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

Friday, December 23, 2011

We Wish You a Merry... Something

"Just put the food wherever you can find a spot."
I struggle to comply, bumping shoulders with a hundred or so other parents. We are bracing ourselves for the peerless form of entertainment/torture/instant nostalgia known as a Kindergarten Holiday Program.  
As the first dissonant notes of "Rudolph" bombard my ears, I plunk a steaming plate of latkes on the potluck table.
I'm not really sure why I brought this particular contribution to add to the array of mac-and-cheese, peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches, and green-and-red-frosted cookies. Am I trying to make a point about diversity?  Am I just trying to use up the summer-farm-share potatoes that are sprouting in the pantry?  Or am I, in my irreligiousness, perversely insistent on the misuse of holiday traditions? 
Two days previously, I served up a similar tray of steaming, satisfyingly crispy-with-oil potato pancakes with apple sauce.  My neighbors and family dug in.
            "Ok, so tell us about Hanukkah," one of my friends prompted.
"Um." I felt a moment of latke-imposter panic. I muddled my vague way through the story.  Maccabees.  Oil to burn in the temple.  Only one day's worth, but it miraculously lasts for eight. The tale is a parable of hope in the face of fear, oppression and darkness.  But I was afraid I was getting the details all wrong, and mangling other people's beliefs.
Not that this was anything new.  I've been wreaking havoc on rituals all my life - although it never occurred to me to worry about it when I was a kid. Growing up, I happily wallowed in a cultural mishmash.  It was my not-at-all Christian father who played carols on the piano, because he's got a good ear for a tune, while Mom is 97% tone-deaf. It was my not-at-all Jewish mother who relished hot latkes, whereas Dad was not convinced that potatoes could masquerade as a main dish.  My father was a fan of big, burly-looking Christmas trees laden with skeins of lights, shatter-hazard glass baubles, and awkward craft projects created by my sister and myself.  Mom made black, dense, weirdly alcoholic-smelling Christmas pudding -- being British, she simply couldn't help herself. 
My cousins celebrated Hanukkah and were Bar- and Bat-Mitzvahed, but they came over for Christmas anyhow.  My grandmother, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and my grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Turkey, wrapped presents in red and green paper and shouted "Ho, ho, ho," as they came through the door.  To complicate my ethnicity further, "Fresco" was originally a Spanish name, not a Turkish one -- although I didn't learn this until years later.  When Spanish Jews became unpopular during the Inquisition, their more tolerant Islamic neighbors offered hope and sanctuary in the face of tyranny. 
We kids, of course, were big fans of Santa Claus, and loved making a huge mess with reindeer-shaped cookie cutters.  I also liked the secular version of the Christmas story.  It included a new baby, brave young parents, and a whole menagerie of animals.  It involved a bright star -- a symbol of hope in the darkness.
"… On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…"  Seventy-five little voices valiantly surge on, each in their own key, as Mrs. Claar kneels on the floor holding up cue cards in rapid succession.  "… two turtle doves…"
Mrs. Claar's kindergarten class is awash in paper poinsettias, Santas, and menorahs.  For all I know, my quarter-ethnically-Sephardic never-been-near-a-synagogue kids may be the most Jewish five-year-olds in the school.  Nonetheless, they've all been learning about traditions -- lots of traditions.  The other day the twins came home with crowns of paper candles on their heads. I was not previously acquainted with Saint Lucia -- thank goodness for Wikipedia.  According to legend, she took food to fellow Christians hiding in catacombs in Rome.  Her candles are a symbol of hope in the face of oppression and darkness.  The kids insisted on wearing their faux-candles up and down every aisle of the grocery store.  I hoped no one would ask me any questions.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I began to feel guilty about co-opting traditions that didn't belong to me.  Was I annoying people?  An irreligious Christmas, I know, offends some Christians.  I feel anxious about that, and at the same time grateful to my extended family-by-marriage, all much more religious that I will ever be, who have accepted me so unreservedly.  I love this season -- the warmth, the sharing, the music, the joy, the cookies.  I love selecting the presents and squirreling them away.  I like the tree, the lights, the chestnuts, and the snow. But I will never be a church-goer.
Borrowing a different religious tradition would be, of course, no better.  Over that first dinner-time batch of latkes, I asked the kids, "Does anyone in your class celebrate Hanukkah?"
They both thought about it.  "Abdul doesn't celebrate Christmas," Lizzy offered.
Well, no, I'm sure he doesn't. I see Abdul's mother every day at pick-up time, smiling and modest in her hijab.  I'm guessing he doesn't celebrate Hanukkah, either.  Maybe New Years?  Will Abdul's parents fill their house with delicious baking and roasting smells?  Will they buy some ribbons and fancy wrapping paper for New Year's presents for their little boy, big-eyed-adorable behind his glasses? 
I scan the rows of eager little faces, and there he is, two rows behind Lizzy, singing his heart out.  "…eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming…"  So far, the songs have all been Christmas ones.  Non-religious ones, to be sure, but still… isn't there a solstice tune on offer?
The kindergarten concert is, in fact, taking place on the winter solstice.  What's more, it started at 11:00 - almost the precise moment at which the sun was scheduled to rise on this shortest day of the year.  From here on, the days will get longer -- and all of us in the far north will get just a mite less lethargic, less crabby, and less downright morose.  Solstice in Fairbanks is not just a minor celestial phenomenon - it's a mood-altering Very Big Deal. Moreover, it seems like it should be a holiday that we can all agree on.
Solstice customs make all other traditions look positively new-fangled.  From Amaterasu (Japan) to ZiemassvÄ“tki (Latvia), Wikipedia details thirty-nine different holidays centered around the darkest days of the year.  Many are old-new chimeras of ancient customs and more recent ideas.  Decorated trees, candles, gift giving, singing, and feasting are all solstice traditions that predate Christmas, so my religious ritual-pilfering is, in fact, rather broad-brushstroke – as is everyone elses.  The timing of all this merriment is not coincidental.  For ancient people in cold climates -- with limited sources of food, light, and warmth in the winter -- celebrations offered something they desperately needed, regardless of the details of their beliefs: hope in a time of fear and darkness.
I could be much more creative with my borrowing.  I could cover my doorposts with butter for the sun-goddess Beiwe.  I could leave a colander on my doorstep, or try spraying red bean porridge around my house to keep away ghosts.  Or perhaps I might run around the neighborhood singing and carrying a dead wren.
Or I could relax, brush the proverbial chip off my shoulder, and attend a concert at which no animal sacrifices are required, and the kids do the singing. 
The partridges and pear trees have finally ground to their climax, and the kids have started a new tune.  "All I really need is a song in my heart… food in my belly… and love in my family…"  Seventy-five pairs of hands are pantomiming the song in sign language along with the words.  Unexpectedly, I find my enjoyment crossing the line from semi-ironic to genuine.  "…and I need the rain to fall, and I need the sun to shine, to give life to the seeds we sow, to give the food we need to grow, grow…"
There's my little Molly, wearing a red shirt, red pants that are too loose and keep sliding down to show her underwear, and a long brown skirt on top.  "Did she pick her own outfit?" a classmate's mother asks me, grinning.  Her own son is fidgeting and making faces.  I nod, laughing.  There's my Lizzy, shyly pink-cheeked and relegated to the front row because she's a short kid in a tall family.  There's Alito. Therese… Kaya… Sneferu… Ta'kosha… Ayla… Jamal… John.
"…and I need some clean water for drinking…and I need some clean air for breathing… so that I can grow up strong and take my place where I belong…"
And there's Abdul, who I now realize is looking right at his mom and dad, both proudly in attendance.
"…all I really need is a song in my heart and love in my family…"
It's snowing outside, so even the brief allotted hint of solstice daylight is obscured.  But unlike our ancestors, we know the days will get longer.  We know the light will return.  Unlike many people out there in this small-large world, we know the potluck table is groaning with hotdogs-in-blankets, spaghetti, and latkes.  Not everyone is so lucky.  Not everyone has hope in the face of oppression, fear, and darkness.  Mentally, I estimate how much I've spend on gifts this year.  I double it.  And I vow that when I get home, I'll send it to Oxfam and Amnesty International.
The kids finish up their program with "Jingle Bells." They pour off the makeshift stage, still jingling. Moments later, I have one over-excited kid hanging off one arm, and one off the other.  I can barely move.  I look up and see a set of parents smiling empathetically at my predicament as they collect their own hyped-up kid -- Abdul. 
"Happy New Year," I say.  They return the good wishes.
            Then the kids and I line up to get some latkes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fashion Bugged

“Mommy?  How come there are so many people wearing fancy dress-up clothes here?”
I glanced around. The bustle of a major airport at five a.m. is at best incongruous, and at worst feels like a Technicolor hangover.  Dress-up clothes?  What was my kid talking about?  I was so bleary from three hours of neck-crick half-sleep that I almost expected to see revelers parading around in clown wigs or Superman suits. 
“I mean, people wearing high-heeled shoes and stuff,” my daughter elaborated.  Despite the fact that I’d had to pry her slumbering head off my numb thigh only a few minutes previously, she was obviously primed to bubble over with perky questions.  Even her twin, doped up on chewable ibuprofen to combat a fever of 102.6, was evidencing more interest in her surroundings than I was.
The very idea of high heels seemed ridiculous.  My own feet felt as doughy as Cinnabons in my half-laced sneakers. But yes, it was true.   A pair of thigh-high boots with four inch spikes strode by.  I spotted a teetering pair of pumps. And I wasn’t just the footwear.  I was surrounded by sleek jackets, designer labels, and glossy leather.  
I felt that resounding mental thud that seems heavier the longer I live above the 65th parallel. Toto, we’re not in Fairbanks any more.
Not long after I moved to the frigid land-locked center of Alaska – a staggering twelve and a half years ago – I first heard a local adage:  “Fairbanks isn’t the best place on Earth to live… it just ruins you for anywhere else.”  At first I thought it was funny.  Then I wasn’t sure.  I was already fashion-illiterate; living in a sub-arctic backwater was only going to make my condition worse.
It’s not that I have any desire to be stylish – or any hope of ever being so – but my complete inadequacy in a pursuit that most people seem to think is Very Important can trigger uneasy self-doubt and even creeping panic.  The whole idea of fashion has always seemed both ludicrous and intimidating to me.  Why spend heaps of money on peculiarly uncomfortable garments that are predestined to look laughably dated in photos?  I hate shopping, and on the rare occasions when I’ve tried to look “dressy” or even “professional”  I’ve felt fidgety, constricted, and about as attractive as a llama in a tutu.  All the same, “everybody else is doing it” can be a potent mantra.  My fashion-angst was more acute when I was younger, and hadn’t yet found safe haven in Fairbanks.  Still, with my mental energy at low ebb near Gate A7, it seemed a bit frightening to think that I’ve fallen so far off the map that I can’t ever step back on. 
As I staggered past the Sea-Tac Starbucks (motto: “We’ll charge what we want because you have been jet-lagged into desperation”)  I was reminded once again that not only do I not look and act like a normal American, but I wouldn’t be able to fake it if I wanted to.  The clothes I’d chosen to wear for my marathon of planes, trains, and automobiles were newish.  My luggage was clean.  Still, my choices were obviously not right.  My t-shirt said “Fairbanks Public Library” and sported a picture of sled dogs reading books.  The jeans were men’s Levis. 
Everyone else in the airport had matching wheeled luggage.  I had a backpack and a canvas tote.  I looked down at my kids.  “Um…”  I still hadn’t figured out how to answer the original question.  The girls had their own little backpacks.  They were wearing hand-me-down fleece pants and t-shirts.  If kindergarten chic exists – and I strongly suspect it does – they didn’t have it.  But in Fairbanks, the only way to tell the kindergarteners apart at pickup time is by the color of their snowsuits. “I guess some people just… like to dress up fancy, in big cities,” I mumbled.
This sounded unsatisfying, even to me, but the five-year-olds accepted this answer.  They had been distracted by a new mission: finding the tiny germ-infested playground that is the saving grace of Sea-Tac layovers.  As the kids clambered on a plastic airplane, I joined a slumped row of parents slurping lattes and typing on laptops.  Like everyone else, these grownups looked more put-together than I did.  Nevertheless, they seemed willing to chat with me.  The bonds of parenthood during pre-dawn layovers run strong.  Still, as I traded niceties and wandered around on-line, I let my thoughts fester.  I knew more than my kids they did.  I knew that Seattle doesn’t remotely qualify as an haute-couture metropolis.  Our next flight would not only render us even more travel-crumpled, it would also take us to New York.
New York may not be Milan, but it takes fashion seriously – at least from my vantage point. I was going back to the suburb I grew up in, so you’d think I’d know how to fit in.  The problem was, I never did.  The closest I ever came to style back in junior high -- when all the other girls were creating a fog of 80’s hair spray in the locker room -- was matching my t-shirt color with my sock color.  All through my teens, the whole question of fashion generated feelings of disdain, misery, and incredulity. When I was eighteen, one of my biggest concerns about heading off to an Ivy-League college was that all post-Ivy-League jobs (so I imagined) required dress clothes.  The idea of wearing hose and pumps every day made me wretched.  But in New York, that was simply what professional women did.
Contrary to my teenage fears, I’ve managed to find a professional career – if professors are actually professional, and not simply in a little world all their own – in which I don’t have to look dressy.  In fact, when I was a PhD student working as a teaching assistant, I attended a brief training session in which a roomful of us were advised that when acting as instructors we should endeavor to a) wear clothes without large holes, and b) avoid smelling bad.  Now here was a bar I could reach!  These days, I occasionally have to look presentable at meetings, but the audience is usually other academics even older that I am and decidedly un-trendy, so I can pull it off with black slacks, sturdy black shoes, and a plain blouse.
In Fairbanks, most of my friends have hair the color that it actually is.  If they discuss shoes, it’s because they want to know which boots are warmest.  Some of them have a little panache and a sense of color and flair in their wardrobes, but others, if transplanted to the Lower 48, might be mistaken for panhandlers.  Sometimes it’s even an advantage to be a slob: I’ve found that in Alaska Industrial Hardware, I’m only taken to be a serious and knowledgeable customer if my work pants are liberally streaked with paint, grease, varnish, and mudding compound.
One day I was laughing with my neighbors about how hard it is to keep our small cabins tidy.  “I never know what to do with the clothes I’m going to wear again,” one of my friends sighed.  It transpired that some of us pile these not-quite-dirty garments on chairs, some scatter them here and there, and one more organized soul dedicates one end of his closet rack to them.  None of us looked appalled at the discussion, or protested that we actually wash every item of apparel every time it’s worn.  I had a college roommate who did that – jeans, sweaters, everything.  I’m pretty sure she considered me feral. 
Even if most of my habits are the antithesis of the Big Apple, The New York Times is one of my favorite news sources.  When I was a kid there was always at least one copy scattered around the living room.  I’ve never had the fortitude to read it exhaustively.  Generally, I cringe my way through the online world news (depressing) and politics (alternately laughable and depressing), then scroll down to Science, Health, Education, and Opinion.  On my way, I pass by Fashion and Style – but I can’t recall ever clicking there.  In fact, I’ve always been perplexed by the idea that there is actually something to write on that subject on a weekly basis for a literary audience. 
In the interests of research, I went and clicked.  I learned about Vensette.com, a service that will send a roving beautician to your home or office to provide a “90-minute session of daytime hair and makeup” for $250 or “nighttime looks” for $325. 
If I added up all the money I’ve spent on hair and makeup in my lifetime, I’m not sure it would reach $325.  The total would include a couple of dozen bottles of Suave or White Rain shampoo and conditioner, exactly two haircuts, lots of rubber bands, maybe three or four plastic brushes, a bottle of Sun-In that was very clearly a mistake, and a little container of blush that I picked up on a whim when I was about sixteen.  Oh, and thanks to the generous children at my kids’ preschool, there was also last year’s lice shampoo.  I’m pretty sure such a product would not be offered by Vensette. 
I could only hope that the padded room that is the Sea-Tac playground was relatively vermin-free.  The other kids, at least, were dressed wholly for comfort. As a little girl rocketed down the slide, someone eyed her pink flannel outfit and grinned, “Nice pajamas!” 
The dad to whom she belonged looked a trace chagrinned, as if it were in some way inappropriate for a child to be wearing nightwear during what was (as my body was vehemently protesting) the middle of the night.  But the rest of the group instantly rallied in defense of flannel.  “I wish I had my pajamas on,” sighed a woman who looked as though she belonged in a boardroom.  Another mom -- in those jeans that look like they’ve been spray-painted on -- concurred.
I contemplated the joy of the kid traveling in her pajamas. With one flight behind us, the twins and I still had this layover, a flight to Newark, and three train rides ahead of us.  Still, I was optimistic.  The sick kid would get better, and the question-asking kid would find other people to interrogate.  I knew that, as on previous trips, I would mostly forgot about the specter of fashion once the initial other-worldly feeling of New York had worn off.  After all, I was hanging out with my family and friends, not with the clients of Vensette.
If eighties high school hairdos and Ivy-League eyebrow-raising didn’t make a dent, I realized, then I’m probably somewhat impervious.  In Fairbanks – at least in my corner of Fairbanks -- I’m among my brethren.  But I can leave, and I can come back.  Fairbanks hasn’t ruined me, or even really altered me. I am free to be the overall-wearing, cheap-shampoo-owning person I always was. Meanwhile, the world of “fancy dress-up clothes” can carry on very well without my guidance. 
I stood up and stretched.  My jeans hung slightly loosely from my hips, causing neither plumber-problems nor muffinishness -- just the way I like them. 
We had a flight to catch.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Dark Side

“Look Mama, it’s a waxing gibbous!”  One small mitten was pointing skyward.

“Oooh, yeah!”  My two daughters had both stopped in their tracks directly in front of me – presumably because the neurons needed for walking, talking, and looking at celestial objects are wired in series rather than in parallel in their brains. “I can see the shadows -- where the long-ago meteors hit it!” 

The kindergarten astronomers were entranced.  It’s the moon!  It’s in the sky!  It’s shining!  Clearly this merited some kind of public service announcement, at the very least.

I tried to share their enthusiasm.  But we’d seen the moon the previous morning on the way to school.  We would see it again tomorrow.  I was concentrating on keeping my footing on our narrow, winding, snow-covered boardwalk while hauling a sled full of groceries.  My headlamp kept slipping down and illuminating random clumps of snow-covered shrubbery.  If we didn’t get moving, the lettuce would freeze into a state of irredeemable black nastiness.  Besides, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the giant ball of rock that orbits the earth.  When the moon takes center stage in the afternoon sky in Fairbanks, it means that the sun has headed off towards the Tropic of Capricorn for a vacation.  A long vacation.  That pale celestial orb is the Harbinger of Gloom.  She’s the Queen of Darkness.  She’s the Seasonal Affective Satellite.

I never used to have anything against the moon.  In fact, during the nerdy-science-fiction and wannabe-astrophysicist phase of my life (roughly encompassing everything from age five onwards) I learned an egregious amount of trivia about not only our own moon, but also more esoteric satellites such as Ganymede, Titan, Phobos, and Charon.  Other planets have hordes of little followers.  We have just one, but she’s special.  For a planet Earth’s size, Luna is enormous, practically a sister-planet, which is why she wreaks all kinds of interesting tidal havoc on our world.  Contrary to popular belief, the moon doesn’t have a dark side – at least not a permanent one.  She always shows us the same face, but the phases we see, from new to full and back again, are the month-long lunar day.  Even though our moon’s surface is actually as dark as coal, she reflects an appreciable amount of sunlight – a.k.a. moonlight -- to Earth’s surface.

Enough light, perhaps, to allow a bumbling human to haul groceries along a boardwalk. I gave up on my headlamp, and turned it off.  Minus its distracting flicker, the waxing gibbous seemed even larger, brighter, and more in command of the firmament.  She cast cool shadows across the snow.  The spruce trees were gray against the sky.

“Will it be a full moon tomorrow, Mommy?”

“Um… probably the day after tomorrow,” I hazarded, switching hands on the sled’s narrow tow-rope. 

When I was a kid, I noticed the moon too, but I could never keep track of its phases, and I never thought of it as a source of light.  It also never struck me as being a depressing sun-substitute. The moon decorated the sky, but didn’t illuminate the ground.  That job was already more than covered by the omnipresent street lamps, headlights, and chain-store-neon, as well as the amorphous yet ubiquitous combined glow of Bos-NY-Wash.  I looked at books that showed me which constellations ought to be in the sky.  I remember finding the faint outline of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and then giving up in disappointment.  In the suburbs of New York City, it doesn’t get dark. Not really dark.  Not ever.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager camping in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton Wilderness that I found a sky that looked like a planetarium,  If the moon was full, it felt bright enough to read by (teenagers have good eyes).  At the new moon, it was dark enough to walk straight into the privy pit or the side of a moose.  This was the moon that humanity has obsessed about for the past couple of hundred thousand years. 

Throughout history, the moon has sparked imaginative beliefs, quaint rituals, and a plethora of paranoid and illogical behavior.  Worldwide, we’ve created enough legends about the moon to stuff a library, and enough lunar gods to satisfy the most ardent pantheist.  Artemis, Thoth, Hecate, Chandra, Tarqiup Inua, Luna…  Not everyone agrees what the moon-god’s gender is, although I seem to have been brainwashed by Greco-Roman cultural imperialism in my bias toward “she.” There’s also disagreement as to what awe-inspiring powers he/she/it has, but there are some common threads.  The moon is potent, and mysterious, and might make you a little unbalanced. In fact, it might turn you into a werewolf, a vampire, or – eponymously – a lunatic.  Everyone also seems to agree that the moon is the opposite of the sun – and that the two of them don’t always get along too well.  In November in Fairbanks, this kind of mythology makes perfect sense to me.

Don’t be ridiculous, says my scientist-self.  Cosmically speaking, a G2V yellow dwarf star is no more the opposite of a rocky planetary satellite than a jet engine is the opposite of a piece of belly-button lint.  Sure, ancient people were understandably misled about the whole equal-and-opposite thing, because by strange coincidence, the moon appears to be almost exactly the same size as the sun. This only goes to show that binocular depth perception isn’t worth much at astronomical distances – although it also means that solar eclipses are really cool.  Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of the moon as a winter-time booby-prize as our daylight dwindles.

“Are there any people on the moon right now, Mommy?”

“How come there’s no air there?”

“How did the astronauts breathe?”

“Are air tanks heavy?”

“Why is everything lighter on the moon?”

The kids have lots of questions, but they don’t ask why people went to the moon.  Neither did I, as a kid. I remember being sadly let down when I finally realized, as a much-older child, that NASA astronauts were goaded moonward in the 1960s not just by the wonderful tempting proximity of that bone-dry cratered surface, but also by America’s peculiarly immature competition with the USSR. 

And somehow, it’s the memory of that disappointment, coupled with my own kids’ eagerness, that finally sets me straight.  I knew, once upon a time, that the moon is wonderful in its own right, without comparison, and without a hidden agenda.  When my younger self saw the shadow of our national hubris on the moon, it made me squirm.  Now, when I see my former enthusiasm in a couple of new-millennium kindergarteners, I suddenly notice how irritatingly negative I’m being.  I’m failing to appreciate the subtle-yet-serviceable light on offer, because I’m too busy resenting the fierce glow that is absent. Kids provide a fantastic – and often uncomfortably acute – means of self-examination.  They are merciless mirrors.

The moon is a mirror, too.  For millennia, it has mirrored humanity’s fears about darkness and the unknown, and our dreams about magic and eternal rebirth.  It mirrors our desire to divide everything neatly into black and white, day and night, right and wrong, yin and yang.  And, in the simplest and most literal sense, it mirrors the sun’s rays. 

Far from stealing my sunshine, as I stood there in the snow with my groceries and my grouchy mood, Luna was giving a little sliver of it back to me.   Somewhere, on the other side of the world the sun was blazing.  In South Africa, maybe, or India, someone was catching its full glare.  But here in Fairbanks, we were being treated to a magic trick of sorts.  A trace of sun was being conjured out of space, and donated to us here on the dark side.  It wasn’t much, perhaps, but it was enough to guide a sled, and cast a shadow, and see two kids’ grins.  And like many good magic tricks, it was all done with mirrors. 

Luna is waning now.  I already miss her.  In her absence, I have to recharge my headlamp batteries more often.  I need to take a light with me every time I wander out to the outhouse or check on the dogs.  Without her, I have no shadow.  But here in Fairbanks, a single month represents only a small portion of winter.  Before we hit the very darkest of dark days, the moon will be back.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The Big Bad Wolf raced after the Wicked Witch, oblivious to the fact that the unicorn was lagging.  The ladybug was swaddled in so many insulating layers that she was sweating profusely on this five-degree-Fahrenheit night.  The mouse, incandescent with joy, had long since stopped caring whether her tail was dragging in the snow. And the 35-pound grizzly bear kept hopping about erratically, shrieking, “Trick or Treat!  Trick or Treat!” to no one in particular.

I love Halloween.

Logically speaking, that should be a sarcastic comment.  This year Halloween was a Monday night.  A week’s worth of unfinished chores and unanswered emails haunted my subconscious.  Nonetheless, I didn’t do a single load of laundry or open the eighteen-page spreadsheet that was festering on my hard drive.  Instead, I spent the evening lurking in the icy darkness with four other parents, a jester’s hat pulled down over my ears.  My job was to hand out glow-sticks and blinkers, haul around the spare clothes, marshal everyone out of harm’s way every time a car crept past, and say fifteen times, “Don’t forget to say thank you!”  The mouse and the bear – my own little beasts -- were filling bags with atrocious foodstuffs at an alarming rate, while cavorting with gleeful greed.  Halloween, after all, is basically a festival of sugar and death, with some mischief thrown in for good measure.  I ought to hate this annual ritual.  But somehow I adore it.

“Just take one!  One!” 

There’s always a house or two where the owners leave out a bowl of goodies, and trust to social graces and good manners – something that can be in scant supply on October 31st. Maybe I like the holiday for its sheer perversity.  As parents, we all try to teach our kids a few basic social rules.  For example, pajamas and a tutu do not constitute formalwear; begging is never acceptable; talking to strangers is dangerous; and Laffy Taffy is not packed with essential vitamins and minerals.  Then, once a year, we let them dress in gauze, tinsel, face paint, and cardboard boxes, give them each a sack, and set them loose on the neighbors.  The irony is almost as delicious as the mini-Snickers.

“Wait for the unicorn!  She’s only three.  She can’t keep up!” 

She’s trying to, though – and I empathize, because I can remember being a three-year-old. I was convinced that wearing a white pillowcase over my head transformed me into a scary ghost. I was suitably irritated that all my grandmother’s friends wanted me to take it off so they could tell me how cute I was.  This year’s assorted menagerie, with the witch as their mentor, took themselves pretty seriously, too -- despite looking like a waddling brigade of stuffed toys.

My kids adore plush animals so much that they’ve overwhelmed a closet with their collection -- so their costume choices were no surprise.  In fact, they seemed to think the highlight of the evening was visiting the home of the school nurse, because she and her family gave out toys instead of Instant Tooth Decay.  The bear adored the tiny fox.  The mouse was in love with the bunny.  Species confusion abounded in this universe.

Even if she’s not a big fan of candy, the nurse – my friend Sharon -- wholeheartedly supports the creative aspect of this festival, and I have to agree.  By the time I was six or seven, Halloween became a great excuse for ludicrously ambitious craft projects.  The year I was Robin Hood, I wanted to make a bow and arrows that really worked, using only randomly selected bits of wood from our suburban back yard.  When I decided to be a knight, I set out to craft a full set of armor from old cereal boxes coved in aluminum foil.  Now that I have kids, I can leap back into this creative arena.  The mouse and the bear were pretty enthusiastic about costume construction, and harbored an ardent desire to sew on their own ears.  No needle-wounds were inflicted in the process.

“Hey!  You’re stepping on my tail!” 

The mouse made the tail herself.  It’s a trace long.  Her grey fleece footie pajamas had a dump truck on the front, but we hid it with a picture of Swiss Cheese drawn on yellow duct tape.

At the elementary school costume parade, I was a little disheartened by the ubiquitous Batmen, Spidermen, and Disney princesses, all in prefab printed nylon.  Where was the duct tape, the badly-aimed hot glue, the repurposed cartons?  But even if the artistry left something to be desired, I was soon suckered in by the enthusiasm.  Every little Batman exclaimed in excitement over every other little Batman.  No sugar had yet been consumed.  These kids were rocketing along on the mere anticipation of sugar.

I didn’t blame them.  Because, whatever its drawbacks, Halloween is undeniably fun.
Maybe I like Halloween because it doesn’t try to have any purpose besides entertainment.  On Halloween, I don’t feel bad about borrowing festivities from a religion to which I don’t belong, and I don’t feel guilt-tripped by hearts and flowers, fatherly neckties, flags, monuments, or rewritten bits of history.  I am not supposed to think deep thoughts or reflect on my failings.  I’m just supposed to be silly and eat candy.  Even on a bad day, I can usually manage that.  Looking monstrous isn’t too hard either, as several of our neighbors demonstrated.

“Aaaaaaarrrrr!”  The man behind the mask made quite an impression.  In the flickering pumpkin-light, it took me a few moments to realize I knew him, even when he quickly doffed his headgear to avoid psychologically scarring my children.  I often see Tom on his bike, and we recently visited the backwoods cabins he owns at Tolovana Hotsprings, but I never knew exactly which house was his – or that he owned such a remarkable rubber ghoul head. 

Then again, why shouldn’t he?  Halloween also offers the allure of transformation, the chance to change personas for a night, no questions asked – even if it’s been thirty or forty years since you were a kid.  Want to cross-dress?  Dye your hair purple?  Wear fishnets?  Morph into a lime-green Crayola?  Go for it! 

Tom wasn’t the only unexpected friend we found in a circuit of a mere dozen or so houses.  The mouse bounced down the steps of another cabin ecstatically proclaiming that she’d found a classmate there.  It wasn’t particularly surprising, of course.  We were a half mile from home, still in the wedge of Fairbanks that makes up our elementary school’s district.  And yet – it was news to me, too.

And that, I realized, is perhaps the thing I like most of all about Halloween.  It turns every other holiday inside out.  Not that I don’t I love the traditions and festivals that look inward, toward home, hearth, family, and friends.  Generosity and thankfulness are a big part of these, too.  But only on Halloween do we turn outwards so completely.  And when we do, we find goodwill along with the Good-n-Plenty -- not to mention some remarkable amateur performances, free of charge.

As the kids cavorted through the icy darkness, pumpkin after pumpkin grinned at them.  Door after door opened.  There were friends behind those doors, and strangers, and people somewhere in between the two: might-be-friends, and recognizable strangers.  There were people who admired the children’s costumes even as they misidentified them, and people who cooed.  There were people who smiled, and people who mock-terrified.

I was grateful to each of them.  I really earnestly hoped that Mouse and Bear were remembering their thank-yous, because I wasn’t appreciative of those folks just for giving away treats.  I was also thankful to them for showing my kids that the world is full of creativity, humor, kindness, generosity, and surprises -- and that sometimes, taking candy from strangers is exactly the right thing to do.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Grownups Get the Broken Ones

“But I want a WHOLE cookie!”
My kid’s woebegone plea seemed to voice the opinions of all three five-year-olds.  They trio of them were staring in consternation at the package of Raspberry Chocolate Milanos, as if unable to fathom how the bag might have become just a tad squashed in Jay’s backpack during the eleven-mile journey to Tolovana Hot Springs -- over mountains, ice, and imaginary-troll-infested swamps.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “The grownups get the broken ones.”
My friend Ned, father of one of the small people – the child who sometimes makes my twins look like triplets -- smiled wryly.  “Sounds like the title of a book,” he remarked.
He had a point.  I’d made my crumb-eating promise entirely without thinking about it, but now my words rattled around in my tired brain like the over-delicate confections in the bag I was holding. What I’d said was true enough – I do always get the broken ones.  In the same vein, I give the kids the coveted seats, the softer towels and the warmer blankets.  I’ll eat the peach that requires complex anti-fungal vivisection, while offering my children the ones that look like they came from the Sunnydale Farm of Genetically Engineered Fruit-Spheres.  Where vagaries in quality occur, I routinely take whatever is rustier, damper, squishier, browner, or squeakier.   And yet I’d never really questioned why – or whether it was a good idea.
Am I merely trying to avoid the whining that accompanies childish disappointments?  If so, broken-cookie-consumption qualifies as a form of… spoiling.  Horrors!  Whenever I see parents in Fred Meyers caving to high-pitched nagging for Choco-Breakfast-Yumyums or Super Plastic Action Crapola, I feel smug about my own no-rewards-for-whining policies.  But maybe I need to eat a heaping serving of my own self-righteousness along with those pulverized Milanos.
Then again, the kids don’t seem particularly spoiled – especially not on this trip, I thought, as I started handing out the cookies – the whole cookies – to an appreciate audience of small connoisseurs.  Our two families, plus additional grown-up friends Tom and Amy, had hiked in to this remote cabin at the hot springs.  For the five-year-olds, it was the longest jaunt they’d ever done on their own two feet – and we were expecting them to repeat the accomplishment on the way back out.  To the credit of the young adventurers, the amount of whining on the trail was minimal.  They were too busy playing “eye spy,” carving their names on tree-fungus, asking impossible riddles (“How many roots does that tree have, Daddy?”), and eating vast quantities of snacks.   I munched on whatever was left at the bottom of each Ziploc baggie, and I was rarely allotted a chance to declare that, “I spy something beginning with ‘S’”, but that seemed perfectly normal to all of us. 
Why do I set things up this way?  Even if parent-kid inequality doesn’t constitute spoiling, it’s counter-intuitive that I’m teaching my twins to short-change me when I’m so scrupulous about getting them to be fair with one another.  When they were barely three, they protested when I handed them five picture books to look at while riding in their bike trailer.  “That’s not an even number!  If I get two, she gets three!”  My pride in their math skills surged even as my crabbiness mounted.  I went and grabbed another of Sandra Boyton’s semi-indestructible classics off the shelf.  See?  Everything’s even now.  These days, they can tell me that fifty is half of a hundred.  When the Easter Bunny brought marbles (our bunny is peculiarly sugar-averse) they counted every last one of them.  They know what’s fair.  They know when someone’s getting the short end of the cream-cheese-on-celery-stick.  And they know that, often as not, it’s me.
In fact, the imbalance is so blatant that it’s become a joke. 
“Here’s your share, Mama,” one of the kids will chortle, handing me the trimmed-off edges of an art project or the nibbled-down core of an apple.  Grinning expectantly, she waits for me to feign horror at my pathetic portion.
“What?!”  That’s all I get?”
Giggles.  “Yup, that’s Mama’s share.”
Maybe there’s something wrong with my brain, because I actually find it kind of funny to be ceremoniously handed a used-up roll of duct tape.  Is that a bad sign?  Can someone be diagnosed with a martyr complex solely on the basis of their willingness to eat the tough ends of carrots?  I know self-imposed martyrdom tends to be a female problem – and I’d hate to let my daughter think that I’m sending the message, “Moms don’t deserve the unbroken cookies – or, for that matter, a napkin that hasn’t already been used.”
But no, that idea is just plain silly.  For one thing, the twins are not miniature sultans in an archaic patriarchy.  For another, the grownup male in the household suffers his share of martyrdom, as do other handy role models.  Prior to the dessert course of the aforementioned Milanos, I’d seen Ned scarf down the congealing remnants of tuna and noodles from around the edges of his daughter’s plate.  Tom didn’t bat an eye over the cookie proclamation, even though he a) provided half the cookies, b) is not a parent, and c) takes his dessert-eating very seriously.
Ok, so I’m not spoiling my kids out of laziness and conflict-aversion. I’m not some sort of self-flagellating martyr.  All parents – and even child-free people -- are doing this.   But what, exactly, is it that we’re doing?
And then I recalled what had taken place during our seven hours of hiking – and what, so it happened, would occur again on the way out. 
Eight miles into the venture, when my own kids were not-quite-exhausted, their friend hit a wall.  She collapsed into a sad little heap on the trail, unable to take another step.  When Ned heroically hoisted his little girl onto his own tired shoulders, adding forty pounds to the weight of his backpack, I was worried that the twins would rebel and demand equal treatment from me and Jay. 
They didn’t.  Instead, they understood.  In a bumbling-novice sort of way, they tried to make allowances.
“She’s not as old as we are.  She’s not in kindergarten yet,” they consoled each other, eying their three-months-younger compatriot with kindly (if transparently patronizing) good-humor.  “See how tired she is?”  They tromped their weary little legs on down the trail. 
No doubt a month or two from now, their friend will hand down the same high-minded I’m-so-big attitude toward some hapless four-year-old or cranky toddler.  I don’t always remember to give kids credit for all the simultaneous processing their neurons can manage.  Just as toddlers can happily become bilingual if exposed to two native tongues (monolingualism being an abject failing on my part), they can also learn two overlapping yet distinct moral codes:  be fair… but be magnanimous.  An important lesson is buried in there somewhere: no matter how little you are, there’s always someone out there who’s smaller, weaker, or just more in need of a piggyback ride or a whole cookie.
We teach fairness by example, but we teach generosity the same way.  Hopefully, as those of us over the age of five consumed our slightly sub-par dessert, we were helping to bolster the ethos that kept the marginally older kids moving past mileposts nine and ten.  Fairness is good – but sometimes the right choice is to make oneself content with the metaphorical cookie-crumbs of maturity.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Slightly Askew

“What do you mean, the earth is tilted?” 

I could almost hear my interrogator’s annoyance, despite the fact that I was squinting at her words in a chat box.  The question glared at me from my screen, and my heart sank.   This unseen woman was my personal nemesis. Another one who slept through fourth grade earth science.  From here on, the script might as well have been pre-written. I’d try to explain Life, the Universe, and Everything to her in fifty words or less.  I would fail.  And then I’d hate myself for failing.

The problem is, I have a personal delusion: I dream of a realm in which the average American citizen understands and embraces science.  Actually, it’s even worse than that -- I want everyone to like it, too.  In my imagination, cubicle-dwellers, short-order chefs, and CEOs all eagerly test hypotheses on their lunch breaks: what is the relationship between microwave wattage and melted-cheese viscosity?  I picture grizzled fishermen and cheerful grandmas chatting about quasars and nebulae while waiting for packages at the Post Office. In my fantasy world, everyone knows the difference between viruses and bacteria, and anyone could explain why we have leap years.  And then I read an article that brings me back to reality. Almost half of American adults believe that astrology is scientific.  I need to figure out how to stop taking this so personally.

Even though I know it’s hopeless, I still try to make my geek-heaven a reality.  On a daily basis, I attempt to craft lyrical and lucid prose about subjects such as carbon cycles and permafrost thaw.  It’s part of my job, but it’s also part of my psyche.  Even when I’m not at work, my dorkiness oozes out in every direction.  I prattle to my kids about the functions of internal organs – a habit that has interesting results.  At the age of two, Lizzy called plaintively from her crib, “Mommy, my bladder is full!”  Recently, Molly pedantically corrected a kindergarten teacher, “You know, feelings don’t really come from the heart, they come from the brain.”  A few months ago, from the car seat in the back of my vehicle, I heard Lizzy’s instantaneous response to her sister’s challenge to think of a word starting with ‘U’: “Uterus!”  I tell the kids the details of photosynthesis, and the atomic mechanics of solar nuclear fusion.  Sometimes when they ask me a question – will Thomas the Tank Engine sink if I put him in the bathtub? Does Elmer’s Glue work on plastic? Does the cat like oranges? -- I tell them to make a hypothesis, and test it.  I just can’t help myself.  I’m a scientist. 

In fact, at the moment when I was asked to explain the tilt of our planet, I was the Official Scientist.  That is to say, I was sitting at home wearing shorts and a grubby t-shirt, my laptop balanced on my knees, using my pathetically slow typing skills to communicate on-line about the multiple causes of long-term climate variability -- while at the same time assisting in the ambitious Tinkertoy construction being undertaken by the two small individuals on the floor.  Despite my Officialness, I felt that I might be at something of a disadvantage; the woman who was grilling me was in a university computer room, along with a dozen other teachers, all primed to pick my brain, and all presumably wearing shoes and clean clothes.

My actual web-chat theme was how Alaskans can adapt to climate change.  By this I mean climate change caused by humans, including annoyed-naysayer-humans who don’t believe it’s happening, or refuse to think it can possibly be the fault of our spectacularly innocent species, or are convinced it’s all part of some mysterious plot staged by an evil international cabal of atmospheric scientists, computer modelers, and sleep-deprived grad students. Not that I can claim the moral high ground; climate change is caused by Official-Scientist-humans, too, even if they try to duck their guilt by heating the house with little bits of compressed sawdust that look like gerbil food, and biking to work in ice storms. 

But studying climate change isn’t all about feeling guilty and depressed.  It’s fascinating – really, it is. Even Ms Naysayer’s initial line of questioning was an interesting one: How can we claim that humans are changing the climate when it’s been fluctuating for millions of years? I knew that a few minutes of frantic off-the-cuff text was not going to change her mind about the larger issues, but I couldn’t stop myself from trying.  It was a reasonable question.  It was a scientific question, and I was the Official Scientist!  So, I quickly attempted to explain the difference between current rapid human-induced change and various causes of long-term change -- such as minor fluctuations in the angle of the earth on its axis. 

She didn’t buy it.  I kind of expected that.  But she wasn’t questioning the fluctuations.  She was questioning the tilt.  Here was a teacher – a woman certified to pass on her knowledge and expertise to impressionable children -- and she obviously had no idea what causes the seasons, not to mention solstices, equinoxes, and the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.

It shouldn’t have surprised me.  When the National Science Board polled US adults about their knowledge of science, results showed that many of us have been gleaning our information from news sources such as late-night talk-radio and reality TV.  For example, only fifty-three percent of Americans correctly responded that electrons are smaller than atoms.  This percentage might not seem too bad -- until you take into account that the question was phrased as a true-false choice, meaning that the scores squeaked in a mere three percentage points above blind chance.  Another true-false statement, “Lasers work by focusing sound waves” managed to accrue a majority-wrong quorum.  Oh, and sixty percent of Americans believe in psychic powers. 

But hey, there’s good news!  The New York Times reports that when asked how long it takes the Earth to go around the Sun, the majority of respondents got the answer right, even though the question wasn’t multiple choice!  Unfortunately, by “majority” I mean a skin-of-the-teeth fifty-one percent. Even worse, when I dug into the details, I discovered that this question was only asked of those folks who knew that the earth goes around the sun in the first place.  It seems that one in five American adults haven’t quite caught up with Copernicus and Galileo, and think the sun goes around the earth – and a few wouldn’t even venture a guess as to what goes around what. 

In comparison, the teacher who merely didn’t quite grasp that we’re roughly twenty-three and a half degrees askew on our axis seemed pretty well-informed.  I blundered along with my explanations, mostly punting the basic earth science in order to drag the topic back to the general vicinity of Alaska and the twenty-first century.  I burbled about growing season length (go plant apples!), thermokarst (and then the castle sank into the swamp…) and species shifts (we always knew Canada would invade one day).  I was pretty sure I wasn’t conveying the awesome logical precision and artistry of a well-constructed scientific argument.  I was probably conveying something closer to the artistry of a tangled wad of used dental floss.

Eventually, our time was up.  The session organizer thanked me politely, as did the participants – even Ms Naysayer.  But I couldn’t get over my malaise.  My inner critic was registering another failure.  My dream of sharing my love of science was obviously as hopeless as trying to build a supercollider from cereal boxes and duct tape.  I should just give up.

Down on the floor, the Tinkerytoy brigade saw me set aside my laptop, and immediately perked up.  “Are you all done, Mommy?  Can you play now?”

I sighed.  “Sure.  What would you like to play?”

Lizzy had a gleam in her eye.  “I need a container… and some water… and some dirt…”

I was suspicious.  This was starting to sound messy.  “Yeah?  What do you need it for?”

“Well, Mommy, I need to do a ‘speriment!”

Molly quickly added her support for the proposed endeavor.  “We just need to test something.”

I looked at two grinning faces, full of equal measures of mischief and curiosity.  I thought of the potential research questions.  Efficacy of semi-liquid mud as an adhesive.  Viability of tomato seeds found at the back of a drawer.  Canine hydration preferences: ideal humus concentrations.  Bath-avoidance: a case study.

As I went to find some plastic buckets, I decided that maybe I’m not ready to give up my dream, after all.