Saturday, August 30, 2014

Just keep doing it

Many moons ago, in a past life as a young artist in Chicago, I knew a guy, a friend of my roommate, a cinematographer and experimental filmmaker, well-liked and well-respected in the artist community.  We'd gone to a screening of a film he'd recently completed, and everyone we knew was talking about it. The film was a three-part portrait of the filmmaker's grandfather. 

There's a scene where the grandfather suggests they pray together. The filmmaker admits to his grandfather, rather sheepishly, that he doesn't know how to pray, and then begins to weep uncontrollably.  As a young art student I had seen plenty of people reveal their own naked bodies in their art, but never their raw, naked emotions, and I was impressed with the humanity of this artist.

We hung out only one time that I can remember: my boyfriend and my roommate and I met him and his girlfriend somewhere near Maxwell Street; they invited us to their loft to watch films. They lived in a huge, old warehouse; I remember washing my hands at their bathroom sink and looking up thinking I’d never seen so many cobwebs in my life. But their life wasn’t about housework, it was about following your vision by making art.  At one point he asked me what I was working on, and I told him I wasn’t working on anything at the moment.  I had recently graduated and was working full-time in an office, and found myself too tired at the end of the day to do much else. He practically stuck his face in mine:


“I can’t; I just don’t have time.”

“Yes you can. Just keep doing it: keep filming, keep working on your stuff. Promise me you’ll do that.”

I hadn't expected such a strong reaction.  His manner was confrontational, yet kind and encouraging. Then he smiled as if to say: I dare you!  He was a few years older than we were, and we looked up to him as an elder brother figure/journeyman artist showing support for his newly-fledged artist brethren.

Over the years I lost touch with him, and I left art-making altogether. Then one day a friend sent me a newspaper article. Our friend had gone missing, and nobody seemed to know where he was.

When I met him he had been a film editor for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and then got hired as a cinematographer working with a German documentary filmmaker. That was as far as I knew.

Apparently in the early 90’s he'd left Chicago and gotten married.  Several years had passed by the time I received the article about his disappearance. There were rumors he'd joined a satanic cult and was buried somewhere out in the desert. It sounded so ridiculous I dismissed it as a load of crap. He was an experienced, globe-trotting filmmaker; he could be anywhere.

A few more years passed, I got my Master’s and left town myself.

Then one sleepless night, I thought of him and googled his name. There he was: tall, skinny, intense and quirky, just as I remembered him.

Every posting said the same thing: in 2000, his body was found in the basement of a house in Wyoming.  He had been murdered five years earlier.

There had been a documentary about his disappearance, made by his friend and colleague, but it was unavailable.  Besides written articles--including an online archive of the one my friend had mailed me several years ago--the only videos I could find were a short clip from NBC news and a 43-minute made-for-TV episode for a true murder mystery series that I had to rent in order to see.  I expected it to be a repetitive, over-dramatized affair, but when you lose touch with someone you once knew--only to learn bad things happened to them--you take pretty much any scrap of news you can find.

The story was centered on the woman he left Chicago to marry: a charismatic but mentally unstable leader of a religious cult who preached dowsing by swinging a pendulum. Her teachings were initially positive but grew increasingly darker as she began to believe she and her flock were surrounded by demons and zombies. In 1995, when things were at their weirdest, he decided to leave.  In the heat of an argument, she shot him in the head at close range, and buried his body in the basement with the help of another cult member.  By the time it was discovered and a formal investigation was launched, the leader had died, and the other woman was charged as an accessory.

Of all the people I've known, however briefly, he is the last person to have deserved such a fate.  He was a good, kind person, with many friends, and had he lived, one wonders how great his mark upon the world might have been.  Some artists become more renowned in death than in life, and I think it sad that more people got to know of him as a murder victim than as an artist.

When we read stories about people who ended their lives this way, we usually don’t stop to think about how it must feel for their loved ones.  The murder mystery genre is a form of entertainment for everyone but them. 

I wish he could have written his own story. But I’m so glad to have known him and for receiving his message:

Keep doing what you love.  Don’t give up.

My friend's name was Allen Ross.  A really cool guy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A guy walks into a dentist's office...

Receptionist:  Do you have an appointment?

Guy:  Tooth-hurty.


Shortly after I learned to fish, I learned I have two impacted wisdom teeth. It was so long ago I had my wisdom teeth out, I'd assumed they were all pulled.  Not so, of them has partially erupted in my lower jaw like an ancient, long-forgotten volcano.

In a short amount of time, thanks to the internet, I've learned an awful lot about wisdom teeth and student health insurance.

I won't bore you with health insurance. It is the tangled jungle we all walk through.

Wisdom teeth are much more interesting. In dentist-speak they are known as 3rd molars. We typically have four of these things: two upper and two lower, although some people have less, and some people have more, known as supernumerary teeth (which makes me think of sharks for some reason).

Wisdom teeth are a relic of our bygone days as apes, when we were all--sadly--a bunch of raw-food vegans. Back in those days we needed bigger, stronger jaws and extra molars to grind plant fiber.  Over time, as we developed a taste for easier-to-chew foods, our jaws got smaller. But for some reason we still have those extra molars hanging out in our heads--as backups?  Evolution does have a thing for redundancy. And leftovers.  Maybe in a few generations the raw vegans will happily chomp away again on three sets of fully functional molars? Until then, think of your wisdom teeth as a completely useless gift from your monkey ancestors.

ook ook OOK, thanks Lucy!

Ah now, why do we call them wisdom teeth? Compared to most teeth which come in when we're children, wisdom teeth typically appear in young adulthood, when we're supposedly wiser.

Which might explain why only half of my wisdom teeth came up.

Regardless of whether they come up or stay impacted, they're far easier to extract from a younger jawbone, because the roots have not reached their full length and the jawbone is a bit more flexible. As we age, the roots grow longer and become more firmly attached to the jaw (just in case, people!) and our bone loses its flexibility.

So why remove them?

There are two schools of thought: some experts argue impacted wisdom tooth surgery is far more traumatic and costly than necessary (it often requires surgical removal of bone, and can end in fractures and nerve damage)--so if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Apparently many people live out their lives with their wisdom teeth intact, pain-free and just fine. On the other hand, plenty of people develop problems: pain and swelling from gum and tooth infections, compounded by all kinds of weird angles of impaction. These are the people whose wisdom teeth are like rotting time bombs for whom surgery is not optional.

This is not to say it's all black and white...

My case falls somewhere in the not-too-bad zone: a partially erupted tooth at a slight angle that caused a mild gum infection. There were a few days of swelling and pain and a yucky discharge that gave me much anxiety until I saw my dentist. Thankfully it cleared up with the help of oral antibiotics and lots of rinsing.  My dentist showed me the xray and said I did a good job: neither the monkey molar nor its neighbor show any signs of decay. He referred me to an oral surgeon in case I want it removed.  Apparently for me it is still optional.

He did suggest it might be a good idea, because infection can re-occur.  New teeth are sharp before they've had a chance to wear against the opposing tooth, and until that happens the gum is vulnerable to infection (in babies that's called teething).  In my case the part of the crown that is aboveground, so to speak, may remain trapped in the soft tissue because the back end of the crown is firmly nestled under the curve of my jawbone.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, you could say.

Armed with this new information, a flurry of emails to the student health office ensued. My university's student heath office is nothing if not awesome, prompt, informative and professional.

I made an appointment for a consultation with an oral surgeon to discuss my going under general anesthesia to have Monkeytooth removed as I watched online videos and read all I could. Tooth-hurty indeed.

"Don't read about oral surgery. Especially on the internet," was Jojo's sage advice. I ignored it.

Besides the sheer gaggyness of watching a surgeon digging a crowbar-like thingie into this gaping, bloody hole that is supposed to be some poor person's mouth, issues related to this surgery include (but are not limited to):

Loss of muscle function in tongue and jaw

Slurred speech


A fractured jaw

Bone loss in the jaw

Resorption of heathy teeth (your body basically eats your good teeth to get calcium lost from the surgery)

And last but not least:

paresthesia in the mouth (numbness and tingling) which can make things like eating and kissing less pleasurable.

Drooling scares me. Fractures scare me. But no kissing? Really?

It really makes you stop to realize how little we value or understand the complexity of our body's basic functions, and how much they contribute to the joy of living. Take any one of them away for good, and I guarantee we become fully aware of what we have lost.

My plan is to see the surgeon, ask lots of pointy questions, make my decision, and live with it.

If there's no reason to have it done then I will be mindful and grateful of the sheer beauty of eating (and kissing) and life will be good.

If the doctor says it's a problem and it must come out, I hope I don't end up drooling in class. Then I'll have to run away and join the circus.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hunting and Fishing (part 2)

Our volunteering mission for science accomplished, we regrouped at Boardwalk Fish & Chips for halibut on a wooden stick, followed by white wine on a wooden bench. We sat amid sun and surf, contemplating our next move.

The night before at our motel room in Soldotna we looked out at the Kenai River and noticed that fish were jumpin'.  And the anglers were high. High on fishing, anyway.

Jojo proposed we drive back to Soldotna, book another night at the Kenai River Lodge, get a rod and reel, bait and lures, the whole nine yards--and go fishing.


I thought--really?   Can we do that?

I've never been fishing before.

Fishing is one of those things someone teaches you at a young age. In high school my boyfriend went fishing, but I never accompanied him. I had my mind made up that hunting and fishing were cruel sports that I would never, ever be part of. And I lived inside that reality most of my life.

In Alaska, fishing is not so much a sport as a way of life. It is just part of what it means to be an Alaskan.

Practically speaking, this is because we still have more fish than people. One day that will change, and we may change the way we think about it.

Fish--in particular the salmon--have shaped the Alaskan wilderness.  They are a keystone species. The annual pulse of spawning salmon is jaw-dropping.  They swim in enormous numbers from the sea up the waterways to spawn and die in their natal streams which they locate by smell. What people and bears and bald eagles don't catch turns into thousands of tons of nutrients that fuel the ecosystem. Without this fuel, life here would be very different. There would be no bears or eagles or moose or squirrel or vast, productive forests that depend upon the nutrients in salmon carcasses.

You could think of the salmon as the red blood cells coursing through the arteries of the wildnerness, delivering their loads of nutrients to keep the living tissue of the forests alive and healthy.

And we got to catch some!  Or--try to. The silver and pink salmon are running as I write, the kings (or reds) are just finished for the season.

Jojo (aka my "Fishin Buddy") looked very confident in Fred Myers trying out rods, inspecting lures and lines. She had no fear walking up to the young man behind the sporting goods counter, asking all kinds of questions, admitting we were newbies. But in our rubber boots and Billy Bob caps I guess our money looked green enough to the store employees. We walked out with a rod and reel and line, sinkers, bobbers, a hook or two. And my very first fishing license!

That's when you know you're really an Alaskan.

Then a stop at a bait and tackle store for some eggs (on the advice of a silver-haired gentleman at Freddy's). Not hard-boiled eggs as I thought, but salmon eggs.

Salmon eggs? Really?  Isn't that like eating their own children?

Ah, well they are salmon...

Back at the Lodge we used my Fishin Buddy's iphone to look up handy things on the internet such as how to thread the reel and tie an "egg loop" to hold the salmon roe above the hook. And by we, I mean her. She did it all.

By late afternoon we spent a glorious time on the little pier just behind our Lodge, casting and fishing our little hearts out until dark.

Did we catch anything? We sure did--we caught Fishin' Fever!

It would have been nice to catch a fish, but for me, it would have been the icing on the cake. The real fun (the reel fun?) was learning how to cast, to feel the line in the water, to move it in a way to make the fish bite, then to feel the fish nibble, to feel the crazy force of the fish pull the line, to know when to fight and when to relax--just to figure out the mind of the fish was the most fun of all.

I can't wait to retire from grad school to become a full-time fisherwoman :-)

Jojo threads the reel from scratch by watching a video on her phone.

A true Alaskan woman, she carries her leatherman tool everywhere. Doesn't that make it a leatherwoman tool?

Ooh, the shiny beads and sinkers

Jo tied a perfect egg loop

And the eggs held!

she shows me how it's done

This is my very first cast. And I look like my brother Bill.

Good job, Fishin Buddy!

Woo Hoo!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hunting and Fishing (part 1)

Some friends in the world of Cakile (sea rocket, the annual beach plant I researched for my Master's) want to know the extent of the spread of two closely related species (C. edentula and C. maritima) along the west coast of North America, including California, Oregon, and Alaska.

Sea rocket originated in the Middle East a long, long time ago, eventually migrating on the ocean currents across the Atlantic to North America. The seeds of this plant are quite remarkable. The seed is about the size of a grain of rice, encapsulated in a very buoyant, fleshy, salt water-resistant fruit that looks kind of like strings of shiny little plastic green beads arranged along a stalk. Because of this floaty quality, the seed has hitch-hiked around the world to seek its fortune as a kind of biological stowaway in the ballast water of ships. After a long ocean voyage, it loves nothing better than to germinate on the bare sand a few feet from the surf. Once established, it grows quickly into a large, sprawling weed, topped with unremarkable little purple flowers.  The non-showy flowers can be either self-pollinated or get somebody else's pollen from a visiting bee or fly. The plant puts most of its energy into developing those shiny little beads to perfection. A good half-meter sized Cakile (or "Cakilezilla" as I like to call them) can contain hundreds of fruits, and all this weight eventually results in the plant collapsing upon the sand, which is perfect, as you will see. The fruits consist of two very cleverly designed segments: the segment closest to the branch end is usually cross-pollinated, while the segment on the very tip is usually self-pollinated. Once the seeds have ripened, the fruits at the tip can detach and float away, while those on the branch end stay put on the mother plant. Alas, Cakile is an annual, so Mom always dies in the end, but her attached children--half siblings for the most part---overwinter in the sand to germinate the following spring.

Two years ago, I'd spotted a single specimen of American sea rocket (Cakile edentula) on the little beach behind Two Sisters Bakery in Homer, Alaska. I told my friends I'd try to make it down there this summer. As luck would have it this year was good timing, and Joanne, who makes her living among humans as a nurse practitioner, was game to accompany me for a couple of days of exotic plant sleuthing.

I honestly didn't think we'd find any.  I'd decided on Homer Spit, a 4.5 mile stretch of sand that sticks out from the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula like a long, skinny finger into Kachemak Bay.  I chose a half-mile transect along the beach beginning at the RV park near the tip heading west toward the bright red wooden barn housing Lucky Pierre Charters. From my past experience, sea-rocket is usually found among people and their boats, and as we started out, we found lots of things that resembled sea-rocket: sea purselane (Honckenya peploides), seabeach groundsel (Senecio pseudoarnica), seashore saltbush (Atriplex drymarioides), and oysterleaf (Mertensia maritima) among others. Then Joanne called me over: she'd spotted it: Cakile edentula. The good folks of the West Coast Cakile Project had provided a great visual guide of both species that we'd printed for reference, and Joanne, who has no botanical training outside of gardening, was a natural. Once we saw the first one, we found others rather few and far between. We came to the end of the transect with just 24 plants, and then in the shade of Lucky Pierre's we found more than three times that many: some were tiny little things with one or two fruits, most were medium-sized, and some were big honking Cakilezillas loaded with beads.  Although European sea rocket (Cakile maritima) has been documented in Alaska, we did not find a single one in our beach walk.

But this was just Part One of our excellent adventure...

our sampling map

Homer Spit looking East toward Seldovia

Sea rocket growing among rocks by the sea

C. edentula fruits resemble shiny green beads

me with a Cakilezilla

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Summer comes undone

August in Fairbanks begins full and lovely, and then slouches incrementally toward overripe decadence

Warm, lazy mornings seem to point their long green fingers laughing at clothing and tidiness and schedules 

Life is hypnotic, seductive. And then summer breaks down, weeps uncontrollably, and turns frosty cold.

At this writing, we are not quite there yet.  We are still under the spell

of so many tiny golden-green winged fairies winking in the evening sunlight.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blueberries, Take Two

Ahh, this is more like it!

We chose to take only ONE dog, the smartest and most loyal (Lassie, of course)..

And thus we three lasses spent a lovely afternoon.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why I don't own dogs

Joanne and I decided the weather was nice enough yesterday afternoon to take a hike up Rabbit Creek and pick blueberries.

"We'll take a few of the dogs," she added. Sure, why not, I thought.

She's dogsitting the Mcloughlin Group for one more week, as Simon decided to return to Galena for a few more days on that post-flood construction gig. He's supposed to return home next Wednesday.

In the meantime, I haven't picked blueberries in Fairbanks for a couple of years, and having a girlfriend to go hiking with is also a great bonus. She decided to load up Porky, Brownie, Jasper and Cowgirl in the bed of the Toyota so they could roam and get some exercise while we picked berries.

Simon and Joanne seem to think it a great idea to drive up Moose Mountain with a load of dogs to accompany them. They clip their collars onto a short length of chain anchored in the pickup bed, where the dogs are then supposed to stand or lie down quietly and dutifully for the duration of the ride, and not be tempted to lunge out at any passing moose or squirrel or dog or leaf or god knows what. Shortly after we got underway, Jasper leapt over the side where he hung briefly by his collar like a side of beef before Joanne screeched to a halt, ran around to the side, and lifted the 80-pound dog back in.  You would think Jasper learned his lesson to stay put in a moving vehicle. But did I remind you these are sled dogs? For the rest of the short ride it was: JASPER, STAY! BROWNIE, NO!! COW--QUIT IT!!!

Thus arriving without further mishap, we parked on the side of a dirt road and unclipped the dogs, who immediately flew out of the truck like unguided missiles straight into the road as speeding trucks whizzed by. HEY GUYS, OVER HERE! Joanne called out as we marched to the trailhead.

Once on the trail, all we had to do was look for berries, and keep an eye on the four huskies, who had a tendency to disappear off the trail now and then.

I guess the big mud puddles on the trail were a blessing to distract them. That, and the fact that they would be in the back of the truck to air-dry/de-stinkify on the way home.


As we hunted for berries, we found many more mushrooms, including one magnificent coral mushroom that I pointed out to Joanne. "What a find--this species is a real delicacy!"  As I said this, Jasper slid down the hill, right into the prized delicacy, and smushed it into a million muddy pieces.

But the piece de resistance? It began with much barking as the dogs chased something just off the trail. I was wearing my bear mace on my belt. There had been reports of a grizzly on Goldhill Road a couple of weeks earlier. I braced for the four dogs to explode out of the bushes with the enraged bear close behind. Instead, the dogs emerged onto the trail sporting long white tusks.  They'd chased a porcupine, and now the blueberry picking trip was over. We turned around and marched back to the truck. We loaded the dogs, clipped them in, and Joanne got out her leatherman tool and pulled the quills out of Porky's nose and Brownie's muzzle while I held them. Jasper by some miracle had managed to stay out of the fray and remained quill-free. Cowgirl, on the other hand, got the worst of it--fifteen or so quills deeply embedded, and she pawed at them, driving them in deeper.

We got home and tried to hold her to remove the rest. Joanne was quick enough to get one or two, but Cow resisted and bucked and jerked away the minute she got close with the needlenose pliers. I went over to Simon's nextdoor neighbors Glen and Joanne, and got Glen to come over and hold Cow's jaw open with leather gloves while Jojo got a couple more out. The rest were just too deep, and Cow fought the whole time.

So, to the vet we went. Cowgirl was given a sedative, and thirty minutes later we had a meek and woozy dog sporting no more quills.

Duration of the expedition: all goddanged afternoon

Cost of expedition: $88 in vet fees plus $20 for two bottles of much-needed wine for the two dirt-and-doghair-covered women.

Number of blueberries picked: ZERO

Doofus #1 (Brownie): nine quills

Doofus #2 (Porky): one on the nose and one below. Joanne somehow manages a smile.

The Queen of Quills: Cowgirl, showing off her new Billy-Bob teeth!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sourdough bread, step by step

My friends have asked me for my sourdough recipe.  It took me about four years to learn to make good bread. It is actually quite easy if you keep making it. Things you will need: a glass jar (25 oz or bigger), good white bread flour (I use King Arthur brand), salt, water, a large plastic or wooden bowl w/ tight fitting lid, a dutch oven, cornmeal or oatmeal, and a hot oven (a pizza tile in the oven is better if you have it).

  Step 1. Make the sourdough starter.  Mix flour and water in a glass jar, stir together with fork, cover, let sit a day or more until bubbly. Keep it in fridge, feed and water it about 1 x per week with 1/4 c flour (use white bread flour only) and a little water, stirring it with a fork until well mixed.

The starter lives in your fridge. It only needs a small amount of white flour and water given weekly to be happy and healthy.
To store keep it on the dry side
to bake, add enough water to make a thick, pourable batter.

Step 2. Make the bread dough. Mix together 2 cups white bread flour... teaspoon of salt... full dry measure cup of the liquid starter thinned as stated above...

...and enough water (about one full dry measuring cup of water) to make a rough shaggy dough that sticks together with a fork. One option: you can add with the dry ingredients 2 heaping tablespoons of whole wheat flour for a nice flavor.

Step 3. Cover with tight fitting lid...

...put in warm place several hours or overnight. This is one of my good spots. The other is the inside of my oven (unheated, but with the pilot light on) with oven door closed. Write yourself a note to check the dough. You don't want to forget about it!

In several hours it should look like this: bubbly, sticky, full of air holes.

Step 4: scrape out risen dough onto floured surface. It will be very squishy, sticky, soft. Fold several times with more flour. It should feel soft yet firm (I always say like a baby's bottom). If you poke it, it should spring back.

Step 5. Flour the bottom of the rising bowl generously.

Dump the dough back in, close the lid...

 ...put in the fridge for several hours or overnight. The dough will swell and expand somewhat by then.

Step 6. Baking the Bread. Turn the oven to 450F. Place the dutch oven w/ lid inside (preferably on a pizza tile). Close oven door and preheat for 10-15 min. While the dutch oven is preheating, remove the rising bowl from the fridge and let the bowl sit on the counter to warm the loaf up a bit. Don't take off the cover of the rising bowl until you are ready to bake.

Transfer preheated dutch oven to stove top. It will be very hot! 

 Coat the bottom with cornmeal, oat meal, oat bran, whatever you like. You can cook the toasted oats later as hot cereal. 

Carefully scrape loaf from bowl with spatula. Dump into hot dutch oven, flour side up.

Looks good!

Step 7. Cover and bake 30 min at 450 F.

Step 8.  Check the loaf. When the crust is golden brown, transfer the dutch oven to the stovetop.  Remove the loaf with a wide wooden spatula. It should come out easily. Tap the bottom of the loaf. It should sound hollow.

If the crust is still pale in color, put the cover back on and bake another 10 minutes and check again.

 Step 9. Cool the loaf. Transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.  It will start to crackle. Let it cool until it stops crackling (10-20 min). Although the loaf is really hot at this point, it's also really cool to hear it crackle!

Step 10. Slice carefully. The bread will be very soft and fragile. The crumb should be full of airholes. Use a long bread knife.  If you keep feeding your sourdough and baking, you will have lovely bread whenever you want it.

I have a great, authentic Alaskan sourdough starter that a friend in Fairbanks gave me. It originated in Arctic Village and was given to a Native family by Hudson's Bay Company traders many generations ago. If you would like a sample I would be happy to send you some dried starter and instructions to revive it.

Happy Baking.