Tag Archives: thought

Making Sense of the Things We Love

books 3

It’s early on a Saturday morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and scholars wander around with free coffee in their hands to one of a dozen panels in one of many sessions in the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference. Topics range from The Grateful Dead to Motor Culture to Film and History. I attend one on Sci-Fi and Fantasy during this session.

The two papers presented are on Jim Henson’s fantasy films (such as Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie) and the television program Ancient Aliens. The second speaker states that he loves Ancient Aliens, and though he refrains from using the phrase “guilty pleasure,” it’s clear from his analysis that he agrees with none of the theories put forward on the program. Instead, he critiques the faulty logic and Euro-centric rhetoric while simultaneously praising the show for trying to subvert the idea that hard-fixed academia is the only source of knowledge. The speaker also points out that the show is outside his academic field. His paper is simply an attempt to make sense of something he loves, and that the whole conference is about people making sense of things they love.

I find that sentiment reassuring. It proves to me something I’d suspected, that pleasure and criticism are not mutually exclusive. Speakers stepped out of their fields of immediate interest to talk about their favorite movies, books, TV shows, music, and the pop culture they love, not to ridicule it but to analyze it.

Almost entirely absent from the conference is a kind of academic elitism that I’ve encountered more and more lately, a hierarchy placing scholars above fans. Obviously, scholars do not need to enjoy everything we analyze (I’m looking at you, James Fenimore Cooper), and maybe we do not need to analyze everything we enjoy (though for an academic, that is very hard to do). Nevertheless, there are many academics who believe that the ability to criticize makes them superior to others.

The conference proved fans and academics can inhabit the same space equally. There were very few moments when scholars looked down on anybody for enjoying pop culture. There was no status involved in the academia; it was communal, friendly, positive, constructive, and creative, qualities I’ve found myself missing in academia lately.

Being critical does not make me better than others. It may give me a more nuanced perspective, but more accurately, I think, it gives me a differently nuanced perspective. With few exceptions, nobody is better than anybody for anything; the rigid hierarchies I’ve encountered so often separating students from faculty, graduate from undergraduate, critic from fan, are unnecessary and unhealthy. I’m pleased to have found a space where fans and critics are on equal footing, where people can be both at the same time. I’m glad to find a place where the egotism that drives much of academia is suspended, and criticism and enjoyment work hand-in-hand.

-jk

Tales From the Thrift Store

ThriftyI can’t remember the last time I went shopping for clothes. I still wear most of the same things I had in high school and hoped that my minimal wardrobe would last forever when I moved to Lincoln. After losing forty-two buttons, an unfortunate mishap involving bleach, and then proceeding to lose a significant amount of weight in Lincoln by switching to a diet of mostly oxygen and hydrogen, I realized finally that I’m starting to look a little weird in my old clothes. So yesterday, I trekked through the aftermath of Nebraska’s most recent snowstorm to a row of thrift stores downtown, just to take a look around.

For environmental and humanitarian reasons, I will only ever purchase used clothes. The damage has already been done, slave labor already used, Jesus has already cried his usual tears of blood, and at least fourteen MORE elephants won’t be killed in order for me to possess a belt.

As I searched desperately for clothes to fit a short bony dude with a disproportionately big head (which is why I sometimes look like an extraterrestrial), I wondered about the donators. About the reasons for donating. There were stories behind every article of clothing I perused. Maybe a nasty divorce prompted a disappointed man to donate all the ties his ex-wife gave him; maybe a widow donated her husband’s shirts after he took a bullet in Afghanistan; maybe somebody decided he had too many jeans; maybe he gained weight or lost closet space. It’s easy to imprint little fictions onto these old items. It’s fun, even, to wonder about who owned this pair of pink sunglasses or that tacky gold and green parrot-covered sports jacket. I’m a part of the narrative too; everything I give and take changes the equation. I’m an actor in the saga of the exchange of used clothes, and therefore the exchange of unwritten mysteries.

Or so I’d like to think. There may be mysteries, but I’ll never solve them. I may never even figure out the premise. What really matters is that now I can read at a conference in a neon green sports jacket with gold leather sleeves and smiling parrots patterned across the whole thing.

-jk

In the Company of Roses

Flower Last week, a man told me a parable about a lump of clay and some roses. He cited it as a Persian parable, but I did some research and found that it actually comes from the thirteenth century Persian poet Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, commonly known as Sa’di. He is one of the most influential poets in Islamic and Asian literature. In Iran, April 21 is celebrated as Sa’di Day.

While Europeans were busy killing each other in the medieval period, which they eventually termed the Dark Ages like a bad sequel to the Roman Empire, most of Western and Central Asia witnessed an artistic, philosophical, and scientific renaissance. Sa’di was only a part of this unique cultural era.

The poem I heard comes from the “Adoration and Preamble” section of Gulistan, or “the rose garden,” one of Sa’di’s most famous works. It reads something like this:

“I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, ‘Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.’

Till some­one set me down beside a rose,’
it said, ‘I was a loath­some lump of clay.
My companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.'”

Apart from talking lumps of clay, I love this poem because it reminds me that I am defined by my proximity to others more than I realize.

Artistically, I am the product of the writers and poets I read: Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck, Dunya Mikhail, Jamaica Kincaid, and Pablo Neruda have made me the writer I am. Aesthetically, the Southwest made me an experimental, avant-garde magical realist. Socially, I am shaped by my friends, family, lovers, mentors, and the two or three enemies I keep around for good measure. Professionally, I’m a workaholic, being the son of professors who know education is a religious devotion serving the many at the expense of the few, the happy few.

I’m honored to live in the company of roses. I surround myself with those who inspire me. It took me a while to figure out how miserable one can get surrounded by those who are negative, over-critical, dishonest, manipulative, and toxic. I don’t mean I’m in the company of the perfect; all roses have their thorns. But for what it’s worth, I’m glad to let my friends rub off on me. It makes me a better person (and apparently more appealing to bathe with) to walk with roses.

-jk

Big League Academia

New WriterTwo months into my first year of graduate school, I think I’ve finally started to settle in. The workload is not beyond my management (I somehow function better with less sleep), the faculty are just as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and my descent deeper into the cult of academia is going smoothly; soon, I’m told, I’ll be a card-carrying postmodernist. The support my writing receives is frequent, and the possibility of a writing career is even starting to take shape.

For example, this past week I had the opportunity to meet with two agents and two editors, to have them critique a section of my novel-in-progress and discuss the publishing industry. They told me what they liked about the short section, offered insights, made revision suggestions, and allowed me to see the project in grander terms. I learned that when I eventually get an agent and editor, publishing becomes a collaborative effort, a group project. They offered to stay in contact when I have a polished draft. Suddenly, the fantasy of publication no longer feels so impossible.

Is this it? Is this the next step for my writing? Or is this just the next phase in my hike up the ranks into academia? I ask myself this question because I’m surrounded by people who have it figured out already. I’m surrounded by serious academics, doctoral students devoting years to studying, students fulfilling long-term plans. Many of them took a break after college to figure out the rest of their lives, get married, travel, go on adventures, experience things they can then write about. And here I am, fresh out of my undergraduate career.

Am I here because I want to be a writer, or because I want to be an academic? I feel like a kid who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up, and time is running out. Do I teach? Get a PhD? Another MA? An MFA? Is there life after publication? Or should I let my ambitions dictate my future? Tired of studying tragedy but never taking that study out of the classroom, I still want to join a charity, volunteer in a hospital in Palestine or Afghanistan or Jordan, or work on an organic farm in Chile or Brazil. I want to see the world, because I know if I stay in the confines of an English Department, I’ll run out of things to write about.

I’m still just a kid, academically speaking, and I’m surrounded by intellectual adults. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked about my PhD, as if that’s the only end in sight, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve silently shrugged and changed the subject. I only have until next fall to figure it out, though. Do I become a career academic? Teach? Work? Let me know in the comments your own thoughts or plans.

-jk