On death, breakups and Big Positive Thoughts

Death is not clean or punctual or forgiving. It has its own clock, makes its way through the beds of wet kleenex feathers full of snot and mascara when you have your eyes closed. Death sometimes comes when you have left for a sandwich, when you have gone to feed your elderly mother, or sometimes when you’re sitting right there, waiting for it. This breakup was bookended by the death of two sweet grandfathers, first my partner’s and then mine.

In February, a few weeks after redeploying from Antarctica to New Zealand, I found myself standing ankle-deep in the Pacific Ocean, feeling that odd vertigo that is specific to when the sea is pulling itself out from under you, eroding the very earth you’re standing on, one grain of sand at a time, creating heel shaped divots under your weight.

It all felt quite significant, like I was in a movie or something and the next thing you knew I’d be walking out and disappearing and the ocean would eat me and the credits would roll. I sang to myself, to add a soundtrack and expand the melodramatic fantasy. D had broken up with me about four days before that. I felt like shit. But I knew that realistically, instead of dying, I would rather go back to the hotel and have beer and pizza and talk more with him about what the future held for us, for him, for me. We had ten days in New Zealand to talk and process the highs and lows and confusing, hairpin-turn-roller-coaster delirium that ensued when our framework and the life we had together began to dissolve. It was kind of fun, in a contradictory way, getting to be painfully honest and brutally interrogative, to cry together and sometimes to even feel like things would be okay in whatever way they came to manifest. I’ll spare you the details, for privacy reasons. But we were seriously in it. We talked about everything.

What I will tell you is that I spent months after getting home (well, okay, I still feel like this sometimes) as a split self: part of me feeling really calm and collected, like the gift in all of this could be a new beginning, a rebirth, an infinite possibility of freedom. The other, smaller part was rebellion and ricochet, like certain isolated atoms of my being were on the verge of nuclear meltdown, destructive and explosive and very, very dangerous.

Everything inside of me felt visceral and raw, while simultaneously too-okay and oddly emotionless. I drank a lot of whiskey. I ran around the lakes, wrote pages and pages and pages of angry, confused words. I tried to do yoga, but it didn’t have the same physical release as running. I read a lot of classified ads, trying to assemble the puzzle pieces into something that resembled a life, and extended little prayer tendrils for good things in all directions, and tried to think Big Positive Thoughts.

After my grandfather died, I wish I could say that it gave me a new perspective on what things are important in life and what things are better to let go, but it didn’t. I just felt sad and panicky. Both of our grandpas’ memorials fell on the same weekend. I watched my grandmother cry wordlessly, a sad gift that in her dementia, she knew he was gone. I saw a lot of friends that have known us for all of the last twelve years as a couple. I felt immensely selfish, thinking about the breakup when bigger things were happening. Life and death things. It was terrible.

I’m not much of a prayer person. But Anne Lamott wrote, “here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'” And I can totally handle that. So I tried to ask for a lot of help, and I got it in a lot of different forms. So to those of you who sent love and positive energy; who sent me lots of supportive messages and gave me chocolate and wine and a place to sleep; who listened to my drunken narcissistic stream-of-consciousness rants and then made me laugh or cried with me; who told me your own stories of breakups that were far more traumatizing than mine: thank you, thank you, thank you. I really mean it. The little boat I’m in is lost at sea, paint peeling and leaks sprouting, but it’s still buoyant. So thank you.

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NPX-ZCM-CHC…&MSP

I left as the 24 hour rotating shadows were starting to become a little longer at South Pole, the wind getting sharper, the population getting smaller and more saturated with people getting ready to stay for their winter, bonding with each other and letting go, in a way because they have to, of summer contractors.

From the plane, hearing the drone of the props, watching the map underneath us change from flat white nothing to the volcanic soil of the mountains and coast, glacier tongues literally melting into sheer, vast open water, to sea ice. The view, visually overwhelming, seems to elicit poetic thoughts from even the most unlikely of mouths.

Being on McMurdo’s runway, letting comparatively temperate air and sun touch our ears, cheeks, necks, starved for that sensation. We watched firefighters shoo a penguin off the runway.

The stress of work peels away on that plane like a sheath of irrelevance—things that were immensely important just a few days before mean nothing at all now; it’s a blissful release, an absolution but also a kind of sad amnesia, because friends are invested in the same issues for the length of the winter season and it feels like giving up, abandoning them in a way.

Off the aircraft and though customs, the sweet New Zealand night air smelled like grass and flowers and rotten leaves, fresh or perhaps imminent rain (rain!), the sky dark and the moon ringed in a cloudy little rainbow. The group made the motions of the unceremonious chaos, dropping gear off at the CDC and boarding a shuttle, realizing that for the first time in a long time, you’re surrounded entirely by people you’ve never met.

The next day, waiting for and sitting through Daniel’s surgery, wondering at the pigeons outside the windows and the wind agitating the mature trees, wondering what happens if there’s an earthquake and they’re mid-surgery; wondering who was in the middle of surgery during the last earthquake and what happened to them, and then trying not to wonder that. And then it was over and he came rolling back up the hall in his bed and hospital gown. He’s totally fine now, no evidence of anything ever having been wrong.

We spent a week in Wanaka, south of Christchurch, soaking in a hot tub with friends and eating avocados, drinking bloody marys, decompressing from the season.

And here we are at home. It’s good to be back. Keep watching for more photos… there are plenty I want to share with you now that I’m back in the lands of plentiful internet.

Third Grade Earth Science at the South Pole

A few days ago I did a live chat with two classes of 3rd graders in St. Paul who are learning about Antarctica. To prep for the Q&A, their teacher Mitchell told me, they played with mint-breath cold winds, made eyewear to ward 24 hour daylight rays, played sightless/wordless blizzard rescue, and made models of the Gamburtsev Mountains which they later covered with handmade snowflakes. They had some really good questions! Check ’em out!

Shekina asks How was your breakfast?

me: Hi Shekina! I haven’t had breakfast today, but I normally have fresh eggs when they are available–they have to be flown in from New Zealand, a country near Australia. I think that makes them taste special.

Griffin: Have you ever fell through the ice?

me: I did fall through the ice once–I was shoveling near the small aircraft landing pad last year and I fell into a 12 foot hole. Luckily there is no water here at South Pole, so I landed on top of a buried building, not in the ocean.

Charlie: Have you ever gotten lost?

me: No, we stay pretty close to the station most of the time. I got a little lost the first time I tried to find my bedroom, but not scary lost.

Imani: What is your favorite thing to do there?

me: I like to play games, dance, make art and exercise on my days off–we have one day off a week, Sundays, and we have to spend it wisely. My favorite thing would be hard to choose!

Mandeq: Do you ever see animals at Pole?

me: Not normally, since we are 800 miles away from the coast and there is no food or water for animals here. When the over ice traverse came in (like a tractor road trip that brings us fuel) a BIRD came with them! It was so crazy to see a living animal here–they announced it over the intercom so everyone could look.

Gunnar: How cold is it there now?

me: Right now it is -23 F with a windchill of -47 F.

It will get down to -100 in the middle of winter (june)

Tyler and Qiana: Have you ever ridden/touched a polar bear?

me: I wish! That would be so cool. We don’t have polar bears in Antarctica, though, they live in the northern hemisphere.

Addie: have you ever gotten stuck in the snow?

me: Not STUCK stuck, but sometimes it can be really hard to walk in deep drifting off station–you would lose your boots if they weren’t tied on!

Melissa: Do you stay warm in your cold gear?

me: Yes, they give us plenty of warm clothing–jackets, snowpants, boots, long underwear, fleece pants, mittens, neck gaiters. Sometimes I get cold when I work outside for a long time, but not too cold normally.

Austin: Ever seen an iceberg?

me: I have seen sea ice from the plane into McMurdo station (on the coast) but I don’t think I’ve seen an iceberg.

Amir: What is the hardest thing to do there, in your opinion?

me: Good question.. I think the hardest thing we do (in terms of work) might be the jobs of the people who defuel the airplanes–they work outside all day every day, and the planes are really loud, they have to carry heavy fuel hoses around, and they smell like stinky fuel.

Anna: Whats the highest temperature since you’ve been there?

me: Actually, we hit a record this year–it got to TEN degrees above zero. It felt so warm!

Sasha: Is it ever warm in your room?

me: It depends on the room. This year my room is so warm I can’t even wear socks to bed. Last year, in another room, I had snow on my bed sometimes, because it would blow in through the cracks!!!!

Georgia : Is the Jamesway comfortable?

me: It can be. I like my room a lot this year. It can get a little stinky though, because we are only allowed to shower twice a week to save water, and lots of people don’t have doors, only curtains.

Mitchell: from the class – what are you doing today?

Mrs. Voglegesangs 3rd grade class says “Thank you”!!!!

switching to other class

me: Well, today I am going to unpack a bunch of frozen food that we have stored outside (everywhere is like a big freezer) and we are going to prepare food for the winter.

Thank you all!! Nice to meet you!

Mitchell: How do you prepare food for the winter if it’s already frozen?

me: Well, we are stocking it so they can access it. It stays outside in the summer, and we need to move it with tracked loaders because the containers are thousands of pounds each– we unpack it and keep it in inside frozen storage because the tractors freeze in the winter and we can’t use them.

Mitchell: back in the other class, Hello!

me: hello from south pole station!

Cedes: How cold has it been lately?

me: It’s been around -25 F the past few days, and the windchill is going down again, getting to about -50

Adam Me.: Seen any polar bears?

me: Unfortunately, no! Polar bears live in the Northern Hemisphere, they don’t come all the way down here. Maybe I’ll see one someday if I ever go to the north pole.

Emily: How long have you been at the South Pole?

me: I have spent eight months here total–four months last year, and almost four months this year–since October!

Eddie: What do you like about the South Pole?

me: I like a lot of things, but mostly I like the people who I work with, getting to be outside,and getting to see the sun 24 hours a day.

Josh Wo.: What jobs do you do there?

me: My job last year was shoveling–lots of shoveling!!–and cleaning up/removing dirty ice in the vehicle maintenance facility. This year I work with inventory–counting things, lots of them stored outside, and putting them away (I get to use forklifts and tracked loaders)

Kenisha: Do you like sleeping in the tents (Jamesways)?

me: Some times I like it a lot, other times it’s no fun to go outside in the sunlight and cold to brush my teeth before bed–it wakes you up!

Quiante: What types of animals live there?

me: None, actually! We live 800 miles away from the coast and Antarctica is technically a desert, so there is no food or water for animals. We have to melt ice for people to drink, and all our food comes on airplanes.

Charlotte: What is your favorite activity for fun?

me: I like dancing–we dance every weekend here!

Josh Wa.: When did you first go to Pole?

me: My first time was October of 2010. But the first person to ever get here was 100 years ago, a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen.

Celia: If you could, would you live there year round?

me: I want to spend a full year here sometime, and to see the winter and the 6 month night. I think it would be really cool. You can only be here for a year at a time though.

Charlie: Have you slept in a sleeping trench and have they ever caved in? (happy camper pictures)

me: I haven’t slept in a trench myself, but my friends have! No one has had theirs cave in, at least not this year.

Chloe: How many people live there?

me: In the summer (now) there are about 250 people–scientists and the people they need to support them, like me. In the winter, there are about 45 people.

Ella: Is it comfortable to wear all your snow gear?

me: It’s pretty bulky–it can be hard to get in and out of vehicles, go up stairs or work (like shoveling!) Lots of us bring our own jackets since they are more comfortable.

Connor: How long did it take to get there?

me: A few days– from Minneapolis we fly to New Zealand–about 20 hours of flights. From NZ to McMurdo is 5 hours, then to South Pole is 3 hours’ flight.

Sandy: What’s the biggest hill you’ve slid down?

me: Ob Hill in McMurdo is really tall, like a mini mountain! I climbed up that and slid down on my bottom. It was fun, and fast!

Grace K.: Is the bed you sleep on soft or hard?

me: Pretty soft, but sort of old. Like summer camp.

Tess: Do you get scared during the blizzards?

me: It can be sort of unnerving to not be able to see the station, but I have a radio on me so if I was ever lost I could call for help.

Kara: Is it hard to be out in the cold that long?

me: Yes, very. Working outside is a very challenging part of my job.

Alaysia: How do you break the ice?

me: Well, to get ships to McMurdo for food, they have a special ocean vessel called an icebreaker. For things on station, we use shovels and icepicks and other tools.

Zoe: Can you go skating there?

me: The ice we live on is like packed snow, so not really unfortunately.

Will: What kinds of food do you eat?

me: We eat normal food, like from a cafeteria–sometimes we get fresh vegetables, which is really exciting and we have a small greenhouse to grow our own veggies. But we have things like hamburgers and soup and cereal, or more exciting things sometimes, like Thai food.

Mitchell: Kiell, thank you for responding to our questions and spending time with us!

~

What about you? Do you have any questions for me?

Why Do I Come Here?

Last month in anticipation of the centennial, Norwegian reporters roamed the station, trying to distill the South Pole Living Experience into a paragraph or two. While I was out inventorying the C-Berm, on my hands and knees in the ice, burrowing into snow drifts to count yellow-paint-peeling-in-the-sun CAT track grousers, one one of them approached me, wanted to ask me a few questions.

“Why do you come here?” he asked.

“Inventory?” I answered.

“No, like, why do you come here?”

At first I didn’t know, and I mumbled some half-assed speech about the people, about being with the people who come here, which he interpreted as, “So you like the night life?” …Well, not exactly, but I didn’t know how to explain it. He took my picture with a used 953  fuel tank and a box of bolts, and moved along.

But I’ve been thinking about the answer ever since.

I come here because of the interesting people, really. Not the night life, but to be with people who are living their lives however they want, and seeing whether they are happy with that, or not, and why.

Traveling, adventuring, falling in and out of love and getting frostbite and shoveling; biking a hundred miles a day in Maine and motorcycling across Southeast Asia, partying like maniacs in Brazil or Miami, and then driving their pickup truck all down South America through cities and jungles and drug lord territories, because they want to. Because they are here to study the cosmic microwave background and the birth of the universe and neutrinos and to capture the cleanest air in the world for science. Because people have little patchwork businesses at home that they sustain themselves with, carpentry and teaching yoga and fixing people’s cars; because people have been to every continent whether to fight in wars or to save people’s lives through volunteer medical work; because their kids are grown and they wanted to do something different.

I come here because it frames my whole life from a totally different perspective, because it makes me appreciate little things I can’t have, like baths and candles and grass and puppies, decent beer and coffee and a place to cook my own food, bodies of water and mountains and trees. It makes me appreciate things I don’t like, like a commute to and from work every day which  is a time to be alone with my thoughts, and a time to separate my work life from my home life (rather than a few flights of stairs from my office to the galley where people ask me about work at breakfast, lunch, dinner and parties). It makes me appreciate my family and friends even more, because although the people here are living amazing lives and while I love some of them, I don’t choose them.

I come here because it gives me a chance to learn things in ways I couldn’t learn them at home; every little thing, like writing on a piece of paper, becomes a struggle of mittens and wind and cold, sluggish hands and paper like a kite. And because of more substantial hurdles, like trying to learn a language or playing a violin or running despite the altitude. Because I have the opportunity to defuel military planes and blow up buried buildings with dynamite and drive giant vehicles, things I might never fall into at home.

And, well, because it sounds interesting.

Even though sometimes while I’m here I question why I ever agreed to this insanity of a lifestyle, I came back this year because as soon as I left I missed Antarctica, and because when I thought I might not be able to come back because of the icebreaker situation this summer, I was devastated.

Because even though my lips are now so chapped and peeling that they feel like they’re growing hair, and even though my body is screaming for vegetables and warm sun and more sleep and long showers, I still want to be here, to be a part of this. I want to spend a winter here, to see the sun go down for six months and see the moon go up and stay down for two weeks at a time, to feel what 100 degrees below zero is like, to see the aurora australis in all of its shimmery splendor.

Why do I come here? I don’t exactly know, honestly. I came here in the first place because it fascinated me, and I came back because I liked it.

Snow

Today snow is falling: real snow. Fine, nearly imperceptible flakes that you can barely see unless you hold your head really still. Real snow is so rare here, mostly the ice crystals just blow around, and every time I see snow it makes my heart hurt because I feel so homesick for Minnesota. For winter, for snow, for sunrise and sunset, for family and winter bonfires and for dogs to play with and real evergreen trees, for frozen lakes and ice skating and hearing snowflakes fall by streetlight. I usually feel like I’m too busy to be homesick, except on Sundays, and this season has been no exception.

The Centennial of Roald Amundsen’s arrival is in just one week, and the first tourists have already begun to arrive. Some in planes, some in trucks, and they have started to set up little tents that we can see looking out from the galley windows over the ceremonial South Pole. The ski-in expeditions will start arriving soon, as will the Distinguished Visitors from Norway and beyond. The station is buzzing; the carpenters have built a visitors’ center, the head executive chef is planning a special dinner for the Prime Minister and his party, and the IT folks are busy preparing for a live broadcast to Norwegian television the morning of the centennial. It is so exciting.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Thanksgiving, which is really not the same as it is at home but still really nice. We slept in, showered, ate a ton like you’re supposed to, went sledding in our formalwear on a hill that has been removed by now, and went to a dance party in summer camp. I think I’ve been to more dance parties in Antarctica than I have even been to in my entire life combined.

Here is a panoramic photo of sledding behind the elevated station, taken by Daniel. More sledding soon. Click to enlarge.

Sledding pano big cropped

Just a thought…

One of my favorite things about Sunday afternoons is practicing violin in the conference room overlooking Destination Alpha, the dressy front door of the elevated South Pole Station. With the lights off to save energy and the sun behind the building from this standpoint, it feels a little like evening in the rest of the world, and I can stand looking out the window over the fuel line and down the road to the dark sector. MAPO and South Pole Telescope are out there, peering into the sky to look for information about the cosmos and galaxy clusters and how our universe was born. On weekdays there are sometimes LC-130s landing, bringing and taking away passengers and leaving us fuel for our reserve stock, humming at a high drone and accompanying my practice. It’s one of the things that reminds me, when I get distracted by the sometimes tedious workweek, to be grateful for this job and the simple fact of being here, right now.

How to Get to Antarctica in 11 Easy Steps

Step 1: Apply for a job.

Step 2: Get said job.

Step 3: Physically qualify (medical and dental for austral summer, plus psychological for winter). Do lots of paperwork. Actually, this is like 30 steps, but you probably don’t want to hear about them all.

Step 4: Pack, unpack, repack, take some stuff out of your luggage, repack again, and still end up taking too much.

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Step 5: Go to a lot of orientations and learn about riveting things like OSHA, Information Security, payroll, health insurance, waste procedures and New Zealand BioSecurity.

Step 6: Fly. A lot. Arrive in Christchurch.

Step 6.5: Sleep off the flight.

Step 7: Go to the clothing distribution center (CDC) and try on Emergency Cold Weather gear (ECW), which has been pre-sorted and neatly lined up in giant orange duffel bags just for you: big jackets, insulated overalls, clunky boots, neck gaiters, mittens, gloves, hats, long underwear of varying weights, socks, boot liners, and more. Exchange anything that doesn’t fit.

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Step 8: Enjoy Christchurch a bit, (we got to go to the Rugby World Cup Expo, and then after we got here, the New Zealand All Blacks won!), see some beautiful scenery, or pretend to, and buy anything else you need.

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Step 9: The next day, put on your gear and get on the plane.

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Step 10: On arrival in McMurdo, get off the plane and onto another shuttle.

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Step 11: Check out beautiful MacTown!

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Antarctica Bound 2011

After a few months of wrangling broken fax machines, drug tests, pap smears, dental fillings, mantoux screenings, turn-your-head-and-coughs, hundreds of pages of HR paperwork, many vials of blood and other costly indignities, we are on our way back to South Pole. Saying goodbye again was oddly difficult. Leaving Minneapolis was hard, and I cried on the plane after seeing downtown for the last time. I don’t even like downtown. But I am so excited to be deploying.

This is going to be a pretty special year to get to go to Pole; in December we will celebrate the centennial of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the Pole in 1911, the very first human being to EVER make it to the southernmost point of our earth. It was a battle. Robert Falcon Scott’s team, only a month behind them, made it second and subsequently died on the way home. And only a hundred years later, people like Daniel and me get to apply for decidedly non-explorer-esque jobs (IT and inventory, respectively), and go there without being even slightly worried that we are going to freeze or starve or get so dehydrated or depressed or exhausted that we die. Well, maybe a little worried, but I can assure you that’s totally irrational.

I’m also pretty excited, because Amundsen was Norwegian and I’m racially Norwegian (is that a thing? I’m going to pretend that that’s a thing). I got to visit Norway two years ago to visit relatives (hello out there!), and they, understandably, had a light-hearted and proud sense of ownership of all things Polar, but especially of the fact that a Norwegian and his team were the first humans, maybe the very first living organisms for millions of years, to arrive at the South Pole.

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It’s going to be so COOL! (Get it? Get it?)

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I traveled to Romania to tour the castles!

Well, not exactly.

I work at a kids’ day camp in Minneapolis and St. Paul called Leonardo’s Basement– a really cool organization that focuses on art, science and technology for kids of all ages. Every year, we have a one week class dedicated to building a cardboard castle from lumber, screws, refrigerator boxes and creativity: a full size, two story, five-towered beast of a playhouse.

We start on Monday morning with a few puzzle pieces laid out for the kids, get to know each others’ names, go over safety (basic safety and also use of specific tools).

Monday

 

Tuesday Teamwork!

 

Catwalks and Towers assembled, Tuesday

On Wednesday, we added cardboard walls.

Wednesday

 

Wednesday

On Thursday we practiced swordplay…

A student practicing safe swordplay with Julian, the teacher responsible for the magical mayhem

staged scrimmages…

and put a few finishing touches on the castle.

On Friday, we went over rules and prepared for battle.

Handcrafted by the kid himself: duct tape armor

And then, we scrambled to our defensive posts…

and fought off the attacking army…

Attack!

and there weren’t too many casualties…

Don't worry, he's just pretending.

and all around had a pretty good time!