Issue #2

Nov 12, 2017



When I was in Iceland with my husband we stayed mostly in the west and north. Bruce and I met few others as we traveled the island, taking in the small and the grand, the elegant and the banal, the human and the natural in luxurious, small steps. We went to the seaside town of Akranes on a windy chilly day in May, the sun and clouds and showers taking their turn, in and out of a steely, panoramic sky. Our first stop was a tearoom on a graceful plaza where the mood was somber and hushed. Icelanders are not effusive but they are good-natured and welcoming. That day everything seemed too gray, even for early spring. After a warming cup we left the cafe and returned to the car.

When we travel in a new landscape we are always curious about inhabitation, the ways people have learned to live in their geography, and we explore it. We walk and drive main streets and side streets in town and city slowly, to see the unexpected everydayness of a place, to absorb and bask in its identity – to try on a place and so become new. Always we look for churches. The church of Akranes was a jewel – Nordic, modern, pleasingly prominent and yet also subdued. There was a service about to start and we recognized several tea room customers quietly mingling in their dark clothes; it was a funeral we realized, that had colored the day with reserve.

Of course we had to visit the lighthouse, another architecture that Icelanders do so well. Akranes’ was no exception, modest and yet well crafted and detailed. Here we met Gunnar, a very tall handsomely bearded Viking manning the decommissioned structure and hosting guests. Every level was used to showcase art, and Gunnar explained what we would find. As we climbed we saw the paintings, drawings, and collages of an American artist, an exhibit of local photographers’ work, and the crayon drawings of schoolchildren (processing their visit, learning …) We noticed the echo, our words re-sounding, and Gunnar told us of the singer Anna Jónsdóttir, who liked the acoustics too and recorded an album there. We found her CD Var after we were home, and it takes us back when we long for Iceland, for the quiet Nord, the wind and the sea, for the formative and primitive Earth so transparently there.

There was another photography exhibit at the lighthouse documenting the rescue of a pilot whale pod that had been stranded and beached. Gunnar was intense and passionate in his retelling of the local efforts to save the whales. The event marked a marvel, an evolutionary pivot, when Icelanders turned away from hunting whales to instead saving them. A new saga begun: heroism expressed in caretaking and stewardship, in the founding of new relationships with land and sea1.

And also a new definition of family. In The Coming of Age in Samoa Margaret Mead marked a philosophical sleight-of-mind2 regarding family and sexual relationships. Most of us think about these ideas as such: family is identified by lineage. But Mead instead used incest taboo to define family, explaining that family members are those you don’t have sex with. Icelanders who now save whales have redefined their family, I think, to be extra-human, and in so doing they demonstrate a paradigm new to most Westerners3.

Family members are those whom you don’t eat.



For more photographs of Iceland, visit Bruce’s album at Flickr: Iceland 2015


Family Final 4

Family Final 4

I have a really good friend – a lifelong friend, if I start counting from my twenties – and I can say this even though we had almost no contact for over thirty years.

Because Katie is family.

I know this now thanks to the television show Survivor, and the sucksters at SurvivorSucks, a Yuku forum for fans.1 I am not a Survivor fan per se. After seventeen years and thirty-four seasons there is little to hold the attention of serious viewers, as the game elements, gameplay, and cast of characters are predictable and stale. For those of us that like a good puzzle the contest has shifted to one between the editors and we sucksters, even if only in our collective mind.2  The challenge is simple – how quickly and correctly can we read the edit to name the winner before the final reveal.

There are many strategies practiced in the Speculation forum, all with complex and debated internal rules. Some use spoilers, some are spoiler free. Others evaluate editing tropes like story arc and presentation of characters, or rely on comparative analyses with past season edits. Logic – of the game and of the edit – is key to some gamers, as is participants’ real world post-game pre-broadcast behavior. But the strategy important to this story is:  Family Final Four. Family Final Four tracks Survivor characters in their adopted familial roles – father, mother, son, daughter, and eccentric – and predicts a winner based on the roles represented by the last four contestants.

A few years ago Bruce and I came back from a long summer vacation, to mail, email, and voicemail stacked up at home and the office. Bruce’s triage required starting with the most recent and presumed urgent.  So it was almost a month before he got to Katie’s out-of-the-blue message. (She had found him on Facebook through his company’s site). He texted me, did I want her number, or should he let it go?

The news caught me. I was at a low point with friends and neighbors, all of my relationships unsatisfying – tedious, annoying, even angering. Now I felt surprised and enervated; a smile played on my lips. I fidgeted for a long while, hesitant, but then I called. Fifteen seconds in we were laughing like the girls we had been.  “So what have you been doing?” she asked.  “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing”, and the circle closed.

We went to visit for Thanksgiving, and true to her nature Katie had gathered everyone she and I knew when we worked together for the city of Lexington. This is her gift, seeing and maintaining connections among everyone she has contact with. She is an analog Facebook – its precursor, really – a Malcolm Gladwell “connector”.3  Our experience that November with our old friends and colleagues was surreal, counter to what we expected given sixty years of living and thirty years apart. The initial exchanges were perfunctory, catching each other up, and then we were back, in time and in our old roles. We were not awkward, or reserved; we were barely careful. We didn’t have to be, we were home. My revelation will not be a surprise to those of you who come from happy families. It is the gift of family, to always be who you are even as everything changes. But for me, it was a wonder, and I did marvel for quite awhile about the reunion, reflecting on it as I followed the FF4 thread.

It was easy to label us with the archetypal characteristics and roles. At the center was Ken our strong father, and Harold, his rebellious son; Katie, Marilou, and I were daughters, me cast as the youngest, Katie the eldest. Bruce was accepted as my husband, in an auxiliary, non-central way as were all other partners, spouses, and children. Dennis played the eccentric uncle, and poor Carol our weak, ineffective mother. It was a solid, supportive family, despite its workplace origin. We flourished together doing good work, and we flourished afterwards as we all grew into larger roles apart from each other. Our common ancestry, our familial blueprint still shows in the people we are and in the paths we have chosen. We come from the same stock.

FF4 is not a good predictor of Survivor outcomes. But it does offer insight into relationships on and off the show. It fascinates me that even as adults we strive to create family wherever we are – workplace, community, or game show. I am amazed that I did not re-create the unhealthy relationships of my family of origin4, and so grateful that I was lovingly adopted into Katie’s family. It has made all the good that came after possible.


Big Love

Big Love

I just finished watching the HBO series Big Love. Like many other people my television viewing habits and preferences have changed. Now I prefer multi-season series, and dramas rather than comedies. Just as good books do, newer television series delve deeply into people, places, and ideas. I can immerse myself, go somewhere and be only there, enveloped in someone else’s story that somehow becomes my own. Live theater sometimes offers the same experience, but not film, not anymore. Movies are mostly unsubtle sensational offerings, filled with titillation, virtue signaling, and strangely unsatisfying, often violently provoked catharses. I make exceptions for French rom-coms and the occasional art house film that looks closely and slowly at a very, very small slice of life. But in general two hours is not enough time to meaningfully explore the color, complexities, and nuances that most interest me. I like to get to know people. Two hours is not enough time for me to spend with a good story either, so I binge. 

Big Love succeeds for many reasons. The characters are complex and well drawn and they grow throughout the series, compellingly. Their situations and relationships effectively develop other arcs – of ideas and time-and-place – that occur at many scales, layered over each episode, each season, and again over the whole series. I had a path, too, through the five seasons, experiencing ups-and-downs and turnarounds in my loyalties, understandings, appreciations, and beliefs. 

The script is evocative, and that’s down to its inspired use of language. Dialogue advances the varied stories and arcs well enough, but even more it is a remarkable capture of Mormon politeness, of an old-fashioned civility which still structures daily life, especially evident when characters disagree. The dialogue also provides an audible connection to Utah’s pioneer past through persistent speaking protocols and idioms, even those of the most ‘modern’ characters. The speech patterns of the fundamentalist sect prophets are deliciously rich – learned and flawlessly composed, biblical, rhetorical, and sonorous, even more so when threatening. I encountered these linguistic mannerisms like ruins that reveal and keep the past in present time.

The acting is also remarkable. Every actor brings his or her character to life, believably and seamlessly in relation to the others. I found them all knowable and familiar. Though their circumstances may be alien, the people of Big Love are not. In an unusual way the series reminded me of good science fiction or futuristic writing: just enough of present time intact to keep you off balance, attentive, apprehensive. The main characters have contemporary psychologies and recognizable public selves even as the unimaginable practice of polygamy structures their private world. This complexity of personhood is quite a contrast to the caricatures presented in The Book of Mormon musical, which for me, othered Mormons by clothing them only in absurd inconsistencies (which are found in most belief systems, religious and secular, if truth be told). 

All the optics of the production – cinematography, costumes, props, scenics – enhance the montage-like contemporaneity of now-and-then as they also demarcate three branches of Mormonism. The rural fundamentalist sects rooted in the nineteenth century vie with the more modern and suburban Church of Latter Day Saints culturally, politically, and economically as well as theologically. (Really, the secular conflicts are proxies for the doctrinal struggle to define the faith.) The in-fighting eventually engulfs the main characters as they attempt to reconcile these two diverging belief systems into a new, third, breakaway lifestyle and church that borrows from both. The beautifully constructed visual tapestry is embellished by idiosyncratic cultural details, like foods on the table (jello parfait, chicken a la king, carrot raisin salad), and farmstead housekeeping practices (daily ironing, sewing, laundry, and cooking for a crowd), that give the viewer enough social distance to gain perspective. 

The series builds to a traditional climax involving the main character Bill, which I won’t spoil. I’d rather discuss his epiphany which became mine, and put the whole series in panorama, underscoring the valiant struggles of religion to support and protect and heal us, even as we outgrow the teachings that purport to do so. The theme of Big Love is family, and I think it fair to say that family is also the foundational concept of Mormonism. Mormons’ primary spiritual purpose is to bring new souls into the world on behalf of Heavenly Father, forever enlarging his flock. The faithful’s supreme reward is an eternity filled with these very people, sealed to each other in peace and health and love forever. We naturally think of doctrine as delimiting life and culture through its edicts, prescriptions, and proscriptions. But at the end, Bill grasps the fundamental, omnificent, human power of family to define and create us, and realizes that this truth gave birth to his religion, even as Mormonism shapes him. Family is the most consequential of our human arrangements; no wonder that we have called on the gods to sanction and promote its most protective and sustaining variants. Big Love, indeed.

Love Letter

Love Letter

Bruce and I don’t have children. It was a decision we made for ourselves, by default when we were young, and consciously, deliberately when we were older and up against the hard deadline of biology. We don’t question our choice; it was right for us. Other people did and do still question our decision, and I’ve always said we were busy with other things. Or I put it in the context of the times we came up in; my generation of women was, in practical terms, the first to have a choice (made possible by reliable and accessible birth control). But in truth, I believe there are wrong reasons to have children, and we were careful to discern and dismiss those. In the end we are comfortable with our mortality. We have no need to fix our families of origin. We have no need to live vicariously. We like ourselves. We are not lonely. We are rather modest people, and see no need to re-produce ourselves; we are enough. Nor do we have anything to prove: we are not religious or ideological, so we do not work through others. And we have a surfeit of outlets for creative expression.

Yet some of our best friends are children. We stand in as parents, godparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or older siblings for the children in our neighborhood, the young colleagues whom we teach and mentor, and the multigenerational progeny of our friends. They are collectively an easy, great joy. We welcome them just as they are and exactly as they grow into who they will be. We are their mirrors, their safe place, their experimental space. We witness. Every visit is Christmas; they are the gifts we forever unwrap.

Of course they fall into piles – some are Bruce’s, others more mine. But Printha is ours together, seamlessly and fluidly among us, with us, within us. We follow her cue and we are present, expansive, whole, one, unrestricted and unencumbered, effortlessly aware. What I take away from our time with her – what we notice and remember – is her relentless becoming.

She tries out everything we are and do, and more. At four she claims a seat in studio, to draw and make beaded necklaces. At four and a half she sets the table attending to color and texture and pattern. At five, on a step-stool, she pulls the knife from my hand, insistently, and cuts the cucumber, tomato, and carrots with deliberation, then arranges the vegetables on salad plates in thoughtful designs, uniquely for each plate, each person, each meal.

Nothing is special, yet everything is. She learns the calls of cardinals, she draws and colors a catbird and next the pot of sedum on the patio. She whistles, surprisingly, unexpectedly, so we give her a CD “The Whistler” which she listens to at bedtime, every night for years. She takes the broom out of my hands to sweep the sidewalk, she helps Bruce to rake the leaves and prune branches, she conquers the manual lawnmower, even though she is slight. She sings, beautifully. She knows all the animals on our street tame and wild; she names the squirrels. She learns Scrabble and Boggle, Parcheesi and Monopoly and she wants to win but loses well enough. She learns from her losses; one day soon enough she will beat us. She and Bruce make domino constructions, and then find elaborate video examples to marvel at. She announces that she wants to be a baker, so she and Bruce make biscotti. The lengthy process challenges her patience – “it smells sooo goood …” – her lament as she falls onto the couch. On the front porch she reads to us from her Greek Myths and Heroes book to make us laugh at the snark. She tells jokes, but refuses to laugh at Bruce’s “dad jokes” or my elephant jokes. She is herself. Out in the world she makes art in nature – little Goldsworthy-esque interventions wherever the inclination finds her. She takes my hand lovingly, carefully to guide me across the street, or towards something she wants me to see. And every visit she asks for a story of when she or her sister was younger, laughing uncontrollably as we tell it, whether or not she has heard it before, whether or not she remembers herself. She knows and loves what it means: that we paid attention. She uses it to grow. We pay attention, and she grows before our eyes.

I do not quite understand the alchemy – really, I am caught by surprise every time we see her – but I can guess this becoming space must be one of the best parenthood offers – a place to be so present, and only present. If we’d had an inkling of this experience we might have chanced it. I don’t second guess our choice, though, I know we made the right one.

Only this path could have brought her to us.

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