Elise Sereni
     Patkotak
Tuesday, December 11, 2001

I would like to be able to take the high road about shopping sprees this Christmas holiday. I’d like to be able to say that on this of all recent Christmases we should be focusing on something other than buying more junk.

But that’s hard to do when our national leaders keep telling us it’s our patriotic duty to spend money.
For some, that message is a clarion call to do what they have always done best. Now they get credit for doing it as a patriotic gesture. Talk about a win-win situation.
In World War II, women came out of the home to rivet planes for combat.  Ration tickets were issued that, if issued today, would mean the death of every Starbucks in existence.
Perhaps because our leaders know that on some unconscious level we could not handle that stress, they have handed us a much easier task.  Spend ourselves into mind-boggling debt as our part of the war effort.
Go to the mall and support your local merchant. Buy another sweater, another skirt, another pair of athletic shoes made in a sweatshop in some Third World country. Do this and you will be right up there with Rosie the Riveter and Patrick Henry.
And then lie awake at night and wonder why so much of the world seems to hate us.
Even as I write these words I know that this year I am as guilty as anyone in my consumer spending habits. 
Yes I still hate malls. And I still hate shopping. The idea of looking at clothing or shoes or a purse for more than the time it takes to pass by on my way to the car causes me to yawn uncontrollably.
But here I sit in a home with a bathroom torn apart and a kitchen waiting to be.  I’ve had my contractor take out a toilet that worked, a shower that cleaned me every morning and a sink that never leaked, in order to replace them with new ones just because I wanted them. I will soon have a stove, refrigerator and multiple cabinets torn out for the same reason. 
I am indulging in pure, unadulterated consumerism for the sheer joy of being able to. And I wish to heck I could feel more guilty about it.  But I don’t.
When the scenes from cities in Afghanistan recently freed from Taliban rule were shown on our TVs and in our magazines, I was struck by the fact that every newly freed city had one thing in common - “stuff”, hidden for years from the grim Taliban God squads, reappearing from hiding places that included TVs buried in the back yard. 
These people risked beatings, loss of limbs and worse if caught with these forbidden objects during Taliban rule. Yet they kept them. They hid them as though they were precious treasures, despite the threat they posed to their freedom and well being.  TVs survived the Taliban while invaluable art objects that contained the history of the country were destroyed. 
I’m not sure I want to look very closely at what that means.
But I do know this.  Aside from rock and roll, the one thing that America is most successful at exporting is our culture of consumerism.  We have infected the world with the need for things.  Our universal symbol is a credit card with a maxed out limit.  And here in America at Christmas time, we go overboard to make sure that symbol is honored.
Maybe the sight of Afghanis pulling TV sets out of the ground and going to the movies is not as stirring as the imagined sight of our patriots dumping tea into Boston harbor. But it carries much the same message.  Freedom means just that - the freedom to be anything you want to be including an inveterate consumer.
And while people better than us might moan and groan over the decline of civilization as we know it due to our unbridled need to buy, buy, buy, I say that the only way you will be able to tear my Barrow deprivation shower with its two heads and a seating capacity of four out of my hands is if I’m dead. Because it is my unabashed right as an American to have it.
After all, isn’t that what we’re fighting for?


Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:33 PM •
Friday, December 07, 2001

I just returned from a trip east to my childhood home on the Jersey shore. The weather was - for a Barrowite - downright summery.  In fact, on some days it actually got up to 68 and I’d complain long and loud about how darn hot it was.  Most people just gave me strange looks.  They’re outsiders, what do they know?

I’ve always loved the Atlantic Ocean. Being brought up at the seashore in Atlantic City has left me with an abiding devotion to that dark mass of crashing energy.  The mid to north Atlantic has a dark look and stormy feel to it even on its calm days.  If the Pacific is a dove, the Atlantic is an eagle.
So one of the great pleasures of this trip was my five-mile walk each day into Atlantic City from my sister’s house down beach.
She’d go to work in the morning and I’d wait till she left to get up so I wasn’t in her way as she raced around getting ready. She has a two-bathroom house but one bathroom has unfortunately become a storage closet after a rather memorable trip to Sam’s Club.
I’d answer e-mail, do some minor cleaning, pretend to actually do some work on my next book and watch more than I’d like to admit of the Game Show Channel.  Then, about 3 PM, I’d start out for Atlantic City.
My rationale was that I could spend all the money I saved by walking instead of taking a cab or public transportation on the nickel slot machines and not feel guilty.  Or, at least not as guilty as I would otherwise feel.
About quitting time, I’d wander up to my sister’s office and we would leave together.
It was a comfortable, though not highly profitable, routine.  After a few days of it, I found myself thinking the unthinkable. I found myself thinking that I could move back to Atlantic City if I had to and not find life too awful. 
In all my 30 years in Alaska, I could never imagine living anywhere else. And now as I strolled the Boardwalk, the ocean crashing on my right, sandpipers flitting around in the sand, seagulls screaming their desire for the perfect clam, I realized I was really enjoying myself.  It felt like blasphemy.
I got home to Alaska during the cold snap that seems to be lasting most of the winter. While others might consider that off-putting, for me it was just perfect.
I woke up my first morning back and opened the door for Mr. T to go out for his morning ablution.  I immediately heard him barking at a pitch even higher than normal - and his normal is already in the ear piercing range.  I ran back to the door and found him nose to nose with a moose. The moose was on one side of the fence and Mr. T was bravely defending his territory on the other.
I started to panic until I saw the quizzical look on the moose’s face. She had apparently never encountered a barking, hairy rat before.  She was gazing at him in rather stunned disbelief.
My maternal instincts kicked in as soon as I stopped laughing at the sight of a 16 pound dog letting a 1000 pound moose have a piece of his mind.  I darted into the yard, grabbed his hind end and quickly dragged him away.
Mr. T spent the next hour running from door to window to sliding door in an attempt to get at the creature that was in his yard. The moose periodically looked up in an effort to locate the annoying sound. Then she’d peacefully go back to devouring my trees.
I know this because I took my cup of coffee and stood on my second floor deck looking at the sun rising over the mountains while the moose grazed in my yard. There was that red glow you get right before the sun comes up. And I could still see the moon in the other half of the sky.
And I knew without a doubt that as wonderful as the East Coast had been, as great as those walks on the boards had felt, nothing would ever be my home the way Alaska is my home.
I feel privileged to be part of this state.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:27 PM •

I just returned from a trip east to my childhood home on the Jersey shore. The weather was - for a Barrowite - downright summery.  In fact, on some days it actually got up to 68 and I’d complain long and loud about how darn hot it was.  Most people just gave me strange looks.  They’re outsiders, what do they know?

I’ve always loved the Atlantic Ocean. Being brought up at the seashore in Atlantic City has left me with an abiding devotion to that dark mass of crashing energy.  The mid to north Atlantic has a dark look and stormy feel to it even on its calm days.  If the Pacific is a dove, the Atlantic is an eagle.
So one of the great pleasures of this trip was my five-mile walk each day into Atlantic City from my sister’s house down beach.
She’d go to work in the morning and I’d wait till she left to get up so I wasn’t in her way as she raced around getting ready. She has a two-bathroom house but one bathroom has unfortunately become a storage closet after a rather memorable trip to Sam’s Club.
I’d answer e-mail, do some minor cleaning, pretend to actually do some work on my next book and watch more than I’d like to admit of the Game Show Channel.  Then, about 3 PM, I’d start out for Atlantic City.
My rationale was that I could spend all the money I saved by walking instead of taking a cab or public transportation on the nickel slot machines and not feel guilty.  Or, at least not as guilty as I would otherwise feel.
About quitting time, I’d wander up to my sister’s office and we would leave together.
It was a comfortable, though not highly profitable, routine.  After a few days of it, I found myself thinking the unthinkable. I found myself thinking that I could move back to Atlantic City if I had to and not find life too awful. 
In all my 30 years in Alaska, I could never imagine living anywhere else. And now as I strolled the Boardwalk, the ocean crashing on my right, sandpipers flitting around in the sand, seagulls screaming their desire for the perfect clam, I realized I was really enjoying myself.  It felt like blasphemy.
I got home to Alaska during the cold snap that seems to be lasting most of the winter. While others might consider that off-putting, for me it was just perfect.
I woke up my first morning back and opened the door for Mr. T to go out for his morning ablution.  I immediately heard him barking at a pitch even higher than normal - and his normal is already in the ear piercing range.  I ran back to the door and found him nose to nose with a moose. The moose was on one side of the fence and Mr. T was bravely defending his territory on the other.
I started to panic until I saw the quizzical look on the moose’s face. She had apparently never encountered a barking, hairy rat before.  She was gazing at him in rather stunned disbelief.
My maternal instincts kicked in as soon as I stopped laughing at the sight of a 16 pound dog letting a 1000 pound moose have a piece of his mind.  I darted into the yard, grabbed his hind end and quickly dragged him away.
Mr. T spent the next hour running from door to window to sliding door in an attempt to get at the creature that was in his yard. The moose periodically looked up in an effort to locate the annoying sound. Then she’d peacefully go back to devouring my trees.
I know this because I took my cup of coffee and stood on my second floor deck looking at the sun rising over the mountains while the moose grazed in my yard. There was that red glow you get right before the sun comes up. And I could still see the moon in the other half of the sky.
And I knew without a doubt that as wonderful as the East Coast had been, as great as those walks on the boards had felt, nothing would ever be my home the way Alaska is my home.
I feel privileged to be part of this state.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:27 PM •
Sunday, December 02, 2001

I guess it was inevitable that if I went back east for any length of time I would eventually find myself drawn to New York City.  It was not a decision I made easily. One part of me felt obligated to go and the other part just wanted to hunker down in front of the nickel slots in Atlantic City and pretend there was no bigger world than that of the windowless, timeless, cacophonous casino surrounding me.

I’d spent Veteran’s Day weekend at Valley Forge State Park hiking some of its trails. All about me were signs of the winter of 1777/78 that held such critical meaning for a nation on the verge of existence.
There were remnants of the log huts the soldiers spent the winter in trying to stave off frostbite and starvation. There were the grave markers of soldiers who didn’t make it through that winter.  Monuments dotted the landscape, erected by different states to honor their militia who wintered with Washington. 
I found myself trying to imagine these rolling hills with the river in the distance all covered with snow.  It would not have presented a very inviting landscape. I felt awed and humbled by the men who endured it all for the sake of an idea, a dream, of freedom.
I couldn’t not go to Ground Zero after that weekend at Valley Forge. At this point in history, those two places seem to define the alpha and omega of our nation.
So I grabbed my friend Grace and we took off for Manhattan. It was appropriate that we go together. We’ve done so much together since we met at the tender age of 3 1/2.  We started kindergarten together, went through grade school and high school together, shared her wedding day and somehow never lost touch despite the thirty years I’ve been in Alaska.
Now here we were in New York City heading for Ground Zero and wondering what we would find, what new memories we would add to the many we already shared.
It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, a thousand pictures could not adequately describe the scene at this site. If you had never been to NYC before and had never seen the World Trade Center and its surrounding buildings standing there, perhaps the impact would not be so great. But to remember what had been there and see the total emptiness that now fills the space is to know the true meaning of the word obliteration.
People streamed along Anne Street, one block up from the site. At the intersections, you could turn and walk half way down the block to gaze at the destruction before barricades stopped you.
It was like being at a wake. People walked in silence except for the occasional words of “Thank you” or “God bless you” uttered by someone in the crowd to one of the many police charged with keeping the stream moving.
There were the inevitable doomsayers there holding signs that said things like “America ends in one year”. Others held signs saying “God is in control” and “Jesus loves you”.
But what struck me the most were the peddlers hawking everything from fake Rolexes to full business suits (two for the price of one) to every variation of clothing that can be imagined made out of the American flag. They stood on the street in the chilly wind calling out to the quiet stream of people that they were open for business and willing to make a deal. Terrorists simply could not destroy this vitality.
If the business of America is business, then America is alive and well in New York City. 
And for all my friends, who will be receiving slightly suspicious Rolex watches for Christmas this year, enjoy them while they work.  They come with a no return, no repair policy,

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:18 PM •
Friday, November 09, 2001

Notes from a plane trip post September 11, 2001:

Flying is a strangely quiet experience now.  With only ticketed passengers allowed through security, the boarding gates are positively ghostlike.
No more balloons saying “Welcome home, college graduate” held proudly aloft by smiling parents.  No more little children asking over and over, “Is daddy’s plane here yet”. No more final whispered conversations between lovers about to part.  Just quiet people sitting quietly.
A man behind me talks on the phone to his girlfriend, relating the horror of trying to get through the huge security line. Even as he complains he keeps saying, “It’s not that I mind.  I’m glad they’re taking more care.” And then he complains some more.
Two men with foreign accents sit down next to me. I am strangely relieved to hear them talking about plans they have for next week. It tells me that they plan to have a next week.
And suddenly I find myself very tired of the constant state of alert I’ve been in since entering the airport.  I don’t want to have to scan every face and try to put a story with every person - a story that precludes the possilibity of blowing me out of the sky. 
After such a tense pre-boarding time, the normalcy of the pre-flight announcements comes almost as comic relief.  My seat cushion as a flotation device - get real, that thing is as hard as a rock and would sink as fast. 
But the optimism of believing that announcement valid, despite the pictures of planes flying into buildings that fill my brain, is critical to my ability to still get on a plane.
I see the new metal door covering the cockpit and feel a little safer. When the pilot comes out to use the bathroom during the flight, I’m distressed that he doesn’t shut the door and find myself keeping an alert eye on it till he goes back in and it locks beind him.
The smell of the airline meal hits and gallows huimor overtakes me as I wonder if God could really be cruel enough to let this be my last meal.
The man across the aisle from me pulls his tray out of the arm of his seat and the tray comes completely out in his hand.  Being a real Alaskan, he whips some duck tape out of his carry on luggage and tapes the table back in place. Then he leans over to his seatmate, an elderly woman, and shows her how to use the DVD player to watch her movie. 
It’s a moment of kindness, a simple act of gentle humanity that does more to reassure me abouty the flight than all the metal doors and security checks in the world.
I settle into my book of choice, a collection of Dave Barry columns. I need to laugh.  My seatmate starts complaining about the little girl in the seat in front of us. The flight suddenly takes on a weird feeling of normalcy - especially after I’m able to find enough stuff in the area immediately surrounding me to know I have things to throw at any potential terrorist.
My sister is an hour late picking me up in Philly because of airport renovations and new security routes. 
It isn’t till I’m in her car on the Atlantic City Expressway that I take my first deep breath since leaving Anchorage. The airlines are doing everything they can to make flying a safe experience, to bring us back to the airports. But something has changed. And I doubt if it will change back again in my lifetime.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:18 PM •
Thursday, October 25, 2001

Maybe I’m a little extra sensitive about immigration issues because my family was so recently immigrants to this country.


Having spent most of my life living in areas rich with cultures other than middle class white America, I find that the multi hued colors of Brooklyn’s streets, the gruff accents of the Inupiaq language and the heady smells of a walk through Little Italy in South Philly have always described America to me as much as, if not more than, a suburban neighborhood with neatly mowed lawns and trimmed hedges. 
In order to get a true picture of America today, you need all those ingredients. If we are to stay true to the American dream, we can’t pick and chose which cultures and religions we want and which we don’t. Remember, America was founded by a group of religious misfits who wanted no government placing any restrictions on their ability to worship their god in their way. As important, they wanted no government telling them they had to worship any god at all.
No one ever said that living as a free nation would be easy. That’s why history up to this century is littered with the remains of kings, emperors and dictators. Ultimately, it’s easier to just let someone else decide how the game is played and who gets to play it.
If you are the majority, or of the same background and belief as those in power, you are fairly well assured that you will be within the charmed circle.  So long as you are in this circle, the rules are no bother because they protect you from “them”.
The problem, of course, is that you wake up every day and pray that you still are inside the circle. Cause if one day you wake up on the outside, if one day you become “them”, life can suddenly get very difficult.
That’s why democracy and freedom are worth fighting for, so that none of us ever has to wake up outside the circle.  But it’s hard in times like these to hold on to the belief that our circle must be wide enough to encompass this whole crazy patchwork quilt we call our country.  Everyone, whether they are wearing turbans, Afros, Mohawks or orange robes, must be tolerated in this circle.  Mind you I said tolerated, not loved necessarily, not even maybe liked very much.  But tolerated. 
There is a poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty written by Emma Lazarus called “The New Colossus”. Most of us are familiar with a few lines of it. I think the whole poem bears repeating because it is so relevant to the choices we are faced with in this suddenly very scary world.  It goes like this.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
If we are to be true to all that is greatest in America, we must keep that lamp lit. We must understand that the reason some hate us so much is that so many of their brethren want to make it to our shores because we are still the shinning beacon of light to those with nothing but dreams.
If we try to shut their dreams down, we kill our own dream. We kill our spirit and ultimately we do what no terrorist can do to us - we kill America.
Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:31 PM •
Thursday, October 18, 2001

It’s something of a running joke among my friends that when they visit me they bring coats and sweaters because they claim I keep my house too cold.  When winter approaches, their sweaters become more bulky and mittens appear as they try to stave off frostbite during the bridge game.

My attitude is that as long as my three parrots and cockatoo are ok, my friends shouldn’t complain. After all, my birds come from warm tropical climes and surely would be the first to suffer the bad effects of excessive cold.
Since my birds have probably never actually experienced the tropics or anything resembling that level of heat while living with me in the Arctic, this argument holds no sway with my friends. They pile on the outer wear and smile wanly as they attempt to break the ice layer that formed on top of the peas from the steam created when they were cooked.
When they actually bring their children here and leave them in my downstairs to enjoy pizza and TV while the adults sit upstairs arguing over who should bid 3 No Trump, the children tend to whimper a lot and beg to not be left above the tree line.  Don’t you just hate it when your friends’ kids, who are after all Alaskan born and bred, get all soft about seeing their breath on the air in the den?
Mothers trying to protect their young have been known to quietly pass by my thermostat when they think I’m not looking and push it up past 70.  Some really desperate parents have been known to push it past 75 in the hope of creating enough immediate heat downstairs to avoid the freeze and thaw cycle they go through with their children when its time to leave. 
I probably should have accepted that they had a point when I came downstairs and found the children huddled under throws and blankets they had pulled from every bed, closet and couch back on which they could be found. Maybe I should have questioned my belief that any thermostat set over 68 during the day and 65 at night was merely a sign of wimpdom and a waste of natural resources.  Maybe I should have considered that just because they were Alaskans didn’t mean they loved being cold - especially those that are here because their spouses dragged them along.
And I probably should have really taken a hint when the kids started to ask if they could sit in the car to stay warm while their parents visited in winter even though the car wasn’t running. Actually, come to think of it, they ask to sit in the car to stay warm in summer too.
But the reality of how cold my house probably is didn’t really hit me until the evening I came downstairs to do some clean up work in the office. As I entered the room, I heard a swooshing sound that I’d never heard before. I wandered from room to room trying to locate it, nervously glancing at toilets, sinks and ceilings for signs of impending floods. It sounded for all the world like constantly running water. 
I went up stairs and flushed my toilet to see if something had gotten stuck on open and was causing the water to run. No luck.  I went downstairs and flushed the toilet with the same result. The sound continued.
I checked the dishwater. I unplugged the refrigerator.  I wandered from room to room in a growing panic wondering just how late I could call a friend’s husband for help and have the friendship survive.
Then it stopped and there was blessed silence.  I wandered again through the rooms wondering why they felt so different.  And it finally struck me. What was different is that the rooms were warm. What I’d been hearing was the heat blasting away.
After living here for more than a year, and going through an entire winter using the downstairs office, this was the first time I’d heard the heat on.
I guess my friends might have a point about the heat in my house. And I guess their kids have a point about building a bonfire in the TV room and huddling over it for warmth. 
So I’ll turn up the heat (a little) when friends come to visit and try to refrain from using the word wimp a lot around them.  But I stick by my original premise - this is Alaska and we are Alaskans. And if we didn’t come here to be cold, pray tell why would we be here at all?

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:24 PM •
Sunday, October 07, 2001

My mother had a habit of waiting till 11 PM to call me so she could get the night rate. She continued this habit for most of the thirty years I was in Barrow and she was in Atlantic City.

So, unless it was me calling her, our calls took place while she was falling asleep in her chair in front of the TV. In fact, as she aged, the main topic of these particular phone conversations would be how sleepy she was and how hard it had been to wait up till 11 PM to call me.  She would complain that she was too tired to be coherent and just wanted to call to say that everything was ok.  Then she’d hang up.
No matter how many times I would suggest that the information she passed along in these midnight madness phone calls was not worth even the reduced price she was paying, the calls continued. Even after she got a one rate plan, they continued in one form or another because she simply didn’t trust the phone company.
The calls eventually shifted to early Sunday mornings, making them darn near in the middle of an Alaskan night.  I think she thought that she could somehow fool the telephone company by calling at that hour in case they didn’t really mean what they said about one rate all the time.
This frugal gene has created some interesting situations in my family.  I don’t think in my entire childhood I ever ate an unblemished fruit. My father had us convinced that fruit with brown spots was the best cause they were the sweetest. The truth was that we ate the fruit the customers didn’t buy.
I can recall watching my father take an almost completely brown peach and patiently cut away all the brown spots till he had maybe one bite of ripe peach left. He would pass that down the table to us like it was spun gold.
So the wonder is how my sister and I managed to miss that gene so completely. Maybe it just skips generations. My niece seems to have inherited it quite fully.  She would have made my nonna proud. And nonna was infamous in the family for being able to make a penny scream so loudly for mercy that politicians were making amnesty appeals to the UN for it.
For many years prior to my mother’s death, the subject of money was a contentious one as it so often can be in families. Having scraped hard all her life to put something aside for her old age, mom was very leery about spending it on frivolities. Frivolities encompassed all manner of purchases that weren’t absolutely needed and/or bought in discount stores.
My sister and I would tell her to spend it before she died because if she didn’t, we surely would. She would say that she didn’t care what we did with it after she died because she would be in heaven with other things on her mind.
I am now in the process of renovating my kitchen and bathroom with some of the money she left me. Since I really do believe she has the power to reach from the beyond to whack me upside my head if I do anything too outrageous, I find myself making purchases for the new bathroom and kitchen and then flinching as my credit card is run through the machine.
You see, I fell in love with a pedestal sink. Not just any pedestal sink, but one that looks like it was lifted directly out of a glamorous 30’s musical. It makes me feel as though Ginger and Fred have taken over my body and I’m floating over a ball room floor in a shimmering gold gown with this white pedestal sink for my dancing partner.
It also cost more than she ever spent on her entire bathroom in all 55 years that she lived in that apartment.
On some very deep level I know mom wouldn’t come back from heaven just because of a sink.  On some other level, I am scared to death every time I see a light in the sky or hear a door bang.
Whoever would have thought that at this late stage in my life, the clandestine affair I am trying to keep from my mother would involve a porcelain sink and me?

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:19 PM •
Thursday, September 27, 2001

Every time I turn on the TV or radio or read a newspaper recently, I find some politician or community or civic leader urging America to get back to normal.  Well, having seen normal in America, I’m not so sure that is something to which we should necessarily aspire.

In case you don’t remember, before the attack on the twin towers, we’d spent the summer with our noses deep into Gary Condit’s smelly and somewhat suspect psyche.  So going back to normal may not really be all it’s cracked up to be.
As these thoughts wandered around my brain looking for a comfortable perch in the emptiness, I noticed that it was the Saturday night of the Miss America Pageant.  And suddenly, normal seemed within reach - depending of course on whether you define normal as women parading around a stage wearing bathing suits that use less material than I have in my bra.
My heart didn’t really soar till they were down to the final five contestants. And then it happened.  One of the contestants entered from stage right with a baton held high, ready for her talent competition.  She was a twirler.  And not just any twirler. This woman twirled batons like they were lethal weapons. She did moves that would make Bruce Lee flinch while hurling those batons into the stratosphere.  And I thought that so long as we had baton twirlers, we had normalcy within reach.
As always, the pageant brought back memories of wonderful September Saturdays in Atlantic City where I grew up. I even had my high school graduation in that convention hall back in the days before gambling, when they booked anything they could into the cavernous space.
I watched football games played there. I skated there in the winter on the same rink that the Ice Capades used for practice in the summer. I got my first paycheck from working religious conventions there - hawking medallions, rosary beads and little plastic statues of Mary for the dashboard of your car.
Yep, it looked for just a moment as though some semblance of normal could be recaptured.
And then I got the newspaper clipping from my aunt showing the mass for United Airlines pilot Victor Saracini.  It was held in St. Michael’s, our neighborhood church. Just a few short months ago I had been there at my mother’s funeral. Now I was doubly glad that she didn’t live long enough to see this happen.
When they first released the pilot’s name I thought it was familiar. But I figured there were lots of Saracini’s in this world.  There was no reason to think he was the kid just a few years behind me at St. Michael’s Grade School and Holy Spirit High School. But he was.
I figure if I take out all those old home movies I had put on video for mom - the ones that seemed to consist solely of processions in and out of St. Michael’s for one religious occasion or another - I’d probably find the face of a little kid named Vic. Just a kid from the neighborhood who grew up to realize his dream of being an airline pilot.  Just a kid who walked in processions like the rest of us, dressed in his required blue suit with white shirt and red tie, shouting out the rosary as Fr. Vincent led us through the schoolyard.  Just another neighborhood kid who came into my dad’s store for candy and soda when school let out.
One of his classmates was Chris Ford. Chris had a dream too. He realized his dream. Played basketball for the Boston Celtics.  Ended up coaching them for awhile.  Not a bad record of career achievements for two kids from an immigrant Italian neighborhood where graduating from high school was seen by many parents as having their children realize the American dream.
Only Vic will never have the pleasure of enjoying that achievement. And every time his classmates meet, there will be that hole in what was once such a joyous pattern in their lives and memories. 
I now know that normal will never return for me. Those terrorists touched a part of me that harbored my normal and shattered it. They took one of our kids. One of our neighborhood kids.  And I don’t think I will ever find it in my heart to forgive them for that.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:11 PM •
Saturday, September 15, 2001

I was in Barrow for a children’s hearing when the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center. For the first time in my entire career as a GAL, I was happy to have the hearing as a diversion.  The alternative would have been to sit in front of the TV hour after hour, staring at the scenes of chaos and devastation visited on a city I know and love so well.

I was young in New York City.  I was just out of school, working my first job and feeling as though the world was mine and mine alone. I was embarking on a journey of discovery as I started to explore and define who I would be as an adult.  There is nowhere quite like New York City for that journey.
Going to the restaurant at the top of one of the towers was not something I would ordinarily have been able to afford.  But some friends and I scrounged up enough money one day to go there for drinks. Dinner was way beyond our wildest imaginations.  Drinks alone would mean peanut butter and crackers for dinner for a long while to come.
We thought we were sophisticated and jaded New Yorkers despite the fact that not one of us had yet celebrated our 25th birthday.  Looking out from the top of that tower to the landscape below wiped out that sophistication in about 3 seconds. 
The view from the top of the tower of the World Trade Center was like no other view in the world.  The cliché “All the people looked like ants” doesn’t do justice to how small they looked.  You could scan the horizon and see Kennedy Airport out on Long Island. You could swing your gaze around and see most of northern New Jersey - about the only way that section of the world is actually pretty enough to view. 
But most of all, you could look out at the city that epitomizes the strength, vitality and worldwide status of our country, laid out in front of you like a miniature town your dad built for the train set at Christmas.  And then all the jaded sophistication faded away and was replaced with silent awe.
The terrorist took a lot from us when they destroyed those towers. They took away lives, innocence, safety.  They took away a part of my youth that I now can only clutch close to my heart in memory. There will be no going back to revisit those scenes and once again be awed by the vistas.
As I boarded the plane Friday to return to Anchorage, I found there was something else that the terrorists had taken from me. Something I hadn’t even noticed was missing until then.  They’d taken my trust in my fellow man.
I found myself scrutinizing every passenger in the terminal. I watched every person on the plane wondering if they were only pretending to be one of “us”.  Being as the plane was from Barrow, the first segment from Barrow to Fairbanks wasn’t as scary as I was anticipating since I knew many of the people on the plane.  But there was that one man who kept bouncing his leg up and down nervously and he did have a dark complexion.  I found myself watching him closely.
When the plane reloaded in Fairbanks, panic really set in. I didn’t know these people.  I couldn’t trust these people.  It felt as if I couldn’t trust anyone. Although I make it a habit of putting my face deeply into a book to avoid conversations with strangers when flying, this time I gratefully engaged in conversation with someone I knew slightly from Barrow. Anything to keep my attention diverted from the panic that was building in me.
And then I realized that if I let that panic win, then I was ultimately validating the despicable actions of those terrorists.  They couldn’t win without my cooperation and I was giving it to them. I was scared. I was suspicious of everyone. I was becoming their accomplice.
But now that I realize what their real goal was, I have this message for them.  No way, no how, am I going to let you win. America was built on the belief that we can live free in a society crafted by laws and common sense and courtesy.  Our journey on this road has had its fits and starts. We have sometimes been more successful than at others in achieving the dream our Founding Fathers expressed in the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
But we have never stopped reaching for that goal.  And we never should.  I may not be able to do much in the dangerous times ahead but this I can do. I can commit myself to never letting them win by never sacrificing the foundations of this country for an illusion of temporary safety and security.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:29 PM •
Wednesday, September 05, 2001

Ah food - glorious food.  Whether it is dried fish, raw whale or a delicate combination of spaghetti with a light crab sauce made from Maryland blue crabs, food is where the heart is for most of us.
Whether we are Eskimo or Irish, Italian or even Minnesotan, we all seem to have certain foods we react to in a totally irrational way.

These thoughts have been swirling in my mind for a number of reasons - and believe it or not, the subsistence debate is not really one of them.  These thoughts have more to do with walking down the paths at the state fair, with talking to my sister on my mother’s birthday, with savoring gyros at the Greek festival and with going to visit my cousin in Vegas.
Actually, it all began with the visit to Vegas. My cousin and I were on the phone scheduling when we would meet while I was there.  It occurred to us both at the same time that what we were basically doing was scheduling meals. Once we had them confirmed - which restaurants, which buffets, which ethnicities on which night - we were content.  The important things had been resolved.  And suddenly we felt as though our parents had surreptitiously inhabited our bodies.
I can still remember my mother joining my father in the living room for TV after dinner. She would have just finished cleaning up the kitchen and closing it down for the night. He’d look at her, smile and say, “So what do you want to have for dinner tomorrow night, Bud?”
Mom would inevitably groan, ask how he could even think of that when the current meal was still heavy in his stomach, wait for the commercial on I Love Lucy, and then turn to him and rattle off a complete menu.
A few weeks ago my mother’s birthday occurred, the first since her death. I called my sister thinking she might need some love and support to get through the day since she had lived near mom and was the one who always had a birthday dinner for her.  She answered the phone with a full mouth. The noise in the background told me she had company.
I asked if she was ok and she said that she definitely was. In fact, she was eating spaghetti and crabs in mom’s honor with a group of friends who had always attended the birthday dinners in the past.
Judy was maintaining the tradition of the dinner because not even death is seen as an adequate excuse to end a perfectly good food tradition in my family.
Judy recently had her kitchen redone.  She had a small row of tiles set around the top of the wainscoting.  One of her friends commented that it made her kitchen look like an Italian cathedral.  While I wouldn’t go that far - my sister’s idea of color is every shade of ecru in existence and that is simply not Italian - it does create enough of a similarity to cause comments.
I think that giving her kitchen a cathedral like aspect is absolutely appropriate.  For many people, the kitchen is the second most important place in their lives. Only their church takes precedence.
My childhood was full of kitchens with my aunts cooking and clearing the table, talking half in Italian and half in English, communicating their day to day ups and downs with the people closest to them.  The men would smoke their cigars in the living room while discussing the highlights of the meal.
Did I say that this wasn’t about subsistence?  Who knows? Maybe it is.  Maybe the kitchen, with the smells of our family meals - the tantalizing whiff of its preparation and the companionship of its aftermath - truly is where our hearts are.
I for one can tell you that Chef Boyardee is no substitute for mom’s sauce.  And a pot roast from Fred Myers will never taste like that caribou stew your mom used to make.
Or, to put it most succinctly, it’s about more than just the caribou, stupid.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:17 PM •
Saturday, August 18, 2001

As much as I have tried to avoid this whole issue, I guess I have no choice but to finally weigh in with my three cents on subsistence. I get three cents instead of two because some people have just so annoyed me recently with their statements and activities on subsistence that I feel they owe me an extra penny’s worth.

Let’s start with Governor Knowles. Generally I like the guy.  But if he calls for one more commission to meet on one more topic to reach one more consensus, I’m gong to wish the sixties had never happened so the idea of communal consensus outside of formally elected legislative bodies had never been resurrected. 
In case he doesn’t get it yet, the legislature as currently constituted is not going to let a subsistence amendment on the ballot. Poll after poll of the Alaskan people has shown that they are for that very idea. Some of our legislators don’t care about that. You can say they are obstructionists holding back the will of the people or you can say they are people of principle refusing to give in to the roar of the crowd. 
Either way, Governor, please don’t call for anymore commissions to reach a consensus that is already there. For instance, I’m pretty sure your commission on racism in Alaska is going to announce that it’s a bad thing.
Now on to the next person who annoyed me. That would be Dick Bishop when he said that if people couldn’t survive in their village because of scarce subsistence resources, they should just move.  It’s nice to know that Western cultural chauvinists are merely endangered but not extinct, isn’t it?
I remember testifying in Barrow about 25 years ago when the Feds were planning to limit caribou to two per family for some reason. They were going to supplement the family’s winter meat supply with a couple of pot roasts. 
Without getting in to the bureaucratic intelligence that was obviously at work in this scheme (it occurs to me these could be the same people who came up with the death benefits of smoking for the tobacco companies), the plan obviously caused some discussion and a slew of hearings on the North Slope.  My testimony went something like this.
If you think you can so easily substitute a roast beef for caribou, seal, whale and walrus, then I suggest we drop you off in Kaktovik for the winter and let you subsist on those foods. Then we’ll bring you back to the city and see what kind of cultural affinity you’ve discovered for a Big Mac.
The bottom line is that subsistence is about the way you live, the foods you eat and the land and sea that supplies them. You can’t simply move to Anchorage and start shopping at Fred Myers and figure you’ll never notice the difference. 
Subsistence is not just about physical sustenance. It’s about a person’s heart and soul, their mental and emotional connections to their world.  Or, to put it as succinctly as possible, “It’s not just about the caribou, stupid.”
Finally , a little finger wagging at our dear Uncle Ted, a man I normally respect even though we don’t always agree.  I understand his passion in trying to open ANWR’s coastal plains.  May he live to fight passionately for this state forever.
However, I spent a good part of the past 30 years on the North Slope repeating, as if it were a mantra, “We are not barren, we are not windswept”.  And what does good old Uncle Ted say in defense of opening the plains up to oil exploration? He calls them barren and windswept.
Uncle Ted, you’ve been a good senator for this state for too long to lower yourself to that level. ANWR may not be Yellowstone but it is beautiful. And it is not barren. It supports huge populations of everything from wild birds to caribou to ground squirrels. It is a land that is alive in ways that aren’t so obvious. It is the difference between a Rubens’ woman and Degas’ ballerinas.  Both have their own beauty.
Well, I feel better for getting that all off my shoulders. Now it’s on to yet another kind of beauty. Get those nickel slot machines ready. Vegas here I come.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:27 PM •
Thursday, August 02, 2001

In the five years or so immediately preceding my mother’s death, she engaged in an ongoing argument with my sister and me over her kitchen. The apartment she lived in had been built around the turn of the century.  Except for painting over the glass fronted cabinets because she didn’t want anyone to see all her stuff behind them, little renovation had been done in her kitchen in the intervening 100 years.


Oh sure, she’d replaced the wood burning stove.  And she put in a metal sink stand that was ugly the day she bought it.  But she still vented the kitchen through a winder over the stove operated by a rope and stick. And the top of the washing machine with a dishtowel laid across it was the closest she ever came to a breakfast nook.
Then, about five years ago, her oven died and her refrigerator took to spending a good deal of its time on its knees begging to be put out to pasture.
Judy and I tried to convince her to get her kitchen redone. She didn’t want to do it based on the theory that it was a waste of money.  We kept trying to explain to her that if she didn’t spend her money, when she died and left it to us, we would. 
Having watched us travel all over the world for twenty years, I think it finally sunk in that we meant it. So she tried to renovate her kitchen.
There was just one problem. When the store found out where she lived, they said they wouldn’t go there to do the job. They apparently had a problem with the neighborhood.
And so mom, after a lot more argument, agreed to at least buy a stove with a working oven and a new refrigerator.  She got them about six months before she died.
This story comes to mind because my sister recently sent me a package containing something called scrapple - a breakfast meat that is mysteriously unavailable in Alaska despite the fact that it can best be described as a low end Spam. After she mailed it, she called and left this message on my machine. 
“I just spend $63 in postage to send you $10 worth of bad meat.  The genes I inherited from mom are screaming at me”. 
We will, for the moment, ignore the obvious difference of opinion that exists between us over scapple’s relative value and go directly to the issue of the screaming genes.
I have heard them scream myself. 
Now that mom is gone, I plan to use some of the money she left me to renovate my kitchen. This seems to have sent her genes into overdrive.  They scream at me for planning to buy a new stove and refrigerator despite the fact that the ones I have are perfectly good. They are horrified that I will spend money to move my sink 8 inches to the right so that it is centered under my kitchen window.  They cry out at the travesty of tearing down a perfectly good closet in order to buy pantry cabinets. 
When this happens, I find it helpful to put on the Jimmy Buffet song “We Are The People Our Parents Warned Us About”, turn the volume up to ear drum shattering level and drown out the sound. Eventually the genes surrender and peace returns.
I still find myself amazed at the meals my parents were able to produce in their kitchen. I have quadruple the amount of space they had and at least 10 times as many gadgets yet I feel overwhelmed if more than four people are coming for dinner. They routinely fed our large extended family, including neighbors and Philadelphia relatives, without drawing blood as they tripped over each other in the kitchen.
I feel as though there is never enough counter space. My mom spent her entire life in a kitchen with a single table and the top of her washing machine as all the counter space she had.
So in a way, I consider this kitchen renovation as her memorial - the kitchen she should have had.  I would feel a lot better about that dedication if I could just drown out the screams of these genes. Maybe it’s time to switch from Jimmy Buffet to Jimi Hendrix.
Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:06 PM •
Wednesday, July 18, 2001

When I was the supervisor of the State Division of Family Services in Barrow back in the early 80s, it was a rule of thumb that social workers did not respond to after hour calls without a police officer escorting them.  So I was fairly unsympathetic when one of my social workers got punched in the nose while responding to a call. She had knocked on the door, a drunken parent had opened the door and the next thing the social worker knew, she was on the ground counting stars.

I believe my response to her cry for sympathy was, “Why bother to take a cop along if you’re going to be the one standing in the doorway.”
The unspoken assumption was that the cop was there to take the blow for the social worker - he was her protection.  His job was to make sure she wasn’t hurt no matter what the cost to him.
I’ve been thinking about this since the death of police officer Justin Wollam.  I was on the road as the vehicles bringing his body to his funeral service passed by.  The vehicles moved slowly, as though the burden was almost too much to bear. The lead police car had its lights flashing but its siren was eerily silent. 
As an amateur student of history, I‘ve read a lot about the world as it used to be - a world of every man for himself; a world in which women and children were not safe even behind heavily locked doors; a world in which going out into the night meant being rich enough to provide your own protection or risking your life.
I realize that we don’t yet live in a perfect world and that for some, the conditions described above still describe the world they inhabit. But for most of us, the night is a safe place. We go to sleep knowing that help is a phone call away.
We sometimes take this feeling of safety for granted. We forget how tenuous our hold is on this thing we call civilization. We forget how much we owe to people who are willing to spend each day making sure that our trip to K Mart is uneventful, our children’s playgrounds safe.
A few years ago I was at the Barrow Court building waiting for a hearing to begin.  A young man was sitting outside the courtroom waiting to testify at the hearing.  He looked to be all of 16 years old at best. In reality, he was old enough to be a cop.
I remember talking to a friend after the hearing and describing this officer to her.  I told her that if there was ever an emergency in which he was trying to protect me, I honestly didn’t know if I could resist the impulse to throw my body in front of his while yelling, “Kill me but don’t hurt the kid”.
Officer Wollam wasn’t really much past being a kid.  Twenty-eight isn’t old enough to have lived long enough to be really all that grown up. He may have had a wife and child and he may have had an adult’s job, but he really was just starting in life. Just making his plans, starting his family, beginning a career he loved, and realizing that his dreams were within his grasp.
And now he’s gone and all his dreams are gone with him.  And I think about how he chose to live his life in such a way as to make mine safe.  And I feel an overwhelming need to just say, “Thank you”.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:23 PM •
Wednesday, July 11, 2001

It was one of those days when I knew my mother was sitting in heaven grinning from ear to ear.  Since I’d never had children, she’d never personally been able to see retribution visited on me despite her many threats of “Wait till you have children of your own”. Now, from on high, she would get her chance.

I had taken my best young friend Greta out for a day of “girl stuff”. Since I’d never really been one to indulge in those activities when I was young, I depended on Greta to walk me through the technical details.
I quickly found out that the technical details pretty much consisted of finding a mall and then looking into every shop there if only for the purpose of touching whatever it was they were selling. I barely want to do this when I have to shop because of some unexpected wardrobe need. What Greta considered sheer fun, I considered sheer torture. And so the grin started to appear on my mother’s face.
Since Greta did have to buy a few things for her upcoming vacation, I attempted to plunge into the shopping expedition with a modicum of enthusiasm. This enthusiasm started to wane as I pointed out one darling dress after another only to have my selection met with a spontaneous burst of the giggles.  I’d never had much fashion sense in my youth and I’d clearly not developed one in my old age. The grin on my mother’s face grew broader.
I had taken Greta shopping just a few months ago for her prom dress. I remember standing in the store as she looked at black, slinky gowns. I gazed at the pastel Cinderella ones thinking that the world had really changed in teen fashion since I’d last paid attention sometime back in 1968. 
And then I saw the bellbottom jeans they were selling and suddenly it was 1968. For just a fleeting moment I felt very young again and Beatles music played softly in my brain.  I had clogs on my feet, beads round my neck and the summer of love filled my heart.
Then Greta came out in one of the slinky black dresses and my heart skipped a beat.  A young kid in jeans had walked into that dressing room and a young lady who very nicely filled out a stunning gown had walked out.  I went up to her as she stood there looking in the mirror. I was startled to see an old lady in the mirror standing behind her.  I was even more startled to realize that old lady was me.
On the way home from our shopping trip, Greta and I stopped so she could buy some music for her vacation. I bought a tape of the Beatles #1 hits to play in the car where I could sing at the top of my voice with only my dog to object.  Since Greta and I have an arrangement about music when we are together - she gets her music half the time and I get mine the other half - I put my Beatles tape in while asking her if she’d ever heard their music before.
She looked at me, all youth and beauty and future, and said yes, she’d heard these songs on TV commercials. 
And my mother’s grin darn near broke her face in half.

Elise Sereni Patkotak • 08:21 PM •

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