Elise Sereni
Monday, January 16, 2006

It was one of those mornings; not the good kind - the kind that make you wonder if your mother wasn’t right all along about the wisdom of moving to Alaska. Or did she use the word “sanity”?

It was 6:30 AM and we’d had quite a blizzard overnight. Mr. T chose this of all mornings to decide he had to go out REAL BAD.  So I stumbled to his very own little half door in my entryway. This led to a porch where he could do whatever he wanted all winter/ In the summer, I just washed it away.
There was just one little problem. For the first time since I’d had this bright idea about his very own dog door, it was snowed in over the top of the opening.  Not wanting to deal with shoveling snow at 6:30 in the morning while standing in my nightgown with floppy slippers on, I turned to the front door and opened it. I figured with the blizzard going on, I didn’t have to worry about him running very far. In fact, I hoped he’d at least get off the top step before commencing with the business at hand.
Unfortunately, there was a four-foot drift in front of the door. It looked pretty solid so I grabbed him and placed him atop the snow thinking he could do his thing and then we could both get back to bed where we belonged.  The snow was not that firm. He sank like that proverbial lead balloon. I plunged my bare hands into the whining, barking snow and pulled him out. Then I admitted to reality and started shoveling out his dog door while he hopped from foot to foot urging me on.
Needless to say, I was in less than a good mood when I climbed back into bed about an hour later. I was cold, wet, wide-awake and loath to take a look at my driveway. I finally decided there just wasn’t enough incentive at the office to make me face what was, in all likelihood, the ugly reality of trying to get my car to back out over a huge snow drift.  The young men my friends had thoughtfully raised to just the right age to shovel would not be out of school till after 3PM. Till then I was a prisoner of my home and thought the day called for the complete indulgence of a nightgown, a good book and hot chocolate.
I had given my friend Greta the Harry Potter set for Christmas. Since she’d ended up with two sets of it, I kept mine telling her I wanted to read them first and then would let her have them.  It seemed like the perfect snowy day diversion.
Well, it was the perfect diversion to a degree I’m almost ashamed to admit. I made it to work that day only after finishing the first book. Not since I read the Oz series as a child have I been so entranced with another world.  What great characters and fantastic settings. I want to go to that high school. I want to be their friend.  I want magic to be as commonplace in my world as it is in theirs.
Truth be told, I’ve gone a little daffy over Harry. Maybe this is a reaction to last weekend’s Brendan-Fraser-in-a-loincloth movie marathon (after all, how many times can you really watch “George of the Jungle”?), or maybe it’s a wild ride back to the fantasy worlds of my childhood. Whatever it is, it’s wonderful.  So all you adults out there who want to revisit the child within, or just want to take a mental break from Alaska’s long winter, treat yourself to a warm mug of chocolate, snuggle up in a cozy comforter and travel to Harry’s world.  Be warned though - you might never want to return. 

Elise Patkotak • 03:44 PM •
Friday, November 10, 2000

Here’s one of those professional excuses you are not going to hear very often.  As I made my later entrance to a meeting recently, the only explanation I could give was that my parrot will not poop unless he is in a familiar environment.

Let me back up here for a moment.  A few years ago I became the proud owner of a slight neurotic, extremely needy but ultimately very loving African Grey parrot named Abdul.  Abdul had had at least a couple of previous owners that I knew about and this meant that I would never know where some of his (her?) more absurd habits originated.  Nor would I ever know why.
For instance, whenever a new person enters my home, Abdul emits a piercing screech that would shatter any eardrum not already hardened by 30 years of owning parrots and cockatoos.  As my visitors wince in pain, I can only assure them that eventually he will stop and move on to his innumerable other sounds that are more acceptable to the human ear even if more embarrassing to me.  I mean, how could I know that he would pick up the sounds of me chewing and swallowing my food, or sniffing and blowing my nose
I had occasion to bring Abdul to the vet’s office because I was concerned about his feather picking.  I know that African Grey’s are famous for being neurotic feather pickers but considering the $15 a bottle I was spending on feather spray, to say nothing of the toys to keep him amused, the vegetables, fruits and vitamins to keep him healthy and the special lights to get him through the winter, I felt he should not spend most of his time looking like a plucked chicken.
One of the tests that needed to be done to determine if there was a physical cause for his picking involved a stool sample. I dropped the bird off at 10 AM and went to browse at Barnes and Noble.  When I returned, the receptionist said I could go do more shopping if I liked.  I wandered around the Sears mall and returned. The receptionist suggested I take in a movie. Since my business appointment was now less than an hour away, I started worrying not only about missing the meeting but whether there was something wrong they didn’t want to tell me.
But no, it turns out they were waiting for him to drop a stool sample and he simply wasn’t being cooperative.  I asked where they had him and was told he’d been placed in a cage in the back. I explained to them that, for whatever reason, Abdul would not relieve himself unless he was in a familiar setting - for instance, on my couch. I also explained that I had to get to a meeting and would be happy to collect the stool sample myself and return it to their office. I did this knowing in my heart that the minute he got back in his own carry cage the problem would be solved.
When I reached into the cage to get him, the look of strained concentration on his face was pathetic.  I placed him in his carry case and walked to the front desk to settle my bill.  As I reached the desk, a loud sigh of unmistakable relief emanated from the carrier.  And there, at the bottom, was enough sample to fill a small jar.
I think I can honestly say that I never thought I would ever have to use the words “parrot stool sample” in any connection to my professional life.  I was obviously very wrong.

Elise Patkotak • 06:48 PM •
Tuesday, October 24, 2000

No one has ever accused me of being particularly graceful or coordinated. In fact, there are some who, having seen me attempt to dance, would suggest that I am “differently abled” in that regard.  As a child, the only time I ever danced was to slow music with my father at weddings. Everyone else was simply afraid to ask me.  Dad had no choice.

At some point in my slightly misspent youth, I was actually known to get up and try to fast dance at the Polar Bear Theater’s nightly festivities in Barrow. But even the mind-altering substances of the sixties and seventies could not blind me to the fact that I scared everyone within a twenty foot radius of me. 
I recently started attending a class in water aerobics at the YMCA here.  While others cheerfully follow the instructor as she jumps up in the water while pushing her hands down under it, I can only stand there watching in awe. When I attempt it, I find I must concentrate first on jumping up and then, once I have landed and found my balance again, I can push my hands down in the water. If I let my attention wander for even a moment, one or the other part of my body gives up.  While others do water jumping jacks with ease, I must focus as though I am doing microscopic surgery or I find I am moving my hands or feet but not both.  If I attempted conversation while doing these exercises, I would probably drown.
All of which is why I was thrilled to have recently been to the performance given at the PAC by Mikhail Baryshnikov called pastFORWARD.  At first I must admit to being a bit puzzled. I could almost understand the piece where people walked across the stage in dead silence for five minutes.  Or the piece a little later where they did the same thing but in single file. 
But when Baryshnikov did the piece where he walked in silent circles around the stage while undressing and then hanging the clothes on hooks taped to various parts of his body, and then did the whole thing in reverse, the light went on.  I finally understood that the message being conveyed was that even people like me were capable of great dance.  We just had to find the right dance to do. Since I undress every night - though I tend to hang my clothes in the closet - I too am a dancer in my own little way. Either that or, since many of these pieces were from the 60s and 70s, they looked better with some of those mind-altering substances that caused you to sit around saying “Wow, man” when a fly walked across the window.
I’m not sure this was the best performance to bring young people to unless they were very advanced in the arts. One of the young men accompanying us was seen beating his head with his forearm during the walk across the stage. I wanted to grab him and tell him to have faith and take heart.  What Baryshnikov was telling us was good. The message was positive. He was saying everyone can dance. No one should despair no matter how many people they have frightened with their gyrations. 
Or maybe this young man’s mother was right when she whispered to me, “The emperor has no clothes on”.

Elise Patkotak • 06:59 PM •
Friday, October 06, 2000

About a month ago, I wrote a fairly positive column about Alaska Airlines and their services aboard a flight I took.  I recently took another flight with Alaska that re-enforced for me the fact that, for whatever reason, Alaska seems to be able to hire some pretty good staff.

During the flight in question, a gentleman sitting across from me slammed down five drinks in a row and then got angry when he was refused service for the sixth. He got fairly loud and looked to me for sympathy.  He stopped doing that after I told him I didn’t think they should serve liquor at all on flights.
The flight attendant dealing with this problem did it courteously and professionally, never losing her cool but never being anything but firm in her statements to him.  He continued throughout most of the flight to attempt to solicit sympathy from others around him by whining and stating loudly that she should go back to get retrained on how to handle customers. I personally thought she showed that she had been well trained in handling a potentially nasty situation in a manner that kept the annoyance to the other 99% of the passengers on the plane to a minimum.
Having seen what Alaska Airlines is capable of producing in staff, I find myself wondering why their corporate world can’t follow their example. 
I understand that Alaska is in it to make money. I just wish they’d be up front with their customers about that fact and stop touting programs like their current permanent fund ticket deal as something that has been put together to give their passengers a better return on their dollar. What it is, in fact, is a way to get more of our money by allowing us to spend even more of it than we got from the dividend this year. What’s it’s not is more consumer friendly.
Let’s look at the facts.  How many of you honestly know not only where you want to be next December but the exact dates you want to be there?  To take advantage of this program, you need an answer to both those questions because you can only purchase these tickets with both destinations and dates in hand and they must be purchased by Oct. 31.
Alaska’s answer to any potential date or location problems is that you get one free change on the tickets.  This is of limited benefit if you have a ticket for San Diego and have to go to Chicago instead.  Those are two different classes of tickets.  You don’t get to make that change.
Of course, you can do what I am guessing many Alaskans are doing right now and make bogus reservations just to be able to buy the ticket.  Alaska Airlines does not seem to be worried that this program will leave them with thousands of potentially fake reservations made only to qualify for a ticket. Who will that inconvenience the most?  I would guess the consumer who tries to make a legitimate reservation only to be told the plane is booked.
I’m guessing most of the people in corporate headquarters at Alaska Airlines don’t know where they want to be next month let alone next year.  This might have something to do with the exact location of their heads that seem to be up the lower regions of their anatomy.  But they don’t have to worry about that because I doubt they need to use a PFD ticket for their travel. 
Is it just me or do I hear faint echoes of the words “Let them eat cake” drifting out of their offices?

Elise Patkotak • 08:37 PM •
Friday, September 29, 2000

In my 53 years of life, I’ve only ever experienced 25 fall seasons.  Due to acute hay fever as a child, most of those autumns were times of misery.  Starting in July, I would go to my friendly allergist twice a week to get injections and have my sinuses drained. Dr. Dittenfass was the allergist’s name and he tried his best to be gentle and caring. But I could just never warm to someone coming at me to stick sharp metal rods up my nose.

What I remember about autumn back east is not being able to breathe. I remember being so sick that my family couldn’t even take me on the drive to Philadelphia from Atlantic City because the wind blowing in the open car windows would trigger something akin to an asthma attack. I remember the stifling heat making me feel as though I would never be able to take a deep breath again because with every breath I took came a sneeze. My eyes watered constantly, my nose ran like a river and I never thought anything or anyone in this world could possibly be as miserable as I was right then. It was a spectacularly uncomfortable time in my life.
I often think that part of what kept me on the North Slope was the fact that autumn was never really a season there. Anything that begins and ends in about two days - at best - can’t really be called a season.  One day you’d be walking on the tundra and it would be a deep and luxurious green. The next day you’d go back and it was suddenly full of reds and russets.  Usually it snowed a few days later.  And that was autumn on the North Slope. 
I’d occasionally get an itchy nose. I might sneeze a few times if the wind was blowing from the right direction and dropping pollen on me from the Black Forest in Germany.  At least, that’s the forest I always blamed. I don’t know why but it was convenient.
Coming down to Anchorage, I obsessed over whether my allergies would reappear after almost three decades underground.  I know treatment has probably improved since I last saw a doctor for this condition, but that didn’t help the dread that arose in me at the through of those metal rods up my nose.
But here it is, the end of the fall, and I haven’t had much more of a reaction than a stuffy nose.  I walk in my yard inhaling deeply and don’t sneeze. For the first time in my life I am enjoying fall, watching the leaves changing colors and seeing it through non-watery eyes.  The bad part is that what seems to have happened is that my sister and I exchanged personas. In her middle age she has developed tremendous allergies and must sneeze her way through spring and fall. And we won’t even discuss what happens to her if she gets near a cat.
My only real problem at this point is that the Barrowite in me has this uncontrollable urge to go dig up all the plants and trees in my yard and bring them inside for the winter.  It just seems wrong that they can survive the cold outside and bloom again in spring.  It seems even odder that they can survive the dark season without a grow light.  I’ve thought of installing grow lights in my outdoor sockets but saner heads have prevailed.  I imagine that come spring, when I see life re-emerging in my yard, I will finally believe that my trees can survive the winter without me. 
Now the only real question is whether I can survive a winter in which the sun rises every day even in December and January.  That might be a little harder for me to take.  It’s just seems so downright unnatural.
Elise Patkotak • 07:03 PM •
Saturday, September 16, 2000

A few months ago I wrote in this column that I was going to put a potted plant on my stove when I moved

to Anchorage and then start with the A’s and work myself down to the Z’s of every restaurant here.  I guess I was having a bit of an overreaction to the dearth of restaurants available in Barrow during my 28 year tenure there.
Well, let me tell you something. That old truism that you should be careful what you wish for cause you might get it is - well, how else can I put it - true.  Since arriving in Anchorage mid-summer I have had more company in my new home than during my entire lifetime in Barrow.  This has meant eating out on a disgustingly regular basis since it’s hard to run home from Girdwood for lunch. By the time the last visitor left, I would have killed for a salad and some pasta tossed in olive oil eaten in front of my TV while dressed in a nightshirt.
My mother actually came to Alaska this year after ducking the issue forever with the statement that she wouldn’t go to Barrow but might come to Anchorage if I ever moved there. Well, she was now forced to put her money where her mouth was. My mother’s reaction to Alaska was fairly interesting.  It helped me understand her decided reluctance to ever visit me in Barrow.  Considering what she expected to find in Anchorage, she must have truly believed that for the past 3 decades I was close to falling off the edge of the earth in Barrow.
My friend Grace accompanied her on the trip.  Grace told me that as they transferred in Houston from their Philadelphia flight to their Anchorage flight (don’t ask - it was apparently the cheapest ticket), Marian kept looking at all the people getting on the plane and wondering out loud why they would all be going to Anchorage. She couldn’t for the life of her figure out what they planned to do there or why they’d want to be there.  And when she saw the traffic on Minnesota as we came from the airport, she was shocked that Alaska not only had a highway but so many cars.
When I drove her around a very nice housing area near my home, she again exclaimed in wonder that these houses existed at all in Alaska.  She kept asking what people could possibly do here that would allow them such beautiful homes.  I think she secretly wondered why, if they could afford those homes, they didn’t build them somewhere a lot closer to civilization.
Soon after my mother and Grace left, I got a call from a college friend I’d not seen since the summer after our college graduation. Joyce and her husband were coming to Alaska and had planned to visit me in Barrow. However, when she called Barrow, my number had been disconnected. So she called the post office there to see if they had a forwarding number or address.  They didn’t but told her a good friend of mine was standing at the window and they’d ask her for it.  Caroline had it memorized of course because she’s one of those special ed. teachers who do things like that to annoy us mere mortals.
Joyce and her husband arrive in about a week. I’ve set my car on automatic for the drive to Portage, Girdwood, the Native Heritage Center and the zoo.  I’ve set my stomach on automatic for Tums.  And I look forward to the break the cold and dark of winter will afford me from all this activity. 
Oh wait - that’s right - my sister will be coming in November. Oh well, she’s seen me eating pasta in my nightshirt before. She’ll get over it.
Elise Patkotak • 06:56 PM •
Monday, September 11, 2000

Alaska Airlines has been getting some pretty bad press lately. As a very recent ex-patriot of a community solely dependent on them to get further than 15 miles out of town, I was routinely more than willing to add my voice to that chorus.  Thanks to the most erratic schedule ever created by man, enhanced by normally marginal summer weather where dense fogs suddenly appear our of nowhere, Alaska Airlines has a reliability factor somewhere south of zero for most Barrow residents.  Such grumblings about our local airlines had not been heard in Barrow since MarkAir attempted to post a round trip ticket to Anchorage at over $1000.

And then I found myself in the position of moving my little family to Anchorage.  Like it or not, I was going to have to trust all my belongings and my animals to Alaska Airlines, the airline that had once lost my baggage four straight trips in a row (though only once was the bag missing for more than a month).
I will be the first to admit that I was a basket case as I approached the Alaska Airlines counter with my four birds and dog.  My friends did their best to pretend they didn’t know who the slightly crazed woman was at the desk. I stood there pigeonholing every person I could find in an Alaska Airlines uniform. I explained how important my animals were to me. I told them how worried I was that they would end up in Dutch Harbor where they would sit on the runway for three days while waiting for someone to enter them into the computer so they could be found. 
The pilot made the mistake of getting off the plane to stretch his legs.  I backed him against the counter and repeated my story.  At this point, my friends mercifully pulled me away before I could be denied boarding based on general mental imbalance.  I waved good-bye to my pets while my stomach tied itself into knots.  After I boarded the plane, one of the ticket agents came on board to tell me that the pilot had taken a personal interest in the animals and would be with them throughout the flight.  Despite knowing that it was highly unlikely he actually had the carry cases in his lap and was comforting the birds with little whispered reassurances, I clung to that mental picture till we landed in Anchorage.
Two friends met me at the airport. I wanted to race immediately to baggage. One friend suggested we wait and make sure we saw the birds unloaded.  We stood at the window and watched as the pilot and copilot emerged, each carrying two bird travel cases. They stood on the tarmac till they were sure the birds had been loaded onto a cart and were being brought to the baggage area.
I felt Alaska Airlines’ credibility soar inside me.  How bad could an airline be that employed pilots like that - pilots who understood just how much those four silly birds meant to someone and went out of their way to deliver them safely.  That feeling was tested four days later when they still couldn’t locate the igloo with all my belongings that had been shipped out of Barrow the same day I left.  Then I looked at my birds playing in their aviary and my dog discovering squirrels in the back yard and figured that they got the important things right and maybe I should cut them some slack.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that now that I live in Anchorage and don’t have to depend on the morning plane to bring my newspaper.  But still, it’s nice to know there are people like that out there, isn’t it?

Elise Patkotak • 06:40 PM •
Tuesday, August 01, 2000

I was in my car the other day listening to the radio. There was an ad on for the make of car I’d just bought.  Each model was breathlessly described with one exclamatory word.  One was exciting, another was dynamic, another was powerful.  They got to my particular model and the word they used was “dependable”. It would have been one of the most deflating moments of my adult life had it not been for the fact that at the time I was on the Seward Highway doing 60 and watching the traffic in front of my recede into the distance while the traffic behind me was speeding up my posterior.  I was much too frightened to be deflated.  It was then that I realized that numbers posted on signs along Anchorage highways were minimums, not maximums as in most other states in this union.

Driving in the right hand lane in an attempt to avoid having other drivers any more angry at me than they already were when they zoomed around me, I noticed another peculiar phenomenon. Every time I reached an access ramp, the prevailing philosophy of the drivers attempting to merge was to speed up to approximately 500 mph and never look back.  In this case, I had to assume that “merge” is defined in Anchorage with the same words used in defining “intimidate” and “bully”.  Having a car whose most glowing attribute is that it’s dependable is of slight comfort when you see death hurtling your way in the form of a really big vehicle travelling 95 mph as it “merges” on to the highway from an on ramp.
In the bush, we consider ourselves getting absolutely giddy with power if we zoom up to 45 mph.  Of course, that’s assuming you can find a long enough stretch of road to actually achieve that speed.  Many bush vehicles go into shock if made to go much above 35 mph. This is partly because they’ve never really had to go faster before and partly because they are often “used” cars in the most sublime sense of that word.  I had one friend who spent five years driving a care she started with a screw driver.  I know another friend who had the driver’s side door literally fall off as she drove down the road. Luckily, she was doing a respectable 20 mph and so the door didn’t get very damaged. A very nice man in the car behind her picked it up and set it back on it’s hinges for her.
One of my great all time memories of driving in the bush occurred when the first four way stop was put in a busy intersection in Barrow.  No one - absolutely no one - could remember the rule for that kind of stop. So traffic would reach the intersection and everyone would stare at everyone else to see who was going to go first.  Inevitably, all four vehicles would then start into the intersection at the same time.  Everyone would then halt and wave the other vehicle on.  Since everyone was waving everyone else on, once again no one actually moved.  Eventually it would all be sorted out with a lot of smiles, laughing and shaking of heads.  One thing about the bush, people are never in that much of a hurry that they can’t stop to laugh at life’s little absurdities.
I don’t think Anchorage drivers have that mind set.  I can’t imagine them laughing as they sit at a four way stop sign waving other’s on.  I honestly can’t imagine them actually coming to a complete stop at a four way stop sign. But then, I could be wrong. They must at least drive more carefully in the winter when it’s icy and snowy. Right?

Elise Patkotak • 03:32 PM •
Thursday, July 13, 2000

(Earl Finkler, Bob Thomas and I are the announcing team for KBRW Radio’s Wednesday night softball game program.  Earl is out of town on vacation. I sent him this note to catch him up on things.)

Dear Earl,
We spoke often of you at the broadcast tonight.  Bob ended up doing it last week by himself since I was out of town too.  He said there was a lot of dead air.  Apparently no one was willing to try and fill our shoes so, as we have so often suspected in the past, our reputation as a broadcast team is either too good or too bad for anyone to try and follow our act. You can well imagine how jealous I was to hear about Bob setting records for dead air time on the radio.  Saturday Morning Discount Radio has jealously held that record for over 12 years now. It was hard for me to let go.

We did our best to make up for last week’s quiet time. Bob took the opportunity to catch me up on the latest in the city’s attempt to get their five year old scoreboard working.  As you recall, they finally managed to unfreeze the wires in the ground so that they could complete the connection to the field house/broadcast booth/equipment storage shed.
The board has all it light bulbs now. Apparently the city budget for light bulbs came in along with some of the chalk budget. We had lines on the field that had only been used once before and were actually somewhat visible. I was excited.  I could almost call the foul balls down the right field line with some accuracy; unless, of course, they got much past first base which is where the line ended.
The scoreboard control board now has an official Xeroxed paper taped across the top indicating what bump works what command. Unfortunately, after one brief moment of glory when they actually worked correctly during the test run, the lights decided they liked it better in the 70s.  So they started to strobe.  Our safety conscious city maintenance crew decided there might be a slight chance of electrocution if we used it before they figured out why the lights were strobing, so they didn’t actually turn them on. Meanwhile, city council members are still balking at the idea that they should stroll around the outfield holding up cards with the score like those ladies do for the different rounds at boxing matches.  Sometimes you have to wonder why they’re called public servants, don’t you?
The broadcast itself was not up to our usual sterling technical quality. Chuck-the-engineer was winging his way to Anaktuvuk Pass so we were on our own to troubleshoot the broadcast. For awhile it sounded like the day they accidentally left the microphone on at City Hall and we kept airing the sound of the sweeper cleaning the council chambers. Thankfully, no one lost their contact lens and no fire calls came in so there were no long breaks in the game. Which is a good thing considering how angry some people got the last time I tried to fill the dead air with my rendition of “The Raven”. Softball enthusiasts don’t seem to be much for poetry beyond “Casey at the Bat”.
So, enjoy your field of dreams vacation. We’ll all be anxiously awaiting your return.  Oh yeah, on the way back is there any chance you could possibly pick up some more chalk for the field? Apparently the rest of the city’s chalk budget has been dedicated to the sink hole in left field. Love, Elise

Elise Patkotak • 06:52 PM •
Sunday, July 02, 2000

I asked a friend who recently moved to Anchorage from Barrow how long it took before the urge to buy 10 cases of paper towels every time he shopped at Costco wore off. He said it had been over nine months since he left the bush and that moment had not yet occurred for him.

As I approach the final few weeks of my life here, I find myself wondering more and more how I will adjust to life in a place with not only multiple choice shopping, but the ready availability of goods.  I will no longer have to keep that running list on my refrigerator entitled, “Things to buy in Anchorage”. I will no longer plan my medical appointments to coincide with when I will run out of enough stuff to make a Costco run worthwhile.
It’s not that we don’t have grocery stores here in Barrow. In fact we have two. But two still isn’t very much of a choice. And sometimes you get the distinct impression that competition in the bush is not based on how low a price they can charge but how high a price they can charge before you start fomenting rebellion at the checkout stand.  I think many bush grocers have as their motto, “If you don’t like us, feel free to shop at our competition. Oh wait - that’s right, there isn’t any.”
I also am concerned about my reaction to restaurants.  It’s not that we don’t also have restaurants in the bush. It’s just that there is a limited amount of them and after the first few weeks you tend to know the menus by heart.  Instead of a choice of Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese or Japanese cuisine, you get generic Asian restaurants. Instead of French, Italian, Greek or Spanish cuisine, you get generic European restaurants with a BLT and steak thrown in to represent America.  Many of my friends sheepishly admit that when they hit the big city, their first stop is not the Crow’s Nest but MacDonald’s. When they return from a trip out, they fill the plane with the smell of KFC and Big Macs they are bringing home to the wife and kids.
And then there is my car. As I look around its interior, an interior into which I have been throwing things for 11 years now, I wonder if I will ever be comfortable driving a car that doesn’t have chains, tow ropes and extra warm weather gear like gloves, hats and scarves scattered tastefully throughout.  Can you actually drive safely in Anchorage without them?  It doesn’t seem like you can still be in Alaska if you can.  And I am led to understand that in the big city you don’t have to drive with you car permanently set on four-wheel high.  Is that really possible?
I know I can expect a lot of things to be different when I finally settle down in Anchorage.  And I expect that I will eventually be able to leave Costco without clutching a hotel sized pack of toilet paper in one arm and a 2000 packet box of Equal in the other.  But I’m guessing that will take awhile. As for the restaurants, I plan to stick a lovely plant on top of my stove and store books in my new dishwasher for at least the first year I’m there.  I plan to take out the phone book and start at the A’s and work my way through every restaurant and fast food joint in Anchorage. And when I’m done, I might consider buying some pots and pans for my kitchen.  Or I might just start at the A’s all over again. 
Ah, the joys of urban life! 

Elise Patkotak • 03:34 PM •
Monday, June 26, 2000

This is a story about someone whose simple act of kindness made a major impression in my life.  I am telling it as my gift to her on her retirement from the position of executive director of the Alaska Public Radio Network.

At one of the first press club award dinners I ever attended, the Daily News and Times were still battling for survival in the Anchorage market. This made the dinner a crowded affair as each paper competed for the most awards. It was immediately evident on entering the room that it was divided into a bush versus urban contingent.  Urban people had on formal dress. Both men and women had haircuts that said “salon” instead of “friend-in-the-kitchen”.  Bush people were easily recognized by their jeans and plaid shirts.  No one actually had on carharts but the outfits stopped just short of them
Being from the Bush meant we were there on time for the food. People out here are rarely fashionably late when meals are involved - especially if someone else is paying for it. In this case, most of us were on expense accounts so we didn’t want to take a chance on missing any of the courses.
As my friend and I wandered through the room looking for seats, we found that none were available. Everyone had sent an advance team to claim a table for their particular group. The first people there then leaned the rest of the chairs against the table to indicate they were taken.  I guess this allowed the others to make a fashionably late entrance.  But it made us feel more than a bit uncomfortable as we asked again and again if “those seats are taken” and were rebuffed. I suddenly felt as if I was doing the Bible scene about no room at the inn.
Until I hit the table where an older woman sat with a few people who were clearly in TV. (Believe me, you can tell!) We asked our usual question and got the usual answer.  And then the woman spoke up. She said if those people couldn’t be on time, then the seats were ours and she was pleased to have us sit with her. Since she was then running the station they worked for, the seats became instantly available.
This woman made a conscious effort to include me and my friends in her conversation throughout the dinner. She pointed out people we didn’t know, explained some of the dynamics of the rivalry that dominated the night, and in general made us feel very welcome. When the rest of her staff arrived and found their seats taken, she was courteous but not terribly sympathetic.
The woman at the table that night was Julie Guy. When she retires from her position as executive director of APRN this month, we will miss the skills and insight she brought to that position.  But I can never really think of Julie as the executive director of APRN.  I always think of her as that kind lady who made room for us at her table, who made our discomfort disappear, whose graciousness made me feel welcomed in a strange place.
My mother had a name for people like Julie. She said that people like her were the real definition of the word “lady”.  It is still today the highest compliment my mother can give. Since I have nothing else to give Julie that truly speaks to how much that night meant to me and how much she has influenced me by her life and work, let me give this to her on her retirement.  She is truly a lady.
Elise Patkotak • 06:39 PM •
Monday, June 19, 2000

It’s not as though I don’t already have enough to worry about. Here I am, trying to pack up my life of the past 28 years, sell my old house, buy a new one, transport a neurotic dog and five birds (including one very vocal parrot whose language may get me tossed off the flight!) 800 miles to their new home while keeping my fledgling business functioning.  And now I find I have to worry about my papers.

The worry started when I read about the controversy over where Senator Stevens’ papers will be housed.  It grew as I read about Nixon and Clinton’s papers. Then I started rummaging around in the detritus that I’ve accumulated over five decades. I started to get frightened at the thought that some day people would be going through my papers and wondering why I felt a need to save a Barrow telephone directory from 1983 or a MarkAir dividend coupon.  My experience with cleaning out the bottomless pit I call my filing system has led me to that conclusion that if I ever thought I’d have to donate my papers to an institution, I would just burn them.
For instance, I found doodles in notepads I had for some reason saved from my days as a big bureaucrat back in the early 80s. At the time, I spent an inordinate amount of any given day in meetings with federal officials that were as boring as bat doo-doo. So I doodled.  Some of these doodles are fairly elaborate and could easily be misinterpreted as violent if looked at the wrong way.  There is nothing to say the line emanating from the stick figure’s neck HAS to be a noose.  After careful thought, I buried those pads at the bottom of a garbage bag and personally followed it to the dump to see it burn.
Then, of course, there is that childhood diary I haven’t quite finished with yet.  It is full of my teenage angst.  I still feel that given the time, I can work those issues out and actually grow up to be an emotionally healthy human being.  I’ve often slated time into my life to do just that over the past 40 years. I think I’ll hold on to the diary just a little longer - I should have some extra time when I retire. But I will definitely note in my will that someone I trust implicitly is to destroy the diary immediately upon my death. Some things should just not be visited upon future generations.
Other papers are harder to explain - not why I ever had them but why I ever thought I needed to save them.  At the top of my garage was a bag with bumper stickers and posters from Tony Knowles’ first gubernatorial campaign.  I still have my personnel file from my three years with the federal government back in the early 70’s.  I have certificates of health for my deceased bird.  Rabies immunization papers for my deceased dog.  I have a complete file of the lots available for sale from the City of Barrow when I bought my lot in 1988.  I have a letter from MarkAir to accompany the useless dividend coupons assuring me that they would always be here to service Barrow and its needs.  I have warrantees for electronics I no longer possess, attachments for phones long ago discarded.  I have autographed pictures from George Burns and Gracie Allan, Red Skelton, and Howard Duff and Ida Lupino. I have Gene Autry’s autograph.
I wish I could say I’d tossed all the junk but I haven’t. Most of it has moved with me for 28 years. I may never use it or look at it but I take comfort in knowing it’s there. Except for those Tony Knowles’ bumper stickers and posters.  Those I tossed. Sorry, Governor.  But sometimes you just have to be ruthless when packing up to move.

Elise Patkotak • 06:46 PM •
Sunday, May 28, 2000

In a May 18th news article, the Superintendent of the Klawock School District is quoted as saying, “We do not want to give a certificate of attendance. We are very concerned about everyone feeling successful.” Further on in the article it states, “Although Robertson said the Klawock teaching staff supports the state’s efforts to implement graduation standards, the district is concerned that the certificate of attendance will negatively affect student’s self-esteem.”

Let me start by saying what a great way to teach these children the reality of the world they are about to encounter. Which of us doesn’t know a company whose policy is to give everyone a promotion and raise no matter how poorly they’ve performed so that no one has their self-esteem negatively affected. Let me also say that, as someone who has had to interview and hire recent high school graduates who have come from this particularly bizarre school of thought, I have come to regard a high school diploma as worth little more than the paper it is written on. I know that no standards were required, that whether you scored straight A’s or showed up only on days when a movie was being shown, you got the same diploma.  In fact, I sometimes find myself putting more weight on a GED than on a high school diploma because I know the person sitting in front of me had to earn that GED by passing a series of tests. No one gave it to them because they got out of bed enough times to qualify.
But what bothers me the most about the statements emanating from the Klawock School District is the idea that this is somehow being done for the students.  Do you really think those students have greater self-esteem because they were given something they didn’t earn.  Keep in mind that accommodations have already been made for those students with disabilities who are working to their fullest potential. We are speaking here about capable young people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t pass the test to graduate from high school.  I don’t think we’ve enhanced their feeling of self-esteem by giving them a fake diploma. I think we’ve just taught them that you can get something for nothing.
I also think we are lying when we say we do this for the students. They know what they have and haven’t earned.  No, I think parents and educators do this for parents and educators. I think the only people whose self-esteem they are worried about is their own.  If too many kids fail, they look bad. So let’s pass everyone.
Now let’s look at the self-esteem of the students who worked hard for four years to achieve that diploma.  My, haven’t we done wonders for their self-esteem. We have told them that while hard work may be its own reward, it may also be its only reward.  We have taught them that striving for excellence is OK, but you could have gotten just as far without striving at all.
Every time we give our kids something for nothing, we do them a disservice. We teach them a bad lesson.  As educators and parents, we need to acknowledge our responsibilities for our children’s education and when they don’t make the grade, we need to ask why. Then we need to redouble our efforts to make sure it doesn’t happen again. What we don’t need to do is create a multi-hued series of diplomas that fool no one.  Our children deserve better than some silly scheme we dream up to keep us from feeling as though we failed them.

Elise Patkotak • 03:36 PM •
Monday, April 03, 2000

There’s apparently a lot of discussion going on around the state concerning the possible one time payout from the Permanent Fund of $25,000 to every qualifying individual in Alaska.  Some Alaskans apparently feel that the amount of the payout should not be uniform but should be based on longevity in the state. Since I’ve lived in Alaska 30 years, that idea has some appeal to me.  While I’m not the longest living Alaskan here, 30 years certainly would put me up there with the big bucks.  But I think we need to go a few steps further with this idea of differentiating payout amounts based on specific criteria.

For instance, anyone who can remember when the University Shopping Center was considered the fringe of Anchorage deserves some special reward.  In fact, anyone who can actually claim to have gone to the Dairy Queen in the middle of winter in what is now a Thai Restaurant at 36th and Seward deserves more recognition than they will probably ever get.
There should also be extra points for every mile distant you are from the urban centers, not unlike the state’s cost of living allowance for its employees.  This should be multiplied by the number of years you have resided in that distant location.  People at the tip of the Aleutian Chain could make enough in one payout to actually buy the chain back from the state. People on the North Slope would finally be compensated for the fact that they really don’t get any sunlight for two months in winter, unlike urbanites who claim that deprivation but in truth see at least a few hours of some kind of light every day.  This kind of multiplying factor might actually settle, once and for all, the debate over how close Anchorage really is to Alaska.
The coastal areas, from the Dutch Harbor to Barter Island, should have a wind factor multiplied in with special compensation for days with wind chills of 80 below or more.  Actually, we should get free trips to tropical climates paid for by the state on a yearly basis for enduring the winds that blow almost daily in our villages and towns. But short of that, we’ll take a few extra thousand in a PFD payout.
And break-up.  There should be a way to quantify the pain of break-up and force the state to compensate us for the muddy essences we become each spring.  Maybe we could measure it by the depth of mud that’s solidifies on our cars. Or we could use the amount of gunk sloshing out of our kids’ boots as the multiplier. Once again, using this factor, the bush would beat heck out of all the urban areas of the state combined.
Finally, I personally think our pets should also receive something from the Permanent Fund. Especially those that are born to be tropical but have been forced to live in the Arctic because they had the misfortune to be owned by someone who liked snow and ice.  My parrots and cockatoo all think they deserve something for the sheer fact that they have never been able to actually go outside and enjoy fresh air and sunshine.  My dog, of course, thinks he should be compensated for every tree he hasn’t been able to violate.
Yep, I figure if we work this thing out correctly, I should be coming into a pretty penny in the near future.  Almost enough to buy my way to sunshine, warmth and a four season year.  And after all, isn’t that what every Alaskan really dreams about?

Elise Patkotak • 06:51 PM •
Saturday, February 26, 2000

You acquire a lot of debt when you live in the bush.  Not necessarily financial debt, but karmic debt.  After 25 years of having your city friends pick you up at airports, open up their homes to you and your fifty-five boxes from Costco and Sam’s, drive you to doctor’s appointments and generally help you work out the craziness that comes with prolonged exposure to bush living, you are obligated to return some of that to friends left behind after you find your way to the city.

And so it is that I find my home a central focus for more activity in one month than my Barrow home saw in one year.  People drift in and out, some with more needs than others, some wanting nothing more than a place to find extra boxes for packing, some longing for just one night in front of a fireplace with a glass of wine and no children tugging on their attention.
I think the general attitude of friends left behind can be summed up in an e-mail I received right after I made the announcement of my pending relocation to a place with movie theaters and bulk shopping stores.  It came from an old friend who clearly had his priorities straight on what this move might mean to him and his family. He wrote as follows:
“OK, so now you are going to be living in Anchorage...what is in it for us? Please answer a few questions.
1) Do you baby-sit?
2) How many bedrooms do you have? Spare?
3) How far do you live from the airport? Downtown? Sam’s Club?
4) How many cars do you have?
5) Does your car insurance cover guest drivers?
I realize that answering these questions takes time, but I figure that is what you have lots of now. In fact, since you are newly retired, and new to the big city, you must be desperate for guests. And being an ex nurse and social worker would probably love to have the voices of little kids around, even if the parents are out enjoying a meal and movie.
One final thing. List below any dates in 2000-2001 that you would not be able to put up guests.
Well, guess that is about it. We look forward to seeing you
PS: How big is your car?”
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the refreshing directness of this e-mail.  It listed the major concerns (minus the kid stuff) I always had when deciding which city friend to honor with my presence.  Needless to say, I never did send this friend my address or phone number.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate his directness.
As I write this, I am about to leave for the airport to pick up yet another guest.  This one will be here a week.  While she’s here, two more will arrive.  By the time they leave, I will probably have just enough time to air out the beds before the December guests hit town. 
I’d complain about this a lot more if it wasn’t that I was having such a good time. And I’m getting to pay back all that karmic debt I owe.  Sometimes life just works out right.

Elise Patkotak • 06:54 PM •

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