Ken Smith

Michiana Chronicles: The Great Horned Owl

Nov 4, 2021
Jim Clemenson

Fortunately, a couple of folks walking a few days ago in the neighborhood spotted a ruckus, a frantic creature tangled in the net of a soccer goal at South Bend’s School Field. I heard later that one of them ran home and back with oven mitts and scissors and a blanket. Around that time, I looked up from the kitchen table and saw three neighbors across the street now, kneeling intently under the white beams of the goal. Covered by the blanket was some kind of creature the size of a small dog, unmoving and mysterious. The knotted twine of the goal net stretched away in all directions.

Ken Smith

In the sunlight on the other side of the kitchen window, a sly, smile-shaped curve of youthful green caught my eye. I looked closer and saw that this green smile was the right flank of the long rear body segment of a barely stirring praying mantis. At the other end, two antennae swung slowly through space from its triangular head which was topped on the outer edges with those remarkable green bulging eyes. Deep inside each of those green bulges a black spot, sometimes in mesmerizing motion, indicated where the creature was directing its gaze. 


Ken Smith

Once violets and vaccines had bloomed across the Midwest, we gassed up the orange hatchback and headed east, then west, and then south, putting more than 4000 miles on the odometer, reminding ourselves what North America looks like these days. and visiting family members we hadn’t seen for more than a year. Near the end, in the heat wave, our sturdy little car’s air conditioner wavered and then broke down crossing Iowa, but our adventure was a success.

Michiana Chronicles: Reduced Circumstances

May 20, 2021
Ken Smith

Over the years I grew tired of the not always faster Interstate highway route to see family on the west side of Saint Louis. On I-80 around Chicago, the Slinky-style traffic would have me in the driver’s seat shivering and levitating with frustration.Then there’s the lulling boredom of I-55, where one Illinois mile undulates as mildly and blandly as the next.

Michiana Chronicles: The Second Shot

Mar 18, 2021
Ken Smith

At the vaccination center beside the big church, people came and went quickly, so parking was easy. Mask on, and a short walk over to the low building where all the action was. I bet many a wedding reception was held there before the virus came. In the doorway, a greeter saw the vaccine record card in my hand, and said, “Are you here for the second shot of Moderna?” You bet. “If you’d apply hand sanitizer, you can head on in. You won’t have time to read that book—we’re processing a thousand people a day,” he said, in the friendliest way possible.

Michiana Chronicles: Looking For Normal

Jan 28, 2021
Ken Smith

I’m looking for normal these days, and accepting half-way normal as a good substitute. That’s how I ended up on Wednesday afternoon in South Bend’s beautiful-even-in-January Howard Park, sitting out with a friend from work for over an hour in the winter breeze. The thermometer was down around 30°. Steven and I wiped snow off the chairs and settled around the big fire pit where the tall gas flames turned this way and that. Behind us was the skating loop, below and to the west, the bend of the river. At the park’s south edge, kids on sleds slammed down the steep old railway embankment.

Ken Smith

What with the world so narrow and tight right now, I don’t feel like answering the phone or turning on the TV, two ways the bad news sneaks in. But that approach doesn’t work because while I’m peeking through the front curtains, trying to out-wait the bad news, there’s a fair chance of shriveling into a bitter prune myself. Besides, there are people we just have to honor by taking the call and hearing their bad news and maybe standing right there in the hallway weeping when we do. Still, there must be some way out of here, as the Joker in the Bob Dylan song said to the Thief.

Ken Smith

For about twenty years my office has been behind the last door at the east end of a very long hallway located on the third floor of a university building in South Bend. The hallway walls are more or less white, and the many office doors are a pale wood grain. There’s not much art to speak of there, and when office doors are closed no natural light enters the space for many, many, many yards. There’s no window in the east section of the hallway, no window in the central section, and just the one large window at the end of the west section.

Michiana Chronicles: Cicada Days

Jul 30, 2020
Ken Smith

In our neighborhood, the cicadas are back, buzzing on the high branches in the evening, sliding out the slit backs of their exoskeletons when nobody’s looking, and then hanging on the side of the house all green and black and shiny in their fresh jackets. The exoskeletons remain on a tree trunk for ages, ghostly reminders of the oddest, most unlikely renewal. The new wings are finely drawn, a shiny metallic green near the body but clear further down, something so fabulous a king would have paid a master artist a stack of golden coins for one in days gone by.

Michiana Chronicles: COVID-19 Stress Dream

May 21, 2020
Ken Smith

These days, the dogs that pass by out there on the sidewalk look trim and happy. They’re getting a lot of exercise with their work-from-home humans. They sniff out little mysteries and tag bushes and never glance up to ask their masters, “Why are you home so much? Why so many walks?” The dogs are not having bad dreams. Two neighborhood friends who are both biologists walk by wearing sleek, face-fitting masks. I could call from the door to ask how their dreams are going, but I don’t have to. These two know exactly how microorganisms like to boogie.

Michiana Chronicles: Protecting The Scene 2020

Mar 19, 2020
Jake Alexander

The clues are coming from all over the world. You see many of them yourself. When I couldn’t sleep one night, images popped onto my computer screen of Italian green-camo army trucks rolling in convoy toward an iron-gated cemetary that needed help because there were now more caskets than the mortuary staff could handle. A friend in upstate New York started a web page updating neighbors on which businesses in nearby Woodstock are still open and where a person can pull up to the curb for groceries, pizza, bread, even books. Woodstock.

Ken Smith

In shedding season, the hair of our white cat practically glows on the maroon sofa, and the hair of the two black cats forms creepy shadows on the tan rug. If these critters had their way, the living room would never look presentable. Of course there are products that promise to pick up cat hair. We’ve tried the rollers of sticky tape that lift about 10% of the hair with each stroke of the device. We’ve filled many a vacuum cleaner bag primarily with cat hair. Our slipcovers come out of the washer and dryer clean but still flecked with hair.

Michiana Chronicles: Invisible And Essential

Nov 21, 2019

Once in a while I get to spend a few treasured minutes with my father-in-law in his basement workshop. It’s a smallish room, tightly organized floor to ceiling and corner to corner with pegboards, shelves, and labelled bins. In there, you can smell his favorite pipe tobacco and the oil that keeps the motors free to spin. There’s a lifetime of tools on the pegboards, grouped by type and extending far beyond the obvious few screwdrivers and wrenches anybody might have, including several tools an English professor like me might not know the name of.

Ken Smith

When I drive up to South Bend’s Civil Rights Heritage Center, west of downtown in the carefully restored Engman Natatorium, I like the tidy brickwork and the old-fashioned stone lettering with its elegant curves and flourishes. When I go there to hear a public talk, a open-mic poetry reading, or a film screening, I like even better the feeling of community that people have worked on there. I walk into the building sure that the folks filing in came to think and talk about making our community better.

Michiana Chronicles: We Are The Cavalry

Jul 19, 2019

To our west, behind the white spot-lighted spire of the wide brick school building, an even wider sunset had concluded. For the passerby on the sidewalk, most everything about our house must have looked dark. The big maple in the front yard, the flower bed, the pale blue of the house’s front wall had all faded to shades of green-gray and blue-black. To one side of the dark red door, a square of window light, and in a small room bright with yellow walls, three people sat at a table talking. What was the conversation?

The two of us were at the Multiplex, seated in Theater 11, row G, halfway up the dark bank of padded chairs, swaddled by surround-sound, digging into our snuck-in Toffifay, and preparing to see a comedy about two studious nerds who, having declined on principle the debauchery of the American movie version of high school, finally notice that good behavior has gotten them exactly nothing, eg., Harvard or Yale, that the debauched high school kids around them didn’t also get.

Michiana Chronicles: Oxalis

Apr 12, 2019
Ken Smith

Forty years ago, on a spring day much like the ones we’ve longed for since December, my college friends Colleen and Jeff packed up their U-Haul and drove off, leaving me standing in their driveway holding their houseplant, an oxalis. I didn’t know that a person could own one potted plant across an entire lifetime. But now, four decades later, that same oxalis has spent the winter in our south-facing upstairs window, waiting like us, for spring, when it can go back outside.

Ken Smith

I came across a small, inspiring story this week, and then another, and another. I did not expect this. In our troubled times, with the climate rattling us up and down like a roller coaster we can’t get off, and politics pelting us like bad weather, I don’t often catch the aroma of fresh-baked inspiration. When I do, I slow down to take a look. First I noticed a page-long chapter in a memoir* by James Rebanks, a quiet episode where at the age of 17 he decided not to buy the car he’d been saving for. Interesting!

Ken Smith

I confess, I was seated at my mother’s dining room table not far from a big tin of Christmas cookies. There were tell-tale shortbread crumbs near me on the purple tablecloth, and a bottomless cup of coffee. From the living room TV came the muffled thunder of volume-turned-low Ghosts of Christmas Past, then Present, then Future, each one Hollywood made wilder that the last, but I ignored them. Much more interesting spirits were spread around us on the table. Not the cookies. We were sorting through a big box of family photos.

(Don't) Stay In Your Lane

Nov 16, 2018

Used to be you’d hear about news first by turning on the news. But this week’s “Stay in your Lane” episode unfolded on Twitter a day before it jumped to traditional magazine and radio journalism. However, none of it involved the ordinary way we use those four emphatic words.

At The Food Bank

Sep 28, 2018
Ken Smith

I drove to Missouri last week and while I was there I helped out at the neighborhood food bank session that an old friend and some of his neighbors have been running on Friday mornings for more than a decade.There’s a tidy old storefront that was a grocery store and later a tavern, but which in recent decades has served formally and informally as a community center. About nine-thirty Friday morning the volunteer workers arrived and a white van rolled up.

Something Happening Here

Aug 10, 2018
Toledo Blade

A friend was traveling on a crowded train in England, in the midst of their endlessly divisive Brexit political turmoil just before this summer’s drought struck that country. She had to stand in the aisle with no view really of the passing green valleys and hills, so she pulled a paperback out of her bag, hoping to read. A woman seated nearby spotted the title: How Democracies Die. My friend noticed an acknowledgment in the other traveller’s face, the tired way eyebrows furl and the measured, involuntary intake of breath that together signify recognition and weariness, fear and grief.

Mending Window

Jun 22, 2018

My friend is rehabbing a two-story brick house in the big city, renewing that sturdy old beast and contributing something of his own to an urban neighborhood that is making its comeback. I stop by once in a while to check out the progress. Cooler than cool but almost invisible are the twenty new solar panels up on the flat roof, with their web app that graphs how much electricity each panel generates on sunny as well as shady days.

At the Climbing Wall

Apr 27, 2018
At the climbing wall.
Courtesy of the author.

Driving south in the early spring is an excellent kind of time travel. In Michiana last weekend the magnolia buds were just thinking about opening and the tulips weren’t even close. But down in Bloomington on Saturday bulbs rioted on the street corners, the spring-flowering trees reached out gaudily on almost every block, and the grass needed cutting. Walkers and saunterers were out, uh, walking and sauntering, stylish patrons stood in lines in front of restaurants for the open-air seating, and I put on a baseball cap so I didn’t get a sunburn up there. 

Ken Smith

In the long echoing hallway between the O’Hare parking ramp and the airport terminal, a busking violinist’s sweet melody amplified my hopeful mood, so I dropped a little bigger bill than usual into his instrument case, for the karma. Upstairs, our guest writer and I shook hands, two strangers squarely on a first-name basis, James and Ken. It slowly dawned on me that the two of us were launching into an old-fashioned American road trip, just like in the movies. Only we didn’t rob any banks.


We Built This

Jan 19, 2018
James Rebanks

Long ago, when we’d drive around town, my grandfather would sometimes point to a particular highway bridge and say, “I built that.” And he wasn’t kidding. He and his crew of carpenters built the wooden forms that molded the poured concrete into sturdy bridge pillars. When I drive over that bridge today, I think of his proud words, “I built that.”

Ninety-nine days out of a hundred I’m too busy to notice, but if I tune out the modern static and take a long walk through town, I catch glimpses of our history and I hear voices. I start thinking that our past is just barely past.