Category Archives: Text

Just to feel free and be someone

with thanks to Gregory Pardlo and Pádraig Ó Tuama

The sky is clear, immaculate, and the Big Dipper is as big as I’ve ever seen it.

And it’s not your hand I’m holding. We can’t hold hands anymore anyway.

But the dog holds my hand, her yellow nylon leash taut, as she pulls me on with her snuffling love of scents, with her bounding joy for the running neither of us could do a month ago.

She drags me on, barking at those white-tailed bastards mocking her in the dark.

And I squeeze your hand back, and make a wish for us.

Enterprising men quote ’em

I was joking around on Twitter with Michael Berman, about vendor tweets appearing in a conference stream. You can see the thread, but the point is, he called me a chatbot.

And that sounded a bit like a challenge.

Specifically, it sounded like a challenge to find something that spit out the buzzwords of educational technology, like I was doing with Michael. And then the Imp of the Perverse whispered in my ear that maybe what I should do is mashup famous quotes with those buzzwords.

And so @EdtechEpigrams was conceived.

I have a memory that Networked Narratives includes a “make a Twitter bot” activity, so thanks to Alan Levine and Mia Zamora for leaving me that breadcrumb. It took a couple of swings at Google to find something I could quickly make use of, but Katherine Marzinsky’s post about her @nounjective bot fit the bill.

That got me the pointer to Zach Whalen’s SSBot, which is basically a tool for generating random tweets based on a Google Spreadsheet and a provided script. I worked helpdesk long enough to know that I should be skeptical about running code I can’t read… but I went ahead and ran it anyway. It’s a pretty slick tool and configuring it wasn’t too hard. (Except for the part where I got columns and rows confused and generated a whole bunch of gibberish… but I fixed that by just cut-and-pasting the data into the right tab on the spreadsheet.)

Honestly, the complicated part is playing with syntax and grammar. My bot is following a very standard formula of

(witty saying) (ending with a buzzword).

but I was kind of surprised to see what a restraint that is. For starters, it means I have to stick to quotes ending in nouns (or noun forms). It also means that definitions are mostly out, since those would be funniest as

(buzzword) (followed by a witty saying).

Which is kind of a pity, because Bryan Alexander’s Devil’s Dictionary was another inspiration for this project.

(I notice that a later release of SSBot now supports regular expressions. Theoretically, it seems like this ought to allow me to figure out a variable for “put buzzword here”… but this is just a quick cheap laugh and I wasn’t motivated to do it. Maybe someday. )

I’ve currently got enough quotes and enough buzzwords for 1000+ unique tweets. At a tweet every 4 hours… that’s plenty of time for the industry to come up with some more.



Middle Path crocus patch

I wish it were winter.

I wish it were cold and the wind were biting our cheeks. I’d fix my son’s scarf around his neck and bundle up his coat and tell him that sometimes the rules are stupid, but we follow them anyway. And sometimes the rules are stupid and it’s not that hard to just go around them. We’d sit together at the coffee bar and drink hot chocolate.

But the crocuses are coming up, and our shirtsleeves are poor protection from the wind.

Boy pulling a sled

This little monologue or illustrated poem or whatever it is entered my head last night as I was trying to get to sleep, and it was still there this morning.


Both photos are mine, CC-BY-NC, taken on my iPhone and saturation and brightness tweaked in Flickr. The crocus shot was taken just two days ago; I stopped the car to get the shot just before a rainstorm rolled in. The sled shot is from two winters ago.

For Matt

A cup of tea, for Matt

I was part of a Human Library today, as part of the college’s Global Engagement Week. (This is what happens when you invite people to storytelling workshops… they come to understand that you’re a storyteller, and then they ask you to tell stories.)

After struggling for a bit with what my “title” would be, by which people would check out my story, I lit on my story about Kenyon’s rebuilding trip to New Orleans after Katrina and Rita. I shared a rather wooly recounting of the trip with a couple of people. And then in a lull between “readers”, our organizer Marne asked me, very gently, if I had known Matt Huber.

Oh God.

There’s only one reason you’d ask that question that way.

Matt, the slight asthmatic freshman who worked so hard on the job sites?

Matt, the kid on fire in my office a couple of weeks after we got back, struggling with the fact that the job wasn’t done yet?

Matt, the strapping senior with the ponytail, winning the college’s Anderson Cup for his 3 years of organizing rebuilding trips?

Matt, one of the reasons I say this trip is the single moment of my Kenyon experience I’m most proud of?

Yes, I knew him. What a loss, that he should be gone at 29.

Marne and I talked a little bit about what a great guy he was. As she put it, we get to see all the students grow over 4 years, but sometimes we’re privileged to see the watershed moment when things really change.

I sat for a little while, and then I walked back to my office. I started the electric kettle, and listened as the water heated and boiled, giving a thought to the fridge full of beer on my left. I poured the steaming water into my dirty coffee cup, tore open a little green packet of Irish Breakfast tea, and bobbed the bag slowly in the water.

I wiped my eyes and talked to Jason about a logistical matter.

And I walked back to the Human Library, and told my story again. Our story, this story I now carry for one person more.

We can dance ‘neath the carnival lights

It was finally shirtsleeves weather, under a flawless blue sky. April’s last treacherous cold front had passed by, and spring was truly come to Ohio.

A vendor along Middle Path sold bags, sandals, crunchy jewelry. Hanging on the corner of his tent were blue and black coarse-knit cotton sweaters. The block-lettered laser-printed sign said “Mexican Bajas $25.”

My throat caught. Something heavy sat on my ribs. And for a moment I let myself believe that the solitary cars moving through town were the sound of surf. The gravel under my feet was perhaps sand.

I remembered your smile and laugh, and tried to smile and laugh.

I suppose it’s a cheat, telling you that I was reminded of an in-joke and not telling you what the joke was. But every time I try to work that memory into this one, they both get muddled. So we’ll call this an exercise in micro narrative.

Rest in peace, Melanie.

Hamster Dance


I bought myself an Intuos tablet some time ago at work, on the grounds that I would use it for Big Serious Stuff like annotating screenshots or making screencapture videos. In theory, drawing with a mouse is hard and a pen interface should be easier. In practice, a tablet input is neither like a mouse or a pen (or a touchscreen) and it can be frustrating to get started.

And there it sat, gathering dust, taunting me to read the manual, pick software, practice, prove myself worthy.

Now might be a good time to point out that I describe my drawing talents as “maxed out at stick men.” So when it said I wasn’t worthy, I assumed it was right.

I brought it home a while back, thinking big thoughts about how I’d use it to think about the shape of stories, especially as they relate to the stories we tell when we do technology trainings. Sitting on the dining room table, it caught my son’s eye.

“Daddy, what’s that?”

“Oh, it’s for drawing on the computer.”

“Can I try?”

“I guess so… but I have to plug it in and find the software and all that.”

“OK. Well, can we do that?”

“Um… yeah. Yeah OK. Let me see.”

It’s hard to enter the Kingdom of Technology like a little child, after I’ve debugged and disinfected and documented professionally for so long. It’s a challenge to ask “why not?” But I got the drivers installed, and after dorking around looking for the “right” software,  I figured out that Microsoft Paint would work as well as anything for letting my kid play.

And it wasn’t simple, his learning to match up the pen to the screen. After a bit, he got it and started exploring Paint. An arrow became a house. Green squiggles became grass. A line was the horizon; the fill tool gave him purple grass and a yellow sky.

And he said it was my turn.

Bunny and Rhino (the Hamster)

How about a bunny? I think I can draw a bunny. (It’s like a dog with no neck and bunny ears, right?) Hey, maybe the spraypaint brush will make the fur look more furry. A bunny should be on grass. OK, painting that grass was kind of annoying, what if we do the sky with a fill tool?

Draw your stuffed hamster? Sure, why not. I can draw Hamster.

Oh, the hamster’s name is Rhino? Of course it is. I’ll draw Rhino.

Objectively, I know it’s … primitive. But the fact is, I made it, and making it was fun. And I pretty much killed the excuse that learning how to use the tablet would be too hard.

I’ve tried to get multiple faculty members to try out these tablets, and few of them are willing to put in the work. I wonder if the problem is that I haven’t asked them to just draw a happy little tree.

Did you go crazy, or did you report?

I’ve been meaning to transfer some of my better stories from my first, late, and unlamented blog. My Facebook feed is spilling over with people’s remembrances of September Eleventh today, and I thought I might share mine.

This was originally written for a contest at Powell’s bookstore, in 2006 I think.


Lynn walked into our morning meeting in tears, and announced that a plane from Boston had flown into the World Trade Center. My stomach flipped as I thought of my friends who were moving out of Massachusetts that week. I didn’t know their plans. I didn’t know where they were. All I could do was run to my office in panic and try to find out. Today, even recalling the memory makes me ill.

(It wasn’t a rational fear; Michael and Ann share a fear of flying which borders on the pathological, and they were in Western Massachusetts anyway. In a psychic bond, their first thoughts were for my father, who at least does get on airplanes regularly without chemical sedation.)

Everyone has a September Eleventh story, and I suppose mine is similar to most. For most of us, our fear of loss was actually greater than our loss. That is, after all, why they call it a “terror attack.”

Our stories don’t often extend to the next few days, as America walked in our haze of grief and fear and senselessness. The media virtually suspended itself. My 160 cable channels seemed all to be set to CNN. After about two days, I’d had all the news I could stand, and I had to turn away from the box.

I couldn’t begin to think about reading nonfiction, and fiction seemed to be either too heavy or too light to handle. But poetry… maybe poetry would have something to say.

And that’s how I came to read T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding in September 2001. I opened that big Norton Anthology of English Literature which every once and future English major owns, and turned its onionskin paper, and looked for solace.

Eliot wrote Little Gidding in 1942, while he watched the Nazis bombing the cities and civilians of Britain. It grabbed me like a branch grabs a drowning swimmer. This expatriate Missourian knew what I felt, had seen what I’d seen and more, and needed to tell me something. And I desperately needed to hear it. Teachers talking about “timeless literature” came into shining focus like never before.

I needed two tries to read the second section, depicting the aftermath of a bombing raid, “ash on an old man’s sleeve” and a ghost in the twilight. Eliot’s burnt roses could have fallen from Windows on the World. And yet, if I could not be distracted, at least I knew we were not alone.

Eliot did have solace for me. Little Gidding says that life somehow must triumph. I thought of Eliot, reading Julian of Norwich, and passing that thousand-year-old crutch to me:

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.

No one in America had said “all shall be well” in days. But if Julian could believe it, and Eliot could believe it, perhaps I could as well.

And in September of 2001, that voice coming through the page was enough. It was more real, and more comforting, than any voice coming from the box, even than any of the voices around me. Personal sadness has brought me back to Little Gidding many times in the following years, and every time, I feel that branch brush me in the rushing waters, and I grab hold.

Captain’s Log

For TDC 951

Captain’s Log, 8/18/14.

We are 3 days outside the Straits of Consumption. Bad weather off the Cliffs of Copyright; some debate about pulling into Safe Harbor to wait it out. But there’s little change in conditions predicted, so we agreed to proceed. Weather drills have been a Fair Use of crew time.

Having reached our checkpoint, we broke the seal on our orders. Scrabble tiles clattered to the table.

Lt. Thrun could not contain himself at the sight, and has been confined to quarters for rank subordination.

As I was struggling to make sense of the tiles, Seaman Pryzbylewski presented to inform me that he had lost yet another bucket and mop over the side. I prepared to gently instruct the Admiral’s son-in-law of the importance of even the most basic duties – and noticed that he was completely enthralled by the mash of tiles.

“What do you make of it?”

He reached out, and started flipping and rearranging the tiles. He mumbled, not really answering me…

“Not a full set… odd distribution… Sir! Look at this!”

The tiles were now in a tidy line, spaces between the words. From the other side of the desk, even upside-down, I could read the message:


I sighed, and laughed. “Well, that does sound like the Admiral to me.”

“Yeah… but so does this, sir…”

His fingers played with the tiles, and formed


“A for Admiral, Sir?”

“A… for All Of Us, Sailor.”