hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Modern Commerce

We are not big restaurant goers; it’s a generational thing, I’d guess. But, I do tend to feel—as my parents felt about Chinese restaurants—that having a local Thai restaurant is another one of life’s inalienable rights: as in, ‘life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and a good, local Thai restaurant.’ Canadians may not feel that way so much because they may have had fewer Thais come to Canada after the Vietnam experience than came to the U.S. Or maybe Canadians just don’t feel they have an inalienable right to Thai food, given their more moderate national self-concept.

In any case, here on the southern end of the Sunshine Coast, we had no Thai restaurant until relatively recently. We had been meaning to go there for several months, but just didn’t get around to it. But the other night, after a long day of gardening and wall building, we decided to eat Thai. The restaurant is billed as ‘eat-in/take-out,’ and I thought a Thursday night shouldn’t be too busy, so off we went about 7 p.m. for a little Pad Thai. (Part of my relationship with Thai food is to try everybody’s Pad Thai; I eat other things, too, but that’s the starter for a Thai restaurant. If they can’t make great Pad Thai, they aren’t a Thai restaurant, in my view. I have eaten in Thailand, and it was the best food I’ve ever had while traveling, for day-in, day-out, indoor/street stall food. Which is to say, I really like Thai food, and I’m not much at cooking it myself.)

We pull up to a large parking lot with 3 cars that I thought might belong to the staff. Very slow night? Or a very bad sign about the Pad Thai? We enter though a door that has a big OPEN sign, only to find that the ‘eat-in’ option is actually a hallway with three tiny tables overlooking the parking lot. Each table is decorated with three chairs, and nobody is sitting at any of them. At the counter, a 20-something dude—the only person in sight other than us--looked at us as if we were going to ask him to help us change a tire.

‘Uh, uh….take out?’ he finally offered.
‘No, we'll eat-in,’ I said.
‘Well, the thing is,’ his turn, ‘we’re actually kind of busy tonight.’
‘Really?’ my turn, ‘You actually don’t look very busy.’
‘Well, yeah, but we’re busy with the take out. We have to make a lot of take-out tonight. The thing is, because of the take-out we couldn’t get any food for you until, oh, maybe 8:15’ (an hour from that moment).
‘The sign says OPEN, but you are actually not open, is that right?’
‘No, we’re open, but we’re really busy, so we can’t get food served.’
‘You’re a restaurant that can’t serve food, right?’
‘No, we’re just really busy, but yeah, we can’t serve any food right now.’
‘Is it like this all the time?’ inquired Ed.
‘Not usually, not usually, no, no’ stuttered the counter guy.
‘Look,’ I began a whole new topic for this guy. ‘We’re not going to stay and look at your parking lot for an hour so we can eat Thai food, OK?’
‘Right,’ said the counter guy.

So we drove off for some ordinary fish and chips plus a portabello burger (this is the Sunshine Coast, after all). I doubt that the Pad Thai was worth eating. I even doubt that they were cooking take-out back in the kitchen. But I really don’t want to know what they were actually doing.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Enhancing Canadian Healthcare

When you come to a second country late in life, there’s always more to learn and everything you think you know is probably not quite right. Canadian healthcare, for example. I spent a couple of decades working in U.S. healthcare (as an academic, not as a clinician), and the comparison point was often Canadian healthcare, so I came to Canada thinking I understood it pretty well. And the irony of the fact that I couldn’t actually emigrate to Canada was because of Canadian healthcare was definitely not lost on me. But I’ve used Canadian health services and I know a few doctors and nurses who are Canadian practitioners so I thought I sort of understood it as well as a foreigner is likely to.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to receive a brochure in my Canadian mailbox the other day urging me to buy a healthcare insurance policy from something called Pacific Blue Cross. It pointed out that ‘the time to obtain health coverage is before unexpected medical expenses occur,’ and further inquired: ‘Shouldn’t we be more concerned with our health?’ I have no easy answer for that latter question, but I was surprised to think that Canadians needed to buy health insurance, other than for travel to other countries, which the Canadians I know routinely do buy. In fact, other than travel medical insurance, I was surprised to find that anybody was even selling healthcare insurance to Canadians.

But they are because, although Canadians all receive healthcare through their provincial medical plans, the provincial program (as Pacific Blue Cross points out on its web site) covers only basic things like physician visits and hospital care. Only? Basic? Aha, I said to myself. That’s what happens when you have national health insurance. People start longing for other kinds of things to be paid for by the unknown someone elses that constitute insurance pools.

What Pacific Blue Cross is offering is coverage for those ‘other ‘ things, including ‘essential and enhanced dental care.’ Enhanced dental care would be what? Apparently non-essential dental care. Including ‘vision care, physiotherapy and massage therapy, chiropractor, accidental death or dismemberment, hearing aids, hospital daily cash, emergency ambulance, prescription drugs, and out of country travel insurance.'’ Now, the standard healthcare system covers some of those things in the course of ‘medical necessity.’ For example, annual vision exams are covered for older people, but not for everybody else because there is no evidence that doing so would improve healthcare outcomes and thus they are not medically necessary.

Other things, I wasn’t so clear about, so I inquired of Canadians. It turns out that one problem they see in their healthcare is that the provincial plans actually differ as to what is covered beyond those basic doctor visits and hospital stays. Thus, I am told, an emergency ambulance might cost $50 in one province and $100 in another, but if you are in a province other than your own residence when you need an ambulance, it might cost you instead $500 (the solution to this, of course is either enhanced insurance or staying home). Some provinces may cover some kinds of physiotherapy, others may not. Prescription drugs are cheaper than in the U.S., but Canadians still pay for them, whatever their cost, and they can be very expensive in some cases. (In fact, around 2/3 of Pacific Blue Cross’ payout is for prescription drugs.) Dental care is not part of national health care at all. Further, if you are covered at one level by one province and you move to another province, your coverage changes. Finally, people whose participation in national healthcare is ensured through their employer may have different levels of coverage beyond the basic program, depending upon what the employer is offering as the enhancement package from an insurer like Pacific Blue Cross. By contrast, people who obtain their participation in national healthcare individually because they are not employed receive only the ‘basic level,’ for which they pay a relatively small quarterly payment. One person I asked who received care in this way couldn’t remember how much she paid quarterly, so it can’t be too much.

So that’s today’s education for me on Canadian healthcare. The ‘hospital daily cash’ I’m still not clear on (although Ed refers to it as ‘hospital walking around money,’ in tribute to the U.S. political season), and the ‘accidental death or dismemberment’ as a function of healthcare services entirely escapes me. At least I am pretty certain that if one is accidentally dead or dismembered, it is definitely too late to ‘be more concerned with [one’s] health.’

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Get a Yurt!

Today, I went up the Sunshine Coast to visit an acquaintance who has set up a new business venture that involves half a dozen yurts and the hopes of a lot of people moving in and out of her establishment. I heard her describe the project a year or so ago when it was very much in the planning stage, but this is the first time I have seen it actually in the flesh, so to speak. I’d heard of yurts before she told me what she was planning, but I hadn’t heard of (or seen) them in the sense she was speaking of them. Yurts with Mongolian residents in various desert areas of Mongolia is what I would have had in mind. Obviously, she had some other idea.

What she and her husband have created are the housing and plans for a fibre arts studio that also provides workshops and gallery exhibitions. The next job is to get the people to come for both and they have made a very impressive start with gallery shows and workshops of many sorts planned for many months ahead. The yurts are stunning. Well, from the outside, they look kind of like what you’d see in Mongolia, I suppose, but on the inside, the space is quite lovely. Three of the yurts are 28-feet in diameter (615 square feet each): one a studio where she does her own work, one a gallery-exhibition space, and one a workshop space. All have electricity, radiantly-heated floors, light domes and windows, beautiful curved walls that feel good. The workshop has water. Two smaller bathroom-yurts are included, plus a 20-foot office and maybe another yurt whose purpose I’ve lost track of. All very nicely carried off. I can only wish them well.

This seems to be one of the things some people can do in this world in which one career finishes before retirement and old age actually start. People have these dreams of becoming vintners, or running a bed-and-breakfast or an art gallery or whatever it is that can help them, I think, to believe once again that work is not only an honest activity but one that can be fully and personally rewarding beyond issues of money, but only if one is largely independent of bosses, bureaucracies, corporations, and the like.

We live in the age of globalization, they’re always telling us, but I think we live more and more in the age of unknown forces that create conditions that drive us all at least a little crazy. Think of Jessica Yellin in the news today saying that the executives in the news media made it clear that the reporters were not to challenge the Bush administration’s war in Iraq back in 2002 and 2003. No, she says, in her second assay at this story. They didn’t say it directly; it was just obvious from their attitude, from their behavior.

We are all of us way too much controlled by these odd forces from above and without who want something of us without saying it exactly: want us to go shopping, want us to go on vacation, want us to just let them do whatever they are doing—in essence, want us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Point Roberts and the Sunshine Coast are both, to varying degrees, replete with people who are hoping for a different kind of life than the one they had before they got here. Putting up a yurt is a very nice start.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fixing Fixable Things

This could be an installment of ‘How to Fix Things,’ except somebody else would have to write it. I don’t know how to fix much of anything that isn’t made either of edible things or of some kind of fiber/fabric. When I was growing up, the fix-it department was manned by the guys in the family, and the dad taught the sons what to do, and the sons grew up and worked construction in the summers, and then after high school went to work building or fixing things or maybe went to engineering school to learn how to fix more complex things.

Nowadays, however, that kind of education seems to have gone by the way. You might have had the foresight to have married an engineer or a dad-educated fixer, but more and more, nobody seems to know how to fix anything. (If you have access to a recently educated engineer, of course, they’re good with computers.) Fortunately, our household has a resident fixing person (both things and computers) and today he has been working on replacing the log retaining wall, which has as a matter of course in the wet Northwest pretty much rotted out over the past two decades. What interested me most about this is that, after he dug a trench and laid a carefully-leveled gravel base for the new cement blocks, he disappeared to the local equipment rental place to rent a gravel compactor. Who even knew there was such a thing as a gravel compactor to be rented? Or that gravel couldn’t pretty much compact itself. It’s a small, vacuum cleaner-like (in looks--bur probably only to me) device that vibrates a lot to move itself along and makes a lot of noise and, presumably, compacts a storm up underneath itself.

The next thing you know, there’ll be a new wall there. But what are we going to do in this world where that kind of knowledge is rapidly disappearing in many households? Point Roberts was noticeably filled with people who knew how to fix and build things around the house when we first moved there, but the many new and younger people who have recently moved in may be less handy in that respect as a matter of generational change.

A friend who lives in a real town told me about her roofer’s story: business was going so well that he had a whole crew of roofers, rather than just him and a couple of guys; then he got a second crew of roofers, and a third; and then, after that, he expanded again by getting a crew of handymen. People who need their roofs fixed also need a lot of other things fixed, it turns out. Imagine that: a business that sends out all-purpose, household handymen to respond to household needs. Awhile back, Point Roberts got its first house cleaning company, and now the person who began that is starting an elder home-care service. Maybe next she could organize roving crews of handymen with gravel compactors at their beck and call!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Volunteer Rules

My daughter is a volunteer Girl Scout Troop leader. She says that the G.S. Council doesn’t have a lot of rules for the volunteers, but the one they really impress upon them is that they are NEVER to talk to the press. If something happens, let the Girl Scout Council’s media person talk to the press. Seems like an interesting rule, but its importance was made apparent to me last night when I was alerted to the fact that there was an article about the Point Roberts Community Council in the Bellingham Herald.

The Herald is the daily paper in Bellingham, the seat of Whatcom County, the county that houses Point Roberts and administers most of such governance as we get. Well, a little publicity never hurt anybody, right? Except, the front-page (on the Net, anyway) article focused on the idea that Point Roberts is very distressed by the nature of its relationship to the county and the residents are talking about seceding from the county, the state, the world, maybe, and that the Community Council is a venue for discussing this, maybe making it happen. The article was accompanied, at the time I read it, by 26 comments, most of which felt that selling us to Canada would be the best thing that could happen to Whatcom County and that we were a community of whiners and foreigners, so who cared what we thought or what happened to us.

Ah, I thought, that article is definitely not accurate and certainly not helpful. And it was even more not helpful that the only two people from Point Roberts who had been interviewed for the story were people involved in the formation of the Community Council, with the vague implication that they were speaking on behalf of the Council and endorsing secession. If only the Point Roberts Community Council were as smart as the Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Girl Scouts Council we’d have had a rule that prohibited any of us from talking to the press.

Perhaps we should tell the Herald that the only act the P.R. Community Council has so far set in motion is to redesign, rebuild, and landscape the Community Events sign. Surely not the act of a lot of secessionist hotheads? Or maybe that’s where hotheads do start if they don’t have Fort Sumter to work with? I’m invoking the rule for myself: no volunteers speaking to the press on behalf of the Community Council. But there's a lot of talking among ourselves about the article: unhappily, it was, last night, the #1 'most emailed article' in the Herald.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Connecting Threads

The picture is of 1600 yards of hand-dyed Tencel embroidery thread, work that has occupied me for the past couple of days. Absolutely shimmery! Now, to other work.

The radio is filled today with talk of war and peace, of dead soldiers and remembrance, it being Memorial Day and all that. Memorial Day belongs first of all to the Civil War, a war in which the state of Washington definitely did not participate as a state. It was organized as a territory in the 1850’s, but was not admitted to the United States until 1889. I think, because that is typical of most of the western states, the Civil War has very little purchase here. I know that in the South, for many people, it’s not forgotten because it’s not over. But for many of us out here, it never exactly even started, at least once they and we got here.

My maternal great-grandfather left his Illinois home as a 14-year-old in 1862 and joined the Union Army. He ended up with little glory, I suspect, in Andersonville Prison which, obviously, he managed to survive, a testament to the strength of youth. After the war, he moved west, to Utah, where he found a happier career as a copper miner and, eventually as the mayor of Park City, Utah. My great- grandmother’s Virginia-born father fought for the South and at the end of the war, he and his family moved to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where he worked as a freighter. One of the grandchildren of this Southern soldier and this Northern soldier was my mother, and I guess the Civil War ended for them there, if it hadn’t actually ended a lot sooner by their decision to move West.

The West is where you went to get away from the problems of the East and the problems of farming in the Mid-West. The West is where you went to get away, period. So here we all are, out here, away, but with no further West to go to now, and back in the middle of some new Civil War, although we might perhaps better think of it as the Uncivil War. The Internet permits and even encourages a lot of incivility. It’s better than guns, though. Nevertheless, it’s hard to be generous in a period in which the coin of the realm seems to be who is patriotic enough, who stands in the right position for the national anthem, whose hands are where for the Pledge of Allegiance with its deist demand, whose lapel sports which pin. In a time when we cannot seem to find little discussion of or even a modicum of agreement about what constitutes the national interest, it’s hard to think well of the country, or at least of the country’s people. Nobody argues that earmarks, or farm subsidies for wealthy farmers who aren’t farming anymore are in the national interest, at least.

Oh, well, better to think today of all the war dead in all those endless wars, and of the thousands (some 300+ thousand already) of injured military men and women in our current wars. Sorry for their (and our) troubles, as my Irish-born great-grandfather’s family (the parents of the Andersonville survivor) would have said, and sorry for a lot else besides.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Barely There

This morning, Ed set out to dismantle the decaying logs that make up the retaining wall in our front yard in order to replace them with a more permanent kind of retaining wall (that would be concrete blocks), while I took to the dye pots to turn hundreds of yards of tencel thread into variegated embroidery thread. Tencel is made from wood, like rayon, and has a wonderful sheen that really shows up beautifully on fabric, but I’ve never found a commercial source for it so am obliged to dye it myself, a fairly labor intensive activity. By three, we were ready for a coffee break with fresh cheese bread stuffed with ham. Sitting on our front porch on a day that had all the markings of early summer, I could not but think, ‘This Is the Life!’

Then, out of the corner of my eye, about 10 feet away but behind a bush, I saw a black dog coming out from under the carport. Once it got past the bush, I realized I was looking not at a dog but at a mid-sized bear, not as tall as me but outweighing me significantly. He was ambling along at a casual pace coming out to the driveway. He had the teeny eyes, that long bear-jaw grin, and a ratty patch on his left hind quarters reminiscent of a moulting buffalo. Clearly, this was last year’s abandoned young bear, now grown to late adolescent size.

‘Ed, there’s a bear.”
‘Where’s a bear?’
‘Just to your right.’

At about that moment, both Ed and the bear became acutely aware of one another. My first thought was, ‘Oh, dear; I am eating a ham sandwich, a sandwich that the bear is going to want.’ The bear’s first thought was apparently not about the ham sandwich but more about his sudden realization that two people lurking on their front porch were watching him, and he altered his pace from the shambling walk I had first seen to a much more sprightly trot as he turned left and proceeded to head for the open fields, but directly in front of us: maybe 15 feet away. Then he moved into a full bear run as he got past us and into and past the open field, and thence to the woods. Ed went after him but saw him no more.

We don’t see them very often, but when we do, I am always afraid first thing. I know that more people are injured by deer than by black bears, but I’m never afraid of the deer that pass by me as closely as did the bear. I know that the bear are more afraid of me than I am of them. But still, reason takes a back seat to the fear of bears. If Walt Disney had made a movie in the 1940’s about bears that was as heart-wrenching as Bambi was, maybe I’d feel differently. Instead, I grew up near Yellowstone National Park and each spring heard both my father’s and the park rangers’ endless lectures about how dangerous bears are. The head has a tough job when the heart has been reached, I guess.

This bear’s mother was killed a year or so ago, and he has been raising himself. I’m glad to see that he has learned to be afraid of us, as other neighbors had been concerned that we was too easy around people, spending too much time on house decks. Too easy around people, for a bear, means capture and removal or, more likely, death. He was at least getting out of our way once he heard us, even if he just walked past our kitchen door first. Good Bear!

Friday, May 23, 2008

The A Team

This morning I went outside early and found this slug checking out the compost bin. Here it is in all its glory: 7- inches long when at rest and prepared to eat anything in its path, probably including the compost bin if only it could get its teeth to penetrate plastic. The bane of northwestern gardeners, the slug comes in three main colors up here: yellow-ish (the banana slug, which is native), very black (an illegal immigrant), and the gray/darker-gray spotted slug (whose provenance is a mystery to me).

I used to plant flowers that I liked until I had a dozen dahlia seedlings consumed within the first 12 hours of their residence in my garden by the resident slug corps. That taught me a definitive lesson. You want to look at dahlias: go to the yard of someone who has the patience to deal with slugs.

But they are amazing creatures and the banana slug is the more appealing of the bunch if one can get over the destructiveness, the sliminess, and the all-over bonelessness of the critters. They do, after all, travel on highways that they make themselves as they creep by. Imagine if cars, e.g., could just lay down asphalt roadways as part of their functioning. I know, a bad idea.

In Eugene, Oregon, they have a big slug parade and festival every year with, I am told, a 40-foot plastic banana slug. They also elect a Slug Queen. Apparently, they don’t select a Slug King. Why is that?

The University of California, Santa Cruz, shares our northwestern damp and grey climate and also shares our slug population. UCSC was started back in the 70’s as a kind of post-60’s experimental university without a regular letter grading system, without sororities and fraternities, with a lot of emphasis on ecology, and without a big inter-collegiate athletic program. The school did have athletics, but it was pretty low key and most of it was intra-college. But when the school needed a mascot for a school team, the banana slug was informally selected by the students as the school's mascot. The clarion call, ‘Go you Slugs!' was exactly the kind of battle cry that marked UCSC as a 60’s kind of college.

But times changed, the greedy 80’s arrived, Santa Cruz students wanted regular grades so that they could more easily get into graduate school, and inter-collegiate athletics seemed to be a way of attracting more students and more money. The Chancellor decided that the school now needed a more dignified mascot and the team players themselves were persuaded that the UCSC Sea Lions had the right sound for winners like them. ‘Not so fast,’ said the students, who continued to yell, 'Go you Slugs!!’ at all games. Eventually, the Chancellor not only backed down but became a supporter, and the Santa Cruz Banana Slugs they officially became. And then, five years ago, a perhaps even more startling triumph for an old hippy school: The Readers’ Digest declared the Santa Cruz Banana Slug the ‘Best Team Mascot.’

The difference between the SC students’ affection for the banana slugs and my own disaffection doubtless lies in the fact that they are students and I am a gardener. Nevertheless, we both appreciate irony. I am, therefore, trying to think of the slug corps in my own yard as athletes, engaged in some sport that I do not yet entirely understand. I am afraid, however, the game is one that pits The Slugs against The Flowers. ‘Go You Flowers!’ I’ll be calling from the stands.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Reason Breaks Out in North America

In the U.S. today, reason broke out when the Texas Appellate Court ordered the Child Protective Services Agency to return all 454 children of the Mormon-offshoot-polygamy bunch to their parents. The reason: there was no evidence that these children were in imminent danger and thus the Agency had no legal justification for removing them from their homes on their own initiative (as opposed to having a court approve the action). Further, the phone caller who triggered the raid, allegedly a young sexually-abused female resident, has never been identified and the call may have been a hoax. B.C.’s Minister of Justice may find his polygamist problem a little easier to deal with today.

In other instances of reason prevailing today, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a dead fly in a bottle of drinking water. Several years ago, a gentleman had drinking water dispensers installed in his home. Subsequently, he found a fly, presumably dead, sealed inside one of these dispensers. It made him feel very, very bad. He sued the water company for the ill effects that this experience inflicted upon him and was awarded a judgment of $300,000. Today, the Supreme Court offered its opinion: We don’t think so, said the Justices. The judgment was undone and, in essence, the fellow was urged to develop a little more stoicism. Good advice for us all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Culture Wars in Canada?

British Columbia is getting polygamy fever from the Americans, I’m afraid. Just to the east of Vancouver, is the lovely Creston valley, where the town of Bountiful houses a large community of polygamists (800-1,000) closely connected to the group that was recently uprooted in Texas. Polygamy is against the law in Canada and it always surprised me that this community was so deeply ensconced here. I mean, it’s not as if they were up in the northern Yukon or the Arctic Circle where nobody much was going to run into them. Bountiful is within easy driving distance from Vancouver, and the Mormon offshoot community members are pretty recognizable in their 19th Century attire; they're not in hiding.

However, what with the U.S. going on the offensive against the Texas community and removing hundreds of children from their parents’ custody, there is considerable agitation from the Vancouver Sun, as well as the public, for poor Wally Oppal, the Justice Minister, to do something, and to do it fast.

The problem for Mr. Oppall is that, although there is a law against polygamy, there is also a much bigger law in the Canadian Charter of Rights about religious freedom. The Bountiful community is arguing that the Charter protects them as long as they do not marry multiple women in ceremonies defined by Canadian law as marriage ceremonies. Furthermore, they point out, why can ordinary Canadian guys have a wife and a mistress or two, but they can’t? The offshoot-Mormons are suggesting to the rest of the folks that this is all a matter of presentation and context. ‘Lots of you have mistresses and wives; we do too, but we just call them all wives, although we legally marry only the first one. Moreover, we take care of all the ‘wives.’ Maybe even better than you take care of your mistresses.’

Ahhh, what we have here is a definitional problem? What’s the difference between a wife you don’t legally marry and a mistress you don’t legally marry? Does calling her a wife make it polygamy which is against the law, or does the law have to actually recognize her as a wife? If the offshoot-Mormons just refer to their multiple wives (and they seem to number in the tens and twenties for individual guys) as their mistresses, are the Vancouver Sun and the public no longer going to be bothered by it all?

Well, says Sun columnist Daphne Branham, who has been writing about this for several years, no: the issue is that children, and particularly girls, are being brought up in this benighted environment and are being taught that it’s okay to be one of a dozen or two wives, taught so thoroughly that it deprives them of the choice to value being the only wife, or at least the only one at one time and the only one the wife knows about. I would suggest to Ms. Branham that girls in most cultures (and boys as well) are taught their culture’s values so thoroughly that most of them have little choice to think otherwise, and thus are similarly deprived of choice. That’s what cultures mostly are there to do.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to be brought up in Bountiful or to be one of somebody’s many wives in Bountiful, but I doubt seriously that anybody is going to find a neat and consistent little argument that makes what they do in Bountiful a criminal act at the same time that it distinguishes it clearly from what lots of other people do all the time and, though we may not admire it, we don’t think it a crime. Once a girl is of age to consent to sexual conduct, then the issue is whether she consented. In Bountiful, nobody is complaining about being underage or about being forced into mistress-ship. It was such a complaint that triggered the Texas case because then child protective services could be brought into the fray, although there is apparently some evidence that this complaint itself was bogus.

Even then, though, the Texas legal case looks to be very problematic. The Texas court is currently holding hearings in which child protective services must present a plan for each of the 465 children that were taken in the raid and are currently in temporary foster care. The father of five of these children—a man excommunicated by the Texas group some years ago—testified in court the other day that no one could be a better mother to these children than their mother, his ‘spiritual’ second wife. So what’s the state’s plan for them? And the other 460 kids?

These polygamy cases make abortion seem an easy public policy question. Canadians, beware!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Getting and Spending

We are all economists now. It astonishes me how all the news—radio, print, internet, magazines, telegrams, whatever—assume that we are deeply interested in and follow closely the stock market, the jobless numbers, the GDP, and all that. In the olden days, when economics really was the dismal science, we left all that to the economists. In the public sector, they did what they did to keep things more or less humming along. There was a business cycle when things were good and a lot of engineers were being hired, and then there would come along the part of the cycle when things were bad and all the engineers lost their jobs. The market went up, the market went down. But people like me (the middle class) really didn’t pay all that much attention to it.

But just start the sentence, “The economy …” and everybody now has a dozen ways to finish the sentence. We act as if we knew what the 'economy’ is, or was, or might be. This month’s issue of Harper’s (and let me confess that if Harper’s were a church, I would join it) has an extremely helpful article on what we talk about when we talk about the economy. It is by Jonathan Rowe and is titled ‘Our Phony Economy.’ You might be able to read it here, but it might be available under subscription only.

In any case, what Rowe is talking about is what the economy is and what the economy isn’t, and when he said all this (in March), he was actually talking to some subset of the U.S. Congress. One reason to care about this is because of the rebate checks currently being sent out to most U.S. taxpayers to make up for the fact that the housing market has collapsed and there’s the credit crunch and all that. We have become, in the last fifty years or so, nothing more than a nation of consumers. No longer are we freedom-loving Americans, or wild and crazy Americans, or an independent and hopeful people, or a resourceful and inventive people, or any of that stuff. We are just a nation of spenders, and when times get hard, when the engineers lose their jobs, our job is not to knuckle down, to help one another through the difficulties, to cut back, to scrimp and save, etc. No, our job is to spend some more and if the hard times we are going through make it difficult to spend some more, than the government will send you some money (which it, of course, doesn’t actually have but is borrowing from the Chinese, who are getting tired of lending to us) and they will tell you to spend it on whatever you desire.

What is wrong with this picture? How can the economy improve from almost random spending? Will we be better off for spending our rebates on additional driving, buying gas that will go to oil companies and Middle Eastern treasuries? Or on vacations or casino gambling or pricey handbags or any of the things we buy? There are people who really may need this money and I expect they’ll be spending it on food and heating oil and gas to get to work. But a large chunk of the recipients are in no such need and the cash that is coming to them might be better sent to their local food banks (who have had substantial increases in numbers of people who are asking for help right at the time that food prices are going up significantly). Or they ought to put it in the bank for their children and grandchildren who will, of course, be the ones who have to repay the money when the Treasury Notes come due. No, that’s no good: it has to be spent now. For the good of the economy. For the good of the country, we could at least spend it on something worthy of spending. I vote for the Food Bank.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Queens, the War Dead, the Summer

Today is Victoria Day here in rainy British Columbia. For many years, I thought Victoria Day was the day that the folks hereabouts celebrated the capital of the province, Victoria—over there on Vancouver Island--and, symbolically, the province itself. But not so: B.C. day is some other time, and today is the birthday celebration of Canada’s first monarch, Queen Victoria, born on May 24, 1819. So we’re just a decade away from her 200th birthday which, given that this is one of only two days that Canadians may legally set off fireworks, should be very bright and colorful and all that, unless it rains, of course.

You don’t hear much about Queen Victoria from the Canadians who are celebrating her birthday today by not going to school or work. (In Quebec, you don’t hear about Victoria Day at all as they understandably choose not to celebrate British Monarchs in French Canada.) As I have previously mentioned, nor do you hear all that much about Queen Elizabeth, despite the fact that she is running a very strong race, likely to beat out Vicky as the longest running monarch in the Commonwealth, the U.K., and Canada. Elizabeth is also being honored on Victoria Day, but it’s hard to see exactly how: I mean if it were about both of them, wouldn’t they call it Queens’ Day? But then, it’s not really about either of them, it is just named Victoria Day. Holidays are like that, I suppose. At one point, a lot of people think something is really a big deal and ought to have a holiday of its own in order to mark the level of importance. But time passes, and the big dealness dwindles and we are now at another point where it’s just a day you don’t have to go to work or school.

In the U.S., Columbus was once a big deal; now he’s just a holiday that some states sponsor and some don’t, largely a function of whether the state had, at the one time, enough of an Italian population to demand holiday status for him. When I was a small child, Decoration Day was still barely enough of a day that I knew you went to the cemetery and tidied up the graves; only later did I discover that the big deal part was the Civil War and the honoring of those dead (the U.S. South, like the Quebecois, weren't so much into honoring the other side, of course); and later yet, it became Memorial Day, a day for honoring all the war dead on our side or, in the case of the Civil War, on both sides. It then became that memorable Monday when you didn’t have to go to school or work and you could listen to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio, which I also used to do as a child. Well, somebody in my house listened to it, because I can remember the endless sound of motors whizzing around a track somewhere filling our very small house. What a remarkable thought: listening to a car race, but then how much different from listening to a horse race or a baseball game, I suppose: a visual experience transformed into an auditory experience. But now we have TV so you can, I suppose, watch those little cars whizzing around the track as well as listen to them. From the war dead to a car race; from the Queens to fireworks.

Maybe they could name those little racecars after the Queens or, better yet, after the war dead, all of them. That might dampen the celebratory nature of the day, I guess. And it would make for way too many racecars, I fear. Better yet, forget the war dead—as we already have for the most part--and just rename it Almost Summer Day, a name whose meaning everybody is likely to remember for a long, long time. It’s coming up, Almost Summer Day: be ready.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Think Metric? Think Twice

Canada is a metric country, more or less. It went metric in the 1970’s under the Liberal government (beginning with Pierre Trudeau), but in the 80’s, when the Conservatives came in with Brian Mulroney presiding as Prime Minister, the drive for metrification kind of fell by the wayside. This was because the Conservatives had never been big supporters of shifting to metric measurements. They were, I suppose, conservative in their orientation: as in don’t change things. As a result of this, Canada has a system that provides its citizens with endless opportunities to be bi-counters, as it were (something like being bilingual which, in the western provinces, they definitely are not).

When you cross the border into Canada down at Peace Arch, the main U.S. tourist crossing in these parts, there is a sign that says something like “Remember: 50K is 30 mph.” This doesn’t strike me as a particularly useful way to inform drivers, but signage in Canada, for the most part, seems to me to be designed by people who are pretty much convinced that people don’t pay much attention to signs so it doesn’t really matter what you put on them. 50K is a speed sign that an American driver will frequently run across (it’s the basic rule on 2-lane streets not near schools), but so is 90K and 25K and 40K, so I don’t know what the Americans are supposed to do when they see those signs. Remember that 50K is 30 mph, so 90K is more, but not twice as much, or probably not. Might have been better to say “50 kph x .6=30 mph” because that multiplying by .6 is what you really need to know.

Canada didn’t actually start with exactly the same measuring system as the U.S. in the days when they were definitely not metric. They used British Imperial measures, in which you have an imperial gallon (that is 4.5 liters), as opposed to the U.S. gallon (which is 3.8 liters). So metrification at least got rid of that confusion along a border where gasoline was priced per gallon, but, the closer you came to the border, the less sure you were about what size gallon you might be buying. Now, it’s clear because the gas stations don’t sell by the gallon; they sell only by the litre and I’ve never seen one that priced it any other way.

By contrast, the supermarket has settled into an interesting midpoint in which all the scales in the produce department weigh in metrics, but everything is priced, by sign, in per pound prices (although they also usually include a per kilo price as well in smaller letters, but your receipt will give the price only in kilos). Butter is sold in packages of 454 grams, which seems an odd measure (as opposed to 500 grams), but that is because 454 grams is a U.S. pound, and, well, you know how cows are about change. Houses for sale are usually advertised as having X square feet, not X square meters. I can't even imagine what a 2,000 sq. foot house would be in square meters: a square meter is 1600 square inches, and a square foot is 144 square inches, so I expect those houses aren't going to have a whole lot of square meters in them.

Since I spend a lot of time in quilting stores, I can testify to the fact that some sell by the meter (40 inches for Americans), whereas others sell by the yard (36 inches, of course). I no longer even try to figure out whether something that is $18/yard is cheaper than, more expensive than,or exactly the same price as something that I can also buy for $20/meter. Of course those are Canadian dollars that the pricing is offered in, so if you are comparing to American prices, there’s that difference also to be taken into consideration. The fact that U.S. and Canadian dollars are pretty much equal the last few months has actually simplified my life a bit, even if it has significantly reduced the balance in my Canadian dollar checking account.

It seems a profoundly confusing way to do things, neither in nor out of metric measure, as opposed to the U.S. approach. The U.S. is a country that really knows how to Just Say No! But maybe this mixed approach is being pushed by the Canadian healthcare system in an attempt to prevent Alzheimer’s by keeping Canada’s citizens doing math all the time. Use It or Lose It, as they are always telling me.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


A British weaver of extravagantly beautiful pieces (she weaves with monofilament that is thinner than hair; you can see her pieces here, but photography doesn’t really do justice to pieces so dependent upon ambient light) was visiting Point Roberts this weekend. In fact, visiting another weaver who lives here and is a friend of mine. The two weavers came round to my house this morning so that I could show off my abandoned house quilts . The British weaver was much taken with them and said I should be famous.

It’s always extremely nice for me when someone speaks well of my work and even nicer when they can tell me what they like about it, suggesting that there is some actual communication between creator and viewer. But, I’m glad not to be famous. Of course, it’s easy to say you’re glad not to be famous when you are not famous. You will have to take it on faith that I really am glad. When you are famous, in this culture, you get to spend your time on your fame. Journalists may interview you (and you get to worry about whether the published interview will make you sound self-important or your work look trivial). People who are responsible for programs of some sort will ask you to come and speak to a lot of people, most of whom will never have seen your work, and your slides or your power point presentation will fail to have sound or be visible or some such. People will want you to help them with their work, so they can be famous, too. And so on. What you get is a lot of time spent on talking about your work or preparing to talk about your work, but much less time getting to do it. I think the purpose of doing it is doing it. But I may be idiosyncratic in that respect.

I read a few days ago that Doris Lessing judged that receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature was the worst thing that ever happened to her. At 88, she is awash in interviewers, and fears that her actual writing career has ended because she will never again have enough solitary time to think about and write another book. Sounds about right. Sorry for your troubles, Ms. Lessing, but thanks for all the books that got to us when there was still time.

One advantage, of course, of taking up an artistic kind of career in later age is that you may very well have already had enough success (fame of a sort) in some other career that you don’t really need any more fame or even additional money; or, conversely, you may have come to terms with not being famous and along the way discovered some other and more rewarding pleasures, including the sheer joy of doing what you want without having to think about who will pay you for doing it.

Point Roberts has more than its share of people with artistic careers, but few of them here, like anywhere else, are making a living at it. But now and then you can see their work in one of the local galleries, especially The Blue Heron, or its cross-the-street neighbor gallery, The Maple Studio. Maybe there should be a Point Roberts Artists Association to advise the Community Association on artistic matters? It is an extremely odd thing about our culture that art of any sort (visual, written word, object) is very highly valued only as long as it can be made out to be extremely rare. That’s why artists do better after they die, I suppose: they don’t risk adding any more pieces to their oeuvre, thus diluting the value of the previous work.

On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of creative spirit out and about, and extraordinarily beautiful books, poems, music, quilts, paintings, sculptures, weavings, and other forms of art abound in most places, but most people never see it, and certainly never buy it. Such work is here in Point Roberts (well beyond the boundaries of my workshop), as it is in New York City and in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, too; work that goes unseen and unsung. Art is a commodity that is labor intensive and it is one-of-a-kind. For labor intensive work, we look to Asia; for one of a kind work, we look to the past. So, perhaps I will not be famous until I’m dead; at least it won’t eat into my time.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Job Openings in Point Robert

If you lived in a big city, there wouldn’t be a community events sign because there would be too many events for one sign. Maybe there would be many such signs, but my guess is there wouldn’t be any such sign. The venues for events would have signs about what is going on in that venue. But we are a small community, so we have a Point Roberts Events sign. But it is in terminal distress. You can see from the picture that it has lost all its stars on the bottom row. And the paint on its legs has seen happier days. And, although you cannot actually see it, I am told that it is none too stable when one is trying to post a sign.

And that is why the community council, which may in the future be called the P.R. Community Association, has decided to get this sign redesigned and rebuilt so it is more useful and more aesthetically pleasing. The landscaping at the base is to be replaced. Well, if you call weeds and blackberry brambles landscaping, the landscaping will be replaced. If you don’t, as I would think is the correct stance, the surrounding ground will be for the first time receiving some landscaping. I doubt seriously if the stop sign and the speed limit sign can go someplace else and the same goes for the library sign, so the overall aesthetic impression may still be somewhat less than desirable, but the sign itself and its groundwork will be soon a thing of beauty.

If you lived in a big city and they actually had a community events sign, then the city government would look out for the condition of the sign and would replace it or restore it when it became unsafe and unuseful. But when you live in a little town that has no independent government to speak of (we have only a Parks Board, a Water Board, a Fire District, and a Wellness Clinic Health District), such things don’t automatically get done. And that’s why government and the concomitant taxes required to fund government can be a good thing if they take care of such things. I am inclined to think that we pay a lot more taxes to our official government in Whatcom County than we receive back in services, but the County does not seem to care much about that. Which is why government gets a bad name, of course. But even if the county government were loving, generous, and kind toward us here in Point Roberts, I doubt if they would care about our community events sign. At some point, even here on the Point, residents have to take some responsibility.

To get the sign redesigned and rebuilt and landscaped, somebody has to find out who owns the property the sign actually sits on. Now, the stop sign and the library sign are clearly within a foot or so of the curb, so one might think that it was public property, but apparently not. The person who owns the land had to be contacted and had to give the community people permission to fix the sign. But first, the county person in charge of Public Works had to be contacted because he too must give permission. And when both permissions were granted, the Parks Board of Point Roberts needs to say what a good idea it is. And that, too, has happened. But, somebody had to make all those calls, somebody who didn’t have a job description that included making those calls, getting those permissions, someone who just volunteered to do it. And actually doing the new design, rebuilding, and landscaping work will also require people who volunteer to spend their time making things a little better in Point Roberts.

That may be what it means, ultimately, to live in a small community if it’s going to be a community you actually want to live in. A lot of volunteering and a lot of volunteer work, positions available to everyone, no interview required.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Garden Theory

Big rains followed by big sun and noticeably higher temperatures put me on hands and knees in the garden for longer than I can actually tolerate, given my advanced age. But so satisfying. This is the best season for northwestern gardens, many of which are cottage gardens. Probably an even split, in fact, between cottage gardens and more planned arrangements. I am on the side of cottage gardens with their more or less random arrangement and selection of plants.

Furthermore, I am in favor of planting things that are already growing. Nurseries, of which we have a smallish one in Point Roberts, seem to me too often to stock things that you see in magazines rather than things you see actually growing in the gardens around you. I go to the nursery and look at all these beautiful plants and, as experience has taught me, they are not plants that are going to survive in my garden. The plants that survive in my garden are already growing there. So each fall, I dutifully take seeds or stems or excess roots from everything that has bloomed successfully and plant those seeds and stems and roots somewhere else in the yard, and, come spring, I see where else they would like to grow.

Behind all this is some thrift-inspired theory that a garden is not something you spend money on. You garden with what you've got. In my mind's garden (and pretty much in my actual visible garden (see picture at very top), you don't buy dirt, you don't buy fertilizer, you don't buy plants, you don't buy insecticides. You do buy tools, but only sturdy and simple ones. You don't buy dirt because you already have dirt; you don't buy fertilizer because you make compost; you don't buy plants because you gather seeds from previous successes and you may also accept seeds from your friends' previous successes. Any successful plant that multiplies by other methods is also much desired and welcome. My friend Rose gave me about 50 tiny crocosmia bulbs a few years back. Crocosmia seems to need to be divided about every three years. Where there was a clump of ten, now there are a hundred. I must have a thousand crocosmia plants about the grounds. Next year, 2,000. You don't buy insecticides because you are planting things that insects haven't much interest in. That's part of the successful plant definition.

Having a dramatically successful garden if you buy plants, fertilizer, insecticides, and special dirt is sort of cheating, it seems to me. It's like having a garden with sun: any fool can grow a garden with expensive plants, dirt, fertilizer, insecticides, and sun. The challenge is in doing it with nothing special including, in my garden, very little sun. (If you happen to have sun, you can make use of it because you don't have to pay extra to have sun, in my experience, and indeed, paying extra will not get you sun.) Because of those constraints, some things just don't happen in my yard: marigolds, zinnias, anything that slugs have a long-term penchant for (which puts pansies on the NO list), gladiolus (alas), and roses. Instead, I grow rose campion, feverfew, lunaria, alyssum, evening primrose, crocosmia, iris, columbine, foxglove, calendula, Queen Anne's lace (definitely not just a roadside weed), poppies of three kinds (pink, orange, and yellow), ajuga, lilies of the valley, alpine primrose, creeping jenny, hydrangea, forsythia, lupine, and candytuft. Next year, more of the same.

Today, I transplanted 4 dozen columbine seedlings; tomorrow there will be 3 dozen lilies of the valley where today they were not. Saturday, many, many tiny alyssum will be in a new home, as well as a dozen or so lupine seedlings. There is always something that is excess coming up somewhere, waiting to be moved to someplace else.

That is my theory of the garden. In all honesty, however, I must note that the theory also allows me to buy four or five dozen extraordinary tulip bulbs every fall from the Skagit Valley farms down the road in Washington, where every spring they show off their wares at the eponymously-named Tulip Festival. That expenditure falls under the category of 'Exceptions.'

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Relative Matters

I drove over to Tsawwassen today to do a little laundry. It does seem surprising that Point Roberts doesn’t have its own laundromat, given that so many of the houses here are quite small, cottages really, hard pressed to find room for big washing machines and dryers. On the other hand, the Tsawwassen laundromat is run by a couple from Lebanon and if one is interested in talking the middle east, he has a personal history that is worth hearing. Lebanon went through a 15-year civil war (the sequel to that seems to be in its opening scenes right now) and the laundromat owner was a teenager at the time of the first war. He has told me about going out and being part of the war when he was only 14. Perhaps he is exaggerating, perhaps not: I have no way to know. I can more easily imagine wanting to make a bigger thing of it than is true, than actually talking about it if I had done it.

In any case, seeing him, even when I don’t talk with him about the middle east, reminds me that every day in Lebanon, and Gaza, and Iraq, and the West Bank, and in Israel, real people, people like him and like me, are right now living in the middle of a war. Every week hundreds of people are killed or seriously injured, at least some of them with the compliments of my taxes. I think I fret about the price of gas or wheat or bread or apples because if I actually opened myself to the grim tragedies of choice that we are participants in, if only indirectly, or to the extraordinary tragedies of nature, like the Chinese earthquake and the Burmese cyclone, that are going on right this minute, I would sink into a slough of despair that would be hard to get up from.

When I went through the border today, there were about 35 cars in the standard line waiting to be spoken to by the Canadian border agents; when I came back, another 30+ were in line to hear from the U.S. border agents. In Iraq, the check points have people with guns who use them pretty easily, it appears. I once drove away from the Point Roberts border before I was told that I could; in the middle east, I suppose I would be a dead person now. The check points for Gaza and the West Bank are infinitely worse than anything this border could ever become, or at least that I could imagine it becoming, and I am grateful for that, but I am not grateful that others are required to submit to such injustices, such endless threats, disrespect, and violence. No Nexus Passes for the Iraqis or Palestinians, I'm afraid.

It’s a gray and a rainy day in Point Roberts and I have finished my dutiful work on past-time projects. Gasoline is $4.08/gallon, and the Canadians see it as a bargain. The relativity of so much of life may be the real lesson of age.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cloud Reigns

Because I lived my earlier years in a high desert area (southeastern Idaho) and the bulk of my adult years in a low desert area (Los Angeles), I really never expect it to rain. When I first came to the northwest, I was astonished at the greenness of everything. Outside of the tropics, I had never seen such an abundance of green plants. The northwest generally lacked, however, the brightness of tropical flowers, although it surely had a wondrous set of spring colors in the rhododendrons and azaleas, for example, that would never be seen in a tropical zone with its harsher reds and oranges.

I knew that the northwestern greenness was connected with the rain; connected in a very immediate way, but still, it surprises me to hear the sound of rain on the skylights when I awaken at night or in the morning, or even when I’m already awake in the middle of the day. This morning, we awoke to a steady rain, and it has continued throughout the day. It takes a lot of rain to get anything growing on the forest floor adequately watered. Especially if the things on the forest floor were put there by the land owner and not by the forest itself. This spring, I planted the abundant lunaria (money plant, silver dollar plant) seedlings that I had grown from seeds throughout the forest areas, and I have surely felt a little silly to have to water these plants all spring because the rain has frequently been light and charming and silvery and not anywhere near heavy enough to penetrate the tree canopy and thus get to the little plants. But today’s rain is getting there and tomorrow’s rain ought to make it even better.

Nationally, of course, there is plenty of folk lore about the rainy northwest. But the fact is, it doesn’t rain all that much here. It’s hard to get accurate figures on annual rainfall; at least it’s hard to get them on the net where the sources may not be altogether reliable. Checking around, it would appear that the annual rainfall here is about 40 inches, which is less than the annual rainfall in southeastern Missouri. If you figure that it rarely rains in July and August here, that means those 40 inches of rain are spread out over the other ten months, which is to say an inch a week. And that seems about right to me. It rarely rains a lot, but it often, a plurality of the time, rains a little. An inch of rain a week, divided into 3 or 4 or 5 of those days in that week, isn’t much rain. And some of those 40 inches come in bigger swoops, leaving even smaller amounts for those other 3 or 4 days.

What the predominant weather of the northwest really is, is cloudy. It’s cloudy an enormous amount of the time. That makes it an easy climate for people with light blue eyes, who are more likely to be sensitive to the glare of sunny locations, like low deserts. The cloudiness makes photography a lot easier and it gives you amazing saturated colors for general visual pleasure. The cloudiness keeps it from being too hot. So there’s quite a lot to be said for cloudiness. When it’s cloudy, you can work in the garden, or go for a walk, or even fly a helicopter if the clouds aren’t too low.

What rain gives you, by contrast, is a need to have projects that require concentrated attention for hours at a time. Even I can’t read eight hours a day, but today I am reminded how nice a rainy day in spring is for getting all those quilting projects that are in midstream out of their closets and onto the design wall. Eight hours won’t even begin to make an impact on them; but then tomorrow may give me another four hours, at least. Hooray for the occasional rain and the reliable clouds that give life focus and variety.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Giant Steps?

The Community Council met again last Thursday evening. After three meetings in which the primary question seemed to be ‘Who else should be here?’, this meeting began with none of the original members present for the meeting. So, right away, we knew who else was supposed to be there. As it turned out, all five of the missing were missing for different reasons, but there I was, for the first half hour, the institutional memory at this meeting which featured four or five new people, the other ‘who elses’ we had been so anxious to gather. The institutional memory had people at hand but no agenda. (By the end of that first half hour or so, two other people who had each attended a previous meeting or two finally showed up. We had also been joined, on time, by a reporter from the newspaper, further making me wince at the disarray.)

Suffice to say, I was experiencing a certain level of irritation at having been left in this particular lurch. I had attended two of the three previous meetings, but at no point had there been any general agreement about what the group might do once everybody who was supposed to be collected had appeared. The new collectees were pretty gung-ho; happy to be invited, they wanted to know when the events were to begin. I didn’t know; didn’t even know what events might be on offer.

Because there is a certain repetitiveness syndrome that all meetings engender, we began with asking who else, other than the missing founders, should be there? We made yet another list: it had not been enough either to offer an invitation in the newspaper to Point Roberts’ groups, nor to send a general purpose invitation by email to groups across the Point. Now, it behooved us to actually talk in person in some way to each group to get them to sign up for something: become a member or at least name a liaison.

Of course, since none of the original people were there, neither were any of the previously-constructed lists, so we did it yet again. And then, we considered adjourning so that next month there would be enough more who elses to keep us from having to repeat item again. But it occurred to me that we might as well use the remaining hour to decide at this meeting, what we would do at the next meeting when hail, hail, the gang was at last all here. Otherwise, I was afraid that we'd start the next meeting by addressing the question of who else ought to be coming to the meetings.

I proposed that we offer some general project that would be used as an exercise for the group to begin thinking about how it would actually do something. I emphasized that it wouldn’t have to be something that the group would, in fact, have to be committed to. Rather, it was a kind of practice piece. The reason for this, from my perspective, was that, if we tried first to select a serious project, the meetings would decline into months of arguing about what was the most worthy project. In the process, the group would fall apart from divisiveness, discouragement, and despair. By contrast, starting with a specific idea might end up eventually--I was thinking maybe after a couple of months of meetings--with either some commitment to the original idea or to some other idea that was generated along the way.

Somebody pointed out that we needed a much better community center, indeed a different community center with a different building. Someone else countered that the community center we’ve got could be better used, particularly it could be used to create more sense of community. From there, the discussion suddenly centered on how the community center might be used in a different way, might be made to be more inviting. (The Community Center currently houses the library, two adjoining largish meeting rooms (one of which has a small stage/platform area), kitchen facilities, a small office and storage room, and a computer center.) From the community center, the discussion moved to the community events sign, up at the end of the street which announces, awkwardly, what’s going on and which, according to those who use it, was falling apart.

By the end of the second hour, there were several work groups in place to carry out preparations for redesigning and rebuilding the community events sign, to figure out how to get the community involved in a kind of ‘extreme 24-hour Community Center makeover,’ and to think about how the Community Center and the community at large could be more directly involved in this August’s 100th Anniversary of Homesteading in Point Roberts. After several months of near stasis, suddenly the group was jumping ahead.

It wasn’t going to be an exercise or a practice session. It was like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were right there with us, saying, “Let’s do the show right here!” It was definitely an up-with-people kind of moment. What’s to become of it all? Stay tuned, month by month.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Impulse to Neighborliness

The local newspaper, which comes out on the first of the month, carried a little article in its May issue about the slowly developing Community Council. I attend the meetings of this group, and it’s not clear to me that the Council will ever come into existence, but if it did, and if it provided some community voice for issues that are not really the province of either individuals or any one group, it would be a good thing, I think. Even discounting the border problems (and how could one do that?), there are a number of issues that really need to be dealt with, including such things as road plowing when there is snow in the winter. It’s just not practical for everyone to go out and shovel or plow the street in front of their house, which would be the preferred solution, I guess, for the ‘every man/woman for him/herself’ cadre here on the Point.

I expected that, if the Council got so far as actually attempting to do something, the letter-writing libertarian folks would be getting their pens out. But, to my surprise, this little article about organizing the group produced one of these letters. It was sent to the newspaper, of course, but it was also circulated widely on one of the Point’s all-purpose email lists. Let us just say that it was a somewhat intemperate missive (at first, I wrote 'missile,' which might be the more accurate noun) threatening the Council, should it ever do anything to irritate Mr. H, with litigation. Mr. H reminded readers that he was from the South and that they weren’t yet finished with the Civil War down there and he wouldn’t stand for anything that might lead to increased property taxes for him. Further, that to aggravate him meant a much greater response than the aggravating force might want. So, beware! I feel pretty sorry for him at the thought of his response over the coming decades to those inevitably increasing property taxes, but he’ll just have to work it out. My condolences to those with whom he works it out.

It’s hard to imagine just what inspires such fulmination; at least hard for me to imagine it. It’s a kind of bullying letter, but it is, after all, from a man who is one of a thousand full-time residents here. He must have lots of ordinary interactions with people here in the market, the post office, etc. I think I saw him at the nursery the other day. My guess is that he’s not interested in John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ thesis. But what is he interested in? A life that is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’? The kind of life that Myanmar is showing us? I just don’t get why somebody wants to go so far out of his way to irritate and offend his neighbors, even if, as he says, he ‘likes anarchy.’ Has it never occurred to him that most people aren’t that crazy about anarchy and therefore likely to make his life difficult in their own way?

What may be harder to imagine is why one would reply to such a person. I can’t explain that, either, but after a lot of dithering, I did. I suggested that if he was going to have a career as one of a slowly increasing group of intemperate letter writers here in Point Roberts (I think he would be the third one), he might learn to incorporate a little more humor in his work. In his prompt reply, he pointed out that I was a moron and that if I should be so rash as to reply to him again, he would delete my e-mail unread. Ahh, the horror of it all. Deleted, unread. Which may say more about him than I had expected by way of a reply.

The world is doubtless filled with people who long to be heard, to be read, but who feel they are being deleted, unread. Here in Point Roberts, virtually anyone can be heard, if not in the newspaper, at least on the email lists. On the Internet, of course, as the classic New Yorker cartoon pointed out, ‘Nobody knows you’re a dog.’ In a small town, however, not so much. And deleting is a keystroke available to us all.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Good Neighbors

Robert Frost advised us that ‘good fences make good neighbors,’ but I beg to differ. I have fences on three sides of my property and it turns out that judging the neighbors is not so easy, even when I consider myself one of the neighbors, which I am, of course, since I'm their neighbor. It turns out that I’m one of the bad ones, despite an excellent fence. In this particular situation, the nature of the neighbors is deeply affected by whether they have a truly noxious weed that they are making available to those who are nearest, if not necessarily dearest, to them.

Bad neighbor that I am, it is because I have bindweed on my property and it is escaping to the neighbor to the north. I have been working on eradicating the bindweed (a class B noxious weed) for over eight years. It is one tough customer. It has roots that run very deep and up to six feet long. They may be forty feet long for all I know, but the longest one I ever dug up was about six feet. Usually, they break off before I get more than a foot or two. Bindweed is also called wild morning glory. It is a white convolvulus and looks just like a small morning glory that goes on forever. Its root survives everything. There are stories of uprooted bindweed left on a piece of board in the sun that, weeks later was still willing to put out roots when placed in a moist environment. My own weak attempt at a solution is to put roots, flower, and stems all in a large black plastic bag which I close and leave in the sun for a few weeks or months until we are burning garden debris that can’t/shouldn’t be composted. Then I empty the bag’s contents on the hot fire. I think it’s dead at that point. I can't be sure, though; it's possible that what I have created is powdered bindweed (mix with water and...).

But still, despite eight years of steady and industrious work, I still have some bindweed, mostly in the center of our property where it is harming only me. But a new front has opened up on the northern edge and I am struggling to contain it before it moves through the chainlink fence to the neighbors’ immaculately groomed yard. Fortunately, there is a considerable expanse of paved driveway that it must make it across--after the fence--before it can become well established in their yard. Unless, of course, it goes under the concrete, which means that they will have it for eight years or forever. Distressing. I can hardly face them and it doesn’t help that they don’t speak a lot of English and I of course (a good American!) speak none of their language. The complexities of my apologies may not get through, I fear; perhaps not even what it is that I am apologizing for. When I crouch by the fence uprooting handfuls of bindweed, they look sympathetically at me, while I feel sympathy for them...but what to say?

On the other hand, my neighbors to the west have for years been feeding bindweed on to my property and I have not yet responded by threatening to set their house on fire or calling the Washington State Noxious Weed Authority. It is a rented house and the California owners have tended to rent to people who have reached the age of majority but not the age of either good sense or good neighborliness. Mostly, they have reached the age of loud music on weekend nights, the pulsing bass still felt long after the more ‘melodic’ parts have finished.

However, a new regime has just been instituted in the rental house and the owner’s post-retirement age father has come to restore order. He mows the bindweed regularly, he mows the blackberries regularly, he mows everything that grows regularly and assures me that, other than grass, he has no interest in planting anything. That’s okay with me (although I had fond visions of our sharing the border between our property with a much larger raspberry patch that he would tend when I am not in residence), as long as the bindweed stops coming at me.

The bad side of all this, though, is that now I have to work on keeping the bindweed his predecessors allowed through into my western yard from going back to his eastern yard. And there is the other problem on the northern border. It would be so much easier if all good neighborliness took was a fence. Clearly, Frost didn’t have bindweed on his acreage.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Noxious Weeds/Nice Plants

The county government sent someone up to tell us about noxious weeds last month. They gave out a brochure with lots of pictures in it of plants that they wish you would not buy at the nursery and plant in your yard because they are ‘noxious.’ Well, that’s a highly judgmental word and, I expect, may be a matter of opinion.

I say this partly because two of the plants the speaker designated as noxious and undesirable are growing happily in my yard and I like them there. One is Japanese Knot Weed, which is something that looks like bamboo but is not and has lovely blossom sprays in the fall. I have a little patch of it outside my door (maybe 4’x4’, 10-12 canes) and it has stayed that size for the past 16 years, so it would appear that it is not impossible to keep it from spreading. In fact, it does spread: in the spring, maybe a dozen new plants appear around the outer circle. Treatment requires you to reach down with your fingers and break these sprouts off. They do not reappear, although the following spring you will have another dozen of these sprouts, and they will require the same low level of activity to keep them in check.

However, I am prepared to cut the bureaucrats some slack on this because, up on the Sunshine Coast, Japanese Knot Weed has propagated down the ditches and it is everywhere in great quantity. If not noxious, it is certainly prepared to give broom a run for its money. Broom is that yellow bush that blooms in April, usually, and is also an undesired and noxious plant. In fact, it is just as noxious as Knot Weed because both are Class B Noxious weeds, which means that the county can try to get rid of it but what it should really do is keep it from getting to areas where it doesn’t already thrive. The bottom line is, if you have Japanese Knot Weed, don’t plant it near running water and pinch off its new shoots in the spring. If you have broom, dig it out. It looks great, but it is a real spreader, as one can tell by the solid yellow roadsides in Point Roberts and elsewhere in Washington and B.C.. Of course, maybe you feel about your broom the way I feel about my Knotweed. That is the problem, of course.

The other noxious plant I have is Vinca, a ground cover with shiny dark green leaves and bright lavender flowers. A perfectly nice plant and other than they don’t like it, I can’t think of much wrong with it. It grows easily and it spreads, but you can cut it back. It doesn’t spread as much as Ajuga, say, and nobody thinks that’s a noxious anything. So they need to work harder to convince me that Vinca is a problem and shouldn’t be purchased as a yard plant. If they really don’t want us to buy it, if it’s really such a problem, maybe they ought to tell the plant nursery people to stop selling it?? In fact, Vinca isn’t even listed as a Class A, B, or C noxious weed, but it featured prominently in the brochure they handed out. So I guess it may fall into the category of ‘Some Other Things We Aren’t Too Crazy About.’

Washington has a nice site about all their noxious weeds (Classes A, B, and C), and I imagine your state has a similar list. Good jobs for botanists, I expect.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Oh, Brave New World

Today at one of our many Point Roberts’ gas stations, the price was up to $4.08 per gallon. The stations sell the gas by the liter and advertise its price in U.S. dollars per Canadian liter normally. The reasons for this are a great puzzle to me: it is as if the owners think that it might be too hard for the Canadians to figure out how to convert gallons to liters and the price thereby, when in fact it is for the Americans that it is too hard to figure out how to convert liters to gallons and the price thus and thereby, or maybe it is just too hard for me. The fact that there are more Canadian purchasers than American ones may be the real source of the problem, though. I generally look to see what the price is in U.S. dollars/liter and then multiply by four, which gives me a figure that is too high, but I rarely bother to remember just how much too high it is. Or maybe it is low. Oh, well. I can do Imperial Measures or I can do U.S. dollars but I can’t really do them simultaneously.

So, the station today was also posting the price per U.S. gallon in U.S. dollars, too, but, alas, the letter set didn’t seem to have enough of the 4’s to fill up the $4 for the three various grades of gas. Or maybe it’s psychological because the 4’s in the $4+ prices were little tiny fours, whereas the numbers for the cents part of the price were full size. Perhaps it’s a comment on the weak U.S. dollar and they are simply reminding us that we may pay for this gas only in the little tiny dollars that the U.S. government has on offer.

Then on to the grocery store where the price of wheat is bringing us new confusions. Canada is a big wheat producing country. The U.S. is a big wheat producing country. So, how come there’s a shortage of wheat in the U.S. and Canada? The answer to this question is neither obvious nor agreed upon, just as the answer to the question ‘Why does gas cost $4+/gallon?’ is neither obvious nor agreed upon. Oh, brave new world, that has such puzzles in it and that nobody in the larger, more official world can seem to explain in any consistent way.

Last week, I went to the Canadian grocery store to buy Canadian flour, which I prefer for breadmaking because it has a higher percentage of durum wheat content and it does not contain barley flour, which—as far as I have been able to determine by personally checking—contaminates all American supermarket flours for unknown reasons. It is said that it makes the resulting baked product ‘softer’—Is this softer as in Wonderbread? Why would one want this? I don’t, so I buy Canadian flour. Usually, I buy it on sale, where it is typically $7.99 for 10 kilos (which is to say 22 pounds); not on sale, maybe $10.99. Last week, it was $19.99. That’s a pretty big jump over the maybe 6 weeks since I last bought flour. That might go some way (although not all the way) toward explaining how fancy artisan bakery breads that were $4 a loaf a couple of months ago are now $6. I can hardly type a sentence that contains the phrase $6 for a loaf of bread.

Today, I checked out U.S. flours at the supermarket where they were between $5-$6 for ten pounds, and around $3 for five pounds of flour, which makes them a real bargain compared to Canadian flour, though rather more expensive than they were six weeks ago. Now, of course, the Canadians can come down to Point Roberts for gas, dairy products, chicken, and flour, all of which are considerably cheaper in the U.S.

My Queen Anne cherry tree came into bloom this week, as you can see in the picture; It’s a very old and very big tree. Maybe I should start thinking about cutting it down and planting wheat?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Confusion Rains

Tsunami update: If there’s a tsunami, don’t go to Canada. Go to the Firehall where you can play bingo. Upon our return to Point Roberts this May Day, we find yet another tsunami evacuation route sign. Unlike all the others I tracked down, this one sends the frightened native uphill to the high ground, which isn’t all that high, but is at least higher than 60 feet. (Wikipedia says that Point Roberts’ altitude is 0 feet and Tswwassen’s is 134 feet, so the high ground in Point Roberts is probably around 120 feet, I’d guess.) None of the tsunami evacuation signs actually make clear where you are heading or how you would know whether you’ve gotten where you are supposed to be going, but that’s what this regular update is to do for you, i guess. Go to the firehall or to Drewhenge, or to the sheriff's station, or to my house: all on high ground.

Vancouver Island Update.
After the trip to Vancouver Island, I got to thinking about why Victoria is the capital of British Columbia instead of Vancouver. From this century, or even the last one, it doesn’t really make any sense. But it turns out that Victoria was the big time before Vancouver was, and that Vancouver Island was its own province for quite a spell. It was combined with British Columbia as a single province (1866), and 5 years later, Victoria was was made the capital of this new province.

Victoria was only 28 years old at that point, but it was Western Canada’s oldest city and its largest city. And, since boats were the mode of transport at that point, having the capital on an island made more sense, perhaps than having it somewhere else with a smaller population and even less history.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that you can’t get directly to Victoria, which houses the Parliament and the provincial Capitol building, from Vancouver. The only direct ferry to Victoria comes from Port Angeles, in Washington. Vancouver ferries will take you far north of Victoria (to Nanaimo) or 20 miles north of Victoria to Swartz Bay. Is this any way to run a province? It’s as if they put the capital of Washington in Olympia and then put the big airport in Seattle. Oh, wait; that’s just what they did do.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Strange Transit

Having to rely on ferry boats to get you the rest of the world as well as get you to the rest of the world is a very strange way to live. The Sunshine Coast is on the mainland of Canada, but there is no continuous road up the west coast, so you drive a ways, then take a ferry, drive a ways further, take another ferry, etc. But most of the ferries on the West Coast go to the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island and, in the U.S., the San Juan Islands. One can imagine how they were settled originally when there were many people—the fishermen of the world--for whom boats were as ordinary as wheelbarrows. It’s not hard to see how they would have gone to the islands and stayed there because the fishing was good and the islands are beautiful and it wasn’t as if the places they came from had high levels of amenities: no city water, no sewers, no electricity, no phones, nothing more than they would find on a beautiful island.

But now, it seems stranger. Many of the small islands do not have good water sources or hospitals, e.g., and, although the ferries do bring an endless array of consumer goods, it is not quite like being in the city. So, when I yesterday made the 1 ¾ hours ferry trip to Vancouver Island on a Spirit Ferry (which holds 470 cars and over 2,000 passengers, and makes the trip every one or two hours, 11 times a day), I was surely thinking about what it was that compelled so many people (Vancouver Island has about ¾ million people, and B.C.’s capital city, Victoria, is located there) to move someplace that was so difficult to get to. Of course, many of the people are just vacationing or visiting there from Vancouver, but it is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing going on, a lot of money involved in running the ferries (which are not, of course, treated like roads that one drives freely on) and in using the ferries. It costs $56 each way for one person and a car to take the ferry from the mainland to Vancouver Island (Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay). The distance is only 27.6 miles. Imagine paying $56 every time you passed the 28 mile marker on a highway: I doubt if anyone would have ever been thinking that living in the suburbs was an interesting idea. Or going on a driving vacation was a viable plan.

Depending on a ferry to get you somewhere is a viable plan even now only if the ferry is available to take you. This week, when we came down from the Sunshine Coast, we arrived in time to catch the 10:20 ferry, but the 10:20 ferry could not get its electrical system to work properly, so there wasn’t a 10:20 ferry. The next ferry would have been the 12:20, but it’s the same ferry boat, so unless it got repaired, it wasn’t coming either. And there is no alternative. You just sit in the terminal lot, hoping that the repair will happen sooner rather than later, but you have no way of knowing what will happen. Imagine going out of your driveway of a morning not knowing for sure whether the highway will be open. Very strange.

In 1960, B.C. Ferries had only two boats; 48 years later, they have 38 vessels, with two more even bigger ones coming on line this year. Obviously they make it work, the government, the ferry corporation (which is kind of a private/public one), and the passengers, but relying on boats to get you where you need to go just seems strange to me. I don’t come from a fishing family, obviously.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

USPO, Canada Catch Border Disease

One of the things that makes life a whole lot easier on the Point is that the U.S. Post Office provides terrific service. In a place where it’s pretty much impossible to buy most things locally, where it’s difficult to get to the ROTUS to buy things, and where going to Canada to buy things involves purchasing in a foreign currency or getting dinged an extra roughly 5% for credit card purchases (punishment for using a U.S. credit card in a foreign country) plus an extra 4% in sales tax (Canadian sales tax is now about 12%, whereas Washington sales tax is only 8.4%), not to mention declaring everything purchased in Canada at the border and having some things that cannot be brought across the border in any circumstances. All this makes the fact that you can easily buy things in ROTUS and have them sent to you via the post office or UPS very important.

I have never lived in a place where the USPO’s employees were more efficient, welcoming, helpful. I celebrate them every day. Recently, however, the USPO, in the larger sense, decided that anything in a rural/street mailbox must be removed within three days or the post office personnel will remove it and take it god knows where, as Nichols and May used to described bureaucratic actions. I understand this is not a rule devised for Point Roberts, but for people throughout the country who can’t be bothered to take their mail out of their mailbox on some regular basis. Point Roberts isn’t the only largely resort community in the U.S., so it’s not going to be the only community that is adversely affected by this new ruling. However, the effect of the ruling here is particularly pernicious.

Many of the Canadians who own property on the Point are here only seasonally. Thus, they are not here to remove mail from their mail boxes every three days. My sense of it is that most of them come by now and then in the off-season to check their houses, pick up their mail, buy some gas. They may have to get their monthly bills in order to pay them, of course, but there’s no point in coming more than once a month for that activity. Now, they will have to cross the border more frequently if they want to get their mail. It’s no use proposing that they get mailboxes at the post office, because they are rarely available for rent. So now, the post office is going to be behind an enhanced cluttering of the border crossing.

To add to the postal problem, the Canadian border people have announced that the USPO truck that delivers the mail up here can no longer pass through in the car lane. Instead, it must go through the commercial lanes at the main US-Canada border, a decision that will add several hours to the trip each day, each way. In addition to that, the commercial lane requires that trucks passing through the border carry paper manifests that provide detailed documentation of what they are transporting into Canada. A manifest that says ‘MAIL’ is unlikely to be what border people will consider ‘detailed.’ So maybe there won’t be any more mail, or maybe somebody official will have to think through both these policies again (or maybe for the first time, to be somewhat less generous).

Every week, every month, there seems to be yet another squeeze on us. You could ask whether it is just general incompetence that is dramatically increasing or, as a friend proposed, the government is thinking of getting us all to leave Point Roberts so that it can reclaim it as a military reserve, which it was up until about a hundred years ago. If I start going there, though, my first thought is that it could be the site for Gitmo II. Not so warm as the current Gitmo, of course. Not at all tropical. But at least it doesn't involve dealing with anyone named Castro.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Back to the Borders, On to the Barricades

I’m back in the Excited States, where the border problem continues to rage. As a result of last month’s report of border problems, a new website has been instituted in hopes that we can do something to Fix the Border. Pat Capozzi, who lost his Nexus pass for ‘no reason given’ sent me an email about this saying,

We have created a website to help consolidate our efforts on making the 'powers that be' listen to our needs and respond by modifying the Nexus program to be a more realistic solution to the cross border problems in Point Roberts. Right now we are looking for:
1. Nexus horror stories. We've all heard them. "Someone was eating a hamburger as they crossed the border and had their card pulled for bringing beef across. etc." We need to hear the stories from the people whom they happened to. Please send us your stories.

A good friend of mine was also just informed by the powers that be-have badly that her Nexus pass will not be renewed. She has had a Nexus card for the past five years and has never had any problems, but it was time to renew. She filled in the application and sent her $50 payment. A month or so later, she was informed that her payment had been accepted and that her application for renewal was denied. The letter she received informed her that the reason for this denial is “OTHER” although no explanation of what that might be was offered. Now in a country that has decided that habeas corpus is no longer one of life’s little necessities, I suppose we ought not to be surprised that the government can deny you access to a border transit program either for no reason, as in Pat Capozzi’s case, or for some “Other” reason, as in my friend’s case.

The Nexus lane coming into Point Roberts is open only from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. When it is open, there are rarely more then a half dozen cars in the lane at any one time and transit time is rarely more than 5-8 minutes. Tonight, I returned to the Point after a trip to Vancouver Island about 7:30 p.m. It was Friday night at the beginning of a rainy weekend in May. It is not the peak transit time for travelers to Point Roberts. Nevertheless, we spent a half-hour in that line, waiting to get through. My friend whose Nexus card renewal was denied will rarely get the opportunity to wait only a half-hour in the regular lane. She will have to make the choice of either staying on the Point as a semi-prisoner or moving away. Most of the people I know here feel this way: Sooner or later, they will take our Nexus cards away from us for some reason or some other reason or no reason at all, and then we will have to leave here, a place we moved to in part because the U.S. Constitution gives us the right to travel freely within the U.S.

I feel as if I am sending out a message in a bottle: If you know anyone who can do anything to help publicize this problem, help correct this problem, please, help us. The first thing you can do is to go to the FixNexus website and read how five people (remember that there are fewer than 1,500 full-time residents here) have been treated. There are many more stories just like these, but these will give you a feel for our situation.