Elise Sereni
Wednesday, December 24, 2003

As best we can, those of us who work with troubled and abused kids try to get them as close to home as possible for the holiday season.  It just seems wrong to leave a kid in detention over Christmas if it can be avoided.

Often, we can’t actually let the kid go home for a variety of reasons - some related to the child and some related to the conditions in the parental home.  But we try to find someplace close by where they can feel it’s at least a little bit like Christmas.
Working with village kids makes this even more critical because Christmas in the Bush isn’t like Christmas in urban or suburban areas.  On the North Slope, most of Christmas Day is spent at church at a church feast.  Everyone brings some of the bounty of the year’s subsistence hunt and you feast on duck soup and whale, maktak and caribou.  And just to be sure no one is hungry at the end of the day, there is usually a turkey roasting in the oven at home while the feast is going on.
No group home or foster home that isn’t actually located in a village can simulate that atmosphere of fellowship and camaraderie.  Just like for most of us, Christmas will forever be defined by the foods and activities our parents created for us, these village feasts define Christmas for most of the kids I work with.
In my childhood, Christmas meant getting to wear the new dress, coat, shoes, gloves and hat that had been sitting in my closet tantalizing me for the better part of a month.  Christmas meant getting in the car to drive to Philly to spend the day with all my relatives.  It meant going over the Tacony-Palmyra bridge and getting a candy cane from the man in the booth as he waved us through for free. It meant begging mom for permission to eat the candy cane before we hit Aunt Ida’s and had to have dinner.
After we got to Philly, we made the rounds of aunts and uncles who would not be joining us at the table because they would be with other family. This was the time for all cousins to inspect each other’s haul and see who won. It was also the time to stuff down as many Christmas cookies as we possibly could before mom caught us and gave us a lecture about ruining our appetites for the dinner Aunt Ida had been slaving over for two days.
Once at Aunt Ida’s, the big debate began about who was going to pick up Uncle Henry from the home and who was going to go get Aunt Adeline who, as usual, was saying she didn’t feel like going out and just wanted to spend Christmas alone and quiet.  Like she had a chance in hell of her family letting that happen.
Once we all gathered, the food came out. And it came out.  And it came out.  Course after course after course.  Antipasto followed by Christmas soup followed by pasta followed by a roast followed by desert, followed by hot chestnuts, Christmas cookies, nut, figs and espresso coffee that could keep your eyeballs at full salute for 72 hours. 
Not that we kids ever got that far. Between the excitement of getting up early to open presents, the visiting with all the Philly cousins, the snatched cookies and candy canes and the smell of my Uncle Paul’s homemade wine, anyone under 12 was usually snoring at the table by the time the antipasto hit.  We would be carried to the living room, deposited on couches and chairs and then the adults would return to a peaceful, quiet dinner.
Like the turnkeys my Inupiat friends have roasting in their ovens for when they return from the church feast, we had sandwiches packed to travel when we headed back out for Atlantic City so we wouldn’t starve during the 90-minute journey. You got these sandwiches whether you had finished dinner three hours or three minutes before your departure.
That was Christmas for me and I can’t imagine how I would have survived it being any other way.  So I can’t imagine how the kids who can’t go home manage to keep a smile on their face through Christmas day when nothing is as it should be, nothing really means Christmas and home to them because they aren’t home.
If I had one wish for Christmas, it would be this. That all the kids in this state who are in group homes, foster homes and detention facilities could, for one magical day, be home with their families and communities enjoying the Christmas they remember.
And for those children whose parents have given them no good memories beyond drunken parties and holiday violence, I wish that they find a way to make peace in their lives with the pain they’ve been dealt so that someday they can give their own children wonderful Christmas memories.

Elise Patkotak • 07:20 PM •
Friday, December 12, 2003

I think it was the picture of the kids that got to me and bought it all down to a painfully human level.  My sister has a similar picture in her living room.  It’s a picture of six cousins lined up on Cayuga Street in Philadelphia sometime in the very early fifties.  One cousin, Joe, has struck a bratty pose with a hand behind his head and another on his hip. The rest of us, my cousins Marina, Toni, Joe (a very common name in our family), my brother Philip and I, all stood obediently in a row smiling at the camera, dressed in our Sunday best.

So when I stood in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and looked at a picture of another group of kids, obviously all related, standing on grass in another time and place, posing for a picture, I suddenly connected with them in a very primal way. They were just kids posing for a picture for their parents - a picture they would never survive to enjoy; a picture they would never look at with nostalgia because they did not have enough time left in the world. They were all killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
I stood there with tears streaming down my face while clutching a piece of paper with Ita Grynbaum’s bio on it.  Each visitor to the museum picks one up. Each paper represents a victim of the Holocaust.  Ita died at 17 in a concentration camp.
I was already feeling vulnerable because I’d been to the Vietnam Memorial.  I’d never gone before since I wasn’t sure I could face it.  Then, standing there in front of all those names I thought, “This isn’t so bad. I can deal with this.” Right about then I found Paul DuCharm’s name.  He was a friend of mine who died within days of landing in Vietnam.
When I saw his name, when I touched his name, I lost it completely. Didn’t even see it coming.  One minute my finger was tracing his name and thinking that his 57th brithday would have been on Dec. 15, and the next minute I was sobbing. 
I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial and composed myself in the peace and dignity that pervades this space containing the image of a man of great peace and dignity.  Then I walked back to the hotel and with each step my sadness grew.  Everywhere I looked there were barricades.  In a country that long ago rejected royalty and proudly referred to the White House as the people’s house, people are now kept as far in the distance from the seats of power as the peasants of France once were.
In Philadelphia, I went to see the Liberty Bell with my sister and some cousins.  When I was young, we could just walk up to the bell. It was under a stone arch and accessible to the people whose freedom it represented. Now it’s been moved indoors and can only be viewed after passing through security.  As for Independence Hall - barricades now surround it; barricades now keep people from a hall in which the power of the people was first proclaimed.
I understand the reason it has to be this way.  Security requires greater vigilance nowadays.  But that doesn’t make the loss any easier to accept. In fact, on some levels, it seems as though terroists have already won when we, the people, can no longer access our history but must stand across a street behind barricades and stare longingly at it in the distance.
Yet all this paled into annoying background noise after seeing the Holocaust Museum.  By the time I had walked across cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto, passed through a train car like those used to deport Jews to death camps and reached the bin full of shoes and human hair taken from victims before they were gassed, I found myself walking faster and faster. I couldn’t wait to get to the end so that I could leave the horror behind me and emerge into the sunshine of a DC morning.
When you think about it, all war is insanity. But there is an especially evil insanity to a war based on racism. Because the logical end of racism is a Holocaust, and there simply is no logic to that.

Elise Patkotak • 06:57 PM •
Sunday, November 16, 2003

When my brother and I were growing up, my mother worked very hard to instill some culture in us. She didn’t want us to be street kids.  One of the ways she sought to achieve this goal was through music lessons.  I took piano lessons, and for reason known only to her and her god, she made my brother take accordion lessons.

Truth to be told, I was jealous of him. I just had a boring old brown piano to play on. But mom bought him a gold and white accordion that had glitter and buttons and straps and all kinds of fun things.  And only one hand had to learn how to play keys. The other got to just push buttons.  It was so unfair.  He got to have all the fun.
My brother apparently didn’t see it quite that way and after a year of mighty battles over going for lessons, my mother threw in the towel and told him he didn’t have to go anymore.  Of course, mom being mom, she wasn’t defeated in her aim to make us couth that easily. She promptly signed him up for ballroom dance lessons.  Since he needed a partner, I got signed up too.  I still can’t figure out why I had to be punished with him.  I mean, not only did he beat me out of the accordion but now I had to go to piano and dance lessons. Life was simply not fair.
Once he quit his lessons, I took over the accordion and taught myself how to play two buttons on the left hand and most of the keys on the right.  I amused myself highly with this activity till I became a teenager and realized that Lawrence Welk was the only other person I’d ever seen using an accordion. After that, the accordion was relegated to the back recesses of the closet at the end of the hallway where all hobbies in our house went to die.
I never thought much about accordions since then except for periodically throwing it in my brother’s face as proof that mom liked him more.  And then I went to the Fly By Night Club and watched what Mr. Whitekeys can do with an accordion. And I knew that I had been right all along. Accordions are really cool.
So this summer when my brother came to visit, I brought him to the Fly By Nigh Club so he could see what he missed by not continuing his lessons.  He was duly impressed - both with Alice Welling’s imitation of a salmon spawning and Mr. Whitekey’s exquisite rendering of the song “Anytime somebody does something dumb, an Alaskan does something dumber” on his gold and white accordion.
My friend Kate and I go to the Fly By Night Club every time the show changes as our one wild night out every three to four months whether we need it or not.  I like to pretend that I am going because the show offers up the best political satire this side of The Daily Show.  Or because Alice’s take on Bill Clinton saying “I’m sorry” gets me hysterical every time I see it.  Or because I am fascinated by a show that can build a whole song around a statue of Elvis on Mars and have it work.
But I really go because of the accordion. And now, because Mr. Whitekey’s is nothing if not an astute businessman (or just really easy about suggestions from the audience), I get to listen to the accordion music while eating a sugar free desert. I made this suggestion to him after sitting through one too many shows where a desert tray came through that shot my blood sugar over 1000 by just looking at it.
My brother and I are both diabetics and looking around the club I had to figure we weren’t the only ones who were.  Let’s face it. Our tourist population looks like the cast from Cocoon.  So I suggested that a sugar free desert would be just the thing to burn off the fat from a spam filled dinner.  And now there’s one on the menu, a delightful chocolate mousse with whipped cream topping that is sinfully delicious without sending me into a coma.
So if you like your accordion music with a little humor and some great deserts, head over to the Fly By Night Club. And for all you little boys and girls out there whose mothers are urging you to take accordion lessons, do it. Then you too can end up playing your heart out in a sleazy bar in Spenard while two people dressed like salmon try to swim upstage.

Elise Patkotak • 08:09 PM •

Since mom’s death, my sister, brother and I have gotten into the pattern of spending Thanksgiving together.  Christmas is not a holiday I enjoy, and after spending one with me recently, my sister suggested I just shut myself up for the season so as not to poison it for others.

But I like Thanksgiving. To me it’s the perfect holiday.  Not too much decorating.  No presents to buy.  And, if you’re lucky, a great meal full of traditions and memories that stretch back through your whole life.  What’s not to like?
One year Judy came to Alaska to share Thanksgiving with my friends here. My cousin Toni came up too. They were both properly horrified to learn that we were going to have a dinner made by a restaurant and picked up on Thanksgiving Day.  My cousin made her chestnut stuffing anyway. She just didn’t know how it could officially be Thanksgiving if she didn’t.
This year we will spend Thanksgiving my favorite way - with my cousins. It doesn’t matter whose home we’re in.  Whether it’s Joe’s or Robbie’s or Toni’s, or whether we all squeeze into my sister’s tiny home, the one constant at all the locations is that we will be spending it together, the way family should.
The faces that I will look at around that table will be older than my memory ever lets me remember they are. When I think of my cousins, I still think of the boys and girls we were, not the men and women we are now. So there’s always that moment when I first see them again after a year has gone by and I wonder who that middle aged man with my cousin’s face is.  Then the hugs and laughs start and the years melt away and I’m looking at the boys and girls I grew up with again.
There’s an ease that comes with so many years of familiarity. When you once had your diapers changed side by side, it’s hard to take on airs with each other. And if you do, there is always someone around to remind you of one of your life’s more embarrassing moments so that you are quickly brought down to reality.
I watch my cousins’ children and wonder if they have any idea what a great gift their parents are giving them by giving them cousins as friends. When your brother is really annoying you, there is no more faithful ally than your cousin, who is always ready to get even, especially if she gets to get even with her brother at the same time.  The alliances and friendships forged at family dinners throughout childhood are the ones that have stood the test of time and are still the ties that bind me the closest.
My cousin Joe was at a military college during the sixties while I was in the middle of the peace movement.  We could not have been further apart in philosophy and our lives could not have taken more different roads. Yet the minute we are together again, the years melt away and he’s Schmozie again - the five year old who got in trouble with me when our mothers caught us playing doctor and nurse together.  My cousin Toni is the not a fifty something lawyer but a fifteen year old teaching me how to put rollers in my hair and sleep on them.  My cousin Marina is not the mother of four but the little kid that trailed after us older cousins and made us feel so grown up - we tell her she was her mother’s “afterthought”.
Each face at the table carries the full lifetime of my childhood memories in it. We’ve eaten turkey together more often than we can count.  We know that cranberry sauce is supposed to be round and in a can, not that fresh stuff the new healthy eating philosophy tries to foist on us.  We know that the appetizer on Thanksgiving is my dad’s clams casino and none other will do.  And we know that after dinner, we get up groaning and collapse into chairs in the living room wondering when we became our parents.
If their children are lucky, and I believe they are, they will watch us closely and learn that this is what family is.  And if they are really lucky, 40 years from now they will be sitting together in someone’s living room swearing never to overeat again and wondering when they became their parents.  But only if they are very lucky like I am.
Elise Patkotak • 07:54 PM •

I was a seventeen year old high school senior getting ready for opening night of my high school play the day Kennedy was shot. I recently found the paper I wrote that year about those events.  Kennedy’s death was a defining moment in American life whether you liked him or not. It marked the end of the 50s and the beginning of a decade that, for better or for worse, would redefine America.

Here, edited for length, is some of what I wrote then.  The piece starts as we are finishing final rehearsal for the play.
Just before we began the finale our vice-principal entered the auditorium. We thought he was going to wish us good luck.  But his face was clouded and troubled. He whispered a few words to the director. The director turned to us. His words - “The President has been shot!”
Before we had time to fully comprehend all that had occurred, the auditorium was filled with students who had come to pray a rosary for him. As we took our seats, our principal entered and stepped up to the microphone on the stage.  He was, as usual, a great imposing figure of a man.  Tall, straight, a former football player, he gives one a feeling of strength and solidity.  Bet even he seemed strangely stooped and broken.  In a few moments we discovered why. With a dull, flat voice he announced, “We will now recite a rosary for the repose of the soul of our late President, John F. Kennedy.”
Now the silence was broken by muffled sobs and the responses to the rosary were shaky and tearful.  Father himself found it difficult to control the emotion stirring within him.
After the rosary we were dismissed. The director asked the cast members to get their books and then return.  As soon as the cast had assembled again, the director spoke. He said it would cost the school almost three thousand dollars to put off the play because the costumes and so on were rented from New York.  We had to put it on that night and the next two nights as planned.
The bus I took home from school was strangely quiet. Though filled with teenagers, it possessed the quiet of a funeral home. Tears rolled silently down some people’s cheeks as if they were crying but the pain was too deep and too cutting for relief.
As I dressed to return to school after dinner, I found myself thinking. “Is this right? Should I be doing a play on this of all nights?” I desperately wanted to stay home, to lock myself in my room away from all the newspapers, TV, and radios.  I wanted to lie on my bed and think; think of all that had happened and of all that was to happen. But as that trite old saying declares - the show must go on.
I was only on the stage four times but each time I had a few moments to observe the audience.  The house was packed. Yet it seemed more packed with robots than with people. They clapped in the right places, laughed in the right places, and looked appropriately horrified when Paul slapped Lily. But somehow I felt it was merely reflex.  They were only there because a relative was in the play. They only reacted because unconsciously they knew they should.
When the night finally ended I felt as though a century had passed since morning. I felt ten years older and twenty years wiser.  My sleep was invaded by pictures of the day’s events which passed in horrifying succession; the roses in the empty car, the people crying outside the hospital, the blood stains on her suit, the drawn, ghastly look on his brother’s face.  I could not escape these nightmares no matter how I twisted and turned. Deep down I knew I never would be able to escape them. Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, these impressions would still remain.
It’s been forty years since I wrote those words and they are as true now as they are then.  I don’t think America was ever as innocent as the illusion of the 50s would have us believe, but that day, even the illusion was stripped away.  The 60s had begun and there would be no illusion of peace or tranquility in them.

Elise Patkotak • 07:07 PM •
Sunday, November 09, 2003

The November 2, 2003 front page of the Anchorage Daily News featured a story on village justice.  It related the difficulties faced by small villages in coping with violence when they have no police and a trooper is stationed a plane ride away if the weather is good.  As always, the main violence encountered in these villages is alcohol fueled domestic abuse.

You would think that living near family would provide a buffer zone for abused women in small villages because they would always have somewhere to go. But the truth of the matter is that in most Native villages in this state, family doesn’t make a great deal of difference in the level of domestic violence women must endure.
When I was growing up, I had an aunt who was a victim of domestic violence. Her husband would get drunk and punch her out. She would go home to her mother when that happened.  Her mom would let her stay overnight till her husband sobered up and then send her right back to him. This was the school of thought that believed that once you made your bed, you had to lie in it. If she left her husband and the well-known secret of his abuse became public, it would disgrace the family.
This is often how domestic violence still plays out in Alaskan villages.  It’s not that the woman is isolated from her family. It’s that her family, in order to survive, has to get along with all the other families and so doesn’t want anyone saying publicly what everyone knows privately.  It would shame them and shame the family of the abuser to have the words spoken aloud that are only otherwise whispered by women as they sit together.  In small villages where everyone is related, where your life is centered around your relationships in the village, any breach in those relationships can be devastating.  Being ostracized in a village with no roads leading anywhere else means you are completely isolated and alone. For most village women, that is a fate much worse than the routine beatings they endure.
When I lived in Barrow, one of the things that used to drive me the craziest was watching abusive men suddenly turn into respected elders because somehow, somewhere between 40 and 60, they finally sobered up and stopped hitting their wives. Of course, by then the damage had been done. Not only had another woman lived a life of quiet despair and pain, but their children had grown up in a culture of violence and abuse. Anyone who doesn’t think that domestic violence creates generations of abusers is simply not paying attention.
I have never in my life met stronger women than the Inupiat women I know from the North Slope. Unfortunately, that strength is often used to survive years of abuse. Then they spend more years raising grandchildren who have been taken from parents raising them the only way they know how - with alcohol and violence.
I have watched them do this for thirty years now. They get hit, they get slammed down and then they get up and go on doing the best they can.
Those of us who encounter these women in the work we do repeat over and over, “You don’t have to live like this”. But often times they do because they live in a village that is their whole world. If they left that village, they would leave their lives, their families and their culture behind and be forced to live in a strange world where every house does not contain a neighbor, friend and relative. For many women from small villages, the thought of living like that is just too hard to comprehend.
So they stay in abusive relationships because they see no other door open that offers something better on the other side. They get hit and they take it and when he’s done hitting them, they make him breakfast. They live lives of quiet despair that will never change until the villages of Alaska agree that domestic violence is a crime against women and children that no family or village ties should excuse.
Until then, many women will simply chose to drink with their abuser because then, when they get hit, it doesn’t hurt so much.

Elise Patkotak • 08:04 PM •
Saturday, November 01, 2003

One of my friends recently announced she was moving to Tucson, Arizona.  Too bad she’s not moving to Phoenix.  Because that’s where I’ve placed her in my head. And once she’s been placed there in my mind, it’s a pretty good bet she will be retired and living in the Bahamas before I correctly remember her new hometown.

I don’t know why Phoenix got stuck in my mind other than it being the first Arizona city I think of when I think of Arizona cities, which is admittedly not all that often.  But I have found that as I get older, if something gets lodged in my brain, rightly or wrongly, it has the sticking power of crazy glue.  And no matter how many times she repeats the word “Tucson”, I will hear Phoenix.
This annoying habit seems to be gathering steam as I age and has become particularly irksome when it comes to songs that get stuck in my mind.  I will get a phrase going round and round and it will stay with me for days. I’ll go to sleep with it playing in my head and wake up with it still there.  Sometimes it will even be with me in my dreams.
I think along with this problem, I have also slowed down somewhat in my comprehension of the world about me. For instance, every once in awhile I am tempted to turn on a music station and watch a video to see what all the excitement is about.  Unfortunately, I’ve never actually been able to get completely through one.
I find myself confused by imagery that may or may not have anything to do with the lyrics of the song - which I may or may not actually be hearing correctly.  Reading lips doesn’t seem to work because I know they can’t say the words on TV that my lip reading seems to indicate they are saying.
I thought I would like music videos because I like dance but I find that you don’t actually get to see a dance.  You get to see a foot here, a leg there, and then some unmentionable or indecipherable body part thrown in to just confuse us older folks who are staring at it and wondering how it could be part of the human body if we don’t recognize it.
There was a time when I could have kept up with all this.  It was probably the same time when the Matrix movies would have made sense to me.  But time is speeding up for me while my body is slowing down and I find the resulting reality confusing.
It’s bad enough to go into a room and stand there blankly wondering why you entered it. It’s even worse to drive to the mall and then stand there blankly looking around and wondering why you needed to be there till you notice the bank deposit slip in your hand.
I have reached a point where drive up windows at fast food establishments intimidate me. I used to like occasionally going to those drive thru places just because I go so rarely that I view it as a fun treat. Since I’m not familiar with their menu, I need time to read it and decide which load of fat and carbs I want that day. But the world no longer seems to have that much time to spare me.
Not only do I have trouble reading the small lettering on their extensive menus, but the pressure of making an instant decision on my order is just more than I can bear.  Instead of the leisure of telling the waiter to come back in a minute because I’m not ready to order, I have a van full of children and a harried mother in the car behind me looking as though they’ll pounce if I take longer than five seconds to make my choice.
I’ll learn to live with these new restrictions on my life. It’s not as though I need to go to fast food restaurants. And my life will be full if I never actually see a music video from start to finish.  But this thing about lyrics in my head, that will make me crazy. For instance, how many of you can hear the words, “It’s a small world after all...” and not have the song stuck in your mind for the next two days? 
Have a wonderful 48 hours.

Elise Patkotak • 07:01 PM •
Sunday, October 26, 2003

When my aunt contracted polio as a child in the early years of the last century, the idea of any special accommodations for people with handicaps was still over 50 years away. So she grew up learning how to make do in a world that didn’t quite know what to do with her, the braces on her legs, or the limits they imposed.

We now live in a country where every new public building automatically accommodates handicap needs thanks to federal law mandating that it must.  If there are stairs in the building, you’ll find a ramp or an elevator nearby.  Public restrooms have stalls that allow wheelchair access and bars that allow the people to transfer themselves to the toilet seat without risking injury. Newer restrooms even have a sink set at a lower level so the wheelchair bound person can wash their hands in comfort and a towel dispenser that they can reach from their seat.
These things have become so much a part of our lives that we can quickly forger that it was not all that long ago that none of these amenities existed for the handicapped.  In fact, times have so changed that using the word “handicapped” is now politically incorrect. 
While I’m all for people being called what they want to be called, I’m not sure my aunt would have scored many points with her favorite term for herself.  She used the word “gimp”.  As I grew older and realized that this word could have a negative connotation, I often wondered if she didn’t use it as a form of self-protection.  Call yourself a name before anyone else does. 
When you are raised with someone like my aunt in your life, you grow up thinking that the things they do are normal.  Nothing stands out as odd because for as long as you can remember, that’s the way it was. I knew to automatically go ahead of my aunt when we were going up stairs because she needed to swing her braced leg out behind her to get to the next step. If I was behind her, I’d get beaned and I’d get no sympathy from anyone because I was in the wrong place and should have known it.  I knew that coming down those stairs, I also had to be in front because she had to sit and haul herself down on her butt.
With the passing of the years, I look back now and wonder just how much pain she was hiding under her sense of humor.  I know she was self-conscious about the brace.  When my mother was still alive and we were looking at pictures of her and her sisters on the beach, I commented that Aunt Adeline didn’t have any braces on her legs. My mother told me that before she would let anyone take a picture of her, she made sure the brace was hidden. If she was wearing a dress, she stood behind someone so only her head and shoulders showed. If she was in a bathing suit, she took the brace off, propped herself up carefully next to her sisters, had the picture taken and then put the brace back on.
When she was young, her parents would not give her permission to marry because they thought that she would pass her crippled legs on to any children she might have.  When, in later life, she did marry, she directed everyone to the wedding by telling them to look for a storefront with a lot of wheelchairs and gimps heading inside.  Her reception was in a storefront because it had no stairs and both doors opened wide so the wheelchairs could get in.
It’s like I said, when you grow up with someone like my aunt, you take the way they are for granted. As kids, all we needed to know about her was that she loved us and she had a magic ring that could make candy appear in her bureau drawer whenever we went for a visit.
I’m glad that there are laws now that require us all to make accommodations for people with different types of ability. I’m glad those laws allow everyone their right to see a movie, use a public restroom or go to a restaurant with their dignity intact. I just wish it had happened sooner so that my aunt could have enjoyed those benefits.  Not that she would have ever complained. She was too ornery, independent and downright feisty to want anyone to think she couldn’t do anything she wanted. 
But the truth is, she couldn’t.  Because there were just too many barriers.

Elise Patkotak • 08:04 PM •
Saturday, October 18, 2003

According to Newsweek Magazine (Oct. 13), in the face of natural disaster Americans stock up on batteries, water and Pop-Tarts.  Yes, Pop-Tarts.  A wholesale club back east noticed a 20% jump in sales of Pop-Tarts right before a hurricane. The theory for the jump is that they are cheap, stay fresh up to a year and are tasty even when not toasted.

The government apparently approves of this because they fit the government requirement to have “high energy, stress/comfort foods” around in case a hurricane is about to blow you to Kansas or a nuclear bomb is threatening to rearrange your landscape.
But, lest we think the government has finally given us carte blanche to enjoy ourselves in what might be the last moments of our lives, nutritionists have weighed in with the statement that since Pop-Tarts are high in sugar, saturated fat and calories, they are “everything we don’t want people to have.” Although the nutrition community concedes that you could survive for months on Pop-Tarts and water, you might (gasp! horror!) gain weight.  Jan Hangen, a nutritionist as Boston’s Children’s Hospital, is quoted as recommending dried fruit, nuts and lean beef jerky instead.
OK, so let me see if I’ve got this straight. I’m in a situation where I might either die or have to survive some emergency condition for months only to finally encounter a nuclear winter.  And there are actually people out there who want me to worry about whether I will emerge from that situation with my svelte figure intact; people who want me to forego my comfort food so I can gnaw on lean beef jerky and dried fruit and nuts for the good of my cholesterol levels.
Excuse me, but are these people crazy?  If I am ever in a situation where I need to hunker down and survive some natural or man made catastrophe for months on end, trust me when I tell you I want all the comfort foods I can get.  Give me Pop-Tarts and Twinkies and Ho Ho’s and Tasty Kakes.  Give me pastas and breads, and sodas full of sugar. Give me chocolate and pizza and throw in a few Mickey D’s. Because should I not survive, I sure as heck don’t want my last meal to be one that was good for me.
I find myself wondering if that nutritionist is a long lost relative from my mother’s side of the family. They would understand and approve of what she was saying. 
I can remember the first time I saw a picture of my great grandmother.  I don’t know her real name. I never met her.  Everyone called her Mama Nina. She is not only not smiling in the few extant pictures we have of her, she is positively scowling. When I pointed this out to one of my uncles, he told me that back then people had nothing to smile about.  That about sums up the darker side of my mother’s family psyche.
This same uncle, when his wife was feeling ill one day and didn’t get out of bed, thought to motivate her by showing up in their bedroom with an iron and a shirt. He informed her he needed his shirt ironed so he could go to work.
He wasn’t trying to be mean. In his world, the greatest motivator of all is that there is a job that needs to be done so you shake off whatever may be bothering you and get on with it.  So my aunt did. But in a rare gesture of defiance, she did not use starch.
My mom’s family would only have healthy food in their emergency bags. And as soon as the mushroom cloud dissipated, they would be up and out of the shelter and wondering why everyone else wasn’t getting back to work too.
My aunt is turning 80 soon and her kids are planning a party for her.  If the past is a clue to the future, the party will consist of a gaggle of somewhat elderly Italians sitting in one room yelling at each other because no one can hear anymore, while all their kids sit in the kitchen and swear they will never get like that.
But I fear my cousins and I have an uphill battle against the genes we’ve inherited - genes that would chose lean beef jerky over Pop-Tarts as a final meal. Genes that would iron a shirt to be worn while testing what’s left of the earth for radiation poisoning.
Bring me a Pop-Tart. Quick. I feel an outbreak of responsible behavior coming on.

Elise Patkotak • 07:03 PM •
Friday, October 10, 2003

Septentrion (sep-TEN-tree-on) noun - the north.  From Latin septentrionalis, from septentrio, singular of septentriones, originally septem triones, the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, from septem (seven) and triones (a team of three plow oxen. These are the principal stars of the Great Bear, which is located in the region of the north celestial pole. These stars are more commonly perceived as the Big Dipper.

I learned all that and much, much more about the word septentrion, which I’d never heard of before, thanks to an e-mail buddy.  It’s the kind of critical e-mail that I receive all day. The kind of critical e-mail that we all receive all day at work that must be read and responded to with some immediacy.
Reading his e-mail and responding to it took about ten minutes.  That would be ten minutes when I wasn’t writing a column, working on my book, interviewing a family on my case load, producing a court report or taking my dog for his daily constitutional.
Ah, e-mail.  The most fun way to waste time during the workday ever conceived short of the three-martini lunch.  I even have two e-mail addresses just in case one is out of commission.  I carry my laptop with…
Sorry, I had an e-mail I had to answer from a friend who sent me the latest list of “You Know You’re Italian If.”
Anyhow, as I was saying, I carry my laptop with me at all times when I travel so I don’t miss any messages.  They keep me up on important things in the life of my family and friends - things that I need to immediately respond to no matter what my work demands are.  Like when my friend in San Diego has found a particularly good latte place for us to try the next time I’m there.  Or when my sister has had a rough day and wants to tell me about some particularly difficult moment in the world of gambling and conventions.  Or when my friends in Barrow want to update me on the weather. 
These are all critical occurrences that I need to know about the minute they happen. After all, how would I know if I was even from New Jersey unless I read the list of ways I can know that for sure as compiled by some expert on New Jerseyites and their peculiarities?  How could I know if I was a real Italian if I didn’t get the criteria for being one from an old neighborhood chum? And what kind of an old friend would I be if I ignored this information and chose to keep working instead of responding? How rude of me. To say nothing of the need to make sure that I kept the list alive by sending it to at least 50 people in my address book.
Work cannot possibly compete with those responsibilities.
There is also the fact that e-mail proves conclusively that there truly are only five degrees of separation in this world.  If that weren’t so, how could I receive the same list of sayings about women from people I met in Barrow, people I met in New York City, people I know from college in Philly and friends I grew up with in Atlantic City. It’s just one big circ…
Oops. Sorry. Had to take that last e-mail. It was an old neighborhood friend looking for advice on how to get her mom to move out of her house and into a nice condo on the beach. Since I never convinced my own mother to do that, I had no real advice to give her. But I needed to tell her my travel plans for going east and now seemed as good a time as any.
I tried to get back as quickly as possible to finish this column but then my cousin e-mailed me about plans for my aunt’s 80th birthday party.  And while I was responding to that, my niece sent me photos of her new dog who is celebrating his first birthday.  I had just finished downloading them when my other cousin e-mailed to tell me she’d just gotten her dog’s first report card from doggy day care and was proud to announce that the teachers said he used his time well. Which is good for the dog because, as my cousin so wisely pointed out, she wouldn’t know what to do with an inefficient dog.
Anyhow, I’ll simply have to finish this column later because I want to get back to my sister about her new refrigerator and she only has e-mail at work and there’s a four hour time difference to take into account.
E-mail.  How did we ever fill our workday without it?

Elise Patkotak • 08:06 PM •
Sunday, October 05, 2003

I’ve written about the lack of service provided to customers by American businesses before. But every once in a while, a business will do something so egregious that it deserves special notice. There always seems to be some big corporation that thinks it can go one better than its rival in extending its middle finger of courtesy to its customers.

So what has started my ranting this year? Well, it’s based on my perception of how major businesses in this state, and probably in the rest of the country, treat customers who make the mistake of being loyal to them.  And boy is that a mistake.  All the deals go to new customers.  Once you become an old customer, you basically shoulder the cost of the company enticing new customers with great deals.  Deals for which you may be eligible but at a cost not incurred by the new customer.
Here’s what happened.  I called one of our corporate giants to ask about some deals they had been touting in big print in your local papers.  I’d been a customer of this particular company since I’d moved to Anchorage. I get all my services from them - TV, Internet, phone, fax - you name it and I buy it from them.
They were quite eager to have my participation in the new offer till we reached the point where I was told I’d have to disconnect my current equipment, bring it to them, pick up new equipment, take it home, hook it up and program it myself.  You have no idea how frightening that sounds to a person who once wiped out her entire hard drive when all she thought she was doing was running a spring-cleaning program.
I expressed my discomfort and asked for the free installation advertised in the paper. That’s when I found out that the free installation was only for new customers. Old customers, those of us they’d already hooked, would have to pay if we wanted an actual service person to cross our thresholds.
“So,” I asked optimistically, “how much would that service visit cost?” “Well,” they said cheerfully, “$20.” “So,” I responded, under the mistaken belief that they would want to keep the business of a good and loyal customer, “for $20 you will come and hook everything up and program the remote?” “No,” they said with a smile, “that’s only for one box. You have two boxes and it’s $20 per box. It will cost you $40.”
“Let me see if I have this straight,” I said incredulously, “your serviceman will come to my house and hook me up downstairs and then you will charge me another $20 for him to walk upstairs and do the same thing? Both of which operations you are telling me shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes each if you know what you’re doing - and I assume you serviceman does.” “Yes,” they responded still cheerfully.
“But I am a faithful and loyal customer who fills your coffers every month to the tune of well over $200 when all the services I get from you are added up. Doesn’t that count for anything? Don’t you feel at all obligated to not screw me so blatantly and at least pretend to work at keeping me as a valued customer?”
There was a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. I can only assume that the customer service representative’s training had never covered the idea of actually working to keep customers as much as it had been geared to luring new ones in. After all, corporate reasoning must go, people are basically too busy to go through the trouble of switching companies what with work and family and all - especially if we make them do their own hauling.  So once we have them hooked, let’s just forget about them unless we need to find a way to gouge them to pay for our latest advertising campaign.
The last sound that customer service representative heard was the click of my phone as I hung up right before calling that other company to see how much they wanted me as a customer.
Do I think this other company will treat me any better once I become their customer?  Not really. But it will amuse me to jump back and forth every 90 days or so just to annoy them all.  And, I’ll get free installation every time I do.

Elise Patkotak • 07:50 PM •
Friday, September 26, 2003

A couple of week ago, I wrote a column about the cost of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder to our society and to the children involved.  The column spoke about the damage done by a mother’s drinking during pregnancy.

I got a very interesting e-mail soon after that column ran asking why the father was not mentioned at all in it.  The writer wanted to know where the father was and why society was not holding him as responsible as the mother, why society was not blaming and shaming him the way a mother is.
The writer asks very good questions for which there are not very many good answers.  The reality is that our society, and most societies in the world today, holds a mother primarily responsible for her children and their upbringing.  In fact, most societies hold women responsible for what happens to them even if it was against their will. 
We have a prime example of that in Nigeria where a mother was scheduled to be stoned to death after she weaned her child because the child was born out of wedlock.  The father was not prosecuted because the judges said there was no evidence he did it.  The idea of DNA matching apparently never occurred to them.
There are some countries in this world where a woman who is pregnant through rape faces ostracism and death despite the violence perpetrated on her that resulted in the pregnancy.  She is still viewed as the person bringing disgrace on her family - not the man who raped her.
So holding a woman solely responsible for the damage done to her unborn child when she drinks through a pregnancy is not all that unusual.  But just because it’s done, doesn’t make it right.
I actually interviewed a father who proudly told me how he beat his wife up when she tried to drink while pregnant. The father readily admitted he was drunk at the time.  To his way of thinking, she was the one pregnant so she had to stay sober while he sat there and got wasted.
Now anyone who doesn’t drink and has ever gone to a party where alcohol was flowing freely can tell you that there is little that is more unattractive than watching people’s faces melt as they get drunker and drunker while you sit there sober.  If you are a pregnant woman with an alcohol addiction watching your husband getting drunk, and knowing that there is a good chance he’s going to turn mean and hit you when he is drunk, the incentive to drink far outweighs the incentive to stay sober. The baby might be months away but the man sitting across from you is drunk right now.
Many fathers feel they are doing the right thing by insisting that their pregnant wives or girlfriends stay sober during the pregnancy even though they are not willing to stay sober themselves. They do not see their behavior as making it more difficult for her to stay sober.
It is the underlying premise of all sobriety programs that no one can make you stop drinking.  You have to want to stop or the treatment will be minimally successful at best. There is no doubt this is true. 
But it is also true that your chance of achieving sobriety is much greater if you have the sober support of your family and loved ones.  It’s hard enough to stay sober in a world where liquor is so readily available. Its almost impossible if you are in a home where drinking is the past time of choice for the other adults there.
Many women who achieve sobriety during their pregnancy are faced with the unpalatable choice of either the very high risk of resuming drinking if they return home to their drinking partner or trying to raise a child alone because they can’t go home to him.
Men do play a critical role in the prevalence of FASD in our society. There is no doubt about that.  There may be no physical evidence yet that ties their drinking to birth defects passed through their sperm, but there is a world of evidence that their lack of support for their pregnant partner’s sobriety can be the critical difference in whether that child comes into the world whole and is raised in a sober, loving home or comes into the world damaged and enters a home of alcohol fueled violence and neglect.
Fathers are critical in this process.  They just aren’t the ones who get pregnant so society seems to let them off the hook.  It shouldn’t.

Elise Patkotak • 07:59 PM •
Saturday, September 20, 2003

Getting a tricycle this summer was probably one of the best things I’d done for my health since discovering Rolfing.  For some reason, even on days when I’m feeling particularly lazy about walking, I’m more than willing to go for a bike ride.

So all summer I rode my trike through my woodsy neighborhood, learning which house had loose dogs, which house had friendly people, which house was for sale or getting a new driveway or using the same lawn service as I was.  Probably by the end of the summer, I knew the houses on my route better than the people who lived in them.
By the end of the summer, I also expected to feel strongly muscled and healthy. OK, maybe my expectations didn’t run that far beyond reality but I did expect that with each passing day, the exercise would get easier, not harder.
I was wrong.
With each passing day, I found myself struggling more and more.  Soon, I was walking my bike up the little hills because I could no longer ride up them.  I didn’t really start to panic though, until I found that even going downhill made me exhausted.
I had recently started taking iron pills for anemia but instead of feeling my strength return, it felt as though it was being sapped.  At that point, I’d pretty much convinced myself that I was ill with some terrible blood disease and death was just around the corner.
I would return from each ride with my knees aching, barely able to pull myself up the stairs in my home.  I knew it would be just a matter of time before I started mysteriously losing weight and be forced to take to my bed, there to fade gracefully away while flowers bloomed and birds sang their songs outside my window.
But the flowers never bloomed, my birds still called out with high pitched shrieks that could in no way be called song and the pounds did not melt away.  Drats! Leave it to me to get a disease that would kill me while I was still fat.
And then one day my friend Sandra came over and invited me on a bike ride with her.  I warned her at the outset that my yet to be named disease would hinder me from keeping up with her but that I would do my best. I put on my bravest face, sighed a martyred sigh, tossed my dog into his basket and took off.
About half way through the ride, as I panted heavily while attempting to pedal down a particularly steep and exhausting hill, Sandra commented on the lack of air in my tires. “What lack of air?” I questioned between gasps. “Well,” she said, “usually bike tires are round and firm while you’re pedaling.  Yours, on the other hand, are flat.” I craned around to see what she could possibly mean.  This was a new bike. The tires looked round in the garage. Why would they look different now?
And yet I found that indeed, while sitting on the bike, the rear tires did look a bit low.  But no lower than the radial tires on my car.  And I just assumed my bike tires should look the same.
Sandra suggested that this was not necessarily true.  In fact, she suggested, it was totally wrong.  We rode back to my garage and I promptly called Paul Mello, my 14-year-old jack-of-all-trades.  Despite his father’s total inability to pick up a wrench without hurting himself, Paul has always shown a preternatural ability to put things together after ripping them apart. This has matured into an ability to rescue me from my bike when needed.
He checked the air in all the tires and found that they were what could be called a wee bit low.  Instead of 40 to 60 pounds of pressure, the tires varied from 18 to 25. As he pumped the tires up, he barely rolled his eyes at me, though I’m sure there was a part of him that felt of all the adults he knew, I’d be the first one in an assisted living facility.
The best part of all, though, was that adding air to the tires seems to have put my mysterious disease in remission. I can now ride up and down hills again with ease.  And I’ve learned a valuable lesson.  Air is important to life and tires.  In fact, the only time it’s not needed is when it’s hot and coming out of a politician’s mouth.

Elise Patkotak • 07:57 PM •
Sunday, September 14, 2003

Here’s a scary statistic to cogitate on with your morning coffee.  A child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) will cost society approximately $1.2 million over the cost of his or her lifetime.  That’s $1.2 million per person that you and I will be paying through our taxes, through the loss of productivity that person could otherwise have brought to the workplace, through loss of income that person could otherwise have earned thus allowing him or her to contribute to the costs of a civil society.

Here’s something even more frightening.  When the issue of FASD is brought up, especially among people who provide health and social services in Bush Alaska or on many Indian reservations in the lower 48, it is almost a given to assume that we are working with the most at risk population for this disorder. But we’re not. The most at risk population for producing children with this disorder is white college women.
Despite years of research into the subject, we still cannot explain why some women can drink while pregnant and produce normal healthy children and others produce damaged children. And we are only beginning to pinpoint when damage from drinking will happen to certain parts of the developing child except in general terms of knowing how the baby’s development is progressing in the womb.
What we do know is that alcohol kills brain cells. And a baby’s brain is developing the entire time it’s in the womb.  So it is a pretty sure thing that drinking during pregnancy is going to hurt the baby’s brain.
I found all this information out while attending a seminar for GAL’s and CASA’s this past week. Both those acronyms stand for people who work with kids involved in the social services or juvenile justice systems.  Anyone doing that kind of work is brought face to face with the reality of these kids on a daily basis.
You often can’t tell a child is FASD by looking at them.  In order to get the physical characteristics considered classic for this syndrome, mom has to have been drinking around the third week of the pregnancy when those facial features are forming.  But for anyone with even six months worth of experience in working with these kids in need, spotting the signs and symptoms of FASD becomes almost second nature.  Babies that are born looking absolutely normal, suddenly develop a whole spectrum of behavioral problems about six or seven years down the road that are directly related to mom’s drinking during pregnancy.
FASD kids have problems evaluating situations and making good choices about them.  This is why 75% of kids with this syndrome are victims of sexual or physical abuse. They are born victims because they are born without the ability to discern the dangers that every child faces every day in life and to make a reasoned decision about how to avoid the danger. 
And when these kids get to school, the impact on our educational system is enormous beyond belief.  These children frequently are also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), a big phrase that means that any classroom they are in is one always on the edge of turmoil. It takes a tremendous amount of effort on the part of the teacher to keep these children occupied and quiet.
The saddest part of all this is that although FASD cannot be passed genetically to the next generation, the affected child will never outgrow it. The brain damage done is permanent.  Pictures of their brains show differences in size and structure so obvious that even a layman is struck by it. 
All the fancy terms and long acronyms used in this disorder mean only one thing really, that children born with FASD are children born with a thousand strikes already against them in their effort to live normal, happy lives. A child born with FASD is a child born of a parent who deliberately chose to risk that child’s future before the child ever left the womb.
Oh yes, and for those of you who like statistics, Alaska’s rate of FASD is the highest in the nation.  So that No Child Left Behind Act is going to be one heck of a challenge for our schools to achieve when so many children sent to them were born left behind.

Elise Patkotak • 08:10 PM •
Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Can you hear them yet?  They’re coming whether you can or not. They are stealthily creeping into our unconscious, just enough to start a minor annoyance that almost, but not quite, rises to a conscious level.  Come next year this time, though, they will be assaulting us on a daily basis in our newspapers, on our TVs, from our radios.

They are the candidates and their campaigns.
I don’t know when running for office became a full time occupation or when the next campaign started three days after an election. But that seems to be the point we have reached.
By the time last year �s election was winding to a close, I had so lost all tolerance for the noise and the hype and the shaded semi truths being tossed about by all the candidates that I hit the mute button every time I heard a commercial for one of them on TV or radio.  I found myself deliberately looking for their full-page ads in the newspaper to make sure I had that side up when I lined the bottom of my birdcages. Lest anyone think I mean this as a criticism of our great democracy, rest assured this is the only type of government under which I would want to live. But I am frightened by an election system so run amok that it threatens to turn off all but the most extreme voters by sheer dint of the drivel and folly it produces.
It seems as though the next presidential election campaign starts before the recently elected president is sworn in.  I feel like I’ve been watching the same news report every night since George Bush became president - a small herd of indistinguishable middle aged males roving around the country hoping to find something that will cause them to stand out from the pack as a presidential candidate.
I think that American politics and elections have to remain feisty and provocative and interesting or we will lose the electorate to either ennui or despair. The great American middle class remains a slumbering giant that can hardly be bothered to get up and vote in presidential elections, let alone in local ones.  Thousands of elected offices every year go uncontested because two interested candidates can’t be found to even create the pretense of a real race.
Now if I were queen and could make all the rules, I’d rule that any candidate who started campaigning sooner than a month before the election would be executed.  If you can’t tell me what you stand for in a month, another 12 months are not gong to make it any better.  And every candidate would have exactly the same amount of money - say, one million dollars - to run their campaign.  Any amount over that is just buying votes.
There would be no TV coverage of the campaigns or election results allowed until after the final poll had closed in the most far flung community in America. That way every voter would still think their vote mattered when they cast it.  And voters would be forced to actually listen to what candidate had to say or read what a candidate stood for instead of voting for most virile looking or best hair.
Commentators who keep telling us which candidates don’t stand a chance of winning so we shouldn’t waste our votes on them would be banished to the furthest reaches of my kingdom. As for pollsters sapping all the vitality out of campaigns by telling candidates what to say to appeal to some lowest common denominator instead of standing up for their principles and being true leaders - well, I can’t think of a punishment severe enough for them yet. But I am checking out books on the Spanish Inquisition for ideas.
That’s what I would do if I were queen.  But I’m not. So the best I can do is cringe every time I see President Bush in another campaign photo op that is pretending to be something presidential. I’ll hit the mute button every time that homogenized pack of Democratic presidential wannabees intrudes on my consciousness. 
And finally, I’ll pray that Tony Knowles never figures out how to blow dry his hair. In Alaska, our candidates dare to still use Brylcreem. And if that doesn’t make you stand out from the pack, nothing will.

Elise Patkotak • 07:10 PM •

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