Alaska Friday Round-Up

We put on our dress sweatshirts and went to the Iditarod Mushers Banquet last night. This was a big deal because all the very cool and fresh off the dog sled mushers hang out at the Mushers Banquet plus it was our anniversary. So it was quite the gala. Mushers got their start numbers and Hobo Jim sang, frequently and for a long time. They served steaks the size of dinner plates and big slabs of chocolate cake because, you know, dog-sledding requires calories and it is Alaska, after all, where nothing is small, everything is oversize and a little bit rough. Or a lot. Depending on how rugged you are.

Iditarod musher Paige Drobny sat at our table with her husband who is also a musher but not in this race and whose name I’ve forgotten. The two of them may have been the healthiest people I’ve seen in years, well-scrubbed but dripping with sled dogs, their happiness in what they were doing bursting in the air like millions of blooming daisies. They drank heartily and without care, leaning over to nod with each other and then looking back to the rest of us to laugh and chat. There isn’t a person alive who wouldn’t rather be them than whoever they are at the moment, me included and I never envy anyone.

Yesterday I talked to a woman who, at the age of 60, took a job as teacher and principal in a 21-student school in a village in Alaska’s interior. The interior is what they call the part of Alaska that has no roads which is basically the entire state. Anyway, Susan told her husband in Oklahoma that she’d be back when school ended in June and she took off. She hires other teachers to help but they keep quitting. She says they don’t like hauling water in 5-gallon jugs which apparently she doesn’t mind. She goes home in the summer and stays inside with the air conditioning blasting. Susan doesn’t like being hot.

How white people erased so much native culture became clearer to me yesterday. In an exhibit at a native museum there was a long explanation with photos of how villagers – out of their sense of respect and accommodation of newcomers – quickly regarded white teachers and priests as the “new elders.” And in so doing, children were gradually taught to ignore the teaching of their actual elders, disrupting centuries of the transmission of cultural values and language. It was a free museum, halfway shut down because it is off-season here, and no one paid us any attention except to say hello and goodbye. It was one of those gems you find when you stop anyway.

We rented a little truck with 4-wheel drive. It doesn’t do to tool around Alaska in an itty-bitty rental car even though one would probably suffice. Places that get a lot of snow are generally very good at clearing it off the roads. Every trip is playacting though. Go to Florida, you imagine the Florida life and it has limes everywhere and smells all the time of Coppertone. Up here, it’s about boots and hoodies, road dirt that obliterates license plates, windows that roll down. We would be tough if we moved here, we think. Really tough.

Everything I Did Was Extra

I was raised to be secondary.

That never occurred to me until the other night when I was talking with a friend about his possible retirement. It’s a big challenge for anyone whose work life has been central to their identity.

But I realized that it was less of a challenge for me than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love my work. I did. Almost more than anything. 

When I quit, I felt like I had nothing left to prove. I’d already exceeded people’s expectations of me. Actually, I’d probably done that five minutes after taking my first professional job forty years ago. 

All I was supposed to do, all I was shaped and raised to do, unwittingly, just naturally because that’s how it was, was this: get married and have children. And maybe help my husband if he was in a situation where my help would be needed which, if I made a decent match, would be unlikely.

Remember I am a person who took shorthand in college. I wasn’t a gal in the aim high club.

So when you think about how I was raised and what was expected of me, I’ve done okay. Moreover, being raised with low expectations gave me a weird kind of freedom. Nobody expected much of anything from me. So in that context, my whole professional life has been gravy. 

In contrast, my male friend, having been raised to be primary, feels burdened by the expectations laid on him by his parents, by society, by himself. Though he has done an extraordinary amount, he can’t be finished yet. There is a pinnacle he thinks he hasn’t yet reached. It’s burdensome, those expectations.

I think things have changed for women and men but I don’t know that to be true.  And until this conversation it never occurred to me really that I was raised to be secondary. But I was. And it has had its peculiar benefits.


My Face, My Beautiful Face

It was my first time. I’d never had anyone fuss with my face, shape my eyebrows, those were things other women did, not me.

I lay back on the table and she put a pillow under my knees. As she studied my face, she pulled a bright light down to help her get a closer look like a dentist might do looking for an especially subtle cavity.

After she was done with my eyebrows, the waxing and tweezing, I asked her a question I’d been wanting to ask somebody for a long time. “Do you think anything can be done about my face?” I was sixty then and had long vertical creases in my cheeks, lines across my forehead, and branches of worry on the side of each eye.

She studied me for a long moment and then stood back, returning the examination lamp back to its place.“No,” she said, “I can’t do anything. Maybe a doctor could.” She seemed repelled somehow like she wished she could roll her eyes but it would be unseemly, not appropriate in front of a paying customer, especially one so seemingly unaware, unlearned, so naive. She turned away and then she said this.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

The creases in my mother’s face had been even deeper than mine, so deep that it seemed that her skin had been borrowed from a much larger person and hung on her head by mistake. I remember when the creases in her face were made. I watched from a window in the kitchen while she lay on a lawn chair in the backyard.

She wore a tiny halter top, one with no straps, just elastic top and bottom. It was white and maybe just three inches wide, just enough to cover her mastectomy scars. Running from the center of the halter top to the top of her shorts was a long thin scar where surgeons had removed her gallbladder or appendix or had explored. She had had several exploratory surgeries which I envisioned as doctors hunting for something to make real her complaints of illness. There had to be something the matter. We kept asking but she said, “No, nothing’s the matter.” As a child, I probably asked her that question 10,000 times.

She would wait until noon,when it was hottest, to go in the backyard. And then she would lay, first on her back and then on her stomach, always in her white halter top and her blackshorts, the rest of her body bare, offered up to the heat and the sun. She would lie flat on the lawn chair, perfectly flat, until the sun began to set. She didn’t read or converse unless I spoke to her, asked if I could go to my friend’s house or whether I should start dinner. She just baked herself until she became brown, my fair, freckled mother became as brown as the table next to me as I write this. Not mahogany, lighter, but just barely as I remember. But I was a child.

My mother was lovely and soft, not hard, her toughened brown skin notwithstanding, and she was very gentle, all the time gentle, and melancholy, this last thing being what I remember most. She gave me her wisdom as much as she could and one important thing was this, “You don’t have to be pretty as long as you’re neat and clean.”

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

I was in the bathtub one night. I remember this so clearly because I was concerned about one of my toes and thinking I should ask my mother if something was wrong with my toe and then I heard sirens. The sirens came right at me, right at our house, and I waited for them to pass and go to the house across the street where the dad sometimes hit the mom and then she would come running to our door and my dad would let her in and go talk to the dad and then say he calmed everyone down. But instead the sirens stopped and doors started slamming.

I stood in my pajamas, wet and dripping because I’d jumped out of the bathtub and dressed so fast, wanting to see what was the matter. The firemen were in the living room and my mother was on the couch. She was breathing into a brown paper bag and one of the firemen was patting her on the back. “Just breathe, ma’am, just breathe.” And she did just breathe while the revolving lights of the fire truck flashed through the window and I realized the truck was on our lawn, not even on the street. It was such a terrible thing, I thought, that they had to drive on the lawn and not even use the driveway.

The next morning, I took my Girl Scout sash and my new badges into my mom’s bedroom. It was dark in there, she was still sleeping although my dad had left hours before to go to work. I wanted her to sew my badges on, she sewed everything, drew patterns for dresses on newspaper, and made curtains out of old skirts. But she said I should find some safety pins to fasten my badges because she couldn’t sew them now. That would have to do, she said. And so I went downstairs to her sewing table and found safety pins but I couldn’t make the badges look like they’d been sewn on because they hadn’t.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

When I got older, I understood why my mother had roasted in the sun day after scorching day, why she sometimes lay on the couch, facing the wall, for hours on end, so long sometimes I would stop what I was doing to watch her breathing. Was she still breathing, I would wonder, sometimes sitting on the slimmest edge of the couch to rub her shoulder and ask if she wanted me to turn on the television or make her some tea. She always said no, she was fine. But she was not fine, she was never fine, but eventually I left home and I didn’t think about it all the time.

The lines in my face deepened every year. They weren’t as extreme as my mother’s, no, but the time I’d spent in the sun, the afternoons swimming in lakes and then lying still on a towel, so pleased to feel the sun on my face, all those times added up to a time and sun-worn face so dramatic that only a doctor’s intervention could repair the damage. I considered that, I thought about plastic surgery and Botox shots, wondered what might be possible to restore my face to an earlier version and I emailed my daughter in California and told her of my thinking.

I told her how my face was bothering me and I thought I should try to fix it and what she wrote back made me decide to do nothing. She wrote, “Your face, your beautiful face.”

I still wash my face with soap. I stand in the shower with the hot water streaming and I lather up and wash myself, my arms and legs and chest, and then my face and I let the water run on my face like it is rain falling on grass that has been parched by the sun.

February Friday Ice Hell Round-Up

I made a cheese sauce yesterday that had three pounds of cheese in it. It was lovely and smooth without a hint of scorch. I once scorched an entire Nesco of mac and cheese that I made for my son’s theater rehearsal dinner.  I pressed on, figuring they’re just kids and they won’t care. They did. It marked me for life so I do a lot of stirring.

Last night, a local warming room, open because it was below 20 degrees, rejected a woman who was intoxicated so she had to go back to sleep under the bridge from whence she had come. Maybe there’s something to add to that but I’m not sure what that would be.

I swam for an hour today with my old friend, Karen. We took the two far lanes in the deep end of the pool, the part with the diving well so it feels like swimming in the ocean above a reef for me but she likes it. She always wants to race but I say no except sometimes I let her get a head start and then I make it my goal to get ahead of her which I do but mostly because she is unaware I decided to race.

Amy Klobuchar once ate a salad with a comb because her aide neglected to get her a fork. Two questions here: who carries a comb anymore? and how would one actually eat a salad with a comb? She should have just used her hands.

I’ve discovered the key to getting older is developing multiple identities. You can’t be what you were when you were younger, so you have to quit pining for that person. It takes $10 to buy 500 business cards. Go be somebody else or a couple of somebodies. Who the hell will ever figure it out? It’s like Rockford printing up business cards in his car when he wanted to impersonate a water meter man, people believe stuff when it’s in print. Tell them you’re Queen Elizabeth, they’ll never know the difference. And then go be her.





Cheap Trick

I’m about to have made four meals out of one chicken.

First there was the brined and roasted chicken, then leftovers from said chicken, then a chicken casserole, and then chicken soup. 

This makes me feel like we should be dressed in holey turtlenecks and singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” while we forage around in the root cellar looking for the best rutabaga. Those were heroic days and heroic people, though, and I don’t mean to mock them. 

I know thrift. It’s a place I visit pretty often but I don’t want to live there all the time. 

Still, I think the skills of thrift are valuable and I’m glad I have them. Making food last would be an obvious one, less obvious is the well-developed skill of foregoing, not buying something even though I can, because it is too expensive or I don’t really need it. What I have found is that the wanting is often so slim and transitory that I barely feel deprived.

I frequently used the response that “we can’t afford it” when one of my kids asked for something even though we almost always could. I just wanted them to have that in their heads, that question, ‘can I afford that?’ I don’t know if it worked, I try not to talk about money with my kids, they work hard, what they do with their money is their business. As mine is mine.

Years ago, I teased a friend about how his mother, who was quite well-off, would turn an old dish soap bottle upside down so it could drip its last drops into a new bottle. “Your mother’s rich, why would she do that?” “How do you think she got rich?” was the reply.

Of course, as off-hand comments often do, this made me think – about dish soap, maple syrup, ketchup, and a million other opportunities for impatience and carelessness because ultimately wasting food and things is about those two things – impatience and carelessness. And indulgence, which is something I prize but not about ketchup. I’d always rather have a new bottle of ketchup than the dregs of an old one. But I turn it upside down and let it drip. Or, more honestly, my husband does. He is the thrifty coach in our lives.

The casserole and the soup make me feel like I could get through tough times (well, I have gotten through tough times but not for a long while), that I haven’t strayed so far from my roots of potato soup and boiled beef heart, and that I could slap on the flannel shirt and soldier through catastrophe with the best of them. And I like that. Even if it is ridiculous. I will need more than a chicken to survive the Apocalypse.