Stay Alive

I listened to the opening notes of Everything in Its Right Place on Radiohead’s Kid A the other day. It hit me hard. Or soft. Or gently. Shook me, to be sure.

I’m 41. Is this when nostalgia kicks in? Hits you hard or soft or gently? Shakes you a little?

Kid A took me to my bedroom in Dad’s basement. In 1999. Or 1998. Or 2000. Memories blur. The room was a tundra in December. No heat. But I had this heated waterbed. Think 1970’s. It was delicious. I’d snuggle up under the covers. Or I’d bring down a steaming cup of coffee. Survive the winter.

Dad was a savant when it came to playing with stereos from the 70’s and 80’s. Obsessed is the right word. So I had these huge speakers hooked up to the stereo. Hooked up to the CD player. Balance the volume and bass just right and you could hear every ambient sound those kooky kids from Radiohead layered into the album.

I’d work a closing shift at Subway. I was a shift manager. Very prestigious. I’d come home to my icy basement retreat. Fire up the stereo. Just the right volume so as not to wake Dad or my stepmom. Drift with the music. Or I’d come home from my night class at The University Minnesota. I almost failed German. Because my friend from high school Hindu was in the class. We spent all night working up the courage to talk to the two girls who sat next to us. Eventually they had to talk to us. Because we never mustered the courage. Later, I’d walk with Hindu to his dorm. We’d play NBA Live. I was always the Jazz. Greg Ostertag was a rebounding machine. And John Stockton was my hero. I’d drive home after midnight. Fall into that heated waterbed.

Listening to Kid A brought me back to these blurred memories. I associate the album with fall and winter. With my freshmen and sophomore years as an undergraduate. With breaking up with my high school girlfriend. With driving to campus on 35W. Playing Nintendo 64 in my bedroom. I was young and stupid and brilliant and cold and sad and lonely and hopeful and I don’t know what else. 18, 19, and 20 were so confusing to me. Memory is funny. Especially when it is activated by a song. Lets us travel through time a little.


My nostalgic time traveling didn’t stop with Kid A

I downloaded more stuff for my Nintendo Switch. Katie and the boys wanted the expansion pack for Animal Crossing. And I wanted access to old Nintendo 64 games. So I bit the bullet and gave Nintendo a little more of my money. What did I get in return? The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time! The game is brilliant. An astoundingly well-crafted text.

I fired it up. Solomon and Samson sat with me. They watched as I climbed inside the Deku tree. Snuck into Zelda’s palace. Traveled to Goron City. Tried to gather chickens for a villager. This might sound like gobbely-gook to you, but, once more, I was traveling through time.

I remember sitting in my dorm with my friends Mike and Josh. Before I moved out. Went back to my basement freezer because I’m an introvert. The dorm was too much. I remember Christmas lights strung up around our dorm room. A group of four or five of us trying to figure out how to gather all the chickens in Kakariko village. Later, I remember playing the game in my basement. Sipping coffee. Listening to Radiohead. Trying to figure out puzzles in dungeons. There were no walkthroughs online back then. And Zelda was always about 15 times harder than any other video game. A beautiful challenge.

Fall is turning into winter again. And Kid A and Ocarina of Time took me back to fall turning into winter 20 years ago. A portal for some traveling.


Literary texts are portals. And video games and concept albums are literary texts. Because it’s 2021. And we have more genres than we know what to do with. Don’t get me wrong. Novels are great. But so are all sorts of other things.

Two of my really smart friends wrote a research article with me about improv and reading. Ways with Worlds. I love that title. The heart of this piece is the idea that we might look to improv as a way to imagine how teachers might connect readers and texts with more vitality. The idea is that reading isn’t simply about decoding sounds and letters but, more importantly, about entering into other realities. Traveling through portals. Activating the imagination and the soul and being changed by what we find on the other side. And school often stifles the wildness of reading and writing. The aliveness of it.

Yes, children ought to learn how to sound out words or read a sentence. But we are stifling the life of the mind (and the soul) if that’s where it ends. I’ve spent almost seven years teaching elementary literacy methods to future teachers. And 15 years teaching high school before that. I’ve learned that, sadly, so much of what passes as literacy curriculum in our schools ends with students identifying sounds or learning to carve up traditional text in rational ways that please the teacher or the curriculum designer.

Entering Kid A or The Ocarina of Time or anything by Octavia Butler lets me travel beyond this reality. David Berman sang that songs build little rooms in time. What a beautiful way to think of a text. Another reality that we can enter into together. And in so doing we are changed. And we can travel beyond this moment. That’s what I’m after in reading and writing. And it seems such a shame to me not to invite students, regardless of their age, into that vital exchange of energy. So that’s what I’m after in my teaching too.

It’s been a long fall. It always is. I was surprised when Kid A captured me the other day. Set me to traveling again. This kind of traveling is important, I think. Keeps us alive.

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