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Why Sarah didn't blink

Scott Woodham

After Sara Palin won a tag in the lottery to bag her first network news anchor, Charlie Gibson, it occurred to me that many in the Lower 48 might not understand the full import of her statement, "I'm ready," or her firm conviction that "you can't blink." As an Alaskan watching that interview far from home, I felt a spike of homesickness then paralyzing fear when she said that. Given the extreme stakes here, I thought I'd do my best to help everyone understand the specific nostalgia I felt.

From where I sit, Governor Palin wasn't being especially firm, decisive, committed, or even hubristic when she said those things. She was simply following her script-and not her God's or handlers' script. No, no, she was following much deeper prompting: The elemental forces created by an Alaskan upbringing.

Many Alaskans learn from those around them that anyone can do any job well enough without much preparation or experience, and the bigger the job, the more rewarding or likely the success will be. Fittingly, this attitude applies equally regardless of the project's scale, necessity or importance: Small engine repair, gun-smithing, diesel engine overhaul, major appliance repair, large-scale home renovations, minor medical procedures, civic and utility projects, business ventures, and jobs of work. No matter what, many Alaskans aren't afraid to give anything a shot. Even if it turns out half-assed, at least we didn't blink.

This cultural trait has served Alaskans well for generations. People call it a frontier remnant, but it often persists as the kind of resourcefulness that prohibitive costs and a short labor pool require. If re-plumbing the basement after a frozen pipe costs money you don't have, you'll learn how to patch it yourself. So what if you remodel the basement and the hot and cold pipes turn out reversed at the bathroom faucet? Just switch the knobs around. If you don't care, no one else will. If you lose your front bumper, and shipping a replacement from Seattle will cost more than the part itself, just use a section of beetle-killed spruce and some 3-inch chain. So what if it's not stock? If you don't care, no one else will.

Even if money isn't an object, people still take great pride in squeaking by like that. The trait persists as a kind of unadvised daring. Ever since the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was built with little more than a grand dream and several thousand imported workers, Alaskans look up to people who dare big yet still come through, sort of. People who think nothing of starting a second story on a house using two borrowed front-loaders and a stack of surplus railroad ties. So what if they've never operated such machinery before? They'll figure it out.

Alaskans all know people whose roof has been covered in blue tarps and VisqueenTM for years because they're still waiting to come across a cheap (or unguarded) stack of shingles, or people who hang signs before house-parties that warn, "Beware of bare wire -- It's all hot!" I was about eight years old before I realized TyvekTM Home-Wrap isn't considered siding and AstroturfTM isn't really carpet. None of this seems unusual to me -- even now.

Almost every Alaskan has worked for or knows about a company whose procedural policies, employee training, and safety or equipment maintenance guidelines border on negligence. Many of the homes built in Alaska during the pipeline boom were stapled together by such companies -- wood-paneled cathedrals of fiberboard and haste. But the attitude persists. Many homes in the recent town-house construction booms around Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley fit that bill, too. Drive past a subdivision jobsite. If any lower floors are still bare frames filled with stacks of loosely tarp-covered material, or if the joist-ends on upper floors look weathered as driftwood, you can almost be sure that the developers are following the Grand Alaska Tradition of getting in over their heads and clawing themselves to shore.

This cultural ethos, however, doesn't just apply to construction projects, and it hasn't always resulted in eccentric ramshackle. The State of Alaska itself is evidence of the potential inherent to this cultural legacy. Statehood was a grand experiment, and a truly unique state constitution was brought about by many wise, educated, and noble people -- plus more than a few concerned yahoos who were giving it their best shot. I'm not saying the conventioneers didn't know what they were doing, but they intentionally set out to create a unique state government to suit unique geographic, social, and economic conditions. Lots of risk there. While the declaration of human rights and the privacy clause, to name two, remain some of the most progressive elements among state constitutions, the framers failed to address issues related to Native rights to traditional land, self-government, and resources. And that failure remains a source of real tension to this day, albeit largely ignored.

Precedents like the Alaska Constitution, ratified by the convention under the jade lamp in 1956, and the trans-Alaska pipeline, completed a little more than two decades later, proved that Alaskans are best at completing unimaginable projects of critical importance when they dive right in and get to work. The framers put it this way after their job was done:

We bequeath to you a state that will be glorious in her achievements, a homeland filled with opportunities for living, a land where you can worship and pray, a country where ambitions will be bright and real, an Alaska that will grow with you as you grow. We trust you; you are our future. We ask you to take tomorrow and dream; we know that you will see visions we do not see. We are certain that in capturing today for you, you can plan and build. . . . You are Alaska's children . . .(read more)

In other words, Alaska's children, believe in the power of your dreams even if you haven't the faintest idea how to pull them off-follow those visions even if you got them while huffing cans of ambition.

Although Governor Palin's refusal to blink in the face of such a monumental decision as running for vice president might seem reckless, she was acting as one of "Alaska's children." I felt a twinge of mistaken pride for that as I remembered for a moment that a kind of limitless potential was given to me in the cradle if only I dared accept it. But then, she and I are both gussaqs who grew up mainly in urban-ish Alaska. Whaling crews in the villages are rarely led by young people, and if it ever happens, only exceptional ones are given such responsibility.

In that interview with NBC's Charlie Gibson, Palin's expression of Anglo-Alaskan Übermensch-style readiness got to me, and it seems to be touching a deep-seated place within some American voters. So what if Sarah Palin is utterly unprepared by experience, education, or mindset to contribute to solving the dire problems facing the United States in this increasingly interconnected world? If she doesn't mind, neither should America. My people don't blink when someone hands a nine-year-old a chainsaw, and neither should America. If McCain's ticket wins, Palin will be fine as long as no one minds all the blue tarp keeping rain out of the vice presidency. If American voters choose that ticket and Senator McCain isn't able to finish his term as President for health reasons, beware of bare wires in the kitchen -- they'll all be hot.

Because I've seen the results, private and public, when Alaskans from all walks of life follow their upbringing and take on responsibilities they probably wouldn't if they really sat down and thought about them, I'm hoping Governor Palin isn't called on to do anything more important than read pre-fab speeches and dodge difficult questions until November.

After the presidential election, maybe she'll head back home to finish the projects she started as governor: Working with the Legislature to help the people of Alaska seek vengeance on the oil producers (who have been laughing their asses off since 1968 about citizen politicians who wanted to play in the big leagues); reminding Alaska Republicans that disgraced political leaders, like Randy Reudrich, usually step down as party chair; and subsidizing Canadian gas companies. After she finishes all that, maybe Palin will have the time to get started on the new projects that have cropped up since she got on the national ticket: Un-poisoning the "Troopergate" investigation, resetting the passwords on her brand-new Gmail account, and deciding who should pay for Alaska's media-rape kit.

Contact Scott Woodham at swoodham(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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