Dog Sledding Through Social Issues

Photos of bouncy happy dogs ended up in my Twitter feed one day. Who can resist photos of happy dogs? It was Blair Braverman’s feed — they were sled dogs, and she had written a book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Eventually I bought it and, a further eventually, I read it.

Great decision. Not only is Braverman a dogsledder with interesting Arctic experiences that developed her skills and interests, but she is clearly a writer as well. I would read beautiful sentences or note how she skillfully alternated between timelines and I would be increasingly impressed. Then it was revealed that her first year out of high school she had a capstone-type project of writing a novel and that her undergraduate degree was in English or journalism or something similar. “There we go,” I thought. “Now I see how this all came together.”

In writing about falling into a pit during a race and then getting back out:

“And [the dogs] were so happy, every muscle in their bodies bounding with excitement, smiles wide, not wolves at all–they were sled dogs, and it was a perfect ten below, and there was nothing in the whole world as fun as running and racing and tumbling into pits and getting out of them again.”

pg 270

Oh, to be sled dogs!

“The noontime sunset cast the water in shadow but lit the mountaintops gold.”

pg 263

“Our breath trailed behind us like footprints.”

pg 67

But, as beautiful as the descriptions of working with the dogs, of Norway, and of the glacier in Alaska, were, this book was a tough read for me. I was not entirely prepared for it, despite the subtitle that starts out Chasing Fear. Braverman uses her skills as a writer to perfectly capture, in all its nuances and manipulation, what women face all the time when dealing with men.

Immediately, I was thrown back into my own “normal” experiences as a woman when some men have thought they were entitled to my space, my body, and my decisions:

  • The guy my first night of college who thought it was perfectly fine to crawl into my dorm room twin bed. Luckily he was too drunk to be too much of a threat.
  • The coworker who would sit and watch me doing a task and make suggestive sounds and motions repeatedly and I was too young to really know how to handle it. I have randomly pondered how it was that someone from the company eventually came to interview me privately if this had been going on. And during the interview, as professionally and kindly as it was handled, I experienced a weird guilt and embarrassment?! It was only years later that I realized that one of the chefs had probably reported it, putting his neck out for me. (Sexual harassment reporting was fairly new at the time and he was African American and I and the harassing co-worker were white – I think there would have been social dynamics he must have considered before he reported it for me.)*
  • The paramedic who would always follow me out to the bay at night when I put my turnout gear next to the ambulance, even when I specifically waited until he was not in the room to see me leave to do so. I eventually just quit volunteering with that shift.
  • The guy I was semi-dating who, when I suggested we go for a run at my favorite park, agreed but then never got out of the truck and instead wanted to make out. When I called him on it, I said, “When I said I wanted to go for a run, that’s what I meant.” He just laughed and said, “I know.” He’s also the one who suggested that we do some martial arts practice together and then came out of the changing room stark naked. Semi-dating turned into no interaction. We eventually became friends again and to this day he randomly tells me he has always loved me. I actually believe him. But, how do you trust someone when the relationship begins like that, before it is even a relationship? The confusing part is that he has other great qualities.

Braverman captures that aspect well, too–how these kinds of interactions (and worse) make women doubt ourselves and leave us with a sense of confusion and shame that does not belong to us.

Although I was not prepared for it in her book, it is important. These misogynic/disdain-for-women-as-full-humans secrets should be dragged out into the light.

Another thread gently and unobtrusively woven throughout the narrative addresses how we care for each other as a society and in community.

Around the same time I started the book, we were having Gene Nichol as a guest lecturer at my place of work and he was speaking about his book The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina. I was quickly trying to read his book before the lecture. In it, he writes of the devastating poverty that exists in our state while our state and local governments and our general population make a studied effort to be totally blind to it. So, at the same time that Nichol’s words were ripping out my gut and dragging my battered heart along behind it, I was reading Braverman casually mention that in Norway,

“. . . their poverty was less about need than class, less about money than the facts that they were both northern and rural.”

pg 19

The immediacy of the contrast, coupled with my own personal experience in the past of seeing how easily we cast off people, brought me to tears. Why do we do this here? Why are we so committed to not caring for one another?

Braverman does not spend a lot of time on the formal social support systems in Norway, but woven throughout the narrative is her experience getting to know Arild, the local shopkeeper in a northern rural part of Norway. In the rural areas, it has long been the social role of the shopkeeper to be an additional safety net. The shopkeeper knows everyone in the area and checks in on people if they had not been seen in a while or are generally homebound. While Braverman was living there, she saw that this included the local alcoholic. They never let him go hungry. They made him use his own funds for the alcohol and, when he ran out each month, he ran out. But, they never let him go hungry or unseen.

Over the course of the book, it seems that she may be suggesting that this tradition is fading as modern life continues to creep into the livelihoods and ways of those in rural areas. But her descriptions of the role Arild played are a glimpse into how communities can care for each other, even when the shopkeeper is just as human and imperfect as the rest of us.

“During visits [traveling out and around] he kept careful track of what people needed, whether it was a new belt or a refrigerator or just human company, and he did what he could do to provide it.”

pg 40

* Yes, there is anonymous reporting, I believe. But, the location I was cornered into to do my work would have been in the line of sight of only one person. If I figured it out when I thought about it enough, so could anyone receiving the report or learning of it. I never told anyone about the company interviewing me, mainly because, again, I was embarrassed that any of it had occurred in the first place. Now, I am glad I never told anyone, for this other reason. And, if it was him, I wish he would know he did the right thing and that I am grateful.