Mat Su Valley

Yesterday the New York Times did a small travel feature on the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in Alaska. (The Mat-Su Valley or just, the Valley, for short.) It made me think of home and also made me realize that while I’ve talked about Alaska in the context of my adventures and of Sarah Palin, I’ve never talked about growing up and the natural beauty and history that surrounded me. (Or what a GREAT travel spot Palmer Alaska is!)
Pioneer Peak

Pioneer Peak is the iconic view in the Valley. It’s on the edge of the hay flats. These fields, filled with dead trees, are a constant reminder of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. The quake, a 9.2 on the richter scale, caused these fields to drop over 10 feet (if I remember correctly) and killed all the trees. So fields turned into bogs. (If you’re interested in natural disasters and don’t know about this quake, you should check this out. Lots of people don’t know about it, but it’s absolutely fascinating.)

With two of my favorite Alaskans, Daniel and Jeanette, in the Church of a Thousand Trees
In Alaska, we went to the Presbyterian church in Palmer. The church itself was founded in 1937 by the colonists of Palmer (who at the time were still living in tents…in Alaska…in the WINTER). The church is made of logs and while other similar churches in the community have since been replaced, this congregation has decided to keep the original sanctuary. It’s a very nice sanctuary and I’ve sung approximately 120 Sunday services from the choir loft. I also used to play tag throughout the church.

Our first Alaskan house

When we first moved to Alaska we lived across the street from my dad’s office in a small neighborhood of other people who also worked with dad. Our house faced Pioneer Peak (here hidden by the house and clouds). On the other side of the house is a HUGE garden and play set. Our first summer we were out playing on the play set with other families while our parents worked in the garden. Eventually one parent looked at a watch. OOPS! It was 11pm. (I was 4, my brother was 1…we probably went to bed around 7 at that time.) That’s what happens when the sun sets at midnight or later.

Our real Alaskan house

It took a while, but my parents finally found the house they were looking for. Picture windows that looked over the mountains, a trout stream in the back yard, lots of sunlight, etc. There was also this excellent sledding hill (doesn’t look intimidating from this angle) that was much less cool once these people moved in at the bottom and built their stupid suburban fence.

Finger Lake Campground
This campground is less than one mile from the house. The lake is a 10 minute walk from the house. We used to come here and skate after school in the winters. In the summer, we’d canoe out to the island in the left hand corner and jump into the lake from the rope swing. OK, Anthony would jump in. I’d wuss out and not jump in. I think we may have also had bonfires out their and roasted hot dogs.

Little Su

Alaska has lots of glaciers. Glaciers melt. This means that there is lots of melting glacier water that needs to go somewhere. Usually this means glacial rivers and streams. The Little Su or Little Susitna River is a glacial river that comes from some glacier up by Hatcher’s pass. It’s small, but characteristically, it’s silty and incredibly cold. On a REALLY hot day when we were young, my best friend and I used to get her mom to drive us up to this look out to go “wading.” As much as you can wade around boulders when the water is 40 degrees. When Ben and I went it wasn’t nearly warm enough to stick our toes in, so we settled for dipping our hand in to check the temperature.

Hatcher’s Pass
If you read the New York Times article, you read about the Independence Mine State Historic Park. (I used to have a t-shirt from there…I was that cool!) Independence Mine is located within the larger Hatcher’s Pass area. Hatcher’s Pass encompasses the blob of mountains to the North of Palmer. There’s one road to get up there and, come early to mid-July, when the snow melts, you can drive all the way to Willow.
Old Glenn Highway

There is something somewhat magical about living in a place where this road used to be a “major highway.” Driving was a big part of our lives in Alaska. Emailing Simon yesterday, this is how I described it: We didn’t live in a town, we lived between towns. We ran errands in Wasilla. We went to church in Palmer. Dad worked in Palmer. I went to school between the two towns. In that way, I also don’t feel that I really associated that closely with either town. When Wasilla came on the national stage, that’s how I labeled myself because it was an easy box to fit in. It gave people an image. My parents did the opposite. They spent last year being from Palmer so that they weren’t associated with the same images. Either way, we spent huge amounts of time in the car. Piano lessons, band, sports, concerts, errands, library, work, bookstore, meetings, coffeeshops…all these required 5 to 60 minutes in the car, depending on whether they were at school or as far away as Anchorage. But time in the car isn’t so bad when you have views like this. (It wasn’t nearly as nice on winter days with 40 mph winds and blowing snow…)

The Butte

This was one of the only hikes, as a child, that my mom could get us to willingly go on. Even then, I think we only successfully made it up once or twice. (The hike is 1.5 hours, max…) At the base is the Reindeer Farm. We never went there.

Moose food
Moose are a part of daily life in the Mat-Su Valley. Primarily this is in the winter, but this picture is a reminder that even in summer the moose are always around, looking for snacks. Here, we’d gone to visit a friend and she’d had moose in her yard that morning (June 30). The green stalks in the forefront had been covered with leaves the day before. Probably the equivalent of a couple of M&Ms to a full grown moose, but a treat, none the less.
If you are visiting Alaska, I’d encourage you to take some time and explore the Mat-Su Valley. There is much more that I haven’t talked about here that is just as gorgeous, or more so, and can fit any style of travel, from backpacking to resort. It was a great place to grow up and I’m sad to not be able to call it home anymore. If you visit, say hi from me, I miss it.

Where are you from?

Today someone asked me the simple question, “Where are you from?” Every time someone asks me that question I get confused and I don’t know how to answer. So the questioner went deeper, “Where were you born?” “Wisconsin.” “Well, where did you grow up.” “Um, define grow up…”

Baby Katie with parents (in Wisconsin?)

No, I’m not a military kid, I’m a professor’s kid. We moved as my dad changed jobs. The confusing question for me is where did I grow up. I spent ages 4-14 in Alaska, but 14-21 in Kentucky. So where did I grow up?

My family with our dog, Traveler, in Alaska
Alaska in many ways feels like home. My formative years were there. I got my first driver’s permit there and it’s just cooler (literally and figuratively) to be from Alaska than from Kentucky. It took me two years in Kentucky to stop saying I was from Alaska, but I still felt torn. Now, it generally depends on the occasion whether I say I have ties to Alaska, but I rarely say I’m “from” there.

Family picture in Kentucky

Spending only seven years in Kentucky, however, doesn’t make me feel justified in saying I’m from there either. I usually go with the line “my parents are in Kentucky,” when asked why I’m heading there. Being from there leads to a conversation about why I don’t have a drawl or about basketball (about which I know almost nothing…)
At the St. Paul Winter Carnival in 2007. It was about -30F.

Now, thankfully, I can use the line, I’m from Minnesota. It’s a line which is, at least temporarily true. (This also leads to the realization that I have spent 17 years of my life at or above 43 degrees North latitude, so from now on that’s the line I’m using 🙂 )
I’ve never felt like I’ve been without a homebase, because my parents have always worked hard to make where ever we lived be home. It’s only when I get asked “where are you from?” that I get flummoxed. I’ve been yearning for Alaska today because my hometown ‘hood, as it were, made the NYTimes travel section. I’ll write about that tomorrow, but it brought up some intense homesickness and longing for home. While I know that Alaska isn’t my home anymore, seeing the pictures and hearing the stories made me remember a time when it was. And that makes me smile.

Life in the Dorms

I was trying to calculate some data to write another blog post and to help alleviate the boringness, I opened up hulu. I decided to watch Sesame Street’s top 16 video clips and one of them was of Norah Jones which got me thinking about college and life in the dorms. Primarily because one day my friends and I decide to run a pretend radio station call-in show off our laptops and my friend Efe kept trying to “call in” during my “segment” and request Norah Jones. Only this was before I had any Norah Jones on my laptop.
Sadly, I have almost no pictures from before I got a digital camera in January 2004…

This is me with Liz, my roommate from freshman year spring on. One day we decided to curl our hair. Really really really curly. Liz had the best curlers ever. Not that we had anything to curl our hair for. I am wearing an Agriculture and Natural Resources Department t-shirt.

So we went to food service, or food circus, as we called it. We went with Mary (right) and Jessi (center). I believe that Mary had decided to wear her pants inside out. Sadly my lack of freshman photos means you are missing out on Sarah P.’s antics. I’ll have to bring pictures back from Thanksgiving.

This is how much I care about you, dear readers. I will show you pictures like this. For some reason, Liz and I took pictures like this sophomore year. We used them to decorate our door. They were to demonstrate that we were crazy math majors. That is all I remember. I am being nice and not showing you Liz’s picture 🙂

In 2004, I ventured away from Berea to the University of York. Dorm life there was MUCH different. A big part of this had to do with the fact that most students didn’t live in the dorms, as well as other factors, like the co-ed dorms, nonshared bathrooms, single dorm rooms, and lack of cafeterias. Our dorm was also on a lake, so one day a bunch of the students went out fishing. Tony even caught a fish.

During the Euro Cup (soccer) at the end of June, the guys bought a wading pool, hooked up a hose to the kitchen faucet, and ran hot water into the pool to simulate a hot tub. I was encouraging them to place a tv near the window so they could be in the hot tub while watching the game, but that didn’t pan out. They also had a water fight. And they’re drinking beer. (Berea is a dry campus in a dry town.)

Simon was at the U of York with me and one day we used up her brownie mix and my chocolate chip cookie supplies and baked for hours. (When your oven is the size of a microwave it takes hours.) Then we fed our baking to the boys in the “hot tub.” Simon made fun of me for eating raw eggs, but hey, cookie dough is yummy. My chunky laptop is playing awesome tunes.

Back at Berea, I was living with great girls and we lived in a great dorm my senior year. We even could have BOYS in the dorm in the evenings. (Ok…we could have boys in the evenings starting second semester freshman year.) What did we do with the boys? We made their hair all purdy! Example: Matt. He’s posing with his girlfriend, now wife, and stylist, Mary. Awwwww!

What else do you do with boys in the dorm? Make them hang upside down from the ceiling! (This is Jesse M. We also did his hair, but you can’t see it here.)

Then you play bumper cars with the rolling chairs.

Then you can be all tough and gangsta like. Because that’s how we roll in James. Only not at all. Rachel’s face is the giveaway. As is the King’s Singers poster that I may or may not have borrowed from the UK library in the background. I guess that makes it more gangsta.
There you have it. An introduction to my weird and wacky dorm life through my limited collection of photos.

Back in time

Well, loyal readers, it is late. That is because I did not fully understand the terms of Ben’s challenge (so I had to do an extra 30 minutes of exercise…). And because I made dinner, called my parents, and planted some plants in farmville (EVIL EVIL GAME!). Then I checked election results. But I thought that maybe on Tuesdays throughout November I’d go into my archive of old photos and post some of them here. They will, of course, be embarrassing, making it all the better for you, the reader. Today’s theme is Alaska, because I was telling Alaska stories today.

You might be surprised to learn that there is grass in Alaska and it does turn green. Otherwise my dad wouldn’t have had a job. I am wearing thick gloves in this picture though. I’m also hoping that my brother is wearing boots and that his jeans aren’t rolled up, cause that would be really embarrassing for him if they were…

We had to shovel off our deck so that the snow didn’t cave in our garage or melt into it. When I say we, I mean my mom. This lead to us having great piles of snow surrounding the garage for sledding or tunneling. Or posing for pictures in. Notice the great reflective tape on my coat, this is a recurring theme. Mom could never find coats that were reflective enough, so she’d always sew on additional reflective tape. That’s what happens when you walk to and/or home from the school bus in the dark.
This was probably taken around 4 or 4:30pm. I would tell you 11am, but that would imply I was skipping school which was definitely not the case. Unless this was the year I was homeschooled…

I love that I have a more dazed look than the snowman. I believe, in retrospect, that this was fairly common throughout middle school. My mom’s most frequent accusation was that I left my brain in my locker. Looking back, I think this was probably deserved. Also, that hat plus that hood made my head look ginormo.

Apparently, even with all the snow outside, I still needed snowflake sheets. And a Flags of the World poster. That was before I upgraded to the Map of the World that had a border of Flags of the World. I would also like to take this moment to point out that while I sometimes complain about my family being weird (which is very true) it is also very cool that in addition to reading out loud almost every single night between 0 and about 12 or so, we also sang for a portion of that. While most of it was a capella, apparently sometimes Mom played her guitar. Awwww.

And, because my family doesn’t seem weird enough, here we are (my aunt, brother and I) having a picnic on an afghan in the middle of a parking lot IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER. I believe this was the only winter picnic, because of the high high high volume of complaining (similar to many outdoor activities).
Now I will leave you to your Wednesday and I will start digging up more pictures for next week, because I know this will leave you anxious for more embarrassing pictures and stories, which I will, for some bizzarre and unknown reason, most likely supply.

Eight Years Ago

I don’t think any of my conservative friends read this blog, so I won’t feel bad about being partisan here. Yesterday I had a big deadline, so today was spent lounging around, watching the inauguration and generally trying to relax.
Watching Obama take the oath of office and give his excellent speech was an amazing time for me. I haven’t been very active in following politics in the far past (i.e. more than 5 years ago) so this was the first inauguration I’ve watched. It took me back to eight years ago though.January 20, 2001 I was driving from Goshen to South Bend Indiana, in the van with my mom. I was a high school senior (yes, I’m young) visiting Goshen for a scholarship weekend, I believe, and we were driving to South Bend for the day to visit my cousin’s family. On the way there we turned on the radio and the voices of NPR brought the inauguration to us.

No one could have predicted what the next eight years would have in store for us as a country, or what an impact Bush’s presidency would have on the country and on the world. (Interpret this statement as you see fit.) Nor could I have predicted what the next eight years would have in store for me personally.

With my brother and two cousins – Summer 2000

I headed to the movies for Girl’s Night tonight and remarked on how unlikely I would have thought my current life was eight years ago. That 17 year old wouldn’t have had a clue what LaTeX was, let alone how to write a paper in it. She didn’t know where she was going to college, just that she had interests in Math and Peace and Justice Studies. She read incessantly and wrote for the school paper. She was taking a college course in Hymnody, the history and study of hymns. She desperately wanted to spend a semester abroad in South Africa learning about the South African choral tradition. She’d never left the US and Canada and had only been to three King’s Singers concerts.

Kayaking in Aialik Bay July 2008
Today I’m in my fourth year of a Ph.D. in computer science. I’m living in Minnesota, typing this post on a MacBook!, play guitar hero on occasion, and have cable tv. I’ve been going to the gym to build up my endurance and learn to run. Last summer I spent several days in the woods in the middle of nowhere with no electricity, no running water, and bears, leading me to conclude that kayaking made more sense than hiking. Instead of South Africa, I ended up studying in England, leading to my current love-affair with the British Isles. I’ve traveled, multiple times, in nine countries and have seen the King’s Singers about 20 times in four countries. (Yes, watching Flight of the Conchords did lead me to self-reflection.)

Some things are the same. I still sing in my church choir, still love to read L’Engle, Feynman, and the New Yorker. I still dream about living abroad, speaking another language fluently, and being a better pianist. I’m a good cook, fairly messy, and a bit klutzy.

I assume that the people around me are following politics, so I assume that you could conduct a similar assessment of the US over these past eight years.

I like to think that my life now is better than I would have expected eight years ago, which I do not think holds true for our country. But on November 4th, we gave the nation another chance. Right now we are struggling, but the tunnel is not dark any longer. There is a light that, at noon today, got a whole lot brighter, illuminating the tunnel and helping us to see our surroundings and the path ahead. We will not escape the tunnel without making some wrong turns or stumbling here and there. But we have a leader who will help us forward, who will make sure we don’t get lost in the back, and who will have the confidence to ask the person who’s been in the tunnel before to help lead us out. And that, my friends, will make all the difference.

Two Notes – Computing and Movies

First, on computing. I am 25 and I sit in my computer history class, twice a week, with students who are sophomores and juniors in college. I know that, computing wise, they are not from my generation. When I TAed a class for freshmen in 2007, they were noticably more modern than me. I was lucky. I had instant messenger in high school, after three years of email and telnet at home. They had had instant messenger in middle school and email all throughout their teen years. They started off on AOL or Compuserve, while I started using ERIC (educational resource information clearinghouse…real thriller material). Sometimes, however, knowing things doesn’t really sink in.

Today the prof was talking about the Lisa computer (see above). People were asking about the drives and the prof said they were 5.25″ floppy drives, and took the time to mention that they were originally called floppies because they were actually floppy…as in flexible. Well, yeah, I thought to myself. We called the 3.5″ disks floppies even though they weren’t flexible. Then it hit me, while I loved playing Monopoly off of 5.25″ floppies, most of my classmates didn’t ever use them. They only know the floppy that is 3.5″ and sturdy… It’s times like this when even being 25 feels old.
Movies. Tuesday night is girls night. Ben plays Xbox Live games with friends from undergrad and I go out with a friend, usually for dinner and a movie.  The movie usually is supposed to fufill two criteria. First, the movie should be one that we wouldn’t be able to get our boyfriends to watch. Second, the movie should be somewhat uplifting/funny/heartwarming/cheerful/not morbid and horrible.
So usual fare includes movies like 27 Dresses, Made of Honor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Mamma Mia! Those are great movies and served their purpose well. The fall lineup has been less than stellar, however, and while we have some 2009 movies on our slate already, we had few fall movies. Two weeks ago, our choices was the swoony Richard Gere movie Nights at Rodanthe. Except for the fact that we ended up sobbing, it was pretty good. But we decided that we were going to ban depressing movies from girls night. Last week we skipped, but this week we were able to see the Duchess. I had thought, briefly about arguing for the British comedy Happy-Go-Lucky, but we wanted to see the Duchess for a while, so there we went.
And it was horrible. It actually made me hate Ralph Finnes. Not personally, but his character was the slimiest of all slimeballs (as the late 1700s went). The gist of the plot (based on a real story) is that a society girl under 18 is arranged to be wed to the Duke of Devonshire so he can bear a male heir. He is a non-speaking philanderer and is emotionally abusive to Georgiana, by never speaking to her or awknowledging her, except if he is trying to begat a male heir. It’s really horrible. While we weren’t crying afterwards, I think we were both pretty angry and the 1700s powers that be for being so useless for womens rights. While we can’t do anything to change the past, we have decided that we are no longer allowed to pick movies for ourselves. Obviously we are incapable of selecting light and frilly chick flicks. Suggestions are welcome. (Suggestions that obviously do not meet our criteria will be ignored.)

Reminiscing about Voting

My family is fairly good about not assigning gender roles. Both my parents cook, my brother and I both play legos, and I’ve never owned a Barbie (yes, that would be funnier if my brother had, but he hasn’t). Yes, there are some things that we only did with one parent. (Mom went swimming, ice skating, and canoing while dad went fishing and float-tubing.)


My bro and I – Barbie free for 21 years when this photo was taken

But most indoor things could be with either parent. Since my mom was a homemaker when I was little, she was more likely to volunteer at my school or go on field trips.


Mom and Dad

Voting, however, is something I do with my dad (at school). My mom’s a Canadian citizen, so she can’t vote. That comes in handy when dealing with political phone calls.

I remember going with dad once, when I was little. They were doing a kids election while the parents voted. The local polling place was my elementary school library, 1.5 blocks from our house. This was probably the 1992 presidential election (I have vague memories of Perot and Clinton) so I would have just turned 9. Dad must have stopped by the house after work, since it was dark. Being November, in Alaska, it was also snowy. A time where it felt, at least to me, like we should be curled up with a book, inside, not headed back to school. Both of us voted and got stickers and I remember it being very exciting. Obviously it was more exciting to me, since my dad has no memory of this.


Our old house, by the school

It was ten years later before I’d go to the polls again with my dad. This time, he picked me up from the dorms around 6.45 or 7, to get to the polls when they opened and to vote in time for him to get back for an early lecture. My first vote being a midterm election, as a liberal in a red state, it wasn’t all that thrilling, other than the part where I was part of the process. And there was the cool feeling that this was something that only my dad and I were qualified to do. No matter how much they wanted to, mom and my brother couldn’t vote.

In 2004, the process was repeated, only this time I took it more personally. I’d spent the primaries in the UK, watching the bizarre show from abroad, not fully understanding how, when I left in January the nominee was bound to be Dean, and when I returned in June the nominee was Kerry. The day of the elections, I spent the evening in my room, watching returns online, constantly pressing refresh and hoping the map would change. A family friend was running for a state Senate seat in Alaska, and when the electoral math, sans Alaska, was computed, I couldn’t bare it. I decided to wait up for the Alaska returns. Hoping, against all hope, that our friend would win, and while that wouldn’t make up for map of red, it would at least feel like a small victory. (Sidenote: I like living in a state that votes my way or makes me feel like my vote will count. Polls show Obama with a significant lead in MN, but the Senate race between Barkley, Coleman, and Franken is a true toss-up).

But Gini lost, getting only 31% of the votes. (And yes, this was in Sarah Palin’s ‘hood, so to speak, and Gini’s opponent had been in office since 1995.)

I woke, in the morning, to a bunch of elated classmates. I had one friend to commiserate with, but that was it.

This year will be different. I am more excited than I can ever recall being for an election. I was trying to describe it to my friend Simon who I primarily communicate with online. I’ve called her three times in the four years I’ve known her. The first two were when I was on the train to go visit her. But the second was when I called her on my way to go see the Faith Healer with Ralph Finnes. I had to share my raw excitement about seeing Ralph Finnes with someone, and she was the perfect person. She shared my enthusiasm and understood why I’d called. Today, I almost picked up the phone to call her again about how excited I was. We are both die-hard West Wing fans and I was trying to explain that I was almost as excited as watching the show (yes, that sounds pathetic, but in Hollywood they weren’t letting voters decide it all, it was the liberal writers…) Her response: “Yeah, I think “Ralph Fiennes excited” about sums it up…”


Ralph Finnes

So here I am, 17 minutes from a day that will define my generation. Many of my classmates from 2004 now have status messages on Facebook supporting Obama. I’ve donated money to the campaign, passed out voter info flyers, and proudly worn an Obama button (or two, or three) for several weeks. This is an historic election. An election in the internet age. An election where millions have voted early. An election where either ticket, God forbid, will be a first.

So I’m voting. I’ll get up in about in about 7 hours and walk a block to my polling place, where I assume I’ll stand in lines for a while. I did my research on all the other candidates and initiatives on my local ballot tonight. (There are 18 choices to be made, plus numerous uncontested seats.) I’m voting for myself, I’m voting for my mom, I’m voting for my international friends – both in this country and abroad. I’m voting for my cousin’s kids and my future kids. I’m voting to make the world a better place for everyone. And that’s really why I’m excited.

When I am fast asleep

At 5am, police cars will lead the first non-construction cars over the I-35W bridge. This is the bridge on Sept 2, 2007 (courtesy of Ben).
At 5 am, I’ll still be asleep, but the new bridge will be a welcome change. There are piles of rubble on the shore and the bike path is still closed, but about 14 months after it fell, a new bridge will be in place.
I feel like I should write more about the collapse, but that will need to be another day.  More information on the bridge opening is at MinnPost.