There and Back Again: McAllen, Texas

I’m writing this science fiction novel. I’ve been writing it for a long time. So far, the book seems to be an improvisational hybrid. Science fiction, memoir, and evangelical tract. The main character is a creature at the bottom of the Europan ocean. You know. Jupiter’s moon. The piece is confusing the hell out of me. Probably not a gold mine, this book. But I aim for authentic expression. And that’s what’s coming these days.

That writing, like this writing, like the the rest of the things I’m doing these days, is happening against a backdrop. My career as a scholar. My family. Russian bots. Twitter warriors marching in virtual realities. My experience as a human being figuring out what the hell it is I am doing here. Where I’m going. These things color the things I’m doing, of course.

Surprisingly, the book I describe above is taking a long time to take shape. My writing doesn’t usually move slowly. These last few years have found me spitting out blogs, articles, and memoirs. And I do mean spitting. Lots of phlegm.

I don’t know why it feels like my writing is slowing down. Writing is hard. It always feels like I’m trying to do something that I don’t know how to do. I guess that’s what draws me to writing. It’s the same thing that draws me to improv, maybe. The challenge. Creating something from nothing. Or, perhaps more accurately, tuning into what is always there and expressing it as seems right. Creatures at the bottom of alien oceans? Sure.


I traveled to McAllen, Texas last week. Four days on the border. I was a few miles from the detainment camps. I was there for an academic conference. Spent most of my time in a hotel. Talking with people. Thinking with people. The closest I got to experiencing the borderlands was a quick walk to a food truck park. I tried to order tacos. The owner didn’t speak English. I don’t speak Spanish.

“Me llamo, tacos?”

The encounter, like the book I mentioned above, was confusing. I ended up with chicken, tortillas, and hot sauce that would burn your face off. Yummy.

I’m co-editing the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy with my friend Erin. And this was the conference for that organization. So I was busy as hell. I moved from conversation to conversation. Most of them were smart. I saw my friends from the University of Minnesota. My advisor Tim. Laughed too loud. Drank a little too much beer. Lots of current and former Penn State students were there. So I laughed and thought with them too. I’m no extrovert. Schmoozing takes it’s toll on me. I started sniffling the first night. Coughing the second night. Hacking by the third. My immune system crumbled in the face of sustained social activity. It always does.

It takes three planes to get to McAllen from State College. I was a jetsetter. I’m not big on flying. Always makes me anxious. I’m better now than I used to be. But not much. I spent lots of time last week getting to Texas and returning from Texas. There and back again. I always feel an overwhelming sense of relief when the small plane descends into Happy Valley. The rolling hills. Especially in the fall. The forests are gold. Mostly, I’m happy to come back to my wife and kids. Family.

Surprisingly, State College is home.


All this traveling took a toll. I came home with a nasty cold. And Samson and Solomon weren’t doing much better. They traded fevers well I was gone. Samson and I had a competition to see who could cough louder. Solomon nursed a temperature of 101. Only Katie remained healthy. I’m wondering if she’s sick of this whole family thing. Trying to do away with us.

I kid. But seriously, we quarantined ourselves last weekend. Skipped church. Didn’t make our annual pilgrimage to the Pumpkin Festival at Penn State’s arboretum. We watched tv. Played Mario Kart. A bunch of invalids.

I’m always relived to return home from a trip. But I also look at the list of things I’m doing and shudder. Maybe that’s why my writing is moving more slowly. There’s so many different projects tugging at my sleeves. Finding time to attend to all of that work while also attending to my own mental health is a challenge. A Sam Tanner needs lazy days with video games to recharge. Ever the introvert. Ever the John Madden master. That sort of thing.

The creature at the bottom of the Europan Ocean will come. So will the six different academic manuscripts I’m working on. The grants. The papers to grade. Time for the family. Whether it moves slow or not. Still, nice to have a quarantined break last weekend.

Even if my wife my have been trying to do away with me.

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