In this section I talk partly about how things go bad that we once thought were good. I also touch on a very serious problem, that of academia being used to fabricate lies. We expect politicians to lie. We expect journalists to be self-serving. But we expect academia to uphold some kind of beneficial truth. Naive? Of course. But how else can I keep my sense of humor? Tweet me!
What happened in Alaska? What happened in Matale?
When does something go bad?
When does something you thought was good turn into something that is bad? When is something you thought was beautiful go to pretty to pretty ugly to ugly. What are the steps as you ratchet your way to disdain and disgust? Are there infinitesimally small ratchet-steps downward until some moment when you have hit the floor, red and waxed or fake wood or tile or just dirt. Is it a straight line? How do you get there? Is there any way to fight your way back. What's lost on the way? Can't you hold onto your good humor or at least your sense of humor or at least a humor? And what about your sense of forgiveness? What formulas of forgiveness can you use to take you up a ratchet or move back up to a state of like or tolerance at least? Too much to ask?
Is it a decision or a set of decisions? A moment or a monument? Private or public? Silent or explosive? Gradual or all of a sudden?
When you beat your wife did you ever think "I could be sorry for this later." When you thought of beating your wife...beating your wife!!?? What am I writing about?! Did you think, "She's gonna make me sorry." Did anything whisper or yell to you "I'd better not." Were you drunk? On alcohol? On power? What "power" is it to beat your loved one-ever! To break the walls of your own house? Who do you share a home with? Who do you share a home with when your home is a small island? A precinct? A ward? A street? When do you start beating? How do you start beating? How long did you meditate on this beat? Did anything at all along the way stop you or make you think to stop or make you stop to think?
"Share my story. Write about my story. It's Sri Lankan." But how could I write about a Canadian who beat his wife? Can we count the pressure points, the ratchets as he first considered lifting a finger against his bride? Who thinks that? Who does that? "You are still the man," I could have told him in his language, not mine, because there's no word for that in my language. That expression belongs to Here. "You take control." "You take control sounds nice." Men lose control.
What is the nature of control? What are "controls?" A Supreme Court ideologue dies. His nasty grip of control is gone. We speak of controls like "checks and balances," a nice financial asymptote. But what are the points of deflection, inflection, predilection, traction?
He asks me how I like Sri Lanka. First sentence? Like asking me my religion. It's too out there. It's friendly and lite like a lo-cal yogurt. You can never get enough of that. But you can get enough of Sri Lanka. How? You can see enough. See enough? How's that possible? There are thousands of corners to this country. There are 30,000 tanks to explore. Your presumed focus of research Most of them ancient. How can you say you've seen enough? "Because I've seen too much."
Too much! Outrageous. You're a foreigner. You have no language, no ties to this country, no "relations" who could relate anything to you. Anyway what's enough? What's too much? How did you come up with this? Did you tell your wife? What did she say? What do you mean she'd also seen enough? Did you put the screws on her? Urge her to say that? Invite her to say that? Tempt her to say that? Cajole her to say that? Trick her into saying that? Enough? Enough is enough.
She said, "Let's not get paralyzed by this." She said, "just keep writing down your words." She said, "just keep thinking about these things." She said, "sometimes I feel like we've seen enough." She said, "I don't want this to turn out like Alaska."
What about Alaska? What was the beginning, middle, and end of that chapter?
He'd lived in Alaska a year when he started to write. Actually he started to write the first day. Things he didn't know a thing about. Things he noticed and didn't understand or thought he understood. The dip of a road, a change of elevation, a shadow, a breeze, a dapple of sunlight, the moistness of a bud, the taste of a new leaf, a speck of dust on a petal, a cloud of gravel dust along the road, the roar of a motor, the grace of a feather or wing, the sound of a bird landing, the sound of distant gunshots or the engine sound of a Piper Cub.
Landed near him one day a sandhill crane, his height. Another friend had told her, in Fairbanks, showing her his treasure, and maybe his dowry, a freezer full of game meat, "Sandhills are good eating." The landed sandhill here, on this gravel road, bigger than life it seemed, scared this city boy. Why wouldn't it? Whoever saw a bird this big closeup and very much alive. Good eating? This marvel? It flew at 11,000 feet over the Alaska Range to get here. She flew over the Alaska range with a canister of oxygen between her legs. Had the patient had a heart attack or was he just dead drunk? What about the pilot? Ready to fly? Dead drunk? Heavily drinking that afternoon? Moderately drunk? Just a bit drunk? Ready to fly over the Alaska Range to Anchorage? Nice place to work? Helping others? Building a better rural community? Delivering medical care to the underserved? Empowering native healers? Or as we'd say now. In Sri Lanka. "Building capacity?" I love language. Absolutely do.
When he'd finished with the intangibles, the curve, the gleam, the wave of heat or grip of cold, he'd gone on to identify tangibles, or what seemed like tangibles. Naming the birds, identifying the plant species, thinking about their distributions and how they connected to the intangibles he'd studied. This one likes full sun. This one takes root in a rock. This one grows sideways. It was poetic and it was ecological. It was a place of dramatic dark and sun. Nearly unimaginable cold and neatly defined (thanks to its smallness) shadows. This is how things started in Alaska.
In the middle phase of things in Alaska he noticed an intangible that could be quantified. One small intangible circumstance that rewarded observation and promoted a link between tangible and intangible. What was tangible? At the beginning of May when the sun was strong, before the snow had gone and before breakup on the river, before water levels rose so high they reached within an inch of their styrofoam- covered outhouse toilet seat, before the boy split his head at 11PM, still light, and she had to beg for a medivac that couldn't land because the runway was flooded, at the beginning of May, the sun was strongest in the southwest. This was tangible. It stayed there for hours in a never final descent and sent waves of differential melting, a kind of opposite of "moss-on-the-north-side-of-the-tree," where small and ever bigger plots of dirty or clean snow melted in relation to this long-held-grip of growing-more-powerful-each-day sunlight. Does this happen in Toronto where your wife took out a restraining order on you? Is there a willow growing near your house?
There was a willow by their house in McGrath, Alaska, a willow that grew in a southwest exposure. So cruel was the climate there that even an arctic willow needed a favored space, one with sun. In a favored space the toilet and associated indoor plumbing was not. They were in the slowly sinking back of the house (permafrost and all), permanently in the shadow of the house so guess what. Frozen solid. Frozen in March when he got there and frozen through until September when the frosts started again. So, a styrofoam-seated outhouse they called "Telida," the name of a village on a tributary. In modern parlance, Kuranagela.
The willow that faced southwest. In its swelling, warming branches a migrant warbler came to visit. Like the sandhill crane it had come several thousand miles, crossed the Alaska Range over Rainy Pass, ten thousand feet, and then hop skip and jump found the budding taiga of the light-drenched Kuskokwim Valley. Lots to eat in those melting pockets and swelling warming budding branches of the willows and that particular sw-facing willow.
Looking close at the bird. What a pleasure! He saw a cat. No. Not a cat! A catkin. A willow flower. A make willow flower. A staminate flower, since he would someday soon start to become a scientist, a botanist. Slip into science though not always as comfortable or as easy as an old shirt or pair of pants. The catkins, ovoid, came to light slowly. Though frost was gone yet it was nigh. Conservatism for those first days and weeks. Don't open all at once (April for "open" was invented on a warmer clime, wherever). Put out your anthers slowly, in rhythm with the sun and its strongest rays. Put out your anthers and make them available to pollinators geometrically in proportion to that southwest sun. You're a willow, a modular organism, make use of those modules. Strategize with those modules. Flower carefully, not all at once. Expose slowly, a fading of the grey, a blush of orange, a tinge of yellow, a pod of exposed pollen. It was expensive to make, full of protein and replete with information-bearing sperm. Don't risk it all at once. Make a little tuft of exposed anthers (can't close them back down--no mechanism for that) just facing the warm of the long-setting sun.
Make your tuft a little bigger each day as the sun grows stronger and lasts longer. Control this process. How? Hormonally? Let's just call it light-mediated. Link your opening, barely tangible, to the growing sun (tangible). Make a new measure-anthesis-the phenomenon of flowering, in correlation with an old measure, the tracking of the sun. Trace the tangible track to an intangible tract, that tuft of colorful pollen-bearing catkin that grows each day, always facing just that angle of southwest, until spring has sprung.
It was done. It was fun. It was fine. Observing intangibles had led to a new tangible. One he could document and even calculate, if he'd been into math. Which thank you, he wasn't. It transformed for him what he knew was there, a landscape of intangibles, into an ecology as subtle as it was gorgeous. As hidden as it was clear. And as dear. How could you not fall in love with this place? It was compelling. It blushed like a beautiful cheek. It responded like a breathing being. Its plants and animals, and for all he knew its fungi responded in irrevocable embrace to the sun and its by-products. Light and warmth. Embrace this set of phenomena.
Second part of "how Alaska happened" over. The third was swift and dangerous and ended abruptly with them leaving this Eden for good. And quickly. And with some goodbyes but not many. And with many sighs, long breaths of relief.
The state of Alaska, flush with oil and gas money, granted the town a grant. Seems small now. It was only $100,000. Every resident that year got their own thousand dollar check just for living in the state. What could a town do with $100,000? Lots.
Take the lot in back of town along the river. Scenic and sandy and open and mostly unused it had served a nice purpose in a nice place where nice men brought nice guns and some beers and had a nice afternoon of target practice. What?! Guns are legal, always have been in the United States. Unlike Sri Lanka. Rifles too. So bring your rifles boys and let's have a shootup. It's good clean fun and no one ever gets hurt.
Now with a hundred grand they could get a new lot for shooting, set up some blinds, clean up the sand dunes in back of town and mine them for some construction projects. Roadbuilding and whatnot. But where to put the new shooting range? Hire one of your hotshot pilots, only moderately to severely drunk and only 80% of the time, name of Lucky he went by. Yup. Didn't make that up. Lucky went up up up. In the days before google satellite! And found the town a nice juicy spot where they could set up the new shooting range. He went out a few times. Wanted to make sure he got it right. Yes! Perfect! No laws against this great new spot! Buncha tundra waste anyway that nesting area. Sandhill cranes. Great eating.
How did Alaska come to an end? When did they decide to emigrate? Go back to the Lower 48 where they Belonged? He wrote about it just like I'm writing now. Pointed out some injustices (my friends this was long before the days of google satellite and even "animal rights," whatever that's supposed to mean). This was the last frontier I mean Last Frontier. You can read it on license plates. Just like "Law and Order: the Breath of the Nation." What a motto for Sri Lanka! Why not "Land 'o Lies?"
He wrote and published and attended a meeting at City Hall (McGrath was a sophisticated place with great civil structure and a hall to practice it in. Don't go outside though. Things break down). The unanimous feeling was to build the shooting range where Lucky had flown. The lucky place Lucky had mapped out. Mmm. Good eating those Sandhills! He raised his hand and spoke. He must have spoken about intangibles because people saw red. No one likes fuzzy logic! Another meeting was called I think.
The next meeting was scheduled to wrap up the question. Not to worry. No violence was done. No injuries to any vertebrate animals during this court session. Lucky's tall blond girlfriend, Ginger (couldn't make up this name any more than I could make up Lucky. Sorry. Not creative in that way) took the stand. Ginger was a graduate of Dartmouth, the Harvard of New Hampshire. Many thousands of miles away. The girl was seriously slumming it up here in interior Alaska with her man Lucky. Ginger took the stand. Swore she had studied ecology at Dartmouth. Swore she'd been doing a study of her own. But a lot more real than staminate willow flowers. Girl swore up and down she'd done a population survey of the sandhill cranes and they were infesting the runway in town. There weren't any cranes out where Lucky and his handlers planned the Big Shoot. They were seeking the warmth of the asphalt at the end of the mile-long runway and they posed a threat! A threat to commercial flights, threat to FAA flights, threat to BLM flights (firefighters could be killed!). The sandhill cranes were a pest species like the Canada geese we have today in our cities that just won't go away, that were overpopulating the region and highly likely to cause damage to the infrastructure, if not a threat to life and limb. Ginger was applauded. We realized it was time to get outta town. Academic creds were used for the first time (for my records) promulgate a lie. The next time was in 2013 when a graduate student at Moratuwa University, the MIT of Sri Lanka, compared the pogrom in Matale to rust belt Detroit. May this not end up like Alaska!
My new friend who is separated from his wife, "I'm not perfect. No man is," asked me, "Couldn't you mention to your colleague how he was wrong?" I asked, "who do you talk to in this country when you see something's wrong?"Couldn't you mention to your colleague how he was wrong? Who do you talk to in this country when you see something's wrong? Couldn't you mention to your colleague how he was wrong? Who do you talk to in this country when you see something's wrong?
Could you talk to a politician? The darker their hair the more they lie. Could you talk to a Tamil politician? You think I'm crazy? I don't want to be involved with them. Could you talk to a journalist? Are you kidding? They're all bending over backwards to defend Sinha-le, the " lion's blood." Politicians. Journalists. Academia. Still naive after all these years. I expect history to be preserved, not wiped clean, in the Academy. By the way, check for yourself what happened in the German Akademie in 1933-1943 (absolutely no Jewish Problem after that). Tell me what you find in Wikipedia. Tweet me.