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Lots of people, including me, have fantasies about just ditching it all and moving to some wild, untamed place and living off the land. For me it is the proverbial “cabin in the woods,” but for others it is a cottage by the sea (either on a tropical island or on some pristine northern coast), an Airstream in the desert, or a lodge up in the mountains.

At this point in my life, I’d be happy with a rustic little cottage in the Wisconsin woods, but for a long time I had a mild obsession with Alaska and all points north and acceptably harsh and remote. I read and reread Jack London, Farley Mowat, Gretel Ehrlich, watched Northern Exposure religiously (as if a network comedy-drama would give me a realistic idea of what life in the Alaska wilds might be like), and watched every relevant documentary and nature program I could find.

Although my Alaska ardor has cooled quite a bit in recent years (pun intended – it definitely has something to do with growing less cold tolerant as I get older), I still love a good wilderness read. A few years ago, after it was comfortably in paperback, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. For the three people who haven’t heard of it, it’s a biography of a recent college graduate from an upper middle-class family who, in the early 1990s, after donating his life savings to charity, went on a solo two-year cross-country odyssey, picking up odd jobs as needed, hitchhiking once his car gave out, and basically living the life of a vagabond. His adventure, psychologically and physically, culminated in a trip to Alaska, where he stepped into the wilderness and never returned. He died of starvation, likely exacerbated by eating poisonous foraged seeds that he mistook for edible ones. He tried to return to the main road, but the trickling, snow banked stream he crossed to get to his camp in early spring was a meltwater-fueled torrent by late summer. He was only a couple of miles from a park shelter with food and other emergency supplies.

The story both frustrated and stuck with me. While I could certainly relate to his existential angst and Thoreau-ish disdain for modern society, I just couldn’t help but wonder about his lack of practicality. I’m a preparer, a planner. If I were to decide to abandon my city life and move to the wilderness, I’d make sure I had a few basic things. Plenty of food, for starters (he wandered into the woods with a bag of rice and a local plant identification guide). A map and compass. Fishing gear. Tools. A plan for shelter. Ample cold weather clothing and gear. One of the things that frustrated me most about the story was when, deep into the warm, buggy summer and already suffering from hunger, he happened upon an old moose and shot it. Problem was, he had no real plan for preserving the meat. So a thousand pounds of life-sustaining flesh literally rotted away while he nibbled on berries and toxic seeds. His plan was not to have a plan, that plans were too restrictive, that he could somehow survive on berries and the magical Alaskan ether. See, one of the reasons I’ve never fulfilled my dream of living off the land in Alaska is that I too am a college-educated, middle-class urbanite and, frankly, I probably don’t have what it takes. I realize this about myself. One cannot eat romantic notions and despite its beauty, Alaska is a harsh place that doesn’t put humans above any other creature that is trying to survive. In fact, humans are at a distinct disadvantage being that we are slow, naked and prone to frostbite.

Just last year, as a teacher looking for something interesting for my students, I came upon a quiet little documentary called “Alone in the Wilderness.” It is completely self-filmed by Dick Proenneke who, in 1967 at the age of fifty, built a cabin on the shores of a remote Alaskan lake. He lived there, alone, for the next 30 years. The documentary chronicles the construction of the cabin, and of Dick fashioning everything from door hinges and locks to furniture, counter tops, shelves and utensils, all out of wood, all using hand tools that he brought with him for that purpose. In already snow-covered late fall, the appropriate time to deal with large amounts of meat, he killed a sheep and, using his already constructed, ready and waiting smoke tent, cured the meat so it would last him the winter. He fished regularly, gardened, and had arrangements with a local bush pilot to arrive twice yearly with needed staples. While he certainly had in common a shared urge to leave behind civilization and contemplate the meaning of life, unlike Chris McCandless, or as he called his searching self, Alex Supertramp, Dick had a Midwestern kind of sensibility that I could relate to. Here is a guy who could make a plan, who had a naturalist’s sense of wonder but also an engineer’s practicality and precision.

The other day I saw Sean Penn’s film, Into the Wild, which is based on the Krakauer book, and that sense of frustration about Chris and his story resurfaced. It’s a strange tale, about a seemingly brilliant and friendly kid who, troubled by family secrets and betrayals and his tight-lipped suburban D.C. upbringing, decides to intentionally disappear from and divorce his family, only to realize at the bitter end that solitude and loneliness are not the same, that idealism without a plan can be dangerous. Both the film and the book know this ahead of time, both were written by men with a little of the wild in them, enough to relate and feel drawn to Chris’s story, but apparently not enough to share his fate.

Part of me wishes I was like Chris, willing to give up everything save the clothes on my back to have a wild, uncharted adventure. This, I’m sure, is the source of some of my frustration with him. What a less complicated, likely unknown, story it would have been if he had walked out of the woods, a changed and enlightened man. I know though, that of the two I’m more like Dick Proenneke. Practical, simple and rapidly outgrowing whatever little sense of invincibility I ever had. Proenneke’s story will probably never be on the New York Times bestseller list, and mine is even less likely to. Even the most adventurous of us usually have the sense not to squat on our spurs.

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I’m going to get a new baby brother or sister tonight. Before I went to bed, my mommy told me the baby was coming except it wouldn’t be for a while, so I still had to go to sleep. When she tucked me in she promised me she would wake me up in time. But then I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. I kept trying to close my eyes but it didn’t work. I was laying in my bed and the light in the hallway was on and I just couldn’t sleep so finally my mom said I could get up.

There was a little bit of a problem. The baby was coming soon except the doctor wasn’t there yet. It was snowing outside, lots and lots of snow in the middle of the night and the doctor was out there somewhere, trying to make it to our house. I kept running to the front door and looking out the windows, but I couldn’t really see anything except dark and snow and more snow. It was really windy and the snow was piling up all over the place.

My mom had me in the hospital. She did not like that. They strapped her legs down so she couldn’t move them and I was pretty big, so they pulled me out with these head smasher things, and then she had a fever after I was born so they wouldn’t let her hold me. So she decided not to have any more babies in the hospital.

So we were waiting and waiting for the doctor and he wasn’t coming. Then my mom thought she had to go to the bathroom and when she was on the toilet, she almost had the baby! So she hurried up into the bedroom and right then and there my little sister was born. My dad helped get her out since the doctor wasn’t there. Then, just that very minute when she came out, the doctor finally came! He said that everything was just fine and he helped my dad cut off the cord and clean her up. She was pretty red and slimy when she came out, except she had lots of black hair, not like me. I was mostly bald until I was two.

Then there was lots of family over. It was the middle of the night, but they all came: my aunts and uncles, my parents’ friends Mike and Patty and my grandmas. It was like a baby party right then and there. Bonnie didn’t even really notice since she kept falling asleep. We took turns holding her and everybody was so happy. I finally had a baby sister after waiting for four and a half years.

To my mother

I remember you teaching me how to read. I remember crawling into bed with you on dark winter mornings after dad went to work. I remember throwing up all over you and your nightgown in the living room, and how you weren’t mad or disgusted. You just got up, covered in my puke, and quietly soothed me as you took us to the bathroom to clean up. I remember you, mama bear, defending me and comforting me when I had square peg troubles at school.

I also remember horrible fights. I remember feeling lost and confused and so small and just wishing we could get along. I remember not being able to give up or give in, even when I was wrong. I remember you doing the same. I remember trying my best to hurt you, because I felt a bottomless kind of hurt myself and I wanted you to know what it felt like. I didn’t know where that came from; I still don’t. I remember not having the words to explain. I remember making up, hugging, feeling safe and secure again. I remember when I was afraid of sirens and you’d come in my room and tell me it was ok. I remember, now that I am an adult in years if not in maturity, that you were just a girl when I was born. We grew up together and that was both a blessing and a curse, for both of us.

Now that I am older and have a little mileage between then and my current self, I can look back with so much sympathy and love and forgiveness. You always tried your best and I always had a sense of that. My early childhood was magical; you somehow managed to put a layer of chicken fat between me and the cracks and potholes of the grownup world. Although I was the oldest, “experimental” child, I also had the blessing of being blissfully ensconced in the warm, fuzzy arms of happy parents for more years than my sisters.

When I think about you, one word immediately comes to mind: dignity. You sometimes lost it, broke down, despaired. But through all your trials and difficulties, I always sensed that you had a kind of quiet personal dignity that transcended whatever hard times you were experiencing.

I remember your sketchbook, of a girl in braids holding a ripe ear of corn, of bald infant me on a crocheted afghan in the back yard. I remember that you threw that sketchbook away, maybe frustrated with or critical of yourself. I wish you had kept it. You are an artist, mom. Keep on sketching, whether it is on paper or in rich, loamy soil.

I love you.

I love Sunday mornings, which I ritually begin with a trip outside with the dog and return with the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Then I plop down on the couch with a cup of coffee and tackle the crossword puzzle. After that’s out of the way, I read the paper nearly cover to cover. Imagine my surprise and confusion yesterday morning when the Parade magazine (a tabloid-style rag with celebrity news, no-brainer, recycled tips on staying healthy and fit, and an inspirational celebrity cover story) slipped out from the plastic-sleeved advertising packet. On the cover was a picture of Benazir Bhutto with the headline, “I Am What The Terrorists Most Fear” and the question, “Is Benazir Bhutto America’s best hope against al-Qaeda?”

My first reaction was one of confusion. I mean, hadn’t she been assassinated more than a week before? Had there been some kind of mistake? With a furrowed brow I flipped to the story and scanned it for some kind of explanation. Nothing. The writer of the piece, Gail Sheehy, refers to Bhutto as a “riddle of a woman” who is “brilliant, beautiful, fearless [and] also ruthlessly ambitious, devious and corrupt” (never mind that those who accused her of corruption were likely corrupt themselves). When Sheehy feels that Bhutto is seeking pity, she states that she “moans” and “whimpers…As if on cue, tears fall.” Bhutto isn’t surprised by the author’s suggestion of corruption; according to Sheehy, she “feigns surprise.” A big, blown-up quote states, “‘She will work with anyone to get back into power,’ says her own niece” (she’s the daughter of Bhutto’s slain brother, and she blames Bhutto for his death). Sheehy explains that “Bhutto’s own family dismisses her little-girl lost script. ‘Her father’s death was enormously convenient for her politically,’ her American-educated niece, Fatima Bhutto, tells me. ‘She has no legacy of her own so she rests on her father’s laurels.'”

The article goes on and on with disparaging and highly subjective remarks (Bhutto’s supposed manipulation of Musharraf was “true to form,” as if Sheehy knows her well enough to judge such a thing) and repeatedly uses her obviously hostile niece as a source of slanderous quotes. I was floored by the article’s lack of journalistic integrity. The entire piece was condescending, judgmental and only addressed its stated question at the very end, when Sheehy explained that Bhutto might be a more effective partner than Musharraf in cooperating with the U.S. and NATO on the war on terror. The rest was subjective fluff, never giving the reader any meaningful insight into her life (other than mentioning her father’s execution), what led her to her place in it, or any sense of what she represented in the minds of the Pakistani people.

By this point I had assumed that Parade magazine goes to press long in advance of the 400 papers it supplements, and that it made the editorial decision to distribute the magazine anyway. This assumption proved to be correct and very troubling. On NPR, Parade’s publisher Randy Siegel said that getting Parade out is “not like publishing a daily newspaper. It’s simply different.” While noting that pulling the magazine would have cost millions of dollars, he said the primary motivation for going ahead with distributing the unchanged issue was that, “what Benazir Bhutto had to say should be heard, and this story deserved to be told.”

This raises two issues. First, if publishing Parade magazine is “simply different,” in terms of quick and timely publication, then it should not cover stories that could be time-sensitive. Benazir Bhutto was the victim of numerous assassination attempts, and it was well known that she traveled in the open with woefully inadequate security. A lot could, and obviously did, happen in the week leading up to the elections in Pakistan. Second, the article was not about what Benazir Bhutto had to say so much as it was what Gail Sheehy had to say about Bhutto. Siegel’s explanation rings false to me.

With a ten day lead time, the article should have been edited to reflect her death, her legacy and her impact on Pakistan and the world. I’d love to have been a fly on the boardroom wall when Parade was making its decision not to pull the magazine, to pretend that it was about anything other than money. I deeply suspect, however, that if the article had been about John F. Kennedy or an as-yet assassination of a prominent American politician, Parade would not have dreamed of publishing a similar and unedited cover story.

Besides the obvious disrespect for Bhutto and her family, and for accurate and timely journalism, the article confused many, many people. The tiny editor’s note on the second page corner of the newspaper (not Parade magazine – it was the newspaper editors who took on the onus of informing their readers that something was amiss with a magazine they did not publish) did nothing to mitigate the initial shock of seeing Bhutto referred to in the present tense. The article was not flattering, and was not an appropriate posthumous commentary on an assassinated political leader. She likely was corrupt and she likely was devious. She was also seen as the best hope for the future by many Pakistanis. There is no way that this can be justified. If Parade magazine is not prepared to edit and redistribute in a timely fashion, it should stay away from time-sensitive topics, or even topics that could potentially be time-sensitive. In this day and age, there are plenty of outfits that can pick up the slack, and do a much better job to boot.

Parade magazine has received many critical comments on its website. Curiously, and as a side note, when people type the word ‘Pakistan’ it appears as ‘****stan’ in the final comment. I’m sure there’s some security-related reason for the censorship, but it’s a little weird.

When the big grocery store chains first opened up their self-serve lanes, I raised an eyebrow and waited in the real person checker line. The reason was simple – I was afraid of being embarrassed if I screwed up. I figured that, klutz that I am, I’d wind up setting off some kind of alarm, hold up the line behind me and force an exasperated employee over to my lane to punch in some code to fix the mess I made. I didn’t have the courage to try it until I was shopping with my sister who marched right up with me and walked me through it (probably thinking to herself what a silly ninny I am).

Then I got pretty confident. Why wait in line when you can play checkout-girl yourself and breeze through in half the time? Although I always prefer human interaction, if the store was busy and the self-serve lanes were moving fast, I’d opt for self-checkout. Then I encountered a problem: alcohol. When you go through the self-checkout lane and you are purchasing, say, a bottle of wine, you have to go up to the self-checkout supervisor person and present your ID. You have to do this even if you are sixty-five, because the computer automatically demands ID since of course it cannot (yet) distinguish between a stammering 19-year-old with a case of Bud and a 31-year-old with a bottle of Merlot.

So today I stopped at the local big chain grocery store for dinner ingredients and a bottle of wine. I surveyed the express lane and the self-serve lane, and decided in the interest of human interaction to use the express lane, manned by an actual person. Then I noticed something. Most of the people in the express lane were purchasing alcohol. There was the twenty-something with a case of Miller Lite (cans) and a bag of chips, the distinguished gentleman with a bottle of cognac, and a youngish yuppie with top-shelf vodka and a couple of mixers. It immediately became apparent, however, that this express lane was anything but “express.” It was absolutely crawling. As I got closer, the reason became clear: the checker was underage. Every time someone in his lane purchased alcohol, the checker had to call an of-age person over to scan the booze. This, in my mind at least, led to a painfully obvious question: on a Saturday evening, why for the sake of Pete would you have an underage person manning the only express lane? Ok, so that’s point number one.

Number two (I had plenty of time to think about this while in line): what genius figured out that grocery stores can coax consumers (citizens) to perform the job of checkout persons, without even having to pay them? My local chain grocery store now has four self-checkout lanes. That’s four hourly wages that the store doesn’t have to pay, because the consumers are willing to essentially work for the store, for the sake of saving time. Do they get a discount on their food? Of course not. They just get a couple more seconds to spend with their families or loved ones at the end of a long day. I suppose this kind of sentiment was relevant back in the days of full-service gasoline stations when you just pulled up, told the attendant how much gas you wanted, and sat in the happy warmth of your auto-car. Then one day, you could pull up, pump your own gas, pay the lone attendant (who was warm inside the cozy kiosk while you, dear customer, froze you arse off), and motor on you merry way.

Next we just might be using our fingerprints to buy everything. Cameras and scales will make sure you don’t get away with stealing anything, and we’ll all be so smug in our high-tech efficiency. Never mind the value of a little human interaction and part-time jobs for high schoolers, parolees and moms.

Teach Your Children Well

In line at the grocery store. Big sign in my lane says “EXPRESS LANE. TEN ITEMS OR LESS.”

Cashier: Sir, just so you know for next time, this lane is for ten items or less.

(I’m behind Sir, attempting to purchase a single item)

Sir (in line with eight year old girl): Hmph. Ten items. Fuck ten items.

Cashier: I mean, just so you know for next time.

Sir (looking rather intoxicated on closer inspection): I don’t give a…ten items…well I don’t give a…

Cashier: You know, so it’s fair for the person behind you who has only one item.

Me: Blushes, shrugs.

Sir: Whaddayou give a shit. Ten items. Fuck you. Fine then. Fuck.

(cashier rings up 20+ items and Sir swipes card)

Cashier: Um. Could you try your card one more time, sir? For some reason it didn’t go through.

Sir: Fuck. (Swipes again, swoons a little and jabs at the numbers on the punch pad).

Cashier: Thank you sir.

Sir: Mumble, mumble. Fuck. Mumble mumble (walks away with purchases and young girl).

Cashier: (Exhausted look) Sorry ma’am.

Me: I just feel so sorry for that little girl. And you.

Cashier: Sigh. Nod.

Handmade Christmas

Ever since an eighth grade art class introduction to ceramics, I have always wanted to learn to make pottery. Due to a recent windfall of extra time, I’ve finally taken it up and am really enjoying it. I like every stage, from taking a moist lump of clay and giving it a useful shape, to refining and finishing it once it’s begun to dry, and finally glazing it and sending it off for its final, irreversible firing.

Besides the quiet, Zen-like process, making pottery speaks to a part of my soul, the part that would love to see Christmas become less commercial and more traditional. The part of my soul that cringes at commercials showing iPod-toting remote controlled cars doing the caroling in place of real, live people. I love the idea of giving people useful things, things that were made by my own hands. A few years ago I taught myself how to knit, and everybody got scarves. But the truth is that I don’t really like to knit. It’s too repetitive, too tedious, and it takes too long. I’m sort of an instant gratification type, and I love to see a recognizable form, whether it be a plate, a mug or a vase, take shape in just minutes. This is the pottery Christmas, hopefully the first of many. I’m sure my family is just thrilled.

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