The River

coburn (1)

Timing is everything.

Last weekend I made another trip back to my old stomping grounds, the college town where I went to graduate school. For a variety of reasons, I decided to stay over Monday night too. My friend & hostess suggested we could go tubing that evening when she was done with work, but we hemmed and hawed about it all day long. Then I decided: fuck it, we should go. Just go.

We went.

Forty-minute drive to the parking area. Wait a few minutes for some other friends. Short walk to the put-in. Compulsory discussion of how to get my fat ass in a tube. Unceremonious leaping. Some selfies in the lagoon. Drifting and spinning, drifting and spinning. The languorous pace of the current was initially frustrating to my city-girl need to go-go-go, but I eventually settled in. Slow but steady progress down the river.

Drifting, spinning. The river takes control. You don’t fight it, unless you get hung up on the rocks, which is usually your own damn fault for picking a bad line. Then your ass drags the bottom in a punishingly undignified metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the folly of your error. Go where the water runs deepest. That is the path. The river knows.

We saw a lot of wildlife. A doe and her shy fawn trotted parallel to the bank. A fisher or mink darted into the overgrowth. Kingfishers swooped back and forth across the water. A great blue heron stood still as a sentry in the shallows.

And then, in front of us, on a narrow stretch of river in which the hill on one side and the tall trees on the other created the feeling of a canyon, we saw it: a bald eagle.

The eagle swooped in from the left, turned towards us, and followed the river’s path right over our heads.  Its wingspan was huge, intimidating. The yellow beak and dark eye pressed against the white of that distinctive head–it was like something out of a painting. Sure, one of those terrible, bellicose, patriotic meme-paintings, but a painting nonetheless. We were so close, perhaps only 30 or 40 feet below, that we could make out individual feathers as it passed by.  It was stunning.

“Epic,” said my friend.

The encounter lasted eights seconds, ten tops. The eagle flew upstream and veered right, disappearing around the bend. We all agreed, it was an awesome sight. Rare. A true gift.

And, as I realized on the long drive home yesterday, a miracle of timing.

If the river were running a little faster. If the rocks had hung us up a little longer. If our friends arrived before us. If we had stopped off to buy beer. If I had gone home instead of staying over. If I hadn’t come to town at all. If my friend and I had never met.

The encounter with the eagle–brief, powerful, and random–made me think of everyone I have known and all the people I have loved. There is probably a sacred math to explain all the vectors and intersections that allow us to find and know and love one another.

If I had used a different exit. If I had sat in a different seat. If I had gone to a different school. If there hadn’t been a war that delayed my parents’ marriage. If I had swiped left instead of right. If he had swiped right instead of left. The smallest variable can make all the difference.

I am grateful for the love I have, but I wonder where other choices might have led me. We saw an eagle fly right over our heads. Who knows? Perhaps if we had been a minute earlier, we might have seen a bear. Or a minute later… and nothing at all.





At first glance, these could be images of distant planets viewed from across space. But no, they are photographs I took through the lens of a microscope during the histology lab in my Human Anatomy & Physiology I course. Left to right, they are hyaline cartilage (a form of connective tissue that is present in joints and respiratory tract organs); nerve cells with their dangly dendrites and asymmetrical axons; and cardiac muscle, which looks a bit like prosciutto but is in fact a miracle: striated tissue that contracts in perfect synch (autorhythmicity), without fail, until you die.

No, these are not planets. But to this humanities professor, they were an invitation to another world.

It’s the middle of the night, and yet I have just three hours until I am up again to finish studying for my final exam. I never imagined that this class would be so hard–about 1/3 of the class dropped out–or that I would learn so much. I am very tired.

I wish I could have luxuriated in the material over a longer period of time, or that I could have read and studied more. Unfortunately, given the demands of my job, passing my Biology exams(5 lecture exams and a half dozen lab practical exams) became an exercise in doing the least amount of work possible to squeak by. Of course, squeaking by has meant getting A’s pretty consistently; professorial perfectionism dies hard, or not at all. I learned so much, and yet I feel like I barely know anything…

Which makes me wonder about the basic scientific knowledge of the nation’s nursing corps. What exactly does one have to do to fail this course!? I suspect the students who dropped out were not willing (or able) to get up when it was still dark out, after only three hours’ sleep, to pour over study guides and homemade flashcards and a textbook the size of a microwave.

I really loved it, and I’m sad that it’s over. Almost over–I still have to get through this final exam.


With extra credit, I eked out a B on the exam, which gave me an A for the semester! Yea me!

I did some algebra to calculate the minimum exam grade I had to get (75%) and still maintain a robust A course average, and then I studied strategically. A few times this semester, I determined that some topics were too complex to warrant my full attention, given the limited time I had available. As such, the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction, the muscles of the arm, and several pathways of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system shall remain a mystery to me.

Today, one of the questions on the final exam was about where a particular type of nerve impulse goes after it leaves the post-ganglionic whateverthefuck. I wrote, “To the bar” and added a drawing of a martini for good measure. I had reached my limit, and there was nothing else to convey, except a wry joke at what I hope my teacher understood was my own expense.

This is the difference between going to school in your early 20s and going to school in middle age, especially after a long career as a college teacher: I know my limitations, I have too many demands on my time to give every topic my full attention, and I can forgive myself for not being perfect. If only I could apply that self-compassion to my professional life! Perhaps, if I decide to stay the course with academia, some of the lessons I’ve learned as an undercover undergraduate will stay with me.

I’m done with the A&P (for now), but I’m not going to the bar. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and I’m going back to bed!