2015, April 2015, Archives, The MFA Years


No, it’s not an April Fool’s joke to say today is March. This past week was perhaps the busiest of my semester, and this is my first chance to post.

My third and final course this semester is a comparative-lit course taught by our department director, Rich Carr. I’d already got to know him some, as he is also director of the Writing Center. What’s great about taking this course this semester is that he chose the topic of Pacific literature, his specialty. He opened our first class in Samoan

–it turns out that he went to Samoa for the Peace Corps years ago. He taught for a school administered by New Zealanders, and it bothered him that all the literature he was required to teach was British. Thus began his lifelong love of Pacific literature. I have to say, I felt most fortunate to be studying a subject that’s offered at few other schools. I’ve enjoyed learning about the writing conventions that distinguish Pacific literature from other English-language literatures.

So, on this April Fool’s Day, I want to dispel three myths about living in Alaska that fool a lot of people.

1. It’s dark six months out of the year.
Okay, I’m going to blow your mind with this.  We actually get a lot more light than dark. Bear with me as I explain.

First off, Fairbanks is south of the Arctic Circle, and a full 1,500 miles south of the North Pole (though there is a town nearby jokingly named North Pole.) The six-months-of-dark thing happens well north of here. Second, because the sun comes at us indirectly, we get really long dawns and dusks, adding a full three hours of daylight before and after sunset.

Now, we do get some crazy short days for about 2 1/2 months out of the year. It hits about the beginning of November, the days continue to shrink until the winter solstice, and then they lengthen until the days get to be normal again towards the end of January.  So the sun isn’t up much, and, oddly, it’s south, not east or west. But we still get that extra three hours of dawn and dusk, giving us nearly six hours of light on the shortest day of the year. Which, granted, doesn’t sound like a lot. But something else to consider is that the day grows or shrinks by about seven minutes a day here. That’s nearly an hour a week. We also are on Daylight Saving Time, which makes no sense, because… the day grows or shrinks by nearly an hour a week.

So what all this means is that yesterday was March 31, the day broke before 6 am, and it was light out till about 9:30 p.m. There’s a reason that this is called the Land of the Midnight Sun and not the Land of the Midday Dark.

2. Everything is super-expensive. Milk costs $10 a gallon.
More like $3.50. The economics are more complicated than just saying “everything’s expensive.” Some things cost the same as in the Lower 48, some things cost a little more, and some things cost a lot more. If your diet veers away from processed foods, that helps your budget a lot. Another thing to consider: when gas fell to $2.00 a gallon in the Lower 48, it fell to $3.00 a gallon here. Not what you’d expect when this is where the oil comes from, right? But remember: the oil is pumped here, shipped to the Lower 48 for processing, then shipped back up here as gasoline. All that shipping adds to the price.

As far as $10 milk, that is possible out in the bush. Remember that much of Alaska is not connected to the road system. The Native villages need to have many things shipped in by plane, and the extra leg of shipping adds to the price. It’s less of a concern in Fairbanks, the second-largest city in the state.

But here’s what you really want to know: Can I live on the stipend? My friends and I are doing okay. It’s not a glamorous life, but who has a glamorous life in grad school? We cover our expenses and are generally happy. That’s what’s most important.

3. You’re totally out in the middle of nowhere.
Um, kinda? If you want to leave Fairbanks, you pretty much have to do it by plane. But being the cultural capital of a large swath of Alaska makes the city more cosmopolitan than many cities its size. We have an opera company and a ballet company and a number of theatre companies. The big-name entertainers stop through occasionally, as well (last semester, highlights included Walk the Moon and Cirque de Soleil.)

But here’s another grad-school secret: You’re going to keep pretty busy, and if your’e going to succeed, you’re not going to be gallivanting at all hours. But it’s not an all-work-no-play lifestyle, either. Here in the MFA program at Fairbanks, we’ve formed a tight-knit community. We have parties and go out for beers or coffee and generally enjoy each other’s company.

And I think one of the best things of all about Fairbanks is that, even if it is in the middle of nowhere, it’s quiet and low-stress and gives you plenty of space and inspiration to think and right. This is exactly where I want to be at this point in my life, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

I’ll give a semester wrap-up at the end of April, and a bonus final-thoughts post mid-May.

Image: Andrew Moore

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