hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Insults of Spring

Workshop blog posting


The Insults of Spring

A cold and moderately wet drive down to the U.S., a good-natured border guard (who knows us and waves us through) barely looks at us and our heavily laden car as we came through, a disappointing two-weeks worth of mail. It is noteworthy that when you get mail at two week intervals how little mail interest arrives. There are the good magazines, of course: The New Yorker, Harper’s, American Spectator, Atlantic; and there are bills, which are important but not interesting; and there are a few random adverts, but not nearly as many as I receive every morning in the overnight email. But, the one great blessing of snail mail, no communiques urging me to have my penis enlarged.

The crocuses (the croci?) are up and open thoughout the garden which means they got at least a few minutes of sun today. Big purple, yellow, and white blossoms reminding us that it’s gonna happen! Daffodils are 6-8 inches tall everywhere I look; Indian plum bushes are almost fully leafed out, the apple tree buds have discernible color, the currant and forsythia bushes are also pushing color in blossoms and leaves. It’s all looking good. Until I check on the tulips.

The tulips--I plant about 4-5 dozen each year, so there are plenty of them around, even though they don’t all come back from year to year—were about 4 inches tall or so when I left two weeks ago. Today, they are plentiful, but they are about three-quarters of an inch tall. And there are footprints all over the place. The local deer have dropped by while we were gone and munched them all almost right to the dirt level.

That’s the first time this has happened down in Point Roberts, although deer are notorious tulip eaters. In Roberts Creek, B.C., where we have big woods and deer and bear and cougar around, the deer are such a burden that I don’t plant tulips anymore. But here? The deer population is small because there’s not enough habitat for many of them. We see them occasionally, so I usually put all our saved hair scraps out around the tulips when they start to come up. Somewhere, I read that they are put off by human hair and, since Ed and I continue to have a lot of it, we save the cuttings to fend off the deer. And it or something has worked. Two weeks ago when we left, I did think that I ought to put the hair wreaths out, but I lazed out: plenty of time when we get back.

Yet another opportunity to be proved wrong. An hour after we arrive, the remains of the tulips are hair encircled. Who knows? Maybe there’s something there, still under the ground with a bud in it, even if its leaves are severely truncated. Something else to wait for. And the birds will eventually use the hair for their nests.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Transition Team

That is what we are today and tomorrow as we once again go from being tourists in Canada to Point Roberts residents in the U.S.. You might think it’s like coming home from a vacation trip since we’ve only been away from the U.S. for 13 days. But it isn’t. It’s more like leaving home and simultaneously going back home, but everything is different. Well, not everything. One thing I committed to early on was a lot of duplication so I wouldn’t be having to do without things that I was used to having easy access to nor would I be pining for things I didn’t have but needed. But that involved a million small decisions about what were the relevant items to duplicate: obviously, standard household furnishings are in both houses, and I have fully accoutered quilting/sewing setups in both places. We tried to set up the kitchens in both places so that utensils and cooking/food items would be if not in the same place at least similarly placed: frying pans hang from the rafters in both houses, a drawer which we refer to as the ‘cutter-not-a-knife’ drawer is similarly placed in both houses.

We have a wonderful pair of glider rockers in both houses that make the best reading chairs ever and it is a great treat not to have to be away from those chairs. On the other hand, Ed has a table saw only at one house and carries lumber back and forth when he needs to do that kind of cutting. He has kayaks at one house, but not the other, and his skis and backpacking equipment keep company with the kayaks. At one point, I moved knitting needles back and forth with me, rather than buy another entire set, but then I realized that thrift shops sell knitting needles for nickels, so now there is a complete set at each house. We keep full sets of clothes at each house, moving only our winter coats back and forth, but I needed some greater distinction between them so I knew what went where: my Canada clothes are black-oriented and my U.S. clothes lean to navy blue.

I felt very strongly that if we were going to be going back and forth this frequently, it would be better to minimize the number of things we were dragging back and forth with us, so we did more duplication perhaps than was strictly necessary. But it is a relief on the twice-a-month transition day not to have to be thinking much about what needs to go with us, other than things we are in fact currently working on, currently reading, and currently seeing or listening to. It makes the actual leaving much easier not to have to be doing a lot of packing, and it makes it less like going on or returning from a vacation.

But it also makes it more like stopping one life and then starting up another life—new people, new sights, new concerns--and the transition days have a funny psychological quality: I’m almost always mentally prepared to leave the day before we actually leave, and I find myself, as I am today, with everything finished up, closed down, and turned off, while I wander around strangely at loose ends, waiting for life to start again. The other effect it has is on one’s sense of time. I know that time passes more quickly as one gets older, but it passes even more quickly when you have two different lives with 24 months, each only 2 weeks long. And that’s what it’s mostly like. Finished this February 2008 life now for the second time, time to go start the first of two March 2008 lives tomorrow. Spring will be beginning in that life, too. But I’m also letting go of winter for the second time this year. Happy to do so, though.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

When Canadians Say 'Eh?'

Before I moved up here, I didn’t know all that much about Canada: the standard stuff: hockey, ‘Eh?,’ maple leaves. ‘Tukes’ had not penetrated my consciousness, even though I went to college on the U.S. side of the Canadian border just south of the Saint Lawrence River. Maybe they hadn’t taken to wearing them in the 50’s: I don’t know. One of our early trips across the border from Point Roberts to Canada (and indeed the only even mildly unpleasant border experience I’ve ever had going into Canada) involved my stopping first at the Point Roberts post office where there was an unexpected package for me from a friend, and which I picked up and put in the back seat of the car. Then I proceeded to cross the border to do some mild shopping. ‘What’s in the package?’ inquired the Canadian border agent. “Got me,” I replied. “I just picked it up at the post office.” “Do you think you can bring a sealed package across the border when you don’t even know what is in it? Take that package home before you cross the border. Do you not understand that Canada is a different country?”

Of course I did, in a sense. I mean Canada had already refused to let me live there permanently, so it apparently wasn’t the U.S. where I do get to live permanently. But in a larger sense, he was probably right. Canadians were just us, but they said ‘Eh?’

Yet another of life’s truths that I had wrong. Canadians are really quite different from Americans but they don’t, at least as far as I have heard, say ‘Eh?’. Maybe you hear it on Canadian TV, radio, or movies, when it’s used quite self-consciously; and maybe you hear it in Eastern Canada, about which I know nothing. But you pretty much don’t hear it in B.C. Hockey? Yes, all the time, everywhere. Maple leaves? Plenty of those, too, whether the real ones or iconic ones. But no ‘Eh?’ What you do hear, though, is a flat a in all Latinate words that, pretty much, Americans pronounce with a broad a. So, you go to dinner and they serve you pasta, the first syllable of which rhymes with ‘fast.’ Or you join them at a concert where a cantata is being performed. And the second syllable of cantata rhymes with ‘fat.’ Across the board, they use that flat a instead of the broad a that Americans would use. Only after 16 years, do I find myself asking for a little more pasta, rhymes with fast-uh. But it still sounds weird to me, even when I say it spontaneously.

Another thing about Canadians that is very different from Americans is that they know the relative and actual value of the U.S. and Canadian dollars. Of course, knowing what it is—and right now, for the first time in decades, the Canadian dollar is worth more than the U.S. dollar: i.e., one U.S. dollar will buy you only 95-98 Canadian cents—doesn’t make it possible for you to do much about it. But it significantly affects where you buy what you buy. A few years ago, before the Bush Administration destroyed the U.S. economy, the U.S. dollar was very strong: one U.S. dollar could buy $1.50 Canadian. If I deposited a $1,000 U.S. check each month, say, to cover my expenses in Canada, my bank account would get $1,500 Canadian dollars. Now, it gets about $960 Canadian dollars. So everything in Canada has become much more expensive for me and I buy as little there as I can, but everything in the U.S. has become much less expensive for Canadians, and they are pouring over the main U.S. border to enliven the shopping malls. This is a zero sum game, I suppose, but now I am on the down side of the curve; before, they were. They're vacationing in California; Americans are not vacationing in Vancouver.

But it is one thing that makes Canadians different and, now, I am different like them: I’m acutely aware of the value of the U.S. dollar and how it affects my every day life. That’s something, eh?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How Do You Get to Point Roberts?

Quick answer: cross the border at Blaine, turn left on #17 and turn left again at 56th St. and you’re back at the border. This includes a short drive through Tsawwassen, an attempt to reproduce in English spelling the sound of an indigenous word, although it is hard to imagine exactly what sound ‘ww’ would be representing. Usually, I just spell it TSSAAWWAASSEN, and offer the reader the choice of any two of the double letters. After Tsawwassen, you get to cross the border and you are in Point Roberts! That’s sort of how we got there.

Point Roberts has a Historical Society which may have many passive members and which definitely has a few active members, largely people who actually grew up on Point Roberts and stayed there. The Society’s current task is to compile a storybook of how we all got there. Here’s our story:

In 1989, Ed and I were pondering our eventual retirement and were trying out places. I was particularly interested in the Olympic Peninsula (ocean, remote, trees, rain, etc.). We went there in November and found it flat and treeless, though definitely with ocean and rain. What to do with the rest of the week? We ended up driving up into B.C. because Ed had once landed a plane in a nice town there and wanted to go see the town again. It was not part of the retirement journey. But when we got to the nice town, it took about ten minutes to determine that this was exactly what I had in mind when we mistakenly went to the Olympic Peninsula looking for it. We spent the rest of that week on the Sunshine Coast of B.C., just north of Vancouver, and returned to L.A. to explore the possibilities of living in another country.

We found that there was an immigration category for U.S. citizens who owned property in Canada, could demonstrate adequate access to financial resources, and were not interested in employment. With this category in hand, we returned in March of 1990 and bought a house in Roberts Creek, the middle of the Sunshine Coast. (Note that we had only been there in November and March, neither one the part of the year that is celebrated in the phrase ‘Sunshine Coast.’) We rented the house out for two years and in 1992, we moved there just in time to discover that, as of January 1 of that year, the immigration category under which we expected to claim residence had been eliminated. Canada, it turned out, didn’t want a lot of old, retired/unemployed Americans coming there to use up their health care. In 1992, we were in B.C. only part of the time in any case, so we weren’t immigrating: we were just tourists with a house. A few years later, as we were preparing to sell the house in L.A., Ed discovered Point Roberts on a map.

After picking me up at the airport from one of my trips to the U.S., Ed drove us down to Point Roberts to look it over since we were going to need a permanent U.S. address. Astonishingly, it looked exactly like Roberts Creek. So we bought a house there too. (These were the days when real estate in the Northwest was still very, very inexpensive.) The distance between these two Roberts-es is about 45 miles, but it includes a ferry ride as there is no continuous road up the west coast of B.C., and it is a slow drive either around or through Vancouver to the ferry terminal. From the front door of one house to the front door of the other, it’s about a 3-hour trip.

So we set up a life in which we go back and forth between the two houses, spending more than half of the time in the U.S., so that (1) the U.S. house would clearly be a permanent residence; (2) I could have a real garden in both places; and (3) we could have some kind of social life in both places. It’s a strange kind of life, going back and forth between two countries every month, 24 trips a year, but it works for us for now. We are still tourists with a house in B.C., but we are also library-card holding, taxpayer-paying, voting, and permanent-residing residents of Point Roberts, and of the U.S.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Rural Reading

A friend wrote to me today about the closing of the Brentwood Dutton’s bookstore, probably the last great independent bookstore in greater Los Angeles. We used to live just down the street from Dutton’s when we lived in L.A., and it was a truly great bookstore, the kind they’re always talking about having on every street corner in New York, Paris and London. You knew the owner, you knew the clerks, they knew all the books, they liked to talk about them, and they had interesting things to say. Its loss is enormous, I know, to all those who were continuing to buy and look there, but it was probably inevitable given the times.

When we moved to the Northwest, I decided to shed my book purchasing habits. In moving, we left behind walls of books for the patrons of the Salvation Army and the Good Will. It almost killed Ed, but I felt it was part of a new life to stop acquiring books. From now on, I said, I’ll depend upon libraries.

But then I washed up first in Roberts Creek, B.C., and a few years later in Point Roberts, WA, and both places had libraries smaller than most of the houses I’d lived in over the past 40 years. Furthermore, their tiny spaces, even though lovingly maintained, were not hosting a wonderful collection of The Great Books, which I had intended to re-read during the up-coming quiet time of retirement. The Roberts Creek (B.C.) library had some interesting possibilities for me because it stocked Canadian writers, of course, and like any American reader, I knew nothing about them. Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen were pretty much the extent of my Canadian literary experience. Discovering any number of other Canadian writers was made possible by that little library: Jane Urquhart, Alice Munroe, Rohinton Mistry, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Ondaatje, Wayson Choy, Jann Martell, the novels of Michael Ignatieff, Rona Murray, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Sharon Butala, and Allison Wearing are but a few of those authors that charmed and educated me.

In Point Roberts, the library was somewhat larger but much narrower in scope as I had already read many of the books they kept. Despite my commitment to no more book buying, I found myself acquiring via second hand book stores all the works of Anthony Trollope (40+ books, many of them in the 600-800 page range). If I was going to buy books to read, at least it wouldn’t be random and they’d supply a lot of reading. I started that collection at Dutton’s bookstore, because at that time I was still flying back and forth to Los Angeles on a fairly regular basis. Later, I discovered used book stores in Vancouver and even in the next town up the coast from Roberts Creek in B.C. When visiting our children, I’d try their used bookstores and slowly I acquired them all, with the final ten or so titles being supplied by my oldest daughter who sells books on the Internet and who had come by--from some sister soul’s library--a complete set of Trollope. I don’t really have to depend on libraries now because, having read all the Trollope novels, I can simply read them again. From my perspective, to be tired of Trollope is to be tired of trees, and of life itself.

But the Internet rescued me from that potentially too steady diet of Trollope, because now the Point Roberts library will get me anything I want via the net. It’s as good as Dutton’s ever was: it’s a lot cheaper, the books don’t forever occupy space in my house (just in my head), and, except to pick up the books, I don’t even have to leave home. I just log on at my convenience, look up the books I want and put them on a list by Sunday, and by Wednesday at noon, they are in my local library and thence in my hand. Similarly, in B.C., I’ve been upgraded to internet access to all the books in the Metropolitan Vancouver region. And there, I can even get books from one library and return them to another.

What an amazing resource a library is. My guess is that it is little used by most people in urban areas. They just order books up from Amazon or Chapters or whatever is still selling retail at the mall. Of course, if people don’t buy books, the Dutton’s of this world aren’t going to last. Yet, there are still plenty of people who really can’t afford books and for them the public library is everything. I seriously doubt that, if Carnegie had not convinced the public a century+ ago that every community ought to have a public library, libraries would have been independently brought into existence. Can you imagine the electorate voting on whether it would be a good idea to spend a bunch of money to put books in a building so people can read them? I don’t hear a ‘yes!’ vote coming out of that election. Indeed, the counties are continually paring down hours and services just because libraries aren’t much of a priority anymore.

I’m profoundly grateful they are there though. And I’m especially grateful to the Point Roberts library and to the Gibson’s, B.C., library. Here’s a pitch coming. Most libraries have some kind of group loosely attached to them, usually called ‘Friends of the Library.’ They help to raise extra funds for the library to do a little more than the government funds them for. Next time you are feeling in a charitable mood, give something to them. You’ll be pleased that you did on that day when you give up buying books and throw yourself on the kind and generous mercy of the library near you.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Living With Horses (or Ponies)

Point Roberts, the land of gas stations and Icelandic ponies. The gas stations are there not because the ponies run on gas, but because the Canadian government lays a sizeable tax on gasoline in its country and not even the burden of crossing the border is sufficient disincentive for driving down to the Point to fill up. In Canada, gas costs around $1.10/liter; in Pt. Roberts, it costs about $3.50/gallon. Because the U.S. and Canadian dollars are about the same now, Canadians save slightly less than a dollar/gallon (assuming they don't use credit cards to pay for the gas and thus get hit with an additional 2-3% charge for the effrontery of buying in a different currency). Also, they have someplace to drive to once they get back across the border. Like Los Angeles, Vancouver is a commuter’s game, though not a paradise because Vancouver decided long ago not to build any rapid, freeway-type access through town. There are highways around Vancouver, but once off the highways, it’s traffic all the time, everywhere, as far as I can tell.

Here on the Point, once again, not so much. I can walk from north to south and from east to west if I really had to, I suspect. A local contractor, who retired from Seattle and opened a new frontier here, felt a need to buy a red Hummer once he moved to Pt. Roberts. Periodically I get a chance to drive on the local road ahead of Hummer Bill and I make absolutely sure at those times that I am driving just below the speed limit (which is probably 30 m.p.h.)…well, maybe a little more than just below. Actually, way below. It’s my way of reminding him of where he is, a fact he doesn’t otherwise seem to grasp.

Where we are is in a very slow speed place. It is the kind of place where you might have horses, but not the kind of horses that race across the plains, not the kind of Arabians in ‘The Black Stallion” that race down the beaches in wild abandon. Here we have Icelandic ponies: wide, short, heavy-coated, stubborn horses that eat and amble. I have no idea how many of these ponies there are on the Point, but you see groups of 3-7 of them in fields all around. And you see them on the road, meandering along, ridden almost always by girls or young women, obstructing Hummer Bill's passage, no doubt. They are here because the original settlers of Point Roberts (the original White settlers, that is) were from Iceland by way of Vancouver Island. I guess they brought the horses with them and they have thrived here, even though we're not much like Iceland, I'd think.

Recently, a neighbor decided to take in a trio of ponies and I got to learn a little about horses and their needs. First of all, they seem to need to go somewhere else. The first few months of the ponies’ residence involved their picking up the fences by putting their heads underneath and pulling the fence up and then strolling out and away down the road. Finer fences simply produced new ways of putting their heads under to remove the offending bars. One of my quilting students, herself an owner of ponies, says to me, ‘They’re herd animals. They’re just looking for some more of themselves.’ And sure enough, it would not be hard for them to find other ponies to visit: down the road, turn left and walk three blocks and there are some more of them right there. They can’t cross the border because they have no passports and they don't like the ocean, so even wandering around, like us, they are not really going anywhere.

My student also says of them, ‘They like to eat.’ And eat they did; in no time at all, all the lush grass in the big meadow in which they were (more or less) enclosed, went away. Horses, it seems, like chickens, will just eat and eat and eat, as long as there is something for them to eat. And finally, she says, ‘They like attention.’ And when the field owners went away for awhile and those attention levels dropped, the ponies simply chose, in a fit of irritation, to eat all the bark off the apple trees that were enclosed with them, thus killing the trees.

So, that’s what I’ve learned about horses via the Icelandic ponies. They are a lot more like people than I would have thought.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Seeing As Art

Point Roberts has a moderately moribund Voters’ Association (all Americans) and an equally somnolent Property Owners’ Association (mostly Canadians, although American property owners can join). They keep some kind of indolent watch over the body politic here. Four or five years ago, the Voters’ Association, led by its president, became convinced that the sizable number of abandoned properties (houses, trailers, barns) was at the heart of our stagnant community and was preventing robust development. Somehow the absence of jobs and infrastructure was abandoned in the causative background.

The Property Owners’ Association was not worried about this phenomenon because it was largely their houses, trailers, and RV’s that were at issue. The Voters’ Association President made the 90-mile round trip to the county seat (Bellingham, in Whatcom County) to talk this all over with the County Council. Because, in fact, all this attractive nuisance property involved some kind of zoning violation, the County agreed to send someone up to issue notices of violation to the properties in question. And lo! The notices were made manifest.

I didn’t know anything about this because I never know much about anything until the monthly paper (The All Points Bulletin) comes out on the first of each month. When I saw the newspaper story, I was appalled because, although none of those abandoned properties were mine, there were several of them I was very fond of. They included houses on the main roads that one saw every day as they slowly returned from whence they came, a journey that would clearly take many years and had already been going on for many years.

Fearing that they would all disappear because of the county action, I did about all I could: I took pictures of the abandoned houses that I knew about, as well as inquired of friends about others that they might know about. It was obvious from the newspaper that there were more of them than I had imagined. Several had been immediately torn down before the newspaper even came out. However, after the county made its stand, it retreated back to Bellingham with, apparently, no follow-up. Still, those community members that liked these derelict houses felt that more attacks could come. In a crisis that doesn’t directly involve me, my first thought is, ‘Would a quilt help?’ Almost always, the answer to that question is, 'No.’ But, a quilt never hurts. So I decided to make a pictorial quilt of each of the houses I had photographed. I had never made a pictorial quilt before and had no drawing skills to speak of. But it somehow seemed doable because it seemed that it needed to be done.

A friend heard about my endeavor and arranged for me to visit more of these houses, ones off the main road, and to go inside them and photograph them. Several were among the first houses built in Pt. Roberts. Eventually, I had photographs of 17 buildings and eventually I made quilted portraits of each of them. The quilts range from fourteen-inches square, to about 52”x40”. You can see them here: Abandoned House Quilts. They have been on exhibit a number of times in various places and have taught me more about seeing and sewing than I would have imagined I could have learned. Here is a picture of a particular house in a particular field or a particular forest. Here is fabric. How do you make lovely, soft fabric look like wood and rocks and plants and doors and stone chimneys and ocean and things fresh and things decaying? Each new house posed the question anew and each had to be answered in a different way because each of the houses was different. They were old and they were usually collapsing in one way or another, but they had been cared about as homes and in some cases were still cared about for their past lives. They were surviving in their way with great dignity as they went through this long process.

Since I started this project, perhaps six of the houses have completed their lives: torn down for a new house and eventual home or collapsed entirely in severe weather. The quilted pictures of them will last, of course. That is something of a problem, though, as I am the custodian of all these quilts. Two have been entrusted to people whose lives were touched by the buildings: one a woman who rode horses in a barn now gone, the other a woman whose mother was born in a house now gone. But the rest are with me. Perhaps Ed should build a museum for them.

Regardless of what happens to them eventually, the process itself has tied me to the community in a way I would never have anticipated. They are my stake in Pt. Robert’s past and they anchor my present here. Unlike anywhere else I have ever lived (and there have been a lot of places), I am a part of this community.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Art of Seeing

The quietness, the greyness, the naturalness, and the slowness of the world at Pt. Roberts has taught me a great deal about what it means to see things. In the city, I worked at not seeing things because there are just too many things, they lack coherence and balance, are too vivid, have too much contrast, are in short too man-made and feel more like chaos than like the world.

Here, I have the time to see things and things can be seen to change slowly over time. For example, 10 days ago, I cut a branch of forsythia that looked dead, and put it in a vase of water on the dining room table. Since then, the bark has filled out slightly, and its color has changed from grey to a brownish color, and its tiny, dead-looking buds have begun to swell minimally, to change color infinitesimally day by day by day. Right now, the buds are perhaps 1/16th of an inch long and have gone from dead grey to crisp brown to a very pale and satiny yellow-green. In another week, those green buds will have separated themselves slightly, formed into petals and changed to a somewhat yellower color. They will open eventually to display their bright yellow four-petalled flower and tiny green leaves will arise to surround them. They will last for weeks before they begin their equally slow decline. But it is only if you have the time and the inclination to watch the process that you begin to see them as something complex, as something more than an object for your momentary admiration as they reach their peak bloom. Similarly, tulips, when they come to us for picking will last for weeks in the house, as they move through the process of bud swelling through various shades of green, of petal-opening and opening even more as the color flows slowly up into each petal, each day more vividly. And then, those petals open and ever so slowly open to a disk, and then amazingly turn themselves inside out, each day taking on a new and exotic shape. They gently decline this way, their color fades back to a dull shade of their original, and then they lose all color to a dusty beige. Eventually they finish their performance by letting loose those reformed petals, dropping them at the foot of their vase. It is like watching a virtuoso ballet performance.

This week in New York, a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ opened. I wish I were seeing it, but I am always seeing it. The NYT’s reviewer said this about it: “The great gift of this production, first staged in London two years ago, is its quiet insistence that looking is the art by which all people shape their lives.” (theater2.nytimes.com/2008/02/22/theater/reviews/22geor.html)

Many years ago, Sondheim wrote the music for a TV drama called ‘Evening Primrose.’ It is about a group of people who have been imprisoned in a department store for many years. (I recently asked a grandchild what he might like for a birthday gift and he reported his desire for ‘a Leggo Jedi Starfighter Hyperdrive Booster Ring.’ (You can see it here: http://shop.lego.com/Product/?p=7661) From this I conclude that the practice of locking people in department stores for years at a time is not an uncommon event.) The heroine of ‘Evening Primrose’ has two songs that foreshadow 'Sunday in the Park’: ‘Take Me To the World,’ and “I Remember Trees.’ In the latter, she sings, ‘I remember trees, or at least I think I do.’

Before I came here, that was pretty much a song I could have sung. From 1970-75, I lived in a house in the woods and began to see trees. But I was still young, with young children and employment and many thoughts that captured my attention far more than the trees did. Last night, I was listening to a CBC radio lecture in which some professor was talking about the original meaning of the term common sense. It wasn’t ‘common’ as ‘ordinary.’ It was ‘common’ in the sense that it was the sense that took the information from the other senses and put that information together into a unified whole. That was before we had science to make our unified whole. We are deeply lacking in common sense nowadays, I suspect. Which reminds me of a poem by William Carlos Williams about the death of his English Grandmother. He is riding with this elderly, very sick woman in an ambulance, heading for a hospital against her wishes. ‘What is that out the window?’ she asks. ‘Trees? Well, I’m tired of them.’

I’m not tired of trees. But should I become so, I will know that like those tulips and forsythia, I have reached the end of a long process. For now, however, I am happy to have been taken to the world.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Living With and Without Water

If there is one thing Pt. Roberts has, it’s water: all that ocean, all that rain. Except that if there is one thing we are seriously short of it is water. And that is a tiny version of what will be a much bigger story for many people in the world very soon, even those in first world countries. For us, it is a more extreme issue: although we have ocean and plenty of rain, we don’t have any source for potable water. Neither the state nor the county has any interest in providing us with drinking water because, obviously, it would involve miles of water lines and they would have to either go through Canada or under the ocean. Not a reasonable expenditure of public funds for 1,000 Americans. Wells are unreliable—especially during the summer dry season--and there is probably insufficient ground water for many of them, though there are a few around. So, awhile back we turned to our neighbors, the friendly Canadians, and said, ‘Please would you sell us some of your large supply of water?’ And they said yes.

Until they said, ‘But no more.’ Currently, there is a long-term agreement to provide Point Roberts with X gallons of drinking water/day. Because Canadian water standards are different from U.S. standards (different, not better, not worse), that water has to undergo additional treatment once it gets here, but we have learned how to deal with that. Several years ago, it became apparent to the B.C. legislature that they had a lot of water, that there was going to be a real demand for water resources in the world, and that they were at risk of inadvertently losing control of theirs. To avoid this, they passed a law that no water access can be sold to anyone outside of Canada, although current contracts were to be honored. However, they couldn’t be increased.

There’s a lot of empty land in Pt. Roberts and over the past few years, a lot more people are moving there (a lot more is, of course, a relative term). In any case, we have had something of a building boom with Californians and Canadians increasing their presence. And their water use. A year ago, the water board (one of our very few local government functions) announced that they were almost out of water use permits: indeed, there were more applications than there were permits. There were developers who wanted dozens of permits, there were people who had been planning for 20 years to built the cabin of their dreams and now wanted a permit, there were people who were moving up from California to build the houses that the sale of their overpriced California real estate now made possible and they wanted permits. For a year, this tiny community struggled with the issue of water permits and, but not so much, water itself as a resource.

Many angry meetings, many angry letters, much self-righteousness, much hiring of consultants, and some selection and resignation of water board members led to a final lottery in which everyone had an equal shot at the permits, whether he/she wanted one permit or 60. There are plenty of hard feelings still around from this year and there’s a plan proposed for water use, but the count/state isn’t on board with it. Most important, perhaps, is that all this discussion was largely among those who controlled the water and those who didn’t have water. Those of us who live in the community and have water and would not be directly affected by any decision other than one that also involved raising the monthly price of water were outside the discussion.

What it seems to have been was a terrific opportunity to engage the community in broader water resource issues that are going to arise with lots of natural resources and will arise again for us about water and soon: How much do we really need? How can we use conservation principles? Why are there no programs for encouraging or mandating low use of water? What about rain barrels and other methods of water re-use (grey water, e.g.). None of that. We missed that opportunity. I think that was not because we weren’t prepared to have such a discussion but because the issue got framed as ‘how to apportion permits when there are insufficient numbers of permits.’ We should have been asking, 'How are we going to think about our water use?' At the end of the discussion we didn’t have, there might have not been so many angry people. And we might have moved a few steps toward incoporating into our being a more rational approach to living in this world and not just on top of it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Living in the Dark, with Color

Once you get past the border, what is Point Roberts like? Do the thousand regulars just collapse on their couches having gotten through it one more time? Of course, many of the thousand regulars aren’t actually there right now. In the summer time, the regular Canadian cottagers pour over the borders, and in the fall, they pour back into Canada. And as it gets a little colder, many of the American (theoretically) full-time residents start pouring south to someplace warmer in the ROA (rest of America). Point Roberts has no employment to speak of but the reason that that doesn’t matter so much to its permanent residents is that they are largely retired. And the folks who stick it out from November to March seem to be Canadians with green cards who live in Pt. Roberts and work somewhere else (often movie people in the Vancouver industry), retirees who don’t have jobs and have grown weary of travel (like me and Ed), and people who work locally at the grocery store, the real estate sales offices, the gas stations, the liquor store, or have pretty small home businesses—cleaning, flowers, maintenance, carpentry, or, increasingly, internet businesses.

In real winter time (say, December), it gets dark at 4 in the afternoon if it’s a heavily cloudy day, and it usually is. You come on to the Point and it looks as if the entire place has been closed down. The vast majority of houses and cottages are dark, and the only cars are the ones that are lined up at the border. The border station itself and grocery store have a big light presence, as do the FIVE gas stations (all on the main street), but otherwise, not much. (Remember, there are almost no street lights and only two flashing traffic lights.) So it’s dark, and cold and lonely feeling, and probably windy, and definitely wet. I LOVE it! I think this is what is meant by being away from the madding crowd. It’s not just the feeling of isolation; it is also the redundant wetness: the ground is wet, the plants are wet, the air is wet, the ocean is wet, the roof, skylights, and deck of the house is wet. Inside, there’s a nice fire going and it’s pretty warm for a moderately insulated house. Inside it’s home, but outside, too. For people who have lived almost all their lives in high and low deserts (me) and low deserts (Ed), it’s like being re-hydrated after a very long dry spell. And it is blessedly quiet, even though we are just south of the Vancouver airport.

It is true that it is hard being away from the sun for such long periods of time. Yet, yet, the saturation of color provided by a northwestern cloudy day is spectacular. You can hardly keep your eyes off the outdoors. There are a million green colors even in the winter; the Icelandic ponies that are abundant in fields about have extraordinarily rich brown and reddish coats. The tree bark of small forest areas wants you not only to look at it but also to touch it to see if its green and grey and orange lichens are as tactile as they appear, and they are. It is an absolute visual wonder, even in winter. In spring, in summer, in fall, even more so, and each is a very different kind of look. I think it is in great part so astonishing because its variety is so subtle and so coherent. The big contrasts that are inherent in a man-made environment are simply not here. There is nothing much around that is man-made, other than houses that are, for the most part, and certainly on our street, pretty much one with the environment. Older houses in Point Roberts tend to just collapse into the background. (Sometimes literally, and from that fact emerged my series of 17 sizable wall quilts, ‘Abandoned Houses of Point Roberts.’ ) There is something strangely satisfying about the thought that you can have a little house and when you are through with it, it will go back to where it came from.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Border: Go Directly to Jail!

Much of this border interchange, brought to me by the Dept. of Homeland Security, is vastly irritating but nothing more. It is what the Republicans are always complaining about as the inevitable nature of government bureaucracy. Surely it has long seemed to me, in that spirit, that any government ought to be particularly careful in figuring out where people have the most interaction with the government and ensuring that that interaction is friendly, helpful, and understandable. But apparently, that is not one of the seven principles of running this country, these days. Suffice to say, however, that having seen the border before and after 9/11, the behaviors after 9/11, inspired by this administration, have been more obstructionist, more irritating, and ultimately more outrageous. To some extent, this is understandable. I do not doubt but that the guards have all had opportunities for training programs in which some political appointee says to them, “How would YOU like to be the person who authorized the entry of a deadly terrorist into the country? You simply can’t be too careful.” Something on the order of, “Burn them all; God will recognize his own.”

Well, no one would suggest that they are not being too careful nowadays. I always hope that the deadly terrorist who comes to the Pt. Robert’s border crossing has some further plan for getting to the rest-of-the-USA. Perhaps he can get a teenager to smuggle him down in the school bus in the teenager’s backpack? Otherwise, he’d better bring a boat with him and be prepared to deal with the Marina people as well on his way to the water. Or maybe a very small, fold-up airplane to use at the grass airstrip that we have for small airplanes and helicopters.

The Nexus go-thru-fast card is advertised as the next big step in ID’s. It can be made good for airport security (go-thru-fast lane there, too), but first you have to make another trip to the airport to get your irises scanned. I used to have a before-9/11 fast lane airport pass, but it only knew about my fingerprints. When they took my fingerprints on that occasion, they told me I’d make a good burglar because my fingerprints are hard to identify (too much hand sewing and gardening, apparently). So late this career counseling and encouragement! But the iris scan is not achieved yet, mostly because going to the airport requires me to deal with TSA. Not on my schedule.

So the Nexus card may be coming to you and you may like to know why you might not get one or why you might not be able to keep it. Point Roberts residents have had quite a bit of experience with being rejected and with being thrown out of the program. Ever had any kind of conviction, no matter how trivial, misdemeanor or felony? Well, you are not going to get a Nexus card. People have been rejected for having a ‘drunk and disorderly’ conviction over three decades previously with nothing since then. DUI’s, failure to pay child support, drug possession, unsafe driving, failing to fill out your application form correctly (a form which gives you, as I recall, two lines to record every name you have ever used in your life. Which, if you’ve dabbled in a lot of identities or tried marriage with multiple enthusiasms is not an adequate space, as in: Judith Elizabeth Wilson, Judith Wilson Hurst, Judith Wilson Albaum, Judith Wilson Ross, Judy Ross, Judith W. Ross, Judy W. Ross. It was that line-up that caused my agency person to designate me, for all time, Judith Elizabeth Ross. They didn’t reject me for the Nexus program for my failure to include all these possibilities, but I was chided for having failed to include them all and for having failed to know my right name, and I was warned that they could reject my application for this, but chose not to as an expression of good will, I guess.

Getting the card, though, may not be the same as keeping it. They can take it away from you for just about any reason, and they do: e.g., for violating the food ordinances; they can take it away from you if you have work materials in your car when you go through the Nexus lane; or if you have a person in the car with you who doesn’t have a Nexus card, or doesn’t have it with him at the moment; or if you have your daughter’s sweater, but not your daughter with her Nexus card in your car (you may not take anything in your car that belongs to anyone else through the Nexus lane). That last one creates a particularly difficult question for me, though. It’s about laundry. Our 650 sq. foot house doesn’t actually have enough room for a washing machine. It’s not a big inconvenience as we don’t use up that many clothes and I can always cross the border to the laundromat a mile away. But the laundry…is it mine? Certainly it consists of Ed’s clothes AND my clothes? And can I take Ed’s clothes to the laundromat in Canada? Or can I claim that, as the doer of laundry, for that period of time, the clothes actually all belong to me? But then am I taking work materials in the car with me? And if I take all this laundry, across the border, will I have demonstrated that I am unworthy to be trusted by my country to have this special pass? Will they think I might be a terrorist with a laundry fetish? Will they take my card away from me? And will I go berserk if they do? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but so far I have not discussed this matter in detail with Homeland Security.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Border: You Are What You Were Going to Eat

Homeland Security at the Pt. Roberts border crossing saves its deepest concerns for what you are planning to have for dinner tonight or breakfast tomorrow. Despite the fact that an orange that enters Pt. Roberts--should that terrible and forbidden thing happen--has no way to go any further than the beach, unless it accidentally rolls down to the water’s edge and is caught by an unusually high tide, the very idea that such an orange might enter Pt. Roberts is anathema to the border guards. But what really destroys their evening sleep is the possibility that I, the Nexus-investigated, -authorized and -approved resident of Pt. Roberts and U.S. citizen, might confuse an orange, say, with a tomato (sort of the same shape), or with a carrot (sort of the same color).

Thus, any time I cross that border I am compelled to itemize any plant/vegetable/meat that is in my possession so that they can be certain that I have not made any of these simple mistakes. It is best if I also mention milk and dairy products since, I think, they may contain citrus fruits. Or they may include apples during the months that fall more or less between February and August (or sometimes April and September: the difference may depend upon the guard or the weather; I have no way of knowing). Even though I can always cross the border either way with bananas, Homeland Security insists that I discuss bananas with them. Just in case.

These rules are, of course, promulgated by the Agriculture Dept. but it is Homeland Security that insists they be pursued at the Pt. Roberts border just as they are pursued at the Port of Los Angeles. Further, it is the Homeland Security people who make the rule that if I neglect to mention any of these food products and they observe this product in my car, they can take my beloved Nexus card away from me forever for violating the rules. That decision is made by an individual border guard. There is an appeal process, but it appears that no one conducts the process. You write to request a hearing, but no one ever replies to your request. So, I take it, there is no appeals process. To live in Pt. Roberts without a Nexus card is not a good idea. You will be stuck in long lines at virtually every coming and going, and you will be stuck in them again if where you are heading for is the rest-of-the-U.S. which requires, of course, another border crossing. You will not be able to drive/ride in a car where other passengers have Nexus cards (or more to the point, they can’t cross the border in the Nexus lane with you in their car.) Many people I know here say, ‘If I lose my Nexus card, I’ll have to move back to the mainland U.S.’ And they also say, ‘I think it’s just a matter of time until I lose my Nexus card.’

And that is because you can’t possibly indefinitely avoid breaking their rules. Last summer, green onions but not yellow onions suddenly appeared as a prohibited entry; one year, annual flower plants in pots could be brought in but not perennials (fortunately, border guards know nothing about gardening), but then they decided NO plants, NO dirt: only cut flowers. Eggs? Yes, unless it turns out to be NO because they’re suddenly concerned about bird flu and have banned chicken. Beef? Yes, unless it’s NO because there is a worry somewhere about mad cow. They also usually don't want lamb, but I don't know what that's about. Bacon is okay as long as you tell them about it. So, first of all you never know when the rules change unless someone who has been caught mis-bringing tells you, a friend or neighbor. We have a monthly newspaper, but a once-a-month news source isn’t really going to do the trick.

And you can’t avoid breaking their rules because they frequently sort of make up the rules. You can’t bring in any tropical fruit (except bananas) and kiwi from New Zealand is a tropical fruit because it could have been grown in a tropical area, the guard advised me as he tossed my 10 just-bought-in-Canada kiwi into the trash. The apple rule is intended to prevent any apple grown anywhere other than Canada or the U.S. from crossing the border. But Canadian apples start ripening in July, and there are Canadian storage apples around until September when the new crop starts coming in. Thus, much of that Canadian crop is coterminous with New Zealand’s apple crop. The border guards arbitrarily decide during that overlap period whether this is an okay apple or a not okay apple. They all think no apples are okay from April to August. But from February to April it is much more uncertain what kind of reading you’ll get. It might help if your apple has a label, but they really prefer it to be in a sealed bag, although I’ve never seen a genuinely sealed bag of apples, just bags with twist ties.

Pt. Roberts is really, once you get there, a kind of paradise. But like any paradise, there’s the apple problem.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Border: Where Are You Really Going?

So you have your Nexus go-thru-fast card, and you pull up to the border in the special Nexus lane. You stick your card out the window and wave it at the machine and then you go up to the border guard station, a maybe 4-foot-square house with a chair, and the border guard looks at his computer, which shows him your picture, your name, your address, and he asks you, almost invariably, either “Where are you going?” or “Why are you coming here?” I would remind you that Point Roberts is a 4.5-square mile peninsula, surrounded by water, as is the nature of peninsulas, on three sides. And the border is the fourth side. Where am I going???? Or, given that they are looking at my address, Why am I coming here??

This is the kind of question and the kind of interaction with the border guards that can put me easily over the edge. Since they cannot really be asking me ‘Where am I going?’ (the answer to which question would, obviously be ‘Pt. Roberts’—it is, of course, the only place to go to from this border crossing), are they asking me something more philosophical: As, “Where, really, are you going?” That’s a hard question for an old person because where you are going is not so much up for dispute or desired for discussion; you are, after all, a person with a past and a present, but not much that you might want to think of as a future. Do they wish, really, to discuss Death with me? Similarly, is the answer to ‘Why are you coming here?’ ‘I live here’? Surely not. They already know I live here. Are they checking to see if I know I live here? Surely I have not invested in this Nexus card and the Homeland Security people have not been trained and paid to ask a question to which the answer is obvious. Are they really asking me, ‘Is there any reason on God’s green earth that anyone would be coming here to this border station and if there is what would that reason conceivably be?’ Good question.

Why does the U.S. ‘own’ a 4.5 square mile peninsula that is attached to Canada? Well, it’s on the 49th parallel, which parallel marks the U.S.-Canada border, except that it doesn’t always: the border goes way south just past Pt. Roberts in order to give Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands to Canada. Could it not have given Pt. Roberts to the Canadians for the same reason whatever that reason was? Well, they could have back in the 1850’s, but they didn’t. And since they didn’t, it can never be changed. You will understand that, despite the fact that this border station is a very expensive operation and that it makes all the residents of the Points’ lives very complicated, the U.S. would never, ever give away 4.5 square miles of its territory. And the Americans here would never encourage it, either, even if by doing so all of us here became members of Canada's health care system. A few locals sometimes float the possibility of withdrawing from the state of Washington, and becoming a District, as in the District of Columbia. When this was once proposed to a congressional hopeful as a solution to local problems, he responded, ‘It won’t work: what would you do for sewers? For street lighting? For sidewalks?’ We decided not to vote for him since we don’t have any of those things now.

Myself, I prefer to think of our becoming an International City or something like the Vatican, because then we could issue our own stamps. And that in itself could provide an adequate industrial base, along with the sales of gas and alcohol, to provide us with the necessary moneys for our own government. But, until that happens, I’d like to thank my U.S. friends for providing us with a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week border station (costs duplicated, of course, going the other way by the Canadians). Dollars well spent!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Border: Who Are You Really?

It’s hard to describe what it is like to live in a 4.5 square-mile gated community when the U.S. government via the Dept. of Homeland Security does the gate-guarding. It does mean that Pt. Roberts has a negligible crime rate. Mostly domestic arguments amplified with alcohol and the occasional doltish teenager who is persuaded that it would be worth his/her while to take on the school bus a tidy lot of marijuana in the baggy backpack and deliver it down to Blaine, Washington, where it can make its way to its market.

It also means, since it’s the Dept. of Homeland Security, that you are always having to demonstrate that you are not a political or agricultural terrorist or general civic violator. When you live in a gated community that offers you ocean, trees, food, and gasoline (+ a hardware store—I forgot to mention it before), you might have to get out occasionally for other things: movies, doctors, dentists, restaurants, better food, dry goods, electronic goods, furniture, appliances, etc. …all the things that constitute most trips out of the house if you don’t have to go to work. As far as I can tell, most people here don’t go out of the house to work. There’s no work here and if you are an American, you can’t just go over to Canada and get a job. But there are some who do, and others who go down to the other border (the one that gets you to the main U.S.) to go to school, since we also don’t have any schools.

So, when you have gotten out (via the Canadian border guards who are almost uniformly a pleasant lot who give you no grief or grilling), you have to get back in. On the U.S. side: well ‘uniformly pleasant’--not so much. It’s a mixed bag, like any policing bunch, with some petty tyrants and some who look at you when they are talking to you and are, at least, polite. The lines are pretty much always pretty long at this border crossing because the local Canadians come down to buy gasoline, alcohol, and pick up their U.S. mailed packages at the post office. But to make this viable for the American residents, Homeland Security sells to us for $50 a five-year card to go through a fast lane. This card requires months to acquire because you must first apply and then they must investigate you in all their data bases and then they must fool around a little longer. Eventually, you get a letter that says you may now drive to that “other” border, the one that is a 40-minute drive away, to get your photo taken, to be insulted by their Homeland Security people, and to get your card. My most recent attempt to get a card resulted in the HS people changing my middle name from Wilson to Elizabeth. No paper in the world exists that has the name ‘Judith Elizabeth Ross’ on it, but when I pointed that out to the 25-year-old, non-legally trained agent, he told me to get all my official ID papers changed: passport, driver’s license, bank accounts, credit cards…all of it. ‘Your middle name on your birth certificate is Elizabeth. So that’s your middle name,’ he warned me. He then pointed a hand-held camera (available in some drug stores for about $2.49, I’d guess) that was attached to the computer in my general direction. Within minutes, I had a genuine U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security ID with someone else’s name on it and someone else’s picture on it. At least I assume the latter, since the person in this picture is largely blue and looks like a fish with hair photographed with a wide-angle lens.

That’s one part of living on the border that may be a different sort of life experience than my more urban friends are having. There are lots of others.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Living on the (North) Western Shore

“These days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing, though I am not certain what this cure is meant to mend.” (John Banville, from ‘The Sea,” p. 143 of 195 pages, Vintage Paperback edition, 2005.)

That describes, pretty well, what we have done over the past fifteen years, but surely we did not know that was what we were doing as we made a series of decisions that placed us in that position. Nevertheless, had we known, we would have made the same decisions, I think. Sixteen years ago, we began to separate ourselves from urban life. We cut back our work from full time to half time, to quarter time, to no time. We moved to a rural area of Canada and then we moved additionally to a rural area of Washington state. The rural area of Washington state is not only rural, but also a small, 4.5 square mile peninsula that belongs to the U.S., but is attached to Canada. We live closer to the Vancouver airport than we do to anywhere in the U.S., but we are separated from Canada by an increasingly oppressive border, a 24-hour a day controlled border. Not enough to be isolated in a rural area, we have isolated ourselves further, effectively inside another country. And even then, not enough, the residents of this area are largely Canadian. Perhaps 800-1,000 full-time American residents, and another 4,000 or so part-time Canadian residents.

In this way, the U.S. comes to us only in those “small and carefully measured doses” of which Banville speaks. There is no cell phone coverage here to speak of; there is nothing to buy but groceries, gasoline, and tourist trinkets; there is no U.S. television that comes through the air and no public radio that comes that way either; there are no billboards or stop lights or sidewalks or public lighting. At night, it is dark. When the snow falls, it stays on the roads until (last on the list) the county manages to send someone up to clear it. When the power goes out, as it often does because there are many trees and much wind and frequent storms, we can be hours or days without electricity. What we have that brings the U.S. to us is the internet and the U.S. Postal Service.

It makes for a very different kind of life. And it makes for a strange sense of community. No adult is here except that he or she chooses for there are practically no jobs and hardly any economic activity. All have chosen this strange isolation. And half the time, yet, we drive up to the Canadian house, where we live a different but equally isolated life among Canadians who live just north of the great city of Vancouver, separated this time not by country but by water.

Add to this the fact that we have entered the world of the old, yet another kind of isolation. It is from those perspectives that I now see American politics and American life. The small doses may be not so much a cure as a preventive measure: a way of staving off what increasingly looks like life out of order. I think to contemplate this isolation and measuredness and to try to capture what it is like.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Memories of the Plucky Little President

I wrote this just to assuage my grief almost two years ago. It seems to me now might be the time to look back and see how it was then.

Letter to the Plucky Little President (PLP)

31 March 2006

Dear George,

How goes it today? I heard you on the radio the other day talking again about what a tough job you have, how hard it is, how you have to make all these decisions, but, hey, you said, ‘that’s my job; that’s why the American people elected me…to make decisions’ And I thought of you sitting there all day long (or at least part of the day, as I hear you are not somebody to put in longer hours than you have to), looking at your optimistic yellow rug and making decisions to bomb people, to tell some people they can’t be prime minister or president of Iraq and--I guess--to tell other people they can, to decide what to do about all the little brown ones we’ve got running around the country (just like down at your brother Jeb’s house! Remember when your dad called Jeb’s kids ‘the little brown ones’?), and et cetera. And it was then I thought about what a plucky little president you are and how we ought to always keep that in mind. So, George, you old PLP! I thought I might write you a letter which, if you wanted to answer, you could, because it would really not require you to make any decisions at all. Just a good old fashioned pen and paper to let me know how your days are going. You have a lot more to write about than I do, I’ll bet, given that I’m old and retired and live in a dinky town in rural America where we all know everything about each other already and nobody is doing anything new, although sometimes they are doing it with somebody new, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, I see today on the news that Condi is trashing you over in England, and I thought well I bet THAT doesn’t improve your day, even if you do have an optimistic yellow rug. I don’t know whether you hear much about that kind of stuff (we get some reports that they kind of keep bad stuff away from you). What she was saying was she didn’t mind that there were protesters all around because that’s what freedom of speech and all that stuff is about. Well, that’s true enough, of course. But then she went on to add, gratuitously I would say, that it would be just dumb to only go and talk to people who already agreed with you. [Reuters, 3/31/06: ‘Rice Admits Thousands of Mistakes.” G. Long, S. Pleming. “Each individual all over the world has the God-given right to express themselves. I'm not just going to visit places where people agree with me. That would be really unfortunate."] Is that ever a back-handed slap! I mean, she didn’t mention your name, but I think we all knew who she was talking about. Does loyalty stop at the Washington, DC, airport, George? It makes me practically weep to think of you being subjected to that kind of embarrassment. And to top it off, she said that you’d made thousands of mistakes, and everybody knows that you said, right there on that national debate a year or so ago, that you couldn’t think of a single mistake you’d made. Does she think you made thousands of mistakes just since then? What is that woman thinking (or, not thinking, more to the point..is she spending a lot of time shopping, like they say? Maybe that’s why she’s talking so goofy.)?

And this is only a week after your senior white house advisor for domestic affairs and religious and church help got busted for shoplifting! I mean, do not these people know when they’ve already got enough stuff! And if he is working hard for our government (and I imagine he was if he was helping churches, because they need a lot), how did he have enough time to also do shopping, let along complex shoplifting? (Did Condi ever go shopping with him?) Maybe you need to get those people to put in longer hours, George. Boy you gotta be a PLP with that kind of help. It’s always been hard to get good help, but you seem to be having a real run of bad luck. The Scooter guy (what were his parents thinking when they named him that? ); the Savafian guy (and that’s another weird name). Who in the world is doing your hiring these days? And over at the Congress…well let’s not even talk about that, at least until all the indictments are in.

Well, we’re up to the weekend now, and spring is coming and even the first of April is coming, which means that you have finished the second quarter of your second year in your second term: is that some kind of trifecta? I imagine you’ll be following the situation in Iraq closely this weekend. It’s just a tragedy what’s going on there, after all we’ve done for them. You tell that Jafaari guy you don’t want him to be the president, and he gets all pissed off! I bet he doesn’t have any optimistic yellow rug in his office. He sounds like a very moody guy and in any case where does he think he would be if we hadn’t helped him out? (You know where: still in exile in wretched Iran, with the rest of his Dawa Party (dawa sounds like baby talk to me).). More disloyalty, I guess. I think if he were more of a PLP kind of president, he’d just leave when asked nicely. But, what do I know?

I think that’s enough for now. Later, ‘gator!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Goodbye to All That

Perhaps it's time to say goodbye to the primary campaign, I've been thinking. Reading the minutiae of campaign reporting and all the horse race blathering just drives me crazy. It seems more like a high school student body presidential election than a serious set of issues. And then I read Ted Rall's most recent column (read here at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ucru/20080213/cm_ucru/thereshouldbeblood )

Rall reports upon his attempt to vote in the primary election in his state, his inability to pull the lever for Clinton, and then his inability to pull the lever for Obama. Like Rall, I realized, I have no dog in this race. In fact, most of the people I know well have no dog in this race. Maybe we are members of the infamous 'left wing of the Democratic Party,' a group whose identity I have not previously been able to discern. Since the Civil Rights bill, the Democratic Party has largely seemed to me not to have a significant left or right wing. It has Democrats and it has Blue Dog Democrats, but I'm not able to figure out some distinct set of policies/values that would sharply distinguish between left and center, as is clearly seen in the Republican Party between right and center.

But maybe this is it. NOT to be enthusiastic about Clinton or Obama may make one a member of the left wing. And you know what? We're in the same position as those in the right wing of the Republican party. They can love Huckabee all they want, but they have no candidate in this primary who has any chance of winning. Nor do we. Edwards probably came closest to being our Huckabee. But just as Gary Bauer has to creep out and 'support' McCain, we'll be creeping out one of these days and announcing our support for the Democratic candidate. But in the meantime, I really don't have to pay any further attention, I think. The primary, for me, is over. But at least, now I know who I am. I'm a left-wing Democrat.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Justice for All

Surely there are a large number of outrageous actions that we have experienced, at least indirectly, in the past 7 years; indeed, so many we probably can't keep all of them in mind or even get them down on a list. But the ones that stay with me most, somewhat to my surprise, are the ones involving the politicization of the Dept. of Justice. I conclude from this that I really do believe we are a nation of laws and not of men and that all those years I was involved in various ways with lawyers and law schools have had an effect on me. (Apparently, less of an effect on John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Stephen Bradbury, etc.)

I'm a reliable reader of Scott Horton, who blogs for Harper's Magazine (read him here: http://www.harpers.org). Horton, who has an impressive legal background, has been following the "little" malice of the DOJ: the work of U.S. Attorneys here and there in the U.S. who have shown themselves to be 'loyal Bushies' by prosecuting Democrats for dubious reasons. The Governor of Alabama, e.g., who seems to have been charged and convicted with accepting a campaign donation from someone he later re-appointed to a state commission. And who cannot appeal his case (although the conviction came some time ago) because the judge in the case has not and, apparently, refuses to release a transcript, which is required before an appeal can be filed. Meanwhile, Siegelman's in prison. Or the Democratic Alabama legislator who is being accused of a federal crime based on charges that she failed to live up sufficiently to her contract with a community college to teach. (Yikes! If I'd known that was a federal crime, I'd have made a point of chatting up the FBI during my university years.) Or the Florida lawyer, former President of the Florida Bar, who is accused of having given another lawyer a legal opinion that the DOJ disagrees with. (He's been charged with conspiracy in a drug money case.) All this while Tom DeLay walks the streets of whatever town in Texas he lives in.

Normally, I'd read this kind of stuff with a certain holdback: ie, 'oh come on, it can't be as bizarre a case as that. Surely you're presenting it for maximum effect.' And maybe that's true, but it's hard to read case after case (Wisconsin, Mississippi+, Alabama++, Florida) and not begin to feel that something is EVEN MORE rotten in the state of Denmark than we had thought. And what really pains me in this is the fact that the lawyers who are participating in these misbegotten cases are people who went to law school, who went to good law schools, who often have been or are judges in the federal or state systems, who have had every opportunity to learn something about basic legal ethics: not the fancy stuff, but the plain stuff: no perjured testimony, no political reprisal charges, no cheap (or even expensive) vengeance (the Florida guy was Al Gore's lawyer in the late 2000 electoral debacle). These are people who will bear a long tail. Their views are undoubtedly widely shared by their friends and colleagues, and they are normalizing such behaviors among lawyers, is my guess. I'm pretty cynical about people and their motives, but I find this kind of thing truly shocking. And I don't know how you root it out when it is so widely disseminated.

So remember the 'little' malfeasances, along with the big ones. You'll have to track them down on your own because none of these cases are being covered by the big media, although John Conyers has been pushing questions at the DOJ to explain the Siegelman case. I fear that these malfeasances are ones that will be with us for a long time. As in Iraq, bad policy is bad policy but there is the possibility of correcting a policy; by contrast, arbitrarily terrorizing civilians or using chaos to even old scores creates a real insurgency that is beyond anyone's control. Either someone must be held accountable for these malfeasances (a bunch of someones actually), or the behavior will spread like wildfire. And will we be any better off if, a year from now, the incumbent Democratic DOJ takes after low-profile Republicans who displease them? Is the 'rule of payback' what we want to substitute for that 'rule of law, not men.'

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Magic Negro and the White Negro

Out for a walk last night and thinking about the caucus experience, I remembered Norman Mailer's famous essay, 'The White Negro,' which he wrote in 1957. It was about the way in which hipsters created themselves by incorporating Black culture into their interests and presentation of self. (You can still read it here: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=877) Part of his thesis was that the authoritarianism and conformity of the prior decades had created a rebellious group of young people who looked to Negroes (then the appropriate word but now apparently considered derogatory) to show them how to carry their anger because they--Negroes--had had such a long experience of surviving with their anger at a repressive majority firmly intact. There is much more to the essay and to the fallout from it, but i felt some resonance from the caucus experience. Here was a group of people desperate to feel hopeful, looking to someone, an African-American, who could tell them how to translate that hope into reality. After all, if Obama isn't discouraged, why should everyone else be?

Then I recalled hearing about a piece in the L.A. Times, referring to Obama as the "Magic Negro,' a term which originated elsewhere, but was at this point appropriated by Rush Limbaugh in his customary vicious and scurrilous fashion. You can read the L.A. Times piece here: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-ehrenstein19mar19,0,5335087.story?coll=la-opinion-center

The point of Ehrenstein's article is that Whites create a Black figure with a murky past who comes to rescue Whites in their time of need as an act of pure generosity. Obama's supporters, he argues, have little to make of his past or his experience, but trade in his hope and inspiration. Interestingly, these supporters don't seem driven so much by the aggressive 'We Shall Overcome," as by the more passive "Amazing Grace" or "We Shall Gather By the River." My guess is that if Obama is not nominated, they will take their toys and go home, deeply disappointed that the political system was not able to recognize the depth of their feelings, convinced that racism defeated them, and ready to give up on 'politics,' which is to say on democracy, that worst form of government except for all the others.

Well, I can hardly deny that we are in need of some kind of rescue, but I doubt that hope is, now or ever, a plan.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Caucusing in Washington

Today, Washington's Democratic party held local caucuses, a process which, in some extremely complicated and unclear way, leads to delegates being named to the convention. There are close to 900 registered voters here in Pt. Roberts, and in the 2004 presidential election, 450 of them voted for John Kerry. So, we may conclude that there are at least 450 Democrats here who might show up at the caucus. In point of fact, about 10% of that number appeared in the Community Center on Saturday at 1 p.m. to make their will plain. As I entered, I was asked to fill out a paper that authenticated my being a registered voter and a Democrat, and that inquired of my current preference for president. Then ensued some minor bureaucratic business and general conversation among this lot sitting at a group of tables. The 'current preference' count was given, indicating about 2 to 1 for Obama, with 1 for Edwards and 2 undecideds.

Then, people stood up and talked about why they thought or believed they were voting for Clinton or Obama. It was very hard to endure. One thing I have learned about growing old is that, if I ever tolerated fools gladly, I certainly don't do it now. People stood up and announced that Obama would transform the nation, would turn us into a country that sought cooperation with other countries rather than to take its own interests as the most important interests, and would turn DC into a place where people listened to one another rather than just insisted on having their own way. People told us how inspired they were, how hopeful they were.

We were informed that 'Hillary' was opportunistic, that her time was past, that the baby boomers had not been good leaders of the country and thus we must turn things over to the next generation. One lady announced she could never forgive Hillary her vote for the war resolution and, I guess, was hoping that the rest of us would choose not to forgive her, as well. One man explained to us that Clinton had received more contributions from the defense industry than the total of all other Democrats in the congress. Such little factual information as was mentioned was likely to be just plain wrong though easy to understand.

A few people spoke of the superiority of Clinton's health plan, but for the most part, it was contentless pronouncements filled only with the feelings of the speaker: the election, it appears, was about them and how they feel, not about the country and what needs to be done in it and what needs to be undone for it. And so, if these Obama supporters are disappointed at the outcome of the nomination, they will be too sad, I fear, to do the work that will continue to need to be done. And they will have done much laying of poison on the ground.

I doubt if I can convey my own feelings of irritation at having to listen to all this twaddle. These were not people who thought about elections as being connected to policy decisions in a government that has three separate official sources of power (the executive, the legislative, the judiciary), plus two or three other semi-official ones (the press, the people, lobbyists). Rather, they spoke as if they wished to name a magician who would make all as they wished to have it be. Hillary was not the magician they had in mind, though. Obama is the magician and it is indeed interesting that progressive and liberal voters are casting an African-American as the magician who will save their dreams. We have, we progressives and liberals, done all we could think of (which may or may not have been much) to address the endless and convoluted race problem in America and, although much has improved, we know in our hearts how deep that divide still goes. Now it is up to one man to save us. If only Obama is elected, then will we--through his work and charisma--go beyond all the old problems. Lucky him to have that crown put upon him.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Starting a Blog

So exactly how is it that you are supposed to 'get the whole picture'? At the moment, my guess is the whole picture is available only when you are at the end of the picture. Thus, the closer you are to the end (point in time), the 'wholer' picture you get. It doesn't make it a better picture; in fact, it may make your heart break. If you are interested in a 1500 page elucidation of this conclusion, I suggest you read "Kristin Lavransdatter" (Sigrid Undset, 1923).

Starting a blog: First of all, I just saw that Google would let me do it. If Google will let me do it, perhaps I should do it. Then, Google wants me to name the blog. What possible name could it have? I don't want my name on it, so maybe a cliche or common phrase? 'Get the Whole Picture' came to mind because I am indeed reading 'Kristin Lavransdatter' this past two weeks. It's about a couple of people who can never get past themselves in order to see the whole picture, or even a picture bigger than themselves. It's about narcissm and disorder and early sorrow and the long decline therefrom. I first read it when I was in high school and engaging in the standard narcissm of that age; I read it again in the late 60's, when a generation and then some were figuring out yet a more expansive narcissm than we had previously imagined. And now I read it again (in my 70's) and only now see a 'wholer' picture. It's an amazing character study. Give that woman a Nobel Prize for literature for character study: oh, they did, in 1928.

And for a completely unrelated photo,