Thursday, September 7, 2017

Yes, I'm writing a book about Saint Joseph's College

So I've had many questions asked of me about my writing a book.

I can confirm that I am indeed writing a book about the closure of Saint Joseph's College. After said confirmation, I'm then often asked "What exactly is this book going to be about?" To that, I answer in three parts:

1. I want to tell the story of those who were there. That means faculty, students, staff, alumni, and the people of the community of Rensselaer. Many have suffered much and their stories deserve to be told. We, sadly, have come to know many stories of what happens when a factory, steel mill, corporate office, or other such industry that a community depends on shuts down. How is it the same/different when it's an institution of higher learning? Unfortunately, the nation may know more as time goes on if Moody's Investment Guide is any indication. Which leads me to...

2. How does the closure of Saint Joseph's College compare to other college closures across the nation? If you're writing a book. you must also think of business and marketing. That means finding an audience beyond the Saint Joseph's community. How does what we experienced tie in to what has happened with other small, American colleges? It's been predicted that there will be a record number of small college closings in the coming years. Yes, I'm an academic and I tend to think in terms of compare/contrast. Also, does this have anything to do with the current political climate of the country?

3. Of course there have been many conspiracy theories about why the college closed...or "suspended operations" as the party line would force-feed you to believe. If any of the dark motivations are verifiable and if innocent people have been victims of chicanery, then I would like to bring the perpetrators to justice. That, of course, requires me having verifiable facts and that might be difficult. If I can gather enough solid facts and enough people who would be willing to talk, then yes...there are people whose careers I would love to ruin. But the law must be on my side.

So how will the book be written?

This will be a work of literary nonfiction.

What does that mean? How can something be "literary" and still be nonfiction?

Let me put it this way:

This Monday will be the anniversary of 9/11. I could write a book about that day of terror using only the facts. I could give the exact time of when each plane hit each tower of the World Trade Center. I could give the exact number of people killed that day. I could cite the political deliberations in Congress in the days following the attacks via use of Congressional Record. But would that give anyone any idea of what it was like to be in New York City that morning? Would it convey what it was like to breathe in pulverized glass? Would it give any human depth of what it was like to experience such a day? No. For that, you need the techniques of a fiction writer. To find out what really happened, you need to leave the "just the facts, ma'am" position of the news and write in a way that brings home the descriptive truth of the moment.

What will this mean in terms of a book about St. Joe? Well...

1.The writer will be a character. I cannot be neutral about this in the way that a journalist could. This is my story. I am a character in my own story. I am writing about this in the way that I experienced it. Not only will I convey the facts as I observed them, but I will be offering my own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is in keeping with the memoir style of writing, of which you can read more here.

2. Mobile stance. I can weave between subjects. While discussing Saint Joe, I can digress and talk about...say, Antioch College. How are we the same? How are we different? The more people I can draw connections to outside of the SJC community, the more people our story will resonate with. Believe me, my research has already demonstrated to me that there are several academics/students across the nation who have shared a similar experience and we should stand in solidarity. To present this, I will need...

3. Research, research, research. Though literary, the writing must first and foremost be in service to the truth. I will need to be become intimate with my subject. This means learning about what has happened at other colleges in the U.S. It also means learning about how not only Saint Joseph's College but the town of Rensselaer and the Society of the Precious Blood came to be. One must know the complete history of how something came to be in order to understand it. The Core program taught me that. I am also finding that I need to become at least semi-knowledgeable on the subjects of business and finance. I have already undergone a vast number of interviews with people both inside and outside of the Puma community. Here's well-known nonfiction writer Susan Orlean on the subject of research and "being there."

Still want to know what this book will be like? Well, then I have a reading list for you. What kind of a professor would I be if I couldn't assign readings? To get an idea of what I'm trying to do, check out these books...

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
Capote went to Holcomb, Kansas after he read a small blurb about a family that had been murdered in a botched robbery. Yes, I know Capote likely fabricated and condensed many facets of his narrative, but he spent copious amounts of time interviewing people in and researching the town of Holcomb. He pioneered the idea of the "nonfiction novel."

The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer.
I read this book in grad school and it really opened up my eyes to what nonfiction writing could do. Mailer is master of phrasing as he describes his participation in a march on the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. His relation of the events plus his gestalt-like observations of himself in the moment changed everything. Very meta. The novel as history. History as a novel.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.
Research conveyed through the techniques of a fiction writer. True and riveting.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.
Hunter is the man. This is "gonzo journalism" at its finest. It's a true story but the writer is very much in it and engaged. Seemingly breaking the rules of journalism, the writer could not get closer to the subject...and it works. I hope I can convey the very same sense of intimacy in my book...only without all the drug use. Then again, maybe I should have been using drugs. Might've made the final days of St. Joe more bearable. But I digress...

This is not to say that I place myself or my work on equal parity with any of these writers or their books. Not at all. They are models, templates to follow. In fact, my biggest hope is simply that I can do justice to the people who were there at Saint Joseph's College and lived through this whole nightmare.

Also, this all depends on me finding a publisher who is interested. If any Pumas out there know of someone and want to help out, hit me up.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, September 4, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind rereleased

It is not only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, it is one of the greatest films of all time. Period.

A digitally remastered edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is enjoying a serotinal re-release in theaters for its 40th anniversary. I went to see it today as I never had the chance to see it on the big screen when I was a kid. It's magnificent. I know there have been grumblings among techie cinephiles out there about aspect ratios or the loss of film grain. I. Don't. Care.

In the event that there is a reader who has not seen this landmark achievement yet, I will do two things. One, I will (mostly) try to avoid spoilers. Two, I will give a quick precis of the film.

Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is an electrical line worker who on a call late one night, has an encounter with a UFO. From that point forward, his mind is obsessed with the image of an odd, conical formation of rock and the sensation that something momentous is about to take place.

This film is a straight masterpiece, top to bottom. Though I actively looked, I still could not find any flaws with it (except perhaps for one which I will address later). I could be here all day describing how Spielberg's genius is on full display in shot composition and a knack for terrifying suspense that rivals Hitchcock. Instead, I thought I would focus on one of his talents that seldom gets attention: writing.

How often we might forget that Steven Spielberg wrote the script for this film. And it's a corker.

The attention-grabbing opening scene, the believable dialogue, the pacing, it's all a tour-de-force example of composing narrative. As readers of ESE might imagine, I have always been drawn to how Spielberg deftly wove together so many actual facets of Ufology. Not only do they serve as "Easter eggs" for researchers both professional and armchair alike, they become seamless aspects of the narrative's fabric and not forced, winky nods as lesser writer-directors have a tendency to do. A friend of mine, as well as others I have spoken with in the past, said that CE3K probably started a lot of what we now know as the modern UFO narrative. Not at all. This film, didn't "start" anything. It simply brought what was already well-known to many researchers and UFO true-believers at the time into the consciousness of popular culture.

Here are but a few examples of which I speak:

-Flight 19, the group of Avenger bombers that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945.
-Police squad cars chasing UFOs.
-UFOs causing power outages.
-Project Serpo
-Airliner pilots and air traffic control having sightings, as well as midair near-misses, and not reporting them for fear they'd lose their careers.
-Of course, the physical appearance of what is now known as the standard "Grey" or "Gray" alien. 

What's more, the character of Lacombe (played by Francois Truffaut) is based on famous Ufologist, Jacques Vallee, who also served as a consultant on the film. Word has it that Vallee was rather disappointed in the movie's ending as the visitors turn out to be extraplanetary aliens in nuts-and-bolts spaceships and not the ethereal, "superspectrum"-styled beings that Vallee postulates. Also, watch for astronomer-turned-Ufologist J. Allen Hynek in the end sequence as he pushes his way to the front of the welcoming crowd and places his pipe in his mouth.

All of this UFO geekery is nice, but focusing on it overlooks a core component of the film. Yes, ostensibly this is about making contact with aliens. The true human story here, however, is about a family coming apart. It is regular people in ungodly strange circumstances. The strain, the emotional pain, the tragedy of once connected lives ripped apart, it hits a bit close to home. Spielberg creates utterly believable characters and then sends them through the wringer...because he has to. It's as moving as any other "mainstream" human drama. For me, it's the most poignantly written aspect of the film.

Which may make viewers sit up and go "WHAT??" the first time they see Roy make his choice at the end of the movie. How could he do that to his kids? Well, even Spielberg himself has said that jars him in later years, but as he astutely points out, he wrote it before he himself became a father. That tends to change one's perspective. Also, maybe the choice is due to the headiness of the moment and a character not thinking clearly, or even an actual character flaw. This is that one criticism I have that I mentioned previously.

Consider this as well. Up until its release in 1977, I can think of no other science fiction film that does what CE3K does. There is no combat. There is no "us vs. them" conflict between Earth and the aliens. Instead, the aliens emerge from their gorgeous, cathedral-like craft as all look on in wonder. They then greet humanity with peace and compassion. True, there is no verbal communication to express such sentiment, but Spielberg articulates it in so many other creative ways (most memorably the iconic "five tones" on the keyboard). The methods and motives of the aliens may be inscrutable and at times terrifying, but they seem to express that they have our best interests at heart. That might be just Spielberg's natural optimism at work, but there may be something else to it.

There is a nice little featurette before the re-released edition. In it, Spielberg is interviewed and he reflects on the 40th anniversary. He says, and I'm really paraphrasing it here, he never made this to be a science fiction film. It's only science fiction if you are someone who does not believe in life elsewhere. That brings new meaning to the tagline of one of CE3K's promotional posters...

"We are not alone."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, August 31, 2017

When I taught science fiction

There are any number of reasons why I miss my home. One of them is books.

The books I would teach, I mean. Don't get me wrong, just about everything I teach involves a book or two given that composition is my discipline, but it was different at Saint Joseph's College. Not only did the Core program allow me to teach many volumes included in the Great Books canon, I also got to teach bona fide texts of science fiction, obviously my favorite genre.

Elysium, I tell you.

As the waning but humid days of August are upon us and school is back in session, it dawns on me that I am unlikely to teach these books ever again. So, with no small degree of sadness, I thought I would blog a post that looks at each one of these books and how they fit in the curriculum.

Feed by M.T. Anderson
Titus and his teen friends go to the Moon to party and all they got was a stupid hack.
In this future, everyone has a implant in their brains that grants them constant connection to the Internet. Imagine a nonstop Facebook or Twitter feed in your mind, hence the name. But what happens when it all goes wrong? As with any text, one of my main questions to students is one of authorial exigency. Why did the writer feel compelled to write the text in the first place? Well, we were lucky enough to have M.T. Anderson appear via Skype to answer just this question. He said that he wrote Feed to address the subject of literacy. What happens when we stop reading and writing and just get the Internet delivered into our heads? I also found it interesting how many students grew frustrated with the language of the book. Anderson wrote much of it in the vernacular of a teenager in that future, meaning he made up quite a bit of slang. The students didn't know how to interpret a lot of it. I asked them then how they think they might sound today to generations past?
This book prompted many questions of just what technology may be doing to us. If nothing else, it allowed me the opportunity to lecture on transhumanism.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This is of course a classic of dystopian fiction. Huxley, "The greatest writer in English of the 20th Century" according to the Chicago Tribune, deftly paints a future where all humans come about through genetic engineering, are placed at birth in a caste system, and are subsequently amused to death by drugs and media. The number of questions raised by this text number in the thousands. Is science the answer to everything? Exactly what comments is the writer trying to make on Communism, the "assembly line" model of living, and how a society should be ordered (if it should be ordered at all)? I knocked out quite a fun lecture on this one as well, attempting to sell students on the Brave New World while feigning being stoned on soma the whole time (it was really Mike and Ikes). My edition of the text has a nifty introduction by Christopher Hitchens, but if you're an audio learner, the audiobook is available on YouTube.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Another dystopian classic. In this future, reading is illegal and books are burned by a totalitarian government. The people dispatched to do this burning are ironically called "firemen." One of these firemen, a man named Guy Montag, meets a former English teacher who dares to still read. Montag's life is changed. This stranger he barely knows is infinitely more intriguing to Montag than his wife of many years who just sits at home and watches TV. How can Montag go back to his old life upon encountering this sage?
Those English teachers. Always causing trouble. But I digress...
This is a cautionary fable by a masterful writer. I would mandate it be read by all college students nationwide. What happens when technology advances to a point where reading is no longer required? Why would anyone make reading illegal? What book would you memorize in order to preserve it?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I realize that many genre purists might find this to be a dicey inclusion. Isn't this really gothic horror, brought about as the result of a ghost story? Well it's a definite yes on the horror aspect and a better-think-about-it on the ghost story contest. At the same time however, others point to Shelley's masterpiece as an early example of science fiction. Think about it. The very title is synonymous with the phrase "science has gone too far." Just because we can, does that mean we should? Victor Frankenstein's creation is a cautionary reminder for anyone who dares to go too far. By the way, I was asked if it bothers me that so many people call the Creature from the book "Frankenstein" when that's really the name of the creator. I told them that the English professor in me is quite cheesed at it, yes. However, the kid in me who loves monster movies thinks it's A-OK. Speaking of which, I'll show you just how sci-fi Frankenstein can be. Go right now and watch Toho's Frankenstein Conquers the World...

I know these books will always be with me as both a reader and a writer. I hope that I am given the opportunity to teach one of them, any one of them, again. Failing that, I hope that I can create the opportunity to teach them. If nothing else, I hope that this post may prompt someone who has yet to read any of these science fiction books to check them out and give them a try.

Might want to try memorizing the book while you're at it. The way things are going, the firemen might show up any day now.

Until next time, my best.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, August 25, 2017

This Sunday in 1958, a legend was born

On August 28th, 1958, a legend entered the American popular consciousness.

And a six year-old Jon Nichols couldn't have been happier.

A construction crew was building a road near Bluff Creek, California. Jerry Crew, one of the workers, arrived on the site amid the tall pines early that morning on the 28th. He was shocked at what he found. Next to his bulldozer was a trail of 16-inch long footprints in the mud. Eventually, plaster casts were made of the prints (see above pic). Someone informed a local newspaper and the paper ran a story, calling the mysterious maker of footprints, "Bigfoot." Although the article also spoke to local Native Americans about their centuries old legends of an "ape man" called "Sasquatch" said to roam the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, it was of course the name "Bigfoot" that stuck. The rest is history.

The whole idea captivated me in my childhood. I checked out copious books from the library on the subject, I sat glued to Leonard Nimoy's In Search Of episodes that tracked Bigfoot and his Asian relative, the Yeti, and I can still remember holding the phone when my dear Grandma told me Bigfoot had been seen near her farm in Ohio. Who knows how many times I watched the Patterson Film during that era, footage that was shot by the way near Bluff Creek. Here's the iconic still from the film.

Why my fascination? I think for the same basic reason that the legend has endured for so long. That is, we love telling stories. It's in our collective make-up to compose narratives, whether they be oral or written, and to tell them to one another. Few things could be more compelling than the idea of a half-human/half-ape creature, whether incogitant or sentient, living in what few wild places still remain on our continent. That may be another factor. Like the accounts of werewolves or "dogmen," the idea of Bigfoot may serve as a link to our primal past. While we are ostensibly more civilized these days, humans are still animals by nature. Maybe we still wish we were still roaming the woods as "wild men."

Note how many stories involve what might lurk in "the woods."

As for the reality of Bigfoot itself, doesn't look good. While there are many sightings and legends that predate Western contact, there still isn't much solid, concrete evidence for creature. If there is, then somebody should probably get it through peer review because they have an amazing scientific discovery on their hands. I can just imagine the National Geographic special on it now.

Oh the initial footprint findings in 1958? Well...the construction crew's boss, a man named Ray Wallace who had a penchant for practical jokes, was long suspected of faking the prints with wooden cut-outs tied to his boots. His family confirmed this was the case after his death in 2002.

Just the same, if I ever find myself in a wilderness again, I'll always be wondering what's behind the trees.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, August 21, 2017

The eclipse of 2017

Photo from National Geographic.

So we had an eclipse today.

Did you hear about it? More likely, did you see it?

I did. Or as much as one could around here anyway. In the Chicago area we only had about 80% darkness. A thick covering of rain-rich clouds added to the effect but obscured much of the eclipse itself. Didn't bother me as I didn't expect much from the whole affair. No glasses for me and I certainly didn't poke holes in any cereal boxes. If anything, I anticipated a sky that would amount to little more than a cloudy day. That's why I was so shocked when I stepped outside.

It was eerie. None of the natural light seemed...right. I noticed a drop in temperature from an hour earlier and a spike in humidity. As I walked through a parking lot, I looked over at someone else. He looked up at the sky and then glanced about our surroundings. He caught me looking. We both smirked and exchanged expressions seeming to convey, "weird, right?" There was a haze in the air, completing the almost paranormal sense of displacement, of shifting into a parallel world that looks like ours but isn't quite.

Shadows formed in strange ways on the ground. These shadows are a source of speculation in astronomy. It's thought by many that these shadows are due to turbulence in the atmosphere. Another school of thought says that they may be formed by sound. "Infrasound" to be exact. That's sound at a frequency too low for human ears to hear. Remember I said it felt cooler? From BBC: "This rapid cooling of the air sets up a difference in pressure. The potential energy associated with this pressure difference then escapes as high-intensity infrasound."

That's one notion, anyway. As I got in my car, passed by other vehicles with their headlights on and driving in what amounted to twilight conditions, it was easy for me to see how this phenomena has been associated with the occult since time immemorial. If someone didn't know what was going on, they might be forgiven for heading to the nearest church, dropping to their knees, and asking for absolution for all the petty crimes and misdemeanors of life before the end finally arrives. I halfway feared we'd be hearing by now about some cult somewhere whose members chose to commit mass suicide via cyanide-laced pudding during this astronomical event. I told this to someone and they said we should try to find them and stop them before it's too late. She joked that we should call shoe stores and check their stock. "Black Nikes. You got 'em? What, you sold out? When? Where?" That is of course a Heaven's Gate joke.

Flat Earthers are having quite a time of it. They appear honestly befuddled by the powerful yet well-understood astronomical occurrence we call an eclipse. My personal choice for the most disturbing quote from that article? "I really, really don't know what the moon is."


Looking back on the positive side, this was a welcome respite. The eclipse led the news headlines all morning, radio stations served up themed songs for an eclipse soundtrack, and someone shipped Bonnie Tyler out on a cruise ship to the point of totality where she could belt out her hit in the middle of the Atlantic. The Adler Planetarium was packed. Kids were outside learning about astronomy and I saw neighbors interacting with each other who seldom wave hello on any other day. For once, nobody was focused on politics or any of the other awful things in the world. It was something really positive and if you want to see what I mean, look no further than Chicago's very own Tommy Skilling. 

I hope we don't have to wait for the 2024 eclipse to feel that way again.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Dogmen of Michigan

Pic from a Google image search. If it's yours and you want it removed, let me know.

Chad, a friend and former colleague of mine, has now moved into cryptid central.

The faculty of my former college have been scattered to the four winds for reasons you know by now. Chad was fortunate enough to land a professor's position at a college in Michigan. Exciting news and a relief for his family for sure...until he learned his new home was right smackdab in the middle of the Dogman's lair. He jokingly referred to it on Facebook and I commented that I had indeed heard of the alleged creature.

Of course I have. The Weird is kinda my thing. And I've been tempted to research Dogmen for a while now, mostly due to their purported appearance.

Why? Because the most efficient way I have to describe these supposed creatures is "a werewolf." Witnesses report a hairy, bipedal creature as high as seven feet tall with the head of a canine but the torso of a human. Their legs are even said to be bent in the manner of a dog's hind legs.  A Dogman is also said to utter a terrifying, inhuman howl. The following size comparison chart comes from the North American Dogman Project:

In Michigan, stories of Dogmen are said to go back to the time of the Odawa tribes, the narratives later propagated among lumberjacks and farmers. Dogmen really didn't seem to enter the public consciousness of Michigan until a man named Steve Cook came along.

Cook was a radio DJ at WTCM in Traverse City. He recorded a song called "The Legend of the Dogman."


"I made it up completely from my own imagination as an April Fools' prank for the radio and stumbled my way to a legend that goes back all the way to Native American times." he said.

Nonetheless, he received hundreds of reports from people once the song aired, all claiming to have seen Dogmen. It is important to note that Cook is "tremendously skeptical" about the nature of these reports. 

Dogmen are not confined to Michigan but rather appear to roam the whole of the Upper Midwest. In fact I first learned of the creatures via what came to be known as the "Beast of Bray Road." Bray Road is a rural road near Elkhorn, Wisconsin, just over the Illinois border. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, the area became host to numerous Dogman sightings. Local newspaper reporter Linda Godfrey was assigned to investigate. While initially skeptical, Godfrey became a convert and eventually wrote a book about the sightings, The Beast of Bray Road. I really must read it one day.

If you're looking for a central depository of sightings, look no further than

From that site:

"Have you seen a creature that looked like a Werewolf? If you have, you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. What you saw wasn’t a Werewolf. It’s what’s called a “Dogman.”  More people than you’ll ever know have had Dogman encounters. Unfortunately, most of them don’t know who they can talk to about their encounters. That’s where I come in. My name is Vic Cundiff and I help Dogman eyewitnesses deal with the trauma of their Dogman encounters. If you’re a Dogman eyewitness, you now have someone you can turn to for help. Me!"

Good to know he's out there for us. You got that link bookmarked, Chad? Good.

Are there really Dogmen? Is there a species of humanoid, bipedal canines hidden and lurking in arboreal and paludal regions the Great Lakes? Offhand, I'd have to say I doubt it. There would have to be substantial physical evidence for me to begin to accept such a notion. Then again, I have not studiously read each of the witness accounts.

In a way, I don't want to. While I'm not prepared to become a flag-carrying cryptid believer, I also don't want to know that they're not real. You see, this kid grew up loving monster movies and stories. Werewolves were among my most favorite variety of monsters. The idea that there could a species of werewolf-like creatures out there somewhere in the wooded confines of my geographical backyard, inner ten year-old is agog. 

I think that may be the key to much of this. We are all writers. In one way or another we are constantly composing and constantly telling stories to one another. After all, what is a job interview but a moment where you must tell stories? Trust me, I'm acutely aware of this by now. The notion of the werewolf itself arises in part from our need to tell stories. I don't immediately doubt that Native Americans of the region told Dogmen tales as it would seem natural.

Also, humans are animals. Another colleague of mine wrote a book about how we are biologically "born expecting the Pleistocene," or an epoch far less civilized than what we currently have. Are Dogmen and werewolf stories just compositions expressing our "wild side"? I think that may be. I also think, as is also echoed on Skeptoid, there are deep connections between the accounts and the standard narratives of urban legends. See at that link the report of a young couple that went "parking" at Bray Road. At any rate, Dogmen could be a big potted stew of all of the above. It might also be that the Dogmen are beings somewhere on John Keel's "superspectrum," passing between our dimension and others.

Me? I'm going to just play pretend that there are werewolves on the prowl. Might not be good for livestock keepers, chihuahua owners, and my friend Chad, but as I said, this once-young monster/sci-fi kid chooses to revel in the idea. 

Seriously Chad, best of luck to you and your wife. I wish the best to both of you in your new home. Keep your eyes open around town for something that looks like this: 

(An alleged security camera still posted at North American Dogman Project.)

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets