Teenagers and Birds and Writing and Stuff

August 2, 2013
Andy Blissenbach

Author’s Note: I wrote this a few years back, but it fits with the MANDREW’s Blissenblog vibe pretty well. Enjoy!

My shirt is stuck to my back. This is one of two things that are inside my cavernous skull at 12:58 p.m. on Monday, June 20th. I’m exactly twelve seconds into my stint as a creative nonfiction instructor in Hamline University’s Young Writers Workshop and I’ve said this and this only:

“Greetings and salutations! My name is Andy Blissenbach and this is Writing from Real Life.  If you have any questions or concerns about this class, writing, life in general, or anything where all of it intersects, feel free to email me at ablissenbach@gmail.com. Please, for the love of god, ask questions whenever you want, no matter how trivial, strange, or digressive. Fostering a dialogue will give this class a communal, trusting vibe.”

I say this pretty well, I think. Not too pedantic but not like a bus-stop lunatic. And then there is silence. It could be seconds or minutes or hours or decades but time doesn’t matter when you’ve been chosen to speak for two uninterrupted hours to five teenagers in a classroom that could easily house 15 more. Which leads me to the other thing that’s inside my big, dumb head: why me? What gives me the authority to levy artistic advice?

Okay, I have to admit there’s a third thing on my mind: dry-erase markers. There are a few behind me and as I delivered my introduction, I just couldn’t get them out of my head. I love their sweet, chemically smell! Not that I’d sniff them to get high or something weird like that. They just have a distinct, oddly pleasant odor.

Anyhoo, back to authority. Seconds tick by on the clock, my shirt gets tighter and wetter by the second, and five kids glare at me with those teenaged eyes, the kind that sort of want knowledge and guidance but mostly just want to punch you in the back of the head when you aren’t paying attention. Don’t ask me how eyes can punch. But the kids have an unconscious craving for structure and lessons learned and I’ve been the one to impart such knowledge. But why? Sure, I have the requisite college and graduate degrees. Yeah, I’ve read a gazillion books and wrote a 380-page memoir for my thesis and generally know my way around Ivory Tower methodology. But lots of people have a similar pedigree. What makes me like, say, Robin Williams’s character is Dead Poet’s Society? Is it the innate ability to crawl atop desks and give impassioned sermons on the importance of the classics? Is it the ability to quote Yeats or Keats or Gableats (there’s no such person as Gableats)? Is it the ability to grow a really good beard on short notice? Is it the ability to play a cross-dressing nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire? Because if that is what it entails I am not qualified. I mean, I’ve never been an authority figure outside something athletic or beer-related. I’m a rebel, man! Check out this sweet ponytail! I’ve done some crazy stuff that…well, we’ll just leave it at that. The point is, my whole life has been about going against the grain, sticking it to the man, sacrificing material gain for the greater good, eschewing the trappings of conformity so I can exist in the trenches of the literary arts. I give up everything for some stuff scribbled on a page because I think that’s the most important thing in the world. Hmmmm…

Oh, there’s still silence by the way. The five teenagers, with their glares sharpening to a mutinous squint, cross their arms. They lean back in their chairs. No! Judging from all the FBI techniques I know about reading body language (and I know a lot, considering I subscribe to FBI Techniques for Reading Body Language Magazine), they’re closing themselves off. Then the second-hand on the clock goes backwards. The lanyard around my neck, the one that designates me as INSTRUCTOR, feels like a noose. I blink, get a whiff of those yummy dry-erase markers, and escape to an early June memory.

So there I was, driving to my dad’s house to pick up some mail on a day that can best be described as wet-mitten-humid. What kind of mail I was picking up wasn’t conveyed over the phone; my dad isn’t much for getting up once the Lay-Z-Boy is at a full recline. Anyhoo, I’m driving down Valley Creek road in Woodbury, through the heart of Big Box country during rush hour, surrounded by Tahoes and Hummers and, hell, I don’t know, Sherman Tanks. But the verb “driving” is a bit too peppy for the activity I was engaged in. A more adequate word would be “inching-along-and-inhaling-blacktop-and-diesel-fumes-while-the-colors-RED-and-GREEN-dictate-how-much-of-my-life-is-wasted-ing.” Perhaps the Germans have a more succinct conjugation. Anyhoo, I’m wedged between military vehicles and it sucks and my sweat is starting to sweat and glaciers are passing me on the right and god hates me because he’s always hated me and THERE IT IS! AN OPENING! A WIDE OPEN LANE AND A GREEN LIGHT! TIME TO GET ME SOME MAIL AND MAYBE SOME OF THOSE REALLY CRUNCHY KETTLE CHIPS AFTER DAD FALLS ASLEEP! I RULE! I…out of the corner of my eye, where only a verdant little drainage ditch existed before, there appeared a bird. No, there was more than one. Yep, it was many, many birds. And they were crossing the road. Right in front of me. About 100 feet ahead. They were geese to be exact. Then they were about 75 feet away, with a phalanx of accelerating steel bearing down on them from every direction. Two full grown geese, gallant and dignified in their black-and-white feather-finery, were leading a gaggle of chicks to an apparently better drainage ditch. I guess the grass is always greener for geese, too. Anyhoo, I and 100,000 tons of eight-miles-to-the-gallon-DEATH were about 50 feet from the geese, who, at this point, stretched across almost two entire lanes of traffic. No, wait. The gaggle of chicks weren’t chicks at all; they were that kind of awkward half-way stage between chick and full-grown goose. They had a gangly neck and blooms of unkempt gray feathers. They were anything but dignified, I’ll tell you that. I was 25 feet away, still moving in unison with the wall of suburban transportation. I felt myself slamming on the brakes with a protective force I didn’t know I possessed. Every SUV and luxury sedan did the same thing, which elicited a collective screech akin to a great horned owl on steroids. There was a tender calm and a reverent quiet and the geese reached the center median. On faces bereft of cell-phone squawking or latte sipping, there were only dads thinking of their daughter’s macaroni art and moms thinking of their son’s lakeside sandcastles. Their cubicle angst became a distant cicada in their ear as the geese, slow moving birds really, walked across the rest of the street like it was a shared possession. The clocks in Rolex watches stopped tick-tocking and it was one big, shared possession.

I blink again and I’m back at Hamline. The silence continues, which is hard to believe, because a silence shouldn’t last through an entire flashback. Anyhoo, I take a deep breath and let it out and say, “THIS HERE’S FOR REAL!”

More than half the kids laugh at my joke poached directly from Saturday Night Live (and, if anybody else has ever been in front of five people before and gotten more than half to LOL, you understand that it is a Herculean accomplishment). I realize I’m teaching five smiling faces in Hamline’s Young Writers Workshop. Beautiful eyes, a golden glint of youth’s curiosity. So to hell with the prevailing views of myopic cynics who want to build impediments between generations. I quickly learn that the American teenager is a highly underrated species. I look down at my syllabus and back at my students and I forget about authority and I just tell the truth.

“The world is a good place,” I say. “And you should write about it.”