Monday, December 29, 2008

It's 40 below what outside?

I swore that I was not going to turn my blog into a bitch session about the weather in Fairbanks. For my next post I was going to write about something meaningful or at least controversial, like religion, politics, or both. Weather is something that we usually talk about when we are trying to be polite and avoid offending anyone, but still wish to engage in conversation with other human beings. And perhaps that is because in most places, the weather can be largely irrelevant to the way that western culture and civilization are carried out. My problem with Alaska has always been that I liked it except when it intruded on my otherwise normal life. Of course, if you read my previous post, then to understand Alaska, you have to realize that the people here love it precisely because it makes day-to-day life exotic and challenging in such a way that it is not "normal" and can never be "normal."

Adventuresome spirits like me appreciate and relish 40 below the first time we experience it because it is something that human beings in most of the world seldom observe. There is something beautiful and enchanting about the first ice fog one sees. We will gladly go outside and embrace the cold, especially so that we can get on the phone and gloat to our family and friends in the "lower 48" about how tough we are and how life is great here. The air feels profoundly still and peaceful. Even if you are a city dweller like me (Fairbanks being considered "urban" for Alaska), it feels like the Earth has stopped spinning and that each individual is alone in quiet solitude with God and no one else. But 40 below weather gives me the overwhelming urge to sit inside my warm house and be grateful that I have shelter from the world and to snuggle up with a good book and a cat in my lap while drinking a warm cup of cocoa. That is what I expected from Fairbanks - that the winters up here would bring closeness and unity with the Divine as well as respite from the business of the day-to-day concerns and worries with which we humans fill our lives.

That, of course, is vacation Fairbanks - the Fairbanks to which Japanese tourists venture in the middle of winter to experience what it is to feel 40 below, gaze upon the northern lights, and go swimming at Chena Hot Springs. I too, did this when I first moved to Fairbanks. It is amazing how immersing oneself in scalding hot water in the midst of subzero air temperatures can actually feel comfortably balanced. For the locals though, Fairbanks is not a place of rest - it is a place of work.

Travelling to a place and living in a place are two different things. And when it is obscenely cold out and it is darker than midnight, the winter becomes a cruel slave driver. This morning, I wanted to cry when I had to remove a sleeping kitty from my lap and then go through through the chore of putting on a heavy parka and heavy boots just to venture from my house to my garage. It hurt to take breaths of air and even with long underwear and a parka, it was miserable to feel the cold against my bare face, as well as my back and legs that were bundled. That, of course, is with no wind, for we do not have much wind in Fairbanks. And it is pure misery to try to stand outside the car long enough to try to disconnect it from the extension chord. Then, of course I had to get in the car and drive the 8/10ths of a mile to work, to once again brave the cold long enough to get into the building.

I realized that I have never lived in a place in which I must personally rely on a vehicle as much as here - a place where I live less than two from the grocery store, half a mile from church and less than one mile from work and the city has actually deigned to put in sidewalks, bike lanes, and crosswalks. In Texas and Oklahoma, I could walk at least a few places if I wanted, even if some people looked at me strangely for it. When I lived in Boston, walking was even fashionable and chic. I do not even want to contemplate my carbon footprint and I ashamed to tell you that I burn more gas warming up my vehicle for my personal comfort than I spend actually driving it. I'm ashamed to say that I've paid out the wazoo for full service gas so that I could stay inside my car and still complained about the cold from having to cut the heat for a few minutes while the attendant pumped. I am ashamed to tell you that I spent more time breathing fresh air and being "outdoors" when I lived in Boston than since moving here - a place people come to bond with nature and get away from city pollution. But these few days of 40 below require an inhuman sacrifice to be good to the Earth that I find myself unwilling to make like so many others here. So the EPA comes after us because the cold, still air makes the pollution stick around for us all to breathe and the cold, still air makes us not want to get into a car that has not been warming up for half an hour and to not really care how we are heating our homes as long as we are warm and it doesn't cost too much and eat up that "go somewhere warm for a week or two" vacation fund. All I can say about that, is "aloha."

There are people who say that you can put on enough clothes to be warm enough to walk because there are places in Alaska that do not have roads. And there are people like me, who think that suiting up with enough clothes to be an astronaut is acceptable for that once in a lifetime chance to see something exotic no human has seen before, but who find the idea of putting on that many clothes to take a walk outside on a street you've seen a thousand times before to go to a place you've been a thousand times before to be uninspiring drudgery. And I realized that if I lived on the moon, that eventually it would lose its magic and become an old, tired place with the view of the Earth becoming obscured by the monotony of day-to-day life.

At about this moment, I am ready to curse my life and think that I loathe my job. Of course, if I were a taste tester at a chocolate factory, I don't think I would have been any more enthusiasm for coming in today. When people describe the early sourdough's life - it was all work. They went to work to earn the money and came home and did chores to carve out a life in this harsh environment. When the old folk of the deep south reminisce, they might talk about front porch sitting, Sunday afternoon hymn sings, or even *gasp* drives in the country for leisure. It was not that they were richer - it is that it takes far more effort to live a human life in the arctic. Those early sourdoughs did not have much "free time."

There are a few places on this Earth with harsher climates in which people live. I suppose I can be thankful that I don't live in "the bush" or our sister city of Yakutsk. It is 40 and 50 below much of the winter there. This is the Siberia to which Russians were exiled for punishment. I read a fascinating article about life in Yakutsk, which I will post a link to at the end of this blog entry. The hardest part for me to wrap my head around was the following quote:

"Of course it's difficult to live here," says Fyodorov of Gazeta Yakutia. "But the people here were born here. It's our homeland. What can you do about it?"

Maybe they share the same connection to the land and nature that Alaskans share. Or maybe like all human beings, they have a difficult time stepping outside their "comfort zone," for I have heard Fairbanksans too, say that they could "not live someplace windy." As for me, I do not think my problem is stepping outside of my comfort zone, so much as it staying there. I have been to Russia - to St. Petersburg and Moscow, but I have not ventured to Yakutsk. And perhaps someday, I could be persuaded to visit, though only in the summer. Fairbanks has given me more than a sufficient feel for arctic temperatures. But deep down, my problem is that no matter where I live, I can always imagine living somewhere else - it's how I ended up in Alaska in the first place and it's how I can easily imagine living elsewhere now that I've experienced 40 below zero.

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