hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

End of the Year

End of the Year

The January All Point Bulletin is out with its recap of what we’ve all been through this past year in Point Roberts.  Although it's been a kind of crushing year for many, many people, the Point has come through pretty well, I’d think.  The library and the Parks Board got their levy increases, and there is a move afoot to try to encourage the County to do something about restoring the dock/boat launch at Light House Park.  All good things.  More of Lily Point was conserved and it appears that the historic remains will remain where they historically have been.  There have been deaths of course, perhaps most notably,  that of Irene Waters, but that is the truth of every year.  And we haven’t lost anything --other than dock and the curbside trash collection--that we formerly had, although one of the banks is looking a little poorly.

The newspaper also has a bunch of cheerful letters, thanking people for good things that came to pass recently.  And then, at the very end of this letter string, there is a downer:  a letter, initially about the Aydon Wellness Clinic, which the letter writer is hoping will soon go out of existence, because, apparently, it is a great burden on his existence.

Of course, many other people—probably most residents of Point Roberts-- find the clinic very helpful, find its staff knowledgeable and resourceful and able to get them to more complex health care when it is needed.  Thus, it’s a little hard to sympathize with whatever personal burden the letter writer feels about the clinic’s existence. 

Not content with hoping for the end of the clinic, the letter writer takes on health care reform as well, which he also hopes will go out of existence.  I spent a lot of years working in and around health care, so I’m pretty sympathetic to those who are frustrated with how the ‘system’ (or ‘no-system’) works.  But our letter writer’s grievance is largely that he is going to have to buy health insurance, even though he’d rather spend his money on gym membership and natural food supplements.  But he’s not going to buy health insurance, he says.

Well, I doubt if he’s discovered the secret of eternal life, either in gyms or health food stores or organic vegetables.  But I certainly hope that he’s willing to follow a life of true principle such that when and if he should experience the ominous chest pain that might precede a heart attack, or the strangely slurred speech that can appear as a sign of stroke, or the grievous loss of blood and the intense pain that can occur after, say  an accident involving cars or in homes with guns...well, I hope he proceeds immediately to his gym for a workout, or calls his health food store and asks which supplements can be delivered to him ASAP.  The unprincipled alternative, of course, would be to get himself to a hospital, where the rest of us will have to pay his bill.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Best Book List, 2009

Here it is, the annual (well, I did it in 2008, and now again in 2009, so I guess that qualifies as annual)  list of the ten best books I’ve read this year:

1. Jane Meyer,  The Dark Side.
2. Lawrence Weschler, A Universe, a Miracle.
These two non-fiction works are both about torture, but they both get past the inherent problem of writing about torture.  Meyer, who writes for The New Yorker, does a terrific job of showing us how the U.S. turned into a torture purveyor and suborner, and lost its status as a supporter of human rights.  Weschler, in a fine piece of look-back journalism, written long before Meyer started thinking about U.S. torture, investigates the ways in which Uruguay and Brazil came to terms with the fact that, in a troubled period in their recent histories, each country’s government turned to torture.  No sign yet, of course, that the U.S. is planning to do any coming to terms, but here are some guidelines if we should choose that path.

3.  Susan Choi, A Person of Interest. 
4. Hari Kunzru, Revolutions.
These two books, both novels, offer compelling imaginings about just how it is that someone becomes a terrorist, but in the case of Kunzru’s hero,  it’s not a Muslim teenager; it’s a middle-class white kid in the U.K. in the 1970’s.  And what becomes of him over the years.  Choi comes at it from the other side: how it is that law enforcement agencies come to see someone as a terrorist, even when he is not one.  (Strong reminders of Wen Ho Lee in this second novel.)

5. John LeCarre, A Most Wanted Man.
Also about terrorists, but more about spies and mostly the best LeCarre novel in years. 

6. Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ
Iran and an Ayatollah (Khatami), as we don’t usually see them in the news.  This non-fiction book, written before this summer’s election chaos, is about the political nature of Iran and the status of dissent and dissenters, even among the Ayatollahs, in the country. 

7. Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad.
This is a touching and unsentimental novel about old age and memory and what old age does to memory, as well as how memory makes old age possible.

8. Lesley Chung, Chinese Factory Girls.
Another non-fiction work, this time about the astonishingly and suddenly changed lives of the teenage peasant girls from small villages in China who go to work in bigger towns in big factories.  Where all that stuff we buy comes from, in addition to who makes it, and the very different kind of life they are creating along with all that stuff in the Dollar Stores.

9. Peter Schejldahl, Let’s See.
10. Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment.
Schejldahl writes the weekly art piece for The New Yorker, and he is, for my money, the best art writer/critic around.  The ‘best’ in the sense that he shows me how he sees a piece of art, even when I am not actually looking at it with him, and yet, I do see it.  Dyer does an astonishing and similar piece of work on photography.  These are both men who not only know how to look at something, but how to tell the reader what their seeing tells them about the larger issues of meaning.

And, not number 11, but a shout out for all of Geoff Dyer’s books that I’ve read so far.  If you are interested in D.H. Lawrence or in writing/literature more generally, try Out of Sheer Rage.  If you’re interested in travel writing, try Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It.  If you are a fan of classic jazz, especially, try But Beautiful.  Thinking about life and death?  Try Jeff in Venice, Death in Varnasi.  He’s got other books out there as well, but I haven’t read them all yet.  He’s the most interesting writer I’ve run into in years.  His books are novels that are simultaneously non-fiction (or vice versa).  Asked about which they were, he replied that “there’s only an inch of difference between fiction and non-fiction, but all the art’s in that inch.”  And he's putting an amazing amount of art into it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day

We have a fine tradition of Boxing Day, at least.  Our next door neighbors, Canadians of great generosity, have always invited us for Boxing Day dinner.  My conceit is that we get to be the peasants who are invited in the night after the feast to share the leftovers.  It’s like some variant of having Elijah coming in for the Passover Dinner.  But, of course, they don’t think we’re peasants, they don’t treat us as peasants, and it is usually the actual turkey dinner that we are invited for, even if it is often held on Boxing Day.

The other Boxing Day tradition up here, I think, is one that I’ve never participated in: the going to the stores for the Boxing Day discounts.  In fact, this may well be the primary Boxing Day tradition: you go to the stores, buy up tons of goods on deep discount, and take your boxes/packages home with you.  By contrast, we never get the leftovers of the holiday feast put into little boxes for us to take home.

Never going to a Boxing Day sale is one of the things that is easy to accomplish when you live in an out-of-the-way part of the country.  There aren’t that many things that I need or want a lot extra of, at least the things that are on sale.  If they knocked 50% off  the price of eggs or imported cheese or smoked sausage, I’d be more interested, I suppose.  But for now, Boxing Day is, like Christmas Day, a day that doesn’t require you to do much of anything prior to dinner time, when you put on clean clothes and present yourself to the neighbors’ table. 

This year, though, the dinner had a touch of sadness, as the neighbors have put their house up for sale and we are about to do the same, and there probably won't be another Boxing Day dinner at the neighbors for us. But what is not in the future doesn't overcome what was in the past.  Thanks, Don and Jean, for always being there for us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas, the Eve, the Day

For some of us in our eighth decade, everything seems to be less about the present than about the past, but I think that for virtually all adults who do not have young children in their immediate environment, Christmas Eve is pretty much all nostalgia, all the time.  And the older one gets, the farther back that nostalgia goes.  If I just knew something about my mother’s or my grandmother’s childhood Christmases, I’d probably be nostalgic for them.
Comparing Christmas Eve in the 1930’s and ‘40’s with Christmas in the first decade of the 21st Century presents such an enormous gap that I can scarcely make my way across it.  I was in Idaho, then.  It was always cold at Christmas, bitterly cold, and snow was abundantly available usually.   By Christmas, the town government people would have flooded a vacant lot with water and there we could take our new skates to try out on Christmas Day itself.  I don’t know that anybody floods anything anywhere for skating rinks anymore.  We’ve found other ways, for pretty much everything, I guess.

Before, during, and immediately after the war, Christmas was a tree with decorations, and singing on Christmas Eve plus the opening of one carefully chosen gift from those under the tree, and then on the following morning, the rest of the presents.  It seemed like a lot of presents, but there were seven of us by 1945, and since everyone bought at least one gift for everyone else, plus the grandparents’ gifts, the abundance was largely sheer volume. The childrens’ presents always included new pajamas/nightgowns, slippers, a game, a book, maybe new mittens, and one big phenomenon: a train set, ice skates, a bicycle, although those big gifts were more a post-war phenomenon. 

In early December each year, my parents would give us each a little money, $3 or $4, as I recall, and with this we were expected to produce about ten presents: one for each of the other 8 family members, and a couple for friends.  We made some things.  I remember embroidering baby bibs for my youngest sister one winter, knitting scarves or mittens when we were ten or so.  We spent many hours in the five and dime stores (Woolworth, Kress, Newberry’s) imagining buying a little bottle of perfume for our mother (Evening in Paris, in a blue bottle), some candy for our father, little salt and pepper shaker sets for my grandmother who was a collector of such things, barrettes or hair ribbons for another sister, a deck of cards for my older brother, a simple toy for the baby (I recall painting empty wooden thread spools with red fingernail polish and then stringing them together one year), and I don’t know what for the friends.  Coloring books? Stickers?  Jacks or marbles?  Possibly.

During the war, there just wasn’t that much stuff around for presents.  I remember one year, my grandparents gave me a can of mushrooms, while my older brother received a package of cinnamon rolls.  I remember my next younger sister receiving several pieces of Fleer’s DoubleBubble gum, gum whose taste I can recall vibrantly still.  Our stockings had fifteen or twenty cents at the bottom, a tangerine, a few pecans and walnuts in their shells, a package or two of life-savers, a small package of maple sugar candy, some crayons or colored pencils, maybe a little notebook.  And we were plenty excited about such wonderful things because, in general, we didn’t have very many things.

Today’s children and grandchildren have so much of everything that they already have everything long before Christmas is even an emerging holiday.  And they’re surely not spending their days trying to imagine what they might give to someone else.  To my surprise, it turns out that I share that experience with this current generation of children: now, I too have or have had just about everything I could ever want; such an abundance of things, experiences, and relationships that I cannot imagine ever needing more, although I definitely continue to need those I still have.  And all I have to give is the work of my hand.

Merry Christmas to all those I know and love, to all those who read this, many of whom I do not know, to all those of good will: May the abundance of life ever reside in your heart.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wrapping It Up

The seasonal specific holidays are getting by us: Hannukkah over, the winter solstice gone, Eid all packed up.  We've got Christmas and Kwanzaa still in the near future, but I've wrapped it all up.

Last January, I started a project in which I made one furoshiki/wrapping cloth each week.  Today, I  finished the last of the 52.  The furoshiki originated in Japan, but it is also found, although in a slightly different form, in Korea, where it’s called a pojagi (or sometimes bojagi).  In both places, it is cloth that is used to wrap a gift or some other object that could be more easily carried if wrapped (e.g., bento—lunch--boxes in Japan).  In Japan, it is a specially designed cloth made just for this purpose; in Korea, it is more likely to be pieced from other cloth, more like an American quilt is pieced.  The sizes vary, depending upon what is being wrapped.

I came to wrapping cloths in the gift wrapping form.  I imagined a beautiful cloth loosely wrapping an exquisite but small gift: maybe a perfect apple, or a luscious chocolate bar, or a small hand-made Shaker basket.  My idea was to make one a week during 2009, using different techniques, and then to send them out as Christmas 'gifts' in December, leaving the recipients with the option of keeping them as gifts for themselves, or as wrapping for a gift that they were giving to someone else. 

I had very few rules for myself in the process of making them.  They were to be 16 inches square; they were to be made of ordinary fabrics that I had around; they were to be lined; they were not to be quilted; and no more than 8 cloths could feature a single technique.  As it turned out, there are a few that are unlined because I had some beautiful linen pieces that were previously hemmed and I didn’t see a way to line them.  Otherwise, the rules held.  I found different themes interested me over time.  There are a half-dozen that are related to ways of mending and closing fabric: these include classic mends/darning as well as buttonholes and buttons.  There are a number of takeoffs from traditional Japanese art forms: Haiku (in my version, the fabric forms/components are arranged in a 5-7-5 design); flower arranging; and sand raking (in which stitching lines take over for raking lines).  There are a number of cloths that feature indigo dyes, shibori dying, and various Asian silks (Thai, Chinese, and Japanese).

All 52 of the furoshikis can be seen here.  At the upper right corner of the flickr page, there’s a ‘slideshow’ choice, which is a nice way to see them individually, but for information about the individual cloth, you have to click on the individual picture.

And now they are all gone.  The first, which did indeed enclose a small hand-made Shaker box, went to a granddaughter for her 13th birthday.  I kept one for myself, a genuine Japanese furoshiki (whose photo is not included in the set) given to me by a quilting friend who knew I was doing this project.  But the rest have all flown away throughout the U.S.

And now, there's only a week to figure out what kind of project 2010 needs to have.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


 The very word is so nostalgic, so late-60’s, so Vietnam War-ish.  But nowadays, quagmire means so much more:  Afghanistan, health care reform, trash collection.  Yes, I’m afraid it’s once more time to get a trash collection update.   It’s been maybe six months now since those of us in Point Roberts lost all curbside trash collection, in addition to curbside recycling pick-up.  Each month, it seems as if the WUTC has yet another problem to contend with in respect to getting this knotty problem solved.  Mostly, WUTC thinks that it needs another thirty days to do whatever needs to be done.

And what needs to be done?  At the moment, we seem to have applications from two candidates: Freedom 2000, the Dave Gellatly/Ron Caulder outfit; and Point Recyling and Refuse, the Arthur Wilkowski outfit which, up until six months-ish ago actually had a certificate to provide those services and was in fact providing at least the trash collection part.  In fact, Wilkowski recently offered up several ways in which he might provide some services, but WUTC turned him down on the ‘temporary’ plan, and now we seem to be fixed on the full plan, which is not exactly as full as he used to provide.  And that is perhaps because the business model for the ‘full’ plan—curbside pickup of trash and recycling--is no better now than it was when he cut the curbside recycling because the business model had too few customers to make it a viable model.  You still with me?

The WUTC may now be as confused as many of us are.  I say this because their current plan (since Dec. 4) is to wait about 25 days and then have a public hearing on the issue.  The official reason for this is that, because the Commission has decided to combine its consideration of these two applicants—even though they are not applying to provide exactly the same service--it would be ‘appropriate to hold a public hearing. . . to provide an opportunity for members of the public to comment orally on the record concerning the pending applications.’  It’s particularly worth noting, I think, that on a matter that is of great concern to and (far too) lively comment among the residents of Point Roberts and of interest to virtually no one else in the State of Washington, the WUTC has decided to hold the hearing in Olympia, Washington, maybe 150 miles away from us.  To their credit, they scheduled it for 1:30 in the afternoon.  On the other side of the balance sheet, there’s not only the location but also the date: December 29.  So, if you aren’t too busy with post-Christmas shopping, or sunk in the post-Christmas blues, and have cleared out the Christmas guests, or returned from your Christmas travel, well...here’s an event that might attract your interest, fill up your otherwise blank calendar in that strange week between holidays, assuming the weather isn’t so unseemly as to make driving dicey.

If you don’t care that much or aren’t able to make the trip, however, WUTC will accept your written views up until January 4.  After that, I guess, they’ll be taking about 30 days either to make a decision, or to figure out how to get some information that they don’t already have.

The residents and sometime-users of trash and recycling collection have been busy making their views known to WUTC over the past months, of course.  The WUTC puts all comments on line, so you can check out your neighbors’ views here.  This is a list of all the documents they’ve received, and if, say, you want to see what Knick or Gordon thinks, click on the date of the document (the far left column).  Then you usually have to choose to see the document in either a ‘pdf’ or a ‘word’ format.  It’s not the friendliest website I’ve ever seen, but if you keep at it for awhile, you’ll probably get the knack.  If you lose the site, it might help to know that the docket # is 091687.

The complainant ladies trio are represented among these commenters, although if you read the APB you probably already know what they think.  Reading Mr. Wilkowski’s response to their comments may be of interest, though.  I, at least, had not seen his response to their views anywhere, and it is certainly the case that there are two sides (at least) to this dispute.   His response is here

About thirty people have taken the time to communicate their views and, having read them all, I can tell you it’s a mixed bag.  Some support Freedom 2000, some support Point Recycling, some support them both but just want a solution, some primarily support mandatory participation in a trash collection system in order to make sure that it’s economically viable.  I found it problematic to offer my views to WUTC insofar as I have no special or specific information (as opposed to rumors) that the WUTC lacks about either applicant or about the nature of trash and recycling collection.  On the other hand, perhaps they need to know where Point Roberts is located.  I do know that.

Friday, December 18, 2009

'Tis the Season

Today’s results from Copenhagen are not, I suppose, surprising.  It looks as if North Americans will be reluctant to do much about changing their/our energy use patterns until a lot of people who didn’t expect ever to have beach property are looking right out at the ocean.  That might even include me, I guess; unless all of Point Roberts is underwater.  But even if I have beach, I suppose I'll be living on an island.  What chance, then, of a ferry from Bellingham?  Or what used to be Bellingham?

This morning, the news of the world included advice about how we can, each and every one of us, lower our energy footprints in this time of crisis.  One piece of advice, specific to the season, had to do with having a little less of a Christmas light extravaganza.  Words falling, I think, on deaf ears, if the overly decorated houses I’ve recently run into are any indication.  The pictures above and to the left are of three houses on one street, a neighborly competition perhaps, on Vancouver’s eastside.  (Incidentally, the deer in the middle of the first picture--on the ground--move their heads up and down.)

Well, a colorful Christmas, certainly.  And then there's the alien invasion over the Kremlin to entertain us, too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Library Charity

"Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free."  This is not the slogan of the Point Roberts Library's magazine exchange.  One might think that putting signs on the cart indicating that it is a 'magazine exchange' and 'free magazines' would make it clear that this is not a place to leave your airline brochures for travel to Turkey.  Doubtless some people are going to Turkey this year, but it seems very unlikely to me that they would ever think to go to the Library's magazine exchange cart to find information about such a trip.  You go to the magazine exchange cart to find a copy of Wired, or The National Geographic, O, Smithsonian, Harper's, etc.

I went by the library today to do my weekly (when I'm here) tidying-up.  And what did I find today?  Well, maybe it's the Christmas season and people have lost their wits; or maybe it was the very cold weather last week that caused no blood to flow to their brains.  What I found were a lot of old newspapers and a spontaneous outpouring of catalogs, particularly from LL Bean and Land's End.  Maybe a dozen of one of them.  Some person (the LL Bean contributor, I think) had carefully cut out the back-page mailing label in exactly the same way on all those catalogs, making it clear that these weren't accidentally dropped off at the library.  The other set of catalogs apparently came in packages because they had no printed labels requiring removal.  Just a little reminder, folks: we all get those catalogs.  We don't need to pass them around.  What the contributors of catalogs might need to do is contact the web site that permits you to request that companies stop sending you catalogs. 

There are some people, I guess, who think that leaving something in a recycle zone automatically gives value to objects that have no value.  Do these people also give their worn out underwear to clothing drives?  Keep your catalogs to yourself, I ask.  Politely, if possible; like the Grinch, if not.  No more difficult for you to cart them to the dump than it is for me.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sterling's Struggles

It’s been about two months since Sterling Financial Corp., the parent/holding company of Sterling Savings Bank (which has a branch here in Pt. Roberts) received its ‘Cease and Desist’ order from the FDIC.  Sterling’s most important job during this period was to increase its capital by about $300 million.  In order to do this, the corporation could sell stock, sell bonds, or get a line of credit from some other financial outfit.  I guess they could sell assets, as well, including real estate they had foreclosed.  And there might be other things I don’t know about; I’m not an expert in this field—I just follow the news.

Selling stock isn’t very useful because Sterling stock sank on the FDIC order’s news.  The stock price has  bounced around over the last 8 weeks, but mostly it’s bounced down, and is now in the high 60 cent area.  Sterling did set up a web page where they were arranging to sell their foreclosed properties, but that’s not likely to be something that happens fast given the housing market.  Does private equity wish to rescue Sterling?  Would you think it was a good investment to buy Sterling bonds at this point?  No, nor would I. 

Poor Sterling!  It’s even been removed from the NASDAQ Mid-Cap listing because its stock fell below $1.00.  This delisting is a slow process, however, and what this amounts to is NASDAQ saying that they will really, really do it if Sterling's stock stays below a dollar/share over the next six months.  In addition, Sterling still owes interest on the TARP funds that it got from the U.S. Treasury, including the last payment that it missed.

Last week, there were stories in the financial press that Sterling was likely to miss its due date for that capital increase ordered by the FDIC.  That date would be this Tuesday.  Of course, the FDIC doesn’t have to do anything right away, and usually doesn’t.  There are many, many over 500 banks on the ‘Troubled Bank List,’ many more than are about to fail.  Banks that fail are usually on the Troubled Bank List, but it is possible to stay on that list for a long time, and it is even possible to get off that list by rectifying one’s financial problems.

From my vantage, Sterling looks like a pleasure boat surrounded by sharks, though.  This week, two law firms announced that they were looking for people to be members of a class action lawsuit against Sterling for federal securities law violations, relating to allegations that Sterling failed to accurately present its financial status last year.  These two (one, two) law firms are looking for people who bought Sterling stock from July '08 to January '09. 

A third law firm is looking for Sterling employees, whose retirement account funds were used to purchase Sterling stock during that period, as part of an investigation into whether Sterling failed to act prudentially under ERISA, the federal law that deals with retirement fund programs, and thus should be subject to another class action suit.

The company has traded out several of its highest officers.  But the sharks keep swimming closer. 

A few more banks fail almost every Friday.  And for almost all those banks, some other bank takes over the operation immediately.  On Friday, you have an account at Greenstreet Bank; on Saturday, that account is now held by Redstreet Bank, right in the same building it was on Friday.  The customers are safe; even the tellers and other day-to-day employees are usually safe.  It’s the shareholders, bondholders, and the executives who take the hit.  And in this case, it could also be the taxpayers, since there is a TARP investment at stake.  We live in interesting times, where it is possible to learn about things you never thought to learn about previously, including about your own little bank..

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cow Warming

Continues very cold here.  I look out at my warmly wrapped dogwood tree and its partially wrapped neighboring fir, and am grateful that my mother took me, in 1943, to weekly meetings of the Red Cross where I knit little khaki-colored afghan squares ‘for our boys overseas.’  I think that it taught me not only to knit, but also to associate knitting with helpfulness or charity work, anyway, which may or may not of course actually be helpful.

When I started knitting the tree scarves, I knew about ‘urban knitters,’ which group includes women/artists/activists all round the U.S. (and indeed the world) who knit scarves and the like for trees and stop-sign posts, park benches and buses.  One woman for the past 6 years has been crocheting amazing ‘tree cozies’ for very large trees. So I didn’t think of myself as doing something unique, although the urban knitters were not my inspiration.  I was inspired by a woman named Christine Oatman, whose work I saw one Christmas in Los Angeles, around 1978, at an annual Christmas art show called ‘The Magical Mystery Tour.’  She made temporary environmental structures, and then photographed them before or as they disappeared.  One of her pieces involved her knitting neon chartreuse and neon orange lichen for trees.  Thirty years later, she seems to have been teaching at a California college and not getting enough work gallaried to get on the net, but she made a big impression on me those decades ago.  So, these tree sweaters are for you, Christine.

When I was doing the knitting, I worried that once I had used up most of the yarn, I would begin to long for more thrift store yarn to fill up the void.  And, indeed, one day I found myself in a B.C. thrift store that was having a half-price sale (a sale at a thrift store always stuns me!), and sure enough there was a terrific and sizeable bag of various amounts of maybe a dozen different kinds of red yarn.  Different reds, different yarns.  For fifty cents, it was mine.  And a wonderfully invested fifty cents it was.

Looking at it, I thought not about Christine Oatman’s own tree scarves, but about the fact that I was working to get Christmas presents done in time to mail them here and there in the U.S.  And I thought about who, not normally on my list, might need a really nicely varied red scarf for Christmas.  And without much wandering around, the face (or at least the form) of Drewhenge’s iconic cow came to my mind.  So I took to knitting a 10-foot long red scarf for Ms. O’Holstein (as her owners like to call her), while also finishing the tree sweaters.

Yesterday, we walked over to Drewhenge to make the presentation.  But, to our shock, there was no sign of the cow.  Of course, it was 18 degrees and I couldn’t really have explained why there was any sign of me outdoors in that weather, the less so, perhaps, she.  We trespassed for awhile around on the lawn (the owners did not appear to be in residence that day) and eventually found her behind the barn/shed, her nose just barely peaking out from the building’s rear wall.

So we made the presentation and Ed took the picture and now Ms. O’Holstein has her Christmas scarf, which features bells on one end and fringes on the other.  And a good upcoming Winter’s Solstice to her and to us all!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More Birds Among Us

 Tonight was the first public meeting of the Point Roberts Penguin Institute and it provided the opportunity for a large, lively, and appreciative crowd to gather at the Community Center.  Information was front and foremost, and we were introduced to a variety of penguin species,  and told of their habits and physical characteristics, as well as their threatened status in a world not entirely hospitable to them.  (I do wonder, though who, other than a leopard seal, wouldn’t be hospitable toward a penguin?)  In fact, we could be even more hospitable than usual: with Point Roberts hosting pretty impressive low temperatures for several days in the past and more days in the future, it is possible that penguins themselves as well as Point Roberts itself, would benefit if the penguins permanently moved to Point Roberts, rather than just having the Institute working on studying them.  Penguins as an economic development plan!  Who wouldn’t/couldn’t get behind that?

Fortunately, for tonight’s stellar occasion, the Institute’s scientists did have on hand representatives of six different penguin species, including the Fairy Penguin, last seen by me south of Melbourne in New Zealand Australia, where it definitely doesn’t get exceedingly cold.  Each penguin representative took the stage in turn, while one of the Institute’s scientists described the bird qualities and asked the bird to demonstrate a variety of behaviors, including egg moving and flipper slapping.  Very interesting. And particularly impressive were the penguins large, orange, webbed feet, not to mention the dexterity with which they moved around the stage on those over-sized feet.

After the information, we moved on to the arts, as the scientists provided us with a few examples of poems about penguins that had arisen from their pens in the course of their studies.  And then the penguins recited some poems of their own about their lives and their good times, which poems, I would guess, were occasioned by the fact that penguins appear to be good-time Charlies.  And then, in conclusion and as a prelude to yet more work to be done in the future, the penguins and the scientists joined together to sing and dance, ending with a fine and only slightly altered version of  "Splish, Splash,” with everyone rocking and a rolling...

We can only hope that the Institute will consider providing us with regular appearances to update the P.R. community on their research findings.  And that the 13 children of our local elementary school, both penguins and scientists, have as good a Christmas as they had a Christmas Program performance.

Great job, kids!  Great job, teachers and volunteer music and drama coaches!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Checking Out the Neighborhood

The winter is upon us with fearsome cold weather and wind; fearsome for us, anyway, with lows in the low 20’s F.  It’s not Minnesota or Alaska, but it’s more cold than I need.  So, given the cold weather, we chose yesterday, for some unaccountable reason, to drive around our next northern neighborhood—Delta, B.C. and particularly western Delta.

 Delta is exactly what it says: it’s the delta of the Fraser River, and like most deltas, it’s a sumptuous agricultural area.  It’s easy to forget that Vancouver is a river town because it’s also an ocean town with Burrard Inlet to the north and the Fraser delta to the south.  So, we were driving around in this freezing weather through farm land, filled with farm homes and farm industry of one sort and another.

There’s a lot to see that I hadn’t seen before.  We started in southwestern Delta on the Band Land of the Tsawwassen Nation.  There’s an exquisite cemetery (I’m a big fan of cemeteries…they say a lot about us).  It’s tiny with very simple wooden crosses for the most part, some standing straight, some easing into other positions as they will over time.  It looks old and it looks cared for, but not with that immaculate maintenance look that most urban cemeteries have.  And down the road from that, a spectacular ‘abandoned’ boat, which is only to say that it’s a lovely old wooden boat that is unlikely ever to go to sea again, but is conserved (if not preserved because preservation was just not in the cards) right next to a wooden house that is still preserved.  Yet further along the main road, here is a long house unlike any I’ve ever seen before; clearly a modern structure and it seems unlikely that it is based on some traditional structure, but it is surely a grand sight with its steep reddish roof and dormers (for lack of a better word) silhouetted against the big blue sky looking oceanward on a cold sunny day.

And on to the farmland.  It’s clearly farming in transition.  There are virtually no animals to be seen: 2 llamas, 2 horses, and 4 sheep were all I spotted, although maybe others were all indoors staying warm.  There are many collapsing buildings, barns and other out-buildings that please my eye in their state of disarray.  There are farmhouses that look like those in Iowa or Idaho, and there are farmhouses that look like they’ve been moved in from Greece or Italy, and farmhouses that look like they were designed for a sizable lot in Beverly Hills.  One house with a huge lawn, neatly cropped, was the home of about eight seriously-rusted pieces of large farm machinery.  A kind of museum, I think. 

The place is a very mixed batch.  At this time of year, there are still fields full of pumpkin residue, as well as fields with green cover crops, some kind of grass that I don’t specifically recognize.  But there are also great expanses of young blueberry bushes, the current newest occupier of farmland in Delta.  It would appear that blueberries are going to dominate the diet of the world.  And then there are the acres of also new greenhouses that are providing us with an abundance, year round, of red peppers and water-plumped, ‘vine-ripened’ tomatoes.  Not everyone, it would appear is happy with the greenhouses. 

Eventually, we ended up at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary to check out the sandhill cranes.  There’s a pair of them there who are permanent residents and this winter there are half a dozen visitor cranes as well.  We saw the great flocks of sandhill cranes in New Mexico (Bosquet del Apache) many years ago, and seeing hundreds of them fly in at dusk is in the same league as seeing thousands of snow geese flying around at Reifel.  The cranes’ feathers are just extraordinary, and you can stand around and talk to these birds, complimenting them on their lovely appearance.  They look right back at you with their bright orange eyes as if they understood every word and find you an absolutely fascinating conversationalist.  But they were pretty quiet, themselves.  The picture below is of their tail feathers.

And the mallards…thousands of them around the sanctuary, hundreds of them at your feet at any moment.  As we were leaving, I saw a three-year-old all bundled up in a pink snowsuit, standing a few feet away from her parents and surrounded by a hundred or so mallards.  They weren’t paying any particular attention to her; the flock was just walking along, as they do, slowly and with great disorganization.  The little girl’s mother called out to her to come along.  The girl looked around with great apprehension, raised her hands high up in the air, and called, ‘I can’t get out, I can’t get out!’  Clearly, she had no idea of how anyone could just walk through ducks.  One of life's skills that you can't learn early enough.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Christmas in Point Roberts

Which begins with the arts and craft fair at the Community Center over this weekend.  This year, it was restricted not only to hand-made goods, but also to those made in Point Roberts.  Which might have resulted in a smaller number of tables, but if so it was not noticeable.  There was a steady crowd all day as people looked and purchased and ate.  It was especially great (as ever) to watch the younger kids come in, all wide-eyed at the normally rather mundane Community Center turned into a glitter festival. 

The Point Roberts Quilters had a table this year, which we don’t always.  It’s a kind of on and off thing with us.  It often seems as if we mainly sell things to one another, but then we ought to be, in a way, our best customers.  We, particularly, understand the goods we have on sale, the nature of their quality and their use.  And often we have seen things before the craft sale and had some time to think about wanting to have them for our own. 

Rose was the stalwart behind our presentation this year, and she is probably the very best among us with respect to understanding display and selling.  I’m the worst.  But I’ve learned to live with this strange skillessness.  When I sell something to someone, in the very act of their paying me the agreed upon price, I am thinking about asking for less.  This is some kind of reverse negotiating skill, I’m afraid.  Anyway, Rose does it well and I sat about at the sale today watching her manage the constant flow of people, some looking, and some buying, and all touching.  Our table was highly touchable, I noticed.

Getting all these things ready for the craft sale was also a strange experience.  Normally, I work pretty steadily on a particular kind of thing.  It may not be just one thing, but it’s only one kind of thing.  It might be bed quilts, or lap quilts, or wall quilts, or postcards.  But the past six weeks, I’ve been bouncing around from framed quilts to embellished containers to postcards of quilts to dolls to creature pins, etc.  Leaves one with a very fractured feeling and gives me new respect for artisans who do this kind of work more than for a few weeks every three or four years.

Anyway, if you’re in Point Roberts, or nearby, the Christmas Craft Fair continues tomorrow.  Go and enjoy and buy if you have a mind to do so.  You’ll see lots of people you know and it is a very friendly and Christmas-y atmosphere, with live music.  Even though it’s commercial, it doesn’t feel particularly commercial because there’s no hard sell going on.  And there’s a lot of very lovely looking desserts and other edibles to keep your energies up.

And, if you’re not in Point Roberts, check out the arts and craft fair near you; there's bound to be at least one.  Your friends and neighbors have stuff to show you that you may not know about.  It's likely to be worth a trip out of the house on a weekend, whether you buy anything or not.  Think of it as going to a kind of pre-museum show: after all, all those things that end up in a museum started in somebody's studio or workshop and then moved on to some other venue, some other house or shop, usually, before they ended up entombed in a museum.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Winter and the Tree Sweaters

The cold, dry northern front is dominating our weather and freezing is our lot.  We awake to an outside temperature of 30 degrees F, and an inside temperature of about 60 degrees because the propane stove is having a little trouble getting it up to 65 first thing in the morning.  And if we are cold, how much colder are those who live outdoors, such as the trees?

I decided about 6 weeks ago to knit sweaters for the trees as a way to use up my excessive store of small amounts of acrylic yarns.  As the first photo shows, I knit three coils/rounds, each about 8 inches wide and about 15 yards long.  I didn't really have much idea of how much length would be involved in wrapping the tree: would 15 yards cover ten feet of trunk or 20?  It turns out that 15 yards gets you about eight feet of wrapped trunk.  Less, of course, if you are engaged with a very large trunk.

I also have no idea what will be the effect on the wrapping or on the 'sweater' of having a lot of rain.  At the moment, that's not our problem.  The front tree has an as yet unwarmed branch, and I think I've enough yarn still around to do that one before Christmas.  These trees are right next to the street on our lot, so the neighbors have the advantage of admiring them.  Or laughing at them.  Or wondering why anyone would go to the trouble...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Strange Sights

The trip down from the Sunshine Coast began in total sunshine, but transited to gray clouds as we moved further southward.  I read a weather report the other day saying that for the next couple of weeks, the border area would be the battle ground between a warm, wet front coming from the south, and a cold, dry front coming from the north, and today’s drive made that seem at least visually correct.

Usually, we drive pretty much straight through (with, of course, a stop at Home Depot to pick up the months necessaries), but today we had a few additional adventures.  Ed, in search of some photographs, wanted to spend some time on Mitchell Island,  which lies in the Fraser River just east of the airport and very close to Home Depot.  The Knight Street bridge has an exit to Mitchell Island that we are always tempted to go right on, just before the right turn that we should be taking a little further on.  So, when we cross the Knight Street bridge, we chant loudly, ‘No going to Mitchell Island!’ until we are safely past the turnoff.  But today, it was ‘Yes, Yes, Yes--to Mitchell Island!’

My prior knowledge of Mitchell Island was that it seemed to contain all the empty cargo containers in B.C.  Stacked very high and very deep and very wide, were the cargo containers, like enormous kids blocks..  But then, this summer maybe, they disappeared.  Who knows?  Gone back to China?  But, it turns out that Mitchell Island is filled yet with all the equivalents of cargo containers.  There are great quantities of metal scrap, piled maybe 25-feet high behind fences about half as tall.  There are numerous very tall structures that are part of and attached to very long conveyer belts that lift, carry, and then deliver giant piles of gravel and wood pulp, maybe, down to barges.  There are all the ruined cars in the world, carcasses stacked up, lined up, poured in together, even unto on top of the roofs of sheds.  There are stacks and stacks of cut wood, milled lumber heading for somewhere else, somewhere where they still are having a building boom, I guess.  There must be 20 small businesses that sell auto parts for various kinds of cars, the rescued insides of those auto carcasses above.  There’s a drywall dump.  There are more useful and ruined products on that little island than my philosophy had dreamed of.  And someday, I imagine, all the containers will come back to be with their friends.

As a chaser, we dropped in to Galloways Specialty Foods (Richmond, on Alderbridge just west of No. 3 Road).  At Galloways, you can buy 50 grams or 5 kilos of dill weed, or ground cumin, or any other herb you have ever heard of  and plenty that you haven’t, or any other item that you might ever use in cooking and that was dry enough to put in a sealed plastic bag.  Lima beans bigger than any I have ever seen.  More different kinds of dried beans than I know the names for or even knew existed.  Three or four kinds of corn meal/corn flour.  Black rice, wild rice, short grain rice, long grain rice, all of the same in brown rice, mixtures of all of the before mentioned, red rice.  You can buy a little, a medium amount, a lot: it’s all there to choose from.  For only $1.50, you can have 50 grams of choice Saigon cinnamon.  You could spend an entire day in this small store and never actually see every different kind of food item that is there.  The world in a box.  A box that was more pleasing than Mitchell Island, perhaps, but no less a wonderful sight.

I forget sometimes that those sights are one of the things a city is for.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Temporary Relief

We are about to be on the receiving end of the bears giving up their marauding and their instead just going down for a long and well-deserved rest.  In anticipation, though, they were marauding around this past week at the neighbor’s house, just up the hill.  The neighbors had left a downstairs window slightly open, there were apples stored in the downstairs, and the bear whacked through a window in hopes of finding a convenient route to the indoors.  Unfortunately (for the bear) a small, broken window doesn’t do much for the bear’s ability to enter a downstairs.  And, fortunately for the neighbors, the bear didn’t roam around and look for a larger window to break through.  Of course, the bear’s greater deficiency is his inability to deal with doorknobs, since people probably don’t much lock their doors at night.

It is surprising that they don't enter houses more frequently.  I have had friends report them wandering around on decks, checking out grills, sort of banging on windows; and I heard this year of one house where the bear had actually come in for awhile while there were people in the house (they locked themselves in a bathroom, I was told).  When the bear did his marauding down here in our yard last fall, I was pretty impressed with the teeth marks and the claw marks he left on the compost lid while trying to figure out how to open it.  Eventually, he figured out that just sitting on the whole thing would do the trick, but to see the deeply gouged claw marks on the lid surely gives one a sense of the bear’s enthusiasm for getting the job done.

But now that we are post-U.S. Thanksgiving and December closing in, the nights are getting colder, the trees have lost all their fruit, and the pumpkin, too, is gone from the ground.  And so, time for bears to bed.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks in A Big World

Here in Canada, it is not Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving occurred in September October, months ago, during the time when the sun came out with regularity and daylight savings time was still with us so that the night did not begin at 4 p.m.  Thanksgiving came when the stores had turkeys and fresh cranberries and tiny brussels sprouts.  And now it is November, and though the stores will again have turkeys a month from now, for now, it is roast chicken.  And, because it is just the two of us and we are leaving soon, it is a roasted frying chicken.  Is this humiliating, or is it not? 

The cranberries are the most puzzling part of all this.  Just south and east of Vancouver there are enormous cranberry bogs, but there are no fresh cranberries to be bought here in our market.  The produce man said to me that the store has them only in September, and after that they are all frozen.  In the freezer, was a bag of now-frozen, formerly fresh cranberries, whose brand was the American standard, Oceanspray.  But these Oceanspray cranberries come from south east of Vancouver.  And Oceanspray is headquartered in Lakeville, Massachusetts (a very small town, population: 10K now, but maybe 5K then) , where I lived from 1970-75.  Which maybe is why the absence of fresh cranberries looms large for me.

I endure; I endure this every year because we are always in the U.S. for Canadian Thanksgiving and in Canada for U.S. Thanksgiving.  But in Point Roberts, even though all the Canadian summer residents have cleared out by September, many come back, if the weather is nice, for their Canadian Thanksgiving.  And the International Market always drums up some turkeys for them to buy and roast.

In September, I was in the market at Point Roberts and got to talking with the guy in line ahead of me who was buying a turkey, presumably because of its being almost Canadian Thanksgiving.  He told me that his daughter was travelling in Europe this year, was at the moment in Holland.  She had told him that there was no turkey to be found in Holland, or at least not at any price that she could afford.  So he was buying this turkey now to freeze for her when she returned in a month or so, and then their Canadian Thanksgiving would, like ours, be held a little too close to Christmas.

This is what it is like living internationally.  I would always have thought that a turkey could be obtained any time, any place, if only a frozen one.  But not so.  Here in foreign Canada, as in foreign Holland and foreign France, there are no turkeys easily to be found in November.  Other things, also, I suppose.  The Australians who come here will find no vegamite on every market shelf; the Norwegians will find SkiQueen gyetost a specialty commodity, not to be found at just any cheese shop or counter.  The French will not find either the Americans or the Western Canadians (who knows about Quebec?) celebrating Bastille Day.  We are all different.  Disney was wrong: it’s a big world, after all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York,
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house   
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

Thus sayeth Richard III about the accession of his brother to the throne of England.  Well, of course it doesn’t turn out well, but there is some echo of our current situation here, independent of how it turns out.  It is certainly possible that there will be at some time a glorious summer for us here in Point Roberts, but at the moment, we are getting the winter of our discontent, and particularly we are getting all the clouds that lour’d upon our house fully engaged in their lowering.  At noon, it is as dim as at 4 p.m.  And by 4 and change, it is dark.

This month has offered us unrelenting rain and cloud, with some days a tremendous amount of rain, while some other days offer us only quite a lot of rain.  Although there have been days—a few—which have had scraps of sun or at least of lightening skies, they have been so few and the brighter periods so brief that by now they are about as easy to believe in as that glorious summer supposed to be somewhere ahead.  November is always like this, but the cheerful days of summer always make one forget what is coming straight on.

Up here on the Sunshine Coast, where I am at the moment, we have not this past week had the hard winds that knocks out the power.  But down in Point Roberts, I am told, there has been much crashing of trees and much knocking out of power.  This loss of power is a real hardship if it goes on for more than a few hours and if one has no independent source of heat or cooking other than the disappeared electricity.  It is at least a good thing that we have neither creeks nor rivers to overflow, although flooding from the ocean can occur.   We are hoping that no tree has downed itself on our P.R. house and garden, but our near neighbors, who would know, are not in residence right now, either.  So we will have to wait until next week to see what has become of us.

Much discontent. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How Did I Get Here?

'Once more into the breach, dear friends,' I'm thinking as I start to write this entry, or, more mundanely, once more into the septic system.  I warned myself that the issue of the septic system inspections would have legs, but I am already feeling I know more (and yet less) about this topic than is good for me.  But I trust that the paragraphs below might be helpful for us all.  Councilwoman Brenner has asked someone of expertise to offer advice about inspections.  This is what he has written, and she has forwarded to us.
You asked what might be helpful for a property owner to ask and do when working with an O&M (operation and maintenance) Inspector. . . .
First,  ask the O&M Inspector if the inspection fee includes the reporting fee charged by the Health Department.  Also, if an approved design is not on file with the Health Department, will the inspector charge an additional fee and, if so, how much?
Ask the inspector if they are also a licensed pumper or a licensed installer.   This may affect any recommendations that an inspector makes . . .
Ask the inspector how he or she performs the actual inspection!  Ask how they measure the levels in the tank--do they use a sludge judge?
Ask what else they inspect and what they are looking for.  Ask if they perform a dye test.
From a property owner's perspective, one of the most important things to be aware of is that there is a difference between recommendations and requirements!!!  Some inspectors have a tendency to try and sell "extras" such as replacement tank lids and risers.  If a tank lid is no longer structurally sound then it needs to be replaced.  You don't want someone falling into a tank and you don't want water running into a tank BUT if the existing lids are doing their job then a property owner is NOT required to replace them.  Of course the new lids and risers may look better and make it easier for future inspections but they are an additional expense and some inspectors charge small amounts for the initial inspection and hope to make a large profit from the "extras".   Broken baffles are required to be replaced.  Inspectors should look for an outlet filter.  Outlet filters protect your drain field so it is prudent for an inspector to recommend one if a septic system does not already have one.  Another note:  If you are aware that you have an outlet filter, ask the inspector if and how they clean it.  It is critical that an inspector takes care to make sure effluent is not released into the drain field during the removal and cleaning of an outlet filter.
Another thing to beware of is unnecessary pumping recommendations.  If an inspector recommends pumping BEFORE the levels in the septic tank have been checked then beware!  Although the guidelines recommend pumping every 3-5 years, the number of people in a household and the homeowner's practices can dramatically affect the condition of the septic tank.  We have seen systems that have went over 10 years without pumping because of homeowner's practices and I know of other systems that require pumping annually!  So make sure the levels in the tank are properly measured before determining whether or not a tank needs to be pumped.
Also, make sure the inspector gives you a copy of the report that is filed with the Health Department.
I'm hoping that is all for awhile on this topic.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sign Still Becoming

Just before we left Point Roberts this week, I spotted yet another advance on the long march of the Community Events Sign: some part of the roof is now in place.  I assume there is to be something yet to cover this roof (shingles, marble, hammered copper, whatever is sustainable).  Also new is the sign on the east side of the sign providing credit for the sign’s construction.  I’m glad it is volunteer labor, rather than conscripted labor or prison labor or whatever other kind of unpaid labor might be available.  However, if I’m around the next time that the sign has to be rebuilt (unlikely), I’ll be speaking up in favor of paid labor.  I’m grateful that the Woodshop and Point Roberts Volunteers are doing this work, but I continue to be sorry that it is taking so long.  Not their fault; after all, they are volunteers.  My sorrow (and my apologies) are directed to whatever Gods may be for my having advertised the sign as a quick project.

And another sight on Point Roberts that took me aback.  The farm house on APA Road is being spiffed up after all these years of abandonment.  As I was driving by (without my camera), I saw there was new white paint on the siding and new dark red trim on the windows.  But subsequently a blog commenter (Hi, Fun Guy!) said he thought that there was a new foundation and a new deck.  Which makes it sound as if the building might actually be being restored.  If that is true, I truly apologize (today is the apology edition of the blog, I guess) for my sharp comments about the ‘No Trespassing’ sign that was put up on the property.  I still don’t think it’s necessary, but I would have balanced that conclusion with the good work of the restoration.

And, finally (although totally unrelated), Whatcom County Council member Barbara Brenner has not yet sent me her amendments to the septic inspection program, but she has requested that those of us with Point Roberts mailing lists clarify a matter at the meeting last Monday.  Specifically, there was some dispute about expensive new systems and their costs and particularly about Glendon systems.  Brenner suggests caution if an inspector tells you that you need an expensive new system, and says: ‘Try to get a second opinion, heck even your first opinion, from someone you trust a lot.’  Which seems like good advice in any case.  Although, it’s hard to know exactly whom to trust ‘a lot.’

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Septic System Meeting, Part II

The back story to the septic inspection program is this.  The State put forth a requirement that septic systems needed to be inspected annually.  They didn’t say how those inspections were to be done.  They want them done to improve/protect water quality in Puget Sound.  The counties were each responsible for implementing this requirement.  In Whatcom County, there was a division on the Council as to whether inspections should be done professionally or by homeowners themselves.  Brenner (who was at the meeting Monday night) favored the homeowners being allowed to do it themselves; Weimer (also at the meeting) thought that at least the initial inspection should be done by professionals. We know who won.

There are 30,000 septic systems in Whatcom County but, according to Weimer, they don’t know where 10,000 of them are.   I think what he meant by that is that they don’t know anything about the kind of septic system that is in place in 10,000 property parcels.  Having a professional do the first inspection, he said, would provide the County with a data base.  The reason they don’t know anything about these 10K is that until sometime in the 60’s  (don’t have a note on the exact date, so I’m working from memory), you didn’t need a septic system permit.  Whatever system was put in prior to that time was legal, but there were no standards.  You’d could have been using a ’36 Ford for a tank.  Then, sometime later (1975? 1976?), Bellingham had a flood and a lot of records were lost, including existing records about septic systems.  So those two would presumably account for their not knowing about 10,000 septic systems.

The obvious question is why are we choosing between professional inspections and homeowner inspections?  Why aren’t we using county inspectors, in the same way that we have county building inspectors?  The short answer is ‘no money.’  And the longer answer—reading between the lines of their comments somewhat--is that, in order to get enough money, you’d have to raise taxes, and they’re not going to do that because, well you know why they’re not going to raise taxes.  So this is yet another example of services that would probably be better done by government (because there is less conflict of interest) but have been privatized because some elected officials prefer privatization and because some elected officials are unwilling officially to suggest raising taxes.  And they don’t want to do it because they fear they’ll be punished by the electorate at election time.   And much of the electorate wants services but doesn’t want to pay for them; but much of that portion of the electorate being required to have this service didn’t actually initiate any request for the service.  It’s an understandably messy political problem in a tight budget period.

The standards for the inspections appear to be somewhat unclear, leading to uneven outcomes.  The initial failure rate of the inspection regimen in Whatcom County is either 3-4% (Brenner’s figure) or 4-5% (Weimer’s figure).  Both said they got their numbers from the Health Dept. (It did not appear to me that the Council and the Health Department (which operates under Kremens) were happily working together on this problem.) In Kitsap County, by contrast, the initial failure rate is 1%.  There might be some reason for that, but nobody had one on offer.  The implication was that different counties and different inspectors might well be using somewhat different standards.  For example, according to Brenner, any system that is not failing is acceptable, even if it requires maintenance; but some people at the meeting had been told that some systems (wooden boxes commonly used historically) are on the face of it unacceptable and therefore considered to be failing merely by existing.  That is, that they didn’t even need to be inspected beyond that fact that they are a currently unacceptable system. 

The most irritating (for me) part of the discussion was Weimer’s insistence on describing private inspectors who are in the building trades--specifically in the installation and repair of septic systems—as having a ‘potential conflict of interest.’  Of course they have a clear and present conflict of interest.  They may be able to steer a careful path around that conflict, but neither the public nor the county has any way of knowing whether they are doing so.  The inspection system appears to have no transparency as far as I could determine.  And the people from Point Roberts at the meeting were outspoken about their fears of conflict of interest: both under-inspecting for friends and relatives and over-inspecting in order to generate more business for the inspectors themselves and their colleagues.

Bottom line: There’s a lot of money at stake in these 30,000 inspections, all of which are to take place within a year. Replacing tanks was discussed at some length because new tanks cost about $1500, but Whatcom County charges $950 for a permit to install a new tank.  Maybe in the situation where the County is requiring a new tank, that permit fee ought to be eliminated?  But the County needs money, so I doubt if that is going to happen.  (If 4% of systems are failing and need new tanks, that’s $1.25 million in permit money to the County, and almost $2 million to the septic tank replacement business.)  The inspectors are getting about $200-$250 per inspection, of which $35 goes to the County (but which we would never refer to as a tax).  So the County nets $1 million plus on the permits, and the inspectors net $5.7 million on the inspections.  And then you have to include also all the additional costs rising from the inspections, money going to those building trades.  In an initial study, the County found that 20% of the systems inspected required maintenance work of some kind. The millions keep rolling by.

Final info: the classes so that homeowners can, if they choose, do their own inspections after the first inspection, have been slow to start.  Currently, the only classes are for above ground systems (pump? Pressure mound? I know little about the different kinds).  Eventually there will be classes for the gravity systems, which continue to be acceptable systems, per se.  Classes will probably be offered in Point Roberts itself.  And if you do not long to do your own inspections, you can hire certified inspectors.   And the Health Dept. is said to be doing random inspections on the inspectors’ inspections.  But who will be inspecting the Health Department’s inspectors’ inspections of the certified inspectors’ inspections?  We’ll need another meeting to get that nailed down.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Community Meet-Up

Tonight was the community meeting with two members of the County Council wherein we were to learn more about the septic inspection system that has been inaugurated for us by the County and the State.  Alas, everything was not illuminated, although much was described.  The Council Members described what they had done and the community members described how they thought and felt about the implementation of the Council's work.  There was some meeting of the minds.  At least it did not become a libertarian shout fest in which people expressed beliefs about how the County had no right to make them do anything, although there was one impassioned claim about the whole program being unconstitutional because it was a 'referendum tax' instead of an 'initiative tax.'  About this, I will say no more.

Over a hundred people from Point Roberts showed up on a truly unpleasant weather evening: the rain was pouring down, the winds were blowing, and there are reports of bigger winds, bigger tides, and flooding by morning.  So people might reasonably have had something else on their mind than showing up at this meeting.  Lots of part-time residents were there, explaining their particular problems with this system.  What was most notable, however, was that most everyone, and in fact perhaps actually everyone, agreed with the impetus for the system.  That is, they did not disagree that research showed increasing coliform problems in shoreline waters and that human and agricultural sources both contribute to that problem.  We need clean water.  The issue was about how to get from here to there.

Unlike the Border Control meeting that was held last spring, the meeting (which lasted two full hours) did not end with a sense of hope that something had been heard that hadn't been heard before, and that, as a result, there was a distinct prospect of change.  The border issues definitely improved subsequent to that meeting.  But nothing is going to change as a result of this meeting, I think.  Yes, there are many distinct problems with the implementation of the inspection system, but these problems are not a surprise to the Council members for the most part (although they did admit that they had not thought about houses occupied only on a part-time basis).  But there you are: that's the system that the Council voted for, and that's how the system is being implemented by the Health Department, which is not a department that the Council controls.  You got problems with that?  Talk to Pete Kremens who is the County Executive.

The issue of conflict of interest captured most of the conversation.  One suggestion that seemed to be accepted for immediate action was providing people with information about what an inspector should be doing when he comes to do an inspection.  That information could be provided pretty quickly.  If it's not at least in the All Points Bulletin's December issue, I'm going to be pretty disappointed.  It was the one thing the Council members agreed could and should be done.  And if they don't do it, they've lost their bona fides with me.

There is a proposed amendment to the inspection enforcement legislation coming before the Council at the end of January.  It was introduced by Barbara Brenner (who was one of the two Council persons who drove the roads for us tonight--the other, Carl Weimer).  The first hearings on that will be at the end of January.  But nothing is going to change the problems that we already have before the deadline for inspections passes us by in early December.

There were lots of interesting details in the meeting, but I'll postpone that illustrative material until the next post, on Wednesday, since this is already long enough.  

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Civic Matters (and a Little Weather)

Yesterday, it was supposed to be rainy, but the late morning was pretty sunny, with big blue sky and big puffy white cloud.  And it was even pretty warm, relative to November and all that.  I came back from cross the border around 2 p.m. and suggested to Ed that we put the tree sweaters on the first two trees.  (There is about 35 meters of tree sweater currently waiting to be mounted upon the dogwood and maple tree.)  But I had a couple of other things to do, so he went up on the roof to sweep leaves, while I did the dishes.  And then, ten minutes later, it started raining hard.  I went outside and saw that the sky was very dark, overwhelmingly dark, and while I stood there, I saw a flash of lightning, quickly followed by thunder.  Ed came down off the roof, we went indoors, and the rain poured down and the thunder and lightning continued close by for maybe five minutes.  And then, out of the sky, but of course it felt like out of nowhere, big balls of hail started pouring down, quickly covering the porch and all the pathways.  Five minutes maybe, maybe more.  And then for the rest of the day, it was very, very cold outside.  I guess you drop a ton or so of ice in your yard, it chills everything down quite a bit.  A surprising day.  [Another view of how winter is coming at us here.]  [This is Ed's photo, not mine, though.]

Then, today, I went to the library, partly to do my tidying work on the magazine exchange cart.  Sadly, I found five catalogs (as compared to three last Saturday), and probably a dozen pieces of travel literature (clearly not magazines under the definition I’d think we’d be using).  I confiscated the catalogues and some of the travel literature that was clearly just commercial stuff.  But I’m open to ideas of how to communicate to magazine exchangers what we ought to be aiming for in order not to have this become overflowing with stuff that nobody wants.

Finally, this coming Monday, a couple of County Very Important People are coming up to hear us or probably for us to hear them talk about the septic system inspection program.  (Community Center, 7 p.m.)  The town is rife with various rumors about how this program is being conducted, mostly involving favoritism for low-standard inspections by the commercial inspectors.  The County’s failure to set fee standards/ranges makes this an almost inevitable rumor, of course.  Washington doesn’t have car inspections like many states do, so maybe this is how it learns the hard way how to do mandatory inspections.  It does seem like it would be obvious that you’d want to eliminate or at least minimize the obvious conflicts of interest.

The Taxpayers Association has come up with a list of questions that they have sent to the County Councilwoman and County Counsel person in hopes that they will have some answers.  Mark Robbins, who is heading up the TA right now, put together the list from a member discussion last week and I suggested to him that it might be useful to get the questions out to the public ahead of time, as well.  So here they are:

1.  Not enough time given to property owners.  Need blanket extension (not consideration of individual requests.  NB:  The notification by the Health Department was issued in October, a few weeks after most of the many part-time residents had already closed up their summer cottages for the winter.
2.  Annual inspections are too frequent and unnecessarily burdensome.
3.  The inspection  regime is not calibrated to usage or presence of inhabitants.
4.  There  may be conflicts of interest in requiring inspections by private inspectors, some of whom may be contractors with an interest in making repairs or replacing septic systems.  The County employs inspectors for other purposes; why not for septic system?
5.  If the system is to depend on private inspectors, the County should regulate the allowable fee schedule for inspections.
6.  Couldn’t older systems be grandfathered in, at least to some degree related to usage and severity of the deficiency?
7.  Isn’t it way past due to think about innovations that would reduce demand on septic systems, including composting toilets (are these allowed in Whatcom County?) and gray water systems?
8.  County ordinances and health regulations that, if really unavoidable, will require huge capital expenditures by property owners for new, above ground septic systems, ought not to be imposed prior to establishing a fund or mechanism for low interest loans and assistance to people who cannot afford the repairs that will be necessary to remain in their homes.  If there is a real environmental and public health problem, it has developed over decades; so why does it have to be fixed in months?
 9.  What is the experience of other Washington counties in meeting the state mandate on sanitary septic systems?
10. Can the county help Point Roberts (and similar unincorporated communities) to analyze the costs and benefits of endless individual investments in inspections and repairs vs community investment in a sewage and treatment system?

If we got answers/explanations from our visitors on all ten of those, I’d be impressed, but we can at least hope they will come prepared to address our concerns and not just to announce the wisdom of their previous actions.  A good turnout would be helpful.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Canada Is Different

There are a lot of small differences between the countries that one notices when living back and forth across the border.  Most Americans know the ‘Eh?’ thing, but that is actually not very common out here on the west coast.  In language, what I notice most is the short a that Canadians use in  lots of words.  Words where an American would use a broad a.  E.g., Canadians say pasta (like the a in cat), whereas Americans say the equivalent of pahsta (like the a in fawn).  Similarly, cantata, cantahta.  It’s especially common in French or Italian words that have entered the English language more or less unchanged.  I found myself saying pasta the Canadian way a while back and felt very embarrassed, as if  I were presenting myself under false pretenses.

But what I noticed yesterday was that the Canadians still care about ‘Remembrance Day,’ whereas Americans have moved on to their many other wars since then and then pretty much past war itself.  We do it, we just don't remember doing it.  In Canada, older veterans, some of them very old (but not back from WW I) yet go out and sell the same red poppy pins that I bought (or more likely my parents bought) back in the forties, after WW II was over.  A 12-year-old Canadian of my acquantance was marching in a local 'Remembrance Day' parade yesterday, hoping for no rain. In the fourth grade, I won the city-wide contest for the best poppy poster in all of Pocatello’s elementary schools.  Okay, it was a small field, but I was pretty impressed at the time.

We made posters every year for that special day.  We all knew the words ‘in Flanders field the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row,’ and we knew to what they referred.  All gone now south of the 48th parallel, but still alive north of the 49th  [Correction.  Ed's says 49th, not 48th, and I imagine that he is right about that.] parallel.  Don’t know why, don’t care to speculate.  Just observing.

But yesterday, November 11 (which to us is Veterans’ Day, not Remembrance Day), I went cross border to do some laundry and a bunch of other errands.  When I pulled in to the strip mall that contains the laundromat, my first thought was, ‘Wow, the economy is really hitting Tsawwassen hard!’  I’ve never actually seen the parking spaces this empty, even on Sunday.  But then, going about my errands, I realized that almost all the little stores were closed (fortunately for me, not the laundromat) and that not a one had posted an explanatory sign.  Well, I guess, in Canada, everyone would know right away what it was about; in America, we are relatively clueless.  I was surprised, as I probably am every year, to find that the U.S. Post Office and the Point Roberts Public Library were both closed for the day, as well. 

What was once a living memory embedded in real concern and historical warnings has, I fear, largely become nothing more than a government holiday for those who work for the government, and a surprise to the rest of us.  But there are yet a few veterans of WW I still alive who, if they remember anything at the age of 109 or so, probably still remember their experiences in that most terrible of all terrible wars. Remember.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Parks and Libraries Prevail

It’s been about a week since we voted and the two issues of considerable interest to Point Roberts have now been decided, although the totals are still unofficial.  The Parks Board request for a levy was approved, but that vote also required that  the turnout in this election be at least 40% of the turnout in the last general election and that of those voting, at least 60% had to approve the levy request.  Given that the last general election was a presidential election, these requirements could have been hard to meet.  Indeed, for the levy to pass, at least 278 people had to vote.  In fact, only 303 people voted, just 31 more than were required.  However, the ‘Yes’ vote was well over the 60% requirement—76+%.  This levy involves an additional $.07/$1,000 assessed value.

The other issue was the ‘Rural Library Proposition No. 1.’  Fortunately, this measure required only a 50% approval rate.  This applied to more than Point Roberts, so it was a much larger vote: a total of 34,581, and 51.41% voted to approve the additional rural library funding.  It's good news for the library, and only slightly more than ten cents additional tax per $1,000 assessment.  (Thus, a house assessed at $200,000 will pay an additional property tax of about $20.40 each year.)   Encouraging news for our services. 

Results for all the Whatcom County election results are available here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Elegiac Season

A month ago, the leaves were just turning yellow—a little late in the season—but now they have made up for lost time by departing quickly and completely, leaving us barren and gray and wet and cold and in November in the Pacific Northwest.  Thinking about times past, wondering why we have to say goodbye so soon.  We sit in the house and look out the window and listen to Casals playing the Bach Suites for Cello, which is music that accommodates but doesn’t drag you down into the melancholy face of fall.  It has other faces, as well, all that scarlet and orange and yellow riotous color, but it doesn’t have them right this minute.

I’ve been trying to become the kind of person who has a lot of horizontal surfaces that are not filled up with stuff.  That is what gray fall does to me.  I’ve spent the day cleaning out file cabinets (all those IRS returns and supporting papers from 1997, for example), desk drawers, just ordinary drawers, trying to clear out enough inside space so that all the objects cluttering the horizontal surfaces will have someplace to go.  I’m not there yet; there’s not even one entirely empty horizontal space in our main room.  But I can hope.

And also I can go to the transfer station to deliver 140 pounds of recyclables of various kinds, much of it the aforementioned paper.  Incidentally, it would be good if we could find something just a little lighter than paper which, when gathered into the thousands of sheets really does get heavy.  I suppose that’s what the computer is supposed to do for us, but we are mostly so afraid of the computer losing its mind with all our paper in it that we keep duplicate information on actual paper.  We’re a wary bunch.

The dump was also gray and wet, but well populated with people bringing in washing machines and multiple garbage cans and countless dark green plastic bags filled with paper and plastic/glass bottles and aluminum cans, all of it with a faint odor of decay.  You come in and they weigh you and you go out and they weigh you again, and then you pay for the difference.  (Maybe restaurants could work that way, too, but payment would be reversed, of course, for increased weight, not for decreased as it is at the dump.)  It’s not the worst system in the world (which leaves considerable room for improvement, of course).  But it does remind me of the fact that I didn’t used to have much experience of the dump because the operators used to pick it up at our houses, and now we take it to, metaphorically, to theirs.

There is still no resolution in sight for this problem.  The company that applied for a new permit has not been selected; the company that used to have the permit has now applied for a new permit.  According to the WUTC internet site, the next meeting on all this is December 10.  And then it will be Christmas, of course, and the New Year, and nothing is going to happen then.  And then it will be 2010.  Maybe in the new year, we can bring ourselves to call off all the disputations and disagreements, can do what a friend referred to as ‘an Emily Litella.'  In the grand old days of Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner regularly inhabited a character named Emily Litella who would complain bitterly about some topic (I particularly remember her rant on ‘Soviet jewelry’) only to have, eventually, someone point out that she had got the whole thing wrong as a result of a simple error.  “Soviet Jewry,” they would say.  And Emily would get a momentarily stunned look and then say, ‘Oh. . . Never mind.’ 

It’s going to take something like that to get progress on the trash front, I’m afraid.  But Gilda Radner died a long time ago, alas, and it's possible we no longer know how to say, 'Never mind.'