hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Does the Lion Bite?

Yesterday I spent the better part of the day on my hands and knees exterminating dandelions. After about an hour, I began to ask myself just why am I doing this? There was no particularly good answer forthcoming. Up in Roberts Creek (unlike down in Point Roberts), we have a lawn and I never dig the dandelions out of the lawn because they get mowed regularly. In Point Roberts, where I have no lawn--just pathways through whatever the nature deities grow in the areas that are not specific flowerly gardens—I wouldn’t dream of digging up dandelions. Except in the pathways that are covered with wood chips and pecan shells.

Okay, maybe there’s some logic here. Yesterday I was digging the dandelions out of the gravel driveway and the beaten earth area around the wood shed. So maybe it’s that dandelions offend me when they are growing in something that ISN’T either grass or plain dirt. Nope. I dig them up out of the flower beds, too, which is clearly dirt. So maybe dandelions can grow only in grass in my rule book. It just makes no sense, I tell myself, to keep trying to exterminate them, except in the flower beds where they will quickly drive everything else out.

When I was a kid, when my children were kids, when my grandchildren were kids, we all would come in at some point with a handful of dandelions, looking for a jelly glass with water to put them in. We wanted them to be displayed on the dinner table where all could admire their beauty, our good work, and our good judgment in gathering them. They were desirable flowers then for us. Why not now? What did we know then that we have now forgotten? Or have we learned something along the way that escaped us as children? The lions do have a strong, slightly unpleasant smell, but they also have gorgeous color and intricately shaped and abundant petals; they grow easily and are long-lasting.. And they have one of the best flower names in the world: Dandelions, Dandy Lions, Dents de Leons (teeth of lions). Any of those three are names worth having, worth admiring, worth saving. In the northwest, we also have another wild plant similar to the Dandy Lion: the also French-named Langues du Chats, which in English becomes not Cats’ Tongues but Cats’ Ears. Felines both, these plants, the cats and the lions: independent little guys who like to hang around people but don’t like to submit to them too much. We, on the other hand, would like them to submit just a little more.

Several years ago, I was conducting the standard war on slugs that never stops during the warmer months up here. I was engaged in a particularly aggressive campaign of gathering and killing slugs every night after dinner. I was finding myself the sole executioner of a hundred a night, then two hundred. After a week, I began really to feel like an executioner and I gave it all up and stopped planting things that slugs are interested in consuming wholesale. Maybe it’s time to start giving the cats and the lions of the yard the same consideration: at least if they are not in the flower beds, where they really will take over. In other places, maybe there’s no bite involved.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What's Above Us?

One of the great advantages of life in Point Roberts is the proximity of the Vancouver Airport, a scant 30-minute drive from the border. Most simply, it means the ROTUS, as well as the rest of the world, is easily available to us. It's a beautiful airport, but since they collect $10 from every passenger that takes a flight out of the airport, I think of the airport and all its beauty as in some small way belonging to me, and of course to all of us who fly out of YVR and pay our $10 fees. I like to think that my many $10 bills were used to pay for some part of the waterfall near the entry to customs as you arrive in Vancouver. You, on the other hand, may have paid for part of the Jade Boat in the main departure hall. Another good choice.

Although neither Point Roberts nor Roberts Creek is directly under the flight path of the Vancouver airport, one is aware of the great number of planes taking off each day (less aware of landings, unless you're nearer yet to the airport). There is one flight in particular, thought, that puzzles me. I hear it from both places, lying in my bed, somehow awakened around 1:30-2:00 a.m. The sound of a plane flying at first puzzles me because it's late and the planes have stopped flying by that time, I think. But it is a plane, a heavy plane as the controllers say. It's going somewhere I can't quite figure out. But here, today, and also here in a somewhat different version, comes the answer...if only I study it long enough, I'm bound to be able to spot that very late-night plane and to see at last where it's going.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Elections: Fraud and Fatigue

The Canadians had their knickers in a twist last week about election irregularities. (The Canadians can say things like that because of their long connection with the British and because they know what ‘knickers’ are: we in the U.S.—at least the non-sports-minded—are more likely to be left wondering if that is the name of a new football or baseball team…the Des Moines Knickers, say.) The Canadians I know get very upset when there are charges of election fraud. I assume that election fraud is endemic in the U.S., of course, but I also assume that a lot of money will be involved.

In this case, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police served a warrant at the Progressive Conservative Party’s Headquarters and marched out with the Progressive Conservative Party’s computers and other records. None of the newspaper accounts explain how the Progressive Conservative Party (which is currently the main party running the country) continues to operate without its computers. My own day/week/month/year would be absolutely ruined if someone were to march in and seize my computers. Elections Canada, which sent the unmounted Mounties out on this mission, appears to be claiming that the Progressive Conservatives spent $1 million more on the last election than the $18 million they were allowed to spend, and that they achieved this by moving checks and cash back and forth between the Party and the candidates.

The Progressive Conservatives came to power on the hem of a previous knicker-twisting election problem, something called the “sponsorship scandal.” In that activity, it was the Liberals who were using fancy accounting and checks and cash moved here and there, and they were accused of improperly distributing about $100 million of $250 million of public funds with an eye to elections. That is a reasonable amount of money to be concerned with and, in large part, that led to the fall of the Liberal government. The PC’s were mighty pure about their own intentions at the time of the Liberal fall, so there is some irony in that they are now faced with charges of tiny fraud or whatever it is that Elections Canada is thinking of charging them with.

What strikes me, as an American, is how small the sums involved are. A Canadian expert on such stuff, is quoted in the news as saying, "There's always little nickel and dime stuff in every election, but this is not nickel and dime ... those are major sums, at least by Canadian standards." He’s talking about $1 million. Now granted that Canada’s population is only about 1/10th of the U.S. population, a dubious allocation of $10 million in a U.S. election would seem to me to be nickel and dime stuff. It cost the Republicans $216 million to elevate John McCain to candidate; the Democrats don’t even have a presidential candidate yet, and they’ve already spent over $289 million. Hard to imagine that all those funds can actually be accounted for if anybody was trying to see if it were all on the up and up.

In that light, I noticed a New York Times article this week about the final negotiations on the farm bill just about to issue from the Congress. One billion dollars was added in these negotiations for food stamps for poor people; another $1.8 billion was added in tax cuts for rich people, including tax cuts for racehorse breeders (Thank You, Senator Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader. Maybe we could just give them food stamps instead?) This, of course, is all legal, what we cutely refer to as 'earmarks'; no fraud or corruption here. We save that for elections. I doubt that Canadians have the stamina for U.S. politics. I’m beginning to doubt that I have it, either.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Meet the Old Neighbors!

Yesterday, Ed and I were sitting on the porch having mid-afternoon coffee and observing the various changes in the yard that the slowly advancing spring was making. There are pasque flowers blooming, even though Easter came through quite a while ago; daffodils and tulips are making a simultaneous appearance, even though the tulips normally don't start until the daffs are finished; and lilac buds are yet tightly furled, although they usually bloom by May 1st. I’m afraid that won’t happen this year, but it’s all to the good, I suppose, since I will be gone by then.

As we talked, into the yard strolled a medium-sized deer. It was the second deer I’d seen this week, which is unusual. They’re around all the time, but I don’t usually see them: just signs of their passing. This one was about 15 feet away from us and he stopped to eat the leaves off the rose bushes. These are rugosa roses, very fragrant but not awfully showy bushes and we have rows of them, so I wasn’t too concerned about the deer’s feeding. But I was surprised to note that I had never before seen them do this nor seen any evidence of their doing it. They eat blackberries regularly and you can see where they have been lunching, but no sign on the rose bushes. We were talking and the deer was paying no particular notice to us. Then a second, smaller deer wandered in; the two touched noses communicating something about the quality of the rose leaves, maybe, because the second one did not participate in the lunch. But the two of them stood there, looking around, cocking their ears, for all the world as if they were concerned about something. But it definitely wasn’t us. Never glanced our way.

Earlier in the day, I’d been walking up the road when I came upon a 15-inch snake of the grass sort: yellow stripes and a darting red tongue. When I first saw him, he was so still I thought he was dead. I was standing right next to him and there was no sign of life in him. Then I nudged him slightly with my foot and, although he did not move his body, he did make his red tongue go in and out very fast. This seems an evolutionarily weak response. I mean, my foot was nowhere near his tongue so it’s hard to think that he was actually concerned about me standing there, enormous me.

We have raccoons around all the time, too. Here they mostly come round at night and we hear them rattling around more often than we see them. But down in Point Roberts, they are perfectly content to walk within five feet of us and never give us a glance. It almost seems rude, their failure to acknowledge our presence. Hummingbirds, too, fly in and around us desperate for sugar water but without any concern about us. These are an interesting kind of neighbor, and it is always a little strange, after years of city living, to have them around so much of the time. And to have them so uninterested in us. The bears are not like that, though. They see you, they move right off. Of course, when I see them, I’m inclined to move right off too. The cougars, I never see; but they see me, I imagine.

When I first came here, I would voice some alarm about the bears, but long-time residents would say, ‘What did you expect? You moved to a place where there are bears.’ I got the message quickly: you don’t want to live with bears, don’t move here. I’m okay with them, now, but I never expected to live with wild animals who were absolutely indifferent to my presence. Don’t they know I could be dangerous?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Meet the New Neighbors!

It’s been a very noisy past few days on our normally quiet road. Roberts Creek is noisier than Point Roberts because we are closer to roads that permit speeds of 40-50 mph. Also, ambulance sounds are more common as late night drivers fall off the road and into the ditches with remarkable frequency. Nevertheless, it’s still a pretty quiet place compared to the city.

The sounds that one really doesn’t like to hear are the noises of big chain saws. There’s plenty of arguing about how many trees ought to be cut up on the mountain, but we can’t hear the sounds of those trees being cut. On your own street, however, it’s a very big noise. And if it goes on for very long, it does make me wince.

This particular noise was issuing from a house up the road that was recently sold. I’ve walked and driven past that house every day or so for the past fourteen years and never gotten a clear look at it. On foot, you could stand at the edge of the driveway and actually see the shape of the house, but driving past, you knew there was a house there only because there was a driveway and a trash can on Wednesdays.

The first few days, the noise was identifiably chain saw. The third and fourth days were different: at first I thought that it was a helicopter overhead, but it turned out to be a very long logging truck, loaded right up with 20-30 foot trimmed logs from that property up the road, now driving very slowly and very noisily down our road. Then, later in the afternoon, the helicopter sound started up again and eventually a second fully laden truck came down the road past our driveway. And the next day, the same.

Many trees-now-logs have by now passed by us so, today, I walked up the road to see what had transpired. And there was the house, never before seen clearly but now in full view. Logs still piled up, so presumably the big logging trucks will be back on Monday bringing us again the sound of destruction of the owner’s and resident animals’ habitat.

Roberts Creek is famous for its trees, so it always puzzles me that people buy property here and then proceed to cut down all the trees. If you are going to build a house, you obviously have to cut some trees so you’ll have space for the house. But clearing enormous spaces of trees or of cutting any trees when the house is already built seems to me to want an explanation. I’m told that people worry about having the trees fall on their houses and that’s why they cut so many. And it’s true that tree branches often come down in the winter winds and damage roofs, but that requires the tree to be very close to the house. Some people may be just taking a little profit as the trees are worth a lot if they are cedar or fir ($1,000 or so/tree, they say), and real estate prices have gone up here sufficiently that a quick profit may be needed. Some people are said to want more light. But then, why buy a house in the northwest where it is mostly grey (even on the Sunshine Coast) and mostly forested and not very light? Maybe it is just a manifestation of humans’ desire to improve things or at least to change them or to make them more like where they came from (the prairies?). Maybe it is just a yearning for a creative touch, for making what is in some way different and thus one’s own.

Whatever it is, I hope it isn’t followed by a need for a lawn, a riding mower, a weed whacker, and then a leaf blower, but I won’t be surprised if they and their accompanying noise all appear, as the days and seasons go by.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Time: Not on Our Side

All of the Sunshine Coast, like Gaul, is divided into three parts: Gibsons, Roberts Creek, and Sechelt. Roberts Creek is by far the smallest (only 3,300 people here), but it is also by far the most distinctive. Gibsons is famous for being the slightly picturesque town in which the CBC filmed a very popular and soapy kind of TV show many years ago (before we got here, which is now 16 years ago) and is the first stop for tourists getting off the ferry. Sechelt is the Coast’s town with the largest population, but it is in most ways even less memorable than Gibsons. (Well, they both have marinas, wonderful ocean views and lots of trees, but in Sechelt the trees are mostly gone until you get up into the mountain areas.)

Roberts Creek, by contrast, has barely any town and no business to speak of or to see, by intention. In the 1960’s, lots of American boys facing the draft and Vietnam made their way to Canada as draft dodgers and Canada welcomed them. Lots of them made their way to Roberts Creek, where they continued the leftist, hippy, free-wheeling life that had inclined them to want to avoid Vietnam in the first place. And many of them are still here, working to keep Roberts Creek as it always was. In 1994, Roberts Creek embarked upon a town plan which was intended to solidify the common view of the Creek: nature (including substantial amounts of marijuana growing) not commerce. There are only two roads that go through the Creek along the north-south route, and according to the town plan, neither of them was to have any business on them. Only one little east-west street, about a block long, was zoned for commercial enterprises. So, you could drive through Roberts Creek on the highway and never even know that you had been there. All you see are trees, which obscure the ocean.

Back before the town plan was made, there was a plant nursery that was visible from the 2-lane highway, but it wasn’t accessible from the highway. Across the road from it was a dog kennel, but I think it must have been a home business. And there was the Peninsula Motor Inn, which featured ‘E OTIC DANCERS.’ I could never decide whether their letter set had no X or whether they wanted you to imagine that they had dancers with an R rather than an X, but just didn’t want to say so. Anyway, the Pen Inn, the nursery, and the dog kennel were grandfathered in.

And that is how it still is, 14 years later. No visible business on the highway for a ten-mile stretch beginning with the beginning of Roberts Creek, and ending with Roberts Creek Provincial Park and Rat Portage Hill. On the other hand, it is not exactly how it still is. The Pen Inn burned down and hasn’t been replaced by anything yet. And that little commercially zoned area has filled out quite a bit. Fourteen years ago, there was a library/post office building, a general store, a hair salon, and ‘The Gumboot,’ a hippy cafĂ©. On any sunny day, you could go there and the place would look like it was hosting a touring company of Hair. Lots of long hair, lots of wild beards, lots of long, Indian skirts on the girls who carried babies in slings on their back. Lots of bare feet, even, as well as the smell of dope and incense. And if you wanted, Erica Snowflake would arrange to take you on a fairy tour of the local mountains. The walls featured art of the original period.

I haven’t seen Erica for the past couple of years and the hippy quality of The Gumboot has decidedly deteriorated, although people are still very friendly, and there’s still a very 60’s wall painting (see picture above). The Gumboot itself has spun off a second business, a restaurant for fine dining. The owners built a large greenhouse next to the restaurant to ensure that their dining patrons have the finest of fresh lettuce and whatever else can be grown in greenhouses. The original Gumboot specialized more in granola and huevos rancheros and big plates of fried potatoes. Ah, well, time passes and all things change.

There is also a new building complex called ‘Heart of the Creek,’ tastefully built, that houses a woodworking school (where the students and teachers make exquisite little boxes and cabinets that are priced in the thousands of dollars), a large kayak and other adventure equipment rental store, an osteopathy/acupuncturist office, a health food store where a pound of organic flour will cost you around $3, and a clothing store that specializes in things made of hemp and organic cotton. The clothing store also sells and uses incense and among their dwindling stock of 60’s goods you can yet find a string of Tibetan prayer flags. I bought some because I’m afraid the Creek is in need of a few prayers.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Getting What We Pay For

Because I lived in Los Angeles for most of the last forty years of the Twentieth Century, I still read the L.A. Times every day, though now on the net. There was a period when it was a terrific newspaper, but I wouldn’t describe it that way now. However, I read it, and was surprised to see the other day that California has now sunk to the #46 position in per capita student spending for public education. When I moved there, the schools were terrific, from K all the way through University, and famous across the country for being good. Part of what made them good was the state was willing to spend money on teachers. I don’t think it was #46 in those days. At #46, it must now be competing favorably with Alabama and Mississippi, I thought.

So I poked around a little to see what the status of public education (K-12) funding is nowadays. It’s pretty dismal, it turns out. At the top of the list in recent years are New York ($14,000/student), New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. It is my guess that none of those three states is regularly congratulated for how wonderful their public schools are, despite their high spending levels. The bottom of the list is firmly anchored year after year by the great state of Utah ($5,463/student), with Arizona a solid #49 ($6,232/student). And lurking there at the bottom with them (in addition to California) is the beloved state of Washington, #45, with the princely sum of $7,432/student. You couldn’t hire a baby sitter for that price.

California and Washington have achieved their dismal funding levels by similar means. Back in the 1960’s, Californians passed something called Proposition 13, which effectively froze property taxes on real estate as long as you didn’t sell it. Your house could have appreciated from a $25K bungalow to a $500K bungalow, but as long as you were living in it, the assessor thought it was a $25K bungalow (although a very small annual percentage increase was allowed). That simply crippled education because it crippled the source of education funding. Washington hasn’t (yet) followed that dim-witted act, but the absence of a state income tax is just as bad. I know, I know…they are always trying to take away YOUR money (Thief! Robbery!) to pay for your children’s education when it would be so much more sensible if the children just paid for it themselves.

Taxes: The Admission Price We Pay for Living in a Civilized Society. Of course, if we refuse to pay them (Tim Eyman and friends, are you listening?), then we will have the privilege of living in an uncivilized society. I can hardly wait.

Money alone won’t make for better schools, of course, but inadequate funding definitely will make for worse schools. And if the state I was living in was #45 in spending, I wouldn’t be feeling too confident about the kind of education that was on offer. But then, think of it this way: the average school child’s education costs us in Washington about $2,800 dollars less than the average social security check for the post 65-year-olds among us, so it’s kind of a bargain. Not only that, but we spend each year $1,000/person more on the average school child’s education in Washington than we do on the average person’s healthcare. Of course, the average school child is involved in that education a significant percentage of the time, which is not true of the average patient’s receipt of health care (a very occasional thing except for a very small number of people).

We’re happy to pay for those social security checks because it shows how we respect the elders among us; we’re happy to pay for that healthcare because it shows our concern for the sick among us. How come we’re not so happy to pay to educate the nation’s children? Is it just because we probably will get old and we definitely might become sick, but we absolutely will never go to a public elementary or secondary school again? So…what’s it to us?

Numbers to keep in mind for scale and to understand our priorities:
U.S. average per pupil spending for public education $8,700/year (Washington: $7,432)
U.S. average social security check: $11,500/year
U.S. average per capita spending on healthcare: $6,401

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What IS in a Name?

Back on the Sunshine Coast in B.C. where, last night, I attended the 15th Annual Judy Day dinner, one of those features of living on the Coast that would be hard to duplicate any place else. Of course, it’s only a feature if your name is ‘Judy.’ I don’t always make it to the dinner, but I have probably been there for 12 or 13 of them.

Judy Day occurs at the end of March, but the dinner usually comes a little later because it needs to be scheduled outside of the spring break. This year was even later than usual, but the dinner was attended by a good showing of Judys, some 20+. For the most part, these are women I do not know outside of this dinner. Despite the 15-year history of my attending these dinners, I have never learned the last names of most of the Judys, although I recognize them by appearance, even as we all grow older.

Over the years, there has been some variation in the event format, but we have now settled down to a stable routine. We each bring a wrapped, used book. There is a before-dinner conversation-with-wine period, and after dinner, some kind of drawing allows these books to be redistributed. The same process moves the silver-paper Judy Crown to some other Judy who is then obliged to arrange next year’s dinner. Arrangements include selecting a venue, putting a notice in the paper, and sending emails to the Judy List.

It is truly strange to be in a group of people all with the same name and, with one or two exceptions, within a pretty narrow age range. Someone calls, "Judy!" And we all respond, every time it happens. Many wear name badges that say 'My name is JUDY'. It’s not always clear whether we have anything in common other than the name. We are almost all the metaphorical children of Judy Garland, of course, born between the mid-30’s and the mid-fifties. We usually have some small talk about previous dinners, note is taken of Judys that are not dining with us this year. Some years there are new Judys, but I saw no one new this time. However, there is no standing up and announcing one’s name and background, so I could be wrong. You are Judy; that is all we need to know about you. It is also true that almost every Judy I have spoken with at these dinners at some point says that she never really liked the name. So that, too, brings us together.

One of the Judys at my table is a dragon boat paddler; one has dogs and runs a dog daycare center; two play golf. None of these things brings us together, but one of the golfers, upon hearing that I also lived in Point Roberts, asked me whether I had seen wonderful exhibit at the Sechelt Art Centre last winter that had quilts of abandoned houses from Point Roberts. I got to say that ‘She who made those quilts was I,’ and it was as if we had been reintroduced to one another in an entirely different way because a different context. Overall, it was an inexplicably pleasant evening.

The evening did cause me to do a little internet research about names, though. Judy was a very popular name during the 20th Century for a brief period that shadows Judy Garland’s career. Perhaps, if gay men had more children, the name would have endured, but it is now in severe decline. B.C., which publishes yearly summaries of baby name/birth certificate records, reports at least five babies named Judy/Judith/Judie/Judi in only four of the last ten years. Even in those years, the number totals only 27 Judys. That’s not enough to continue a Judy Day tradition, I’m afraid. So we may have to hand the torch off to the Brooklyns (a name gaining in popularity in the past few years), or the Jordans/Jordyns (who account for 50 or so babies each year), or to the Nicoles, Ashleys, or Brittanys (all celebrity-generated names, I'd think). But we won’t be handing it off to the Emilys or the Emmas (the two names that have dominated the most popular list for the past decade): there isn’t a venue large enough to hold all of them.

And what about you and your name? You can check the B.C. popular names for babies list here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Park Right Here

N.B. Yesterday’s post noted that the Lily Point purchase had been completed by the Whatcom Land Trust. It should also be noted that private fund raising continues for this purchase. This is because the Land Trust was coming up against a deadline and used about $250,000 from its reserves to complete the purchase. However, the Trust needs to recoup this funding. And that is why private fund raising continues, including an event this weekend, April 26, at the Point (open to the public: meet at the cemetery at 10 a.m.). So it’s not only not too late to contribute to the future of the Point, but it is close to a real duty, in my view.

Lily Point is the new park, right at the southeast corner of Point Roberts. For unknown but aesthetically pleasing reasons, there is a park at each corner. At the northeast corner is Maple Beach, which has no maple. At the southwest corner is Lighthouse Park which has no lighthouse. And at the northwest corner, high up above the ocean, is Monument Park, which doesn’t have much park but does have a monument.

The monument was built, I am told, in 1861, while the U.S. was engaged in its very own civil war, so it was nice of them to take the time, to make the effort. I assume it was a follow-up to President Buchanan’s decision to hang on to Point Roberts as a military asset when the border was set at the 49th parallel (instead of the much more memorable ‘54-40 or fight’ that I learned in elementary school; apparently, no fight happened and the bottom half of Vancouver Island went away, too). It’s twenty feet high and undistinguished, but perhaps in 1861 it looked better. Perhaps in 1861, not much of anyone was looking. It is the first monument placed by the International Boundary Commission which is responsible for keeping clear a 6-meter space on each side of the U.S.-Canadian border.

The International Boundary Commission has managed to make news in recent years now that we have an administration unimpressed by International anythings. The Commission has a U.S. and a Canadian commissioner, each of whom is appointed by the appropriate country. However, it is not a Commission that is ‘owned’ by either country: it is an international commission. A few years ago, in connection with a suit about property on the border owned by an American, the Commissioners argued that the property owner could not build a fence right up to the border, because the 6-meter space is supposed to be kept clear and has always been kept clear.

The Bush Administration, displeased with this reasoning, then fired the American Commissioner and appointed someone else to replace him. The American Commissioner whom the administration was trying to replace pointed out that the treaty that created the International Boundary Commission permitted the two countries to appoint one Commissioner each or to fill a vacancy should it occur, but it did not permit either country to fire a commissioner once appointed. The administration appointed someone else anyway, the Canadian Commissioner said he didn’t have a dog in this fight, and the previous U.S. Commissioner maintains he is still the Commissioner. You can hear this whole story on This American Life, whose archives are located here. The relevant program is March 28, 2008, and is titled ‘The Audacity of Government.’

Point Roberts itself may be some kind of monument to the audacity of government, of course.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Free as Birds

Point Roberts doesn’t have its own airline company to make little flights here and there, which is something of a shame, I suppose, but if it did, then people would doubtless be needing to rush off here and there to get away from Point Roberts, and what would be the point of that? Even worse, if we had our own airline, we would be required to have the Transportation Security Administration showing us how to behave in and around airplanes, which clearly we do not need to have.

However, Point Roberts does have its own airport. This is what it looks like. It’s near, but not on, the ocean. It’s entirely made of grass (the grey in the foreground is a little patch of gravel). It’s in someone’s back yard. Well, that’s one way of saying it, but another way: it is someone’s back yard. The gentleman who owns the back yard and thus the airport, I am told on reasonably good authority, is a current or former Air Canada pilot. If you need to go to this airport in a car, you drive down his street and up his driveway and into his back yard where you can await the plane you are expecting or just admire the airport. If you are going to land at his airport, you fly over and see if anyone else is landing and, if no one is, then you can land there. It’s absolutely simple. Planes take off from there all the time; not constantly, all day long, but now and then, every week. You’ll be walking or driving and you hear a plane flying low and it’s either going up at a pretty steep angle, or descending very clearly, and you know that plane is going to or from the Point Roberts airport. I think of it as the ‘Pt. Roberts Airport,’ but maybe it’s really the ‘Mr. [former/current] Air Canada Pilot Airport.’

Ed, who is a recreational pilot and occasionally lands a helicopter on this airport, says there are lots of small, private airports like this in the U.S. I believe him, but I had never seen anything like it, never even imagined that there would be such an airstrip in the U.S., brought up as I have been on commercial airports.

The day I took this picture, there were four planes parked on the strip. I don’t know to whom they belong. Maybe nobody knows other than their actual owners. Ed left the helicopter he was flying there once overnight. I don’t suppose anybody knew he was the one who had left it there. People just come fly in there and leave their airplane and then they come back and fly away in their airplane. They talk to some air traffic control people somewhere around, I imagine, and I know they can’t go into Canada without doing some kind of customs clearing, but here on the Point these planes, these pilots, come and go as free as birds.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Here's to the Future!

As I’ve pointed out, I’m a relatively recent (1995) arrival to Point Roberts. I’d like to see my life out here, but that’s not always something one can be entirely in control of as one gets to the end of a long road. So maybe I will, but maybe I won’t. I can’t imagine that my kids will ever come to live here. They have lives that began in other places and will end in other places, I’m pretty sure. My grandchildren will never come to make their homes here on the Point, either. They all visit, now and then, of course, but the Point experience is essentially one that Ed and I have chosen to have for ourselves, and it will end, for our families, with us.

There are a lot of people here with a similar story. And that’s one reason that people may be hesitant to plan for the distant future of Point Roberts, unwilling even to imagine that future. It isn't a future that they will ever be in themselves, of course, but it isn’t even a future in which their descendants will participate. It’s a future for strangers. For example, we’ve put a lot of effort into re-creating our house and yard and even as that work goes on, I know that the person, the stranger, who comes to live here after we’re gone may not even bother to leave our work standing, let alone love it, admire it, and remember us as we created it. On the other hand, we have tried to keep some parts of the house that were the work of our predecessors, the Brennie’s, identified and recognized. It is the Brennie’s very ordinary chest of drawers that I refinished and painted all over with flowers that sits in our bedroom and I think of it as theirs, not mine, even though I have contributed to its new appearance.

Anyway, connecting ‘what came before’ with the ‘me-filled right now’ with the amorphous ‘what is to come’ is no small task. And I am even thinking about it at all today because I received this morning an announcement via email that the purchase of the main Lily Point parcel of land has been completed by the Whatcom Land Trust.

“The Associated Press. Bellingham, Wash. -- Whatcom County is getting a 90-acre shoreline preserve that was once slated for development. Whatcom Land Trust officials said Friday that Lily Point has been purchased from Welsh Developments Inc. for $3.5 million. The scenic area was appraised at more than $4.3 million. It's at the southeast corner of Point Roberts between Boundary Bay and the Straits of Georgia.
Half of the funds were provided in a grant from the state Fish and Wildlife Department's new estuary and salmon restoration program. Land Trust President Chris Moench says Lily Point may be the most culturally and ecologically rich undeveloped private shoreline in the greater Puget Sound area. It's being deeded to the county for use as a marine reserve and public park, with the trust retaining a conservation easement.”

Now, the Whatcom Land Trust is in the business of conservation for the future, so I am not going to congratulate them particularly for their thoughtfulness, although certainly for their good work in getting the total package together. But I do want to congratulate all the people on the Point who helped to make this happen: first, Michael Rosser and the Taxpayers’ Association for initiating the effort to raise money on the Point, The Point Roberts Conservation Society for keeping the ball rolling, and Samantha Scholefield for working on a last-minute effort to gather some additional funds. Second, and even more, all the people--Americans, Canadians, anonymous donors, named donors, big donors, little donors--who contributed money for a future reality that they will pretty much never know. We can appreciate Lily Point’s new situation today, of course, but its meaning to the community will be fully known only far away in a future, by definition, beyond us.

I hope the future remembers that we did it for them. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. It’s pretty much something we forget to do, too: to remember, to think about, and to thank all the people who came before us for thinking about what we might need in that future that they wouldn’t be in, and for providing it. We were their future. Thanks to them and, today, thanks to us, too.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Fix Isn't In

“We would fix it if we knew what was broken.” (Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Fix, 2005)

Wouldn’t we just! Some days the sense that something basic is really broken is absolutely overwhelming and, on those days, my concern is not so much just about Point Roberts. This week a document from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities came to my attention. The Center appears to be a perfectly reputable outfit, though inclined toward liberal academic types. The report has a few simple graphs that describe the way the federal budget is spent. I used to laugh at surveys showing that Americans were appalled by how much we spent on foreign aid. When asked approximately what percent of the federal budget was spent this way, they would estimate ten or fifteen percent, and then would say it should be more like five percent. Of course, it was nowhere near five percent, so in fact, they were endorsing more foreign aid rather than less.

But this budget breakdown made me feel as if I had been inducted into the sorority of the foreign aid foes. Start with this: What percentage of the federal budget goes to the benefit of those over the age of 65? 10%, 20%, 40%, more than 40%?

The big picture: 22% for defense including homeland security, 21% for social security, 21% for Medicare/Medicaid/Children’s Health, 9% for debt interest, 9% for the safety net (programs for the poor and unemployed, like food stamps, heating assistance, and unemployment), 6% for federal retirees and veterans’ benefits. Then there’s the rest of it, which would be the last 12% of the total.

Two things strike me most from this (and I’ve had to estimate some of the numbers but have tried to do it conservatively). Social Security: a program primarily for those over 65: 21%; Medicare and Medicaid, the first almost exclusively for those over the age of 65, the second, predominantly for those over 65 (poor elderly health care and nursing home care), maybe 16%; plus another 2 or 3% for federal retiree benefits, available to those over 65, plus maybe one percent of the safety net benefits. That’s 40%+ of the entire federal budget going to old people. I’m one of those old people. This makes absolutely no sense. It should make no sense to Republicans; it should make no sense to Democrats. We old people are terrific. We’re not that terrific. Most of the old people I know are going on cruises and lengthy tours of Europe and South America, eating at nice restaurants; they’ve worked hard and played by the rules and all that, but how is it that they as a group ought to be entitled to 40% of the federal budget?

Now it’s possible that old people indeed ought to be getting the amount of dollars that they are getting, but surely our very biggest priority in this country isn’t old people? Maybe others should be getting even more. What about education? What about kids getting college educations that don’t require giant student loans? When I was in college, school was virtually free if you went to a state institution. But we don’t fund state colleges like that anymore. We charge the students and tell them to take out loans. What about day care for the kids of all the working women who can't afford to stay home with their kids?

The second amazing thing about the budget graphs is what isn’t mentioned. There is a percent or two each for science, medical research, roads and transit, education, and foreign aid (1%), leaving 3% of the budget for everything else. The everything would include the costs of administering the justice system with all its courts and prisons and lawyers; whatever the Interior Department does, which would include the national parks and monuments; the cost of running the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Branches of government, much of the Agriculture Department’s work other than food foreign aid and food stamps—all those crop subsidies, e.g.; whatever part of the State Department that hasn’t been subsumed into the Defense Department. They do it on 3%? That’s administration!

Big numbers are very hard to comprehend, but percentages I can manage. And none of this makes sense, even without the question of whether we are spending too much on defense. Here’s where I found the numbers. See if you can do better. Something surely seems broken.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cheap, Fast, and Out of Control

That’s the title of a neat little movie by Errol Morris, but it doesn’t describe Point Roberts. How to describe Point Roberts? How about exotic, ordinary, and eccentric? The geographical location itself makes up much of the exotic quality. It’s just so strange to be outside one’s own country. Perhaps the Point should have been allowed to remain as a military reservation, whereby its geographical status would have been less of an issue: if not right in the U.S., it’s at least very close and the Navy could have shelled the peninsula for weapons practice. Perhaps it should have been made a Grand Duchy, like Luxembourg, or a Principality, like Monoco (which is 75 times bigger but has only 35 times as many residents) and everyone could have come here to be sophisticated or to gamble. But it isn’t any of those things. Wikipedia refers to it as “a practical exclave” (I’d have thought an impractical one) and a ‘small Census-designated place.’ Its exclave status, it says, is ‘similar to Alaska.’

When I am, say, in Bellingham, and I mention to a shop clerk that I am from Point Roberts, they smile and nod and say, “oh, yeah,” as if that explained everything. Somehow, I don’t think that saying I was from Blaine or Lynden would even begin to suggest an explanation for anything. You move to Blaine, you move to Lynden or to Bellingham: there’s a lot of reasons you would do that, reasons that have not much to do necessarily with those towns. But if you move to Point Roberts, it’s because you decided to go to Point Roberts and partake thereof of the exoticness and it marks you in some way.

Ordinary it also is, which is surprising in connection with its exoticness. I would think that exotic would require unusual, unlikely, rare, or something. But to see Point Roberts is, for the most part, to see an exercise in ordinariness. There’s really nothing special to see: houses are pretty straight-forward, no architecture to speak of (until very recently, alas, as pretentious, over-big, and too-big-for-the-lot have become more common), ocean full of water, land full of trees, beaches full of sand and rocks. There are boats in the marina but they don’t intrude much and they’re not all that big, as pleasure craft go. Its ordinariness is sort of like the ‘island that time forgot.’ Its ordinariness is soothing, pleasing; it does not stimulate the population (other than teenagers, perhaps) to long for more and different pleasures or stimuli. It says, ‘This is Enough!’

And, finally, Point Roberts is eccentric. It is possible that the exotic and ordinary qualities that are central to the Point draw out the eccentricity that is so abundantly evident here. But it may be that eccentrics are just drawn to the Point in the first place because of its exotic ordinariness. The eccentricity is demonstrated in lots of ways, but for the moment, I will focus on housing and personal style. The photos above are of two houses around the corner from me. Between these houses in reality is a house where the owner used to tether a goat on the roof of his shed.

Drewhenge appeared almost overnight. It wasn’t there and then it was. I have no idea who Mr. Drew (or Mr. Henge) is; I don’t think he has an airplane, despite the windsock. I’m pretty sure his gate was not architect-designed in any ordinary way and that he built it himself. I’m pretty sure it’s the only Drewhenge in the world. I love that it presents itself without explanation, and I love the perfectly ordinary house that stands inside the grounds of Drewhenge. Within the house may be other evidences of eccentricity. I hope I meet the Drews/Henges some day and find out more. But if I don’t, that’s OK too.

The other house I think of as ‘Wrapped Trailer with Iron Gate.” The owners of this place come here only in the summer and when they come, they unwrap the trailer; when they leave, they carefully wrap it back up again. There are many cottages and trailers here on the Point where people come only in the summer. This is the only wrapped residence I know of. The large iron gate provides a second level of eccentricity that is equally pleasing. It’s not as if you can’t walk on to this property anywhere along its perimeter except where is the gate. It’s a gated house as well as a wrapped trailer, but rather welcoming. I don’t know the residents, but I surely admire them. They have a fine sense of their own style.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Playing Catch-Up

Border Survey. Got an email message from the psychology professor conducting the border survey which (1) explains the question that particularly puzzled me (as to how knowledgeable the survey taker was about effective border policies); and (2) advises about the surveys’ soon-approaching deadline. Second things first: take the survey NOW because it will become ‘inactive’ on Monday (21st). I don’t know whether that’s the end of Monday or the beginning of Monday. Another reason to go over to it NOW. I went back and found it very rewarding to fill out.

First things second: Dr. Cvetkovich says that question is meant to assess “how people evaluate their own knowledge about what is happening regarding security at the border.” That definition makes the question much easier to answer.

Tsunami Warning Signs.
I toured around the Point to see if there were multiple tsunami warning road signs and indeed found a total of eight more such signs (and there may be more I missed, of course.). They are of two types: the first indicating a ‘tsunami evacuation route’ and the second indicating a ‘tsunami hazard area’ (in case of earthquake, go inland). Interestingly (and this will be meaningful only to those who know the Point’s geography and street names, alas), I found few signs near the south or west-facing beaches, which presumably would bare the major brunt of a tsunami wave. On South Beach, just off APA, there is one ‘hazard’ sign and a second hazard sign near Lighthouse Park on Marine. There may be signs on the beaches themselves but I did not see any. In addition, there is a ‘hazard’ sign on Tyee at APA heading south toward the marina and, for the east facing Maple Beach, there is a ‘hazard’ sign high up on the hill on Boundary, which would probably not be a hazard area because there is a distinctly steep incline at that point down to the water.

Tsunami evacuation routes are identified on Boundary heading south toward Benson and then no more markers. So after Benson, you are on your own. Marine Drive at Lighthouse Park is marked as an evacuation route up to Gulf and then right straight up Marine to Roosevelt. It's a little daunting when you come to the sign that says Roosevelt is closed because it would appear that you need to evacuate via Roosevelt, but you are eventually directed to McKenzie Road and then back out to Tyee. Along with Tyee itself, those are your major evacuation routes. This may have been brought to you as a public service, but it does seem to me that the signs might just as well have read:

In Case of Earthquake or Tsunami Report, Go to Canada!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Counting Border Policy Perceptions

I ran into an opportunity to participate in modern science today that may be of interest to those who live near the border. A psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham is conducting an internet survey (not very long) about our perceptions of border security policies. It’s a funny survey (as surveys almost invariably are. If only one could have a little conversation with the instrument designer to determine what exactly they have in mind when they ask me to assess, e.g., ‘how knowledgeable [am I] about what should be done for effective border security?’ I mean, if they are asking the public to respond to the survey, do they really think that there is some large group of people out there who are technically knowledgeable or who know whether they are knowledgeable or even agree about what constitutes “effective border security’? Do I know what to do to keep foreign lemons from coming into Point Roberts? Is not the prior question why would we want to keep foreign lemons from coming into Point Roberts?)

I think about asking these questions of Israelis, perhaps. How good a job are they doing keeping Palestinians out of Israel? I would guess the answer to that is pretty much based upon whether they are currently having experience in Israel with terrorism. And they are and years more experience has not shown much in the way of effective border control in their arena. But the more important question, perhaps, is what else are they doing as a result of their border policies besides sometimes keeping Palestinians who are interested in doing violence out of the country? You can be somewhat effective at one thing but, at the same time, be doing a whole lot of other harms by virtue of that effectiveness. Is the one worth the other? Isn’t that the more important question?

I guess our border policies are wonderfully effective at keeping terrorists out because there have been no terrorist incidents in recent years. At least that’s what George W says. But what else are those border policies achieving? And how do I know they’re being effective? How do I even know whether terrorists are trying to come across the borders? George says so? I don’t think so. He pretty much lacks credibility on this or any other topic. Maybe the terrorists have all gone to the tribal areas of Pakistan or to the central drama of gee-what/gwot in Iraq, and nobody at any of our borders has prevented anything, although they certainly have managed to irritate considerably a very large number of people. Oh, I know, they’re only doing it for my benefit. Why am I not feeling benefited?

Another question: Do we need more protection on the border? What more could we be doing? Something comparable to the Berlin Wall? All around the country? (Reagan would come back from his grave to say, "Tear Down that Wall, Mr. Bush.") I could go on but won’t. The survey puzzles me greatly. I cannot quite imagine how to answer most of the questions nor, if I and others could, what kinds of conclusions could be drawn. But, you may do better. You can describe your own unhappy experiences, but the problem is that if YOU are having an unhappy experience at the border, it may not have any effect whatsoever on keeping terrorists or illegal immigrants out, unless, of course, you fall into either of those categories. The border policy could be very effective, even though you are having bad experiences. You may just be what we like to call collateral damage, no?

I feel like we pay our dues to live in this country (especially today, April 15, when I have just been in touch with IRS). Somebody ought to care about what we think. Maybe the psychology professor has something going for him that I missed. Certainly he's more interested in our views than our local congressman. Go here and you can have a run at it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Community Council Stands Up for Inclusivity, Perhaps

The Provisional Community Council of Point Roberts held its second meeting (at least that I’ve been to) this past week. At the end of the previous meeting, you may recall, a decision was made to place an announcement in the local paper inviting any of the many groups on the Point to send a representative to the April meeting. The result was not impressive, alas, although a couple more people showed up. At the end of the second meeting, the decision had been made to write a letter to all the groups on the Point inviting them to send a representative to the next meeting of the Provisional etc. (Isn’t there a Provisional Council in Star Wars??? Readers, please enlighten; perhaps we could work it in.)

Which would seem to be no progress. But only seem, because actually writing a letter requires deciding who will receive a letter. And on this issue, there was genuine if not unanimous progress. As near as I can tell (and being there is all you get for proof), the decision was that, for a group to be eligible to send a representative, the group must be in Point Roberts, involve volunteer efforts, and the voluntary effort must be on behalf of the interests of the community. Thus, I was obliged to argue, the P.R. Quilters Group was eligible because we have made numerous quilts for the community itself or for local groups to raffle in an attempt to raise funds for community projects, but that the gentleman to my left’s poker group was not eligible because, although in Point Roberts and voluntary, NO apparent community benefit was involved in their game. A harsh move, but that’s the nature of politics, I suppose. He was still disputing this with me as we left, however, so his poker group may yet show up with a letter and a representative who I think will be him.

The second possible progress is not so clearly a step forward yet. The discussion stepped right up to and then danced away from the question of whether commercial interests—if sufficiently large—would have membership independent of the local Chamber of Commerce, which would otherwise represent all business interests. The commercial interests at issue would, I am guessing, include the real estate agents, the contractors’/developers’ association, the golf course, and the marina. This could still go either way (a big argument for inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness was made), but—and less clearly discussed—a feeling at least on my part that there was an awful lot of business interest potentially showing up at this table, as opposed to community interest, lingers.

Thus, the Walking Group, the Gardening Club, the Lutheran Church, the Historical Society, the Arts Foundation—all of whom meet the voluntary/community interest qualifications—will get letters. Similarly, the Chamber of Commerce participates in community activities. So, we will see to whom the letters actually will go and we will see who shows up next month.

As one long-time activist resident said to me on the way out the door, “When I take even a little step forward, that’s progress. I’m content with that.” I’d be willing to go farther than that, I think. If you don’t go backward, that’s progress. However, operating in this 'theory of democracy' territory seems strangely foreign to me. I think it is largely because this community council idea is not yet framed in any way for me to be either comfortable with the concept or deeply opposed to it. I am waiting, fairly patiently, to see what is the frame that emerges. And the second part of this hesitation is my firm belief that most of the people who live here permanently as well as part-time are genuinely estranged from this discussion we are having. As one Canadian neighbor said to me, “I love coming down the Point where I don’t have to be responsible for anything but my own house.” It’s the libertarian streak in all of us that can do us in.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Somewhat Better Point?

Recently, I implicitly (or perhaps explicitly, depending upon your level of sensitivity) chastised those who want to introduce new entities that will make this a somewhat better Point Roberts on the grounds that new things are likely to make it worse. However, I have spent the last few days trying to imagine things that might make it better without making it worse.

In 1975-76, I lived on Yap (a 25-square-mile Pacific island in the general vicinity of Guam and The Marianas Islands—a training program for living on the Point). I would always make a point of discussing with the Yapese who had been shipped off to the U.S. to obtain M.A.’s in city planning and were now returning to an island with no city and even less planning what they thought of the U.S. They liked it to a person, they were fully infected with freedom and democracy, although they were not all that enthusiastic about giving up the class system on their island that relegated the Outer Islanders to toilet cleaner status and did not permit their heads ever to be higher than a main island Yapese (thus effectively eliminating access to 2-story huts for the Outer Islanders who regularly came in for medical care and boat repair).

On the other hand, they were truly puzzled by the American fondness for their lawns and their lawn mowers. They did not understand why Americans even had lawns, first of all: what was the point? But beyond that, all those lawn mowers? One for each lawn when they were rarely used more than once a week? “Couldn’t they,” they would ask me, “share?” ”Apparently not,” was my reply.

From the Yapese, however, I bring two ideas for Point Roberts. One would be a community wood chipper that would be available to everyone who needed to dispose of the abundant tree trimmings brought to us by the winter wind storms. Surely it would be foolish, as the Yapese observed about lawn mowers, for everyone to have a chipper. And because everyone doesn’t, I suspect most people are burning their wood trimmings. Thus, a community chipper would be our small contribution not to increase carbon in the atmosphere each spring and fall. I haven’t worked out the details for this, but then that’s not my job. It does seem to me that this would benefit lots of Point residents in several ways (no burning to muck up even the close atmosphere, let alone the higher one) and lots of chipped wood to spread around all the gardens and property edges. It would be attractive, efficient, and low in cost (although not free, probably). And I can’t think of anything it would lead to. Feel free to tell me, though.

The second idea comes, sort of, from sending all those Yapese to the U.S. to learn city planning in the hopes they would I don’t know what. Their second career choice in the U.S. was anthropology which at least they could practice on their family members. But, the idea is education/certification, of a specific sort, sponsored by the Point itself.

What we need here is not city planners or anthropologists. What we need here is a plumber to take up the considerable demand that our one plumber, who already retired once, cannot meet. The contractors, I assume, have their own outside plumbers, or maybe they are the ones who are monopolizing our sole local plumber. He is a kind and decent man, but he is unlikely to return your phone call, in my experience as well as that of several friends.

So, here’s the deal. We could go three ways: (1) sponsor a local Canadian plumber to get a green card so he could live north of the border and work south of the border. Unfortunately (information here for those who do not live on the border), NAFTA has made the flow of goods excellent, but not the flow of workers. No Canadian without a green card can work in Point Roberts. Indeed, the folk wisdom here is that Canadian cottagers are not permitted to help you, say, rebuild your fence, even as a volunteer, as a neighborly gesture of good will because, I guess, that Canadian cottager is depriving some able-bodied U.S. worker from being paid to do the job, even though the able-bodied worker isn’t here and nobody is getting or ever will be getting paid.

(2) We could find some as-yet unmotivated, local 18-year-old and offer to finance his (or her) training in plumbing school. In exchange, he would agree to work in Point Roberts as a plumber for, say, 3 years, or repay the Point for his educational costs if he decides to move on instead.

(3) We could advertise for a plumber in the ROTUS and offer to give him free rent for X number of years while he builds up his plumbing practice here. Again, he would have to work for the residents, not the contractors, or else he would have to give up his free rent.

It’s hard to imagine that one more plumber on the Point would lead to an influx of plumbers, or of electricians, or indeed anything. And as the population ages, we are finding that the old folks who know how to repair everything around the house, are getting less willing to crawl down into the 12” crawl spaces that are such a feature of the houses here. And the generation behind them? They never knew how to do that stuff in the first place, is my impression.

So there you go: two ideas for change without blowback. I think.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Life Of Crime

Yesterday was a warm, sunny day, so I started it out with a little trespassing and then followed that up with some theft. It’s not every day that one feels like a little criminality, but there I was, strolling down the beach at Point Roberts with four rocks in my pocket and a ten-inch, scraggly piece of driftwood in my hand. For unknown reasons, Washington—unlike thoughtful places like California and B.C.—has decided that beach property owners own the land down to the low tide rather than the high tide. Fortunately, for the most part, people up here are tolerant of beach strollers but now and then somebody wants to be another kind of person.

There are five main beaches in Point Roberts: Maple Beach, which faces east across Boundary Bay to the rest of Washington and has a large public beach section; Lilly Point, which anchors the south-east corner; South Beach, which is all private; Freeman Beach which faces west and is private except for Lighthouse Park; and the private beach that then goes up to the border. If you are interested in a few pieces of driftwood, you are confined to searching on South Beach and on the west-facing beaches where the tide is heavy enough to wash such wood in. Which is to say, all private beaches.

Over time, I’ve brought a lot of driftwood back from the beach, as have all my neighbors: one needs only look around at all the fences formed from driftwood. But still, it’s apparently against the law. Some beaches are posted, but the signs are old and obviously not enforced and, indeed, it is a little hard to know just who is going to enforce the postings since the county sheriff’s office is not busy patrolling there. For no particular reason, I was up on Freeman Beach yesterday, a beach I haven’t violated for four or five years. This is mostly because I live near South Beach. But there I was, trespassing away, and noticing all the new construction there. Beach houses used to be modest little affairs up here, but the land boomlet of the last few years has brought us much bigger dwellings, although not quite McMansions, or at least not on the west-facing beaches.

And there I was, with my stolen goods, trespassing in front of a woefully over-sized house that featured brand new signs that, in effect, said “No Trespassing: I Own It All, Right Down to the Ocean, and You Don’t.’ So tacky, so unnecessary. There wasn’t a soul in sight on this beach other than me and not a sign of anybody at home in the house. Many of these beach houses are only part-time dwellings. The tide was very low and I restricted myself to near the water, but it made me wonder.

What kind of people move to a place like this to be so unneighborly, so ill-tempered, so rude? Yes, yes, we all know what the law of property is here. But who sits behind the need to post (not once, but twice, at each end of his 100 feet of frontage) one’s rejections of one’s mild-mannered neighbors? Probably, no one I’d want to know. Perhaps no one anybody would want to know. To be such a crank is one thing; to advertise it so clearly is something else again. It reminds me of people who buy Hummers, happily advertising to the rest of us their inner-13-year-old’s admiration for Arnold Schwartzenegger’s fantasy self. California friends tell me that even Arnold doesn’t want to be like Arnold any more.

But even more, I imagine this man, pacing his beach like Lear on the heath, raging at the high and heavy storm tide that is taking his rocks, his driftwood, his very sand away from him. ‘Damn you, Ocean,’ I imagine him saying. ‘Give it back! It’s mine, all mine!’ I hope I didn’t get his beach mussed up.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Border Is Your Friend?

Here is a contrarian view of the border: not a burden but a blessing. It might be my view, or at least partly my view. I’m thinking about it. You can think about it with me.

People do not usually come to Point Roberts from the ROTUS (rest of the U.S.) as a dramatic career move. Well, it might be a dramatic career move, but unless you have carefully worked out how it will work, the drama is not likely to be positive. Some people do, of course, come here with arrangements to maintain employment in various ways somewhere else, but not employment in Point Roberts itself unless you are the new head of the marina or the golf course. Such positions are very few in number here.

No, if you didn’t already start out as a member of a historic resident family, you most likely washed up here because you are at the tag end of a career or the absolute end of one, but still interested enough in life to value a remote place with trees and ocean and relatively easy access to a metropolitan area with all the things that metropolitan areas have. I obviously am not conducting surveys, but from my perspective, this would describe a lot of the folks around. The puzzling thing (not an original insight of mine, alas) is that once Americans get to such a remote, treed, oceaned place, they are liable to start thinking about how it could be a somewhat better remote, treed, oceaned place. It could have sewers, it could have more restaurants or coffee shops, it could have more art and more artists, it could have a gymnasium or a theater or a bakery, it could be the U.S.’s first wireless community (unless somebody else has already done that), it could have a more vibrant economy providing real jobs, it could have a community plan so that it could become, if not now at least in the future, something other than whatever it is now.

I get the endless yearning for remaking things that is apparently a core aspect of the American temperament, but I do have a couple of questions: isn’t it enough that the magnificent metropolitan area next door already has all those things (except for the wireless part)? And isn’t it likely that the introduction of most of those things will lead to the introduction of other things, including the law of unintended consequences, and all that entails? I think the quick response to this is that if we don’t plan change, change will come willy-nilly, which we would not want. And yet, and yet, is not willy-nilly exactly the change that has come to Point Roberts over the past century, bringing it to the state that made us want to move here?

Maybe, maybe not. If it wasn’t random change, was it possibly the presence of something else that makes Point Roberts unlike any other place in the ROTUS? Would that be the presence of an international border with Canada on the other side and no corresponding access to the ROTUS? Maybe it is the border that sustains the Point over time and ensures all its beauty and all its peculiarity and all its remote, treed, oceaned excellence. Maybe it is the border that gives rise to the qualities that made us want to be here.

I pretty much like Point Roberts the way that it is, but if it is the border that keeps it that way, maybe we have to lighten up on the criticism in that arena.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pandemic Problem?

Once in awhile, the outer world breaks into our peninsula kingdom without a king and one is forced either to respond or just to be amazed (or distraught). Today brings some kind of response/amazement/distress, I guess, to the news from ABC that the senior advisers to the President of the Excited States of America met in the White House in order to discuss exactly how to torture suspects in the poorly named ‘global war on terror’ (acronym GWOT: is this pronounced “gee what”?). It is hard enough to think that they would even be discussing torture, but in detail? Which techniques? How many times? I mean, are any of these people experts on this topic? Is that not what we have science and learned professions for? Ms. Rice is not the person I would first think of as being a useful advisor on the topic of torture, e.g. The experience of Dick Cheney certainly feels like torture, but I am not such a fool to think that it is the same as torture.

All this caused me to think back to 1972 and to the famous Nixon opening to China. Back in those days (and indeed still in these days) there is endless talk about the way in which China (or any other nation that the U.S. designates as retrograde and that we want something out of) will succumb to us once they see us in action, once they see our way of life. Interestingly, the metaphor that is almost invariably used when discussing this issue is that of disease. E.g., if China is opened up they will be exposed to democracy; they will catch freedom from our own love of freedom. It is not so much that they will want to imitate us or even that they will learn from our example as that they will inevitably be stricken with the same condition that we have been struck with.

Now, what occurs to me in the light of the aforementioned news is that perhaps this disease exposure is a two-way street. Of course, as a disease, it would inevitably be. Perhaps, over the past 30 plus years, it is not so much that the Chinese have caught democracy and freedom (which they apparently have not), but that Americans (or at least some Americans, and although they may be very bad apples, they are not the ones at the bottom of the barrel) have caught from China the acceptability of torture and the denial of human rights, while their ardent U.S. supporters have also caught the bug, at least as long as it is planned and approved by those in very high places.

If this is true, then I think we need to be more concerned about the two-way disease street we are facing everywhere. Particularly, as members of a border community, those of us in the peninsula kingdom without a king need to know what the Canadians are exposing us to? It certainly doesn’t seem to be universal health care.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Exit North

Point Roberts and Roberts Creek, B.C., both lie in an earthquake zone, although quakes don’t happen often and, since I’ve been here, there have been only one or two that could be actually felt. Nevertheless, earthquakes, in a coastal area, can give rise to tsunamis, so I suppose it is not surprising that there is a page in our B.C. phone book telling us what to do in case of a tsunami. (Don’t go to the beach, mostly.) We are located within view of the ocean but the Sunshine Coast is mostly on a slope up to the mountains so the prospect of a tsunami having any effect on us personally—with respect to waves crashing in upon us—is about zero, I believe. Point Roberts, by contrast is not just coastal but a peninsula, and it is not sloping up to a mountain, so a tsunami here might be more problematic.

Thus, I was not entirely surprised today to see a new Tsunami Warning sign on the main road. I doubt if Homeland Security is looking out for us on this front, so I can only imagine that the state of Washington decided it needed to post such signs all along the coast. I am also guessing that the overall plan at the state level was to give everybody the same kind of warning. I guess this because what our warning sign says is “Tsunami Evacuation Route” followed by an arrow pointing north, which would be the way to Canada and not to the ocean. Under five square miles, I am reminding you, is what we are working with here. Surrounded on three sides by water. And only one route that gets you off the peninsula. So, yes, I suppose that would be the evacuation route. But it is unlikely that anyone would try any other route because all the other roads lead to the ocean.

It does not really seem helpful. How, for example, will you know there is a tsunami coming so that you will drive to the evacuation route? Will you have to show your passport as you cross the border while you are evacuating? If you don’t have your passport with you at that moment, will they send you back to the tsunami? Will the Canadian border agents be concerned about whether you are bringing things into Canada…like alcohol or apples…that you shouldn’t be? Will you have to tell them how long you will be staying in Canada? And how long will you be staying in Canada? That's what we need to know.

Somebody drove up here from somewhere in the rest of Washington to bring us this sign. I wonder why or at least I wonder what they were thinking when they brought it?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Here Today, Here Tomorrow

I was having coffee with some locals today and someone commented upon how quickly groups on the Point disappear. There are always a lot of high hopes for one leader with one good idea: raising money for a lighthouse for Lighthouse Park, rebuilding the pier, restoring the cannery, whatever. Followed by a brief plateau and a quick decline. It may have to do with the fact that people know each other here in a way that makes them feel awfully free to criticize one another in a way that wouldn't happen in a more urban environment where you see less of one another. It isn’t like a family, really, but the criticism sometimes can feel as if it were. Or it may be that the leaders never want to give up their leadership. I don’t know.

The quilters group has been in existence here for over ten years, with a string of accomplishments, more still on their plates, and a large amount of good will toward one another and from the community. The group started by making a large ‘Community Quilt’ that is now in the entry way of the Community Center (which houses the library and several large meeting rooms). That quilt, which is based upon photos of old buildings in Point Roberts (some still here, but most, not), hangs behind Plexiglas and everyone who lives here has seen it, I'd guess. It has 12 large blocks plus a large center medallion, and each one of the quilters made one of the blocks, while three or four of them also worked on different parts of the medallion. The original group included a few people who knew how to sew but had never made a quilt, so starting with a large pictorial block was something of a challenge. It was impressive, however, the way everyone rose to the challenge and, even at the end, spirits were pretty high.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that 3 or 4 people washed out pretty soon after that experience and if it had not been for a few new people coming in, the quilting group might have stopped right there, despite all the success of finishing the Community Quilt. The group at the beginning had 12 members and a decade later still has about 12 members, but only eight of them were in that original group. People are a little fluid in their lives, as some people go away for the winter or the spring or the summer, but we keep on meeting, more or less the 12 apostlettes of quilting, sans leader.

Since that initial quilt was hung, we have made a large lighthouse-themed quilt that was raffled for the now-lost project to get a lighthouse in Lighthouse Park; we have made a large, traditional, geometric-patterned raffle quilt to raise money for the food bank; we have made a smaller ‘Boat Quilt’ that hangs in the local health clinic (open 3 days a week and staffed by a nurse practitioner); we contributed an outdoor quilt made of colored tarp pieces to the transfer station (where the recycles and other trash are transferred to somewhere else); we made a bird quilt for the elementary school, grades k-3; we made four large quilts of each of the Seasons in Pt. Roberts, all of which hang in the Lutheran Church’s great hall; and we are currently working on two quilts for the local library’s walls. We’ve had several shows here of our work, including one in conjunction with the Historical Society, one at a local art gallery, and one as part of a summer Art Walk. The Historical Socety took the images of the Community Quilt and had notecards made which, for a number of years, were sold at a local gift/craft store. We’ve made our mark here, but it hasn’t always been easy just because of our ease with one another, I think.

In the beginning, the two of us with the most experience were generally allowed to make serious decisions about what quilts would get made and how they were to be constructed. But over time, everybody else has developed the skills and experience that make us all peers in that respect. In this small place, when there is no obvious task before a newly formed group, it’s not really enough to have leaders and a good idea; there have to be enough followers to make the group work. For long-term survival, though, the followers have to stay with the work. Then one day you look around and it’s a group of leaders. And you’ve been doing whatever you’ve been doing for a decade and are the best of friends and are perhaps a little too free with your criticism.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Someone Else Has Mail

You may not be able to buy anything much in Point Roberts, but you certainly can buy it somewhere else and have it sent to you. You can have it sent to the post office or you can have it sent to one of two private mail services that are here. Today, I journeyed over to the regular post office to mail a package and then made an additional stop at one of the private mail services where I used to have a mail box because a friend sent a package there, not realizing our address had changed several years ago. Sure enough, when they looked at their shelves, there was a package for me. Unfortunately, it was not the package from my friend. Instead, it was a package my sister sent me three months ago. The mail service gets packages, but its job is not to see that you get packages. That package would be there three years from now, even three decades from now, I guess, if I had not inquired about a different package. (I don’t know where the friend’s package is: not here yet, I guess.)

It seems to me that, in the city, if a package came and a private mail service was unacquainted with the person to whom it was addressed, the mail service would return it to the sender. But it doesn’t work that way here. Part of the reason is that, because of the weak U.S. dollar, Canadians buy lots of good from the U.S., have them shipped to the private mail services on the Point as if it were General Delivery, and then drive down to pick the packages up when they arrive, which they know from the UPS tracking numbers. The private mail service charges $2.25/package for this convenience, and they charge it whether or not you have a mail box there. It is not unusual to see people opening their packages and then putting on their new clothes for the drive back across the border in order to avoid paying the Canadian tax that would be charged if the border people knew they were bringing back new goods from the U.S.

The private mail service people have become pretty crowded in the past year what with all the Canadians coming down to obtain their goods. The public post office doesn’t have quite the same clientele, although plenty of Canadians have postal boxes there for the same purpose. What the post office has that distinguishes it from the private mail places is Canadian bulk mailers. Since it costs much more to mail a package from Canada to the U.S., pretty much any mail order business in the lower half of Greater Vancouver can save money by driving their packages down to Point Roberts to mail.

I enter the local post office, a small place with only two clerks on the busiest days, with trepidation if I have to mail anything more than a regular letter or postcard. This is because if I go to the clerks, the line almost inevitably includes one or more bulk mailers with anywhere from 15 to 50 packages to be individually weighed and stamped. They never say, ‘Oh, you go ahead of me since you just have one package.” It’s a long wait with very little reading material handy.

All of us residents think the bulk mailers should have their own line or be limited to specific times (during which the rest of us will all stay away), but the USPO thinks differently. My heart sank today at the sight of only one clerk and (only) one bulk mailer plus 3 regular users in line ahead of me. Happily, Lisa came back from lunch and rescued the regulars in line.

Nevertheless, it puzzles me that a public agency, the USPO in this case, makes so little effort to deal with such an obvious problem that is a constant irritation to its local patrons, especially in such a very small community. A community where you’d think that community would mean that it would be different.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Penny for the Pot

Canada, like the U.S., has a penny problem. Increasingly, in Canadian stores, either the costs are just rounded up when you get change (if you offer a $2 piece for a $1.87 purchase, you get 10 cents change) or a dish of pennies sits on the counter for you either to take from or add to. As in the U.S., there is agitation to end pennies (which now cost about 2 cents to make). According to a recent New Yorker article (March 31, p. 60), a Canadian credit union group has published a report encouraging the elimination of pennies as well as nickels. Noting that the Americans are having trouble letting go, the report warns that “Canada does not have to follow [the U.S.] example” because the U.S. is a very conservative society, as evidenced by its refusal to adopt the metric system and its insistence on having a one dollar bill.

I’m generally surprised when the Canadians offer what seems to me an unfair criticism of the U.S., because there seem to be so many fair ones. But here I must take issue with the credit unions, although not about the metric system. I have more or less learned to deal with it in the past two decades, but I would note that every grocery stores in Canada that I’ve been in posts all meat and produce prices in metric AND what I think of as real weight measures, suggesting an attachment to the old that the credit union group has not noticed. Granted, the highway signs are all metric except at the border, where they encourage Americans slipping northward to try to keep in mind that 80 kph is the same as 48 mph. This is clearly advice only for the mathematically adept since it doesn’t offer any other equivalencies nor a conversion factor for easy use.

But the dollar bill thing is another matter. It is true that Canada has no paper dollar and, during my time here, it gave up on its two dollar bill. However, the U.S. lost its two dollar bill long ago, and it has been entirely unsuccessful in launching a one dollar coin and has not even contemplated a $2 coin. Canada has both, a fact that is ever present when you pick up your purse. Failing to give up the one dollar bill is not anywhere near as unfortunate a move (conservative or otherwise) as choosing to inflict large and relatively heavy one and two dollar coins on one’s citizens.

In Canada, the little coins (nickel, dime, and quarter) all look pretty much alike in terms of format, although they differ in size, as do the U.S. ones. However, I can never tell whether I have a nickel or a quarter in my hand when I glance at change, unless there is one of each close to each other and thus I can discriminate between their sizes. A nickel has a beaver on it and a quarter has the fabulous Queen E upon it (and there are new quarters that have a wide range of pictures of I do not much know what), but you don’t see the pictures so much as you see the similar style of engraving. This means that when shopping in Canada, I am always handing the clerk a handful of change hoping she can make some sense of it before the people behind me get too restless. It is part of being a permanent tourist and a little old lady.

The tiresome dollar and two dollar coins are something else altogether. The one dollar is kind of gold colored and features a loon. It is called a loonie. My sister was struck speechless once when visiting me in Canada and, out on her own, was accosted by a native who asked her, “Do you have change for a loonie?” The original two dollar coin had a polar bear on it and featured a ring of silver and a ring of gold. Now there are variant pictures for it, as well. Before the two dollar coin came out, there was considerable to-do about what it was to be called. A dubloonie? Or, a toonie? Toonie won out. What can I say?

Canadians may not be conservative but in this case they are just not sensible, is my view. And my wallet bears witness to that. Especially chosen to provide me—as a two country roamer--with four separate pockets for paper bills and two separate pockets for coins, it needs a heavy duty rubber band to keep it closed and a firm grip to keep it from plunging to the ground whenever I pick it up. Filled with way too many loonies and toonies, and way too few Canadian one dollar bills.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

We're All in It Together, Sort Of

It is hard to know how to speak about Pt. Roberts as an existential phenomenon. It isn’t a small town; it isn’t a village; it isn’t a little resort community. I am pretty much unable to come up with a word or two that captures that particular aspect of a place where people live. It’s maybe a small community. If that is what it is, then presumably a commitment to community values or even communitarian values might be demonstrated by the residents.

Of course, that is not entirely true of the residents here, or it is true, perhaps, but not in the same way. There are some people who have an historical connection with the place: they, their parents, maybe their grandparents were born here. For them, their sense of the Point is bound up with the geography and their families’ involvement in shaping the place. Everybody knows them or at least their names, and they are participants in the community in a special way.

Others, especially Canadian cottagers, have been spending vacations here with family members for generations, and it is that family history that is important to them, rather than a commitment to the larger community, although they may have some more traditional sense of community with a particular area of the Point (e.g., one of the neighborhoods, like Maple Beach, or Freeman Beach, or Bells’ Grove). If their permanent Canadian residence is nearby, they might have a toe in community activities.

There’s an odd lot (odd not because strange but because as individuals they don’t seem similar enough to fit in a single category) of residents who often have young children and don’t fit in any of the categories above. They seem to me to be people who have chosen to come here in considerable part because they wanted to try to live in a place like this. It’s not because of a job, or family connections, or family history, or a need for someplace to keep a boat, or general enthusiasm for living at the beach or in the woods. If this were 1967-70, I would recognize this group more clearly. But they are a younger lot and they are mysterious to me. If they have children, they are deeply interested in school issues, of course. But they are also likely to be involved in groups/issues that stress the nature of the community, or try to influence it in some way.

A big chunk of the permanent residents are, like me, recent arrivals from some city or another where community was not a big feature, or indeed any feature. I lived on a street in the L.A. suburbs for years without knowing the people around me. Indeed with no noticeable desire to know any of them. This group may find the idea of community appealing, but not be anxious to get involved with people they do not know. They may well be a little leery or unsure of what community requires of them. I feel that way a lot. What is my responsibility to belong to community groups? To attend community events? To bring community to the community? I’m totally unclear on this.

This came to my attention today because it was the first spring-like weekend of the year and, at the grocery store, the Garden Club and the Dollars for Scholars Group had both set up card tables outdoors to urge us to, I guess, be community participants. The Garden Club was selling bulbs and the Dollars for Scholars Group was selling tickets for a fund-raising dinner. The Garden Club is part social group but it also runs a Garden Tour Project in the summer and last fall carried out extensive bulb plantings on the easement of the main road. The Dollars group ensures that every high school graduate from the Point who goes on to college gets a cash grant.

These are good things. In fact, I belong to the Garden Club (which is to say I pay my dues), but I have never been to a meeting. However, I don’t really need any bulbs. Also low on my preferences is going to a dinner that will require me to eat with strangers in a large room with dubious acoustics so that I will not be able to hear what they say. In Los Angeles, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment on this question. But I live in a community now and thus everything is or might be different. I think. In any case, one day soon, I will be the owner of a half dozen pricey lily bulbs that have a high probability of never blooming in my very shady garden. Furthermore, I would have been going to that dinner until I realized that I could just give them the price of admission but promise I wouldn’t come. Alas, neither solution quite satisfactory. If only the Volunteer Fire Department had had a table soliciting new members. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn't have wanted me to become a volunteer fireman.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Burn, Babies, Burn!

Today, we did our bit for global warming. Normally, we try to keep a pretty small footprint: we don’t drive much, our thermostats are set at 65 degrees, we wear sweaters year round, our light bulbs are the efficient kind, etc. But twice a year, we go all out to do our part. These are the slightly rainy days when we set afire all the debris that has gathered in the garden over the past 6 months.

In the rural part of the U.S., burning garden stuff (but not garbage or construction materials) is still fairly common in my experience. Unfortunately, the stuff you are burning is pretty damp and sometimes, as it was today, it is downright wet. However, if you waited until it was dry, you would have entered the period when you aren’t allowed to do backyard burning. So, wet it has to be.

Here in Point Roberts, you are required to buy a permit (sold at the local hardward store) for $3. The state wants to know when you are burning and it wants to make sure that you aren’t doing it when you shouldn’t be; thus, the permit requirement. You are expected to post your permit and it is good for two consecutive days. Our next door neighbor, newly moved to the Point, seems not to know about this because he has been burning daily over the past week with no permit posted. But, then, how would a newcomer know the rules? I suppose I ought to tell him, but it does seem less than a kindly or helpful conversation: “Oh, Sam, did you know that you are burning without a permit?” There must be a way to put it that doesn’t sound like you are just telling him that he is breaking the rules of the game. It would be easier if I actually knew him, but I don’t, except to know his name.

In any case, we burned today in part because the grandchildren are visiting. We try to schedule a burn whenever any of them are visiting because they all seem to have a streak of arsonist in them and will work almost non-stop to drag wood and push wheelbarrows full of leaves around the yard if at the end they’re allowed to set it all on fire. I can never decide whether we are encouraging their arsonist tendencies with this activity or letting the tendency work itself out. I hope it is the latter, but time will tell.

I am not, myself, such a fan of the burning because it creates so much smoke. My step-daughter assures me that much of it is steam from the dampness of it all. I also worry about the global warming aspect of releasing all that carbon. My son points out that burning is just a speedier method of carbonization that’s going to happen anyway with all that rotting wood. It goes up now or it goes up later, but up it is going to go, he says. And I don’t seem to have that arsonist yearning, although maybe the years of watching it happen have just worked it out of me.

Maybe our neighbor hasn’t worked the arson thing out yet and is trying to do so with the daily burning. Will a permit help or hinder him? Maybe I could just send him an anonymous note and let him figure it out?