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.


a first birthday, finally.

15 March 2013 § Leave a comment

Marai’s first birthday celebration didn’t go as planned. He blew out the candles on the decadent espresso cake, one of three desserts one the table, and as the last off-key echoes of Happy Birthday died, the baby Carmelito picked the warm candles from the cake and sucked icing from the ends. I grabbed Marai’s hand and brought him back to the table. There’s another custom you must know, I said.

The Lybian/Egyptian Portlander sucked icing off his birthday candles and the partygoers laughed. Cameras flashed. Are you laughing at me, asked Marai with an accent that brought us all to a far away land, to a sultan’s tent, to camels and desert dunes unfathomable. A diligent and curious student of culture, he asked about the apparent cultural differences between our worlds rather than take offense. He’s thirty-five, or thirty-eight, depending on which passport is in his pocket, and celebrated his first birthday party with a gesture of trust.

Who of us knew Marai? How did we meet him? Question of the night. A reaching across entire communities, philosophies, and ways of being. We met in a cafe. On the street. We heard his voice at a dance jam (“I am honored to be here,” he had said, “This is a YES!”), and showed up at his house two weeks later. He opened the door with open arms. Sometimes we misunderstand each other, and work through it over tea and ice cream. We show each other our flaws and ask, can you love and accept me now?

Last night people who would not normally resonate communicated through a fiber optic thread named Marai (that’s muh-RYE), a being of light that transcends its lamp and shines shamelessly.

Happy birthday, my friend, Happy birthday. You came into the world today, like the first chapter of a novel you’ll never stop writing.

night time railyard jam

14 March 2013 § 2 Comments

In times of abundant solitude, when I find myself in the right place, I remember that I vibrate a very specific frequency. Like any musical note, I can play in a group, key, or song, and the result can be anything a jam session or album can be – a ludicrous cacophony lubricated by and written with intoxicants, or a sweet melodious story told by a child sitting on the lap of his grandfather, who adds context when necessary.

And I can also ring alone, in a hum or whistle, with rhythm or without, and associate my sound with a place, mood, or feeling. My frequency can be found amongst the raucous metal of a train yard in the pre-dawn hours.

The monolithic ministers of power, thousands of gallons of diesel swishing in their bellies, move slowly down one track and up another with rumbling fortitude. Assembling a train can take hours of slow laborious movement. Railroaders call it Tying Up. Great metal hooks smash and latch together like fingers grasping just before losing grip. An air hose connects the engine – the power – to the Fred, a portable traffic light of sorts, that replaced the caboose as indicator of a train’s derrier.

The process is slow and done by tired men – there are precious few female railroad workers – fatigued by long and odd hours, and assembling occurs without any grace at all.

Stop n’ go is not like your kind Amtrak conductor, or the gentle European rides through Southern France; cargo trains bang and slam and squeal for lack of oil.

When dozens of cars in a line and need to be attached, engines push down the line to quieter cars. I picture my back to a wall, a Mack truck coming at my face at 60 mph. The result is a sequence of small, controlled explosions, milliseconds apart. Watching the phenomenon – a daily occurrence , by railer’s standard – excites me. Two hundred thousand pounds of box car, cylindrical tank and lumber frame jilt six inches to crash into its neighbor, disquieting it from meditative stillness. Inside the clang, my note rings through the steel, part of the railyard song. Our jam sessions nightly under the highway bridge, the river running north. Our giant horizontal domino set decorated in graffiti and rust prepares to travel, like birds on a wire waiting for a southerly.

Free: Knowledge!

10 March 2013 § Leave a comment

Two months ago, I was sitting on the toilet enjoying a moment of peace when a sudden feeling of stupidity came over me. The bathroom fan sucked up the pungent scent of my shit, and with it my intellect. My thoughts became mush, which stuck to the sides of the three-foot-deep plastic sink like dried razor hair. I couldn’t conjure words, book titles, or a single philosopher’s name, and was hard pressed to remember how many of the dozens of coups in Latin America alone the CIA has admitted to helping execute in the last century.

Oh yes, zero. Beside the point.

I felt more than a mere lack of knowledge; I thought I’d lost my need for a breadth of knowledge and understanding. Life had grown entirely devoid of intellectual stimulation past that of my daily philosophies on how to manage energy, a topic I by that point had earned a scribbled honorary doctorate in. Heather’s and my conversations have always penetrated to the core of the issue; when they do not, one or both of us feel like we’re missing out. Such a dedication to working out and solving problems has propelled us through and past emotional turmoil and catastrophes that I’ve seen break up marriages. I say this not to boast, but to give you an idea of how much exercise we give our vocal cords. Voice yoga, you might call it. So much of this talking about myself, however, led to an awful drought in learning about things outside my cute Portland bubble of positive experience, delicious local, organic food, and healing walks along the Willamette; all for which I have infinite gratitude – and, I could read more.

By the time I flushed, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea to get smart quick. Because my intellect and bank account were running in alignment at the time, going out and buying a bunch of smart people books wasn’t an option. And, the libraries in Portland seemed oddly deficient. Small, boring, and pastel tan, the corner store-sized venues of mystery novels, bestsellers, and children’s reading areas felt more like vessels for dozens of computers copiously occupied than community centers for knowledge and divine, cobwebbed shelves packed full of obscure literary criticism.

In part due to the vast success (and beautiful wooden shelves) of Powell’s Books, independent bookstores are scarce in Portland. Occasionally I’ve found a house converted into a used bookstore, old titles shoved into the deep crevices of not-anymore bathrooms and what were once children’s bedrooms, more stacked on staircases shaped more to shelve books than footsteps anyway. These comforting, homely places run by stressed women approaching menopause and lonely bearded men I worshipped in and visited infrequently. Used books were an option; after all, any reading is better than no reading.

I considered what I’d heard from so many college graduates since I deliberated taking the traditional college route: I’m so overloaded with debt, how will I ever find my way out, what did I actually learn, will I ever get a job, or, worse, I have a six digit debt, and no desire to pursue what I studied.

Years later, during my brief but dedicated foray into university life, I wondered, where did we find the idea that knowledge cost money? Was it sitting in a gutter somewhere, or did it spring up during an annual stockholder’s meeting? Did an entrepreneurial teacher think she could be better paid by her students than the Department of Education? It was a capitalist idea, to be sure. Plus, it’s free! This is America; we love free things, form ridiculous lines and arguments to obtain them. What makes a free tank of gasoline, or samples of cheese at a store more important than information? In some countries, education is downright illegal for women. The value then, to female students especially, increases exponentially. You wouldn’t see the students fortunate enough to be taught playing with their iPhones during class. I mean, have you read Reading Lolita in Tehran? It’s marvelous, and I’ve never once in my entire educational experience seen that kind of voraciousness for knowledge in a group of students.

Knowledge, as stated by countless smart people throughout history, is the most powerful tool, toy, and weapon available to a thinking species. It is why libraries exist; it is why the internet is the greatest revolution of our age. It is also free as hotel pens, restaurant toilet paper, and smiles. I don’t need a $100,000 piece of paper with my name and major written in calligraphy; I need what it represents! I need the visceral memory of being enraptured by William S. Burroughs when I was assigned Milton. I want to set up shop in a library row full of century-old leather-bound books, to run my hands along the spines and feel interpretations of Othello and Paradise Lost, to get lost in Latin American anarchist poetry and biographies of unstable dictators. America, you succeeded in convincing me that education was important, and actions speak louder than propaganda. 

My goal, I decided as I made my way from the bathroom to the living room, to make quality, focused education accessible to me. If I wanted to study something, I thought, I would delve into it, read, write about,  and learn it. And, if I felt so inspired, to write a song, or paint, about it. That is true integration for me; mastication and regurgitation of information never cut it. In school, I rebelled against academic writing in my papers simply to annoy my professors. They in turn refused to view my rebellion as artistic expression, and I received appropriate marks.

As with all of my great ideas, I told Heather my revelation, which wound up on a post-it note labelled ‘Research Days.’ I stuck the square sheet to a kitchen cabinet door, along with the first topic I wanted to learn about. The idea was to dedicate one or two days a week to researching a particularly interesting or unknown subject, and teaching each other what we’d learned in a fun and interesting way. Going to a coffeeshop to teach someone about body language is much more effective, for example, than making faces in front of a class, or explaining in a lecture that matching gestures indicates interest, or putting your hands behind your back during a conversation subtly shows superiority. How would we remember the zeros and ones so to speak, unless we gave each other and ourselves permission to get out of the lecture hall and watch people interact?

Do you ever wonder why we so coveted field trips in school? Of course not; they removed us from our normal learning environment, changed the scenery, provided opportunity to socialize with the outside world. All of the most obvious reasons! So why, if educators were so interested in providing quality educations, not apply this model as a form of schooling?

Thankfully, institutions like the Northwest Youth Corps established the OutDoorSchool on similar principles. ODS provides an academic foundation with a container of outdoor education, leadership training, work experience, and application. It is a credited high school able to grant credits, diplomas, and transcripts, leaving the social stigma and cultural associations of ‘alternative’ schools up to an open-minded public. If only I knew about places like this when I was 14!

The post it note is still stuck to the cabinet. Granted, the idea was a lot greater than the follow-through, but I have hope for my brain. Finding the methods by which I learn best helps (entire education methodologies have been developed on this subject alone – look into it!). Personally, I find inspiration in TED talks and well-written non-fiction (books such as Bananas by Peter Chapman and Lasso the Wind by Timothy Egan were integral in my desire to pursue writing), and many magazine stories, in such rags as Harper’s, Mental Floss, and one story in Mother Jones in particular have fascinated me beyond hope of repair. My brain will never be the same. My hunt for knowledge is on high. I am finally reading books I bought years ago, and wonder why I didn’t read it the day I got it?

Well, because I was meant to read it now. On the toilet. In grocery lines. While waiting for the food stamp or DMV people to call my number. When work is dull. When I’m pacing around the house looking for something to do and end up eating more out of boredom than hunger. Read a book. Break out the Kindle, or the Nook. Whatever your preferred medium (mine is paper and ink), carry it around, and in free moments, spend your time gathering ideas, so that when you go back to your phone, you have something titillating to talk about.

How do you acquire knowledge? Do you make time for reading books? Have your desires for new information continued past what you learned in high school and college?

the language of pocketknives and outer spaces

6 March 2013 § Leave a comment

Love, sex, poetry and art, religion, political influence and education; people seek to leave their mark on the world, something that says in our special, dynamic way, I was here!

When was the last time you visited the underside of a bridge, a park bench, or a dingy bathroom stall? In silver, green, blue, and pink Sharpie marker, kids tag monikers and philosophies in secret, at night, subsequent to flushing their urine, a primitive territory marker. One sided lovers carve their initials next to their beloved’s, name a favorite band, paint a marijuana leaf, practice cursive.

Some of us sense differently; where I may smell pungent perfume on a woman in a cocktail dress, she most clearly hears the baritone voice of her lover the jazz singer on stage, who, blind, navigates his world by touch. When I’m taking a shit in Portland, New York, or Dillingham, and I see the permanent marker tag of Bosco,  a young man from the Indiana ‘burbs unaccustomed to the foreign likes of individuality, self-expression, and creativity. It depicts a penis with six pubic hairs and a speech balloon containing four incoherent and misspelled words, comments to the toilet paper dispenser.

I heard once that bathroom graffiti was the purest form of art: it is anonymous, public and without expectation of payment. You get what you pay for.

Here, we can elevate our progress to bumper stickers. The other day, a Ford Escape cut me off on I-5 before realizing that we had the same destination: three miles ahead, exit, turn left, go six blocks, down the hill and into the railroad yard. I parked next to him when we arrived. The railman didn’t acknowledge me as we walked into the building, but insisted with his bumper sticker that he was raising his kids “Right,” three small GOP elephants behind a large one. Later that day, I ended up giving he and his crew a ride north. The conversation quickly turned to guns, and how it should be legal to shoot birds, deer, and liberals.

I digress. My frustration flares when I experience inabilities to communicate. I hear in coffeeshop voices a fear to reveal what begs to be said; I see lies plastered on signs glued to the face of America and no one asking why. In place of communication, we stamp impatiently for a chance to speak, then talk at each other, hoping not so much that the other will listen and possibly adopt our views, but that we will feel heard and acknowledged.

For example, the governmental deadlock over the past five years has been far less a result of incompetent people doing stupid things, but a large group of well-educated and self-centered people who seem unwilling to listen, acknowledge, and accept their counterparts and co-workers. The Republicans think the Democrats don’t hear their outcries, so they throw tantrums and block bills; Democrats complain that the GOP doesn’t want anything to do with progress, has only their interests in mind and otherwise are concrete and stoic. All of these are assumptions, and how much communication actually happens in the House of Representatives?

This is one way how relationships fall apart: I want only you and me in this, and if it doesn’t work like that, then I don’t want to do it.

Sometimes, objective and wise perspectives – for example, from those not involved in government matters or a particular relationship – reveal blind spots and issues that may benefit all parties to deal with.

Crimeney! I’ve started rambling. Graffiti, sex, and politics. I’m reading one of the most concise and helpful books on writing I’ve come across, called The Weekend Novelist. It lays out plot lines, character sketches, outlining. It encourages, as all writing lessons should, unabashed, let-the-fuck-go free writing. Use strong verbs, it says. Anyone can use weak verbs. Use images. It says, the first word picture in a novel determines the architecture of the book. No pressure.

All things we’ve heard before. But it helps to hear them again. And again. And read. Lots. Like Timothy Egan’s Lasso The Wind. Someone let that cynic loose on the great American West at the end of the twentieth century, and you get a coherent, emotionally charged mix between Chuck Palahniuk, Hunter Thompson, and Joan Didion.

No list of smart awesome people would be complete without Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist Extraordinaire. He was on Coast to Coast AM tonight. I would learn quantum physics if it meant I could have a conversation with that man. Two notable things he said:

1) Everything we know about the universe right now is accurate. It comes from observable data. There’s no group of scientists getting together, he said, wishing the universe is one way or another. Common Sense doesn’t apply to concepts humans cannot make sense of, so all you can have is a hypothesis, and the data. If the data matches your hypothesis, great. You’re on to the next problem. If not, you’ve just learned something new.

One such observable fact: science can observe the past of the universe. Know what they see? That it was smaller, and hotter. And, if you go back far enough, all the energy of the universe (remember, energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only changed, so there is no less and no more energy in the universe now than at its birth) fit into the space the size of one atom. One Atom! Do you know how small one atom is?

Really fucking small; we’re made up of quintillions of them. Which brings us to the astounding fact that the atoms from which we are made are traceable to the stars and galaxies which have made up the universe since it was the size of one atom. Which means – ta dah! – we are made of stars. Wrap your common sense around that, and tie a bow; you’re a star.

The second thing he said that struck me regarded robots on Mars. Neil was grieving the passing of the Astronaut Age (“The day the last man on the moon dies will be a very sad day”), and mentioned that were humans still at the forefront of exploration, they would garner much more attention than the machines sent in their place, and kids would grow up dreaming of being explorers again (as a traveller myself, I grieve this also, as the best I can hope for is finding a country whose government is so strict with visas that it would only seem like no one had ever been there before).

The fact is that we cannot let our questioning limit us. If we seek rocks on Mars, we will find and learn about hard objects. But what if we find something squishy? Are we prepared to deal with squishy? We cannot limit our potential simply because we are not asking the right questions! It is the realm of the unknown unknown. If we don’t know what questions to ask, how can we find answers?

One solution could be to send a robot with the capabilities of inspecting squishy things. Maybe we could let go of our expectations, and send a human. Maybe an astronaut. Maybe a graffiti artist. Maybe not – they may only be concerned with tagging the surface of the Red Planet to let us know they were there.

Thank you for your attention; please return to your normally scheduled lives. I have a novel to write.


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