Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to join us, you will not regret it! We are a couple ragamuffin wanderers who have planted our roots in Happy Valley, Alaska. Where we hope to “retire” in the next few years by pursuing our own passions and living our own lives instead of the dreams set forth by society.
My innocent daughter, Primrose, killed a duckling today. The poor kid. It brings her so much joy and excitement to hold them, to feed and water them, to sneak into the house to touch them and pet them, to be near them. But today, we made mistakes as parents by letting her stay inside the house too long unsupervised, and Savanna found her inside with a dead duckling.
Primrose has an idea about death, but like so many of us, she doesn’t quite understand it. We had a dog die last Thanksgiving and she still asks about her.
“Where is Nala?” she asks. “Will she come back?”
“Her body is dead, daughter,” I say. “But her spirit has traveled on. Her memory will remain with us forever.”
“Will she come back?”
“No, Primrose, she is never coming back.”
But she doesn’t get it, and I don’t really get it either. Every time we use the apple slicer to cut an apple she demands the core and says, “It’s for Nala. Nala loves this part.” Savanna and I look at each other in near tears not only because we miss Nala, but because it is kind of heartbreaking to see such innocence effected by loss and grief.
After Uncle moved out of the yurt, Primrose started asking, “Is Uncle dead?” This question was followed with, “Am I dead?”
Today we were riding the four-wheeler up the hill and she was leaning hard against my throttle arm and I told her to stop so she didn’t fall off. Of course, she kept doing it- until I explained to her that I didn’t want her to fall off the four-wheeler and get hurt. Her response was, “Will I be dead?”
Last July, after we harvested salmon and we were at home processing them, she kept touching the fish, even biting some of them. This winter, when Uncle and I harvested a handful of chickens, Primrose was right there watching us kill and clean them. She wanted to help. But today, my two year old, who will be three in 27 days, killed her first mammal. I am positive it was an accident, but it’s still a momentous day.
Of course we have joked about having to watch her as a potential serial killer in the future, one must joke during dark times to keep sane. If we start finding carcasses in the freezer we’ll have to watch out.
Savanna, Marlena, Primrose and I went on the edge of the orchard to dig a hole and bury the Pekin duckling. Primrose took it out of the box and dropped it in the hole and I covered it with dirt.
“What you doing, Daddy?” she said, aggressive like.
“Burying the duckling, daughter. It’s dead.”
We hung our heads while I thanked God for the duckling and apologized for the mistake. Primrose hung her head as well. When the prayer was over and Savanna had tears in her eyes, Primrose smiled super big and stepped on the burial spot with one foot and said, “It’s a present for you, Daddy!” Completely oblivious to the situation.
Thirty minutes later I watched her sit in the grass by herself for a few minutes with nothing in her hands at all. Just sitting there alone. Something very, VERY rare to see her do. Right after that I watched her storm inside the house by herself and I followed. “I want to be alone, Daddy!” Is her new favorite line. “Leave me alone!”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I want to be alone!” she yelled.
I left her alone for a few minutes in the bathroom, when I came back I pushed the door open and she yelled at me again.
“Do you need a hug, daughter?” I said, walking into the bathroom.
She smiled with tears in her eyes and her bare butt on the toilet.
“Yes, Daddy. Come in. Hold me. I’m pooping.”
So I did just that.
Teaching our beautiful, innocent, precious daughters about the complexities of life is not easy. The big questions like “What happens when we die?” “What is the purpose of life?” and “How do we honor the dead?” Are difficult questions to find answers to, but we must try to find the answers and to share them with our children.
I may not know a lot, but I surely know this; I had a smack in the face reminder today that our sassy 3 year old doesn’t know quite as much about the world as she lets on. That being her father, and a damn good father if you ask me, means I need to be understanding, patient, and watchful. While she may yell at me and say, “I don’t like my Daddy,” every day, I know she doesn’t mean it. Just like I know she didn’t mean to kill that poor duckling. She truly does not understand the consequences of her actions.
Tomorrow, God willing I make it, I am going to Wagon Wheel to buy another duckling to accompany the lone baby that won’t stop crying for a friend. And we will try this again.
RIP Donald Duckling
A Sandhill Crane and a Gravel Pit
It’s been weeks since I saw it. I was biking in my neighborhood. It was raining a bit. I was pulling my two daughters in our brand new Burley bike trailer.
My husband and I had been researching for weeks. I had settled on a Thule, we have the Thule child bike seat after all…I tend to want to keep everything the same. It’s one way I keep “order” I suppose. We went to a bike shop in Soldotna, and they only had Burley. It didn’t take much convincing….my husband persuaded me….we buy it right here, right now. I couldn’t be happier with our purchase.
Taking the girls on a ride….them sitting side by side in that trailer together…snuggling….holding hands….falling asleep on each other…… If you know me, you KNOW I have a fair share of love for biking. Being able to share it with my children… to have them laughing, and sometimes crying (THE ENTIRE WAY MARLENA) and kicking, but mostly enjoying an activity I absolutely love, brings me one of the greatest feelings of luck and gratitude. I just could never have imagined my life could be so fucking wonderful.
But here I was. Biking in the rain, pulling my daughters to sleep along the gorgeous country gravel road. Every pothole the city dwelling transplants curse lovingly rock and lull my girls into their afternoon nap. The sound of my labored breathing is mixed with the wind rushing through the trees and I imagine my youngest is being reminded of sounds from the womb that my ALMOST 3 year old has long forgotten but may still be hidden in her subconscious somewhere.
And through the air pierced and echoed the call of the Sandhill Crane. There it sat, alone, perched on the top of the mound of dirt in the gravel pit. Calling. Looking. Waiting. Searching. I know this crane. It has a mate. Where is it? How come it isn’t coming? It had a mate. This crane has been here. Day after day. Calling. Looking. Waiting. Searching. I am hit with a sudden sadness. I bet, unfortunately, its mate was shot and killed. Maybe for food. Maybe for sport. But it is now alone. How can I hear it crying? How can I know the sound of pain in the crane’s call? Some people might say I am anthropomorphizing and it’s all based off of survival rather than emotion. Whatever the case, I cannot help but to feel a wave of deep, deep sorrow, despite how absolutely fucking wonderful my life is right now.
How can I just go on being happy, bopping around in my own perfect fucking world while my neighbors suffer tremendously? What is this duality? And how is it possible that I am experiencing both of these intensely different feelings at once?
The theme of this polarity is prevalent in my daily life since then. Maybe it has always been there, but I feel suddenly more aware, the crane bringing this medicine to me.
Inspired by the podcast my husband was recently on, I have been listening to another podcast, but by the same host called Change Agents. How can there be SO much violence, so much pain, so much suffering in this world while I find my own world so blissful? How do we strike a balance between these worlds? HOW do we get involved with not just things happening in other countries (but yes that also) but in our own backyards? In our own yards?
As I write this, I pause as I hold my SCREAMING 9 month old as I am transitioning her to sleep on her own rather than with me. Her suffering, her screams, her inability to be comforted by me in her overwhelm and upset enrages me. I feel my blood boiling, but in an instant, and with ear plugs courtesy of my husband, I am staring into the helpless tear-filled eyes of my baby daughter and suddenly, in a flash, I see the beauty in holding her during this moment. Realizing and telling her, “You are in your mother’s arms. You are safe” Thinking of trafficked and exploited children, thinking of mothers having to carry their new babies on their backs as they mine dangerous minerals, starvation, abuse, and death and loss of loved ones. All of this….and so much more… goes on daily.
And yet, the world is still beautiful. Life can be incredible when we realize the good moments. When we take the time to be grateful, truly grateful. Because at any moment, you can be struck with that deep aching sorrow.
How can we do more to help others?
Sandhill Cranes mate for life. If one dies….. do they find another? I like to think that if my husband died before I, I would never find another. I would want to find the beauty in my own sorrow and embrace that “life is suffering”.
Wrapping up the School Year
Today is Tuesday, May 16th, and in only three days I will be finished teaching my first ever school year. It has been a wonderful opportunity to grow, learn, connect, and earn money for the family. However, to teach in a classroom setting is not my passion in life. And while I understand that sometimes we have to do what is necessary to make ends meet, I am fortunate to have other endeavors that pay enough for my family to live comfortably.
Some days I went home fuming from being yelled at, other days I went home high on the feeling that I made a difference. Most days were somewhere in the middle, which is just where I want to be.
Today, a student wrote and read me a letter stating that I have been the most influential person in her life. She said I was the most honest and straightforward person she had ever met, and that I taught her to not give a shit what other people think about us but to just be ourselves no matter what. She claims that I encouraged her to do the best work that she could and convinced her that her work is top quality. She read it to me in my classroom, on the last day we will have class together, and I teared up.
So I will wrap up this down and dirty Teacher Blogs Series with a little note of gratitude. This teaching gig is a hard job, not in a physical sense like work I previously did as an infantryman or as a laborer, but in an emotional sense. Each student has a story, some are a lot harder than others, but we are all facing a battle. Each student learns differently and communicates differently and trying to figure out how to bring out the best of each student takes a lot of patience, effort, and work. Good teachers are definitely underpaid. This job has allowed me grow into a more patient and tolerant person. A little more kind, a lot more understanding, and a tiny bit more hip with today’s modern lingo.
All in all, I wouldn’t trade this last school year for nothing. But I must say, that I am jumping for joy at the opportunity to go home to our small farm with tons of projects and to work hard at my own dreams. To create and coordinate a schedule with Savanna where Dad can Write and she can make Art and we can eat our meals together with our two little daughters and then get back outside to work in the dirt to the sounds of sandhill cranes and Wilson snipes.
Thank you God for this opportunity. Thank you Savanna for supporting me as a teacher and being there to take care of the girls and chores everyday while I have been away. Thank you to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for hiring me and providing an Emergency Teaching Certification, and especially to Matthew LaHue, the Ninilchik School Principal, for seeing me as a natural born teacher and asking me to come on board. It has been a joy.
The time is upon us! The excitement is apparent!
From Sandhill Cranes walking down the dirt road only twenty feet ahead, to visits to the creek to toss in sticks and watch them drift down stream. From watching pairs of squirrels hop from branch to branch, to calling the dog back as she chases rabbits around the neighbor’s yard. From hearing Wilson’s Snipe make it’s call from way up high, to watching Robins gather sticks to build nests for eggs. From riding our bikes to having a beach fire. From planning the playground to watching the batteries fill up from the sun. From ordering a Conex shipping container to coordinating with neighbors about gravel and heavy equipment. From watching rhubarb come back to life to saying “Goodbye” to Uncle as he walked down the dirt road with a bag on his back and a stick in his hand.
The other night as I was laying in bed with Primrose, she opened her eyes super wide and said, “Daddy, hear cranes?” And I could hear them in the distance.
Moments like these bring me so much joy as a father, husband, and Alaskan country man. Now let’s talk “work.”
Our first two beds in the greenhouse are planted with spinach, Bok choy, and spring lettuce and we have six flats of brussels and other cold hardy plants that are covered with fabric at night. We removed a thick mulch of straw from hundreds of garlic plants that are popping their little heads up to warm up and grow up. We began removing burlap from budding apple trees and will begin to prune raspberry patches of dead canes. The chicken coop door stays open as hens move freely while trying to find new places to hatch chicks. Two packages of bees were installed on the 27th that can be heard buzzing by in flight during brief sunny moments. The project list is being crossed off and added to, and the warm sun is blessing us.
We have so much to do, it can become overwhelming if we allow it. The first task at hand is to continue nursing plants that were started in the classroom until they can be brought home and planted. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, basil, broccoli, brussels, flowers, cabbage, collards, and more. All food to be eaten fresh, sold or traded, and stored away for winter. In order to grow the food, we need a place to plant them. And since we outgrew our garden space last year, our neighbor excavated another 1/2 acre of forest where we are currently doing the work to mark and make 2 1/2′ x 25′ beds. “One garden bed at a time” has become the family mantra. We pick up sticks and rotten stumps into buckets to be dumped into a garden cart and wheeled off to one of three large piles of stumps nearby. We then use a tiller to pull up any more sticks, rake out the bed a few times, and add a thick layer of lime, one bed at a time. All of this is done by Savanna or myself while somebody carries Baby Marlena on their back (Savanna) or Daddy carries Marlena and plays with Primrose. Everything takes so much longer with kids that are 8 months and 2 3/4.
We decided to turn the area near the yurt into a perennial flower garden with raised beds, a small covered gazebo area, and fruit. It’s a big relief because we don’t have to do anything in the area this year other than build the raised beds. We will start on that project later in the season, after we plant 120 row feet (30 or so pounds) of potatoes in last year’s cabbage patch that is smack dab in the middle of the yurt area. Potatoes are a staple in our home, and they really should be in every Alaskan’s diet because they grow so well here. Last year we planted 15 pounds of seeds in virgin soil, we watered it maybe a handful of times, and didn’t fertilize with anything. We hilled the plants two times and received roughly 130 pounds of potatoes to go with our salmon and garlic. And while I said we planting any vegetables in the yurt area, we decided to use the cabbage patch for potatoes because the beds are already composted and we can plant potatoes by the end of the week to cross them off the list and to get an early start.
Do I like looking at gravel pits? Definitely not. But am I thankful that I have a handful of neighbors with gravel pits to sell me dump truck loads of affordable gravel and to give me free topsoil just because I was courteous enough to ask? The answer, is yes. We will bring in at least a few dump trucks of gravel this year to extend the driveway, install a Conex, build a sandbag root cellar, and potentially use as a ground cover for a playground.
But that’s not until June or July… Let me finish up early season chores first.
-Harden starts and plant
-Plant outdoor crops in new, fertilized beds (Beets, carrots, brussels, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, peas, beans, lettuce, kale, flowers)
-Plant cover crops of Oats and Clover
-Prune fruit and roses
And let’s not forget to mention the importance of enjoying the beach, looking for mushrooms, playing with kids, and making time to work on individual projects that bring joy and peace. With temperatures that rarely go higher than 40, it may not really feel like spring, but it sure does feel like spring… If you know what I mean?
Pictures to follow!
Ever since the movie Sixth Sense came out, I make it a point to watch every film directed by M. Night Shyamalan. When Signs came out, it was confirmed that M. Night was my new favorite director. But then came Unbreakable, The Village, and Lady in the Water, all of which were disappointing. He tried again with Glass, Split, and Old, and they, too, didn’t really do it for me. I know, I know- I am more a fan of supernatural horror films then psychological, so when he went from Ghosts and Aliens in his first two films to mental health issues in his latter, they don’t strike the same chord for me.
But then came The Visit…
In The Visit, two teenagers leave Philadelphia to meet and stay with their grandparents in the country. The big sister is a rookie documentary filmmaker who never sets the camera down, and she gives her freestyle-rapping-little brother a camera to do the same. So we see the world from both of their lenses. The kids quickly realize that their grandparents are bat-shit-crazy, and the craziness intensifies at night. The longer they stay, the more they realize that their grandparents are dangerous and they have to get out of there.
So what makes the grandparents so crazy?
When I watched The Visit for first time a few years ago, I had never heard of “Sundown Syndrome,” but just the other day I ran into an old friend of my mother’s who told me that her mother had recently passed away after dealing with Sundown Syndrome for three months. She described her loving, peaceful 80 + year old mother erupting in anger when the sun went down. Yelling and screaming and ripping the curtains down. It was hard to believe, but true. And this is what the Grandmother deals with in The Visit.
The grandpa had his own issues. Incontinence, paranoia, amnesia, psychosis, depression, suicidal ideations, highs and lows. A whole heap of issues both above and below the surface.
And then of course…. there was a twist, which I will not reveal!
The phrase that comes to mind more than any other regarding this movie is mise en scene. What the hell is mise en scene? You might be asking… Well, mise en scene is a French term that describes everything included in the scene.
Since The Village is a horror film, what is captured in the scene often leads to anxious feelings of anticipation regarding what is about to jump out. The lighting was either natural and outdoors or dark and indoors. The props were creepy and mysterious, from a rope swing to an oven, a butcher knife to a shed, a mirror to a diaper, every prop leaves the viewer wondering what is going to happen next. The settings provide a confined feeling, from a remote country cottage where escape is impossible to a small car, a cozy kitchen to a bedroom with a locked door, every scene creates the feeling that the kids are going to be grabbed by the grandparents become victims of insanity. M.Night’s ability to create tension in every scene is what make this film so great.
Toward the end of the movie the kids’ mom holds them and says them something along the lines of, “Do not hold onto your anger,” which leads me to another topic…
Speaking of insanity and mental health issues… on Tuesday a student flipped me off and said, “Fuck you, Stark!” After I asked him, “Where are you going?” While he stormed away from our outdoor kickball game toward the school. His classmates saw and whispered to each other, “He just flipped off, Mr. Stark,” “He gets away with anything,” and “If I did that…”
And the thing is, our society has made it possible for certain “special” individuals to get away with anything. Some psychiatrist claims that this young person doesn’t know the effects of their actions, and because of this they are free from punishment. How many adults get away with murder due to the “insanity defense?” What is in store for this young person’s future? It is scary to think about.
I talked to the principal about the issue and said, “Okay, so as somebody with a PTSD diagnosis from combat in a war zone, what keeps me from getting away with beating this little kid’s ass for threatening me? I mean, hell, I felt threatened at the time.”
“The difference is that you are an adult who knows better. The only thing this kid has is the ability to yell cuss words. “
So there is a wavering line in the sand where our boundaries are crossed, just like the children in The Visit. It’s one thing to see your delicate little grandmother puking in the middle of the night, it’s another thing to see her standing outside your bedroom door with a butcher knife. It’s one thing to let a little kid with low self-esteem and anger problems scream cuss words at you in front of his classmates, it is another thing if he is coming at you with a sharpened pencil.
To summarize this blog post, we all deal with mental health issues, family struggles, feelings of isolation, and mistrust. It’s how we deal with these issues that separates the murderers from the saints.
The Arrival (Of Spring)
I will start this post by saying that I am not an abstract man. When I see a Jackson Pollack painting I think, “Now that is a waste of paint.” When I start a book that jumps between characters and times and uses abnormal punctuation and non-linear story development, I typically quit reading. When I read a poem that I cannot understand I typically do not finish it. And when I watch a movie like The Arrival that jumps between past, present and future in a way that I cannot understand, I normally take the movie out and put in something like Braveheart or Michael or something easier to understand. I want to understand the world around me, and when a creative person thinks they’re going to through me for a loop I tend to slink away from the discomfort and hide in my tiny bubble of what is understood.
With that being said, The Arrival is a movie about aliens, and because I love the idea of alien lifeforms from other planets I was able to push through the confusing and slow parts in anticipation of what was to come. And then… nothing really happened, nothing in the sense that it wasn’t like Independence Day or Fire in the Sky or Mars Attacks!
So I ask the question, What the hell was The Arrival really about?
But since I am writing a “movie review” I will try to stick to the facts.
I am not sure what the weather is like in your part of the world, but in this part of Alaska we have very loooooooooooooooong winters that lead right into summer that goes waaaaaaaaaaaay too quick and then “BAM!” there is winter again. The Arrival of spring is here, and yesterday my wife said she was walking with the kids in her t-shirt because it was 40 degrees. Finally, 40 degrees! The Arrival of warmth to our cold bodies brings so much joy I can hardly express it. Far more joy than The Arrival brought, no doubt, so much joy that I sit in my classroom grading papers with my smiling face toward the sun. So much joy that I take my lunch breaks walking laps around the track. So much joy that I have 14 or more flats of seeds started in my classroom window that are also reaching their little bodies toward the sun.
Can I get a round of applause for the sun?!
“Woo, yeah!!! Let’s go sun!”
Did I mention that Amy Adams was super boring and dry in this movie and it drove me a little crazy? Which is maybe why I’m writing so wild right now and letting my weird, goofy side fly… Or maybe it’s because I didn’t fall asleep until after 11 last night and then woke up at 4:30 to The Arrival of the first slivers of light coming in from our big northern windows. The sun has begun her yearly dance of staying up all night and it can be tricky to sleep.
Did I mention that my wife, Savanna, smoked salmon for her first time a couple weeks back that was so damn good I literally opened the smoker and took a bite and said, “Oh my God! Yes!” As I looked at the smoker full of goodness and realized we still have at least 50 pounds of salmon in the refrigerator.
Back to the important matter at hand: The Arrival of Spring. I will provide a brief list of seeds currently growing in my classroom with hopes of eating delicious grub this summer.
Beets, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, sunflower, nasturtium, salvia, phlox, big max pumpkin, winter luxury pumpkin, long island cheese pumpkin, sweet meat winter squash, kabocha squash, buttercup squash, muskmelon, saved pumpkin seeds, saved sweet meat seeds, reisenstraube tomatoes, silvery fir tomatoes, Cherokee purple tomatoes, golden nugget tomatoes, basil, hot wax peppers, jalapenos, datil peppers, tabasco peppers (they haven’t sprouted), dazzling blue kale, lacinato kale, echinacea, red romaine lettuce, spinach, cabbage, cilantro, dill, green lettuce…
Hundreds of little lifeforms in the classroom remind me why I love this time of year so much. The Arrival of warmth sparks The Arrival of my family’s passion of growing and working with plants.
Last year we grew roughly 135 pounds of potatoes from 15 pounds of seeds, and we are hoping to double that this year. We have roughly 30 pounds of seed potatoes leftover from last year’s crop, and we bought 15 pounds from the Anchor Point Greenhouse before they were all sold out. So mathematically we should grow three times the amount, but we don’t want to be disappointed. Word around the Kenai Peninsula is that Alaskan growers are having a difficult time purchasing seed potatoes this year because last year’s crop was so poor. So if you’re in Alaska and you’re reading this, go and buy them now.
Last fall we felled over fifty trees in the yard before our neighbor came over with an excavator to move the trees into piles and continue clearing. With his help, we have expanded our growing space outdoors by at least 50 fold. So this year, we will focus on designating a 50 x 50 foot area for a garden while picking up sticks in the other areas before planting a cover crop. He also cleared out a ten foot wide swath around roughly 5 acres of forest from west to east and north to south to keep out wildlife. Perhaps the fence will spark The Arrival of apples to our trees. Who knows if we will ever harvest apples…
Another project this summer is to build a root cellar. Our neighbor will come over again this June or July to dig a hole in the side of the hillside and we will have another neighbor deliver a couple dump trucks of gravel that we will use to fill sandbags for walls. We will use pressure treated 4 x 4s for the roof that will be covered in Earth. I am really excited about the possibility of us storing all of our crops next winter underground.
So while I can honestly say I didn’t really enjoy watching The Arrival, the director, Denis Villeneuve, did a great job of representing non-linear movement of time in the ordinary mind of a person. And the movie could not have been made if it were not for the short story, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, which the movie is based on. So often the untamed mind jumps between future, present and past and all over again again, and if anybody were to get a glimpse they would probably be confused as all heck about what is actually going on. Just like I was about the film.
Perhaps this strange way of time traveling is what I am doing right now in this blog post. But this morning, as I was standing in my living room at 5 am watching the red sky brighten while listening to the breathing of my three girls, crowing of roosters, and snoring of dogs, I was happy. You’d better believe it, I was so dang happy to have this wonderful life so full of riches. Twenty years ago, when I was 18, I would never have guessed that if I stayed resilient, hopeful, hard-working and gritty eventually The Arrival of a wonderful life would come. Through a lot of hard work, and luck. It seemed like a distant dream or fantasy, and I wanted to give up so many damn times. But it has arrived, as well as the spring time sun to wash away the winter time greys.
In less than two weeks our bees will arrive and we will plant little seedlings in our greenhouse for early salads. In about a month we will plant the entirety of our outdoor garden. In two months our daughter Primrose will be three, in four months our daughter Marlena will be one. What the hell am I rambling on about anyway? Oh yeah, how excited I am about The Arrival of spring and so many other facets of life.
I will end this pathetic “movie review” with a few haikus I wrote this morning while sitting on the couch at 5:30 as Primrose’s feet rested against me after she stumbled out of bed saying, “Daddy, Daddy” and I picked her up sideways and held her until she fell asleep and then set her on the couch and covered her in a quilt and sat down to drink my coffee and write some words on paper… she cannot sleep in bed without me at this moment just like her sister cannot sleep in bed without her mother and both her mother and me have not slept in the same bed together for longer than a couple of hours for over 3 months and let me tell you sometimes it can be really really difficult but other times it can be the sweetest damn thing this side of the Yukon River.
What was I saying about abstract writings and people who don’t use proper grammar and punctuation?*#$
I watched The Arrival for the first time with a buddy in Olympia, Washington when it first came out and I left thinking, “I will never watch that boring movie again.” And let me tell you, I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE re-watching movies. And so here I am, working a job I never thought I would work, being a father and husband I never thought I would be, being happier than I could have ever imagined, and re-watching a movie I never thought I would re-watch. Life can be so damn mysterious and unpredictable at times! And you know what, this time around, I enjoyed The Arrival and it’s weird complexities and strange concepts of time and language and communication and the weird seven legged aliens that looked like big jellyfish and the cute flashes between the mother, boring Amy Adams, and her cute little daughter that literally brought tears to my eyes because I have my own daughters now. Watching movies can change people, and while I cannot say that watching The Arrival changed me in any shape or form, it at least changed me enough to write this weird diatribe that has been a lot of fun while at work with a class half-full of students writing their own blogs and working on their own projects. And you know what, I can see the American flag and the Alaskan flag blowing in the wind outside my classroom window as a raven flies by and I think, “I am so damn happy and blessed to live in such a wonderful place.”
Sunrise & sunset
Snowmelt pools in mud puddles
Flocks of birds outside
Northern pink sunrise
Stariski Valley wakes up
Roosters crow, dogs bark
What to do with dog?
To keep or to say goodbye?
She loves a soft bed
No house in sight
A distant light in winter
No cars in earshot
Rare is country life
Exodus into cities
Slow and quiet life
Until next time, my friends, get your plants started and get outside to enjoy the weather!
The world of teaching is a labyrinth without any apparent escape…
Oh wait, May 18th is the last day of the school year and I am marking the days off the calendar in an obsessive way of escaping this dismal reality. Every day I am here, I praise my fellow teachers who have been here for years and years and years. They are humble, hard-working, tolerant people who choose to put up with students who act, think, feel, and say that we are wasting their time. Students who come to school just to be around their friends, to play video games next to each other, and to play sports. Students who turn their backs to you while you’re talking, walk away from you when you ask them to stop, and refuse to give you their phone when they won’t stop using it. I see more foreheads than eyes every day of the week, and it’s really, really bothersome. Of course, there are exceptions, and they stand out like a unicorn among donkeys. But only one or two…
The Labyrinth is a creepy movie with rad sets and costumes, exceptional puppet work, and a fantasy like element that can lead children to have bad dreams. It is weirdly pedophilic, with some catchy David Bowie songs that will leave you questioning whether you actually like his music or not.
While I watched the movie with my class, I secretly yearned to be in that maze rather than in the classroom maze I am in now. To be somewhere people appreciate you being there (like Ludo), some place that is adventurous and fun… hmm…. maybe like, home! I told the principal the other day that I wasn’t coming back next year as a full-time teacher, and when he asked “Why?” I summed up a million reasons into one, “To be with my family.” But I will say this, if I was teaching in a school where students were grasping onto the education in an attempt to better their lives- I would happily stay. But instead, I teach students who are going to follow their parents’ footsteps by working on fishing boats, doing manual labor, and whatever else that makes them a butt-ton of money. They want to be welders, slope workers, fisherfolk, and mechanics. Most of them don’t seem to care about communication, music, writing, reading, art, travel, geography, history, mathematics, science, any of the stuff we are teaching… They don’t care about David Bowie, Jim Henson, and where the state of Arizona is located on map just like they don’t care about Rosa Parks, Ray Charles, and D-Day. All they want to do is stare at their phones, play video games, and play more. Play, play, play. And you know what, that’s exactly what I wanted to do at that age, which is why I joined the Army at 17. Because I screwed off during high school and I, unfortunately, didn’t have parents to follow in their successful, money-making footsteps. I would have graduated high school and started working at a hotel if that were the case. Perhaps I am resentful toward the students for that reason, because I know that they can dick off their entire school day and go home to parents that will give them jobs that pay them more than I make.
Have you ever been disrespected by fifteen, twenty, thirty or more people in a day over and over and over? It’s tough.
Damn, I wish I was in the Labyrinth right now.
What stood out from the Labyrinth during this viewing was the young girl’s pursuit of her one and only goal, to get her little brother back. She was pulled this way and that by various opportunities, fancy objects, and weird characters- but she kept on driving forward to complete her goal of finding her brother. And in the end, she did just that. She said, “Fuck you” to all of the other shit that stepped in her way and continued to pursue her goal instead of everybody else’s. And that, my friends, is what life is all about; and what the teenage boys and girls are doing right in front of me everyday in class. They pursue their own goals instead of mine, and sometimes it is infuriating. But in the end, it is our life to live.
Thank you students for reminding your teacher of this important fact of life. Thank you Jim Henson for creating another strange, dark, weird movie.
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan is an epic movie that depicts the horrors of World War II in a way that no other film has done. If you have not watched it, you need to. But this blog post is not about the movie, it’s about our family trip to Montana, reuniting with Savanna’s mother, and the podcast recording experience I had with Andy Stumpf.
Spring break was a success! We drove five hours from our home here in the Alaskan countryside to the big city of Anchorage, spent the night at our favorite hotel, and ate half a dozen tacos from Taco King before waking up at 4 am for our flight.
Thankfully, our three hour flight to Seattle was cut short thanks to a tail wind. The flight was going smoothly with the kiddos until Primrose, our 2 1/2 year old, began noticing everybody around us on their tablets. She instantly demanded to watch something, and thanks to Mom, we held firm and said, “No.”
When we arrived in Seattle, in an act of defiance, Primrose decided it was hilarious to run as fast as she could from terminal to terminal while Daddy chased her. She did this for hours, and while people waiting on flights thought it was funny, and Dad did a good job of acting like it was funny and playful, it was pretty fucking annoying to have my beautiful blonde hair blue eyed daughter running away from me in a crowd of thousands of people. Can we say, “Abduction!” There is too much Dateline being listened to in our house.
The flight from Seattle to Kalispell lasted long enough to have a ginger ale. Our youngest daughter, Marlena, was a champion in the flight world. She didn’t complain or gripe or cry at all, she just basically did her own thing on her mama’s breast. It was wonderful!
In Montana, we stayed in Whitefish at the Grouse Mountain Lodge where we were able to soak in a hot-tub, sit in a sauna, swim in the pool, and lounge in the lobby on old leather couches beside a propane stove. Antler chandeliers lit the lobby, providing a smooth ambience to my never-ending refill of coffee. Free coffee, watch out! Whitefish is a cool town with an Amtrak station that connects to Seattle and Chicago, a ski-resort, two awesome small grocery stores, and endless shopping. It was supposedly a very small town ten years ago that has grown and grown thanks to the influx of Californians, but that’s just hearsay.
Grandma flew in from Missouri to meet us halfway, she slept in one bed while I slept with Primrose in the other. Mama and Marlena made a bunk on the floor with our blow-up camping pad. Savanna insisted on sleeping with the baby on the floor because Marlena was having a difficult time sleeping on the soft bed. And of course, Mama was right, Marlena slept so much better on the floor. Trust your Moms!
We rented a sweet little compact car and drove the 45 minutes to Glacier National Park two separate times. One time, Primrose, myself, mama and Marlena walked far out on the ice to join two old timers ice fishing. Savanna was terrified to go on the ice, but she did it!!! John Love, a big bearded man who was smoking cigarette, a school teacher and father of four, let Primrose cast and jig for her first time. He was a sweet guy. The second time we went to the Park was with Grandma, where she walked on ice for the first time in her life. We drove around the lake until finding ice-less patches of water where we were able to put our hands in the water and hold the colorful rocks. It was a glorious place, one we hope to visit in the future!
Savanna and Primrose went snowboarding at the Whitefish Ski Resort for their first time. Savanna fell on her butt a few hard times until she was done for the day. Primrose stood between her father’s legs while I cruised down the bunny hill. It was a blast! After mama went inside with the crew to rest her bum, I upgraded my pass to go to the top of the mountain where I was able to take one run down the forested, empty backside, and another down the face. Can we say “Freshies!” “Tree runs!” “Indy grabs!” and “Fun!”
While the girls were inside the busy lodge, a young man approached Savanna and said, “I hate to sound weird, but I recognize you from social media. Are you married to Bob Stark?” Lo and behold, it was none other than Keenan Prochazka from Seward, Alaska. I love growing up in a small town! I came inside from riding and chatted with Keenan for a few minutes before making a coffee date for the following day. It is so rewarding to watch young people grow into adults with solid morals and work ethic. I am really proud of him.
After riding the mountain, driving around the area, and walking around towns- Savanna and I changed our minds about the area. It’s a funny thing in our family, anytime we travel we talk about moving to the place we are visiting. We begin looking at real estate, talking about the logistics, looking into jobs, all of it… Not this time. The first few days were spent in stoic comfort that we did not want to live there. However, the longer we stayed in the Kalispell/Whitefish area the more the people, stores, comforts, countryside, and warmth grew on us. And after going snowboarding, I was convinced. I would live there, we all would. So at about day 5 we decided that we could stay there in the summer and winter, and that we hope to visit some summer to see the plant life and feel the heat. Did I mention that we were outside in t-shirts and sweaters in early March? Something that is basically unfathomable here in Southcentral Alaska.
The family dropped me off in Kalispell on the day of my interview to walk around town for a couple of hours before meeting with Andy Stumpf. It was the first time in months that I had been alone for hours on end, and for about the first hour I really enjoyed it. I walked around downtown taking pictures of brick buildings, alleyways, and cathedrals. I ate a bowl of cold soup at Montana Coffee Company, and I went out of my way to ask them to heat the damn thing up, which I rarely do. But then I started missing my girls and wishing we could share the memories. With all that being said, by the time my meeting with Andy happened, I was prepared mentally and spiritually.
I stood outside of the Mixed Martials Arts center at 2:25 waiting for him to arrive. “Mr. Stark,” he said, at 2:27. “Mr. Stumpf.” We shook hands and I followed him upstairs. We said no words, until walking into his studio that had a long wooden table, four microphones and headphones, and a screen behind us. He had a friend working the recording system and cameras, Michael I believe his name was, and Andy told me to put the headphones on and talk into the microphone from a fist away.
And we started the podcast.
There was zero small talk before we began. Andy wanted to keep it that way to prevent fears and inorganic substance to creep into the podcast. He did not respond to my email regarding what he may ask because he didn’t want to have a script of any kind. So we sat there, two men, one a former Navy Seal and one a former infantryman, and we shot the shit for 3 hours about war, growing up without a dad, prison’s impacts of family, addiction, transition from military, writing, farming, and life off grid. We talked about basically everything that I can talk about besides supernatural shit, and by the time we were done and I walked down the stairs- I was spent.
The girls were parked outside waiting for me when it was over. I couldn’t even begin to tell them what I talked about, so I was basically silent for the rest of the day. I didn’t sleep that night. I was obsessed with what I had said. Worried about hurting people’s feelings. Worried about telling the truth in fear that it would hurt other people’s feelings. Worried about sounding like a dumb shit. Worried about sounding cocky. Worried about saying too much. Worried about not asking enough questions or letting Andy talk enough. Worried about not saying enough. I obsessed, and after a few hours of obsessing while four girls slept in the same room (with a few farts coming from certain areas of the room), I finally fell asleep.
I was moody the next day, no doubt. I called my brother and told him about some of the shit I talked about. Giving him a disclaimer before he had to hear it on the podcast. He said something along the lines of, “It’s okay for you to throw me under the bus for your fame and fortune.” The thing is, I am not famous, and I’m not throwing him under the bus anymore than throwing myself under the bus. I am just telling the truth about our family. And that’s one of the problems in our depressed world, so many people are too afraid of being exposed–myself included– that we force our families into little secret cults where fucked up shit happens all of the time and nobody talks about it. We can’t talk to people, we can’t pay counselors, we can’t write about it, we just bottle it up and then use a bunch of drugs and alcohol to escape the feelings for a few hours, days, months, or years.
And you know what, I’m over it. That is what Warflower has done for me, given me the opportunity to stand proudly and say, “This is my fucking family and story and I don’t give a damn.” Something I had been so afraid of for so many years.
We need to talk about the horrors of prison, the difficulties of growing up in broken families, the feelings of abandonment that kids grow up with and never get rid of, the challenges of heroin addiction, alcohol addiction, addiction in general, the after effects of war on the body and mind… the list goes on and on and on… Instead, people “don’t trust” anybody to talk about it with, and then they/we stay miserable and depressed our entire lives. It’s a fucked up cycle, and I’m over it.
I felt better after talking to James about the things I said, no doubt. I knew that he wouldn’t really understand in the way I wanted him to, but nobody ever understands us or agrees with us in the way we want. But we still have to tell the truth and take responsibility for what we say and do. And if by telling the truth it allows us to be liberated from the pain of holding onto darkness, well then by God we need to tell the truth. Sometimes it sucks, no doubt, but it’s necessary for a happy life.
We spent the last day in Montana lazing around the lodge doing laundry, watching cartoons, and taking drives. It really is a beautiful part of the world. The Flathead Valley. A ring of snowcapped mountains with pine trees to the top dusted with a light coat of powdered sugar. Inside the ring is a perfectly flat, fertile valley full of farms, casinos, strip malls, lakes, deer, ducks, and wild turkeys. I would live there.
The Podcast was recorded on March 13th, and it hasn’t aired yet. I’m not sure when it will. Andy and I have not talked since we did the interview, and I may never talk to him again. But some of the things he said to me will stay with me forever. His words and our conversation left a positive impact on me that is already making me a better person, father, and husband. More conversations like that need to be had.
I cannot begin to describe the feelings of success I had while being with the family in Montana. My entire life I’ve dreamed of being a writer who travels the world due to my writing, and for the first time, I brought the family on a vacation solely due to the publication of Warflower. Even if my book never made it to the New York Times list, or it’s not being pushed at my local colleges, I am a success. Because Warflower gave me so much more than any of those ego driven successes provide, it provided me peace of mind.
Follow the Cleared Hot Podcast and Youtube channel and you will probably hear my interview.
None of the pictures used in this blog are mine, I wrote this while at work without access to my photographs. I will post our pictures soon.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Directors: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
Growing up in Alaska, I watched the documentary Alone in the Wilderness, dozens of times in boyhood admiration of Dick Proenneke and his unlimited resourcefulness. Proenneke comes to Alaska in his retirement, with money in the bank and a long list of skills. He builds handles for tools which he later uses to build a log cabin to live in. He hunts, fishes, traps, and plants a small garden to subsist. Basically, he lives off the land to the best of his ability, while having a cushion of cash in the bank. But the stars of the documentary, Happy People, cast shadows over Proenneke for various reasons, some of which I will go into in the following essay.
Legendary director and filmmaker, Werner Herzog, teams up with Dmitry Vasyukov to tell the story of the residents of Bakhtia, a small village nestled beside the Yenisei River deep within the Siberian Forest. The film crew follow the people of Bakhtia during the four seasons as they live in the same way their ancestors have lived for centuries. By fishing, trapping, hunting, and growing food, the villagers do not merely survive the extreme seasons, but they thrive.
From hand dug canoes to homemade birch bug dope, hand crafted log cabins to homemade skis; the stars of the film are talented, capable, and brave. The film crew does an incredible job of filming the trappers and their dogs as they traverse hundreds of miles of difficult landscapes on snowmachine and skis. We watch as the men overcome hardships that would probably kill the typical person, from rebuilding a log cabin in subzero temperatures damaged by a fallen tree, to navigating rocky rivers in small boats loaded with supplies. The film crew uses several techniques to bring the story into the viewer’s heart. They zoom in closely on people’s faces to reveal every line of hard-earned wisdom. They use the same technique to show the animals the men work with, whether pike, saber, or sled-dog- the close-up shows the realness of the situation. Landscape views and birds eye lenses show vast wilderness and the miniature size of man in the backcountry. These shots make the viewer realize the remoteness of the area and how small one human life is in the grand scheme of Earth’s existence. The lighting throughout the movie was au natural, which was appropriate for such a natural lifestyle. From an oil lamp flame as the only source of light in a trapper’s cabin to a cloudy sky when the local politician shows up on a ferry with bags of food to buy the villager’s vote. How the film crew kept the batteries warm, equipment dry, and microphones in the right place to capture such footage during such extreme conditions is beyond my comprehension. But they nailed it.
So why is the film titled Happy People, and what do the directors propose to the viewer about happiness?
The villagers in Bakhtia seemingly work hard every day, all year – well into old age, which seems counterintuitive to many modern lifestyles. Many westerners, which I categorize as Western Europeans and Americans, work stagnant jobs indoors and use their free time after work to workout at gyms while striving to hit certain heart-rate goals, bench press marks, and mileage plans. On weekends and nights, they might drive out to the mountains or trails for a ski. They tend to work a set schedule, whether it be from 9-5, 8-4, or somewhere in there, and spend their evenings in front of a television (probably with a phone in hand) watching the latest show. If not, they’re probably gaming. They do this for forty plus so years until they are finally able to retire, (if they survive) when they can officially sit around doing nothing without feeling guilty. But by this point, many Westerners are obese with high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, weak bodies, and a long list of prescribed medications. So they basically work their entire life with an end goal in sight, and when they reach it- they are too out of sorts to enjoy it. Not to sound dismal, but it’s the harsh reality for a lot of people. But not all…
There are certain places in this world known as Blue Zones where the highest percentage of centenarians live, people over 100 years old. People in Blue Zones have certain similarities that keep them healthy and alive. They work every day until death, live in a tight-knit community, stay close with family, eat a plant-based diet, and practice some kind of spirituality. By utilizing every one of the five factors, the Blue Zone residents are happier and healthier than the average Jack or Jill, which provides more of a reason to live a long life. Happiness often equals long life. Now, I cannot say whether the villagers in Bakhtia live to be centenarians, but I will say that many of them seem happy right where they are, doing exactly what they are doing.
Perhaps happiness is not the Western dream, perhaps the Western dream is achievement, success, fame and fortune. Perhaps directors, Herzog and Vasyukov, are subtly telling us that we need to leave our desks, ditch the classrooms, stop worrying about money, quit striving for stagnancy, and go outdoors to use our bodies and minds like our ancient ancestors from hundreds of years past. Perhaps by being more closely tied to our actual environments, we will never need to retire—but will in fact live a life of retirement. In the end, we will be happy people instead of be striving to be happy people.
I asked a Junior the other day in class, “Who are some role models that you and your friends look up to?” He hesitated for a few minutes before apprehensively saying, “Unfortunately, Mr. Stark, I can’t think of any role models. It seems to me that everybody my age looks up to people who are rich and famous. We don’t look up to people who are doing the right thing, we just look up to people who have the right things.” Unfortunately, I believe this to be very true in the younger generations today.
Perhaps films like Happy People provide heroes for young men and women to follow. Perhaps we are all role models in some sense, providing an example of what to be, or not to be.
What kind of role model are you? A happy one?
Does this title read Mama MIA (Missing in Action) or Mama Mia (my mother)?
It’s truly hard to say and all dependent on who you ask.
The last year of my life can be summed up by mostly one word…Mama.
Before having children Bob and I wondered, how can we get more time? More time together, more time to do what we want, more time to work for ourselves, more LIFE. We really filled in every hour. We like to move and do. Some could describe us as action people. Not necessarily thrill seekers (speaking for myself, anyone who knows my husband knows he most definitely IS), but we are constantly doing something.
When our first daughter was born, it took so much adjusting, slowing down and accepting we can’t do it all. And although we never felt like we *could* do it all before, it felt even more true. At times, this beautiful blessing felt trapping, restricting, and incredibly frustrating. We slowly came to terms (or more so) with our limitations, and then our second daughter was created.
A few weeks after Marlena came into this world, I said, “What the hell did I do over the summer with all my free time.” Suddenly I was hit with this realization that I had had time before to do things…but now. Now my time was zero. Especially being super vigilant because our fresh little baby was born with a broken arm,
Bob became Mr. Stark at the school in Ninilchik and was working full time, leaving me at home with the 2 under 2 (technically 2 years and 2 weeks). I quit my side job and have dedicated myself to the stay at home mom thing. I love it but also the demands of a newborn alongside a sister who had been the CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE to both her parents who now were pulled in different directions, became really overwhelming.
The thing is…people do this ALL. THE. DAMN. TIME. I really couldn’t understand it. I put restrictions on myself for “No Yell Days”. My God, who was I turning into?
So I started going MIA – missing in action. I cut back doing things that were unnecessary. I’ve dropped all forms of social media. I stopped mopping the floor every week. I quit having a designated laundry day. I stopped (or at least outwardly) trying to have so much “order”.
By doing many more cut backs, I found time where I didn’t know I had it. I make time. I know people have always told me, and especially since becoming a parent, “you have to make time”, but I literally couldn’t think of how or what the hell that even meant.
I am far from expert, but now I am able to have my yoga practice 60-90 minutes a day , I get dressed EVERYDAY ya’ll, I take a walk every afternoon, I am meeting friends on a regular basis for hours every week, I’ve skied more than I ever have in my life, and at night time you can find me up in the loft journaling, studying business or working on my beading or upcoming yoga workshop.
The one aspect that needs more priority is finding quality time with my best friend, my husband. I can understand the phrase “two passing ships”. I don’t feel that quite describes us- every second he is home from work we are glued at the hip, but my my how it has changed. I’m looking forward to the last day of school and having him home again all day with our new and improved schedule.
It is very often that I feel I don’t have much to teach, especially to my husband who is incredibly intelligent and can figure out almost anything quickly. But I am looking forward to showing him the ropes here at home 24/7 in the self-care department of parenthood. I’m excited to inspire that big ol brain of his and encourage him to carve the time out every single day for his writing. And to be that unbreakable family unit we’ve always been.
It’s in our values and we are making it happen.
Can I get a “Mama mia!” out of this!