teacher or tech support?

This post is part of a series on bringing a human touch to online education. See the series introduction here.

I try to keep abreast of ideas in my field by reading scholarly journals. Often, it’s a difficult slog to get through the articles, both because I’m not familiar with the concepts of all the many subfields of the very broad discipline of language and literature and because academics are not always the best at writing clear prose (and I’m pointing at myself here too). But occasionally, I get to spend a few hours of sheer intellectual pleasure as I’m doing my professional development reading, and yesterday I had one of those times.

I sat down with the latest Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, a special issue on how the pandemic has changed how we teach English. I was drawn to several articles (which I’ll cite at the end of this post) about teaching online, since that’s currently the only modality in which I teach. Although these articles were written by faculty who had to rapidly shift to online teaching due to the pandemic, whereas I teach for programs that were developed to be online and that have existed since long before spring 2020, I assumed I would find some relevance in them, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though they were written independently of each other (albeit responding to the same special issue prompt), the three articles formed a conversation about the deeper philosophical issues of online education, such as how it is subtly shifting the definition of learning to something that can be measured by metrics like frequency of log-ins and number of discussion posts. All of the authors readily acknowledged the benefits and possibilities of online education, but all of them pointed to trends and assumptions that could be pernicious if unquestioned and offered ways to push back against them.

One of the moments in my reading when I found myself agreeing aloud was in Mark Brenden’s article on learning management systems (LMS)–websites like Blackboard and Canvas where students and faculty conduct the business of online courses. Something Brenden said struck me so profoundly that I want to quote it at length here:

[the LMS] directs students’ interactions to mostly take place with the LMS itself, rather than with their peers or their instructor. Learning is presented as a digital maze–at the end of which apparently lies knowledge-in-waiting–that students must navigate. The teacher often functions more as a technician, or customer-service agent, who gets contacted if something goes awry with the students’ interaction with the LMS.

In other words, one of the most meaningful aspects of the college adventure–the encounter with other humans–is sidelined into an option to be avoided except when necessary. I mean no disrespect to people who work in tech support positions (their role is different, not less valuable) when I say that as a professor, I hope my relationship with students is deeper, longer-lasting, and less one-sided than a quick phone call or text chat with a troubleshooter.

We can get information from a website, but we can only get transformative, life-defining conversations (whether real-time or asynchronous) from real people. I believe we can get those in an online education setting, but this requires professors who are willing to be authentic and available. And that’s what this blog post series is about.

Back to more practical tips next time! Here are the articles I mentioned. All are from Pedagogy vol. 23, no. 2:

Bezio, Kelly L. “How to Subvert the Banking Concept of Education in Neoliberal Times.” pp. 263-274.

Brenden, Mark. “Learning and Management during and after the Pandemic: Reading Student Resistance to LMS.” pp. 297-310

Tidwell, Christy. “In Defense of Facelessness: Not In-Person but Not Impersonal.” pp. 321-332.

Let them hear your voice.

This post is part of a series on bringing a human touch (cue the Bruce Springsteen song) to online education. See the series introduction here.

Today I have a simple tip to offer you, yet I’ve received more positive student feedback in response to this practice than almost anything else I’ve ever done as a professor. I would like to invite you to consider making videos for your students. And I don’t mean scripted lectures shot in multiple takes with official-looking title cards provided by your institution (though there can be a place for those). I mean short, personal, off-the-cuff video responses to students’ assignments. Here is a short account of my experiences with this practice.

I teach two research classes in which students submit a major project in several steps, the first being a proposal. Though the assignment instructions for the proposal are relatively formal and lead students to take it seriously, I treat it as a formative assessment–that is, not a finished product but a stepping stone. So instead of making corrections and deducting points from the rubric, I read each student’s proposal, then use the recording feature embedded in our learning management system (Canvas) to make a short video (2-5 minutes) expressing enthusiasm for their projects and giving them some advice about things like the scope of the project (students often start out a little too ambitious), pitfalls to avoid, and sources that might be helpful. The videos tend to be longer if I know something about the topic and have specific source recommendations to make or if the student seems to have had a little trouble understanding the assignment. But in all cases, I try to project excitement about their ideas and let them know that I’m a helpful resource.

The videos don’t take long to create because I shoot them in one take, without doing any editing and without even writing down notes first. I am pretty good at speaking ad lib–others might want to jot some notes first (and I do sometimes miss important things I meant to say or should have said!). Video grading gives me a break from writing, which constitutes the bulk of my work, and it allows students to see my face and hear my voice, letting them know I’m a real person who’s invested in them and their writing. The students love these videos–I get more positive feedback on them in my course evaluations than on anything else. Often the videos initiate a warm and enthusiastic exchange of questions and ideas that continues throughout the course.

Next week, it will be time for me to make proposal feedback videos for my new set of students, and I am genuinely excited to make them–not something I can normally say about grading. I encourage you, if you are a teacher or any type of communicator (aren’t we all?), to find ways to let the people you work with hear your voice. It will lay the foundation for trusting relationships and make your future written communication less likely to be misunderstood. Try it out and let me know what you learn!

online education for humans

Sometimes I wonder if my students realize I’m a real human being, not a machine who grades their work. When students are surprised that I answer a pretty reasonable request in the affirmative, or that I reply to their messages at all–that’s when I really wonder. But I can’t be too critical of my students’ assumptions, because there have been times when I’ve forgotten that my students are real human beings and not machines composing assignments. When all you see of a person is a) their writing (which may or may not sound like something that came from a real human being–we’ll talk more about that in a later post) and b) a tiny, low-quality profile picture, seeing that person’s humanity can be a struggle.

This will be the topic of my next few posts. We’ll talk about strategies that online faculty and students can use to remember and respect each other’s humanity. And as always, I hope these posts will have a wider application, offering useful advice for all of us who live in this world where so much of our human interaction is mediated by screens.

Work Places: Florida in winter

Yesterday, when Jordan and I made it inside the South Bend airport after a bitter, biting trek across the parking lot (I’m talking about the snow and cold, by the way–we weren’t being mean to each other), I said that we couldn’t be flying to Florida at a better time. Jordan agreed. “It kind of makes me understand snowbirds,” he said, and I knew what he meant. Maybe the weather in northern Indiana is part of why I sometimes fantasize about retirement.

I took off my hat and gloves in Atlanta, where it was 57 degrees as we crossed the jet bridge, and finally got rid of my coat in Orlando, where it was still in the 70s when we landed around 9 pm. Yes, it was humid, but what a lovely respite from the dry, chill wind back home. My skin drank in the moisture gratefully.

We are here in Orlando for a work conference Jordan is attending at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Orlando at Sea World. After the conference, we are extending our trip with several days of vacation, including some beach time near Melbourne, a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, and a day at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter back here in Orlando before we fly home. But for the next few days, I’ll be hanging out here at the hotel while Jordan schmoozes with other nerds in the magnetics industry. Fortunately, the Doubletree has an extensive outdoor seating area (collectively called the Pavilion, Terrace, and Veranda) that happens to be right outside our room. I went out there early this morning to work on my Bible study and sat on a low-slung couch in front of a coffee table, lit by gentle but sufficient light from the fixtures that dot the area. There are also tables, small clusters of chairs, and a pretty water feature. Under the pavilion, fans keep things cool, and I noticed an outlet near my couch. Right now, I’m working in our room (which has good Wi-Fi, a decent-sized desk and ergonomic chair, and an adequate coffee maker), but later I think I’ll take my work outside. After all, what’s the point of getting a taste of the snowbird life if I’m not absorbing as much Vitamin D as possible?

ode to the cabin

In the years before my dad’s parents passed away, they started RV camping on a little plot in the woods at the edge of some land in Garrett County, Maryland, that they used to farm years before and that still belonged to the family. My grandfather sold the RV after my grandmother passed away, but he wanted to keep camping on that spot, so he put up a couple of modular sheds, installed a tiny kitchen and a tinier bathroom, and created the Stockslager family cabin. Pappy kept visiting the cabin until he died in January 2018 (you can read my tribute to him here), and his gentle, goofy humor and spindly handwriting are still all over the place, in the lists of instructions he made for winterizing and taking care of the cabin, the John Deere clock he made and hand-painted with a Bible verse that somehow fits, and the old and quirky but still functional cookware and dishes that are getting a second life after years in Grandma and Pappy’s kitchen. The cabin continues to be a beloved vacation place for many members of our family. It has been expanded in recent years and now includes a bigger bathroom and a private bedroom, though some still prefer to sleep in the curtained area off the living room. It’s not palatial by any means, but it’s really just there to serve as a shelter and a base for outdoor adventures, and it serves that purpose beautifully.

Jordan and I have spent a long weekend at the cabin each of the three autumns since we’ve been married. Here are some of my favorite things about being there.

  • Walking down to the hayfield when the sun is coming up, then taking the short loop hike through the woods and watching deer burst out of their hiding places and run across the path
  • Cooking breakfast in the tiny indoor kitchen, making the whole cabin smell like bacon and coffee
  • Cooking hot dogs and s’mores over a roaring fire in the fire pit
  • Playing board games under the fairy lights at the picnic table in the covered outdoor kitchen area
  • Taking a spin around the woods and fields in the utility vehicle (a John Deere Gator, of course)
  • Hiking in the nearby New Germany State Park, as well as other trails on and off the cabin property
  • Visiting some of our favorite local businesses: High Country Creamery (where we stock up on cheese for the visit–very important), Cornucopia Cafe, and of course, Candyland at Hilltop Fruit Market

I love that I go to bed smelling like fire every night at the cabin. I love that I can get up early and get a little work done while sitting outside as I wait for Jordan to get ready for the day. I love that even though the cabin feels isolated and we sometimes hear coyotes and catch glimpses of bears, we know we’re safe because we’re surrounded by the farms and homes of people who knew and respected my grandparents and are keeping an eye on their kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. I love seeing the patchwork fields covering the hills in the distance and watching the sun slant through the trees and light up the leaves like fire. I am thankful for this beautiful place that has meant so much to my family and now means so much to Jordan and me. I can’t wait to be there again.

what “adjunct faculty” means

This summer I took a seven-week break from teaching for my main institution, and I’m finally getting around to writing a blog post about it, largely as a way to reflectively journal about the experience. But as I thought about what I wanted to say, I realized that, since other people will be reading this journal entry, it might be productive for me to spend some time explaining how I was able to take a seven-week break (not normal in most industries!) and, more broadly, how I get compensated for my work. I hope some of you will find this information interesting in its own right, but also–full disclosure–I have a point I want to make at the end of the post.

Let me start by evoking what many people likely picture when they hear the job title “college professor.” I live near an old and prestigious university, and there’s a part of town I sometimes drive through where, I’m told, a lot of the professors live–and where there are some truly palatial homes. I won’t make a blanket statement about all faculty at this university, but I think it’s safe to assume that some of them are being compensated very generously. This makes sense–the university has been there for a long time, and it has a lot of donors. The professors who live in these homes have earned advanced degrees; many of them have probably published books and articles in prestigious publications, and they likely spend a lot of time producing and supervising important research. This is probably the kind of person most people picture when they hear the phrase “college professor.” (And I want to be clear that those professors work hard for their paychecks! Even those who have graders or teaching assistants do a lot of behind-the-scenes work that most people don’t think about–lesson planning, keeping up with new research in their field, serving on committees, answering emails, and perhaps doing administrative work for the university. College professors work hard, just like people in any industry.)

The professors I’ve just been describing are generally on a full-time contract with their university, meaning that they know ahead of time how much they’ll be paid each year, and they receive benefits (health insurance, retirement plan matching, etc.) from their employer. (Many of them may also benefit from the academic job security mechanism known as tenure, but I won’t get into that in this post–it’s a complicated system, and I’m no expert on it.) But there’s a whole category of college faculty, known as adjuncts, who aren’t on full-time contracts. Instead of receiving a salary, adjuncts get paid per class. This means that their compensation can vary from semester to semester (or term to term), depending on the courses that are available for them to teach. While they may be doing forty hours (or more) of work per week, adjuncts usually do not receive full-time employment benefits.

Every college has different ways of assigning classes to adjuncts, and the adjunct experience can vary widely from school to school. For example, at some institutions (like the ones I serve at), adjuncts–at least on-campus ones, and many universities are doing more to include online adjuncts–are invited to events like faculty orientation, can request supplies from the department budget, and can even serve on committees (which allows them to give input that may affect their working conditions and teaching satisfaction), while at other institutions, adjuncts struggle to receive any kind of professional support. The pay scale can also vary widely for adjuncts, depending on factors like number of students in a class, the adjunct’s level of education, and the institution’s budget.

Until summer 2020, I taught on a university campus on a full-time faculty contract. Since then, I have been teaching online as an adjunct for two different universities. (Side note 1: It was marriage and moving, not the pandemic, that caused this shift. Moving to online adjunct work was a free choice I gladly made. I point this out because some adjuncts are in their position because it’s the only one their school can offer them, or because they’ve been demoted from full-time positions due to budget cuts or other factors. Side note 2: While adjuncts can teach either online or in person–some people do both–the number of people employed as adjunct faculty has risen dramatically with the growing popularity of online education.) Let me briefly describe what my adjunct experience has been, being careful to clarify that this is just my experience. I would be interested to hear from other adjuncts about their own work!

I teach a graduate and an undergraduate course at each of my two universities, for a total of four courses I teach regularly (four “preps” to use a common teacher expression). At any given time, I’m usually teaching two to five classes total. (Side note: One of my schools has eight-week terms, while the other has six-week terms for grad classes and five-week terms for undergrad. I find it confusing to keep track of what week each of my classes is on, so I have to use my planner carefully, and occasionally I turn down teaching offers because I don’t want to deal with all the overlap!) For two of the classes, I’m the “subject matter expert,” or SME. A SME is the person responsible for maintaining and updating the course content (and sometimes, creating it in the first place, which was my experience–meaning that students get to see my face in the video lectures and therefore get to know me better than a lot of online students get to know their faculty) and providing support and advice to other faculty teaching the course. Each term that I teach one of the courses I’m SME of (which is almost every term for me), I get a SME stipend, which is a pretty significant amount. I make more money from my grad classes than my undergrad ones, since teaching them requires more specialized knowledge (but is not necessarily harder!), and I get paid more than someone who does not have a terminal degree–a PhD in my case. I’m not going to tell you my total pay, but when you combine all my classes and add other income sources like serving on master’s thesis committees (not very lucrative, but one of the most rewarding parts of my work), I make roughly the equivalent of what my husband makes as an engineer with a full-time salaried position. But while he gets paid every week, I get paid every five to eight weeks, making it really hard to incorporate my pay into our budget!*

This is turning into an incredibly long post, so I’ll wrap it up with a couple of things I hope people will learn from this post. First, if you’re considering an academic career (as I know many of my students are), keep adjuncting in mind as a possibility, but also be aware of the potential challenges of this type of work. And remember that the description I’ve given here is just one person’s experience! Second, in our busy, hyper-connected culture, the stereotype of the leisured professor is not true anymore, if it ever was. Despite what some politicians may want you to think, universities are not paying faculty big bucks to do nothing. The work of teaching at the college level can be rewarding and delightful, but it is hard work—and important work. Yes, we all have all the information in the world at our fingertips, but the job of professors (and of teachers at all levels) is not merely to convey information but to help students learn how to interpret that information, to think deeply, to have meaningful and respectful discussions with others, and to love learning. I’m grateful to be able to do that work and to be compensated well for it, and I hope universities will continue to see adjuncts as a crucial partners in that work and give them the support they need and deserve.

Creative writing tip: Find your Inklings

There’s a lot of talk these days about finding one’s “tribe” or one’s “people.” If taken to extremes or left unexamined, this attitude can worsen the polarization that plagues our society by excusing us from spending time with and listening to people who are different from us. But underlying this idea is a good impulse: the desire to connect with people who share our interests and joys.

Earlier this summer, I read Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, which is a collective biography of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, but even more than that, a fascinating account of an unusual group of men who “found their people.” The Inklings, as many of my readers will probably know, were an informal club of friends–mostly Oxford and Cambridge academics, mostly Christians–who met for years, twice a week, to eat, drink, have intellectually rich discussions, and–most famously–read aloud from their works in progress, some of which turned out to be genre-defining sagas like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The atmosphere of the group, as well as some weird ideas that floated around during their intense discussions (Carpenter doesn’t shy away from these), was shaped by the group’s demographics (almost exclusively middle-aged white Englishmen) and the times in which they lived. But within their similarity, they were a remarkably diverse group in their marital status, politics, religious expressions, and philosophies on all sorts of things (e.g., how a fantasy world should be constructed). And, by all accounts, their strongly-held, often opposing opinions made the group exciting, not threatening. They were fans of each other’s work (even when they criticized it), and most importantly, they were friends.

In the decades since the Inklings met, aspiring writers (especially fantasy nerds) have been trying to recapture the heady atmosphere of their meetings. I was once part of a creative writing group called, unabashedly, the Inklings, which held long, food-fueled sessions in which we read aloud from our works in progress and received gracious yet detailed feedback from our peers. Like the original Inklings, we were brought together not only by our love of stories but also (for most of us) by our Christian faith, which deeply informed our group’s philosophy even though hardly any of us were writing explicitly Christian literature. And like the original Inklings, many of us developed close, trusting friendships.

If you are a writer–or if you don’t write yourself, but you enjoy a good story and know how to give helpful feedback (or are willing to learn how)*–I encourage you to join a creative writing group. Don’t try too hard to recapture the atmosphere of the original Inklings; you’re not them. You don’t have to wear tweed or meet every week or even meet in person. (My old group moved to Zoom during the pandemic.) Not all creative writing groups even involve critique of works in progress; some focus on support, encouragement, learning new techniques, or even writing silently in each other’s presence. The greatest gift of a creative writing group is not the activities that happen during the meeting or even the works of literature that its members produce, but that feeling of belonging, of being understood by other people who also have stories in their heads. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”

Subscribe to get notified of upcoming posts: an ode to my grandparents’ cabin in the western Maryland mountains and an explanation of how adjunct faculty get paid (much more interesting than it sounds!). Also, if you’re a fan of the Inklings, subscribe to my podcast, It’s Lit Time!, for an upcoming series on rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga.

*Several of the original Inklings weren’t writers; they just enjoyed hanging out with their friends and hearing their stories.

lessons from conflict

I rarely have negative interactions with my students. I don’t know if that’s because of the environment in which I teach or the obsessive care I take to try to stay on everyone’s good side–likely it’s a combination of factors. But when I do have a negative interaction with a student (typically by email, since I teach exclusively online right now), I tend to be equally obsessive about trying to figure out what went wrong. I’ve learned that there’s a good side and a bad side to this tendency, and I want to share these lessons in the form of two tips that, in most cases, should be followed in sequential order. Though I’m thinking about student and professor interactions as I write this post, these two tips can apply to almost any type of conflict.

  1. Be open to realizing you’ve been wrong. By listening to other faculty talk and doing some uncomfortable self-reflection, I’ve realized that we professors are way too quick to assume students are in the wrong–they didn’t read the assignment carefully enough, they’re entitled, they just don’t like me…you can see that these assumptions may lead down an ugly path. Sometimes those statements may be true, but they should not be our default responses. A conflict with a student can be a good opportunity to evaluate our own teaching practice. Ask yourself: Can I explain these assignment instructions or this course material more clearly? Can I rewrite the test to remove unnecessary ambiguity? Can I approach my students with a more open mind and a listening posture? You can also pose these questions to a colleague or someone else you trust, who may be able to see the situation more clearly than you can.
  2. Sometimes, though, asking those questions does not lead to an explanation of why the negative interaction occurred. Maybe the student is going through a hard time and is taking frustration out on you. Or maybe, in rare cases, this is simply a student who likes to stir up conflict. In that case, my second tip applies: Let it go. I know that this is much, much easier said than done. But sometimes it’s the only right answer. Instead of obsessively combing through your responses and wondering where you went wrong, you may need to accept that you did everything right as much as you were able. If you’re like me, you may have to remind yourself that it’s not a tragedy if a student doesn’t like you. Admitting this doesn’t make you cynical or uncaring, and it may help you sleep better at night.

So there you have it–my simple (but not necessarily easy) steps to dealing with interpersonal conflict. Maybe I should write a book about this and make lots of money. But then I’d have to fill it with embarrassing stories about myself and my students, and I don’t want to do that. So I’ll turn it over to you: What principles have you found helpful in dealing with conflict resolution?

guest post: There’s Always a Table for You

Today I’m sharing a short story by my brother Mark Stockslager, centering on the Ship Hotel, a landmark of the western Pennsylvania stretch of the Lincoln Highway. Whether you’re interested in the importance of research to creative writing (WRIT 402 students, take note!) or just love a good story, I think you will enjoy this!

There’s Always a Table for You

A Ship Hotel Story

by Mark Stockslager

“‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form

‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’”

Bob Dylan


              It was 1975, and Elmer was sick of it. Not the year, no, but mostly everything else. His job at Schellsburg’s one and only real estate business wasn’t on life support yet, but Elmer liked to say it was high time for some diet and exercise if the job wanted to see the 80s. His marriage was taken off of life support a few years earlier, and he was still sore about that. Not just sore that his wife up and told him one day that he was boring, he was fat, and he was balding and she wanted out, no — sore that he didn’t have anyone to complain to anymore.

              “And you complain too much, Elmer!” That’s something else she told him.

              Anyhow, the only thing Elmer much cared for anymore was Bob Dylan records and driving his car. He drove when he was annoyed (sick of it) and that was a frequent occasion these days. So it was on this day that Elmer got in his car, popped in the tape he’d recorded of Bob Dylan’s latest LP and started driving.

              “I’m telling you, Bill — Blood on the Tracks is gonna go down as one of his best,” Elmer told the one coworker he could tolerate, and told him again and again since Elmer picked it up in January.

              “Uh-huh,” was Bill’s reply. He’d said the same thing the other times Elmer had brought up Bob Dylan. To Bill, Dylan was just another anti-war hippie Communist who overstayed his welcome.

              It was a particularly beautiful fall day when Elmer fired up the first track “Tangled Up in Blue” and decided he’d point his Chevrolet Corvair west on 30, which Elmer affectionately referred to as “The Old Linc.” The Lincoln Highway stretched over 3,000 miles from New York to California, and was still held in high regard similar to Route 66, but the stretch through western PA that included Elmer’s hometown of Schellsburg wasn’t used by many folks. Not for long distance travel, at least. The PA Turnpike was more preferable to those trying to avoid the mountain, and the novelty of the gigantic teapot on the side of the road had worn off for those who didn’t appreciate the finer things. Like Elmer did.

              Elmer had checked the clock on his stove before leaving his house. It was just getting on 2 in the afternoon, it was a Saturday, and he had no responsibilities today. “The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on,” said Bobby, and Elmer agreed.


              Elmer backed out of his driveway and directly into the side of his neighbor Ellen Grayfield’s sedan. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Elmer barked. Both parties shifted to park and Elmer jumped out of his car.

              “Ms. Grayfield I—”

              “Don’t bother, Elmer. I’m already over it.” She stayed in the car, but her window was rolled down. She waved her hand like she was lazily waving away a fly.

              Elmer slowed in his tracks. “What? You’re serious?”

              “Well, you’re insured aren’t you?”

              He nodded. “I am.”

              She nodded, almost in unison. “As am I. And quite honestly, Elmer, I don’t know if I even see the need for that nonsense. You see any scrapes?”

              As she said it, Elmer looked at her car and noticed it looked almost brand new. “You know, now that you mention it—”

              “Okay and how about yours?” She nodded at his Corvair, and his eyes followed.

              Elmer squatted by the rear bumper and stared. “Nothing. There’s nothing.”

              “Well don’t act like it’s God’s miracle, Elmer, you barely touched me. It wasn’t a head-on collision.” Ellen Grayfield gave Elmer a half smile and waited for his reply.

              “So you want to just shake hands and call it square?” Elmer reached his hand through her passenger window and she shook it, firmly.

              “That’s what I’m talking about, fella. Where you headed on this fine day, anyway?”

              Elmer was so relieved that (a) Ms. Grayfield wasn’t upset and (b) their cars seemed weirdly fresh off the lot with nary a scratch that he laughed and said, “You know, I have no idea. I was just going for a drive to be honest.”

              Ellen Grayfield once again smiled and once again nodded and said, “Great minds think alike. The Linc?”

              “Yeah I — hey I call it that too!” Elmer began to feel a sense of deja vu, but the good kind. Almost like meeting someone new and realizing you were going to be friends. Only, he’d lived next to Ellen for years and had exchanged nothing but quick pleasantries with her throughout their acquaintance.

              “You headed east or west?” Ellen’s car was still running, as was Elmer’s, but neither seemed to mind.

              “I was thinking of going west. You?”

              “East. Not sure why or what, just flipped a coin in my head, I guess.”

              Elmer was leaning over to talk to Ellen through the window and normally by now his back would have protested. He didn’t feel any pain today. “Ha, yeah, same here.”

              What was going on here? Elmer was not good at small talk (the Dylan conversations with Bill were evidence of that), but he all of a sudden wanted to stand here and chat with Ellen for hours. They weren’t even talking, really, just batting niceties around like backyard badminton, but it came naturally and it felt good. Wonder if Ellen likes Bob Dylan?

              “Well Elmer, as much as I’d like to sit here and chat with you for hours,” Didn’t I just think that? “I’ve gotta scoot. The Linc is calling, and I must go.” She looked at him for a couple beats and added, “You gonna be alright there, Elmer?”

              Elmer shook his head slightly, as if to clear the cobwebs, and replied, “Yeah, oh yeah…guess hitting the brakes after bumping you made me feel a little fuzzy. It’s been really nice talking with you, Ellen.” He moved to straighten his back, just a touch, and felt a twinge.

              “Same to you, Elmer. Don’t be a stranger.” She gave him yet another smile and yet another nod, maneuvered to D, and started to roll. “Gravity pulls us down and destiny pulls us apart, Elmer. Or sometimes together. I don’t know.” Her car pulled up to the stop sign just up from Elmer’s, its left blinker signaled her forged path, and off went Ellen Grayfield.

              Elmer, somewhat dazed but feeling good, turned back to his car. “Idiot Wind” was playing now. And what was it Ellen just said? Gravity and destiny? Elmer knew that was one of many lines in the almost eight minute track, but how did Ellen know that was what he was listening to? Elmer didn’t usually crank up the volume until he was out on the main road — out of courtesy to his neighbors of course.

              The sun glared in his eyes as he turned right onto Route 30 (“The Linc is calling,” Ellen had said) and Elmer glanced at the clock on his dash. It was almost four o’clock. “That doesn’t make sense,” he proclaimed to nothing and no one, “We talked for barely five minutes!” It had felt longer, though, hadn’t it? But if they’d talked for almost two hours, why was the tape still on track four?

              “Whole thing musta looped around and started over,” Elmer said with a grunt of a laugh, but that didn’t quite add up either. It was the thing that made the most sense, though, and Elmer left it at that. He turned “Idiot Wind” up and he sang along loudly. It was, for Elmer, the song he liked to sing along with the most.


              Elmer had driven for barely a mile (“Idiot Wind” gave way to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) before his mind forced him back to the weird time jump he had just experienced.

              “Ok, look,” Elmer began (he talked to himself a lot since the divorce, it was easier to think that way), “It must have been later than I thought when I left the house.”

              Was it, though? His mind answered.  You looked at the clock on the stove when you left. It’s in big white block numbers. It said 1:57 pm, and you know it.

              “Alright then…the stove was wrong. Or the car is wrong!”

              Who changed the clocks then, Elmer? You’ve lived on your own since—

              “Yeah yeah, I hear you,” Elmer interrupted his own mind. “Any bright ideas then, smart guy?”

              Elmer’s prying brain seemed not to have any ideas worth noting, so his internal spat came to a quick and unsatisfying conclusion.

              Quick and unsatisfying, you say? Sounds like another reason why you and your wife had—

              “That’s quite enough out of you, thanks!” Elmer shouted at himself. “This conversation is over.” Side two had started and “Meet Me in the Morning” was on. It was a bluesy one, so Elmer turned it up even louder. He didn’t sing, but he beat hell on the drum kit of his steering wheel, dashboard, and doorframe.

              Schellsburg wasn’t much of a town to speak of, so Elmer was out in the country even before he and his mind had started trading haymakers, and Route 30 started its steady climb over the mountain. The sun seemed to be dipping lower and lower like God had hit fast forward on His VCR and the button was stuck.

              The day was almost over and Elmer felt like it had just begun. But it was Saturday, tomorrow was Sunday, and he didn’t have to let some stupid clock issue with his car (and possibly his stove) get in the way of his good time. Which these days consisted of driving and Dylan.

              The steady hum of his car grew to its usual dull roar when going over the mountain, so he turned Dylan even louder to hear it. Let’s face it, Elmer. It’s not about hearing it, it’s about feeling it. Especially when you’ve got the volume this high. Dylan was singing about Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts when the roar of his car gave way to a bang, and a hard jolt towards the oncoming lane.

              “My tire’s blown out!” Elmer yelled to no one. Luckily he was moving slowly, and no one was heading down the mountain, so Elmer corrected himself and his car slowed further to a 15mph crawl as Elmer collected his thoughts.

              “Just find a place to pull over, and we’ll figure something out. Flag somebody down, catch a ride, get a tow. We’re fine.”

              Are we fine?

              “Yes we’re fine. My back hurts and my head hurts but we’re fine.” And frankly, Elmer was proud of himself. The Elmer of the past few years would have been blowing a gasket at this point. The gasket probably would have already been blown after his little run-in with Ellen Grayfield’s sensible sedan, and a flat tire would have ruined the next few days for That Elmer. But This Elmer? He was still riding the buzz from the fact that his and Ellen’s run-in didn’t involve anything other than a pleasant conversation. It was the conversation, mostly. He hadn’t had such a friendly chat in well…

              “When I get up tomorrow, I’m gonna offer to go with Ellen to church. I’m sure she’d love the company. Who am I kidding? I’d love the company, too.” Who exactly was This Elmer? That Elmer — the snarky Elmer in his brain — didn’t recognize or exactly like him. That Elmer loved a complainer. He thought misery tasted good.

              For now, though, Elmer (This Elmer, Our Elmer, if you will) had the matter of his front left tire to worry about, and where exactly he was going to pull off. There weren’t a whole lot of options going over this particular stretch of the mountain.

              There is that old restaurant and hotel joint. The one that looks like a ship?

              “Oh you’re trying to help now, are you?” Elmer chided himself. But That Elmer had a point. It was coming up on the left, wasn’t it? It wasn’t what it used to be, back in the glory days of presidents and celebrities coming to visit, but it was a parking lot, and that’s all Elmer needed at the moment.


              It was only seconds after Elmer decided the ship was his best option that the structure loomed around the corner (and not a moment too soon — his tire was thumping loud enough to give up on Dylan). It took Elmer a moment to register two things. Number one — the building was beautiful. It was freshly painted, lit up like a used car lot (but in a good way), and the parking lot was jammed. Number two — the hotel was lit up because it was basically dark. He looked at his dash and saw that it read 5:45.

              “That doesn’t make a lick of sense, but I don’t care. That’s the least of my worries.” And it was true — Elmer hung a lazy left into the small lot and wasn’t sure if he’d find a spot. His Corvair crept along the small strip of parking on the side of 30 (the building was built on the side of a steep cliff on a mountain, after all), and shortly Elmer found a perfect spot. Right in front of the entryway.

              “Hey look at that!” He practically punched the roof in excitement. He eased the car into the space (perfect fit) and hoped the next time it moved was onto the back of a tow truck.

              Elmer sat in the now-quiet car and took a quick moment to close his eyes and collect himself. Yes, his back and head hurt. Yes, he got a flat on a day that seemed to be flying by him, but he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t even disappointed, really. This Elmer was trying to take it easy, baby, take it as it comes (Elmer liked The Doors, too, but nowhere as much as he did Bobby).

              Elmer could hear music, but it wasn’t rock and roll. It was big band music, and it was coming from the hotel. “Sounds hoppin’ in there!” Elmer got out of his car (his back gave him a holler, but not as big as he had feared it would) and made for the door. He knew priority numero uno was asking to use the phone to call a tow, but he was more excited to see what was going on inside.

              As Elmer reached for the door, it swung wide for him. The music came into a loud focus, as did the pleasant smells and sights. The first pleasant sight was an older man wearing a suit, a captain’s hat, and a warm smile, who had opened the door for him.

              “Come in, come in!” the captain said (Elmer assumed he ran this ship) and stepped aside to usher in an Elmer (This Elmer) who was feeling that good, good daze from earlier today at about 1000%. “I’m Herb, the captain of this ship. What can I do for you, Mister…”

              Elmer looked up and met Herb’s eyes. They were kind, patient eyes. The eyes of someone who was waiting for an answer but nice enough to give you time to gather your bearings before you answer. Elmer appreciated those eyes. “I, uh…I’m Elmer! I’m Elmer. My car—”

              “Flat tire, huh? That’s not fun at all.” Elmer gave him a puzzled look. How in the world? Herb recognized the look and laughed. “Oh, I heard you pulling in. Thumping like a bass drum, it was.”

              That was good enough for Elmer (maybe not for That Elmer — the music is way too loud for somebody to have heard that, he thought) so he recovered and asked Herb if there was a phone he could use.

              “Why sure there is, Elmer. Anything else I can help with? Hey, you hungry, Elmer?”

              Elmer was, and Elmer wanted to hang out here as long as he could, honestly. At least until the tow truck got here. It was Saturday (night) after all. “Yes, sir, I am, but is there even a table open? This place is hopping!”

              Herb smiled, gave Elmer a nod, and waved his hand towards the center of the small but charming dining area. “Of course, Elmer! There’s always a table for you.”

              Elmer followed as Herb led him to the small table, one chair already pulled out for its next occupant. “I’ve actually never been inside here, Herb. Driven past it all my life, though.” He looked at Herb then, who was smiling expectantly. “Wait, do we know each other?”

              “I don’t think we do — we get a lot of people in here these days, but I never forget a face. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of seeing yours before.” A small cacophony of music coming from the slightly cramped stage at the front of the dining room. No one was dancing —not yet — but Elmer had the feeling the tables would get cleared after dinner and this party would really get swinging.

              “Well, Elmer, if there’s anything you need, I’ll know. Somebody will come by to get your order.” Elmer and Herb shook hands, and Elmer sat down as Herb made his way through the room, smiling, nodding, chatting, and overall commanding the room like only those really special people can. Like a captain, for instance.


              Elmer had ordered drinks and dinner and was tapping his foot to the music when That Elmer tapped on his brain.

              Say Elmer, what did you come here for? It wasn’t just hopping music and fettuccini alfredo.

              Elmer brought his hand down hard to the table, but no one noticed over the music. “The phone!” He whispered to himself. He’d never called the tow! As if he’d heard Elmer’s whisper, Herb made his way over to him, hello-ing as he went.

              “You ready to make that call now? I figured you’d want to wait until you’d ordered so the timing worked out.” Elmer almost laughed in relief.

              “Yeah! Yeah, that’s good thinking, Cap. I’ll admit, I’d almost forgotten about why I was here in the first place.” Elmer stood up and allowed Herb to lead the way.

              Herb walked in step by Elmer’s side, somehow both of them able to walk comfortably even in the small room. “Oh, let’s say that the dinner and the show was the main reason, Elmer. The car trouble was just the luck that brought you here.” Herb took Elmer to a door off the dining room that led into a small office. Outside the office was a grand (grand for a small restaurant that looked like a ship built on the side of a mountain) staircase that led up to what looked like rooms to rent.

              Elmer laughed and said. “I like that idea, Cap. I like it a lot.”

              “Phone’s on the desk. Take your time, Elmer.” And with that, Herb was back at it.

              Gotta say, I really like this guy.

              “That makes two of us, good buddy,” and Elmer dialed the only tow truck service in town.

              The call was short, and the friendly but slightly stressed voice on the other end of the line assured Elmer that somebody would be out at some point this evening. “But it’s a Saturday night, sir, and it seems like everybody’s driving and everybody’s blowing tires tonight.”

              Elmer wasn’t fazed. “Hey, you can put me at the end of the list if you need. I was able to pull off a nice stop and I’m having dinner, so I don’t mind the wait, truly.”

              “Thanks for understanding, sir. Where is your car located right now?”

              Elmer gave the name of the Ship Hotel (“That old place? Sure, I know it”), thanked the voice, and rejoined the fray.

              As Elmer shut Herb’s office door, he noticed Herb talking to a woman by the front door who looked like she was the main greeter of guests. Herb wasn’t necessarily speaking angrily, but he was more agitated than Elmer had seen him all evening. He wondered to himself what could have the Cap rattled like that.

              Herb broke away when he saw Elmer and instantly flashed him a smile, not betraying that anything could have been bothering him mere seconds before. “Any luck, Elm?”

              “They’ll certainly be here before this party dies down, but hopefully not much before,” Elmer laughed. “Say Cap, everything alright? Not to pry, but you seemed a bit concerned just now.”

              They arrived back at Elmer’s table, his fettuccini just freshly dropped off, and Herb clapped him on the back as Elmer sat down. “Aw now…it’s nothing we can’t handle. Nothing that matters much — it’s doom alone that counts.”

              “Alright, Cap, but if there’s anything I can do….” Herb didn’t reply, but bowed slightly and smiled and off he went.

              Nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts…now where had Herb heard that before? It was right on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t place it. It sounded like a lyric. Like a Dylan lyric, his mind chimed in. Do you suppose the Cap likes Dylan too? Or what do you think is really going on here tonight, Elmer?

              Elmer wasn’t sure how to answer the question, so he decided to tuck into the best fettuccini alfredo he’d ever eaten in his life until further notice.


              The combination of Elmer’s hunger and the best fettuccini alfredo he’d ever had meant that he finished fast enough to want another plate, but he was keenly aware that two servings of pasta was a trend he’d better stop subscribing to if he wanted to see his feet anytime soon. So after making the wise decision of allowing his digestive system to work, he settled back to listen to the band and glance around the room.

              The Captain was nowhere to be seen at the moment, so Elmer took in the other clientele. It seemed to be your typical Sunday lunch crowd, folks in church-appropriate suits and dresses. It struck Elmer as a little odd for a Saturday night, in fact the whole setting seemed a bit old school, but it was A-OK by him. Nothing wrong with a little fancy dress and fancy music to break up the monotony of his usual TV dinners and leftovers by the record player.

              Elmer thought back on the events of the day. Or at least he tried to — what time did he get up that morning? What had he eaten for breakfast? Can we remember anything before leaving the house and running into Ellen Grayfield?

              Elmer put his hand to his mouth to disguise his muttering and said, “You know it’s getting real when you start saying ‘we.’” That Elmer had a point, though. Elmer thought hard and couldn’t recall anything before leaving the house in the afternoon to drive — but that’s probably because we had the same boring morning we always do, right?

              “You and I are thinking more and more on the same page, buddyroo,” and then Elmer decided to stop conversing with himself before anyone noticed.

              “How did that alfredo treat you, Elmer?” His smiling waiter appeared out of nowhere, who Elmer hadn’t seen since he’d taken Elmer’s order.

              Elmer took a second to recover. “It was the best I’ve ever had, uh…I’m sorry what did you say your name was?” Elmer wasn’t sure the waiter had given it, but he erred on the side of politeness.

              “It’s Robert, and I’m glad to hear that. You got room for dessert?” Robert produced a dessert menu in the same slick motion of clearing Elmer’s plate, and Elmer didn’t bother to ask how Robert had known his name.

              “I’ve always got room for dessert, Bobby,” and they laughed like old friends. Elmer ordered the cannoli (leave the gun) and hoped his tow truck was hours away. Come to think of it, what time is it anyway?

              There wasn’t a clock on the wall. Like magic, Herb approached Elmer’s table and said, “Glad to hear you enjoyed your meal, Elm. It’s coming on 9 o’clock, I’m surprised your tow isn’t here yet.”

              “9 o’clock! Time flies when you’re having fun I guess!” Yeah, at the speed of sound, and Elmer agreed. “I told them to take their time on the account of having too much fun here to be pried away.”

              Herb glanced behind him to see the greeter making a beeline for Herb and Elmer. “That’s what I love to hear —” She whispered in Herb’s ear shortly, and Herb turned to a curious Elmer. “Phone’s for you, Elmer. Sounds like it’s your tow.”

              Herb ushered Elmer not to his office, but to the small greeter’s stand which had a phone with its receiver sitting face down, waiting for Elmer. “Yeah, this is Elmer.”

              “Sir…I’m sorry to say…having trouble…the place…confirm the address for…” The voice sounded a million miles away with an ocean of static in between.

              “Yeah the address is—” and then the call dropped. Elmer turned to see Herb still with him and said, “I guess they’re having a hard time finding this place, and the call dropped on me.”

              Herb nodded apologetically, “Sometimes the phones are a little wonky here —us being at sea.” A beat passed and Herb and Elmer started giggling like they were two school kids sharing a dirty joke. “But hey, Elmer, looks like the dancing is about to start.”

              The tables had been cleared, and the band had kicked it into overdrive. Still older songs, but this time it was a song Elmer could actually place the title. They had begun playing an instrumental version of Sam Coke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and Elmer couldn’t resist.

              “Well they’ll get here when they get here, won’t they, Cap?”

              “That’s the spirit, Elmer. Get on out there!” Elmer didn’t have to be told twice.


              Elmer danced for minutes, or hours, he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t a good dancer (he was bad, if we’re being honest), but this crowd didn’t mind. Everyone became instant friends when the rock and roll started to play. The men had shed their suit coats, but even then everyone had a sheen of sweat as they danced to song after song.

              The fettuccini alfredo would have normally given Elmer a serious case of the burps, but Elmer felt better after this meal than he had in a long while. He didn’t even seem to care that his cannoli was long forgotten, but he had a feeling it would turn up at some point. Things just seemed to show up in this place.

              Several songs later, everyone was laughing, panting, and fairly well tuckered out. The band switched back to something smooth and slow and Elmer looked around for the Cap. Herb was on the far side of the small room, leaning on the wall with a content smile on his face. Elmer approached. “You can really cut a rug, Elmer,” Herb said as he pushed himself to a standing position. “I always like to hang back and watch people dance on the weekend nights. People seem so happy and alive.”

              Elmer was still panting a bit when he said, “I can attest to that, Cap. Say, what time is it now?”

              “It’s just now 11, Elm. You might be stuck with us tonight,” Herb once again had an apologetic tone, as if he was being an inconvenience to Elmer.

              “That’s just fine, that’s just fine. They’ll catch me in the morning, I’m sure. I just want to peek out at my car real quick. Is there a room available for me?”

              Herb smiled. “There’s always a room for you, Elmer.”


              Outside the air was cool but not cold, and Elmer breathed it in deeply. Elmer was more partial to the fall and winter (“You sweat less in the cold!” he’d say), and he was glad that the summer heat was in the rear view mirror.

              “Speaking of rear views, let’s have a looky at this car of mi—” Elmer blinked as he cut himself off. He blinked again, rapidly, as he stared dumbly at his Chevrolet Corvair. Now he bugged his eyes out as he squatted by the left passenger tire, the one that was a ragged piece of rubber when he’d sailed into this place.

              He didn’t need to squat, could have seen it ten paces away, but Elmer wanted to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. The tire was completely full, no holes, not even any wear on it. Elmer stood up too fast and put his hand on the hood to steady himself.

              “You good, Elm?” Elmer whipped around to see Herb standing in the doorway with a look of concern on his face. “You look a little dizzy.”

              “Just catching my bearings, Cap. But take a look at this.” Elmer stepped aside and Herb approached the car and squatted just as Elmer had a minute ago.

              He whistled. “Look at that, Elmer! That’s fresh off the rack, I’d say!” Herb stood slowly, scratching his stubbled cheek at the unexpected sight of the brand new tire.

              Elmer looked up at the considerably taller Captain. “What are you saying, Cap, they came by and replaced my tire without trying to collect any payment?” Elmer had a thought just as he said it, and checked the wipers to see if a bill had been left there.

              Herb followed his eyes and said, “No bill that I can see. What are you thinking, Elm?”

              “I’m thinking there’s some good samaritans out there, but this would be a random act of kindness of a biblical proportion.’’

              Herb laughed at that and replied, “You’re not wrong, Elmer. There’s ‘paying it forward’ and then there’s this. That’s assuming they did fix it gratis. I guess that means you won’t be staying with us?” Herb had a genuine look of sadness on his face when he asked it.

              “Well, I…I guess I don’t need to now, do I?” Elmer felt that same sadness. He wasn’t ready for the night to end.

              Herb read Elmer’s face and said, “The room’s still on the table for you, Elm. Car or no car, you’re welcome to stay the night. Free of charge.”

              Elmer protested. “Oh hey now, Cap, of course I’ll stay, but you gotta let me pay for the room.” They began walking back to the ship as they talked.

              The door was still open and Herb hung back to allow Elmer to enter. The band was finished for the evening, and the clientele were either making their way to the exit or up the staircase to their rooms. “Elmer, I insist. You’ve become a fast friend, and I like to take care of my friends.”

              “Okay, Cap, I won’t fight you. And I thank you — for everything. This whole night has felt…I don’t know…” Magical, his mind said.

              “Magical?” Herb suggested.

              “Yeah, that’s right.”

              Herb paused at the greeter’s stand to grab a key off of a rack that held several rows of key holders. “That’s what I like to hear, Elmer. You’re in room 14, last of the ‘first class cabins’ that we’ve got. The rooms aren’t big, but they’re cozy enough.”

              Elmer hesitated before going upstairs. “I guess I don’t have any toiletries.” He didn’t say what he really wanted to say.

              “That’s no matter. Check the cabinet under the sink, and if you need anything else come down and holler. We’ll get you squared away.” Herb smiled at Elmer’s continued hesitance, and he stuck out his hand. “It’s a pleasure to have made your acquaintance —no, your friendship—tonight, Elmer.”

              Elmer shook — firmly and earnestly. “Cap, I can’t thank you enough.”

              “Come and back and see us sometime.”

              “That’s a promise.”

              Elmer’s room was indeed small but cozy, and the cabinet did indeed have everything he needed for the night. Almost like they knew, huh?

              Elmer, tired and happy, laid down in his clothes on the bed and sighed. “Yep…almost like they knew.”


              He woke feeling more refreshed than he had felt in ages. He sat up and surveyed his cabin on the SS Grand View Hotel. “The Ship of the Alleghenies,” he said to the empty room, and then his heart sank.

              Elmer wasn’t in a small cabin on the ship. Elmer was in his bedroom on Peter Street in Schellsburg. He shut his eyes, held for a moment, and opened them. Still the same bedroom with the same ugly wallpaper he and his wife had chosen together. Elmer threw himself on his back as if to will himself asleep again and gave up immediately.

              “This isn’t right, it can’t be right.”

              I know it, Elmer. It was so real.

              “It was real, dammit!” Elmer stomped out of the bedroom towards the front door. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he knew he was going to drive right back to the Ship. He was still there in his mind. If he was dreaming, he hoped he wasn’t sleepwalking too.

              Elmer whipped open the door and almost ran into Ellen Grayfield. “Hey, Elmer! I was just about to invite you over for breakfast and — say, where are you off to in such a rush? And still in your jammies, no less?” She looked like she was feigning surprise — like she already knew the answer.

              “I’m uh—” He stopped and looked down at his clothes. He was wearing his usual sleep attire—a white t-shirt and boxer shorts. Friday night’s boxer shorts, by the look of it. “I’m, well…” Elmer thought about it and for a second and figured he might as well tell Ellen the truth. They’d connected yesterday and surely she’d understand. He launched into his story — the flat tire, the ship, the Cap, the dancing, the dinner, all of it. He was talking so fast that he wasn’t sure Ellen would keep up, but she took it all in, nodding and smiling at him. She smiled like she was hearing a story she’d heard a bunch of times before.

              “So anyway, I have no idea why I’m here and not there and I just gotta get back to —okay, why are you smiling at me like that?”

              Ellen touched his arm and said, “Elmer, you want to go inside for a bit? We should talk. And you should grab a housecoat.” Elmer had a pout on his face, but nodded and turned to let Ellen in his little living room. He shuffled to his bedroom, and he heard Ellen in the kitchen banging around. He put on actual clothes, washed his face, and brushed his teeth — both to give Ellen time to make them breakfast and him time to collect his thoughts. Let’s go hear her out, Elm.

              Elmer looked at his face in the mirror. “Okay, pal. We’re ready.”


              “So you and the Cap became fast friends, huh?” Ellen and Elmer sat at the small dinette set in the kitchen, sipping coffee and picking at eggs and bacon. Well, Elmer was picking. Ellen was enthusiastically enjoying the fruits of her labor.

              “Yeah, he was…he was the best. Ellen…can you tell me what’s going on, please?” After a beat he added, “And thanks for the breakfast.”

              She waved. “Not a problem, Elm. Look, I’m just gonna tell it to you flat and true. Herbert Paulson, the founder of the Ship, died two years ago in 1973, at the age of 99. He died in a bathtub on his beloved Ship, as a matter of fact.” She stopped and looked at Elmer, allowing him time to process and respond.

              Elmer didn’t take any time to process and blurted, “No no no that’s not right! I was there! The Cap is alive!” He was becoming increasingly frantic. “And he was barely in his 70s, surely! Come on, we’re going there right now, together.” Elmer stood up with a jolt and sloshed coffee on the table.

              “Sit down, Elm,” Ellen said softly, which he did, looking like a child obeying his mother.

              Elmer, with his head down so as not to make eye contact with Ellen, murmured, “Are you telling me I’m a liar? Are you telling me I dreamed this?” To Elmer, the dream would be just like a lie. Or is it something worse?

              “I’m telling you that if we drove the 9 miles to the Ship right now, you’d still find it standing. But you wouldn’t find the Cap, and you wouldn’t find the hopping place you found last night. The Ship has seen better days. I’ve seen them myself.” Ellen reached over to touch Elmer’s hand.

              Elmer found it in himself to meet Ellen’s eyes. “Ellen, what day is it today?”

              Ellen smiled a sad smile, like she knew she was about to break Elmer’s heart. “Today’s Saturday, Elm.” That’s when the tears came to his eyes.

              “It was so real, Ellen.”

              “I know it was, Elmer.”

              “It was a dream?” He wanted Ellen to confirm, to slam the nail in the coffin.

              “That’s the closest word to it. I still visit the Cap too sometimes.” Her hand was still on his. “Was it a good dream, Elmer?”

              He choked out a small sob. “The best.”

              Ellen then took Elmer’s hand into both of hers. “Then that’s good, Elmer. That’s real good.” She took a moment and said, “Elmer, I think we’d be good friends. Would you like that? Would you like to be my friend?”

              Elmer smiled then, with tears still in his eyes. “Yes I would, Ellen. I would very much like to be your friend.”


“Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn

‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’”


my top tips for creative writing inspiration

Writing is hard, even for those of us who claim to enjoy it. I recently had a conversation with a former student who had graduated with a degree in creative writing but was having trouble finding the motivation to write, now that she was no longer required to do so for classes. I could relate, more than I wanted to admit. Though at first I felt like I didn’t have any advice to give her, I gradually–through about an hour of conversation–came up with the following tips. They aren’t magical, and some will suit certain people better than others. If you’re in need of writing inspiration, give them a try and see which ones work for you.

  1. Join a writing group. I recommend this one all the time. Being part of a supportive writing feedback group, online or in person, can bring all sorts of benefits, from lifelong friendships to marked improvements in your writing craft. More to the point of this post, belonging to such a group can work wonders for your writing motivation, both because hearing other people’s work can get your mental gears turning with ideas of your own and because knowing that people are waiting for your next installment creates a healthy, exciting pressure.
  2. Try some writing prompts. A book of story prompts (e.g. “Write a short mystery that includes a mirror, a bird, and Germany” or whatever) was one of the first gifts I gave my now-husband, an avid tabletop roleplayer who is always looking for campaign ideas. But you don’t even need to spend money on a book to do this; creative writing prompts abound on the internet. The constraints of the prompt can be a great antidote to writer’s block, and you can always abandon them once your story gets going.
  3. Set aside a regular time to write. This advice is so common as to almost be a cliché, but most people don’t do it. (Actually, I haven’t been doing it lately either, and I notice the absence of this routine in my life!) For several years, I spent the last half-hour of each of my workdays writing something–a PowerPoint for a class, a page or two of my novel, a blog post. Editing something I’d already written counted too. I was always amazed at how much I was able to accomplish in 30 minutes, five days a week.
  4. Read widely. Once again, this is common advice, but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve met who say, “I’m a writer, but I don’t really read much.” I understand it might not be your favorite thing to do, but if you’re a writer, you should be reading–in your genre, outside your genre, writers whose style you admire, etc. You don’t have to approach it like an assigned task (unless that motivates you to do it), but any reading you do is going to have benefits for your writing in some way, even if you don’t notice it right away.

I hope these tips are helpful to you! Let me know if you try any of them, and please share writing tips of your own!