Antarctic Diary. Sunday, November 17th, 2002.

The Truth and Tricks of Light

Beautiful cloudless day. Endless visibility. Snow melting in spots.

There's only two seasons in McMurdo. Snow, and Mud. We're getting close to Mud.

The title came to me in a dream last night. Nursing a little hangover I'd planned on. Got my vitamin b12 and my NAC. Almost gone.

It's nearly 8:30AM here on the top floor of Crary Lab. I look to my right. Mount Discovery and the Royal Society Range rise like magic sixty miles to my east. It's not something you see. You feel these mountains the way an ant on the sidewalk feels the looming, cloudlike presence of humanity.

I am alone here. This is why--Sunday is the only "weekend" day people get around here. They work "six nines", in theory. 8-6, six days a week with an hour break for lunch. On Sunday they rest. Rest means drinks. Rest means rock and roll.

Last night was Punk night at Gallager's, one of the Antarctic Bars. I went in around 11:30 with an Aussie from Darwin. He's a fingy (FNG=fucking new guy), and so walks around agape, eyes dialated. I look at him and see myself last year. (Maybe this year, too.)

When we went in the music was loud and the band was tight. Guys in skateboard T-shirts laughed and swayed with Girls easily removable tops. Blue and red lights slashed through the crowd like lasers.

"I can't fucking believe this," Richard said, his Aussie accent so strong to me I had to make him say it three times before I agreed. "This is Antarctica? Holy shit."

I'd just come from a party in someone's dorm room. I'd finished 1/3 a bottle of Tangueray talking to a professor from Moss Landing who looked like an advertisement for Tai-Bo. I'm sure she could have knocked my teeth out with her eyebrows. Ice diver, she was. Going home next week. Lives in Santa Cruz, just over the hill from me.

I left when the room got so crowded I couldn't see my feet anymore. And so I went to Punk night where a bartender in a red vinyl miniskirt and fishnet stockings popped me a can of Speight's Dark and knew my name and that I'd just come from the party.

Everyone knows everything here.

I left my Aussie friend in a daze on the dancefloor, gyrating with some helo techs in tight jeans.

When I went over to the coffee house the situation was more subdued. There I met a friend who runs a big operation here. I sat down with her and we talked about folks who were here last year. After a couple of minutes of pleasant banter she surprised me by reciting, line-for-line, a bar conversation I'd had with someone the prior year.

She told me it was the most disgusting thing she'd witnessed, bar anything that had ever happened in McMurdo for the twelve years she'd been coming here.

I nearly puked.

How could something so ridiculously improvised and innocent mean anything? How could she have harbored so much venom for this entire year without saying anything to me? The last thing I need is someone in authority thinking I'm a jerk because in a drunken stupor I verbally spar with some bar bimbo and then retire to my room to enjoy my headache in peace.

"When you come through here," she said, "you leave a wake. It lasts forever. People see everything and they never forget."

I tried to get over being hurt and stunned, but it wasn't working. She could probably see it on my face. She probably did it to shock me. And there was/is nowhere to go. I think: I have to work with her for the next three weeks knowing she thinks I'm slime. I had to fix it, but I didn't know how.

I knew what wouldn't work--being defensive wouldn't work.

She stayed for a while, we talked about other things as if she'd never said what she said. Then she left.

I went back to the punk party. It was loud and people who liked me were there. When the bar closed at 1AM, I went to midrats with a guy from University of Ohio and had a cup of coffee, trying to figure out life.

What I figured was this: for some people, McMurdo is their family. McMurdo is the only life they have, and they're protective. The last person you want to face is an Antarctican in protective posture. If you have a choice between being locked in a Holiday Inn restroom with a full-grown Bengal Tiger who hasn't eaten in three days and an Antarctican protecting his turf, take the tiger. The Tiger will just kill you fast. It won't twist your brain around an axle and dump your body in a crevasse.

As I sipped my coffee in the galley, looking out at Ob Hill in the bright eternal daylight, I pondered the McMurdo culture and what would make my friend react that way. I realized I'd seen it in a lot of people.

Last year I was stunned by the landscape. Being in Antarctica turned me to jello. I observed the culture rather than integrating.

This year I'm expected to be one of "them". One of the comms techs shook my hand and said, "Welcome to the family." He was inviting me to integrate. And so I'm expected to be reliable. I'm expected to behave like an Antarctican.

But it's pretty clear I don't know the rules. There's a code to crack.

The lesson for today is that things are not as they appear in Antarctica. My senior friend said, before she left me bleeding in the bar, "Everyone comes down here for the geographic challenge and what they find is it doesn't mean shit. The people are all that matters. Eventually you figure that out."

Hope it's not too late.

I ran over to the lab without my fleece. I hope I don't freeze going back.