hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Saturday, January 31, 2009


In clothing construction, the interfacing is a piece of special fabric that goes in between the outside and the inside fabrics in order to stiffen slightly a particular part of the garment. So, for example, a collar or a lapel will have interfacing in the middle, attached in some way to both inside and outside fabrics usually, so as to emphasize the shape of the collar or lapel as well as to give it a little more body and make it able to resist wear better. I mention this because there is an email list on the Point called ‘Point-Interface,’ and it is an inspired name, because it does exactly what an interfacing does for an item of clothing. It gives Point Roberts a little more shape, a little more cohesiveness, and in the long run will make Point Roberts wear better, I think.

The person who presides over Point-Interface does so somewhat by accident, as I understand the history. It started as a list for the Red Hat Group, and then over time, other names were added and now it has several hundred names. Anyone can ask to be added to the list and if you do you will get maybe 8 emails a week with a remarkable range of information. Perhaps you would like to buy a lovely carpet that someone on the other side of the Point needs to have out of their house; join a group that is coordinating neighbors who are able to provide one another occasional transport to the airport; locate your missing cat or your missing drill; rescue a pet whose owner is not findable; be told about the latest gallery show at The Blue Heron or a concert on Sunday at the Lutheran Church; be reminded of the meeting (and the meeting's agenda) of the Taxpayers or the Voters Associations; or hear about a new book of poetry that a resident has published; or be brought up to date on a new transit program that Whatcom County is offering to those of us on the Point. It’s a wondrous grab bag of emails, some of which I file away, some of which I delete, all of which I am glad to have seen and know about, even if I don’t respond specifically to them. It's a little like a tiny, kind-of-daily newspaper.

Last year, when I thought that the Point Roberts Community Association might reasonably have a website , I thought that such a mode of communicating might be a feature of that website, but I didn’t know then about Point-Interface. And I suspect that eight months ago, it didn't have as wide-ranging a series of community announcements and information as it now has. Currently, the list-keeper has a large enough base of people interested so that Point-Interface has enormous potential for providing community cohesion without anybody having to attend meetings or be made the president.

The key to making this all work, I suspect, is that the person who runs the list has only two main jobs: One, maintaining the list of email addresses, and, second, receiving information and making a judgment as to whether any particular request should go out to everyone on the list. All replies come back to the person who wants the information posted. So, if you want to locate your missing cat, you send the information and a picture to the list keeper, and your message with your reply information then goes out to the list. If you want to engage the help of others, point-interface is a great place to start. I'm working out the possibility of starting a hand sewing/embroidery class for kids on the Point, and once I get the preliminaries worked out, the point-interface list is where I'll go to find out if there actually are any kids interested in learning hand sewing/embroidery. There's simply no other way I could effectively get that information. Great thanks to the list keeper! By contrast, if you want to fulminate about Obama, or the Whatcom Council, the All Point Bulletin's Letters to the Editor is the place for that information.

If you want to be added to the point-interface list, send your name, phone number, and email address to point-interface@pointroberts.net. Try it, trying being a part of the connected part of the Point.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Postal Going

On Wednesday, the U.S. Postmaster General went up to Congress to tell them about his financial crisis. Turns out, we’ve all quit writing letters and notes to our family, friends (and enemies, too, to include all the things we’re no longer sending via first class mail). We’ve stopped getting and paying bills via the post office, shifting over to on-line notices for billing and electronic transfers for paying. And many businesses and individuals have given up on USPO parcel post and leaked over to UPS and the other package carriers, and if parcel shipping is overall reduced because of less consuming, then even what little share the USPO has will be reduced.

And what that all means is that the USPO is in bigger trouble than usual. The kind of trouble that won’t be cured by going to 43 cents from 42 cents. (I remember when the typewriter keyboard used to have a ‘cents’ symbol up there on the number row, maybe a capital 6; why did it go and what replaced it? Here's the answer to that question; thanks, Miep!) What the Postmaster has in mind is closing the post office one more day per week. When we went from 7 days of open post offices to 6 days, it was because the religious community didn’t want to compete with the post office. Now, it is, like everything, about insufficient moneys. And, the Postmaster whispered, they were thinking about closing some of those little, tiny rural non-productive post offices.

Well, you’d think that our own post office in Point Roberts would be #1 on that list. And then you’d think again about all those long lines you’ve stood in behind the commercial mailers. And then you’d come to a different conclusion. It’s possible that Point Roberts’ post office is one of the big money generators in the country on a per capita basis, just as Point Roberts’ gas stations are probably the highest producers of gas taxes in the country, on a resident per capita basis. Down in D.C., they probably look at the Point Roberts post office mail and package figures and wonder in amazement what all 1300 of us residents are doing, other than writing letters and sending packages, day and night. Up here, we know different, but I’d think it looks good for keeping our post office on the grounds of its excellent money generating history.

And if so, next time you are standing in line behind a bulk mailer, thank him/her. And if you’re in line in front of a bulk mailer, maybe you should offer to trade places?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Banner Obscure

Banner Bank (said to be the oldest savings and loan in Washington state) has its Point Roberts branch office in an office inside our grocery store, the International Market. And Banner Bank also has a little TARP money, but they are less forthcoming than Sterling was about what they’re doing with it and indeed what and how they’re doing more generally. I was surprised at how accessible the Sterling press release was, and then surprised again at how difficult it was to understand the Banner Bank press release; as if they'd discovered a new way to talk. For example, what is a 'loan loss provision’? Is that a loss on a non-performing loan? Or is Banner providing something? Sterling, by contrast, says, ‘here’s what we lost on our non-performing assets.’

Not only obscure, but also unavailable. This morning, the Banner executives had a telephone conference with investors and the public, just as Sterling had the day previously. Sterling posted a transcript of that conference call that anyone could read on their website; Banner wouldn’t let you listen to their teleconference unless you registered (and registering required you to have a business, a title, and various other bona fides). And the replay is available to registrees only briefly; and there is no transcript. [UPDATE: the transcript is available here, thanks to Seeking Alpha.]

In any case, here’s Banner’s story in the TARP adventure. They got $124 million from the U.S. Treasury. In exchange, they issued 124 million shares of Banner preferred stock to the Treasury. This preferred stock will pay 5% for 5 years and, if Banner hasn’t paid the treasury back for these shares within 5 years, the interest rate will rise to 9%. Also, there’s a warrant for the Treasury to purchase 1.7 million shares of Banner common stock at $10.89/share any time in the next ten years. Of course, if Banner goes bust, that warrant won’t be of much use. Indeed, if Banner's stock doesn't rise by about 300%, it won't be of much use.

And what has Banner done with their $124 million? Don’t you worry your little head about that. They’ll be using it to ‘enhance [their] capacity…to support communities…and…expanded lending activities.’ (Probably no redecorating at the International Market.) They’ll also be paying a dividend on common stock shares of 5 cents per share. The issue of executive bonuses was not mentioned. Maybe in the phone conference I couldn’t get to.

Overall, they’re announcing a net loss of $128.5 million for 2008, including $62.4 million in loan losses. Their share price has gone from $27.19 to $4.84 over the past year. Yesterday’s market close, just before Banner issued their 2008 earnings report, was $5.69. Today, the stock lost another third of its value closing at $3.78, so one has to conclude that investors were not heartened by yesterday’s report. The trade volume today was almost a million shares, whereas the average daily volume is 170,000 shares. But then, there were buyers as well as sellers, so somebody still thinks it’s a good deal.

[Note: in the course of gathering us this information, I had occasion to read many pages of the actual legislation that authorizes the TARP program . As a former English teacher, I feel obliged to point out that the word ‘includable’ is used many times and is consistently misspelled in the bill. The U.S. Congress, it appears, prefers to think of things being ‘includible.' Does their computer not have a spelling program?]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

We Buy Banks!

Well, our Sterling Savings Bank’s parent company, Sterling Financial Corporation, did indeed issue its 4th quarter report as it said it would, and indeed, it is losing a lot of money as it said it was, and it has a lot of ‘non-performing loans,’ as we suspected it would. Which explains the fact that all U.S. citizens are now the proud and joint owners via the Treasury Department of 303,000 shares of Preferred Stock (and warrants to buy 6.5 million shares of common stock) of the Sterling Bank Corp at the price of only $303 million. Although Sterling Bank is no longer paying dividends on its common shares of stock, it will be paying 5% interest on preferred shares, so the U.S. Treasury will be getting a little check now and then for our investment.

The report had some other news. The Board has decided to eschew bonuses this year for its executive team. I think the financial companies would all be better advised to phrase that news a little differently. Something like “Of course there will be no bonuses paid to bank executives this year because we wouldn’t even think of paying bonuses to people who are presiding over a company whose stock has gone from $19.72 to $2.44 in the space of a year. We at Bank of Whatever believe that bonuses go to executives who perform, not to executives who pass the time in their offices and do not perform.” But instead, they keep saying they’ve decided not to pay their executives any bonuses, as if a lot of midnight oil had been burned over that difficult decision. The non-peforming assets (ie, loans in trouble) are almost all (79%) construction loans (as opposed to loans to individuals for housing), and mostly residential construction although commercial construction loans are also increasingly going non-performing.

It is pretty strange to have the TARP money so close to home. I tend to imagine all those TARP dollars sheltering and insulating, so to speak, buildings in the big cities, the big financial centers. But here is little Sterling, with its headquarters in Spokane, getting a piece of the action. We can go down to the branch office and see if there’s any redecorating going on as an indication of what they’re doing with our $303 million. They say that they’ve put it in municipal bonds and government guaranteed loans “initially,” but they don’t say where it is right this minute. My guess is municipal bonds and government guaranteed loans which are paying them slightly over 5% in order to repay that preferred stock 5% dividend. But redecoration has proved to be an alternative explanation other places. Not going to new loans, in any case. Well, when Congressman Grayson is next carrying on about where the Treasury is sending all that money, I can give him a call to tell him where at least $303 million of it is.

On Tuesday, Sterling Bank’s stock closed at $2.44 on a volume of 1.5 million shares, and that was before it released its 4th quarter report. On Wednesday, it closed at $2.29, on a volume of 2.6 million shares. The ‘tangible book value,’ the company says, is $11.41. Sounds like a bargain, but then what doesn’t, these days?

Tomorrow, we look at Banner Bank, Point Roberts’ other bank.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Community Organization

Last night the Point Roberts Taxpayers’ Association held its monthly meeting. (I’m not down at the Point right now so I didn’t attend and can't report on what happened.) Both the Voters’ Association and the Taxpayers have recently been making considerable attempts to renovate their status, to reinvigorate their memberships, to become more relevant, more in-demand, more leaderly, for lack of a better word. Having put in a year on the Point Roberts Community Association, a group that continues to wither on the vine as I type these words, I can understand the desire of members to make these other groups work. But, there is also the reality of history.

As far as I know, there are no long-standing community-governance-type groups in the recent history of Point Roberts. By that, I mean groups that have even a 10-year history of creating, maintaining, and pursuing a coherent community-governance agenda. Which does not mean that there are not regular attempts to create such groups, but just that the results of such groups are spotty, at best. So, the prospect for the Voters and the Taxpayers does not look good. Currently, the two groups are considering amalgamating their groupness, thus metamorphosing into something that might be called the Point Roberts Taxpaying and/or Voting Association.

The problem with such fusion is, perhaps, that a single organization will not have enough slots for all the would-be chiefs. Two organizations? Twice as many slots. One organization? Half as many. The Taxpayers are apparently (according to their minutes) also looking into creating municipality status for Point Roberts: an option that may also create some problems around chiefs status, even fewer slots in the governance of a tiny municipality. Point Roberts may have more than its share of chiefs-in-waiting, or it may just be another by-product of American Exceptionalism—and thus found in every small and large U.S. community—whereby almost everyone thinks of himself as a potential leader.

I have been reading Winston Churchill’s books on World War II. Here was a leader. It is quite remarkable how committed he was to his vision of what had to be done. I suppose that is a good part of the definition of a leader, which may be why contemporary Liberals tend to do so poorly at the task—they always sound pretty apologetic about even having a view, let alone insisting on it, or, finally, about drawing others to their organization because of the strength of their commitment. It’s more like ‘Why don’t we all get together and see if there’s something we can agree to support/pursue/encourage/whatever.’ If the Taxpayers and the Voters get together, will they then have to figure out a mission they all can drum up some enthusiasm for? Tune in later, and see, I guess. But at the moment, if I had to pick among the Taxpayers, the Voters, and a revived Thursday night Bingo Game, it wouldn’t be a hard choice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

What's Ahead?

While contemplating the financial free-fall, I was wondering today what was the fate of local banks, so I Googled up Sterling Savings Bank, which has a local branch, one of two small banks in Point Roberts. I’ve never been clear about why so few people needed two banks, but maybe it’s the competition thing.

In any case, a quick perusal of Google hits suggested that our own Sterling Bank is indeed being hit hard; it’s canceled its dividend, it’s reporting $230 million in credit losses, and another $300 million loss of good will. Not much good will left after that, I’d think. The U.S. Treasury now owns $300 million of preferred stock in Sterling Savings Bank. The bank expects a net loss for the fourth quarter and the year. And we will know more about what’s to come for Sterling Savings Bank on the 27th when they issue their fourth quarter report, and you can talk with them on the morning of the 28th about it when they have a phone report. You can read this all, in their January 13th press release.

Well, as they point out in the press release, their deposits are all covered by FDIC, so we’ll just hope for the best as to what is to come on that front.

On other fronts, better news. I went out on a brief photographic safari this morning in the sun and 30 degree temperatures to ascertain signs of spring. And found lots of them, despite the great mounds of snow that were everywhere a month ago and the six weeks of freezing temperatures that are still with us.

I doubt if there will be crocuses for Valentine’s Day, but there will be crocuses.

If I could ever master placement of photographs in this blog template, I would identify all these in the proper place, but I haven't yet achieved that skill. So, may it suffice to say that, in order, they are daffodils, crocuses, opium poppies+a strawberry plant, columbines, chrysanthemums, and shasta daisies. Enough for a spring garden, I'd think.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


One of the questions my friends from away most frequently ask is what we do up here for medical services. I had a few days ago a (very minor) experience in that question. It illustrates both the problems of rural life medical care and of lack of health insurance anywhere.

Thursday evening, while fixing dinner, I cut a slice off the right-hand side of my left-hand index finger. Because it was bleeding so profusely, I couldn’t really tell how much of an injury it was, but I wrapped it tightly in a strip of muslin in order to apply adequate pressure to stop the bleeding. As long as the pressure was exerted, there was no bleeding, But the minute I stopped, it went back to bleeding. It wasn’t spurting blood; just flowing freely from the cut tissue. What to do?

I am in Canada at the moment, and there is a nearby hospital with an E.R. open at night if I need it. If this had happened when I lived in L.A., I would have thought nothing of driving over to my HMO ER to get their view of what, if anything, needed to be done (specifically, suturing). And they would probably have put in a few stitches because, since I’m already there, why not? But I have no HMO to go to now. But if I go to the Canadian ER, they will charge me around $500 for treatment. I know this because Ed had a similarly-placed but more obviously–in-need-of-suturing injury a couple of years ago and that was the price, plus $400 for a bandage change the next day. What to do?

I got out my book of home care (provided to me by my former HMO) which is very helpful in such instances. On the relevant page, it gave me about 6 indications for seeking medical care with cutting injuries and I was okay on 5 of the 6, I thought (although I really didn’t know the depth of the cut), but not so okay with #6, getting the bleeding stopped. What to do? I thought about the $500. Medicare of course won’t pay for out of country treatment. (Medicare’s view is that if you are old, you should stay inside the country.) My secondary insurer would cover 80% of the cost, but of course I would have to get them to do it, which is likely to be an unhappy though eventually successful piece of work. But it isn’t just the money; or it is, but not my paying for it. It is that I feel very strongly about not using medical care if it’s not really necessary. And I don’t know whether it’s necessary in this case. But I do know that the research shows that when patients judge whether care is necessary, they’re as likely to go without care they need as without care they don’t need.

Had I been in Point Roberts, it would have been much the same problem. If stitches are to be effective, they must be done within 8 hours, says the home care book. And I had no access to anyone in P.R. at that time of night+8 hours. (During three days of the week during the daytime, there is a clinic that would have been a simple answer, however. Lesson? Use knives only during daylight hours on the days the clinic is open.) I could go over the border (a 15-minute drive at most) to the E.R. there, but that solves no problem, because I’d be back at the Canadian ER charges for non-Canadians. I would have had to drive an hour each way to a Bellingham (U.S.) hospital and wait several hours once there probably but, because I’d be a Medicare patient, they would be likely to tell me I didn’t need stitches if that were marginally the case, because the Medicare reimbursement is very low.

Left on my own (and with Ed, of course) to decide, I went for more dedicated efforts to stop the bleeding and was, eventually, more or less successful. Enough to decide to let the rest of the 8 hours lapse, which ended the decision period. So that’s how we deal with health care up here. I think that my mother (born in 1911) and my grandmother (born in 1888) would both have known right away what to do and, if it needed stitches, could probably have done the sewing themselves. But we’ve lost that kind of knowledge now. And that’s one of the reasons our health care costs so much.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Notable Anniversaries

Here in the depth of winter comes Robert Burns Day, a celebration that brings Scots the world over onto their feet and out of their houses. They are putting on their kilts and gathering the pipers and piping in the haggis. They are tuning up their fiddles and dancing their jigs and flings. And they are singing the songs whose words are all by Mr. Burns. ‘By yon bonny banks, And by yon bonny braes, Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond,’ indeed. There’s a big celebration tonight in Roberts Creek to honor the occasion of Bobby Burns’ birthday and I’m sorry not to be there, but at our house we yet have the dreaded cold and associated cough and contagiousness that keeps us indoors.

Also, here in the depth of winter, today is the birthday of Edith Wharton, which probably no one but a select group of the Professional Order of English Majors celebrates, but it is right and meet that we remember her tonight and think about the long associations we all must have with the title of her best-known novel, The Age of Innocence. And what have we done with our own?

And to all the others whose birthday comes on the 24th of January: a shout out, a hoorah!, a recognition of the years passed and passing and how we count them and remember them. And, finally, ‘Happy Birthday!’ to me, as I mark the end of my 72nd year, as well as thanks to all those who have privately sent me their good wishes. I’m glad yet to be with you all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ice in the Heart

My sister wrote me the other day to wish me an early ‘Happy Birthday,’ and inquired, in passing, ‘What do you guys do up there in the winter?’ Good question. She lives in southern California so she doesn’t have recent first-hand experience of what anyone would do anywhere in the winter, I guess. Seventy degrees there, today; stories of record-setting high temperatures for this time of year.

Up here, in rural Washington/B.C.: afraid not. Well, some records set, but in the opposite direction of course. People often ask me what we do up here in the off-seasons. I guess that is because, if you are a city-dweller, and most of the outside people I know are, it’s not entirely clear how anyone would live a daily life that would appear to have so few extracurricular options, as city people know them. Even discounting Vancouver’s nearby presence, there are some options. When I lived in Yap in the mid-70’s, that was a life without options. An island in the South Pacific without beaches and virtually no food of interest. There was the option of taking a shower in the outdoor shower with the water--warmed by the air--coming down from the water drum on the roof or taking a shower in the outdoor shower when it was raining hard, which it did every day. That’s a limited option.

By contrast, winter life here has lots of options. You can’t garden, really; that’s an option for the other seasons. Also, you might have a job. But if you don't, you can go out for walks; you can go visit friends; you can read; you can quilt; you can while away endless time at the computer; you can bake bread and cookies and make jam and soup; you can watch DVD’s and listen to music; you can build and make things. And you can play a musical instrument if you know how to. And I do all of these things—except for the musical instrument--but mostly I read and quilt.

Right now, I’m reading about torture. A few years ago, I decided I would spend a year or so reading about the Middle East on the grounds that if I was paying taxes to kill people, the least I could do is learn something about them. That was a worthwhile year of reading, although not always cheerful or encouraging. I really resent those tax dollars going to that goal. Now, I’ve moved on to reading about torture, pretty much for the same reasons. If we’re going to be a country that does it, you ought to know exactly what it is that you are helping to pay for. Otherwise, you just end up being like people in countries (which ones we shall not here name) who said, ‘I had no idea what was going on.’

I need to know what it is I’m helping to pay for. I started down this road after watching a DVD called ‘Taxi to the Dark Side.’ Then I moved on to Lawrence Weschler’s book, ‘A Universe, A Miracle,’ which is about the torture regimes in Brazil (1965-75) and in Uruguay (1975-85), and how people tried to find a way to a public accounting. Now I am at Jane Mayer’s ‘The Dark Side’ about our own adventures in this activity over the past seven years. Needless to say, it’s not a pretty picture. And of course that’s not the end of the reading list, either, because that’s not the end of the histories of those who have tried to figure out how to do it or to get over having done it. (South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are surely another source of information.)

However, this reading is definitely winter-time work. The bleakness of the outer world, as well as the starkness and even elemental quality that winter can bring fit the subject. In the summer, it would be hard to believe that what I am reading is true. In winter, when the snow sits for weeks because it barely gets above freezing day after day and the sky stays gray and the sun seems barely to rise on the horizon, not so hard.

On Tuesday, my granddaughter wrote to me that it had been the happiest day of her entire life. It took me a few minutes to realize that she meant because of the Obama inauguration. She is filled with the hope of the young about what will come next. When I look at these years of torture and loss of habeas and permanent prisoners and vast killing of Iraquis and Afghanis whose lives were more like mine than they weren’t, I think of them against the backdrop of eight hard public decades; she doesn’t even have two. Of course, she would--indeed should--be hopeful. As with the torture books, it is important to remember the spring and summer, the times of possibility, and the seasons of good and compassionate work done by and in the name of the U.S. It is not all winter.

But what are we to do about the ice in our hearts that arises from the knowledge of this torture regime? Acts carried out by our agents, with the urging and knowledge of the highest people in the government, acting in our name and on our behalf? What are we to do about that? Too late just to refuse to know. And ending it, as Obama may have done today, doesn't end the knowing about what has been done.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Keeping Track of the Days

Last year, my 11-year-old granddaughter and I decided to take up an email writing project in which every Sunday we would each write a ‘weekly report’ in which we would each detail at least three things that we had done that week and something about the events. She’s a home schooler and learned how to type early, but like anybody with a computer and typing skills, the actual skills of writing tend to drop off little by little, or not to get developed at all. Twenty years of writing email without any capital letters certainly hasn’t improved my work. I don’t have much experience with texting, so I haven’t those habits, that feel for words transmitted only as consonants. That’s more in her line, along with emoticons. But we both share the computer keyboard’s fondness for actual and near homophones: your, you’re, yore—all the same word, however you happen to be spelling it today.

Anyway, we began this in early January of 2008, and with the exception of one week, in the summer when she was actually visiting us, we kept it up every week. At the beginning, her ‘weekly reports’ tended to be a little vague and pretty short. ‘We had breakfast and hung around for awhile and then went swimming.’ But very quickly, she began to write more elaborate and careful accounts of what she was doing. Very quickly, I was given the gift of sharing some bits of her life that would never otherwise have been possible. I can talk to her on the phone, but she’s not likely to tell me all this stuff just on a phone call. It isn’t that she was letting me in on intimate secrets of her life. It was that she was letting me in on the dailyness of her life. Her Girl Scout activities; her trips with friends to museums or camp or Horse Bowl (a team competition that involves knowing a lot about horses), or whatever; her swimming meets, her ballet classes, her piano recital; her struggles with her young brother, those struggles that all siblings have; the books she was reading and the games she was playing; the trips she took. Everything familiar, everything made new from her eyes. After a few months, it was rarely a 3-event report, and never brief.

On my part, I sometimes had to struggle to keep up. I write with facility, but I had to really focus on what I had done during a week that was capable (or worthy) of being reported to an 11-year-old. Easiest when there were adventures with the ponies across the street from us to report on. Some weeks, on Friday (the report was due on Sunday), I’d try to think of something to do so that I could write about it to her: go to the beach, to a parade, to a concert. I quickly realized how very much of my life is internal and not easily conveyed to anyone else.

So we have both learned something: she to write more easily and to write better; I to try to ensure that there is something external in my life, not just thinking and reflecting. And we have surely learned something about one another that would have been hard to achieve otherwise. But now we are at the end. We could go on for another year, I suppose, but we decided to end the experiment as the year ended. Soon, I’ll get around to printing up the by-now 50,000 word set of ‘weekly reports’ so that, years from now, she will know what both she and I were doing in a long ago year. I have no idea whatsoever what I did when I was eleven: at least not in any specific sense. She’ll have it.

And now we are engaged in a new experiment: a virtual book club. We’re starting with her and my older daughter and one of my quilting students and her mother and me. And we’re reading Oliver Twist, the first English language novel that had a child as its central character.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Speak, Obama

Well, we’ve gotten to and almost through this day and a good thing to have done so. About the only thing that is a matter of public policy that I know a lot about is health care and so, in honor of the new President, I’d like to offer him the speech that I wish he’d give on health care.

My Fellow Citizens and Health Care Users,

There are many difficult problems facing us all--and especially me--today, but fortunately, there is one problem whose solution is clear. It is clear because we have a lot of experience, a lot of research, a lot of history, and a lot of examples from other countries. In fact, it is hard to think of any other policy discussion where there is so little disagreement among those who have seriously looked at the issue as to what needs to be done. And that is health care.

The health care system we want should be efficient, equitable, effective, and affordable. To achieve that requires that everyone be in the system and that there be a single payer. That is a simple truth, though what some might consider an inconvenient truth. A single payer system is required because if there are multiple payers (as in multiple insurance companies), those companies will be compelled to try to provide insurance for people who are healthy, and deny insurance, coverage, and reimbursement to people who are sick. That is the nature of insurance. If you are ensuring health care, however, you cannot have multiple payers competing for patients on the basis of price and health-risk.

The system that my administration and the Congress will be working on is not a universal, single-payer system, however. Americans can not have the best health care system, one that works for everyone now and in the long run, for two reasons. First, because the Congress and I cannot stand up to the power of the health care industry; and, second, because many of you fear change, and fear that if something is different, it might be bad.

So, if you want a system that is able to control costs, that is able to include everyone, that will be available to you when you need it without bankrupting you, that will be a background not a foreground issue in all your life decisions, then you will have to demand from your legislators a national, single-payer health care program, and you will have to prepare yourselves for change. Otherwise, you’re going to get stuck with what you already have, and with its getting worse as the years go by, even while we tinker with it.

The choice is yours. Make us do the right thing.”

[I was inspired to write this by an article in the February 2009 Harper’s by Luke Mitchell, which explains the issue much more expansively.]

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Olympic Deficit

While the U.S. is celebrating all that is Obama, up here in Canada, they’ve got Olympics blues (or maybe ‘reds’ if you think of the debit side of the balance sheet). Back in 2003, when Vancouver was wooing the Olympic Committee for the right to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, there was a significant groundswell of public unhappiness. It got to be so pervasive that they actually had an election as to whether Vancouver should go ahead with what was endlessly advertised as less a sporting event than a cornucopia of benefits to the economy and a vastly improved quality of life! A rail line to the airport! A new highway to Whistler! Some really big sports arenas here and there that would be unlikely to be necessary as sports arenas after the fact! A rebuilt ferry terminal access! The public was sufficiently persuaded however: 64% of them voted in favor of the Olympics bid, which subsequently won the hearts of the Olympic Committee, and whose reality is now barely a year away.

In the interim, the snow levels have been a little dicey and one certainly wondered what they do with a Winter Olympics without snow. But…ah, well, we are all in a different space now. There may or may not be snow next year, but the bigger issue is whether there will be anywhere to put the athletes when they get here and who is going to pay for all the cost overruns.

The major crisis at the moment is that a big U.S. hedge fund--you know this sentence isn't going to end well--was financing the building of the Olympic Village and the hedge fund’s plan was to make a profit by selling the village as pricey condos afterwards. Alas, hedge funds have been having hard times and this particular fund recently pulled out of the financing, about half way through, citing cost overruns as well as hard times more generally. The city needs about a half a billion dollars (Canadian) to finish the project but the city charter requires a vote of the citizenry to take on that kind of debt. And then of course the city will need to pay back that loan along with associated interest costs.

In some way, the B.C. legislature just evaporated the charter requirement and now Vancouver is going out to borrow the money at what I doubt are going to be low interest rates. Subsequently, I guess, lucky Vancouver will be in the business of trying to sell those condos spring, summer, fall, winter, and perhaps spring again.. I suppose there could be worse market timing for that kind of real estate venture but probably not in my lifetime.

I was living in L.A. when the city had the summer Olympics. Although L.A. actually did manage to make money on it, there was precious little reason to believe that overall it improved our quality of life. And I doubt if it’s going to do anything good for Vancouver’s, either. One of my neighbors at the Point has been talking of making a killing on the Olympics by renting out his house (one bedroom, one bathroom). I doubt if that’s going to happen, but maybe we could offer all of the Point for an Olympic Village next year and, in exchange, Vancouver could underwrite a Point Roberts vacation for all of us somewhere sunny next January and February. Maybe December, too, so they'd have adequate time to get things ready for the athletes. Travel is such a nice way to get to know strangers, especially when they're your neighbors!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Trying Deprivation

Each fall, in order to be supportive of my granddaughter and her Girl Scout troop, I subscribe to two or three magazines that I otherwise wouldn’t subscribe to. Nothing against them, per se, but just that I find that The New Yorker and Harper’s pretty much serve all my needs. Last year, it was The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and The American Prospect. This year it is Foreign Affairs and Mother Jones. I like the idea that the Girl Scouts are getting a cut out of making these available to me, although they would also make available to me things like Oprah! (if that’s what it’s named), The Journal of Nascar Racing, or Neocon Projects, and such like. They are not in the business of pushing left-ish magazines (although that may be a basic misrepresentation of The Atlantic, with the exception of James Fallows’ work).

In any case, I sat down today to work on my several issues of Mother Jones, largely because I have a cold and have only about one cup of energy to do anything that requires me to stand up. When that cup’s worth is used up, I’m back on the couch under my quilt, restoring the cup by reading from the stack of magazines. It’s like some kind of personal exercise in sustainable power and neutral carbon footprints which, as it happens, is largely the topic of this magazine I am reading. Another thing about this issue of Mother Jones is that here, Obama has not yet been elected. I keep wanting to write a quick email to tell the writers how it all came out.

The third thing that Mother Jones has provided me today is an article about a national trend in writing and personal-choice-deprivation. Who knew? It works, apparently, like this: You decide to give up something (coffee, plastic, things made in China, buying expensive clothes, shopping at The Gap or Starbucks, going out to dinner) for a year, and then you get a book contract to write about what it was like and what it means to you and, presumably, to the rest of us. Like the prior trend of tiresome memoirs, I doubt seriously that it means much of anything to the rest of us, but according to the reviewer of these books, it doesn’t mean much to the writers, either. They find it hard to live without plastic (one piece of advice, apparently, is to have a vasectomy because children are the main target of plastic objects), or buy only things made in America. They even find it impossible to do so. So after a month or a year, they’re back to their prior lives, and in need of yet another book contract.

I’m happy to know that this is what is occupying our dizzy American minds these days as we march right up to the point where global warming is not just a possibility but an unstoppable deal. And I’m sure the discipline and focus learned by such an experiment might be useful in some actual life project. And it’s even conceivable that this is the economic development that Point Roberts has been looking for. Certainly there are lots of things that we are naturally situated to do without for a year (or even more) at a stretch (sewers, sidewalks, street lights, book stores, The Gap, Starbucks, movie theaters, etc.). And we're mostly literate, I'd guess.

In a contrarian spirit, I’ve decided to spend the next year adding to, not subtracting from my life: I will have a blooming flower in my house every day. It can be the same blooming flower for more than one day at a time; it can come from the yard or from a commercial source: it just has to be in bloom; it has to be real. This one came from the grocery store. But it’s just the same as the ones that are coming in 6 weeks or so from my yard. I doubt if I’ll learn much from this, but I’ll have the pleasure of the company of a flower every day. Didn’t The Little Prince have a flower? Alas and alack, the book has already been written.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Last month’s drive up to the Sunshine Coast started out poorly with snow and slush and ended up with a completely icy road. And the next two weeks were no improvement. Today, we started out from Point Roberts to the Coast enrobed in the persistent fog we’ve been having for the past four or five days. Not so bad you were at risk while driving, but still, pretty foggy. I was surprised to find that there were little patches of snow here and there as we drove up south of Vancouver. And then more surprised as we got farther up on the east side-drive-around to find considerable amounts of snow all over the place. Somehow, they’d been having quite different weather than we had in Point Roberts, even though it’s barely 20 miles away.

Then, of a sudden, the fog disappeared and the Vancouver sky was as blue and as big as the eye could manage to take in. The sun was shining everywhere. After a month of cloud and more cloud and lower clouds plus fog, my eyes were hard pressed to adapt to this glaring light. It was like being back in L.A. on a summer day. By the time we got out to North Vancouver, the remaining snow was getting more extensive and the fog was coming back and the sun and blue sky were definitely no longer with us. And as we approached the ferry terminal, visibility was getting pretty limited.

We boarded the ferry and had the good luck to be the first one on the ship in the outside upper lane, so we had a good view of the water. Except that the fog now had become so thick that there was no view of anything. I couldn’t really tell whether the ferry was even moving so deprived were we of any reference point. The ferry sounded its foghorn every few minutes and I thought about being out in that water and hearing that sound and, given zero visibility, trying to figure out what you would do in response. Not good at directions under the best of circumstances, I suppose I’d just run into the ferry or manage to let it run into me.

After about 45 minutes, it was apparent that we were near the end of the trip because people we’re getting back in their cars. Nevertheless, there was no sign of any shore or dock. Then, about 150-200 feet ahead, a slight outline of dock emerged. I guess they made the whole approach, the whole trip practically, on instruments.

Once off the ferry, there was still fog, but not so thick. By contrast, there was snow everywhere. Either it’s been very cold up on the Coast over the past two weeks so most of the previous month’s snow is still on the ground, or they’ve had more snow because when we left, the snow was starting to melt and, in Pt. Roberts, it’s been entirely gone for the past two weeks. On the other hand, at our house, when we arrived there, we found absolutely no sign of snow. This is a climate of microclimates, but I’d never seen it illustrated quite so extensively and definitively. Clearly, there are half a dozen kinds of bad—or at least undesirable--weather, and everybody up here has had some of them, but nobody has had the same selection. I wince to think what comes for the next two weeks, and bid my good wishes to the four daffodils I found this morning, pushing firmly up from their bedding.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cross-Border Cooperation

On Wednesday, I was at the Canadian post office in Tsawwassen to mail some Canada-destination mail and, to my surprise, was greeted at the front door by a 4-foot-high cardboard cutout of the charming nutcracker that adorned my U.S. Christmas stamps. The Point Roberts post office had the stamps, but not the 4-foot cutout. Bring them together, was my thought. But I also wondered, in passing, why the U.S. Christmas stamp cutout was adorning the Canadian post office.

Then, yesterday, I was at the Point Roberts (American) post office where I saw on the wall a framed pair of blown-up stamps with the same image: some kind of tall-sailed ship sailing in a blustering wind. Nice stamps, I thought, but why frame two? Looking past the image, I realized that one said 80 cents and one said $1.00; moreover, the dollar one said CANADA and the 80 cent one said U.S.

Aha! I surmised. These are same-image stamps sold on the respective sides of the border and one is the Canadian first-class postage to the U.S., while the other is the U.S. first-class postage to Canada. At the moment, the exchange rate makes these pretty much equal-in-monetary-value stamps. But how interesting that there is that kind of cooperation between the two national post offices, between the two countries.

And how noteworthy that that is where my mind went: amazing, the U.S. is capable of working cooperatively with another country on postage stamps. I daresay the U.S. works cooperatively with lots of countries on lots of small issues (and even some big ones), but that fact has become largely discounted in my life. So I was happy to see cooperative work once again and with no big and blustery notice about it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

'Goodbye, George'

George didn’t mention Point Roberts when he was giving his farewell address tonight (is he under the delusion that he is someone like, say, George Washington with this putting-on-airs farewell address?) ,but maybe he knows we never voted for him anyway and would have been just as happy if he’d gone away a long time ago. He has been traipsing around for the past month saying, ‘Goodbye! Farewell! Adieu! Auf Wiedersehn! Addio!’ (or would have used those words if only he spoke any language), as if he thought that somewhere, someone might say, ‘Oh, stay a little longer.’ One of those party guests who should never have been invited and now that he’s at the party apparently will never leave.

And then, of course, there’s the long and tiresome list of his achievements that exist only in his imagination. The fact of the matter is that every good AND bad thing he ever tried to do remains undone. He might more honorably just slink off in the night and at most send us a postcard from his wearisome ranch, saying, ‘Having a wonderful time, wish I were there.”

And tomorrow, I am told via the news, Ms. Rice will pack her purse and cape and leave the State Department for the last time. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry? And probably Mr. Cheney is just moving into his file cabinet so that he can continue to be the eminence gris he takes himself to be. No more grises, no more eminences, Mr. Cheney. The back side of all of them is what I want to see, and I want to keep seeing it for the rest of my life.

If you don’t have a blog, you just say this kind of thing to your spouse or your kids. I have a blog, so I get to say it to the readers. My apologies, but thanks for staying with it. And now, I’m finished with that topic: I am saying ‘Goodbye, George,’ for the very last time. It’s over.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Strange World

I was over at the dollar store in Tsawwassen today (one of the things you can’t buy in Point Roberts--at least today--is a 6x9 inch manila envelope). The dollar stores are one of the puzzling things in the world, as I see it. When I got my first job, at the age of 14, in December of 1951, it was as a Christmas extra employee at S. J. Kress and Company, which we called ‘Kress’s’, and which was one of three dime stores in our town (also, Woolworth’s and Newberry’s). But long before that, I had done a great deal of serious, childhood shopping at the dime store (birthday presents, Christmas presents, Mother’s and Father’s Day gifts, and occasional personal longings achieved) and they were a stable presence in my post-WWII world.

Maybe twenty years later, dime stores began to close, the whole genre to disappear, and then to become the subject of nostalgic songs (like Nancy Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five and Dime’). I guess they succumbed to more department stores; I don’t know, but it was long before malls showed up, I think, before Walmarts or Targets dominated the suburban scene. Maybe dime stores were just nailed to the ground in town centers, and couldn’t find any way to get out to the suburban malls. Anyway, twenty, thirty years (or more?) after that disappearance, the dime store reappeared as a dollar store, stocked this time by Chinese manufacturers rather than the Japanese and American manufacturers that stocked my childhood and adolescent dime store.

Now we have dollar stores everywhere; like the dime stores, you know there’s one nearby and you know exactly what you can get there. Currently, there are three of them in the little town of Sechelt up on the Sunshine Coast, and there used to be two in Tsawwassen, but now there's only one. Farther over the border in Richmond, B.C., where many Hong Kongese immigrants to Canada live, there is even a Japanese dollar store, but there everything costs $2 and is made in Japan. Endless variation on this theme.

The dollar store has become as familiar now to people as the dime stores were in the 1940’s and 50’s. I’ve seen several of them go out of business over recent years, though, so perhaps they will not be able to survive as institutions, either. Perhaps they will have to find another function to serve in addition to selling us small items made of plastic and paper.

A possible solution! At the end of today’s dollar store visit, I went to the checkstand to purchase my $1.50 package of 6x9 envelopes and noticed (for the first time) two hand-written posters. The first one announced that they would not sell lighters to anyone under the age of 19; while the second one announced they would not sell laser pointers to anyone under the age of 16. Strange to think that the dollar store is the source of protecting us from teenagers with laser pointers and lighters; stranger yet to think that we need protecting from teenagers with lighters and laser pointers. And why is it that we can trust a 17-year-old with a laser pointer but not with a lighter. How is he to light the candles at the dinner table, or on his birthday cake or in the Menorah should he be Jewish? How is he to go on a camping trip and light his little stove or his little fire? What conceivable reasoning in some legislature in Canada caused such a law to be passed?

But perhaps the dollar stores can become the sources of public information of this sort, even when it doesn’t involve something they’re selling. The border people could post changes in what we can and can’t take across the border. Income tax regulation changes could be posted there. A billboard of endless regulatory changes for our entertainment and information. Somehow, it would seem appropriate to have this information delivered in a dollar store with all the other flotsam and jetsam of our lives.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rocks in Our Heads

Everyone I speak to is beginning to be a little weighed down by this long space of dreary weather. There’s been only one day that I remember in the past three or four weeks that seemed like a day you’d like to spend more than ten minutes outside. Ed commented this morning that this was the longest spell he’d been unable to fly in the past ten years. People who didn’t plan vacations for this part of the year are asking themselves what they were thinking of with respect to that lapse. People who did plan vacations for this time of the year but then couldn’t go for various reasons (usually medical in my age cohort) are asking why they have been so stricken by bad luck. I imagine those people who planned vacations and then actually left for foreign climes are chortling poolside as they raise their little drinks with parasols to the beauteous setting sun and the balmy breezes drifting through the palms. I doubt if they are thinking of us, although they are doubtless thinking they’re glad not to be where we are.

And then, those of us concerned with the changing of the guard in Washington, D.C., are wondering why this is turning out to be the longest period between an election and an inauguration in the history of western civilization. Hope in the face of weather and now the promised new administration does indeed seem audacious. More audacious than we are up for. We find ourselves asking why, if we are facing the greatest national crisis in 70+ years, we are having ten inaugural balls next week.

Probably we’d all be feeling a lot better if we went out for a brisk walk, even though it is cold and wet and foggy and windy. Exercise comes with this promise of making you feel better. They’re always saying that exercise is the best medicine for feeling depressed; the very fact of doing it, they promise, will cheer you up. But then, we ask, if exercise is so good for you, why is it that I’ve been doing it for over thirty years and I still don’t like it? By contrast, I quit smoking over thirty years ago, and I still (occasionally) miss that. Something wrong there. Maybe I should quit exercising and see if quitting would make me miss it. Maybe I should just go out for a brisk walk. I feel like I've got rocks in my head.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rocks in Our Hands and Hearts

This cold, rainy, foggy, misty, drizzly weekend (well, it wasn’t snowing, anyway), we have had a pair of daughters come to visit. Not the best timing, but you take what you can get. Mostly, we just stayed inside and entertained one another with fascinating repartee, but on Sunday, we did go out for lunch and a brief beach walk. It may not have been snowing, but the temperature felt not that far away from snow.

When people come to visit us, we often go for a walk on the beach. After all, the beach, the ocean, the sand, the shoreline, the birds, etc., are one of the biggest features of living here. The other major feature of a visit to the coast in this area appears to be an opportunity to indulge in a deeply-driven, human need to gather rocks.

Growing up in the mountains, we didn’t put that much stock in rocks, is my recollection. The soil was clay-ish and digging in it did not in fact produce a lot of rocks. Or, if it did, they were big rocks and were more of a burden than a feature. Southern California beaches had few rocks, as well. I lived for a few years on Venice Beach, and it was sand from the sidewalk to the water. In Massachusetts, I didn’t live near enough the water to get a feel for ocean rocks, but inland it was clear that long-time residents had a little native industry of digging rocks up and stacking them into walls. Robert Frost’s call that ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ probably referred to people tired of uprooting the rocks from their soil in an effort to grow something, resentfully placing those rocks into the walls that snake all over the New England coutryside.

But here in the Northwest, the beaches are full of rocks, and when people come to visit, they immediately start filling their pockets, their purses, their backpacks, their suitcases with beach rocks. They bring them back from the beach to the house and lay them out on the deck. They clean the sand from them carefully. They feel bad that they don’t look as beautiful on the porch as they did on the beach, where they were wet and shiny. They think about buying a rock tumbler to recapture that beauty. Sometimes, they take them away in their suitcases, only to irritate the Transportation Security Administration at the airport. Mostly, the rocks just stay in our yard where I ultimately re-locate them in the ‘Visitors’ Rock Collection Pile’ in the yard.

So the visiting daughters gathered rocks in that great human tradition: one gathered greenish ones, one gathered reddish ones. Although I always swear I am not going to be dragging rocks home, I gathered a few caramel colored ones, and Ed spotted some lovely conglomerates, which are especially beautiful and plentiful on the Point Roberts beaches. Once home, we heated the rocks in the toaster oven (around 200 degrees) for awhile and then, when they were well-warmed, coated them lightly with a bar of paraffin. It’s not quite as good as the natural wetness of the beach, but it’s a lot easier than a rock polisher.

And then we had a great pile of beautiful rocks. They took theirs home (lots of luck with TSA), while I deposited mine on the Pile. Not just rocks: things of beauty and a joy forever. Really, given an abundant supply of rocks and an abundant supply of tree trunks and leaves, what else do we need? Perhaps just someplace to keep them, and where better than Point Roberts?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winter Garden

I was reading yesterday that my tasks in the January garden included inspecting to see whether things were getting ready to come to life. What a pleasant task. Instead, I am walking through my winter garden and noting all the things from fall gardening that haven’t gotten done yet. Half of the raspberries got cut back, but only half. All the old fern leaves need to be trimmed back before the new ones start up and in a northwest forest-y garden, there are plenty of ferns to be trimming. There are yet maple leaves, wet and unattractive, clogging up paths and flower beds. Not enough to provide a nice mulch effect (not to mention a warm blanket for slugs), just enough to suggest that a sluggardly garden-wife lives here. The calendulas kept blooming into late November, and I never quite got to cutting them back, so they stand there, now with unsightly black, blown flowers, brought to that state by the quick and hard freeze we endured last month.

In addition, everywhere I look there are small and medium fir branches, brought down by the winter winds. They ought to be gathered up for the disposal pile. There are little starts of ‘herbe robert,’ a dreaded plant that I am trying to get rid of but if I don’t get a start on that infestation soon will have no chance of getting rid of. So much work, so much time, so much bad weather: too cold, too wet.

Not bad enough to hide all this unsightly garden, though. Those in harsher climes, as I remember from having lived in them, can simply ignore their garden all through the winter because it's under a bed of snow and instead devote themselves to gardening catalogs, imagining the joys that spring will bring. Those in warmer climes, as I also remember from having lived in them, never get to quit gardening, which has its own lack of appeal. So we are stuck here, needing to do some gardening chores but not having enough seemly weather to achieve them.

Unable or unwilling to do what I think ought to be January chores in the garden, I tried the book’s recommendations. I went out, looking for signs of coming to life. Of course, the Indian plum trees have fat green buds, which is reassuring. More than reassuring, though, was the discovery of the tulips, forcing their way up from that cold ground and now about 2 inches up through the messy leaf mixture. They won’t bloom until April; so kind of them to make a show now when we really need the encouragement.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Riding High

I got a blog message from Mr. Drewhenge today with respect to an early December post about the cow and its Christmas Colors. (For those of you who aren’t entirely sure how a blog works, if you write a comment at any time on any posting on my blog, I get the comment right away via email.) Apparently, Mr. Drewhenge is a man interested in challenges, and apparently the challenge of managing the location and couture of his iconic cow on Benson Road is not enough for him. He informs me that he also has a very excellent Rudolph above, ‘waaay above’, his house in Tsawwassen, just over the border from Point Roberts.

As it happened, I was making a laundromat run to Tsa today and added a visit to the Drewhenge Rudolph to my errand list. It was in an area of Tsawwassen (which is about the same size as Point Roberts--1/5 the size of Gaza, you may recall) where I’d never been, someplace called ‘The Village” near English Bluff. I quickly found the street and then the house with the right number (he had given me the address in the comment). I stopped the car, opened the car door and leaned out and up, looking for the Rudolph. Not to be found. I got out and walked around a bit and did not find Rudolph. I thought, momentarily, perhaps his comment/email had been delayed several weeks in the Christmas email rush and he’d already taken his Christmas Rudolph down. And I drove off.

Then, across the street, I saw an easy parking place and once again parked, got out and walked around a bit. And this time, there it was, Rudolph of the Tall Place. Other trees had obscured my view from my first parking place. Now, I saw it clearly, a lighted reindeer some 100+ feet above the ground, topping a tall cedar by about five feet. (If you click on the picture, you can see it better in a bigger version.)

Well, of course one’s first question is how he got it up there. And the second is how is it lighted. I couldn’t see any electric cords coming down the trunk, but on the other hand, I didn’t feel as if I could traipse around in his yard looking for a power source. And as to how it gets up there? My belief is that the world of people with machines of the construction variety have ways of doing these things that are not readily available to the rest of us. Or maybe a helicopter??? (I’m thinking La Dolce Vita’s opening sequence. )

But what I really want to know is whether Rudolph of the Tall Place moves around? Sometimes at the top of the cedar, sometimes on the roof, sometimes at a neighbor’s house? Now that, I’d think, could be Mr. Drewhenge’s next challenge. (You can see the Rudolph of the Tall Place at 1007 Skana Dr.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

APA Road House

The abandoned house on the tract of land off APA is one of the three ‘big’ abandoned houses on the Point: ‘big’ in the sense of well-known, because everybody sees them regularly, because they are on the main roads. They are all three what I think of as original houses, which is to say houses that the Icelandic settlers who came here from Vancouver Island would have known, would still recognize if they were to return, even though all three have long been without tenants.

If Point Roberts was seriously into the history business, they would be ‘historic houses,’ and at least one of them would have been restored and tourists would come and walk through the rooms to see how the fishermen and farmers and their wives lived here a hundred years ago. As it is, despite the good and steady work of the P.R. Historical Society to keep the Point’s history before our eyes, the houses are just an owner away (and maybe less) from being razed.

Within the past ten years, they were charged with being eyesores and dangerous structures, but most of them survived that kerfuffle. Nevertheless, they are still somewhat susceptible to wind and weather damage. Fortunately, they are very well made houses, sturdy lumber that endures even without an owner’s care, perhaps because of the nature of their construction. I have been told by various people that much of the wood used in these original houses came from fish traps, meaning the wood would have been well-seasoned in the ocean before it came to hold up the houses.

But no quality of wood, no aesthetic or historic value stands in the way of those who are indifferent to the houses’ value in comparison to a desire to build a bigger, fancier, up-to-the-minute house on these beautiful great lots. It is a different kind of beauty than Lily Point, of course, but I find it no less beautiful because it is grassland rather than tree land, no less worthy of being preserved. These are the sites of the farms that fed more than lived here. These are the sites of apple orchards whose variety name is no longer known. They are, in a sense, abandoned; but in another sense, they are vibrantly with us, filled with what they were, as seen through
what they are in the process of becoming.

The first time I saw the APA Road house, it looked like this picture. I couldn’t actually get right up to the house because it was surrounded by closely growing brambles. But it stood very straight; none of the sloping roofs or sagging window frames I’ve seen on the newer abandoned houses. It’s been about six years since I took that picture.

Last month, I took this picture. I think the property must have been bought in the past year or so because the grasses have all been cut back, making the house more accessible and making it easier for strangers to assist in its decline. The cutting of the fields around the house also makes the house look exposed, frailer, more accepting of the razing that is bound to be in its future.

The quilt of the house is 42”x34” and was completed in 2003. The day I finished it, I was driving down APA Road (incidentally, APA stands for Alaska Packers’ Association, the owners of the cannery that was in P.R.) and glanced out the car window at the house as I went by. There, in exactly what would be the lower left corner of the quilt, was a coyote, almost invisible against the tall grasses and bushes. I turned right around and went home to see if I could incorporate him into the quilt, but it was too late. And now, we rarely see coyotes. When I see the house nowadays, with its ‘KEEP OUT’ sign and chain next to the road, I feel strongly that it may be too late for it, too.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Simple Dichotomies

I’ve pretty much heard enough for several lifetimes of binary assertions like ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us.’ Almost always, I think, it’s just not quite that clear. You might be more or less ‘with us,’ and also less or more ‘against us.’ You might not care one way or another because you don’t think it’s an important enough issue on which to have a unilateral stand (or to learn enough to try to acquire a unilateral stand). You might be against us, but only because we don’t share a common view of the relevant facts of the situation, or because we don’t have any facts in the first place. And the same could be said for a lack of common values: you might be for your own values without, particularly, being against ours. It goes on like that for me. Your standard liberal who just isn’t willing to take a stand.

On the other hand, there are some things that seem so self-evidently true that I can’t imagine how we get to thinking there’s any possibility of another side. For example, Jimmy Carter said "War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children.” I just don’t know what ‘the other side’ of that could be.

But, binary thinking is part of our nature, and so it crops up all the time. For example, I found myself thinking about dichotomy this morning while doing some errands about the Point.

This photo is taken on Benson Road, at Drewhenge. The iconic cow is close to his barn and is now well-dressed for winter with blanket and hat. I think the very existence of the cow, not to mention his wanderings and changes of attire, can only be characterized, with respect to neighborliness, as FRIENDLY.

This photo is taken on APA Road, facing North at Calhoun St. It looks on to a large tract of land that houses one of my beloved abandoned houses. I have walked onto this land any number of times over the past ten years to look at the house, to photograph it, to be drawn into the past it represents. In contrast to the cow at Drewhenge, I would characterize this newly-erected chain, posts, and sign yelling POSTED/NOTRESPASSING/KEEPOUT, with respect to neighborliness, as UNFRIENDLY.

Drewhenge and the APA tract owners: With us or Against us? You be the judge.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

See You in My Dreams....

Today’s email brought me the sad though not unexpected news that Irene Waters has died. She had been diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and, although too ill to attend the elementary school kids’ Christmas Pageant at the Community Center last month, she was honored at the event with a plaque recognizing her long service to Point Roberts.

And long and thorough it was. I knew Irene first about a dozen years ago when we were making the Community Quilt that now hangs in the entry hall outside the P.R. library. She was enormously helpful in obtaining and explaining the historic photographic images upon which we based the individual blocks. An indomitable person, Irene worked with us all to see that project through. She continued to work with the quilting group on a couple of other projects but once we were well on our way she moved on to her many other activities.

I would see her now and then around the Point and she always had a good word, although often an acerbic one, for whatever was the news of the day. I once ran into her one early winter day down at the Peace Arch Mall and she commented, wryly, “Well, everyone has to get off the Point once in awhile,” although neither one of us, I thought at the time, felt this was the place where we ought to be doing our ‘getting off the Point.’ But there we were, anyway, as she pointed out.

She has left a long legacy and a thick scrapbook of memories. We’ll be seeing Irene for a long time in our minds and in our community, sometimes wondering, sometimes knowing ‘what Irene would think of this.’ But for right now, it is “Goodnight Irene.” Hers was a life lived intensely, with focus, with concentration, and with results. A very good job, I’d think.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Speaking of Living Things, ...

I ran into this today while looking for something else. Didn’t find the something else, but was happy to find this on this day, this week, in this world. Note the tattered condition of the ribbon. Wore this for a lot of years back in the 1960’s and 70’s. And it’s still a sound sentiment, well to be remembered.

And speaking of other living things, there is the very good news for this new year that the second parcel of Lily Point property has been obtained by the Nature Conservancy to add to our cherished Lily Point Reserve. According to the Bellingham Herald, this brings the total Lily Point Reserve acreage up to about 280 acres, all to be used for ‘conservation and public recreation.’ The Conservancy will eventually deed the land to Whatcom County and the County expects to get grants to cover the costs. This is a major achievement for Whatcom County, for Point Roberts and for the many people here who contributed time and money and spirit to get it to happen.

Awhile back, I fantasized that maybe some zillionaire could just buy all of Point Roberts and that would be the best way to keep this little gem from becoming what the area to the north of us has, understandably, become: i.e., formerly wild land now wallpapered with houses and postage stamp lawns. (And, very beautiful gardens, it must be acknowledged.) Suburbs are okay; they are what they are, but the Point is really something else and it is so worth keeping, but it is so hard to know how to keep it.

Maybe, instead of the zillionaire, we could persuade the Nature Conservancy to just buy it. E.g., each year they could purchase yet another 150 or so acres. At that rate, the whole place would be in the reserve in twenty years. I could talk to them. We have about an acre and it includes a lot of great trees, including one arbutus and one (volunteer) young Geary oak. Not only that, we have an eagle roosting tree and also, out in the back corner, quite a respectable area of wetlands. (Also, if I do say so myself, a very nice garden.) We ought to be preserved! Right now, living here is the best way to preserve it I guess. But I’m happy to think that this year’s 150 acres might lead to even more…more living things!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Cranes and Peace

Christmas often comes late for me because people mail gifts to me when they’ve finally taken care of everyone who cares about getting them on time. I don’t actually do much in the way of gift giving or receiving at Christmas, but the things I do get are always welcome. What came to me in yesterday’s mail was a crested crane. It is a beautiful, delicate, and graceful little bird, about ten inches tall and made of fired, glazed clay. Its legs and crest are metal, its base wood. It is made by a Guatemalan artist, Marco Tulio Garcia Sol, whose work is sold in the U.S. through a friend of mine in Wisconsin. Awhile back, we had some of his smaller birds for sale here in Point Roberts down at the Blue Heron and this Christmas there were some tiny bird earrings that he made. The cranes are a new venture for him and my friend thought I would like to see them. And I thought other people might like to see them. (There is no website for the cranes right now, but if you are interested in them, email me (address is over there on the right column under profile, and I’ll send the site address to you when I get it.)

Cranes, crested or otherwise, are not birds I have a lot of familiarity with, although the first time I went to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary just over the border in Ladner, they had a kind of pet sandhill crane hanging around—he had flown in from other parts and just decided to hang around permanently. Or maybe not: I haven’t seen him there in the last few visits I’ve made to the reserve, so maybe he changed his mind and has flown back to the other parts. And once I went to the Bosque del Apache reserve, just south of Albuquerque in New Mexico, where you can see hundreds and hundreds of sandhill cranes flying in as the sun goes down. (And a Crane Festival in November of each year.) A pretty amazing sight. Cranes--at up to 14 pounds--are much heavier birds than herons although their wingspan is about the size, and I’m still amazed by seeing one heron at a time pretty regularly. Think if there were hundreds at a time every day and about twice the size.

Looking at my new crane, and thinking about prior crane exposures caused me to think about cranes more generally. Anything that splendid must have a lot of symbolic history. I had a vague sense of cranes being associated with New Year’s, so it seemed particularly appropriate to be thinking about cranes, but when I googled ‘cranes myth,’ I found nothing about New Year’s but lots about other things. There is mythology of cranes being the first birds on earth. What a good piece of work that would have been for evolutionary work: starting a little high on the achievement scale, I’d think. Still, if you had birds like that around, I can imagine why you might begin to think of them as a kind of Platonic bird, a bird that holds the essence of all other birds.

Cranes are good luck and hold the promise of springtime, as well, and I’ll keep that in mind as we go through January, which is not looking like it’s going to give way to crocuses by Valentine’s Day. And then, the biggest crane phenomenon for our lives, they are symbols of peace. That could be a constant reminder in a world that is desperately in need of some serious peace. Enough said about the Middle East right now, but surely not enough being done for peace there.

The crane as a peace symbol comes from a Japanese girl who died of leukemia secondary to being in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic explosion these many years ago. Before she died, she wanted to make 1,000 origami cranes. She didn’t quite make it, but her school friends finished the thousand, and a lot of publicity followed and now there are cranes for peace everywhere and origami crane festivals to further them.

So, I ended up spending much of yesterday afternoon figuring out how to make an origami crane. There are plenty of good instructions on the net, even if I’m a little slow about being able to follow them. And while folding, I was asking myself whether there’s some way to make origami cranes out of fabric and into a quilt, but they may well be too three-dimensional for that kind of project. But I’ll keep thinking about it. And about Peace! If there were something more to do about it, I'd do it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Everybody Says

One of my adult kids wrote a blog about the situation in Gaza on one of the big left political blogs the other day and received a storm of responses. If it had been a real storm instead of a metaphorical one, she’d be under ten feet of water, I guess, but the Coast Guard would be on its way to rescue her. About a third of the responders were supporting what she had to say, another third opposing it, and the remaining third seemed to believe that she should never have said anything at all. I don’t know how Obama is going to produce his much-touted and fabulous coming together in the light of this kind of ‘conversation.’

In my twilight teaching days at UCLA, I was amazed by the students’ rather uniform contention that on matters that were not strictly factual (12 inches = one foot), everyone’s opinion was of equal value. It surely made teaching in the humanities and the social sciences a challenging experience, but I guess that is what we are in for in the foreseeable future. I once wrote a negative review of a book and its author was outraged that I disagreed with him. It's hard to know when you publish something whether you'd prefer to have people ignore you or disagree with you. It's unlikely they're just going to love what you say.

It’s only amplified by the new technology, of course, which fosters a kind of wildness. On the other hand, it’s that same new technology that has so many benefits for us, that keeps those of us in places like Point Roberts (oh, I know, there aren’t any places like Point Roberts) connected to ROTUS and to friends and family in ways we just couldn’t have been 20 years ago, even if you loved writing letters and wrote them all day long and had an endless supply of postage stamps. The New York Times, the other day, had an article about grandparents ‘videoconferencing’ with grandchildren. And for everything else, you have credit cards. So, on balance, I’d say, hooray for the technology and for the fact that it opens the conversation to everyone. My daughter, at comment 400, gave up trying to keep up with it. That’s another thing to remember about this brave new world: it’s well to know when to stop.

Friday, January 2, 2009

An Unhappy New Year Already

Ready for a Happy New Year, I picked up the new issue of the All Point Bulletin to enjoy its annual recap of ‘the year that was.’ This is a nice tradition of small town newspapers in lots of places: the first issue of the year goes back and gathers up the last year’s important events, reminding readers of what they just went through. Since it is all in the past, there are no sudden shocks. There are good things and bad things to be reminded of, but it’s all familiar. There is a lot to be said for familiarity, just as there is a lot to be said for kindness and civility.

To my surprise, the front page of the Bulletin included, in addition to the year’s month by month reminiscences, a new item. Oh, shoot, no fun here. In the ongoing saga of recycling that we are engaged by and in, here in Point Roberts, a new shot has been fired across the bow. Ouch!

It is reported that a trio of locals has filed a complaint with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission demanding that the Commission (1) pull the permit of the current P.R. refuse and recycling company, (2) that it forbid the County from permitting any varying accommodation for recycling in Point Roberts, and (3) that a lot of penalties be assessed. It’s a document prepared by a lawyer, so it has a lot of that legalistic language that kind of sounds like the heart of the issue is that people are feeding babies poison candy. Not the fault of the complainants, of course; just the nature of the law and its mode of communicating. Nevertheless, reading the complaint makes it sound like it’s a pretty alarming issue. It’s full of accusations like abuse of the public trust, and lack of duty to the community and disingenuous and untrustworthy behavior and systematic manipulation of facts and law, not to mention threats and fear-mongering.

Pretty amazing: all that right here in little downtown Point Roberts.

It’s not clear to me why this issue has become so heated, but I would guess that the underlying fear is revealed in the final sentences of the complaint:

This matter . . . leaves the Point Roberts community facing a slippery slope toward the potential degradation or elimination of other essential services the community deserve. We should be able to enjoy the same level of service as other citizens of Whatcom County, be equally able to fulfill our duties toward environmental protection and effective waste management, and not be discriminated against because of our location.

We are about to watch the dominoes fall, I guess. Today it’s curbside recycling, tomorrow it’s water and power. Next year, they'll be taking my street away. Somehow, I just don’t feel that worried. ‘Terrible things could happen,’ isn’t really a very persuasive or reasoned claim in the absence of any evidence of likelihood of ‘terrible things happening.’

We need to be treated just like everybody else in Whatcom County, on the other hand, is a claim about equity. But it’s not a very strong one. I lived through years of children telling me that everybody had to get exactly the same thing or ‘it’s not fair.’ Any parent knows the ‘it’s not fair’ claim is usually bogus. In most circumstances, we are better off figuring out exactly what works best in specific contexts, not forcing everyone into the same Procrustean allotment. I would strongly argue that, in most civic service provision, the weirdness of Point Roberts’ location means that solutions that work easily in the rest of the state might not work here and something individualized needs to be worked out. Additionally, its important to remember that differences matter and that difference is not the same as discrimination. In fact, Point Roberts just received a lot of public funding for 150 acres of public preservation at Lily Point. Is government ‘discriminating’ against every other 5 square miles of Washington state if it doesn’t provide them with an equal park?

I may be prejudiced in this matter because up in Roberts Creek, we used to have curbside recycling, just as we used to have it here in Point Roberts, but it didn’t work from an economic perspective (just as it probably won’t work here), so now it’s self-haul and for the past 10 years, that’s worked fine. But, of course, they're Canadians.

If you want to read the complaint, you can find it here.

Then you need to find the complaint document (the third item on the list), which is Docket #082129 ‘complaint.doc ID: 346AOE’ You just click on it and it will come up as a Word document.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Take It Away!

The Sunshine Coast is about 50 miles north of Point Roberts but today it seemed a lot further. We awakened this morning to snow, again, but gathered our wits and belongings and set off for Point Roberts now that the first of the month has come. And lo, by the time we crossed the border (a crossing so fast today that we barely had to slow down), there was no snow. There was as much snow down here as there was up there over the past two weeks, but it has been just enough warmer (just above freezing instead of just below) that the snow was all made to go away.

And that seems like a good enough way to start the new year: without snow, without sub-0 C. temperatures, and without a crowd at the International Market, all hoped for harbingers of good times ahead.

The photos are in the ferry terminal parking lot on the Sunshine Coast (Langdale) and from the ferry toward the shore at Langdale. Way too much snow, even for the seagull.