Author Archives: keeneshort

About keeneshort

My name is Keene Short. I am currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at the University of Idaho in Moscow, ID. Previously, I received a Master's in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and two BA degrees in History and English at Northern Arizona University. I write, read, edit, and practice photography. My skills vary widely, and there is little that does not interest me.

We Have Decided to Keep the Flags Perpetually Half-Mast

flag

After careful consideration, we have decided, out of convenience, to keep all the flags at half-mast for the duration of the year. We figure it will just save us all a lot of time and energy if we left the flags lowered for this week’s tragedy at half-mast for the next tragedy, which we’re sure will come but don’t want to do anything meaningful about. This is the easiest thing for us, the people who lower all the flags, to do.

For especially horrific tragedies, we will have the flags lowered three quarters, to show you that we recognize your pain is serious this time, but still not serious enough to do anything about it. For something really, really bad, we’ll just remove all the flags entirely and burn them in the streets. At that point, a lot of Americans will probably be happy to see the symbols of their country burning. We also expect that, if things somehow but predictably get that much worse, whomever takes charge of the country will remove and burn all flags for us, at which point we will consider it our solemn duty to retire and take our large sums of money so we can spend it in another, safer country.

Lowering all the flags is a way of showing you that we know you are in pain, and keeping them perpetually lowered will show you that we know your pain is constant and ongoing. This is literally the least we can do for you, to the point that it’s almost like we don’t actually care. But we do, because we’ll keep the flags lowered on your behalf. The flags are all for you. That, and basically nothing else from us, the people who lower the flags for you.

Half-mast is the way of life in America. The United States is a half-mast country run by people with half-mast efforts. But we appreciate your hashtags and dedication to showing support through gestures rather than actions, and we’re especially grateful to you for not voting us, the people who definitely totally care if your children are murdered in a school, out of office. We’re glad to stay as long as you let us.

We feel it is redundant to continually raise the flags, just as it is redundant for you to continually raise your hopes, because hope is no more useful in preventing violence than lowering flags for a day. Hope has to be earned through action, not the other way around and your hopeful inaction means a lot to us. As long as we’re here, all the flags will be at half-mast indefinitely, to account for the tragedies that will likely come next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.

-jk

Imagining the Frontier Before Drawing It

“Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” -Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

“Like many historians, Turner was interpreting the past in light of recent events. This presentism had great benefits and also great risks. History was bound to to go on. . . Turner himself moved on. In his later essays, he kept adding ‘more history’ as it accumulated. . .” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987


On February 19, 1807, Vice President Aaron Burr was captured after escaping his earlier arrest when President Jefferson accused him of treason for his role in a conspiracy to colonize parts of Mexico. Seven days later, on February 26, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the members of his expedition into the Southwest (which Jefferson ordered) were captured by Spanish authorities and taken to Chihuahua, then under Spanish control. He used the opportunity to analyze New Spain’s weaknesses for the possibility that the US would try to colonize parts of Mexico. The American Frontier, as Turner insists in his “Frontier Thesis,” shaped American historiography, but in 1807, what became the frontier was a highly militarized border zone.

The Pike Expedition began the year Lewis and Clark returned from their own expedition to the Northwest. Exploring modern-day Colorado, Pike lost members to abandonment or bad weather while wandering across the porous border into Mexico.

In his journals, Pike kept careful account of what he encountered, gathering information about local governments and geography. On their way to Chihuahua, Pike notes on March 27 that he “saw the Gazettes of Mexico, which gave rumors of colonel Burr’s conspiracies, the movement of our troops. . . stated in so vague and undefined a manner, as only to create our anxiety without throwing any light on the subject” (Pike, Journals, 240). He later notes on April 24 that he was reprimanded for discussing “subjects of religion or politics” but that he was held as a guest “under coercion of the Spanish government” and not as a prisoner of war. Pike then writes that he patriotically declared to Spanish authorities (over dinner with them): “To my government I am certainly responsible, and to no other” (246).

Because he was so dedicated to his government, Pike ended his 1810 account of his expedition by offering one final conclusion about US-Mexico relations:

Should an army of Americans ever march into the country, and be guided and governed there by these maxims, they will only have to march from province to province in triumph, and be hailed by the united voices of grateful millions as their deliverers and saviors” (Pike, Expedition, 806). As Vice President Dick Cheney put it two centuries later, “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This is how the US framed the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century: as a foreign nation in need of democracy and order.

Spanish colonial officers were suspicious of Pike’s discussions of politics with the locals because they feared that the US, which had separated from the English crown, would inspire Mexico to separate from the Spanish crown, as independence became increasingly popular in the region. Coupled with vague rumors that rogue US politicians planned to conquer sections of North America for themselves, the Spanish authorities had good reason to be suspicious. In 1810, independence movements spiraled into nationalist protests and a bloody war, forcing Spain to grant Mexican independence in 1821. Years later, the US would follow Pike’s advice and invade Texas and northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Unlike Pike predicted, though, the US military was not greeted as liberators.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and his compatriots were punished for trying to instigate exactly what Pike recommended. Jefferson’s exertion of control over who could, and who could not, conquer parts of New Spain demonstrates his role in creating the concept of the “American frontier” as a strategic borderland, rather than a raw, untamed wilderness.

New Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick notes that the “opening of the Mexican borderlands to American colonists and merchants made the region into what it remains today: a true frontier, in the European sense, in which two nations confront each other and compete for control” (228). She goes on to detail Burr’s plot, alongside General James Wilkinson, to colonize parts of the continent and create a new nation using the available resources, admitting that when “Zebulon Pike set out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River in 1806, he might have been acting as Wilkinson’s agent” (229).

Intelligence about the borders of New Spain, then, became part of the ideological basis for the American frontier. The distance between Arkansas and Chihuahua was labeled the frontier because it was a borderland rather than a boundary, like the no-man’s land between trenches on the Western Front in World War One. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” says more about how Americans viewed themselves in the 1890s than in the 1810s. The frontier was framed as contested territory. By the time Turner delivered his thesis, there was no longer a contest in federal or popular imagination.

But the frontier was also about quantification. First, the US had to map, measure, and count everything available in the frontier space, to determine where the gold, silver, copper, fur, timber, coal, and indigenous communities could be found, and where they could be removed to. Knowledge of the land preceded the frontier, rather than the other way around. This is the way American contradiction manifests in the frontier thesis: Americans wanted to discover land that had already been discovered, to be given access to the land they were told to imagine. A blank map could not be tolerated. It had to be filled out.


Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Pike, Zebulon. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Harper, 1895.

Pike, Zebulon. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, Ed. Stephen Hart & Archer Hulbert. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, Ed. Everett E. Edwards, University of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

28 Unexcused Absences Later

nigh

He skipped class for few days when flu season started, just to stay healthy, and a few days turned into watching every episode of Seinfeld. Ten weeks, when he finally left his dorm room after realizing his roommate hadn’t returned in weeks, he found that campus was dead empty. Garbage cans were upturned and trash was everywhere, and it wasn’t even football season. Posters were stapled to the bulletin boards encouraging students to get flu shots, and next to those were more recent-looking posters calling for military intervention in the university, only some of which were from Turning Point USA.

In the cafeteria, he heard rustling among the tables, the weeks-old bowls of cereal on the floor and ominously empty orange juice bottles. Another student hobbled out of the corner, limbs stiff, eyes glazed over. This student was wrapped in several layers of winter clothes, but still she was pale and had a terrible cough. He recognized all the symptoms: it was the flu. The infected student hobbled toward him asking for vitamin C, so he fled the cafeteria and went to find his 8:30 AM class.

He ran to his classroom, which was deserted except for a few stray backpacks and a desperate warning to get out scribbled on the whiteboard in red dry erase marker. Desks were upturned and a misplaced syllabus was on the floor. He picked it up and wondered if his professor would still give him a D even after missing 28 days of class.

A stack of in-class writing he found next to the computer detailed the gradual collapse of the university as the flu spread across campus. The President ran away as a faction of armed deans staged a coup to protect themselves from the infected. The football coaches drove off, and the business administration faculty barricaded themselves in their offices, armed with the elephant guns that all business administration professors are required to have at all times to protect themselves from the critical theorists. Chaos reigned: the tenured preyed on the adjuncts, the biological science majors feasted on the humanities students, and a rogue band of pre-med students took to finding a cure. They were holed up in the math building, the last place anybody would look for survivors, where they intended to make a break for it as soon as they had enough hand sanitizer.

The student stood in his classroom and wished he had skipped class again today. He started to feel a little chill, too, and his throat was starting to get sore. He went out looking for the surviving pre-med students, to see if they had any OJ or chicken noodle soup. He didn’t even realize he was coughing when he left the building.

-jk

Irish Goodbyes

treeI have a bad habit of leaving places without saying goodbye first. I recognize that many consider it rude, but I know I’m not alone in this habit. We have multiple terms for it: the Irish goodbye, the French leave, ghosting. I promise I’m not being rude. This social practice is more common than you’d think.

Ghosting suggests a kind of permanence, because it implies death. It might be a complement to accuse someone of ghosting, a backhanded way of telling someone you value their presence by suggesting that person’s absence feels in some ways tragic. But ghosting doesn’t make sense, as a word for leaving without announcing so. Ghosts spend their energy trying to be known. They knock on doors and haunt people at night. When I leave early, duck out into the snow past the smokers huddled together, I’m not leaving forever. I’m not going to the afterlife, just back home for the night.

Supposedly the French leave was a practice among wealthy French elites at dinner parties, but the Irish goodbye came from impoverished women and men leaving Ireland for America during the Famine. The Irish goodbye is more permanent in this sense, but the drama of leaving a starved nation is a bit much to describe leaving a party early. The French leave is more accurate.

It’s disconcerting how often shyness is interpreted as rudeness, how often presence accompanies the expectation that I need to remind people that I’m there. Will I be forgotten if I don’t? Will I be made to feel like a ghost if I’m not quiet? I don’t like to interrupt, or be interrupted. My silent departures are a way of saving you time, a way of not interrupting you. Your time is precious, and I don’t want to shave off sections of it for myself to announce my leave.

I’m not a ghost, so far I know, but if I were that would be an unsurprising plot twist. I’m not French, or rich, or starved, or Irish. I’m not running away from you, or even running away. I just need to breathe for a bit, get a good night sleep, a long breakfast, maybe spend the weekend on an armchair reading so I can catch my breath.

I promise it’s not personal. I really do enjoy your company; that’s why I listen so much to those around me. I want to listen to everything because I’m afraid I’ll interrupt a brilliant insight or a kind attitude, because I’m surrounded by brilliant and kind people every day whose thoughts are so regularly cut off or never even asked for in the first place. I want to hear from you without interruption. I want to know where you’ll arrive with your thinking, to understand how it works and where it goes. I promise I’m not being rude. I’m just a little shy.

-jk

The 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship

By Gardner Weld Allen (1856-1944) - Our Navy and the Barbary_Corsairs_1904

Decatur’s Squadron Off Algiers, by Gardner Allen Weld, 1905.

On June 7, 1797, the US Senate ratified a treaty with Tripoli, which President John Adams signed into law three days later. This Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1796 was one of four maritime agreement between the infantile United States and the Maghrib States (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis), known in the west as the Barbary Coast. These treaties were meant to protect American ships in the Mediterranean from pirates operating in the region.

The treaties soon failed, largely because of the toll of payments owed to the Maghrib States and the pirates’ continued ransoming of American sailors. President Adams opted to pay the ransoms and tributes, but his slave-owning Southern successor Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the North African states, sparking a war during the first year of Jefferson’s presidency, the first of two conflicts known as the Barbary Wars.

Late during the Obama Administration, several commentators on both the left and right compared Obama’s foreign policies to the Barbary Wars. An article in The Atlantic called US involvement in the 2011 Libyan Civil War “The Third Barbary War.” Others compared the Barbary pirates to ISIS, while those on the far right erroneously claimed that Jefferson went to war with Islamic terrorists.

Both camps miss the point: as usual, those on the right conflate terrorists with literally every other state-with-Muslims-in-it in history, while liberal commentators misrepresent Barbary piracy as comparable to religious terrorism. Historian Max Boot notes that both the US and Britain utilized piracy in the same ways, noting that “the corsairs of North Africa were no more–and no less–piratical than Sir Francis Drake or Sir John Hawkins. . . both of whom operated as privateers” and that “the US government was so attached to this practice that it refused to sign the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing privateering as a weapon of war” (8).

Furthermore, twenty-first century US Middle-Eastern policy differs ideologically from Jefferson’s. Edward Said points out that in the US, unlike Britain and France during this period, “there was no deeply invested tradition of Orientalism. . . the imaginative investment [in the Orient] was never made either, perhaps because the American frontier, the one that counted, was the westward one” (290). The US was interested in controlling the narrative, and therefore the economic value, of the American West (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase) rather than North Africa, which is perhaps the opposite of the Bush/Obama/Trump era.

While the Barbary Wars are easy to exploit for ideological op-eds, the pre-war treaties are more instructive. Specifically, the 1796 Treaty demonstrates that the early US conceptualized itself on equal footing with other seafaring powers, and was willing to alter the national identity it presented to that end.

Consisting of twelve articles, the 1796 Treaty proclaims first that there “is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary” (Article I) and that the two states should avoid naval conflicts with one another. As such, the Treaty states that trade “is on the same footing with those of the most favoured nations respectively (Article IX).

Article XI is now controversial for its implications, and is worth quoting at length: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims],-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Here, the US emphasizes at length that it does not have a bias against the Maghrib States on religious grounds. Yet Article XI is still out-of-place. In a strictly economic treaty, the US stresses religious difference, or its indifference to religion. Despite Article XI’s clear message, there is overwhelming evidence of a legalized bias against non-Christians after Independence. Gaustad and Schmidt write that “Delaware’s 1776 constitution required all public officials to swear their belief ‘in God the Father, in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’. . Pennsylvania in 1790 vowed to deny state offices to any atheist as well as to anyone who did not believe in ‘a future state of awards and punishments.’ Only Protestants could be elected in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Georgia–according to their constitutions” (131).

And yet, in the 1796 Treaty, the US publicly reshaped its cultural identity in order to make the treaty more appealing. American culture warriors insist that national identity is non-negotiable, but Article XI contradicts this at an international level. In contrast, the US crafted its national identity as an open slate, not just for states but as a union. From the beginning, malleability was intentional, not a growing list of exceptions to the rule. Malleability was the whole point of America.

I want to argue here that the US had a global consciousness from its inception, and not just when it entered World War One. Instead, it built its global consciousness on the trading and military strategies of Britain and France, as well as its own perception of itself as a frontier space, as a blank chalkboard upon which its leaders could draw and erase American identity.  Like the imagined Frontier, America was made to sustain multiple contradictions in what it was. A savage but easily conquered wilderness, a piratical state against piracy, not built on Christianity but where only Christians can be elected.

The land-owning businessmen who created America self-consciously crafted a flexible state that was easy to change as needed. The problem is that the mechanisms of change, of political dynamics, are still in the hands of economic elites.

The Barbary Treaties demonstrate a deliberate American flexibility, an exchange of identity for financial expansion. If this flexibility is more openly acknowledged, even utilized–if we finally recognized America’s founding blankness–then more people might be able to survive and even thrive in America. Until then, the nation is a chalkboard ruled by people who only know how to use the erasers.


Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. Basic Books, 2002.

Gaustad, Edward S. & Leigh E. Schmidt. The Religious History of America. Harper Collins, 2002.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1994.

 

Recipes for Grad Students: The Office Hour Banana Smoothie in a Used Salsa Jar

smoothieLet’s say you’re a grad student who teaches in the morning and takes classes at night. What do you do for lunch between those times? You have grading to do and office hours to keep and assignments to write. Going home for lunch is an option, for those who have time or enjoy skipping homework assignments. A useful alternative is a smoothie: easy to make, easy to eat, and usually easy to digest, all in the relative comfort of a small graduate office while you work on job applications during your office hours.

The recipe is simple:

1 banana

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup yogurt

2-3 Tablespoons peanut butter

1/4 cup granola

1 Tablespoon honey

A dash of cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a blender or mash them in a bowl with a potato masher if your blender is broken again or as stress relief. Make sure to blend thoroughly, as the peanut butter will make the smoothie more pudding-like in texture.

Presentation matters; just watch any show on the Food Network for five minutes. If you find yourself in need of a stylish smoothie container, just remember that, as a grad student, chances are you have an empty salsa jar somewhere in the back of you fridge (just admit it, you know you do). It’s trendy to put cocktails in Mason jars, but a smoothie in a salsa jar is ahead of its time. The plus is that nobody will think to steal your lunch from the grad lounge refrigerator, especially not when they open a salsa jar to the smell of bananas.

If your students catch you drinking from a salsa jar, they might think twice about asking for an extension, so really, this recipe is a win-win, assuming that phrase means two wins for you and you alone. Enjoy your smoothie, and enjoy your office hours.

-jk

On Writing as a Profession (But Not as a Career)

IMG_4605For me, writing is a practice. More than a hobby, writing is a profession, though I’ve never been paid for it. Writing is work that I enjoy, but it’s not labor. It’s production, but not a job.

My job is to teach on an organized schedule broken into lesson plans, weeks, units, semesters, and academic calendars. I know roughly what I’ll be doing on May 10 (grading final papers) and I know what I’ll be doing on January 10 (introducing a syllabus). Between those dates, I have a little more room for spontaneity, but not much. This is a job, for better or worse: reliably predictable and strictly regimented.

As such, I cannot call writing a job or a career. The point isn’t to make money by providing a unique service, but to make stories and essays, some of which I publish on this blog and others I submit to journals with a broader readership, almost always operating on minuscule budgets. But I can call writing a profession.

I want to completely separate the word profession from its frequent association with economics and careerism. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word profession to Anglo-Norman and Old French. The OED cites one of the earliest uses of the word to a thirteenth century text called the Ancrene Wisse, meaning “manual for anchoresses.” Authored by an unknown medieval priest, possibly in Wales, the Ancrene Wisse was a religious manual addressed to three sisters to instruct their code of spiritual, monastic conduct. This text, like most early uses of profession, aligns with the OED‘s first definition of the word: “The declaration, promise, or vow made by a person entering a religious order. . . Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.”

Writing may not be a religious order (though graduate school certainly feels monastic at times), but writing is a profession in its oldest sense, a solemn declaration, a promise. When I write, I profess what I am capable of knowing at the time, and I do so for the creative and intellectual benefit of my readers (first) and myself (second). More importantly I read the writing of others, to benefit from my fellow cloistered writers. Writing is a profession of what I know and want to know, a profession of the questions I have.

Not everything needs to be monetized. I don’t want to market my writing as an asset, and I certainly don’t want to think of writing as an extension of my own commodification. If I do one day get paid to write, I’ll be grateful. If not, I’ll be happy for the stories I’ve had published online for the world to view for free. That my professions can be made public is what matters.

-jk