Standing on the Ledge

Today marks the final day of class in my doctoral program. Nothing exciting. I just had to write a five- to seven-page reflection about my study abroad trip.

As I stated previously, the trip was powerful. I had an opportunity to experience a side of Nayarit and the surrounding community that I would never have otherwise seen thanks to Human Connections. And Northern Illinois University.

Looking back on it, this study abroad taught me so much more than my trip to London back in 2001 did. I think the most important thing I learned was the importance of cultural humility, which is the idea that we do not know everything and that we need to be aware of our own position in power balances so that we can navigate situations without hurting others. Honestly, I think that this can help me be a better leader in my work with students, because it reminds me that I can learn so much from others and leverage my privilege to help those who do not have as much as I do.

Even though it meant I had a longer summer semester than my cohort, I am grateful I took advantage of this opportunity. But now that it’s done, I’m in this strange place. On one hand, all that stands between me and graduation is my dissertation. On the other hand, ALL THAT STANDS BETWEEN ME AND GRADUATION IS MY DISSER-FRICKEN-TATION.

So, what does that mean?

Well, between now and Aug. 16, I have to revise my research proposal and get it back to my dissertation chair. Once she’s good with it, I have to defend my proposal to my dissertation committee. That’s not at all terrifying.

But once my committee says, Yeah, that sounds like a good project. You seem to know what you’re doing, I actually have to conduct my research. No big deal. (For the record, I’m stress eating M&Ms as I write this.)

Then, once the research is done, I have to write my dissertation. Honestly, I think that’s going to be the easiest part of all of this. But I have to do so much before I get there.

And then once that’s done, I have to defend my dissertation. No big whoop.

My goal is to defend the dissertation by September, conduct the research by the end of November, write everything over winter break, do revisions through January and February, and then defend in March. In short, this next year is probably going to be insane.

But when all is said and done, I’ll be Dr. Kinnaman, which has a nice ring to it.


Two weeks ago, I climbed on a plane for my study abroad program. Now, I hate flying. I have a terrible fear of heights, and planes bring out the worst of it. That, alone, wouldn’t have been such a big deal, because books, music, and podcasts tend to help calm me down, but pretty much the entire way from Salt Lake City to Puerto Vallarta, we experienced turbulence.

With turbulence, I always worry that something’s going to go terribly wrong, and the plane will just drop from the sky. And as some snarky person once said, it’s not the fall that will kill you; it’s the sudden stop. So, I needed a distraction. I read an entire book, but that wasn’t quite enough to ease my panic.

I had been using my phone to jot notes on my novel when the idea hit. Kath, my main character, has a lot of my fears – the dark, clowns, lakes. It made sense that, along with those other fears, she would be afraid of flying. And that’s when I got the idea for the short story below. I wrote this over the course of my trip, wrapping it up on the flight back to Denver.

What’s different from the other Kath / Smith short story I posted is that this is more in line with the voice in my novels. The bulk of each book features Kath’s first-person perspective, and the remaining chapters are third-person, typically from Smith’s point of view. This story takes place about two months before the first novel, Last Breath.  Enjoy!



“Hey, it’s okay.”

As Smith spoke, he laid his hand upon mine. I would have given him my own to hold, but I was too busy clutching the armrests.

I hated flying, but I was willing to put my fears aside as best I could for Smith. Plus, it helped that he was beside me offering comfort. If I were doing this alone, they probably would have kicked me off the plane before we even left the airport.

The plane hit another pocket of air and bounced. Squeezing my eyes shut, I sucked in a breath and held it, waiting for us to drop out of the sky. Beside me, Smith leaned in close and whispered in my ear, “It’s okay, I promise.”

At the sound of his voice, I exhaled but kept my eyes shut. Smith had explained how turbulence worked to me time after time, but it never helped in the moment. Even pointing out the calm demeanor of the flight attendants walking through the cabins serving drinks and dinner failed to help.

I just wanted to be safe on land. If there was an easier way for us to get to London, I’d have taken it, but this was our only choice. Well, besides taking a boat, and I’ve seen The Poseidon Adventure, Titanic, and Jaws too many times to be okay with that. Plus, it would have added so much more time to our vacation.

For as much as I hated flying, I loved visiting London. This would be our fourth trip, a surprise birthday present from Smith. We had never visited in the spring, so I was excited. I just had to get through the next six hours of this overnight flight without panicking.

The plane smoothed out, and I felt comfortable opening my eyes. Looking at Smith, I tried but failed to muster a smile. His dark chocolate eyes reflected concern. I gave him my hand, but I couldn’t help but squeeze it tight.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Don’t apologize,” Smith said. “Would it help for me to distract you?”

I wasn’t sure how he could, but I was willing to let him try. “Yes.”

All around us, people slept or gave their attention to electronics. Smith leaned in close, his beautiful eyes studying my face. When he spoke, he kept his voice low.

“Remember our honeymoon?”

How could I forget it? It was the perfect conclusion to the most incredible day of my life, the day that Smith surprised me with a wedding. Keeping the surprises coming, he had planned a month-long journey: two weeks in Australia followed by two in New Zealand.

“I wanted to take you somewhere beautiful and warm. That winter had been so cold and miserable, and you complained more than normal about the snow. Plus, I needed to do something big to make up for being so distant in the weeks leading up to the wedding.

“I worried about you, though. Flying there meant a long trip that would cause you so much stress. I didn’t want you to worry, but I had no clue how to make that happen.”

I smiled. “Worrying is what I do best.”

Smith’s lips drew back into his crooked smile that I loved so much. I wanted to kiss him and lose myself in the one thing that I knew could bring me peace, at least for a little while. But we were surrounded by people, and even though no one paid any attention to us, I knew it would cross our PDA boundary.

“I wanted to give you memories that lasted a lifetime. We just had to get you there first. When I told you where we were going, I saw equal parts excitement and fear in your eyes. You wanted to go so bad, but you knew that it meant a very long flight.”

“I asked you to drug me somehow so I could sleep through the whole thing and just wake up there,” I said. “I could never sleep naturally on a plane. There are too many many things that could go wrong.

“I wish someone would just invent teleportation. Of course, that has its own set of problems that I would worry about.”

“You’re such a goof,” Smith said with a smirk.

“But you love me,” I replied.

It was an old endearment between the two of us, one we started not long after Smith first told me he loved me. Like his kiss and the soft timber of his voice, it comforted me. I didn’t feel entirely at ease, but I felt a lot better.

Smith wrapped his other hand around the back of mine, and I did the same to his with my free hand. 

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve been wondering how much force it would take for me to accidentally rip off the armrest. And whether that would that get me arrested by the Air Marshal.”

Chuckling, Smith said, “They’d probably just fine you and ban you for life.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take then.” I stuck my tongue out at Smith.

His plan was working. Despite the occasional rumble of turbulence, I felt more at ease. Damn that sexy son of a bitch.

“The plane ride to Sydney was rough,” he continued. “One of the worst I’ve ever experienced. I was so worried about you, but you were so brave. Yes, you were scared, but you never once cried.”

“I yelped when the plane dropped, though.”

“You did, but so did other people. Even the flight attendants seemed scared. But as quickly as the turbulence began, it was over, and the rest of the flight was fine.

“I can’t say how long this will last, but right now, it’s just little bumps. Even if it gets worse, we’ll still be okay, I promise.”

I smiled. “I thought you were going to distract me.”

Once again, Smith chuckled. God, I loved that sound.

“I’m getting there,” he said, giving my hand a squeeze. His face turned serious. “I would give you everything in this world if I could. When you’re happy, I’m happy. I never want you to feel unloved or that you’re not important, because you are the only person in the world I would give up everything for. Whenever you cry, I am genuinely hurt, because I feel like I’ve let you down.”

“You could never let me down,” I said. “Even when we fight, I know it’s just our emotions getting the best of us.”

Smith nodded, his face still somber. “Every time we fight, it rips my heart to pieces. We never mean it, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. I only want you to be happy, and I know that I’m not always able to do that, especially when I act selfish. But that’s why I go overboard making things up to you afterward. I don’t just want you to be happy, I need you to be happy.

I wanted to pull Smith’s hand to my lips, to kiss it and clasp it against my cheek. Instead, I said, “Even when we fight, I never think that you want to hurt or punish me. We just sometimes let our emotions get the better of us. Whenever we do, I just want us to get back to normal as quickly as possible so we can go back to being happy.”

“Me, too. When you’re happy, you glow. Everyone around you is impacted. I’ve seen even the most dour people start to smile when you’re there.

“And you make me feel like I am the only man alive. I don’t know if you realize it, but you have smiles that you only show to me.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Really. You have a shy grin where you suck in the left side of your mouth. In the morning, you have this soft, sleepy smile. But my favorite is the smile you give me whenever I kiss you. It’s big and bright and absolutely beautiful. Even the one you’re giving me right now is special.”

Smith pulled his eyes away and glanced down at our hands. When he looked back at me, his eyes glimmered in the dim light. “I sometimes struggle to wrap my head around the fact that I found someone who loves me unconditionally, someone who I’d fight for in order to keep safe, someone who makes me feel like the most important man in the world. 

“In the beginning, I couldn’t understand why you wanted anything to do with me. I nearly got you arrested and expelled, but every day, when I stopped by your room to pick you up, you were not only there, but you were so happy to see me. You’re still happy to see me, even after all these years.”

“And I’ll never stop,” I whispered, letting my fingers dance across the back of his hand.

“Our honeymoon was special because it meant a month of adventures. I loved exploring with you. You’re the perfect partner because you have this deep curiosity, and everything fills you with awe. That’s another one of your special smiles, by the way.”

Exploring the world with my best friend is one of my favorite activities. It doesn’t matter whether we’re on another continent or one town over, being with Smith has meant that I’ve done things I never would have otherwise. From the day that he and I went off in search of the bomb that never existed, I have never been happier. With any luck, we’d get to spend the next fifty years chasing adventure together.

“But as much as we explored, we also spent so much time alone with one another. I’ll be honest, I loved that even more. The beach house in New Zealand was my favorite. We were all by ourselves in the middle of nowhere, and some days, we never left the bed. Other days, we did, but we didn’t venture very far.”

My face reddened and my stomach did barrel rolls thinking of those wonderful days. Smith noticed and brushed his fingers against my cheek. His skin sent electricity through my body. How much longer until we arrived in London?

“We should go back to that beach house some winter,” I whispered, my voice suddenly hoarse.

Smith winked, and my stomach fluttered once again. 

“I think we can make that happen,” he said.

A few minutes ticked past as Smith and I stared at one another. I wished we were alone, because I wanted so badly to curl up in his arms and feel the energy from his body pouring into mine. It wasn’t until I met Smith that I understood what need was. I needed his touch, his words, his love. Without it, I felt incomplete. Smith truly was my soulmate.

“How do you feel?” Smith asked at last.

“Better,” I said. “I’d kiss you if I could.”

Smith gave me his crooked grin, and before I realized what was happening, he leaned forward, pressing his lips to mine. The acrobats in my stomach went wild, and goosebumps raced across my skin. I cupped Smith’s cheek in my left hand and disappeared in that perfect moment. 

I had fallen in love with Smith nearly fifteen years earlier, and every day, I only loved him more. He knew exactly how to make me smile, to make me feel safe and loved. I wasn’t sure what I’d do without him, but I was glad I didn’t have to worry about that.

“Have I ever told you that you’re perfect?” I asked, leaning in for one more kiss.

Mexico: An opportunity of a lifetime


This past week, I had an opportunity to take part in a study abroad program as part of my doctorate coursework. Instead of taking a class on policy (snooze), I had the option to take a course about designing experiential learning activities, specifically community-based global learning through a study abroad in Bucerías, Mexico.

Honestly, I couldn’t pass up the chance. I studied in London as part of my bachelor’s degree, and it was such an incredible experience. This experience fits in perfectly with my dissertation topic, which will study the impact of student-led experiential learning activities on the students’ leadership development. And even though it meant that I would travel to a foreign country to meet up with 11 other students I didn’t know, I leapt at the chance.

Over the course of the experience, we partnered with Human Connections, an organization that showcases Bucerías through responsible tourism. Throughout the week, we visited with the company’s various partners, who taught us about their lives and their work. (Honestly, if you ever find yourself in Puerto Vallarta, take a tour with Human Connections. You’ll learn so much and gain so much appreciation for crafters who make a living from their work.)

In addition to meeting with the partners, we visited San Pancho, a small coastal village, and entreamigos, an incredible community non-profit. We also traveled to Sayulita, another coastal village to visit the Galeria Tanana, to learn more about the Huichol people and their artwork. We also were fortunate enough to visit Puerto Vallarta and Centro Universitario de la Costa to learn more about higher education in Mexico and SETAC, an LGBTQ+ center.

I’ve been back for nearly 24 hours, but I am still processing the experience. It means a lot to me to have had the opportunity to learn more about Bucerías and the incredible people who work so hard there. While I took many pictures of my trip, which you can see below, I did not take photos of them. I didn’t feel it would be fair to showcase the people and their stories in any way that could be construed as exploitative.

In addition, I am grateful to have gotten to know my professors better and met some great doctoral and master’s students from Northern Illinois University. I spent so much time with them, especially the doctoral students, and I am grateful for all that I learned from them.

Now that the experience is over, I have two papers left to write for the class, one of which is a reflection about my time in Mexico. Maybe then, I’ll be able to express myself more coherently. For now, enjoy these photos of Puerto Vallarta, Bucerías, San Pancho, and Saylita, as well as the Pacific Ocean.

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