I recently caused a friend to almost spit food out her nose while laughing after I told her how I fixed my cabinet knobs. For context, I arrived here 50 years ago and was part of the Alaska that couldn’t always get what it needed to fix stuff. So, ingenuity was a prized quality to have when you needed to get your skidoo going again while you were on the tundra in 40 below weather with just duct tape and hope.
(By the way, as an Alaskan who likes to avoid unnecessary conflict, I will be spelling it as “duct” tape throughout this essay but with complete acknowledgement of the authenticity of the “duck” tape spelling. So long as it sticks, no one really cares.)
Anyhow, I had knobs on my kitchen cabinets that started twirling uncontrollably when the threads of the screws stripped. I felt a perfectly reasonable solution was to pour super glue into the knob end and then re-screw it into the cabinet on the theory that when the glue dried, all would be held fast. This did not happen. What did happen was that the knobs still twirled around on the screws but now they were super glued into the cabinet door.
While I will admit that is somewhat of a failure of Alaskan ingenuity (and the promise of super glue), I contend that the Alaska I first knew and loved used fixes like this more often than not. I have seen duct tape holding everything together from pipes to dog collars, diapers and prom dresses.
I can’t help but think the old Alaska is dying. I blame Amazon, Home Depot, Loewe’s and Costco collectively. We could get everything we needed to fix stuff and it could be shipped to the most remote parts of our state. But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the thrill of duct taping a pipe back together and then watching breathlessly to see how many pots you’ll need to catch the drips when you turn the water back on?
I find myself wondering what kind of Alaska we will have in the future if we forget how critical duct tape was to our past. We will have to make some choices on what we want to keep as part of the realness of our state and what can go the way of honey buckets. For instance, every time I got on a small plane in the Bush for a flight, the pilot would wait until everyone was seated and then ask you to scream out your weight from the back of the plane to the front so that everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – knew just how badly that last diet went. You could also choose to lie about your weight and risk the possibility of death. That part of Alaska can go away. We can text now.
I can shop in Forever 21, but I’m not. And I’m not fooling anybody when I wear something I buy there. I can live in Alaska and pretend that it’s still the same rugged, backwater I first encountered 50 years ago. But when we have a Starbucks on every corner and an Olive Garden in every mall, who do we think we are fooling? The old Alaska is very much gone. The question is, what do we want the new Alaska to look like?
As we look ahead to an Alaska in which the oil industry no longer dominates our every thought and prayer for rescue from our charming fiscal incompetence, what will we have that allows us to stand out and causes young people to want to stay? The answer to that question can’t simply be, “Oh god, give us another boom. We promise not to piss this one away.” It doesn’t work. We always piss it away.
Alaska needs industries that are not dependent on boom and bust cycles, industries that are not here to extract nonrenewable resources and then leave. I don’t know that one industry should ever dominate an economy the way the oil industry has dominated Alaska for so many years. The question about what other industries we can grow locally or entice to relocate – whatever the next step is for Alaska – we’d better start having that conversation now. Or the last oil company leaving Alaska will truly be turning out all our lights.