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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's not a Water Closet

                “At our school,” announced Lizzy, soon after starting preschool at the age of three, “we have flush potties.”
As opposed, she meant, to normal bathroom accommodations, such as the plywood privy that we have at home.
My amusement was mixed with foreboding.  Is this yet another way in which Jay and I are warping our kids? 
I questioned a lot of things as a small child, but indoor plumbing was not one of them.  In suburban New York, there was only one sanctioned type of receptacle for bodily functions, and it was made of porcelain and full of water.  Flush a handle, and whoosh, there it went, into the mysterious world of hidden pipes.  Walls were full of pipes.  The ground was full of pipes.  On the rare occasions when a wall was stripped open or a cesspool unearthed, the resulting view was a fascinating, illicit anomaly.  For the most part, all that water, paper, and poop just… disappeared.
I imagine my daughter, full-grown --but still a trace acned or gangly-- horrifying her brand-new college roommates with her lack of bathroom etiquette.  “You grew up using an outhouse?” they squeal, backing away slightly. 
What if we really aren’t being fair to our twins?  As Lizzy and Molly get older and more demanding, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to turn a cold shoulder to pleas that “all the other kids” have a Playstation/cell phone/Posche/etc.  But “all the other kids have toilets!” sounds a bit more sympathy-evoking – even if, at least in our neighborhood, it isn’t true. 
I tell myself that my children are certainly not deprived.  They have so many toys that I spend half the day tripping over them.  We have electricity.  We have a nice cozy wood-pellet stove.  We have a car and a truck.  We have a microwave, a popcorn popper, a bread machine, and more computers than seems reasonable in our cabin.  We have wireless internet, for heaven’s sake.  Still, my friends and family outside Alaska always get hung up on the outhouse.
It’s just not normal, in twenty-first century America, to dig a hole in the icy ground, put a plywood shack on top, and use it as a toilet.  “Don’t you get… um… cold?”  The combination of forty below zero and incomplete pants-coverage throws people off.   In fact, it’s not too chilly -- the seat is Styrofoam, we wear parkas in the winter, and it’s not as if we hang out there for hours.   But I get the feeling that this is just a superficial concern, anyhow.  The real unspoken consensus seems to be that the whole concept is just… icky. 
But why?  We don’t leap down into the pit and wallow around.  The bygone Shakespearian era of dumping chamber pots out of windows to mix with the horse turds in the gutter didn’t work out too well for all those cholera and dysentery victims, but we don’t live in a densely populated area, and we have a self-contained pit.  Its contents are not as toxic as depleted uranium, or airplane glue, or Windex.  It isn’t even particularly smelly, since the permanently frozen ground keeps everything nicely chilled.  Sure, you can look down and see a lot of old poop, but it’s unlikely to leap out and bite you. 
The major difference, as far as I can tell, is not really convenience or sanitation, but awareness.  A lot of American houses have cesspools.  I grew up in a house with one.  A cesspool is bigger than an outhouse, and involves mixing waste with a lot of clean drinking water, but it does effectively the same thing, namely stick the poop underground a couple of dozen feet from your front door.  But if everything goes into a cesspool, you can pretend it is gone, gone gone.  You can pretend it never really existed.  On the other hand, if it’s in an outhouse, it’s still down there.  Anyone with a flashlight a too much spare time can take a good look at it. 
“Does it have an automatic flush?”  Now five years old, Lizzy is shrinking back from the toilet at the Pagoda restaurant, preemptively holding her hands over her ears.  The tiny motion sensor light on the wall is blinking at her like Hal the homicidal robot.
“It won’t flush until you’re done,” Molly declares bravely, but she has her hands over her ears, too, and she does not appear to be volunteering to go first. 
Motion sensors are remarkably poor at detecting the presence or absence of 40-pound bathroom users, meaning that such toilets often flush with unexpected vehemence while a startled child is precariously balanced above the vortex, legs dangling, mid-pee.  I don’t enjoy having to cram myself into a bathroom stall with my kids in order to hold one hand over the watchful red light, but sometimes it’s a necessary parental duty, like assisting with flossing.  Are other people’s offspring scared of restaurant bathrooms?  Again I worry that my kids aren’t normal.
And yet, another part of me protests: why do we need robotic toilets, anyhow?  Sure, the flush handle might not be terribly sanitary, but our next action is going to be hand washing anyhow.  It seems to me that it’s less about cleanliness than denial. We Americans like to pretend we don’t poop.  We like to pretend we don’t even think about pooping.  Auto-flushers help fulfill this cultural ideal.  Not only does everything disappear in a loud whoosh, but it does so without us even having to participate!
The kids are already being taught at preschool (the one with the flush toilets) that “potty talk” is not acceptable.  Ok, I’ll admit that this is necessary.   I don’t want my kids to go around calling people “doo-doo head.”  But it never occurred to them to do so until the subject was made taboo.  Molly and Lizzy haven’t yet become squeamish and phobic about excrement.  They still like to admire and comment upon their own output, especially if they’ve eaten a large amount of spinach, or carrots, or – best of all – beets.  The results can be shockingly --- dare I say gorgeously – purple. 
I suppose they’ll soon learn that this sort of thing doesn’t make for acceptable chit-chat at a potluck.  I guess I’ll have to help teach them this taboo, as a normal cultural progression, and as a way of lessening the impact of their integration in to the “real” world.
Molly is already more savvy to social cues than her sister is.  By age eighteen, she’ll probably have the good sense to adopt a new standard to fit a new situation.  Perhaps she’ll manage to make growing up in a cabin in Fairbanks Alaska seem fascinating rather than repugnant.  Maybe she’ll roll her eyes – she’s already got the preschool version of this perfected – and tell everyone that she couldn’t wait to get away from home. 
Maybe it will be the truth.  For now, though, the kids still think that the presence of a flush potty merits a news announcement.  And I don’t mind.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Spinning Our Wheels

The leaves have finally appeared, the sun is shining, Hot Licks Ice Cream is scooping the Nanook Nosh into waffle cones, and I suddenly have a whole lot of two-wheeled company on the paths, sidewalks, and road-shoulders of Fairbanks.  It’s Bike to Work week again.  

“I love my mommy because she rides us to school in a Chariot.”  This Mother’s Day proclamation was laminated for posterity by the ever-patient and good-humored teachers at Bunnell House Preschool.  It not only advertises the fact that I haul the kids about in a nifty convertible trailer with a lofty Greco-Roman-sounding name, but also features a drawing of me doing some sort of peculiar-looking calisthenics. I’m stretching all four limbs -- each adorned with precisely five digits.  Whatever I’m doing must be fun, because I have an enormous blue smile on my egg-shaped head.  Egg-head or not, though, the message seems unambiguous: Mommy is all about brawn, not brains.

I tacked up this card in my office, because I’m just as delusional as other parents about my children’s talents, and because I have a deep-seated appreciation for Crayola as an artistic medium. The work was created with the greatest goodwill on the part of the young artist, Molly.  Still, the card slightly discomfits me.  As I sit at my computer, peering at an array of downscaled Global Circulation Model data or enjoying literary treats such as “Development of scale-free climate data for western Canada” and “A high resolution bioclimate map of the world,” I wonder whether my kids have the right idea about who Mommy is, exactly.  Then I wonder whether I do, either.

It seems ironic to me – and disingenuous – that I am labeled as the mom who bikes or jogs everywhere.  With embarrassing regularity, I meet strangers who say, “Oh, I see you every single morning!” or “You’re the one who runs with your kids at thirty below!”  Some remember the 2010 NewsMiner feature on Bike to Work Week.  On the front of the Local section there was an enormous photo of Molly and Lizzy, taken from their own perspective at sub-bicycle height.  I am busy cramming helmets onto their heads.  A few people even recall another NewsMiner article from more than four years ago, featuring me and Jay and our then-infant twins on an overnight cross-country ski trip.  On the other hand, no one remembers the much more recent article in which I’m quoted saying “We’re at the cutting edge of climate change,” or the one in which I wax lyrical about permafrost. Some people seem to find my antics on bikes and skis commendable, while others clearly think I’m only a few blue tarps away from the lunatic fringe, but either way, they have typecast me as a dedicated athlete.  This is laughable.  “I’m not a jock!” I want to tell them.  “I’m a nerd.”  

I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.  I’ve always been a nerd.  I’m used to it, and it fits me comfortably.  I was the toddler who sat at a green plastic desk, playing the role of earnest pupil, while my big sister Sarah taught me everything she’d learned at school.  This gave me a three-year preview on academic life, and meant that when I finally reached school-age myself, I spent a lot of time alone in the hallway reading terrific stories with protagonists who were, irritatingly, as elderly as nine or ten. I was the kid who looked forward to Mathletes meets, entered every contest in the Summer Reading Program, and as a kindergartener sent a letter to Kellogg’s, complaining about their misspelling of “Krispy.”

Sports, on the other hand, were not my strong point.  I swung a bat without any apparent regard for the location of the ball.  At early-eighties roller-skating birthday parties, I clung to the walls. The only time I made contact with the ball in flag football was when it slammed me directly in the nose.  During soccer games, I stood rooted in the fullback position, hoping the ball would never come my way, and letting my mind wander.  It was kind of interesting how those black pentagons and white hexagons tessellated.

I suppose my lack of athletic prowess wasn’t really surprising, given the influences of my family.  My dad loves watching baseball, but he freely admits that the statistics are what drew him to the game, not any innate ability to actually bat, throw, or run.  My mom dutifully took me to swimming lessons, but she is most definitely not a soccer mom.  And my sister, who was such a talented and voluble pupil that I found myself consistently tagged at “Sarah’s sister” by teachers and school staff, ended up doing a stint in remedial gym. 

As for biking, we Frescos weren’t stellar in that realm either.  Dad tooled around on an old Schwinn, but mom never learned to ride at all.   Sarah didn’t learn until she was about ten, when the peer pressure became so great that it overshadowed her fear of scraped knees.  I was not much better, getting my balance some time around my eighth birthday. 

I suppose in the back of my mind, I assumed my kids would take the same trajectory I did.  Thus, I felt a peculiar mix of surprise, pride, and alarm when Molly and Lizzy both ditched their training wheels last summer, when they were barely four.  They are avid fans of not only the Chariot, but also our double and single tag-along bikes and their own miniature two-wheelers.  They can now weave among innocent bystanders on UAF’s footpaths fast enough to cause their daddy to panic.   They are also immensely proud of their ability to handle a mushing sled, and are eager to join the Junior Nordic ski club. 

On the other hand, the twins can barely struggle – with help -- through “pre-readers” with scintillating plotlines such as “See Otto Swing.”  They only recently mastered counting to 100.  They’ll be fine little kindergarteners in the fall, but they certainly won’t be prodigies.  Nerd that I am, I find myself wondering if perhaps the kids aren’t gaining skills in the optimal order.  I wonder whether, through all my hiking, biking, ski racing, and running, I’m serving as a role model for brawn over brains.

Luckily, all that biking and running also gives me plenty of time for corralling my straying thoughts into some semblance of logic.  Does it really matter in what order they learn, so long as they are having fun, and just being happy kids?  I was an early reader and a late biker, I remind myself, but now I’m quite adept at both.  Jay was a later reader, but now he often has trouble unearthing himself from a good book.  And Sarah, my talented, gym-challenged big sister, grew up to be an avid reader, a great community leader – and a professional bicycling advocate, coordinator for the Massachusetts Green Streets Initiative.  On whatever timeline suits them, Molly and Lizzy will eventually be able to read AND ride bikes – although not, I would hope, at the same time. 

Besides, although I’ve generally been happy with my nerd persona, there were times – mostly when I was between the ages of thirteen and eighteen – when I desperately wished that more people would notice that I had non-academic personality traits, too.  I wasn’t JUST a kid with good test scores – I was also a kid who liked firing up the power tools in shop class, getting muddy in the woods, watching The Princess Bride altogether too many times, making crabapple jelly, and riding my bike to the beach. 

Maybe now, finally, I’ve got what I wanted all along. I can be a scientist AND a poster child for non-motorized transportation.  Maybe one day my kids will be able to look back and appreciate me for an eclectic range of attributes and activities. Of course, before that will come the teen years, when they will probably appreciate me for nothing at all.

For now, I’m happy to see bicycles stacked up against the fence outside Fun Time playground.  I’m pleased to hear people talking about burning calories, not gas, and I appreciate the fact that Fairbanks has embraced Bike to Work Week.  I’m also glad that Molly is proud of me, even if she’s only proud of me for my pedal power.  Besides, if I want diversity of opinion, I can always check with Lizzy.  Her Mother’s Day card is displayed on my wall, too. 

“I love that Mommy can still pick us up,” it says.

Maybe I should take up weight lifting.

Photo by Eric Engman, Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner, May 12 2010

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tofurky Trot

            “What kind of animal was this?” Molly asked.   I glanced at her, perched next to me at the table in her blue plastic booster seat.  Her mouth was decoratively adorned with barbecue sauce.  In her small hands, the meaty bone looked like the rib of a mammoth, or at the very least a muskox. 
            “A pig,” I told her, trying hard not to put any particular weight on my words.  Please pass the pepper.  Would you like some more peas?  You’re eating the flesh of a pig. 
How, exactly, did I want her to react?  Did I harbor a secret desire that she would hurl down the bone in horror and never touch meat again?  Or did I want her to continue her dinner in peace and contentment, thus avoiding a lifetime of suspiciously poking at potluck casseroles in order to determine whether they are animal, vegetable, or mineral?  The truth was, I wasn’t sure. 
I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty years.  The twins know that.  They like to roll the word off their tongues, savoring the extravagance of five syllables.  They like to tell me what I can and cannot eat:  “Oh, Mommy, you can’t have any soup.  It has meat in it.  You’re a veg-e-tar-i-an.”
I’ve always maintained that I want the kids to choose for themselves whether or not they will eat meat.  But I still don’t entirely trust my own motives.  Am I biased as to which choice I want them to make?  Am I subtly stacking the deck?  After all, kids are contrary.  If I withheld meat, at some point it would probably become as wildly desirable as Snickers bars and Pringles.  Maybe by allowing them to eat it, I am actually hoping to influence them not to eat it.  Am I, at heart, a sneaky, manipulative mommy?
Molly didn’t recoil, but she didn’t let the subject drop, either.  She licked her fingers and paused in her munching.  “Who deaded it?”
“Who – oh, you mean who killed it?”  One day, I’ll miss how four-year-olds wreak havoc with verbs.  “The pig?”
She nodded.  Grownups were sometimes so slow on the uptake.
“I don’t know who killed it.”
“Why not?  Why don’t you know who hunted it?”
“Well… pigs aren’t hunted, like moose and caribou.” 
We live in Alaska.  People hunt here.  That includes my husband, although Jay’s infrequent hunting trips seem to involve avoiding shooting game, in favor of taking a nice hike over some remote terrain. He once explained: “If you actually get an animal, you have to spend the rest of the time gutting it and hauling it out.  It’s a lot of work,”
I don’t have a problem with hunting.  For the most part, it seems a lot more appealing than the way most of America’s meat is obtained.  I don’t really want to go hunting myself, though.  I’m not squeamish – I was kind of annoyed not to be allowed to watch my own c-section -- but I don’t enjoy killing things.  This was part of why I decided not to eat meat in the first place.  It seemed hypocritical to pay someone to do your behind-the-scenes dirty work for you, and then pretend it never happened. 
An aversion to death was part of the original rationale for my dietary choices, but it wasn’t the whole reason.  Decimating a rainforest seemed like a steep price to pay for a flaccid, greasy, McBurger.  The idea that cow farts are altering earth’s climate was darkly humorous, but kind of wrecked the flavor of rib-eye.  I wasn’t a big fan of deli-cut-hormones and antibiotics-on-rye, ether.  If I were a self-sacrificing idealist rather than a slightly hypocritical one, I would have become vegan, and given up fresh Parmesan, aged cheddar, spinach-and-feta pie, and Cadbury’s milk chocolate – but I don’t have that sort of fortitude.  I never craved meat the way I crave pizza.  The truth was, I couldn’t find many reasons why I should eat meat, other than social convenience.
“Pigs are raised on farms,” I told my daughter now.  I thought of the farms in the Molly’s and Lizzy’s picture books: idyllic, sunny places with cows grazing in wide-open pastures.  I thought of Charlotte’s Web, the very first big-kid book I’d read aloud to my four-year-olds, a few months back.  Molly was the twin who sniffled when the spider died – even though Wilbur the pig was saved. 
I explained that farm animals are raised for food, then killed and packaged up and sent to supermarkets.  I tried to be honest about the process, although I left out descriptions of feed lots, slaughter houses, and runoff from sewage lagoons.
“They bring it to Fred Meyers in a truck?” asked Lizzy.  Lizzy is fond of trucks.
I became a vegetarian when I left home, as a teenager.  I remained a vegetarian for four years of college, and two years of grad school.  During my two years in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, I ate rice and beans, papayas, breadfruit, mangoes, pineapples, callaloo, cho-cho, star fruit and bammy.  I was gloriously well-fed, and happy to have a polite reason for avoiding goat-testicle soup and roasted chicken feet.
I stuck with my plant-eating ways when I moved to Alaska, even though the irony of living up here and not consuming salmon was glaring.  I was just so used to eschewing anything with a face that I found I didn’t want to change my diet.
I didn’t eat any meat while pregnant with twins.  I had the full approval of my cheerful and down-to-earth family practitioner, who also allowed me to commute by bike until the day before the kids were born.  Her go-ahead made it easier to ignore the politely constrained horror of the more traditionally-minded folks in my life, who think that vegetables, if they are served at all, should be limited to iceberg lettuce and limp green beans smothered in Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and Bacos.  When the kids were born full-term and robust, I felt like I’d scored a couple of points for Team Tofu.
I remained a vegetarian while I was nursing, although I don’t know whether I would have been able to sustain veganism, had that been my normal diet.  Two ravenous six-month-olds could, between them, consume half a gallon of my milk – or more – each day.  “You’re producing as much as a good dairy goat!” one agriculturally-minded friend told me.  I was pretty sure she was impressed, so I took it as a compliment.  I also gained new respect for the animals who provide me with my yogurt and my smoked Gouda.
But when the kids started slurping strained peas and gumming Cheerios, Jay and I had to make a decision. Would they be vegetarians?  It didn’t seem fair to make that choice for them, I said.  Jay, never one to sweat this sort of detail, shrugged and agreed, but said that it would have been ok with him either way.
Three years later, we had kids who ate some – but not a lot – of meat.  We didn’t limit it, but we just didn’t have it around all that often.  This allowed me to feel like I’d taken the high ground, and yet gave me the freedom to not think about the issue very much. 
But now, thanks to the fine cooking of a friend, Molly was wallowing in a plate of ribs and giving me the third degree.  And I was toying with self-doubt.  What, exactly, did I want?
I snuck another glance at my kids.  On Molly, I saw an expression of thoughtful concentration worthy of a great philosopher – albeit a philosopher with round cheeks, bangs crookedly trimmed by her mother, and a patina of barbecue sauce.  Next to her, in a second booster seat, Lizzy was capturing a strand of pork with a kid-sized fork, her brow furrowed.  I was pretty sure she was conjuring up a new line of questioning that might or might not include pigs, farms, or trucks.
As I waited for the next brain-spinning non-sequitur, I found myself grinning. The world is rich in subjects worth pondering, and a lot of them don’t have answers that can be tucked neatly into a folder or filed in a box.  One of the best things about being a parent is the opportunity to revisit all those big, sprawling, gray-area questions, the ones that most of us adults have long ago selected a stock answer for.  Hanging out with a couple of four-year-olds is a festival of “whys,” all approached with curiosity and gusto. It can drive you nuts, if you happen to be trying to edit a scientific paper, bake a lasagna, and get everyone into their snow gear all at the same time.  On the other hand, if you have time to respond to ‘What makes a rainbow?” or “How is the fire in the wood stove different from the fire in the sun?” it can give your brain a refreshing bout of aerobics.
I realized that I wasn’t worried about whether my kids ultimately decided to eat meat or not – I really wasn’t.  I could let myself off the hook of my own self-suspicions. It didn’t matter exactly what their questions were—or whether they had anything to do with grilled pork -- it just mattered that they were asking them. What I wanted, what I’d always really wanted, was neither compliance nor rebellion, but thought and awareness.  I wanted my kids to dig their hands into the soil, the mud, and the truth of the world.  What I wanted was exactly what I was now getting -- with a little added barbecue sauce.