The Old Neighborhood

My Alaska, and Sarah Palin’s, deserves better from America.

For a long time I’ve been an Alaskan in exile, spending only a portion of each year (the sunny part) in the homeland. As a result, I am the only Alaskan that most of my friends know. So, when Sarah Palin was picked as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, the e-mail poured in. “Not all Alaskan families are as weird as the Palins, right?” wrote a friend from California.

“Let me assure you,” I wrote back. “They are all freaks.”

I then described, at some length, the neighborhood I grew up in. There were my parents, superorthodox Catholics, complete with backyard statuary. Across the street, an Air Force officer and family. Next-door to them, a gay couple. Not just gay, but extra-flaming, mow-the-front-lawn-in-a-nightshirt-and-nothing-else kind of gay, walk-into-a-bar-yelling, “A beer for the queer!” kind of gay (in Alaska, in the 1960s!). My parents kept an extra set of house keys for “T-Bird Tommy,” as the more flamboyant partner was known, so that when he came home drunk and couldn’t find his keys, he would have a nearby spare.

Next-door to Tommy was my best friend. His father, a fun guy much of the time, once hit him with a belt in front of the whole neighborhood because he had “allowed” his 4-year-old little brother to piss in the front yard. His mother was a nurse. She was once wheeling Tommy into the operating room to have some kind of procedure, and he said to the surgeon, in his tremendously raspy lisp, “Doctor, if my heart stops while I’m under, just put a cock in my mouth, and I’ll come to immediately.”

Down the street from me was a family of redheads, like, eight of them. To say the house was dirty is like saying the abandoned space station in Aliens was dirty. It was covered in scum, like someone had left rotten bananas on every surface. The oldest boy, a teenager, had an eerily overfriendly manner about him and used to dress in combat fatigues and invite people to go out into the woods to “play war games.” Also on the street was a sort of commune. I never really figured it out, but there were women, children, and farm animals but no men. Some suggested the men were at a farm in a nearby town. My sister claims she visited the farm once and saw no men but otherwise reported nothing too unusual—but remember, my sister is a lesbian.

Later they all moved to Israel and lived on a kibbutz, which I never quite understood, since these people were obviously some kind of Christian evangelicals (or so I thought). But then I recalled that when they returned a few years later (I was about 10), my brother and I asked one of the kids what it was like to live in Israel, which might as well have been the moon to us. The kid said it was more or less good, but that learning Hebrew had been a real drag. Hebrew? A real kibbutz? Who were these people, Jews for Jesus?

The miracle of my childhood—what still casts a sunny light on my social memories of Alaska in the ‘70s—is that we all got along so well. Not just coexisted, but actually had relationships with one another: We played together, shared garden produce and salmon, pushed one another’s cars out of the snow, and, in that pre-cable era, found each other’s idiosyncrasies entertaining rather than infuriating.

The great thing about living among freaks is that you have to do something really special to be shunned. By contrast, when I went off to an Ivy League university, my chance at social advancement was snuffed out in the dining hall in the first week of school when I unceremoniously consumed a small bowl of lettuce with my hands.

I know the Internet was supposed to help us get beyond our divisions—regional, linguistic, ideological, utensilary—and share in a kind of technologically enabled solidarity. But it has done the opposite. Witness the blogosphere feeding frenzy over the “true” maternity of Sarah Palin’s child. (BTW, you think the name Trig is weird? I had a teacher who named her daughter 9. Not Nine, mind you, but 9.) Witness the conviction with which some people still discuss Obama’s allegiance to Islam.

I imagine Sarah Palin grew up in a neighborhood much like my own: It was a neighborhood where, although Tommy used to refer to his partner as his “husband,” there was never a debate about gay marriage; a neighborhood where, although my mother was a founder of Alaska Right-to-Life and the Air Force officer’s wife was staunchly pro-choice, their friendship (and her occasional role as my babysitter) never faltered. We identified not by our ideologies but by our geography. On my block, you never imagined that any of these freaks—gay, straight, military, religious, redneck, kibbutzim—didn’t love America. After all, we loved one another.

This sense of responsibility for the welfare of one’s neighbors—even those whose lifestyles or beliefs give you the creeps—is still alive in glimmers. Palin’s enduring popularity across party lines in Alaska would not be possible without it. She has governed pragmatically and without ideological rancor. In 2006, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state was obliged to extend employee benefits to same-sex partners of its employees. The legislature subsequently passed a bill that would block the state from extending these benefits. Palin vetoed the measure, even though she, too, opposed the court decision. “Signing this bill,” she explained, “would be in direct violation of my oath of office.” In other words, she saw her ideological views as subordinate to her obligation to the rule of law. And unlike the legislature, she apparently saw no sense in creating further division when the only practical result would be more litigation and a heightened sense of division and offense.

But, eventually, politics poisons everything. And now there is the home girl, nearly my own age, in front of the network cameras, styled as the attack dog and set up to read churlish lines about her fellow citizens—who, for their part, will villainize her and her family and her religion and her region.

I never thought it possible for Alaska to be the anvil of such partisan animosity—for Alaska, the land of libertarian neighborliness, to be sent to the front in the culture wars. I suppose the circumstances of one’s childhood always tend to melt away slowly into new construction and nostalgia and loss, so I don’t claim to be unique. But the harshness of the light on Sarah Palin calls up those distant memories, and their dissipation seems now abrupt, as if the old neighborhood was subject to aerial bombardment and civil war.

In the old days, people used to leave their cabins unlocked in the winter (with notes saying, “Take what you need, leave what you can”) because it was considered reckless to lock a shelter against those who might come across it in desperate straits. Growing up, we had no Internet to bring us together, but we had a shared geography that did so in a much more powerful way. Wilderness has a bully pulpit all its own, and, back when we could still hear it over the cell phones and the four-stroke snow machines, it preached a repetitive sermon. 1) We don’t all have to agree about everything, 2) but we do all have to survive the winter. If the Alaska of my childhood could be put on the stump, I believe that would be the content of its speech.