After yesterday, it's amazing how still the ship feels at anchor. We're in Krossfjord, near the July 14 Glacier (named in tribute to Bastille Day). We'll be here for at least a day. The morning is dedicated to exploration within a safe area, and we have the promise of a hike in the afternoon.
The glacier is quite active; you can tell from the brilliant blue of its ice. I'm not entirely clear on the chemical processes at work, but blue ice is freshly exposed ice. (This picture is from the afternoon's hike, when we get quite close to the mouth of the glacier.)
The wind is sharp, and the clouds are soft and low, carrying snow. The landscape changes around us with a swiftness that would be terrifying if we didn't have guides: at one point the clouds completely obscure a range of mountains beyond the moraine. The ridge behind the Antigua turns from dark gray to white over the course of the morning.
The bay is full of glacial ice, some of which makes it easy to see how legends of sea monsters and dragons got started.
The beach in an inlet across from the glacier is littered with ice. This is the literal truth, but the phrase "littered with ice" does no justice to the waist-high sculptures that suddenly surround us. Many are like huge alien vertebrae.
A pair of seals swim up to check us out. The guides say they look like either ring seals or bearded seals, probably on the young side. Their frank curiosity—and especially the angle of their heads when they pop out of the water to look at us—makes them resemble nothing so much as friendly, very wet dogs. One swims after the first Zodiac to return to the ship for lunch. It may be the same one that follows the afternoon hiking group along the beach by matching our progress in the water. (I am already very jealous of my colleagues with better zoom lenses.)
As the hike progresses, the snow turns the land more and more into a moonscape. It also makes hiking really challenging, since the stones of the moraine make for loose, uncertain footing even when you can see them clearly. Steepness, too, is difficult to gauge until you're scrambling up a slope. So the hike is a pretty good workout, and we are all ready for the tea and cake the ship serves at 5:30.
We begin the day with a shore excursion to the Esmarkbreen moraine. Getting to shore from the Antigua involves clambering down by smaller groups into a Zodiac boat (something like a steel-bottomed whitewater raft with an outboard motor), which a crew member then pilots to the beach. Everyone has to wear a life vest and wellies, piling our hiking boots into the boat; this is so you can wade ashore without soaking your feet, a significant hazard in Arctic waters. People also have to pile their art gear into the Zodiac: thousands of dollars' worth of cameras, tripods, drones, audio equipment, a laptop or two, even a 3D scanner powered by a snowmobile battery. Not for the last time, I am happy that my gear consists mainly of a notebook and a pocket point-and-shoot. Sitting on the inflatable edge of the Zodiac as it bounces along through the water feels precarious in the extreme. It's not until the last week of the voyage that I realize how comfortable I have become with the entire process.
On the beach we shed our life vests and change our boots (this, too, will require some getting used to) and then begin exploring. It's wonderful to be in a group of people who are all similarly prone to wandering off abruptly because they have just noticed a bit of beauty; no one ever needs to apologize for the awkwardness this can create in conversations. I get the sense that, despite all our different projects, everyone's afraid of taking the same pictures of as everyone else. Fortunately this feeling dissipates fairly quickly, as we get to know each other.
For my part I am already discovering that I have made some incorrect assumptions about the Arctic. The moraine here is curiously soft and spongy underfoot, the rocks ground fine. Tufts of moss, tundra grass, and saxifrage poke up everywhere in clumps of olive, rust, and yellow. The beach, like so many other beaches, is littered with bands of seaweed. The day is relatively temperate, a degree or two above freezing; the moraine hides many pools and channels of water. This is not, in short, the hard white blank land I envisioned when I began to think about setting a play here.
We are all beginning to realize that scale obeys different rules in the Arctic. The safe area that looked tiny from the ship is actually rather large. The glacier, from a distance, betrays no hint that it's at least 100 feet tall. This aspect of the Arctic is something to which my eyes never quite adjust; distances are still deceiving me on our last hike. I don't think I'm alone in this. One landscape photographer, shooting in black and white, captures images in which the mountains register as abstract patterns and textures as much as they do as mountains.
After lunch we raise anchor and head east and then north, leaving Isfjord, passing Daudmansodde (which translates to "Dead Man's Point," which is not ominous at ALL), and then traveling up into Forlandsund, the sound between Prins Karls Forland and the larger island of Spitsbergen. The wind remains unfavorable for sailing, so we're traveling by diesel engine again. This, it turns out, means that the motion of the boat is just terrible—not just dipping forward and backward with the swells but also, unpredictably, tilting from side to side. (Sails stabilize the motion, explains Geoff, an artist who grew up sailing in Nantucket, looks like an extra from The Perfect Storm, and is one of the few seemingly untroubled by the tossing about; he says it's actually pretty mild, which, Jesus.) About half of the artists pop Dramamine and vanish belowdecks. I venture downstairs, hear appalling noises of retching from behind cabin doors, and decide to try the horizon cure instead.
Here's the thing about the horizon cure: it does not work.
It's not until several weeks later that my sister, veteran of several research cruises, will tell me that she too has tried the horizon cure and it does nothing, and that one of her research ships was nicknamed the No Horizon because of the way it rode swells. For now all I know is that I am part of a grim knot of artists on the middeck, all of us clamping our mouths shut so firmly as to preclude conversation, all of us staring at the iron-gray swells in desperate hope of finding a horizon. We are like the world's most dismal English pointers. One artist, Chris, will say later, "I have never done anything in my life as hard as I stared at that horizon." A freezing drizzle thickens into snow around us. Water sweeps back and forth across the deck. I am pretty sure I am not the only one thinking, Fifteen more days of this, oh god, what have I done?
I have no idea how long we're out there. The group keeps shrinking. It's down to about four of us when Danielle (who has done things like sail around Africa on a replica of an ancient Phoenician boat and is therefore quite used to all this) kindly suggests that I try going to my bunk. She is 100% right. The vertiginous motion of the stairs is enough to get me sick again, but as soon as I'm in my bunk everything is completely okay. When you're lying down in a cocoon of blankets, waves are wonderful and soothing. Even when the cabin keeps going light and dark and light and dark as water covers the porthole. Even when you're hearing pots and pans and glasses smash upstairs in the galley and the common room. In fact, lying down works so well that I don't ever need Dramamine. Whenever we raise anchor or hit a choppy patch I go to my bunk for a little while, and that's all it takes. (In this I am exceedingly lucky. Several people are walloped hard for the entire voyage.)
Once the ship is well inside the sound, the water is calmer. Nonetheless, it's a pale, shaky, chastened group that assembles for dinner. Several colleagues confess that they were lying for hours on their bathroom floors. Crew members tell us that things were unusually rough. They may be humoring us, but I don't care.
(I'm catching up on all the posts I couldn't do during the Arctic Circle residency. This involves sifting through hundreds of photos and pages and pages of notes, so it's slow going. Thanks for your patience, everyone.)
We spend the night of October 3 in a lodge in Nybyen, Longyearbyen, paired with the artists who will be our cabinmates for the duration of the expedition. The rooms are on the small, spartan side—most of us have to go through a bit of dorm-style furniture wrangling just to keep the parallel twin beds from touching—but they will turn out to be palatial compared to the cabins on the ship. These, we discover when we board on October 4, are no more than 7 feet by 7 feet, and that space includes bunk beds, toilet, shower, sink, and closet. Things are so tight that the captain warns us against using the sink as a ladder to get into the top bunk. (The cabin size really does not matter at all, though. There's a cozy common room where most of us wind up working, and you do not go to the Arctic to stay in your cabin.)
The Antigua is a three-mast ship, a barkantine. Counting our expedition leaders, it has a crew of 11 in addition to the 27 artists. The expedition leaders are all stunning women glowing with Nordic health. An artist nicknames them the Valkyries. One, Theres, with her mane of blond dreadlocks and her casual way of slinging a Spitsbergen rifle over her shoulder, looks like the most badass comic-book character ever created. After we stow our bags and the anchor is raised, she tells us a few things we'll need to know over the next few days:
Annick, the first mate, tells us we'll be expected to help raise and lower sails, and she and Captain Joe teach us how to do that, complete with belaying the lines. Belaying! We are practically able seamen already.
Meanwhile the ship is moving steadily away from Longyearbyen, toward the mouth of Isfjord.
The wind is low, so the sails are furled, and we use the ship's diesel engine. Waters in the fjord seem pretty smooth. But several of my shipmates are already having their first bouts of seasickness. It's clear who's suffering; they all assume the intent, miserable gaze of a cat in a car.
As twilight deepens (a long process at this time of year), we start to hear alarming clunks and scrapes against the hull. It's ice. The pieces are small at first.
Then they get to be the size of cars. Captain Joe slows wayyy down.
The ice is from Esmarkbreen, the glacier around which we'll be exploring tomorrow. We drop anchor a few hundred meters from its mouth. In the middle of the night, the anchor is raised and the engine roars to life: the glacier is calving so much that the waters are dangerous and we have to move away.
The sun stays low in the sky all day, so the light often has a sunset quality regardless of the hour. This was just after noon:
Also, I have found the place where Strange Tree would hang out in Svalbard: nonchalant mannequin in uniform? Check. Skull? Check. General appearance of desertion? Check.
The rest of the shipmates arrived today. Most of the projects I've heard about are really interesting. The logistics--getting through airport security with a suitcase full of homemade electrical equipment for an audio installation, or finding and shipping a watertight case for a drone camera--make me glad I'm here as a writer and musician. Fitting a travel-size guitar into the overhead bin is comparatively simple.
The boat departs tomorrow. For the time being we're in a guest lodge in Nybjen, an area about 3 kilometers to the south of the main town. It's still in the walkable safe area--no rifles needed--although whether you can walk without falling ass over teakettle on the ice is another question. You can more or less spot the locals by their speed. While a Boston photographer and I were picking our way up the slope, a family came down in the other direction all but skating on their boots. As we watched the dad did the run-and-let-go game with the stroller. I saw another guy biking down the same slope--and as much as I've biked in Chicago in the winter, there is just NO way I'd even attempt this. But I guess you don't live here if you can't adapt to ice.
The lodge reminds me a bit of being at the Accademia dell'Arte. There are 27 of us, so the group size is comparable; we're all in rooms off a long corridor; we're all artists; very few of us have any idea how to speak the local language; and none of us has ever done anything like this before. It'll be interesting to see whether the resemblance holds once we're on the boat.
Heavy fog meant that no planes could land at the Longyearbyen airport today, so most of the excursion's shipmates have yet to arrive. I met five of them today, though, along with our guide Sarah. They come from Germany, Singapore, Canada, France (via Hong Kong), and the U.S.
After a quick meet-and-greet, several of us went on a hike up to an acceptable safe-area destination: one of the abandoned mines that dot the mountains. Coal was Longyearbyen's first raison d'être--an ironic contrast to Svalbard's current focus on eco-tourism and green living.
This used to be a reindeer, maybe. I'm sure it died peacefully of old age.
Getting to the mine involved really quite a lot more scrabbling than anyone had bargained for. The grade was steep, the snow was slushy, the rocks were loose, and the "trail" we'd heard about was a vague suggestion at best. Our admiration for the miners who built this sucker in the age before Gore-tex had grown considerably by the time we got there.
But afterward we got to see the magic hour illuminating the tail end of a glacier. So that's all right.
Arrived this afternoon, only a day late after suitcase drama in Oslo. The airlines had left my suitcase, containing all of my Arctic gear, in Newark, and as the plane landed in Longyearbyen I still didn't know whether my stuff would have caught up with me. Today's windchill is about 18ºF, and the wind is carrying tiny stinging bits of snow, so I'd have been in trouble without a hat and coat. (Although the flight did prove the Chicago truism that no matter how cold it gets, there's always going to be some dude walking around in cargo shorts. Even Longyearbyen, it turns out, has that dude.) Anyway, the suitcase arrived--through a special side door, not the regular baggage conveyer I was anxiously watching--and when I spotted it across the room it was like the moment at the end of the romance movie when someone has been running to the train station and she sees him and it's NOT too late after all and the soundtrack swells with feeling.
This is the main drag in Svalbard:
There are several shops selling cold-weather gear; one--evidently honoring the old fur-trapping tradition--where you can buy polar-bear-skin rugs and, in what seems like a rather cruel redundancy, little stuffed seals made of seal fur; a knitting shop called Moods of Norway; and, improbably, a Thai restaurant. There's a school and a small hospital. There are several parking lots devoted to snowmobiles, although weather like this evidently doesn't deter the locals from riding bicycles. No one bothers to lock them up. Crime is nearly nonexistent here.
Longyearbyen is right at the edge of the water (a bay; I'm not sure if it counts as a fjord). On the bus ride from the airport to the hotel I saw a tall-mast ship in one of the docks. I don't know if it was the one for the expedition, but it was absolutely dwarfed by the mountains and mining vessels around it.
There's one visible church, a bit outside the polar-bear-free safe zone, higher up in the foothills. If there are any Unitarians around, I'm going to guess they content themselves with committee meetings in one of the lower-lying cabins.
This is the first time I've been in a foreign country without at least a rudimentary grasp of the local language. I feel a bit like an ugly American, expecting everyone to instantly converse in English...but the truth is, everyone can instantly converse in English. Just to be polite I'm trying to pick up some words and phrases (vennligst, takk, unnskyld meg, hvor er toallettet, luftputebåten min er full av ål). My favorite so far is the greeting "Hei"--pronounced exactly like "Hi," but often repeated, so that as you approach a service counter you'll get a cheerful "Hei-hei."
No polar bear sightings yet. I'm as disappointed about that as you are.
It's taken me a while to sort out my feelings on this one. Robin Williams is not the first artist I've admired to kill himself.
There are of course the distant examples, the Vincent van Goghs, the Hart Cranes, the Virginia Woolfs, whose deaths happened so long ago as to have acquired a certain abstraction. It's a rawer experience with your near contemporaries. The media persist in defining Gen X by the suicide of Kurt Cobain (we'll discuss the pathological implications of that in another post, thank you), and while American society has grown too fragmented for any single performer to be the true voice of a generation, there's no denying that his death was a where-were-you-when watershed moment. More personally, David Foster Wallace was (and remains) one of my artistic heroes. And even closer to home, everyone in the Chicago circus community remembers Ottavio, the tremendously gifted clown and fifth-generation circus performer whose death shook us all in early 2008.
So while I wish I could say these are new feelings--shock, betrayal, grief for art the world will never know, guilt over kind words left unspoken--they're not. What is new, though, is hearing them articulated in the world at large. I can't remember ever hearing depression and suicide discussed the way they're being discussed now. As an artist with depression, I can't remove myself from the conversation.
Something I've often wished I could unlearn is that depression means seeing the world more accurately. People with depression are less able to believe in the comforting falsehoods that help everyone else get through the day. They're less able to ignore the constant, stupid indignities of being human, and less able to forget the rising tide of doom (ecological crisis, economic inequality, war, take your pick) surrounding us. And the tiny barbs of pain that take place even in friendly social interaction--the reference to a debacle you'd thought everyone had forgotten, that downward glance that clearly means your friend thinks you've gained weight--are similarly impossible to ignore. Now, being able to see and speak the uncomfortable truth is a giant advantage if you're an artist. But the advantage begins and ends with art. For survival, you need a certain amount of convenient self-deceit.
In Psych 101 (the same class, incidentally, that I was sitting in when I heard the news of Cobain's death) we read about a study in which someone gave Rorschach tests to comedians. The comedians were far more likely than non-comedians to see monsters in the inkblots. They would immediately offer some follow-up comment that would neutralize the monster: "A monster--but he's got big funny ears." "A monster, tripping over a dachsund." "A monster, but he's a silly monster." But they saw the monsters. I'm not sure I've ever encountered a tidier way of explaining the distinctly untidy relationship between depression and artistic response.
Robin Williams clearly saw the monsters, the terrible, ridiculous, embarrassing aspects of being human. But more important than that was the way he responded to them: with boundless empathy. His comedy wasn't cruel, even when it mocked. Quite the contrary--he always seemed to celebrate the oddities of human existence, to be knocked over with joy and awe at being a member of this bizarre, contradictory species. A quick (and entirely unscientific) look at the roles he chose reveals that quite a lot of them were teachers, mentors, and healers. I suspect that wasn't coincidence. I suspect that, knowing pain, he wanted to help other people deal with theirs. I think people responded to this extraordinary spirit of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, at least as much as to his comic genius.
Speaking of genius, a lot of the eulogies have focused on how much Williams's genius separated him from the rest of us--how singular it was, how he worked at a level that no one else could even hope to attain. People tend to speak of genius in a way that explains away their own shortcomings. The discussion of talent often carries a note of isolation, building and reinforcing the wall between The Talented and The Rest of Us. But, with the link between depression and art clearly established, I think it's time to change the way we talk about genius. Artists are all too aware of being different. Language that reinforces the difference--even if it's couched in a tone of praise--can turn into yet another of those tiny barbs the depressive person finds so difficult to ignore. Many of us turn to the arts because it seems like a way to bridge the painful gap between ourselves and the rest of humanity, and when people respond with a comment about our otherness, it can feel like defeat.
I'm not arguing for a wholesale PC-style revision of speech. Just saying, Hey, be careful. Be kind. If nothing else, because that's a fitting tribute to an artist who, having experienced the worst of being human, responded over and over again with the best.
First of all, if you want to discuss Weird Al's new song WITHOUT having read David Foster Wallace's dictionary essay, stop now. You are going into battle unarmed.
Anyway. I am not one of the Grammar Police, although a lot of people assume I am because of my day work editing and proofing. That work has actually taught me a great deal about the fluidity and flexibility of language, and has made me reluctant to deal in absolute rules. It's also shown me, many times over, how the Grammar Police make people afraid of their own creativity, so scared of taking chances that they turn out timid, characterless writing—if they write at all.
The GP tend to feel threatened by creativity, and they retreat to the safety of rules. They also tend to be wrong; that's a hazard of absolutes. Sentence fragments? Perfectly okay when used judiciously. Ending a sentence with a preposition? Also okay (the rule was invented in the 19th century by some Victorian idealist who felt English grammar should exactly match that of Latin). Beginning with a conjunction? Fine. Of course one must "learn the rules in order to learn how to break them," as the saying goes, but the overriding conceit of the GP—that there is a Single Correct Way to Write—is dead wrong. There are nearly as many ways as there are writers.
I deal with the legacy of the GP a lot: people who approach professional writing as though primary school left them with subject-specific PTSD. I never use red ink, opting instead for kinder colors of green and purple. I explain why I'm suggesting changes. I don't sneak up behind their desks.
Nevertheless, Weird Al's new song delights me. I agree with most of his points. The definition of "literally" is worth preserving. The distinction between "its" and "it's" is useful and informative, as is that between "irony" and "coincidence." Correct spelling is also useful: it reveals etymology and meaning in unfamiliar words, avoids ambiguity in familiar ones. Punctuation marks are not to be used arbitarily; they too communicate meaning. (I doubt even the most remedial math student would use a plus sign instead of an equals sign on the grounds that "it looks better." But countless people offer that exact justification to use a hyphen, which adds adjacent words into a compound meaning, instead of an em dash, which separates phrases of equal weight.) Usage and spelling matter for the same reason that you would not, on meeting a stranger, clasp his nipple instead of shaking his hand. We are dealing here with human interaction—standards of behavior—and there is much to be said for clarity.
Most of the dissents I've seen have been along the lines of "Language evolves, man, get used to it" (although usually with more spelling errors). Yes! That is exactly the point. Language does evolve—and we all get to have a say in how it evolves. Some philosophers even believe language is the great collective endeavor of the human species. We don't have to sit back and watch as "literally" becomes "possibly literally, but possibly figuratively, but I'm not sure which, because the two differences in meaning register no difference in pronunciation or usage." We get to choose. Not dictate the choice from above, the way the Grammar Police would have it, but create it, with our daily speech and writing. And—as it goes with so many other things—we create it either actively or by indifference. Unless you live a perfectly solitary life, you will contribute.
So, to me, what Weird Al has done is create a very catchy bit of propaganda for the way he would like to see our language evolve. I happen to agree with most of his opinions. But mainly I'm glad that he has opinions at all. I'm excited that people in the public sphere still get passionate about language. I would much rather see it evolve through passion than through indifference.
It's really easy to let your personal artistic projects get pushed aside by other people's priorities. I think perhaps it's especially easy to let that happen if you're an actor. Theatrical productions come with their own built-in deadlines, after all, and we're supposed to be grateful for every scrap of work that comes our way (a sort of starvation mentality I find increasingly troubling), so of course we'd be thrilled to drop everything and jump into a new role. And then one role turns into four, and then a year has passed and you have written exactly two pages of the play that was so exciting when you first thought of it.
A couple of weeks ago I looked at the stuff I wanted to do, and the stuff other people wanted me to do, and realized I was probably going to lose steam on several pet projects unless I found a way to make them as important as the ones involving the external pressures of audiences and deadlines. On Facebook I posted a tentative suggestion that I might need a deadline buddy. To my surprise, twelve friends responded almost immediately. Most of them were, like me, multidisciplinary artists, although one was a biochemist. They lived in six states, and their projects were as varied as they were. But all of us needed a way to drown out the clamor of the world and focus on the good stuff. Actor/writer/fight choreographer Chris Walsh suggested that we name the group the Darling Killers, and it stuck.
So far it seems to be working. We post our goals to the Facebook group, with as much or as little detail as we want, and then report on our progress. Occasionally people offer suggestions. Many of the group members have never met each other in person, and I'm pretty amazed at how readily everyone has been willing to reveal this most vulnerable side of themselves, the desire to do and be something more. I am absolutely certain that it is only the prospect of reporting to the group that has forced me to sift through my new headshot proofs (the shots are all really good, I just hate looking at pictures of myself) and get this website live.
I'm posting the description of how we work because, first, I need an inaugural blog post; and second, it seems to be a highly borrow-able model for artists' groups in this era of distraction; and third, I shot a commercial yesterday at a cancer treatment center. On the walkway outside were bricks inscribed with the names of lost loved ones. Some of the inscriptions included birth and death dates. And some of those date ranges were short. We all have less time than we think, and less time than we want. So it's time to stand up for the art we want to make, yes?