Life in the Gray: After Sandy Hook

17 12 2012

I’m writing to you from a ferry. Seated alone on a midday crossing, staring into a muted seascape. Ocean the green of beach glass, clouds shushing the sky; land’s faintest skeleton peeks through sheets of rain. Whitecaps the only bright spots in this world. “Lots of sheep out here today,” one of our fleet elders would say about the turbulent sea.

This relentless gray depresses some, but I embrace it, a reassuring companion for my eternal ambivalence. It’s here in the gray that I struggle to balance a precarious tower of contradiction.

Contradictions like my relationship with guns. On auto-answer, I would’ve told you I don’t have one. You know who I am, sweeties – tree hugging, tofu eating, feminist fisherman and all that. I don’t like guns. I don’t want to shoot shit. I don’t need one to feel safe; they invoke the opposite in me. I don’t want any part of guns or gun culture.

But that’s too black and white for someone living in the gray. Of course I have a relationship with guns. Born and largely raised in a state where over 60% of households have them, how could I not?

Early childhood in Wasilla. My parents – like most Alaskans – hunted. One of our family stories recalled leg cramps hobbling my dad on a caribou trip. My mom packed him, all their gear, and the meat back out.

Being a deckhand. Until recently, most of the boats I crewed on had guns aboard. My mom. Single men. Family boats. Folks who regularly served venison and wouldn’t go to the beach without a gun as bear protection. The single time I’ve fired a gun was on one of those boats, urged to join my shipmates in target shooting a can tossed in the water. Wish I could tell you we retrieved the can afterward.

The August night that my teenaged self paddled to a Sitka Sound island with a handful of other deckhands. We started drinking on the way out, passing the fifth of Jager between kayaks, wasted by dusk. We told fireside stories of the kushtaka, Tlingit lore’s shape-shifting otter-man. Spooked by a shadowy tree, one of the boys pulled a handgun from his backpack. Began waving it around. The rest of us suddenly sober, another grabbed the gun and put it away.

Still a teenager. Midnight cruising the back roads of Washington farmlands. When headlights appeared in the rearview, the jittery driver reached for the glove box. A handgun inside. His paranoia, certain that the car behind was “after us.” Making it home, shaken by what could have been. A year later, learning that boy killed a man.

The land job I had, where shotguns leaned against the truck shop walls, casually propped alongside broomsticks. When the boss’s temper snapped, he’d grab the closest one, stalk outside, and blast starlings off the power lines.

The contrast of people in my heart. I’m on this ferry traveling to a winter reunion with fishing friends. Almost everyone there will be a hunter – including the petite young woman who recently shot her first deer, a four-point – except for Joel and me. I don’t eat meat other than fish because I choose not to eat what I can’t take responsibility for putting on my plate. I don’t like killing fish, but I do it as humanely as possible, with gratitude and respect. Most of these hunters share those values. They talk of “bad kills” – shots where the deer suffered unduly – with disapproval and condemn waste. I respect their connection to the food on their tables. I’ll be happy to see each of them, while avoiding the fixed marble-eyed gaze of bucks long since passed through our hosts’ freezer, Santa hats perched jauntily on ears forever cocked.

But this isn’t just about guns.

Contradictions like the sudden urgency with which we talk about mental healthcare after a tragedy like Sandy Hook, and the reality of how we respond to those struggling among us. The conversations that inevitably follow, where we talk about mental illness the way some folks talk about Africa – like it’s one uniform place, rather than a continent of many countries, ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures. Mental illness is that continent, inclusive of millions of us and a broad spectrum of diagnoses, behaviors, challenges, and triumphs. Contradictions like my hope that this will be the tragedy to reframe our nation’s priorities, that we’ll veer towards valuing and investing in others’ wellness, squared off against antipathy for a discussion that stigmatizes all people in need as the next potential assailant.

Contradictions like friends’ posts on Facebook, where we communally grieve, rage, and process.

“It is one’s choice to act in a manner that will bring pain and suffering upon another,” wrote one. “Sadly, there isn’t anything we, as individuals and as a nation, will ever be able to do about the actions another chooses.”

Another said, “We live in a culture that is more oriented to competition than cooperation, to power than vulnerability; to materialism rather than sustainability; to defense rather than inquiry; to self-interest and individual rights rather than concern for the whole.”

I didn’t have the strength to weigh in. What could I say that hasn’t already been said about Sandy Hook… and Oregon… Tulare County… Minneapolis… New York… Wisconsin… Colorado… Seattle… Florida… Arizona… Ohio… Georgia… and Texas, in 2012 alone? Words are such worthless fragments, too small and brittle for this size of grief. What would they even matter?

Blogger Jim Wright’s readers were anxious to hear what the fiercely spoken Alaskan – a gun owning, military consulting, Navy veteran – would say about Newtown, but he wasn’t having it. “I may have something to say later, but at the moment, I’m not going to waste my time – and it’s exactly that, a complete and utter waste of my time because absolutely NOTHING has changed since the last bloody slaughter, since the last time a bunch of kids were mowed down by the insanity that is America and its bizarre obsession with guns and violence and blood. Nothing has changed. Not one goddamned thing. Exactly as I said five months ago. We can’t even have the conversation. Both sides were already rehashing the same old arguments before the blood was dry.”

I have two friends who didn’t rehash old arguments. They embraced action. “The only response is to organize,” the one in Seattle wrote. “I’ll be hosting a conversation today at 3 pm about possible next steps for those of us who want to ‘do something’ about gun violence. You don’t have to be any kind of expert – I’m not.”

The resulting group has scheduled bi-weekly meetings, open to anyone who wants to be involved. If you’d like to be, visit the Densmore Working Group.

The friend in Sitka didn’t waste any time, either: “I am sure that many of you are as furious, outraged, devastated, and so, so sad about the Connecticut shooting as I am,” she wrote. “I feel so strongly that SOMETHING needs to change in our nation, our states, and our communities. My personal step towards a solution is to invite people to a letter-writing campaign this Wednesday, December 19, at 6:30 pm at the Larkspur to send letters to our state senators, representatives, and president. The goal here is to do SOMETHING proactive to reduce these violent incidents.”

If you’re in Sitka, drop by the Larkspur Café, 6:30 to 8:30 pm, to participate. Those outside of Sitka can join in, too. I’ll be writing my letters in solidarity from Bellingham.

There aren’t a lot of easy answers here in the gray, but one sunbeam voice breaks through. My friend Laura posted this resource from Mr. Rogers, advising parents how to talk to children about traumatic events. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Good advice for all. May we look for the helpers… May we be the helpers. I’m thankful to have friends setting the example.





Teenagers and the Sea: Fisher Poet Tales (with Video!)

7 12 2012

National Fisherman did a nice write-up on last week’s Fisher Poets “On the Road” performance at Fish Expo, where Dano Quinn, Patrick Dixon, Abigail Culkin and I each had 20 minutes to perform. For the second post in a row: thanks, NF!

I swear Pat and I didn’t plan this, but with back-to-back readings, you couldn’t miss our shared theme: adolescence. Rough for any parent/spawn relationship, this is a particularly rocky period for those trapped together aboard a small fishing boat. Forced not only to co-exist, but to cooperate – the family’s livelihood depends on it. So does physical safety. As their parents’ crew, boat kids develop a ferocious work ethic, endurance, and responsibility. Transferable skills, whether they continue fishing or not. And it seems to be about a fifty-fifty split: of the boat kids I grew up with, maybe half are like Joel and me – salt-stained lifers who aren’t fully themselves away from the sea. The other half couldn’t jump ship fast enough.

Photo thanks to F/V Kathleen Jo

Photo thanks to F/V Kathleen Jo

The story Pat read, “The Connection,” is one of my favorites. It’s how I met Pat, and first learned about Fisher Poets, at Fish Expo four or five years ago. The audience packed the room – it was right next the beer garden – and I wedged into the back. When this tall gillnetter took the stage, I didn’t know what to expect – but it surely wasn’t this tear-jerking story of a reluctant killer, reflecting on what it meant to build one’s life by taking life. I’d never heard another fisherman so perfectly express my own inner conflict. Watch “The Connection” here.

And the story I read? Years ago, one of our fleet elders said something that stuck with me. He said, “Everybody has a rock up here with their name on it. If you fish long enough, you’ll find it.” As it happened, six years was all it took for this sleepy mariner. A story of drama, danger, romance, and triumph, watch “The Rock With My Name ” here.

This is a great warm-up, friends… Mark your calendars: the 16th annual Fisher Poets Gathering is less than three months away! This year’s dates are February 22-24, hosted in Astoria, Oregon. Check out their brand-new website – which includes a sneak peek at the performers signing up! (Between the veteran and first-time names, it’s already a great line-up, with many more yet to come.) I’d love to see you there.

Thanks again to National Fisherman for supporting this Fisher Poets “On the Road” performance, and to Pat Dixon for making it happen. Also, thanks to the delightful Betsy Delph, whose video may not have turned out as well, but her efforts were much appreciated. 





Hooked on National Fisherman

6 12 2012

I’ve been mostly on an internet hiatus this week, friends, working on a deadline, but want to quickly share a bit of news. Some of you have asked about the piece that I read at Sitka’s maritime-themed Monthly Grind. I didn’t post it here because I submitted it to a magazine. Happy news: National Fisherman bought that essay, “After the Man in the Tote.” Thanks, NF!

Many Hooked readers are familiar with September 11’s post, “Lost at Sea: The Man in the Tote.” Minutes after watching the Coast Guard’s amazing rescue, I scribbled madly, convinced that this miraculous survival story needed to be shared. But at the same time, a second story tapped my shoulder. “There’s a different way to look at this,” it urged. “Even with the unexpected happy ending, what did this scare bring up for other fishermen?”

It certainly triggered some long-buried trauma for Joel and me.

Tele Having a Bad Time

You can read an excerpt of “After the Man in the Tote” in National Fisherman’s January print issue, available now, or read the whole thing on their website, where it’ll be posted for the rest of December. I’m grateful for their support.

Gratitude is a fast-growing creature. Since Hooked launched in March 2011, I’ve been fortunate to receive so much support from commercial fishermen and our industry advocates. Pacific Fishing linked to Hooked almost from the beginning, publishing a generous introduction article in their June 2011 issue. Alaska Waypoints offered a column upon their own web-launch, and has been a vocal promoter and good friend since. So I’m further honored that National Fisherman has added Hooked to their blogroll, a sweet spot between iconic photographer/fisherman Corey Arnold and gillnetter/direct marketer Matt’s Fresh Fish.

Over the 28 years that I’ve been fishing, there have definitely been times I didn’t feel like I “fit.” Times when my gender or left-listing values seemed to set me firmly apart from my shipmates. As I’ve observed more young people and more women enter our fleet, more fishermen identifying environmental advocacy as a necessary extension of our profession, and heard from folks who’ve found their own life experiences reflected on Hooked, that sense of other-ness has lessened. The publications listed above have helped me see our vast oceans as small, interdependent communities. They provide valuable information and advocacy, reminding us that we’re in this together – dependent on each other, regardless of our various regions or fisheries – and that there’s room at this table for all.

I’m thankful to be offered a chair.

 

(January is also National Fisherman’s popular “Crew Shots” issue, and you can look forward to seeing some familiar faces. Fellow fishing blogger Jen Karuza Schile’s husband is pictured with his longtime crew, proudly representing the F/V Vis. The Tammy Lin and Lady Linda honor multiple generations of Sitka trollers. You’ll see Cap’n J and me soaking up the rays as we cut halibut cheeks on a sunny June day. I’m delighted that we’re sharing the back page with Jen Pickett, Cordova gillnetter, blogger, Fisher Poet and friend.)





Boat Cats. Fishermen. Heaven.

28 11 2012

Some of you know my weaknesses.

Pie. Baked treats in general. Delightfully patterned socks. Pens, paper, empty notebooks waiting to be filled. Fabric. Crafty people. Books. Bread and cheese. Those one-size-fit-all stretchy gloves. Handwritten cards. Bandannas. Funky coffee shops. Bad pop music. Good tattoos. Coconut ice cream. Ravens – all of the corvids, really. Squirrels.

(Joel interjects here that I have a particular fondness for the creatures most people view as pests, “including humans.” It’s true: the outcasts have a friend in me. We recognize our own.)

And boat cats.

Regular Hooked readers know Bear, but my boat cat history dates back to 1984. My parents launched the sailboat they’d been building in the backyard, sold the vet clinic that was both home and livelihood, found a new human for our two black Labs, and packed everything else into a 40-foot van. Everything, that is, except for Yacky.

This Siamese came to us as a client. His humans brought him in for a urinary blockage, then elected to have him put to sleep, rather than pay for the treatment. “Well, if you don’t want him, can I have him?” my mom asked. Successfully flushed out, he never had a problem again.

When the Askari splashed, Yacky came with us. I suppose my parents figured we had room enough for a cat that didn’t move much. Probably the ensuing years of transience weren’t a lot of fun for Yacky – sailboat, house, broken-down motorhome, different house, new boat, dragged along with every bi-annual migration. Somehow he lived to be 18, quietly dying aboard the Willie Lee II in 1995, my mom and I both at his furry side.

Thanks to those origins, boats and cats are inextricably linked in my mind. How can you go to sea without a kitty to snuggle? Who’ll you talk to when you’re 40 miles offshore, tired of your shipmate, and not going back to land for another few weeks? Who’ll be the boat’s chief morale officer?

(In 2005, I struggled to decide if I’d continue crewing for my “brother” Marlin, or jump ship to work with Joel. A major negotiating chip was who’d be the first to get a boat cat. Those two know me awfully well.)

Someone else does, too. My friend sweet wirkman sent me a link today. “Cat Heaven Island in Japan.”   Photographer Fubirai spent over five years documenting the semi-feral felines, cared for by local fishermen. They’re stunning photos. I swooned. (After some anxiety over the spay/neuter/vaccination services. A commenter claims such a program has been in place for years, and I’m choosing to believe that’s so.)

By Fubirai, from Buzzfeed

I’d planned to spend tonight practicing for a Fisher Poets performance that’s in 15 hours, but cats on the interwebs have completely derailed me. If that happens to you periodically too, don’t miss these 50 gorgeous photos. Let me know your favorites. I’m calling 2, 4, 10, 13, 16, 20 – oh, just go see for yourself.

(Also, the story claims that the soundtrack is “optional.” If you grew up in the Eighties, it’s most definitely NOT. As sweet wirkman advised me, “play the optional soundtrack.”)

And because I just can’t help myself, here’s a video of TWO of my favorite things, together.

I know some of Hooked’s regulars have their own boat cat stories. Have at it, friends – I’d love to hear about your seafaring felines. (Joel K, I’m lookin’ at you, sir…) And because we’re about inclusivity here, ocean-going dogs are welcome, too. Who’s your vessel’s chief morale officer?





Fishermen’s Thanksgiving

22 11 2012

Earlier this week, a friend asked what I’d be doing on Thursday. When I blinked dumbly at her for a few beats, she prompted, “You know – for Thanksgiving!”

Oh. Right…

Growing up in a fractured family of three insular people far more comfortable with books and work than each other, “the holidays” don’t resonate for me. I’m not down with the history behind Thanksgiving. I’m not a Christian, and Bear the Boat Cat isn’t worked up about presents and pageantry. One of my favorite Christmases was the one I spent alone in a Californian apartment, dog-sitting for the manager of the Ben & Jerry’s shop that I spare-changed in front of. From about mid-October to after the New Year, I’m happiest to opt out of the cultural hoopla.

Joel comes from a different background. His family tree has many branches – siblings, cousins, partners – and holidays are an opportunity for bringing everyone together. They make big meals, play games, go on walks, get loud and laugh a lot and generally show how completely engaged they are with one another. Eight years in, I still feel like I’m participant-observing another species. (A generous, loving species that’s been nothing but welcoming to me.) True to my Aadsen roots, I get a little anxious as soon as there aren’t any dishes to wash or other tasks for me to fuss with. My social skills generally run out while the festivities are still going strong.

(True confession: I’m hiding in his aunt’s room right now. Slipped away as soon as the crab dip was gone. This is one of the reasons I’m so thankful to have weaseled my way into Cap’n J’s family: not only do they know I snuck away to write, it’s okay. Amazing, the tolerance these folks have.)

This all sounds bad, but I’m not a total Grinch. I believe in gratitude. That’s why I celebrate Thanksgiving in September.

*****

Fishermen’s Thanksgiving began in September 2010. The salmon season had ended, and the Sadaqa was making the run south with another troller. Midway down the Canadian Inside Passage, they tied up together in Bishop Bay Hot Springs. Marlin cooked a chicken and Stovetop stuffing, opened a can of cranberry sauce, and offered thanks for the season’s harvest.

Joel and I got in on this tradition the following year. With both the Sadaqa and the Nerka spending the winter in Sitka, we had serious chores to do before anyone could hop on a plane and ditch our boats for six months. But in the midst of all that frenzy, we agreed: there was time for Thanksgiving.

Though smaller, the Nerka was in slightly less disarray than the Sadaqa. So at 6:00, down the dock marched our friends – Marlin, Ross, and Mikey – pushing a fully-loaded cart. They handed over one delicious-smelling pan after another; I struggled to wedge everything into our tiny galley. Marlin roasted a chicken, onions and potatoes in a cast iron skillet. I made mashed sweet potatoes and squash, and a piece of salmon for the non-bird eater among us. In addition to a five-gallon bucket full of Black Butte Porters, Marlin brought a fancy ginger ale for me. Marking a long, challenging season with joyous reflection, we basked in the glow of gratitude for plentiful salmon, good weather, well-behaved boats, durable bodies, and beloved friends.

I credit Marlin with instituting Fishermen’s Thanksgiving as a tradition. One of his deckhands, Mikey, has attended all three years. In a bit of serendipitous timing, he called just as I began writing this piece. When I asked if there was anything he wanted to say about our tradition, Mikey didn’t hesitate.

“Fishermen’s Thanksgiving ruins regular Thanksgiving – or ‘Lower 48 Thanksgiving,’ as I call it. It hadn’t been a super-commercial holiday until pretty recently, but people are promoting the Black Friday thing now to the point that it’s fucking stupid, right? And having that mess sitting right next to ‘Here are my good friends, being thankful for the season we all just shared, made some money, had some good times’ creates a pretty stark dichotomy. Basically, regular Thanksgiving kinda sucks after you’ve had Fishermen’s Thanksgiving.”

*****

My November Thanksgiving did not suck.

It involved a ridiculous abundance of good food, shared in a warm house, among loving family. When we couldn’t eat another bite, we put the leftovers in the refrigerator and scrubbed the dishes with seemingly endless clean hot water. All of us are reasonably healthy and able-bodied – even the 93 year old – and hold similar social justice ethos. Each plate included a bookmark with this quote from civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go out and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It was a good day.

And because it was a good day, I felt like that much more of a jerk. Mikey’s analysis of the two holidays rang absolutely true for me. This arbitrary autumn Thursday didn’t carry the profound seasonal punctuation our September gathering had. When Joel and I drove home tonight, we talked about why that was.

“This feels random,” he said. “That’s not to say that I’m not thankful for this time with my family, because I am. But in September, we’re actually marking a seasonal transition. There’s something specific on the line: we’re giving thanks for a safe harvest and a finished season, with friends who are our family, who we’ve just shared these intense months with, and now we won’t see much – if at all – until next summer. We’re marking the end of one side of our life and moving into the other. Thanksgiving in Alaska just has bigger meaning grounded in place and time.”

Maybe that’s what it is. November Thanksgiving provides a day to enjoy family we otherwise rarely see – but for me, it could be any day. Fishermen’s Thanksgiving carries the weight of intentional change. We recognize what’s been with gratitude, while inviting what’s next with openness. As challenging as seasonal livelihood is, it presents a rare gift of reflection. Deliberate demarcations of life.

Still, I know both Joel and I will be thankful tomorrow morning for leftover pie.

Despite what may come across as a curmudgeonly attitude, friends, I hope you had a lovely day, wherever and however you spent it. You’re in my best, most appreciative thoughts, no matter what the season.








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