Understanding the Alaskan way, mind, and soul
It has come to this … the kids need new winter gear. Maybe it was the firmly-worded letter sent home from school or the excessive whining from the kids themselves as they headed outside. Perhaps even their parents felt the sting of a guilty conscience when the kids returned cold and chapped instead of rosy-cheeked and cheerful. Whichever the call to action, it’s past time to take action.
Now for context: Alaska’s cold isn’t what passes for cold down south where kids in light jackets trot happily outside for recess all winter long. The local schools around here (Interior Alaska) also do outdoor recess, but down to -20°F. Why then would any loving parent hesitate to rush to the nearest store? All they need to do is simply pick out for each child a warm, well-fitting coat, hat, neck warmer, mittens, snow pants, boots, thick socks, etc.
Before judging the reluctant Alaskan parent too harshly for putting off this basic necessity as long as possible, let’s pry into the situation a little further. Kids clothing isn’t cheap to start with, or if it’s cheap, you pay for it over and over again as shoddy fabrics and workmanship wear out within months, sometimes even weeks of purchase. One of the highest costs of living in the country only exacerbates the shopping frustration. Alaskan parents facing this dilemma tend to fall into two main camps, each with its own financial goals and acceptable standards for child provisioning.
The first camp, heavily populated by newbie parents, finds the best gear, no expense spared. Their little darlings waddle off into the snow outfitted for an Antarctic expedition, complete with waterproof mittens costing as much as $50 a pair! These parents have “done their best” by their kids! But hold the congratulations for this earnest (and somewhat naive) bunch. They’re too busy scrounging in the back of their vehicle for the (now missing) best-mittens-money-can-buy. Plus, it turns out that Antarctic-rated snow boots can fill up with snow just as fast as the regular kind. So all that money spent and the kids still end up crying from wet, icy feet and frost-nipped hands.
This cost vs benefit conundrum drives many Alaskan parents into the second camp. These are the seasoned (some might say hardened) ones hunting through bargain bins and thrift stores for the cheapest items, which are then crammed into closets for children to ransack at will. No matter how many gloves get lost at school, in the car, at the store, or in the backyard, the glove bin has enough of something to get everyone out the door again. It’s the same system for snow pants, jackets, hats, etc. Those kids who whine about the mismatched, ill-fitting selection can enjoy a timely lecture along the theme of “If you won’t bother to keep track of your stuff, then neither will I.”
Ironically once ROI (return on investment) is calculated, parents from both camps, the high-end shoppers and the bargain-bin hunters, spend nearly the same amount on winter gear, as measured in parental frustration and children’s tears.
Which is why it’s no surprise (or is it simply more cosmic irony?) that just when Alaskan parents drag ourselves to the store to buy mounds of winter clothing for our kids to whine about and then lose, just as the price tags squeeze whimpers from our wallets, it’s into this costly, agonizing season that our PFDs (Permanent Fund Dividends) arrive, just in time for winter!
*An interesting anthropological observation: this confluence of cold-climate and cost factors during the formative childhood years is a likely cause of Alaskan culture’s widespread disregard for out-of-state fashions.