10 things to know about Henry

This week, we lost Henry. He was a rabbit. He was our friend. There has been so much sadness in our little zoo of a house, but also a lot of remembrance.

Henry the rabbit

Anyone who’s ever loved a “pet” (a term I dislike) for some time knows that they have a unique personality and tendency to do particular, oftentimes funny, things. In spite of his small size of 2.5 lbs for most of his life, Henry had one of the biggest spirits I’ve encountered in an animal. And he regularly left a mark on people who met him.

So in celebration, rather than sadness, I with Stephanie’s help put together a brief list of facts about Hen Hen. (Oh, and like most companion animals, he ended up with many nicknames over the years.)

That said, Henry was . . .

1. In double digits

We first brought Henry home in January 2011, but he’d had another home before that for about a year. So we estimate he was born sometime in 2009, and had likely turned 10 years old in recent days. We were always commenting about what a spry little guy he remained, even in his later days, running around and jumping and nudging us to pay attention.

One memory that came to mind last night: Every week after we’d clean the bunny cage, he’d hop in and do an inspection, looking under the platform in particular to make sure everything was just right and sometimes kicking bedding out into the main area.

Henry on the day we brought him home. Note also the wicker furniture indoors.

2. Originally called Frodo

Yeah — that had to change. At his first house, he had the unfortunate experience of being named after a hobbit, and even though he ate like one, it didn’t fit him. At that time, I’d been misguidedly reading a lot of Thoreau in search of enlightenment. The one lasting effect was that I had the perfect name for our little buddy.

3. In a relationship

None of us animals are meant to be alone, right? So, half a year after we brought home Henry, Harper followed in July 2011. The two took to each other immediately. Which isn’t always the case with rabbits, and some pairs bond only after exceptionally difficulty and effort from their humans. And that remained unchanged even as Harpie (again, the nicknames) grew from being half his size to twice his size. I don’t care if it’s anthropomorphizing: These two loved each other. Insert quote about love and how it relates to hating the absence of someone. And his loss has been just as hard on her.

Henry and Harper the rabbits
Harper visiting Henry at the hospital one of the last times.

4. A true pal

When I was sick, Henry hopped on the bed to make sure I was all right. When a friend needed a wingman, Henry posed for a Tinder profile pic (you know who you are!). When you were down, he’d come up an nudge you with his nose, then rub his chin on you to mark you as part of his crew. Indeed he was a true pal.

5. A movie star

His debut performance was in “Animaux à Paris” — a grade-A film written, directed, and produced by yours truly for French 201. He starred as Monsieur Lapin, with Harper performing as sa femme, Mademoiselle Lapin. From these humble beginnings, he rose to play the role of Rabbit Friend in a short called “Jamie Snodgrass: Class-C Mulberry Scout” from the Indianapolis-based artist collective Know No Stranger.

Henry the rabbit in a movie

6. And a model

Henry and Harper worked the angles for an article about rabbit care. And yeah, maybe I took the photos, and wrote the article, so there might’ve been some nepotism, but look at the top-tier smizing. If you meet bunny people, you know that they could talk forever about rabbits and their unique dietary and health concerns. This piece allowed me to sum it up in a way that was hopefully helpful to others (with serious SEO value, right fellow AL newsies?). One of the vets interviewed commented: “The rabbit patients I have share a very strong human-animal bond.” An understatement.

Henry and Harper the rabbits

7. An adventurous eater

Although rabbit diets consist largely of timothy hay and pellets — not carrots and iceberg lettuce as sometimes thought — they can enjoy a number of other foods. And enjoy Hen did. A non-exhaustive list of things he tried and liked includes apple, watermelon, blueberries, strawberries, various lettuces and spinach, celery, parsley, carrot and radish greens, dill, basil, spinach, collard greens, rose petals, grapes, and so on. His favorites were cilantro and banana (as evidenced in this video). Some mornings, I would make him a plate of greens so that we could eat breakfast together. The only things he didn’t seem to care for were mango and mint, go figure.

Rabbit eats spinach from plate

(The House Rabbit Society offers a list of fruits and veggies approved that are good for bunnies.)

8. A too-adventurous eater

Listen, no shame here — bunnies have to chew on things to keep their teeth from growing too long. Which leads to serious health issues and costly remedies. But Henny Hen would on occasion eat some unapproved snacks too, including homework and a senior portfolio, shoes in the closet and pants even while they were being worn (leaving a hole in the butt), a chunk of Nutrigrain bar right from Stephanie’s hand.

9. A bun of the world

Counting the place where he was born and his first house where we picked him up from in 2011, Henry lived in 10 homes during his life, as Stephanie and I moved during college in Indy and then during and after grad school in Minnesota. He was a trooper, though, typically taking to new digs quicker than Harp or any of his cat sibs.

The entire crew (at the time two buns and two cats) even stayed in a hotel for a week as we waited for our first Mankato apartment to be finished. We convinced the company to give us two rooms, considering the size of our group. One day, however, the bunnies whom I’d let out a little earlier to exercise in the second room, were nowhere to be found. I thought housekeeping might have come in and taken them away, but then I looked under the bed and saw something moving around in the box spring. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” I reported to Stephanie, “but the bunnies are inside the bed.”

Henry the rabbit with Herman the kitten
Henry munching some paper the first time he met little Herman.

10. A little guy with a big personality

Henry was never afraid of new people. He played with dogs and cats during his life, and oftentimes pushed them around. He was a boss, but the kind you like to have. Henry was so involved in our daily life — the fun, silly chaos of living with five wild dingi — that we have been experiencing many first times doing this or that without him.

In true Libra fashion, I rang in my birthday last night with tears. “Animals break your heart,” a friend recently told me. It’s true, but only if they take up significant space in it to begin with. So although this post is supposed to contain facts about Hen, here are a few about us: 1. We miss Henry very much. 2. We hope we gave him the best life a bun could have. 3. We are very sad for his loss. 4. We don’t see that changing anytime soon. 5. We know it’s because we so enormously loved and were loved by that little guy.

Henry the rabbit

What This Karaoke Song Is Really Saying


Bonnie Tyler: “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

If I didn’t possess the voice of an angel, I wouldn’t attempt this song; if I didn’t attempt this song, I wouldn’t end up in the dark parking lot leaving another voicemail for my ex, Nigel, that he’ll probably never return.

Hinder: “Lips of an Angel”

I own a ferret.

Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run”

My sister’s garage, unfinished and all, is cozier than you’d think, even if my brother-in-law steals Miller High Lifes from my mini fridge in lieu of the unpaid rent.

The Chainsmokers: “Closer”

This bar is so lit — they never card.

Lady Antebellum: “Need You Now”

Sure, we wear matching outfits and fight if the other one compliments a stranger, but we’re not co-dependent.

Nickleback: “Photograph”

He’s not my first ferret.

Foreigner: “I Want to Know What Love Is”

I’m dedicating this song to that beautiful woman right in front, the love of my life, the woman I’m moving in with, the woman I plan to marry, as soon as I tell my wife.

Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean”

Now you know why they call me the cool grandma.

Neil Diamond: “Sweet Caroline”

Every time you all repeat, “So good, so good, so good,” I want to thank you for filling in for the friends I lost touch with when I became a parent, with all of the late nights and diaper changes, about 24 years ago.

Hoobastank: “The Reason”

Did I mention his name is Ferret Bueller?

Rod Stewart: “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”

I already know you don’t, but what’s the worst that could happen — if we pretend for tonight, or if we don’t?

Sublime: “Santeria”

All I really want to say is: when you all wake up for work, when you’re stuck in freeway gridlock, when you’re chained to a desk in that prison of an office park, I’ll still be here, I’ll still be high, and I’ll still be singing.

5 tips for surviving creative writing workshops

Creative writing workshop feedback

Learning how to put words together made me cry. The memory still stings a little: sitting in the family room, my mom pointing to letters on a sheet of paper, creating new three-letter sequences, such as C-A-T. But why was it so damn hard, M-A-N? My frustration grew with M-A-D. I tried halfheartedly to sound out S-A-D. Then came the tears.

It’s funny now, since words became such large a part of my life. I soon started writing—stories, songs, top secret files for my imagined detective agency—and I read like crazy. I went on to get a bachelor’s and will soon finish a master’s in creative writing. But many times along the way, attempting to put words together has made me want to weep. These moments still pop up, as I string words into sentences, into paragraphs, into chapters of books. And they probably always will.

With this in mind, here are some thoughts to hopefully help you survive your creative writing education. I’ve tried to be broad enough that it will help no matter if you’re taking one-off classes at the local writing center, crossing off a gen-ed for your chemistry degree, or on the way to completing an MFA. The advice is aimed to help, but I feel a little preachy. I would feel even more so if I hadn’t made each mistake mentioned. One faux pas isn’t the end of the world, but it is something to notice and work to correct to be a better writer.

1. Write, write, write, write, write

Only one thing I know of separates writers from non-writers: writing. Students in creative writing classes should go one step further and create dedicated writing time. A professor once advised me not to apply to MFAs until after getting in the habit of writing every day. Recently, a professor gave similar advice: Figure out what kind of writer you are. Can you accomplish something substantial in one hour each day? Or do you need larger chunks, four or eight hours a couple days each week, to really get in a groove? Whatever works for you and your schedule, set aside and protect it.

2. Use the Golden Rule when workshopping

The age-old advice is true for so many creative writing workshop quandaries. Should I be nice at the risk of not giving helpful, critical feedback? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Should I make a brutally honest comment at the risk of discouraging and demoralizing the other person? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Should I turn in something that I haven’t proofread very well? Do unto… Well, you get the point.

3. Be a critic and fan of your peers

It’s easy to praise good work and criticize work that’s not so hot. But in a workshop, that’s not enough. Find ways to make good stories better. Find encouraging things to say about hot-mess poems. This will make things better in workshops and beyond. When your friends place work at your dream lit mag or win top awards, you can celebrate without comparing your successes to theirs because you’re a fan. When they ask your opinion on an objectively flawed essay, you can say so because you’re a reasonable critic, too. But even if it’s tough to be a fan, even if a workshop peer writes robo-unicorn-erotica, never say, “I’m not the audience for this.” Because: 1) you’re automatically the audience by joining the workshop, and 2) well, maybe you should reread the Golden Rule chunk.

4. Get involved outside of class

If you’re lucky enough to be at a school with a reading series, go to every event. You’re a novelist and the reader is a poet? Go anyway. You’re a poet and the reader does graphic CNF? Go anyway. If you’re not in school or your school doesn’t have a reading series, find somewhere nearby that does — another university, a bookstore, a monthly meeting of local writers — or find ways to participate online. Hear as many voices as you can, and meet as many other writers. Even if the reader’s work is not great or the delivery is subpar, you can learn and be a better writer just by going.

5. Be humble and keep working

When a workshop peer points out some canned images or bad tropes that your piece relies on — or simply disagrees with your approach — don’t brush off the advice. Think about where the advice is coming from. What in the piece is causing them to read it that way? What could you adjust or scrap to better reach your reader? Above all, don’t tell your workshoppers you’d already identified every plot hole, inconsistency, mixed metaphor, etc., that they pointed out. Because: 1) you probably didn’t and are just trying to protect your ego, and 2) if you did, you should have done your damnedest to fix said problems before turning in the piece.

But listen: we’re all still figuring out this writing business. George Saunders thought he  failed because he couldn’t write like Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing The Great Gatsby, out of print at the time, was a failure. Toni Morrison didn’t even get into the game until her late thirties because she realized the only way to find the book she wanted to read was to write it. We can never know whom our writing will connect with or when. All we can do is to keep trying to put words together, combining them into narratives and stanzas and punchy fragments. By doing this, we can not only survive but also find our own versions of success as writers.

Do you have any other advice to share from your experience as a writer or in creative writing classes? Leave it in a comment below!

17 Thoughts & Prayers

1: Thought

Are roses still discounted the day after Valentine’s Day, if on Valentine’s Day there was a mass shooting? Or are those clipped stems, floating in a vat of water, still full price? After all, it’s a supply-and-demand thing—the way gun sales go up after a mass shooting—and either way, these people stand to make a killing.

2: Prayer

That we can protect those with little power. As one Florida writer noted: “our two deadliest shootings . . . have involved children (parkland) and queer people (orlando).”

3: Thought

The most powerful members of our society—the President, Vice President, representatives in the House and Senate—profess at a rate of more than 90% to be Christian.

4: Prayer

That it will not take a Judgment Day, at the separating of the Sheep and Goats, for us to understand Matthew 25:45: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

5: Thought

The shooters, we’re told, quite frequently suffer from mental illness. Which is meant to explain why it wouldn’t help to do anything. Really, as those of us with mental illness can attest—those who take the pills, those who see the therapists—it explains why we could do much more.

6: Prayer

That the President, who reminded us this morning that the blame for this falls on those who suspected the perpetrator was homicidal and did nothing, will reconsider his policies that make it easier for those with mental illness to get guns.

7: Thought

This morning FOX News shared on social media that the White House had lowered its flag to half staff. Which seemed to be the least they could do. And really, it was.

8: Prayer

Maybe it’s wrong to disrespect our leaders like that, in a Christian sense, at least. Because 1 Timothy 2:1-2 says: “. . . I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life. . . .” Similarly, Confucius said to shame the powerful into doing what’s right by living blamelessly, by walking uprightly.

9: Thought

Because something that should be unnecessary is shaming politicians on Twitter who send thoughts and prayers also on Twitter while they take money from the NRA in real life.

10: Prayer

That somebody will do something, that once the vigil is over we will not blow out our candles, that we will remember how James 2:26 says: “. . . As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Or how Langston Hughes says:

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two-

And see what worms are eating

At the rind.

Or how the Bible also says to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and what most of our Caesars need is a permanent vacation.

11: Thought

Because something else that’s unnecessary is politicians who take money from the NRA. And people who wait for them to do the right thing.

12: Prayer

That we can live a peaceful and quiet life once the majority of Americans who support comprehensive gun reform are heard over the exploding barrels of AR-15s. That we can walk uprightly because we don’t have to hide under desks, around corners, in locked classrooms, like we’ve drilled, so many times.

13. Thought

At school, when teaching logical fallacies, it can sometimes be difficult to come up with an example for the “fallacy fallacy, in which one problem with an argument invalidates the entire point. Here’s a handy example: “It wasn’t an actual AR-15,” or: “No, AR-15s are only semiautomatic.”

14: Prayer

That these final lines from Kathy Fish’s story, “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” will stop haunting us:

Humans in the wild, gathered and feeling good, previously an exhilaration, now: a target.

A target of concert-goers.

A target of movie-goers.

A target of dancers.

A group of schoolchildren is a target.

15: Thought

But, as we’ve heard, it’s disrespectful to talk about the problem so soon: too soon after Parkland, too soon after Vegas, too soon after Sandy Hook, too soon after Virginia Tech, too soon after Columbine.

16: Prayer

That maybe, this time, we can talk about the problem sooner.

17: Thought

It’s probably cheaper to buy two bouquets of a dozen roses than to buy seventeen individually. Just tie together the ones you must, stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem, and pile them on the roadside memorial. The others you can throw in the trash. Because what does it matter when they’re already dead?

I have been spoiled


My coworkers.

The front room of my house is called the pawffice. It has a broad desk, a chair, three windows, a guitar, and a varying number of cats, depending on which spot they fancy that day, that hour, that instant. I used to have to share the pawffice. Stephanie and I both started to work from home when we moved to Minnesota in 2015. We’d trade desks and tables and spaces, the other office in our bureau being less cleverly named the bunny room. Which is exactly what it was. I’d wander in to share some unrelated nugget of information like an annoying officemate who keeps stopping by your desk. This wasn’t new. We’d worked together, in the same office, for a little over a year.

Stephanie in the pawffice

It’s easy to imagine some couples struggling with having to spend this much time with each other. You wake up together in the morning, commute together, go to meetings together, discuss deadlines together, roll your eyes together, leave work together. Then over dinner, you have to think of something new to talk about, because you already know the answer to that go-to question: “How was your day?” But I never minded. Stephanie is one of the smartest, hardest working, and most reliable people I’ve ever known. I, on the other hand, am allergic to deadlines, overly sarcastic in my attempts to be funny, and switch between projects constantly. But for me, even when the work was frustrating, it was a joy to be on her team.

IMG_4139.jpgSo working from home was much the same as before, just with the ability to wear pajamas most of the day or skip out for an hour in the morning to do yoga. Even after we were laid off from our previous employer, we continued to work together—in the same space, that is—on various freelance projects. Then last spring, Stephanie got a new full-time job that she greatly deserved. One thing became clear over the months I’ve worked from home on my thesis, lesson plans, and magazine article, with just the cats as coworkers: I have been spoiled. Spending that much time with one’s best friend is not a luxury most people get.


On Monday, 13 inches of snow dumped on Mankato. It started in the early morning and continued through the evening, piling higher and higher. Stephanie went to the office for a few hours, but then I picked her up when it started to get bad. For half a day, we shared a workspace again, and because she doesn’t often get the luxury to work from home, she claimed the pawffice with its wide (and for once, relatively clean) desk and view of the street. It was nice. Like old times, I walked out to make some observation, but before returning to my workspace, stopped as we watched the snow come down together.


Learning to Fail Better



There’s a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that I make students read. It’s called “Shitty First Drafts,” and it’s largely about the “fantasy of the uninitiated” — the idea that writers “take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” It’s a myth, I tell the students. But it’s a myth that experienced writers still have a hard time abandoning. We believe that real writers pump out perfect prose.

A few months ago, Fear No Lit accepted my pitch for an interview series called Fail Better. It has adapted a little bit, but remained close to the original intent of debunking the “fantasy of the uninitiated.” The series explores how writers become better through trial and error, failing and learning how to fail a little bit less, a little bit better, the next time. It has been fun to learn from each writer.

Here is a list of links to the interviews so far.

1. John McCarthy

A lot of the poems in Ghost County started off way too long. I don’t want to throw myself under the bus, but in the copy of the book I read from, I still make edits. One of the poems has at least six or seven lines crossed out. I’ve even reworded the way a few of the sentences read.

2. Stephanie Wilbur Ash

You need to be honest about your failure, but you can’t dwell there. You have to move forward quickly and see that knowledge as an opportunity. You have to let your feelings go and be scientific about it. … A negative result is still a result in science. You don’t feel bad about a negative result. It’s just a result.

3. Sarah Layden

With very few exceptions, I’m happy to be published, happy that someone out in the world found some sort of connection with my work. There’s little harm in being published early and online, other than being internet haunted by your past self. It’s like having your gawky seventh grade school picture on your work ID badge. Both exist, but you wouldn’t necessarily choose the former to represent who you are now.

4. Eric Blix

For me, the pleasures come when I discover something new either about a project or about the act of writing. Maybe the biggest thrill is discovering a question I didn’t know I was asking. This probably applies to both drafting and revising, which for me typically overlap to the point of being essentially the same thing.

Next up on Fail Better: an interview with short story writer Hasanthika Sirisena in June!

16 Things That Didn’t Suck About My 2016

Last night I superglued my thumb and forefinger together. Not on purpose. I was attempting to repair a ceramic spoon rest that my jackass cat, Herman, jumped from one counter he’s not supposed to be on to another counter, which he’s also not supposed to be on. A miscalculation on his part shot the spoon rest at the back of the counter and sent him falling to the hardwood.

This rectangular dish my wife and I had bought early on in our relationship, during a school trip to France. It had survived five moves, one across state lines. But it couldn’t survive 2016 unmarred.

It’s become popular to blame 2016 for everything bad. But as a person, not just a span of time. One of my friends put it this way:

The personification of 2016 as a supervillain is pretty interesting. We seem to feel helpless, as if the year is out to get us and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. There’s just no better way, we seem to be saying, to express our bewilderment with the countless unfortunate events of the past 52 weeks. From humanitarian crises to celebrity deaths to political nightmares—or on a personal level, my wife and I getting laid off, my grandpa Charlie being diagnosed with cancer, and the unexpected death of my cousin Kim—some nefarious nutcase must be purposely perpetrating this horror show.

With all the bad remaining ever-present, it can be difficult to remember the good. So I decided to make a list of things that were pretty great about this year, even if, overall, I’d still like see 2016 get kicked in the balls and stumble backwards to fall into an active volcano.

1. New digs


In June, Stephanie and I moved into a house in Mankato that we really love. Built in 1908, it has hardwood floors and built-in cabinets. It’s a rental, yes, but it’s the type of house that we’d like to own one day. Did I mention that two of our best friends here in MN live in the upstairs unit?

2. First Anniversary at the North Shore


Stephanie and I stayed at an Airbnb in Two Harbors, Minnesota, for our anniversary. Exploring Duluth and other areas along the shore of Lake Superior ranks among my top experiences of 2016. We went as far north as Judge CR Magney State Park, about 30 miles from the Canadian border, where we hiked the Devil’s Kettle trail. It was a great place to celebrate one year of marriage and look forward to many, many more.

3. Scavenger HuntMidwestern Gothic issue 22 literary journal

My short story “Scavenger Hunt” was accepted for publication in the summer issue of Midwestern Gothic. Which features a photo of the cable cars at the Minnesota State Fair on its cover. (The story also received honorable mention for MSU Mankato’s Robert C. Wright award.)

4. Independence Day Pregame Party


Using our new house to its fullest potential, we and Tyler and Erin hosted an American barbecue two days before the Fourth of July. We grilled out, tie-dyed T-shirts, and roasted marshmallows to a patriotic playlist. An intense Euchre tournament continued long after the sun went down. It was great to spend time with 20+ friends from the MFA program and their significant others, some of whom had just graduated and would soon move away.

5. AWP 16

Attending the Associated Writers & Writing Programs convention in Los Angeles was definitely a highlight. It also provided plenty of fodder for a short story I’ve been working on about an actress on the lam who wants to go back to doing commercials, those no-name anonymous roles, like she had to take at the start of her career.

6. Stranger Things, etc.


Who didn’t love this quirky, ’80s throwback series? We binge-watched every episode in one day. Can’t wait for season two. #justiceforbarb

Some pretty good, thought-provoking movies came out this year. The documentary 13th is a must-see for all Americans, and The Lobster is an absolutely stunning piece of art.

img_03787. Elizabeth Moving to Minnesota

The day we watched Stranger Things was the day after my littlest sister Elizabeth moved into the dorms at MSU. Her living in Mankato has been great, especially our regular Sunday dinners.

It’s still weird to run into each other on the bus or at Target, but it’s nice to have her nearby. Plus, my family visits more.

7. Novel Workshop

Over the fall semester, I worked on creating a novel. The goal of the course was to produce a lot of words, to have a decent first draft that we could work on later with the skills we learned during the semester. I ended with more than 60,000 words and a good idea of how to address the myriad issues that demand I keep slogging away. Hopefully, this mess will turn into a beautiful, polished thesis by April 2018.

8. Prodigal Remodeler

bad jobs and bullshit anthology

My personal essay “Prodigal Remodeler” was accepted for publication in The Geeky Press’s anthology Bad Jobs & Bullshit. This is the first piece of creative nonfiction I’ve published, and it’s about something that means a lot to me, something I consider pretty much as key to me becoming the person I am as my education: working construction with my dad.

9. Publishing Grandpa Figy’s Memoir


My Grandpa Figy does not call himself a writer, instead using terms like “old chicken-plucker.” But over the past few years, he has labored away on a book about his life. It was never about making money. Writing the book was about fulfilling a lifelong dream and having something to give to his friends and family. This year after a lot of time spent editing and designing, I was able to help him print 100 copies of the book called What Life Is. I’d suggested the title What a Life Is based on a line in the text, but grandpa, being a man of definites, wanted to delete the indefinite article. Before I’d even seen them, he said they were all spoken for. We had to order 100 more.

10. Thanksgiving

Being around all of my Figy family was a nice reprieve from school life. Plus, the food!

blind-pilot-cover-art_sq-849a7a0e2d3debce76d65026091c30b494a0f646-s300-c8511. Blind Pilot’s New Album

And Then Like Lions by Blind Pilot was probably my favorite album of 2016. Stephanie and I were able to catch the band’s performance in Minneapolis this fall, and it only reinforced this opinion. The concert also introduced us to folk quartet River Whyless, whose 2016 release, We All the Light, is an excellent album as well.

However, And Then Like Lions was the soundtrack to many miles on the road and late nights studying, writing, or prepping to teach. Joik #3 is one of the top cuts from the album.

12. The Good Brews


I don’t drink beer often—okay, that’s a lie—but still, when I do, it’s not Dos Equis. It’s the good stuff. This year I was able to try new brews in Indianapolis (Metazoa), Beijing (Great Leap & Arrow) and Shanghai (Boxing Cat), and a lot from across Minnesota (Castle Danger, Wild Minds, Voyageur, Montgomery, etc.). I don’t think I’m a snob, but call me one if you please.

13. Reading Year

My goal this year was to read one book each week, and I exceeded it. Only two rereads. This is the most I’ve ever read in a year, partly because I have to read a lot for classes, and my reading speed has increased quite a bit. Also, Jonathan Safran For released a new book in 2016 after a decade-long wait. The more books I read, the more books I realize I haven’t read. A quote from Mary Ruefle’s poem “Merengue,” which I read in her Selected Poems this year, comes to mind:

What book will you be reading when you die?

If it’s a good one, you won’t finish it.

If it’s a bad one, what a shame.

14. To My Healthy

In 2016, at the tender age of 27, I had my first physical. I also sought help for my mental health. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for more than a decade, and was diagnosed on the extreme end of both this summer. In the spring, I was so tightly wound at a poetry reading that a friend wouldn’t stop asking if I was okay. After a panic attack forced me to leave yoga class—YOGA CLASS, the most relaxing, mindful place one can be—I decided it was time.

Since I would be teaching in the fall and didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of students, and since I would be traveling to Beijing where 21 million people live, something needed to happen. Things have been much better since.

15. China


Stephanie and I travelled to Beijing and visited our friend Ben, then travelled south with him to Shanghai and Shaoxing. We walked a portion of the Great Wall and explored small hutongs. From the people to the food to the architecture to—oh my gosh—just everything—it was such an incredible experience.

One thing the doctor told me to do to combat anxiety is picture myself where I want to be. I didn’t know where that was before going to China. Now I picture myself in the courtyard of the Lama Temple on a sweaty day with Stephanie and Ben, the smell of incense rising through the air.

16. Teaching


My first teacher mug, a gift from the director of composition.

I wanted to become a teaching assistant to find out if I was any good at teaching and if I enjoyed it. I know the answer to the latter, and as for the former, I believe I at least did no harm. Teaching, like writing, is a skill that everyone has to work on—and work on, and work on, and work on some more. Continuing to work on my teaching abilities while not screwing up too badly is my goal for now; being boss at it will hopefully come later.

At the end of my first semester teaching, the director of composition reminded all of us new TAs how much power we have to engage students, to help them write, and by necessity think, better. This work gives us a chance to make a difference in students’ lives every day, she said. She said, Not many people have that opportunity. Looking ahead to the new year, I hope to prove those words true. I hope as a reader, writer, listener, husband, son, brother, volunteer, and teacher to make an impact.

And I hope we will forget about that jerk called 2016. And I hope we will not view 2017 the same way, as a maniacal madman inflicting his ill will upon us. Let us look at it as a story, something that each one must write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and continue to make sense of as we go.

The 60-foot tall Buddha and my first last day of teaching


(Note: Student already had an A before sending this.)

Ten days before teaching assistant workshop began, my wife and I got on a plane for Beijing. Reading books and workshop materials, and sleeping, occupied me over the thirteen-hour flight. Anxious about teaching, I studied the sheets closely, making notes.

In China, we visited the Lama Temple, where visitors lit incense, despite the stifling heat, and prayed to Buddhas at the red, green, and gold structures with orange tile roofs. At the furthest pagoda stands a sixty-foot-tall statue, not counting its base below ground, carved from a single sandalwood tree. Standing nearby, my friend Zefeng told me to make a wish. “It’s not a religious thing,” he said when I hesitated.

The issue, though, was deciding what to wish for. I am not hungry or homeless, uneducated or unloved. But my wish came to mind, stemming from my anxiety about TA workshop. I wished at the towering Buddha’s feet to be a good teacher. Or at least, I thought, not to screw it up.

The workshop came and went like a whirlwind, and all of the sudden, I was standing in front of twenty-five students who expected me to say things. Smart things.

The first task was figuring out their names and then figuring out how to remember them, both of which I failed. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but what I realized is: It is a big deal to them. This very basic slip-up told them whether I cared enough to know who they are. I made a point to write down the ones that tripped me up and memorize where they sat.

Thankfully, they choose their chairs forever. Even if the semester lasted a decade, not a one would consider switching locations.

One crisis averted, I moved on to the next: creating engaging activities. Some activities I thought would be engaging fell flat, while others I was unsure about were roaring successes. They either succeeded or did not based on whether they engaged the students. Did the students become invested in the activity? Did they find it fun? Did they feel like they learned something as well? For successful activities, the answer to all of these would be yes. However, it is still unclear why some activities did not meet some of these criteria.

I wondered why the Twitter rhetoric activity was not as fun as it could have been. I wondered why students were so distracted during an audience activity in which they had to write about their favorite movie, then write about it to convince me and a classmate that it was a great movie based on what they know about us. Most of the time, it came down to a lack of structure. I had not thought through all of the tiny details about the activity, and that made it stressful, and maybe a little bit annoying, for the students.

My biggest successes were the Logical Fallacies Theatre and teaching sentence patterns activities I created. Logical Fallacies Theatre required six groups of four students to act out a short skit that illustrated a logical fallacy. One part always chimed in with: “This is a classic example of the [fill in the blank] fallacy…” The students were not sold at first, but at the end, I overheard one student tell another, “That was actually fun.”

For the sentence patterns activity, I divided the students into groups and had them create a short lesson based on materials I provided them about common sentence patterns. One of the reasons it succeeded, I believe, is that I modeled a micro lesson for them first. This was one thing my TA mentor advised I do more of after her observation. The students did a great job of coming up with their own examples, and afterward, I uploaded a document to D2L that contained examples from the class. It seems that doing this gives value to their work and makes them more confident in their composition acumen.

The final day of class, we put together what I called The English 101 Bible. Students worked in groups of two or three, which I randomly created to prevent cliquish work avoidance, to write a page about an important composition concept. This seemed to be an appropriate test of their knowledge in lieu of a final exam. I was not sure how well it would work, or if I really wanted to know how much they had learned over the semester, but they all did very well. Some of them even surprised me by writing things from their notes that I had said in class but had not posted on D2L. I compiled the work with everyone’s names and sent the PDF as a reference for future courses but also as a way to show them that they do know how to write.

We had a party in another room after writing the Bible. Each student shared what they improved at over the semester and which skills still need work. The final student to share, an international student who had expressed his anxiety about the class early on, answered, “Everything.” I asked if that meant he got better at everything or needed to improve at everything. “Both,” he said. He laughed and everyone joined him. With a smile, he added, “I didn’t know any of this stuff before—thesis statements or APA.” It made me feel like I had done something good and important. Which is what I’d been striving toward since I first applied for a teaching assistantship.

To close, I thanked the students, whom I could name at a glance, for such a great semester. I gave my Mr. Feeney speech, saying that they learned many things over the semester, but the two most important are how to organize their thoughts and how to craft a rational argument.

“You’ve learned how to look at other people’s viewpoints and agree or disagree using research and actual factual information,” I said. “And those two things, I believe, are the signs of an educated person.”

They applauded, as if it really were an episode of Boy Meets World, and then filed out, and my first last day of teaching ended.

Buddha at Lama Temple, Beijing

Carved from a single piece of white sandalwood, this Buddha at the Yonghe Temple stands about 60 feet tall, though there is more buried underground to support it.

Did I get my wish then? Though there were struggles, I didn’t screw up—well, not everything. Much of this came from hard work, not any cosmic forces or the alignment of stars. So I will continue to work on activities and assignments and to build a catalogue of both. However, my anxiety about not having anything to say to the students has faded, a little bit, at least.

My wish did have some strings attached. Striding through the stone courtyard, Ben said that if your wish comes true, you are supposed to visit the temple again to return the good fortune. That way, you do not hog all the luck, and someone else can share in the good fortune. While I will keep working to become the best teacher I can be, I can’t help daydreaming about maybe, one day, revisiting the tall, tall Buddha.

Reflecting On: Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me

I wrote a piece about Brand New’s third album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, for the music site It’s All Dead. Check it out!

it's all dead

I wasn’t into Brand New before it was cool. But I did love the Long Island emo rockers before The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me landed on November 20, 2006. In fact, I was waiting for it. By that time, I knew what to expect—straightforward mid-aughts rock with pop punk undertones and emo vocals. That, however, is not what the band brought to the table with its third album.

The first track, “Sowing Season (Yeah),” begins quietly—Jesse Lacey’s vocals just a whisper, the solitary guitar a mere hum—before exploding into a mourning waltz. “Time to get the seeds into the cold ground,” the lyrics say. “Takes a while to grow anything before it’s coming to an end, yeah.” Lacey, who was raised in a religious family and attended Christian school, is no doubt referring to the parable of the sower. The sower spreads seeds of faith across his…

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