hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And the Best Movies Are...

When we moved to Point Roberts these 15 years ago, there was a movie theater in Tsawwassen, just across the border. It had, as I recall, $4 tickets on Tuesday nights, and we saw many a movie there, even on $5 nights. But there weren’t all that many other people who were seeing those movies, and within a few years of our arrival, the theater went the way of small movie theaters and it was replaced by a shopping mall parking lot.

We are Los Angeles people by history and heritage, so we care about movies and about seeing them on the big screen. The next closest movie place turned out to be in Steveston, about a half-hour drive in the direction of the Vancouver airport. And we went there for a few years, but they definitely didn’t have a $4 night, and by the end of our attendance, it was more like an $11 or $12 night, even for seniors like us. But it wasn’t the price that dissuaded me. It was the environment. That theater has about 18 screens, and an entry hall that is like a concentrated Disney ride. In the actual film rooms, the screens were huge, the sound was enormous, the seating was steeply banked, and the whole experience was—instead of the loss of self in the movie world—more like an attack on the self by the movie world. The current vogue for endless quick cuts up close on a huge screen with loud sound seems like punishment, not entertainment. And to pay for punishment is just masochistic. So we gave up seeing movies in theaters.

Fortunately, Netflix arrived about the same time to rescue us and I have adjusted to a smaller screen, welcomed less volume, and reveled in the excellence of my couch as a proper place to sit while watching. It’s not the Orpheum in downtown L.A., I know, but it’s okay; I’m prepared to settle. On the other hand, new movies are not all that great, but Netflix has most of the old ones that I want to see (why not The African Queen???), and I don’t mind waiting a few months to see the rare new one that has me anticipating a fine movie experience.

It turns out that almost half of the movies I most liked last year were made several decades ago, and that I first saw them when they were new. I don’t know quite why it is that we often re-read favorite books, and we listen to CDs over and over, but re-watching a movie is a rare event. “Oh, I already saw that,” one hears, as if the previous viewing was so perfectly engraved in one’s memory that it could be called up with no need for the original source. Lots of movies are worth seeing lots of times. And in that spirit, here’s the list of the Ten Best Movies I Saw Last Year, all on DVD:
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Even on a small screen, gorgeous.
  • The Ruling Class (1972). Peter O’Toole again, and a classic 60’s British film from the early 70’s. A much darker version of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night.
  • Oblomov (1979). I loved re-reading the book, and the movie is equally fine. Russian.
  • Withnail and I (1987). Another fine (British) comedy; in some ways, it’s The Ruling Class but re-conceptualized with fifteen years more perspective. What were we thinking of???
And moving on to the more modern films, a couple even from 2008:
  • My Kid Could Paint That. A documentary about the work and the marketing of a very young child artist. The film raises unanswerable but extremely interesting questions about how we understand art, creativity, and commerce.
  • Manufactured Landscapes. Another documentary about art and about the nature of seeing. (Canadian)
  • Taxi to the Dark Side. A documentary on how the U.S. got involved in torture. What have we been doing these past seven years? And how will we ever live with our knowledge of it?
  • Persepolis. An animated/graphic film about a girl growing up in Iran under the Shah and also after the revolution. A coming-of-age film, of a sort.
  • Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. The most compelling film I’ve ever seen about abortion, with an ending that stays. Romanian.
  • The Wire. It’s not a film, it’s a TV series, but it’s great and there are five seasons of it, and they are all great and funny and provocative and heart-breaking. It’s not even possible to say exactly what this series is about in the way that you could say what The Sopranos was about. It’s about drugs, and the police, and the projects, and the schools, and politics, and journalism, and kids and business and unions and modern urban life and people and their dilemmas, all infused with the kind of knowledgeable detail that we usually are encouraged to do without. At the heart of the mid-section of the series is a legal drug zone in Baltimore named ‘Hamsterdam’ (by the kids who do the selling) which is set up by a police commander who needs to establish some control over the drug problem. It’s beyond inspired. Just see it.
And a better New Year we sincerely hope for us all.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Living in Darkness

Life in a small town is opened up by the radio. When I was a kid, in Idaho, late at night I’d listen to radio stations from far away, even Los Angeles, and those programs really were like lights shining on me from the outer world. They were in some sense alive, unlike the static newspapers with their paper pictures and paper stories. It’s like that now, living in a small place, with the radio via the Internet.

The whole world is available to me; what I lack is the ability to understand foreign languages, so I am restricted to English language speakers, but there is plenty of that. This week there was a Christmas pantomime with John Cleese and Peter Cook from the BBC; Jonathan Schwartz and his 4-hour Saturday show of Broadway music (WNYC-FM, 9-1 PST); and reports from Gaza by people who are in Gaza as they report, not pontificating from Washington, D.C. There’s so much stuff available that I have to discipline myself not to keep my headphones on all the time, because if I allow that, I end up kind of dazed, wondering where I’ve been: certainly not in the Pacific Northwest. And also, with headphones, I'm not very good company.

Anyway, the other day, I was listening to some Brit discussing our general inability to understand the numbers that we are fed constantly in the news. That’s been a big issue with me for years with respect to health policy and health research information. People ought to know, e.g., what per capita healthcare spending is in the U.S. just to get a sense of proportion before they start talking about healthcare and its costs. But this guy was talking about numbers more broadly: everything, he said, gets talked about in bigger and bigger numbers and it isn’t that people don’t know enough but that they can’t do anything with those kinds of numbers. Better to get them into some kind of accessible form: otherwise, we’re just living in darkness.

Seemed like good advice, so I put together a few per capita numbers of expenditures that might cast some light. These are all yearly per capita figures (NOT household figures), based upon a U.S. population of 300 million, and total expenditures during 2007 or 2008.

  • U.S. Government expenditures, 2007: $9,000 per capita.; 2009, est.: $10,000.
  • Total health care spending in the U.S.: $7,000 per capita (Canada, by comparison, is $5,000).
  • Health care spending by the U.S. Government: $3,500 per capita.
  • U.S. Defense Department budget: $2,200 per capita.
  • Social Security: $1,900 per capita.
  • Interest on the National Debt: $1,400 per capita.
  • Iraq War (average year): $570 per capita.
  • Federal aid to education: $200 per capita.
  • U.S. Congress: $33 per capita
  • Earmarks: $14 per capita
  • U.S. Gov’t Military Aid to Israel: $10 per capita.

The news this last year suggested that earmarks were one of the two or three most important problems in our political life. At least they are inexpensive.

The Brit who was being interviewed pointed out that if every American put $1/week in the pot for a year, the pot would hold $15 billion dollars at the end of a year. Thus, anything that cost $15 billion or less was essentially a trivial amount and not really worth worrying about as to cost in the face of much bigger expenditures. Earmarks or military aid to Israel, e.g., could still be an issue of concern, but because of their inherent nature not because of their costs, was his argument. We are transfixed by these small cost items because we can comprehend the amounts.

All this math made me think: If every permanent resident of Point Roberts put $1 each week in that pot, at the end of the year we’d have $78,000. That would go a long ways to funding the Food Bank and Dollars for Scholars and Paws and the Lutheran Church’s emergency generator for its emergency shelter status and some arts and sports projects for kids in the summer. A big gift to the community and a very small donation per capita.

And one other number not in the news today: Gaza is a territory of 25 square miles; it has a population of about 1.5 million people. If Point Roberts were five times bigger and had 1.5 million people instead of 1,500 people, what would life be like if bombs were aimed only at the bad people?

There's a very accessible graph of U.S. Government Agency expenditures here.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Read a Good Book Recently?

Living away from the excited states, I find that books are ever more important. That may not be true; I’ve always found books to be absolutely essential, regardless of where I lived. My father would come home and find me, as a teenager, on the couch on a summer Saturday, exactly where he had last seen me when he left for work that morning, and say, ‘Are you still reading?’ He kept on saying that to me, all his long life.

So, it’s probably not true that books are more important up here on the fringes of contemporary living, but it feels like it anyway. I read two or three books a week and mostly they are books provided for me by the Point Roberts Library, via its mother institution, the Whatcom County Library. Bless you all at this insufficiently honored civic institution. On Fridays, I order up the books I want via the internet, and on Wednesday at noon (the library is open only three days a week, and the delivery of books only on Wednesday), I see what they have sent me to read next.

This has been my pattern for years here, but there is now a big change, I guess as a result of the financial chaos we are experiencing. I used to put a book on my list and see that I was maybe number 2 or 3 on the list if it was a very recent and very popular book. Nowadays, when I put a book on my list, I am more likely to be number 13 or even number 48, as I was the other day. I guess a lot of book buying is discretionary. Of course, I’ve considered it that for years, so I can’t complain that others have figured it out as well. So next year, I may be working on reading older books for which there is less demand.

In honor of books, here, in no particular order, is my list of ‘Best Books I Read in 2008.’ Very few of them were published in 2008, but I don’t see why that should matter. A good book is worth knowing about any year.

1. Calamities of Exile, by Lawrence Weschler. This is a non-fiction work, in which Weschler introduces the reader to (as I recall) five people who have lived in exile and explores what it has meant to them. The thing about this book that is most important is that it is by Lawrence Weschler. Everything he writes is terrific, so I’d recommend not only this book, but anything else you run into by him. (I started to write, I also really liked ‘Vermeer in Bosnia,’ but then I thought about ‘Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders,’ and there was no going back. Just read anything by Weschler and you’ll be smarter than you were before you read it.)
2. Kristin Lavransdattar, by Sigrid Undset. I first read this novel when I was about 14, and I’ve read it probably four more times since then. Undset received the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 30’s, I think, and re-reading it this time is part of my off-and-on attempt to read at least one work by everyone who has ever gotten the Nobel Literature award. I don’t plan to re-read Faulkner, though.
3. Those Troublesome Young Men, by Lynn Olson. The ‘young men’ in question were those who supported Winston Churchill’s re-rise to power in the U.K. in 1939. It’s interesting to read about all the political finagling that got him to head the war effort and the country.
4. Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov. Another re-read (but the first time) of an old novel. I first read it in grad school, and I liked it even more this time. About a man who can’t stay awake long enough to get engaged in life, and the friends who try to pull him into it. If you’ve occasionally imagined spending much of your life in bed, this is the book for you.
5. Lush Life, by Richard Price. Nobody writes contemporary urban crime stuff better than Price. I first ran into him with a novel called Clockers, later made into a less successful film. His ability to write dialogue is amazing; he also wrote some of the scripts for the later seasons of The Wire, and it showed.
6. The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Oscar Wao has some things in common with Oblomov, except he’s a guy who would sort of like to become engaged but is repeatedly pushed away. Diaz is a terrific, relatively new writer from the Carribean.
7. Hotel de Dream, by Edmund White. I’m not normally a big Edmund White fan, but I liked this a lot; perhaps because it is an imagined novel starring Stephen Crane, whose writing I do like a lot. Strange, exotic book.
8. Moth smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both by Mohsin Hamid. A new Pakistani/U.S. educated novelist, Hamid tells strange and compelling stories. I think what I particularly like about these is the way his familiarity with American sensibilities is interwoven with his understanding of Pakistani sensibilities. The novels appear in a midground, unlike a lot of English-language novels by immigrants, which are often very here or very there. This one's there, but you read it through here.
9. A Free Life, by Ha Jin. Another immigrant writer, all of whose work I like a lot. His novels are more typically very there, but this one is very here.
10. Common Carriers, by John McPhee. McPhee, like Weschler, a New Yorker writer, tells me just exactly all the things I wanted to know about the things I didn’t even know I wanted to know about. This book is about how things get places: ships, barges, trains, trucks, common carriers of all sorts.
11. Game Control, by Lionel Shriver. Shriver is perhaps an acquired taste, but I’ve acquired it. This novel is about academics and NGO do-gooders in Africa, and is smart and funny and painful, as I might equally describe any of her novels.
12. Angel of Grozny, by Asne Sierstad. Sierstad wrote The Bookseller of Kabul several years ago, about Afghanistan under the Taliban, a very revelatory book. In this next outing, she writes of her experiences as a journalist during the Chechen war. It’s grim reading, but it certainly gives one some insight into how much we don’t know about what’s going on around the world.
13. The Muses Are Heard, by Truman Capote. In 1961, I assigned this book as the text for my Comp classes at UCLA, and I thought it was time to see whether it held up. It does: Capote was a careful observer and terrific writer. You want to know how to describe something, read this book. This was also Capote’s first entry into journalism, accompanying a touring company of Porgy and Bess in its non-State Department sponsored performances in Russia at the height of the Cold War (the early 1950’s), when both the Russians and the American performers were highly concerned about what to say about the U.S.’s ‘Negro Problem.’

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Twelve Days of Christmas

It’s been twelve days now since I’ve left the property, which is two acres (mostly woods, but with the house and one open field), and I haven’t even been much outside because it’s cold and because the snow is pretty deep and I don’t have much in the way of winter boots. In any case, it has been pretty much a white landscape which has an aesthetic appeal with respect to purity and cleanliness, of course, but lacks much in differentiation, at least it lacks much that I am used to looking at and differentiating about. I walked down to see the fishpond, but the fishpond was covered with ice and the ice was covered with snow, and that was that.

The snow remains abundant, even though the temperatures have risen (today, it is 2 degrees C./about 38 F.—I only do rough equivalents from C. to F. or F. to C., but before I came to Canada, I’d couldn’t do anything but 32 F.= 0 C.). The trees boughs have all given their snow up, but the ground is more accommodating. It is of course going to be very wet when this all melts, but unlike Whatcom County, the entire Sunshine Coast is on a fairly steep incline to the ocean, so the water goes away very quickly without flooding us. We live on a part of that steepness: steep road down off the highway and a driveway steeply down from the road. Christmas week is not proving to show much work ethic among the road clearers. They’ve got the highway tidied up, but we are on a road less traveled and, as Robert Frost warned, ‘that has made all the difference.’

Nevertheless, because we were really running out of all the things that we choose to consider necessities (milk, onions, garlic, apples, bananas, fresh vegetables of any kind), we got into the car to see whether it would succeed in the driveway and then succeed again in making a left turn onto the road in order to get us up the two blocks to the highway. The car is a 4-wheel drive Subaru Forester, but it doesn’t have snow tires and we don’t own chains, so it has to do what it can. It could, although it was having a little trouble in the driveway snow if Ed was urging it to take anything but the path of least resistance. Then it didn’t make the turn up the road to the highway. Instead, it wanted to take the turn down the road to the minor highway. The alternative was straight ahead into the big ditch. Down the hill: better choice.

Then, the next problem. This road has maybe 20 houses off it, but the steepest part of the road is at the bottom, and down at this part there are only us and one neighbor house. All the neighbors above us were going up the road, so not much traffic had made it as far down as our driveway. Thus, on the last downhill stretch, which we were on, the snow was still pretty well gathered where it had fallen. We made our way down that 600 yards an inch at a time, the car insisting all the way that there was actually plenty of stuff to slide around in. Then, at the bottom, there was the absolutely cleaned up minor highway. Having achieved that, I returned to breathing, and there we were, speeding to the world.

A few groceries, an audio splitter for the computer in order to use my new Bluetooth headphones in the most flexible way, and a 15-minute entertainment walk around the local Liquidation World, and I was more than ready to get back in the car and go home. Amazing number of people out there at the mall, with as many shopping bags in their hands as I imagine they had in all the days before Christmas. And lots of goods still to buy. Really, way too much to look at. No nice white cleanliness and purity.

Even in just twelve days in forced hibernation, I felt like I’d kind of lost contact with the world as it really is, the world of too much that I both long for when I don’t have access to it and am put off by when I do. I wonder if the bear, now in his hibernation, is dreaming about his ambivalent relationship to the world of human food scraps that he loves to mess with and the sight of the owners of those food scraps, the humans he could happily do without.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Birds in the Hand

We don’t much feed birds in the summer because (a) they can find their own food; and (b) since we come and go, we’d just as soon they not get used to our providing their food; and (c) the bear is perfectly crazy about bird food in the form of seeds, not birds. In the winter, it’s another matter, but only if a lot of snow or very low temperatures are involved. Then we feed them on an emergency basis, figuring they won't get entirely used to the idea that they aren’t going to have to do their own foraging the rest of the time.

This past ten days, now, it has been steady snow and very low temperatures, so it’s bird feeding time. Of course, because we don’t usually feed them, they don’t know to come to our house for food and we don't get very many of them. On the first morning of the snow storm, we put out sunflower seed under the carport, which was protected from snow, but saw nary a bird for at least 48 hours. Then a single song sparrow showed up, although it didn’t exactly look like one: much bigger because his feathers were so puffed up to prevent heat loss. He didn’t mind us watching him from behind the door or even talking to one another (normally, they move away even if they’re not eating the second they’re aware of us). I guess that’s a situation in which concentrating on food seems like a very good idea.

By the fourth day, a second song sparrow had joined in the eatery work and the next day a rufous-sided towhee (perhaps literally) blew in. They all looked so cold and so needy. It made me feel like I ought to at least open the door and invite them into the front hall to stay. But opening the door would indeed cause them to fly away.

Birds eat and eat and eat. And they kept it up. Yesterday, day nine, a second towhee arrived. And today, day 10, all four were here for continued Boxing Day eating. The snow was back, too. We all six of us (counting Ed) spent the day at home, sort of. Food being available here, but no Boxing Day shopping at all.
(The photo is the song sparrow, taken through the window and in very dim light.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Quiet Night

The presents are opened, the turkey is cooked and eaten, the walnut rocca is made and half consumed, the snow is beginning its retreat--with an overnight icing interval--and the sky is black and star-studded. Another Christmas done gone, oh, lordy, another Christmas done gone.

And tomorrow brings us Canada's shopping mania day, Boxing Day, when all the stores put everything they still have left on sale. I've never gone out to see this phenomenon, but maybe tomorrow is the day to try it on! Good wishes to all for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Home for Christmas

An Anna’s Hummingbird has made the trip over to Point Roberts in order to be home for our White Christmas. Apparently, she (it’s a she, note the white tip at the end of the tail) is doing her homecoming at Rose’s. Anna’s are not the most frequent of our hummingbirds on the Point. That honor belongs to Rufous Hummingbirds. All our hummingbirds arrive in mid-spring and then disappear sometime around July. I always assumed that they went south, but when I looked up info about them on Google, I found that “Christmas Bird Counts document the presence of Anna's Hummingbird throughout western Washington in the winter.” Apparently, it winters as far up as southern Alaska. Hardy fellows, given that they didn’t come up past California until the second half of the 20th Century.

Certainly surpised me to find they were up here as winter dwellers. I’ve never seen one in Point Roberts much after August, let alone in the winter. Up farther north, here on the Sunshine Coast, we had a Xanthus Hummingbird who showed up about ten years ago around Christmas and then wintered over. Since the Xanthus is a Baja, Mexico, resident and never comes this far north, it was quite an event and people came from all over to look at it. We drove down to look at it and we definitely saw it. But that was about it for me. I can’t imagine coming here from 1,000 miles away to see a bird whose picture is readily available in any bird book as some people did, but I guess that only goes to prove that I’m not really a serious birder. But I knew that already.

Anyway, the householders who had the Xanthus put out a visitors’ book and graciously welcomed this weeks’ long string of visitors. And then come February or so, the Xanthus disappeared. Holiday over. One of the bird scholar people up here speculated that it had been blown up this far on the winds of a winter storm system coming up from the south. Ah, the lives of birds: more unexpected events than I might have thought. I tend to think it’s just food—for themselves and those noisy broods.

Does this Anna’s need a Visitors’ Book? No, probably not. Just needs a lot of sugar solution, for which she can thank Rose. And thanks to Renee for the photos!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Picking Principles

A neighbor called today to invite us to Christmas dinner; another called to invite us up for a drink, thinking that I might be feeling a little stir-crazy in the snow. Happy to oblige on both counts. I am always struck by how genuinely kind and thoughtful our Canadian neighbors are. Maybe it is not Canadian kindness but simply the kindness of people living in small towns, but in either case, I am grateful.

When we went up for the glass of wine, we found that household’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandson were also up for the evening and I got to have a new lesson in Canadian politics. This past week, there had been much to do, again, about the (maybe) temporary Prime Minister (we’re waiting for the end of January when Parliament comes back in session to see what happens to him). Prime Minister Harper appointed 18 new Senators to the Senate. Well, I thought from my U.S. brain, surely he couldn’t appoint 18 senators if he didn’t have the authority to do it, but what a strange thing that he had to appoint so many of them. Was this like Roosevelt trying to pack the Supreme Court? But, I let the news go by me without pursuing the questions further.

But now I had real Canadians with lively political interests to explain it to me. This much I knew: Canada has a Parliament and a Senate, but the Senate never seemed to me to amount to much. The members of the Senate are appointed, and these appointments seem to go to political actors, fund raisers, business people, do-gooders. I had previously considered these appointees as comparable to the kind of people, in the U.S., who get ambassadorial appointments to mid-level countries as a kind of legal payoff for services rendered. You send these people to places where you don’t need to know much to be able to preside successfully over ceremonial occasions for a few years.

Not quite, though. Turns out that, at least on paper, the Senate is in some way equal to the Parliament but has never been treated as such because the members are appointed and not elected, and therefore are understood to have no real legitimacy. So far, so good, but kind of odd. Over the years, I’ve heard many Canadians express nothing but contempt for Senate appointees…a good-paying gig (until they are 75) with not much of anything to do but think of how and why they’re being rewarded with this office. It turns out that Prime Minister Harper, has been one of those people critical of the Senate’s dubious nature. And the reason he had 18 appointments to make was not because he was trying to pack the Senate, but because over the past two years, he had refused to make any new appointments because he thought the Senators should be elected.

All of a sudden, though, he’s a fan of making Senate appointments. And this is because if he loses out as Prime Minister when the end of January comes and Parliament has the Confidence vote, then the new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, will become Prime Minister, presumably, and the Liberals will get to appoint those 18 Senators.

Well, that’s the problem with principles—they’re easier to take seriously when you are in control of events. And that’s the trouble with losing control—your principles may turn out to be a tad inconvenient. I am reminded of Groucho Marx saying “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.” The brouhaha over Harper’s Senate appointments demonstrates that Harper, too, has others.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Big House, Little Woods

It snowed ever so quietly all night long, so this morning when we awoke, the world looked much more snowy than the last time I’d checked it. I still can’t get up the driveway even more so, and I don’t have high boots so I passed on a walk to the beach, although maybe tomorrow. The trees were absolutely full, every cedar branch, in particular, fully laden. But then, the slightest movement of air would cause the branch to suddenly release all its burden, which would then fall, as if into an invisible cylinder, slowly sifting down to the ground. It made me feel a little leery about going out because at any minute something considerable might fall on me.

We used to have a cedar shake roof on this log house, but about ten years ago it needed replacing and we were persuaded to change to a metal roof. All in all, we’ve been satisfied with it, but there were two things that we didn’t realize at the time. One was that the local bats slept in that roof, so once the shakes were gone, all the bats needed some other kind of housing. Ed built bat houses around for them out of the cedar shake remnants, but the last one he built didn’t quite get finished because it seemed to me that, as it was, it made a fine outdoor sculptural piece. The first photo above is of the incomplete bat house, which stands on a post about 25 or so feet off the ground, and lacks a front wall. If the wall had gone on it, bats would have roosted there, hanging upside down in their little individual cubbyholes. But it looks good in the snow, even without the bats.

The second thing we didn’t know was what happens to large snowfalls on metal roofs on a two-story house. It is a well-insulated roof, so it just stays pretty much the same temperature as the outside air and the snow on it. And the snow mounds up. So when there’s snow maybe 8 or so inches deep on it, it just sits there until the outer temperature starts to warm up. Then, the snow mass ever so slowly begins to slide down the steep slope of the roof. It projects out over the roof edge until the weight gets to be too much and then, suddenly, it all comes down at once, making a sound like a nearby explosion. The second picture is of that roof snow starting to slide down past the roof edge. About twenty minutes after the picture was taken, a very large amount of snow avalanched down on to the deck, which has glass panels on the front edge. Enough snow comes down, the panels are at risk.

I believe we are expecting snow tomorrow. Or at least I am. The odds would appear to be with me.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Half-Way Through

That is, to next Mid-Summer’s Night, to the Summer Solstice. That’s my idea of Christmas Dreaming. Well the storm roared into Seattle, according to my news sources, but not into the Sunshine Coast. When I quit last night at 11 p.m., it wasn’t snowing and we certainly were not having the promised ‘howling winds.’ This morning around 10 a.m., it did start snowing again and has continued throughout the day, but it is just an ordinary kind of snow storm. Two years ago, we had one like this and the photographic documentation of the 2006 and the 2008 storms are pretty much interchangeable.

The quilt, in between, is of the 2006 storm. No need to repeat making it.

So our power is still on and we can no more get out of the driveway today than we could yesterday. So, I’d say that today is Status Quo.

update: a phone call from a P.R. correspondent brings the news that the Point has about 4 more inches of snow, but has not had terrible wind. Good news, that!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind'

That’s what tonight promises us. We normally don’t get much snow in the winter, or very low temperatures, but we always get big wind. But tonight they are promising all three for our dining and dancing entertainment. The most immediate worry about a big wind storm is that we’ll lose the power and whether I’m in Roberts Creek in B.C., or in Point Roberts in WA, my locale will pretty much be the end of the list of places whose power needs to be and gets repaired. We have gas heat and cooking at both places, which is a very good feature, but we don’t have gas-powered internet or lighting.

No internet can be tolerated, I believe on principle, but the fact is I’m awfully used to just having it instantly and constantly available. No electric lights, on the other hand, is a little harder with the days being so short. But candles and propane lamps and flashlights are perfectly tolerable substitutes if it doesn’t go on for too long. I think the longest we’ve been without power in the past 16 years is about 3 days after one storm. Irritating, not desirable, but endurable. Some people seem very enthusiastic about generator backups (which are pretty pricey), but I’ve never found it necessary, probably because I don’t keep tons of food in the freezer.

The real thing to worry about is trees falling and big branches breaking off. The latter is particularly worrisome when the temperature is so low because the trees will have zero flexibility, will be very brittle. Both our houses are surrounded by many tall trees and the firs’ and maples’ branches, in particular, are prone to crashing down in big wind storms. Last winter, two of our neighbors had large branches come through their roofs. This is not good in a very big way, even if you are not in the room where it comes through to. Lots of people address this problem by cutting all the trees down on their property. They move up here because they love the trees, but they aren’t up to having them on their property. Good of us to keep them available for their scenery requirements. We can think of our place as a kind of tree zoo, I guess.

But at this moment, you just do what you can. I ground a container of coffee beans because we also don’t have a gas-powered coffee grinder. I put out the candles and matches and oil and propane lamps so they are readily available. Put my tiny flashlight in my pocket. And that’s about it. Ten o’clock tonight is the expected time of arrival. I’ll just go to bed then, anyway, and sleep through it, maybe. That would be good.

As Shakespeare reminded us, though, all those centuries ago:

"Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly. “

If I’m gone for a few days, you’ll know that life has just gotten very jolly.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bitter Night

Down to about 17 degrees F. (-8 C) and snow falling off and on throughout the day. This is definitely not the White Christmas I’d dream about if I were dreaming about one. The local/Vancouver news today is all about the homeless woman who died last night on a Vancouver street when the tarp-covered shopping cart she was sheltering under caught fire, apparently from a candle she lighted to try to provide herself with some warmth. Even though she was 42 years old, one’s mind goes to the Little Match Girl. Apparently the police had been in contact with her earlier in the evening and had urged her to go to one of the shelters, but she had refused and they judged her not to have mental problems and accepted her refusal.

We used to discuss this genre of problem frequently in my bioethics days: how far do you let people go in risking their lives? Great champions of patient autonomy, one and all, we would nod sagely that people have to be allowed to do what they want to. In the brief period when I was pitching bioethics stories to TV people, in fact, I almost sold a script based upon the story of a real-life, 8-months-pregnant woman living in an urban park near the university hospital where I worked. In real life, I thought she ought to be able to stay there, but in real life, the physicians at the hospital thought she shouldn’t and were happy to be convinced that she was endangering the life of another (the unborn child) as a result of either her mental illness or her failure to understand her situation and were happy to force her into the hospital.

Well, I probably was a stronger believer in letting people do what they wanted to in those days, but even then I talked to some people who worked with the homeless to find out why they insisted on staying in the streets even when there were shelters. Los Angeles homeless workers told me it was largely because the shelters were not, in fact, safe; that women, in particular, were preyed upon in the shelters by other homeless people after the lights went out.

So my response to the Vancouver situation is why wouldn’t this woman want to be indoors when it is 17 degrees F? She wasn’t out there because she was enjoying the brisk evening air. And now, everyone is appalled to hear of her death and appalled to think that the police didn’t have the legal authority to take her to a shelter against her will. No newsperson I heard today even asked why she wouldn’t have gone to a shelter. Isn’t that the question and the problem we should be addressing and correcting, not whether her autonomy should be respected? I’m pretty doubtful that homeless persons anywhere when the temperature is substantially below freezing are engaged in practicing their autonomy by risking death by hypothermia.

Point Roberts, as far as I know, does not have anyone homeless there. I suppose it is not so much because we are so kind-hearted and compassionate but because the homeless don’t have passports so they can’t cross the borders to get there. Here in B.C., on the Sunshine Coast, I suspect there are homeless people. The only ones I’ve ever heard about, though, were living up in the near mountains where it seems more like they are camping out than staying alive.

We don’t think about the homeless much, and especially when one comes from a warm climate like Santa Monica has. Up here on the border, though, it is not so warm, and right now it is unusually cold, so homelessness is a regular news story in the winter. I hope everyone who heard about that woman’s death last night thought about the homeless today and what they are going through. There was a homeless woman underneath a bridge as we drove up to B.C. on Wednesday. Her name was Dora. She was asking for money from people in cars driving onto the freeway from the corner she was standing on . I hope she’s still alive tonight. I hope she’s in a shelter. I hope she’s safe. But I know that most of us won’t be thinking about these people a week from now when the weather gets above freezing. Richest countries in the world; people freezing or setting themselves on fire in the streets trying to keep from freezing.

I don’t think it was anyone’s personal duty to keep her alive; I’m not looking to allot blame. But this is a civilized society and I genuinely don’t understand why we can't do better than this.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beam Up the Spider, Scotty

It’s winter: snow, wind, Christmas, fireplace, the whole 9 yards. Which means that it is the time of year in the Pacific Northwest when you wrap yourself in a nice quilt near the fireplace, turn on a direct light, and read an engrossing book. So picturesque: the fireplace glow and crackle, the quilt so cozy, the light illuminating me on the couch near the fire with the book, while the rest of the room is only lightly lighted. And then, in my peripheral vision, I see a mouse run across the cream-colored carpet and under the chair. Except it is not a mouse. It is never a mouse. It is, instead, a spider as big as a mouse. I don’t know where they go in the summer, spring, and fall. I know them only in winter. Maybe in the other seasons they are just growing in order to achieve their full size in the dead of winter.

Seeing the spider reminded me to find out something about arachnology and arachnophobia, relevant information up here where there are more easily visible spiders than anywhere I’ve otherwise lived. Not more than anywhere, of course, just more than in my previous experience. I’m not afraid of spiders; never have been and the fact that my older daughter at one time was managing the American Tarantula Society would have required me to get over it if I had, I guess, but it surprises me that so many people are afraid of them, given that spiders, even tarantulas, are so extremely small. Even one the size of a mouse (in overall outline) has the mass of a butterfly. So what’s that fear about? At this site, they say that fear of spiders is much more common in European countries and is somehow associated, after the 10th century, with disease. But the authors also say it is a culturally transmitted fear.

I used to think it was some kind of learned fear, but I have seen enough families (including my own) where one kid is terrified and the next one indifferent to suspect that it is genetic. The other day, Yahoo News was claiming that there was a gene for recognizing Brittney Spears (or someone like that), so why not a gene for being afraid of spiders? (It's surely easier to argue some kind of evolutionary potential for the latter than the former.) If it’s genetically based among those with a European ancestry, then it would make sense that people with the gene are largely unreachable with respect to discussing this fear on a rational basis.

My oldest granddaughter has the (alleged) gene and she can be (and has been) reasonable enough not to faint or nearly faint upon seeing them, but she is absolutely unwilling to touch them. When one shows up in the bathtub, one of us un-spider-gened people must rescue her. I myself don’t much like picking them up, but that is because in the process of chasing them around the tub, I’m afraid I’m going to kill them with an awkward grab. They can’t get out of the sink or tub and they really want to but they are not anxious to have a big human hand doing the heavy lifting for perfectly good reasons. But that means that lifting them out is no easy task.

We get a lot of them in the tubs and sinks. And another thing I want to know is how they get there. I sort of vaguely thought they might come up through the drains, but Ed says that makes no sense since they’d have to swim their way up. So, what’s the alternative? They suddenly fall off the ceiling? They walk up the outside of the tub but can’t walk back up from the inside? I don’t know; they are really mysterious creatures. Where’s the Tarantula Society (or just the Really Big Black Spider Organization) when you need them?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

She's Canadian, You Know

Not enough that Michael Ignatieff turns out to be Canadian. Now Naomi Klein also turns out to be Canadian. Maybe Canada should take over the U.S. instead of the other way round? How come Canada is producing public intellectuals at such a pace? This past week’s New Yorker has a feature article on Naomi Klein and her role as the voice of the New, New Left in the U.S., and beyond, which provides some answers.

I don’t know a lot about her writing, other than a section of The Shock Doctrine (which I suspect was published in Harper’s) that I read several months ago, and which was very interesting in a provocative way. As a former member of the old new left, and a current member of the old old left, I’m very interested in the new new left, but I am somewhat surprised (and pleased) to find that Canada is producing its leaders and that its main voice is female. Take that, Hillary Clinton--next time try the left instead of the center.

But then the second part of being surprised about all this is to find that Ms. Klein’s parents live here nearby us in Roberts Creek, B.C. (at least they do while we are in residence here; when we’re in Point Roberts, they have to live here without us). I met the mom once, some years ago, but just in passing. She is also political in her orientation but currently as a disability activist, subsequent to a stroke which rendered her seriously disabled. So, assuming she and her daughter are on good enough terms, I will be looking to see not only Joni Mitchell but also Naomi Klein in the local grocery store. It’s getting to be like Beverly Hills up here. Except for the fact that this week the roads are covered with ice and the not-roads are covered with snow, which makes it more like Minnesota with hills, where the temperature is, day after day, about 20 degrees F., although, in B.C., it’s actually more like –5.5 degrees C.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mr. Boyd's Girlfriend's House

This is what I call The Covered House, but is perhaps more aptly called Mr. Boyd’s Girlfriend’s House. After I found Mr. Boyd’s house and photographed it, people on the Point told me that there was another abandoned house on Rex Road. I went back but couldn’t find it. So they described it for me more carefully. ‘It’s right after you turn onto Rex Road.’ If it were this week, they could say, ‘It’s right across from that snowman in an inflatable globe.’ Then I would have found it maybe, but back in 2001, I definitely didn’t.

Time passed and yet someone else would tell me about the second abandoned house on Rex Road and occasionally I’d drive by but see nothing. Then, I drove by in 2003 in the winter and saw it. Covered in spring and summer by the luxurious growth, it was visible (and even then just barely) only when the leaves began to shrivel or disappear from the abundant brambles. It was like finding Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The house was right where people had told me it was: on the south side, just after you turn onto Rex Road from Marine Drive. In fact, it is only about 20 feet from the road.

So I produced the wall quilt, ‘The Covered House,’ and went on to looking for other abandoned houses, although I continued to visit all the already-found houses on occasion and rephotograph them. The Covered House in summer was as splendid as the covered house in fall, now that I knew where to look for it. Its only visibly recognizable part was one stone chimney.

Then, one day in 2005, I took one of my grandchildren who had seen the quilt to see the house. To my very great surprise, the brambles had been cut back and the entrance to the house was now not only visible but accessible. We poked around a bit, even got a little inside to take some additional pictures of the chaos that was clearly visible: furniture tossed round, shelves fallen over. For the first time, I understood that it was a log house with two fireplaces, pretty much in the same style as Mr. Boyd’s house.

When we were about to leave, a man from the house across the street (the snowman globe owner, I guess) came out and asked what we were doing. I explained who I was and what I was doing and he told me that awhile back he had seen some people coming around and photographing the house. For some reason (he knew Mr. Boyd, perhaps), he felt some obligation toward the house. I think he thought the photographers might be from the county or some kind of agency that would cause the owner grief, so he cut back the brambles so the house would look better. Of course, it now made it a real attractive nuisance: with the brambles, you could barely see it and you certainly couldn’t get into it; with the brambles cut back, anybody could go inside and that was one falling down house. Pretty dangerous, I would have said, but I have zero risk tolerance.

I return now and then to the house. The neighbor has let it go back to its natural state, perhaps understanding that it is only me visiting occasionally, taking yet another picture. This is the photo from last week, before winter came. It’s looking more decrepit, but more decently covered. It’s falling apart, but it hasn’t fallen down.

The story I got from the neighbor was that Mr. Boyd built the house for his girlfriend, but that when the relationship fell apart, she left Point Roberts. He then closed the house and never again went near it. The neighbor is the one who told me that the current owner is Mr. Boyd’s nephew, who lives in Vancouver. All hearsay, of course.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Going Postal For Christmas

Update, below.

Today is the day when all my feelings about the Post Office sink to the lowest possible level. Indeed, the last time it was this low was 364 days ago, which was the last time I went to mail Christmas packages from the post office. The thing is, there’s this basic problem and the basic problem is not particularly complex but the post office seens absolutely committed to ignoring it. It isn’t the local post office people who refuse to do anything, though. At least my guess is that the decision not to address the problem emanates from somewhere farther south of us in the postal bureaucracy located in ROTUS.

The problem is this. We have a tiny post office here in Point Roberts, staffed by maybe four people at the counter. They have other people doing other things, but the people who take things from you and deliver things unto you at the post office are about four in number. And then take into account that there are about 2,300 private mail boxes at the post office. In fact, there are almost twice as many post office mail boxes as there are permanent residents here. So there are a very large number of people who are getting and sending packages at Christmas time.

We also have a lot of bulk mailers who, I am told, come down from Canada to mail their dozens of packages at a time from Point Roberts because it’s cheaper, if they’re mailing to the U.S., to mail from the U.S. Understandable; I got it. It’s okay with me.

But during the first half of December, in particular, the bulk mailing and the local package mailing and local package receiving all get too much for the little post office. And so we have the problem of one’s arriving at the post office to mail a Christmas package or to pick up a Christmas package, at which point one finds 15 to 20 people in line. This line is essentially unmoving because at the front of the line (which has only two counter positions) are two bulk mailers with their dozens and dozens and dozens of packages. They have special carts to carry them, those packages are so many in their numbers.

Today, I was in line for 45 minutes to mail my package. The bulk mailers occupying the two wickets took about 20 minutes each. At the peak, there were 22 people in line, about half of whom were there only to pick up a package. Now, in case the P.O. people have never thought about this, here’s a couple of suggestions:

1. How about having one line for the bulk mailers, defined as anyone with more than 10 packages to mail, and the second line for everyone else?
2. How about (if there is staff available, or how about making staff available for those 2 weeks) opening the parcel window door for a third line where people who are just picking up packages can do so (as they do for 90 minutes on Saturday all year when that’s the only service available at the post office)?
3. How about having special mailing times just for bulk mailers and other special mailing times just for non-bulk mailers?

The Post Office seems pretty committed to the principle “First Come First Served.” But given that we dispensed with habeas corpus over the past decade, couldn’t we dispense with the FCFS principle too? Or at least consider whether fairness and equity could be achieved in other ways? I love the post office and its staff here and I hate that they make me so mad at them!

Update: I am told by a local resident that there is an informal policy that bulk mailers are not to show up between 8 and 9:30, nor between 2 and 2:30. Not advertised, of course. It helps to be connected, even here, to actually get the whole picture!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Visit to a Former House

Cold and snowy today, which transforms the landscape. Last Thursday, though, it was still fall, and I drove around to check up on some of the abandoned houses. I almost always start the circuit with the Boyd House, which is located at the end of Rex Road, were Mark St. crosses it. Well, that is to say that is where the house would be if the house were still there. But it’s been gone for about six years.

Back around 2000, when I first started tracking these houses, the Boyd house was the first one I ever saw AND also was able to go inside of. It was pretty scary, because even then, it was falling down. The roof had a great sag to it and big holes where the cedars shakes had decayed out; the walls had large openings; the floors were pretty hit and miss; the windows all broken out. But it was an interesting house. It was a small log house and the walls had many 4-6 foot paintings of Inuit totem animals. The fireplace looked like you still might be able to use it. There was nothing inside the house; i.e., no furniture or long-abandoned boxes of mouldy books (both of which turn out to be pretty common in these houses).

I took lots of pictures of it, and within a month or so had completed a small wall quilt memorializing it.

It wasn’t surprising that within a year or so it had collapsed under the force of snow and the winter’s customary big winds. And it lay all about on the ground for awhile.

One day in 2005 when I went to see it, the collapsed house had been disappeared. Instead, the land was covered with trailers. I couldn’t tell what was going on and I knew no one on the street to ask, so I just photographed and moved on.


This week, the trailers are gone and, next door to the former Boyd house, a large new house with an elaborate garden has arisen. And the Boyd house, which appeared to be gone in the photo from 2005, now appears to be stacked neatly on the ground in various piles: logs here, stones there, foundation where I last left it.

I know a little about the house, or at least I have been told a little by various people who purport to speak with authority but I have no way of knowing what is true. Mr. Boyd, I am told, was a hippy who came here in the 1960’s and built this log house to live in. He was eccentric, even for a hippy, and did not have plumbing in the house. He would visit neighbors periodically and ask whether he could use their bathrooms to take a brief shower. Within the house, there were areas cut out in the floor down to the ground so that local small animals (raccoons, in particular) could visit the house. Mr. Boyd also had a girlfriend here in Point Roberts, but that’s part of the story of another abandoned house. At some point before I moved here, he died. And the property is said to belong now to a relative in Vancouver. But maybe none of that is true. Maybe the true story is yet out there to be gathered.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Very Late Night Coffee

We spent the last 30 hours out in Rotus (the Rest of the U.S.), driving down to Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, to visit an old friend from California who has joined the general progress to the Northwest. South Whidbey, it appears, is rapidly filling up with our old friends and neighbors. (In urban California, not categories to be confused, generally.)

On our way, we stopped in Bellingham to get gas, where prices turned out to be very cheap. Point Roberts’ five gas stations appear to operate, for the most part, as a resource for Canadian drivers who would just as soon not pay the high taxes that Canada reasonably adds to its gasoline prices. The real costs of using gasoline, of course, are not just the costs of getting it out of the ground, refining it, and getting it into our cars. Instead, they also include all the costs generated by the CO2 that gas-run cars generate, CO2 that muddies the air we breathe and warms the globe as an afterthought. Canada, like Europe, adds some to gas taxes to take that into account as well as to increase the price so that people pay more attention to using it carefully. The U.S., unwisely, does not.

The result of this is that Point Roberts' gas stations are more likely to be competing with British Columbia’s gas prices than with Whatcom county’s gas prices. Yesterday, in Bellingham, the lowest price I saw was $1.59/gallon. The price in Point Roberts was $2.65 earlier in the week, and $2.17 this evening. So that’s a negative feature of living here in the exclave: higher priced gas. On the other hand, it’s as well to discourage use by higher pricing. But I guess I’d prefer that the increased price was going to taxes rather than to even higher oil company/gas station operator profits.

The Bellingham gas station had pumps that could accommodate about 12 – 16 cars at a time and, since it was all credit card driven, very fast. Cars got in and out quickly, but there was, nevertheless, a line, in which we were number six. I don’t think I’ve been in a gas station line-up since the late 1970’s when we had the great national gasoline shortage and people were shooting each other for jumping the lines. Yet one more opportunity to be remembering various sorts of bad old days. Gas shortages, depressions, stock brokers jumping out of windows, soup kitchens.

While we waited, I noticed next to us a maybe 25-square-foot building which advertised itself as an espresso hut. Not so strange except that it is open 24 hours a day. Perhaps too long in Point Roberts, I cannot for a moment imagine why anyone any place in the world would need a 24-hour espresso hut, let alone enough people to make it profitable. Is the larger world really filled with lots of people roaming around at 3 a.m. feeling a big need for espresso? Why would that be the case? Coming home from a late shift, a graveyard shift? Surely espresso would not be what is needed. Surely the next point would be sleeping not caffeine injections.

A truly strange form of economic development, but there it was, obviously in business. Could this substitute for our failure to have local pizza delivery? After all, if Bellingham can have multiple 24-hour espresso huts, why can’t we have at least one? Don't we want to be just a little more like Rotus, just a little wider awake?

Friday, December 12, 2008

More Christmas

Each December, one finds more and more displays that boggle the mind. I don’t even know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly isn’t like the good old days in Pocatello, Idaho, when your dad put up a string of lights around your doorway about this time of year. Well, maybe he did, depending, but lots of dads did and the modest colored lighting seemed to change the world.

We're not so easy to impress nowadays. The commercial establishments are of course all out, but even householders have such things as a sleigh plus a full complement of reindeer and Santa carousing across their rooftops with flood lights worthy of a Hollywood premier. There’s a house at the end of our street that looks like something out of Las Vegas or Tokyo with its large array of very bright red and green lights. If my dad were still alive, he’d be saying, ‘Do they think they own the electric company?’

The pictured inflatable Santa Claus globe is sort of modest, I guess, at least as far as electricity use goes. You can see it on the north side of Rex Road. It’s maybe four-feet high, and has lights illuminating it. But the feature is that the snow blows around inside the globe constantly, accompanied by the whirring sound of the motor. Well, God Bless Us, Every One.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

No Singing, No Dancing: Oh! Canada!

Well, they’re not singing and they’re not dancing in Canada’s parliament, I suspect. Nervously looking back over their shoulders, instead, maybe, trying to figure out what happens next. Only a week ago, it looked like the Liberal leader, Dion, was about to emerge as Prime Minister in a coalition government, once the current Prime Minister, Harper, was forced out by a ‘loss of confidence’ vote.

Harper postponed what everybody accepted would be a losing vote for the Conservatives and then worked out a plan that looked very unlikely to work (for about two days), until it worked. He asked the Governor General to simply send the Parliament home until the end of January. (I think it’s called proroguing. If we could do that in the U.S., of course, the Congress might be sent to its room, as it were, on a near continual basis except for when a budget bill was needed.)

So, the Parliament has gone home, Harper is still the Prime Minister, and Stephane Dion who looked to be about to become the new Prime Minister only a week ago, has now resigned his leadership position and has been replaced by Michael Ignatieff.

Long before I moved up to the border and long before we bought a house in Canada, I knew about Michael Ignatieff. He first came to my attention back in the early 80’s, I’d guess, when he published an essay in The New Republic about Americans’ difficulties with health care. He was writing, at the time—as all of us in bioethics were—about end-of-life treatment decisions. Now, that stuff seems pretty old hat (not that we’ve got it straightened out, but still, it’s no longer ‘new stuff’), but back then, it was pretty interesting to read the views of someone outside the field of bioethics, someone who brought an entirely different way of looking at things. We were all focused on patient autonomy and patient consent, and he was talking about how to understand health care in the larger scale of the meaning and purpose of a whole life that inevitably had to end. He was, in particular, urging a more stoical view with respect to what old age and the deteriorating physical condition of the aged meant for a whole life, not just a view that saw only that particular moment in a hospital ICU.

It was heady stuff, and I was really impressed by it. As a result, I kept my eye out for things he was publishing, mostly essays. At the time, he was teaching at Cambridge or Oxford, as I recall, and I thought he was British. Next thing, he shows up at Harvard, directing the Center for Human Rights. People who first knew his work from that period often thought he was an American. It was only after I moved up to the Northwest that I discovered he was, in fact, a Canadian. He parachuted into the political scene up here only 2+ years ago, after a long absence from the country.

The thing is, he’s a real public intellectual; the real thing, just as Isaiah Berlin (whose biography Ignatieff wrote) was. And he is close to leading an entire country. Much of the political left in the U.S. would think that might be a very good thing, but not a thing we would ever get to see. So, I’m happy to think that Canada will be at least considering taking that step. To my eyes, Harper looks way too much like Bush, so the choice would be an easy one. But Canadian eyes may see things differently.

Anyway, Ignatieff writes not only philosophical essays, but novels, memoirs, biography, whatever form is on offer, I suspect. I particularly liked his novel, Charlie Johnson in the Flames, which is about a journalist and the ways in which journalists/writers get caught up in warfare. (It’s kind of a companion piece, in my mind, to Chris Hedges’ War Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning). But I also was very impressed by The Warrior’s Honor. He’s written a couple dozen books, so there’s some subject that would interest most anyone, I think. Ignatieff supported Bush’s decision to go after Saddam Hussein, and I’m sure there are other places where he and I would part company about moral and political values. But I would never NOT take his ideas very seriously before I thought about disagreeing with them. Lucky Canada to have him in a place of influence. That’s my view, anyway.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

They're Singing! They're Dancing!

It is the Christmas Season, so I suppose there is no particular reason to avoid any sentimental moment that is out there to be indulged in, although I’m pretty immune to the shopping stuff. Today I was over in Tsawwassen and after doing the laundry at the laundromat and spending $3.00 each at the Dollar Store and the Thrift Store, I was ready to call it a Christmas shopping day and get back across the border where there is consumer safety. But the sentimental moments are different from shopping. There is, for example, the local school’s Christmas Program, which was held tonight from 6-7 p.m.

Actually, it went on rather longer and may have started earlier, but we arrived for the main event and left just as Santa Claus arrived to bestow his goods. The kids in Point Roberts who are actually in public school in Point Roberts are few in number. And the number is exactly 12, and each of the 12 has a pretty exotic name. We are not doing Mary’s or John’s or even Emma’s up here. More like Trinity and Marisol and Tristian.

It is just grades K-2; after that, they have to take the bus over and across the border to Blaine, or betake themselves to some private school in Canada. The school building here on the Point is small, but relatively new because up until fairly recently, they all went down to Blaine on the bus. They have a single teacher for their tiny school house (and maybe a volunteer assistant), but she surely has one of the best jobs in the world, although one that leaves her plenty tired by the end of each school day, I imagine.

The Christmas program tonight appeared to feature everybody in the school. Everyone got a speaking part, everyone got a singing part, and, finest of all, everyone got a dancing part. The evening began with a play about snow coming to Point Roberts and a few kids deciding to build a snowman; other kids wanted to join in, but they were sent off to their own activities until the original snowman builders figured out that they really needed more hands for this job than they had. Then everybody joined in, the snowman got built, the value of solidarity was established. Touched by the solidarity, the snow fairy came, during the night, and tapped the snowman with her magic wand so he could be alive. And when the kids came to school the next morning, they all, children and snowman, danced for joy. The end. I’ve seen this play before; we’ve all seen it, but it’s a play I’m happy to see over and over.

After that, the kids sang some songs and recited some poems and then ended the evening with a rousing singing-dancing rendition of, as the program named it, “La Ku Ka Ra Cha” (which made it look like it might be going to be a what? Korean? version of this Mexican classic). I don’t believe I have ever seen a Christmas program that included La Cucaracha, but it makes an excellent finale. Maybe it should always be included for Christmas; maybe ‘The Nutcracker’ performances could stick it in as an additional dance?

I don’t know how many children's Christmas programs I’ve seen by this time in my life: my own, my sisters’ and brothers’, my children's, my friends’ children's, my grandchildren's. And now I’m going to kids’ Christmas programs where I know not a kid among the performers. But it’s always just as wonderful as the first time. The kids are so intent, so enthusiastic, so visibly nervous. But at the same time, they are obviously just killing themselves to do a good job. And a good job it always is.

They’re all at home by now, still flushed with excitement, trying hard not to let go of it as they also try to go to sleep. It’s like the old joke (although the joke is originally about elephants, it's truer of children): How can you get children out of the theater? You can’t. It’s in their blood.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Under the Canopy

We had dinner with friends last night, one of whom referred to Point Roberts as ‘the last great nowhere surrounded by somewhere.’ That’s a good description. Its nowhere-ness is one of its most soothing qualities. When I was making the quilts of the abandoned houses on the Point, I used to think of Point Roberts as the place where dreams go to die, and certainly that was true of the dreams that produced those houses. Over the years, they have continued their dying, and now many of them are actually dead: blown down by winter winds, dug up and carried off by contractors and land owners with new dreams that will maybe work out better. I visit the houses that remain fairly frequently, taking new pictures of them, and it is about time for another set of those pictures.

But not today. Today, we are all about coming to Point Roberts. The photo above is of the canopy of trees that you see as you pass through the border station and enter this place. At the end of that road--on a day with sun--is the silver sheen of the ocean. The canopy looks the same, summer and winter for the most part, because the trees that make an impression are the tall Douglas firs, the hemlocks, and the red cedars, which are the primary evergreen forest trees here, with the occasional Grand Fir making its own impressive appearance. By now, all the deciduous trees have shed what is to be shed and it is only the skeletal outlines of the tall alders and big-leaf maples, the cottonwoods, poplars, and willows that fill our skies along with the evergreens. In spring, all different, of course. But not now.

A number of people who live here have commented to me on occasion what it is like to see that canopy on each return to the Point: a feeling of being rescued, of calmness, of serenity, of enclosure and safety. On the other side of our border is Tsawwassen, a text-book suburban/exurban town with houses laid too close, each one very much next to the other because land is too valuable not to get a lot of house placed upon it; a town with lots of clustered shops and malls, with sidewalks and streetlights. But with no canopy of trees like the one on Tyee Drive. That is partly because the roads there are too wide and partly because there is less unhoused land there, land with nothing to do but house trees. Tsawwassen is a part of the world of busy houses and busy clocks; and Point Roberts is not.

So, it’s good to be nowhere; it’s good to be under the canopy. But it’s also good to be surrounded by somewhere if you happen to have a need for what somewhere has to offer: all the things that flow from clocks, mostly: trains, planes, buses, high culture, and the availability of made things, many of them beautiful and many not. The city, I found, was often too much with me, late and soon; Point Roberts, by contrast, leaves you room.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Here's Where I Am

We have generally been early adopters of new technology and that is what made moving up to the Northwest reasonable for us, as we were both still working part-time when we came here and even that early 1992 version of the Internet made much communication possible if you knew how to make it work. I bought my first computer in 1983, I believe: a Kaypro with CP/M, a 9-inch screen, and a word processing program named perfect writer, and perfect it was. I still miss that program; only yesterday, I was complaining to Ed that perfect writer made it possible for me to capitalize all the letters in a section with an easy block and control-u. As far as I know, word doesn’t do that.

So I am not a believer, generally, in the idea that all technological change is in fact progress. For the record, I think that CPM was a better operating system to start with and that WYSIWYG is an infinitely inferior way to do word processing (for those who don’t remember, that means ‘what you see is what you get’), and that is what word gives us. However, we are Technology R Us, for the most part: digital cameras, Ipods, multiple computers, printers, scanners, wi-fi, blue-tooth stuff, thumb drives, flash cards, external drives, not to mention the helicopter simulator with GPS.

What I do not have is a cell phone, which makes it of some relevance that, according to the December newspaper, the opponents of the Verizon cell-phone tower to be built in Point Roberts have finally given up. I doubt if they’ve changed their minds about it being a bad idea to erect that tower, but maybe they’ve run out of money for the lawyer or maybe the lawyer has convinced them that this is a losing battle. The tower is to be built in Baker Field, which is public land and something of a recreational area for residents. There is, I believe, a baseball field there and the skateboard park is also in that area. However, it is also home to a water tower and an old landfill. The Parks Board saw the tower as reasonable use and benefit to the community (both because cell phones would then be fully usable here and because there would be some revenue from the land lease that would serve local needs). There was some concern from the opposition that the towers were dangerous (from a physical well-being perspective), but now they seem to be saying that their opposition was based upon the need for preserving public green zones.

For the rest of us, the change in this policy largely means that we can buy, if we have not previously bought, a cell phone and join the 21st Century in that manner. Ed actually has a cell phone because he needs it when he is flying, but it doesn’t work here, so it’s very much like not having one, given that he flies only a couple of times a month. The one time I borrowed his, I locked my keys in the car in Bellingham and very much could have used the phone to call AAA, if only I could have figured out how to turn it on. Which I never figured out and just went into a store where I’d just bought something and asked to use their phone. Simple enough.

Children, grandchildren, friends, relatives, and acquaintances in the outer world all have these phones and, I guess, they must find them useful since they seem to use them all the time. Since I rarely get to the rest of the world, I rarely see anyone with a cell phone unless I have for some reason come near a high school where every student seems to be in constant communication with somebody. In addition, at the airport and on buses, I am exposed to very expansive cell phone use. And by expansive, I mean that those cell phone conversations expand to cover everybody in the space. My basic understanding of the cell phone from these experiences is that the primary purpose is for people to be able to call those near and dear in order to say, “Honey, I’m on the bus/plane now.’ Followed by other home chat of no interest to anyone including the direct participants. Except that I feel like I am a direct participant. No longer any public space and public space rules in the world of the cell phone user; the users’ view seems to be that wherever they and their phones are is private space and outsiders who are inexplicably there should have the decency to avert their eyes and take up deafness.

Well, who knows? I suppose I’ll eventually end up with my own cell phone and then I can call Rose when I’m driving the mile-and-a-half to her house and tell her that I’m almost there.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas Coming

The holiday festivities are moving in. Two days ago, as a December opener, the Point Roberts quilt group had its annual Christmas potluck dinner. We always have it at the same house: the person who has the biggest house AND who decorates a lot for Christmas. This year, we invited the husbands, as well, in order to make sure all the food gets eaten up, but also because we like them, as individuals and as a group. We did, however, make them sit all together at one table while the quilters sat all together at a different (but equal) table. It really was pretty much equal, anyway. Word comes back to me that they discussed gardening and, briefly, the unfortunate situation in the stock market (Least said, soonest mended?).

After dinner, the quilters traded little four-inch squares called ‘fat book pages.’ We all ended up with eleven pages, each one made by a different member of the group (except for Natalie, who is away for the winter). Next, we will take the pages back to our own workspaces and make an exquisite cover for them: a book of and for a 2008 Christmas. I have known and worked with these 12 quilters for about 14 years and they are wonderful women, every one, so I am especially pleased to have this memento gift.

This is about my most Christmas experience of the year, as I quit having trees and buying gifts (except for grandchildren) and all the accompanying foofara when the children stopped being around for Christmas…maybe twenty years ago? And we don’t go anywhere for Christmas; well, we go to B.C., but that doesn’t count as anywhere in the sense of going somewhere for Christmas. Up there, our neighbors usually invite us for Boxing Day dinner (the day when the peasants are traditionally offered the leftovers from the Christmas dinner—and very grateful to be the peasant of choice.).

But Point Roberts is not short on the Christmas stuff. There was the Christmas Craft Fair in mid-November, and today is the Christmas Seniors Tea at the Community Center, where the Woodwind Ensemble will perform. Also, at the grocery store today, there were two women dressed in Santa hats who rang excellent bells to encourage us to donate to PAWS, a group that deals with animal welfare here on the Point. Mr. Drew of Drewhenge has severely trimmed his cedar hedge and left lovely-smelling stacks of cedar boughs with a written invitation to all who might need a little cedar bough Christmas addition to make free with them. The Blue Heron is having an opening exhibit today of gorgeous glass work which, by its very glitteriness, speaks of the season at hand. There will be a Christmas Musical Offering next week and the children’s art exhibit, to be held at the Marina, and the First Lutheran Church has, of course, a series of programs and services for everyone.

Even the weather is cooperating, as it has been getting very close to freezing at night. Often we get a little snow by Christmas Day, but that is actually a Christmas tradition I can do without. Today, the parking lot at the post office was absolutely full at noon, which is another traditional Christmas experience. The post office is barely open today (only to pick up packages for 90 minutes). But there’s a lot of Christmas packages that appear here, and clearly the P.O. rush is well underway. With Christmas advancing this fast, I really should get the garden to bed, a fall tradition in which I participate only reluctantly. Here I am: an Autumn and Christmas slacker.

Friday, December 5, 2008

International Event

Some months ago, when I was looking at the Google counter device that I wrote about yesterday, I noticed that there was an abrupt up-tick in South African visitors. Somebody/somebodies in Pretoria were reading a lot of my blog pages, somebody who had made no such a visit in all the previous existence of the blog. I can’t imagine how visitors from other countries, in particular, stumble upon the blog. It does not (something of an understatement here) have a particularly large presence on the World Wide Web, as we used to call it before it just morphed into ‘the net.’ I do know people who live in other countries—mostly England and France. On the other hand, I definitely know no one in South Africa.

Then, maybe a month or so into the South African presence on the counter, there appeared a comment writer who said that she and her husband were planning to move to Point Roberts from South Africa and were so pleased to be getting all this information. Mystery solved…sort of. At least I knew why she might be interested in P.R. But I certainly couldn’t imagine why somebody in Pretoria would ever think to move here. Nothing against either place…but it just seemed an even bigger jump than usual for the ‘how did you get to Point Roberts?’ sweepstakes questionnaire.

Eventually, she emailed me (my email address is on the blog in the 'profile'), I wrote back, and got to know her a little. And this past week, she and her husband appeared on our doorstop for lunch (with an invitation, of course) and I got to know them both a little better yet. My grandmother, who was born in 1888, and lived to see the space program (and all the technological and cultural changes in between) used to talk about how all this change made her breathless if she thought about it too much. I feel a little the same way about this visit: how did we get to the place where this kind of thing happens so easily? And, if it happens to me, it must happen to lots of people. In fact, one of the Point quilters is expecting a previously-unknown visitor from Israel this coming week. The Israeli lady googled ‘Point Roberts’ and ‘quilts’ and my friend’s web page came up. Emails were interchanged, and now the Israeli is visiting Vancouver and would like to come see Point Roberts and my friend. So, how’s that for social networking?

My South Africans, it turns out have an adult child living in Vancouver and another one in Atlanta, Georgia, and have obtained green cards to live and work in the U.S. So they will be bringing their sail boat to Point Roberts one of these days, building a house on their lot, and joining the endless festivities that make up Point Roberts, at home and at the border. After spending an afternoon with them, I’m pretty sure they’ll fit right in. Like me, she’s a charter member of the Society of English majors and also a gardener; like Ed, he’ll add to the stock of engineers around as well as to the boat people. And like everybody here, they're attracted by the strangeness of it all.

They arrived bearing a jar of ‘Merula Jellie’ for me, in honor of my interest in elephants. As they explained, every American they have ever met has seen the movie ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy,’ and in that director’s second film, 'Animals Are Beautiful People,' the elephants get into the merula fruit (a kind of loquat-like fruit) and when it ferments in their stomachs, they all become tipsy. Today we are dining on the deliciously delicate merula jelly and bread; tomorrow, we’ll be seeing the movie. International influence...makes me a little tipsy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Blog Network

I heard Twitter described today as a ‘mini-blog’. Very helpful, as I had not otherwise figured what Twitter was about, although I tried it a few times. Somehow, writing down what I am doing at just this moment seems monumentally boring, not only to the writer but also to the reader. Facebook has a similar feature and it has about the same mashed-potato quality to it: recognizable, clearly food, but not very tasty on its own. Needs gravy, salt, cheese, onions, something. With a real blog, I think you get more of the tastiness. Or at least you should.

I read a lot of blogs, but mostly I read political blogs. So, it may be puzzling that I don’t want to write a political blog. The reason, I think, is that there are plenty of people far more knowledgeable about politics than I am. I follow politics closely; I worked for a U.S. Congressman some years ago, I read obsessively about it, but I don’t feel any particular need to put it all together into a single picture. By contrast, writing about Point Roberts seems more manageable: it has the advantage of being a strange place and one’s views about it are unlikely (usually) to elicit strong reactions; the kinds of feelings that cause friends/relatives/strangers to vent their disagreement with and disapproval of you.

Since my blog isn’t one that has a lot of reader comments, isn’t a bid to create a ‘forum discussion community,’ it may not seem, to the readers, to be much in the way of a network. The readers know a lot about me, but they don’t know each other for the most part, and I don’t know them either (with the exception of close friends, children and grandchildren). But I do know more about them—about you—than you/they think.

My blog has a google counter on it and it tells me something about you all. I know how many of you there are in any given 30-day period (usually 300-400 unique individuals who look at the blog during that time at least once) and how many of you there are on any given day (15-40), I know what continent and even what country you are from. I know in what city your internet server has its place of business., and I know about how long each visitor from each place spends in an average visit, and how many pages he/she reads. I know what internet browsers people use (47% Internet Explorer, 40% Firefox, and 11% Safari—apparently the Mac crowd isn’t interested in Point Roberts). And, finally, I know whether your connection is by cable, DSL line, OC3 line, or a T1 line. Why I would want to know this latter is beyond my technical capacities, but I offer it because it may have more meaning to you.

The information changes from day to day, from month to month, and so I have some sense of you out there and your responses. But, of course, I don’t really know anything about you. Recently, someone in Hawaii visited the blog and spent about ten minutes each time. There were three such Hawaiian visits, though I don’t know whether it was the same person each time. But I want to say that I hope the weather is beautiful there now.

Right from the beginning, there has been a steady stream of visits from Plano, Texas. I don’t think I know anybody in Plano or even nearby Plano, but there are a lot of visits from an ISP there, and I want to take this opportunity to say thanks for coming by. And to the rest of you too, the Americans, Canadians, Brits, South Africans, Australians, Italians, French, Mexicans (all from this past month). At a miminum, you brighten my day just by your being there, even if I don’t know exactly who you are. Beyond that, you are the audience whom I think about when I write, so you are very present in every page, and I think about the writing as something of which we are both a part. I’m not here just talking to myself.

However, I can’t send you a card because—despite all I do know about you--I don’t know your name or email address. So, this one’s for you: Good Wishes, Good Times for the Season, Much Thanks, and I’ll Be Seeing You Always.