Making Small Talk

I held the door open for an older woman carrying two tote bags full of books out of the library.

She said, “The sun’s nice. If only it were 40 degrees warmer!”

“At this point, I’d take 20.”

“True! Don’t want to get greedy.”

And that was that. We went to our cars. I cranked up the heater.

A big part of being taught how to write is all about removing unnecessary conversation. Trimming “shoe leather” from scenes.

It’s common for people to say they don’t “do” small talk, or that they’re uncomfortable with it.

But some days, I really like small talk.

It’s almost always about something directly in front of the two people having the conversation. It’s a moment of shared presence.

We could have absolutely nothing else in common other than both being at the same place at the same time, but we’re taking a moment to acknowledge that.

We are here. We’re here together.


My First Lockdown

My school was on lockdown today. There was a shooting in the dorms on campus this morning, and we were told to shelter in place about five minutes into my second class of the day.

It’s still raw for me, but I need to get this out of my system now.

I don’t have a coherent narrative here. Just some moments. Things that happened.

My One Phone Call

I allowed myself one call at the very beginning, before we knew much, just so I could get my head in the game and focus on the fifteen people in my room. I called my wife, said we were on lockdown, said I loved her, and told her I’d keep her updated.

This was both the appropriate thing to do, as well as a completely shitty thing to do.

She needed to know right away, but I had next to no information for her. It was basically saying “You may need to start panicking a lot, or you might only need to panic just a little for a minute and everything will be fine.”

Not calling would’ve been worse, no matter how the situation ended.

This is apparently my job

  • I had to decide on and direct how we were going to situate ourselves during a lockdown to keep everyone calm and make ourselves less susceptible to potential threats.
  • I had to bring in additional students from the hall who weren’t in class at the time and make them feel comfortable, even though they’re strangers.
  • I had to manage the emotional and physical well-being of a group of people in a high-stress, limited-information environment.
  • I had to stay calm and keep from indulging in my own desire to obsessively look for more updates on what was actually happening.
  • I had to hold in check those moments when my own fear might spike.
  • I had to coordinate my actions with the other people in the building and the directives of university police.

My lesson plan for today involved workshopping some student assignments and letting them go a little early since it’s the last day of class before spring break.

We may not have gotten through all of that.

When There’s Nothing Left To Do, Laugh

Here’s the thing: Being a dad has totally changed my perspective on so many things, but I think the biggest is the value of goofy distraction.

When a small child is locked in to their fight-or-flight freak out response, sometimes you can snap them out of it with just the right distraction.

As it turns out, this can sometimes still work as we get older.

There were many bad puns. There were some side conversations about what we would not be covering in class. There was an extended conversation where I got people who were scared to stop thinking about it for a few minutes and tell the rest of us about their favorite movies.

And I may have monologued a bit on why they all need to watch The Brothers Bloom.

Now that I think about it, that’s something I learned from Rio Bravo, too: Sometimes, even when it feels like there’s danger all around you, you’ve just got to fill that time while you’re waiting. Fill it with whatever you can so fear doesn’t have enough space to take hold.

I am definitely not the kind of person you want managing a large-scale emergency response.

But if you want somebody who will get you to put down your phone and snap out of your cycle of fear for 90 seconds so you don’t collapse under the weight of your anxiety? I’m your huckleberry.

The Kids Are A Little Too Alright

For the most part, the students in my classroom took this pretty well. Or at least they appeared to.

They knew the drill. You check social media. Text and call the people you need to. See who’s following on a police scanner and report it to the rest of the room. Sit tight.

There were a few moments it looked like an absolutely normal classroom, with no outward signs of the manhunt going on outside.

I was glad to see that they were doing a decent job of going with the flow, but the more it sank in, the sadder I felt that this felt so shrug-worthy to them. This is just a thing that needs to be dealt with from time to time. Sheltering in place while police search for a shooter is normal.

The Right Stuff

There’s a line from Trudy Cooper in The Right Stuff that I’m thinking about now.

I went back east to a reunion and all my friends could talk about their husband’s work. How “dog-eat-dog” and cutthroat it was on Madison Ave. Places like that. Cutthroat. I wondered how they would’ve felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one in four chance he wouldn’t come out of that meeting.

Astronauts have dangerous jobs. Police, firefighters, and first responders have dangerous jobs.

Nobody becomes a teacher with the expectation that it’s going to be a dangerous job.

Even though we’ve had shootings in schools for years. Even though we’ve had tragedy after tragedy. You never think you’re going to actually have to come face-to-face with a room full of students looking for you to control a potentially deadly situation.

And the whole time, my brain was instinctively trying to minimize my own fear:

  • It’s not a real school shooting, because they don’t have the weaponry to kill a lot of students indiscriminately.
  • It’s not a real school shooting, because they keep reminding us in the alert messages that no students have been shot.
  • It’s not a *real school shooting, because nothing happened in the actual building I’m in.
  • It’s not a real

But you know what was real?


Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear that you’re experiencing for a tangible, actual reason, and fear you’re experiencing because you’re just thinking about it. That’s how entertainment works: You empathize with the imagined fear of others.

At the start of that lockdown, the fear was real for all the students in my room, even if the threat was less direct to us.

The fear was real.

Fear that comes from knowing that these things just keep happening in this country.

Fear that comes from the knowledge that a person with ill will in their heart and a gun is deadlier than a person with ill will all by themselves.

Fear that comes from students believing that not a single person with any power in this country believes their lives are worth protecting.

I have nothing but bile and contempt for every spineless politician that’s never had to sit in a room full of people, every one of them afraid, looking for you to tell them it’ll be okay. And then to make good on that promise.

The One Bright Side

So many people reached out and got in touch with me throughout this day.

Thank you. Every single one of you.

Thank you for your support, your prayers, your shared fury.

We have to do better, and you make me believe it’s possible.

The Be Here Now Box

Last semester I chose to take a stand on student phone use in class.

I wasn’t just getting the occasional person doing a bad job hiding that they were texting in the middle of class. People would take out their phones multiple times during an hour-long lecture. People would keep earbuds in. People in the front row would sit staring at their phones for extended periods, right in front of me.

Talk to any educator and you’ll get plenty of kids-these-days gripes on the subject (as if kids always paid 100% attention to classes before phones). But phones do present a particular, difficult problem.

Teaching at a university instead of at a high school or middle school, I didn’t want to use an authoritarian demand for phones to stay out of the classroom with draconian penalties would only make students work slightly harder to hide phone use, and would force me to distract myself from teaching to enforce it.

I had to think about the underlying problem. If this were just about making sure I had all eyes on me for the entire lecture, it would feel like an ego problem, and it would be easier to deal with that by adjusting my expectations and taking some time for self reflexion. I could solve that problem more easily than convincing a room full of adults to stop touching their phones.

But looking at the work my students turned in, I saw there was a different reason to question their phone use: focus. With so many students getting marked down on their assignments for unforced errors that showed they weren’t focusing, I had a larger beast to slay than students not paying attention in class.

They weren’t paying attention to what they were doing, full stop.

Whatever solution I proposed had to be voluntary (so I could avoid the enforcement problem). It had to be persuasive. It had to use social pressure.

That’s when I came up with THE BE HERE NOW BOX.


The best part about having a box is that you’ve got a physical prop. Something to hold up and point to. A novel object that draws attention.

I made my pitch: This isn’t about me — It’s about you. You’re not getting the class you’re paying for if you don’t pay attention. You’re giving up control of your attention by letting something distracting sit within arm’s reach for this hour. You may think that it doesn’t effect your attention, but studies show that multi-tasking not only reduces willpower but cognitive performance.

Being next to your phone distracts you, and you won’t even perceive any change in your attentiveness or mental ability.

So, if they were able; if they didn’t have any pending obligation or potential emergency that might require them to take immediate action, I asked them to make a choice: To take control of their attention and put their phone in the box. Make one decision this hour instead of having to make the choice to ignore your phone over and over throughout the hour.

It worked. Sort of.

Some classes participated more than others. The classes that needed it the most were also the most reluctant. But I saw an overall increase in participation, and the class that put the most phones in the box had the highest grades.

Anecdotal? Sure. It definitely wasn’t a controlled study. But it happened.

But that was last semester.

I knew I wanted to bring the box back for the new semester, but I wanted to refine my pitch. I figured if there was a way to pitch it more effectively, I could get more people to try it out. If I could find a better argument, better facts, or a more persuasive opening statement…

If I could do a better job, maybe more people would give it a shot.

But what did it actually mean to do a better job? How was I measuring success? More students putting aside their phones? More consistency from the students who initially tried it out? Students telling me they made their own box at home? Better student performance on assignments, showing an increase in mindful attention?

What was a win?

I was stuck, so I decided to try blogging about it to see if I could generate a better sense of what I wanted to say. But that pointed my attention to another problem.

I have a backlog of unfinished ideas and drafts for blog posts. Some abandoned, some not even started.

Over the last year, I had some posts that were well-received. Some work I got paid to write. A few posts got more views in a month than the blog had seen in a year.

It was cool. I felt cool.

And then I felt like I needed to do more of the same thing. Or try to maximize the value of that new audience. Or just do something. Anything.

And the ideas kept piling up, but nothing got posted.

It wasn’t until I got deep into watching The Good Place that I felt like I had the language to describe what was going on with me. That feeling of my brain turning into a Möbius strip of indecision, twisting and circling with justifications, re-evaluations, and new new directions.

Nothing felt good enough, because nothing felt like it was definitely that one thing that would move me forward. That would take the “I’m a Writer” part of my career to the next level. To even help me figure out what level I was on.

Good Place - Chidi Fork Garbage Disposal.gif

I was going full-Chidi.

There’s a passage in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind about fruitless work towards a goal:

One day while he was studying under Nangaku, Baso was sitting, practicing zazen…

Nangaku saw him sitting like a great mountain or like a frog. Nangaku asked, “What are you doing?” “I am practicing zazen,” Baso replied. “Why are you practicing zazen?” “I want to attain enlightenment; I want to be a Buddha,” the disciple said. Do you know what the teacher did? He picked up a tile, and he started to polish it. In Japan, after taking a tile from the kiln, we polish it to give it a beautiful finish. So Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it. Baso, his disciple, asked, “What are you doing?” “I want to make this tile into a jewel,” Nangaku said. “How is it possible to make a tile a jewel?” Baso asked. “How is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?” Nangaku replied. “Do you want to attain Buddhahood? There is no Buddhahood besides your ordinary mind. When a cart does not go, which do you whip, the cart or the horse?” the master asked.

The book is one of my go-to totems for when I’m totally freaking out, and I happened to flip over to this passage. Fortunate timing.

And then I remembered a post from CJ Chilvers on the why of blogging in the present moment:

The pros advise that long-form writing (going deep into a subject) is the best way to get any real attention and deal with the way Google, Facebook and Twitter have transformed how information is consumed online. You post something epic once in a great while, and promote over and over. Attention spans are shorter and readers aren’t using RSS anymore. If you want attention and sales, you have to go out and grab the attention, then offer something with extreme value to get the authority to sell something. They’re correct.

The hobbyists (and one prominent pro — Seth Godin) profess that it’s the opposite that has the most positive impact on your life and mental health: short-form writing, and just getting your ideas out there. They’re correct.

I’ve been thinking about this in my own life and career for the past month and I think I’ve come up with a theory: one is a business model, one is a life model.

​I’ve watched this site get stale; turning instead to the pursuit of likes and retweets, and the spending too much time chasing the empty satisfaction that comes from a “good” tweet.

I haven’t spent enough time trying to see what I actually value, and what I actually want to get out of my brain and into the world.

I’ve spent so much time trying to re-define what success is, I stopped producing anything that could get me closer to… Well, any definition of feeling successful.

So, as I’m getting closer to my birthday at the end of the week, I’m resolving to be less precious this year. I’m resolving to stop treating a blog as a means to an end, but instead as an end unto itself. To focus on satisfaction instead of success.

Success is as much given as it is earned. Satisfaction doesn’t require outside intervention.

The only way I’ll be satisfied is if I learn to take pride in my words themselves instead of pride in how widely my words travel.

My phone isn’t the only thing I need to put away if I’m going to get real work done.

Enough for Today

The dishwasher broke on Thanksgiving. Even five people can generate a lot of dirty plates on Thanksgiving. Learning the basics of dishwasher diagnostics could wait for morning, but the dishes themselves couldn’t.

My mom took charge of cleanup (saying my wife and I had done all the cooking and needed a break). While scraping and scrubbing, she mentioned she’d learned something about my grandfather on her last trip down to West Virginia to visit her parents.

Everyone in the family knew he never earned his high school diploma. Even without it, he’d served in the Army, had a long career back home, raised four kids, and did a savvy job managing both his investments and the timber on his property.

But he’d kept part of that story a secret, even from his kids: He dropped out of school at ten years old.

His mother died. He needed to work odd jobs. It was just what he had to do.

And my mom told me about how he pushed all his kids to finish high school. It reminded me how he’d encouraged me to keep my grades up by paying me a quarter for every A on my report card. How he’d always remind me that your mind is the only thing that nobody can ever take away from you.

And I thought about the pride I heard when I called to tell him that I’d found a job teaching at a university. He left school at fourth grade, and now his grandson was a college professor.

There are bad days. Days when you feel like the brass ring you’re grasping for will always stay out of reach.

On those days, look to the people who care about you. See how you might be fulfilling their dreams.

See if that can be enough until tomorrow, when you have a chance to try again.

Boiling River

Early in the morning of our last day in Yellowstone, my wife, Dena, and father-in-law wanted to take me to Boiling River.

Boiling River is where the Gardiner River meets up with a hot spring. You can climb into the water and have a soak, with the swirling current and shallow, rocky river bed forming an all-natural, certified organic hot tub.

Unfortunately, when we parked nearby, I couldn’t find my river shoes. On a cross-country road trip with six people, not enough space, and all their stuff, this kind of thing happens.

It would be a 25 minute drive back to the hotel, and we didn’t have time for a second round trip.

Dena could see the scowl forming on my face. “Don’t stew on it,” she said. We needed to get moving if we were going at all. My $5 Old Navy flip flops would have to be good enough.

As we walked along the gravel path to the swimmer’s entrance, Dena and her dad pointed out different parts of the river, and told me about how when they’d come down the other night, it had been packed with people. We were lucky to be out so early, since it looked like it would be easy to find a spot to sit down and relax.

My father-in-law also mentioned not to stick my head in the water, especially my ears, since the water might be swarming with brain-eating amoebas.


We hung our towels up on a fence and walked down a slope to the river’s edge. As soon as I dipped my feet in, I knew my flip flops weren’t a smart choice. The water pushed down as I lifted my foot up, creating drag with each step.

I took lower, gliding steps and did my best to curl my feet, trying to grip the flimsy plastic with my toes, while keeping my balance on the smooth, wobbly rocks.

After catching up with Dena and her dad, I sat down. The tension of the last few minutes melted away as I found a spot where the currents mixed to the perfect temperature.

I wasn’t thinking about brain-eating amoebas, or the days we’d spent crammed into cars driving out here, or or the logistics of bringing an almost-three-year-old on such a big trip.

I sat quietly, feeling the river flow around me. We watched a bird of prey glide in circles overhead.

But we needed to leave and meet back up with the rest of the family. I stood up and started following Dena back to the entrance.

I plodded upstream, taking my time, trying to get solid footing. I fell behind.

And then the current yanked a flip flop off my foot.

It shot downstream toward a shaggy, surfer-type. He tried to catch it, but it zipped past his grasp.

“Alright,” I thought. “Don’t stew on this.”

I don’t go outside barefoot. Even as a kid, I never liked direct contact between my feet and nature.

I took a moment to get my bearings. I looked up at Dena, then upstream past her to the swimmer’s entrance.

I planted my bare foot on a rock to see how it felt. A little slick, but solid.

Goal set, I reminded myself that sitting back down and staying in the river forever was not an option. While not ideal to walk back on one flip flop, it could be done, one step at a time.

And the next step I took sent my other flip flop flying down toward the surfer. He missed that one, too.

I’d love to say I made a dignified march in my bare feet back to shore, deftly navigating the current and shifting stones. But that would be lying.

The next few minutes involved a lot of struggling for traction on slippery, river-smoothed rocks, punctuated by sharp moments of pain stepping on smaller, jagged stones.

I wobbled, frantically waving my arms to keep from falling on my face (because let’s not forget about the brain-eating amoebas).

I misjudged the current as I moved toward a larger stone and smashed my big toe against a rock as I lost my footing. I swore. Then I looked up and saw two parents and their four-year-old son a few feet away.

I quickly convinced myself I had heard them speaking German so I could at the very least keep from feeling embarrassed about my language.

But even after all that, I made it back to the shore. I took my towel off the fence and sat down on a bench. I caught my breath.

I made it.

And then I looked over at the gravel path I still had to walk on to get back to the parking lot.

At this point, I didn’t even bother starting to stew on the problem.

When my feet pressed down on the gravel, I felt even more pain than I’d anticipated. It was the combination of tiny, pointy rocks and a week’s worth of already sore feet from sightseeing.

But the path was the only way back to the parking lot. I took it slow. Big steps, pausing whenever I caught a particularly bad jab.

And then something funny happened. A group of people walking past us the opposite way whispered “Is he barefoot?” with a mix of shock and awe.

I turned to Dena, about to crack up. “They think I’m a badass!”

So, I played the part. I took my hesitant, big steps up until the point where I saw someone coming. Then I switched to strutting, just to see if people would react.

It was a stupid game. I understand this. But it also kept me moving and made the situation a little funnier.

A few minutes in I noticed that every so often there was a span of chalky white logs, bolted to the ground on the sides of the path. I hadn’t noticed them on the walk to the river, but now I was using them as balance beams, reveling in how smooth they felt against my feet.

If every situation were so simple, we wouldn’t need reminders not to dwell on the problem itself and start looking for a solution. Compared to a lot of problems, “I’m in a river and need to get back out right now,” has a refreshing clarity.

Stewing, complaining, or otherwise dwelling on the problem acts as a form of denial. Denying that you’re ready to solve the problem. Denying that you can even believe that you have this problem. Denying that it’s your problem to solve. Denying that a solution exists.

You need to accept the problem before you can move past it, and once you’re in motion, the problem becomes less important than staying in motion.