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, October 17, 2014


It was a dawn-light crusty-snow Fairbanks-mid-October Monday morning.  We were, as usual, running just a tiny bit late.  As we hurried up the driveway to the school bus stop, one of my eight-year-olds asked me what time it was. 
“Eight o’clock,” I replied, automatically, after a quick glance at my wrist.  Then I paused.  “Right this minute,” I added, “gay couples in Alaska are lining up to apply for marriage licenses.”
I didn’t have to do much explaining.  My third-graders knew what I was taking about.  However, it was a different story when the same topic came up over dinner, perhaps half a year ago. 
“Wait --gay people aren’t allowed to be married?”  Lizzy furrowed her small eyebrows.
As usual, the kids had been ignoring most of the grownup chit-chat at the other end of the table, because booooring. But this particular conversational thread had drawn their attention.  My then-second-graders -- perched there at the table, forking up tortellini and scattering bits of Parmesan on every available surface -- were visibly confused.   
I stumbled to answer.  “Well… no.  Not everywhere.  Not here in Alaska.”
“But… why not?” Molly wanted to know.
The fact that my kids were entirely unaware of – and indeed couldn’t even fathom – a heterocentric bias in our society was so ridiculously na├»ve that I didn’t know whether to be charmed or appalled.  Shouldn’t they be more clued-in?  Given that I am, for all practical purposes (and perhaps barring post-apocalyptic dystopian scenarios), straight, I feel unqualified to explain the breadth, depth, and pain of the gay rights movement.  And yet – had I already let my children down, by not explaining?
“Aren’t Fiona’s moms married?” persisted Molly.  [Fiona is not the real name of the twins’ friend]
“Well, yes, but not in a way that’s actually legal…” I took a deep breath.  “It’s kind of a big fight that’s going on right now, all over the country.  It’s been going on for a long time…”
A long time.
When I was seven or eight, I had no idea what “gay” meant – other than as used by my British grandmother, who liked to have a gay old time.  It was 1980.  The word “aides” connoted nothing more to me – or to anyone -- than the adult helpers who blew whistles whenever I tried to do anything dangerously fun on the playground. I had no idea that two men or two women might want to get romantic.  Then again, I thought any variety of grownup-type kissing was kinda gross. 
It was at about that time that my parents started attempting to sell our small house (which I swore I’d love forever), so that we could move into a larger one with a bigger back yard (which I swore I’d hate, no matter what, because little kids are innately rabid conservatives).  One interested individual was a coworker of my dad’s.  He looked to be a bit younger than my parents.  He seemed friendly.  I wanted to follow around on the tour (because a small grubby child who has no desire to sell her home makes a super-awesome real estate agent), but as usual, my parents shooed me away.  They took the guest upstairs.  Soon after, they came back down again, and bid him a polite farewell. 
“He doesn’t want to buy it?” I asked, cheerfully.  Ha!  We don’t need to move!
The moment the door closed, both my parents burst into gales of laughter. “There wouldn’t be room for my armoire!” my dad hooted, imitating his coworker’s soft voice, and drawing the last word out extra-long.  Armoooooire.  They laughed some more.
Anything this funny, I definitely wanted in on.   But although my parents did define the word “armoire” for me, I couldn’t quite get the joke.  I puzzled and puzzled.  What was so hilarious about this quiet young man and his preference for large, fancy furniture?  And in what way was this furniture-related knee-slapper somehow, mysteriously, taboo?
In my parents’ defense, they were, for straight people raised in the 1950s, pretty darned liberal, kind, and accepting in their views on homosexuality.  My father was clearly on casually amicable terms with his “perpetual bachelor” coworker, and would certainly never have been cruel to him.  Mom and Dad bore no malice, and had no moral or religious objections.  But in the world they’d grown up in, being “that way” was something one joked about in private, perhaps with a mixture of humor, disgust, pity, and perplexity.  Anyone who was “that way”, it was thought, should have the decency not to make it too obvious, lest they discomfit normal folks.  In polite company, one simply Didn’t Talk About It.
Impolite society, however, was a different story.  Somewhere around fifth grade, I picked up the word “gay” on the playground.  It was, unequivocally, a vicious insult.  It was also, I noted, used only against boys.  I was a bit fuzzy in what it meant, but I knew it had something to do with boys being no good at sports, or too good at schoolwork, or too girly, or too fond of one another.  That’s so gay!  He’s so gay!  Some kids used that word a lot. 
I used it exactly once. 
Brian and Justin were best friends.  I mean, they were, like, REALLY best friends. They did absolutely everything together.  I’m pretty sure they even had the same haircuts – or maybe, back in 1982, all the little boys looked as if someone had upturned pudding-bowls on their heads. They were both nice kids, generally, but one day we had the sort of big playground argument that 10-year-olds have.  It had to do with kickball. 
The game was already underway, and Brian and Justin wanted to join.  Sure, I told them.  We can add one of you to each team. (This begs the question, why the hell was I in charge of this kickball game?  I suck at kickball just as much as I suck at all other team sports.  I have no idea how this peculiar episode of kickball leadership occurred, but since it’s not pertinent, I’ll move on.)  Yeah, everyone else agreed.  We don’t usually add in people after we’ve started, but we like you guys, so okay.  Each of you jump onto a team.
But Brian and Justin insisted that they had to be on the same team.  The rest of us pointed out the obvious fact that this was unfair (particularly because both boys were good players).  It wouldn’t work.  The Best Friends were adamant.  We have to be on the same team! 
Pissed off beyond reason, I snapped, “What are you two, gay?”
Brian and Justin both stormed away.  There was nothing so odd about that, really.  But the part that struck me, the part that I still recall in Technicolor, is the fact that they didn’t storm away together.  The Best Friends marched away in opposite directions, as if I’d hammered a rift between them with my spite. 
Instantly, I felt terrible.  Instantly, I realized that calling someone “gay” was not the same as calling someone a jerk, a loser, a meanie, or even a piece-of-shit asshole.  “Gay” was in a different category.  “Gay” was a word that not only had the power to hurt and stigmatize the two boys as individuals, but to hurt and stigmatize their friendship -- a friendship that was everything to them.
I won’t claim that I understood, in that fifth-grade moment, the enormity and tragedy of homophobia.  I was not that complex, empathetic, or intelligent a child.  I doubt, alas, that I am that complex, empathetic, or intelligent an adult.  But perhaps the fact that I recall this moment in such grim and vivid detail suggests that at that moment, I gained my first inkling of the problem.
I apologized to each of those two boys, separately, privately.  They accepted my apologies.  We never spoke of it again.  I have no idea where either of those 42-year-old men is now.  I have no idea if either of them is gay.  Most likely they aren’t.  But I’ll apologize again now, to all the Justins and Brians who are:  I’m sorry, guys. 
By the time I was in high school, the world had changed – and so had I.  I knew what being gay actually meant.  I knew that my (female) Latin teacher was rumored to be sleeping with my (female) gym teacher.  I knew about AIDS.  I also knew that my (male) boss at the public library was rumored to have a (male) lover who was dying of AIDS.
I also knew that, inevitably, some of my classmates were gay.  I remember looking around a classroom and wondering which ones?  Which ones?  During those years, I was already agonized enough over my own dreary heterosexuality; I lusted after boys, but I was neither pretty enough or cool enough to ever get a date.  But I overflowed with pity at the thought of those kids – whichever they might be – who were harboring a terrifying secret that they couldn’t even whisper to anyone.
It was the idea of the fear and the loneliness that got me.  What would it be like not just to have a secret, but to be a secret -- forever?  What would it be like to find love, perhaps, but to have to keep a desperate and choking distance apart, forever -- not sharing a home, a bed, a night, a touch, a glance -- lest anyone suspect? 
It’s easy enough to feel frightened and unloved as a teenager.  It’s easy enough to feel like a misfit.  How much worse would it be as a gay teenager, I wondered?  I unearthed E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice – written in 1913, but published only posthumously in 1971 -- on my parents’ over-stuffed bookshelves, and read it.  Twice.  I wasn’t given to crying, but the story made tears run down my cheeks. "Someone to last your whole life and you his. I suppose such a thing can't really happen..." 
I set off for college in 1990.  The world had changed since 1913, although that change had come too slowly for the Maurices who had lived and died before 1971 – before I was born.  Nineteen-ninety was the first year in which National Coming Out Day (October 11th ) was observed in all 50 states.  On that day, my brand-new Best Friend Forever and I walked by a huge poster-board, staffed by friendly students with a rainbow collection of Sharpies.  They asked us to sign our names if we would support a gay friend. Steve and I both happily signed. 
Late that night, he told me.
I won’t go into any details as to what that meant, or how it played out.  That’s his story, not mine.  My role was Supportive Straight Friend.  I’m pretty sure I sometimes played it badly.  I’m pretty sure I sometimes Just Didn’t Get It.  But I tried. 
I listened.  I talked.  We hypothesized about potential crushes, and commiserated about failed crushes, exactly as teenaged BFFs are supposed to do.  I agreed – or disagreed – about which guys were hot.  We resolutely spun tales of a future in which Steve and I still got together to play nerdy word games -- but with our handsome, charming, brilliant husbands in tow.
I went to rallies.  I signed petitions.  I wore pink triangles.  I reasoned with my Midwestern roommate (who interned that summer for Dan Quayle – I shit you not), arguing that if she thought the idea of gay sex was “totally gross” it was only because she didn’t feel an urge to participate in it, not because it was really any more or less gross than straight sex, which (just ask an eight-year-old) is also a totally bizarre and icky idea.  “He's mine in a way that shocks you, but why don't you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness?" – Maurice.
I stayed up until awful-o’clock-in-the-morning talking Steve through how he was going to deal with telling his extremely loving but very Catholic family. I went home for winter break and earnestly lectured my own patient, liberal parents about homophobia and gay rights.  I was undoubtedly pompous and irritating, but I tried.
Along the way, I was frequently mistaken for a lesbian – by friends, by acquaintances, by men I might have maybe (please please please?) wanted to date, by my own worried parents (who explained, quite correctly, that being gay would make life very difficult), and by a few fabulous women whom I did not, alas, want to date.  I don’t think this mass confusion stemmed from my activism so much as from the fact that I am a ludicrously butch straight woman.  That’s a topic for separate discussion, but it all turned out just fine; men raised in Alaska, it seems, are cool with that.  I got married.  I had kids – kids who ask lots of questions.
But, for all their rabid curiosity, there was at least one question the twins never asked.  Can gay people get married? 
About once a year – usually on the way east to visit my family – we spend a couple of days in Seattle.  This is a very popular activity. Mom, when are we going to see Steve and Manish again?  At Steve’s and Manish’s house, there is a playground right across the street, real bamboo in the back yard, and the same Set card game that we have at home.  Manish cooks up incredible Indian feasts, and he and Jay each unabashedly root for the person who is not their spouse when Steve and I play nerdy word games.  Lizzy has a cherished stuffed animal that closely resembles Steve and Manish’s miniature dachshund.  The toy and the dog are both named Billy.
Last winter, we wandered the streets of Seattle, stopping in far too many coffee shops, lured in by deliciousness.  We stopped at playgrounds.  We stopped to let Billy say hello to dogs fifteen times his size, and ambitiously attempt to mark fire hydrants as his personal property.  We chatted about subjects of interest to second graders and middle-aged people, and everything in between.  Steve mentioned something about his work.  “What do you do?” Molly wanted to know.
“I’m a professor -- just like your mom.  I work at the University of Washington.  Maybe, some day, you might even come to college here.”
I grinned.  “And once in a while, on a weekend, you could get away from your dorm and go fill up on some of Manish’s cooking.”
Both kids considered this, and looked at Steve.  “But why couldn’t we just live with you?” said Molly, with the perfect sincerity of a seven-year-old.
Lizzy nodded. “Yeah.  You have a spare room.”
“Sure!” said Steve.  He and I caught each other’s gaze, laughing in that way that grownups do, sometimes.

How much do my kids understand?  Not much – and yet, maybe just the right amount. 
In the early stages of any civil rights movement, participation requires enormous bravery, and carries appalling risks.  In contrast, the final stage happens quietly, with very little fanfare.  It’s easy to miss it, really.  It begins when a whole generation of pasta-smeared little kids looks up in confusion and says, “Wait -- gay people aren’t allowed to get married?  But… why not?”
It begins when the United States Supreme Court says, in essence, the same thing.
It was 8 a.m. on October 13, 2014.  While my kids and I skipped and ambled our way to the bus stop, another piece of history was being patched and mended. Marriages were happening.  Not “gay marriages”.  My kids, years from now, won’t think in those terms, so I won’t either.  Not gay marriages, just… marriages. 
The twins already had the gist of what was going on, but I couldn’t stop myself from lecturing. “Sometimes,” I explained, “laws are not good laws.  Sometimes they don’t make sense.  Sometimes they need to be changed.  Our government is definitely not perfect.  But one of the good things about it is that when we decide that something is wrong and needs to be fixed, we can all work together to fix it.  So, we’re working on it.  And now, gay couples in Alaska can get married.”
“Finally,” said Molly. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Jay [jokingly]: “The end of the world is coming!”
Molly, aged eight [calmly spooning up another mouthful of soup]: “The end of the world has always been coming.”
I’ll admit, I love this no-nonsense take on The End Times.  I’m happy to credit my little pedant for knowing that the sun’s core is eventually scheduled to run out of hydrogen.  Nonetheless, I’d bet that (even if promised seventeen colors of Sculpey and The Swiss Army Knife with All the Things), she wouldn’t be able to guess, to within an order of magnitude, when.  
Is the sun is going to expand into a red giant and engulf the Earth ‘round about 5.4 billion years from now?  Or in a few thousand years?  Or in a few hundred, on a Tuesday afternoon?   Um…whichever.  Don’t ask Molly.  This is a child who still has trouble telling the difference between the “long ago” when many of her classmates’ ancient ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge, and the “long ago” when Ancient Mommy grew up without the Internet.  Then again, don’t ask the Average American, either. We’re not terribly good with billions.  Or even millions.  Or – let’s be honest here -- any number larger than, say, the combined total of fingers and toes possessed by all of our Facebook friends. I’d contend that most of us are more than a little lost in time – because most of us are more than a little lost in math.
Okay, granted. But is this actually a problem?  Really, when do most of us have to deal with astronomically large numbers? We don’t have annual incomes, odometer readings, bank account balances, or home values that take us past six digits.  If we’re lucky, we might enjoy, from birth to death, a grand total three billion seconds. (A few hundred of them may be wasted on this blog, but don’t worry – a billion is… a lot.) Is there any reason why (other than the fact that Nancy is clearly longing to take us on a Proselytizing Adventure in Math Nerdery) we need to haul our butts back to middle school to relearn the phrase “orders of magnitude”?
Well, yes.  For one thing, understanding honking huge numbers comes in handy when studying minor little topics such as, say, astrophysics, geology, computer science, chemistry, economics, the national debt… and, oh, pretty much everything else.  More particularly, applying this comprehension of bigness to the Grand Scale of History is pertinent with regard to two pesky topics that keep showing up in bastions of science such as Fox News online comment threads, Kansas school board meetings, and Congress.  I’m referring, of course, to the subjects of evolution and climate change.
On the evolution front, I promise not to draw dozens of cladograms and start babbling about retrotransposon markers, plesiomorphies and synapomorphies.  However, I will assert that understanding how we got from primordial soup to microwaved leftover minestrone is a heck of a lot easier if you start with a sense of proportion.  A quick primer, for those who grew up in red states:
1.      Not only were more than seven days involved in the process, but single-celled organisms were The Only Show in Town for about two-and-a-half billion years of our planet’s three-and-a-half-billion-year flirtation with life. 
2.      It then took another three-quarters of the remaining billion years before the first dinosaurs showed up (with the express purpose, of course, of leaving their bones lying around just to trick us). 
3.      Although dinosaurs were a super-recent innovation compared to blue-green algae, they nonetheless ruled the earth for almost a thousand times longer than human beings have existed -- and have been extinct for a million times the run-time of The Price Is Right.
So much for evolution.  As for climate change… Yeah, I’m one of those scientists who gets paid to study this stuff.  Therefore, I can’t possibly be trusted when I suggest that Hummer exhaust and cow farts are causing various important bits of our planet to burn, sink, desiccate, or wash into the ocean.   Meanwhile, I’ve heard head-in-the-sand climate arguments that mix orders of magnitude like smoothies in a blender. 
Yes, there was waaay more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere 200 million years ago than there is today – and even more, 500 million years ago.  Um, yeah, climate-change naysayers, that’s right.  You win.  Except that 500 million years ago, there weren’t even any plants in North America.  And, for that matter, there wasn’t any North America.  Heck, we hadn’t even gotten to Pangaea yet.  Okay, let’s simplify things.  Yes, Earth has been much hotter in the past than it is now. Yes, there has been a lot more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere in the past.  Both of these statements are true.  Both are immaterial -- because humans are not (to the nearest order of magnitude) blue-green algae.
We are, however, within one (genetic) order of magnitude, chimpanzees.  Or (hey, close enough) rhinoceri.  This, of course, amuses me immensely -- but it also pleases me mathematically. To me, being asked to express a mathematical answer to “within one order of magnitude” is positively delightful.  It appeals to my utterly lazy and vague nature.  I don’t need to know whether we’re talking about 43,896 red-backed-voles or 27,981 board-feet or 80, 001 heavily armed Klingon invaders; I just need to off-handedly scribble “n x104”. 
However, in assigning homework and tests to undergrads, I quickly noticed that while answers in the tens or hundreds usually came back unscathed, things started to get ugly in the tens of thousands, and by the time we hit the millions, it was a crapshoot. (“Now, for the grand prize of the Jacuzzi Spa AND the Home Salon, what is the dollar value of the gross domestic product of Cameroon, plus all extant Google stock?”)  On one hand, most calculations don’t require the level of precision that computers and calculators churn out. (If you are measuring your height to eight decimal places, you don’t understand that “your height” is not generally considered an atomic phenomenon.)  On the other hand, once you start losing track of where that crucial decimal point belongs, you find that you are have the bodily proportions of a Playmobil person, or the Statue of Liberty.  Those undergrads were thus subjected to irksome tirades about why understanding orders of magnitude is a Very Big Deal. The good news, as I told them, is that it’s really not that difficult a deal. 
The bad news is… well… Fox News online comment threads, Kansas School Board meetings, and Congress.  Our nation has a bit of a reputation – and, to be honest, it’s getting kind of embarrassing to constantly wear the International Dunce Hat of Mathematical Imbecility.  Do we have any hope of redeeming ourselves?
Well… maybe some. Now that Molly and Lizzy have reached the lofty academic pinnacles of third grade, their math homework is getting to be a bit more fun than that old second-grade chaff (“Rodney wants to buy a pencil for five cents and a ruler for twelve cents, because Rodney lives in an alternate 1950s universe in which pennies are still actual money.”)  The other day, I asked Molly to explain her multi-digit subtraction problem, just to make sure she really knew what she was doing.  Her answer sounded so reminiscent of the lyrics of Tom Lehrer’s classic “New Math” that I giggled with parental pride (“Don’t worry, base eight is just like base ten, really -- if you’re missing two fingers.”)
The superb teachers at University Park Elementary are clearly doing their utmost to make a bunch of snot-nosed, fidgety, four-foot-high people ready to control the stock market, program your virtual-reality holodeck, and give you a prostate exam. (Please take a moment to think about this: that person who is telling booger jokes, dressing up in a plastic Princess Elsa outfit, and accidentally Silly-Puttying the cat is going to be flying your plane or performing your quadruple bypass. Okay.  Now take a deep breath and carry on.) 
The twins have moved on from adding and subtracting tens of things (“Sally has 35 toy cars and Juan has 18 toy cars.  How many toy cars will they have after they cram 11 toy cars down the bath drain and Sally’s big sister tells on them?”) to adding and subtracting hundreds and even thousands of things (“Fairbanks Alaska is 1521 miles from Seattle.  From Seattle to JFK New York is another 2418 miles.  However, you can only fly on free miles if you go to goddamned Newark Airport instead, and take three trains.  If the TSA spend 12.3 minutes inappropriately palpating your teddy bear and the Long Island Railroad is suffering unexplained delays at Hicksville, when will you get to see Grandma and Grandpa?”) In short, they are starting to be expected to understand orders of magnitude.
In truth, I’m pretty happy about the elementary math curriculum.  Not only does it feature an ethnically diverse and unfailingly cheerful cadre of cartoon children getting excited about the relative heights of buildings and the capacities of conference rooms, it also emphasizes understanding numbers, rather than simply manipulating them.  Some problems include space for kids to write out, in painfully smudged dull pencil, answers to such stumpers as, “Is your answer similar to your estimate?” and “Explain why your answer is reasonable”.
What?  The answer has to make sense?  The pigtailed people have to be able to elucidate – in actual words – why it makes sense?  Holy subtraction, Batman.

Moreover, the kids are being offered a more holistic perspective on time, space, and history that I recall from my own elementary years.  Not only is Molly ruminating on the age of our solar system, but Lizzy is excited about the evolution of equines.  As I tucked her in a few nights ago, she asked me, “Do you know about Lascaux Cave?” 
Yes, this piece of history takes us back only 17,300 years, not anywhere near the full 200,000 spanned by Homo sapiens -- but I’m pretty sure that when I was her age, I was taught that history began in 1492, and didn’t really get going until 1776.
There are ways to teach this stuff to grownups, too.  A few years back, UAF was temporary home to a wonderful display on the history of Earth.  It was, at one level, a fairly standard collection of large, museum-quality informational boards, each one detailing some aspect of evolution.  What made the display unusual was not so much the content of any one board, but the ratio of that content, and the placement of the boards in relation to one another.  The display was a walk through time – set up to scale.  It’s amazing how much you can learn about RNA, prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and photosynthetic cyanobacteria when they are given so much elbow room to accommodate their blatant lack of elbows.
As for the college students who suffered through my courses, they were not let off the hook without a whole side-stepping foray into the world of back-of-the-envelope calculations – a subject so delightful to me that I’m going to save it for another lexical outpouring in which I will babble about Enrico Fermi, piano tuners, and the Drake Equation.  I’m sure you can’t wait.  It will include some spectacularly humongous numbers.
Trillions!  Quadrillions! Time and space don’t just require large numbers, they deserve them.  And we deserve the joy of wallowing in all those order of magnitude.  We -- even the little people among us -- deserve the thrill and the challenge of at least trying to comprehend.
Jay [still joking]: “But the end of the world imminent!”
Molly [with patronizing patience]: “I don’t think you understand what ‘the end of the world’ means.”
Neither do you, Molly… but you’re getting there. 
Yesterday, on our walk to the school bus stop, as we were admiring the almost-full moon hovering above the treetops, Molly asked me if I’d caught a glimpse of the “blood moon” the night before.  “No,” I admitted, “But my friend Otto got some amazing photos.  He’s way down in Idaho, but it’s the same moon, of course.”  Teasingly, I sang, “There is just one moon and one golden sun…
Molly looked at the moon again.  “Well, just one moon and sun that are ours,” she clarified.  “Really, there are lots.”
I had to laugh. 
That’s right, kiddo.  And I’m going to keep blathering away to you about the enormity of space, and the enormity of time.  Perhaps it’s idealistic of me, but I want you to get it.  Really get it in a way that’s impossible without wrapping your head around Big Numbers.  We are pinpoints, mere asterisks in an intergalactic-sized universe– and yet, if we turn the telescope around and look for other orders of magnitude – 10-4, 10-5, 10-6 – we are impossibly vast.  Photons!  Electrons!  Quarks!  Hadrons!  Indeed, there are so many more insanely nerdy blog posts hidden in all that delicious numerical space…
“Yup,” I agreed.  “Billions and billions.”