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.