Elise Sereni
     Patkotak
Thursday, December 31, 2009

This was a pretty amazing year for nominations into my Hall of Infamy. Considering it was not an election year, I thought the pickings would be slim. But political pandering lives on in all its glory as seen by the machinations that led to a health care bill that was, quite frankly, hardly worth either the wait, the cost or the pandering.

But I digress. The Hall is about those who have caused such ickiness and disgust as to have risen above the usual sleazy suspects.
Let’s start with Dick Cheney who retired from active politics on January 20, 2009 and immediately re-emerged as America’s boogeyman. His performance as deposed Lord of Fear, opining on every Sunday morning show that would give him air time about how the current administration is setting America up for another 9/11 immediately elevated him into the permanent wing of the Hall. He and Tom Cruise now proudly share that honor.
Keeping the concept of fairness in mind, we must admit that Nancy Pelosi is also close to earning a permanent spot in the Hall if only because she is possibly the most annoying woman in the US Congress today.  And for those of you wondering why Mark Sanford isn’t on this list, I can only say that even the Hall of Infamy has its standards.
I’m also nominating all politicians who did not blink an eye at going trillions of dollars into debt in order to fund a war of choice and then rebuild a country half a world away but bitched about the cost of covering Americans with affordable health care.
A nominating nod must also go to any country, religion or societal structure that believes that women should not be full participants in all aspects of life. And yes, I mean those that make their women wear burkas. Or places where a woman cannot be seen in public without a male relative escorting her. Or societies where a woman can be stopped by morality police and publicly beaten for some imagined showing of a forbidden part of her body… like her eyebrows. Or cultures where a husband, father or brother may kill a female relative if she has the audacity to allow herself to be raped without killing herself immediately afterwards to save her family from shame.
If some of these societies wonder why the Western world seems to be so much more advanced than they are, they might consider that they are keeping half of their intelligence, ingenuity and creativity locked behind heavy doors.
Moving on to the world of entertainment, the choices, as always, are innumerable. They range from such weird anomalies as the Octomom to the brilliant and brilliantly flawed Tiger Woods.  Michael Jackson’s father Joe would be on this list were it not for those standards I mentioned in regards to Mark Stanford. Joe Jackson is one of those people who are too icky even for the Hall of Infamy. And the new reality show Jersey Shore makes the cut for nominations based solely on the fact that I grew up there and am embarrassed by how real the portrayals actually are.
I think the commercials for Broadview Home Security deserve some special nomination in the area of tasteless attempts to scare. I refer to the commercial where a mother is playing with her daughter in a suburban neighborhood in full sunlight at noon while a hooded thug peeks between some boards at the pretty tableau. Mom goes in for lunch and sets her security alarm at which point the thug, possibly the stupidest criminal on earth, breaks through the glass door.  The people who created these commercials should hang their heads in shame.
But we must hesitate no longer in announcing the winner for the 2009 entry into my Hall of Infamy – and it is not Levi Johnston. No, the winner is the people who guided Levi to a centerfold gig in Playgirl magazine, thereby ensuring him iconic status in the world of gay men while also closing the door on anyone taking him seriously for anything for the rest of his life. Shame on those who had a hand in that decision. It’s not nice to take advantage of those with limited abilities, no matter how big your cut is.
Now on to 2010!

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:27 AM •
Thursday, December 24, 2009

When you’re young, you think your holidays will go on forever in the old familiar way. But they won’t. Eventually, what you’ll have is memories. Hopefully they will be wonderful.

For me, Christmas will always mean my Aunt Ida’s house on Sylvania Street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. My family would start the day in Atlantic City, opening presents and getting dressed in our new winter clothes. My brother and I were allowed to pick one gift we could bring in the car for bragging rights with all the cousins we’d soon be seeing.  We would have gone to midnight mass so that obligation was behind us.
The trip to Philly took about 90 minutes because my father refused to take the new highway that had the nerve to charge him a toll for his business.  We took the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge over the Delaware to Philly because that bridge was free on Christmas. They also gave out candy canes to any kids in the car and then wished you a happy holiday. Each time my dad would explain that the bridge had been built privately, paid off completely and now was able to offer free trips on the holidays. It was all the proof he needed that America was truly a great country.
I’d venture to guess that if I went back to that house on Sylvania Street today it would seem a little small and cramped. But in my memory, it is big and beautiful with a dinning room that sat our whole family plus a sideboard, a huge mirror over the sideboard and an espresso maker from Italy so big it had it’s own table.
Before eating we visited various relatives – Uncle Albert and Aunt Jeannie, Uncle Bart and Aunt Connie, Uncle Freddie and Aunt Sally. Uncle Joe and Aunt Toni and their kids would stop by at Aunt Ida’s to say hi before going to her mom’s house for dinner. Aunt Adeline would be called and the annual argument ensued about whether she would come or not. Because of childhood polio, she needed a ride over and she famously was reluctant to depend on others in that way. My mother would argue that this was the holiday and she had to come over. Aunt Ida would be yelling from the kitchen for my father to just go get her and stop arguing. Eventually he did, as well as picking up Uncle Henry from Norristown Hospital. Uncle Henry had suffered oxygen deprivation at birth and was mentally impaired. But that didn’t mean he was excluded from family holidays.
When everyone was finally assembled, the meal would begin with an antipasto my father had lovingly made and carried up in the back of the car. Then came the pasta. Then the roast. Then the salad. Then the fruit, dried figs and nuts. Finally, the espresso with a shot of anisette and a lemon twist in each cup and homemade Italian cookies.
After this light repast, the men went into the living room and started snoring. The kids passed out on various parts of the carpet. The women gathered in the kitchen to wash dishes.  As soon as they were done, the table was reset, the men and children awakened and a “light” snack of all the leftovers was served prior to the long, arduous trip back home. My Aunt Ida would not have been able to live with herself had she found out we starved on the ninety minutes journey back to Atlantic City.
So sandwiches were packed up, Aunt Adeline and Uncle Henry returned to their respective dwellings, and we started for home, taking the back roads out of Philly so my mother could see all the Christmas lights on all the houses.  I always missed that because I was asleep again about twenty seconds into the car ride.
These wonderful people are all gone now, but I can still see them in old family movies. Better yet, I can close my eyes and watch them all come alive again in my heart and mind. I can hear their voices, smell their perfumes and aftershaves and feel the love in their embraces.
May you all have wonderful holiday memories that warm you on your journey through life.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:46 AM •
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Given the general discord in the country right now, it would seem as though any spirit of holiday good will would have to be a positive thing, one we should foster.

If you think about it, the person a large majority of this country celebrates at this holiday time, Jesus Christ, seems to have been a fellow who not only had good will but liked celebrating good times as much as the next guy. If not, why would he have turned all that water into wine when he was a wedding guest? Talk about the perfect wedding gift!
So having good spirits and a sense of joy during the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hannukah seems appropriate, especially here in Alaska where it’s the darkest time of the year and so the time when we most need our spirits lifted.
Here’s what I don’t understand, though. During this season, everyone seems to go out of their way to be nice to others, to donate money and goods to those in need, to take the extra steps necessary to see that no one is alone or lonely. Because of this, the month between these two holidays becomes somewhat of a magical time. The spirit of goodwill fills the air and everyone is a little more patient, smiles a little more while waiting in line and generally feels their spirits somewhat lighter and gayer than at other times of the year.
So the question is how come we haven’t figured out, after centuries of celebration, that those good spirits come from the fact that everyone makes a little extra effort during this season to be a good neighbor, a good citizen and a good family member. If this works during the holiday season, wouldn’t it stand to reason that if we kept up those things that come so naturally during this holiday period, we might stand a chance of experiencing those feelings of good will throughout the year?
I will admit up front that I am a volunteer addict. I get my adrenaline rush from the work I do as a volunteer.  Maybe this is because I don’t get paid to do it but do it out of a sense of love and devotion to the cause for which I’m volunteering. Whatever the reason, the holiday spirit that so many only feel during this brief thirty day period of the year, I get to feel every week when I go into Bird TLC, put on a blue smock and start cutting up smelly fish for the injured birds.
Maybe it’s something more of us should try. Instead of just giving money to a cause or helping out at Bean’s once a year, try making it a regular part of your life.  You can’t begin to imagine how doing that will keep you going through the dark months that follow the holiday season. January and February will not seem so cold and bleak when there is this light in your life that comes every time you walk out your door to do something for someone less fortunate.
When the Bah Humbug spirit first hit me about this season many, many years ago, my mother was still alive. Being a typical mother, she immediately assumed that she must have done something wrong in my childhood for me to feel this way. She asked plaintively if she and my father hadn’t given me wonderful childhood Christmases and, if so, how could I feel this way now?
I tried to explain to her how hard it was for me to watch people discover the joy of giving for about one month each year and then go back to their “regular” lives the rest of the time as thought the hungry did not have to eat every day and the abused did not need comfort throughout the year. She looked at me and said, “But isn’t it better to do it at least once a year than never at all?”
She had a point. But I still think that doing it year round is best. Unless, of course, we figure out a way to make suffering, pain, sadness, loneliness and hunger only occur between Thanksgiving and January 1 of any given year.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:43 AM •
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sean Parnell is the kind of conservative who should make liberals take a second look. While many Alaskans were annoyed at what was viewed as his snub of President Obama during his stop over, it’s hard to stay mad at someone who seems to have his priorities so well ordered.

From being an almost ghostly gray presence during the reign of our gal Temporary Sal, he is emerging as someone who will probably never grace the cover of People Magazine but who will govern Alaska with competence and thoughtfulness. That’s more than most politicians seem to offer nowadays.
In his latest initiative, he is to trying to make a dent in what seems like the intractable problem of domestic violence and sexual abuse in Alaska. These are categories in which Alaska consistently leads all other states. Clearly they are not the categories in which we want that distinction.
So Governor Parnell has made it one of his priorities to deal with this problem and seems willing to at least attempt to put his money where his mouth is in getting state funding to support actions such as getting more VPSOs hired, trained and in place in small villages. He clearly understands that a domestic violence restraining order is a useless piece of paper if you live in a village with your abuser and no law enforcement closer than a plane ride away.
Unfortunately, as much as we would wish it otherwise, Alaska’s remote and isolated villages are the places with the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse and child sexual assault in the state. At a time when many of these small villages are struggling to stay alive and keep their population in place, young women especially flee from them to escape the endless cycle of violence that they have been exposed to… and are often a victim of… from childhood. Those who can’t flee, stay and live lives of quiet despair while raising another generation of damaged adults. 
How bad can it be, you ask? Imagine your childhood memories being filled with scenes in which you have barricaded yourself in your bedroom with your younger siblings, dragging a bureau across the door, so your drunken father can’t get to you while he beats your mother. Imagine that for you this is just another typical Saturday night.
Imagine your childhood memories including the time your mother locked the doors and spent two days drunk and beating on you and your siblings until some neighbors broke in and rescued you. You were sent back to her in that house stained with your blood as soon as she woke up from her drunk.
Are these scenes exclusive to Native villages? Absolutely not. But statistics show that they are much more likely to happen over and over again in places where there is no protection for the victims. VPSOs alone cannot provide that protection so long as the village accepts abusers as community leaders. You cannot send a clearer message to a victim that he or she is not important than allowing their abuser a place at the table where power resides.
But what if every Alaska Native regional and village corporation, profit or non-profit, and every village government and regional municipality – whether traditional or organized under the state constitution – made it a part of their bylaws that no one with a record of domestic violence, sexual assault or child sexual abuse could hold office in their organization?
I was taught in Barrow that shunning was the traditional method of punishing a community member who had in some way transgressed community standards and rules. In today’s world, banning these individuals from holding any office of power in the community can be the equivalent of that traditional shunning.  Since rehabilitation is an often sought after goal, the bylaws could possibly allow that person to run again for a position after ten years with a clean record.
What a wonderful present that would be to the victims of this violence – a clear statement from the leaders of their communities that no one who commits violence will be accepted into a seat of power or leadership.
What better way to show respect for your culture, your women, your children, and your families?

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:23 AM •
Thursday, December 03, 2009

As I listen to the commercials being broadcast endlessly about health care reform and its alleged dire circumstances to seniors on Medicare, what sticks in my mind is the ending to one of the commercials. It is simply a senior saying, “Seniors won’t forget”. The not too subtle threat is that if a politician votes for health care, senior citizens will vote en masse to turn him or her out of office.

And so my last hope for civil discourse crumbles as the only age group who could possibly still remember what civil discourse sounds like makes a move to the dark side.
It’s not that disagreeing with politicians is wrong. God knows some of us think it is our civil duty to keep them on their toes by questioning their every move. That’s what a participatory democracy should really be all about.  But we’ve reached a level of ugliness that astounds even this child of the sixties who remembers marching in Washington while chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
I have some very good friends who sit so far on the opposite end of my political spectrum that I can barely see them.  When discussing current events we will argue until their spouses are making mental notes to never invite me to dinner again.
But our debates are never mean spirited because I respect the people I’m debating. I know them to be upstanding, moral individuals who are dedicated to their family and country. The fact that their views on the best course for this country and state differ from mine does not lessen that respect. In fact, because of my respect for the people they are, I am willing to listen to their side of the argument even when they are clearly dead wrong.
When all is said and done, no matter which of us wins on any given debate, my basic respect for them is still there. If people I respect so much hold such opposing views to mine, then I should probably give those views a chance without assuming America is going to hell in a hand basket if they prevail. And that, my friends, is called civil discourse.
The problem in our current political life is that the politicians we’ve elected to high office do not command our respect.  If we do not view them as honorable and respectable as people, then we clearly must hold suspect all they do.
We consistently elect and re-elect politicians with questionable ethics or limited skills because they will get us what we want no matter how much we have to hold our noses while checking off their name at the ballot box.  In Alaska in particular we seem to not really give a damn about someone’s ethical lapses so long as they are still able to shovel the federal or state bucks to our little part of the world.
We also seem willing to vote for any questionable character if they share a specific social agenda with us. For so long as they have that position right, apparently a lot of people don’t care if said politicians knows if Africa is a country or a continent. And yes, I’m speaking about our gal, Temporary Sal.
Recent polls show that most Republicans do not think she has the gravitas to hold a high national office. Yet many still said they would probably vote for her. Why? I’m guessing because her stance on nuclear proliferation, climate change and economic malaise is not half as important to them as her position on abortion and gay marriage.
In the end, we get the government and representation we deserve. We have no one to blame for the sorry state of America’s political scene and the lack of civil discourse in public debate but ourselves. Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh may stoke the fires but we are the ones continually throwing more wood on the blaze.
At a time when so many critical issues face this country, not the least of which is the potential to be bankrupt in the very near future, you’d hope we would take a moment to reassert civility in public discourse while electing intelligent, honorable people to high office.
Unfortunately, I think it is a forlorn hope.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:31 AM •
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Here’s what I’m grateful for on this Thanksgiving. I’m grateful that two of my friends, both in their fifties, did not wait two years to get their next mammogram. Because if they had, both would have had well advanced tumors that may or may not have been treatable. And if the tumors had still been treatable, the treatment would have been much harsher and horrifying than it was.

Talking in abstracts about how many more lives are saved or not saved through an annual mammogram is one thing. Walking with a friend who stands a good chance of being around for a long time to come because she got one annually makes that statistic a concrete reality. Faced with that reality, I don’t know how anyone can claim that you shouldn’t bother to get a mammogram before fifty and, even after fifty, you should only get it every other year.
I think what scares most women about this latest pronouncement is not that it will stop them from getting a mammogram. Any woman with an ounce of common sense knows that the few minutes of discomfort caused by the test is well worth the chance to avoid the horror of radiation and chemotherapy. So most women will roll their eyes, put on those silly little gowns, grin and bear it.
The problem is that this pronouncement has given insurance companies an easy out for refusing to pay for an annual mammogram. Since being treated for metastatic cancer is very expensive, financially it seems to make sense for your insurance to continue to cover an annual test. Unfortunately, it seems most insurance companies will go for the short-term profit whenever possible.
If I sound a tad cynical about insurance companies, you’ll have to forgive me. I’m still trying to figure out how my insurance coverage has a rule that says if you’re a woman who has had a hysterectomy, thereby negating the need for an annual PAP smear, they won’t cover an annual breast exam. I can find no literature anywhere that links the existence of a womb in a woman with increasing her probability of getting cancer. So it would seem to stand to reason that the removal of said womb would not decrease her chance of getting breast cancer. Yet the rule stands.
It’s funny that a woman can’t get an annual breast exam for such an inane reason but a man can get all the male enhancement drugs he wants by just telling his doc he isn’t getting it on as often as he used to in his youth.  No awkward tests there. No need for the man to demonstrate the truth of his claim. Just a quickly written prescription that is just as quickly filled and paid for by most health insurance plans.
But an annual mammogram for a woman… well, we need to question those costs and the amount of unnecessary tests they create based on false positives. I personally would like to see a program that questions all the sex men get to have while on their male enhancement drugs. At a minimum they should have to bring a note from their partner indicating a willingness to participate in the program before their insurance coverage kicks in.
I watched a friend’s mother die because she didn’t get to a doctor quickly enough to have her breast cancer treated. It’s not a pretty way to go. Unlike some gushingly sentimental movies that periodically arrive on screens showing a person dying of cancer on a pristine white bed uttering some last pithy words of wisdom to mate or child, the reality of a cancer death is horrible. The patient is in pain. There are smells no movie can ever replicate. There are indignities to the body of someone well loved that cause you to just want to cry out for them. Dying of cancer is long, painful, smelly and ugly. It’s why Hospice is the best idea to ever come out of the turmoil of the sixties.
Even if a mammogram only saves ten women a year from that fate, it’s worth it. Especially when that woman is someone you know and love who still has so much to offer to her family, her friends and her world.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:37 AM •
Thursday, November 19, 2009

A judge recently ruled that the state had to provide braces for children in state custody if, in fact, a dentist determined they were needed. A small victory but one of great importance to children being raised by the state because their parents can’t quite find the time to do it.

A few years back, there was a young girl on my GAL caseload who had dental needs. She was one of those kids that just worm their way right into your heart. She was bright, pretty, charming and should have been having a wonderful childhood. But instead, she was being raised by the state.
This young lady had what I call “fangs”. She had her upper canine teeth and then she had another canine tooth growing right on top of each of them. It was glaringly evident when she smiled.
When I spoke to the state about getting her teeth fixed, I was told that she would need to have a much more severe problem before they would pay for the extraction and braces she needed.  That just really ticked me off.
Kids in foster care already have so many strikes against them. They often come from violent homes. They have usually been victims of abuse and neglect. They are the new kids in school so often they should form a band with that name. Their clothes come from a state clothing allowance that does not usually provide for the latest of anything. To put it mildly, they often feel pretty bad about themselves.
All I could think was that, on top of all this other stuff, this little girl was never going to be able to look in the mirror without seeing a pair of fang like teeth staring back out at her.
So I got pushy – all the way to Juneau pushy. Eventually, probably just to shut me up, the state authorized her dental care. And in all the rest of the time this child remained in state custody, which was until she turned 18, no matter what else was happening in her life, she never missed her dental appointments or failed to notify her new caretakers of the need to get her an appointment if her living arrangement had changed since the last one.
Once she got out of custody, I lost touch with her. That’s not unusual. When you’ve had a less than fun childhood being raised by the state and a superior court judge, you don’t often have warm, fuzzy memories of those times and tend to lose contact. But before she aged out of the system, she had her braces taken off. Her foster mom got us together so I could see the results. They were dazzling. When this child smiled, her smile lit up the room.
I’m telling this story not to say how wonderful I am. Lots of people fought right along side me to get this kid her braces. I’m telling this story to try and help people understand how important it is that we give these kids every chance we can to form a healthy self-image. And sometimes that includes paying for braces.
When these kids enter the system, they are already traumatized by their families. Most feel pretty badly about themselves and their lives.
Entering the system and being introduced to judges and social workers and foster parents and counselors – all of whom seem to have access to every horrible thing that every happened to them – adds to their trauma.  They never know what tomorrow will hold because they never know when someone is going to decide to send them somewhere else. All these things just add to the extreme difficulties kids face in foster care – not because foster care is inherently bad but because for most, it will never replace the family they lost… or in some cases, never really had.
So if giving these kids proper dental care results in a pretty smile, in giving them a reason to feel good about themselves, to feel they might have some self-worth… well, to me that alone justifies whatever those braces may cost.
I think of that young girl’s smile and know that we did at least one thing right by her.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:36 AM •
Thursday, November 12, 2009

One of the questions that must be asked as the health care debate rages on is just what type of society we are or want to be.


The reason humans first banded together those many millennia ago was because communal life provided better protection against the wildness and dangers it contained.  But living together only worked if the rules of the society in which you lived made life better than facing the lions and tigers and bears that inhabited the primeval forests alone.
So humankind made rules for its societies. It created both spoken and unspoken codes of conduct that, while not always honored, were almost always aspired to as the best way for a society to function as a productive coherent whole.
As time went on and the dangers of the primeval forests were replaced by muggers, bank robbers and rapacious investment bankers, the rules of society changed to address the new dangers but the underlying tenets remained the same – to make the community a safe, livable environment where its citizens could flourish. Where this was made possible, the whole society benefited.
What I find frighteningly absent from the current debate over health care coverage is any semblance of this country feeling a sense of oneness as a society in which the ideal that all have an equal chance to flourish is honored. What I find frighteningly present is the level of selfishness that says, basically, I have mine and you aren’t touching it, no matter how much of a need you may have. 
At some point we have to reframe this discussion into one about “us”, not “me”.
There have been many great nations in history that lived by the theory of me instead of us. Their declines, when they came, were pretty spectacular. If you have any doubt about that, check out Roman history, Russian history, French history… any history in which one group felt so entitled to its perks and benefits that it would not allow others in that society to advance and participate.
When our nation was founded, there were a group of thirteen disparate colonies with very different lifestyles, histories and ethnic backgrounds that came together and resolved their differences for the good of the whole. There was a lot of give and take in those negotiations, but our Founding Fathers realized that give and take was what created a strong society. For many of them, creating a democracy meant giving up what was then viewed as the god-given right of nobility to rule without question. That they would admit to the right of the common folk to have a say in that rule meant giving up centuries of assumed privilege based on birth status. We’ve come a long way since then and, given the attitude of so many who are unwilling to give up anything so that others may have something, the way has been somewhat downhill. 
I hear a lot of people gripe and complain that they don’t want to pay extra taxes so someone they don’t even know can get health care coverage. Well, I don’t have children and I don’t know yours so why should I pay taxes to support schools that your kids go to?  I pay because that’s the way society functions. We all contribute to the good of the whole.
I view health care in the same light. Our society is stronger if we all have access to a minimum of health care services so that we all have an equal chance of a healthy and productive life – a productive life, I may add, whose productivity can only enhance society as a whole. For the “haves” to refuse to share at all with the “have nots” is not only immoral, it’s simply bad public policy. Ask Marie Antoinette.
And if that doesn’t convince you that we need to start viewing ourselves as one whole society again and not a bunch of selfish interests groups out for number one, then let me put it to you this way. If Christ were to return to earth tomorrow, how proud do you think he would be of the way in which we’ve honored his words, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.”
Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:24 AM •
Thursday, November 05, 2009

Once again the headlines tell a sad, sad story. American children are still killed by their parents or caregivers with disgusting regularity. An article in the Oct. 27 Anchorage Daily News quoted a report from the national child advocacy group, Every Child Matters, that 16 children died in Alaska due to parental abuse from 2001 to 2007. The report added that those 16 were only the documented number; the real number is probably much higher.

Perhaps even more frightening, Alaska public health researchers reported in 2008 that over the past eleven years, 114 babies had died “from abuse, neglect or ‘gross negligence.’ Some suffocated in their sleep. Some didn’t get needed medical care. Six were shaken to death; seven were killed by being thrown, dropped, hit or kicked.”
Helluva childhood, eh?
Sometimes the slain children are the targets of the violence; sometimes they are simply the collateral damage of domestic abuse. Either way, they end up dead long before they’ve really had a chance to live. And we, as a society, are once again forced to face one of the thorniest questions that can be presented to a country that prides itself on its commitment to the ideal of personal freedom and the sanctity of the family unit – when and how much should government intervene in family life.
If you think the screams are loud when you propose restricting gun rights at all, wait until you hear the screams when you propose that government be allowed into the family anymore than it already is.
But surely we have an obligation to a little baby whose only sin in life is to be born into the wrong family.  Surely we have a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. It’s one thing to read about abused children, or see their picture on TV or see a movie about them. It’s another thing to actually encounter one of these children – a five year old with hideous bruises all over his body, a three year old who’s been raped, a ten year old with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from the years of violence that was his or her childhood. 
I have no brilliant idea to bring to this discussion about the violent deaths of children in the one place where they should be the most safe. The solution I’d propose is one that would work only in a country with no regard for individual rights. Personally, I recommend forced sterilization of both parents of any family in which domestic violence and/or alcohol abuse is a routine part of life. That way, the adults could get drunk and pummel each other as much as they wanted without bringing a helpless child into the mix who is unable to dial 911 when being beaten against a wall or shaken to the point of brain damage.
I suppose an argument could be made for more money for more workers so that troubled families could receive more help before a child dies.  But having spent thirty years in the field, I have no hope that people will willingly back the kind of funding needed for that level of service.  As a society we talk a much better story about our kids being our future than we actually back up with the help families need for real change.
So the headline about 16 children dying at the hands of their parents or caretakers today follows a long line of such headlines over the years. For a brief moment there will be an outcry and a demand that something be done.  But when the cost of that “something” is proposed it will have little general support from a public already feeling abused by taxes.
Here’s a prophesy from me you can wager your annual salary on with great assurance of winning – in ten years or less, another study will be done about another dozen or so children killed by their family, there will be another brief outcry and then everyone will get back to business as usual with nothing changed and nothing done.
Or this time we could gird our loins and actually put our money where our mouth is to prevent these tragedies. Because, quite honestly, this is one bet I’d be thrilled to lose.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:32 AM •

As I listen to the commercials being broadcast endlessly about health care reform and its alleged dire circumstances to seniors on Medicare, what sticks in my mind is the ending to one of the commercials. It is simply a senior saying, “Seniors won’t forget”. The not too subtle threat is that if a politician votes for health care, senior citizens will vote en masse to turn him or her out of office.

And so my last hope for civil discourse crumbles as the only age group who could possibly still remember what civil discourse sounds like makes a move to the dark side.
It’s not that disagreeing with politicians is wrong. God knows some of us think it is our civil duty to keep them on their toes by questioning their every move. That’s what a participatory democracy should really be all about.  But we’ve reached a level of ugliness that astounds even this child of the sixties who remembers marching in Washington while chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
I have some very good friends who sit so far on the opposite end of my political spectrum that I can barely see them.  When discussing current events we will argue until their spouses are making mental notes to never invite me to dinner again.
But our debates are never mean spirited because I respect the people I’m debating. I know them to be upstanding, moral individuals who are dedicated to their family and country. The fact that their views on the best course for this country and state differ from mine does not lessen that respect. In fact, because of my respect for the people they are, I am willing to listen to their side of the argument even when they are clearly dead wrong.
When all is said and done, no matter which of us wins on any given debate, my basic respect for them is still there. If people I respect so much hold such opposing views to mine, then I should probably give those views a chance without assuming America is going to hell in a hand basket if they prevail. And that, my friends, is called civil discourse.
The problem in our current political life is that the politicians we’ve elected to high office do not command our respect.  If we do not view them as honorable and respectable as people, then we clearly must hold suspect all they do.
We consistently elect and re-elect politicians with questionable ethics or limited skills because they will get us what we want no matter how much we have to hold our noses while checking off their name at the ballot box.  In Alaska in particular we seem to not really give a damn about someone’s ethical lapses so long as they are still able to shovel the federal or state bucks to our little part of the world.
We also seem willing to vote for any questionable character if they share a specific social agenda with us. For so long as they have that position right, apparently a lot of people don’t care if said politicians knows if Africa is a country or a continent. And yes, I’m speaking about our gal, Temporary Sal.
Recent polls show that most Republicans do not think she has the gravitas to hold a high national office. Yet many still said they would probably vote for her. Why? I’m guessing because her stance on nuclear proliferation, climate change and economic malaise is not half as important to them as her position on abortion and gay marriage.
In the end, we get the government and representation we deserve. We have no one to blame for the sorry state of America’s political scene and the lack of civil discourse in public debate but ourselves. Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh may stoke the fires but we are the ones continually throwing more wood on the blaze.
At a time when so many critical issues face this country, not the least of which is the potential to be bankrupt in the very near future, you’d hope we would take a moment to reassert civility in public discourse while electing intelligent, honorable people to high office.
Unfortunately, I think it is a forlorn hope.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:31 AM •
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just about the same time that Sarah Palin was opining in the Oct. 16 National Review that, “Electric cars might work in Los Angeles, but they don’t work in Alaska, where you can drive hundreds of miles without seeing many people, let alone many electrical sockets,” I was drafting some material for Ilisagvik College in Barrow. Interestingly, part of the background material I received included the fact that an instructor and students at the college celebrated the successful conversion of a car to electric power by driving the car from Ilisagvik to downtown Barrow.

According to the information I received, the car averaged 35 mph. The electricity powering the car came at a rate of $.09/kilowatt hour as opposed to $4.70/gallon for gas.  This is the equivalent of the car averaging 125 miles per gallon on the jaunt down the road from campus to town. I may not be a great mathematician, but that sure seems like a good deal to me.
Alaskan villages have very limited road systems.  In Barrow, for instance, you can drive from Barrow to Duck Camp, Barrow to Fresh Water Lake or Barrow to the end of Gas Well Road. Anyone who ever lived in Barrow knows that claustrophobic mid-winter feeling that creeps up on even the hardiest of residents. Taking a car ride down one of those roads is sometimes the only relief available.
Given the cost of gas per gallon, I think electric cars would be an amazing boon in the Bush. People wouldn’t have to choose between groceries and gassing their car so they can take that needed mental health break to the lake.
OK, you say, but what about Palin’s other concern, the one where you can drive hundreds of miles in Alaska without seeing many electrical outlets.
You can probably find a similar statement made in the days when automobiles were first starting to replace horses.  Sure, said many op ed pieces of the day, they’re good in the city where you can get gasoline but they’ll never be practical on long trips because there are simply not enough places along the way to fuel up. Between New York and Chicago, there are no gas stations.
We all know what happened next.  Cars became more and more popular and people started traveling farther and farther into the heartland using them. And canny American entrepreneurs thought to themselves that here was an opportunity for a whole new enterprise… gas stations along the roads of America that would meet the needs of those horseless carriages.
And so an entire business model was created to meet the new demands of the nascent car industry.
I think Americans are every bit as much the entrepreneurs at the turn of this century as they were at the turn of the previous century. Given a perceived need, they will create an industry to meet that need. Where once we had gas stations springing up with astounding rapidity on what had been dusty country roads, we will now have electricity stations springing up along our highways instead.
I realize that electric cars will probably not replace gas or diesel vehicles with quite the speed that cars replaced horses. Like with anything new, we probably need to go through a few more variations to get to the one that will work best. But to totally discount the idea of a cleaner, cheaper alternative to what we are using today, especially in view of the mounting evidence of the destruction global warming is causing, is simply foolish.
The people in Barrow are on the frontline of global warming – sea ice is disappearing, permafrost is melting, plants once only found far south of town creep closer.  They have a vested interest in protecting this earth because its continued warming threatens their entire way of life. So the students at Ilisagvik built an electric car and showed that it can be a safe, cheap, environmentally friendly alternative. 
Maybe Palin needs to move back to Alaska for a while and reconnect with our reality. Electric cars will work just fine here and the new businesses that will spring up to service and charge them will be a boon to our economy. Clearly a win-win for all.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:27 AM •
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are you like me? Do you feel that trying to follow the booze wars in Bush Alaska is like trying to watch Australian Rules football – it looks like something you should be able to understand; yet you can’t quite figure out what the heck is happening. And just in case you weren’t confused before, you have the spectacle in Bethel of the same group who pushed a vote for going wet now opposing anyone actually getting a liquor license.

Villages can vote to have their communities exist in one of three states:  Wet, which means anything goes from liquor stores to bars; Damp which means you can possess and drink liquor in the community but not buy or sell it there; Dry, which means no liquor, no how, no time, no where.  The fact that decades after these options were put in place there is not a village in Bush Alaska that doesn’t have significant drinking problems says a lot about the intractability of addiction.
I lived in Barrow for 27 years. During that time I watched the village go from wet to dry to damp with sometimes dizzying frequency. In the early ‘70s, the city opened its own liquor store figuring if people were going to drink anyway, you should keep the profits local. I still have an old newspaper from those years showing then City Mayor Jake Adams and Borough Mayor Eben Hopson Sr. cutting the ribbon on the city liquor store with Oliver Leavitt as the honorary first customer.
Things change, life happens and twenty years later, Jake was president of ASRC and firmly behind the sobriety movement that tried to take Barrow dry and led to the 1990s booze wars in Barrow.
That’s the thing about booze in the bush. It’s a topic of great controversy and great contradiction. When you start trying to use state laws to regulate it, you run smack up against a strange coalition of people who want to be able to drink freely but don’t want their community mad at them for promoting alcohol and people who want government to stay the hell out of their lives. Since you cast your ballot in secret, the former group becomes silent allies of the latter and you end up with a wet community and a group of people who wanted to make a statement but don’t really want to live with the consequences – ergo, the situation in Bethel.
Soon you will have a counter petition being circulated to put this issue back on the ballot to reverse the vote. Arguments will be made that despite years of these laws the alcohol problem remains, so prohibition is not the answer. This argument is countered by those claiming the laws at least lessen the severity of the problem. Both sides have statistics and anecdotes to back up their claims.
Alcohol’s destructive power is most especially felt in small communities where everyone needs to depend one everyone else to do their share to make life bearable. Prohibition, an idea that has failed miserably every time it’s been tried, is still one of the only hopes some villages see for controlling the problem. For village leaders frustrated by the intractability of this problem, and families being destroyed by alcohol, any thing that gives even the illusion of control is welcomed.
So expect the booze wars and the booze problems to continue in the Bush until we actually come up with a solution that works. So far, these laws don’t seem to be the answer. But if they even slow the problem down a slight bit, there are a lot of people who feel they are worth any perceived impingement on someone’s civil rights. And there are a lot of people who feel they are being punished for someone else’s problem by having the government pushed way too far into their personal lives.
I sympathize with the people who struggle to make their communities safe. But then, I also sympathize with those who think a glass of wine is not a sin.  The people I have little sympathy for are those who allow their addictions to destroy their families, communities and cultures.
I used to have sympathy for them. Now, I just want them to stop. Help is available. Take it.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:41 AM •
Friday, October 16, 2009

I became a Letterman fan while living in Barrow back in the day when our network programming came out of Chicago. That meant what was on a 1 AM Chicago time was on at 10 PM in Barrow. Letterman was my primetime viewing.

I remember when Letterman featured the woman who kept the unfortunate diary entries detailing their affair in many on air bits. I find it difficult to believe that anyone wasn’t aware that something was happening given the obvious looks that passed between them. Also, it was painfully clear she hadn’t been chosen because of her sparkling personality.
Letterman is not someone I would hold up as a paragon of virtue. Given that he is the host of a late night comedy show, I’m not sure that idea would actually have ever occurred to me. So I find it difficult to understand people saying he is somehow two faced for doing exactly that which he mocked elected officials doing for years.  Have our elected officials really fallen so far in our estimation that we hold them to no higher standards than we hold someone who showcases Stupid Human Tricks? (Feel free to make your own joke here about many elected officials being engaged in one long Stupid Human Trick.)
If you want to compare Letterman and disgraced politicians, then you might also want to note that Letterman acknowledged the wrong he did, took complete responsibility for it, never asked his wife to be publicly humiliated by standing next to him at a press conference, and has so far not had one staff member of either sex sell him out to the tabloids. Would that our elected officials could achieve such grace under pressure or engender such loyalty in staff.
Instead, our elected officials tend to lie, cheat, lie some more, cheat some more, announce they have some addiction that clouded their judgment, haul their families into the picture, give out endless self-serving interviews in which “poor me” seems to be the major emphasis and then end it all by announcing their renewed commitment to their marriage and family. Letterman graciously skipped all the “pity me” moments and went straight to the surprisingly refreshing statement that he’d hurt his family and had a lot of work to do to regain his wife’s trust.
As I watched South Carolina’s governor refuse to resign and allow dignity to be restored to that state’s executive branch; as I watched Senator Larry Craig explain he had a wide stance in the men’s room; as I watched Governor Spitzer resign with his wife in such obvious pain by his side; as I watched all these elected officials who had asked the public to trust them to be honorable people who would carry out the people’s business honorably, I felt slimed and dirty.
When David Letterman looked at the camera and said that someone tried to blackmail him and it was his own fault for giving them the ammunition by his own bad behavior, and then apologized to his wife and staff while taking full responsibility on his own shoulders, I was saddened and disappointed but I didn’t feel like I was in the presence of something that crawled out from underneath a rock.
Too bad I can’t say the same thing about politicians caught in similar situations.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:22 AM •
Thursday, October 15, 2009

Given the fact that election season seems to run endlessly, thus subjecting us to annoying, loud and insulting ads for more of our lifetime than should be allowed, I think it’s time we chuck that pesky Free Speech part of our constitution and allow a law that would make it punishable by death to run any political ad for at least a year after the last election.


Should there be any doubt in your mind, let me make clear that this particular rant is being brought to you by the fine, if mysterious, folks running the current energy tax commercial on TV. 
You know the one I’m talking about. Someone asks your generic man and woman on the street if taxes should be raised on energy. Said generic man and woman on the street allow as how the economy sucks and they couldn’t handle more taxes right now so they think it’s a bad idea.  Every time I see this ad I am again struck almost wordless by how stupid and gullible the people creating the ad think most of the American public is.
I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark here and guess that this ad is financed by the industry that faces this potential tax hike, whether directly or through some bogus group created that will inevitably have a name like, “Citizens for Sensible Energy Policy.” The only “citizens” involved are probably those making way more money in a year than you will make in your lifetime. And they are seriously worried that if taxes are raised on their industry, they will be forced to choose between a smaller bonus for themselves or passing the tax hike on to you.  Guess which one they will likely choose?
The deliberate vagueness of the ad is what I find particularly galling.  There is nary a mention anywhere in the commercial as to who would be taxing exactly what. And when John and Joan Q. Public are interviewed about raised taxes, they speak in gloriously vague generalities that could apply to anything from property taxes to sales taxes to luxury taxes on that yacht in the harbor.  So the ad always leaves me with the question of exactly whom is the planned tax affecting and how does that tax somehow end up dinging my pocketbook.
The answer, of course, is very simple. Given the choice posited above about passing any increased tax on to the little guy and absorbing it within their still obscene profits, the energy industry will almost always choose to pass it along to you. Because, you see, this commercial isn’t really a plea for a sensible energy tax policy so much as it is a not so veiled threat from the energy industry. 
Their message is clear – if you don’t talk your elected representatives out of taxing them, they will punish you by sending that tax directly down the pipeline they have into your bank account.  Doing anything else, like perhaps cutting a billion here or there from their obscene profits, would be laughed out of the boardroom.
I must be honest and admit that until this commercial started to run, I hadn’t really even noticed that there was any thought being given to raising taxes on the energy industry. In fact, the first few times I saw it, I remember wondering what the heck all the fuss was about and why this was suddenly running with mind numbing frequency during so many of my favorite programs. My initial reaction was to hit the mute button and return to reading my magazine until the commercial ended. But the more I thought about it, the more it got under my skin and the more annoyed I became.
So just in case I’m not part of the focus group that is called to judge the efficacy of this ad, let me tell you how it affected me.  I now want to urge all my elected officials to raise energy taxes with the added rider that the increased cost must come directly from the pockets of energy executives and any attempt to pass it on to the consumer is punishable by a lifetime of trying to live on my budget.
How’s that for a fate worse than death?
Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:18 AM •
Thursday, October 08, 2009

You don’t hear much about hermits nowadays. I imagine that for many young people brought up amidst the instant and constant “in touch” revolution, the very concept of hermit is more foreign than the concept of a rotary dial. This thought occurred to me about sixty seconds after I narrowly avoided being hit by a woman in a car who was turning while talking on her cell phone. Since that took up one hand, she only had one left for the turn. This made her turn wide, very wide. So wide, in fact, that she came across her two lanes and into my lane, which was the lane of traffic going in the opposite direction.

But she never flinched, never stopped talking that I could tell, never took the phone from her ear. Didn’t even glance up as I swerved and honked. I have to assume that the new rules of the road are that cell phones always have the right of way and those of us who are driving the old fashioned way – say with both hands on the steering wheel and our focus on the road ahead – simply need to learn to adjust when we see the cell phone coming our way.
How many more studies need to be done that show when you multi task you do none of those tasks well before we accept that knowledge? Or are we destined to become a world of mediocrity in which many things are done but none are done very well?
That’s where the hermits came in.  Hermits, boys and girls, are people who voluntarily unplugged themselves from the world and left it behind in order to contemplate their own place in the universe – or their navels, for all I know – but who did that contemplation in total silence, surrounded only by nature and the sound of their own breathing.
Does anyone live enough in silence anymore to hear the sound of their own breathing? If they do, does it scare them or comfort them? 
As our civil discourse reaches levels of unprecedented rudeness and volume – and I don’t just mean health care debates or town hall meetings, I mean every day civil discourse from eating in restaurants to walking down the street – I wonder if we shouldn’t all take a lesson from those hermits and spend some time in silent contemplation of whatever it is that amuses us to contemplate.  Taking a deep breath, sitting quietly, learning to hear our own breath without fear of the silence, just might help bring civility back to our communal life if only by teaching us that silence and stillness are not to be feared.
Now before people start offering to teach me meditation in its many and varied forms, let me make clear that I’m not talking about going into a meditative state. I’m talking about just the quietness that comes while preparing dinner without the TV or iPOD on or the cell phone in your ear. I’m talking about the quiet of sitting at your dining room table and looking out at the birds at your feeders. Simple, quiet moments that give you a refreshing pause that need neither mats, outfits or teachers.
I worry especially that our children never have a moment to savor the healing power of silence. They are always connected to someone or something to the point where I have to wonder if the person in front of them disappears and the only reality is the person in the phone or on the other end of the text or Facebook page. Is that why the woman driving seemingly did not notice me as she turned into my lane? Was I simply not as real as the person on the other end of the phone?
Silence is something we should all try periodically. Shut the world out and just enjoy a moment when nothing is more important than watching the dust settle on your dinning room table. Everyone can find just that one moment in their day, can’t they?
And if I can’t convince you of that, can I at least convince you to only take two lanes for turning and stay the heck out of mine?

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:41 AM •

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