Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Our yearly Thanksgiving Cabin Trip

We wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving!

The sun is now hiding behind the mountains all day, but we do get beautiful pinkish Alpenglow.

Every year our family takes a Thanksgiving Holiday by skiing to the Nature Center's rental cabin: it's a great way to give thanks to what we have -- the simple life revolves around keeping warm and fed: hauling and splitting firewood to keep the woodstove going, getting water from the pond (or melting snow), and dry socks are the basic necessities of the simple life.

Darkness comes early, and by candlelight/lanternlight/flashlight we spend much of our time reading aloud (whole Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl books have been heard by these log walls), and crafting: mom is usually knitting while kids are whittling wood or drawing...
Here are some pictures of our 2 youngest at the cabin from years past:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Social Studies ROCKS!

Social Studies need not be a dry subject!

Youngest is studying the American Revolutionary War in 5th grade. Yesterday parents were invited to a presentation of what they've learned. I love how my children get to study history so much more "hands-on" compared to the book-learning I experienced in primary school.
I even like the term "Social Studies", which encompasses so much more than the dry historical facts I had to memorize: dates of battles, names of kings and popes. Instead, today's children are learning about society through time, and how that helped form society today.

First there was a Revolutionary War feast: each student prepared a dish from the era -- there were Johnnycakes, War Office Pie, Gingerbread, Apple Pie and homemade hard candy. After the tummies were filled, we watched a Powerpoint slideshow where the students each presented the historic figure they had researched.
Liesl had picked Lydia Darragh, a Quaker housewife who spied on the British and passed crucial information on to the American side (I bet you haven't heard of her before).
They were allowed to pick any historical figure involved somehow in the Revolution: so we heard about generals and soldiers, women and men, whites and a few blacks. There was also an artistic component: each student made a (short) life-sized portrait of their historic character, superimposed on a tracing of themselves on butcher paper.

So let's take a walk down the hallway:
Here's Lydia, of course, and Betsy Ross sewing the flag, Patrick Henry declaring "Give me Liberty or Give me Death", and a fair share of military figures.

My children go to public schools, and we've been really happy with their education for the most part. I do strongly believe in a well-funded public education system -- a country is only as strong as its education system. We have dediated teachers at our local schools as well as wonderful parent volunteers.

One particular teacher who stands out is a teacher Wolfman had in 4th grade. She is a great teacher all around, but her particular passion is Social Studies. 4th grade started with a cave in the classroom : the first assignment was to make a cavemen's tool out of something found in nature: stones, wood, bone --- what a fantastic assignment! Later in the year she had all the children weaving -- yes, and the boys and girls really got into it! "Can we please weave today...please?" Later in the year, they had a reinactment in the gym where the Romans and Celts fought over the British Isles, to the sounds of bagpipes... The schoolyear ended with Colonial America marketplace system -- the students each picked trades, produced goods and traded them in a miniature classroom economy. Wolfman still remembers 4th grade as the BEST year ever: that teacher just ROCKS!!!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Winter in Alaska - The Last Frontier

Alaska has been good to us. True it gets COLD here, but more than the temps, it's the LONG winters you'll hear me whine about. Don't get me wrong, winters are beautiful, but frankly, I could do with a month or 2 less winter -- how about skipping January and/or February -- that would do it for me!

We live in a truly beautiful valley; in fact it was called "Little Yosemite" by the first Anglo explorers. But the price we pay is that we don't get much sunshine during the winter! At our house we lose el sol completely for about 6 weeks (blocked by the mountains) starting at Thanksgiving -- when it comes back in mid-January, it seems like such a treat to get sunshine for 10 minutes! Every day, we'll earn a few more minutes as it shines through this one gap in the mountains -- the rest of the time I can tell it's just below the ridgeline. To me it seems like a long wait until we bask in the sun again all day -- but the prof points out it's only 5 weeks or so -- like I said before: how about skipping Jan and Feb and just fast-forward to March!

Alaska has been a blast! We're surrounded by amazing beauty and wildlife, and it's a great place to raise a family. We moved to Alaska in 1996, when Eldest was in 4th grade, and the lil' Wolf still in diapers (age 2). Youngest was just a "twinkle in her daddy's eye". We lived in Fairbanks for the first 3 years, where the pixie was born on a -20 F day. Here's a picture of her as a bun in the oven in Denali.
The long darkness has it's effect on moods, however. Ever heard of "Mood disorders"? Sounds like a case of the moody blues, but it is very real and painful. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) affects many Alaskans, and seems to get worse with age.

So you may ask how do you get through the winters? Well, hobbies help. The winter Liesl was born I started quilting with a fury -- I knew I would not be getting out of the house much! I've made tons of quilts since then, including this king-sized Alaska quilt that hangs in our family room.
SAD lights are another tool, if we would just be better about using them every morning -- but sometimes it's the last thing you want to do on a dark winter morning -- frankly, crawling back in bed is one's natural tendency, and we do sleep a lot more during winter... But the most important thing is to keep active and going outside (anyone up for a jog on icy roads?), and getting regular exercise. Kids are active and trim, but the prof and I aren't doing so well in that department, and the waistlines are expanding... Yes, we belong to an Athletic Club, but it's so tempting to just nap on the couch instead!

I remember my first September in Fairbanks, hearing the sandhill cranes honk as they were gathering in preparation for their long migration to their winter grounds. I remember getting this sense of "Oh no, what do they know that I don't?" I was also surprised by how few retired people we met. Many professors planned on leaving the state after retirement. Those that stayed, and who could afford it, will spend at least spend some of their time (and money) traveling south during winter: we call them Snowbirds, and it's a form of migration. We're already starting to do that a little bit ourselves: spending our winter or spring vacation going to someplace sunny, like the desert Southwest. Just learning from Mother Nature and following those Snowbirds south!

Friday, November 21, 2008

OMG - I joined Facebook! Like, can you believe it?

OMG is such a teen thing to say -- it stands for "Oh my God", derived from the abbreviated writing in messaging or texting. But teens now even speak in these abbreviations! Other examples are BTW means "By the Way", LOL "Laugh out loud"... I don't know many more.

It amazes me how young people not only learn to use technology so easily (admit it, your 3rd-grader can reset the timer on the new microwave or other electronic faster than you can), but they become so comfortable with them, well, instantly. i-pods & i-phones, Skype and u-tube have become second nature as if they've drank it in their mother's milk, and mind you, these were not even invented yet when these kids were weaned, which, come to think of it, was "ages" ago, if you ask them (but to me that was just yesterday)!

So here I am, an old lady, and I today I joined Facebook, when a friend in Germany emailed inviting me to be her "friend" on Facebook, so I can see pictures of her family. Before this invitation, I thought only college kids did Facebook or MySpace (Eldest in college uses it to stay in touch w/ Highschool friends).
I'm only just now learning how this works: I think you need an invitation to be able to go to somebody's Facebook, but if you haven't been invited, you can "poke" them, right? Our local newspaper just had a feature on Facebook recently -- how parents are not supposed to embarrass their teens and college-aged kids by "poking" their kid's friends -- how Facebook is their generation's social net-working world, and we (old folks) need to respect that -- it's freaky to have your mom "poke" your roommate or boyfriend... (Don't worry, Eldest!)

So here I am, just having started this blog recently: an entirely new world I only started exploring within the last year. And I started blogging to keep in touch with friends and family, and in the process am discovering a world of other fascinating bloggers. I'm slowly figuring out some of the blogging lingo -- I now know what a "meme" is, but what is a NoBloPoMo? --I have no idea!

The internet is just an amazing tool for communication. It allows a Hausfrau in Alaska to chat with people all over the world, any time of day; it allows her to publish her own commentaries on Alaskan & World politics, if she wishes; it allows young people to shoot their own videos/movies and post them on u-tube; it allows people to reconnect with old friends, with whom they've lost contact, and find them via alumni sites or Facebook, even if they now live in Alaska or Timbuktu.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Happy Birthday, Uncle Ted!

I don't actually have an uncle named Ted (mine are named Eberhart and Klaus), but that's what Alaskans have been calling Senator Ted Stevens -- yes, the one who was convicted last month of accepting a quarter of a million dollars in bribes. Uncle Ted turns 85 years old today!
So how's his day going so far? First of all, the GOP decides to postpone his possible expulsion for just a few more days. Meanwhile back in Alaska, the counting of absentee ballots now has Mark Begich well ahead of Stevens by 3724 votes, and there are only 2500 left to count.
Yippeee! Sure looks like Alaska will get a Democratic senator after all!!! This is the first time in nearly 30 years. Yup, change is a-coming.

But Stevens is a cantankerous old man, and he's not conceeding yet -- in fact, he'll likely demand a recount. And he'd have to pay for the recount himself if the current margin holds, and alas, there's no corrupt Veco employees to hit up for the money -- they're in jail! Meanwhile, speculations abound as to whether a Senator could even serve his term if convicted, and whether Sarah Palin would try to run for his seat if there were to be a run-off election.
But relax, looks like Begich is gonna win, fair and square, and Palin may just be stuck in Juneau. And Alaskan politics will never be the same...

Poor Uncle Ted. Instead of being able to celebrate his birthday, he's having a terrible day. The New York Times quotes him as saying "“I wouldn’t wish what I am going through on anyone, my worst enemy,” and I have to admit, I'm feeling a bit sorry for him. But I do wonder, after a long life of public service (40 years!), wouldn't it be nice to be able to enjoy your achievements and celebrate with your loved ones? Without facing jail and looking like a bitter old man? Without your ambitions and greed having gotten the best of you?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Heute back ich...

Today I baked, and generally spent the day in the kitchen.
It was a very foggy gray Monday, perfect for letting bread rise by the fireplace. I made one loaf of whole-wheat bread ( I love the german word "Vollkorn", meaning full kernel), and the other loaf was my own version of Stollen-esque sweet breakfast bread: full of dried fruit, with swirls of almond paste. The fam loves it toasted in the morning with a butter and cinammon sprinkles.
Here's my newest concoction (idea gleaned from a Portland breakfast buffet):

Cream together soft butter, cinnamon and honey
Keep in small jar by the toaster -- scrumptious!

My newest kitchen tool (B-day present) is a Cuisinard Mini-Food processor, perfect for small batches of anything.
Tomorrow I plan to make a BERRY SPREAD:
Thaw out some frozen berries from last summer, and process with butter or cream cheese until you get a deep purple "mush".

My other kitchen adventures (besides some overdue cleaning, like the inside of the microwave, etc), was to smoke a batch of red salmon. Friends gave us their older salmon this summer from their freezer when the new catch came in. Here in Alaska many people go dip-netting, and may catch 30 salmon for their families. It's a treat for us, but many Alaskan children say "Oh no, salmon again for dinner!" -- but ours at least do love their smoked salmon, esp. if it's made into souffle.

For smoking salmon, I make a simple brine: 1 qt water w/ half cup each of sugar and salt.
I soak the fish in the brine for about 4 hours, then rinse it, pat it dry (best to let it sit a little), then place in smoker for 6 hrs or so. It was pretty cold outside today, so it was a rather cold smoking, but it still works fine to do it in winter, even if temps are in the teens.
In fact, one real advantage is that I worry less about the wildlife (Summer fish smoking is apt to attract the bruins!)

Tonight we had pasta with smoked salmon in a cream sauce. It was a day well-spent in the kitchen!

Photo credits:
Baking painting by Mustafa Farroukh (1945) from LeMonde website
Bread cutting painting from
Smoked salmon by

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Skiing with my kiddos

It's definitely winter here, and the skiing is great!
The kids have been skiing right here at home on their home-made ski-jumps in the back yard, but I wanted to venture out onto trails.

So we went to the Nature Center, even though I did not have to work today -- just getting to enjoy an outing with my kids. (I admit, I did work a little bit while the kids had a snack after skiing -- can't help it!)
The trails are freshly groomed and PERFECT!!! We got about 5 inches of new snow on my birthday, making for perfect cross-country conditions. Temps were in the mid 20's (Fahrenheit), which is pleasant enough.

It's less than 2 weeks until Thanksgiving when we'll be skiing into the cabin, and I wanted to make sure everybody has ski gear that fits, which is never a given with ever-growing children. And sure enough, youngest had outgrown her boots and been conveniently slipping into mine (with an extra pair of socks) this past that leaves me with ??? It turns out I fit into son's boots from when he was in 7th grade -- perfect, EXCEPT those bindings don't fit MY skiis. Aaargh, and both kids need longer skis, too. (On the trail today, we actually switched skis around, and at one point I ended up on the shortest ones!)
There are lots of outgrown skis in the garage, some still with the old 3-pin bindings... but the boots are the biggest bottleneck! Looks like we'll be heading into Anchorage this week for some shopping: there's REI, of course, and a used-sports-equipment store called "Play it Again Sports". We missed the ski swaps this year!

I had borrowed a pair of skis to fit the boots-of-the-day, and off we went. We wished the pater familias could have joined us, but his back was bothering him. So the 3 of us went and enjoyed some Winter Wonderland along the historic Iditarod Trail that passes right through the Nature Center. Our favorite trail, the Albert Loop, is still closed. Amazingly enough, there is still bear activity: grizzly tracks were reported again today. This is very late for them to be staying up (way past their normal time for going into dormancy) -- but until recently there were still a few salmon left in the creeks. And as long as there's food, why go to bed?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A mother's pride and guilt, and the wisdom of youth

Eldest daughter 's Letter to the Editor was published in the Anchorage Daily News this past Monday. I feel guilty that I did not post it then (my excuse is that I was getting ready to leave on my trip then). Here's the letter:

Stevens is not fit to serve
Alaska is a red state, there is no doubt about that. However, there are reasonable limits to party loyalty. Voting for a convicted felon is beyond die-hard loyalty, it's borderline crazy.
Sen. Ted Stevens served Alaska very well in the past, but he betrayed us through his unethical conduct and dishonesty. An honorable man loyal to his state and party would have removed himself from the race at the beginning of the ethics investigation in order to give the GOP time to field a valid candidate against Mark Begich.
Stevens insulted Alaskans by not taking responsibility for his own transgressions and stepping down in the face of this humiliation. Instead, Alaskans were asked to vote for a convicted felon in order to defeat a Democrat. Sen. Stevens will most likely be unceremoniously thrown from the Senate by an expulsion vote. He can no longer serve Alaska and has further besmirched the name of Alaska politics.
Alaskans, please take a good, hard look at yourself, your elected officials and your party. At what point will you follow your own moral compass rather than federal money or your
party line?

Runningl8 posted it right away on her blog in a post entitled Follow your OWN moral compass, saying: "This 21 year old woman has so succinctly and eloquently hit the nail on the head regarding the absurdity of trying to re-elect Ted Stevens...AWESOME letter, Eldest!!!"

And I, the proud mother, feel guilty I wasn't quicker to post it and praise my daughter...

Ahhh guilt -- but what good does guilt really do?
Here's a great little quote (it's from the daughter of a friend -- she's the same age as Eldest).
She recently told her mom:

Stop feeling guilty!
Guilt is a lot like rocking a rocking chair. You put lots of energy into it, but in the end, it gets you nowhere -- you're still in the same place as before!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Portland girlfriend get-together

On my 48th Birthday, I got to fly to Portland, Oregon for a conference. What a beautiful city, even in the rain!

My good friend Patty (a former Alaskan who, sadly, moved away) flew out to Portland to meet me. We were planning to go shopping, eat out, and just enjoy some kid-free girlfriend time! Did I mention SHOPPING? But the best-layed plans... go oft astray!
She arrived ok, but with a very nasty flu she caught from her daughter -- so poor Patty spend much of the 3 days in bed, with a Kleenex box and coughdrops on the nightstand.

You know a woman is seriously sick when she's within a few minutes walk of GREAT shopping, with a Nordstrom gift certificate burning a hole in her pocket, and never even went to the mall! At least the hotel sheets and pillows were nice and luxurious...
But we still had a wonderful time just visiting, catching up, knitting, laughing, and making plans for our New Year get-together with the whole kit-n-caboodle.
During the days I'd be off to the conference, which I greatly enjoyed, and in the evening we'd venture down the elevator to the restaurant in the hotel lobby, and enjoy dinner and margaritas!
Then back to bed for Patty, and with the coughing getting worse, I ventured out to the mall in search of some nighttime cough syrup. And oddly enough, I was spotted during this outing by none other that the Prof's ex-wife, who happened to be on business in Portland at the same time! She wasn't sure it really was me, so she emailed the Prof asking, by any chance, did I really just see your wife in Portland?

By the next afternoon, the sun was shining and Patty was feeling better, plus we had to check out of the hotel. So across the bridge we went to explore Old Town. In Chinatown we were eating Dim Sum for lunch when I got a call from above-mentioned Wife #1. How funny is that? Was I not only in Chinatown, but stuck in an Amy Tan novel? The prof had received an email, and confirmed that Wife #2 was in Portland indeed, and gave her my cell phone number (Don't worry, the ex-es are all on good terms). It did not work out to get together though, as there was not much time before Patty and I needed to head to the airport...

Next we explored the amazingly fun Pearl District (a world of books at Powell's, yummy desserts at Whole Foods, and scrumptious yarns at knitting stores), and bought a few fun chinese trinkets for the kids back home, then headed to the Airport, with Patty starting to feel worse again. And then -- can you believe it? -- her flight home is CANCELLED! We kept asking "Is there a deeper meaning here -- was this bad luck meant to be?" Maybe the credit card gods were called in by our respective husbands' prayers...?!?! We didn't end up buying any clothes, fabric or wool -- and that's unprecedented for a girlfriend get-together.

Perhaps the cancelled flight was a good turn too: instead of an exhausting late-night flight & 2 hr drive home past midnight, she got to rest in a hotel (provided by the airlines), and finish her trip the next day, rested and a little better (by babysteps). Patty still got home in time to celebrate her son's 11th birthday! And even though no serious shopping got done in Portland, I do hope that she got the recuperative R&R she needed before she had to re-enter her busy family life.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Alaskan Kids Voting

I helped at my youngest's elementary school with KIDS VOTING, and it was very eye-opening to me. As a naturalized citizen, I take voting very seriously.

KIDS VOTING helps prepare kids for the responsibility of citizenship in a democracy, which is great. At a young age they're still completely influenced by their parents, and since we live up here in Alaska (Republican-Palin land), I fully expected the outcome of KIDS VOTING to be for McCain-Palin.

I'm a strong Obama supporter, but my state, alas, voted red, as expected. BUT SURPRISE: Kids voting over the entire Anchorage school district preferred Obama 49% over 44% for McCain, whereas the "real" adult voters voted 61% for McCain-Palin, and only 36% voted for Obama Alaska-wide. The Anchorage Daily News has a red-blue breakdown for how Alaskan precincts voted in the Senate race (convict Ted Stevens vs. Mark Begich). I found it interesting how wealthier South Anchorage voted solidly for Ted, while North Anchorage went blue for Begich. Wealthy Eagle River, of course, voted for the convict too, as did the Mat-Su Valley. But Fairbanks and the majority of the North Slope and Western Alaska voted blue.

Why the discrepancy between Kids Voting for Obama vs Alaska grown-ups going for McCain? I attribute it to younger families (with school-aged children, with some of the most fecund living in North Anchorage) voting more Democratic compared to their older Alaskan neighbors who look out mostly for themselves and their money ("Kids left home, so why do I need to support things like families or education...?").

By the way, did you know that GOP ("Grand Old Party", the nickname for the Republican Party) if spelled backwards is POG, which may well stand for "Party of Greed" -- the economic disaster that the Republican administration have led this country into. See the New York Times article entitled Greed helped Wall Street dive into danger:
But the larger failure, they say, was human — in how the risk models were applied, understood and managed. Some respected quantitative finance analysts... had begun pointing to warning signs years ago. But while markets were booming, the incentives on Wall Street were to keep chasing profits by trading more and more sophisticated securities, piling on more debt and making larger and larger bets... "Innovation can be a dangerous game," said Andrew Lo, and economist at MIT. "The technology got ahead of our ability to use it in responsible ways."

After Obama was elected, my daughter reported some rather mean-spirited language bordering on racist talk on the school bus (I have to add that this is a VERY white area -- there are few blacks in her school). It's crazy what some of those kids are saying, and I know they're just repeating what they hear at home from their parents! After discussing this at home, with input from our older daughter in college, I realized I needed to say something, and brought it to the principal's attention.
I'm glad I did -- and the principal did feel the issue deserved serious attention at the school. It doesn't matter if all the children on a bus are white, it's not OK!!! And other parents had called and complained. Apparently there was a lot uglier talk than what I had heard. The principal plans to deal with this more during the coming week -- the children will hopefully take this to heart, and even if it does not do much to change their parents, will change their emerging sense of right and wrong.
After the ground-breaking election of the first African-American president, this little incident (the fact that educators are coming down hard on this: not tolerating racist talk and re-directing the dialogue), gives me hope, even for wayward Alaska!

I remember talking with my brother-in-law in Germany this past summer (and some 90% of Germans would have voted for Obama, if they could!), and back then he predicted "No way will Americans elect Obama -- they are way too racist!" Well, I'm so glad he was proved wrong.
I'm proud of my adopted country, finally, and feel I can once again hold my head up high when my family and I visit abroad and say I'm American!

Photo Credit for Kids Voting: Jill Fankhauser, Alaska Star
Photo Credit for School Bus: Anchorage School District

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What's a few extra children...?

It's been a full house!

Haven't reported since Halloween, because that's when we started a new adventure on parenting: 2 extra kids for 5 days and 5 nights, which doubled the domestic kid count. Our friends over at Mountainpulse took a trip to NYC, getting some well-deserved kid-free time.
The youngest, Little One, is a precocious 4-year old, and the oldest, a beautiful teen, is a year younger than our Wolfman. Wolfman and Little One share a special bond: she was born on his 10th Birthday, which they've always celebrated together!

Things went amazingly smoothly -- these kids have known each other since we moved here eight years ago. They got along very well the whole time, playing, goofing, helping with chores and homework. On Sunday they were all 4 helping unload firewood from the truck, and even Little One worked hard right along with big kids, pulling her sled loaded with a few pieces of wood -- she was so proud of herself!

Election Day was very exciting around here -- the mood was most jubilant! We were listening to results on the radio (we don't do commercial TV), while the younger set stayed glued to results coming in over the internet. By the time Little One had taken her bath and we were ready for bed, McCain had conceded and we listened to Obama's speech on the radio, all piled in our big bed.

During the night, Little One got sick, and (you guessed it) started throwing up... Barfing...Tossing her biscuits... Hurling... Ralphing... Chucking chunder...the only thing unchundered was her favorite stuffed animal, Lambi! (Don't worry, no pictures)

By the next evening her older sister got sick, but without the above-mentioned component... alas, the flu bug makings its round... Now the parents are back, and hopefully will not catch it, too.

Tonight it seems so quiet in the house -- I miss the ruckus! No Little One asking me for the umpteenth time when will we bake chocolate chip cookies, no pull-ups & bedtime picture books with silly rhymes, and no elaborate forts built from chairs and quilts in the living room...

Part of me can't wait to have grandchildren (Note to Eldest in college: do take your time!) -- but there's plenty of parenting left with the older children, of course. And thank goodness they still like to cuddle with us in the big bed!