Saturday, May 26, 2018

Fuel oil in the crawlspace April 12, 2108.
The winter Beyond Ester was unusually warm and snowy. In early April, Kayt and a couple of neighbors climbed up on the roof and shoveled off about eight feet of snow. We had several ice storms and freezing rain all through fall and winter, and they could not remove this ice. Then in mid April, a chunk of ice slid off the roof, and severed the heating fuel line at the tank. About 160 gallons of diesel sprayed along the house logs and flowed into the crawl space. Our beloved cabin was immediately uninhabitable.

We have the best neighbors in the world. I called Skip about midnight, which is when we discovered the spill, and he came over right away with a flashlight. Skip is a frank person, so when he said that the situation was bad, we knew that it really was. We also called our friend, Janice, who works on oil stoves like the one we have. Even though it was 1:00AM, she answered the phone and confirmed that the situation was, indeed dire. Skip advised us to abandon the house, so we did.

We spent that first night out in Stella, the loyal camper that came up the Alaska Highway with us. It was cold, and all of us--Borys and Sunny and Kayt and me--were upset and miserably cold. At first light, I called the insurance company. Couldn't reach an adjuster, but left a message. Then I called the vet to see if we could board Borys and Sunny for a couple of days. Called the adjuster again, but no message for me yet. So I took Borys and Sunny to the vet. It would be nearly three days before we would be together as a family again.

Got back home, and Janice had already arrived and was working with Kayt to try to contain the spill. They worked all morning, breathing noxious air, and crawling on their hands and knees in the crawlspace which is literally just that. Kayt took some photographs of the oil, watching in horror as the shapes on the concrete block foundation transformed and reset themselves. I stayed on the phone all morning: insurance company again, then an oil response company, then the insurance company again. Janice said that we would be required to report the spill to the state, so I did. I finally got a call back from the insurance company. And somehow--because I have lots of social capital and also because I had to get quite assertive--I managed to get the insurance company's third party adjuster, two oil spill first responders, and the state guy all out at the land at the same time. At the time, these guys felt like heroes to us.

Some of the heroes looking down at the crawl space. 
They crawled around and walked around and measured and pondered for about three hours. I had to pay nearly $2000 for the oil spill responders to come out to do the "job walk." But everything looked like it was under control. The insurance company guy--he's in Washington--said that they would pay for repairs to the house, would pay for us to stay in a hotel, would pay for the boarding of the pets. So we packed up a few things and went to town to stay in a hotel.

The next day, nothing happened, so we stayed another night in the hotel. We both went to work, feeling shellshocked and with our noses still stinging from the smell.

The third day we moved out of the hotel into the little cabin in Ester. I rescued the dog and cat from the vet. We had put the cabin on the market several months beforehand, and we had a good offer on it that we had accepted. So we thought that this would be only temporary. But I couldn't find alternative rental housing in Fairbanks. We were told that we would be displaced up to three months, but it started looking like it would be six months or more. Friends shared horror stories of similar circumstances. We were miserable, but we were together.

Then, the people who planned to buy the cabin offered to rent it to us. Angels, they both are.

Then, the insurance guy said that the company would not pay for the mitigation of the spill on the land outside of the cabin. The first bid for that work came in at $89K. The insurance guy and I had words.

Then, I met with a tax accountant who told me that thanks to the Republican-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of December, 2017, individuals are no longer able to deduct personal casualty losses off their federal taxes.

Then, I got another bid for the outside mitigation that came in at $78K.

Then, I learned about all kinds of stuff that I never knew before: diesel will flow towards warmth, which is why it flowed into the crawl space instead of staying on top of the snow. Diesel will continue to sink into the ground for years and years. Diesel fumes will permeate anything soft, e.g. bedding, furniture, clothes, carpet. Diesel infected soil can be land-farmed, or spread out at a one feet level and rototilled every year so that it will volitalize. Diesel infected soil can be piled up on a liner and turned every year. Diesel infected soil can be seeded with a particular Alaska grass and willows and microbes will break it down. Diesel plumes travel through soil, sinking ever further unless they are removed. State law requires remediation, but the insurance company refuses to pay. The state will put a lien on our home if we do not comply. We do not have the funds to pay, and our credit union will not loan money on contaminated properties. We are still trying to figure this out. Friends and acquaintances have been great to us.

It's been six and a half weeks. We like living in Ester, and after an initial period of learning how to navigate the cabin, both Borys and Sunny have settled in well. It takes us only 15 minutes to get to work, which is a pleasant change. I hang out at the Eagle every night and watch TV with the guys and gals there. Kayt goes out to the cabin a couple of times a week to get the mail, retrieve needed items, and to meet with contractors. I talk to the insurance adjuster primarily by email. I think he's a real jerk and that he is so burned out that he no longer has any empathy at all. I am sure he thinks I'm just being difficult and expecting more customer service than is reasonable. After a particularly nasty exchange, he and I have reached some kind of compromise. He tries not to be a patronizing jerk, and I try not to be a bitchy customer. I do feel, though, that I have more of the moral high ground than he does. After all, I'm the one who has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance over nearly forty years and whose house is now a disaster.

So we live day by day. Somehow, both Kayt and I got our spring grades in on time, even though we both were feeling traumatized at the time. That feeling is disappearing little by little each day. Kayt plays music three times a week, goes to yoga and tai chi classes at the local Senior Center, and teaches a SOC 101X section online. I'm writing another research article on sexism as an ideology, work on Wikipedia for the Wikipedia Fellows Pilot Project, and teach two online classes. Next week, I will start work on my NSF grant on working class men's friendship patterns.

Earlier this week, I met yet another contractor out at the land. He is a friend and former student. He was so kind and so empathetic. I started crying and could not stop. Maybe the insurance adjuster uses a non-empathetic and patronizing interaction style with me so that I would not become emotional like that. I can imagine that being an insurance adjuster, and dealing with traumatized people would not be a fun job.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Seven years. That's how long it has been since I posted to this blog. So much has happened. All of the cats but Sunny have left the planet. Our beloved dog, Ursa, is gone. Kayt was forced to retire from the University, and they closed the Women's Center. We got married the week before the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage and now I have free health insurance as her spouse. Borealys went blind, and now walks only on a leash. My department is in shambles, with me as the only survivor. The state's budget crisis has trashed the university's budget, and all of us are living in chronic anxiety about whether we will survive. I sold the little cabin next door, and we bought a cabin in downtown Ester. Alaska legalized recreational marijuana. And Trump was elected president.

We continue to have amazing wildlife sightings here Beyond Ester. A few weeks ago, a Great Grey Owl swooped right in front of us while we were driving to work. How they can navigate so swiftly through the trees is nothing short of a miracle. We haven't had moose sightings in a few weeks, but Borealys knows they are out there. A flock of Spruce Grouse wanders through the yard every few days, and Borys gets a huge kick out of chasing them into the trees. She can't see them, but she can sure smell and hear them! They crack me up. Once they get into the trees, they chirp and call to each other, which will surely notify any winged predators about their location.

I rarely play the fiddle anymore. But I took up the banjo and have been writing some pretty good songs. My latest is Budget Knives. I wrote this song the week after finding out that UAF Sociology is on the chopping block. You can hear it here:

Today is the Winter Solstice, 2016. Kayt flew home to hang with family, and it's just me, Sunny, and Borys here Beyond Ester. The neighborhood is rapidly changing with people moving in and out, couples splitting up, and long-time homesteaders putting their beloved homes on the market. The tough economic times are taking their toll. Some folks are digging in with plans to tough it out until the economy improves. Others are packing up and heading Outside. For awhile, we thought we were headed to Minnesota. And perhaps we will, but for now, we're hunkered down, finding joy in playing music on Sundays at the Eagle, and appreciating every day for the possibilities each brings.

Happy Solstice to you and yours.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Belonging lies on a continuum. For those of us who exist outside of the binaries, belonging is difficult to obtain. On one end of the continuum lies the hostiles--these are the people who march against civil rights, who slam their minds against people they consider gay or lesbian or trans. They may explain their political activism against same-sex marriage as protecting the failing heterosexual marriage system, but in reality they are simply afraid of losing their privileged status in the binaries. The hostiles slash tires, give us bad student evaluations, report us to our supervisors, harass us, gossip about us, murder us. The hostiles have been around since the late-1800s when sexologists invented homosexuality and heterosexuality as core identities, and then began to purge us from their midst.

The LGBT movement has worked hard for over 100 years to cultivate tolerators, achieving that goal somewhat by the 1970s when the APA stopped forcing queers into mental hospitals, shock treatment, and/or lithium treatments and instead allowed us a measure of tolerance. Surely tolerance is better than hostility, but most of us want something more out of life than mere tolerance from others. Tolerators feel compulsion to continually reaffirm their tolerance when they interact with queers, which is just another way of reaffirming their difference from us and their security within the binary system. Tolerators are a chore to hang out with, as they need constant assurance from us that we know that they tolerate us. Yawn.

Accepters comprise the next step along the continuum. Within urban gay ghettoes, there are lots of accepters, especially as capitalists have discovered there is profit to be made from LGBTs. There may be whispers and raised eyebrows, and initial "ohs!" from binary-mired bystanders who suddenly realize that they are interacting with a non-binary person, but accepters are most definitely a better group for LGBT folks to hang out with than tolerators or hostiles. The one thing that continues to plague me about acceptors is that many of them continue to harbor some measure of anxiety about their place in the binaries, and so have to go overboard to assure us that we are accepted (and that their binary position is not threatened.)

And then there's what I have come to define as shruggers. Shruggers find out that the person they are interacting with is lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or trans, and shrugs, changing the subject to one that is more interesting. Shruggers are more interested in the fact that I'm a fiddler than I'm a lesbian. Shruggers may still zing me on student evaluations, but because I teach a hated required course, not because of hostility towards LGBTQ folks. Shruggers find the topic of sexual identity unremarkable and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

I like shruggers best. I like hanging out with shruggers, working with shruggers, teaching shruggers, playing music with shruggers, engaging in political activism with shruggers.

Last night, Kayt and I worked the Miners Masquerade Ball, a fundraiser for the Ester Republic. We were, in fact, co-organizers, and so the evening was fraught with both fun and hard work. We had scads of fun, and chattered all the way home about the sense of community we felt there. This morning we rose early, even though we were out late, and we started the chatter again. About mid-morning, I realized I was experiencing something I have not experienced since 2003, the year we moved to Alaska. It was a foreign feeling, and I could not at first remember what it was because it's been so long since I have felt it.

It was joy in belonging. We have finally found shruggers among our midst. We have found a site where we belong. Joy thrives here Beyond Ester today, and we are thriving in its glow.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Elusive Moose

She's lurking out there in the dark. Somewhere. I can't see her, but our two dogs know she is there. Kayt glimpsed her this morning, just for a second or two before she melted back into the woods. Her tracks are all over the yard and up and down our road. It is our Elusive Moose. All winter she has eluded us, tempting the dogs with fresh tracks in the snow to snuffle, but staying just out of view. Once she walked across the front porch just minutes between two dog potty breaks.

Tonight, the moon is nearly full, and we have six inches of fresh snow. The dogs ask to be let out, but when we go outside, they huddle next to each other, taking turns to pee. Both lift their heads and sniff the air deeply. What does a lurking moose smell like, I wonder? Borealys, more daring now than Ursa, pulls on her leash, snuffling the path leading up the hill towards the road. Suddenly I see what she does: fresh tracks, just seconds old, the edges still sharp and distinct. I hold my breath, listening as intently as I can, watching Borealys as she sniffs the air, centers and triangulates, and then raises her right foot in a point. I still can't spot the Elusive Moose, but I know she is there.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Five or six Pine Grosbeaks have graced the feeder during the last week or two. The males' bright crimson feathers provide just about the only color outside these days. The trees are draped with white, all of them drooping with the weight of the snow. The sky is a light grey, nearly white. Other visitors include a flock of 10 or more Redpolls, three Grey Jays, a single male Downy Woodpecker, a Hairy Woodpecker pair, a half dozen Boreal Chickadees, and ten or so Black Capped Chickadees. A raven swooped through the feeder area this morning, uninterested in what we have to offer, its mind on other opportunities.

I've been sleeping off a cold, sleeping 12 to 14 hours a day. I dream of flowing water, verdant green fields and woods, and warmth. Obviously not Alaska. People and animal companions long gone from my life visit me in my dreams, proving to me once again that there is a spirit world. That fact continues to elude my acceptance, although I have had so many spirit-visitors, particularly since 1990. Just this past fall, in my temporary office in the windowless sub-basement of Gruening, a spirit shared space with me. I experienced it as small, cat-size or maybe smaller. It would sprint past my right ankle, always the right ankle, just barely brushing my pants. The visits became so routine that the sensation no longer startled me. Months later I mentioned the experiences to a work colleague, who affirmed that she had once kept lab rats in that office, and that the spirit surely was that of a rat. I don't know whether to feel pity for the spirit, thinking that its life was one of torture and pain and even in death can find no release. Or perhaps I should feel elated, believing that the rat-spirit now runs its own mazes, for its own purposes, free from human intervention.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice 2011

Borealys is stretched out on my bed, gladly sharing space with one of our elder kitties, Otto. In the past few months, Borealys has become wise. She is now the guardian of the household, the First Moose Spotter, the one who notices the slightest changes in her environment. Otto befriends anyone in the house who needs love, and recently, all of us do, so he is kept busy snuggling with first one, then the other. Ursa, old dog, beloved eldest august dog, snoozes on the horsey bed on the floor. Her bones creak, and her back legs often collapse underneath her when she is outside in the snowy cold. Still, she grins and wags, showing her yellow worn teeth, simply delighted to be on this planet with her family. Kali, oldest kitty, and Sadie, youngest kitty, sleep on opposite ends of the rug in front of the heater, their detente years old, yet still uneasy. Sunny is perched on the bathrug on the tub, his fur eternally unruly. Kayt is washing dishes, her favorite chore. She hums quietly to some tune playing in her head. From the corner desk, I survey my family on this Winter Solstice night. Everything shifts on this night. Just a few weeks ago, we were gaining seven minutes of dark every day. Now the earth stops its plunge towards the dark, hesitates. And tomorrow, we turn back towards the sun, add a few precious seconds to day.

Nearly two years stretch between tonight and my last post on Beyond Ester. So much water has passed beneath this bridge. The water sometimes roils dark and murky. Since I've last written, two old friends died by their own hand. Both our work situations are plagued with uncertainty. America's economy lurches, and our financial situation seems wedged between car repair bills and doctor bills. Our beloved truck has been parked for months, the years and miles having finally caught up with us. The heater--the new heater--is in the shop again, after three emergency repair calls in just a month.

And then there are times when the water flows clear, transparent, and oh so sweet. The unseasonably warm weather so far this winter has been a blessing for the old dog, Ursa, and me. The warm friendliness of the other musicians at the Ester Jelly Jam, the community we have helped to create sustain me from week to week. The steadiness of the music, the predictability of old time music, orders my Sundays for a sweet three hours. A baby came this fall. Holding him, feeling life surge beneath my hands refreshes my spirit. The blessing of our old dog, loyal and unswerving in her devotion to family, reaffirms my commitment to life. Otto caterwauls about a dirty catbox, and the loaner heater switches on at exactly the right moment. A neighbor stops by to chat about chickens and dogs, and gives us eggs in exchange for old fencing we no longer use. A student stops by the office to say "you changed my life." The ordinary and mundane and extraordinary and rare are equally welcome.

And so this Winter Solstice arrives and finds me both grateful for the return of the light, and yet nostalgic for the dark. I find peace, somehow, in the inherent contradictions. Blessings to all of you, blessings on your house and your families.

Friday, January 8, 2010


Like any good pagan confronted with the velvety blackness of an Alaska night, I focused on the Three Sisters, the Belt of Orion. The Sisters settle themselves just to the east of the roof of our house in the early evening. I was appreciating the stark brilliance of the Sisters when a meteorite streaked across them in a short arc before flaming out into oblivion. At the time, I was thanking Goddess for my life in Alaska the day before the day before I set off to the Folk School back east. Will the people I meet there have preconceptions about my Alaska? Will they expect me to be a Palin fan, or foe? Will they understand the depth of despair I continue to feel about losing my beloved Toklas? Will other the other musicians feel moved to share their losses and joys with me, enough so that we can work with music together? More mundane questions: will I be able to keep up with the others? Am I "good" enough to play with Alan Jabbour? Will the classes be paced so that I can learn at my late middle life speed? So many questions left unanswered on this night before the night before I leave. And so the meteor is a gift, its brevity a reminder that over-thinking leaves one tired, burned out, and ultimately no further along The Path than before.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


An extremely unseasonable warm spell swept over Interior Alaska these last couple of days. It's just above freezing now, and the snow is melting and sliding out of the trees and off the roof. Kayt reports that a Big Car (read: American make) was unable to make it up the hill at the top of our road. Paths, parking lots, roads, and sidewalks are slippery. We've only had one spot of extreme cold, two weeks ago, when it was 35 below. So this warm spell seems strange, out of place, and not entirely welcome. In a few weeks, we would bless this kind of warmth, but we are not yet cold weary. In fact, the warm seems a bit ominous. Especially with the Copenhagen climate summit focusing global attention on the problematics of climate change...

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I am tangled by despair. Toklas has been gone for six weeks four days, and I am cast adrift. Tomorrows come and go. The sun rises for its brief sojourn across the southern horizon and then disappears, swallowed by the dark. Students complain of depression, anxiety, and I think what can you know of grief? I am swallowed by it. You, you count deaths on one hand, one finger even. Me, I count in dozens. I don't have enough fingers and toes to keep track of the beloveds who have moved beyond my reach. Mattie's Pillow offers reprieve. But playing fiddle no longer soothes. The ache is too great, the gap too wide for music to fill. Tonight, I would gladly follow Toklas, eagerly go to a place where we could sit together once more, humming together in the dark.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Owl Waltz

Kayt heard the first Great Horned Owl hoot of the season this evening as she took the dogs out for a potty trip. The arrival of the first owl hoots are always a sure sign of winter here Beyond Ester. Kayt went out with me so I could hear it, and together we reveled in the sound. A friend turned me on to Shostakovich's Waltz No. 2 a couple of days ago, and even brought me sheet music. I've been learning it on the fiddle, and listened to dozens of versions on youtube today. Do you know the tune? It starts out with four oom-pahs and then a solo violin plays a plaintive, simple line for a few bars. The music suddenly bursts into a festival of harmony, then reverts back to the solo string again. As I listened to the owl hoot, plaintive and simple, I thought how perfect its call would fit into the Waltz.

In one version of the Waltz on youtube, the orchestra plays on raised stages arranged in a pinwheel into the audience. Many folks are dancing, non-dancers have linked arms and are swaying in massive waving lines. Everyone is singing dah dah dah dah, because they are part of the melody. The composer intended his audience to be participants, to be part of the music. Listening to the Great Horned Owl is like that. The owl is part of the melody of impending winter. I'm a small part, singing my line, dah dah dah dah, as the earth spins through the Long Dark towards the longest night of the year.

Our beloved 17-year old cat, Toklas, left us six weeks ago. I enter this first winter without him with sadness tinged with despair. We were each other's anchor for nearly two decades. I saved him from a nasty death when he was a baby, and he returned the favor with gracious, intelligent, vociferous affection. I find it difficult to imagine a future without him. I played the Westphalia Waltz for him over and over on his last day on the earth, and we sent him onto the next stage of his journey while singing his theme song, the Tokey Pokey.

Music soothes, music opens aches. Music sears, eases, fixes memory. Tonight, I sing my small part of the music of the universe--dah dah dah dah--knowing that the owl and Toklas sing with me. Goddess bless us all as we hum our way through the dark.

The stone owl above is one of many that lurk in a stone arch at Bryn Mawr College.