Monday, March 30, 2015

if you want to borrow my gun...

Tonight I had dinner with a nice couple for whom I will house-sit in May. This was the first time I'd met them; they live "out the road" in the other direction from where I'm house-sitting now. We had a very nice meal together--roast, potatoes, roasted carrots, salad, and a rich chocolate mousse for dessert. I haven't had roast in...I don't know...months? Years? It was a damn fine meal. Particularly because the ol' food budget is sparse at present, so although I'm eating just fine my meals tend to be more along the lines of oatmeal and lentils and less along the lines of roast and mousse. Which, you know, lentils and oatmeals are good for the veins and the bones. But when you're living on a slimmer budget, having someone treat you to a feast does feel special.

My time with them this evening felt so Alaskan for me. For example. When I house-sit for them I'll be taking care of their 9-month-old Schauzer puppy, Sofi. She's cool. I dig her. I was saying to the husband of this couple that it'll be nice to have a dog to walk with, because I'm often afraid to go on trails for fear of running into bears. And the husband was like, "oh, well I have a gun if you ever want to borrow it when you go walking." And I thought--now there is a sentence that, if you heard it spoken in Oakland, would mean a whole different thing. 

Then he showed me around the house. It's a nice house. Big. Spacious. Fanciness in many areas. And they have a vintage Mustang in one garage and a swanky SUV in the other one. He was like, "obviously, you'll be driving the SUV. But if you do need to drive the Mustang, the keys are in it." And this is why I love Alaska. Mind you, not everyone in Alaska lets you drive their vehicles at the drop of a hat. But when people don't let you drive their vehicles, other people look at them weird. In two of the places I've house-sat, the people didn't let me drive their cars while I was there. When I reported this news to local friends they were like, "What the hell is wrong with those people?" 

Also, at another point in the evening they were telling me about the little Alaskan town (800 people) where they lived for five years when they first moved to Alaska. They talked about all the kids roaming freely, the way that you ordered your groceries weeks ahead of time and they were delivered on the plane, and you ordered your clothes that way too. And this couple were like, "yeah, it was so great in those days." And then the wife said, in a melancholy tone, "Of course, it's changed a lot since then. The streets are paved now. The airport is moved to a more convenient location." They both sighed sadly.

And this is why I love Alaska.

For another four weeks I’ll be in the place where I am now. Moving around so often is starting to wear on me, but on the other hand it’s cool to see so many different parts of Sitka. This place where I’m at right now is a humble abode, I suppose you’d say, but it’s my favorite so far. It’s got the best view by a long shot, and it has the kind of authenticity I can really get behind: quotes pinned up all over the place, bookshelves made out of split logs and 2x6s (not because it’s hip, but because it’s functional), and the original hand-built cupboards from 1941 (again, no hipness happening, just real life). Cast iron skillets in the kitchen and not much else by way of pans. A drawer full of re-used tin foil. Binoculars and tide books.

And then the place I’ll stay at in May—where I just had dinner—is fancy. Hot tub, big screen TV, a freezer full of local fish that they said I could dine on every night if I want. Big-hearted people sharing what they have. Including their guns. (And you have to understand that these people are not the gun-totin’ caricatures that so many liberal folks fear. Before they retired, the wife was a librarian and the husband worked doing things like overseeing trail maintenance of national parks.)

From a certain angle, Alaska can sure seem utopian. Especially if you’ve just spent three years in a deeply urban area where you craved wilderness every day. And especially if it felt ungainly and sad, in that urban area, to almost always meet up with people in places where money had to be exchanged (restaurants, bars, coffee shops). From that perspective, suddenly living in a place where strangers invite you into their home (and are wearing sweat pants when you get there, as per the norm in this state) and feed you feasts, a place where wilderness is run rampant in every direction including underfoot and overhead, a place where kids’ whole existence is free ranging….well, yes, it does feel utopian.

But it’s a lot more complicated than that, of course. The alcoholism rate in Alaska is very high. The suicide rate per capita is the highest in the nation. Three weeks ago in Sitka, a man in his early 20s overdosed on heroin. Many young people (and probably older people) use meth. And the relationship between Native people and white people is complex and, in many ways, difficult and painful. There may be no other state besides Hawaii where it is as stare-you-in-the-face obvious that this land is the ancient homeplace of one group of people who live here, and not at all the ancient homeplace of the other group who live here (who have the vast majority of the power). There’s nowhere I’ve lived where it’s more obvious that I am part of the colonizing people group, and I can’t figure out any way to think about that that makes me really feel okay about living here long-term. But then I think about how white people are in the exact same position in the Lower 48, but because of the existence of reservations, and the general annihilation of Native cultures, it’s just so much less part of white consciousness than it is in much of Alaska. I suppose maybe if I were to spend time with Tlingit people and get to know them, and then ask for their permission to live here, and if I felt like they gladly granted that permission, then I might feel okay about it. And even this, as painful as it is, draws me to Alaska.

I want to have a tidy way of ending this post. But at the moment, I don't. Goodnight, dear friends, from Alaska.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

quote of the day

"I don't think I'll ever get married because I don't like quibbling."
-Sarah Silverman

Monday, March 23, 2015

the house where i'm staying now

This is the house where I'm staying now. It was built in 1941 and much of the house hasn't been modified since then, like these wonderful kitchen cabinets. There must be something about this particular era of homes built in Alaska because I feel very at-home in this place. It reminds me of my grandparents' house on Bear Island, and I wonder if that was maybe built around the same time? 
Here's the stove, which probably isn't the original, but it sort of feels that way to me. It's propane, the kind you have to light every time you use a burner. 

Here's the livingroom. Back behind the couch, you see a row of didgeridoos. The owner of this home has a strong connection with Australia (I don't know what the connection is since I'm not acquainted with him yet....since he's in Australia) and the house is full of books about koalas and kangeroos, didgeridoos, maps of Australia, etc.

The view from the livingroom window in rain.

The view from the livingroom window in snow.

Here's the shelf beside the bed I'm sleeping in. The room where I'm sleeping is upstairs and faces a mountain. When I say "faces a mountain" I mean that this house is built right on the side of that mountain. Mt. Verstovia, in fact. Bears wander into the yard here on a regular basis, though at the moment they're mostly still in hibernation. 

View from the livingroom in sun.

Friday, March 20, 2015

a song deconstructing binary thinking

Sometimes I forget about Tim Minchin. And then I remember him. And I remember how much I appreciate him. And so, here's a song about something I think most readers of this blog will agree with: that people cannot be reduced to the goodies and the badies, the liberals and the conservatives, the real men and the faeries, the pure ones and the perverts. And etc.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

quote of the day

Love's the only house big enough for all the pain in this world. 
-Martina McBride

Monday, March 9, 2015

some quotes for the day

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."
-Carl Jung

"The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong."
-Carl Jung

"The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases."
-Carl Jung

Based on these three quotes, I think I am a Jungian!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

p.s.: white logic

Thinking a little more about what I wrote in the second half of the last post, I would like to say something about a certain form of white logic that I have often encountered in my interactions with my fellow white people. The logic is the way that many white people think about law enforcement and racial issues. The logic goes like this:

Logical Argument

1. I am a nice person and I never have trouble with police. Even if I'm pulled over for speeding, the cops are always nice to me.

2. Therefore, it must be my niceness that makes cops be nice to me.

3. Therefore, if cops are not nice to someone, it must be because that person was not nice to the cop.

4. A man got shot by the cops. The man must have not been a nice man. There is no other possible explanation for the shooting.

What I think that many, many, many white people genuinely do not understand is that their niceness is not the only reason, and not even the primary reason that cops are nice to them. This is not willful ignorance on the part of white people! Or at least it is not conscious willful ignorance. White people--at least many of the middle class, northern American white people I have met--really, really think that they never have trouble with law enforcement because they deserve to never have trouble with law enforcement. And why do they deserve it? Because they are upstanding citizens who obey the law. The idea that a cop would be racially profiling them, when pulling them over for speeding, or when driving around a neighborhood to make sure everything is okay...that idea never occurs to the vast majority of white people I've met. They really do think that if a cop is cruising their neighborhood that they have no reason to worry? Why? Because they know they are nice, pleasant, law-abiding people. The fact that they are white and middle-class does not present itself as relevant in any way at all.

That logical argument that I cited above is fraught with assumptions and with fallacies. But of course we all live our lives along the lines of all sorts of shaky assumptions and irrationalities.

Most white people don't think of themselves as white. I'm not sure how obvious this is to people of color. But it is completely true, at least in my experience and everything I've read. White people think of themselves as "people." And this is probably at the heart of the problem. Because they (we) don't think of themselves as white, are often (usually) even unaware of their race, it just never occurs to them that they might be racially privileged.


I don't know what more to say about this right now.

leaving before the rains come

Before I give my latest recommendations, I'll say something about myself, because I know almost everyone who reads this blog knows me personally and doesn't just come here for recommendations for stuff to read and see. I'm finding it harder and harder to write about myself on the internet though. Ever since I went off Facebook, 2 1/2 years ago, I've been on the slow slide to privacy. And I find that the more privacy I have, the more I want. This is so surprising to me.

Last night I went to a fashion show here in Sitka. A fashion show, the kind with a runway. I took my camera, thinking I'd take photos to share online with my friends--since, after all, 99% of my friends live far away. But as I sat there at the fashion show, watching all the models walk the runway, I kept forgetting to take pictures. When it would suddenly occur to me again that I had a camera, I'd feel amazed at how different my internal reality is from what it was, say, four or five years ago. I remember how, when I was on Facebook, I'd experience my experiences in terms of status updates. At any given moment of my life, I was aware of a potential audience.

The awareness of a potential audience isn't wholly gone, but it's mostly gone. And in fact, in most of my life these days, I don't have any audience or witnesses whatsoever. Since I left Ariel's--almost exactly six months ago--I've had big fields of solitary time to roam around in. And even at Ariel's house, I had so much more solitude than most people I know. Yes, I was responsible for Ariel, but we spent most of our evenings just in each other's company, and that was pretty quiet company.

It's not just solitude right now. I went with a friend to the fashion show last night. I'm part of a writer's group that meets every other week, and I had a friend for dinner on Friday night, and I talk to family and friends on the phone. But, at a time in life when most of my peers are busy raising children and visiting with the parents of their children's friends, and are generally busy, that doesn't seem to be the story I'm living.

Here are two recommendations.

Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller. It's a beautiful, riveting memoir about Alexandra's divorce from her husband of 20 years.

"Fruitvale Station" is a movie about the last day of Oscar Grant's life. Oscar Grant was a young, black man who was shot and killed in an Oakland BART station in 2009. He was unarmed, lying on the floor of the station with his arms pinned behind his back. Oscar Grant, as he is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan (who's been one of my favorite actors since he played in "The Wire") in the movie, reminds me so much of the young men who were my students in Oakland. Same culture, same context and language. To say that the movie is painful to watch is an understatement in the extreme. But I think that, especially for people who don't have contact with black culture, and/or urban black culture, it's an important movie to see. I think that the movie might come across as an overly rosy portrayal of a young man who "sold weed" and had a prison record. And it probably is a little overly rosy. But not so much as to be untrue. I think that so often people outside urban culture, or white people in general, have this image of what they think a "black person who deals drugs" is, or they think they know who a black man who'd been in prison could be and could not be. And what I want to say about the movie is that the young, urban (and I don't mean "urban" as code for "black"; I really do mean people who live in the city...because I know a lot of people who live in small towns, and boy is the culture different) culture I see portrayed looks to me exactly how young, urban culture looked to me when I rode the BART trains all around the Bay, and when I went into corner stores, and when I taught college a few miles away from where Oscar was shot. It's a culture that I think looks confusing and scary to a lot of white people, especially non-urban white people, for lots of different reasons. A lot of those reasons are insidious. The deep, deep ways racism is entrenched in the American system. And some of those reasons are just actual cultural differences. So many misunderstandings happen in the gaps between cultures.

Here's my point. I think that a lot of white people I know would see a movie like "Fruitvale Station" and they'd think to themselves, even if they didn't say it out loud, "I doubt that Oscar Grant was really that likable in real life. Because likable people don't get shot for no reason." And I just want to say: that simply is not true. It's not true. It's not true. I also want to say: even if Oscar Grant was utterly unlikable, even if he was a relational idiot who alienated everyone in his life, that doesn't mean he deserves to be shot, or even harmed. Being a jerk doesn't mean you deserve to be shot. Having a prison record doesn't mean you deserve to be shot. Selling marijuana doesn't mean you deserve to be shot. The crazy thing is that I feel like I need to actually state those things. That is the really, really crazy, fucked up thing. I feel like I need to actually say, "Being a jerk doesn't mean you deserve to be shot," because I have met so many white people who don't really believe that, not when we're talking about black people.

I'm sorry to end the post this way. May Oscar Grant be resting in peace. May his daughter be well, and may her life be full and long. May his family somehow, somehow have peace.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

consent: it ain't that hard

Here's a short explanation of sexual consent. Fortunately, pretty much everyone I know is savvy to sexual consent, and is down with it too. But there appear to be a zillion people out there who are not savvy or down. When you come across one such person, please direct them here: