26 September 2010

a primer on music and travel in Southeast Alaska

I got to take my first flights since we arrived in Alaska this weekend. This also marks the first time that I've left Baranof and Japonski Islands since our arrival in Sitka nearly three months ago. This ALSO marks the first time that I flew on Alaska Airlines, which experience I cannot recommend highly enough.

Some reflections and observations:

Music is very different in Alaska.
This isn't just a matter of the distances or the directors or even the students. The whole system is different. Southeast Alaska is a region that runs from Skagway to Metlakatla (an area similar in size to New England), and there were about 15 band and choir teachers present at our meeting. Two schools also have strings programs and there were one or two people potentially missing. The ethos of this group is something quite special. Over the day and a half that I was in Ketchikan meeting with everyone, there were numerous times where people openly imposed on each other and it was fine because of the trust and friendship that existed. If someone had access to a resource (such as a car), that resource was made available to anyone else in need. My impression is that this attitude is not limited to this one meeting, but persists throughout the school year as well.

We were meeting to conduct auditions for the Honor Choir and Honor Band for the festival in Wrangell next month. Where I've previously been involved in music (Ohio, Michigan, and Arizona), these auditions would involve bringing every student to a central location for live auditions in front of individual adjudicators. Based on one expert's opinion, the students would be ranked and selected. Here, the expense of moving all of those students and the lack of availability of sufficient adjudicators has resulted in an interesting system. Each director brings a stack of CDs, representing the best efforts of each student who auditions. In groups ranging from two at a time to five or more, the directors listen to the CDs, discuss their merits, and rank them. This results in an amazing amount of fairness and consistency in ratings, as evidenced when two different groups rated five or six duplicate Soprano I and Soprano II auditions in the exact same order (some students submitted multiple CDs for different voice parts or instruments). By using this system, we didn't have to provide chaperons, lodging, or transportation for students and were able to spend some very good time getting to know each other when most Outside directors at similar events just run around in circles, nodding at each other in passing.

Next month, we will be bringing over 100 students to Wrangell, where a relatively typical Honor Festival will occur, led by guest conductors and involving intense rehearsals capped off with a performance. Students will homestay with families in town, though, resulting in a very different experience than in most other places. Because of the unusual nature of travel here, the Juneau and Prince of Wales Island programs will be arriving at 1am on Friday morning by ferry (the festival starts Sunday and runs until Tuesday) and they won't be leaving until Wednesday. The best times and rates I can find for myself and the others traveling with me appear to be $1200 for four people (we're flying about 40 miles).

In the spring, we all get together for another big festival. Most places hold two different spring festivals, one focused on large ensembles and the other focused on solo and ensemble performances. Both are competitive, and solos and ensembles that get high ratings can travel to other competitions. Here, the competition is completely gone and both events are combined into one. From Wednesday through Saturday, there are morning adjudicated performances by soloists and small ensembles. These are frequently well-attended, because all of the large ensembles are also in town at the same time. The adjudicators award two scores: "S" for truly superior performances and "C" for comments, given to everything else. Following the morning performances, the adjudicators meet up and select the best three solos or ensembles to present command performances at the evening concert that night. In the afternoon, all students and directors have the ability to attend a series of clinics, and the evening culminates in a concert featuring several large ensembles and the command performances. This repeats every day except Saturday, where the morning is devoted to jazz ensemble performances from those programs that have them. Again, students will homestay with local families. Because of the non-competitive nature of this event, students and directors both look forward to it as an opportunity to meet up with old and new friends without the pressure and rivalry so frequently present elsewhere. The students are truly excited to see and hear each other's performances and appreciate them for the musicality presented, not for the ability to tally up mistakes in an attempt to one-up each other. The anecdote was shared yesterday of several members of a Juneau-Douglas High School choir who approached the Sitka High director and requested to sit in on his dress rehearsal because they wanted to hear his choir and would have to miss the performance for their own warmup. Students just don't do that anywhere else.

Flying is very different in Alaska.
People fly in Alaska like they take the bus or light rail in most other places. I flew three planes this weekend (SIT-KTN, KTN-JNU-SIT), all 737-400s with 50% occupancy or far less. On my second two flights, the boarding announcement went something like this: "Alaska Airlines welcomes to you flight XX, service to XX. At this time, we'd like to begin preboarding for our Gold Star customers, passengers in need of assistance, families with small children, and our first class customers and all rows." I'm used to "all rows" coming a few minutes after the other groups, but it was really all said in the same breath last night. The gate agent welcomes each person by name, passengers board quickly, the safety instructions are given quickly, and the flight proceeds uneventfully (usually). Upon landing (usually a hard landing in order to rapidly decelerate the light plane on a short runway), the plane taxis to the gate with no wait (after all, JNU is a large airport here because it has 5 gates, all right next to each other) and the flight attendants are nowhere to be seen once the seatbelt sign goes off, because they know that everyone will be up and out fast and don't want to be in the way. Two of the three terminals I waited in were empty of passengers save for me at some times, as people don't show up any earlier than they need to for their flights. If you show up late enough, the personnel at the ticket counter will identify you by name when you walk in the door, as experienced by one of my colleagues!

A word on turbulence: if you've never flown in Alaska, chances are you've never experienced real turbulence. On the flight from SIT to KTN, we took off in ~25mph winds and landed in ~50mph winds with driving rain (small water spouts were observed in Sitka Channel later the same day). There was serious discussion of what would happen if we couldn't touch down on Gravina Island*. The descent was so rough that I felt actual pain in my head and back later on Friday as a result. Not only was the plane bouncing in the air, but it was fishtailing. It's not easy to impress Alaskans with your prowess as a pilot (again, they use airplanes like others use buses), but there was spontaneous applause at touchdown.

*Bridge to "Nowhere" interlude: Having now flown into Ketchikan and taken the ferry to and from Gravina Island, I can vouch that a) the ferry isn't bad, but it is kinda crappy and b) Gravina Island may be a junky airport and gravel pile, but a bridge would save a lot of hassle in the long term and, with the number of tourists who come in here (it IS the "Tijuana of Southeast Alaska"), it's worth the expense, John McCain and Sarah Palin be damned.

Fun note: my flight from JNU to SIT was on the Salmon-Thirty-Salmon! The overhead compartments behind first class are all decorated with native Alaskan sea creatures, which I thought was a nice touch.

21 September 2010

good news and bad

It's about 10:30pm on Tuesday night, as I am writing this. I'm home and the kids are asleep. Stephen, however, is in the emergency room dealing with a bout of what we believe might be a nasty case of pink eye. He's been screened, but the doc has not yet seen him, so I am just waiting for him to message me with the final verdict so we can plan out the rest of the week (whether or not he will be working, etc.). If you're like me, the very thought of pink eye gets your nerves to twitching and you're now doing everything you can to keep from reaching up and rubbing that phantom itch out of your eye.

In other news, we have just about the best landlords imaginable. Yesterday I was talking to Joe (Joe and his wife, Micki, are our landlords) about the goings on with our house. He wanted to let me know that he was going to have some scaffolding up to power wash and paint the exterior of the house over the next few days and I wanted to ask him about shelving solutions for our living room. The result was unbelievable: Joe offered to build and paint us some shelving at his own expense. Additionally, since the road crew will be on our street this week to repave it, Joe and Micki are paying to have our driveway paved at the same time. Again, this will not affect our rent agreement or payment schedule in any way. We are pretty excited to have a brand new driveway before winter sets in because our current gravel driveway will prove difficult if it gets icy. It's about a 10-foot vertical drive from street-level to our parking spot.

Even better news is that Porter took his first two steps today. After Stephen picked me up from work today, I took Porter out of the car and brought him inside the house. I set him down on the floor of the living room on his feet (he was still standing when I let go of him) and he squatted down to set the toy he was holding on the floor and stood back up without any assistance. I was standing about 5 feet away from him and watching him do all of this, so I took a step toward him and knelt down to call him to me. He reached out, took two big steps and landed a giant hug on me, before collapsing on the floor and crawling off to do something else. To be fair, Porter is now 14½ months old, which already puts him almost 2 months behind Seren at the same stage, but he has quite a bit more bulk to haul around than his sister did. Seren took her first steps at about 13 months and started fully walking about a month after that. So we'll keep you updated, but as those of you who have been through this before already know, learning to trust the feet beneath you is a long and trying process.

Update: Stephen has just returned from seeing the doc and he does not have pink eye. It appears to be a "corneal irritation," meaning something entered his eye under his contact lens and scratched his cornea, causing the redness and pain. This also means that Stephen is not contagious and will be able to return to work tomorrow. As a side note, I'd like to mention that this is the quickest e.r. visit I've heard of in a long time. Total time spent from the time he left to the time he returned home: ~1 hour.

18 September 2010

My Latest Creation

This latest culinary masterpiece of mine is an homage. I call it "What Elissa Ate (ages 8-15)." Keen-eyed observers will note the inclusion of kale, because that stuff just classes it all up.

"Colored noodles", big gob of margarine, Parmesan cheese, and kale

11 September 2010

2 quick things

First, WOW last night's sunset was amazing! Check out these pictures I took from my phone that don't even begin to show all the colors:

9/10/2010 7:29pm (what I saw: very pretty golden array)

7:36pm (what I saw: amazing pinks and purples)

7:37pm (what I saw: the entire sky and ocean on fire with crimson and orange)

I wish these pictures were half as good as the real thing, but I don't have much of a camera right now. :(

And second, we went to the last Sitka Farmer's Market today and we got some awesome produce!

one jar of rose hip jelly (right front), one bunch of chard (left), one bunch of young celery (center front), one jar of bull kelp chutney (right center), purple potatoes (center), and the smallest head of cabbage they had (center rear). Total paid: $28.50

09 September 2010

just a quick hello

Today I'm home with the kids because our babysitter called out sick. I spent my morning filling out long-overdue paperwork to get Porter's CDIB and replace Seren's card. The rest of my day will be spent cleaning up various messes and trying to steal a nap at some point, before loading the kids up in the car and heading out to pick up some items I dropped off at the jeweler for repair and then to MEHS to have dinner with Stephen and our group of students in the school cafeteria.

Last week was the first Extended Family Night at MEHS, where we had a chance to meet our group (most of them, anyway), try the cafeteria fare, and view the chaos that is Family Night first-hand. It was fun. We have a pretty good group of kids and Seren immediately made friends with one of the girls, who ended up taking her through the line to get her plate and helping her eat all of her food. This ritual will continue to take place every other Thursday night at the place of our choice (our home, the cafeteria, a restaurant, or whatever). On one hand, it's a relief not to have our own home set up for 10 kids every Wednesday night, but I do miss the personal aspects of Advisee Dinner. I only hope that we are able to build similar relationships with these kids. That said, any of our Orme kids who are reading this can rest assured that we miss you terribly and that Seren still talks about all of you. You'll always be family.

Speaking of our kids, Seren and Porter are doing very well. Seren still surprises me with how smart she is and Porter is developing into quite a little person. Porter is currently cutting the last of his first year molars, but seems to be handling it well, aside from an upset belly. Seren is starting to learn phonics and draws associations to that in almost everything she does. She spent the whole morning at the dining table looking at the pictures on her placemat, saying things like "Baseball. B-b-b-baseball." She's a smart cookie. Porter still isn't walking, but he is loving his walker. He zooms around the house at top speed on his own, but he loves it when Seren pushes him around. They play so well together.

I'm afraid that's all the updates I have for now. The last Sitka Farmer's Market of the season will be on Saturday, so we are looking forward to being there. The last cruise ship will dock on the 29th, so I don't expect to be working past that point. We are definitely starting to feel like this is our home now. We're still unpacking and settling in, but Sitka is a good place for us. I just hope this winter will be as easy as everyone says. :)

07 September 2010

60°F and blindingly sunny!

Yes, this is the view from my school as I do lunch duty today. There are days when I can't see to the last light post due to the fog, but the sun is nice, too. Naturally, this is the day when I'm not wearing my contacts, so I can't wear my sunglasses to cope with the brightness.

06 September 2010

a great day in Sitka, Alaska!

This is the first Labor Day I've celebrated in a few years, as this is the first public school I've worked for in a few years. I've got to admit that this has been a better holiday than most!

This morning, JoElle and I did our best to sleep in, but we still have children. It was a slow morning nevertheless, but we got out of the house before noon. Once out, we took the kids, our dog, my Utilikilt and our FiveFingers to the Starrigavan Recreation Area. We walked the boardwalk through the estuary and had a good time watching some songbirds in the grass and the last of the salmon spawning run (humpies mostly, better known as pink salmon to people who don't fish up here, also regarded as the worst-tasting of the salmon species). After walking the boardwalk, we crossed the road to try to walk along the bay on the Mosquito Cove loop, but the trail was closed due to bear activity recently. We drove around Starrigavan briefly, then drove to another spot where we could watch the waves crashing on the shore. Seren and I got out to throw rocks in the ocean and we all were amused by seeing surfers working as hard as they could to catch some 5-footers. When we were done walking around, we dropped the dog off at home and I changed into some more casual attire.

Before leaving the house, we found our driveway blocked by an unfamiliar vehicle. As I turned around to see who it was, I found Bill Hutton at the window of our car! Bill is the former Superintendent at MEHS and was the man who headed up the search that hired me. I met him in person for the first time about a week ago and we had a really good talk at that time, and he was standing in our driveway just now with a grin on his face and a bag of fresh halibut in his hands. He wished us a happy Labor Day, passed off the fish, and checked to make sure that the apartment was fine for us (he'd checked it out for us when we still lived 3000 miles away). After I ran the fish in to the fridge, we got back out on the road.

We headed into town and hit up the Agave Restaurant because Seren had been expressing a desire for fish (I thought about cooking what we'd just received, but JoElle was enjoying a day out in the sun). We got the kids fish and chips, JoElle picked up a halibut fish taco, and I got a prawn and rice platter. We were all very happy with the food and worked it off by walking around on Lincoln Street downtown. We were very pleased to find out that FiveFingers shoes will be arriving in town this spring, so we may work on saving up to get the models we've both had our eyes on. We wrapped up our roaming by stopping for a shake and a chocolate root beer float at Harry Race Pharmacy, then let Seren play around a bit on the grass at Totem Square. With Porter wiped out, we finally came home. All in all, a very good day.

Starrigavan Estuary - we live in a truly beautiful place!
JoElle is obsessed with the size of these slugs.
See? Obsessed.
A heron fishing in the estuary.
Humpies busy rotting (some live, some dead).
JoElle and Seren playing in Totem Park, with Sitka Channel and Japonski Island behind them.

02 September 2010

unexpected day home

So, I'm not supposed to be home today. In fact, I was at work a bit early, tracked down some information I needed to resolve an important question, met with another faculty member and fixed a technology issues I've been having, and began prepping my classes. I was getting ready to pull down a tenor sax and start figuring out how to fix its poorly-sealing octave key when I got the text messages from the kids' babysitter saying that Porter had not only had a blowout diaper this morning, but he'd also thrown up twice within an hour.

I quickly checked with JoElle and we determined that I could get out of work easier than she could (she's hourly, whereas I have a few days of leave built up already). I then hurried over to the office, where it was determined that one of our AmeriCorps volunteers would be able to cover things for me today (fortunately, he was once the drum major of his high school band, so he has a musical background and won't be completely lost). Following that, I rushed out a set of sub plans and got on the road. Both kids are now home with me (turns out that Porter had puked a third time before I got there) and Seren's working her way through a bowl of the soup that I made for Porter (chicken broth with brown rice, carrots, and celery, of which he ate about six spoonfuls) while Porter naps in her bed because his room needs fumigated from the aforementioned blowout.

So, since I'm home and have some time on my hands with the sick one napping and the other watching Toy Story, here's a bit of an update on what I've been doing these past two weeks.

Last Monday, I got to meet the MEHS students for the first time. We have students from as far away as the International Date Line and Barrow, so Sitka is an experience for some of them. There are also some locals and a good number from the Anchorage area.

We spent the first two and a half days of last week doing an activity known as Edgecamp. This is intended as a combination of orientation, icebreaker for new students (and faculty), and pep rally for the school year. It succeeded to some degree on all of those counts. I was heading up one of the hikes that half of the students did (in 50-student groups), hoping to be able to meet a bunch of kids and convince them to join my music classes. I don't know how many were converted by our conversations, but I had a great time hiking about ten miles in two days and seeing some awesome sights (everything from starfish to hermit crabs to spawning salmon).

I've been riding my bike to work every day, which means that I cross the O'Connell Bridge (right) twice each day. It's a lot taller than it looks in that picture, which is nice for my thighs.

I love working where I do. I'm only teaching three classes right now due to scheduling arrangements (and I want to move one of those classes to a different period next semester). We're on a semesterly block schedule, so most teachers only teach four classes and most students only take four classes (much like being in college). I have 19 kids in the choir, 6 in my general music class, and 6 in the pep band. If I can resolve the scheduling issue for the pep band, that number should double at least.

The priorities of the faculty and administration are in the right place. I don't know how many times my principal has told me so far that "family comes first." I really appreciate knowing that he means that (in fact, he repeated it to me again this morning when I was requesting time to take care of the sick kid). He expanded on that thought once by explaining that "if your family isn't happy, you won't stay here, and we want you to stay." If all administrators learned that on the first day of their Educational Administration MA, 80% of faculty problems would disappear. As far as the teachers go, there's a small amount of cynicism (you always have that when you ask a bunch of intelligent and highly-trained people to work together and follow one or two people's leadership), but a remarkable amount of energy and enthusiasm for each other and for the kids. I look forward to working with my colleagues and to being on teams with them because I know that I'm going to come away charged up.

Sitka is still treating us and the kids well. Seren loves going to the babysitter and getting out around town. Porter is still at the heavy lump of constant trouble stage of development, but enjoying himself a lot as well. JoElle is tired of working (retail is rough on her), but is still seeming happier and healthier than I've seen her in a while. It may be that having somewhat regular hours and needing to put on work clothes helps (those of you familiar with depression will know that such things help). The stupid dog has learned a new trick, too. Porter loves to throw his food when he's full, bored, overwhelmed by the amount of food in front of him, feeling contrary, awake, etc. Invariably, we yell at him and usually give him a slap on the hand, which is followed by him hollering for a few seconds. Nika has learned that this combination of noises ("Porter!!" *slap* "AAAAAA") means that she needs to come over and clean up the noodles or carrots or kale or meat that has been thrown on the floor. As long as it came from him, she'll eat anything except cabbage.

Later today, we'll be going to the school (if the kids aren't too sick) to have dinner with our "extended family," which is somewhat like the advisee group that we had at Orme. I'll be working this Saturday, because MEHS does Saturday school once a month in an effort to both speed the school year and increase the number of class meeting times.

We'll try to not wait so long before posting again, but it's really easy to get into a routine and forget that there's a lot of stuff we're doing that might be interesting to family and friends.