Thursday, December 31, 2009

best of oh-nine

Dear friends,

It's a cliche, yet almost obligatory. Best of 09. Worst of 09. All about me in 09. Some news organizations are even doing the lets-wrap-up-the-decade editions. I'm a stickler; I have one more year left in my decade, got it? So what do you think made my 2009 so fantastic?

Was it celebrating Alaska's 50th anniversary of statehood by standing downtown in sub-zero temperatures as fireworks went off all around us? Or the joy of exploring the frozen art installations on the park strip just a week later, then savoring my memories of the event as the works melted in the rainy 50-degree days?

Was it being with my parents and some of my siblings in the Land of Cheese when my mom celebrated her 85th birthday?

Was it all the pain-free bicycle riding I did with Jon and with friends in town and on the Kenai? Or the simplicity of hiking and camping during our beautiful summer? Was it skipping stones in a river or eating around a campfire? Watching steam rise from a volcano?

Was it leaving work to pursue writing; a workshop in the Wrangell Mountains? The days I was able to share with Jon away from work instead of working together as we have for so many years?

Was it political: the happiness and pride of seeing President Obama take office? The confused celebrations when our governor inexplicably left office?

Was it spending more time in the blueberry patches? Or harvesting fish from set nets in Kasilof? Was it bike camping with my girlfriends on a beautiful September weekend, just before my birthday?

Was it the process of the remodel, watching as our foundation was rebuilt, making our home level again?

Was it taking my first flight in a small airplane? Seeing the valleys, the braided rivers, ponds and mountains from the air with no obstructions?

Was it watching the second full moon of the month being eclipsed by the earth just before it set on this last day of 2009?

All these happenings are memorable for reasons that go beyond notations on my calendar. They aren't just events. They are events filled with people who are important to me. First, Jon, my partner who is patient and understanding, encouraging and funny. Handy, creative and meticulous about everything he takes on.

The people I worked with for many years (or just one or two) who are so smart and infuse humor and creativity into their work; the customers I got to know over the years who made me feel that I am part of a larger community of citizens who reach beyond cycling with their ideas about how our world can be a better place.

My family, most of whom are in the Midwest, for coming together whenever I go to visit, and do all they can to help our parents continue to live independently. And my family here in Alaska - my sister and her family, including my nephew and niece - who continue to open my eyes to what it means to be authentic about who you are.

Our friend Scott who, after years of encouragement finally convinced me to go flying one clear October day.

And my friends, including all the women from the Dirt Divas with whom I bike almost every week and some who are even willing to go on epic adventures with me. These biking women are a source of strength and energy and are consistently positive and supportive. They help me feel that I belong to something. They - and their partners, and several other people I've met through cycling and other activities - make up my extended Alaska family.

This is quite a place to live, but the people make it home. They fill the moments of each year by listening & sharing and by making me laugh.

happy full moon!
happy new year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas thanks

I was out riding today and saw a group of bikers. I thought maybe I could latch onto the tail end of the group but quickly realized they were riding much faster than me. I then proceded to ride a loop on some singletrack, then, the more I rode, the worse my riding got. I couldn’t hold my line and kept veering off the narrow trail. Snow just off the side of the trail was well over a foot deep. I had one wreck where I landed on my side, the top tube crashing onto my inner thigh. Then I struggled for a moment to push the bike up and off me, twisting my shoe out of the pedal while I lay there in the snow. I felt pretty darn alone. And, I'm not sure why, but it made me think back to those Christmases when I was a child.

I remember the anticipation. On Christmas Eve we’d go to evening Mass where there would be singing and candles. A long event. One year someone my mom worked with had given her a box of clothes and I had gone through it to pick out a red dress with a velvet collar to wear to church. I felt very dressy. I also hoped that the girl who used to own it didn’t go to our church. I was always very aware that we didn’t have much money, particularly for anything frivolous like a Christmas dress.

I remember waking very early on Christmas day, going out to the living room and even falling asleep near the tree or on the sofa waiting for everyone else to get up. I don’t know quite what I expected; some magic, I suppose. Some fantastic gift I hadn’t dared ask for, lest I be disppointed when it didn’t arrive. There was little on my list for Santa and no visit to sit on the jolly man’s lap. That only happened on tv, not real life.

I remember a year my mom made up buckets for each of us; they were gallon ice cream buckets collected over the past year, each with a name on it. Inside was candy. I don’t remember what else, maybe crayons. We would get necessities like new underwear. I must have received a toy, but I don't remember any specifics. The younger boys might get a model car to build or matchbox cars. I don’t know what the older kids got.

Many of the gifts were listed to “Austin Family” and they were from Santa. These were usually board games like Monopoly or a new Scrabble game. When I was little, I didn't give much thought to the family gifts. With my childish, self-centered nature, I wanted something special just for me, like my cousins had. Something big.

My two cousins, aunt and uncle lived on a dairy farm just up the road from us. Each Christmas our Aunt Maxine would visit, staying overnight at the farm, visiting us for the Christmas meal. I remember my cousins would brag about the gifts Maxine had brought them: sleeping bags were the gifts one of those long-ago years. But, as Aunt Maxine sat on our sofa chatting with my parents and older siblings, I wondered why she hadn’t gotten me anything. Why had none of us received gifts from her? My feelings, always sensitive, were hurt. I didn’t think she loved us, and if she did, she didn't love us as much as she loved my two cousins. I kept my emotions distant and never asked anyone about it. Even back then I tried to rationalize that maybe it was just easier to get something for my cousins because there were only two of them while there were 10 of us.

Aunts Anna Mae (my traveling partner in Italy last year),
Maxine & Margaret with my dad, John, in the background.

These thoughts were long forgotten until sometime after Aunt Maxine died in 2006. I was talking with my oldest sister about how hurt my feelings had been over the Christmas slights; how jealous I’d been of our cousins. That’s when she told me that all the gifts labeled “to the Austin Family” were bought with money Aunt Maxine had given my mom. Maxine must have figured Mom would know better how to buy for the family than she would. And Mom did a good job over the years. I only wish she would have given credit to my aunt instead of to a large, strange man I’d never met. For without the credit, I never knew to thank Aunt Maxine.

This holiday season, I want to say “thanks” to all the people who deserve thanks but have never received it. And thanks to Mom for doing the best you could.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

winter perfect

Pushki, more lovely in the winter.

Jon has been busily insulating the garage and front entry for the past month or so. All his days away from work have been dedicated to the task. I've only managed to coax him into the outdoors a few times. A couple of his friends have called to tempt him to go out to play, but he has stuck to his task with the same dedication to which he approaches berry picking and mushroom hunting: complete, single-minded focus. I sometimes wish I had his level of focus, but often revel in my scattered approach to life, bouncing from one idea to the next great thing. (I'll refrain from digressing.)

Yesterday, in honor of the winter solstice, Jon agreed to go for a bike ride with me on the snow bikes. He looked at the kitchen calendar to remind himself when his last bike ride was: a month and a half ago! I remember talking with him before he rode home from work that day, suggesting that since it was snowing he might want to drive the shop truck home instead of his new road bike. Instead, he hopped on his bike and began what I thought would be a miserable ride. Instead of miserable, he said it was invigorating. He enjoyed riding on paths that were just barely covered with the first sticking snow of the season. He told me he liked feeling like he was the only one out there, and feeling that he had just gotten away with something. He was beaming like a little kid who had just mastered the wheelie.

I've had that feeling before. In 2002, the first fall the shop was at Huffman, we still didn't have snow in late November. The day before Thanksgiving I rode my road bike into work, trying to stretch the skinny-tired season as long as I could. Rain began falling in the afternoon. As we were closing shop for the evening, I called Jon at home to see if he needed anything from the grocery. He thought I was calling for a lift home. I insisted that I ride, hating the thought that he would drive 10 miles (20, round trip) so I wouldn't have to ride in the rain. I had my jacket, I told him. No problem.

It turned into one of my more memorable commutes as I pedaled through the darkness on the wet paths, branches dripping, cars splashing. My headlamp barely cut through the big raindrops. I thought of everyone making last-minute trips to the store to prepare for the feast the next day while I reveled in the rainy evening. Rides like these imprint a powerful memory that helps see us through until the next time we can enjoy the experience of being on two wheels. They also give us bragging rights we feel we deserve for being considered tough, if only for that one time.

It took awhile for Jon to get his Pugsley dialed in for yesterday's ride, but we were able to leave the house before noon to bike around on the Campbell Tract and Bicentennial Park. The wind hadn't yet picked up so the trees were still covered with snow. Narrow trails were still setting up after last week's multi-day snowstorm.

On Rover's Run

Jon detours around a birch tree.

Looking good, but we were running out of time!

We made a wide loop around the park on what was a warm first day of winter. A chinook is pushing into the Anchorage area. I don't want the trails to melt and get icy. Another couple days and the skinny trails will be perfect. I'm greedy to hang onto the mid-twenty-degree perfection. I'm thinking cold thoughts. I'm thinking Christmas Eve ride.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

why I'm here

Inspiration runs short these days as my attention turns from one idea to the next. I jot down notes, try to start things, ponder, read. I barely notice we're losing seconds each day as we near the solstice, followed by the welcome, but slow, return of the light. This week I was shoveling snow for three days running, trying to keep up with it as the white stuff piled up in the driveway.

On Wednesday, I snowshoed at the neighborhood park among the trees bent over under the weight of frost, then inches of snow, wondering how much weight they can handle before they break. Unless, that is, a big wind comes first.

frost on the pushki

Friday, on the snowshoes with my friend Corinne before she heads south for the holidays. Around zero degrees, we followed paths previously packed by others on foot or bike, tromping down the fresh powder on trails familiar or new. Too cold for me to want to pull my camera from my bag, we stop in the sunshine that's peaking over a hill from a low angle. It provides no discernible warmth. Corinne takes a few photos, then we move on, weaving through the trees, following a half-dozen paths, yet meeting no other people.

And Saturday, studying the weather around town: still cold down low, warmer up high - but windy. Yes, the wind. Is 15 and windy better than one degree and calm? My friend Jo-Ann and I head up, just beyond the foothills, near the mountains' bases.

On skis up the main trail, bunching my fingers inside my mittens to warm them while still holding the poles. Snow on the bridge, even packed down, is nearly a foot high. We head uphill. Finally, at the turnoff, Jo-Ann drops onto the trail that winds trough the trees. It's just wide enough for us on skis. I start after her, push out and into my heels to keep from going too fast on the tight corners. My gaitors skim the sides of the snowy trench.

Jo-Ann before dropping onto the skinny trails

The snow alongside the trail is almost too deep for our poles. I have to push through two feet of powder to find something to push off from, but by then the tips of the poles are well behind me so I kick and glide down toward the creek while my poles stay mostly above the snow. I use them for balance.

Sunset, 3:40

It's colder by the creek, the lowest part of the trail, the sink where cold air rests. We climb out of the valley, round a corner and are back in the wind. The sun is setting to the south - barely southwest. It's 3:40. The sunset provides the only variation in color besides my gear, Jo-Ann's hat. As the light dims, we glide down the final hill, veer onto a snowshoe track and are back at the parking lot.
Frost on my hair and hat. Eyes sore from the cold dryness of the air. Nose a little tender.

The city below

As we near the shortest day of the year here in the north country, when sleeping in a warm bed sometimes is the most pleasant activity I can think to do, I'm grateful I have the energy to get out into the woods and friends who are willing to join me when self-described reasonable people would opt to stay home. Do people still wonder why I live here?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

frosty week

On Sunday morning, I went for a bike ride. Fog had coated the trees and grasses, signs and benches. Even the weeks-old snow was covered with a layer of hoarfrost, its crystals standing on end, electrostatically charged. The temperatures for the last week or so were perfect for snow biking, yet I had spent evenings watching films and days getting our house put back together, painting our stairway and generally being a responsible adult.

But all Alaskans know that when conditions are perfect, you have to drop everything and get out. Lucky I finally did, too. Because snow started falling on Monday and now the buff trails are under more than six inches of snow, which will take a few days to get packed down by various trail users, including a few snow bikers no doubt pushing their fat-tired rigs over some sections of trail.

The winter is long and there will be other chances to ride. But getting out while the frost still covered the trees was a treat. I was the only biker out there and didn't run into anyone on the singletracks as I kept myself moving, aware I wanted to attend a workshop in just a few hours. Knowing I needed to do some time in the saddle instead of just a movie theater seat.

Now I expect branches will begin to break under the heavy snow load, unless a big wind comes first, which is unlikely in the next day or so. I'll get out on skis or snowshoes. Catch a bit more of this snowy weather. Remind myself that the only way to get through a winter is to embrace it. Often the embrace is sweetened by an airline ticket to someplace where I can wear tank tops.

After Jon removed the carpet. (He plans to rebuild
the stairs so they're not as steep.)

Paints from the mis-tint bins at various hardware stores.

A little signature from my friend.

I don't know if there'll be a tropical vacation this winter. If not, I'm okay with that. We're moving forward on the house, I have some creative projects in mind and I'm ready to bike, ski, snowshoe or skate. Unlike last year, I have no injuries. It could be a great winter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

conflict and story

Sunday, Dec. 6. At the film fest:

It doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with a movie if I nod off during a matinee. The middle of the afternoon can be a great time to nap, though I'm more of a summer nap-taker than winter. That may seem counter-intuitive as we sink into the shortest days of the year, but I get plenty of sleep at night in the winter, maybe too much; in the summer, not so much with all the staying up late into the daylight evening and getting up relatively early. But I was kind of bummed that I woke up to catch the credits of the first of a pair of docs I went to see.

It was an interesting film about the moose of Denali and the filmmaker's relationship with his moose biologist dad. I was just tired and really needed a coffee. I felt bad that I missed the ending.

I managed to stay awake during the second film of the double-feature: what turned out to be a pretty boring film about people climbing Denali. Really, should a film about climbing the tallest mountain on the continent be boring? I didn't think so, but I wonder if other people had the same reaction I did. What started out as a little introduction of each person in the climbing party and what they hoped to contribute as well as what they planned to get out of it turned into a sort of Denali travelogue. (Camp 1, Camp 2...) Everyone made it safely to the summit and back, which is the goal, of course, but I didn't feel much passion or soul.

I sometimes worry about that in my writing. If nobody gets hurt, can it be a good biking story? If everyone starts and ends a weekend in a remote cabin as friends, does anyone care? Our lives and the fictional lives we see in books and magazines, on television and in movies are filled with conflict and drama. Well, my personal life with Jon is not filled with much drama. Even through the first stage of the remodel we remained relatively sane and calm. The biggest drama here revolves around Jon's serial obsessions with harvesting fungi and berries from the mountains and woods. My coping mechanisms include declining invitations to pick when I know he'll spend all day in a berry patch or bringing an alternative activity: my bike, a book, a notebook. Sometimes, all three.

Don't be mistaken, our lives aren't boring. There just isn't much conflict. Without conflict, where is plot, I wonder, as I try to develop characters or even write a personal essay. Of course, some conflicts are purely within us; the struggle with our own fears and insecurities. We must overcome our own hurdles just to put words on a page. That hurdle often stands between our comfort zone and the truth. As writers we want to get at the truth. Sometimes truth lays between what we think we know and what we say. They are sometimes the scraps we cull before even putting down the words. In my writing, so many things are left unsaid because I'm too afraid to take it that one step further. Why?

People will think less of me. Think I'm strange. My convictions are weak. My ideas are lame. Nobody will understand.

But if writers and filmmakers are unwilling to take the step into self-discovery or a character's self-discovery, then what is the point? We read or go to films to learn new things and to make connections, to relate, to understand ourselves and the people around us. We might learn that despite apparent differences, we are surprisingly alike. We need to be reminded of this often, lest in our self-centered worlds we forget that across the planet or across the street, someone else is having a similar thought. Maybe experiencing a similar alone-ness.

I began thinking about this after seeing a film on Monday night: Prodigal Sons. I read the blurb ahead of time. Though it seemed to give away a lot, it actually gave away very little. But, experiencing the film told me some truths I've been learning within my own extended family, which I won't go into here. It went deep into talking about identity, labels, how we see ourselves and how we think others see us. What makes us who we are? Can you truly reinvent yourself? Are we our history? It made me wonder how society can foster understanding besides one person at a time?

Now it's almost a week later. The film fest (and painting my stairs) has absorbed all my attention. Over the last several days, I've seen films that have raised my awareness on all sorts of issues, big and small. I suppose there must be a few blockbuster movies in the theaters right now but the fest brings us mostly small films. Sometimes the filmmakers or actors are here. We can actually ask the filmmakers what they meant and understand their answers. I love the film fest, but it will be a relief when it's over... maybe I'll send out some holiday cards.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

get yourself to the film fest

Outside the Bear Tooth, December '08

Early December is film fest time here in Anchorage. I'm sometimes surprised how many people don't know about it or don't take advantage of the opportunity to see a great range of films that are out of the mainstream. But it is a busy time of year with parties and gift buying, friends traveling, students studying.

But if people can take some time out of their schedules to slouch into a theater seat, they'll be surprised at what they see. The Snow Dance portion of the festival has films about life in the northern latitudes (or extreme southern lats.) and several were filmed right here in Alaska. But it's an international fest, so one night you may see a movie filmed in Sweden, the next in Japan or India. Of course there are also films shot in the Lower-48 and in other countries around the world.

One of my favorite film fest moments was several years ago, when, for the opening-night gala, they built a screen out of snow outside Bernie's Bungalow Lounge and projected clips onto it throughout the evening as people wandered back and forth between the warmth of the bar and the chilly courtyard. I don't think the screen lasted more than a few days because, like every year in December, a Chinook rolled in, as it did earlier this week, melting the screen.

Maybe that's why I liked it so much, moving images on melting snow. Under-dressed women acting like they weren't cold. People trying to act cool because who knew when an up-and-coming director would show up? As if people were trying to convey: We're hip Alaskans. We do this all the time!

Well, I'm not particularly hip, but tonight I'll go to a Russian movie "Hipsters, (Stiljagi)" which will kick off the opening-night festivities. The party is included in the all-events passes Jon and I have, as are a few clinics on film making. I hope to take advantage of some of those in the next few days. Maybe someday, I'll be able to make something that's worthy of the festival. We shall see.