Tag Archives: Winter

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

Poem: Litany of Gratitude

Snowsteps

Litany of Gratitude

I failed to look at the weather reports,
and now I’m ankle-deep in snow
staring above me at white sheets of snowfall, like paper
curtaining my memory in the open street.

There are no sad snow moments for me,
even when there should be. I am only grateful
for the alls and everythings I’ve known,
that I have friends who can knit hats
or produce scarves, socks, all cozy chic;

that I was not born to dig for copper,
or in the malarial sectors of our history,
that luck has placed me in a retrospective personality
surrounded by a box of mirrors,
that I am not the kind of person to scorn
such blessings as a given but as icy coincidence
no more deserved than a cracked skull on a freeway
over sleek, glossy, cold-kissing pavement;

that my new tiny watch fits my wrist
an hour ahead of the friend who put it there
so I can send postcards from the future:
a storm is coming, wrap up warm,
this orange slice of time is serene, I hope you’ll enjoy it;

that simple things make me whimsical,
that it is right that we should at all times and in all places
be whimsical, that the possibility of giggling
is as real as the dance of snowflakes on our tongues;

that snow is not stupendous but soft,
not a knighthood adorned in force
but a book whose pages are whitened sidewalk squares
recording the theologians and cops and the homeless,
the students and plumbers and construction workers,
farmers in heavy boots, bankers in leather shoes,
sheet after sheet of snow, and feet making brief prints in time,
like a ferocious typewriter, as we move
in search of someplace else, something soon, out of the snow;

that I have enough ego to record the sainthood of passerby,
all of them leaving a mark that will melt,
just as this poem will dissolve soon enough
into anti-syllabic nonsense. Still,
I am grateful for these blessings
and the tumultuous motion of others
stamping their feet where I stand, numb,
staring at the snow-forlorn sidewalk
giving sidelong glances to the saints.

-jk

Very Near the Last Best Place

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” -John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Snowy Horseman

It’s been especially cold in the Bitterroot Valley this week. The air is fat with moisture, and below-freezing temperatures are typical. Still, there is clarity in the cold, standing at the center of the Valley’s balding head. The crown of mountains rolling up and down across the horizon like changing statistics are garnished with snow and the torn fabric of clouds. The trees carry tufts of it, the fields and sleepy barns hold sheets of it stretched thin into ice, and the sky lets down more, flake by perfect, God’s-eye flake.

River Icy

In the middle of the ring of mountains, I stand surrounded by the monumental totality, the jagged white-purple strips draped below a hazy, bitter blue sky, like skin left out in the cold too long.  My nose hairs freeze as I breathe in and look at the sunlit snowscape, a territory lost in cold dreams of something to bloom later, something better to come, something beautiful in the future. I find beauty in the waiting, or try to. The snow is a fixation for me. This frigid terrarium of agriculture and forestry is astounding.

Fence

Maybe there really is such a thing as timelessness. Maybe there’s a way to stop time, step out of it like out of a beater truck, and frame time within electrical confines. Keep it forever, or send the past into the future untarnished by change. But the snow will melt, and something gorgeous will replace it. Trees will philosophize, flowers will converse, and a listlessness of birdsong will fill the air.

Snow Mountain

I pull my camera from my bag, take my gloves off, and take a picture of the landscape. The snow is so lovely, and it melts so quickly when touched, so I try to hold it in another way. I can hardly use my fingers when I lower the camera. I didn’t notice how numb they’d gotten in the photographic thrill of momentlessness.

-jk

All photos copyrighted material of Lost Compass Photography, 2016. Donations, or else get-well-financially cards, are always welcome.

 

Midnight Train to Colorado

LocomotiveYesterday afternoon, I crawled off the California Zephyr after spending sixteen hours next to a window watching snowy mountains go by as I sat alone with a good book (Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker), some new music on my iPod (Bombay Bicycle Club), and laptop to write short stories (Sci-Fi and Cli-Fi, with very little Wi-Fi). I was completely alone, standing up only to stretch and get coffee from the service car. It was spectacular.

A century ago, trains propelled people into expanses of uncertainty. They helped us contract time and space, a theme I regularly wrestle with. Trains pushed Europe into Asia, and solidified New England. They stapled towns together across the American Midwest like a string of Christmas lights, one after another after another, bringing them to the foot of the Rockies and knitting cross-communal quilts in the process. The railroad changed history entirely.

Today, trains are far from the fastest form of transportation. I could have gone home by plane in a fifth of the time it took by train. But for a historian and writer, trains are the perfect form of travel. Being able to slow down, lean back, and reflect on the past semester was just what I needed.

Midnight Train to Colorado

It’s difficult for me not to be reflective this time of year. Winter break imposes introspection. In one year, I’ve changed more than I thought possible. I almost wrote a novel but completed a poetry manuscript, and saw the publication of two poems, an essay, a story, and a ten-minute play. In the past year, I found more of my voice than I had in ten years prior. I also moved to a new home and school, leaving behind everything familiar. I raced through the last semester too fast to enjoy it, propelled by a locomotive of too much ambition.

These days, trains are a way of retracting time and space, and after running through the semester at full speed, slowing down to watch the nightscapes and frosted mountains go by was a healthy step back, a way to manage the introspection overwhelming me after a year of so many wonderful, terrifying changes.

-jk