ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Weekly Newspapering a Rural Alaska
Tell It Like It Is, Man
There’s a woman in Haines — a mother, grandmother and observer of life — who writes evocative, folksy stories about life here in Haines.
Heather Lende’s first book, “If You Lived here, I’d Know Your Name,” published in 2005, reached the New York Times best-seller list, giving her a national reputation as a homespun female narrator of rural America; in an exotic (and neurotic) locale.
That’s a pretty remarkable achievement, when you’re writing about small town life in a place that couldn’t be much farther from Manhattan and still be in the United States.
Remember, as one Alaska goofball has said, “You can see Russia from here.”
Well, I’ve read a few of Lende’s books. I’ve also had the benefit of living in the place she writes about.
And I have some issues.
Now, I know I haven’t lived on this spit of land in Outback Alaska for 20 years like she has; I just don’t have that breadth of experience with the place.
My time here is measured in weeks, not years.
Yet I believe in the power of first impressions. I believe in writing things that you don’t have to worry about your neighbors reading, and judging, and being inclined to give everything the benefit of the doubt.
For their sake. And yours.
To me, to treat Haines like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry doesn’t do justice to the raw experience of living here. It’s like being a product of a dysfunctional family and writing about that one good day each month, while consciously ignoring the pain, frustration, self-loathing and abuse of the other 29.
For years, Lende has had a local soapbox.
She’s been the obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News, penning wonderful paeans about her friends and neighbors as they go to their graves.
In Haines, people say you’re not officially dead until Heather Lende writes your obit.
She sits with widows and widowers and seeks to, as the title of her third book describes, “Find the Good.”
Newspaper owner Tom Morphet has squawked about this; he wants juicy news and controversy even in death.
But Lende persists.
I tend to side with Morphet on this one. Good obits umm up the god and the bad, the status quo and the controversial.
A few years back, Morphet won a statewide newspaper award for obituary writing. In his cocky self-assured style, he captured a hard-headed departed resident just as he was.
In Morphet’s hands, there were no teary funeral sermons about how so-and-so loved to laugh and was beloved by all.
No. His story showed just how the guy was a son of a bitch; his son quick to detail the reasons why the world was a better place with him not being a part of it.
So, for me, there’s a bit of disconnect reading Heather G-rated Lende’s version of Haines at the same time you’re forced to watch the R-rated version (for violent content and adult language).
This fall, when Morphet decided to go into local politics, Lende did too.
She wanted to take a walk on the wild side and run for a seat on the borough assembly.
That meant the town’s literary Pollyanna, who wrote from the on-high perch of the living room of her million-dollar house on the beach, was going to get her hands dirty.
She was going to mix it up with the mud-slingers and stiletto-wielders who lurk in the Death Star of Haines politics — the borough hall.
Meeting after meeting, I saw Lende in action.
For me, she was a bit of a Colombo character — pensive, considered, holding back until the very end.
And them — boom — the bottom drops out.
If you’ve ever attended a night meeting where local politics is being dissected, (a fate I wish on no one) you know many officials like to hear themselves talk.
They ruminate. They blather. They speak in circular patterns that don’t always move the ball forward on any issue.
There were a lot of blabbermouths on the Haines assembly; Lende wasn’t one of them.
But she was an offender nonetheless.
At each meeting, gray-haired Mayor Jan Hill played referee and moderator. People had to raise their hands, and wait to be called on to speak.
I’m not talking about the audience, but the assembly members themselves.
The meetings routinely were four-hour marathons. And the panel broke down each one, slowly, painfully, like Chinese car mechanics using a Japanese repair manual.
No detail was too small to ignore. It was a Star Chamber on crack.
These people — artists, retirees and working professionals — received a pittance for their time. They obviously had to WANT to be here, inflicting pain on their ears and sanity of their audience.
And that was their pay — the power of making other people listen to them.
In such meetings there was rarely — if ever — an unexpressed thought. For a reporter who HAD to be there, one hour of this nonsense was bearable; OK, maybe two, max.
After that, you got fidgety. You looked at your watch time and again.
A few times, and I would swear on a bible to this, time actually moved backwards; the hands of my watch fought against the powerful pull of gravity; these meetings were that painful.
Before the mayor beat her gavel and moved on to the next agenda item, she would survey the panel like an auctioneer, soliciting one more bid, one more comment.
“Well, we’ve got one-hundred dollars; can we get one-twenty five?
“OK, then, one hundred it is.”
That’s when Lende would raise her hand.
Almost timidly. But still resolutely.
“Now, I don’t really get this,” she’d say.
“Can we go back to the beginning?”
It was enough to make a reporter scream.
And I found myself doing just that; sotto voce, but barely.
“Please shut up!”
“Just let it be!”
“Can we all just go home now?”
Because once Lende spoke up, that invited the other narcissists to have a go at this new information; once again picking over the bones of the carcass until the last bit of DNA was analyzed and discussed.
Eventually, I came to anticipate Lende’s hand going up just as the auctioneer was about to beat her gavel and put us all out of our misery.
For her, I suppose, it wasn’t so much finding the good as sussing out the truth.
While I’m like “Can’t we just sweep the rest of this under the carpet, just this once?”
Not on your life.
Not on the Haines borough assembly.
Not if you’re Heather Lende.
But, subtly I think, Lende’s approach to the world began to rear its head with me at unexpected times.
Sure, it was easy to find fault with Haines — about its flawed weather and even more-flawed residents.
But could I find the good?
There were moments when I came close.
Like the time I was driving in Jane Pascoe’s truck on the way to move a piece of furniture too heavy or bulky for her to lift herself.
Neither Jane nor I have children. Jane’s mother is still alive; mine is gone.
We both have the view of mortality of someone coming to the end of a line.
As she drove, Jane said she had a niece who told her that no matter how old or infirm she became, she would always have someone to take care of her.
I thought of my own family and the love we share and suddenly felt secure that I as well would not die alone.
It was fine singular moment that made me glad I’d come here.
There was another; when I said goodbye to a one of the newspaper’s layout editors; a millennial named Kisa who’d grown up in Haines, left, and come home again.
Kisa is a bright young woman, with a hipster appeal, the kind of smart character you might find in the movie “Clerks.”
We got each other’s humor. She introduced me to her live-in boyfriend. She also worked a part-time job as a waitress at a local restaurant.
Before I left town, I told her that I’d always see her as an artist and professional; never as somebody slinging drinks.
I guess she liked that sentiment.
The last time I saw her, she hung around my desk, even though she’d finished her shift.
She said she hated goodbyes.
I got up and gave her a hug and it was one of the most genuine hugs I have received in years.
Kisa hung on to me like she would never let go.
And in that moment, I found the good in Haines.
Yes, I did.
So, thanks Heather.
You ran raise your hand at a numbingly-boring night meeting any old time you want.