Back to School, Fifteen Years Later

On campus.
On campus.

It has been fifteen years since I strolled across the stage in Union University’s chapel, shook Dr. Dockery’s hand, and officially ended my college career.  Then began fifteen years of life experience–some of it hard, some of it triumphant, some self-inflicted, and some not.  For fifteen years I have been figuring things out.  And while many riddles remain unsolved, there is one thing that I knew it was time to do:  go back to school.  The time was ripe for pursuing that master’s degree that I had long claimed to want.


Returning to school was an adjustment in some unexpected ways.  Having always enjoyed that setting, I thought that I would slide back into it with ease.  But here is the thing–I am not who I was fifteen years ago.  No one is.  We are ever changing–tastes, styles, likes, dislikes, views, routines, relationships, underwear–and often imperceptibly.  Age, alone, brings about changes.  It was naive to think that I would transition so easily.  In our late teens and early twenties, we are kids who think that we are adults.  In my late thirties, I have no such illusions–the kid years are long gone.  By the way, college kids have not changed.  They still wear ridiculous hats and pajamas to class; they still stay up all night “studying”; they still sneak around and smoke cigarettes (they have to sneak at Belmont, as the campus is smoke-free).  The smell of identity-searching fills the air.  Conversely, my dress is fairly conservative, I have a wife and a two-year-old, I go to bed by ten, and I gave up smoking years ago.  Every night on campus (graduate classes are mostly all at night), I am aware that my peers and I are in the minority.  There is much less leisure for us.  Whereas the undergraduate may spend the hours between classes hanging out in the dorm or the student center or at Bongo Java across the street, having animated, idealistic discussions about the subjects on which they are now experts, I am navigating a toddler drop-off with my wife on the other side of town in rush hour traffic or arranging to be late for work so I can turn in a paper in hard copy, which my teachers unscrupulously demand, despite the age of email in which we live.  These are not complaints, however.  Let me emphasize that.  These are merely illustrations showing how the rules of the game have changed on this second go-around.  I am thrilled to be back in school, but the logistics of making it happen have become much more of a balancing act.  That said, semester’s end brings an elation like I never felt as an undergrad.  There is more reading and writing in one graduate English class than in a full course load at the undergraduate level (at least it feels that way).  A completed semester feels like an enormous accomplishment.


There was a point near the end of the most recent semester when I finally felt like a part of the school, integrated into the body of learners, professors, and buildings.  Walking to class from the parking garage, passing between two lines of fiery red maples, it finally hit me.  It had taken two semesters to sink in, but I now felt like a student.  Of course, I had known I was a student since summer–my student account attests to that–but I did not feel like one.  For much of those first two semesters, it felt like I was pretending to be a student, reading and writing a lot in the early morning hours and showing up once a week on campus with a backpack.  It was like a very aware dream.  So much time had been spent in frustration over a job that had grown tedious that the thought of pursuing something different seemed forever out of reach.  But it was, and is, happening.


Speaking of that job, it has taught me something very valuable.  It has taught me how to work when I do not feel like working.  After an inspiration-sapping shift, when the easy chair calls most vehemently, an inner voice reminds me that the schoolwork has to get done.  It just has to!  Thankfully, it is a rewarding endeavor.  Never have I regretted sitting down to my assignments.  As discipline triumphs over lethargy–a battle fought often–the academic effort becomes increasingly satisfying.  And there is something else that will be satisfying:  commencement.  The day will come when I will stroll across a different stage and shake a different hand.  That will be its own kind of elation.

Hiking up a Mountain, Which Sits atop a Famous Cave

Cardwell CollageHalf-an-hour or so after noting that this particular hike, taken on a chilly early-March morning, may be the quietest one I had yet experienced in Middle Tennessee, a vicious rumbly roar issued from an indefinite distance.  This was not an animal’s roar.  It was manmade–the product of explosives.  The big sound shook me from my reverie, and I searched for its source.  Through an opening in the bare-branched canopy I watched a wide cloud of gray-brown smoke disperse upward off a faraway hillside and take slow flight on the breeze.  A dynamite explosion, perhaps, for some mining or quarrying process, was my first assumption.  Unexpected outbursts often startle, but in this wooded sanctuary, it was plain unnerving.  After a period of bemusement, there was nothing to do but trudge onward.


An ominous air had already insinuated itself upon the morning, beginning when, en route to the trailhead, I turned onto a narrow, shoulderless two-laner named Dark Hollow Road.  It seemed the kind of remote rural backroad that has some grim legend attached, the details of which the locals are familiar but outsiders are regrettably unaware.  Once on the trail, the total absence of other hikers lent its own eerie charm to the labyrinthian limestone, and a fresh, sizable set of canine pawprints, big as my forefoot, was a nice touch.  I measured a print at four-and-a-half inches long, which is well within range of a mature wolf’s.  The tracks may have belonged to a large, friendly dog, but being in a spooky frame of mind, I was picturing a red wolf that had migrated west from the Smoky Mountains, hunting these very woods.  All of this just adds to the enjoyment of a solitary hike, however.  These dangers are mostly imaginary and provide the same brand of innocent thrills one may experience on a trek through a haunted forest during the Halloween season.


Later, having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders, the earlier disruption was becoming a memory.  Peace had been restored.  Buzzards circled overhead, their shadows crossing the ground endlessly before me–yet another spooky element.  But in spite of these things that may seem scary to the imagination, the very real and present danger seemed to be the explosion that had occurred that morning.  It carried a violence that the backroads and rocks and wolves and buzzards did not.  A question came to mind:  Is this progress?  Is this the way to steward the earth’s resources?  It feels like a perversion of stewardship.  It seems that as our kind advances with its technology, the goal should be to come into harmony with nature, not to destroy it in an attempt to take what it does not readily give.


It is naive to think we have reached a place in our collective journey where we are ready to stop taking resources from the earth.  But maybe there is a better way to do it than by blowing up vast tracts of wilderness.  Maybe a mind more technical than mine already has the solutions, and maybe those solutions will plod through the muck of bureaucratic special interests and come to light before our wild places disappear completely.  Maybe.

...having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders...
…having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders…





The Sideshow Influence (Part Two)

Clockwise from top left: Amy Winehouse; Donna Reed; Jesse James; Tom Hanks.
Clockwise from top left: Amy Winehouse; Donna Reed; Jesse James; Tom Hanks.

The sideshow influence is highly visible in the realm of celebrity, and in the category of celebrities that appear to share common lineage with freak show performers, there is an unwashed yet attractive quality.  To say unwashed in this sense is not necessarily to say unbathed, though that may be the case.  Here, rather, the description of “unwashed” has to do with a socially subversive quality, the opposite of which is clean-cut and polite.  It is Amy Winehouse versus Donna Reed.  It deals with the adoption of an appearance or persona with roots in subculture instead of mainstream culture.  Take as example the outlaw motorcycle fabricator, Jesse James (not to be confused with outlaw robber Jesse James, though there may be striking parallels).  He is more infamous than famous, a designation that was always somewhat in place but was made concrete by his public headlong plunge into marital infidelity, the victim of which was a perceived “nice” girl, casting James even more solidly as a villain.  Yet we watch him anyway.  There he is, on a television rerun, with his tattoos, muscle shirts, slicked-back hair, and bad attitude, cracking wise and insulting everyone within tongue’s reach.  And the entire time, though amidst a swirl of antagonism and snarkiness, James emits a dark charisma, negativity notwithstanding.  There is something electrifying about his presence.  There is a feeling that, if any time was to be spent around this guy, I would need him to approve of me, for reasons known only to a therapist.  His reference would not look good on a job application, but his acquaintanceship would sure be exciting.


Now consider the much-maligned carnival worker, i.e., the carny.  The image that comes to mind will vary from person to person, but it is safe to assume it will be a marginal character, probably dirty and evil-looking (whatever that means, “evil-looking” being a fluid concept that changes from era to era and among the classes).  In spite of the sweat-stained seediness of the soiled-jean-and-undershirt-clad, greasy-haired vagabond that I imagine, it must be admitted that, beyond the revulsion, there is a sense of freedom that is very attractive.  It may be a thing projected onto the carny from my imagination, but it is there, and the reason why is unclear.  Is it attractive precisely because it would be out of character to espouse such a lifestyle?  Is it the vicarious thrill of glimpsing a freedom only hitherto imagined?  It matters less whether the carny actually feels free.  It is the perception of freedom that matters.  Like many of us, these scandalites tend to wallow in the grip of one vice or another.  The difference is, their shortcomings are on display in a way ours are not.  The carny inspires an odd mix of curiosity and disdain that enthralls.  So it goes with notorious celebrities, like Winehouse and James (whose names put together that way make them sound like an indie-rock duo).  Some accept these marginal figures, some reject them, but they are never fully embraced by the general public in the same way as someone safe, like Tom Hanks, is.  Their names tend to come with a caveat:  “She’s a good singer, but…”, or “He builds good motorcycles, but…”  Whereas a celebrity of Hanks’s status may get an unqualified “He’s such a good actor.  I just love him.”  Then everyone piles into the minivan and heads home from the movie theater.


By definition, a sideshow happens outside the main tent.  The sideshow influence is the observable phenomenon that takes place when the denizens of the freak show begin to surface inside the tent.  It is not necessarily a bad thing; the main tent could use some variety.  Expand this freak show metaphor to the culture-at-large.  In the vast seas of clean-cut, conservatively dressed men and women expanding and contracting according to the rhythms of the workweek, it is becoming more common to spot a figure of James’s or Winehouse’s ilk, and our collective visual palate may be all the better for it.  These people remind us that life has a gritty side, which is as integral to the whole enterprise as the urbanity for which so many strive.  Chaos is just around the corner, waiting to encroach upon our neatly groomed exteriors and carefully appointed schedules.  We can resist it, accept it, or embrace it, but we cannot make it go away.  Hardly a character from popular media has expressed this notion better than radio deejay Chris Stevens (played by John Corbett) from television’s Northern Exposure.  Upon being asked why he had done something illegal, Stevens replies, “People need to be reminded that the world is unsafe and unpredictable.  And at the drop of a hat, they can lose everything, just like that…chaos is out there, and he’s lurking, beyond the horizon…sometimes you just gotta do something bad, just to know you’re alive”(“Spring Break”).  Maybe the adopted outsider status and anti-conformist posturing of certain groups of people are the very ways in which those people realize they are alive.  Whether it is bad or not, who are we to judge?



Works Cited


Amy Winehouse.  Digital image.  People.  2007.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <,,,00.html>


Donna Reed.  Digital image.  Women large jaw.  N.d.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <>.


Reality star Jesse James.  Digital image.  San Marcos Mercury.  14 Sept. 2012.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <>.


“Spring Break.”  Northern Exposure:  The Complete Second Season.  Writ. Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and David Assael.  Dir. Rob Thompson.  Universal Studios, 2006.  DVD.


Tom Hanks On HBO Pics.  Digital image.  Your Stuff Work.  2011.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <>.