A few weeks ago, Cyrano’s offered a reading based on A. J. McClanahan’s book, Growing up Native in Alaska. With just a few lines and a few sketches, the readers offered a fascinating view into what it was like to grow up a minority in your own land. A few days later, headlines blared out the news that the Jesuits would pay $50 million to Alaska Native victims of clergy abuse. And it occurred to me that growing up Native in some places in this state had challenges I could not even imagine, challenges not mentioned in A.J.’s book.
I grew up very Catholic. The church was the center of our spiritual and social life. The priests who manned the parish and the nuns who taught in the school were on a pedestal way beyond anything we mere laics could hope to reach. When our pastor, Father Vincent, came to our classrooms for a visit, the room had to be clean, the desks absolutely straight, lined in military rows, and every decoration on the walls had to be inspected twice to make sure they were worthy to be seen by him. When he entered the room, the class rose as one and said, “Good morning, Father Vincent.” And he would smile the most beautiful smile in the world, give us a blessing - for which we knelt in unison - and finally tell us to sit down, a privilege in his presence.
Now this may all sound like overkill to non-Catholics, or, for that matter, to Catholics of this century. But Father Vincent or Father John or any of the myriad priests who came through our parish were viewed as one step away from Christ and so deserving of every respect possible. Father Vincent was especially revered. His time at St. Michael’s coincided with the time of greatest growth and activity in the parish. His ministry was our comfort in times of sorrow, our joy in times of blessings. His was the only voice that could cause my father to put down his butcher’s knife and run next door to the rectory because the wine being made in the cellar was ready for the next step.
Father Vincent dispensed hugs quite freely. If he walked through the schoolyard while we were playing, a mob of urchins would attack him, fighting to get close enough for a hug and the inevitable muttered blessing he gave to each and every one of us every time he saw us. I have videos of him walking up and down the line of procession into the church for someone’s May Day or First Holy Communion or Confirmation. Even without sound, I can hear his voice booming out the rosary so that the entire line could hear and repeat it with him. He was as close as I will probably ever really get to a truly holy person. I never feared him or his touch. He was a safe haven and his arms were always open to the smallest of his flock.
So as I read about the unspeakable violations of Native children by Catholic priests in the bush, I think that it makes the phrase “growing up Native in Alaska” take on a horrible new depth. Not only was this a generation charged with redefining the whole meaning of being Native, with one foot in tradition and one foot in the newly emerging corporate world, but this was also a generation of lost little children, led astray by the shepherds their parents trusted would lead them down a righteous path,
I can’t imagine what it would take for these boys and girls to heal. Even today, as grown up as they might be, inside they are still the little children whose innocence was so brutally taken from them. Just as inside I am still the child who ran with joy and open arms into Fr. Vincent’s embrace. His touch gladdened my heart and soul. For those little children in the Bush who felt a priest’s warm embrace turn ugly and shameful, it must still be the most painful memory imaginable.
A priest’s embrace was a haven in my childhood. It was a horror in theirs. In my head, I find it almost impossible to reconcile the fact that the same institution could encompass some people capable of giving such great comfort and some people capable of creating such great revulsion. Priests represent Christ on earth. How could they have done anything so evil in the name of that Christ?
For those who think that yesterday’s shopping suggestion was a bit Bah Humbugish for the holiday season, I can only say, DUHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!
Send a donation to your favorite charity and then e-mail everyone you know and tell them you gave all you could already but thought of them as you did.
I read about shoppers planning strategies for Black Friday, checking out stores beforehand, plotting their methods of attack based on the special deals offered and the layout of the mall and I realize there is a whole world out there that I will never, ever understand. Or, for that matter, want to participate in. I’d rather read a book.
So there we all were on Thanksgiving, sitting in Elaine and Chris’ gorgeous house with heavenly smells wafting through and making all our mouths water when someone came in the front door and I heard the scream from Elaine...."KC!!!". Now there’s the kind of thing that should happen on Thanksgiving. Good food, good company, and the surprise visit of an old friend who lives faraway. Does it get any better?
Almost seven years after bushcheney swore they would find bin Laden no matter where he was and punish the Taliban for their support of Al Qaeda, a new study shows that the Taliban are now firmly re-established in over 50% of Afghanistan. And, of course, we all know how well that search for bin Laden is going. Yep. Nothing like two cowboys with empty sacks where there balls ought to be running a war so incompetently as to make Dr. Strangelove seem prophetic in the idiocy of the people running the country.
Just to remind everyone, you have one month left to nominate people, places and things that belong in my hall of infamy for 2007 or who deserve to be retired into the permanent hall of infamy. Just a reminder, the only criteria for inclusion is that the person, place or thing had to have annoyed the hell out of me (or you) over the past year. And you can’t nominate me no matter how much I annoyed you because it’s my website and my list and if it annoys you so much you should go read something else. In case you forgot, this is what last year’s list ended up looking like:
We now come to that time of year when, for want of something better to do for amusement, I decide who merits entry into my Hall of Infamy 2006. The criteria are fairly lax. Nominees mostly have to have annoyed the heck out of me or in some other way caused me to want to chase them off this planet during the past twelve months.
Just so we’re clear at the outset, Tom Cruise has achieved permanent residence in the Hall of Infamy. So have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and any variation of their names that combines them into something that makes me want to toss my cookies. And finally, Donald Trump’s hair has its own wing in the Hall, and since he and that hair seem to be inseparable, he’s not eligible on his own for entry.
Having dispensed with the preliminaries, let’s take a look at who has received nods for the honor this year. Brittany Spears, of course, has received numerous nominations as has her about to be ex. But even a Hall of Infamy needs some standards and since neither of them apparently has any, I’m afraid they don’t make it in. However, if the media persists in calling Mr. Spears “Fedex” throughout the coming year, he may get the nod in 2007.
Condoleeza Rice received quite a few votes as the year progressed. I thought she would make it in till I realized that, despite being Secretary of State and traveling about 90% of the year, she still has a more active social life than I do. I think that should be reward enough for her this past year. She’ll just have to wait her turn - or wait till I have at least as many dates as she does - which means she may be waiting a very long time for the honor.
Of course, there were those mean people out there who nominated the Spears, Cruise, Madonna, Pitt/Jolie children. But I don’t feel you should be able to ride your parents’ coattails into this Hall. And while I am the first to admit that the Cruise child in particular could almost cause me to disregard the above restriction, I then find myself confronted with the antics of Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie and realize that I shouldn’t sell Suri short. Given time, she’ll probably be able to enter the Hall all on her own.
So who or what actually will get inducted this year? Well, two who and one what have made the cut. In order of their ranking I give you:
Number 3, Hillary Clinton. The presidential campaign hasn’t even begun and I’m already sick of hearing about her, whether she’s had plastic surgery, whether she should have left Bill, whether she can beat Obama, whether her election would signal the end of life as we know it. Enough already.
Number 2, Barak Obamba. This man has done virtually nothing yet to prove himself, but has already been crowned a demi god. No offense to Mr. Obamba, who I am sure might someday become a credible politician, but if he weren’t of mixed heritage would anyone be this excited? Wasn’t Martin Luther King’s dream about a world in which we were not judged by our color?
And finally, drum roll please, the number one entry into the 2006 Hall of Infamy is people on cell phones, whether driving their cars or walking through airports seemingly talking to themselves. May your cell phones all blow up in your hands simultaneously thereby cleansing the world of many potential future inductees at once.
I am sick and tired of sitting at a stop sign watching the person in the car in front of me in animated conversation on a cell phone thereby making them functionally unable to pull out into traffic in either a safe or timely fashion. And I am tired of sitting or standing next to someone in public and listening to their latest life crises, job crises, child crises or what an SOB the guy in the next cubicle is. I don’t care.
I know the world will not soon give up cell phones. I know I will probably be the last living person on earth without one. But as God is my witness, it will take some effort for anyone or anything to annoy me more than they do.
This is one of those columns I never imagined I would be writing. I always just assumed Ken would outlive me. But a sleepy driver on a dark road in Minnesota ended his life much too early, if mercifully quickly.
I’d known Ken Petersen and his partner Rob for over 30 years. We spent much of that time exchanging tacky Christmas presents. I always felt at a disadvantage in the competition. Rob and Ken were invariably able to overcome their inherent good taste with an even better sense of the absurd. My “Jesus on a Half Shell” is all the proof needed that they were the best at this exchange.
So you’d think with the kind of history we shared, I would have known a lot more about Ken than I obviously did after reading his obituary. In a world with problems that sometimes seem overwhelming, Ken was living proof that one person can make a difference.
Among his many accomplishments, he could lay claim to being a pediatrician who served as both chief of pediatrics and chief medical officer at the Alaska Native Medical Center during his thirty some years of service there. He also worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a pediatric consultant on issues relating to the health of Alaska Native children. When he was compelled to take a mandatory retirement, he simply moved over to the World Health Organization as a consultant for the polio eradication program in Pakistan. Until his death, he continued as a volunteer consultant in Alaska on issues of infectious diseases in Alaska Native children.
My first encounter with Ken came when he and Rob Burgess made a proposal to me while I was the North Slope Borough Health Director in the mid 70s. They would share one salary and live together in the village of Wainwright while studying how best to teach and train local people to become Community Health Aides. It was a bold proposal. No Alaskan village of that size had ever before had one, let alone two physicians living full time in their community. And the lessons they learned that year still reverberate in the way Community Health Aides are taught and the methods and language used in compiling their manual.
My fondest memory of that time is the urgent call I received from Rob soon after he and Ken moved to Wainwright. The call was for a toilet seat cover. Seems that Rob, in his enthusiasm to live as healthily as possible with fairly primitive sanitation, decided to vent their honeybucket. What this actually accomplished, as anyone who has ever tried venting a honeybucket straight to the outside in an Arctic village will tell you, was to freeze the bucket and its contents. Ken found this out the next morning when he was the first to use it. The metal seat was, to put it mildly, freezing. The contents, I should add, were frozen solid.
We provided a cover for the seat; Ken and Rob thawed their bucket by means best not described in a publication sometimes read over a meal. I knew then that I had something special happening in Wainwright. Not only would these two dedicated people put their hearts and souls into finding the best way to teach health care providers in remote Alaska villages, they would also put their hearts and souls into each other. How else to explain why Ken didn’t immediately run to the airfield begging anyone who would listen for a flight away from the frozen toilet? They shared a love I’ve envied ever since, a love full of gentleness, respect and caring that will not die with Ken’s death.
Ken was a devout Lutheran, even though his church sometimes tried to negate the essence of who he was. But Ken was not a man easily deterred. He knew his God was a God of love who would never turn away from an expression of love as fine and good as that which he shared with Rob. So he embraced his church, singing with a clear and beautiful voice in its choir.
I’m reminded of the old poem by Edward Markham, “He drew a circle that shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in.” Ken took us all into his circle of love. And we were the better for it.
Do you ever wonder if the government releases some sort of secret gas in the air before Thanksgiving that makes all that food look so much more attractive and delicious than it does on any other day of the year?
It seems to me that the same people screaming that abortion should be made illegal are the people who should be most in favor of teaching birth control to every teenager in America. But they seem to be the ones who want to only teach abstinence. You remember abstinence, don’t you? It’s that thing that goes out the window when hormones hit. Get real, people. Either agree to each adopt at least three children born to mothers who are not ready to be parents or support teaching birth control to our kids. Oh yeah, and those may not be perfect little babies. They may have FASD or other mental, emotional or physical problems. But you don’t care, right? You’ll adopt them anyway because you don’t believe in abortion. And yet I watch so many of these kids languish in state care for years that I wonder. Are you really as hypocritical as you seem?
There is a radio station in Anchorage that has already been playing Christmas carols all weekend. Take me, Lord. Take me now. I can’t do this for two months.
I can’t begin to imagine what computers would have to do to convince me that reading the Sunday comics in any other fashion than with a cup of coffee at my kitchen counter with the paper in my hand is worth it. But then again, I guess twenty years ago, I couldn’t imagine what it would take to convince me to keep an online diary that the whole world could read. Time marches on, right Satchel?
If you plan to take the plastic cover off your florescent lights to change the bulbs and maybe clean the cover, you definitely want to make sure that the person helping you is a very good friend. That way they won’t gag and look disgusted when the get the plastic cover off and discover all the dead bug bodies in there. Gross!
I had a friend tell me that at a recent gathering of many people she’d not seen for years, old acquaintances kept coming up to her and telling her she looked just the same, just the way they remembered her. She said she was tempted to ask them if they meant that she looked 80 twenty years ago. Hmmmm.............
She sat at the front of the room, poised and looking sophisticated beyond her obvious years. She was young, beautiful, and dressed for success in Bush Alaska. She faced a semi-circle of people who sat behind tables with the debris of their catered breakfast scattered amid the papers, pens and agendas.
Anyone popping his or her head in the door to look at this scene would think it was nothing extraordinary. A conference of legal, educational, counseling and social services professionals waiting for a presentation from one of their peers on the issues faced by foster children in getting their education. But this poised young lady is not a social services professional. She is a senior at UAA in the field of sociology. Her credentials for being a speaker at this conference peppered with lawyers, a Superior Court judge, teachers and social workers, were the simplest and best credentials possible. She’d been a foster child. She’d been in the system. And she’d not only survived it, she’d managed to thrive. Coming up behind her was her little sister, also a foster child, who is a freshman this year at UAA.
When you work in the field of abused and neglected kids, kids in trouble with the law, kids whose families have given them unspeakably horrible childhoods, you don’t often get to see success stories unless you define success as providing the child a safe, sober home until they turn 18. Once they leave the system, all bets are, unfortunately, off. Many return to the dysfunctional family from which they had to be removed. Many immediately start down the path of replicating the more destructive behaviors they saw modeled in their birth families. Many are simply so screwed up by their families before the state takes them that it would take a services beyond anything we could ever offer to actually get their lives on track again.
And then there was this young lady, exhibiting a calm courage as she spoke about her mother, a raging alcoholic, and the pain of being called to the principal’s office at least once a year throughout her childhood to be interviewed by a social worker or police officer about what was going on in her home. She spoke of the embarrassment of it all and how difficult it was to speak about the unspeakable happening at home to strangers who wanted her to tell all. She related how her mother didn’t even make it to the trial where parental rights were terminated. And then she quietly proceeded to tell us how her mother subsequently had a stroke and she now has power of attorney for her. The child has become the mother and gives to the mother the love and stability she herself never received.
I sat in that room and looked at that young lady and wondered where she found her courage, knowing that if I had lived her life, I would never have been able to land on my feet like she did. I would never have had her strength and determination to not give up, to make the next part of my life so much better than the first part had been.
The purpose of the conference was to talk about the difficulties children in state custody face in completing their education and being successful academically. She succeeded, she said, because she’d been lucky enough to only have one foster home and to have foster parents who encouraged her and her sister to reach for the stars. She now lives only a block away from them and has a key to their house so that when their refrigerator needs raiding, she can still handle the task. She’d also lucked out in that she and her sister were placed together so that they always had each other.
For anyone looking for how success happens in a scenario like this, at least one part of the answer is simple - the foster parents who took these children in gave them a future that they would otherwise never have had. They gave these children a sense of stability and belonging. Aging out of state custody did not mean aging out of the only safe home they’d ever known.
These young ladies, who found a way to beat the odds and create for themselves what their birth parents would have denied them, are a true miracle in our system. It was their foster parents who gave them the means to create that miracle. In my mind, that makes them heroes.