“Write your own adventure”

I’ve been trying to write this post all summer; this is my third or fourth fresh attempt, and I’ve thrown away thousands of words. Like Tristram Shandy, I kept getting sidetracked by digressions from the first word, writing about this or that bit of unnecessary background, never getting to the point: the class I’m teaching this semester.

It’s called “Write your own adventure” [#WYOA]—I don’t really like the name, but I had very little time to come up with a title and description: nobody really knew I was teaching a section of first-year writing until after the Fall catalog went live in, like, February. I’d been thinking, in a hypothetical way, about how I might do things differently if/when I taught an introductory writing course again, so I wasn’t scrambling as much as I might have been. Still didn’t keep me from picking a goofy name, though.

#WYOA is based on choose-your-own-adventure stories in two ways. First, we’ll actually be reading some: I have a half-dozen or so “classic” CYOA books, including a “Super CYOA” and a “Twistaplot“; I’ll use these to (re)introduce the students to the genre, and we’ll probably do rudimentary plot-maps of them. We’ll probably also read The Most Boring Book Ever Written, which is a pretty clever take on the genre (as well as an uncomfortably accurate commentary on contemporary American middle-class life).

The centerpiece of this part of the class, though, is Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be, a choosable-path reinterpretation of Hamlet. (Read reviews at Slate, at NPR, at Comics Alliance.) I’ll write a separate post about this book, but right now I want to say that I’m really excited about teaching it; in fact, a big reason that #WYOA even exists is because I wanted an excuse to teach To Be Or Not To Be.

#WYOA is also structured like a CYOA story—the students and I are going to be making it up as we go along. I have the first week pretty carefully plotted out, and the next three or four loosely sketched, but October and November are basically empty at this point (their paper due dates are already set, however). I have a number of assignments planned (a few are even written!), but the order in which I assign them will depend on the way the class unfolds. And while I will constrain and guide their choices to some extent—I can’t let them spend every class meeting watching YouTube videos or something—it’s my hope that they’ll take an active role in what we read, watch, discuss, and write.

This way of doing things would probably terrify some people, but I think it’s going to work well for me: even when I “carefully plan” an entire syllabus, I still go into most class meetings with just a few bullet points and wing it. I think this approach will work well with this type of course, as well: my job is to help the students become better writers, and I think the best way to do that is to show them that writing can be exciting, liberating, empowering—and fun. Doing that requires, among other things, a kind of responsiveness and flexibility that a carefully planned syllabus hinders.

I’ll post updates periodically (ideally after most classes, but I’ll consider once-a-week a success), documenting what works and what doesn’t. Here’s hoping this adventure ends well.

Day 150: Reconnect with your aquatic origins…

“…by spending all of today underwater.”

This was tough.

I didn’t have easy access to a body of water that I could spend all day in — no swimming pools, no ponds, no stock tanks — so I spent all day in the bathtub. And by all day, I mean about an hour and a half.

It was the most boring ninety minutes of my life. The water was nice and hot for about twenty minutes, and lukewarm for another fifteen, and then it was cold. I turned into a prune, and then into a mummy, and then I began collapsing in on myself like a black hole. I wasn’t in a sensory deprivation chamber — I was in a bathroom, with the lights on, and with people knocking on the door and asking what the hell was going in there — but I started hallucinating at some point: flying monkeys and talking rocks and faceless men in bowler hats.

I don’t feel like a fish. I don’t feel like a walrus. I don’t feel like a shark, or a dolphin, or a clam, or a krill, or a giant squid.

I don’t like large bodies of water, and I don’t want to “reconnect with my aquatic origins.” Water is a necessary element — you can’t make beer without it — but it’s somewhat inhospitable in large quantities. If I’d spent all day (ninety minutes) in a larger container of water, even something as big as a hot tub or a children’s wading pool, I’d probably have drowned, or lost my mind and set something large and wooden on fire.

If you were to get dropped, alone, just yourself, in the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles from the nearest town, on land, you’d have a decent chance of surviving and getting back to civilization (at least if you’ve ever been outside in ‘nature’ before). If you were to get dropped in the ocean, a hundred miles from land, you’d be fucked. If you had an inflatable raft, it might take a little longer for you to die, but you’d probably still die.

Water doesn’t like you. It puts up with you, when there are small quantities of it, but when enough of it gets together you’d be wise to steer clear of it. In this, it’s like fire ants: if you find eight or a dozen walking along the sidewalk, you can stomp them or jeer at them or piss on them or whatever, but if you fuck with a colony they’re going to eat you alive.

What fire ants have to do with a bath, I have no idea. I guess I’m still recovering.

Day 125: Take your horoscope seriously today.

The first thing to do, obviously, was locate my horoscope.

I had no idea how to do this. I started by googling “libra horoscope,” which returned something like six million results. Among the top ten, though, were astrology.com and tarot.com – which seemed, if not reputable, at least the sort of thing I needed.

So astrology.com gave me this: “Your inner self needs to make itself heard. That could mean anything from a quick call to your shrink to an epic session with your journal, but you need to do it soon. Your good energy is perfect for expression.”

…and tarot.com gave me this: “You may be thinking about pursuing a new course of study that isn’t related to your career. Even if you have many choices before you, it’s logistically impossible to follow more than one path. Thankfully, the Moon’s harmonious trine to Saturn in your sign today can give you the clarity you need in order to make the smartest decision. After considering all your options, trust your intuition, pick your direction and get going.”

I wanted a third opinion, so I consulted the horoscope printed in my local newspaper (although I looked it up online, because who still gets their news in hardcopy?): “Stick to your objectives and complete what’s required of you. Make positive changes that will enhance your relationship with someone who can make a difference to your life personally and financially. Love is highlighted.”

Part of the reason I’ve never taken horoscopes seriously – aside from the ‘total bullshit’ part – is that they always seem to be about doing something: career this, education that, relationship the other thing. Doing things is not my thing, though: or, well, doing productive, responsible things is not my thing. If my horoscope always told me to have an extra espresso in the morning, and a glass or three of wine with lunch, and to take a nap at my desk, and to read a good book instead of working – well, then, I’d be all over that shit.

But that’s not what they say. Horoscopes are written for people who want to feel like they’re doing something productive or important – not for people who are actually doing something productive or important, because those people don’t have time to screw around with the sort of insipid bullshit that horoscopes are made out of – and I’m neither productive nor someone who wants to be productive, so I have no use for the things.


What I got from my horoscopes for today – listen to your inner self, “trust your intuition,” “stick to your objectives” – was this: “do whatever the fuck you want.” That’s what I do anyway, mostly. Today it involved going to Six Flags with Elanor, and shaming her into riding the roller coasters she didn’t want to ride, because I’m the best dad ever.

I only had to pry her off a guardrail and forcibly put her onto a coaster once, and nobody called security. It was a good day.

Day 86: Go to the wrong side of the tracks.

I’m tempted to pull the sort of thing with this phrase that I pulled with “hobby” a few weeks ago – or, rather, I was tempted to do so, until a bit of poking around in the vast soup of knowledge and nonsense that is the internet convinced me reconstructing the history of this idiom was going to require looking in actual books in a library somewhere, and I’m just not up for it tonight.

Not up for looking in books, that is: I’m just going to make this shit up as I go along.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the “tracks” are train tracks. The definite article in the idiom implies that there is only one set of tracks passing through the town – although there we’re assuming that the “wrong side” exists only where the tracks pass through some sort of community, and that the sides are neutral with respect to one another in those places that the track runs through the open countryside. I think it’s a reasonable assumption to make, but we need to be clear about it.

So. Train tracks. One set in town. I think we’ll have to assume that, especially if the town had a station, there must have been a few small spurs of track associated with the station, because practicality seems to necessitate such things. For the sake of the idiom, though, we won’t consider these separate tracks, but part of the tracks.

So. There’s one major set of train tracks running through town. How do you tell which side is the wrong side?

This is, I think, the crux of the matter. We all know that the “wrong side” is the “poor side” – the question is, as it seems to me, whether the less-than-nice side of the tracks was wrong or poor first. That is, is there something inherently undesirable about the wrong side of the tracks which means that the poor people have to live there because the bougies won’t, or is the poor side of the tracks “wrong” precisely because that’s where the poor people live?

One explanation – which I find highly dubious – is that the wrong side is wrong because it’s the side that all or most of the train exhaust ends up on, due to “prevailing winds.” It seems like, for this to be the case, the train tracks would have to run perpendicular to the prevailing winds. Right? Maybe not.

Furthermore, the immediate vicinity of the tracks on both sides are subject to air pollution and noise and hobos and stray railroad spike impalements and who knows what else – so why is it that one side is right and the other wrong, and not that both sides get “righter” the further from the tracks one gets?

This is all more or less pointless, as most places don’t just have one set of tracks anymore. Which particular set of tracks here in Sherman is the set that has a wrong and a right side? Wait, shit – if each set of tracks has a right and a wrong side, how does that work where they overlap? Can one area be really wrong, or both wrong and right and therefore neutral, or the right side of a lesser track and the wrong side of a major track and therefore wrong, but not as wrong as it could be?

Sorry, I got myself sidetracked. Wrong-tracked. Whatever.

We live only a few blocks from a set of tracks. It’s a relatively minor spur, but in the absence of an official pronouncement on the rightness or wrongness of sides of various sets of tracks, I’m going to say it’s the one. The one. And so: our house is on one side, and the Montessori pre-school Jack goes to is on the other side, and the tracks are roughly the halfway point. Either we live on the wrong side, or he goes to school on the wrong side, but either way, we visit both sides of the tracks five days a week – seven, actually, as the park, our church, and my parents are all also on the other side of the tracks from us.

So, dear Book, fuck you. I win this round.

Day 80: Begin eating a piece of furniture.

The Book recommends going about this task by reducing a small chunk of said piece of furniture to sawdust — by filing, which seems inefficient — and sprinkling said sawdust on one’s food, like tasteless, indigestible salt.

The only issue is that I don’t have any raw, unfinished wooden furniture that can be slowly consumed. I’m not sure I have any unfinished wooden furniture, period, and I certainly don’t want to ingest paint or stain, even in small quantities, on a daily basis. Look what happened to Caravaggio. And Goya. And van Gogh.

On the other hand, I felt like I should, today at least, eat some wood — and yes, I’m aware of the double entendre. Anything, with surprisingly minimal effort, can be construed as relating to sexual behavior or characteristics. Try it sometime: it’s all in the intonation.

Anyway: I felt that I ought to consume some cellulose. To that end, therefore, I clipped a tender young branchlet from one of the Bradford pear trees that grows on the west side of our house, chopped it up, and ate it.

It was… surprisingly unchewable, which I guess makes it inedible? It didn’t taste bad, exactly – though it didn’t taste good, either. I don’t think it would be noticeable, mixed into something like potato soup or chili or a nice hearty pasta. Why on earth one would do that, though, I don’t know. Then again, I don’t know why I ate a stick tonight.

I had to just swallow it, in the end, like it was an ibuprofen – and, like I do with ibuprofen, I took it with bourbon instead of water. Because why not?

I didn’t, for the record, eat the whole stick, just a few pieces, because getting the whole thing down would’ve taken more bourbon than it’s probably good for me to drink in a short amount of time. The last time I did shots like that, if I remember correctly, and I don’t, because I was really drunk, because I drank a bunch of liquor in a short amount of time – I say, the last time I did shots, I told a really incoherent version of the tale of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, and I may have written “I’m drunk” on the outside wall of my house, by the side door. I also had a really bad hangover in the morning, and a justly unsympathetic wife.

Needless to say, I don’t do that anymore.

Day 71: See more of the world today.

“Take your bus or train one stop too far, then walk and discover everything you normally miss.”

I couldn’t do this today, because I didn’t go to campus today – but I have done this sort of thing in the past. I’ve gotten off a stop too early, I’ve gotten off a stop too late, I walk a mile every day from the station to my office anyway. I’ve even biked the 17 miles from my office back to my car on more than one occasion.

Someday I’ll just ride the train to the end of the line and back, but today is not that day. Today I took a detour of a different sort.

I was driving back from Oklahoma City – more on that tomorrow – along I-35, which goes through the Arbuckle Mountains. There are, as one might expect, a few scenic turnouts along this stretch of highway.

Now, the Arbuckles are scenic in places, but most of those places aren’t visible from the interstate – which is why I don’t stop at the scenic turnouts. Except that I did today.

The problem with scenic turnouts is that they’re basically just parking lots. Sure, you can see some things, but you’re still just standing in a parking lot. This particular parking lot was at the top of a ridge, and there was a decent-sized ravine or gully immediately west of the parking lot (away from the highway), and more ridges and ravines beyond that. There was a barbed-wire fence around the parking lot, keeping travelers safe from nature – but there were no “No Trespassing” signs, and barbed wire has never stopped me before.

I spent ten or fifteen minutes wandering down the hillside into the ravine in a wide, meandering semi-circle, which eventually brought me back up the hill to the other side of the parking lot. It wasn’t really any more scenic – rocks, grass, small trees – but it was nice to walk around in a place that probably never gets walked around in. If I hadn’t been exhausted from moving, and ready to be home, I probably could’ve walked around for an hour or more, over the next ridge and back. I’d have ended up lost, and with a broken leg, and had to spend the night under a tree, and probably would’ve been eaten by a mountain lion.

Maybe next time.

Day 4: World Coloring-in Day

Update, 6/3/11: This has been, oddly, the most popular post on this blog for months, at least according to the stats WordPress gives me. So, people who came here to find a map: stay a while, read a few other posts, maybe leave a comment — like, how did you get here? Thanks.

Today’s page in the Book is a blank world map – like the one right next to this text, except with the countries labelled in very small type – with instructions to color in the countries: green for those you’ve been to, blue for those you’re going to this year, yellow for those you’re going to eventually, and red for those you have no desire to ever visit.

This is a depressing activity for me. I’ve been to Canada (several times) and to Mexico, but – aside from a week-long “educational tour” of Europe (Munich, Paris, and London, and the highways in between) when I was about 14 – I haven’t been anywhere else. And, because of the relatively small amount of money that I make and the two money pits children that live with me, I have little hope of doing much world-traveling during the next decade.

This is, obviously, unacceptable. I thought briefly about selling my children on the black market, but that seemed a bit heartless, even for me. Instead, I’m going to start saving cash now, and, on January 1st of 2012, I’m going to fly to Dublin and backpack around the world. I can work odd jobs, sleep in parks, scavenge food from trash bins, shoplift – and I’ll probably turn to prostitution and thuggery before I’ve made it across the English Channel. I’m leaving Lorna and the kids at home, where I’m sure they’ll be taken care of by family, friends, and various government agencies.

My plan is to wander across Europe – from the UK to the Low Countries, to France, Spain, Portugal, Monaco, Italy, Germany, &c – then through all those old Soviet satellites, across Siberia, through the Koreas into Japan, to China, around southern Asia, back westward through all the -stans and into the Fertile Crescent, and from thence into Africa. Assuming I make it that far, I’m hoping to hijack a pirate frigate in Madgascar and hit the Australasian countries on my way to South America – and once I get there, I’m as good as home, right?

My alternate plan is to reform Pangaea and walk it in a sort of squashed spiral from the center outward. That might actually be a better plan…