Tuesday, August 20, 2013

two is all numbers greater than one

In one of those moments that have helped me understand who I am as a person and teacher, and helps me explain what I mean by irony, I met the uncle of one of my students at the student’s college graduation party. Ben and I had struck up a solid friendship when he was enrolled in my course on American Indian Literature and we continued to work together on various projects after the course ended. Ben often spoke to me about what his uncle was teaching him about being Anishinaabe and how he wanted to bring those teachings into his academic work as well as into his personal life. He had spoken of his uncle so warmly that I eagerly anticipated meeting him at the party. His uncle and I ended up standing together next to a table full of food. Ben introduced us and then headed off to mingle with his other guests.

His uncle was not a rabbit, but
might have been if you
wenebojo my meaning.
art by jim denomie
After an awkward few moments of silence, his uncle asked, “So you taught my nephew t’ be Ind’n?” He had that rez accent that elided unnecessary vowels and didn’t look at me when he spoke, just kept his eyes fixed on the table on the other side of the yard where his sister and nieces and nephews sat. He didn’t gaze off into the far horizon like Indians in the movies did; he looked instead at his family.

“Good lord, no!” I wanted to say, but he spoke with such a lack of emphasis that I felt I should as well. “No,” I said flatly and slightly defensively. “I teach American Indian literature.”

He looked at me, unconcerned with literature. “Did you teach him to see two things at once?” He held up two fingers as he said this, showing me the back of his hand and then flipped his hand around. Still the two fingers, but now the front of his hand. He’d multiplied the two by itself in this action I later realized.

That was an unexpected question. I stammered something vague and noncommital until it occurred to me that that is exactly what we did in the lit course. We looked at what happened in the story and we looked at what the story meant. We recognized that words might both describe the sky and also symbolize the internal states of characters, and we sought ways to see how that story in the book might help us think about situations in our personal lives as well as how they might help us think about situations we saw in the world around us. Realizing that seeing two things at once is exactly what we did, I said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

If I were some kind of New Age faker (fakir?), I’d lie and tell you that he shook my hand at that moment and said, “Then, my fellow human being, you taught my nephew well to be an authentic Native American and I give big thanks unto the Great Spirit that Nephew had the great good fortune to be your student.” He’d have taken out the sacred pipe then (he was sure to be a pipe carrier as all Indians in all New Age faker stories seem to be). “We shall smoke the sacramental tobacco, Friend, and extend the good blessings of that wisdom to all and send our thanks up to our Father the Sky.” Then he’d give me an Indian name, Newsmans Smirk of course, and after writing a bestselling self-help book, I would open a retreat for the worried well who’d flock to attend week-long seminars where I would draw veils over their eyes (as New Age fakers do) while relieving their bank accounts of thousands of dollars in spiritual development fees.

Newsmans Smirk (not his real name)
offers healing to people who have money
and reveal varying degrees of cleavage
What really happened after I agreed that I had taught Ben to see two things at once, I don’t recall. I’m sure I ate something and then later headed back home, but Ben’s uncle’s words stuck with me, as did that particular multiplying gesture he did with his hand. He could have gone on ad infinitum multiplying two by two just by flipping his hand back and forth. Thinking about that gesture I came to realize by my own private reckoning, of course, that two needed to be understood as all numbers greater than one. Two was multiplicity, two was multitude. Maybe Ben’s uncle intended me to arrive at this point but he sure didn’t offer me any direct instruction.


Irony is the same as two being all numbers greater than one. Irony is the ability to see through one thing to gain a sense of what else it is—of all the other things it might be. Irony does not allow the world to be opaque, impenetrable, singularly meaningful; it resists such fundamentalism. It treats everything as a window opening on to something else.


Friday, August 16, 2013

coyotema

Years after escaping Bigfoot and at the other end of Minnesota from Grandpa’s mink ranch, I sat one afternoon in a long line of cars that were trying to move from the county road we were on to the state highway. Traffic on the highway was unremitting; weekenders heading from their north woods lake cabins back to the Twin Cities made a steady stream that cars in my line could only break into at the rate of what seemed like one every ten minutes. Time dragged there in the car.
 
This photo can be found on the website
of David Locky whose last name sounds almost like
the Norse trickster Loki's.
A coyote sat on the embankment at the side of the road in the long grass at the edge of the treeline watching the cars with a newsman’s smirk. As my car inched forward—wait, scratch that. As my car millimetered forward I stared at the critter there, thinking he didn’t have it half bad and his ears perked at my thought and the smirk broadened into what I could have sworn was a human smile. The teeth seemed wrong for a canine, but before I could really be sure, he turned tail and bolted for the bush. What struck me at first as dog-like yipping seemed to morph into a cackling burst of undeniably human laughter. I found myself wondering if what I’d seen was a man dressed in a coyote skin or, even better, maybe he’d been a shapeshifter, a person in coyote form. Even cooler, what if it were a Coyote in person form dressed in a coyote skin. 

Canis Latrans is what naturalists call the coyote, the laughing dog, and as quick as that laughing creature turned to the woods, I had a sudden, though ultimately unacted on, desire to escape my life and lead his. A long boring line of cars millimetering forward seemed an apt analogy for what was wrong with the modern world and I could turn from that and be coyote free—just abandon the car and take up with carrion. He laughed at me for a reason. He was telling me that one of us was free to run off into the woods and its many delights—tall trees, sweet berries, skittering chipmunks—while the other of us was stuck in his car listening to the engine idle. I can see the narrow track he disappeared down more clearly in my memory than I can see the color of the car I drove in those days. But I still can’t recall his teeth all that clearly.

Wenabozho is not a coyote

He was the first coyote I’d seen (in coyote form) since committing myself to studying the work that tricksters were doing in the work of American Indian writers like Gerald Vizenor, Thomas King, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Silko. I was a graduate student in American Studies in those days and Coyote, I had learned in my research, is the trickster in dozens upon dozens of tribal literary traditions ranging over most of western North America from the high plains in the north to the desert Southwest and over into the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest (where he surely shared some turf with Bigfoot). Covering that range of territory, it was clear Coyote got around some and while it would have been more tribally appropriate in the woods of northern Minnesota for me to see Wenabozho, the trickster-culture hero of my Anishinaabe Indian ancestors, I was happy to see that coyote on that day in alien territory.



Tricksters and the stories about them existed in part, I’d learned, to help us understand what we value in life. Tricksters teach not with words, but by the direct example of their actions. The stories about them don’t have morals, because morals are just words we can mouth and in mouthing them without reflection we hollow them out, reducing good stories and their inherent ambiguities to empty cant—dogma, when what we need is coyotema. Instead of morals, trickster stories contain teachings. We learn from the stories not by what they tell us, but by thinking about them longly, deeply, quickly, fleetingly—however we need to think about them at any given juncture in our lives. They form a type of critical consciousness and the story of that day teaches me that I should laugh at what’s wrong with the modern world, the one that sees more power in millimeters than in coyotes. It also taught me that, despite the temptation of the woods, at the end of the day I should always head for home.


Friday, August 9, 2013

bigfoot heading my way

The story was one that a newscaster relates with a knowing smirk and the slightest wink, as if trying to subtly dislodge a gnat stuck under an eyelid, yet what he said terrified me that night and the next day. The reds and greens of the early ‘70s color TV, slightly off and slightly too intense no matter how often Grandpa fussed with it, gave the anchor an extraterrestrial pallor that, coupled with the helmet hair favored the nation over by newspeople, made it seem like he was beaming a message to us from some orbiting starship.

Not how the logo looked back then
Really though, he was just a few miles away in Mason City, Iowa. One might call the TV studio a cornfield starship I suppose, a high tech machine used to transport world and national news to the farmers in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, as well as the daily ag reports by which the locals could chart the future health of their economies, but this story concerned something anomalous, a word I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know back then.

I can’t remember if I was sitting on the floor between Grandma’s and Grandpa’s chairs that night, or if I was flopped on the nearby couch watching the news. I was not all that old, maybe ten or eleven, and so I might even have been snuggled in the chair with my little grandma (as I called the four-foot something Berget Kennedy; my other grandma, Phyllis Meland, was a comparatively towering five-foot two-inch tall woman I called Big Grandma, unaware in my youthful, perhaps male, naiveté that one should never call a woman “big”). Grandpa hired me every summer for a week or two to help him on the mink ranch—strangely, or perhaps not, there was rarely any news concerning the fur market on the ag report—and in the evening, after a hard day’s work, he’d take Little Grandma and I out for milkshakes and then we’d end the evening in front of the TV watching the news. It was a great life there with Little Grandma and Grandpa Milt, even if the TV wasn’t as good as that back home on the crabgrass frontier of the inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis where I grew up. Watching the news, really? How dull, or at least it usually was. That night differed. What the newsman reported sticks with me still; it’s the only news story I ever remember watching down there.

The alien newsman, his redly glowing smirk and greenly winking eye, wrapped up the newscast that night with a story about a Bigfoot sighting along one of the highways or county roads near Mason City. At that point in my life, like many others at that point in the mid-1970s, I was an avid consumer of all manner of literature concerning UFOs, the Abominable Snowman (who I’d not yet learned to call Yeti), the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot. The pocket-sized paperbacks that contained these stories were so cheaply produced that the spine cracked before you were even halfway through them and the pages, which had begun to yellow the moment light touched them, drifted loose and it was something of a frustration to keep them in order. I remember having rubber bands holding many books together. That’s the kind of kid I was, orderly. I wanted to read each word on each page in the order they were written, trusting that the truth in the stories concerning these anomalous phenomena would become clearer as each chapter wound to a close.



The newsman’s Bigfoot story, which I now can’t help but think of as having a greenish-reddish tint (there’s no tin-type sepia tones in my treasured memories), was an odd one compared to all the others I knew. Nowadays all manner of theories abound concerning Bigfoot and how he might be a humanoid or a human-primate hybrid, or even a transdimensional extraterrestrial being, but in those days most everyone thought of him as an animal, a big bipedal ape, and what the newsman reported this Bigfoot animal to be doing was something no animal ever does (except the dogs on about half the farms my grandpa took me to visit). He chased the car of those who spotted him and they, rightly frightened as my younger self understood, gunned it, pressing the car faster and faster and still the Bigfoot peered in their window and hammered on the roof of their car. They finally got the car up to sixty and left the creature behind. The newsman ended the story with a warning. “When they last saw him Bigfoot was heading north. Our viewers in the Albert Lea area should be vigilant.” That green wink.


Grandpa’s mink ranch was just ten minutes outside Albert Lea and let me tell you I had trouble getting to sleep that night. I didn’t hear or see anything out of the ordinary, but still I suspected Bigfoot was likely nearby. I was in the Albert Lea area, and so he had to be heading my way.


#

While the phrase “mink ranch” calls up images of vast herds of mink roaming over open plains, tended by horse-riding “minkboys” who had to be, given the tiny necks of the not-so-large mink, extremely accurate in their lassoing abilities, the reality of Grandpa’s ranch was much more mundane. What we called the mink yard was a few fenced in acres of good southern Minnesota real estate, kind of woodsy with lots of trees under which sat row upon row upon row of mink pens. Grandpa’s herd ran to about ten thousand head of mink and that pretty much meant ten thousand mink pens as mink are not really herd animals, and prefer to live solo rather than in packs.

The pens looked kind of like this, and yes
it was cruel, but at the time, it was just
what Grandpa did

 The pens were about three feet long with a box at one end for the mink to sleep in and a galvanized tin cup at the other that needed to be filled with water twice a day, three times when it was really hot. That was my job. Watering the mink. I moved down the rows, a hose that seemed a mile long looped over my shoulder to gain a little leverage on the weight of the mile’s worth of water I dragged behind me, and splashed water into the cups. Sometimes a mink would peer at me out of the hole in the box at the other end of the pen and some of the more aggressive ones might occasionally charge out at me, but mostly nothing happened. It was a long job watering mink. Not a lot of stimulation, nothing to really go wrong, plenty of time to think. As a ten-year old boy I’m sure I was thinking about the Minnesota Twins a lot as well as about whether I’d get a milkshake, a malt, or a root beer float when Grandpa drove us to town that evening, but that day, the next day after the reddish-green Bigfoot transmission, I thought about Bigfoot and how he must be coming my way.

He found me in the mink yard, at the far end of it, alone. Grandpa had a whole crew of men to help him feed and tend to the mink; men who gladly forfeited the watering job to me when I came to visit. The last task of the day was to feed and water the mink one more time and given their superior manpower, Grandpa and his hired men always finished long before I did. Meaning I was alone out there, a few hundred yards away from the safety of the farmhouse, meaning I was alone with my thoughts, meaning Bigfoot was there with me. The woods at the back of the mink yard were not dense and the trees were not particularly towering, but it was dark back in there, even in the full light of day. The swampy muck of the forest floor made a green stink in the August heat, the musk of the earth blended with the humid stench from the hog farm on the other side of the woods into a thick cloud of yuck. Not that Bigfoot would notice. My books said he smelled awful and could I be sure, really sure, that what I smelled was swamp muck and humid hog shit and not Bigfoot. At that moment I wasn’t so sure, but rather than test the air I speeded up. Better to finish the job quickly than risk an encounter with that big hairy smelly something that had chased a car in Iowa.

The mink pens stretched in a long row in front of me and the sight line they made, there at the very end of the mink yard, pointed straight into the woods. Late afternoon sun cut through the dark at the top of the trees, spilling some of that golden farmland light into what was otherwise twisted and scrubby and dim. A blue so vague it was kind of gray shone in thin strips between the trunks of the trees, the sky over the field on the other side of the woods. In the space of about ten strides I shifted from a brisk jog into a full bore run. The newscaster’s report swelled inside me. They hadn’t got away till they hit sixty! Splashing water recklessly into the tin cups, I ran so hard that I couldn’t hear the creature I was now certain was there. I couldn’t hit sixty, but I would get as close as humanly possible.

Ostman told his story
 years later
Risking a glance toward the woods I saw nothing, but the stink was dense and he was paralleling my steps I knew, keeping just inside the treeline, just out of my sight, a clever hunter. The story of Albert Ostman leapt to mind. He’d been kidnapped by a family of Sasquatch back in the ‘20s and held captive for days or weeks, I couldn’t remember, and the length of his captivity didn’t matter when everything you wanted—good TV, orderly books, doting grandparents—was soon going to be lost to you.

I thought about ditching the hose and turning tail for home, but I couldn’t let Grandpa down. He had hired me, was paying me to do a simple job so there could be no quitting. I moved as quick as possible, damned if lugging a thousand-yard hose didn’t slow you down some, making my way toward the last few pens, right at the very back of the mink yard where one of the farmhands had scrawled “THIS IS WHERE THE DINKS HANG OUT” on the fence in grease pen, because it was there that the dinks did hang out when the guys stopped to take a leak. On any other day I would have stopped and taken a quick whiz just to sanctify what the real farmhands had long sanctified, but not today. What if Bigfoot caught you with your dink out?

I was almost done, nearing the end of the row. The stink was still thick in the air around me and I was still moving too fast to do a good or even adequate job, but damned if I was going to stop now—and then, quick as I thought it, I was pulled up short. Jinxed myself. The hose caught on the edge of something, not pinched because the water still ran, and I was left four or five pens short of the end. I was too scared to even curse and no matter how hard I tugged, the hose wouldn’t budge. The woods threw long shadows away from me and rather than running back and freeing the hose, I put my thumb over the end of it and arced a spray of water that managed, I believe to this day, to fill the last few remaining cups better than the previous couple dozen had been filled.

I dropped the hose as soon as I was sure the last mink was watered and booked for the house, slapped the spigot handle at the wellhead closed as I sprinted past, vaulted the gate rather than waste any time opening it, and ran straight into the kitchen where Little Grandma asked me what I was doing.

“Just running,” I lied. She knew I liked to run and it was the easiest way to explain why I was panting and flushed and sweaty.

Evidence was crucial in those Bigfoot and UFO books, a plaster cast of a footprint or a blurry photograph added a layer of authority to an experience, and I had nothing but my own labored breathing to offer in testimony to what had taken place, to Bigfoot’s presence in that swampy woods. Little Grandma might believe me if I told her, but grandparents believe things of their grandchildren that rational people never would, and if I were to call the TV studio my story would become a good night tale for sleepy farmers.  A green smirk and a red wink at the end of a long day.

“Just running,” I said again, my breath still coming in quick gasps. The lie, I knew, was easier to believe than the truth.