hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Friday, October 31, 2008

Discussion or Shouting Match?

When the B.C. Ferry Corporation changes its schedules and policies, ferry riders usually feel that something is being done against them not for them. They frequently protest, although the effects of those protests have not been particularly noticeable. The Ferry Corporation is busy appointing citizen advisory panels and the like, but they pretty much seem like window dressing. Nevertheless, after the most recent cuts in the schedule, 300 or so people up here turned out to object strenuously not only to the reduced number of sailings but also to the ever-rising prices and surcharges.

And then B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell went on the TV and announced that there will be a one-time $20 million increase to the ferry budget in order to restore those ferry sailings that were being removed and to reduce the cost of ferry crossings by a considerable amount. Well, that is pretty amazing, no? Of course, the fine print is that these awesome changes will be in effect for December and January, periods when there is massive vacation travel on the ferry. Well, maybe not so much response to local outcry. Maybe more of a response to an as-yet unannounced upcoming election?

That’s what the local newspaper editor suggests. He also suggests that everybody ought to be grateful for Campbell’s gift, even if it is motivated by political calculations. I’m struck by my reflexive resistance to his argument. Since it’s reflexive, of course, it’s suspect. Have we become so weary of political action that we can’t imagine there is anything coming out of politicians’ mouths that is oriented toward the public good? Always working to their own interests, not ours? Can we imagine that an action could simultaneously serve their interests and ours, or that it could just serve the public’s?

I don’t have any answer to that. And that is part of the anti-government tendency of our times. We riders can, of course, enjoy reduced ferry costs. But what if they are held low just long enough to get these people re-elected, at which point the costs are increased from what they previously were? Or, alternatively, what if there really isn’t any reasonable way to reduce the costs of ferry transport and this $20 million gift is just a way of postponing some other day of reckoning, a day they don’t want to talk about because the public is too uninformed to accept it?

I am inclined to this last thought because I have been reading historian Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Limits of American Power. Bacevich argues that the U.S. has come to the end of its economic, military, and political influence in the world (and he is writing a year or more before the current economic free-fall) because it has refused to accept that there are limits. A big part of his argument is that the U.S. has for decades put off the day of reckoning with respect to our dependency on foreign oil because those governing didn’t believe citizens would accept the bad news that they might have to do without some things or pay more for some things, if the country was to prosper in the future. No, we wanted cheap oil and we wanted it now and forever.

So, I’m thinking: what if there is no way to maintain cheap ferry traffic in B.C., at least not without giving up something else that is also important? Should the public and the government be talking about those tradeoffs and exactly what they are? Or should they just be talking about how the interest group identified as ferry riders is always trying to get something for itself and the interest group called politicians is always trying to get something for itself? Well, the ferry riders certainly can’t talk about tradeoffs if they don’t know what they are. And the government? Well, if they know, they’re not mentioning it. Maybe a folie a deux: those never end well.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

English Major Needed

I’ve finished James McCabe’s book about the solution of the U.S./U.K. water boundary problem in the Northwest back in the 19th Century. The Treaty of 1846 says you go west on the 49th parallel and then when you hit the ocean (which would be at Point Roberts, as it turns out), you go out to the middle of the channel and head south to the middle of Juan de Fuca. Unfortunately, the treaty text is no more specific than that, so the question of over 25 years of discussion between the U.S., the U.K., and eventually the Canadian Federation, was ‘what channel would that be?

It’s extremely interesting to read at this century-and-a-half distance how this extended set of discussions went and what kinds of issues arose in the long process. I suppose it is always the case that historical issues are made much more lively when the reader has some actual connection to the places involved in the outcome. The Battle of Bull Run is vastly more real when you have stood on the actual battlefield, in my experience. This water boundary question, too, seems more vital as I look out each day to the waters that were involved in this argument.

In my view, the strangest (from a 21st Century perspective) of the issues that arose in the course of figuring out who owned the land and water that lay to the south and west of Point Roberts was, post Civil-War, when the Americans were worrying a great deal about how they were going to pay for the extraordinary costs that the war had brought to them. (That sounds familiar.) One of the outcomes of the Civil War was the destruction (by the Confederate Navy) of much of the U.S. maritime fleet (i.e., commercial ships), a destruction that the Americans strongly felt that the British were responsible for because the Confederate Navy ships were welcomed into British ports before they went out on their predatory runs. The U.S. thought that the British should (and could) be made to pay for this ship loss and thus help the U.S. to cover much of their war losses. This was all subsumed under something called the Alabama Claims.

Then comes Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts (he whom South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks beat into unconsciousness on the floor of the Senate just prior to the Civil War, using Brooks’ own gutta percha cane for the assault), who decided that an even better idea was to have the British give all of Canada to the U.S., thus paying for the Alabama claims with this generous gift, a gift which would additionally make the northwest water boundary issue moot. Well, that would have eliminated Point Roberts’ anomalous status. Unfortunately, though Sumner held to this belief for a number of years, it was not to happen. But it does suggest some current foreign policy approaches that we may have neglected. How about we propose to Iraq that, given the extensive costs to the U.S. of the recent war, they give us, say, Kirkuk and all its oil wells? Just a kindly gesture of international friendliness and cooperation, not to mention an October Surprise for the Kurds.

Well, it finally all ended in 1871 when the U.S. and U.K. agreed to a ‘grand bargain’ set of negotiations in which they took on all the current issues involving Canada: Alabama claims, fisheries disputes, Fenian raids into Canada (never mind, I’m not going into that!), and the water boundary question. Canada got sold out on the fisheries and both the Alabama claims and the water boundary question went into separate arbitrations (which the U.S. had previously opposed). The water boundary arbiter was the German Kaiser and his three experts found, 2-1, that the American claim as to the definition of ‘channel’ was more compelling, which resulted in all three of the major San Juan Islands going to the U.S. The arbiters seemed to have found that this result was what the original treaty negotiators had intended, but from reading this book, it seems that the original negotiators didn’t have a common meaning to ‘channel.’ Bottom line: Next time you’re writing a treaty, maybe best to hire an English Major to provide assistance.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Black Magic?

The last bulbs are planted in the Sunshine Coast garden where we have way too many deer to fool with growing tulips, deer's favorite spring lunch. Instead, this garden specializes in daffodils which deer, miraculously, don’t eat. I’m sure the deer are evolving the ability to digest them as I type, but for the moment and for the next year, the bulbs are safe, at least from the deer.

We bought a truck load of dirt from the local nursery yesterday because Ed rebuilt a retaining wall and extended it beyond its prior boundary, leaving great, gaping, 2-foot-deep holes behind it at either end. Once it was all nicely filled in with this black, organic looking dirt, that bed looked like the perfect place to plant the last dozen King Alfred bulbs. But when I dug up the first few trowels-ful of dirt, I noticed there was a strange dust rising from the hole. I took off my gloves and put my hand into this misty apparition and discovered that it was steam. Putting my hand into the hole I had dug, I found it was decidedly hot down there. Whatever is in this organic looking black dirt is still composting at a very active level. Putting the bulbs in there would, I expect, have either cooked them, rotted them out, or caused them to go into high speed growing.

As I have previously explained, I’m not a fan of buying dirt insofar as I already own 2 acres of land, but in this case the argument was that all the other dirt was currently being used to support some other plant life. I read an article last year about the introduction of highly treated sewage as garden soil and maybe this is some of that; the official name was 'treated sewage sludge' but has now been changed (unsurprisingly) to ‘biosolids.' This 'dirt' is certainly a color I had never previously seen in nature or in a commercial planting mix: it is really black rather than a rich brown, which would be my expectation. (It is the black area behind the midlevel gray wall in the picture above; you can see it better if you click on the picture.) And it has a truly strange smell; and not a pleasant one either. I trust that will dissipate as whatever is in it finishes burning up. It does seem one more interference with my understood way of life. Dirt is not supposed to steam, at least not if you don’t live in Yellowstone Park.

What’s going on here? I could ask the clerk at the nursery, but I doubt seriously that she would offer me clear information. I have read around a bit on the net about biosolids, enough to know that they are being used extensively and that there is at least some dispute about their safety. (In the realm of they are safe if they are produced properly; we could mention that to the Chinese, I suppose. Something like ‘eggs are safe if produced properly; if not, if you give the chickens feed with melamine in it, well then all bets are off.’) However, Cornell University provides some general information as well as a description of the issues with respect to one of the commercially available biosolids, ‘Milorganite,’ which seems generally applicable to the biosolids available to home gardeners.

I expect I’d be more concerned if that was an area where I planted a vegetable garden, but it’s not: nothing but flowers. I could hope that this black magic, this black something, may be just one more way to discourage the deer from lunching in those borders, I suppose. And for now, those 12 daff bulbs had to go somewhere else.

Update: I took the temperature of that black dirt this morning after a day and night of rain and temperatures in the high 50's: at 6 inches deep, 117 degrees F.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

54/40 or Fight!

Amazing how certain phrases stay in your head from that decades-ago education, even when they aren’t connected to much of anything but themselves. I remember learning that ‘54/40 or Fight!’ was the compelling American slogan with regard to the northwestern borders of the U.S. when the States and the English were trying to figure out what was whose. It was a little surprising when I moved to Point Roberts to learn with some considerable degree of reality that the U.S. had apparently decided not to fight and had instead accepted the boundary at 49 degrees of latitude instead of 54 degrees and change somewhere in some distant past, even earlier than my grade school days. Perhaps I missed that lesson. Nowadays, I guess the slogan would more likely be ‘54/40 or Whatever.’

You can’t live here without frequently wondering why the British didn’t lean on the Americans to make an exception for Point Roberts, given that the Americans made a big exception for Vancouver Island, whose southern end is well below 49 degrees latitude. That was much more territory than P.R.’s little 4.5 square miles. So I was interested to read the other day that the British did intend to get Point Roberts after the treaty of 1846 (the treaty dealing with the Oregon territory boundaries). That treaty left the water boundaries a little vague and when the British sent some folks over to figure out how to get that straightened out (and, incidentally, how to get most of the offshore islands for themselves), part of their task was to survey the area and to obtain Point Roberts for the British, according to James O. McCabe’s 1964 The San Juan Water Boundary Question. Apparently, the survey results made that unlikely, numbers being what they are, and in any case the question of the fate of the Gulf Islands was of much more importance than the fate of Point Roberts.

This book is hard for me understand, really. First of all, it requires one to be absolutely clear on the fact that the Americans were generally pretty hostile to the British and suspected them of being uptonogood at all times. They were occupying the U.S.-designated Evil Empire slot in those days and that’s, as my granddaughter says about such things, really hard to wrap my head around. The English? Shakespeare? Wordsworth? Queen Victoria? Dickens? Those guys were running The Evil Empire? No, I don’t think so. And then, when everyone really got on with trying to sort out whom the Gulf Islands belonged to (particularly Orcas, Lopez, and San Juan), the cast of characters broadens to include General Winfield Scott (later seen as the noble and very elderly U.S. General who headed the War Office under Lincoln during the Civil War) and Captain (U.S. Army)/General (Confederate Army) George Pickett whose military career, if not his life, ended with Picketts’ Charge at Gettysburg. It was like running into an old friend at a strip club: you’re not sure what either of you are doing there.

In any case, Pickett, while still in the U.S. army, did some good work in trying to get a war started with the British over the San Juan Islands, and Scott got in and quieted things down. It was all about something called ‘The War of the Pigs,’ which was actually the death of one pig owned by the Hudson Bay Company and killed by a U.S. squatter. This part gets a little easier to recognize because it reeks of WMD’s and where are they? E.g., did the British really try to arrest the pig killer and transport him to Vancouver Island. No, but there were a lot of assertions that they had. And any number of people thought this would be a really good time to teach the British a lesson that they needed to learn. (This was right before the Civil War started: excellent timing, I'd say.)

Anyway, when you get through reading about how hard it was to figure out who got which islands, it’s pretty easy to see why Point Roberts fell by the wayside. But now, we’re left with the results. I suppose that is what’s meant by the importance of trying to look ahead.

(Not really integral to the account above, but I’m delighted to find that the oldest house in Bellingham is one built and lived in by then-Captain George Pickett when he was stationed there and working on elevating the pig war into an international war. Next visit to Bellingham, that’s a destination. And if you're not familiar with Pickett's Charge, try the film Gettysburg, because after seeing it, you are unlikely to ever forget what that charge must have looked like.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Big Leaf Maple

They are also called 'dinner-plate maples.' This is why. My hand span (tip of little finger to tip of thumb) is about 8.5 inches; my wrist to the tip of my middle finger, about the same. These leaves are amazing. This is not an exceptional leaf on this kind of full grown tree.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Canadian Minority

It’s been over a week since Canada’s largely disappointing election concluded. The Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, called an election because, presumably, he thought he could win enough seats in Parliament to become a majority P.M. rather than a minority P.M. Alas, he now has the dubious distinction of being only the second minority P.M. to be elected twice. Didn’t like him that much two years ago, don’t like him much better now. Nevertheless, he is more or less on top of a pretty flat hill with about 40% of the vote and about 40% of the seats in Parliament. The voter turnout was low, around 60%.

The Liberals got about half as many seats as the Conservatives, and the Bloc Quebecois, the NDP, and the Greens have the rest. What it means is that the Conservatives don’t have enough support to do what they want (be more like George W. Bush, unfortunately: apparently Conservatives up here haven’t heard that the rest of the world has thoroughly disabused themselves of the notion that George W. Bush has any mojo). This moderate passion for the Conservatives is puzzling because 77% of Canadians have developed a negative view of the U.S. since Bush was elected. It’s hard for me to understand exactly how it is that they don’t see the Bush in Harper, but I guess they don’t.

So nothing much will happen in Canadian politics for a few more years until another election is called. The Liberal leader has promised to quit in May, so that party can spend the next half year fighting about who is to replace Dion. Small potatoes, I suspect.

It’s a little difficult to understand how Canadian politics works because the parties are not all that clearly delineated to me in terms of philosophy. While poking around on the net trying to find somebody who would explain this more fully, I came upon an excellent site, Political Compass, that not only showed me where Canadian parties are philosophically, but showed me where I am. And you can take a little test (about 50 questions) to find out where you are, too.

The test involves about 50 questions which are not entirely easy to answer because, sometimes, they pose either/or questions when you might be more likely to answer both/and. But on the whole, they are interesting questions because they push you to clarify your philosophical orientation in order to answer them. You answer them on a 4-point scale (strong agree, agree, disagree, strong disagree). The object is to clarify your position on two distinct scales, one economic, the other social. Authoritarian-Libertarian tracks the social dimension, while Left/Right (with communism at the extreme left and neo-liberalism/libertarianism on the extreme right) tracks the economic dimension. So your answers place you somewhere within four boxes described by those two axes. I ended up close to Ghandi, which is nice, although I have been much less effective in my political life than he was, but on the other hand I am currently much more alive.

In addition, the site shows how various countries’ political parties and election candidates rank on this scale. They do this by determining how the parties’ or the candidates’ statements suggest they would answer the questions. When I looked at the Canadian parties’ scale, I was surprised to see that mostly they are in the upper right box: Authoritarian/Right. By contrast, the U.S. election primary campaign candidates were even more all in the upper right hand box, suggesting not so much contrast as I would have thought Well, there Ghandi and I are down in the Left/Libertarian, lower left box, with Canada’s NDP and Bloc Quebecois as well as Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich barely in there with us. No wonder I feel so isolated from the U.S. process so much of the time.

So, my advice is go to the site, take the test, look at your results and see whether you might feel more at home in New Zealand or the E.U. or are nicely in line with wherever you are.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Capitalism and Traditional Values

Ah, Capitalism! That which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Surely the past month has demonstrated the falsity of that because now capitalism appears to know neither the price NOR the value of anything. I have a friend who was a nun for 25 years but then left the convent, at which point her worldly friends discovered that she was the opposite of old-time capitalism, for she knew the value of everything and the price of nothing. I suppose the job of the rational person is to keep track of both the value AND the price of things.

Quilting is something that, at least when I learned how to do it in the 1940’s, was largely outside the purview of capitalism. It was women’s stuff. For the piecing part, you used old clothes, made patterns with cereal box cardboard, and sewed them by hand. For the quilting part (where you put the three layers together), you might have to buy a commercial batting, but it was also common to use an old worn blanket or flannel sheet for the middle layer. It was an activity that kept you busy, didn’t cost anything, and produced something useful. (There was some commercial development through ‘ladies' magazines’ and newspapers which sold patterns.)

Around the 1970’s, technology changed all that. Rotary cutters, acrylic rulers, quilt historians and books about the history of quilting appeared first, followed by ever-more-evolved sewing machines, specialized cutters, threads, fabrics, and battings. By the 1990’s, the art quilt had spun off from mainstream quilting, which meant that quilters were accumulating dyes and paints and metallic stuffs, while the traditional quilters had an endless array of expensive fabrics specially designed for quilters and even for specific quilt patterns, as well as specialized sewing machines whose prices reached into the thousands. By now, here we are: ‘In 2006, money spent on quilting supplies increased 45.4 percent. That year, quilters spent $3.3 billion in the United States alone. Statistics further show that the average quilter spent just over $2,300 for supplies in 2006.’ And there are now perhaps 25 million quilters in the U.S. alone. And capitalism is just all over those numbers.

Capitalism now requires quilting to keep growing in order to reward the companies/people that have invested in it as a product. But as a growth industry, it has some limits: in particular, fewer and fewer younger people actually know how to sew. They certainly don’t know how to sew by hand, and their abilities on a sewing machine are pretty minimal. They didn’t learn at home, they didn’t learn at school. So it’s a little difficult to figure out exactly how they’re going to take up quilting as a serious hobby.

However, I’m spending the weekend with a brand-new borrowed item: something called a ‘threadless sewing machine.’ It’s also called a felting machine, an embellisher, a needlepunch machine, or just a punching machine. This very simple and portable version of a commercial needlepunch machine is made specifically for quilters on the off chance they haven’t got their $2,300+ spent this year. It looks pretty much like a sewing machine, but it doesn’t have any of the mechanical complexity of a good sewing machine: no tension adjustment, no threading mechanism, no bobbin or bobbin case; just an up and down movement. It has an inverted cup with from 3-12 small barbed needles (each maybe 1-1.5 inches long). The cup moves up and down, and on the down stroke the needles go through two layers of fabric and the barbs cause the fibers of the two fabrics to grab on to one another. The more times you go over a specific area, the stronger the fiber grab is. Works best on wool (because of the way wool fibers entangle), but it works on most fabrics to some extent. This may be it: quilting goes from hand sewing to machine sewing to no sewing. Amazing what you see if you just live long enough.

This is all being sold to quilters as effortless creativity. Not clear whether it’s the quilter or the machine that is being creative. Not clear here who knows the value, but we all know the price.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bear Market Expands

All this spring and summer, I’ve been very careful about mixing the fresh compost thoroughly into the older compost. In the past, we have occasionally had trouble with bears tipping the container over but now that we have a resident bear, it seemed greater caution was called for. And it’s been successful. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky.

This morning, I went out, dumped a pail of coffee grounds and apple cores and egg shells and potato peelings into the compost, sifted a little of the old, and shoveled four shovels-full of the old compost on top of the new, then mixed it all round with one of those compost tools that involve a long metal rod with two half arrows at the bottom for thoroughly displacing compost, and returned to the house, ready to get on with my daily tasks. I do this, when I do this, in the morning because bears are nocturnal, I read, and thus there is a greater opportunity to have the bear-appealing scents dissipate before the bear gets there in the middle of the night.

Alas, the bear and I are reading different books. The bear has been all over the financial system these past weeks and now he’s outside our kitchen door well before noon, as well. Not a half hour passed from my outside work until Ed walked out the door, interrupting bear in his work. In the first photo, bear has already knocked the top half of the compost container off and is working—apparently not all that successfully—to find something to eat. That was the good effect of my work, I guess. In the second photo, he has given up on the compost and is trying to eat the tire on the wheel barrow.

We whooped and hollered (after getting the camera), but he proved largely indifferent to our noisiness as well as our nearness (we’re about 12 feet away from him at most). Once, he looked up at us, but with exceeding boredom...kind of like, 'Do I know you? No, I don't think so.' Then, after about five minutes, he wandered off, around the corner of the house and across the front yard, crowning his bearish behavior by walking right through a small hydrangea bush and breaking off the strong stick that supported it.

Well, as Jennifer Lopez once said, ‘The bear is what we all wrestle with. Everybody has their bear in life. It's about conquering that bear and letting him go.’ I don’t know the occasion for this philosophizing by Ms. Lopez--apparently the music business--but I think that I’ll let the bear go but just pass on the conquering.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Getting Dressed

I’m not sure what is the most depressing part about the current Palin hysteria: the fact that the campaign thought she needed all those designer clothes to run for VP, the fact that she herself seemed to think she needed all those clothes, or the fact that the press seems to think that having all those clothes was great, but either it wasn’t a good idea for her to have them because she’s running as a regular person, or it wasn’t a good idea for the Republican Party to pay for them because she should pay for them herself. Or worse.

Oh, feminism, where have we gotten to after all these tiring years? I read or hear some journalist or campaign person or both saying, ‘Well, of course, it’s a lot more expensive to dress a woman for a campaign.’ Really? Why would that be? Well, that would be, I guess, because they are objects to be adorned and they have to be adorned expensively and with great variety or we won’t really like them. We certainly aren’t going to like them for their ideas or for their ‘war hero’ qualities, I imagine. I wonder if Hillary Clinton feels she just didn’t spend enough on her clothes and that’s why she’s not running for president?

I am deeply saddened that after all this time, women, too, are still so profoundly committed to worrying about their attire: whether it’s sexy enough, flashy enough, fashionable enough, cute enough, expensive enough, glamorous enough; but never whether it’s comfortable enough, or whether it’s a match for the task the woman has at hand. You can’t go out to the world of commerce and see all those babes in high-heels without thinking about—and wincing in anticipation of--the back problems in their future. Or to the beach, where you can consider whether a future as a dermatological oncologist isn't a smart way to go for financial security.

Men, who have their own problems of failed maturity, at least seem better able to handle clothes. Virtually none of us--male or female--knows whether Obama has never worn the same suit twice, has only one suit, or has fifty suits that are all just alike. He comes out, he’s dressed, he looks suitable, and that’s good enough (suitable! What a great word in that context!). Ms. Palin looks okay to me, but I wouldn’t notice if she were wearing Valentino Originals or Liz Claiborne off the rack from a discount mall. But then I come from the rural northwest where Ms. Palin’s everyday Alaska clothes look perfectly fine and, except for those high heels and the Louis Vuitton bag (scroll down to October 22), genuinely appropriate (although the high heels may be necessary for ‘fancy beauty pageant walking').

My sympathies sort of go out to the Republican donors who didn’t think that was what they were buying with the earnest money they sent to their party. Would they have felt as bad if the money had been used to pay for bespoke suits for McCain? Is their unhappiness about its being used for expensive clothes? Or expensive clothes for women? The McCain Campaign says there are more important issues to discuss, but for myself, I think that why women have (1) to think of themselves as and/or (2) to be treated by others as Barbie dolls ought to be one of the top ten issues for the country. When I think of important female political leaders, my mind does not go to Cleopatra; I think about Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi—asexual, unfashionable beings for the most part (although I may not be a good judge of high fashion saris). If Americans ever do elect a women as President, she’ll doubtless look more like this than like Ms. Palin or Ms. Clinton, of course. We like our women to be glamorous and sexy, but if they rise to the bait, we don’t trust ‘em.

(Fabric Portrait, 9"x13", 2008)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tidying Up

Why is our work room cluttered and disorganized? Why is our yard not a picturesque scene? Why, now that we are not burdened with the task of getting and not even much burdened with the task of spending, do we not live in a more orderly environment? Why, now that children are not a regular part of our household, are we not living in a haven of orderliness? This is a question that could bear a long winter’s pondering. All the older people I know who do the kind of things I do seem to suffer similarly. Our brains may be as neat as a pin (but just how neat is a pin or a bandbox, either?), but our surroundings lack neatness as well as orderliness.

Garrison Keillor the other day suggested that our yards are always disreputable but that we notice it only in the fall when the leaves comes down and nature’s disarray is combined with our own. Could be. In my yard are plastic gallon milk bottles that I use to gather water in the summer from the rain barrels or from running the taps to get hot water. But there is nothing much to water from October on, yet here are my two dozen jugs, mostly filled with water, standing around without a chore in the world to occupy them and no reasonable place to sit. Leaf rakes are strewn here and there because leaf rakes have a short life span but even when their life span is shortened they still have some use when the leaves are cascading down. A leaf rake that has, e.g., only a 2-foot handle can still be used in small areas. The hoses are still uncoiled as if something was going to be sprinkled in just a few minutes, but the fact is that we are close to turning the outdoor water off for the winter, at which point the hoses will be disconnected entirely and otherwise useless. Nevertheless, they continue to wend their weary ways across the yard.

Indoors, there is more order in the parlor and sitting room and other household rooms; at least there is until you come to the rooms where all the real stuff gets done. In my case, it’s the quilting workshop; in Ed’s, it’s the computer room. Here the Lord of Misrule is a permanent resident, as if I were conducting an endless, medieval Christmas pageant. I’ve tried boxes, I’ve tried shelves, I’ve tried fancy wire shelves with drawers, specialized containers, all of it. I bring in tabletops and within minutes the tabletops are covered with things that really should be in the boxes, shelves, and drawers, but they’re already full. I daresay I’ve tried everything but just throwing it all out, which I cannot do because I might need it some day. Well, given the coming recession, my depression training might just be the right response. I might indeed need it some day, or somebody might need it and there’ll be no more easy getting it because we will not have the spare cash, or the prices will be too high because the Chinese will have stopped working for us at very low wages.

Perhaps the bigger or better question is Why Care? Is this yet one more puritanical inheritance that I could do without? As long as Ed can find the papers and computer parts he needs in the stack of papers and computers and computer parts that cover his floor and tabletops, what does it matter that the floor and tables are not free for tap dancing? As long as mice are not nesting in my boxes and bags and drawers of fabric and thread and wool, what matter is it that I cannot navigate a straight line from one end of the room to the other; I am not, after all, driving through the room.

Well, it matters to some. For example, here is advice number 2 (of 4) from an expert: ‘2. Be Ruthless When Throwing Old Items Out - Don't allow sentiment or desires to hoard to get in the way of clearing things out when you declutter your house. Be ruthless with your cleaning and you will see some amazing results.’ Perhaps so, but I suspect I want sentiment and desires to hoard to be a part of me. The very fact that I want that is what keeps my workroom in the shape it’s in. If I were someone else without those qualities, my world would doubtless be neater. That may be enough of a conclusion for me to cart outdoors another bunch of flattened tin cans which live in an outdoor box for flattened and increasingly rusted tin cans. I've got a project in mind for them, if I just live long enough to get it done. Maybe in the spring, when I’ve tidied the workroom up a bit.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Isolation Times Two

Isolation calling. In Point Roberts, the border is the isolating factor. The border keeps me at home because the mere possibility of border problems often leads me to not bother to go there unless I have to. Of course, it’s an inclination that’s pretty easy to get past. On the Sunshine Coast, it is the Ferry Corporation that is the isolating factor. Although the Coast is on the Canadian mainland, it is like living on an island because there are no roads that lead to here: water crossing only. I assure Ed that, in an emergency, he can paddle his kayak over to the mainland and he can strap me to the side, the way you’d strap a slain deer onto a car.

At the Point Roberts’ border crossing, my concerns are about the latent hostility toward individuals. By contrast, meeting up with the B.C. Ferry Corporation is a sublimely impersonal experience. You’re just a number to them and a profoundly uninteresting number, I’d guess. They decide when they’re going to offer you a ride; they decide the cost; their buildings, their roads, their ships: take ‘em or leave ‘em. You got a problem with that? Sorry. Their mission, they say, is ‘to provide safe, reliable and efficient marine transportation services which consistently exceed the expectations of our customers, employees and communities, while creating enterprise value.’ It’s the enterprise value that seems uppermost in their mind, though. The expectations are clearly not the big show.

Right now, people up on the Coast indeed have a problem with all that because they feel a tad hostage to the Corporation’s idea of its mission. The Ferry Corporation, which used to be a Crown Corporation—i.e., a government agency--was privatized in 2003, and now finds that this run is not sufficiently rewarding from an economic perspective as a steady operation. It finds it more interesting in the summer when the tourists line up to come here than in the other seasons when it’s just the cranky locals. I guess their theory is that we should all just stay put up here and not be wanting to go to Vancouver. It’s a variation of the Whatcom County view that everybody in Point Roberts knew what it was like when they moved there, so why are they complaining? Similarly, you knew when you moved to the Coast that ferries didn’t run every hour, so why are you complaining?

The current unhappiness is a result of the Corporation’s decision to eliminate two sailings a week—one early Sunday morning and one on Saturday evening-- which it assures us is actually not a problem because they will add to sailings in the summer and somehow it will all add up to the same number of yearly sailings. They complain accurately that these two sailings--which have been provided for many, many years--are underused. Of course they are thoroughly used by the people who use them. Perhaps those users could encourage more of their neighbors to go to Vancouver at 6:20 Sunday morning. Probably not. In any case, it appears that it is the tourists, not the residents who will benefit here…the tourists and the Ferry Corporation, of course, which will sell more tickets in the summer.

The underlying problem is that many people on the Coast think the ferries are a part of British Columbia’s highway system and the Ferry Corporation thinks it is running a transportation business, sort of like moving containers around. You get the same kind of disconnect down at the Point Roberts border where Homeland Security sees itself as in the cops and robbers business, while the residents see the border folks more like conductors on a bus whose job is largely to take tickets and help out in an emergency. The way to avoid problems with them both, of course, is just to stay at home once you get home. Once you get used to the isolation, you might like it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Geography Lesson

Another thing that you are likely to know little about if you move—even part-time--to another country later in life is geography. Before I came here, I knew that Canada had provinces, not states, but I couldn’t have named them all. Indeed, only yesterday while trying to name them all, I could not find New Brunswick located in my mental files anywhere. Wasn’t that I had forgotten it: it just wasn’t there. And you are also, unless you have traveled extensively in the country before you move there—which I hadn’t— unlikely to know much about how its parts are located relative to one another.

When I was in the sixth grade in Idaho, I distinctly recall learning that Canada’s plains states (what did we know about prairie states?) were Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba, and I was encouraged to remember them with the mnemonic device SAM. As a result, I always think that the province next to B.C. is Saskatchewan. I still can’t name one large city in Saskatchewan other than Saskatoon. It astounds me to think that Manitoba has polar bears (at Churchill) or that B.C., so far away from Massachusetts, is a big cranberry growing area. My ignorance about the geography of Canada is so extreme that it doesn’t surprise me that they don’t want to let me live here full-time.

I was bewailing this lack of knowledge the other day to Ed, who reminded me that Americans don’t know that much about their own geography, so maybe it's just a general problem either for everyone or at least for Americans. It is true that if, as an evening’s party entertainment, you give your (American) guests a sheet of typing paper (computer paper, I mean), have them turn it landscape direction (as opposed to portrait), and ask them to roughly draw in the 48 connected states that are south of Canada and north of Mexico, the results are unlikely to be all that impressive. In my experience of doing this, people tend to know the part of the country they’re from or that they’ve lived in, but become pretty vague at best (hopelessly lost at worst), about most other parts.

A simpler version of this is to draw a vertical line somewhere toward the middle of the paper, call it the Mississippi, and get the states on each side of the river from north to south, in order. Here’s a hint: it’s Minnesota at the top and Louisiana and Mississippi at the bottom. Fortunately, I had a daughter, a daughter-in-law, and a son-in-law in school at the University of Minnesota so I got to see the Mississippi right there, with my own eyes. Something of a surprise there, too.

Well, this may all just be that kind of foolish, book knowledge, knowledge about words (or places, in this case) that the elites value but that real people don’t care much about. Why does it matter if you don’t know where to put Delaware on the map if you aren’t going there? Why does it matter if I can’t even remember that New Brunswick is one of the provinces of Canada? It’s a province, whether I know it or not. I think I just feel more settled in my mind if I can explain something about where I am and what’s around me. I feel more like I'm entitled to be there. Not only that, but if Delaware or New Brunswick ever become an issue, I’ll at least know where (or that) they are. What if, say, Sarah Palin had been from New Brunswick? Or even Delaware? I'd know whether or not she could see Russia. Or Maine. Or Washington, D.C.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Thanks, Here and There

Last week was Canada’s Thanksgiving; next month is the U.S. Thanksgiving. Same holiday, different countries? If so, why six weeks apart? Perhaps it is the case that whatever country you are born/raised in, that country’s customs, holidays, ways of being are incorporated as originals with every other country being considered somewhat derivative. Or perhaps U.S. citizens are particularly prone to this me-first-ism. Either explanation seems viable to me. In any case, when I moved to the Northwest and began to move back and forth between Canada and the U.S., I just assumed that the Canadians must have picked up Thanksgiving from us, but had decided to move it to a different time to differentiate their experience of it from ours. The different date, however, constantly eludes me. I can never remember exactly which month it is in (September? October?) or when in the month it occurs. It’s not at the end of November is all I know.

This year, toward the end of September, our neighbors invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner and I was happy to accept the invitation, except that I somehow assumed that it would be toward the end of October and not toward the beginning of October. I mean, how can I be expected to remember not only that it isn’t in November but that it also isn’t toward the end of the month? As a result, I was left making sorry excuses and apologies when, shortly before the 13th, it came to my attention that Canadian Thanksgiving was quickly approaching and we were residing in the wrong country to be dropping over for dinner.

This kind of thing happens to me not infrequently. This results from coming to a second country late in life. You’ve already gone way past the time and place where you are supposed to learn all the important cultural knowledge and any further learning is likely to be embarrassing because you don’t actually know what you don’t know and you just stumble into it. For example, I knew that Canadians celebrate Victoria Day, and also that they celebrate Canada Day and B.C. Day. I understood that Canada Day was sort of like the U.S. July 4th. But we don’t have anything like B.C. Day, so there was no parallel for it or Victoria Day. However, I jumped to the conclusion that because B.C. Day was a celebration of the Province’s coming into being, Victoria Day must be a celebration of the Province’s Capital’s (Victoria) coming into being. I couldn’t have been more surprised to discover that it was about Queen Victoria’s birthday. I imagine every B.C. schoolchild knows that, but I wasn’t here at the right time to learn it.

Month in, month out, I find myself astonished to find yet something else I have been confused about. It’s a humbling experience when repeated so frequently. And as for Thanksgiving? Well, the first Canadian Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1578 by English explorer Martin Frobisher, whereas the Pilgrims weren’t even thinking about getting to the New World at that time, let alone making friends with Squanto and the fish and corn thing and all that; not until 1620 could they put in their claim. So the Canadians didn’t exactly ‘get it from us.’ The U.S. government frequently declared ‘Days of Thanksgiving’ and individual states also did this periodically, but it wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November, became a statutory holiday for all states.

Canada, too, had Thanksgiving Days periodically declared for many years, but after World War I, Canada amalgamated Armistice Day and Thanksgiving, only separating them in 1931. Not until 1957, however, was Thanksgiving moved to the 2nd Monday in October. Interestingly, it is not a statutory holiday in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. If I had lived here all my life, I’d probably know all that without having to look it up. Without engaging in research, however, I can say with absolute confidence that we both do turkey and football for Thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Economic Development

This is the land exit from Point Roberts, the Canadian border crossing you go through to the rest of everything. Not much of a line-up on this day. Past this little building that looks like a strip mall start-up, lies all of Vancouver--greater metro and city center--and, with a hard right turn, the ROTUS (rest of the U.S.). Point Roberts is not about shopping; it may be the only place in America that is not about shopping, so it may be worthy of your attention on that ground alone. Here’s the total shopping possibility: grocery store (1), hardware store (1), liquor store (1), gasoline stations (5), arts/crafts gift stores (2), plant nursery (1), very small liquidation store (1), 2 bars, 3 small eating places, and a ship’s chandlery at the marina. That’s it, I think. You won’t starve or be deprived of an evening’s scotch and soda, or be unable to hang your curtains, or honor someone’s birthday or drive yet another mile. On the other hand, it’s not much of a basis for an economy.

Some of the locals worry a great deal about the lack of an economy and therefore regularly talk about economic development and how the Point really needs a lot more of it. Recently, someone was talking about how great it would be to have a row of shops on Gulf Drive, little antique-y stores and the like. Such shops, they imply, would result in an economy because we’d have more Canadians, especially, spending more money down here, and thus the Point will have more ‘good jobs,’ as the politicians say, although retail clerking is not famously one of those lines of work that I’d describe as a good job. When they start walking (and talking) down this road, I always think of George the President telling us, after 9/11, to go out and buy things, eat at a nice restaurant, go to a Broadway play. Maybe we could move Broadway to Point Roberts? There’s room, still--next to Lily Point. And parking is just not a problem.

My preferred plan is to make Point Roberts Washington’s first wireless community, although I have no particular idea about how that would result in economic development. Alternatively, maybe it would be a good economic development plan to ensure that everybody in Point Roberts has a visual skill that could be paraded for the Canadian tourists (sort of like Williamsburg, Virginia, but without the costumes, although costumes wouldn’t hurt: we could all dress like Icelandic farmers in 1908). On the weekends, all the people with horses could drive small carts along the road; all the quilters could quilt in their front yards; maybe I’ll dye wool in a big, steaming vat; somebody could operate an apple press to make good use of the Point’s multitudinous orphan apples; a forge in someone’s front yard with small ironwork pieces being constructed for home and garden; dozens of people could make jewelry; others could chop firewood into kindling; free-range chickens could wander around; children could ride bicycles! Everyone could participate; everyone knows how to do something. Such a lot of fun. At least once, but then we might grow tired of being on display. And once probably won’t work for economic development.

Tsawwassen (the small Canadian town immediately over the border, which Point Roberts would look just like if it ever got developed) was once described (unkindly, ungraciously, ungenerously) by the National Geographic as ‘strip mall hell.’ That’s economic development you can believe in, my friends.

Well, if not Williamsburg, what else? What have we got here? Ocean, sky, big trees, beaches, four parks (!), a lot of undeveloped land (still!), and a sort of temperate climate. Instead of selling things at all those places, maybe we could just invite folks up (or down) and charge them for a rest cure. For shopping? Well, there’s always Vancouver and ROTUS and the internet.

Friday, October 17, 2008

You Can Keep Your Shoes On

A bad border experience yesterday, after several months of good ones, so I guess the border people haven’t entirely internalized their new polite professionalism. In this case, the Nexus agent didn’t like how the Nexus card was being held to the card reader: ‘ Up!’ he ordered,’Get it up here!’ He sounded like a guy who was having a very bad day and didn’t want to be further irritated by the mortals passing by. I can imagine feeling that way myself, but of course I’m not in his line of work. He continued to be irritated by the fact that the car’s driver had nothing to report in the way of goods being brought into the U.S. He was not impressed with the news that we were coming from Point Roberts to the rest of the U.S. A little more surliness and he deigned to let us through. Then, he called out, still in full surly: ‘You got a problem with anything I just said to you?'

Well, what are you going to say to that? ‘No, sir,’ seemed about right. He’s got all the power here and the traveler has none, so it’s unwise, at that point, to be discussing one’s assessment of his professionalism. Especially when, only the day before, a friend told me she had just been turned down for a Nexus card for no reason. This is her second go round. She had a Nexus card for five years and when it came time to renew it, the terrorist chasers said, ‘No.’ When she asked, ‘Why?’, they answered, “Not going to say, but you can reapply if you’d like and, by the way, send us another $50.’ (It sounds a little like a shake-down, no?) She thought about it for awhile—over the summer when the lines are their worst--and decided to try again since it really is inconvenient, to say the least, to live here without being able to avoid the border line-ups. They just refused her again, on the grounds that she is, according to their letter, “not eligible for the Nexus Program.’

What could that mean? The legal requirements are that you must be a U.S. or Canadian citizen/legal resident and have lived in the country for the last three years; not have a criminal conviction; and not have a previous border violation. She’s okay on all those things. The last eligibility ”requirement” is that one not have given false information on one’s application. So, if they think your name is Sam and you are pretty sure your name is Robert, then you are giving them false information if you say your name is Robert. Catch 22 is what that is called, I believe. And they won’t tell you any more than that they refused you because they refused you.

(Actually, there is one more eligibility requirement that is right beyond Catch 22--maybe 22 through 1,000: you are not eligible for Nexus if you "fail to meet other requirements of NEXUS." It does not specify what these other requirements might be, so it is certainly possible that my friend failed to meet them, as it is possible that any of us might fail to meet them, since they are not specified and I suppose they can just make them up on the spur of the moment.)

So, it’s no good to go arguing with them too much right there at the border if you don’t have a lawyer on retainer and in your car, is my view. Thinking back about their position on plants that might have dirt on them coming into the Point without special certification: well, I suppose we should be grateful that they don’t also make us take our shoes off and leave them at the border.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Community Blooms

Point Roberts has a high proportion of retirees, and what are you supposed to do when you retire? Garden. So there’s a lot of gardening that goes on here. Gardening, of course, involves border problems. When we first moved here, you could bring annuals but not perennials across the border with no questions asked. That was good, because for the most part the border people (who are, of course, not retired) don’t know the difference between an annual and a perennial or didn’t care to discuss it anyway.

But time passed and they decided that horticultural terrorists were coming in on those annual roots, in that annual dirt, so they presented us with a new dictum saying that plants with roots can’t come across the border but plants without roots (i.e., cut flowers), can. You can always buy stuff at a Canadian nursery and pay extra to get a certificate of hygiene to accompany your rooted plant, but every plant must have its own certificate and every certificate comes at a price unless you are buying a lot of rooted plants at once, in which case a nearby Canadian plant nursery will offer you a deal on all the certificates.

In principle, you could bring your plants from the rest of Washington straight through if you didn’t get out of your car in Canada, but that is a principle I don’t care to test while travelling with plants in any quantity or with my Nexus card. So, I’m not much for importing plants from anywhere. Fortunately, we do have a small nursery here on the Point to serve the needs of the retired gardeners. And that’s a good thing.

The gardeners have also gotten themselves together into a garden club and each year they put on a garden tour and tea which is a fine summer event. But last year, they went beyond that, moving out from their own particular gardens and onto the easements of the main road. Working with the County, they started with a pair of raised areas on the corner of Tyee and Benson, which areas were planted with fancy grasses and accoutered with driftwood and rock. Then last October, they expanded all the way down the road to the International Market, on both sides of Tyee with multiple raised beds—more appropriately called dirt berms, I think—which held daffodil bulbs and then daffodils this past spring. It was a splendid show (‘ten thousand saw I at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance’). There must be 12 or more of these berms on each side of the street, several dozen daffodils in each for our visual pleasure. Then came summer and the daffs went away, only to be replaced by billows of California poppies. And now for the early fall, we have towering pink cosmos. It’s a great sight and a much appreciated contribution to our lives.

Unfortunately, the corner with the fancy grasses is currently over-stocked with political signs. I’m all for free speech and all that, but those signs do seem something of an aesthetic blight in our public garden. Or maybe I’ve just been too long at the election fair.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I never lived around moles before; i.e., the kind that dig under ground. Idaho, Massachusetts, upstate New York, Los Angeles: no moles in my lawn. Here in the Northwest, however, we have moles. Most mornings, when I awaken and go out to survey my queendom, I find here and there a small pyramidal cone of dug up dirt here and there, in the lawn and in the flowerbeds, and I say ‘Hi!’ to whatever passing moles the evening has brought me. It’s not like gophers, who eat things from underground: bulbs and the like. As far as I can tell, the mole doesn’t do anything more to me than leave this small pile of soil. Usually, I just smooth it back down with my foot. The mole doesn’t need it any longer; I don’t need it; my foot is plenty adequate for the job.

However, however, however. This approach to moles seems not to be universal up here. I have neighbors who regularly talk to me about their various methods of killing moles. Poison gas into the underground tunnels seems to be a favorite. I am just stunned by this kind of hostility to an animal that is only somewhat bigger than a spider. People are often hysterical about spiders, I know. It seems to be some kind of atavistic fear. I’ve seen families where, virtually from birth, one kid will be terrified of spiders, anxious to kill them, and one or two others have no feelings about spiders at all. It’s as if it comes with the genes of some kids/people.

But I don’t think that’s so true of moles. People aren’t afraid of them, aren’t startled by them and thus quick to strike back. Moles are not in any circumstance some kind of threat. When I ask what the problem is, the mole hunters point to these little piles of dirt. ‘I don’t like that,’ they say. ‘Oh, well,’ I want to say. “Ten thousand things in this world I don’t like, but does that justify killing a sentient being?’ But I don’t say it. I press them, though to no avail. ‘I just don’t like them,’ is the bottom line.

We were visiting an acquaintance this past week who is in the mole-killing business in a big way. Not that he has a lot of moles but that he devotes a lot of his time to making sure he has no moles. While there, we were invited to walk around the property and, among other things, investigate his newest mole traps which kill by concussion. And indeed, there in one of the traps was a dead mole. I’d never actually seen one up close. Amazingly big paws/hands for his overall size.

Actually, much tinier bodies than I would have thought. Hard to imagine going through lots of those creatures to make moleskin hats and gloves. And his eyes? Blind, moles are said to be. It suddenly occurred to me that they might not actually have eyes. When we think of people being blind, it is not because they don’t have eyes; they have eyes that have lost their ability to see. But moles probably don’t actually have eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to poke at his limp little body to investigate this question. There seemed enough blindness in that moment to embrace everyone.

(From Wikipedia: "The eyes of moles and of some burrowing rodents are rudimentary in size, and in some cases are quite covered by skin and fur. This state of the eyes is probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Trading or Taxing? Huh?

Tomorrow, the Canadians are off to the polls to elect a new national government. The Globe and Mail referred to the campaign as ‘ugly and occasionally brutish’ and, I might add, blissfully short.

All the Canadians I’ve recently talked to have described their national election as boring, in contrast to the U.S. campaign. We’ve not discussed the ugly and brutish part which the U.S. has surely shared, but Canadians seem to think the Canadian campaign wasn’t about much of anything. The people I meet have not seemed to be enthusiastic about Stephen Harper (the Conservative candidate and current Prime Minister with a minority government and likely to get another one when the counting is done tomorrow). On the other hand, they don’t demonstrate much enthusiasm for any of the other four parties, either, or at least not in any noticeable way.

The Liberals are the likely alternative, but there’s also the NDP (socialist, sort of—well, if ‘we’re all socialists now,' perhaps the NDP will do better than expected, thanks to the financial melt) and the Greens and the Separatists who have no constituency in B.C.

One of the most interesting things to me about the Canadian campaign is that the Liberals favor a carbon tax while the Conservatives are cap-and-trade supporters. This is all about global warming and refers to the Kyoto treaty, which Canada signed but the U.S. backed out of. And, as an issue, it's one that the Americans also ought to be concerned about: global warming means all of us, just like global financial meltdown meant all of us. However, I doubt if one in fifty Americans could tell you anything about either choice. And if the Canadians find this all that boring, maybe they’re no better informed than we are. Sobering thought.

Well, once we all finish mastering the intricacies of the financial system, we can move on to learning climatology, oceanography, planetary science generally, and ecology, of course. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Will Stanton Settle In? Part II

I had expected that the tone of the P.R. Taxpayers Association meeting might be somewhat hostile, but it wasn’t. In part, that might have resulted from the fact that Stanton Northwest’s founder was at the meeting, ready to not create a bad impression for his company and its development. In fact, it turns out that he himself intends to move here and is, of course, already a property owner and taxpayer. He kept a low profile in the discussion and when he did speak, he was clear but not confrontational.

The Taxpayers’ current President--this meeting was his swan song—directed the discussion, responding to questions from the audience but making a concerted effort not to let things get out of hand. There was, e.g., no mention of the charge that Stanton had cut down trees with eagle nests. There was some discussion as to whether the kind of development that Stanton was proposing (and its founder obligingly brought a very nice, large, colored map of the proposed design) really fit in with the kind of community that Point Roberts has become—which I would describe as a simultaneously laid-back, crotchety, economically diverse, and individualistic place. Why a gated community within an exclave? Who/what were these future homeowners separating themselves from? And wasn’t it, really, an awfully big development for a place this small; and wasn’t it the case that similar—if smaller--developments here sit around year after year with unsold lots and houses?

There was some discussion of technical questions as to whether the design would make water runoff in the area more problematic because of the porous nature of the soil. Around the question of public access, the Stanton rep had no problems with the idea that people would be able to walk on the trails and streets of the development, as well as on the beach. I wanted to cheer when he spoke despairingly and disparagingly of signs on the beach ordering people to keep off. “Surely,’ he said, ‘the people here should be able to walk on the beach,’ and he promised that the public would be able to walk on the beach of his development. He also suggested that the term ‘gated community’ did not mean a walled-off community. There would be a gate at the entrance, and it would be closed at night, perhaps, but that would not keep people from walking into or on the open space sections of the property.

He also implied that he did not know about the 30% public access option that had previously been in the zoning but that he was not necessarily opposed to that idea. By and large, he was a reasonable voice. But when it came to the easternmost section of the development that the Taxpayers’ think should constitute the 30% public access, he was clear: that he could not and he would not do.

The Taxpayers’ President repeatedly moved back to the 30% public access zoning question, suggesting the possibility of legal action if necessary. But it was not clear to me that there was much to base a legal case on (although I’m not a lawyer nor providing legal advice). I would sum up the meeting as one in which there was a clear undercurrent of unhappiness about the development. Nevertheless, that undercurrent failed to find any focus. Those who opposed this development going forward were urged to write to County officials telling them of their concerns; those who supported it were also urged to convey their views.

Both sides seemed to believe that economic development of the Point is much needed. They disagreed as to whether the proposed development or expanding Lily Point Park would be most likely to provide the desired kind of economic development. No one offered the view that further economic development might not be the best way or indeed a way to keep the Point Roberts they want to live in. And in the face of the current financial collapse, it is very hard to imagine that any bank is going to be funding such an inauspicious development in such an unlikely locale. But that doesn’t mean that the county won’t issue permits: not their job to pick economic winners or losers.

At the end of the discussion, all questions asked if not answered, the Taxpayers Association elected six new members to its board of ten (plus one alternate). By my count, at least three of the six, are generally supporters of real estate/commercial development on the Point. Among these new board members is the founder of Stanton Northwest: the guy at the meeting . So now he will be able to negotiate with himself when the Taxpayers take on Stanton Northwest. I guess Stanton is settling in, for the moment, but come spring, we’ll be looking to see what happens. Honk!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Will Stanton Settle In? Part I

Today, in a brief outside time, I hear the snow geese flying overhead. They come in from somewhere farther north and settle in for a comfy winter in the northwest. Flocks of them have been flying overhead for several days. They call to one another, ‘Honk! Honk! What’s it look like down there? Should we stay there?’ And eventually they make a decision, stop honking and settle in to a temporarily unused agricultural field.

Today was the Point Roberts Taxpayers Association Annual Meeting. The group has a Board that meets more regularly but the membership seems to show up only once a year. Today’s meeting was to inform the troops about the status of Stanton Northwest Properties plan to create the fabulous gated community of 100+ homes, each costing $1 million, next door to the Lily Point Park. Or maybe it was to incite the troops. Or maybe it was to confuse the troops since at the end of the meeting there was a peculiar coda about the urgency of global warming, which I’m pretty sure Stanton has nothing to do with.

Anyway, the current unhappiness of the Taxpayers is that the County government which, some 8-10 years ago wanted a new zoning plan that required endless meetings here in Point Roberts, somewhere along the way changed that zoning plan, after it had been formally accepted by the County Council, without notifying the people on the Point.

Here’s the history as I heard it today:
1. Originally, the zoning permitted only one house per five acres in areas of the Point that weren’t developed (i.e., large parcels).
2. The new zoning plan (which might have been called ‘The Character Plan'--I'm not sure about the name) that local people worked on and the county accepted created something called ‘Transitional Zones’ for areas involving five or more acres. In such areas, a developer could have one house per acre (instead of one house per 5 acres) if he clustered the houses and left 50% of the parcel as open space. A second option was also included: a developer could have one house per acre if he clustered the houses AND provided 30% of the parcel as open space, including community access and trails, as well as beach access if beach was accessible
3. Sometime after the acceptance of zoning plan #2, the County eliminated the choice involving the 30% open access. That is, the option that required public access to beaches, trails, whatever, was eliminated entirely. Only the clustered houses +50% open-space option remains. Strangely (?), the county does not seem to know how this change occurred.

The Stanton Northwest development is designed to meet the 50% open-space requirement. The Taxpayers wants it to meet the 30% requirements with public access, and are making vague noises about demanding #1 as a fallback position if they can’t have the 30%+ public access. Stanton has not yet received permits for this development and owns only one of the two parcels of land that it needs for this development. According to a Stanton principal at the meeting , the piece the company owns (about 30%) involves the company’s current investment ($4 million, involving bank loans). The company is said to have an option to buy the second, larger property. The 30% that the Taxpayers’ want set aside is the property that Stanton has already purchased. This parcel is next to the already completed Lily Point Park and that is why that is the part that the Taxpayers want devoted to community use. The Stanton group: not only not so much, but not at all.

That is the nature of the dispute. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll try to summarize the discussion at today’s 2.5 hour meeting. Honk!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Meeting, Writing, and Writhing in Coils

Another two-event day, or in this case a two-event night. The Community Center on Thursday evening hosted both the P.R. Community Association monthly meeting and the monthly meeting of the Point Roberts’ branch of The Regional Assembly of Text Letter Writing Club (whose main headquarters is in Vancouver). Unfortunately, both were scheduled for 7 p.m. Seeing as how I am the note taker at the Community Association, I concluded that duty required me to go there, rather than across the hall to the Letter Writing Club.

The Community Association continues to explore or maybe just to try to understand its potential role on the Point. The other main all-inclusive groups on the Point are the long-time Taxpayers’ Association and the Voters’ Association, both of which wax and wane over time. The former, of course, includes Canadians and Americans who own property here, and the latter includes U.S. citizens here who can vote in the U.S. Both these groups have, historically, been organized around political action, either with respect to actual elections or to dealing with government entities (federal, state, and, county). The Community Association, an organization less than a year old, is understood to be open to anyone who lives here for at least some part of the year and focuses on smaller scale projects to improve the community life, particularly projects that do not require involvement in any significant way with government agencies/entities.

Thus, its first task has been to rebuild the local Community Events sign, but it has taken much longer than anyone expected and has led to some discouragement. Nevertheless, the group perseveres, and I with it, hoping that its next task (putting out a questionnaire to residents about what kinds of projects would most interest them) will move a little faster and will provide it with a better sense of what people want or care about here in Point Roberts. But I continue to be puzzled about the actual process: how does a group without a clear sense of purpose move forward? I worked for years creating ethics committees in hospitals, and that was hard enough to do, given the severe institutional hierarchies involved. But at least I understood where those groups were trying to go. Not so true with this one, but then it is not my job to make it happen, either.

By the time I got to the Writing Club meeting, everyone in that group was packing up and going home. What the ten or so people who had been there had done was to write letters on old-time hand-operated typewriters. They had a bunch of them there, ranging from ones like the old-time Underwood upright that I learned to type on in 1951, to smaller, ‘modern’ portable typewriters like the one I had in college in 1954. Although I actually made a small living in graduate school by typing Ph.D. dissertations, which means that I was pretty fast and very accurate, I am sorry to say that 25 years of computer use has rendered me actually too fast for a manual typewriter (the keys kept getting caught together as they rose to imprint the paper). Furthermore, I am also absolutely too weak in the little finger (both left and right hands) to get the a, q, z, and p keys to make even a faint imprint.

The first practical typewriter wasn’t invented until 1872. I remember years ago thinking about how George Eliot and Charles Dickens wrote their very, very long manuscripts by hand, with not quill pens, but stick pens. And then when they went back to edit their manuscripts, they got to write them by hand a second time. A book could take a very long time to write that way. It does make me wonder why they didn’t think about the possibility of shorter novels. Well, they missed the typewriter age. But now, although I actually did write a book on a typewriter in the early 80’s, I can barely remember how it would have worked to have to retype it every time I did an edit. Writing now is an easy four or five edit job, but all done within the text of the first draft.

The Writing Club is not encouraging the use of manual typewriters for manuscript writing. It is encouraging its attendees to write letters--personal letters--the kind we used to write to friends and relatives far away and put in an envelope and send with a stamp. I wrote such a letter to an old friend (with a pen, as it happened) four or five years ago. She wrote back (also with a pen on paper and in a stamped envelope) that receiving my letter made her feel like she was a character in a Jane Austen novel. That’s a gift to give to someone! You live long enough, all kinds of ordinary things become rarities.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Playing Catch-Up

Eagles. Jeff at lilypoint.org says that the list of eagle nests is not publicly available (wisely) because eagles and their parts are in great demand on the black market, even though satisfying that demand is definitely illegal in almost all circumstances. He adds, ‘eagles are the most monitored animal in the world. WDFW has GPS locations on every single nest in the State, and the program has a 30 year history. That is why people like Stanton NW can't get away with just removing a nest and think that nobody will notice or be able to prove that a nest was there.’ The lilypoint.org site has extensive information about eagles and their nests, so that's the place to go for it.

Pandora. Someone mentioned this site and it occurred to me that people might not know about it or how it works. If you listen to internet radio, this is a wonderful resource. Pandora.com is a music site where you set up your own music ‘station.’ You do that by giving the site the name of someone whose music you like. In the commenter’s case, it was Bonnie Raitt. So, let’s say you, too, choose Bonnie Raitt for your first station. Pandora then plays Bonnie Raitt’s music for you, but also other performers who are similar in various ways to Raitt. If you disagree about the algorithm’s assessment, you can say, ‘NO,’ don’t play that song again, and if you disagree twice more about that performer's recordings, then the algorithm never again chooses that performer. You can have many different ‘stations’ based on different kinds of music/musicians, and you can also have something called ‘quick mix’ in which music from all your stations (or all the stations you choose at that moment) plays randomly. It is a wonderful way to hear music you know and love as well as music you might love if only you knew about it. No cost. The only downside I know of is that it is available to you only if you and your computer are both in the U.S.

A similar site that does work in Canada is jango.com. Its music algorithm, it seems to me, is not quite as good as Pandora’s, but when I’m in Canada, it’s plenty good enough.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Music to Someone's Ears

A friend who lives on the other side of the U.S.-Canadian border urges me by email to write in protest to the CBC. It seems that the CBC2 program that he used to listen to while driving home, which played Mozart to calm his weary and presumably frazzled brain, has been replaced by a new CBC2 radio program which plays the music of the DHKS, which appears to be pronounced ‘ducks’ and which appears to be the name of a band out of Winnipeg. My friend is not happy.

Probably none of us old folks is happy about this, even if we are not regular 5 p.m. Mozart listeners. The CBC, which in many ways is one of the crown jewels of Canada—even more than U.S. public radio is a crown jewel of U.S. radio broadcasting—has come upon hard times. The CBC is adequately funded by the government. It is not always having to beg listeners to give them money.

What the CBC is facing up to is a generational challenge. People who listen to CBC radio are old people. And if only old people listen to it, then the old people will eventually depart the radio scene in their grand departure from all scenes, and then the younger people will no longer be interested in funding the CBC. So the CBC embarked about eight years ago on a project to make its programming more relevant to younger people (and, alas, less relevant, to its long time and older listeners).

I have never been a big listener to CBC2, which is the classical radio channel that my friend is so unhappy about, but I surely have noted how the programming on CBC1 and 2 has changed. I used to listen to CBC1 much of the day, even though I could just as easily listen to U.S. public radio. But no longer since the Big Change. Programs about books and reading are replaced by programs about bands from Winnepeg; interviews and conversations with people involved in serious issues are replaced with interviews and conversations with singers and bands from the world of rock and contemporary popular music and people who blather about 'human interest' matters. I don’t even know the right words to categorize the bands. They’re not my mother’s music, for sure, and not mine, either; maybe not even my children’s, but possibly my grandchildren’s. Even a program that plays some of the best music on the CBC and hosted by a young-ish classical/jazz pianist who is a wonder in his knowledge of music and his ability to talk about it is cluttered about 40% of its running time with mindless babble that reminds me of Valley Girl talk. This program, ‘The Key of Charles,’ is one of the most schizophrenic radio music programs I’ve ever heard. I listen now and then and am always charmed by the actual music and appalled by the conversation. Maybe it’s the CBC’s attempt to keep both audiences attending. It does make me cringe, even as i continue to listen.

I heard someone talking on the radio a few months ago about some study showing that most people’s musical tastes solidify by the time they’re 35, and after that, they rarely buy CD’s or otherwise choose to listen to any one they didn’t listen to before that time. I mentally checked my own purchases and preferences and was pleased to identify quickly at least a half a dozen new people in my listening repertoire who showed up long after my 35th year. However, upon reconsideration, I realized that almost all the new people were actually old people: performers who were recording before I was 35 and I just hadn’t gotten around to listening to them until well after then. Miles Davis and Bill Evans, for example. And the few who didn’t fit that category? Well, Kristen Chenoweth who would have been the brightest star on Broadway if only she’d gotten there 20 or 30 years sooner; The Ahn Trio, whom I first heard playing Jimmy Hendrix’s ‘Rider in the Rain;’ and Eva Cassidy, who also is a singer of the 70’s who wasn’t born soon enough to have performed then. Madeleine Peyroux? Well, mostly she sounds like Billy Holladay, who was way before my thirties.

I guess the CBC is entitled, like the moving finger, to write and move on to the ‘DHKS.’ It’s just that us old ‘uns are stuck back at the beginning of the music.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pie and Coffee from the Sky

With everything in the financial world going down, I thought I might spend the day hiding under the bed. On the other hand, perhaps a perfect day for going up. That was Ed’s thinking, so he went helicopter flying today. To fly the helicopter, he must cross two borders each way plus about 100 miles of driving each way. Unfortunately, Canada has no tradition of renting helicopters to licensed pilots. In Canada, if you want to fly a helicopter, you have to either own your own, fly one for your employer, or be a student. Not in any of those categories, Ed takes the long drive down to Skagit County, in Washington, to find an available helicopter. It’s about the size of a large dragonfly, but it holds two people, as long as his passenger doesn’t weigh more than 240 pounds.

He left early this morning with a long list of other things to do (Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, etc.) after the flight; during the flight, he was going to visit a friend up on the Washington border who actually does own a helicopter. But his friend’s helicopter has been in Los Angeles for about six months having itself rebuilt. This rebuild has to be done every 2200 hours and it is a very pricey activity; definitely enough to make you think very carefully about actually owning one of these machines. But apparently it is not a very rapid activity. Obviously, it doesn’t take six months, but I guess there are some people who get priority in the line to have one’s helicopter rebuilt and our friend is not one of those people.

When I realized that a futon bed frame actually doesn’t have enough room for me to hide under, I went to the quilt workshop to entertain myself, to detract myself, and to get something done—primarily making fabric portraits of financial titans of our time for a spring show (portrait 1 above). Around 2:00, there was a knock on the door. Almost nobody comes knocking on the door of my workshop except the quilting students and it wasn’t time for one of them. To my surprise upon opening the door, there was Ed--who had landed in our neighbor’s field--asking whether I’d like to join him in a cup of coffee. Not even Valentine’s Day, but a pretty lovely day when one’s spouse flies up to have a cup of coffee. Not really possible to land a helicopter in your neighbor’s yard in Los Angeles, unless you have a neighbor with a very impressive estate. But here in Point Roberts? Easy as pie. Also, it almost made up for that additional 500 point drop.

Monday, October 6, 2008


A Point Roberts real estate agent said to me once, ‘You never know what you are going to find when you knock on a door in Point Roberts.’ She was talking about the fact that although the outside of a house may be simple cottage, inside it may be startlingly sophisticated design. Other contrasts also happen, as today demonstrated.

Friends had invited us to visit the home of a local artist who did assemblage. Nobody was quite sure what this translated into in this particular case, but I was thinking something like Louise Nevelson. Instead, more something like Andy Goldsworthy by way of a really good thrift store, and both indoors and outdoors. And certainly not what I expected when we arrived at the house. It’s an ordinary looking house about 2 blocks from us, a house that I’ve walked by a thousand times, always admiring the peach trees that grow so vigorously behind the front fence. I spoke with the older, Canadian owners some years ago when I was out on a walk but they sold the house some three or four years ago and I had never run into the new owners.

We entered into a typically old-time kind of Point Roberts house, 4 or 5 small and crowded rooms and a yard also crowded with fruit trees and plants. But the rooms of the house--all the rooms--were filled not only with the required furnishings, but also with arranged pieces: dozens and dozens of them. Many small containers, often with their lids closed, all to be opened and investigated. A box filled with other boxes, each bearing one or two small pieces of old-fashioned jewelry, each with a story that the artist/gatherer could tell, but each reminding me of a similar piece I own or had once owned with a story that I could tell. A checker board with pieces that were never part of any checker game I’ve ever played, but clearly a game I could play if only someone would help me to find out the rules. Kitchen objects arranged carefully on a tray, drawing attention to qualities they share other than their practical purpose, although also including that. A small, old-fashioned travel case inhabited by a few, well-worn stuffed animals. I had a travel case like that 55 years ago when I went on a train trip, and beloved stuffed animals even longer ago. They would love to have lived in such an elegant home.

Outdoors, the yard was filled with many fruit trees, including a gorgeous pear whose fruit seemed as carefully arranged as the pieces in the house. In addition, every otherwise available area of the yard was filled with arrangements similar to those in the house, but here using rocks, shells, driftwood, metal, gravel, the objects of the earth, rather than the objects of human making. A small rock whose shape accommodated another and much smaller rock in only one precise location. Carefully arranged bird feathers gathered from the beach. Everywhere I looked, I saw the owner’s/artist’s hand at work, bringing together pieces/objects that had not previously met but that he imagined could benefit by the introduction. Such a great deal of thought and concern in this matchmaking. Too much to see in an hour or two, but the work easily conveys an attitude toward being on this earth that is genuinely inspired. We are here; other things are here; pay attention to them: see them as well as use them, respect them, enjoy them, take time for them.

No small surprise to find that the author of all this is a physician who lives here only part of the year and otherwise travels the world. He is, he says, an arranger of things. Right behind the doors of a perfectly ordinary little house. You can see his work here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fall Events

Even though summer is over and we’re finished with tourist events, Saturday was an at-least 2-event day here on Point Roberts. Probably more events than that, but at least two that all the people were invited to attend. First, at 1 p.m., was the Obama Rally at the Community Center. I needed to go pick up a book at the library and get an envelope in the Saturday mail, so went off to attend at noon, unfortunately, having confused the time. On my way, I saw leaf piles burning here and there, smoke drifting through the air, reminding us all that fall is here—which the recent warm weather has belied--and that others are not committed to saving their leaves for compost. Arriving at the Community Center at 12:15, I took note that no one was attending the rally.

By the time I realized that I was early (not late), I had run out of time and thus left before the rally started. I talked later to someone who said that it was thinly attended, but if a city the size of Salt Lake could drum up only 1,000 people for a rally, how many people would you get in Point Roberts where there are maybe 800 voters (of whom perhaps one-third will vote for Bob Barr)? About 1.3? There were, at least, more than that: another friend drove by at 3 p.m. and reported to me that there were 16 cars in the parking lot at that time, although some of them would be people going to the library. Bumper stickers were available, I was also told.

I don’t know; my idea of a rally is when you go out and yell, ‘Hell no, we won’t go!’ or ‘Down with the plutocrats!’ or something like that. My sense of rallies (too much sixties, I suppose) is that their purpose is to show opposition to someone/thing who seems to have a lot more power than you do and joining together gives you the (momentary) illusion that you just might be in charge of things. I don’t really think there’s a giant McCain majority out there, working to oppress us, given the massive opposition to the current administration and the lack of difference between it and the McCainites.

The second event was the Art Opening at the Blue Heron. The Blue Heron is a long-standing art and craft gallery, run by Kitty and Paul Doyle. Both residents and visitors shop there and many of the items are made by local artisans and artists. Each month, a different local artist is featured, and yesterday was the opening of a new show of fiber art. It’s a tiny little gallery, so work has to be fairly small to be shown, but each month something new and interesting is on display—painting, jewelry, glass work, photography, weaving, wall quilts, ceramics, etc.—and I go to celebrate its arrival. The quality of the work is very high. Also, in addition to the show, there are drinks and desserts. Nice way to wrap up a windy Saturday. Photos of the current exhibit (Artist: Joyce Wensley) are here.