It’s Not the Work that Makes Fishing Hard….

16 11 2011

When new friends learn I’m a commercial fisherman, their eyes often drop in an almost-unconscious survey. What they see – a petite, 5’2″ female – doesn’t match the burly machismo touted as an industry requirement. “But isn’t that hard work?” is a frequent response.

I struggle to answer that question. Yes, the work is physically demanding, but many of us take perverse delight in pushing our bodies beyond their presumed limits, learning that our force of will can be greater than our height, weight, and gender. How to explain the far more daunting mental challenges?

Enter Moe Bowstern. One of my longtime literary heroes, Moe’s been author/editor/publisher of Xtra Tuf, a zine chronicling the stories of commercial fisherfolk, since 1996. She’s a legend on the Fisher Poets’ circuit. It was here that I found her prose poem, “Things That Will be Difficult.” I read it aloud, and as I read, my heart shifted into my throat and my mouth went dry with recognition. These days, I have the luxury of crewing with like-minded loved ones, but that wasn’t always the case, and her words rang painfully true. Though she described the challenges green deckhands experience, Moe nailed exactly what I’d struggled to articulate.

Yes, fishing is hard work, and these are some of the reasons why.

(Posted with immense gratitude to Moe Bowstern for her eloquent words, and her willingness to see them re-posted on Hooked. She’s amazing; buy her zines and follow her work here.)

Things That Will Be Difficult 

(Originally published in Xtra Tuf #6, The Greenhorn Issue)

It will be hard to never know what is going to happen next or indeed what is happening right now. It will be hard to not understand what is going on for days, weeks. The entire first season. It will be hard that everyone else knows how to do everything, and they know that you, the greenhorn, can do nothing right. It will be hard to have no opinion worth attending. It will be hard to have no one around to whom you can say, will you please explain that whole knot versus miles thing again?

It will be hard to look at the fish hold and see an undifferentiated mass of fish, while your crew mates are separating fish into five distinct species. It will be hard to wake up in your tiny little bunk in the pitch-dark fo’c’sle in the middle of a scream with your crewmate shaking you by the shoulder, telling you to shut the fuck up, we’re trying to get some sleep. It will be hard to dream that you are in a coffin every night.

It will be hard to cook two or three meals a day, every single day and have no one ever ever not once say thanks. It will be hard to get the hatch cover off. It will be hard, if you are a woman, to struggle to do anything new without having some man come and take the tool from you and do it. It will be hard, later, to hear yourself described as lazy when you’ve given up doing anything because some man takes over everything you start doing. Except the cooking.

It will be hard if you are a man, to understand why your female crewmate, who started out so friendly, is so silent now, when you are only trying to help.

It will be hard, if you are a woman, to go two weeks without speaking to another woman, to only see a woman as a faraway figure clad in raingear on a distant boat.

It will be hard, if you are a man, to read a poem or draw a picture without having another man call you a faggot or a pussy. It will be hard, whatever you are, to go for weeks without a touch, a caress, a hug, a kind word. It will be hard, if you are queer and a man, to never let anyone know who you are. It will be hard, if you are queer and a man, to work all summer and never dare to get drunk with your friends and crewmates lest your resolve fail and you act, after which you will be called ‘the kisser’ in harbor legend forever, and you will never return.

It will be hard, if you are queer and a woman, to keep it to yourself lest you scare away the few women around you, and bring closer the men who have rented a specific video they think you might have starred in. It will be hard, if you are a woman, to walk onto a boat filled with men watching porn and see your friends among them. It will be hard, if you are a man, to refuse to watch porn with those men. It will be hard, if you are a woman, to remember that you are pro-porn.

It will be hard to keep everything to yourself, buttoned inside your head and locked in your heart. It will be hard when you go without laughing for so long.

It will be hard, if you are a man, to go without seeing a woman except as a faraway, raingear-clad figure on the stern of a distant boat. It will be hard when you realize you are helplessly hot for your crewmate. It will be hard when you realize that the skipper has a crush on you and your crewmates hate you for the special treatment you didn’t ask to get.

It will be hard to find joy. It will be hard to make it through those last twenty days of August. It will be hard to regress to the childhood frustrations of not knowing how to do anything, even the simplest thing, without anyone to cheer you on when you finally figure out the simplest thing–tying a knot you are supposed to know, fueling up without spilling a drop.

It will be hard to be green. To hurt all over your body and have nobody care. To see whales — whales! — and when you run in to tell your crewmates they are irritated at their interrupted naps, they who have seen a thousand whales, they to whom a whale is a fishing obstacle.

It will be hard to return to the boat for your second, triumphant season, and realize that you are still a greenhorn. It will be hard to find a place alone, where no one can see you cry or masturbate or read kid’s books. It will be hard to look at the beach every day and never set foot on land, fifteen days, twenty days.  To live in thirty-eight or forty-four feet with three or four other people, that will be hard. It will be hard to watch yourself become your worst possible self, to understand eventually that all along the problem was you, and even with this epiphany, you can’t stop being that self.

And then, finally after it’s all over, and you are back home, wherever that may be, among those who love you, who praise you, who hug you and laugh at your jokes and always say good morning–then you will find that beyond all reason, you are homesick. A truck will belch diesel as it passes you and the stench will transport you to a moment in a quiet bay, fueling up at your favorite tender. Everything will be too fast and too loud, there will be too many people everywhere. You will develop an affinity for men with beards. You will learn how to spot a working fisherman,  a fellow. You will miss the boat. You will miss the ocean. And that will be hard.


And you, sweet readers? Does this ring familiar for the fisherfolk among you?  Those of you on land, are there places you’ve experienced similar struggles?





On Speaking Up: Why I Support Occupy

6 11 2011

My mom recently saw an online photo of her daughter, protest sign held proudly high. “Oh, gawd!” Part embarrassed laugh, part groan; her response revealed a long-internalized instruction to be quiet and polite.

Those were the prevailing lessons of my childhood, too. Be nice, be discreet, keep a low profile. Easy values for a painfully shy, awkward kid to swallow. I didn’t recognize their consequences until later in life.

Be nice… For years I denied my need to write, afraid that sharing my truths would infringe upon and hurt others.

Be discreet… Far too often, I failed to speak out against unjust actions or words, choosing to fade into an accommodating background rather than standing up for those in need.

Be quiet… I didn’t know how to speak up when an adult put his hands on my 14 year old body.

In my early 20’s, I made a new friend. A woman who never wavered in her commitment to speak up for herself and others, and showed not a single iota of fear; I’d never known such a ferocious social justice ally. Words fail to express what a life-changing mentor she was, but I studied her every word, gesture, and action with awe. When she gave me this hand-painted Audre Lorde quote for my 23rd birthday, I felt that she’d bequeathed an invisible sword and shield upon me. That she’d blessed me.

I can hear some of you shifting in your seats. “Fine, Tele, whatever; what’s this got to do with fishing? I come here for the fishing stories!”

Fair enough. The point is, it was a slow, painful journey to learn to use my voice, and I still fall short. Most recently, I’ve been adding my voice to the Occupy Wall Street movement. A march here, a rally there; a no more to my bank and a hello, new team to my local credit union.

But some friends have frowned, “I don’t get it. What’s the point?”  There’s no shortage of articles on the global grievances propelling this movement, so I won’t reiterate those here. Instead, I’ll offer a few of the more personal reasons why this particular fisherman chooses to lend her voice to Occupy.

Because I’m in a high-risk profession that depends on my body’s ability to respond to the work’s demands, yet I don’t have health insurance. Because all summer long, I fantasize about the consequences of a single wrong step on a slippery deck, or one thoughtless moment with a knife. Because I’m surrounded by fishermen who spent decades spurring their bodies to clean faster, haul harder – there’ll be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead! – as if death was the only thing that could get in their way. None considered arthritic, gnarled fingers, froze-up knees, carpal tunnel that vined its wretched way from wrist to elbow to shoulders that didn’t move anymore, anyway. Few considered fishing’s absence of a 401(k).

Because I’ve heard critics grumble that those people should just get a job, dammit, and earn their way like the rest of us. But I have a job, and everyone in my circle has a job, and I’d challenge any one of those critics to give our job a try for a single day. Because we don’t work – we worship at a lurching, leaping altar of 18 hour days on our boots, no awareness of our stunning surroundings because all we see are the jewel-glistening entrails of the fish splayed open before us, immediately followed by the next, and the next, for what seems like weeks on end. We know the taste of fish madness, when we’re so sleep deprived yet still have to move so fast that we move beyond exhausted and fall into delirium, where we nod into our cold plates of spaghetti and drop into our bunks, our faces stiff with fish blood because it’s a choice between staying awake to wash or go to bed and we just don’t give a damn.  Work is our religion, and we are glassy-eyed zealots.

Because I’ve seen the tragic results of fishermen whose intestines knotted into bowlines of desperation and clove-hitches of silent fear, as they told themselves that maybe they’d find the motherlode, if they’d just fish tougher, drive themselves harder. Maybe they’d be able to make that boat payment, or pay that fuel bill, or send some money home, if they got lucky this one time. But too often, this one time included a nighttime run where they just couldn’t keep their gritty eyes open any longer, or winds shrieking louder and waves grabbing harder than they’d anticipated. If they got lucky, they only lost their boats.

Because the Nerka is only one boat, but we depend on a massive support system to remain in business. Diesel mechanics, fiberglass workers, metal fabricators, gear manufacturers, processing plants and cold storages, freight shipping, grocers, restaurants, and you. For us to make it, entire communities need to thrive.

Because my family’s well-being is directly linked to yours. Because I don’t clean every fish to bloodless perfection, handling each with care and precision, just so my neighbors can’t afford to buy them. I want you to be able to enjoy this gorgeous, heart-healthy wild salmon. I want you to take pleasure in preparing a meal, sitting down with your loved ones, and when you bite into that first, sunset-colored flake, I want your eyes to close in reverence and your lips to curl in delight. Because every day on the ocean is a gift, and I want to be able to make a living while sharing this gift with you.

And that is why I support Occupy.

Alaska Represented, Occupy Bellingham, 10.14.11

And you, sweet reader? Does speaking up come easily or hard for you? Where are the places that you use your voice, and where are the places you falter?

Special thanks to you, SB. I heart you.








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