Category Archives: life

Sunshine, Colds, and Swarms of Aphids: October in Moscow

Fall in MoscowThis week in Moscow, several disconnected events are converging. It is exceptionally warm, there are swarms of aphids–called blue ash aphids, local only to this part of the country and, I’m told, one other region on another unspecified continent–and a seasonal cold. I am subject now to all three.

The aphids are so many and so thick they look like snowflakes in the air, and it is impossible to walk anywhere in town without running into them. They catch in my hair and fall into my lap long after I go inside, and get stuck on my glasses or in my ears or up my nose. This blizzard of aphids under the sun is inescapable.

This week, I also caught The Thing That Has Been Going Around. The Moscow Plague. The spread, the disease. I notice that everywhere I live wants to somehow own the common cold. The Flagstaff Flu. The Nebraska Crud. It really is just the common cold, and on a college campus, when I collect my students’ free writes or share an office with conferencing faculty or go anywhere that students who live in Petri dishes known as dorms go, I will inevitably get That Thing That’s Been Going Around. I noticed it early, took action with vitamin C and tea with honey and plenty of nutrients and proteins, and am nearly over it now. The warm weather helps. The aphids are also trying to help, presumably by clogging my nostrils.

This is my favorite time of year in Moscow, though. Soon, it will be too dark and cold to go outside. The aphids are keeping my company, and I’m well, all things considered. If this town is teaching me anything, it’s that at any given moment, everything will happen all at once, without announcement. Swarms of things, plagues, unseasonably warm weather, on top of the smaller things: anxiety, publications, readings, short road trips, sudden deadlines, too many overlapping meetings, and a season so short it could be gone before I notice.

-jk

In Which My Grandparents Turn 90

grandparents 2.JPGIn the year 1928, my grandmother was born in Kennewick, Washington, on October 20, and my grandfather was born on July 24 in Elk Basin, Wyoming. Last week, their six children and an extensive number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren got together in/descended upon my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Montana (approximately halfway between Kennewick and Elk Basin) to celebrate their 90th birthday in the one week in summer when most of their descendants are free between work and travel.

I’ve only been around for twenty-five of those ninety years. I don’t know much about the sixty-five years my grandparents lived before me. I’ve always known them in one place, their garden-surrounded home in Hamilton, but I’m told they traveled a lot, from Montana to Washington to Minnesota. Their house has a kind of permanence in my mind. It has always been there, and has always been theirs. It’s strange to think of my grandparents living anywhere else. But ninety years is a long time to accumulate stories.

grandparents.JPG

They were born on the eve of the Great Depression. When they were five, the Weimar Republic was dissolved. When they were 13, the US entered the Second World War. They married in 1952. At some point, family traditions began to take shape: camping, river floating, fishing, miraculously digesting Spam.

Stories about my grandparents’ lives move all over the place, and I know that any story I hear from or about them will only ever scratch the surface. I don’t know how to quantify my own quarter-century of a life. Quantification isn’t always important, though. Nobody needs to measure a life, old or young, in order to celebrate it. 90 years is a long time, and I can learn to let it meander beyond my understanding. Their lives are too varied for me to know in their entirety, and that’s a good thing. It means there will always be something new to learn, something new to unlearn as well.

They still technically have a bit of time before they officially turn 90, though, and their dedication to wild partying, as evidenced in the weekend-long get-together, puts my own youthful spunk to shame. I have a lot to learn.

-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

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 fromĀ 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

 

The Workaholic Catches Cabin Fever

author-pic-5This weekend, an ice storm fluttered over eastern Nebraska, coating Lincoln in thin layers of slick ice and making it difficult to drive or walk. It has warmed up today, but UNL cancelled classes. I left my apartment only once this weekend for the sacred ritual of movies and food. Otherwise I’ve been inside my apartment avoiding the weather’s risks.

Granted, Lincoln is usually dangerous because the sidewalks are coated in football players’ sweat and the ejaculatory spittle of Governor Pete Ricketts as he laughs at Nebraskan voters from the golden tower overlooking the city, but this weekend it was especially dangerous.

Regular readers of this blog know that I partly enjoy bad weather, especially if it involves snow. It allows me to stay inside, drink coffee, write, and read. I freely admit that I’m a workaholic. I maintain a strict work ethic, in part because it nags me to have unfinished tasks. Knowing I have a deadline coming up feels like hot, smelly breath on my neck, which is also the sensation I have when I look at the face of P. Ricketts. I work hard in order to avoid having things gnaw at me.

This weekend, though, I had few deadlines that I could meet from home. I have yet to receive papers for grading or major assignments to begin. I forced myself to plunge back into the habit of writing regularly, which I had lost over winter break, and what writing I did was weak and unsatisfying.

For once, I wasn’t productive, though society doesn’t normally benefit from my labor. The hours I put into writing, revising, submitting, and making fun of politicians usually go unnoticed, especially by politicians named Pricketts. I’m a workaholic, but I realized this weekend that I’m not a productive workaholic.

I realized that I deal in temporary moments. When I produce, it’s usually particular instances, things that dissipate into the air. As a teacher, I produce lessons, rather than capital. As a writer, I produce reactions and responses, usually from my loyal readership of five people, my dog, and maybe even Pricketts the Farmer of Nebraskan Tears. I’d like to think I produce moments of companionship, like the hairy dog I’m quickly becoming. What I obsessively create doesn’t last. Lessons, reactions, and responses always melt, one way or another, but I still enjoy producing them. Nobody gains capital as a result, but maybe they gain affirmation, if I work hard enough.

I could do very little affirming from my apartment while sheets of ice formed in the freezing rainfall. I still prefer the snowy weather, but I’m glad to be out and about writing, wandering, and listening.

-jk

From Coffee Shops to Mountaintops

Macy's

For a too-short time this summer, I’m on a pilgrimage to my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. Here, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories that will become my Master’s Thesis in less than a year (no pressure), because I won’t have much time to write come Fall when I’ll take four graduate classes, teach two classes, hold office hours, and try to get published. Flagstaff is a nice place to be productive. It’s also a nice place to be useless.

This month, I’ve been scurrying from one Flagstaff coffee shop (many in gentrified neighborhoods, admittedly) to the next. Maybe sitting all day in Macy’s or Firecreek or Steep (technically a tea house) is a bit of a yuppee activity, but for many writers it’s an easy solution. Coffee shops induce productivity with comfortable spaces, lots of light, energetic music, and socially acceptable drugs like caffeine. They remove us from crammed apartments, English departments, and work places; they spark quiet, collective inspiration. I’ve also enjoyed the aggressively supportive environments that seem to define the West, where even complete strangers encourage you to keep going and pursue your dreams, even if they’re strange and uncomfortable. My writing has been very productive.

But there was another pilgrimage I needed. Yesterday, after writing and reading stories in Firecreek all morning, I took the afternoon to hike up Mount Elden. I did not take anything to write with, and although I’m a strong advocate for making art in the wilderness (alone or with friends), I wanted a more complete silence. I wanted the overwhelming smell of bark and dust and dew. When I return to Nebraska, I’ll have to find the same solitude in the prairies, out on the range.

Mountaintop

From the mountainside where I stopped to rest, the only thing I could hear were crickets and the distant whistle of a train. There was no traffic; there was no music; sometimes a bird chirped, or a deer fluttered through the forest below the steep cliff’s edge. I was not alone, but I was alone from people, and from myself.

It was windy, almost cold, but closer to the sun I felt warm. It was peaceful to be nobody for a while, to be free of the need to be someone. The pressure to be someone these days, the millennial fixation with making something of oneself, being a successful talented individual with a totally unique, self-owned identity, is sometimes too much.

Sometimes I’d rather sit on a mountaintop and be useless. No fast pace. No updates. No news. No one to impress. Just one more organism in an ecosystem finding, at last, its place therein: a lone and unimportant creature in a society of deer, coyote, foxes, crows, ponderosa, a cityscape of boulders and greenery.

-jk