Tag Archives: Arizona

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

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

To Vote From Afar

ForeverA while ago, I mailed forms to my home state of Arizona requesting an absentee ballet for the upcoming primary and Presidential elections. I sent a little letter into a sea of mail, and now I wait earnestly for my approved absentee ballet.

It’s Arizona, though, so there’s a statistical likelihood that my vote won’t make a difference. Each election I’ve voted in, my vote failed to put into office my preferred candidate (a ham sandwich named Marty who wears a hop hat and monocle running as a Neo-Whig Anarchist, obviously). Because the Whigs (and every other party I would realistically vote for) don’t stand much of a chance in Arizona (unless more people voted), I will once again have the honor of not making a difference in 2016.

It’s possible, however unlikely, that voting will make a political difference, but that’s not necessarily why I vote. I vote to be part of a community, to participate in an almost religious experience, to be part of something bigger than I am, a kind of highly-organized mob mentality centering around mostly rich, unconcerned smiling people in suits I couldn’t afford with my life’s savings. It’s enchanting to be part of a communion that has the potential to involve so many. I’m sad how often we collectively waste that potential.

In the 1952 election in India, 105,944,495 people voted. It was the first election after Independence, the first with universal suffrage, and although it constituted only 45% of the electorate, it was a colossal success considering that India’s literacy rate was only 18% in 1951, and is even more impressive given the vast number of languages spoken by India’s electorate: as of 2001, only 22 of India’s 844 languages and dialects were officially used for constitutional purposes. India’s first election involved all levels of society in a nation stratified by centuries of colonialism and damaged by Partition with East and West Pakistan, and nevertheless one hundred million people turned out to vote. Despite the militaristic turmoil around Partition, people turned out to explore an (admittedly western-designed and implemented) experiment in voting.

The upcoming U.S. Presidential election is quite different from India’s 1952 election, but I want to be a part of the masses. In a strange way, becoming a statistic feels transcendental to me, like I’ve moved into a part of history that exists outside all indicators of the self, outside personality, documentation, religion, class, race, and into a cloud of participatory revelry, into a quantifiable oneness. I wish I could vote in person, but from my temporary home in Nebraska, I will still move beyond myself. And maybe, just maybe, Marty the ham sandwich will finally usher in four years of Neo-Whig Anarchism.

-jk

Cited: Wendy Singer. Independent India. Edinburgh: Pearson Education, 2012. Print.

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Climate Poem: Murder of Crows

Climate fiction (cli-fi) and other forms of ecological literature have been around for a long time, from Edward Abbey to Margaret Atwood. Today, I decided to dabble in ecological poetry about my home state’s claim to fame.

Murder of Crows

See the Grand Canyon, an overture in foliage, The Bland Canyon
a cacophony of life. A murder

of crows, watchful, calculating,
circles above the ever-emptying Canyon.
They perch along the new uranium rigs,
rancourous tourist bathrooms, a clearance sale
of the canyon’s condors, now going out of business.
Sun-dried pilgrims flock into the sandy mouth
by gondola, elevator, jeep,
no descent beyond imagination,

to where the river once flowed when tourists trickled
by the curious dozen. The crows all grin
as the tourists cascade, a new waterfall of sweaty flesh
bringing with them whole picnics
to toss into the shock of relief,

greenless, insect-ripe, a sight to behold.
The murder of crows delights in the garbage,

lab-made meat patties, factory salads,
brownies with a genesis in HTML,
plastic coffee in plastic cups, and endless anti-depressants
packed into health bars laced with enough alcohol
to relax the fast-paced tourist.
The crows become drunk on their dessert

dropped by the sweating fingers
under their generation’s birthright summer scorches.
See the murder of crows feast

on the bodies piled into the Canyon,
sunburned limbs, imported clothes like packaging,
a soup of sun screen and contaminated sweat
fermenting in the Canyon’s deep barrels.

See the crows peck at weeds, fingers, preservatives
dumped into the bone-dry skeleton of the Southwest.

-jk

Copyright Keene Short, 2015. Photograph magnanimously donated by the spectacular travelers at Lost Compass Photography.

 

My Last Letter to Flagstaff

Dear Flagstaff,

autumn forest

There’s no easy way to say this, but I have to say goodbye.

Northern Arizona University

It’s not that I don’t like you. On the contrary, you’re the finest community I’ll ever know. Never mind that you’re the only community I’ve ever known. Having lived in Flagstaff for twenty years and with no actual memories of my life in Pocatello, Idaho, before moving to you, it might be unfair to future communities, but I mean it, Flagstaff. Where else can I see a herd of deer pass in front of my car just uphill from my high school? Where else can I have a mountain for a backyard? Where else will I be an hour from the Grand Canyon and Sedona?

Flagstaff

You’ve been great to me, Flagstaff, but it would be naive to say it was all fountains of chocolate. I mean, you are in Arizona, after all. The snow was nice, but driving downhill on an icy road to a stop light was a little scary. I appreciated the dog food factory, but the smell was a little overwhelming sometimes.

Macy's

Everything good and bad that has ever happened to me, with a few exceptions (Ireland, Montana, Minneapolis), has happened to me in Flagstaff: failed orchestra concerts, a broken arm, publication, falling in love for the first time, crippling self-doubt, hangovers in church, learning to play the violin, becoming an Eagle Scout, rejections from journals, writing my first good poem, writing my first bad poem, saying goodbye at the train station to the woman I loved. I’ve had colds and stage fright, I’ve had frog dissections and marching band performances, I’ve had reader’s theater and photography gigs. I lurched through high school and college in Flagstaff. Spending two decades in a place allows for the accumulation of immeasurable joy and bitterness, and leaving you, Flagstaff, is a tough decision, perhaps the toughest I’ll ever have to make. Sticking around is quite tempting.

Train Station Bench

But I need to see other cities, other states, other countries. I need to travel. I need to study and write and learn. I’ll start by going to graduate school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln may be the opposite of you, Flagstaff, but everything is packed, and I’ll be out the door by the time you read this. After graduate school, I’ll traverse shores yet untarnished by my footprints.

Duck Pond

Even if I fall for Lincoln, I’ll always miss you, Flagstaff. You were the rough draft of a misshapen side character dropped into the world; you were a place of enlightenment in the saints’ cult of writers; you were the architect of this backpack stuffed with art and questions that I am honored to call my soul.

Christmas in Flagstaff

I owe you more than I’ve given, and you’ve given me more than I deserve, Flagstaff. Perhaps I’ll come back to you someday. I would like to see you at least once more before I die. If I do make it back, I hope you have not changed except to become more beautiful, but I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a more beautiful city.

Pipeline Trail

I’ll miss the hippies and cowboys and geriatric motorcyclists. I’ll miss the perpetual smell of pine trees and incense and dog food. My memories of Flagstaff are like photographs in a gallery hung at random. No real structure binds these moments, and it’s more breathtaking that way. With that, I say goodbye Flagstaff. Wish me luck.

Appalachia

Sincerely,

Duck Pond After Hours

jk

Midwest by Northeast

The Map

For someone who grew up safe in the Southwest, the idea of the Midwest is just a scary story, no more real than werewolves or zombies or werezombies. But soon, all the stories may be proven true. I may wake up one day no longer a Southwesterner but a Midwesterner.

We’ve all heard tales of the Midwest. We’ve seen them in movies like A Christmas Story, Field of Dreams, even children’s movies like Fargo. We’ve heard Garrison Keillor’s weekly horror stories about allegedly growing up in the Midwest. I myself didn’t believe the stories, but soon I’ll immerse myself in the region, in the cornfields and endless piles of Lutherans.

I’ll have to disguise myself to fit in. I’m already quiet, so maybe they won’t recognize that I’m an Arizonan. I’ll have to start eating German and Scandinavian food instead of Mexican. But will I really become one of them? One of those smiling, dry-humor-loving, flat-land-roaming, hotdish-cooking huskers? I’m a fully-fledged American Westerner. My ancestors traversed the Rocky Mountains, settled in the potato fields of Idaho and the great Bitterroot Valley. I have family scattered across Arizona, Utah, Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Will I transmute into a Midwesterner? Or will I be like the lone survivor of a zombie apocalypse, wandering the fields among the throngs of polka-dancing tundra folk?

I’m sure I’ll end up enjoying life in the Midwest, even if resistance is futile and I start eating hotdish and corn. Or I’ll discover that the Midwest and Southwest aren’t that different, and I’ll fit in just fine, because as important as regional identity is, we should dismantle every wall we allow it to build between us. We’re all in this sinking ship together, after all, and life’s too short to let our differences confine us.

In any case, I’ve lived in Arizona for twenty years: Arizona is a dystopian oligarchy whose capital city, which is a violation of basic human rights by its very existence, is run by a deranged sheriff, and about thirty percent of the population qualifies as a heavily armed militia that wants to improve upon the concept of walls with barbed wire and snipers. If I can survive in Arizona, I can survive anywhere.

-jk

Ghosts of the West in Jerome’s Public History

Jerome Jerome, Arizona, is one of the oddest, most colorful towns in the state. Its history is rich, and its public history is thriving. Now a major tourist destination, as well as a small artists’ community, one can see Arizona history, and indeed U.S. history, in every corner. At a wine tasting one can see a passing motorcycle gang maneuver up the narrow streets, while a ghost tour marches downhill toward one of Jerome’s many historic sties. Jerome is itself a museum, an exercise in public history, but it is caught along the fault lines that make public history a contentious endeavor.

ruins

Ruins of a primary school.

Many go to Jerome to see the Old West as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, John Ford, and others portrayed it. By the time How the West Was Won debuted in 1963, the Jerome Historical Society, founded a decade earlier, was already busying itself purchasing saloons, churches, mining equipment, and other property to advertize Jerome as a ghost town. Today, the Jerome Historical Society tends to dominate public history, and their goal from the beginning was to draw a crowd. Popularizing the town’s title, ghosts are now a prevalent motif. One can go on a ghost tour, visit a haunted hotel, then eat lunch at a ghost-themed restaurant. The Wild West narrative appears in the ruins of Jerome’s schools, jails, brothels, and saloons, and a past rife with outlaws, sheriffs, and western debauchery in a lawless city where anybody can make it big with the swing of a pickaxe.

The Cuban Queen

Entrance to an abandoned brothel, The Cuban Queen.

Jerome is haunted by this history, but by other histories as well. History is contentious, often snagged between fragmented political agendas. Today, several state legislatures want to change AP U.S. History curriculum to emphasize American Exceptionalism, a word that makes most historians cringe. Jerome may not be as fraught with politics, but the ghosts that haunt it are more than the usual characters in a typical western.

 

BenchThere is Charley Hong, who emigrated from China in 1880, two years before the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. He became a wealthy businessman, owner of the popular Bon Ton Restaurant (later the English Kitchen). Though a local celebrity in Jerome, the xenophobic climate in the west persisted, to the point that his restaurant was bombed in 1909. Miners haunt the town as well. Making it rich by mining may sound appealing, but the work was arduous, usually deadly, and compensation was minimal. To make matters worse, in 1917 corporate managers rounded up miners suspected of affiliating with workers’ rights organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), forced them onto cattle trains, and deported them out of town. Meanwhile, the local hospital witnessed approximately 9,000 deaths.

Ruins of a prison

Ruins of a prison

It is impossible to fully capture the diversity of Jerome’s history, and here I fail to do it justice. Public history, however, is an important venue for historical inquiry. The ghosts that haunt Jerome are more than just a handful of quirky characters. Jerome is haunted by the miners, the migrants, the unnamed lawbreakers, the women who worked in the town under challenging and dangerous conditions, the indigenous communities in the area. Jerome is indeed haunted, but most of its ghosts remain unheard. I intend to conduct more research, because for me history is about listening past the vast silence of time to let the old voices speak, and Jerome is shaking with eager voices.

Jerome Landscape