Elise Sereni
     Patkotak
Tuesday, December 28, 2004

On the one hand, I think the approach of the New Year is an appropriate time for me to reflect on some of the weird things I’ve learned about myself in 2004. On the other hand, I keep waiting for the year when these revelations seem more normal than weird. That hasn’t happened yet.  It seems as though I am doomed to be weird till I die.

The first new thing I learned about myself this year is that TV has finally become nothing more than white noise in my life.  I turn it on and pick up my book (magazine, newspaper, crossword puzzle) and become totally unconscious of what’s being said on the tube.
What’s even weirder is that this only works for old sitcoms and David Letterman’s monologue.  Anything else on TV just annoys me and I have to turn it off. Except for the Daily Show, which I watch because it’s the best, if not the only, satiric commentary left in America today.
If I turn the TV off, I become aware of my surroundings and can’t concentrate as well. I need the white noise from the TV to completely escape. So thanks to all the cable channels that make it possible to always find an old sitcom somewhere on the dial.
I also learned this year that I have an absolutely irrational fear that my birds will somehow intuitively know if I am holding back on them during pomegranate season.  Pomegranate season is the three months every fall when my living room looks like a blood bath takes place in it on a daily basis.
My birds go head first into the seeds and come up with beaks red and dripping. Then they shake their heads in a frenzy of joy making sure every floor, window, wall and cage surface reflects that happiness. Captain and CB, who live in a white cage, can create particularly striking images of what appears to be the aftermath of a bloodletting gone bad.
I grow tired of cleaning this mess up long before they get tired of making it. Yet I continue to buy the pomegranates for as long as they are in the stores because I am irrationally convinced that they will know if I shortchange them on the season and will seek revenge. Parrots seeking revenge is a scary concept, as any seasoned bird companion will tell you.
I also found out that despite my advancing years, my brain is still able to shock me with conclusions it throws out to issues I didn’t even know existed till I suddenly had answers to questions I don’t remember asking. For instance, while taking a shower one morning, it occurred to me that my friend Leslie’s grandchildren were named Aden, Brenna and Connor.  ABC.  And it corresponds to their age ranking from oldest to youngest.
Her girls swear this is a co-incidence. I think they’re just playing with their mom’s head, which is not a nice thing to do to those of us not sure how much brain we have left to play with.  Anyhow, we’ll know for sure if the next grandkid is named Damien or Damiana.
Perhaps more frightening, I found out that no matter how old I get, when I’m doing anything that gives me time to daydream, I’m still apt to fantasize about a knight in shining white armor come to rescue me from my mundane existence.  Of course, my knight is older now and has a 401K and his own home and doesn’t need to put his name on my mortgage. But he’s my knight nonetheless.
Finally, I realized that even though I was born years after the Great Depression ended, being raised by children of that Depression has left its mark on me. When I reach the last cloth in those pre-moistened kitchen wipes, I tear off about six paper towels and stick them in the container to sop up the last of the liquid cleanser at the bottom of the jar . Then I use those paper towels before opening new wipes. I can’t not do this. I’ve tried.
So I guess growing older doesn’t always mean listing towards normalcy.  It just means rubbing the edges off of who we always were and polishing our personalities till they fit us like a glove.  And, as our incarcerated friend Martha would say, that’s a good thing.
With that in mind, may 2005 see you still learning new, weird things about yourself that make you smile and laugh and enjoy life to it’s fullest.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:25 PM •
Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas is for kids. So lets talk about kids.  Not the happy ones gathered around your tree or holiday table but the ones we’d prefer not to think about right now. The ones state officials have been talking about the last few weeks. The ones society tries, and often fails, to help and protect.

Maybe this isn’t what you want to read right before Christmas, especially if you’re feeling a little guilty about going overboard to get your kids everything on their list.  But the poignancy of remembering those kids staring at an institutional tree in an institutional setting whose only presents will have tags reading “10 year old boy” should sharpen your appreciation of how lucky you and your children really are.
The latest discussion in state circles is to ease up on the confidentiality surrounding children’s proceedings.  Part of me wants to jump up on a chair and scream “Yes! Yes!” to that idea. Another part of me cringes as I picture the faces of the kids I deal with and their probable reaction to seeing details of their troubled childhoods amidst violence and abuse making front-page headlines.
Even if the children’s names are protected, they’ll know it’s out there for all to see. Anyone with a pre-teen or teen who would prefer you walk ten steps behind them with a bag over your head when out in public, can understand how these children would react to a public airing of their private difficulties.
But it needs to be done for a lot of very good reasons.  For starts, no government agency should be allowed to operate under such a veil of secrecy, let alone an agency charged with handling children’s futures.  Ultimately, their futures are our futures and we will pay the price later for every secret we keep now.
We need to know not only how the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) makes their decisions but how well they make them.  Having standards for foster parents and adoptions are only one part of the story. How those standards are, in fact, enacted can often be a whole different story. And funding for sufficient positions to uphold those standards is another important part of the story.
I had a friend comment to me that she was appalled to find out that the state would provide over $3000 worth of monthly subsidies to the family who adopted and then abused five children in the Valley with no oversight at all.  I’m guessing the adoption subsidy is something that sticks in a lot of people’s craws.  Most people figure if you adopt kids, they are yours and you take care of them.
I agree in theory that if the government gives you money to do something, it has some right to expect an accounting of that money.  In fact, I would love to see some large corporations in this country account for the money they’ve gotten from the government before we start hitting on adoptive parents.
When it comes to the basic idea of the subsidy itself, the sad reality is that so many kids up for adoption in the state system come to us so damaged already, and with so many special needs, that they are virtually unadoptable if the state doesn’t continue to provide money for their special services. 
Often the adoptive parents were originally the foster parents. They received money every month from the state that acknowledged the special needs of the kids they had in their home or the state directly paid for the programs to address those needs. I have worked with kids who have ended up in long-term foster care instead of being adopted because the foster parents couldn’t afford treatment for those kids without that help.
My friend also expressed amazement at the idea that five kids in the same family could need special services subsidies.  I had a GAL case in which one woman gave birth to over six FAS children.  One child is so badly damaged that he/she will probably live in state institutions for the rest of his/her life. (Gee, those state confidentiality laws make for awkward sentences too). So, it not only happens, it happens a lot.
Meanwhile, as you watch your kids opening their presents and hold your child’s hand while giving a prayer of thanksgiving around the dinner table, say a special prayer for those kids opening anonymous gifts donated by warm-hearted people who don’t even know their names.  They deserve better than the world has given them so far.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 05:31 PM •
Wednesday, December 08, 2004

It’s been a rough week for my old hometown of Barrow.  The tragedy of the taxi driver’s murder there has resonated throughout the community with dramatic force. Not only is this the second murder in a little over two months, but the accused are just kids. They should be getting ready for homecoming. Instead, they are preparing for a murder trial.


And the community that lived in fear since the murder that there was an unknown monster in their midst must now come to grips with the fact that this “monster” was not really a monster at all, but two of their own children.
Our first instinct when something like this happens is to think that these kids probably came from bad families or that they are bad kids. This gives us a degree of separation from the situation that is somehow comforting.
The reality is that when you know the families, you also know the answer is never that simple. These kids did not have “bad” parents. Their parents tried their best to raise their children right. I know this because I know them. And now they are in shock and pain, a feeling that has spread throughout their community of friends and extended family.  There is simply no way to prepare for a time when your child is arrested for murder.
This whole thing would be more understandable if these boys came from the families I see on my Guardian Ad Litem caseload.  I expect those families to make the bad parenting decisions that lead to future tragedies.  When you regularly abuse alcohol and drugs, your decision making process is impaired to the point of being useless. And I’ve never had a case in which substance abuse wasn’t a factor in the family.
If nothing else, this case proves my thesis that some really good kids can come out of some really bad homes. And some really bad kids can come out of really good homes. But most tragically of all, some really decent kids can be in the wrong place at the wrong time trying the wrong substance and they make the one bad decision that will ruin the rest of their lives.
On the day I heard about the arrest of the two Barrow boys, I also heard about the latest teen party trend here in Anchorage. It left me wondering about supposedly healthy parents and the decisions they make.  Apparently we now celebrate teen birthdays with parent approved co-ed sleepovers. 
I thought last year when I heard about the party bus you can rent for your teen’s celebration that I’d heard everything. But this really takes the cake.  Parents actually arranging a situation in which hormonally driven teenage boys and girls are deliberately placed together in the most tempting situation possible.
Do these parents not realize that between puberty and 30 we are more sexually driven than in the whole rest of our lives?
I was told that the parents would chaperone the event so it would be safe.  I hope that means they plan to stay up all night with a baseball bat in their hands in front of the locked door separating the boys and girls. If not, nine months from now they may be staying up all night with their birthday child’s baby. Or, god forbid, watching their child cope with the shortened life expectations of AIDS.
The situation in Barrow was a tragedy created by two young men who apparently made some very bad decisions and will now have to live with the consequences of those decisions for the rest of their lives.  Coed sleepover birthday parties are bad decisions made by idiot parents that can result in consequences their child will have to live with for the rest of his or her life - consequences a good parent should be protecting their child from, not opening the door to.
To the parents of those boys in Barrow, I send my love and sympathy. To the parents here in Anchorage who think coed sleepovers after the age of 8 are appropriate, I say get a clue.  You’re their parent. Act like one. Protect them the best you can from the bad consequences of an impulsive act. 
I know two sets of parents in Barrow who wish they could turn back time and protect their sons in just that way.
Elise Sereni Patkotak • 07:59 PM •
Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Those of you who are regular readers of this column know that I have written a few times over the past five months about my journey towards gastric bypass surgery.  After fighting my insurance company, switching surgeons once when it was clear that the surgeon and I had a different definition of the initials M.D. (he thought they stood for major deity, I didn’t), and going through every medical and mental test known to man, I finally received word that surgery had been approved and scheduled. I immediately panicked.

I panicked because I was sure those mental health evaluations had missed something in my makeup that would cause me to go nuts the first time I had to turn down a bowl of pasta.  I panicked because I had spent 30 years in Barrow away from fast food restaurants and had way too much catching up to do before I’d be ready to say goodbye to them. 
But mostly I panicked because I was about to profoundly change my life and my past history seemed to indicate that this was not something I did well. And if I did have to do it, I needed food by my side to see me through. All of which contradicted the point of the surgery I was about to have. Now that gastric bypass surgery can be done laproscopically - four or five little incisions instead of one big one - the surgery itself is not as big a deal as the lead up to it and the change of life required after it.  For the first week post surgery, I was allowed only broth and Jello. Imagine getting on a scale a few days after surgery and finding out you’ve gained weight on this lovely diet.  It’s like every obese person’s worse nightmare come true.
After I finished sobbing so loudly I couldn’t hear the nurse over the noise I was making, she explained to me that I was retaining fluid from the IVs I’d had and that once that was gone, I’d see my weight start to go down. She was right. But that sure didn’t make the week go any quicker.
And now I find myself on the losing end of the surgery and I’ve discovered that life isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  Sure there are those times where I hit a plateau and stop losing weight. I still find myself getting quietly hysterical when that happens despite all the reassurances that it is normal and the weight loss with eventually resume.
The best part of this whole experience has been that I am losing weight without feeling deprived. I go to restaurants and order what I want. I just eat very little of it and then I’m full. So I don’t spend the better part of the meal wistfully glancing at my dining companions’ meals and thinking that it’s not fair that I can’t eat what they’re eating. I’m too stuffed to care.  And without that sense of deprivation, there is little incentive to not stick with the program.
I’ve now lost about half the weight I want to lose. I go to Curves and am actually developing muscles in the roll of fat that still constitutes much of my abdomen. I can bend, walk and bike ride without getting breathless after the first five minutes. I can even carry groceries up two flights of stairs without having to sit down in between flights.  This may not sound like much but for someone like me who was not only overweight but sick because of it, it’s like winning the Miss America title, the Miss Universe title and getting accepted into MENSA all at once.
Is there a down side? Before the surgery, I used to complain that I was on so many drugs I didn’t know what was me talking and what was the drugs talking when I’d get angry over something.  I was off almost all those drugs thanks to the surgery when I had an encounter with a company that annoyed the heck out of me.  I called their main office and told everyone who would pick up the phone what I thought of them and their services.
It was about then that I figured out that since I couldn’t blame all my bitchiness on the drugs anymore, it must just be me.  So far, that’s the worse of the downside.
Next time this subject is brought up in this space, it will be accompanied by a new picture of the new me.  I can hardly wait.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 07:44 PM •
Monday, November 29, 2004

If there is one thing public broadcasting in Alaska has always been good at, it’s doing a lot with a little. On the one hand, I don’t know of a public broadcaster in this state who wouldn’t be happier to be doing a lot with a lot. On the other hand, when the pinch came in the late eighties and the spigot on oil money was squeezed almost shut, the public broadcasting system responded with some pretty heroic efforts.

For starts, public radio and TV stations didn’t close down and they never stopped serving their public. This may not sound like a big deal to urban consumers who have multiple channels from which to choose, but for people in the Bush, public broadcasting is their daily connection with their villages and community life. Everything from village council meetings to local basketball games is aired routinely. When a hunter is out at camp, it’s the radio that lets him know his partner has started out to join him or that his family has sent out some needed goods. Along with the ubiquitous CB radios that crackle constantly in Bush homes, the sound of the local radio station is a regular companion.
When the state’s financial support was drastically cut, public broadcasting learned how to do more with less in very creative ways. They consolidated services like engineering, accounting and fund raising. They formed regional entities that looked for economies of service so that local voices and issues could remain on the air in service to their communities.
And they did this all so well that this year at the Alaska Broadcasters Association’s annual banquet and awards ceremony, both public radio and public television went toe to toe with commercial broadcasters and more than held their own. They walked away with Goldies - as the awards are called - in almost every category in which they could possibly compete.  They took on the giants of commercial broadcasting and showed that when it came to quality and public service, no one does it better.
What this comes down to, of course, is a sense of purpose and service that is rife throughout the public broadcasting network in Alaska. My favorite example of this spirit is the story of my first meeting with Don Rinker when he became general manager at Barrow’s public radio station, KBRW. Don was on his hands and knees scrubbing out the men’s bathroom. 
It was a thankless task and one that had gone undone for much longer than good public health practices would recommend. Don was going to see that it shone in every way just as he expected his station to shine in every way.  When he left after nine years of nonstop effort, KBRW was one of the best radio stations in Alaska’s public broadcasting system.
I just don’t think you are apt to find managers at commercial stations who will scrub out toilets to improve their station’s image unless they are getting paid a WHOLE lot more than public broadcasting pays most of its staff.
Don Rinker recently left the state to relocate in the lower 48 after more than 20 years in public broadcasting in Alaska.  His departure created a huge gap for public broadcasters because his support, encouragement and expertise were unparalleled.  On the other hand, one of the joys of working with this system is knowing how many highly qualified and motivated people there are in it who will step up to fill Don’s shoes.
That’s the thing with being in public broadcasting. Once you get hooked on the adrenaline rush that comes with working hard under frequently less than ideal circumstances and coming up with a winning product, you can’t let it go.
By the way, in deference to full disclosure, I should note that I am a proud member of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission and this year have been honored to have been elected co-chair of it.  It’s where I get my insight into just how much hard work and dedication goes into products like last year’s broadcast of the Conference of Alaskans. Which, in case you weren’t aware of this, was totally covered by public television with commercial broadcasters taking their feed from our cameras. 
The bottom line for public broadcasters is that it’s all about how best to serve the public’s needs and interests. In Alaska, they do that very well.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:10 PM •
Thursday, November 25, 2004

I deliberately waited to write a column about our recent political season until it was over. I didn’t do this out of fear of expressing my opinion on any given candidate or issue. I did it out of fear that my head would explode if I tried to write about the election before it was over.

There are some pretty astounding figures being tossed about over just how much was spent on various campaigns this political season.  In the end, the results of the huge sums spent did little to actually enlighten the electorate.
Most of the money seems to have been spent to ratchet up the sound of political babble until your average citizen was careening through the months leading up to the election with their hands over their ears in a vain attempt to maintain some level of sanity until they could cast their ballot.  And, to paraphrase Shakespeare, all this sound and fury was signifying nothing.
It’s not that there weren’t important issues to be decided.  And it wasn’t that the candidates in most races both local and national didn’t offer dramatically differing views of how to address the problems we face.  It just seems that what all that money bought was a whole lot of ads whose main theme was that the opponent was a dastardly scoundrel who would rape your spouse and sell your children into slavery at the first opportunity.
While I have no doubt that people like that do occasionally run for office, my experience over 35 years of voting is that most candidates are actually decent people who just have different ideas about what is best for this country and state and how we should go about achieving certain goals.
All of which goes towards explaining why I was found one day in the parking lot of my local home improvement emporium screaming at some poor young man who was signing up voters for Tony Knowles.
Now this young man seemed like a fine fellow.  And it wasn’t that he was signing voters up for Knowles that caused the explosion. In fact, I applaud and encourage young people who want to get involved with political life in America. Their interest safeguards our democracy for the future. They are the next generation who will make it work. 
But I had spent one day too many hitting the mute button on my TV and the off button on my radio. And I hadn’t had my latte yet.  And I was just back from surgery and getting use to a new way of eating that didn’t apparently involve popcorn.  So all in all, he caught me on a bad day.
Which is why I found myself screaming about how sick and tired I was of political ads that didn’t say what a candidate stood for as much as they implied, or outright stated, that their opponent was against god, motherhood and democracy. The ads didn’t so much tell me about the candidate whose campaign was paying for them as it tried to convince me that the opposition was clearly against Alaska’s best interest, against America’s best interest and very likely an extraterrestrial come to prepare the way for Darth Vader. 
Those ads were nothing more than an appeal to the basest part of our nature. They catered to our lowest instincts. They did nothing to improve the national dialogue or make an argument for why one candidate’s ideas were better than another’s. And I was sick and tired of listening to them.
So that’s why there is a young man standing in the parking lot of a Lowe’s somewhere in South Anchorage with a stunned and frozen look on his face as though he’d seen the devil himself in all his horrifying glory.  If you find him, take him gently by the arm, bring him to a warm place and make him some hot apple cider.
And in the next political season, could we at least consider the idea of civil dialogue in which all candidates admit upfront that their opponent is probably not part of a satanic cult, but is a decent human being who just has a different idea of how to get from here to there, and where there should be?  Unless, of course, you have pictures of them in satanic dress sitting inside of a pentagram.  Then all bets are off.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:09 PM •
Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Well, Thanksgiving is here and that means the holiday season now goes into full swing.  Tis the time of year when we overeat overspend and act as though eggnog was an entire food group.  Sadly, it is also the only time of year some of us remember those less fortunate who depend on the kindness of strangers to make their way in life.

I tend to be a “Bah! Humbug!” kind of person during the holiday season.  Before my mother died, she and I had a conversation about that. I told her that what made me crazy about this season is that people suddenly become aware of the need for charity and for just this one month act on what they claim are their year round beliefs. 
My mother’s attitude was that we were better off with people feeling this way once a year rather than never feeling this way at all.  The holidays are when people are in a giving mood. Many charities stand to make substantial progress on needed goals, whether monetary or material, during this brief four-week span.  So, as much as I hate to admit it, my mother was right. Better to be charitable once a year than never to be charitable at all.
But lets just consider for a moment how wonderful life would be if we carried the idea of charity throughout the year.  What if we remembered that the people at the Brother Frances Shelter need to eat every day?  What if we kept in mind that Big Sisters and Big Brothers need volunteers year round? What if we actually lived each day as though we should try to make some contribution to those in need around us - not just so we could feel we were wonderful but so that this world could be a better place? Isn’t Christmas about the birth of a man who espoused the idea of doing what we could for the least of our brethren?
So here are some ideas that can be carried on throughout the year to keep the spirit of the holidays alive well past the current expiration date of January 1, something people repeatedly wish for during the season itself. I can’t take credit for all these ideas myself. I borrow liberally from the wonderful example of some of my friends.
For starts, how about making it a family rule that at least once a month you and your children participate in some form of volunteer community endeavor. This can be anything from spending an afternoon helping out at the no kill cat shelter to a morning spent volunteering at Special Olympics.
The key here is that as parents, you need to set the example.  You need to do this as a family. It doesn’t work to just tell your kids to volunteer while you complain that you haven’t got the time to help out. Your kids are busy too.
Another idea - require your children to save at least 10% of their allowance, and any other money they earn, for charity. At the end of the year, they get to decide how to spend that money. It would mean they’d have to take time from drawing up their Christmas “gimme” list to actually think about people, animals and whole eco-systems that are in need of help. 
Imagine how wonderful it will be to watch them struggle to choose the best place to send their money, an action they can only take after some effort at finding the cause that most speaks to their hearts. And imagine what you can learn about your child while watching this process and their ultimate decision.
One of my favorite young men came up with what I consider the all time winning decision of using his charity savings at a charity auction. He got to fulfill his charity commitment while buying his family their Christmas presents at the same time. Now that’s a young man with a creative future.
And if you don’t have children? Then take these ideas to your friends and make it a group effort. Like exercising, community volunteering is more fun when done with friends.  To say nothing of the great new friends you might make.
Will all this take time? Maybe pinch you a little financially? Look around.  The causes you donate to each holiday season feel the pinch a lot more than you ever will. And they feel it every day, all day, not just four weeks out of the year.
I think you’ll have a much happier and more meaningful holiday if you can look back on a year in which your efforts made this world a little better place to be.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:08 PM •
Monday, November 15, 2004

I grew up in a time when all parents felt very safe in telling their children to always look for a policeman if they were scared or lost.  A policeman, we were told, would always be our friend.

This was never necessarily true in Bush Alaska.  The police that were there - whether state troopers or city police - were usually outsiders brought in to enforce state and federal laws that may or may not have made a lot of sense to the local population within their cultural parameters.
A great example of this was an incident that occurred many years ago in Barrow called Sadie’s Duck Rebellion. Sadie Neakok was the magistrate in Barrow at the time. The federal government passed a law that said you could not take any migratory birds during certain times of the year. The problem was that the only time these birds were in the Barrow area was when the law said no one could hunt them.
Hunters with families to feed were torn between following a law passed thousands of miles away by people with no understanding of them and their need to feed their families through a long, cold dark winter.  Not surprisingly, they chose to feed their families.
When the feds showed up to enforce the law, just about every man, woman and child in Barrow showed up at Sadie’s house with a duck in their hand. The feds made no arrests, the law was eventually modified, and duck soup is still some of the best eating in Barrow.
Unfortunately, the relationship between law enforcement officers and the people of the Bush towns they serve has almost always had this disconnect.  Not being part of the culture in the town where you are enforcing the law makes enforcement that much harder.
The ideal answer would be to have local people take the law enforcement jobs but that’s not as easy as it sounds.  If they were born and raised in that community, they are part of the extended family that is at its core. Pretty much anyone they have to arrest is in some way related.  How do you go have a cup of coffee with your uncle when your actions on the job have put his son in jail for ten years?
So the rough time the state troopers have recently had with a few of their employees is all the sadder because of the effect it will have on every trooper and cop in the Bush trying to establish a sense of trust with the people living there.
In particular, the trooper charged with raping women in the community he was supposed to be serving is a horrible blow to that trust.  Recent studies show that Alaska continues to lead this nation in just the type of statistics for which we should hope to be in dead last place. Women are beaten, raped and murdered here with astounding, mind numbing repetitiveness.
Women, children, the elderly, the handicapped - these are among our most vulnerable populations.  These are the people who most need to be able to trust that when they dial 911 or scream for help, the person who responds is someone willing to protect their lives even at risk of his/her own - not someone who will take advantage of their vulnerability.
We give police and troopers guns and the right to use them to protect us.  In return, we expect them to treat this power with respect and restraint so that the unwritten social contract that holds us all together does not break down. We want to trust them, not fear them.
What these few bad examples have done is cause many people, especially in Bush Alaska, to once again wonder who they can trust.  And that’s sad because I’ve known a lot of troopers and cops during my 28 years in the Bush and most of them were fine, honorable men and women doing a job they felt was important and very aware of the trust people put in them to do that job well. They don’t deserve to be smeared because of the actions of a few.
I hope the people in the Bush give their troopers and cops the benefit of the doubt because the reality is that 99.9% of them deserve it.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:22 PM •
Wednesday, November 10, 2004

So I see from the paper that Barrow Cable TV is about to be purchased by GCI. That means that Barrow will be wired to the world at an even quicker rate than it already is.  Instead of listening to my Barrow friends complaining about slow dial up to the Internet and endless waits while downloading pictures of the latest cute things my animals did, they will have access to cable modem.  Now they won’t have an excuse to not comment on how wonderful my little flock looks.

When I first arrived in Barrow in 1972, they didn’t even have TV on a regular basis yet. It had been there for a while and then closed down. When the next incarnation of what was to become Barrow Cable TV opened a few months after I arrived, it consisted of six-week old tapes shown out of an old garage in Browerville. 
The rhythm of life was different in the Bush back then. The fact that we were watching the Olympics six weeks after they happened didn’t bother anyone. The fact that we already knew the results was not a problem. We were just happy to eventually be able to share the experience. And if those tapes didn’t make it for some reason, no big loss.  Life went on and we hardly noticed the absence.
Then the world sped up and the Bush sped up with it. In the mid 1970’s, public radio arrived with a bang in Bush Alaska.  Those first operations were shaky and amateurish to say the least, but they were live and they were local.  Within a few years there was instant access to news. And events such as the World Series didn’t have to wait for the tapes.  They could be heard live on the radio.
Then came cable TV and we were able to watch the news that happened the day it happened, even if the evening news showed up at 3 PM in Barrow because the networks were coming from Chicago and points east.  The Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Times started showing up in our local store on a daily basis. Public broadcasting continued to grow in importance and soon many stations had their own local news and weather reports.  To say nothing of their saturation coverage of local sporting events. 
Basketball, which has always reigned supreme in the Bush, was suddenly elevated to something just this side of a religious experience.  Listening to the local teams battle it out on any level from JV to varsity to state tournaments became a requirement of good citizenship.
Opening the Bush up to the world changed a lot of things.  Kids became more sophisticated. Wearing mom’s Sunday dress to the prom was no longer acceptable.  Girls wanted real prom dresses.  They wanted their dates to have a suit and a corsage for them, just like they saw on TV commercials.
And gang language showed up among our youth.  Suddenly we heard words and phrases straight from some really bad TV shows coming out of the mouths of our young men.  I sometimes wondered if they even knew the meaning of the language they were using.
I will never forget the sight of some local young men in Barrow chasing a young African American down the street after a party gone bad in which they were yelling, among other things, “We’ll get you, you honky.” As that young man told me later, he didn’t know whether to run or to laugh because he never ever imagined anyone calling him a honky.
Now Barrow will have not only over 50 channels of TV - which means possibly four hours of something worth watching per week - but also cable modem access to the Internet and all the good and bad things it brings into your home.  I hope for the sake of their children that Barrow parents prepare themselves for what this can mean and take any precautions needed to make sure that their teens especially are watching channels and using sites acceptable to their age and maturity.
Bringing this kind of access into your home is like inviting a whole group of strangers to live with you. Some might be nice but some might lead your children down paths best not taken.  Make sure you know who these strangers are that your children are visiting.  Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 07:57 PM •
Saturday, October 23, 2004

Sometime back two decades or so ago when I stilled lived in Barrow, I made a great ceremony out of tossing my last pair of pantyhose into the trash and declaring my body pantyhose free for the rest of my life. I did this out of a sense of duty to every woman who has ever walked down the street with her pantyhose twisting around her knees, the crotch sagging lower than a teenager’s levis.

Along with the pantyhose went the idea of ever again wearing a heel that in any way came to a point or a pair of shoes whose shape bore no resemblance to the female foot.  My motto is that if god did not make our toes come to a point, then she clearly did not mean us to wear shoes that did.
For over twenty years I was able to stick to my resolve. But recently something terrible happened. I had to attend a huge 100th anniversary party for my old childhood parish.  Since I have been losing weight rather rapidly as of late, I had nothing to wear that still fit. Which meant I had to go shopping. And as anyone who knows me knows, that is something I will put off as long as possible in the hope that eventually the need for it will go away. 
Only this time I lost on that gamble and found myself on the East Coast in a car with my sister heading towards a store where I was going to be forced to try clothes on till I found something she liked that didn’t make me want to run into the night screaming.  My sister, I should add, inherited all the clothes and shopping genes my mother accidentally left out of my makeup.  She actually wears high pointed heels to work every day. 
I am proud to say we accomplished our mission with a minimum of bad feelings and bloodshed.  She brought in blazers that cost $250, I laughed.  She brought in blouses that cost $95, I laughed even harder. She finally took the hint and went to the sales rack where we agreed on a skirt and sweater whose total price did not equal my monthly mortgage payment.  I thought that was a reasonable standard.
It wasn’t till we left the store that it occurred to me that I’d just bought a skirt, which meant the possibility of pantyhose now loomed large in my life. I tried to convince my sister that since this was a mostly Italian affair, I could just wear an old pair of nylons rolled down below my knees and get away with it by calling it a tribute to nostalgia.  After all, it was good enough for our grandmothers, so I figured it should be good enough for me. She neither saw the humor, the nostalgia or the remotest chance that she’d let me get away with it.
And so a few days later I found myself struggling into a pair of her pantyhose and wondering how, in the twenty years since I’d last worn them, manufacturers still had not figured out how to make them fit my figure.  Worse yet, I found myself struggling into a pair of my sister’s shoes - the kind with pointy heels.
I had considered buying a pair of shoes till I saw the price on the limited selection she would let me consider.  I figured for that much money, the shoes should come with someone to carry me around so my toes didn’t hurt.  The compromise was to wear a pair of her shoes.
I picked the lowest heel possible. Since all her shoes were pointy, I resigned myself to pain for the night. Everything seemed to be going well till I tried to stand up. Apparently if you don’t wear these stiletto heels with any regularity, when you attempt to stand in them for the first time you tend to wobble.  Then you wobble some more, your ankle gives out and you fall.
This is why I entered the ballroom the night of the gala holding on to my friend’s arm for dear life.  I was tempted to tell people I was suffering from a neurological problem that precluded my standing on tiny spokes.  But my explanation was consistently drowned out by the sound of my friends laughing every time I took a step.
The pantyhose are back in my sister’s drawer; the shoes are in her closet. I am back in Alaska where people understand that our toes aren’t pointed and stilettos are knives that should not be associated with shoes.  And once again I am reminded of why I love this state so damned much.
Long live mukluks!

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 07:38 PM •
Monday, October 18, 2004

I don’t know if words could ever do justice to the scene at Bally’s Park Place Casino and Hotel where St. Michael’s Church of Atlantic City held it’s 100th Anniversary gala.  How do you describe 1000 people in a ballroom, almost all Italian, screaming and laughing with joy and tears as they run into classmates from grade school they hadn’t seen in 50 years?  Or old boyfriends who brought back the memory of being very young and innocent in a time when the young had the privilege of being innocent? Or the girlfriend who had a wall of Ricky Nelson pictures in her room under whose watchful gaze you schemed to create the most wonderful Ricky Nelson fan club that ever was?

The sound level in the ballroom probably would have drowned out the roar of a 747 heading for lift off.  It was a sound interspersed with the lilting vowels of immigrant Italian English. All words ended in a, e, i, o or u - music to my ears.
I’d already spent a day with two old friends - the girls who’d lived next door to my childhood home, who went to school with me through high school, who discovered womanhood, acne and boys with me.  We hadn’t been together for over 30 years but it seemed like just seconds had past.  One minute I was a 57-year-old woman slowly unfolding from a car and then I was with Grace and Lea and we were all 12 years old again.
Lea had been away the longest so we took her on a nostalgia tour of the old neighborhood. We stopped by the steps in the alley that led up to her house and remembered playing cut out dolls together on them, making paper dresses from wall paper sample books we would beg from the store down the street. She marveled at the renovations of the church. We checked each other’s memories for the exact location of some missing buildings and tested each other’s knowledge of the names of the nuns who had taught us in grade school.
And then, as we’d done so many times in that far away past, we headed to the boardwalk.  The boardwalk has both changed and remained the same since we last walked it together.  The old hotels have been replaced by the gaudy fronts of casinos, the beach now has man made dunes protecting it that hide the ocean from view, the Million Dollar Pier where we spent so many afternoons on the roller coaster and Merry Go Round is an empty shell of metal girders waiting for the new shopping center to fill it.
But the smell is the same, the boards are the same and every once in a while you hit a block not yet taken over by a casino where the old stores live on - places to buy souvenirs, pizza, orange drinks, soft ice cream and salt water taffy, while having your future told by a real psychic. We stopped at a display celebrating Atlantic City’s 150 anniversary and signed our names to the big card, taking care to use our maiden names so people know who we were.
When we arrive at the ballroom for the cocktail hour, we are met with pictures from St. Michael’s past.  Coordinated by year, each display is surrounded by people pointing and shrieking as they find their 8th grade class picture or their May queen crowning.  I find pictures of my father on the Knights of Columbus bowling team from the year they won the New Jersey bowling championship. That trophy adorned a wall in our grocery store for years.
By the time we go in to dinner, the party is in full roar. No one sits down for longer than a few seconds.  Between wandering the aisles looking for familiar faces, hugging and crying when finding one, dancing the tarantella and misting up as O Solo Mio is sung, dinner itself becomes secondary. I realized I’d never before been to a party full of Italians where food has taken such a back seat. The only moment of silence in the evening is when Father D’Amico says grace before dinner.
I don’t know if it’s possible to ever again produce the type of neighborhood created by St. Michael’s. I don’t know how you explain what it meant to successive waves of Italian immigrants throughout the 1900s. But I know I’ve always felt privileged to have been a part of it.  And from the turn out at this anniversary party, I’m clearly not alone in feeling that way.
Elise Sereni Patkotak • 07:46 PM •
Sunday, October 17, 2004

Having made the decision to have gastric bypass surgery, gotten the support of all the health care providers who kept me alive all these years, and passed the innumerable tests required before the surgery, I felt as though anything else I had to do for the surgery would be easy by comparison.  It had taken me over a year to traverse the pre-op road and now I was finally at surgery’s door - good health awaited me on the other side.  The only issue left to resolve was insurance pre-approval.

Ah how innocent we so often are when we find ourselves about to enter the door marked Insurance Hell.  After all, we tend to reason, we’ve done everything required and the surgery being requested is listed right there in the benefits book as one to which we are entitled.
Step through that door, though, and all innocence and rational thought is completely and irrevocably lost.  Because you have entered the world of professional nay saying, a world of corporate negativity where I can only assume the philosophy is that if they deny you the benefit long enough, you will die and they will have saved themselves a few thousand dollars.
Now, if I’m sounding a bit harsh about health insurance providers - why, that’s exactly how I mean to sound.  Considering the wide palette of health problems I suffered from pre-operatively, I’ve had a lot of experience with them. Little if any of it was positive.
For instance, there are the diabetic supplies that I’ve ordered about once every three months for the past gazillion years. I order from a diabetic supply company. I order strips to test my blood sugar and little lancets to prick my finger.  The order never varies, never changes - four boxes of strips, two canisters to the box, and one box of lancets. And the price rarely changes.  Which is why I am always amazed when the reimbursement check arrives and is always different.
I can only assume the insurance companies are outsourcing these clerical jobs to a place where English is a third or fourth language.  Or maybe literacy is not required to be a claims clerk.  Each time I call to question why they paid me $150 last time but only $25 this time for the same order with the same cost, the explanation gets progressively more creative.
One time I’m told they forgot to look at the line, which says I got four boxes instead of just one. Another time I’m told that they forgot to notice that the boxes contained 100 strips, not 50.  Another time I’m told quite indignantly by the gentleman I’m complaining to that they will not pay $100 for a box of lancets. Well, duh!  On checking, he notes that I was not charged $100 for the lancets. The clerk read the paperwork wrong.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when they turned me down for the surgery.  The reasons given ignored all the proof presented that this surgery could potentially not only save my life, but save the insurance company thousands of dollars down the road as I gained better health and stopped using so many of the system’s resources. 
They didn’t care. Didn’t care what my doctors said. Didn’t care about what the medical tests said. Didn’t care what every health professional I saw recommended.  In fact, the rather low-level clerk who kept rejecting the claim didn’t care for any level of argument or reason until he got a letter from my attorney.
Suddenly, all the paperwork that had not been adequate to justify my receiving this benefit became more than adequate.  Two letters from my lawyers, accompanied by no further medical paperwork, and I had my approval. 
As one of the staff at the surgeon’s office commented to me in the midst of this craziness - insurance companies live a culture of corporate denial.  If they deny you long enough, you’ll go away.  Sadly, many people who could benefit from this surgery do just that.  They go away.  And then they die from complications of diseases that could be controlled or arrested through this surgery. How very, very sad.
Next time, the surgery itself.  Also known as the “you can live by broth alone” period.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 07:42 PM •
Wednesday, September 29, 2004

When I was a young girl, my world was fairly small and tightly controlled.  Nothing was done without the express written consent of parents, priests and nuns.  This led to some very interesting situations in my childhood for both me and some of my neighborhood companions.

For instance, there was the time my friend Grace got appendicitis while we were still in grade school. She wasn’t about to tell our nun that she had this pain because she didn’t want to miss school. By the time we got out that day, I literally had to help her down the stairs and walk her to her home because the pain had gotten so intense.
A doctor was called, the diagnosis was made, and Grace was told she would have to go into surgery. Except Grace refused to allow anyone to move her out of her house until she saw a priest. And no amount of threats by her parents about the consequences of waiting even five minutes to get to surgery would dissuade her.  Finally, her parents had to send for the parish priest to give her a blessing before she’d leave for the hospital.
Then there was the time I won an award from the VFW for a Voice Of Democracy broadcast speech writing contest.  I know the exact title of the competition because the award still hangs on a wall in my home.  I was thrilled to win until I found out that in order to accept the award I would have to go to a - gasp, horror - Protestant Church for the ceremony.  I wasn’t sure I could do that without risking my immortal soul. And nothing my parents said alleviated my concern. 
In total frustration they sent me to our parish priest who assured me I could enter the church and enjoy the dinner without risk.  I can’t tell you how relieved I was though there was a part of me that still thought the question should have been booted upstairs to the bishop just to be sure.
Needless to say, with this type of background, the YWCA was hardly a part of my everyday world when I was young. In fact, I don’t think I’d even heard of it prior to going to high school where my world widened to include non-Italians.
I can look back at that limited little girl I once was and laugh now.  Especially since I’ve grown up enough to know I can be friendly with all religions without fear of eternal damnation and that the work of the YWCA is in the best tradition of what Christianity should stand for.
Here in Anchorage, the YWCA sponsors programs that run the gamut from helping women deal with their finances to helping mothers and daughters communicate well and avoid the trap of substance abuse.  It sponsors programs on women’s health and programs that encourage young girls to get into the thick of the technology revolution.
One of the activities I love best is its annual program at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art entitled Alaska Women Writers: Reading from Their Work.  This year that program is happening on September 23 at 7 PM.  And even though I’m not reading this year, I’m excited about the program because each year I’ve attended I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the depth of talent Alaskan women writers possess.
Last year, I heard a young lady, a SLAM poet name Corinna Delgado, do a reading and it was enough to make me want to pack up my computer and sell it cheap.  Being faced with that level of talent certainly puts my little scribblings into stark perspective.
So if this year’s TV season strikes you as being as pathetically bankrupt as it strikes me, and you are looking for entertainment that will really entertain you, I highly recommend that you head to the museum this Thursday.  Not only do you get to hear some of Alaska’s best women writers strutting their stuff, but you get wine and cheese afterwards and a chance to meet these ladies and find out what makes them tick.  All this for a very low price that helps to support the other great programs the YWCA offers. 
Now how can you sit in your house watching Donald Trump’s hair try to flee from his scalp when there is something this wonderful happening outside your door?

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:27 PM •

When I was a young girl, my world was fairly small and tightly controlled.  Nothing was done without the express written consent of parents, priests and nuns.  This led to some very interesting situations in my childhood for both me and some of my neighborhood companions.

For instance, there was the time my friend Grace got appendicitis while we were still in grade school. She wasn’t about to tell our nun that she had this pain because she didn’t want to miss school. By the time we got out that day, I literally had to help her down the stairs and walk her to her home because the pain had gotten so intense.
A doctor was called, the diagnosis was made, and Grace was told she would have to go into surgery. Except Grace refused to allow anyone to move her out of her house until she saw a priest. And no amount of threats by her parents about the consequences of waiting even five minutes to get to surgery would dissuade her.  Finally, her parents had to send for the parish priest to give her a blessing before she’d leave for the hospital.
Then there was the time I won an award from the VFW for a Voice Of Democracy broadcast speech writing contest.  I know the exact title of the competition because the award still hangs on a wall in my home.  I was thrilled to win until I found out that in order to accept the award I would have to go to a - gasp, horror - Protestant Church for the ceremony.  I wasn’t sure I could do that without risking my immortal soul. And nothing my parents said alleviated my concern. 
In total frustration they sent me to our parish priest who assured me I could enter the church and enjoy the dinner without risk.  I can’t tell you how relieved I was though there was a part of me that still thought the question should have been booted upstairs to the bishop just to be sure.
Needless to say, with this type of background, the YWCA was hardly a part of my everyday world when I was young. In fact, I don’t think I’d even heard of it prior to going to high school where my world widened to include non-Italians.
I can look back at that limited little girl I once was and laugh now.  Especially since I’ve grown up enough to know I can be friendly with all religions without fear of eternal damnation and that the work of the YWCA is in the best tradition of what Christianity should stand for.
Here in Anchorage, the YWCA sponsors programs that run the gamut from helping women deal with their finances to helping mothers and daughters communicate well and avoid the trap of substance abuse.  It sponsors programs on women’s health and programs that encourage young girls to get into the thick of the technology revolution.
One of the activities I love best is its annual program at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art entitled Alaska Women Writers: Reading from Their Work.  This year that program is happening on September 23 at 7 PM.  And even though I’m not reading this year, I’m excited about the program because each year I’ve attended I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the depth of talent Alaskan women writers possess.
Last year, I heard a young lady, a SLAM poet name Corinna Delgado, do a reading and it was enough to make me want to pack up my computer and sell it cheap.  Being faced with that level of talent certainly puts my little scribblings into stark perspective.
So if this year’s TV season strikes you as being as pathetically bankrupt as it strikes me, and you are looking for entertainment that will really entertain you, I highly recommend that you head to the museum this Thursday.  Not only do you get to hear some of Alaska’s best women writers strutting their stuff, but you get wine and cheese afterwards and a chance to meet these ladies and find out what makes them tick.  All this for a very low price that helps to support the other great programs the YWCA offers. 
Now how can you sit in your house watching Donald Trump’s hair try to flee from his scalp when there is something this wonderful happening outside your door?

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:27 PM •
Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Someone recently asked me if I felt that the work I do as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) actually “saved” any children.  I asked them to define “saved”.  They responded that they would define it as taking children out of a bad situation and returning them to a healthy one, either with their healed family or a new family.  Then they added, “And these kids grow up ok and become productive, healthy members of society.”

They had me nodding yes until we got to that last part.  Children in state custody often don’t arrive there until an awful lot of damage has been done to them.  Sometimes this damage started before they were even born, with mom drinking during her pregnancy.  Oft times the problem is exacerbated by substance abuse and domestic violence during their youngest and most important years - years when the ability to trust and love and have healthy future relationships is either created or not; years that if lost, cannot be regained.
So my response to the question of whether I feel that I’ve actually helped “save” any kids is yes, but within this limited context.  I feel my work has helped take children out of unsafe, often abusive and violent situations, and gotten them into a place where they can grow up safely.  What happens after that is pretty much anyone’s guess. 
Sometimes these kids have already been so damaged that they immediately revert to the world they first knew and have drunken, often violent lives. Sometimes they get in trouble one time and that’s enough for them to figure out that they don’t want to repeat the mistakes of their past. Sometimes they go from the state social services or juvenile justice system straight to the adult penal system with barely a break from one to the other. And sometimes, despite all odds, they turn out just fine.
If continuing to work as a GAL was contingent on creating productive adults out of damaged kids, I would have given up a long time ago.  Satisfaction for me is knowing that while they are kids, they have someplace safe to sleep at night, food on the table at meal times and sober adults who care where they are and how they are spending their childhood.
This can be hard for a layperson to understand.  Most people want a better return on their tax dollar. They want to know that money spent on social service programs will have some really positive outcome when the truth is that keeping children safe is often the best outcome we can hope for.  A child with signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a low IQ who experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence before he or she was 5 years old, is not someone that the best system in the world can always fix.
That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. And it doesn’t mean as a society we should not be responsible for giving these children a safe place to be children.  But it does mean understanding the limits of what you can do with a child who starts out with so many strikes against them.
Most Alaskans have heard about a recent case in Wasilla where children taken from a home in which substance abuse was apparently a problem were adopted by the state into a home in which physical torture and abuse seemed to be the norm. One of the reasons this case has struck such a chord with me is that it violates the minimum standard I feel we owe these children - a safe place in which to grow.
If anyone thinks these children have much of a chance at a “normal” life in the future, they are sadly mistaken.  These kids have no idea what normal is. Maybe, with lots of love and determined effort, they can achieve some quality of life in the future.  Maybe not.  But by taking them from one abusive situation and placing them in another, the state has condemned these children to a life of emotional and spiritual pain that they may not ever be able to overcome.
The one thing the state owed these kids when it got involved in their lives was a safe place to grow up.  They didn’t get that.  We will all be paying the price for that mistake for years to come. But the greatest price of all has been, and will continue to be paid by these children.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 05:29 PM •

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