Elise Sereni
Thursday, December 27, 2007

Has the year really gone by this quickly? Can it already be time for my 2007 Hall of Infamy induction ceremony? For those of you new to this, my Hall of Infamy enshrines all those people, places and things that so annoy me each year that they alone are responsible for most of my wrinkles and gray hair. Since 2008 is an election year, I’m sure there will be many, many nominations for next year’s honor so it’s time to wipe the slate clean and make some executive decisions on who or what has truly earned the top honor for 2007.

As a quick reminder, Tom Cruise, Donald Trump’s hair and anything to do with reality TV have achieved the highest of honors in that they’ve been retired to a permanent place in the Hall of Infamy and are no longer eligible for nomination.  Any pseudo-celebrity who was arrested, jailed or in detox this year is not eligible for nomination either. I mean, even a Hall of Infamy needs some standards.  Consideration was given to some nominees whose racist rants made people sit up and take notice. In the end, it was decided that those people had had their moment of infamy and didn’t really deserve any more time in the limelight.
So, with a drum roll playing somewhere in your brain, I now bring you the nominees for this year’s honor. I thank all who contributed to the list. Don’t be disappointed if your favorite didn’t win this year. I’m sure he, she or it will continue to annoy you through 2008 and you can always nominate them again next year.
In the spirit of the season, the first nominee to be announced is any and all Christians who use Jesus to justify being mean, abusing others and acting morally superior. That’s what you think Jesus would do? Really?
Next nominee is any attempts to modify the English language for obfuscation purposes that usually have politics as the motivating force. It will come as no surprise that the Nixon administration created this category with press secretary Ron Ziegler’s famous line, “That statement is no longer operative.” Now the Bush administration challenges the supremacy of that remark with their comment on the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden.  It is not, they insist, a failure. It is merely “a success waiting to happen.” Quick. Get the Advil. The headache is returning.
I should probably have an entire category dedicated to the things people do while driving that so annoy me, and apparently many of you based on the sheer number of times this comes up.  People who don’t use turn signals at all are second on the list only to those who put the signal on as they turn. Hey, idiot, by that time I’ve figured it out. Also in the driving category would be people who are drinking coffee, talking on their cell phones and writing a note to themselves while steering their car with their elbows.  They may have to be retired to the permanent wing because of the overwhelming amount of annoyance they cause the rest of us who think that when driving a car you should actually drive the car.
A new nomination this year, from a field we don’t normally see mentioned, is vegetables. In particular, wet vegetables.  Why do stores now drench their vegetables all the time. It is impossible to buy baby carrots that aren’t slimy from being so wet in their bags, or that don’t get so slimy within days of purchase that they could be used in labs as Petri dishes.
But finally, when all the votes are counted - which is fairly easy since I get the only vote - this year’s winner and new inductee in the 2007 Hall of Infamy for Annoying Me Beyond Belief is the packaging on my toothbrush replacement head. It took a scissors, knife and pliers to get into the product. It had enough packaging around it to protect a space capsule during re-entry.  During this coming year, as we face the reality of global warming, polluting our environment, and my aging hands, I can only ask manufacturers to seriously consider how much plastic needs to be around toothbrush bristles before they can be considered safe.
Happy 2008. Let the new nominations begin.

Elise Patkotak • 06:12 AM •
Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is it just me or does it seem to you that the only entity left with any privacy in this country is the government? For all the blathering about activist judges interpreting into the constitution rights that don’t exist, why is no one yelling about the rights to secrecy being claimed by our current administration that also don’t seem to appear in the Constitution?

The administration in Washington has once again slammed the door on an inquiry by Congress, this time into the destruction of interrogation tapes by the CIA. They say the Justice Department is investigating and handing over any more material will threaten our national security.
Ah, I wondered how long it would take for them to spit those words out. Our government shoves down our throats all manner of unimaginable personal invasions by invoking the words “national security.” And it protects every dirty little secret it might harbor with those same words.
So the trend seems to be that we get to strip practically naked to fly home for the holidays while they get to lock the door and throw away the key on any activities we, as citizens, might actually question.
The contradictions that this administration lives with on a daily basis would be enough to make a sane person crazy.
We are told that life is sacred but capital punishment is OK.
We are told that a woman has no right to the privacy of her womb but the government can’t provide health insurance because our Decider in Chief doesn’t want government interfering in the privacy a patient and her doctor need to make health care decisions.
We’re told that we must give up all dignity and privacy for the sake of national security but the government can keep all the secrets it wants because we, the electorate and our elected representatives in Washington, are clearly too dangerous to trust with that information. It doesn’t matter if the information relates to firing U.S. attorneys or possibly torturing detainees, it’s apparently none of our business.
The phrase, “Trust me. I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help you” is a long-standing joke in this country. Yet isn’t that exactly what this administration is saying to us now? Trust us. We know what’s best for you but we can’t tell you what that is because “they” might find out.
At this point, I’m more worried about us than “them.” The current administration is slowly stripping away our privacy rights. We must give up phone records, bank records, e-mails, shoes and small vials of liquid hand washing soap to them. In return, they raise a wall of secrecy around their activities that makes the Great Wall of China seem small. All of which leads me to believe they have something to hide.
Our founding fathers drew up a constitution to protect the rights of citizens from their government. They’d had the experience of King George making them house soldiers, taking the winter supplies for the royal army, taxing them for foreign wars they didn’t support. And they said no, that’s not the way we want government to act.
So why do I feel like we are but one step away from that form of government now? Why does the refusal of this administration to admit to the oversight of the Congress seem like another step down a slippery slope that we’ve been on since 9/11? Why, in the name of all we as Americans hold near and dear, are we not up in arms screaming as our most basic rights are stripped from us and given to the federal government?
Well, I for one am now officially screaming. I’d suggest you start to do the same while you still have the right to scream without needing a government permit telling you the place and time in which you will be allowed one brief yell whose decibels and length will be strictly monitored.
You can do it now or you can look forward to a world in which your children can only dream of the days when being American meant being free.

Elise Patkotak • 06:52 AM •
Thursday, December 13, 2007

I’m not exactly the Christmas type. In fact, there are some who say I should not be allowed in polite company during this festive period. Personally, I find so many people running around with silly grins on their faces wishing everyone a happy holiday somewhat creepy. It’s like they’ve all been brainwashed and then suddenly, on January 2, the posthypnotic suggestion wears off and everyone goes back to avoiding eye contact with their fellow human beings when not actively scowling at them for some imagined slight.

So I am amazed that this column is going to cover a topic that should contribute to everyone’s good spirits for the season. It’s about a group of people who have made a commitment to make this world a little better for those who maybe don’t always have it so easy. It’s about medical professionals in this town - doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists - who are part of a group called Anchorage Project Access.  Maybe you already know about them.  Maybe I only just heard the news because I’m one of the lucky few with health insurance.
I learned about the group during a visit to my doctor, K.C. Kaltenborn. He is a member of this organization. Finding that out just confirmed my initial feeling that he was a caring and honorable man.  I had an appointment with him the day after last week’s column appeared in which I bemoaned the fact that going to jail is the only way some people will ever have access to health care because they make too much for Medicaid but not enough for private health insurance. They are the working poor who want to pay their own way but find the cost of health care is beyond the means of all but the richest or the insured among us.
My doc gave me a newsletter from this group and said, “Some of us decided to do something about the people you wrote about in your column yesterday.” Suddenly the holiday season made more sense to me than it has in a long time.
Anchorage Project Access is modeled after groups like it in other parts of the country.  Its mission statement reads, “To increase access to health care for low income uninsured members of our community by using a volunteer network of providers working in a coordinated fashion to create a compassionate, respectful, equitable, accountable and efficient program of necessary services for those in need.” In simple street vernacular, it’s a group of health care providers wanting to do something for people who don’t have it so good.  It’s clear that these providers take seriously their commitment to our community’s health and don’t feel access to health care should be limited to a certain privileged few. Mostly though, it tells me that compassion and caring are not dead virtues in the medical profession. And that’s good news for all of us.
As I looked through the list of groups participating in this project, I was amazed at the depth and breadth of involvement from our community.  Groups as diverse as the Denali Commission, the Rasmuson Foundation, and Carrs/Safeway are listed as funders or in-kind donators.  There is not a medical specialty or need not covered by the participating providers.  And eligibility is ludicrously simple for anyone used to dealing with government eligibility requirements. You have to live in Anchorage, not have medical insurance, have a medical problem and have a gross household income at 200% or less of Federal Poverty Levels.
When I was growing up, our family doctor was pretty much a god.  No matter how sick you were, when Dr. DiNick came down the hallway to your bedroom (yes, I’m so old I am talking about the days when doctors did home visits), you heard his booming voice and laugh and immediately knew you’d be better. And if your parents couldn’t pay right away, well, that could be worked out.  It was not an impediment to getting the help you needed to get better.
I thought those kind of doctors had gone the way of television knobs and rotary dials. But they apparently haven’t. There are myriad health care providers in our community donating their skill and care to those who need it but can’t afford it.  These people can’t take care of the health care needs of the whole world or even our whole state. But they do what they can, one patient at a time, to make the world here in the Anchorage Bowl a little better place for everyone, all year round.
And if that’s not the spirit of this season, then I don’t know what is.

Elise Patkotak • 05:24 AM •
Thursday, December 06, 2007

In the spirit of the holiday season, let me tell you what I resent. I resent that my tax dollars are going to pay for Papa Pilgrim to get medical care while he’s in prison.  I resent the heck out of it.  Because, and I’m just guessing here but I’m willing to bet I’m guessing right, there is no similar, publicly funded program in place for his children to receive long term counseling to overcome the damage his version of religion has done to them. He gets a free ride and they get to spend the rest of their lives trying to understand the horror of their childhood.

It seems to me there is something wrong in a society that can’t afford to provide universal health care to its populace unless that populace commits crimes that land it in jail. Then there are doctors, diagnostics, pills and dialysis available. Perhaps the best quote I’ve seen on this topic came from John Carlin III as reported in a story in Saturday’s ADN. He has illnesses that require regular medication. Since he’s about to be sentenced for his part in a murder, it’s probably safe to assume that he’ll be living off society for quite a while and we will be responsible for seeing that he gets that medication.  Here’s what he has to say about that.  “You have no real input into what medicines you take. They make decisions for you. ... It’s like a totalitarian society. ... It’s just the way it is in here.”
No, really?  Jail is like a totalitarian society in which they are not particularly solicitous of your wants or preferences? How dare they?  Why any four star hotel will tell you that catering to the whims of guests is first and foremost in making them return customers.  Oh that’s right. You’re in jail, not a hotel.  Since you are there for murder, society might be forgiven for not being overly concerned about consulting you on your dining preferences - or whether generic is ok.
I know it is a mark of an advanced and civil society to treat inmates humanely.  But I just keep coming back to the fact that it seems plain wrong that we treat our prisoners more humanely than our low-income general population.  The current administration in Washington contorts itself into amazing positions trying to justify anything that will seem to solve the health care problem short of the one thing that will solve the problem - universal health care, something almost every other first world nation routinely offers its citizens.
Before you all start screaming about how bad those systems are and how long you have to wait to see a doctor, let me remind you that without government sponsored health care, many people will NEVER see a doctor until the situation has become life threatening.  Given the choice between never seeing a doctor and waiting three or even six months for an appointment, I’m betting most people would take that appointment.
I believe it was our current Chief Decider who said so eloquently that he was going to veto a bill to provide health care to more children because he did not believe the government should come between people and their doctors. He believes doctors and patients should make the best health care decisions possible without outside interference. Amen to that I say. Except, f course, for that one little glitch. Without insurance, you don’t have a doctor.
Unless you are Papa Pilgrim or Mr. Carlin III, or any number of other prisoners who enter the system with untreated illnesses that they now expect will be handled through their hosts, either the state of Alaska or the US government. Yep, that same US government that can’t give you coverage despite the fact that you work two or three jobs to keep your family fed and the heat on and a roof over you head. 
I know we need to provide these prisoners with basic care. It’s the humane thing to do and we should be humane if only to differentiate ourselves from them.  But am I wrong in thinking that the basic message going out here is that if you need health care, break the law. There’s one heckuva good universal health care program going on in jail. Not the best program, maybe. You have limited input into it. You may not have access to the latest treatments and most expensive procedures. But it’s better than nothing. And nothing is what your government is offering you outside of the penitentiary. Gives a whole new meaning to being law abiding, doesn’t it?

Elise Patkotak • 06:58 AM •
Thursday, November 29, 2007

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?

Elise Patkotak • 06:03 AM •
Thursday, November 22, 2007

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.

Elise Patkotak • 06:49 AM •
Thursday, November 08, 2007

Before I start talking about public broadcasting in Alaska, in the interests of full disclosure I should let everyone know that not only was I once a member and co-chair of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission, but I was also, much more notoriously, a volunteer DJ at KBRW in Barrow. My show was called Discount Radio. Its motto was, “You get what you pay for and I’m a volunteer.” I think that pretty much completely describes the program. It was two hours of whatever came into my head on a Saturday morning and I viewed it as comic relief from the professional programming heard throughout the week.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of public broadcasting but if I had to guess, I’d say it was when it first arrived in Barrow in the mid 70s as public radio station KBRW.  It didn’t take long for KBRW to go from being a novelty to being a crucial lifeline on the North Slope. There were fun programs like the Birthday Show and there were programs that dealt with critical life and safety issues as well as coverage of civic concerns. When the North Slope Borough was still a concept we were all feeling our way through, KBRW aired the monthly Assembly meetings so everyone could hear the discussions on how to spend the vast quantities of money that were suddenly falling out of the sky. At a time when loss of the Inupiat language was becoming a major concern, KBRW offered bilingual programming so that the sound of the Inupiat language was as familiar as the rhythms of English on the air.
Public broadcasting is not a luxury in Alaska. It’s a necessity. Our congressional delegation, and Senator Ted Stevens in particular, has always recognized this and been strong and effective supporters of the need to keep our statewide system intact and functioning. As funding has declined over the years, many of our small local stations are often kept on the air through nothing more than the sheer grit, determination and dedication of the staff. Yet the declining funds have in no way diminished the quality of public broadcasting’s product.  In Alaska, both public radio and television have consistently held their own against all commercials ventures, frequently bringing home first place awards against stations with triple the budget and equipment.  The Alaska Public Radio Network, APRN, produces a weekly news magazine called AK that routinely takes home first place in national competitions.
So I have to wonder why, given how critical this system is to the state and how successful it is in meeting its mandate, the Alaska legislature finds it so hard to fund public broadcasting in any meaningful manner. While the annual state budget has gone up and up and up since the early 90s, the portion of the budget allocated to public broadcasting has gone down and down and down.  There are even some legislators who would be happy to zero the whole thing out and have it go away.  Of course, those legislators usually have a specific bone to pick with public broadcasting about its insistence on remaining immune to political pressure.  Most journalists do not take well to being told what to cover and how to cover it.  Public broadcasters are no different than their compatriots in commercial ventures when it comes to insisting on their obligation to report the news as they see it and not as some politicians want it to be seen.
Public broadcasting provides a network of stations from Barrow to Ketchikan and back that covers local stories of statewide importance. It gives voice to communities that would otherwise have none. It allows even the most remote Alaskans to participate in this state’s civic life through statewide call in shows, statewide news magazine shows and statewide news broadcasts that are as apt to cover Barrow football as Juneau legislators.
It’s been a long time since state funding has in any way reflected the amazing job done by so few to benefit so many.  Maybe this year, with oil at more than $90/barrel, legislators will finally realize what an astounding organization exists in this state and fund it accordingly.  And maybe next week my financial retirement planning will finally come to fruition and I’ll win the New Jersey lottery.  One can only hope.

Elise Patkotak • 06:36 AM •
Thursday, November 01, 2007

For most of us who have spent any time living in Native villages in Alaska, the survey done by the First Alaskans Institute and recently discussed at AFN offered few surprises. 

Most Alaska Natives feel they are doing better than their parents.  That’s probably to be expected considering that the new generation is able to take for granted what their parents had to fight so hard to achieve - self determination, local education, corporations that puts dividends into their pockets.
What was more impressive was the voicing of feelings that were, until very recently, not said out loud.  For instance, 75% of Alaska Natives surveyed now believe that telling their kids to get an education while at the same time wanting them to retain their culture and stay in their village is an inherent cause of confusion and conflict.  Simply put, “How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve see Paree?”
I have friends who admit, with tears in their eyes, that leaving their village was their only choice if they were to pursue their career or have a job or give their children something more than the village could offer. They aren’t abandoning their culture. They are trying to span both worlds, trying to be a bridge for their children into both places. Their children may do better in the city when it comes to educational opportunities. But they miss out on the cultural immersion that only happens when you live the life. Summer visits or going home for the spring hunt may help, but it will never substitute for living there.  That’s a lot of conflict for young, urban Native parents and their kids to handle.
I’ve had other friends tell me they left the village because they were simply done with the harsh life. They wanted their world to be easier as they aged. They wanted their arthritis to not hurt so much. They wanted their doctors to be closer. They wanted to simply buy fresh fruit that they could afford that didn’t go rotten in one day.
Perhaps most eye opening was the finding that “young Native men saw substance abuse as less of a problem than did Natives as a whole, and Native women saw domestic abuse as more of a problem than Native men did.” Well, in a perverse way, that makes sense. Getting drunk is often not a problem for the drinker. But it is a problem if you are a Native woman and on the receiving end of the domestic violence that frequently follows. That domestic violence is not much of a problem for the men because they aren’t the ones who wake up with a black eye or fat lip.  In fact, I would guess that for men everywhere who abuse alcohol, Native or not, drinking, getting drunk, beating up the wife and then waking up in the morning to start all over again is pretty much a workable system so long as the law doesn’t get involved. The wife or girlfriend beaten up the night before usually forgives them because they are so darn sorry and the status quo is maintained. No problem for the drinker there except for maybe a hangover.
In Native villages, the law is often quite far away and the abused woman doesn’t have many options.  So it seems to me perfectly logical for Native men to not see abusive drinking as serious as the population as a whole does, and even more logical that it’s the women who see domestic abuse as more of an issue than the men do. If you’re the one getting hit, you’re apt to find it a big problem.
I’m glad to see the information in this survey being made public and getting discussed at AFN.  Because there is a definite void in the leadership of Alaska’s Native groups when it comes to confronting the twin demons of substance abuse and domestic violence.  While the non-profits try to find creative ways to get a handle on problems that are more threatening to the future of Alaska’s Native cultures than any development or out migration from the villages will ever be, the for profit corporations and political leadership has rarely stepped up to the plate and taken a firm stand on the issue.
The reality is that if the problems of drinking and violence aren’t honestly acknowledged and dealt with, then the future of Native cultures is even dimmer that the dimmest forecast.  And if we lose them, we will lose a unique and irreplaceable part of Alaska, a loss so large as to not be calculable.

Elise Patkotak • 06:38 AM •
Thursday, October 25, 2007

A friend who was visiting me noticed that some housing improvements happening next door were spilling over slightly onto my property.  It was nothing that wouldn’t be removed when the work was done. But still, my friend felt that I should say something. I just smiled.

When this project first started, I watched the initial efforts from my office window. One day, my neighbor was using a loader to prepare the ground. His young son came out to watch, fascinated by the loud noise, big tires and giant scoop.  He stood next to the cab of the machine and held his arms up to his dad. Dad reached down and pulled him into the driver’s seat. Together they moved some dirt.  The look on that boy’s face was just amazing. 
I watched this scene and found myself wishing that just once some of the kids I work with in state custody could have an experience like that with their dad. What a difference it could make. Instead, the kids I work with have memories that involve locked doors, thrown lamps, bruised babies, beaten mothers...well, you get the idea.
My dad was very much an Italian of the fifties. That meant that mom raised the kids and dad earned the money.  My father never got down on the floor and played jacks with me. And I think my brother would have had a coronary if my father had ever shown up in the schoolyard to shoot hoops with him. No, my dad was the guy in the funny apron grilling food for a summer Sunday’s picnic. He was the guy sitting in the chair after dinner pretending he wasn’t snoring while mom made us all keep quiet so we didn’t wake him from his after dinner nap. He was the headless body behind the enormous camera recording yet another holiday at Aunt Ida’s.
But there was never any doubt in my mind that he was a central person in our family.  While I never remember my dad taking a bike ride with me, I do remember that he never missed a school performance, graduation, birthday or holiday, even if it meant ripping off his butcher’s apron to run to the school next door and then run back to finish his work. He led by example and his example was stunning in its simplicity. He was a decent, honorable and honest man who treated people with kindness, who went to church every day of his life and who did his best to make sure his children were well behaved, educated and good people.  My mother may have had the lead role, but my father’s presence was of immeasurable importance.
The value of a father’s influence is very evident in the damage sustained by many of the kids with whom I work. Just as my father never actually told me that being kind was a good thing, it was something I learned from the way he lived his life, kids in homes where dad treats mom like dirt are apt to grow up and treat mom the same way. Even worse, boys intuitively assume that the way their dad treats their mom is the way women deserve to be treated. And the daughters who observe this as they grow often assume they deserve no better.
Are these children often angry at their dads for the violence and turmoil in their lives? You bet they are. Those feelings are close to the surface and often expressed with some energy.  But the feelings we really need to worry about are the unexpressed feelings that this is the way life is lived and the way we can treat others and deserve to be treated ourselves.
Make no mistake about it. Dads are critical in family life.  Their influence is felt throughout their children’s lives whether for good or for bad.  They are an integral part of their children’s growing and learning whether they realize what they are teaching them or not. There are some fathers who should stay continents away from their kids if there is any hope that the children will grow up with a modicum of self-respect and mental health. There are others who lift their sons up into the driver’s seat next to them and show them how a man makes a home for his family.
As for my neighbor and his renovation project, I know he’s eventually remove the dirt. Just like I know that when his sons grow up, they’ll know what it means to be a real man.

Elise Patkotak • 06:42 AM •
Thursday, October 18, 2007

My wonderful Mr. T died a year ago October 16.  My new girls, Blue and Blondie, came to live with me within a week of his death.  Some people say that the pain of losing a dog is so bad that they will never get another one.  My feelings have always been that by getting another dog, I have someone to hold on to when I cry for my loss.  As my mother would say, different strokes for different folks.

Since childhood, my life has been enriched by the presence of pets.  There was Major, the boxer who used to sit at the top of the three steps behind my dad’s butcher block in the store.  I guess that wouldn’t be allowed nowadays. He sat every day watching my dad fill customers’ orders, never making a fuss, never demanding more attention than the occasional pat as my dad went back to the walk-in refrigerator.
After Major came our French poodle Jackie - Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Sereni. This was the sixties and we were as fixated on our new First Lady as the rest of the nation. Jackie was totally my dad’s dog. When dad wanted to make us laugh, he’d sit on the couch next to mom and then call Jackie over. Jackie would jump up between them, squirm her butt down so that mom was pushed away and then all but lay her head on dad’s shoulder. If dad tried to reach behind Jackie to put his arm around mom, Jackie would turn her head, look at mom, and growl. Dad thought that was hilarious.  Mom, not so much.
By the time Jackie died, all the kids were out of the house and going up and down the stairs to let a dog out got more difficult for my parents.  They also did more traveling so it never seemed right to have another dog.  But by then the gene had been passed to the next generation.  My sister, whose busy life precludes a dog, knows every dog that lives in a three-mile radius of her house. And they know her. And they know that she has treats she freely dispenses to any furry critter that comes up her porch steps. While she may not be able to have her own dog right now, she is the fairy godmother of all the neighborhood dogs.
I’ve had dogs that marked each major passage of my life.  Lovey, my Barrow mutt who thought food was anything she could swallow, was the dog of my young adulthood.  Mr. T, the miniature schnauzer that thought he was 100 feet tall, was the dog of my middle years.  And now Blue and Blondie are the dogs of my...well, let’s call them my very late middle years.
I’m guessing that many of my friends are about now saying, “Hey, what about all those darn birds that make a visit to your house the equivalent of a trip to a Tarzan movie? Don’t they count?” And I must hasten to say they absolutely do. After all, it was my first parrot Adeline that stood on the pillow next to my head gently preening my hair as I cried my homesickness away after moving to Alaska.  It was my African Gray Abdul that leaned his head against my chest as I mourned Mr. T last year and kept repeating, “I love you” in that little parrot squawk.
Pets enhance our lives in ways we often don’t even comprehend. They teach us about unconditional love and loyalty and how to enjoy the moment without fretting over the future. They show us how to relax in an instant, be alert in a second, dance with joy when seeing someone we love and to never, ever hold a grudge. It’s simply not worth the psychic energy and, if even dogs know that, then shouldn’t we? After all, the person you were mad at yesterday might be bringing you a treat today.
Lovey and Adeline went over the Rainbow Bridge a long time ago. It’s been a year since I last held Mr. T and explained to him that birds are people too. I hope they are all waiting for me when it’s my turn to cross. Because, with all due apologies to the humans in my life, I know that there is nowhere in this universe where I will be surrounded by so much love, laughter and comfort, than when I am once again surrounded by them.

Elise Patkotak • 06:14 AM •
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Once again, despite our best efforts, Alaska must take second place to New Jersey in the world of political scandals. And really, if we don’t beat them this time with all we have to ante with, I fear we never will.

I headed East for a family wedding last week, secure in the knowledge that finally I could face friends and relatives with my head held high.  We had two convictions and two pleas with multiple indictments still to come at what is only the start of mucking out the smelly stuff in Alaska’s political attic.  Nothing happening in New Jersey could match us. My adopted state had won.
But New Jersey doesn’t go down that easily. Where we have convictions, they have political mysteries that only get more bizarre with each passing day. When I arrived in Atlantic City, all the talk was about its missing mayor. He, and a city owned vehicle, were apparently last seen sometime at the end of September.  The only official word on his whereabouts came from a statement claiming he was in an undisclosed facility for an undisclosed ailment.
The vultures had already gathered about his empty seat. City councilmen were going to court saying the mayor had abandoned his position and the head of the city council should be acting mayor until an election was held. The city manager swore that the mayor had verbally transferred power to him until his return.  The mayor, being in that undisclosed location that apparently didn’t have e-mail or a telephone, was not able to confirm or deny this.  And so the fun continued.
I thought that Alaska could meet or match that debacle based solely on the recordings from the Baranof that played at our latest trial.  But no, Atlantic City wasn’t done unloading all its ammo.  According to an AP story, four of the last eight mayors of the city were busted on graft charges and one third of last year’s nine-member City Council is in prison or under house arrest.  One of those councilmen, the former city council president, is serving a 3 � year federal prison term for bribery.  Are you starting to see why Alaska is going to lose this contest?
The AP report goes on to state, “As for other Atlantic City politicians, one councilman is under indictment on charges of helping to set up another councilman who was lured to a motel room and filmed having sex with a prostitute… Still another councilman is facing charges he drunkenly drove his city-owned car across the Boardwalk and onto the beach in the wee hours. He was on his way home from a party celebrating the arrests in the sex-and-video case.” You couldn’t make that stuff up and sell it.
Of course, this is the state in which then Governor Jim McGreavy made his male lover head of homeland security for the state despite that gentleman having no qualifications whatsoever for the position. On the other hand, if you think about it, would even jihadists be foolish enough to want to take on New Jersey. Talk about a rogue state where the Geneva Convention would more often than not be honored in the breech! 
McGreavy was followed into office by Governor Jon “I don’t need no flippin’ seat belt” Corzine who now apparently is willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, New Jersey’s seat belt laws have a purpose. Not that this actually impresses most New Jerseyites.  I have never seen so many drivers who grab the seat belt and hold it across their chest in a pretend compliance with the law. If you are tough enough to live in New Jersey, I guess the feeling is you don’t need something as wimpy as a seat belt.
And so I must report that no matter how much Alaskans may strive to reach the top of the political dung heap of trials, indictments, and scandals, up against an old pro like New Jersey, even the CBC boldly embroidered on hats is but an amateurish attempt to play in the big leagues.  But I would caution that we not give up the fight.  We have too many potentially corrupt politicians still waiting their day in court. We can only cross our fingers and hope that they come up with some bombshell that will put New Jersey to shame.
Alaska...the Avis of political scandals. We’re number two and trying harder.

Elise Patkotak • 06:34 AM •
Thursday, October 04, 2007

Alaska has been blessed with a lot of one-name women who have made, and are making, this great state even greater.  Lisa.  Arliss. Ramona.  Sarah.  Ah, Sarah.  Our governor, almost one year into her term, is sitting on the kind of approval ratings you usually only see in a place like Cuba or North Korea after the government conducts a poll on whether you approve of the job the head of state is doing. What’s equally amazing is she continues to garner very small negative numbers.

Sarah is someone who has every right to be extending a certain digit on her hand to the Republican Establishment that scorned her, denigrated her, could barely hold their noses while supporting her election bid and now stare in bewilderment at the numbers she scores. I can’t help but think that, nice as she is, there has to be a part of her that is secretly smiling and thinking, “Heh. Heh. Heh.  Showed you. Thought you could freeze me out? Well, look who’s frozen now.”
And frozen is the only word for the state’s Republican Party establishment at this point. They are frozen in horror at the political mess in Alaska, and the fact that at the end of the name of almost every public official mentioned in federal corruption investigations, you find the letter R.  That simply does not bode well for their future.  Not the future of the Republican Party. Alaska isn’t likely to change its stripes that easily. It does not bode well for the future of the people currently in charge of the party.
Were they to invite Sarah in, they might learn a thing or two - assuming she’d even be willing to step across that threshold. For starts, they’d learn that she is the future and they are the past.  She thumbed her nose at the mightiest of them and now rides high with the public, defying all conventional wisdom that she couldn’t make it without their wholehearted support and, if she somehow managed to, her numbers couldn’t hold. But the numbers have held. That they have lasted this long is a record in itself. It will be fascinating to see how long she can ride the streak.
There is not even a whiff of scandal around Sarah. Attempts to nail her husband for returning to work with BP fell as flat as a pancake. No matter how hard some people tried, the issue simply had no traction. The electorate trusts her and her ethics in a way you rarely see in today’s American politics.
Sarah has effectively sidelined Republican Party officials from the political dialog in this state. When was the last time you saw Rudy Ruedrich’s name next to a quote of current relevance?  Not gonna happen.  Thank goodness. It’s one of the reasons Sarah carries that approval rating. Without making a big to-do of it, without a lot of fuss and bother and press and name calling, she effectively sidelined people who had wielded power in this state for decades.  Those of us who thought some of those power wielders smelled like people who stayed too long at the fair are grateful she did it so swiftly, cleanly and with such grace.
Arliss Sturgelewski turned 80 recently. For many of those years, she stood as a beacon to women all over this state. She was tough but fair and worked a man’s game better than most men.  And she did it with uncommon grace, common sense, humor and a firm moral compass. There are, thank god, still many people serving this state who believe as she does that, at a minimum, you owe the people you serve a fair and honest representation.
I hope Arliss will be with us for hundreds of years to come. And if the good lord knows what’s in his best interest, he’d better consult her on any timing issues he might be considering to the contrary. I’m glad she stayed around long enough to see a woman finally achieve the highest office in the state. Some of us still think that honor should have gone to her first. But if she couldn’t have it, then Sarah is certainly someone who carries the honor proudly and well.
Sarah and Arliss may disagree on a lot of things. Not being privy to all their positions, I honestly don’t have a clue about that. But I do know that in the end, they have more in common than not. They are both beautiful, tough ladies who took on the male establishment and showed them how it’s done. And they did it with their morals and ethics intact. What a concept. How refreshing.  If the Republican Party establishment takes the time to really look at these ladies, they might learn some very interesting lessons that would actually bode well for their future. I’m just not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Elise Patkotak • 06:39 AM •
Thursday, September 27, 2007

I think of it as the Hillary dilemma.  Of all the people of either party running for president right now, she is probably the most qualified and the one with the most common sense and chutzpah needed to extricate us from the misery our current administration seems to revel in.  She’s intelligent, experienced and, if she was a man, would probably be sailing towards the Democratic nomination while people asked, “Obama who?”

But this is Hillary Clinton and she comes with lots and lots of baggage.  The question is, of course, whether this baggage will make the slightest bit of difference if she’s elected president.  So far, I’ve not seen a lot of good arguments that it will. 
The biggest baggage seems to be her marriage. I look at it and think that Christian conservatives should be singing her praises. She stuck by her man, fought to make her marriage work, disdained the idea of divorce and, as far as I can tell, did what every Christian woman is supposed to do, got counseling and prayed and raised her child in a two parent home where both parents were the original ones. How retro of her!
But I must admit that I still have doubts about her; doubts generated by the fact that she is a bit too naked in her lust for power. She just seems to want it too much. And then, just when I’ve accepted that I’ll never know how I really feel until I actually get in the voting booth, I hear about a t-shirt that appeared at a local football game recently. The t-shirt apparently had the words, “Defeat communism again”, with a picture of Hillary in a circle with a red slash across it.  The friend who saw the t-shirt said she’s also been on the fence about Hillary but every time she sees something like this, she finds herself falling a little faster off the fence and straight into Hillary’s arms.
Here’s what I actually find so funny about that t-shirt.  Our current administration eavesdrops on American citizens pretty much at will.  Any disagreement with the current regime results in your patriotism being called into question and causes them to suggest that what you advocate is treason. The current administration has made a joke of some of our most time honored and basic legal safeguards such as habeas corpus. They have split hairs over the definition of torture, kept Americans in prison based on nothing more than their say so and put all our fighting men and women at risk if captured because of their cavalier attitude towards the Geneva Convention. But somehow, Hillary Clinton is the one who supposedly represents communism. Let’s see if we can come up with some regimes in recent memory that abrogated citizens’ rights, snooped on their conversations based on purported national security needs and imprisoned their populace based on accusations they neither needed to reveal or prove.  Hmmm, can you say Soviet Union?  Can you say China?  Can you say Cuba?
Apparently the brains making these t-shirts are not big enough to grasp the difference between socialism and communism. And I’m guessing what they really meant was socialism since Hillary’s been hung with this tag for, among other things, thinking everyone should have health care available to them.  Our current First Decider, on the other hand, plans to veto a plan to provide health care to more poor children because it will lead, he claims, to socialized medicine. He stated clearly that he felt that health care decisions needed to be made between a doctor and a patient and the government should stay out of it. He apparently doesn’t get that if you don’t have health care insurance, you don’t have a doctor.  Aside from the meanness of denying children a chance at a healthy childhood, the man isn’t even bright enough to come up with a good argument against it.
Any candidates with any level of intelligence, quickness and wit will be a welcomed change to the narrow focused, damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead, crowd that currently occupies the highest seats of government in this land.  Compared to them, Hillary starts to look really good.  Heck, compared to them, Dennis Kucinich starts to look really good. And when it comes time to vote, I’m probably going to vote for someone who I trust will actually act in a way that honors our democracy and the principles upon which it was founded, not someone who parrots the words, wraps themselves in a flag and denigrates the integrity and patriotism of anyone who questions them.
The current administration in Washington has brought us as close to communism as I want to get.  Let’s take back America.

Elise Patkotak • 06:04 AM •
Thursday, September 20, 2007

The most interesting reaction I had to the column I wrote last week about the zoo and Maggie came from a lady who wrote to me that when she first started reading it, she thought it was going to be about politics and politicians again.  She expressed great relief to find that when she got into it, it was actually about an elephant.

I guess that’s where we are at this point. Anything that will turn our minds from the headlines detailing just how sleazy our politicians are is a welcomed relief. Heck, I’m even glad to see OJ back on the front page. At least I expect him to be a sleazoid.  No surprises there.
I’ve ruminated a long time on the current phenomenon in our land, the feeling that politics has taken over every headline the way Paris Hilton’s jail sentence once did.  And I must ask, who ever thought we’d long for the days of Paris Hilton crying out in despair as she’s led away to three whole weeks in jail? 
In order to try and clear my head a little, give my psyche a break, and get rid of the dead plants hanging over my front porch, I spent the weekend in my yard. This is not something I usually do, and never do I do it voluntarily unless the situation has gotten so bad I’m afraid the neighbors might be calling the police because they’re afraid they lost a kid in the tangle of my raspberry bushes. Besides, I figure by this time of the year, most self-respecting bugs have nestled in underground and won’t be nearby to freak me.  So I went out, pruning shears in hand, and started hacking away.
Here’s a word of warning for all my readers. It is probably not a good idea to think about local political scandals while you have a sharp object in your hand and greenery surrounding you.  I started at one end of my raspberry row thinking I would just cut back those branches that were reaching across the yard and starting to climb up the wall of my house.  But once they were trimmed, the mess under the bushes seemed to stand out - a political analogy even when I wasn’t trying for one. So I thought I’d trim up the bushes enough to get under them and rake out the debris.  But then I cut one a little too short and had to cut the others to match. Do I really need to continue here? Where I once had raspberry bushes climbing to the sky, I now have totally naked ground with the occasional little stem sticking up.  I also have about four hundred pounds worth of raspberry bushes on the ground waiting for the garden fairy to bag them all up and drag them to the end of my driveway for me. If I’m a really good girl and go to sleep when I should and keep my eyes shut really, really tight, it will happen.  Of course, I also believe that if I do that often enough, when I wake up there will be people representing me in government who don’t make me want to run screaming into the night.  We’re all entitled to our fantasies.
Here’s the trouble with being old. Not only do those fantasies never come true, but you end up with a naked yard, a pile of dead branches and a back that is essentially your chiropractor’s ticket to his children’s college education.  And because the caffeine had not yet worn off and I was still in a snit about job offers in warm climes in exchange for votes, I cut my hanging plants back before putting them to bed for the winter.  I mean, really cut them back.  I don’t want to directly blame anyone for my garden woes, but someone owes me new hanging plants next spring.
So you’d think that a weekend with no new headlines from trial testimony and all that physical labor in the garden would cause my normally cheerful personality to reassert itself.  Throw in the OJ headlines and I should be ecstatic.  Here’s someone who did something bad and we didn’t elect him to anything. How great is that?
But a weekend is simply not enough time to really take a break from it all. And now the weekend is over, the trial has resumed, the testimony spills out and all the ugly little secrets of our representative democracy become fodder for late night pundits.  I never imagined that a democracy would be a neat and clean form of government, but I never imagined it would be so scummy either.  I feel less dirty coming in from an afternoon in my garden than I do after listening to the tapes being played at Pete Kott’s trial. And it isn’t the language that most offends me.
All in all, it was a really lovely weekend. The sun shone, the air was crisp, and the mosquitoes seemed otherwise occupied. I took long walks, cleared out my garden, and got to watch pretty people in pretty dresses at the Emmy awards.  But now the weekend is over. Reality has reasserted itself. Bummer.

Elise Patkotak • 06:41 AM •
Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Alaska Zoo is generating enough bad publicity to make me wonder if they have learned nothing from the travails of our political class?  As the situation with Maggie drags on, negative news about the zoo continues to pile up.  What may ultimately be lost in all this is not Maggie, but the tremendous good the zoo actually does with other animals.

I don’t think anyone but the most diehard of diehards is still trying to justify keeping Maggie in Alaska. The majority of people seem to agree on two things. One, we all love Maggie dearly. Two, Alaska is not the best place for her.  So why is she still here generating bad publicity for an organization that should be getting only kudos for the other work they do?
If you want an example of the right and wrong way to handle bad PR, take a look at the difference in the way Lisa Murkowski handled a recent dust up about a house she bought versus the way Senator Craig of Idaho is handling his little image problem.  In Lisa’s case, she acted swiftly and decisively. She quickly realized that no matter how innocent she might have felt her land transaction was, in the public’s eye it was dirty. As a US Senator she had an obligation to put things right. And she did.  She returned the property.  What was the result of her swift action? Think about it. When was the last time you saw this issue in the headlines?  She cut off the oxygen fueling the flames of the story and the flames died out.
Now let’s look at Senator Craig. First he pleads guilty to a misdemeanor in an effort to bury the story. When that doesn’t work and the media erupt with stories that question everything from his sexuality to his fitness as a public servant, he announces he will resign. He almost immediately changes his mind and announces that maybe he won’t resign. And so the flaming headlines continue.
The way to quell bad news is to face it, deal with it and move on. Lisa Murkowski clearly understands this.  It seems that neither Senator Craig nor the Alaska Zoo yet get it.
For so long as Maggie remains in Alaska, she will be the zoo story.  She garners more publicity than the baby wildcat that recently took up residence; the baby wildcat that should be the zoo’s biggest headliner because this is really what the zoo does and what it does best.  It cares for our orphaned wildlife. But that story got one small paragraph in the paper and was quickly overtaken by more news about Maggie.
So I have to wonder why the zoo board and administration do not get how much damage they continue to inflict on themselves by not moving Maggie as quickly and safely as possible. They say they have to crate train her. Have they even started?  If not, why not?  If they know they are going to move her, why do they have to wait to decide on a facility before starting to construct the container and teaching her to not fear it? Is anyone at the zoo thinking about what it will do to their reputation in the hearts and souls of all Alaskans if Maggie dies while waiting for them to get their act together?
When I moved down to Anchorage from Barrow, one of first things I did was get an annual zoo membership. I loved walking through the grounds on a quiet winter’s day, gazing and contemplating life and nature. However, every time I got to Maggie’s enclosure, that sense of peace fled and I wondered how she stood there all winter without losing her mind.
It makes me sad to think Maggie may be suffering; sad to think she may have to go through another whole winter staring at her unused, publicly funded travesty of a treadmill; sad to think she could die waiting for a home with warmth and grass and creatures around that look like her. But mostly I’m sad because the Alaska Zoo has been her home for so long and people have honestly loved and tried to care for her and now she’s become a symbol of bad publicity that could harm the zoo’s future ability to save abandoned, injured and orphaned wildlife of the north. 
I don’t think that’s an ending Maggie would ever have wanted for her home in Alaska, a home - let’s not forget - that took her in as an orphan with nowhere else to go. She and the zoo deserve better than all the bad headlines she now generates for them. Move Maggie to her new home and let’s get beyond the bad headlines and back to pictures of that little wildcat whose only chance at life right now comes from the dedication of the people at the Alaska Zoo.

Elise Patkotak • 06:32 AM •

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