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, September 27, 2013

Our Town

A few days prior to a public presentation I gave this summer (“Frost and Fire: Alaska’s Changing Climate”), the Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner published an article touting the event: “Professor's talk looks at climate change in Alaska.”  Yes, this was a whole newspaper article about me.  This could have been super-flattering --  except that the NewsMiner had already written other articles about me.  And about Jay.  And about our small children.  And about lost dogs.  And about zucchini. Or if you prefer, from July 16th, “Fairbanks man arrested after punching himself in the face.”

It’s hard to maintain an illusion of Not Being a Total Hick when one ranks right up there with news of this caliber. Moreover, the online comments on the climate change article -- which reflected the grasp that selected local folks have on science, the role of university professors, and generally accepted rules of spelling and grammar – well, let’s just say they didn’t exactly make the city of Fairbanks seem more cosmopolitan. Once again, I had to face the truth:  the city of Fairbanks is not a city.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about this.  On one hand, I’m relieved, because I’m not a city person.  Yeah, ok, I’m stating the obvious here; my lifestyle doesn’t even include a hairdryer, a purse, or, you know, plumbing.  Whatever word is the opposite of metrosexual, the OED probably mentions me in its definition. I know that I’ve never had a banana’s chances in a blender of being either urban or urbane.  And yet… some obdurate part of me wants to feel as if I’m at least in spitting distance of Where Things Happen. A hub.  An epicenter.  Ergo, a city.
Not wanting to be a hick isn’t just a semantic bias.  The long tide of human history indicates that it was when human societies aggregated, coagulated, and clustered that they most often began making great discoveries, writing compelling prose, illuminating the truths and perils of the human condition, and moving the metaphorical chess pieces of the world.  Indubitably, a single human brain is a fascinating and impressive bundle of neural connections (despite tending to find its own self repulsive to contemplate).  But thousands of brains working in concert – piling idea upon idea, hypothesizing, arguing, challenging, goading -- can be stunning, powerful, beautiful, creative, explosive.  Throughout history, cities have created seas of thought.   Such is my hubris that I’d rather think of myself as a guppy in Lake Superior than as a liberal, intellectual halibut flapping in a redneck puddle.
Just how small is the pond up here?  Well, if being touted as news is one sign of small-town-ness, being known by everyone (and their mother, and their dog) is surely another.

“Oh, you’re the one with the two-kid bike attachment thing!” 
The elderly woman was smiling at me with genuine goodwill, but even so, I felt my dignity ebb.  I was still wearing the Respectable Professor Outfit that I’d donned to give that public talk – black slacks, an equally black top that is not (technically) a t-shirt, and shoes that are not held together with duct tape – but she was obviously picturing me in my ordinary state:  covered in bike grease.  “I see you all the time!” she enthused. So much for dignity.  And it wasn’t as if being recognized at my climate change presentation was anything new. This woman extolling my bicycling prowess reminded me of my kids’ summer camp director, an equally elderly and voluble personage in her seventies who had stopped by my office a few days previously.  She, too, felt the need to tell me that she saw me bicycling “everywhere.”   It also turned out she knew Alison, in the next cubicle.  And Tina, in the opposite one. 
“Wow, Fairbanks really is a small place,” I said. 
“Oh, yes!”  Her voice was surprisingly loud for such a tiny individual.  “NEVER have an affair in this town!” she boomed cheerfully. 
Uh, thanks, Sweet Old Lady….
Sage advice from elderly locals notwithstanding, Wikipedia – boon of all lazy researchers -- insists we are, indeed, a city: “Fairbanks is the largest city in the Interior region of Alaska, and second largest in the state.”  In contrast, Huntington Long Island, where I grew up, “is one of ten towns in Suffolk County, New York.”  But if you read a little further, you find that the “city” of Fairbanks has 32,036 residents, and that even the entire “metropolitan area” has a population of only 97,581.  The “town” of Huntington, meanwhile, has a population of 203,264.
Well, gosh, that really clears things up. 
When I was a kid, “The City” meant only one thing: New York.  Much as Manhattan fascinated me, with its labyrinthine museums and its richly-scented and teeming Babel of culture, drama, and vertical humanity – it also intimidated me, for much the same reasons.  Huntington is a dot in the morass that makes up the greater New York Metropolitan Area, which has a population somewhere in the order of twenty million people.  You could lose Fairbanks in that Charybdis two hundred times over, and then some.  If cities are hive-brains, New York is a genius.  But… it’s not a genius I can live with.
Even in tamer havens such as Boston and Seattle, I eventually become claustrophobic and overwhelmed.  What greenness they boast is managed and proscribed.  Escaping their clutches requires braving the transportation maze.  The metaphorical weight of those members of my own species becomes oppressive.  Still, I have an inescapable feeling that such places are the Real Deal: in order to be newsworthy in an honest-to-goodness city, you have to either be hoarding chemical weapons or really, really good at playing football.
Perhaps it’s when I’ve been listening to a little too much KIAK FM that I start questioning whether Fairbanks is precisely the sort of community I belong in.   I’m not a city girl, but I’m not a country girl, either.  Much as I enjoy an occasional country ballad, I don’t aim to spend every Friday night getting fired up on Jack Daniels before riding the mechanical bull, and I don’t really want Brad Paisley to check me for ticks.  On the face of things, the non-city of Fairbanks is that sort of town.
Or… is it?  As I chatted politely with the woman who “saw me everywhere,” other Climate Change Talk attendees were still filing past, some of them enjoying a not-terribly-dignified but deliciously free Good Humor bar on the way out the door.  I said hello to a charming couple I’d met years ago, when I dabbled in the local Shakespeare company.  I thanked the friends who had helped haul in more chairs, when the crowd over-filled the room.  I quickly answered a question posed by a grad student whose research – and academic contacts – overlap with my own.  Meanwhile, two other people agreed with the first of the friendly older women – that yes, I’m that person with the kids on the crazy bike, and where on earth did I get that thing?
Somewhere in the midst of all this – it may have been when I unwrapped my second ice cream bar – I realized that I was having a good time.
I realized a few other things, too.  First of all, for an on-campus academic talk on a Tuesday night in a remote Alaskan outpost of humanity, this really wasn’t a bad turnout – and not a single one of the online hecklers had turned up.  Yes, many of the faces were familiar, but then again, many of them were not.  Only one person had blatantly shown up only for the ice cream, and I found myself kind of admiring his audacity and creativity as he busily bundled extra bars into his ragged bag.  It seemed that I didn’t really already know every single socially engaged and intellectually curious person in Fairbanks – or even anywhere close.
Second, the fact that some of these people were folks I’ve seen on stage with the Fairbanks Drama Association or running through the streets dressed like mosquitoes during the Midnight Sun Run made them more interesting to me, not less.  Recognizing each other, knowing each other, and caring about each other doesn’t make us hicks; it makes us a community.  I may not be a small-town girl in the small-minded sense, but I’m a small-town girl nonetheless.  When it comes down to it, I’d rather be known and understood for who I am than taken seriously for who I am not.
Third, while Fairbanks isn’t a city so much as a speck of humanity lost in hundreds of miles of forests, rivers, and wetlands, it is nonetheless an epicenter and a hub.  We’re a hub in the sense that we’re the largest community for over three hundred miles in any direction, along the five roads that leave town, heading north to the Arctic ocean, northeast to the Yukon River, east to Chena Hot Springs, south to Anchorage, and southeast to the Lower 48 (via a couple of thousand kilometers’-worth of Canada.)  But even more importantly, we’re an epicenter -- because in the age of the Internet, small towns are big, and big towns are small, and epicenters can be everywhere or nowhere. 
The internet has Changed Everything, but I’d argue that it’s changed the small places more than it has changed the big ones.  Google “Nancy Fresco” and you can find our far more than you ever wanted to know about me.  (You can use it to heckle and deride me, if you want to.)  Among the public detritus of my life you’ll find that back in December, the NewsMiner singled me our as the “winner” of the solstice Dawn to Dusk race, a ludicrous 3-hour-and-41-minute trot at temperatures that never topped -30.  There were only 2 women who completed the entire time period – and I was, in fact, the slower of the two.  But – so what?  Fairbanks residents do not have to rely on this sort of stellar reporting for their worldview – and people in New York need not be deprived of it.  In this century, anyone can read the NewsMiner… or the New York Times.  And we can all share in the messy, pyrotechnic, beautiful massive-mind-meld that used to be the sole prerogative of city-dwellers.
As for my actual, physical locale – well, I’d much rather live in a quirky outpost that feels like a community than in a city full of strangers.  There are limits to how genuinely hick I could be; I want to live somewhere with a university and excellent public schools.  I want a good academic library, and a good public one as well.  I want a variety of local events, shows, resources, and experiences -- and I certainly wouldn’t object to a town that offered the opportunity to run a marathon over a scenic mountaintop and then catch a show and some Thai food all on the same day.  I want a large enough local population to allow me to find intellectual, open-minded, adventuresome, challenging, supportive, iconoclastic, hilarious, goofy-as-heck friends.  But really, eighty thousand choices will do. I’ve found you guys.  I mean, I’m picky, all right, but I’m not THAT picky.   In short, I don't want or need to be in physical proximity to a million people, but I want to be in metal proximity a billion. 
And… I can.
Sure, there are things I hate about Fairbanks.  Many of my fellow residents do not vote in precisely the manner in which I would like them to.  Our urban planning is deranged, and we seem sadly unable to sanely manage our air quality problem. And I should never, ever, read any NewsMiner online comments.  But those are all subjects for another day (meaning, of course, another blog post; your patience with me is impressive, if you’ve gotten this far).  For now, I’m happy to live in the great big bustling urban metropolis of Fairbanks.  And if you’re pretty sure you’ve seen me before, because aren’t I that woman with the two-kid bike attachment thing – well, yeah, that’s me.  In fact, I’ll be giving a public talk a couple of weeks from now at Beaver Sports, about our family’s vacation, spent biking with kids.  I was asked to do this because… well, you know, because this sure is a small town. 

See you there.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Cheese Logs of Guilt and Despair

Our PTA fundraiser starts this week!!!
Oh goodie!!!  I LOVE events that involve children touting Candy Cane Covers, Twist and Pout Lulu Lip Balm, and Heart and Flower Glitter Keychains!!! Moreover, I long to walk up to strangers and murmur, “Pssst, wanna buy a jalapeƱo sausage?  Only $10.50!”  This especially lights my fire (not to mention my Holiday Shimmer Votive Candle) when I am directly associated with (and thus morally culpable for) said fundraiser’s existence, via a newsletter that just went out to each and every University Park Elementary School family -- with my name on it. 
Sorry, sorry… I think my sarcasm might have been showing for a moment there.  I, um, need to work on that.
In all seriousness, I truly do not want to be the raining-on-the-parade snark-monster that I seem to be becoming.  I am clearly a bad, bad, human being, and no one is ever going to buy me that “World’s Best Mom” mug (catalog page 32) with the little pink heart on it.  I never realized that taking on the job of editor of the school newsletter – a monthly bulletin of events, news, info, and thanks put out by the PTA and school staff – would turn me into a bitter harpy.  I mean, what could be wrong with a publication that is used to thank our long-suffering science fair judges and to let parents know about cool opportunities available at the school library?
Indeed, for the most part, nothing is wrong with my volunteer task.  Putting the newsletter together is relatively simple and straightforward, and it makes me feel as if I’m doing something to help out, in the severely underfunded world of public education.  The PTA takes on some fantastic, enriching, time-intensive projects: they bring in visiting authors and artists; they sew reflective tape on kids’ jackets to help keep them safe in the relentless dark of Fairbanks winters; they organizing the running club, the ski club, the gardening club, the book fair, the science fair, and the annual art competition; and to top things off, they bring everyone together for family fun nights and craft nights.  That they get all this done is impressive; that they make it happen on an annual budget of less than $50 per kid is superhuman.  Yeah, schools have no money.  Yeah, over-worked teachers, under-paid support staff, and over-busy parents are left to take up the slack.  This is not a new story.
I know that I want to help, to participate.  I might not be able to pull my weight, but I’d at least like to be dragging along a few concrete blocks or something.  So, once a month, I ask everyone for content, via email.  I nag them a couple of times.  I get articles and other tidbits.  I cram them into an ugly but serviceable six-page format.  I restrain myself to editing only for grammar, spelling, and factual correctness.  I order the print run.  Done.
Except that when I said “yes” to the job, it never occurred to me that, as nominal editor, I would not only feel slightly twitchy about other people’s word choices, but also downright conflicted about being compelled to include items that – well, is it too strong to say that they are at odds with my moral principles?
Um, what?  Nancy has moral principles about… PTA fundraisers?  The notion seems ludicrous.  Our PTA – like most PTAs, I’d guess – is made up of individuals so selfless, generous, and giving that I’m pretty much a cretinous boor in comparison.  One of my closest friends ran the annual fundraiser for years, until her daughter moved on to middle school, and I know from experience that this is a woman who is roughly eleventeen times nicer than I am.  She will quietly scrub other people’s mold without expectation of thanks or even notice.  She underwent major back surgery without ever complaining.  When I refused, year after year, to even look at the catalog of snazzy wrapping paper and artfully photographed chocolates, she just quietly stopped asking, with nary a miffed look.
I clearly have no right to sit back in my armchair and editorialize.  Way back last spring, when the deserving, kind, hard-working angels of the PTA first mentioned that they would be needing a new fundraising chairperson in the fall, I tentatively started an email chain about maybe – perhaps – shaking things up.  I found a few folks who maybe – tentatively – agreed with me.  And then… I got busy.  Stuff happened.  Work, family vacation, a zillion different summer camps, the library’s excellent Summer Reading Program, all the neighbors’ pets to care for...  And, yeah, I let the ball drop.  Autumn rolled around, and there I was, putting the super-duper-enthusiastic notice in the newsletter about the Catalogue of Awesome Holiday Magic (no, it’s not really called that).  So, not only was I a failure with no follow-through, I was a sell-out as well, by default.
So what, exactly, is my deal with the PTA’s annual money-raising scheme?  Why, when the brightly colored sales packages came home with my kids this week, did I cram them directly into the recycling, already annoyed by the wasted paper?
Well, I have a few reasons.  Bear with me.
1)      The guilt conundrum.  This is at the top of the list, because I hate, hate, hate it.  If a hopeful child comes to the door with a Shiny Catalog of Awful Candles, it’s darned hard to say “no”, even if you have a violent socio-economic reaction to all object made of scented wax.  I detest being put in this position myself; I have zero desire to impose such a Catch-22 on others.  Especially people I actually LIKE.
2)      Bribery and competition.  Kids are given “incentive” prizes for selling lots of this stuff.  This sets up jealousies, and makes parents feel bad if they refuse to take part.  It also fills up houses with even more plastic crap, because the prizes are inevitably even more awful than the neon whistles and leaky bubble soap that come home from birthday parties.
3)      Buying local.  I want to support our school, but my support for the school is part of a bigger picture that includes the local community, local families, local jobs, and even the local ecosystem.  Sure, half the money from these sales goes to the school, but the other half instantly leaves the state.  I don’t even know what giant corporate entity it goes to, or where that entity is located, or what their economic practices are.
4)      Producing something useful.  Wouldn’t it be better to earn money by making things, creatively?  By helping people who need help?  By reducing and reusing, via a garage sale or auction?  By performing some useful service, like washing cars or shoveling snow?  Or even by strengthening social bonds through a pancake breakfast?
5)      The learning process.  Maybe it’s an idealistic notion, but I feel like school activities should – in one way or another – relate to teaching kids something.  Do we really want to teach kids about relentlessly touting items that they have never seen and know nothing about?  Granted, selling stuff is a job that many adults end up doing, and it’s certainly not, in itself, immoral to be “in sales”.  But shouldn’t we teach our children to question the quality, value, and provenance of what they are selling?  Eleven bucks for a six-ounce box of chocolates -- sight unseen and deliciousness unsmelled -- is a weird way to teach responsible marketing.
6)      Tight funds and fairness.  Our family is pretty lucky, in this regard.  We can (theoretically) afford some really seriously over-priced knick-knacks.  But UPK is a Title One school, and I hate to think that parents are being guilted into buying things they can’t afford.  Those who can afford to pay more should pay more (yeah, I’m kind of a socialist – but you already knew that).
7)      Free-range kids.  Should young children be wandering around selling things to strangers who might be creepy weirdos?  This seems to be a big worry for other parents.  Actually, it’s way down on my own list.  Within reason, I’m all in favor of a bit more independence among the household’s population of seven-year-olds.  Go ahead and talk to strangers, girls!  But… don’t get into their cars, and please don’t try to sell them anything.
8)      The Chocolate War.  Oh, come on, hasn’t anyone ever read The Chocolate War?  By Robert Cormier?  Seriously, people!  It’s a classic!
Ok.  That’s my rant.  It seems coherent, at least to me.  On the other hand, it leaves me awash with guilt, anxiety, and regret.  Because I could have done something about this. 
So… what do I do now?  I’m not going to sell anything.  I’m not going to ask my kids to sell anything.  They will probably be sad when other children earn horrible plastic prizes and accolades from authority figures.  And I will feel even worse.  Moreover, simply not selling anything doesn’t help at all with the problem that our schools are still underfunded.  The PTA sponsors some great activities (Free books!  A fabulous holiday creative-craft-making fair!)  They need money.   They need fifteen thousand dollars.  Roughly speaking, that amounts to about $25 per kid. 
So…  I’m making a deal with myself – and maybe with you, too, if you’ve had the patience to read this far.  First of all, I’m going to donate four times my share, outright.  Two kids, a hundred bucks each – that’s two hundred bucks.  Totally worth it, because the PTA (as already mentioned) is chock full of awesomeness.  And… here’s the best part… none of this money will go toward Cheese Log postage, Cheese Log paperwork, Cheese Log company overhead, Cheese Log incentive prizes, or luscious Cheese Log production! 
Second, I’m going to make a promise to you (assuming that the vast majority of people reading this blog are my friends and/or long-suffering family members, because who the heck else would be wasting their time on my ramblings?)  I’m going to promise you that I will not try to sell you any Cheese Logs!  Actually, I don’t think this catalog has that particular item.  So you’re doubly safe.  But I will also promise no set of hand-painted cheese spreaders, an item offered right there on page 15.  Also, no “Light Up Holiday Joy Figurine”.  And no “Family Wall Cling”.  And no “Crystal Angel Photo Keychain”.  And no “Decorative Tulip Candle Holder”. 
In return for this amazing Lack of Things, maybe you could do me a favor.  Get out your checkbook.  Write a check.  There’s no guilt involved here, because I won’t know whether you’ve done this, or whether you’ve sent one dollar, or fifty dollars, or some sort of foreign currency that will really shake things up, here in l’il ol’ Fairbanks.  I mean, I’ll be deeply grateful, but only in an abstract, anonymous, and guilt-free sense.  Make out your check to UPK PTA, and send it to University Park Elementary, 554 Loftus Rd., Fairbanks, AK 99709.  Or, heck, send your money to a different school instead, if you want.  They all need it.  Desperately.  They really do.
Oh, and NEXT year?  Next year I’m going to come up with a fantastic, lucrative, healthy, safe, useful, caring, community-building, educational fundraiser.  I could, um, maybe use a few ideas… and… anyone want to sign up for my committee? 
In the meantime, I’ll just be quietly compiling, formatting, and editing this most excellent school newsletter.

Addendum -- three days later:

I dutifully sent in the $200.  The following day, the kids hopped off the school bus and and happily informed me that prizes were not reserved only for those who sold items from The Catalog.  No, indeed!  My generosity had earned them this:

Today, she came home with this.   When wielded by an enthusiastic and strong-lunged seven-year-old, it makes a noise that would wake something that has been extinct since the Cretaceous Period. 

Karma can be rough.