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Monthly Archives: January 2016

I’m in Anchorage for a conference this weekend. At 1:45 this morning, I awoke to a shaking hotel room. Earthquake. The shaking disconcerted me, but I couldn’t hear anything beyond the rattling of the window blinds and other assorted objects in the room; no evacuation signals or footsteps in the hall. Five minutes later, the shaking finally stopped. It took a little longer to get my heart rate back under control and stop my brain spinning worst-case scenarios, but I soon fell back asleep. Even though the event now has a dream-like quality, I later learned that the shaking was caused by a quake with a magnitude of 7.1, about 130 miles south of Anchorage, 50 miles down in Cook Inlet.

A few hours later, I woke to a text message from Mom: “Call ASAP. Yiayia is in hospital.” My world shook again. I called immediately. Mom answered right away. Apparently, Yiayia fell down yesterday, Saturday. When they got her to the hospital, she started going downhill. While she’s currently in the ICU, the doctors don’t know what caused the fall or her downturn. Of course, the woman is in her 90s; it could be anything. Her nephew called Mom about 5 AM EST this morning.

Thoughts flew through my head as I talked with Mom. We’re planning our visit for this summer. I’m working on a letter to her right now! How is this possible? Will I ever get to hug Yiayia again? This isn’t happening. I need to go home. What difference would that make? This can’t be happening. I just spoke to her at Christmas. This CAN’T be happening.

I’ve gone through the motions this morning of getting ready for the day, but I feel like a zombie. My thoughts are 6,000 miles away. I’ve been very fortunate in my life: I had five living grandparents until I was almost 19. I know it can’t last forever, but that doesn’t make this any easier. I’m already planning to find a seat near the door when I’m at the conference today, just in case I need to answer the phone in a hurry. My world is still shaking, and I wish it would stop.

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One of the biggest challenges living where I do is getting in and out of the village. Nunap is 27 miles from the nearest town, the Hub. Roads in the traditional sense don’t exist, as the swampy nature of the tundra in the summer would make such an undertaking a logistical nightmare (and expensive!). Small bush planes criss-cross the skies year round. In the warmer months, boats ply the rivers and lakes. Come winter, the locals utilize snowgoes (snowmobiles) and the occasional car or truck. Last year, almost all of my travel to and from the village occurred in the planes; at the end of the year, I rode down the river in a boat.

The mode of transportation used depends on a) personal choice, b) cost, and c) the weather. This year, the weather has been the biggest factor in how and when you travel. The little planes can’t fly unless visibility is at least 2 miles. Lately, we’ve had lots of fog, the kind that comes and goes in an instant. The day that we left for the holiday break, six of us were supposed to fly to the Hub in time to catch the midday jet to Anchorage. Well, the fog rolled in and didn’t leave. Lucas spent about 30 minutes on the phone with various school support staff, trying to find us a ride to the Hub. For a while, it sounded like we’d caravan down in snowgoes and sleds. Then someone suggested calling Mr. Alexie about getting a ride in his truck. A couple of hours later, I found myself squished in a pick-up truck, riding down the frozen river. Like many things since i moved up here, I’m not sorry that I did it once. I’m not sure I ever want to do it again: The river was deemed safe for large vehicles only two days previously, and there were a couple of spots where the ice creaked a bit ominously. But we made it!

I spent two and a half weeks with my family before returning for the second semester. The first day of travel went smoothly and I arrived in Anchorage without a problem. The following day, I returned to the airport and got a pleasant surprise: Lucas and Andy and Kelly and Cole 2.0 (not my old roommate but one of the new faces on staff this year) had all booked seats on the same flight as me. Our flight to the Hub went off without a hitch, but on arriving around 12:30 we discovered that no bush planes had flown yet that day due to a freezing fog moving through the area and wind gusts of 30 mph. By sheer coincidence, Eech (our school tech guy) and another villager were also at the airport to drop off their older kids for the jet back to Anchorage. Kelly spoke with both of them; several minutes later, she came back over to where the rest of us were collecting the luggage. “So Eech and Mr. Andrew only have one sled between them. They can take three of us plus our luggage.” We quickly worked out that Kelly, Cole 2.0, and I would go with Eech and Mr. Andrew; Lucas and Andy decided to take their chances with the bush airline where they’d previously booked tickets. After bundling up, the three of us clomped outside to our ride. The luggage got loaded on the sled, everyone got settled (Kelly and I on the backs of the snowgoes behind the drivers, Cole 2.0 in the sled), and off we went.

I’ve described the tundra before as flat. Compared to other parts of the state, that’s very true. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Riding on the snowgo gave me a new appreciation for how the terrain rises from the rivers, ponds, and lakes to the bluffs and goes back down. We set out about an hour after sunrise. For the first hour of the trip, we saw no sign of the fog moving through the area. Instead, brilliant sun turned the snow and ice dazzling white and highlighted the little bits of vegetation still visible. The light even picked out a rainbow on the ice crystals suspended in the air. As we rode along, I couldn’t help thinking of a passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie: “In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact center. All day long [the horses] went forward, walking and trotting and walking again, but they couldn’t get out of the middle of that circle.”

The earlier wind never diminished. It pushed against our left sides for most of the journey, joined now by the breeze generated by our speed, which pushed at our well-covered faces. I was very grateful Lucas loaned me his ski goggles so that I could see without my eyes freezing. The sounds changed depending on the direction we traveled, but also with the surface we travelled on: Riding on the frozen tundra created a very different background hum compared with the higher-pitched whine generated as we flew across frozen rivers and lakes. At times the snow on the ground and the clouds in the sky merged at the horizon, so it looked as though we would drive into the heavens, a sensation heightened when we finally encountered some of that fog. My sense of time ceased functioning normally; all that mattered was the beauty around me and keeping my seat on the snowgo as it bounced across the terrain.

Eventually, we pulled onto a stretch of river that looked familiar. Within moments, the snowgoes climbed up the river bank one last time and began zooming through the village. When we pulled to a stop outside teacher housing, everyone had a good laugh as we brushed snow off of one another; my backpack was completely covered, as was most of my right side. After unloading the luggage and thanking Eech and Mr. Andrew, I headed for my apartment. As much as I loved the experience, I couldn’t wait to get inside and be done with my travels.

Father’s Day, 2010

Dad and I had just left the cottage when my phone rang. “Hey L, what’s up?”

“It’s kind of a Father’s Day tradition to get Dad cats, right?”

I swallowed past the sudden lump in my throat. The last Father’s Day cat, my Archimedes, had passed away barely two months previously. “I suppose so. Why?” At a look from Dad, I put the call on speakerphone.

“Mom and I are at Petsmart. You know the wall of kitties at the back? Well, Mom found a couple that need a good home….”

For those of you that don’t know, many Petsmart stores have a section of cages in the back. These cages are either rented or loaned (I don’t know which) to local animal shelters. In the Petsmart near my parents’ house, these cages hold an ever-changing cast of felines from various local shelters. Within a couple of minutes, Dad and I agreed to go the following night and meet these potential new pets.

Twenty-four hours later, my family and I walked in to the store and made our way to the back. A representative from the shelter met us there. While my family and I got settled in the little “meeting room”, the shelter rep and a store employee retrieved the two cats from their cage. By the end of the hour, my family had decided to adopt both animals.

On the recommendation of the shelter, the cats spent their first month living in my parents’ bedroom. While they came with the names Mandy and Ragamuffin, I rather quickly began referring to them as Scaredy and Fraidy, respectively, at least in my own head. To call these cats “shy” would be the understatement of the decade. While Scaredy would occasionally try to make friends, Fraidy more often than not stayed hidden under the bed. If you got down on your stomach to look at her, she’d either turn her face away or, if she was in a position to do so, would sit so that the box spring hid her face from view. I spent some time in the room each day, trying to let the cats acclimate to me. Given their respective pasts, it didn’t surprise me that they acted the way they did.

According to the shelter staff, Scaredy’s previous owner had been arrested on charges of animal abuse; this person apparently used to coax Scaredy to them with food, then pick her up and literally throw her. Scaredy is a lovely little girl, half Maine Coon and half Persian. When we first brought her home, her lovely grey and white, long fur was matted and tangled in numerous places. While she’d let us pet her, any attempts to comb or otherwise de-tangle brought a swipe of claws. Actually, reaching for her when she couldn’t see you would earn a swipe, and reaching for her with two hands was a surefire way to make her bolt for cover under the dresser or the TV. But usually she’d be back a few minutes later, sniffing and examining you.

Fraidy, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with humans. Oh, you could scruff her and pull her out from under the bed, but as soon as you let go she’d slink back. Unlike Scaredy, Fraidy is a purebred Maine Coon, which means that she is big. Male Maine Coons can be anywhere from 21 to 35 lbs. Females don’t get quite as large, weight-wise, but Fraidy definitely has the long, muscular body of the breed. White spots mix with her black and brown stripes. The shelter told us Fraidy was part of a litter of kittens dropped off when they were only a few days old. All of the other kittens got adopted, but little Fraidy ended up living at the shelter for the first two years of her life. Because she wasn’t the most assertive cat, she didn’t spend a lot of time with the humans that ran the place. Instead she preferred the company of her foster mom, Scaredy, which is why the shelter asked that the cats be adopted together.

Towards the end of their first month with us, two things happened. In an effort to socialize the cats, Dad built a frame of two-by-fours that went around the outside of the bed, preventing them from hiding underneath. We also started leaving the door open during the day, trying to encourage them to explore the rest of the house. I don’t know that Fraidy ever left the room in the first couple of days, but little miss Scaredy certainly began checking out the other rooms on the first floor. Each night my parents and I would herd her back to the room and shut the door, something that got harder and harder to do. Four nights in, Scaredy simply refused to go back to the room, and that was the end of it. From that day on, the cats had the run of the house.

The past five and a half years have been an excellent lesson in patience. Initially, Scaredy kind of took over the top floor of the house, while Fraidy essentially lived in the basement den, coming upstairs only to eat. For the first year we had them, I attended grad school. I’d converted the bar in the basement into my work area, so I spent a lot of time down there. I barely saw Fraidy at first, but she gradually began to just hang out by the window while I worked. I always greeted her, and would occasionally talk to her while I worked, just to get her used to the sound of my voice. When I needed a break from homework, I’d sit cross-legged in the middle of the floor and rest my wrists on my knees so that my hands pointed towards the floor. Over a period of weeks, Fraidy moved from staring at me to sniffing me to sitting just at the limits of my reach and letting me pet her. Meanwhile, Scaredy began following my parents and I as we went about our business around the house, often just sitting by the door to whatever room we were in. Several months on, she began jumping up on the dining room table. First, when no one was in the room. Then, when people were seated at the table. And so on.

It’s now 2016, and Scaredy and Fraidy aren’t really, anymore. Within two years of coming to live with us, they stopped running out of the room every time a noise startled them. They’ve also learned that cats and people could be on the furniture at the same time. Scaredy, I mean, Mandy, loves to be on the sofa with people, and has recently started sitting on laps. Fraidy, now known alternately as Rags or Squeaky (for her vocalizations), will also sit on the sofa or lie on a bed, but only if I’m the only human there. Both cats love to be brushed (another long-term project); Rags so much so that she will actively push Mandy out of the way. If it’s just the family at home for dinner, Mandy can usually be found on the table, watching and inspecting the humans’ plates. Rags also gets on the table, but again, she prefers it when I’m the only one there. At night, one or the other cat will “haunt” us silly humans until they get their cat treats, a routine that began as a way to promote human-feline interaction. When I’m home, I can almost be guaranteed that I’ll have a furry shadow, usually Rags. In a behavior light-years removed from her old hiding-under-the-bed routine, most mornings she will now hop on the bed and squeak at me until I pet her. It’s amazing what a difference love and patience can make.