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2014 Hal Prize Nonfiction Winners

First Place

Thunder Bill
by Mark R. Hunt

The year was 1958. I was an eight-year-old kid sporting a pretty tight crew cut. My dad did the cutting in the basement laundry room. I can feel his strong hand on my shoulder as I held the wrapped towel tight around my neck. “Don’t move” was the order he kept giving as he’d maneuver me on the stool. My mother, on some of these occasions, might be sneaking in to get a closer look at the job. I was wearing mostly blue jeans with the four-inch cuffs, horizontally striped tee shirts, red, or white Chuck Conner tennis shoes, and my favorite thin beaded Indian belt.

My older sister Polly was eleven. She was still bigger than I was, but I was gaining on her. She was becoming interested in boys, so our days of getting along while sharing the back seat on long rides was coming to an end. We enjoyed each other’s company a few years back, when playing baseball, drawing horses, or just rough housing around had been enough. Truth be told, she was a pretty good tomboy back in those good old days. Her interest in the boys was well deserved, as they really had an interest in her. She had been blessed with big-eyed cuteness and some early developments that did not go unnoticed by the boys. Plus, she was bit of a smart aleck to boot. It was her way or the highway, once she crossed that line in her mind that made it so. She would even go up against Dad on some things that would make your jaw drop. Things that from my seat seemed really pretty stupid. Our father was a formidable force to be reckoned with.

So, on this particular family vacation out west, she had built a little fortress fence around herself in the backseat of the white Ford station wagon. Her books and magazines all piled up between us, she sat behind Dad, and I sat behind Mom. We were heading out on the big journey, into the Badlands up in the Dakotas and beyond. We’d been to the Corn Palace. I had scored with a sweet rubber knife that I strapped onto my Indian belt, and we were all getting along pretty good. They were a little disappointed with the Petrified Forest exhibition. I think we had to pay something to get behind the roughly fenced in portion of the exhibit that lay just beyond a rather meager gravel parking lot. Then, when we were let in, after paying, it was only a couple of very old logs laying in what otherwise looked like the rest of the vast prairie that surrounded the place. They were old trees that looked pretty much like they’d turned into rocks alright. They had little fences built around them with signs that warned you not to touch. But, it wasn’t really the Petrified Forest that the big sign had advertised a mile back on the road. Mom was optimistic about it. There would be plenty more to see on this trip. We shouldn’t be so disappointed. While Dad, on the other hand, was not impressed. You could see around the fence to our car. He said we should have just peeked around the corner. That would have been enough for this. We called him “The Brick.” He was like an immovable object.

If we weren’t eating at a roadside picnic table, or off the tailgate of the wagon, we were stopping at a roadside café. We were camping most nights, but we’d also spend the night at a motel with a pool on occasion. Dad had found this pretty cool camper tent wrap around enclosure that he fit over the back of the station wagon. He’d drop the tailgate and raise the hinged window, then tie with cords the tent capper around them to close things off. With the tailgate dropped, there was just enough room for them to sleep in the way back, and then Polly took the back seat, and got the front seat to sleep on. It all worked pretty well, though it was tight quarters really, for everyone. I remember playing board games and learning how to play gin rummy in the back of that car. They’d drop the back seat down and spread a big blanket out. We’d all sit cross-legged and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, and drink Hire’s root beer. It was great fun.

On nights when we’d get to stay at a roadside motel, Polly and I would wind up in a small swimming pool. I’d be diving in and holding my breath underwater, and terrorizing her however I could. She’d be wearing a flowered rubber swim cap that I could easily pull off. Getting her hair wet was like the worst thing that could happen to her. It was tight quarters in those little motel rooms. But, they had TVs and electricity, showers and sinks – conveniences, with mostly western themes – maybe a cactus styled table lamp between the beds.

Other than the Badlands and an occasional butte, the Dakotas were pretty desolate. Polly wouldn’t even look up from her magazines unless one of us gasped at something we were looking at. I got her to look up once with a really good, “Oh My God” heart-felt false gasp. But that was it. It would have to be Mom, or Dad gasping after that.

On day three, we’d been driving all morning and mother had announced it was going to be a roadside café day. So, we were on the look-out for just the right one. And, as the fates would have it, sure enough, not ten minutes after her announcement, the perfect one came up on the left side of the road. We were heading west, so for driving convenience sake, Dad was looking for one on the right, or north side of the road. Mom made him turn around and go back to this one because I’d seen a buffalo in a cage next to it, and she’d seen that it looked clean and neat, and had lacey white curtains hanging in the windows. Getting Dad to turn around wasn’t easy, but he showed his generous vacation spirit and did it. We were all very pleased with this. Getting him to be more like Mom was our hopeless dream.

We pulled into the gravel parking lot along with a few other traveler cars. They had to pull me from Thunder Bill’s buffalo cage to come in to eat. The café was clean and neat. This was the first and biggest deal they had with all things highway. Gas stations, bathrooms, motels, and café’s had to be clean, or they were marching us right back out of there, and hoping that the next one would be somehow better – and how could people live like that? Our mom had like a built-in radar system for picking only the neatest and cleanest of our accommodations.

I really don’t remember much else about the place, other than the fact that I was done eating well ahead of them, and asking permission to go back outside to see the buffalo. Wiping my face clean with a wet napkin that she’d either spit on, or dipped into a water glass, she’d get the nod from Dad, and I was freed.

When I got to the chain-linked cage, Thunder Bill had his back to me on the other side of it. It looked like he was staring out at all the cars going by on the road. I could see now that he was pretty old and mangy. The cage was stinky and his water bowl was full of crap and his food bowl was flipped upside down. I wrapped my fingers though the holes in the fence and crawled up as close as I could get to see him better. “Hi Thunder Bill,” I said. There was nobody else around. With that, Thunder Bill slowly turned to show me his ginormous head and big black eyes. Flies were buzzing around him in there. He turned completely around and sized me up. Then, he slowly walked across the cage, right for me. If it hadn’t been for the cage, I’d have been scared witless. Slowly, he came right up to my side of the cage and just stood there in front me for a moment, giving me a terrific look at him. He was a magnificent old beast. I was blown away by the size of his head. My heart was pounding out of my chest and I was talking to him nice when, he tilted his head a little to the left, and then stuck one of his sharp horns through one of the holes in the fence and gored me in the belly just above my Indian belt. I screamed bloody murder and hit the dirt writhing in pain. I rolled over and pulled up my shirt to see a small growing bruise right where he’d gored me. I wasn’t very good about pain and bodily injuries back in those days, so I kept screaming and was pretty traumatized by the whole situation. But, apparently, my Mom and Dad had not been watching, because nobody came out to help me.

I laid there in the dirt, next to the cage, for what felt like an eternity. I cursed out Thunder Bill for laying me low, and watched him as he retreated back to the other side of the cage. I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself that ol’ Thunder Bill probably knew just what he was doing, and how his old horn would fit just so between the chain link fence holes. And that he’d probably done it to plenty of unsuspecting boys just like me. Then, from my vantage point on the ground I looked up at the sign clearly printed on the cage – DON’T GET TOO CLOSE TO THE CAGE. And in smaller print it read, MANAGEMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR INJURIES CAUSED BY THUNDER BILL.

Eventually, I picked myself up and went back into the café. My Mom and Dad were pretty upset when they saw what had happened. And yes, there was a good bruise, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought to begin with. It was more the shock of the thing that had stung me to my core. She dipped the same napkin she’d wiped the ketchup off my mouth with before I’d headed out to see Thunder Bill, into the same glass of water to clean up the spot where the buffalo had stung me. Then, she used the back half of it again in the water glass to wipe the dried tears from my cheeks. Dad dusted off my blue jeans and we were back out on the road, Polly with her head in a magazine, and the car rolling west out across the vast prairie. I stared out the window at the wide open Dakota landscapes and pondered my fate. I can still feel that particular spot on my right-side, just above my belt, if I close my eyes and see Thunder Bill coming my way. Cosmic paybacks from Tatanka for what we did to them maybe. Who knows? Anyways, be careful out there with how close you get to things. Particularly, to airy cages with old buffalos named Thunder Bill in them. Dad says what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Within an hour I had broken the tip off the rubber blade of my new knife, stabbing it into the seats and Polly’s magazines.

Judge’s comments: The thing that appealed to me about this piece was the self-propelled kinetic nature of the prose, combined with the assured voice of the narrator:  sardonic but not cynical, wry but not flip, and every small observation adding necessary atomic weight to the story. The piece itself conveys the family road trip described in that you can’t help but feel claustrophobic in the back seat, disappointed in the petrified forest, and ultimately – when the payoff comes – as if the critical narrative incident is now part of your legendary family history, to be told and retold for family reunions immemorial. And finally, I found the concluding line to be about perfect. – Michael Perry


Second Place

Learning to Read in Minnesota, 1947
by Richard Western

Growing up, the stories I knew best were those we told within the family. Many had to do with our trips to Sturgeon Lake. In July and sometimes in August my family would drive to Sturgeon, as we always said, 100 miles north of St. Paul, just off Highway 61. Along the way my father would tell my sisters and me that if we kept still we might see a moose or a wolf by the side of the road, and we half believed him. He did not keep still, nor did he really want stillness from us. He recalled other trips, anticipated good weather, remarked on the intrusive presence of motorists from Iowa who hauled large wobbly trailers on our crowded highways, assured my mother he was holding the speedometer needle right at 55, and performed lively readings of jingles from Burma Shave signs planted here and there along the road: 

Within this vale
Of toil and sin
Your head grows bald
But not your chin.

~ Burma Shave 

Besides the jingles we saw, he knew others from other Burma Shave signs around the state, and as he recited them my sisters and I would join in. Sometimes we could get the last line right by thinking how to complete the rhyme.

Just past Willow River we’d head east into the little town of Sturgeon Lake and stop to buy gas and milk and eggs. Then it was four miles over a flint-hard dirt road to the lake and Wold’s Resort. When we reached the dirt road I knew what I’d soon hear. “Now we’re so close I could spit there from here,” my father would say.  “At least he said ‘spit,’ this time,” my mother would add.

Halfway around the south shore of the lake we’d turn in at a sign that said “Wolds” and park in the shade on pine duff lining the driveway. Usually we’d find the Wolds, Mort and Eng, in their kitchen or garden. In the exchange of greetings that followed, they would abide my father’s handshaking and respond politely to my mother’s remarks about the grounds – Yes, the roses by the tool shed look good this year, so far – until Mort supposed that, well, we’d probably like to get settled after our long drive, and he should show us around to our place. Mort was more outgoing than Eng. “It’s a new pump there,” he might mention as we walked past the pump house on our way to the cabin. Or, stepping inside, “New oilcloth for the kitchen table.” Looking into a dish cabinet, then thinking twice, my mother would say that the shelves wouldn’t need much cleaning.

But before we cleaned anything or unpacked the car, we would head back outside and down to the lake to look at the beach and the dock and the boats. My sisters would kick off their sandals and wade into the water, splashing at dragonflies and each other. Looking to the northeast, reckoning from a fallen-down barn and a white boathouse on opposite shores, my father would locate the weed bed where the big crappies lived. “Tomorrow morning,” he would say, grinning, “they’ll jump right into the boat. We’ll have to fight them off.”  

In the week that followed – two weeks, during the bad polio summers – all of us would fish, my sisters and I would swim, my mother would sunbathe in her underwear, and I would poke around in clearings and outbuildings left over from the time when the resort had been a farm. I knew where there was a pedal-driven grindstone with a metal seat recycled from an old hay rake, and I sat in it and ground away at the blade of my pocket knife until my father said I’d turned it into a shiv, whatever that was. I knew where there was a gray half-timber icehouse, still in use, and on hot afternoons I would climb into it and sit in its loading port – a good spot to suck chunks of ice and practice spitting bits of sawdust into the scrubby field below, alive with horseflies and grasshoppers. “What did Mort and Eng grow in this field,” I once asked my father, “back when they were farmers?” “Rocks,” he said. Sometimes I fished from Mort’s dock, stretched out on my belly, dangling a line over the side. Looking straight down, I could watch bluegills smaller than my hand swim from beneath the dock to inspect the bit of angleworm I’d stuck on a hook and lowered for their consideration. They would come forward slowly and circle the worm, feinting, until one of them – A bluegill brave! A Kiowa bluegill, counting coup! – nudged it with his nose and darted back. The others would follow in a flash, their shadows streaking across ripply washboard patterns in the bright sand bottom of the lake.

When berries were in season we went after them. The best ones, it was understood, were never near at hand. Finding them meant driving deep into the woods on a logging road, then hiking in deeper still when the road petered out. On one of these expeditions we nearly lost Anna Hanson, an old family friend and our surprise guest at Wold’s. Absorbed in following a trail of blueberries, and eating a few for each one she dropped into the Crisco pail she carried, Mrs. Hanson drifted away from the group and disappeared. We found her hours later, just before dark, sitting on a stump in a black-spruce bog. My father called to her as we approached so that we wouldn’t startle her. Even so, she didn’t move until we came very near. When she did turn to face us – dark eyes unblinking, deep creases running down from the corners of her mouth – I could see that mosquitoes had chewed her neck and arms. “I might have died here, Lawrence,” she said at last, emphasizing a note of gravity in her delivery. My father grinned and picked up her Crisco pail, now empty, and helped her to her feet. “But not from starvation, Anna,” he replied.

It had not been a postcard sentiment about the north woods that prompted Mrs. Hanson to join us at Sturgeon in the first place, and the berry-picking misadventure fell in line with her experience of other rusticities – a midnight encounter with skunks in an outhouse would soon follow – that did nothing to make her feel reverent in the presence of nature. She would remark, after having perturbed the skunks, that some people in this country maybe had gone fånig, spending good money to sleep in places as cramped and primitive as the ones their own parents had worked all their lives to put behind them.

“Why did she come up here, then?” I asked my mother that night.

The trip had cost Mrs. Hanson some effort, I knew. Earlier she had said to my mother, “Maybe one day I’ll visit you up there, Malva. You and those Norwegians – what do you call them? One of them plays the guitar, I think you said.”

“They are Mort and Eng,” my mother said. “Mort and Eng Wold. Eng is the older brother. And yes, he has sometimes played his guitar for the children. You would be welcome to visit us, of course.”

On that basis – she knew no small talk – Mrs. Hanson headed north not long after we did, riding a Greyhound Bus to the Sturgeon Lake Post Office and setting off from there on foot, unannounced, to find us. We came upon her only by chance, having set off ourselves on a grocery run to town. As we drove west she appeared at a rise in the road about two miles from the lake – a dark bulky figure gripping a valise in each hand, moving slowly toward us in the still heat of late summer.

“That’s Anna,” my mother said, well before observation could have clinched the point. “Goddamn,” my father said, slowing down. “You look tired, Lawrence,” Mrs. Hanson said when he pulled up alongside her.

“Mrs. Hanson is here,” my mother explained, “because she has finally got Peter out of her house and she is interested now in Mort and Eng. Mort especially, I think. Eng really is getting on in years.”

Mrs. Hanson had referred to her husband always as “that no-good Peter” or “that no-good drunken painter.” She had telephoned my mother not long before the Sturgeon visit to say that Peter was killing her and Lawrence should come do something about it, so I was not surprised to hear that she and Peter had parted ways. But an interest in Mort? What could this mean? On Sundays, after church, Mrs. Hanson liked to ride around the East Side of St. Paul by streetcar, dropping in on friends to talk, maybe to stay for dinner, if that would be no trouble. Mort attended no church, he sought out no occasions to talk, he never had seen a streetcar in his life, and his domestic practices were irregular. Once I watched from behind a fence while he stepped from his kitchen into his chicken yard and killed a hen with one shot from his lever-action Winchester. He watched for a moment, frowning, while the headless bird lurched in the dirt, then came around the fence and joined me. “I don’t like wringing their necks,” he said, answering a question I hadn’t quite asked. “She’ll settle down straightaway now.”

“Why is Mrs. Hanson interested in Mort?” I asked.

“Oh,” my mother said, and moved to raise the window by my bed.  Moths clung to the rusty screen outside. An outboard motor hummed across the lake.

“Why is she, Mom?”

“Well,” she said, and turned to the bedside table and dimmed the lamp. I could still see moths on the screen, but only when a wing moved in the night air. Then my mother moved to the foot of my bed, reached to smooth a blanket, and looked back toward the lamp. I did not think I had asked a hard question.

“This place, Lawrence,” she began, and right away I recognized the vowels and intonation of my mother’s Anna Hanson voice. It meant that the reply would be a story, recounting, as my mother’s stories sometimes did, a monologue that enabled her to explain something while distancing herself a bit from the explanation. 

“This place, Lawrence – these little stugas and that big house of theirs, here on a nice lake – it must be worth…What do you think, Lawrence? No, don’t be funny now. You know these things. Forty thousand? Maybe more. Maybe fifty thousand. I want to know, Lawrence. I’m asking you. How much?”

Only in a story, I thought, would my father’s voice go unheard.

My mother continued:  “They don’t have no women, do they Lawrence? Nobody to cook, clean this place up a little? Two rich old men like that – they’d want a woman here for them, wouldn’t they, Lawrence?”

Two rich old men? A woman needed, and perhaps one available? I had never thought of Mort and Eng or Anna Hanson in anything like these terms. One of my uncles was rich, but he wore three-piece suits. I couldn’t imagine him even shopping for his dinner, never mind gunning it down in a chicken yard. And at home I had heard Mrs. Hanson speak disparagingly of him in gossip with my mother, much in the way she spoke of no-good drunken Peter. So why…?

My eyes felt tired. I could make out one moth stuck to the screen. He was wearing a three-piece suit and humming something in a low monotone. Or had old Eng appeared at the window with his guitar, singing the ballad of Per Spelmann? My mother had more to tell, but I fell asleep.

Judge’s comments: A standard retelling of vintage vacation memories might be pleasant enough (who doesn’t like a good Burma Shave jingle, or a spit joke, or a look back at how things were before we were all hammering back and forth on the four-lane) but ultimately what drew me into this piece were those elements that strayed from the standard into the surreal (a bachelor-hunting woman walking a dusty road with two valises; bluegills floating magically over sand; a man killing chickens with a Winchester) while still remaining tethered (however tenuously) to reality, even as reality dissolves into a dream. – Michael Perry


Third Place

A Garden Variety Existential Crisis
by Richard Tobin

“It was a glitch in the Match.com algorithm.”

That’s what I told my old college buddies when they asked how an accountant like me managed to marry a professor of philosophy. From their perspective, we may seem like a classic case of opposites attracting, but I tried to explain that accountants and philosophers actually make a natural pairing. Philosophers are never short of intensely deep conversation topics. They also tend to be underemployed and underpaid in their profession, so they’re generally cheap dates. In our case, a cup of coffee would fuel conversation for hours. That’s a great value proposition from an accountant’s perspective.

Our relationship was not all sunshine, roses, and enlightenment, however. As I paid our bills each month, I occasionally struggled to understand why she went to school for a decade only to earn such modest paychecks. On the other hand, she struggled to understand how it was possible for me to dedicate so much time and effort to a profession that I had absolutely no passion for. As my accounting career began to grind and stall midway through its second decade, I became increasingly preoccupied by the troubling incisiveness of her point of view.

During one of our informal “state of our union addresses,” we revisited a familiar theme – how we might maximize my happiness as opposed to my income. We were halfway through a pint of black cherry frozen custard, and I was too demoralized to put my funk into words. “Tell me where you’re at,” she said, “and I’ll meet you there.”

I couldn’t tell her where I was at. It would sound like a pathetic Dilbert cartoon or a re-run of The Office. Instead I showed her using the rusty remnants of my artistic talents.

I drew a large circle representing the business world – a conservation of conservatism.

I drew another circle within the first. Inside the vast world of business, I worked in the financial services industry – a convention of conventional thought.

Within the stodgy financial services industry I work in banking. Not banking as in Wall Street banking. That would be glamorous and lucrative. I draw a third circle inside the other two.

I’m in the community bank market, a stodgy subcomponent of a stodgy industry segment where starched shirts are the way, casual dress arouses suspicion, facial hair indicates you’re hiding something, and tattoos are carefully concealed by monogrammed shirt sleeves to guard against the damning impression of impulsiveness, individuality, or youthful indiscretion.

I shouldn’t judge community banks, because I didn’t actually work for a community bank. I worked for the community bank’s back-office services provider. When a stodgy bank finds a business process too boring and stodgy for even their own stodgy selves, it outsourced the process to us. We’re the creatures who run the computers in icy server rooms and crank out bank statements from windowless print shops. It’s the height of depression. I drew yet another circle, tight and small. It doesn’t get much stodgier than this.

But it does.

I work in the accounting department of this back-office firm. Within the world of business, accounting is widely acknowledged for being practically unacknowledgable. I embed another circle, this one about the size of a capital letter “O.” Can it possibly get stodgier?

Yes indeed.

I work smack in the middle of middle management.

Stodgy!

I place a small round dot square in the middle of my concentric circles.

“You want to know where I am at?” I asked. “I reside at the epicenter of stodginess.”

I sulked.

“Depressing, isn’t it?”

“You’re not depressed,” she replied. Then she diagnosed me as only a doctor of philosophy could. “You’re just having an existential crisis.”

As far as existential crises go, mine was very much of the garden variety. I was unhappy in my work and distressed that my epitaph might only read something along the lines of “Husband, CPA, and relatively fun guy to travel with on business.” Woe is me. I wouldn’t even allow myself to call it an existential crisis, not with all the real crises going on in the world. I called it a funk and went back to work.

On one particularly dreary workday, a dark cloud seemed to have descended onto my workspace making it impossible to concentrate. I contemplated how my forefathers were hunters and gatherers, and how I presently found myself hunting and pecking at a keyboard that seemed to be mocking me. The “num lock” key made me numb. The “home” key made me homesick. The “shift” key prompted fantasies of career change. The escape key? I tried it. It’s a liar.  

Then I received an email from my wife that put a CTRL+ALT+DEL on my zombie state. She registered me for art class up in Door County, and she couldn’t wait until I got home to share the news. It wasn’t just any class. It was a class with my favorite local artist, whose paintings distilled such intense emotions that a simple stroll through her gallery could induce massive mood swings. I went immediately to my boss’s office to arrange for time off.

My boss was a classic accountant with a quantitative mindset so strong he could fully absorb a book full of numerical minutia in a minute’s time. He sat behind his desk calmly paging through neat stacks of financial reports when I popped in. The walls to his office were pale and decor was minimal. The rectangular space had the visual appeal of a racquetball court.

“I need a few days off to attend painting classes in Door County,” I said.

“Door County?” he asked. “You know, they have free painting lessons over at the Home Depot in Wauwatosa.”

It had been ten years since I swiped my initials on the corner of a completed painting. If I recall correctly, my last effort was a dodgy impressionist portrait that decorated the utility closet of my old apartment. I’m not a significantly talented painter to begin with, and whatever artistic talent I may have had deteriorated after years of neglect and lack of development. As we made our way north through Door County, my wife reminded me that the ideal outcome of the class was not a showpiece for our living room. Rather, it was to see the world anew. I was reminded of this as we wound our way through the country roads to the art school’s campus. The mere prospect of painting had already renewed my appreciation for morning light. The clouds in the sky were no longer white. They were titanium white, and their billowy face had a soft, buttery yellow undertone. Their nooks and crevices were distinguished by soft arcs of tasman blue placed there by some divine stroke of a filbert brush. We were not merely commuting through Door County en route to Fish Creek. We were voyaging through a constantly shifting work of art.

The painting class began with introductions. One classmate explained that she wouldn’t consider herself a professional artist since she “barely covers the costs of her studio.” It was clear that I was way out of my league, yet I proudly announced that I was simply an accountant seeking to rediscover his creative side. This revelation prompted my classmates to rehash the standard battery of creative accountant jokes. “I had an uncle who was a creative accountant. He’s serving 10 years for tax evasion! Waka, Waka, Waka!”

After three full days of painting instruction, I produced a couple of landscapes notable only for their extensive variations of brown – the only color in the spectrum that people seem to feel sorry for. I also tried a few pre-dawn street scenes, but those experiments in light should never see the light of day. Despite these apparent failures, the class was an unequivocal success. I saw potential paintings everywhere I went. I found myself staring at a farmer’s red barn as it was set against green fields and blue skies.

“I wanna paint that,” I said.

“It’ll take some primer and two coats,” he replied. “Have at it.”

The class also had another unexpected but welcome outcome. I began to see my job in a new light. When I found myself obsessing about numerical details and providing financial reports at increasingly microscopic levels of granularity, I was reminded of my art instructor’s challenge to abandon my photo-realist mindset and to think like an impressionist. “If you think every brush stroke is as precious as the next, nothing is precious. Don’t paint every leaf on the tree. Paint in blocks of color. Whether you’re a photo-realist or an impressionist, a tree is a tree when you step back from it.” With that encouragement in mind, I elevated the level at which I provided financial information and asked the stakeholders to step back from the detail to interpret the big picture. That might have been the first time a financial statement was evaluated like a work of art, but it worked. I began to see my creativity as a virtue that gave me the ability to see beyond the obvious, to frame up problems like a composition, and approach these problems from alternative perspectives.

When I look back on that period of my life now, I realize that my situation was not an existential crisis, medical crisis, midlife crisis, or funk. It was just life. It was life unfolding in real time while I maintained just enough awareness to notice it. Unfortunately people with the most acute awareness tend to suffer the most in those notoriously sterile corporate environments. This became increasingly true for me at the epicenter of stodginess. Although my experience at the art class provided helped in the short term, my newfound enlightenment seemed to contrast starkly compared to the dim circumstances of my work life. As I learned in art class, the point of sharpest contrast in a painting often becomes the focal point by default. After years of going cross-eyed trying to focus on the present responsibilities of my job while maintaining an eye for a better future, I decided to make my miscast career the focal point of discernment in an effort to change it.

Several months later I found myself in a job interview with a small all women’s college. They needed an accounting instructor. The college had an innovative curriculum that required the mastery of abilities such as analysis, communication, problem solving, and so on. The most unique of these abilities was “aesthetic engagement,” in which students must demonstrate the ability to engage with the arts and draw meaning and value from artistic expression. As I neared the end of the interview, they threw the curveball question certain to make the typical bean-counter candidate squirm. “How would you, as an Accounting Professor, integrate aesthetic engagement in your classwork?”

I explained how businesses often saw themselves as mere patrons of the arts, and they failed to see how the arts could inform their operations. I used examples of how painting influenced my own work as an accounting manager, and I shared how it might impact students of accounting as well. They bought it!

I’m now entering my second year as an Assistant Professor of Accounting, a position that requires more creativity than I ever would have imagined. My old college buddies don’t ask me how I managed to woo a philosopher anymore. They don’t bother to ask how two professors managed to hook up either. Instead they ask how a student like me (of modest ability and motivation at best) managed to become a tweed-clad professor in the first place. I answer them in the most philosophical and existentially correct way I can. “Everything evens out in the universe. The Yin and Yang. Debits and Credits. Not much higher education got into me, so I got into higher education.”

Judge’s comments: As one who believes in the power of art to enhance life and civility at all levels and in all corners, I often fail miserably in making my case. Perhaps that is because I tend to overload the cannon. The self-deprecating humor in this piece earns the reader’s attention and holds it throughout, but it is the low-key, quietly tenacious way the narrator works the knot of the problem that ultimately enables the piece to address much loftier ideals without losing us in the clouds. – Michael Perry


About the judge:

Michael Perry. Submitted.

Michael Perry, a New York Times bestselling author, humorist and radio show host from New Auburn, Wis., judged this year’s nonfiction contest. Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” performs widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums and is currently finishing his first young adult novel.