Tuesday, November 8, 2016

An Existential Question

You may have noticed that I don’t editorialize on this blog.  I keep things pretty light. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the purpose of this blog is basically twofold:  1) It’s meant to keep our student-athletes’ friends and families in the loop about what their Skiwolf family member is up to. I don’t know if it’s the same with our current skiers, and perhaps modern interweb technology has completely changed things, but the one thing my parents could count on when I went off ski racing was that they would not be hearing from me for a while.  I had neither the patience nor the inclination to write letters home, and I didn’t have the money for phone calls.  So it was frequently many months between the times my folks would hear from me.  If our skiers are anything like that, at least their parents can look at this blog and see photos of the fruits of their loins at UAA ski practice for confirmation that all is OK with their offspring.  2) It’s a recruiting tool.  Some of our skiers grew up in Alaska and some did not. I can imagine it could be pretty intimidating to pack up and ship off to a place like Alaska with no concept of what life as a Skiwolf will be like. On this blog, potential UAA skiers can see that we have some fantastic training venues, that we compete on a very competitive and robust NCAA racing circuit, and we have some laughs along the way. After perusing a few blog posts, I think a potential Skiwolf ought to be able to get a feel for whether this place will suit them or not.

Another reason that I don’t editorialize on this blog is I don’t have the time for it. I’ve got a lot of things to do and a limited number of years in which to do it. I don’t want to spend by time typing diatribes. A few photos can say a few thousand words.

But today is different. For one thing, I’m on a plane back to Alaska from Hawaii, and the captain says we’ve got about seven hours’ worth of blog-writing time ahead of us. Secondly, there’s some heavy stuff going on with the UAA Ski Team right now which deserves attention. This is probably the time when I should state once again that this blog is not officially affiliated with the University or the UAA Ski Team. It’s mine. I’m not a UAA staff coach. I’m a volunteer helper, and my opinions on this blog may or may not be representative of the UAA coaches’ views. I don’t know. It’s not something we talk about much. Usually, we talk about skating technique, training plans, and the snow forecast.

First things first: If you’re reading this blog then you know the UAA Ski Team is on the chopping block. If you care even the slightest bit about this team then you need to get all over the SaveAlaskaSkiingFacebook page, the petition to Board of Regents, the letters to the NCAA Division II Committee, the letters to the UAA Board of Regents, the picket line on Thursday at UAA, the phone calls to the Regents, and everything else. And you need to get all over it fast! Mobilize your friends and family members. Make nice with your enemies and get them on board too. This isn’t a great, long, drawn-out time commitment. This thing might be over by Thursday. The movement to save the team needs to be explosive and it needs to happen now!

I’m not going to get into the particulars of the “Strategic Pathways” decision to recommend elimination of the UAA Ski Team. Of course I think it’s a shortsighted and very poor recommendation for many of the same reasons you do, and probably more. There are plenty of resources on the internet where you can see the many reasons why so many people think elimination of the ski team is a lousy idea. But today, I’m going to talk about broader philosophical issues. To write about the Strategic Pathways’ recommendation here would be to repeat what’s already all over the internet.

Alaska is sometimes referred to as a “resource extraction state”. For centuries, people have been coming from other parts of the world to Alaska to get their paws on something valuable and bring it back “home” with them. The Russians came to fetch animal pelts and furs. Thousands showed up 120 years ago to dig a bunch of gold out of the ground and cart it back to the mainland. Folks came from the Pacific Northwest to catch salmon in Bristol Bay and cut down trees in Southeast. College students from around the USA come for summer jobs in the tourism industry. And Texans and Okies showed up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s for oil, and they’re still here. None of these groups have been particularly concerned with building infrastructure and amenities here in Alaska – the things that enrich our lives, our culture, our cities and towns – because their goal has been to amass wealth and take it back “home”. I see it all the time at my “day job”, flying around the state and appraising the homes of people who are getting their kit together for their migration back “home” after “putting in their time” in Alaska. I frequently sit next to people on airplanes who say things along the lines of, “I figure I’ve got just a few more years up here and then I should have enough saved and I’ll move the family back to ________. I’ve already bought a parcel of land down there. It’s been a good run, but of course there’s nothing to do up here during the miserable winters.”  And I hear the same thing from people selling their homes to move “back home”.  Do you think these people want to pay taxes in Alaska and invest in local amenities like libraries, city parks, elementary education, and the state university system?  Of course not.  They’re extracting resources. They’re extracting wealth. Their priorities lie elsewhere.

All you need to do is take a quick look at the comment section at the bottom of any Anchorage Dispatch news story about astatewide economic issue and you’ll discover lots of people who think we’re “overtaxed”. This, despite the fact that we don’t pay any broad-based state taxes. No state income taxes. No state sales tax. No personal state taxes. In Anchorage, the City has a real property tax.  My house in Anchorage is worth around $245,000, according to the City Assessor. That means I have a City property tax bill of around $3,400 or so (if my memory is correct).  But I get between around $1,000 and $2,000 in the form of an Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend check from the state each year just for breathing. If I don’t blow it on booze and cigarettes, I can put that money toward my City real property tax bill. But I’m a household of one.  If there were two of us living at my house, we’d have between $2,000 and $4,000 to pay our $3,400 local tax bill. If we were a family of four…  It doesn’t require a lot of complex math to figure out that taxes aren’t too high around here. And yet if you ask around you’ll have no problem finding heaps of people to tell you we’re being “taxed to death”. And why not? These are people who don’t have any real vested interest in Alaska infrastructure. They’ve got their departure date marked in red ink on the calendar.

Oil prices are low. It’s having a big impact on the Alaska economy. Our state income comes primarily from oil. We need to make some big decisions and some tough choices. This is the job of our elected representatives; our legislature. But our legislature is comprised of children. This past year, they were unable to do anything about the budget. Nothing at all! They were unable to make any directed, specific cuts because it was politically untenable. They were unable to even utter the words “statewide taxes” because it was politically untenable. They did nothing at all because our legislature is not comprised of leaders. They are a collection of followers. They follow the will of the constituents in their gerrymandered districts, and of course this means that there are enough representatives of districts where their constituents are primarily concerned with wealth extraction that any attempt to talk about a way forward or an investment in state infrastructure would result in an immediate and overwhelming loss at election time. So what we get from our legislature is broad talk of “cutting the fat”, the “need to streamline”, the need to “cut until it hurts”, but nobody – nobody – will suggest a specific cut. The state is able to pass down the responsibility for specific cuts to local governments by cutting revenue sharing from the state, which forces local governments to try to figure out how they’re going to keep things running with less money. Here’s a little experiment you can try sometime: Ask a proponent of “broad cuts” what specifically they want to cut. If you don't get a specific answer, you can make some suggestions:  How about cutting a fourth grade teacher who works with two other fourth grade teachers, each of whom has 26 kids in their class, so that you’d have just two teachers instead of three, each with 39 kids in their classroom?  Not acceptable?  How about cutting the school nurse?  How about selling off 30% of the city’s snowplows?  How about eliminating the Alaska State Troopers?  How about closing the local fire station? How about shutting down the city’s sewer system on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Ask your legislator these questions, and what you’ll get is “we just need to cut spending”. But good luck getting a more specific answer than that.

The legislature says to the university, “You’re getting less money next year. Figure it out.” So the University of Alaska has been told it’s time to make cuts. Big ones. Tuition needs to go up – a lot. It’s time to pare things down at UAA. “Strategic Pathways” has made the recommendation that the UAA Ski Team needs to go. I think it’s a poor move for a bunch of solid reasons – the same reasons as you do. It’s critically important that we get up and yell and scream about this – now – but there are bigger questions. What’s wrong with investing in nice things?  What’s wrong with putting our energy and resources into something of good quality, like a state university system that offers a good quality education, and student resources, and student quality of life amenities, and college athletics?  Are we so selfish that we won’t reinvest some of our earnings into the place where we live? Are we so shortsighted that we won’t invest in an educational resource for our young people, allowing them to get a good quality education here in Alaska? Do we want to live in a place that only provides the bare minimum – a job that provides some money, and the streets for the commute to and from work? If we cut the ski team and the track team and raise tuition and cut educational programs, what are we left with?  A bare-bones community college. The type of college you’d find in Sheridan, Wyoming or Nampa, Idaho. Nothing wrong with those educational opportunities, but is that the scale of campus life and the “college experience” that we want to offer in Alaska’s largest city? Are we not willing to say, now that our free ride is apparently coming to an end, that it’s time to start paying for nice things?  Can we not afford it?  My job as a real estate appraiser takes me into peoples’ homes, to assign a “market value” to their stuff. I see the places where we Alaskans live. I see the cars we drive. I see the flat screen televisions, and I’m here to tell you we can afford a few dollars for the nice community amenities that we, the people of the "civilized" western world, have become accustomed to since World War II. And in Anchorage, that means having a college ski team, among other things. 

And what will our current and future UAA skiers bring to Alaska?  I was talking with one of our freshmen a week or so ago during training. When I asked her how she was liking things in Alaska so far, she gushed that she was constantly amazed at what the state has to offer. She told me she’d never seen anyplace like Alaska, and had had a bunch of adventures already that had made a big impression on her. She told me her dad had worried that if she left the Midwest for Alaska, she’d never return.  And of course his concern is well-founded. This place snags a lot of UAA skiers who find Alaska to be heaven for people who are drawn to the outdoors – to wild places. I really enjoy these conversations because they remind me of my first experiences in Alaska, first as a junior national competitor in the mid-80’s, then as a college racer in the late-80’s and early-90’s and then finally when I moved here straight out of college, driving my little pickup truck down the Glenn Highway into town on August 10, 1992 at about 3 o’clock on a drizzly afternoon.  I remember that date because it was a very important date for me – the day I arrived in Alaska.  And I suspect others have similar recollections of their arrival here. Driving down Fifth Avenue with my little pickup full of skis and my friend Jeff in the passenger seat, I thought to myself, “I think this is the place. This feels like home to me. I don’t think I’m ever going to leave.” I remember it as if it was yesterday.

Here in Alaska, a state synonymous with winter, a state that puts out some of the best skiers in the world including Olympic medalists Tommy Moe and Hilary Lindh, and World Cup Champion Kikkan Randall, a state that has gained a reputation as having the best backcountry and “extreme” skiing in the world, we are talking about cutting our college ski team. Our ski team! Our ski team, with the best GPA at the university, with more NCAA All-Americans than any other team at UAA, with the best and most consistently excellent results of any athletic team at the university. The team that attracted local standout skiers like Jaime Bronga, Mackenzie Kanady, Karl and Paul Schauer, Nicole Deyong, Max and Lex Treinen, Sarah Hansen, Davis Dunlap, Andrew Arnold, Brandon Brewster, and so many before them. The team that lured people like Tom Jantunen, Reini Neuhauser, Edda Mutter, Zuzi Rogers, Tuomo Latva-Kiskola, Morten Kjerland and Toby Schwoerer to Alaska to stay and get married and raise families here and make big contributions to our state. Are we unwilling to invest in something like this?  Are we really so short-sighted and selfish as that? Perhaps we are.

Sometimes I find I have to dig really deep within myself to find the optimism to think that maybe, just maybe (to channel Bernie Sanders) the people of Alaska will pitch in for the good of all of us and contribute to things that enhance the richness of our common experience during our short time here on earth. That we will ask ourselves what it is that we’re striving for. Is it all about gathering our clams and leaving the table with them?  Or is life about participating, interacting with fellow humans, striving for excellence, sharing common experience?

My “day job” as an appraiser provides me with the funds to pay the rent, but my real passion is my volunteer job with this ski team. My other obligations keep me from spending more than a few days a week with the team, but those hours training with and traveling with the team are precious to me. I feel the passion that our skiers have for what they’re doing, and the energy that they put into it. And it inspires me.  I see how hard the coaches work, and the passion that they bring to “their” team. If we lose our ski team, I will personally lose a thing that’s very important to me.

We have our work cut out for us this week if we’re going to convince the Board of Regents to reject the “Strategic Pathways” recommendation to cut the ski team. Get your letters written. Call your favorite Regent. Hound your estranged relatives to get involved. Gather your coworkers in a rented bus and drag them down to the rally on Thursday at the library. This is important. And it’s a one-time thing.

And I promise that by the end of this week, I’ll be back to writing blog posts with titles like “Here’s What We Did At Practice Today”.

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