Hamilton to Albany to NYC

I'm watching the rusty blush of Hudson valley leaf cover and brush fly past the train window. I learned decades ago that sitting backwards is supposed to minimize motion sickness—is this even true? 

The russet is punctuated by straw yellow reeds, at the water's edge, with even paler pampas-looking feathery clumps. The muddy lake water reflects the slate sky. Ocassional geese paddle against the wind.  

Im going to have to pay $200 in parking fees to get my car back next month. I'm an idiot and didn't verify the myth of free parking that I'd heard from a colleague. Maybe she knows a guy. Maybe she delights in imagining our horrified faces pinching up in disbelief after the two hour drive. Maybe she's thinking of some other train station, somewhere else altogether. Two hundred. This is when I like to say, "If that's the worst thing that happens..."  

What color can best describe all these bare trees? It's a brownish grayish light umber, perhaps, bleached trunks stippling into the sky like a kind of fur. 

How could you not love taking the train?  The rattle, the sway, the three reports from the engine car at each crossing. My car is not the "quiet car," but I'm blissed out over its incidental hush.

The drive to Albany started out all freezing rain and slick roads. I was stuck behind a snow plow for some excruciating number of miles. The thruway was a vision of black, ice-free asphalt, when it appeared. I was never so happy to pay a toll. 

Poughkeepsie station. Few board, and we rumble away.  


Tonight, I'll be among friends. I sure hope there will be somewhere in NYC to see Christmas lights. 

Just taking notes.  


Over on Brainpickings (one of only a few sites I subscribe to that aren't run by friends), there is a great post on How to be Alone. Here's the piece that struck me the hardest.

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?


We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.


We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.


We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.

This weekend, a man said to me that he thought I was being disingenuous for wanting a relationship without being "willing to sacrifice anything for it." By anything, he meant specifically my career and vocation--why should a guy bother to like me, he suggested, if I'm just going to move away? There are a lot of things wrong with that statement, and so I got angry. He said my anger was cute. Other exasperating exchanges occurred. We parted ways not too much later. 

Concession is a tricky business. So far, I've been unwilling to make many. Not for long anyway. (I try not to expect them, either. But we are all imperfect animals.) It's just no way to live, in pieces like that. There are consequences for that behavior, to be sure, and some of them are positive and some negative.

Yet. I hold out hope that it doesn't have to always be a matter of who wears the leg irons. That somewhere in the world is a door #3, that's my optimism. I don't really know what I'm getting at... Just that it was nice to walk away, into the cold night, fueled by a bit righteous self-preservation.  

Goddamn did the frost feel great in my lungs.


My trip was cut drastically short by the fear-mongering of everyone who has heard of the coming snowpacalypse.

Here are two pictures from my afternoon at the park. More on my visit another time. 

A jubilant crowd of teasels

A jubilant crowd of teasels

In almost the exact center of the sky over Round Top, there is... a tiny black dot. Or, a vulture.

In almost the exact center of the sky over Round Top, there is... a tiny black dot. Or, a vulture.

I'm driving to Philadelphia in the morning, against the advice of every weatherman in the world. Good thing this whole trip got started late on account of getting the snow tires put on before I left, eh? Think good traction-full thoughts. 

Road trip

I've had two minor epiphanies in the last couple of days. Now, I'm in a crummy Econo-Lodge in Scranton, Pennsylvania watching the news from Ferguson. Earlier this evening, I sat in a smoky, local bar while locals commented on the news teasers about the upcoming grand jury announcement. On the surface, and acknowledging that they recognized an outsider in their midst (my LOVE WYOMING shirt helped, as did my inability to pronounce "yinz"), I would propose that the bar patrons and I have divergent hopes re: indictment. 

My first epiphany: I don't always like hanging out with myself. I mean, that's not the epiphany, I've known that for ages. But I've been trying to go easier on me. I've been trying to like how I am, rather than fill my mind's ear with oughts and shoulds. I sing a constant song to myself of my faults. I re-think every terrible conversation I've ever had, and every bad decision I've made, daily. It's hard to admit. I know it isn't helpful. I know it doesn't serve me. That said, what I realized the other day, is that I like myself the most when I'm walking. Unless it's dark and there are leering and looming dudes around, walking is when I have the least amount of anxiety and it's when my critical voice quiets. I think I've been frustrated in the past, because I can't seem to change the things that voice says. Maybe the real first step is learning what interior silence feels like. 

My second epiphany: This is even smaller, but maybe also bigger, like a tiny yellow warbler in the hand. I was talking to a friend about my grandmother and I realized a couple more ways that she and I are alike. She was often unhappy; she traveled to escape; she seemed frustrated with her attempts to express herself creatively. I am often unhappy; I roam as a way to escape. What is any migration but an escape, enacted over and over, in the hope of finding sweet release on the farther shore? I wish I had started really writing sooner, because I wonder what she would've thought about it (though I imagine that no matter what she really thought, it would've sounded critical and probably even a little mean--I learned to judge harshly from her, too). I have made very different decisions in my life, so my writing is finding an audience in ways that her photographs and other works never did. 

These tiny, sharp stones, these sand grains, irritate. Irritation can inspire madness. But wait, because madness can look like a pearl.

I won't see the mountain of words tomorrow. I trust that people I admire will say very passionate and smart things and I look forward to reading those things upon my return to town at the end of the week. I look forward to finding, in the words and conversations, ways to actively help change this terrible, terrible system.

If all goes well, tomorrow, I will be looking for birds.


In today's sad-bastard-sing-along

It hasn't been a great week, guys. A few folks rejected my work, an essay isn't turning out at all, I had a very upsetting situation at work (that seems better now, but was scary), and someone I spent a long time liking... well, he just doesn't like me like that. These are things that happen. And sometimes they happen all at once when we are weak with longing or uncertainty, when we are far from home in every sense of the world, when even the birds in the morning sound like rusty gates. 

My mother used to give me warm water heaped with table salt to gargle when I had a raw, sore throat. She said the sting was just the tingle from the salt. My grandmother would pour the hottest water on a washcloth for me to press against my mosquito bites. She would say "Oh, itch-itch-itch!" as I screwed my face up in the agony of all that histamine coming to the surface of my skin. The pain was the first part of healing, and it was never too much to stand. 

Right now, something stings. Something itches. Like a sore spot on your tongue that you can't stop from worrying against your teeth, I lean into the discomfort to better know the shape of it. I am afraid of many things, but not, it would seem, the indignity of my sorrow laid bare.

And yet but so: it's snowing beautifully, and the visa office has sent word that they have my application in hand. Someone thanked me for my help, and someone else said they hope they can work with me someday. When I've asked for help, I've gotten it. I mean to say that it hasn't all been terrible. I have blessings, which I try to count often and generously. But, I'm sad. I doubt my resilience. I'm supposed to change here; I get that. I even know in which directions I need to grow. Still, this ache feels buried so deep in my bones, I don't know how I'd even get the salt or heat to it.


I often say I like hiking, but I almost always mean walking.

Walking is slowish. It's not a stroll, but it's rarely as much of a workout as I'd like, either. Walking accommodates stopping better than hiking. Looking. Appraising. So often hikers seem in a hurry to get to the halfway point or the lunch stop. A hike is better for seeing vistas and untrammeled etc, I'll grant, but a walk seems to offer me more peace.

I can walk in a neighborhood—but what I like best is walking in the slightly or mostly wilder edges. Green belts are good. Unincorporated roadsides. Wooded municipal or municipal-adjacent parks.

Tree tops at sunset. 

Tree tops at sunset. 

Last week, while doing the little 2 mile loop of the Chenango Canal trail that's near my place, a woman stepped out of the trees with a hawk on her arm. I was too shy to take a picture. It looked like a Swainson's but I was also too shy to confirm, so struck dumb was I by the sight of her and the bird. I can go a whole weekend without talking to anyone. I get awkward.  

A man at the bar on Friday said he was going hiking on Sunday. I considered asking to come along, and then he explained further: a 14-miler with two summits. I know these hikers: a race to the top, then a race down to beat the dark. Instead of "putting myself out there" like I guess I'm supposed to, I said, "Wow. Have a great time!" 

Another guy seemed more like the stay-in type, which I also like, but by the third time he had to say, "Allow me to explain how you're wrong..." to me, or one of my friends, I just sort I wandered away. It's nuts out there

I've deactivated my Twitter now, too. I tried to be disciplined about it, but I'd gotten to just staring at the feed like it was a party I hadn't been invited to but could watch from beyond the gate. Means I'll just have to actually write the rest of this book once I finish the job applications. The tally so far is eight tenure-track applications and one visiting professorship done. By tonight, I'll finish another visiting and a one-year post-doc.

Another time I will write about my worst month, last month, but for now I'd just like to mention how frustrating it is that "applying for jobs" gets so little systemic or organizational support. Everyone in academia realizes it is time-consuming and aggravating; the joke is that it is at least a part-time job of it own. But we're all supposed to fit it in on-top of, or next to, our actual  jobs. I'm lucky to have room in my schedule, but my virtual and actual cohort are going nuts with despair and slipped deadlines. Why doesn't everyone accept the same dossier service? Why isn't there a "universal application" that I can fill out once, and then allow schools to pull from, to fill in their VB forms? 

I wish my letter could just say, "I will work hard for you; you'll be glad you picked me."

Hug your on-the-market academics, is what I'm saying. It's even worse out there than the crowd at the bar.

When I despair, I'm also saying, I try and remember to get out and take a walk. 

How to be okay

It's okay to be depressed, as long as pills or meditation or your dog or hard work is making you better, a little every day. 

It's okay to be lonely as long as no one else has to hear about it. 

It's okay to be scared about the future, because everyone is, duh. It's okay because it's just life.

It's okay to be nervous, but not so nervous, all the damn time. Sheesh. 

It's okay to be mad, but only if you're going to let it go eventually. The most infuriating people will tell you about how you'll make yourself sick if you don't forgive everyone who's ever hurt you. Even if they aren't sorry? Even if they aren't sorry. 

It's okay to cry, if you've got a good reason. Otherwise, stop it, or I'll give you a reason. 

It's okay to be "crazy" if you're beautiful. 

It's okay to be mean, if you're "broken."

I stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk. I'd been crying about something. She grabbed my arm, above the elbow, to steady me. "Are you okay?" "It's fine. I'm okay."

"Is everything okay over here?" he asked, shining his flashlight over us. We shielded our eyes from the glare. "It's okay, sir. We're okay."

I grabbed her arm with both hands, harder than I meant to. "Please stop asking me if I'm okay. Please? I'm trying to keep it together and being reminded of how not okay I look every 5 minutes isn't helping me." 

"We could just go buy something. That always makes it okay. That always makes us feel better."

"Okay. I want you to count backwards from 100."

"I hope I was okay."

"You're going to feel a pinch, okay?"

She handed me a receipt, "Okay. You're all set." "Is this it?" "What do you mean, honey?" "Well, when I got married, it was a big fancy piece of paper, a certificate." "Yeah. This is different than that." She laughed, not unkindly. When I got back from my lunch break, the only coworker I'd told what I was doing asked if I was okay. "Yeah. I'm okay. It's fine. It was easy."

Has anyone ever written a song about being okay?

"Is this okay?" "Yes." "How about this?" "Fuck yes."

"It was okay. Just okay, but you know, at least okay."

from nothing is okay

As the weekend draws to a close

Checking in. 

It has been a tough weekend, to be honest. I feel lonely. I was lonely before, but I didn't have to think about it much. I didn't have to think about the staggering expectations that I have set myself to need to meet, else perish. And how it will have to be done on my own. Of course, one knows this. But one resists.

It looks like this: After all the conversation is gone, after all of the like buttons and share buttons and thumbs ups are gone, there's just me and the work. It's what I needed. But it ain't easy like Sunday morning. 

Bill Withers in 1971, playing "Ain't No Sunshine" (which is better than Lionel Ritchie any day of the week)


I was thinking about the gap, the chasm, between how I think I'm doing--whether I'm working hard enough, or trying hard enough--and what others tell me they think about how I'm doing. People I admire and trust tell me that I am working hard. If I try to lay out some sort of subjective measure of my own, it is hard to logically argue. Things are getting done. And yet, this gnawing, nagging insistence that I will never get to where I am supposed to be at this rate lingers. Actually, lingers is too lovely a word. It menaces, like a mad dog on a weak chain. 

No one's days are easy. And if I wrote half as much as I worried... yes. Why do the givers of advice always assume that the problem is a lack of information? We all have something growling at us from the end of a chain. 

So. This silly, angry, buck-toothed, growling mutt of the fear of failure won't cut me any slack. Which is to say that I won't cut me any slack. Not an inch, you know? I'd just ask for a yard. It was high time for a more sensible voice to prevail. I looked up that one Sugar column. You know the one. It's the one I carry around my living room emblazoned on a coffee cup most mornings. I say it. Write like a Motherfucker

Sugar/Cheryl says to Elissa, the aspiring writer

I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.
— Dear Sugar #48, by Cheryl Strayed

I have to work. I have to get my "ass on the floor." Like Elissa, I'm up too high and down too low to get anything done. All the while wringing my hands about how hard I'm trying. But it's like I've got a huge stick and I'm using every ounce of strength and every joule of energy to beat my car with it. It isn't going anywhere with a dead battery, no matter how strong I get lifting and lowering that stick. 

BOOK REPORT: All this to say, the first half of my proposal is in "very good shape," according to my counsel on such matters. But the second half, the chapter synopses, is still not working. She has suggested, and I've agreed, that what I need now is at least one finished chapter and a detailed outline of a second chapter--and from that we can see how best to describe the whole of it.  Because, really, it has all been conjecture until now. Little ragged bits of a book, a ton of big talk about a book, hard thinking about the need for and structure of a book. An emperor's new book. So, I need to get down to the earth, naked among the shed feathers and stripped bones. My nerves. My bile. My mind. Onward. 


Curious how long nicotine social media stays in your body? What types of nicotine social media withdrawal symptoms you'll have? Want to find out how many tobacco-free real world days it will take for your body to recuperate and no longer be at risk of the dangers of smokingsocial media?

Click through the slideshow to see a "quit smoking social media" timeline of health benefits.



20 Minutes After You Quit

The effects of quitting start to set in immediately. Less than 20 minutes after your last cigarette post, your heart rate will already start to drop back towards normal levels.

Two Hours After You Quit

After two hours without a cigarette like, your heart rate and blood pressure will have decreased to near normal levels. Your peripheral circulation may also improve. The tips of your fingers and toes may start to feel warm. NicotineSocial media withdrawal symptoms usually start about two hours after your last cigarette post. Early withdrawal symptoms include:

  • intense cravings
  • anxiety, tension, or frustration
  • drowsiness or trouble sleeping
  • increased appetite


All this to say that I've been refreshing the hell outta ello and instagram and retweeting all sorts of nonsense. But, I got some things done. I'll get more things done.

Some recent publications

I am so fortunate to have found editors and readers who get what I'm trying to do. Hopefully readers, too, but I'm trying not to be greedy with my fortune.

You can read some recent work in the following places:

Passages North blog series, Writers on writing.

Thin Air magazine republished one of my favorite essays: Bird by Desert-light.

A lovely bit of roadkill over at Guernica's flash series, mirrored on PEN/America's flash series.

A book review on the ABA's blog (and also in the summer issue of Birding): Joy Kiser's America's Author Audubon.

And just before I split for New York, I wrote up a bit of news on Wyoming's Sage grouse problem for Science: Conservationists question sage grouse protection plans.


Conference diary: Bread Loaf / Orion Environmental Writers Workshop (day 1.5)

Oh man. 

Oh man.

So, today, I started the morning off with bird walk led by Chip Blake of Orion magazine, followed by a delightful breakfast among kindred writers, then a lecture about human population from Alan Weisman.  And THEN I had a vulture essay workshopped with Jane Brox and eleven engaged, articulate, and helpful readers. 

And then it was LUNCH TIME.

All of you people who have been to what they call "regular" Bread Loaf around here know what I'm talking about. But the beautiful green rolling hills and the towering clouds and the adirondack chairs that are sprinkled across campus in ones and twos and threes so you can just sit for a moment and practice the 5 minute reading you're going to give while looking out over a freaking amazing vista and etc etc. 

After lunch, I went to a craft class run by Rick Bass (only 22 books, no big deal--HA! HA!) and then took a brief respite to do some homework for tomorrow's workshop BECAUSE THIS WAS ALL JUST A TUESDAY.

And then I went to a small roundtable discussion with Joann Wyckoff who now knows more than she ever thought she needed to about vultures, and then I had roasted pork with mango chutney for dinner. 

And then, do you know what happened THEN? Camille Dungy pulled all of my tree-hugging heart meats out with an incredible poetry reading. She gets, like, +100 for saying "vulture" in her very first poem, and not sinking to the tired and incorrect "buzzard." She also read a poem featuring extinct birds and one where she spoke on behalf of the snail about the beauty of "underneathness."


Some memorable overheard moments: 

Last night, the Rick Bass gave a introductory reading and talk. Snippets included: "How about some beauty; how about some humor? No one has any answers: the world is burning." And: "The way we honor our elders is by writing great sentences."

(This one is actually from dinner last night): "Are you famous, or do I know you from Facebook?"

Rick Bass (via the craft talk on show-don't-tell) believes that adverbs are like a strange hand on your elbow, trying to tell you which direction to go. In other words they are bossy and a little creepy.

Also from Bass: "What's that word? Existential angst. Every one in this book has it. I mean, sparrows! 'Sparrows hopping aimlessly'? Tell us how you really feel about sparrows, Salter!"

Weisman got this line from someone else, but he told it to us: "There is no condom for consumption." He also spoke of the second most powerful thing that "we" could do to stem population growth: EDUCATE YOUNG WOMEN. (The first thing is to provide free birth control to whoever in the world wants it, but the second most important thing is to send girls to school.) #YesAllWomen (hashtag added)

Jane Brox told us that in research work, your obligation to your subject can get into a kind of  tension with your fascination with a subject.  For me, this means how much does the reader need to know about vultures vs how much do I know about vultures? 

She also said to read widely and tangentially on our topics because we are reading, not to populate the page with regurgitated facts, but to gain confidence on the page. 

Okay. The community of writers is also a thing, and I can't yet speak coherently about how great that is--I mean, people are walking around making jokes about speaking in latin names of species. They are writing books about feminist horse training, about mussels, about the socio-economic history of El Salvador, about farming and fly fishing, about mountains, community, and gardens. They are high school teachers and psychologists and social historians. They are brand freaking new to this and they have been working on this book for ten years now. They are journalists and technical writers and copy editors. They have never published anything and they were just a finalist for ______. 

You know one thing that sucks? It will be over in a week. Here's another drag: I am completely brain dead and exhausted on my feet and it is just now dark. And it is only the first day. Do you know who here knows I am writing about vultures? EVERYONE. Ha ha ha. I am so sorry, everyone. 

Moral of the story: As of day one, I hope they do this again, and I hope I can come back. And if they DO do this again, and you care at all about the tradition/leaders/direction/innovators of environmental writing, however you define "environmental," then I hope I see you there. 


On the Middlebury College campus, adirondack chairs sprout like dandelions. 

On the Middlebury College campus, adirondack chairs sprout like dandelions. 

Working title

I've been trying to find the time to work on my abs. But it takes such research. First it was pilates and then slow carbs and then no gluten (psyche!) and then old school crunches and then the newest, side planks.

I've also been trying to find the time to work on my book. But there must be an outline and a proposal and research trips. Write 3,000 words, send them everywhere, write a dozen grants that will be rejected, back and forth with an agent who may or may not one day be mine, look everywhere for the answer: who can I write an email to, who do I have to wait to contact. I'm supposed to be thinking a lot about what kind of book my target audience would like to read. Really.

I need to work on my attitude. Because frankly, it fucking sucks. All this desperation and pleading and worrying about where I'll live one month, two months, three months from now, I know I'm supposed to slow down and enjoy the day and smell the roses but I haven't had my own garden in over a decade. I'm supposed to have a little faith, but there was only junkmail in the mailbox again. I'm supposed to be building a platform for chrissakes. My platform shouldn't whine or get sad all the time and it should definitely not get in fights on the Internet at 3 in the morning about privilege. 

I've been working on going to bed earlier. I've been thinking about the work I need to do in that regard, anyway. Studies about abdominal fat and hours of rest and stress levels and productivity. Blue light causes insomnia, as does coffee and sugar. This shit cannot just be left up to chance, you know? Things I don't do before bed: exercise, eat, read the comments, sketch out a budget, look at old photo albums. 

Speaking of budgets, I have been working up the courage to try and write one up. 

My stress level needs work, too. Maybe it's the blue lights or my sensitivity to worrying about the ice caps and neonicitinoids and sending 15 emails for a $75 dollar paycheck and do my abs look sturdier yet? and how did three hours just slip away into "think pieces" (that don't)? and that damn talking porcupine and his delicious pumpkin and I think I've been looking more jowly than before and the sneaking suspicion that two people I haven't spoken with in over 20 years might be having an affair with one another--it's so obvious in their subtweets--but thank god I can go back to enjoying English muffins and why doesn't anyone care about all the dead fish and disappearing bees and that way too many people don't understand how vaccines and Plan B and fracking work, but they want to pass laws about them anyway and really? How does South Carolina not have an official state fossil yet? How does my ex college roommate STILL not have a Facebook page?

I'm working on a theory about all my plans, about how they keep me planning and save me from doing, about how I stay busy and worried so I don't have to risk feeling something other than busy or worried. It's just a theory, but it's on the list.  

"There ain't no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box"

I sing when I drive. Good and bad songs. My current mix includes Ani Difranco, Madonna, Cee-Lo Green, Radiohead, Fiona Apple, and Meatloaf.

Today, I drove in to Buffalo, the smaller of the two nearby towns, to pay a lunch bill from yesterday. (I still can't believe I drove all the way in yesterday with no wallet.) I got breakfast, today, too, because I felt terrible. And I left a big tip. The young woman who waited on me was new. She had on a nice yellow shirt--the other waitress was wearing an inexpensive yellow t-shirt. The whole restaurant --three tables, anyway-- got quiet when the veteran waitress began telling the new waitress how to make coffee in the mornings and how to roll all the silverware the night before, in case the morning was too busy to do it. 

"You're welcome to these grapes down here," the older woman told her from across the dining room, gesturing at some space under the bar/counter. "I'm not going to tell you again. Just grab some; they're washed. I'm very particular about that."

The breakfast burrito was okay. The service was very good. I wondered about the other place in town, with the maybe better burritos, but definitely worse service. Locals like that place, and they dislike this one, because the terrible service is reserved for people the waitstaff doesn't know. For everyone else, it's like having brunch over at your cousins. But none of these people are my cousins. I drank extra coffee, because I'd left mine at home, on the counter in a travel mug.

My grocery list was short, which was good, because Buffalo has limited options for groceries. Most people go to the Albertson's in Sheridan--and normally that would've been me too, except for wanting that lunch tab off my already burdened conscience. I got fruit and eggs and chocolate almond milk, because I already had everything else. 

On the way back out to the house I'm staying at, I decided to get a little gas. I'm trying to save money, and it seems silly to do that by not filling the tank all the way up, but it always makes a kind of sense at the time. When I got back in my car, I turned the music back on, and fiddled with the cord from my iPod so that I could hear it okay. Something's broken inside the rubberized cable, and it takes some twisting and kinking and bending to get the sound alright. While I did that, I was singing along to "Shadowboxer." I looked up and saw that an older man on the other side of the pump was watching me and smiling. I'm sure I look silly singing passionately to the songs of a precocious 17-year old. He nodded and waved a bit. I ducked my head as a kind of nod back and smiled politely.

Then he started to walk around the front of my car, to my side. So I rolled my window down and paused the music. I expected him to tell me that one of my tail lights is out. It has a short. He was wearing a fishing vest. Only one snap was done, near the top, and it seemed to be doing the work of three, holding the fabric together across his belly. I found my eyes wandering to that snap involuntarily as he spoke. Wondering if it would hold. 

"Are you from Laramie originally?" In Wyoming, the license plates are made up of two series of numbers, separated by a space. The first one or two numbers indicates the county that issued the plates. People from here can see at a glance where you're from. While Albany County (number 5) isn't just Laramie, 95% of the people in that county probably live there. I started to make a head gesture that said no, or maybe I was shrugging, about to answer. "Or didja go to school there?" Which is the only thing people passing through Laramie (who aren't workers at the cement factory) seem to do.

"I did." I nodded. We both kept polite smiles on. 

"Did you ever, by any chance, make it to Woods Landing while you were out there?"

"I did, actually. On one of my first weekends in town."

The thing about talking to someone from inside your car, if you're from a city, is that it is very hard not to wait for the pitch. I see people here talking to one another from inside their cars often, especially on ranch roads that might stretch for miles in each direction. Why get out, when you both need to keep going? But rolling down the window is polite. Asking after one's sick mother or recent graduated kid. Asking how the stock is doing. And here, that means actual countable cows or sheep, not some string of abstract numbers on someone's ticker. 

So I'm waiting for his pitch, and I think later, how I must wear that look that says, I am being patient here, please get to the pitch so I can say no. 

"That was my great-grandfather's homestead," he says. Still smiling--it's a polite smile. Not a leer, not the wide-toothed grin of the unstable or untrustworthy. He has a baseball hat with enameled pins from some branch of the military all over it. His vest also has some pins. But I'm trying not to look at the snap, so I keep my eyes on his face. 

"Well, it was an amazing dancehall," I say. Which is true. There are supposed to be bed springs under the wooden floor at Woods Landing, to make it extra springy. A member of my cohort was brave enough that night to order the well whiskey, which came out of unmarked bottles. Another member was brave enough to join the three cowgirls practicing their line dancing. I just watched and laughed and tried to remember to ask questions. 

"Yes. You know he was one of the first vets up here at that hospital," he waved a thumb back over his shoulder, in the direction of Sheridan's big VA hospital. It was opened in the 20's and had nearly a thousand beds by the end of World War II. "He's buried around here somewhere." The here was meant to indicate Buffalo.

I nodded. I was beginning to doubt there was a pitch, but I am bad at small talk. I didn't know what to say or how to say it.

"Wow!" I mean, what would you have said? I just never know how to react to these situations.

"Yeah. We come up here to see if we can find him, put something up wherever he is." By now he's backing away, still smiling, but ending the conversation. I wished him good luck. He wished me a good day.

As I drove away, I thought, how lonely he must be, to want to talk about his great-grandfather at the gas station. I didn't see anyone else in his car, though the "we" could've indicated company. Or not. I often say we as a defense mechanism on the road at night, to let the clerk or whoever know that I am not a woman driving alone. And then I thought, that I had no right to assume he is lonely, especially when what I mean is that I am lonely.

I pulled onto the road to Ucross, and I saw myself telling anyone who will listen about vultures. My boss only likes to tell me about her dogs and the wildlife she's seen. If I try to talk about my own life, I'm an attention-seeker, a narcissist. If I be-friend one of our customers, she is liable to dislike them. So I try not to. I am very lonely out here, is what I'm saying.

And I was trying to sing along to "Criminal," but all I could think about was loneliness: how I have structured my life to minimize connections. How I move and move. How I am so difficult sometimes that most people don't want to be around me for very long. How I cry all the time and get mad too easily and hold grudges and worry too much. And how I wish I'd known better how to prolong the conversation at the gas station, how to ask questions, instead of just nod defensively, because I won't see another person until Monday.


And then I said to my otherwise empty car, "Wow. I just made that all about me." And I decided that when I got home, I would write the whole thing down, so that I'd have to remember my waitress and her boss and the man at the gas station, too. 

I'm a triathlete (and a writer)

On a June morning in 2006, weighing in at what was fighting weight at the time, I woke up at 4 am, put on a one-piece swimsuit with a padded butt, ate a whole wheat muffin with peanut butter (and half of a banana), and drove myself to Decker Lake in Austin, Texas.

It was fighting weight because sixteen weeks of triathlon training (swimming, biking, and run-walking) had helped me to lose 8 lbs. On race day, I weighed 190 lbs. (I am 5'4"). My tri-suit was a very snug XL. 

I had never ridden a bicycle on actual roads when I started tri training. I had never done laps in a pool. I hadn't run a mile since junior high (and I'm not entirely sure I did, then). I was talked into tri-training by some very good friends.

I was sure (see above) that there was no way in hell I could finish the race, even with a training program, but I thought the workouts might be good for my health, and I had recently decided that I was going to have more faith in body. I was hoping to find the kind of confidence in my skin that I had in my head.

I survived training. Here I am on race day (it's 5:30 am by now), with the two friends who helped me get through it. I hope they don't kill me for posting this glamor shot. 

I am in the middle.

I am in the middle.

The Danskin triathlons are women-only races. And at the time, one woman in particular was at every starting line for every race across the country. Her name is Sally Edwards, and ESPN profiled her involvement with Danskin/Trek races here. To me, one of the most important thing that Edwards does is cross every finish line last. 

Her "final finisher" initiative meant that I could train for the race and not worry that the last person would be me. In my training group, there were women more overweight, older, and less healthy than I--and none of us had to worry about being last. It is bad enough being fat and knowing that just working out in public makes you a spectacle--but to have to imagine the "triumph" of crossing after most everyone else had gone home? Too much.

While I sucked in my guts and pulled up my suit zipper that morning, I told myself that the only thing I could not do, was chicken out and DNF ("did not finish," in race parlance). I told myself I could take as long as I needed.

The second amazing thing that Edwards does at each Danskin is that she stations herself at the water start--in a boat or on the dock if there is one--and she gives a short motivational speech to each heat before the gun ushers them into the water in kicking flapping splashing waves.

If you've never done a triathlon before, the heats are small groups of racers, and they start in the water at 15 minute intervals over several hours. So rather than all 2-3,000 racers jumping in the lake at one time, they send in 20-30 at a time. In this way, the race route is full of people at all different speeds for most of the morning. The elite athletes go first (racers like me will never see them again, unless they finish the race before I'm even in the water), then they send groups by age, the very young, then the very old, then counting backwards.  

Sally Edwards says a lot of things in her short speeches--she gives each heat their own mantra or power word to whisper to themselves for the duration of the race, for example. But there's one thing she tells all of the back-of-the-packers (of which I am one), and I heard it for the first time that June morning.

"As of right now, as of today, you are a triathlete. You will always be a triathlete, and no one can ever take that away from you."

Me. The kid who couldn't even run around the track in junior high once without getting red faced and sweaty and itchy. The kid who never could do a single pull up, not even when the terrible gym teacher said, the disbelief sputtering out of her mouth, "Surely you can just do one?!" 

I learned to ride a bike when I was 34. I ran my first whole mile when I was 36. And I finished my first triathlon that morning. Eventually, I finished 6 of them, plus 3 half-marathons (so far). I'm a triathlete. Even if I never get another triathlon medal, I'm still a triathlete. 

Some people, when I would tell them I was training for a tri, would do this thing where they would stare at me for a moment, and then they would say something slowly and carefully like, "Do you want to actually win it?" or "You aren't trying to win, though, right?" As though I might be delusional in a really sad way they were going to have to deal with, as though I didn't realize I was a short, fat, not-young woman, as though having the assurance of winning should be the only reason to do anything.  I never got angry at those people because I learned very quickly how many people won't even try something at which they can't immediately excel. I used to be that person, which is why I never rode a bike or tried to run for anything more than the bus. 

But training for any kind of endurance race isn't about winning, for me. It's about re-training my brain to appreciate that all processes are slow, and that small, incremental changes added up over time equal transformation. You can't cram the night before to swim a half mile, bike 20k, and then run 3k, like you can cram for an algebra test. Not if you're me, you can't. 

Process is progress. Which is part of what this has to do with writing. If every time you sat down to write, you worried about "winning" instead of writing, it would be so much easier to quit. (I actually was last (for my age group) at my second race. But I still finished that fucker, and it ended up being a PR--personal record time--for the next two years.)

It would be so easy to beat myself up for the hundreds of rejections I've managed to amass in just five years of submissions. I have written millions of words that never made the final draft, and I have slogged hundreds of miles that earned me no medal. But I couldn't have finished a damn thing without them.

The other way this is related to writing: I am a writer whether I wrote something today or not. I'm still a writer if I decide to take a year off and gain some perspective on the memoir I've been hammering at for ages. I am still a writer if I leave my MFA and decide to raise a family and I never publish another poem. I'm a writer if I get a high-paying IT gig and put that novel off "for now" while I pay off my student loans and buy a house and build up my retirement funds. I'm a writer if I'm getting a PhD. I'm a writer if I'm not getting a PhD. I'm a writer if no workshop has ever seen my notebooks. 

Not everyone will agree with this, but that's okay: I believe that we are writers because we write and because we have written. I do not subscribe to the notion that there's some secret magic number of hours or words you have to put in each week to keep your union card. Publish or perish is for people who want to make a living at writing. There are racers like that, too--and not every racer can hold herself to their standards, either.

Don't get me wrong, I love to get that acceptance email. But it can't be what makes me a writer.  

I told a friend the other day that regular people take vacations, too, and writers should not feel guilty when they need time away from the Work. Even professional athletes don't train every single day. Too many of us beat ourselves up about it, though. We call it "stuck" or "writer's block." Call it a vacation. Call it "recharging." Call it what we called it during race training: a recovery week. Call it a part of your process. Your body tells you when you need a break, whether you're an elite athlete or a 40 year old who has never biked 5 miles. I think your brain does, too. 

Thoughts on the terrible consequences of my appetite

1. When I was in junior high, I used to wish that something would happen to me that would make me too sad to eat. 

I'd read about women who were too sad to eat. Or too sick. I was never too anything to eat.

2. When I was a child, all the women I knew were on a diet at one time or another. My babysitter ate grapefruit and cottage cheese for months and never got any smaller. My teachers were drinking tea to fill up. No one ever ran, then, to lose weight. Which is what they all wanted: to lose weight. No one wanted to be stronger or healthier or happier. 

3. My first diet was over the summer before the fourth grade. All of my girl friends marveled at how great I looked when I came back to school. (In the fourth grade.) My school picture that year has a wide mouthed smile. By fifth grade, I was fat again. I am slumped in that picture. My smile is close-mouthed. To me, I look like I am apologizing with my whole body.

Fourth grade to fifth grade

Fourth grade to fifth grade

4. I remember looking for a very long time, over several months, at this photograph of a "teen" model--it was an ad for clothes in Teen Vogue or the like, one of those fake European brands, all pastels and white, Venezia maybe--who I secretly thought I looked like, a little, in the face. I wished so hard that I could wake up and have her body, too. 

5. As a child, if I got new clothes, they were husky or "extra large." But I also got hand-me-downs from adult women, friends of my mother's. By the fifth grade I could wear the jeans of a grown woman. They were of course, far too long, so I had to roll them up. But in time, they too would cut into my soft, terrible stomach.

6. The insults and slights were legion. From the third grade into my thirties. I took them all in. I absorbed the opinions of others and believed them true. In time, no one had to tell me. I knew what I was. 

7. My junior year of high school, I had to take a P.E. class, and so I signed up for aerobics, because by then, Jane Fonda and Kathy Smith had convinced women that happiness was not grapefruit and cottage cheese flavored. It was not a flavor at all, in fact, but a sound: 4/4 time and Robert Palmer singing "All she wants to do is dance." I look at my prom pictures and think, I looked great. But I don't remember if I thought that I did. There were no plus-sized clothes for high school girls when I was in high school. Usually, I hid under the baggiest mens jeans and old man blazers I could find at thrift stores. I may have been relieved that the dress fit at all--but that's not the same as happy.

8. My mother eschewed all fat in any food for a year once, while I was in high school. We went shopping together, after, so she could buy a dress for a cruise or award dinner at work. She bought a red, fitted shiny number with one shoulder strap and a ruffle at the knee. It was a size 8, and she was ecstatic. She looked great.

But then the regular cheese and milk came back into the house. I stopped going to aerobics the second my GPA didn't count on it. I suspect (and fear) that deep down, I am a person who will always hate her body, so I maintain a body that is easy to hate.

9. In college I wore dresses so that I wouldn't feel breathless and squeezed in half all day. I did a lot of walking then, and lived with a vegetarian. I learned new recipes and got tighter, more compact. I started to shake my ass when I walked. I started to get attention from guys who weren't just into fat girls. I met a man who wanted to marry me--I remember once, in his car, he went on a rant about how he thought fat people were gross and lazy. I remember thinking, He doesn't think I'm fat! And then, But, he will find out someday that I am.  We married, and I stopped walking everywhere, because he had a car. I ate crawfish etouffe and beignets. I got even fatter than I'd been before. 

I left him, for a lot of reasons, not just the part about living in fear that I disgusted him.

10. I started walking again. Eventually, The Gap came out with boyfriend jeans. Around that time, I began to lose a lot of weight (again). Between the low rise jeans and the "regular" size, it was a revelation in comfort. I realized that I had never had pants that didn't cut into my stomach. 

11. Roxane Gay recently wrote, "My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire." I read that sentence over and over, feeling the same longing that I'd looked at that young model with--she of the dark eyebrows and light hair and bow mouth, but also the straight body that did not balloon out in all the wrong places. YES. I DO THIS, TOO, I thought. As though admitting it would fix me. 

12. Several years ago, I lost around 50 pounds by eating better and running, and have kept most of them off--though ten or fifteen will perhaps always hang over me like a sword of Damocles. I live in fear of my body. (Exercise is an entirely different subject with which I am uncomfortable. This is about food.)

13. When I was at my smallest, I was treated very differently. I started a new job, and my coworkers wanted to take me out. They wanted me to come hiking with them. They wanted to go out for drinks. They wanted to talk over lunch about their terrible girlfriends or boyfriends. They wanted to help me stock the boxes on the top shelves, and help me close down the department so we could all leave together. Some of that was my confidence. Some of that was not. 

14. I am still not thin, but now people don't believe I was ever big. You look fine, they say. I can't even imagine that, they say. I imagine it every single morning when I wake up. And every single time I put food into my mouth. I have no idea how to stop. 

Voice memos

On long drives, I talk to myself in the car and play terrible and not-terrible music with equal gusto. Only people who love me would ever go on a long drive with me on purpose.

During one particular trip--Laramie to Ucross for the first time (and then back during a night time storm)--I recorded some of my internal monologue as voice memos on my phone. I don't usually talk like a voice memo, usually just in a string of disconnected exclamations. But I tried to say what I was thinking as I thought it. 

This sort of thing that is important for fostering humility. I mean, even Kerouac didn't sound like Kerouac when he was actually on the road, I bet. I'm sure he had more than a few double-rainbow moments which ended up scratched out in the margins of his mind.

Anyway, maybe this is against the culture of curated thoughts that are edited and styled into tweets and status updates. This is my mouth falling open. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not cool.

This was last August. It's a five hour drive each way. Here are nearly all of the memos transcribed.

1. (Liz Phair singing “And when I asked for a separate room”) Oh my god. So. A white-gray horse, laying down on its side not moving, near the fence, by the side of the road. Chestnut and black horse, both standing over it (“But if I’d have known how that would sound to you…”) not looking down, not looking at each other, just, like sentinels. Which is the second horse that I’ve seen on the side of the road. The first one was giving birth, saw the colt take its first step. On the way back from Arizona. That’s all.

2. Red-tailed hawk. Uh. Lots of pronghorns. Um, rolling rolling rolling. Snow fences. (slide guitar) Not having to take my foot off the fucking brake for miles and miles. About to hit some sort of little town. (Langhorne Slim singing “Whether I’m right, whether I’m wrong”) The hawk was sunning on a piece of sandstone. It’s pretty amazing. So far so good.  … It’s Rock River, with the Longhorn motel and restaurant and uh… a really nice park? Holiday park, in fact. Annnd, now we’re done.

3. Giant wind turbines and the landscape in the background goes from green sage to slate to medium blue to pale blue like torn paper layers. On the other side, the snow fences are golden in the sunrise. Uh. Sloping up to gray rocky cliffs—brown gray, lots of shrubs. Um. It’s been a very dry, dry summer, so everything is, everything is yellow-gold. And so many pronghorn! Lots and lots of beautiful antlers. And little harems.

4. Flock of magpies, eating a fucking dead rabbit. (Bon Jovi “SHOT THROUGH THE HEART”) The last two didn’t fly away until a second before I would’ve rode… driven right over them. Also, like, a rusty orange dock-looking weed on the side of the road? Tall, flame-like, and lots of tall sunflowers, possibly Jerusalem artichokes? I’ll have to look it up, later. Looks like I’m coming to a town—all of a sudden there are are cliffs and rocks in the distance (“You promised me heaven but put me through hell”) they’re all very pale.

5. Look up what kind of hawk it is with a white base at the tail. Um. All the rest dark. [Note: probably a Rough-legged hawk]

6. [REDACTED] (Modest Mouse in the background)

7. The trees are in stark contrast. It seems that I’m driving into weather, but I don’t know if that’s true. The sky is slate gray and the greens are bright (“Alright don’t worry we’ll all float on, alright don’t worry”). But it’s getting darker, while it’s also getting lighter behind me, so maybe they’ll be some rain soon. Keep seeing magpies on the side of the road, eating the ground squirrels that dash across recklessly. Spotted yellow… maybe tansy? Surprising dearth of raptors, though. The magpies seem to be doing all the clean-up work. No vultures. Just three hawks or eagles? That last one might have been an eagle. The houses are few and far between. The cows are black or red or creamy white. (“Alright don’t worry we’ll all float on okay”) Very few horses. A lot more sage grass-sage brush, with uh, yellow grass, short, between range, between shortly cropped rangeland. And I just saw a giant red… jutting rock formation that may be Chugwater? I’m not sure. Um. And uh. A beautiful small black and white bird just flew across the road (“Everything that keeps us together is falling apart”) I don’t know what it was. Lots of slate gray and white. Maybe a warbler? Seemed big. (“Going out to find blindspots and he’ll do it.”)

8. Look up “Sand Creek Massacre Trail” because I have been following it the whole damn time.

9. Just saw a flock of wild turkeys in somebody’s front yard. Uh driving from Buffalo to Ucross now and it’s just lovely. Trees and scrub and uh with mountains, ha, uh all around. I’m kind of excited.

10. Totally driving into a lightning storm. It appears to be over Casper perhaps? And there was just a bolt of lightning that didn’t reach the ground? Or there are clouds between me and it… and I cannot see. But. It flashed in the middle of the sky, a little abbreviated line. And now for some fucking Motley Crüe. (Dr. Feelgood starts up)

11. It’s a fucking mountain! It’s a ridge! A giant mountain ridge that’s between me and the storm—that’s why I couldn’t see the whole bolt! But it’s perfectly hidden in the blue haze of all this fucking smoke! The closer I get, it’s now starting to loom up, uh. A slightly darker blue, with pale blue below it… Maybe fog? Or clouds? I’m not sure. Uh but it’s pretty amazing. That’s all. 

#MyWritingProcess (a tour hack)

First of all, I was originally invited to participate in this grand round robin by the gracious and tenacious Kelly Sundberg. However, the chain unraveled upstream from her (as these chains are wont to do). But I decided to participate anyway because I liked the questions. I liked the idea of making myself sit my ass down to answer them.

You should go check out Kelly over at Apology Not Accepted, where she writes about being a witness to and a victim and a survivor of domestic violence. 

* * *

Second, my writing process terrifies me. When I showed up for our first meeting "as a big group" in my MFA program--it was a huge secret success (I mean, not to my Facebook friends, but to the rest of the cohort, who I was hoping to impress). I had been turned down by all the schools I applied to the year before, and I had gotten in to U Wyoming's fully funded program off the waitlist. I was convinced I was secretly a fraud and would be found out any minute. 

At that meeting, our program director said "If you feel like a fraud right now, you aren't alone," and "You have the next two years to figure out how you fuck yourself." She said other beautiful and eloquent things, but that is the thing I thought about most for the next two and a half years--because some weeks it felt like all I was learning. Here's what I now know for absolute sure: I fuck myself with distractions and I fuck myself with self criticism.

I beat myself up like it is my job. When I came to our (kind, generous) director a year and a half after that first meeting, and broke down in her office, it was because I was a terrible writer and I was so afraid that I'd wasted everyone's time.

"Because," I wailed, "for weeks, all I've wanted to do is knit sweaters and roast vegetables."

She said, "Why don't you then?"

"Because I have been trying for months to find a way to write every day and I can't because I am so lazy and unfocused and I have always been like this and... I just suck at life."

Because we are told over and over and over that the good writers find a way to write every single day. And I have never been able to do that--except for this one experiment where I blogged every day for a year. See how I use words like never even though they don't apply? That's what my (wise, patient) director noted.

She said, "Why don't you let your cohort worry about your work ethic for a couple of weeks? Any one of them will tell you all about how hard you work. You don't even have to believe it, just let them hold that opinion of you, for you. Go knit and roast beets. The work will be there when you get back."


It's not like I was cured. But I knit a great sweater and got my thesis done. She and my advisor nominated it for an award, later. Plus, most of it has been published. Even I can't say it wasn't an expression of good, dutiful effort. 

I still don't usually believe that I am not lazy, but I am trying to acknowledge that my laziness appears to express itself in mysterious ways that often only I am capable of discerning. I pass for hard-working, in other words.

* * * 

Man. You'd think I forgot about the questions altogether. I DID NOT.

1. What am I working on?

A non-fiction book about vultures. It combines travel, memoir, science and mythology to tell stories about birds that disgust us.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

For one, I am not sure what needs to happen. Too many books about ecological horrorshows are certain. And, I mean, someone needs to be. But I think we also need to wonder and question and mull stuff over, too. There are multiple sides to every natural wonder's predicament. 

Also, while I love birds and I love travel--I am not a professional at either. This gives me room to stand next to my readers, rather than over them at a mahogany podium with a powerpoint full of footnotes. I am figuring this stuff out as I go. That keeps the reader and me on the edge, a bit. But not any actual edges, because I am really not fond of heights.

Also, I'm not afraid to get lyric. This may become a problem when I try to sell the manuscript--but it's not really something I can help. I write like I talk: excitedly and often before I've thought something all the way through. This means I must stay open to the possibility that I'm wrong.

3. Why do I write what I do?

More than anything, I love the natural world. I ache for it in ways I don't quite understand. Just knowing there are owls outside right now calms this mania in my chest by an infinitesimal degree. The frogs singing, another degree. The wind through the winter-dried grasses trying to stand up, one more. Eventually, it all comes together and I can breathe a little easier; I feel less alone in the universe. Some people get this feeling from going to church or looking up at the stars and seeing God. For me, it is the exact mosaic of stones shoved to the side of the road by the traffic; the clay embankment carved in lesser and lesser depths by a stream; the outline of a cirrus, and the hues in its depths; a birdsong, hard to identify.

When I write, nearly every time I write, I am trying to explain this longing for comfort. I am trying to describe watching one bird take flight one day, and the way the image of its strong back reverberated in my brain bell for weeks. How it made me think about every time I'd tried anything. How it made me wish for a moment, even though I am a grown ass woman with car insurance and surge protectors and a chain for my reading glasses, that I could fly.

I enjoy my house and would quickly say that I need some of the comforts of civilization, too--but it's the fact of the outside, its existence in all its myriad shapes and forms and wonders, that keeps me thinking. Which keeps me going.  

4. How does my writing process work? 

Fuck if I know; see above.

I don't write every day. I think in words every day, however. Sometimes I tweet lines as they come to me, often using the #cnftweet tag. Some of these tweets are single toes-in-the-water of something bigger, sometimes they are just passing thoughts.

But when I do finally sit down, it is because something has been building in my chest cavity for days or weeks or months. It comes out over an hour or two, or three days--in a jumbled shitty rush. And then I spend a few days or weeks revising it until I can read it out loud without stumbling.

Then, I usually try to submit it somewhere. This makes me stop picking at it for a bit. Those first subs rarely work out--but they enforce a break, some time to think, on my part. Submittable serves as back brakes for my mania in that sense. 

The trouble with this (non) process is that it works way better for standalone essays than it does for a whole book. So the book is inching in fits and starts and crumbs and balls of paper. I will have to do something different, I'm afraid, if I want to finish it. I'm almost positive. But I'm not sure what, yet, or how. 

On good days, I know it will come to me eventually.

On bad days, I like to cry it out and eat M & Ms.

I used to hate my process. It embarrassed me. But that ain't gonna make it shape itself up.

So this is me, showing my process off in a bikini. I'm trying to love it more. I mean me.

* * * *

And now to pass the torch. Two of my own chain links fell out of interest or time for this project, but luckily for you and me both, Brian Oliu was still game. You can read his post in the coming days... Here's why you should catch up with anything you've missed in the meantime: 

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & has taught at the University of Alabama since receiving his M.F.A. in 2009. His work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction, & has been twice selected as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays series. He is the author of So You Know It's Me, a collection of Craigslist Missed Connections, & Level End, a series of lyric essays about videogame Boss Battles. His newest book, Leave Luck To Heaven, an ode to 8-bit videogames, was released by Uncanny Valley Press.

You can check out his words and news and track suits here: BRIANOLIU.COM

This weekend I will enjoy everything and not think about the terrifying future

For starters, I'm going to read a zombie book.

Zone One
By Colson Whitehead

To hear the author, Colson Whitehead, talk about Zone One, head on over to THE place to find book trailers and interviews and other interesting bookish treats, Book Reels

I'm also going to go on at least one and possibly two hikes.

I am going to bake a batch of almond and cranberry muffins.

And I am going to knit on my Dream of the 90s purple shrug.

The work will continue on Monday like it does for regular people. I love my dream of being a full-time writer, and I am working hard all the time to achieve it. But sometimes I need to give myself out loud permission to take a break. 

How NOT to get that residency you were going to apply for...

I've been working at an artists residency for nearly two months now, as an intern. We just finished accepting all of the applications for the upcoming Fall season, and bundled them off to our jurors. I've learned some things throughout this process, and I thought I'd share them.

NOTE: These are all my own overly-opinionated musings. They neither represent my employer, nor do they predict what will happen to anyone who has applied this year--it's in the jurors hands. Additionally, none of these examples describe specific applications. They are amalgams, chimeras, and are only based on actual events, like Law & Order.

I already knew many of these things, having been a hiring manager/slush reader before. It's amazing how transferable some knowledge is. Anyway, while these address residency applications, they apply to all sorts of applications, like grants or jobs. The bottom line is to demonstrate just as much conscientiousness as you expect attention. In other words, there are ways to distinguish oneself that have unintended consequences. For example:

  1. Write a 37-page CV. Unless you are a performance artist, and your CV doubles as your work sample, be real. Maybe you have really done 37 pages worth of stuff--but does the residency selection jury need to know that you were on seven different Student Affairs committees? Or that you once worked for Staples and had three different job titles? There's probably a way to customize that impressive piece of pulp-to-be down to a more manageable size, say 8-10 pages. Six, if you're really good.
  2. Be unprofessional and or ask unprofessional people to recommend you.
    • Dear creatives, Your twitter profile is not what anyone means when they ask if you have a website. Also, if you feel the urge to use a font anywhere on your application whose name begins with a B, D, F, L, R, or S, squash that urge like a poisonous spider in your bed. That list is not exhaustive, use a font that is unlikely to offend the eye. Your work sample should be where you get to live your life out loud, not official forms or informative documents.
    • Dear recommenders of creatives, Two sentences, scrawled nearly illegibly on a napkin and or sent as a forward from the email asking you to recommend a person, does not constitute a recommendation. Letterhead, salutations, full, and complete sentences. Just like you ask your students to do for you.
  3. Staple things in the order that makes sense to you. Okay, this really only annoys the lowliest of the staff--like say, the interns and admins--but unless the application says to staple things, don't. Maybe we have to make copies or re-collate in the order that makes sense to us, or separate pages among the jurors. Who knows? What is not fun is unstapling the 4 staples you used to consecutively attach the several small bundles of your application into one large bundle. When in doubt, call and ask. We probably won't even remember your name. Plus by the time we tear out all those staples and restaple the documents into a useful configuration--your beautiful triple weight paper CV will look like hell. Also, don't use triple weight paper for your CV, or that grainy gray stuff that looks terrible copied--this is the future, and the future is white printer paper.
  4. IGNORE THE DIRECTIONS. Oh man. Why is everyone always so bad at reading the directions? Teachers joke about how it is on the damn syllabus. Apparently this is a anti-skill people learn early and then continue to hone throughout their lives. When, for example, the directions say "All materials for online applications must be submitted online," and you wondered to yourself, "Can my professor, who thinks it's still 1999, fax her letter?" Before you just go ahead and tell your professor to do that, because you are king or queen of the universe and your wonderments become law, ask yourself, "Is this question already answered clearly in the instructions?" Don't send 4 letters of recommendation if the application only asks for 3. Don't send a 30 page writing sample, or 25 slides (SLIDES? WHO ARE YOU, EDWEARD MUYBRIDGE?--the instructions said to send a CD) when the application asks for 20 pages or 15 images.
  5. Only follow the instructions that you feel should apply to you. Take the above example. If, instead of wondering, you think "Surely this doesn't apply to me, since I ... ANY SITUATION AT ALL" then put a rubber band on your wrist that you can snap the next time you think such a thing. Instructions apply to everyone, unless they include clearly conditional phrases, such as "unless" or "in the event that." Don't assume that you are a special case, or you may become one before you even get to the second round, if you know what I mean.
  6. Wait until the last minute, and then need a lot of help. Please, if you really want to make an impression, wait until the day before the application window closes to call/email with a long list of questions and requests for special treatment. We love that. Especially questions that require research and follow up. We will be singing your name in the halls. We were probably just sitting around bored, anyway, and you were probably the only person who waited until the last minute. We are probably not angrily unstapling your stuff, now, and cursing you under our breath.

All that said, if you follow instructions, are prepared (and failing that, kind), if you ask early if you need to ask often... then the people handling your application will do anything they possibly can to get you the best shot at a residency. They love artists and writers and musicians. They want nothing more than to give everyone the gift of time. And if you do get the golden ticket, those same people will welcome you with open arms, and they will probably put you in the nice room with the good view, instead of the other room, which of course is also nice because they're all nice, except for the very slight draft/amorous frogs in the pond out back/snorer next door.