Friday, April 29, 2016

In Dog We Trust

Some of my friends were upset to hear that I’m struggling to make ends meet in my 4th year of graduate school. I know my previous post sounded dire, because I had just taken a good look at my finances and was feeling scared. But here I want to say that while it definitely makes life more challenging, being poor is not the worst thing in the world.  As long as you have a roof over your head and enough to keep going, not having a lot of money is actually a very good teacher.

It has taught me that I can make do without things I used to expect daily: a glass of wine at dinner, cream for my coffee (if we can’t afford coffee--well that’s a different story).

It has taught me to say yes to things I don't normally say yes to, like pet-sitting for cash. A pet-sitter in Fairbanks can get by looking after sled dogs, house dogs, and new litters of puppies. For mushers to be able to take a vacation away from their numerous dogs is out of the question, unless they can hire a trustworthy individual to stay at their house for a few days or weeks. l have no dog-yard experience, and I was honest about that with a potential employer, who wanted me to look after 37 sled dogs for two weeks. She found someone with mushing experience (thankfully!) and it turned out to be a stroke of luck for Simon, who was able to hire me to stay at Kiwi Kastle for a few days and look after his six puppies while he was caribou hunting in the Kuparuk watershed with a friend.  He took all his dogs and two sleds and drove all day on the Dalton to get a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, where they brought down three bulls and hauled them eight miles on sleds from the open tundra back to their truck parked off the haul road.

While he was doing all that, I was soaking puppy kibble in hot water three times a day, mucking out their kennel, and alternating my time between writing my first chapter manuscript draft and keeping the puppies amused with walks and safe, non-toxic chew toys.

I have learned more about dogs in the seven years I’ve been in Alaska than in a lifetime growing up with dogs in Chicago.  I learned that the happiest dogs in the world are dogs that have jobs.  Dogs are natural optimists, and since you can’t make a dog do a job he doesn’t love, giving them something to focus on allows them to take their natural talent at being optimists a step further. Sled dogs are bred to run; pulling the sled keeps their bodies and brains focused, it works off excess energy, and it allows them to gratify the primal urge to run with the pack.  Others are bred to hunt or herd, and a good long walk through a field or forest is their news, weather and sports rolled into one.

The funny thing is, if you spend enough time surrounded by optimists, it begins to rub off.

In the world of dog people vs cat people, I have always identified as a cat person.  Cat people are not optimists, and are sensitive to the three things dogs are really good at: noise, chaos, and foul odors—thus I’ve largely avoided their company (no hard feelings, guys). I have not been alone. Many cultures have shunned dogs as unclean because they consume carrion and carry pestilent fleas. Anti-canine cultures must wonder at modern people who let these ancient scavengers into their homes where they are hand-fed table scraps and allowed to snuggle in fluffy beds with their human companions.

Dogs don’t care about any of that. If you’re rich, of course they will happily accept steak and a velvet pillow. But if all you have is Alpo and straw, they won't stop wagging their tails at the sight of you, magnificent bringer of Alpo and straw, coming through the door each day. They won’t resent you if you don’t have new clothes or state-of-the-art matching doggy gear. If you fall down and hurt yourself they'll do everything in their power to comfort you. All they want is someone to love.  And when you come home to open the door, they jump on you and shower you with kisses as though they haven’t seen you for ten years—and once they are sure that it's really, really you and not a dream, off they go into the forest scenting a squirrel or rabbit, chasing each other through the bushes, ears flapping, tail up, prancing like mad four-legged ballerinas. Is there anything so happy, so carefree? Your dog could be a purebred with a diamond-studded collar or a rescue with a plain cloth collar—what does she care? She’s out in nature doing what she loves—and she’s with you--the person she loves in all the world!  If that doesn’t make you feel like a million bucks, I don’t know what does.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Low rent and white curtains

I woke up to white curtains of rain-snow and mist. I got up early to meet with my pet-sitting client in town. She was handing over some things I’d left at her place accidentally--and my pay.

I had just enough time to bake my weekly loaf of bread but not enough time to eat any. I also had just enough time to check that my auto insurance was current, and to make a cup of coffee, which I took with me. I was meeting her at a coffee shop, but I didn’t plan on buying anything there.

As I drove down the hill toward town I realized I had forgotten to brush my teeth. But then I remembered I didn’t have any toothpaste anyway.

I had stayed at her place for a total of 36 days; at $15/day this came to $540. I still have to make the rent on my own cabin. Her house had two bedrooms and two and a half baths. Heated floors and a heated garage.  Washer/dryer and a dishwasher. Two showers and an extra large bathtub.  Two dogs and a cat. I was surprised to see the check was made out for $625. She said she was happy with the way her house and her pets looked when she came home.

I thanked her and walked the check across the parking lot to my landlord’s credit union. They deposited the check, made out to me, into his savings account. I have an account at a different credit union, but unlike banks, credit unions “talk” to one another—without charging you a fee. That was handy, because it was snowing heavily just then. And I was fresh out of fee money.

$625 down, $75 to go. I texted my landlord.

I thought about driving to the supermarket. I had meant to bring my propane tank for a refill, but in my haste I’d forgotten to load it in the car.  Toothpaste, a battery for my kitchen clock, tea. That and propane would come to about $25. Oh, and eggs: $29. But I knew if I went to the supermarket I would end up buying things on my wish list: Ziploc bags. Vanilla extract. Cardamom. Flaxseed oil. Sigh. Out of sight is out of mind. After the credit union, I went up the hill to the University greenhouse to water what’s left of my germination experiments.

Two more years of grad school. $52,000 in my IRA account. $16,500 student loan debt. Should I just cash in the IRA to pay off the loan and live off the rest until I graduate? I had been talked into hiring a broker for $39 a month to help me get back on track. It seemed just the thing to do two weeks ago, sitting in the well-designed home-office of the house I was house-sitting, petting the cat to keep her from swiping the cell phone out of my hand with one lethal paw. I sent him a spreadsheet of all my expenses and assets.  We talked about my financial and personal goals. Where do you see yourself in three to five years, he asked. I see myself as a post-doc working at a university somewhere, I told him. I see myself traveling to visit family and friends. I thought to myself, would anyone want to hire/date a 58 to 60 year old post-doc? I might have gray hair by then. People/potential boyfriends would assume I’m a professor/loser and think I’m too expensive/old.  They might take one look at me and think: there are so many post-docs/women out there with less miles on them. Do I really want to hire/have sex with this old lady? What’s she doing being a post-doc/single woman at her age anyway?

Why do I assume nobody wants me? The truth? I never wanted me either. Once I realized that life is all about taking care of yourself because nobody really cares about anything else, I thought: raw deal, so much work, why bother? And yet, the body wants to breathe, the heart wants to pump. What can you do? I get up each morning a mindless blob, and gradually evolve into a human over the first cup of coffee.  Two and a half hours later, I’m ready to march out the door: Look out world, here I come again!!

I used to have a handle on things. I used to be able to buy any kind of grocery I wanted. Anything! Now I have to fork over a month’s pay to pay a month’s rent. I have to go without eggs, and add baking soda to a sliced-open tube of no-more toothpaste.  In three to five years will I be a jobless homeless toothless post-doc runnerup holding a cardboard sign just outside the parking lot at Fred Meyers?

How the hell did life get so low-rent? All I wanted was to be a scientist, but I find myself worrying more about my daily finances than about my dissertation. Did I make the wrong decision?  Should I have stayed an office worker? I would have maybe stayed employed. I would maybe have savings. I would maybe be able to take vacations, see my family--pay my medical bills. Maybe I could buy new clothes, nice wine.  All these things I could maybe do in my spare time if I had stayed in the workforce and survived layoffs. The rest of my time? I would be bored to tears clicking away in some cubicle. If I still had a job.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

the inspectors

What's seven feet tall, weighs half a ton, and sneaks about quietly on official business?

moose wearing official inspector's regalia.
Yes, it's Alces alces, the majestic moose!

When I moved to Alaska six years ago I wanted to live in a log cabin and see moose from my window. Easier said than done. I have seen them in my yard on occasion, but more often I see their sign. They are stealthy, and though they tend to be active during the day, right now in Alaska "day" is mostly dark, so my chances of seeing them are pretty low. They are more likely to be seen at the close of summer when they boldly saunter into yards to inspect vegetable gardens, or later in the fall when hollowed-out pumpkins left on porches keep them busy overtime.

This winter began with lots of snow, leaving a deep white blanket unmarred for weeks up until the last 36 hours. Then on Saturday I looked out my kitchen window and noticed the first moose tracks.  By this morning the tracks had doubled. I decided to try to make sense of them by creating a map. Like all inspectors, they show up unannounced and stick their long noses into everything, including the path to my firewood which reposes under a tarp tied to some spruce trees, and which now bears the stamp of the cloven hoof.

As always, they left a few Proofs of Observation (see map).

inspection route awarded three Proofs Of Observation (POOs)

Sunday, October 4, 2015





Sunday, September 27, 2015

the artsy fartsy corner

for eric

graduate school

the hood

Sunday, September 20, 2015

It's Autumn and Nobody's Smiling

Many moons ago, in my late twenties, I found myself feeling isolated and deeply unhappy. I had graduated from college a few years earlier and had married my college boyfriend, but I found myself frustrated and depressed most of the time.  I turned to my diary as a sort of confessional, because I felt nobody else could really help me. Part of my problem was that I thought the misfortunes I suffered were completely out of my control, that life was meant to be “against me,” thus nobody else could truly understand my situation.  I had no awareness that my ability to control my feelings and choices could be the key to a happier life. In other words, my lack of self-awareness, my ignorance of where my own powers lay, left me feeling like a boat at the mercy of inhospitable seas.  It got so bad that I actually ran away from home.  The first time, I took all the money from the joint savings account my husband and I had, and I drove out west for 100 days, hiking in the mountains and sleeping in motels and campgrounds. The second time, I was divorced and living on my own, and I decided I’d had enough of my life again, and headed out west again for the summer.  Why I ever returned to Chicago is something of a mystery, but it probably had to do with the fact that I’d run out of money and ideas.  Once I learned that I had the power to navigate my little boat, my life began to become less of a struggle and more of an adventure.

Without these skills of navigation I doubt I would ever have landed in Alaska to study the Arctic. Sometimes I feel like pinching myself at how lucky I am.

Even so, every autumn in Fairbanks I feel myself internally bracing for an invisible storm. Not necessarily the coming of winter (although that’s surely part of it), but certainly the combination of the stress of the fall semester, the demands of my graduate program and all its attendant commitments and meetings and obligations.  Grad students at UAF who are awarded a TA assignment are expected to run two labs per week, attend all the lectures, and do all the assignments to keep up with student questions. I confess I have never looked forward to it. The only thing that gives me a sense of excitement is the idea that my data will show me something unexpected and wonderful, that it will one day be published, and that I will go on to other as-yet unknown adventures, hopefully having something to do with the Arctic.

Even so, after three years in this program, all the steps still required to earn my PhD seem as remote and untested as the steps to the summit of Everest. And some days I’m just not up for the challenge.

It’s helped tremendously to have good neighbors, people to hang out with and share a meal and some laughs and forget the frustrations of academia.  But nothing lasts forever. Recently, some my Alaskan friends have decided to leave Fairbanks to pursue other adventures.

I know that life goes on, but it is sad to see them go.

Gareth and Ryanne left last month to seek their fortune in the Lower 48. And tomorrow, Joanne is heading down to the lower 48 to work for the next eight months in Idaho and Washington. She’s sublet her cabin to yet another new face who comes and goes about her own business, and it isn’t clear if Joanne will be back in the spring to stay or to wrap things up and take off for good.

The undergraduates I’m TAing this semester will graduate and move on in a few short years, and who knows, I may even be done before they are. Right now it seems hard to imagine. There’s so much to juggle with my dissertation and the demands of the TA assignment, and I know my fellow grad students bear the same weight of their own tasks.

 The worse thing about graduate school is—hands down--the utterly disheartening look on the unsmiling faces of graduate students; these are people you pass everyday on campus who don’t look at you or speak to you. If you should dare to say “Good morning” or even just “Hi” they look as though you threw cold water on them.  These days I think about what it would feel like to drive out of Fairbanks to Delta Junction and then east into Canada, cutting south to cross over into Montana or North Dakota, or continue further on to Minnesota or Wisconsin, never looking back.  I have no idea what I’d do once I got to wherever I think I would go, but that isn’t the point. These are the days I just want to run away from the pileup of darkness and cold and grad school duties in this pressure cooker world of academia. Sometimes I worry that I am sacrificing my health and happiness for the right to be called a doctor of philosophy. But then I tell myself: if you walk away from all this work, you will have nothing to feel good about--so you might as well get those three letters after your name to compensate for all this suffering.

And then I go outside and I’m startled by the sight of a squirrel that has landed somehow in my rain barrel and drowned. I mean, it’s not like Alaska is in a drought. It’s been cloudy and rainy for the past ten days. Why did he end up in here? Squirrels are not what comes to mind when you think of accident-prone klutzbags. So what happened here, little buddy? Did you just decide to take the plunge like your lemming cousins? Was it just all too much to bear?  Or did you see a tasty-looking giant spruce cone, magnified in the lens of the water?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Love and Happiness

I just came back from a ten-day vacation in Northern California where my good friends Di Walsh and Lawr Michaels hosted me at their Lake Tahoe vacation house and their Bay Area home.

Nearly two decades ago I was introduced to Di through my sister, who recruited me to paint a likeness of a recently deceased pet of Di’s then-boyfriend.  I remember Di walking into my sister’s kitchen on a bright morning: she was funny and feisty and cheerful and I liked her immediately. Several months later at a Christmas party I was introduced to her cousin Cherie, whom I also liked immediately. Ever since, I have counted these people among my dearest friends.

Many parties later—Di’s parties at her place on the Fox River were legendary—we found ourselves going back to school getting our university education in biology: Di for her BS in Anthrozoology at UC Davis, me for a PhD in plant biology at UAF. I described Di to my Alaskan friends as “the other fifty-year-old college student.”

For eight years Di has shared her life with her partner, Lawr Michaels, a sports writer and musician, and their seven or eight animal family members, consisting of roughly equal parts canine and feline. Fittingly, they describe their household as a “pack.”

I got to be part of the pack for a few days. Everyone who knows me knows I’m not a “dog person,” and yet for some reason, several of my closest friends and neighbors are dog people. So, in order to be with them, I have had to deal with hot, fishy dog breath in my face, lots of barking and fussing, lots of dog hair, drool, nasty dog farts, and worst of all, picking up German Shepherd poo in the middle of the night because dear old elderly Mahi had an accident in the living room where I was sleeping. Di and Lawr told me I was the easiest house guest one could ask for, and I have to agree :-)

Coming home early this morning to my beloved house on Kiwi Korner, to my car Kaneesha, my pet tarantula Wata, my laughing Buddha statue and my pet cactus Bartholomew, I realized that the pack love I had been basking in at Di and Lawr’s is something I want for myself in some version or other--but I don't quite have it yet.

I see their life the way one hears a song never before played; I didn’t quite realize such notes existed, beautiful and tangled as the leashes on the side table in the living room, beautiful as the cupboards stuffed with dog treats in front of the granola and pancake mix, beautiful as the mounds of clean laundry that never seem to get put away in the tide of busy days, beautiful as the plants in the backyard garden that stand vulnerable to accidental annihilation by their large and playful four-legged children. Each night, the pack goes into the bedroom and drapes itself across the bed to watch “Family Guy” before falling asleep.  Even though this is not the way I choose to live my own life, I realize that in spending time with them I have seen the things that make life worth living.