that lies beyond what eyes can see,
horizon to horizon endlessly,
too great for human minds to understand.
The love we celebrate today exceeds
these symbols, for naturally the stone
erodes, the pines will fall, the winter lake
will freeze. The never-ending vows you make
before your friends and family make known
commitment that’s eternally decreed.


Book Recommendations

Fairly often, people ask me for book recommendations. Current students, former students, and adult friends who know I’m an English teacher and ravenous reader want to know which books I’ve enjoyed and which I think they should read next. I usually quickly offer a few titles and then–a couple of hours later–I smack myself on the forehead and wonder, ‘How could I have forgotten (book X)?”

Thus, this list is as much a reminder for myself as it is a resource for anybody in search of a good book. I’m going to start with just ten titles, but that’s only a beginning. I’ll add to this post as time allows. Thus, the only limitation I’ve given myself is that I’ll only include books that I found most well-written, interesting, and worth the time I invested in reading them. I won’t include any book that I teach in my classes, although each one of them qualifies for this list. If you’d like to know about those, feel free to ask.

Be warned: I’m comfortable with not-so-happy endings, violence, adult language, moral ambiguity, issues of race and gender politics, and pretty much any other kind of content that advances the themes of a good book. If that’s not your cup of tea, this list might not be useful to you.

1. In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent

The novel begins when a Union solder returns to his New England home after serving in the Civil War, bringing with him the black woman he met and married while he was in the South. In the Fall follows three generations of a biracial American family as they grow farther and farther away from the family’s Southern black roots. When the soldier’s descendants begin to look into the mysteries of their past, they’re confronted with people and events that test them and everything they think they know about who they are. This is not a well-known novel, but I recommend it constantly.


2. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Ruben Land’s lungs nearly gave out just minutes after he was born. His father, Jeremiah, saved him by commanding him “in the name of the living God” to breathe. Over the course of Ruben’s life, his father performs many semi-miraculous acts, but the reader is left to wonder whether Jeremiah truly is invested with miraculous powers or if Ruben just seems him through the worshipful eyes of a child. When a violent crime forces the family to leave home in search of one of their own, the Lands rely on Jeremiah to bring the family back together.


3. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

An optimistic would-be farmer, his unhappy wife, a sharecropper and his wife, and the sons of both families are the main characters in this novel. Jordan uses a false accusation, a bold defense of a friend, and the race politics of the not-so-distant Southern past to explore the relationships between her cast of characters. The last chapter of this book will ring in your ears for a long, long time.


4. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Set in an office building as the dot-com boom begins to deflate, this novel is narrated in the first-person collective: “we.” The collective voice narrates the layoffs, firings, office romances, rumors, and day-to-day trials of the employees at a company that’s in the process of downsizing. It sounds like a total drag when I describe it that way, but the interesting narrative voice and the realistic characters make this novel remarkable.


5. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen

This is a huge scientific nonfiction tome, and it’s worth every dense, challenging page. Quammen begins with pre-Darwinian studies of ecology, particularly on islands and other insularized environments. He then follows every major study and theory of the biogeography of islands, including the discovery and extinction of the dodo, the famous extinction from which the book takes its title. The final goal is to study the human role in contributing to dividing previously vast expanses of wild habitat into much smaller islands of undisturbed habitat, the effects this division has on wildlife, and the ways people can preserve the natural world more effectively in the future.


6. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

The central event of this novel is Phillippe Petitte’s high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. All over the city, people watched in person and on television. Rich penthouse dwellers, struggling addicts, aspiring artists, and tough-talking prostitutes make up a pond across which the ripples of Petitte’s performance drift. More than any other novel I’ve read, Let the Great World Spin demonstrates how closely we connected we are to other people, even those whom we’ve never met.


7. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Don’t read this book all at once. It’s Whitman’s life’s work, and it’s too much to take in if you read it all the way through. Instead, read a few poems each day and let Whitman’s ideas wash over you. I’ve never read any writer who loves, celebrates, and trusts humanity more than Whitman, and Leaves of Grass is his complete statement of his ideology. Start at “Song of Myself” and see if you find yourself hooked.


8. Flight by Sherman Alexie

This is my favorite young adult novel. In a post-Fault in Our Stars world, that’s saying something. The protagonist, Zits, is a Native American whose alcoholic father is distant memory. While living in a foster home, he suffers a traumatic experience that causes him to live through a series of jumps from one body to another like the old TV show Quantum Leap. With each new experience, he sees a new side of parent/child, Native/white, immigrant/American-born, and privileged/impoverished relationships. When he finally flashes back into his own body, he’s ready to face his own life in a new way. I wish I could recommend this book to my students, but the characters insist on talking like real people, which isn’t always school-appropriate.


9. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

This book is nonfiction, but it’s written like a novel. Larson tells the story of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, including the technological advances in construction, electricity, technology, travel, and entertainment the fair prompted. Simultaneously, the reader watches the movements of a serial killer who bought a building, modified it for his needs, and opened it as a hotel during the global gathering in Chicago. Although it’s not really a mystery, this book is a crime drama, set within a larger context that will reveal many surprising facts about how the Chicago World’s Fair shaped modern America.


 10. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

This novel follows a returning Canadian Native American WWI soldier from his arrival at a train station near his home, up the river in a canoe with his aunt, back to his childhood village home. Addicted to morphine in the wake of injuries he sustained in the war, the soldier fades in and out of consciousness as his aunt paddles the canoe. When he’s awake, he’s mostly silent, but when he’s unconscious, he sees flashbacks of his experiences in the trenches. This is a powerful portrayal of the effects of war on those who experience it first hand. 



More adventures in the world of books

Anyone who has been reading my blog for a while knows that I have a thing about books. My most recent manifesto, detailing the reasons I prefer physical books to ebooks is here, in case you missed it.

Today, I’d like to add another example to the list of reasons that collecting physical books is rewarding and fulfilling for me. About a year ago, I read David Quammen’s book The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of ExtinctionI can’t find enough positive things to say about this book. It’s a sprawling examination of what we know about population dynamics in insular environments, including what happens to those ecosystems in the presence of human interference. I know that sounds pretty boring, but the book stretches way back into the history of ecology (think pre-Darwin) and traces the major studies, people, and  publications that have shaped modern science’s understanding of population dynamics, particularly regarding the circumstances that lead to extinction. Simply put, the book blew my mind. In addition to feeding my interest in natural science, it is also just a damn fine piece of writing. David Quammen pens some of the most clear, insightful, interesting prose you could ever hope to read.

So. I liked the book.

As I do with everything I read and enjoy, I put The Song of the Dodo on my mental watch list for book shopping. My wife, who’s wonderfully indulgent of my book collecting, bought me a first edition for Christmas last year. It holds a place of honor on my bookshelf. The first printing wasn’t terribly large, since this is the kind of book that appeals to a pretty limited audience, and a high-quality copy isn’t something you find just anywhere. In my ongoing obsessive way, though, I couldn’t let it go. I continued in search of a signed copy, and soon enough–at the Half Price Books in College Station–I found one. It’s a paperback, and it’s in pretty good shape, see?

Glorious, right?

Glorious, right?

The signature inside is actually an inscription, which is less valuable than a copy that’s just signed–but again, signed copies of little-known nonfiction books don’t come along every day, so I bought it.

To Bjarne-- --with cordial salutes to your work David Quammen 11/5/05

To Bjarne–
–with cordial salutes to your
David Quammen

Bjarne? That’s odd. Do I pronounce it “Bee-Yaern”? “Buh-journey”? “Bjorn”? I had no idea when I bought it, but the name seemed peculiar enough to yield a fruitful Google search. Sure enough, “Bjarne” is Bjarne Stroustrop. I assume this to be true based on the fact that he’s the only Bjarne who really shows up on Google and the fact that Bjarne Stroustrop is a professor of computer science at Texas A&M, which is right here in town.

I assumed that I now possessed a copy of The Song of the Dodo which had been handled by both David Quammen (which I found very exciting in a book-nerdy way) and Bjarne Stroustrop, some computer guy on campus (which was far less interesting). Satisfied, I shelved the book and kind of forgot about it for several months.

Fast-forward to last week. I was talking about books with Hogan, and the story of my interesting Dodo came up. No sooner did I finish asking how to pronounce that crazy Scandinavian name than Hogan said, “Wait. You mean Bee-Yarn-Ee? Bee-Yarn-Ee Stroo-strup?” (Of course, he didn’t say the hyphens, but it was a big moment for me with regards to pronunciation, so I’ve done you the favor of transcribing the syllables.) Hogan continued, “That guy invented C++!” He should know; Hogan majored in Computer Science at A&M for a while.

My book suddenly got a lot cooler. According to WikiPedia:

Bjarne Stroustrup (Danish: [ˈbjɑːnə ˈsdʁʌʊ̯ˀsdʁɔb]; born 30 December 1950) is a Danish computer scientist, most notable for the creation and development of the widely used C++ programming language. He is a Distinguished Research Professor and holds the College of Engineering Chair in Computer Science at Texas A&M University, a visiting professor at Columbia University, and works at Morgan Stanley.

C++ is one of the world’s major computer programming languages, and Bee-Yarn-Ee created it. I have his book! Almost immediately, I wondered how Quammen and Stroustrup crossed paths. A Google search of “David Quammen AND Bjarne Stroustrup” yields something interesting. The two crossed paths at a meeting of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, in Seattle in November of 1995. In fact, the meeting was held on November 3-6. My copy of Dodo is dated November 5.

This is so cool! I have a copy of my favorite nonfiction book which was signed and personalized by David Quammen for one of the founding giants of the computer world, and I know exactly when and where they met and interacted. Suddenly, I’m a link in a chain of provenance that ties me to two remarkable people.

You just don’t get that with Kindle copies of books.

The only question that remains is “Why did Bjarne Stroustrup sell this fantastic volume to the local Half Price Books?” Maybe I’ll drive over to campus and ask him.


sitting in the woods with a notebook

A while back, a writing instructor named Katherine Bomer told me, “Write about whatever you want.” So I did.


Among the tress in a dry-country Texas forest, many stand dead, but all have leaves. At the bases of dead trees, vines rise up from the earth like sentient ropes, life defying gravity, and cling to the crevices and fissures of dried bark as the creep toward the photosynthetic promised land. Armed against predation with an arsenal of spines, these vines stretch ever upward, spreading a few leaves wherever enough sunlight breaks through the canopy to allow them to feed. The vines, lying close to the trunk and bearing a nearly identical color, are invisible to all but those who actively search for them, and the leaves they spread throughout the dead trees–but for their incongruous shapes–give the impression that the trees themselves are alive and thriving. The transition from life to another is nearly seamless. Life rises upon the remains of past life, and the achievement of what has gone before serves as a scaffold for ongoing success.

In the tropical seas, tiny spineless corals have constructed edifices that rival humanity’s greatest architectural achievements. Untold generations of the minute beasts have spent their lives filtering sea water for food, dodging the attacks of predatory snails, and adding just a fraction of an inch to the reef. As each generation of corals dies, its descendants take root on the calcified legacy that is the reef and continue to build one of the richest and most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Fish, crabs, sea plants, and lobsters live in the city built by millions of anonymous laborers. Life thrives upon the remains of past life.

Hermit crabs–small, slow-moving, thin-shelled invertebrates that lack any sort of formidable weaponry–seem unlikely candidates for survival in a sea populous with predators of all kinds. Mollusks, tiny pink gobs of living goo, seem even less so, except that they are blessed with the remarkable ability to generate bony shells of all shapes and sizes to protect their helpless bodies from predators. When these armorers of the sea do die–of disease, mishap, or age–hermit crabs, adopt their now-vacant shells as homes, and each shell serves to protect yet another tiny life that its creator could never have foreseen or understood. Life thrives upon the remains of past life.

Inasmuch as humans have discovered and developed a variety of ways to feed ourselves, develop communities, and shelter ourselves from the weather and predators, we do not seem to fit the trend of life rising upon the remains of past life; however, in the millennia since we discovered the advancements that have allowed us to lead lives almost completely separate from those of most nonhuman life forms, we have become creatures of ideas–and here, the parallel remains. The creeping vine ascends the dead tree in order to extend its leaves into sunlight; we use the ideas, values, and discoveries of those who went before us to build toward even greater achievements and epiphanies. An entire seafloor ecosystem thrives among the remains of generations of corals; we build communities based on the philosophies, theologies, and politics of our forebears. Hermit crabs take shelter in the shells of long-dead mollusks; we use the unfathomable multitude of ideas that is the unspoken inheritance of every human being as a defense against uncertainty and ignorance. As it turns out, humans, the most unnatural of all creatures, fit the pattern evident in the natural world we sought–and seek–to abandon. Life rises upon the remains of past life.


Commencement Address 2013

As you may or may not know, I was on the final ballot for selection as the faculty speaker at this year’s commencement ceremony. Between bouts of paralyzing fear and false bravado, I actually thought quite a bit about what I would say to the graduating class of 2013 if I was chosen to speak. As it turns out, another member of our staff was chosen instead. Nonetheless, I don’t want let those hours of contemplation and planning go to waste, and it turns out that I do think I have something interesting/amusing/important to say. Therefore, I’ve decided to post my never-to-be-delivered commencement address, or at least a draft of it, here.


(Welcome…hi…hello…parents…guardians…friends…graduates…the usual niceties…etc.)

I’d like to call your attention to the English language. It’s shocking; I know. In particular, I’d like to call your attention to a phrase that has become popular in the last few years. Anyone who has access to the internet, the opportunity to watch television, or a sarcastic friend has undoubtedly heard this phrase used with reckless abandon. As you all know, when your friend makes a mistake in his or her life, strays from the path of righteousness, and is threatened with untold terrible consequences, your job is to assume a supportive but slightly superior facial expression, look him or her square in the eyes, and say, “You’re doing it wrong.”

We say it all the time.  Your friend trips up the stairs? “You’re doing it wrong.”

Your buddy loses to a noob on Halo 4? “You’re doing it wrong.”

Your partner botches the chemistry lab? “You’re doing it wrong.”

Put that phrase in a bubble in the back of your mind and let it float around back there for a while. Let it echo a little. You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it….

Now, let that bubble just drift for a while, but don’t lose it. Let’s talk about something else. I graduated in a class of 172 seniors from Sartell High School in Sartell, Minnesota. It wasn’t a particularly rigorous or competitive high school, and I graduated #61. That’s right; I was four students away from graduating in the top one-third of my class. I think my GPA was around 3.6. I earned high Bs and low As in high school because I was lucky enough to be an auditory learner and a good test-taker, but I was by no means a good student. I was not destined for a college career at Stanford. Frankly, I was doing it wrong.

Happily for me, that “good test taker” thing kicked in on ACT day, and I scored well enough to begin my academic career at St. Cloud State University in central Minnesota. You’ve probably never heard of SCSU unless you’re a big fan of college hockey, but it’s a medium-sized state school like hundreds of others around the country. Of course, when I got there, I had a vague idea that I might major in one of the natural sciences, but I didn’t really have any kind of clear plan. In fact, I didn’t have ANY plan. I was never one of those students who knew from a young age what he or she wanted to do in life, so I went to SCSU and just stated taking classes. I don’t even recall speaking to an academic advisor; I just signed up for whatever sounded good. I took biology, algebra (where I earned a C and never looked back), German, chemistry (another C), creative writing, and several other randomly selected courses. I did not make what you would call “meaningful progress toward a degree.” Once again, I was doing it wrong.

After one year at the SCSU, I apparently thought I’d learned all they had to offer. I packed up my belongings and moved, sight unseen, to a place called Palmdale, California. Because I’d already learned everything a four-year college could teach me, I promptly enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College. I continued selecting my classes by throwing darts at the registration manual, but in the second semester that I attended AVC, I found myself in a course called “Studies in the Novel,” which was taught by Dr. Frye. Over the course of that semester, we read a selection of novels and talked about each one in historical and critical contexts. I was cruising along, earning my usual high Bs, when Dr. Frye told us that our final book for the semester would be Moby Dick. For the next several weeks, the man taught our class with a passion and fire that I’ve never experienced in another teacher. He knew Moby Dick forward and backward. He could quote long passages from memory. He LOVED that novel, and he wanted us to love it too. I’m game for almost anything, so I thought to myself, “Self, maybe I should see if I can love Moby Dick.” I was successful. I loved every minute we spent studying Melville’s masterpiece in class, and I even tried slightly higher than usual when I wrote my paper about it. I hadn’t found the will to be a diligent student yet, but at least I’d made a decision. I was going to major in English…because Dr. Frye was doing it RIGHT. As for me, I was still mostly doing it wrong.

In the next three years, I attended a variety of college and universities, including a couple more semesters at Antelope Valley College, a good long stint at California State University at San Bernardino, and a semester or two at San Bernardino Valley Junior College, where I mostly pursued volleyball. By the time the year 2000 rolled around, I found that I had manged to earn a four-year degree in just five and a half short years of study. By all accounts, the most accurate description of my college career was…”You’re doing it wrong.”

Between graduating from college and starting my actual career, I spent time as a furniture delivery man, a newspaper reporter, a retail clerk, and a delivery driver. I didn’t actually start my career until 2002, aged 25, two full years after graduating from college. I think you know the refrain by now. Anyone looking at my career path would have told me, “________  _______  ____  ___________.”

In addition to my adventures in the arenas of college and work, I’d like to talk briefly about my romantic past. I’m going to spare you the details, but believe me when I tell you that it was quite a rollercoaster from about 1995 until 2010. For fifteen years, I dated, broke up, followed girls to other towns and other states, and generally botched dating in almost any way you can imagine. To state the case as kindly as possible, I was doing it wrong.

From the time we’re very young, there’s a story we all imagine when we look into the futures of our lives. We intend to get good grades in high school, promptly be accepted into the prestigious university we most desire, graduate on time after four years of study, and proceed directly into the career field that we’re passionate about. Somewhere in there, probably during college, we intend to meet the person with whom we’ll spend the rest of our lives and settle into domestic bliss with him or her. That’s how you do it RIGHT, right?


I’m here to tell you that there is no one way to “do it right.” Any of you who were in my English class have certainly heard me say that in literary analysis, there are lots of ways to be right. The same is true in life. I earned mediocre grades in high school, entered college without a plan, have attended a total of six different colleges and universities in my life, took five and a half years to earn a bachelor’s degree, worked in various dead-end jobs for two years after graduation before starting my career, and didn’t get married until I was 34 years old. According to conventional wisdom, I did everything wrong.

Yet, look at my life. It’s fantastic. I’m not rich or famous, but things have turned out wonderfully. I work in a career that I absolutely love, I’ve had the good fortune to actually buy a small house, and I’ve been happily married to my beautiful wife for a little over a year. By all accounts, suddenly I’m doing it right.

Investing your time and energy into worrying about whether you’re living that one model life that everyone thinks is “normal” is a waste. By measuring yourself against someone else’s story, you limit your life to a series of little stones you have to jump on, one by one, to get across the constantly changing and flowing waters of your life. I fell off those stones a long time ago, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ve been happily paddling around in the river ever since.

So listen closely for a moment. Lean in.

You’re. Doing. It. Right.

The mere fact that you’re sitting here tonight wearing a maroon gown and a mortarboard is evidence. You’ve found your way to this arena because you’re smart, you’re athletic, you’re kind, you’re dedicated to your morals or your religion, because you’re a good friend, because you’re comfortable being yourself, because you’re artistic, because you decided at some point–come hell or high water–you WOULD walk across this stage no matter what.

That, in itself, is how you do it right. There is no one right answer, class of 2013. There are many, many ways to be right. Your life is spread out before you like an incredible, beautiful river. Don’t hop across the rocks. Jump in and paddle around a bit. I promise, the water is fine.