Thinking About It

Hard rain today. the water was sluicing down the driveway and leaving waves of mud along the crushed rocks.  The culverts under the roads were shooting brown water like hoses onto the tide flats below. and any overturned buckets played like kettle drums in the din.  It was a good day for cuddling up, reading books and thinking deep thoughts. 

Then the rain stopped and the sky was a uniform grey, with some sun shining through.  I had written a long essay over the last two weeks about the history of consciousness.  I had pulled quotes from Gregory Bateson and Martin Heidegger.  I had wanted to talk about a sensation I had about being surrounded by mindful beings, and I worked pretty hard on it. but no matter how hard I beat that horse it just would not get up and run. 

I think I violated one of my first rules of writing:  never try to write smarter than you are. 

So, I erased what I wrote and was feeling kind of crappy about not having done a blog post in a while.  Then three things happened,  the fish meetings in Sitka,  Jan went looking for whales, and I sat on our porch staring out at the water.

First the fish meetings:  the parking lots are full, men in suits with brief cases, the coffee shops are full of people talking about allocations,  men and women, from organizations made of long lists of letters, all bickering about take limits, and other laws that are themselves lists of letters, but what it comes down to is people dividing up a pie. 

Jan comes back from looking at the whales.  "How was it?"  I ask her,  "Terrific," she says,  "Lots and lots of whales. More than I saw this time last year.  The herring are here.  They are deep and the Humpback are hitting them hard.  Chowing down."  She tries to take a step forward then pauses for a while thinking...  Jan has a neurological disease that does not effect her thinking but does effect the way her brain tells her muscles to work.  The brain is mysterious. "Those guys at the meeting are going to have to factor in that whales eat herring.  They eat a lot of herring. They are coming in here earlier and earlier.  This is new. It's going to be tricky."  Then something changes in her tricky brain and she walks on.

Then I was sitting on my porch  and a eagle landed in a spruce tree. This tree is a usual spot for eagles to land in the spring and I haven't seen a big bird there all winter.   I think the eagle had a herring in it's talons because a big raven came and started talking to it, in an pestering aggressive tone.  The eagle ignored the raven,  looked right over the top of it's head.  I swear this is true.  This is not some literary fable I'm making up.  Two branches down on the other side of the trunk another smaller raven was kind of chortling and chuckling away.  The big raven continued to harass the eagle but the eagle did not move.  He simply stood on the branch.  Now I couldn't see a herring, or if he had one or not.  The branch of the tree blocked my view.  But soon enough the huge raven took off and so did the smaller laughing one.  The eagle sat there on what is usually a spring perch.   

The only thing I'm going to save from my old essay are the definitions from the dictionary.  I think they might be useful. They are helpful when you are trying to become smarter. 

Soon enough spring will be here and the big boats will be in Sitka Sound, and more whales, King Salmon will be shoaling closer into the shore.  The eagles will be thick in the trees.  The ravens will be talking to everyone and will be trying to rob the backs of pickup trucks in the grocery stores.  They all know what's coming, they all know the near future because they read the subtle signs and interpret them.  They are also in negotiations with each other I suppose.  But then again....I need to get smarter before I write about that. 

Rain, to sleet, to sun

this late winter is nothing

I have ever seen.



mind |mīnd|nounthe element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought: as the thoughts ran through his mind, he came to a conclusion | people have the price they are prepared to pay settled in their minds.• a person's mental processes contrasted with physical action: I wrote a letter in my mind.a person's intellect: his keen mind.• a person's memory: the company's name slipsmy mind.• a person identified with their intellectual faculties: he was one of the greatest minds of his time.a person's attention: I expect my employees to keep their minds on the job.• the will or determination to achieve something: anyone can lose weight if they set their mind to it.


consciousness |ˈkänCHəsnəs|noun the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings: she failed to regain consciousness and died two days later.• the awareness or perception of something by a person: her acute consciousness of Mike's presence.• the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world: consciousness emerges from the operations of the brain.


awareness |əˈwe(ə)rnis|nounknowledge or perception of a situation or fact: we need to raise public awareness of the issue. there is a lack of awareness of the risks.• concern about and well-informed interest in a particular situation or development: a growing environmental awareness. his political awareness developed.


More sunny weather and I'm moving into a new writing studio built on the footprint of an old cabin in our yard.  This has a proper foundation and a roof.  This has a floor and a furnace.  This has fine windows and insulation.  This space comes without mildew or mice.  The old place had it's lore, many an unhappy newly single person got back on their feet there.  Many happy people had their first adventures there.  Now it's a a place for my own adventures. My guitars, are here and even my oldest computers,  my Apple IIc is here with the six inch floppy discs containing my old journals and a novel I don't even remember are here. Jan insisted on building me this space, maybe to indulge me... maybe to give us more room in our small  house, whatever, it's beautiful and she is wonderfully generous. 


I'm starting off moving in and going through my old papers and throwing things away.  I've decided to only keep one manuscript each of my old books.  All my old cases except the ones of historical value must go.  Some thirty years of criminal investigations into the fire pit.  Old investment portfolios through several down turns... out out out.... and yellow pads with terrible poetry obscured with mold must go.  I'm sorry the flames must keep you.  

But the photos, I will keep, and most of the books, and all of the journals. Somehow most of them trigger memories like embers banked deep down in the ashes.  Then there is the occasional note, then there is a letter I can't let go of. and I end up wasting an afternoon reading when I should be throwing away.  but yet.  I threw an entire wheel barrow away in only an afternoon.  When I thought I had already winnowed it down. 


Sentimentality is the curse of the serious writer.  J.D. Salinger described sentimentality as "loving something more than God had loved it."  The example he used is the kitten is perfectly fine but the bright pink bow is just too much.  I suppose  another way to put it is that your characters have to earn our respect, they have to earn our tears,  we can't just cry for them because we are told to. We have to know the characters stories to know their feelings. 


 I'm not going to tell you all these peoples stories.  In that sense this blog post is purely sentimental.  But I don't think it's a waste of time for my readers.  In a sense this blog is a little walk back stage in my imagination.  These pictures many of them are the composites of my characters.  Clearly they are Cecil Younger's family.  That I know is true, and Cecil's family is here clear as day, and so am I, of course.  All my friends who helped me write these books, many are not pictured here (many, many are not pictured here) but many are.  Drunks some of them.  Dead some of them.  Saints and criminals.  I wouldn't have traded any of their love and kindness.  

Writing is such a self indulgent business. In August, I plan to retire from my work with  the State of Alaska, I will be writing more, I will be with Jan more.  I will be at my own desk more and  I can't believe I will have this whole space to myself .  I will have all these ghosts to keep me company.  What a lucky, lucky man I've become.  


jhs--- Sitka 

Funny Weather

The sun came out today and just in time.  High pressure system from the north and it fills me with a joy that is hard to express after weeks of rain.  Just to see the sun and have the rain stop beating on our roof, feels like a Hawaiian vacation no matter that it's 38 degrees. 

I love listening to jokes. To get myself through the last month of solid rain I started reading jokes, and telling them.  Rather than listen to my friends talk about the weather I asked if they had heard any new jokes. Young Finn Straley and I like to talk about jokes and how they work.    He sent me this one by a master joke writer by the name of Jack Handy formerly of  SNL.

“To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kinda scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.” 

Now I'm not going to parse this out to see why it is funny.  I just think it is.  What I love most about this joke is how well written it is.    I've tried to tell it several times from memory but it you get one word or phrase wrong in the telling, the joke falls absolutely flat.    Comedians, like my son, spend years trying to learn the secrete of this. They talk about timing; the "set up' and "the turn", the "payoff."  It's almost as if a great joke has the requirements of a fine haiku.  Which I think in a way they do, 

I think funny stories in America almost always have a three act format, or three beats. You know this of course, the duck walks into the bar two times asking for a gin and tonic, until the bartender gets upset and tells him that he is going to nail his bill to the bar if he asks again.  So of course on the third time the duck walks in and asks for some nails.... when the bartender doesn't have any nails... boom... the duck asks for a gin and tonic.   Three chapters, three beats. "The Rule of Three".  

I've read in oral histories, many stories in the Native American Traditions have a four part structure.  Four directions,  two pairs,  a balance in the cosmos.  Native stories will often have the Coyote coming back three times before the pay off.  Just different. 

The horrible thing is that although there is clearly a structure... the joke structure is slippery and can be changed by intonation and context.  Unlike haiku, jokes are not so easily prescribed.  No hard fast rules.   

 A cowboy walks into a bar and sees a sign hanging over the door that reads: CHEESEBURGER: $6.50 CHICKEN SANDWICH: $7.50 HAND JOB: $10.00

 He walks up to the bar and beckons one of the three exceptionally attractive women serving drinks. "Can I help you?" she asks. "Excuse me  mam,  I was wondering," says the cowboy, "Are you the one who gives the hand jobs?"

 "Yes," she purrs. "I am."

 The cowboy takes off his hat and says,"Well, I'm wondering if you would wash your hands because I would like a cheeseburger."

I love this one too.  So, still a basic three act play, the structure is here.  But here is another great thing that humor does,  the suspension of disbelief of the totally implausible premise.  As a story teller if you get them buying into your dumb premise.  (a restaurant that would have hand jobs on the menu) your audience is starting to laugh right from the beginning.  You've hooked them.  Good jokes are somehow irresistible. Then in this joke once they are hooked, the joke takes a different turn for the payoff.  

When I heard the joke it wasn't a cowboy.  I added that.  I added that because I happen to know that cowboys while rough, and they like talking about sex, they are mostly pretty fastidious about their food.  It just rang true to me that the man was a cowboy. 

There is a whole complicated issue of what men find funny and what women find funny.  Of course imbedded power assumptions can get both men and women riled up.  I believe this is because there always has and always will be, a great deal of tension between men and women, and where there is tension there is the need to find relief through humor.  When I was young I thought rough sex talk was wholly the providence of men.  Of course that wasn't true,  I just hadn't been allowed into the company of women who talked openly about sex.  I wasn't intimate with women who told funny stories to relief the tension of their lives of subjugation, but of course they were out there.  Cowgirls I met were rough and told ribald stories, and of course bartenders and other working women told rough jokes in which men were the object of their ridicule.   Always, where there is conflict there is the potential for a good joke.  Now,  of course women play on the same field as men when it comes to humor,  even if they sometimes don't get the same respect in the world of comedy.

 Here is something else weird that the last joke illustrates:  Hard, percussive sounds are somehow just naturally funnier than soft sounds.   If the cowboy asks for a hamburger at the payoff.  It's just not as funny as "Cheeseburger".  Cheeseburger is a funnier word than Hamburger. Don't ask me why.  Comedians say that "K" sounds are funnier that any other.  Some say this is because of the Yiddish influence in American humor.  The explosive and guttural sounds of that language had a lot to do with early stand up comedy that came to us from Vaudeville. 

In one of my favorite movies, "Caddyshack"  Rodney Dangerfield was given a line to say,  something like "Hey that gopher just stole my ball!"  but he ad-libbed a much funnier line when he said,  "Hey, that Kangaroo, just stole my ball!"   Try it with any other animal.   Kangaroo is just funnier.

Humor wants us to resolve our conflicts in ways that are outrageously  silly and life affirming.  Sure there is dark humor and plenty of jokes about death, but they are told by survivors.  When I was little my parents took in eastern european families who had survived the War.  I was very young, but I do remember there was a lot of laughing around our table.   Humor is a survival technique. Many comedians are sad and frustrated people.  Their lives were rich in conflict.   

Can you train yourself to be funny?  I have no idea.  There are clearly ways to be funnier.  Joke telling is a proven therapy for autistic children.  Telling jokes opens up their sense of emotional relationship.  Teach them to tell jokes and they begin to see how they can participate in an emotional world.  One which might remain essentially mysterious to them but one that they can master and enjoy.  There are very few rules for how to make people laugh.   Finn tells me that being funny in public requires an instinct that you hone by doing it over and over and over again, getting up and telling a joke and seeing what the reaction is then going back and editing it.   Comedy is not hierarchical  because the audience is empowered to make the judgment.  Funniness is anarchic and mysterious, there are rules but they are so evasive, as to be almost maddening.  A good comedian should be able to make any audience laugh.   What is funny?   It's almost like asking how to spin gold from straw. 

 Three mice are sitting in a bar in a very rough part of town. They are bragging about how tough they are.  The first mouse says, "When I see a trap, I lay down on it trip the latch and catch the bar in my teeth, then do bench presses with the bar, to work up an appetite,  Then I eat the cheese and leave. 

The second mouse says, "That's nothing,  when I see some Rat Poison, I take it home and grind it up into my coffee so I have a good buzz going all day long."  Then the two mice look at the third.

The third mouse says, "This is a bunch of Baloney.  I've got to get out of here,  I've got to go home and fuck the cat." 

Crass yes, but something about joke telling ties us to some physical and much older part of ourselves, it may be the one vital oral tradition that is still alive today.  Men and women telling jokes about each other, is an ancient art form that ties us all the way back to myth, when we saw ourselves as animals.  Again what people forget about the oral traditions, what people forget about Native American culture is how funny the stories can be, and how all people like to get together and laugh.  We all have this in common.

This silliness, wordplay and gentle combat is what makes us able to tolerate each other, even when we spend six weeks listening to the rain.   

Clear night, half a moon

sits above my writing shed

waiting for her cow.  



No Answer

Strange and depressing weather, like the opening of an old horror movie.  A friend calls in the middle of January and says in a voice tinged with wonder that it looks like his Rhubarb is starting to come up.  Our grass is a sickly yellow and the rain continues to fall while the clouds clog the coast, for days now, weeks possibly I can't seem to remember. The only good thing to report is there seems to be more light in the evening, even if it is a weak and sickly kind.

I decided I wanted to break the mood of my last few blogs and try to write something a bit more upbeat and cheerful this week.  Maybe something even what you would call celebratory, but I don't know that I can:  an old friend was found dead in his trailer last week. His neighbors didn't notice him coming or going for a few days and they became concerned and they called the police.  When they went him they found him dead of natural causes.  

Ron was a big grumpy man. He liked you to think he was dangerous.  He liked you to think he was crazy.  But the truth was he was brilliant and sensitive.  Since the time he laid down his memories of his service on the Mekong river in the late sixties I don't think he ever slept more than a few hours  in a night.  Ever since I knew him he didn't own a bed.  He slept on a recliner surrounded by books.  He studied Native American Literature, and U.S. History.  He had been a History and Lit. teacher himself in a small college in Oregon, a lifetime ago.  Like Big Daddy himself he hated all forms of "Mendacity" and bureaucratic bullshit.  He didn't generate a lot of garbage and what waste he did, he recycled and took care of himself and he didn't feel he should pay his garbage can fee if he didn't need a garbage can.  The losing battle was waged for years.  

Ron liked to drink and make calls.  Sometimes he would call to talk about my wife's whale research.  He was fascinated by it.  He was fascinated by her, for while Ron could be hateful about women in positions of bureaucratic authority, he was a goofy romantic about strong women who worked independently. I know several woman who took his calls as he rambled and asked questions.  He was funny and doting, flirtations, I assume, but not creepy, for he genuinely admired these women.  He told me so.  Ron also loved cats, and guns, and beer, and Wagner, and Beethoven, and the heaviest of Heavy Metal Music.  He had a radio show for a time and he would be banned from the station at times, but he was made for radio with his gruff voice and his willingness to do all night shifts and play anything from Sun-Ra, to The Ring Cycle, to Cannibal Corpse. But then of course there were some screeds which didn't find a suitable audience.  

I once tried to see if Ron would stop talking on his own when he called.  It was ten at night and he called to talk.  I let him run,  it was good stuff mostly, I'm not sure I remember all of the topics that night but surely he mentioned: The idiocy of the Forest Service, Fish and Game, City of Sitka, All Government agencies.  The possibility of his running for office,  advice from me on computers and dictation software, his desire to write a book, The depth that Sperm whales feed,  the size of their brains, how a Sperm whale could certainly beat that fucking freak Bobby Fischer,  what a great little darling our friend Lilly was,  the war tactics of the Lakota,  and the superior intellect of Hunter S. Thompson.  The point being by 11:30 he was no where near slowing down and I was running out of juice.  

Ron had dozens of friends he did this with.  He probably spent thousands of hours on the telephone. I suspect it was his greatest release valve.  In all those calls he probably wrote a dozen books, and gave them to his friends to distribute in their retelling.

Some men never conquer their demons, but some get close.  Horrible things once experienced cannot be completely forgotten.  All a person can do who has been visited by darkness is to reach out towards the light that he sees in others.  That's what Ron was doing in his phone calls.

Ron was a big guy and complicated.  This is an inadequate tribute to him, because I didn't know him all that well.  He was hard to help, because help was not what he was asking for.  Alaska was a good place for him,  Montana and parts of Idaho and Washington are still good, I suppose Texas too, Big Country  where men who have seen too much can have room to ramble about like the wild, big hearted bulls they became.  


          We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.  I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive..." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like Huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles and hour with the top down to Las Vegas,  And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus!What are these Godamn animals?" Then it was quiet again.  My attorney had taken his shirt off and was porting beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process.  "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wrap around Spanish sunglasses.  "Never mind." I said.  "It's your turn to drive."  I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway.  No point mentioning the bats, I thought.  The poor bastard will see them soon enough." -----------Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas    Hunter S. Thompson


Rain on the roof

I look at my phone

but it does not ring








Winter Holds Its Breath

Hazy clouds and about 38 degrees.  No rain, nor snow,  some sun off and on. The grass still is mostly green and the mothers day Rhododendron have leaves curled like toilette paper rolls.  Here in Sitka the season just doesn't know what to do. 

The news of the world is sad, reading about the killings in Paris: with the attendant protests which carry on their back some of the original racist and anti muslim sentiment.  Fear, and hatred, the trumpeting of universal and unbreakable principles... always ring with the preamble to martial music and war.  But how can we go to war against terror, against an emotion? 

I can only imagine one way, through renewed effort of courage and understanding.  Steadfastness, not in the principles, but in the flawed everyday carrying out of the expression of our principles.  

That's why I was sad that the Paris perpetrators were killed.  I had hoped they were to be captured and given lawyers.  At least one should have had a woman lawyer.  This trial would have been long and talky.  The families of the dead would have been given the opportunity to scream their curses at living  ears, and in time say bitter prayers along side.  To my mind I would want to see families of the prisoners get their chance to talk about their faith and disavow violence yet, again in time,  try to explain what it feels like to see your prophet mocked in a country that does not welcome your faith or your practice.  In my vision of justice I would have this trial go on and on....and eventually have the French people take the verdicts together and see that justice is something that is hard to build together on this earth and not something that is meted out by a few individuals with guns.  

But of course this is just me.  It seems the world likes stories that fit into film scripts... revenge stories...faster solutions.  The wold likes men with guns dispensing justice.  I have been guilty of this myself.  There is nothing like a revenge fantasy to sell copies.   

I am in my second reading of the Qur'an, and have just finished a fine book about the history of Al-Qeada, called The Looming Tower by Jeffery Wright.  I found The Tower a fascinating and well written book, but plan to keep digging.  What Wright says is, the tale of Islamic extremism in the modern world started with Sayyid Qutb  in the 1950s in Egypt.  A relatively obscure writer with relatively few followers.  The idea is a reaction against Western Colonialism certinally  but  Qutb also evolved his ideas from an interesting linguistic reality in the nature of Arabic and it's relationship to the Qur'an.  

This, as a writer, is what interests me about peoples relationship to this text ... but bear with me, because as you will see, I'm no expert here. The Qur'an is pretty much everything on the Arabian Penninsula as far as written culture.  It's hard to overestimate it's importance.  The rules of Arabic grammar, tense, and syntax evolved to accommodate the reading of the Qur'an.  The Angel Gabriel comes to the Prophet first in Medina then in Mecca and speaks into his ear.  The Angel reveals the word of God.  Remember this is the God of Abraham.  Same God of the Old Testament, of Issac, and Noah and Jesus.  Mohammad, the Prophet praises Jesus profusely, in the Qur'an. Much of the Holy text is written in the second person: "You, prophet... you do this... you must tell the people this" in the voice of the Angel of the lord.  but sometimes the Angel is so filled with the fervor of God's word he starts speaking in Godly voice,  "And the Heavens will feel your voice..."   The Angel tells the Prophet how to unify the people at the temple. He tells the Prophet in the most detailed language, how to do real estate trans actions,  Divcorces, Pretty much everything the people need to know.  Why?  To bring them together under one leader in one church. For at this time, some six hundred years after the birth of Christ, most of the people on the Arabian peninsula were not Jews or Christians, nor Muslims but were pantheists believing in multiple gods, some of local sects, some of Roman, or Greek origin.  This caused distention, and also disruption in politics and the economy.  

It became tradition carried on to this day for the followers of the Prophet Mohammad  to memorize large sections  of the Prophets teaching. Some still, by adulthood are able to memorize the entire Holy text.  Now, imagine that.... the voice of the Angel of God, talking directly to you, as if you were a Prophet.  Repeated over and over into your mind, when you were say 7 or 8, Until you remembered every word of a three hundred page text that encapsulated the given law and wisdom of your culture..   

This is not just a book.  This is a deep cultural identity.  Qutb believed and wrote that nothing more was needed in life BUT the Qur'an.   He lived and studied for a time in Greeley Colorado after World War II and he found the new western world to be silly and licentious where he found the life prescribed by the Qur'an was dignified, masculine, Godly, and ordered.  Western, democratic capitalism was rapacious, pansexual, and unGodly.  To Qutb's mind the two cultures were mutually exclusive, they could not coexist. Liberal democracy could only pollute the vitality of Islam.  In 1966 Sayyid Qutb was happy to be hanged in Cairo for his opposition to the opening of Egypt's overtures to the Western developers. .  His teachings have become the foundation of Islamic extremism around the globe ever since:  one very quite and dignified writer who studied in Greeley, Colorado, set the tuning fork humming that would topple the World Trade Center.

I suppose, as a person who respects writing, I should take heart that Ideas Matter.  Writing Matters. How a piece of text is written, the choice of person, first, second or third, is a critical  decision. And I do...because if anything is true this must be:  The words of one Living God appears to have brought us to the brink of war then the words of the same Living God should be able to bring us back from that brink.  And it will be brought back by the words of Silly, and Profane artists, Women, Intellectuals, Jews, and Christians, Palestinians, Native Americans, Homosexuals, and all the multitudes of human and non-human I cannot think of that this One God surely must speak through if this God created and is responsible for them all.  They all, even the hummingbird at my feeder must have a say in this matter of world peace.  Even the scallop on the rocks, and the baby asleep in the trailer down the road.  Surly God, (praise be his name) has not forgotten her.  This baby may grow up to have the answer saving us all. 

God Bless all this love that cannot be killed, by anyone, anywhere, and long may it be shared, freely.   


A night so dark

         I close my eyes 

to see some light. 






2015 begins with a high pressure system of northerly weather: whitecaps breaking on the rocks and a hard wind scratching her nails down the grey-green sea.  The ground is frozen today and a Blue Heron stands coiled up on the tide flat, watching, watching.  

I apologize for my absence from the site but I got sick on my last day in Las Vegas with some kind of traveling cold which I felt compelled to share with my loved ones, resulting in a lot of snoozing, sneezing, laying about and mutual bringing of soup.  

Christmas came and went, and it gave me a chance to think about our lucky life of abundance.  Let me finish with Las Vegas.  The reason for the trip was to eat at this one restaurant:  Joel Robuschon.  I had read an article about it years ago in the New Yorker, about how the the builders of the MGM Grand had built a mansion for him in the Casino and he had created a 5 star restaurant in an attempt to make the most exquisite dining experience anywhere in the world.  Foodies decried it as unworthy of the title: "Disneyesque"  "slight-of-hand"  Others said he was successful in making the best food from fresh ingredients, with the best staff, ect...  I told myself that if I ever had some money to spare I would spend it with some people I loved at this joint.  And I did.  And it was the most fun I ever had eating.  

Of course it is slight of hand.  They get you a little drunk on the magnificent Champagne  and the attentive staff who will not let your water glass go empty.  The twenty five kinds of freshly made bread, the cold corn bisque with fresh sweet cream, to start, and then push on to all kinds of delicacies, that don't taste like any flavors I could recognize, neither salt nor fat nor sugar, but all were delectable.   We laughed out loud with each course.  We were not trying to play it cool.  The staff started laughing with us.  The chef came out to see what all the hub bub was from these hicks.  We told him our stories.  And when Jan told him about Sperm whales and Black Cod he brought us extra deserts.  (also because our black cod was four minutes late to the table which he was desperately sorry for)  By the end we were all friends.  The Chef came out and gave us bags of food to take back with us, along with extra courses and deserts.  The deserts were miracles of invention.  A Soufflé  warm from the oven that they put home made ice cream into the top at the table melted down into the chocolate-rasperry  goodness. Finn took a bite and looked at me and said,  " I think I might cry."  Emily asked in all seriousness.  "Do you think it would be all right if I went back there and kissed the dessert chef?" 

We left happy, and stuffed,  The check was about twice the amount as I spent on my first car:  a van that I had for about a month then the engine caught fire and I left in a little down in Eastern Washington.  This meal was a much better value. 

Now, would the meal have been so good if we had pulled the exact same food out of styrofoam containers and eaten it at home?  Of course not.  Meals are events, defined by setting and expectations.  Anyone who has been hunting or gathering and eating their catch on a windy beach or around a campfire know.  Wild food tastes better outside.  Grandmothers pies tastes better in her kitchen.  Context is everything in storytelling and in meals.  The story being told at Joel Robuschon is one of european high culture.  It is a trip to an imagined Paris, granted one that only may exist in the mind of a tourist to Las Vegas, but it is a spectacularly decadent Paris  and a Paris, where the waiters are exceedingly kind. 

But I have to say, even if you pulled this food out of a plastic container it would still be unbelievably good.  I will dream about the one perfectly cooked asparagus tip with pate and an artichoke heart appetizer, until the day I die. 

Now, let me tell you about another meal.  I worked almost every day of the Holidays.  I did not work the 25th or the 26th.  The days I'm at the office around 2:30 my friend from prison calls me.  It is part of his schedule.  He has a night job as a custodian, so he sweeps and cleans up. For this he earns about $83 a month for which he is grateful.  He had been serving his time earlier in southeastern Alaska and now he is much further north.  When he was arrested two years ago he was taken directly from high school and they didn't let him get his coat.  Department of Corrections no longer allows anyone to give inmates clothes so they have to buy clothes from their commissary. Commissary has to cover all toiletries, towels, shampoos, soaps, over the counter medicines, and any snack food, you are allowed to have.  Clothes in most prisons can only be ordered a few times a year.  My friend is in a place where it is commonly below zero.  I sent him money this year so he could buy wither clothes the one time he could order them.  He called me last week to say that he got his long underwear and his winter pants.  He was very happy.  

He was also happy.  He was spending twenty dollars on a Christmas Feast.  I asked him about it.  He said his "Cellie" or cell mate is getting out in February and this makes my friend a little bit sad.  My friend is young and somewhat vulnerable.  His Cellie is 62 and well respected.  He doesn't like people coming into their cell and that is fine with my friend.  I believe the prison authorities paired them up to keep my young friend safe.  For the Feast, my friend is making Nachos, he has three cans of Chili,  four bags of corn chips, two cans of refried beans, and one can of jalepeano flavored squeeze cheese.  His Celliie wants meat so he chopped up a can of Spam and added that into the mix.  They heated it all up in the microwave on their section where their cell is and they celebrated the holiday by themselves. They ate on greasy paper plates with plastic forks back on their bunks in the solitude of their cell.  They decided to drink water and save money. This was their Christmas Feast. The last one they will have together.  

I asked my friend how it was, and he said, most uncharacteristically: "Magnificent,"  and I'm sure it was.


Ice cold wind blowing

my neighbor calls to tell me 

he saw hummingbirds!


jhs--Sitka, Ak 



What Makes 1 + 1 = 2 Difficult ?

So wet and rainy the last few weeks in Sitka, Jan and I beat feet out of town.  I'm typing this from the 35th floor of a hotel in Las Vegas.  We are going to meet young son Finn and his lovely woman Emily here tonight.  He turns 26 on Wednesday and we are going to go to see as many comedians as we can.  More about Vegas next time.  

I need some laughs.  The days have been particularly dark, and when night comes it seems like it just sucks the light right out of our car headlights while we drive the road home... some sort of supernatural darkness created by the rain and the December tilt of the earth.  It happens every year and every year it surprises me.  I don't even mind it that much, I'm prone to darkness, as you know, it just surprises me when it comes around.  

All the news surprises me as well.  The elections, and people, as we travel asking me about the elections in Alaska.  What does it mean?  Who is this new Governor you elected?  Who is this new Senator?  What does it mean?  

"We will have to wait and see."  I tell them.  "Almost everything depends on the price of oil, it's down now, but who knows for how long?"  Mark Begich our Senator lost, and may be the last Democrat we see in the senate from Alaska for a while.  His vote passed Obamacare some say, but his vote also scuttled the gun reform bill.  He was for opening up the Arctic Refuge like a gutted fish.

Bill Walker, was a Republican, ran as an Independent was embraced by the Democrats mostly because he could beat the Republican incumbent and he wanted to extend the Federal funding of Obamacare to the poor of Alaska, and he won.  Labels don't mean much in Alaskan politics.  Guns, Oil and Money matter in Alaska. 

"Fungible" is a fun word.  I like it. It means how a commodity can  flow through various  markets easily by being swapped for equal units of other commodities:  water: for hydro power: for oil: for money, ect...  It depends on comparing comparable worth.  In Alaska we are dependent on  forces beyond our control, we puff and we blow like a big bad wolf but we are still in many ways a colonial entity, trying to act like we are the boss.  

In the world economy who is the boss?  Of course real power too, is fungible.  The argument goes that there is becoming a ruling elite of wealth, but in Alaska who is that ruling elite? Elections on substantial issues are won and lost by relatively small numbers. Is money really deciding these elections? Enormous amounts of money are spent on advertising but is that money effective in such a small market as Alaska?  I don't know.  Ask me again, if Don Young gets elected next time.   

Power is fungible, power when thwarted can expresses itself as rage and racism. Here is where guns come into the equation.  When individuals try to equalize, face the rage in themselves or in a community, they turn to their guns. Guns make individuals feel powerful.  In the wild west they called the six gun "the old equalizer".   Gun people take this as an article of faith, their right to carry a gun protects them from the excesses of Government, but what happens when Government agents use guns against the people in difficult, trying circumstances?   Here again is another question that became horribly complicated in the news these last few weeks.  

I have no idea what happened at the shooting in Ferguson. It is clear to me from as far away as Alaska however that there is a breakdown of trust between the races in Ferguson both before, during, and after that shooting. I hate to say it but the normal institutions, the grand jury, the local police, the DA's office, were destined to fail, unless they had had some kind of awakening since the shooting.  They needed outside help on this one.  They needed a special investigations unit and a special prosecutor. They needed community supports as well as an impartial outsider to make a clear eyed judgement that the community could look at together and accept.  

Guns, power, the death of a young black man, and the life of a white police officer: money and politics, the cost of oil and the future of a wild and beautiful state:  all of this flows through the fungibility of power and the complex determination of the equality of people and things.

How do we know that 1 + 1 = 2 ?    We have to agree on it.  That's the hard part of the equation.  



Clouds in the desert

distant sirens, blue lights flash

thirty stories down. 


jhs--Las Vegas


Charismatic Megafauna

Clear, cold fall day: there is frost on the ground.  The docks are slick.  Hunters are out this Veterans day looking for deer, though the snow has not driven them down to the beaches yet. The sky today is a hazy blue and the humpback whales are diving in Sitka Sitka Sound feeding on the krill and herring fattening up before their trip to the warm waters to breed.  

Last weekend was the 18th annual Whalefest held here in Sitka, which Jan helps to organize.  It is a celebration of the marine environment that includes a week of Scientists in the Schools, and a Sea Chantyman for the little kids who combines art, music and science.  There are art classes and art shows and film festivals, plus a talent show, and an entire weekend of scientific lectures about the marine world and ecology of the North Pacific right out our front door.  There are two whale watching cruises, one on Saturday and another on Sunday.  It is a fun time usually and this year it was particularly good because the storm held off and the Sunday cruise was perfect conditions for seeing some 25 to thirty humpback whales feeding, and a few sea otters lazing around at their ease in the kelp beds, all while the white peaks reflected down on the calm green seas.  

As the festival goes on there are more and more visitors come from out of town to participate, and because it happens mostly on the weekend lots of locals still make it every year. Older people who have given up their skiffs come out on the whale watching excursions to see the big animals again, and young couples with their babies bundled up often bring them out for their fist safe trip on the water before they begin their lifetime at sea.

I'm struck again and again how most teaching, how almost everything thing in the public sphere has a little bit of subversion in it.  Grab them with the Megafauna and teach them the lesson of interconnectedness. And the big animals do draw us in.  People come from all over the world to stand at the rail, and when the whales rise, their faces never fail to change, no matter their age, to that childlike, trance-like state of wonder.

Has it always been that way?  I'm not sure.  Certainly we have a narrative that goes along with whales now.  Whales represent a story.... a "saved from the brink of extinction by the cruel exploitation of man"  narrative that is both true and compelling.  People like to see the humpbacks in healthy numbers, I think, partly because it gives them hope for their own species.  That is part of the narrative of the whale,  "look... they are not extinct, we did save the whales... maybe we can save the planet."   My tone should not read as sarcastic here.  I am all in favor of evidence of hope.  

But... (there always is a "but" isn't there)  there may be some evidence that there never was as healthy a population of humpbacks in Sitka Sound in the past.  When you artificially knock down all the whales in a system then they all rush back, some may rush in for whatever reason and crowd the others out.  Jan thinks, from her reading of the old whaling data that there were a lot more fin whales in southeastern Alaska than humpbacks in the old days.   Killer whale were always here.  Part of the reason she thinks that is the relative absence of humpbacks compared to killer whales in the Tlingit lore.  But this is speculation and not published anywhere.  It's mostly just dinner conversation between her and me.  

The point is we don't really know what is "natural" and "pure" even in the wild ocean.  When the Russians knocked out the sea otters they changed the ecology of the coastline drastically and created a "new normal" that had lots more crab and abalone and less kelp forests.  Maybe less habitat, for little fish that the whales like.  Who knows?  

What I'm trying to say is this:  we think we learned the narrative surrounding these whales from each other.  We think we learned it from the captain of the Sea Shepard, or from other environmental activists, Judy Collins or Jimmy Buffet.  But what if we learned it very directly and specifically in a non woo-woo way from the animals themselves? 

We know from our own experience with animals: horses and dogs and cats, that animals experience pain.. and from that that they experience something very parallel to our experience of fear and memory.  Taking a dog to a vet after a painful procedure)  We know they recall and react.  We know from watching animals in the wild that they have social interaction,  whales and feeding, whales and singing.   And when you have been whale watching enough you know.. that whales can leave when boats come in the area or they can stay.  We know from observation of propeller scars on their backs that whales have been hit by boats plenty of times, but yet they stay around boats,  They can, if they want to, disappear.  But sometimes they don't.  

Now, I don't know what goes on in their heads, but I do know what goes on in mine.  I've learned more about these animals from looking at them.  I've learned more about graceful movement, and gentleness from their actions than anything I've ever read about them.  By being in a thirteen foot inflatable skiff and having a forty foot female swim three feet underneath my feet I've learned more about forbearance and delicacy than anything published by Greenpeace, and sitting with Jan one late fall day recording male song I think I felt more about music and trying to make connection than any musicology tract, and I've learned that because the animals consciously allowed me to learn that.  Just as they consciously allowed the whale watchers on the cruises to experience their moments of wonder.   

All I'm saying is don't be ashamed of going to the source but just don't try to own too much of it.  Like, do the whales know you,  and are they aware of their gift to you.  Forget that, just love the gift. Life is essentially a mystery, that's what makes it beautiful.  

I met a man at a whale conference who told me that he was swimming with the whales and he was able to communicate with whales.  "Ah..."  I said..."You are so lucky..."  then he went on to say that it started out as "telepathic, binary communications of 'yes'  'no'  clicks but now", he said,  "it has blossomed into full blown transmission of dreams and desires."   

"Wow!" I stammered... "You are really, really, lucky" was all I could think of saying.  He had some hand drawn notes and charts and obviously wanted to talk with me for a long time but I told him that I had an appointment and I gave him my address and phone number, which he never used.  Maybe he the telephone too cumbersome.  

But I've thought of the poor guy often and I feel bad for him.  He has jumped over an important step in his relationship with animals.  In his delusional state he's violated the barrier between our species and it's that barrier which creates the space to make the communication... what?  So mannerly,  and exciting I suppose.  Being so close to a whale would not be nearly so wondrous if you where in a Vulcan mind link with them.  The fact that you are different and separate, makes them worthy of your awe. 

Not understanding them completely puts the "Mega" in the megafauna. 


Now I know

everything about you

but the problem is

I can neither vote

nor abstain.