Tag Archives: Reflection

Notes from Portland

Portland

“Maybe 1978 was the year the 1960s ended and the 1980s began. Maybe there were no 1970s.” -Rebecca Solnit, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

My generation talks about Portland, Oregon, the way my parents’ generation talked about California in the 1960s, in that supposedly magical decade when Haight-Ashbury was for free-thinkers and runaways and Hollywood was a place of romance rather than violence, a place of paradise, freedom, and escapism, or at least just a place to escape to.

For a lot of us born in the 1990s, I think, the Pacific Northwest is still seen as a kind of paradise. I know a dozen people who went to Portland after graduating from college or instead of college, and I know more who talk about going there sometime in the future. In the American West, I think, many of us see it as the only remaining authentic counter-cultural scene, now that Seattle has been corrupted by Amazon and Boeing. It’s paradise, and like California before the cults and murders, this reputation is equally earned and exaggerated.

I will admit that, when I visited last week, I was struck by this city, by its oblique beauty and opaque optimism. But I’m also ambivalent. It’s not romantic to me, but familiar. It’s just like being back home in Flagstaff, Arizona in all the best and worst ways, because it’s a tourist destination, which means that what is visible to the visitor is only one side of the stage the city wants to present. Tourists never peek behind the curtain to see the other city inside the city, or rather, they do, constantly, but choose to ignore anything that disrupts the sense of paradise, the escapism that tourism is built on, a centuries-old colonial logic that treats any visited people or place as a cultural buffet. I recognize the theatricality, the performativity. I lived for two decades as a local in Flagstaff, on the side of town the tourists never go to.

Gentrification is to tourism as imperialism is to capitalism, in which those with economic power, in a given city’s financial Center, invade a marginalized community or neighborhood, buy out its necessary businesses (laundromats, corner stores, diners), and replace them with yuppy businesses that those in the community cannot afford, forcing them to look elsewhere for laundry or food. Meanwhile, the gentry have a new colony in a part of town with cheap rent from which to sell artisinal donuts to wealthy newcomers, or to all the tourists.

I went to Portland as a tourist—as the gentry, as the colonist—for the annual AWP conference. 15,000 writers and publishers descended on the City of Roses to network and share journals and thoughts and their creative work. To be clear, this conference was productive for publishers, writers, for a variety of literary communities, and for me personally as well as professionally. But like all conferences, it came at the expense of the environment and the local community.

Portland is a strange place because it simultaneously compels me to want to be more compassionate to others, while also reminding me how insufficient compassion is, despite its urgency, despite its necessity.

But I see the appeal of the dream here, too. I see why my friends relocated to this gritty, green, rusting city, this place of wondrous contradiction, where the river pushes past the streets and Mount Hood is always watching over the mossy brown cacophony of the landscape, the patches of cherry blossom trees, the network of trains and the bicyclists and the sense of cheerful nihilism. I want to be a part of this scene. I want to fit in here. I do fit in here, feel a kinship with the sense of possibility, the sense of communal towardness to one another, despite the likeliness that this sense is more a product of my 1990s imagination, driven by Twin Peaks and The X-Files. But, like any glorified past, maybe there were no 1990s.

Portland is no paradise—I’m not naïve; I grew up in a city that people from Phoenix called utopic when they came to ski and drink while my friends on the other side of the tracks dealt with floods, fires, and catastrophic rent hikes. But still: I’ve always felt out-of-place until coming to Portland, where I felt like it didn’t matter if I was a tourist or a local, as if the difference dissolved and waking up in Portland felt like deja vu, but in a good way, like delirium. A tourist seals this feeling up for himself, like a trinket; what can I do, instead, to fight for a world in which this sense of immediate community, this impulse toward affinity despite factual difference, is common for everyone else?

-jk

Notes from Albuquerque

four horseman of the western statueEvery time I visit this city, it finds new ways to surprise me. There is no planning for contingency here. Last week, I returned to Albuquerque for the 40th annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference to present a paper (animal studies, rats, Paris, Ratatouille, and so on) alongside a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of scholars.

There was an eco-feminist reading of Hey Arnold! There was a close reading of Nick White and Paulo Bacigalupi’s portrayal of toxic water (in the context of the crisis in Flint, Michigan). There was a critical assessment of whether or not altering National Parks iconography is a useful political strategy against selling public lands to corporate interests. This conference is my  favorite, more than the national PCA conference and even AWP (where everyone is trying to hide how stressed-out they are). Maybe it’s the Breaking Bad T-shirts in the hotel lobby, or the actual meth dealers just down the street on Central Avenue, but for whatever reason, this particular conference allows scholars, an otherwise overly serious bunch, to take themselves just a little less seriously.

I’ve missed the high desert, the southwestern aesthetics, the tan and adobe architecture. I’ve missed the sunlight and the dryness. But this is Albuquerque, a city of endless surprise. So I should have expected that the restaurant a friend and I taxied to would be closed in the middle of a snow storm, forcing us to walk down Central Avenue looking for an emergency alternative. Right now, nearly every place that I have known is covered in snow: Flagstaff, Lincoln, Moscow, Spokane, and for a while even Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I neurotically plan for contingencies at every step, but it’s good to know that the unexpected isn’t always bad. For me, it takes an effort to relax and take things less seriously. Shout-laughing at the high desert snow while looking for an Italian restaurant in the wind and snow with one of my best friends reminds me that some of the most productive, engaging experiences are surprises, without prediction and against planning.

The stakes are high, for interdisciplinary academic work that actually makes a difference. Back home at the University of Idaho, there are two interdisciplinary efforts to address climate change, first an ecocriticism reading group and second an emerging collaboration between the humanities and sciences to communicate accurate climate science to local communities. This weekend, I realized that not only is pop culture necessary to communicating serious climate science, but framing it all as a doom-and-gloom apocalypse is also counter-productive. The most important part of the countless post-apocalyptic films and novels that have come out in the last five years is that, one way or another, people express survival in terms of art. Despite zombies, drought, or plagues, characters always make room for culture, whatever that culture is, no matter how subtle its recreation and preservation is.

Image result for alt national parksPopular culture studies finds a comfortable home in Albuquerque. This academic field, like the city itself, resists expectations. It forces people to recognize that grave concerns and lightheartedness can coincide.

This conference is an (expensive and limited) opportunity for scholars to “make sense of the things they love.” It’s a space to recognize the ambiguity inherent in everything we interact with: TV, movies, comics, music, genre. All of it has a radical potential to shape the way people see themselves and the world around them. It’s not that pop culture is sacred, but that it has the potential, like the most radical aspects of the world itself, to surprise us.

 

 

-jk

After Five Years of Blogging

The Dry SeasonWordPress has reminded me, as it does, that five years ago today I started this blog.

I began it initially as a personal website, but as I move forward as a teacher, writer, and for better or worse an academic, I think this blog will likely become more of a professional website. All writers have them; it’s the one piece of advice all published authors have given me in addition to reading and writing a lot.

As such, I expect to write fewer posts for this blog. For a while, I was ambitious: 4 posts a month. I’ve been generally consistent, but I am beginning to realize that even I have limits. Amazing, right?

This year has been good for me, all things considered. I am into the second year of my MFA program at the University of Idaho, I had four good publications (short stories, poems, essays), I compiled a draft of a short story collection (kind of), I had my first writing fellowship, I improved my syllabus for ENG 102, and I also took up a volunteer position as the creative nonfiction editor for Fugue. I also carved out some time for traveling around Idaho and Montana, to linger in places I’ve often passed without stopping to take a closer look.

I don’t want my life to be purely academic, but in grad school, that’s difficult to avoid. I’m also myself not good about leaving time for life outside work. This next year, I will blog inconsistently as I focus on writing, publishing, and teaching. I asked in my first post, why pursue a liberal arts education? After five years of writing about it and as I enter my fourth year as a grad student, your guess is still as good as mine.

-jk

 

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

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

The Dogsitting Writing Residency

Two dogsCommensalism or mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction. The housesitter is apt to recognize the opportunity as a private windfall, and the pleasure is tandem: first in his own dis-habituation, and then in the adoption of a new readymade home, a vacated life to try on. With the extra keys on his chain, the housesitter leaves work on a different train or by a new road, becomes a local in the café or dogpark, creates or stars in fantasies grown out of his new neighbors’ notice.
-Brian Blanchfield, “On Housesitting,” from Proxies.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve never had a writing residency. Applications for residencies are expensive and highly competitive, and travel is even more expensive and time-consuming. Like a lot of writers, I don’t have the time or resources to travel to another country and write for a month, as much as I want to. But I can construct my own version of a residency with occasional opportunities and a little creativity.

For example, I’m currently dog-sitting for some relatives in Pullman, Washington, just six miles from Moscow but in a subtly different environment. Pullman is full of hills and mosquitoes, whereas Moscow is comparatively flat and full of earthworms. I’m in charge of a few tasks around the house, cleaning, taking out the trash on trash days, but most importantly I’m in charge of two good but regularly loud dogs. It’s been a week so far, and they are starting to get used to me.

I also have access to a large table, the internet, a coffee maker, and a view of the neighborhood. It’s not a real writing residency; I’m not funded to go wander the hills of Pullman and get acquainted with the local mosquitoes, and the dogs’ needs, of course, take precedence over writing. But it’s a chance to use my time wisely.

Since settling in last Saturday, I’ve revised one essay, written another essay, submitted fifteen various essays and stories to journals, and read a handful of essays from various collections (out of order like a heretic). By the time I leave Pullman, I’ll have been productive. I don’t have much of an excuse not to be.

This isn’t exactly a vacation, though, not a real one. Everything is borrowed and temporary. Everything comes with a caveat that I’m a stranger. I’ve been thinking about Brian Blanchfield’s essay about housesitting for friends and colleagues. The notion that housesitting is trying on another life is apt. This is a life I’m not used to, one I have to learn, and am responsible for maintaining in the absence of this life’s real inhabitants. I’m not quite a guest, nor a visitor, and also not exactly a steward.

Stranger still is that Pullman in May is very green, and it’s been rainy and overcast but also somewhat warm, and I wandered around town the other day between showers, passing neighborhoods filled with so many plants that I sometimes didn’t realize there were houses, and as such the city keeps reminding me of Galway, Ireland. I even found an Irish pub downtown, something I haven’t seen since living in Lincoln. I went in for a drink, wishing I could stay, or bring my laptop and write and read in the corner and be moody with the dark wood decorum around me. But I couldn’t stay, because this isn’t a real residency.

This place, in its slight and uncanny differences too subtle to classify but too monumental to miss, makes me want to travel, to break out of my long-established routine, to be the one who needs a housesitter for a change. I know this will never happen, for a lot of reasons. But I can still accomplish as much as a real residency with what little I have. And of course I’ll never say no to access to dogs. Just look at them.

-jk