Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

After Hibernation

SpringI found out recently that bears do not, as I had previously believed, hibernate. Now my whole world is thrown into chaos.

I’ve been thinking about bears a lot lately. I took a short trip to Montana last weekend to visit my grandparents, and though I didn’t see any bears, the few I have seen crossing the road, if my memory is correct, have been in Montana. I passed the University of Montana, whose mascot is the Grizzly, and was saddened to discover that they will likely be cutting many of their programs, including English. My grandfather and my father both have pointed out to me it’s a good thing I didn’t get accepted into UM because of their financial issues. I could have been a Grizzly, but in the long run it’s better that I’m not.

Biologically speaking, I am not a bear, but I share a few characteristics: I have a special affinity for honey and berries, I possess a quantity of brownish unruly fuzz, and I require a lot of alone time. Also, I like to stand in front of a river and wait for fish to jump into my open, gaping jaw, but who doesn’t? Most importantly, I have always appreciated bears because they hibernate, or so I thought. I, too, have always thought of myself as hibernating, but if I was wrong about bears, I might be wrong about myself.

Hibernation is absolute isolation. Other species hibernate because they literally sleep the entire winter, clicking off their other functions to preserve heat and energy. Bears, on the other hand, wake up periodically during the winter months to leave their dens. During winter, they stay in their dens with stored energy and warmth, but move about to replenish their needs, but only sometimes, when it’s necessary. Bears don’t hibernate; they’re just introverted.

It’s unlikely that bears clack away on a typewriter during winter, crescent moon glasses on their large wet bear noses as they squint their bear eyes at their bear memoir (beamoir) while taking a sip of mead and then glancing out of their den to contemplate the complexities and horrors of being alive. But if they did, I would sympathize.

It was cold and rainy and almost snowing when I drove six hours to Montana through sloping mountain passes, driving past and in some cases over small secluded towns in the forests. I rarely leave the Palouse, or Moscow, or my apartment. I prefer long periods of seclusion storing energy, writing, digesting berries and honey and whatnot. But apparently, this is not hibernation. Even in summer, I burrow away to write and read. It’s more like conservation, if anything.

Now that the weather in Moscow has finally become consistently warmer, I cannot justify staying inside my den all day. In some respects, I don’t want to. This has been the longest winter I have experienced in quite a while. It has been brutally windy, unpredictably cold, overwhelmingly sunless. It has become easy to stay inside my apartment in isolation, because going anywhere requires preparation, even on good days. For me, I’m realizing, this is true in other circumstances. But it’s comforting to know that what I do is not hibernation. I don’t vanish, I’m just resourceful.

The road to Montana was clear and almost completely empty in the early morning. Low storm clouds obscured some of the mountaintops and dark green forests along the road. It was cold, but not violently so, and the clouds slipped away when I reached my grandparents’ house in the Bitterroot Valley. It was almost warm during the weekend excursion. As a break, it was even almost enough.

-jk

Etymology, From the Greek for Wordstuff

Palouse 6At least 30 percent of creative nonfiction is devoted to reflecting on etymology. We examine the words we use everyday. Fruit, from the Latin frui, meaning to enjoy; paragraph, from the middle French for stroke, as in a painting; field, from the German Feld, for open country; language, from the Latin lingua for tongue. The trend in nonfiction is to meditate on the the roots of our language to explore its deeper, older meaning.

But what about the etymology of etymology? The definition is embedded in the the word itself. It describes itself. The word etymology is self-referential, like a hipster trying to be ironic. Etymology is its own inside joke, wearing seventeen layers of irony. Etymology wears beanies with collared shirts and eats egg whites with spinach on whole wheat toast. Etymology knows what time it is.

Etymology comes from the Greek etumos, for truth. It was adopted into Latin where it had a good life before going to middle French to mean a field of inquiry, and after graduation found its way into English, and then ended up in English departments, as the creative decision to plunge backward through itself into its own roots. Like all words that move from English to English departments, its meaning becomes questionable, which is why etymology is used so often in application, but not applied to itself. Worlds could end if etymology, too, was explored into its roots, dug up, transplanted to an essay, and placed in new soil.

As field of inquiry into truth, in its origins, etymology is an artistic form. An essay could be an etymology, gathered into a collection of etymologies. An essay looks backwards, reflects, investigates. The sixteenth century French writer Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais established the literary tradition of using nonfiction to explore ideas, to “test their quality” according to the etymology of essay, may have simply been creating expansive etymologies, long-form etymologies, extended inquiries into truth. Maybe this is what the field of creative nonfiction, in all it encompasses, is meant to do. Journalism, biography, history, documentary, and auto-theory are all founded on etymology, rooted in root-seeking.

I have only recently started using etymology in my writing, but I think it’s more than a trend. It’s a strategy, and one that is regularly tested. I am beginning to use this strategy more and more. When I write, I start on the ground and dig up the roots around me to see how far they go, to see where I can go from there.

-jk

Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd.

shirt stainIf you’re a first-time college instructor, you may have heard this piece of encouraging advice on your first day: “Don’t sweat it!” Well, studies have shown that this is physiologically impossible. In fact, the classroom setting is designed specifically to create more sweat among teachers through a combination of lights, stress, and projectors to overheat the exact spot a teacher teaches in, and nowhere else. As a result, within minutes of teaching, teachers are inevitably drenched in a thin layer of sweat they know their students can see, even those students who spend entire classes with their eyes directed into their phone screens.

We here at Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd., would like to offer you, a first-time sweaty teacher, a variety of solutions to alleviate what scientists and Rick who always shows up late to meetings have dubbed “frequent sweating issues.”

  1. To reduce the visibility of FSI, consider wearing only black clothes. This will make sweat stains visible only to the first two rows of students.
  2. Strategically reduce the heat in the classroom. Recent studies cited offhandedly by Rick that might have come from NPR but he can’t remember where suggest that body temperature increases the more teachers realize just how many of their students are judging them for mumbling or for saying “um” or for being a humanities professor who sometimes uses critical thinking. Consider turning down the heat and cranking up the AC. Your students can cope with it.
  3. Be careful with your layers. Wear a really tight undershirt and a really loose top over that, so that your undershirt can become a towel that almost never comes into contact with the rest of your clothes. No sweat stains! However, this solution only works if you do not move during the entire class period.
  4. Head sweat is a growing concern these days. Just ask Rick, who pointed out to you in the meeting he was late to that you look uncomfortably sweaty and offered you a tissue. Consider wearing a beanie or a bandana while teaching to mop up the sweat. Longer hair can also catch sweat, but be sure to wash it regularly.
  5. If all else fails, teach online classes only. This will make it impossible for your students to see the sweat you produce typing emails explaining to them that the answers to their questions are in the syllabus.

Teaching is a risky career fraught with pitfalls and existential anxiety, and not just because tuition waivers are about to be taxed pointlessly while professors are scrutinized by petty, ideologically driven politicians. We can’t help with that, but we can at least help you reduce the visibility of your sweat while you anxiously watch the news unfold during your in-class free writes. We can’t reduce your stress, but we can help you deny that it’s there, like you do with the rest of your problems, Rick.

-jk

Surrendering a Pocket Knife

IMG_4603There wasn’t much going on at the Spokane International Airport. Its two runways did not seem busy yesterday as I navigated the rigid airport security system. I diligently took off my shoes, placed my laptop in its own plastic tub, and placed my sparsely packed backpack in another tub. Shoeless, coatless, without my glasses and a little sleepy, I went through security. Past the body scan, I then waited as a TSA agent rummaged through my backpack.

“It looks like there’s a knife in here,” he said to me, casually.

Of course. My air travel backpack is the same as my camping backpack. Before packing, I had emptied my backpack of all my camping equipment, and even emptied it of pens and pencils, just in case. It seems I had missed a pocketknife, which took the agent a few minutes to locate after it slipped into one of my backpack’s many pockets. Only an X-ray could detect it. He held the knife in front of me, saying I had three options. I could have it delivered somewhere from the airport, put it in my car (I didn’t drive there), or, as he put it, I could “surrender it and let it go to knife heaven.”

I paused for a second. My flight would begin boarding in thirty minutes, and I probably had enough time to have it mailed back to my apartment and then go through security again, even though the knife was the only issue. But the line behind me and the agent’s calm patience made me feel embarrassed, even ashamed, at not doing my civic duties and preparing my backpack for Thanksgiving travel thoroughly enough. I chose to surrender the knife.

During my flight, I mulled over the word surrender. There are so many other ways of putting it: confiscate, disavow, give up. Instead, the situation looked like this: a TSA agent held my knife at me and told me to surrender.

It occurred to me that I felt safer at an airport than I do in my own classroom. I cannot take a knife on a plane (fair enough), but if I wanted to, I could bring a concealed handgun into my classroom while teaching. Idaho’s laws are finicky, and concealed-carry gun-owners, while on campus, are not allowed to reveal their weapons, but I still have the option to have one, and so do my students.

The argument is that the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and yet we don’t apply this logic to airplanes. On the plane, we cannot trust anyone with a pocket knife, or scissors, or toothpaste, so we regulate these things, or at least we collectively agree to embrace the cognitive dissonance required to believe that the good guy/bad guy hypothetical situation works everywhere except a plane. Nobody is trusted on a plane, but we have to trust that good guys will be everywhere else.

While teaching my last class before the holiday break, a man walked into my classroom, abrasively opening the door and marching toward me. He was older, balding, and looked frantic. Before I could panic, before I could beg him not to shoot me, he pointed to the lectern at which I stood and said, “I need to get a flash drive.” Then, in a few quick moves, he unplugged a flash drive from the computer. Evidently, he was another professor who had previously used the same classroom, and had left his equipment there. He apologized for the inconvenience and walked out. My students didn’t seem bothered. Maybe they’re all just good guys.

As my plane landed, I thought about something Charles Olson wrote in his 1947 literary criticism Call Me Ishmael: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” I’m skeptical that there is one central fact of America, but after the twin incidents in the classroom and airport, I’m inclined to think the central fact of America might be surrendering. This might be the case for every nation-state, but I cannot speak to other countries, but it seems more widespread in America: If I were not white, I can’t imagine what the TSA agents would have done to me after discovering a pocket knife in my backpack.

The word surrender has another, more sinister layer. Only combatants can surrender to another authority, lesser or greater in force. Soldiers surrender in war, and criminals surrender to cops. It suggests a more equal power dynamic than what is actually recorded in history. Native Americans surrendered land and life, Afghan children surrender security under drones, politicians surrender principles and we surrender to them our votes and our privacy, the working poor surrender their labor. What the state calls surrender is more like seizure because those who are asked to surrender are made to feel responsible for their defeat, as if it was their choice to enter into a conflict with America, large and without mercy.

And what was I ashamed of? That I was caught not remembering the state of terror we live in? I think, in truth, I was ashamed that the first time I relaxed this semester was walking into an airport, that I felt safer in a security complex designed to reinforce fear than I do in a classroom designed for comfort and an easy pace, and that I’m made to feel responsible because I’m not a good guy with a gun. Instead, I walk into a classroom with pens, pencils, markers, books, and slideshows, but none of those things, it seems, are enough to make me good.

-jk

Essay Published in Atticus Review

buffalo parkI’m honored to announce that my essay, “Buffalo Park,” is featured online in Atticus Review. Feel free to read it, but also read the other nonfiction essays, short stories, and poetry featured in Atticus as well. This essay has been published one year to the day that I first submitted it to my graduate nonfiction workshop at UNL. I’m grateful, as always, for the feedback my peers and professor offered me about the essay last September. This is also the essay I used as a writing sample for my application to the University of Idaho’s MFA program. With a little luck and a lot of work, I might have a few more publications on the way.

-jk

Grad School Reboot

booksIn May, Grad School ended with an undramatic series finale in which the protagonist received his degree, went to a few low-key parties, then went home. The writers worked a possible spinoff involving Idaho into the plot, and this Fall that spinoff will appear as a reboot of Grad School, starring the previous series’ main character and, as far as the writers know, nobody else.

In the era of rebooted shows, many of which ended several decades ago, a reboot of Grad School is only the next logical step. In the upcoming Season One/Three, the protagonist will attend an MFA program in Idaho’s panhandle, the only untapped part of the Pacific Northwest not used by modern television’s fascination with the region, ranging from Portlandia to Twin Peaks to Northern Exposure to Twin Peaks: The Return. Critics wonder if Idaho’s panhandle qualifies as the PNW, and many more critics wonder if Idaho even qualifies as a state rather than several disunited principalities ruled by various Mormons, libertarians, and seventeen armed lumberjacks from Montana, all of whom are named Slim. Our protagonist will have at least three seasons to figure this out.

The reboot’s narrative arcs will be predictably similar to those of its first two seasons in Nebraska: the protagonist will take classes, teach classes, and spend most nights grading, reading, and writing. Most episodes will begin with him walking to campus and end with him walking home. Critics wonder if the show can sustain itself for the intended three seasons of Grad School: MFA, but hope that the introduction of more creative writers will create more quirky dialogue and probably melodrama. The show could also do with more humor and lightheartedness to balance the protagonist’s late-season arc toward nihilistic cynicism, and some critics are even expecting a full-fledged comedy to emerge. But one can only hope.

-jk

 

Welcome to the University of Hell; Here’s Your Parking Pass

ParkingOn behalf of Satan and his minions and CEOs and several charitable people who donated buildings to us, we would like to welcome you, personally, to the University of Hell.

You’ll find your freshman orientation packets in your complimentary tote bag, along with two coupons for two free meals in the Hell Union. The cost of the tote bag and coupons will be included in your student fees, which will be calculated in total for you at the beginning of Finals Week. You will also find information about parking, which will become much easier with our new Henry Kissinger Bill Gates Memorial Super Tennis Parking Lot, located on south-east campus near the Ninth Circle Dorm. This year, parking passes are $786, which will also be included in your student fees. For those who don’t have a car, you’ll be glad to help pay for the parking passes of your fellow peers, or else.

The University of Hell is honored to serve our new students. Our Beelzebub Administration Center is located in the middle of campus, at the suggestion of UH graduate Jeremy Bentham, and our administrators are always open for questions, suggestions, and even concerns during their office hours from 3:00 AM to 3:15 AM every fifth Tuesday of the month. Feel free to direct all questions regarding student fees, parking, jobs, recreation, and housing to one of our 4,000 departmental administration management directors (we call them the DAMD for short). You’ll be paying for their salaries and Satan’s swimming pool of virgins’ blood with your student fees, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of their time.

Please feel free to tour our new Adam Smith Institute for Pharmaceutical Studies, or the recently constructed Brett Favre School of English Literature and Mass Entertainment, or our Walt Disney School of Criminal Justice and Gender Studies located next to the Pit of Eternal Fire, where football practice is held.

If any of our guests today find a lack of toilet paper, please do not be alarmed. We are working on a new system in which students pay for the necessary quantity of toilet paper with their student ID cards, and their student accounts are then charged for the toilet paper they use on the spot. If students lose their ID card for any reason and are unable to pay for toilet paper, they will be reminded that it is useful to carry their class syllabi with them at all times in the event of an emergency.

The University of Hell values you. Ever since its founding by Satan, who received his Hotel and Restaurant Management degree from Yale, UH has prided itself in the quantity of its students. We are here to help you help us, and we want to help you in doing so.

From all of us here at Hell, welcome to higher education.

-jk