Friday, December 31, 2010

Second Sight

I knew that my sight was not as sharp as it had been, but I put off going to the doctor for about a year. Finally a month ago I had that long dreaded appointment. The doctor confirmed that I was nearsighted and needed glasses, I had been expecting to need reading glasses as well, so her verdict was slightly more positive than I'd allowed for. I was feeling okay. Then she put drops in my eyes to dilate the irises and told me to go look at frames while the drops took effect.

And there I stood, facing walls and walls of glasses. Panic set in. I randomly put a pair on my face. All I could see was a face with glasses, I didn’t even register how the glasses looked. I picked another pair. With each pair I got more freaked out. This was going to be a permanent part of my life now. When a shop assistant came over I told her I didn’t know what I wanted and I wasn’t going to buy glasses today anyways.

Maybe I didn’t really need glasses? The doctor said I would only really have to wear them when I drove, and I don’t have a car. I was functioning fine without glasses. Maybe I could get away without them for another year. How bad was my sight anyways?

I gave in and ordered a cheap pair online.

On Wednesday my first pair of glasses arrived in the mail. We were on our way to my parents house for a delayed Christmas dinner. I unwrapped them in the car and put them on. I had been told that I would really see the difference when I looked at trees. And there it was, instead of seeing a tree as a collection of branches, I could see every twig, every twist of bark and layer of snow, slight and thick. And not just with the trees closest to me, but all of them, everything I looked at was minutely detailed, as if I were looking at an exquisite engraving or a finely detailed miniature.

“Are you going to be okay?” Andrew asked.

“Probably. But this is really freaking me out.”

I couldn’t stop staring at everything. We drove over the bridge and the guardrail, a grid of steel bars was lit up by a streetlight which threw square shadows and was lined with glistening white snow all of which stretched into the distance, swelling in its approach.

“I can’t believe that I haven’t been seeing all of this. What else have I been missing?”

I look like a different person and feel like a different person, but that detail is addictive and the act of putting on glasses, of making one simple movement which instantly brings the world into clarity, is stunning.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Survival

The cold February water shocked the breath right out of me. It felt good, really good, my blood was pumping, I was alive and young and crazy and alive, very very alive. We hadn’t jumped in for a swim, we’d jumped in for a shock, so as soon as the shock was over, we tried to pull ourselves out.

I had been a competitive swimmer and diver, and on the first pull I hadn’t been concerned. I firmly grabbed the icy, rough wooden boards of the float deck and pulled while kicking my feet as hard as I could. I managed to get my shoulders above the deck level, but not enough of my body to belly flop and tilt my weight out. I fell back into winter ocean. Alana, the friend I had convinced to come along, fell back by my side.

I could feel the cold in my knees. My hands were turning into claws. Alana and I gasped, breathing out in plumes of white. Neither of us said anything, but I was sure that Alana’s mind was running the same paths as mine. We were going to die if we didn’t get out. How long could an unprotected body survive in the glacial waters of Southeast Alaska? How long was it? I had been told a thousand times, five minute?  Ten?  Twenty?  It felt like we’d been in the water for an hour.

The view from the float.  From the CBJ webiste.
If we didn’t get out, we were going to die and the next morning our naked bodies would be found floating in the seaglass green water, bumping along the creosote soaked pilings of the dock.

We both grabbed the slippery deck with our cramped hands and this time, instead of kicking, we scrabbled our feet along the submerged base of the dock, ignoring the mussels and barnacles that sliced into the winter soft skin. This pull had to be the pull that brought me to safety, so instead of dropping back into the water when my arms felt like they were going to give out, I clung, and pulled with my fingers, and then my elbows, and then my chest.

We made it out.

We tugged our clothes on and ran up the ramp and back to the car. Once we were safely within the heated space, we started to laugh, and then howl, and tell each other how amazing that was, how crazy. We drove to a friend’s house where Alana told everyone gathered what crazy girls we were.

It wasn’t until I took my shoes off that I noticed that my socks were glued to my feet with dried blood. I washed out the stinging cuts. At the time I moaned and groaned until the cuts were fully healed and it stopped hurting to walk.

Now I think it was a small price to pay for living past 17.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In Contrast - Thankful

About two weeks ago I figured out something really important about one of the characters in my novel: she had been interned in the Funter Bay Aluet internment camp.  I knew that figuring this out was important for both her and me.

Old cannery building at Funter Bay.  Taken by Marjorie Menzi, 2004.
Of course, the problem was, I knew very little about these interment camps.  I knew the basics, that they existed and that almost a thousand Aleuts were removed from their homes by the US government.  Why was this done?  Who went there?  What were the camps like?  How long were the "prisoners" held?  I had no idea.  And so I embarked on my very first fiction related research project.

The building I work in also houses the Alaska State Library and the state library's historical collections.  So on my lunches I became a regular visitor.  Did you know that if you're an Alaska resident you can make 10 free copies a day and receive three high quality digital scans of photographs a year?

Adak - Photo from nps.org
But there wasn't much.  The biggest thing I found was an original report typed up by one of the main organizers of the camps in which he described the conditions of the camp from the point of view of a government employee.

One thing he said, really hit home:  "However, at WardCove camp being located among the tall spruce and hemlock trees with 'no air' to which they were accustomed at home with only tall grass and continuous breezes and winds, the Aleuts did express a sense of oppression and suffocation."

Reading this line during my second research lunch, I could feel things clicking.  Imagining the forest of Southeast Alaska, forests that I find comforting in the way they envelope a person, to imagine coming from a land of endless expanse and openness to this?  Yes.  That could be horrible.  Especially if you'd never been in a landscape like ours.

Then this morning I found this document in the National Archives:


That first line: "We the people of this place wants a better place than this to live.  This place is no place for a living creature."

This is a petition by the Aleut women interned in the Funter Bay Evacuation Camp.

When these women returned to their homes they found their buildings looted, some in ruins, and their churches in shambles.  Those from Atka?  Their village was burned to the ground so that the Japanese couldn't use it.

And here I am, sitting in my lovely home, drinking a lovely cup of coffee with irish cream on Thanksgiving Day trying to envision the lives of these women who had to drink impure water and watch all of their loved ones fall sick and then return to a home that was no longer home.  

The contrast is almost more powerful than I can handle.

I am feeling very fortunate and thankful today.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pomegranite, Balsamic Vinegar, and Rosemary Reduction

This was so good, I just had to type up a recipe.

Costco has had rack of lamb in lately and since we never cook lamb but always want to, we bought a rack a week and a half ago. It was so good that we ate the whole thing in one night and decided that we had to make lamb for a dinner party we hosted last night. To make it a little more special we decided to stick with a Mediterranean theme and make a pomegranate balsamic vinegar reduction for the sauce.

The sauce was out of this world. Now I want to use it on everything.

The recipe:

1 ½ cups pomegranate juice
½ cup balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
3 sprigs rosemary

Bring everything to a boil and let it reduce down to half a cup. Pick out and toss the sprigs of rosemary.

It’s tart and fruity with a little sweetness and the consistency of syrup.

And a little tip: don’t lean over the pot of boiling liquid and breathe in the steam, the boiling vinegar will make you tear up like a baby. That stuff is intense!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eat Your Love

As far as I can remember, I have never eaten dirt. But reading Beth Ann Fennelly’s article for The Oxford American about the history and experience of geophagy, and Tejal Rao’s article for The Atlantic  looking at the modernization and gentrification of geophagy almost make me want to.

I remember the first time I went to my ancestral family farm as an adult, the farm that my great grandfather was born on. I remember driving down the lane, seeing the farm house appear, and the feeling that this place was more mine than any other place I had ever been. This sense of belonging past memory, past generation upon generation, was new to me.

If you’re not native, the United States is a new place, and Alaska one of the newest places. The house I live in is one of the oldest in Juneau and it was built in 1920. I think few of us, especially those of us on the West Coast, have an understanding of what an ancestral place can do to your understanding of who you are.

When we arrived at the farm, we were greeted by my great Uncle Elliot. Walking around, looking at the buildings and the gardens, it was strange to think that these were the same things that my grandmother had seen when she was my age. The time between our lives had disappeared in a single moment, and just by standing on that ground I felt physically tied to every other woman ever born into my family. And this is without having ever lived there.

This great, rolling, full linkage of self and place seems to be a huge part of Southern life, especially for those rural families that have lived for generations in one place. So to read about the living practice of geophagy, and the historic record of geophagy, something about it makes sense to me. The need, the desire, to take the earth into your body, especially earth that is so tied to your identity. Beth Ann Fennelly writes “my husband tells me his relations (poor white Alabamians) ate the clay mortar grouting the stones of the hearth at the family's home, the ‘Old Place’—weakening the structure until it threatened to collapse.”

The metaphor of eating something you love so as to take that thing into you, make it an inseparable part of yourself, has stuck with me for a long time. Often this image is tied in my mind to the notion of a dangerous love; love so strong that it in the act of consuming, destroys the object of affection. Last night, in one of those bar conversations that goes all sorts of places, my friend Caleb told me that Wikipedia has a list of fetishes. I immediately made him show me on my iPhone. Towards the bottom of the list was Vorarephilia.  A “sexual fetish and paraphilia where arousal occurs from the idea of being eaten or by the process of eating. The fantasy may involve the victim being swallowed alive, and may or may not include digestion. Since the fetish is hard to achieve in real life, it is more commonly enjoyed through pictures, stories, and video games.”

I feel a story coming on.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fact v. Fiction

“What is history? How can we ever know?” These were the only two sentences that I wrote on piece of lined notebook paper and mailed to my first college advisor in the middle of my summer internship. I wrote them when I lost faith. Shortly afterwards I abandoned my History major and decided to study Comparative Literature.

Antioch's main building.
I spent my first year and a half of college at Antioch College in Yellowsprings, Ohio. My advisor and all-around hero was one of the two history professors, Bob Fogarty. From him I learned that I was a big fat sucker for anything that was written in a book. For our Introduction to History class, the theme was California. We read everything from dry history text books, to first person accounts, watched films, read novels, looked at visual art, all while trying to keep an eye out for what the heck “history” was. The point was that people, just like us students, lived in every time period, and through all of this material we could get a glimpse of what their lives had been like, but we could never KNOW. The point was that people, just like us, wrote these books and accounts. And the point was that people, just like us, are fallible, can misremember, and sometimes outright lie, all while claiming to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Just because someone bothered to print it in black and white didn’t make it any more true.

The Smithsonian "Castle"
The following summer I interned at the National Museum of American History in DC in the Division of Cultural History. I did odd jobs for David Shayt, one of the most outrageously wonderful people I’ve ever worked with. He brought me in to do object research for the 9/11 one year retrospective. When that finished, I wrote teeny tiny accession numbers on Julia Child’s kitchen utensils, did photographic research for a traveling exhibit on the history of the lunch pail, and organized the silly putty/crayon collection. I loved the museum. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that I had been working for weeks and weeks on Julia Child’s kitchen. What was the point of that? Yeah it was fun, it would draw museum visitors in, it would educate about the cultural shift in middle class eating habits, but what the hell was it doing in The Museum of American History? What was being left out because Julia Child had taken its spot?

Why do we choose the things we choose for inclusion in our historical institutions and narratives?

I was much happier when I stopped trying to be a history student and switched over to literature. Literature, stories, myths, fiction, all felt SO much more true to me. Fiction knows it’s fiction and good fiction, great fiction, is fiction that feels true, emotionally, psychologically, and visually.

Which is maybe why I can’t seem to bring myself to care about whether or not a non-fiction book is totally factual. I don’t think any book can be totally factual, especially not one that is told by a person about their own experience. They’re all stories, stories that are constructed by people to be told to other people. What’s left out, the way things are worded and recalled, is all strung together to create a certain effect.

My senior year of college, the year I took my first writing workshop, was the year of the James Frey hoopla. Andrew and I talked about this the other night and he thinks it was a big deal because Frey had been successful and people like to get mad if someone gained their success in dishonest ways. Oprah’s outrage was shocking to me. What he wrote about may’ve not been totally true for him, but it was probably true to human experience. I just don’t get it.

Which is probably why it’s a good thing I’m a fiction writer.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blogging About Twitter

Although I started my twitter account a mere four days ago, I’m already feeling like a convert.

To begin with, while I’ve been a long time fan of both blogging and facebook, I swore up and down that Twitter was: stupid, pointless, exactly like facebook, and something that I would NEVER use.

Two things made me change my mind:

  1. When my Uncle Ray joined Facebook, his daughter left a note on his page that read “dad, you’re so late in the game on facebook – everyone’s on twitter now. jeeze!”
  2. I’m currently listening to the audiobook version of Franzen’s Freedom. There is a scene in which a college-age daughter is arguing with her father’s assistant. The assistant insists that she’s a young person and understands young people just as well, she’s 27 (my age) for god’s sake! But the daughter insists that there is a whole world of difference in her understanding of technology and the assistant’s, that the assistant didn’t grow up with cell phones and doesn’t understand that young people barely even email anymore.
Now, neither of these things made me sit up and say, “oooh, I need to communicate with the young people, sign me up for Twitter!” What they did do was make me realize that I was being mule-headed. I was being a bit of an old fart. Why was I being all snooty about Twitter? I enjoy reading the daily compilation of twitter posts that Jezebel puts up every day, so why didn’t I have my own Twitter account.

So I got one.

And now, I’m a little bit obsessed with the posting format. Twitter famously only allows 140 characters in every post (which includes spaces). I knew this. What I didn’t know was that there is a countdown in the lower right-hand corner of the posting box. The numbers race down and often I’m at 60, and then 40, and then  -3 characters before I even get halfway out of the gate. So then I go back and try and find places where I can condense, lose the unnecessary words. I don’t like abbreviations or internet speak (WTF, TOFL, FTW), so instead I’m playing with punctuation and word choice.

Twitter provides the perfect format for editing a sentence down to the essentials. I’m tempted to type every sentence from my novel into the twitter post box just to watch the countdown and then remove the fat. It’s like a minimalist’s dream tool. The only problem, is that a novel needs sentences longer, sometimes much longer, than 140 characters.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Getting Out of Juy Duty

Every morning a group of fire fighters, or volunteer fire fighters, (I’ve never actually read their badges) gets together at the same coffee shop I do. This morning I happened to overhear part of their conversation.

“The best way to get out of it is to say that everybody’s guilty.”
“Yeah, and the gorier you get, the better.”
“I’m living proof! It worked for me.”

I HATE hearing people talk about getting out of jury duty. Especially after I served on a jury this spring. I know that I’m a dorky rule follower, but nothing gets my civic-duty-goat like people talking about how to get out of jury duty. The jury I sat on was for a man accused of seven counts of child rape and molestation. It was one of the most emotionally brutal experiences of my life. But still. Both the victim and the defendant deserved a jury of thoughtful people, people willing to listen and do their best to find the truth of the matter. Luckily, that was the jury they got, and by the end of the week I was proud to have served with those twelve other people, and honored to have spent two days deliberating with truly caring and thoughtful people.

What is so important that this man in the coffee shop should try and weasel his way out? He’s going to miss his morning coffee with his bros? Sitting at a desk all day? He’d still get home for dinner and his TV shows.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Iron Giants

On my way into work yesterday morning I spotted the Coastguard Icebreaker Healy cruising into Juneau with a tugboat escort. I really like icebreakers. Actually, I really like working boats of any kind. Seeing a working boat makes me feel like a little boy seeing a fire engine and I’m not sure why. I can’t help it. I’ll go down to the docks to get a close look, walk the length of the boat, and if they’re offering tours, I’ll go on board. I get giddy with excitement, wide-eyed with awe. It’s a mystery to me how a big piece of metal floating in water can affect me this way, but it does.

The Healy looks like an office building going for a ride in a gigantic office-building-sized red row-boat. The main structure of the Healy, the office building part, has a few sparse rows of tiny square windows. It is not a boat meant to go fast or divert air in any elegant way. Could that be why I like them so much? The lack of pretense in working boats? The Healy certainly makes no attempts to be anything other than a boat that can smash its way through ice as efficiently as possible.

The Glacier
Last fall I crewed a couple of ferry runs on a 140 foot WWII era landing craft called The Glacier. Our run was Juneau – Hoonah – Tennakee – Hoonah – Juneau and we carried only vehicles, no passengers. From a distance, if unloaded, The Glacier looks like an upside-down Vietnamese hat, with a sloping stern and the sharp angle of the drop bow. The bulk of the boat is deck space which we could load up with 7 cars and a back-hoe. The cabin is on the stern and contains a large kitchen, a dining area, three bunkrooms, and the wheelhouse. We were crewing in 8 hour shifts with two three person crews. Each week we alternated the shifts and the cooking duties.

I’d never been on the water at night before, and The Glacier was a dark boat. On the 11pm – 7am shift we sat in the wheel house with all of the lights out and the radar turned down low in an attempt to keep our night vision. Every hour I’d walk around to check the vehicles, make sure everything was looking good, and try and wake myself with the fresh air. The broad flat bow of The Glacier made it feel like we were a wall trying to force our way forward, so we rarely went faster than 8 knots (9.2 MPH).

On my second or third run the captain I was crewing with showed me his favorite spot on the boat. It was about four in the morning and I was having problems keeping my eyes open. He took me out the side door and around to the back of the wheelhouse. He told me to lean against the exhaust stacks. It was a cool night with the feeling of prenatal rain in the air. The water was calm and while there was a breeze, it wasn’t enough to kick up more than a light chop. Jerry went back to the wheelhouse and I stood watching the water break around us. The exhaust stack’s warm metal seeped into my back and the crisp breeze chilled my face. Along the edges of our wake phosphoresces glowed faintly, a dim answer to the pattern of moonlight streaking the mountains and water farther out.

There was a period of time that I seriously considered becoming an able bodied seaman, looked up schools, certifications, job postings. But like most of the other irons I put in the fire, that one eventually got pulled out and propped in some corner, soon forgotten. Who knows?  Maybe someday.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Little Bodies

We lived in a one story squared off 60s style house with orange and brown scroll-patterned linoleum in the kitchen and orange and yellow shag carpeting in the rest of the house. By the time I have any memory of the house the shag carpeting was only left in one small closet, the rest replaced by a short blue sea. The linoleum, however, stayed for as long as we did.

Both the dining area and the TV room had large, floor to ceiling picture windows, walls that no bird ever saw. Every time a bird hit, we’d rush outside to see if it had survived. It was a clear sign that spring had arrived whenever we started finding a larger number of robins, rather than chickadees, lying stunned and prone in the flower beds. If the birds were alive we would pick them up carefully, tucking their scratchy little feet between our hands and then holding them up, like we were cupping water to drink. The birds’ quick hearts fluttered, their small dark eyes darting back and forth, the birds were so soft and fragile, like precious babies. We were big and clumsy and could hurt them, so we had to be extra careful to be nice, to hold them for only a few moments, to pet them softly, and ultimately to set them carefully in the hedge so that when the bird was ready, it would fly away on its own.

Rufous feeding
If the bird was dead, then it belonged to my father. We held no birdie burials at my house. Instead, dad would go back in and get a sandwich bag, wrap the bird up in its clear shroud, and deliver it to our birdie morgue: the freezer. There was nothing strange to us about the fact that there was a little pile of bird corpses in between the Eggos box and the ice trays. After my first year of college I was speaking to a friend about our college entrance essays, she had written hers about how her father stored birds in their freezer. Her father was also a biologist. Clearly though, she had been much more aware of herself than I had, because it wasn’t until she told me about her essay that I realized that maybe people would view that as strange behavior.

Not too long ago I dropped by my parents house after work.

“If you’re getting a glass of wine will you get me one? It’s in the freezer,” my mom asked.  Next to the bottle of chardonnay, was a little body bag.

“Did you guys have a bird hit the window?”

“It’s one of the humming birds!” my dad said, “do you want to see it?”

“Sure.”

In their new house they also have picture windows, but these are on a second story, so the only birds that come close are those drawn in by my father’s hummingbird feeders.

“I feel a little guilty,” he said.

It was beautiful, but strange to see a hummingbird so still. My father was particularly excited that its tongue was extended out of its bill, like a stamen left after the flower petals had been stripped away. He explained to me about the coloring of the males versus the females, that this was a male.

As they feed from his feeder, they flash in the sun like gaudy living gems. Now on the dining room table it was like seeing the gimmick behind a magic trick.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Guns

Yesterday I went hunting with my dad and his friend Billy. It was only a day hunt, and like the last two day hunts I’ve done with my dad, we did not shoot any deer. But this time I felt more confident. I knew what deer sign looked like and I called it out more than either my dad or Billy. At one point I even got the feeling that I was literally tracking a deer. We were following a deer trail through the dense blueberries and devil’s club and every once and a while I’d lose the faint indications, and then as if I was lead purely by some unconscious sense, I would choose a direction. And low and behold, there the tracks would be.

0630 in the woods.
We pushed our way through the brush at the base of Mt. Jumbo to a bowl on the back side. In the bowl we found a large muskeg, in fall golds and reds. We had hit the trail by 0545, and after our hard work in the woods we were all ready for a nap. So we found a hillock and laid down. I curled up with my rifle by my side and my backpack under my head. I’m not a napper, but the warm fall sun did the trick and all three of us zonked out for an hour. It was strange to wake to a gun at my side.

I’m not a gun person. I own a gun, a Ruger .308 with a synthetic stock that my dad bought for me. It’s a small, light rifle, about as much as I would probably feel comfortable handling in the woods. I use it in the fall to go hunting with my dad and take it to the rifle range a couple of times before that to make sure I’m shooting okay. When he first got the gun for me, my father also bought himself a .450 handgun for bear protection. We went out to the range together and he insisted that I learn how to shoot the handgun. He wanted me to know what to do if I ever needed to use it. So I put up my hands, and aimed. But the gun was heavy, and I could feel my hands shaking.

“Don’t lean back so far,” he said, and tried to push me closer.
“I’m not!”
“You’re leaning back too far, you’ll never get a good shot.”

I clearly did not want to be anywhere near that gun. I don’t like handguns. Even though my dad bought it for bear protection, there is something just plain wrong with a handgun. It feels like an instrument only meant to hurt other people. A rifle or a shotgun is meant for hunting, yes they’re used to kill people, but that doesn’t feel like their main purpose.

This spring I was on an all women’s trap shooting team at the Juneau Gun Club. Before we started it had been about 10 years since I’d last shot a shotgun. It was fun, like a real video game, with the clay pigeons exploding midair in miniature orange fireworks.  At a roller derby practice I mentioned something to Jeanne, our captain, about trap shooting and how she should do it. Jeanne is a ER nurse and was in the army before coming to Juneau. She told me that she could never think of guns involved in anything fun, that she would never be able to see a gun as anything other than how they had been used in Iraq.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Seed/Root

Last week my best friend from college came to visit, one Ms. Lynn J. Vollbrecht. She currently lives in Beloit, Wisconsin, the town we went to school in, 2,000 miles away from Juneau. She came back to Juneau with me the summer after we graduated and spent nine months here. Since then she’s come back to visit us each year for a week. This means that the bulk of our friendship is maintained by phone and by the letters she sends Andrew and I.

During her visit we had a couple of those conversations that people in love always seem to have, conversations about how much they love each other, what kind of love they have, how wonderful love is, and yadda yadda yadda. The kinds of conversations that make you feel like you’re going to burst from how full of affection you are. But we also spent time talking about the nature of friendship.

I’ve been thinking more about this. Not just about friendship, but the nature of human relationships on a grand scale. What is it that I value in other people, what is the seed of the belief that a person is a good person. Is it love? Humor? Thoughtfulness? Respect?

Last night, getting into bed, I figured it out.

em•pa•thy – noun

1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

It seems to me that there is no greater natural emotional response to the world. And how deep that response is! Even going back to our earliest days on this planet, there is no way that we could’ve survived without empathy. I’m going deer hunting this weekend and I know that all of my energy will be focused on empathizing with my prey. All my stillness and focus directed towards one purpose, the reaching out of my self towards that animal, the attempt to see the forest as a deer would, listen as a deer would, walk as a deer would.

I believe that every person’s best self evolves from the ability to empathize, and it’s not something that requires money, or education, or anything other than the desire to reach out to another person or thing.

But, the flipside, is that I find it almost impossible to understand (or empathize) with people who don’t or can’t empathize with others. That kind of existence seems like it would be very lonely, surface, and dark. And I imagine that this inability to bend, to attempt to extend yourself, must be the root of all horrors. I’ve been reading some accounts of soldiers with PTSD and part of that pain seems to come from the attempt, and failure, to suppress empathy in an environment in which to empathize means to fail at your purpose.

I believe that we all have a natural desire to empathize, and call me a hopeless optimist, but I think this is why I’ve always believed that people are naturally-deep-down good.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Words v. Numbers

 "Additionally, a derivative may have complex aspects that require the auditor to have special knowledge to evaluate the measurement and disclosure of the derivative in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles.  For example, features embedded in contracts or agreements may require separate accounting as a derivative, and complex pricing structures may increase the complexity of the assumptions used in estimating the fair value of a derivative."

A week ago I finished editing 200 pages of a manual that contained nothing but sentences similar to the above.  I had two weeks to complete this project.

I spent hours and hours staring at these words.  Words that were no longer words.  Words that dreamt of being numbers.  At least numbers have the pure pleasure of being unadulterated signifiers.  There was no joy in these words, they existed only to point towards specific concepts.  The sentences, paragraphs, and chapters circled around and around each idea, like sharks around a bloody hunk of meat, all purpose, all force.

My job was to make sure that the sentences and paragraphs all fit within generally accepted standards of English grammar.  I dutifully marked it all up, debating each word, reading paragraphs and sentences over and over again.  "Does this sentence make sense?  Do these words make sense?  What is it talking about?  Is this a phrase that is common in auditing procedures?"  Sometimes when I went over my edits with a manager she would shrug and say "nobody is going to read this.  It doesn't really matter."

I've only ever had one other experience in my life when English sounded so completely foreign to me, and in that instance I was 14 and playing pool with two Scottish boys in a hostel in Northeast Scotland.

My goal this fall is to finish the novel that's been bumping around my head for the last several years.  While I edited the manual at work, I spent my evenings at home on my own writing.  I've always wanted to write a fairytale.  So I wrote a fairytale for a chapter.

What a pleasure to write living words instead of dead signifiers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Change of Routine

I went to work an hour and a half early the other day. This meant that I walked down my street at the quiet time of 6:20am. I wasn’t thinking much about anything, until I noticed who was walking in front of me.

It was the woman who lives in the white house on the corner.

Little Edie in front of Grey Gardens
Her house has boarded up windows. It also had peeling paint until earlier this summer when one of her nephews painted it the color nude pantyhose. I don’t know the woman’s name, but I can spot her a mile away. She dresses in layers of lace, flowered patterns, sparkles, and fake fur. She’s like the Little Edie of Juneau. Even though there’s something totally off-kilter about the way she dresses, her outfits are invariably bright, fun, and strangely beautiful. On summer mornings, when I’m up extra early to drive Andrew or my parents to the airport at 5am, I see her out in her small overgrown yard, cutting the grass with a steak knife. She grabs a fistful, pulls it up like you would someone’s hair, and then saws through. I always wave and say good-morning and she always waves back.

Other days, we’ll come out of the house and look across the street to find that she’s set up a tea-party on her lawn. She brings out all kinds of things: pots, fake flowers, buckets, rolling office chairs, stuffed animals, and arranges them in a semi-circle as if she’s had all sorts of company while we’ve slept (although I’ve never seen anyone at her house besides the young man who painted it). The tea-party will sit on her lawn for the day, or even two, and then just as mysteriously disappear. It’s rare that I see her out during the daylight hours.

So, to suddenly find myself walking behind her into town was a surprise. Where was she going at 6:20am? Was she just going for a walk? Was she going to pick something up? To meet someone? Does she do this every morning?

I passed only two other people. I caught myself studying them, inspecting their clothes, their faces, the directions they were walking. What were they doing?

A slight shift in my routine had suddenly revealed to me an entirely new set of questions.

What else am I missing?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Taming the Wild Jungle

Dear Garden,

I'm sorry that it has been so long since we last spent time together. The last several months have felt completely out of control, very fun, but very busy. It's a poor excuse for being a bad friend, I know. You probably noticed that even though I told you that I’ve been out of town, I really have been around for at least half of the time. But during those times I was trying to make up for all the time that I was going to be, or had been, gone, so I really didn’t have the time to hang out.

I was filled with so much excitement earlier this summer. You were looking so beautiful. Your peonies and iris, your lilac and poppies, you were exquisite. But I lost control. Now you’re covered in some sort of spotty disease that has spread from your poppies, to your roses, to your lilacs and I don’t know what to do. I’ve been ignoring you because I can’t bear the thought of taking you apart, but that may have to happen. If I take you apart, will you come back next year?

And your vegetables. Yesterday I finally went down to your vegetable box. The little trellis I made for your peas, constructed of string and wood, was in shambles. How could I so terribly underestimate your potential? Instead of building something for your peas to climb and climb and climb I gave you something small and insufficient. I gave you something that caused your peas to snarl and grow into a giant lopsided mess, so lopsided that they have grabbed onto the rhubarb and pulled themselves back to the ground, a perfect slug interstate.
Daylilies

And the salad greens. Those greens that feed us a month of salads have all flowered. Have all been infiltrated by forget-me-nots and flax so that the whole box looks like an overgrown grave.

And the raspberries. The branches so heavy with fruit that they’ve slumped away from their stakes with half the fruit blackened and syrupy.

But the daylilies have bloomed. Those same daylilies that didn’t even send up one bud last year have this year erupted into maroon and gold trumpets.  And even though I have been so neglectful, so thoughtless, yesterday you were kind enough to give me a bowl full of peas, a bucket of still-plump raspberries, and the promise of Brussels sprouts after the first freeze.

I don’t deserve a friend like you, but thank you.

Love,
Erin

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gender and Literature

Diane Meier's article "Chick Lit? Women's Literature? Why Not Just...Literature?" was published today in the Huffington Post and provided an interesting first-hand account of some of the issues that come from being a woman who writes.

But my concern is larger, for the issue is insidious: the way Chick Lit has been used to denigrate a wide swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by women.

If you think it's not affecting our work, not affecting what the publishers are handed, not affecting the legacy we leave for future generations, you're wrong. In The New York Times, the judges of the UK Orange Prize (for women novelists) bemoaned the grim and brutal content offered this year in the submitted manuscripts. Their conclusion: No serious woman writer wanted to be painted with the Women's Lit label, and issues contemporary and domestic, if not presented with violence, are apparently (to academics, to critics and to the general culture -- male and female, alike) seen to have less value.

Most telling, I think, are the attempted "corrections," as those who try to right the misunderstanding of Chick Lit labels on some of our books, slap on another label: "Women's Literature." As opposed to what, Literature?
 
Obviously this a question that probably crops up in the mind of every woman who writes.
 
Other intersting conversations and comments came out of my earlier post and the corresponding post on 49 Writers.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Talking, Reading, Walking

      You may not believe it, but the characters in a play are supposed to be real people. They are supposed to do things for reasons of their own. If a man is going to commit the perfect crime, he must have a deep-rooted motivation for doing so.
      Crime is not an end in itself. Even those who commit crimes through madness have a reason. Why are they mad? What motivated their sadism, their lust, their hate? The reason behind the events are what interest us. The daily papers are full of reports of murder, arson, rape. After a while we are honestly nauseated with them. Why should we got to the theater if not to find out why they were done?
      A young girl murders her mother. Horrible. But why? What were the steps that lead to the murder? The more the dramatist reveals, the better the play. The more you can reveal of the environment, the physiology and the psychology the murderer, and his or her personal premise, the more successful you will be.
      Everything in existence is related to everything else. You can not treat any subject as though it were isolated from the rest of life.


                                                                       - The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

On our trip up into the interior, Tim Lash and I had a lot of time to talk books. The craft book that he recommended the most was Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. I’m only about forty pages in, but so far it’s been a good, thought-provoking read. It’s focused on playwriting, but is applicable to any narrative form.

With this book I started experimenting with a new way of reading: reading while walking. For the last week and a half I read while I walk between my house and work (10 minutes). This has added a full 40 minutes of reading to my day as I walk home for lunch as well.

The walk home with the mansion lurking.
The stretch of road I walk is one of the oldest streets in Juneau. It takes me past the Governor’s Mansion (yes, where Sarah used to pretend to live), past Cope Park, across Gold Creek, and home. It’s the main evacuation route for the downtown area if the highway is ever closed off by an accident, so it’s a bit wider than other streets and more cars drive it at higher speeds than they ought to.

The reading while walking is going well. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to focus on my reading, that the walking part of the equation would prove too heavy. Weirdly enough the opposite has been true. Two activities of such high focus are all my brain can handle and there is no space left for wandering thoughts. The only time I lose focus is if I start paying too much attention to how close I am to the edge of the sidewalk. I’ll spook myself into thinking that I’m about to fall off and I’ll miss-step, bring my foot down too hard with my knee locked and give myself a jolt.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Public Snooping

Every month I sit down and read my local Craigslist backlog of personal ads.  Craigslist is still catching on in Alaska, so it's not unreasonable to think that I have read every personal ad posted there in the last two years.  Although, I'll admit that I often skim the "men seeking men" section.  I have a limit on how many pictures of penis I can look at in one day.  If I find a really good post, I'll copy/paste it and save it for later.  For what?  I'm not sure.  So far I haven't used any.  An example:

Longing and wanting a wife and family - 49 (Valdez, AK)
Date: 2009-11-09, 11:06AM AKST
Reply To This Post

One of three pictures included in Longing's post.
Recently moved into the area.  Currently staying with church members until end of this Month.  I am Alaskan native master artist.  I have a cat and a dog.  Been married and dis-sollution.  My desires are to live a life through the bible's teaching with wife and family.  I have approval right for re-marriage according to the scriptures and blessing from the church.  Contact me by this numver that is forwarded to my cell one - eight - eight - eight - eight - five - eight - five - nine - nine - five or rebertcrumley at y a h o o dot c o m to chat.  The magpi bird had been rescued from a stray cat.  I had released it after it was healed from it's injuries.  Best Regards, Robert.
Location: Valdez, AK
it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

This is a man that I will probably never know and most likely never meet.  I'll never get to ask some of the hundreds of questions that reading and re-reading his post bring up (How did this man end up posting on Craigslist?  Did he read about it online?  Or in a magazine?  Did his sister tell him about it?  Does he have a sister?  Who does he have?  Where did he get the 888 number?  Is this somehow a con?  What religion is he?  Where did the bird come from?  Does he often rescue stray birds?).

I am an unabashed lover of facebook for this same reason.  Yes, I love keeping in touch with friends far away, but more than that, I love having such access.  Both craigslists personals and facebook pages are forums in which the subject is constructing and controlling their own image, but you can still make inferences.  Pictures can say a lot.  I'm especially interested in people who have their "picture pose" down pat.  You know what I'm talking about, those people on facebook who have the exact same expression in every single photograph they take.  Or maybe two or three set faces.  

It must take practice, thought, and extreme self-awareness to achieve that level of control.  Who are the people behind those set faces? 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Buying Art

Andrea Nelson's Inside #85
I was completely shocked when Andrea opened the first box. It was a Simm's box labeled on the outside as containing hipwaders. Inside, she had glued small styrofoam squares in a circle on the floor of the cardboard. The styrofoam squares gently held in place a small gilded frame. Within the frame was a redheaded woodpecker, wings spread and pinned. The belly of the bird was full of tiny smooth riverstones and next to the bird's feet was a nail, from which a hung round brass tag stamped "085".

She lifted the frame out of the box, held the bird upright, as if hanging it on an invisible wall, and pulled the brass tag forward on the nail so that it shimmered in the foreground.

Andrea Nelson is a first-year non-fiction student in UAA's MFA program, and was one of the people I spent the most time with during our two week residency. We met three weeks ago in the Juneau airport while waiting for our flight to Anchorage.

When she mentioned her studio one night, I asked what she made. She said she made assemblage sort of pieces to hang on the wall, sometimes in boxes.

"Kind of like Joeseph Cornell?" I asked.

"Kind of."
Joseph Cornell's Untitled (The Hotel Eden)

This weekend I was in Haines (Andrea's town) for the Southeast Alaska State Fair and harranged Andrea into showing me her studio and some of her work. "Inside #85" was the first piece she pulled out, but she had a whole stack of similar boxes containing all sorts of other pieces, many featuring some kind of creature (bees, cockroaches, hummingbirds), all with the look of aged, ravaged, sadly hopeful beauty.

I kept looking back at the first box she'd pulled out. She had closed it back up and set it on the floor, but I found myself wanting to open it up again and pull out the bird. I wanted to see that bird full of stones every day.

Two days later I had convinced Andrea that I was serious about buying it and I carefully carried the box onto the Fairweather. Now I have the pleasure of figuring out where to hang it in my home and what company it will keep (maybe next to Trevor Gong's salmon fly that Andrew bought last year).

Remnants of the shock I felt when Andrea opened the first box are still with me. Not that I didn't think that Andrea was the kind of person to make beautiful art, but I hadn't actually thought about what she made. I also made some assumptions based on the fact that she lives in a town of 2,000 people in Southeast Alaska and the fact that the context I met her in had little to do with visual art. But the biggest part of it was how totally humble and unassuming she was, almost hesitant to show me what she makes - her pieces, stored in the opposite of christmas wrapping, recycled shoe and hipwader boxes, purely utilitarian. I was completely unprepared. Which made the surprise that much sweeter.

I'm a non-reading museum stroller.  I walk slowly glancing around until something catches my eye and then I stop, look, and read the tag.  I bought my first piece of art about five years ago, it was one of Rob Roys' paintings, something to make me stop and stare. I'm not sure there's any one thing that makes me stop at certain pieces, but I know that as a budding collector, that's what I want. I want a home full of art that I can sit and stare at over morning coffee.

Sit and stare and think or not think.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Deep Rhythm

Le Pompe (translation “The Pump”) is what gives gypsy jazz that urgent drive. Le Pompe refers to the strumming pattern that guitarists use in this style of music. Although strumming is a strange word for it as it’s more of a drumming. From what I’ve been told, a true Le Pompe takes years to learn. I believe it.

Yesterday I worked with Ryan Hoffman from Pearl Django on Le Pompe. In describing what he was doing and how the beats fit in the song, he told us that it was like a “rhythm beneath the rhythm”. Six or seven years ago I took some jazz piano classes and remember my piano teacher saying something similar.

The rhythm beneath the rhythm.

Isn’t this what separates great literature from good literature? Great literature takes a pattern, a truth, and then burrows beneath it, looking for the rhythm beneath the rhythm.

It’s intimidating think that this is something that can only be achieved after a decade or more of practice.

Last year at our residency Judith Barrington gave a talk on what she referred to as the “reptilian brain”, that sleeping ancient evolutionary ancestor within us that responds on a more visceral level. I wonder if these rhythms beneath the rhythms don’t also reside here.

Take a peek at Birelly Lagrene playing:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Not Just Playing the Fool

Foolish. That's how I felt for three hours last night. I was with five other people attempting to learn the most basic of all gypsy jazz tunes - "Minor Swing" from the virtuoso players of Pearl Django. Pearl Django is in town right now hosting a Django Camp for adults.

Out of the five students who showed up, one leads a band and has been playing for twenty plus years, one is a jazz fiddle player who apparently also plays jazz guitar, and then there were three of us yahoos. Guess who was the only person in the room who didn't know anything about bar chords. This girl! I'm also the only lady in the group. After the first half of the three hour session it was clear that two of us were drowning while the other three were suffering from our dead weight. Luckily there were two guitar instructors, so we split up into two groups. For the second half of the evening our group of two abandoned almost everything that we had been trying to do for the first half and instead focused on training our right hands (the strumming hand, aka "the most important part").

I picked Andrew up from the airport immediately after we got out. He asked me how it was going.

"I feel like a fool. But, I guess that's how it always feels to learn something new," I said.

I'm going back tonight for three more hours and tomorrow for the last three.

My plan is to think of it as learning a new language while attempting to speak with a native speaker. You're going to sound like an idiot, less educated than a child, but at least you're trying to communicate.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Debbie Downer on a Monday Morning

This morning on my way to work I noticed a man standing just off the sidewalk about fifty feet in front of me. I thought I recognized him, although his back was turned to me. I thought he was a kid I went to highschool with, a guy who, last I saw him, was working for Era Helicopters as a cruise ship dock representative. As I walked towards him I wondered whether he was still working for them. Did he go to college? I think he did. His clothes looked like an Era uniform and I wondered if he was satisfied with still working there.

As I got closer I realized that the way this man's clothes were dirty and rumpled, the way his bag was oversized and hunched his shoulders, the way his hair was greasy and unwashed, all indicated that he was homeless. This man wasn't standing outside his home waiting for a friend to come out, he was standing outside a building that didn't belong to him, staring at nothing, waiting for nothing.

It wasn't the highschool classmate I thought it was.

Next year I'll have my ten year high school reunion. I'm a nosy nosy person. Even though I rarely remember people from highschool, I still crave their stories. Who married whom? Who has kids? Who came out of the closet? Who has made it big? Who is still working at the local grocery store? Who now lives abroad? Who is happy? Who is dissatisfied?

But I've never asked myself who is now homeless.

Friday, July 23, 2010

On the Edge of the Park

Tim and I drove a cherry red Chevrolet HHR Panel Van, exactly like this one -->
up to Cantwell, AK. The whole way I couldn't stop thinking about what city douchebags we must've looked like. I'm extremely grateful for the loan of the car, but still.

"This really is an ugly shithole," Tim said as we rolled through Wasilla. Immediately after he said this I pulled over so that we could sift through piles of junk that people were selling along the side of the road. We found engine parts, old camping gear, and a lacquered picture of a unicorn rearing up on its hind legs in front of a rainbow. Tim almost bought the unicorn, but I convinced him that he would regret it when it sent his baggage over the weight limit for Alaska Airlines.

Once we passed through the rickety wooden strip malls of Wasilla we were fully in the thick of some gorgeous land. Jellyrolls of trees and shrubs fenced on either side by sloping treeless green mountains and a big broad sky of dramatically heavy clouds. Yesterday we took a walk along the Savage River in the front country of The Denali National Park. Our walk turned into the "cute tour" starting with a fluffy, frolicking, bouncing baby marmot; followed by two unconcerned snowshoe hare; and ending with a flock of Willow Ptarmigan.

I got overly excited about the Willow Ptarmigan. It's the Alaska State Bird and I had never seen one! They looked like short puffy chickens. At this time of year they were a mahogany color, but in the winter they turn snow white. I remember being really upset as a kid that the Willow Ptarmigan was the state bird, because: 1. They're really stupid. 2. You can kill one by throwing a rock at its head.

Are they stupid and easy to kill? I don't know. But that's what I was told, and I'm a sucker, so I believe it.

We have one more day in Weebee's cabin on the edge of The Denali National Park. On the docket: hot-tubbing, walking, bluegrassing.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ladies?

I don't read many female writers. I discovered this when I sat down with my new mentor to talk about what books I'll read for the next year.* He asked me what I liked to read. The only woman on that list was Willa Cather.

I got a little upset about this. With further thought I dredged up Flannery O'Conner, Annie Proulx, Carson McCullers, and Jane Austin. Which all together, is a pretty miserable list when you consider how many books I read in a year. And out of those women, how many are still alive and producing material? One.

So I started asking other writers in our program to see if they could suggest anything. From those suggestions I decided on Toni Morrison's Beloved, Nicole Krauss' The History of Love, and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assasin.

Does this mean something? It feels like it might, although I've got no clue what that is.

I like books with adventure, strong plots, clever language, and beauty. I know for a fact that women must write books like this, but why is it so hard for me to think of them? Why is it that the writers who pop into my head are Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Herman Melville?


* The way that UAA's MFA program is structured, each student is paired with one mentor for each of the three years of the program. The student and that mentor decide on a reading list of three books per month and the student sends the mentor between 25-35 pages of creative writing once a month as well as critical responses to the books read. The pairing of the mentors and mentees occurs in the midst of our two week residency. The day when the pairings are released is like a combination of:
  1. Christmas morning.
  2. The first day of school.
  3. A blind date.
This year I'm paired with David Stevenson, the director of the program.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blue Fox Literary Society

Nearly every night this last week has ended at the Blue Fox. I realized last night that I have not successfully gone to sleep before 1am for eight nights in a row.

When it's hot, it's hot.

The Blue Fox is everything I ever want from a hangout bar: it's dim, full of low tables with swivel captains' chairs; it's quiet, but still has a jukebox; you can purchase a wide variety of fried foods; it's within walking distance of the dorms; and their logo is a sexy fox, sitting with her bushy tail wrapped around, winking in a knowing way. When I told my Aunt Mimi where we were spending our nights, she was surprised.

"About twenty years ago people were getting stabbed there all the time," she said.

I'll admit that her comment did make my late night walks back to the dorms a bit spookier.

The last two nights they've had karaoke there. One man came for both nights. The first night he sat in one of the low captains' chairs and last night he sat on a low stool at the bar. Both nights he sang karaoke. The Blue Fox runs their karaoke on multiple screens around the bar, so people who are singing can sing from just about anywhere. Often this means that you can't see who the performer is, and if you really want to know, you have to get up and search. The man who sang both nights was the performer that most people searched for. He never stood up to sing, instead he stayed in his seat (clearly chosen for its good view of the screen), leaned back, and sang. Sometimes he closed his eyes. He was a big guy with a big head of gray hair. He had an all-right voice with a deep Sinatra edge. He chose songs like Van Morrison's Into the Mystic and the Rolling Stones' Wild Horses, good classics, songs he clearly knew inside and out. He looked like a man with an average story, except for this. This was what he did. He sang karaoke at the Blue Fox Cocktail Lounge in Midtown Anchorage Alaska.