Sunday, November 29, 2009

keeping it real at the book fair

Bill's book about real Alaska...
details below...

Snow came to Anchorage this Thanksgiving weekend, and had I not previously made a commitment, I would have stayed home on so-called Black Friday to read, write or stroll through the neighborhood and around the bog on snowshoes. Instead, I've spent the last three days at the Anchorage Museum selling my book at the annual ReadAlaska Book Fair.

I was a little cool to the drudgery of getting up and driving through several inches of snow on the unplowed streets on Friday. I put the shovel in the car just in case, but lucky for me the bad drivers were either in another part of town or already in a ditch.

The museum, with its spacious expansion, was filled on the first level with vendors selling a variety of hand-made art, including jewelry, stained glass, hand-dyed shawls, turned-wood bowls and native carvings. Each morning, I strolled past a few artists then headed upstairs to the mezzanine.

The idea of the fair is to promote books that are published in Alaska. Most titles are by Alaskan authors. Art books, kids' books, memoirs of Alaskan experiences. History, fiction, guide books, science, calendars.

With all the authors on hand for signings, it sometimes feels like a social gathering just for us. But we also want to sell our books - lots of them. Each author has a little something they say about their books and I love listening to the hooks they use to draw in the sometimes-shy customers.
Ollen Hunt, a real Buffalo Soldier.

This is my second year sharing a table with one of the most popular authors published by my distributor. Ollen Hunt is in his mid-80s and is popular with people of all ages. One of his pitches: "You're looking at a Buffalo Soldier from World War II." People stop. Thank him for his service. They're drawn in and listen to him talk about Italy, Germany and Alaska. There aren't many African-American solders from his era left, but people remember the injustice that soldiers often faced when they returned to a racially-divided country. And since he's of the same generation as my dad, I sometimes feel like he's telling the stories my dad doesn't often share.

Another author, with his first book out this year, is Bill. I thought Bill would have a tough job getting his book to stand apart from the other personal accounts of Alaskan experiences. But his pitch is great. He'll tell the people strolling by, "These are real Alaskan stories." "Oh yeah?" someone might ask, to which Bill answers, "Yes, and mine are non-fiction." What I didn't notice until today was the sign he pointed to when he made his point. Once he broke the ice, people were laughing and ready to chat about his book, page through to look at some photos and maybe add it to their stack.
finding real Alaskan stories at the book fair.

With all the recent hype about what's real in our country and our state, I appreciate the authenticity of these guys and many other authors who have labored, sometimes for years, for the right words, the best photo.

The book business is a tough business, especially when people don't believe the recession is over.
Authors put in their time, energy and emotion; they agonize over the right words, then after they’ve typed the last period of the last sentence, they have the job of wading through the often grueling editing and publishing process to get their book to market. Having someone decide to buy your book directly out of your hands is a pleasant reward.

Even people who don’t write know that writing is a sometimes lonely, solitary process. What they don’t know is that signings in book stores are usually solo events where the author may be singled out at a table at the end of an aisle. Disinterested people sometimes veer away as though the author has a full-blown case of H1N1. By contrast, the Book Fair is a celebration of what each author has achieved, with many authors sharing tips and offering encouragement, a little smile or a thumbs-up. I don't think the shoppers see this, but the mezzanine sometimes feels like an office party where we all just got promoted. And I always leave with something new to read.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

our library - an indoor field trip

A pocket watch that belonged to Soapy Smith.
A handwritten letter dated 1865 from William H. Seward.
Rockwell Kent’s book, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.

These were just a few highlights of yesterday’s tour of the Z.J. Loussac Library’s Alaska Collection. Special Collections Librarian, Michael Catoggio, led a first-ever insiders’ tour of the library. Seven of us showed up to take the tour and learn about the depth of resources that are housed in our public library. Michael wanted to lead this tour partly to show writers, artists, book lovers and the curious what kinds of treasures we, the citizens of Anchorage, have in our library. (Some, likes those listed above, are valuable enough to reside in a locked vault.) The wealth of research material, inspiration, answers to questions we didn’t know we had. In this time of tight budgets, funding cuts and people who think that everything we need to know can be found on the internet, Michael was able to show us a sampling of what is in our library, particularly the Alaska Collection.

The collection is a repository for works by Alaskan authors; works about Alaska. Books, periodicals, oral histories, letters, photographs, early maps, government publications. A replica of the Liberty Bell. Anchorage high school year books. Like I said, we saw a sampling. There is so much more than could be covered in the hour-plus tour.

I’ll admit, I haven’t been a big library user in Anchorage. I don’t know why because as a kid I loved going to our Carnegie library in the small town where I grew up. My family always participated in the summer reading program. I remember sitting outside on the big brick and cement walls with my two younger brothers while waiting for Dad to pick us up on his way home from work.

Then, years ago, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, I discovered some treasures in the Golda Meir Library on campus. I found books about Milwaukee history and since I hadn’t grown up there, I was curious to learn a bit about its past. I remember reading the little tidbit about how two feuding city founders, one on each side of the Milwaukee River, led to downtown streets that even today have a jog in them where they cross the river because two men didn’t want their streets to ever be joined. Funny thing was, no native Milwaukeeans I knew had heard the story.

Though an English major, I always enjoyed history. Not the “we fought these people in this war” history, but the quirky pieces of history that cause me to say “Oh, that’s why..."

So when Brian, another tour participant, opened the book containing the minutes from the first assembly meeting of the newly formed City of Anchorage, 1920, we all paused as he read about ordinances that required children to not be out late at night and curtains to not cover the windows of pool halls. I could have sat down right there and read the type-written pages. This is history. And, yes, this is where stories are born. What was going on behind the curtained pool hall windows? I want to know! Find me the newspaper so I can read more!

After having my eyes opened to the archives contained in the library, after having had the opportunity to peak at our history in a section of the library where I’d never ventured, now I want to go back. Just to wander the stacks of the circular room on the second floor and pull out pieces of Alaska history. Because digging into my adopted city’s history is another way to become a part of it, as important as voting, staying up to see the northern lights or watching a sled dog race. Thanks to Michael, I’ve had a chance to step through that door and so can anyone else. It’s all yours.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

all that glitters

For a year the media did drool
On the web and cable ‘twas a virtual duel
May we return to the days
when yodeling we did praise
And the most famous Alaskan was Jewel?


I wrote these words shortly after the now former governor announced her resignation this past July. I thought of it yesterday after reading Michael Carey's commentary in the NY Times.

Alaskans remember how they found out: Jon and I were in Hope for the holiday weekend. My friend Jo-Ann and I had just returned to our friends' cabin after a 34 mile bike ride when our friend Lynn told us. I grabbed a beer and headed for the sauna. Later that evening, we sat around the campfire speculating about the possible reasons. No television; no radio; no pundits. We just couldn't figure it out.

Another friend later told me he found out while on a kayak trip near Homer. He was on shore when his cell phone rang and he received the news that the governor was resigning. He shouted for joy. Then he saw and heard kayakers across the bay lift their paddles and shout as they also answered their cell phones. I wish I could have seen that!

The next day, the Fourth of July, a friend managed to get cell service and pulled up the announcement on his iphone so we could read it aloud after breakfast. That afternoon, Jon, Jo-Ann and I biked a couple miles from the cabin to downtown Hope to hang out by the water, eat ice cream and enjoy a mellow day in the sun. Jo-Ann kept going up to people - strangers, tourists - rambling about being the governor, then adamantly shouting "I quit!" It was like Independence Day was made for us this year!

But we're still obsessed with the woman who was governor and sometimes I wish she would just go away. But the more I want her to go away, the more information comes my way. Now the book, the anticipated, quickly-written memoir is out. When I think of a memoir, I think: what did this person do? What difference did they make? How have they informed or inspired? What can I learn from this person?

Well, she upset the establishment, then did... work with me here... tried to get the gas pipeline... oh, she got us that big energy assistance check last year... she did lots of things... right? Oh, yeah, she sold the Murkowski jet. Turned down some of Obama's stimulus money before the legislature voted for us to get it. She suggested that Ted resign before she said he should get a do-over election. She said the Supreme Court had done us wrong with regard to the Exxon Valdez ruling... later, she said it was a good decision. Let's see, what else? Inspired the far right to go to rallies and to vote for her. She got Tina Fey to go back to SNL, which helped their ratings... somebody?... line? can you tell me what she accomplished for Alaska?

Oh, yeah. Now the rest of America knows it's cold up here. Got it. You betcha!

snow time, the highs and lows

Gloria & Bev in the middle of the storm.

Last week Jon brought my winter bikes home. They've been stored at the shop warehouse for the past two months because we just didn't have the space here during the remodel. Since we're not quite ready for all the bikes to be home right now, I had him take a few back to work until the garage is finished on the inside. But I forget how many parts must be swapped on my bikes. Pedals, a saddle and seatpost for one bike, a saddle for the other. Transfer the frame pump. Seat bags. The left grip of my mountain bike had to be moved onto my snow bike (long story).

I was making the change-outs and Jon was transferring pedals for me when the wind picked up and the temperature spiked outdoors: our mid-twenty-degree day had just jumped to 39 in under 20 minutes! Not unusual when the Chinook winds kick in bringing warm, wet air to Anchorage. I was meeting friends for a hike and since we'd seen the weather trend, we decided to not hike too high; we'd stay in the trees.

It was a good call because even in low areas the wind was blowing snow sideways and during parts of the hike the sharp icy barbs hit our faces like a sandblaster. Ours were some of the few tracks out there and on our return trip even those had been buried in exposed areas, replaced with newly-formed crust. Sometimes we would duck between some trees only to have the wind shift and swirl and still manage to hit us. We saw one person with a dog in the first hour of the hike. When we reached a main trail, we did see more people, all of them, like us, happy to be out in the snow despite the high winds pushing through the trees and golden-brown grass.

It was a good day to be in the woods. When the wind drowns the sound of your footsteps against the crust of snow. When the ice is just forming on the creeks in layers of overflow that look like the edges of mineral pools. When the ground has frozen the small boggy spots. When the ravens are playing on the currents above the Campbell Creek Gorge, their calls covered by the powerful wind and the sound of snow hitting our jackets and hats. And then, it changes.

Campbell Creek with overflow.

Just a few days later, it was single-digits when I went skiing with two other friends. I was still looking for things in the house. The neck gaitor, wind-block mittens, classic ski poles. I was still trying to remember how to dress when it's 5 above and dropping.

I don't know how cold it is.

The trails were well-packed and our skis and poles creaked against the crusted snow. I balled my cold fingers inside my gloves before pulling the heavier mitts from my backpack. I remembered how to ski down a narrow singletrack. Breath froze on strands of hair that had escaped my hood and cap. My upper lip felt frozen. Crusty, frosted snow is slow; good for a first ski of the season, but a thought kept crossing my mind, enough that I mentioned it a few times to my friend, Jo-Ann: This would be great on the snow bike.

Returning to the trailhead with a view of the inlet.

Of course, I create far more wind chill while biking than I could possibly generate the way I ski, making 5 degrees on a bike feel much colder than on skis. It's hard to keep my face warm enough without my glasses frosting over. Even with contacts I need to wear some kind of eye covering to block the cold and wind from my eyes. But each year, I figure something out to allow me to ride on colder days and stay warm. I sometimes forget how long I was off the bike last winter and how much I missed the snow riding as I recovered from some injuries.

Now that Jon has found my insulated cycling shoes, maybe it's time to gather everything else together. The more I think about it, the more I know I have to start getting out into the chill of winter on the bike. Because the longer I hide, the harder it will be to finally venture out, but once I venture out, I'll remember just how wonderful it is. However, I'm going to wait until it gets above zero.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

racing the winter

After Sunday night's snowfall.

In March, before all this started.

It may not have seemed like good timing when we started, but a three-ring binder of notes, inspection reports and invoices attests to the progress we've made since just over two months ago, when, on September 2, I wrote on the first page: "Gave go-ahead to Wes." Wes is our general contractor. He builds fancy homes in new subdivisions. Houses you might tour in the annual Anchorage Parade of Homes. But he also orchestrates remodels. And when I say orchestrate, I mean that after living through the sequence of events that culminated in our windows and doors being installed last Friday, it reminded me of an orchestra conductor. In very slow motion.

Cue the excavator, framers, concrete cutters and pourers. Electricians, plumbers, roofers. Inspectors. How many people made their way to our house to help make the transformation? Everything must work in sequence. People must know their parts and be skilled at them. A half-day delay for a delivery or an inspection might mean no more work that day. No moving forward.

Over the peaceful quiet on those days, I could hear my own thoughts as I looked at the calendar; avoided watching weather forecasts. Many days I would repeat the phrase: it is what it is. No need to worry about what I can't control. Other days, when it was raining, I'd say to the crew, "at least it isn't snow." This must have been somewhat annoying, I realized, when the most sarcastic guy on the crew responded that I'd make a good supervisor. I was trying to stay optimistic for me more than for them.

Sometimes I'd wonder at the wisdom of beginning the project that, by Wes's schedule, would wind down at the end of October. Often Jon and I try to be away from Alaska in October. It's an unpredictable month (come to think of it, which month isn't?) It can be rainy, or it can be snowing. It can be in the single-digit temperatures. It can be icy. Windy. Gloomy.

But this year was different. Despite a late-September snowstorm that dropped wet snow across the lower Hillside area of Anchorage, the snow stayed away from most of the city. Until Sunday afternoon.

Now Jon and I are repeating a phrase that was becoming common at the house: we are so lucky. How did we get so lucky? When we started, it seemed our timing was all off. We were cutting too close, starting too late in the season. Then things began coming together: A corner of the house was being jacked up so the floors would be more level. Then things began falling apart: That gap under the garage door used to be a concrete block. We would need more foundation work. More excavating!

That tiny orange jack lifted this corner 1-1/4 inch!

There used to be a concrete block there, right?

More excavating... (followed by more
concrete cutting, foundation pouring...)

Kitty makes a rare appearance at the jobsite
as Jon seals part of the foundation.

Any remodel will bring surprises. If you think about it, every day will bring surprises if we open our eyes to them. But a week’s setback and a little more added to the bill were not welcome surprises. The days got shorter as the month of October wore along. We were patient and did what we could to keep things organized. Do some of the work ourselves where we could. We watched the progress, even when it seemed very slow.

Front entryway landing - before...

...and after.

Waking Monday morning to around four inches of fresh snow on the ground, Jon and I again commented to each other about the luck of the timing. The luck that the roof was on before the rain came a few weeks ago. That the ground froze two days after the electric line (for which we had hand dug a 15 foot long trench, 30 inches deep) was buried and the day after the last concrete was poured. That last Tuesday we were able to spread a load of gravel on the driveway and get it compacted.

 Jon spreading the gravel...

15 tons of gravel to level the driveway.

Who can explain luck? By our timing and our gut decision to go with the contractor who said he could have it done this fall, we sometimes wondered if we had made the wrong choice by starting so late. But as each day brought us closer to finishing this phase of our project, we kept the fingers crossed, thought about all the sunny days we had worked indoors, maybe having banked those days to have good weather this fall.

What started with a deck demolition on Labor Day ended last Friday, almost two months later with the window and door installations. Now, of course, our work continues: insulating, inspections, electrical and plumbing work. More inspections. Again, this was only phase 1. There’s lots still to do. But progress itself is something to be celebrated. We mark the milestones, then get back to work. So much to do.

Monday, November 2, 2009

full moon at the tract

Full moon at my back
casting a shadow of my
slightly skewed gait
as I move alone along the gravel path.

Leaves all gone to their rest
no longer muffle the sounds of
cars a mile away and farther,
drivers on their evening commutes.

A scream in the woods
down the trail
by the creek.
My mind hears a migrating bird
locked in the freezing creek.

A scream and I call into the woods
Hello? Is anybody there?
and another scream
What is the sound of a treed bear cub?
an injured moose?

A scream, piercing as a damsel’s terror
in a haunted house maze,
and I sweep along the trailside
with my headlamp and see nothing.
The moon lights the tops of the trees,
shadows thrown downstream.

A shape emerges in a treetop
there along the river,
and a scream, as I cast my light high
catch a pair of eyes reflecting
looking around me,
looking at me.

An owl, over a foot tall
holding its territory from its perch
more screams cry behind me
as I walk away from the water
the darkness, the owl,
protecting this trail and this creek
from intruders in this city forest.