Category Archives: Reflection

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

Return from the Frank Church Wilderness: A Photo Essay

In the wilderness, public policy feels far away. But it has effects, eventually, inevitably. There is wildfire damage. There are species, or sometimes the lack thereof. This is the battleground for conservationism, but the conservationists spent too much of their time looking at the soil, not the sky. The air was filled with smoke one day while I was here, and the next day was clear. This place in central Idaho, this last wilderness, is a refuge, a haven. Given the failures of the environmental movement to solidify a real climate policy, or perhaps given the reactionary violence of counter-movements against environmentalism who have doomed my generation to extinction to preserve their precious branding, even public land that is preserved by the strictest laws will be affected by the inevitable. The connections cannot be felt, now, but what happens in D.C. will eventually alter the air, water, and greenery of this place. But this stretch of wilderness, unlike the rest of us who visit it, will not go without a fight. These photographs will, in ten or twenty years, be testaments to what is no longer there, not entirely. Soon, these will be photographs of spatial ghosts.

 

 

-jk

Will Write for Contest Fee Waivers

Cash and BooksRecently, I had a short story published in issue 20 of Prism Review, titled “The Next Best Thing.” This is good news, of course, and I’m honored to be featured in their journal. In addition to the contributor copy I received in the mail, the journal also offered monetary compensation. This was the first time in my life I have been paid for my writing. Even more exciting is that I have an essay debuting soon in an online journal that also pays its contributors. Twice this year, so far at least, I can say I’m a paid writer.

I haven’t done the math on this, but I know that what I’m been paid in writing this year will not meet or exceed what I’ve paid in reading and contest fees. I know these fees are important for literary journals to survive, and now that I’m volunteering for a literary journal in Idaho, I know how crucial these funds are. It’s standard to pay two or three dollars to submit to a journal online. In a way, it’s like gambling.

In an ideal world, the written word would be more collectively valued and publicly funded, and authors would be paid for their work, and ideally this would include journalists, reporters, and screenwriters. But this isn’t an ideal world. Instead, art is publicly devalued, journalists are called the enemy of the people, and production companies easily get away with underpaying their screenwriters.

To be clear, I didn’t go into writing for the money. If I wanted to be rich, I’d go into punditry or the gun lobby where writing fiction is valued. I’m not the kind of person who cares about, or really believes in, worshiping the bottom line or breaking even. I’m not struggling to make ends meet, but I’m still writing–and submitting–on a budget. I have to decide when to gamble and when to withhold a reading fee, and for many other writers, budgetary decisions are much more pressing.

The last thing writers and publishers need right now is to be divided over funding. Both of these things are true: publishers need to survive, and writers deserve to be paid. This is a balancing act, but it doesn’t need to be a competition. I hope I can more easily do what I can to get my writing into the world, and until then, I’ll happily balance reading fees and writing on a budget.

-jk

 

Another Summer, Another Syllabus

WorkingThis fall will be my third year teaching first-year composition at the college level, and my fifth time drafting my syllabus from scratch. Some instructors keep a syllabus, but so far, I’ve opted to rebuild and try something new. Fifth time’s the charm, or maybe not.

Each time I teach an introductory writing class, I have made significant changes to the syllabus, the assignments, the readings. I change the amount of points that participation is worth, because I am still redefining what qualifies as sufficient participation. Should I have more shorter assignments or just a few really long essays? How can I get students to read what is required? I’ve never believed in reading quizzes, but this year I may try them out.

I am returning to some of the standard readings I’ve used from my first semester in Nebraska, way back in Fall, 2016, during simpler, less stupid times. I will still assign Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I’m also adding new readings, like Tiffany Midge’s essay “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s” and Joy Castro’s essays “Grip” and “Getting Grip.”

Every semester is a tri-weekly exercise in trial and error, and to a degree I regret doing this to my students. I have been in classes where professors try new things and talked excitedly about their brand new syllabus, and now, after three years on the other side of the classroom, I wonder if I shouldn’t just repeat what is familiar, but I know that repeating even the most familiar trials will still result in plenty of errors. Every class is different, and within those classes are unpredictable factors.

Students might hate what I assign. They might not. Conversely, I might hate teaching something they end up loving. It’s rare that we’re all in agreement. The question is how can I teach them this lesson–that speakers struggle to connect with their audiences in the most ideal circumstances–without simply telling them it’s the case. Teaching is like writing in that showing is preferred over telling, but just like writing too, honesty is the best policy.

So, this year, I will write at the top of my syllabus “Please anticipate technical difficulties.” Extra credit to students who pay enough attention to notice it.

-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

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

Making Room for More Books

BooksYou can never have too many books, unless you have too few bookshelves. Recently, I’ve accumulated about three dozen more books than I had at the beginning of the year, but I’m not ready to get a new bookshelf. I don’t have room for one in my apartment, unless I put a small bookshelf in the shower or above the toilet or next to the heaters, and all of those options have their pitfalls (water, fire, weird smells).

So, I sat down in front of my bookshelves and pulled out a handful of books that I no longer need or want, for the foreseeable future. Mostly, I chose books I had purchased for past English classes as an undergrad and from my MA program. Others were books I bought, read, used, and simply have to sacrifice now. It became easy to identify books I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It was harder to pull them out and not identify a possible need each one. I’ve found uses for books I’ve forgotten about, or loaned them to others who could use them. Other books I want to reread when I have the time (whenever that will be, sometime down the road, possibly in sixty years). Soon, I had a small stack of books I was willing to donate to a local used bookstore for store credit.

I won’t be buying new books for a while. I already have plenty to read, for class and for pleasure. This semester, I have thirty books in total for classes, plus books for research projects for class assignments, plus whatever books I can read for fun. Last semester, I set out to familiarize myself with a few standard critical theory texts, but that has fallen by the wayside amid the novels, memoirs, biographies, essay collections, and cultural histories I’m reading this Spring.

I may need another bookshelf soon. When I moved to Moscow, I had five creative nonfiction books. Now, I have two shelves devoted to the genre I’m pursuing, and I have two more years in the program. It’s good to make room for the new and dispense with the old. It’ll be better to cultivate room for expertise.

I have a biography of Janis Joplin, a critical reflection on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music, and Rebecca Solnit’s collection of cultural biographies The Encyclopedia of Trouble of Spaciousness. I have John McPhee’s book about oranges (just oranges) and W. E. B. Du Bois’s biography of John Brown and Virginia Woolf’s unfinished memoir. I have Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son and James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew and Franz Kafka’s letter to his father. Creative nonfiction encompasses journalism, memoir, reflection, and criticism. I need an entire library of creative nonfiction to cultivate a proper expertise. Though I had to remove some books to make room for more, right now I think I have a pretty good start.

-jk