Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Timeline of Pretty

My coworker burst into tears on her 30th birthday.

"I only have five years left of being pretty," she wailed.

Being five years older than her, I tried not to look annoyed.  Although I knew it was illogical, I fought the urge to find a mirror.  Was there a sudden shift at age 35? Had it happened to me and I didn't know it? Realizing that we were in the Alaska wilderness and there was no way to check, I merely remained irritated.

This was years ago, and yes, my former coworker is still pretty, well beyond the five years she gave herself.  Everybody is entitled to a freak-out now and then, and she probably felt silly later.  But still, this viewpoint continues: young is beautiful.

I read a blog where the young writer talked about unwelcome attention from men, but went on to blithely say that middle age was a cure for that.  A magazine article in Marie Claire, a publication that claims to empower women, a few years ago extolled Demi Moore's beauty, but then went on to say, "but sooner or later, her body will turn to mush" (that's when I stopped reading that magazine). A friend, on the phone with one of his buddies, was describing a woman to him.  "She's attractive," he said, and then went on to utter the fateful words: "she's an older woman." She wasn't much older than they were.  Does her age matter?

I found an article about a 57 year old model online.  I thought she was gorgeous.  But when I started to read the comments, I was amazed at the level of animosity that was directed toward this woman, from people who didn't even know her.  Most of the comments were from men.  Why? Did they feel threatened? Were they upset that their wives didn't look like her? If they didn't know she was 57, would they have felt the same?

We'd all (I think) like to believe that inner beauty is the only thing that matters.  And really, it is.  I know some people who would not be considered conventionally attractive who are incredibly beautiful because of what lies beneath, and others who look like models but are ugly for the same reason.  But everyone cares about the outside, even if it's just a little bit.  Otherwise we'd still be sporting our overalls and satin baseball jackets from the '80s (why for the love of all that is good and holy, did we wear these things?) and the bangs that looked like a cresting tidal wave (again, why??).  The makeup industry would go out of business, and plastic surgeons would only do reconstructive surgery.  You wouldn't see 30 year old actresses as the romantic interests of 50 year old men in movies.

I happen to think that pretty-on-the-outside doesn't have a half-life or a time stamp.  I don't think you have to be a millennial to be gorgeous.  Maybe that's wishful thinking, since I'm no longer a young person.  But I really don't see my friends' wrinkles or gray hairs.  I only see their beautiful smiles and their beautiful souls.
Yazmeenah Rossi, 61 year  old model.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Sharpening the edge

It's been cold here.  Not Fairbanks cold, although Fairbanks seems to have gotten warmer than it was when I lived there; I don't see the regular -40F temperatures that I suffered through being recorded regularly now.  Here, it's been below zero and windy for quite some time.

The other day I looked glumly out the window.  It wasn't snowing, but it was a few degrees below zero with a brisk wind.  Apparently the wind chill made it feel like -15.  Gym day, I thought.  Then I caught myself.

What was this wimpiness? Retreating to the soulless treadmill when it got a little tough? Had I lost  my edge? Gotten soft?

I started running during what was called a "running boom," decades ago.  The sports bra (called the JogBra!) had just been invented.  Spandex for running was a few years off; people trotted down the road in sweats, or shorts over long johns when it was cold.  There were no yak trax or spikes; we ran on ice and sometimes we fell.  I didn't know anyone who ran on a treadmill.  We ran in howling winds, deep snow, and ice storms.  We suffered, but we felt really good about it.

I'd like to think that I haven't changed that much.  I don't want to be a person who used to charge hard at life but then gradually gave up and sought the easier path. 

I put on expedition weight capilene, top and bottom, and attached my spikes to my running shoes.  I put on gloves, pulled a balaclava over my head, and headed for the woods.

The wind cut through my layers.  Although the dog walkers had made a valiant effort to pack down the trails, there is an area that always drifts over.  People had postholed and made the trail a mess in places.  The homemade mountain bike jumps were buried and had to be climbed over.  My pace was slow.  Nobody else was around.  But I was out there.

I thought about the young girl I had been, running on ice and snow and during a tornado watch once (I don't recommend this).  She didn't debate whether to go or not.  She just went.

I think she would have looked at me and said, "It's really not that cold out," and run off, much faster than I do now, expecting her decades-older self to make the same decision.  To just get out there.  To just go.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Good Men

The stories keep coming out.  Women, firefighters and others, are still being harassed and discriminated against while working in the government agencies.

This is nothing new.  As a rookie firefighter in the late '80s, I saw it, and kept seeing it throughout my career.  From the men who would stand in front of me at briefings, refusing to move so I could see the map, the overhead who would address my male trainee instead of me, to the crew boss on my second fire who told me I should take a male crewmember's creepy comments as a "compliment," it was out there.  Many women had it much worse, with actions committed against them that were criminal.

But this is for the good men.  The ones who gave me a chance early in my career, and didn't treat me differently than anyone else, as long as I could do the work.  The ones who didn't judge all women by one who might have failed.  The ones who, although they were skeptical about female firefighters (and believe me, we knew you were), didn't show it in their actions.  The smokejumper who parachuted into my first big fire as an incident commander and didn't take over, even though he easily could have.  The men who worked all night alongside me on the fireline and treated me as a sister and an equal.

Change is slow.  There are still old boys' clubs, people who will talk over women at meetings, and those who think it's okay to make crude comments.  Those of us who started long ago learned to keep our heads down, work hard, and not to show emotions. We knew that would help the women of the future who were coming up behind us.

But it's easy to get into man-bashing, and the good men are out there.  I'd like to think there are more of them than the other kind.  So to all the men who helped me along the way, I appreciate you.  You offered me a job, showed me how to fight fire, and treated me the same as any other firefighter. Thanks, guys.
At a spike camp in 1997.  Thanks jumpers for the parachute.  What a mess! I was there for 21 days straight.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Lost Boys of Minchumina: A firefighting mystery

The float plane banked over the fire camp, making sure his passengers could see their route to it from the lake where he would drop them off.  The two men said they understood.  When they were signed up to fight this fire, picked up basically off the street as many firefighters were in those days, they had claimed they were college students from the east coast, in Alaska on vacation.

The plane left them on the shore of remote Lake Minchumina with two sleeping bags and a few other supplies. Then they vanished.

Two weeks later, the two men stumbled into fire camp.  They had gotten lost, they said.  They had survived by eating frogs and drinking creek water. 

The people at fire camp were suspicious.  The two men looked far too healthy, clean and well-fed to have been wandering in the wilderness for so long.  Where had they been?  Had they found a cabin  stocked with food and stayed there until the supplies ran out, or until they wanted to return to civilization?   Had they seen the fire on the way in, thought "nope" and concocted a plan?  Nobody knew for sure, but the two were soon sent packing.

One of my coworkers in Alaska discovered the story while transferring historic fire files from paper to electronic records.  A letter, written by one of the firefighters, was asking for payment for the two weeks the two had been allegedly lost and wandering the tundra.  Intrigued, my coworker dug further, finding that one of the men had indeed been registered at an Ivy League university; there was no record of the other.  Reimbursement was denied.

The real story is lost in the mists of time, over sixty years ago.  What really happened to the two would-be firefighters? Were they truly lost, or living out an Alaskan adventure?

Alaska fire scar and fire in the distance

Friday, December 16, 2016

The first rule of book club...

Just kidding! There are no rules at my book club.  I've heard of some who take it very seriously, who take notes, and vote what to read.  That's not us.

We go wherever someone volunteers to host.  Someone will email a title of a good book, and we say OK and read it.  You can bring an elaborate homemade dessert, or pick something up from Costco and we will eat it, either way.  You can drink wine, or not.  If you didn't finish the book, or didn't even (gasp!) read it, that's OK too.

We meet once a month, give or take.  If someone can't make it, there's always next time.  We recently exchanged "white elephant" books, which meant someone ended up with a book on "How to Be Elegant."  We tend to laugh a lot and eat too much cheese bread.

It's really not about the books at all, although that's what brings us together on a cold night in December.  It's about this little community that forms for a few hours once a month, where we talk about work, life, and yes, books too.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Firefighters in snow

There are some places where people fight (or light) fires all year round.  Other places, like the Grand Canyon, have the possibility of rescues every month of the year.  The place where I work is not one of those places.

When the temperature is below zero and the snow is piling up like it is now, you'd expect the wildland firefighters would be deep into hibernation like the bears are.  The seasonals might be, but the rest of us are still here.

What are we doing, anyway? I know I've addressed this before, but this is one of the most common questions I get, after "Do you fly the helicopter?" No. Nobody wants to see (or ride in) that.  I don't really blame people for asking.  It used to be that you could theoretically shoot a cannon through a fire office in January and not hit anyone.  But climate change and increasing bureaucracy means that we are here, working.  When T. got the job equivalent to mine on an adjacent forest, he negotiated a schedule that would let him have a few months off in the winter.  It worked for maybe one year, after which he was heard to exclaim, "I don't know why I thought I could do that!"

Winter is when all the paperwork happens.  Burn plans, lesson plans for classes, aviation plans, proposals for new programs, the choosing of helicopter vendors for the next four years.  People can be heard clicking through screens, taking their mandatory computer security training, whistleblower refreshers, and everything else that, if not completed, allegedly removes your computer access.  One of the detailers walks back and forth between the buildings with papers.  What is he actually doing?  Maybe nothing, but he looks busy.  He has paper, it must be legit.
Image from
It's also hiring season, in which we get our referral lists, complain about our referral lists, and try to track down potential employees who are off doing something fun like surfing in Costa Rica. The glacial pace of this process means it takes several weeks and provides a good excuse for lack of apparent busyness.  When asked, "What are you working on?" if you say "HIRING" in an aggrieved tone, the other person usually moves on quickly.

Of course, it's not all paperwork.  Sometimes I help plow snow, which means that I sit in the plow truck ostensibly poised to jump out and open gates or shovel hard-to-reach areas, but which usually consists of me drinking cocoa and saying helpful things like, "Why are you plowing this area, nobody uses it in the winter."  Our base gets a lot of snow, so there's always shoveling to be done so I can tunnel into it.  Mice invade my office and must be stopped.  Dangerous icicles need to be removed before they fall on the heads of hopeful job applicants who stop by out of the blue, assuming we are always there.

There is also a plethora of meetings, in which important topics are discussed, projects are assigned, and it seems like there should be cookies, but there never is.  The best thing about these meetings is that when someone asks what you are working on, you can say "HIRING" in your most martyr like tone, and everyone quickly moves on.

Is there a lull in your job, or do you do something different in different seasons?  Do you have a task like hiring that is so understood to be tedious and time consuming that all you have to do is mention it for others to stop asking what you're doing?

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Living near a national park and surrounded by national forest, my hiking companions and I see a lot of people doing things that are, well, questionable.  Things like starting off on a 12 mile trail at 4 pm with one plastic water bottle, hiking in camouflage in hunting season, and trail running solo in known grizzly habitat in the early morning.  Many times, people stop us to ask what trail they are on and where it goes, as if they don't even see the trailhead signs.

I thought of those people the other day as we drove towards a trailhead.  I thought we probably resembled them, with our optimistic thinking that didn't include snow blocking the road. Snowmobilers undoubtedly thought so, looking curiously at us as they unloaded their machines.  As we retreated to an unknown trail we had seen on the way up the road, late season hunters drove past, probably noting our lack of guns.
Hmm...time to turn around.  Only snowmobile tracks from here.
As we hiked up the hill in the snow, I thought about the difference between being adventurous and being reckless.  It's a fine line, and many times I've crossed it: going out unprepared for conditions, stubbornly pressing on when the weather deteriorated, becoming temporarily lost while not paying attention to landmarks.

The trail we ended up on
 But while we may have seemed clueless, that actually wasn't the case.  We all carried extra warm clothes.  J. had firestarters and a headlamp in his pack.  We had snowshoes, although we never used them.  Like Everest climbers, we set a turn around time so we wouldn't be coming down near dusk when hunters might be around, desperate to get a deer on the last day of the season.  We had topo maps.  So maybe the difference between the two is having a backup plan.
Snowy trail
We didn't get to the fire lookout we were hoping to hike to.  We didn't even get out of the deep woods.  But a day outside with friends is always worth it, even if it didn't quite go as planned.

Friday, November 25, 2016

minus one

I mentioned Sherri Papini in this post about the women missing and murdered while out running.

Sherri has been found alive, and while details are few and speculation is rampant (why would kidnappers release her?  Was she really captured? Why hasn't more information been released about the alleged captors?), at least she is home with her family.  Her name won't join the sad long list.

Meanwhile the people who loved the other women are still missing them.  I think of Karina Vetrano every time I run, and I look at other people in the woods just a little more suspiciously.  I hate that.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Until I bought this house, I thought I didn't like to be home.

I've owned two other houses, but this is the first one that has only my name on the mortgage.  The other two houses were twice as large as the one I have now.  They both had two stories and neighbors close by.  They had green lawns and city water. 

Now I live in a 1000 square foot house.  I have a well that is shared with the next house over, which is the second home of some seldom seen Canadians.  My utilities run on propane.  I live on a gravel road.  My yard is a forest. 

There wasn't anything wrong with my other houses.  In fact, when I left one of them, it had several offers and sold in three days for $100,000 more than I paid for it two years earlier.  But they didn't feel like home.  My furniture looked temporary in the elegant rooms.  There were boxes that never got unpacked. Although I kept one house after my marriage ended, I never wanted to be there.

I constantly planned trips.  I went on every fire assignment I could.  I escaped on the weekends, putting off lawn mowing and repairs.

The moment I walked into my current house, I knew it was different.  It was just a small ranch house on a half acre.  But I loved it immediately.  It seemed like it was made for me.

Pieces of my life hang on the walls: a painting of a female snowboarder, a wall hanging from Nepal, a photo of a fire lookout.  A hot tub that I helped install is outside the back door.  There is usually a black cat on the couch.  Deer and turkeys wander through the yard.

Last week I went to a gated community to assess helicopter landing areas.  Million dollar houses sat on large lots.  They were beautiful, but I wasn't envious.  I already have my place of refuge.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stop it.

Karina Vetrano. Vanessa Marcotte.  Ally Brueger.  Do you know these names?

They were all young women who were killed between July 30 and August 7 of this year while out running in broad daylight near theirs or relative's homes. They were murdered in different states. None of their killers have been found.
Ally Brueger.  She ran 10 miles a day.  She was shot in the back. Police say she may have known her killer.
This, sadly, is not really noteworthy.  If you start researching, you will find many more of these stories.  Sherry Arnold. Sarah Hart (she was pregnant). Melissa Millan. Lauren Bump. Judith Milan. If you keep looking, more and more names surface. Melissa Millan's case is still unsolved.  And Sherri Papini vanished on November 2 while running in California and has yet to be found.
Vanessa Marcotte.  She was a Google employee who was killed a half mile from her mother's house.  Her killer tried to burn the body. All photos in this post were obtained from news sites.
You would think people would be united in outrage and sadness at the deaths of these women.  Probably most are, and yet, when you visit news sites with their stories, the victim blaming begins immediately.

"Women shouldn't run alone," commenters, mostly men, proclaim.  Others declare that we should carry unwieldy knives or guns. We shouldn't wear ponytails either, they say, because an attacker could grab our hair.  Several indicate that Karina Vetrano brought it on herself because she wrote blog entries with selfies, so was obviously an "attention seeker." One man types that she shouldn't have worn "tight clothes" while running.  These people seem to be saying that this woman, who fought her attacker so ferociously that her teeth were knocked out and her neck nearly broken, caused her horrible death by wearing shorts and by posting pictures of herself.
This is a still from a surveillance camera video that captured Karina Vetrano in the last moments of her life.

Are we, as women, supposed to be relegated to running in packs, sticking to the treadmill, wearing baggy sweats (as if this matters to a predator) or not venturing outside alone? Isn't saying this implying that, well, men will always prey on women, we can't change that, in fact we accept it, so women just need to change their behavior?

To begin with, we need to stop blaming the victim. It feels like they are being blamed, in part, for being female. When Joe Keller, a good looking teenager, vanished during a solo run in Colorado, abduction became a theory. I read many accounts of his story, wanting him to be found. Despite Joe being a young, attractive male running in only a pair of shorts, I couldn't find a single commenter who stated that he shouldn't have run alone, or should have had more clothes on (Joe was eventually found, a victim of an accidental fall from a cliff).

I've been a runner for years.  Being on my university cross country team, and then having to run in lockstep with other people on fire crews for "group PT," I appreciate running alone.  You can run the pace you want. There's no need for small talk. You can think your own thoughts.

Of course, everyone needs to be sensible, women and men. We have a term in firefighting, Situational Awareness. It means to always consider your surroundings, not only what is happening now but what might happen in the future. Don't zone out. I don't wear ear buds, because I want to hear what's going on around me. If I see sketchy people or cars, I turn around. I've been known to sprint to get away from something or someone that looked odd.

I don't know how to fix what's happening. I don't know how to stop men from preying on women. But to blame Karina and the others for their deaths is terribly wrong. It needs to stop.
Karina Vetrano. She was a world traveler and had a masters degree in speech pathology.