One of our students here at Iḷisaġvik College was curious about the foxes living out behind our dorms. Olive tells me they will chase a red dot over the tundra, for a little while anyway. She filmed her little experiment.
One of our students here at Iḷisaġvik College was curious about the foxes living out behind our dorms. Olive tells me they will chase a red dot over the tundra, for a little while anyway. She filmed her little experiment.
I just walked into my hotel. Its almost 3:00am here in Anchorage. I immediately walked into the gift shop and grabbed two sodas, a bag of Cheetos and package of skittles. Perhaps it was my clumsy movements. Perhaps it was the hour. My tunnel-vision stare, perhaps? Either way, I’m sober enough to know the night clerk had me pegged for drunk. He had that particular air of one who is humoring the completely addled for just so long as it takes to get them on their way. Fair enough, I thought. Yes, indeed, I did just close down a bar, and I’m at least 2 sheets (if not 3) to the wind. Perhaps I deserve the condescension.
I recall once, when I briefly worked at a cabin resort, a particular school teacher used to come and stay with us. She would down a fair bit of wine and then fail to use out one pay-phone correctly. We were in the middle of Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, and Cell Phones simply didn’t work there, so that pay-phone was her only option. Having been told that the pay-phone wasn’t working, I would ask her what message she received on trying to dial out. If she could remember it accurately, I could tell what the problem was; whether it was her card, a wrong number, or something else entirely. I knew the messages, and I knew what they meant. What I didn’t know what how to get her to take the message seriously in her state. She would just tell me the card didn’t work. When I asked what the specific wording of the message had been, she would look at me, weaving a little, and say; “It says it didn’t work.” In the end I let her use the house phone, because I just couldn’t unscramble the problem she had without her at least telling me what the message had been. I could clearly see that she thought me an illiterate ass for asking her questions she thought she had already answered. I, for my own part, wondered if should would even understand me when she was sober.
Mutual contempt is a mutal solace, I suppose.
Anyway, I reckon I thought about her much as the man at the hotel desk must have thought about me.
But I’m not just a drunkard! I’m so much more!
So, must many people have thought to themselves as they were treated as just another drunk by someone somewhere. It’s easy to consider yourself worth more than your own slurred speech and your blurred vision, but it’s a bit more difficult to think of a complete stranger who is clearly exhibiting such conditions as anything more than the sum total of his drunken idiocies.
It’s an odd thing. Those of us that do drink are bound to drink to excess at some point in our lives. And drinking in excess, none of us are particularly dignified. Yet some get pass, and others don’t. What makes the difference?
I can think of nights playing beer frizbee in grad school, vomitting in the sink of the basement beneath my friends apartment complex. Or was that another friend that did that? I don’t remember really. It’s been 20+ years and quite a few amber ale’s since that night. Still everyone was a friend there that morning. We were drunk, yes, but we were human. We saw each other home and we called to make sure everyone was okay the next day. We would never have mistaken each other for mere drunks.
My Dad drank a glass or three of Christian Brothers’ Brandy every night since pretty much the age at which I was old enough to notice (Okay, sometimes it was E&J). I never thought of him as a drunk, net even the night that he drove home at the wee hours of the morning and sat in the car inexplicably as I waited for him to come in. I finally went out to find him crying. He’d blown a bit more on the slot machines than either he or Mom normally allowed themselves to do that evening, and it bothered him a great deal. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” he said. I could hardly believe my ears. It was a couple hundred dollars he’d lost that night, hardly enough to blow the mortgage, but Dad was genuinely disturbed by the night’s events. That he’d driven home was another cause for concern, but I never could tell just how far under the influence he had been that night. Perhaps I didn’t want to. I can still count on one hand the number of times I thought my father was actually drunk, and I never thought of him as a drunk, but that night he called it himself. Perhaps, the nightly brandy mattered more than any of us thought it did.
…at least until the next day when the conversation that night was simply forgotten.
Whatever the damage done to our bank accounts, father had worked out a solution. Whatever had frightened him about his own drinking, he had worked out a solution to that too. He was prepared to face the day squarely, and I saw none of the doubt from the night before. I think I talked to him about it, but I don’t remember the details of the conversation. I suspect I was all too happy to find my way past the memory of that night. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw him drunk again.
Though I certainly did see the brandy. Just a glass or two every night.
If I cut my father an ounce of slack, I certainly didn’t cut that same slack for my neighbor. She too had a glass of something on the rocks every night after work. I recall her telling me about how her ex-husband stank of alcohol even when he was sober. She added this to the list of complaints about his abusiveness and general worthlessness. She told me all of this as she drank her own nightly glass of hard liquor, and you bet your ass I noticed. I thought of her as a worthless drunk, someone who buried herself in a glass every night.
Harsh, I know.
A double standard, I also know.
I knew my father. I knew his goals and his values as well as his frustrations, and I knew his weaknesses as anyone who has ever loved another knew them of those they loved. Falling down drunk, he would always be the man I most admired in life. Of my neighbor, I knew mostly frustrations. I knew her to be a pain in the ass at best and a complete fuck-up at worst. I of course knew this mostly from the talk of my parents, and from my own encounters with her. It was easy to think of her as a mere drunk
I also knew that she had a Masters Degree in Archaeology, that she had raised two daughters despite an ugly divorce and who knows what else the woman had dealt with in her life. I think about that now and realize I should probably have found my way to giving her a little more credit than I did at the time. That she was capable of serious study was a mystery to me, and I never saw any of her struggles with a trace of empathy. She would always be a drunk to my eyes, even if she were sober, and my father never would be, not even when he was in fact quite drunk.
So what makes the difference between a drunk and a person?
I reckon that’s a good deal of the distinction itself, knowing the person in the first place, or at least having enough in common to imagine the person in the first place. Without that, it’s all too easy to think of someone who is actually drunk as someone whose drunkenness is a fairly complete personal account.
My neighbor in Fort Defiance always struck me as a drunk. I could recount the many irritations he inflicted upon me during my time on the Navajo Nation, not the least of them being his threats one afternoon to burn down the house with me in it. I learned of these the next day when his brother forced him to apologize to me. All I had noticed was that he was shouting something at me from outside. I had already written him off that day. Didn’t even realize the drama that was unfolding out there.
That same neighbor once told me that he was going to hitchhike to Flagstaff and get a job. This was well into the morning. He had awoken me on a work night, quite drunk and very depressed, and somewhere in the midst of telling me all his woes, this neighbor announced his great plan for turning his life around. I can’t remember what I said, but apparently I did express some doubt. He was quite offended. Asked what I meant by that,I felt fairly flat-footed for a moment. I fished around in my brain and finally came up with one thing which while very true was not nearly as judgemental as the thought that probably led to the comment in the first place. I knew that strategy wouldn’t have worked for me. I wouldn’t be able to just hitchhike into a town, totally broke, and land a job just like that. So, I said so. My neighbor was happy with that response. He took it as a sign of respect, and in a sense it was, albeit one which was quite consistent with the disrespect that had triggered my skeptical comment to begin with.
I did notice that he never actually hitch-hiked into Flagstaff and got a job.
Neither did I.
Not like that anyway.
I always thought of that neighbor as a drunk. I knew him to be a person, even cared about him, I suppose, but I never quite shook the sense that his life had been claimed by liquor. That neighbor used to sober up from time to time, and then he’d REALLY be a pain the ass. Mostly, he’d need a ride to work, because when he was sober he would inevitably get a job. When his brother (who lived next door) stopped giving him rides, the man would turn to me. I remember one summer, I would return from an effectively 16 hour day, starving, with a couple chapters yet to read so I could teach the next day and sure enough he wanted a ride to work. Oh how I wished his brother would give him a ride.
…or that he would go back to being a drunk.
Now there is a damning thought!
But I had it just the same.
And sadly, that wish did come true.
Damn me anyhow for wishing it!
Years later, I lived in Flagstaff. I used to go to a bar named Charlie’s once every week or two, mostly to watch a bluegrass band named Second Harvest. Loved their music! A friend of a friend once sneered at the place, describing it as a gay bar. I always figured it was a place where gay people would be welcomed, but not so much a dedicated gay bar. Just the same, it was my drinking establishment of choice.
I recall one night watching as a brand-new security guy glowered at two men dancing together. It was a spectacular display. Not them. HIM. The look on his face was one of utter contempt. I could just imagine him thinking of reasons to eject them, reasons he never quite acted upon. He did, however, find cause to eject one elderly Navajo man, an individual who though quite drunk had been sitting harmlessly in a corner. As the ‘drunk’ was escorted out and onto the street, I couldn’t help but wonder at the numerous college students boisterously enjoying their own states of inebriation throughout the bar. Some of them were even native, but they were dressed as college kids. They fit, so to speak. Many of those still in the bar were well past the drunkenness of the man put outside, but they were young and they were middle class.
They weren’t drunks. They were just drunk.
He was a drunk, at least as far as security was concerned that night.
They would probably think of him the same way if he had been sober.
Years earlier, I had already encountered that same privilege one weekend when I was doing research in Farmington, New Mexico. I came out of an Arby’s one afternoon to find an empty six-pack of beer in the back of my ‘tribee’ (tribal vehicle). It was a good thing I noticed before someone else did, but I couldn’t help wondering at the thought process of whoever put it there. Did he think he was going to get a Navajo in trouble? Would he have done it had he realized it was a white guy driving the truck? Or maybe it was someone who noticed the white driver, and thought to generate some trouble for the guy clearly out of place. I believe this was the same weekend a waitress invited me to a bar. She made a point to tell me it was where “our kind of people” hung out. I still wonder if she would have invited me had she knew where I lived, where I worked, or what kind of vehicle I was driving?
On a side note, I once walked into a random bar in Farmington. It was a short walk from my hotel, so I thought I’d skip over and drink a beer or three before going back for the evening. No sooner than I entered when I realized I was the only white guy in there, and several people where staring at me in not so friendly ways. Had I been with someone it would have been different. I would still have been a white guy, yes, but I would have been their white guy. I’d done that once or twice before. It works. In this instance I was alone and feeling very much like an intruder at that particular moment. What was I to do? Try to tell people I’m one of the good guys? Hell, I wouldn’t have listened to me. Why should they? I also figured if I turned around and headed out immediately that would set off all kinds of red flags. If I stayed too long I figured someone would cause trouble. Maybe I could talk my way out of it; maybe I couldn’t. So, I sat down and ordered one beer.I drank it and left. As I headed out, I could swear I saw the bartender nodding, as if to tell me I played that one right.
Okay, that last story is probably all manner of confirmation bias, but anyway, that’s how I felt at the time. And I’m still feeling a little buzzed, so I’m leaving it on the page, against my better judgement of course.
My better judgement begins on the other end of a long sleep.
I lived briefly on the south-side of Chicago. By briefly, I mean 3 years, minus the summers. In any event, it was long enough to begin to recognize some of the homeless people in the area. Maybe it was my long hair but one fellow always insisted on trying to sell me incense. I bought a pack. (Think I gave it to a friend of mine.) It should come as no surprise of course that many of these people appeared quite often to be under the influence of something or other. It would be easy to think of them as mere drunks.
One moment stands out particularly in my mind. Some young men in their twenties were talking to one of the homeless individuals. This one was often very drunk. In fact, he was often incapable even of asking for change. When he was that far into his liquor, the man would simply hold out his hand and groan, or mumble something he might have thought of as speech but which no-one but him could really parse. Anyway, the young men, were chatting and laughing. It was almost friendly, but not quite.
One of the young men asked quite loudly; “Do you remember me?”
Swaying a bit, the man slurred out a ‘yes’.
“Who am I.”
His answer? “YOU!”
Now THAT was a mike drop if I ever saw one.
So, what do all these stories add up to? Hell, they probably add up to porridge as far as I can tell. I’ve been drinking. Remember! But if I may take a moment to try and sense the make of the matter, I would guess they start with one obvious fact that drinking begets all manner of foolishness. All manner of terrible things happen once people start tipping those damned bottles. I’m fortunate enough to be one of those people who can stop after 2 or 3 beers and simply call it a night (many can’t), else I might have a lot more interesting stories.
…or perhaps others would have the stories about me.
More to the point, I’m often struck by the perception of drunkenness. Where drunken behavior is concerned, we can tolerate an awful lot from our own kind, however we choose to identify them. Strangers get far less patience. Cross a few social boundaries and the benefit of the doubt wears thin very quickly. Often as not, race and class can provide all the boundary one needs to think of someone not just as a drunk person but as nothing but a drunk, someone whose total value as a human being can be summed up in their smell, their slurred speech, and in whatever other foolishness they have brought with them.
Sometimes, you don’t even need that kind of boundary.
A few hours ago, I sat next to a man about my age, my ethnicity, and near as I can tell about the same economic status as my own. He was eating soup and struggling to get his head under control while the house band at Humpy’s played its last tune of the night. He was chatting quite a bit, though I couldn’t make any sense of it. Nobody else was in ear-shot. I still don’t know is he meant to be talking to me, or if he was talking to an old love, an imaginary adversary, or perhaps even his own guardian angel. Either way I thought of the man as a drunk. He was a bit further into his cups than me, to be sure, but I don’t figure that quite explains the distinction. To me, meeting the man under such circumstances, he was simply a drunk, no more and no less. I on the other hand was just drunk, and there was a difference.
At least until I hit the hotel desk.
The sunrise brought a couple sun-dogs with it this morning. By this morning, I actually mean almost noon, but the point is I went out with a camera to see if I could get some nice doggie pics. I wouldn’t say the picture does it justice, but anyway, here is what I got.
Cute little puppies, aren’t they?
Afterwards, I remembered that the ocean has been flirting with solid form lately, so after playing with the sun dogs I turned around and headed the other way for a block or two. Kinda slushy right now, but definitely not my flavor. I expect it will get properly solid soon. In the interim, my hand has suffered enough for my amateur camera games. I think I’ll stay inside and write a bit now.
Might as well add a few more pics from the last month or two. As always, you may click to embiggen.
As I recall, the picture was a selfie. My student was one of many people who come up here from the lower 48 to teach somewhere in the K-12 system. She was taking a course from me to help satisfy her certification requirements to remain in the state system.
…And there she stood in the picture with a polar bear walking along the beach in the background behind her. No, she wasn’t that close. She was fine, but really, it was a fantastic picture. I could imagine her showing it to people and chattering on about it for years to come. I was happy for her, and just a little jealous, but mostly happy for her. It had to have been a cool moment.
…which is what I said.
To my surprise, a frown immediately captured her face and her shoulders slumped as she looked down. For all the coolness of the pic, it was evidently not part of a happy story. She struggled to explain why. It turns out that someone shot the bear mere moments after she had posed for the picture.
No, this is not a story of criminal activity, at least not that I’m aware of. The hunter was an Alaska Native, and yes, they are allowed to take polar bears for subsistence activities. Still, I couldn’t help but feel for the student in this instance. To see a bear go from shared space in a selfie to dead on the beach in a matter of moments must have generated a kind of moral whiplash.
(Clunky metaphor, I know.)
I can’t help thinking the sudden transformation of the bear from a living breathing subject that one might want to share space with in a selfie to a dead animal must have been a bit shocking. I suspect the issue here is more than the sudden death of the bear; it’s this sudden change in the way circumstances invite her to think about him. One minute, she was celebrating the presence of the bear, and the next it was no longer a presence to be celebrated.
Is a bear fit for a selfie? Or is it fit to eat (and perhaps to wear)? You can answer both of these questions with a ‘yes’, but it may be a little disturbing when both answers play out at the same time and in the same place, and most particularly, with the same bear.
I thought about this over the last week or two as a polar bear had been hanging out near the college where I work for several days. Wildlife had to shoo him off a couple times. For those of us at the college, he was both a source of excitement and at least a trace of anxiety. More than a few of us grabbed our cameras, but even as we took pictures, several wondered if he wasn’t a little too close. He wasn’t so close as to generate immediate alarm, but he was close enough to make us all a little more careful as we went outside. In time, we began to worry about his own fate as well. If he didn’t move on soon, would officials end up shooting him?
I don’t know what happened to the bear. I have some ideas as to why he was here, and I believe he moved on eventually, but I don’t know this for a fact. For the present, the possibility itself, that he could have been shot is the interesting point. What would it mean to me, I wondered, if the bear in these pictures had been killed within days (or perhaps hours) of my taking them? It isn’t simply the possibility that he might die on his own. Hell, cycles of life and all that! No, the point is that a picture of a bear that might be killed because he is close enough to take pictures of him makes for something of an ironic photo subject.
The whole thing reminds me of the old bit from Marshall Sahlins on how you tell the difference between an animal you can’t eat and one that you can. Perhaps, I think, taking a picture with a bear is a bit like giving it a name. It’s one way of imparting a sense of personhood to the creature, one way of making it part of the world of lives about which you have some fucks to give. This is especially true if you hope to tell tales of the creature at some later date. I suppose it depends a bit on the picture, just how much the taking of a picture actually imparts meaning to its subject, but a selfie with a bear is probably on the maximum end of the personalizing spectrum. (We put ourselves in pictures with people and creatures, we like, not usually those who loathe or simply don’t care about.) At the other end of this spectrum, I guess we’d have to count most of the pictures taken by trophy hunters over a fresh kill. If trophy pictures impart meaning to the animal, I can’t help thinking it’s one of conquest. In contrast, I reckon most of those taking a picture of a bear want to talk (and think) about their encounter with an exotic living creature. They might want to think of him, for a time at least, as alive and well and going about his business long after the picture-taking two-legged has found its way to warmer homes and (hopefully) eager ears. At the very least, such stories are compromised by the thought that the very encounter that produced an image of the creature in question could also have reduced it to meat headed for the dinner table.
Good to eat and good to selfie, but not at the same time.
So, if the camera ensouls an animal, so to speak, the gun would seem to do just the opposite, at least for some people. Beyond the actual act of killing an animal, the willingness to do so would seem to transform an animal into something less than personal; it shifts from an end in itself to a means of sustenance.
Or does it?
Certainly not for indigenous hunters. If anything, their own traditions are saturated with motifs attributing personhood to animals. Whalers up here consistently speak of the bowhead as giving themselves to the hunters voluntarily, and similar themes can be found in hunting traditions of indigenous peoples around the world. For example, the oral traditions of hunting peoples often contain references to a time when animals spoke as humans do. As often as not, the loss of this quality in such stories will occur by choice, and as often as not that choice is motivated by the needs of human hunters. In some stories, animals may still take human form under designated circumstances. The upshot is a world in which role of animal and hunter is the conscious decision of persons who must be respected if the relationship is to continue.
But I don’t think the notion of hunting as a respectful enterprise is entirely limited to indigenous traditions, or indigenous people in general. Talk of respect is quite common among hunters, all the more so for those who do so as a means of feeding themselves. Animal rights activists may well dismiss this as convenient rhetoric, but the lives of subsistence hunters are far more intimately involved with the cycles of nature and the lives of animals than those of your modern citizen. There is little reason to believe those who invest a significant portion of their thought and their activities on the animal world come away from this with little but a utilitarian sense of those animals. It might be different for commercial hunters, and likewise for a certain scale of commercial farmer, but the people I know up here who feed themselves from the ducks, the geese, the caribou, and yes, the whale, live lives fairly filled with thoughts about these creatures.
Which brings me back to the shock that shock of becoming an unqitting witness to the harvest of an animal. I reckon, it must be a bit more unsettling to those who’ve never participated in such activities. Folks may know that their beef was once a cow; their bacon was once a pig, and their chicken was once, …um, a chicken, but most have never witnessed (much less contributed to) the process by which the one becomes the other. For the average consumer of market meats, the consumption of animals is easily imagined as an entirely objective process. Vegetarians may escape this tangle of dissonance, but a fair number of those uncomfortable with hunting are fairly caught right up in it. Their discomfort is at least partly a function of seeing (or thinking about) a process which normally occurs out of sight, but which is absolutely essentially to their own sustenance. In contrast, participating in single hunt can be a lasting reminder that the food on your table was once alive. I’m not saying, everyone draws this lesson, but I certainly did (it’s been a log time), and I believe I see similar views in those around me now.
…all of which means, ironically enough, that shooting an animal may not equate to depersonalization after all, at least not for everyone. I reckon, it will always be a bit shocking for those unaccustomed to such activities, and it would be that much more so for anyone unfortunate enough to be sharing a selfie moment with a creature just before seeing it go down, but the real difference in worldview may be less a question of those who appreciate the lives of animals and those who don’t so much as a question of those who remember their own lives come at the expense of others and those for whom that connection is fuzzy at best.
The bear, from a couple weeks back (click to embiggen). He is, I believe, still alive. I’m sorry the pictures aren’t that great. I of course wanted to stay much closer to a door than he was to me.
I took a walk along the beach the other day. It was a nice evening. Barrow nice. So, yes, that included a coat, and yes, you could still see your breath, but it was a nice evening just the same. I kept seeing these little patches that looked like snow. Pretty sure those are what’s left of the great blocks of ice I had been taking pictures of a week or so back. So, I and the dwindling blocks of ex ice say ‘hello’.
…that is all.
I’ve been back in the arctic for a little over a week now. I didn’t really expect to see ice along the coast at this time of the year. I’ve seen it before, but it’s a little surprising. Still, the coast has been littered with the remnants of the melting ice pack the entire time I’ve been here. Thought I’d share a few pics.
It’s odd, I suppose. Over the years, I find myself taking fewer pictures of Barrow. I keep thinking things like ‘that’s old’ and ‘my friends have already seen that’, but I suppose that’s the same thinking that left me with so few images to show for a decade in northern Arizona. Anyway, that’s one thing I like about about getting away. You come back home and remember what’s cool about it.
…in this case literally.
(Click to embiggen!)
I was a little surprised to see a museum crammed into one of the small shops on 4th street in Anchorage. I was even more surprised to find just how much history they managed to cram into The Alaska Veterans Museum. It’s best to take your time in this place, because every inch of wall space in this venues contains something worth a second look, and maybe even a third.
The museum is of course a testament to the lives and work of Alaska’s veterans. For those of us interested in the history of Alaska, it also contains materials illustrating some of the more interesting parts of Alaskan history. No sooner had I walked through the door, for example, than the volunteer asked me if I knew where the last shots of the civil war had been fired. I suppose “the Shenandoah” wasn’t technically the right answer, but he smiled when I said it, and anyway, the point is they have a section for the history of this Confederate buccaneer up on the wall here.
…which had me smiling from the start of my visit.
The museum also features extensive coverage of the Aleutian campaign. It’s one of the quirks of Alaskan history. Where most of the lower 48 speaks of World War II as something that happened ‘over there’, some of the fighting actually did take place in this state. Not only did the Japanese bomb Dutch Harbor, they also occupied two islands in the Aleutian chain, all of which is well represented in the collections on display here at the museum.
The Alaskan Territorial Guard also gets prominent treatment here, though I am ashamed to say I didn’t get great pictures of that section. Just clumsy lensmanship on my part. The museum itself covers the history of this unit, comprised largely of Alaska Natives under the leadership of Major Marvin ‘Muktuk’ Marston. The unit (including a number of women) was charged with monitoring the coastline to act as a first line of defense. They also had to be on the look out for balloon bombs (sent over the Pacific in the hopes of starting forest fires in the U.S.).
The museum includes several outstanding dioramas, most of which feature naval operations. I struggled to get a good picture of the aircraft carrier, but in the end I had to settle for a few close-ups. The model itself was just too big to get in a single shot.
I was unfamiliar with the story of the U.S.S. Grunion, a submarine lost near Kiska, so this part of the exhibit was entirely new to me. One particular veteran, Percy Blatchford, had a section to himself. You can find him around the net as well. Each of the major conflicts of American history receive some treatment here, in each case focusing on the experiences of Alaskan military personnel.
A couple stories that didn’t get into the museum (at least I don’t think so) would include the Navy’s bombing of Angoon in 1882 and the story of Aleutian internment. They do cover the Japanese internment of Aleutians, but no mention is made of those taken off those Islands by the U.S. personnel. I’m not entirely sure I caught everything during my visits last month, and I am still amazed at the breadth of materials they got into the collection. As I understand it, they have a great deal more in storage, and that storage may be spilling into the homes of those behind the museum itself. It’s obviously a labor of love, so I suppose that is to be expected.
On one of my visits to the Museum, I had the pleasure of meeting Col. Suellyn Wright Novak who heads up the Museum. She had a number of great stories to tell, including that of the Alaskan Territorial Guard statue out in front. Some wonder why it doesn’t have a plaque on it? Those more observant have wondered why the information plaque is behind the guardsman. It turns out, the museum staff just didn’t want anyone to be run-over while reading the plaque from the street.
I am posting a few pics here, but of course they don’t do the museum justice. As usual, you may click to embiggen.
Alaska Territorial Guard
The U.S.S. Grunion
…or the comfort of your home.
Catherine Croll (Anna Wyndham) writes about violent pornography. She’s a well known feminist and a successful scholar. So, what is she doing singing the praises of Phyllis Schlafly?
Well it seems that something is missing from Catherine’s life, and that something is the family that conservative anti-feminist Schlafly warned women about so many decades past. Coming home to help her ailing mother, Catherine finds herself living near her college boy-friend, Don Harper (played by Frank Delaney) and his wife. Don’s wife is Catherine’s own former friend and roommate, Gwen (Shelly Wozniak). The two of them have two children. Catherine can see that they are struggling, and yet she can’t help but envy them. Seeing them makes her rethink some of her own life choices, and a part of her wishes she could exchange her life for Gwen’s. Impossible, right?
But what if it isn’t?
As it turns out, Gwen has second thoughts about her own life, and Don? Well, Don still fancies Catherine. So, it just may be that she can have him after all. It may well be that she can step right into Gwen’s life as Gwen runs off to pursue an advanced degree of her own.
Yep! The ghost of Trading Places haunts this play. It does indeed.
There isn’t a lot of live theater on the North Slope of Alaska. No, there isn’t. Heck, there isn’t a lot of movie theater on the North Slope. Nope! Hell, there isn’t even a lot of television theater in my own home. (Okay, that’s my own choice, but still!). So, I often check to see if anything is playing at a local theater when I’m in Anchorage. This time the answer was yes, at Cyrano’s, and my schedule didn’t even stop me. So, there I sat watching the opening scenes of this play and realizing for the first time what it was about.
The play is Rapture Blister Burn, written by Gina Gionfriddo and directed by Krista M. Schwarting. It’s been playing at Cyrano’s since April 1st and it’ll continue running through the 24th. If you’re in the area, and if the F-word doesn’t scare you, it’s definitely worth seeing.
So anyway, there I sat, watching as a series of inter-related stories began to unfold on the small stage in front of me. Much of the action takes place in a class Catherine teaches during the summer. Put together at the last minute, the class ends up with exactly two students, Gwen, and a young college student named Avery (Olivia Shrum). When Catherine’s mother, Alice (Sharon Harrison) joins the conversation, the result is three generations of women gathered together to discuss feminist theory. We are soon treated to a quick and dirty version of Betty Friedan’s critique of domesticity, followed shortly thereafter by an account of Schlafly’s critique of feminism. Throughout this, the focus of discussion remains squarely on the trade-off between family life and a career as each of the characters weighs in on the (dis-)advantages of each.
I’m not normally a fan of explicit theory in a story-line. I always want to ask the writer to write an essay if that’s what they really want to do. In this case, however, all this theory really is part of a story. The real question here is how the women use these theories to make sense of their own lives and to communicate with one another about the decisions each of them face. We are asked to consider the theories, yes, but we are also invited to think about what each theory means to the characters invoking them.
Oddly enough, it is Gwen (the stay at home mother) who champions Friedan and Catherine (the single woman with a successful career) who keeps telling us that Schlafly “had a point.” Avery and Alice are there largely to provide a running commentary as each of the two main participants struggle to rework their own life stories in light of the course material. This is very much a story about women in their middle-ages, women with enough life behind them to have a few regrets and with enough ahead of them to feel a trace of hope.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to say how much fun the dialogue can be in this play. each of the characters comes into her own at some point in the story. Even Don has his moments, but for my money Avery has the best lines. Perhaps, it’s just the wicked joy that Shrum seems to take in playing her. At any rate, she had me laughing. But then they all did at one time or another.
Catherine’s praise for Schlafly is ironic, of course. We are supposed to understand this is a heresy of sorts, and yet it’s a heresy born of a deeply personal dilemma. For all her success, Catherine is clearly not happy, and she sees in Gwen’s family something that is missing in her own life. She will of course get a chance to test this theory. She will get Don back, if only briefly. She will get a chance to take care of Gwen’s youngest child, and she will see this arrangement all fall apart before the end of the summer. Gwen will give up grad school and return home. Don will prove himself unwilling to keep up with a successful spouse and opt for the comfortable life he has already made for himself, leaving Catherine with little to do but take up her promising career once again and plow through her successful life without a steady relationship.
It is perhaps not such a bad fate for Catherine, so it would seem. She is free despite herself. In the end, we are told Schlafly was right, though perhaps the lonely fate of a successful feminist is not so bad after all.
I’m back in the North Slope now and still wondering what it was I watched. I find myself in the ever so odd position of feeling a bit out-cyniced. That doesn’t often happen to me. There is a story in here about families. It’s not a very pretty one. Don and Gwen are pathetic. They had created a family out of their own personal failures, and in the course of the story, they recreated it when their newfound courage failed them once again. Catherine and Avery are the only ones who walk away from the story with anything like a future, but they do so with little hope for families of their own. In Catherine’s case, at least, that is a genuine loss. She did want to have her cake and eat it too, and in this case she just isn’t going to get to do that.
So, how do I feel about this? It depends on the stories of the moral.
The play is at its strongest if we minimize the lesson. This can be a story about how life has a way of refuting our theories and foiling our choices. As a story about middle-aged people, this is also a story about how decisions once meant to create a life become the source of limitations inhibiting our lives. We see in this story how Catherine once sacrificed a relationship for a career only to find (too late) the choice cost her more than she imagined. Don and Gwen both chose a family life over career ambitions only to find their own family languishing in the lack of professional rewards. Each of these characters seems to find the down-side of their past decisions a bit more significant than they once imagined. It’s an excellent story about the many ways that simply being human can damned well get in the way of trying to be something else. That’s a lesson I can identify with.
As specific statement about feminism, I can’t help thinking the play is a bit more objectionable. It’s view of family life is especially grim, perhaps unfairly so. (By perhaps, I probably mean something more like “almost certainly.”) What the play says about career women seems still more egregious. It asks us to accept that this one woman, Catherine, must choose between a family and a career, and of course the real problem here is just how much we may generalize about her dilemma. That is where I find myself wanting to back out of the premise.
It isn’t just that I think Catherine should have her cake and eat it too. I could swear that I know women who have done precisely that. I’ve dated women who’ve done that. Hell, I’ve worked with and/or for women who have raised families and enjoyed successful careers. I don’t doubt the stress of doing both may have made misery of their lives on at least a few occasions, and I don’t doubt the cost of trying to do both falls harder on women than it does men. I don’t even doubt that in some individual cases, handling both becomes too much, but my point is that women have done it.
Of course, I can accept the premise that trying to have both isn’t working for a single character in a wonderful little play. But I can’t help thinking the story isn’t just about her. There is a reason, she and the others spend so much time telling us about feminist theory, and it isn’t because this is only a particular story of a particular woman and her particular set of friends.
Which brings us to yet another story. Whatever else this play is about, it definitely contains a story about feminism. But in this respect it is NOT a story about middle-aged women at all. It is a story about elderly and deceased women. I can’t help wondering at the focus on Friedan and Schlafly. These are the iconic figures that haunt the tales told by the characters in this story, the figures who have shaped the stories of those characters. Their choices have thus been framed in terms of gender politics as they were defined quite some time ago. I’m a little out of my element here, but I feel safe in suggesting other theorists might have provided these characters with an entirely different set of questions to struggle with. This is an interesting story, but I suspect one that missed a few options in the telling.
By ‘missed’ I might mean ‘denied’.
(Whenever I’m a Cyrano’s I can’t help wishing I’d been around for a few of these plays. …Jihad Jones?)
Just flew in yesterday from a trip to Minnesota. The plane usually approaches Barrow from the ocean-side, and this time of year that can be rather cool. I was seated in the aisle, so this could definitely have been better. Still, I think it’s kinda neat. I reckon the plane finally crosses over land at about the 1:06 mark. If you look closely, you can see shoreline. The Snow gets smoother.
Couple pics from the trip (click to embiggen):
There is a reason I put my picture posts for this blog in the category of “Bad Photography.” I really don’t know what I’m doing. I started taking pictures when I realized I lived in a place full of amazing sights I am very lucky to witness. As I’ve traveled more, I’ve found even more reasons to take pictures. What I haven’t done is learn enough about the settings on my cameras to make any intelligent use of them. Neither have I made much use of post-production technologies. Most of the pictures on this website are thus straight out of the camera using the most basic settings available. This summer, I began using Instagram, however, and with a little badgering from Moni, I finally starting using some of the filters available on that service. It’s still bad photography, of course, I wouldn’t produce anything else. (I do have principles, you know!) But I do think a few of these images are an improvement, so I thought I’d share a few of the Alaska-themed pics in a new post.
…er, this is that post.
(Click a pic to embiggen it. You know you wanna!)