A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, March 14, 2020

One Century

Back: Reuben, Irwin, Sarah, Fenya
Front: Elizabeth, Pauline
circa 1915
Pauline, Irwin, and Elizabeth circa 1980

Dear Great-Grandma Fenya Zlochevsky – I never knew you, but I see you. You were a wonderful woman – strong, brave, and loving even in the face of the steep challenges of escaping the Russian Revolution, immigrating with three young children, making a life in a new country that was not always welcoming, and trying to build a feeling of love and safety during a worldwide war.  My grandma, your little Elizabeth, told me about you, her mother.  She was in her seventies then, and I was ten, but there were tears in her eyes nonetheless.  You died when she herself was ten -- in the influenza pandemic of 1918.  But I see you still.

Dear friends in vulnerable categories – older friends, friends with medical conditions, friends with compromised immune systems -- maybe you are struggling.  Maybe you are worried.  Maybe you are feeling blamed, or ignored, or sidelined, or already triaged by a cold and indifferent world.  You deserve better.  You deserve everything humanity as a whole can muster to keep you safe. You are us, and we are you.  I see you.    

Dear friends who are healthcare professionals – doctors, nurses, aides, all of you -- you have done the math, and you know exactly what this may look like, and you know how horrendous your world may look, for weeks, for months.  You know how many hours you may work, what hideous life and death choices may be placed in your hands, and what huge risks to your own health are looming.  You will do your best, because you are incredible human beings, but you’re painfully aware that your best may not be good enough.  You need the rest of us to do whatever we can to lighten your load.  I see you.

Dear friends who are not in a vulnerable category – you may be struggling in other ways.  You may suddenly be stuck at home with kids too young to care for themselves.  You may not be able to do your job, or earn a living.  You may be uncertain as to whether you’ll be able to get groceries.  You may be facing the cancellation of something you endlessly trained for, or rehearsed for, or longed for.  You may be unable to visit people you care about – and may never get another chance to see, ever.  You may be wondering how you can help, and feeling lost in your inability to do more.  Your hands may already be raw from washing, and your heart may already be raw from uncertainty.   I know.  I see you. 

Dear friends everywhere -- I won’t mention your names.  You don’t need to be called out.  You are already aware of who you are – in some cases, all too aware.  But I am thinking of your names.  Graphs are important.  Graphs remind people who have forgotten their algebra exactly what uncontrolled  exponential growth looks like.  But graphs show numbers, and mathy folks like me are often reminded that most people don’t think in numbers.  They think in names.  So I’m thinking of the numbers, but I’m also thinking of your names.  I see you.

Dear Great-Grandma Fenya Zlochevsky – You were a wonderful person. I know this because your sister and all three of your children told me so.  They all lived long, interesting, and productive lives.  Your husband and son lived to old age.  Your sister lived far into her eighties.  Both your girls made it to their mid nineties; they saw the turn of the millennium.  The millennium!  It’s a different world now, from the one you left 102 years ago.  But it’s also the same world.  We have terrible problems, and wars, and sad inequities, and we don’t treat immigrants the way we should.  But we want and hope and strive to be better than we are.  We love our children.  We love our grandparents.  We do the best we can.  Your little Elizabeth was my grandma.  She lived to see three great-grandchildren, and to know that two more, my twins, were on the way.  I’m looking at those twins right now.  I’m looking at the girl I named Elizabeth, after your Elizabeth.  I think you’d like to know all this.

I see you.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

2019 (Basic Recipe)

Pre-heat winter solstice to thirty-four below zero.  Using vegetable shorting or softened butter, grease the dry skin that is cracking open on your heels. Dust all surfaces with several feet of snow.

2 children (plus additional children as needed)
1 supportive spouse
1 supportive sister
Mother, father, and other relations, assorted
Long-lost friends, to taste
Not-lost friends, to taste (all friends should be hand-picked and of the highest quality)
140 acres of cacti
1 tent
2 dogs (plus 3 extra dogs)
1 cat (plus 4 extra cats)
2 baby squirrels (extra baby squirrels not recommended)
17,489,393,939,393 mosquitoes
2,681,140.8 acres of baked Alaska
15.2 terabytes of data
76 sub-folders
1888 unanswered emails

Combine children and spouse in medium-sized winter holiday break.  Whisk briskly through TSA in Fairbanks, New York, and, Boston, and Phoenix, using two crutches, an immobilization boot, and a metal pirate leg, [Note: whisking may not be quite as brisk as desired.] 

Add cacti and tent.

Gently mix memories with mother, father, sister, and other family members.  [Note: memories may be more mixed than expected, and may fail to rise]  Fold in compassion and empathy, and season with complicated logistics. 

Stir.  Continue to stir as much as possible, to avoid congealing and/or crankiness.  Stir using the crutches, the pirate leg, and a highly questioned combination of the immobilization boot and a snow bike.  Stirring for the entire length of the White Mountains 100 is not too much stirring, so long as your doctor doesn’t catch you.  [Note: She’s right behind you, on her bike.] 

Sift terabytes of data.  Sprinkle liberally through reports, papers, and gray literature.  Set aside in sub-folders, possibly forever. Spice up the mix with a dash of online publication and a spritz of All Things Considered on the baked Alaska.

Age children gently but continuously until they become teenagers.  Allow mixture to rise and develop freely in order to encourage bold flavors.  Season with rock climbing, horseback riding, MathCounts, snow forts, log forts, additional children (assorted), and dirt.

Place long-lost friends in large hallowed red-brick institution.  Shake vigorously with music from the early ‘90s.  Mixture will become light, bubbly, and warm, with the aroma of nostalgia and a sweet yet complex flavor.

Set spouse and children on two tandem bicycles.  Bake at moderate heat for approximately 230 miles from Delta to Paxson and across the Denali highway.  Be careful not to burn.  There’s way too much burning going on already.

Mix together children, dogs (including one fresh-picked pup with minimal damage), cats, mosquitoes, and baby squirrels.  Use extreme caution.  High-speed mixing is not recommended.  Retain squirrels until they are large and fluffy, then skim off into surrounding woods.  [Note: cats and dogs are already large and fluffy, and do not require skimming.]

Resulting mixture of two children plus one extra child will be very strong.  Allow mixture to mellow over 26.2 miles of the Equinox marathon.  Stir yourself enough to stay ahead of them. 

Gently fold in lectures on statistics, a climate adaptation plan for Igiugig, and an analysis of agricultural climate change impacts for the USDA.  Do not over-mix; results should be complex, but not utterly confusing.

Separate church and state.  Set aside governor and president.  Chill, but don’t chill too much.  Too much chilling suggests that you are not paying attention.

Coat with two pairs of longjohns, two pairs of socks, insulated pants, shirt, sweater, neck warmer, hat, mittens, and jacket.

Leave the emails for next year.

Add more friends and family, and warm.

Serves: the purpose

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

You Gave Me Words

You gave me words. You spoke them with the soft, refined vowels and inaudible r’s of Kent, near the English channel.  Up, no, more, eat, drink, sleep.  Baby.  You read aloud Beatrix Potter to the three-year-old at your side to prevent her from being jealous of her new sister.  She wanted to hear Mrs. Tiggywinkle.  Again.  Again. Again. The words flowed over me.  Pinafore, plaited, hedgehog, starch, stout, damask, goffered. 
You lose words, now.  Over the phone, your words wobble and falter.  This place where I am… your place, where you live… Four thousand miles away, I gently find the words you once gave me.  I pass them back to you.  Massachusetts.  Alaska.
You gave me whole sentences.  When I left your side to enter school, my sentences were so much yours that I spoke them in your voice, a little British child in New York.  I can already read.  I read my books in the rotunda while the other kindergartners are learning phonics.  I shed the accent, but I still sat in the rotunda with my books, my words, my sentences.
Now, your sentences sometimes turn on themselves and unravel.  Their endings become unwound from their beginnings.  The edges fray.   It’s like… that author, you know, but nobody reads him the way they used to, I suppose he did go on a bit, paid by the word, but such brilliant characters…  I rebuild sentences for you.  Oh, yes – you always loved Mr. McCawber, Mrs. Malaprop, Mr. Fezziwig.  I rewind the yarn of your thoughts until you catch up the needles again, and find your pattern.  And what about Miss Havisham, forever in her wedding dress?  Two plain, one purl. 
You gave me stories.  I loved the impossible ones: Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Black Riders.  I loved the might-have-been-real stories, too: The Picts and the Martyrs, The Hill War, The Railway Children.  You took me to the library.  Again.  Again.  You spent so much time at the library with your children that the library offered you a job.  You worked at that library for thirty years. You were never a librarian.  You’d never even gone to college.  Everyone thought you had.  You had so many words.
Over the phone, I offer you your stories back.  Remember the Amazon pirates in their red caps?  Faraway Moses?  Wild, Fiona, stalking the Scottish highlands in a beautiful, righteous snit with her brother Ninian?  Roger sliding downhill in his knickerbockers?  I’ve passed these stories on to your grandchildren, I tell you. The hard-bound editions, dark-green covers discolored by time, are stacked in Molly’s bunk.  Lizzy will use anything as a bookmark.  I hear the smile in your voice.    Nesbit’s time-traveling children have survived the test of time.  The harbour lights are shining on Wildcat Island.
You gave me your own true tales, the wispy-distant ones you could barely remember even before the sands began to shift.  You hid under the table, listening to the doodle-bombs overhead.  If the engine of the unmanned planes cut out, it meant they’d run out of fuel.  If the engines died, the bombs would fall.  They fell somewhere.  Not on you, though – not on you. There were ration cards and victory gardens.  The beaches were covered with barbed wire.   There were no oranges. 
I pass your childhood back to you, and you reweave it with me, joyfully.  You picked berries and rosehips in the hedgerows.  When you were naughty, you threw partially dried cow pies. You do not question the paradox, the intrinsic anachronism of my recalling a time a quarter century before myself.  Your big brother John and his friends collected fascinating bits of broken planes from the hills.  John is gone now.  John let you play too, even though you were little. Your daddy had a job that was secret, but special.  He was allowed a petrol ration.  Later, you learned that he helped develop radar.  His name was James.  He was quiet and gentle, brilliant and kind.  He died when you were still a teenager.  I never met him, but you gave him to me.  I give him back.  James.  Daddy.
You gave me the stories you wrote yourself, as an earnest nine-year-old sitting down with pen and ink and a blank notebook.  Margaret wrote stories, too.  She lived just down the road. The four volumes are perfect in their utterly precocious imperfections. You penned highly derivative British boarding school books -- fan-fiction for a genre that was already a parody of itself, from fifty years before Harry Potter.  Angela did the illustrations for both of you. 
When your granddaughters reached the age you were when you began your first ambitious opus, I read aloud all four of the volumes you produced before puberty.  Angela grew up to be a real artist.  I cannot draw nearly as well as your friend could when she was not yet ten.  You named your fictional boarding school Saint Margaret’s.  I tell you about Lizzy’s writing.  I tell you that she asks me, anxiously, if her highly derivative cat-warrior fan-fiction is as good as your books.  Your young heroines discovered a Nazi hideout in a cave.  Lizzy’s fearless cats find and raise an orphaned puppy, and win a war against a rival clan.
You gave me your adventures, from that mysterious grown-up-but-before-I-was-born time.  They were rich and improbable, historical, other-worldly.  All those A-level exams, but you saw no point in University.  You didn’t want to be a spinster teacher or a spinster nurse.  You learned to touch-type more than sixty words a minute.  On a manual typewriter.  You were fluent in French.  You worked in Switzerland.  You joined the Foreign Service as a secretary, but before long you were in Cambodia transporting secret mail bags and translating codes. Sihanouk was in power.  The Vietnam War was raging. The Khmer Rouge were rising.  Your embassy was sacked.  Almost everyone fled.  You stayed.  And after that, after three years of that, you were immediately posted to Turkey.
No, you tell me, they didn’t send me right away.  I had a bit of time in London.  A few months.  A summer.  I helped with… that tunnel.  You know.  The Channel Tunnel?  The tunnel to France?  But that wasn’t built until years later, I don’t think?  Wouldn’t this have been the mid-sixties?  Yes, yes the tunnel… there were just two chaps, and me.  They were working on getting that agreed, all worked out.  I carried all sorts of papers back and forth for them, to the French, at their, their… the French Embassy, in London?  Yes, the French. 
I Google it later.  The Chunnel didn’t open until 1994, but England and France officially agreed to build the tunnel in 1964, and carried out the initial extensive geological survey.  It was faster than the post, so I offered to carry the papers.  We got it all worked out about the tunnel.  The Channel Tunnel.  I never knew.  You still have stories to give me.  I will tuck that one away and give it back to you, too – next week, next year, whenever you need it.
You gave me my own details, the ones I was too little to remember.  You had an argument on the way to the hospital about what you were going to name the boy you were sure you were going to have.  You would have gotten your way.  I would have been James.  Like your father.  The engineer I never knew.  He was a lot like me.
The details snarl and snag, so I untangle them for you.  Remember the trip we took in the Rocky Mountains?  I was three months old. I had no words then.  But you granted them to me later, more vibrant than all the dusty carousels of slides.   A tour bus pulled in right next to your Volkswagen Beetle and its occupants stared down as you tried to nurse me discreetly. In 1972, breast-feeding was not in vogue.  I was eighteen months old when you took me in for testing on my blind eye, to see if anything could be done to repair it.  I had to be lightly anesthetized, and I developed acute separation anxiety for a while afterward.  You’re sorry, you say.  The eye was useless anyhow.  I got over it, I tell you. 
But, you say, your voice a four-thousand-mile, forty-seven-year echo, you still worry.  You still worry about my having only the one eye.  You always have.  I remember.  We remember. We remember that you always worried.
I’ve done just fine without that eye, I tell you.  Pretty well, in fact.  I laugh.
Yes, you say, laughing with me, winding forward, fast-forward across the blurring calendar of years, I guess you have done pretty well. 
Your voice still sounds like Kent.  Like the English Channel. 
You give me words: I love you.
I give them back: I love you, too, Mum.