Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 2: Bears Are Everywhere

In the morning, as we were getting in our car to leave, a middle-aged woman walked her dog by our campsite and stopped to chat. This is something that happens, camping. People just talk to you. You talk to them. It all seems quite natural, even though you would never in a million years talk to this very same person, apropos of nothing, had you met in the middle of a big city. It came up that Emily and I were on a honeymoon. The woman congratulated us on our new marriage, but seemed a little confused. Why hadn't we gone to some resort to lounge on a beach?  She was surprised we'd want the hassle of camping on our honeymoon.

This made me think: what's a honeymoon for? If we're not being cynical*, a honeymoon is for the couple; it affords newlyweds their first opportunity to be alone with each other. Sans parents, sans chaperones, sans social expectation for sexless courtship (though with new expectations to have sex and make babies), a honeymoon is when a couple gets a chance at sustained intimacy for the first time. There's only one problem, in the case of Emily and I: none of this stuff actually applies to us. So what does "honeymoon" mean, for us? We're using the concept of a "honeymoon" as an excuse to travel, because it's typical that newlyweds vacation together.

Off the top of my head, I don't know (personally) anyone married or soon-to-be married for whom the original honeymoon concept might apply. But this only means that the honeymoon fits in with a set of wedding rituals which have largely lost their meaning, like the bride in a white dress, or the bride given away by her father. These are vestigial symbols to represent values that used to matter**. So. I guess, in sum, we're on vacation.

That's all very general. The more specific question is: what's our honeymoon for? I'm still not totally sure why we're camping, other than it sounded like fun when we planned it all, but now that we're doing this I'm glad we did. Our camping honeymoon is a little more do-it-ourselves than going to a resort would have been (though proportionately less comfortable). I think there's some thematic resonance in a DIY honeymoon. Marriage is DIY. No one else is going to do it for us. We're figuring it out on our own.

We drove inland from the coast to Santa Rosa to find the nearest WalMart. We needed chairs and a bigger tarp. While at the store, Emily came into possession of a free Razor Sharp Paring Knife, which knife, so far, has earned all its modifiers. I mention this because it's the most exciting thing we did for about 3 hours, until we passed through Piercy, CA, where 101 parallels the Eel River, to come upon a massive crowd of people in the floodplain below the highway at a reggae festival--Reggae on the River--known locally as Reggae, and found an attendant crush of cars and people suffocating the somewhat larger town (though "large" here means 1,000 people, instead of 100) of Garberville, where we stopped for gas and coffee. We drove through small town after small town on the lightly trafficked 101, wondering if northern California had been deserted. When we found Reggae, and then Garberville, we had the answer. No, it wasn't deserted. Everyone was in Garberville, gearing up for Reggae.

We arrived at Humboldt Redwoods SP in the late afternoon. Our camp loop was reasonably small, and reasonably compact--seeming more compact because the loop is located at the edge of a meadow (once a fruit orchard, where a few plum and apple trees survive) and the forest grows sparsely through the loop, providing unobstructed views of most of the rest of camp, creating a sense that many people share the same space. Fifty yards past the short bridge spanning a dry ravine, we pulled up to the ranger station (a kiosk on our right). The road for the loop was paved, and fed into a dirt walking path through the meadow 10 yards to the left of our left headlight. A dozen people stood at the edge of the meadow, holding cameras, while small children stood on top of a few small boulders placed along the boundary between the paved road and the meadow.

Emily was already out of the car.

"Do you see the bears?" she asked.

She pointed at the plum tree 20 yards past the edge of the meadow that the group of people was looking at. Oh, no. No. A mama bear and her two cubs had climbed into the tree, shaking branches and eating plums.  But no one ran. People just stood there. My head clouded over, and I don't remember saying anything. I'd entered some bizarro world where humans could stand 20 yards from a mama bear and cubs without putting themselves in extreme danger. The rangers took the bears in the plum tree as a matter of course.

"Don't get closer than 30 feet," one shouted, not unhappily, as a little girl took a few tentative steps past a boulder.

It's hard to describe the disorientation I felt in the moment, though the source of the feeling was the juxtaposition of what I knew to be true--that bears, especially bears with cubs, are extremely dangerous--with what was actually, really, currently true--that no one acted as if the bears were very dangerous, and the bears displayed no interest in anything but plums. I experienced the disorientation of a deeply felt Truth crashing into a wall of contravening lived experience. I wanted to get away from the bears as soon as possible, even as I realized that the impulse to do so was silly, and when we arrived at our campsite, we discovered that we'd only traveled another 100 yards from the plum tree, whose branches we could still see shaking past the line of onlookers.

Emily was ecstatic. I, meanwhile, moved through the motions of setting up camp and preparing dinner in a mental fog. By the time it burned off, I'd realized something important. I'm not afraid of bears. I'm not sure I ever was. Today's bears were the first I'd ever seen out of captivity. Before this, I'd never seen a bear to be afraid of. So why had I been so afraid of bears?

It took a little uncomfortable introspection to find the answer. This much is true: until today, a fear of "bears" often ruined my camping experiences. But a "bear" is not a bear. A "bear" is a flexible signifier for any and all of my neurotic fears surrounding 1) camping and 2) all interactions with humans or animals while in the woods. A "bear" is anything I need it to be so that I can say, "I'm just worried about bears," instead of saying the much less rational and much more unhinged sounding, "I'm just worried that if we start a fire and cook dinner, angry locals with greasy hair and tank top shirts (even though they have deep red farmer burns on their forearms and untanned upper arms) will find us and subject us to awful hazing/torture because we're not from around here***." Having seen real bears, I think I've pulled back the veil to get at exactly what my fear of "bears" is. This is a good thing. I've started to unravel some of my own irrational fear. Bears really aren't that scary. They're powerful animals, but only dangerous in very limited circumstances. Bears are everywhere, but it's ok.

I returned to normal in a few hours. After the bears left, but before dark, deer came to graze beneath the plum tree where the bears had shaken fruit onto the ground.  We set up our tent in the center of a ring of redwoods, so we can see the forest canopy and patches of sky when we lie down. We ate dinner and read out loud by the fire. Then we went to sleep. The whole place has a sharp, clean smell, except for my clothes, which smell like wood fire.

*Everyone knows that the most important function of a honeymoon is to provide the junction where the travel industry can tap into the Wedding-Industrial Complex cash pipe.

**These examples are pretty gross from a feminist perspective, and a honeymoon isn't really gross or problematic in the same way, but you get the idea.

***Not that, you know, I've ever actually thought that, or anything.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Day 1: There Are No Bears

[Note: Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting what are basically journal entries from my road-trip-honeymoon with Emily. This series is tentatively titled "Notes on a Honeymoon; or, Notes on Marriage From a Dude Who Got Married About A Month Ago." Enjoy.]

I need to preface this first entry: I am afraid of bears. Two years ago, Emily and I camped in a forest in Florida. The campsite was what they call "primitive": a semi-cleared patch of dirt around a stone fire-pit. No running water, no toilets. It was wet--rainy and foggy and damp--and we couldn't get a fire going. By nightfall, I was so scared of bears that I made us eat dinner in the car, then change our clothes before entering the tent so the dinner-smell wouldn't come with us and attract unwanted attention from animals. I know this sounds insane. It was. I knew it was insane at the time, and I know it now, but it happened. It could happen again.

It's only a few miles drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge before northern California looks like any other rural place in middle America--only the crops are different. Here, people grow wine, and apples. They graze cows. Elsewhere, they grow corn, or cotton, but the land looks basically the same from a car: cleared space and a few trees to mark property lines, a winding two lane road ahead, intermittent service on my phone. For each mile we drove away from San Francisco I felt remoteness gathering around us, like fog, or darkness, which sounds scary, and is not the way a camping vacation is usually conceptualized by anyone sane, but, as I explained earlier, I am afraid of bears. Somewhere in the remoteness, there are always bears.

Over drinks on Friday, John told me that couples sometimes experience a let-down after their marriage. The marriage (and associated receptions, parties, etc) is so intensely euphoric that returning to real life causes minor depression. But, he said, a honeymoon can help as a kind of buffer between the overwhelming happiness of the marriage party and real life. Let's hope so. The party on Saturday after the wedding was surreal, something like the best case scenario of a paranoid dream: everyone is watching you, everyone is talking about you, but it's ok--really, it's unbelievably great--because everyone is saying something earnest and heartfelt and nice about you.

On the drive, we talked. We agreed that Saturday night was the best night of our lives. I commented that the surreal elation of the party had mostly subsided, and that I felt pride in its place. Not just pride to be married to Emily, who is amazing, but pride that I'd made a choice, fully conscious of its difficulties and potential rewards. I felt proud because I knew I was in charge of my own life, and I'd chosen something really exciting. And, of course, Emily chose the same thing.

The campsite tonight was at Sonoma Coast State Beach, snuggled in the sand next to Bodega Bay a few hours north of San Francisco. We took a hike around the bay to find the ocean, but our shoes filled up with sand before we got all the way out to the beach. We only spent a few minutes at the end leaning into the wind, squinting into the sun, absorbing the shining sliver of ocean below the horizon and above the last mile of dunes and shrubs.

We returned to camp. I wondered if I should worry about bears as the scent from the food in our open trunk wafted elsewhere and we pitched the tent in the wind. We had an animal box for our food, but it was secured only with a thin piece of bark through two metal rings; designed to keep out raccoons, obviously, and certainly not sturdy enough to keep out a bear. So, no, I didn't worry about bears. I chose not to worry about bears, because there were no bears.

The night was cold, and windy, but we had a fire. Emily and I took turns reading while we cooked dinner. There were a lot of people staying the night in the camping loop we'd chosen, but our site was isolated. We couldn't see anyone else. The place was ours. Just us; nobody else, and no bears.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Other and animal cruelty

I saw Blackfish the other day.

A blackfish is another name for a killer whale, and the film concerns itself with captive whales held at theme parks. The thesis of the film, in short, is that keeping killer whales in captivity is cruel.  I think the film makes its case well, but the nature of the argument shows the difficulty of getting a general audience to care about animal cruelty. There are two main avenues the film takes in arguing against captivity for killer whales:

(1) Killer whales are extremely intelligent animals with highly developed emotional lives, local culture (!), and familial bonds. When taken from the wild, whales are separated from their pods and families, and are placed into unfamiliar social groups which can be dangerous and threatening. Whales are stored in small tanks that cannot hope to approximate the open ocean, and not given near as much attention or stimulation as they would have in the wild. Captive whale life expectancy past infancy is much lower than for wild whales.

(2) Captive killer whales put humans at risk. There is imminent danger to human trainers of killer whales, and many trainers have been injured (and some killed) by aggressive or unpredictable whale behavior. In addition, humans are brutalized by the cruelty they must do to whales to keep them in captivity and ready to perform.

Number (1) focuses on animal cost of animal cruelty. It suggests that animals cruelty is bad because cruelty is, independent of circumstances, bad. Number (2) focuses on the human cost of animal cruelty. It suggests that animal cruelty is bad because is it cruel and dangerous to humans. 

Both (1) and (2) are good reasons for ending whale captivity, but, for me, number (1) is enough. I think it's wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals for our pleasure. I think cruelty is bad, should be avoided wherever possible, and should definitely be avoided when cruelty occurs in the name of entertainment. Reason (1) is given a fair amount of screen time, and it's clear the film-makers care about the cruelty done to the whales. But reason number (2) dominates the narrative of the film, which is structured around the death of a SeaWorld trainer in 2010. Much of the film plays like a story of a faceless, greedy corporation tricking eager trainers who love animals into risking their lives for corporate profit. It's compelling, and the obvious disillusionment of the interviewed trainers is heartbreaking and sometimes hard to watch. The film shows that the deaths and injuries suffered by trainers could have been avoided, because the dangers of working with killer whales in captivity were well-known. The risk was kept obscure from trainers and the general public. Blackfish ends on a triumphant, if somber, note: OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), following a lawsuit brought against SeaWorld after a trainer was killed by a whale in 2010, has forbidden whale trainers from entering the water with captive whales (SeaWorld is appealing). 

But what if there was no risk to humans in keeping captive whales? What if trainers had always been fully advised of the risks posed by captive whales, and never swam with them? In all likelihood, the movie would not have been made. Blackfish's wikipedia page notes that the filmmakers' interest in captive whales stemmed from the trainer's death in 2010. The cruelty and violence done to that trainer is what made the animal cruelty visible to the filmmakers, and, ultimately, visible to the film's audience. 

Animal cruelty arguments are in a difficult spot: where animal cruelty coincides with cruelty or violence done to humans, arguments against animal cruelty are often made, and heard. Otherwise...?

The fact remains that animals--their bodies, their minds, their lives--are so different as to make their suffering nearly incomprehensible to us: animals are the Other. Historically, the Other has taken many forms, depending on who and when you asked, and Others have suffered always cruelty because they were other. Cruelty is almost always done for expediency as well as xenophobia, which is why it seems like a good idea at the time, but cruelty never looks good with enough historical distance. Because animals are so different from us (as opposed to people qualifying as Other, who at least are regarded [though not always] as part of the "human race," which implies some commonality), the empathetic effort to care about animal suffering and life is greater. A killer whale might be "intelligent," but what does intelligence even mean if it doesn't refer to a human?

This has turned a little rambling, so let me get to the point: to end animal cruelty, people must take an empathetic leap. Blackfish shows how cruelty and violence have been done to people in the name of corporate profit.  But that's not a reason to end killer whale captivity. For that, people have to consider the film's other argument: consider the mind and body of the whale. To end whale suffering at human hands, the whale has to become something other than Other in human minds.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books I read in July

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. I began reading these books after the third season of Game of Thrones on HBO, and somewhere in the middle part of A Storm of Swords I zoomed right by the show, plotwise. The Red Wedding was one of the most brutal scenes of fiction I've ever read. While the show uses the RW as the climax of its third season, in the novel its the beginning of a devastating sequence of events that wipes out or changes the fortunes of virtually every POV character we have. The genius of the novel is its willingness to alter or destroy characters to force them (and others around them) to surprise themselves (and us) by reacting in fresh ways.

Danerys is no exception to the last, but she's separated from all other characters, and her problems are different. There are certainly problematic aspects to the way her Breaker of Chains aspirations are written. Take, for example, this line, appearing after Danerys declares the slaves freed in one of the cities she takes:
"Mhysa!" a brown-skinned man shouted out at her.
Mhysa means mother. Martin walks the dangerous line of turning Danerys--with white skin, and plantinum blonde hair--into the easy savior of thousands (millions?) of brown people, who have no POV characters, and virtually no agency. But there's something more complicated going on here, too:
"Your Grace, the slavers brought their doom on themselves," said Daario Naharis.
"You have brought freedom as well," MIssandei pointed out.
"Freedom to starve?" asked Dany sharply. "Freedom to die?"
By the end of the novel, Dany resolves to stay in Meereen after freeing its slaves, determined to reconstruct and rule the city. I'm eager to see how she handles it, and how much autonomy and thought Martin gives the freedpeople of Meereen (and Astapoor, and Yunkai). At first blush, Mhysa sounds bad. But freedmen in America commonly referred to Lincoln as Father Abraham