Sailors and Fishermen, Feeling the Consequences of Hurricane Sandy

31 10 2012

I’m talking with you from new ground today, sweeties. I’ve been back in Alaska for a few hours now, camped out in the Juneau Airport’s Glacier Lounge. Starting at 3:30 this morning, it’s been a long travel day with a handful of challenges, but I’ll be in Sitka before midnight.

Meanwhile, I’m watching the snowflakes swirl on the breeze outside. They’re not sticking. Other than the speaker above me blaring what my dad would call “shitkicker music,” the bar’s quiet.  Chef/bartender Mike befriended me early on, bringing a glass of water designed to ward off scurvy (slices of lime, lemon, AND orange), frequent hot water refills for my peppermint tea, and a couple free cookies “because you have to have cookies with tea.” The first raven of the trip just glided by the window, and I smiled.

Being back in Alaska outside our fishing season is a rare gift. I’m up here to go to Whalefest, an annual symposium celebrating the humpback whales that make Sitka Sound their seasonal home.  I’ve always wanted to attend, but learning that author Seth Kantner (Ordinary Wolves, Shopping for Porcupine) was this year’s keynote speaker sealed the deal. Still, however much I wanted to hop a plane for a weekend visit, this wouldn’t have been possible without Joel’s parents donating their airline miles towards a birthday ticket. I’m thankful.

I spent last week working on an essay to read at this Friday’s maritime-themed Monthly Grind. “Working on” sounds deceptively productive. A personal piece that I hoped would ring true for fellow ocean-goers, I wondered what draws so many of us to the sea that can so easily devour us. Mostly, I stared at my computer screen and thought about fear, loss, and grief. (You know, the usual light-hearted stuff you can count on me for.)

On Friday night, I admitted on Facebook what a struggle this essay was proving to be. Immediately, several Hooked friends responded with encouragement. Be patient, don’t beat yourself up, take a walk. Fisher Poet Pat Dixon advised, “Write what comes. See where that leads… trust the process. …or maybe that’s all bullshit and you need a shot of tequila. Let us know what you decide.”

Since quitting drinking some years back, that only left me one option. And miracle of miracles, it worked. The words did come, and suddenly a finished draft smiled at me serenely. I was there for you all along.

But as I celebrated the arrival of words, the East Coast recoiled from an arrival of a different sort. Hurricane Sandy raged up the Eastern seaboard. Wind, water, fire; the elements joined forces to leave a trail of staggering damage and fatalities. The first of these that I learned about was the 180-foot HMS Bounty. For the second time in as many months, I marveled at the courage and skill of our Coast Guard. They plucked fourteen survivors from life rafts roiling in 20-foot seas.

Fourteen survivors… And the body of Claudene Christian, Bounty crew member for six months. Captain Robin Waldridge remains missing.

For fellow blogger/seafaring writer Chris Wallace, this was more than a tragic news story. Chris, her husband, and daughter are a family of sailors; as crew aboard the Schooner Zodiac, the West Coast’s largest wooden schooner, they’re well-acquainted with the Bounty.  We embrace different means of going to sea, yet I suspect we share similar reactions of relief, confidence, and calm on the water – just as Sandy drove both Chris and I to the same uneasy soul-searching. “I am overwhelmed with sadness,” she wrote on Monday, “and have spent the day pondering why people like us are drawn to this life.”

Just as sailors stand with each other in times of tragedy, so do fishermen.  Trollers and crabbers in the Pacific Northwest followed their New England kin through the storm, engaged in real-time Facebook conversations with fishermen riding out the storm. “It’s really bad here,” wrote one New Jersey captain. “I don’t know if any of us are going to have a boat left.”

Damaged vessels, harbors, and processing plants, coupled with lost sea time, have a crippling impact on an already-uncertain industry like commercial fishing. Industry outreach program “The Faces of California Fishing” immediately promised East Coast fishermen, “We’ve got your back.” They began organizing, anxious to create a relief fund for fleet members impacted by Sandy. Regardless of the differences and distance between our various fisheries, this generous community spirit is the backbone of our profession. I’ll post donation info as soon as it’s available. Meanwhile, follow The Faces of California Fishing for relief fund updates.

It’s about time for me to continue on to Sitka, friends. I keep circling back ‘round to my and Chris’s original reflection. Why are so many of us drawn to this nautical life? Not only drawn to; we’re mad for the sea, loyal beyond all reason and sense. I haven’t been able to articulate my own reasons yet. How about you?





On Writing, Then and Now

18 10 2012

Happy National Day on Writing, friends!

Yeah, that’s little me. Some things haven’t changed much since 1980, parked at a desk in my parents’ Wasilla, Alaska, veterinary clinic. I still keep a stash of animal crackers nearby as motivation, and still absentmindedly tug my lower lip when the words aren’t coming as quickly as I’d like. I still believe written words are worth spending the afternoon with.

(From a slightly comfier chair now, though, and without the red pants.)

You, sweet friends, have shown your own belief that words are worth spending time with. Last week included a big day here: on October 11, Hooked crossed 50,000 views. That’s an achievement that I wouldn’t have dared dream of when I launched this blog a year and a half ago, and one wholly thanks to you. I’m grateful for such generous readers, commenters, and promoters.

Off the boat for three weeks now, Cap’n J and I have fully settled back into land life. Joel’s taken this month to do as much photography as he can, getting up into the mountains before the winter weather hits.  (Here’s a shot from his recent trip to Mt. Rainer.) I’ve jumped back into the Red Wheelbarrow Writers community, thrilled to have weekly writing dates and a fantastic critique group.  Meanwhile, Bear’s reclaimed her favorite rotation of daily napping spots, and is making up for all the meals she didn’t eat while at sea.

National Day on Writing offers a moment to give thanks for the magic and salvation of words recorded and read. A day is a good start… but my goal is to practice literary zealotry for the coming months. While Joel shoulders another winter of boat projects, my job will be to write the memoir that doesn’t seem to be writing itself, no matter how many attractive outlines and wall-sprawling charts I make.

I’m a lazy, distractible writer. You’d think that the head-down, teeth-gritted endurance that makes me a good fisherman would translate, but I haven’t figured out how to channel that ocean-based work ethic to the page/screen. Having a team helps keep me honest – accountable – so in addition to the local writing meets and critique groups, I’ve signed up for this year’s National Novel Writing Month.

On its 13th year, NaNoWriMo challenges folks to pound out 50,000 words in November – the equivalent of a 175 page novel. Quality work? Eh, not so much; the point is to get the words out, producing a first draft you can then work with. For writers like me, hesitant folks who stutter over every keystroke and hit the backspace more than any vowel, this is a terrifying endeavor.

All the more reason to take the leap.

(NaNoWriMo purists, I’m cheating at the most fundamental levels. Not writing a novel. Not starting from scratch on November 1. Totally hijacking this opportunity to work madly on memoir chapters, hoping to steal strength and perseverance from the collective energy of tens of thousands of writers all rolling the same rock up the same hill at the same time. I know NaNoWriMo has very few rules, and I’m breaking several of them. Can we be buddies anyway?)

So if Hooked seems a bit quiet over the next six weeks, you’ll know why. After all, as Sherman Alexie chided in his recent  “Top 10 Pieces of Advice for Writers”, “Every word on your blog is a word not in your book.”

Ouch – bull’s eye, sir.

But ours is a connected age. Even if I’m not blogging as frequently, we have lots of other ways to keep in touch.

On Facebook? You can “like” my writer’s page to see periodic updates on how it’s going.

In Oklahoma? Check out FISH and listen to a recording of “The Sisterhood,” an essay exploring what it means to be a woman in the oh-so-masculine world of commercial fishing. (That’s take two you’ll hear. Take one was carefully recorded when no one else was home, amidst very premeditated quiet. I’d made it to the concluding paragraphs, thrilled not to have stumbled over my tongue over the previous six pages. Then Bear started throwing up at my feet. Loudly. I tried not to take this personally.)

In Sitka for Whalefest? Come to the maritime-themed Grind on Friday, November 2. The Monthly Grind is an amazing demonstration of local talent; I’m excited to hear everyone’s performances and thankful for the invitation to read.

Attending Seattle’s Fish Expo? Be sure to check out the Fisher Poets on the main stage, 11:30 – 1:00, Thursday, November 29. Get there early to grab a seat: Abigail Calkin, Dano Quinn, Dave Densmore, Patrick Dixon, Thomas Alan Hilton, and I will each have 15 minute performances. (Free expo registration until November 26!)

That’s what the next month holds, friends. If our paths should cross anywhere along the line, please do stop and say hello – I’d love to thank you in person for sharing your time with these words, and contributing your own. Until then, my good thoughts to you, and best wishes for a rich, rewarding Day on Writing.

Are any of you gearing up to be fellow WriMo’ers? If so, good on you brave souls!  Look me up next time you’re on the site (username Tele) and we’ll support each other in this crazy courageous literary marathon. I hope to see you there.





FISH!

18 10 2012

Friends! Are any of you in Oklahoma? Or do you have extended communities that reach into the Sooner State?

If so, please don’t miss the chance to check out FISH, a multimedia art exhibition presented by the University of Oklahoma School of Art & Art History and the Lightwell Gallery. The exhibition will be open from Tuesday, October 23 through Wednesday, November 7. (Visit UOSAA for more location/time details.)

What’s the connection between a landlocked university and an examination of global fisheries? With their rich farming history, Oklahomans know about the long, arduous road of getting food from its point of origin to people. So do fishermen. Curator Cedar Marie took a “stream to plate” approach with FISH, inviting viewers to “consider how we tend to our relationships with the food we grow, harvest, and consume,” while also shining a light on one of our planet’s most diminishing food sources.

Longtime readers may recall this summer’s call for submissions. Thanks to an enthusiastic response, FISH presents “a compelling range of perspectives on the culture of fishing. Interpreted broadly, the artworks in the exhibition include sculpture, painting, video, and good old-fashioned storytelling, among other media, from both U.S. and international artists.” That range of fish-related perspectives includes water management, environmental/habitat concerns, historical depictions, sustainability, gender, safety, community awareness, and education.

(You’ll see some of Hooked favorite people/groups exhibited in FISH: Fisher Poet/Xtra Tuf ‘zine author Moe Bowstern, the Sitka Conservation Society’s Fish to Schools program, Rebecca Poulson, and Cap’n J. View a complete list of artists.)

I have to tell you, I seriously considered hopping on a Greyhound to be able to stroll through this show. Studied the calendar and everything, but it wasn’t meant to be this time. So, sweeties, if any of you are in the Norman, Oklahoma, vicinity, I’d love to hear your report. And if you’re in the area AND you’re free at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, October 30, give yourself a treat and attend the legendary Ray Troll’s public lecture.

FISH’s curatorial statement says this: “Visiting Guggenheim Fellowship artist Ray Troll’s quirky images based on the latest scientific discoveries bring a street-smart sensibility to the worlds of ichthyology and paleontology. His drawings and paintings are also a delightful commentary on the fishy behavior of humans.” That’s all spot-on. Ray is an Alaskan icon, forever immortalized as the artist behind “Spawn Till You Die.”

(Ray’s also to be credited for keeping Joel and I clothed. We recently figured about 80% of our T-shirts and hoodies are Troll-isms. Case in point: writing this, I’m wearing his salmon yin-yang sweatshirt. The man’s cornered the market for the Southeast Alaskan uniform.)

As much as I’m a fan of FISH’s artists, it’s the story that really gets me. On the heels of World Food Day, FISH promotes a critical message of being connected to our food sources. As a fisherman, I’m grateful for all of the time, labor, and passion that Cedar Marie has devoted to our industry and our stories. Many thanks, Cedar, and big congratulations on seeing your vision to fruition. I’ll be cheering FISH from afar, hoping that some of Hooked’s friends will share their impressions with us.





You’re Invited: Alaska Book Week 2012

10 10 2012

It’s Day Five of Alaska Book Week, buddies! I’m quite late in giving you the heads-up (apologies), but you can still join this annual celebration of Alaskan authors and books: ABW 2012 is October 6 -13.

In its second year, ABW is hosted by the good folks at 49 Writers/49 Alaska Writing Center. Thanks to generous donations by Epicenter Press and individual authors, they’re giving away two books each day – just leave your answer to the daily question on the ABW website or Facebook page, and you’ll be eligible to win.

(I was delighted to win a copy of Fishes & Dishes last year. Not only is this a fantastic cookbook with great sea stories, a few months earlier a nasty wave had thrown a poorly closed bottle of mouthwash all over the Nerka’s galley – and all over my copy of the Marsh sisters’ beautiful work. Just as the song goes, sometimes you do get what you need!)

It’s not too late to join the virtual festivities! Thanks for helping to spread the word, and best of luck to you in the giveaways. Much gratitude to the literature-loving volunteers who make this event an October tradition.

My bedside reading material isn’t towering quite perilously enough yet… Which Alaskan authors/books would you put on a “must-read” list?





Losing People, Compass in Hand

6 10 2012

I’m holding a battered metal compass in my hand tonight. It says my writing desk faces southwest, and that the cat curls her tail northward. It doesn’t say which direction skirts despair, doesn’t guide the path toward hope. Folding it closed, I wonder what good a compass actually does.

*****

Longtime Hooked readers have heard references to my social worker days. From June 1999 to May 2005, I worked with homeless youth in Seattle’s University District. Though more years have now passed than I actually spent there, “the Ave” maintains a tight grip on my heart.

As fiercely as I loved “my kids,” I relied on a few things to carry me through. My colleagues, inspiring souls who shared the trenches as well as intense passion, gallows humor, and a devotion to harm reduction. Our standing “self-care” date at Flowers Bar on Wednesday nights.  A private ritual for grieving whenever we lost one of our kids.

The day came when these tools were no longer enough. Love wasn’t enough. Realizing that I wasn’t doing good work anymore – and that I hadn’t been doing good work for far longer than I cared to admit – I felt like I’d been mopping the ocean, only to be consumed by the undertow.

They say that you shouldn’t try to fight an undertow, so I let it steal me from the Ave. I gave in to the current until it released me in the Gulf of Alaska, returned to my original home and workplace. As I sought solace in familiar mountains, guilt and fear tugged at my raw edges. Guilt that I’d abandoned young people who’d dared to trust once more, after lifetimes of betrayal. Fear that I’d never get to know what happened next in their lives.

(If I’m honest? Fear that I wouldn’t know when yet another kid died.)

Back in 2005, I hadn’t envisioned a Facebook future. Whatever discomfort I have with social media’s ever-grasping tentacles, it’s been priceless for keeping in touch with transient loved ones. I can “like” graduations and family news. I can be a virtual cheerleader for sobriety, offer congratulations on a new job, and celebrate the day of their birth.

And I can receive messages like this one:

Hey it’s SR.
B passed away. He went missing 09-20. He was found unidentifiable on a blanket in the far corner of his mothers back yard yesterday. She said it might be months til they can identify a cause. We wern’t sure if you knew. Sorry.

*****

After all these years, my Ave death ritual remains the same. Alone in a dark room. One candle, crafted by an unknown inmate at the Monroe State Prison. One song, Leonard Cohen’s gravel promises twining through those dark places that candlelight can’t reach.

I will speak no more

I shall abide until

I am spoken for,

if it be your will.

When I try to sing through the tears, my voice crumples like discarded newspaper. Better to sit quietly and remember a young man who was just a towheaded boy when he first arrived on Seattle’s streets.

B came to the Ave as many kids do – gentle, tender-hearted, searching. A brutal introduction to street life stripped the trust from his blue eyes. He toughened up fast, forged a crusty exterior. Yet through all that followed – every sleepless night blurring into a series of sleepless days, every “Oi, oi!” hollered down the block and followed with a hug heartier than his increasingly thin frame seemed capable of, every mug shot gifted like a yearbook photo – the sweet in him still shone through.

I could never anticipate which fresh-faced youngsters would fling themselves hardest down the rabbit hole, but that’s just what B did. He ran his body like it was stolen. His years on the Ave came to a screaming halt in 2002, when prison closed steely arms around him. Despite my best intentions to be a supportive pen pal, new faces demanded immediate response to the same crises. I lost track of B.

Until 2009. A message appeared – Facebook, again. B wrote with warmth and clarity, proud to share the gifts in his life. Re-settled in his home state across the country, he had a job. A house. A wife and young daughter.

Then and now, I never know if my kids are honest about their well-being. Especially in a many-years-gone-by reunion like this. B knew I wanted to hear he was clean and healthy, and that’s what he wanted to report. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m told The Truth as someone’s living it, or “the truth” as they wish they were. There are reasons we tell the stories we do, and they all boil down to wanting to please and protect. If I hear lies, I hear them told with love.

Something changed. In 2010, B decided to return to Seattle. I worried – why dance on quicksand when you’ve already struggled free once? – and wrote overly parental lectures. This time would be different, he assured me. “I’m not the same kid I was, Tele. The plan is to be productive.”

Stories are subjective, but I couldn’t misread the color in B’s skin and fleshy cushion over his cheekbones. His hug was solid. Stable. Both of us equally out of place on the block that had once been our universe, we ducked into Pagliacci’s for refuge. I bought him two slices of pizza that he picked at. We traded stories of our new lives, doing our best to level a relationship that’d been built on a steep grade.

At the end of our visit, B walked me to the bus stop. Fishing in his pants pocket, he pulled out a battered metal compass and folded it into my hand. “Here.” When I protested, he insisted. “No, dude, I want you to have it. So you don’t get lost.”

Two weeks later, B wrote that Seattle wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. Once again, he headed across the country for his home state. Still searching.

We traded Facebook hellos here and there. Did I text him a random good wish this summer, during one of those rare moments of cell service at sea? Sounds familiar, but now I can’t be sure. Am I recalling The Truth that was, or “the truth” I wish had been?

*****

A friend and I used to co-teach “Homelessness 101,” training the University District’s new volunteers. Inevitably, someone would ask, “How many of these kids actually make it out?”

We could recite the answer in our sleep. Most of our program guests would find their way into healthier, more stable lives, but that meant something different for everyone. The routes out of street life were as varied and unique as the people taking them; there was no cookie-cutter method for “making it out.”

But tonight, darkness folds around me, broken by the shuddering breath of candlelight, and my faith is shaken. Squeezing B’s final gift, I feel the metal bite my palm. The placement of my desk, the angle of the cat’s tail, the position of north, south, east, west… All irrelevant. So many of us are lost, searching for hope, peace, purpose. A sense of self-worth, and the strength to surpass what we’ve been told about ourselves. Those directions – where do you find them?

I thought you’d found your way, B sweetie – I thought you’d made it out. If you’d held onto your compass, would that have helped?

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well.

B’s death leaves a gaping hole in a lot of hearts, and my thoughts are with you all. As you grieve, please ask for help if you’re thinking of hurting yourself. Contact Seattle’s 24-hour Crisis Clinic line at 1-866-4CRISIS, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Take care of yourselves, sweeties, and each other.





From Greenhorn to Graduate: Celebrating Amanda’s First Fishing Season

1 10 2012

Exciting news, friends – Hooked’s guest writer Amanda has completed her first season in the commercial fishing industry! New readers, I urge you to take the time to catch up on Amanda’s journey. From an April morning when I overheard a young woman  say she wanted to go fishing, her pre-season anticipation, the first challenges and triumphs, a mid-season struggle, to these concluding reflections, she’s got a wonderful story and it’s been an honor to have her with us. A green deckhand’s experience is never easy; many newcomers don’t stick it out. Please join me in congratulating Amanda on a successful first season!

*****

Dear Hooked,

My contract is officially over. The weather has turned and the salmon in Chatham Strait are few and far between. I am back to life as a land dweller, grateful for regular access to news and local produce. Tender life feels very distant, especially being down in the Lower 48. By the time I stepped off the Nichawak, I couldn’t wait to talk about something other fishing. Anything other than fishing. Out on the water and tied up at the harbor, it seemed that all talk was of fishing hot spots and the latest boat project.  Now, down South, I find myself looking for opportunities to talk about fishing and feel giddy when given the opportunity to explain the difference between seining and gillnetting, or how to operate the Nichawak’s hydraulic booms.

Some mornings I wake up with phantom pains in my thumbs, as if I’ve just spent a long day “slingin’ cohos.”  My hands are a bit more scarred and my calluses are rougher, as I had hoped they would be.  My upbringing in the suburbs is something that I think is reflected in the look and feel of my hands.  They are mostly smooth and clean, a dead giveaway.

When I was a kid, my dad would assign me yard work chores. I spent more time complaining about them than actually doing them. This truth, embarrassing as it may be, brings me to one of the biggest challenges that I faced this summer: my attitude.

A week into the troll opener in August, we were on our third straight day of work without sleep. In these three days we bought over 90,000 pounds of fish, Skipper Sal, Gerald the deckhand, and me.  I think it’s fair to say that these are difficult working conditions.  That third morning, I remember the sun rising, the sky must have been bright and beautiful.  But I don’t really remember that beauty.  Mostly, I remember being vaguely aware of the colors around me and being pissed off.  I felt the scowl on my face and I heard myself snap at Gerald, “I’ve got this, back off!”

I was tired and sore, I was hungry and overworked, and I had yet to realize that this did not entitle me to be grouchy, nor did it entitle me to snap at my crew. Times like these (yes, this happened more than once) I had to tell myself, sometimes even out loud, to change my attitude, relax the muscles in my brow, get rid of that snarl on my face and get over myself.

Suffice to say, in the beginning I had idealized this experience.  Parts of the dream were realized.  I watched whales breech 30 feet from the boat. I learned everything I could, from telling apart a coho and a sockeye to operating hydraulic cranes. I conquered ratchet straps, I tied clove hitches, I navigated an 80-foot boat around Chatham Strait. I experienced glory and pride and accomplishment.

But there is no getting around it; parts of this experience were just shitty. They weren’t fun, they were hard. I learned a lot about myself this summer and some of these things were difficult to face, severe realities.  I let “grouchy” get the best of me. I have opinions and nothing to back them up. I have too much pride.

Pride.  Such a stimulant, such a barrier.  How did I get to be a person with so much pride? Why is it that I hated asking for help? Why did I balk so much at the idea of someone correcting or compensating for my mistakes? Why could I push myself to work harder and be better only to prove that I could? As busy as the tender life is, there was plenty of idle time to consider these questions.  Yet I never seemed to figure it out: where does pride come from?

This winter I will work in the high desert of Washington State, tending to horses and learning about life as a ranch hand. As of now, I will return to the Nichawak, possibly working for Sitka herring (the fishery where I first discovered fishing!) and probably for another season as a Southeast seine, gillnet, and troll tenderwoman.

I think about why I want to return. I try to remind myself that it is because of certain privileges in my life that I even have an option. I have the privilege of being able to choose what I will do next and make a choice based on a desire for personal growth.  For me, a bit of guilt is inherent in this fact, but I won’t be constrained by this.

So, I think I will choose to go fishing again.  There is still self-reflection to be done, there are skills left to learn, and then there’s good old fashioned pride, a nagging reminder that next year I can be better.

- Amanda








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