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

February 22, 2011

Day 53

Day 53

Dear all,

Still working on the computer back-up, so better photos will come next week. In the meantime, I’ll just fill you in on the boring, indoor stuff. Like the fact that after this weekend I can supplant REI from the top of my “most dangerous places in Alaska” list (a book fell on my head). No, it wasn’t the “Xtreme Tubing” or “icy mountain hiking” or “Liz learns to chop wood with an axe”– though I promise photos of all that soon enough.

Yes, that’s right, second-hand stores in Alaska are as-of-yet unmined sources for two of my most favorite things on which to spend money: old records and old sewing patterns. Unlike the East Coast, where these things have become hip, here they seem to be still sitting, unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. Just waiting for me to take them home.

Actually, the records were somewhat appreciated because they ran about $2 each. The patterns, however, were 25 cents. I don’t even know how to do the “cents” sign on the keyboard, that’s how infrequently we ever see anything that costs that little anymore. Anyway, the downside of this price is that I can afford to indulge my love for the ridiculous:

[I thought the sailor outfit was my favorite of the bunch, until I saw the one marked "wrong." Would that we were all as discerning, and succinct, with our fashion.]

In keeping with last week’s missive on communication, I’d just like to leave you with two different conversations I had this week (plus some photos of the ongoing Great Chicken Endeavor of 2011 – a Martha Stewart recipe for rosemary chicken with roasted potatoes). The first conversation demonstrates my sense of alienation in being here. The second demonstrates a sense of isolated alienation that comes with living here. Overall, it's a sense of (at best) floating between two different worlds or (at worst) being caught in the middle. In writing down neither conversation do I intend to pass judgment on the people who said these things. It’s just to demonstrate that it’s never so easy as I fit in or I don’t. It would be easier, perhaps, if cultures, identities, and communication were as cut and dry as that, but they aren’t – they’re more like magnets, I think. Sometimes we pull someone or something in, and sometimes we push them away. Hence the need for communication – and our willingness to engage in it even when it is difficult, discouraging, or dismissive.

[Dance, chicken, dance! Show me that breast!]

Conversation One: at work
Girl: Oh, so you’re Jewish?
Me: Yep.
Girl: So, where do you go to church on Sundays?
Me: Well, I don’t. There’s a synagogue in Anchorage that I could go to but it’s too far to drive on Friday nights, so … right now I don’t go to services anywhere.
Girl: Oh. So … you don’t have a church that you can go to at all, huh?

[Bake, chicken, bake!]

Conversation Two: when I accidentally answered the phone as a CDC worker called, then thought the ensuing survey so funny that I actually answered the whole thing. Here’s just the end of it:
Worker: Ok, so we’re down to the last few questions. I have here a long list of physical activities. Can you tell me what physical activity, outside of work, you engage in the most in your daily life?
Me: Hiking, probably.
Worker: Okay, so … is that like “walking?”
Me: No. It’s more like “climbing a mountain.”
Worker: (pause) “Cross-country?”
Me: Sure.
Worker: And, the second most frequent activity?
Me: (after assuming they won’t have “wood chopping” on the list) … ice-skating.
Worker: Do you mean “skating – ice?”
Me: Yes.
Worker: Ok, now the last question. How safe do you feel in your neighborhood?
Me: In what sense?
Worker: I guess, would you feel safe going for a walk?
Me: What, besides it being negative 5 degrees today?
Worker: Um, yes. I think we’re asking about your neighbors, the other people in your neighborhood.
Me: It’s not really the people I’m worried about. More the moose and the bears.
Worker: (pause) Would you say, “extremely safe,” “very safe,” “somewhat safe,” or “not safe at all” then?

[Still need to buy baker's twine and decrease giblet-disturbance, but one goal was met – shared with boyfriend and boyfriend’s mother on Friday night.]

Much love,

February 16, 2011

Day 47

Dear all,

First, a few items of business:
1. Happy 91st Birthday, Grandpop!
2. Yes, moose meat (and caribou meat) is kosher. I checked.
3. For all of those who have been (im)patiently waiting, I have health insurance again.

No photos this week – I’m trying to back up my computer before I add anything more to it. Just (a lot of) words instead. Consider yourself warned. Next time I’ll have some good shots of the trees, the mountains, and the moose. (Oh, and me learning how to chop wood. You won't want to miss that.)

I’ve been reading more Jane Austen this week (I have to retake the Praxis tests in order to try and switch my teaching license) and thinking a lot about communication, and language. In Austen’s time more could be said indirectly through social codes than directly. Pride and Prejudice’s Elinor Dashwood can’t even ask her own sister if she’s become engaged for fear of crossing the boundaries of indiscretion. And yet the simple act of Marianne (the sister) writing a letter to Willoughby (the man in question) acts as a coded signal for if they weren’t engaged, Marianne could never, by the rules of the uber-polite society to which she belonged, hazard such familiarity. Where direct communication is impossible, indirect language – coded through actions and etiquette – becomes verbose.

I’ve also been listening to the radio far more than I have ever cared to in the past: pop music at the bakery and “Focus on the Family” in the mornings when I’m not at work. (Cause-and-effect of these scenarios: the radio is turned on, I happen to be present, thus I listen.) With Valentine’s Day coming (and going) I’ve heard an insufferable amount of today’s love songs (at the bakery) and a good amount of advice on relationships (at the house). According to our pop music stars, I should either “take a grenade for love” or “stand there and watch you burn.” Meanwhile Jim, Juli, and John advise that I learn to speak my partner’s “language of love.” (For the record, I find “Focus on the Family” to be the more reasonable.)

This past weekend I went up to Anchorage via plane, which takes about 25 minutes. The plane we flew in seats about 9 passengers. My disbelief that we were actually able to fly through the air was topped only by my utter astonishment that we were able to land safely on the icy runway. I find all attempts at flight amazing – it’s just that in a plane this size I am not so removed from the process of flying that I can forget to be in awe of it.

Chester and I went to see the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra perform “Classical Mystery Tour,” which I had assumed would be a collection of Beatles’ hits performed by a classically-trained orchestra. And it was, at first – a nice medley of pop tunes and love songs enriched by a large group of wonderful musicians. And then, it got better.

I have to admit that my focus was first on the costumes (gray matching suits with skinny ties), and only secondarily on the music. I was primarily curious if the mop-tops of “John,” “Paul,” “George,” and “Ringo” were wigs. They were: their haircuts changed time periods along with their outfits, from skinny suits to oversized, shiny Sgt. Pepper uniforms and back to skinny with 70s era jeans, vests, and peace necklaces. To truly communicate “The Beatles” to us, these veteran impersonators used all kinds of language, from the visual symbols of costumes and haircuts to the aural code of somewhat contrived Liverpoolian accents. Most of all, they used the language of music, communicating messages of love both potent (“Maybe I’m Amazed”) and painful (“Yesterday”), of hope (“Imagine”), of loneliness (“Eleanor Rigby”), and of … marine mammals? (“I am the Walrus.”)

The primary communication, though, was of joy. After I had tallied the costumes, lights, and stage mics (old habits die hard), I sat and watched the audience watch “The Beatles” entertain us with wonderful songs (and slightly less wonderful between-song patter). The kids next to me, eight or nine years old apiece, were as entranced with “All You Need Is Love” as those in the audience who could remember hearing it the first time around. And as much as I loved the songs, the live performance, and yes, the impersonations (“John” was by far the best), it was this act of communication that struck me the most – the one that brought together an entire hall of disparate persons into one place, one time, one shared experience of happy entertainment.

On the way back from Anchorage it was windy out, and we buckled into the plane with full warning that the ride might be somewhat “bumpy.” Bumpy, my friends, is certainly one word for it. As I attempted to keep my eyes closed, thoughts calm, and stomach firmly in place, I found myself grateful for the language our pilot expertly knew how to speak, one of dials and gauges and wind currents and who knows what else.

When I moved to France for a year, it was hard to be patient as I slowly grew accustomed to the language -- of French, yes, but also to the language of culture that had me feeling very far away from home. Here I am now just as far away as before, but with new forms of communication that make all the difference in the world. Cell phones, text messaging, email, video chat, and, implausibly, even a blog – I am so grateful for all of the communication I’ve been able to keep up with you all. At times it makes me feel much farther away, but it’s worth it.

I never thought I’d be able to convince myself that keeping a blog was a good thing, but then I never thought I’d find myself listening to “Focus on the Family” in the mornings. Or, for that matter, see the Beatles play a live show. As we say around here: with God all things are possible. Even, implausibly, hurtling through the nighttime air to land a tiny plane on an icy runway in a lot of wind.

Much love,

February 7, 2011

Day 38

Dear all,

Chester came down to the Peninsula this weekend and we sat by the fire and read for a while. That’s what Friday nights are for, right? (What’s that? Some people go out partying on Friday night? Ok, but how do you get to sit by a fireplace with your boyfriend and read Jane Austen and drink tea if you are out of the house? I don’t understand.)

Also this weekend we hiked Skyline, a trail leading up a smallish mountain in part of the National Wildlife Refuge. (Though really, what isn’t part of the wildlife refuge around here?) I’m going to be honest and admit that the first 15 minutes were fun, the next hour and change were not as much fun, and the 45 minutes heading down were fun again.

[The first fifteen minutes.]

I was prepared for the cold this time: I knew that my fingers especially would tingle a bit at the beginning but once I got moving I would warm up. I started out the trail wearing boots, a long sleeve thermal shirt and wool sweater, and snow pants. Part way up I took the sweater off (and sometimes I was wishing I could remove the pants, too).

[I think what’s happening here is Chester doing a flip – back down the way we came. I, however, was not about to sacrifice any of my hard-earned gain just to have to repeat it.]

The path wasn’t straight up all the way, but there were parts where I needed all four feet (you know, the two under my hips and the two coming out of my shoulders) in order to keep going. Usually this was just from the ice – where the snow was deep I could kick my feet in and get a good grip. (Or I could let Chester go first, and use his footsteps as a kind of ladder. You know.)

[About half-way up, I start contemplating what would happen if I just rolled all the way back down.]

“It isn’t that hard a hike,” says Chester. “Easier than the Precipice one we did in Acadia.”
Me: “The sign says ‘Very Strenuous.’ Isn’t that the most difficult rating?”
Chester: “That’s just for tourists.”
Me: “I think that in situations like this, you should consider me still a tourist.”

We didn’t make it all the way up, only ¾ of the way. Let’s pretend this was only because we were having friends over for dinner and needed to get home to start cooking (which was true) and not because I was too tired to keep going (which was also true).

[This is as far as we got. It was beautiful. I’m sorry you still can’t see my face – I was not exactly up for smiling.]

So, we had friends over for Beef Wellington. One of the girls brought the ingredients, but instead of beef she had Caribou Wellington (from a recent hunt) and Moose Wellington (from a recent road kill) – all deliciously wrapped in mushrooms and bacon and puff pastry. Well, the wrapping looked delicious – I only ate the meat inside. (I am consistent if not stringent in my kosher-keeping.) To round it out I made steak fries, garlic bread, and chocolate chip cookies. There was lots of music playing, a little bit of crocheting and knitting, and a good fire going – and let me tell you, there’s nothing like a mountain hike, a belly full of Caribou, a chocolate chip cookie shared with the boyfriend, and a warm fire to give one a good night’s sleep. Oh, and friends. Friends are good too.

Much love,

February 4, 2011

Day 35

Dear all,

You may recall that I don’t really know how to cook meat. The majority of my leaving-the-home and thus-learning-to-cook-on-my-own years were also my vegetarian years (give or take a few hamburgers here and there). Last year I decided that, even though I still prefer to think of meat as an optional part of a meal and not an integral one, I still should know how to cook it for the benefit of family, friends, and assorted other guests. (As Jewish folklore has taught me, the prophet Elijah could show up on my doorstep at any point and I assume he would prefer chicken over tofu.) Therefore I have continued what began when I hosted Thanksgiving two years ago and discovered, to my utter amazement and frustration, that roasting poultry is harder than it at first looks. The Great Chicken Endeavor continues.

The Great Chicken Endeavor Goal of 2010: Learn how to roast a chicken.

The Great Chicken Endeavor Goal of 2011: Learn how to roast a chicken correctly.

(Some of you – especially HJ, who I think was on the phone with me at the time -- may recall that the first goal was indeed met last year, but only by accidentally roasting the chicken upside down. Hence this year's goal.)

Unit GCE 2011, Day 1.

Objectives: to successfully roast a chicken, right-side up.

Steps to achieving objective:

Step 1: Buy chicken, assemble ingredients

[I find it mildly disconcerting that this chicken was grown on the West Coast. Remember when plants were grown and animals, such as the chicken, were raised?]

Step 2: Discover that, though handling giblets is in general of a disturbance to you, having to fish them out of the inner cavity because they did not come in the nice little bag is, shall we say, somewhat grosser.

Step 3: Also discover that you have no twine with which to tie the legs, and you cannot understand what it could mean to “tuck wings under” the bird. After a few tries and a simulated walk across the counter (in which you are able to discern which way the chicken would have stood in order to walk), decide that you have in fact placed the chicken with the correct side up.

[Why do they call it "breast side up" when "belly up" would make so much more sense?]

Step 4: Rub with oil and paprika blend and, with a grimace, stuff two cut heads of garlic into the cavity. Wonder briefly what they mean by “both cavities.” Then remember that the original recipe called for two chickens to be roasted side-by-side, and move on.

Step 5: Roast. Check temperature periodically, discovering that with a chicken this small (4lbs) you are really not sure what constitutes the “thickest part of the thigh.” Originally believe that you are not even entirely sure what the thigh is, but then recall the simulated walk the naked chicken did across the counter and realize that the smaller appendages must be wings and thus, the larger ones thighs. (Hopefully.)

Step 6: Make caramelized carrots with feta and chive-black pepper biscuits. No problems there.

Step 7: Call sister (the one with a biology major) to try and figure out which one of the giblets is the liver, as that one shouldn’t go in the stock pot.

Step 8: Throw out the one that is your best guess (the grayish one that is lonely, as the smaller red round ones that come in pairs must be the kidneys?) and dump the rest into the simmering stock.

Step 9: Ignore the stock for a while, and decide to eat dinner.

Step 10: Feel lonely. Wish that your boyfriend were there to share it, and compliment you heartily on this, the first chicken attempt of 2011.

Final assessment:

[Please tell me that this is, in fact, right-side-up.]

Objectives for the next lesson:

-Buy baker’s twine.

-Learn how to “tuck under” the wings.

-Reduce amount of giblet-disturbance by 50%.

-Learn how to carve a chicken.

-Wait to cook it until someone is there to share it with you.

Much love,

February 1, 2011

Day ... oh, I have to start counting now. Day 32!

Dear all,

My Alaskan monthaversary has arrived! Though I left New England on Dec 31st, I didn’t arrive in Alaska until Jan 1st (see Day 1 for discussion of how boring it is to celebrate New Year’s Eve on a plane). How did I celebrate my monthaversary, you ask?

I went to work.

First, though, it is time to discuss two very important things. In addition to concerns about moose, questions about S. Palin, and more concerns about bears, many people have wondered aloud (or through email) about two issues: the dark, and the temperature.

Let me address the question of the dark first. Yes, it is currently dark here – but that’s because it’s 10pm, really cloudy, and something close to a new moon. Where I am, on the Kenai peninsula (more on that later), we got 7 hrs, 47 min of daylight: sunrsise at 9:21am and sunset at 5:08 pm. (In comparison, Boston is currently getting roughly 10hrs). The longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, is roughly 5 ½ hrs of daylight. At the Summer Solstice, they see about 19 ½ hrs here. (And remember, this is only for this part of Alaska. It’s more drastic to the north – and less so in the south-eastern part.)

Today we gained 5 min and 17s of sunlight. The day after the Winter Solstice, they gained only 6 sec of daylight. The day after the Summer Solstice will be a gain of only 3 sec. Can you see the pattern? The greatest differences in length of day fall in mid-December and mid-June, at the Solstices. But the greatest change in daylight comes at the Equinoxes – mid-March and mid-September. This year, for most of March I will see almost 6 minutes more of daylight per day. That’s about a half-hour gain of daylight each week. And that - the amount of change - is how the daylight (or lack thereof) really affects someone.

When I was working this fall on the Cape, I often went into the classroom at 6:30am (to be ready for a 7:15 start time) and it was mostly still dark. If I stayed to help students or get grading done and left around 4:30, then it was mostly dark again. So it’s not really the shortness of daylight that I think is most bothersome, because I think most people with 9-to-5s rarely see daylight in the winter anyway, as long as they live somewhere north of the Bahamas, unless they get out on their lunch break. My guess is that the real struggle here comes in only having a few moments of change for most of December and January, so it seems like the darkness of the days just drags on and on.

But, having only been here for a month (and counting!), that’s only a guess.

[As a side note, I had to do some googling to get these sunrise/sunset times for December and June, and in the midst of this ran across this delightful question: How many days does Alaska have? (The answer, as provided by "365.23 on the average every year, just like every other place on earth.")]

As for the cold, this is the part with which I struggle. It is disconcerting that the temperature displays outside the banks – you know, the tall, LED ones that flash the time and the temperature – find it necessary to post a plus sign before the number. Because it could just as easily be -15 as +15, this time of year. And in fact, it does seem to have been uncharacteristically warm – hovering between 15 and 30 – sorry, between +15 and +30 -- in what is, as I still cannot say without laughing, “warm enough to snow.” There were some days that were below 0, and that was cold. There were some days that hovered right on 0, and unfortunately, one of those days I tried to go ice skating for the first time in a few years, and it was a little bit disastrous. (Disastrous for my ego, is all – I only lasted about 10 minutes on the ice and then had to spend 20 min in the car calming myself down until I could feel my toes again. Which, obviously, were really cold, but really fine.)

Just like I had to learn how to control my body in its relationship to gravity, many years ago, and then again with water not too long after that when I started swimming, and again in the crowds and chaos that came with living in a city, I’m learning how to control my body – mental and physical – in what I would previously have told you were temperatures just too cold to go out. And after weathering the recent spat of 0 degree days, the current “warm enough to snow” days of 25 degrees here on the Peninsula really do seem somewhat balmy.

Oh, and I’m here on the Peninsula now because, with the help of Chester’s mom, I was able to find some work in a bakery in the town where she lives. Chester is still in Anchorage, about 2 hours away where it appears to be slightly warmer. He’s coming down this weekend, the weekend after that I’ll go up to Anchorage (sound familiar, HJ?). The weather should turn towards 0 again soon, which is okay with me. As it says on the forecast, conditions in Alaska remain unsettled.

I’m working in front of a bakery oven all morning, so I don’t mind.

Much love,