Introducing Paul Ryburn

Happy to be living my passion. Happy to be alive.

Photo owned by author

“Introduction to me” posts seem to be all the rage these days. I think they’re great, and I have read some fantastic posts of this type the past couple of weeks. It’s a pleasure to get to know the person behind the writing, to make an emotional investment in the writer.

Therefore, I have decided to join the party! In this post I will

  • Talk about two of my passions
  • Explain why this post, and my entire body of work on Medium, almost didn’t happen
  • Give you some fun, quick facts about me
  • Introduce you to a few books that have been major influences

Let’s get started!

I’m a teacher

When I was 11, I saved up enough money to buy an Atari 2600 video game console, the must-have for kids my age at the time. Within a year, I wanted an Atari 400 personal computer, because it played a more authentic version of Pac-Man. My mom wouldn’t buy it for me, though. “You already have a video game system,” she told me. “You don’t need another one.”

Instead of buying a computer, I bought a book on BASIC, the programming language built into the Atari 400’s operating system. Every time we went to Sears or JCPenney or any store that sold the computer, I typed in a program that would draw a rainbow on the screen, or play a number guessing game.

Pretty soon my mom realized there might be a future for me with computers. After a little planning with my grandparents, I got an Atari 400 computer for my 13th birthday.

Atari 400
Atari 400
Photo by MikeAtari on Wikimedia Commons

I spent most of my high school years programming computers and it was pretty clear computer science would be my major in college. There was no singular computer science major at the time, so I bridged it with math at Rhodes College in Memphis. I was hardly a standout undergrad student, earning mostly Bs and Cs.

… Until, that is, I took senior seminar for the mathematics half of my major. Each of us had to give three presentations on mathematical problems of our choice. I was scared to death at the thought of speaking in front of my peers and one of my favorite professors.

I turned out to be really good at it!

I felt a connection with my audience, drawing them into my presentations. I was enthusiastic about my material. People looked forward to my turn to present, and I earned an A in the class.

Feeling like I didn’t know enough about computers to embark upon a career yet, I enrolled in graduate school across town at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). My grades weren’t strong enough to qualify for a graduate assistantship my first year, so I had to find a way to earn an income.

Wanting control over my own schedule, I became an independent math tutor. I hung signs all over campus… and for the second time in my life, I found something I was really good at! Nothing gives you a deep understanding of a subject like teaching it. I formed lasting friendships with some of the students I tutored and celebrated their successes with them.

Cool side fact before we continue: One day my first year of grad school I was standing in line at the University Center cafeteria. As I waited to check out, I turned around, and…

A future NBA All-Star was standing behind me.

Yep. Penny Hardaway. I should’ve asked for an autograph.

I made straight As my first year of grad school, and my success as a tutor was well-known, qualifying me for a paid teaching assistantship my second year. I taught Geometry and College Algebra, and loved it. My students loved me too, giving me high marks on the end-of-semester performance evaluations.

After I graduated, the head of the Mathematical Sciences department reached out to me. “We have a Full-Time Instructor position open,” he told me. “You’d teach four classes a semester. Given your background, we’d like you to teach Computer Literacy and Computer Programming, as well as some of the general-education math classes that non-math majors are required to take.”

I accepted on the spot. The next five years were the most amazing experience of my life. I was barely older than my students — 24 at the time I accepted the full-time position and 29 when I left. In fact, the university had quite a few adult students who were years, sometimes even decades, older than I was.

The teaching job fit my lifestyle well. I invited my students to call me by my first name rather than “Mr. Ryburn” or “Professor.” There was no dress code for faculty. I saw no need to dress more formally than the students, so I wore a T-shirt and shorts to work.

I hung a disco ball in my office and put a spotlight on it. Students would come by to see the disco ball — and while they were there, they asked questions about the course material, which was exactly what I wanted them to do.

disco ball
disco ball
Photo by Sarah (Wikimedia Commons)

I tried to make my classes interesting and relevant. When I taught Excel in my Computer Literacy class, I ditched the boring textbook examples. Instead I showed my 19- and 20-year-old students how much money they could save by age 65 if they started a Roth IRA. Years later, I run into my former students around town and they tell me they have IRAs because of that lecture.

There was nothing that made me happier than having a student tell me, “Paul, I took College Alegbra two times and failed both before I got a B in your class. I was worried that would be the general-education requirement that prevented me from finishing my degree. Thank you.”

I remain friends with many of my former students to this day. Those years were the best years of my life.

I’m a writer

After 5 years of teaching, I had to leave the university. You had to have tenure to teach in my department beyond that length of time, and with only a Master’s degree rather than a Ph.D., I was not tenure-eligible.

I already had my own website, and so I created a section of my website called “Paul Ryburn’s Journal.” There I would write about what I was up to, so my former students could keep up with me.

In 2002 I moved to the downtown area of my city and it changed my life. I could walk to my favorite restaurants. I could walk to the bars and clubs. I could walk to go see a show at the Orpheum Theater, or to the arena to catch a Memphis Grizzlies home game.

Most importantly, though, I met an awesome group of friends who lived in the neighborhood. I had never been friend-rich before and it was wonderful. So I started to write about my life in Downtown Memphis, putting in a new journal entry every month or two. In 2004 I converted the journal to the Blogger platform, and in 2009 I moved it to WordPress.

In 2005 I was hanging out with my neighbors on my building’s rooftop. “We all read your blog,” they told me. I started upgrading my publishing schedule to weekly after realizing I had readers.

That fall, I received an email from the editor-in-chief of our local arts & entertainment weekly newspaper. “I read your blog every day,” he told me. “I want you to know, it just missed the top 3 for Best Blog in our annual Best of Memphis poll.”

Wow! That blew me away. I then started publishing daily, or as close to daily as I could. Maybe I can get third-place in 2006 and get invited to the winners’ party, I thought.

But I didn’t get third place in 2006.

I won!

From 2006 to 2009, I got first place or Reader’s Choice (when the race was too close to call a winner) in the poll. After that, corporate blogs with large marketing budgets sprung up, and I couldn’t compete. The blog still exists to this day, though, still under the name Paul Ryburn’s Journal: Daily thoughts of a Downtown Memphis resident.

I am madly in love with my community and that’s why I write about it every day. I may no longer win awards, but these are some of the things that make my heart sing:

  • Hearing that someone discovered a favorite new restaurant because of my blog
  • Reuniting a Downtown resident with a lost pet because I posted a photo
  • Being told by a reader that she applied for, and received, a seat on a nonprofit board of directors after learning about it through my writing
  • Getting email from local restaurants, bars, and breweries telling me about upcoming promotions and asking if I’ll blog them

What I’m most proud of, though, is the fact that as far as I am aware, at least 17 people have decided to move to Downtown Memphis after reading my blog. Three of them moved here from out of state.

I’ll share with you my favorite self-penned quote about my neighborhood:

In Downtown Memphis, there are two kinds of people: Friends you know, and friends you haven’t met yet.

However, despite being friend-rich and part of a wonderful community…

In early 2019 I thought I wanted to kill myself

The latter half of the 2010s were a dark period for me. I kept my blog going, but all was not well with me behind the scenes.

I was a victim of narcissistic abuse. I’d rather not go into detail in this post, but suffice it to say, I spent many hours, days, months, even years wondering “Why did this happen to me?”

In 2017 my mother died. As an only child, I was completely alone, responsible for burying her and handling her affairs. It was not easy.

After I left teaching, I had been working as a web developer. In 2018, I got laid off from a company where I expected to stay until retirement. After 8 weeks of job searching, I was back to work — but the new job was a poor fit and I was let go for the second time in six months.

After the second layoff, I realized something — I didn’t want to go back to web development or any form of computer programming. I’m passionate about teaching. I’m passionate about writing. I am a connector of people. I am an inspirer of people. Programming uses none of those gifts.

I didn’t know what else to do, though. I felt like I was trapped by a college major I had selected many years before. If I tried to transition to a new field, I’d start at a beginner’s salary, which wouldn’t pay for my Downtown lifestyle.

So I came up with a plan.

I’d spend down my savings and money I inherited from my mom, living the life I loved at my Downtown restaurants and bars, enjoying my friends. Then, when the money ran out, I’d take the elevator up to the roof of my 16-story apartment building and jump.

I didn’t tell anyone.

My April 2019 rent check bounced and I knew my days were numbered. Toward the end of the month, I was down to my last $13. I rode up to the roof and climbed over the rail of my rooftop deck. I got two feet from the edge…

… and at that moment, I knew I didn’t want to die.

The building security guard found me, the police were called, and I voluntarily agreed to enter a 5-day program at a crisis center. About half the people there were failed suicide attempts; the other half were there to detox because the cops told them it was either that or jail.

One of the group exercises we did is “who is your support system?” and more than half the people there could not name one person they could turn to in a time of crisis. I could easily name a hundred.

Since then, I have recovered financially through an early retirement withdrawal and a job offered by a kind friend. I’ve now put my mom’s death behind me emotionally, although I still think about her every day. I have also learned more about narcissistic abuse and have moved on from that chapter of my life.

For the first time since I left teaching, then, I feel like I truly have peace. I’m also excited to earn money at something I’m passionate about, writing. It’s hardly a full-time income, and maybe it never will be. However, it allows me to express myself and build relationships, and that’s more rewarding than I can explain.

Quick facts about me

  1. I’m on a team that competes in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (called “BBQ Fest” by the locals) that is part of the Memphis in May international festival. I don’t know the first thing about cooking BBQ though! I’m my team’s director of public relations.
Moody Ques accepting trophy
Moody Ques accepting trophy
My teammates accepting the 7th place award for pork shoulder at BBQ Fest 2018. Photo by Frank Chin.

2. Large BBQ teams like ours have five-figure budgets and therefore have to attract sponsors. From 2009 to 2013 our sponsor was none other than WordPress, the very engine I use to power my personal blog. I got to meet the man, the myth, the legend himself, Matt!

3. I’m not huge into astrology but I have had my chart done. My sun sign and moon sign are both Scorpio, and several of my planets are in Scorpio as well.

4. I carry a plastic troll with me everywhere I go. The troll was originally symbolic of some stuff from my past, but has become a good luck charm over the years. Due to my blog, she has become something of a celebrity in Downtown Memphis.

The troll taking a bite of an Insomnia Cookie from Memphis’ Beale Street. Photo by author.

5. I skipped first grade. I wrote an article about my experiences, published in Age of Awareness.

6. Every person should have one pop-culture vice to be well-rounded. Mine is professional wrestling, which I have watched since age 12. Ric Flair is my all-time favorite. Currently, I’m a fan of Roman Reigns’ new bad-guy character. WWE announcer Jerry “The King” Lawler visited my BBQ team’s booth in 2019.

7. I went to college with Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. I barely knew her, though, so I won’t offer an opinion on whether or not she’s qualified to serve.

8. Although shy and introverted, I served on the board of directors of a young professionals’ organization. I planned an outdoor concert, a membership phonathon, and a volunteer event at an organization for those affected by HIV and AIDS. My experiences with networking events in the organization led to my very first article on Medium.

9. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and although I no longer live there I have taken my taste for Tex-Mex food and Petit Jean bacon with me.

10. I am a prolific journaler, currently on my 241st notebook since I began the practice in 2001. I wrote an article on using an electronic index to enhance journaling of dreams, published in The Innovation.

Books that have influenced me

The Nature of Personal Reality: A Seth Book by Jane Roberts and Seth — Seth is an “energy personality essence” from another dimension. Roberts was the psychic who channeled Seth and her husband Robert Butts transcribed the sessions.

In this book, Seth describes how your beliefs shape your reality. He gives exercises you can do to help you understand that your moment of power is in the present and that you are the creator of your own reality.

Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch (3 volumes) — Don’t be fooled by the name, these books are spiritual in nature, not religious. These books are very much in line with the Seth material, in communicating that you form your own reality, but written in simpler language.

Another important teaching (or “remembering”) from this series is that We Are All One, an understanding that is more important than ever in the times in which we currently live.

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene — I don’t follow all of these laws in my personal life. Some are too Machiavellian for my tastes. However, it’s important to know these laws exist, and understand that many people do follow them.

Apart from the laws themselves, this book is a fantastic piece of nonfiction. Greene uses examples from history to illustrate each of the laws in action, telling the stories of kings, con men, warriors, and courtiers.

The Gaslighting Effect: A Revealing Look at Psychological Manipulation and Narcissistic Abuse by Reva Steenbergen — this book made sense of so many incidents that previously made no sense. It gave me a sense of closure where I previously had nothing but frustration and confusion. I recommend it to everyone. You need to know the tactics narcissists use so you can see them coming and get away from them.

If you don’t read this book, I recommend you spend some time reading about narcissistic behavior on Quora. Everyone needs to be aware of this personality type and have a defense system in place.

That’ll wrap it up!

Thanks for reading. I have a mailing list if you wish to stay informed of my most recent work. If you do an introductory post of your own, please send me the link, because I would love to read it. I look forward to connecting with people on here!

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn