Mid-week Writing Prompt: My oldest email

Nearly every Wednesday I invite you to write with me. I’ll post a prompt online and I guarantee I will post 30 minutes of uninterrupted, unedited writing below. Please write with me. If you like, you can even post your response to the prompt in the comments section below.

Prompt: What is the oldest email in your inbox?  What is the story behind it?

The oldest email in my inbox is dated January 7, 2008.  This must have been the year I decided to stop cleaning out my inbox every week. There was a time when I thought that if an email did not warrant a response, it didn’t need to be kept. I have nearly 20,000 emails saved in my gmail inbox now and this email, the very oldest one in the inbox appears boring at first, but it represents the beginning of a completely new way of looking at things for me.

The email in question is quite simple. It is a message sent to me by Dr. Todd Goodson, my major advisor during my doctoral program at Kansas State University. The email has no content. Its subject is simply “proposal.” And the contents is a draft of a presentation proposal he submitted to NCTE in 2007. I was sitting in Todd’s office on January 7, 2008 with the task of writing my own proposal to appear in the 2008 NCTE Annual Convention in San Antonio, TX. And I imagine Todd called me in to show me how to craft a successful proposal.

It was somewhat important for me to at least propose a session at the 2008 annual convention. I had committed to a full residency PhD program at the Kansas State University College of Education. While I had presented a state conferences in the past, I had not yet presented at the national level.  Heck, I had just attended my first national conference a two months prior to this meeting in Todd’s office, so the whole scene was still relatively new to me. But in his own way Dr. Goodson knew how to pull the very best out of his students, and with his guidance I submitted what would ultimately be an accepted proposal.

I don’t remember much about the presentation I made in San Antonio in November 2008. I know I brought together a number of panelists who all talked about visual responses to literature. Our presentation went well–at least that was my interpretation. But years later I am beginning to see how important it was for me to be in San Antonio that year for the convention.

While attending and presenting at the San Antonio convention I interviewed for a job at Elizabethtown College. Becky Olson, a member of the English faculty, and a member of the search committee for a position that had just opened up in English: Secondary Education, met me in a hotel board room to talk about the college and its programming. I enjoyed our conversation very much, but I left thinking “this is too good to be true.” I never thought I would hear back from Elizabethtown. But, as it turns out, about one year after the oldest email in my inbox was sent I was on a plane heading to PA on a chilly day in January to hold my on-campus interview. To this day I still think it is wild that I wound up in Central PA, but I absolutely love it.

In San Antonio I also had a moment where I knew I may be completely over my head. One well-known event at the NCTE annual convention is the Ramon Veal Research Roundtable forum where emerging academics bring their research for review and commentary by more seasoned academics. In preparation for my appearance at the forum, I submitted a brief summary of my intended dissertation questions and a project outline. I felt pretty good about my trajectory at this point, but I had several questions on how to get to the types of questions that could lead to a better final product. It didn’t go well. For the rest of the story you are welcome to contact Dr. Chris Goering c/o Arkansas State University. When you do, ask him to tell you how my veal was cooked in 2008.

After this nearly successful venture into the NCTE scene in 2008 I have gone on to serve in a couple of leadership roles with NCTE, and I have become far more connected to this organization and its operations. I have served on the Executive Committee and I have lead the Middle Level Section. I have appeared in two NCTE journals and I have advocated on NCTE’s behalf on Capitol Hill. It all started with an invitation (demand) from my major advisor to submit a proposal to speak at a convention, and an email he sent with a sample proposal for me to reference when writing one for the very first time.

That is what I see in the oldest email in my inbox.

Mid-week Writing Prompt: Atlantic City

The mid-week writing prompt series invites readers to infuse writing in their daily/weekly routines. On each writing prompt post I share a photo and promise to write for 30 minutes straight. My unedited response to the prompt is posted below. I invite you to share your response in the comments section that follows. Enjoy!

Atlantic City

When I look at this photo I try to avoid the words and only look at the image. It is difficult to do so, because even as I look at the image now to write this response I am drawn to the washed out yellow letters. “Atlantic City” it says. “America’s Great All Year Resort.”

I have never been to Atlantic City; I ever been to Las Vegas. The appeal is there for a mid-thirties male. I can imagine me taking either city by storm for about 12 hours straight. Crashing hard on a hotel bed, waking up the next day and leaving just as quickly as I arrived. I don’t have the stamina for either city, but I can see myself potentially enjoying the excitement of a resort city for a short burst of time.

This photo attempts to communicate a sense of elegance in Atlantic City. Perhaps it is an elegant place. There is an attraction to run to its hotels and casinos and simply escape for bit. To be someone else somewhere else where no one knows you. In the small town that I live in I feel like I can’t ever go into a grocery store without being noticed by someone from church or work. There is a comfort and annoyance in this fact. Comfort in the absence of loneliness. Annoyance in that sometimes you just want to be a tourist–away from everyone familiar.

When I relocated in to PA in 2009 there was a period of about six to eight months where absolutely no one knew who I was. It was magical. My wife and I could go out to eat, go out for a movie, visit the grocery store and we were the only ones who knew we were there. Everyone was a stranger; no one was familiar. Seven years later this is no longer the case, but that is OK too. We have found a comfort in our new hometown and we are happy to be connected once again.

I visited Wichita in June. This is a city that I grew up in. I lived there for many, many years. I still know hundreds of people who live there. But this last trip in June felt very different. We moved away from Wichita nearly ten years ago. The scenery has changed. The city has changed too.

I can remember walking down the aisles of a local grocery store filling up a cart with food for my family in June. I walked right by someone I used to know when I lived in Wichita. I made eye contact, gave him a passing nod. He looked right past me and kept walking. In that moment I knew that I was no longer from this place. I had become a tourist in my own home city and all of the sudden the vacation home felt a little exhilarating.

The picture above shows a man and a woman dressed in formal gear looking over a city of possibilities and excitement. I didn’t have a tuxedo on that night at the grocery store, though I should have. This was a remarkable milestone in my life that probably deserved a little celebration. I had finally broke free from who I once was. I am now someone different; so different that an old acquaintance didn’t even recognize me.  This is how I have chosen think about it anyway.

Mid-week Writing Prompt #3

Another Wednesday, another prompt.

In a writing prompt series on my blog I am inviting readers and followers to write with me. I’ll post a new visual prompt in each post and I guarantee to write about the picture or video for 30 minutes in this post. These are my unedited responses to the prompt.

Woman with Flowers

I haven’t sent my wife roses in a long time. I don’t know why. She deserves flowers–a symbolic gesture that says,”Thank you for all you do.”

Ordering a bouquet is a petty simple affair these days. With a point and click of the mouse, or a touch and swipe on an iPhone, I can have a dozen, relatively fresh cut, roses sent to anyone in the world. The question isn’t whether I can do it or not. What I wonder now as I look at this photo is why I haven’t. So, while I ponder that very uncomfortable question, I’ll return to the photo.

I am struck by how the female figure in this photo holds the flowers. These aren’t flowers she has received, they are flowers she wants to be consumed and surrounded by. She is clutching them close to her body, like she may hold a small child. For the longest time I have looked at this image in my stack of postcards and thought, “love.” As I look closer at this image, however, I think I see something more. Love + what? Mourning? Longing? Loneliness?


The color in her face might suggest that it is Love and Happiness. The soft pink glow that resonates from her cheeks is calming to some degree, and her posture is relaxed. Yes, there is something more here than just love, and what a portrait of the human experience, right? We are not monolithic beings. Our emotions overlap and our experience is richer because of it. We see, experience, feel, taste and listen in layers. And I think we owe it to ourselves to own this aspect of life. We can be transformed by a bouquet of roses, a song on the radio, a movie. Our simple feelings become complex in these instances and we may, at first, feel vulnerable and overwhelmed all at once. We may not know how we feel or why we feel this way. We are lost, for a moment, in our emotions as we attempt to sort ourselves out. In this moment of free fall and confusion–this is where we are swept away to an ultimately lasting and potentially life changing experience. Knowing this is one thing. Seeing it happen to others is another thing. Recognizing it about ourselves can be transformational.

This reminds me of an experience I had last week when I saw The Blackeyed Peas’ revision of #wheresthelove. I should devote a series of posts to this revision because seeing this slowed down and repurposed version of what used to be a feel-good party tune absolutely stopped me dead in my tracks. It forced me to look seriously at myself.

Sometimes flowers are just flowers. Other times, however, they can mean so much more.

Mid-week Writing Prompt #2

Here we are once again, dear reader–looking at another opportunity to write. This week’s writing prompt, like last week’s, is based on an image–a postcard from the large stack in my office.

I promise to write for 30 minutes. I challenge you to do the same. For those so brave, you are invited to add your thoughts to the comments section below. Good luck!

Old Typewriter

I looked through a box of old high school writing projects I have kept with me since leaving Maize High School. The folders include a journal project that I completed in the voice of Atticus Finch while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a short story that I wrote my sophomore year about a confused professional athlete, and a collection of poems that transcribed my freshman year. I was fourteen, maybe fifteen at the time and I remember my English teacher, Mrs. Reynolds–a dear woman, awarded extra credit on final drafts of major projects if they were typed. I asked my mom if we had a typewriter. She found an old Brother electric typewriter in the attic and fired it up.

Half of the poems in my 9th grade poetry project were transcribed from the books of poetry I could find around the house: T.S. Elliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and a comprehensive collection of Robert Frost. I remember distinctly the sounds the typewriter made when I wrote my own poetry compared to the sounds it made when I was transcribing the work of these literary giants. Upon typing one of my poems the clap and strike of the keys would be tentative, slow and exhaustive. As if the words were running through my empty consciousness trying to get out. Lost, with little direction, they ultimately made it on to the page. As I read these poems, I know I wrote them, but I do not recognize the voice behind them. That person was a little lost himself, angry at times, searching for an anchor to hold onto in the wet, windy storm of high school.

When re-typing the lines from Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer the clap and click of the keys resonated from desk and down the vacant hallway:

Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer were a very notorious couple of cats.
As knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians,
Tight-rope walkers and acrobats
They had an extensive reputation.

The words, as I read them now jump of the page, and bounce off the boundaries of my soul.

I once read that Hunter S. Thompson would retype the pages of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. He said that retyping these books was similar to a concert pianist sitting down to play Bach or Beethoven. These books were complete symphonies that deserved to be typed again and again. Retyping these words gave him a sense of what it felt like to write a true masterpiece. I tried doing this once with my laptop computer and a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was a riveting experience, but I imagine it would have been ethereal to have attempted this on a manual typewriter as Thompson would have done it.

Two years ago I tried to use a typewriter again. I noticed that I still loved the sound an old electronic typewriter makes, but I also observed after only 30 minutes of writing that my hands had grown accustomed to the new, softer keyboards. The physical activity of typing on a typewriter is far more involved than that of this computer I am writing on right now. And for all of the advancements of speed and comfort the modern computer offers, nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to hearing words physically resonate off of empty walls as they are plunked and clunked into existence.

Mid-week Writing Prompt 1

Need some help getting started with your daily writing? This is your invitation to write with me today. Use the image below to inspire you tell a story, write a poem, a letter, a journal entry.

During the Mid-week Writing Prompt Series I will commit to writing for 30 minutes on each visual prompt. I challenge you to write as long as you can. If you are so inclined, comment on the mid-week writing prompt posts and share your writing with our small community on this blog. I hope there is no pressure to post, though. I only aim to inspire you to write.

Couple at Fireplace

This picture has a lot going on. Certainly we see the couple and their loving embrace. You can see how much the woman in this picture is leaning in for the kiss. This kiss certainly means a lot to her. The man has his arm firmly around her neck and back. Their relationship is clear to read. We have seen similar illustrations of love and affection. Perhaps some of us have been lucky enough to experience this kind of love and connectedness.

Framing the couple is this warm and vibrant fireplace and mantel. There is, indeed, a bright, warm feeling about this photo. What stands out to me every time I read this picture is the clock on the mantel. It reads approximately 12:25. Now, for the sake of my own imagination I am going to assume the clock reads 12:25 AM, because this makes the story in this photo far more interesting doesn’t it?  All of the sudden the intrigue behind this embrace, this kiss, is amplified when we put it in the context of a late night embrace, an after-midnight kiss.

In the dawn of my relationship with Rebekah, now my wife of nearly 15 years, I can clearly remember the exhilaration that absolutely consumed us while we were, perhaps recreating the scene in this photo. Each kiss lasting a millisecond and an eternity all at once. We began dating when Rebekah was still a senior in high school. She came from a family that imposed a strict curfew of midnight on the weekends, and I can remember many Friday and Saturday nights where I wished I could stop time for just one minute more before saying goodnight for good. When I look at this picture, and I assume it is the middle of the night, it is clear to me that time is irrelevant. The couple are suspended in eachother’s arms. No worries, no cares. And isn’t that an amazing thing about love? When we are in love time doesn’t matter. Everything moves quickly, often without us taking notice. When we fall out of love time stands still, we are stuck, immovable for a while.

It has been fifteen years since my wife and I were married and truly set out to forge a life together. That doesn’t seem that long ago, but it seems like a lifetime ago. We were young, immature. But we were madly in love (and we still are). Our inexperience matched with our tenacity helped us blaze a path on an amazing journey that has, to date, led us 1,300 miles from our first home to a new life and new home in Central PA. Did I know 15 years ago that we would be here today? No. And that is what makes every day so exciting.

Repurposed Books


I was in a meeting at the library the other day. This particular meeting was held in a boardroom setting and one participant was joing us via WebEX. A laptop was set up at the end of the long boardroom table so that she could see everyone else seated around the table in the room. To get a good angle from the webcam on the laptop the meeting facilitator used a large, outdated reference book as a computer stand to prop the laptop up to the appropriate height. 
I didn’t take a picture of the setup, but I wish I had. As I left the meeting, it struck me that this would make an excellent book idea. I would love to bring together a book of photographs that illustrate how books are repurposed in libraries. You see, on one level there is the sanctity of books that all libraries should promote. Libraries are our storehouses of knowledge. And that knowledge is kept in books. I once heard Gary Paulsen, the renowned author, once say of libraries that “Humans are the first species in the history of the world to store their knowledge and share it with the next generation.” So, each book is a contribution to that knowledge base and each book should be revered as such in a library, right? 

Well, that may be the view of a non-librarian, but on another level I imagine in the heat of a moment when one needs a doorstop, a paperweight, a tire chock, or a laptop stand, he or she might begin to look for the most readily available resource in his or her surroundings. In a library, that might be outdated books.

Now, I am one of those types of people who can not help but stop and rummage through a box of books dumped in the hallway of an academic building with a “free” sign posted above. I will comb through and look for a gem that I will later add to my own library in my office. I am a book addict. I can’t imagine a book of any sort ever loosing its value or utility. But I also know that when I need a quick reference I am automatically searching for information first online. So what do we do with books when they no longer serve as a relevant resource?

How should books be repurposed?

The Agent Teacher

Kara Newhouse posted a story this morning on LNP.com with the headline “District Attorney: Refugee students aren’t getting academic help because they ‘aren’t asking for it'”

The article brings readers up to speed on a lawsuit that has been filed by six refugee students in the Lancaster (PA) School District that claims the school district has unnecessarily denied the platiffs a “meaningful and equal education” each is entitled to under the law.

All six students are enrolled at the Phoenix Academy. I don’t know anything about this school, but I am going to do some research on this matter. Newhouse’s article states that the platiffs’ spokesperson claims the Phoenix Academy is an alternative school for students between 17 and 21 years of age who have not succeeded in the traditional high school in the district. In short, the refugee students a were admitted to an alternative school without first attending the “regular high school” that has a fully funded linguistic and cultural support program.  Why? I don’t know, but I am going to find out.

This leads me to something very important I need to share with all of those new teachers opening their classrooms for the first time this year. Please do not forget that you are an agent for your students. Yes, you are an employee of a school district, but you are also charged with the care of the greatest resource your community has–its children. 

As this latest case out of Lancaster shows, school districts are not always going to be quick to provide support for its students. Support is expensive, and school administrators often complicate things when they see numbers instead of individuals. Teaching is a humane profession that deals directly with human beings. Never lose sight of this. 

If a district is going to require students to ask for support before they can receive it, teach your students how to ask. Tell them and their parents who they need to speak to. And, if necessary, speak on their behalf.

Why My Son Isn’t Voting for Trump (Or, Hillary)

I found this placemat at a vendor’s stand earlier this year when my wife and I attended a homeschooling conference. It was on sale because it will be outdated in January. We bought it so that I could begin to pass down my love of presidential history to my children.

For reasons I can no longer recall, I waited until my senior year to take my required course in world history for my BA at Friends Univeristy. The course was taught by a full-time financial aid representative who worked at the college. He had a MA in History and was working on his doctorate. I admired this professor a great deal because he presented world history in such a way that made the content memorable and lasting.

One of the many things he taught me how to do in this course was to memorize the names of all the kings and queens in the history of the British monarchy. While this may sound like a waste of time, memorizing a country’s leaders in order ultimately reveals important perspectives on the history of that country. So, I memorized all of the names and passed the test on the British Monarchy.  I must have told him how much I enjoyed the opportunity to learn this aspect of history following the exam because he then gave me a new challenge.

“Now, try to memorize the names of every U.S. President.” He said.

So began my interest in presidential history.

I have written some about the power of an invitation in the landscape of teaching and learning. When a teacher invites learners to explore what they don’t know or what they presently can not do, there is a spark of imagination that can grow into a nearly uncontrollable blaze if given oxygen and fuel.

In this case, the oxygen came from my father’s interest in history. From a very early age I can recall my dad always reading a book about a historical figure–of a US president. Throughout my childhood we made trips to historical landmarks, including Dwight D. Eisenhower’s library in Abilene, KS and Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon. Without question, specific experiences rich in presidential history could be found in my life and this was the initial rush of motivation that I needed to take on the task delivered through a simple invitation from a dedicated teacher.

The fuel to keep the fire burning was easily accessible and readily available–books. When I left class that day, high on a new opportunity to learn, I walked to the Friends University Library and found that the library had at least one biography on every US President in the stacks. I printed the list and committed myself to read at least one book about each president–this is a goal I am still working on, but I have made significant progress on this goal in the last five years.

My independent study of these men (yes, the club is all men for now) has shown to me how dynamic the office of the President really is. From its founding the United States has been in some state of formation and reformation. Each leader, for good or ill, has shaped the trajectory of our formation and the rate of our progression toward a “more perfect union.” I have also found a new sense of perspective through this study. As devisive as we feel today (make no mistake the United States is divided quite clearly by ideological, social, racial and economic identities) our current political discourse doesn’t even compare to that of the late 1700s through the 1830s. I mean the country was so bitterly divided at that time that a civil war nearly tore the country apart permanently. And while there are many comparisons to the civil unrest we are experiencing today to the 1960s Some would say we haven’t even begun to see the darkness those in the 1960s lived through when a president, a presidential candidate and prominent civil rights activists were assassinated in the street. At each turn, when the future of the country looked bleak, new leaders have emerged to help the country to heal, connect and build for a better tomorrow.

Back to the placemat.

Since we hung the nearly obsolete presidential placemat on the wall in our dining room I have watched Wyatt, my five-and-half-year-old, looking intently at each picture. Sometimes he asks me to read the names of some of the men pictured on the mat. One time I caught him laughing at one of the pictures.

“What is so funny?” I ask.

“That one (Martin Van Buren). His hair is funny!” He exclaims while continuing to laugh.

I take a closer look, and he is right. Van Buren’s hair is the wildest of the entire bunch.

My reflection is interrupted by another question.

“Who is this, Dad?”

He is pointing to the picture of the 44th President.

“That is Barack Obama. He is our current President.” I say.

“Can we vote for him again?” He asks.

“No.” I said. “He has served the maximum number of years one is allowed to serve as President. In November we will vote for a new President.”

“Hillary or Trump?” He asks.

“That’s right. Hillary or Trump.”

Wyatt thought about this for a moment, looking at the placemat. Then, he said, “I wish we could vote for him (Obama).” He said pointing at his picture. “His hair is the coolest.”

And, in one sentence, I think my son had revealed something quite profound about presidential politics. The hair does matter.

Manly Influences: Part 1

For twelve years or so I have been kicking around the idea of writing a short memoir as a tribute to the many mentors who have helped me shape the person I am today. Chief among these would be my father, Lynn Skillen. But he is only one towering figure in my experience who has given me timely advice or served as role model. And while Dad will certainly have a prominent place in this memoir project, I would like to develop a larger theme in the book on how important we adult men are in the lives of boys and male teens.
Sitting down to write a memoir about relationships is, I believe, a lot like stepping on a scale. If you have done the hard work first, you aren’t too worried about what the number is going to be.  If, however, you have failed on some level to make good decisions about diet and exercise, you may be shocked, saddened or even depressed by what you see in the end.

I have been fortunate, and maybe a little lucky, to have lived a fulfilled life with few regrets thus far. But I imagine that as the profiles of the many pillars in my life unfold in print I will see both points of pride and regret. Regret for missed opportunities. Regrets for fading connections. But what I hope is reveled is that we, all of us, ultimately have a responsibility to one another; that if we are to finally come together we must first rely on one another, trust one another, love one another.

Carl Owen: The Manager at QuikTrip #358

I have always been about my work. Just ask anyone I know. They’ll tell you that I have always been at work. When I was sixteen years old my stepdad brought home a job application from his favorite convenience store, a store he stopped at every morning on his way to work for coffee and cigarettes. That store was, of course, QuikTrip Store #358 at the corner of Ridge Rd and 21st St in Wichita, KS.

QuikTrip is a large convenience store chain in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. These aren’t your small scale gas stations with snacks and stale coffee.  QuikTrip is in a category all of its own that prides itself on keeping clean, bright stores stocked with modern conveniences like fresh and frozen foods, large fountain drink stations, many varieties of hot, fresh coffee, and a cafe of hot sandwiches and roller grill treats.

I met Carl right after I completed new employee orientation. I was assigned to his store as a part-time clerk trainee. I don’t remember much about our first meeting, but I imagine it was a short introduction before the business of the store took over. Something that I have never been able to completely comprehend is that a 24 hour service business like QuikTrip never, ever stops. For 365 days a year the lights are on at QuikTrip and the employees are part of a system that keeps every store operational. During the year and a half that I worked at QuickTrip I would often slip into a speculative thought exercise wherein I would imagine the extreme conditions that would force a manager to close a QuickTrip store. As it turns out, beyond armed robbery, which didn’t happen at QuikTrip too often (not a whole lot of cash is on hand at any give moment) the business and operations administrators had procedures in place to keep the cash registers open.

Even in the event of a long power outage, QuikTrip could still take your money. Though the gas pumps would be rendered inoperable in a power outage, and the fountain soda station would cease to work, the computerized cash registers could still work for about 30 minutes on a backup battery.  So, if a store had three registers, there would be 90 minutes of operational energy before the manual receipt pads and old-school credit card machines with imprint plates would be used to sell whatever we had left to sell. I finally arrived at the conclusion that QT would only lock its doors right after the very fabric of society had finally fallen to outright chaos.

So, when I arrived at #358 for the first time I imagine it was late-afternoon in the middle of the week. The store would have had at least a dozen patrons. Carl would have been behind the register and he would have invited me to join him behind the counter. He was a tall man who operated the store from his spot behind the register with absolute confidence. He had a sense of clarity that I envied. It could be felt with the punch of the “cash out” button on the register and punctuated by the slamming of the cash drawer after every brief transaction.

It was here my training began.

QuikTrip had a system every employee had to follow with precision.  When a new clerk clocked in a duty sheet was printed and the clerk had the entire shift to complete these duties. A task that was always on every shift sheet was the “shift walk” which included a number of small tasks to keep the store cleaned and stocked. A clerk was judged on how well, and how quickly, he or she could manage all of these tasks while assisting on the register during busy periods in the store.

Carl, at this time, had worked for the company for about 10 years. He had worked in a variety of stores all around Wichita, ascending the management ladder in a relatively short amount of time. There are many things Carl taught me to make my work at the store easier. But some of the most important lessons he taught were the lessons he lived, and they are the lessons that prevail even today.

“Save your steps.” 

Carl moved with precision. He knew that every minute was precious and every step needs to be made for a specific purpose. I can remember that when I began my job at #358 I ran around twice as much as I needed to. I was a little lost as the layout of the store was still unfamiliar.  In the first month I imagine Carl watched me running around the store quietly sensing the perfect opportunity to show me how I could begin to build efficiency in my workflow. Within a few months I had adopted Carl’s system for running a good shift.

“Do it yourself.”

He was the first “car guy” I knew. Carl was known to drive a full-size Chevrolet pickup truck to work most days.  On the other days he would drive a vintage Camero he was in the process of restoring. I don’t know that I ever saw the finished product, but I could tell Carl took great pride in doing all of the restoration work himself.  This transferred into many aspects of his job he was passionate about. Carl had six employees at his store who could keep the inventory of the store in top shape, but Carl insisted on inventorying and stocking the products he was most passionate about. He developed long-standing relationships with vendors and made it a point to talk with them on a personal level with every visit they made to the store.

One day, there was a pretty big sale on motor oil at the store. He secured a case for himself and set one aside for me. “Take this.” He said.  You’ll be due for an oil change soon, won’t you?”

“Thank you.” I said.  “I usually take my car to the Jiffy Lube for regular oil changes, but it is always good to keep some oil around.”

He looked at me for a moment. “You pay someone to change your oil? Why? it’s easy to do it yourself.”

I thought about it for a moment. “I guess I never learned how to.”

Carl took the opportunity between customers that day to draw a couple of simple diagrams for me on how I could change the oil in my own car (YouTube wouldn’t exist for another six or seven years at this point). About a month later I put my car up on jack stands and completed an oil and oil filter change on my car at a fraction of the price that Jiffy Lube would have charged me. I also felt a sense of accomplishment, and that is something that has stuck with me for quite some time.

These lessons have had a tremendous impact in my life after QuickTrip. There isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t dwell on the lasting messages and lessons Carl taught me to save time, save money and make the best of every opportunity.

I had a rare opportunity to reconnect with Carl last summer when I was visiting family in Wichita. I stopped at a QuickTrip store to pick up a snack for my kids. Carl was behind the counter, not behind the register, but talking with the manager of this particular store. As it turns out he continues to ascend he company management structure and had been promoted to a regional supervisor a few years earlier.

Through our brief reunion I tried to convey the impact he had on my career and my life. But the meeting was probably far too brief to communicate his influence.

Is Trump the Gonzo Candidate?


“…why not run an honest freak and turn him loose, on their turf, to show up all the normal candidates for the worthless losers they are and always have been?” –HST “Freak Power in the Rockies” (1970)

As Donald J. Trump accepted the RNC nomination on Thursday night I couldn’t believe at first what my eyes were seeing, but more importantly I could not believe what I was hearing.

Something I don’t broadcast too often is that I am a registered Republican, but I more closely identify with the Libertarian party. I know, let’s try to keep this between you and me. If you are still reading I’ll also point out that I am something of a political agnostic–I really don’t believe in any of them in DC or Harrisburg anymore.  One more disclosure: I follow politics like a casual fan with season tickets to the game. I am no professional in this field, but I enjoy watching it.

I watch and read a lot of political commentary. My Twitter feed is full of posits by political candidates and pundits of all stripes and parties.  The modern political news cycle moves far too fast for me to catch everything, but political storylines are plentiful this day and age, and they serve as a great distraction sometimes. Something I’ve noticed of late is that we don’t really have a political correspondent like the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. I am not a Thompson scholar, but I have read all of his books and I once taught an advanced seminar on his works at Elizabethtown College in 2014. And I have wondered for two years now, as the 2016 campaign has unfolded, what Thompson would say about the political landscape that America now has to consider.

Thompson published the columns he wrote as an embedded journalist during the 1972 presidential campaign in a single volume he titled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In this disjointed text Thompson applies the in-the-moment, full-throttle “Gonzo” style journalism to give Rolling Stone readers a front-row seat to the American political process. I say “disjointed” because it is the best word I can use to describe the book. When the columns are published next to one another in sequential order, there is a lack of continuity one might find in a collection of works by Friedman or Kristol. Thompson’s reporting often put himself in the center of the story. The net effect was that the reader felt he or she was there with him in that moment.

As a political figure, Thompson was an irreverent visionary who some say was way ahead of his time. His own bid for the office of Sheriff in Aspen, CO commenced and ended in defeat in 1970. Thompson ran on a Freak Power platform. His plan was to engage a population of dope users, bikers and other marginalized populations to push his unconventional candidacy over the top. In short, he sought the highest office of law enforcement in Aspen by courting a coalition of voters who were most certainly on the other side of the law.

His own campaign in Aspen, and the success of his first major publication Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs caught the attention of Rolling Stone, a magazine that was looking to play a role in engaging the new youth vote in play for the 1972 election after the Twenty-sixth Ammendment to the US Consitituion was enacted–giving 18-year-olds the opportunity to vote for the first time in a national election. Thompson became a political correspondent for the magazine and the rest became history-in-the-making.

Thompson left such a strong imprint on American politics covering the ’72 election that even late in his life political reporters would often ask him for his insight every four years. This was a topic he cared deeply about.  So much so that it has been said by surviving family members that the re-election of George W. Bush was one reason he finally decided to take his own life. Now gone, his influence floats over every political season as life-long fans and admirers, like yours truly, speculate about what he would say if he were still alive today.

In 2014 Marin Cogen of National Journal published an article called “The Gonzo Option” in which Cogen offers a profile of former Montana Democrat Governor Brian Schweitzer. The article introduces Schweitzer to a larger audience and describes him as the “Gonzo” option for the Democrat presidential ticket. Schweitzer is opinionated. He is liberal on some issues; conservative on others. He doesn’t fit the Democrat mold in 2014 (or 2016) because he, among other things, is pro-Second Amendment and boasts an A+ rating from the NRA. While Schweitzer is a seasoned politician, he looks a lot like an unconventional outsider much like Thompson must have appeared in the Apsen election of 1970. As Bernie declared (and it has been recently confirmed through a huge email dump posted on Wikileaks), the fix was in for Hillary, so maybe we will have to wait some time for a Schwietzer candidacy.

Enter Trump. His nationalist campaign message makes blood nearly shoot out Van Jones’s eyes and stirs the hearts of middle-American conservatives (not all conservatives in fly-over country, but most). However, from his acceptance speech at the RNC many see a complex political viewpoint developing. Trump, like Schweitzer, is clearly conservative on some issues and quite liberal on others. Trump, like Thompson, is tapping into the growing sense of so many people who feel the last 8 years have been a disaster for them. They have been, effectively, on the other side looking in. Like it or not; it’s working.

Trump applied an important aspect of Gonzo in his campaign for the RNC nomination. He made the story about him as much as possible. When he wanted to dominate the news cycle he would change a primary acceptance speech into a press conference ensuring that all media outlets would give him ample airtime to set the narrative. When Ted Cruz was speaking at the convention, and it was clear Cruz was not going to endorse the nominee, Trump made a well-timed entrance into the Quicken Loans Arena–inserting himself into Cruz’s speech which had been the top story of the day on the Convention floor an in the press boxes. He is a lightening rod, a sure-shot ratings producer for TV stations and news outlets. Like him or hate him, he has brand recognition and he just steamrolled an established political party as a complete political outsider. He is bombastic, incidiary and improvisational. While predictable, we still listen to him, just as we listen to Schwietzer and read Thompson, because we know he will say something unexpected.

Thompson, as I said, ended up losing his bid for Sherrif in 1970. The vote was close, but he lost. He did, however, help frame one of the greater upsets in the ’72 DNC primary by supporting Geroge McGovern in his work for Rolling Stone, and he is a long-standing American icon who will continue to prevail so long as we subject ourselves to elections every four years.

Is Trump the Gonzo candidate? Maybe he is. If Schweitzer is, as National Journal suggests, then there is a case Trump is too. He and Schweitzer share some similarities, though their backgrounds are quite different. Politically speaking, they both represent a new type of candidate in presidential politics–the unpolished and brash personalities who are not poll tested or beholden to one contemporary political ideology.

Would Thomposon endorse a Trump candidacy? Probably not. Trump’s acceptance speech revitalized the landscape of Fear and Loathing (and paranoia) Thompson railed against in nearly every piece of writing he published throughout the late 60s and 70s. So, Trump would certainly give Thompson plenty to write about today. Trump painted a pretty grim picture of America in his acceptance speech–a scene we haven’t seen since the 60s. To see Thompson’s comparisons of today and the 1960s would be insightful and illuminating. We could, perhaps, learn a great deal about ourselves and the hand we have all played in creating an environment in which Trump is a candidate for President.

What about Hillary? I don’t know if Thompson would support her either. Hunter was quite critical of the Clintons, particularly during the fallout of the Whitewater scandal. He would have plenty to say about the many scandals that have lingered around Mrs. Clinton. Thompson, a well-known harsh critic of Nixon, absolutely loathed cronyism and corruption.

So, it is difficult to say who Thompson would support today.  Many of us in the voting public may be just as conflicted when it comes time to pull the lever for one of the two major candidates.  Of the two party system, Thompson once said, “There’s a terrible danger in voting for the lesser of two evils because the parities can set it up that way.”

To put it another way, Evil is just one election away from the White House. Buckle up, America. We are in for a wild ride.