Tag Archives: living

The Landscape of my life –

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I was thinking about the different places I’ve lived and how landscapes have influenced me over the years.

The first landscape impression I have is of Austria’s Rax mountain, which towered over the village of Richenau, where I lived until I was seven.

I recall hiking on the mountain’s central plateau as a child and staring down the rugged edges into the Höllental, which was like something out of Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.”

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I have loved mountains ever since.

The second is the verdant Willamette Valley, a green swath running north to south between the Cascade mountains and the coastal range in western Oregon. The volcanic peaks of Mounts Hood and Jefferson to the east, along with the Three Sisters and the flattop of Mount St. Helens to the north form a boundary of sorts, while the wild Pacific Ocean to the west hems you in to the wide valley from which it is very difficult to escape.

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The third is the bleak lava fields of the western part of the big island of Hawaii. I spent seventh grade living up on the slopes of Hualalai with my parents and my brother and sisters, and though I was fascinated with the lush vegetation and dank lava tubes near the school I attended and the smell of rotting guavas near the bus stop, it was the dry flats with their moonlike appearance that impacted me most. I loved to read the dates of the most recent lava flows on signs posted along the highway and imagine the stark blackness of the cooled lava highlighted by the vicious red of molten rock flowing toward the ocean. Living in Hawaii is to experience the slow and formidable creation of the world that we know.

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The fourth is the crown of the continent, a portion of north central Montana where glaciers scoured out a gem of massive granite walls and deep valleys carved out by dusty blue rivers. Glacier National Park looks nothing like it did when I was a kid and visited with all the wonder of the discovery of the dawn of the world, a time when glaciers and dinosaurs were synonymous and where the ice, even in early summer, was thick and hearkened back to an age when it covered the world.The glaciers are all but gone. A few cling to rocky precipices thousands of feet above your head, but they are trickling away their lifeblood summer after summer.

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The fifth is the tundra, which has two very distinct personalities. The tundra that I lived with every day was that which clings to the Chugach mountains high above Anchorage, Alaska. In the spring, the tundra runs wild with the life-giving spring runoff. In the summer, you can watch it almost shimmer with the brilliance of millions of tiny plants clinging to the sides of the otherwise barren mountains. I would take walks in it and rest upon its carpeted softness and wonder if the caribou could taste a difference in the millions of tiny plants that make it up. The second tundra is the flat tundra of the northern realms. outside of Barrow, on the edge of nowhere, the tundra runs beige and dry in summer as snowy owls hunt for lemmings in the 24-hour sunlight. In the fall, the tundra follows the pattern of leaves farther south. It turns a brilliant shade of rusty red with orange and yellow highlights. I’m convinced there is not a painter alive who can mimic the magic of the northern tundra.

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And the last, or, I should say, the latest, is the city, sprawling, as it does, from wilderness to wilderness as an organism complete with a vascular system of pipes and wires that connect one part to another. In its own way, the city is as breathtaking as the country side. Where the mountains greeted me upon waking in Anchorage, now the skyline meets me, seemingly rising out of Lake Michigan like a range of mirrored peaks. The difference becoming more defined at night, when the skyscrapers light up with the brilliance of millions of watts of electricity to draw your eyes upward as they would be toward the snow capped peaks in daylight. And if you wander the canyons of the city, they overflow with life at almost any hour. And this is probably my favorite detail. There is no loneliness in the city. Or at least there does not need to be any. The city is like a hive of the best of humanity, the highest achievements in food and lifestyle and community. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. The city can exhibit the basest of human behaviors, the lowest forms of community and food deserts. And all of this, all of this is contained in just a few square miles so that it is condensed and anywhere you look, there is always something new, some detail that went unobserved the last time you looked there. Always there are new faces and interesting stories, and that is why the city is the most fascinating landscape for me. It truly holds more surprise and more adventure per square inch than any landscape that I’ve lived in or near in this short life so far.

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The Neighborhood

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W Park Lane Drive is a quiet, oak-lined street in a neighborhood of similar attributes. 
Lorraine and George have lived in the single-story brick house across the intersection from our house for 30 years. They moved in when they were our age for many of the same reasons.
On Sunday of the weekend that we moved in, Lorraine caught my attention early in the morning. “Hello, I have something for you,” she said. 
She carried a paper bag wrapped in plastic. 
“It’s apple bread, and it’s fresh.”
It was true. The bread was warm and soft.
The neighbors directly across the street delivered some ice-cold watermelon when we were in the middle of unpacking the U-Haul.
And still other neighbors brought chocolates and Swedish fish for the kids.
Part curiosity at our Alaska license plates and part Midwestern friendliness, the people of W Park Lane Drive are future versions of us if we decide that settling down in one place is what we want to do. 
Our story is now partially known along our street and down the side streets. Little old ladies, whom we have not met yet, probably talk about the children, the older boy with curly hair who will be going to Shepherd, the straight-haired boy who skateboards with that other boy, the one from two streets up. And that little girl, the one with long, blond hair. Isn’t she a cutie? Good thing she has two older brothers.
Don’t know much about the parents, they came here from Alaska. The wife and kids didn’t care for it much, or so Larry told me. He stopped off to meet them last week. 
The father works in the city. He’s gone every morning at 6:45. Doesn’t get home until 7:15, or so. Their older boy helps mom out and starts up the grill every evening. 
Don’t know much about ‘em though. They haven’t been around much on the weekends.
This same old lady has similar knowledge of every person within 3 blocks, maybe more. She tells her daughter and son-in-law these things when they come in from Naperville once a month. 
They just nod and smile at her.
And she is mostly right. A few die-hards do their weeding and mowing before the heat of the day. They are tinkering in flower beds and with sprinkler heads at 5:30 a.m. when I go for a run. 
When I return home from work, around 7:15 p.m., the houses are quiet, the ones with kids are buttoned up, though a few childish screams or giggles can be heard through the hedges from the house next door on those evenings when their cousins come in from Chicago Ridge to play.
An old man sits on a big cushion on a yard chair in front of his garage, I know he likes to watch the world go by. My grandparents used to do the same thing. They put an old couch in the garage and watched the neighbor children grow up. Perhaps because the first time around it all goes by too fast.
Lorraine waters her lawn almost every day in spite of the fact that she’s only supposed to do it on even days between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. She doesn’t really care, she told me. “I’ll pay the fine, if they give me one.” Her lawn is green and lush. Most of the others are yellowed and slightly withered. The grass barely grows at all in this drought heat.
Everyone waves as they go by. Some are retired, some work from home, others work part time. Some contemplate downsizing, others wouldn’t trade it for the world, the security, the peace and quiet. Some want to upgrade to something bigger and others would like to buy in the neighborhood.
There are no street lights. Probably because the crime rates are so low. Some neighbors have lamps. There are two gas lamps in front of our house. But on dark nights, it’s dark, very dark.
Dark enough to see fireflies and the Big Dipper. 

Nome Exposure

Finding good Internet access in Nome is tricky. WiFi is my lifeblood, so I’m always interested in finding the optimal place, preferably close to whatever location I happen to be working, to get a good signal.

During the Iron Dog, the world’s longest, toughest snow machine race, Nome serves as the halfway point. The turnaround where racers spend 36 hours resting and wrenching during their 2,000 mile race across Alaska.

I spend a lot of time shooting photos and videos, but I spend a lot more time waiting for 2 minutes of video to upload or writing captions for photo galleries.

On this trip, I didn’t want to hang out in the two-stroke-fume-filled Nome City Shops, so I spent more time at the ramp that both welcomes racers and sends them out again.

The Polar Cafe, which sits just down Front Street on the Bering Sea coast, is full of big, wide tables and chest-level electrical outlets to plug in all the various appliances that go with being a digital journalist.

On Tuesday, I set up shop in the Polar in the early afternoon. I worked quietly in the corner for several hours putting together a bunch of video clips and photo galleries as well as updating our social media.

The waitress, a slight, long-haired Alaska native, kept checking on me, and I apologized for monopolizing her space. She just shrugged and quietly told me that it was all right.

She served me two cups of terrible green tea, and because I felt bad about staying in the restaurant so long, I finally ordered a cup of reindeer chili.

Eventually an older Alaska native lady walked in. She was missing most of her front teeth and seemed to be much too old to have a 10-year-old son. But she called him son anyway. 

They ordered, and when the waitress asked if she wanted anything else, the older lady said she wanted to send a meal over to a gentleman at the bar.

“Please get him the halibut, a salad and a bowl of soup,” she said. “And take it to him at the bar.”

Eventually her husband and another young child joined the lady and her 10-year-old.

They ate quietly at the table for a half hour or so before two highly intoxicated gentlemen sat in our section.

Being a writer and highly distracted by human nature, I took in bits and pieces of the various conversation.

The drunk men wore camouflage and hats with American flags on them. They sat in a two-top near the window.

“Oh, they have fresh local halibut on special.”

The other man just nodded as the waitress set down their waters.

The older Alaska native lady spoke up, suddenly, loudly.

“Whew, boys, the fumes coming off you could light this place up,” she complained. “Why you gotta drink like that.”

When one of the men realized she was talking to him, he responded.

“We don’t drink like this, you know. It’s just today.”

“Oh, you’re just in town for a little good time, eh?” she said.

“Yeah, you now, it’s just today,” he retorted.

She asked him if he was King Islander. He nodded affirmatively.

I worked a little more, until the two men suddenly erupted into a one-sided fight in front of me.

I couldn’t see or hear the quiet drunken man, but the man with his back to me suddenly started spewing profanities at his companion. 

“Give me that,” he spat. “You can’t take that.”

He stood up and walked over the shoulder of the other man so he could yell into his ear directly.

“Shut up, shut up.”

He sat down again and put some food in his mouth.

“Where’s your hundred?” he asked the other man. There was no reply.

The older lady and her husband were discussing what type of beverage would go best for the drunkard in the bar for whom they’d purchased a meal.

“Get him milk,” she said.

“No, get him coke, the milk will curdle with all that alcohol.”

“Ah, yes, the milk will curdle in his stomach.”

Then a man showed up holding a bowl of soup. He staggered across the floor to a table near mine and sat down.

“Thank you Goudis,” he said. “Thank you for the soup.”

“I didn’t just buy you soup, I bought you a whole meal,” she said.

“What do you want to drink with it?”

The waitress appeared, and the drunk from the bar asked for a cup of coffee.

“Coffee, he ordered coffee,” the older woman said to her husband.

The waitress returned with a cup of coffee and a large plate of food.

“Oh, I get more food, oh, thank you Goudis,” the drunk from the bar said.

Working became impossible, as every person seemed to want to try to speak louder than the other person.

Suddenly the two men at the table in front of me erupted into a verbal fight again.

“You’re my best hunter. Shut up, shut your mouth,” the man with his back to me yelled.

The lady called Goudis by the drunk from the bar walked over to the two men and began to lecture them.

“You can’t do that,” she said. “You can’t yell those things. There are young children present. Can you see that?”

The man nodded and went back to eating his food.

Finally he muttered an apology.

Soon his partner got up and walked away. I had never once heard him speak.

The lady called Goudis continued to lecture the remaining island hunter.

Finally he apologized, and with bits of food on his fork, he paid the whole bill and left to return to the bar.

The drunk from the bar thanked Goudis again.

“Don’t thank me any more. I take care of the people in this town. They know I won’t buy them liquor or give them money, but I will always feed them.”

“Thank you Goudis,” he said and sauntered away tipping his cup of coffee precariously.

“Don’t thank me again, you’ve thanked me enough. I’m just taking care of you,” she said.

I folded my computer, detached my hard drive, my card readers, my iPhone and my iPad charging on the wall.

I paid my bill and thanked the waitress for putting up with me all afternoon.

She looked at me and shrugged.

“It’s fine, any time you can come work her. I’m sorry for all of that.”

I told her not to be sorry. It’s human nature.

“It’s just Nome,” she said. 

“It’s every where you find humans, my dear.”