Tuesday, October 30, 2007

licking doorknobs: a big no-no.

this blog entry is being written from my bed. yesterday I tested positive for not one, but two strains of the flu: types A AND B. in spite of the fact that I diligently submitted my upper right arm for a flu shot two weeks ago, the shot only provides about 70% coverage in the face of the onslaught -- which this season is considerable. there are reportedly five strains of influenza in NZ alone, and the shot protects only against three of them.

in a community as small, interdependent and insular as mcmurdo, public health is everyone's concern. we are urged from well before we step foot onto the continent to wash our hands, use hand sanitizer, report to medical at the first sign of sickness for treatment, and so on. this season the flu has been sweeping through our ranks, decimating (or at least adversely affecting) every department from Logistics to Science Support to Station Services...and now, Area Directorate (where I work). folks have been holed up in their dorm rooms for five or six days, under pain of death (or at least a brisk scolding) if they dare emerge to so much as get their own food from the galley or check their e-mails at the computer kiosk. last night I thought I could sneak inconspicuously downstairs to return my tray and dishes to the dish window. as I was scraping leftovers into the food waste bin, I turned and saw Doc Harry, the kindly, white-haired, portly lead physician, storming his way up the stairs toward me. you're supposed to be in quarantine, young lady, he said. that means you do not leave your room.

oh, the guilt! I slunk back upstairs with my tail between my pajama'd legs.

so, I am confined to my room for the next couple of days, hacking and coughing and generally evoking lots of sympathy. friends must bring me my meals, and whatever work I want to accomplish has to be done on a loaner laptop from IT with the magic of dial-up internet (which is a privilege doled out to a few supervisors and managers so they can access their MS Outlook accounts and the network drives from their dorm rooms, and which, as you can see, I am taking full advantage of for the purpose of updating my blog). yesterday I watched movies and knitted. friends stopped by to wish me well or drop off treats. right now I'm waiting for keith and zach, two cook friends, to bring me a big pot of chicken soup that they're making on the sly in the kitchen.

the flu test itself was like medieval torture. first, the lab tech, a no-nonsense, squat middle-aged woman named sherry, swabbed the back of my throat with one of those long Q-tips, which always makes me want to yak. I came THIS close to barfing all over her no-nonsense bosom. and then -- oh the horror! it makes me want to weep just to recall it -- she took another Q-tip and shoved it all the way up each nostril and swabbed it around somewhere in my brain cavity. I swear it was like she was probing the back of my eyeballs. invasive! disgusting! painful! getting my nose pierced by a large, completely tattooed man in capitol hill was less traumatic.

but the test yields near-instant results. five minutes later, the flight surgeon walked in and pronounced me positive for -- impressively -- strains A and B. which is something, in all of sherry's years of being a lab tech, she had never seen before -- until this season at mcmurdo.

the biggest disappointment with this downturn of events is that today Ann Curry and the crew of the Today Show arrive at mcmurdo. they are in the air somewhere between NZ and here on a C-17 as I type, and are scheduled to touch down at 1357. they have been filming their adventures in NZ, which we only know from watching www.msnbc.com (we don't get NBC or any other network channel down here), and they are to be let off the plane first at the ice runway in order to film the pax emerging. they will certainly also film the arrival brief, which falls within my normal course of duties to organize and run -- but today, my co-worker melanie will have to conduct the brief, as me exhaling virus particles in a room full of people -- namely, the Dining Hall, and bigwigs such as Ms. Curry & Co. -- would certainly bode disaster. I can just see the headlines now --

Today Show's Ann Curry Sickened by Exposure to Influenza Type A and B

"I didn't realize how contagious I was," explained the McMurdo staff member who has been pinpointed as the station's Typhoid Mary, whose name is not being released. "I wanted to appear on the Today Show, even in a marginal capacity, and I recklessly endangered these high-profile, really nice visitors to our corner of Antarctica by turning a routine briefing into a festering hotbed of morbidity."

people have been emailing me from the states, wanting to know when the antarctica segments are going to air on the show. to tell you the truth, anyone back home with a TV is going to be far more in the loop than we are. I would suggest watching the show itself for details of the upcoming broadcasts, probably every day from now until the 9th when they depart for NZ. but if I get any info on this end, I will most certainly post it here as well. the current plan is for them to fly to pole on the 1st (the 31st for you all) but to be back in time to broadcast live from here on the 5th or 6th, and return to NZ on the 9th.

here's the current posting from the Today Show website:


I started feeling achy and a bit feverish this past saturday at the seasonal halloween party, where I was dressed as Rosie the Riveter and circulating amongst hundreds of other people drinking cheap NZ beer and taking pictures of each other. my costume, which I had planned and executed with razor-sharp focus, included a denim work shirt with campaign pins attached to the collar and a red-and-white nametag reading 'rosie' above the left chest pocket; brown work pants borrowed from a female carpenter; brown work boots borrowed from a friend who enjoys diving the skua bins; a black thermos lunchbox I had picked up in a value village in seattle; a red headkerchief borrowed from keith the cook; and an actual handheld riveter on loan from a friend who works in the heavy shop. rosie was a big hit. I walked around pretending to rivet people and flexing my considerable biceps, on which had been drawn with a sharpie a stylized american flag and a bald eagle.

well, back to coughing and hacking. pics coming as soon as I'm back at a computer that has a connection fast enough to upload them.

Monday, October 22, 2007

in the interest of keeping up foreign relations...

one of my job duties is to make sure that a set of twelve flags is flown every weekend off the chalet deck. the countries represented by these flags are the twelve original signatories to the antarctic treaty:

new zealand
south africa
united kingdom

the flags are usually flown over the weekend, so that folks can take advantage for photo ops, and taken down on monday morning so as to save them as much as possible from fraying in the whippy antarctic wind.

on some summer days, taking the flags down or putting them up is a pleasure. I get to be outside in the fresh air, with the whup-whup-whup of helicopter rotors coming from the helo pad below and planes coming and going off the ice runway. and then there are days like today, when mcmurdo is fading in and out of condition I, the winds have us at -15F and I can barely see crary lab next door. after a couple of minutes, I can't feel my fingers, and I can only take two or three flags down at a time before I have to come in and defrost my face.

here's a screen shot of the latest flight schedule, with multiple weather-related delays:

we have a bunch of polies stuck in mcmurdo waiting to head to the south pole. these poor people are chomping at the bit to get down there and start their turnover with the outgoing winter folks. but we're at the mercy of momma nature for the time being.

I can't believe it's the last week of october. this saturday is the big halloween bash in the gym. I'm gathering the last bits of my halloween costume, begging, borrowing and stealing from friends to complete the look. this time next week I'll have photos of the halloween debacle.

off to lunch, which today is pizza -- happiness!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

getting (re)schooled.

this morning I attended light vehicle training, a prerequisite for anyone who needs to drive one of the fleet of ford vans and trucks for work here. the chalet has a red pickup parked out front, and we're allowed to use it to go to the food room to pick up boxes of vittles or haul stuff to the dorms. myrna, christina and I have also been known to take it over to scott base on 'official' USAP business, which of course usually includes a trip to their gift shop.

it's been a couple of years since I was a shuttle driver and spending ten hours a day behind the wheel, so a refresher course was well in order. it covered basic safety things like wearing seat belts, sticking to the 15-mph speed limit in town, maneuvering around groups of red-parka-clad pedestrians, and not opening the door into a high wind. it also covers antarctica-specific goodies such as how to drive on a packed-snow road (key words: slowly and 4WD), giving way to heavy equipment like loaders and cranes, how to brake on a gravelly volcanic-soil slope (the mico brake is your friend), sitting out blizzards while stuck in the vehicle, and how to avoid embarrassing gaffes like driving away while the engine heater is still plugged into the building or driving over your chock.

a fellow shuttle driver and I commiserated after that first season about having to re-learn how to drive in the states. we had tremendous urges to honk twice before backing up and to wave at everyone we passed on foot, and were scared witless to go faster than about 30 mph.

here's a picture of our VMF - vehicle maintenance facility, known in local parlance as the heavy shop. this is the facility that fixes and maintains all vehicles on station, from ivan the terrabus to the tiniest little golf-cart. at christmastime, the heavy shop hosts a holiday shindig, where people eat fancy hors d'oeuvres, dance to live music, watch a slide show of pictures of peoples' families and pets sent from home, and pose for snapshots with santa claus atop a skidoo snowmobile.

speaking of posing for pictures, last week my niece Tate took her first school photos. the photographer had come to the preschool armed with a box of toys for the kids to hold in the pictures. most of the girls picked Hello Kitty, Barbie, or Dora the Explorer dolls. not Tate. she insisted on carrying a helicopter.

my sister tells me that one night while putting her down for the night, Tate asked mommy to go back to the dining room and put away the CandyLand game they'd been playing earlier. when my sister said she would do it later, Tate insisted she do it immediately -- because she didn't want the ants to get to it.

Tate has learned how to say the pledge of allegiance at preschool. my sister took her to grandpa garcia's grave (steve's dad, who died before Tate was born). they laid some flowers, and Tate proceeded to perform the pledge of allegiance at the gravesite. at which point she stood still, listened, and said, "I think he's clapping."

okay, back to work. problem du jour: finding office spaces for transient south pole management, technical event personnel, and sundry grantees in the two buildings controlled by the chalet. here's the spreadsheet I use to plot this joyous task.

vroom vroom,
chalet cindy

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

up, up and away...in my beautiful balloon...

here are a couple of pics of me in the cockpit of the C-17, en route from christchurch to mcmurdo on the 6th.

the crew chief was a local boy from kauai!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

a revolution in the girl world.

so. unbeknownst to most people I encounter, I've been wearing a little rubber accoutrement somewhere on my person for the last couple of days. you can't see it. it set me back about thirty bucks. and it's a little early to tell, but this tiny device may turn out to be life- (and planet-) changing. it's called The Keeper.

I first heard about The Keeper last season on the ice. a flier went up in the girls' restrooms on station that erin p., a recreation coordinator, was going to give a talk on a new kind of feminine hygiene product. the name of the talk was 'A New Surfboard for the Crimson Wave.' (oh - hey - guys, if you're the type that likes to leave the room when girls start talking about their periods, you may want to wait for the next blog entry. although being knowledgeable about womens' bodies and what happens to them between puberty and menopause is actually a good thing, especially if you plan on ever having a girlfriend or wife.)

so, intrigued, I went to the talk. erin is possibly the world's peppiest person. she's about as tall as I am, with curly blond hair and a megawatt smile, and has the energy of a hummingbird on speed. she gave the talk in the back room of the coffeehouse, where there are comfy chairs and sofas, and there were about fifteen girls gathered in them, waiting to hear what she had to say about this new surfboard.

she started out by saying that decades and decades of women using traditional feminine hygiene products has caused tons and tons of decaying garbage in landfills around the world. in addition, some of those products cause health problems -- toxic shock syndrome, anyone? but for several years now, she's been using something different, something that doesn't produce the same amount of waste, that pays for itself after a couple of months, and is easy and convenient to use and carry. it's called the Keeper.

the Keeper, as she explained, is a simple device -- a rubber or silicone menstrual cup -- that looks like a little funnel. it is designed to catch, not absorb, menstrual fluid, thereby eliminating the need for tampons or pads. instead of being thrown away like other kinds of feminine hygiene products (or FHPs, as I refer to them), it is simply emptied, cleaned and re-used -- for up to ten years if cared for properly. it's great for the environment. but not only that, it's great for active girls who find leakage to be a problem with traditional FHPs (like me), as it fits snugly under the cervix. AND it's perfect for girls who like to travel (again, like me), especially in foreign or developing countries where finding 'your' brand of FHP is a real problem. (I wish we had known about this when I was in the peace corps in mongolia. russian-made FHPs are sorely lacking in variety and quality.) but the implications, especially in antarctica, where all used FHPs have to be specially handled (because they contain biohazard) and shipped off the continent for disposal, are mind-blowing! instead of producing thousands of pounds of hazardous medical-grade waste, Keeper users can Do Their Part for the earth -- just by substituting this ingenious little cup.

now, if you're the squeamish type (guy OR girl), you may be grossed out by the prospect of handling something that catches blood. yes, it can be a little messy. you ARE dealing with a bodily fluid, and you need to be careful not to get stuff everywhere. I've been using it for a couple of days now, and I admit my expertise could use a little finessing. insertion and removal can be tricky, especially when the Keeper is full. I found this out this morning after wearing it all night. but the wonderful manufacturers of the Keeper suggest in their literature that you take a couple of damp paper towels into the stall with you to clean up any wayward spills, and this advice has proven invaluable. and the more I practice, the more I find that it's really not that hard. to insert: squeeze the top and fold it over on itself, then -- SPROING -- let 'er go! wear it around for a few hours, smiling serenely at the fact that nobody knows you're dealing with your period creatively AND saving the earth at the same time. to remove: well, kind of the opposite of what you did for insertion. empty and wipe. repeat. in between periods, wash with soap and water and store in the cute little calico cloth bag it was shipped to you in.

of course, there are few private bathrooms here on station. in my dorm, I use a bathroom down the hall that has three stalls and four sinks in it, as well as a shower. so I've learned that I need to practice in order to deal with the Keeper silently, as rubbery suction noises could prove extremely disconcerting to the girl in the next stall. I also have nightmares of squeezing the thing and having it shoot out of my fingers, over the wall, and onto the girl in the next toilet. at which point I would probably hear one of three things -- (1) screams of laughter (2) screams of horror or -- the absolute worst possibility -- (3) complete silence.

you can read more about the keeper here:


it's so cool! I've run into a couple of other girls that use it, and all of them say that they can't imagine ever going back to other FHPs. the Keeper is just too convenient, easy, environmentally sound, and cost-effective.

anyway, it's 6:25 pm and I'm still at the chalet. I need to get my butt over to the galley for some dinner. the menu says tonight it's chicken marbella, grilled pork loin, and seitan bouruignonne, whatever the heck that is.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

last august, I wrote about how returning to the ice is like waking up from a dream. in my dream this summer, I took a trip around the world. I trekked to almost 18,000 feet in nepal, wandered among a sea of pastel houses on the italian riviera, walked for forty days across northern spain, and bicycled among herds of roving reindeer in finland. I ate pancakes covered in sour cream in estonia and salty licorice in holland and pigs'-feet soup in okinawa. I nursed emotional wounds and tired feet. I witnessed three-hour sunsets, browsed innumerable flea markets, and discovered my spiritual solace in empty churches and under the endless sky.

upon waking, I find myself back in the place where blowing snow whispers past my window like a secret, where the sun shines relentlessly on the just and the unjust and the giant satellite dishes perched on the mountain ridges like so many heaven-gazing unblinking eyes. I dress in layers of clothing made from recycled soda bottles, sheep's wool and cowhide. I give thanks for meals prepared in an industrial kitchen from ingredients that have languished in the station's storehouses for months, sometimes years. I see friends from seasons past with new hairdos, new partners, new jobs, new life stories. and I feel a crushing gratitude that I was allowed to journey to this place not once, but now three times.

my name is cindy. who or what am I?

if you are what you eat...
plain organic lowfat yogurt
earl grey tea with milk and sugar
crates and crates of kiwifruit
homemade goat-cheese pizza with roasted red peppers and kalamata olives
crockpot lentil stew
packaged pepperoni slices
steamed soybeans in the shell
cheez puffs
granny smith apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream

if you are what you wear...
platform-soled black cowboy boots
a fur-collared vintage leather jacket
secondhand jeans
green flowered ankle-tie wedges
yoga pants
tank tops in every color
a $2 vintage warm-up jacket
penguin-print pajama bottoms
stainless-steel nose ring

if you are what you own...
1994 subaru 4WD station wagon
a 'justice, not war' poster
a stuffed dragon puppet named percy
hand-embroidered wall hangings from western mongolia
vietnam-era army footlocker
$2 crockpot in which to make aforementioned lentil stews
coat rack topped with a kangaroo carrying a mail pouch

if you are what you've done...
taught in a developing country for two years
lived in a hotel for five months while working on a federal court case
jumped around in the trampoline room at Bill Gates' house
drove a bus with 5'-tall tires
played christmas music in a jazz band in a hotel lobby in singapore
told a funny story, in mongolian, on mongolian TV
got published four times in my favorite literary magazine
lived the life of an intrepid explorer
loved fully, bravely, recklessly, and foolishly and lived to tell about it

I've been thinking about death. not in a morbid, gothic, the-end-is-nigh kind of way, but in a matter-of-fact, pragmatic, let-us-avoid-a-fiasco-like-what-happened-to-terry-schiavo way. if my life were to end unexpectedly, this is what I would want in a memorial service.

the mourners will arrive at the venue, a place large and welcoming and full of natural light, with ample parking, and be seated to the strains of 'isa lei' by ry cooder and v.m. bhatt from the dead man walking soundtrack. they will be dressed comfortably and gaily in everyday clothing -- aloha shirts in hawaii, polar fleece in seattle -- and bear not bouquets of flowers, but checks made out to the Heifer Project and UNICEF. some good friend will read a selection from walt whitman's leaves of grass, the chapter where he talks about the grass being the lovely long hair of graves, and how he stops somewhere waiting for the reader. the audience will nod at the deceased's good taste in 19th-century american poetry. they will then be treated to a tasteful but rousing slide show featuring memorable scenes from the deceased's life -- cuddling her new baby sister, dancing in a ballet recital while wearing pink bunny ears, trying to ride the family's black lab like a pony -- and van morrison's classic paean to freedom and friendship, 'into the mystic.' the printed programs will inform them that the deceased is to be cremated after her organs are donated, and her ashes to be scattered at portlock in east honolulu. a family member will read the deceased's favorite bible verse.

he has showed you, o man, what is good. and what does the lord require of you? to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your god. -- micah 6:8

after the service, the mourners will be treated to a live band and free heavy pupus, including but not limited to jalapeno poppers, crab-and-cream-cheese wontons, and shrimp dim sum from house of hong. they will leave humming a happy tune with bellies full of good food and wine.

today was long -- my first day back at my job, with requests for information coming fast and furious, and a broken radiator in the bathroom, which made peeing feel like ice fishing -- but extremely productive and rewarding. I'm off to bed. more to come soon.