Friday, June 8, 2012

Formidable group of Alaskan writers gathers to discuss their craft

Formidable group of Alaskan writers gathers to discuss their craft


I play Sudoku when anxious. I burned through a number of puzzles on the ferry to Skagway to attend the North Words Writers Symposium ( over the weekend of June 1. Who was I to think I could hang with a bunch of accomplished and published writers? Confidence at a low, dreams of being a paid writer fading, I hit upon a solution in the Sudoku book – advertisements for training in medical transcription. Your fingers have to hit a keyboard. That’s writing! Then I lost the Sudoku book.

It’s also hard to hang out with well known authors when you suffer from “stupidity by celebrity.” My first day at the symposium, I had no idea what to say to these writers whose works I’ve read and admired. Take Seth Kantner who wrote “Ordinary Wolves,” a fantastic depiction of the stark beauty and dysfunction of rural Alaska.. Kantner comes over and shakes my hand, “Hi I’m Seth”.

And the best I could respond was, “Ordinary Wolves” was awesome! You live in Kotzebue, right? Kotzebue is awesome!”


Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Silver was the keynote speaker. Silver, who wrote “8-Mile” and “The Fighter,” provided attendees insight to the big time of Hollywood. He spoke with a direct style out of the side of his mouth. Work harder than the other guy, he would say. Do your research. He acknowledged the final movie may be very different than what he envisioned. It’s part of the job. Fascinating and so very removed from my Juneau existence.

Silver shifted between bemusement and astonishment with the Alaskans. I enjoyed watching his face when we expressed our somewhat psychotic devotion to the state and how disappointed we are with Alaska’s portrayal in books and movies.

Faculty included Heather Lende, author of “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.” Lende is wise and well spoken. She also belongs to a group of Haines residents who have, at long last, found the Fountain of Youth. Haines attendees were ageless and fit people. Only their grey hair and discussions of grandchildren hinted at an age north of 40. Want to stay young? Become a working writer and move to Haines.

Other faculty included Lynn Schooler, author of “The Blue Bear.” He is like E.F. Hutton. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, people listen. Schooler showed us how consuming wild plants can be character building. Debra Vanasse, who wrote the excellent children’s book “Under Alaska’s Midnight Sun,” excelled at keeping her sessions focused on the stated topic and attendee questions. Other faculty included Nick Jans, Kim Heacox, John Straley, Jeff Brady, Dan Henry and Skagway’s one and only Buckwheat – who regaled folks with stories of his cross-continent walk.

Session topics ranged wide, from writing exercises to talks on the influence of social media, getting published, getting an agent, self publishing, and the necessity to hustle as the internet churns the book business. The faculty didn’t always stay on topic, but were unfailingly interesting. I sat three hours on a hardwood bench listening to writers discuss the craft of writing dialogue and somehow stayed engaged (even as my legs fell asleep). That’s the power of a knowledgeable and engaging faculty.

At symposium’s end, there came time to read personal works to the participants and faculty. For some reason, I agreed to a reading thinking the Lassie story I did for Mudrooms might work. Almost the moment I decided on the dog story I thought, “Am I really going to read a dog story in front of published authors and an Oscar nominated screen writer? Ugh.” This sentiment only became more acute after the excellent and heartfelt non-dog stories read before mine.

Upon completion of my reading, I learned a couple of things:

1. Retire the Lassie story. A grown man can only cry in public over the death of his childhood dog so many times before it gets weird.

2. Bring a change of shirt. If you are going to sweat like a boxer due to the anxiety of a reading, bring a change of shirt before hugging award-winning writers goodbye.

Big sigh.

Part of me hoped the symposium would provide the nugget of advice that would lead to “Finally! I can write my novel!” But if anything, the one repeated piece of advice was “Work. Work hard. Work real hard.” And that’s disappointing. On the other hand, I left with a renewed energy toward writing – a willingness to look at a blank page and revisit old drafts. I also left with an appreciation of the generous and kind spirit of Alaska’s many talented writers.

Kim Heacox, author of “Caribou Crossing,” more or less said the following, “Celebrate the success of your writing family. Celebrate the success of others. We are the scribes of Alaska. To be a writer in Alaska; not to be a soldier with a farm or a farmer with a sword; not to be bowing to some dictator; not to be working in some factory in China making computer chips; but to be at the millennium a writer in’s amazing.”

Amen, Mr. Heacox. Amen. And that is why Kim Heacox is not a medical transcriptionist and why I need to find that Sudoku book.

Clint J. Farr can be contacted at

Obesity grows in Alaskans

Obesity grows in Alaskans
By Clint Farr

For the Capital City Weekly

Perhaps for the first time in human history, at least in the United States, the problem with access to food is not too few calories, but too many. Not more than 50 years ago, people in this country regularly suffered through lean times when starvation was a real threat. The forces of change figured out ways to combat starvation. Crop production increased. The food distribution system widened and became more efficient. The result is cheap and widely available food. This is good. Rarely do people starve anymore. However, the flip side of successfully distributing cheap calories is manifest in our ever-growing waistlines.

In 1991 around 13 percent of Alaskans were obese. Today, 27 percent of Alaskans are obese. In 20 years, the percent of obese Alaskans doubled. You would think this would make Alaska one of the heaviest states in the union, but that's not the case. Other state obesity rates are increasing as fast or faster. Alaska is the 14th skinniest state in the union. The skinniest state now is Colorado with 21 percent of its population considered obese. Good for Colorado; maybe it's all the great skiing. But here's the thing, a state with 21 percent of its population obese would have been one of the heaviest states just 15 years ago.

We all know obesity contributes to a number of long term, and expensive, health problems. Heart disease and stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer certainly are tied to obesity. There are a number of health impacts, however, that may not be so obvious. These include esophageal reflux, gall bladder disease and gall stones, fatty liver disease, kidney stones and kidney failure, arthritis, back problems, sleep apnea, pulmonary embolism, obstetrical risk, menstrual irregularity, and infertility.

Then there are our children. They're getting pretty big too. Studies in Anchorage have shown about a 10 percent increase in children who are overweight or obese since the late 1990s. The science isn't all that optimistic for an obese child's long term health outlook. Obese and overweight children will have a lifetime increased risk of developing diabetes, asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, orthopedic problems, fatty liver disease, depression, and - not surprisingly - low self-esteem.

So is it time for you and the kids to go on a diet? Hit the treadmill? Both? Something else? There are many ways to shed excess pounds, and since good health is the ultimate goal here, physical activity is about as close as we have to a magic bullet. Recent science suggests that physical activity is the most important thing we can do to improve our health. No matter your weight, physical activity improves health outcomes. In terms of losing weight, physical activity is key to keeping the weight off. Studies, as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, find that walking 30 minutes a day, regardless of weight, can dramatically improve health outcomes. Thirty minutes. Just walk 15 minutes in a straight line and turn around. That's it.

Of course what you eat, and how much you move, are personal choices. However, it is useful to acknowledge and understand the outside forces that push Americans to eat more and move less. It's our biology, the way we work, and the way we play. Recently, HBO aired a four-part documentary series, Weight of the Nation, which featured case studies and interviews with leading experts and with individuals and families struggling with obesity. Not only does the documentary hammer you with all the depressing health impacts associated with obesity, but also the many different things you, your family, and your community can do (and are doing) about it.

To ensure Juneau can get a look at the documentary so we can (once again) get enthused about our diet and fitness New Year's resolutions, folks are invited to the Egan Room at Centennial Hall from 7-9 p.m. on June 4. Dr. Ward Hurlburt, chief medical officer and director of Alaska Division of Public Health, will provide context to the obesity issue and then we'll settle in for a sampling of the HBO documentary. Partners include Bartlett Regional Hospital and Pavitt Health and Fitness. Segments from the four parts of the documentary, "Consequences," "Choices," "Children in Crisis," and "Challenges," will be shown. This event will be the first of four showings (which we will resume in the Fall after we've presumably burned a bunch of calories chasing fish all summer).

Clint J. Farr is an epidemiologist with the State of Alaska's Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion program.

Lassie, here girl: Transitions and life lessons

Lassie, here girl: Transitions and life lessons

By Clint J. Farr

For the Capital City Weekly

You can listen to my reading of this by clicking here.

Author's note: I meant to tell this story at the April 3 edition of Juneau's Mudrooms live storytelling event at Holy Trinity Church. What actually came stammering and stuttering out of my face was quite a bit different. Who was I kidding? I can barely remember my children's birthdays, much less three pages of text. Anyway, I encourage you to attend the May 9 edition of Mudrooms to hear more wonderful stories from Juneauites.

Our family has a new girl. She's sweet, she has big brown eyes, she can smile, she likes to nuzzle. She likes to lick my hand. She's a dog.

This is my family's most recent transition. Pet ownership. Well, dog ownership. No cats. I mean, I don't want to offend the cat people here but probably will. So why? Because the thing about a cat is ... they want to kill you. They lay there at head level, staring at you, tail hanging off the banister, staring at you, the tail slightly twitching, staring at you, staring at you, staring at you, like in their minds they sound like Clint Eastwood, "If only I were 30 pounds heavier, I'd take you."

I don't want that.

I don't want an animal that wants to eat me. An animal, that if I keeled over in the kitchen with a heart attack (as the men in my family are wont to do), would eat the soft parts off my face before my wife got home. No, it's true. I saw it on the internets. An old woman died and her cats ate off her lips, nose, and ears. No way! I don't want that. I want an animal that will stand sentinel next to my corpse and - at most - lick my face to make sure I'm not sleeping. An animal that will bark at passer-byes on the sidewalk, "What's that girl? Your owner died of a myocardial infarction? Call 911!" I don't want to be a lipless corpse; I don't want a closed casket; I want a dog.

And so, we got Sadie.

And it's cute. The dog and my girls. They curl up with each other during story time at night. Other than unleashing my youngest daughter's inner dictator - "Go. Sit. Stay. ... Go." - the girls are learning how to care for something, how not to treat her like a toy, how to empathize. Learning their actions will impact the happiness of another being. This dog. Kind of essential to growing up, I think; one of the main transitions.

See, I had a dog growing up. She was a collie, like in the old T.V. show "Lassie." "Lassie" was my favorite show of the day. And dad made the mistake of asking me, six at the time, to name the collie.

"Lassie," I shouted.

My brother, smart, sensible and uncommonly hip for 12, was like, "nooooooooo." And in hindsight, it's a little embarrassing. I mean, I think of myself as creative. I hate clich├ęs. I get mad at Sadie when she pees on a fire hydrant. Couldn't I have come up with something better than "Lassie" for a collie? (Even my wife, as I prepared this piece deadpanned, "you named your collie Lassie?")

Well, in many ways, "Lassie" lived up to her namesake. Not so impressive that when she'd bark people would paraphrase her, "What's that girl? Timmy fell into a well and broke his clavicle? Commence CPR." But close. She was loyal, and had an almost motherly demeanor. Once when very sick for a few weeks, she stood sentinel by my side. At least I remember it that way. I would reach out when awake and scratch her behind her ears, then fall asleep for another hour or so. She was so sweet; so soulful.

And she loved to slow dance. She was a big dog. When she stood up she could hook her paws up and over my shoulders. We would slow dance. Technically dad didn't allow Lassie to jump up on people. But it's the solemn duty of a child to spoil their dog and I liked to dance with Lassie. She was my buddy.

I came home one day near the end of my freshman year of high school. It was spring. The grass was green in Anchorage. I checked in on Lassie in the yard and saw a pitiable sight. She was circling, just slowly shuffling in a circle, and panting. I came down the porch stairs, sat on the lowest step, and called her over. She laid her head in my lap, and looked at me with her big brown eyes. This was a time before cell phones, and I'd be damned if I was going to leave her. I just sat there, sitting sentinel, petting my dog. Her gums were white like china. A lack of oxygen I suppose. Her breathing was labored and slow. She didn't snap or cry. Just kept her head in my lap, and I kept petting her - for an hour. Dad eventually came home, we loaded Lassie into the car and took her to the vet. She died that evening. A tumor collapsed her lung.

The vet said she died with a sigh, and now Lassie slow dances with the angels.

And in her end, my own transition to adulthood began.

There is coffee cup wisdom about dogs. The kind of "life lessons of a dog" you might get in an email from your grandmother. You know, forgive quickly, play hard, sleep harder, take naps and stretch before rising.

To me, every time you learn something new or experience a realization, you grow up a little. Growing up is basically a series of realizations. Those "life lessons of a dog" came in handy as I experienced the realizations that made me an adult. Consider the traumatic, reality shifting, realization of your father's mortality when you come upon him in the Providence cardiac unit drugged and tied to a pinging machine. The wisdom here would be to stay quiet and sit close by. Then there is the realization that the vulnerability inherent in completely trusting someone is no big deal if that trust is rooted in the love of a woman who is smarter, more capable and relatively better looking than you. I think here the wisdom would be "be loyal." And then there is my biggest realization - a revelation really - the boundless love for two daughters whose hugs are so strong you can't breathe. Here, I suppose, you would run, romp, and play daily.

Now, a father, I figure I can introduce my beautiful, smart, sassy - and crushingly strong - daughters to the love and devotion so specific to a dog. Hoping that, in their own difficult transitions to adulthood, when times are low and people are confusing, they can look back and remember Sadie's simple and noble love to perk them up. With hope, to be wise enough to live like a dog. Sure, it's coffee cup wisdom, but it is wisdom nevertheless.

Run, romp and play daily. Be loyal. And when a loved one feels bad, sit quietly close by.

Hey. Did you hear that? What's that girl? It's time to end my discourse on the topic of transitions. I've used up my allotted 420 seconds. So I have. Okay girl. Wait. How are you? Yes, I'm sure they're good at the waltz. I miss you too girl. I miss you Lassie.

Clint Farr is a Juneau resident. He likes to eat, loves his wife and adores his daughters (most of the time). Farr performed a rendition of this piece at Mudrooms, Juneau's live storytelling event, on April 3 at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Farr can be reached at

JDHS drama pulls out all stops to Edinburgh

JDHS drama pulls out all stops to Edinburgh
By Clint J. Farr

For the Capital City Weekly

A common refrain Michaela Moore hears is, "man, that doesn't look like a high school show."

When you run the Juneau-Douglas High School Theater Department, this is a good thing to hear. Since 2007, Moore has run the department. In that time, Juneau has had the opportunity to witness high school productions of "Les Mis," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Evita," "Kiss Me Kate" and others that do not "look like a high school show."

Perhaps we're thinking of our own sad high school drama experiences. A time when budding thespians put up with cardboard sets, questionable acting choices, indifferent instructors and a poignant lack of friends. But under Moore's direction and tutelage, JDHS drama could not be more different and their excellence will soon be recognized worldwide, starting with those in Edinburgh.

Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, hosts the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for three weeks every August. It bills itself as "the largest arts festival in the world." In addition to theater there will be children's shows, comedy, dance, music, exhibitions, operas, spoken word and more.

The American High School Theatre Festival occurs within the Festival Fringe's theater events. "A festival within a festival," said Moore, "the American High School Theatre Festival uses the Fringe Festival to kind of spark their festival ... to get a bigger array of audience goers to the high school shows."

To get into The American High School Theatre Festival - at the Festival Fringe, in Edinburgh - high school theatre programs have to be invited. A theater professional or alumni of The American High School Theatre Festival must nominate the high school program to the festival. Then an application process ensues which, according to Moore, is tedious and complex with a lot of essay questions. The American High School Theatre board reads all the applications materials, including the essays, pictures of productions, and the written recommendations of the person who first nominated the program.

Moore is not sure who nominated the JDHS theater program.

"The person has asked to remain anonymous," Moore said.
She suspects the production of "Les Mis" first got the program notice. There were a hundred students on stage; it was an incredible challenge of logistics. Moore believes whoever nominated them kept watching to see if the program sustained that level of excellence.

In 2011, The American High School Theatre received 2,200 applications from schools invited to apply. The board selected 48, which is less than 3 percent of the applications. The process is selective so students within the chosen programs can have a "grand and huge" experience at the festival.

"It's quite an honor," Moore said, "to even be noticed in the first place, up here in Juneau, Alaska, to be even nominated."

Moore received a giant certificate notifying the program of the award last September. Needless to say, the numbers suggest this is a big deal. The American High School Theatre states upon choosing a program that "you are one of the best high school theater programs in the nation." In Edinburgh, there will be an awards ceremony where, Moore said: "I think, I'm guessing, we might get a nicer little plaque."

When in Edinburgh, the JDHS performers will be able to take advantage of top-notch technical equipment such as lighting, sound and technicians that know how to run it. Being part of the American High School Theatre Festival means the stage and technicians are included in the trip price. Over two weeks, the JDHS students will perform their play four times. There will be workshops and other activities at the festival.

By being part of the American High School Theatre Festival the students will be housed and fed. The students will interact with the other U.S. high school drama programs that were chosen. They will participate in a travel itinerary including tours to areas away from the festival. The students will be chaperoned day and night over the entire time. So not only will the festival be a great place to show off Juneau's talented teens, but it will be a safe and action packed opportunity for them to experience a foreign country.

Still, money has to be raised. Educating and transporting a theater company of teenagers for two weeks in a foreign country will not be cheap, along with other related expenses. Thus, a primary focus of the JDHS high school theater program over the next year is fundraising.

"We're trying really hard to raise the money through our shows," Moore said. "Our auditorium is big enough that if people came to the shows we would raise so much money it's unreal."

She said that with the split in high schools, attendance to plays at both schools has been down. Moore hopes that Juneau residents consider following her students' example and attend shows at both schools.
"The community should be behind all these students to put on these shows it's hours and hours of hard work," Moore said.

To increase ticket sales, the department is implementing a number of novel incentives to increase attendance.
The show "Hallelujah Girls" runs at 7 p.m. May 3, 4, 11 and 12 in the JDHS auditorium. May 3 is spa night, or "girls night out". The program will give away a gift certificate for a fancy spa experience during that night's show. Pie night is May 11. Whole pies and slices of pie will be on sale in honor of the show's southern theme. (I've been assured by Moore, a Texan, that the student's Southern accents are excellent.) Baked goods and flowers will be sold at every show. The May 12 show will have a huge door prize for anyone who buys a ticket. The theme of the door prize is "A Night Out in Juneau" and will include limousine service, a dinner, a night at Best Western Grandma's Feather Bed and whale watching from Allen Marine.

"'Hallelujah Girls' is a huge comedy geared for the whole family," Moore said. "It's a lot of fun. It's not too serious. Points of seriousness occur, but are dealt with a light heartedness."

It's a farce about life in a small Southern town, where for two residents, the same frictions and antagonisms from high school still exist 20 years later.

Next year's shows and fundraising efforts are also the in the works.

In the fall of 2012, the program will produce the play "Hairspray." This is a large production involving the community, both high schools and a professional director from the Cornish College of the Arts. Moore is excited how serendipity intervened to have this production involve both high schools. After a series of hard-core auditions, the female lead will be from JDHS, and the male lead will be from Thunder Mountain High School.

In February 2013, the JDHS program will put on Stephen Sondheim's "Company." Moore is excited for the "creative theatrical things" that will occur in this musical. Moore promises "it's going to be different than anything done before" and will provide a challenge which her students really need.

Moore has not yet decided what the production for spring of 2013 will be, but it is the show that will be taken to Edinburgh.

"There is so much pressure to pick the right show," Moore said.

She's thinking it will be a musical.

In addition to the stage productions, the JDHS theater program and the students are involved in a number of other dramatic efforts.

This year, the program picked up the "Trashin' Fashion Show" for Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. And just recently, many of the students competed successfully in Alaska's drama, forensics and debate competition. The Juneau students won the overall drama award, came second in forensics (speech), and did better than ever in debate.

"It really helps them hone their skills to step up and compete," Moore said.

Moore believes when you work in theater, you deal in legacy. There is a legacy of excellence within JDHS Theater Program the students want to continue. Moore keeps the "Les Mis" flag hanging in the rehearsal room as a reminder of that legacy.

"Look, this was going on before you, and it will continue to go on after you, and it is your job to continue excellent theater," Moore said. "Once they get to high school you can't baby them."

Moore teaches them how to audition, compete, deal with getting what they want, not to be a diva. As teenagers, Moore said, they're not "expected to rise to professionalism." She doesn't buy that sentiment.
Moore is proud of all the students she's had. She talked extensively about their hard work and their professionalism. She's amazed by how driven they are to give the community a good show.

"I want them to learn as much as they can, and when they get out into the real world so they can compete," Moore said.

The Festival Fringe in Edinburgh is a good opportunity for these students to get out into the world. Juneau has the opportunity to help make the real world a reality for these students. We just have to buy a ticket to witness excellence, to witness a high school show "that doesn't look like a high school show."