The Girl from Coeur d’Alene

lake-coeur-d'alene-idaho

In recent years, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — where I lived the first eighteen years of my life — has been earning high praise as a beautiful gem in the mountains with a plethora of activities for the vacationer. This article holds it up as the #1 mountain town in the United States. I can’t disagree. Coeur d’Alene is a great place to visit, but I’m still not sure I’d want to live there.

I love my hometown. Mostly. When I was a kid, I didn’t think about whether I liked where I lived, or if I might like somewhere else better. It was what I knew, and I didn’t have any complaints apart from the fact that it seemed unreasonably difficult to spell Coeur d’Alene.

As a teen, I started to think I belonged somewhere else, and I was probably right. I was listening to The Cure and getting interested in exisitentialism and dadaism and art that went beyond the Northwest landscape. The town was too small. The minds were too small. And we had to special-order all of our music. I left in 1990.

As I get older I start to feel more nostalgic. I miss the heavy arid heat of summer that we don’t get in Seattle, even when it’s hot. I miss the thunderstorms, and the outrageous sunsets over the lake. And I especially miss the lake. I was in that lake constantly during my childhood summers, and now every time I submerge myself in that clear, cold water it’s almost a spiritual thing. Rebirth. Returning to the source.

scda_lumber_mill_1936_t470Coeur d’Alene is a beautiful place, with forested peaks cradling the glacial lake — though every year there are fewer trees and more new homes, status-symbol eyesores and time-shares. The tourism industry has taken over and transformed the town. No more mills spewing plumes of steam on the horizon and sounding whistles to mark the passing hours. Early shift. Lunch break. Swing shift.

Everyone worked at the mill back in the 1970s. Both of my parents worked there at one time or another. I have no idea what the term “pulling green chain” means, but I heard it often, and it didn’t sound like much fun. My general impression is that all of the local kids who worked summers at the mill after high school are lucky to still have a few limbs.

My spot on Sanders beach was officially on mill property, way down at the end past the log boom. The mill watched over the beach, like a benevolent machine, calmly steaming. The sound of saws was a distant and continuous buzz-buzz.

My senior year of high school, our local land baron bought the mill and burned it to the ground, to put in a golf course. When I came back to visit in 1992, the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar was almost too much to take. I have never been so horrified by the sight of a golf course.

The North Shore Motor Hotel
The North Shore Motor Hotel

As far as I’m concerned, Coeur d’Alene’s growth as a tourist destination is making the town more hideous by the year. One of the problems is the local land baron mentioned above (Duane Hagadone) and his architects who apparently hate beauty. The buildings are monstrosities. When I was a kid we had the North Shore resort, which was sixties-modern and swanky. Shag carpet in different jewel tones on each floor. The Cloud 9 restaurant and bar with a 360-degree view. Now the focal point of the whole town is the cheap-looking 80s castle-thingy that was built on the foundation of the North Shore.

Hagadone’s retail development of the main street — as well as the expansion of malls and box stores to the North — put the local shops like The Bookseller and Total Eclipse records out of business. Though I suppose the global economy would have done so regardless. Hagadone tore down the classic Wilma theater, where I had seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time. To this day, there is nothing but an infuriating empty grassy space and a bad mural where the Wilma once stood.

Ugly castle-thingy
Ugly castle-thingy

Downtown is now fairly useless to anyone who isn’t a tourist. The quaint shops trade in overpriced Northwest kitsch, mediocre local art (along with some surprisingly good local art), and gaudy jewelry. The downtown restaurants are pretty much terrible and overpriced (look elsewhere for good food). Happily, the Iron Horse restaurant and bar is still totally un-classy and attracts “bikers” (read: retired, overweight people on  expensive Harleys), and reminds me that I’m in Idaho and not Northern California.

The main problem with Coeur d’Alene (and most of Idaho) is the prevalence of small-mided conservatism. People lined up at 6am to wait for a chance to meet Sarah Palin for a book signing a few years ago. She spent a few of her college years in Coeur d’Alene. If anything, the town has grown more conservative since my childhood. The working class has been driven elsewhere, or reduced to jobs at call centers and fast food restaurants. The anti-gay rhetoric abounds as Idaho struggles with gay rights issues and bullying. And yes, it’s all white people.

The neo-Nazis — who had their compound outside of town — were driven out a decade or so ago when a Native American woman sued them after their guards beat her and her son when they stopped to ask for directions. It was the whiteness of North Idaho that attracted the white supremacists, and I’m sure there are still some lurking. Overall, there’s not much overt racism today. It was the Swedish settlers 200 years ago who refused to hire non-white labor, creating a pocket of whiteness in the melting pot.

Regardless, there’s an undercurrent of intolerance familiar to most small towns. It’s not scary — like my dad’s hometown of St. Maries (“Come for vacations, go home on probation!”) — but my LGBT friends stick to the places they know they are welcome, and otherwise don’t draw attention to themselves. You never know when you might accidentally tap into someone’s hate.

Someday, I might want to live in North Idaho again. I long for the landscape sometimes, even amongst all of Seattle’s spectacular views. Now I can tap into culture and buy books and music anywhere I can get on the internet, so access is no longer an issue. But I still have a love/hate relationship with the town. I always like to visit, though.

I’m sorry, everyone, but I really don’t like Ender’s Game.

At the age of 42, I finally read one of the most renowned 20th century novels in the young adult sci-fi category. Pretty much anyone my age or younger who has ever been a little geeky has read Ender’s Game. I’ve certainly been known to be a little geeky, but my tastes ran to the fantasy side of young adult fiction when I was an adolescent. When I hit fourteen, I became more interested in novels with lots of sex in them and left the elves behind (if there’s an elvish erotica genre I really don’t want to know about it).

Since they made a movie, and everyone seemed really excited about that, and I do love good sci-fi (with or without sex scenes — I’m a grownup now), I decided to read Ender’s Game. I figured I’d breeze through it in a couple of marathon sessions, like I normally do with YA fiction now. I read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy in about a week, and did the same with The Hunger Games series. It took me several months to finish Ender’s Game.

I just kept losing interest. It’s hard to care what happens to Ender or his sister or all of human civilization, partly because it is never established that the “enemy” is actually hostile. Of course, this becomes the crux of Ender’s moral dilemma later in the book, but until then the reader is expected to believe there is a good versus evil dichotomy, and side with the humans. I found the humans in this novel pretty despicable on the whole.

LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD (all the spoilers!)

What’s up with the eugenics? This dystopian society is centered around creating a war machine and military force capable of taking out the “enemy.” At the pinnacle of this machine there must be one Strong Leader, and not someone with experience who happens to have good leadership qualities, but it must be The One. The search for this Strong Leader is done through selective breeding. Parents with high IQs are selected by the government, and their children are monitored to determine whether they might be The One. Ender’s brother is too aggressive, and his sister too empathetic, but Ender is just right. And effortlessly better than everyone else at everything. Because genes.

I thought that whole Übermensch thing kind of went out of fashion with the Nazis, but in Ender we have a portrait of genetic exceptionalism. At several points I got the same queasy feeling I got reading Ayn Rand. The theory that some people are simply better than everyone else is the foundation on which this story stands. There’s an argument that some people really are better at certain things by nature. Sure, ok. But not by much. There are the outliers that turn out to have some amazing propensity for something, but as a rule a little kid is probably not going to turn into the world’s most brilliant military strategist in a couple of years, no matter how many mind games you play.

Genocide? That’s cool I guess. There’s a bit of moral ambiguity around how the genocide of the alien species is portrayed. Ender gets understandably freaked out when he discovers that he just wiped out an entire species when he thought he was playing a video game. But no one else seems particularly phased. It’s all “good job winning the war that wasn’t actually happening in the first place.” I’m not sure what the reader is supposed to make of this, apart from: people are horrible. There’s very little opportunity to understand what the enemy’s deal is, beyond the fact that they operate much like ants and communicate telepathically. There’s certainly nothing to indicate that they earned the destruction of their entire planet and all life on it. That seems rather harsh under any circumstances. At the end of the novel, Ender does some kind of mind-meld and takes the only remaining eggs left by the species to go find them a new home. That’s the least he could do, but I still have no idea whether that’s a good idea, or just an attempt to insert some morality at the end of a very amoral story.

Violence is mandatory. Part of Ender’s character development is the brutal murder of two boys who bullied him. I don’t like bullies, but I’m pretty sure beating them to death is not the answer. Ender doesn’t feel good about this, but to the powers-that-be this proves that he is cruel enough to lead. There’s some seriously fucked up reasoning going on here. I might argue that people who respond to stress or difficult situations with deadly force are precisely the people we don’t want in charge of the military.

The violence is set up as the classic underdog scenario, but when the underdog always wins and in the process kills people and entire alien species… it’s hard to buy the underdog thing.

The token female… There are actually two token females in the novel. Ender’s sister Valentine is the emotional crux of the story, because she’s the only person he loves. This is his motivation for pretty much everything: to save Valentine. Nevermind the fact that she doesn’t particularly need saving. Ender’s friend Petra at the academy is the classic token female. Hey look, there’s ONE girl who is good at stuff and smart enough to challenge the boys. Apparently girls in general are just not as good at video games and aiming laser pistols and floating around with no gravity, because there are no other girls who actively participate in Ender’s battles.

I don’t think all books and movies have to pass the Bechdel test to be worthwhile. If your story centers around, say, the D-Day invasion — fine, there were no women involved (at least not on the beach — pan out a bit and there were plenty of women involved). But when it’s 1985 and you’re writing about the distant future… is it that hard to imagine a teeny bit more gender equality? My guess is that Orson Scott Card felt like he was being generous to women by developing these two characters.

It turns out Orson Scott Card is kind of an asshole. Over the years, Card has made numerous proclamations about homosexuality that run along the lines: keep anti-gay laws on the books and don’t legalize gay marriage. Because otherwise the church won’t be able to impose its puritanical values on everyone.  When outspoken bigotry is taken alongside this hetero-male-hero myth, it’s easy to see where Card is coming from. And it’s not somewhere I want to go.