Archive for July, 2012

1948 Olympic Poster

On August 5, 1948, a pretty young woman, at 28 married and the mother of a 2-year-old boy, ran in track and field for France in the 14th Olympic Games.  She broke the French record for the 80-meter hurdles there and ran relays as well.  Her name was Janine Lamouche (“the fly”), but now everybody calls her “Jamie” (pronounced “ZjahMEE” in that lush way the French pronounce everything.)

In 1948 (or indeed pretty much always) I was unaware of the Olympics.  I can say with near-certainty that on the US night that would have been the English day in 1948 when Jamie, running like a particularly determined antelope, broke that record, my dad was sitting in the kitchen reading Victor Hugo over soda crackers dipped in milk.  In the morning he would note that Hugo’s facility with description bordered on excessive.  “Seven pages to describe a cart!”  I heard analyses of Victor Hugo’s style all my life, but never a word about sports.  The world of athletics was not disdained in my house; it simply didn’t exist.  I would later spend four years at Indiana University, where basketball is The First Cause, without ever managing to get to a single game.  Blasphemy, but I just couldn’t see the point.  There were no stories at basketball games.

But 64 years later I am privy to a story about sports, about the Olympics, in London.  It is Jamie’s story from a world of which I know nothing and a time before mine.  But Jamie, now 92, is a friend, an admired personage in my life, and so I am honored to share it.  And it isn’t really about the Olympics.

Jamie and I, Ainhoa, France

In 1941, Jamie had a wisdom tooth extracted and an infection set in.  Dentistry back then was only a step away from the blacksmith, oil of clove being regarded as a panacea, and France was occupied.  Even if there were antibiotics equal to her infection, they were in German hands. It was one of those infections that spread, and kill.  They still occur.  The infection settled in her right leg, which swelled to elephantine proportions.  In a Paris emergency room they had to slice off her gabardine slacks with a scalpel.  For a month her fiancé, Claude, took turns with her parents, sleeping on the floor beside her hospital bed and giving her sulfa powders every four hours.  It was a life-and-death struggle but she survived, at 5’8” weighing only 77 pounds and unable to walk a single step.

“You’ll never run again,” doctors told her.

Jamie’s parents had insisted that she become a bilingual secretary.  She had rebelled and was training to become professeur d’éducation physique, something sterner and more refined than the American “gym teacher.”  Now a sedentary life behind a typewriter seemed an inevitable doom.


Jamie was taken to the family farm near Trézelles, where her grandparents and great-grandparents raised livestock, a truck garden and made brandy from the plums in their orchard.  Tough old Gauls, they’d just survived WWI and now endured WWII  Same Germans, different year.  They fed the chickens, milked the cows and merely watched as their pretty granddaughter slowly walked, then jogged, then ran like the wind through the potato fields.  There was no point in trying to stop her and they didn’t try.  When she returned to Paris she resumed training amid German tanks on the streets and earned her degree.  And kept running.  French champion at the eighty meter hurdles several times, she married Claude when the war was over, produced a son a year later, and kept running.  In two more years she would be one of only 37 French women athletes at the 14th Olympic Games.

Janine Lamouche on Left

London was still in ruins from Nazi bombs in 1948, and rationing was even more severe than it had been during the war.  Each British citizen was allowed, for example, only six eggs and one ounce of bacon per month!  England could barely feed the 3,714 men and 390 women who struggled across a war-torn continent and the English Channel to compete in the first Olympic Games since 1936.   The athletes were allowed only the same rations given dockworkers, but some countries sent additional food for their teams.

Hearing this, I imagined barges loaded high with baguettes as they chugged across the Channel to feed French athletes the delicacies to which they were accustomed.   Other barges of salty butter, complicated pâtés and at least six varieties of mushroom, dried and packaged in little burlap bags, each with a fleur-de-lis medallion on a red ribbon.  Tins of exotic canned meats, fresh produce still trailing the dirt of Normandy.  And one whole barge devoted exclusively to pastries and chocolate.  We’re talking France for crying out loud.  And the Channel is only 21 miles across at Dover.  How hard could it be?

Too hard, apparently.

“For breakfast we had semolina cooked in water; we ate very poorly,” Jamie says in an interview televised on July 28, 2012, linked here.  (In French, but you can see her Olympic badge and the numbered cloth patch she wore pinned to her shirt when she ran, and pick out a few English words, since Jamie is a Shakespeare buff and reads the Bard in his own language.)   “At that time we ran for the pleasure,” she tells the young interviewer.  “We were using our natural abilities; we weren’t machines.  We didn’t have private coaches or the hours, hours, hours of training.  It was better.  Now it’s all business and money, money, money.  It’s a circus.”

And it is, but Jamie’s story is the story of everyone who gets the stuffing kicked out of them and then refuses to stay down.  The Olympics are just the flashy, athletic tip of an iceberg in which getting up and running when you can’t even walk is the submerged, and metaphoric, mass.  A skinny girl, running in a potato field.  A good story.

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“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s sad about the snake and one is tempted to write something touching, a sort of eulogy, even though it’s just a metaphor.  But here it’s a metaphor for a world that is both physically and metaphysically close to all authors.  It’s a metaphor for the world of publishing.

Averse to “business,” I blithely write books and blogs about all the strange things that interest me.  But the business of publishing is a field of bloodthirsty battles right now, strewn with the smoking ordnance launched by both sides – traditional publishing and independent author publishing.

Educated as a sociologist and published in both venues, I can only take the long sociologist’s view while happily typing stories into an electronic reality that pays my rent while eroding the reality that used to pay my rent.  I can’t take sides, but there are sides.

Recently somebody wrote a scathing 4-part article in the Boston Phoenix (normally a young, savvy, cutting-edge local paper, so the article is odd) slamming independent author publishing as a “dead-end.”  Of course it isn’t a dead end or any kind of end; it’s new; it’s a beginning.  My friend Lou wrote a careful, thorough and compelling response to the article and to one of its supporters that is so direct and clear that no more need be said.

Why DIY Publishing is not a Dead End

by M. Louisa Locke.
Posted on July 15, 2012

This morning I read a post by Anderson Porter about a four-piece article written a few weeks in the Boston Phoenix by Eugenia Williamson, entitled The dead end of DIY publishing. I had read the Williams piece earlier, and the more than fifty comments, which in my opinion had done a more than adequate job of pointing out its problems. But when Anderson seemed to accept much of her analysis, and labeled the comments as “the usual pitchfork-waving, spittoon-dinging dismissals, I found myself spending the rest of the morning writing a reply. When I finished, I thought I ought to expand a bit, and post what I had to say as a blog, thereby at least justifying a morning lost to writing on my next book. So here goes:  (Click here to see Lou’s post entire.)

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Okay, this is the weird Alaska story.  I started in grad school in St. Louis University’s English Department, but

Thomas Aquinas

almost immediately realized the extent to which I didn’t care about Thomas Aquinas.  St. Louis U. is a Jesuit school, but they apparently failed to realize that Thomas was a Dominican and went right on inserting his theology into every single class.  I switched to another grad program at another university, but not before seeing, and thus remembering, St. Louis U.’s oddly hideous mascot/logo, the billiken.

The school’s athletic teams are called The Billikens, and there is a billiken statue on campus.  The image always struck me as creepy, a little demonic, exuding some unwholesome sadness despite its vapid grin.  To say that I didn’t like it is a generous understatement.  It did, and does, have an effect similar to that of turning over a rock.  I’d really rather not see what’s there.

Billiken Statue at St. Louis U.

Fast forward many years.  I’m in Juneau, Alaska, on the last leg of a delightful trip.  And suddenly I’m surrounded by billikens.  At the Alaska State Museum I rounded a corner and was confronted by a pinlit case of 59 of them, carved in ivory.  There were billikens in every shop, and an entire shop devoted to nothing butbillikens.  Supposedly they were a “mystical” figure native to Alaska, traditionally carved in ivory by “Eskimos” during ancient winters.  But the billikens bore none of the traditional native designs and looked more like an evil twin of the Buddha, a twin who somehow escaped the notice of an entire history.  And how did the strange little image wind up on the stationery of Jesuit academics 3,000 miles away?

59 Billikens at Alaska State Museum

Nobody knew anything about the origins of the creature.  The staff at the museum didn’t know.  The Tlingit teenager at the billiken shop was clueless, as were five other shopkeepers.  So I dashed off to the Juneau library, where the librarians also didn’t know but were delighted to fire up two laptops and find out.  (I love librarians!)  Their research and later my more extensive efforts together reveal a strange story.

One night during the very early years of the 20th century a young St. Louis art teacher named Florence Pretz supposedly had a dream.  (It may or may not be significant that the date of this dream falls securely within the spiritualism craze that would only fade away in the 1920’s, but the connection did occur to me.)  Florence dreamed of the figure that would be named “billiken,” and upon awakening, drew it.  (It is also similar to a pixie figure illustrating popular doggerel poems by a Canadian poet of the time.)  She said, or billiken marketers later said she said, that the creature was, “The God of Things As They Ought to Be.”

Florence patented billiken in 1908, becoming the first to patent a god, and the thing became a national craze.  Women gave each other little ceramic billikens for luck, men wore them as watch fobs.  There were billiken teacups, jigsaw puzzles, buttons, coin banks and keychains.  And in the middle of all this, a St.Louis merchant happened to travel to Nome, Alaska, where he contracted with a native carver named Angokwazhuk for a shipment of hand-carved ivory billikens.  Eager for work, many native carvers jumped on the bandwagon, cranking out thousands of a figure with which they had no connection whatever.  Thus was born the wholly erroneous story of billiken as an “Eskimo” deity, a story alive and well in the shops of Juneau to this minute!

At some point a St. Louis jokester pointed out that the Jesuit university’s coach, John Bender, looked like a billiken.  Cartoons were penned, and the fond decision to name the school’s athletic teams “Billikens” was made.

Then around 1920 the billiken craze evaporated overnight.  Popular billiken songs were forgotten and a million little statues and charms vanished into boxes of junk that would later be buried in landfills.  Billiken was a symbol of the prodromal “pop therapy” spun from vague counter-Freudian ideas just taking root in the mass mind of the time.  “Think positive and things will be as they should be.”  Positive thinking is notoriously unreliable, and time obliterated billiken, leaving only a Midwestern university athletic department and a groundless Alaskan myth no one in Alaska can explain.

And one tourist with St. Louis roots wondering where that disturbing little image really came from.


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Stories exist on a Bell Curve, and a perhaps unpleasant truth is that our insatiable craving is for those at least three standard deviations from the mean.  Toward the violent/dramatic at either end.  Ie:  Joan of Arc at one end, Jeffrey Dahmer at the other.  In Alaska I found a story that exists at both ends, or at least it exists in violence, drama, cruelty and injustice at one end.  At the other may lie a transcendent normalcy.

Remember Snow Falling on Cedars?  The novel by David Guterson, winner of the Pen Faulkner Award in 1995 and a blockbuster movie in 1999, had as a core theme, racism.  Specifically anti-Japanese and Japanese anti-American racism before and during WWII.  I loved the soundtrack, bought the CD minutes after exiting the movie and am listening to it now.  But the soundtrack doesn’t match the story I found, which will never have a soundtrack because it will never be a novel made into a movie.  Why not?  Because decency and fairness do not make good novels/movies.  Indeed, this story would have had no effect on me at all had it not been for my exposure to its dark twin in Cedars.

The population of Ketchican, Alaska, in 1942 was officially 4,700.  In reality, it was less than half that, since the census included several neighboring villages and an Aleut refugee camp halfheartedly thrown together after Japanese bombings of the Aleutian Islands.  People of Japanese ancestry were not permitted American citizenship until 1952, so Kichirobei (“Jimmy”) Tatsuda and his wife, Sen Seike, could not have been “Americans” even if in 1910 they’d immigrated to a state.  But they didn’t; they immigrated to Alaska, which wouldn’t become a state for 42 more years.  They settled in tiny Ketchican and opened a boarding house, then in 1916 a grocery.  Their five children worked beside Jimmy and Sen Seike in the grocery, attending Ketchican’s schools.

After Pearl Harbor, the three Tatsuda sons, Charley, Bill and Jimmy Jr., despite having no official citizenship whatever, enlisted in U.S. Armed Forces, eventually receiving military decorations.  But the senior Tatsudas and their daughters, like 120,000 others of Japanese ancestry, were forcibly taken from their home in Ketchican and placed in an internment camp.  Their home and business, like those of the Japanese family in Cedars, were empty, abandoned.  And this is where the story leaps to the other end of the Bell Curve.

Small towns can be narrow-minded, intolerant and suffocating, depending on the people who live in them.  But in places like Alaska, where cold and isolation demand mutuality for survival, there’s little room for institutionalized social savagery.  Even now, people look out for each other, even for those they don’t like.  Alcoholism, for example, is epidemic in Alaska, but people do not call the police on drunks.  It isn’t done.  Cabbies, bus drivers, restaurant and shop owners instead merely make sure the inebriated are taken home.  The general attitude is one of somber pity rather than censure.

And that attitude must have been present in 1942, when the people of Ketchican didn’t usurp the Tatsuda’s business and didn’t seize ownership of their home.  Instead, they preserved everything, and waited.  They must have repaired a leaking roof, replaced frozen and burst water pipes, kept out rodents and the occasional hibernating bear.  After the war, the Tatsudas came home, to an intact home.  They reopened their grocery.  Everything was as it had been.

The Tatsuda’s grocery is still there.  Now owned by Bill Tatsuda Jr. and his daughter, Katherine, it just looks like a basic, small-town grocery.  There are pickup trucks in the parking lot, and a local woman sells terrific homemade deviled eggs from a cooler inside.  Tatsuda IGA has no soundtrack; its story will not win the Pen Faulkner or an Academy Award for cinematography.  Few of the multiple thousand tourists from the cruise ships have need of groceries, and even if they wandered far enough from the pretty shops near the docks to see Tatsuda’s IGA, they wouldn’t see the story.  Like all things magical, it’s hidden, in plain sight.  Just a little, ordinary grocery, but the secret heart of a nation, I think.

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Travel is all about stories and you really don’t have to leave town to travel, but there’s something about being elsewhere that brings up stories like images on silver halide paper in a darkroom emulsion.  To mix metaphors, the familiar is a thick crust; get out of the familiar, the crust cracks and falls away and there in front of you is… a story.  It will not be the one you expected, wanted or longed for.  It will be different, something lovely, unsettling, curious or revelatory.  And unlike snapshots or souvenir t-shirts, once it’s in your mind it’s yours forever.

I travel for stories and assume all writers do, although overgeneralizations like that are egregious.  To further overgeneralize, doesn’t everybody travel for stories?

Skipping Fodor’s, Frommers, Lonely Planet and Rick Steves, before leaving I scroll through twenty or so pages of (whatever is my destination) titles on Amazon and pick only the odd, intriguing ones.  (Many old, out-of-print travel books are fabulous and free on Kindle, Google Books, Gutenberg et al.)  No detail in these will help me find a decent veggie restaurant or an all-night optometrist, but will create an almost eerie conceptual field in which I’m linked to and present in a place where otherwise I would have been a ghost.  (See The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton for a broader perspective on this.)

Just back from a wonderful and complex Alaskan journey, I still haven’t finished (and will probably never finish)  Ella Higginson’s Alaska The Great Country.  Published in 1910, it has to be the most detailed, exhaustive and beautifully written Alaska travel guide available, even now. And I send psychic cheers to long-dead Ella for saying over and over what I would, a century later, think.  IE: Alaska’s natural beauty surpasses description, and the naming of its thousand faces demands the skill of poets.  And it had something akin to that skill in its original, sonorous names.  “Petersburg” was Seet Ká, “Seward” was Qutellaq, etc.  These were names derived from the world, names of the movements of fish, the shelter of trees.  Now every single fjord, bay, inlet, island and river bears the name of some (frequently British) European male who either was the first European male to explore the area or, having already used his own name, selected the names of other European males from his address book.  His barber back in Leeds, an uncle who might leave him that Georgian mansion near Haworth.   Some of these names, – Winstanley, Moore, Anderson, Bonner – appear above and beside me on genealogical charts.  But doesn’t “the place of swarming mists” sound better than “Winstanley Island”?

But I did read  The Alaska Native Reader (Maria Sháa Tláa Williams, 2009) in its entirety on my Kindle before and during the trip.  A folklore fanatic, anything about other cultures/crafts/costumes/customs/cults will draw me like a moth to flame.  This book turned out to be a compendium of essays about the anger and resentment felt by members of Alaska’s 229 native tribes (speaking 20 different languages and having 11 distinct cultures) at what has been done to them since the first Russian invaders in the 1700’s.

We all know the story; it’s horrible; but no matter how fiercely wished, “decolonization” will never work.  Even the gods cannot reverse time.  Still, a focus on nearly-extinct languages, cultures and skills can at least lead to somebody writing it all down so it doesn’t vanish completely.  That’s the best that can be hoped and I’m all for it even if it means that I, personally, will be hated by a native person because I have blue eyes.  The native person and I do not matter.  What matters is that the organized rage of native people will compel the documentation of native realities before they’re lost forever in the soup of time.

Totem at Saxman Native Village

So there I was in Ketchican, having tramped out to see Saxman (named not for any native who actually lived there, but for S.A. Saxman, a Pennsylvania teacher sent by the U.S. Government to establish Indian schools – he drowned on a winter canoe trip within a year of arrival and his body was never found) “Native Village.” Saxman is a collection of reproduction totem poles and a “clan house” where people from cruise ships pay a great deal to see a video and some costumed children dancing.  Only cruise ship passengers are allowed in the “clan house,” although everyone else can, for five dollars, look at the repro totem poles and shop in the gift shop.  A glowering Tlingit man in t-shirt and jeans stood on the road collecting five dollar bills.  He was gruff, hostile and seemed to be contemplating the slaughter of every tourist snapping photos of the totem poles.  Parents from the Disney cruise were careful to keep their children far from him.  He made everyone edgy.

Including me, even though I’d read The Alaska Native Reader.  Not every angry Native American is expressing resentment about the smallpox, syphilis and slavery, lies, exploitation and ruin brought by Europeans.  Some Native Americans probably just have sinus headaches, bad marriages or defective cable boxes that can make anyone crabby.  Nonetheless, I had a foot in his world and for a time chose to imagine myself a contemporary Tlingit like him, watching myself and a horde of other tourists from all over the world.

The real totem poles fell and rotted over a century ago as the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Yup’ik abandoned millennia-old villages and flocked to work in European enclaves.  In my book-fed mind I saw the ghost-villages, Raven and Eagle, bear and frog toppled and half-buried in snow.  And I saw the Made-In-Taiwan replicas of artistic, complex and highly-evolved cultural artifacts sold to people (including me) who may admire but cannot begin to understand or honor them.  I felt the sharp edge of a sorrow-filled shadow that makes Alaska’s native people yearn for “decolonization,” an impossible return to the past.   The book made a bridge, however tenuous and fleeting, between me and a Tlingit man collecting five dollar bills on a road that leads to brightly colored emptiness.

But my other foot was a tourist’s, and I bought a pair of pewter earrings depicting Raven stealing the moon.  I like the Raven legends, am drawn to Raven and ravens here as in all other contexts.  And so I have a writer’s story that will only die when I do, and a pair of earrings one of which I will eventually lose in a dressing room, leaving the other one to haunt me.  Both are good, but the story is better.

And that’s only one.

To be continued.

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