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

Monday, February 24, 2014


“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, it’s where the rich ride public transportation.” – Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá

“When is your flight home?” my coworker asked, watching my feeble attempts to stuff a half-dozen brochures, a pair of shoes, and a dirty gas-station coffee mug into a too-small backpack – all while maintaining some semblance of decorum behind our conference-booth table at the Alaska Forum on the Environment.  I saw her mentally calculating whether anyone could be spared to drive me to the airport, so I quickly explained that there was no problem; I was planning to take the bus.
“There’s a bus to the airport?”  She looked astonished -- and I, as usual, felt slightly deflated by that astonishment.  My depression had nothing to do with my coworker, who is charming – and, moreover, tolerates me with a remarkable degree of equanimity.  It’s just that… well… anyone who has known me for more than four minutes already knows I have a bit of an obsession with bikes -- but now I have to admit that I also have a chip on my shoulder about buses.
More generally, I’ve always been perplexed and frustrated by the gap between what we think we believe and what we actually DO with regard to public transportation in this country.  Those of us who are liberal, progressive, environmental types all say we want it.  Oh, boy!  Buses!  Light rail!  Subway systems!  How efficient! How green!  But when push comes to shove, we hardly ever seem to USE public transportation – especially not buses.   America’s relationship with buses is like Roxanne’s relationship with Cyrano: somewhere between disparaging, patronizing, and oblivious.
Ok, maybe it was reasonable that my coworkers didn’t know anything about Anchorage buses; after all, we live in Fairbanks.  But it’s no better here at home.  Most people in Fairbanks seem unaware that we even have a bus system, and if they know it exists, they don’t know where it goes, or when.   We have a grim problem with air pollution around here, and cars are big contributors.  Moreover, getting a car started – and keeping it running – in temperatures that plummet as low as -50F is neither fun nor cheap.  And yet I know exactly one person who uses the Fairbanks public bus as his primary means of commuting.  One. 
Part of the problem, of course, is a chicken-and-egg thing.  Despite efforts to expand the system, Fairbanks buses have limited schedules and routes.  Trying to take a bus is pretty darn frustrating if it doesn’t go where you want, or arrives only once an hour, or both.  And the bus isn’t too likely to go where you want it to, because we Fairbanksans are horrendously guilty of sprawl.  We spread ourselves across the landscape like syrup oozing across a pancake.  The bus doesn’t reach people’s homes because we’re building our homes way the heck out on Gold Hill, Cripple Creek, Two Rivers, Moose Mountain, and other fancifully named locales.
In other towns and cities – cities with denser populations and less ridiculous climates – the story is of course a bit better.  My sister’s family, in Cambridge/Boston MA, uses the bus and subway system (the T) regularly.  My good friends in Seattle are well acquainted with both light rail and bus routes. But even in those locations, where routes are regular and frequent, most people seem to still be driving most places.  Why?  Well, I’ve heard a lot of reasons.  Convenience (see chicken-and-egg, above).  Speed (Maybe -- but put enough cars on the road, and no one is moving).  Autonomy (I’m biased here, because I kind of hate driving, but on a bus you can relax and read a book!).  And… niceness.
Niceness?  Yeah.  Apparently it’s a biggie.
My coworkers and I had all arrived in Anchorage by plane, and the Downtown Transit Center was diagonally across the street from the conference center where we’d spent the past three days.  It might as well have been in another world.  A poorer world.  A world in which the smell of extraordinarily bad pizza and extraordinarily cheap alcohol hung heavy on the air.  A world in which a terribly young-looking mom with twins in a stroller could not get them to stop crying; a teenage guy was trying to buy a cigarette from a group of strangers; a whole lot of young men were amicably and loudly swearing at each other;  and someone in the corner was talking to himself, quietly. 
Yelp and Foursquare offer online info on the Downtown Transit Center in particular, and the Anchorage People Mover bus system in general.  The comments don’t pull any punches.  “There are a ridiculous amount of drunk and disgusting people here,” says someone named Shauna.  Crystal P. adds, “Try and get a car if at all possible. Buses stink and are slow. Plus there are tons of creepy people down here.”
Creepy people?  Maybe.  Are you a creepy person, Crystal P.? 
Poor people?  Yeah.  Of course.  The bus station is heated, and Anchorage is not tropical.  Plus, there are seats in the station, and friends to hang out with, if you happen to have creepy friends, or drunken friends, or not-at-all-creepy not-at-all-drunken friends, who may or may not be planning to actually ride a bus any time soon.  Our nation is woefully short of places where one can comfortably and freely sit with friends and strangers and enjoy a sense of community, and our nation also has woefully inadequate resources to alleviate poverty.  But that is a subject for another blog post… or ten. 
The idea that people who ride buses are creepy, dangerous, and just plain nasty is not a new one.  When I was in college in the Boston area, I needed to visit my parents on Long Island a few times a year.  I took the bus.  This always surprised people, especially all-the-way-grown-up white-collar people.  But, honey, why don’t you fly?  Or take the train?  While these other options were slightly faster, there weren’t markedly so; the New York area cannot be traversed quickly by any means short of teleportation. But, honey, the train is so much more… comfortable.  So much… nicer. 
Was it?  Well, the aisles were wider, and the bathroom was larger, although not necessarily cleaner.  The train was often, but not always, less crowded.  On the bus, I sometimes ended up sitting next to strangers.  Some of them were marginally annoying.  Some fell asleep.  Some fell asleep on me.  Some were interesting.  I learned about Pakistani culture and the five tenets of Islam from an international gem merchant, and he learned a lot about American culture and feminism from me. 
In any case, the bus was cheaper – way cheaper – than the train, and I was nineteen, and a student.  I was scraping together what income I had by delivering newspapers before class.  In the summer, my employment was wallowing in mud and black flies while moving rocks using only a crowbar and pick.  Seriously.  In any case, as far as I could tell, the biggest difference between the bus and the train was that on the train, the other passengers were almost all white, and middle-class.  On the bus, it was a mixed crowd, with every possible ethnicity and a lot of different flavors of poor.  I took the bus.
Even before college, I’d been on Greyhounds, of course.  In junior high, the special enrichment program that I was lucky enough to be part of involved a lot of extended field trips.  Twenty-five twelve-year-olds drove our teachers batshit crazy all the way from Long Island to Washington D.C., and I’m pretty sure we loved every minute of it.  And in high school, some of my most treasured memories are from the three times in which I managed to qualify for the New York Metropolitan All Stars Mathletes team.  Twenty-nine boys.  Two male teachers.  And me.  On a coach bus headed to Penn State.  It’s a long, long drive.  What did we do?  We played bridge, of course.  The year that the bus’s exhaust system caught fire on the way home and we all had to be evacuated to a rural fire station -- to the confused amusement of the volunteer firefighters -- was just added excitement in an already perfect sojourn.   We were a joke so good that it didn’t even require a punchline: thirty pimply little math geeks escape from a burning bus...
Of course, city buses and Greyhounds were not the first buses I knew.  That honor was reserved for a big, impressive yellow bus with flashing lights.  I can recall LONGING to climb onto that bus -- just as soon as I reached the exalted age of five – so that I could join my big sister in all her glory.   But my remembered excitement runs counter to what seems to be the common middle-class wisdom these days.  Recently, I’ve heard an unsettling number of half-spoken implications to the (vague) effect that schoolbuses are just “not nice”.
The yellow behemoths, circa 1980, were sometimes a trace Lord of the Flies, there’s no denying it.  Drivers who are concentrating on the road are hard pressed to deal with ten-year-olds who have come up with new engineering marvels relating to increasing the velocity of spitballs.  Nonetheless, I have a lot of great schoolbus memories.  Not long after I attained the lofty goal of riding to kindergarten, I achieved the additional self-perceived honor of sitting in the front seat, my legs dangling, giving directions to a substitute bus driver.  I think he was relieved to find that I not only knew the way to Huntington Elementary School but also reliably knew left from right. 
I recall the little boy who had a crush on my sister, and who thought that he might impress her by giving me rocks to add to my rock collection.  Practically every bus ride, I got another rock. I really liked rocks. 
A few years later, when we moved to a new house and I was thus on an unfamiliar bus, being joined in my seat by another fourth-grader who confided that she had just switched into public school from Catholic school, and was thus new, too.  We became fast friends almost immediately.  She patiently taught me to shoot baskets and ride my bike with no hands, and I tutored her in math.  Thirty years later, and she and her wife have twins – just as Jay and I do.
These days, my own twins and I walk up to the school bus stop every morning.  It’s a half-mile jaunt, because we live way the heck down a dirt road in the bottom of a swamp.  We’re not helping Fairbanks’ above-mentioned problem with low-density development by living here.  However, in our defense, we chose this piece of land in part because it’s close enough to town and to our jobs at the university to allow us to be car-free much of the time. 
I don’t mind the fifteen-minute morning hike.  It serves as the start to my morning run-or-bike-commute, and it guarantees that the kids get at least a bit of exercise, even on days when the mercury is below -20F, and recess is cancelled.  It also doubles as time to eat a portable breakfast (usually toast, but sometimes a more ambitious foray into pancakes, fruit, muffins, oatmeal, or yogurt).  We chat about what’s coming up in the day ahead, note the phase of the moon or the configuration of the constellations,  kick snowballs along the icy road,  or say hi to the neighbors’ neurotically excitable dogs.  Sometimes we catch a little aurora, startle a few grouse, or even pause to make way for a moose.  We have our timing down to the minute; when we reach the stop sign on Gold Hill, we can almost always see red safety lights blinking in the dark, a quarter mile down the road, at the next bus stop.  The driver pulls up for my two little people, I kiss the tops of their puffy jacket hoods, and they carefully wait to cross the road.
In the afternoons, we complete the same journey in reverse, but usually with higher energy and more chatter.  Afternoon snacks are clutched in mittened hands – the kids are really stellar at eating with mittens on – and there is more hopping, skipping, slipping, and sliding than mere walking.  Did Coach Davis set up the Indiana Jones obstacle course in gym class?  Do you actually know the meanings of all the words in the Star Spangled Banner?   Did you spell ‘maniac’ correctly? 
A few days ago, during one such session of afternoon conversation, one of the kids remarked (with her mouth full of honey-roasted peanuts) that, “Not very many kids take the bus.” 
I probed.  More than half, I asked?  No, both twins agreed.  Less than half.  Maybe a third, if that. More like a quarter.  Yay, fractions!  Molly and Lizzy weren’t objecting to riding the bus, merely stating a fact: most kids are driven to school.  Which of your friends ride the bus?  Reading between the lines, I began to guess that the economic breakdown among pint-sized bus-riders might not be so different from that among full-sized bus riders.  Buses are not “nice”.
Granted, the twins’ estimates may be off, and granted, some kids walk to school.  But still, there are clearly hundreds of kids being driven to University Park Elementary, every day.  This means a huge, tangled lineup of cars trailing exhaust in the parking lot, which – despite excellent efforts on the part of school administrators – was clearly was not designed for so much traffic. 
So, adults are not riding buses… and neither are kids.  And… I think that’s a shame. 
It’s a shame for the obvious reasons, of course: environmentalism, efficiency, fuel use, road crowding, economy, air quality, and so on.  But (as I’ve bored you all with my circuitous bus-reminiscing) I’ve come to realize that it’s a shame for a host of other reasons, too.  Buses are good places for people-watching, for social mixing, for letting go of road rage, and for doing all the things that people like to do while driving (texting, putting on makeup, eating a four-course-meal) without creating a deadly hazard.  Buses can be slow, but slow isn’t always bad.  Slowness offers the opportunity to read a good book, to learn to spell ‘maniac’, to experience a little parent-free teacher-free subversive conversation, to finish your homework in bumpy-hurried handwriting, to explain everything you know about women’s rights to someone you’ve never met before, to take a nap, or to play bridge with the most heart-stoppingly nerdy boys you have ever met.
I don’t know how to make buses more popular.  I don’t know how to get rich people to ride them.  I don’t know how to argue with the logic of fellow-parents who tell me, quite reasonably, that it’s quicker and simpler and easier to drop off their kids on the way to and from work than to stand at a school bus stop when the mercury is at -40.  I don’t know how to address the fears of parents who think that the schoolbus is somehow dangerous or “not nice”; people tend to dance around the subject rather than face it head-on.  But I do have my suspicions that if kids aren’t riding the school bus when they are seven, they will be less likely – and less willing – to hop on a Greyhound or a city bus when they are twenty-seven, thirty-seven, or forty-seven. 
The bus from downtown Anchorage to the airport cost exactly two dollars.  My bills were a bit rumpled, but the driver helped me get them into the slot.  The ride was relaxing: perhaps ten percent slower than a taxi would have been, because of the stops, but at least 90% cheaper, and no less comfortable.  I enjoyed it.  And I’d do it again, every time – unless, of course, the option of riding a bike were available.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Everyday Extraordinary

[Note: I wrote this essay in March, 2003.  It seems that I was a less sarcastic beast back then -- twins will do that to you, not to mention PhDs.  Life has changed, of course. There was no Facebook in 2003, blogs were not nearly so epidemic, the global population was smaller, and Tamarack Knoll (our lovely 13-person not-really-a-commune, about to celebrate its 10th anniversary) had yet to be founded.  Nonetheless, I've skied to the lake -- Ace Lake -- many a time since 2003, and in some ways the musings below seem as timely as ever, if not more so.  So here you go: everyday extraordinary.]

And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days
--James Russell Lowell

I skied to the lake today. I pushed shut my cabin door behind me - - no latch, no lock -- snapped my boots into old-fashioned 3-pin bindings, and shoved mittened hands through pole-loops. My skis slipped down onto the hummocky nameless trails. Left turn, right turn, quirky dip and drop, the crunching glide of crusted snow -- and I stood in the lake's frozen center, ringed by an audience of black spruce, willow and alder.

I live here, I told myself. The lake is not mine, any more than the snow is mine. But this Alaska woodland is my home. How many people experience such a luxury? Even if I visit the lake every day, the experience is nonetheless rare. I turned my face up into the early afternoon sun, and let the scarcity of this ordinary experience soak through me.

Uncommonness is a form of currency.  Our world is valued according to a human obsession with scarceness; we deride the unwanted and abundant, and covet what we have least.  We rename our world as our values change. Rainforests were dark, forbidding jungles, until we realized they were vanishing. The Army Corps of Engineers worked hard to drain bogs, but the fast-disappearing bogs have lexically morphed into wetlands, which the Army Corps works hard to protect.

In early April, the lake is still solid enough to drive an eighteen-wheeler across, were it not a mile or more from the nearest road. The snow is tracked and pocked from the passage of skis and boots, paws and claws and hoofs and dogsleds, but I stood alone today, inhaling a sense of space that is itself unusual amidst burgeoning 6 billion of our species.  The air hung still and cold enough to crackle dry in my lungs, but the sun-glare off the snow shouted "spring!"

I remember the lake in December, darkly different. Then, even during our three daylight hours, the sun hovers so low as to be muted dawn at noon, and the snow has a dim blue cast to it. Each sunlit minute is savored.   At the year’s zenith, in June, a whining density of mosquitoes amidst the cattails lurks in wait for any red-blooded beast lured by the waterside's succulent greens. The chemistry of mammals has changed little in a million years; I imagine that I taste just like a moose to a mosquito. I wonder how we might feel about mosquitoes if we saw them only singly, and fleetingly. If mosquitoes were rare, would we value them?  The lake is different yet again in September; the edges first crust with ice, just as the cranberries underfoot burst ripe in the uncanny color of blood.  The last drops squeeze from a succinct growing season, eagerly appreciated for its very briefness. Alaskans do not take summer for granted, for it too is in short supply.

I've read that when it was common, lobster used to be a poor man's food. Around the time New England was given that unimaginative name, armored bottom-feeders washed up on the shores in piles two feet deep, and sank into fishy-smelling decay. The grandfather lobsters, sixty or seventy years old, were each 40 pounds of irascible crustacean. Pilgrim children, undoubtedly less virtuous than we imagine them to be, whined at the dinner table as they worked to crack those menacing claws - "not lobster AGAIN!"

Twenty years ago, a different generation of children spurred parents to fight each other at shopping malls to bring home supply-limited cloth and plastic objects with names and birth certificates. I was the only little girl in my class who did not own a Cabbage Patch Doll. I relished that fact as a different form of uncommonness.

But craving rarity is not merely a game for children.  Humans have enslaved whole generations, and consigned thousands of lifetimes to scrabbling and blasting deep underground in a desperate quest for tiny crystals of pure carbon. If diamonds were as common as granite, they would be nothing more than sharp rocks to us -- hazardous rough-edged pebbles amidst the warm and softly weathered beach sands.

I am no different. I have chosen to eschew diamonds and gold in favor of rock-jumbled mountainsides, pawprints in the snow, and the smell of damp moss, but my senses still clamor for the unfamiliar, the out-of-the-ordinary. I have heard scoffing directed at urbanites who want to protect wilderness, irritation at idealists in high-tech footwear, and anger at self-proclaimed environmentalists living climate-controlled lives. But I think I understand the paradox, and the apparent hypocrisy. We humans don't realize what we have until the last of it is trickling between our fingers. When all we see is tangled, thorny, predatory-fanged forest, we dream of conquering the wilderness. When all we see is concrete and girders, we beg to have our wilderness back, our bears and cougars and wolves back, at any price. How can I - how can anyone - learn to value what we already have?

Wanting what we do not -- and cannot -- have may be something unchangeable in the human makeup, as inbred a tendency as speech and fear. We may be eternal questers, dreamers, coveters, hoarders of diamonds and dolls. But while we cannot change our nature, we can guide it. Billions of types of rarity enrich this world, and it is within our nature to reject fickle fads and self-imposed needs. In their place, we can choose to cherish those rarities that will nourish best: the sight of the first robin in spring; the one person in the world who loves us most; the taste of a thousand varieties of wheat near-lost to monocrops; ephemeral streaks of aurora across an arctic sky; the one place, tucked between the mountains and sea, where tens of thousands of caribou give birth.

I ski to the lake, as I have a hundred times, and more. I stand on the ice and watch two squirrels chatter and chase in spring courtship. The average lifespan of a squirrel is only two or three years; for them, perhaps, this is the only spring, the only chilly sunlit day, the only chance. I turn my face up into the early afternoon sun, and let the scarcity of this ordinary experience soak through me.