Friday, July 29, 2011

Fog, Spaghetti, and Definitions of Happiness

I found this quote this morning and immediately did a self-evaluation: “Ashley, what are you not appreciating that you could be?”

I’ll tell you what I wasn’t loving: the cloudy/misty/rainy concoction that was brewing outside, rotating approximately ever 47 minutes but never letting on any hint of sunshine.

Yesterday, you see, had set the bar high. Yesterday the sun came out with such fervor that I put on shorts and a tank top and sat outside our apartment to work on online course work. The glare was strong, but I persevered, determined to be out in the sun as much as I wanted. After an hour I was so hot (and so un-sunscreened) that I ventured back inside. This also may have been due to the fact that while reading notes from a very dark screen works okay, taking a test when you’re not exactly sure what the question says is not as good of an idea.

And what happened? The sun stayed out—all afternoon and evening. Curtis and I ventured out for a walk later that evening and the heat remained. The horizon was beautiful, the tundra was green, and the streets were plentiful with smiling faces fit to enjoy the miraculous weather that should not be taken for granted.

It was too good to last, of course. Today I woke to the sound of construction on the neighboring hospital at 6am, and peered outside to see a dense mist forming a dark fog around the premises. The ubiquitous rain clouds had returned to their typical places, ready to set up camp for another few weeks, I’m sure.

As the morning turned into afternoon and the clouds refused to offer any hope of breaking, I did what is often a good remedy for dark, rainy days: I made some good food. Leftover spaghetti? Thank you very much. Garlic, cheesy toast to go with it? Yes, of course. Find a good recipe to work on this afternoon? Sounds like a marvelous idea. After all, if the weather is heavy and the tundra is looking particularly damp, a kitchen full of supplies is an excellent source of entertainment—and certainly worth appreciating.

Now to decide on a recipe…

Wednesday's blue skies, which were suprisingly replicated Thursday evening as well...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Journey to Rural Alaska: Have and Have Nots

Trips away from home are always a good reminder of what I have that I normally take for granted—be it gas for less than $6 a gallon, or milk for less than $9. Cost of goods aside, there are still a lot of little things that cause me to appreciate the details of my everyday life that I don’t normally notice.

Take the temperature of water in the shower, for example. Taking a shower here is cause to get a bit nervous because the temperature swing is extreme. The first time I experienced the scalding jump I leapt onto the edge of the tub and used the shower curtain as a shield to protect my burning legs. I have since picked up on the slight decrease in water pressure that precedes the temperature jump. This has saved me much internal screaming, though the length of my current showers will make any water conservationist proud.

Also going to be appreciated when I return home? A general value for aesthetics. The apartment we live in, while bigger than our condo, and two floors to boot, feels a lot like a dorm. This is probably due to the weathered couch, mismatched furniture, drooping curtain rods and other window coverings merely thumb-tacked to the wall.

The wall decorations are a generous smattering of posters by a Californian photographer who likes to capture Alaskan landscapes and wildlife. Creepy bear picture? Check. Mt. McKinley? Check. Sunset over mountains? Check. I think all the classic Alaskan photography bases are covered. Also in attendance? Burnt orange counter tops and dark wood cabinets, circa 1973.

Even with the lacking décor and unpredictable water temperature, it’s impossible to complain about the location. Not only are we a (literal) stone’s throw from Curtis’s work, we are also right off the boardwalk—a system of wooden sidewalks that are stilted above the tundra. These offer a more scenic route than the shoulder alongside the road, not to mention you don’t have shield your eyes from dirt getting thrown up by passing vehicles.

Yet the biggest surprise I have found while being away is my enjoyment of a lack of cell phone service. Sure, I have the internet, and online communication keeps me more than connected to what is going on back home and beyond, but the absence of one more device that is tied to me when I go out has been refreshing. When we head out on walks, no one can get a hold of us. When we are visiting with neighbors, no one can interrupt. I feel like I’m pretty liberal in my ability to ignore calls until it is convenient to return them, but just knowing that there aren’t any calls or texts to get back to can be freeing. And perhaps the biggest factor is that most people know they can’t get in touch with me except through online communication, and so whatever would normally be important or urgent is inevitably put on hold.

When Curtis and I were at the campout last month we ended up talking for a while to the resident that had just finished this rotation, asking her about everything from what to bring to what her experience was like. She made an offhanded comment about feeling so overwhelmed in being back, so many people, so much busyness, it just felt like a lot to her.

I guess I will probably feel a little bit of the same, even though I have not been here for the whole term. There is an absence of duties in being away, and even in the midst of potential boredom it feels like a bit of a vacation. Sure, most people don’t head off to rainy tundra when they have time off, but getting out of town and away from it all is relaxing no matter where you end up—even if it’s surrounded by dorm décor and posters with curling corners. It is no resort, but at least it has a lot of personality.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Journey to Rural Alaska: Unexpected Discoveries

One of the parts I enjoy most about being in a place I have never been is exploring: looking around, taking in the scenery—both creator and man made. Head a few hundred miles West in Alaska and you find a place that looks nothing like “stereotypical” Alaska: flat, open land. Many villages throughout rural Alaska are set up on rivers, and this one is no different. Before planes, the water was the primary means of travel. It takes you out to the ocean to fish or further inland to visit other villages. When it freezes it is still a valid highway, offering a route unencumbered by foliage—not that the tundra brush is much to be trifled with.

Curtis and I have ventured out on several adventure walks since I made my way in. We have walked to the grocery store, along the riverbank, and out into the tundra—flat wilderness that extends like farmland in the Midwest, as far as the eye can see.

It’s easy to happen on small treasures when we’re not looking for anything in particular: decorated dumpsters proclaiming inspiring messages, abandoned jeans in the midst of tundra with no apparent sign of ownership, a local teen burning letters not far from the post office, explaining with a smile to us that he has no interest in reading them.

Everywhere I go it is more than apparent that life in the village is unlike any place I have lived, from the grocery store prices that cause any casual out-of-towner to do a double take (or more) to the riverbank turned parking lot being occupied by more than a couple of boats. Everything is a bit more weathered, compliments of limited paved roads and freight costs that make cleaning seemingly futile and the simplest home improvement project impractical.

In the short time Curtis and I have been in the village it seems like everyone is eager to make a new friend, from the invitations to lunch after casual attendance at church, to a dinner late into the evening with the family of a man Curtis met at work. We may have been the only non Spanish speaking people in attendance, but the food was spectacular, the company was genuine, and English was spoken at least forty percent of the time.

There will be many things I will likely forget about this trip long after we have returned to our everyday routine. I hope that an appreciation for a slower pace and effortless community are not among them. To spend the afternoon in a pair of rubber boots wandering in open land—rain or shine—is more satisfying than I might have expected. And sharing a watermelon--which was referred to as costing $100, and honestly might not have been a joke—with two families I have never met, couldn’t understand half the time, and enjoyed a game of scrabble with nonetheless, was wonderful as well.

Clearly a visit to rural Alaska hardly makes me an expert, but it does reinforce what Curtis’s parents have been telling us for years—it is the people that make a place great. That Curtis and I can be so easily enveloped into the local culture—be it invitations to the weekly Latin dance class or bingo, dates with local runners at 5:30am along the river bank, or a bilingual dinner to share expensive produce and international cuisine—is a testament to the warmth that exudes from this rainy, wind-battered place.

Rural Alaska is facing a lot of challenges right now from education to employment to the ways that subsistence and traditional village living is threatened. Yet there is no question that despite these modern challenges this town still embraces a value for people above possessions, quick to share what they have to offer with those around them—even if only there for a visit. Perhaps this is the best treasure to be found out here in the wilderness, where the appearance can be deceiving to so many from the outside, and a visitor can’t even come close to predicting what there is to be found.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Journey to Rural Alaska: 150 pounds & a lot of free time

When the plane landed and the passengers began to depart, there had already been several things making this trip different than usual. First? The front half of the plane was devoted to cargo—windows non-existent, stairway up to the rear of the plane, all of which worked to all passengers to check three fifty pound bags free of charge (well, let’s just say it was included in the price of admission).

Packing and planning for this trip (both mine and Curtis’s) started weeks ago, both in planning for food and dress. One day we sat in the kitchen and sketched out a rough menu plan. Figuring fifty pounds would be gear, that left the other 100 for food, drinks, and any other item we didn’t want to purchase at exorbitant prices out in what could officially be called “the middle of nowhere”.

We aimed for themes: Mexican food options, Italian food options, Mediterranean was unfortunately nixed when things started getting to heavy, but a little bit of Asian food made the cut. Produce, perhaps the most over-priced, low-quality item barely available in the bush (the name Alaskans use to refer to anywhere off the beaten path in Alaska, which usually means you have to fly to it), is hard to bring in any large quantities because it’s delicate and doesn’t keep as long as all the processed goods.

Our first shipment went in with Curtis, who left two weeks before me, and included all sorts of goods from tortillas to spaghetti sauce to trail mix to pre-packaged orange chicken. After he was sent off, we had an accumulation of goods that didn’t make the cut: a couple pounds of pasta, a package of pita chips, four cans of tuna. After he evaluated the pantry at the apartment given to him to stay in while out of town we reevaluated my drafted list again: there was already plenty of pasta, some baking staples, lots of peanut butter but no jelly.

While I packed on Tuesday for the trip, I was constantly adding and removing items as the weight limit loomed in the balance. Add a book, take away a can of tuna; add a raincoat, remove a can of refried beans. It’s a funny thing planning at the mercy of a weight limit, and my back will likely remind me for the next several days that lifting fifty pound bags on and off a scale repeatedly is not the kindest thing I have ever done for it (even if I was trying to lift with my legs). It reminded me of the often cited hypothetical question "If you were headed to a deserted island and could only bring three things with you..." Except in this case I was headed to a place cut off, and 150 pounds was all I could take.

After landing, meeting up with Curtis and gathering the bags to the car, we made our way to his apartment. Because of the travelling nature of many people that work at this hospital, they have housing available nearby that is roughly furnished and decorated (more on that later), available to the many employees that come and go. And when I say the housing is nearby, I mean it is literally right next door. There’s a cute little boardwalk that leads from the complex to the hospital, and driving from one to the other would undoubtedly take longer than walking.

Interesting fact about the apartment complex? Curtis’s parents, who lived in this same small town for a decade, had their children here, and worked at this same hospital--they lived for a few years in the apartment right next door. It’s funny to try and picture how things were different thirty years ago, and funnier still to realize that there was no way to predict when they were young and on an adventure that thirty years later their son would return to this same place—literally right next door.

I am interested to see how these next couple weeks turn out, living in a tiny town cut off from society with a laptop, a stack of books, an online class and some curriculum materials. I can be pretty good at entertaining myself and keeping busy, but two weeks is a lot of running, reading and thinking. In some ways I think it will be good to slow down, to be cut off and free to wander and explore. In other ways I am a person that thrives on productivity and here there are no mountains to climb, no walls to paint, and no errands to run. It’s just me, the sound of the rain on the boardwalk, and the far off buzz of the hospital.

Perhaps it will be cleansing to be away from it all for a while.
Perhaps it will make me appreciate all I have.
Either way, two weeks of anything can’t be that bad...
...just requiring a bit of patience and creativity, and a pantry full of food.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I've Been Everywhere With You (Except When I Haven't)

Curtis, meticulously packing his bags with exactly fifty pounds of goods...
  I’ll follow you into the park, through the jungle, through the dark
Girl, I never loved one like you
Moats and boats and waterfalls, alley-ways and pay-phone calls
I’ve been everywhere with you, that’s true
  Laugh until we think we’ll die, barefoot on a summer night
Never could be sweeter than with you
And in the streets we’re runnin’ free like it’s only you and me
Jeez, you’re somethin’ to see
    Home, let me come home
    Home is wherever I’m with you…
-Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, “Home”

Less than a year after Curtis and I were married, we spent over a week apart. I have often heard many a romantic story about the couple who “never spent more than a night apart”, but this hasn’t really worked out in our marriage, and that was a trend set early in our relationship.

Though we went to the same college and competed on the same team, our school year togetherness was a stark contrast to our summers apart. Many of our friends assumed, given our common home state, that we saw each other often throughout the summer months. The reality? Curtis lived on an island, and I wasn’t pulling in the “big bucks” it took to get out there. (Can we say airline monopoly? Yes we can.)

Money aside, flying out to an island (or into the city) would have been a pretty big statement about the seriousness of our relationship, one that wasn’t going to be made lightly, and thus the summers were spent emailing and writing letters, with a weekly phone call that lasted far longer than either of our non-phone-talking personalities should have been able to handle.

Then, we got married.

Spending every night together? The norm perhaps, but not without exception. The reality of medical school is that it is all consuming, and with a school calendar offering me a summer of possibilities, I wasn’t going to pass up an extra week with my family, or a weekend away with friends for the sake of camping at our apartment to soak up the twenty free minutes Curtis might have when he got home from work for the night.

Call me independent; I’m just not that girl.

Thus, even in our first year, we split up from time to time. I went to Florida to chaperone a senior trip. He stayed in Alaska an extra week to finish a rotation while I had to report back for the school year. I travelled hours away to boat and play with my friends. These separations were typically accompanied by phone calls and sentiments of missing one another, but not enough to call off the trips altogether.

And then there was Duluth.

In the midst of Curtis’s fourth year of medical school he travelled a lot to interviews and rotations literally all over the country. I went to visit whenever possible, but on a tight budget and a rigid school schedule the visits left something to be desired in the midst of us being just tired of being apart. One two week rotation found Curtis driving seven hours home so that we could be together for 24 hours on Easter weekend, a time when it was just depressing for both of us to be separated. But that two-week hiatus felt like nothing compared to the three-week monster that happened in December of 2009. You know all those wonderful holiday social activities that happen after Thanksgiving? He missed all of them thanks to a rotation 1,000 miles away that stretched from Thanksgiving to nearly Christmas.

It was after this that we determined we needed to add a caveat to our previously loved freedom: We like having the freedom to be apart…but not when it’s a really long time, and not when one of us is stuck in the middle of nowhere.

This summer has proved to be our biggest time apart yet, with Curtis being out of town for eight weeks, and me being with him for two weeks of it. His departures weren't terribly negotiable, with six weeks being required and two weeks being a “really great learning opportunity.” The non-negotiable six-week stint happened to be in a rural Alaskan village that you have to fly to. The good news? Someone pays for spouses to fly out and visit (think: future recruiting). The bad news? It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and this girl likes to keep busy.

And so, I am off: anxious to be reunited with my long lost husband, feeling like over a month apart (with a brief stint of togetherness in the middle) is more than either of us can even pretend to like, and ever confused about whether I love or hate Skype, which provides grainy, delayed communication that both energizes and frustrates me—sometimes at the same time.

I have 150 pounds to pack (mostly food, some clothes, and several books), and an adventure or two to find. The way I see it, the worst-case scenario will find me bored out of my mind, finished with all of my books and the two credit online course that I am saving for this trip, and anxiously watching out the window for Curtis to arrive home from the hospital for the day so that I can have some company.

If the end of the day finds me under the same roof as Curtis, I will happily endure the boredom that it costs to find that--at least for a little while. As much as I love being in my own house, with the freedom for projects and adventures and dates with friends, there is little that can compete with coming home to my husband wherever he may be, rural Alaskan village, stale bland apartment and all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wanted: Neighborly Love

See, neighbors 3? We like dogs...even ones that wake us up in the middle of the night.

Curtis and I are people that like neighbors, that value community, that feel like it’s important to know those around you, and that these relationships can really enhance the value and experience in a place. And whether that place is work or church or home, we like to know the people around us.

In our last home, we had three neighbors in our building.

Neighbor 1: Owner, landlord, collector of rent and fixer of broken garbage disposals. He and his longtime girlfriend traveled frequently and were often absent, but when he was around he loved a good conversation. Curtis is patient and good at participating in conversations at inopportune times. It’s not really my strong point.

Side Note: Curtis is an excellent listener; it’s one of my favorite things about him. He can hear someone ask a question, listen while someone else takes the conversation a completely different direction, follow that direction to its conclusion and then turn to the formerly ignored person and follow up—“You were asking about ______? Tell me more about….”

Neighbor 2: Basement dweller, giver and receiver of brief and polite “hello’s”, once got his car vandalized by former enemies which made me really sad. He even apologized when mis-sprayed mustard ended up on my driver side door.

Neighbor 3: Moved in a month after we did and stayed beyond our three years, the grandfather of one of our college acquaintances, offered us bottled water and the use of his big screen television (and cable) knowing we had none. A widower, he would often bring home “lady friends” from church to spend time with on Sunday afternoons. Occasionally he would ask me to rewrite letters for him because he didn’t like his handwriting and he wanted these lady-friends to know that every detail mattered. We always let each other know if we’d be out of town, and Curtis and I would bring him down a serving of our dinner if he was home alone. Even as a chronic cough echoed up through the ceiling to our apartment into the night, it was nice to know he was alive and well, holding down the first floor while we made our lives up on the second.

And then there were the next-door neighbors, a couple with two kids. I always loved when they would come out and play while I was out reading on the lawn or washing the car. The children would tiptoe onto our oversized driveway/parking lot and inevitably be called back by their parents or sitter. And I would watch them play in the sandbox, and color on their miniature table, and explore the bits of nature they could find in a domesticated neighborhood.

So what about now?

Nearly a year in, Curtis and I regularly comment on the disappointment we find in our lack of community. We share a building with three sets of neighbors, and instead of knowing two of our neighbors well and one of them “sort-of”, we know one of them sort-of-well, one of them “sort-of” and one of them not at all.

Neighbor 1: Greeted us when we were moving in and was thrilled when we struck up a brief conversation with her. This should have been our first clue that this wasn’t the norm. Six months later, Curtis discovers they both work at the hospital, long after we began telling her when we’d be out of town, where we work, what our story is. She tells us we are the first friendly people to live in the building.

Neighbor 2: Greeted us briefly a couple weeks after moving in. We have mandatory conversation from time to time due to his very large truck blocking our garage storage closet, but he (and his often visiting girlfriend) are nice and quiet. Also, they say hi when we inevitably run into them in the stairwell (an important fact regarding in considering neighbors 3).

Neighbors 3: A couple and their dog live in our building. He has a company car, which tells us where he works, and she is home a lot, which I know from being home a fair amount during the summer. He helped us jump our car once, which was really nice, but other than that we have had zero contact with them. Interesting fact? I always say hi whenever I see them, and they never say a word back—either of them. This has become a bit of a game for me, because I feel like this is slightly abnormal and I am determined to get one of them to crack.

Side Note: One of Curtis’s coworkers asked (after being told about the lack of communication with neighbors 3) if perhaps they were deaf. This is a good theory, except that I have heard them talking to each other.

Perhaps we are beyond the age of valuing neighbors and communities and people that are physically present. Perhaps our virtual and transient communities are what we have come to depend on, and knowing the people that you share walls or ceilings or driveways or garages with is abnormal and outdated.

Yet, I’m disappointed. I want to know Neighbor 3’s career, why she’s always home, what kind of dog they have and why he always barks. I want to know neighbor 2’s latest career plans (alluded to briefly in conversation months ago), and who was talking outside our building last night, out of view but not earshot, about moving.

Curtis has mentioned that we should give Neighbors 3 baked goods, to try and strike up a conversation. I guess I have trouble investing time in some sort of bread or pastry to give to a couple of people that clearly want nothing to do with me. Why else would they repeatedly snub polite greetings every time they are offered?

My mom has often told me the story of going to the grocery store with me when I was a small child, when I would say "hi" to every shopper that passed. If ignored, I would escalate my volume, crane my neck and continue vocally pursuing that particular customer until they paid me heed or left my line of sight.

I have yet to see any small children play outside our current condo. I rarely see people hanging around outside when I read, or wash my car, or walk in and out of my building to and from my car. Perhaps this is what I get for living in a modern day invention: the condo complex. Perhaps I should let go of my childhood need for everyone I speak to, to respond. Or perhaps I am not too proud to acknowledge that I can’t do life on my own, that the people around me matter, that in this life we need other people.

Maybe neighbors 3 already have people to take care of them, so many people that they couldn’t possibly invite any more acquaintances in their lives. Even so, I’m not convinced we don’t have something else to offer these silent people that they don’t already have…even if it is just baked goods.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Recent Reads: Part III

It’s hard to believe it’s been three months since I last reported on readings, and a lot of reading has been done since then. Though several articles and a couple fifty page booklets were involved in my recent class, none of them were so significant that they worth posting here. So here are the books yet completed (or in progress):

Touching Spirit Bear, By Ben Mikaelsen
This book is part of the curriculum I taught this past school year, in the midst of the chaos of finishing the school year and trying to manage track season. I really loved this book, which was handed to me the week before the quarter and highly suggested. If you want to read a story about a very troubled teenager, a dysfunctional home, and a couple adults that advocate for healing and processing instead of traditional justice, this is a great fit. There is a bear mauling, island isolation, and a title that doesn’t do it justice. I highly recommend it.

Another Culture, Another World, By Father Michael Oleksa
This was the flagship book for my latest grad school class, which I finished this past weekend. Cross cultural communication is important in most parts of the country these days, but even in out-of-the-way Alaska we deal with more cultures than just about anywhere else in the country. Our minority percentage is a far cry from “highest”, but if you look at different cultures present, some would say we win. Alaska is a crossroads of cultures native to this area and those thousands of miles away, which is why it’s so important to think about the ramifications of our communication styles.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

I finally finished this novel (after much prompting from Ms. LaPointe, who also read the book as part of our unofficial two person "book club", and then went on to finish it months before I did) , which turned out to be a good summer read. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews about the book, which got quite a bit of press when it came out last year. I will say I’m somewhere in the middle: it’s not my favorite book, but I am a sucker for depressing books about dysfunctional families that find bits of redemption in the end. This is 600 pages in a nutshell.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

I had actually never read this classic before this week. I am teaching it next year, and while I (obviously) like to read things before I teach them, I rather enjoyed plowing through it in less than 24 hours. It’s about 100 pages, and is quite comical in how obvious the historical critique is being played out by animals in your not-so-typical farm. We’ll see how astute the teenagers will be on “getting” this.

Currently Reading: Caribou Island

This is what I’m currently working through, on lazy days when I don’t feel like devoting my life to baseboards. Set in Alaska on a lake I spent some time on just a couple weeks ago, I’m curious to see how it all plays out. Word has it (from my fellow book club members) that the author is making it up here this fall, and we may get to hear from him.

Currently Listening: My Sister, My Love

Joyce Carol Oates has long been one of my favorite authors, ever since I read one of her short stories my senior year in high school. We Were the Mulvaneys, which I read while chaperoning a senior trip back in 2007, and Black Girl/White Girl, which I read while piecing a quilt the same year, continued to endear me to her after college. Her writing can be dark, but is very real, and she does an amazing job approaching social and moral dilemmas without presuming to solve them. This particular book, chosen because it was readily available on CD at the library, and I needed something to accompany my painting project, will not be my favorite. Still, it raises some very interesting ideas that I find myself thinking about even when her narration is finished.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sharing Our Gifts


When my sister was in college, I would periodically get phone calls about papers she was working on for her various classes. She would tell me about the latest research she was doing on gothic architecture, on early American slave literature, or on so-and-so, the very controversial artist. Thanks to modern technology, she would email the 8-10 page creations, which I would peruse and mark with electronic notes before sending them 3,000 miles in seconds, back in time to meet her deadlines.

When I would tell my students about the importance of editing their work, I would strongly encourage them to find someone (preferably someone better than themselves) to read and evaluate their work before turning it into me. “Writers depend on editors” I would assure them “no matter their level or talent.” And then I would tell them about the latest work my sister had sent to me—and they would raise their hands in protest.

“She can’t let you edit her papers; that’s cheating.”
“You’re an English teacher; that’s not fair.”
“I’m not writing anything for her; I’m not changing her work. I’m making suggestions on how to improve it. She’s a perfectly good writer all on her own, I’m just helping with the details.”

Writing and editing is a gift I enjoy sharing, with my sister while she was in college, with my brother who is still in high school, with my husband who had to write a lot of carefully worded essays to get into medical school and then residency, with our good friends who were doing the same. I’ve helped construct my mom’s Christmas letter for ages. I have worked on resumes and cover letters and applications for all sorts of friends, readings for church, and recommendation letters for scholarships. Every time I get an opportunity to assist I feel like it’s a gift I can offer, and one that certainly doesn’t need payment.

In due time, everything comes around. My sister, now out of college as a professional photographer, spent hours last week taking beautiful photographs for our anniversary. My mom helped us work through the purchase of a house. Curtis diagnosed me with “the common cold”, and saves me a trip to the doctor’s office…or just curiosity.

I often sense, in the classroom and the media and everywhere else, that our society is focused on what can be gained from a situation—wondering “what is in it for me.” While I am surely guilty of selfish motives, I find such little satisfaction in looking for payment in what could have been a gift. For though there is much time invested in writing and editing for others, there is also much to be gained—learning about famous artists and architecture, discovering my brother’s perspective on Dante’s Inferno, catching up on what happened in our family while I’ve been out of town, and dialoguing with my husband about why he is so passionate about his career choice.

Yes, giving up time to share talents and gifts is a sacrifice, but it often turns out to be a rewarding gift as well—even if it’s often intangible.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer Traditions: Projects

Ten months ago when we moved into our condo, it was in the midst of a school year, a coaching season, and Curtis’s ridiculous schedule at the hospital. There were a couple things about the condo that I didn’t love from the beginning, but the biggest one seemed to stare me in the face at all times: the trim.

I’m not sure whose idea it was, but at some point the trim of the condo was painted a “lovely” color to set off the white walls and gray carpet—mauve. I noted it immediately when we looked at the condo the first time, but obviously didn’t shy away from the purchase on account of someone’s taste in paint color. It could easily be taken care of—eventually.

With the exception of the painting done in the second bedroom (which I was inspired to do on one random Sunday afternoon) the rest of the place had not been touched all year. Now that it was summer and my travels had slowed down, my desire for trim that was not pale pink grew, though it mixed with the premonition that this would be a long and tedious project.

My gut was right.

A couple weeks ago I put in seven hours coloring our living and dining area, with the another two being invested on baseboards. With a brief hiatus for a holiday weekend and a couple camping adventures, I have been working on finishing the room both of the last two days, spending two hours painting the last large wall, and another four on baseboards and door and window frames.

Every day I proudly show off my progress to Curtis, noting windows and doorways now flanked in bright white. It would be hardly noticeable to someone not haunted by mauve for the last ten months, but it is crisp and clean to me—having spent hours fixing the room up and making it my own.

Home ownership seems to be this lofty, sought-after ideal in our current society, but like all grown-up responsibilities it comes with some effort. We may have had white walls in our old apartment, but I also didn’t spend twenty hours painting them. When something breaks, I no longer get to pass along the information (and bill) to an outside party to take care of my problems. When a dent or crack forms, I know I’m going to be the one fixing it.

At the same time, the home is ours—sage walls, white trim and all. And if I want to spend hours and hours with the windows open, the crisp Alaskan summer air rushing through while I paint, I can. And if I want to spend many of the next 24 hours reading a book start to finish, I can. For summer—with all its flexibility—is fleeting. And responsibility of a different kind will knock on my door soon enough once again.

(But at least this time, the doorframe will be white.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Making the Guest List


How to Ensure You’re Invited to a Little Mermaid Birthday Party:
1) Hang out with child from the very beginning, starting with trips to the NICU when said child is born six weeks early, three days after your wedding.
2) Continue visits as child grows, including impromptu visits after school/practice, morning visits before school when the child’s mom needs a latte but loading up three small kids is out of the question, and summer visits that sometimes last all afternoon.
3) Play many rounds of mama dinosaur/baby dinosaur, encourage the learning of Frisbee, and sip many cups of hypothetical tea from 1oz plastic cups with matching saucers.
4) Always be open to another round of reading a book, refereeing a race, or watching yet another variation of a summersault.

Rumor has it I made Spiderman’s guest list for next month. I have to admit, I’m pretty excited.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Summer Traditions: Camping


I slept in a hammock on Wednesday and Thursday night, a tent hammock this is. I woke periodically throughout the night to the sounds of squirrels scurrying beneath me, birds fluttering in the branches and people walking the gravel road nearby as they travelled throughout the campground. Sure, it wasn’t the typical comfort of home, but a couple nights in the wilderness is certainly worth passing up modern amenities, like protection from bear and squirrels in the night.

A visit from out-of-state guests is always a good reason to make plans for out-of-town adventures, whether it’s my own guests or people I’ve never met. In this case it was the latter, and when the packed Subaru pulled into my drive to add my sleeping bag and pad to an already stuffed trunk, the two strangers made room for my gear while my friend introduced me to her high school classmates. It was their first trip to this great land, and while they’d already spent a few days in the interior on bear sighting and wildlife adventures, attention was shifting to the aquatic side of the nature spectrum and we headed for the coast.

Day One: Hike a glacier…or rather, near one. The eight mile round trip hike up the mountain paralleling a major glacier and ice field proved a to be a six hour journey that drained our water bottles and found us exhausted enough to bed back in our hammocks by 9pm. The weather was spectacular, with glimpses of sun and a steady breeze off the glacier to keep us cool. Most of the second half of the hike was on a trail of snow and slush, still dense and expansive even in the middle of July.

Day Two: Tour the other glaciers…and various wildlife. While the previous night’s early bedtime was due to exhaustion of climbing over 3,000 vertical feet, the next morning came early with a need to clean up the site and travel into town in time to make it on the tour boat at 8:30am. With nine hours of ocean travel ahead of us, I popped a seasickness pill and hoped for the best. Thankfully the waves were kind and when my stomach started to turn for the worse we found a calm patch nestled in a cove.

After staring in awe hour after hour at whales and birds, glaciers and porpoises, I am almost ashamed that it took out of state visitors to find me on such a trip. I see a lot of gorgeous wildlife and scenery in everyday life in Alaska, but setting aside a full day on a boat when the primary goal is wildlife observation and appreciation (and you have a seasoned captain to guide your tour and inform your view in everything from geology to ornithology) was well worth the investment.

All in all the trip was more than successful, it was nearly perfect. We spent the days outside in sun and wind and rain, cooked dinner over a campfire while reliving the day’s adventures, lounged on a rocky beach at the edge of our campground while the evening sun flickered on the waves, and disconnected ourselves from society for a while at a campsite without cell-service. And at the end of each day as I fell asleep to the rocking of my hammock, I would mentally settle in for the night: Hat? Check. Gloves? Check. Bear spray? Check. Another great day of summer? Absolutely.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011



My eyes are swollen and itchy this evening, thanks no doubt to the generous supply of cottonwood I swam through on my evening run, picking it out of my eyelashes, blowing it out of my nose. Yet, I can hardly complain.

It has been a beautiful day, with hours to play with my friend’s small children, to sit on the deck and sip lemonade, to take walks with strollers and bikes with training wheels.

And when the play date was over, and I was headed home from the evening, I couldn’t help but recognize how far life has come. I never would have guessed as an insecure junior higher spending the night at a friend’s house that someday her children would invite me to their birthday parties, dance with me to Adele’s latest hit, and humor me while I try to throw decent pitches at their ready bats.

During summer days when I am not travelling I oscillate between feeling productive and lazy, between feeling fulfilled and frustrated. I always have a long list of projects and tasks, but sometimes I have the unmistakable urge to throw it all out of the window in favor of playing outside. And if anyone knows how to soak up summer sun, oblivious of time or responsibilities, it is a couple of red-headed four year olds who know that “Ash” is always up for anything.