Book Review: Hometown Alaska

During my youth I often indulged in daydreams about moving to some lovely little town in the middle of nowhere, filled with odd-personalities, tough characters and unending opportunities to indulge in wilderness exploration while building survival skills. These little fantasies of mine were always filled with a rich social life woven from solid relationships with good, trustworthy people.

What can I say? I was young.

Amazingly enough, Heather Lende accomplished my youthful fantasies. I honestly had to check the book a few times, just to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up a novel by mistake – a novel that just happened to perfectly reflect those wistful somedays that filled my head back when my back didn’t creak and my muscles didn’t ache after yet-another-day of to-many-hours hunched over a desk.

Side note: getting old is a dreadful experience.

There’s nothing fictional about If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; everything in the book is 100% biographical. Ms. Lende achieved the very thing I’d resigned myself to accepting as impossible. She lives in the Alaskan wilderness, raises children in a small town, and has learned to rely on sort of basic life-skills most Americans have lost to industry and urbanization. Even the quirky personalities of her neighbors are described in lovely detail:

There’s an artist who lives with his wife, a weaver, in a fanciful cabin overlooking Rainbow Glacier. He keeps a dead temple pit viper in a big jar filled with vodka and takes sips of the “snake juice” every now and then to ward off illness. He’ll offer you some if you stop by.

I was amazed.

I couldn’t put the book down.

Here’s what happened: She and her husband moved to Haines, Alaska and built a home – both literally and figuratively. Eventually, Ms. Lende’s husband acquired a local business and established a career as an entrepreneur, while she pursued a career as the obituary writer for the local newspaper. While this sounds like an odd career, she describes it beautifully:

Being an obituary writer means I think a lot about loss, but more about love. Writing the obituaries of so many people I’ve known makes me acutely aware of death, but in a good way, the way Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote, “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet.” My job helps me appreciate cookouts on clear summer evenings down on the beach, where friends lounge on driftwood seats and we eat salmon and salads by the fire while our children play a game of baseball that lasts until the sun finally sets behind the mountains, close to eleven o’clock…Most of all, though, writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living—my neighbors, friends, husband, and five children—and this place, which some would say is on the edge of nowhere, but for me is the center of everywhere

Throughout the book, Ms. Lende’s deep understanding and knowledge of this tiny little town comes through in colorful detail.

Being both small and remote, it’s the kind of place where teenagers are almost required to complain about a lack of adventure and activity. Yet, this book is filled with events that range from amazingly exciting to terribly sad. There is nothing easy about life in Haines, Alaska; but there’s a lot to be gained from living there.

(sigh)

I am so very envious.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende

Holiday Book Review: Life of Santa

This has got to be one of the best holiday season biographies I’ve ever read. Actually, it may be the only holiday-season biography I’ve ever read, since most biographies do not frame their life experiences within the context of a single holiday.

Sal Lizard is a man who spends a significant portion of his life, rear round, playing scheduled and impromptu Santa Clause performances and he is considered one of the best Santa Clause performers in the United States. His body shape and beard are real. The he actually looks so similar to Santa Clause in his regular everyday life that he frequently walks into large toys stores, to take a look around and to familiarize himself with the names and titles of anything new to the toy market, and children will start running up to him with a toy in hand, excitedly informing him that “THIS is want I want this year!”

This biography is filled with stories and anecdotes that include his introduction to the world of Santa Clause performance, many experiences interacting with people while in character and the way playing Santa Claus changed his perspective on life and the way he behaves day-to-day.

An excellent illustration of the way being Santa Claus changed his everyday life was the story of the young single mother who was to poor to buy her child a Christmas gift or a Christmas tree. She’d simply resigned herself to working through the holiday season (she was a food service worker) and not participating in the celebration. There would be no Christmas. Sal decides to help her out directly (he finds gifts for her daughter – mostly used but in excellent condition) and works with some friends to secretly deliver a tree to her front door. While those gestures are wonderful, the funny part is the fact that things just worked out that he knew this woman through his work and he changed jobs immediately after delivering the tree. So, from the woman’s perspective, this kind stranger who just happened to look exactly like Santa Clause hands her a bag full of gifts, delivers a tree to her door (in a locked building) while she is at work, and then vanishes off the face of the earth. When the woman called the company Sal had been working for, to thank him for his generosity, his former employers played along and told her the truth: He left and never came back. (shrug) Can’t tell you where he went, he was only here a few weeks.

My retelling of this story does not do it justice. It actually made me laugh out loud while getting all holiday-season warm and fuzzy inside. Correction, the entire book  achieved those goals. It’s a good-feeling biography that is simply filled with wonderful holiday-season inspired moments that encompass everything from laughter to tears.

If you are looking for a good book to read this holiday season, look no further than Being Santa Claus. It’s simply wonderful!

Quotes from this book can be seen HERE.

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

Just Watch The Dancers

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Listen to the land, listen to one another. Slow down and reach into the uncomfortable spaces ignored for centuries. Touch the wounds in our hearts and the earth. Show up with courage. Set down dominion. Step with kindness. It’s not complicated, really. Just watch the dancers. Follow the circle.

White Birch, Red Hawthorn: A Memoir by Nora Murphy

 

Listening, Learning and Pride

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Often, humor was the antidote to loss. The more I listened, the more I learned. Sometimes the lessons cost me my pride.

White Birch, Red Hawthorn: A Memoir by Nora Murphy

 

Crucial Storytelling

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We had been taught not to look back. We had been trained to disconnect from family and our homelands. We had swapped our stories for a dream. To survive we need to find, and then share, our interlinking stories.

White Birch, Red Hawthorn: A Memoir by Nora Murphy

 

The Best Life Advice I Ever Received

The best advice I ever received came in the form of a lesson in auto repair.

Auto Maintenance Lessons

One afternoon, many years ago, when I was a teenager living on (and working) the family farm, my father approached me and said that he had decided to teach me how to overhaul an engine. Now.

My father was not someone you spoke back to or questioned directly. When he made a decision and gave an order, you were expected to do as you were told. Period. (This was the late 1980s, it was a different world back then.) So, I followed him to the barn, which also acted as a garage, and he proceeded to show me how to overhaul the engine of one of the family cars.

For the sake of clarity, ‘overhaul’ literally meant: take the entire engine apart; clean everything; replace any parts that were malfunctioning, worn out, broken or questionable; and then put it all back together.

The lessons lasted a few weeks. I would join him in the barn and he would show me the official car manual, point to the page he was working with, pull apart that portion of the engine, point to the page again (read: this part is that picture), hand me a tool, flip to a new page and tell me to get to work (read: find this part and do what I did). Sometimes he would send me out to the garage by myself with instructions to locate a specific part in the book, locate it on the engine, and figure it out (remove, fix, whatever) alone.

(Side note: This was the most verbal interaction I had ever had with my father at that time – or since.)

When the car was complete, he called over a neighboring farmer and his sons so that all of us could use a winch, the tractor and sheer muscle to get the engine back into the car. This resulted in some snide remarks about girls overhauling engines and boys doing nothing…it was annoying (read: the boys and their father were angry with me for showing them up) but that’s how things were back then.

After the first car was finished, I was handed the same type of printed manual for the second car – a 1979 Ford Granada – and told to do the same. Alone.

As it happened, due to being blood relations to a member of the military I had full access to a nearby military base and all of the facilities, including the auto hobby shop. In the interests of avoiding another episode of moving car engines by calling on the neighbors (and all of those comments about girls who work on cars), I drove the Ford Granada to the auto hobby shop and availed myself of some wonderful equipment!

That is where I met Woody.

Woody ran the auto hobby shop. He controlled the tools (kept behind a locked door), kept the peace, and provided advice to everyone who used the shop – both the asked for and the unasked for kind.

At one point I was looking up the torque for specific bolts and trying to make sure I got everything tightened properly when he came over and interrupted my work by saying (loudly) – (paraphrased from memory):

NEVER memorize a torque! Always look it up EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. If you don’t then one day you’ll be tightening the bolt on an airplane, you’ll remember the wrong torque, the plane will go down and it will be YOUR FAULT.

Then he walked away.

My response was a dazed moment of ‘what just happened?’ followed by shrugging it off as ‘just Woody’ and making a mental note to NEVER memorize a torque.

Another time I went up to the tool cage and asked for a hammer. He came out with a sledgehammer and basically dared me to challenge him. I politely stated that I just needed a regular hammer, which resulted in a lecture about always knowing exactly which tool you need – including the size!

On one more occasion I was struggling to either get something apart or together (I no longer remember what). My hands hurt and I was getting really frustrated. Woody interrupted my task with the following – (paraphrased from memory):

When you just can’t get it to work, walk away, stare at the wall, swear up and down a blue streak, and when you come back it will work.

I thought this was funny but Woody insisted it was true and encouraged me to try. After he left (and I’d taken a break) my mechanical problem magically resolved itself.

Auto Maintenance Fails and Wins

As you may imagine, I had both success and failure with these projects. A few significant fails include:

  • Forgetting to unplug the battery while working on the alternator. I connected some wires, dropped a metal tool (with rubber handles) which hit the side of the (metal) car and caused an enormous FLASH BANG. I stared at the car in that state of terror that comes from barely sidestepping death – I was lucky to be alive. The brand new alternator was NOT so lucky. I had to replace it…again.
  • Forgetting to tighten the bolts on the flywheel. Every other dern bolt in that engine was perfectly tightened according to appropriate torque, but a small handful of little bolts at the center of the engine were loose. The car won’t work if the flywheel isn’t bolted down. We had to pry open the engine, just enough to slide in a tool and tighten those stupid things. My father fixed this mistake. I handed him tools while learning a long list of brand new ways to curse life the universe and auto repair.

My massive success came in the form of a 79 Ford Granada with a newly cleaned up engine, done entirely by me!

What Does This Have to Do With Life and Advice?

The following lessons were learned from the experience, and every single one of them has not only stuck with me but has served me well across the decades:

  1. Look it up. Find a reliable, accurate source of information and use it. It could be a book. It could be the guy running the auto hobby shop or a parent. Whatever the source may be – USE it.
  2. Verify – ALWAYS verify. Whether it’s a torque, gossip or a news article, never assume that you just know the truth – verify it!
  3. Communicate. Whether it’s a hammer or the specification for a project at work or your concerns with the current political system, it is extremely important to clearly communicate your needs, concerns and demands. You will never get past the sledgehammer until you learn how to ask for the hammer size you actually need.
  4. Details! Absolutely everything can be perfect, but miss a few bolts on the flywheel and you might as well have never touched the engine. Forget to remove two clamps on a battery and you’ll be lucky to survive! All of the details are important. Pay attention, complete each step before moving on, and double check your work.
  5. Take a break. Trying to force something to work (or happen) just isn’t realistic. When you’re frustrated, tired, hungry or just beating your head against the proverbial wall, it’s time to walk away from the situation and take a break (swear if you need to – or just take a nap or a walk or…whatever). When you come back, there’s a strong possibility that the problem will look different and you will get closer to a solution.
  6. Both Failure and Success are Powerful Teachers. Both the massive fails and the huge successes in this process taught me things about both cars and life. Things that I have never forgotten. It can be painful to fail, but it’s all a learning process.
  7. Haters will Hate, Do It Anyway. The neighbors who felt threatened by a ‘girl’ doing auto repair weren’t the only people with commentary. My female friends from high school also made it clear that what I was doing was ‘weird’ and potentially proved I was a lesbian (this was the late 1980s in VERY rural Wisconsin farm country, on a military base – lesbian was a dangerous word.) Yet, I completed the project and found pride in that fact. Even though my father had made the decision for me (and there was no getting around that) I enjoyed the process and consciously chose to disregard the haters, defy society’s stupidity and do it anyway. In life that is often the best…or only…choice a person can make.
  8. Reaching a Goal is it’s Own Reward. Because of the culture of the times, I couldn’t brag about my success to many, if any, people and it didn’t matter. I’d done it, I knew I’d done it and I was proud of that fact. I didn’t need to tell anyone else about it because I was driving the car that was the (literal) symbol of my success.

-Originally posted to Quora in answer to the question What is the best life advice you have ever received?

Link

Antislavery Resources: Modern Slave Narratives

Antislavery Then and Now has a long list of slave narratives or biographical stories told by former slaves. Every story is told by a victim of modern slavery who was freed during the near-recent past (approximately the last 10-20 years).

Slave Narratives and the Pimp in the Shadows

The Ending Slavery MOOC on Future Learn, presented by the University of Nottingham, covers quite a bit of information about the history of slavery worldwide and the reality of modern slavery.

While the MOOC was extremely well done (I highly recommend it) there was one question in week four that caught my attention because it’s a good example of missing research. Assignment 4.8 focuses on the Slave Narrative as a literary tradition and includes a link to the Characteristics of the Slave Narrative, as an example of literary interpretation and research that has been done on historic narratives (e.g.: antislavery writings completed in the United States during the civil war era). The assignment then instructs students to examine modern slave narratives and consider them from a literary perspective – are there commonalities in structure?

It’s a standard academic exercise and a good way to examine the information from another angle, which can be extremely useful when trying to perform problem solving exercises. A problem solving example: activists who are trying to figure out a way to address a specific problem facing slaves or former slaves in a specific area can force their brains to stop following the same unproductive maze and take some time to analyze narratives from people in other areas, looking for literary commonalities, in the hopes that it will provide some kind of unexpected insight into their own immediate problem.

So far so good.

The problem that I see is not what is there but what is NOT there.

Go into any large-chain bookstore and there will be an entire section devoted to sensationalist books covering ‘current events’ and ‘conspiracy theories’ of all kinds. Usually, this sections will also contain equally sensationalist ‘biographies’ of people who have survived harrowing experiences or done incredibly awful things. This is how the biography of a young woman sold into sexual slavery sits on the same shelf as the biography of a serial killer who lured, raped, tortured and murdered several women. Usually, the biography of the slavery victim has a cover that is vaguely BDSM erotic – clearly targeting people who like the idea of owning a slave.

Search through the movies offerings in any on-demand video provider (e.g.: Netflix) and similar ‘documentaries’ about people in slavery (particularly sexual slavery) are available, frequently with similarly vaguely BDSM erotic advertising graphics. Years ago, I watched one that supposedly covered the lives of woman trapped in sexual slavery all over the world. It DID include interviews with women who were enslaved all over the world, along with pornography-level video of some of those same women performing sexual acts with clients. At every point in the ‘documentary’ the shadow of the pimps/owners hovered over the words of the women being interviewed. It was LITERALLY a 1.5-hour infomercial geared toward men who are best described by the The Bloodhound Gang song The Lap Dance Is So Much Better When The Stripper Is Cryin’ (YouTube).

I’ve seen the same thing occurring within news stories. In 2009, after the economy crashed, every news outlet (big and small) was publishing/broadcasting stories about women fighting over jobs as strippers and prostitutes. The sex industry had it’s pick of recent college grads because these women has student loans to pay! There was one in particular that was on a national news program that looked exactly like the documentary described above, but wrapped up in a 3-minute news story and keeping the sex acts just barely visible or highlighted through ‘interviews.’

I made the decision to refrain from including a link to the news story, the title of the documentary or examples of sensationalist slave biographies because the old adage any press is good press is a statement of truth and these people don’t deserve the traffic.

Having said that, the discussion of slave narratives MUST include this form of exploitation.There are distinct differences in the type of information selected and the manner in which it is presented – there’s a lot of literary ground to cover.

Also, a biography or narrative can be a powerful tool in the hands of antislavery activists. It can be an equally powerful tool in the hands of pimps, slave owners and human traffickers.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has done this research. If I am wrong about this, I invite (encourage!) you to correct me on this point and/or provide recommended readings in the comments below.

Here There Is No Time

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“Perhaps because he chose to defy death early on and start a fishing camp enterprise, Ted prominently hung a sign in the lodge’s dining room that read: “Here there is no time.” And it was true. One only needed to get up with the sun to know when to fish; listen for the resonating ring of the cast-iron bell to know when to show up for meals; choose whatever activity suited the moment; and fall asleep when the moon rose and stars covered the heavens. For most of the citified guests, their real lives back home raced from one responsibility to another, but here in this Northwoods paradise—at least for a few special weeks—time stood still.”

Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts by Marnie O. Mamminga

Pity and Sympathy

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Pity and sympathy were such a waste. I’d been held in the hand of God. Her light was cast on everything now. I saw beauty everywhere, felt beauty everywhere. I was happier and more alive than I had ever been.

Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter

From the Introduction:We invite you to join us at the Shame Prom—a place where we wear our ugly dresses, then shed them. Where we parade our shame in public, dance it around on our arm, and take awkward pictures with it. But afterward, we’re not going to roll around in the backseat making out with it. This time, we’re breaking up with Shame and driving off into the sunset, stronger in knowing that we are connected at the deepest, most human level. So put on your tiaras, people. Let’s get this party started.”