Tuesday, June 25, 2013


The opening scene of Paradise: Love is one that shows a number of developmentally disabled young adults driving bumper cars at an amusement park. The camera lingers on them for quite a while, as they gleefully scoot around the floor, unaware of the power that the cars give them, just having one hell of a good time. Before this degenerates into crashes and bullying and bad feelings, a caregiver calls a halt to the outing and everyone gets up and leaves.

This sort of happy ending eludes the caregiver herself, when she embarks upon her own private amusement park, a beach resort in Kenya complete with rent boys. At first she’s titillated and amused, with a dash of delighted horror, when a fellow Eurohag tells her of the special extracurricular activities that lie in wait for her. This hausfrau is initially enchanted by monkeys on her balcony, the sight of beach and sea, the pleasures of cigarettes and cocktails beneath palm trees and the open sky. There’s a sweetness to her pleasure upon arrival; her broad and simple smile, her wide, blue stare, the unashamed bulges of her exposed flesh. She’s a woman without artifice, not particularly bright, who’s thrilled to be on holiday.

But she’s being singled out as an unattached source of ready money. Whisked off by an enterprising charmer, she ends up fending off his unsophisticated advances in a stark little room. Later she asks her compatriots, all women of a certain age, all well aware of the fleshly delights that surround them, “Don’t you just wish someone would look into your eyes?”

The lady wants romance, she wants to be desired, she wants her middle-aged fantasies to come true. The man of her dreams rescues her from a crowd of importunate beach vendors, assures her that she is special, beautiful, alluring. And for a brief moment she is. Her pink, floppy flesh takes on true loveliness as she lies naked in a post-coital nap. Her smile is radiant. She wanders hand in hand through a beach village with a truly gorgeous man who has chosen her, who has absorbed her lessons in the art of tender seduction, who looks into her eyes. Then he begins the long litany of family disasters that require money—her money and lots of it. When his “sister” turns out to be his wife, paradise begins to curdle around the edges.

Deprived of romance, the hausfrau becomes a harpy. A series of harrowing scenes showing how thoroughly power corrupts become increasingly difficult to watch. Finally the woman who had happily shared a soapy shower with a bedmate, gleefully cleaning and being cleaned, ends up barking orders at the man of the minute, telling him to bathe thoroughly as she waits, sprawled on a bed, drunken and sweaty in her stained and crumpled dress.

Sex tourism has been insufficiently examined, and rarely from the female point of view. The parameters of the sex trade have been defined by men, and, like it or not, they have made a fairly straightforward business of it. Money changes hands, love is not required, romance is unnecessary. The male flesh is willing and the female flesh is able to pretend.

As shown in Paradise: Love, the same is not the case when women are the purchasers, and the perennial question of what do women really want comes around one more time. By the end of the movie, what I wanted was a nice, tough, mercenary madam to saunter onto that beach and start setting prices, collecting bar fines, kicking ass, and taking names. As it is now, according to this director and this screenplay, none of these strangers in paradise is having a good time.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Time and Tide

Back in the days when I was so little that I had only one baby sister and our family could still fit in our Jeep, all of us set off for the shores of Cook Inlet. It was rare that my mother was involved in one of these expeditions and there was a festive feeling to the outing, even though the trip was probably quite utilitarian. As well as offering an unlimited supply of clams for anyone with a shovel and a tide table, the beach also yielded soft, brownish-black coal that burned too quickly and left too much ash, but it was easier and much more fun to gather than firewood.

It was too cloudy and windy for the baby to spend much time outdoors, but rather than lose the pleasure of the day, my father suggested that we drive along the beach for a while and see what we might find.

At first the sand was as smooth to drive on as asphalt; the tide was out and miles of grey satin stretched in front of us and as far as we could see to our right. On our left was a high bank with grey-green beach grass sprinkled with wildflowers and trees that had been windblown into gnarled shapes. Piles of driftwood, smashed together in storms, made intriguing little houses that were just my size and the large rocks that towered near them looked like small castles. I stared as we drove by, imagining the people who lived in these shelters and wondering if they ever ate anything besides clams.

The tracks of vehicles occasionally formed driveways up from the beach, barely visible in the tall grass. The bank became higher and the tracks vanished, leaving no signs that anyone else had ever been where we were now. We passed a cabin that was snuggled into a large number of straight and substantial spruce trees. It had been built on the slope of a hill that was forested right up until the sand took over. No smoke came from the stovepipe and no vehicle was parked nearby. “Bill Quick’s place, “ my father said, “he’s gone Outside for a while.”

I was sorry nobody was home; my legs were tired of sitting and this looked like the perfect place to play while my parents had a cup of coffee and visited. The jeep was bouncing more than it had been a few minutes before; we were hitting rocks that stretched out in pancake shapes under our wheels. Some were riddled with holes, looking like grey Swiss cheese, others were folded into weird layers like solid pieces of cloth. My father had to concentrate on steering through them and our journey was no longer smooth. “We could break an axle on these damned things,” he muttered and my mother said very quietly, “The tide’s coming in.”

“There’ll be another cabin along the way,” my father said, searching for strips of unbroken sand. But as he drove, the hills turned into high, steep bluffs on our left. To the right an edge of waves was devouring the wide field of sand that had been there an hour or two earlier.

“We’re closer to Homer than we are to Anchor Point,” my father said and he stopped smiling. The flat rocks gave way to a kind of rough gravel and pebbles hit our windows as my father increased his speed. The bluffs had become cliffs. I could see cabins high above us, but there was no way to reach them. My father stopped just long enough to grab a five-gallon can of gas from the back and quickly refueled the jeep. My mother said nothing at all but she grabbed my hand and her grip was tight.

The day was fading fast and my father had to turn on the headlights. By the time that we drove away from the cliffs to a trail that took us to the highway, it was dark. We followed the road through the trees into Homer’s Main Street, where a cafĂ© was still open. I was given a bowl of ice cream and I’m sure my parents each had a very stiff drink. Not until years later did I ask exactly what had gone on during that trip and why it ended with ice cream. My father admitted that he had forgotten to check the tide tables before taking his wife and children for a drive on a beach that had the second-highest tides in North America, next to the Bay of Fundy's. Like many Alaskan adventures, it could have ended very badly indeed.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Going to the Dogs

Women of my mother’s time and place, in mid-century rural Alaska, had no time or money to spend on clothes, Mother often left her house wearing a sweatshirt and  jeans, one of my father’s army surplus parkas, and a pair of warm and sturdy boots, with a plaid woolen headscarf tied babushka-fashion over her hair.

The total effect was very Soviet. When we spent one winter in a small town with a little supermarket a mile from our cabin, Mother would hop on the Ford tractor, drive it to the store, fill the rumble seat with groceries, and drive back home. In her scarf and army parka, perched on her tractor, driving through the snow, she looked like a photograph from a National Geographic feature on indomitable Russian women.  But when she walked through that grocery store, she always carried herself as though she were shopping on Fifth Avenue.

When I was growing up, I silently mocked my mother’s gift for self-delusion. The truth was she simply didn’t care what other people thought of her. That most of the women she knew dressed the same way as she did must have helped her lack of embarrassment. Alaska was filled with eccentrics and Mother was widely admired in the little community we lived in for having the resourcefulness to use a tractor as the family’s second car. Decades later when I met someone from Kenai, usually  “Your mother was the one who used to get around town on a tractor” would enter the conversation and always in tones of admiration.

She was more akin to a young version of one of Nsncy Mitford’s dowager duchesses than to Holy Mother Russia. Her disregard of public opinion was inbred by centuries of New England rectitude and it drove her wild when I began to study fashion magazines, looking for trends. She wanted me to be a well-scrubbed debutante with a shiny pageboy while my fashion role model became Anita in West Side Story.

Mother should have realized that you don’t get a debutante from a little girl who was taught to admire pirates and gypsies. Finishing school manners go only surface-deep when a child spends most of her time outdoors, roaming for miles in forests and open grassland. Where I lived was the perfect Petri dish for raising a rebel and for years nothing was done to discourage that tendency in me. I think at heart Mother truthfully liked that I was becoming the child’s answer to the Noble Savage. Whether she admitted it to herself or not, she was carefully cultivating a human weapon of mass destruction, sarcastic, undisciplined, and a smartass.

There were personality quirks that arose in me as I approached adolescence that I’m sure I channeled straight from Mother. I was the child who didn’t come in a set, as my two younger sisters and the two babies of the family did, and I was ruthless in my desire to be distant from the other children. “Privacy, I want privacy,” I would howl at them and climbed a long ladder, book tucked under one arm, so I could read on the roof of our house, two and a half stories above the convivial noise of our household. My mother never stopped me; my yearning for silence and uninterrupted reading mirrored her own

That same longing for solitude, coupled with the years of being sternly told to go outside and play, turned me into a child who was as comfortable outdoors as I was in a house. When we lived within walking distance of the shores of Cook Inlet, and walking distance was anything under five miles, I’d make a sandwich and set off for what we called “the beach.” I learned to love it in winter most of all. when rocks that stood higher than I were covered with a thick glaze of ice, and everywhere I looked, sand, sky, water, trees were all the same relentless shade of grey. Piles of driftwood made fine shelters against the stiff breeze that kicked up a wall of small but intense surf and I’d sit there to eat my sandwich and warm up a little before walking on and on, alone except for our dogs.

I learned to be comfortable with silence and space, whether I moved through it on foot or on horseback. When I came home, my mother never asked me where I went. She knew. She allowed me this freedom because she couldn't yet grab it for herself; when she finally did, she was as purposeful and as merciless as I had ever been.

She taught me to be fearless within the world that was ours. There were black bear and there were moose but I never saw them in my hours of walking through tall grass. They preferred the muskeg, the bogs that stretched below the hills, with wallows of water, malformed, spindly trees, and an abundance of wild berries. I loved the miles of grass, alive under the wind, stretching off into more and more hills where nobody lived. I never got tired of taking off with one of our dogs on one of the rare days that wasn’t wet, finding old hunting trails to walk on, or pushing through green waves  that were unending.

On our own hill, the sky was a key element of the landscape; weather blew in from the inlet, across the muskeg, pushing thick billows of mist in our direction. Clouds in peculiar shapes raced beyond our windows or settled in clumps of grey, thin and tattered, bringing rain. On clear nights, especially in winter, stars glittered over deserts of snow and the moon turned the belts of trees behind our house into a place that wasn’t ours, holding something that enticed me and then made me turn back. On nights like that, we’d go sledding along the snow dunes that took on a soft pearl-like glow in the moonlight.

My mother often told me of how she and my father crossed the border into Canada on their first drive to Alaska and immediately had their rifles sealed by the customs officers. If they left the country with those seals broken, the penalty would be severe. So they camped their way across Canada, along a highway that was one of the least traveled on earth, sleeping in a tent with me, with no defense against marauding animals—and there were none. By the time they crossed the line between the Yukon Territory and Alaska, my mother had lost any vestigial urban fear that she might have brought with her from Manhattan, and she brought up her children to feel disdain for anybody who carried a gun for protection. We shared our country with animals who had been there long before we showed up and they were nothing to be afraid of.

When we lived in the small town with the supermarket, I joined a Brownie troop that met one day a week after school. When I walked to the church where the meetings took place, I was joined by quite a few sled dogs that were allowed to roam free, and they accompanied me to the Brownies every week, They were big and I was still small and I felt sure they had come to protect me and keep me company. When the meeting was over, they never followed me all the way home, which I thought was good manners on their part.

I told the girls in the troop about my companions one day and the mother who was our leader looked quite alarmed. “Aren’t you afraid, dear?” she asked and I assured her that the dogs were my friends.

That night her husband walked home with me and had a chat with my mother. Soon thereafter, I stopped going to Brownies, which wasn’t really a blow, but I did miss those dogs. They had proved to me that my father’s cautions against approaching our own sled dogs was just a lot of hooey, as I tearfully informed him one night at the supper table, shortly before I became an ex-Brownie. My mother remained silent but I was certain that at heart she agreed with me. I could imagine the dogs with their wolfish smiles, happily racing beside her at least part of the way as she drove the groceries home on her troika--I mean tractor.