Sunday, November 19, 2006

trapped under something heavy.

that's the third excuse harry provides sally in the immortal 1989 rob reiner film. harry is leaving a message on her answering machine, to the effect of:

hi, sally, it's harry. the fact that you're not picking up means (a) you're not home, (b) you're home but don't want to talk to me, or (c) you're home, desperately want to talk to me but are trapped under something heavy.

if the answer is (a) or (c), please call me back.

well, I've been home. and I do want to talk to everyone. and I could make up something vaguely antarctic and dangerous-sounding, like I fell into a crevasse or I was lost in a condition 1 out on the sea ice for three weeks or a skua pecked my left eye out and it's been a bitch trying to learn to type one-eyed, I have no really good excuse. life got in the way. man, I hate it when that happens.

so. first things first.

I'm seeing someone. that's my excuse. and he's fantastic, and I really really really like him, and I prefer to spend time with him after a long day at work rather than, say, sit in the computer kiosk uploading photos.

who is he? hint: there is a photo of him in this posting. in a halloween costume.

mcmurdo celebrated halloween in usual high style on 28 october. for those of you who may not have read last season's halloween posting, the day before all hallows' eve is akin to a presidential election + the last episode of sex and the city + salad night in the galley + the world cup. in other words, it's a big deal. people spend weeks preparing their costumes, coming up with some astoundingly creative themes...the three amigos, complete with hand-embellished sombreros and bolero jackets; a king-kong-and-empire-state-building duo; a 'flight lunch' group consisting of an apple, a sandwich, a cookie, a juice box, and a bag of potato chips; and so on, so forth.

here are some photos of us in all our skua-scavenged finery. I was carmen miranda (thanks christy for the costume loan!). delaney (oops! I just told you his name!) went as zeus, complete with foil-covered thunderbolt, grecian sandals, and safety-pinned sheet-toga. amber was ms. lucifer.

and tate (right) was the damn cutest little fairy princess in all of the hawaiian kingdom. (yeah, I know she lives in mililani, not antarctica, but can you blame me for throwing her photo in with the rest?)

as I was typing the beginning of this posting yesterday, at my desk in the Chalet, someone came in and said that there were six emperor penguins out on the apron. that's the area out next to the sea-ice runway where the C-130s and C-17s fuel, pick up and drop off pax and cargo, and where wildlife sometimes gets a little confused and decides to stick around and look at the other funny-shaped penguins wearing boots and overalls.

luckily, our Chalet deck looks right out onto the runway. myrna has a pretty good pair of binoculars in her desk, so we ran out onto the deck and took turns peering through. yup, six emperors, all right, being gently and gingerly herded by a bunch of firefighters out of the way of the roaring prop engines, pallet-laden forklifts, and passenger vans buzzing all over the ramp.

this is a good sign. it means that there may be open water close by. which means that, for the first time in six years, the sea ice may break up sufficiently that we'll see even more abundant and diverse wildlife -- killer whales, all manner of seals and penguins -- right up next to mcmurdo station later this season as things warm up.

the reason the sea ice around ross island has been stubbornly frozen for the last six years is because of the interference of a massive bottle-shaped iceberg, chummily named B-15, twice the size of delaware, that broke off the ross ice shelf and wedged itself out between us and open water. for years, the iceberg blocked the currents that would normally have come in and helped to wear away the seasonal sea ice. as a result, the USAP had to scramble for additional icebreakers to forge a channel to mcmurdo during resupply season, and wildlife sightings were few and far between (without nearby open water, seals, penguins and killer whales had to stick to their breathing holes much further north. happily for us and the seagoing mammals, a storm in october 2005 in the gulf of alaska generated waves that traveled over 8000 miles southward. these waves, sometimes reaching heights of 40 feet, repeatedly pummeled B-15, eventually breaking it up into a thousand tiny shards and sending it on its merry way.

one of the world's foremost authorities on icebergs, dr. doug macayeal, is a grantee based here at mcmurdo. he's a genial, hearty and self-deprecating fellow whose sunday-night science lectures are well-attended, and he's often quoted in science journals and other media, some of which you can see here:

the weather has warmed up a bit in the past couple of weeks. (again, I use the term 'warmed up' in a relative sense. it's warmer here than at the South Pole. but it's a helluva lot colder than, say, Waipahu.) I've been able to get outside for a couple of short runs after work. running is a funny thing when you're wearing long underwear, wind pants, a wicking layer, a fleece jacket, a windbreaker, a face mask, a neck gaiter, gloves, and a hat. you burn like eight thousand extra calories just trying to carry the weight of all that clothing. oh, and polarized sunglasses for the glare coming off the sea ice. *sigh* I love this place.

another 'warm'-weather activity: hiking the armitage loop, a 5-mile circuitous trail that can be started or ended at mcmurdo or scott base.

we had a bit of a field-science scare this past week, something I likely never would have heard about were I not working for the area directorate this season. a group of grantees doing glacial research in the fosdick mountains, across mcmurdo sound about a 2.5-hour flight from where we're located, got hit with bad weather at about 9:30 pm one night. when I say bad weather, that's a relative term; 60 F is bad weather in honolulu. bad weather in the fosdick mountains amounts to wind speeds of 100 mph, with gusts even higher; bad weather in the fosdick mountains is capable of blowing away snowmobiles. bad weather in the fosdick mountains will force five people to huddle in one tent overnight, with one liter of water to share among them, unable to fire up a camp stove to melt more water because the tent is not adequately ventilated and to step outside would mean losing the stove too. they spent one miserable night in the tent, smashed together, unable to eat or drink or sleep or do much except communicate with Mac Ops by high-frequency radio. the next morning, the weather broke sufficiently that they were able to go outside and discover that two other tents, contrary to what they had thought, had not blown away but were merely filled with snow; also, one snowmobile was stuck on a fuel tank upside-down but still operational. the visibility was still bad; a light fixed-wing aircraft was sent in to do a food-and-water drop, but had to turn around without approaching the landing site. I was chatting with the pilot later that night in the ceramics room. he said that there had been absolutely no horizon as he approached the camp, just whiteness.

I'm no expert, but I'd think that a horizon would be something I'd like to have if I were flying over some remote antarctic mountains.

luckily, the following day the group was able to make it to a pickup location, where they were met by a Twin Otter and hauled out to mcmurdo. the fate of their equipment and their research is still being determined.

not to change the subject entirely, but here's a cheery picture of me and my roommates trying to pose as luggage and get ourselves to CHC for the weekend. from left to right: KB, karen, me and susie.

here's a picture of some things I've been making for the upcoming craft fair. if you can't get enough freshies in your diet, you can always supplement by adding some to your wardrobe.

a couple of weeks ago I was browsing online for a new poem. the women's bathroom on our hall is about the dullest place on station - sickly yellow fluorescent light, molded plastic shower stalls with beige vinyl curtains, stainless-steel toilet stalls, and this nasty generic-brand floral-scented bathroom freshener spray in an aerosol can (which amuses me to no end, seeing as antarctica sits right underneath the ozone hole and the can's label clearly states 25% VOCs). so every week since WINFLY, I've been putting up a new poem on the wall, so we can read while we floss. it just makes the space a little less utilitarian and a little more happy.

I couldn't find any poetry that was pleasing to me on this particular occasion, so I decided on the highest form of flattery: bastardization.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Skua

(after Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird")

Among nine silent dormitory buildings,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the skua.

I was of three minds,
Like a food waste bin
In which there are three skuas.

The skua whirled in the polar winds.
It was a small part of the arrival of mainbody.

A GA and a shovel
Are one.
A dining hall tray and a sandwich and a skua
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The skua dive-bombing its victim
Or just after.

Icicles filled the truck wheel-well
With drips of mud.
The shadow of the skua
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
A proud and unfathomable dread.

O Carhartt-clad men of FEMC,
Why do you imagine stately penguins?
Do you not see how the skua
Struts around the tires of the Ford E-350 vans about you?

I know beef cannelloni
And Caribbean tofu with linguini;
But I know, too,
That the skua is involved
In what I know.

When the skua flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many recreational trails.

At the sight of skuas
Flapping in brown chaos,
Even the jaded OAEs
Would cry out sharply.

He rode out to Willy Field
In a Delta.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The orange bulk of his ECW bag
For skuas.

The sea ice is melting.
The skua must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And Mac Weather called a Condition II.
The skua sat
In the eaves of D-207.

skua: a large, brown-bodied seagull-looking bird that usually scavenges things like baby penguins or baby seals, but is not above dive-bombing unsuspecting people walking back to their dorms with trays of food or cellophane-wrapped sandwiches.

food waste bin: a dumpster into which the galley staff deposit bags of kitchen-generated waste, such as plate scrapings, potato peelings, fatty meat scraps, and so forth. skuas like to hang out on or near these bins.

mainbody: the austral summer season, during which there are an average of 1000 people living and working at mcmurdo station.

GA: general assistant. a bottom-rung position requiring no special skills that is often tasked with shoveling snow.

FEMC: facilities engineering, maintenance, and construction. the department containing the electrician, plumbing, and painting trades, whose employees often wear carhartt-brand overalls.

OAE: old antarctic explorer. designates anyone who is no longer a FNG (f*cking new guy).

Willy Field: williams field, an airfield made of groomed snow where C-130s land on skis.

ECW: extreme-cold-weather gear, issued in an orange canvas duffel bag in christchurch.

Mac Weather: the agency on station responsible for weather forecasting and observing.

Condition II: weather meeting any of the following conditions - wind chill greater than -75F, wind speeds of 48 - 55 knots, visibility of less than a quarter mile.

all right! I'm off to drive a delta to cape evans! crossing my fingers for a wildlife sighting.

penguiny love,