Island industry

There’s so much I can’t blog about. There’s the endless legal dispute over Jerry’s brother’s will. I am prohibited by our lawyers from writing about it. Suddenly my children’s problems absorb my attention. I can’t write about the personal lives of my children. There is the inevitable and inexorable physical deterioration of aging that I would rather not think about or write about. And then there’s trivia. Car problems, things like that, not worthy of the blog.

A piece of trivia that just about rates blog mention: we bought a new riding lawn mower. Jerry bought it from Amazon — you can get anything from Amazon — they promised free delivery. We figured that wasn’t going to happen on the island, and it didn’t. After a couple of weeks there was a message on our phone to call a number regarding arrangements to pick up “an order”. I assumed it was the lawn mower, I called and reached someone who had no idea what “the order” was. He transferred me to another person, said to be in “customer service.” After speaking at cross purposes for a few minutes, I asked her where she was located. Answer: Portland, Oregon.  She gave me the phone number of the Bellingham office which I reached the next day. That turned out to be in Auburn, some miles south of Seattle (Bellingham is 100 miles north). I discovered that the lawn mower was in an unmanned depot in Bellingham, but we arranged to meet a trucker there who borrowed a fork lift and put it on our truck. Back on the island Jerry put forks on his backhoe and got the mower on the ground. The next day someone from the trucking company called to ask if I had received my motorcycle.

We are thinking about an addition to our house that Jerry says is already too big. It isn’t really big. It’s only about 1600 sq ft. I would like to add about 200 sq ft sitting area that would get southern sun. But it isn’t happening, so there’s nothing to say about it.

We have been lumberjacking. Two big trees had to come down; they were too close to the house and these days the winds can be high. I was fond of those trees. There’s tragedy in a fallen giant of a tree.

Jerry cutting branches from giant fir

But now that they are down more light comes into the house and I will become accustomed to their absence. Perhaps I’ll plant something smaller and ornamental in their place.  Mike Moye downed the trees using his truck with a bucket lift to hoist him up high in the tree. From there he can tie a rope to direct the tree’s fall.

The fir was thick and tall; One end of the rope was attached high in the tree, the other to Mike’s truck, a good way past Jerry’s shop. While Mike was hitching the rope to the truck his wife, Joan, called. She said the telephone man was on the island and his lift had run out of fuel; he was stuck in the air working on a telephone pole. He wanted Mike to come and get him down. Mike said he had the tree all hooked up and would drop it before he went for the telephone man. The great tree came thundering down as Joan and I exchanged news on the elevation of the telephone man. Just as the fir was felled somehow the telephone man extricated himself from his bucket and was again on the ground. “Good,” said Mike, “so I can go home.”

He came back the next day with his big chain saw to cut the thick trunk of the fir into rounds short enough to fit under the splitter. The other tree, an alder, was not too big for Jerry’s chainsaw to cut into rounds. We worked on the big fir rounds. They were so heavy that it was difficult for Jerry to move them from where they lay to the splitter, so I helped, and between the two of us 81 year olds we rolled, prised, lifted and then split. I stacked them in the truck. When it was full Jerry drove it up to the woodshed and together we have filled the woodshed with just a few of the the fir trunk segments. What to do with the rest of this giant? We made a stack near where the tree was felled. Jerry put the scrap from the crate of the new lawn mower on top of the stack, and then a tarp to keep it dry in the winter rain. We have a lifetime supply of firewood.

I helped drag away some of the upper branches that are not useful to burn in the fireplace. Charlie Nielson came over with his excavator and pushed the rest of the debris back into the woods to return to nature. The deer come sniffing around because they love the tender top leaves.

Deer follow Mike around looking for the tender top leaves

The big fir, as it came down, knocked over a couple of alders in the woods beside Jerry’s shop. One good sized alder’s splintered trunk was driven between a wheel and the body of Jerry’s ancient backhoe. We spent a morning messing around prying it out. In the end the only damage was that some of the hydraulic hoses needed to be replaced.

In Bellingham we went to Industrial Supplies to get new hydraulic hoses made for the backhoe. I sat in the pickup and worked a crossword while Jerry went in to arrange for new hoses. He came out looking satisfied, a little private smile on his face. As he started up the pickup he said, “I like that place. Lots of interesting stuff there.”

Posted in Day to day, Island life | 21 Comments

A sadly neglected blog

A long time has passed since I posted here. I have been blogging for 6 years — or more — I lose track. After a while I wonder whether I have anything more to say. For a time I was writing about my past life, but, sad to say, my memory is less good than it was. Detail is beginning to escape me.

It’s been almost 7 weeks since we came home from Alaska. This island world is so different from the Alaska world; for me there seems to be a disconnect between the two. It was still winter in Alaska — the 2nd coldest April on record. When we got to Lummi the trees were in full leaf and there were many flowers. Our friends said it was one of the warmest Aprils they remembered.

To save Jerry from a very long drive we decided to take the ferry home. Even so we had a 3 day drive from Manley to Haines, Alaska, where the ferry stops. That’s a distance of about 600 miles, and youthful people could do it in one day, but the roads are difficult — the one from Manley to Fairbanks is about half gravel — and we are not youthful. The first day we drove to Fairbanks. It was snowing when we got there. The day we left Jerry and I had spent the morning getting the house ready to shut up. I cleaned and tidied; Jerry did the really hard job of shutting down the water and blowing out the pipes in case it freezes.

House ready for us to leave. Fluffy headed for his sofa.

Then we set off in the snowy landscape for Fairbanks.

The road to Manley, the Elliot Highway

Still plowing the high places

We got there late afternoon and had dinner at Pikes Landing. In summer that’s a stop for tour buses connected to cruises, but it was still too early for that sort of thing. The restaurant was crowded with locals. I was feeling the after effects of a stomach bug I somehow acquired in Manley, and food in general was not appealing. The mounds of assorted deep fried items and huge deserts with cakes and syrup, whipped cream, nuts, ice cream, chocolate shavings and candied cherries were difficult to look at. I managed with a salad. We stayed the night at the Golden North where the rooms are minimal but the people are always pleasant.

The next morning it was snowing as we set off for Haines. About 3:30 we crossed the border into Canada and decided to stop at Beaver Creek. We stayed at Buckshot Betty’s, where there are cabins and a restaurant. Buckshot Betty’s has the advantage of being reliably open year round. Betty owns and runs it, and she works like a trooper. She slogs back and forth from the kitchen where she cooks, to the dining room where she serves and checks in cabins renters. She usually looks harried and distracted and her hair is unruly. She concentrates  intensely on her work ; she doesn’t bother with
small talk.

Since she stays open from early morning to late in the evening she sometimes has help, and I asked after the friendly Australian lady who had waited on us when we drove up a month earlier.

Betty, who seemed out of sorts, said, “She’s still here. I can’t work all the time.”

I thought a compliment might soften her. I said,”‘One reason you’re so successful is that you’re always here.”

“Oh,” she replied, angrily, “So it’s all right that I work 18 hours a day.”

We settled into our tiny cabin and took the dogs for a walk, dodging big piles of melting snow and slushy puddles that seemed to merge into small lakes. The melting snow had revealed a winter’s accumulation of trash and dog poop. Snow mixed with rain was falling from the sky. I looked forward to Haines,

Downtown Haines off season

on the coast, where I was sure spring would have arrived.

The next morning we were underway early. To get to the coast one crosses mountains where the pass is about 3500 feet and the weather can be treacherous. We got over without incident, though there was some snow falling as we descended from the pass. Haines turned out to be less springlike than I had hoped, but nevertheless there was no snow and daffodils were blooming. Because there was an annual meeting that night in Haines of a Canadian group promoting tourism, we were lucky to get the last room at The Captain’s Choice, the most convenient motel in town. We had 2 days to enjoy Haines before the ferry left .

At last we were lucky with the weather. It sprinkled off and on, but for the most part it was sunny and breezy. Jagged snow peaked mountains frame the town of Haines.

View of Fort Seward, Haines

The harbor and long coast look across the water to high forested hills.  There are parks all around Haines with rivers, lakes and forests: home for plenty of bears and eagles.

Along the Chilkat River at Haines

We took a long walk along a rocky beach with snowy mountains in the distance, and there we saw thousands of amazing sea ducks: surf scoters.

Beach and mountains

These black birds with big white, red and orange bills were in the water in huge aggregations near the shore. As a mass of ducks moved forward in tight formation the birds in the lead would peal off in a rolling dive.

Surf scoters diving for mussels

The birds dive for mussels, the main constituent of their diet. I was taking pictures of them when a man and woman came out on the beach and greeted me. We fell into conversation and that’s how I learned about them. His name is Tom Ganner and he is, among other things, a wildlife photographer.

We ate our meals mostly at the Bamboo Room just down the street from the Captain’s Choice. The food there is simple but good. The restaurant is owned and run by Christy Tengs and her husband, Bob Fowler. In the past we have spent time in Haines waiting for the ferry and I had chatted with Christy when I noticed that she had the same last name as the ferry bartender Tony Tengs.

Tony making a bloody mary for me

The 4 night trip back to Bellingham on the ferry was, as always, relaxing and pleasant.

Great weather all the way to Bellingham. The sea like glass in places.

We waited hours in line to board and got on at about 8 pm. There were the usual military families being shifted from Alaska to such distant points as Texas or Alabama. There were about 20 trucks — rigs for carrying sled racing dogs — that boarded that trip, but they were all headed for Juneau, just 4 hours from Haines, so by the next morning only the usual number of dogs were being walked when the ferry made stops. The sled dogs were going to Juneau to take tourists for rides on glaciers in the summer. During the last 48 hours of the Ferry trip there are no stops, so people with pets can attend to them only at “car deck calls” every 6 to 8 hours when passengers are allowed on the car deck. Pets must stay in cars or cages on the car deck. They have to pee and poop on the deck, and since most dogs are house trained, most of them want grass. Jerry and I have tried artificial grass pads on our poodles, but they just ignore the pads. They know perfectly well they are inside, not outside. A community of dog owners forms on the basis of: “Did yours go?” Some distressed owners had dogs that held it to the bitter end. Others, like us, were busy with rolls of paper towels mopping up when the poor critters just couldn’t hold it any longer.

We took long walks in Sitka

Russian Orthodox church in Sitka

and Ketchikan, where the ferry stops for an extended period. I actually got sunburned in Ketchikan. Not many people can make that claim, since it rains there most of the time.

Katchikan in the sunshine. It was hot.

We enjoyed renewing our acquaintance with Tony Tengs, the bartender on the ferry. We had our evening cocktail there each day before dinner.

The minute I arrived home I was plunged into preparations for a dinner I agreed to put on as a fundraiser for the island church — the original island church. There is also an island “Chapel” that meets at the Grange hall. It broke off from the main church a few years ago for political and doctrinal reasons. It is fundamentalist and politically conservative and objected to the mildly liberal leaning of the old island church.

I had agreed to put on the dinner before we went to Alaska. It seemed like an easy thing. All I had to do was cook a nice buffet, then later the party would move to the house of the organizers, Russ and Cathy, for deserts and aperitifs. The idea was to serve mostly outside. About 50 people had said they would come, each to pay $25.

It rained, so the party was inside. I worked for 3 days cooking for it and was exhausted when it was over. Jerry said that if I agreed to do such a thing again he would be angry. The problem was that I felt everything had to be perfect because it was not for myself, but for an organization and people were paying for it. Many of the people who came I knew only slightly, some not at all. So I cooked everything from scratch. If the party had been my party I probably would have bought all the food ready made at Costco. Costco does good ready made party food.

We are already planning our fall trip back to Alaska. I am an optimist. I’m sure it will be a better trip than the “spring” trip when we couldn’t even walk in the beautiful woods because there was so much snow and I was sick for one week out of four. We will take my daughter, Julia, and our friend, Ghislaine with us and we plan to stop at Stewart-Hyder to see bears and glaciers.

Posted in Alaska, Day to day, Island life, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Drugs, food and science

I have been working on this post for a long time. Here in the snowy quiet and peace of Alaska I have finally finished it. I tremble to publish it; I may lose friends and readers. A news story about a measles epidemic in England brought about because so many children are no longer being vaccinated gave me the push to publish. I don’t mean to tread on feelings. The things I am writing about here should be talked about without emotional baggage. This is a sort of advance apology; but here it is for what it’s worth. I still love all my friends on the left (where I mostly am), and those on the right as well.

I was trained as a scientist, and I spent many years of my life doing scientific research and writing scientific papers.  I didn’t like the work much, but it structured the way I think about the world.

The other day I was chatting with a friend, a lovely woman, intelligent and wonderfully creative. We were talking about pills we take and I mentioned that I may stop taking statins because I am having problems with muscle cramps and pain. I read some of the reports in scientific journals that I know are reliably peer reviewed. There is some good experimental evidence that this is a commom side effect of statins. Another side effect apparently is impaired short term memory, something I certainly don’t need. Since I do not have heart disease (although I do have high cholesterol) I may not really need to take statins. My friend  said, “There is a natural product that you can take. It comes from plants. It’s like a statin but it’s natural. I take it..” I asked how she knows it won’t have the same kind of side effects if it’s like a statin. She replied that she’s sure it won’t have side effects because she has friends who take it and they have had no problems.

This “natural” statin-like substance comes in the form of a pill — or perhaps an elixir — and is sold in a bottle or box that can be found in a shop that has various “health” products. The pill or fluid in that bottle or box has been extracted in a factory, by some chemical process, and packaged. The method of extraction is not known to the buyer, and the resulting product is minimally regulated by any agency so long as it is classified as a “food”. It is almost certainly not a single substance, but is a mixture of molecules of different kinds found in the plant or plants it was extracted from. When a person swallows it he is ingesting something (processed and packaged by other people) of uncertain effect and components. These bottles always come with disclaimers on them (required by law) that basically say, “We don’t really know what this does, but it might be good for you.”

I wonder why it is called natural. I do know that there are a lot of things out in the woods, not changed by human beings, that it is better not to eat.

I don’t know why one would assume that it’s safer to take an unregulated substance than to take a drug that has a known molecular structure, has no unknown contaminants, has been tested for purity, tested on animals for toxicity, tested on humans when it is deemed to be safe, and monitered when it is being used by the public to make sure that its use continues to be safe and effective. It is true that some drugs, after they have been approved, with long term use have been found to have unforseen side effects and all drugs have some side effects. Sometimes scientists that work for drug companies, governments and other institutions fake results; sometimes mistakes are made. It’s an imperfect world. These relatively rare instances get publicised and some people conclude that all drugs are dangerous and no scientist can be trusted.

A post on a friend’s facebook site showed a young man asking for money to finance the making of a video “proving” that green smoothies enhance athletic performance. The young man who wants to make this vidoe says he has everything he needs to make it (except money). He is an experienced film maker, has the necessary equipment, has doctors lined up to do blood work, has amazing athletes to cooperate — presumably to consume green smoothies. All he needs to prove his hypothesis — that green smoothies enhance athletic performance — is money. I think he needs something else. He needs to know something about how science is done.

Perhaps green smoothies do enhance athletic performance. It’s likely that a good diet in general would have a beneficial effect on performance and a poor diet would have the opposite effect. Green smoothies (the exact contents are not specified) might be included in a good diet, but whatever their effect, one could probably achieve the same benefit with a variety of foods and preparations. To actually test the effect of any dietary component one would need to carefully control everything the test subjects consumed, their physical condition at the outset of the experiment, and have a control group of other test subjects with all the same attributes and treatment except the consumption of green smoothies. And most important, one would begin, not with a hypothesis that green smoothies enhance athletic performance, but a hypothesis that green smoothies have no effect on athletic performance. If the experimenter is unable to prove this (the null hypothesis) with a careful statistical analysis,  then he can reasonably conclude that green smoothies probably enhance athletic performance. But to raise the level of certainty the experiment should be repeated by different experimenters and obtain the same or similar results.

There has been lately more than usual chatter in the media about GMO foods. It was stirred up by an amendment to a bill in the US Senate which activists against GMO foods call the “Monsanto amendment”. It’s basic provision protects farmers for a few months (until the first harvest) from law suits for planting newly marketed GMO seeds. The opponents of this amendment particularly attacked Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. She has been a long time darling of the left because she promoted a great variety of progressive legislation and causes. But now one commenter on my Facebook feed said she should be arrested and put in jail for sponsoring this amendment. Mikulski has since said that she opposes the amendment.

GMO — genetic modification organisms — refers to a method. It is a way of changing the genetic makeup of an organism. It is specific, in that it inserts one or more specific genes into an organism. Genetic changes produced by this sophisticated method are more predictable that those produced by other older ways of changing the genetic make-up of an organism, such as hybridization, selective breeding, radiation or chemical mutagens. Unless you are a hunter and gatherer of wilderness foods, your diet is almost entirely made up of things that have been genetically changed from their original form. And if you live in the 21st Century much of what you eat every day has GMO components, particularly if you eat any processed foods like flour, sugar, corn or soy products.

Gazillions of meals containing GMO’s are eaten every day in this country and many others. Even you hunter-gatherers probably consume some — stuff blows around. Nobody has become ill or died yet from eating them.

GMO’s are here, and they are not going away. They are as safe to eat as any other food. The science on that score is just as certain as the science on climate change. That does not mean that there are no problems associated with the widespread growing of GMO’s. What is does mean is that trying to stop farmers from growing GMO crops is a windmill jousting operation. There are a lot of things wrong with agri-business and Monsanto, the company that supplies it, but opposing all use of GMO’s will not fix those things.

Growing GMO’s changes the environmental challenges the world faces in trying to feed its huge and growing population. Yields per acre are greatly increased with GMO’s. Less pesticide is being used because GMO crops have been developed that resist insect damage. More herbicides are used because GMO crops resistant to herbicides allow farmers to use them to kill weeds without having to use machinery or other mechanical means. The sad decline of monarch butterflies is a well publicised result of this increased use of weed killers, but whole habitats are being destroyed by the indiscriminate use of roundup, so that many other less colorful and visible species are also affected. This problem will not be solved by scaring the public about the safety of eating GMO foods, or attacking scientists who develop new and better varieties using this method. If the problem is to be solved it will be by limiting and changing the ways herbicides are used.

The saddest incident resulting from the assault on the science of GMO’s, principally by Greenpeace, is the story of yellow rice. Children all over east Asia die because of a deficiency of vitamin A. The rice grown now, which is the staple food for most people there, has no vitamin A. Using GMO methods a rice was developed which contained vitamin A. It is a lovely yellow color — it looks like saffron rice. It had nothing to do with Monsanto. Monsanto did not develop the methods of GMO. It did not develop or market the modified rice. The yellow rice went through various tests for safety. When it was determined that it was safe for human consumption a group of children in China were selected to eat the yellow rice to determine whether it would raise their levels of vitamin A to a healthy point. Greenpeace began a campaigne claiming that Chinese children were being used as “guinea pigs” for dangerous experiments. Yellow rice was withdrawn from the market and the Chinese scientists who worked on it were fired, their careers ended. Children in Asia continue to die unnecessarily from vitamin A deficiency.

Science has been under attack all over the world by religious groups. The teaching of evolution, the foundation of all biological science has been prevented in many places in the United States. Science has been under attack by right wing politicians here and in other countries. The science behind climate change has been characterized by some right wing politicians as a sceintific hoax. In places like China science that might cause people to criticise the government is suppressed. Science is being attacked from the left as well. People on the left oppose things like the advances made by GMO methods to increase crop yields, and some oppose the immunizations of children. Many people are more willing to trust the unregulated companies that make “health” products than the US Food and Drug Administration. Drug company scientists, Monsanto, government scientists and university scientists are all suspected of engageing in conspiracies to harm the public.

Why is this, I wonder. It seems to me to be more widespread than it used to be, and there in an increasing anti-intellectualism in the United States and other parts of the world. Scientists are suspected, college professors are ridiculed, school teachers are underpaid and regarded as failures in life because they have to teach. Religious fundamentalism is another enemy of rational thinking, and Christians, Muslims and Jews all have fundamentalist sects that promote anti-scientific dogmas. That, plus the constant barrage of criticism of mainstream science from political groups, undermines the public trust in institutions and investigators with training and credentials and encourages people to take up various”alternatives” thought up by people with no real training or expertise. Word of mouth is considered more reliable than laboratory data.

What I think is needed — so much is needed — begins in early education and continues through the years that young minds are learning to evaluate the today’s avalanche of information. Children should be encouraged to admire intellictual achievment. They should understand how facts are collected by science and how these facts are organized and analysed. They should learn to question, to be skeptical, to suspect anecdotal reports. They should understand proof and have the tools to be able to distunguish it from myth, rumor and lies.

This won’t happen in my lifetime. I hope it happens in the lifetime of my great-grandchildren. That’s important if the world is to survive.

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Notes from the frozen north

Manley -- bridge over the slough

Jerry and I have been in Manley for a 2 weeks. Until 2 days ago it was still deeply frozen. We check the thermometer about 10 times a day to see whether there is a hope of a thaw before we leave. For the last 2 days it has been above freezing in the mid afternoon, but the snow is still much too deep to take our walk in the woods. This morning the temperature was 15. It is predicted to get up to 40 this afternoon. Jerry and I shoveled off the deck and immediately a lot of little sparrows came to peck up the birch seeds scattered on the boards.

Sparrow -- has a red smudge on its head

We had planned to do some work on the house, to turn a little work shop room off the living room into a bedroom so we wouldn’t have to climb down a steep stairway (almost a ladder) to make our frequent nocturnal trips to the bathroom. But after the strenuous trip north, and determining that putting a bed in the little room would interfere with the door opening, we decided to let well enough alone. We will sell the place as it is — which is quite nice. Jerry feels he is too old to do much in the way of construction.

At 81 we are getting to be survivors. My mother, who lived to be 100, had many friends, and I wondered why there were so few people other than family at her funeral. I realized, of course, that most of her friends had already died. My aunt died at 88, and her funeral was overflowing. Some people couldn’t get in the door at the little church in Peterborough New Hampshire where the service was held. They all came later to the house where my cousins and I provided drink and food. This all took place some months after she died, so there was plenty of time for people to come from far and wide — my British daughter came from England, others of my children from all over the country. I saw relatives I hadn’t seen for many years. My cousin Billy Byers was there in his elegant kilt. It really was a celebration.

Before we started our journey to Alaska I learned that my friend Adeline Turman died last year. She and I shared a studio at the Chastain Art Center in Atlanta where I sometimes taught courses in printmaking. She was considerably older than I, and died at 98. I left a message on a memorial web site where there were only a few other entries. Again, since Adeline had been active in art circles in Atlanta and had honors and recognition in weaving and other crafts, I was surprised that there were only 8 entries in the on-line visitors’ book. I wrote: “I am remembering all the times Adeline and I shared art classes, a studio, teaching duties at the Chastain Art Center, and visits after I moved away to the west coast. What a wonderful friend she was — loving, intelligent, talented, thoughtful and funny. Her work in its elegant simplicity reflected her own humanity. I am so sad that she is gone, but she left a wealth of beauty behind her.” I suppose, like my mother, most of her contemporaries had died before her.

Just after I learned of Adeline’s death Jerry was surprised to hear that his old friend Don de Lima had died in Fairbanks. Jerry had talked to Don on the phone a couple of weeks before and we planned to visit him in Manley. We often visited him in the past. Jerry said early morning was the time visit Don, so we would go around 7:30 or 8 AM. He was always well supplied with strong black coffee and he smoked continuously, cigarettes that he rolled himself with one hand. I never saw him dressed in anything but heavy long-johns. He was a great talker, intelligent and entertaining. He liked long words and he knew a lot of them and used them liberally, sometimes not with the exactly correct meaning. Politics was always on his mind, and he expressed his liberal views with gusto. Jerry, who tends to be more conservative, never argued with him — Jerry doesn’t argue with anyone but me. He enjoyed Don for his originality. They had a lot of life history in common and they talked of mutual friends and mining. Both Don and Jerry had been placer miners, Jerry only as a young man, but for Don it was a life-long obsession. Don had a plan that while we were here this time he and Jerry should have a conference about mining claims at nearby sites with a couple of other people, one of them an state official in Alaska. Even though he knew he was dying he was making plans for the future.

When I first met Don he was caring for his wife, Rose, who had had breast cancer and had very bad arthritis. He was helped by his daughter, Theresa, who later cared for both Don and Rose, and after Rose died about a year ago she was Don’s sole caretaker. She told Jerry and me that at the end, when Don was in the hospital, she said to him, “I’m going to miss you.” He replied, “Well, Darlin’, of course.”

Since we arrived we have seen the Redingtons a couple of times. They came for wine and cheese with Theresa. There was a lot of talk about old times in Manley, and I listened, amused but with only half a mind. Most of the people they talked of I had never known. A few I had met in old age.

The next thing that happened is that Pam Redington’s father died. Her mother has been taking care of him — he had been very ill for a long time. Pam has flown off to the funeral and Joee is taking care of the house and their kennel of racing dogs. Our other neighbor, Linda who lives in one of the Redingtons’ houses and also keeps racing dogs, has gone off for 2 weeks of caribou hunting. The hunt is in a place up the Dalton Road at the Brooks Range where no motorized vehicles are allowed. The hunters have to get around by dog team and sled or skis. She expects to come back with a couple of caribou. Joee is alone and came over for dinner last night. For entertainment we showed him pictures and videos of our trip last fall with British Daughter on the English canals.

Jerry is at a loose end. He has no project. There’s a big pile of downed trees at the new airport construction site that people can take for fuel. Jerry goes most days and comes back with a load. But we have more than we will use if we sell the house this year. He spends time splitting larger logs and making kindling of smaller ones. Then he sits down at the kitchen table and reads old New Yorkers and Science magazines. We listen to the news, the last few days all about the agonizing events in Boston, now, in a way, resolved, except for the long sad aftermath of grieving and pain.

In the afternoon we walk up the snowy road until we get to a sign that says, “no road maintenance” where, suddenly, the road has been completely cleared of snow. I guess this is because they are beginning to open the way for a road to Tanana, and for the someday Road to Nome. The old sign now serves as a target for teen-agers with guns.

Along the walk -- snowy woods

Every day I do a little writing, a little painting, a little cooking, a little reading. I play with the dogs and their toys. I sweep the floor. I listen to the radio, which has much better programing that our NPR station back on Lummi. I like KUAC’s mix of news and classical music. I am content here, except for the amount of trouble it takes to get on the internet.

But when the time comes to go home to our island we will both be ready.

Posted in Alaska, Day to day | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

The Old Woman Rides Again

When old folks like me go silent for a long period people are apt to think them dead. I’m not dead, I’m in Alaska. Jerry and I drove up last week to take care of our house in Manley Hot Springs. It has been more than a year since we were here. A year ago last fall we hurriedly drove south from here to care for Jerry’s brother who had just had open heart surgery. Bert then went to Arizona and shot himself a few months later and we were kept from traveling for some time because of a dispute over his will. That dispute persists, but we are now more free to move about.

We left Bellingham on Wednesday, crossed the border into Canada at Sumas, where the Canadian customs agent quizzed us closely about guns. He described the penalties and troubles that would come upon us if the truck was searched and a gun was found in it. He told us that they frequently found guns on cars going to Alaska. (Note: there is now a bill in the Alaska legislature to prohibit the enforcement of any Federal gun regulations!) We must have looked honest enough to avoid the hassle of having the truck searched and that day we drove as far as Quesnel BC.

The drive up the Fraser River gorge is a geology demonstration. The river has carved its way through the earth leaving naked rocks and hills as the climate changes from the wet and green south to the arid upper reaches of the river at Cache Creek B C. There it’s a hilly desert, bare of much vegetation except straggly trees here and there and some desert sage and grass.

Following a camper up the gorge


The naked earth along the Frazer River


All day Wednesday in lower British Columbia we were still in Spring. The willows were turning yellow green and some trees beginning to flower.

Flowering trees and a greening willow

By the time we got to our Thursday stop at New Hazelton (just east of the Cassiar Highway) it was cooler and spring was just beginning, but we still had no warning of the change that was in store for us.

We have made this journey before, even earlier in March, and though we encountered snow, it was the wet snow of early spring in the far north. This time, unexpectedly, we drove the entire Cassiar Highway in real winter. We had anticipated snow in the higher regions, but it was deep freeze all the way. We stopped briefly — a stop for the poodles to use the out of doors and to pour a little American gas we had brought in cans (a lot cheaper than Canadian gas).

Jerry gasses up on the Cassiar

Most of the way it had snowed, but at this stop the sun was shining and the mountains were icily majestic.

Snow and ice on the mountains

The air sparkled with tiny floating ice crystals. The dogs were eager to get back into their warm cage in the truck.

Once past lower British Columbia there is little choice of place to stay, especially with pets. This land is huge and unpeopled. Most of the hotels along the Alaska Highway are only open in summer, and they have a short life span. The Milepost, the standard highway guide to the far north, has many a big shiny ad about a place that turns out to be boarded up and abandoned when you get there. It’s a hard-scrabble life in this frigid unforgiving wild part of the world.

We know pretty much which places are likely to endure. We went a few miles out of the way to Watson Lake for the third night. I think I have never been so cold. A man we met told us that his car said it was 8 (Fahrenheit). There were two motels side by side. One allowed pets and that’s where we stayed. It was only moderately clean and the beds had sheets made of some sort of jersey that pilled and bothered Jerry’s skin. Inside it was hot. Our room was next to a heavy outside door that had no handle on the outside. Jerry opened it by wedging a screwdriver and prying. The lady who checked us in told me that she locks that door at midnight and if I needed to take the dogs out after that I should go through the lobby. I wondered what one would do in case of fire.

It was snowing hard the next morning when we set out, going northwest.

The road from Watson Lake

We have a favorite place to eat breakfast at Rancheria and we were hungry. When we got to Rancheria it was un-plowed. The snow was deep around it and the windows and doors boarded. So we drove 2 more hours to Teslin, a First Nation town where there is a motel and restaurant. That is a reliable place, though in the few years that I have been traveling this road it has changed hands three times. It is now run by a Chinese family.

We got some breakfast there and continued to Destruction Bay for the fourth night. That is also reliable, and caters to truckers. It is well run and clean and has a restaurant. Again, it was extremely cold, but not snowing. The next day we started before sunrise. The roads at this time of year are in bad shape. There are many frost heaves, dips and pot holes. It snowed on and off all day. In some places the road had packed snow cover, in others there was bare asphalt where the strong wind had blown it clean. I did very little driving because Jerry is more experienced at winter driving. It was a hard day for him. We had a pleasant breakfast at Buckshot Betty’s in Beaver Creek, just south of the Alaska border. Betty herself was not in attendance; we were told she had done the night shift. We were waited on by a middle aged Australian woman who said she had been a nurse in the outback before coming to Yukon. She said she was going back soon to spend a year warming up.

The only large wild life we saw -- a caribou

When we crossed the border we expected the road to improve, but even though it had been redone a couple of years ago, it has deteriorated badly in the last year. Jerry says a lot of research has been done by Americans, Russians and Swedes on how to prevent this road deterioration in the north, but the resulted is that they now understand why it happens but not what to do about it.

It was still snowing when we got to Fairbanks. The next morning we did some shopping and set out in a light snow and temperature about minus 5 for Manley Hot Springs and our little house. By the time we arrived in the early afternoon it had stopped snowing and the temperature had risen to about 10 Fahrenheit. When we pulled up to our house the snow was a couple of feet deep and there was a berm at the road from the work of the snow plows to keep the road clear. Our house looked so snug and tidy in the snowy world.

Our little house in the snow

Our neighbor, Joee Redington, who lives across the road came by with his snow mobile and offered to get the sled which attaches to it and haul our stuff (and us) up to the house. That was lucky, because otherwise we would have had to shovel our way in; the snow was too deep to walk in it. So after all the groceries and gear had been transported I got a ride in the sled to my front deck.

The old woman rides on Joee's snow mobile sled

Jerry discovered that the power had been turned off, despite the fact that we pay to keep in on because there is a heat tape in the well to keep the pump from freezing. Jerry can fix anything, and eventually he got the power back on — after all, he once owned the town electric company. He got the oil burning heater going. Joee gave us some dry wood and Jerry started a fire in the wood stove. The house slowly began to warm up. But the pump wouldn’t work so we had no water. Jerry and Joee hauled some water from the Redington’s well for us to drink and to cook with. I shoveled a couple of buckets of snow and brought them inside to melt for toilet flushing. It takes a long time for snow to melt, so we couldn’t flush until the next morning. A small amount of water spilled on the floor and we discovered that the valve on the big water jug was broken. The floor was still so cold that the water froze before I could wipe it up.

I made spaghetti sauce on the wood stove for dinner and Jerry shoveled his way to the shed where there was a propane tank which he hooked up to the kitchen stove. Then, finally, we sat down to have a glass of wine. Some of our wine and part of a case of Coke we had in the back of the truck had frozen. One bottle broke and a few Coke cans split, but we still had a good supply. The dogs immediately took possession of the sofa.

The poodles and all their toys on the sofa

We were absolutely exhausted when we finally got to bed. Since then we have done some serious thinking about trying to maintain this place at our age — 81. We love this place. We worked together to convert it from an oddly divided up, dirty, and uncomfortable space to pretty and convenient home. I love the wildness of the surroundings. Our lot is criss-crossed with moose tracks. The woods behind us stretch for hundreds of miles. But I think we will put the house on the market, make one more trip in the fall to get our things and say goodby to Manley. It makes me sad, but one must deal with the realities of getting old.

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A Dominican Experience

I was nervous about going to the Dominican Republic. I went to see my darling granddaughter Katy who has been living there for the past year and a half as a Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in a small village, on the edge of a small city about 2 hours inland from the capitol. I was nervous because I don’t speak a word of Spanish and although I love to travel, in my old age I am apprehensive about going to foreign countries alone. I worry about getting to airports on time, about losing my passport, about getting through customs. Silly stuff to worry about.

I arrived in the middle of the day. My connection was in Miami and on the plane I filled out forms for customs. I expected (hoped) that signs in customs would be in English as well as Spanish, and they were, but I couldn’t figure out what they meant anyway. My passport (which I had not lost) was stamped without comment and I was waved onward. I still held the papers I had filled out though something was checked on one of them by the passport inspector. There were 2 lines forming. In one line people seemed to be paying money. I surmised that was the line for me. When I got to the official of that line she looked at my papers and said, “Ten dollars.” After I paid she gave me some more papers. I said, waving all the papers I was holding, “What shall I do with these?” She pointed at another official. He took some of the papers, and I asked what to do with the rest. He pointed at another uniformed person standing not far off. That one took the rest of the papers.

Around the corner was the salida and as I walked along the exit path lined with people looking for those they were meeting a pleasant looking young man called, “Anne?” I said I was Anne. He said, “Kate is here. She had to pee, but she’ll be right back.” The next minute she was hugging me. I was out of danger.

Katy and her friend, whose name was Jerson, took me out to a good lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Then Jerson drove us through the streets of Santo Domingo to the bus which was to take us to Katy’s city. The buildings in the city had a Spanish look and many of them seemed to be either in a state of disintegration or reconstruction. There was a lot of traffic.

We had a 2 hour wait at the crowded bus station. I looked at the people around me. Most were young or middle aged. There were many children. Everyone had a cell phone, and most, especially women, were carefully dressed. They tended to wear tight clothes, colorful high heeled shoes and a lot of jewelry. The universal hair style was long straight hair. There was a constant high level of noise, music and chatter. Although the outside temperature was in the high 70′s, the bus was cold. Katy said it would get colder, so I got out my winter coat and I was glad of it. The air conditioning was at refrigeration level.

By the time we were out of the city it was dark, and I wasn’t able to see what the country side looked like. When we arrived there were no taxis available. The only option was to walk several miles with luggage or ride on the back of a hired motor bike. It was with extreme trepidation that I climbed on the back seat portion of the motor bike, my backpack on my back. Katy put the small additional suitcase I brought on the handlebars of her driver’s motor bike. We then started on a truly scary ride through the dark unevenly paved streets of the city, and then the muddy, rutted, unpaved streets of her village. As we rode my driver kept shouting something in Spanish at me, even though Katy had told him I didn’t speak the language. Finally he grabbed my hands and pulled them tighter around his rotund middle. I was sooo glad to get off that bike at Katy’s house.

The degree of comfort of the house was astonishing . It was under renovation for a person who lives in the States but who plans to retire in a few years in the Dominican Republic and live on Social Security. The renovation is almost complete and will be finished in a few weeks. It only lacks kitchen cabinets and a closet. The house is freshly painted inside and out.

Katy's house

It has white tiled floors and white walls, so even at night has a light, airy look. For supper we had crackers and cheese and a bottle of wine and I slept well on Katy’s comfortable bed. She slept in another bedroom on an inflatable bed.

Katy's guestroom

There was loud music playing next door (about 5 feet away) until about 11 p m. I was so tired it didn’t bother me and I drifted in and out of sleep, but noticed that about the time the music stopped roosters far and near began to crow. They were still at it when I awoke next morning just as it was getting light. Soon the music began again. There was incessant noise the whole time I was in the DR, but it was cheerful noise and I didn’t mind.

This was a full day, and my first chance to see what the country looked like. First we went to the city. Katy had errands to do: things to buy for the talent show her children’s group was putting on that evening. Again the choice was walk several miles or motorbike.

That's me!

I found the motorbike a lot less terrifying in the sunlight without a backpack. After a while I saw that many people rode without holding on to the driver, so I copied this and rode with my hands on my knees. I balanced better that way and it was fun.

The buildings in the city were all painted with colorful murals.

In the city

Katy said that is unique to this city. It was warm and bright. The shops were full of cheap stuff from China.

Chinese goods

We bought decorations for the community center where the talent show was to take place and Katy had some graduation certificates printed for her girl’s group.

Then we motorbiked back to her house and she gave me a walking tour of the village. We stopped at a tiny shop where she put minutes on her phone and another tiny shop where she bought some bread. We climbed some steep stairs to the roof of a building that had apartments in it and looked over the village. There were hills beyond with tall Poinciana trees covered with orange flowers.

Poinciana trees

Banana and plantain trees grew all around, in the village and on the hills.

Bananas and plantains are a staple

Chickens, cats and dogs wandered the streets and groups of children congregated on bikes.

Congregating kids

free range chicken

It was the first day in a long time  without rain and the sun was out so there was laundry drying on all the fences and lines.

Out to dry

We were invited to lunch at the house of the head of the neighborhood association who, Katy promised, was a really good cook. We had a stew of beans and pumpkin on rice and another stew of pork. Sweet fried plantains were a side dish. It was delicious.

A delicious lunch

Then we went to the hairdressers!

I had said that I wanted to wash my hair. Katy didn’t have hot water so she said we should go to the hairdresser which would be “a totally Dominican experience” for me. We had to wait quite a while at the hairdressers, located in a single car garage, because the electricity was suddenly on (unusual in the daytime there) and the hairdresser becomes cheaper, and thus crowded, if the electricity is on since they don’t have to use a generator to run the hair dryers.

the beauty salon

The entire objective at the hairdresser in the Dominican Republic is to make sure there is no wave or curl in the hair. It is washed, rolled up in huge rollers and then dried, then dried again with a dryer as it is pulled out full length, then dried a third time.

Katy in rollers

Since my hair is short I didn’t need the rollers to straighten it. When my turn came I was somewhat surprised that my hair was washed in cold water. It ended up completely straight. It was, as promised, a Dominican experience.

We were supposed to be at the community center, which was around the corner from the hairdressers, at 4:30 to supervise decorations, but we were still at the hairdressers until around 5:30. Children came in from time to time to consult with Katy as her hair was being done, and once or twice she went around with rollers or clips in her hair to mediate disputes. We finally finished with hair and got to the site of the festivities at around 6:30 when the show was to begin. Nothing was ready and only a few kids were there. Katy assured me that this was completely normal, that nothing ever began on time in the DR and nobody  expected it to.

The show actually started at about 8pm. The event was MCed by Katy and a local youth, Jason, an 18 year old who works with the Peace Corps.

Introducing the talent show

Katy is so fluent in Spanish that sometimes people can’t tell she’s American. The two MC’s engaged in a lot of chatter which of course I didn’t understand. There was awarding of graduation certificates,

Certificate awarded by Katy

and then talent. The talent was mostly dancing, and was mostly done by the boys. The dancing was remarkable. I couldn’t believe what those kids could do with their bodies. They leaped and jiggled and danced their hearts out,

and they danced

and finally some of the girls did some fantastic belly dancing — shoulders completely stationary and middles and legs moving like snakes.

the girls dancing

Then it got wilder. They were all dancing, the big kids, the little ones, the master of ceremonies. The boys had taped cardboard over the iron grate work so people couldn’t see in without paying, but a few climbed up and peeked in anyway.

Katy let them in

Some mothers were there, looking on with amusement. At about 9:30 there was a little slice of cake and some warm soda pop for each participant.

Katy and I went back to her house where a friend brought some street food (I can’t remember the name of it. It is a little like the Canadian Poutine. The Dominican version is French fries on the bottom, then ground meat — chicken or beef, then ketchup then mayonnaise. It was good. Again, I slept to the music of the roosters.

It was a happy village. The people seemed well nourished and the houses I was inside of were simple but comfortable. Katy said she only took me to the nice houses. There is poverty. There were many small businesses in Katy’s neighborhood: little shops, the woodworking shop that is making Katy’s kitchen cabinets and closet, the hair dresser, a seamstress who made curtains for Katy’s windows — and others. It is certainly third world — electricity only part of the time, no hot water, much of the cooking out of doors. Katy teaches an AIDS awareness class to teenagers, but in general the kids looked healthy. There is one rich, palatial house in the village, owned by a man whose wife works in the States and sends home money.

the village mansion

He is a major landlord in the area.

I asked Katy about the politics of the country, but she works so much at the local level that she did not have a lot to say about it. A little research on line indicates that it is a democracy much troubled by corruption. Clearly a lot could be done to modernize, sanitize, and generally improve the DR; nevertheless, it is a lovely place to visit. There’s a lot of beauty and many friendly, happy people.

The next day I resumed my tourist status and we took the bus back to the Capitol. We got a taxi to the old colonial part of the city where the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere stands. Jerson met us later and took us on a  short sight seeing expedition to a museum devoted to Columbus and his time. I’ll blog more about that anon.

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Thoughts on the Civil War, Obama’s inauguration and the birth of my great-granddaughter, Ellana

These things may not seem related, but inside my head they all came together last week.

Jerry and I have been immersed in the civil war for a couple of months. We have been watching lectures from the Teaching Company, 48 of them, on the war years, the origins of the war and its effects on both the north and south. In addition we have just finished a biography of William Henry Seward by Walter Stahr. Seward was, first, Lincoln’s and then Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State. At the same time I read a biography of Ulysses S Grant by H.W. Brands and I am now in the middle of a biography of Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.

I surprised myself by getting so involved in the history of any war, and especially the American Civil War which was one of the bloodiest in modern history. It happened partly because we had some good lectures and books on the colonial period and the new American republic that followed. It’s natural to want to know about what came next. Besides that, both of the biographies were well written and presented the life of the times brilliantly. But the best were the lectures. University of Virginia Professor Gary W. Gallagher’s presentation was just what a college level course should be. He was a grown-up addressing other grown-ups about events, debates, issues that were not simple but complex and nuanced. He obviously was a master of his subject and although he often checked his notes, most of each lecture was delivered formally but conversationally as he moved around, obviously talking from a detailed knowledge and understanding of that time in history. The opinions that I will present here are, however, my own and not necessarily his.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my lawyer daughter and I had disagreed about the causes of the war. She was a history major 25 years ago and she had been taught that the war wasn’t really about slavery, it was about economics.

My friends, make no mistake, that war was about slavery. Ever since the war ended many people who participated, early historians, and those who came later have tried to de-emphasize slavery — that horrible invention of humans in their relations with other humans. We don’t like to think that the early decades of the American experiment were facilitated by something as ugly as slavery. People have been enslaving each other at least since the beginning of recorded history. At first in America slave labor was obtained through “indentured servitude”, but that became impractical in a new country that was mostly wilderness. White indentured servants could slip away too easily and blend into the frontier life. But black people were easy to spot. There were hardly any free black people, so it could be assumed that blacks wandering about were run-away slaves.

In the new American republic there was a general belief that slavery was an evil which should be eliminated gradually. John Adams was a life long hater of slavery and he tried to engage his friend, Thomas Jefferson, in a discussion of it. Jefferson himself paid lip service to the idea that slavery was wrong and should end. But he himself had 200 slaves and only freed a few of them in his will.

In the years before the war, at the time of the Second Great Awakening, evangelical religions developed arguments both against and for slavery. The southern churches came up with teachings asserting that slavery was a positive moral good, that slavery was part of a divine plan. They said that God created white men superior to black men, and intended black men for the use of the white race. They said that black people were happy in their appointed subservient state, taken care of by their owners; that if they were freed they would revert to savagery

The issue between the north and south that led to the war was the expansion of slavery into the territories. A majority of people in the north were opposed to slavery but most were willing to let it exist in the states where it was established, believing that it would disappear gradually. They were against its expansion into the territories. The south seceded because they came to believe that slavery would be excluded from territories which were being organized into new states; thus slave states would be outnumbered by free states in the United States Congress. The south seceded to preserve the institution of slavery and they knew that secession would lead to war.

They lost the war. They could have won if they could  just hold the Union Army off until the north tired of the effort. They were unable to do it because they didn’t have leaders or generals with the skills and understanding that the North had. The south had Robert E Lee, who, contrary to popular fable, believed in slavery, and Stonewall Jackson, until he was killed at the battle of Chancellorsville by an accidental bullet from one of his own soldiers. These were the generals with real ability the south had. Contrary to popular fables, U S Grant was a better general than either Lee or Jackson. He was a true military genius. The president of the Confederacy was Jefferson Davis, a man of considerable ability, but one who was narrow minded and suspicious of those around him, unable to delegate.

Besides Grant and a number of other able military men, the United States had, above all, Abraham Lincoln with his extraordinary brilliance, humanity and wisdom, a leader of huge flexibility and craft. Is there a reason why the north had better men than the south? Sure there’s pure chance, but I think it’s unlikely that men of Grant and Lincoln’s stature could have been induced to fight a war to promote slavery. It takes lesser men with smaller minds to follow that path.

Now it’s 150 years since that terrible war, a war that cost more men than any in our history: a war that devastated great swaths of our country. The aftermath of the war was terrible for many southern whites but immeasurably worse for blacks. The white people took their revenge on the blacks for not agreeing to be slaves. When I was a young woman there were still people alive who had lived and fought in that war. When I got on buses in Virginia where my father lived there were signs that said “Colored people will seat from the rear.” There were separate schools for black children and white children. There were separate drinking fountains and public toilets for blacks and whites. And it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry.

When I reached the age of 76 the first black president of the United States was inaugurated and last week he took the oath of office for his second term. Obama is, of course, a Democrat, from the party which protected slavery 160 years ago. The Republican Party was the party of abolition then, but now it’s the party whose leader, Mich McConnell (from Tennessee) said his, and his party’s, one goal was to make sure Obama was a one term president. The once solid Democratic south is now the stronghold of the Republican Party whose policies are formulated to keep blacks, poor whites and Hispanics from voting. Quite a reversal.

Well, that’s the macrocosm of American racial politics. In my little world, the microcosm, my latest great-granddaughter was born last week, a few days after Obama’s inauguration. She’s the daughter of my lovely granddaughter, Sarah Grady, and her husband, Malik Grady, a tall handsome black man.

Malik and Sarah

They live peacefully in Florida and have many friends, black and white. Next week I will visit there and meet this beautiful, healthy whopping 9 pound 11 ounce Ellana. How the world changes. Who knows what may happen next? Some day, perhaps, Ellana Grady will be the first black woman president.

Ellana Grady

You read it first here and my blog will be history!

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Arizona and beyond

Jerry and I went to Arizona.  We were going to look at some property belonging to Jerry’s brother and to see our Arizona lawyer. I was a little nervous about our destination. I know that there are many guns in Arizona and was not sure what the situation might be at the property. Our friend Paul who had taken care of Jerrry’s brother during several of his illnesses went with us. He too was concerned about who or what we might find at Jerry’s brother’s place in Arizona. Our Washington lawyer went with us also.

We flew to Phoenix from Bellingham on Allegiant Air. The best thing about it was that it was a direct flight. Nothing else was good. The ticket seemed cheap at first, but I discovered that there was a lot more to pay. I had to pay to have seats assigned. I was unable to book without doing this. Some seats cost more than others. I could pay for “expedited” boarding. That is, I could pay to not stand in a long line. Like most people I stood in the long line. Checked bags and bags sized for the overhead bins cost money. Only what fit under the seat was free. Once we got on the plane we discovered that even a drink of water would cost $2. And the seats didn’t recline.

Once in Phoenix we rented a car and immediately got lost. We had directions to our lawyer’s office from the main airport, but it soon dawned on us that we had not flown into the main airport, but to one quite far from the city center. When we picked up the car it was a little past 11 and we just made it to our appointment by 1. The office was in a building of marble and glass and fancy chandeliers.

That night we stayed in a hotel across the street — Embassy Suits. It was expensive, but unlike the airline it had a lot of free stuff. Free parking, free wine and cocktails — no limit, and free breakfast with individually made omelets, cooked by middle aged Mexican ladies. To me this seemed like a better business plan than Allegiant’s– pay more at first, then get unexpected stuff free. Here’s the indoor view from our room’s entrance overlooking the elaborate artificial landscape of the hotel interior.

Our hotel in Phoenix

In the morning we drove through the desert to the property we were to inspect. I like the stark landscape; the bare rock mountains and the scattered huge saguaro cacti.

The desert

The weather was unusually cold for Arizona. We had no idea how long dealing with the property would take — we thought possibly several days, but the business was done quickly and without unpleasant incident, all in one day. Then we looked for a place to stay the night. A clean, comfortable motel was recommended and we found it, but the proprietor said he had only one room available.

Our motel in the desert

Paul and our lawyer each needed a room too. We went to the other motel which was terrible. Paul and our lawyer kindly offered to let Jerry and me have the room in the nice place and in return I offered to cook dinner for all of us in the communal kitchen in the nice motel. Here’s where we had lunch.

Desert cuisine is not much different from any other fast food

It was fine, but another meal there would have been redundant. For dinner we had pork chops and onions cooked on the outdoor grill, baked potato and Brussels-sprouts.

Jerry and I had 3 more days until our flight home. The next morning we set out early for San Diego where my sister lives. I wanted to visit her and to visit the church in La Jolla where my mother’s ashes are buried. We had breakfast in El Centro, where we got lost, and lunch in El Cajon on the other side of the mountains where we got lost again. Jerry did all the driving and I was supposed to navigate, but my cataracts are getting worse and I can’t see the signs until we are almost upon them; Jerry’s reaction time is not as fast as it once was. I suddenly shout “turn left” but he is well past the turn when he responds. I think we are a comical old couple in the car, but we get frazzled and nervous. The drive lasted about 6 hours and took us through some alien scenery.

Sand dunes

People drive all over these starkly beautiful dunes on 4 wheelers, leaving ugly tracks and disturbing the fragile ecosystem. Why?

After the desert were cotton fields.

Near El Centro

We dawdled a bit over lunch and arrived in the early afternoon, visited with my sister for a little while and then got a hotel in La Jolla. It was colder than usual in the entire west that week, and the room was difficult to keep warm, but it was in the center of La Jolla, the richest place in the country, and near the marvelous waterfront. We walked along the length of the marine reserve waterfront in brilliant sunshine. Here are some of the things we saw.

The sea and rocks and succulents

There were hundreds of pelicans.

Pelican in flight

Nap time

There were hundreds of seals, and they were in a fighting mood, but needing naps too.

Seals and cormorants

Better not mess with him

The wildlife on the shore coexisted in peace with the human and canine spectators. And we all watched each other.

Out for a walk on the waterfront

Some went into the water for a minute or two (it was about 55 F), and some went for a real look at the underwater world.

Different objectives

I went to church alone where my sister sings in the choir. Jerry doesn’t do church. Before the service I stood outside in the sun on the approximate spot where my mother’s ashes and my step-father’s are buried.

St James by the Sea

I thought about my elegant, deeply intellectual mother and let a few tears dribble down my face. Later my brother-in-law cooked us a fine roast beef dinner with Yorkshire pudding — he’s a master of Yorkshire pudding. That was always our family’s celebratory dinner.

On Monday we drove back to Phoenix, and of course we got lost. A lot. But eventually we found our hotel and the next morning we flew home on the awful Allegiant. It was a clear day for the flight and we saw some spectacular geology from the air — the Grand Canyon and the chain of volcanoes of the Cascade Mountains. Jerry and I tried to guess which mountain was which, but we were never sure. The pilot never bothered to make any landmark announcements.

It’s good to be home. The poodles were ecstatic to see us. My next trip is a solo trip to Florida to greet a new great granddaughter not quite out yet, and a couple of days in the Dominican Republic to visit my granddaughter in the Peace Corps there.

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Pleasures, large and small; bothers, mostly small

Jerry and I ventured out in the dark at 5 in the afternoon — I hate this dark time of year — to see the tiny house built by the son, Zack Giffin, of Island friends, Holly and Brian. It was on display at the Taproot, which is in the cellar of the Willows. The Willows is the island’s high, high end restaurant where dinner will set you back $500 for a couple. But at the Taproot you can get a glass of wine for $6 and there was the adorably cute tiny house in the parking lot. Zack, his girlfriend Molly Baker and his brother Sam and many of their friends (he said at one time 16 of them were staying) lived for 6 months in the house he built with loving care.  They made a film about it which you can see here. These  creative young people are professional skiers and film makers. They pulled the house, which is on a trailer, around to various ski resorts and had a wonderful, if perilous, time. Here’s a picture of Jerry and me and Zack visiting in the Willows parking lot.

Visiting the Tiny House

My next outing, somewhat more substantial both in time and in expense, was a trip to Vancouver to the opera. I left Jerry on the island to take care of the poodles, since he is not an opera fan, and I took my Granddaughter for her birthday and her mother, lawyer daughter. We saw a matinee performance of The Pirates of Penzance which I hoped would be suitably entertaining for a 15 year old.

The night before the opera lawyer daughter treated us to a dinner in Vancouver and a night in a pleasant hotel. Vancouver is a beautiful city, buzzing with diversity and youth, with a strong Asian flavor. It was full of Christmas lights, a place where East and West mingle in harmony. The restaurant we went to had excellent food but was big, noisy and crowded with the affluent young. A young couple at the table next to us, all dressed up in the latest styles, did not seem to know each other well, but I guessed that by the end of the evening they would know each other a lot better. We shouted our orders to our jolly Filipino waiter who shouted cheerful compliments and suggestions back to us. Lawyer daughter and I sipped martinis and shouted snatches of conversation while granddaughter silently sipped her orange smash.

Clare's birthday dinner

I enjoyed the frantically festive milieu, but was glad to walk the 7 blocks back to our quiet hotel.

The next day we spent a lazy morning, all three of us doing hair, putting on opera wear and jewelry. I forgot to bring jewelry, but lawyer daughter had an adequate supply. We looked elegant when we left the hotel, but it began to rain hard, so by the time we got the car parked our grooming had drooped a tiny bit. I pondered getting dressed up to go where we would know nobody, and very likely, unless we looked spectacularly outre, nobody would pay any attention to us. I suppose we did it for each other and for the sheer fun of dressing up and going out.

At the opera

We got to the Queen Elizabeth Theater in time for the pre-performance lecture, which I had hoped would get my granddaughter interested in the performance to come, but it was academic in tone, perhaps designed to make The Pirates seem suitable for a grand opera venue. Too bad, because I think it put her off.

The performance was nicely done. The chorus was lively and precise, Frederick (the tenor) was handsome and had a good voice, Mabel (soprano) was lovely to see but a little difficult to hear. I loved the crisp choreography and the handsomely lit sets. Christopher Gaze (of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach) directed the performance and played General Stanley. He was wonderfully funny and sang well. The patter song was not overdone as it can sometimes be in performances of Gilbert and Sullivan. There was a lot of witty stage business and jokes of all sorts — opera jokes, political jokes, romantic jokes. I had a great time.

A pirate strolling in the lobby

I spent the long intermission standing in line for the ladies wash room (Canadian term), but I made it just in time to get back to my seat. My granddaughter played games on her telephone. I hope my granddaughter found some enjoyment in the performance. She didn’t say anything about it, and was preoccupied doing homework in the car on the way home.

The next day I played bridge with 3 island friends whom I enjoy being with. My bridge playing, which was never great, is rusty, and the game is not important enough to me to take the time to study up, so my friends have to put up with my sloppy bidding. But they don’t seem to mind and we enjoy the afternoon, which is often capped with a glass of wine.

Things began to tend downhill (figuratively) when Jerry and I took our late afternoon walk. These days it’s dark by the time we get home at 5 o’clock; I’ll be happier when the days are getting longer. On our walk yesterday our poodles were attacked suddenly by a loose German shepherd. Jerry scared him off, but I had to push the button on my heart monitor which I am wearing for this month because of an irregular heart beat. The thing is a bother. Every night I must call up a place — who knows where –  and play the recordings that I make during the day. Jerry has a stomach ailment. Tomorrow we see the doctor about that. And I am beginning to get the Christmas jitters. How can I possibly remember all the things I have to do, and then how get them done?

I remind myself that the balance between pleasure and annoyance is much on the side of pleasure. Life seems good, and when Christmas is passed it will be even better.

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History and memory

Thanksgiving was great. The food was good and the company — my lawyer daughter and her family and my British-American grandson and his Argentinian-American wife and 2 little ones (who will be all three nationalities) — couldn’t have been  more loveable.

Layer daughter

My multi-national grands and greats

I made some roasted chard with feta cheese which was so good almost all of it got eaten. And of course, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, salad, roasted winter squash, etc, etc. I’ll remember it as a specially good one, and perhaps with time forget that I had a small panic about getting everything on the table hot. And that I failed to do so.

The greens are next to the salad

The next day lawyer daughter and her family went off to see the new film about Lincoln. Just before they left we got into a discussion (argument?) about history. Was the civil war about slavery, or was it about economics. Of course, the two are so interconnected that it’s not possible to untangle them. But I think, (hope I’m not misrepresenting the other side) that my emphasis was on the moral issue of slavery, and they (lawyer daughter and her son) took the position that slavery was a political justification and that Lincoln and the Northern politicians didn’t really have strong feelings about ending slavery. Their motivation was primarily economic.

We each declared expertise of a sort. Lawyer daughter was an honors undergraduate history major who had taken some American history courses. Jerry and I have recently watched a couple of Teaching Company courses on American history: one on colonial history and another on the whole scope of American History — 72 lectures. Besides that we have read the biography of John Adams by David McCullough and are now reading his book on Harry Truman plus a biography of Seward by Walter Stahr and one of Ulysses S. Grant by H. W. Brands (these two excellent, well written books are particularly relevant to the civil war). Of course, nothing was settled in our discussion (argument?). We parted with hugs all around and they went off to see the movie.

I have been thinking a lot about history these days. Somehow the study of the past seems a way to prolong the span of existence, a thing that begins to matter more as we age and get closer to the final end of our knowing.

Jerry and I are back in imagination thousands of years, doing an Egyptian history course from the Teaching Company. A great deal of this is about mummies and monuments and documents left by scribes which only tell what the ancient Egyptian bosses thought suitable for their descendents to know. Lots of it probably is embellished or even invented.

The professor in our course, Bob Brier, is an expert on mummies — he has even done a mummy himself; consequently I now know a lot more about mummies than I ever wanted to. But the monuments are astounding and I would love to see them, though the thought of going to Egypt these days is a bit scary.

I like to think about the lives of people who lived long ago. In one of the Egypt lectures our professor mentioned a mystery, set in ancient Egypt, by Agatha Christie whose husband was an archeologist. Our professor said the details of ancient life in the novel were accurate. I like Agatha Christie, so I put the book on my Kindle and read it with great pleasure. Though the mystery itself is formulaic, I thought the picture of life in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom was marvelous. I felt I could see it.

We are now at the 19th dynasty, and there are a few stories that, for now, are stuck in my memory. One is about the wife of Tutankhamen (18th dynasty)– her name was Ankhesenamen and she was his half-sister. They had played together as children. Their father was Akhenaten; Tutankhamen’s mother was the beautiful Nefertiti, Ankhesenamen’s mother was one of Akhenaten’s many other wives.

Tutankhamen died suddenly when he was 18. He may have been murdered. His sister-wife was about a year older. She had had at least 2 miscarriages. The unnamed fetuses were preserved in little coffins in Tutankhamen’s tomb. There was no royal successor, but there was a powerful priest-regent named Aye (he was about 60 years old) who wanted to marry Ankhesenamen so that he could become pharaoh. She wrote a letter to the king of the Hittites asking him to send one of his sons for her to marry. She said she was afraid because she had no heirs, and she would never marry one of her servants (Aye). A prince was sent, but when he got to Egypt he was murdered and Ankhesenamen had to marry Aye after all. After that she disappeared from history and no tomb has ever been found for her.

I find this such a sad story: children growing up in an environment of great privilege yet great peril, with no way to direct their own destiny. And who knows what the real story was. Just a few scraps of fact and so many inferences.

From the reading I have been doing and the lectures we watch I feel as if I know John Adams and Abigail Adams and their children, William Seward, Ulysses S. Grant and a lot about other great men and women of the past. But it is the past and what I know is what can be learned from letters and accounts of others. My grandson in our discussion of the Civil War and the movie about Lincoln said he hoped that Lincoln wouldn’t be “idealized” in the movie. He said he wanted to know what Lincoln was “really like.”

Grandson at the far right is the one in the discussion

For me that’s an unknowable. Some accounts are surely closer to reality than others, just as some portraits are better likenesses than others. But though I know more about my own past than anyone else, I am not sure of the accuracy of my knowledge about myself. My children often tell me stories about the past that don’t match my memories. We were all there but what really happened can no longer be discovered.

Even the massive monuments of ancient Egypt have been so ravaged by thousands of years of weather and abuse that we can only imagine what they may have looked like when they were new.

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