30 September 2010

An Illustration

One of Bethel's many abandoned cars. This one is just behind the school. I passed it on my way to document the progress at the construction sites. The students and the instructor are working hard despite the falling snow. I am amazed by their skill and dedication and am excited to see the finished product--a multi-unit apartment for future students who are young mothers/fathers.

I will also include a signature--my feet, in yet another pair of boots, stomping through a snowdrift, on a nearly October afternoon.

September Snow

Today is Thursday, September 30, 2010. I am in Bethel, Alaska, and there is snow on the ground. There might still be snow and/or pellets of ice falling from the sky. As for the roads, the snow blows in wavy horizontal streaks (not unlike sand at the beach or in the desert). In conjunction with car headlights, the snaking snow blankets the road in a swaying, smokey gray. Between being enormously entranced by this low-tech special effect and congratulating myself on wearing the perfect amount of gear to regulate my body temperature, I actually enjoyed this morning's walk to work.

I arrived at school, stomped my boots on the front steps (which, like most steps in Bethel, are made of metal grating) to loosen the gray ice clinging to the soles and toe. I climbed upstairs to my office and ripped off the black parka (acquired from a former JV who just left town) and my fleece. At this point I also unrolled my cuffed jeans and learned the critical lesson that like the boot kick, this operation should also be preformed outside. After cleaning up the puddles around my desk, I sat down and checked my email and opened up my usual second tab, Washington Post online (old habits die hard). I was rather surprised to see the top of the page was an article about Alaskan Natives and corporations. [I am having trouble attaching the link, but if you go to the Post's site today, it should be on the front page.]

I knew nothing about village corporations before I arrived in Bethel, but I have acquired some understanding as part of my take-it-as-it-comes on-the-job training. In the future I will attempt to discuss how the ideas in these articles relate specifically to life in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, but for now, I just wanted to acknowledge this "between worlds" moment. I am going to eat a few more bites of my PBJ breakfast (someone donated a jar of ADAMS peanut butter to the JV house!) and then go de-snow the car to drive students to work. This time around I will not track smutty snow carnage all over my office upon my return.

And next post, I will use fewer parentheses (I promise).

27 September 2010

The Theatre

[Per Kzl's request]

I am tempted to follow the advice of my favorite Seattle journalist and go explore, but the building has been condemned for a decade or so.

21 September 2010


These are the days where "California Gurls" plays on one of three radio stations while I read a letter-to-the-editor by an Alaskan father holding his daughter's suicide note--a letter I happened upon by scrolling too far while reading an invitation to join the quilting club.

These are the days I eat meat of an animal I've only met in a children's book. That moose was given a muffin, this one gave us his heart. To cook and eat. These are also the days that I eat a hardtack cracker called Sailor Boy Pilot Bread. It's made in a factory in Richmond, Virginia, but 90% of it is consumed in Alaska.

These are the days that a black crate full of "RealityWorks!" babies suck electricity out of the socket in my office. I dole them out to teenagers whose classmates have babies at home that are significantly less robotic.

20 September 2010

The Town of Dust and Fog

This was my walk to work last Wednesday. The dabbling ducks were toppled over trying to catch breakfast. My fellow pedestrians slipped out of the fog like actors emerging from behind the red velvet curtain. I caught myself repeating "nebbia, nebbia, nebbia..." having stored the proper Italian description for the day's weather in my long-term language reserve.

On less foggy, damp days, there is the dust to contend with. This town only has one paved highway and the rest of the roads are mostly gravel and dirt. Seeing as the JV budget does not allow for taxi rides (which is how most locals without their own cars get around), we inhale our fair share of the dust and dirt that car tires spit up into the shoulder. Given my poor health the first weeks I was here, I've taken to daily neti-pot practice. In the past, I had only used the neti-pot when I was ill, but given my overdose on road grit and grime, I think my nasal passages appreciate the irrigation. I know some people find the whole neti process to be unappealing, but imagine if you had never brushed your teeth before, and were suddenly handed an electric toothbrush, baking soda toothpaste, and later some floss. The neti-pot before and after is of similar magnitude. But I don't mean to proselytize so much as celebrate any method that ensures my sense of smell that I so desperately missed during my weeks of sinus chaos.

If there was a moment when I determined I was finally better after those unpleasant days chronicled in the last post, it was in the kitchen one afternoon after work. Our house made the executive decision to use a solid segment of our meager food budget towards a CSA box of vegetables. It was a great decision, especially since we do not buy meat, it makes sense to dedicate a healthy portion of the budget to veggies. We had taken some salmon out of the deep freezer to have for dinner, and in the bottom of the box I discovered a couple bunches of parsley, one flat-leaf, one curly. I got out the cutting board and the biggest, sharpest knife in the hodgepodge utensil drawer and went to work. I pointed the tip of the knife towards the board and started rocking the blade back and forth. While sometimes cooking lulls me into a meditative state, in that moment I was highly aware of each sensation--the verdant green color of the leaves, the rhythmic knock of the uneven cutting board against the counter-top, the curve of the knife in the cup of my palm, and most intensely, the crisp, fresh scent of the now finely chopped herbs. This was a moment of inexplicable and exorbitant elation. So far, it was my best lesson in the JVC value of "simplicity" in a Trader Joe-less world. Without access to every ingredient that the recipe calls for (or my heart desires) I find myself more appreciative of each ingredient. I refuse to see any food in our pantry or freezer go to waste not only because of its economic value in this ten-dollars-for-a-gallon-of-milk town but because in scarcity I have found an abundance of gratitude.

So while car engines are wallpapered with dust and boardwalks seem to drop off on misty mornings, I am still running smoothly and feeling sure-footed. Even if I am stomping in muddy tracks, my eyes are still attuned for verdurous views.

04 September 2010

No Respite for the Upper Respiratory

I have no idea what this place smells like. My olfactory sense has been wholly debilitated by nasal congestion from the moment I arrived in Bethel. What may have started as the sniffles at JVC Northwest Orientation never cleared itself from my system. I have single-nosedly worked through a few boxes of tissues, single-throatedly swallowed two packages of lozenges, and single-mouthedly consumed hundreds of glasses of tea. And to no avail. The sneezing, coughing, and sniffy-tawking persisted. At various points in the last few weeks I have blamed: the water, my suddenly fresh fruit and vegetable-less diet, working at a school filled with germ-drenched students, the dust from the mud roads, allergens from the tundra flora, my houseful of (healthy) roommates, and any other reason I could surmise.

The congestion that had begun to seem like a permanent feature in my Alaskan existence transformed into a more ferocious beast. By the middle of this past week, I was wholly convinced that an unknown army had invaded my skull and was now busy inflicting repeated blunt force trauma to the backs of my cheeks, behind my eyes, and even against the gums of my top teeth. On the walk home, with each step I could feel the troops being rallied with a swift knock of my ear drum. By the time I trudged home, I had, without a doubt, crossed through no man's land and surrendered to the mighty interior forces. It was a unpleasant but unavoidable reminder that my stubborn denial of obvious symptoms will eventually become undeniable.

I burst through the door of our arctic entry, ripped off my muddy boots and damp windbreaker, and tried to make it upstairs to my little nook of a bedroom without running into any roommates. I knew they would be concerned about my grimace and I didn't want to explain myself. A few of them greeted me warmly and asked me about my day. I did not pause but on the way up the stairs told them I needed to rest for awhile and promised I would be in better spirits next time they saw me. I popped a couple of ibuprofen, prostrated myself on the twin mattress until I realized that upside down the pressure in my face only intensified to an unbearable degree. So I flipped over on my back and sobbed for five minutes or so, and then fell into deep sleep. It was probably around six or six-fifteen. I woke up the next morning, just a few minutes before seven. I had tremendous dreams. These are worthy of attention at some point, here or elsewhere.

As readers of the Firenze blog may recall, when I first arrived in Italy, I was struck with a similar bout and recovered by taking a similar sleep. Sadly, this time I had let things go a few weeks too far, and it was obvious some medical intervention besides sleeping in twelve-hour increments would be required. So today I waved my stubborn-colored flag of surrender and went to the the health clinic in town. It is located approximately five-hundred feet from the school where I work and in such close proximity I was struck with guilt for having taken the day off although I knew well enough that I would have been nearly useless in my dizzy, feverish state. Upon very quick inspection, the doctor determined I have a double ear infection and a sinus infection and put me on (non-penicillin!) antibiotics. My longstanding distaste for taking pills remains, but as I write this now, I feel some of the pressure easing up, and I am enormously grateful. Wondrous smells may await me. I will be able to breathe out of my nose again. I will be able to taste. I will use far fewer tissues. I will be able to speak to students in my own voice, not the nasally one I've been borrowing for weeks.

So why do I inflict this harrowing although rather ordinary account upon you, dear reader? I share with you all these viscous details because all my impressions of this place so far have been collected with flawed instruments. My itchy eyes were not as wide-open, my short breaths made my walks significantly less invigorating, my numb taste buds failed to pick up on the subtle flavors in the berries and fish, and my clogged ears haven't been absorbing this new language or the roar of the float planes as well as they could have.

I spent most of the past spring in a scholastic spurt trying to manipulate the idea that body as body is already soul. In my first Alaskan month, whether it was in a dull ache in my chest after a long coughing spell, in the sting of my tissue-chapped nostrils, or in bedtime appraisal of my tense joints, I recognized that I was living out my argument. Not for a moment since that plane flew me through the gray clouds, swooped over the Crayola-colored roofs, and skidded down on a runway that will soon be a sheet of ice, has my heart been different than my head. My cough has originated not in my lungs as such, but rather in my air, in my spirit.

So now I am praying to those white pills that have dissolved into my blood and will pump through me as I dream tonight. I long to heal. To be of body that will let the soul in and out now. To let me be here and take appreciative rather than apprehensive breaths. To let me regain my senses and my sense of well-being. Please let this battle be neither won nor lost but dissolved and absorbed.