hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Sunday, March 30, 2008

He's Canadian, You Know?

When Canadians ask that question of an American, the American's answer is mostly, “No, I didn’t know that.” Canadians have something like a verbal tic for identifying Canadians who are well-known in the U.S. for one reason or another, but whose Canadianness is not part of that fame. Peter Jennings; Robin McNeill (of PBS’s McNeill-Lehrer News Hour); Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker; movie people like Donald Sutherland and Sarah Polly (who directed last year’s Academy Award nominated film with Julie Christie, Away from Her); and the long list of great musicians (ranging from Glenn Gould to K.D. Laing to Oscar Peterson to Joni Mitchell to The Bare Naked Ladies, but especially those singers first located in the 70’s—Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Leonard Cohen, etc.). Just a few of the people who have come prominently into American lives via Canada. Joni Mitchell has a place up toward the end of the Sunshine Coast. I’ve never run into her (but I rarely ran into anyone famous in L.A., either), but whenever her presence here is mentioned to me, it almost always comes with a “She’s Canadian, you know?”

I doubt anybody anywhere ever says, ‘He’s American, you know?’ Because, if he’s American, you do know. Americans make sure you know. The ‘He’s Canadian’ tag is another way in which Canadians try to get out from under the great behemoth that is U.S. It’s a way of reminding us that Canadians count and they don’t count as Americans; they count as Canadians, even if they are in the U.S.

Here’s a little test. George Lakoff, who is not, as far as I know, Canadian, has been something of a hot property in the U.S. in recent years (especially so considering that he’s an academic whose specialty is linguistics: “He’s a linguist, you know?”). Lakoff has written a trio of books over the past decade that explains to politicians and their fans why Democrats, in particular, lose to Republicans with respect to framing political issues. They’re wonderfully interesting books and I think reasonably accessible to the non-linguist; that is to say, the general, well-educated reader. He first came to public attention , though, in 1980 with a stunning book called Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson) that entirely changed the way I understood language, and especially the use of language in public discourse. He followed that up with a less well-known book called Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, a title which one always remembers as Women, Fire, and OTHER Dangerous Things, which of course is the point of the book: it’s about how we form categories.

I don't know whether taking this test will improve Canadian-American relations, but it might improve understanding the nature of those relations. Here’s the test adapted from Lakoff's book: One way we understand categories is by what is not consistent with the category. Thus, one might ask people to fill in a sentence, as I used to do when I worked in healthcare: He’s (or she’s) a doctor, but __________. If you ask people in the healthcare professions that question, most of them will fill in the blank with something like, He’s a doctor but he spends a lot of time with his family. By contrast, if you ask people from outside of healthcare, they are much more likely to say, He’s a doctor, but he really knows how to talk to patients. What people put in the blank tells you what people think is the opposite of the central characteristic of the category ‘doctor.’ Doctors and nurses categorize doctors as people who don’t have time for their families; patients categorize doctors as people who either don’t know how to talk to patients or don’t care about talking with patients.

Try it yourself; check it out with your friends: He’s Canadian, but …………………. He’s American, but……
I am pretty sure I know how I would fill in those blanks. And the answers are not the same.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Driving Force

When we came to Canada, Los Angeles had already fully developed the drive-as-fast-as-you-can through any stop light that was even marginally yellow during your time in the intersection. How puzzling to come to B.C., where not only did the cars stop when the light started to turn yellow, but the local authorities frequently gave you a slightly earlier signal that told you when the light was going to turn yellow so you could be adequately prepared. It required an entire readjustment of our driving styles. Almost two decades have passed, and the L.A. mode is only now beginning to make itself seriously felt up here, but I can no longer say with confidence when a car zips through a yellow as it changes to red, ‘there goes an American in B.C.’

I think of L.A. as a place of serious drivers. You drive the freeways there and you know how to drive because otherwise you’ll be dead. You will enter the freeway at a minimum of 45 mph. You will keep up with the car in front of you, regardless of how fast he is driving. You will tailgate, honk, and then pass any car driving below the speed limit. You will get there first, wherever there is. Having learned these lessons well in the U.S. required another significant adjustment for me in Canada.

The foremost of these Canadian lessons is you will drive no faster than the speed limit and if it suits you, you will drive slower than the speed limit. Since our house is in a place with a (mostly) two-lane highway, this can be an inconvenience, not least when there is a very large truck in front of you, a truck loaded with very long and very big cut and limbed trees. You will not be passing this truck very soon and this truck will not be driving unduly fast and neither will you. While you are poking along, you can imagine L.A.’s I-5 with 20 or 30 lumber trucks moving along deliberately. It’s a great picture.

Another significant area of learning in Canada has to do with merging. You do a lot of it here. I don’t know whether it is something about Canadian traffic or road construction theories or another manifestation of multiculturalism, but merging from five lanes to one in about 50 feet (e.g., at the entrance to the Lion’s Gate Bridge coming from West Van) is a specialty of B.C. roads. In the U.S., you couldn’t do this because, within the first week, everyone who drove there (except for the one winner, of course) would have been killed or maimed in the traffic accidents that such merging would create. But in Canada, everyone merges with exquisite fairness. It never ceases to amaze me. It is a mark of a people so polite that I wonder that someone has not tried to conquer them. The battle would be about to start, and the Canadians would be checking to see whose turn it is. And then the battle would be over (at least if it were the Americans on the other side of the battle. The Canadians would take the first turn, and then the Americans would take all the rest of the turns: Game Over!).

But where the Canadian drivers let it all hang out is in parking lots. In recent years, cars have gotten longer, wider, and more opaque, and parking lot slots have gotten narrower and, if not shorter, at least no longer, but the parking lot designers (who may not be the same people as the traffic/road designers) are certainly trying to pack the maximum numbers of cars in parking lots up here. Either despite this or because of it, the typical Canadian driver seems to consider the parking lot just a somewhat more constricted and congested road where 50 kph (30 mph) is a reasonable speed limit. They drive fast down the lanes and they back out without looking to see whether anyone is on his/her way down the lane (largely because you can’t see until you are all the way out in the parking lot lane). I would not be surprised if the single largest category of traffic accidents in British Columbia turns out to be in parking lots. To their credit, they themselves practice defensive parking in the lots by backing into the parking places so they’ve got some chance of seeing the speeder coming down the lane right before he hits them.

Maybe it would help if the parking lots were designed with a lot more merge lanes?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Differences, High and Low

Differences between Canada and the U.S. are legion, in areas both high and low, important and unimportant. The Canadians charge tax on stamps at the post office. In the U.S., a 41-cent stamp costs 41 cents, until next month when it will cost 42 cents, but then it will be a 42-cent stamp. I am always surprised when I go to the Canadian post office and ask for one 51-cent stamp and they tell me that will be 57 cents. In Canada, the public radio station is the powerful station, not, as in the U.S., the weak-signal station. In Canada, alcohol is so expensive because of high taxes that I can’t grasp how anyone can afford to be an alcoholic. In the U.S., by contrast, there’s a special market niche to reach out to the Thunderbird Wine crowd. In the U.S., virtually every kind of gambling finds an easy way to exist, but in Canada, if you are, for example, a quilt guild and you want to make a quilt and raffle it to raise some money, you have to incorporate legally as a non-profit charitable group that is eligible to do such a gambling-type thing. Amazing differences.

Like the U.S., Canada has a bicameral government, which includes the Parliament and the Senate. Even acknowledging the very considerable differences between a parliamentary and a congressional-type arrangement, the two systems might appear parallel. However, Canada’s Senate is by appointment only and the appointments are for life. In the U.S., it only appears that, say, Senators Helms, Thurmond, Byrd, and Kennedy are appointed for life: the ones who are still alive actually have to get themselves elected every six years, but it is only a formality.

A very high difference, of course, is that Canada has a real monarch, whereas the U.S. has only a pretend one, though the pretend one’s power is getting a little out of hand. Elizabeth II is a regular appearance in our lives up here in B.C.: she’s on the money, for one thing, but she also gets a very nice framed, color portrait of considerable size on all the ferries. It used to be a photo of her looking quite young, but of recent times, they’ve aged her up a bit, now that she’s pushing 80. She is “Her Highness,” and I guess the Canadians are “Their Lowness.” I don’t know whether the Canadians would prefer to have a queen; i.e., whether they would vote her off the island given the chance, but I suspect that they’d rather, for the most part, not have to answer the question. I’ve never much heard anybody say anything good or bad about her. Maybe when she goes to her final reward, I imagine them saying, the monarchy will just quietly go away and nobody will have to actually reject anyone. Because she’s a queen without power, she doesn’t have a scheming Rasputin at her side. Pretend King George of the U.S., of course, has real power, so he has a real Rasputin at his side, named Cheney, and that is an important difference.

The queen does get a representative, though. That would be called the Governor General and that office is not infrequently in my years here held by a woman and often by one of a decidedly different ethnicity than the queen’s, but the appointment is expected to alternate not between or among ethnic cultures but between an anglophone and a francophone person. I’m not actually sure what is the range of the Governor General’s duties, but it does include appointing those senators (with the advice of the Prime Minister), and the opening of Parliament when said Governor General gives what is called ‘The Throne Speech.’ The Governor General is also called the “Vice Regal Representative,’ and her/his husband/wife is called the “Vice Regal Consort.” Now, we have nothing to compare with that. Would Dick Cheney like to be called the ‘Vice Regal President”? Perhaps. Would Lynn Cheney like to be called the “Vice Regal Consort”? You bet your life. For the most part, however, it appears that the Governor General is largely a Ceremonial Post in the same way that the Queen is largely a Ceremonial Post. In the U.S., we probably don’t have nearly enough officially Ceremonial Posts.

At Christmas time, Canada’s Queen emits a Christmas message to her subjects here in North America and that message is broadcast a couple of times on Christmas Day on the CBC so that no one need miss it. I always listen to it to see what she has to say. Happily, she has very little to say: she makes some mention of the religious nature of the day and its meaning, but for the most part she urges their lownesses to do good work, be cheerful, think kindly of one another, and keep in touch. It’s a nice message for a secular tourist to hear, but also for the actual audience. I think of it as a kind of imperfect parallel to the U.S. pretend king’s State of the Union address. I admire the Queen’s brevity, but of course it is a ‘message,’ not an ‘address.’ How much nicer if it were the State of the Union Message. I admire the optimism of the Queen’s Message, but of course she gives it on a day of merriment and celebration, whereas the pretend king gives his at the end of January, the really cruellest month, T.S. Eliot to the contrary notwithstanding. Hard to be optimistic then.

Perhaps the U.S. could learn a lesson from these differences and similarities and could institute a New and Improved State of the Union Message to be delivered to the country at Halloween. We who listen and they who speak could all wear neat costumes and then dance around a bonfire. Or would that be more like Guy Fawkes Day?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

How Are You Feeling? Healthy? Safe?

Canada believes that Canadians have a right to appropriate healthcare and thus the government’s job is to ensure that that happens. By contrast, the U.S. government believes that healthcare is a very good thing and that it would be a very good thing for all Americans to have it, but it is willing to make sure that they have it only if they are poor and have young children, if they are old, if they are disabled, if they are current or former members of the military, or if they are employees of the U.S. government. That, in terms of spending anyway, gets us about half way--sort of--to where Canada already is.

And even those Americans who do have this access to healthcare have it only within certain limitations. For example, if you are old, you have to pay 20% of your healthcare costs up to a total of a gazillion dollars. Under U.S. Medicare, there is no limit on out-of-pocket expenses which, if you are very sick, can require you to have very large pockets indeed. In Canada, by contrast, people go to the doctor when they need to, and they get the care that is needed, and their payments are very, very small. E.g., my friend who is an asthmatic pays no fee to see her doctor and $10 for the asthma inhaler that she uses regularly. If I go to her Canadian doctor in a non-emergency situation, I will pay, as an American, a fee in the range of $40 (last time I went, anyway) and the asthma inhaler will cost me about $30. Social security will not reimburse me, of course, even though my closest Canadian doctor is two miles away and my closest American doctor is more like 35 miles away (plus an extra border crossing). And both services would cost more in the U.S.

There is always a great to-do in the American press about how Canadians have to wait for services. In my observation, the waiting is not as great as the papers make it out to be (and there are different waiting levels in different provinces and in different parts of each province, and I only see the very southwestern part of B.C., and not much of that). And I haven’t noticed that it’s particularly easy to get into a U.S. doctor’s office without a considerable wait. My Canadian neighbor suffered a sudden-onset viral encephalitis, was air-evacuated to Vancouver, spent 6 weeks in a neurological ICU, 4 weeks in a ICU stepdown unit, and another 2 months in rehab at no cost to him or his family. And without waiting for services, although he did have to go to a rehab unit that was not close to his home. But then he also had to go to a hospital that was not close to his home. That’s what happens when you live in a rural area.

Having had some experience with both systems, I can only say that I don't have a second’s hesitation preferring the Canadian to the American system. Both systems are in trouble now because of the financial pressures, but that is not a fault of the system aspect of the Canadian system. Both systems are suffering, largely, from the fact that we have as North Americans been indoctrinated to believe that only if people have constant use of (as opposed to universal access to) healthcare services can they possibly expect to stay alive, so in both countries, services are overused. But they are considerably more overused in the U.S. (A terrific little essay on this that appeared a couple of days after I wrote this post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/28/AR2008032802972.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

The story of healthcare in both countries is a long and complicated one, and I can’t do much in just a few paragraphs to elucidate it. But there is this one strange fact that stays with me. The Canadian healthcare system came to be because of the deeply-felt commitment of a politician named Tommy Douglas. Douglas was the Premier of Saskatchewan, a member of the party that eventually became the (far left) New Democratic Party, and he brought single-payer, universal healthcare to that province, and he continued working to extend it to everyone in Canada, and he was successful. He died in 1986, living long enough to actually see the fruits of his labors.

So that was what he gave to Canada. And what did Tommy Douglas give to the United States? Something you might think almost as important given the frequency with which I hear people telling me about the cultural and political importance of the TV show ’24 Hours.’ Tommy Douglas is Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather, and Kiefer Sutherland, of course, is Jack Bauer, who every week has to torture bad guys to keep America safe. They get healthcare; we get torture. This does not sound like a bargain to me. Well, certainly living well is the best revenge; but Douglas may have done that one better.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bearing Up and Out

We first washed up on the Sunshine Coast in the fall of 1989. There were about 25,000 people on the Coast at that time, spread out across a narrow 50-mile long strip of land from the ferry terminal at Langdale to the next ferry terminal at Earl’s Cove. When I first saw it, I thought it was British Columbia’s Malibu. And indeed it has proven to be. If global warming is going to to warm the land temperatures here as well as the ocean ones, it will be even more Malibu-like. It was beautiful, wild, quiet, sleepy, slow, and there was always someplace to park if you had to go somewhere, even as there were relatively few places to go to. One movie theater that reminded me of a small Grange Hall auditorium in a small Idaho town, and another that was like a weary, equity waiver theater in L.A. There were three big-enough grocery stores, and nothing remotely like a big box store. It really was small town, rural, out of the rush for nine months of the year, and then in the summer, it got a little jazzy what with the tourists coming in to spend a little time with nature.

I was pushing my cart around the local SuperValue market the other day when I ran into an old quilting friend whom I hadn’t seen for 4 or 5 years. Her 8-year-old is now a 13-year-old, the old job is now the new job, etc. Then she asked me whether I was as discouraged as she was by what was happening to the Coast. Like me, she lives kind of out of the way and as long as she stays home, she noted, it’s pretty much like it always was. But driving in to town forces you to see change on every street, every landmark.

The traffic is one change; another is the fact that you often can’t find a parking place; and a third is that we now have three big chain stores here that we didn’t use to have (London Drugs, Canadian Tire, and Easy Foods, the last of which is sort of WalMart like), and more trying to move in. We have a whole new mall, three or four Dollar Stores, and two Starbucks, and rather fewer small, local businesses. But the biggest change, of course, is the increased population—now 60,000 people--that drives the commercial expansion. And all those extra people are living in new housing.

Ed, who is a regular coastal kayaker, says that when he first started paddling up the coast, there were long stretches without houses, or at least without visible houses (meaning there possibly were small cottages hidden by the trees and bushes). But of recent years, it is just one big, new house after another smack on the beach as he heads north. I’ve been in a few of those houses, and they are like medium-sized palaces. Just down the street from us on the beach there is a house that my neighbor says has 8,000 sq. feet. It is a vacation house for some Vancouver executive. Numerous developments have been, and are being built, with still more—big ones, gated communities, walled communities--in the planning stage. The Coast is not what it once was, and I would be discouraged, like my friend, if I had ever imagined that I would stay here forever. But the changes do lead me to ask myself whether it is time to move on, as my friend is considering doing. It has more and more become a place that feels like it is driven by big money, by a fascination with excess, by the loss of any concept of enough.

There’s still wildlife aplenty around: bears, deer, raccoons, maybe cougars. We never used to see them much, but they’re getting a little more pushy as the wild land where they can avoid us is depleted. Although we’ve always had evidence of bears around, I’d never actually seen one until last spring when I walked out the kitchen door at noon and found one 20 feet away from me, strolling down the driveway. Quelle surprise! It’s been a big change for them, too, but where are the bears to move on to? Closer and closer to more and more people, they risk becoming problem bears. That designation will get them moved on, of course. On to the after life. Last decade’s attraction become today’s tiresome problem.

I suppose that if you invest in a half or three-quarter million dollar house, you probably are not going to be happy to find that it comes with bears at your barbeque or deer in your garden or racoons that mess with your garbage. Those kind of houses expect something a little more disciplined. Those houses didn’t come here for the wild, I suspect.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Canadian Content

Because Americans think geographically, our impression is that Canada is above us (which is to say, ‘north’). For Canadians, however, it appears different. Their impression is that they live under the U.S., which is to say situationally, which is to say, ‘squashed.’ The United States, for Canadians, is like the 400-pound passenger in the tiny airline seat next to you: he can’t stay in his own space even if he tries, but he never seems to be trying too hard. So Canadians are always trying to protect themselves and their space.

“Canadian Content’ rules are rules for the radio and TV, for example, which require Canadian TV channels to provide a certain amount of Canadian programming during high-viewing hours and require radio stations to play a certain percentage of Canadian music. It seems to involve a kind of point system for music, whereby playing a Joni Mitchell song provides three points because she is a Canadian singer, a Canadian writer, and a Canadian accompanist (she accompanies herself). The CRTC, which defines and monitors the standards also provides some funding for Canadian programming. As a result, if you are an American listening to Canadian radio, e.g., you are likely to hear many performers you would not otherwise hear because they can’t make it through the media blitzkrieg in the U.S. As a concept, I suppose its related to providing support for local dairy farmers or charging tariffs on foreign goods. The idea is that the Canadians artists and entertainers will need some help in getting a hearing in the face of the giant American megaphone, but even more the idea is that Canadians will need some help if they are going to be able to keep track of who they are: Canadians, not Americans.

This pervasive cultural concern with who they are is immediately apparent if you spend a little time up here. Peter Gzoski once sponsored a radio contest whose purpose was to generate a phrase that was the Canadian equivalent of “As American as Apple Pie.” The winner? “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” And the circumstances are not good. The gold mountain is always there, tempting Canadians. The Americans have long brain-drained Canada’s medical professionals. The theory behind giving them easier access to U.S. green cards appears to be “you pay to train them and then we’ll take them off your hands.” Canadian artists and entertainers are eager to find American audiences just because the audience is so much larger. Success in the U.S. is bigger, if not better. There’s a lot of drifting down and then often drifting back, but how do you maintain Canadian-ness in the face of all this? It’s just not the kind of question that Americans have ever had to ask of themselves.

One way is the ‘Canadian Content’ regulations. Another is the constant conversation about what constitutes ‘Canadian-ness’ as opposed to what constitutes American-ness. The Canadians think of themselves as more tolerant, less-inclined to get hysterical about events, more law abiding, more knowledgeable, more humble: often, it seems to me, more British…stiff upper lip and all that. Less cowboy-like.

A very successful Canadian political-satirical TV program called ‘This Hour has 22 Minutes’ was particularly resourceful in its efforts to show what constitutes American-ness. And by contrast, what isn’t Canadian. One of the show’s stars, Rick Mercer, took a crew down to the U.S. and interviewed hundreds of Americans, asking them some of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard: What did they think about Canada getting a new national igloo? Moose were getting aggressive in Vancouver: did they think they should be pummeled with ‘timbits’ (which are a kind of Canadian doughnut)? (‘Oh, no, I don’t think they ought to do that,’ said a number of deeply concerned interviewees, totally unaware that there are no moose in Vancouver and that a tinbit wasn't a weapon.) What was their view of Canada harboring its navy in New England given that Canada had no ocean access? No end to stupid questions, and no end to Americans giving very serious, thoughtful answers. I have rarely heard so many pointless opinions. It’s possible that hardly anyone they interviewed gave this kind of response. Obviously, they were going to show, in their 1-hour program, only those who responded like boobs. But those boobs included professors and students at Harvard, Boston U, U.C. Berkeley, and Columbia, as well as the Governors of Iowa (Tom Vilsack) and Arkansas Mike Huckabee), who were happy to give stupid answers to stupid questions on film for posterity, obviously flattered at being asked to opine on these questions. (Indeed, Huckabee’s inanity was widely seen this past year on You Tube.) Even George Bush (this during the 2000 primary election in Michigan) sent his thanks to Canada’s Prime Minister Poutine for, supposedly, endorsing him for President. Poutine, of course, is a Quebec specialty: french fries with gravy and cheese curds.

Canadians loved this show. I loved this show. I think Americans ought to be required to watch it once a week for a year, followed by a lengthy, national discussion of exactly what it means to be ‘an American’ and how happy they are about that given that one aspect of Americanness appears to be the willingness to have an opinion about absolutely everything, even things about which they know absolutely nothing. Clearly, to be a Canadian is to have a fierce sense of humor. Probably not the same for Americans.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Cuban Connection

My neighbors went to Cuba this winter. They also went last winter. My other neighbors are going soon. It’s a terrific vacation spot, they say. Wonderful people, great beaches, good food, interesting sights and all at good prices. They’re Canadians, of course. They can go to Cuba any time they want to if they’ve got the price of the tour ticket.

I can’t go to Cuba, of course, because I am an American, one of the 300 million Americans who live in the midst of incredible freedom. Although not, of course, freedom to travel to Cuba. And this is because??? Really??? Is it really because the votes of the Cuban emigres in Florida are so important to both the Republicans and Democrats that ordinary Americans have been forbidden to travel to Cuba for about 50 years? Incredible. The land of the free, all that. Of course, it’s not quite true that it’s illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. The right to travel is a Constitutionally-protected right. What’s illegal is for you to spend any money should you inexplicably find yourself in Cuba. That, dear ones, turns out not to be a freedom enshrined within the Constitution.

Some Americans do go to Cuba, of course. If you are a politician or a government bureaucrat, you can go there on a “Fact Finding Tour,” although I don’t know that any of them are actually interested in finding any facts. Facts about mojito drinking, is my guess. At some periods in the last 50 years, you have been able to go there if you are an academic or some kind of professional to attend educational conferences. There have also been some arts exchanges over time. And if you are a Cuban-American, you are permitted to go back and forth occasionally to visit relatives (currently, once every three years for two weeks--so generous, don't you know?). During the last 7 years, though, the restrictions have been dramatically tightened. If the American government discovers you have gone to Cuba without its explicit permission—which you are not likely to get--there is something like a $15,000 fine.

But despite that, Americans do go. Half a million+ Canadians visit Cuba each year. Not so many Americans. I don’t suppose anybody knows exactly how many Americans show up, other than the Cubans, who do not choose to reveal the information. If you are a Cuban-American with relatives in Cuba, as I understand it, you have to get permission from Cuba to appear at their doorstep. But if you are just a standard issue U.S. citizen and you start your trip to Cuba from Canada or from Mexico, they’re pleased to see you, but don’t bring a credit card.

My Canadian friends say there are often Americans on the tours they take to Cuba, whether it’s for a week in the sun on Veradado Beach, a history and arts visit in Havana, or a tour of the entire island. Cuba has been deeply involved in working to restore its cultural heritage by restoring the buildings of old Havana and that in itself, the Canadians tell me, is worth the trip. I wouldn’t know, of course. I’m an American.

The Cubans and the Canadians, I’m also told, are very protective of Americans who do make it to Cuban shores to see the sights of the Forbidden Island. The Cubans are careful not to stamp U.S. travelers’ passports, and the Canadians are careful to check those passports upon return to make sure that nothing got accidentally stamped. Considerate of them both. More considerate, I’d say, than those who think freedom means votes for them from Cuban-Americans who are still pissed at Castro. Indeed, I have begun to think of the Florida Cuban-Americans as our Palestinians. The Arab countries are always promising the Palestinians that they will be restored to their homeland with restitution for their intervening hardships, and I presume that the Cuban Americans are similarly looking to the U.S. government to be restored to their homeland, with comparable restitution. As far as I know, though, the Arabs don’t forbid their citizens from visiting Israel. Although somebody else may.

My Canadian friends, on the other hand, have no Palestinians or Cuban emigres of their own, so they go wherever they want. Lucky them.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Politics in an Alternative Universe

Living in Canada provides many opportunities to learn things new, one of which is the pleasure of politics as sheer entertainment. U.S. politics primarily gives me a headache because it is both a duty and a distant activity, and it affects my life and my sense of who I am. Another country’s politics: not at all.

When I came here, the Progressive Conservatives (center right) were in power at the federal level. Within a few years, the Liberals took over, and the Progressive Conservatives (what could that mean? Is that like the hopeful pessimists?) almost disappeared, winning only 2 seats in a parliament that they had dominated for almost a decade. But the Liberals who won weren’t really liberals; they’re centrists (like moderate Republicans). An entirely new party entered Parliament that election called The Reform Party. Reform was like Ross Perot Republicans (right). The other two parties represented at the federal level were the New Democrats (the pretty far left, like the U.K.’s Labor Party used to be), and the Bloc Quebecois, whose raison d’etre is to have Quebec secede from Canada and thus not to be in this Parliament at all. Hard to know where they actually are on the political spectrum because they’re not on this one. What a crowd! What an opportunity for entertainment if you are just watching from afar. More like baseball than politics.

Within a few years, the Reform Party changed its name to The Canadian Alliance as it allied itself with the bits and pieces left of the Progressive Conservative Party. But it took yet another metamorphosis before it actually consumed the P.C. party. It then became the Conservative Party. ‘ It’s pretty far right, anti-government, pro-U.S. (sort of) party, and holds the seeds of what could become a Canadian religious right. By now, about 8 years since this bunch invented themselves, they are in the majority, with Stephen Harper now the Prime Minister, having overthrown the original patriarch and creator of the Reform Party, a Westerner named Preston Manning who was a cartoonists’ and TV satirists’ delight (also like Ross Perot).

Harper came to power a year or so ago, but he has a pretty tenuous hold on his position and could fall out at any moment. He is primarily a Western player and the power in Canada tends to lie in the East. One of the interesting parts of this most recent election was that the leader of the Liberals, Paul Martin, who had been Prime Minister, resigned, leaving the party to elect a new leader, who would become Prime Minister if the party won enough seats (and they had a good chance of doing so). One of the candidates for party leader (and potential Prime Minister) was Michael Ignatieff, a genuine public intellectual who came back to Canada from Harvard where he had been teaching philosophy for a number of years. Ignatieff had never held public office, so he had not only to win the leadership but also to win a seat in Parliament. He managed the second but not the first as he came in second in the leadership race.

For an American, the possibility that a public intellectual (if we had any) could just become the President virtually overnight seems so far-fetched that one can hardly believe that this system of government has anything at all in common with ours. I wasn’t sure that Ignatieff as Prime Minister was a good idea, but it didn’t matter: not my country, not my responsibility. On the other hand, it was surely an interesting idea, so I was sorry it didn’t happen. The election campaign lasted about six weeks and the Conservatives won barely enough seats to get themselves in charge (with the help of the Bloq, which you will recall wants out), leaving the New Democrats and the Liberals in opposition, and Ignatieff there to live for another day, another election. What I have learned is that governmental change in Canada can be quick, thorough and surprising. We could learn something from them.

(This post was edited on 26 March in response to a commenter's corrections. I hope I've got the names and players straighter now.)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Multiculturalism Hits Home

Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism. Given that it started out with the French and the English trying to make a go of it in a single country, it is perhaps more an ideal born of necessity than one of choice. And even the English-French part is still a work in progress, although as a result of all product labels being written in French and in English, my French vocabulary is far better than it was in high school. Unfortunately, my grammar capability has not experienced a corresponding level of improvement since native French speakers are a little thin on the ground in British Columbia.

Vancouver’s multicultural experience is less French and English though than it is English and Central European, and then India Indian, and then Chinese (both early, in the Gold Rush days and late in the Hong Kong migration days). And in between and around all of those ethnic groups are the First Nations People, so making it all work is something of a challenge. They can only be admired for making it work as well as it does, as compared to the U.S. which seems to have adopted a more stoic, ‘just live with it’ view of the problems inherent in many different cultures living together.

When I was growing up in Pocatello, Idaho, our experience of multiculturalism was largely the local Chinese restaurant, the only restaurant I ever went to until I was old enough to pay the bill myself. We would go there maybe once a year and my father would order steak and my brother and I would get chop suey and pork with mustard sauce and, to demonstrate our enthusiasm for all things Chinese, we would ask for chopsticks as utensils. My father, less enthusiastic, would have us sit at a separate table to eat our food so that he did not have to watch our ineptness. He was something of a stickler about how food was to be eaten.

Every little town in America, I have always thought, had its Chinese restaurant, but I was astonished, as an adult, to discover that every little town in Germany also had its Chinese restaurant, and for all I know, also the villages of Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal. The Chinese brought multiculturalism on a plate, and I surely thank them for it. They were the first people who ever gave me a concrete sense of a world outside my own.

Living in California, however, you kind of trade in the local Chinese restaurant for the local Mexican restaurant. Every family there has its favorite Mexican restaurant. Mine, in 1960, was El Carmen, on 3rd St. in West Hollywood and, if I went there today, I would expect everything to taste just like it did then, which was different from any other Mexican restaurant I ever visited. Years later, we had access to fresh, hand-made tortillas from a local tortilleria, and we were just as likely to make our own version of Mexican food with exquisitely authentic ingredients.

Thus, you can imagine my surprise when, upon arriving in British Columbia, I discovered that the Mexicans had not yet made it this far. When I drive by the lower Fraser valley agricultural fields, I do see that East India immigrants are often working in the fields, so maybe they got here first. Certainly there are plenty of Indian restaurants. Mexican restaurants, though: nada.

The alternative, of course, is the grocery store. But here in B.C., canned goods for Mexican food are in a separate section of special imported goods. Their quality is not very special, but their prices surely are. Cans of refried beans (not from Mexico, but from the U.S.) are very pricey items--$2-$3 for a small can. Salsa might as easily be made from out of season avocados (if you made salsa from avocados) considering the price. Canadian bakers do make tortillas, though. The corn tortillas? Made from pre-frozen shredded cardboard. They do not have the knack of corn meal, I’d guess. But this is Canada, and they understand wheat, so there are several varieties of flour tortillas on offer. Mostly, these flour tortillas remind me of Canadian bagels, which are just bread dough cooked in a circular shape. (If I could, I would take all the residents of Roberts Creek, B.C., for a visit to Fairfax St. in W. Hollywood to taste a real bagel, one that does not have blueberries in it, or chocolate chips, or jelly beans either.) However, one tortilla brand stands right out: Old Dutch Flour Tortillas. That, I think, is a triumph of Canadian multiculturalism.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Radio: Turn It Up!

As Van Morrison said. I’ve always been a radio listener, perhaps because my father built a crystal set when he was just a kid and then grew up to fix radios for a living. I can remember lying in bed at night, listening to big, powerful stations that came through only in the dark: Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Seattle. I used to be a big public radio listener, as well, but now I’m down to ‘To the Point’ (KCRW), ‘Prairie Home Companion,’ ‘Saint Paul Sunday,’ ‘The Jonathan Schwarz Show’ (WNYC), and ‘This American Life.’ And I listen to them all on the computer.

When I came to Canada, I discovered the CBC and a kind of radio that was really quite different from radio as I knew it. The 3-hour morning show, called ‘Morningside,’ I believe, might as easily have been called ‘Here’s What You Need to Know to Be a Canadian.’ It was run/hosted by a long-time CBC radio person named Peter Gzowski and he was a national treasure. Smart, funny, amiable, welcoming, interested and interesting, and indefatigable. Five mornings a week for three hours a morning, he carried on interesting conversations with people from all over the world and always with a view to my better understanding of how a Canadian would approach the topics that were covered, whether it was popular music or world peace. From Gzowski, I learned what it was like to be--that is, how the people of Canada were affected by-- living next to a behemoth like the United State. Some of living next door to the U.S. was good, some of it was bad, some of it was neutral. He never tried to create conflict for entertainment value or to increase conflict in those areas where there was already too much conflict for clear thinking. One of the best teachers I ever heard and one, of course, I never saw. What Gzowski showed me was how it is possible to teach without arrogance, to be a ‘pundit’ (which he would have denied he was, of course) without arrogance. And when I listened to American radio, I would hear that arrogance in so many of the voices, even on the public radio.

A national treasure, but he died anyway. And the CBC decided it didn’t want to spend quite so much money keeping the national culture before the population on a regular basis, and maybe there wasn’t anyone who could live up to Gzowski’s legacy. Michael Enright tried for a year, but it’s a brutal schedule and he moved to a more forgiving Sunday show. Then the CBC decided that young people didn’t listen to the kind of shows they had on: smart, literate, educated programming. So now, the CBC is largely populated by younger people who are hip and hiphoppy or whatever. In any case, now I rarely turn it on.

Except for ‘Ideas,’ an equally wonderful and strange throwback program that is remarkably un-American in its very nature, or at least since the U.S. got out of the 19th Century. ‘Ideas’ is like having Chautauqua every weekday night in your living room. You turn it on at 9 p.m. and you listen to a lecture on monetary policy that some smart dude is giving in Montreal, or a documentary about how to cultivate and eat oysters in the waters of B.C., or how women live in cloistered convents, or whether the idea of progress in human affairs is a reasonable idea to an Oxford historian, or even five consecutive lectures by Michael Ignatieff on human rights. When I first started listening, ‘Ideas’ was run by Mr. Sinclair. I thought it strangely Canadian to call him this, but it was sort of like Mr. Rogers, I thought. Certainly Mr. Sinclair was to adults as Mr. Rogers was to children. Eventually, I realized that his name was “LISTER” Sinclair, not Mr. Sinclair. Not the first nor the last time that I misunderstand something because I thought of it as being peculiarly Canadian.

Lister Sinclair, too, was a national treasure, and he also died anyway. But the program goes on still, Monday through Friday nights. Michael Enright fills one regular slot and the rest has the same kind of variety that Lister Sinclair gave it. And I seriously doubt that it appeals much to a younger audience, so its days may be numbered. But for now, you too can listen to (some of) it, because one program/week is podcast. Go to cbc and then to ‘ideas.’ Or you can listen every night on the net. Radio: turn it up! And about progress in moral and political affairs? ‘Not a chance,’ says the Oxford professor.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thrifty Living

Coming through Vancouver the other day, we found ourselves with a little extra time, so we stopped briefly at a fabric store where I managed to buy $45 worth of things I do not need. Whoever you are, you cannot really imagine how much fabric and thread I already have. I was appalled by these expenditures (as if it were someone else besides me who made the purchases) because I rarely go to stores where ‘shopping’ happens. I was taken aback by how easily I slid into the shopping habit.

I rarely go to stores other than a grocery store because there aren’t any stores around me that have much to offer. If there’s something I really need, I just buy it on the net and the net doesn’t really encourage me to look around and buy some other things just because they are there and I have yet more disposable income. I know that the government wants me to shop until I drop and that it is even going to send me some money in case I forget to keep doing it in May. If I get that government money, I will give it to the local food bank, where it should have gone in the first place, except that the GOP felt it would be better to spend it on things made in China. I hope you give yours to your local food bank, as well, if you do not really need it yourself for real needs.

Since I moved here, I have discovered a different kind of shopping, which provides a superior kind of entertainment than ordinary ‘shopping’ offers. This alternative shopping mode is the thrift store, which in Canada can be a quite different kind of institution than any I ever saw in the U.S.

First off, let me say that there appear to be two kinds of thrift stores, but in the U.S. I saw only the first kind. The first kind is the charitable entity (think Good Will, Salvation Army) to which people send things that are no longer good enough for them but are presumed to be good enough for the lower-class, poor people who shop at the charitable entity. Canada has this kind, as well, although here the Salvation Army store is called ‘The Sally Anne.’ These charitable stores tend to be large and have a slightly oppressive feeling, as if it is not enough that you are shopping there because you have little money but you also are assumed to be indifferent to any aesthetic considerations.

The second kind, the kind I’ve never seen in the U.S., but is very common in the part of B.C. where I am, is also run by charitable entities (the local Hospice group, or a hospital auxiliary, or a teen services program), but it is more like a formalized yard sale in a commercial building. The purpose of these stores appears to be to provide a place where the middle class can exchange their excess goods with one another at token prices in order to benefit some local public service. You send things that are perfectly good, worthy of you still, to this kind of thrift shop because you have more of the object, whatever it is, than you have room for. Your electric mixer has only one or two kinds of beaters, so you get a new one that has two or three kinds of beaters and your prior mixer is cluttering up your cupboard. So it goes to the thrift shop. And someone pretty much like you buys it and uses it until they upgrade. The thrift shop is full of things that someone has just upgraded or been given two of. Everyone I know shops at these thrift stores. It is not at all a class thing.

I shop there regularly and am amazed and delighted by what I get. It’s always an adventure, a kind of treasure hunt. This may in part be driven by the fact that I was born during the depression and have that kind of mentality. However, maybe not, because the Salvation Army-style thrift store rarely has anything that tempts me. It is possible that this middle class, yard-sale thrift store is a new entity since I left the U.S. proper, and now exists everywhere because of the Chinese decision to make more of everything than we could ever need at bargain prices. However it comes to be, it offers perfectly good silk blouses, rain boots, linen jackets, ski wear, fleece coats, specialized dishes, fabric of all kinds, sewing machines and accessories, silk ties, yarn, knitting needles, kitchen utensils, electrical equipment, picture frames, and antique lace, to mention but a few items that have come my way from the thrift store that is run by the local Hospice Group. And I rarely spend more than a few dollars: I think my most expensive purchase was $15 for a sewing machine.

When I go to a thrift shop, it is by intention, and any acquisition is a surprise and a pleasure. I go there to browse, to see what’s arrived. It feels more like recycling than shopping; more like rescuing than buying, more like leasing than owning because whatever I buy can be going back to the same thrift shop soon. It feels good! By contrast, absentmindedly spending that $45 the other day as a way to use up a little time felt like a genuine vice.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We've Got Traffic!

Yesterday, we migrated northward on the regular schedule. We time these trips exquisitely so that there’s just enough time to do whatever Ed needs to do at Home Depot for the remodeling experience and then to get to the ferry landing about 10 minutes before the ferry departs. We have, of course, previously scheduled the trip on a day with relatively low ferry traffic and at a time when Vancouver street traffic is at a low-ish point. Except in the middle of the night, there is no real low point in Vancouver traffic because Vancouver long ago, based upon what was happening to Los Angeles, decided that keeping the traffic bad would limit the number of cars that people would try to bring into the city. This has not entirely worked except for the ‘keeping the traffic bad’ part.

Vancouver has expanded considerably in recent years as Canadians finally realized that greater Vancouver is the warmest part of their country. Though no Florida, B.C. generally and Vancouver particularly have attracted a massive migration from Canada’s more easterly provinces, especially as the Vancouver economy has exploded with its port/trade connections to Pacific Rim countries. From the west, which we also sometimes refer to as the Far East, large numbers of Hong Kong residents migrated here back when Hong Kong was turned over to China. With these population pressures, Vancouver real estate is now priced like Beverly Hills real estate. That means that people have been forced farther and farther outside Vancouver proper for affordable housing, and it has surely increased traffic formidably.

Even up here on the Sunshine Coast, we feel the impact of Vancouver expansion and traffic. When we first came here 16 years ago, you could arrive 8 minutes before any of the ferry departures any day, any time, at the terminal on either side and expect to drive right on board the Queen of Whatever you were getting that month. But now, no time in the summer and only Tuesday through Thursday in the winter (and not always then, depending upon regular holidays) can you count on not being told to wait two hours for the next ferry to come. Spring and fall, depending upon the weather, is iffy on Thursday and Monday, but Tuesday and Wednesday are okay. The weekends might be okay, depending upon the time and the direction you're heading: they’re coming here on Friday and Saturday, and leaving here Sunday and Monday, so you want to be going in the opposite direction.

But it’s not just people coming up to vacation or weekend. There were precious few people who commuted to Vancouver from the Sunshine Coast 16 years ago. Now, there’s an amazing crowd for that trip every morning and they are coming back every evening, all week long. Mostly, they don’t take cars (which would involve about $50-$60 per round trip). But all these people who are going to work in Vancouver are people for whom it was cheaper and less time-consuming to live here and take a 45-minute ferry ride plus another 45-minute bus or van ride from West Vancouver to downtown than to drive from up the Fraser Valley and pay a bundle to park in Vancouver. Something about that city planning really didn’t work.

The car-discouraging part of the city planning also meant that the City Parents refused to allow any freeways through the city. So all traffic is routed through city streets. There is a kind of beltway (but it’s only partial) that we take to the ferry, thus circumventing much of the street traffic but that works only if you don’t need to go into the city at all and are willing to drive, as the crow flies, a considerably longer distance.

So, Vancouver city planning has resulted in impossible street traffic and impossibly high housing costs for Vancouver. And for those of us just north, it has resulted in jammed ferry terminals, too-rapid expansion in population, and too-quickly-rising property costs. In addition, we get a different kind of traffic problem. The Sunshine Coast has, as its main and only thoroughfare, a 40+mile two-lane highway with (currently) a total of about six traffic lights along its length. You want to make sure that you don’t plan to make a left turn onto that highway when the several-hundred car ferry traffic is making its progression up to the next ferry terminal. So whether you are planning to take the ferry or not, you are always best to be thinking about what the ferry is doing.

Yesterday’s drive? Because of careful planning and no unforseen events, an excellent trip.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What's Mine is Yours and Vice Versa

Because Point Roberts is so small, people very often know one another in contexts other than business ones. You might know the guy who owns the hardware store because he works there and you shop there, but you might know him additionally as an old friend from high school, or because you are both volunteer firemen, or some such thing. It’s more like the way the moms in elementary school know each other.

In that respect, I heard a funny and quintessentially Point Roberts story today: one of the local eateries was having a terrifically busy morning and the staff was unusually small in number. My friend went in and saw right away how busy everything was. Then she noticed that the husband of one of the waitresses was doing dishes. He definitely didn’t work there, and she thought maybe she ought to go back behind the counter as well, so pretty soon, she’s back there making sandwiches. Then one of the customers comes up and says, ‘Jeez, you guys are really busy; you need more people working today. You ought to call Bert and get him to get somebody else here.’ The waitress allowed that Bert (the CEO of the place) didn’t like to be called for that kind of thing. So the customer took out his cell phone, called Bert and said, ‘this place is severely understaffed; you need to get some more workers in right away.’ And then he went back to sipping his latte. My assumption is that the customer knew Bert in a context that made such a call an okay thing to do. But just imagine calling up the Bank of America President when you think that the bank is operating below the standards you expect and the bank president is committed to of a Thursday morning?

It surprises me that there are not even more things like this on the Point. For example, it surprises me that there is no formal barter economy operating here. Most people who live in Point Roberts full time, I’d guess have something or other that they could barter with. There’s tree work, art work, food work (apples, vegetables, fruits, berries, chickens, eggs, pies and cakes), maintenance work, gardening work, helicopters that could give rides, etc. A lot of it goes on informally, but it could be much more like the barter system actually operating in places like Rochester, N.Y., with--I believe--something called ‘Rochester Dollars.’

I have friends here who traded a large, hand-made bed quilt that the wife made for an apple cider press (although the person who had the press didn’t actually live on the Point, but the principle would be the same). In the fall, boxes of apples begin to arrive at the couple’s house, dropped off on the porch by whoever has extra apples, which is virtually everyone on the Point. So many apples and so many different kinds; kinds I’ve never seen before, like ‘King’ apples or ‘Wolfe River’ apples, which are the size of cantaloupes. The Icelandic folks who came to Point Roberts were good apple farmers and there are trees everywhere, including many in long abandoned orchards. With no husbandry at all, these former orchards bear extravagantly every year. And the apples are available to anyone who bothers to take them.

On a fairly regular schedule, the couple with the apple cider press makes apple juice from these apples that appear on their porch, and if you come and help with the work then you get to take home a substantial amount of exquisitely fresh apple juice. I give quilting lessons to two kids because I want kids to learn how to sew. I want to teach, the kids want to learn, so it was a perfect exchange. Except… their family regularly brings me eggs, canned peaches, freshly picked raspberries, birthday cake as a way of saying thank you….amazing gifts or, if we thought about it that way, a very satisfying barter arrangement. You come help work on my roof when a tree branch has made a hole there, or help lay flooring or share your driftwood with me, and I’ll feed your horses when you are on vacation, or make a quilt for your new grandchild. I’ll give you extra raspberry and strawberry plants in spring, and you'll give me in summer kabocha squash and kale that you grow in your much sunnier yard. The constant interchange of work and things that goes on among the people we know is quite remarkable, and I surely never saw anything like that in any urban area I ever lived in. And maybe it’s okay that it’s all just an informal operation.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Anniversaries and the Wounds Thereof

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Bush administration invasion of Iraq, so I thought I’d talk about public transportation here in Point Roberts. And that is because I am generally not aware that anyone in Point Roberts has a particular position on the war. Whatever things are happening in the world to express dismay, outrage, disappointment about this unspeakable violence done to ordinary people in our names does not happen here. No signs, no bumper stickers, no community meetings. Scott Horton (at harpers.org) is always saying, Where’s the outrage?’ My conclusion is that people are holding their outrage very close to the vest, and waiting to see, endlessly, what happens next. My Canadian friends are usually appalled by the U.S. actions, but their response is more like the one you would have to a show-it-off bully who has, for a change, bitten off more than he can chew. They look smugly at us Americans, while saving their moral outrage for their own government’s actions, including its role in Afghanistan. As they should.

What then do public transit in Point Roberts and the poor state of Iraq have in common? It is perhaps the case that public transit in Point Roberts and in Iraq are about the same, which is to say nonexistent. Baghdad probably used to have public transportation, but then so did Point Roberts. Another similarity to note on Number Five Year Anniversary Day of General Outrage. I’m outraged about this war and also about the fact that there is no public transport on the Point, although the scale of the outrage is smaller in the latter case. But I wish to keep my outrage fresh and green, like salad.

Four or five years ago, people here on the Point went to Whatcom County to ask for some kind of help about transit to the rest of the U.S., or at least to the County. If you can’t drive or if you no longer can drive, then you have no options but to depend upon others to get anywhere that isn’t already here. It’s even hard to get a taxi to come down here because it involves crossing borders: a Canadian Taxi Company doing business in the U.S.? Some taxis will come and take you to the airport ($60+ for the ride), say, because they have legally arranged it but you can imagine why such an arrangement might easily be more trouble for the taxi company than it’s worth for this tiny potential consumer base. However, driving 90 miles round-trips to Bellingham is not really the kind of thing you want to use a taxi for. And Bellingham is where all the doctors and hospitals are, to cite a particular need.

We pay a lot of taxes to the County and we get little back for our taxes, so how about some public transit? Somewhat surprisingly, the county agreed after much negotiation. If people up here would take county-provided training to drive a small van (about 8 or 9 seats), then the County would pay for the van, gas, and insurance. All the driving and the coordination of van trips would have to be done by volunteers on the Point. And it worked. Many people up here worked very hard to get everything to work. Cat-herding work, I’d call it, which requires great persistence and an easy temperament, none of which is in particularly high supply up here or anywhere else outside a Carthusian Monastery, maybe. But then the County didn’t like it—the van couldn’t take you to some places in Canada and it couldn’t take you any place beyond Whatcom County, so no trips to Seattle. And the trips couldn’t be just randomly scheduled and there needed to be enough people traveling every week to make the county feel it was getting its money worth, although the time that all the volunteers were putting in was more than equal to the money the county put in. The Point Roberts community rose to the challenge; the Whatcom County Council chose to collapse.

So, this past winter, the County finally decided that were tired of being helpful and the County Council refused to pay any further costs. They offered the Point the van (which is called ‘The Blue Heron’), and also offered the Point the opportunity to pay all the costs associated with it. But ‘The Point’, of course, is not a legal entity, and certainly not any kind of entity that can actually either accept the van or generate the funds to service it. A couple of weeks ago, I saw the van parked over near the Community Center, where I guess it is in at least temporary abandonment. No one has incorporated themselves into some kind of non-profit entity that would be able to be responsible for further van service. So all that had been created to make it work was uncreated. If it stays around, maybe we could rename it ‘The Wounded Blue Heron.’ And then we can rename the country “The Wounded States of America,’ while we’re at it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Spring Dirt Work

Most gardeners get their enthusiasm up as soon as the spring garden catalogs arrive in their mailboxes (thjat would be about February 1, long before they are going to be planting anything). They look at all the exotic plants and the beautifully colored pictures and imagine what it’s going to look like in their own garden this summer. Or not, because the home plantings never seem to work out quite as well as the ones in the catalog do. My own take on this is that catalogs, like plant nurseries, sell dreams not plants. Mostly I rely on things that I see in my neighbors’ gardens. If they can get it to grow, I can get it to grow.

What really sends me into spring gardening fever are those first cool days of spring when the ground is at last not too wet to put a trowel into. You get out there and clean things up and then you turn a little soil, or a lot of soil…all in anticipation of the actual planting. I’m a fanatic about keeping my hands clean (some Lady Macbeth business in my past?), so gardening is almost always done with good gloves. I consider gardening gloves as one of my most cherished tools and my current pair came from my sister as a birthday present and are indeed winners. They even have little drying pads around the wrists that are attached with velcro to keep my hands (and especially my wrists) from experiencing a sweaty feeling. So unpleasant. Eventually, I’ll wear through the finger tips, but until then, I’m enjoying them, and when they’re gone maybe I’ll ask her to buy me another pair from wherever in Southern California she finds such things.

Today’s digging in the dirt was mostly routine stuff, but it surely felt good to be out on one’s hands and knees with one’s hands properly protected and my own gardening dreams beginning to open out. Just to show, however, how good women have it: While I am doing this, Ed is in an 18-inch crawlspace (he’s as thin as he ever was, fortunately) digging with a tablespoon or something in the dirt underneath the house he is renovating. Point Roberts tends to feature houses that are built on top of the ground, but not too far on top of the ground. Not so far that you would have much of a crawl space. He is working out new water lines for the new plumbing which has to join up with the old plumbing and there’s no place for that to happen without digging a trench under the house. So, while I am digging in my garden, he is digging underneath the house, an activity that i will never have to even contemplate, let alone actually do.

However, we are like the seven dwarfs: we dig, dig, dig, the whole day through. But what he is doing seems to me more like a WWII movie where plucky American prisoners dig themselves out of the Nazi prison camp, hiding the dirt in their pockets or small containers. Perhaps I’ll go take him a teacup. As soon as I finish looking at this gardening catalog.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thinking Basic Food Needs

The thousand or so permanent residents of the Point have one notable advantage over most tiny U.S. towns: we have a very large supermarket, The International Market. It has free range chicken and artichokes and fresh basil and peaches from Chile and strawberries from Mexico and cheese from hither and yon, as well as 6 or 7 brands of yogurt, from the frivolous to the highly organic. Everything we need is in even more ample supply just across the border, of course. But, just across the border, prices for some foods are very high (eggs, milk, all dairy products, poultry). It is convenient and economical for Canadians to shop down here for such goods when they make the trip across to buy gasoline (today, $3.72/gallon US...still something of a bargain for Canadians with the U.S. dollar almost the equal of a Canadian dollar) or a little alcohol, or to pick up their packages at the post office. So the International Market serves both countries, which justifies its name. At checkout, you can pay in either currency and the cash registers are set up so that they will even tell you how to pay partly in each currency. (This is for the shopper who comes in, buys $35 worth of goods, and finds in his wallet only a US$20 and a CA$20.) The checkers are, so to speak, fluent in two currencies.

In the bad/good days (depending on what kind of currency you were holding), U.S. food prices were very high for Canadians because the dollar was so strong, and in those years we feared The International Market might close because the number of shoppers was truly small. Often, I’d be the only person in the market at 3 in the afternoon. Now, though, with the weak dollar, there are lines and even multiple checkers.

Independent of the currency issue, what wouldn’t you buy here in Point Roberts? That is, what would you make the effort to cross the border to purchase at their grocery stores. In Canada, you can buy Demerara sugar. I suppose it originally came from Demerara, where the rum comes from. I suspect it may now come from Cuba because it is an absolutely ordinary shelf-product in Canada, the Canadians have a sensible relationship with Cuba, and I have never seen it in an American market. It is dark brown, with big, soft crystals, and moves when you put a cup full on a plate as the crystals find their way to achieving stasis. And it tastes deep and dark and tropical and brown sugary. It is to U.S. brown sugar as real maple syrup is to the stuff they sell as pancake syrup. You use it just as you would brown sugar, although you are tempted to consider just eating a bowlful with a spoon, which temptation has never presented itself to me with respect to ordinary brown sugar.

Raisins are another surprising treat in Canadian markets. That is because, in the U.S., shoppers have on offer only raisins made from Thompson seedless grapes. They’re okay; I ate them all my life. But for Canadians, the raisin on offer--your basic raisin for all purposes--is a Sultana: a fruit that is much more flavorful, maybe sweeter, and slightly moist/sticky. So much better than those wizened, dried-up Thompson’s. Take some home with you next time you visit!

And the last ‘Canadian Must Buy’ is wheat flour. The great wheat fields of Canada grow lots of durum wheat and the ordinary Canadian supermarket flour is a much better flour, especially if you want to make bread. It comes composed solely of wheat whereas, as far as I can tell, all American flour is now adulterated with barley flour and also has a lower protein level (because they use more soft than hard wheat to make it), to boot. That kind of flour is how you get to Wonder Bread. I don’t think they could make Wonder Bread with Canadian flour, even if they tried. Raisins, Demerara sugar, and hard flour: I think there’s something to be made with that.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Unusual Tourist

There is a kind of whale called a ‘false killer whale.’ The naming seems to me highly unjust, implying as it does, that the whale is engaged in some attempt at deception. In fact, it is just a tropical waters whale that looks a lot like a killer whale. It lacks the distinctive white saddle, which is pretty much of a giveaway, I’d think, but perhaps the namers were distracted from that fact because they were observing from, say, underwater.

In any case, we have one of them, sort of. Apparently, they sometimes swim up this far in the summer, but then they go back when the chill begins. Our false orca (or killer whale, same thing), it is thought, swam up with her pod and then, for some reason, she became separated from them, they went south, and she (probably after seeing Point Roberts) decided to stay.

In this part of her run, she is known as Wilma, and I was lucky enough to cross her path some 5-6 years ago. Our neighbor’s son had recently moved over to one of the Gulf Islands and he sped over one sunny afternoon in his outboard motor boat and offered us a little ride.

Now I am not a fan of actually being either in or on the ocean unless I am wearing scuba gear. The reason for this is that I can’t swim, and the reason for that is I have some kind of strange malformation of the nasal passages that leads water to rush up into nose and down into my lungs the minute my head goes under water. I used to think it was that I had an unrestrainable compulsiosn to inhale when i put my head in the water but recently General Mike McConnell, the head of one of our vast Intelligence Organizations, reported in a discussion of waterboarding and why he didn’t want to have it happen to him (although okay to have it happen to others), that he had the same problem as I, and he said it was a malformation. So I’ll go with that as to the cause: I mean, he’s Mr. General Intelligence, so he should know what his water problem is.

So, the opportunity to go out in a little boat without my scuba gear didn’t immediately appeal, but it was a nice offer and I get weary of explaining to people that I don’t swim and I don’t like going to places where I might get the opportunity to be in water that is deeper than me, and the neighbors and Ed were all excited by it, so I shut my mouth and got into the boat. I believe I may have been the only person in the boat actually wearing a life jacket (why would this be? Is this not just rudimentary good sense? Well, I don’t know, they all can actually swim, are Olympic champions for all I know, so I am not a good judge of it, I supppose).

We got in the boat, we motored (Slap! Slap!) down past the Tswwaasen Ferry Terminal and eventually turned back. As we came by the terminal, Wilma (who until that moment I'd never heard of) caught our wake and begin to swim along side of us. She would suddenly surface (Right! No white saddle patch.) and then she’d disappear and the next thing she’d be on the other side of the boat, having gone underneath us. It was an amazing and terrifying experience for me: not so much simultaneously as in turns. I would see her and be amazed; she would disappear and I would be terrified as I imagined her misjudging exactly where she and we were. For about 15-20 minutes we had this back and forth and up and down, and then she bid us farewell as we got up to the entrance to the marina on Point Roberts.

There were other sightings of Wilma that summer and it was said that she hung around the ferry terminal to ride passing boats’ wakes. Just saying ‘Hi!’ to those of us who were traveling these waters with her. Just looking for a friend. Maybe she found one with a compass and went south because I haven’t heard about her being around over the last couple of years. The last sighting I found on the Net was in 2005. So maybe Wilma was just a tourist who decided not to stay. In my memory though, I see her all the time.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Second or Third Thoughts

The Point Roberts monthly newspaper features a very lively ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. It is here that one first turns to find out the real news of the Point over the past month. Although there are a number of frequent-flyer letter writers, two of them rise to a class of their own...sort of Platinum+. Both are men and both can frequently be encountered at local meetings of note. I last saw John LeSow at a Voters’ Association meeting where he came to obsess about water quality, although that was not actually on the meeting’s agenda. Water quality is monitored here by Vancouver, B.C., which supplies the water (i.e., we are getting the same water that they get up in Vancouver) and by the state of Washington, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and John LeSow, all of which have their own, if not always the same, standards.

The other of these epistolary compulsives is Ron Calder, and I use both their names only because they put themselves forward in a public way so often that I don’t take it they are much concerned about privacy as far as politics goes, anyway. Both John and Ron are of a libertarian bent and perhaps of the Libertarian Party itself. There were a suspiciously large number of RON PAUL signs nailed to all the power poles right before the recent primary and presidential caucus and an absolute absence of signs for anyone else.

Point Roberts is largely a Democratic Party stronghold, but the Republicans here in the 2000 primary voted for Allan Keyes, and the great majority of the admittedly small number of Republican caucus votes this year—15, as I recall--went for Ron Paul. If asked, I would certainly have no hesitation in concluding that the boys both voted for George Bush in the 2000 presidential general election. As to 2004...well, hard to know. Certainly by 2004, a lot of Libertarians had begun to be very restless, although it’s hard to imagine they might take their restlessness over to la table of that Frenchy John Kerry.

But now we know about Ron Calder, anyway. The March paper features an eloquent letter from Mr. Calder in which he refers to 'bottom-of-the-barrel' Michael Chertoff as 'Head of Hopeless Insecurity,' notes the parallels to Nazism in a country run by “Grand Fuhrer George’,’ and uses such phrases as ‘out of control,’ ‘scary,’ and ‘one more year of lunacy.’ Ron is pretty upset about how things are going. He wants the Patriot Act repealed, he wants his rights back, he remembers the days ‘when America was truly the land of the Free.’ Back in the days of Bill Clinton????

Well, it goes right to my heart to see someone like Ron as pissed off with this administration as I am. Yes, Ron! Yes, Brother! We are all in this together. But then he notes that he voted for George Bush not only in 2000, but also in 2004, acknowledging that he made ‘the same mistake twice.’ You surely did, Ron. The first vote we can understand; lots of people were surprised at what the U.S. got with Bush regardless of whether they did or did not vote for him, although I was not one of those surprised (she said proudly). But the second vote???

We hold this to be self-evident: that anyone who voted for George Bush twice has given us indisputable evidence that he or she doesn’t have the discernment or judgment or just mother wit of anyone that we would really be interested in listening to. Somehow, I think that Mr. Calder will keep talking anyway, whether we are listening or not.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Of Contracts, Canned Fish, and High Hopes

In the early 1900’s, a ruling came down in Alaska Packers Association vs. Domenico, a case which one studies in contracts class in law school. As I understand it (and I’m not a lawyer so you don't want to have too much hang on this analysis), the principle of the ruling is that if one person agrees to do something and then later on decides he doesn’t want to do it unless he receives some further consideration, the additional consideration, if agreed to, has no legal status. In this particular case, the crew members agreed to man a ship to Alaska and there to fish for salmon. They were to be paid $50 for the ship work and two cents per fish for every salmon they caught. But once in Alaska, they argued that the equipment for doing the fishing was inadequate and thus they refused to fish, since those two-cent-apiece fish had been their main financial gain in this project. They were, however, willing to pursue the fishing if the original price of $50 for being seamen was increased to $100. A member of the Packers’ Association accepted this deal. Of course, the men were in some remote part of Alaska and there were no alternative seamen to hire to take the company’s ship back or indeed to catch the company some fish.

And this all became a major principle of contract law. You agree to something and if it seems a bad idea after awhile, you are stuck with what you agreed to. Surely it would be very good if someone intervened to elevate your situation, but there is no moral or legal obligation to do so. A case of ‘contractor beware,’ I would think.

And why are we talking about this? Well, largely because I live two blocks from APA Road, and a mile or so from the grounds of the Alaska Packers Association (APA) cannery. Point Roberts: a part of legal history. Another case involving the Alaska Packers Association dealt with whether local Indian tribes, under claims of treaty rights, could prohibit the APA from fishing in the waters of Point Roberts. That decision, rendered in the 1880’s, concluded that the Indians couldn’t do anything about the APA fishing. Why are we not surprised by this decision?

The cannery has its own local history, of which I know only a little. It was a big cannery (I’ve seen pictures of it) and lots of fish were packed here. And I probably ate salmon from those cans because fresh salmon was not an item in our household in Idaho in the 1940’s, but canned salmon surely was. You put crackers and egg and canned salmon together with some onion, fried it, and that was a salmon cake. There must have been a sizable number of jobs in Point Roberts at that point. Chinese laborers were brought in to do some of the work in the canneries, and at least one such Chinese laborer, Ah Fat, lived in Point Roberts for several decades. The cannery caught fire in the 1960’s, and now there are scant ruins including, according to a friend ‘the rusted hull of a pressure canning machine left lying [on the beach].’

Except that The Cannery is still with us. At some point after the APA cannery burned down, someone constructed a new cannery building that included a restaurant and a dance floor. This was in the days before British Columbia allowed liquor sales on Sunday, and what sounds like all of Vancouver came to the Point for Sunday Drinking. A friend recalls going to The Cannery once when Woody Herman was playing right here in Point Roberts. (Herman and his band toured almost until Herman’s death when he was in his 80’s because the IRS was after him for back taxes. )

Then The Cannery was remodeled in the 80’s and it was set to become a fantastic resort kind of place. (There is a remodeled actual APA cannery over the real border to the U.S. in Blaine that is a successful resort, I am told.) The outside of our Point Roberts remodeled buildings were painted bright yellow and it is still the most cheerful looking place on the Point. But it has long been empty, another abandoned house or at least buildings. And the point of all this story? Virtually every new person to Point Roberts begins to think about how The Cannery could be revived, made the center of Point life, made an economic engine. A neighbor of mine, I hear, has been working for the past three years to turn it into a fabulous resort restaurant, and only a few days ago, I heard somebody proposing that it be used to provide free living space for young artists from Seattle who would come up here and produce fantastic work and show us….well, show us something.

My own hope is that the return of The Cannery might lure the salmon back. But it’s possible that the salmons’ contract can’t be renegotiated without really offering them something quite a bit better than they were offered before (whick was to end up in a can). Although, like the Indians and the APA workers, they might lose the case if they tried to have an improved offer enforced.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Point Roberts Recidivism

It would be unlikely, if you just came upon Point Roberts yourself, to find that you had an old friend living here, too. The law of averages just seem way too strong for that. And, indeed, we didn’t ever see a soul we knew when we came here 13 years ago. And then, one day, Ed got an email from one of his closest friends at Cal Tech, an educational experience that came to a conclusion in 1956. A college pal who had been one of the wedding party at Ed’s wedding (or maybe the other way round), sent a message to report that he had been reading some kind of Cal Tech alumna phosphorescence and had noticed that Ed Park had left RAND and was now living in Point Roberts, WA. Interestingly enough, the old friend noted, he and his wife had recently bought a house in Point Roberts. So there they were: two old Cal Tech boys living in one of if not the only one of America’s most remote communities that isn’t in Alaska.

The couple had been living in Seattle, doing engineering work, and when the retirement date came, they drifted up here because their daughter had met a guy who lived here and they had come up to visit her and were charmed by the unusualness of the locale and the low prices. Next thing, it’s another house for them. Unlike us, they settled in on the ocean front facing the rising sun. One of his first tasks was to take a picture of the sunrise every morning. I, of course, have never seen a sunrise here and not only because I’m such a slug-a-bed. We live in the middle of that aforementioned woods and the disc as well as the rays of the sun are pretty much obscured for us. I’m just glad I can tell that it’s light.

The old friend loaned me a series of sunrise pictures and I had a good time trying to find a way to make a quilt that was like any one of those pictures. Not all that successful, but the learning was worth the try. And we went to the movies with them now and then and had dinner together. The usual. I accompanied him to a couple of community group meetings as he made the inevitable and largely unsuccessful attempt to become community-ized. But he and his wife were as pleased with their arrangments here as we were and they settled in to remodeling, gardening, and teaching computers to seniors (of which he was one), as well as the rest of what passes for life’s small amusements here.

And then, two years ago in the winter, an unfortunately high tide combined with a villainously vigorous wind from east, and the next thing you know, the friends’ newly remodeled ground floor and garage found itself in a matter of minutes with five feet of sea water. Many of those at the peninsula edges were similarly discomfited and while misery may love company, it certainly doesn’t make it any less miserable. Ed helped them clean things up and out and they pretty much restored their living arrangements over several months, including half a dozen new appliances that had received more salt than was consistent with further function. We thought the worst was over for them, but then we heard from another friend that their house was for sale and they were moving to New Mexico, a state with no known ocean front and perhaps inadequate water for drinking, let alone flooding. And in a few weeks, they packed up and disappeared from America’s strangest little place.

That was about 18 months ago. Yesterday, Ed received an email from that old friend. They are looking to move back to Point Roberts, buy a little place where they’d spend part of the year or maybe more than that. He was writing because he had heard there was a house for sale on our little cul de sac of a street (a street with 10 houses, counting both sides), and a street that lies almost at the center point of the Point. Not only a center point, we are also a high point. So maybe they’ll come back and give us another try. We inquired around about the house, only to find that the basement of the house had flooded this winter: leaking water heater? High ground water? Don’t know. Ed reported the finding to his friend who concluded that it sounded like nothing a sump pump couldn’t fix.

What a place! The Department of Homeland Security at the border and acts of God in our basement...and still we keep coming back.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Community Marches On...Or Not

There’s some stirring on the community level here in Point Roberts. That is to say, there is, once again, some group of folks who think we need more community than we’ve already got. Every time there’s a new batch of newcomers, a small number peel themselves off to join in an effort to reinvigorate the Point. Or perhaps to invigorate it for the first time in their sense of community politics. Their usual conclusion is that they need to pump up some old organization that has gone derelict. A year later, the effort is largely abandoned and the group in question returns to its semi-dormant state, with regular meetings attended by a couple of people. I myself have attended a few meetings of several of these organizations during such an invigorating process. Hasn’t worked yet as far as I can see. Largely this is because, I think, that such groups as do exist are largely at cross purposes with one another or are entirely indifferent to one another. It's like a chess game where either nobody wants to take a turn or two people want to move simultaneously, each to block the other.

This time, it is the organizations themselves that are taking the lead, or at least some of them. And therein lies the rub. There are a million organizations on the Point, depending upon how you define ‘organization.’ There’s the Chamber of Commerce, which requires only a very small chamber to meet since there is so little variety of commerce, and there is the Voters’ Association (people who can vote and may or may not own property), and the Property Owners’ Association (the reverse), and the Contractors’ Association, and the Parks and Recreation Board (which may or may not be an organization, depending...). And there’s the Wellness Clinic Board (not to mention the patients of the clinic), and the Volunteer Fire Department; the Quilters Group, the Book Club, the Library employees, the Walking Group, the owners/riders of Icelandic Ponies, Members of the Lutheran Church, a small dance band, the Historical Society, the golf course employees, the Food Bank, the Emergency Preparedness Committee, the group that reads to small children at the library on Tuesday evenings, the arts group that puts on an arts weekend in the summer, and six neighborhood associations, for starters. Well, you can see how this notion of community groups as representative members of the community could pretty easily get out of hand if you are thinking of them as a group.

But the ‘key organizations’ (as their presidents tend to refer to themselves) are thinking of getting together a little council that will meet to (and I quote) ‘prioritize problems in Point Roberts.’ They want to have action: this is not a group to just sit around and talk, they say; this is a group to produce solutions and to have deadlines. And who is to be on this council, I ask? Well, each group in the community can send a representative, they respond. I like to imagine this ‘democratically’ appointed group sitting around the table doing this prioritizing. Since I was at this meeting (largely as an interested observer), I continued to press a role for the quilters’ group as a community organization entitled to representation on this prioritizing group. Eventually, I think, they began to see that a representative from every community group might be something of a handful and might lead to more talk than action.

But, with no way to discern who should have a representative on this mythical council, the meeting was adjourned with a plan to invite anyone who thinks they represent a community group to the next meeting, a month from now. Such a plan certainly offers a strange possibility of legitimacy, but I’m not sure of the direction that this legitimacy would take. In any case, the Point Roberts Quilters Group, with 12 active members, will be represented by me.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Roots and Rootlessness

I don’t think that I really know what it means to live in a community where the word actually means something that is different from, say, living in a small town. The people who move to Point Roberts often long to live in a community, but they mostly don’t seem to have any more idea than I do about how to make that happen. Point Roberts is a community for some people: they were born here, their parents were born here, they grew up and maybe went away to school, but then came back and got jobs and houses and spouses and children. They remember it for what it was and is as an aspect of their daily lives, not as an interesting study.

Two of my quilting students come from such a family. Their grandparents were both born here on the Point and I can point to the houses they grew up in. Their grandfather was the minister in the local and only church, a Lutheran Church, but because everyone here was not a Lutheran, he officiated at the church in such a way that everyone felt welcome, and he did so for many years until he retired. The new minister is from away, however.

The minister’s children grew up here and at least two of them have come back to make their lives on the Point. These two daughters are also the mothers of my two quilting students. The girls are remarkable, both in their willingness to work at something month after month and in their sensibleness. When they began, they were 12 and 13; now the older is 16. Both are bright and unusually cheerful considering that they are teenagers, and willing to spend two hours each Sunday working indoors on what is in many ways a very repetitive and slow-moving task, although I try to structure it so that there are frequent opportunities for creativity. They work well and they do good work.

They are happy to have this opportunity, but I suspect I am the real beneficiary of it. Through them, I get to see something of what it might be like to live in one place, and to have that place be the same place your parents and grandparents lived. They have deep roots and long knowledge and a calmness I don’t associate with teenage years.

Here is a list of the places I have lived since I was born: Pocatello, ID; Bozeman, MT; Canton, NY; Morley, NY; San Diego, CA; Brentwood, CA; West Hollywood, CA; Westwood, CA; Beverly Hills, CA; Culver City, CA; Lakeville, MA; Yap, Micronesia; Beverly Hills, CA (again); Venice, CA; Westwood, CA (again); Brentwood, CA (again); Roberts Creek, BC; and Point Roberts, CA.

I suspect my life is as alien to my students as theirs is to me, but I am living perhaps the more typical life of an American in the 20th and 21st Centuries. We all three come from immigrant stock, but some immigrant families stayed put and some learned the lesson of motion and kept on moving, even when there was no more West to move on to. I can’t really quite imagine that I will be here for the rest of my years, unless those years are fairly small in number. But I also can’t really imagine what it is to have a historical memory of a place that is shared with generations. No wonder we never know anything about history, I suppose. The girls offer me some idea of what an awareness of lived history in a community might be like. And they learn to sew and to make quilts.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Whose Woods These Are I'm Pretty Sure I Know

When we moved to Point Roberts, we bought a little house on a little lot and the lot had a few big trees on it here and there and a few little garden areas and a bunch of lawn. But that was twelve or so years ago, and over that time, we found ourselves buying the surrounding little lots one at a time, until we eventually acquired six of them, about a half acre that includes the house we live in, trees, another house that Ed has been remodeling for the past three years, and a workshop for me in which to do my quilting. Up in Canada, we have two acres of woods and one house, but the difference between two acres of woods in Canada and maybe a quarter acre of woods in Washington (subtracting the lawn-like areas which are flat but have no grass and thus are not really lawns, the ever-expanding gardens, and the three buildings from that larger ½ acre) is substantial.

The difference lies largely in the fact that two acres of trees is a forest that takes care of itself and ¼ acre of trees is land that requires a lot of maintenance. I conducted a survey of our trees today and here is what we have:

2 alders, 4 large maples and 4 small maples, 12 red cedars, 2 laurels, 1 dogwood, 31 Douglas firs, 1 grand fir, 3 willows, 1 pecan, 5 Italian plums, 2 bartlett pears, 1 walnut, 1 fig, 1 Queen Anne cherry, 4 apples, 1 arbutus, and 2 poplars. Fruit trees are not, by nature all that big, although this cherry is a large tree: our ladders do not go high enough to pick up at the top of it. But the rest of these trees range from very big to enormous. I couldn’t begin to put my arms halfway around any of the Douglas firs or cedars, e.g. They are tall enough that bald eagles consider nesting in them each spring. They are a lot of wood, but not a forest. They are more like a park.

Maintenance for a park includes, each spring, gathering up and causing to go away hundreds of branches that break off during winter storms, as well as the occasional tree that comes down (two last year, but none this past winter). The branches are mostly from the Douglas fir trees, but the cedars, alders, and maples also contribute to this general mess. If you cut the wood up to size, you can burn the wood in your fireplace or wood stove. However, we don’t have either of those. So we can find somebody with a chain saw who wants the wood and is willing to come by, cut it, and cart it off, but most people have their own wood mess for those purposes. Or we can pay somebody about $125/hour to chip it up (which we did last year, but we still have 2/3 of those wood chips in piles waiting for me to cart them to somewhere else). We can burn it ourselves in a 1-2 day extravaganza, during which time we make our major contribution to global warming. Or we can carry it back into the far reaches of the park where it will make its own contribution to global warming by decomposing, but over a longer time than 1-2 days. What to do?

The other major maintenance of trees has to do with leaves. A tree in your yard provides you with enough leaves in the fall to rake up. Eight maples, two alders, a dogwood, and a bunch of fruit trees provides you with way more leaves than you are going to be raking up, not least because it is November when they fall and it is raining all the time. So you think about the advantages of letting the leaves remain on the ground all winter where they can provide a little insulation for the plants and bushes in the cold, and where they will do a little composting of their own. But spring comes (as it has come this week), and all those leaves are still there and they’re still wet and they haven’t composted one whit and all the slugs are eating the little plants that they are covering. And when that happens, you know it’s really time to rake the leaves and start the serious composting. So this week has been a week of raking when it’s not raining and carting leaves off to the back of the woods where they will go bit by bit into the composter until the next crop of leaves starts to fall.

These woods are mine, and they sure require a lot of work.