Substantial stuff.

As a child I played with a manual typewriter, loving the clacking, the fabulous bell that sounded when you whacked the return lever. You had to swing your whole arm to work the keys. They were pinkie crushers. Secretaries with manual typewriters must have had incredible muscles, under their nylon dresses. They could have crushed nuts between their fingers like movie martial arts heroes. Mad Men type men could not have realized this crunching potential, or they would have given these ladies a whole lot more room.

Chief McMillan taught typing. In his class, there were electric typewriters, small ones, in harvest gold and avocado. These required such a light touch, but still had the bell, which would ring with the push of a button. Chief would loudly chant the typing mantras, “a-s-d-f, j-k-l-;” and something or other about a fox. I loved that class, the chanting and the clacking and the ringing. It was probably the most useful class I ever took. I once had a very high score on a typing test required to get a state job, but was passed over because of being “too artsy”.

My parents bought me an electric typewriter when I graduated from high school. It was a Smith Corona, and came in a spiffy plastic suitcase. It was much loved for all 4 years of my undergrad career; so luxurious to be able to type in the comfort of my own dorm room.

As an intern at a woodland nature center, I met my first IBM Selectric. Near my tiny corner in the basement, the Selectric had its own desk. To create letters on the page, it had a mysterious ball, similar to the one in the planetarium that creates stars on the ceiling. Deliciously solid, heavy as hell. It took two strong men to move the Selectric, and maybe a few simple machines. It was reliable, and never had issues such as you would get with typewriters of a lesser pedigree. So sad for the TV detectives who had long relied on sticking key clues in ransom notes to find the bad guys. Most amazingly, it had a feature where you could back up and correct a letter. Honestly, this was a miracle. It could remember a whole letter, maybe even two. Back in the day it was hard to get a clean copy of any document. They were always gummed up with whiteout, or corrected with pencil, or retyped repeatedly. So imagine the epiphany, if you noticed your mistake quickly, like within a letter or two, the wondrous Selectric could correct it for you.

In grad school the computer lab was full of original Macintosh computers, with their tiny gray flickering screens and ram disks. The 10 or so dot matrix printers were deafening. In this room I realized I could get migraines. But tearing away the perforated edges of my dot matrix masterpieces was incredibly satisfying. There was also a laser printer, but it cost a bunch of money to use, and always got the ellipses wrong. My advisor was an ellipsis Nazi.

I saw an IBM Selectric through the window of a dusty insurance office today. A relic. I realize now that the Selectric was one of the last of the dinosaurs. Once upon a time, useful machines had a presence, they were behemoths, they were not disposable. Cars were made of steel and had deep voices. Computers took up whole buildings, punched holes in cards, acted directly on other objects. Devices didn’t go to coffee shops. You couldn’t slide them under the couch. The Selectric, like its kin, was a solid citizen, it owned the space it took up. It got the job done.


just in case you needed more about the IBM Selectric…


Ravens revisited


Here’s a rewrite of the raven piece, as presented in the class I’m taking.

Of ravens and birthdays

About a month after my 29th birthday one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. He was also 29.

That March morning we shared a cup of tea, enjoying the warm morning sun, rare in Alaska. He irritated me by throwing his tea bag down on the grassy lawn, looking at me expectantly. He always loved a good scolding. I made him pick it up. Ready for adventure, he pointed at Mount Jumbo, wanting to climb that day. I was too busy, but made him promise to stop climbing when he got to the snow; not having the right gear for the slippery stuff. But he was the one who careened down steep Juneau streets barefoot on his bike; danced barefoot in crowded bars, ran around barefoot-crazy-Australian in the snow. Ignored the square dance caller, making up outrageous moves of his own.

We hugged goodbye after drinking our tea, and that was that. I never saw him again. Stunningly beautiful day, he couldn’t resist the pull of the summit. Up is easy. Down can be deadly.

I fell too in a way, introduced to tragedy, crushed to the ground by sudden unfathomable loss. During the search for him, which took 2 days, there were a hundred of us out there, calling his name, literally looking high and low. And there were ravens. In Southeast Alaska native culture Raven is creator, bringer of life and light, lusty, trickster. In my personal culture they are friends.

The searchers up high saw ravens, felt drawn by the ravens. The most brilliant of birds, they guide hunters to game, signaling by “dumping their pack”, an aerobatic feat, a flip upside down in flight. It grabs your attention. You have to follow. When the body was found, there were ravens all around, but Tony was not disturbed. Ravens assemble and grieve for their fallen. I like to think that they gathered around him to lament his loss and ease his passage.

Ravens are a presence. They have flown so close by my head that the air, pushed by a wing, slapped my ear. They’ve razzle-dazzled my dog, flying within inches of his head to make him jump. They shove French fries under roof shingles. Their mating dance is a fluffed up strut fest. Raven voices are mystery, vast in range. Raven language a miracle, vast in variation. They hop sideways, and look at us with head cocked. If only we were smart enough to understand. Once a raven did a crazy trapeze act for me, hanging upside down from a branch with a large stick clamped in its beak; it squawk-laugh-shouted then let go, plummeting toward the ground, dropping the stick and flying away a bare instant before biting the dust.

When I was 29, my beautiful, free spirited, infinitely silly friend turned into a raven and flew away. For days, weeks, months after, I felt like the ravens were following me. It was probably magical thinking. They are everywhere in Alaska. But they were a comfort, making me feel less alone. In some mythologies ravens help the soul return to support mourners or right wrongs that were done during life. I would ask them, “Do you know Tony? Are you Tony?”.

My dear friend’s flight put my feet on the ground. His death made life more precious, made me love my people better. Raven, like Tony, doesn’t take himself too seriously; reminds me to keep it crazy. Now, living where ravens are scarce, I have to draw on the divinity of Raven more than the actuality. In this concrete-bound world, where people are more likely to die from weapon fire or car crashes, than flying from a mountain top, the madness of ravens, and the clean realities of wild places seem even more precious. Raven is free and unpredictable and outrageous, a guide through the changes, mistakes, regrets and love that we survive along the way. On a beautiful day just after my 29th birthday, one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. I fell too in that year, on that day. But I lived, transformed, and became more, by the grace of love and with the help of ravens.

Italian food is love

Growing up in western NY most of the neighbors were Italian. Italian food was just food, it was what you ate. When I moved to Alaska, it was a shock to find that there was no good Italian food. None. No sauce, no sausage, no real pizza. There were attempts at making these things, but really? No. I love Norwegians, but they just don’t make the best pizza. Meatballs? Beans and greens? Cannoli? No. Pasta fagioli? Oh hell no.

So when I moved New York’s capital region, Italian food became a quest; particularly after I missed the on-ramp to 787 in Troy, and found myself in front of Bella Napoli. It was love at first sight. A most wonderful, old-school Italian bakery with cases jammed full of classic Italian bread, pastries, cannoli, cookies, and the impossible sfogliatelle. The women behind the counter are not exactly surly, just classically gruff. The place is crowded, they are working fast. They fill cardboard boxes and tie them securely with cotton string from a dispenser overhead. They do not smile, do not chit-chat. They don’t care that you are in love with what they are selling. Just pay and get out of the way. I love this, not because I like grumpiness, but because there is no rancor involved. They are part of a culture that I can’t understand. A bakery secret society and I am not important. Even more intriguing are the men, who are kept in the back, with their five o’clock shadows, baking amazing things with white flour and white sugar, wearing white shirts stretched over muscles or flab. They offer nothing for vegans.


DeFazio’s in Troy is another food mecca, the best pizza around. They also make great sandwiches, in such an amusing way. There are two shops next door to each other, the groceria and the pizzeria. If you want a sandwich, you go in to the groceria, where there is a sandwich menu on the wall. After you choose, the guy behind the counter slices the appropriate meat on to a piece of waxed paper, and hands it to you. You take your handful of meat and go next door to the pizzeria, where they have the rest of the ingredients. When you arrive next door with your meat, it seems like you are expected, even though no obvious communication has occurred between the slicer guy and the guy with the keys to the bread and veggies. It is weirdly wonderful to take that hand full of meat for a walk. If you want pizza, it is best to call around noon for pickup at 5. Again it seems like a secret society. Floury guys run around the tiny warm kitchen doing their alchemy. They are close enough to touch, but you can’t really touch them because their world is a mysterious other dimension. They are cheerful. They have energy, they bounce when they walk, as if there were springs in their feet.


Andy’s and Sons, AKA Andy’s Italian Food and Deli, on Delaware Avenue in Albany, is my ultimate Italian deli. It is a tiny place, packed to the ceiling with food. Always full of people, some who know exactly what they want, and usually a few who wander in bewildered wonderment. The guys make great sandwiches, and seem so pleased when you order one. There are beautiful cheeses, homemade pasta, sauce and sausages, bountiful quantities of imported olive oils and such. The best thing, however, is the joy. You can feel it when you walk in the door. The air is charged with joy, and humor, and noise. There is yelling, the good kind, the kind about food, what you want on your sandwich. Big round men behind the counter have loud voices. They obviously have the kind of love for each other that is expressed through humor and mild abuse. One day a bunch of cops were waiting for sandwiches. Big sandwich guys yelling at big cops about sandwiches, it was wonderful. The counter guys can call women “hon” without being creepy or sexist. It is what you call a nice lady. I eavesdrop on their conversations. They are talking about food. The food they make, other people’s food, good food. It is slow food, worth the hours of bubbling, worth the wait. Their homemade salami is rich and flavorful, the gooey gorgonzola a rhapsody. Beans and greens, meatballs, why is this so good? This food is full of love. The room is warm and happy. I want them to adopt me, to share their adventure in flavor, to learn the secrets of sauce and spicy meats.