I spent a week visiting Southeast Alaska with my dad in December of 2016. Two of those days were spent along the Alaska Marine Highway in the Inside Passage. This is the audio journal of my experience.
I produced this short fictional story as submission in Third Coast Festival's ShortDoc competition. There are several "legends" about how Crazy Woman Creek in Wyoming got its name. I synthesized elements from many of them to create this story. It's told from the perspective of a mountain man named "Johnson" (voiced by Don Wood). The competition had a couple rules worth mentioning. (1) Submissions couldn't exceed three minutes and (2) had to incorporate one of four original musical composition that Third Coast provided.
Paula Boyton has never flown with her pet sea lion, but she’s never flown without him, either. Earlier this week Paula filed a discrimination suit against the airline Lineair, for having prevented her emotional support animal from boarding a flight destined for Hawaii via San Francisco. Paula has owned her miniature sea lion, Sparky, for 2 years now. She actually doesn’t like to use the word “own,” she tells me, “our relationship is too symbiotic.”
Paula brings Sparky practically everywhere she goes. “The salon, the grocery store, the deYoung,” Paula explains, “granted I’ve never tried to to fly with him before, but Sparky and I are joined at the flipper, as I like to say,” Paula chuckles to herself. “So you can imagine, I was just horrified when they told me that I couldn’t bring Sparky to Hawaii. He’s a miniature sea lion for crying out loud.”
Later when I spoke with Larry Blonski, spokesperson for Lineair, he was quick to comment that “when Ms. Boyton says ‘miniature,’ keep in mind that the animal in question still weighs in excess of 200 pounds…”
Larry is definitely correct about Sparky’s weight. He is a hefty animal. But then again, male California sea lions like Sparky have an average weight of 660 pounds. So, relatively speaking, Sparky qualifies as rather miniature.
I asked Paula how she ended up with Sparky.
“So, it was a super rainy day at Pier 39. And, you know, I was down there watching the sea lions like I usually do, and then I spotted him. Sitting there all alone, away from the rest of the sea lions. And you know, sea lions are like crazy social animals, so I could tell just right away, he wasn’t gonna' make it… I just couldn’t bear to leave him alone. There was something in his eyes that screamed, help! ...so I guided Sparky back to my Prius with a trail of sardines. He basically imprinted on me right away.”
Paula’s kinship with sea lions runs deep. She explains, “Sparky, he was so small. He gives me so much comfort. I think it's because we both have so much in common. Small people in a family of giants… like me with my family, it's always been hard to measure up.”
Paula comes from a long line of sea lion trainers. Since the late 1800s, the Boytons have been in the business of aquatic circus. Both her father and grandfather were sea lion trainers. “My grandfather, he used to say, ‘baby girl, sea lions are in our blood,’” Paula’s grandfather created the first amusement park in North America at Coney Island called “the Sea Lion Park.”
He performed daily shows at the park until an unfortunate work-related accident claimed his right hand in 1905. Paula reassures me, however, "after that day, he just became more reliant on sea lions to help him around the house. It strengthened his bond, really”
Today the Boytons are moguls in the lotion industry. “Have you tried our product, Sea Lion Lotion?” Paula asks me. “My dad invented it in the 80s. Just look at my feet, see, no calluses–lotion just dissolves them off. It's so versatile. Its very popular as an industrial solvent you know. When I think about everything sea lions have done for my family over the years… I’m sorry, I’m getting choked up.”
Sparky is much more than a pet for Paula. He connects her with family legacy. Paula claims that Lineair’s decision regarding Sparky violates the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA). Which states “Carriers shall permit a service animal to accompany a qualified individual with a disability in any seat in which the person sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation.”
Paula claims that being separated from Sparky causes her extreme emotional distress, and constitutes a disability. But her distress aside, Lineair defends their decision on the basis that Sparky could not fit on Paula’s lap, and therefore would create unsafe evacuation conditions in case of an emergency landing. Paula had this to add. “That’s b******t. I fit Spark in my Prius, I sure as hell could have fit him on my lap. Plus there were open seat on the flight.”
And if that is in fact true, it would appear that the ACAA is on Paula’s side. It provides that “if a service animal cannot be accommodated at the seat location of the qualified individual with a disability whom the animal is accompanying, the carrier shall offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to a seat location, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated, as an alternative to requiring that the animal travel with checked baggage.”
In other words, on a flight with open seats, Sparky may deserve a spot, legally speaking. And as for those safety concerns? Paula remains skeptical. “I don’t buy this emergency evacuation line for a second,” Paula says, “we were flying to Hawaii, if we crashed, it would be in the ocean. And if that happened, people would be praying she was aboard. With her training, Sparky would be the freakin’ Simon Birch of sea lions.”
When I spoke with Larry Blonski of Lineair, he rattled off a number of reasons why a sea lion can’t come on a plane. “This may come as a surprise,” Larry explains, “but there is very little research on the effects of altitude on sea lions… Like what if the recycled air dried out the animal's skin? We can’t have our attendants running a bucket brigade of complimentary water cups for the duration of the flight.”
Ultimately, Larry had only this to say in response to the lawsuit. “Look, it's simple really. Our argument is that… it's a sea lion”
Every year, post offices around the country are inundated with letters to Santa Claus asking for toys, candy, puppies and more. For 103 years the post office and its volunteers have been answering these letters as part of the Letters to Santa program.
Before the Letters to Santa program existed, it was technically illegal to open letters addressed to Santa. People cannot legally open mail addressed to another person, even if the person is fictional. But this didn’t stop vigilante postal workers. It’s rumored that the first instances of guerilla philanthropy started in the Dead Letter Office, a place for letters without viable destinations. Other apocryphal tales consist of a wealthy bachelor answering yuletide pleas.
In 1911 Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock granted permission to post masters to distribute letters to Santa. Many years later in 1979, the postal service expanded the program to answer letters addressed to the Easter Bunny and Mother Nature.
The program was popularized by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Carson spent nearly two decades reading letters from the program including this gem.
“Dear Santa and Dear elves, Thank you for bringing us the presents. When you mess up our floors please try to clean up. Our Christmas tree is in the basement rec room this year. Don’t worry if you make noise. Dad said he won’t go down and shoot you.”
The program lives on today in post offices around the country. This year at the annual Tree Lighting ceremony at Pier 39 in San Francisco, hoards of kids drafted their own letters to Santa during a USPS workshop. Wishes range from the cosmic “I want a telescope to see space,” to the more terrestrial “I want a binder, paper, and money”. Some kids scribbled their own letters while a few younger kids didn’t write at all and just slammed stamps on the page.
“Children are very inventive. Its unbelievable,” says Augustine Ruiz, spokesperson for the Postal Service. Ruiz has been with the post office since 1984.
“So every year around July and August we start seeing these letters addressed to Santa Claus starting to trickle in,” says Ruiz “North Pole, no address other than that... We probably get in the entire Bay Area close to 6,000 letters during the season.”
Not all the letters are from children. Some of the letters are from parents asking for holiday help.
“We get a lot of letters from single mothers that are just trying to get the bare necessities for their children,” says Ruiz.
The letters get answered with the help of postal workers and volunteers. Ruiz estimates that there are hundreds of volunteers, including individuals and companies.
Individual participants visit the Hunters Point Post Office during the allotted hours and sift through huge stacks of letters looking for the ones they want to adopt. Some people come every year, some volunteers are newcomers.
One such visitor was Karen Scheerer, “I was going to go hiking but then my back hurt and I was just scrolling on Facebook and I thought ‘oh, this is so cute, I'm gonna be Santa!’ And I love shopping so it's perfect.”
The kid’s first name and age are the only personal information left on the letters. All sensitive information is redacted, so that their identity and address can be kept private. The public letters are photocopies with numbers written on the corners. This allows postal workers to match them to addresses.
Many of the gifts you can buy online or in a store. Others are impossible to shop for, but you still have to answer them as Santa in an age appropriate manner. These letters include “Did Santa invent Christmas?” “Can you grant world Peace?” and “Dear Santa, I want world peace. I bet you can do that. I wish every Isis guy will be killed.”
It’s hard to know what is perfectly appropriate for each child. There is also the added pressure of playing a mythic figure in a child’s imagination, one with moral dominion over children with his naughty and nice lists. When responding, it’s important to keep this in mind.
It’s worth it, however. There’s only so many times in life that you get to play secret Santa with a total stranger.
I reported this story for KALW's auditory guessing game, Audiograph. The tug-of-war is a time honored tradition in West Marin and has been held more-or-less annually since the 60s. It was a blast producing this story, especially because my father, Brian Muldoon helped me out. While you listen to the story, check out some photos from that day.
And here's a bonus video of the 2014 pull shot from atop Little Mesa in Bolinas.
I killed my first deer in the backwoods of Wisconsin when I was 13 years old. This was the first time I really understood the existential price of eating meat: death.
I continued hunting through my childhood, and still do. But when I moved to the Bay Area in 2014, I discovered that culturally, many people here are not okay with killing animals.
This is a story about how our relationship with meat affects our relationship with death. And it begins in a preschool.
Dealing with death
We’ve probably all heard children play games dealing with the topic of death, where kids say things like: “I'm going to kill you! You're dead now!” Or: "This animal is dead, I'm going to bury her now.” Or: “This toy cow, I'm going to kill it and eat it."
For many parents, death is a very uncomfortable subject to hear their children playing around with.
“And they don't even know what they are talking about,” says Richmond resident, Rachael Soroka. “Really they are just trying to figure out what is this death thing that everybody talks about.”
Soroka has a 5-year-old daughter named Shirene, an adorable coiled spring of enthusiasm and curiosity. And she’s doing something unusual to tackle her parental discomfort with death.
A few months ago, as Soroka tells it, “we had this meeting at our preschool about how uncomfortable we all are with trying to talk with them about it. Because it’s horrifying for most people I think. Like, I'm going to die, you're going to die. Yuck.”
Soroka suggested an un-obvious solution.
“I'm a proponent of knowing the truth for kids … and I'm like, why not show them what it really is?” she says. “I sort of said, ‘You know, one thing that's been really interesting for me is to kill some chickens and know what death is for real – and look it in the face. So, if anyone ever wants to bring your kids and come over when I'm harvesting chickens, I'm happy to include you guys in that.’”
The room was quiet, she says. “And then one mom was like, ‘Yeah, I'm in, that's interesting.’”
So Soroka scheduled her first class. It’s a sort of ethical thought-experiment that forces the question: What would the average American’s relationship with death be like if we killed as many animals as we consumed?
So many of us have confused feelings about being a carnivore. In 2014, Americans slaughtered two million sheep, 30 million cows, 106 million pigs, and 8.6 billion chickens – a full billion more than there are humans on the planet.
Urban meat eaters are voracious, but they don't really want to think about where their meat comes from. While 90 percent of Americans will eat a turkey sandwich, or what have you, if you ask them if they would or could kill that turkey – an unavoidable precondition to its “sandwich-ization” – they get uncomfortable. Soroka’s class has the potential to repair this disconnect.
Before my visit, Soroka had held four classes. I join her for her fifth class at 10am on a Saturday morning.
“We have seven chickens as our unwilling participants in the day,” she says. “Nothing really likes dying, I've noticed.”
There are 11 of us all together: eight adults and three kids.
Soroka begins the class by picking out one of our chickens. She leads us over to one of her raised gardening beds, where she perches on the side as the rest of us huddle round.
Soroka’s presentation is specifically tailored to the children. She leans down and asks them, “Do you guys want to meet a chicken?”
“Ok!” the kids respond. Soroka takes the time to familiarize the kids with the hen.
There’s a weird mixture of unease, anticipation, and warmth. Most of the people in attendance have not seen an animal killed before. But Soroka still manages to bring a sense of calm.
“Sometimes it’s nice to say thanks to a chicken,” she tells the children as she softly caresses the hen’s back.
At this point, the hen is tightly swaddled in Soroka’s black apron, rolled over on its back, bundled and nestled into her lap. Soroka takes the time to explain how she’s going to kill the chicken.
“I'm going to put my thumb on the back of her neck because then I have the mechanics in my arms to break her neck,” she says, demonstrating. “And so right behind her little chicken ear here is where we're going to cut.”
Even though I’ve seen and killed animals before, the anticipation at this scene is thick. It’s impossible to distance myself from the weight of this situation. And then the moment comes.
Soroka narrates as she swiftly slits the hen’s throat.
“I cut down and let the blood out,” she says. The blood makes a tinny sound as it streams into the metal bowl she’s positioned below. The hen hardly moves. It’s almost peaceful.
Once most of the hen’s blood has drained, Soroka continues.
“The next thing that's going to happen is, I'm going to break her neck. And then her body is going to move a lot, even though she’s not alive anymore.”
After Soroka breaks the hen’s neck, it kicks wildly. This is easily the most difficult part to watch. While gore doesn’t really otherwise bother me, I can’t help but feel nauseated by the thought of breaking live sinew, flesh, and bone.
Soroka’s tutorial is over, and next it’s our turn.
We move along in pairs. First up is Marie, the mother of two kids in attendance today. Her two daughters are captivated, and they grimace and squirm. But as soon as it’s over, without skipping a beat, they run off to play with Soroka’s daughter Shirene. Marie goes to talk to her daughters afterwards. One of them asks her what it felt like.
“I think slowly they’ll have more questions,” says Marie. “The next time we buy a chicken they'll have a different perspective.”
Immediate reactions are pretty uniform. Most people agree that one of the most stressful things about slaughtering is worrying about doing it incorrectly and causing the hen more pain than necessary,
I end up the last to take a turn. And I’m left with what is easily the most interesting looking chicken of the lot. She’s black with huge plumage that encases her neck like a lion’s mane. This hen’s name is Tiny. She’s the only one with a name.
As I position Tiny in my lap, I’m struck by the intimacy of Soroka’s technique. And there’s a striking sense of ceremony about it too. I tightly wrap Tiny in my apron and settle her into my lap. Soroka delivers some final instructions as I position my knife along a targeted track of throat. It’s been awhile since I’ve killed anything. I can’t entirely hide the tremble of my hand.
After I break Tiny’s neck, her body starts to take sweeping kicks, but she’s bundled tightly enough in my apron that I can control her body’s convulsions. It doesn’t take long for her to unwind in my hands. And just like that, it’s over.
Reflecting on food and death
The rest of the class plays out like a high school biology lab in dissection and anatomy. We dunk the chicken carcass into scalding water to loosen its feathers for plucking. There’s dismembering and disemboweling. We find an un-laid egg.
Soroka says that since she’s started teaching the class, she’s noticed that kids’ reactions are often the same. Just after the chickens are killed, she says, “the kids would kind of be like, ‘Woah, one minute it’s alive and the next it’s dead. What is that about?’ And then they go climb trees and run around my backyard and play with my cat. They’re fascinated and really awed by it, but really unfazed.”
Since taking her class, I’ve seen my own diet change. I eat meat much more liberally than I did before. How do I explain this change in my behavior? It’s hard to say, but perhaps because it left me feeling more connected to the meat I consume.
I believe my childhood hunting experience impacted the way I see death in my adult years. In a way, I think death is more familiar to me than it is for those who haven’t killed their own meat. It’s something I’ve directly confronted, brought about even. And as for the kids at this class today, death doesn’t seem to be all that scary to them either. At least not yet. By the end, they’ve already moved on to more important things, like climbing trees.