Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dolly's House and Doll Houses!

Ketchikan is 3,656 miles from where I am.

I’m sitting at the Diesel Café in Somerville with a group of writer
friends. We have built a little wall of laptops and iced coffees. It is nearly impossible to me that just a few days ago I was walking the creaking plank-streets of Ketchikan, Alaska, paying $4.00 to visit Dolly’s House.

Dolly was a business woman. She owned a number of properties, and spent her summers in Ketchikan, running a brothel. Eventually she got tired of managing the girls, fired them all, and made all her money herself. She had sex for money until it was illegal, and then for many years after. She offered short pulls of whiskey from a hidden bar under her stairs during Prohibition. When she died, she stipulated that her house become a museum. There’s a ton more to the story, of course.

Susan and I had a brief, uncanny visit inside her landmark home. I’m fascinated by the stories of women in the sex industry from the turn of the century into the 50s—if that fact wasn’t already evidenced by earlier posts! Dolly’s house was especially bizarre because except for a few little pieces of evidence (a shower curtain with appliqué made from old condoms, for example) it seems like any regular time capsule from sixty years ago. She had a nice stove. She made her own clothes. She had some mass-produced art on her walls. I had to ask the girl at the cash register if one of the rooms upstairs had originally been a “working”
bedroom since the “personal” bedroom seemed too stuffed with private paraphernalia to function as a place to receive gentlemen callers. In fact, she told me, the “sitting room” was designated as such when Dolly quit seeing clients in there. In her seventies. So, at 72, she threw in the towel and started writing her letters, reading her novels, and keeping her exotic birds in the room where she’d made $75-100 a day on her back for all her adult life. I wonder what she did with the bed that used to be in there. In that sitting room, pictures of a nicely-dressed lady and her various doggie “children” sit next to shelves of books, collector’s dolls, and postcards sent to friends.

I like all the kitsch, but I loved especially the objects of daily life: dishes, old medicine bottles, gloves and hats, letterhead, coffee pots. I love that for a time, prostitution was legal in Alaska, and Dolly was citizen of respect and notoriety, who did a great deal for the town of Ketchikan. I’m sure she was called many things in her life. I’m sure some people thought it was narcissistic and preposterous that she would want her home to become a museum.
But her desire to be seen, and especially to be seen as a woman with many interests and skills (She raised animals! She sewed amazing dresses! She ran a bar!) indicates an almost utopian vision for later generations’ ability to see sex work with an unperturbed clarity we’ve never attained in our country. Or maybe she believed that people would always think she was “bad,” and she set up the museum just to cause mischief. After all, the small street behind her house, from which clients could come and go through the back door, is officially called the “Married Man’s Trail.” Indeed.

In Victoria BC I forgot my camera. I am so grateful for the internet, so that you might view the madness that is Miniature World. The virtual tour is almost as perplexing/wonderful as the real thing. Susan and I were the last guests through the exhibit, and were told we needed "45 minutes to an hour" to fully appreciate everything, even though we only had 25 until they closed. We did it all in 20, and let me tell you, there were moments of true horror peering into the Civil War exhibit. Why make miniature death? WHY? But even the doll houses, or the Dickens, or the Fantasy displays were more creepy than cute. My cuteness sensor finally went off at Circus World, one of the largest miniatures (not an oxymoron, look at the website) with what seemed like thousands upon thousands of tiny people, tiny animals, tiny rides in the tiny
midway, tiny popcorn and tiny balloons and tiny cars and tiny picnics. Tiny elephants with tiny riders wearing REALLY tiny rhinestone slippers. It was Susan's favorite as well, which leads me to believe it must have been the only actually cute thing in the place--since we two are among the few people I know who are truly, deeply, in our core, emotionally affected by cuteness.

We then stumbled onto Luminara Victoria, a festival of lights that happens in the lovely Beacon Hill Park. Glowing costumes, reflective sculpture made from old CDs, ballet dancers lit with purple floods, and a bridge over a lily pond lit with two-inch jars, covered in colored paper and each with a tea light inside, wired in winding pattern across the railing. It was magical.

One of my favorite little rituals from the cruise: Almost every morning on the Westerdam, Susan and I would order breakfast in our room. She would fill out the form before we went to sleep ("Eggs?" "Scrambled." "Me too!" "Toast?") and then when the steward's quiet knock broke our earplugged slumber in the morning, I would sit by the window and pass her dish after dish. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we watched the mountains and the water out the window. Sometimes we facetiously complained about things that couldn't possibly matter considering how incredible our lives are, just for variety. I miss doing this. I miss the intimacy of it, and am still in awe and grateful for every second.

We spent two more enchanted days in Seattle at my new favorite hotel, the Alexis, taking long walks and having Seattle adventures with Phil, new friend from the cruise. One reason to love the Alexis: a free glass of wine in a bar called the Library, where you can paint postcards to send home.

I realize I've devolved into reportage instead of interpretation at this point. Sometimes I get scared I'll lose the details--especially since my journaling got quite sketchy towards the end of the trip with so much running around. I promise I'm thinking, still, about what it all means...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Eat, Sleep, Zip!

We’re back on the high seas after a day floating through Glacier Bay, a day docked in Juneau, a morning and afternoon in Sitka. Things have changed. I heard a glacier crack and groan.

I watched the “calving” of the glacier, which is when a piece as big as a house suddenly breaks off and slides into the water. It was spectacular, and our little human being response was hilarious: we squealed and clapped as if an illusionist had just performed a particularly impressive sleight of hand. We have no other programmed response to drama. I’m sure it seemed perfectly natural to applaud the glacier to many of those present, but to me it was endearingly absurd. Applause is for performers. Although I’m not sure exactly what the appropriate response would have been—stunned silence? Anyway I felt overwhelmed. Then I looked down into the water, and saw three seagulls perched on pieces of floating ice, riding the waves. Somehow this is what actually made me cry.

In fact I’ve been moved to tears quite a few times on the trip now, mostly in aesthetic response to the devastatingly beautiful immensity of the world here, which is common and cliché enough that I’ll not spend too much time on it. Here are a few pictures.

In Juneau Susan and I donned our warmest gear and took a hair-raising boat ride from the dock across the water to a muddy beach. We climbed into a MOG and were trundled up the side of a mountain to a plywood shack where friendly, funny guides strapped us into multiple harnesses. We did one practice zip, then were up in the rainforest canopy. I began the day in a state of exhilarated terror. On the first platform I had to hug the tree. I could barely look down. By the end, I was scooting to the edge, peering over, sticking my feet into the airspace off the platform. I zipped with no hands. I screamed and hollered and kicked my feet, raised my knees to go faster, watched the rainforest whizzing by, and felt free, free, free. And strong. It was a particular ecstasy, the cold damp air on my face, the uncanny views, the hyper-reality of the forest floor SO damn far away. Even the suspension bridges thrilled me.

Susan would zip away, calling “Bye bye!” and then we would giggle uncontrollably on the next platform, minutes later, with a new story of how we’d felt, what we’d seen. The last and longest zipline was the only one to take us out of the forested area, over the beach, and suddenly I saw the mountains, the water, and the future seemed expansive and perfect, with simply no reason to have fear about anything. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’ve had a few other experiences of exposure therapy that worked, but this one was by far the most pronounced, because instead of the simple eradication of fear, my terror was replaced with elation and delight. I loved what I had dreaded. Only certain drugs have had a similar effect on me. Our guides wore T-shirts that said “Eat, Sleep, Zip” and we’ve decided this is the new way to remind ourselves to open up to this profound shifting from resistance to ecstatic acceptance.

This has convinced me to expand an experiment I’ve been doing since Italy. On that trip, I realized that many of the foods I thought I didn’t like were simply prepared badly in my past experience. Or, I based my projected dislike from past experiences with “similar” foods. Once this method was proven faulty over and over again by the superlative tastes I experienced (especially with things like snails, octopus, kidneys), I realized the only answer was to act as if I have no idea what I dislike. Now, I try everything, intending to like it all. I especially have to eat things that seem distasteful to me at first, and I am under particular mandate of mindfulness there. The expansion of this experiment, as inspired by the zipline, is to let go of all the little pieces of identity that are attached to my dislikes. It’s just not interesting to hang on to “I don’t like roller coasters,” or “I don’t like staying up all night” or “I don’t like fighting." More importantly, it's limiting. And since I'm spearheading Project Limitless for my life, it's time to only dislike things on principle, not from force of habit.

I ate fresh salmon fish & chips and an Alaska Brewing Co. summer ale at a dock restaurant in Juneau with Susan and her long-time friend Kathryn before tromping back onto the Westerdam. As the ship pulled away, we sat in our wicker deck chairs, under plaid blankets, on our verandah, sipping Earl Grey and nibbling shortbread and dark chocolate. We traded the binoculars to watch salmon leaping six inches out of the water, check out incredible cabin-homes on the shoreline, and spot mountain streams we’ve dubbed “rivulets!” that cascade from the very peaks all the way into the sea. We felt like society ladies from 1920 “taking a cure.” We were living a fantasy.

It seemed insane to stay up late enough to see Leslie (without whom neither of us would be on the ship) sing in a karaoke competition. We went to the show in our pajamas, drank cocktails and screamed and gasped with laughter at the endearing, bizarre performers and the three shockingly clever judges. (One of them was the ship’s comedian, Julie Barr, who has purple hair and made a joke about being a “fluffer” in front of 200 silver-haired cruise passengers! Priceless!) My favorite part of the show was that the judges showed total irreverence for the cruising industry. They made fun of people who go on cruises. They made fun of themselves for working on a ship. They made fun of the invented culture, they made fun of how expensive everything is. It was a relief to see it, operating just below the surface of the official story everyone tells in the daytime. I knew it was there, but I didn’t know the passengers ever got to be privy. I wonder if the entire industry would collapse if that awareness of the Game we’re playing here became part of the regular language?

In Sitka today I watched a Tlingkit dance performance. I got mesmerized by a dancer-grandmother who wore a perfectly calm baby in a front-facing carrier. The baby held her arms out when everyone else did, and calmly replaced her pacifier whenever it fell out. She made no sound for the entire half-hour that the grandmother was dancing. I walked through the Russian Bishop’s House and drew a sketch of a brass samovar I’d like to have in my house. I’m overwhelmed by details and consequences and history and beauty and we’re just pushing along in the water, mountains out the window changing every few minutes, Susan curled up in her king-size bed in her turquoise satin pajamas, me nestled in a thick red sweater, on the way to Ketchikan.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Narcotic Effect of Cruising on an Unlikely Deluxe Verandah Suite Passenger

For the first few hours out of Seattle, the ship barely moved. I thought, “oh, this will be cake.” I dutifully popped capsules of powdered ginger (per Susan and the internet’s advice) and kept my belly at least slightly full (per my own experience with motion sickness) and let my attention be swept into noticing the many hilarious, kitschy, beautiful, and incongruous aspects of Holland America’s Westerdam ship.

For instance: there is an inordinate amount of gold-tone chrome on this ship. The lighting sconces all remind me various decorative trends—deco, southwest, retro-modern—but none of them “blends in.” The carpets are bright! Orange and pink! Blue and purple! And they often do not “match” the drapery. It’s as if the team responsible for setting ambiance on the ship has had to replace parts of the décor piecemeal, without remembering what was already in that room... my first impression was that I’d entered Las Vegas, 1968. I love this, actually. It appeals to my aesthetic, which is more about collage than about consistency. It does, however, call into questions certain notions I had about what luxury looks like. No earth tones here. Everything is fascinatingly odd, un-thematic, and occasionally truly tacky. It’s wonderful!

Susan had warned me about something she called “The Narcotic Effect” and I had no idea how that might manifest for me. Her description of herself last year, swaddled in blankets on a deck chair, staring out at the ocean for hours, didn’t jive with the spritely walk we took on the Promenade deck after dinner on the first day. However, I woke up this morning feeling decidedly sluggish. More ginger! Breakfast! A quick jaunt on the treadmill in the overcrowded fitness center, steadying myself with the handrails for the first time ever! I stared at the water and pretended that the force of my running was keeping us moving forward. I started feeling woozy back in the stateroom, and sat down in the shower.

Let’s recall, if we must, that my intention for this cruise, and certainly for our first full day at sea, was to write for many hours. I understood that we would have times of great sightseeing, especially once there were whales around, but while Susan is in her workshop, I am free to sink into my novel, and after a month away from it at camp, nothing felt more pressing. It is now nearly 4pm. I spent the day, with small breaks for snacks, lying down. I watched the water. I slept. I kept the weight of blankets over me and tried to surrender to the movement of the ship. I’m not nauseated, but I feel drugged. The answer came shortly after my shower: I will have to do less, and do it slowly, until I am acclimated.

At first I was disappointed, since I expected, I suppose, not to be affected by the fact that I’m not on land. But the benefit of feeling so fragile and susceptible is that I’m in that state of Receiving during which I am able to notice many details, which I will hope to use either on this blog or in other writing. Some of these are the details of the surroundings—how many crannies our room has, the constant white-noise of our ceiling vent, which teas make my limbs less heavy (black teas, unsurprisingly), conversations between other passengers in the special Neptune Lounge (where people in fancy suites get to go for free snacks all the time).

I’m noticing my discomfort with the crassly obvious class distinctions on the ship. On one of my few trips out of the stateroom today Susan and ventured in “Smart Casual” outfits to the Pinnacle Grill for a complimentary luncheon, because we are in a suite. We’ve received many glasses of free champagne. We have a balcony on which six people could sit and look out at the sea. Of course I’m enjoying it! And the socialist in me cringes when flyers for special classes on how to buy diamonds or fine art show up in our little gold mailbox. But like I said to Susan today, from my pile of pillows, I expect that in my career as a writer I will experience many situations to which I will carry complex responses: in this case, I have a good deal of both delight and judgment. Thankfully, I’m not experiencing any guilt. I feel gratitude and a responsibility to be deeply affected and attentive. So, I ate the caviar at the luncheon. I ate it with bits of yolk, onion, egg white, and parsley, exactly as I was instructed. It was salty. I’d eat $100 worth of good sushi before I’d eat $100 caviar, but it’s very satisfying to know this about myself.

We signed up for a zipline excursion in Juneau, which terrifies me. We will be careening through the air above the rain forest canopy on TEN lines and crossing two suspension bridges. I’m excited because it’s a brand new phase of my life, to truly, on principle, and deep within my gut, care more about discovery than fear.

Tomorrow we will float through Glacier Bay. It feels silly to try and describe some of the awe I’m already experiencing with how expansive the ocean is, how dark and black the water. I can’t even imagine the ice of the glaciers. I’m looking forward to having my mind blown, for the eightieth time this summer. I’m looking forward to being able to walk and talk for more than fifteen minutes before I feel compelled to lie down again. Or maybe this soporific lifestyle is the reason people like cruises? It’s deceptive then, how many activities are scheduled during the day. As someone who never got tired in three weeks of walking all day through Italy and France, who directed a summer camp for a month with a walkie-talkie strapped perpetually to my shoulder, I’m determined to caffinate my way out of this haze and re-enter the world of ecstatic action, once we’re in a port, and once I’m certain coffee won’t make me puke. For now I’m at a 45-degree angle in the ship’s library, watching craggy cliffs five-miles off slide effortlessly by. I think I’ll stop by the Neptune Lounge for more tea and take a rest on our verandah before dinner. Then I’ll ponder the implications of that opportunity some more.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Rowe Jr. High Camp: Week 3 and Post-Camp

Throughout all of camp, I wore a button on my backpack, which I'd made in the art room on one of the first days. It had a picture of a fishnet leg and the phrase: "The Shakers Brief Eternity." I'd taken the phrase from a National Geographic, the picture from some bad fashion rag, and the sentiment is one of my favorites about camp. The "shakers" of course are not the religious group, but the campers and staff, people who are bouncing around in their greatness, trying everything they can think of to expand and explode into something new. The "brief eternity" is camp. When camp is happening, it feels as though it's the only thing that has ever happened. It feels as though it could never end. What is scheduled to occur after camp is ludicrous, unreal, unimportant. Then, like a dream, it's over, and trying to explain it to anyone is the most daunting task in the world. (Pic is me and Kelsey at Pelham Lake, looking like sisters).

During the last few days of camp, we had to send two campers home for physical violence. I've been percolating on this issue for some time--we had to do the same thing last year--and I will likely write a great deal more about the issue of how to deal with physical aggression in a staunchly non-violent community like Rowe. Suffice it to say that right now, our systems are paltry and unhelpful to kids who live in a violent world. "Don't do that here," we say, and they do their best to comply, usually. This time it was complicated by the fact that the two involved were a boy and a girl. The girl hit the boy because he pushed her, and in her mind, no man should ever "lay a hand" on a girl. However, she'd been as involved in the provocation as he had--many nasty words exchanged between them. In his mind, she was as culpable as he--and then when she punched in response to his push, she became the aggressor. They both believed themselves to be making a point and defending themselves. They left camp without expressing any remorse. It's incredibly befuddling, and an almost perfectly microcosmic example of the confused state of feminism: does a "strong" woman assert her right not to ever be victimized physically by showing physical force? does a "strong" woman avoid all violence? does a "strong" woman have the right to get just as scrappy as the boys? I invite your feelings here--I'm torn between thinking that violence from 14-year-olds can't have the reflective, deliberate social implications as violence from a 30-year old woman in the middle of an attack (and so we were right to condemn it on both sides) and thinking that anyone who feels physically threatened gets to fight back, period. I certainly have thrown my share of elbows, smacks, and pushes when a man has tried to intimidate me--and I do believe that the revolution against senseless violence has to come from those who have traditionally been "victims" refusing to be so. But this was no cut-and-dry victim/aggressor situation, as both participants had been talking shit for days and days. What then?

But of course that wasn't the only salient bit of the end of camp. Our last dance, called the "Hyphy Cotillion" (in reference to the fashion/music movement in Oakland, CA) was transcendent, with all 100 people jumping in the air in unison, running in a huge circle, and singing the "oh-oh-oh-oh's" in U2's Pride (in the Name of Love). During our Closing on the day camp ended, Ben and I gave each camper and staff a red glass bead on a hemp string, and told them to attach some of their camp memories to it, so that they could take Rowe with them back into their daily lives and continue to feel supported in their efforts to be unique, honest, whole people.

Then, it was over, and a very strange psychological effect occurred--which I don't remember from last year. I became primed for mischief. It was as if spending a month feeling so responsible had left me craving irresponsibility. I stayed at Rowe for two extra days in order to attend a Director's meeting with the heads of the other camps. I had nothing in particular to do until the meeting, which meant that all I wanted to do was stay up late, laugh my head off, drink a Red Stripe in the back of a new friend's truck, turn purple in the sauna, and sneak around being a bad girl. I had a perfect little post-camp vacation, and was reminded that ultimately I am able to carry it all: the grand responsibility of important work and a riotous desire to shake it all up. I was reminded that, in essence, at least for MY work, these are the same activity, even if it doesn't seem so when I'm wearing the camp director hat.

Now I am in Seattle, drinking coffee by the window at the Green Tortise hostel, one day away from pushing north into Alaska on a cruise ship with godmomma Susan. I'm so grateful for what's happening I can barely understand it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Rowe Junior High Camp: Week Two

On Friday nights at camp, we let the kids stay up all night. It's called No Curfew Night, and in our Behavior Standards we describe it as a way to safely allow the kids to test their own boundaries and discover what it means to engage in the consequences of their own choices. (They have to clean the camp the next day, so if they are sluggish and cranky it's much worse for them.) NCN's tend to be hilarious, wild, and a great time for pranks and inside jokes.

For last night's NCN, Kelsey and I led a workshop called Shake 'n Bake, which combined baking cookies with dancing to a playlist of songs that all had the phrase "shake it" involved. Last night I danced hard and ate cookies made from scratch, drank a glass of milk with a group of 13-year olds who rarely get to relax in their real lives, and modeled joy by feeling it, deep and true.

We had eight kids in the kitchen greasing pans while bouncing to Big Maybelle's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." While the cookies baked, we made up dance moves and followed each other around the big kitchen block. At one point, we put our arms around each other and sang Regina Spektor's "Fidelity" in a swaying circle. We burnt the cookies a bit, because we got distracted by "Shake Ya Tail Feather." It was one of my favorite hours so far in camp.

Not only was it lighthearted and delicious, it still was doing some of the very important work of Rowe: undermining broader cultural norms. We had an intergenerational dance party happening, which is very rare in our country. We made it normal for boys to bake cookies by not ever discussing how "cute" it was that they were doing so. We made music with spoons and pans, which reinforced for us all the infinite possibilities for entertainment and art in every day life. I make those meanings explicit for myself, and for you, because that's how I believe intellectuals and great artists look at the world. It's as important to celebrate the intention behind something like Shake n' Bake as it is to celebrate how relentlessly enjoyable it was.

This is the dilemma for me of understanding "fun." I have stopped believing in "just fun," because the activities that bring me delight, ecstatic happiness, and quiet enjoyment tend to have some underlying layer of meaning: they offer me new information, undermine an assumption, surprise me, expand my categories, and so on. There's a whole host of jokes I don't think are funny because I can't enjoy reinforcing stereotypes or saying the same thing over and over again. It's still a challenge sometimes for me to discover why I think something is "fun," but I love the habit of asking the question. Anthony and I decided not to use the word anymore, but to try more precise ways to describe what we're feeling when we think: "That was fun!"

So. Shake n' Bake = community-supporting, stereotype-destorying, joyful, kinetic, comforting.