I remember that one of the things that made the Inupiat people of the North Slope the angriest was when environmentalists suggested that ANWR was a vast trackless expanse of land that man had never touched. They used this as the reason why industry should not be allowed there now no matter how small a footprint it leaves behind.
This angered the Inupiat because the simple truth is that they have been part of the Arctic for as long as their cultural memory can reach and Western science can confirm. And during that time, they did not fly on winged feet over that land. They walked on it. They dog-sledded on it. They hunted, loved, created families and died on it.
This same can be said about the seas of the Arctic, which the Inupiat view as their gardens. They harvest from them in the same way a farmer harvests his field. Among other benefits, the mammals of the Arctic carry in their blubber the vitamins we get from vegetables; the vitamins that allowed the Inupiat to be healthy in a land where the sun never rose for three months and the land did not produce vegetables and fruits.
The presence of men and women has been felt in the Arctic since time immemorial. It is not a vast wasteland as some would suggest who are eager to sell its virtues as an oil rich bounty for America’s energy needs. And it is not some virgin waiting to be defiled by the rapaciousness of an uncaring oil industry. As always in real life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle where most of us actually live.
This past week Governor Murkowski, in an apparent outbreak of frustration over his inability to open the ANWR coastal plains to development, has announced he will offer offshore areas for leasing in the Arctic. Whether or not this is a viable business concept, and whether or not anyone will even be interested in these tracts, is not an issue I plan to discuss here. The issue I see as much more immediately important is the message this once again sends to the only people in the world who can honestly claim a love of the Arctic land and seas that goes beyond what bounty they provide and is inextricably bound up with who they are.
Anyone who has seen the changes on the North Slope since the development of Prudhoe Bay must admit that along with the negative impacts the money had on the culture, from which the culture is still struggling to emerge, the positive impacts are undeniable. There are sanitation and clean water systems in each village. There are health clinics, good roads, fire departments, local schools and safe housing all attributable to the money brought in by that development.
North Slope people are well aware of their good fortune and have worked hard to be good neighbors with the oil industry. But they have always rightfully insisted that they be integral to any development on the North Slope so that their heritage of good stewardship of their land and seas will pass untainted to the children’s children. They have never been willing to trade their culture for a paycheck. They have worked hard for 30 years to make sure that it has not had to be a trade but could be a mutually beneficial relationship.
When Governor Murkowski vents his frustration over opening ANWR’s coastal plains by announcing he will lease land in the Inupiat’s garden, the people of the North Slope rightfully recoil from what seems like a slap in their face. It is as though they are being punished for something over which they have no control.
I’m guessing the governor did not intend it in this way but that’s how it looks from out here. The sea is sacred to the Inupiat in a way that a thousand of my columns could not fully explain. The bowhead whale defines the Inupiat. The seal, walrus and polar bear are part of the cycle of life in any Inupiat village. The danger of off shore drilling to these resources is something almost beyond comprehension because it is the kind of damage that once done could destroy an entire culture.
The Inupiat people are proud to be Alaskans and proud that the bounty of their land has helped strengthen their state. After all, sharing is at the heart of this culture and sharing the wealth of their oil is just an extension of what they have always done with any of their bounty.
They deserve to be heard about their seas and we need to listen carefully to what they say. It’s the right thing to do.
Here’s what happens when you take your kids out of Alaska while they’re growing up. They have no concept of what real life is all about. If you bring your kids to a place like San Diego, they grow up thinking that life is all sunshine and 72-degree weather with blue skies and calm seas.
Back in my misspent youth, I studied nursing in New York City. Part of the curriculum involved going out to an adult mental institution called Manhattan State on an island in New York harbor.
There were three tall buildings on the island. The higher the level, the more extreme the affliction. Student nurses rarely, if ever, got about the third floor. About that same time, a young reporter named Geraldo Rivera did some investigative journalism that led to the exposure of an institution for kids called on Long Island. The place was a horror house of kids with mental illnesses and low mental functions thrown together and left in their own excrement, often without even clothes.
Not long after that, mental institutions were emptied out across the country with the promise that community mental health centers would replace them and help the mentally ill or challenged to live more normal lives, integrated in society but supported by specialists within easy reach in each neighborhood.
That promise has yet to be fulfilled.
I can’t imagine us going back to a time when we shut the mentally ill up in tall buildings with big locks and let them waste away. I hope that places like that will forever remain in the past. But there are times when institutionalization is the only answer, at least temporarily, for some people, including some kids on my caseload.
There are no long term locked treatment facilities in this state for our most damaged children. The only locked facilities for children in Alaska are places like the McLaughlin and Fairbanks Youth Facilities. There is no way to spin those facilities into something other than what they are - kiddy jails. They are for children who have committed a crime, not for children who have a mental illness and need the security of a locked program to protect them from their own unsafe behaviors.
Locked treatment facilities available to Alaska’s children, as noted in an article in the Daily News not too long ago, are in the lower ‘48. Sending a child that far from home and family creates its own set of problems over and above the initial problem with which the child is dealing.
When children are in treatment far from family, it makes it difficult for family to participate in counseling - an often critical part of successful recovery. And if a child does make progress and starts to open up, that invariably leads to a review of the child’s status. If that review shows enough progress, then the kid no longer qualifies for that level of care.
What this means is that at a time when a kid is finally willing to trust a counselor enough to open up, the child is packed up and sent back to Alaska where they have to start from scratch in building a new relationship with a new counselor.
It means that the children who most need stability, who need the most time possible to learn to trust enough to disclose their issues, go through a major upheaval just as they are reaching that point.
When state health officials blithely talk about building these facilities in state so our kids aren’t sent away, I want to ask where they are going to get the money. And it’s not just construction money. Where will the annual operating budget come from? State health officials talk about building new facilities while they cut funds from programs already critical to children like foster care payments.
Words are cheap. Facilities that can serve our most needy children are expensive. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is both voodoo economics and voodoo health care. And sound bites with no substance behind them are just voodoo public relations.
(Ok, yes, it was THAT Geraldo Riviera.)
My godchild got married recently and I went a bit nuts trying to think of just the right wedding gift to give her. She’s a very special young lady and, though I’ve never met him, the word I’ve received is that her new husband is a very special young man. So you can see that no ordinary gift would do.
After much perusing of catalogs and Internet sites, I decided that the best gift I could give her was a book of family recipes. The recipes would range from traditional dishes that have been in my family since we sailed from Italy, to a great Chinese spareribs recipe I once found in a Sunday magazine, to recipes I made up in desperation on nights when there was little in the refrigerator and I didn’t want to eat out alone.
As I was putting this book together, I started seeing articles in various periodicals that said that people who cook at home do not tend to get as obese as people who eat out a lot. So maybe by giving her this book, I’m giving her more than a wedding present. Maybe I’m giving her something that will ultimately benefit her long-term health and that of the children I am secretly longing for her to have.
Not that anyone would call some of my family recipes healthy. They come from an era where you just couldn’t get enough butter, eggs and cheese. But over the years I’ve found that with a little modification, they can be healthy and still taste great.
The thing though that I most want her to learn from this book is that cooking should be, above all else, a fun and creative activity. I think this gets lost in today’s busy world where pots have been replaced by take out containers and the smell of food in the kitchen means the microwave has finished it’s reheating function.
My cousin Toni has a theory that if a recipe is available, use it. She feels it’s the result of someone who spent a long time working on it and so it gives you the best possible outcome.
I think that holds true only up to a point. When I’m in the kitchen, my motto is “Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to fail”. Of course, it helps if you keep a big hungry dog around who will think that most of your failures are manna from heaven.
And if you can get your spouse in the kitchen with you...well, you just can’t believe the great conversations you can have while chopping onions or how truly peaceful just stirring a pot can be after a crazed day at work. Cooking from scratch forces you to stay in one place and focus on something very mechanical which leaves your mind free to daydream and find its quiet place.
And for the working mom, I would just like to remind her that a wooden spoon can be your best friend. You can stir the pot with it, scratch your back with it and whack a recalcitrant kid on the head with it as they try to sneak by you in the kitchen after doing something wrong - all without moving from your original position at the stove.
I know that in my family, food played a role that non-Italians might find too central. And I am old enough to know that it is not necessarily healthy to equate food with love. But that’s the way it was when I was growing up. I can never eat that Sunday sauce or bite into a piece of strufoli without wonderful memories flooding back to me - memories of a childhood filled with love, laughter, cousins, aunts, uncles and food. Lots and lots of food.
And that alone should be a good enough reason to find the time to cook meals at home. Not just because it’s healthier for you and your family, but because when you get old and your memory starts to slip a little, there is nothing like the aroma of some favorite family dish baking in the over to jog it and bring back the good times. The smell of reheated Chinese takeout just doesn’t carry the same punch.
I guess if I had any philosophy to pass on to my godchild as she starts her marriage, it would be to live her life with a wooden spoon in one hand and her husband’s heart - as reached through his stomach - in the other. And to never let go of either.
It started with a routine visit to the vet for a dental cleaning in honor of the fact that March is Doggy Dental Care month or some such thing. I mean really, do we have to have someone actually proclaim this - as though having your dog breathe into your face in the morning isn’t all the notice you need that it’s time for a dental checkup.
I’m not sure how many more days I can take of Mr. T following me through the kitchen like my shadow while staring up at me through his cataract filled eyes wondering why I’ve chosen to torture him at this late stage in our relationship. I don’t want to be mean to him. If I had my way, his days would be filled with greenies and turkey dogs. But, like so many of us, he is now being forced to face the inevitable results of old age.
I realize that trying to get any given part of Alaska’s elected and appointed leaders to stop tossing the fiscal gap around like a hot potato at a Fourth of July picnic game is probably asking for more than anyone is able to give. But I don’t think all the blame belongs to the people sitting in Juneau. Some of it does, but not all of it.
A lot of it belongs to individual Alaskans who keep sending the message to Juneau that they don’t want to pay for services but by gosh those services they use had better not be cut. Cut services someone else uses. Because the services someone else uses must be where the bloat is.
The problem with running state government based on the theory that you can always cut more services and save more money so long as you don’t cut my services, is that the people who get left out of the equation are the ones with the least amount of political clout and the least amount of power. They are the ones least able to stand up and articulate what the constant cuts have done to them.
The other problem you run into, is that instead of funding government services based on what is best for us, for our society as a whole, programs get funded based on who can generate the loudest voice or most threaten a politician’s re-election chances.
Possibly the most disenfranchised group in society are children without family or parents to advocate for them. While you will go to the school board meeting and make sure you are heard if cuts threaten a program your child needs to succeed, there is no one usually available to go represent the child in state custody whose needs will not be met because of budget cuts. Theirs is a silent scream that turns no heads and changes no votes.
And it’s even worse if you are a teenager in state custody because then you don’t even have the cute factor working for you, the “Awww” factor that at least helps little children tug at society’s heartstrings. Teenagers are not generally the most attractive group and these are not generally their most attractive years. And so their needs come so low in the pecking order that I find myself wondering why we don’t just build orphanages to warehouse them till they are 18. It would be better than the hodgepodge of sometimes questionable services we cobble together now in an attempt to meet their needs while keeping our fingers crossed that funding doesn’t get cut again and create another hole in the net.
Last year, some budget cuts in the Office of Children’s Services were turned over to the individual regions to handle. I guess the thinking was that the regions would best know where they could cut with the least amount of pain. So the region with which I work most frequently decided it had to cut $5 a day from its augmented rates given to foster parents who take in special needs kids.
That’s $5 a day - $150 or so a month - cut and gone. Many of these foster parents use every cent they get to place these children in any program available that might help them become productive citizens of our state. They aren’t getting rich off these payments. Anyone who has ever tried to feed and clothe a normal teenager knows how high that cost can be. On top of that, these foster parents are dealing with children who demand more of their time, energy and emotion than any of us can possible imagine.
They took these kids in based on a promise from the state that they would be supported in their efforts. Apparently that promise only held true for so long as it was convenient to the state. And when it wasn’t, the money was cut.
Some of these kids will no longer get the services they need. Some will have to leave their foster homes because the foster parents can no longer afford them. They will go to group homes, which will cost the state a lot more than the foster home did. And ultimately, no matter how good the group home is, the kids will emerge from it more comfortable with institutions than families. All of which I guess is good since statistics show that most of these kids will then spend a large part of their adult life in jail.
And no politician has ever lost an election by building more jails.
Before she died, my mother used to quote the poet Robert Browning’s line, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” Then she let loose with what was for her a very unladylike snort of derision. You got the feeling she wasn’t buying the sentiment.
When I was young, I’d hear the cynical tone she used when she said that and thought to myself that would never happen to me. Why? Well, because as all baby boomers know, we are never going to grow old.
And then I woke up one day and the unthinkable occurred. As I stood bleary eyed in front of the mirror taking the handful of pills needed to keep me alive from day to day and counting the number of doctor appointments I had that week alone, I heard my mother’s voice come out of my mouth. She was quoting Robert Browning. And she even snorted at the end.
It was one of those moments that, if I had been younger, I would have attributed to an accidental ingestion of something other than shitake mushrooms the night before.
I look at my old dog and realize that as each day goes by, I am more and more able to empathize with him as he lies in his bed moaning and groaning softly, in between snoring and barking as he dreams in his sleep. He’s pretty deaf, so ringing phones and doorbells no longer disturb his slumber. A bullhorn blown into his ear would probably only rate a raised head, bleary eyed response.
I didn’t realize that I was starting to make some of those same sounds as I slept until I heard my African Gray parrot one day imitating me. It was early morning, the alarm has just gone off and I was lying in bed, less than eager to leave it’s warmth. Abdul was in the next room behind his nighttime curtain.
As he always does in the morning while he waits for me to get up and get the day going, he was sitting there talking and laughing to himself. And then he started making these sounds. I listened intently thinking he had picked up sounds from the cartoons he watches all day. But after a few minutes, I recognized them for what they were. Human sounds he’d heard night after night coming from the bedroom next to his. I pulled the covers over my head and wondered why I would ever want to get up again.
Then there’s the little problem of focus that seems to be happening more and more. It’s a problem seen in youth and, I’m finding out, once again as old age sets in. For instance, when I started to write this column, I wanted to be sure I had the quote right. So I went to the Internet to search for it. But I got a little side tracked when I ended up at a site that had the entire Rubyiat of Omar Khayyam on it. I read that which reminded me of a friend I needed to write to but first I had to call someone else for the address...well, you get the picture. Three hours later, I still hadn’t started the column.
Mr. T gets more easily distracted too now that he’s 14. He still loves to take our daily walk but he no longer heads straight from point A to point B pulling the old lady behind him. Instead, he walks three steps, stops and barks for a minute, walks three more steps, sniffs yesterday’s markings, barks for another minute, walks three steps, stops and barks at the moose droppings for a minute, walks another three steps and stops to bark at something only his cataract filled eyes can see. It’s no wonder he’s so exhausted when he gets home.
I guess my attitude about growing old would be a bit different if Mr. Browning were here to do it with me. But then, I’m not sure how I’d keep the romance going once he heard the sounds I make in my sleep. Or the ones I make when I get out of a low chair. Or the ones I make when I attempt to get down on the floor to yell in my dogs ear because he is totally ignoring my calls to go out before we go to bed.
I personally think the quote should read, “Grow old along with me. You can’t believe what’s going to be.”
One of my younger cousins has died. She’s the first in our generation of cousins to do so. I guess that makes us lucky when you consider how many cousins we have and what a wide variety of ages.
Sometimes I have to blink and clear my eyes when I see my cousin Louie. I keep expecting to see the young man who used to swallow bottle caps to impress his little cousin who had such a crush on him. Instead, I see a 72-year-old grandfather who could easily become a great-grandfather in the not too distant future.
But I hadn’t seen Nancy in over 30 years and so, in my mind, she remained as young as my memories of her. In those memories she’s a vivacious, elfish looking teenager with bright sparkling eyes and an every ready smile.
But the sixties were not kind to her. She went into them with a special spark that caused everyone to brighten up when she was in the room and got lost in drugs and alcohol. It took a long time for her to come back to us. When she did, she made a good home for herself and her new husband and raised her family well.
But the excesses of her early life caught up with her and she died at 53 of liver failure, diabetic complications and pneumonia.
When she died, the cousins’ network went into full swing. Her sister only had to call one cousin and tell her to spread the word. It spread rapidly. While many of us are too far away to make the funeral, in many ways we’ve already done our mourning in the multiple phone calls that have flown around the country.
We relived our best memories in those phone calls and laughed at the children we once were. We relived the sad memories and rued the time lost. We renewed our bonds as a family united in grief.
When I get involved in a case as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) in which a child must be removed from their family, I know that more than just the bonds of that immediate family are being broken. Actually, in many cases, the nuclear family is so sick and damaged that you would be hard pressed to actually define it as a family.
Unfortunately, there is always an extended family that loses a member when this happens. When cousins get together to play, one of them is missing. By missing out on those days of play, the child who has been removed from his or her home is also missing out on the time that forges the bonds that will last through their lifetime.
There is no easy solution to the problems created when you have to remove children from their home. And when you add in the loss of their extended family, the price children pay for their parents inability to stay sober, stop fighting and provide them with a stable home is enormous.
No matter how hard a foster home or group home might try to keep those extended family ties alive, the natural ebb and flow of family dropping in to visit, showing up for dinner, gathering for the holidays, is lost. In its place is a schedule of visits with predetermined times, pre-approved lengths and pre-negotiated conditions about contact with the parents.
I don’t know what I’d have done without my cousins in my life. Some of us are still best friends. Some of us only see each other on holidays. But no matter how little or how often the contact happens, when it does, there is a wonderful flow of love and laughter that comes from so many shared memories.
When my Aunt Toni makes a certain remark and my cousin Toni rolls her eyes, I know exactly what she means because I was there from the start. And the playing field is always level among us no matter who is making what salary or has what position because we all have too much information about each other for anyone to ever have the upper hand.
Kids in state custody often lose that closeness with their cousins, their extended family. And nothing in the world can replace it because nothing else is quite like it.
Wouldn’t it be a much fairer world if the parents who messed up paid the price instead of the kids?
Every once in a while you read something so outrageous in the news that you find yourself rereading it just to make sure you didn’t totally miss the point. Then you find yourself turning to the front of the paper to make sure you haven’t accidentally picked up some sort of satire publication. Then you look at the byline to see if it’s by some world-renowned humor columnist.
Only after exhausting all these avenues are you forced to admit that in fact, just when you thought life could get no weirder, someone pushed the envelope a little further.
And so it was that on Sunday while reading the paper, I came across an article that said the following, “The school honor roll, a time honored system for rewarding A-students, has become an apparent source of embarrassment for some underachievers. As a result, all Nashville schools have stopped posting honor rolls, and some are also considering a ban on hanging good work in the hallways - all at the advice of school lawyers.” (Now you knew lawyers would be involved somewhere, didn’t you?) The article goes on to state that some school have also put a stop to academic pep rallies, and are considering canceling spelling bees.
Once I ascertained that this was, in fact, not a spoof but reality, my first question was “Why is this being confined to just academics”? If not making a publicly announced honor roll destroys a child’s self esteem, what must it do to that poor child’s ego when he or she doesn’t get to play varsity basketball or soccer. How badly those poor children must feel when they go to athletic sports rallies and are not the kids all suited up who come running out to the cheers of the rest of the school.
If we have to cancel academic rallies, then I think it only fair that we cancel sports rallies. And it’s only fairer that every child who tries out for a team automatically makes it on the team and gets equal playing time so there is no sense ot failure ever felt by any child in their whole childhood.
What’s that you say - we can’t mess with sports that way? Well, of course. What was I thinking? In sports you can honor and reward those with talent but in academics we have to pretend we are all on a level playing field.
I will openly admit that I never made a sports team in my academic career. That is partly due to the fact that I went to a small, relatively poor Catholic grade school and high school and what money they had was for some inexplicable reason diverted into academics so there were few opportunities at sports. Part of this is due to the fact that I am incapable of steady, continuous motion in any given direction without tripping over my own two feet. And part of it is due to the fact that I went to school before the feds made it mandatory to have women’s sports programs in schools with men’s sports programs.
And so the only place I could excel was academics. And I did. I was always on the honor roll. My papers were hung in the hallways. And I was proud of that. I didn’t begrudge the boys who won trophies on our basketball team because I knew I had a chance at being recognized for what I did well. And no one worried about anyone’s self-esteem who didn’t get an award because ten minutes after school was out, we were all playing together and no one cared who made honor roll or who didn’t.
I think everyone should have an opportunity to feel good about themselves - to develop self-esteem. And I think teachers and schools should work hard to find that spark that can be encouraged in every child they encounter. But I don’t think taking away the self-esteem of students who do excel is the way to achieve that goal. And certainly not taking away from academic achievement, which is, I think, why we send kids to school.
At least not while there are still pep rallies in which football players are touted as mini-gods who will fight to honor the school’s name while the debate team bringing home national awards barely has enough money for the bus ride from the airport.
I couldn’t believe that my hot water pipes froze when it was only 13 below. I’d lived in Barrow for 28 years and never had my pipes freeze, even in 40 below. My first thought was what wimpy houses we have in Anchorage.
Then it was pointed out to me that the little room in my garage that contains my hot water heater and furnace was freezing because I had the door shut and the garage heater set at one degree above frigid. It was an expensive lesson to learn.
While waiting for someone to come thaw my pipes, I put a call in to my friend in New York City for the sheer perverse pleasure I would derive out of her moaning and groaning about the cold. No matter how cold New York City was, I knew that Anchorage could beat its lowest temperature. Finally, four winters after I moved here, I was able to be competitive again in the “my winter is more miserable than your winter” contest.
When I lived in Barrow, I used to win these contests hands down every year. No matter what complaint someone had about their weather, I’d be able to come back with some snappy reply like, “Well, it finally got up to 20 below here and the sun is almost back so I’m out walking the dog again.” Slam dunk. Another win for the Arctic winter.
When Anchorage was going through it’s Seattle phase these past three years, I was blamed by every friend and relative I have on the East Coast for their Arctic-like weather. They’d be freezing in the single digits and I’d be looking at green shoots coming up on my lawn. They were sure that I had sent them my winter in response to some mad revenge fantasy I was weaving. I thought they were simply the biggest wimps in the world.
I am one of the few people I see on the streets when the weather gets this cold, which means Mr. T, and I have the whole walk to ourselves, except for the occasional moose. But I’ve found that even moose are apt to pause and then go the other way when faced with something wrapped in fur walking backwards screaming “Oh My God” in successively higher and louder pitches.
Actually, my long Barrow parka with fur around the bottom and a big warm fox ruff, which makes these walks not only bearable but downright enjoyable, has given pause to more than just moose. While I strolled the back roads enjoying the scenery a few days ago, I ran into another hardy dog walker. Well, she was either a hardy dog walker or her dog had such a case of cabin fever that it was either take him out for a walk or watch him go crazy.
At any rate, as they approached me on the road, the dog started growling and barking. My first thought was that he was reacting to Mr. T - a schnauzer not known for gladly sharing this earth with others of his species. But it soon became clear that he was growling and barking at me.
His embarrassed owner apologized saying that she’d never seen him react to someone like that before, that usually he was very pleasant and friendly. It was about then that we both realized he wasn’t growling at me, he was growling at the strange animal with the wild fur around its face that I appeared to be in my parka with the ruff up.
Walking in Anchorage when it is so solidly frozen takes some will and determination. But you are rewarded by scenes of unsurpassing beauty. Trees are frozen crystals; the mountains are impossibly white and then pink when the sun hits them at the right angle. Everywhere you look the land has a frozen beauty that must be experienced to be understood.
As my New York friend told of her dash from the subway to her office; of working in a climate controlled building where the air conditioner is on when it’s 3 degrees outside; of snow turning to dirty black slush almost before it hits the ground; when I hear these things, I smile a smile of pity for her. Then I put my coat on and walk out my door into a winter wonderland that she will never be privileged to know. And I am once again glad I am an Alaskan - with or without a dividend check.
I have already seen the movie “Something’s Got To Give” with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson twice. It’s a good movie, but the real draw for me was watching Keanu Reeves fall for a woman twenty years his senior. I don’t know how Hollywood did it, but someone from there clearly snuck into my fantasy life and made a movie based on it. The only difference is that my fantasy ends with me telling Jack Nicholson to get real and I stay with Keanu Reeves.
As best we can, those of us who work with troubled and abused kids try to get them as close to home as possible for the holiday season. It just seems wrong to leave a kid in detention over Christmas if it can be avoided.
Often, we can’t actually let the kid go home for a variety of reasons - some related to the child and some related to the conditions in the parental home. But we try to find someplace close by where they can feel it’s at least a little bit like Christmas.
Working with village kids makes this even more critical because Christmas in the Bush isn’t like Christmas in urban or suburban areas. On the North Slope, most of Christmas Day is spent at church at a church feast. Everyone brings some of the bounty of the year’s subsistence hunt and you feast on duck soup and whale, maktak and caribou. And just to be sure no one is hungry at the end of the day, there is usually a turkey roasting in the oven at home while the feast is going on.
No group home or foster home that isn’t actually located in a village can simulate that atmosphere of fellowship and camaraderie. Just like for most of us, Christmas will forever be defined by the foods and activities our parents created for us, these village feasts define Christmas for most of the kids I work with.
In my childhood, Christmas meant getting to wear the new dress, coat, shoes, gloves and hat that had been sitting in my closet tantalizing me for the better part of a month. Christmas meant getting in the car to drive to Philly to spend the day with all my relatives. It meant going over the Tacony-Palmyra bridge and getting a candy cane from the man in the booth as he waved us through for free. It meant begging mom for permission to eat the candy cane before we hit Aunt Ida’s and had to have dinner.
After we got to Philly, we made the rounds of aunts and uncles who would not be joining us at the table because they would be with other family. This was the time for all cousins to inspect each other’s haul and see who won. It was also the time to stuff down as many Christmas cookies as we possibly could before mom caught us and gave us a lecture about ruining our appetites for the dinner Aunt Ida had been slaving over for two days.
Once at Aunt Ida’s, the big debate began about who was going to pick up Uncle Henry from the home and who was going to go get Aunt Adeline who, as usual, was saying she didn’t feel like going out and just wanted to spend Christmas alone and quiet. Like she had a chance in hell of her family letting that happen.
Once we all gathered, the food came out. And it came out. And it came out. Course after course after course. Antipasto followed by Christmas soup followed by pasta followed by a roast followed by desert, followed by hot chestnuts, Christmas cookies, nut, figs and espresso coffee that could keep your eyeballs at full salute for 72 hours.
Not that we kids ever got that far. Between the excitement of getting up early to open presents, the visiting with all the Philly cousins, the snatched cookies and candy canes and the smell of my Uncle Paul’s homemade wine, anyone under 12 was usually snoring at the table by the time the antipasto hit. We would be carried to the living room, deposited on couches and chairs and then the adults would return to a peaceful, quiet dinner.
Like the turnkeys my Inupiat friends have roasting in their ovens for when they return from the church feast, we had sandwiches packed to travel when we headed back out for Atlantic City so we wouldn’t starve during the 90-minute journey. You got these sandwiches whether you had finished dinner three hours or three minutes before your departure.
That was Christmas for me and I can’t imagine how I would have survived it being any other way. So I can’t imagine how the kids who can’t go home manage to keep a smile on their face through Christmas day when nothing is as it should be, nothing really means Christmas and home to them because they aren’t home.
If I had one wish for Christmas, it would be this. That all the kids in this state who are in group homes, foster homes and detention facilities could, for one magical day, be home with their families and communities enjoying the Christmas they remember.
And for those children whose parents have given them no good memories beyond drunken parties and holiday violence, I wish that they find a way to make peace in their lives with the pain they’ve been dealt so that someday they can give their own children wonderful Christmas memories.
I think it was the picture of the kids that got to me and bought it all down to a painfully human level. My sister has a similar picture in her living room. It’s a picture of six cousins lined up on Cayuga Street in Philadelphia sometime in the very early fifties. One cousin, Joe, has struck a bratty pose with a hand behind his head and another on his hip. The rest of us, my cousins Marina, Toni, Joe (a very common name in our family), my brother Philip and I, all stood obediently in a row smiling at the camera, dressed in our Sunday best.
So when I stood in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and looked at a picture of another group of kids, obviously all related, standing on grass in another time and place, posing for a picture, I suddenly connected with them in a very primal way. They were just kids posing for a picture for their parents - a picture they would never survive to enjoy; a picture they would never look at with nostalgia because they did not have enough time left in the world. They were all killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
I stood there with tears streaming down my face while clutching a piece of paper with Ita Grynbaum’s bio on it. Each visitor to the museum picks one up. Each paper represents a victim of the Holocaust. Ita died at 17 in a concentration camp.
I was already feeling vulnerable because I’d been to the Vietnam Memorial. I’d never gone before since I wasn’t sure I could face it. Then, standing there in front of all those names I thought, “This isn’t so bad. I can deal with this.” Right about then I found Paul DuCharm’s name. He was a friend of mine who died within days of landing in Vietnam.
When I saw his name, when I touched his name, I lost it completely. Didn’t even see it coming. One minute my finger was tracing his name and thinking that his 57th brithday would have been on Dec. 15, and the next minute I was sobbing.
I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial and composed myself in the peace and dignity that pervades this space containing the image of a man of great peace and dignity. Then I walked back to the hotel and with each step my sadness grew. Everywhere I looked there were barricades. In a country that long ago rejected royalty and proudly referred to the White House as the people’s house, people are now kept as far in the distance from the seats of power as the peasants of France once were.
In Philadelphia, I went to see the Liberty Bell with my sister and some cousins. When I was young, we could just walk up to the bell. It was under a stone arch and accessible to the people whose freedom it represented. Now it’s been moved indoors and can only be viewed after passing through security. As for Independence Hall - barricades now surround it; barricades now keep people from a hall in which the power of the people was first proclaimed.
I understand the reason it has to be this way. Security requires greater vigilance nowadays. But that doesn’t make the loss any easier to accept. In fact, on some levels, it seems as though terroists have already won when we, the people, can no longer access our history but must stand across a street behind barricades and stare longingly at it in the distance.
Yet all this paled into annoying background noise after seeing the Holocaust Museum. By the time I had walked across cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto, passed through a train car like those used to deport Jews to death camps and reached the bin full of shoes and human hair taken from victims before they were gassed, I found myself walking faster and faster. I couldn’t wait to get to the end so that I could leave the horror behind me and emerge into the sunshine of a DC morning.
When you think about it, all war is insanity. But there is an especially evil insanity to a war based on racism. Because the logical end of racism is a Holocaust, and there simply is no logic to that.
When my brother and I were growing up, my mother worked very hard to instill some culture in us. She didn’t want us to be street kids. One of the ways she sought to achieve this goal was through music lessons. I took piano lessons, and for reason known only to her and her god, she made my brother take accordion lessons.
Truth to be told, I was jealous of him. I just had a boring old brown piano to play on. But mom bought him a gold and white accordion that had glitter and buttons and straps and all kinds of fun things. And only one hand had to learn how to play keys. The other got to just push buttons. It was so unfair. He got to have all the fun.
My brother apparently didn’t see it quite that way and after a year of mighty battles over going for lessons, my mother threw in the towel and told him he didn’t have to go anymore. Of course, mom being mom, she wasn’t defeated in her aim to make us couth that easily. She promptly signed him up for ballroom dance lessons. Since he needed a partner, I got signed up too. I still can’t figure out why I had to be punished with him. I mean, not only did he beat me out of the accordion but now I had to go to piano and dance lessons. Life was simply not fair.
Once he quit his lessons, I took over the accordion and taught myself how to play two buttons on the left hand and most of the keys on the right. I amused myself highly with this activity till I became a teenager and realized that Lawrence Welk was the only other person I’d ever seen using an accordion. After that, the accordion was relegated to the back recesses of the closet at the end of the hallway where all hobbies in our house went to die.
I never thought much about accordions since then except for periodically throwing it in my brother’s face as proof that mom liked him more. And then I went to the Fly By Night Club and watched what Mr. Whitekeys can do with an accordion. And I knew that I had been right all along. Accordions are really cool.
So this summer when my brother came to visit, I brought him to the Fly By Nigh Club so he could see what he missed by not continuing his lessons. He was duly impressed - both with Alice Welling’s imitation of a salmon spawning and Mr. Whitekey’s exquisite rendering of the song “Anytime somebody does something dumb, an Alaskan does something dumber” on his gold and white accordion.
My friend Kate and I go to the Fly By Night Club every time the show changes as our one wild night out every three to four months whether we need it or not. I like to pretend that I am going because the show offers up the best political satire this side of The Daily Show. Or because Alice’s take on Bill Clinton saying “I’m sorry” gets me hysterical every time I see it. Or because I am fascinated by a show that can build a whole song around a statue of Elvis on Mars and have it work.
But I really go because of the accordion. And now, because Mr. Whitekey’s is nothing if not an astute businessman (or just really easy about suggestions from the audience), I get to listen to the accordion music while eating a sugar free desert. I made this suggestion to him after sitting through one too many shows where a desert tray came through that shot my blood sugar over 1000 by just looking at it.
My brother and I are both diabetics and looking around the club I had to figure we weren’t the only ones who were. Let’s face it. Our tourist population looks like the cast from Cocoon. So I suggested that a sugar free desert would be just the thing to burn off the fat from a spam filled dinner. And now there’s one on the menu, a delightful chocolate mousse with whipped cream topping that is sinfully delicious without sending me into a coma.
So if you like your accordion music with a little humor and some great deserts, head over to the Fly By Night Club. And for all you little boys and girls out there whose mothers are urging you to take accordion lessons, do it. Then you too can end up playing your heart out in a sleazy bar in Spenard while two people dressed like salmon try to swim upstage.
Since mom’s death, my sister, brother and I have gotten into the pattern of spending Thanksgiving together. Christmas is not a holiday I enjoy, and after spending one with me recently, my sister suggested I just shut myself up for the season so as not to poison it for others.