Thursday, April 28, 2011

Secret Agent Dreams

This is going to sound nuts, but when I was in middle school, I was secretly convinced I was going to be a spy. I was pretty smart, I was athletic, and I felt like I was different from other people. I think every single adolescent goes through a period where they feel “different” from others, but what it manifested as for me, was this uber-awareness of what was going on around me. I felt like I was often observing the world from outside my head, always watching, always listening.

I was also a big reader and during middle school I got hooked on spy novels. Robert Ludlum was my favorite. I’m fairly sure that I have read every single one of his novels. I also read plenty of John Grisham and Tom Clancy. I’ll admit that even now I’ll pick up a thriller for a plane ride – Steve Berry is my current favorite. I’m a huge James Bond movie fan and have probably watched every single one at least twice and my favorites, many more times. I went to Turkey when I was 19 specifically because of the scenes in Istanbul in “From Russia with Love”.

I envisioned myself going to boot-camp, shocking people with how tough I was for how small I was. I imagined myself becoming fluent in four or five languages, living in foreign countries, blending in as a sleeper agent, and one day, sneaking into a vague foreign embassy to steal information that would save the lives of hundreds of Americans. At that point I had no real understanding of how actions could affect thousands, or millions of people. The most I could imagine was two or three hundred.

My mother and father, but especially my mother, constantly drove the message that we could be anything we wanted to be. I thought that maybe someday I would work for the president after my long and accomplished spy career. I didn’t want to be the president, but I wanted to be someone who was important to the president.

Now, fifteen years later, I can safely say that none of those dreams will come true. Thank goodness. I can safely say that I will never have to choose between the safety of an indefinite number of Americans and holding possible terrorists in prison for indefinite periods of time, torturing them, depriving them of any sort of human kindness. I’ll never have to follow an order that goes against my morals. I’ll never have to decide whether someone lives or dies.

Thank goodness I never followed through on those naïve day dreams.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

37th Alaska Folk Festival - Survived!

I’ve been wanting to write a post about the 37th Alaska Folk Festival, but I can’t figure out how to pull it off. It’s like trying to describe a color to someone who has been blind from birth, if you’ve never experienced it, there’s no way to even conceive of it.

The easy description is this: it’s a week-long free music festival in which anyone can play (all you have to do is apply) and everyone who plays on the mainstage plays for no more than 15 minutes. Because of this you can go to one night of the festival and hear punk-rock, sea chanteys, polka, ripping bluegrass, child fiddlers, and on and on. There are also two nights worth of dances, both contra and general, and two days worth of workshops. Again, it’s all free.

There are also bands at every bar in town, every night of the week.

But that’s just the formal festival. That’s the festival as described on the festival homepage. And even leaving it at that, it’s a totally unique event.

Alaska is a small state in a lot of ways. Everyone knows everyone knows everyone. Especially when you’re dealing with the music community. And the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau is what one of our friends refers to as “The Gathering of the Tribes”. Everyone shows up, and if you don’t show up, you receive phone calls, drunken messages, emails, texts, and ultimately at least one toast to how you’ve been missed. I would loosely estimate that we had 50 to 60 people in town (including Juneauites) that belong to these tribes. And the most amazing part is that most of these people are incredibly talented musicians that can play an infinite combination of instruments and music.

A ridiculous five mandolin jam at the Triangle Bar.

Listening to people you love play the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard within four feet of you at five a.m. is one of those experiences that I will never be able to fully explain.

 It’s an all day, all night love fest in the most dorky of ways. By the Monday after the official end of folk fest I had completely lost my voice and was wearing a notepad around my neck. There were at least four other people in the same, or almost the same, boat. I didn’t lose it just from singing. I lost it from yelling, laughing, shouting, conversing, screaming, giggling, and hollering.

It says a lot that the two unofficial anthems of the tribes are called “We Are So Fucking Lucky” and “We Are Bands of Free Men”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Waterfowl and Roller Derby

When we teach girls how to do a two knee fall in roller derby we tell them it’s like doing a rock guitar knee slide: lean back, throw your hands in the air at first, and fall with all the weight on your knee pads. When I watch a group of girls do these slides, the sudden drop, the hard thwack, the raised arms, always remind me of a flock of surf scoters landing on water.

A surf scoter coming in from
The surf scoter is a common sea bird in Southeast Alaska. At first you think that there’s nothing graceful about the way a scoter hits the water: wings back, crashing at full force into the water, sending up a spray of white. But in the brut purposefulness of the landing, there’s something about it that is uniquely appealing, there’s no pretty finish to it, it is what it is.

I think about that a lot with derby. Derby done with skill is beautiful, but there is never the intent to be beautiful. If you focus on trying to skate gracefully, or are too conscious of how you might look, somebody’s going knock you on your ass. I’ve been helping with a beginner skating class, and over and over again when I’m trying to break down a skill or am speaking about skating form, the words I use are: efficient, power, stabile, strong, force.

Next month is the one year anniversary of the start of Juneau Rollergirls (if you count from the first day we actually skated). July 2nd, we’ll have our very first bout, a local event featuring all local skaters.

Gate City Roller Girl doing a two-knee slide from
 It’s been a pretty amazing development. There were six or seven of us at the first practice and only one person there had ever spent any significant amount of time on roller skates. The rest of us clung to the walls on shaky legs and tested out our new pads by trying the slides we had seen on YouTube tutorial videos. I had spent many of my pre-teen years obsessed with inline skating, which is pretty different from roller skating, but it meant that I was at least comfortable with the idea of having wheels on the bottom of my shoes.

Our first practices consisted of us skating around in circles, attempting to stop, and not really knowing how to start learning the game. Fast forward a year and our practices are highly structured, run by two dedicated coaches and a team of refs. We’re skating hard, working hard, and when I sit on the team bench during a scrimmage and watch the jam, I’m not watching a bunch of ladies trying to figure out what the heck is going on with their skates, I’m watching roller derby.

A couple of practices ago, as all of us were lined up doing wall sits* Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” came on the iPod and in the middle of our wall sits, practically every lady out of the twenty starting singing.

I’m so thankful to spend a couple of hours every week with a group of ladies who can sing through their pain and even in the midst of trying to knock each other down, give advice to their teammates on how to stay standing.

*A unique form of torture in which you press your back against a wall and drop into a squat so that your legs are at a 90 degree angle. Then you hold that position for a minute. We’re now up to doing four wall sits every practice.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dreaming in Russian

Last night I had a dream entirely in Russian.

I am a dreamer. I mean that in the most literal sense. I have dreams every night. Vivid dreams, and more often than not, adventure dreams. I’m usually trying to accomplish some task, find some thing, help some one, achieve some goal. I often remember my dreams in great detail for the first five minutes after I wake, and then, as the sleep rubs away from my eyes, I am left only with the major points of the dream and the overall tone.

This dream involved living in a floating village which was part of a chain of villages within a complex system of fjords. I had to sail a sailboat somewhere and it was a boat that was too big for one person to sail. I remember narrowly dodging submerged boulders which were demarcated by tattered traffic cones.

The dream, like most dreams, was unimportant. The fact that the entire dream took place in Russian is what really amazes me.

I was a Comparative Literature and Russian double major in college. I went to university in Moscow for a semester and spent the following semester traveling solo through urban parts of Siberia with long visits to St. Petersburg and Moscow.

I have not spoken Russian in five years. Beloit College has a great Russian program, and compared to the other students, I was a hack. I lacked confidence and drive. But I still loved the language. I loved the structure of it, I loved the way the language was built of small blocks that allowed you to take words for complex abstract ideas and break them down in to concrete images. I loved the sound of the language, and more than anything, I loved the literature it produced. I think about returning to Russian at least once a week. But where is the time?

Even now, I sometimes flirt with the idea of becoming a Russian translator. One of the professors in my MFA, Zack Rogow, translates French poetry and when I asked him how he got into it, he said that he just started translating poems that he was curious about.

Once again, proof that all it takes to begin doing something that you want to do, is to just do it.

There are so many paths to follow.