Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Moose Visitation

Does anybody ever get used to this? If I live here for twenty years, I don't think I will. I know, I know, it is so common around here people just yawn and say, "Oh, yeah, another moose." It is a frequent occurrence for people who live in downtown Anchorage, for Pete's sake (and Anchorage isn't really IN Alaska, though, as they say, you can see Alaska from there).

This does NOT happen in Bethel. In my ten years of living there, I never once saw a moose within a hundred miles of Bethel. Occasionally one would wander into the area and you'd hear about it all over town for days, along with plenty of envy for the guy who saw it first and got it into his freezer to feed the family for the next several months.

With the five-year moratorium on moose hunting on the lower Kuskokwim River, now in its fourth year, the moose population in the area is coming back strongly. A few miles upriver from Bethel where there are stands of cottonwood and fir trees, signs of moose presence are everywhere: bark stripped from the trees at the six-foot level, snow churned up, big hoof prints, and lots of piles of moose turds. But they don't wander into town, and surely are not browsing the shrubberies around people's homes.

Yesterday this young moose cow and her calf were doing exactly that. Mother and I were inside doing something or other when Mother looked out the window and said "Oh, my goodness! There is a moose right next to the house!"

And she was, just about two feet from the back door. She turned and looked directly at me, and was completely unperturbed. I was snapping photos like mad through the window while she continued to munch down our bushes around the deck. She reminded me of the young moose on the opening sequence of the old TV show "Northern Exposure" (which, by the way, is available from Netflix if you are interested). Clearly, moose have not been hunted around here for a very long time. She had no fear, despite having a young calf.

We never got a good look at the calf. It was on the far side of a downed tree, eating the tips. As mom moved off slowly, the calf trailed her, and I could see that it was very young and small, probably only eight or nine months old.

What a Christmas Eve gift! Mother and I were both elated to have had such a close encounter, and one that lasted a good half hour or so. I do have to admit to having had a few thoughts about how tasty that moose would be, but I am just not a hunter. Short of my family's starvation, I would not look down the barrel and pull the trigger on Bullwinkle. But I'm happy to eat him when someone else does, and extremely good eating it is, too.

It is an incredible feeling to have wild animals in your immediate environment. We have black and brown bears around here too, though I am a little less excited to see them next to the back door. Gawd, I love Alaska!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Bit of Americana

When my grandmother died this past May, it was only a week before my scheduled trip to see her; I dropped everything and went immediately when I got the not-unexpected news, and was there with Mother and the rest of the family for two weeks. Mother and I were the only ones staying in her house, as everyone else lives in the area.

We spent quite a bit of time sorting through stuff, and what interested me the most was Grandmother’s huge collection of old photographs. She has images of long-dead relatives that go all the way back to the era of daguerreotypes. Fortunately, many have names and dates written on the back in pencil. It was the details in many of these images that fascinated me more than the subjects themselves.

The three photos I’ve posted here struck me as outstanding examples of quaint Americana. Mother could not remember having seen them before, and did not know why they were taken; they look like a photo shoot for a gas station ad. That’s my uncle, Mother’s older brother, second from the right in the first shot, which is why my grandmother had the photos at all. He looks about 18 or 19 years old, and Mother remembers him working at the gas station in town about then. It was 1947 or ’48.

I love the hats and bow ties. When was the last time someone even pumped your gas for you, much less wore a hat and bow tie to do it? And three guys—one to pump the gas, one to check the oil, and one to wash the windows! Mother says the window guy not only washed ALL the windows, and the mirrors, he also carefully wiped your headlights while he was at it.

Any old-car buffs out there know what make the cars are? The dark one on the right looks like a Plymouth to me, but I don’t have a clue about the lighter one on the left. There were no Rolls Royces in rural south central Kentucky in the late forties!

On the original full-pixel scans of the photos, I zoomed in on the gas tanks to try to read the price per gallon, but the detail was too blurred to make it out. The second tank from the left reads THIS SALE: $1.23, and GALLONS DELIVERED: 5 point something. That would put the price about 21 cents per gallon; Mother remembers it being less than that, more like 15 cents per gallon. The Gulf Valve Top Oil being seriously discussed with the driver of the dark car was 25 cents per quart.

These photos charm me in a way I can’t explain. My uncle looks so young and innocent. He’d have been 80 this year if he had survived the leukemia which took his life ten years ago. Perhaps it is just that the images speak to a simpler time when life was less hurried and complex. Especially this time of year, many people nostalgically think of that era as sweeter and more honest than now. It probably wasn’t; and I’d be hard-pressed to give up my laptop, my iPod, my microwave and my cell phone. But it still charms me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'm the Sixth Day of Christmas!

A blog I enjoy checking in with, Addicted to Medblogs, has been doing a series every so often called Calendar Docs. The Medblog Addict is an attorney who is fascinated by medical blogs and the portal into the world of health care that they provide. Last year she started interviewing different physician bloggers and posting the interviews along with sexy beefcake photos (most of the interviews were with male physicians).

This year for Christmas she decided to do one interview for each of the 12 days of Christmas. She chose 12 non-physician providers for this blogging bolus, and I am Day 6--the geese a-laying (is there significance to that?)!

She came up with some good questions, and I enjoyed writing answers. You can find my interview here. She has previous Calendar Doc interviews in a sidebar on the right. Enjoy!


Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Mother's Blessing

For my entire life, I have been blessed by the fact that my mother has always been one of my very best friends. Even during my adolescence, the classic era of mother-daughter wars, we were very close. Possibly because I was such a goody-two shoes, I never gave my parents any problems. By the time my rebellious phase hit (such as it was) I was in college and too far away for them to directly observe any objectionable behaviors. My younger sister, on the other hand, was a constant source of chaffing for them from the time she was 12—which, now that I think of it, was probably something of a distraction for which I should have thanked her.

In all the traipsing around I’ve done (California, Washington State, North Carolina, Montana, Alaska) Mother has come to visit me in almost every place I’ve lived. Some were pretty marginal, but she never complained about them; before I knew it she’d be making new curtains. My friends loved her visits; she would cook a good old Southern fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes, turnip greens and black eyed peas and we’d have a dozen or so people in to enjoy it.

Our visits have been less frequent since I moved to Alaska. It takes 24 hours of travel each way to get from Bethel or Kenai to her home near Pensacola; I usually try to visit when I am already in the lower 48 attending the national PA conference each May. She has been to Alaska a handful of times, usually for a two- or three-week visit. Her last visit was two years ago.

Toward the end of summer I talked with her about coming up to see the new place in Kenai and her son-in-law, whom she absolutely adores (and it’s mutual), but she was still dealing with the details of my grandmother’s estate since her death in May. Mother didn’t think she could come before next spring. But when I called her in October with news of the hip replacement surgery, she put everything aside and said, “I’ll be there.” She came on the first of November and is staying until after Christmas—two entire months. I am delighted, and so is Dutch.

We have a great time hanging out together, all three of us or just Mother and me. We talk about everything in the world. And for someone edging towards 80, she has amazing energy. It is all I can do to keep up with her. She is constantly tidying, mending, cleaning—“jes’ piddlin’” as she says. And everything in her wake is nicer, cozier, more organized. I turn around twice and she’s not only done another load of laundry, she has ironed all of Dutch’s dress shirts. Perhaps you’d have to see his closet to appreciate that, but the man must have fifty dress shirts* in size extra large. I figure at four shirts a week (Fridays being jeans-and-sweatshirt day) he’s good until April. I hate ironing. *She counted them: 61.

When she is at home in Florida, Mother leads a morning meditation group that meets from 6 to 7 am five days a week at a local church, and a weekly metaphysical group that studies the works of Emmett Fox. And then there are a few bridge-playing groups that she drops in on regularly. She leads an energetic life, my mom.

Having her here for this extended period of time has been wonderful. We’ve had time to talk over lots of old family stuff, things I remember from childhood, her childhood memories growing up during the Depression in the hills of Tennessee.

She always referred to her half of my lineage as “the hillbilly side”. She was born “up the holler” in a tiny town that no longer exists. She walked a mile or so to the one-room schoolhouse carrying an actual pail with her lunch in it. There was no indoor plumbing anywhere, and her mother did all the cooking on a wood-fired stove. Mother learned to iron clothes using a five-pound flatiron that had to be heated up in the fireplace.

Her family had all been farmers for generations. But Grandaddy was an enterprising man with a mind for business; when oil was discovered on his farm—kind of like Jed Clampett—he sold it for lots of money and moved the family to town. He and Grandmother bought a hardware and furniture store right on the town square and became merchants. I still remember that store; it had wooden floors and kind of a musty smell. I learned to roller skate on those floors.

Mother graduated high school at the age of 16 and went to college at Western Kentucky State College (now Western Kentucky University) in Bowling Green. There she met my Dad, and they married when they finished college. He went to dental school and she entered the secretarial pool of the work force. Two years later, I came along; and she was overjoyed. I was her love child. We have shared a very special mother-daughter relationship that goes back to the very beginning of my existence in this lifetime. I am so blessed in that.

She is forever teaching me something new. Need to get rid of an anthill in your yard? Buy a box of instant grits and pour them (uncooked) in a thick circle around the anthill. The ants have to eat their way through the grits to get out. The grits absorb all the fluid in their stomachs, swell up and explode the insects. No poison needed.

Like your cornbread crispy? Bake it in a waffle iron.

No matter what we’re doing together, we end up laughing a lot. I love that about her, she has a great, and sometimes salty, sense of humor; and with her soft Southern accent, everything comes out charming.

If it is true that we become our mothers, then I have some truly fine multi-generation footsteps to follow, and I fully expect to do so for another twenty years or so. When Grandmother passed away this past summer she was 94, as was her mother before her. The hillbilly side has produced some delightful old women, and given me great role models.

Photo credits:
1. Mother and me as a newborn, still in the hospital, taken by Dad. In the early 1950s women stayed in the hospital for ten days when they gave birth; I was nine days old when we came home.
2. Mother and me at about one month old, also taken by Dad. I still have that quilt with the circles on it, though it is a bit more ragged now than it was then.
3. Mother and me at age two years. This was our passport photo when we moved to Germany. Dad was stationed there as an Army dentist.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Bethel Update

My dear friend Joan, who gets periodic mention here on the blog, spent Thanksgiving week in Anchorage seeing friends and was able to make a quick trip down to Kenai for an overnight to visit with Dutch and me. We were delighted that she was able to come; Dutch hasn’t seen her since August, and I haven’t seen her since I left Bethel at the end of September. The visit gave us time to catch up on Bethel news.

For much of November I was watching my two weather feeds on Bethel and Kenai; Bethel was in the zero to 25 below range (usually closer to the colder end) while Kenai stayed in the zero to 25 above range. For nearly two weeks, Bethel did not warm up to 10 below, which is pretty harsh cold for November. Joan said that quite a few people were having problems with their houses freezing up, even the experienced folks who know how to prevent it. Two weeks of cold that severe will challenge the best of technology.

She pointed out, though, that it was great for the river. An extended hard cold early in the season thickens the surface ice on the river quickly, which makes for much safer traveling. Especially if there has not been a heavy dump of snow just before the cold hits; snow insulates the ground so that freezing takes longer. The ideal is a hard cold snap before there is any snow; the ground and the river get a good head start on freezing solid. Snow after that makes everything nice.

Every year there are several (or more) deaths by drowning on the Kuskokwim River from people traveling on snowmachines that break through thin ice. These tragedies often occur early in the season, when people anxious to travel do so before the river ice is thick enough. This year’s early cold will help to prevent such accidents.

Most people in Bethel are just grousing about the harsh cold; two weeks of 25 below zero is really tough. Everything about living your life is just harder in that kind of cold. It is so like Joan to focus on the positive aspect of it.

She also told us that the outcome of the City Council election in October has had a hugely positive effect on the general feeling of the people of Bethel. (I wrote several posts this past year on the outrageous and despicable behavior of four of the seven City Council members; the last one has links to the previous ones.) The Block of Four (a.k.a. the Four Thugs, the Four Malicious Idiots) lost two of their members and, thereby, their dominance of the City Council. Tundy Rodgers (the Blustering Bloviator) and Willy Keppel (the Newly Appointed (last December) Council Member) both ran, but barely got a handful of votes each.

Tundy’s defeat is a huge statement from the people of Bethel. They are just tired of his pomposity. He sat on Council for something like eighteen years, and all he ever did was roar with negativity. I could not find a single person in Bethel who could name one thing Tundy did in those eighteen years that was positive for the Council or the town. And Willy? Jeez, what a loser. Dutch and I heard from numerous people about him showing up rip roarin’ drunk to a Council meeting; everyone knew he was drunk, but the Mayor (Eric Middlebrook) did not ask him to leave or indicate that there was any problem with Willy participating fully in Council business despite his inebriation. Yes, Eric, this was another example of your incompetence and spinelessness.

Another happy outcome of the October election was that Middlebrook was soundly routed in his bid for Mary Sattler Nelson’s seat in the state legislature. He would have been a disaster in Juneau; he has no political savvy at all. Mary threw her support to Bob Herron, who won handily.

And the really good thing that happened in this wake-up call to Bethel is that really good people stepped up and ran for Council. There are three new Council members, as two positions were up for re-election, and one seat had been recently vacated by Yolanda Jorgenson, the Jolly Restaurateur, who moved away. The new Council members are Beverly Hoffman (mentioned in my bird watching post), Joe Klejka (physician and father of Jessica, who won the Jr. Iditarod this year), and La Mont Albertson (director of the adult learning center, and a man Dutch likes and respects individually).

These three join the four remaining from the previous Council: two sad remnants of the Block of Four (now essentially castrated), Eric Middlebrook and Raymond Williams—for whom the nickname “Thor” is ironic, since he has at times been compared to a box of hammers; and two of the three “white hats” who tried to stand for honesty and decency against the Block of Four, Dan Leinberger, who I never gave a handle to, and Tiffany Zulkowski, the Voice of Youth. And to top the good stuff off, the new Council elected Tiffany as Mayor at their very first meeting! Dutch and I did a spirited little happy dance when we heard that news! And sent her a card of congratulations on her victory. Good has triumphed over evil in this case.

The issue of the recall petitions on Middlebrook and Williams died without ever coming to the people, despite plenty of signatures, due to what I believe was the completely unethical behavior of the City Clerk, Lori Strickler. She gave out wrong instructions on how the petitions should be turned in, and then declared them all invalid because they were turned in according to her instructions. We called in the ACLU, who told her to give them back and allow the signature collectors to turn them in correctly (i.e., all at once), but she refused and then lied and said she never gave us wrong instructions. I fully believe Middlebrook "encouraged" her to find a way to make the petitions go away, and fearing for her job, she did.

The other loose end to this ragged story concerns the former City Attorney, Sharon Sigmon, whose wrongful termination by the Council last January marked the beginning of this year-long debacle of corruption. She quickly obtained another job, but there has been no news of her lawsuit against the City Council and the individual members (Williams and Middlebrook) who treated her so despicably after the meeting at which she was terminated. Separate from the Council’s action, those two should be sued for defamation of character by action for the way they called in a uniformed police officer and hustled her out of the building like she might steal the pencil erasers. She wasn’t even allowed to retrieve personal items from her office. I’m still hoping she’ll sue the britches off ‘em, and win big time.

Joan says that overall, it is like a cleansing wind has swept through Bethel. People are no longer ashamed of their elected representatives, and are hopeful once again about moving forward. Middlebrook and Williams have one more year on Council before they must stand for re-election; without their corrupt cronies they can do far less damage, and my bet is that come October next, they will be left standing when the next Council is seated.