The American Dream Is My Backup Plan

I’d be reading so many books if I wasn’t so insistent on a music career.

As a consequence of reading I’d probably be writing more, and not for a class. I don’t know what I’d be writing for.

If I’m writing more I’d be around other writers and creatives who want to grow a community. What a change from peers who secretly look at you as job competition.

This (and Chance The Rapper’s take on the gospel) is what I thought about on my 12 hour drive home this week.


There is a theory (pretty sure I read this in a John Green novel) that every decision you make creates a parallel universe — the one that follows the decision you made, another that forks at the one decided against. The more choices you make, the more the path branches, creating an infinite number of possibilities for what your life and the lives of others could be.

Sometimes, I like to check in on the other Lakens, see how they’re doing, wonder if I’d like being them better than being me. My favorite one happened when I decided to move to Ohio after coming home from Denver.

I have no doubts that where I am is the right choice. Sometimes, though, when that gets overwhelming, I remember the options I imagined for myself last summer, when I had just barely any time to back out. They centered around being near my family and friends, and seeking out career satisfaction above education level. I wouldn’t be afraid to take a job outside of my field if it makes me happy. I would live in a small apartment with large windows for my indoor garden. I might even know my neighbors by name.


The equally best and worst part about small town life is the curse of your name. Everyone knows it and everything good or bad that goes along with it. I sat in a coffee shop with a college friend yesterday while we simultaneously talked about our own lives and those of whichever person just walked in, moving back and forth from both topics with little effort. This is her least favorite part about Fort Smith, Arkansas. We know everybody, which is great, but they also know us.

When I was a freshman and sophomore, anyone I met in town over a certain age recognized my last name and asked who my father was. Usually this was forced and awkward, because I was 19 and didn’t know these people. But sometimes it worked out well, like when I found out the college advisor who had to sign off on my graduation was an old family friend; other times I found out my older sister got in a fist fight with my new optometrist a decade or more ago, but no one tells me until the appointment is done and I go home.


There are probably three to five parallel universe Lakens that stayed in Fort Smith. I’m sure some of them live at home still, and at least one is married or divorced with children by now. I don’t check on them.

I have this secret dream to build a home out of storage containers. I have a Pinterest board dedicated to these plans, and when I pin enough hair styles and crochet patterns I eventually follow through, so I don’t see how this is different. I’ve always been bitter about the condition of Fort Smith bookstores (BAM is fine if you want large publishing house sellers, and Snoopers Barn is fun if you are curious about how many used romantic novels can actually fit in one store) and I’m certain this alternate Laken is on her way to owning an indie bookstore with a cafe and small event space, with a boutique reading list and a dog that comes to work with her every day. She has ambitious yet totally realistic hopes of being a homeowner/small business owner in rural-adjacent Arkansas.

Yeah, there’s still time in my life for this to happen, but I’m taking no steps towards it now. I only feel this wistful when I’m on the road home, or sitting at my mother’s dining room table with morning coffee, or seeing what my friends are doing here for this community while also planning to get away one day. I don’t feel like I got away, I’m just prolonging coming back.

I love the path I’m on now. I love academia and performing and taking classes that challenge me intellectually. None of this I want to change. But I’m home now, and it’s harder to want that from here.

I “Passed through a Membrane” and Found Hypermasculinity: A Book Review

Here is an excerpt from Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work printed on the back cover:

The passage from ameteur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

These were the first words I read when I was given this book as an assignment over the weekend. I have never read Pressfield’s work, which includes novels and other nonfiction, but I did see King Kong Lives and it still is one of my favorite terrible movies (Pressfield does regard this screenplay as a failure, which is fair). Given the limited examples I know, I think it’s alright to admit I judged this book by its cover and wasn’t disappointed in my conclusion.

I couldn’t read this book in public because of the faces of disgust I made. Not only at the above quote, which is an absurd metaphor that turns birth into a battle scene, but probably on average once per three pages (the book totals 132). I put sticky notes in the margins to find the worst ones later, and I ran out of sticky notes. I started tearing the squares in halves to increase mileage, then thirds, and I ran out of sticky notes. Steven Pressfield forced me into OfficeMax during finals week.


This is a self-help book trying to disguise itself as nonfiction. Every online bookseller markets it as an educational tool to aspiring writers and entrepreneurs, and I stopped looking at blogs and reviews of teachers who actually used it in their classroom. I think it goes for nonfiction because, like the worst self-help books, it tells the reader all about her personal flaws (whether or not she knew them or even agreed) but gives no practical steps to remedy. If I took it seriously, it would undoubtedly drive me to drink.

According to Pressfield, what is wrong with myself and everyone else is we are “amateurs” in everything we do. Early in the book are “Three Models of Self-Transformation” that say we can either punish ourselves and atone for our sins of personal inadequacy, view ourselves as “ill” and “flawed” and in need of “treatment,” or we can read this book.

I’m disappointed in my choice of action.


The greatest parts of this book are the personal anecdotes — the parts that actually make it nonfiction. Pressfield has lived a varied life, and if he were to write a memoir I would really really think about buying it from the bargain bin. But the three examples of his own life in the whole 132 pages don’t give me much desire to seek it out.

This book is written from the perspective of a bitter Baby Boomer who thinks the root of societal problems are born and bred on the internet. He romanticizes addiction as a side effect (and perhaps requirement) of the artist, and gives the example that alcoholism is a replacement for unsatiated addiction to success. Obviously, he adores the most misogynistic American authors — the very ones that make me, a woman, extremely ashamed to be heterosexual — with no regard to the consequences of their idealized lifestyle: To Pressfield, Jack Kerouac was the leader of a generation and On the Road was inspiration for his vagabond dreams, but he conveniently omitted Kerouac’s regrets for that life years later in Big Sur; he channeled Ernest Hemingway in his search for a tough and manly “shadow career,” and his short, choppy sentences void of prose (see Ursula K Le Guin’s wonderful response to this trend); and he defended Henry Miller’s alcoholism (and, by extension, the other two authors’ as well) and glorified life.

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And, in true masculine fashion, he uses the grotesque and the controversial as ethos, because if it sparks emotional response, it must be just what you need to hear (a tactic used by preachers much of my life, and led to my 19-year-old break from religion). Everything about “turning pro” can be inappropriately equated to sex and war.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you are when you turn pro.

I bet he also “rejects PC culture.”


“Turning pro” requires self-examination, to break from the tribe (that Pressfield claims doesn’t exist and is wholly unnecessary; turns out I don’t need friends after all) and accept yourself as “different” to become better. It’s a modern take on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though it’s never referenced, where the poet urges Kappus to spend time alone, to fully know the self to become the artist. This is noble advice.

But the artist has to reenter society eventually. It is selfish to believe a person can be disconnected from life as it is, that what we create and consume isn’t a part of our collective culture. It is completely wrong to think any one of us are exempt, yet that’s the trendiest belief of white men who don’t see the privilege of choosing to remove themselves from this narrative. Yes, I did learn this from Twitter.

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Despite my glaring opposition to much of this book, there are still points of light in its pages. Late in the book, Pressfield recounts the moment he realized he began to “turn pro.” It was completely mundane, the simple decision to clean dishes that had been piling up, and he catches himself whistling. More accurately, he probably saw himself emerge from depression and turned a corner to change his life. It would be years before he wrote anything worthwhile, but that didn’t matter. “What counted was that I had, after years of running from it, actually sat down and done my work.”

The hit of this was completely unexpected. I wasn’t ready to find any part of this book that was actually for me. But this felt like a description of my own life. I am the master procrastinator, and I dread starting any project; if I’m not immediately excited for it I may never begin. I lack that discipline. I know fully once I make that first step, the rest comes easily and I remember how much I love this work. I become addicted to the work itself, to paraphrase Pressfield. But that first step is a bitch.

We may bring intention and intensity to our practice (in fact we must), but not ego. Dedication, even ferocity, yes. But never arrogance.

The space of the practice is sacred. It belongs to the goddess [Muse]. We take our shoes off before we enter. We press our palms together and we bow.

Do you understand how the mystery can be approached via order?


As I mentioned before, Pressfield’s own stories are enlightening and relatable (even, in an odd way, when he introduces an orange tom cat as his first hero), and if this was an entire book of his life it would be more useful. Instead, it is over 100 pages of preaching without any bible to back it up, only his own lowercase word, whether that’s from his god or muse or whatever addiction and idol worship he wants to romanticize next.

Thanksgiving Hacks to Disappoint Your Grandparents

Disclaimer: I have no evidence stating these hacks have disappointed my own grandparents, and therefore have no reason to say they would disappoint yours. Quite the contrary, one of my grandparents would think the whole thing is funny, and the other is probably incredibly jealous. But if this were a holiday movie, the actors portraying my fictional grandparents would be very, very disappointed.


This is my first apartment with any sense of permanence. There are nails in the walls — nails — and I bought a TV this week. Dining table came in last week. I even decorated for Christmas. Working on four months and I finally almost live here.

I’ve had exactly one guest and she was here for 15 minutes before we left to do what we had planned, which was basically anything but stay in my apartment. My cat, the socialite of the house (competition is slim), has long since felt the lack of attention, having never been left alone in our four-person set up in Denver. But, at long last, I’ve had my first hosting experience this Thanksgiving when my mother came to visit.

Hosting your mother is almost like being a guest in your own home. She knows more than me on everything and my carpet has never been so spotless (she probably vacuumed 3 times since walking through the door). My mom is also a sucker for simplicity (a trait she passed to me) so she was the perfect guinea pig for my small apartment Thanksgiving feast for two.


The Menu:

There were two issues with food choice: 1. My kitchen is tiny, even for an apartment, leaving little room for both prep and leftover storage; 2. My mother doesn’t like pumpkin pie, which I was content to serve on loop for three days instead of cooking anything. With both of these issues in mind, here’s what we ended up with.

Turkey
Assess oven size to determine which turkey to buy. Realize there’s no hope and get a cooked rotisserie chicken from the Walmart deli.

Stuffing
I’ve never heard of turkey stuffing from a box — I didn’t even know it existed until last week. We made it on a stovetop in my Target pans, and butter sauteed onions and celery with Dollar Tree spatulas. Loosely follow instructions on box. Serve warm.

Vegetable sides
Walk up and down the entire grocery store frozen section looking for a vegetable medley more creative than corn, peas, and carrots. We settled on frozen brussels sprouts and grabbed two sweet potatoes from the produce section. Skin and dice potatoes, saute in vegetable oil on other Target pans with the same Dollar Tree spatulas. Add frozen brussels sprouts. Salt to taste. Pepper if you’re not boring.

Bread
Buy day-old bread for $0.70 and heat in oven. This is the only thing we put in the oven all week, it’s that small.

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The bread was forgotten for the photo, however.

Dessert
You have room to splurge on this. We got a pumpkin roll and I’m still eating it days later after my mother went home.

Drinks
Yellow Tail wine, any color. We chose Bold Red. It won over our favorite Barefoot color because it doesn’t have a cork and I broke every corkscrew I’ve owned. I’ve never had a wine stopper either and buy a lot of boxed wine. Our bottle cost $6.99. Open, let breathe, serve in Dollar Tree stemless wine glasses, the only glasses I own.

The Decor

What will make this officially a Thanksgiving dinner and not just a budget grocery store spread is the decorations, many of which were harvested the day of.

Tree
I love natural trees, not only because they’re gorgeous and fragrant, but because the artificial ones are a bitch to store. But if you’re like me and allergic to cedar and fir, wait for a storm to knock over a tree in the parking lot, let it sit for a week while the wood dries and insurance assesses the fence and vehicle damage (it’s ok, probably not your car), and go out one afternoon to find a branch the right size to fit over your couch with just enough character to look better than a large dowel rod. Fasten to wall with Command hooks and twine. Decorate with string lights. Add ornaments if you have them (I have one).

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My one ornament, crocheted by my grandmother.

Centerpieces
As a craft store and homemade preserves enthusiast (never my own, but I enthuse over the work of others), I had several wide mouth mason jars on hand. Go for a pre-dinner nature walk wherever you can find evergreens. Bring a bag to fill with pinecones. If no one has done this before you, you may not have to go deeper than the parking lot. Be the lookout while your mother cuts from the blue spruce on state property. At home, fill mason jars with pinecones and greenery. Tie extra pinecones to you Christmas tree branch. Put more pinecones in an empty planter and any other container you can find. You’re still left with way too many pinecones.

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Ambiance
All grocery stores have tiny $1 scented candles. Buy $12 worth.

Entertainment

We went to a bar Wednesday night (learned it’s the busiest time of the year — who knew families pushed everyone to drink?), watched Amazon Prime movies on Thursday, and went to antique stores on Black Friday. If you’re “go hard” kind of people, you should’ve learned by now this post isn’t for you.


These are all tried and true hacks that can be easily translated to your Christmas celebrations since most Western holidays within these 35 days are all basically done the same way. Tell me your simplest and fuss-free holiday ideas that will keep me festive without the mess and tears.

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Happy late Thanksgiving!

 

Somehow, Copeland Still Sounds Like Falling in Love at Sixteen

This could be an album review if I wrote it two years ago. But in 2015, I believed any music I liked in 2008 wouldn’t fit my new grownup tastes. I’m here to tell you I was wrong this entire time and I neither never grew up or 21-year-old Laken was a real snob. So if you’re looking for specific info in Ixora, you’re just as late as me.

On my last post, I talked about a specific style of music I collect for those lay-on-the-office-floor-and-breathe days. This album by Caspian still reigns supreme and is probably the most-played album on my Spotify library. It’s the perfect length—clocking in at 34 minutes for six tracks—for a quick mid-day unwind, but not for a winter night Mary Karr reading date. This is where Spotify’s Album Radio takes over.

I don’t know the algorithm Spotify uses to determine this queue—is it based on album genre or artist? does Spotify determine what I’d like or is it pulled from other users’ trends? is it based on my own listening history or is a tiny troll in a dark office somewhere hand-selecting tracks for little ol’ me?—but I choose to believe it was nothing shy of divine intervention that brought me back to Copeland.

All I needed was this song to transport me to small town high school romance, probably remembered more perfectly than it even happened.

I was disgustingly lucky to have that idyllic first love, though teenage flings in the grand scheme of things hardly count as relationships: there were many parts of my personality still dormant and I was very opposed to being “tied down” before I even went to college (still true six years later at another college, proving yet again little has changed). But he was a living, breathing standard that was set very high from the beginning. Many people my age had Edward Cullen or love interests from TV shows I didn’t watch; I had a 17-year-old in 2011.

Only by writing this did I even remember he was the one who introduced me to Copeland; the song above I’m pretty sure was his favorite (he also worked at a coffee shop and played Mumford & Sons on his melodica. Looking back, this makes a lot of sense). I don’t spend much time dwelling on this relationship as an adult. I can say with utmost confidence we have both grown up and moved on.

But the theme of my 23rd year has been a search for that feeling I had in Poteau, Oklahoma, in the winter of 2011. I know it exists from the glimpses I’ve recently seen: driving I-25 southbound at night past downtown Denver, any dirt road after drinking beer and kissing someone new, Christmas lights at 5:30 dusk, listening to Copeland’s newest album.

Copeland has been on repeat for days and it’s the most effective self-medication I’ve ever seen. It has to do with so much more than a past love—whom I’m thankful to look back on fondly and truly wish well—it’s a comfort of home and self that I took for granted before. There are some parts of my teenage self I’ve lost and I want to recover: a hopeless love for books is first, and that emotional bravery is second. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a modern rock band that doesn’t even know my name.

I constantly wonder, if 16-year-old Laken could look to the future and see me now, would she be appalled? I didn’t follow the guidelines I set for myself then (I broke that Say No to Drugs and Alcohol contract quick) and a lot of my interests are ones I vehemently opposed before—yet are the very ones my high school boyfriend introduced me to. The things he liked and wanted me to like didn’t fit this image I had of myself, yet they’re the first descriptors people know of me: I despised beer and coffee, and now that’s all I want; I had a very strict view of spirituality that clashed with his, but now that’s gone; I finally listened to and fell in love with Mumford & Sons two years after him; I play Copeland nonstop in 2017.

I still have part of the Christmas gift he gave me and the corsage from our junior prom. I don’t consider myself overly sentimental—for a long time I wasn’t sure why I kept them—but I am a sucker for symbols. At sixteen, I hadn’t given myself much credit. I believed I was too young for most things (for commitment yes, but not love as it turns out) and ashamed of how much I had yet to grow, but I was far less lost than I felt.


I’ve been watching a lot of coming-of-age movies lately. That has to be what caused this.

This Isn’t About Mental Illness

Earlier this week, I was sent an article about the most relaxing songs according to neuroscience (written by Melanie Curtin), reportedly able to make women in the study doze off, and one capable of reducing anxiety in men and women by up to 65%.

Honestly, this sounds too good to be true. As a first-year grad student with limited social connections (no, Mom, I’m fine, just still new to this place), performance requirements, day job, homework, bills, and a stipend that almost covers my cost of living, the idea that ten songs can fix my day-to-day anxiety seems a little unrealistic. Especially in an era where everyone (it seems) has any variety of anxiety to manage, all different yet with the same name. If it was that easy to rid ourselves of it, wouldn’t we all be cured?

I don’t like to write about mental illness. I don’t like to copy-and-paste all the disclaimers necessary to make it appropriate for everyone (as if it can be appropriate for anyone), and that alone will fill my word count enough to omit any original thought. Therefore, this is not about mental illness or solving it. You can Google search your way through that one without my help.

The beauty of the diversity of stress and anxiety is the idyllic journey of self-awareness that comes with learning which remedies work for you and which don’t. Currently, my go-to method is lying on my back in the floor of my shared office, listening to carefully-selected music, breathing as deeply and slowly as I can, and hoping no one walks in.

So when I got this link about songs scientifically proven to fit in this playlist, I was immediately interested.

Curtin includes a Spotify playlist of the top 10 songs from the study (which I’m listening to while writing this), the top one (“Weightless” by Marconi Union) written in collaboration with sound therapists for this exact outcome: elements are especially crafted to reduce the listener’s heart rate and reduce stress. While the article doesn’t specifically outline the most effective rhythms and harmonies, first listen shows several similarities to what I look for in music on my own playlist.

In general, listening to music isn’t the most relaxing thing for me. Curtin mentions listening to music as a good way of disconnecting from the pressures of a technologically connected society (by use of the same technology, no less), but usually music is the very thing I need to “disconnect” from. Blame the formal music training. Listening doesn’t “turn my brain off” much of the time, and actually becomes a major distraction. I think this is true for many musicians.

There are two yoga nidra classes I’ve been in that illustrate this issue. One teacher played meditative music during the warm-up flow, then had the room silent for nidra, and I had my most successful meditation in a group setting of my life. Another teacher played no music during the flow, then had an eastern-influenced melody while she guided our meditation towards a scene of us dancing freely around a fire, then the melody was played over a techno beat and my imaginary fire dancer immediately sat down and crossed her arms in anger until enough of it nearly sparked an anxiety attack. One of these was led by a music professor.

I use music in my at-home yoga practice, and it’s the same playlist I turned on lying on the office floor last week. Without knowing what science says makes a song relaxing or not, here’s a down-and-dirty breakdown of what I look for:

Inspires deep, slow breathing.
This seems easy: slow tempo. You’re not going to naturally breathe fully to any dance track, and that 60 bpm (beats per minute) is the standard tempo of tranquility for a reason. But there’s more to it than speed. The song also needs to facilitate long breath larger than four beats. Many ballads, though slow, still heavily emphasize beats 1 and 3, which creates an “inhale four beats, exhale four beats” pattern (or in eight out eight, or in four out eight, et cetera) and don’t account for your breath as it deepens and stretches longer than simple forms.

This also refers to harmony. Beats 1 and 3 are emphasized because those are typically where the chord changes occur. If the harmony is elongated past two beats or four or eight, the song itself actually feels like it’s breathing, I kid you not. Quit laughing, when you find the song that does that you’ll be obsessed too.

Melodies that are either instrumental or don’t emphasize lyrics.
This is a complaint I get about classical music; there’s nothing to focus on when there are no words. But that incorrectly termed lack-of-focus is exactly what I’m looking for. It must be effectual (largely achieved by the previous requirements) and doesn’t bring my attention on the music itself, but rather lets it wander naturally as encouraged in meditation.

Contemporary instrumental music can sometimes be densely orchestrated to make up for the absent lyrics. There is something said for music (orchestral or not) that relies on harmonic movement rather than rhythmic. Lyrics in another language are also an option.

I want to float in this music.
I only know one way to describe this. In that incredibly successful nidra mentioned earlier, I imagined myself in a shallow part of the ocean, lying on my back in a sea anemone, close enough to the surface to see the the sun clearly but hear nothing. I wasn’t still, but swayed gently with the anemone. It was a lot like the second scene in Finding Nemo when Merlin is asleep in their coral reef home and the camera is facing up, just before Nemo interrupts.

If it doesn’t make me feel like I’m napping in endangered ocean features, I’m not interested.


I’m not entirely sold on the playlist as a whole. Some songs I entirely disagree with (“Pure Shores” by All Saints and “Someone Like You” by Adele are great songs for late night drives, but maybe not for floor breathing), and others have found their way into my normal rotation (how did I just now find Watermark by Enya?) Honestly, most of these are still lukewarm to me, maybe because I haven’t really tried to relax with them (I have just been writing at my desk), maybe because I’m still loyal to my songs. Here are my top 3 choices not featured on that list to supplement the ones I’m not into:

  1. CMF by Caspian
    1. sounds exactly like I imagine falling in love sounds like
    2. listen to this whole album
  2. Hands by Moving Mountains
    1. simple melody, simple lyrics (breaks my second criterion, sue me), and you’ll sing the guitar melody all day
    2. listen to this whole album
  3. Window by Album Leaf
    1. listen to this whole album
    2. then listen to everything by this artist

Relocated

I’m approaching the 2-month mark since moving to Ohio, with little to show for it.

By the time I reached this point in Denver last year, I went on several road trips, live performances, and met so many people Facebook keeps reminding me I friended a year ago. Flash forward 365 days: I’m sitting on the living room floor of my two-bedroom apartment I share with my cat, drinking coffee at 12pm, watching the leaves fall from my window, googling road trip ideas in Ohio, a state I only peripherally knew existed before living here.

There are several differences between now and last year. I’m going to grad school instead of beefing my resume with an unpaid part-time internship; I live by myself in a town where I’m the obvious new kid; my money goes to living expenses and school-related things, and I no longer have a killer part-time second job that lets me read on the clock while also ensuring I have plenty of money for my Nation of One; I’m in a city a quarter of the size of Denver where servers ask if I’m meeting someone later, and then look taken aback when I say I’m here by myself (this could be changed if I were less reclusive and sought companionship more—I’m not yet to the point of full-on friendship, but if you add up my works-in-progress, they equal maybe three whole friends. The point is, I wasn’t expected to change this behavior in Denver).

In summary: Fewer mountains, more questions about my name (which is very exotic here?), and I’m dubbed the eccentric out-of-towner known to YA male fiction writers.


 

“Why would you move from Denver to here?” I’m asked by everyone, brows furrowed, words soaked in incredulity.

Denver was a temporary stop, my last physical address (and current one, according to my mixed up New Yorker sub. Hope whoever got my magazines by mistake appreciated the fiction sections like they should). My hometown in the Arkansas River Valley is exactly like this city, just displaced by 800 miles to the southwest. Fort Smith, too, is caught in a post-industrial decline, though on a smaller scale, and newcomers are working to revamp the downtown scene into an arts center. There is local history taken for granted, and the kids who grew up there claim there is nothing to do, which is complete bogus. Dayton and Fort Smith are twin cities and they don’t even know it.

Yes, it was—and remains to be—a major adjustment from Denver (the gas is higher here?) and I miss that city differently than I miss home, but just as severely. I miss it because the people of Denver were excited to live in Denver. There was a city-wide pride that I wish I saw in Fort Smith, and what I saw growing when I went back last summer. I don’t see that here.

Perhaps I’m searching in the wrong places. Small town universities aren’t the best place for that (looking at you, students of UAFS). I need to find that inspiration I was so excited to take back to FSM those months ago. Luckily, until I require a second job, I have weekends to spend on small solo adventures, so when I leave I can actually say I’ve been here.

Readers, get ready for a travelogue with mediocre photos.