Friday, October 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Worlds





It was the best of times...it was the worst of times; it was a place of quiet...it is a place in chaos; the snow was falling...the ash is falling; it was cold...it is hot; rural Alaska...Southern California.

What a contrast. The difference between where I was and where I am is so extreme its amazing, incredible, even ridiculous. Consider.

I left a community of a few hundred; I'm in a metropolitan area exceeding 10 million. More people have been evacuated from their homes here in the last week than live in our state.

There, it was cold, snow was falling and ice was running in the river. Here, it is hot, ash is falling and automobiles are running in rivers of concrete.

Here, I can see more people, more homes and more cars than I'll see in a year at home, and here I can see it all in an instant; just one second!

The wilderness is replaced by urban sprawl. Remote has become congested. Forced isolation is now chosen insulation.

Its weird and I'm struggling to put into words what I'm feeling. The plane I flew in on had about as many people as my entire village. Busy streets, car tires squealing and horns honking. A warm evening in a t-shirt. Man-made structures everywhere I look. Nothing is natural. Not a dirt road to be found. And lots of people; tanned, trimmed, slim, dyed and surgically altered. No expense is spared to glorify the human body.

People are like cars. Up north they are 90% utilitarian, 10% aesthetics. Most show the signs of hard use, and often neglect. Not so here. They look shiny and new. Even the minor dents and dings you'd see in Anchorage are gone. Everything is freshly washed and waxed, touched up, modified, deodorized and improved. The cars are that way too.

You see a lot more skin down here. I know its hot (the temp, I mean) and people enjoy the sunny weather, but clothes seem a better alternative to sun block and skin cancer.

It is, without question, a different world. There's more money on one street here than in our entire village, but its more about the philosophy/world view behind it. Here, people are highly motivated; they're all about making, having and spending money. They go full bore finding ways to earn it, and maintain the same speed burning it up as a consumer. That seems to be the mindset.

Up north its way different. There's more of a feast or famine attitude. This probably is an effect of the seasonal approach to life there. When you can work, you make money. When you can't, you don't; you do something else. Another member of the family will probably have money if you need it anyway. Its an approach thats obviously a lot more laid back.

Both views/systems have their drawbacks. I'm not going to try to correct them here. I'm just sharing my observations. I'm a bit of a double agent anyway. I grew up in one, have lived 13 years in the other, and continue to go back and forth. And its not easy keeping one foot in each world when they are so far apart.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Everything is long distance

Living in an isolated northern community means everything is long distance. EVERYTHING!

As relating to phone service, any number/location outside of the village is "long distance". That means virtually anywhere on the planet excluding ONE community. So that means any phone number except, maybe, 100 +/-. And that also means any person you ever want to talk to in the world, with the exception of a few hundred. I guess its a variant of the "fave-five" plan, but wouldn't it be great if these were all "faves". If I were home-grown here it would be different, but I'm an import and most of my "faves" are elsewhere on the globe. Telecommunications are about the least of my worries, though. Family is top of the list.

Isolated northern living means isolation from family too. They tend to live in far-away places such as California, Louisiana or Tibet (thankfully none of mine live in Tibet, but some do live near Cucamonga). Even my own children, now grown and living independantly, are "long distance"; the closest residing about 2,000 miles away. Translated into real terms long distance living looks like this...

-In the event of an emergency, you are likely a couple of days away, weather permitting, so any crisis will probably be resolved, one way or another, before you get there.

-You may not be around when grandchildren are born.

-Visits are few and far between. Yesterday I just met my 9 month old granddaughter. I don't remember the last time I saw my Dad, brothers and sister, but its been years.

-Travel expenses are considerable. It costs as much to fly from home to Anchorage as it does from Anchorage to the lower 48.

-Even if you dislike the phone, internet, etc., you're very thankful they exist.

-Friendships are difficult to maintain; how many friends only get together every 5 years or so.

-Emergency medical care is a long way off. One year my wife was ill. After staying up all night in pain, she boarded a plane and flew to Fairbanks while I stayed home with our children. About the same time she checked into the emergency room our village phone system went down, and there were no email/internet then. Two days later I was relieved to learn she'd had her gallbladder removed and was doing fine, but for two very long days I literally didn't know if she was alive or...?

Even when you are with family you still can't escape the "long distance" bills. I've been away from home 4 days and have made/received 6 phone calls, dealing with a variety of subjects; did someone steal my truck?...are my dogs getting fed?...was anyone hurt in a vehicle roll-over?...how did a court hearing go?...etc. Even time away is never really time away.

The every day stuff is all long distance too. I remember building my house with a bunch of Calif. friends. They came up to help build the log walls. Every time a tool broke or they thought of something they wanted, it became my job to get it...quickly. They struggled to grasp the concept that virtually everything had to be mail ordered and wouldn't arrive until after they had returned home. Air freight reduced the time delay, at considerable cost, but was still not guaranteed.

A couple of the more memorable long distance experiences have been my daughter and family dealing with the Harris fire (see previous post) and my brothers, who both reside in the New Orleans area, surviving Hurricane Katrina. Living "long distance" is frequently a pain, but its seldom boring.

Monday, October 22, 2007

And I thought I had a bad day!

If you read the previous post you know I was whining a bit. Next time that happens, slap me!

By now you probably have heard/seen the news about So. Cal fires. One in particular (the "Harris Fire") is of interest to me. My daughter, son-in-law and their two small children have been affected.

Early Sunday morning they left their home in Tecate, CA to attend church in Tecate, Mexico (obviously, that means they crossed the border into Mexico) as they do every week. Around 9:30am a fire broke out near Potrero, CA. Very high winds and dry conditions caused the fire to quickly spread and get seriously out of control. When they atempted to cross back into CA after church, smoke was a problem and the the US port of entry was closed to vehicles. They were allowed to walk across, which they did, and were immediately told by fire crews to get what they needed, get in the other car and evacuate.

Evacuate where? There is only one road out of town; north, going toward San Diego, which was already closed, and south, into Mexico, the only other option. They were told to evacuate back into Mexico. This they tried to do, but there was one problem, the Mexican border guards had closed the border, leaving them stranded...for hours...with an inferno advancing within sight behind them and a closed international border in front, leaving nowhere to go.

A few hours later the Mexican border guards apparently left, as did the U.S. guards, because a mob of Mexicans took control of the border. It was chaos. People crossing at will into the U.S., no law enforcement, 50mph winds pushing the blaze, fire crews fiercely defending structures, darkness coming on. Not really the best place for my 10 month old grand daughter. Finally someone opened the gate and they got safely into Mexico. Safely into Mexico??? Now there's a twist! Most Americans would think of U.S. soil as the safe place to be. Whatever!

So now it's Monday. They can't return to the U.S. yet, so they don't know if they have anything left. One report was positive; my son-in-law said he thought he could see the buildings standing as he looked across from the Mexican side. Time will tell.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

When things are less than perfect

I had hoped today would be an improvement over yesterday, but things aren’t looking up.

Yesterday’s problems:

We were planning to leave the village (which means…I hesitate to say the “f-word”…it means flying). Before we can ever leave our home to travel anywhere, we must make arrangements; arrangements for some one to feed my dogs (I have 12 and they get cranky if they don’t eat. Thinking of a scene from the movie, “Iron Will”, it’s my hope to avoid becoming “Borg” [the mean, bald guy], so I make sure the dozen sets of teeth are always smiling when they see me), arrangements for some one to keep an eye on our house (leaving a home unoccupied in sub-freezing weather can be tricky, and “tricky” often means you come home to find the temp inside is the same as outside, and your once plumbing system has now become ruptured copper pipes, a cracked toilet and lots of water / ice where you expect the floor to be. Skating is OK for those who enjoy it, but not indoors, thank you).

After taking care of “arrangements”, I get the word of a med-evac during the night. Med-evacs are not uncommon, especially on the weekends, buy you always want to know the “who” and “why” stuff. “Who” was a nice highschool boy; “why” was a stabbing, which then leads one to the inevitable question, “who stabbed him?”

A couple hours later that question was answered. A buddy came by to talk. After the requisite small-talk which dances around the real reason for his coming, he finally gets to the point. My query “Who shanked A-----?” is met with “My cousin M-----", and I’m floored!!! Never in a hundred guesses would I have come up with those two involved in a deadly assault. A by-product of last night’s stabbing is the one I now get this morning, right through my own heart. It hurts. I’ve lived here long enough to expect the unexpected and not be surprised when people surprise you, but this one comes out of left field and catches me totally unprepared. His cousin is a high school girl I know and like a lot; she’s not your typical “stabber”.

Soon we board the plane and the fun begins. Flying to me is a lot like going to the doctor; you get a painful shot or an uncomfortable prostate exam, then you have to pay them. That’s just not right!

My flying went something like this: up, bump, bump, bump, down…wait…up, bump, bump, bump, down…get off…get back on…up, bump, bump, bump, down…wait…up, bump, bump, bump, down…get off…get back on…up, bump, bump, bump, down, get off, stay off. That’s 5 separate flights if I did the math correctly.

At the first “get off” I see the “stabber”, now in the custody of the State Troopers. I sit next to her. She looks up at me, obviously upset. She looks about the same as you would if you woke up one morning, were told “you stabbed your neighbor last night” and now you’re in custody and on your way to jail. “Not exactly your best day, huh?” to which I get only a shake of the head and tears; lots of tears. We hug, cry, pray and speak only a little. It’s a very painful time. It’s still painful now, a day later as I write it. She’ll likely be gone a long time. Such is the life in many rural villages.

So today is another day. I’m staying in a “guest house” in Anchorage. It reminds me more of the old “Winchester Mystery House” in N. Calif. A very steep stairway designed to hurt people, several low doorways less than the height of my head (and I’m not an NBA basketball player), a heater that only my wife can operate, a TV and internet system that even she cannot crack, lights that won’t turn on, a kitchen devoid of table and chairs, well, I think you get the idea. It’s a place where even Tom Bodette wouldn’t “leave the light on for ya”.

My wife somehow is able to sleep. Not surprisingly, I can’t. My attempts to find and make coffee yield only a filthy brew of some dark swill. I sit in the only usable chair in the house with the “coffee” by my side, undrunk and cold. I write this in frustration because I’ll have to write it all over again to transfer it to the blog.

And its days like these that help keep me focused. This life, with all its pain and hardship (and even the little inconveniences) will soon pass away. As a wiser, better missionary once told me, while I was “belly aching” about one thing or another, “If things here were perfect, we wouldn’t need heaven”. So true!


p.s. She cracked the internet; what a woman!

Friday, October 19, 2007

An Extra Season is "Normal"



Life in the remote north is frequently thought of in terms of what is lacking, or what you must do without. Doubtless this stems from comparisons to life in Fairbanks (a bit more "civilized"), Anchorage (a LOT more civilized) and the "lower 48" (where life, atleast for the moment, may be considered normal). In places "normal", day-to-day life is complex, often to the point of confusion, varied and boasts a plurality of choices seldom found throughout the rest of the world. A bit of time spent in Normal, USA, invariably causes the resident to expect all the benefits of the American way of life. We take it for granted. We naturally assume certain things; things like...hmmm, how about some examples of life in "Normal".

When you flip a light switch you probably expect the light to come on, every time. If it doesn't, and the power is out, it will likely make the evening news. If it's out more than a few hours, life in "Normal" goes to red-alert, life and death emergency status.

When you pick up the phone (for those few who still use land line phones; "normal" for most now includes cell phones) you undoubtably expect it to work. The same goes for internet access, TV, etc.

When you go to a store, you probably expect to buy what you want. Even this is based upon a whole bunch of "normal" assumptions. We're assuming "normal" for you means you live in a place where there actually is a store, that the store(s) is open when you expect it to be, and that the store will have exactly what you need. You probably expect it to have a lot more than only what you need; you likely expect a selection from which to choose, and we're also assuming you have roads which are passable, a working vehicle to take you there and the weather is permitting. By the way, did you happen to notice all the expectations and assumptions in this paragraph?

"Normal" is a precarious house of cards built on a shakey foundation of assumptions and expectations. During the hurricane Katrina disaster, I was absolutely shocked to see how unprepared and helpless many of the people appeared. This is the result of "Normal" living with its co-joined siblings "Assumptions" and "Expectations".

When a "normal" person relocates to Abnormal, Northofsixty, an adjustment is required. Gas at $5 per gallon and fresh milk never available are just two of the many bolts that need turning to make the adjustment. Perhaps you begin to see why life here is often defined more by what you don't have than what you do.

On to the good stuff!

One thing we do get is an EXTRA SEASON! (well, actually there are two but today we look at one of them). Yep, an extra season. So what is that worth? Today's gas is tomorrow's exhaust. Today's milk is tomorrow's...cheese? But a season, wow! Seasons may come and go, but when they're here, they're free! No amount of $$$ can buy one. Bill Gates can't get any special seasons; rich and poor alike have equal access. And they come from God; a gift from the Creator who provides one for everything (check out Ecclesiates)

Life is lived in seasons. Babies are born, children grow up, people fall in love, couples are married, new life is conceived and the cycle continues, each in a season. Every good thing you've experienced in life happened in a season. Seasons are intangible (at least I think they are; I'm not a philosopher) but they are like the steppingstones of life. They signal the passing of time; life being lived, moment by moment, a season at a time.

And the extra season we get up here is known as..."Freeze-up". I know, I know! You may be thinking "Who cares?" or "You can have it; who wants freeze-up?". Well, up here everybody wants freeze-up.

Freeze-up means the river is filling with ice, transforming into a winter highway. Freeze-up means all exposed water (and believe me, we have a lot of it) will soon be suitable for travel. The Bible tells us of our Lord walking on water. Apart from Him I know of only one other person who ever pulled that off, and the other guy didn't do so well. Freeze-up means it will soon be open to everyone, and not only for walking but driving snow machines, dog teams, you name it (a couple of times since I've lived here a few intrepid souls have even driven trucks to neighboring villages. I'm not talking about roads now; they drove down the river on the ice, which reminds me of when I got my 4-wheeler (ATV) in another village and drove it 50 miles on the river to get it home; that was a cold ride!)

Life here is truly lived by the season, as opposed to life in "Normal", where it is lived by the day, even by the hour. Freeze-up is the season of transition. If fall up here is late summer, then freeze-up is early winter. The determining factor would be mode of transportation. Summer/fall is boat season; freeze-up/winter is sno-go season. The end of sno-go season coincides with the coming of another extra season, but that will have to wait.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Go to the Ant! " Chickadees & the trouble with kids these days


So what is it with kids these days? Things have really changed since I was their age.

Back in the day, when I was younger, things were different. Sure, we started off as all kids do; immature and irresponsible, and occasionally making a wrong choice, but not like today. We listened to our parents, learned to be respectful and to work hard. We were patient. We could wait. We planned ahead, looked way down the road and took the longer view of things. I guess that's why we were such good kids and caused our parents so few headaches.

I suppose once in a while we didn't do exactly what our parents told us, but you have to remember, back then parents didn't know everything like we do now. We have internet, cell phones, all the high tech stuff. Our parents were basically in the dark ages, but we're on top of it all today. Which makes it even harder to understand what these kids are thinking.

They think they know more than us even though they've only been around a little while. You can't tell 'em anything, as if being fifteen or twenty years old qualifies them for...what?

Why are you kids so impatient? Everything's got to be right now!!! Instant service, immediate response, no waiting. Why can't you just slow it down a little? Wait for what you want; it'll come. That's what our parents taught us and we didn't have any trouble with it.

And learn to work hard. You know, the value of a dollar and all that stuff. Don't be afraid of a little hard work; it won't kill you. You can't expect to have it easy all the time.

You can see the "younger generation" problem everywhere; it's not limited to just your own family, neighborhood or town. It has permeated human society and is even spilling over into the natural world. I can see the effects when I look out my kitchen window.

It's been about ten years now since I first hung up the bird feeder. Initially I would stock it with "wild bird seed", a concoction of mostly worthless grains intended solely for the purpose of ripping off the American consumer (perhaps I worded that a little too strong). With experience and observation I soon realized our local avian population was interested only in the black sunflower seeds. I began to find the other 90% of the seeds on the ground, and noticed the chickadees, juncos and grosbeaks weren't eating everything they were getting out of the feeder. Moving in for a closer look, I was aghast to find they were simply digging through the mix and discarding all but the black ones (this should have been my first clue to the impending generational dysfunction coming to the bird world).

Once I recovered from the shock and hurt feelings their callousness had caused, I began to supply 100% sunflower seeds to my little feathered friends. And all was well...for a few generations. Recently I have had a second revelation into the corrupt nature of birds; specifically, the moral decay and loss of traditional values among chickadees.

For years, the hardworking chickadees would take a sunflower seed out of the feeder, hold it with their tiny feet and peck away at the shell to get at the kernel inside. Once in a while they might get lucky and find one with the kernel partially exposed, or an occasional seed requiring no effort at all, but this was rare. Nine times out of ten they would grab the first available seed and work for the prize inside. When the feeder ran low, I'd refill it. This was our arrangement; I was happy, they were happy.

Next year, another generation of chickadees was raised up to learn the way of the bird feeder. The older chickadees taught them the value of the seed, how to work for what you want and wait patiently until the goal is achieved. So it went, year after year; one generation of chickadees successfully passing the torch to the next.

Until the year two thousand and seven. Enter a new generation completely devoid of any moral fiber. I don't know where their parents dropped the ball, but these guys are trouble. A lazier bunch of birds you'll never find. Do you think they know how to crack a shell? Not these bums! They just dig through the feeder looking for a shell that's already cracked. The rest go on the ground.

As if that's not bad enough, these little slackers will actually fight with each other over a cracked shell. Can you believe it? Why not spend your time doing it right, rather than fighting over the lazy bird's meal? It's shameful! But I witness this every day; feathered frenzy has replaced a once tranquil scene. Occassionally, in the midst of all this chaos, an older chickadee will come in, take a shell and fly off to a tree to work it open. You can almost see him shake his head in disgust, and you can imagine the words he utters in Chickadeese, "Kids these days; what can you do with 'em?"

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"I know a guy" (but is he a dog or a wolf?)


What frustrates you? Think of something that can just drive you crazy; I mean really crazy. Slow drivers in the fast lane? no, that's to easy. Dogs that won't come when called, the lack of speed in the USPS, getting left on hold forever. These are too shallow. Think of a better one. How about high tech stuff when it doesn't work? O.K. that's better, but keep trying. Think of something that can really make your hair stand up.

For me it's people. It often seems like people are the greatest thing God created AND His biggest mistake. I suppose I have even felt both of those about the same person.

The human being is the most amazing creature: created in the image of God, possessing a soul that will last eternally and a spirit that can endure. We are able to create, invent, serve, entertain, heal, teach, build and reason. We can love, have children, solve problems (sometimes) and make the world a better place. The human body is a miracle in itself, but the human being is entirely amazing. What an awesome work from the hand of God. But none of this frustrates me.

It's all the other stuff I have trouble with. People can be, well, human, and what can be worse? We steal, lie and kill. We can be lazy, selfish and proud. When some of us are at our worst, the rest of us will say, "They act just like animals", but really, that's a bum rap for the animals. Animals do basically what they're supposed to and never act anything like wicked humans. Nothing of this world has the capacity to do harm, inflict pain and destroy like humans.

So there I find myself, in this dilemma of loving and (I probably shouldn't use the "H" word here) not loving people. I'm like the meat in a human sandwich, caught between slices of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've devoted my life to working with people and nothing could be better, though at times I feel nothing could be a bigger waste of time.

And "I know a guy". He's a young man in his late teens. He's a great kid; cool personality with lots of potential. I'm just not sure if he's a dog or a wolf.

Native oral tradition regarding dogs and wolves: Long ago dogs and wolves were the same; there was no difference between them. One day they got together and had a talk. One group decided they would work for Man so he could feed and care for them. The other group refused, choosing to live free and rely only upon themselves. The first group became dogs and the second, wolves.

The dogs gave up their independence in order to become team players. Submission was the path to productivity and survival. The wolves maintained their independence, determined to go their own way even when it meant hardship and suffering.

And this brings us to my young friend. At times he wants to do right and live a productive life. At other times he's determined to do it his way regardless of the consequences (which is why he is currently in jail). He's been to Bible camp numerous times, he's spent a lot of time with me and he has a good idea what it means to become a Christian. He wants to avoid drugs and the many other traps waiting for him. Usually. This is where Dr. Jekyll leaves off.

Enter the wolfish Mr. Hyde. My friend also wants to be accepted by his peers. He wants to be cool. He likes to think of himself as a "bad boy" who can do what he wants; no one's gonna tell him what to do. It's all about respect and he's gonna get it. If he grew up in LA he surely would have been in a gang, which means by now he'd likely be dead or in prison.

So what do you do? You love this guy and you h--- uh...well, let's just say you love him and you get really frustrated. You do what you can. You hope he'll make the right choices. You know what awaits him otherwise. You've seen too many go to jail or the graveyard. You'll be there for him either way, but you pray he'll become a dog and survive.