When things bark at you

OMG somebody better take charge of these cows before things get out of hand.

OMG somebody better take charge of these cows before things get out of hand.

There is a dog on my runs who doesn’t like me. He lives on an Amish farm one and a quarter miles from my house. I take Bake Oven Hill Road to Middlecreek Road and can get in a moderately challenging run out and back as long as I’m staying under six miles. It is gorgeous and pleasant and has a mild hill and runs along the creek for a while. But that dog though. He’s the worst.

The road splits his farm in two, like so often is the case around here in rural Pennsylvania, with the house and barn on one side and the pasture on the other. He lays in the barn yard, a beautiful white shepherd with black patches, eyes closed, head held up in reverence to the sun, acting as if I don’t exist. Then I cross the line between the neighbor’s modern house and his property. He’s up, running onto the shoulder of the road, barking and pulling back his lips to show me his teeth. It’s jarring.
The very first time it happened, I was literally smiling at him, admiring what a peaceful view he was as he enjoyed himself settled in the grass and all. Then BAM! he was up and at me. I ran across the road, speeding up. I’m pretty sure I even swore at him. Damn dog.

I take my long runs on Sunday afternoons, so I only encountered this dog once a week. I realized the second or third time around that he didn’t lift his tail or really leave his yard. That’s dog language for “I’m all bark and no bite.” We settled into a rhythm. I’d approach, take the earbud out of my ear towards him and yell “Here I come, puppy boy,” and he’d throw me some shade. After a few weeks he’d stand up and come to the road but wouldn’t bark. Sometimes he wouldn’t stand up, but just barked instead and I’d say “yeah yeah, I know, bark bark bark.” We were all good.

Very rarely did I ever drive on the dog’s road. It didn’t really go anyplace I’d want to get to. But then things changed in my life, as they often do, and it turns out to be a short cut to someplace I need to be twice a week.

Don’t you know that damn dog doesn’t care when a car passes through. He stays in the grass, soaking up that sun, eyes closed the whole time.

I’ve noticed every now and then that he will be standing by the time my car comes to pass, pacing back and forth as he squints across the road. What the hell is that about? Then I figured out what it’s about; he’s herding the cows across the road! He’s keeping an eye on them, moving around to signal where they need to go, his uncontrollable herding instincts kicking in. What an ass! What kind of a dog herds cows in a fenced-in pasture? From across the road?!?!

Kind of reminds me of a sister-in-law I have. And one mother in a playgroup I’ve joined. And my dad to some extent. We all have a lot of people in our life who are like this dog. People who use various means to control others from afar in very ineffective ways. Maybe it’s Facebook or out-of-the-blue texts or snide remarks to the side or gossiping with people you know will report back to intended target. The medium doesn’t really matter because the results are always the same. Must be maddening to set yourself up for failure so obviously.

It always takes you a while to realize that’s what’s happening. At first, and often for a long time, you just see the angry dog barking at you, threatening you in an immediate and crazy way. You can’t make sense of it. But if you try to look at what they’re doing from some other vantage point, you literally see it differently. It is this simple act, this compassion to look again at someone, to see them fresh, that’s a gift to them.

It is gifts like this that we must remind ourselves to give. Give them generously, give them silently, and get on with your own life already.

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Conversations & Connections, a writers conference by lit mag Barrelhouse

Barrelhouse's Conversations & Connections April 2015 conference at JHU's International Studies school on Embassy Row.

Barrelhouse’s Conversations & Connections April 2015 conference at JHU’s International Studies school on Embassy Row.

I attended the April 2015 Conversations & Connections: Practical Advice on Writing in Washington, D.C. It was a one-day conference organized by D.C.-based lit mag Barrelhouse. They have these C&C conferences twice a year and rotate locations.

I’m not sure how they pull these off because I feel like I received more from them than I what paid for. The reg fee was only $70. In return, I got a book, a year’s subscription to one of the participating lit mags, access to editors, and honest-to-God one-on-one time with editors (first time was free, each additional time was $5).

Quick hits:

  • Attendance was capped at 125.
  • Attendees were from a wide age range.
  • Many of us were either flying solo or there with one acquaintance.
  • If you, like me, like to mix & mingle, there was plenty of in-between time to pull a panelist aside and introduce yourself, ask a question, make a joke with, etc…
  • If you are petrified of unstructured meet and greet time, no worries. Many folks around me made introductions while waiting for a session to start, standing in line to speed date an editor, standing in line to use the one bathroom, etc…
  • Speed dating an editor was awesome. They were just as nervous as I was!
  • I attended a craft lecture, an editors’ panel, and an advice panel on the art of the hustle. All were valuable uses of my time.

Bonus! I learned about a hilarious podcast two Barrelhouse editors put out every Monday. Book Fight! I highly recommend it. Good times!

Hamid Karzai's prestigious photo located next to the potty.

JHU’s International Studies building on Embassy Row features photos of world leaders who have spoken to students. Hamid Karzai’s prestigious photo…located next to the potty.

Moving Past the “Crusader”

Hooray for our colors!

Hooray for our colors!

UPDATE: On Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, Susquehanna’s Board of Trustees voted to discontinue use of the nickname “Crusader.” *and there was much rejoicing* The vote occurred after several months of seeking input from the greater Susquehanna community. I heard from fellow alumni that my original letter/post was passed around again; one person even quoted excerpts from it when providing feedback to the university. I am proud to have played a role in this change by articulating a position others had but did not know how to express.

ORIGINAL POST: Excerpts from an open letter I submitted to my alma mater, Susquehanna University, upon the announcement that the mascot would move from a tiger to a squirrel but the nickname would remain “Crusader” despite complaints from faculty, staff, students and alumni.

“I support this move to a new mascot.

I love Susquehanna. I’d love to embrace all the symbols chosen to represent it. I’ve got lots of orange and maroon in my closet, and I wear that rare and eye-catching combo proudly. But I’ve never felt a connection to our mascot or its nickname. I consider this to be a loss, a missed opportunity for the school to garner some goodwill and generate affinity.

As a freshman in the fall of 2000, I remember the last time we changed to a new mascot. We were getting a tiger. He’d wear a cape, and this would officially make him the Caped Crusader which we all knew as the nickname for Batman. An old reference even at that time, this led to the rumor that the university paid money to D.C. Comics for permission to use the name. I never heard if this was true or not, but it still seems like a bad way to go.

That the tiger missed the mark is not surprising. It was always a band-aid anyway. In the late 1990’s the appropriateness of the Crusader mascot was raised with the Board of Trustees and senior administrators. At that time the iron cross was removed from the university’s flag because the many groups that used it include those who embarked on the Crusades. It also graced the flags of the Third Reich. And the Crusader mascot, commonly referred to as “the knight” by alumni I’ve met from the 1960’s and 70’s, was nixed. But the nickname, Crusader, remained. So we had a mascot and a nickname that didn’t match unless you shoe-horned Batman in there somehow.

What is a Crusader? We all have an image in our head that was most probably born of some movie or painting we’ve seen. I tend to think immediately of the movie Robin Hood (sadly the Costner version and not the Brooks’ cult favorite), or footage from those Knights Templar “documentaries” on the History channel during the DaVinci code craze. No matter where your image comes from, we all understand that a Crusader is a Christian who fought in a religiously sanctioned military campaign to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom. The Crusades went on for hundreds of years. Ever since then the word has been used in the name of military operations by predominantly Christian nations in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Coalition forces used it as recently as 2004.

A Crusader is a symbol of Christian conquest. It is several hundred years worth of violence and arrogance wrapped into one word.

"Love thy neighbor...unless they're not just like you. Then you can kill 'em!!"

“Love thy neighbor…unless they’re not just like you. Then you can kill ’em!!”

You don’t have to be a practicing Christian like me, active in my Lutheran church, to understand the Crusades are not a proud era in Christian history. When Eastern Nazarene College dropped the Crusader mascot in 2009, their president said “Crusader no longer represented the positive message of Christian love we aim to share with the world.” I understand that the connotation for the word has changed. I mean its never had a positive meaning for many groups of people, but the majority population in America seems to have thought it was all good for a long time. I get that. I’m not mad at those people. I don’t wish to change our past or pretend that it never happened. And seeing as how I was born in 1981 and didn’t join the Susquehanna community until 2000, I don’t wish to apologize for them either. I just want to move on. We’re better than this. We know better. To pretend it’s okay to call ourselves Crusaders is quite sad.

I know there’s this story about a journalist giving us the nickname Little Crusaders in the 1920’s. I hope you understand that doesn’t make it okay. To call someone a Crusader is to imply that they are full of zeal in the same way that the original Crusaders were. Just because Susquehanna’s Crusade-like campaign was for a good cause doesn’t mean the historical weight is lifted when we use the word. We wouldn’t call ourselves the Susquehanna Inquisition and say “oh but its not that Inquisition, it’s a reference to how smart and inquisitive our students are when talking with professors.” We’re not fooling anyone. When someone reads or hears that we’re Crusaders, they are going to instantly think of the historical Crusader and our little story, if it happens to reach them, isn’t likely to change their mind. The main reason we tell that story now is to assuage ourselves of the guilt we feel because we know continuing to use the word is wrong.

Where can this word take us? The world of college recruitment is competitive, and just getting your foot in the door is a challenge. There isn’t time to say “we’re the Crusaders, but wait, we’re not that kind of Crusader. We earned this nickname almost a century ago…” How sloppy and out of date does that make us seem?

My passion for phasing out the Crusader isn’t motivated by the need to bring new students into our community. I care about Susquehanna’s continued survival, but I care even more about those already in our community who are hurt by our nickname. We’re a school committed to diversity, and our population has grown more and more diverse in the past decade. I was on campus every day for seven of those years and I saw it happen. There are alumni and students who recognize the Crusader as a threat to their culture, their religion, their homeland, their families and themselves. Then there are the alumni, like myself, who are part of the majority population but understand the shame of the word. Our excellent Susquehanna education prepared us to know better. We want to be better than a Crusader.

I know there are people who think the push to drop the Crusader nickname is just about political correctness. Understand that when someone says this they are choosing to ignore the valid concerns of their fellow community members and they are saying “I don’t care what my fellow alumni have to say because I like things the way they are.” Privilege means you think something isn’t a problem because it isn’t a problem to you personally. Calling ourselves Crusaders is a privilege we can no longer afford.

I want my alma mater to move forward and away from this distraction. I want them to either put the Crusader nickname aside, or issue a formal statement explaining why the Board of Trustees and the senior administration think its okay to honor a disgraceful chapter in Christianity’s history.

If you agree with me, I have some advice for you. Send your thoughts on the Crusader nickname to the alumni office at alumni@susqu.edu. Write your own statement, copy something from this letter, attach a funny meme, etc… whatever works best for you.

Why? Let me explain. As an employee who worked with marketing materials, I sat through conversations about our mascot and nickname. They usually ended with someone voicing the largely held belief that the university would never tackle the issue because it was too messy, controversial and dangerous. I think the undertone to this idea is a fear that alumni who graduated before 2000 will be angry and stop working with Susquehanna if the Crusader goes away. Its a valid fear. If the school loses the resources and connections that Crusader-supporting alumni provide, then students lose out on much needed opportunities. So we need to make it known that there is a sizable group of alumni, staff, faculty, parents and friends who support a change in nickname. Tell them you care and you want it to change. You are important and the school cares about you.

I know some of you just think the “Crusader” symbolizes all the ways in which you didn’t connect with the institution at large. You have a few professors and friends you loved at Susquehanna, but you never felt like you fit in. You never caught the Susquehanna spirit. That missed connection will be a deficit for our alma mater for decades to come. And the strength of our college serves as the foundation for your resume, so it behooves you to keep Susquehanna strong. So take a chance and tell them what you think. Let’s move forward together.

peace – Jenny Ruth (Hawbaker ‘04) Partica”

Kentucky Women Writers Conference

Attend this conference. Really. If you’ve seen an ad or read their site and are considering it, just go.

Writers love a good tote!

Writers love a good tote!

I attended the 2014 Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Here’s what I found.

  • I flew in from PA, wondering if that would make me weird. It did not. I met women from Virginia, Michigan, California, Hawaii…HAWAII!! Of course there’s a local contingency there from the surrounding academic communities, but they seemed super excited to have us all visiting.
  • The size was perfect. I’m guessing less than 200 people registered, and about 75 or so showed for most events. That’s enough to feel like a crowd, but still intimate enough to mix and mingle and recognize people from day to day.
  • Networking/friendmaking/accountabilitypartnering were all in full swing because most of us were flying solo. We came to this event to connect. I mean who chooses to attend a small literary conference other than serious writers? Everyone I met was working on a seriously cool project (or 3 or 7) and was sincerely excited to learn about what everyone else was doing. It seems we all feel alone, living our little lives in places where no one else is doing what we do. So while the conference is open to anyone who wishes to register, it’s a pretty self-selecting group.
  • Focus. This conference knew what it was all about and it was all about craft. So many conferences can focus on selling or pitching a “finished” project, but this one was more about working on/enhancing/exploring current work. (There was a very well received presentation by a literary agent, Liza Dawson, but there were no pitching sessions or anything like that). Most sessions were authors talking about craft or reading their work and then talking about craft.
  • THE AUTHORS! I signed up because Jill McCorkle was going to be there and I’ve loved her work for years. I researched the others in the months that elapsed between registration and attending, and felt like I hit the jackpot. Leslie Jameson, Rebecca Makkai, Joy Castro, Margaret Wrinkle, Tracy K. Smith, Tina Chang, and Asha Bandele. Asha Bandele, people. She was one of those writers you read and are mad at everyone you’ve ever known because no one’s ever told you about her before!!
  •   Access. All those authors I just mentioned? I got to meet them.
  • Side Note: I chose an optional workshop and did fiction with Sarah Combs. I was a little apprehensive because it had been a decade since my last workshop…and I had been an undergrad. But Sarah ran a wonderful workshop that made me sit and listen and play along. I’ve continued to develop everything I started during her exercises!

If I had the Godly authority to hand out stars, I’d give plenty to this conference. Do go, and do enjoy!

-JR