Category Archives: Reflection

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

Writing Lamentation, Writing Celebration

Close Acorn“I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,/Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy,/I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish,/Nor the cause of the friendship I emit, nor the cause of the friendship I take again.” -Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

Recently, one of my nonfiction professors mentioned that, if the tone and texture of writing can be divided into either writing of lamentation or writing of celebration, my writing style tends toward lamentation. She said, unlike Whitman’s celebratory exaltation, my writing texture is more like Emerson’s, brooding and internal.

To me, this makes sense: my writing broods. Maybe that’s why my stand-up comedy special The Writer of Lamentations has done so poorly on Netflix. It’s not that I avoid celebration. I try (and often fail) to celebrate others. I try to support my friends and praise their successes as much as possible, but this celebration rarely enters my writing. Instead, my writing fixates on losses.

More and more, I write about the environment, the west, and disparate interests like history and music, and I think my essays do, in fact, have a sense of lamentation: for places that will soon no longer be, for talents I used to have, for wars that I never fought in, and for friends who have shaped and continue to shape me, even in their absence. Despite my best efforts, friends come and go. I lament being unable to continue being shaped by them, and departure starts to feel normal and they have their lives. Thank goodness they have their lives. And still, I brood.

And what does it mean to celebrate? A friend and colleague of mine shared a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi called “The Will of Life” about embracing “the love of life,” an active, rather than passive, task. Even in the midst of what is worth lamenting, there is room for celebration. This makes me think of Prior in Angels in America refusing to be a prophet, telling the angels he wants more life: “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is modernity, it’s animate. It’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. . . . It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still: Bless me anyway. I want more life.”

It’s been almost a year since I saw Angels in America with friends whom I miss dearly. I will admit that I desire, and I often desire stillness. I don’t want to celebrate myself the way Whitman does, but lamentation requires life in memory, the shadow of what was and could be. It is an act of wanting, but it is always active, not passive. To lament is to recognize that life, friendship, love, the burning world will never be enough, will always be inadequate, but to want to celebrate it anyway. Can there be lamentation without celebration, even in possibility? I write for the past while stuck in the present, constantly spiraling headlong into whatever disaster the future holds, one after another.

I want more life, and I want to mourn life for all that it is, all that it isn’t, all that it used to be. Someone should. Life requires lamentation as much as celebration, but the opposite holds true. To lament is to want, but to want without striving toward celebration misses the point completely.

-jk

Fall in Another City

Campus 2.jpgI’m still getting to know Moscow, Idaho. I’ve only been here since August, but it takes me a while to reconfigure myself to new surroundings. I adapt slowly and cling to what is familiar: campus aesthetics, coffee shops, quiet mornings for writing.

The last time I moved, I went from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Lincoln, Nebraska, and it took me about a year to adjust. It took me a year to feel grounded in the place, in the people, like I wasn’t a transplant from the Southwest to the Midwest. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I feel like a double transplant in yet another variation on the west, a west that I want to write down in the long, laborious tradition of writing about places. Do I need to be a tourist or a resident? I’ve gone from deserts to plains to this stranger place called the Palouse, a valley of vast wheat fields and pine trees.

I am not, yet, a tumbleweed, a person with “roaming proclivities.” But I still feel detached from so many places, so up-in-the-air right now. I wish I had spent more than two years with my friends in Nebraska before uprooting myself again. I wonder how long I’ll be in Idaho before I’m again uprooted.

I am still very much a westerner, but after only two moves, I feel scattered. I vote in Arizona, I made strong connections in Nebraska, and now I’m a writer in Idaho. The one constant has been the university as a setting, like a monastic system in which I orient myself toward the library, the English building, and the nearest coffee shop. Campuses are large and sometimes quiet. This is true of Flagstaff, Lincoln, and now Moscow. I like old campuses, brick buildings, planned and structured squares of nature for viewing purposes. In other words, the constant for me is finding places to work, the one thing I hope I am never uprooted from. If and when I move again, I hope there is a quiet campus wherever I go.

 

-jk

 

Relearning to Teach in a Windowless Room

ClassroomMy second year of teaching, now in my second Master’s degree, is keeping me busy. Last fall, I took a class on pedagogy and read selections on composition and rhetoric theory by Peter Elbow, David Bartholomae, Janice Lauer, and Paulo Freire. Mostly, though, I learned how to teach by rapidly switching from my role as an instructor to my role as a student, wearing several hats several times a day. This fall, I’m in a similar pedagogy class and teaching similar composition courses, and I find myself learning the basics all over again, with perhaps a better sense of how to fail with grace.

But until now, I have never taught in a windowless room. One of the composition courses I’m teaching and the pedagogy class I’m taking are both in windowless rooms, lit from the ceiling alone with white incandescence, the kind of electricity I can hear when the room is silent, which is often the case when I teach. Even the basement classes I taught last year had basement windows, sometimes covered in snow but letting in shades of morning year-round.

A class on rhetoric should, I think, require windows. How can I teach rhetoric in a room that tries to block out the world? Rhetorical composition is an interior process that requires thoughtful contemplation of the overlapping layers of the world in which we find ourselves. When I assigned an article on the cost of fighting wildfires, I could not point out the window to the thick clouds of smoke that sunk over the Palouse from fires in Montana to demonstrate the concept of exigence.

Composition is introspective, and introspection is improved by a window students can stare out of. Without a window, where will my students glance wistfully? Where will they look when they finish a free write? White boards are only so interesting.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. In fact, I’m fairly sure I am. Personally, I feel uncomfortable as a student in a windowless room, but it’s unfair to assume my students are the same. To do so robs them of their own context. Do they prefer windowless rooms? Do they even care? The problem, then, is that I have trouble seeing beyond the limits of my comfort zone, just as my students have trouble seeing beyond the limits of their comfort zones when I ask them to think critically about the arguments they make. Nevertheless, it feels like an imposed form of denial about the world to teach rhetoric in a room with no windows, as if education is an un-real space that cannot be infiltrated by the external, “real” world. As if college should be so sterile.

To wear many hats, to be a student and a teacher, is to recognize that I am still learning how to teach, and maybe this is true every semester for every teacher. As a student, I walk into each new class to be surprised at how different instructors and groups of peers change the way discussions and my own writing develop. Likewise, I’m sure my approach to teaching (lots of high pitched squeaking about context and self-deprecating humor and self-referential meta-lectures) differs from the teaching styles of my students’ other professors, so much so that they have to relearn how to learn in my class just as I need to relearn how to teach them on some discovered common ground. I should learn that my students might not have windows where they learn, and they will hopefully learn the value of glancing up at the world while writing.

-jk

Writing in the Rain

Rio de FlagI may not be jumping around like Gene Kelly in the rain (writing while dancing is ill-advised, and I would know, because I’ve lost four laptops that way). But I do like writing when it rains.

Growing up, I usually had plenty of free time during summer and Arizona’s monsoon season. In college, I took summer classes during the rainy months, and spent a lot of time indoors next to a window, writing. I associate rain with writing, and I enjoy desert rainstorms. The temperature drops, and the moisture makes everything smell more vibrant, the pine trees and shrubs and soil. Even an overcast sky makes me want to write, even if what I end up writing is terrible.

It’s safe to stay inside when it rains. Overcast skies mean lightning. In the Midwest, rain can sometimes mean tornadoes and flooding, and in Arizona the monsoons always accompany flash flooding, to the point that Arizona even passed a so-called Stupid Motorist Law, which requires drivers who enter flooded areas to pay for the cost of being rescued. I can’t write about rain like it’s a benevolent god when the opposite is equally true. Rain can destroy. But having grown up in a state that, in a few years, will have no water at all has made me appreciate the rain in all its destructive beauty. Noah had the better apocalypse. Drought is not the end I would choose, but it’s what I’ve been dealt.

Rain also feels safer to me, somehow. A swollen, grey-haired overcast sky stretching from horizon to horizon feels like a second roof over the roof over my head. I can hide behind rain curtains, like I’m waiting to go on stage and give a speech or monologue or stand-up routine. It precipitates anticipation, motivates me to prepare for something, but I never find out what. So I prepare by writing, and after the clouds dissipate, I wait for it to rain again.

-jk

Edible Ekphrasis

babette's feastLast week, I had the pleasure of watching the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel. Based on a short story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast is set in a small village in the nineteenth century, focusing on two sisters in a strict pseudo-Puritan sect and their French cook Babette, whom they took in as an act of charity after she fled violence in France (as we all do from time to time). Her mastery of French cuisine contrasts the bland, simple food the sisters eat. Babette eventually inherits 10,000 francs, and decides to cook an elaborate, “real” French dinner for the churchgoers, who wrinkle their noses at the appearance of her imported ingredients (live quails, a turtle, various wines and champagnes), vowing not to mention the quality of the food to maintain their piety. Their decision to refrain from commenting on the food becomes more and more difficult as they eat, and the wine certainly complicates things, too.

It was one of the two last films that I watched on a Sunday night tradition that has become known as Single Guy Movie Night, hosted by a kind and brilliant PhD student and attended by myself and a fellow second-year MA student (and sometimes a married honorary single guy when he’s available). Since August, I have enjoyed our host’s meals and taste in movies, and he has occasionally tolerated the movie tastes of his guests.

This last year, I have watched more films on Sunday nights than I can remember: The 400 Blows, Road Warrior, Mad Max: Fury Road, Moonlight, Elizabeth, Halloween, Carrie, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Rogue One, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Spartacus, ParaNorman, The VVitch, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, among many others. It was fitting, I think, to end with a soft film about food, and perhaps the best film about food I have seen.

There is a small canon of food films. Ratatouille remains my favorite Pixar film, and I enjoyed Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 Big Night, about Italian cooking. Jon Favreau’s Chef belongs in this canon, and though it is about many other, disturbing and beautiful things, Peter Greenway’s 1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and His Lover is a fantastic movie centered around the act of eating/consumption.

These movies are ekphrastic, in that they are about other forms of art. Most ekphrastic storytelling tends to be about painting or music. Putting the focus on food, and therefore taste, forces the audience to think about their own taste. The visual emphasis is on preparation, ingredients, cooking, and of course eating, a meta-narrativized mirroring of what audiences do when they watch movies, not literally eating the film but taking it in, enjoying its flavors, the blend of sweet or savory scenes, bitter or vibrant dialogue. As such, these films subtly ask their audience to reckon with the art they consume, the difference between taste and appetite, the difference between taste and quality, and do so in ways that invite variation. There is plenty to choose from on the menu; what will you watch tonight?

Babette’s Feast is different. At the forefront is gentleness. Rather than for competition or financial success, the film’s protagonist chef wants to give her patrons a free, perfect meal to show her gratitude. Her patrons, again contrasting from most food films, want to lower their expectations and resist enjoying the meal. The climax is the feast, but the pleasure of this long, drawn-out scene is watching the characters resist their own pleasure, and in subtle ways fail. The audience gets to see them lose, which means for them enjoying wonderful food. Babette brings them to their satisfaction by what she offers on the plate, giving them permission to enjoy life.

I prefer gentle movies, and that is a matter of taste. I like atmosphere, music, scenery, and subtle character developments that are easy to miss. But this is taste, and I give myself permission to enjoy everything on the menu. Life is short, and if I stuck to the same kind of movie, I’d miss out on the dozens of excellent movies I’ve had the gift of watching this past year with friends. It is too late to prepare a real French dinner for them to show my thanks. This has been an obscenely difficult and unpredictable academic year that left me paranoid, disillusioned, and feeling far from gentle.¬†Babette’s Feast reminds me I am allowed to enjoy what I consume, whatever it is, and there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in things, in as many things as possible.

The year is over for me. What comes next is new and uncertain, but I would prefer to go into it with an expanded pallet and the energy to enjoy generously.

-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