star thistle chaos.

6 November 2013 § Leave a comment

Today is our first mensiversary of marriage. We’re biding our honeymoon in the California hills, and I feel neither present nor attentive to the task at hand. This invisible culture, whose industry requires a blurring vagueness here, propels the migratory gypsy circuit into a focused frenzy for a few months of the year. Mornings and evenings I sinfully connect to the internet, an archaic device that tethers me to the outside world.

Five years of seasonal work has taught me this: the twenties fly too fast to not do what I love. Fishing has been the most adventurous and lucrative job I’ve had, my often-told story of life amongst the tides. And, I’m writing a new story. One which up to now I mistakenly thought would have little to do with fishing and Alaska.

For years I wanted Alaskan roots. When I was 12, my mother drove my brother and I north from the New Mexico desert into the Alaskan winter. For a decade nowhere else qualified as home. When my heartbroken version of a vision quest came along, I felt like an upside down Alexander Supertramp running away from, and ever carrying, a cute box half-empty of longing and  tragedies. Alaska was my backyard, not some faraway frontier. I needed to go somewhere. But, as Eddie Vedder put it, I was “starting from the top.”

And you can’t do that.

To every man: his own adventure, a set of lessons to keep his honesty afloat, and love. 

 

I’ll be back shortly.

food and the sea.

29 July 2013 § Leave a comment

On the water my daily calorie count reached five digits, and only once I mistook and tallied them. It was a bad move because Emily’s eating disorder still haunted me; some days on land I’d eat only carrots, celery, and mustard and weigh myself every morning after I’d pissed and shit and before I drank any water. At lunch I’d tell my friends I’d already eaten, even when we’d made plans prior. Instead I ate alone, sadly and obsessively, pinched the skin on my stomach to decide how much I would eat that day.

These things don’t fly on fishing boats. Not when you burn more than you eat no matter how many brownies, handfuls of trail mix, snickers, or servings of mystery curry and rice you wolf down. Commercial fishing is a dietician’s nightmare; an eating disorder’s daydream. Many fishermen arrive to the boatyard plump; by season’s end our arms are sinewy and strong, our stomachs hard as bin covers. “It’s the once-a-year workout plan,” said Max this summer. As long as the fish show up.

When they do, and we’re enter that blurry stretch of time called peak, when fifteen minutes of sleep feels like hours, and your hands look and feel like lobster claws, brushing and flossing become privileges. You’re not sure how long it’s been but your sandpaper teeth say it’s been ten meals too long, like yesterday, which in Bristol Bay time is last month.

Self-care falls by the wayside, to say the least. Lucky for me, so does self-destruction. If I require a certain amount of animosity to get through my day, which sometimes is the case, it may arrive in the form of a screaming skipper, an insolent crewmate, or 65 knot winds and enough fish to feed Detroit’s hungry children for weeks. The sea provides. more than I can ask for, or give myself. So the day I ate 14,600 calories, then felt guilty and refused to think of her (and therefore did so constantly), instead of hating my consumption I thanked it. Before each bowl of granola or curry, candy bar, piece of jerky or dried mango from the sugar shack, even before that abominable Progresso clam chowder, I closed my eyes and prayed until I was made of gratitude. My adopted disorder a disowned, petulant child who knows well that I haven’t weighed in morningwise in two years quieted as we drifted up and down Ship’s Channel this summer.

By the time July hit, I’d fished two full seasons in two months, and everything inside me was done. Tired and Finished. Tolerant and smart enough to endure the bullshit: “Straight to bed with you,” said the skipper, “you make money, and you sleep.” His implications obvious: Don’t you dare write in your little book, Sean, said his sharp baby blue eyes, you’ll be back on deck before you have a chance to dream.

This is my sleep, mu’fugga. Two sentences later, handwriting the shape of snores and shredded nets, I feel asleep pen in hand.

home pack

12 July 2013 § Leave a comment

I need you to be strong, baby.
I need your smile so that I can hold up
the whole universe when you call. And
I need you to know that my goodbyes 
translate to ‘until next time’ in every language
spoken near the sea, mountains, and sky.

seaward

10 July 2013 § 3 Comments

The first time _ saw the ocean was Huntington Beach, LA, 1995.
Eight years old, and not yet learned in how to contain excitement,
ran out to embrace it.

Swallowed so much salt water,
nearly drowned.

Hopped back to the high desert
started climbing mountains
so the sea wouldn’t call like that again.

Nineteen years later,
commercial fisherman
for five years,
I realize that
the sea was but a wound
that wanted to heal.

shithouse poetry

10 July 2013 § Leave a comment

suspicious sun, an emerald sea -we observers focus on wind, and sail.
what becomes of tides where no waves collide?
what composes human folly, then,
if we decide that lo9ve will stumble
before it falls on us?

===

who watched in agony the
cliffside chaos, wind caught
chorus, wild music ringing?
sunset’s but some heaven
leasing demons through
a fiery gate, a needle threaded.

the boys are back on deck

10 July 2013 § Leave a comment

I have mere hours before returning to the sea. Our 32′ drift gillnetter, the spectacle they call the Okuma, waits patiently in the Dillingham harbor, for her third departure since April, when we arrived to fish herring in Togiak.

A week ago, my crewmate lost his pinky. ‘I think I fucked up,’ he said. ‘I lost a finger.’

‘Where’d it go!?’ I said, thinking he might be kidding. But he made direct eye contact with me, a scarce event, and he spun in a circle, in shock. His gloves hid the gore for moments after. The skipper yelled to me, keep picking! get the net on board! As he and his wife rummaged through the first aid kit, Pinky hit the hydraulic valve to bring the net up.

You warrior, I said. Go sit down. Take care of that shit.

More yelling from the skipper.

We roundhauled the net aboard, fish and all, and took off for the hospital. We had to save his finger, not a glob of mush at the bottom of a glove. The tides were right to get him to Ekuk quickly, where a setnetter flew him to Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham. When my skipper called the hospital to see how Pinky was doing, they patched him through to their surgery patient.

‘No, really,’ said Pinky, ‘the doctor is pulling the bone out right now with – wait, what’s that tool called? – something or other. I can’t feel a thing.’

Maybe I shouldn’t have called him before the fishing season. We didn’t get along from the start. I tried to get along with him, and all that came up was my attitude. Pinky was my mirror, a version of myself whom I’d despised for so much of my life, and I disrespected him time and time again. My condescending tone told him what he needed to know about me, and my arrogant behavior in Togiak as it concerned my friendship with the girl he was crushing on was, according to unwritten rules I was not them aware of, completely unacceptable. It placed a rift between us that would make our three months together feel like an eternity.

Before we laid out that set in Flounder’s Flats, he said to me, If only we could go back to town for a couple of days and recharge. His case of red ass spread faster than mine, and it brought him back to town the moment he felt ready. Perhaps the price was too high. We were just starting to get along, to quiz each other on movie quotes and share travel stories, most of which included beautiful women and exotic locations – as if that was why we traveled, ha! – and the end of the season was in sight. It was July second already, and we’d be sipping mai thais on the beach by the 20th, wads of cash crinkled in our pockets. The early salmon run had worked only in our favor, what with catching 28,000 pounds of fish in 65 knot winds on the west line. Over and over.

There’s only so much time now. Pinky’s replacements lasted a week, their grace and chemistry on the deck a miracle that made the days slide my like a slippery fish on the bloody aluminum. Inspiration from a fellow writer, Tim Clemen. ‘You know, you should have backed off in Togiak, played the wingman. You know that, right? Lay down the Cool, he told me.

I knew he was right, just like he was right when he said do what you love. If you want to write, he said, then write, and do nothing else. You’ll succeed, I guarantee it. Five years in audio engineering, five years fishing. Give writing five years of your energy, and you’ll get here, he said, looking around the spectacle they call the Okuma. It doesn’t get better, until you’re in the wheelhouse running the show. Out here, we’re boys, and always will be.

Sacrifice of summer, part v.

5 June 2013 § Leave a comment

26 April 2013

Dear Heeth,

My fifth annual pilgrimage to the remote fishing grounds on the far edge of the world ends and begins today. The two-prop plane just passed over Kenai your burial ground, and turned west. Snowy mountains as far as I can see, the northern arc of the Ring of Fire encircling me. It’s comforting that no matter how far away I run, some container will hold me.

No step is independent of the rest. 

I have taken many, and not always been conscious of my feet. I’ve found that when I continually shift my focus center, each step follows the last, no matter the terrain.

Twelve days ago I asked Heather to marry me. She said yes. Two days ago I embarked on what could be the most demanding work I’ve yet known. Both bear infinite possibilities and great consequence. I’m not sure I’m ready. But I feel more prepared than ever to embrace life. 

Thank you for showing me how to rest. My savasana winter, modeled by your eternal permafrost calm, taught me how to place my energy where it thrives, to attract what I want from life unabashed, and to respect the voice within. Or enough at least to know I need not always be commanded by it. 

The glacialwhite Alaska Range is flattening into the vast expanse of southwestern Alaska. North, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. South, Bristol Bay, home of my abundance. East, my past, quieted by invisible propellors and my focus on the west, possibility and wonder, love and adventure.

These frozen rivers will soon break, and flow through me, the wide open countryside they quench is space which holds me close, dearly watches me play. it reminds me to step carefully, to move consciously, for my body is a growing temple, always just strong enough for my journey. 

Thank you, brother, for doing what seemed most right, for inspiring and teaching me, in your backward way, how to live. So much love. So much.

Sean

the beginning of all things to end

2 April 2013 § 2 Comments

A viscous yellow dawn lit up the prairie desert. As far as we could see, pale grass and cacti were all that inhabited the earth. Occasionally a dirt road perpendicular to the highway scratched into the unknown. Out my window, north, as foreign to me as the recent past. The rising morning sun, nowhere to be found, warmed nothing. The Greyhound bus rolled at the same fifty five miles an hour it had since San Antonio.

Behind me near the toilet we weren’t supposed to use, three men who’d just been released from Leavenworth gambled candy bars and coins over a deck of cards featuring Playboy models from the 80s. I picked one up from the aisle. “I haven’t seen titties since 1994, son,” one of them said as I handed him the queen of hearts. He should’ve been wearing a shiny purple fedora and diamond studded glasses to match his gold teeth. I returned my headphones to their rightful places and turned up the volume on my discman.

Hey, I ain’t never coming home
Hey, I’ll just wander my own road
Hey, I can’t meet you here tomorrow
Say goodbye, don’t follow.

On Texas highways tears dry quickly. Keeping track of them has for me always been a useless trade. The afternoon before, I’d departed my father’s house. Another home, another family. My pace was quickening. Six months before my mother’d said, energetically, conform or leave. I left. A few weeks before the bus trip west, my father picked up the phone just as I said to a girl that Kansas was a pit of foolish racism and self-hatred, and that I was leaving as soon as possible. He took me to the bus station himself. I climbed into the air-conditioned coach, a final reprieve from the oppressive Midwest swelter. My father stood and cried where we’d hugged.

Many of the moments by which I’ve defined myself have looked like this. Sometimes they take place in airports, other times gas stations. Rarely a smoke filled Waffle House at three a.m. My favorites are bus stations and depots. Always with different people, most of whom I’ve loved. Chances are I love them still. For me there’s nothing like leaving, departing, moving on, embracing the Next, especially when it’s the unknown; a peaceful fear washes over me, and I am left with a sense of balance. Will I see this person again? Will I return? When? From where else will I go?

The feeling used to seem like an oxymoron. Fear does not at once seem peaceful at all – it seems wrenching and panicky, like cowardice. Something to regret. Since that Greyhound bus on the desert highway, I’ve done all I can to say goodbye without looking back. It seemed weak. I wanted to embrace the next step, and honor whom and what I’d just departed because inside I was gone, already giving my whole self, nervous knees and short breath, to the Unknown. From a perspective that says unabashedly and inconsiderately it only gets better from here, looking back for me is a counterproductive burden. If my presence is my greatest gift, then I have given all I can. Thank you for being a part of it. A part of me.

So, to Portland, home of my savasana winter; to the communities I’ve orbited; the playgrounds on which I’ve learned how to manage my energy; friends, tribe, and family, all of whom I love for your contributions to the world around you, for your willingness to do the work it takes to grow and go where necessary to make it to the next step, the unknown – thank you. I’m headed off for my circuitous adventure, another enamoured summer on the seas along Alaska’s broken coastlines. See you on the other side.

the slippery fish game.

20 March 2013 § Leave a comment

The last week has been a taxing few days of fishing jargon thrown about barstools and living rooms, fisherpeople saying this and that about fishing and people. It’s about the who can impress who, and who did what, can’t waits, have tos and wink wink nudges. Heather’s getting ready to run her boat by herself for the first time, and the old guys all have something to chuckle about the new girl in town. The ‘new girl,’ who grew up amongst them, just under the radar, working on the fiercest boats around. She’s one of a handful of female skippers in a fleet of 1600, and the preseason stress is as demanding as the fishing

While she prepared to send food and gear up on the barge, she evaluated her crew members, who, months ago, by some cosmic joke fell into a deep infatuation with one another – I heard one call it love – and wondered what she manifested. All this amongst our social goings-on with Bristol Bay’s finest.

It’s difficult to think of the commercial fishing world as any different than how I imagine other niche work cultures operating. Here, one needn’t search long to find evidence of a dominant patriarchy – in Alaska, it is typically fuelled by cheap beer and diesel engine oil. Every interaction with crew is somehow symbolic of the skipper’s authority. In the boatyard, crew is usually relegated to sleep on the boat, and report promptly in the morning to the skipper’s container van regardless of the previous night’s shenanigans. There they learn the day’s agenda, and set to it until the day is done. The PAF boatyard, indeed all of Dillingham, plays the stage for the preseason crescendo of net hanging, boat cleaning, oil changing, welding, and beer drinking. Deckhands install grates in fish bins, take inventory of food and nets, eliminate potential net snags, paint buoys. There are no clocks by which to ensure eight hour workdays, supervisory cameras, or days off. They work until the skipper says to not.

Most first-timers arrive to the Bay excited and ignorant and wanting to make a difference. Offer their suggestions. Reassure their skippers that they’ll be the best deckhands ever. Make promises like “I’ll wash the dishes every meal all season long,” as if it wasn’t already their job. We call these bright-eyed butterflies greenhorns. Lower case g.  Like beautiful women, greenhorns need not divulge personality, for it will not be valued, and in many cases even acknowledged. There are reasons for this, and it suffices to say that greenies are appreciated for their hard work and ability to keep their mouths shut. Ideally for the entire season. Preferably two.

I preferred my first few years of fishing on unknown boats with skippers newer to the shores. I knew no one else who fished. Outside the doors of the airplanes on which I rode to and fro the season, I had no opportunity to talk endlessly about nets and cork lines, hydraulic systems and crew shares. When fellow travellers or students asked about my occupation, I told them about the magical vistas of the sea; the slithery strength of a salmon in my hands, refusing to die; that we delivered fish to the crab boats from Deadliest Catch, whose vacations were our peak season.

Back then, I knew few of my skipper’s quirks, or the dozens of his jolly mates. I happened to this folklorish world, one in deep denial of its impending armaggedon, by accident. A pebble skipped into the sea by some child within me. I’m getting polished in the breakers and taken out with the tide. When the sea spits me out she does so with a knowing smile that it’s only time before my return, and time matters to the sea not much at all.

And my acquiescence grows stronger every year – the stakes feel ever higher when I check in with myself about leaving the fishery. It seems now I’ve got so much more to lose. Like any relationship worth staying, I’ve built and with every interaction with fisherpeople am building a reputation, a career, a story. I fish with a legend, and he just gave me a raise in responsibility, pay and faith. His recommendation is stronger than iron in our microcosmic world of gruff pretension and unsubtle oneupmanship.

He sees that I don’t play the game, and moves his piece anyway, to gauge my reaction. I don’t need the job, I tell myself. I don’t need to participate in the dick-measuring games they play. It’s not that I’m above it – I just don’t love fishing that much.

And fear: with what other job on earth can I have a grand Alaskan adventure every summer, all expenses paid, and walk with a healthy five digit check?

Do I want to sacrifice the rest of my summers to fishing, what years there are left anyway before Pebble Mine poisons Bristol Bay beyond hope of repair, to end up like my ex-crewmate Bob, who at 50 wished he’d done something other than fish, only to quit and to make money sell the trinkets he’d collected from decades of world travel paid for by his seasonal lifestyle? Is that how I hope to become? It scares me that the answer might truthfully be yes, maybe.

oh, alaska.

3 August 2012 § Leave a comment

Dear Love,

You’re such a bitch; fuck off.

Always,

Sean

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