A Very Lemmingful Summer

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This last summer seems to have been a good one for lemmings. I even caught a few decent pictures of the little guys, but more importantly, lemmings bring friends with them.

By friends, I of course mean, predators.

Which isn’t very friendly, but…

The owls mostly left a little over a month ago. I’m sure, there area few still around, but not in significant numbers, For their own part, the foxes got a little too numerous and a little too dangerous to the two-legged population around here.

Culling happens.

Anyway, it was an interesting summer.

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(No, really. Click to embiggen!)

From San Antonio, Texas to Beulah Colorada.

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Lake House

I was four years old.

I remember, I was stringing beads at the kitchen table when Mom and Dad came to get me. They told me not to worry about the beads; just leave them there. We got in the car (an old black Volkswagen hatchback) and drove off.

Hours later, I was still thinking about the half-finished string of beads still sitting on the kitchen table back home. I kept wondering when we would get back to I could finish the string. Several more hours later, as great big snowflakes began to smack up against our windshield, I came to realize I probably wasn’t going to get to finish the string of beads after all. We eventually piled into a strange new house and promptly moved right in before going to bed. Mom said she packed the beads after all, but she wasn’t sure where they were. The next day, my older brother and sister took me out to play in the snow of our great big back yard. We made a snow man, something I’d never seen before, and then my brother took a running charge and tackled it. This small ranch in what seemed like the middle of nowhere was our new home.

I never thought about the beads again.

But I did think a lot about Texas,

Beaulah

Sometime later, I remember sitting around a dinner table eating fondu (it was the seventies, after all). The rest of the family was chatting away with the dinner guests, and their conversation puzzled me. They kept talking about how everyone back home in San Antonio talked in a funny way. I distinctly recall, my sister telling a story about a friend who used the word ‘y’all’ in the conversation, and of course there were the usual comments about how Mom’s speech had already come to match that of everyone else back in Texas. The laughter was all in good fun, but I simply didn’t understand. Almost all of my short life had been spent in San Antonio, Texas, and I hadn’t noticed anyone talking funny.

Anyone!

Eventually, we took a quick trip back to Texas for a couple days. It must have been a good year or so later. Dad sold our small vacation place on LBJ Lake bought a Ford Pick-up before driving home. While there, I remember seeing one of my old playmates. We talked for a few minutes, but something was different. I remember one thing in particular.

He said; “So y’all going back to Colorada?”

And I suddenly realized that he DID talk funny. So did everyone else! How I hadn’t noticed before would remain a mystery to me for quite some time,

***

THAT, is how I first learned about accents.

When Sex Falls Out of the Performance

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It was Bernadette Peters, I believe, but somewhere she gave an interview in which she said she would never go topless or nude in a movie, because the minute she did she would no longer be her character in a story; she would just be Bernadette peters in the nude. Peters had certainly played some very sexy roles, but as she explained it, actual nudity was simply out of the question. As I read the article I was half-hoping to learn of some new sexy performance from Peters.

So yeah. I felt pretty called out on that one.

Course, this was in the early 90s, so my memory might be off. I can’t find the interview now, but I distinctly recall the feeling of disappointment I felt in realizing I would never actually see Bernadette Peters naked on screen. I also remember realizing immediately that she had made a very good point. I felt then as I do now that I could think of instances in which nudity on screen had worked wonderfully in the service of the story, but I could also think of far more times when the effect of on-screen nudity had worked exactly as Peters had described, leaving me thinking about anything but the story onscreen.

Isome how doubt that I am alone in this.

There is a scene in Frida that bears out Peters’ point, perfectly. You know the one. I remember the surprise I felt in watching it for the first time. This was Salma Hayek doing a bit more on film that I had seen her do in the past, and she was just as beautiful as ever, as was the woman she was with. It felt like an answer to some long-forgotten prayers. well, for a moment or two anyway, and then it just felt out of place. I had been watching a serious film about an amazing artist whose body of work testified to a lifetime spent in constant pain; and then suddenly I was looking at something straight out of late-night cable. I was no longer looking at Frida Kahlo, or watching her life story unfold. I was just watching Salma Hayek with another woman acting out a moment of perfect bliss perfectly shaped for the eyes of horny heterosexual males just like mine. It was a moment of shameless pandering stuck in the middle of an otherwise challenging story. That scene simply didn’t belong.

I could practically hear Bernadette Peters saying; “I told you so.”

I found the whole thing very odd, even irritating if also kind of amusing, but I never understood the scene, not until Salma Hayek’s piece in the New York Times detailing how it came about, and fuck Harvey Weinstein anyway!

I can still hear Bernadette Peters saying “I told you so,” only now she isn’t laughing when she says it.

There is something about sex and sexuality that threatens to strip away the context of performance even as it strips the clothes off of performers. It doesn’t always do this of course. Even the most sexually explicit performance can complement a performance quite beautifully and quite effectively. Still, for every raw performance that leaves one thinking that was exceptionally well done, there are so many more that hardly qualify as a performance.

Sex isn’t the only thing that does this of course, violence and politics, can intrude upon a storyline as well. So can star power. It’s long been a truism that John Wayne always played himself, no matter the part, he always played himself (and of course John Wayne himself was as much a fiction as any part ever played by any actor). How often do you really forget that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise or cease to think of J-Lo as anyone but J-Lo, unless you are watching one of the many gems she did before becoming an abbreviated persona? There are of course a host of things that can pull us out of any story that we care to watch. Still, sex and sexuality seem to have a special power to knock down the fourth wall at any given moment, and call our attention to anything but the story in question.

This might be more true of American audiences than others; we are an exceptionally juvenile bunch when it comes to that topic, but anyway…

This fall out of performance can be exceptionally obvious at times, as when Hally Berry revealed her breasts in Swordfish. As I recall, this was the first time, she had done nudity on camera, a point worked well into the buzz for the movie. And then the moment came in the film, and it was so obvious, so blatant, you could almost hear her saying; “Here they are, boys; happy now?” It was either the dumbest thing Berry ever did in a movie, or the most brilliant. I’ve never been sure which.

Sometimes, it can be more toxic than others. The fact that Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci agreed that his character would sodomize that of actress Maria Schneider without telling her in advance might just be the worst example I can think of. Hearing Bertolucci describe this as horrible “in a way” is about as outrageous as it is sad to learn she “felt raped” afterward. I’m not even sure if this stunt took audiences out of the scene, or even if audiences were ever that invested in the real storyline for Last Tango in Paris, but it’s perversely fitting to think that the director did this so as to get a more realistic take from his actress; thus aiming to achieve a more authentic performance precisely by making sure it was in part, at least, no longer a performance.

Knowing this now, can anyone still watch that film thinking about the characters?

To lesser degrees, I think I have seen this in other productions. Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Milius have quite a laugh on the director’s commentary for Conan The Barbarian, talking about how a woman who played a slave given to Conan for the purpose of breeding didn’t speak enough English to fully understand what she was being asked to do. According to them, she really was scared of Arnold, just as her character seemed to be in the scene. Which is funny. Or not all, really. (A part of me wants to believe, Arnold and John were making that up or at least exaggerating it, which would of course underscore the degree to which what actors say of their films is often a performance in its own right, but seriously, I have no real reason to doubt that they really did put a half-naked woman in a cage in front of a strange man without ensuring that she understood what was happening and felt safe about the whole thing.)

…dammit!

It seems, the old Hitchcock line, “torture the woman,” isn’t about the character.

On a more trivial note, the absence of explicit sexuality can also prove distracting. How you get to the point where that can be a problem in the first place is another question, but Austin Powers parodied this wonderfully with its absurd moments of implied nudity. What makes it funny is of course the many times we have seen just that in a film, someone naked, or nearly so, and still somehow find everything coincidentally covered up.

I had a similar feeling watching the love scene between Rhaenyra and Ser Criston in House of the Dragon. Others have referred to this as an unusually tasteful scene in comparison to past treatment of sexuality in the Game of Thrones franchise. This take derives some value from the agency of the female character and the apparent intimacy of that scene in comparison to the exploitive premises driving much of the content in the first series. Still, I can’t help thinking the comparison between house of the Dragon and Game of thrones was the driving narrative in this scene to begin with. Knowing the series had taken flack in the past for gratuitously explicit scenes in storylines driven by male characters (and an overall indulgence of the male gaze), one couldn’t help but wonder how the prequels would deal with such matters. If that scene was, in part, an answer to that question, then the question itself intruded on the story. That the scene gracefully avoided quite showing the audience any real body parts would seem to be part of the answer. Of course the extras in the brothel scene might tell a different story (both in and behind the performance), but when Rhaenyra and Ser Criston came together neither Emily Carey nor Fabien Frankle upstaged their own characters, so to speak.

Or didn’t they?

The relatively modest performance in this instance, was itself an answer to a question not shaped within the story itself, and the end result would have been fitting for the cover of a romance novel.

But perhaps that is the real problem here. When it comes to sex, I suppose they really are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, because we really will be distracted if they do and distracted if they don’t. Sexual mores are an unusually fluid area of ethics, not the least of reasons being that rules proscribing sexual conduct (including public nudity) effectively serve to make the conduct more interesting, and of course every effort to increase acceptance serves simultaneously to make the conduct in question less interesting. So, the boundaries of appropriate sexual behavior are always in flux. This is as true in real life as it is on screen. The question of what is or is not acceptable is always on the table when it comes to sex, and so the question never really sits in the background. Some answers are better than others, and some are downright awful, but we always notice how a film chooses to answer that question.

Sometimes the answer is all we hear.

Or see.

Of Words that Won’t

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I believe I was in college when I first had someone tell me I shouldn’t use the word ‘Indian.’ I had certainly heard plenty of critical commentary about Christopher Columbus, and at least some of that commentary had included a remark or two on the absurdity of applying the word ‘Indian’ to the indigenous population of the Americas. Still, in the lily-white neighborhoods of my upbringing, this word became just another absurdity in a world that already had plenty of them. So, when my Navajo classmate, Wendy, expressed a clear preference for ‘Native American,’ this was new. What was new about it wasn’t the critique of the word ‘Indian’; it was the sense that the critique mattered.

I wish I could say that I responded appropriately, but I’m afraid I can’t.

There was whitesplaining; let’s just leave it at that.

***

Admittedly, the rest of this post could qualify as more of the same. I hope not, but we’ll see…

***

I’ve heard a couple of interesting theories about the origin of the term, ‘Indian,’ but I’m not sure that any of them have really nailed down the concept. Origins are not the only rubric by which we might assess the meaning of a term, and folk-etymologies are infamously inaccurate, so the whole question of where the word came from has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Anyway…

The notion that Columbus thought he was in India is an incorrect correction, at best. Columbus thought he was in the East Indies. That may sound like a fussy point to make, but folks ought not to point out one mistake only to land on another. Somewhere in his work, the historian of religion, Sam Gill, suggests that Europeans used term ‘Indian’ as a kind of catch-all category for everyone who lived east of the Indus River. By this account, the problem with the term is not so much a clear factual error as a kind of vagueness, that and a kind of projection of the European imagination into new territory. It’s not at all unlike those associated with ‘orientalism’ in other historical contexts. Another interesting take comes from the noted activist, Russell Means. According to Means, the term originally meant “‘under God,’ thus making it an accurate observation of the spirituality of America’s indigenous peoples. At a time when many were switching from ‘Indian’ to ‘Native American,’ Means embraced ‘Indian,’ even insisted upon it. Of course, this may have had something to do with branding. Means was of course a long-time member of “The American Indian Movement (AIM),” which might have given him a little extra reason to hold onto the label. In the end, it seems that most of the indigenous peoples of North America, have shifted to ‘Native American,’ and along with them, so have the bulk of those seeking to support indigenous peoples or simply to show respect. Mileage always varies, but ‘Native American’ seems to be the norm at this point.

***

I am occasionally reminded that there is at least one problem with ‘Indian’ that “Native American’ does not solve, that is the vagueness of such a catch-all term. This vagueness facilitates a range of problematic thinking. For example, I lost track of the people who asked me if I lived in a teepee while I was living on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo people had never lived in teepees, but the imagination of the American public (and the world at large) often puts them in teepees for the same reason that it put so many peoples from the great plains in Monument Valley for so many classic westerns. To the public at large, an ‘Indian’ is an Indian, and because we can use the same word for so many peoples they think the word must tell us something about them. That the term is really little more than a default category for a broad range of people whose customs were poorly understood when the term was coined doesn’t seem to enter folks thinking, at least not without first giving them a verbal shove in the right direction. Still, to the degree that this is a problem with ‘Indian’ that problem is not much improved by saying ‘Native American.’ Since I began focusing my Native American studies in grad school, I have had a couple friends and family ask me what “Indians believed” about topics like God, reincarnation, or the afterlife in general. Today, I am sometimes asked what ‘Native Americans’ think about the same topics. I often find myself responding to these questions by asking which tribe? Others might ask them why they are asking these questions of a white guy? In any event, the problems with such questions are not much improved by the change in vocabulary. Whichever word we might use, the question assumes implications that just aren’t there.

***

I happened into an interesting illustration of the problem one day while surfing travel blogs. One of these had a lovely account of a couple’s visit to the National Monument at Little Bighorn Battlefield. Their account was thoughtful and respectful, and I do not mean to direct negative attention their way (and in any event, I can no longer find it, hence the lack of a link), but one thing about their post stuck out in my mind. They made a point to say that their tour guide had been a student at the nearby Little Bighorn College, a tribal college, so they had gotten “the Native American point of view” on the battle. (I believe I got the quote right, but in any event, that was certainly the gist of it.)

When people address the significance of the Battle of Little Bighorn (or Greasy Grass) to Native Americans, they are usually thinking in terms of those who fought against Custer and his troops. That would be Cheyenne and Lakota for the most part, (though there were some Arapaho in the village too.) I can’t help but think, those who read the blog in question will naturally think the “Native American” perspective mentioned in the blog will reflect the point of view of those peoples, but Little Bighorn College is on the Crow Agency, and the student in question was very likely Crow. In fact, his or her ancestors may very well have included some of Custer’s scouts. To the degree that his or her native identity may have shaped the story these bloggers heard, it is unlikely that it was shaped in the manner most readers would have imagined.

Now, I certainly do not mean to suggest that a Crow’s perspective on the battle of Little Bighorn should weigh less than that of a Cheyenne or Lakota, not in the slightest. What I am suggesting is that the difference in this case matters. There is a difference between the perspective of someone whose ancestors fought against Custer and someone whose ancestors allied themselves with him. That difference is easily obscured when using terms like ‘Native American’ or ‘Indian.’

…which reminds me of one discussion I had about these issues with my own students at Diné College on the Navajo Nation many years ago. Fed up with my efforts to problematize every term available for the indigenous people at large, one of my own students just asked; “How about Diné?”

…which got us to the end of the lesson about 15 minutes early.

Don’t get me wrong; there are no magic solutions to any of these problems, but some words help us more than others. There are many contexts in which words like “Indian” or “Native American” are tough to avoid, but when you know which specific people you are talking about, it is almost always better to name the indigenous community in question.

A few pics from Little Bighorn College.

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A few pics from the Little Bighorn battlefield.

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And a couple random pics from around the area.

Chicano Park-Adjacent Murals

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A few posts back, I focused on the murals of Chicano Park in San Diego, but I forgot to post a whole section of pictures that are just across some trolley tracks from Barrio Logan where Chicano Park is located. These seem rather distinct from those at Chicano Park, both in terms of thematic content and color palette. As an outsider, I am rather prone to lump them in together with those of Chicano Park, but these do seem like they probably have a story of their own. I just don’t know what it is.

I looked around a bit, but I haven’t found anything to explain this particular batch of street art.

Anyway, here they is!

(Click to embiggen)

Random Sunset

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So on last Christmas Eve, I was up on a park overlooking Glendora California, and I noticed the way the sun light was reflecting off some of the buildings below. I kept trying to take pictures of it, and they were kinda neat, but they really didn’t pop, so to speak. I moved up and down the trail I was on, looking for the best angle, and nothing I did seemed to make this potentially interesting picture work. Finally, I glanced over to my right and saw this…

A Park Under a Bridge

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently spent some time in San Diego. Whenever I get down to civilization, I tend to look for street art. San Diego had plenty of it. One location in particular stands out, Chicano Park. Many of the murals express explicit historical commentary, a fact all the more significant in light of the history of the park itself. It is the product of local unrest, a local community outraged at a series of developments diminishing the quality of life for its residents. The community had been separated from the waterfront by Naval installations, bisected by freeways and zoned in a manner hardly conducive to residential living. Plans to develop a highway patrol station seem to have been the final straw. It took an occupation to create the park as it presently exists.

And more of course!

Honestly, the stories I found here are a bit beyond me. So, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. That, and perhaps a link or two.

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A few more from around the neighborhood.

And some small pieces in the area.

Will Someone Give that Man a Drumstick!

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“I want a drum stick”

The old man hunched over the counter at the Kaintuck Chicken Massacre with his eyes glued on the roasted chicken. I couldn’t quite hear the young man behind the counter just yet, but I could see the old man pointing at the piece he wanted.

“I want a drum stick”

This time I could year the young teenager responding; “Do you want a 3-piece or a 5, piece. The meal comes with…”

“I want a drum stick!”

The old guy knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted a drum stick. A decade or two earlier, this old fella might have adapted his order to the menu, but now the details were clearly nonsense to him. He was pointing right at the piece he wanted. Why wasn’t that enough?The kid, for his part, wasn’t authorized to act on the desire for a single drum stick. The buttons on the cash register didn’t include that option. He needed to translate the order into something else, something that fit the categories he was allowed to provide. In a few years, the young man might have had the confidence to attempt an explanation, but the old man wasn’t listening anyway, and he had no idea how to deal with the situation. so he just kept repeating himself.

The old man, of course did the same;

“I want a drum stick.

Somewhere in the back, I imagined, there must be a manager, someone endowed with sufficient authority to just give the old man a drumstick, perhaps resolving the technical problem by putting it on the house. Maybe, maybe not. A manager might well have insisted on the usual categories just as the kid had. In any event, there was no manager up near the cash registers. So, the kid just kept repeating the official options.

And the old man just kept repeating himself.

Decades later, I can still hear the old guy’s words as I took my own order out the door.

“I want a drumstick!”

When San Diego Alaskitates!

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The lower 48 can seem like a foreign country, not always, but often enough. It’s strange to think so. I mean, I lived down there for over 40 years, so why would it seem so strange to me now? Anyway, it often does.

This feeling came through particularly strong last semester when I agreed to accompany a minor to a chemistry conference in San Diego. I often find myself working on the margins of my own fields, but I have to admit this one was a little bit of a stretch. So, it was with particular joy that I suddenly found myself looking at a bit of Alaskan history.

Right there in San Diego.

I had just descended below deck aboard The Star of India, one of several ships at the Maritime Museum, and there it was, a whole display on the Alaskan fish packing industry, or at least the role The Star of Indian played in shipping the products of fishing out to other parts. I was already enjoying the museum, and I long since warmed to my stay in San Diego when I saw this, and then my face lit right up.

There is something a little perverse about the trajectory that brings me here from the edge of civilization near to its centers only to find the ghosts of so many fish who’ve made that same trip themselves. Whether it’s a perverse irony or a perverse synchrony, I’m not sure, but either way these artifacts of an extractive industry shouldn’t really have surprised me. I enjoy living on the edge of nowhere, though I do so with the full benefits of the modern world to keep me warm and well connected to the rest of y’all, and of course, there is no real escape from the global economy. If places like Alaska are good for fishing, it goes without saying that when they are good enough, a fair portion of stories told about those fish will be told in other places.

Places like San Diego.

Anyway, you never know when a trip out will lead you to a little glimpse of home.

***

Originally named the Euterpe, this vessel was built in 1863. She hauled salmon out of Alaska from 1902 to 1923, being renamed The Star of India in 1906. As steamships came to dominate the industry, she was finally retired in 1926. Today, she is docked at the Maritime Museum, though she is still seaworthy. You can find a few videos of her out on the water.

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Some less fishy photos of the Star.

The Star at Sea