Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I’ve never been a fan of the road trip. I remember four-hour drives to Grandma’s house as sheer torture. Even as an adult it’s a rare day that I enjoy a long drive. Unfortunately, I married into a family that feels exactly the opposite.
While Gary and I lived outside of Portland, my in laws visited several times a year. Inevitably, shortly after arrival, the question would come.
“Hey, how about we drive to the Grand Canyon over the weekend?”
What? No! Is that even a question? Who drives from Portland to the Grand Canyon for the weekend? They do, a couple times as I recall, among many other far-away places they drove to.  
When Gary proposed the idea of moving to Anchorage, I have to admit that the lack of roads – and hence the potential for fewer road trips - landed on my list of pros. It fell right below the absence of snakes. I hate snakes.
Imagine my excitement when in-laws showed up a couple weeks after we moved into our new home and announced a road trip to Fairbanks! It was on that trip that I discovered Alaska has its own set of driving issues I’d have to learn to live with.  
For nine hours we bumped our way to Fairbanks. Frost heaves as large as speed bumps seemed as though they were spaced evenly along the road. Fast forward to the present, I’m sitting at my favorite table in Steamdot (the one next to electrical outlet!) having just survived a proper jostling while driving here. Not from frost heaves this time but from spring break up. This yearly thrill can last anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months and always makes driving interesting. The main roads are clear, but many of the side roads are covered in humps and bumps of melting ice. My poor minivan feels like it might fall apart while traversing such terrain.
But bumps are just one of several driving hazards you’ll find in Anchorage. Another is road ruts; the main roads become rutted due to studded tires and the freeze and thaw. Then everyone is likely to drive in the same ruts so they get deeper and deeper. Since most people here drive larger vehicles, smaller cars have to pick just one rut to drive lopsidedly in!
 “Won’t it be nice when you can afford to buy a car that can drive in both ruts,” I once heard someone say.  
Yes, it is nice to have a car that fits in both ruts, and slightly less scary too. There’s nothing quite like driving down the road at a 10 degree angle. It’s even worse if the ruts are icy. I remember the city had to close a short stretch of road because multiple cars had flipped within a couple hours due the icy ruts in the road!
The ice and snow are obvious hazards that stay with us about six months out of the year. In fact, we get so used to ice and snow that locals are a little too comfortable driving on it.
My mark of being a local came a few weeks ago. Not bad after eight years! We’d just gotten several inches of dry, grainy snow. I was driving our little four-wheel drive into town while chatting on the phone with my sister-in-law. Whilst deep in discussion about our children, I surfed around a right-hand turn, downshifting mid way with my one free hand, and fish tailing into my new direction without becoming the slightest bit nervous.
Comfort is not always a good thing.
Moose are a particularly interesting road hazard.  I don’t know if they lack intelligence or simply don’t care, but they regularly cross busy roadways at snail’s pace. You’d think they’d tell each other that if one of those fast, shiny things hits you – well let’s just say it’s not good! Dozens of moose and, sadly, several motorists die as a result of these collisions every year. So many moose die, in fact, that the department of transportation has a call list for moose kills. Whenever one is killed, the next person on the list gets a call to come out and harvest the meat. Yum! Moose road-kill!
Of all the challenges involved in driving in Alaska though, I believe the greatest is other drivers – just like the in rest of the country!  We may, however, have the monopoly on lesser-trained drivers. Most of our rural areas don’t have many roads, if any. Yet these same villages issue driver’s licenses which their residents bring to Anchorage and use to rent cars. Needless to say, many a traffic law is broken.
One day, while driving through Anchorage with my mother-in-law, I became so exasperated by bad drivers that I lost it. I should’ve known by this point that nothing good happens when I start to rant! But I was just so frustrated I couldn’t hold it in!
“Oh my word! Can you believe these people! I feel like I narrowly escape death whenever I drive around town! The other day I actually saw someone drive down the sidewalk, just so they could turn right without waiting!”
 Expecting affirmation, or at least the sound of silent understanding, I was shocked by the response I received.
“I’ve done that,” my mother-in-law said matter-of-factly.
I was mortified. After evaluating my situation though I determined I was past the point of no return so I jumped straight into the fray.
“Well that was stupid!”
The remainder of our drive went by in silence. I wonder if this has anything to do with why she always asks me to drive when we’re going somewhere together. Oh well.
The funny thing is that after living here for eight years, largely free of road trips because there really are very few places to drive, I’ve started to have bizarre and inexplicable ideas. For example, I found myself seriously considering driving to see my brother’s family in Southern California while visiting my parents in Portland last summer. Just for a couple days. It might be kind of nice to drive and see the country. This glimpse of insanity bothered me but I consoled myself with the thought that it was only because I so desperately wanted to visit them.
It wasn’t until today that I realized I have contracted the disease that I once deplored; road-trip fever. Over lunch, my mother-in-law said she and my father-in-law were headed to South Dakota for meetings. She explained that they’d had plane tickets all the way through, but then she’d looked at a map and decided to cancel the plane for the last leg of the trip. They would fly to Seattle, rent a car and drive to South Dakota and back. So serious is my illness now that it sounded like a great idea. In fact, I found myself thinking how nice it would be to tag along! Perhaps our next trip to Portland we’ll take a weekend road trip to the Grand Canyon! What do you say, would you like to come along!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Culture Talk

The Disney Channel marked St. Patrick’s Day 2011 with an afterschool movie about a boy who was searching for his culture. He soon discovered his dad was from Cleveland and his mother was a Leprechaun. Our three children immediately noted the similarities between his family and ours.  Obviously.  Just for the record that makes their father the Leprechaun. On the other hand, Leprechauns are tiny and magical - perhaps I wouldn’t mind!
In his search for “culture” our young protagonist encounters all sorts of meaningful quandaries about what is important and what isn’t. Then he falls down a chute in a potato chip factory and ends up in a mystical battle for his freedom! What did you expect? I told you it was a Disney movie!
In spite of the ridiculous storyline, powerful questions were asked. Does where you come from even matter? If it does matter, what matters about it? When you decide it does or does not matter what do you do with it?
I’ll let you know up front that I’ve found no one who can answer these questions. I wrestle with them nearly every day. I’ve even considered giving up the struggle and declaring none of it matters! But that, my friends, is a slippery slope not worth going down, trust me.
Let me express how inadequate I feel in this debate. I have a degree in psychology and communications. I excelled in my argumentation classes. Then I go and marry an Eskimo and none of it helps! Imagine my frustration.
Fifteen years of marriage has taught me what smarter people learn a lot quicker – I know very little ABOUT ANYTHING. For example, let’s take conflict as a topic. I thought I was well-versed but then discovered I was lacking half the playbook. Here’s a quick tutorial to catch you up on the very little bit I’ve figured out about conflict in the Yupik culture. It won’t take long.
First, avoid conflict whenever possible. I love a good fight as much as the next gal so this one has been tough. In all my recent self-exploration I’ve discovered I actually pick fights when I’m lonely. That’s just great!
Commence feeling sorry for Gary here.
In perspective, avoiding conflict makes sense when you think about it. If you live in a small village in rural Alaska, it’s not a good idea to make enemies. Not only do you have to live around them but you also might find your life is in their hands in the near future.  There’s a lesson there. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
The second thing I’ve learned is that if conflict cannot be avoided, do it quickly and assume it will change the relationship. If it’s not worth that risk, continue avoiding conflict.
Hmm…this is where I draw the line. Can we talk here? I mean, literally, can we just talk about this? I remember a family issue with one of Gary’s relatives that affected Colton. I went to my mother in law and asked how to address it so as to not to offend. Her answer was simple.
“You can’t,” she said. “Anything you say will damage the relationship.”
I was stunned. I should have listened. She was right. End of story.
This is an aspect of culture I don’t accept. Granted, conflict avoidance is appropriate and healthy in many cases, but there have to be ways to engage in conflict and walk thru to the other side with a stronger relationship. So we work to find a balance; a new interpretation for our family that makes sense.
That’s not so different than everyone else, is it?
Now let’s talk about talking. I’m a talker. There, I’ve said it. As if you hadn’t figured that out on your own! I’m a talker who married into a culture that still understands the slight raise of the eyebrows in combination with a lift of the chin means “yes.” Needless to say, I have too many words.
I remember sitting in the family room with my future father in law. I have no idea what I was talking about, but I know I was talking – a lot apparently. He turned to me with a smile and said the only words he spoke that entire evening.
“You talk a lot.”
Yes. Yes I do. I talk a lot! That’s who I am, I thought. I’m a talker! What’s wrong with that? I was lonely so I wanted to pick a fight.  
Thankfully I didn’t and instead learned to relax and be a bit quieter. Let’s face it, he was right. I spent so much time talking that I couldn’t be bothered to listen. I’ve since learned that silence serves me well, when I remember to employ it.
What do I teach our children about all this? I can readily admit that I have no idea.
The hardest thing about combining two cultures, I’ve discovered, is that it requires both parties to grow and change. Which leads me back to my earlier question, is that really any different than any other marriage? So is culture really important at all?
You tell me. Is it important how you celebrate holidays? My side of the family sings Happy Birthday over the phone to each other. I make my children do it! It would just feel wrong not to. Why do we bother to keep family traditions alive? What do you just let go away?
Would your opinion change if you knew the very tradition you were letting go, was in risk of dying forever? And so we try to teach our children the Yupik language, we take them berry picking and fishing; we eat foods from the land –even when they’re not vegetarian! We tell the stories, we enjoy the art, and we sing Happy Birthday over the phone!
We do that and much more, just like you do with your children and your culture. We do that so they will know who they are.
We all want to be known, truly known, for who we are. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what food you eat, you have an innate, God-given need to be known and to be loved. That’s the unifying factor.  It doesn’t mean we don’t change – in fact, we must. It simply means that we are all created as unique and wonderful beings that have immeasurable intrinsic value.
That, my friends, is why I started blogging. What better way to talk all I want, even pick a fight from time to time, without pushing my husband over the proverbial edge?
  …have I mentioned there is amazing folklore about little people who live underground in Southwest Alaska? I can’t wait to tell you all about it! Oh! And I have to tell you about the lake monster!  And about the Chythlook plant that looks like marijuana! Don’t let me forget to tell you about the first time I met Gary’s aunt Helen! And I must tell you about the time…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ahhh Spring!

Spring has arrived in Alaska! I know, I know, it’s not technically spring. But spring here is different and I’m telling you it has arrived.
So if not by the calendar, how do we know its spring in Anchorage? First off, spring break is over. We’re in the final stretch of the school year since our kids get out mid-May. Second, the Iditarod winner has crossed under the burled arch in Nome. This means in a couple days my outdoor Christmas lights will be turned off because that happens when the last musher finishes the Iditarod. And finally the snow is beginning to melt revealing all kinds of dirt and nastiness which we will have to endure until it can be washed, swept and scooped up!
Historically – by which I mean the 8 years I’ve lived here – spring has been the hardest time for me. Growing up in the Northwest I was a lover of spring! I love tulips and daffodils, spring showers, the smell of new grass…I could go on forever.
In fact, I love spring so much that I was determined to get married in the spring. So I did. Today, Gary and I are celebrating our 15-year wedding anniversary. Happy anniversary to us!
Considering my love for spring, Alaskans will understand my consternation with what I found the season to be when I moved to Anchorage. Frankly, it’s dirty, smelly, slushy and just plain ugly. If you’re planning to visit, don’t visit in the spring. We don’t even like to be here in the spring! Anchorage goes on vacation in the spring and is replaced by its ugly cousin for about two months. So much for my Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsorship – oh well, I speak the truth.
I feel, considering my strong opinion about spring in Anchorage that it’s appropriate to explain some rules that we live by in order to survive it. That way if you find yourself here in the spring, you’ll understand what’s going on. It should give you hope.
First, car washing in the spring can be observed under two methods. Either wash your car every day or don’t wash it at all until the mud on the windows is a safety hazard. I have come to believe that most Anchoragites choose the latter and apply it wholeheartedly.
Secondly, for crying out loud, leave the moose alone! There are more in town than at any other time of year so you’ll have many opportunities to apply this rule. They’re hungry, angry and many are pregnant! This, my friends, is a bad combination in any mammal. Do not, under any circumstances, think that because they aren’t scared of you and they look all soft and fluffy, you should go up and pet them. This is a very bad idea – and yet it seems to happen every year.
Third, invest in light-blocking window coverings. We have reached the time of year that it stays light past your kids’ bedtimes. Don’t give in to the temptation to let them stay up. They have plenty of time to enjoy the midnight sun in the summer. If they refuse, I advocate lying to them, that is if you can figure out a story they’ll buy.
“But it’s still light outside, mom! I don’t want to go to bed!”
“No sweetie, it’s not really light outside. That’s just an optical illusion from the melting snow and the angle of the moon…JUST GO TO BED!”
Finally, keep repeating to yourself - summer is coming, summer is coming! This is the one that keeps me going. The first spring was really hard on me but then summer came and I realized something very important.
There is no summer in Anchorage – only spring!
All summer long, the tulips and daffodils bloom, the smell of fresh grass fills the air – its spring all summer long! Sadly this means that if you like summer you are out of luck. In that case, I suggest you go to Fairbanks where it gets to 90 degrees and the smell of forest fire fills the air. If, however, you’re a lover of spring, stick with Anchorage. Survive March and April and I promise you’ll love May, June, July and even a little bit of August and September on a good year!
Happy spring!