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, April 30, 2011


“It’s so warm here, we don’t even have to wear puffy mittens!”  Lizzy is so astounded by the balminess of a New England January that she feels the need to remark upon it to the stranger seated across from her, a friend of my sister’s.  Never mind that this woman actually lives here in Cambridge, and doesn’t seem favorably impressed either by the 12-degree breeze or the latest blizzard. Fairbanks, Alaska is the center of Lizzy’s universe, so her perspective is a little skewed – and I feel guilty for producing kids who think it’s a treat not to have to wear three hats.
I cut up Lizzy’s samosa, scoop some dahl onto her rice, and try to field my new acquaintance’s bemused queries about our life up north.  Do I really pee outside at forty below zero?  How do I manage to ride a bike in January?  Are the mosquitoes as large as Black Hawk helicopters?  Is the average IQ higher than the average annual temperature?
“So, are you guys settled up there for good, then?”
It’s a yes-or-no question, and yet I find myself waffling and hedging like a senatorial candidate. “Um… well, we’re both pretty happy with our jobs and our community… and the schools are good… the outdoor opportunities…” I meander to a stop, uncomfortably aware of how unconvincing I sound – not just to my questioner, but to myself.
It’s that word, settled.  It still gives me indigestion.
“Settling” has connotations of resignation, of agreeing to something that is less than it ought to be due to some sort of miserable compromise.  Back in college, my friend Colleen described “settling down” as a process by which people pair off, go into their houses, and close the doors.  The implication was that they then become too dull to do anything even remotely fun ever again.  Parties are exchanged for potluck fundraisers, outdoor adventures disappear in favor of pee-wee soccer practice, and international travel is subsumed by staying at a Holiday Inn near Disneyland. 
I argued that this didn’t have to be the case.  I insisted that it ought to be possible to say “forever” to a person (an idea that my well-hidden romantic side rather liked) without having to say “forever” to middle-management, business-casual, and lawn flamingos.  Surely, I said, one didn’t have to stay in one place forever.  I wanted passport stamps from around the world, bus rides shared with baskets of chickens and sacks of mangos, a jar full of fascinatingly indecipherable coins, and a working knowledge of a dozen different subway systems.  I wanted remoteness, bucolic bliss, and mountain vistas, but I also wanted second-hand bookstores, museums crammed with artifacts, and an occasional night at the symphony.  How could I ever settle? 
As a kid, there were many things I loved about my hometown – the ability to bike to the beach being near the top of the list – but I took it for granted that I would one day leave. I would go off to college, and I would move on from there into a half-realized future full of job satisfaction, adventure, and hypothetical children. . . somewhere.  I was clearly either dim-witted or a poor planner or both, because I was halfway through college before it occurred to me that “somewhere” really had to be somewhere.  I balked at the mere idea.
When I graduated, I did what all over-educated, idealistic, indecisive, adventuresome 22-year-olds do.  I joined the Peace Corps.  There I got plenty of bus rides with chickens.  I learned a lot, but probably not nearly as much as I ought to have.  When I completed my service, I came back to the US and earned a Master’s degree, all the while limiting my possessions to what could fit in the trunk of a compact car.
When I completed that degree, I was lucky enough to have not just one, but two job offers to choose from.  One was based in the northeast, at a respected college.  It paid reasonably well and seemed like a stepping-stone into a professional career in environmental ecology.  The other was with a small non-profit.  It paid badly, offered no particular upward mobility, and required moving to Fairbanks Alaska.
My dad said he never had any doubt about which job I’d choose.
I moved to Fairbanks in the last year of the previous millennium, back before muffin-top and plumber’s crack became mandatory features of feminine attire, before tweeting became a means of communication for species other than songbirds, and before anyone had misunderestimated the American people.  I intended to stay a year or two -- maybe three, if I was having a lot of fun mushing or whatever the heck it was people did in Fairbanks.
Fast-forward twelve years.  A husband, a house, a PhD and two kids later, I am sitting at a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trying to weasel my way around the word “settled.”  My sister’s friend is affable to her core, but she can’t quite hide her incredulity at the idea that a well-educated woman would really think of Fairbanks as home.  Forever.
Lizzy wants more rice and dahl, and some of “the thing with the peas in it.”
“Mutter paneer,” I tell her, although I’m sure I’m mangling the pronunciation.  We don’t have an Indian restaurant in Fairbanks.  I sorely miss this cuisine.
“What’s that?” Molly asks, pointing to another dish. 
“Eggplant,” I tell her.  “It’s a little spicy…”
“I want some,” she says. I do my signature eyebrow raise. “Please,” she adds, resigned to the inexplicable inevitability of good manners.
“We do have several good Thai restaurants in Fairbanks,” I remark.  My mouth is full.  I swallow, and try again.  “There’s a good Korean place, and some ok Chinese.”  I sound like an apologist for the sub-arctic.  We can practically see Asia from our igloos!
The conversation shifts to what the kids and I have been up to during our whirlwind four-day visit.  I rattle off the list of destinations: the Science Museum, the Children’s Museum, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the MIT Museum.  “That’s a lot of museums,” says the husband of my original questioner, smiling at me over his naan bread to show that he’s not criticizing.  He probably thinks I’m starved for culture. 
“Well, they’re all so different, and besides, we spend a lot of time walking from one place to another, just kind of seeing the city.”  I feel embarrassed by how much fun this gawking is for the kids.  In Boston they can see a congested cacophony of garbage trucks, fire trucks, construction equipment, ambulances, and people.  Hundreds of people, thousands of people, people of all colors and sizes and habits.  This is a city as it exists in their picture books, not the 40,000-inhabitant strip-mall version up north.
The adults ask the kids what they’ve enjoyed most, and are treated to a disorganized litany of high points that includes meteorites, a live snake, chocolate milk, and a disturbingly wonderful display of deformed human hands that I had trouble wresting them away from at the Science Museum.
And what about at home?  What do they like to do there?
“We have our own mushing sled,” says Molly, proud as the title-holder of a new Corvette.  She soon realizes that these silly grownups know almost nothing about mushing.  She is happy to fill them in.  Molly likes to educate people.  When she is done talking about the sled and the dogs, there is plenty more to describe.  Her skis.  Preschool.  The two big kids in our community who go to big kid school and therefore know almost everything, but who are nonetheless friends of hers. 
As I listen to the twins talk, I imagine what I would have described when I was the same age.  Preschool at the YMCA.  My big sister.  The three children up the street.  The park with the playground and the ducks who struggled along on a constant diet of moldy crusts.  A “fancy” dinner out at which I was allowed to order breaded shrimp.
Kids, I realized, are the little hubs of their own little universes.  As such, they are always “settled.”  They like new experiences, but they judge them by the yardstick of their own reality.  For Molly and Lizzy, that reality includes riding to school in a bike trailer with four hot water bottles when the mercury is below -30.  It includes counting the new reindeer calves at the farm in the spring.  It includes wilderness hikes on which we can go hours or even days without seeing any other traces of human beings.  Molly and Lizzy are quite likely to leave Fairbanks when they grow up.  I know that, and I think they already know it too.  But for now, they are quite happy to be settled.
But what about me? 
Some of Colleen’s predictions have come true.  I’m married with kids, and I hang out with a lot of other married-with-kids friends.  My idea of a party these days is something that involves several different people’s salads and ends at 9 p.m.  On the other hand, Fairbanks is GOOD at doing potlucks, and let’s face it, I wasn’t the life of the party even when I was 19.  I can see now that some of my fears were hyperbolic. 
I relax in my seat, and grab another helping of the eggplant dish.  I tell the couple across from me – who are themselves married, and settled, and yet still very interesting people – that living in Fairbanks means I can combine my love of wilderness and open spaces with my desire for libraries and ridiculously intellectual friends.  I mention that we have theatrical performances, poetry readings, film festivals, visiting scientists, and a symphony orchestra.  I get to be a university professor.  I allow myself a small smile at the realization that I don’t have to worry about business casual (patched jeans and a thermal hoodie will do) or lawn flamingos (no lawn around my outhouse). 
Of course, staying in Fairbanks also means having only one real museum, very few bustling urban scenes, obnoxiously cold and dark Januaries, and no decent Indian food.  But that is what travel is for.  My passport hasn’t acquired as many new stamps as I’d like in the past few years, but I’m looking into correcting that.  I’m settled – I can admit that now – but there are still some things I refuse to settle for.

1 comment:

  1. So you are living in Cambridge now? Wow, great! Why did you choose it? Why not, for example, Sweden? And why this city? People really are angry when living in Cambridge, they cannot stand all the tourists and I guess, students :D But for your children, it's an amazing opportunity!