*Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the innocent people who could sue me.

December 31, 2011

Francincense and Myrrh

I look up from the computer when Mike pokes his head into my room. “You still here? Should be you go home by now. Everybody else go home already.”

His broom handle points at the clock as he makes his way around the clusters of desks in the room. It is 4:30pm, darker outside now than it was when I came in at 7:30am. I nod and hit print.

“Yeah, I’m leaving.”
“You take care of the rest later,” he nods. “It still be there tomorrow, you know?”

He helps me adjust the desks into rows for tomorrow’s quiz. I leave carefully arranged papers left at the front of the room – the quiz to be photocopied, a freshly-printed worksheet, and now-graded papers to hand back – I follow him out, locking the door behind me.

Tuesday is quiz day. In high school I sat at the back of the room during quizzes, grading those of the period before. Now in 8th grade I am on my feet, on the move. I answer questions from the practical to the absurd, and I open the box for those who have shut it. Again and again and again.

“Do we use all the words from the word bank?” Read the directions again. “Oh.”
“Is this the right answer?” Raised eyebrows, tilted head. “Oh.”
“I’m not taking this quiz.” Okay. Just give me the answers you know. “I don’t know any.” Oh, that’s not true. What about this one? “Ok, but just that one.” Don’t you know this one too? “Oh.”

22 students in the room, 22 different boxes I juggle. At the end of the day I stack my bag with 85 quizzes to correct, 85 worksheets to check off, and 47 minutes of teaching to plan for the next day.

Wednesday’s lesson does not go well. Half the students have not done the homework, and the worksheet doesn’t keep them engaged. I reverse and we recap. Students work on a journal question and I hastily replan. In three minutes I will need to change the homework to diffuse the growing mutiny in the room. My hope is to use those who have got it to work with those who have not. The students’ hope is to not have homework. Somewhere there is a middle ground, but the map to it requires activating student interests, providing enough footholds for them to access the material, and making it relevant to their lives. I have three minutes to draw that map, and 22 students starting to shift restlessly again at the sounds around us – the lecture in the room to the left, the movie in the room to the right, the heating fan jetting hot air into our already warm classroom.

I am at the computer again when Ronny comes in to sweep and help me rearrange the desks into tomorrow’s groupings. He pauses at the reading shelf.

“You don’t see ones like this in the classroom very often.” He is holding up Black Enterprise.
I know what he means, but I am tired. I just nod.
“Do you get these at home?”
“From a friend.”
He goes back to sweeping. “Nice to have around, anyway.”

When he leaves I move over to the shelf and stare at the haphazard pilings that the kids have tossed about, then resort them back under their various headings – animals, celebrities, news, sports, automobiles. There is no average 8th grader; there is no common sensibility among my 85 young minds. Some still dig through the piles to find National Geographic for Kids, others pick up Time to read about developments on the Afghanistan war. Others only want to know why they have to read at all.

The more I leave out for them to peruse, the more I can hope they will discover. 85 minds can cover a lot of knowledge, if enough boxes are left open. It is 4:30 again; I leave the magazines, photocopies for tomorrow, and stacks of student journals to be read in the morning.

At 5pm on Thursday Mike is back on my floor, feigning surprise when he finds me in my darkened classroom.

“Boa tarde,” I say.
“Boa noite,” he answers.
“But it’s only 5pm.”
“But is dark out now – boa noite.”
“Boa noite.”
“You getting better, you keep at it maybe someday you be good. But now you got to go home.”

Mike is originally from Portugal, and he’s helping me learn some basics so I can communicate better with students who are newly arrived from Brazil. They laugh at my accent and the limitations of my phrases, but that is ok – it is the communication under the words that counts. The bridge that laughter builds. The box that opens when I say, “Here, I would like to learn from you as well.”

Friday is a town celebration, the start of the holiday season. The kids are always antsy on Fridays, and even more so in December. I keep Fridays as writing practice, individualized and quiet. There are standardized tests in every grade level now, and beyond the on-going struggle to prepare them with content, we also have to teach them certain skills that our society has deemed important for its citizens to perform. Analytical thinking. Backing up your statement with textual evidence. Sitting at your desk and staying focused for long stretches of time.

The kids leave at 2:45 and I follow soon after, finishing attendance and parent emails and shutting down my computer at 3:30. Later I drive downtown and join the crowds on Main Street, strolling past brightly-lit displays in our still-locally owned shops and restaurants, converging at the Town Green that has been transformed for December into a maze of holiday decorations and seasonal statues.

At the Nativity scene, I am crowded off to one side, staring down the chipped, painted faces of the Three Kings. Perhaps it is my first year of teaching that draws me to them -- a representation of Wisdom meeting the Holy Youth. Perhaps it is how they embody the pathos of the Christmas spirit as they lay the best they have to offer at the feet of him who seemed to deserve it the least. Perhaps it is because no one else cares to notice them. The contemplative Mary will soon pop up at the Dunkin Donuts drive-through window, Joseph will be standing on top of the slide at the school playground, baby Jesus will be found lying in his bed on the police station lawn. The Three Kings will stand here in the hay until New Year’s Eve, staring at the empty spots of the Holy Family and waiting, patiently, for their return.

Sunday night I finish grading and then review and revise the week’s plans. I lay out four folders of graded essays to return. Packets of work to be photocopied. Magazines and young adult novels to add to the reading shelf. Art books to keep in the reference section for research projects. Cards for the games we will play to learn grammatical rules, vocabulary roots, and how to embed textual citations. I turn off the light and go to bed, my frankincense and myrrh laid out on the table waiting for me and the morning and a new week of school.

How to Become a Teacher While Living in Alaska, in 39 Steps

Step 1: Move to Alaska.

Step 2: Find the school district office and pick up a packet of forms. Attempt to submit name for orientation training; instead, submit name to be notified for when next orientation is scheduled.

Step 3: Fill out I-9 and W-4.

Step 4: Find health records and begin to fill out health questionnaire. Call sister for help matching up vaccination records (DTP, MMR) with disease names (Diptheria, Smallpox, Typhoid, Polio, Tetanus).

Step 5: Discover you were never vaccinated against Smallpox or Typhoid.

Step 6: Check up on the forms for individual health insurance you filed the month before. Begin searching for a walk-in clinic that will fill out your physical/emotional evaluation and, possibly, vaccinate you against diseases you previously thought eradicated from American society.

Step 7: Almost sign the “Oath of Office” form without reading. Upon closer examination, decide to read the Constitution of the State of Alaska before solemnly swearing (or affirming) to support and defend it.

Step 8: Search online for the Alaskan Constitution. Download instead a 255 page “Citizens Guide to the Constitution.”

Step 9: Move on to something else.

Step 10: Begin online application by registering on school district website.

Step 11: Cut and paste name and address from resume into #1 (personal info) and #2 (postal information). Read through vacancies and available positions. Decide that you do not want to apply for the principal, coach, or lifeguard positions. Select “substitute teacher/general.” (Under positions desired, select ELA and confess to having student teaching experience only. Hesitatingly select Theater technician, and admit to having 10 years of experience.)

Step 12: Cut and paste experience and reference sections of resume into #5: experience. Realize with dismay that trading theater for teaching has so far resulted in an 80% pay cut.

Step 13: Cut and paste education section of resume to #8: education. Realize you have no idea what “number of semester hours in major area” even means.

Step 13.5: Email friends from undergrad for help.

Step 14: Save application, and go to undergraduate/graduate school websites to order transcripts.

Step 15: Return to application.

Step 16: Fail to find the MTEL Communication and Literacy test under the drop-down list for #11: Have you completed a Basic Competency Exam? Answer yes anyway, and list it as “other.”

Step 17: Make copy of score results to add to HR packet.

Step 18: Discover, with dismay, that you only meet two of the three the “Highly Qualified” federal standards:
a. Hold a minimum of a Bachelors degree from an Accredited University
b. Hold a current, active, teaching certificate in the state in which you teach
c. Have passed a state-based subject/content area test in the subject(s) in which you teach.
... because your MA teaching certificate, while current, was not activated while teaching as a permanent substitute in Massachusetts during the past year.

Step 19: Describe the skills or attributes necessary for being an outstanding teacher.

Step 20: Describe how to address a wide range of skills in the classroom.

Step 21: Beat head against the wall.

Step 22: Contact three professional references to advise them that an online survey will be heading their way.

Step 23: Read #25: Geographical preference. Call boyfriend to ask what “Small Schools/Fly-in” and “Russian Schools” means.

Step 24: Sign in agreement that the Borough School District may seek to obtain background information on me from third parties, financial sources, employees, State Troopers, and the FBI. Also agree to pay any fees this may incur.

Step 25: Call local non-profit clinic for general physical and discover that the (discounted) cost for the physical is $126.

Step 26: Complete physical: determine emotional stability, accurately hear a word whispered from across the room to prove physical health, pee into a cup to rule out diabetes.

Step 27: Call school nurse to schedule free TB test.

Step 28: Find high school, have TB test shot.

Step 29: Return three days later to have TB test read. (Result: negative.)

Step 30: Spend several hours on the phone trying to track down MA certificate of licensure (first discovering original was lost in the mail 1.5 years ago).

Step 31: Bring packet of documents back to Borough office (W-4, I-9, Health Questionnaire, Physical Examination form, Oath of Office, Cover Letter, Resume, Transcripts, Copy of certificate, copy of MTEL results).

Step 32: Receive phone call about a full-time position opening up in hometown in Massachusetts.

Step 33: Sigh.

Step 34: Attend one-day substitute training seminar to talk about models of education, discipline and classroom management, and why it is inappropriate to hit the children.

Step 35: Narrowly avoid gouging own eyes out with the plastic forks supplied at the lunch break.

Step 36: Begin studying for Praxis exams, to replace rejected MTEL results.

Step 37: Take 4.5 hour Praxis test.

Step 38: Learn from boyfriend that he intends to apply for PhD programs in Texas.

Step 39: Buy a plane ticket home.

A Jacket for Heaven

I am warned well before Heaven arrives.

“Repeat,” another English teacher nods. I am headed to obligatory pre-teacher training, as though anyone could take sixty minutes to prepare me for one hundred forty days covering another’s classes. “Julie had her. It was a hard year.”

“Troubled home life,” announces our guidance counselor at the first team meeting. “She spent most of last year in the halls, when she wasn’t in detention.”

I file this away with other tidbits – students with learning disabilities, students with older siblings, students with long hair or green eyes or one leg longer than the other – whatever turns this list of eighty names into individual people. So that I may know them; teach them, guide them, fret on them, and three months later, give them back.

Heaven walks in as I announce that yes, I am covering Mrs. Rivers’ classes for the first semester. I send her to the office for a late pass, internally cringing in expectation of the angry outburst to come. But Heaven only blinks, shrugs, and walks back out. I am all the more relieved when she returns, purple slip in her outstretched hand.

I want to tell her, “I had to let you know I will be an adult in your life who keeps to the rules.” I want to tell her, “Actually, I don’t care if you are late to homeroom.” I want to tell her, “This will be a safe space for you.” But I nod, and take the note. She shrugs and takes her seat.

In the questionnaire I make them complete (“What name do you prefer?” “What language(s) is/are spoken in your home?” “Name one person you respect.”) Heaven writes:
Two years ago on May 28th, 2008 my brother John Arthur Nunez died. He was only a little older than me. It was the worst day of my life and I really, really miss him every day. So, I guess that’s something you should know.

This explains the tee shirt, a young man’s silhouette and the letters R.I.P. partially obscured by her dark braided hair. This explains the dreams I overhear her describing to her friends, dreams where “Johnny is there, but he just stands and says nothing.” This explains why last year she might have been focused on something other than her English grade.

In October I sit with my department head, discussing students with problems and my responsive pedagogical maneuverings. “No, no counseling,” she says, to the question of Heaven. “Her parents wouldn’t allow.” She pauses, then asks, “Well, how is she doing, for you?”

I want to tell her, “She gets a lot of work done in detention; it’s quiet, and she feels safe.” I want to tell her, “She spends more time helping struggling students than doing her work.” I want to tell her, “She’s nice to the teachers she respects.” But I am new, and young. So I just nod. “She always participates in class,” I say, “the days when she shows up.”

As winter approaches our team counselor warns us that Heaven’s family has moved to another temporary home. “On the upside,” she adds as the bell signals an end to our prep period and reminds us of the students waiting outside our doors, as eager at this point in the semester to see us as we are to see them, “her mom was given some money to buy jackets.”

Friday we are in the library, ostensibly doing research. I circle, reminding students that a blog is not necessarily a factual source, that their brainstorms are due at the end of the period, that solitaire is not an appropriate use of their time. Over Heaven’s shoulder I see an article on new regulations hindering local fishermen. Her father works on a boat, she told me once. I notice that her arms are pulled through her sweatshirt sleeves.

“Is that new?” I ask.

“Yeah. Feel it, Ms. Gettlin!” She turns, one arm proudly outstretched. “It’s so soft!”

I touch it, nod. She grins again.

“But Heaven,” I add, “It’s awfully thin. Aren’t you cold?”

She shrugs, grin faded, and turns back to her computer, arms tightly recrossed against her chest.

In December I warn the students that Mrs. Rivera is coming back. They want to know if she will make them do all those self-reflections – probably not. They want to know if she is nice – if you do your homework. They want to know where I am going – Alaska. They want to know why – I have friends there, and I can find more work. They want to know if it is cold, if I will see bears, if I will have to shoot a gun. Yes, probably, and I hope not but imagine so.

The team throws a party for me and lures the students to the cafeteria with the promise of cake. I want to tell them, “I have tried to prepare you for the inequalities of life.” I want to tell them, “I have tried to teach you to seize your education for yourself.” I want to tell them, “I have to give you back now, but I will carry you with me always.”

Instead I mention each by name and the things they have taught me. Then we eat cake. As I circle, I notice Heaven’s tears. I nod to her, put my hand on her shoulder. She does not shrug me off.

That weekend I go shopping. Monday morning I swing by before the buses arrive, not wanting to ruin the seal of separation that our good-bye cake-eating has forged.
I wanted to tell her, “Life shouldn’t have been this hard for you.” I wanted to tell her, “There are others who can help you, if you let them.” I wanted to tell her, “I can’t go to Alaska and know you’re cold back home.”

This is for you, I write instead. Stay warm this winter.

“Heaven left this in my classroom last week,” I lie to the secretary in the main office. “Can you make sure she gets it?” She nods. I shrug, tuck my scribbled note into the bag, and leave the school.

August 20, 2011

Monastery-Gram #3 - the hermitage

Dear all,

Here is the answer to the question, "Ok, but what exactly does a hermitage look like, anyway?"

(Short answer: it's a cabin.)

It's so basic a small cottage - bedroom, common area, kitchenette, bathroom - that photos of the over-all room came out kind of boring. Really, I use the hermitage for sleeping, showering, and reading (or whatever else it is you do when the midday heat just makes it too impossible to be out in the garden).

And as for my sister's follow-up question, "Ok, but why do you call it a hermitage, then?" I can only answer that localized terminology isn't unique to the religious life. Why is a kitchen on a ship not a kitchen but a galley, a scored point is a run in baseball but a goal in hockey, and the job I'll be starting next week is called "8th grade teacher" instead of "surrogate-parent-and-counselor"?

Much love,

August 19, 2011

Monastery-Gram #2 - the work

Dear all,

Sorry. I meant to get these up earlier, but ... (*see previous post, "there is a lot of work to do on a farm.")

It's something of a fallow year for the farm, but even the minimal rows are a never-ending mobius strip of weeding, watering, and weeding (again).

Oh, and chasing the turkeys out of the rows. That happens a lot too.

Lots of harvesting, sometimes even at the right time.

Who says zucchinis don't grow on trees?

The porch off the chapel has become the default spot for hanging things to dry. Oregano, tarragon, thyme, mint, and shallots, plus a lot of garlic (in close proximity to a lot of crosses and holy water = perfect place to ride out any imminent vampire attacks).

The house flower gardens need their share of love and attention. (Which, quite frankly, they don't always get. You know how I am about flowers.)

The ladies get checked a few times a day - water, feed, and eggs. (And sometimes I feed them the contents of the beetle trap. Which is probably the most exciting thing that's happened to them, ever. Each and every time.)

The babies are starting to figure this laying-thing out!

Though some of the details remain to be worked out. Three hens to a box might be a bit much, ladies.

What I don't have pictures of include helping to cook meals for 18 people (3-5 brothers, 1-2 interns, and assorted guests), doing basic upkeep of grounds and buildings, dodging the garter snakes that live in the main house gardens, moving irrigation hoses around, stripping poison ivy off rock walls (carefully, but unfortunately not carefully enough), mowing and weed-whacking, and spraying rows with biological pest-control to remove the leaf-miners, hornworms, potato bugs, lily beetles, and all kinds of other non-approved garden guests. Oh, and bees! (Those are approved guests.) I don't have any pictures of that because today's my first day helping with the bees. And let's be honest, I think I'm going to be a little bit too preoccupied with staying calm to take any pictures of it. But never fear, there are photos of other fascinating events to come ...

Stay tuned for next installment in the run-away-hit grams-blog play series: "How to Harvest a Rooster: A Play in Three Acts."

Much love,

August 4, 2011

Monastery-Gram #1 - the morning

Dear all,

Considering that:

a) there has been some interest, and much confusion, as to what exactly I'm doing as an intern at a monastic farm, and
b) I have not been visiting people much, owing more to the "intern" part than the "monastic" part, and
c) many of my friends and family do not have the ability to tease me - I mean, question me -- via facebook,

momentarily resurrecting the grams-blog seemed like a good idea. Some of these photos were taken in June, some in July, and a few in these early weeks of August. Except for the growth-and-development of the farm's flora and fauna, it doesn't really matter which photo was taken when. I've just sort of pieced it all together to look like one typical day on which I carried my camera around and never actually gotten any work done.**

Which would have been a bad idea because -- and if no one has ever told you this, let me be the first to explicitly state -- there is a lot of work. to do. on a farm.

(**Actually, there were so many photos that I split it up into a couple of posts. So here you have the morning: 5am-9am.)

The view out the front door of the hermitage, first thing in the morning.

Actually, this is really the first thing I see in the morning - our flock of wild turkeys, over 40 strong (7 adults and 30+ babies) pecking, rustling, and coo-ing their way past my windows. What do you call the noise a turkey makes? Cooing? Cackling? Clucking? Whatever. It's annoying, is what it is. (At 5 o'clock in the morning.)

The best commute I will ever enjoy.

Good morning, St. Francis.

Good morning, Duke.

Good morning, coffee.

I often bake in the mornings, but not usually bread for the Eucharist. That was just this once. (And I accidentally doubled the salt, so I probably won't get asked to bake it again.)

We have breakfast on our own, then do dinner (noontime) and supper (evening) together.

When guests are here, chapel services are 4 times a day. When guests are not here, we have chapel three times a day ... um, usually. (Sometimes only twice.)

After morning prayer and breakfast, the brothers have their chapter office, and then I join them for "rounds," to discuss the day's activities.

And then the work begins ...

Except that it doesn't really feel like "work." (Except for maybe the part where it takes me about twenty pulls to get the mower going.) At the end of the day I feel tired, yes, but also calm, and content, and sated. And very, very lucky to have this time, with this community, and in this place.

Much love, and more soon -

May 30, 2011

Day 150

Dear all,

As a last-day goodbye, I've made a list of the ten most Alaskan things I've learned in my few months here. In order of preference (1 being my most favorite, and 10 being by far my least), they are:

1. how to chop wood

2. how to camp in the backcountry

3. how to brew beer

4. how to hike a glacier

5. how to run a plowtruck

6. how to use a chainsaw
[never got a photo of this one ... sorry]

7. how to go ice fishing

8. how to exist without daylight

9. how to exist without darkness

10. how to shoot a gun

Much love,

April 18, 2011

Day 108

Dear all,

It’s amazing how warm 40 degrees can feel. We’ve had a beautiful weekend: sun shining, snow (mostly) melted, soft wind blowing, bears (mostly) unseen.

A friend was preaching at a nearby (1 hour drive) church this weekend, so together with some friends we spent Sunday morning there. No liturgy, no Eucharist, no ordained minister – it was certainly unlike any church service I had as yet attended. But the families were friendly, if somewhat populous, and the sermon was impressive in the ease and familiarity of its delivery. I may have had some (ok, many) disagreements about the content, but the service itself was good to observe, and wonderful to share with friends.

After church we climbed back into the truck and ate some leftover homemade pizza as we drove to the shooting range, from whence will arrive the forthcoming “How to Shoot a Gun: A Play in Three Acts.” Suffice it to say, for now, that I did in fact learn how to shoot a .12 gauge shotgun and a .45 pistol. My skills are enough that if we’re hiking in the woods and something happens to the primary gun carrier, I will be able to load and shoot at the oncoming bear or whathaveyou -- assuming it wasn’t approaching at a dead run. I probably won’t hit it with any kind of accuracy, but I could scare it away. The point, anyway, is that I’m more comfortable around a gun than I was before.

After the shooting range, the boys stayed outside to clean the guns and we headed inside to begin prepping for today’s Seder. After so much unfamiliarity it was a welcome comfort to take a pile of apples, a handful of nuts, and a dash of red wine and produce a charoset just like the kind I’ve always known. Some friends have been kind enough to host the meal, and I’ve put together a Hagaddah and all the symbolic elements, so tonight we will be one Jew and 12 Christians around the Passover table -- the numeric symbolism of which is both unplanned, and hilarious.

It remains to be seen just how tonight will go, but it was good this weekend to find a balance between the new and the age-old, the unknown and the familiar. Paradoxical sentiments are, at least in part, what tonight’s celebration is about: freedom and slavery, journey and arrival, old and new. Ours is meant to be a living faith: rooted in the past and thus able to embrace the present. Chag sameach – happy Passover!

Much love,

April 6, 2011

Day 96

Dear all,

"Break-up" is Alaskan for what other people call "spring" (and New Englanders call "mud season"). I call it the “I can’t get to sleep anymore because the sun doesn’t even start to go down until 9pm and where the heck did all this daylight even come from anyway” season. The snow is still falling lightly, the boyfriend remains clean-shaven, and the (pre-Pevensie) Narnian layer of snow and ice covering everything is starting to break-up. New features of the landscape begin to emerge: people's yards, lines telling you where the road actually starts, bears ...

We think the bears are awake because a few dogs have gone missing from the neighborhood (sorry, but it’s true). If/when I actually see them, I want to know how to shoot a gun. I don’t plan on carrying it – that’s the boyfriend’s job – but I do want to know how to use it. You know, just in case the bear gets to him first. So for the moment, all outdoors adventuring has been put on hold until I can bring to you the second part of the Alaska-grams Playwriting Series, this one to be titled: “How to Shoot a Gun: A Play in (hopefully no more than) Three Acts.” In the meantime, we’ve been playing a lot of Monopoly. And while it will come as no surprise to anyone that I make a horrible capitalist, I was pleased to discover that I do sort of enjoy playing the game.

In keeping with my “A” series (Austen and Achebe already under the belt), I’m reading Jane Addams’ “Twenty Years at Hull House.” I picked it up because the blurb on the back bore a strong resemblance to “The Long Loneliness,” an autobiography by Dorothy Day that I have read many, many times. I haven’t actually gotten to the part yet where she moves to Chicago, founds Hull House, and changes the pattern of American engagement with the working class, but I have been struck by her discussion of the “snare of preparation” that Tolstoy claimed both engaged and ruined our young adulthood. In the very years when we are best suited to go out and actually do, we find ourselves caught instead in “curious inactivity.” (And let’s not pretend that playing Monopoly counts, either.)

Last weekend we did go out – way out – to the northern end of the peninsula where friends’ family has a homestead, and a sauna. This was not a “sahna,” fyi. That’s the sissy kind of steam bath. This was the Finnish word, which I can’t reproduce for you here because I honestly wasn’t too preoccupied with pronunciation while I was sitting in the 200 degree temperature. The family chose and settled on this homestead a long while ago – long for Alaska being anytime fifty years ago, of course – and now much of the family has portioned off land and built their own houses around the lake. The main road out holds their last name – for privacy’s sake, let’s call it “Doe Trail.” The smaller roads carry first names: Sue’s Lane, Jack’s Drive. So Mary Doe lives, basically, at the intersection of Mary and Doe. There’s only one sauna, though – and that’s where everyone congregated at noon on Sunday, to sit and sweat and catch up. Being half-naked and sweaty is the best way to really bond with your family, I think. And it was fun, even if I skipped the part where you emerge from the sauna, skin steaming and face red, and walk through the snow down to the lake where a garden hose neatly transfers water through a hole in the ice and onto you. I opted for the slightly less abrupt “sit outside in your bathing suit and slowly lose all your body heat until you are cold and want to go back into the sauna.” Maybe next time.

In the meantime, I continue to search for a job that doesn’t involve making other people coffee, to contemplate both the strength of the familial unit and the snare of preparation, and to look around -- very carefully -- before I walk out of the house.

Much love to you all,

March 30, 2011

Day 89

Dear all,

A few weekends ago I went fishing for the first time: I caught my first fish, reeled in my first fish, brought home my first fish, cleaned and gutted my first fish, chopped up and breaded my first fish, fried my first fish, and ate my first fish. (There's one crucial step missing here - did you spot it?) I have summarized the experience as ...

How to Catch a Fish: A Play in 3 Acts.

Act I
Scene 1:
Interior. Apartment. (Boy) and (Girl) putting on several layers of woolen clothes.
Girl: I’ve never been fishing before.
Boy: You’re going to like it.
Girl: You do remember my fear of dying on open water?
Boy: This water is frozen.
Girl: Even better. How many inches thick does it have to be so we don’t fall in again?

Scene 2:
Exterior. Side of Lake.
Girl: That sign says “Thin Ice.”
Boy: Did you notice it’s bolted down? That sign is always there. Right next to the “No Swimming” one.
Girl: So if we fall through, we could get arrested for swimming?
Boy: I’m walking out on the lake now. Join me when you’re ready.

Act II: Exterior. On the Lake.
Scene 1:
Girl: I’m mildly reassured by the tire tracks out here.
Boy: Those are airplane tracks.
Girl: Even better.

Scene 2:
Girl: Can I take a turn drilling?
Boy: Sure.
Girl: How many inches did it say we needed before it was safe to walk on?
Boy: Three.
Girl: How far down have you gone so far?
Boy: About eighteen.

Scene 3:
Boy: Hold the line steady and I’ll put the bait on.
Girl: What is the bait?
Boy: Salmon eggs. Painted in glitter.
Girl: If we wanted salmon, would we use trout eggs?
Boy: Lower the line down into the water.
Girl: Here, fishy fishy fishy …

Scene 4:
Girl: Now what?
Boy: You wait for a nibble.
Girl: What does that feel like?
Boy: Like something is pulling slightly at the line.
Girl: Oh. (pause) That’s already happened a few times.

Scene 5:
Boy: Ok, hold the line steady. I’m putting the bait on again.
Girl: Here, fishy fishy fishy.

Scene 6:
Girl: Ooh! A nibble!
Boy: Ok, set the line.
Girl: What’s that mean?
Boy: Jerk your arm upward slightly and quickly to set the hook in the fish’s mouth.
Girl: (throws arm over head) Like this?
Boy: I think that might have overdone it.

Scene 7:
Boy: Reel it in! Reel it in!
Girl: How? What? Where?
Boy: (grabs line at end of pole and pulls fish up hand over hand)
Girl: I think the line is frozen in the reel.

Scene 8:
Girl: It’s a fish! And it’s … flopping madly on the ice. Now what?
Boy: Now you bonk it.
Girl: Oh. With what?
Boy: With … oh, we forgot to bring a bonker.

Scene 9:
Boy: Wow … you really got this hook caught in his mouth.

Scene 10:
Girl: Now what?
Boy: Just lay the fish over there. No, lay it flat.
Girl: Ok. Now what?
Boy: Now we do it again.
Girl: I think it’s your turn. (pause) I'll do the singing part. Here, fishy fishy fishy …

Act III: Interior. Apartment.
Scene 1
Boy: Take one of the fish out of the sink.
Girl: They’re so slippery … and slimy … how are you supposed to hold them?
Boy: And insert the knife at the anus, and slit upwards.
Girl: Why does eating meat always require some kind of involvement with animal butts?

Scene 2:
Girl: Akh!
Boy: What?
Girl: It jumped when I started cutting it up.
Boy: It’s just spinal reflex. Cut off the head.
Girl: Akh! It jumped again.
Boy: Did you get the head off?
Girl: Now I have, yes. (keeps cutting) Akh! (pause) You can finish this one up.

Scene 3:
Boy: How does it taste?
Girl: Delicious. And a little fishy.

[first bite]

The end.

ps - The missing step? I was not the one who actually KILLED my first fish. Next time.

March 25, 2011

Day 84

Dear all,

March, it turns out, gets pretty boring after the Iditarod ends. It’s officially spring now (happy Spring!), a change which brought about 12.5 hours of daily sunlight (even more, if you count dawn to dusk), a full super moon (closest moon to the Earth for the past 20 or something years), and a clean shaven boyfriend (after he muttered something about “seasonal facial hair” and disappeared into the bathroom for thirty minutes).

[Hey! You with the two legs! Will you pet me?]

I’m sure you’ve all been eagerly awaiting my next Idita-gram. Or perhaps you took matters into your own hands and spent some quality time on the Iditarod site or the Alaska Daily News site. If so, you already know all about how this was a sensational Iditarod, with an unprecedented top lead pack of ten-fifteen mushers sticking close together well into the long second-half stretch up the Yukon River, ending in a last-day sprint between the two veteran but never-champions: John Baker, an Inupiaq Alaskan native from Kotzebue and Ramey Smyth, son of veterans Bud Symth and Lolly Medley and brother to Cim Smyth (who placed 21st this year). Baker won, followed one hour later by Smyth.

But you already knew that. (Or you do now, anyway.) I put more highlights as a postscript, just in case you’re already thinking, “Good Heavens, child, enough about the Iditarod already!”

[Ok, I know you meant to walk on by, but I am SO EXCITED THAT YOU MIGHT PET ME that I think I will try to jump through this fence.]

In the meantime, here’s a quick recap of other end-of-winter (ha) events that happened around here:

We attended the Miners’ and Trappers’ Ball as part of the closing events of the annual Fur Rondy week-long celebration. I’ve now seen the word a million times and it still drives me crazy that they abbreviated “Rendezvous” with a “y.” But other than that, the events of that closing weekend were pretty fun. (Well, ok, the “Running of the Reindeer” was pretty stupid – a bunch of very cold, costumed college-age kids running behind some very bored, very tame reindeer. And reindeer aren’t even native to Alaska – that would be caribou, folks.)

Chester did enter one of the beard and moustache competitions, but believe me when I tell you that he wasn’t even close in length or style to some of the other beards we saw there (and don’t even get me started on the moustaches). We did go in costume, him as a 1930s railroad man (hooray! A use for his Christmas-present sweater vest, and I didn’t even have to lengthen it!) and me as, I guess, a 1930s school teacher. Yes, I wore one of my regular dresses and just did my hair differently. Thanks for asking.

[You bipeds hold no further interest for me.]

We also bottled up our beer, which I’ll report more on once it’s not too green to try. (St. Patty’s day notwithstanding, I mean figuratively green, as in, “new.”) And we were lucky enough to stop by the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage just as a small bush plane arrived with a load of dropped dogs from the trail. We were allowed to pet them, which they (the dogs) loved – until someone came around with food. Then they weren’t interested in us anymore.

And … we went ice fishing! But more on that next time.

Much love.

PS: The Idita-gram addendum

Allen Moore earned this year’s Sportsmanship award for his life-saving halt to rescue another (hypothermic and semi-conscious) musher. He got her walking again, hitched her dogs to his sled, and took her in to the next checkpoint. And then he went on to finish the race, still in the top 30.

Rick Swenson won the Most Inspirational award (voted on by his fellow mushers) after he broke his collarbone during one of the first few legs of the trip but decided to carry on regardless. He’s 61.

Dee Dee Jonrowe (my favorite) finished in 12th place, even after first losing the trail and then later spending time with caught beneath the weight of her flipped sled. Her GPS also stopped working after she (and her sled) fell into some freezing-cold river overflow – it was hard to tell from the brief checkpoint updates whether this was also when she was trapped, or not.

(If you think these highlights from her run are abnormal, check out this somewhat-melodramaticly-soundtracked video from the official site.)

Six of the other top thirty finishers women as well, and if you look at this year’s Junior Iditarod mushers, more than half the finishers there were female. That's a lot of female mushers about to come up through the ranks. Perhaps it actually is as they say, “Alaska: where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”

Here’s one more thing else they say about the Iditarod:

In 1978 there was a similar, though much, much closer, sprint to the finish. Dick Mackey (father of current crowd-favorite Lance Mackey) and Rick Swenson (yes, he of this year’s broken collarbone) were within seconds of each other coming down the finish chute in Nome. Both men were exhausted, overheated, and running alongside their dogs (to lighten the weight of the sled). Mackey’s lead dog crossed the finish line first, and then Mackey collapsed. Swenson’s lead dog crossed just one second after Mackey’s, but his whole team made it across first. So, who won?

The race marshal in charge of making the decision hemmed, hawed, and finally came up with this official statement: “Well, they don’t take pictures of a horse’s ass.” And so the championship went to Dick Mackey.

And for those of you who were wondering why I didn’t drive to see the finish at Nome, it wasn’t because it would be a road of over 1,000 miles. It’s because there is no road to Nome. (Yet.)

March 11, 2011

Day 9

Of the Iditarod, of course ... should I be counting anything else?

Dear all,

Um, thank you all for the concern, but as far as tsunamis go, I’m doing just fine.

Mild-to-moderate obsession with a certain ongoing dog sled race, however, is becoming a slight problem. That said, I will try to keep my new-found passion in check, avoid boring you to death with a myriad of details about drop bags and checkpoints and booties (of the dog-paw kind, thank you very much).

You say “I,” I say “ditarod!” Ready? Ok. Here we go!

These pictures are from the ceremonial start last Saturday in Anchorage. In Anchorage, the mushers take riders -- ok, they're called "Iditariders" -- as a way of raising money for the race. And behind them, either directly on their sled or on a second sled, they have their handler ride along. Not entirely sure why, maybe just so this person gets some credit too. They go just outside of town, to the airstrip, and then the race restarts, with officiality and timing and all that fun, the next day in a town called Willow. Once the mushers leave Willow, it’s roughly 1100 miles to Nome – all dog sleds, all the way.

I starting taking photos up at the actual starting line: the photo above is before anything had started, when the mushers were lined up along the road waiting for their turn. This is Dee Dee Jonrowe's team, though you can't see her in the photo (the parked car was in the way). She's a crowd favorite: in her 50s, a breast cancer survivor, and a perenial top-twenty finisher since she started running the Iditarod in 1980. She's even placed second several times - but has yet to win outright. She wears a bright pink parka on the trail. I'm rooting for her to win ... and after getting lost on part of the trail early on, she's now recooped time and is back up in the top ten. As they like to say around here, GO DEE DEE!

You may have noticed that there is more than one handler assigned to her team. If you look closely, you can see why. No? How about in this photo ...

I believe this is Ray Redington, Jr's team, lined up just behind Dee Dee's. His dogs, like all the others, were just jumping at the chance to start running. Some of the teams had one handler per dog, just trying to hold them down until it was their turn to start. These dogs were ready to run ...

Ray Redington, Jr's grandfather (Ray Redington, Sr) is the "father of the Iditarod." Wait, you say, what about Balto? Yes, I know ... we've all heard the Balto story (um, especially those of us who have ever lived with my little brother), and that the Iditarod race was creating to honor that serum run to Nome in 1925. It's true that the 1925 serum run was an amazing feat, and that it took place on the Iditarod trail, which was used as by mail-and-freight mushers during the Gold Rush and ensuing heyday of sled dog travel, and which had been used for untold years earlier by Alaskan natives. Portions of the trail are still used today for snow mobile traffic between villages, but large parts of it are maintained only for the yearly race traffic.

[This year the Iditarod had upwards of 60 mushers, most from Alaska or Canada -- but there's always Newton Marshall, the musher from Jamaica!]

Dorothy G. Page was the "mother of the Iditarod" and it was her work in the 1960s, along with Redington, that led to the first full "Iditarod" race in 1973. Their intent was to honor and preserve the memory of the great Alaskan mushing tradition, of which the 1925 serum run was one of the last great feats. Balto (and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen) did lead the team that made the last leg of the journey to Nome, but around here it is Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo who are considered the real heroes of that event. In fact, Seppala was the ceremonial starting musher at the first few Iditarod races, and Togo's body is now taxidermically displayed at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla (where the race used to restart, until it got moved to Willow). [Also an unsung hero of the "Great Mercy Race": Emily Morgan, the nurse who braved the same horrible conditions as the mushers to deliver the vaccination, on foot, to her patients.]

People line the streets (and parking garages) of Anchorage to watch the start - I saw roughly half of the mushers start at two minute intervals. I started walking away from the start line in order to get a better view, and ended up at the corner of 4th Ave and Cordova, where the group of professional photographers were staked out - if you saw shots in any of the major non-Alaskan newspapers, they probably came from this stretch. This was also the spot where at least one team took the corner too tightly and dumped the handler-rider into the snow. And here, the trail guard told us, a musher who had a camera man riding with him got distracted, forgot to tell his dogs to turn at this corner and ... they headed right over the berm (that's Alaskan for "large pile of snow pushed out of the way"). These dogs really will just run ... and run ...

The trail guard is there to make sure nothing gets in the way of the mushers -- people, rocks, photographers, dog booties, and so on. Our trail guard also had a listing of the mushers and would give us a heads up on who was coming through. The system worked as a kind of relay - she'd get the signal from around the corner, shout "dog team coming!" and wave her arms so the next trail guard down the line could relay the message. Then the people with rakes and shovels cleared out, the people on the side lines got excited ...

... and the dog team was come and gone in seconds. I'm not sure I can try to describe it - it was simply an incredible thing to watch. [There are some videos up on the official Iditarod site , complete with melodramatic soundtrack if you want to try and get a feel for it.] After the team passed through the guards were back on the trail, raking it clean for the next team. The most excited the crowd got was for #17, Lance Mackey, reigning champ and record-holder for four consecutive wins.

For some reason, his dogs lost a ton of booties on the corner, and it was a mad scramble from the crowd to get one -- anything Lance Mackey being somewhat sacred in these parts. He's kind of like Tom Brady - only without the money, and with a good deal more regular-guy-charm-and-humor .

So, the dogs are off and running, the mushers are on their way to Nome, and - after a somewhat unheard-of lead pack of about ten in the running all the way up the Yukon River - one of the two in the lead will pull into Nome sometime in the early afternoon tomorrow. And then, perhaps, finally, I will be able to get something productive done ...

Much love,