It’s that time of the year when I get to list out my top peeves for the past twelve months. I do this in the hope that those of you responsible for some of them will make a real effort this year to clean up your act.
Being an Anchoragian, I must, of course, start my list with a rant against many of our lovely local drivers. If I have one dream left in life, it is to die with my feet on, in my own bed, surrounded by my loving pets and family. I sometimes feel as though there is a cabal of Anchorage drivers who have secretly pledged to see that never happens.
They have apparently had special traffic rules passed in the dead of night under a cloak of secrecy just for them. Foremost among those special traffic rules is a blanket exception to ever actually being required to use a turn signal. This is not so bad in the summer when I have at least a prayer of slowing down in time, but in the winter it’s enough to make me sit up, breathe rapidly and see most of my life flash before my eyes while understanding just what a tremendous asset anti-lock brakes are.
While we are on the road, so to speak, let’s discuss some issues of common courtesy for people who walk or ride a bike. Now I realize that here in Anchorage both those concepts are considered pretty radical but there are those among us who have not yet been able to totally walk away from our radical 60s past. We choose to continue to defy conventional wisdom and the Establishment by occasionally using alternative modes of transportation.
Drivers should show some courtesy in passing a walker or bike rider by slowing down, not speeding up as though fearful that we have a disease that is somehow contagious through a closed car window. Not only does slowing down lessen the risk of impact and death, but when it is wet out, it lessens the chance that I will come home covered from head to toe in mud and slush.
And one last mention in the vehicular category - a red arrow means don’t go. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been waiting in the turn lane through one light already. Sometimes you have to wait through another one before you get to the head of the line and can turn. Once that green arrow has turned red, you need to stop trying to go through the intersection. More importantly, you need to not honk obnoxiously at the person in front of you who actually does stop when the arrow turns red.
And making yet another appearance on my list this year are loose dogs being walked by owners who haven’t a clue what the words “control of your animal” really means. They apparently think that if their dog comes bounding up to a perfect stranger who is standing in the middle of the path holding her dog over her head while both dogs bark and the strange dog jumps up and down, they have the dog in perfect control if they say, “He’s really very friendly”.
It is also not control if after calling and whistling for your dog, you actually have to come over and peel him off me while yelling, “Down, boy”. If a dog does not walk by your side or return to you at your first command no matter what other distraction there may be, you do not have control over your dog. End of story, no other explanation required. And if you want to walk your dog unleashed in an area not designated for that use, then you better have a good plan for instantly leashing him when someone approaches. While your dog may be friendly, mine may not be and if I have mine under control, it just seems unfair that I’m the one who ends up in the middle of two snarling canines.
Having vented all that, let me now list my top reasons for why my life this past year has been very good. It’s simple. I live in the best state in the union surrounded by the best people in the world amidst land that brought tears to God’s own eyes after he created it because of its beauty. I walk with moose and commune with eagles. I have some of the best and some of the funniest politicians in the whole world representing me so I’m never bored. I am blessed to have my little family of critters intact. My dog is going to be 16 years old this spring, so I’m truly grateful that his spot is still occupied.
And I’m grateful to all the people who read this column and take the time to let me know they appreciate my efforts even when they don’t always agree with me. Being an Alaskan columnist means always knowing exactly how your readers feel about you. You make me feel very special.
Happy New Year! (Wow, a holiday greeting I can utter without fear of offending...I think.)
As the debate over Christmas in stores continues, I have what I think is a great suggestion. Why don’t we put Christmas back in church and ask the stores to butt out altogether? This way, there may be the semblance of a hope that our children will grow up understanding the true meaning of Christmas. And no matter what the commercials tell you, it isn’t to beat your siblings out by getting the most presents under the tree.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. I was always taught that at a birthday party it was the honoree who got the presents, not the guests. This would logically lead to the conclusion that the money spent on booze, lights, trees, parties and gifts should instead be given to your chosen place of worship as a gift to the birthday boy. They, in turn, honoring the true meaning of Christ’s life, would use those things to help the less fortunate among us. I mean, honestly, isn’t that the real message Jesus brought to the world?
Just about every culture and society since recorded history began has had some kind of midwinter festival. Maybe it was the darkness causing people to need a reason to celebrate. That’s certainly something we can relate to here in Alaska. Or maybe it was a way to recognize the shortest day of the year and celebrate the fact that from then on there would be a rebirth of the world as the sun and warmth slowly crept back. Whatever it was, midwinter is a traditional time for festivals and celebrations going back even farther than the Druids and moving up throughout history.
So I have no problem with a midwinter festival. But let’s call it that. Let’s have all the traditions and ceremonies we want surrounding it. Buy expensive gifts for your loved ones or get drunk at parties or overeat at sumptuous meals - whatever works for you. But let’s not pretend this has anything to do with the birth of a child two thousand years ago who came with a message that is the antithesis of the celebration we now claim to hold in his name.
There was no Christmas tree or snow in Bethlehem. There was no jolly fat man in a red suit riding on a sleigh. There were no reindeer or elves. There was a baby who came with a simple but powerful message about love and redemption and living a life dedicated to making the world a better place. There was a mother and father who loved and protected him and celebrated the joy of their first child. There was the example of family and caring and making do. There was nothing that would ever lead from that scene to the Neiman Marcus Catalog of Obscenely Expensive Gifts.
So I don’t want Christmas back in the stores. I think saying happy holidays there is just fine. After all, that phrase encompasses whatever anyone might be celebrating at the moment whether they are Christian, Jew or Wiccan. Keep the phrase Happy Holidays in the stores amidst their overabundance of material goods and glitter and trinkets. Christ doesn’t belong there. The Christ we learn about in the Bible would probably only ever be found there if he was begging for alms to give to those even poorer than he was.
I think it’s time to divorce the real Christmas from the holiday celebration held in the middle of winter. Let that celebration be what it is - a time for families and friends to get together, share a meal, visit, laugh...whatever. And let’s put Christ back in Christmas and Christmas back where it belongs - in the hearts and souls of those of us who believe that the message we got over 2000 years ago can’t be found in a mall.
So if you want to hear the words Merry Christmas and have them hold the true meaning of the holiday, go down to your local shelter or soup kitchen and say it to all the people there. Then roll up your sleeves and pitch in to help. You’ll be closer to Christ and the meaning of Christmas there than you will ever be anywhere else in this town. And then when you’re done, head to Café Loco and wish Bobbie a Merry Christmas while she warms you with a latte so she won’t be so lonely on the holiday.
As for me, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays - whichever you personally find less offensive.
In the best of all possible worlds I probably wouldn’t have to actually say this. But I feel compelled to because, alas, no one has realized the wisdom of making me dictator for life of the world and so it is not a perfect world. Anyhow, here’s what I want to make sure everyone is very aware of this holiday season. Pets are not fashion accessories and most animals, given a choice, would not travel inside a woman’s handbag while she shopped, ate or otherwise occupied what is obviously way too much extra time on her hands.
I still find it hard to believe I have to point this out. After all, this is a trend started by Paris Hilton. Paris Hilton, for god’s sake, a woman famous for being famous and making an infamous sex tape. That, and starring in a relatively stupid and ultimately insulting show on a cable channel, are her claims to fame. Is this really a person intelligent people should be looking to for anything, let alone advice about living creatures.
Paris started out with a dog and has since graduated to a variety of small exotics so that she has one in every color she can possibly ever need to match her ever-changing fashion sense. I can only wonder what happens when the color that particular animal matches goes out of style. Does she toss the animal out as easily as she tosses last year’s scarf out?
Pet fads are nothing new. When the Beethoven movies were popular everyone wanted a St. Bernard. When 101 Dalmatians hit the screens, everyone wanted a fire truck dog. And when the moment passed, many of these dogs ended up in shelters facing a very uncertain future because people had shopped for cute and trendy as opposed to really seeing the dog and his needs.
St. Bernard’s drool...and drool...and drool. And then, when it’s a long ropy thing hanging from their jowls, they shake their heads. If you weren’t planning on having your walls spackled with dog yuck, your St. Bernard was probably one of those dropped off at a dog pound or with a rescue group. Dalmatians are high-energy dogs that need lots of exercise. As a rule, they are not like big floppy Labs who will let children climb all over and grab them using any part handy at the time. So a lot of Dalmatians, once they stopped being cute puppies, endured the same fate as the St. Bernard’s did.
Don’t get me wrong. Both St. Bernard’s and Dalmatians are wonderful dogs if you get them for the right reasons and fully understand what it is you are taking on. Birds often suffer the same fate. Someone thinks it would be cool to have a pet that talks and so they buy a parrot without first checking out what needs that parrot might have. They don’t read up on the fact that parrots can be loud and live to be over 60. And when they get the bird home and find out that not every parrot is a talker but every bird does make noise, the bird gets dumped or passed around or, worse yet, put in a back room where it won’t bother them and is left to pluck itself bald and mutilate its body out of boredom and sadness.
So this holiday season, do yourself and your furry and feathered friends a favor and don’t impulse buy a pet. If you think your home is ready for one, you can have a picture and a gift card under the tree for your family detailing the dog, cat or bird you will be getting. Then, when the holiday season is over, the tree is down and the decorations are put away, go get your new friend. You’ll have the time to spend with him without resenting the time he takes from you busy holiday schedule. You, your pet and your family will be the happier for it.
And for goodness sakes, find a better role model than Paris Hilton. Don’t buy a Chihuahua to carry in your purse or bag because you think you’ll look cool. You won’t. You’ll look cruel, but not cool. Animals are living things, not fashion accessories. They eat, sleep, poop, and love. They like walks and chew toys and time with their special person. And they need to be cared for till they die which may not be for a very long time.
So if you want to carry something in your purse, buy a wallet. If you want a devoted friend who will love you like you’ve never been loved before, get a pet. And then treat it like a pet, not a purse accessory.
The December 1, 2005 issue of this paper carried a letter to the editor from a gentleman who wanted to know why none of the victims rescued from neglect and abuse through the Office of Children’s Services have come forward to defend OCS and praise the actions that were taken in their name. I read the letter and sighed.
In all my life, I never wanted to end up as the defender of OCS. On a good day, in my capacity as a GAL, I can be as angry and frustrated with the services and staff as any other person trying to find their way through that bureaucracy. There is obviously always room for improvement in any agency and I think that OCS probably has a larger margin for improvement than just about any government entity short of the US Congress. But even under the best of circumstances, waiting for victims to come to the rescue of OCS, except for rare instances, is an exercise in futility.
The problem is that kids, being kids, tend to want to be with their mother and father no matter how bad mom and dad might be. While they might be relieved to be rescued from an abusive situation at the time the abuse is occurring, the next day they want to go home. And inevitably their parents are sober the next day, or the day after that, or the week after that, and they promise the child to never drink again or do drugs again or hit them with hammers again or let their friends use them sexually again. And because that parent represents home to the child - remembering that no matter how bad that home might seem to us, it’s the only one the child knows - he or she believes and wants to be returned.
And who is it that gets the unenviable job of standing between that child and his parents? Yes, that ever-popular all occasion pińata, the social worker. While mom and dad, often still reeking of their hangover, promise the children pie in the sky, it’s the social worker who stands there and says the kid can’t go home until the parents have done something more impressive to improve their lives than stay sober for six hours. From the kid’s perspective, the social worker is the meanie.
Here’s another reason why you won’t get a lot of “saved” kids praising their childhood spent in multiple foster homes, group homes and institutions. Because they liked it better at home where they could drink and smoke with mom and dad, often starting way before they were 10 years old, and had no rules imposed. They could do what they wanted, when they wanted, so long as they were smart enough to stay out of sight when mom and dad got to that point of messed up where they got mean. Being forced into a home with sober people who had expectations for them to actually go to school, obey curfews and stay sober is not something they are necessarily going to thank anyone for.
The pull of home and parents is so strong that I’ve had children immediately head there when they turned 18 even though the last time they lived with their parents was when they were 8 or 9, and even though those parents allowed them to grow up in foster care rather than make the changes needed to get them back into their home. Again, these kids are not apt to stand up at meetings and do testimonials to the social workers who they view as having kept them from their families.
I sometimes wonder why anyone would go into social work. I’ve talked with many state workers who do it because they know that kids deserve safety whether the kids realize they need it or not. And they stay in the field because every once in a while they find a child who makes it through the system and uses the chance given for a better life to actually make their life better.
It doesn’t happen often. I don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of kids from my caseload over the past twenty odd years who would qualify in that category. But you keep going because every once in a while a kid actually slips the knots of dysfunctional family dynamics and goes on to have a healthy life.
For the rest, if we keep them safe till they are 18 and at least give them the choice of a better life, whether they take it or not, that’s often the best we can do. None of us in this field spends any time waiting around for testimonials from these kids. If that was the reward we needed to get up for work tomorrow, we’d all be in a different business.
When I got my learner’s permit, my parents made it clear that they did not believe in paying for driving lessons. I went to a small Catholic high school that didn’t offer driver’s ed in the curriculum. And if it wasn’t available for free from the school, then they would just have to be the ones to teach me.
So the first few weeks I had my permit, my dad was my designated driving instructor. About once a week, after much begging, crying and sulking on my part, which would cause my mother to start getting a migraine, he’d agree to take me for a lesson. We would drive to a big parking lot in a deserted section of town and I’d drive in circles around the lot. I was never allowed to actually go into the street or anywhere near traffic or a traffic signal.
Needless to say I eventually grew quite frustrated with the pace of my lessons. I felt that before I took the driving test, I should be allowed into traffic at least once. My father agreed with me in principle but was intrinsically unable to put that belief into action. Or, as we would later tell him quite lovingly, he was just a big chicken. It never occurred to me to turn to mom for assistance. Mom, as far as we kids knew, did not drive.
We had only one car for two teenagers, a toddler, and the adults who tolerated them. This caused not a little conflict in the family since dad felt that the station wagon was first and foremost a work vehicle meant for delivering grocery orders to our customers. It was a family car only in the evenings and on Sunday afternoon when the store was closed. The idea of a second car just for family use was right up there with the idea of living in a house as opposed to the apartment over the store. What would be the point? No one in our entire neighborhood had two cars. Most people didn’t have one.
I would probably still have a learner’s permit were it not for my mother’s shopping habit. She had many good qualities but her best was her ability to shop. If there were an Olympics of shopping, she would have had her number retired so that no one else would ever have had to feel like a failure because they couldn’t keep up. Until my sister came along, mom held all the best records in the field.
One afternoon when it was particularly slow in the store, she decided she wanted to go to Blatt’s - the one large department store in Atlantic City at that time. But dad wouldn’t leave his butcher block to drive her and didn’t want our one employee to stop cleaning out the storeroom to give her a ride. So she looked at me, a light bulb went off in her head and I heard her say, “Get the car keys. You’ll drive us.”
That was how I found out that my mother did in fact have a driver’s license and had, in fact, driven for many years in her youth. However, at some point she decided she’d had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t drive anymore. But she never let her license lapse. So I got in the car, pulled out into traffic and suddenly, I was a driver.
As grateful as I was to my mother for allowing me to actually drive, what I remember even more than that is the fact that when I was driving, she spent the entire ride with her hands gripping the dashboard while making sharp hissing sounds as she suppressed small screams every time she felt I wasn’t stopping fast enough for the light at the end of the next block that might turn red before I got to it. This continued even after I reached my 50th birthday.
So when my young friend Greta drove me home the other night, I decided I was not going to do to her what my mother did to me. After all, she’s got a license, she passed the driving test and she even owns her own truck. She obviously knows what she’s doing.
And I’m proud to say that I didn’t leave my fingerprints on the dashboard of the car and I didn’t thrust my foot through the floor applying imaginary breaks. Although I maintained a low level hum the entire way, at no point did I scream. And I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before my pulse converts to normal again and my blood pressure is low enough to actually register on a machine.
But I didn’t make her nervous. I can’t tell you how proud I am of that. I would shout hallelujah about it but I don’t think I’ll be able to make a sound until my lips decompress.
Along with many other Alaskans, I kicked off the holiday season with turkey and ballet. But this year, the Nutcracker was even more special than usual because three wonderful young ladies accompanied my friends and me to the ballet. They were beautiful by any standards you’d like to apply and added to that, they were suffused with the beauty of youth.
When Kate and I first made plans to go to the Nutcracker, we decided on a matinee figuring we’d get away with dressing casual, dining casual and being home soon after dark. Our goal was to be in our PJ’s at a time when, in our youth, we would have barely been starting out for the evening.
But then we hooked up with Elaine and she brought her daughter and her daughter brought two friends. When Elaine called to say they’d all be joining us, she said that the girls were very excited about the outing and had decided to get dressed up for it. I hung up from that phone call and wondered how I had so lost the fun of getting dressed up that I now consciously looked for excuses not to. Here I was, getting ready for a wonderful ballet and dinner and all I could think of was whether I could get away with a nice sweatshirt.
When exactly did getting ready for a fancy night out become a chore because it meant finding a bra that actually held everything up and in place - an exercise that seems to get harder with each passing year? As little girls we had all played dress up. We had all raided our mother’s closet and clomped around in her high heels and beads pretending to be going out for a night at the opera. Now that we had the chance to actually do it, why were we trying to figure out if a sequined sweater over jeans wouldn’t work just as well?
So Elaine and Kate and I decided to let the girls lead the way for us. We too would get all dolled up. We’d make the occasion special by putting away the snow boots and Levis and pulling out the dressy sweaters and fancy pants and shoes that don’t have laces or Velcro.
We all met up at the PAC. The girls took my breath away with their beauty...that and the fact that they were wearing open toed shoes with heels and tops that exposed shoulders over which they had causally tossed tiny shawls and little sweaters. No winter weather was going to interfere with the look they were determined to achieve. No snow on the ground was going to cause them to cover up toes painted special for the occasion. I got chilled just looking at them.
After the performance, we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The girls giggled and squealed as their nylon clad toes sunk into snow piles not yet shoveled away and the wind hit their bare shoulders as we turned corners. Nothing stopped the giggles and nothing stopped their fun. They were looking good, feeling good, and had not a care in the world beyond making it into the restaurant before their toes froze solid. And little by little, with each passing moment, I could almost sense again the fun and excitement of having a reason to be all dressed up with make up on and feeling like the lady I hadn’t quite yet become.
We didn’t have reservations for dinner so we ended up eating in the restaurant bar. The girls all had Shirley Temples. I mean seriously, when was the last time you even thought of a Shirley Temple? They went to the rest room en masse and came back pretty hysterical about the heated toilet seats. They discussed the ballet. They were old enough to be impressed by the athleticism and skill required and young enough to turn bright red at the mention of the male dancers’ tights.
When the evening ended and we said goodnight, I realized that their presence has been like a gift to those of us who accompanied them. It’s easy when living in Alaska to use the snow and cold as an excuse to not make that extra effort to look your best. But every once in a while, it’s nice to remember why we should.
I hope that someday, when these girls are older, they’ll remember this holiday and how they felt and those memories will warm them as much as these memories will warm me. And remind me that dressing up occasionally shouldn’t be a hassle. It should be a joy.
It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this column that I am anything but a holiday person. I tend to hide from Thanksgiving till New Year’s in the hope that I can escape the worse of the holiday cheer without spoiling it for everyone else. But I do like Thanksgiving. It’s the perfect holiday - food without the pressure of gifts.
In my family it always started with clams casino made by my dad with his own special recipe. I won’t give his secret away but I will tell you he didn’t waste any space with breadcrumbs. Everyone would sit around the table as the clams broiled and our mouths would salivate. The trays of clams would appear and people would dive in while they were still too hot to eat for fear that they wouldn’t get their quota. Out in the kitchen, my mother would yell to not stuff ourselves because she had a big turkey yet to come. Dad always made sure he saved some clams for her.
Most of the people who sat around my family’s Thanksgiving table are gone now. Of all those I called aunt, only one remains and Alzheimer’s is slowly taking her from us. But not yet. She still immediately recognizes my voice when I call and we still can share remembrances of holidays past.
I always felt growing up that I was surrounded by pillars that held my world firmly in place. Those pillars were my aunts. I loved all my uncles but this was the fifties and they just didn’t get involved in the day to day running of the family the way men are expected to be involved today. But oh my aunts, how involved they were - not just with their families but with each other’s families. My mother’s best friend till the day she died was one of her sisters-in-law. Throughout my childhood, I have scattered memories of my mother on the phone with one of the aunts discussing the kids, discussing life, making decisions about how to proceed with everything from Halloween costumes to college applications.
Nowadays it’s popular to say that it takes a village to raise a child. When I look back on my childhood, I think of it as being raised by a committee of very strong women who, at some level, scared us all to death. It was one thing to defy your mother. It was another thing altogether when you realized that defiance would make the round of the aunts and you would be answerable at the next family dinner. It made you think twice about just how much sass was safe to express.
Now there is only one of these amazing women left to share my memories with and I treasure every conversation I can still have with her. I’m grateful that the disease has not yet taken her sense of humor. We can still laugh over what we consider the “Zeccardi” traits in the family. She married into the Zeccardi’s and sixty years later is still railing against some of their more frugal ways.
When I spoke to her recently we laughed about how, when my Aunt Louise’s husband died while they were on a trip to Italy, she completed the trip with him following in a box because to change the ticket would have been to incur additional costs. You can’t make stuff like that up. You can only shake your head in amazement that those genes run in your blood and yet you are still able to overcome genetics enough to put out $4 for a latte.
The other day I was gazing out the window as I fed my birds and saw a moose sauntering down the road. He was in absolutely no hurry. He was still fat from the bounty of summer and seemed to not have a care in the world. He stopped at various shrubs for a nibble, sniffed a neighbor’s mailbox as if to assure himself nothing good had grown on it since his last visit and eventually wandered away at that unhurried pace that leaves lines of cars waiting on busy streets during rush hour.
I thought then how grateful I was to have the privilege of living in Alaska. As much as I miss my family, I think I would miss the moose as much. So this Thanksgiving, as I chow down with friends on dad’s clams casino and nona’s sweet bread, I’ll do it with my family in my heart and my heart in the place I love the best. It’s the perfect formula for holiday happiness. I feel lucky to have it. My holiday wish for all of you is that you are just as lucky as I am.
It’s been quite a roller coaster ride for Italians these past few weeks. On the plus side, one of our boys, Samuel Alito, got nominated for the Supreme Court. Italian American mothers all over the country, but especially in the New Jersey/New York/Pennsylvania triangle, beamed with pride as they made their Sunday sauce this week. I know for a fact that some dirt at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Glenside shifted. I don’t think even my deceased family members could stay still with this news.
Italian immigrants who dreamed of a better world for their children and grandchildren once again had their sacrifices validated by this nomination. I mean, Lee Iaccoca and Frank Sinatra were big in their own way, but the Supreme Court? Well, there is nothing else short of an Italian president that says, “We made it in the new world”, quite so well.
However, just when we thought we could beam with pride and maybe, just maybe, sneak in a Columbus Day parade without PC screams heard across the nation, Sylvester Stallone announced he will produce a new Rambo and Rocky movie. That news alone would be enough to set back the cause of Italian Americans throughout this country. But much to all our collective horrors, he also plans to star in them.
Italy and Italians have long prided themselves on their art, culture and science. Jokes about the smallest book in the world being titled “Italian War Heroes” were tolerated because Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Enrico Fermi were all ours. Traveling through Italy is a trip through the greatest that western art and civilization has produced. Seeing the Pieta or the Sistine Chapel, standing back in awe at the altar of St. Peter’s or its encompassing outdoor columns, listening to an aria in Milan’s famed La Scala opera house, is to know just how far the human spirit can soar when coupled with artistic genius.
Viewing a Rambo or Rocky movie just isn’t quite the same thing. In fact, it is so far from the same thing that it can’t even be called the other side of the coin. Spaghetti westerns could be called the other side of the coin. But not Rocky or Rambo.
When the first Rocky came out in 1976, I was young and newly emigrated from Philadelphia. The sight of Rocky jogging through the Italian Market and then up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum sent me into spasms of nostalgia and pride. That first movie had an innocence to it that America needed at a time when we had been shaken by the 60s, the Vietnam War and Watergate. A simple man against all odds appealed to a nation that felt itself on the ropes.
The first Rocky had something else this Rocky won’t have. A young Sylvester Stallone. A young Sylvester Stallone who had a body that just wouldn’t quit and didn’t need to be filmed through gauze to eliminate unsightly signs of wrinkles and aging. It would be one thing if this was a movie in which his son goes for the title that once eluded him. But he plans to somehow convince us that in some weird world, a sixty year old would be allowed to fight for a boxing title. Even George Foreman knew to quit before that.
As for Rambo, has Stallone not heard that we’ve normalized relations with Viet Nam? Is he planning to have Rambo go to the Mideast and fine Osama for us? Does he - oh please Lord, no! - plan to oil his body and wear a bandanna around his head again?
Alito’s nomination should bring a sense of pride to Italian Americans across this nation. Sylvester Stallone’s plans for yet another movie in a series that seemingly gasped its last in a previous century bring a sense of horror. If I were Sly, I’d be very careful how I handled these movies. That dirt shifting over the graves at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery might be a good sign for Alito, but I’m guessing it could be a prelude to horror for him. Until you’ve been haunted by the ghosts of my relatives past, you don’t know what meeting a really scary opponent is all about.
I don’t know why I am still amazed at the vitality of the arts in Anchorage. After all, I was in Barrow when an entire production of the Nutcracker Suite was brought up for Christmas one year. How can I be surprised that in a state where we can accomplish that, we can sustain a vigorous creative community in our biggest city?
This thought occurs to me as I sit here and review a wonderful night of live theater that I just experienced at Cyrano’s. It was two plays of Shakespeare - Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew - each done in 50 minutes with three or less players. It was positively exhilarating. After way too many reruns of the Golden Girls and Friends, and way too many hours seated slack jawed in front of CSI: Somewhere, hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken with such love and command of the language made me realize just how trite most of what passes as culture really is in our world today. And who would have ever thought that Tim Tucker, formerly of Fly By Night fame, could do Shakespeare?
Don’t get me wrong, I still plan to watch reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond and will continue my until now secret obsession with Funniest Animal Videos. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t see them for what they are - fast food for the tired soul, filling but hardly nutritious.
I arrived in Alaska as somewhat of a theater snob having lived in New York City for five years prior to relocating. You can’t turn around in New York without running into some new innovation in live theater. In one day there you can enjoy anything from yet another Fiddler revival to the hardest, edgiest dialog imaginable in a loft in Soho to a delightful version of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. That last one is a sentimental favorite. It was on its original run at the St. Mark’s Theater in the Village when I brought my mother, sister and aunt to see it. It was the first time I remembered my mother and I having fun since my long and tortured adolescence had started.
When I was in New York this fall, I took advantage of the opportunity and saw Spamalot with the original cast. It was amazing. By the time these shows get to Anchorage - well, let’s just say they are not first runs. And yet, and yet.... I would have to say that I have seen theater just as fine in Anchorage and the Valley as I have seen on Broadway, proving that being on Broadway doesn’t guarantee you are good. It just means you found rich angels to back you.
As we head into winter here, we actually head into one of the more active periods of creative life in our city. I already have tickets to the Nutcracker. A friend and I established that tradition the year we moved down here. I make my pilgrimage to the Fly By Night Club with each changing show to see if they have finally found someone who can replace Alice Welling, who does Murkowski better than Murkowski does. (They are getting very close.) I check out the symphonies that will play here since, in my old age, I’ve developed a passion for classical music that I never knew existed (thank you KLEF).
Sometimes there are so many things happening on the arts scene in Anchorage - Anchorage Community Theater, PAC performances, Cyrano’s, Out North, UAA - that it’s hard to pick and choose. And I realize that while I may have left the lights of Broadway, I still live within a creative arts community that is constantly pushing the envelope of excellence while providing the training ground for our next great performers, composers, singers and.... well, whatever it is that those people at the Fly By Night are.
So let the dark season of the City of Lights begin. We have winter sports by day and theater by night. We have skiing and opera, snow machining and ballet. We have it all here in Anchorage and what’s best is that we have a population so well rounded that it supports this tremendous diversity of arts.
We may wear Carharts, but we wear them to the best of performances.
I was in nursing school in the late 1960’s in Brooklyn. Part of our training rotation involved going to a huge mental institution called Manhattan State. It was my first up close and personal view of mental illness.
There were three tall buildings on an island in the river reached by bus. Staff members were instantly recognizable by the keys jangling at their waist. Those keys opened not only doors to units full of the mentally ill but they also opened the elevator doors on the top floors where the most uncontrollable patients were housed. This was a safety issue. Should a patient on one of those floors get to the elevator and press the button, the door still would not open without a key.
As student nurses, we stood out like inkblots on a white shirt. We were warned to be careful about our keys because patients might try to grab them. I spent six weeks at this institution with a death grip on my key ring.
It was about this time that society started to change its position on mental illness. It was no longer viewed as a crime, so you could no longer be forced to accept treatment through incarceration, or be kept incarcerated indefinitely for no reason other than your illness. It was also decided that institutions such as Manhattan State were not the best way to treat people with these illnesses. The advent of drugs that controlled symptoms made the release of patients more palatable. Concomitant with that would be the development of community mental health centers to help the mentally ill remain stable while they lived among us.
As with the best-laid plans of mice and men, this idea didn’t quite work out as envisioned. Patients were released and the infamous institutions that warehoused them became things of the past. But we never did build all the community mental health centers needed to track all the people released. And the drugs worked only for so long as the patients took them. All too frequently, the patients stopped taking them as soon as they felt better from being on them. Or they stopped taking them because they hated the side effects and, on some strange level, missed the companionship of the voices in their heads.
So now, families with mentally ill members face a lifetime of difficult choices. Often, they become so burned out by the constant impact of the mentally ill member on the rest of the family that they stop answering the phone. They simply have no more to give. And they see no real solution in the future. They see only the pattern that has become so familiar and so dreaded.
Their ill family member gets so bad they have to be hospitalized because a judge deems them a danger to themselves or others. Because mental illness is not a crime, this forced hospitalization is of very limited duration. The hospital puts the patient back on the meds that worked so well. The patient responds, the voices fade and the hospital has no reason to keep them any longer. The patient leaves, goes off the meds, get very ill again and the cycle begins anew. Throw in the occasional affinity to drinking and street drugs in some patients and you have a recipe for disaster. AIDS, hepatitis, physical abuse, sexual assaults...all these and many more horrors become the constant companions of the mentally ill on any city’s mean streets.
I don’t know what the answer to this problem is. But right now I am watching a family with a mentally ill member cope with that person’s imminent death, a death directly attributable to years on the streets. They did what they could but ultimately there was little they could do to stop this train wreck. Now they sit a deathwatch and wonder why society couldn’t do more to help them in the exhausting task of living with a chronically mentally ill person.
I’m not looking for a return to those horrible institutions. But between them and release to a world in which their only companions are the voices in their head and people who beat them and give them fatal diseases, there has to be something else.
It’s already too late for some families. But for others, the struggle continues. I wish for them the peace of knowing their loved one is safe. It’s a peace they are not likely to enjoy until we come up with a better solution for those members of our society who are so unable to help themselves.
Until then, goodbye Valerie. I wish life had given you a much better deal.
I hate to have to get mean again but you leave me no choice. So ad people of the world, take heed, STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT! Please, just stop it.
For those of you fortunate enough to not have caught the commercial that caused me to go off the deep end, let me briefly describe it to you and then you decide if it isn’t enough to send most sane people screaming from the room.
A cheery person in winter garb is peering in a store window. Around him snowflakes gently fall and under his arm is a package wrapped in silver and red. Little bells jingle in the distance. The date is October 18.
Now I will concede to you that the word Christmas is never actually used. No carols are played and Santa is never seen. But this is a Christmas commercial nonetheless. Unless, of course, there is some other holiday between now and then that involves snowflakes, festively wrapped gifts and jingling bells.
I once traveled to England with my sister at the end of November. We were very young at the time and only starting to really absorb the fact that the rest of the world was not just a clone of America. But we hadn’t thought that all the way through to its logical conclusion yet. So when we walked the streets of London to shop at Harrods’s and other famous emporia, we were surprised to find them fully decorated for the coming Christmas season.
How rude, we thought, to rush Thanksgiving so much that it was virtually ignored in order to get a week’s more advertising in for the Christmas buying splurge. Where were the pumpkins and scarecrows, the cranberry jelly and the turkeys? Of course, we eventually realized that in England they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and so they were not really jumping one holiday to get a head start on another.
That was over twenty years ago and yet I still find something wrong with the idea of beginning Christmas in October, at least here in America. Call me old fashioned, but I kind of liked it the way it was back in pre-history when October was Halloween, November was Thanksgiving and December was Christmas and everyone respected those boundaries. It gave order to our world and allowed those of us who were not holiday fanatics to take some comfort in the fact that we would only have to listen to Jingle Bells for one month each year.
Now, advertisers have blurred all the lines in the hope of squeezing that extra dollar out of consumers already drowning in debt. Which doesn’t bother me half as much as the fact that by expanding the “holiday” season by almost two extra months, I will be forced to listen to some of the sappiest songs ever created even longer than usual. And that is just plain wrong.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday. No gifts to buy and no one looks askance if you don’t put up decorations. The whole day is centered around a wonderful meal after which you ingest wonderful desserts after which you have seconds so you won’t starve on the ride home. Does it get any better than that? I don’t think so. Which is why I think it’s a crime to give it such short shrift.
I live in dread of the day that Easter decorations go up the day after Christmas and Valentine’s Day just gets lost in the scuffle. I don’t worry about President’s Day. For so long as stores can use that day for sales, it’s safe. But to lose Valentine’s Day?
It’s not that I’m particularly sentimental about the day. After all, neither my birds nor my dog feel obligated to buy me a card. But it is the only holiday besides Thanksgiving that has a perfectly delightful food component. It is a little known fact that you can actually eat chocolate on Valentine’s Day and not gain weight. Do we really want to risk losing this holiday in our rush to Easter? I think not.
So I am begging advertisers, no holiday commercials until at least the middle of November. No presidential candidate polls until the year before the election. And for god’s sake, no sappy songs about elves and bells and snowflakes in a land that equates snow with darkness, cold and ice until absolutely necessary. Give us a break. Please.
My brother’s first girlfriend once told me that it was in my family’s home that she learned that people who love each other can yell and fight and when the yelling and fighting is over, still love each other. She came from a quiet home - something as an Italian I didn’t understand. Apparently in her home you never raised your voice because if you did, the implication was that you would cause an irreparable breech. In my home, if you didn’t raise you voice it meant you had laryngitis from the last family conversation.
This comes to mind because a family I work with said they were told by a social worker that raising their voice and yelling in their home could constitute domestic violence. By that definition, my entire nuclear and extended family would inhabit most of the prisons on the East Coast.
We, as a society, have an obligation to get into those homes where children are being harmed and make sure that the family is not allowed to raise another generation of abused children with the overwhelming potential to become abusers themselves. But like the zero drug policy in schools that leads to second graders being expelled for offering their classmates a tic-tac/pretend aspirin, sometimes we get so rigid and unbending in our attempt to protect kids that we take down the good families with the bad. Yelling that denigrates a child and threatens violence can constitute abuse. But to counsel with a family and not differentiate that from the normal yelling that can occur in a home is, to my mind, in and of itself family abuse.
The law is not a fine tuned instrument. It can often feel like a massive sledgehammer striking all offenders indiscriminately, with no room allowed for a basically healthy family having a bad day.
So when this family reported to me that they’d been told that even raising their voice to their children could constitute domestic violence, they said it with fear in their voice as they realized the potential of the state to invade their home and remove their children - to say nothing of the power this gave their children to dictate how life would be lived in that family.
My grandmother lived her life with a wooden spoon permanently attached to her hand that seemed to be endlessly stirring the pot of tomato sauce that, in one version or another, was always simmering on the back of the stove. Her grandchildren learned early on to respect her skill with that spoon, both as a cooking utensil and as a potential weapon of retribution for transgressions. Run by the stove too fast and startle her? Whap. Before you could sidestep, you were wearing red sauce on your shirt and your mother was going to be distinctly unimpressed with your explanation of how it got there.
Under today’s definition of child abuse, my grandmother would have spent all of her adult life in jail. And jailers all over the East Coast would be wearing sauce stained shirts because we only got that spoon out of her hand when we prepared her for her funeral.
Child abuse and domestic violence are two of the most horrible crimes we face in our state today because there is a direct cause and effect between kids raised in those homes and adults who offend. Given the limited number of human resources our society is willing to pay for, it would just seem to make sense to put them where they are really needed and stop scaring families into thinking that if they raise their voice at their kids, they’ll end up in the system and without their kids. We need to differentiate really troubled families from those good families that hit an occasional rough patch. They are not the same thing and any professional worth their advanced degree will tell you that.
My mother has been dead for four years now and I still hear her voice loud and clear when making certain choices. The way some OCS staff define our current laws, they would still be trying to arraign her for a crime because she didn’t feel she needed to modulate her voice when she wanted to be sure I’d remember the point she was making. I do remember. She’s still my primary source of ethical and humane beliefs. I’m glad she spoke loud enough for me to always hear.
There is a difference between discipline and abuse - whether verbal or physical. Like pornography, it may not be easy to define, but you know it when you see it. It’s time social services allow its staff to use some common sense and professional judgment in recognizing that difference when dealing with our families in Alaska.
When I moved down to Anchorage from Barrow, I was determined to succeed in my own business. I figured I might get bored at times working out of my home office but those few moments of boredom would be more than compensated for by my increased productivity. Not only would I be working for myself - a tremendous incentive to make every moment count in and of itself - but without the distractions afforded by an office community I would have that many more productive hours to give to my business.
What I didn’t figure on was the ability of the human animal to make connections no matter what the obstacles may be. I didn’t count on the fact that in a virtual office, you have a virtual office community that can be every bit as distracting as the one you see in traditional offices. All those people who gave me reason to lift my nose from the grindstone before were still around. They were all there in my e-mail.
The first thing I do when I get down to my office in the morning is check my e-mail. The last thing I do before I put myself and my computer to sleep at night is check my e-mail. My day consists of fits and starts, ten minutes of concentration on my latest project interrupted by 30 minutes of e-mail correspondence.
What makes this the most mind boggling is that I am not talking about time spent opening all the jokes, cartoons, political statements, etc. sent around endlessly by everyone. No, I manage to waste a good part of my day in e-mail conversations over much more important topics. You all know them. What you had for dinner last night, what you watched on TV, what the kid’s teacher said he did that is bringing him one step closer to being a full blown juvenile delinquent, what the latest diet says you can or can’t have for lunch and why this precludes choosing any restaurant that doesn’t include yak milk in the menu. All the normal office topics that are periodically interspersed with comments on why management has their heads where the sun don’t shine.
The only thing that interrupts the e-mail flow is periodic telephonic hearings with the Barrow court during which I find I actually have to pay attention.
When I sit in front of my computer in the morning, the first order of business is to send out e-mail responses to my East Coast correspondents who have already been at work for a few hours and are deeply into conversations that I need to get up to snuff on. My sister’s company has recently been sold and there is much gnashing of teeth over corporate changes and what that might mean to her future employment status. A cousin is about to celebrate a big birthday and is dithering over how to do it - should she go on a cruise, to a spa, to France? This involves much back and forth over the relative merits of each proposal as well as how appropriate each is for the age being reached.
As I finish the first round with my East Coast correspondents, my West Coast correspondents start to check in as do early rising Alaskans. I catch up on who is coming down from Barrow, where they’ll be staying, if they need a ride and when we’ll be meeting for lunch/dinner. Anchorage e-mailers start early in the morning lining up a lunch date. A lot of discussion goes into the latest restaurants in town and whether anybody is feeling particular towards one ethnic food group over another that day.
By this time I’m ready to head to Café Loco, my stand in for the office break room. I pass a few pleasant moments with the staff there and then head home. It’s now about 11 AM and if I’m lucky, I get an hour’s work in before I have to meet my lunch date, head to Curves and get home in time for the afternoon’s e-mail rush. This usually means that the next block of real work doesn’t occur until about 3 PM. By 4 PM, I’m exhausted by all the (e-mail) writing I’ve had to do and feel I owe myself and my dog our walk before it gets too dark.
By the time we get home, it’s 5 PM and my creative juices are spent. I head upstairs to feed my birds their dinner while engaging in scintillating conversation with them that includes mind numbing repetitions of the phrases, “How are you?” “I love you?” “Cao cao?” (apparently the Hawaiian word for food), and, of course, “Give me a kiss”. And I realize that the birds are the only living creatures I’ve had a conversation with all day who were actually in the same room with me.
I’m not sure that’s altogether a good thing.
What with the price of gas nowadays, it would seem that those of us fortunate enough to have friends with bikes who are NOT gloating should be grateful. Because there is nothing worse than an adult in a helmet, riding a bike with more gears than my car, laughing at me as I watch my life savings being depleted while I fill up at the gas station.
Now most bike riders are perfectly nice people. In fact, I have to admit that I am a closet bicyclist. But I don’t want to spread that information too far and wide for fear I’ll be blackballed from the “If god wanted man to ride a bike to work he’d have put a gas engine where his heart is” club. I’ve been a member of such good standing for so many years I’d hate to be tossed out.
I got into biking when I got to Anchorage and realized there was enough time without snow and darkness to actually enjoy it. In Barrow, you have to be way more dedicated than I am ever apt to be to the whole idea that fun can include two wheels, legs pumping madly over icy roads and temperatures hovering at 25 below. For me, that really makes biking nothing more than a sheer endurance contest and I’ll leave that to Lance Armstrong. Here in Anchorage, if you can avoid cars that seem determine to eliminate the competition one rider at a time, bike riding can be quite enjoyable.
I started out with my three wheeler and have now graduated to a two wheeler just because I want to feel a little more grown up. I still have not exactly re-mastered the skills needed for a two-wheeler so I stay in the woods near my home where the only thing I will have to avoid is the occasional angry moose. That is much preferable to the angry driver who doesn’t understand that I don’t have complete control yet over the steering mechanism and spend a lot of time swooping and swerving down the road. The moose is actually more reasonable.
I always thought that once learned, riding a bike was like driving stick shift - it’s something you just never forget. You get on the bike no matter how many years separate rides and in just a few minutes you are back at Grand Prix level. I was very wrong on both counts - and I can only hope my sister will not connect her car’s stripped gears with my visit.
Somewhere between youth and now, I lost my basic sense of balance. (Pause for eruptions of hysterical laughter from my family at the idea that I ever in my life had anything in balance.) When I got on my sister’s two wheeler recently for a ride on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, I quickly realized that I was having a distinct amount of trouble not steering into railings and people As we negotiated the streets from her house to the boardwalk, she’d ride ahead to an intersection and yell when it was clear so that I could sail through without stopping since I can apparently no longer stop without falling over sideways like Arte Johnson on his little tricycle on Laugh In.
You would think that experience would sour me on anything but my trusty tricycle. But I am nothing if not a little stubborn. I’ve decided I should be able to balance on a two-wheel bike despite all evidence to the contrary. So when I got back to Anchorage, I went out and bought a two-wheeler, determined to re-learn how to steer it down a street without looking like a scene from an early Woody Allen movie.
I’ve not yet reached the point where I will take either bike near real traffic. But as gas prices slide up the scale with the ease of greased pigs sliding down a pole, the thought occurs that if I can just conquer this brave new world I can ride my bike to the store and use my trusty little basket to haul my groceries home at a great potential cost savings. And the higher the price of gas rises in what seems like the most blatant price gouging of my lifetime, the more determined I am to find an alternative to paying those ridiculous prices.
I was on the East Coast when Katrina hit and watched gas prices rise to almost $3.50 a gallon overnight - long before the real effect of the shortage could have possibly reached the pumps or created a situation in which any sane cost for that gas could be determined. I knew then that my patience was quickly running out and I needed to find a way to not patronize any group that would see such an overwhelming natural catastrophe as just another opportunity to make an obscene profit.
So maybe my bike riding friends have a right to be laughing at all of us with smug superiority. Their cost of living didn’t double when the price at the gas station did.
Race relations in America have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow laws and “No Natives or Dogs” signs on Alaska storefronts. At least, we like to think they have. After all, Native corporations in this state are now some of the most successful home grown businesses we have. And no one in their right mind would hang a sign on their business excluding any particular race or creed no matter what they might be thinking privately. It’s just not done.
But the fact that private thought and public action may be two very different things means that racism has maybe not so much gone away as been driven underground. And in some places in American, maybe not so underground. In some places, it still rears its ugly head under the guise of nostalgia - souvenirs of a time long past.
I’m not referring to anything so obvious as the Confederate flag. I’m referring to lawn jockeys and pickanniny babies with dark brown skin, big red lips and white eyes. As hard as it may be for some of us to believe, those objects not only still exist, they are sold in many of America’s southern states with tongue not so firmly in cheek.
I know this because friends of mine returned from a business trip to South Carolina recently describing a little brown ceramic pickanniny baby, painted just as described above, with a big piece of watermelon in its hands. These friends tell me that the words,” Charleston, South Carolina” are firmly pasted on the baby’s butt with the words “Made in Taiwan” firmly pasted on the bottom of the little statue. When they questioned the seller, they were told these were “nostalgia” items. One can only wonder whose nostalgia.
On that same trip, these friends found a sign on a stick that had once been a menu in a restaurant. The cardboard on the stick was in the shape of a black face with red lips and white eyes. Does anyone else see a pattern developing here? The restaurant was called the Coon Chicken Restaurant and one of the items it sold was the Coon Baby Special. This menu, a horrifying reminder of a horrifying part of our country’s past, is now sold as a souvenir.
But perhaps most disturbing to me was driving through a place called Longport, New Jersey, just down beach from Atlantic City. Atlantic City is on Absecon Island and Longport is a bedroom community anchoring one end of that island. My sister lives in Margate, another little bedroom community on the island. As we headed to her house one night, she turned down a street and told me I was about to see something that would make my mouth fall open. She was very right.
We passed a house that had a freshly painted lawn jockey on it. There it sat, not directly on the lawn but actually raised up on a pedestal so that it would have greater visibility - as though the new paint job was not enough to make it stand out in a glaringly offensive way.
All the way back to her house I kept repeating, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe anyone would have a lawn jockey on their lawn.”
And then it occurred to me that for so long as people can, with apparent impunity, sell pickanniny babies eating watermelon, and other people can raise their lawn jockey on to a pedestal, the better to be seen by all who pass, then maybe racism isn’t just in our past. Maybe it’s everywhere around us but has just been driven underground by political correctness.
On the one hand, I’m glad political correctness exists if it causes overt racism to be driven underground so that its victims don’t have to be bombarded with those sights on a daily basis. I can’t even begin to imagine how enervating that would be. But on the other hand, if political correctness is driving racism underground without actually rooting it out, then I’d say we have a problem. Not just African Americans or Native Americans, but all Americans.
Because for every lawn jockey still astride a lawn and for every brown baby statue with watermelon sold as nostalgia, our humanity as a nation is diminished. As my mother used to say, you can’t throw mud without having some of it stick to you.