Friday, February 27, 2009

An Open Book

Before I’d left for Fairbanks, I had several email conversations with Dr. Derick wondering where I would live, where people like me lived in that town. He said that most graduate students lived outside of town in cabins with no running water. I wasn’t opposed to the idea, but I didn’t want to try to rent one from Missouri, and I didn’t want to live in a hotel until I found a place to call home. Instead, I applied for a grad apartment on campus; it had a shower and was conveniently located. Also, I’d never lived in a dorm or on campus before, so I thought it would be fun, like the college life I never lived. I even bought a meal plan at the cafeteria.

The website said it was an efficiency apartment, (and I’d live in a basement “studio” apartment in Houston, so that didn’t bother me) approximately 325 sq. ft. Luckily, Mom and I only had to stay in a hotel the first night there. But we moved to my small apartment, and then I spent five nights with my mom in bed with me. I didn’t sleep for a lot of reasons: I was depressed, the sun was out all night, Mom was awake with anxiety, (because I’d just moved 4,500 hundred miles away and she would be leaving me there. Alone.) and I was excited to heal and learn things about myself.

During Mom’s five days there we drove out to see the pipeline We went on a riverboat tour of Fairbanks And that was about it, because in the summer, that’s really all there is to do. We ate a dinner of halibut Florentine and musk ox burger at The Pump House (where, in the future, Mindy will get a job and I will spend countless hours drinking Alaskan amber, grading papers, and spilling seafood chowder on said papers)

I left Mom at the airport, shaking and crying and telling me she loved me over and over. At that point, I nearly hated her. I was still holding a grudge that she tried to fix me when I came out 7 years earlier; she had never apologized for that whole year of trauma. I was mad, too, that she invited herself on my trip and talked the entire way about nothing. It was absolutely exhausting. I was mad at me because I let her manipulate me again, with money, or something, in a strange way. I had her stupid car.

I hugged her and never looked back. When I got to the car, I threw in my Blue October cd. It's their first album, in case you're interested ( For me, the album had been my soundtrack for every single thing that had happened to me since my first girlfriend let me borrow it in 1998. I listened to track number one as I drove away into a smoky, sunlit dusk, "If what you're seeing is an open book, well, that's great 'cause I'm an open book, but I'm real shy."

And I thought about all the reasons I was suddenly alone in an unfamiliar town, a climate I'd never imagined, "Now there's a part of me seeking and deperately needing to open up. Well, that's strange 'cause I'm an open book. A confused boy."

The drive from the Fairbanks airport to my apartment was about 5 minutes, about the length of the song. I was belting it with the windows down, looking longer than normal at each person I saw on the street, 'he lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Alaska. She also lives in Alaska. I live in Fairbanks. Alaska. I live in Alaska. I drove to Alaska with my mom and a car full of cds, a tv, a few dvds. I brought everything I own with me to Alaska.'

When I got back to the apartment, I began to unpack it all.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Drive

Three days after I got the tattoo of a star on the inside of my heel, I was in a car with my anxious mother driving across the continent. Mom was there because she invited herself. She was always good at making me feel guilty. And, she'd decided I should take their car and not mine since theirs was newer. But, I refused until the very end, until I got tired of listening to her incessant worrying. "Fine," I said, "I'll take your fucking car." And a day or two later she said, "when we drive to Alaska..." And reminded her I was going alone, that I had to make the trip alone, she said, "But I'm letting you use my car."

We left in July of 2004 and so far, it had been a terrible year. My girlfriend had repeatedly slept with one of my best friends (since 7th grade), I had surgery on my shoulder and couldn't play rugby, and my best friend of 19 years wrote me a seven page note in purple ink explaining a. what a womanizer i was b. how conceited i'd always been c. how immature i was d. how she nearly jumped into the Missouri river after her child was born. On top of all that, or perhaps underlying it, was my new found love of pain killers, marijuana, and dark beer.

So, you could say I was depressed. But not like any sadness I'd felt before. This one was physically painful; I'd wake in the morning and feel my heavy chest, like I was being pressed to death by everything familiar to me. Like, my parents, my friends, my cat were all just sitting there on my ribs, staring at me, waiting for it all to explode. The only way I could figure to cure this feeling was by eating more pain killers, drinking more beer, going out more, and staying out later.

I was moving to Alaska to go to graduate school. When people ask me "why there?" It's an easy answer. I knew someone. A professor, in fact, that I'd met in Houston while I was in college. I'd always wanted to be a writer, but never even thought about going to school for it. So, yes, Alaska. If Dr. Derick had been in Rhode Island, I would've tried to get in there. I just had to leave the mess in Missouri. But I was glad to know I was going so far away from it all.

The drive to Alaska from Missouri is about 6 days. That's nearly a week that my mom and I spent in the car together, ten, sometimes 12 hours a day. And when we weren't in the car, we were in the hotel room. What I remember about the trip is this: I ran over a dead baby moose accidentally, Mom nearly got hit by a huge truck as she ran out onto a bridge screaming, "it's beautiful!" at the canyon down below, there were small yellow flowers throughout Canada, and Mom had a hard time comprehending kilometeres, though I explained it every hour or so.

Most of you haven't been to Fairbanks. In fact, you don't even know where it is in Alaska. Like me, you might imagine a nice mountain town, like the one in Northern Exposure. Yeah, you think, Fairbanks must have down hill skiing and toasty lodges, cute shops downtown, like Vail or something. But you're wrong. You're absolutely wrong.

Fairbanks, when we pulled in, looked like a small industrial town in the 70s. Because, essentially, that's what it is. The closest mountains are one and a half hours away, and since we arrived in the summer, it was smoky as hell due to forest fires. We couldn't see much, except that it was 11:30 p.m. and still light outside. I was still optimistic because I'd found the college radio station and two lesbians were d.j.-ing some awesome club dance music. Mom still had a few days until her plane left and I couldn't wait to get on with my life, to get further from everything I knew.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Embarrassing Oneself in the Name of Honesty

I have a problem. But I don't know if it's really a problem. The main character in the novel "The perks of being a wallflower" describes what it is to feel "infinite." I read the book when I was 22. I can't say that i remember more than that line and the fact that he really likes the smiths' song 'asleep.' Also, I think the main character was sad most of the time.

Well, I know what it means to feel infinite. I get that feeling when I'm soaring down the river in a boat, traveling, writing, or (and this is my problem) having a huge teenage crush on someone.

Oh, I know, it's not as poetic as the others, but it's just a true for me. I revel in the feeling of wanting to see someone and impress her. I hate the way I get all weird around that person and say ridiculous things. I love/hate that it makes me feel vulnerable. I feel totally alive, though. And that's the infinite feeling. It's even better when that person likes you back. And now I'm tired of the word 'crush.' I wanna call it something else. intense interest, maybe.

But intense interests aren't all fun and games, especially now that I'm married. In my early 20s I'd pursue that person until she gave in, then move on to the next one. It was fun and easy until I hurt someone, or I hurt myself. I mean, it's terrible when those feelings aren't reciprocated. I've had my share of intense interest in women who weren't gay (and weren't even interested in giving me a shot). I've made a fool of myself telling someone how I felt about her. Over and over. Or, through notes and song quotes. Or after leaving her apartment, barging back in to pull my beanie over my eyes and say, "I'm sorry, it's just that I really, really like you." And that's where my honesty gets me in trouble. After I vowed to always tell the truth, I started telling the truth loudly, and to people who didn't necessarily want to hear it. But, in these cases, I have to tell people how I feel about them. Just think of all the people in your life who've had special feelings for you but never said anything. Doesn't it feel nice to be told you're beautiful and awesome? I mean, if it's done in a tactful way?

Now, most of you are worrying. What about Mindy? Well, my friends, I love Mindy and I've chosen to spend my life with her for many reasons. One of those reasons is that she understands I'm human. Being married doesn't mean never being attracted to someone ever again. It does mean not acting on those feelings, if that's the agreement you have with your special other person. Being married also means telling the truth. I have a new crush. Mindy knows everything about it. And of course I feel badly about it. How dare I enjoy the company of someone else when I have everything I could ask for right at home. It's not like that, though. I enjoy the awkward moments of life and sometimes I create them for myself to hate, enjoy, and get through.

If you're curious, here are the usual qualifications for you to be the person I have an intense interest in:

1. You must be absolutely new to me
2. You must love an art form in which I have no talent
3. You must have dark or curly hair
4. You must be a little curvy
5. You must not realize your own beauty so I can have the joy of telling you how awesome and beautiful you are.

"And in that moment, I swear we were infinite."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Archaeology is Controlled Destruction

We destroy history even though we claim to be protecting it. But that's the catch, really, In order to interpret what's in the ground, you have to dig it up. Once you dig it up, it's gone.

This is a concept my cousin-in-law doesn't grasp.

We were at Mom and Dad's yesterday, hanging with Grandma or whatever, when mom's phone rings. She says, "she's right here!" and hands me the phone. Now, listen. No one in my family calls me unless they have a question. Those questions, you guessed it, are usually about "arrowheads" or some rock they found that they think looks like a petrified foot. Generally, I answer those questions. I've had many kids bring rocks to me, "what kind is it?" Well, I'm not a geologist, but I usually just say something so they feel good about themselves. I guess that's what Kurt was looking for when he called to relay this story:

He and a buddy are leasing 40 acres somewhere, you know, farming it. Well, they happened to see this nice rise in the middle of the field. Like,a big bump. So, they got curious and took a bobcat to the thing and found 60 arrowheads! (he tells me) He mentions it's right by the bend of a creek. Then he says they're 3-4 feet down already and asked me how far it will go on. They've found "them stones they grind food on," "black clay stuff." When he asks how far it will go I say, "I'm not telling you."

So, it really sounds like he knows what he's doing, right?

You can imagine what I want to say to him is worse than what I actually say. It goes something like this: You're breaking my heart with every word. I actually want to cry. You've dug down thousands of years and destroyed something beautiful that can never be replaced. I tell him also that he should have reported the site and that what he's doing is probably illegal. I said that I wish he would've told me so we could've documented the place. "We're videotaping and using shovels, going real slow." is his response. Then he asks what I mean by documenting.

I'm really mad at this point and I'm begging him to stop and telling him he has no idea what he's doing. Then I say, "If you find bones, please stop and report it." He says he will. Right. Then he mentions they're at least half way through anyway, so what does it matter?

I'm always amazed at how little people understand. Everyone knows I went to college to be an archaeologist. That's why they ask me questions. That's why you'd think they'd realize that they didn't go to school for that and shouldn't pretend they know how to do it. I've never once pretended to be an accountant, like, sneaking into H and R Block and doing someone's taxes. I've also never sneaked onto a job site and started constructing or laying brick. Why not? Because I don't fucking know how.

Of course everyone is an archaeologist. All you need is a shovel, a case of PBR, and a good buddy with a bobcat. It can't be that hard, right?

How do I get people to understand that archaeology is less about the products, but more about their placement in the soil? Does Kurt really think I dig huge holes and sack up points and that's it? I make maps, take notes, dig in 10 cm controlled levels usually 1x1 metre. It's like finding an antique that's a couple hundred years old, then taking it out and using it as target practice and then burning it in your wood stove.

And again, it all goes back to respect and racism. If there was a tombstone in the middle of the field, you bet you ass they wouldn't have touched the thing. If an old church were there, they wouldn't strip it apart and knock it over. At least, I hope they wouldn't.

Here's another thing to know about archaeologists: we always work for the bad guys. MoDOT wants to blow up a hill, we check first. If there's something there, we take it out so it won't be lost forever. For AMEC, the man made lake is flooding hundreds of sites. We take out that site so it doesn't wash away. Archaeologists, though, would choose to leave sites in the ground. It's the best way to preserve it. If there's a site that's not being adversely affected by anything, leave it where it is. Tell someone to report it to the State Historic Preservation Office. That way, no one will ever bother the thing.

Now, if you stumble across a projectile point lying in your own field, sure, I'll take a look at it and you can keep it.

But if you're ever out digging up a site, don't call me and ask me to "come take a look at it." I will not pat you on the back for finding artifacts with a bobcat and a shovel.

About Me

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Writer, teacher, and archaeologist. Contributing essayist in the anthology "Crooked Letter I: Coming Out In the South" from NewSouth Books.