Shot of Jack #3 The Killers, The Chair, and Evergreen

Hello and welcome to another Shot of Jack, my monthly newsletter. I keep thinking about making this more than monthly, but then I’m reminded of how long it takes me to get one of these things out given everything else going on. So at least for the rest of 2021 I’m going to stick to the monthly schedule.

What do you think? Do you want a Shot of Jack more than once a month?

I’m still experimenting with what this newsletter is and what it can be. If you have any questions for me, let me know and maybe I’ll put them in the newsletter. The same goes for suggestions.

For me it’s been a rough month. A relative passed away. I sprained my rotator cuff. I applied for a job I’ve never been more qualified for and have only heard crickets. My living situation has become more precarious. I’ve collected a few more rejections from publishers and agents. And through it all, I’m still in the final weeks of working on my Master’s at Goddard College.

This month I’m going to tell you a story I haven’t talked about much. I’m going to tell you how I was almost expelled from Evergreen State College and why I ended up turning down my acceptance to Evergreen Tacoma’s MPA program and ultimately applying at Goddard for their MFA in Creative Writing program.

But before that, let me tell you about the new Killers album and a TV show you should watch if you haven’t already.

What I’m Listening To

You might not recognize the name Brandon Flowers. He’s the lead singer of the Killers. They just released their second album in less than a year and it’s a concept album about his hometown of Nephi, Utah.

For those used to the bombastic sound of the Killers, Pressure Machine will seem like a significant departure. Most of the tracks start with a short interview with locals of Nephi conducted by NPR for the album.

Nephi is a town of just over 6,000 people, 83 miles outside of Salt Lake City. Pressure Machine paints a town of hopes and tragedies. He takes us through the town’s working class population where most guys work at the rubber plant and drink at the bar. Some dream of being as free as the wild horses they sometimes see in the west hills. Some find freedom by stepping in front of one of the freight trains that go by twice a day. And far too many find their freedom in opioids that have hit towns like Nephi like a meteor.

All of this can be found within the songs of Pressure Machine. The lyrics of each track are written from the perspectives of various people in the town. A small time drug dealer. A married cop in love with a married waitress. Even Flowers himself. Like all good concept albums, it rewards repeated listenings. Repeated images and words help the discerning listener make connections between the songs.

For me, the thing I keep coming back to is the economy of language in the lyrics of these songs. Look how much information is conveyed in just the opening lines of the track, Desperate Things:

She was doing 60 in a 35
I hit the lights and pulled her over
When I reached the window of the driver side
There was blood from her mouth, dry on her shoulder

I've never had much patience for guys that hit
For more than just obvious reasons
I asked if she wanted me to take him in
She laughed it off like lemonade

In just those eight lines I know so much about who these people are and what their situation is and it’s just as much about what isn’t being said as what is.

Pressure Machine is more than the sum of its parts, creating a living, breathing small town over the course of eleven tracks.

Pressure Machine was nothing like I expected it to be and I mean that in the best possible way.

What I’m Watching

I ended up watching The Chair when a college professor I know said this about it:

“They got it so painfully right, and the performances are simply stellar. Each character is wonderfully multifaceted. We watched the last episode last night, and I've been thinking about it, on and off, all day, marveling. I know these people. I know this place. Seriously. And it gets better in hindsight.”

The Chair is a six episode miniseries starring Sandra Oh as the new Chair of the English Department in the fictional lower Ivy-League Pembroke University. She’s the first woman to hold the position and the first woman of color to hold the position. But as she learns very quickly, it’s a thankless job.

For a show that spans just over three hours, it manages to cram a lot into it. From the uninterested tenured professors who should have retired years ago to the younger professor going through a personal crisis to the students who are just looking for a reason to be outraged to the very real balancing act of trying to have a successful academic career without ending up a scapegoat or a showpiece.

All of this is done with a care and humor that makes the show very addictive.

The Chair is available on Netflix.

What I’m Thinking About

Six weeks before I began my first residency at Fort Worden in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing program I was sitting at a thin table in a small room across from a convicted murderer. We were there because I was accused of revealing his murder conviction to the student body of The Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus.

The head of faculty, Dr. Anthony Zaragoza, suggested that failure to meet with this man would result in my dismissal from the Writing Center and possibly even the school. He didn’t actually say that. He said, “I want you to keep working at the Writing Center. I want you to graduate.” Nice college career. It’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.

If this were fiction I might call this ‘the inciting incident’, the sort of thing that pushes the rest of the story forward. But in order to understand that incident, we have to go back further. After spending the previous two years in Evergreen Tacoma’s Bachelor of Arts program, I had been accepted into their Master’s In Public Administration program. I had spent months talking with the director of that program, making sure I had completed all of the requirements, getting the necessary letters of recommendation, and researching the possibilities such a degree might afford me.

The last two years at Evergreen’s Tacoma campus had been so welcoming and transformative that I genuinely didn’t want to leave. When I heard about the opportunity to spend two more years at Evergreen Tacoma in their new MPA program, I jumped at the chance.

I also loved helping people improve their writing working as a tutor for Evergreen’s Writing Center. One particular fellow student kept showing up for appointments. She was a talented writer with a thirst for knowledge, and a genuine interest in writing. We became fast friends.

Our conversations soon included much more than craft. We talked about her marriage. My girlfriend. Our kids. Our dreams. Our mistakes. One day she asked me about another classmate. I told her I didn’t know much about him, then added, “I know he’s an ex-con.”

She leaned forward, “How do you know that?”

“It’s easy to tell if you know what to look for. He tends to keep his back to the wall. He pays attention to the room and the people in it. He’s quiet. But most of all it’s the eyes.”

“The eyes?”

“One-way. They stare out but don’t let anyone in.”

“What’d he do?”

“I have no idea.” I could have left it at that, but I didn’t. “I can find out.”

I then spent five minutes on a public website and learned in the 1990s the student she was asking about killed his wife. Five minutes more of looking at old news articles revealed details of the crime and his sentencing and how he’d gotten out a couple of years ago after nearly two decades in prison.

“Why did you want to know about him?” I asked.

“He asked if I could give him rides home from class,” she said.

“Well, he’s probably fine, but if I were you I wouldn’t do that.”

The Tacoma program of the Evergreen State College is small. Everything takes place in one two-story building and there are around a hundred and fifty people there including students, staff, and faculty. The small population creates a close community. Everyone knows everyone by face if not name. Young single parents often bring their children to class. Every week there are tables with free books or free food. There is a sense of safety and belonging. When I was attending Evergreen Tacoma, I cared about this world and wanted to protect it.

Discovering a convicted murderer in our community gave me mixed emotions. On one hand, if you’ve just been released from prison, one of the best places for you to be is in higher education. Formerly incarcerated individuals who go to college are among the least likely to reoffend. On the other hand, if you’re a young mother attending night classes it’d be nice if you knew that the guy asking for a ride home was a convicted murderer.

I did what I always do with conflicted feelings. I wrote. At the time I had an email-only newsletter. You couldn’t read it unless you were a subscriber and I only had about eighty of those. Most were friends. Some were strangers. A few of them were classmates.

I took particular pains to avoid identifying the man, even going so far as to not mention that he was a man. I made no conclusions in the newsletter because I didn’t have any. It didn’t matter. A student subscriber named Chad contacted Dr. Zaragoza, the Head of Faculty at that time and told him, “Jack Cameron is outing formerly incarcerated students online.”

Chad also posted this message on Evergreen Tacoma’s Facebook page. The message didn’t have a link to my newsletter because it was only available via email. It did not say who I supposedly outed because I had not identified anyone and since I had not told Chad, he did not know who the convicted murderer was.

I started getting Facebook messages from students angry at me for outing someone I never identified. One called me racist though I never identified the race of anyone involved. Then I got a message from Dr. Z himself giving me his home phone number and asking me to call him immediately.

I called and explained what had happened. He asked me to send him a copy of the newsletter which I did. He then asked for the identity of the convicted murderer. He promised this information would go no further than him. I told him not knowing he would break this promise.

I let him know about the messages I was getting from students. It was the weekend. He suggested maybe I should not go to campus for a few days and let things die down. I was incredulous. To my mind, I had done nothing wrong. All that had really occurred was that another student was lying about me and I was dealing with the consequences of that lie. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. But the messages weren’t stopping and if the Head of Faculty told me not to show up to class, there wasn’t much I could do.

I ended up not attending for a full week. When I returned there were students who came up to me and were very supportive. Others never spoke to me again.

On my first day back, Dr. Z approached me and said he felt it would be best if I sat down with him and the convicted murderer to get everything sorted out. This made no sense to me because as far as I knew, the murderer didn’t know anything about what Chad was saying at all. But it turned out Dr. Z had told him.

The subsequent conversation was awkward. The student I’d never really talked to showed me a scar he said he received during the fight with his wife that ended with her death. He told me how the news reports got many details wrong. He talked about how different he was now. I listened. I apologized because regardless of what I intended, between the actions of me, Chad, and Dr. Z, he had been identified. I then thanked him for his time and left.

Next I contacted the head of Evergreen Tacoma’s MPA program and told her I was no longer interested. It was May of 2019. In a month I’d have my Bachelor’s Degree and I had just torched my plans for the next two years. I didn’t have a plan B.

I was allowed to continue working at the Writing Center but no one signed up to meet with me. With no students to tutor at the Writing Center, I found myself feeling not only exiled but bored. One day stumbled upon brochure on the floor and picked it up. As I was about to throw it away, I noticed that it read, “Goddard College MFA in Creative Writing.”

- Jack Cameron