At least we didn't fly for 10 hours. The theory is the air force guys work for flight hours. Doesn't matter where they go, as long as they're in a plane, flying somewhere. They had us. We were packed into the C141. All the science gear was there. They could have lifted off, flew to McMurdo and back, burning 11 hours of fuel and our time in the process.

Instead they let us sit on the runway for an hour and never started the engines. Bad weather in McM. No sense wasting gas.

The upshot is I'm still in Christchurch. Tomorrow we try again.

No disappointment here. This is the vortex of ice time. Things happen here when they happen. The comfort and inconvenience to the individual is overridden by the safety and schedule of the program as a whole. Thus, while some projects may find themselves one day short, the program moves on. Nobody's comfortable, but nobody's getting hurt, either.

It's lowest common denominator living.

I have exchanged e-mails with my friend, Nancy Chin, who is on the ice at this moment. She's doing an anthropological study of the social construct at McMurdo. Ostensibly, the study is about "health in the workplace", where the workplace in this case is Antarctica. It's turning out to be a study of women in Antarctica. So far she's come to a few conclusions.

First, that classically determined gender roles do not exist on the ice. It appears to be a true meritocracy, where people are rewarded on the basis of skill and contribution. There are women in all jobs performing well and being rewarded for good performance.

Second, there is no "domestic" or classical female role on the ice. Cooks & housekeepers & medical professionals are as likely to be male as female.

The complete dissolution of classical roles puts interesting stresses on the community. For instance, while women are as likely to be found in any job as men is this truly a gender-neutral utopia? Many community members, both men and women, say, "no."

Nancy points out two overarching themes to gender-related ice complaints. Men say that women wield all the political power on the ice because there is a form of ritualistic "pairing" that happens in any mixed-gender community. It's something genetic that can't be overcome, the men feel. Because the program is composed of approximately 66% men and 33% females, women are in the control position when selecting an ice partner.

Women, on the other hand, point out that the positions on the top of the respective organizational pyramids are more likely to be occupied by men for the same reason of statistics.

Nancy is careful not to draw any conclusions at the point, because her study is only in the second year of a four-year cycle. However, as I'm not a scientist, I'm happy to offer my opinion anyway.

I think both the male and female positions make infinite sense to the people who voice them. However, they're both founded on absolutely faulty suppositions.

Men presume that because there are less eligible women than there are eligible men, the women will use their desirability as mates to leverage their will throughout the program. From what I have seen, this doesn't happen because: 1) Not every male or female takes part in the seasonal ice-pairing ritual, and 2) even though some ice-couples may include someone from a higher-ranking organizational position, the inappropriateness of using that "clout" is visible to the community at large and tends to be neutralized by it.

Second, the people occupying the leadership roles on the ice in the USAP tend to get those jobs due to overall experience and performance. While there does appear to be a glass ceiling, it's an artifact about to crumble. We are now approaching a time when there are women in the program who have as much ice time as their male counterparts. This has not been true because until recently the program was run by the military and there simply wasn't a significant number of women on the ice. Thus, all the people with big ice-time backlogs were male. This has changed now that the program has moved into civilian hands.

Finally, I think both of these scenarios speak to the suspicions that lie deep within all people. Would the community be assured that men in power would make rules favoring other males, to the detriment of females? Would a female in a leadership role be certain to do the converse? Do all females seek male partners for the acquisition of social influence?

Those ideas seem ludicrous to me. Yet every day politics says we behave in ways that suggest we all have those biases at the core of our actions.

Despite the evidence she seems to be going down a path of least and obvious resistance, I think Nancy's study has great promise. Where else other than the space station could we observe a microcosm of western culture in isolation? I will grant you that the ice is not a typical community. It is a self-selected group with a propensity for adventure. The group is supplied by external means. Nobody has to grow vegetables for food, nor could they. But to the first order, studying ice life may give us a look into what our values are as a people by recording how things would be if we all behaved in ways that were absolutely true to our nature and not the behavior in light of the adoption of imposed roles.

Next I need to find out why ice people are 2x more likely to have blue eyes and be left handed than their northern counterparts. Maybe I can get a million-dollar grant to study that phenomenon.

Windsor B&B, Christchurch, NZ October 29th, 2003