Elise Sereni
Thursday, December 29, 2011

And so we come to that special time of the year when we say goodbye to the old and welcome in the new. Before we do, let me announce the nominees for my 2011 Hall of Infamy. Who will get to join such permanent inductees as Tom Cruise and that thing on Donald Trump’s head?

Let’s start with a nod to those pregnant celebrities who show up for special events wearing outfits stretched so tightly across their bellies that you could actually see the fetus trying to tap out “Help me!” in Morse code on mom’s stomach. If I can tell your embryo’s sex by its outline on your dress, it’s too tight.
Charlie Sheen receives a nomination for attempting to make the abuse of alcohol, cocaine, one’s family and one’s co-workers a thing of which to be proud. It’s not. Calling yourself a warlock while holding on to “goddesses “ who are barely one step above streetwalkers doesn’t make it so. Trying to make this all cool is simply despicable.
Speaking of despicable, enter Rod Blagojevich, a man who doesn’t understand the concept of shame. His blatant and crass attempt to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat surely qualifies him for some special section of hell. It’s not as though America isn’t already pretty sure most politicians are barely one step above horse thieves. We don’t need someone like Blagojevich rubbing our faces in it.
Another nominee from the political fringe is Donald Trump. While that thing on his head has already been retired to the Hall’s permanent section, Donald himself has not yet earned that status. This may be his year. At a time when most Americans can barely contain their contempt for their political leaders, Trump comes along and gives the final deathblow to any hope of keeping political discussion sane and serious. Instead we get his buffoonery, his obnoxious, loudmouthed and absurd statements, and his attempt to hold a debate that, had it occurred, would surely have drained any dignity left in the Republican nominating process.
It is with gratitude that I acknowledge the Republican leadership’s discomfort at the thought of a Trump moderated debate, and with even greater gratitude that I acknowledge that most Republican presidential candidates had the good taste to turn down the invitation. I think rather than retiring Trump to the permanent wing of the Hall of Infamy, I should instead condemn him to that same special section of hell being saved for Rod Blagojevich.  Given their hairstyle choices, they seem to have a lot in common.
It’s hard to choose which person running for the Republican presidential nomination should be selected for a nomination into the Hall of Infamy since they all fought hard for the distinction. But after much thought, I believe that Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry deserve it the most. I want to include Newt but he is such a grotesque caricature of the worse of the world of politics that it seems as though his head and ego together would fill the Hall and leave little room for others.
Besides, Michelle and Rick have worked hard all year to get this nomination. Perry’s ad trying to equate the right of gays to serve openly in the military with what he characterizes as children being unable to pray in school was a new low even for someone attempting to suck up as hard as possible to the extreme Christian right. Michelle’s pronunciation that because a gay man scored the music for the Lion King children will somehow be gay, on the other hand, always brings a smile to my face. I wonder if her husband’s seen that movie?
If Rick Perry is Bush 2 Lite, then Michelle definitely is Sarah 2 Lite.  Imagine, some of us thought you couldn’t possibly get lighter than the originals.
So who will be honored with induction into the 2011 Hall of Infamy? Really, is there any doubt about who most sullied our country and its institutions this year?
Welcome to the Hall, Donald. I am springing you from Blago’s hell to reunite you with your hair over in the permanent wing. May you have many happy years of intricate hair wraps ahead. And may you never denigrate our political process again. We don’t need more buffoons in politics. We need some leaders.

Elise Patkotak • 03:20 AM •
Thursday, December 22, 2011

The real war being fought in America today is against peace and quiet. It’s a war being won by the forces of noise and distraction. Contemplation and quiet come in a distant second to angry bird apps and texts from friends about how wrinkly their body got in the shower this morning – something made no more attractive than it might otherwise be by the fact that the tweeter is limited to a 240 character description. It’s amazing how many queasy moments can be squeezed into that few characters.

Given as I am possibly the last person left on earth who doesn’t own a cell phone, I am frequently asked what I plan to do when land lines are completely phased out of existence, going the way of the dodo bird and pay phones. My answer is that I may just forgo that form of communication completely.
Unlike in my youth, giving up my phone does not mean giving up my ability to communicate. I have e-mail that, quite frankly, I enjoy much, much more than phones because I can send and receive them at my leisure. I can contemplate what a friend has written and take my time in responding. I can hit the spam button for things that annoy me and hit the delete button for things that I have no need to retain.
Each year I am more and more amazed by people who are virtual prisoners to their phones. They are seemingly incapable of putting them down without having them within gazing distance. They keep one eye on you as you converse with them and one eye on the phone for fear they will miss a text in which someone will tell them that they just entered a Starbucks and plan to order a latte. Or, even more frightening, they are so unable to disconnect from their wired world that they keep only one eye on the road while the other eye reads a text.
I was horrified by the hit and run accident that killed a man last spring on the Tudor overpass. Not only did the perpetrator flee the scene thus leaving the man to die, but this alleged perpetrator’s first response to the incident was to text OMG over and over again to her friend while probably still driving. Who does that?
There is a need in this world for us all to take some quiet time for peaceful contemplation of our surroundings. We need to make time for silence into which we can project our thoughts and sort them out. We need to not respond immediately to every stimulus because, quite frankly, our first impulses are not necessarily our best impulses.
I spend long hours of silence in my home. No phone. No TV. No radio. No computer. It’s just me and my birds and dog sitting quietly watching the fire in the fireplace. I will lazily read a book and allow myself the time to look up from what I’m reading to contemplate a statement made by the author that has in some way struck a chord in my soul. I am completely happy and content. It’s not that I don’t need people or companionship or noise. I do. But I don’t need it all the time. I don’t need or want constant stimulation because then I don’t have the time to process the world and feel comfortable with my responses to its promptings.
I sometimes wonder if I’m the last person on earth who can let a phone ring and not give a darn about answering it. That, according to my philosophy, is what god made answering machines for. Unless it is a friend or relative calling with a tragedy, it is something that can wait until I’m ready to respond.
If there is one Christmas wish I would have for the world this year, it would be for all of us to relearn the joy of silence and quiet, and the ability to pass that joy on to our children who sometimes seem unable to disconnect from the constant noise that has become the ubiquitous background of their lives.
This Christmas Eve, sit silently with your family and enjoy the feel of simply being able to enjoy another year together. Let the conversation be desultory and the love be loud.

Elise Patkotak • 03:25 AM •
Thursday, December 15, 2011

According to Donald Trump, his greatest anger over his debate debacle is that Michele Bachman declined to attend. Trump claims Bachman called him frequently for advice and even indicated that if she won the nomination, she’d consider him for vice president.

That probably says all anyone needs to know about the dangers of a Bachman candidacy. Have Republicans learned nothing from their last vice presidential disaster?
Top brass in the Republican Party are now grousing that their current presidential nominating path is becoming nothing more than a media circus with no real substance. It’s amazing it took them this many boring, overproduced debates to figure that out. Though, I must quickly add, those of us who write columns and act as talking heads for all things political were extremely grateful for all the good fodder created through those forums. I just don’t think it was the type of attention the Republicans were really looking to get.
The current Republican nominating process resembles nothing more than a stampede of cattle responding to electric prods on their butts as candidates race to see who can kiss up most to the extreme religious right. This is apparently considered the only path to nomination. Unfortunately, the majority of voters in this country do not live on that extreme edge. So once the nomination process is complete, the candidate will have to make a sharp left and try to find the middle again without looking like a total suck up. That’s not going to be easy.
Rick Perry is currently running an ad claiming it is wrong that gays can serve openly in the military but kids can’t pray in school, as though those two topics were somehow related. The fact that a soldier no longer has to lie about who he or she is in order to give their limbs and possibly their lives to their country is somehow equated with the fact that kids can’t pray in public schools. This, despite the fact their parents have every right to put them in a religious school if they feel prayer is that important to their school day.
This is pandering of the most absurd and despicable kind. To somehow put gay members of our military in the line of this fire as though being given their rights has deprived school children of other rights is ridiculous. Religion should be everyone’s private choice. That’s what our constitution guarantees. Anyone can pick their religion and practice it freely.
So when I hear extremists complain that their religious rights are being abridged because they can’t force their prayers on others, I wonder how they view Christmas. This is a paid holiday based strictly on a Christian celebration. Might not the Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Wiccans among us wonder why their holidays don’t get equal billing?
The point is that Christianity is in no danger whatsoever in America today. But politicians like Rick Perry have to act as though it is in order to win the approval of the far right wing of their party. The question then becomes how do they get back to the middle with any credibility when they are running for national office in a country where the majority of voters are not worried that Christianity is losing some war in America. Where, in fact, the majority of voters are more worried about the war on the middle class and where their kids are going to find a job than whether those kids can sing Silent Night in a school pageant.  How does the nominee bank back and not look like a panderer?
I’m glad Donald Trump and his cheap, tawdry braggadocio is being frozen out of this process. I’m grateful Michele Bachman won’t have a chance to select him as a running mate. I’m grateful that most serious Republican candidates have the good grace to be embarrassed by the three-ring circus that is their nominating process.
But I’m also saddened that at a time when our country is at a critical crossroads and our current leadership is seemingly unable to rise to the occasion, there is no one of any stature emerging from this process and causing me to think that maybe, just maybe, they would make a good leader.
Ron Paul is looking much more appealing than I ever though possible.

Elise Patkotak • 03:15 AM •
Thursday, December 08, 2011

Mark Twain once wrote, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” This proves, as if it needed proving, that contempt of Congress is not a new phenomenon. With its recent insistence, against the advice of all nutritional experts and everyone else worried about the childhood obesity epidemic in America, that tomato sauce on pizza was a vegetable, we find ourselves once more bowing in awe at what passes for intelligent legislation in DC and continue to wonder what the heck is in the water there.

So when I read in the paper about some miracle compromise Congress is going to somehow agree on concerning a payroll tax, I can be forgiven for rolling my eyes and thinking, “yeah, right.” Because, quite honestly, the idea that Congress can agree on anything, compromise on anything, or get anything done that doesn’t ultimately benefit their overlords – that non-human class of people recently created by the US Supreme Court – just makes me laugh.
I’m guessing Congress would like to be treated with a tad more respect. I’m guessing most senators and representatives prefer that the American people not snort and hold their noses every time the august body in which they serve is mentioned. And I’m guessing that in my heart of hearts I’m still waiting for that miracle ice cream that will turn into a weight loss drug in my body.  None of those things are apt to happen in my lifetime… though ice cream as a weight loss drug is much more likely to become a reality than Congress achieving respectability in the near future.
How did the US Congress reach a point where the floor will actually have to open up and reveal a sub-basement before their reputation can fall any lower? Certainly we’ve had Congresses filled with much more openly scurrilous and rapacious creatures. Certainly we’ve had times when actual fights have broken out in those honorable chambers. Certainly we have seen juvenile behavior we would not tolerate in our three year olds occurring there on a regular basis as representatives and senators stamp their feet, yell at their opponents and threaten people with the private parts of marine mammals.
Our forefathers must be rolling over in their graves as they wonder how, after 235 years of practice, the American people could still be so bad at picking people to send to Washington.
I no longer even pretend to believe that the Congress in Washington represents me or my country. They represent the people who paid for them to win and you and I simply don’t have enough money to reach that category. Most people I speak to about this just make some derisive sound and allow as how members of Congress are “all a bunch of idiots”. The expectations for what they produce could not be lower. Having managed to agree on a national anthem, national flag design and national symbol, all other attempts to agree have floundered in the miasma of self and corporate interests that permeate those hallowed halls.
So what’s a good American supposed to do about this sad and sorry state of affairs? Well, it would seem, not much. Poll after poll shows that most Americans revile Congress but not their particular congressional delegation. This is why incumbents get voted into office time and time again. It is always the other person’s senator or representative who’s the doofus, not the one from your state.
So it would seem that we can look forward to many more years of humor mixed with tears, laughter mixed with frustration, derision mixes with begrudged affection for the group of men and women who supposedly lead our country. They give us laws they’ve never read, legislation paid for by companies that fly foreign flags, and a million belly laughs a year with their antics. Whether they are screaming at a scientist that his science does not trump congressional intelligence or explaining that they were just worried about the welfare of young male pages when they sent those e-mails, the US has more than just a native criminal class in Congress, we also have our laugh a day calendar that should keep us giggling right through the destruction of this once great nation.
Smile, you’re watching C-Span.

Elise Patkotak • 03:48 AM •
Thursday, December 01, 2011

Let’s see if I have this straight. President Obama offers his Thanksgiving address and in it neglects to thank god. This leads to a cacophony of screeches from right wing conservative pundits who are apparently pretty sure that this omission means that Obama plans to lead us down a godless path to defeat, destruction and total world domination by (pick one) Muslims or communists.  Wow.

My first thought was to invite these pundits to move to Iran or some other theocracy where god is always mentioned as the only justification needed for any and all decrees, from which movies can play in theaters to how many times you can whip a woman who showed her face in public.
You’ll have to forgive me if, as a woman, I say that I’d prefer not to live in a theocracy. They always seem to be run by men who claim god as their authority for keeping women barely one level above slavery.
I’m not picking on Muslim nations with that statement. Christianity has a long and pathetic history of how women were treated in Europe during the height of religious rule. At the highest level, they were bought and sold as nothing more than chattel cementing relationships desired by the men who ruled them. At the lowest level, their husbands had a right to beat them and kill them if need be. And the Church, while it might have made an occasional quiet demure on the matter, pretty much supported the status quo.
So as a woman, I have to say that if Barack Obama wants to mention god in his Thanksgiving address, he has every right to do so. But if he doesn’t, I don’t really find myself getting all out of sorts and huffy. God, as interpreted by way too many powerful religious men in countries where religion rules, is often an oppressor of women. I’d just as soon our president didn’t bring that into our country.
If these right wing pundits really believe that having religion and publicly proclaiming it as central to their lives is the litmus test that politicians must pass to garner conservative support, then I really do wish they would move to some country that is already a theocracy and leave America alone. Because that should not be now, and never was in the past, the criteria we used to elect the people who would lead us. While past presidents may have mentioned god in their public discourse, they did not run on a platform of being more Christian than the next guy. That would have scared Americans who still remembered the religious prosecutions they and their ancestors had fled in order to live in a country where religion was a personal, not public matter, and no one could tell them they had to think or worship one way or another – or at all if they did not choose to do so.
I have had the privilege of knowing many good people in my life. Some went to church daily. Some went weekly. And some never went inside a church except for family funerals and weddings. Religion was not what made them good people. Religion was part of who some were, but their belief in the basic dignity of all people and in the virtues of living a decent and honorable life, being faithful to their spouse and loving to their children – none of that was solely predicated on whether they showed up for services on Sunday. It was simply what they believed to be right.
People who believe in god and receive comfort from their spirituality should be free to both worship as they please and express their beliefs as they choose. But no American politician should be held to some litmus test involving god. That stuff belongs in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Not America.
Anyone can put the words “thank god” into a speech without those words holding any meaning. Do these conservative pundits really want to trivialize their god and religion to the point where it becomes nothing more than another thing to check off in public – lapel flag pin, check.  Thank god and mom in speech, check.
We elect politicians to be our civil leaders, not our religious gurus. Forget that and we lose our democracy and become a theocracy.

Elise Patkotak • 03:38 AM •
Thursday, November 24, 2011

As you prepare for your holiday meal with friends and family, the idea that there are people in this town going to sleep hungry is probably not one you want to ponder. It’s understandable. Thanksgiving is a day for football, turkey, pies, family and general groaning at how tight your pants have suddenly gotten. It is also, apparently, the only day in the year when you can put canned onion pieces on top of canned string beans that have been mixed with canned mushroom soup and praise the results.

The reality in Anchorage is there are people of every size, shape, color and age who know the only meal they can count on is at Bean’s Café. Beyond that, getting regular meals is a bit of a crap shoot. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don’t. And sometimes the sound of your child’s stomach growling as you try to sleep in your car at night keeps you more awake than the sounds of nearby traffic. We can debate all we want about who’s to blame for this, but all that matters in the end is that there are people hungry in a country with an overabundance of food. And that simply seems wrong.
I was down at Bean’s a few weeks ago when the Benjamin Moore Paint Company sponsored a project to paint a shelter in each state over the course of one month. Bean’s had been spending its money on food, not paint. It needed a facelift. During our dark winter months, a cheerful interior can be critically uplifting.
The actual painting was done by three local companies that deserve to be named because they freely gave their time and labor to help those less fortunate in their community. So a hearty thank you to Hernandez Enterprises Inc.; Campbell Painting and Magic Paining and Taping Inc. It doesn’t get much better than local companies acknowledging by their actions the need for everyone to do their part to help those less fortunate.
The interior of Bean’s is now much cheerier. While it might not feel exactly like home, it helps the people eating there to forget for just a moment how hard their lives have become, how cold and dark it is outside, and how much their days run together into a single blur of survival. And yes, I’m aware that for more than a few people sitting down to eat at Bean’s, this is their break from being drunk and that they have brought some of their hardships on themselves. That doesn’t make them less than human. If so great a man as Jesus could teach that we should care for all God’s creation without question or judgment, then maybe that’s exactly what we should do – especially since I don’t remember any test he required the poor to pass before holding out his hand to them or sharing his fish and bread.
So what can you do to both enjoy your holiday, feast without guilt – well, except of course for the guilt the scale will provide the next time you step on it – and feel good about your contribution to your community? Well, one thing might be to contribute to the Beanie Boxes that Bean’s makes each year to distribute to their clients. You can go to their website at http://www.beanscafe.org and find out what they need to fill these boxes. You can make your own or contribute items to boxes that will be made there.
The needs of the poor can seem so very overwhelming sometimes. A Beanie Box is a simple thing that makes a tremendous difference, because it really is true that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. And while you can’t change the life of every person living in poverty or despair, held prisoner to fear or addictions or a plain old sucky economy, you can make a difference in one person’s life if only for a few days by making a Beanie Box for them.
You may not think that a travel sized bar of soap or tube of toothpaste is even worth looking at in the grocery aisle. For someone living on the street and eating at Bean’s, it can be more valuable than the whole Thanksgiving dinner you just served.
It’s simply a matter of perspective.

Elise Patkotak • 03:43 AM •
Thursday, November 17, 2011

It’s hard to know where to begin.  It’s not as though we haven’t seen sex scandals before, especially among our politicians. From men claiming they merely have a wide stance in public restrooms to presidents who beggar the definition of sex, we seem to have seen it all. Herman Cain merely joins a long and ugly line of men who thought that power entitled them to anything and everything they wanted because their ultimate power apparently resided – in their minds at least – south of their border.

But then the news about Penn State’s legendary football program broke and suddenly there was a new standard for ugly. A standard so beyond anything we could have imagined just a few short days ago.
I’m not referring to the adult male who walked in on a ten year old boy being sodomized in a shower and walked out without taking action. That man will hopefully face a much worse judgment and penalty than society could possibly impose on him when he dies and tries to explain to his god how the glory of the Penn State football team was more important than the agony of that little boy.
I’m not even referring to Joe Paterno, a man who was legendary in the Italian community, along with Frank Sinatra and Lee Iacocca, as someone who somehow proved we were no longer immigrants looking in on the American dream from outside. His success proved that we’d made it, we were fully integrated into our society and would never again see signs hung on doors that said that Italians weren’t welcomed. Paterno too will face his god someday and explain how he could look the other way while young boys were tortured in his locker rooms and showers while he shrugged his shoulders and justified his conscience by saying that he’d reported it to his superiors and he wasn’t responsible for what happened after that.
None of those people horrify me as much as do the students at Penn State – the students who rioted in the streets and overturned trucks in their anger that the university had had the gall to fire Joe Paterno for something they apparently consider so trivial. In a world in which football is king, Joe is god and these acolytes apparently felt that those young boys were merely making the needed sacrifice to keep the football program going.  Because if that isn’t what those students were thinking, then I beg them to tell me what was going through their minds as they rioted.
Athletics are big businesses in our colleges and universities. Student athletes are recruited with huge scholarships and other bonuses because they bring big money with them in many forms, from alumni donations to TV contracts. Being a brilliant scientist who will someday open the door to our understanding of the origins of cancer and its potential defeat as something that kills indiscriminately is clearly not as important in today’s collegiate world as being big enough to give someone a concussion under the bright glare of TV lights. If it were, it would be the high school science award winner being recruited by all the best schools in the nation. But it’s not.
As a woman, I know what it’s like to feel sexually and physically vulnerable to men who would use violence to satisfy their needs. As an adult, I would hope that if something ever happened to me, I’d be able to withstand the physical and emotional trauma and, with the help of friends and counseling, heal the wound. But even adults often find that a too daunting task after a sexual assault because the assault is so intimate and so horrific.  So how, I wonder, do we ever expect these young boys to heal and have a normal life of any sort after this kind of personal, vicious assault?
Politicians, priests, athletic programs – all worlds dominated by men and all guilty of crimes in which one man dominates another through the most humiliating and devastating attack possible. And in each and every case, the institutions that surrounded those abusers tried to defend and protect them.
And now the students at Penn State give a rousing vote of affirmation and support to this horror. What the hell are we teaching our kids about what’s really important in life?

Elise Patkotak • 03:43 AM •
Thursday, November 10, 2011

I am going to break my vow to never mention Sarah Palin’s name in one of my columns again in order to tell a story that has nothing to do with her political career. Back when Sarah only had mayor of Wasilla and resigned member of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on her resume, a new program was beginning at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center – a women’s string orchestra, the first of its kind in Alaska and still the only one in the country. Sarah was there for one of their first Christmas concerts. So was I. She came over and introduced herself to me, apparently recognizing me from my column. We said hello, shook hands and that was it.

This year the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center Women’s String Orchestra, with or without Sarah in attendance, will be performing its ninth holiday concert on December 3 at 1:30 PM. If you want to do something to get in the real spirit of the holiday season, I highly recommend you go.
A study recently showed that prisoners who had access to programs such as drug and alcohol counseling had a much better chance of not becoming a revolving door inmate. While this orchestra probably cannot produce those statistics (yet), I daresay the women who participate in it find peace and comfort in those few moments of beauty in a day that probably otherwise contains little of either.
For those fretting about their tax dollars being used to coddle inmates, let me assure you that you do not pay for this program. The people responsible for it are volunteers. The instruments are donated. The change in those women who find a piece of themselves that they didn’t know existed before, a piece that holds some self-respect and pride in accomplishment, also costs the taxpayer nothing.  This is a project born of belief in the power of music and the virtue of contributing to your community to make the whole stronger and better than its individual parts.
It’s nice to know that spirit still exists in our society. It’s even nicer to know that in this particular case, it is not a spirit born of a particular season that lasts a month and then disappears until the red and green bunting shows up in stores again next year. This project continues year round.
The orchestra has become so popular that it now has thirty-five members at three skill levels plus a fiddling group. Given how hard it is as an adult to learn new things, and given that this particular population has probably not had much success in learning even in their youth, the fact that they are learning to play and love all music in such a difficult place and circumstance bodes well for their ability to find the strength to stay out of jail when their sentence ends. It takes strength to face the unknown and for many of these inmates, success in something positive and good is a total unknown.
So what will you hear if you go to this concert? Well, you’ll hear some professionals play. You’ll know who they are because, aside from the fact that some of them will be men, they will probably sound immensely better than even the advanced members of the prison orchestra.
When the women play, you will hear varying levels of skill, all kinds of notes and possibly a few different rhythms. They aren’t professionals. They are amateurs. But their hearts and souls are in every note they play as much as any devoted professional, possibly more. Because for them, these few moments of play separate the grayness of each successive day of their sentence with some color and light.
If you do nothing else this holiday season, and I know most of you will do a lot else that involves parties and food and possibly even church, please do this. Get tickets and go to this concert. Fill your heart and soul with the sound of women who have seen the bottom and now can see a little light at the top thanks to the devotion of some diehard musicians who believe that music can heal.
You’ll hear great music and know that at least one thing you did this season is in the true spirit of the man whose birth is celebrated.

Elise Patkotak • 03:49 AM •
Thursday, November 03, 2011

Many people who read my column last week felt that I was selectively picking the revolutions that fit my preconceived notion of the problems America faces today. Sure, they said, there was the French Revolution. But what about Cuba and China and Russia? Those revolutions led to communism. And what about South America and Africa where so many revolutions led to despotic rulers?

Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that you are all right. Because the point is not the revolution. The point is what caused the revolution. In each and every case you had a powerful and rich elite controlling the political and financial life of a country. And you had another group of people with nothing left to lose.
The fact that those revolutions didn’t all turn out to be sugar and spice and everything nice is exactly why we need to pay attention now to the destruction of America’s middle class, the group so responsible for the balance in our society that’s allowed us to be a great nation. Lose that middle class and you lose all balance. That’s when you end up with people so desperate for change they will follow a Mao or Lenin or Castro, sadly often trading one form of oppression for another.
When America was created, many wanted to crown George Washington king. Washington refused, and in doing so set this grand experiment in democracy on its thrilling ride through history. Because of Washington we have presidents with the honorific of Mister, not Your Majesty. And supposedly we have a government elected by the people and not a government of inherited nobility. 
But more than a few of us are feeling that our “representative” government is starting to mostly represent a newly created class of people, corporations, and less and less the old standard form of people, actual human beings. So when some complain that the Occupy Wall Street crowd is just a bunch of free loaders who want to suck off the government while being lazy good for nothings, I have to wonder why corporate welfare in the form of lowered taxes, creative tax breaks and corporate loopholes you can drive a semi through are not also considered people sucking off government welfare?  I mean, corporations are people too, right?
Here’s how I view this situation. Picture a seesaw. On one end are the poor. On the other end, the rich. In the middle, holding everything steady, is the middle class. Throughout the 20th century, this middle class grew and prospered and, as it did, it created one of the greatest countries this world has ever known.
But now something’s changed. The rich and poor still occupy opposite ends of the seesaw but the balance has gone awry. The rich have become so rich, their end has soared into the air. The poor have become so poor that their end is solidly planted on the ground. And the middle class? Well, unfortunately, their place in the middle meant that when the tip occurred, they slid downward towards poverty. The balance they provided is being lost.
So yes, there have been many revolutions in history. Their outcomes didn’t always create a better society. That’s why America has stood out. We had a revolution and then the great good fortune of founding fathers with the wisdom and restraint to create a government that benefitted all with equal opportunity to succeed and have a good life. They didn’t guarantee you would. They just created the needed safeguards in government to give everyone – eventually even women and African-Americans – that chance.
Now we face a country in which the chance to succeed had been ripped out from under us as powerful corporations partner with government to protect their privileged existence while destroying our society.
I too want to take back my country. I want to take it back from corporate greed and politicians who have sold their souls for a chance at power. Corporations are not people. And all revolutions are not the same except for the roots most share – the desire of the common man to wake up in the morning with some hope that today will be better than yesterday and tomorrow will be even better than today.
Take that away and people will have nothing left to lose.

Elise Patkotak • 03:51 AM •
Thursday, October 27, 2011

It’s said that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. I think of this while watching the Occupy Wall Street protests. My mind goes back to the French revolution. It was the obscene disparity between the haves and have-nots that finally led to that blood bath. If you don’t think that can happen here, I’d suggest you consider that at some point the have-nots will realize they have nothing left to lose because the “haves” control it all. Why not get extreme?

Interestingly, some bankers are now changing their tune and saying that even though they aren’t sure what the protesters hope to accomplish by their methods, they understand the frustration. It seems that even those on the inside can now grasp how angry the 99% are at the dismal future they face, even as those who caused this economic catastrophe find themselves significantly better off now than before the crash. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how wrong that seems.
As the movement spreads, I must admit that I am somewhat thrilled that this generation knows how to protest and sit in. I’d feared those skills were lost forever when Dubya took us on a war of choice and the campuses and streets of America didn’t erupt with protest. Now I understand that the war didn’t affect anyone but the military and their families so there was no need to get all riled up. Without the draft, college kids were safe and the only people suffering were people who volunteered for the job. So the massive protests of the sixties over an unjust war just never materialized.
It’s kind of sad if you think about it.  An unjust, unprovoked war of choice is a horrible, horrible thing to do in and of itself. But so long as the middle class wasn’t overly burdened with carrying the weight and pain of it, we stayed silent.
Now, poverty being an equal opportunity employer, people are freaked by a future in which they feel they have precious little stake. The middle class finds itself being squeezed out of existence and suddenly staying silent is not an option. While we may express sympathy, love and patriotism towards those being blown apart in the mid-east, our anger only erupts when we ourselves are threatened. And boy do most of us feel threatened.
Those commentators who mock the crowds in these protests claiming they have no validity because they are using iPhones to spread the word are ostriches with their heads fully engulfed in the sand. They mock this process and the people committed to it at their own risk. Because no matter how garbled the message, no matter how badly expressed the frustration, no matter if the people in the street are holding iPhones or bullhorns, the bottom line is that the great American middle has been roused and is in no mood for either condescension or placation.
I remember the sixties. I remember the protests – both those in which I participated and those I saw on TV. I remember my parents shaking their heads at the pictures on the news and wondering what had become of civility in public discourse. They did not believe a group of raggedy, over privileged, frequently stoned individuals could achieve anything. But we did. It wasn’t pretty. And maybe everyone didn’t agree with what was done. But it was from those streets that a presidency was overthrown, Jim Crow laws became publicly acknowledged as obscene and a war ended.
I’m well aware that a lot of other things happened in those streets, many of them not good. Members of my generation who would never come back from the bad acid trip to live a full and fulfilled life. Free love that would turn into an epidemic of STDs. Protests that turned violent and left innocent people dead.
But that’s just the point. We should never have to go back down that road and yet here we are with a generation feeling disenfranchised, disowned and facing what they perceive as a hopeless future. In France, they beheaded the rich and took their lands and home by force. If we are smart enough to learn from history, we can avoid repeating that, either actually or metaphorically. If not, then god help America because it’s only going to get worse.

Elise Patkotak • 03:04 AM •
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back in the day when Alaska was flush with oil money, programs for treating substance abuse, sex abuse and domestic violence flourished. You could find state funded programs from Barrow to Ketchikan and all places in between. So what happened? Why did all those programs disappear? And why are the citizens of Alaska now being told that they were actually quite cost effective in dealing with difficult problems?

A lot of points converged that led to the dismantling of the state’s efforts to deal with societal problems like abuse and dependency. Money was drying up. There were public cries to get tough on crime. It was easier to get voters to approve bonds for a new jail than a rehab facility. So gradually most of the programs targeting rehabilitation were eliminated in favor of harsher, and frequently mandatory, sentences.
Judges faced with people convicted of crimes committed under the influence were limited in what they could order during sentencing because so many prisons no longer offered treatments programs. Child sexual abusers sentenced to mandatory time to serve emerged from jail with no change in their proclivities. Many offenders of all stripes returned to prison within a short time after release for committing more crimes, usually of much the same nature as that for which they had originally been sentenced.
Could treatment programs have prevented that level of recidivism? Could counseling have kept an abuser from abusing again? Quite frankly, in any individual case, who knows? What we do know is that if nothing is done and nothing is offered to help a prisoner deal with the issues that sent him or her to prison in the first place, that person has a high likelihood of reoffending.  With help, treatment and support, statistics show that recidivism can be substantially reduced.
But here’s an even better argument in today’s economy. Treating someone in a substance abuse, sexual abuse or domestic violence program is way cheaper than what it costs to support someone in jail. Offering that treatment while they are in jail potentially gives us a break on paying for their almost instant return. Given the screams and cries about government spending being out of control, wouldn’t it make sense to spend less money on programs that actually show some encouraging statistical results as opposed to spending it on expensive jails that have proven they do nothing so well as create a hard core group of recidivists who will be sucking up our tax dollars for the rest of their lives?
I have worked in the field of child abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse long enough to know there are no magic bullets, no miracle formulas, no wondrous cures.  I have long since stopped dreaming of the day when someone will invent a pill that creates an instant fix or find the misplaced wire in the brain and a way to rewire it so that someone is no longer attracted to little children. Those things are not apt to happen in my lifetime.
But I’ve also been in the field long enough to know that there are cases where the light bulb goes on and someone realizes what a mess they’ve made of their lives and turn themselves around with the help and support of counselors, clergy and family. Notice that nowhere in that grouping is the help and support of a prison guard mentioned. That’s because prison guards are there for security reasons, to keep a bunch of people holed up together in an unnatural grouping from killing each other.  They don’t have the training or skills needed to help someone overcome what is often a lifetime of dysfunctional living. They are much too busy just trying to keep the peace.
So let’s be realistic here and decide how we should really be spending our tax dollars in the criminal justice system. If spending a couple thousand dollars treating someone’s dysfunction keeps him or her out of our jail system for even six months longer than they would have otherwise stayed out, we’ve already saved thousands of dollars.
Looked at properly, it’s a win-win-win situation. Bleeding heart liberals get to save some people and ultra conservatives get to save some money. And the rest of us… well, we ultimately get a safer society.
What’s not to like?

Elise Patkotak • 03:50 AM •
Thursday, October 13, 2011

Class warfare.  It’s the latest campaign buzzword. Try to have any reasonable discussion of our financial troubles, huge federal deficit and sinking middle class that includes asking the rich to kick in a few more bucks and you are accused of class warfare.  Yet somehow, the fact that about 400 families in America now control 50% of its wealth is not seen in the same light.

So if I have this correct, it’s class warfare when any attempt is made to have the very wealthy pay an incrementally small amount of their incredible wealth to keep America financially sound. But squeezing the middle class out of existence by destroying any semblance of their social safety net isn’t.
The truth is that when the middle class is squeezed, it tends to squeeze downward, not upward, thereby putting more pressure on just those programs targeted by conservatives and the Tea Party for the biggest cuts. It’s as though they are trying to negate centuries of human progress and go back to a world in which survival of the strongest is the only law of the land.
It’s apparently not class warfare to try to squeeze an entire class out of existence rather than tap a class whose future seems fairly assured. Considered by the government as too big to fail and so in need of being bailed out whenever their machinations threaten to destroy our economy… a luxury not available to the middle or lower classes… these people are called the job creators. Well, I know a lot of unemployed Americans who feel that the only jobs being created with tax dollars used to bail the super rich out are being created in other countries. In America, not so much.
Why? Because American workers apparently feel they have a right to some basic dignity and believe conditions at work should be conducive to that dignity. They feel they should be paid a living wage for their labor and their workplace should be safe and humane. The upper class, however, knows that doing this might put the pinch on their finances and make that third villa in France unaffordable. They’d rather the worker should make minimum wage for maximum work to avoid any chance of not snagging that recently renovated castle in Italy. And if they can’t find workers agreeable to those conditions in America, there are plenty of Third World countries where governments are not so concerned with basic human rights.
The message I get from the Tea Party and other ultra conservative right wingers seems to be that destroying the middle class is fine but any attempt to get a buck or two more out of some billionaires who would not even notice it was gone is a moral outrage.
Once again I feel like Alice after she fell through the looking glass. Up is down. Down is up. And we should just leave those poor billionaires alone and not pick on them anymore. Better to pick on school lunches for poor kids, medical care for the elderly and making sure that anyone who has still managed to cling to the lower rungs of the middle class is kicked off so as not to use up too many of the precious resources that rightfully belong to the rich.
If I understand the logic that is used in coming to that conclusion, it seems to be that the rich have somehow earned their riches and deserve every single penny while the poor are obviously lazy slugs who should just die off because they clutter up our world with their neediness. The fact that many of the super rich are rich thanks to the efforts of their grandparents or great-grandparents and the only contribution they have made to the world is showing up at nightclubs without underpants seems to get lost in that logic.
But then, just when I despair for the future of our country, I turn on the TV and hear an interview with Melinda Gates who, along with her husband, have committed to giving away 90% of their wealth. When asked why, she said that when you are given so much, you have to give back. 
It’s time that message reached our politicians as they try to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

Elise Patkotak • 03:28 AM •
Thursday, October 06, 2011

October 1 marked the 39th anniversary of the day I arrived in Alaska. October 3 marked the 39th anniversary of the day I arrived in Barrow. Looking back, it strikes me that the old saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same”, is true. I could never have imagined what life held for me that cold day so long ago when I learned that not everyone in America was born with flush toilets and running water as a birthright and that meat did not start out life in a package.

The day I arrived in Barrow, a doctor at the IHS hospital threw me a welcome to the Arctic party. I met a man at that party, a young man with great ambitions. Oliver Leavitt stood in the doorway of Ose Matsutani’s kitchen and told me all about something called ANCSA that had something to do with land claims that in turn had something to do with oil exploration and development. To be honest, as a girl straight out of Brooklyn who still thought all Native Americans lived in teepees somewhere “out west”, my background in the area that seemed to fascinate Oliver was minimal to non-existent.
But one thing does stand out in my mind. He spoke about a new organization called the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and told me how it would someday be one of the biggest corporations in the state and would be very rich and provide money for its shareholders. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what an ASRC was – back then it was so new it didn’t even rate an acronym made of its initials, we actually used its whole name – but one thing was for sure, this young man talking to me was passionate about it and believed it would change his world.
Thirty-nine years later, ASRC is known almost exclusively by its acronym and is one of the biggest corporations in the state. That young man who was so sure of its future turned out to be an integral part of its amazing success. And the past 39 years have seen changes of mind-blowing proportions in Barrow and its surrounding villages. Thanks to the money brought in from oil exploration and extraction on the North Slope, people there now have clean water, flush toilets and their very own school district and junior college.
But while some things have changed for the very, very better, other issues continue to be fought out in seesaw battles that seem to have no end. As Barrow votes once again on the issue of wet or dry, damp or not, substance abuse continues to rip the fabric of village society to shreds in way too many families. Domestic violence, which seems to follow substance abuse as sure as the night follows the day, continues to rage in Bush Alaska. Suicides, especially among young men who should be readying themselves to take over leadership positions in their local governments and corporations, continue to be double and more of the national average. Despite the hundred of thousands of dollars poured into programs to alleviate these problems, they continue to cause pain and hardship in the Bush beyond anything most of us can imagine.
The battle between subsistence and resource development also continues unabated.  While acknowledging the progress that money from resource extractions has provided some villages across Alaska, the fundamental problem of protecting the integrity of the land and seas and the multitude of birds, mammals and fish that exist there while safely extracting resources seems as though it may never be fully settled. Pebble Mine is but the latest battlefield while ANWR is as old as my presence in this state, strewn with the remains of multitudinous battles fought to a standstill over its development.
Thirty-nine years later I find myself looking back over a life filled with wonderful friends (happy 39th Sandra and Sonya), tremendous experiences the likes of which I could never have imagined while living in my small apartment in Brooklyn, and a heart filled with gratitude for a state that has allowed me to participate in its beauty, wildness and majesty. I have no doubt that my adopted state will resolve its problems and find a way to protect its wilderness while caring for its people.
Here’s to thirty-nine more.

Elise Patkotak • 03:25 AM •
Thursday, September 29, 2011

As termination dust creeps down the mountains, I have to once again ponder that most puzzling of all Anchorage questions…What is it about drivers here that causes them to think that each new snowfall may finally be THAT snowfall. You know, the one where the snow is sticky instead of slick so they can speed up, slam on the breaks, take curves on two wheels and tailgate so closely they could reach out and change your radio channel for you, without any danger.

As each winter begins, drivers seemingly have to learn to drive in snowy, icy conditions all over again. We seem to assume that every snowstorm is the last that will ever fall here so we don’t have to remember any of the lessons we learned about driving with snow on the roads.
Anchorage driving can be very scary. If I follow what I learned in driving class lo those many years ago on how much space to leave between moving cars, there is inevitably some bozo who takes that as an invitation to use that space to cut in front of me, causing me to suddenly be able to read the brand of coat he’s wearing.
There are mornings after a snowfall where our roads look like a picture from a bombed out Libyan highway because of the number of vehicles strewn all over the embankments. Since not everyone puts snow tires on thirty seconds after they become legal, there is every chance that many commuters will not have them on. Apparently, we can’t expect some Anchorage drivers to think this might be a reason to drive a tad more slowly. I mean, assuming that once the snow has fallen for the first time in a season we are all realize it’s probably going to happen at least a few more times before spring, wouldn’t you think that we would understand the need for caution in the future?
Every spring, Anchorage seems to have one last mighty snowfall – the one I view as God’s way of reminding us She’ll be back. This snow inevitably melts with some immediacy causing wet, flooded roads – roads with puddles and potholes that swallow up bicycles and small children. Is there really anything more fun than the driver whose car hits the puddle without even attempting to slow down a bit, thereby causing Niagra Falls to come cascading down your windshield, blocking you from seeing anything other than your rapidly approaching demise?
My mother told me two things when I got my driver’s license. One was that when I had my little sister in the car with me I was traveling with precious cargo and had better be very, very careful.  The other was that I had, in essence, bought the right hand lane of the road. In her world, the left hand lane was for everyone else. She defined everyone else as all those crazy drivers who thought they had to get somewhere so fast that they needed to go the speed limit. But in the right hand lane, I could go as slow as the law allowed, and sometimes even slower, and no one was permitted to bother me.
That rule held up just fine until I got to Alaska where I found out that the right lane was where speeders went to get around the speeder in the left lane who wasn’t going enough over the speed limit to satisfy them. On some icy days, I feel like asking permission to just drive on the shoulder so I can avoid the killing fields.
I realize I have become the epitome of the little old lady driving down the highway with her turn signal blinking for miles for no apparent reason. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to be able to drive with some modicum of safety from others who feel the speed limit is merely a suggestion and, in the face of slippery road conditions, a challenge to see how fast they can go before flipping over four times and causing the kind of pileup that makes me even later for my latte.
So I’d like the Assembly to consider adding a lane for those of us who do not feel that getting home ten minutes sooner is worth death and/or dismemberment. Thank you.

Elise Patkotak • 03:01 AM •
Thursday, September 22, 2011

For those who bothered to watch last week’s debate among Republican presidential contenders, there was a moment that seemed to define what is happening in America and its political life today. It was the moment Ron Paul was asked a hypothetical question about health care. “What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a coma and doesn’t have health insurance? Who pays for his coverage? Are you saying society should just let him die?” Wolf Blitzer asked, to which several audience members enthusiastically yelled, “Yeah!” while some in the audience cheered. This followed immediately upon the previous Republican debate in which Governor Perry was cheered for having executed over 200 people while governor of Texas.

Let me begin by saying I’m starting to really admire Ron Paul. He speaks honestly about issues to which other candidates only give poll approved sound bite answers. He responded to the question by saying that communities and charitable groups should handle these issues, not government. I don’t completely agree, but I’m impressed he didn’t let himself be swayed by the audience response.
We live in an era in which people feel it’s perfectly ok to get on TV and blame lesbians, gays and atheists for 9/11 or to publicly cheer the idea of letting our fellow citizens suffer and die because they had the misfortune of being born poor; or made a stupid mistake of judgment in thinking they were invincible and didn’t need insurance; or got a devastating illness that used up all their insurance, life savings and home equity.  And given how many people on death row have been freed due to evidence showing wrongful conviction, shouldn’t we display at least some constraint in our joy at their death? What have we become as a nation when that kind of hateful expression barely rates third page coverage anywhere?
There’s an old phrase from Shakespeare that goes something like this. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” It’s a phrase that plays over and over again in my mind when I hear conservative Christian right-wing groups blather and bleat about how we are a Christian nation that must be governed by Christian ethics and somehow find that compatible with cheering death.  What Bible could they possibly be reading in which Christ scorns the sick and poor and demands proof of worth before feeding the crowd with loaves and fishes? If they have to keep telling us over and over again that we are such a “Christian” nation, doesn’t that lead to at least some suspicion that we aren’t really following the dictates of Christianity? Shouldn’t it be so obvious that we don’t have to proclaim it at every turn of the corner?
While I wholeheartedly agree that the government cannot provide all things to all people all the time, I shudder at the thought that I might one day find myself at the mercy of these supposed Christians. Dickens’ England with workhouses and debtors’ prisons is probably their idea of how to handle the problem. And quoting some harsh dictum from the Old Testament does not impress me since Christ supposedly came to earth to supplant the Old Testament with his words, which had a lot more to do with love and mercy.
We are entering a campaign season… ok, maybe not entering it since it seemingly started three seconds after Obama was inaugurated… and the possibility of our civic discourse falling even lower than it already has looms as a frightening possibility. If I remember my childhood religion lessons, being a true Christian means being one in tough, as well as easy, times. It means staying true to Christian virtues even when that means giving half of your only piece of bread to the beggar at the door.  It means sharing when the sharing hurts, not just when you have so much you won’t notice.
I honestly can’t imagine Christ cheering at the thought of letting someone die because they didn’t have health insurance. And since he ended his life as a wrongfully condemned man put to death, he might have a lot more sympathy for those on death row than some would like to believe.
Personally, I don’t see Christ cheering death, meanness of spirit or hateful speech. People claiming to follow him shouldn’t either.

Elise Patkotak • 03:51 AM •

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