life as understood

by jeff carr, master of the arts, -------------------------------------------------------------------------- presumably from a couch


the revision process

courtesy of Jeff |

This post isn't necessarily about writing.

Stanford University is a stunningly grand place. I'll give you a second to look up photos of campus, which won't do it justice. The colonnades that surround each building on the main quad, for example, could never be captured in anything less than mural form. The corridors stretch seemingly for miles, remarkably unpeopled, enveloping a walker in a space that deftly reverberates with quality and tradition, even as the California sun sends in waves of warm vitality. The physical plant makes me want to be a better student now and a better citizen in the future.

It's a good thing, too, because some of the coursework so far has done just the opposite. It's not Stanford's fault. In fact, much of what has exasperated me thus far have been direct products of older and colder schools farther east, where the academy was born. A week and a day into graduate school, I'm starting to completely reconsider my one-time aspirations to become a professor.

This is big. A few weeks ago around a bonfire back in Utah, Sarah and I sat with two other young couples, friends of ours, answering questions about our spouses. It was a sort of Newlywed Game without points or explicit consequences. The question was posed: "What is your spouse's #1 interest, in one word?" Sarah looked at me, and didn't even hesitate before saying "academia." I took minor issue with that characterization, suggesting that "universities" or "college" might more appropriately engulf the athletic, administrative, and image aspects which interest me as well. Plus, Sarah is rightfully cynical about much that spews forth from the academy's highest windows. The point remains, though, that despite my admitted lack of career direction, academia has long been my default, so to speak. It has always made sense for me.

The cause of the university is something worth believing in--don't get me wrong--but over the past week and a day, I've been reminded of the limitations of certain high-minded academic pursuits. In fact, couple of my classes have already presented me with lectures and readings that seem to alienate intentionally. One professor, who just received his PhD last year from Oxford, presented everything in such a pedantic and arrogant manner that I ended up dropping his class and enrolling instead in another subject that hardly interests me at all. The most frustrating (and possibly appropriate) part is that the really alienating lectures, books, and journal articles are invariably about things that matter the very least. Some things in history, anthropology, and literature matter--in my opinion, the vast majority of things. Just not everyone focuses on those.

I, for one, cannot fault a person who wishes to spend his or her career ensconsed in the machinations of one little-known literary critic or in the semantics of how we should define a specific subculture. Critical thinking is good. But I suppose if I'm learning anything in grad school thus far it's that I want to use this critical thinking, this knowledge for accomplishing something real--for creating something real--in whatever sphere that may be.

In search of a much-needed break, we took a day trip to Monterey and Salinas on Saturday, where almost all of John Steinbeck's novels are set. We also toured the home where he was born, grew up, and wrote The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat. Next came the National Steinbeck Center, an impressive museum, especially considering that it's dedicated to the life and works of one brilliant, but by all accounts normal, man. In stark contrast to my feelings for my coursework, I was nearly brought to tears several times wandering through the exhibition hall, gaping at the beautiful stories that have touched so many lives, including my own. Especially striking was a quote from the writer which I had read before, explaining his motive behind East of Eden, the best book I've ever read:

"I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them."

That is a worthy cause.

Whatever it is I end up doing, I hereby vow to create (or at least attempt), and create (or at least attempt) with purpose. Getting paid for that can be tricky, but if a position opens up for Nobel Prize-winning writer, let me know. Meanwhile, I may be on the hunt for an alternate future.



courtesy of Jeff |

Two things happened over the past few months that have caused me to take a greater interest in my heritage. These are they:
1) my son was born, and his name is my name too.
2) Sarah and I made the decision to leave the great Eastern Idaho/Northern Utah region where my family has lived for generations. And as I admittedly take great stock in geography and how it defines people, I've been particularly desirous to take in as much of my beloved region as I can--the region that has shaped me so profoundly. In fact, all summer long, I've been wanting to take a heritage tour, a la my favorite movie, Everything is Illuminated.

The realization of said tour has taken place only slowly, in meandering steps that haven't left deep impressions. For some reason, I've purposefully been treading lightly. The hunt for the farmhouse in Kimberly, Idaho where my grandmother grew up with her homesteading Danish parents hit an anti-climax when my dad's weird cousin, the current inhabitant, didn't invite us in. I didn't push for it. I also lived literally across the street from my other grandmother's childhood home in Logan, Utah, for nearly two years without ever venturing in.

Frankly, it was enough for me to grasp things generally, until I found out about Russian Settlement. I knew I had to see it, touch it, breathe it in.

Nobody seems to know whether or not the hundred or so clannish religious outcasts from Russia who settled in Park Valley, Utah in 1914 had a name for their town. Like the village itself, the specifics are lost to history. Driven out by the rising Bolsheviks, they came first to California, and then became uneasy there following another incidence of persecution. Upon seeing a brochure for cheap land in which to "invest dimes and reap dollars" in Utah's far northwest corner, the troops picked up and re-settled. This photo, which I took last week, is probably exactly what they saw: nothing. 96 years later, the whole area remains empty--too wild to tame. Eventually, the poor band of Russians couldn't sustain themselves any longer and abandoned their desert settlement in 1918, just over three years after arriving in the supposedly lush valley.

As I wandered the dusty field where the town once stood, handling shards of bright purple glass and rusty rectangular cans, I wondered at the reasons that these people so quickly entered the realm of the forgotten. My grandfather, born in the valley in 1921, remembers the history, but he's one of only a handful, I suspect. It doesn't help that the area is ridiculously, romantically remote--seven miles on unmarked dirt roads to a town which in 2010 still boasts neither gas station nor cell phone reception. Limited grocery shopping and small doctors' offices are still an hour to two hours away.

What struck me more than anything was that, besides the remoteness, the main reason we don't remember Russian Settlement is that they didn't die, didn't eat each other like the Donners. As I surveyed the only existing "structure" of the town, a tiny picket-fenced cemetery with two graves--sisters--I realized that nobody else died. Though the harsh land so much as drove them away, only two out of a hundred people didn't make the long trek back to California, a remarkable feat for that time period. Their experiment failed, but they made a decision and conceded before things got really bad. History, it seems, doesn't shine upon societies that fail untragically.

After surveying the scene and its artifacts, I took a few more pictures of the dry landscape and turned the newly filthy Honda Civic back the other way toward the dirt "road" on which we arrived. By lingering at Russian Settlement, I delayed our own emigration to California for nearly two hours, but to me it was well worth it. The region may be behind me now, but as I've begun to introduce myself to others here on the coast, it seems a more palpable part of me than ever. I will be back to settle the arid land someday, I promise.