An August surprise: Alaska News Brief August 2022

Last week I flew down to Iowa to surprise my sister Julie for her 50th birthday. It really did feel like conspiratorial fun.

Full moon at the lake on Julie’s birthday. Photo by Julie Miller.

She had asked if I could come down several months ago, but I told her tickets were expensive (they were) and that maybe I could come down in the fall instead. The ruse worked. The weekend before I left, I asked her about her birthday plans.

“I’m doing nothing,” she said, “and I don’t want to do anything.”

Well, we couldn’t have her do “nothing”—it was her 50th after all.

She had no clue about my arrival until late in the evening when my brother-in-law Jason said, “Come on, we have to go pick up someone at the airport.”

Nothing’s more fun than seeing a joyful look of surprise on someone’s face. “I’m glad it was you!” she said with a big hug, and I’m glad she was glad!

The surprise carried to the next day when we loaded up and headed to a cabin at Lake Okoboji, just me, Julie and Jason, and my beloved niece Laney and nephew Rogan. My siblings spent more time at the lake over the years than I did. I only went once after I graduated from high school and my mom rented a cabin for a month.

Breakfast with family. Photo by Kristin Clark.

Let me tell you, nothing beats hanging out with Julie and laughing about old times.

“Remember seeing Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine in Okoboji?

“Remember laying on that dock in the sun listening to those 80s songs?

“Remember doing water skiing lessons with Dave who came to pick us up at our dock? Well, he’s still teaching water skiing here!”

And, of course, nothing beats hanging out with kids and watching their joys and outbursts. Laney won a “large” prize right away at the amusement park, and all of us conspired to help Rogan win a stuffed sloth.

These kinds of trips feel out of time, in a way, and back in time, forward in time, all at the same time.

Laney’s winning ball throw. Photo by Julie Miller.

While I was gone and disconnected from my laptop and work, so many other surprising things were happening in the world—so many cruel or needless or corrupt things that no longer feel surprising. That makes me sad because there are too many negative surprises that are so unnecessary and unproductive. Surprises should mean something.

I guess a surprise can be just a small wish coming true, like someone showing up for your birthday. Or you can feel surprised when something happens after you’ve given up, like sustained action on climate and the passage of legislation that could mean making that happen. Remarkably, the Inflation Reduction Act finally passed after being dead in the water for months. (We talk about climate benefits of this legislation and also the huge trade-offs that turn Alaska into a sacrifice zone in one of the stories in this month’s newsletter.)

I guess you might say that surprises are as certain as change and sometimes the origins of it. It’s possible that the climate pieces in the Inflation Reduction Act will nourish a larger transformation in how we use and produce energy, and who benefits from it.

I sure hope so.

On a smaller scale, surprises have certainly changed how we do things at Trustees. The “surprise” of the COVID pandemic led to our making flexibility and remote work a reality for everyone. The “surprise” of inflation has prompted larger increases in salaries for our staff that I am proposing to our Board in early September for our next fiscal year starting October 1. The “surprise” of folks moving on to other opportunities has compelled us to reevaluate where the workload falls and how we can, together, address it.

And obviously the “surprise” of all-day Zoom meetings and addiction-centric social media has helped us recognize that to be human beings means being together in person again—by a lake, in the woods, around a fire, at the dinner table, in the conference room, on the trail, in the kitchen, however we can make it happen.

Jason, Laney, and Rogan on the flying swings. Photo by Julie Miller.

Doing that means changing our online habits. It means recognizing conflicts and divisions exacerbated by not dealing face-to-face, and spending time with each other to work through them and build more resilience with and for each other.

It’s too easy to do and say things on social media without knowing the facts, having a genuine purpose, or being accountable to kindness; it’s too easy to be nasty and cruel without consequences in virtual spaces; it’s too easy, honestly, to latch onto “believing what I want” when staring at a screen rather than listening and learning with curiosity.

My sister told me a story about her kids spending too much time playing multi-player games on iPads where trash talking is the norm. That trash talking leaked into their lives in bigger and more destructive ways. Julie took the iPads away. There was some initial pleading to get them back, but now, Laney and Rogan don’t seem to miss them. The majority of the time I was with them, Laney and Rogan spoke kindly to each other and played well together—through several games of Life. There was sibling bickering, of course, but not as much as I remember having with my own siblings!

We all need to do the same for ourselves—walk away from our screens and toward each other. We need to figure out how to spend time with people, in all their fullness. We need to remember the sheer joy of gleefully helping a kid win a stuffed sloth at the amusement park, knowing he’ll clutch it against his chest and sleep with it at night.

It’s surprising what the little things can remind you about and teach you. Thank you Julie, Jason, Laney, and Rogan for a wonderful week at the lake!


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