Schedule, Schedule, Schedule!
Particularly now, but to some degree always, a lack of structure is a problem when it comes to habit change. Most of us can find ourselves without the usual constraints of work schedules, routines, social interactions and family obligations.
Examples abound. Men often find themselves elevating their alcohol consumption after retirement. Women after the children are raised.
Currently alcohol sales are up 50% with “stay at home” orders in place. Of course some of this is due to people drinking more at home now that bars, clubs, and restaurants are closed, but some of it is also due to boredom and the curtailment of our usual recreational and social activities – not to mention the enforced “togetherness” which isn’t universally welcome. Others find themselves in the unexpected role of teacher with stay at home children and the temptation to escape may often be irresistible.
Scheduling helps. Knowing what is going to happen, when “school” hours will end, what’s for dinner, who’s responsible for what, and what leisure activities are available all help to keep us from jumping the tracks.
For many couples, as we have frequently advised over the years, scheduling sex goes a long ways towards averting boredom, irritability, dysthymia, and other troublesome emotions and feelings of isolation.
No, there are no universally effective solutions to today’s radically altered circumstances.
But you can manage to mitigate your particular difficulties by working with those who are around you combined with your own unique interests, old and new alike.
Why not explore your current – and hopefully soon to be followed by a return to “normal” – life by writing about it? We all hope that this will be a once in a lifetime event but why not record it for your family as it’s happening and not when the events have faded from memory and your time is again eaten up by a return to your pre-Corona life.
As an example, I recorded much of my first decade in Alaska when it was happening through letters to my family. Later I transcribed the letters, edited then, and added details that I hadn’t included at the time. As the following article shows, it’s a great way to record personal and family history so that it doesn’t get lost.
In 20 years when someone asks, “What was the Great Pandemic of 2020 like?” you’ll have the references you need to help with your memories.
Ernest Hemmingway, when asked about writing, said, “Writing is a matter of application – applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.” Why not schedule a half hour of “application” in your day? I think I can assure you that as years pass, you’ll be glad you did.
A number of readers have written to express their pleasure in reading my articles from my early years in Alaska. I am happy to change the Newsletter format a bit and have one article related to alcohol use and one report from 45 years ago.
Early in October the snow begins to drift down and cover the mountains and valleys of the upper Yukon River. Slowly the flakes accumulate in the narrow gorges, the streams are stilled, and the artifacts of another time disappear beneath a drifting whiteness. Back in the hills the tailing piles and sluice boxes, rotted cabins and trash heaps succumb to a blanket that covers their harshness with a soft forgiveness. Soon the traces of man and gold and another age are hidden and the feeling of untouched wilderness creeps back.
Smoke curls up from my cigarette, obscuring the view through binoculars already hampered by frost. Two valleys south of me there is also smoke. A thin vertical white wisp, like a disoriented cirrus, tells me that Harry is up and about. Harry is an epilogue, one of a couple of dozen spread out across the north. One of the last of the traces that time has not been able to erase.
Two miles up Ruby Creek, perched atop the old workings, a wanigan and an old cabin sit surrounded by what looks like an Arctic wrecking yard. Two old Allis-Chalmers cats–veterans of World War 11, like their owner–sit oozing grease and oil and diesel fuel. Their olive drab paint has been largely replaced by greenish rush. A ways off, a huge diesel pump of similar vintage and history rests next to the Little Giant hydraulic nozzle it feeds.
A twenty-ton bobsled waits in front of the cabin for its annual trip into Rampart with empty fuel oil drums. It will return in the spring with fuel and supplies and parts for the coming season.
From behind one of the cats come the eerie blue reflections of a welding torch. Next to the tractor sits an ancient brass acetylene generator still methodically converting carbide to gas and supplying the torch Harry uses for some last minute repairs. Muttering complaints, he shuts down the torch as the sled approaches. He’s been listening to our approach for the last half hour, the sounds of dogs and sled carrying easily through the cold fall air.
With the sled safely anchored to the pump and the dogs hunkered down in the snow, panting softly, Harry and I sit quietly, enjoying coffee and cigarettes and fall. He doesn’t say too much. It has been over forty years since he came into the county, and over ten since I had. I mention sitting up on the ridge, tracing the trails up the valleys, wondering if I’ll ever get them all followed, wondering what lies at the end of each. Harry smiles slightly and some of his seventy years fall away as he begins, quietly, to talk about other Octobers.
“It was different back in the thirties,” he says softly. “There were still men on the creeks then. Old timers who’d come in over the Pass in ‘98. More’n a hundred of ‘em left. Most of ’em mining a little, trapping some, raising garden truck in the summers and picking up some caribou when they came by in the fall.
Spend their winters in town and summers out on the creeks. Old men in their sixties and seventies and me in my late twenties. Kind of like me and you now.” He laughed a little and rolled another cigarette.
“Trails were all open then. Miners used them in the summer and trappers in the winter. Country was still being worked.
“Course I was just a kid then. Came up from Brooklyn to visit a friend. Floated in here on a raft on July 4, 1933. Never seemed to get back out. That was the Depression Outside. Nothing to go back for. Damn thin living here but at least a man could work and eat.
“Best time of year and most Octobers the same for close to twenty years. When the snow hit and the creeks started freezing enough to get across I’d load the sled and go exploring with the dogs. Chase up into the Quail country. Wet half the time and cold all the time, unless I was sweating to death breaking trail. Looking for a place for the winter to hole up and do a little prospecting.”
“Eventually I’d find it. Some little bench or pup that didn’t look like it had been worked much. I’d put up the tent and maybe make a couple of trips to town for some more supplies, shoot a caribou or two, or maybe a moose. Build a little shelter for the dogs and cut them a little grass.”
His eyes drifted off about then. I could feel him, going back, seeing himself again as he’d been thirty years earlier. Off for another winter. Slowly his cigarette burned down, warming his yellowed and hardened hands. As the ash reached his fingers, he looked at me again and continued, “You can’t imagine what kind of work that was. Trying to burn a four square hole down through twenty or thirty feet of frozen muck, looking for traces of gold and piling up gravel in the dump to wash out with the spring run-off.”
“Damn it, it was the hardest, dirtiest fucking work a man ever did! Lighting fires in the bottom of the hole and letting -’em smolder till they burned out. Clamber down with a yoke and some old gas cans and claw out the ashes and thawed muck. Haul that shit up and carry down some more wood and start another fire.”
He chuckled suddenly and smiled broadly. “Must have been nuts. Do that all winter. Then along about the end of March or early April the thaws. Shaft and drifts would fill up with water and by then I’d be too weak from scurvy to work anyway. Teeth be so loose I couldn’t eat much but mush and whatever boiled salmon I had left over from the dogs. Two days work to load the sluice box, work that would have taken me an hour the last fall.”
“Then the waiting. Waiting for the snow to melt up high and come down and flush the boxes. Waiting for the water to work for awhile and leave whatever gold there was in riffles in the bottom of the box. Waiting to see how rich I was or if I was still broke like always.”
He’d lean back and stare up at the hillsides. Settled back against the logs, he talked to the hills rather than me. “You know,” he whispered, “every spring I’d sit there, sick and filthy and cold and wet; hungry and lonesome and tired. And every spring I’d pray the same thing. I’d pray that when the water flushed the boxes that there wouldn’t be a fucking thing left in them. That’s crazy! But if there was gold, I knew I’d have to stay and work it. If there wasn’t, then the next fall I could find another valley, keep on looking. I wouldn’t be stuck.”
“Went on like that for close to 20 years; then in ’52 things changed. Bet my last cash dollar on the Nenana ice pool and won enough to buy this outfit. Been stuck here ever since. It’s been a lot more comfortable, but I still been stuck. Back in the fifties I thought I’d been lucky. Last ten years or so I’m not so sure.”
Late in the evening I’m headed back to town, leaving Harry to his mine and machines and gold. I know some of his feelings too, know the joys and hardships of looking and the embarrassment of secretly hoping I won’t find gold or love or contentment. Always hoping for that next valley, next woman, next town, next job. Not quite ready to be stuck.
*Harry was first published in the anthology, A GOOD CREW, Fireweed Press, Fairbanks, AK.