Elise Sereni
Thursday, December 25, 2008

It being Christmas, I thought I’d write a column about volunteers since this seems to be the right season to remember all those who offer freely of their time and energy to make our world a little better place. I was thinking of everyone from CASAs to the ushers at the PAC. Each gives a little of themselves to something that is particularly near and dear to their hearts in the hope that by doing so, they can share their enthusiasms with others.

During this holiday season, people seem more in tune with the need to return some of the great gifts they have received in life by helping others. I go to Curves and there is a stack of food climbing the wall for the family my gym has “adopted” for the holiday season.  I go shopping and find volunteers in stores wrapping gifts in return for a donation to the cause most dear to them.  I bring my foster bird to a Christmas fundraiser and a kind soul puts money in his stocking so he can have a treat in the new year. I marvel at how this amazing spirit of giving becomes so strong once a year and wonder where it goes the rest of the time.
As I pondered this, something very sad happened. My friend Barbara Doak died.  Barbara was a volunteer at Bird TLC, Anchorage’s wild bird treatment and rehabilitation center. She’d been there from TLC’s beginning in the late ‘80s. She was there the first day I arrived as a volunteer. She was there every Tuesday keeping the birds and me in as many dead rats and mice as we could possibly need.
Now I could go the sentimental route here. I could talk about how Barbara always represented to me the way I want to grow old – feisty, independent, never giving up a life of her own, never expecting someone else to make a life for her. I could wax eloquent about her sharp mind and wit, about her refusal to let her brain age in unwarranted directions just because her body did. But I won’t because Barbara would be horrified if I did and the last thing I need is someone else in the afterlife mad at me.
Barbara loved her family, her friends, birds and Ralph, her junkyard dog and ever-faithful companion except for when I showed up with a pocketful of treats. But Barbara was also a realist. There were no sentimental edges around nature for her, no Disney induced misconceptions. I think that’s the most valuable lesson of the many she taught me. Life is for the living. You mourn the passing of any creature and then move on because that’s the way life happens.
So if a small bird hit a window and was brought in to Bird TLC and died, it was fed to a goshawk or merlin. It was not wasted because its death also had value. In my first years at TLC, when that horrified me, Barbara would have none of it. She taught me that you faced life, you dealt with it in all its vagaries and you marveled at its efficiencies and beauty.
This has been a hard year for Bird TLC. First we lost Old Witch, an eagle that had been with us for almost twenty years. Then we lost One Wing, the symbol of all we stand for and the love of Old Witch’s life. We think he died because he simply didn’t want to live without her. And now we’ve lost Barbara and are reminded once again of how transient life is and how precious those times we can share with each other really are.
And that’s not a bad message at all for this holiday season.  Because when all the gifts have been unwrapped and the food eaten and the eggnog drunk and the carols sung, the memories that remain are not of things, but of the people who shared those things with us. It we are very lucky, the ghosts of Christmases past in our lives are the ghosts of those we loved who are no longer there to sing Silent Night with us, but whose out of tune, off key voice will forever be the sound of that song in our minds.
Happy holidays.

Elise Patkotak • 03:05 AM •
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Whenever I travel outside of Alaska, I notice a very curious phenomenon.  On starting the trip, I usually think I look pretty good.  Of course, in today’s world of air travel, that statement needs to be taken in the context of a situation in which you all but have to strip naked to get through security.

So by good I mean that I have on clean underwear and clothes that are easily removed. with pockets easy to empty. I wear a wrinkle proof outfit that can withstand nights in airports waiting for missed and canceled connections. I wear pants with an elastic waistband that can expand with the overdose of airport food I will ingest. In other words, I’m wearing my Alaska best.
Now here’s where the odd part occurs. The farther I travel from Alaska, the less good I look even though I’m wearing the exact same outfit I started out in.  If I’m traveling East, this phenomenon becomes more and more pronounced with each plane change. By the time I reach the Philadelphia Airport, I am suddenly surrounded by smartly dressed women on the go, while I am clearly a sadly dressed woman whose get up and go already got up and went. I am a fashion don’t surrounded by fashion do’s.  And yet, scant hours before, I had looked just fine at the Anchorage airport.
What Alaskan women think of as smart looking clothing somehow becomes hopelessly dowdy the closer you get to any coast or Chicago. Of course, I’m referring here to real Alaskan women, the kind who have cut ice for water, hauled wood for a fire and intimately know the innards of everything from a moose to a halibut and how to make those innards a tasty meal. Anchorage women don’t always fit this criteria. In my thirty years here, I’ve noticed that Anchorage continues to drift further and further away from Alaska.
But even Anchorage women have to admit that tight straight suit skirts are not meant to be worn with bunny boots while climbing over snow berms only slightly lower that Denali. Women’s shoes often have spiky heels and pointy toes. My toes do not come to a point. And those spiky heels are not half as useful as they look to be on icy surfaces. They simple don’t grip well and Yak Trax are impossible to fit over them.
In this year of Sarah Palin and the million-dollar wardrobe, the bar for Alaska fashion has been set unreasonably high for us common folk. In fact, I am less concerned about who paid for her outfits than I am with what they mean to those of us who thought living in Alaska meant never having to wear a bra with underwires again. She’s simply ruined the curve for the rest of us. And we won’t even go in to the fact that she managed to make a beehive hairdo somehow new and hip. That’s just criminal.
Being a dorky Alaskan used to have its pluses.  My sister never expected me to be dressed correctly for anything. She gave up that dream years ago when I explained my two pair of shoes theory.  Simply stated, so long as you have a pair of black and a pair of brown shoes, your shoe needs have been more than adequately met.
Dorkily dressed Alaskans recognize each other no matter where we meet. As I travel back to Alaska, I immediately know when I’m getting close to home because suddenly everyone is dressed like me. I am back among my people, the ones who understand that boots are more than a fashion statement and should always be preceded by the word “bunny”. And that coats that don’t come with a hood, ruff and zip in liner are simply not coats. And that mittens can come with ears and eyes and not be viewed askance.
Sarah may have done her best to drag us into the fore front of the fashion world, but my bet is on the Alaskan woman who will not give up her right to wear her carharts and sweatshirt to lunch any sooner than she will give up her gun.
They’ll only take my sweat pants out of my cold, dead hands.

Elise Patkotak • 03:00 AM •
Thursday, December 11, 2008

As America’s Current Occupier winds down his disastrous years in office, he is giving interviews to the big three networks. I watched the first interview with Charles Gibson until I could no longer handle the pain. Did we really elect this man to the office once held by Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln? Or, for god’s sake, Chester B. Arthur?

I think it is an interesting juxtaposition that at the same time as Bush stumbles and bumbles his way through these fairly controlled moments of media access, a movie titled “Frost/Nixon” is released. The movie, based on a Broadway play, is a recreation of almost 14 hours of interviews by David Frost with Richard Nixon three years after Nixon’s resignation. It is Nixon’s first interview after his resignation and most historians think he went into it with the idea that he could somehow use his admittedly brilliant mind to resurrect his legacy.
But a team of researchers had spent a year digging into the Nixon presidency and Watergate. Frost had all the ammunition he needed to catch Nixon time and time again. It led to that extraordinary moment when Nixon apologized to the nation for his actions.  Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Richard Nixon knew that was not something he’d gone into the interview planning to do.
As someone who thought that Richard Nixon epitomized evil until Dick Cheney came along, I can only say, “George Bush, you are no Richard Nixon.” And I don’t mean that in a flattering way.
Nixon, for all his personal demons, was a brilliant man who could have gone down in history as one of our greatest presidents had not his hubris tripped him up.  This statement to Frost aptly sums up that hubris. “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.”
According to historian James Reston, Jr. in an interview in the nationalpost.com, this line was met with wild, derisive laughter when the play ran on Broadway. He says the laugher wasn’t about Nixon. It was all about Bush.
I can’t believe I am about to defend Richard Nixon, but the truth is that while his great talents may have been undercut by his great flaws, there is no doubt those talents existed. George Bush is a man with no great talent undercut by exceedingly great flaws, the greatest being that he thinks he has some talent.
In his interview with Gibson, the one thing that struck me forcefully was the fact that after eight years in office, Bush still couldn’t speak English without mangling the language and he still had the deer in the headlight look we first saw in that classroom on 9/11. When asked about regrets, the only thing he could come up with was the bad intelligence on the Iraq WMDs.
Gee, he doesn’t regret slapping FEMA chief Michael Brown on the back and telling him he was doing a heckuva job as people suffered and died in New Orleans waiting for FEMA to do something to rescue them? He didn’t regret that unfortunate photo op on the aircraft carrier declaring “Mission Accomplished” when it was painfully clear he did not have a clue as to what accomplishing the mission actually took? He wasn’t sorry he gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to L. Paul Bremer for his part in the debacle that is Iraq? He has no second thoughts about the continued detention of prisoners in Guantanamo despite the fact that we know no more now than we did then about whether they did anything to deserve imprisonment?  No concerns about authorizing water boarding prisoners that has left our own military men and women vulnerable to the same treatment if they are ever captured as enemy combatants?
Well, clearly the list goes on and on and even a fourteen hour interview would only begin to scratch the surface of things most Americans would like him to explain or justify. His eight years in office have brought America to its knees.
History will note that Richard Nixon was a man of great abilities and even greater flaws. The story of his presidency is an American tragedy. History will note that George Bush was a man of few abilities and great flaws. That is why the story of his presidency is an American travesty.

Elise Patkotak • 03:05 AM •
Thursday, December 04, 2008

Foster kids aren’t the only ones tired of telling their story over and over to new caseworkers because of the chronic staff turnover experienced by the Office of Children’s Services.  GALs frequently work cases where three or four social worker changes during the case are not at all unusual.  They are often the only ones with the complete history of the case and they tell it over and over again as social workers come and go.

Most GALs want to work with the social worker assigned to their cases because families and children can only benefit when everyone is pulling in the same direction for them.  But this becomes a frustrating exercise when the worker is always new and the GAL has to repeatedly explain why everyone agreed upon a certain course of action. If the new worker doesn’t end up also agreeing with the plan, you are back at square one, developing yet another variation on the case plan. Worse, the kids and their families are about to be given yet another group of goals they must work towards. They too end up at square one over and over again. And they end up confused and frustrated by changing expectations.
Most of the time, the only thing the kids really want to know is when they can go home. Unfortunately, there are some very dysfunctional families who use this changeover in staff and case plans as the excuse they need to not even try to work the program to get their kids back. And that leaves us with no good answer to the kids’ questions about when they get to go home.
Social workers are often totally unfamiliar with the culture they encounter in villages. They have to learn about the local culture, family connections, and just how active the particular tribal government is in children’s matters.  By the time they learn all they need to know, they are often already putting in their transfer papers because they have had enough of being overworked, understaffed and, in most cases, woefully unappreciated.
Most social workers do not enter the field because they enjoy taking children from their families. In fact, many enter the field because they think they can help families heal. But there are only so many hours in any given day. If you don’t have enough staff, something’s got to give. When your day is spent in crises mode, those precious hours needed to work with families get lost.
Add to this the fact that when you work with Native clients, you are trying to translate some very unfamiliar western concepts of law and expectations into their traditional understanding of family, and the job just gets harder.  Pile on top of that the social isolation new workers feel in a unfamiliar community where their job does not make them anyone’s favorite person and you can see how this might lead to a social worker transferring out, even if the only other job available involves asking if you want fries with your order.
As a society, we make an awfully big fuss about children being important. But we seem to have trouble putting our money where our mouths are. Teachers and social workers are some of the most woefully under paid professionals around.
Money won’t make social work any easier. But it will make recruiting social workers a little easier if their pay is commensurate with their responsibilities. And the more staff recruited, the more positions filled and the less burnout. Who knows, some social workers might actually have enough time to do the family work they were trained for instead of running from one court hearing to the next, from one emergency placement to the next. They might have time to partner with their Native counterparts at the regional Native health corporations to provide better, more coordinated and more culturally sensitive solutions to the horrible problems produced by the drinking and domestic violence so rife in our villages.
Those children we most want to protect seem to end up being the most harmed, first by their families and then by a system chronically under funded and understaffed, whether it be the social workers, the court system or the group homes and foster families. When it comes to protecting children, we seem to talk big and act small.

Elise Patkotak • 03:20 AM •
Thursday, November 27, 2008

Since I’m not really what you would call a holiday kind of person, if forced to choose a holiday to celebrate, I always choose Thanksgiving.  It’s about food, family, insane after dinner board games, and a long night of sleeping off a turkey high. No gift shopping involved, no strange looks from the gift recepients. What’s not to love?

As I left for my Thanksgiving trip to the lower 48, I wondered how this one would differ from others now that Alaska’s governor has become a media superstar, almost eclipsing the omnipresent Paris Hilton in adoring coverage by magazines I religiously read only at my hairdresser’s.
Sarah remains a potent symbol of our state, and not necessarily in a good way.  Before Sarah’s VP run, the questions I was asked about Alaska ran the normal gamut from what we use for money up here, to whether a passport was needed to get in, to whether Americans needed a visa to work here, to my all time favorite about where exactly was Alaska because it seemed too cold to really be in the Pacific off the California coastline.
On this trip, the questions showed that while people now clearly understood that we were part of America (OK, maybe some of them didn’t or they wouldn’t have asked me how Sarah could run for VP since she hadn’t been born in America), they now had even more perplexing issues to grapple with about our state.
Some apparently took Palin’s comment that Russia was our neighbor and she could see it from Wasilla quite literally and exclaimed they were unaware the Bering land bridge still connected us or that Alaska was on Russia’s continent, even though they weren’t at all sure what continent that was. When pressed, they would get all fuzzy with their geography until I though it would just be easier to carry at Atlas than try to explain things to the geographically challenged that we seem to be turning out of our school system in droves.
I had one young man ask me if we had to take Sarah back now that she’d lost her bid to be vice-president. This otherwise charming, intelligent young man, who was in the process of finishing up his master’s degree, admitted he really didn’t understand how that stuff worked. Meanwhile, I was forced to admit that she was still our governor and, as Robert Frost so aptly said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”.  Right after that, the unfortunate interview in front of the even more unfortunate turkeys hit the airwaves and I found myself wishing it would all just go away and people would forget about Alaska again.
Aside from that, I spent an inordinate amount of time explaining to people that I was pretty sure Palin knew Africa was a continent before being so informed by McCain staffers and that if pushed, I was also pretty sure she could name the countries that make up North America. On the other hand, when pressed on that issue, I found myself wishing the conversation would return to the turkey video.
So yes, Alaska is now on the map with the rest of America and I unfortunately cannot claim for sure that is a good thing.  We seem to have been better off when we were mostly known for whales stuck in the ice and bridges to nowhere.
But it’s almost Thanksgiving, the turkey is thawing, the cranberries are cooking and I’m thinking of all the things I have to be grateful for in life. I am grateful I have lived long enough to hold my godchild’s babies, have enough airline miles to get me to where she lives to do that, have a sense of smell still strong enough to detect a poopy diaper, and the wisdom to hand the kid back to mom when he does.
Mostly though, despite this rough year of indictments, sentences, careers ending in disgrace and possible ruin, and a governor who put Alaska on the national map in an equally positive and negative fashion, I am grateful that I live in what is still the most insane, vibrant, crazy and wonderful state in this union. Now pass that turkey leg and get out the mahjong tiles.

Elise Patkotak • 03:51 AM •
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Our schools’ report cards don’t look very good. That’s sad because children who didn’t use their educational opportunities to full advantage will always be a step behind those who did. It’s scary because, to beat a trite old phrase to death, these kids are our future and our future doesn’t seem to be able to read or do math.

As we run around trying to figure out why Johnny can’t read and Susie can’t do math, I think we should peek into a corner that is traditionally left untouched because of its sensitive nature.  In fact, as my fingers move over these keys to write the words, I’m already contemplating the need to change my phone number and e-mail address because of the avalanche of mail I will receive telling me I just don’t understand how important this little corner really is to our children’s development.
I’m talking about sports and the amount of time, energy, and money put into sports at every level of our educational system. If children learn from the example set by the adults around them, then the lesson they are learning is that if you want your parent’s attention, enthusiasm and praise, join a team. Become a football player or a soccer player or a basketball player. If you do, your classmates, teachers and parents will fawn over you, hold pep rallies in your honor, pay for you to go to special camps so you can improve your jump shot or kick…you will, in fact, have the total devotion and attention of most adults in your life.
Join the debate team, the spelling bee or the orchestra and the sound in your ears as you bring home the gold will be deafening silence since everyone will be too busy at the football pep rally. Need money for that trip to the national competition? Then you’d better be ready to wash cars, sell gift wrap or ask your parents for a plane ticket because you will find that the school does not have much money for academic competitions.
I can hear the schools and parents screaming now about how sports are excellent for getting children to be active and working well with others. No argument here. I think sports are a great adjunct to school life. The problem is that sports have moved from adjunct to the spotlight, pushing academics to the side.
We teach our children what’s important by the importance we attach to it.  If football games rate bunting, pep rallies, bon fires, band playing and parents cheering, then clearly a football game is very important. If a debate competition rates barely a mention over the PA system…well, it doesn’t take an idiot to figure out which thing the adults attach more importance to.
When I lived in Barrow, I watched the school band there struggle to raise money to go to national competitions where they often took first place.  The band parents were told by the school board that money was tight and they couldn’t pay for the whole trip. The boys’ basketball team, however, had a hundred thousand dollar travel budget. 
Now Barrow has a football team. As its students fail academically, it has found money to not only fund the team but to fund its travel throughout the state. 
The argument made for athletics is that it keeps kids in school, thereby giving them a better chance at a successful future.  Really?  Could someone please point me to the study that shows that? Because I know way too many kids who are adrift after high school as they find out that in life, no one stands on the sidelines and cheers the three pointer made in a pick up game at the gym.
When high school is over, what do these young athletes have? Memories of winning a game won’t get you into college or count for much on a job application, especially if that paper you have is a certificate of attendance and not a diploma. 
What these young people are left with is a feeling that they peaked in high school. They have the rest of their lives to live and we’ve haven’t given them the tools to succeed.
Schools should celebrate athletic achievements, but not to the detriment of their main focus, celebrating academic achievement.

Elise Patkotak • 03:11 AM •
Thursday, November 13, 2008

For just a moment there was blessed silence.  No one screaming at me, telling me what to think, who to vote for, how many felons were in our congressional delegation. For just a moment, it was safe to answer the phone because there wouldn’t be a robo call at the other end pretending to be a personal message. It wouldn’t be a poll asking questions that made your blood boil; questions like “Are you pro life?” Seriously, how do you answer no to that?

Usually, by the time I finished stewing over the telephone poll, I’d already be hearing another political commercial that had me swearing off TV and radio forever.  In fact, if any other argument needs to be made for public broadcasting, it should be this. It’s the one media outlet you can listen to during a campaign without being bombarded senselessly, painfully and unendingly with political ads.
This year seemed to be more obnoxious than most because someone apparently gave a bunch of idiots at the national Democratic Senatorial Committee, or whoever the heck they were, free rein to spend untold amounts of money on telling us how corrupt Ted Stevens and Don Young are. I can only assume that this being the first year the Democrats actually had money in eons, they went a bit overboard in spending it with no adult supervision. Because if even one adult had been paying attention, they would have perhaps gleaned the backlash building in Alaska over those ads. 
First of all, and this probably comes as a shock to no one, I was a strong proponent of the need for change in our congressional delegation. Sometimes retiring while you’re ahead, or at least not in jail, is the better part of valor. But given that once politicians have tasted power it is almost impossible to get them to voluntarily walk away from it, I was not surprised to see our current congressional delegation fighting to keep their seats. What I was surprised by was the hate and vitriol that seemed to fuel the ads that ran telling us of their many misdeeds.
I understand that Mark Begich and Ethan Berkowitz had no control over the organizations running those ads. Almost.  Because I think the reality is that if they truly were as appalled as most of us were by not only the tone of the ads but the sheer number, they might have found a way to make it known to the organizations running them that it wasn’t helping.  And trust me, by the weekend before the election, I was not the only person sitting in my living room watching TV and thinking that I was very close to voting for Steven and Young just to spite the people who were running those ads – especially when three or four of them aired in a row during a commercial break. It felt like I was being slimed and then slimed again, until all I wanted to do was lash out at the people who were sliming me.  Can you say, “Overkill?”
Begich and Berkowitz ran what were probably fairly positive campaigns when you consider the normal stench that arises from hard fought political contests. But they could do that because these outside organizations were pouring smut into our state and on to our airwaves. Believe it or not, most Alaskans knew that Ted Stevens was convicted, Don Young was under investigation and Africa is a continent. We are not idiots. But outsiders shoving that down our throats every time we dared to turn the TV or radio on became overwhelmingly insulting by the end of the campaign.  Maybe once or twice an hour would not have been bad. But sometimes those ads seemed to be the only thing on during the breaks and that angered a lot of us. We may not have been supporting Stevens or Young, but they were still ours and Alaskans aren’t famous for dealing well with that much interference from the outside…except, of course, when the interference comes with a government check.
Now we get to enjoy a little quiet unless Stevens wins and then resigns and then we have to have another campaign. But for just a moment there is…wait, what’s that I just heard. Oh no!  It’s a Christmas carol. 

Elise Patkotak • 03:13 AM •
Thursday, November 06, 2008

I sit here wondering what I can possible say that hasn’t already been said about this historic election.  It’s probably the first time I’ve cried listening to a politician since the day I attended Bobby Kennedy’s funeral in New York and listened to his brother’s eulogy for him.

A few days before the election, I listened to Public Radio International report in which commentators from a variety of European countries were interviewed about their take on the upcoming election.  One of them said something that really stuck in my mind. He said that Europe was watching our election in rapt fascination because the reality was that in Europe, it was unimaginable to think a person with dark skin could ever be elected to the highest position in government. But in America, he said, a person of color actually had a chance of winning the election and leading what is still arguably the greatest country on earth.
I think last night’s election proved that we are not only the greatest nation on earth, but more importantly that we are still the greatest beacon of hope this world has. Despite all that the Current Occupier and his minions have done to tarnish our image and erase any vestige of good will for America, we are still the only place to go if you really want a chance to shoot for the stars. That’s what brought my grandparents here almost 100 years ago. It’s what still draws immigrants to our shores year after year.
For those who doubt the benefit of immigration, I can only stay that it is through the diversity of thought, culture and customs they bring to America that we remain as strong and vigorous as we are. Europe sits in stagnation, unable or unwilling to give their immigrant populations the ability to fully integrate into mainstream society. America may not be perfect, but on this issue we are head and shoulders above anyone else around.
I’ve had friends say to me that Obama is too glib, too silver tongued. And I respond, “What is wrong with charismatic?” Isn’t that a perfect description of Martin Luther King, Jr.? He inspired us with words and those words described a vision of the possibilities of America. His speeches challenged us to make those possibilities real.  Isn’t that the very definition of what a leader should do? I’ll take that any day over someone who tells us that if we go shopping, we can beat Al Qaida.
Of course, no discussion of last night’s results is complete without an explanation of our congressional races. And anyone who has a good clue as to what happened should call me.
I do wish all my friends and relatives from the East Coast would stop e-mailing me and asking me what we were thinking.  I especially resent those questions coming out of New Jersey since it is glaringly evident to me that the citizens of that fine state are extremely upset that we’ve taken from them one of their proudest titles….most corrupt politics in America.
Well New Jersey, get over it.  We’ve taken that title from you and plan to hold on to it as long as possible. After all, except for that title, what other titles do we really own? State that receives the most federal dollars per person? State that redefined Main Street as a four-lane highway with a divider?
Here’s the simplest explanation of the results of last night’s congressional races. Not only don’t we care how they do it in the lower ’48, we don’t care how convicted our felons are so long as they are dragging federal pork home with them.  Alaskans may boast of being independent minded cusses who want government out of their lives, but the truth is that we don’t want the government out until they’ve delivered our checks. Then they can leave.
So there you have it. I went from crying last night over the election of a man who I believe can lead this nation back to the greatness it abandoned over the past eight years, to total awe at the fact that here in Alaska, crimes and misdemeanors are completely forgiven so long as we get our share of federal dollars. I’m proud of America today. I have mixed emotions about Alaska.

Elise Patkotak • 03:43 AM •
Thursday, October 30, 2008

One of my parents’ cardinal rules was that the secrecy of the ballot box was sacred. It was what made America stand out. Politicians could not punish us for the way we voted because they had no right to know how we voted.

Since our current Occupier and his administration have made a mockery of that notion by politicizing everything they’ve touched, I’ve decided, after twenty years of writing a newspaper column, it’s time for me to break the silence of my vote.
I look around at the debris and detritus that was once our great nation and its constitution, the legacy of an administration whose leader has not the slightest clue as to what made this nation so great for two centuries, and feel the need to stand up for my country. And I do mean MY country. Because contrary to statements made by our governor, I don’t believe that America has parts of the country that love America and are pro-American and parts that aren’t. I believe we have an immense, far flung nation filled with richness of diversity in thought, culture and religion, and all are real Americans. This country was founded by a group of people who wanted nothing more nor less than their god given right to believe and worship and work and play without being told they had to conform to one style of thought or belief.
For those of you who claim total faith in our Founding Fathers’ words without bothering to ever read them, let’s not forget this part of the Declaration of Independence:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
And so today I am declaring my freedom from the party that produced Dick Cheney and his frightening interpretation of the vice presidency as a job that exists in a shadow world, neither part of the legislative nor the executive branch of our government, one that operates secret torture camps in our names with impunity. Our Founding Fathers would weep at what he has done to their carefully crafted balance of government powers.
And I declare myself free from the petty, nasty politics that insinuates that you can’t be a Muslim and a good family man at the same time. Or that if you live in a city, you have no morals or values and are somehow suspect as Americans. If that’s the case, then Bin Laden sure hit the wrong target. Because in destroying the World Trade Centers in the biggest city in our nation, he thought he was striking at the heart of America. But I guess all those firemen and policemen and brokers and husbands, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters who died were not real Americans because they didn’t live in small town USA.
Here’s what else I’m declaring freedom from. I am declaring myself free from any obligation to any politicians just because he’s been in office forever. I don’t owe any of them a darn thing. They got paid and paid well for their efforts. In some case, they even got the added benefit of a personal servant my taxes paid for.  If they want to keep their job, then they should be giving me their vision for the future, not a guilt trip about how I owe them for their past. If I want guilt, I’ll call my family. They do guilt much better.
So here’s my vote. Obama, Begich and Berkowitz.  Because they represent a new direction and a chance to right this ship of state before it sinks under the weight of socialism for the rich, pre-emptive wars and divisive hate mongering that sets neighbor against neighbor and destroys that which has made our country great – the belief that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Elise Patkotak • 03:46 AM •
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Here’s how it works in my world. If I want renovations done on my home, I call a contractor. I tell him exactly what I want. He provides an estimate. I gulp and realize once again that my wallet and dreams live in two different zip codes. I reassess my wants. He renegotiates his costs. I give him a down payment. He starts work. He bills me periodically throughout the job. I pay the bills. When it’s done, we shake hands…assuming we are still talking to each other at that point, which is usually six months later than estimated…and go our separate ways.

This is apparently how it’s done if you are a powerful politician. Your house gets renovated. No estimate is given. You don’t really have to pay at any specific time. In fact, you actually have to OFFER to pay your contractor because he’s just not all that sure that he shouldn’t be paying you for the privilege of working on your house. He’s so privileged to be doing this that a year later he goes back and adds a deck, much to your complete surprise.
Here’s another way it works in my world. If I need money, I get in my car, go to the ATM, pray to god I have enough cash to make a withdrawal, punch in my code and hold my breath until the money comes out. Despite being one darn important person in the lives of my birds and dogs, I am forced to do these menial tasks myself. In fact, I even have to walk my own dogs and pick up their leavings all by myself.
But apparently if you are the wife of a powerful senator, you get his aides as your personal errand people so that you never have to dirty your fingertips by punching in your PIN or picking up your dog’s poop. It’s not that I don’t think the wife of a powerful senator doesn’t deserve to have the services of all the aides she can afford. Heck, I don’t particularly care if she hires an aide willing to loofah her back in the shower. Her money, her choice. But I do find myself drawing the line at the idea that someone being paid for by my tax dollars to assist my senator in his responsibilities to my country and state is acting as a personal servant for his wife.
The trend nowadays seems to be to accept that when you elect someone, you get the spouse as a twofer deal whether you want it or not. And not only do you get the spouse, but you get to give that spouse office space and personal assistants based simply on their choice of marriage partner.  Something is seriously wrong with that.
Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, was on the Daily Show last week being quizzed about the recent massive Wall Street bail out package that should bankrupt our children and their children and their children’s children for generations yet to come. When asked why we had to do this, he commented that the official explanation was about the need to keep banks fluid and the market healthy or we would all suffer. Then he offered the truest statement I have heard about the financial crisis to date. He said the truth was that in American we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.
It seems that in America today, the rich and powerful get to “offer” to pay their bills as though this were an optional issue. They get to use public servants for personal errands. They spend our national income like drunken sailors on shore leave knowing that us poor capitalists at the bottom of the food chain will bail them out. They get to do all this on the premise that we are docile sheep who will gratefully take whatever pittance trickles down to us.
There was another era in history like this once.  A famous woman of that era was heard to mutter, when told the poor could no longer afford bread, “Let them eat cake”. Well, here’s a fair warning to the rich and powerful. I’m down to my last Twinkie. And you really don’t want to see what happens when that’s gone.

Elise Patkotak • 03:27 AM •
Thursday, October 16, 2008

There are a lot of Alaskans thrilled at the national press we’ve gotten since our governor became McCain’s running mate. But I’m starting to long for the day when most Americans wondered if they needed a passport to get here and weren’t quite sure what continent we were on but thought it was somewhere in the Pacific close to California.

I actually found myself on a San Francisco talk radio show explaining that while we did have an aerial wolf hunt program in place, in actual fact Sarah Palin wasn’t the one who went up in the plane to shoot the wolves. I assured the caller that we have people to carry out these programs without the governor needing to personally load up her rifle and take a day to make the world a little safer for the moose she planned to have for dinner.
Could we have picked a worse moment to hit the national spotlight? We have legislators going to jail right and left. We have Don Young being investigated. Ted Stevens is on trial.  Ben Stevens’ name is on more criminal paperwork than a whole season of CSI programs generates. We have a multi-billion dollar savings account while most states are drowning in red ink. And we have Troopergate.
If Palin had simply cooperated with the investigation as she said she would when this all first came to light, it would probably have ended up benefiting her. Because if you look at Branchflower’s report, he supports her right to fire Monegan at will; more importantly, he recommends that the state open up the process used to investigate complaints like the ones the Palin’s had about Wooten so that people who make complaints have some feedback on the results. Branchflower acknowledges the Palin’s frustration in registering fairly serious complaints with the State Troopers and getting told they had no right to know the outcome of the investigation of those complaints. Most people can understand that frustration and how it could lead Todd Palin to go more than a little overboard in obsessing on how to get Wooten fired.
But before the air could be cleared, Palin got picked to be McCain’s running mate and her mind and decision-making faculties were immediately taken over by the minions of Rove-ian thought. And their strategy seems to be to stonewall, stonewall, stonewall, while screaming partisan smear job. Suddenly the Truth Squad was here holding daily briefings that none but the most committed McCain/Palin supporters found anything but laughable. We had legislators suing themselves to stop what they started. We had the State Supreme Court trying not to look completely incredulous over whether those legislators understood the powers and responsibilities of their branch of government; whether, in so many words, they understood the concept of checks and balances and three equal branches of government.  Then our governor files a complaint against herself with the Personnel Board, whose three members she personally appoints. Then she tries to withdraw it. Finally, when it seemed as though it could get no more absurd, the legislative report comes out concluding Palin broke the state ethics law and she calls that an exoneration.
The only thing missing from this circus is a bunch of clowns exiting a small car in the center ring.
This publicity comes at a time when the bottom has fallen out of the financial markets; people’s retirement funds, college funds and plain old funds for their daily food are melting faster than the glaciers. Meanwhile, we have a Permanent Fund that would be the envy of many Third World countries.
So you can see where this might not be the best time for America to be taking such a close look at Alaska. Imagine what it will be like in the next congressional session if any of our delegation attempts to get money earmarked for Alaska. Try convincing someone from California where the budget is drowning in red ink, or someone from New Jersey who pays some of the highest taxes in the nation, that despite our billion dollar savings accounts, the feds should give us money.
Alaska is in eminent danger of becoming one big national joke, the Dan Quayle of states. Someone should tell our governor that we deserve better than that. Someone should give our governor her brain back.

Elise Patkotak • 04:53 AM •
Thursday, October 09, 2008

Let’s put politics aside this week and talk about some realities we will be facing this winter in Anchorage. A public service announcement used to air that pointed out that no one dreamed of growing up to be an addict, or homeless, or alcoholic.  No one dreams of that, but a short jog down some of Anchorage’s meaner streets shows that it happens more often than we imagine.

Because there are organizations dedicated to helping these people, most of us spend our days without giving them a second thought. They are someone else’s problem; except they aren’t. They are our problem because, as that old saying so aptly states, there but for the grace of God go I.
So when someone tells me they don’t mind contributing to the homeless and hungry if they have some assurance that these people will react properly and get off the street and into jobs, I have to wonder where in the story of the loaves and fishes, Jesus requires certain preconditions be met before giving someone food.
Being homeless and hungry is not a choice any of us would normally make. But sometimes it isn’t a choice.  For some, addictions and mental illness preclude making good choices. For others, loss of a job, leaving an abusive spouse or coming in from a village to find employment that never materializes, means very limited choices.
If we aspire to be a truly compassionate society, we simply should not put restrictions on which hungry people will be fed. Yes, we should have programs available to help those who want help and have the mental and emotional faculties to access that help.  But we must not refuse shelter and food to those who do not make the choices we feel they should.
Common decency requires that we help those who cannot help themselves. Common humanity should tell us that a hungry person surrounded by food should be allowed to share in that food. We should care for them because it is simply the right thing as a society to do.
It would be wonderful if, between government and private agencies, we could actually provide enough services to get all of those less fortunate than us off the street and into shelter. It would be wonderful if Bean’s Café never had to feed a hungry child again or Brother Francis never had to shelter someone who cannot run fast enough to escape the demons in their mind.  But I think we can all agree that’s not likely to happen in our lifetime.
So the best we can do is offer the kindness of love and charity to those less fortunate without any strings attached or requirements that must be met. I hate to bring Jesus into this again, because way too many people do and he ends up suffering by their usage; but if you think about it, you’ll realize that he and his apostles were actually street people who lived off the kindness of others. Imagine what our world would be like if the Romans had a program back then that insisted in order for him and his followers to be fed, they first had to come in off the streets and conform to the world as it was then structured.
Jesus didn’t choose wealth. He didn’t choose to preach from a position of power, surrounded by material riches. He didn’t build a temple to himself and demand that people give him a portion of their salaries. Jesus lived off the charity of others while urging his followers to give up everything and follow him.
So the next time you avert your eyes from the homeless person with the handmade sign standing at the intersection begging for money, remember that the man most admired by Western culture was, essentially, a beggar. Then think about the many needy people facing a long, cold and hungry winter in our city…women, children, the mentally ill, addicts of all sorts, and people simply down on their luck. So many more people will need our help than in the past because of the rising costs of heat and food. Ask yourself what would Jesus do? And which of these people would he refuse? Then do something to make this world a little kinder and gentler for everyone.

Elise Patkotak • 03:10 AM •
Thursday, October 02, 2008


Today marks my 36th anniversary in Alaska. I first set foot here on Oct. 1, 1972.  I was fresh out of New York City. Until then, my idea of the country was going to a farm in central Jersey. My idea of wilderness was a bird sanctuary in Cape May. My idea of strange food was anything that didn’t have Parmesan cheese on the top.  Becoming an Alaskan would challenge every one of my preconceived notions of life.

I spent exactly one day in Anchorage before shipping off to Barrow.  My memories of that day include a trip to the Army Navy store on Fourth Avenue to get myself winter gear. I was dropped off at the store and told to buy the warmest parka, boots and gloves they had.
I stood outside the store on Fourth Avenue and looked around in bewildered amazement. I’d been told this was the heart of downtown. But if that was true, where were the skyscrapers? Where were the bustling crowds of people scurrying to and fro? And for the love of god, why had I been directed to shop in a store that seemed to specialize in outfits worn by troopers in World War II movies? Where was Bloomie’s?  Macy’s?  Even I, with my reputation as one of the worse dressers on the East Coast, knew that you could be forgiven for dressing badly if the tag on your outfit had the right address.
Now, 36 years later, I pick up my paper and see an article reprinted from the New York Times about a beauty salon in Wasilla. I feel like I’ve fallen through the looking glass and now up is down and good is bad and Wasilla is teaching New Yorkers what to consider chic. Maybe the ends of time are nearer than I thought.
The Alaska I first discovered was one full of individuals who carried not a chip so much as a tree trunk on their shoulder. As Alaskans they were use to being viewed as America’s unwanted red headed stepchild. Our cities were small, our land was big, our natural resources were abundant, and if we had to put up with a few weeks of forty below weather in winter in order to call this place home, so be it.
Here’s the other thing I noticed about Alaskans back then. They were as independent as they were cantankerous and they had no qualms about letting their elected officials know if they thought that said officials had their heads where the sun didn’t shine. In fact, it was almost a requirement for calling yourself a true Alaskan to be willing to trash talk any public official who held beliefs you knew to be pure and sheer hogwash – or, worse yet, city ideas from the lower ’48 being brought here to corrupt us pure Alaskans.
I guess I didn’t realize how far we’d come from that attitude until I started seeing the letters to the editor in the paper calling anyone who disagrees with Sarah Palin and says it out loud a traitor to our state who should just shut up and support her because she’s an Alaskan.  I don’t think you can find an attitude that is much more un-Alaskan than that.
People who spoke truth to power and didn’t care where the chips fell built this state and this country. Whether it was our founding fathers telling King George where to put his tea tax or Wally Hickel telling Richard Nixon what he thought of the Vietnam war, Alaskans hold dear our right to tell people in power exactly what we think of them while reveling in the knowledge that our country protects us from retribution if we do.
So I think that people who speak out for or against any national or local politician or policy are patriots, not traitors. And those who think otherwise should go live in a country where that speech is not allowed and see how comfortable they find it. Because in my Alaska, saying what you think about politicians was a sacred tradition when I arrived and I will do everything in my power to keep it that way till the day I depart – hopefully as ashes scattered over the Arctic.

Elise Patkotak • 03:39 AM •
Thursday, September 25, 2008

To the great amusement of friends and family alike, I am going to tackle the issue of our national financial situation. We will pause for a moment while they all laugh hysterically and then wipe the tears from their eyes.

You see, I managed to live through the entire Alaska pipeline boom without saving enough to assure I will never have to wear a paper cap and lean out a window to ask if you want fries with your burger. I did at one point have some money put aside. It was embezzled. Then I put some more aside and the federal government took it on the theory that I owed back taxes for the tax breaks I’d taken on the investments that never existed because the money had not ever actually been invested. Suffice to say that no one has ever accused me of having the slightest bit of financial acumen.
Here the thing though.  I know I am a financial idiot. That’s why I put what little money I have into very safe investments now, hidden from my view by those extremely complicated statements I receive every three months that mean nothing but a headache to me. Since I don’t understand it, I never touch the money.
Hey, you have your plans for old age financial security, I have mine.
Knowing what I don’t know causes me to be cautious about my money. This is not something many Wall Street CEOs felt compelled to be. I assumed they got their jobs because they had some understanding of financial markets and some expertise to put that knowledge to work and make money for shareholders.  I was clearly wrong. It seems that the only thing those CEOs needed to know was how to stash away the hundreds of millions of dollars they paid themselves while they watched their companies go down the toilet. 
Again, I’m not holding myself out to be any expert on Wall Street or stocks and bonds or IPOs or any of those other initials they use to hide the shaky financial ground on which they stand. But common sense seems to say that if you are so bad in your job that you take a company that has been around in some cases for over 100 years and run it so far into the ground that you can see China from there, maybe this year you shouldn’t get $100 million in compensation. I’m pretty sure that most of us work in a world where such spectacularly bad judgment would get us fired, even from government work. So why do these CEOs get to walk away with millions in their pockets while the feds use trillions of our tax dollars to bail out the companies they destroyed?
I’ve reached the point of being darned tired of the condescending attitude of so many financial “giants” that imply that you and I are simply too stupid to get what they do. I’m not too fiscally unsophisticated to say no to my deadbeat relative with no means of financial support when he asks for a loan that he swears he’ll pay back even though he has no assets. But these uber sophisticated money men and women all looked at poor credit risks, lack of collateral and generally sucky financial histories and said, sure, have a hundred thousand or two to buy a house whose payments are way beyond anything you will ever be able to manage.  And they call me financially challenged?
You and I work all year and at the end of that year pay taxes to the government to keep services operating and our national security safe.  Only this year, instead of the money going to buy better health care for returning vets or better educational tools for our children or assistance to people who won’t have enough money to heat their homes this winter, our taxes will bail out companies run into the ground by greed, stupidity, and lack of government oversight and regulation.
And while you and I shiver through the winter, the CEOs of those now defunct companies will be sunning themselves on some warm beach, living off the millions they made for doing such a heckuva good job.
What is wrong with this picture?

Elise Patkotak • 03:35 AM •
Thursday, September 18, 2008

There was a time when I thought John McCain really was a different kind of politician, one who would put his country above his personal desire for grandeur. I stopped thinking that the day he announced Sarah Palin as his running mate. The sheer hubris that went into that selection simply takes my breath away.

Sarah Palin is untested and untried. There were dozens of other people much more qualified to be McCain’s running mate who would not have caused people to question how ready they’d be to take over if something happened to McCain. To my mind, it’s fairly clear that the only reason McCain chose Palin was because she brought in a demographic he desperately needed – the right wing, conservative Christian base of Republicans voters who view McCain with distrust and distaste.
So basically McCain decided that getting elected was more important than making sure he had someone on his ticket who could successfully run our nation should something happen to him. He chose his ambition over the welfare of his country. Karl Rove lives on in McCain’s cynical and calculated choice – me first, the Republican party second and America a distant third.
I watched the Republican convention with great bemusement as the speakers took their turns laying out the party’s vision for America. As best I could tell they believed you had to come from a small town to have any morality. If you dared to get down in the street and work to make life better for us common folk, then you were some kind of fool to be mocked. I looked at the people speaking at the Republican Convention, from Mitt Romney to John (I-don’t-know-how-many-houses-I-own) McCain and wondered how they could keep a straight face while claiming that Barack Obama is some sort of elitist.  I looked at Giuliani who probably can’t remember how many wives he’s had, to McCain who has had his fair share, and wondered where the Christian right moralists are and why they aren’t railing against these people. I looked at the young man standing on the stage with the Palin’s accepting applause and wondered what he was being applauded for – dropping out of school or getting a 17 year old pregnant?
But mostly I wondered if it had been Chelsea Clinton standing on the stage at the Democratic Convention pregnant and unwed, just how many hysterical fits Rush Limbaugh and the conservative Christian media would have had in denouncing her and her family’s lax morals.
Yeah, I’m mad now. I’m mad because I truly thought McCain would run a campaign that did not cater to our basest instincts and the lowest common denominator but would engage Obama is a real exchange of ideas on the problems America faces. And these problems have nothing to do with sex ed in schools or being pro or anti choice or who you are allowed to marry.  None of those issues has hurt America as much as the philosophy emanating from Washington DC that gives to those who have and suggests the rest of us eat cake.
We have people entering the winter wondering if they will be able to pay their heating bill and mortgage in the same month; we have people who get needlessly seriously ill because they have no access to health care; we have a tanking economy and a war that continues to drain our resources while adding trillions of dollars in future debt for our children to pay.  If you want immoral, those conditions are the very definition of it.
But instead of an honest discussion of these issues, McCain makes a cynical choice for VP and then announces he and Sarah represent the party of change. Well, you know what, his party has been in charge for six of the past eight years. So I have to wonder why they waited until things got so bad to decide change was needed. And I have to wonder why McCain is so desperate to avoid a discussion of the real issues that instead he brings back the ghosts of elections past that so divided us in the first place.
I once thought John McCain was an honorable man who would try to make a difference. I don’t think that any longer.

Elise Patkotak • 03:09 AM •

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