Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sweet Spot

'You just have to find the sweet spot.'

We're talking about writing papers, Kirk and I. Our techniques differ a bit.

I choose my topic the day the paper is assigned. Then I spend several months researching it backwards and forwards, and getting a bit sidetracked by all the cool stuff that almost has to do with what I'm supposed to be writing about. Then I spend the final 48 hours frantically writing the 20 pages, mumbling under my breath and swearing next time I'll start earlier.

Kirk has two techniques. If he's interested in the class and respects the professor he chooses his topic, realizes that he already knows more than the seven experts who have written on the field, and reads four books to fill in the bits of arcane knowledge he didn't have (but which are now a permanent part of his mental architecture). Then he sits down and bashes out a masterpiece that has his teachers rolling on the floor and clutching themselves in extasy. If he doesn't respect the professor, he whips together a 20 page thesis constructed entirely of babble, served up with a solid dose of irony and spread liberally with implied patronage. Also he throws in, gratis, one horrendously, screamingly false 'fact.' And he always gets an A. It's all due, he claims to the sweet spot - the one phrase or topic that the professor finds utterly irresistable.

'Right. So what was the sweet spot for that art history guy? The one you wrote a paper for about the Old Town church even though you'd never even been inside it?'

'Easy. Deeply recessed fenestrations.'


'Deeply recessed fenestrations. He said it at least twice a week. "Observe the spectacular play of light achieved with the Deeply Recessed Fenestrations." So I just wrote "Adobe blah blah religious blah blah deeply recessed fenestrations."'

I'm quiet for a moment, wondering about the symbolic nature of this particular obsession, but realize that I've seen some of the art history profs and I really don't want to go there. Then I happily remember that I know what the verb 'defenestrate' means which makes me really, really cool. Then:



'Does the Old Town church even have deeply recessed fenestrations?'

'No idea.... what?'

'Oh nothing. I'm just silently resenting you.'

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Went through about six versions of this post. None of them worked.

Today is Kirk's 40th birthday.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Camping Update

The Superior Aunt informs me that actually she was quite happy to have the Brood burn down the lower pasture lands and surrounding scrub, it was the playing with sharp knives to fillet fish the size of guppies she wasn't so keen on.

It's part of that whole no spurting blood thing I guess.

Parents. No reasoning with 'em.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The HMS Indefatigable Takes To The Road

We packed that van like the moving pros we are. Extra clothes, close personal friends (Mr Tiger, Mama tiger, Bear Bear and the ilk) we didn't want to trust to the clutches of the low-bid military movers, a bit of cooking gear and a Coleman stove (the same one the kids recently risked life and limb with in the back yard) were slotted into the back without a wasted inch. Kids took over Van Center with relatively non-stick food-stuffs, a selection of car toys (new, never forget the value of previously un-seen toys on a long trip), and a definite lack of blue Gatorade. Kirk and I lolled in the massive front seats. We pulled majestically out onto the highway and drove away from Eagle River.

It's a good two day trip from Anchorage to Haines. If you're smart, you'll stop along the way in Beaver Creek. I'd like to go further and name the hotel we stayed in but I can't be absolutely sure... aw heck, we'll say it was the Westmark because I can't find anything else mentioned. Not only did these people spontaneously and at no additional cost upgrade us to the top-floor loft 'suite' with six beds, a lounge area (where you could enjoy the two channels they almost got) and a kitchenette, but they had the largest and most diverse collection of dead stuffed animals and the instruments that got 'em in that condition that I have ever seen in my life. We were so charmed Kirk secretly went back and bought me a sweatshirt so I could walk around with 'Beaver Creek' emblazoned on my shoulder and remember the friendly people who made our first night on the road a warm and comfortable one.

We drove into Haines through a snowstorm with enormous flakes so it looked like we were in the center of a waterglobe paperweight. We got there in time to do our pre-check in routine with the ferry - get our cabin assignements and our instructions on when and where to line up the van so it could be loaded up. Then we checked into our hotel.

I wish they had a better web site. This one really doesn't quite capture the special flavor of the place. It's not really the room (which did, I admit, feel slightly as though it were built of cardboard boxes), nor the fact that it was apparently either still under construction, or undergoing some serious structural renovation (in November), it's the Red Velvet Swing and the 'famous Money Ceiling.' Apparently the Fort Seward Lodge was around during the Gold Rush era, and welcomed weary rushers in with nubile young women dangling from the ceiling. In gratitude, the miners-to-be began pinning money up there. I think the idea was that she would then swing and pick off the dollar bills with her dainty little toes (probably exposing her dainty little Victorian legs as she did so). The swing is no longer in use, but for some reason people still pin money to the ceiling. Now, the coverage is a leeetle sparse assuming this has been done since the 1890's so I have a sneaking feeling that now and then there's a bit of pruning done.

I admit we did not attempt the trick.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Love to the Absent

Children 1, 2, 3, I, II, and III had planned a serious camping event which has now, sadly been cancelled.

The Superior Uncle had taken his tractor mower thing down to the pasture and mowed out not only a camping spot, but elegant paths to the creek and various other vistas. Even if they can't pitch their tents and do the savages in the wilderness thing, at least they can wander through the landscape and read Byron and Shelley in appropriate settings.

It's a shame really, they were going to fish for their own food (I pointed out that since the Superior Aunt had nixed the idea of a campfire they would have to eat them raw and probably flopping), and there was some talk of a heathen sacrifice. I think the victim had a few words to say on that subject though, and that idea too might have been shelved.

Ah well. Scrape off the mud and change out of the loin cloths kids, it's back to civilization.

Moving and the British Navy

There are only [an expandable number of] certain things in life - death, taxes, cliches, and in the military, moves.

Our time was up. Three years as junior officers, three years is how long you spend at any one position. We were going to have to tear up those deep roots from the fertile soil of Alaska and transplant ourselves somewhere else. These were some pretty reluctant roots I'm afraid, roots that caterwauled when pulled up, like Alaskan mandrakes.

Kirk had been doing some pretty amazing stuff over the last year or so. He had, I understand, been literally writing the book on info-ops. His theories, concepts and methods were innovative and exciting, and getting a fair amount of notice. Naturally this was all opaque to me. I heard things about 'briefings' and gradually recognized that the briefings were often to quite senior officers. I know there were commendations and awards, but details were obscured.

He was happy - challenged, fulfilled, respected, recognized. And so when it came to leave he was given two choice options. He could either go teach his info-ops philosophy in San Antonio, or he could set up a brand new info-ops unit, a big one, cross-branch with the Navy, in Virginia.

We talked about it for weeks. Kirk really wanted to teach; it's something he would have been very good at, and influencing the next generation of intel people is a pretty cool idea. But... Texas. Ooooh. Working with the Navy could be good too, he's never done that yet... but it's not teaching... and it's in Virginia... but... Texas... He went to his commander to ask advice, talked to civilians and officers alike; we did everything but play rock-paper-scissors over it. And I supported like crazy - San Antonio is a nice city (mostly) and we could (probably) find some good schools for the kids (in Texas). Or we could go to the East coast, somewhere new, somewhere different.

Finally, after much thought and deliberation, we decided. We were going to Virginia. And we were going to drive.

Yup, we can't be taught. Well, not entirely. There were two concessions made.

1. We would NOT drive through the Yukon, instead we would take the Alaska Ferry.

2. Our family and our sanity might not survive the drive in a Saturn SL2.

She had served us well, our first and only brand-new car, but it was time to say goodbye.

Kirk took her to the trade-in place and called me up all excitement. He'd found it, the perfect vehicle. This thing screamed Road Trip. I had to see it.



'Well... it's going to be really slow.'

'True, but then I won't stress out over getting caught behind idiots in RVs on the single lane highways when they won't pull off even though legally they HAVE to if there are more than -'

'Kirk, focus.'

'Right, sorry.'

'it's going to get terrible mileage.'

'Well, yes.'

'It's incredibly ugly.'

'True. But if you look carefully, we can actually seat the kids so not one of them can touch anyone else.'

'Let's buy it.'

So we bought an absolutely enormous, hideous grey conversion van.

I christened her 'The HMS Indefatigable'

We were ready to set sail.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Parental Wisdom

I've been trying to figure out how to phrase the way things changed for us when Kirk came back. Carpe diem - that sort of encapsulates it in a classical Latin kind of way. Our kids learned to say the family motto was 'live life, don't watch it,' and that too sums it up; but it doesn't say why.

I think what happened was being away from eachother for months, and experiencing what we did separately and together, made us realize how amazing our life together was. It sounds terribly twee and facile when I put it into words, but what we found was that life itself, just the daily process, was fantastic and should be enjoyed

Take food, for instance. I love to cook, but we started to share the process together, enjoying the tactile, sensual experience from raw ingredients to finished meal.

Weekends weren't just enjoyed, we siezed them by the throat and throttled the fun out of them from start to finish. We went up to Denali, camped up and down the Turnagain arm, drove to Wasilla or Haines, mountain biked, hiked... it was fantastic.

And just about every evening Kirk and I went for a walk together. Alone. This was Kirk's idea and it took a little convincing.

'But the kids...'

'Child 1 is over 11 and very mature for its age. Right?'

'Well... yes... but'

'And there are 30 people within a block and a half that the kids know they can call on if they need to, right?'

'Well... yes... but'

'Not to mention all three have known how to use 911 since they were 3, right?'

'Well... but...' Babies! Children! Alone! For a whole... 20 minutes.

'I'll tell you what,' Kirk said finally. 'Why don't you just look them in the eye and tell them the most important thing, the thing they need to know to survive the next 20 minutes, okay?'

Right. The kids can chant it along with me now, but for anyone who needs to know the really important stuff when you're leaving your kids alone, here it is:

'No floods, no fires, no natural disasters.
No broken bones, no spurting blood, no sucking chest wounds.'

And Kirk firmly took me out the door. We walked up the hills to where you can look over Eagle River valley. It was cool enough that I kept my hand warm by putting it with Kirk's hand in his big coat pocket. The sky turned amethyst, and then sapphire, and we walked slowly back home.

When we came in the door the kids looked up.

'Oh. Did you go already?'

I'm sure the little insects were just covering up for how much they had missed me.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Coming Home

Kirk used to joke that the Kosovo war ruined his Italian vacation. It also played hell with our holidays. He missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine's Day, Easter, and three out of the five family birthdays. As soon as the war actually started he was told he would be indefinitely extended, and for a while we weren't sure if that meant weeks or months.

When he did get the call back home it happened quickly - I had only a day's warning. But that was enough. He was coming home.

I picked up the kids from school without telling them what we were going to do. They griped about doing errands almost all the way to the airport when they realized what must be going on. The fact that I was wearing the dress Kirk sent from Italy should possibly have made them wonder a bit as well.

When you're waiting for the most important person in the world, doesn't it always seem that they're the last one off the plane?

He had a couple of awards, a handful of souvenirs, and a set of stories that he would only slowly begin to tell. Things had changed, but being Kirk, the changes were good.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Missing Man

Anyone interested in Kirk's story should check out Susie Dow's blog at The Missing Man. She has gathered up a huge amount of resource material - basically anything that has hit the press about the story is archived on her site. The link also appears over there --> in the sidebar so it's easy to find.

There's also the story of Ryan Manelick, another contractor with the company Kirk worked for. Ryan was killed two months after Kirk disappeared, just a day before he was due to leave Iraq.

Susie has been working tirelessly on this project. Her efforts mean an enormous amount to me - she did what was too painful for me to do at the time.

She's working on some articles of her own, and I'll link them as soon as they appear.

Thanks Susie - for everything.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

This Blogging Thing

It's like buying a red car - you never notice how many there are out there until you have one of your own...

So not only do I find myself composing blogs on all sorts of daily events (the favorite stall in the loo... utterly unrelated to this blog, but there you are), but blogs were the theme of the week somehow.

Three emails on blogs as marketing tools. Four emails sending me blogs related to a variety of things (environmental, political, religious and humorous).

And the BBC has a blog about people blogging about their blog.

I have an acquaintance who thinks its one of the lesser known signs of the apocalypse. It's not quite up there with famine, but probably slots neatly under 'plague.' People are, she feels, terrifyingly self-absorbed.

Granted I might be slightly biased, but I'm going to take it as a positive thing. In the middle of complete insanity, isn't it nice to know human beings are still vitally interested in eachother? It should be comforting to realize that we look for connections, for things we have in common.

Like that favorite stall.

Friday, July 21, 2006

No One Left Behind

It was interesting Googling for this next bit. I was suprised how much there still is out there about it, articles from major news sources are still live, still linked and readable. Internet time travel.

It's this last one I find most interesting:
"The Pentagon did not provide details of the rescue, but it is believed to have been a well-rehearsed operation involving a significant array of firepower and specially trained personnel."

Kirk was on the ops floor when the pilot made contact.

"Mayday call

The pilot is reported to have made a mayday call with his radio beacon.

It would have been sent using an emergency code to other Allied aircraft in the area.

Once the signal had been picked up voice contact would be established.

The pilot would then pass on his position - usually in relation to a pre-arranged fixed grid reference so that anyone else listening would not know where he was - and a rendezvous arranged."

He only had one shot at giving his location. His signal could be tracked, so he needed to tell them as quickly as possible, then get quiet. They knew there were enemy forces in the area, and there wasn't really anywhere to hide. The rescue mission had to go immediately, and it had to be absolutely accurate. Once they went out there the pilot's location would be blown, and the rescuers themselves in serious danger.

Kirk watched and listened as they planned the mission. They had readings from various instruments, and they had the pilot's statement. They pulled up the map and pinpointed where they thought he was. The problem was they were wrong.

Kirk said it was pretty tense. He was one of the lowest ranking people on the floor. He also was an intel guy - not a pilot or navigator, not a Para Jumper or a special forces guy with practical experience. But he stuck it out. They were wrong, he told them, off by over a mile. If they went to the spot on the map they would miss the pilot completely and blow their only chance to bring him home. Here, he said, was the right spot.

There was a bit of shouting, but Kirk stuck to his point and finally the commander jabbed at him with a finger.

'Son, we got maybe five minutes to get this thing off the ground. We miss this kid and that's it. How sure are you?'

'Sir, I went hunting in the arctic circle, I based my life on a GPS reading. I was right then sir, and I'm right now. He's here.'

They sent the rescue mission out, and picked up the pilot within yards of where Kirk had located him.

Kirk never found out the guy's name; it's certain the guy never knew about Kirk. That wasn't the point. Like the people who put their lives on the line to go pick the man up, the pilots, the jumpers, the support crews, Kirk knew the way things are supposed to work in the military.

You don't leave anyone behind.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Two Worlds

I was in Alaska, Kirk in Vicenza. I feel obliged to Google really fast to see just how far apart that is, but I have this strange lassitude about the whole thing. I don't want to know how far apart we were - I know how far it felt.

Once the bombing war started Kirk couldn't talk as long, although he still called whenever he could. His hours were strange as well, so he was calling when he had a few minutes and that could be almost any time of night. I didn't mind; I liked him calling late and pulling me out of sleep because it felt so much more intimate and immediate. Coming out of a half-sleep to hear his voice made it easier to ignore the distance.

We were having the coldest winter we experienced those three years. For a month the temperature didn't seem to get above 5 farenheit; for a couple of weeks it didn't get over 0. That meant the kids had indoor recess for a full month - no outside time at all; it was simply too cold. I would dress them up in the full school regalia (snow pants, coat, face warmer, gloves, boots), drop them off in the car (too cold to walk the short distance), they would scurry in and strip all the gear off only to don it again for the brief run to the car in the afternoon. When I went to pick them up I had to leave the car running - something I hated to do because just sitting there for a few minutes I would start to freeze. It was too cold to ski, too cold to snowmobile, too cold to do anything.

Kirk commiserated. He knew I had finally taken my courage in both hands and gone up to the base ski slope (two runs, a bunny slope and a sledding hill) and learned to ski all by myself. He had encouraged me, cheered for me, practically run the darn thing with me in the retelling, and now recognized how frustrating it was to not be able to get out and ski again and again and again.

And he told me what stories he could.

He was sent to shut down an anti-aircraft unit. Like always I only know half the story so I don't know why; I don't even know whose.

It must have been emergency, last minute; one of those 'get the Russian speaking American officer' emergencies. They gave him a side arm and threw him on a plane with two Gurka soldiers. He laughed and said the plane ride was the scariest part with the Spanish pilots chain smoking under the warning sign that said 'no open flame, no smoking' in seven languages. They came down hard somewhere in Kosovo, and I remember thinking I should ask him about flying on a damn plane to get to a place where you're shutting down an anti-aircraft unit.

He had to walk up to the soldiers and ask to see their commander. He said he just talked, just walked up to them and kept talking and talking while they pointed their weapons at his chest. He talked about who he was, and he talked about how stupid it was to send some crazy American in with just a side arm (that I'm not touching you see) and a couple of Gurka soldiers who haven't done anything to anyone to shut down this unit. He talked about his family, and did they have any family, and did the commanding officer have a family? And they relaxed, and they took him in to see the officer.

The guy was a General or something I think, and Kirk had to basically give him orders, inform him that his unit was going to stop operations. But he talked again; talked and talked. It turned out the General did have a family - he had two kids and several grandkids. He thought the whole war was a bit crazy, and he worried about his mother who was getting old and lived in the city. He had seen some stuff he thought he'd never see, and his wife's best friend was married to a guy fighting on the other side, but they still thought they'd be friends when the whole thing was over.

And you, you crazy American, you got some balls coming in here to shut me down. We could have killed you boy, and by the time NATO came to figure it out who would care really in this war? But I like you. So for you, we'll shut it down.

And Kirk flew back.

It took him three years to tell me he thought he was going to die that night. He saw those soldiers fingering their triggers and thinking how easy it would be to just kill this American stranger and his two silent friends.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Kirk and the other NATO guys had their hands full. Kosovo was an air campaign - the sort that Americans seem to love. It's all so high-tech and removed, so quick and easy, so very painless. Did that sound bitter? Sorry.

They pored over intel as it came in, sorting out what was happening, what needed to be done, whether it was done, what to do next. They had to anticipate the moves of people whose goals were undecipherable by normal means. They had to figure out what people do when all they want to do is hurt someone else.

They made lists of targets - things that were top priority to remove the 'means for waging war.' They sent waves of bombers out with fighter escorts, charged with destroying weapons and infrastructure.

At one point one of the NATO partners started kicking up a fuss. It wasn't fair, they shouted, the Americans and the Brits were hogging all the glory. They were doing all the raids, not letting anyone else have a look-in. Country X had good planes and pilots, didn't they? Didn't they have top equipment? Didn't they train hard? Weren't they trusted, vital members of the NATO force?

Sounds ridiculous when you put it like that, but it happened.

So country X was given a bridge to blow up. It was a vital assignment, not some 'oh, well if you're going to stamp your little feet we'll send you off to vent your anger on some single-lane cart track used only by goat herders in the lambing season' thing but something that had to go down, had to be taken out at once.

Country X sent its bombers out. Several hours later they were back. The bridge? Still up. The bomb had missed. But Country X wouldn't hear of sending someone else to do the mission - this was their bridge. Second wave was sent in, again they came back with the bridge intact. More hours passed. A third flight went out and... jubilation! Country X representatives proudly displayed their video - and see! The bomb, the bridge, the large explosion! Victory, glory, all that is good. The intel guys coughed a bit. The bridge, they pointed out, was still standing actually. In fact, it was still clearly usable. Ah well, said Country X, details.

A set of planes was quietly sent out - British? Italian? American? I don't know - who levelled the bridge in a single pass.

I think the official position was that the bridge collapsed because of the original bomb damage. There was much solemn agreement on the ops floor.

It's not the enemy that gives you the most grief, they all said over cigars that night, it's your damn allies.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Vicenza and Kosovo

It's strange how many Americans really don't know about what happened in Kosovo. Even people who are politically active and aware don't know more than the general idea that somewhere in central Europe some sort of clash went on. They seem to know the important words - Serbia, Albania, Milošević - but the details are lost. Kosovo isn't part of our national mindset somehow.

Kirk went to Vicenza in November of 1998. The massacre in Racak was discovered in January, 1999.

Before that he used to call me every night. I usually didn't sleep in our bed when he was gone - just camped out on the couch with the phone beside me. He didn't always get to call at the same time, but we always got a chance to talk at least a little. The kids were usually long since asleep in bed, the dark and the snow hushed everything down, focused it all on his voice over the telephone. He would describe what he had done - the latest on Klaus the Evil Danish Dude, the new French guy who was rapidly becoming Kirk's best friend, the small details of his day.

Christmas he got to talk to everyone. The kids could thank him for the things he had sent from Italy and describe the toys we had discussed but he had never seen. He told us about spending Christmas and New Years with a group of guys from the UK and the commonwealth. It took him three days to recover, he said.

He didn't talk about any increase in concern or tension, but he wouldn't have. That sort of thing was unspoken. We just talked about small things, connecting every night.

And then the massacre was discovered. The conference at Rambouillet took place, Yugoslavia refused to sign the agreement.

Then the world changed.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Religious Right?

Friend : Hey, you were raised religious, right?

Me: Well, raised is probably too generous a term. I mean, jury’s still out on that one.

Friend: Do you ever just give a simple yes or no answer?

Me: Nope. All my answers come with non-optional accessories. Pink ones. With fluffy edges and sparkles and things. It’s part of my charm, remember?

Friend: Could we maybe get back to the question? I mean, compared to say, me, you were raised religious, right?

Me: Oh, compared to the person raised by one part Jew-in-denial and one part Church-of-England my queen can totally mud wrestle your pope into submission?

Friend: Look, forgive me for dragging this back to the point and all…

Me: Right, sorry. Call me ‘your holiness’ and what can I do for you?

Friend: What’s your favorite bible story?

Me: Oh! Oh! Totally the one where Judith nails Holofernes’s head to the tent floor!

Friend: … … …

Me: Hellew… echo… echo…

Friend: Okay, 1. you answered way too quickly. 2. Two too many exclamation marks for comfort. 3. I can’t believe you knew the names, and spelled them right.

Me: So I stunned you for a moment there with my brilliance?

Friend: No, I had to Google.

Me: What, you couldn’t just take my word on this?

Friend: ?

Me: K. Nuff said. So, just wondering, why did you need this?

Friend: I have to, in my own words, re-tell a bible story appropriate for ages 6-8. And silly me I wanted to go beyond Noah. Just a little.

Me: Oh. So, maybe not quite the right feel.

Friend: Not if I want to actually not be taken in for evaluation and all that, no.

Me: I got you, no problem because me, I’m flexible here and I’m still your source of all religious wisdom. Because my second favorite story, it’s the one where Elisha gets God to bring in the bears to eat the kids who laugh at his (Elisha’s natch) bald head.

Friend: … …

Me: Dunnit again. Hellew…. Hellooooooo

Friend: No, I’m here.

Me: You were Googling again, weren’t you. You have to trust me on this stuff, you can’t make this sort of thing up!

Friend: No, no I was just mentally totting up how many miles there are between your house and mine, that’s all.

Me: Oh. okay then. Hey, did I tell you that I was taking road signs personally today? Like to the answering them back sort of way? So I was driving down the road all by myself and saying ‘I am SO NOT a dip!’

Friend: I suppose I could move…

Saturday, July 15, 2006


You know why we have siblings? So we can play the ever-popular ‘name the family body part/characteristic you most hope you won’t inherit’ game. My sister and I had a head start on the game in two ways. 1 we had family pictures (strictly segregated by DNA, distaff to the West, patriarchal to the East) lining our hall and 2 the top of the ‘oh please, not that genetic heritage’ list was as plain as, well, as the saying goes if you know what I mean.

It’s The Nose. It’s a nose with dignity and character, a nose that practically insisted my father become a college professor simply because a nose like that demands a plethora of undergraduates to cower in its shadow. When I was little I used to worry quite a bit about The Nose, and check myself now and then to see if one was developing on my face. It was possible, you see, because of the two pictures of my dad in the hall. There’s one of him as a curled and dimpled toddler – all hand-tinted sweetness with, quite clearly, a small baby-sized nose on its face. Then there’s the high-school cool-dude photo with black slacks, white shirt, casual attitude and, no doubt about it, The Nose. Sometime between 2 and 17 The Nose emerged, and if it could happen to him, well…

I could comfort myself with the thought that if it did plonk itself down on my face in the middle of the night, if I suddenly found myself front-heavy with a prow worthy of Her Majesty's navy (d’ja like that one dad?) I too could join the hallway of fame, what I once called in a far-too-pretentious college essay ‘the genealogical rogue’s gallery.’ The Nose has a history, it hangs gracing the face of my ancestor long before it crawled out onto the visage of my immediate progenitor (darn it. Mention pretentious college essays and next thing you know…).

So for the precious few who have actually seen me (yes, I’m a real person as well as a digital entity) keep in mind that the nose you see, the nose of character and standing, the nose that more than hints at a strongly British heritage (well, that and my near perfect 1 albedo)? That nose my friends, that’s nothing.

P.S. My own offspring have yet to demonstrate The Nose. Kirk had a laughably small nose. In fact, he could squash it down flat until it was broken several time – you know, in the way noses usually are when you’re a teenage boy. Apparently he had some seriously strong genes because my kids have three small, completely inoffensive, utterly unremarkable noses. So far. (Three among them, not three each)

ETA: Am I the only person who uses Google as a modified spell-check? Honestly, I’ll google what I think the spelling of a word is, and if I get a decent return (and no quick ‘are you sure you don’t mean this proper and obviously much more educated version you moron’ comment at the top) I figure I’m golden. Today, Microsoft LOSES on albedo and Google and I by way of Wikipedia totally win. Victory.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Never Blog About Work. See Dooce, 1 Each, Examples To Learn From

Okay... so let's not make this about work, but about a hypothetical...erm... corporation.

And let's say that this hypothetical corporation had a building (one of many) that had won an award for fantasticness in design.

And THEN let's say that this award winning design building leaked. Water. When it rained. Leaked into... erm... executive offices.

and THEN the division in charge of fixing leaks and cleaning stuff up informed you that because it was an award winning building you couldn't actually fix the parts that didn't, in a real world practical way, actually work and filled executive offices with smelly, mold inducing water.

Would you laugh?

Because me, well, I would.

AWOL Progeny

Okay, Child 1 is definitely alive. I can say that with nearly 100% certainty because I got an email from Child 1 and it sounded just like my kid - all filled with love and irony and stuff.

Child 2, Child 3? Apparently they're in a stupor of cousinness and happy-pool-itude because so far, not a thing.

Which means Child 1 is my favorite child, I LOOOOOOVE Child 1.

I'm introducing them that way from now on.

'This is my favorite child! And these are my other kids.'

International Diplomacy

Vicenza was a true NATO post. There were several people from the UK, a handful of Italians, a Spaniard or two, a rotating Frenchman (no, no, he didn't spin like a top or anything, the position rotated through so the French guy they started with was replaced a few weeks later) and Klaus The Evil Danish Dude.

That's how Kirk always described him. All stories featured not just Klaus, but Klaus the Evil Danish Dude.

The Danish military has a union, and by union rules they aren't allowed to work more than, oh I don't know, seven or eight hours a week. I guess they are all delicate little flowers who must not be taxed with over-work and stress. Klaus was a 6'4" delicate flower who spent his afternoons at the gym so he could pile more chiselled northern muscle on his massive frame. But before he left every day at three he would make a point of poking his head around every corner, tracking down every last person he worked with and loudly saying a cheery 'well! Time to go! Bye!' with a happy wave.

He took a particular shine to the Frenchman. This guy was only about 5'5", and had earned nearly universal dislike by having disgusting personal habits, excessively low moral standards, and being almost completely incompetent. He was also very, very intimidated by the large amounts of Klaus, although he couldn't show it or admit it. Klaus enjoyed this extremely.

The Frenchman had managed to jam the fax machine (again) and was struggling with it, trying to wrench the wadded up paper out of the roller.

'Hey Frenchy'

Ignore, tug tug tug

'Hey, did you break that?'

Ignore, blink blink, tug TUG rip mumble tug

Klaus saunters up and stands mere inches from the poor guy. He begins to poke him, one finger poke in the upper arm.

Poke... poke.... poke....

Ignore, sweat, blink blink, ignore

Poke... poke... poke....

'Does this bother you?' poke poke poke

'Yis!' through gritted teeth, still not making eye contact though 'Yis, eet ees vair' irritating! It does bozzer me!'

Klaus leans in even closer and smiles into the sweaty face. 'Don't let it.'

'Klaus!' Kirk calls from across the room, 'lay off him.'

'Okay!' Klaus smiles angelically at the Frenchman.

'You're one Evil Danish Dude, Klaus.'

'That's right yankee! Well, time to go!'

A modern viking, was Klaus.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Family Holiday Togetherness is For Sissies

Kirk was lucky. No, actually he was unbelievably good at his job (all of his job... I feel a poetic wax coming on here but I'm willing for the moment to just say he not only knew the technical stuff about his job like no one's business, but he understood people, and he liked them, and he cared about them and so therefore he was like a management god). So his commanding officer, being a really great type, appreciated Kirk and tried to demonstrate that appreciation when he got the chance.

This was 1998 (way-back machine set? Good, buckle up then) and for people of non-military pursuasion this might not be common knowledge, but I think it should be. You see, there had been a draw down (which I liked because it set us free of the army after much angst and horror and drama) and the formerly bloated armed service had been pruned of dead wood and detritus. Unfortunately, there was also a general anti-military vibe in the air - a sort of please, don't embarass us by pointing out we even have such an unecessary and unevolved thing as a gun-totin' establishment. So, raises? Nope. Investment in the actual people? 'Course not. BUT at the same time a massive increase in the use of the military as a diplomatic tool. So our overseas commitments increased unbelievably at the same time that spending was sort of frozen a bit. Anyone catch the logical disconnect? And if you think I'm bitter, YES I am. And that's mostly because we knew so many fabulous, committed, intelligent, wonderful people who were working 12 hour days and THEN delivering pizza in the wee sma's so they could support their family. I was, I remain, extremely angry about that.

All of that overseas commitment meant a huge increase in the TDY load. Basically, anyone in the military could count on getting tagged for a four-month, away from home assignment at least once every two years. That's four months straight guys. No passing go, no collecting $200 or running home for a weekend. Those assignments could be to the far East (Korea et al), Africa, the Pacific, Europe... just about anywhere. We knew Kirk's time would come up at some point. He had been really fortunate so far to get short assignments to Hawaii (awwwww - poor guy!) and Iceland (he loved it). But as I said, his commanding officer really liked him, so he made a special effort and got Kirk the prime TDY assignment that crossed his desk.

The timing, however, could have been better. He would leave in mid November, and get back sometime in February. So he would miss Thanksgiving, Christmas, and at least two family birthdays. And he would be gone during the winter - leaving me with three children too small to press-gang into snow-shovelling duty. But on the other hand, this was a great assignment.

Kirk would go to the NATO unit in Vicenza, Italy.

Remember, 1998.

Shout Out - Or No, I Don't Miss My Kids

Hey guys, glad to hear you didn't take your Aunt's sissy suggestion that you wait on the swimming pool until it warmed up to above 68 degrees. Did you tell her about how you used to swim in our pool in California in your wet suits because we refused to heat it because it cost so darn much? Family stories are fun, aren't they?

It's hot again and I'm missing my whining companions. I feel a lot of pressure now to do whining for four and I'm not sure I'm up to it. Ha! I know you're laughing now! I'm whining and complaining AND sweating so I smell bad too probably. (not one of you should be saying 'and? this is new because...' at least not if you want me to pick you up from the airport.)

I'm going to be house sitting for a week which, because I'm lame and broke, I am viewing as a mini-vacation. I get to borrow two dogs and four cats and a swamp cooler. This is all good stuff. And yes, it is that cat, the one who once chewed her toes because of her distress over being put on a diet. The one who is the only cat allowed to roam wild and free in the backyard simply because she's too fat to jump higher than two feet. I forgot - there's a snake as well but I'm not supposed to do anything with him. You're jealous now, aren't you Child 1?

Hope you're having a wonderful time, and no I don't mind at all that NOT ONE OF YOU has sent me an email or anything. Remember, while your aunt shares DNA and therefore might not quite throttle you when you cross the I'm-gonna-kill-you-if-you-keep-drumming-on-every-surface line, your uncle does not and he's mean too. (That's why I like him) Also, pick up your socks darn it.

ETA (Remember internet-challenged, but WAY more educated and higher paid than me Aunt, that means Edited To Add): Prepare for Multiple Personality Blog, because while The Story must go on, so must my pitiful belief that I'm still connecting with my offspring.

ETA II: I've been blogging too long. I see word verification in deteriorating road-signs and license plates, and I'm disproportionately amused to have plotfid as today's verifyer. I don't know why.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

What a Difference A Few Years Makes

There was another story, another excercise. And it's interesting really. Because Kirk told this story several times (he was a master story-teller. He could get a laugh... he was good) and I heard him do it. But... well, different times. I'll tell it anyway.

There was a base-wide security excercise. I think there were outside evaluators brought in who did various things to test readiness. I don't know how Kirk fit into the whole thing, I only know the center of the story so bear with me.

He had the fun assignment - he got to be the Infiltrator. He watched outside of the Alcom building for several hours and caught a guard taking a smoke outside. He took the chance and slipped in the building, nipping in the door without going through the rigorous badge... bleep... badge.... bleep stuff.

Then he walked into the room they were using, and as everyone looked up and immediately realised he shouldn't be there, he put a package on the desk. And he said: 'Boom.'

I didn't know how to tell this story. Kirk used to get a good laugh off it prior to 9/11. He didn't use it after that. I wish now that I had asked him about it, but I never did. It was all still too raw. When he left to go to Iraq, even though it was two years after 9/11 we weren't yet to the point where he was talking about these long past memories.

But it's part of the story.

How To Deliver Bad News To a Senior Officer

Kirk spent a year or so on the insane schedule (or as it came to be, the 8-days-on FOUR DAYS FISHING!! 8-days-on FOUR DAYS FISHING!! routine). Then he shifted to day work which meant the rest of the family got to see him now and then, but happened too late to save terminal sleep disruption. Oh, and I think he mourned the loss of FOUR DAYS FISHING!! But at some point, for some reason I don't know because it was probably classified, he was sent down to do information operations (info-ops) work at the Alcom building.

The Alcom building is where the Alaska Command lives on Elmendorf. I think it's a NORAD kind of thing. Sorry to sound vague, but remember, wife of security clearance person, so I never asked questions.

I believe that much of the time they were doing important, very secret, real world things. I believe this because Kirk never told me a thing about them. If I were a seriously curious person our marriage would have been a shambles. Because I'm almost violently willing to allow other people to have their own business without my needing to meddle in it, we were very good.

But he could talk about the exercise part of the job. There were several he was involved with. For one, for instance, he got to write up the intel scenario, and he did such a good job they had to call a 'time out' (time out?? probably there's a much more serious and impressive term for this but I don't know it) and get him to tell them what was 'really' going on because otherwise the whole thing would go pear shaped.

There was one that was big enough to involve a general, probably two to make a matched set. Kirk was the person who got to meet this man at the door of the incident room (or whatever they called it) and say 'Sir, I have some bad news.' Now, this is not something that comes up all the time really, it's a fairly rare opportunity Kirk had. He had to say: 'Sir, I'm afraid you're dead.'

You see, he explained, your team called you on your cell phone while you were driving in. They had phoned you at home in the middle of the night to get you moving in, which was fine, and then they called on the road to fill in some vital details. And that, sir? That use of the cell phone? Well, the enemy tracked your GPS location and dropped a missile on your car.

The general blinked at Kirk for a moment (a long, slightly fraught moment) and then an evil grin split his face.

'Okay son, I understand. That's fine. Me, folks? I'm a ghost. I'm just floating here in the ectoplasm' and watching every move you make, you newly headless chicken who has to flop helplessly around coping with this darned excercise. No pressure though.

Kirk said there was a roomful of non-general people who were quite cheerfully wanting to kill him.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Never Send My Kids Away, They're My Only Link To A Life

Okay, I'm a sad, sad person and I LIKE it. I'm watching Bill Moyer's Faith and Reason series on PBS not because I'm trying to impress anyone but because I'm honestly interested.

But, I wanted to ask really quickly.

Why is it that to show disdain for something, like, say Salman Rushdie's book, or the American flag, people set fire to it? Because fire, it cleanses, and it purifies, and it's holy in a heck of a lot of religions starting back as far as humans go so far as we can tell. So, my dear fellow humans, why exactly are you honoring the thing you view with such digust in this way? Just asking.

Not to point out that when humans in general go all extreme on us they're not the most logical of critters.

(Hello internet, you're my new family) Salman Rushdie, just want to say, you're my man. Points I personally like:

It's not sensitivity, it's cowardice

In a free society, offense is not the limiting point

when there is conflict between liberty of speech and the belief of private individuals, liberty of speech must take precedence. (testify man!)

What kind of a god is it that is upset by a cartoon in Danish?

Gosh darnit, I think my social conscience is being sluggishly awakened. I would like, in my pitiful way, to add my tiny voice here. Freedom of speech MUST be supported in order to support the freedom of religion. The two are NOT unique and separate. If we allow fear to dictate freedom of speech over one religious issue then we allow it over ALL religious issues...

okay, I'm probably over-tired and all that stuff. But, c'mon guys, we're all human here, right? We all want to have the chance to worship (or not) as we see fit, right?

Tiredness speaking... I'm so discouraged. Why the heck is it that belief in an essentially loving god requires such massive amounts of violence, particularly against those who are most closely affiliated with one's own credo?

Ptthhhhbbbtp, My Family is Cooler Than Yours

I fully intended (except that I'm still trying to sort out how to write it) to put up the next chapter in The Story tonight. Instead, you get my Paean to My Sister (and by extension my entire fabulous family).

My sister, with knowledge aforethought and being of sound mind, not even under chemical influence or acting while caught in the throes of rapture of the depths (note to self, check off no. 193 of 'must accomplish by age 98' 'use phrase "in the throes of rapture of the depths" in public and with intent to wound')has, in case it isn't clear, voluntarily offered to host my entire brood of teenagers for nearly a month. Not only that, she paid for the privilege. Yes, for those who are still in shock, she paid for the plane tickets so that she can add to her own flock of 3, including bringing in the individual (name withheld) who feels that Axe is 'cool' and is a scent that will somehow by magic or through hypnotic effect or something, bring the 12-18 crowd of nubile young women flocking to his knees.

My readership of, and I don't want to brag here, maybe 3, possibly even 4 EVERY DAY DARN IT!! is weeping into its pillow tonight.

Yes folks, my family rocks. I am, and I'm totally serious here, not worthy.

Thanks mother of I, II, and III.

ETA: (OMG - it's ETA NIGHT!!) How odd am I that I honestly wonder if anyone is going to find this blog by googling 'ptthhhhbbbtp?' Be kind, I'm not a morning person and I was up really early. Just ask my kids about their really impressively expanded vocabulary based on this simple fact.

ETA (Please, no, stop with the ETA, it's not good man): I have to say that because my chidren ( 1, 2 and 3) are now in close geographic proximity to my Sister's children (I, II, and III) I will probably be channeling my nieces and nephew and it's totally not their fault. But if my sister wants to use it to blackmail her offspring? Oh man, I'm all over that.

Hi Guys! Don't Forget Me In KKK Land

Managed to launch the kids this morning, and only thought seven or eight times that I was loading all of my remaining immediate family into a flying death trap and what was I thinking?? They're going to have some serious bliss for nearly a month because Aunt and Uncle are not only way cooler than me, but they have a full complement of gender-matched cousins, two horses, assorted rabbits (still? I think?) several chickens, a set of lean, mean barn cats and a POOL.

And honestly, they deserve it. We're talking some amazingly fantastic kids here - the kind that neighbors comment on in positive terms, the sort that teachers shake their head over and thank you for the privilege of allowing them (oh so not worthy) to bask in the glory of your offspring. I mean, they put it more like 'very bright' 'joy to teach' and that sort of thing, but the meaning is clear. Sure they walk out of their socks several times a day and leave them lying on the floor in pathetic greying-white slightly damp smelly wodges. Sure they aren't entirely capable of seeing detritus if it's within six inches of a wall or piece of furniture ('but I DID clean my room!' 'whaddaya mean? The den IS clean'), and yes I have more than once stated that I should have had guppies instead (you can flush guppies you know. Not that I would, it's the power of knowing you could). But my kids, they're great.

Have fun guys. And if you want to keep Aunt & Uncle happy, you might want to pick up your socks now and then. I'm just saying.

ETA: Wow. Talk about pronoun abuse. You'd never think I am the daughter AND sister of English majors. Guess there's no trickle-down effect with grammar. Pity.

ETA Jr. (or Son Of ETA!): Children I, II, and III, should you read this while my kids are infringing on your space and hogging the game cube and that sort of thing, you can take paragraph two above as my permission to beat the snot out of my kids. Given that they're older, bigger, and probably meaner than you that is. But hey, go for it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Weather Watch: Whither Whining?

Distinct lack of whining lately about the weather. Heat? Fuss fuss, bother, bother... dryness? Moan, moan, wail, wail... and as a result (I'm convinced) we've had two weeks of glorious cool. Well, modified cool. Cool of the sort that had masses of 50-something German men don their speedos to do their outdoor chores (I've seen 'em). Not only that, we've had whole half hours of genuine overcastedness - sun blockage that can, with a bit of squinting to blur out the clear sky at the edges, look downright grey! And to cap it all, we've had rain. So amazingly much rain that in two weeks we've just about made up lost time for the entire rest of the year when we had gotten, according to the airport weather guage 'trace.' That's right, year's total is now above 3"! Take that northern California.

My kids respond viscerally to the rain. They drop whatever they're doing and race outside to do pagan rites to let the rain gods know this wet stuff, it's appreciated. They're not light-weight rain dancers either; yesterday they were leading the neighborhood kids out in the rain-and-hail mix (yay! *ow* woooooo *ow, ouch* hooooo! *ow OW! owwwwwww ... hey mom, look at the size of this *ow* one!)

But the best was last week when lo! the heavens opened and within an hour we had over an inch of rain. In the desert that means flash floods (ask me some time about La Llorona, the ditch witch) since the baked-dry earth can't really absorb much. My little rain geeks stood on the front porch and exulted.

'It's filling the gutters!' obligatory gutter splashing takes place

'Look, look! It's halfway up the street... it's nearly meeting in the street... Mom! Mom, it's flooded the whole street!' street splashing takes place. Child 3 is restrained, with difficulty, from lying down and swimming the length of the block.

'Mom... ' Child 1 pipes up, worried, 'the neighbors are out of town, and the rabbit is in the backyard, and their driveway is really full of water...'

Darn. I have instant visions of the poor rabbit - a school rabbit - who has already suffered enough by spending the summer with the neighbor's six-year-old, being slowly drowned by the rising waters.

'Okay, you three take these eight unlabled neighbor-door keys and figure out which one opens the back door, and check on the rabbit.'

'All right! The water in their drive is already up to here!'

'Take off your shoes!' (Child 1: 'I already did', Child 2 (unconvincingly): 'I was just going to', Child 3: Oh yeah....')

Two minutes later...

'Ummmmm... mom? We found the key, but they have an alarm, and it went off, and it's really loud and we didn't get into the back yard.'

'Can you stay with us for when the cops come?'

'The cops aren't going to come for you. Now, does anyone have their out-of-town number?'

Siren starts up down the road, Child 3, thrilled 'They're coming for us!' Child 1 frets about the rabbit. Visions of bloated bunny corpses inspired by Watership Down read at too early an age float through my mind. Several minutes go by. The alarm next door stops, and the siren heads off to nab some other burglar.

Child 1 remembers it has the cell phone number of the neighbors. Excellent. Being a good mom, I make it do the phone call itself. They're not going to get upset with Child 1 after all. Child 1 is the magical babysitter, the one the children come over to play with, the one they always come to see when they've caught a new bug to feed to their pet black widow spider. Not to worry, the alarm code is given, instructions run through, three kids wade down the drive again.

Two minutes later they're back.

'The code doesn't work! And the alarm is REALLY loud.' 'and the cops will definitely come this time.' hopes child 3

Fine. I lose my shoes, roll up the jeans and head through luke-warm, knee-deep water. We set off the alarm for the third time (their alarm company is going to love them) and slosh through the backyard. The bunny sits quietly in its cage on high ground, apparently unmoved by continuous lightning flashes and Noachian landscape. Clearly you don't survive being a kindergarten bunny without some serious chutzpah. I'm impressed.

Tomorrow the kids head off at 0-WHAT-o'clock in the morning to fly to see their cousins (Children I, II, and III). I'll miss the little water rats.

And if it rains, I'll go out and do a bit of gutter splashing. You know, just for them.

Monday Memos

To: My favorite Costco greeting lady

Your question to the young repair man today: 'Are you here to fix the leaking coffin?' might have thoroughly disturbed him, but it added just that extra surreal edge to my shopping experience. Thanks.

To: Young man in front of me at the cafe the other morning

I was intrigued by your ten-minute ritual in the line, hoiking your out-sized jeans up and down to achieve just the right amount of boxer-short display acreage. And if you were trying to grab the attention of the very attractive young ladies just to my right, that last yank that accidently included the boxers as well as the jeans definitely did the trick.

To: Homeless man who accosted me outside Einstein's

Sir - for future reference, my refusal to your slurred and fragrant request for spare change will probably be much more polite if you remember to hang up your cell phone first.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Firework Wars

Fourth of July will always remind me of Alaska. July is prime salmon fishing, so at every opportunity we would drive out to Wasilla, and that's where you would see the Firework Kings.

There were two of them, and naturally they set up shop directly opposite eachother. It was so much more convenient that way; you could count up your rival's customers and make fun of their displays (disparaging comments on the size of rockets was probably going too far).

Marketing was the thing - direct, bloodthirsty marketing. This wasn't subtle stuff, it was no-holds-barred grab 'em by the throat advertisement. There was no time for finicky comments about quality or aesthetic value. The message was - fireworks here HERE HERE HERE!!! cheap and pleantiful.

One guy did this with a car - stripped down and luridly painted then poised to catch the eye. The other guy went for the more discerning crowd - he had someone dressed up in a gorilla suit.

It never seemed to make any difference - the crowds lined up eagerly at both places and bought sparklers and fountains and roman candles by the thousands.

Which is funny when you think about it, because in Alaska in July it doesn't actually get that dark.

Still. I'll bet the noise was fun. Us? We just went fishing.

Sophie Picture - update

Have unearthed the main box of photos but no Sophie picture. Next plan, go through child 2's things because it probably has some somewhere.

Just wanted to point out I haven't forgotten!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Minor Renovations

We've been working on our dream house this week. Very satisfying kind of renovation - no general contractor, no dust or debris. We change our minds all the time, but never have to worry about going over budget.

The popular theme this time was secret doors. All of them want one. In fact, you probably would walk in the front door and find yourself in a hermetically sealed hall with apparently blank walls and suspiciously normal bookshelves. And one of those eye-cut-out portraits of course; I just realized we'll definitely need one.

Towers are big at the moment too. Two of the kids have been re-reading Elizabeth Goudge's Little White Horse, and the heroine has one of the most attractively described bedrooms ever. It is built of silver grey stone and has a miniscule fireplace and a vaulted ceiling. The door to the room is exceptionally small, so only the diminuitive heroine (mostly) can get inside.

I suppose I could read in all sorts of analytical stuff like: the kids are clearly shutting themselves in their childhood, rejecting the adult world with its worries and fears, or: the children are hiding from reality and the outside world. But to be honest? I just think every kid wants a tower room with a secret door.

I know I do.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dining Out and About

We went to three dining outs - dinings out? - in Alaska. It was a nice chance to wear a pretty dress (for me naturally) and not have to leave my high-heels at the door and walk around all evening in my slowly deteriorating panty-hose (no really, that's what you do in Alaskan houses, you slip your shoes off. Everyone does it so you don't track in mud and grit from the road-sanding. It's just when people are wearing formal dresses that it looks a little odd). We didn't even have to get a sitter - the unit got a rotating group of single people who volunteered to ride herd on the whole under-12 crowd.

One year we had it in the nicest hotel in downtown Anchorage. You knew it was nice, because when we walked in the door Dee Dee Jonrowe was doing some sort of press-conference/photo shoot thing there, and she's practically Alaskan royalty. We nearly didn't make it upstairs because the dozen or so puppies she had brought were so utterly entrancing.

The unit had rented a large suite for the kids, and we parents just opened the door and callously slung our offspring in. By the time we got there, there were already about 18 young of varying size, and two slightly dazed looking airmen. The noise level was impressive, but not yet deafening.

'Don't worry,' another parent said to us as we shut the door. 'I asked, and the babysitters get rotated every hour. I don't think anyone will be permanently damaged.'

Maybe sworn off breeding for life, but not permanently damaged, no.

It was a nice evening - the inevitable choice of halibut or vegetarian for dinner and a great after-dinner speech (the best moment of which was when the speaker, fed up with the overly-zealous unit photographer, finally gritted 'son, you flash that damn thing in my face one more time and i'm gonna stick it...'). Every half hour or so one parent or another would wander out to make sure at least the majority of the children were still breathing.

Kirk got tagged for one of those trips, and came back laughing.

'You'll never guess who they have watching them right now.'


'Lt (naming one of the other officer peons - the single one).'

Hmmmm.... nice guy - interesting but nice. He was the sort of person who could focus on only one thing at a time, but had enormous interest and energy, so whatever it was he did with every fiber of his being. He was also slightly deranged when it came to outdoor sports.


Turns out he had the entire crew, twenty some children ranging from 11 down to 2 solemnly lined up and down the hall, legs stiffly in front, vigorously running imaginary rapids in their kayaks.

'Left! LEFT!' He was shouting when Kirk came around the corner, 'remember, there's that huge rock I told you about right there and it'll tear your boat out... now RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT, dig deep dudes, dig deep!'

Faces grim with concentration, they all swapped their invisible paddles to the other side, leaning with the force of the turn.

He took them down the run three times that hour, but he didn't lose a single one.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Breaching the Elephant Cage

Kirk spent most of his Air Force career in buildings with no windows. In Alaska in the wintertime that meant that once he was moved over to the day shift the sun would set for him on Sunday afternoon and not rise again until mid-morning on Saturday. Intel people are mole people, cockroach people, pale troglodytes.

We did get to see a little of where he worked. They always put on a great Halloween party, with trick-or-treating at several doors (I assume someone had to sanitize the rooms behind first), a fishing 'pond' where the kids could pull up glow-in-the-dark aliens or fake blood-stained plastic talons, and a place to take a picture with a stuffed scarecrow. They had an amazing haunted house as well, although the magic was usually lost on our kids because their dad would stop to chat with the zombies and the crazed chainsaw murderers as he went through.

Those parties let the kids show off their costumes, which is a big deal in Alaska. They went trick-or-treating in the neighborhood as well of course, but like all the other kids they had to wear winter coats over their outfit. You'd open the door to an identical set of be-hatted small-fry and say 'oh! Look at the....' (quick flash) 'two cowboys and a princess!' It was particularly hard on the princesses. It's tough to really feel the part princess-wise with a pair of gore-tex mittens and a woolly facewarmer extinguishing your pink taffeta. At the party they could be admired in full glory which was pretty heady stuff.

We did get to go into the building once on an ordinary work day. Kirk was getting an award, along with a couple of other people, but it wasn't a big enough deal to shut down an entire floor as they did for the parties. Instead when we were signed in at the front gate the guard pressed some sort of warning button. On every floor red and blue idiot lights went off - whirling around to remind everyone that un-cleared civilians were around. Kirk had to escort us everywhere, and if he needed to head to the bathroom or something someone else had to be recruited as minders to keep an eye on us. It probably meant that for the hour we were there no one could walk away from a computer, or leave out a scrap of paper or anything. I think that explains why the ceremony was conducted with such admirable brevity.

It was a strange sort of world - none of the hyper-cool set dressing you see in movies, no improbably coiffed agents wearing unprofessionally short skirts and wrinkling their brows intensely at 10 foot displays of computer generated data. Just about 300 of the most intelligent, committed young people I've ever met in my life. Even if they blinked in the light.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Talk

As fishing took over more and more of our lives we bought a canoe. (there are, by the way, two things you are certain to find used, at a reasonable price in Alaska: canoes, and snow blowers) As the non-fisher in the family I was all for it actually because there's not much fun sitting by the side of a river/stream/lake/ocean and watching your family cast for hours (particularly as I'm a complete fish hypocrite, and while I'm enthusiastic about cooking and eating them I'm totally wimpy about actually killing them. The kids stopped bringing me their salmon to admire because I always said 'isn't it gorgeous? Now why don't we just let it go...'). With the canoe we could get to the back of the lakes where the otters and beavers were playing, or float in the middle with the shark-like loon circling the boat and waiting for us to release the small trout.

We had a small inflatable boat as well, and we used to load the kids into that, then lash it to the canoe with a length of rope and tow them behind us as we paddled up six-mile lake on Elmendorf. This kept squabbling at a pleasant distance and, if they got too irritating, allowed the happy illusion that we could just cut through the rope and row away. I remember passing a mother duck being trailed by her brood of tiny fluffy ducklings and feeling a distinct sense of kinship.

Kirk liked to take the kids out fishing one at a time. They would take turns, loving the special daddy-time that was just theirs. They would come back with stories about the black bear they had to chase away from the car, or the crazed Canada goose who tried to make love to their hiking boots, but whatever the two of them talked about was usually kept private. Except once.

'I had The Talk with Child 1 today.' Kirk mentioned casually.

'The talk?'

'No, The Talk. THAT talk.'

'Oh.' Hmmmm... we hadn't even talked about this ourselves, about how to handle it. I remember my own mother who, when I casually asked (after listening to Christmas carols) what a virgin was blushed deep red and gave me a 30 minute technical explanation that left me convinced that either she didn't know herself, or it was something to do with politics which was the only other thing I could think of that was so utterly boring. 'Well... how did it go?'

'No problem. It asked a few questions so I just said "you know about the salmon, right? Well people do it on the inside." Seemed to satisfy it. I mean, we went into a bit more than that, but the fish covered the important stuff.'

Are there no life problems, he seemed to feel, that salmon cannot answer?

I know the lesson sank in though, because about a month later we took my parents fishing outside of Wasilla and Child 1 caught a huge male Chinook. 'Oh man!' it said loudly, with exasperation, 'it spermed on me!'

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Remembering Sophie

It's 4th of July which means BBQ, of course, and sparklers for children, half of which will refuse to hold one and howl in terror, the other half of which will naturally chase the first half around the lawn shouting traditional holiday chants like 'I'm setting you on fire' and 'let's try it on the cat.'

But today, because it's a holiday and hardly anyone is reading blogs, seems the perfect day to write about Sophie, our Alaska dog. Perfect because this is going to be a monster - nothing else will do for Sophie.

Kirk felt about dogs the way he felt about music - you could probably live without it, but what would be the point? We had had a dog for a little while in New Mexico, but since we were both going to school full time and raising a house full of toddlers we realized quickly we didn't have the time or energy to give the dog what he needed. He was found a new home on a farm where his lab-mix energy had room to express itself.

But the canine desire wasn't gone. Our first Alaska house wasn't friendly to dogs, but our second one was and I happened to see a small sign saying 'free puppies to good home' pinned to a post.

Kirk took Child 2 to 'check them out,' which meant that three hours later they came home with a handful of white and brown fur with two flop-down ears and a hopeful expression. She was half samoyed (maternal) and half neighbor dog and looked like just about every street dog you've ever seen in the middle east.

But oh, was she smart. Within a week she was completely house trained - not because she coveted the treats we bribed her with, but because she wanted desperately to make us happy. I took on her training because Kirk was still on his horrible schedule, and she immediately picked up sit, lie, come, and heel. Stay took a couple of days because it was utterly counter intuitive. She would cock her head to one side and think and think about it, knowing what I wanted, but unable to sort out this bizarre logic. I had to start her staying only a foot away, then two feet, and slowly get her to plonk her furry bottom down and wait all the way across the room. She never did understand why we should be apart, but because she loved us she did it anyway.

The only thing she didn't learn well was leash training. That was partly my fault - I never had a dog as a kid so I didn't know that leash training was necessary - and partly simply because we got her in winter, and for several months she was too small to walk on a leash for more than a few minutes. She would bounce along for about a block as we went to pick up the kids from school, and then start to shiver violently all over and have to go the rest of the way tucked into my coat with just her small fox-face sticking out.

She grew quickly that winter. Her flop-down ears decided to perk up after a few weeks, but did it one at a time so Kirk called her hi-lo after some sort of radar when she rushed to meet him at the door with her lopsided head. When she was tiny she would lie in the back window of the Saturn and watch the world go by, but by the spring she had outgrown that perch and ranged over the kids' laps instead.

That was a bit of a problem for them because Sophie was enchanted with cars. We would drive up Turnagain Arm, single lane each way, and she would watch for oncoming traffic eagerly so she could snap at each vehicle. Just the cars though - RV's were too big and she would turn her head and pretend she didn't see them; motorcycles were allowed by with just a head flick - I'll let you live this time, but just because you're not worth the effort. That wouldn't have been too bad, but she also liked to rush to the other side just to see what was happening over there, and would then realize there were cars escaping her vigilent watch so she had to spin around and dance back again. Our trips were punctuated with 'ouch! Sophie!'

Once, far later, Sophie came running to get me in great excitement. I had to look out the window, right now, it was vital. Across the street, the neighbors had their car up on blocks. Sophie seemed to know it was disabled, probably injured, and was convinced we could easily take it down now and eat like kings for weeks.

We took her with us most of the time - sledding, hiking, camping. One of Kirk's most special moments was an early morning with Sophie, the rest of the family still asleep in the tents, sitting and watching the tide come in while Sophie did fox pounces at the seagulls who looked at her in disbelief and only reluctantly joined in the game.

She loved us all passionately, but Kirk was undoubtably her man. TH White has a wonderful quote about dogs in The Once And Future King: 'It was nice for the dogs to have their god with them, in visible form.' And that was Kirk for Sophie.

We had her with us once when we went fishing in Wasilla. We always tramped a good way upstream to avoid the crowds. Kirk went first with Sophie and the shotgun, then the three kids, then me - a sort of kid sandwich to avoid losing anyone or have the stragglers picked off or anything. This time we had just jumped over a small stream and come around a bend, to find ourselves faced with a massive grizzly. Sophie took one look and promptly wound herself and her leash around Kirk's legs so tightly that he couldn't move. He fired the shotgun - into the ground in front of the bear. He was ready to shoot again if he needed, but the bear had gotten the message and it turned tail and ran away. Sophie spent the rest of the day fawning over Kirk. Her god was a wonderful god - her god made thunder.

Sophie got fixed the same time that Kirk had an operation (he had already been fixed, this was for something else) so they recuperated together. She had been given a nice blue bandana to cover up her scar, and she was very good about not licking at her stiches. She just curled herself up on the floor next to his couch, and now and then she would lick at his hand when he reached down to pet her. Not to worry, she seemed to say, we'll get through this.

She was only just over two when she got sick. She had gotten into some garbage a fisherman had dumped and eaten a lot of fishing line. She didn't show any symptoms at all until she suddenly began violently vomiting horrible black liquid. She hated making messes in the house, and looked at us miserably in apology.

Kirk took her to the vet and waited with her while they looked her over. He was there for several hours. Then he came home alone.

It was too late, he said. There was nothing they could do. The fishing line had tangled in her intestines so badly that most of her abdomen was already necrotic. He had stayed with her, holding her head and reassuring her while they quietly put her to sleep.

We scattered her ashes over the ocean from the ferry on our way back from Alaska: our little fox-faced dog. And we cried and we said goodbye.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Headline Headcase

I'm blaming it on my split 3-day weekend - working Monday, off Tuesday obviously plays havoc with my mental abilities. Checking the news this morning, I have had the following problems with current event headlines:

Crack Found in Shuttle Tank Foam - immediate thought is our astronauts are involved in some serious drug smuggling. Wonder what the market for cocaine is like in outer space.

Body To Provide 'Mixed Housing' - think at once that social action is going too far if we're trying to provide equal opportunity to scavengers.

Green Fears Grow as Britons Binge on Gadgets - Complicated one here, get a mental image of nicely trimmed green fears providing a picnic setting for Britons as they have a hearty meal of ipods and razor phones. Do you want catsup with that?

I have to admit, the news is more fun my way.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Alaskan Survival Knowledge

In just about any tourist shop in Alaska you can find bear bells. They come on necklaces, anklets, or bracelets, or you can hitch them on a backpack or stick. Sometimes there's just one big one, sometimes several smaller ones. The idea is that the bells jingle when you walk and warn the bear you're coming. As a general rule bears don't want to encounter people, and if they hear something strange they'll move out rather than have a confrontation. Nervous tourists new to Alaska are often advised to buy and wear bear bells before they head out with their guide.

You can also keep an eye out for scat - droppings - that tell you what animal has been there and how recently. Guides will point them out or describe them to people; teaching them forest smarts. Moose droppings are oval pellets, compressed out of the roughage they eat. If you can't find any on the ground, just head to a store and you'll see them varnished and turned into valuable items like earrings and cocktail stirrers. Wolf scat is rare around urban areas, but usually contains fur and sometimes claws or teeth. Black bear droppings are full of berry seeds usually, but since they'll munch on anything they find there's sometimes trash in there as well. Grizzly bear sign is the easiest though. As any guide will tell you, you can recognize it by the little bells.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Friendly Competition

Kirk and I had extremely different backgrounds. From the time he was twelve he was surrounded almost entirely by males. His mother had died, his older sisters were out of the house, and he lived with his father and brother. He used to say that a lot of his rearing after his mother died was done by himself and his close friends.

There were a lot of kids in his neighborhood (unlike mine - we usually had only one other family with kids at a time), huge numbers of boys to play with. I think he said at one point there were seven Scotts who all had to be differentiated one way or another. Naturally with this many young males two factions developed - Kirk being the defacto leader of one, and one of the Scotts the nominal leader of the other (actually one of Kirk's later friends was the real leader, he just chose to be the power behind the throne, especially since the throne in this case owned a swimming pool - high stakes stuff in New Mexico). No real violence took place, just intensely felt football games and a fair amount of trash talking.

They saved the violence for the people they liked best - the boys within the same group. Friendly bashing happened on a daily basis. Pummeling was just a way to pass the time; it was just a sort of extreme version of genuine affection. After all, you only rabbit punch the guy you actually like.

But show weakness... then they were merciless. Physical stuff wasn't such a big deal (although they did convince Kirk's poor younger brother that he needed physical therapy because he wasn't as fast, big or strong as they were. He was also two years younger...), but character flaws, fears, even personal taste that deviated from 'group think' was vigorously repressed. Sounds a horrible way to spend your days, but Kirk thrived on it. It made him question things about himself, and if he didn't like something he changed it. If he felt strongly about something he examined why until he could defend it properly. Competition, he believed, had made him strong.

Now me, I was raised slightly differently. Mine was a household slanted towards the feminine side. My sister, mother and I kept my poor dad outnumbered. I think he let me keep the stray kitten I dragged home just to raise the masculine content of the house a bit. I grew up thinking competition was nasty and wrong - made people bitter and angry and bad-spirited. Cooperation, that was the way to get things done, and when faced with a challenge it was best to lie down in an inoffensive way and try not to cause too much damage when someone rolled right over you.

Take Parcheesi. We played as a family, and one of the rules is that if you land one of your little men on the same space as someone else's little man, not only do you get to send them back to the beginning to start again, you also get a huge number of free spaces for yourself! Talk about a game made for the killer instinct. My father (who was raised in the competetive tradition and was a shining example of the same) and my sister (who was clearly preparing for her future law career) smashed their way around the board, counting carefully to whallop as many people as possible, and taking positive glee in their piratical ways. My mother tried to laugh the whole thing off and keep everyone happy and friendly, but would pretend to cry bitterly if anyone sent her home. I, being a sucker and not always entirely bright, took her literally and meticulously managed my men so as to never, ever, ever land on anyone else and thus profit from antisocial behavior. I would like to say that my righteousness paid off, but it never did. I came in solid last each and every time. Same thing was true of chinese checkers (which we substituted for regular checkers because it distressed me so much when my checkers my own checkers were removed from the board) where every game ended with me, the 'fourth winner' hopping my last three marbles slowly across the empty board.

This sort of thing baffled Kirk. He was nice about it, he just didn't understand it. He and my mother used to have 'lively discussions' about how you could compete strongly and actively against someone and still like them (and be liked). His point was not competing was disrespectful, and didn't allow anyone to grow and improve. She was trying to point out that it might make people feel badly. I think he finally decided that I was competitively handicapped and let it go at that.

Until he taught me to play Euchre. They played endlessly in the army on maneuvers when there wasn't anything else to do. Kirk brought it back and taught me one night. The next day we played for two hours, and I beat him four games in a row, looked up, grinned and said something rude about his manhood. He laughed out loud and hugged me hard. 'MAN I wish your mother could see you now!'