Category Archives: Writing

2018, an Absolutely Remarkable Green Year


Hank and Tessa

Author Hank Green and singer Tessa Violet, two who have found fame on YouTube, discuss “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” in a video on the Tessa Violet channel.

I do not remember why or how I stumbled into the world of the Green brothers, although I’m sure it was by accident on YouTube.

Hank Green and John Green began exchanging public video chats as the Vlogbrothers more than a decade ago. John Green is a well-establish author of young adult novels, although until I read and enjoyed “Turtles All the Way Down” recently, I had not experienced any of his fiction (then again, I’m rather remote from the target audience for a young adult author, I suppose).

Anyway, I probably read that book simply because I was getting into the habit of viewing Vlogbrothers videos, and they did chat about it. The VlogBro news in fall of 2018 was that the younger brother, Hank, was joining the ranks of published authors, with the release of his first novel, “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.”

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And a few days ago, I finished reading that book. One of my daughters read it at the same time, and pronounced it “weird,” but still a book she would recommend. I agree on the “recommend,” and although I think it’s a bit unusual, I’m not so sure about the weird part. In fact, it was one of my favorite recent reads.

This is not going to be a formal book review, other than to state that I enjoyed the book. I also don’t plan to give away too many spoilers, so if you have not read the book and might, you’ll probably be safe to read this post. Anyway, the book is about a graphic artist named April May who late one night in New York City discovers what she considers to be a cool giant sculpture that has suddenly appeared. Despite it being the wee hours of the morning, she phones a friend, a YouTuber, and they shoot a quick video before the 10-foot figure, which she dubs “Carl.”

Although April does not know this, Carls have appeared in cities all over the world at the same time. And because she encountered it and posted a YouTube video first, April May stars in an instantly viral video that makes her suddenly famous. It turns out (I do not think this counts as a spoiler, it’s too obvious anyway) that the Carls are aliens, not art. (Or maybe they are alien art, but they are not terrestrial.)

While the book is partly a science fiction mystery novel, one of the things I most enjoy about it is the ruminations about the nature of fame in the internet age, as well as a playful romp through nerd pop culture. On the later, one of the hints the Carls drop as to their needs is by changing the Wikipedia entry for “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the Queen song.

Hank, you should have included “Sorry, I’m Not Sorry” somewhere in the book, too.

Anyway, cheesy pop references aside, April finds herself both denying the attraction of fame and being seduced by it, to the point of making sometimes painfully awful personal choices.

Hank Green is a celebrity in his own right, and an interesting thread in the novel is his rumination on how fame is achieved, what it means and what it does. For example, April May struggles to deal with the reality that millions of people who don’t know her strongly love or hate her, which is not the normal human condition.

Hank, in the person of April, describes five tiers of fame:

  1. Popularity—You are popular in a place. A big deal at your high school or neighborhood.
  2. Notoriety—You are well known—mayor of a medium-sized city or local meteorologist. You are one of the million or so people with a Wikipedia page.
  3. Working-Class Fame—People distributed around the world know you. A stranger may approach you in a store. You’re a musician, athlete, etc. You still have to work, but fame is your job.
  4. True Fame—So many people know you that it’s a problem. If you date someone, you may read about it in a magazine. You have no money woes, but have a gate and intercom on your driveway.
  5. Divinity—Everyone on the planet knows you. You started a nation or religion. You are not alive.

In a “Pillow Talk” video with YouTube singer Tessa Violet, Hank Green and she discuss the nature of fame as described in the novel:

The book also includes a rather realistic backlash against April, her friends and the Carls. Fear, which may not be entirely unfounded, motivates a lot of people.

The story started off feeling kind of “normal,” that is, it was just a fun adventure, “The Princess Diaries” with older characters and an alien robot. But it got a bit more eerie as it went on, which I think was both deliberate and rather well done. I’m proud to say I did anticipate a few of the twists before they were overt in the book—but, without going into spoilers, can’t really say which ones. And some did catch me by surprise.

Anyway, I’m on to my next book already (“Dead Wake” by Erik Larson), but I hope more of my friends and family will read “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” I want others to talk with about this book.

I don’t know you, Hank Green, but I am a fan of your writing (as well as you on YouTube). I enjoyed your first novel, and I am wondering where the story goes from here.

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This is a vision of Carl created by comic book artist Rosemary Valero-OConnell, and was displayed on Twitter by Hank Green as a depiction he likes. If you want to see the artist’s work, her site is http://www.hirosemary.com/

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My Favorite Student Blogs This Term


As I often do in media writing classes, I required some students to establish or update a blog this semester.

Some student blogs never really take off. Others become more personal to the student, and she or he ends up doing some interesting writing.

This semester, I thought three blogs in particular have content that appealed to me.

Lakin Goodman has turned her blog into more of a personal web site, complete with resume information. She has an interest in photography, and I would like her to use more of her images on the blog, but she does have things to say. She notes that she has no theme to the blog—but that’s not really a downside, to me.

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Chuck Uthe is a self-described nerd, writing about film and games. His reviews are not casual—they have some depth and background to them. I appreciate how reflective he is.

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Matt Trueblood says he has more caffeine than oxygen in his blood right now—and I hope he can recharge soon. But his writing is honest and has what another blogger once called “emotional nudity,” which is meant as a positive thing. His blog seems to be an honest peek into his psyche—which is an interesting place to be.

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I am sure I will continue this assignment in media writing classes. Now and then, a student who is introduced to blogging via the class will own it and continue their online efforts. Today, when students who wish to be communicators need to consider their online identity and the nexus of social media they can use to showcase and promote themselves, a blog gives them something to tweet about and share on Facebook. It also is a minor taste of web writing for students, which is a key skill.

The three that I am choosing to feature here (and it does not mean that other students have not done interesting work, this is a personal and ideosycratic look at blogs that just tickled my fancy) are all visually interesting, too–it’s a feature of this semester’s crop of student blogs that those who seemed to care the most about their writing also cared some about the presentation of that writing, which has not always been true.

I hope you check out and enjoy the writing that these students are doing!

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The Modern Sounds of Writing


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From wikimedia commons (commons.wikimedia.org), English portable typewriter of the 1970s. From user Dwight Burdette.

In the 1970s, when I learned to type in high school, typing was a loud process. Manual typewriters had a particular sound—the noise of fingers hitting the levers, the much louder smack of the letter against the inked ribbon and paper and the hard rubber-coated roller, the “ding” when you grabbed that lever and advanced your paper to the next line.

The latest technology in my typing class was the electric typewriter. Its motor hummed, its clack was artificial and less loud than the smack of a mechanical typewriter, but each letter produced a quick “snick.” The ball of letters would spin and hit the paper. It was a still an audible experience, but very different—sort of like the satisfying thud of a wooden baseball bat compared to the ping of its aluminum counterpart.

Today in a writing lab, I am requiring students to write a blog post—it can be about anything. It can be about writing blog posts. It can be about their favorite (or least favorite) professor this semester. I can be about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Tessa Violet.

But it’s interesting to me that the act of writing, while it is much quieter than decade ago, still has an audible quality. You can hear the fingers dancing across the plastic keyboards.

Several students brought their own laptop computers, a totally legitimate thing to do, although I know from experience that many laptops have quieter keyboards than their desktop cousins. Me, I’m more of a fan of writing at a desktop computer, when I can, because my big, fat old fingers don’t always find their way well on a small laptop keyboard. No tiny orange hands for me!

Don’t get me started on trying to write on a cell phone. A cell phone is Satan’s keyboard.

Anyway, there is a buzz of conversation going on in class, along with the clacking of keyboards. One issue with writing in a lab situation is the distraction factor—I know I do prefer to be by myself when I write, far from the maddening (or annoying) crowd.

But professional writing often takes place in distracting group environments, so dealing with distractions is a good experience for students.

 

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I assign students to write blogs for several reasons. Mostly, it’s because a professional communicator today should have a web site—blogging and other web content development is usually a requirement of a PR or journalism career. Writing a blog also provides students with a venue that reflects the reality that professional writing is a public act—a performance that is open to the world to view, which makes it different from many other forms of academic writing.

And I know that blogs I have required students to write have, now and then, aided them in a job interview when the interviewer asks about their URL. They have an answer, and original content of their own to show, which can be important.

But today, what I am mostly thinking about, is the sound of writing, which makes me happy. Clack. Clack. Clack Clack.

No dings.

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Honoring student editors


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Connor Mahan, Outstanding Journalism Student, Mount Mercy University, 2018. Also editor-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times.

Honors Convocation was today at the university where I teach. And two students who served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper during their time at Mount Mercy graduated. It made me think about learning from students, as I wrote the speech honoring one of them as Student Journalist of the Year, while also mentioning the other. Several people told me they liked my remarks, so I present them here—text of my presentation at the MMU Honors Convocation:

Each year, it’s a bittersweet moment when you have to say goodbye to your graduating students. For me, as the journalism professor and faculty advisor to the Mount Mercy Times, I’m often saying farewell to students who have worked hard in their classes, and also put in countless hours to serve this university as editors of student media.

It’s both my joy and pain to have that experience twice this year. Two great editors-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times are in the class of 2018.

Graduating nursing student Madison Coates led the newspaper in her sophomore year, and has continued writing for the paper. When something happened in the newsroom that she liked, Maddie’s response was to say “perrrfect,” with a drawn out R. Maddie, to me, you were darn near perrrfect to work with as a student and an editor.

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Maddie Coates, former Times editor-in-chief, won this year’s award from the nursing program. She receives it from nursing chair Dr. Mary Tarbox.

But today I’m here to honor the second editor-in-chief who is also graduating in the class of 2018.

As a transfer student from Kirkwood Community College, Connor Mahan began excelling early at MMU. In the fall of 2015, when our faculty series was about the legacy of the Vietnam War, Connor was one of five photographers and reporters from the Mount Mercy Times who covered the visit of the Moving Wall, a replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, to campus. During the wall’s visit, Connor made a poignant image of a young boy, holding his ears as he looked at the wall, seeking the name of a relative among the dead.

It wasn’t just any news image—Connor’s photograph was judged the best news photograph in an Iowa college news medium for the year 2015 by the Iowa College Media Association.

Anybody who has worked with Connor quickly recognizes his drive, intelligence and good humor. Life hasn’t given him all the advantages that chance doles out to others, and when he has to go somewhere to cover a story, the structure of his body dictates that it may take him a bit longer than others to get there. But that’s never held Connor back. He’s always willing to take on a new task, he is always pushing himself.

And when you compliment Connor on this hard work, his almost perrrfect answer is: “I do what I can.”

In 2016, the second potentially devastating flood in 8 years threatened Cedar Rapids, and the Mount Mercy Community joined the city in an emergency effort to erect barriers against the rising Cedar River. During that mostly successful, epic battle with rising water, Connor went to Ellis Park to cover the story. There, Connor made some news photographs of people from Mount Mercy who were filling sandbags. One of Connor’s images showed our own Father Tony Adawu handing a sandbag to an MMU student.

You probably can guess, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. In 2017, the best news photograph in Iowa, as judged by the Iowa College Media Association, was that picture of Father Tony made by Connor Mahan. Furthermore, Connor co-wrote the Times’ news story about the flood. That story was judged by the I-C-M-A as the best news story that year.

Connor had done what he could.

In fall of 2017, the Mount Mercy Times faced a leadership crisis when the previous editor could not continue. In the paper’s hour of need, two students stepped in—one, Madelyn Orton, was a sophomore English major who served as Managing Editor.

And the new editor-in-chief, who stepped into the role because he could and because he wanted to serve the newspaper, was Connor Mahan.

I like to think that I teach some lessons to my students, but there is a flip side. One of the joys of being a professor is that I can try to live out what we say about becoming a lifelong learner. And I find that I often learn lessons from my students.

I learned something about faith and joy, the power of a positive attitude and the warmth of a perrrfect smile from Madison Coates.

And I learned that the main challenge of each day that I am blessed with is to take what I have, whatever that is, and simply to get on with it. I need to do the work I am able to do. And I think we all agree that the world would be a better place, and we would lead better lives, if we all could simply say, at the end of each day, the words of Connor Mahan: “I do what I can.”

It’s my sincere pleasure to recognized Connor Mahan as the Mount Mercy University 2018 Outstanding Student Journalist.

Me and Maddie

Maddie with me after the ceremony.

Mahi

Mahder Habtemariam Serekberhan is also in the class of 2018–she was opinion editor of the student newspaper.

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ICMA Day 2: American Heroes


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Art Cullen, Iowa´s most recent Pulitzer winner.

Art Cullen certainly cuts a dashing figure for an old man—and I can say that as a man of approximately the same vintage.

The editor of “The Storm Lake Times,” Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year, and spoke to the INA and ICMA conventions Friday. He won the prize for a series of editorials hat attacked Buena Vista County, of which Storm Lake is the county seat, for secrecy in a legal fight with the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution.

As Cullen says, it´s pretty self evident that Iowa´s waters are badly polluted, but it takes some courage for a small-town journalist in Iowa to point out that unpleasant reality. In that place, it´s a gutsy thing to do.

Cullen represents a pure view of what a journalist is and does. He and his brother John, who publish the paper, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, although Art noted he handles more of the afflicting. “I am the bad cop, he is the good one,” he said.

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Art Cullen.

Bravo for Art and his little paper. But even with a Pulitzer Prize, he notes his readers care more about whether he has spelled their daughter´s name correctly. And he says the challenge for the Times is to figure out how to appeal to a growing Hispanic population in the paper´s market, or it will be game over in five years.

I hope he manages it. He´s a heroic journalist, and I wish him the continued success he deserves. Watch for his book, coming out this fall.

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MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan listens to Art Cullen speak.

A somewhat different brand of courage was on display in the morning, when Jim Olson, a retired CIA spy from Iowa, entertained the INA and ICMA crowd with his tales from his exciting careen. Olson noted that spying is an important service to the country, and one that will always be needed. But, in response to a question at the end, he also noted that our current president is doing a great disservice by attacking the intelligence agencies because he doesn´t like some of the information they are finding.

Sure, the memo, but that´s fake vindication from a lying party. I would dearly love to hear what Art Cullen says about that.

The new motto of “The Washington Post” is that “democracy dies in darkness.” In their own ways, I suppose, both Olson and Cullen worked to dispel darkness, but I do have some fondness for Cullen´s way of serving the country. It is easy to honor a public servant like Olson, but there is the complication that not everything our government did or does is honorable. Of course, not all journalists are honorable, either, but the way Art does it, journalism is.

We finished the ICMA convention with ice cream. Instead of attending a final session, I offered students with me a chance to go tour the Iowa Capitol. Which we did, and we had a great time.

It felt like a fitting end to our ICMA experience. Now, it is time to get back to work, to again start comforting and afflicting, each in our own way aiding democracy.

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As Art Cullen speaks, Brian Steffen of ICMA and Simpson College, covers the event on Twitter.

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Fairy Tales and Poignant Memories: ICMA Day 1


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MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan and Managing Editor Madelyn Orton at ICMA conference.

We had some great presentations on the first day of the Iowa College Media Association Convention in Des Moines. The most memorable moment came after the ICMA awards ceremony, when the state media’s association annual Eighmey Award, for a person in Iowa who has aided college media, went to Pat Pisarik of Loras College in Dubuque.

The award was voted on before Oct. 30 of last year, when sadly and unexpectedly, Pat passed away. His family was there to receive his honor. And ICMA renamed it’s “student journalist of the year award” as the “Pat Pisarik Student Journalist of the Year.”

It was a touching event, and his family received a standing ovation from the association.

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Son of Pat Pisarik at ICMA ceremony.

Earlier, Tim Harrower, a national icon in the world of newspapers who wrote the classic text on design and also a popular text on reporting, gave ICMA’s keynote address.

Using a fairy tale theme, Harrower retold stories such as “Chicken Little” to be entertaining fables about modern journalism (Chicken Little ends up working for a conglomerate that produces fried chicken and finds “another way to serve readers.”).

In his version of the “Fox and the Grapes,” the fox gets angry that too many grapes lean left, so Fox plants his own vineyard where all of the grapes lean right.

Yes, I loved it. A keynote address full of the kind of “dad jokes” that make my wife and children chuckle or groan, but it was also full of insight and wisdom.

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Hand of Tim Harrower.

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Tim Harrower.

Harrower had us all raise our hands and swear never to lie lest we be eaten by wolves. In today’s world of social media alternative facts, it’s more important than ever that journalists be truth tellers, even if the audience seems to be struggling to distinguish truth from Fake News of the kind perpetrated by Foxes and fake presidents.

At one point, Harrower gave advice to students on how to land a job. He noted that he was in a position to hire for the largest paper in Oregon, and he confessed he never cared about GPA nor even which school an applicant came from. There are two keys to landing a media job, he says: “10 great clips and a pleasant personality.”

“I’ve talked with a lot of talented geniuses that I would not hire because I didn’t want to have lunch with them,” he said.

As a professor, I would hasten to add that grades matter to some employers, and certainly have some impact on scholarships and recognition, so don’t totally relax too much, students. But the importance of grades really is whether they are symptom of learning—if they show that you got out of each experience what you could. Because, frankly, Harrower is right—they may be part of some employer’s screening of applications, but for the most part, they don’t really matter in terms of getting a job.

It’s more than journalism. For PR, graphic design, technical writing, TV, radio—any form of professional communication, remember his advice. The “clips” may be a photo gallery or web site or audio stories or a demo “tape” (we really have to work on updating that language, even “clips” these days are usually PDFs), but you land that first job with a smile and conversation and 10 great samples of what you can do.

And samples from student media, the MMU Times, and an internship or internships, always mean way more than any class work.

So what do you with the advice? Mr. Harrower offered further words.

“When a good story comes along, jump on it with both feet,” he said, adding that you report the heck out of it and produce a great story, great pictures, an online video, etc.

“That gives you one,” he noted, going on to repeat that you need to do it nine more times.

For me, the great disappointment of the day was that MMU did not win any ICMA awards. I need to find out what happened—I’m hoping there was not a glitch with our entries, but I am suspicious, because we’ve never been totally skunked in the past and there were good stories and materials in our contest entries. In particular, the winning front page displayed at the contest was, in my very biased opinion, not better then the page we had entered. Assuming we were in the running for awards, that there was not glitch, however, the take away is that we need to up our game, especially online.

Earlier in the afternoon, we participated in a media tour, and chose to go to the Register’s downtown newsroom. I had been there before, but it was worth seeing their Star Trek like control area and the banks of desks with a window view of the Capitol’s golden dome. The students who were with me really enjoyed it.

And one of our tour guides was Kyle Munson, whose “Kyle Munson’s Iowa” is one of the highlights of The Des Moines Register. I got to take a picture of him perched on a chair in a hallway to speak to an ICMA crowd. It was a totally fan boy moment, and I loved it.

All in all, day one would have been better with a few awards for Times staff writers, but it was still a day with many outstanding events. I’m glad we came, and I have just one thought about the contest: 10 great clips—we need to produce multiple, better stories. Students, they can get you a job, and, it is to be hoped, they can get your newspaper some prizes.

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Connor and Maddie listen at ICMA.

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When a Student Teaches the Teacher


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Jennifer Perrine speaks April 6 at Mount Mercy.

When writing professor Jennifer Perrine read some of her poetry tonight at Mount Mercy University, one student surprised her a little with some discerning observations—about, for example, how two of Perrine’s poems seem connected, one being a bit of a sequel to the other.

It was a connection the poet had not intended, but recognized when the student asked about it.

“You’re teaching me things,” Perrine said. “I enjoy that.”

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Detail of cover of Perrine’s book, “No Confession, No Mass.”

I enjoyed Perrine teaching us some new things in her poetry reading. I like clever use of language, and I felt many of her poems contained interesting and provocative verbal juxtapositions.

She noted that she when she began writing poetry, it was often about love, and one of her poems was written to a lover who was a tooth grinder. She called that act a “meditation on the erosion of the body” and noted how “we learned to sleep with that hum of friction.”

In years of writing love poems, she noted some themes echo—one being the lover as a magician or con artist. In one poem, she said: “I trade my bones for your balm.” That’s a neat line.

One form of poetry she has explored is the “aubade,” the morning love song. “If we can’t hold back the morning, we will lean into it,” she wrote. Also, because when a lover has to face the separation of another work day there is always some regret: “We invent new languages where every word means ‘night.’”

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Author’s hands holding her book as she reads.

These are just snippets of poems, I know, but I appreciate the way in which the words are layered, sounding and working together to create lyrical, interesting thoughts. I’m a strictly prose writer, so a poet has some challenge in holding my interest, but by that narrow standard, Perrine was a winner.

She also noted how, early in her writing career, she absorbed what she said was the wrong message: That a poet should not write about politics. She read from a poignant poem that spoke of her celebration of her 21st birthday in a gay bar the same day that Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming. Shepard, targeted for the killing because he was a homosexual, was himself only 21 when he died.

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Perrine signs books.

The poem, she noted, was partly fictional, because while she did celebrate her 21st birthday in a gay bar the day he died, she did not learn of the murder until the next day. Still, she captured the kind of shock a crowd can suffer when unexpected bad news spreads. In her imaging of a bar crowd’s reaction to the murder, a TV is turned up and the crowd falls silent: “A chorus of coughs trudges uncomfortably around the room.”

It was an interesting, enlightening night. And at the end of it, when students were asking questions, one asked her what she likes to do when she is not writing—a question that took her a little aback. “That is a good question,” she said. “Nobody ever asks me that.”

She hikes and she gardens. Well, those sound like good things, noted the man whose blog is partly called “garden.”

After the program, I returned to my office to pack some things for the ride home. As I headed outside to unlock my bike, I turned on my bike helmet headlight to see. As I was standing in the shadowy spot where the bike rack is located next to Warde Hall, I heard furtive, slightly nervous laughter.

“We thought you were a ghost,” said Mary Vermillion, English professor who was returning to Warde Hall with Perrine. “We were just talking about the paranormal.”

I’m not a ghost yet. But I would gladly play one in a Perrine poem, if it came to that. And I don’t aspire to always be normal, so I’ll take the “para” as a compliment. Somehow, it seemed like the right note to end the night on, so I hopped on my bike, partly packed with petite fours I had absconded with for my wife and daugher. I pedaled off into the night.

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