How on Earth Did I End Up Here?

[Note: I’ve been offline for a week after a generator failure at a remote substation knocked out all our off-continent commo, including TV and Internet. Though, the gods be praised, we get our BBC link from the Kiwi station a couple miles away, so I was still able to watch the royal wedding, live, from Westminster Abbey, a world away.]

By overwhelming demand (well, three of you have asked which, given the size of my readership, counts as a majority), I have decided to do one of those “Day in the Life” posts, where I take you on a tour of what I do here at the ends of the earth in the long, cold dark of winter.

But first, a tangent.

A couple months ago, the college where I did my undergrad gave me a mention in the alumni magazine. Soon after, in February, another grad contacted me by email. He was a scientist, based in the States, but just happened to be heading down to McMurdo to tweak some equipment that his team would be using for research on the Palmer, the ship that plies the Southern Ocean in summer, doing all kinds of sciencey stuff. He was a couple years my junior and our years at school didn’t overlap, but he was interested in getting together to chat when he visited.

I agreed and, given what happened, now openly admit I was willing to be social only because I thought I could weasel a tour of the Palmer off him (in the end, I got to take a tour of the Palmer without him. So there.)

Anyway, he seemed like a nice guy in his emails, and for all I know he may be a nice guy. I was working MidRats at the time, the “night” shift, from 9 p.m. till 7 a.m. (I’m working the “day” shift now, from 5 a.m. till 3 p.m., which means that I can say, of my Antarctic experience, “I worked nights during the day and days during the night.”) We met in the galley for coffee before my shift.

It was his first time to McMurdo and he seemed a bit verklempt. He couldn’t believe I planned to winter over. What was there to do? It was such a small, ugly place, with no excitement, no culture. It would be so boring, ever so dreadfully boring, to live here.

It got worse.

Almost immediately he started quizzing me about my background, about how I “ended up here.” He asked again and again, how on earth did that happen? He wanted to know what had led me down this road, as if I had gone from heiress to crack whore. I’m not a fan of people aggressively questioning me. I tried to be gracious, but he was like one of those damn Fiordland sand flies that sneaks into your tent and buzzes around your head, always just out of range, driving you mad.

At one point, he said “I don’t understand. You majored in comparative politics at Columbia and you ended up here, doing this.”

It was clear from his tone what he meant. “You’re an Ivy League grad and you’re cooking for hairy, unwashed men in the equivalent of a crappy mining camp that is like so totally boring.”

I wanted to punch him in the face, but a count of assault against me would have immediately cancelled my winter contract. So I told him that I thought moving from point A to point B to point C in life was only for people who lacked all creativity and a sense of adventure. Then I got up and walked away.

It reminded me of when I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2000. I knew already that the biopsy results came back positive. No one had told me yet, but I could tell by their body language and the way they spoke to me. The nurse sat me down and confirmed what I knew, outlined my treatment options in the vaguest terms, then gave me a book called “My Breast Cancer Handbook” with a big pink rose on it and gold lettering, and a wig catalog, assuring me that no one even need know when I lost my hair, the wigs were that good these days.

There was an awkward silence and then she said “it’s okay, you can cry now.”

I remember so clearly looking at her and saying “but I don’t want to cry.” I didn’t. I was angry, yes, but I also was thinking about treatment options, about questions I still had, about resources to get them answered and even, if it came to it, who I could trust to take my dogs if I died. I went right into contingency planning.

She put a hand on my shoulder and said “but it’s okay. Go ahead and cry.”

She was a nice enough woman and, over the long months of chemo that followed, came to understand I was not the kind to cry or fret about, areyakiddinme?, losing my hair, of all things.  But, in that moment, she didn’t get me.

This guy didn’t get me, either.

I went to an Ivy League school to learn, not for the prestige of it. Sod the prestige. I’m not interested in advancing up a single career ladder. I’d rather hopscotch across continents and vocations as the mood takes me. The conventional life – the career, the husband, 2.1 kids and GPS-equipped SUV in the drive of our suburban home – holds no allure. (Well, not entirely…. Ah! A tangent within a tangent within a tangent! I actually would love to be married. I just haven’t found the guy who can hold my interest long enough.) Designer labels, big-screen tvs, even the security, such as it is these days, of health insurance are not on my priority list.

The world is a mighty big place, and we as puny humans are given precious little time to experience it. Why limit myself even more with a mind already half-closed to all its possibilities?

Or, as Lao Tzu said:

To rule the state, have a known plan
To win a battle, have an unknown plan
To gain the universe, have no plan at all
Let the universe itself
Reveal to you its splendor

So, to get off my high horse finally (his name is Tangent), this is where I live. This is what I do. I’m quite happy with it, thanks very much. I’ll be sure to let you know when I’m, like, totally bored. Don’t hold your breath.

The view from my building to our gerbil gym (in foreground). It's where I start my day, around 0300, though this photo was taken at noon on my day off, during the brief hour or so of semi-light we're still getting.

Inside the gerbil gym

After working out and getting ready for work, I have my coffee and catch up on emails and goofy pet videos on YouTube, then start work around 0440-0445. I prep breakfast service with the other cook on my shift. We flip duties from week to week, but basically, as a team, we’re responsible for getting ready the hot line (a breakfast meat such as bacon or sausage links, scrambled eggs, a potato such as tater tots or hash browns, two kinds of porridge, such as oatmeal and grits, and a breakfast starch such as pancakes or french toast) and the cold line (two kinds of yogurt made from powdered milk and New Zealand starter culture, two kinds of delicious canned fruit product, grated cheese and salsa, because people sure do love cheese and salsa down here).

A shot of the cook's side of the kitchen

The hot line, shortly before service on a Sunday brunch

One of us also preps the egg line, and then staffs it during service (0600-0730). The egg line is where people can get eggs cooked to order on the grill, including custom omelets with a variety of fillings and fresh eggs which, remarkably, we still have. We keep them pretty cold, in the back of our thaw box, a walk-in where we thaw meat and other items pulled from the freezer warehouse.

My boss Justin demonstrates working the egg line. People line up and one of us cooks their eggs to order while bantering wittily. Or not. Depending on how much sleep and coffee I've had, when I'm working the egg line I can be Miss Congeniality or the Soup Nazi.

Once breakfast is ready, the person not on the egg line starts working on lunch. That’s, at the very least, two meat entrees, one vegetarian entree, one vegetable, one starch (potatoes in some form, rice, etc) and a soup. There are usually other items, too, depending on the day… on Mexican Day, Wednesday, we also do refried beans and fresh-fried tortilla chips with a fixin’s bar of cheese, salsa, guac, etc.

Here's me making an appalling amount of Country Pork Gravy in the tilt skillet... the photo is a little blurry, but I think my expression captures exactly what I think of Country Pork Gravy

Inside our Freshies Box, one of four walk-ins in the galley (the others being the thaw box, the cook's box (where we keep prepped items) and the bakery walk-in). At the start of winter, the Freshies Box was full floor to ceiling. What you see is the last of it, largely potatoes and onions. And yes, we have no bananas... the banana boxes you see are re-used and actually contain parsnips, beets and a few hard squash

While the two A.M. production cooks deal with that, the prep cooks handle the cold line, providing a choice of five different salads at each meal, and Jell-O. There is always Jell-O. It is a requirement. Seriously. I guess it’s some Commandment of Institutional Cooking: “And thou shalt always provide the Jell-O, for which there shall always be room.”

Camera-shy Julia, one of the prep cooks, making a salad. Yes, these are the mixing bowls we use.

Meanwhile, our winter baker, Josie, provides an assortment of baked goods for breakfast (quick breads, muffins, etc.) and bread and dessert for both lunch and dinner.

Josie the baker, another Wisconsinite, doing what she does best: beating dough into submission.

Lunch has to be ready by 1015 or so, since we have family meal, when the galley staff eats, from 1030 till 1100. From 1100-1300, the community eats lunch, and we have to make sure items are replenished and the area is generally neat. Once lunch is done, we finish whatever prep we can for the next day, whether it’s making pancake batter, marinating chicken or slicing potatoes. Then we clean up, working around the P.M. crew, who work 1000-2000.

The view of the galley upon entry, shortly before service. Yes, we still have some fresh produce, mostly apples, a few sad oranges, potatoes, onions and parsnips in various states of slow decay.

The dining area of the galley. In summer, with up to 1200 people to feed, this place was packed. In winter, with 151 souls on station, not so much.

The cooks are responsible for cleaning all the equipment we use, from blenders to tilt skillets, but our D.A.s, or Dining Attendants, handle the pots and dishes, as well as cleaning the public areas of the galley. It’s a pretty smooth-running operation, all in all.

Anna, one of the D.A.s, obliging me when I told her to "make love to the camera" as she put away cleaned and sanitized utensils

That’s the schedule for Monday through Saturday, the six-day McMurdo work week. On Sundays, we do a continental breakfast – Josie’s pastries and the usual cold line – from 0600-0730. Then, from 1000-1300 we do a Sunday brunch, which includes all kinds of special once-a-week items, from Josie’s cinnamon rolls to our baked brie, and even sushi. Don’t get too envious about our sushi. It was made years ago in some mass-production facility off-continent, shipped here and frozen till needed. Mmmmmm…

The spread for Sunday Brunch, including - yum! - sushi dating from the Bush Administration

Once my work day is over, I take a shower, catch up on the news, work on my novel, volunteer at the library if it’s Friday and generally try to be in bed by 1900. There are a lot of things to do around town every night: parties, cribbage, booze-ups, knitting circles, parties, movie viewings, booze-ups…. but, aside from the occasional movie or “Game of Thrones” screening, I try to keep up on my beauty sleep, knowing my alarm clock will go off soon enough and another day will be on my doorstep.

Baked Brie with Pear and Pineapple Chutney for Sunday Brunch... Julia made the chutney, I did the rest. I do like spiral motifs.

So there it is, the glamorous life of a production cook in McMurdo!

A typical slice of life in McMurdo... we have a radio station, the studio for which is right down the hallway from the galley, but actually getting the signal requires a little bit of winging it, hence the plume of tin foil on our radio's antenna

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14 thoughts on “How on Earth Did I End Up Here?

  1. I’mma cut dat bitch.

    And yes! I don’t think I asked you about it, but I had been wondering about your work shifts. My curiosity is satisfied…for now. (also, gimme dat brie)

  2. thanks, guys… mike, hope you’re well wherever you are and yes, winter is way more my speed than the insanity of summer. zeina: yeah, the punk got off lucky… some days i really do wish i could just smite the ignorant with my mallet of understanding…

  3. Questions – how did that a-hole doofus get there at this time of year? Will you get scurvy without freshies?

    Loved the minute by minute. Thanks.

  4. So well said, as usual. That guy strikes me as the archetypical douchebag who went to Columbia because it was the “best” Ivy he got into. I avoided them like the plague.

    So glad to be back in touch with you, even in this small way. A quarter century ago, I knew that you were going to live a life worth living and telling people about. It’s nice to be right. 😉

  5. Great entry, Gemma. I wish I could think of something clever to call that POS but all I can think of is POS. Clever ‘nough, I guess.

  6. Loved this post! I spent six seasons on The Ice, in all likelihood will go back at some point, but not yet. I often get the same old line…”you’re so smart…what are you doing here?” Lemme tell ya, I tried the “normal” path for a while. I was miserable and hated it! There’s nothing “smart” about selling your own personal happiness.

  7. Thanks, all…though Doug, your comment is a little cryptic! Thanks especially to Josh… that’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about me, and it does my heart good to see that many of the folks who fired the first volley of support on here and Facebook are fellow Columbia archers… but of course!

    And, just to be clear….. I’m willing to give the guy (who was here in February, when we still had planes in and out, Lucia) the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know him well enough to know if he is one of those insufferable chuckleheads that I too avoided at Columbia. Maybe he had jetlag. Maybe he was just a bit clumsy with the social skills. I do know he’s not the first (and prolly not the last) to “take that tone” with me.

    Just like I also know what JRR Tolkien wrote is true: Not all those who wander are lost.

    Thanks again, all, and yes, it is great to be back in touch with so many old friends, and to have total strangers finding my blog because we share a common love for the harshest continent.

  8. Gemma, you’ve caused me to tremble many times but I couldn’t be more proud of you! You have my unending support. Love you wherever you are. Mom

  9. Nice look into daily life. The little things help me put everything into a bigger context. I still think you should write a book compiling all of your adventures. I’d buy it. You always have a way of bringing someone into your stories so it seems they are right there with you. For those of us living vicariously through your adventures we appreciate your talent.

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