Posted by Justin Minkel on Saturday, 12/28/2013
Michael Cunningham wrote, “This is a Southern gift, isn't it—tremendous self-regard diluted with humor and modesty.”
Thank you, bloggess Brianna Crowley, for tossing gasoline on the flame that is my “Southern gift.” I hate to admit how much I have enjoyed the act of narcissism permitted by your invitation to join the Blogger Homework meme. My responses to your questions follow, with a chronology of autobiographical facts below them.
Paparazzi, help yourselves. I’m the biggest thing to hit the South since moonshine.
1. What was the proudest moment of your childhood?
We lived for awhile in a cabin on 40 acres of woods in Stone County, Arkansas. When I was seven years old, my dad marked off a little plot of land that was mine to tend. I’d move around the rocks and clear leaves, a tiny homesteader deeply proud of my patch of the Ozarks.
2. To get you through a task, what “carrot” do you use?
Various beverages, ideally Amarula—a South African liqueur similar to Bailey’s but made from the marula fruit. Elephants, monkeys, and hyenas have been known to get drunk on fermented marula fruit, with hilarious results.
3. When autonomous cars hit the market, will you be an early adopter?
Not even close. My place in the sequence of adopters for Facebook, Twitter, and every other technological advance is as follows: early adopters, normal adopters, late adopters, citizens of 3rd world nations experiencing revolutions fueled by social media, me.
4. Window seat or Aisle?
Window. I love looking down on the landscape, then being up above a tranquil sea of clouds. I think flying should feel like what it is—a thrilling, daring, miracle of human ingenuity, hurtling along at the unthinkable altitude of 35,000 feet.
5. If you couldn’t get hurt, what is one adventure you would try?
Fighting off orks in the Mines of Moria alongside Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn, Boromir, and various hobbits.
6. Do you believe in ghosts?
7. Favorite non-human companion?
A good story. Each year I read about 40 novels and roughly ½ a nonfiction book.
8. What song/album do you believe tells your story…or at least an important part of it?
A single line from Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game: “…his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.” It captures that complexity of becoming more realistic as you settle into your chosen path (alas, I will never play professional basketball in the NBA, let alone surpass Magic Johnson’s record for assists) but also the potential for dreams to become a daily, durable, and no less wondrous reality, whether it’s becoming a father or publishing my first book.
9. What’s your perfect beverage? Descriptive details are important.
See response to #2, steamed with milk, cream, and vanilla. On a snow day.
10. What one word, phrase, or mannerism would all your closest friends and family say is “so you?”
Hyperbole. (“This is the best ____ I have ever tasted/witnessed/read/experienced.”) I mean it every time, too.
11. If you were given a 4 year sabbatical to pursue an alternate career path what would you choose?
Getting my novels published and writing a new one. Either that or becoming a mountain-wandering warrior-monk…it all depends on the job market when that four-year sabbatical comes along.
And for my next trick…a chronology of 11 autobiographical facts about myself, unrelated to teaching, insofar as that is possible given the complex alchemy of identity that goes into becoming a teacher.
1. My dad was a wonderful storyteller. He would put my younger brother, baby sister, and me into his fantasy epics about elves and trolls, battles and quests. At the end of every story, he would reach into his pocket and pull out an object from the story—a troll’s stone eye set in gold, a fairy princess’s sparkling tiara—and the solidity of that object proved the story’s truth to us beyond any shadow of a doubt. In my favorite story, a sorcerer crept up on a dragon sleeping in its mountain of purple stone and shrank the entire mountain to the size of a gem. I still have the ring with that gem set in it, the miniscule dragon an imagined thread of crimson at its heart.
2. I spent the most vivid part of my childhood in a valley called Stargap. My parents rented a three-bedroom house with a garden out back, a field stretching to woods in front, and mountains all around, for $100 a month.
3. My brother and I liked to run away from home together about once a month. We’d fill a Snoopy pillowcase with what we needed—pocket knife, books, toys—and journey about 30 yards from our front porch to hunker down in a field for a few hours, then head back home.
4. Around 2nd grade, I began to desperately want a dog. I read every dog book from Where The Red Fern Grows to Hotel for Dogs to Old Yeller. I’d bike around town with dog biscuits to visit every dog I could locate, and I’d visit the pound with old tennis balls for the caged dogs there. At some point in adulthood I became appalled by 80% of the pet culture humans have created, ranging from Christmas sweaters for hideous little dogs to my uncle who brushes his dog’s teeth and claims 70 degrees is too cold for the thick-coated spaniel to survive an hour outside. I still think dogs can be wonderful companions, but I also think they should be doing dog-things most of the time, like herding sheep or chasing down burglars after museum art heists.
5. I believed in Santa Claus until 3rd grade. One night my mom and I took a long, long walk around our neighborhood, and she gently ended my innocence about the non-existence of Santa Claus, Celestia (the Tooth Fairy), and the Easter Bunny. Oddly, I wasn’t disappointed in any way, let alone crushed—it meant more to me that my parents had put so much time and scarce money into making Christmas, lost teeth, and Easter so magical.
6. In high school, I lived in southern France with a host family in the Beaujolais region. They lived in a 600-year old stone cottage, cooked fish with a wood fire set under a flat rock, and had homemade Beaujolais on tap.
7. I guided wilderness trips in college. My favorite course to teach was Outdoor Leadership. Rather than teach basics like how to set up a tarp or use a Whisperlite stove (the guides-in-training already knew that stuff), our job as instructors was to create simulations and lead conversations to reflect on them afterwards. The ten new guides were paired up and each pair led a half-day of the trip. We would design minor crises like a sprained ankle or a lost member of the group to augment natural challenges like stormy weather, creeks to cross, and tricky trail markings, ranging over the woods and mountains of the Adirondacks.
8. As part of an expo at my college’s rock climbing wall, my co-instructor and I spent a night of misadventures preparing a truly absurd climbing/mock strip-tease modeled on The Full Monty and performed to You Sexy Thing. We bought hideous plaid coats and garish ties at a thrift shop, then choreographed a show to the song in which we shed everything but purple Spandex tights, climbing helmets, and harnesses, to the hysterical amusement of the spectators below.
9. During a semester abroad in Senegal, West Africa, I became entangled in my Senegalese friend’s predicament with the village’s ocean spirit, Mam Ndiare. My friend had failed to offer any coins at the annual festival for the ocean spirit, who protects the island. As a result, my friend was visited every night following the festival by a spirit who wanted her blood. I lent her money to buy a white rooster as a sacrifice to appease Mam Ndiare and her bloodthirsty spirit, accompanied her to the next town to haggle for said rooster, and zoomed back to the village in a taxi with the trussed bird at my feet. She invited me to come over the next night for a rooster dinner, assuring me the hungry spirit was only interested in the bird’s bones, but I declined.
10. I spent six days in a Zen monastery in the Catskills meditating with monks and nuns from all over the world, including a Swiss scientist who first became a street sweeper because he hated the experiments he was doing on animals, then became a monk. The monastery was like a hive, with specialized roles for every monk and nun. They ate at a crazy speed, like a sped-up film clip, so they could get back to meditating—a combination of brisk walking meditation on a cold bamboo floor, seated meditation with a hulking monk who would whack you with a stick if you seemed distracted, work meditation like chopping logs for the wood-heated monastery, and chants that built from a whisper to a scream as cottage-sized drums pounded their rhythm into our bones and blood.
11. I have completed three fantasy novels for readers in the middle grades that I’m trying to get published. One is based on my dad’s story described above, about the shrunken dragon in the purple gem that was once its mountain. I started wondering, decades after he told me the story, “What would happen if the dragon got out?” The novel grew from that “I wonder.”
My questions for all of you; feel free to answer one, two, or all 11, in the comment box below:
1. If you could re-live one memory, what would it be?
2. If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
3. Of all the objects you have lost over the years (action figures, stuffed animals, talismans), which object would you most like to have back?
4. First and/or favorite video game?
5. Most memorable concert?
6. Animal you’d be most terrified to fight?
7. Favorite midnight snack?
8. Irrational pet peeve? (i.e. hashtags in Facebook posts)
9. Best book-made-into-a-movie? Most disastrous book-made-into-a-movie?
10. When you get a snow day, how do you spend those snow-given hours?
11. If you had a dictator/demigod’s power to change one thing about the world, what would you change?