Elise Sereni
     Patkotak
Thursday, December 26, 2013

My sister Judy has a friend named Paula. They’ve been best buddies since kindergarten. Judy was in Paula’s wedding, is godmother to her daughter, and spends every Christmas out in California with Paula and her family. Despite some family cynicism, I believe Judy would spend every Christmas there even if Paula didn’t live in sunny southern California, thus allowing Judy a reprieve from the fun of a Northeast winter.

My Christmas present to Judy was a package of King Crab that she and Paula could serve on Christmas Eve. Italian tradition demands that Christmas Eve be not only meatless, but also contain either five, seven or twelve fish dishes depending on the area of Italy from which your ancestors emigrated. I figured King Crab counted as a fish.
Once the package was opened, however, it was determined that they simply didn’t want to share the King Crab. So it was promptly steamed and served with melted butter and cold vodka – hence the picture on my blog of my sister and Paula tenderly caressing a couple of King Crab parts. I’m assuming the caressing had something to do with the vodka.
I mention this less for the story of the King Crab than for the story of friendships that last a lifetime. I never realized how unusual these friendships were until I left the boundaries of Ducktown in Atlantic City and ventured into the wider world. There I found many people who had gone to more than one grade school in the course of their elementary education. They had more than one home address in their childhoods. They couldn’t remember the name of their first grade teacher and had no one to call for the answer. This state of affairs blew my mind.
I grew up in a time and place that I realize now, in retrospect, was very special. I’m a still close friend with the girl I first met when we were three.  Like Judy and Paula, this friend is my sister in all but the blood connection. She’s the one who pierced my ear with a sewing needle and potato when my mother wouldn’t let me have pierced ears. She’s the one I was always jealous of because her birthday was three months before mine, meaning she got her driver’s license before me and got to drink legally before me. It’s only now as we age that I appreciate having a birthday later than hers.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to not have a friend who can go back that far with you. Any name I can’t remember from our past, she can. Any classmate I can’t place, she can. She fills in my memory when it fails, and I fill in hers.
People talk about the importance of family during the holidays. The definition of family in my childhood stretched in ways many would find unimaginable in today’s world where neighbors might know neighbors by sight but have not a clue beyond that. In Ducktown, everyone knew everything about everybody. At the center of that network was St. Michael’s. It’s where you were baptized, schooled, confirmed, married and had your own children baptized. Until gambling came along and destroyed the neighborhoods that once dotted Atlantic City, Ducktown seemed impervious to change. To a child, it always had been and always would be.
I don’t celebrate Christmas the way I used to back then. Back then we were so very excited to be allowed to stay up and go to midnight mass. Then we’d visit people who would have Christmas cookies and eggnog available for anyone who stopped in. We’d go to sleep way later than we should have and woke up way earlier than usual to see what was under our tree. Then we’d grab the one present mom said we could bring in the car to Philly as we headed there for the family Christmas dinner. I don’t think any decision in my life has ever been as hard as which toy to take on those trips to show off to my cousins.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Merry Kwanza. Cheerful Festivus. May you all know the joy of forever friends that it has been my privilege to experience. And whatever you celebrate, may your memories of those times be as warm and comforting to you as my memories are to me.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:31 AM •
Thursday, December 19, 2013

I’m assuming that by now everyone has read or heard the story of the two juvenile bald eagles from Adak who flew too close to the fire and singed some important feathers off. They’re at Bird TLC right now. They will probably be there for a long time since the only real cure for what ails them is to have a molt occur and new feathers come in to replace the burnt ones. Thanks to the dedication of a group of clearly crazed bird people, these kids will be fed, watered and treated for their injuries for as long as it takes to get them back into the skies.

I was asked recently what it was about birds that so fascinated me that I willingly give up hours upon hours every week caring for them at Bird TLC while also caring for seven companion birds in my home. (The only reason I have seven birds is because I’m a foster bird parent for companion birds abandoned by their previous caretakers. I’m not completely insane, no matter what my family thinks.) Anyhow, the answer to the question of why I am a tad bird crazy is that birds can fly. It’s that simple. They can break their earthly bonds, defy gravity, and soar towards the heavens. I was first jealous of this ability when I discerned it in Mighty Mouse, a major childhood crush of mine. As the years went on and I realized that birds could do exactly what Mighty Mouse could do, and on top of that were real, I transferred my affections.
The volunteers at Bird TLC are a microcosm of our community. They come from every walk of life and just about every demographic. We have the young, the old and the middle aged. We have men and women. We have the lame (get well soon, Terri) and the healthy. All have in common a love of Alaska’s wild birds and a desire to be of service to their community.
The holiday season seems an appropriate time to stop and consider what volunteers bring to the table of our civic, social and community life. They can be found dishing out food at Bean’s, manning tables at voting booths, cleaning kennels at various animal shelters or, as in my case, prying open an eagle’s beak to force some medicine infused salmon down their throats.  Volunteers are ushering you down the aisle at the PAC, performing at ACT, holding meetings of various political clubs and working with the differently abled in the Special Olympics.
Of course, I happen to think the people at Bird TLC are simply the best of the best because they can actually smile while wallowing in bird poop and smelly salmon. They tenderly care for the smallest nuthatch and the biggest eagle with the same loving concern, believing all of god’s creatures, no matter the size, deserve our care and compassion.  A shout should also go out to all those people in the community who show up at our front door with donations of fish and red meat and newspapers and, of course, money – but mostly the fish and red meat, which goes to feed the birds while they heal. Although these donors may not show up weekly to muck out eagle pens, their contributions are invaluable.
And to all the people who care enough about our wild neighbors to go out of their way to bring them to our clinic when they’ve been hurt or abandoned, kudos. Someone who pulls their car over to the side of the road on a wintry morning to capture a wounded magpie and bring the bird to us is, simply put, a kind person. I like to think those acts of kindness and compassion are a hallmark of our city.
Without volunteers, our community would be a much poorer place; the fabric of life would have huge holes; and many of the things that enrich the human experience would simply not exist. Happy holidays to them all.
On a separate note, Bird TLC will be moving locations by the beginning of the year. We’re not moving far, just over to 7800 King Street, but people who want to bring donations or an injured bird should make sure to call 562-4852 to check where we are before heading out.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:31 AM •
Thursday, December 12, 2013

Who’d have ever thought it would be the biggest corporations in America who were most supportive of the welfare state? That’s the only conclusion I can draw as I watch the raging debate over the minimum wage.

If we follow the issue logically, here’s how it plays out. Corporate America pays its workers less than a living wage. Their workers, in turn, use the social welfare system of food stamps and AFDC to enhance their meager pay so they can feed their families. This allows those in the boardrooms of corporate America to continue to bring home millions upon millions of dollars in compensation each year. In essence, our government welfare programs support the continued obscene wealth of the top one percent of this country. You and I, through out taxes, are supporting their second homes on the Riviera and third yachts in the Caribbean.
Quite frankly, given my annual income, I have no trouble with raising the minimum wage even if it takes a billion or two out of CEOs’ annual incomes. They can still afford it way more than I can afford the taxes I pay to keep them in third homes and fourth wives.
This time of year there is a lot of blather and bleating about the war on Christmas. This is usually because some people insist on saying Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas and some prefer their child not be expected to sing religious songs about the birth of a savior in whom they do not believe. This flies in the face of those who feel if you don’t want to be a Christian at Christmas, you should just leave the country.
I do think there is a war on Christmas. I just don’t think it’s being waged in quite those terms. Christmas celebrates the birth of a man who lived in poverty, sacrificed for others and cleansed the temple of moneylenders. Christmas celebrates the birth of a man who lived off the kindness of strangers once his ministry started, and walked in peace with prostitutes and the poor.
The real war on Christmas is being waged by those who make obscene profits off the celebration of this simple man’s birth. The real war is seen in the videos of people pepper spraying each other to get to the latest electronic geegaw being offered for sale at a time when people should be sitting around a dinner table with their families thanking God for their blessings. The real war on Christmas comes from those companies who look at this season and see nothing but profit at the expense of those workers who would like to be with their families but fear losing their less than living wage jobs if they object to spending the day amidst a horde of greed crazed consumers.
I have no problem with the idea of a mid-winter festival. Especially here in Alaska where it is dark and cold and often dreary in December, this kind of celebration brightens the long winter night. But let’s call it what it is and stop pretending it has anything to do with the birth of the Christ child.  Call it Saturnalia, the feast the Christ child’s real birthday was moved to replace. Call it a winter festival of lights and gifts. Call it anything but what we now pretend it is.
Let’s end the war on Christmas by going back and re-examining what Christmas should really be about. If Christ walked this earth today, I don’t think he’d be found huddled in front of Best Buy waiting to mace his fellow man to get to the Play Station first. He would be standing with the strikers demanding they be paid a living wage. He’d be expressing his outrage at workers being told by their corporation to cut their food into smaller bites if there isn’t enough because that way it will seem like more (this from McDonald’s!). He’d be behind the counter carving the turkey at any soup kitchen in town. He’d be standing with the poor, not the rich.
Let’s end the war on Christmas and make it a true celebration of Christ by foregoing “things” and instead demanding the end of corporate welfare and the start of living wages for those with whom he walked. It’s the best present anyone could give the Christ child.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:21 AM •
Thursday, December 05, 2013

The stories could not have been better positioned on the front page of Sunday’s ADN to express what I think of as the yin and yang of life in Bush Alaska. The story of a tragic crash near St. Mary’s and the subsequent heroic efforts of village people to reach the crash and help the survivors, juxtaposed against the story of bootleggers and bootlegging in my old hometown. There you have in, in stark black and white, life in Alaska’s villages.

Living in a small Alaskan village is a window into both the best and the worse of human nature. Statistic after statistic shows the worse – the highest rates of violence, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, suicide. Based on that view of village life, many people question why anyone would want to live there. For some, the good of village life simply doesn’t outweigh the bad.
But there is another side to village life. It’s the side I find myself explaining over and over again when people ask how I could have lived in one for almost 30 years. You may find it annoying that everyone always knows your business, on the one hand, but on the other hand it sure comes in handy when life takes a rough turn and you find yourself surrounded by people offering to buffer you in every way possible from that roughness. When tragedy strikes in small villages, the villages respond as one with love, compassion and help. In the case of the recent plane crash near St. Mary’s, the response included courage and commitment to saving lives by venturing out in frightening winter weather to find the crash and save whoever they could.
No one asked if the people on board the plane were villagers. No one asked if they were Alaska Native, Caucasian, African American or Martian. It didn’t matter. They were human beings in trouble and village people responded from a sense of common humanity. Living in a remote village means knowing how often you are on your own to handle a tragedy while the outside world tries to reach you. So banding together to care for each other is second nature. It may be your neighbor’s turn today to need help but tomorrow may be your turn.
I’d guess that some of those rescuers are the same people who end up in articles about the prevalence of substance abuse and domestic violence in Alaska’s villages. Few of us are all hero or all villain. Most of us are an amalgamation of good and bad impulses and actions. The same man who may beat his wife when drunk is quite possibly the first person on his skidoo racing to the scene of a tragedy. The yin and yang of village life makes facile labels useless.
Ultimately you can’t tell the story of Alaska’s villages without recounting the heroism along with the horror. You can’t ignore the fact that the same people are often featured in both scenarios. So when people ask why we shouldn’t just jail the perpetrators of abuse and throw away the key, the answer is that life is not writ in big letters of black and white. Life is writ in shades of gray that just make it all the more difficult to deal with the problems besetting our villages.
I lived for almost thirty years in Barrow and during that time I saw both ends of the spectrum and all the spaces in-between. I stayed because ultimately I saw the strong core that is still the center of village life, the impulse to pull together when needed, to help your neighbor, to feed your people. I saw that in stark relief against the violence and abuse that all too often pervaded village homes. And I believed then, and still believe now, that the strength of the culture will eventually triumph.
The people from St. Mary’s who risked their own lives to find the crash site and help the victims were probably not all angels. Some probably had criminal records. But the human impulse to help when the need arises despite the personal risk is still inside them. That’s the part that needs to be tended, encouraged and grown. Once it blossoms fully again, the horrible statistics that seem to define Bush Alaska today will start to wither and, eventually, disappear.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:27 AM •
Thursday, November 28, 2013

Some years when Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself at a loss for something new to be grateful for. Until this year I considered the continued health and good fortune that generally blesses my extended family and friends a given. But the past twelve months have changed my outlook. This year taught me just how fragile existence can be.

It started early in the year when my cousin found he had a significant aneurysm and valve problem that would require open heart surgery. This is the cousin who shared my youth and my college years, if not my college activities. This is the cousin that stands only slightly below my brother in my hierarchy of men I truly love and admire. And speaking of brothers, soon after my cousin’s diagnosis my brother went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a simple procedure endured by men of a certain age only to find that he too had an aneurysm and valve problem that would need open heart surgery.
So I spent a good deal of the spring and summer hanging by my phone and e-mail waiting for updates and sweating out the days of their surgeries while making all those promises to a deity that may or may not exist about how wonderfully I’d live my life if only She’d let them be ok.  In the end, they were. Both came through with flying colors. I then promptly came down with shingles. I’m pretty convinced my illness was directly related to their surgeries as I was a stressed out mess before it was all over. Yep, I am so my mother’s child except for not taking the pills that helped her through each day.
Then, just when I thought I could take a deep breath, a dear friend who is an integral member of my Alaska family announced she had finally scheduled her double mastectomy. She’d already had one bout of breast cancer and had that gene that makes new cancers close to inevitable. As violent as the solution may seem, removing both breasts is the safest method we currently have for reducing that chance to close to zero.
All the pink ribbon runs and campaigns and celebrity spokespeople in the world cannot bring the reality of breast cancer and its devastation as close to home as the simple fact of someone you know having both breasts removed as a way to get ahead of the curve. Despite all attempts at humor at our lunch before the surgery – we called it the “Off With The Old, On With The New” luncheon in honor of her planned reconstructive surgery – nothing could disguise the fact that she was about to undergo something that we all secretly prayed we’d never have to face. That she could face it with such grace, dignity and, yes, humor is a testimony to her strength and the strength that all women facing this surgery must have to survive.
My friend came through her surgery ok, much as my brother and cousin did. She still has a long road to travel but she travels it without the constant fear of what will be found on her next mammogram. And my brother and cousin are both fully engaged with their lives again with not a lot to show for their ordeal but some very interesting scarring on their chests and a greater appreciation of each day’s pleasures – not that they’d ever admit that. In my family, sentimentality is viewed with the same suspicion with which you’d eye a mole on your skin that was changing color and growing.
So this Thanksgiving I find myself with a whole new appreciation of those things I have taken for granted before. I no longer just assume my family will always be whole and intact. I am now extremely grateful that it is and find myself hugging family members just a little closer each time I see them. I’m grateful that I have friends with the courage to face the future and do what has to be done in order for us to have many more summers of long walks and talks in which we solve the problems of the world.
I wish you and your families all a happy Thanksgiving full of turkey, stuffing, yams, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and friends and family who make your life complete.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:24 AM •
Thursday, November 21, 2013

I can still vaguely remember saying, with fervent conviction, “Never trust anyone over 30”.  Based on that theory, I should have packed it in a long, long time ago. But I didn’t. Instead, I wake up each day amazed at how much of my life has passed while I am still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up.

The passage of time is ground further into my consciousness when I get calls from friends who callously announce that my 50th high school reunion is on the horizon and want to know what month works best for me to go East to attend. My first reaction is to hang up because clearly this is nothing but a cruel prank. Then I look in the mirror and it occurs to me that perhaps the years have passed. Either that or I have aged amazingly badly for a 29 year old.
One of the things that seems to be occurring more frequently as the span between graduations and today lengthens is that I find myself thinking of the people I was young with, the friends I dreamed with when the horizon was limitless and the future held nothing but the fulfillment of our wildest hopes. I wonder what happened to them and how their dreams matched their reality.
I recently contacted my college roommate, someone I hadn’t seen in over 40 years, to find how life turned out for her versus how she dreamed it would. Before even meeting we agreed that no matter how horrified we were with how old the other person looked, we would both insist that neither of us had aged a day since graduation. Then we would get on with the delicate task of exploring just how things had gone versus what we’d hoped for in those long ago late night conversations.
The first thing you need to understand is that, from the get go, our friendship was an odd coupling. She was engaged to a Marine ROTC officer. I was fully engaged in the anti-war movement. It being the Vietnam years, that should have created a wide chasm. But it didn’t. Now, all these years later, her husband is a retired Marine and college administrator enjoying golf and Fox News. She is clearly passionate about wildlife conservation, environmental issues and possibly politics.
Given her husband’s favorite TV channel, it was inevitable that we’d get into quite an animated discussion of politics and politicians. Our viewpoints were, for the most part, universes apart. Our “discussion” was loud and lively, punctuated by looks of exasperation, surprise, shock and lots of laughter. That’s right, folks, laughter. You see, when you have a basic affection and respect for the person sitting opposite you, you can have disagreements that are kept civil, lively, stimulating and non-lethal. This is clearly a lesson our politicians have forgotten, assuming they ever knew it.
Democracy can survive only if we are willing to work together, compromise when necessary and keep in mind that all parties have the best interests of the country at heart. And that’s where I think modern politics fails greatly. The opposition is not treated as the “loyal” opposition but as a cabal of freaks bent on destroying the country. Coming to the table to work out differences with this viewpoint foremost in mind clearly dooms the negotiations before they have the chance to start.
I know my roommate’s husband loves his country. He knows I love it too. We could argue and debate all the ins and outs of what is the best way for America to proceed without ever doubting that love. This gave me the incentive to really listen to what he had to say and the ability to acknowledge when he was occasionally correct. (Since I’m the one writing this, he’s the one who gets to be only occasionally correct.) And it gave him the incentive to give my ideas a respectful ear even when he thought I was this side of bat crap crazy.
So maybe our politicians could take a lesson from this. The other side may be passionate about its ideas but approach them with the supposition that they are not passionate about destroying America. Maybe if everyone starts from that point, a common ground can someday be found again.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:05 AM •
Thursday, November 14, 2013

Do you sometimes wonder when we lost the ability to savor silence? Or is that a question asked only by those of us born before the constant cacophony that is our present day world? I’m not speaking strictly of the noise we hear with our ears. I’m speaking about the constant noise that assaults our brains through the electronics to which we are constantly attached.

This thought occurs as I get ready to take a quick trip to see my old college roommate. The trip involves a flight, as do most that start in Alaska. There was a time in the not too distant past when travel meant a chance to turn the noise off and go to a more peaceful place. Now we take all our stress with us, afraid if we disconnect for even a moment our world will go on without us. For some, that would be the final proof needed that they are simply not as important to existence as they’d imagined.
Back in my mostly misspent youth, my sister and I traveled the world. Each year we’d pick some remote location for our vacation, one usually guaranteed to send our family to an atlas and our mother to church to light candles towards our safe return. I enjoyed these trips immensely. I got to spend time with my sister, one of my all time favorite people, and I got to give my brain a break.
You see, kids, back in the pre-historic days of plane travel, back when the airlines actually treated you as though they were happy to have you onboard by plying you with food, drink, blankets and pillows FOR FREE, being in a plane meant being disconnected from all that you knew or thought you knew. You could read a book in perfect silence and savor every word and plot twist. There was no pressure to make a phone call, clean up a spreadsheet or feel guilty about totally blowing off all work anxieties. Your only responsibility was to hold your breath during landings so that they were safely accomplished.
Once Judy and I arrived at whatever exotic locale we’d chosen, our brains’ vacation continued. We had no electronics attaching us to the world we’d left behind. We spent no time looking for a wi-fi connection or texting and e-mailing to our work. We actually took a vacation, one in which we were totally absorbed in the often new and fascinating culture we were encountering while totally forgetting that other world in which we existed the rest of the year.
I don’t know what words to use to explain just how amazing it was to be so totally wrapped up in something so completely alien to our experience that the world we normally inhabited faded into almost non-existence. We were entranced by the art, music, language and customs of a world apart from ours, and absorbing those sensations gave us a total break from our daily reality. Getting on the plane to return home was often the most unreal part of the trip. We had to shake ourselves to re-enter the world we’d left behind.
Does anyone nowadays get to have that kind of break? And if they don’t, how do they handle the constant impacts on their brains? Instead of quietly reading that mystery that’s been sitting on the bedside table for a year, people sit on planes staring at computer screens trying to work out budgets. Instead of immersing themselves in the moment in which they find themselves, they search frantically for some sort of connection to the world they paid to leave behind. And their brains never do get a real vacation.
When I get on a plane, I carry enough reading material to see me through a nuclear winter. I settle back into my seat and go away from everyone and everything. I get lost in a world that has no connection to my reality. My brain smiles as this experience washes over it.
If I had one piece of advice to the younger generation, it would be this. Don’t be afraid of disconnecting. Don’t be afraid of the sounds of silence. And for goodness sake, put that stupid cell phone away. Believe me, you will find joys beyond your expectations on the other side of the off button.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:25 AM •
Thursday, November 07, 2013

I grew up in an era when you did not say anything if someone lit up a cigarette in your house.  In fact, ashtrays were a ubiquitous part of the furnishings of just about every home I ever entered, whether the homeowners indulged or not. Smoking was a socially acceptable norm.


This all changed, not because laws were instituted that forbade smoking in public places, but because those laws followed an attitudinal change that empowered people to protest being forced to inhale the noxious fumes of someone else’s exhales. The laws we now accept as the norm that ban smoking in public places would not exist had not society’s attitude towards smoking changed first. Societal pressure is ultimately one of our strongest motivators for change.
This year at AFN and the AFN Elders and Youth Conference, we glimpsed a shift, a slight movement that could be the portent of a sea change in attitudes towards substance abuse and domestic violence. A group of young people got up and spoke bravely and openly about what it was like to be brought up in dysfunctional homes. They spoke of substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide from an intimate perspective.
They had the courage to call out people craving the title of Elder, with all the respect that comes with that designation, who had spent their lives drunk and abusive and felt that simply surviving until their sixties entitled them to those privileges. These young people had the unimaginable courage to say that simply no longer worked, that they would no longer stay silent and pretend that these older people deserved a respect they’d never earned.
These young people had to return to their villages and their families after the conference and I’m guessing that some of them would not exactly be treated as returning heroes for speaking truth to power. Instead, they might find an already difficult existence made even more difficult by their honesty in describing what life was really like for them. Their testimony to reality made it clear that speeches about cultural values and life are nothing more than meaningless sounds if not accompanied by the courage to walk the walk and live clean, sober lives. It is hard to feel pride in your culture when your culture is predominantly viewed through the keyhole of your bedroom door watching yet another drunken and violent night unfold in your home.
The other seismic shift seemed to occur when Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Issac spoke aloud the truth, all too often only whispered, about the wall of silence that surrounded the actual lives being lived by leaders who purported to uphold traditional values. He broke both the silence and the hypocrisy that surrounded Native leaders who encouraged sobriety and traditional values publicly while privately living a life the diametric opposite of those values. Like with Elders who feel they should automatically be accorded respect because of their age despite the wreckage they left behind them due to the life they lived, so too were some leaders of the Native corporations and traditional governments leading lives that should have accorded them no respect or responsibility. But people looked the other way and pretended all was fine.
All of us who have learned just how amazingly wonderful Alaska’s traditional peoples and cultures can be when they are truly living their values can only be heartened by this change. The fact that it comes from those most affected, the fact that the cone of silence has been breeched and the words said out loud about the reality of life in far too many village homes, will hopefully be the start of change.  Eventually it can lead to a time when being drunk, being abusive, hurting your family and community will be a matter of public shaming by the people affected, people who no longer feel pressured to stay silent and pretend.
Fifty years ago, ads appeared in magazines in which doctors touted the benefits of cigarette smoking. Public approbation changed all that. My prayer is that fifty years from now, this year’s AFN will be viewed as the turning point for Alaska’s First Peoples in tearing down the walls of silence that have made addressing their most pressing problems almost impossible. It can happen. It has to happen. Hopefully the silence, once breeched, will not return.
Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:30 AM •
Thursday, October 24, 2013

One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Here in America, we are treated to the proof of this adage through our ongoing War on Drugs and continuing Congressional budget dramas. It is also fairly evident in our endless Cuban embargo.

This is not meant to diminish the suffering of many, many people under Castro’s regime. But it seems glaringly evident that our embargo did not diminish the Castro brand in Cuba. Fidel has retired and his brother continues to rule the country. Given this reality fifty years after we started our embargo, sane heads would have to conclude that maybe we should try something different.
People from many countries with which we trade can recite horror stories that forced then to flee. Think of the picture of people frantically trying to climb into the last helicopter out of what was then Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese. Those people had been our allies in the war and now they faced horrible retribution if they stayed. Think of the Laotian people brought to America to escape persecution because they had fought the Pathet Lao on American’s side during the war. Cuba does not hold any special record on human rights abuses. It falls depressingly right in the middle of an all too large group of nations that persecute their own people for disagreeing with their government.
So if the embargo isn’t working, what might work? Well, it’s been my experience in travelling all over this world that giving people Coke, McDonald’s and jeans pretty much corrupts any pure socialist ideals they hold. As our guide in Viet Nam said in 1991, “The young generation doesn’t know about the revolution. They just want jeans and rock and roll.”
Cuba today bears all the markings of a country frozen out of economic opportunities. Havana was clearly once an unbelievably beautiful city. But it is now falling apart, balconies crumbling, mold growing up the walls of buildings with stunning facades. American cars of the 1940’s and 50s ply the streets, gorgeously refinished so that their colors gleam in the sunlight. Get close to those cars, though, and you see the rust and torn leather of the interiors. You hear motors that were never meant to be in a 1957 Cadillac convertible because the only engines available to repair the cars came from Japan and Korea.
The tour I took in Cuba was a people to people tour. It’s probably the first country I’ve ever visited where we were never brought to a museum or church or mosque. Instead, we were brought to venues where people gathered who spoke about both the good and the bad of their present situation. Clearly their pride was in their education and health care system. But, as an economics professor said while discussing Cuba’s future, they cannot work their way out of an economic depression on the backs of tourists or doctors graduating from their system and going to work around the world. They need to diversify their own economy.  They know the government cannot run everything. They understand that changes must come.
Imagine if America stood ready to help them make these changes. Imagine if those Cubans who fled the regime so many years ago could come to grips with the fact that it is highly unlikely, under any circumstances, that the Cuban government is going to apologize and give them back whatever was taken. Imagine, instead, how an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and dialog might actually open the door slightly on bringing Cuba into the modern world and eliminating some of those continuing human rights abuses because the eyes of the world would be watching.
Back in the day when I Love Lucy was everyone’s favorite sitcom, at least once an episode Ricky would say, “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do.” Our guide Martin “splained” to us clearly and concisely why so many Cubans would not give up the advantages they now have for education and health care, even while longing for more economic freedom. Unfortunately, we Americans could not offer an equally cogent “splanation” for why we still hold their country in economic thrall with our embargo.
The embargo hasn’t worked for fifty years. Time to move on to another plan.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:51 AM •
Thursday, October 17, 2013

There are a couple of important things you need to know before visiting Cuba. First is that Ernest Hemmingway apparently drank at every bar in Havana. Second is that if you have not been offered rum by 10 AM, Cubans feel they are failing in their hospitality.

Whenever I mentioned going to Cuba, the question most frequently asked was how I’d gotten a visa to go there. Well, pretty much the US Government no longer really cares. Cuba belongs to a distant cold war past. Our continued embargo is simply the product of influential people in Florida still mad that the government took their property fifty years ago. They live with the hope that the Cuban government will return it to them if we maintain an embargo.
What other reason can we have for freezing this tiny island out of full participation in the world’s economy? If it’s because they are a communist country, then explain our very tight economic relationship with China or why we lifted the embargo on Viet Nam. If it’s because of their human rights record, well, see above and toss in Saudi Arabia if you’re a woman.
Cubans seems to be acutely aware that their experiment with socialism is a failure on some levels. On some levels, however, most Cubans would say it succeeded. Everyone has access to free medical care and education. Under the old regime, those were the privileges of only the rich. Everyone now has something, if only a monthly food voucher that assures them they will not starve.
The Cubans we met on this trip made it clear that they never hated Americans despite the embargo. They were warm, welcoming and willing to talk about their hopes for the future. But that future can only happen if American politicians can get over the donations from those rich Miami exiles and extend a hand 90 miles across the sea to a country longing to participate in a competitive economy. Seriously, what do we have to lose?
Nest week, the look and feel of Cuba.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:43 AM •
Thursday, October 03, 2013

I have to assume that somewhere in the world there are governments more dysfunctional than ours. I could be wrong. Unfortunately, the people who are at the top of this pile of congressional excrement are the ones getting not only big bucks, but also gold plated health plans.

The argument over funding government for the next few weeks – at which time we will be treated to a repeat of this boondoggle based on the need to raise the debt ceiling – makes little sense under any circumstance. But in this particular circumstance, the very group causing the shutdown consists of the same people admitting that there is no chance that they will succeed in defunding or repealing Obamacare. They are playing games with our government to make points with their constituents in order to raise money for their next campaign. And this, I am given to understand, is what passes for statesmanship in our current day and age.
To be quite honest, if every member of this little pool of Tea Party candidates agreed to give up their government health care benefits and pensions, I might be willing to listen to their arguments. But they all seem quite content to keep that gold plated benefit in their back pocket while lobbying to deny millions of Americans the chance at affordable health care. Worse yet, the lies and innuendoes they have perpetrated – from the insane “death panels” to the idea that some bureaucrat will now make your health care decisions – are not only mean spirited and wrong, but are scaring people for whom this law will provide the most benefit.
Anyone in this country today who thinks that the decisions made under current health insurance programs are logical, in keeping with your doctor’s recommendations and based on your health care needs should immediately lay down and put a cold compress on their heads because they are hallucinating. Anyone who has ever had to fight for needed treatment for a loved one, only to watch them die as the insurance company dithered around trying to avoid paying for that treatment, can tell you the reality of who makes health care decisions here.
I had someone comment to me that this health care bill would mean lines of people waiting for appointments with doctors overwhelmed by the amount of patients needing care. My response to that argument is simple. If you have diabetes and cannot afford health insurance, six months from now you will still have diabetes and still not have the wherewithal to seek medical attention. If you have even minimal health coverage and have diabetes, six months from now you will still have it but will also be sitting in a doctor’s office where you will get care for your problem. Not getting that care not only ensures an early and painful death for the patient, but also ensures that our emergency rooms will continue to be impacted by problems that could have been averted with some simple preventative treatment early on – to say nothing of the money we consumers will save if the more serious problems can be avoided. Because, like it or not, we are a country that decided a long time ago to not turn ill people away into the streets to die. We demand that emergency rooms see them. And those hospitals pass that cost on to everyone else.
But that’s not a problem for our congressional men and women because they have that aforementioned gold plated health insurance plan, paid for by the same government that has no money for you. Decisions on their treatment will be in the hands of the same government bureaucrats they claim will not be able to make good decisions for you. Yet they keep those plans. Even after leaving office they will have better coverage than the majority of Americans, at no cost.
So what about it, Tea Partyers? Ask your congressional favorite to voluntarily turn away the benefits that former Congresses voted unto themselves. Then come back and talk to me about Obamacare. But meanwhile, admit what really frightens you most is that once it goes into effect, people will like it so much that you’ll never repeal it. Not only that, but they may also vote your candidates’ sorry butts out of office for all the damage they’ve done.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:15 AM •
Thursday, September 26, 2013

When I read what is being applauded in the US House of Representatives as great legislation, I have to wonder when we became a nation of such meanness. It’s not the way I was brought up to believe in America. I was raised to believe that America was a nation of endless possibilities that was founded on a belief in the common good; a nation that cared for its citizens and worked to see that the rising tide raised all boats. It just made sense. Leaving no one behind made us a stronger and better place. It’s why, I was taught, everyone wanted to come to America. You were free to pursue your dreams and you had a government you didn’t have to fear because it was by, for and about the people.

Now that the Supremes have managed to stretch the definition of people to include corporations, we seem to have carried the idea of caring for people to whole new heights. In a world in which you now need to be a multi BILLIONARE to make Fortune 500’s richest people list, our House of Representatives has done its best to make sure that no one takes even one red cent from them, while making major cuts in the Food Stamp program.
The House is the same group that fights any attempt to raise the minimum wage on the theory that every extra cent you make will deprive some corporate CEO of his or her second yacht. The fact that by keeping the minimum wage so minimum you also keep working families from being able to afford both heat and food doesn’t enter their equation. If you can’t afford food when you are working full time, you simply aren’t budgeting your money properly. You’re probably blowing it on silly things like dental care or electricity. And really, why do you need electricity unless you are just wasting it playing video games on your 94 inch TV set that you bought on that minimum wage.
I understand that America is in debt. I understand that we must get our financial house in order if we are to leave a country to future generations that isn’t in hock for the next millennia. What I don’t understand is a mentality that seems to feel the only people who should pay the price for the mistakes of multiple administrations and congresses, to say nothing of the greed of Wall Street, should be people who can least afford it – people who, if cut off from food stamps, may have to start living in their cars because they can no longer pay rent if they want to feed their children. These are our working poor, people one step away from complete destitution even though they are often working multiple jobs to meet their basic needs.
But the same House that wants to cut millions from food stamps screams like banshees if you even whisper the idea of taxing the uber rich. These are, after all, their benefactors, the people who put them in office and keep them there. They can hardly be expected to turn around and bite the hands that feed them. And they certainly can’t let the hungry poor get anyway near those hands for fear they will see nothing more than a protein fix.
We have unaccounted billions of dollars lost on pallets that were sent overseas in small denominations to support countries that actively hate us. Our money did not, surprisingly, buy us the love we so financially sought. Wall Street crashed the savings and future of millions of Americans and no one is being held accountable. Much to the contrary, America’s richest 1% is the group most benefitting from the grindingly slow economic recovery we keep getting told is happening. The rich get richer but the poor are apparently not getting poorer at a fast enough rate for our House of Representatives. So they cut food stamps to hasten the process.
Am I the only one who gets the feeling that the only people the House represents is that newly defined class of people called corporations? And if corporations are people, when is it going to be their turn to have the family over for the holiday meal?
It’s been said before and it bears saying again. Throw the bums out!

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:42 AM •
Thursday, September 19, 2013

There are a lot of very important things happening in the world. Some of those things are making it look like our world has turned upside down. Russia is acting as a peacemaker for goodness sakes. Isn’t that a sign of the end of times?

Yet America is focused on that which truly is, without question, a sign of the end of civilization. I’m of course referring to Miley Cyrus swinging in the altogether on a wrecking ball. I have no doubt if someone had the time or inclination to count column inches, they would find Miley garnered way more than Putin, Obama and Kerry combined.
I did not know Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana. She was popular long after I’d drawn a line in the sand about what I’d watch on TV. So I don’t view her as some sacred vessel of virginity, virtue and innocence. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, if you’re a mother concerned that Miley licking a wrench will cause your little girl to turn into a mini prostitute, you have way more problems than those created by a growing up tween idol.
I was once Miley Cyrus’ age, despite all evidence to the contrary that would suggest I was born old. But I never looked like she does. I was never quite able to achieve that “starved but healthy” image.  Despite that, this is not a column of bitter venom from an old lady who never could, and now never will, achieve that look. Rather, this is a note from an older woman suggesting we all take a deep breath and accept that society will not fail because Hannah Montana has learned how to twerk and, in the process, taught many of us who were blissfully ignorant of it what twerk means.
Getting naked is an age-old method of catching mom and dad’s – and in this case, the world’s – attention when making the transition from youth to adulthood. It is as old as Lady Godiva and as new as Miley. As for those in my generation raising their eyebrows in shocked disapproval, may I ask how you missed the pictures of John and Yoko’s naked sleep in? If my memory serves me correctly, Miley looks a lot better in the altogether than John and Yoko ever did.
Growing up is hard. Maturation is, at best, a messy process. Some of us take the better part of two decades to do it. Others manage in a quarter of the time. And still others seem to have been born old and never need to go through the uncomfortable, and often unseemly, rites of passage needed to get safely moored in adulthood. But for any of us, whether we are the speed racers or the tortoise trying to overtake the hare, imagine how much harder that journey would be if done in the public eye.
I can remember a few outfits I wore back in the day for which I am very grateful that no pictures exist. Unlike Miley, I don’t have to live with my youthful misadventures splashed forever across the public consciousness. Like most of you, I can still blush while remembering them in private and being grateful that I am the only one who probably does remember them.
I think that we sometimes fixate on something like this – a preteen idol growing up as messily in public as the rest of us did in private – because the real issues in today’s world sometimes seem so overwhelming and unsolvable. This weekend at the Miss America Pageant (what? you missed it?) one of the contestants was asked how she would solve the issue of Syria using chemical weapons against its own people. The UN, top American diplomats, Russian and Mid-eastern leaders have all grappled with this question and come up with no satisfactory answer. So we ask a twenty something in a long gown with enough tape holding things in to build a boat what her solution is.
That girl didn’t have the answer. No one that I know has the answer. So instead of beating our heads against the wall in frustration, we fixate on some sad little girl trying to create an adult career so that she won’t be a has-been at 21. Give her a break. Save your energy for the real issues we face.


Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:29 AM •
Thursday, September 12, 2013

Anyone involved in the ongoing alcohol war in Bush Alaska is not at all surprised by recent findings that the alcohol war is about as successful as the drug war.  The problem is that no one seems to be able to come up with a better solution that won’t take a long time for results to show.

Sometimes the problem of alcoholism is simply addiction itself. A person is born with a proclivity towards addictive substances and all the best parenting, schooling and counseling in the world can’t cure that. All you can ever do is control it, a daily struggle.
But often, alcohol abuse is symptomatic of deeper problems over and above the basic addiction. In Alaska, accepting this seems to be the greatest obstacle to overcome before we can sensibly and logically address alcohol created problems.
I was in health care when grants for alcohol treatment programs first started flowing from the state and federal government. At the time, the thinking was that if we could just bring enough “cures” into our communities through everything from AA meetings to inpatient treatment programs, we could make headway against a problem that was clearly destroying families and cultures. We were wrong. Treating the abuse itself should be the last, not the first step taken. The first step taken should be to address the tangled mess of issues that create an atmosphere in which alcohol becomes an attractive alternative to a sober life.
I can understand the appeal of controlling the flow of alcohol into a village. It seems to be intuitively a simple and direct response to the problems that alcohol causes. Simply stop the flow and you stop the problem. But the problem is not simply alcohol. And people who want to drink will be more creative than we can possibly imagine in getting their hands on their preferred substance. Alcohol continues to be abused at about the same rate as it was when all those grants started flowing more than three decades ago.
Aside from what it would cost to explore the myriad issues that tangle together to wreak havoc on Bush Alaska’s quality of life, there is the issue of defining what those problems are, how they interconnect and what, if anything, can be done to resolve them. It’s the kind of complicated problem that does not lend itself to simple slogans (“Just Say No”), simple legal controls (wet? damp? dry?), or 30 day treatment programs.
While I can’t speak to the dynamics in urban Alaska that create such high levels of substance abuse, I can certainly speak to the difficulties of village life. Young people, geographically isolated, are inundated through the explosion of TV and Internet accessibility to a world that seems so much more desirable than the one they inhabit. Elders watch young people getting drunk, using drugs, spending all day in front of a TV or computer or game box and wonder how to get them more involved in their culture. Many of these Elders spent most of their adult lives raising these children while drunk. The respect they think should automatically accrue to them based on reaching the age to be called an Elder rings hollow to the young people who remember the alcoholics who raised them. Sobering up at 60 doesn’t forgive the lifetime of problems you left behind.
Alaska is cold and dark a lot of the year. Our villages are limited in their participation in a moneyed economy. There are few jobs available. Cultures that have lasted millennia teeter on the edge of extinction, along with their languages, because that X Box is simply more attractive than the future outside the front door. Shot through all of this are the devastating threads of generational family dysfunction as child abuse, spousal abuse and alcohol abuse continue to be the norm in all too many Alaskan families.
The problem is complex. Its solution is a long term effort that does not provide the instant gratification of simply banning alcohol from a community. Unfortunately, Americans are not famous for having the patience this problem requires. So I imagine we will continue to ban alcohol in some communities and continue to wonder why the simple fix doesn’t work.
The answer is that the problem is too complex for our current attention span.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:08 AM •
Thursday, September 05, 2013

It’s hard to explain to people who have never lived in a small village in the Alaska Bush how you can mourn the loss of a restaurant almost as intensely as you would mourn the loss of a friend. But I’m going to try because Pepe’s was more than just a Mexican restaurant in Barrow.

When I first moved to Barrow, there were two restaurants in town. One was Al’s Eskimo Café. It was open year round. The other was Brower’s Café. It opened only during tourist season when it served reindeer soup and an Eskimo donut in an atmosphere redolent of past Arctic expeditions.
Then came Pepe’s – a Mexican restaurant run by this positively insane lady and her equally insane cook, Bob Green. They put out food the likes of which Barrow had never seen or experienced before. And Barrow fell in love with it. By the time Pepe’s moved from its original location to the location that recently burned down, it was well on its way to becoming the center of town.
A lot of restaurants have opened and closed in Barrow in the years since Pepe’s served its first tacos. Some were good. Some were bad. None was ever able to achieve the iconic status of Pepe’s and that was, over and above all other reasons, because of Fran Tate and her particular take on how to treat the community whose appetites supported her restaurant.
Fran believed in giving back and give back she did. She gave gifts to every newborn; she sent food to every funeral. She participated in every July 4 parade dressed in the most outlandish American flag outfit ever seen while tossing candy out of the back of the truck on which she rode. She hosted a jazz radio program on the local radio station for almost 30 years. The Rotary Club met in her restaurant. She organized the official Polar Bear Dip each year. She kept a book in her restaurant for visitors to sign and then piled them high with Pepe tchotchkes. Every year she sent personally signed holiday cards to every name in that book.
Pepe’s had Taco Tuesdays and Lady’s Half Off Dinners night on Wednesday. If you were a senior, a piece of pie and a cup of coffee were always free of charge. And if you invited Fran to your house for any reason, you pretty much knew she wouldn’t show up but a tray of appetizers from Pepe’s would. Quite frankly, there was no celebration in Barrow that was considered complete until that tray arrived.
Since Pepe’s was connected to the biggest hotel in town, it’s where almost every visitor or businessperson who landed in Barrow had at least one, if not more, meals. While you sat there eating, you could gaze at the wall full of t-shirts and sweat shirts for sale. My favorite was the Elephant Pot Sewage shirt. It’s motto, if my aging brain recalls correctly, was “We clean up your act so you don’t have to.”
When the no carbs, only protein diet was all the rage, two friends and I used to go to Pepe’s for Sunday brunch. Fran would see us coming and grab a big plateful of bacon and send it to the kitchen to be made extra crispy. Deb, Kim and I would then sit there through innumerable cups of coffee and ungodly amounts of bacon while visiting with Fran. That’s the only way you actually got to visit with her. She constantly made the rounds in the restaurant, refilling coffee, chatting with customers, making the whole place feel more like a family dining room than a restaurant.
Fran may be getting on in years – I’m not putting a number in here because I don’t want her to whack me when I go to see her this afternoon – but when she says she’ll rebuild Pepe’s, I believe her. Because you can’t kill the spirit that created a Pepe’s. She may have lost irreplaceable memorabilia – the signed picture from Johnny Carson commemorating her appearance on the show, the ivory tusks, the wall full of pictures of birthday and wedding parties that happened over the three decades of its existence – but she didn’t really lose Pepe’s. That’s a place that exists in her soul. And her soul will not be squelched.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 03:24 AM •

Page 1 of 4 pages  1 2 3 >  Last »

Subscribe to My RSS Feed: RSS 2.0