Elise Sereni
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

We now come to that time of year when, for want of something better to do for amusement, I decide who merits entry into my Hall of Infamy 2006. The criteria are fairly lax.  Nominees mostly have to have annoyed the heck out of me or in some other way caused me to want to chase them off this planet during the past twelve months.

Just so we’re clear at the outset, Tom Cruise has achieved permanent residence in the Hall of Infamy.  So have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and any variation of their names that combines them into something that makes me want to toss my cookies. And finally, Donald Trump’s hair has its own wing in the Hall, and since he and that hair seem to be inseparable, he’s not eligible on his own for entry.
Having dispensed with the preliminaries, let’s take a look at who has received nods for the honor this year. Brittany Spears, of course, has received numerous nominations as has her about to be ex.  But even a Hall of Infamy needs some standards and since neither of them apparently has any, I’m afraid they don’t make it in.  However, if the media persists in calling Mr. Spears “Fedex” throughout the coming year, he may get the nod in 2007.
Condoleeza Rice received quite a few votes as the year progressed.  I thought she would make it in till I realized that, despite being Secretary of State and traveling about 90% of the year, she still has a more active social life than I do.  I think that should be reward enough for her this past year.  She’ll just have to wait her turn - or wait till I have at least as many dates as she does - which means she may be waiting a very long time for the honor.
Of course, there were those mean people out there who nominated the Spears, Cruise, Madonna, Pitt/Jolie children. But I don’t feel you should be able to ride your parents’ coattails into this Hall. And while I am the first to admit that the Cruise child in particular could almost cause me to disregard the above restriction, I then find myself confronted with the antics of Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie and realize that I shouldn’t sell Suri short. Given time, she’ll probably be able to enter the Hall all on her own.
So who or what actually will get inducted this year?  Well, two who and one what have made the cut.  In order of their ranking I give you:
Number 3, Hillary Clinton.  The presidential campaign hasn’t even begun and I’m already sick of hearing about her, whether she’s had plastic surgery, whether she should have left Bill, whether she can beat Obama, whether her election would signal the end of life as we know it. Enough already.
Number 2, Barak Obamba.  This man has done virtually nothing yet to prove himself, but has already been crowned a demi god.  No offense to Mr. Obamba, who I am sure might someday become a credible politician, but if he weren’t of mixed heritage would anyone be this excited?  Wasn’t Martin Luther King’s dream about a world in which we were not judged by our color?
And finally, drum roll please, the number one entry into the 2006 Hall of Infamy is people on cell phones, whether driving their cars or walking through airports seemingly talking to themselves.  May your cell phones all blow up in your hands simultaneously thereby cleansing the world of many potential future inductees at once. 
I am sick and tired of sitting at a stop sign watching the person in the car in front of me in animated conversation on a cell phone thereby making them functionally unable to pull out into traffic in either a safe or timely fashion. And I am tired of sitting or standing next to someone in public and listening to their latest life crises, job crises, child crises or what an SOB the guy in the next cubicle is. I don’t care.
I know the world will not soon give up cell phones. I know I will probably be the last living person on earth without one.  But as God is my witness, it will take some effort for anyone or anything to annoy me more than they do. 
My fear, of course, is that in the next year someone will take up that challenge and win.  Happy 2007. Let the new nominations begin.

Elise Patkotak • 06:00 AM •
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Since I plan to use my New Year’s column for a list of the people and things that have annoyed me the most this past year, I figured I’d better do something nice for my Christmas column or risk being driven out of town by all the little elves that are making me crazy with their Christmas cheer. And so, here it is - my reason to be grateful this year.

I am grateful, finally after more than fifty decades, that my friend Grace had her birthday before me.
I guess we need to go back a bit to explain this. I first met Grace when we were both about 3 1/2 years old.  Actually, she was 3 1/2. I was only 3 1/4.  And that bugged the heck out of me the whole time we were growing up together.
She got to do everything first.  She became a teen first. She got her ears pierced first. She was eligible to get a driver’s license first. She even became a woman first...in, I should clarify, the old fashioned sense of becoming a woman.  She hit sweet sixteen before me.  And she got to drink legally first. 
I spent a good deal of my youth thinking it was just so darned unfair that she got to everything before me. I couldn’t wait to grow up so that things would be even between us.  Ah the foolishness of youth.
Now, as I approach a milestone birthday, I find myself quite happy to have her go first.  In fact, as we have approached a variety of milestone birthdays over the years, I have grown more and more content to be the second to reach them.  I would, at this point, be not at all unhappy if I was a year or two or five behind her instead of three months.
But that’s not likely to happen so I guess I need to learn to be grateful for the three month gap which gives me some time to catch my breath as I realize just how old she is.  And just how old I’ll soon be.
I’ve never particularly had trouble in the past with birthdays, even those considered the milestones of our lives.  If you were never the pretty young thing, and I wasn’t, you don’t have as much to lose when you are no longer young. In fact, you have a lot to gain. I’ve always been better at being older than I ever was at being young.  My life began in earnest when I hit forty and felt that I’d finally grown into my head.
The problem, as I see it, is that I liked forty and found fifty not bad either. But beyond that there seemed to be this yawning chasm of varicose veins, veggie induced gas and aches and pains that caused strange sounds to come out of my body when getting in and out of my car.  Whether this vision is true to reality or not, it seems to be the one stuck in my head that keeps replaying as I think about hitting new milestones.
And so I watch my friend head into this new decade and look to see if there are any visible changes that should cause me to worry.  Her knee aches.  She’s got some new medical problems.  But her life hasn’t slowed down. She teaches full time, is getting ready for her second daughter’s wedding and is never at home because she just has too many places to go and too many thing she has yet to accomplish.
This gives me hope that I will not fall completely apart on my next birthday. And for that I am grateful.  Finally, I’m not jealous that she’s reaching milestones before me.  I’m happy to be trailing her lead.
Oh, and did I mention that I’m also very grateful this Christmas that I still have my friend from so long ago in my life? That is truly one of the best gifts I have ever received.  Her continued friendship has been a kind of anchor for me. If I ever became too full of myself, all I had to do was call Grace. She would remind me of the days spent on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City screaming for Ricky Nelson.  Or the afternoon spent in my mother’s kitchen trying to pierce my ears with a sewing needle, ice cubes and a potato. Or the times spent in her mother’s parlor - the formal one with the plastic on all the furniture - trying to teach ourselves to dance to 45s like they did on Bandstand.
We were nerds together when we were young. We’ve remained nerds most of our lives. And as we gallop into old age, I imagine both the friendship and the nerdiness will remain intact.  For this, I am immensely grateful.

Elise Patkotak • 06:38 AM •
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I’d been out of town for a few weeks so you can imagine my reaction when I returned and scanned the headlines of the papers that had piled up while I was gone.  I felt like Alice falling through the looking glass.  The Alaska State Legislature is going to be led by a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans.  That and a falling sky are the two sure signs of the Apocalypse if I remember my Bible studies class correctly.

For a moment I thought maybe my misspent youth in the sixties was catching up with me and some time bomb that had been left behind in my body had finally exploded into a late life psychedelic trip.  Otherwise how to explain the fact that there is every chance in the world that, if only for a short span of time, Alaska politicians will actually lead America in trying to find the middle where most of us live while giving us the kind of government all our high school civics classes led us to expect as our right.
I say this may only last for a short span of time because, to be very honest, I find few people who have a good feeling that this coalition will make it beyond the first thirty days of the session.  There are some I speak to who are unwilling to make book that it will last for the first thirty hours. And then, of course, there are always those diehard cynics who think thirty minutes is longer than the center will hold.
Call me Pollyanna but I’m hoping it goes the distance, or at least a good part of it. Because honestly, more than just about anything else in government right now, we need people working together.  I know I’m not alone in being sick and tired of the politics of division and distrust that seems to be the only politics available today.
I expect we usually get the politics and politicians we deserve. But I seriously doubt we have been so bad for so long that we have deserved the pandering, self-serving, morally righteous while personally repugnant politicians that seem to have filled our public airwaves the past twenty years.  Too often the people who have held themselves out as our leaders have turned out to be reprehensible scumbags in reality.
Think Bill Clinton and cigars. Think Mark Foley and e-mail.  Think any number of religious leaders from the left and right whose private morals would make a dog blush.  Think of the cynical way these people must have viewed us to assume that they could blather and bleat about what was morally right and good for this country while keeping their dirty little secrets.
Their greatest sin of all, to my mind, was to rule this country through division and distrust.  Instead of uniting us, they strove to point out our differences and then use those differences to make one group hate another.  Simple disagreement was not allowed.
Did people from both major parties question Bush and Rumsfeld’s strategy in Iraq? Why they weren’t just questioning an easily questionable policy. No, they were cut and run cowards who wanted to aid and comfort the terrorists.  As though there was some strange world out there in which these people would have an advantage if the terrorists won.
And now, here in Alaska, in my very own wonderful state, the first steps are being taken to close that divide and bring people together to work towards the common good. Why, it’s as if our politicians have actually read and understood not only the Alaska constitution but the US Constitution as well.
No, I’m not Alice and I didn’t fall through the looking glass. And I’m not Pollyanna either. I know that people will inevitably disagree on how to get there from here in the best way possible for this state. But by coming together for the good of the state, I believe that our legislators are at least acknowledging the legitimacy of varying viewpoints without the need to ascribe evil motives to those who disagree with them.
Considering the political landscape of this great country right now, that’s the best sign of hope I’ve seen in a long, long time. And it’s coming from my very own legislature. Who’d have ever guessed?

Elise Patkotak • 06:32 AM •
Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I recently got sick while visiting the East Coast. I was in Center City Philadelphia and could find no walk in clinic so I ended up at the emergency room of the Jefferson Hospital.  Since my cousin Joe has a large portrait of himself in their lobby because of his pioneering work as a doc in their ER, I figured I was golden.  I’d drop his name a few times and get the red carpet treatment.

Well, I dropped his name as loudly and as frequently as I could and it got me nowhere. One nurse did admit that she’d been there long enough to remember him but no one else was the slightest bit impressed. In the end, dropping his name got me a cot in the hallway after waiting five hours to be treated.
As I sat there thinking I’d surely die of whatever bug had gotten hold of me on my plane flight East, I became vaguely aware of the people and problems around me.  It didn’t take long to figure out that for many people there, this was their health care system.  They had no other.  Seeing the same health care provider twice for their problem was just a distant dream. Being seen in an office not even that.
We talk a lot about health care in this country. For those of us lucky enough to have coverage, the conversation is just that - conversation.  We may groan and complain about how long we have to wait to get an appointment or how long we have to sit once we get to the doctor’s office, but the bottom line is that we have access to that office and a means of paying for it.  Too many people in this country are not so lucky.
So I sat there on that bed in a hallway and wondered how much I would access care if this was the only care I could reach.  How often would I bother to hang around for five hours to be seen by someone for whom I was just the next set of symptom amidst a crowded field of people with symptoms? Most likely I’d wait until it was a crisis and I had no choice.
That decision is costly not only to the person who makes it but to the society that ultimately bears the price of treating a condition that has been left too long untreated. As a diabetic, I know that it is easier to treat my diabetes now than it would be to treat the complications that can arise if I don’t. Insulin is cheaper both for society and me than amputations or blindness.
So the question is why this country is having such a difficult time figuring out how to make sure that no one in our society falls through the cracks of the health care system. Poor people have Medicaid. It may not be much, but it’s something.  Older Americans have Medicare. Again, not the ideal but at least a safety net of sorts. Some workers are lucky enough to have employers who provide health care in some form or another. 
But there is a whole world of people in America who make too much to quality for government programs but too little to be able to afford health insurance and their employers offer them no options for coverage either.  For them, the world is a harsh place if they even so much as have a toothache.
The sign in the Jefferson ER made it clear that they would treat you if you needed help regardless of your ability to pay.  Which is a fine and noble sentiment except that in the end, someone has to pay. And that someone is all of us. We pay with higher premiums for our health insurance. We pay every time the hospital charges us $225 for the plastic bedpan they provide.  We pay because the working poor end up not working when they get so ill they need to go to the ER for care and, voila, they are then eligible for Medicaid. 
We pay because people who have to wait until they are so sick they can no longer function, end up becoming dependent on society to care for them.  If they had been able to afford care from the beginning, they might have been able to remain contributing members of the workforce.
I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that what I saw at the ER that long afternoon was not the way a country as rich as America should be handling the health care of its citizens.

Elise Patkotak • 06:04 AM •
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mr. T came home a few days ago. He joins Morris the bird on my little table. It’s good to have him back. Now I can say goodnight to him again like I did for the past 16 years.  To all those wonderful people who called and sent cards, let me say thank you.  It’s nice to know this state is filled with people who can love pets so much and be so kind. I think that bodes well for our future.

Meanwhile, I went to Friends of Pets and found two wonderful new friends who are helping to fill the gap left by Mr. T.  It’s a large gap but I think these two are up for it. 
They are an odd couple, to say the least.  Blue is a lot of blue heeler with a little bit of something else.  She worries a lot.  After all, she’s come to a home with quite a large and diverse herd and it’s not easy to keep us all together so she can finally get a good night’s sleep. 
For starts, she can’t figure out how to get the downstairs and upstairs birdcages herded together so she can keep an eye on all of them at once. And I’m infamous for being restless and going up and down the stairs a million times a day. Sometimes I see a look of resignation in her face as she heaves herself up after finally having five minutes of peace to follow me up the stairs again.  I realized quickly that there would be no convincing her that she could just wait for me at the bottom of the stairs.
But how could I resist the allure of an older dog with diabetes that needed insulin every day. It’s like we were made for each other. Now I have someone right in my home to compare blood sugars with and to gloat over when mine are better than hers.  It’s a match made in heaven.
Her gal pal Blondie is the polar opposite. Blondie has a little of a lot of breeds in her and the result is a dog who is basically very happy she’s a dog.  Everything is utterly fascinating and amusing to her. A leaf that blows by, a snowflake that falls on her face, a drop of rain that hits her head - all are greeted with wonder and joy.  She’s one of those dogs who, if she could talk, would probably spend a lot of time saying, “I’m a dog!  I’m a dog!  Life is great!  I got to sniff things today.  I got to chew something unrecognizable from the street today.  I got my belly rubbed.  I’m a dog. Ain’t’ life grand?”
We have had a few moments in the adjustment period where I thought I might actually be in control of my animals this time. Luckily that moment passed and I am back to the happy acceptance that I’m just one vote among many when it comes to issues affecting my little household. For instance, I thought that since I earned the money that bought the kibbles that keeps everyone happy and well fed, I should get a majority of the room on my bed.  I was obviously wrong.  There are three of us who need to be accommodated and two of the three of us apparently need to stretch their legs out as far as possible in marking their portion of the bed. But I don’t mind clinging to that last three inches they leave me in exchange for the warm bodies that snuggle next to me on cold nights.
Getting used to walking two dogs at once took a little more adjusting.  Here’s what I’ve definitely learned from the experience. You can’t tie the bag you’ve scooped the poop with when you have a dog leash in each hand. You have to carry it home untied until you put them in the house and have a free hand to dispose of the bag.  And when you are carrying an untied bag of scooped material, you should not swing that hand over your hand while twirling around to untwist the dogs’ leashes.  Let’s just say it can cause some things to become fast traveling projectiles that should probably stay in the bag.
My African Gray parrot Abdul used to call Mr. T every morning when it was time for him to wake up and go out.  He hasn’t said T’s name since the day Mr. T crossed the Rainbow Bridge. But he still yells, “Go out” the minute I get up in the morning. And the dogs respond with alacrity to his command.
My world is complete again. Mr. T is home. Abdul is in charge of everything. Blue covers our rear. Blondie reminds us all about the simple pleasures of life. And the other birds are once again on the phone to their attorneys asking if I can really bring not one, but two new dogs into their home.
Now if I could just get Blue and Blondie to share the blanket....

Elise Patkotak • 06:34 AM •
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It being Thanksgiving, I think it is appropriate to give thanks.  Since I use New Year’s as a time to count the people and things that most annoyed me throughout the past year, this is the best time to list the things for which I am most grateful.

Let me start by saying that although I may not agree with Sarah Palin on many issues, I am prouder than punch that Alaska not only has its first female governor, but has one who has shown she actually has a working moral compass.
Back in prehistory when I was young and burning my bra in a trashcan on the Atlantic City Boardwalk outside of the Miss America pageant, I thought that by the time I reached such an advanced age women would have no firsts left.  I thought my generation would knock those firsts out like dominoes set up to fall.  But that didn’t happen.  Instead, life happened.  And life has a funny way of throwing the best laid plans off track.
So some of those women who burned their bras with me went out the next day and bought new ones and entered what I thought of as the world of our mothers. It was a world bounded by school and children and soccer practices.  They became the legendary soccer moms.  And thank god for them because they raised the generation that produced women like Sarah Palin, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Butcher, women who broke through glass ceilings like they were made of soap bubbles.
Some of those bra burning women went into the home to raise a family and came out energized to change the world.  And some never left the business world for a second. They became Secretaries of State, Supreme Court Justices and Martha Stewart. These women broke into the board rooms, church hierarchies and halls of government power, blazing a new trail with every step they took. Yet despite all that movement, each year brings another first for women because there are just that many firsts to be had.  I’m grateful that the firsts continue to pile up, that I’ve lived to see them and that the next generation of women will know that you can have it all even if they don’t want it all simultaneously. Because what women have hopefully learned over the past four decades is that you can go to school, raise a family and then get back into the workforce and still be successful.  Or you can never leave the workforce and still have a healthy family. Or you can concentrate on business and not have a traditional family and still have a fulfilling and healthy life.
I am immensely grateful that we have all those options now and that our children and grandchildren and every generation succeeding them will see less and less firsts as women become ubiquitous in all facets of life.
I am also extremely grateful this year to all those people who take their immense talents and skills and use them to support volunteer organizations all over this state, this country and this world.  This volunteer work is no longer the sole purview of “the women who lunch”.  Men and women together keep the doors open on charitable and civic organizations that feed and clothe the hungry, provide scholarships to students, offer shelter to abused and unwanted animals, give TLC to wild critters in need of some quiet time to heal and sit all day at polling places to make sure we get a chance to exercise the greatest right we can have in a democracy.
This Thanksgiving I will be sitting down to a meal with cousins who grew up to be some of my best friends. Their children will also be at that dinner table listening to us tell tales about their parents when they were young and bursting the pomposity of anyone who dares to pretend they have no skeletons in their past. When you dine with family, the skeletons dine with you.
I’m especially grateful that at least two people from my parents’ generation are still sharing that meal with us. The connection is so tenuous now that it has become all that more precious.
Mostly, I’m grateful that the world is looking a little kinder and gentler this year than it did last year.  As Martha would say, “That’s a good thing.”

Elise Patkotak • 06:36 AM •
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Just when I thought I could put the recently completed political season behind me with a minimum of annoyance, the two major political parties decided to go that one step too far.  And now I’m not feeling quite so charitable towards them.

Let’s start with the Republicans.  You lost.  No matter how much spin you try to put on it, you lost.  And I, quite frankly, am getting a major headache listening to talking heads trying to twist this around into a scenario in which it looks like you lost but not really.
From what I can glean from the insanity before my heads starts exploding, President Bush lost, Rumsfeld lost, the House and Senate were lost but the Republicans didn’t lose because the Democrats who were elected were much more like Republicans than true Democrats. So ultimately, this reasoning concludes, the Republicans won.  Sorta.
Let me repeat again.  You lost.  You lost for a number of reasons. People were tired of the lies about progress in what looks like a war we can’t win.  If this isn’t Vietnam redux, it’s enough like it to make a generation shaped by Vietnam very nervous.  You lost because President Bush insisted till the day after the votes were tallied that he stood by the Rumsfeld doctrine that led us to Iraq and that he stood by Rumsfeld.
By the way, am I the only person who thought it was really classy of our president to dump the guy the very next day? Nothing like giving a true and faithful servant a graceful exit.
The Democrats should also take a deep breath, grab hold of their egos and accept that no one either in their party or on their payroll as a consultant constructed a winning strategy for these midterm elections.  The Democrats did not win. The Republicans lost. The Democrats just happened to be the people standing next to the Republicans in line at the public trough.
Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention but I must say I did not hear a coherent program or policy from the Democrats the entire campaign season.  I mostly had the impression that they were standing in the shadows trying to not explode with glee at each buffoonish misstep made by Republicans from the president’s refusal to admit that maybe, just maybe, Rumsfeld needed to go, to the mind numbing number of improprieties committed by the so called party of morality. 
I believe this is exactly why the phrase, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” was created.  If you are going to run on a platform of morality and sanctimony, then you better be darn sure that everyone in your tent is beyond reproach.
The talking heads and pundits keep dithering about a divided and polarized America. They are wrong.  The largest part of the American public lives solidly in the middle and agrees to one degree or another on the things that are most important. They are the things that affect our daily lives.
Believe it or not, that isn’t gay marriage and it isn’t whether God is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s whether you’ll be able to afford health care for your family. It’s whether your mom and dad will be able to pay for the medicine they need as they age.  It’s whether there will be a safe, clean world for our children.
It is only the fringes of both parties that fight the morality battles over gay rights and prayer in school. Most people who pray find ample time to do so with their families outside of work and school.  Most gays lead quiet, productive lives without threatening anyone’s marriage or sexual preferences.  Most people live in the middle and it was the middle that spoke in this last election.
So to the Republicans, get over it. You lost and no amount of tortured logic will change that. To the Democrats, get over it. You may now be the majority but it is only minimally through your own efforts that you got there.  In fact, you should probably count Republican contributions to your victory on your tax returns this year.
Now can we just get on with the holiday season and put this madness behind us?  Pass the cranberry sauce please.

Elise Patkotak • 06:56 AM •
Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Because of deadlines, this column is being written well before votes are cast in the November 7 election.  Therefore, this is strictly a subjective analysis of the recent campaign season and not based on any hopes I may have for a high paying, low energy job with anyone who may have actually won. Though, lord knows, I am always open to anyone who wants to make an offer.

Actually, this overview is pretty much based on late night conversations I have with my birds and dogs who are as astute at political commentary as just about any talking head in the media today - and, may I add, more astute than many.
Despite the cynics who say I never met a campaign that didn’t annoy me and my animals beyond anything one should have to endure, even for democracy’s sake, I did find some good things is our recently ended political season.
First of all, as always, I must congratulate the people of this country for carrying on the tradition of democracy once again without resorting to guns and tanks in the street to make their point.  We are so blas� about our democracy that we sometimes fail to pat ourselves on the back enough for the long string of elections we can point to, stretching over three centuries, in which the winners took office and the losers regrouped for the next go round and no one overthrew anyone else’s government.
Even granting the small number of people who actually go to the polls, the bottom line is that everyone accepts the outcome and goes on with life.  We need to stop more often and appreciate just how special that is.
I liked the fact that two credible candidates for high office, one for governor and one for the House of Representatives, were women. I think the inclusion of viable female candidates in the mix of state and national politics bring a different flavor to the races and the debates.  Opposing male candidates have to be very careful to not appear to be bullying or brutish while still engaging in spirited debate with their female opponents. Walking this fine line has cause a lot of rethinking of traditionally accepted campaign strategies and that’s a good thing.
I think Diane Benson deserves a lot of credit for running herself ragged trying to mount a viable campaign against Don Young despite his reluctance to engage with her very often.  As a candidate who started out with little name recognition and single digit numbers, she fought hard and that is to her credit. 
Unfortunately, the media conceded the race to Young before it even began so she was virtually unable to get the coverage she needed to make her case to a wider Alaskan audience. As anyone who has run a statewide campaign here knows, this state is just too big and remote to be able to cover it one town meeting at a time.  Without statewide coverage, you end up with a stealth campaign and they are usually not very viable.
The major negative of this election season has been the incessant ads against Proposition Two.  I felt like I was a little person at the bottom of a hill and a big giant at the top was throwing snowballs down at me so fast that I didn’t have time to take a breath or ask why.
The ads caused me to want to vote for Prop Two just because I was so angry at the feeling that I was being bullied. I longed for info from the camp that first got the proposition on the ballot but that didn’t come till literally the eleventh hour. Where were they all those other months? Why did they put that proposition on our ballot and then go underground as though ashamed of their actions till forced to surface a week before Election Day?
All in all, though, I must say that any campaign in which that is my chief complaint is not a bad campaign season at all. The candidates stayed relatively civil till almost the very end.  The amount of sound and fury signifying nothing was kept to more of a minimum than usual and Alaskans had some real choices in the people they could vote for.
I’m glad it’s over.  Like dental work, it is something to be endured for a better life in the future.  But this time around, it was like dental work on nitrous - almost enjoyable.

Elise Patkotak • 06:40 AM •
Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I have spent most of my life fighting the battle of the bulge. I’ve done it for a variety of reasons. When I was young I did it because I was told men did not find “large” women attractive. Since I grew up in an era when it was more important for a woman to earn her MRS than her BS, this became a major issue in my youth.

As I aged, I fought the battle in an attempt to ward off the actual aging process. I come from the generation that said we should trust no one over 30. That made it very difficult to reach 40 and 50 feeling good about myself.  I thought if I could just be thin enough, no one would notice how old I’d gotten.  Needless to say, that didn’t exactly work out as I planned. When fourteen bones in your back creak and crack when you get out of a chair while making that “oof” sound, people know you are not a spring chicken.
My final battle of the bulge came as I entered my “mature” years and developed health problems that were directly affected by weight.  I’m having more success with the battle this time around, probably due to the fact that it is more about surviving long enough to spend my retirement than simply vanity.
All of the above is an attempt at full disclosure for what follows. And that is that America seems obsessed with the issue of obesity with no middle ground tolerated in the discussion.  You either accept that America is getting extremely fat and the collective weight of the next generation’s poundage induced diseases will crush our health care system or you are wrong. 
As always, I find extremism suspect based solely on the fact that extremists are rarely actually dealing with reality. I find truth can usually be found somewhere in the middle ground that most extremists loathe because it does not fit in with their worldview.
And so I watch in amazement as designers create size 0 clothing with the implication being that if you are anything over a size 2, you are fat. There is a commercial on TV for a diet product in which the pitch is that the young lady was able to go from a size 8 to a size 2 in some amazingly short amount of time.
I think in this instance Muslims fundamentalists are more honest in their actions than Americans. They make no bones of the fact that they want their women to disappear and cover them completely from head to toe to achieve that end.
Here in America, we view that action as reprehensible but see nothing wrong in encouraging girls to become a size 0. Either way, the message going out to women is that to be acceptable, you have to be either a cipher totally enveloped in a walking tent or a size 0 which really just says you are a nothing, literally a zero.
I watch in amazement as cupcakes are banned from school birthday parties or any event for children sponsored by anyone who hopes to maintain any sort of good reputation in the kiddie world.  We no longer allow birthday cupcakes, Christmas cookies, Halloween candy or any munchie that isn’t healthy and sugar free. These same children will then go home to households in which at least 50% of the dinners they eat will be take out and of that, most will probably be pizza.  So let’s take a guess as to which will ultimately have a greater effect on the child’s eventual size and eating habits.
I think our kids need to learn good nutrition and good eating habits.  I think that to be effective, that training needs to be backed up by parents who cook healthy meals at home. I think schools should be allowed to treat kids on special holidays with a cookie or cupcake without risking their reputation.  If what the child learns is that if you eat healthy most of the time an occasional treat won’t kill you, then the child will have learned a real life lesson.
But if what we teach our children is that all sweets are forbidden and bad...well, let’s all remember back to our childhoods and how we responded when something became forbidden.  Made it way more attractive, didn’t it?
So let’s leave the extremes and meet in the middle where common sense should prevail.  Our kids need to learn to eat sensibly. They need to understand that neither a size 0 nor a size 22 is healthy but that leaves a lot of room in the middle. 
And for goodness sakes, grab hold of some sanity and let them have cookies at the class Christmas party.

Elise Patkotak • 06:00 AM •
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Last week was a hard week for me.  Not only was I attending a seminar entitled The Alaska Child Maltreatment Conference, but I finally had to send my little buddy of 15 years across the Rainbow Bridge.

At the beginning of the week, the only thought in my mind was, “What PR genius named this conference?” By the end of the week, the only thought in my mind was that all our children should have as much love and kindness in their lives as Mr. T had in his.
Mr. T didn’t always have it easy. He came to me as a two year old with the worse case of ADHD I have ever seen in any creature, including my beloved godchild. He’d lost his first home in part because of his frantic activity and was looking for a second chance to prove he could be someone’s good buddy.
Mr. T could spin through my house in a constant circle for hours on end, leaping across couches and chairs, whether they were occupied or not, just to burn off his energy. I used to take him down Fresh Water Lake Road in Barrow and let him run behind the car from the cemetery to the lake and back. It was about three miles round trip and sometimes we had to do three trips before he had used up enough energy to consider getting back in the car.
As time went on and he realized that this life we were creating would continue, he calmed down.  I know some friends who would laugh at that statement and say that he didn’t actually calm down till he got senile but really, he did.  He grew comfortable and secure in the knowledge that it was his house, his food dish, his toys.  He understood that no matter what threats the birds were making, in the end I would protect his stuff and not let them have any of it.  As he grew more secure, he also grew calmer. We still walked every day but the frantic nature of his motion disappeared and he seemed to actually savor the time we had together. He took the time to smell the roses.  And then he took the time to mark them so that every other dog that came along would understand they were his roses.
As I listened to the case studies described in the seminar on child abuse, I realized that Mr. T had something so many of the children we discussed would never know. He had stability, love, guidelines and limits. He knew where he stood in the hierarchy of the household.... ok, maybe he had a slightly inflated sense of that but nonetheless he knew he had standing in the household and that standing was firm.  He knew he’d be fed and walked every day. He knew he had a safe bed to sleep in at night and a safe lap to sit in while watching Animal Planet.
If the kids who go through the state system had half of those things, they probably wouldn’t have to be in the state system. And that’s just such a sad statement to make.  I offer no apologies for the love and care I lavish on my animals.  They deserve it and I can afford to give it to them.  I don’t think this is a case of having to choose to be nice to animals or nice to kids.  In a perfect world, both kids and pets would have all the love, laps and security they needed to make each day an exciting new adventure.
I was taking Mr. T on our regular walk when he collapsed. I brought him to the wonderful people over at College Village Animal Clinic and they helped me help him cross the Rainbow Bridge surrounded by people who cared, in the arms of the person who loved him beyond all possible description.  Till the day he died, he knew he was safe and secure. He knew I would never let anyone hurt him and that the people who I entrusted him to when I wasn’t there would be kind and gentle.
Wouldn’t it be great if someday here in Alaska every one of our children...and really, they are all “our” children.... could have that same love, security and peace that Mr. T enjoyed for the last 15 years of his life. Imagine what a better world that would be for them and for us. It’s not an impossible dream to achieve but it isn’t an easy one.  When you consider what’s at stake though, it would seem that no amount of effort should be too much to make all our children safe and loved.
Elise Patkotak • 06:01 AM •
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I recently celebrated the 34th anniversary of the day I arrived in Alaska. The fact that I remember the date and celebrate it each year is probably indicative of how important it is in my life.

At a luncheon I attended soon after this anniversary, I was approached by someone who said that it was clear from what I wrote and said that I’d found my place in this state and had put down some pretty deep roots.  She asked what it was that had kept me here way past my initial two year commitment with Indian Health Service.
It’s hard for me to answer that question without getting all soggily sentimental and wanting to stand up and sing the state song while waving the eight stars of gold on a field of blue.  I lived in three other states before moving here and never felt that way about their state songs. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t even know their state songs.  I think Alaska has to be one of the few states that uses its song so much it’s as familiar to most Alaskans as the national anthem and, may I add, a whole lot easier to sing.
Anyway, I got to thinking about the question of what it was that kept me in Alaska, what it was that told me when I arrived here that I had finally found home.  It’s hard to express in words but I can give one very specific example of it. 
I used to belong to the Alaska Press Club. Each year, the club holds a journalism week that ends with a banquet at which awards are presented for excellence in the fields of print, radio and TV journalism.  In a state like Alaska, this makes for a very interesting banquet because the state is so far flung and its media so dispersed and disparate. And, if we are to be perfectly honest about this, people in the Bush tend to have a different attitude towards dress and appearance than their urban counterparts.  For many of us, not freezing to death took great precedence over looking good. For many Bush Alaskans, the latest fashion means the newest Carharts in our closet.
At this annual banquet, you had everyone from your TV talking heads with perfect hair and makeup and expensive gowns and tuxes to the public radio reporter from the bush who duct taped his Carharts so they didn’t flap when he walked up to get the award he hoped to win.
And that, quite simply put, is what has always attracted me to this state.  Although Anchorage can be a bit on the too urban side in this regard, it has never turned the corner and gone completely citified.  Go into any restaurant in this city and you will see people from every walk of life dressed in every possible combination enjoying a fine meal without a sideways glance from any hostess or maitre’d or snobby wine steward.  Alaska is, as it has always been, a place that accepts any and all as equal until you prove you are not worthy.  And I simply love that about our state.
I love that even though I have friends who shop at Nordstrom’s, a store that intimidates me just to walk through, they can be found just as easily at Sears or Fred Meyers.  Real Alaskans simply don’t know how to be snobbish in that East Coast/West Coast way.  They live in million dollar houses that have three cars parked on the lawn that only boast six tires among them, and that’s not counting the RV under the tarp.
If we are snobbish, it’s about the important things like the fact that our mosquitoes can beat up your mosquitoes any day of the week with one hand tied behind their back.  And our spring breakups are the worse breakups anywhere in the world bar none.  And our politicians can be both nobler and sleazier that your politicians can ever hope to be, and they can be both at the same time.
Alaska is truly, in the best sense of the phrase, a classless society.  Your former governor can be found in front of you in line at REI, your state senator can be reached by a phone call to his home.  The same talking heads you see on TV are picking up their kids at the same school your kids attend. We mix and match all strata of society in this state and the result is a strong and vibrant community.
I can’t imagine living anywhere else and enjoying it so much.

Elise Patkotak • 04:12 AM •
Wednesday, October 04, 2006

It is the 500th day of rain this year in Anchorage.  People are starting to look grim.  Mold and mildew are growing in the most unimaginable spots on animals and humans alike. When the sun occasionally breaks through the clouds, people react with horror at the bright yellow dot in the sky. What could it be?

This is not a good turn of events in a town where concealed weapons are as prevalent as lattes at Caf� Loco.  You want people who are carrying concealed weapons to be happy most of the time, not damp. 
Each morning, my little dog heads for the door to go out for his morning ablutions.  He has a wistfully hopeful demeanor as I open the door. Then his head immediately droops as he realizes that once again he’s going to get cold and wet. After staring forlornly at the rain for a minute, he turns around and heads for the other door in the vain hope that perhaps it won’t be raining on that side of the house.  But it always is. 
At this point, it takes a gentle shove on his butt to get him to go out into it and not just squat in the doorway...though there are some days when I think that would be a perfectly acceptable indication of how the day was making us both feel.
I realize that I live in Anchorage now and not Barrow and so must come to expect a lot of rain.  But really, enough is enough.  I have mushrooms growing on my walls - and that’s inside my house. Where I used to have lawn, I now have mold and moss.  Plants that should have bloomed about two months ago are just now putting out flowers. They simply hadn’t seen enough sun to set their blooming clocks correctly.  Or maybe they were just too depressed to bloom.
Here is my real fear, though. What if we have another of those winters?  You know the ones I’m referring to. The winters where it rains and rains and rains and then freezes and freezes and freezes and we drive and walk on ice thick enough to handle an ice hockey game. What snow does fall is quickly intimidated into submission by the torrential rains that continue to pour from the sky through December and January and February...through all those months when it is our god given right to have snow for skiing and snowmobiling and Christmas.
The only good thing that has ever come out of one of those wet, freezing winters was the pain meds I got when I fell on the ice at the end of my driveway.  I had parked the car just a few steps from the mailbox thinking I could safely walk the three feet to it. I was wrong.  My feet went up and my entire body came down on the ice with a head shattering smash.
I remember lying there on the ice, getting colder and colder, unable to move, screaming “Call 911” at the top of my lungs and thinking how odd it would be to die like that.  Here I had survived thirty years in the Arctic, including numerous camping trips with Big Sam in which he often had not a clue where we were or how we would get back, and yet now I was going to die at the end of my driveway in Anchorage during a winter that didn’t even have the decency to have snow.  It was truly one of the most depressing moments in my life.
I soon figured out there was no one else anywhere around in my neighborhood so screaming “911” was a waste of time and energy. And eventually I was able to pull myself to my car and find a friend to take me to the emergency room. While there, I was told they were seeing a lot of falls like mine. Then, they gave me pills to take the edge off till my ribs decided to return to their normal position. Thanks to those pills, I can honestly say I stopped caring about the rain and ice at that point.
I’m not sure I could face another ice filled winter like that.  The darkness seems darker without snow.  The daylight seems shorter without the white to brighten it up.  I feel as though we have become Juneau, and that’s not a good thing. 
In fact, at this point, they might as well move the capitol here.  It’s not as though even our legislature could make things worse. I mean, seriously, you can’t insult the soggy.  They are too tired and wet and damp to care. 

Elise Patkotak • 07:51 AM •
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I remember going down a river in China back in 1983 and turning to my sister and saying, “What’s missing here?” Something seemed odd or wrong.

It took a few minutes for me to figure it out. There were no birds flying, no sounds echoing from their songs and conversations. It was eerily silent.  Unfortunately, the birds came later on a plate.  Little song birds roasted whole and eaten whole, bones and all.  My sister spent a lot of time in China being a vegetarian.
The kind of silence I found on that river in China is a large part of the Arctic winter. If it weren’t for the sounds of cars or snow machines, the silence would be total except for the occasional distant thud of snow settling on the tundra.
Two things meant that spring had arrived up north.  The whaling boats came down from their winter racks and the snowbirds returned.  You knew the birds were back the morning you woke up and heard their song outside your window.  From silence to their song, suddenly the frozen world of the north would come alive with a sense of renewal second only to that engendered by the return of the sun.
By the time spring turned into summer, the birds were back big time. Alaska’s North Slope is one of the biggest breeding grounds for migratory birds in the world.  The tundra is transformed by their presence.  Camping in the winter means a silence that absolutely envelops you like another dimension closing in.  Camping in the summer means going to sleep to the sound of loons and tundra swans that inhabit any body of water they can find. There were geese, ptarmigan, and snowy owls as well as a huge variety of ducks and seagulls. We even have seagulls that turn pink when they come to the land north of Barrow to mate.
By the time I left Barrow, ravens had taken up full time residence in town. The first year a pair stayed, we were constantly startled to see something flying around in the middle of winter.  They seemed to survive by finding warmth in the heating vents that sprang up all over town as the pipeline boom made it’s presence felt in Barrow through new housing and new commercial buildings.  Eventually it was four ravens, then six that over wintered, and soon we became blas� about their presence.
You knew winter was drawing near when the great migrations south started.  I was walking my dog on Fresh Water Lake road on a day when there was a low cloud cover over Barrow. Suddenly, the gray sky seemed to get even darker. I looked up and found what seemed like a sky full of ducks flying over my head. They flew low to get below the cloud cover and they seemed to be flying in absolute silence.  I instinctively ducked my head (no pun intended) because they felt close enough to have their wings hit me on the down swing.  When they reached the coast a little distance away, they turned left and were gone.
Both my dog and I stood there and watched the flock in awe.  I knew the length of the journey in front of them and was amazed once again at the stamina and strength they would need to accomplish it.  Talk about having the ability to focus on a goal till it’s achieved!  Is there a better example of this anywhere?
Here in Anchorage we watch the geese take off south, giving us the same message they give to our more northern friends. Winter is coming. But since we tend to be a bit more removed from nature than people who live in the bush, Bird TLC is hosting a Bye Bye Birdie event this Saturday from 11 AM till 5 PM at the old Rabbit Hutch property off Old Seward Highway above Potter Marsh.  It will give us city folks a chance to meet and greet some of the birds that call Alaska home all or part of the year and a chance to give a final salute to those heading south for the winter. There will be hands-on education activities for the whole family, lots of live bird presentations from TLC’s vast array of ed birds and a raffle that gives you a chance to win an eagle release.  And did I mention that, except for the raffle, it’s all free?
So grab the family and head on over to the old Rabbit Hutch site this Saturday, have some fun and wave goodbye to the birds...who apparently are smarter than we are in that they know to head south for the winter while we just sit here and put snow tires on our cars.

Elise Patkotak • 04:09 AM •
Wednesday, September 06, 2006

My miniature schnauzer, Mr. T, has reached the ripe old age of 16 1/2 years old with no more or less in the way of problems that most of us would have at the equivalent human age.  Granted I spend more for his medicine in a month that for mine. And yes, neither one of us moves as fast as we once did.  But all things considered, he’s not doing badly at all.

When we take our daily walk, he moves slowly. Usually he is behind me at the end of the leash taking his time about the whole thing.  Because he suffers from senility, part of the slowness is that he forgets where he is about every five minutes and stops dead in his tracks while he tries to remember. When I turn to look at him quizzically to see what the problem is, he immediately sticks his head into the nearest clump of grass as though he’d meant to stand there sniffing all along. 
When days are hot and we are going uphill, he stops to sniff things a lot.  It’s his way of taking a break and catching his breath.  And when he sees another dog while we are walking, he comes to life as though he were six instead of sixteen. This same dog who can neither see nor hear me when I am five feet away from him at home suddenly can see and hear the distance of a city block or better if another dog is involved.  I guess motivation makes a big difference.
Mr. T’s day is centered around his walk. He gets up in the morning, has his pills and chicken and then goes back to sleep so that he will have the strength to get up for lunch.  Then he takes another nap until it’s time for his walk.  No matter how hard he’s sleeping, sometime between 1PM and 3PM every day he can be found at the side of my office chair looking at me and whimpering softly.  He will sit there and annoy the holy heck out of me until I give up, grab the leash and take him out.
Upon returning from his walk, he gets his chicken jerky and then goes back to his interrupted afternoon nap which he needs to build strength for his evening meal and nap which he needs to build strength for his night’s sleep. All of this is done on any number of soft dog beds scattered through the house so that he never has to waste his precious naptime on climbing stairs. He can just flop wherever his last food intake occurred and know he will hit a bed.
At night when I put him out for the last time, I carry him from his bed down the stairs and outside where I place him gently on the ground. Once he has finished his nightly moment, I pick him up and carry him back to his bed with a stop at the water dish for a last drink.
I tell you all this because I want people to understand that there is no place in this world or any alternative universe in which Mr. T would be considered abused in any way.  I daresay most Third World families would be thrilled to live a life half as good.  So when you see me walking him and he is lollygagging behind me and limping, I am not torturing him.  The walk is his idea.  He always limps with or without his pain med.
And in the winter, when you see me all bundled up in my winter parka and he is behind me with no coat or doggie shoes, it is not because I am being mean.  I’d like him to dress warmly.  I have at least three doggie coats at home that I try to put him in each time we walk.  He reacts very badly to this.  He is an Arctic dog and feels a coat is just insulting.
And god help me if I try to get him in the booties.  Have you ever seen a dog walk stiff legged and hysterical while shaking his paws frantically?  Well, put that picture in your head with an old dog who really can’t balance on three legs anymore and you have some idea of the scene in my house when I get anywhere near his feet with booties.
I thank all the people of Anchorage who care enough about animals to be concerned about Mr. T when they see us walking together.  But I must admit that I am getting very nervous that people are going to send the animal police to my house because they think Mr. T is not being treated well.  Believe me, he is. 
In fact, the only goal I have left in life is to convince my family to treat me as well as I treat Mr. T when I’m old and decrepit.  Until then, we’ll continue to take walks together and enjoy the time we have left in the way he loves best - walking through his neighborhood protecting his stuff from every real and imagined threat a dog’s mind can conjure up when goofy on pain pills.

Elise Patkotak • 07:10 AM •
Friday, September 01, 2006

The only words you need to define Alaska.

Elise Patkotak • 04:34 AM •

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