Pirates You Don't Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life
Publication Year: 2014
For nearly ten years John Griswold has been publishing his essays in Inside Higher Ed, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Brevity, Ninth Letter, and Adjunct Advocate, many under the pen name Oronte Churm. Churm’s topics have ranged widely, exploring themes such as the writing life and the utility of creative-writing classes, race issues in a university town, and the beautiful, protective crocodiles that lie patiently waiting in the minds of fathers.
Though Griswold recently entered the tenure stream, much of his experience, at a Big Ten university, has been as an adjunct lecturer—that tenuous and uncertain position so many now occupy in higher education. In Pirates You Don’t Know, Griswold writes poignantly and hilariously about the contingent nature of this life, tying it to his birth in the last American enclave in Saigon during the Vietnam War, his upbringing in a coal town in southern Illinois, and his experience as an army deep-sea diver and frogman. He investigates class in America through four generations of his family and portrays the continuing joys and challenges of fatherhood while making a living, becoming literate, and staying open to the world. But Griswold’s central concerns apply to everyone: What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to think, feel, create, and be whole? What is the point of this particular journey?
Pirates You Don’t Know is Griswold’s vital attempt at making sense of his life as a writer and now professor. The answers for him are both comic and profound: “Picture Long John Silver at the end of the movie, his dory filled with stolen gold, rowing and sinking; rowing, sinking, and gloating.”
Published by: University of Georgia Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
The Pirate’s Waltz
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The box is important, because it’s part to the whole, as “sails on the horizon” stand for ships, men, and cannon of the pursuing navy. The box has ambitions: it wants to mean something else. The ridiculous pretensions of a fraught little box. The box is inconsequential, corrugated and glue, a standard medium...
Unemployed, in Greenland?
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Four hundred years before the advent of the blog, the great English scholar Robert Burton wrote: “ ’Tis most true, [many have an incurable urge to write] . . . in this scribbling age. . . . Out of an itching humor that every man hath to show himself, desirous of fame and honor . . . he will write no matter...
The Art of War
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Coal from the mines in southern Illinois burned dirtier than western coal, so my hometown grew slowly poorer, decade by decade, after the high-production years around World War I. Back then my grandfather was an international organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, a sub-district...
The Expulsion of Oronte Churm
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My final duty station as an army diver was the Republic of Panama. Our detachment lived on Fort Kobbe, the tiny army post on Howard Air Force Base, outside Panama City. We were attached to an engineer company but spent most of our time working independently from them in the canal or...
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One night in Hanoi, before official U.S. rapprochement with Vietnam, Frenchy and I were in the Piano Restaurant and Bar awaiting the house special—Roasted Pigeon with Five Tastes. Frenchy wanted the dish, he said, because he didn’t think they could do it. We were exhausted from a month of backpacking, and I was sick with...
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I like stories about shifting impressions. In Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” Gurov returns home after a quick affair at a resort, and everything is beautiful: He returned to Moscow on a fine frosty day, and when he put on his fur-lined...
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I’d painted Starbuck’s nursery with blue skies and a mural with a smiling monkey and an elephant he named Peanut. But now he was three and wanted cars and trucks and monsters and policemen for his new bedroom. And and and. We compromised on pirates, but then he saw the Wyeth illustrations for...
I Didn’t Know
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A white marble statue the size of a cat, demure as a cat, squats on a shelf by an east window, smiling under dust and the ink my childish pen traced in its contours. Cracked with water-swollen wedges from one of five stone mountains (the one they call “Heaven”), carved with an iron adze and chisels by a...
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I was glazing the Christmas ham when my elder son’s shrieks of delight, audible over the storm and stress of a busy kitchen, set my parental senses tingling. Out in the living room I found Starbuck in his Buzz Lightyear suit, wings, spats, and flashlight glasses, flying over the heads of our guests...
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I’m stretched out on my back on the desert floor. Aztecs torture my feet. I wake with a shout, and the two cats wrestling on the foot of our bed flee with their tails in the air. It’s time to go.“There are more versions of desire in American culture than apocryphal Inuit words for snow,” the scholar says. “Appetite, craving, hankering, hunger, itch, longing, lust, passion, pining, thirst, urge, yearning, yen...
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Let’s say you’re lucky enough to know an actual California hippie poet with a bushy ponytail and Tijuana retread sandals, the kind of guy who made it to forty without a credit card. He’s a moralist who wrote a poem about the exploitation of dwarf miners and a sensualist who calls you his father-confessor...
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Back in the twentieth century I was a catalog writer for one of America’s biggest office-supplies companies. The work was easy, the pay adequate, the offices huge and bright. The cafeteria was subsidized, and I spent entire days there drinking coffee and reading literature instead of composing ads...
Quid Pro Quo, Dr. Lecter
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Starbuck had been trying on new emotions, pretending he was mad or upset or joyous, then believing his invented states. “You can’t have any juice right now,” Mrs. Churm told him. “You’ve had juice already. Have some water instead.” “You mean I can never have juice again, never ever in a million trillion...
Show, Don’t Tell
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“The soul has no assignments,” Randall Jarrell says. “It wastes its time.” That’s never more obvious than when you’re trying to teach your five-yearold everything he needs to know about the place you grew up so that he’ll become, well, you. “Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me all these things,” he says politely,...
Creative Writing in the Academy
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You’re right. Writers in the university are often neurotics, and undereducated. They’re prima donnas. Their imbalanced juices make them sanguine, choleric, or melancholic, though rarely phlegmatic. I’ve known a terraphage, a coke hound, and one guy who found his calling after water-skiing...
Letter to a Former Student Now Graduated
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There’s Rilke and then there’s all the horses’ asses with their dubious advice. I think you know by now whom I most resemble, so let’s begin. The title of your e-mail to me this week, “Just a Little Nudge,” was alarming. What forgotten deadline for a scholarship letter had passed? What law...
You Shall Know Them by Their Music
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My friend Rory, a university administrator and a poet, is so insistent that writing can’t be judged that he uses it as an excuse not to teach: “I wouldn’t know what to say to a class,” he says, proud of his freedom from the trap of standards. Naturally, he also argues there are neither good nor bad college...
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“What are you working on?” Crazy Larry said, when I told him about the trees. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing about . . . whatever it is you do? You must be a great disappointment to your editor.” He’d called as I was humping to campus with thirty pounds of overdue...
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One morning back when I was an army deep-sea diver, we were sent down to the port to replace a ship’s screws bent by flotsam in the Chesapeake. It was snowing, and we had to drop a fifty-pound weight off the pier to punch a hole in the ice before I could slide into the brown water. When I...
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We know most places as we do most people, by mere hints. Accordingly, many believe the state of Illinois is all the same, top to bottom. But if you pulled north-to-south Interstate 57 out of the state like a core sample, you’d see the strata of difference—in geology, topography, biology, culture—...
Geedunk and Geegaws
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Mrs. Churm caught me gazing at old photos of bachelor adventures and sniffing the suntan lotion. Ignoring my hints that I use our air miles to fly to Nepal, she asked if I wanted to visit Frenchy, who was renting a condo on Snowshoe Mountain and building his log house a couple thousand feet...
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Astrophysicists must have a term for the chaos that exists when individual bodies in mutually influential orbits haven’t settled into equilibrium. I call it move-in week. It’s not a problem everywhere. In Miami, where the city is a giant gateway for transience anyway and the university relatively small, the arrival of...
The Recipe in the Writing Class
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In the past my creative nonfiction class has focused on times and places important to students’ lives—memoir, but with an emphasis on looking outward more than in. Students did excellent work, but I wasn’t satisfied with the class, if only because it became the occasion for one young writer...
A Remembrance of Gravies Past
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In the same way that our radio and tv broadcasts will apparently bounce around forever in the physical universe, many things that fragment and grow faint in the mind don’t disappear entirely. They can be retrieved, if you have the right equipment and can find a quiet place to listen...
Being Mistaken for Bookish
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Of course I am bookish, proudly, and will be even more bookish when I finish training our dogs, Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, to be competent babysitters. But I’m also a man of action, and the injustice of being presumed merely bookish, simply because I teach English and write, is so maddening that it...
Notes for an Essay on Race and Class in a University Town
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I’ll call him Johnny Massacre, but his real name was more violent. He welcomed us to the neighborhood a decade ago. It was the only welcome we got, other than the neighbors on one side. He said the previous owner of our house had employed him as a handyman, so he knew all about...
Looking for Writers Beyond Their Work
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America’s personality was once riverine, and all roads led to the wharf. Mark Twain writes, “When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.” But rivers no longer occupy the same place in our national consciousness...
Where Your Standardized Testing Money Goes
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The Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, bills itself as part of the “grand legacy of southern hospitality and excellence.” The legacy part refers to the fact that Dickens stayed in the original Galt House in 1842, and Sherman and Grant “met here in March 1864 to plan the . . . ‘March to...
The Unlikelihood of Fathers
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It was an improbable start to be born American in a French clinic in Saigon, Vietnam, on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, at the start of the Vietnam War. My mother said the Vietnamese nurses at my delivery giggled furiously. My dad was on faculty at Southern Illinois University’s Vocational...
The College of Hard Knocks
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Remember the scene in Disney’s Pinocchio where the wooden boy jumps into the sea to look for his father, who’s been swallowed by a giant whale named Monstro? It strikes me how well the animators understood and portrayed the way that bodies move underwater. Maybe master animator...
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It’s a feeling I’ve known since childhood, though it’s come only sporadically over the years: an extreme sleepiness without fatigue, a dream without sleep, a staggering drunk without the buzz, a codeine high without skin rash. My eyes won’t focus; I stumble. Usually it occurs in summertime or in...
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Rolled by breakers, weightless but confused, Gulliver washes ashore. Stands up in the surf, heavy and off-balance, backwash pulling strongly at his shins, can’t get a footing in the fluid sands of a new country. Sometimes our ambitions are big enough that they pull others into our...
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All that desperate fingering / stroking / pulling at hair / cheeks / mouths / lobes—observed by someone named Dick Diver—only sounds like a reference to the monthly orgy on the yacht of one of my publishers, to which I’m never invited. Really the passage is about appearing to be self-possessed...
Coming to Know a Place
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Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2014