hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Have All the Workers Gone?

My conversation with the real estate agent on the Sunshine Coast also included a foray into the rental market. I wasn’t interested in renting anything, on either end of a rental transaction, but I was interested in why there suddenly were so many rentals on the market and thought he might have some knowledgeable insight into that question.

To my surprise, he thinks that it largely represents renters leaving the Coast. That is, the rental market here is always tight because there aren’t a lot of rental units, and the ones that are here are quickly re-rented by word of mouth, so you never see them in the papers. But, he adds, workers on the Sunshine Coast are here largely to work to the needs of the retiree population. That is, as in Point Roberts, retirees are the main population driver here on the Coast. The workers come to serve the retirees’ needs, whether those be for new houses, remodeling of houses, landscaping, yardwork, or general house maintenance, as well as non-house, personal needs. When the retirees begin to take a major hit with their investment portfolios, they stop their discretionary spending. Won’t remodel the bathroom just now, or redecorate the living room, or build that little shop out back, or build a water feature in the garden, buy new shoes, etcetera.

When they stop that, the jobs that all the renters were occupying begin to slow down, dry up, or just end. And so the worker/renters move on to someplace else where jobs are more plentiful. Nice to live on the Coast, but it’s possible to live elsewhere. So they pick up and leave, but now there’s not that ready supply of renters to fill their shoes. And rental units begin to be advertised in droves in the papers.

Down south in Vancouver, of course, there’s still a lot of spending going on for the Olympics (they just announced another $700 million need for security, after last month’s $700 million need for finishing the Olympic Village, which latter the Vancouver City Council took on). But construction down there is beginning to slow too, with yesterday the announcement of the end of a planned skyscraper-hotel-shopping complex on Georgia St. Instead of 40+ stories decorating the city, it will be decorated with a big hole in the ground on one of its main streets. And of course, whatever needs to be done for the Olympics will be done a year from now. So, I guess renters move on from there, too, eventually.

So, does this tell me anything about Point Roberts? Probably not, since I’m not sure there’s a large pool of workers/renters serving that retiree population—that is, a large enough pool that one would notice a change if one is one of the retirees rather than one of the workers.

And also, we awoke to about 2-3 inches of snow on the ground this morning. Cold awakenings all around us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Starting to Say Goodbye

We met today with a real estate agent about selling our house up here in British Columbia. We bought it almost 20 years ago, and we have had a wonderful time living here, even if only part time, but even as all good things must come to an end, so must our transiting back and forth between countries. My simplest way of explaining this is getting out while the getting is good, by which I mean while we still can manage to do it with our wits and bodies reasonably unimpaired and with both of us still here to participate. Another way to put it is that maintaining multiple properties is getting to be too much of a chore. But however it is put, it needs to be put, and thus the meeting.

The agent we called is the same guy who was our agent when we bought the house: he was then in his forties and we were in our fifties; now he is in his sixties and we in our seventies. That’s the nature of time and arithmetic, I guess, but we had not seen one another for maybe 16 years, so it was surprising to find (to our eyes) that he was just as he was then; and he kindly offered us the same assessment. And then we got down to business.

You can pretty much tell how the economy is up here by how carefully, how gently he approached us. Clearly, he is used to having to deliver bad news to people. The kind of bad news that is phrased like, “I know you could have sold your house for a zillion dollars last year, but this year, maybe a trillion less, in any case a lot less. It’s a very bad market right now and we just don’t see it getting better for awhile.” We were not, of course, surprised to hear this, but apparently many people are as he brought us a lot of paper to demonstrate how prices were falling in B.C. generally.

Not being able to get an argument from us about how bad things are (he assured us he’d been through four ups and four downs…but then how much longer do we any of us have to see any more of that roller coast ride?), we progressed to introducing him (again) to the house. Walking around in it, explaining all the things we loved about it—both its inherent qualities and things we had changed to make it even more wonderful (at least to us)—I was struck by how much I admired it as a house, how much I had enjoyed living here, how much I still anticipate, each return trip, seeing the great opening to light that one experiences when entering the house…like walking into the sky through a tree. And also how willing I was to let it go. It has always seemed to me a house that owns itself and that I had been lucky enough to travel with for awhile. Time now to find its next traveling partners. Somewhere out there, some terrifically lucky family are eating dinner without a clue as to what an amazing house is right there in their future. This year, next year, I guess we'll meet them.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Room to Let

I am the kind of person who, if you put a cereal box in front of me, will dutifully read all the text on the cereal box, even though I don’t eat cereal and don’t have any need for whatever passes for information on the cereal box. Similarly, put a newspaper in front of me and I dutifully read it all, page after page, even if I’m only visiting in the town that produces the newspaper. Needless to say, when it comes to local papers, I even read all the ads in the classified section as if somewhere in there the secret life of the town will surprisingly be revealed.

And now and then, it is. Up here on the Sunshine Coast, we get a newspaper every week, so it is somewhat puzzling that I get anything done besides reading the paper, except that it isn’t very long. A front section with local news, an abbreviated ‘culture/events’ section, and an even more abbreviated sports section, where I can follow the travails of the Gibsons' Pigs. And in there with the sports are a few pages of classified ads. In the past few years, the ads have burgeoned, mostly because everyone living here appeared to have decided to sell his/her house. Except that in the spring, there’s always a lot of real estate for sale because it is, after all, a tourist economy for the most part (logging, a little fishing, and providing for the short-term and long-term tourists are about it).

In a tourist/seasonal visitor economy, like the Sunshine Coast as well as Point Roberts, there’s always a lot of real estate for sale but rarely much real estate for rent. Frequently, the rentals section up here was barely a column, and particularly spare were rentals in Roberts Creek, where we live. This is equally true of Point Roberts. But in this week’s paper, I find that rentals have suddenly expanded into a couple of pages, with Roberts Creek alone getting an entire column. Stranger yet, several of the ads mentioned that what was being rented was one floor of the house--not like a guest suite, but just a floor. I’d never seen that before. Some of the ads were for short-term rental (which is to say off season/not the summer/early fall), but mostly they were regular leases.

There’s a secret in there somewhere. I don’t know whether it means that financially-pressed folks are reduced to renting out floors of their house to make their house payments, that people who were in the flipping business got stuck with houses that can’t be sold and now need to be rented, or that the seasonal visitors (those with second houses here) are having second thoughts. In any case, it sounds as if it isn’t good news unless you are somebody looking to rent. And in Point Roberts? Well, we’ll see what it looks like there after the first of March.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Canada Looks at Obama

And apparently Canadians are very pleased with what they saw, although they seemed to be just as pleased before they even saw him. When I talk with Canadians, it appears to me that Obama, unlike the former holder of the U.S. presidency, is highly regarded, but largely because he isn’t the former holder, etc. It’s more that they like him for who he isn’t rather than for who he is. From my American perspective, who he is remains to be seen. Nevertheless, on the CBC yesterday, people were talking about him as if he were a visiting rock star, with one person pointing out that Canada’s leaders don’t have ‘that kind of appeal,’ whatever ‘that kind of appeal’ might be. The Vancouver Sun proclaimed that “excitement in Ottawa around the presidential visit could not have been greater had the guest of honour been Mick Jagger, the Queen or Santa Claus.” Gee whiz! I am thinking that all three of those are pretty old people. How would he compare with the Pope? (Another old guy. Are there no younger famous people to whom he can be compared?)

He met alone with Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, for about a half hour, a fact much remarked upon by U.S. news. But he also met, alone, with Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the opposition and possibly the next Prime Minister, for about a half hour. My guess was that neither of them thought he was much of a rock star, but then I found this quote from Ignatieff: “I've been lucky in my life to meet famous people and some people seem smaller when you meet them. [Obama] was just as big as you think he is. He is a very, very big presence.” Harper, sort of by contrast, said in a CBC interview that “Mr. Obama is an easy guy to like and an easy guy to get to know." (I wish I shared that feeling.) The CBC also reported that Harper and Obama got to talk about their hopes for their families and their countries. The news reader made it sound as if Harper was just a tad short of looking into Obama’s eyes and seeing his soul. So I guess he’s pretty rockstar to Canadian leaders, too.

The Globe and Mail (NYTimes equivalent in Canada) reported that there was considerable discussion between Harper and Obama about the border and its openness, or lack thereof. The Canadians think it’s a mess. Obama noted that bottlenecks need to be cleared up. But The G&M also reported that “Mr. Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, has ordered a review of security at the Canada-U.S. border – heightening Canadian concerns that U.S. security measures are clogging the flow of goods across the border.” (Globe and Mail, 2/21) I don’t know why that would heighten Canadian concerns. My hope is that Mr. Obama, on behalf of the U.S., shares those Canadian concerns. But we will see. We are busy writing our own letters to Ms. Napolitano on this subject.

Some Canadians were not happy that the border concerns arose solely in terms of economic issues. Lloyd Axworthy (former Liberal Minister of Foreign Affairs and current President of the U. of Winnipeg) commented: ”What concerned me was the talk of the border solely in economic terms. Granted, it is important. But we have had too many examples of how the security preoccupations have trumped the issue of civil liberties and rights. Under secret agreements signed after 9/11, there has been an abuse of fundamental rights and an erosion of Charter protections vis the Arar and Khadr cases, among many.” Happy that someone in politics is looking out for our civil rights! Wish it were someone in the U.S.

Canadians are also concerned about Afghanistan and global warming, but they didn’t get much from Obama on either. However, Harper and friends are going to DC next week to see if they can make more headway on Afghanistan with that new sun/star, rising and reigning to the south.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Looking for Bright Spots

One thing that writing the blog has made me do is focus on the stock prices of banks; not only the local ones but the big ones. And what I can’t for the life of me figure out is why there is all this concern about the shareholders being wiped out. At the current prices for all the banks, the shareholders have been almost entirely wiped out already and, presumably, they will not be much more disadvantaged by the next 5% loss. Well, I guess the thing is that they won’t be around to participate in the amazing rise in bank prices that we will be expecting once we’ve actually gone through all this. Whenever that time might come. Doesn’t look like it will be any time soon.

Anyway, by now, for those of you who are interested in following this with me, Sterling Bank is down to $1.43 (from a one-year high of $16.63, and today’s Sterling sales volume is almost 2 million shares, way above their average volume of sales, but below yesterday’s peak volume of 6 million); Banner Bank to $3.02 (from a one-year peak of $24.50, and a current volume of about twice its average); Citigroup to $2.88 (from a one-year high of $26.81, and with about half its average sales volume today; and Bank of America to $4.58 (from a one-year high of 42.45, and with only a slightly above-average sales volume today).

What that suggests is that the lack of confidence in the banks continues to deepen. However, Banner Bank gained a few cents today, rather than losing value. By contrast, both Citigroup and Bank of America were taking price percentage losses larger than Sterling’s. All three, however, were losing much more percentage-wise than the Dow or the S&P 500.

And outdoors, here on the beautiful Sunshine Coast of B.C., it is a very sunny day, but there are still, still, still considerable areas of snow leftover from the December snowstorm. But there are also, in our yard, little patches of crocuses smiling up, opening their little petals to the sun. Unlike the banks, these are bright spots in our lives. (The crocuses are a very small variety, barely 3 inches from ground to the tip of the bud.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The End of the Beginning?

Or the beginning of the end? Don't know yet, but today marks the end of 365 days of writing this blog. I started it with this quotation:

“These days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing, though I am not certain what this cure is meant to mend.” (John Banville, from ‘The Sea,” p. 143 of 195 pages, Vintage Paperback edition, 2005.)

I feel that no less now than then and the blog has been, in its way a measured dose, ‘a sort of homeopathic cure,’ although I am not able to say whether I’m any better for the treatment.

In any case, over the past twelve months, I’ve written almost every day, written a total of almost 200,000 words; perhaps ‘a sound and fury signifying nothing.' (The Tempest like King Lear are works one is not advised to think about too closely in old age.) It has been more interesting than I had expected and more demanding. I found myself thinking about possible subjects from the time I got up in the morning until I found one. Rarely did I have more than one in mind, but not infrequently, one would suddenly present itself to me around 5 in the afternoon. And that constant need to focus both led me out of myself and led me away from the things I usually focus on.

It’s not like writing a journal, where you can blather on all you want about anything, or as little as you want about nothing because nobody is ever going to read it. I’ve never been a journal writer except for brief periods, such as a particularly interesting trip. A blog isn’t a journal. Somebody out there, it turns out, is reading it, so you have to at least attend to the idea of an audience, even if you don’t exactly know who the audience is. It’s a very strange kind of writing. I like it enough to keep on doing it, but I don’t like it enough to keep on doing it every day. So I’ll be posting less frequently in the days to come and see how that feels. Thanks for reading during the past year. I hope we’ve both learned something.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

No Sooner Said Than Done

Yesterday, I noted that border ‘exit interviews’ are being required for private airplanes, and asked what’s to keep Homeland Security from requiring them for people in private automobiles. Today, Ed drove down to Bellingham and points south and upon his return to the border at Peace Arch, was treated to an exit interview by the U.S. border people as he was driving to the Canadian border people. The exit interviews were being required of both Nexus and Non-Nexus travelers.

And what were their questions? Where are you going? Do you live there? What were you doing down here? Where do you fly out of?

“What were you doing down here in the U.S.?” This is now a question that we ask of a U.S. citizen. Not only that but a U.S. citizen in the fabulous trusted traveler program. Not very trusted. When last I checked, American citizens have a constitutional right to travel anywhere in the U.S. And I would think that might include not having law officers ask you what you are doing if they have no reason to believe you are doing anything that is against the law. But then, oh, right, I forgot: he was in a ‘Constitution-Free Zone,’ that amazing little circle that travels around with the border people, wherever they choose to be (within 100 miles of the actual border/coastline).

Karl Kraus, an Austrian journalist-writer who died in 1936 (and thus didn’t get to see where it all ended up in the 20th Century) once wrote that Vienna was ‘the research laboratory for world destruction.” Ah, where has the laboratory moved to today?

Friday, February 13, 2009

What's My Problem?

I am wishing that I knew why we have a Department of Homeland Anything. I don’t remember anybody every talking about the U.S. as the homeland. It reminds me immediately of the Russians use of motherland and the Germans use of fatherland during World War II. To me, it has an inherent sound of fascism, although Wikipedia says only that it has 'ethnic nationalist connotations.' Who in the last dismal administration thought that was how Americans think of their country? When they get around to figuring out who ordered all the torture, I hope they allow a few moments for determining who named that new agency 'The Department of Homeland Security,’ rather than, say, The Department of National Security.

And speaking of DHS, they instituted a new regime last November (the waning days of that dismal administration) designed to irritate me and doubtless others, even though it doesn’t actually affect me as it stands. But as it stands, it could easily be transferred to affecting all of us who leave the country by legal routes. As of November ’08, anyone who leaves the U.S. in a private plane must first inform the DHS that they are leaving the country and who is leaving with them. Obviously, one has to do this when one is entering the U.S. in a private plane, but why should one have to inform them when one is leaving? Because they want to know everything about us, I guess.

When I leave Point Roberts by car, I am not required to inform either my father or my Congressperson or my U.S. border guards that I am leaving. Why should anyone have to do this just because they are leaving in a private plane instead of a private car? Well, says DHS, it has the authority to do this because it already requires commercial airlines to report their passenger lists to DHS before the commercial plane takes off on an international flight. I don’t know by what authority they can do that, but then I don’t know by what authority they can require the same of private planes. Something like the DHS Sec’y is allowed to do whatever he wants if it occurs to him to think doing that will keep us safe. No reasons required.

I suppose that if we oppose this, then the terrorists will win. At least that’s what it says here. [This site may be hard to bring up because of heavy traffic. I got it this afternoon, but can't get it to come up tonight. jwr]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Solitary Child

It’s really not warm enough or sunny enough most days yet to feel great enthusiasm about going out for a walk, but I am trying to do it anyway each day in hopes that I will not forget how to do it. Today, I headed up Benson to check out the iconic cow, who is yet wearing his silver tarp and beige corduroy hat, but has moved away from the barn and up closer to the street. I thought she might be preparing for Valentine's Day, but not so (or not yet). Then a little way past the cow, I heard this strange noise. At first I thought it might be someone chopping wood, but it actually sounded more like metal on wood and it was sufficiently off-and-on not to sound like a standard work kind of sound. Puzzled, I crossed Benson at the entrance to Baker Field to see what I could find.

Barely off Benson (where, alas, it appears that come people have concluded the entrance to the Field is a marvelous place to dump entire bags of trash), I saw my sound. It was a work sound, but not the kind of work sound I was thinking of. Instead, I found myself watching a boy, maybe 13 or 14, on a skateboard, repeating his skateboard moves over and over at the local skateboard park. I watched him for awhile until he noticed me which caused him to decide that this was a good moment to take a little rest. So I moved on and wandered around in the woods for awhile, leaving him to his work. But it made me think.

First of all, this was the first time I’d seen the skateboard park, which was put together with some kind of community group effort about eight years ago. If I hadn’t spent the last year with the P.R. Community Association trying to get the community events sign rebuilt, I would not for a minute have even begun to appreciate how much work it must have been to actually get this little skateboard park constructed. It’s maybe 20x30 feet (I have little skill with estimating distances so I could be wrong in either direction by a factor of two, but it probably wasn’t 10x15), with a little stand of bleachers that might hold a dozen people sitting close together. And it has 4 or 5 different places to do different skateboard maneuvers. So, first off, congratulations (belated) to those who got this to happen. A substantial piece of work for a good purpose.

Second, was the sight of this lone boy, practicing his moves over and over in the late afternoon. Kids nowadays seem to come equipped with lots of velcro tabs, such that they are always attached to some other kids or some adults. To see one adolescent alone for an extended period of time harkens back to a couple of generations ago when kids spent a lot more time on their own than they do now, what with lessons and groups and constant adult oversight to keep them from being kidnapped or something. But here was this kid, and here it is 2009 and he was working on something he cared about all alone.

And that’s another good thing about Point Roberts. You can be a kid and be alone outdoors here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Looking Ahead

When we first came to Pt. Roberts, a long time ago, and were looking at houses to buy, we made on offer on a tiny little house down on Maple St. in the South Beach area. It had a downstairs and a loft that was high enough to have a bit of an ocean view. It was one of those houses that you don’t often find when you are out looking: houses that are perfect as they are, that own themselves, that don’t need you to take them in hand in order for the house to continue to lead a respectable house life. Unfortunately, somebody else saw that quality just a few hours earlier, so they bought it and we didn’t.

But I still vaguely think of it as one of my former houses, so I keep an eye on what is happening to it. Today, I was walking down that way and found that my house was fine, but that the neighborhood was going to the mcmansions. Next door, someone has scooped up four or five adjoining lots, cleared them all of whatever was on them, and are now building a house that fully occupies three lots. It must have 20 rooms. Maybe the new owners are planning to offer a home away from home for the L.A. lady with the octuplets. Maybe they are going to operate a hotel (although I’m afraid the zoning is all wrong), or maybe they are just some more of that long line of folks who retire to giant houses. I always wonder whether they spent their previous 60 years feeling dreadfully crowded and only now can spread out. Whatever…

But because I am always thinking at some level about abandoned houses, I wondered if these houses will end up in that way? If, as seems quite possible at this moment, the U.S. is going to undergo a serious and long-term readjustment in its way of life, what will become of such houses? Who will want them twenty or thirty years from now when families are even smaller and when Pt. Roberts will probably still be trying to figure out a route to economic development?

When you go for the big house after retirement, you are somewhat unlikely to have a host of children and grandchildren who have fabulous memories of going to the grandparents’ for wonderful summer vacation and thus are anxious to keep the fabulous house of their summer memories in the family. When the inevitable comes, the house will get sold, but who will want so much house?

I think that the larger abandoned houses we already have have something of that kind of history. Too big, in the wrong place, family members no longer nearby even to use it let alone create grand memories, and no one anxious to buy it. So the now-untenanted house lingers around in some kind of limbo, and then it just begins to house itself and there aren’t many memories left of it. The next thing you know, it’s become an abandoned house.

So, now I’m looking at these oversized houses with different eyes. They have a future that may be of considerable interest to me. On the down side, of course, their future and mine probably won’t have much of an overlap.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Way They Built Then

Here is the Hansen/Johnson house. It is probably the first or second best-known of all the abandoned houses in Point Roberts. It is located immediately across from the post office on Gulf Road, When I first went into it in 2002, I walked around the various rooms, which were very clean, very tidy, but a tad exposed to the elements on the south side underneath that vigorous vine you see growing on the right hand side of the house. The main room was wallpapered with cream colored paper with a fairly large floral print in oranges and beiges and greens. I could hardly imagine living with such wallpaper day and night, week after week, except for the fact that I remembered such wallpaper from houses when I was a kid, 60+ years ago. We liked it then.

The house is very sturdy and I was told that the walls themselves were built of reclaimed crab traps, wood long soaked in the ocean. And the house is, indeed, still very true. There are some things about it that puzzle me: e.g., it does not face Gulf Road. You would think it would, but it faces its own driveway, which comes off Gulf Road up the front door. Also, it has a very small skylight. Surely not something originally part of the house, but so small that it is hard to imagine that it would provide much in the way of light.

When we left the house the day we visited it, I picked up a piece of wallpaper that was lying on the floor and put it in the back seat of my car. I rode around with it in the car for several months, with the sun shining on it and drying it up and curling it up. Then I realized that the wallpaper piece was a vital part of the quilt I was making and I was obliged to resuscitate it with moisture and weights. And it flattened out well because it’s much thicker wallpaper than they make nowadays, I’d guess.

The first picture of the house comes from early in the spring of 2002; the second picture is the house in December, 2008. It has changed relatively little in those intervening 6 years. By contrast, some of the abandoned houses, less well constructed, have fallen apart in six years. Mr. Hansen, Mr. Johnson, whoever you were, good job!

The quilt depicting the Hansen/Johnson house is currently displayed on the wall of the waiting room at the Aydon Wellness Clinic in Point Roberts. It is 30”x37”, and is framed with wood reclaimed from the fence in my yard. The piece of original wallpaper lies underneath/behind the quilted house.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dwindling Darkness

I’ve gone out for a walk the last three days around 5:30 p.m. and it’s plenty light to see where I’m going. That alone conveys the promise of spring. Of course we’re almost two months out from the Winter Solstice and we get something like six minutes more light every day, so it was bound to happen. Still, when there is so much dark, it often seems like it will take forever to get back to what you remember it being, assuming it ever does.

The raspberry canes and the currant bushes are starting to leaf out; the crocosmyia has tiny shoots up everywhere under the last year crop of soppy, dead leaves; the day lilies are not being backward about being forward. Tulips and daffs are everywhere showing their stride. All looking very promising, very good. Only, at least at my house, are the crocuses holding back. There are crocuses at the library, and there were crocuses up in Roberts Creek, but here at my house in Point Roberts the crocuses are in hiding. Usually, they bloom by Valentine’s Day. I believe that would be six days from now and I just don’t think they’re going to make it.

Some plants look as if winter did them in. Penstemon that has lived through the winter every year for the past 10 years looks dead. Some branches on the rhododendrons look as if they have chosen to no longer participate in the plant world. Alyssum that normally winters over, not. Well, not impossible to replace these things and we are grateful for all that did make it through. It's not that it was so cold this winter but that it was pretty cold for much longer periods of time than it usually is. These plants failed to endure rather than failed to resist.

I spent a couple of hours in the garden on a couple of days this week. Mostly cleaning up the still menacing piles of late falling leaves, uprooting the herbe Robert, and cutting back the old sword fern fronds. The ferns will be putting up their new curled-up fronds soon and once they’re up, the old fronds are much harder to cut without also cutting the new ones. It’s mild work and mostly it’s designed to get my muscles, tendons and joints back into the right groove. Alas, I have the enthusiasm of a 20-year-old, the energy of a 70-year-old, and the knees of, I suspect, a 90-year-old. Wishing me luck….

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Privacy Theft

It’s been almost a year ago that I got my Nexus card renewed; that would be the time at which the Nexus agents gave me a new name, one that I have never, ever used, and insisted that that was to be my real name from now on. Next time I have to renew the card, I guess we’ll go through some further unhappy conversations since my Nexus card now has a name that doesn’t match any of my other official ID cards.

But in the meantime, they’ve issued us all NEW Nexus cards. These cards are said to contain some amount of private data (which I take it means data that they have, not data that I have, although I may have it as well, I suppose), encoded in their little plastic bodies by means of microchips. And, this fabulous little microchipped card comes with its own secret covering, which looks to be the same kind of covering that the bank gives me for my ATM card, but may, indeed, be made of Kevlar, or have its own microchips for all I know.

I must always keep my Nexus card in this little coat. I must immediately destroy my old Nexus card, which has no coat and no microchips upon activating my new Nexus Card. I don’t know what happens if I don’t destroy it, but my first intuition was that the new one probably wouldn’t work, so I’d better hang on to my old one for awhile in case I need a backup.

But I used the new Nexus card yesterday, and it did work, so I guess I can bear to get rid of the old one. Actually, I’d be happy to get rid of the old one: it has a picture, alleged to be of me (with the odd name, of course), but it actually looks like a fish with glasses. The new Nexus card has the same picture, but it is covered up by some kind of holographic seal or something which almost completely obliterates the picture. Couldn’t happen to a worse picture. An act of kindness from Nexus.

But my question is about the little coat that the Nexus card is obliged to wear at all times. I am told (by whom I do not know—street talk) that I must keep the coat on the Nexus card at all times because people driving around with radio frequency scanners (And who would that be? The police? Terrorists? Identity thieves?) will pick up the secret information off my Nexus card and drive away to do something with it. Become identity thieves? Become terrorists? I really am not easily able to imagine this happening with any frequency. But it is technology and I’m not all that techno-savvy.

So I accept that you have to keep its coat on at all times (except when going through the border because if it has its coat on then the border people can’t read it anymore than the scanner thieves can read it) to protect something. But what’s actually on the card that needs protecting? My name? Well, actually, not. My Social Security number? The places that have my social security number are legion. When I lived in Massachusetts (1970-75), that’s what they used for your driver’s license number, which was then copied onto every check you ever wrote. My passport number? My awful photograph? My bank accounts, my brokerage accounts (not much left there), my insurance? My secret diary? My passwords????

Somehow, I have the feeling that this is just one of the last acts of incompetence brought to us by the Bush Administration. After all, if it’s so dangerous to have this information floating in the air, couldn’t it be encrypted? And if it’s so dangerous to have this information floating in the air, maybe the government shouldn’t have the information in the first place or shouldn’t be putting it on a card that is highly likely, sooner or later, in my hands or those of someone else, to lose its coat, its hat, its mittens, its every protection? And then will it be my/our fault if the terrorists come again? I'm checking with Dick Cheney about that.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Help Needed

Many years ago—in 1968, to be specific--I had three very young children and was divorced. It was the late 60’s; could have happened to anyone in those times. And, like anyone in that situation, there wasn’t much money. I had had a job since I was 15, but for the previous 4 years I’d been raising little kids instead, which certainly was work but not work that paid money. One day, I found myself standing in the kitchen and thinking that if I ate only twice a day, I could save X amount of money. And then I found myself thinking that that was crazy. I needed to get a job, despite the fact that I had three little kids. Eating less than I needed was not a choice I wanted to be making.

And, I didn’t have to make that choice because I was lucky in most other ways: the kids were healthy; their dad was available; I had a M.A. from UCLA; and the job market was reasonably good. I found a job pretty quickly (as a research assistant for a U.S. Congressman in his district office). It was a great job and the kids managed with the additional help of some hired folks. And we all continued to eat three meals a day.

But that is not everybody’s story in such a situation, so since then, I’ve always been particularly sensitive to the idea that people in America, the wealthiest place in the world, ought not, at the very least, have to worry about having enough to eat. And yet, here we are in the wealthiest place in the world (even if not so wealthy as it recently was), and there are people without enough money to ensure adequate food. Oh, they may not be facing malnutrition or starvation, but they are having to feel some sense of alarm about the price of milk and cheese and chicken (even though we in Washington pay a lot less for them than our neighbors in Canada do).

Now, with an unemployment rate slipping upward rapidly, there’s going to be a bigger problem and fewer people anxious to respond to the need. Does that stimulus program include additional food stamp money? What’s the state of local food banks that help to make up the slack for people like I was that day who just didn’t have quite enough money for quite enough food? Are their donations dropping? Probably, as most non-profits’ donations are.

Even in tiny, remote, peculiar Point Roberts, there are people who need some help getting adequate food. Fortunately, Point Roberts has a food bank that is run entirely by volunteer efforts. Nobody in that outfit getting salaries, let alone bonuses. The P.R. Food Bank helps 30 or 40 households here on the Point to not worry about adequate food. They may still have to worry about their rent or their car insurance or their gasoline, but at least, there’s help with food. However, that help doesn't just arrive from the sky: the Food Bank has to solicit help from the community both in terms of funds and in terms of time in procuring, storing, packaging, and delivering the food.

People always talk about how generous Americans are, and I’m sure they are when they see some need for generosity standing right in front of them. But people who need some help with food don’t stand in front of you and ask for help. Who stands in front of you, at least at this moment, is somebody who once could have used some help but had no one to ask. I was lucky and found another way out. For those who aren’t so lucky, who don’t have a lot of job experience, education, work savvy, and a good job market…well, they are still there needing help. Money, a permanent storage space for food, and actual time spent picking up, packaging, distributing food: all of that is needed by the Point Roberts Food Bank. If you are here on the Point, think about offering to help.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Disappearing Names and Objects

The All Point Bulletin brought us the news this month that the Whalen camp site over on the northeast side of Point Roberts has been sold to someone who needed a lot of land for an estate and all the people who have had trailers there over the years were given a month to get out. Not friendly, but it’s business, you know? And the needs of and for estates are considerable.

I’ve been thinking the last few days about this. It seems like a loss. Well, it is a loss of trailer space and part of the mystique of the Point is all these families, generations of whom have been coming here for years in the summer for a few weeks, a couple of months even, to partake of the local amenities. For some, it’s a tradition that should be not only acknowledged but honored and maybe even made sacrosanct (and give us back our trailer park!). And maybe that’s true. Like going to the same summer camp every year. On the other hand, maybe it’s just an inexpensive vacation place for Canadians and not a part of national (international?) cultural values. I don’t know.

The Whalen trailer park also has some economic value for the Point, I assume, so its shuttering will mean some economic loss. Those summer visitors are people who won’t be here buying food and hardware goods and beer and tourist objects, or going to restaurants and bars. And there are a decreasing number of trailer facilities here (although for many people who are full-time residents, that would be considered a feature, not a bug). So, it’s something of a mixed bag, I suppose. Change; never easy.

One significant loss involved, I think, will be the historical loss. Whalen is one of those names on the Point that is to be reckoned with, which is to say, old time resident. When we were constructing the outbuilding where I work on my quilts, we hired a nice guy named Gary who also ran the Whalen trailer park to work on the framing. I can’t remember his last name now, but I do remember how people would say to me, “Oh, sure, Gary. He’s married to the Whalen girl.” Who was, of course, no longer a girl, and hadn’t been one for many a year, but that’s how it is with the old families. They sold the trailer park a couple of years ago to someone from California who was going to run it as it had always been, but then the Californians ran into some family illness and that was the end of their plan. (Another instance of Point Roberts being a place where dreams go to die, I’d say.)

After Gary and the Whalen girl sold the trailer park to the Californians, they moved away, I think, and I don’t know if there are even any Whalens left here now. But there are still Whalen artifacts. About five years ago, somebody gave me a heavy window frame with glass intact because I was, at the time, putting some of the abandoned house quilts into window frames. “It’s from the old Whalen house,” I was told. Nothing more needed to be said. So I take care of that frame because in some not quite explicable way, it is a piece of Point Roberts history that is now my burden.

The Whalens are gone, the Whalen Trailer Park is gone, but the Whalen window frame is available for viewing upon request.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cousin Caterpillar

Another Internet treasure hunt and a real treasure at the end. This morning, Ed was looking at one of those photo collections that somebody is always sending to somebody via the email and I looked up at the screen just as a funny picture of a dog and a hedgehog slid into place. Looking at the hedgehog (and thinking of hedgehog/groundhog/badger day having just passed), I remembered the wonderful, bouncy, funny song of the Incredible String Band, a U.K. band of the 60’s, and called ‘The Hedgehog Song.’ I once had a much-played LP of the album that included that song, but it went away 20+ years ago when I let go of all my vinyls and 33’s and LP’s and committed to CD’s. Lots of albums got replaced, but The Incredible String Band didn’t because, at least at the time, it wasn’t there in that format so that I could replace it.

Ed doesn’t remember the song; I try to sing it, but I can barely croak anymore, let alone get out a complex tune like that one (whose refrain begins ‘Oh, you know all the words, and you sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song she sung’). On a flyer, I Googled ‘The Hedgehog Song’, and up came a YouTube with a static visual and the original album cut. What a treat! And there’s more like this if you can just remember song titles or lyrics. (How can we have lost sight of the ‘Minotaur Song’ over the past eight years???? Or ‘First Girl I Loved? ) I also found “My Cousin Caterpillar’ (also by The String Band), which begins with the immortal line (given the title), ‘My cousin has great changes coming one day…’ And ends, ‘Come on, Do Your Thing!’ That may perfectly capture how we felt in the 60’s, those of us who were doing a lot of feeling in the 60’s, anyway.

Inspiration for our times, maybe. We are certainly hoping for great changes and we could surely use them. It’s just not clear that we any longer have ‘a thing’ to do. But at least the String Band is on YouTube; there’s a comfort. Here and here. Just poke around and you’ll find the other titles too there on ‘related video’s’ at the YouTube site.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2009

Odds and Ends

1. Today is Candlemas Day (40 days after Christmas), but it’s a day more celebrated in books than in life, I suspect. It’s also Groundhog Day, and my understanding is that the groundhog in Pennsylvania did indeed see his shadow this morning, prognosticating another six weeks of winter. Originally, in Germany, it was a badger who made this prediction, but when German settlers came to the coal mines of Pennsylvania, they found no badgers, so they had to rely on groundhogs for information. And now, we have the Internet! Up here in Point Roberts, we have neither badgers nor groundhogs as far as I know, but we have lots and lots of voles, and voles were not seeing their shadows this morning, so maybe Pennsylvania gets six weeks of winter and Point Roberts gets spring right away. I’m okay with that; and last Saturday made spring seem like a reasonable prospect.

2. For the past six months, reading the events of the world, I have pondered from time to time whether Point Roberts is a good place to sit out the arriving/already here bad times. I can’t say that I’ve progressed too far in my thoughts. It doesn’t seem like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is going to be much of a guide to action, but Point Roberts does seem like as good a place as any if you don’t have a lot of debt and do have a little ground in which to grow vegetables. However, last week’s New Yorker (January 26, 2009) has a fascinating article on ‘The Dystopians,’ describing the 'forward thinking' (as the financial types speak of predictions) of various non-religious types’ apocalyptic visions. Unfortunately, the full text isn’t available on the Net, but there is a summary of the article here. These are all people who are getting licenses for pistols, I note, are living on boats, or cataloguing their gold acquisitions. All pretty interesting if you’re not someone who is too susceptible of imagination. In any case, it made me think Point Roberts might be a good place with respect to lack of weapons: a nice gated community and with the gate operated by Homeland Security. Oh, we could end up being grateful to the border agents just as we could end up being grateful to the bulk mailers. We’re not done with irony yet, I guess.

3. With respect to on-going bad times, I find myself checking the status of Sterling and Banner Banks each day as demonstrated by their stock prices. Both have continued to plunge, and at $1.53 (Sterling), plunging much more could be very painful. Banner dropped too, but not quite as hard; now at $2.99. I have no idea what happens when a stock has no value at all.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Superbowl Sunday Excess

I suspect that today is the Super Bowl, but I think it’s a little late for it. I mean, doesn’t it usually happen in January after the New Year’s Day bowl games? And aren’t we about a month past that? Maybe it was postponed as a patriotic gesture so as not to take the attention away from Obama. As if. (I say that and it feels like whistling in the dark. I HOPE as if.)

I’ve never watched the Super Bowl, don’t even know whether it’s one word or two, and have no idea who is playing in the game on this particular day, nor where they are doing the playing. I am sufficiently connected to know that it is football, just as I know that the Gray’s Cup (the Grey’s Cup?) is about hockey [except that I don't know that: it turns out that it is the Stanley Cup that is about hockey....I'm hopeless on this, I guess.] . I last watched a football game in 1955, when Idaho State College played somebody else on Homecoming Day. I realized at that point that it was unlikely I would ever figure out the game, would ever figure out, even, who had the football at any given moment. They all run around looking as if they have something like a football tucked under their arm, and I’m ready to believe them. It made for a confusing experience, all round, so I gave up on football. (Despite the fact that I am an American, born and bred, I do much better with hockey, but that is because I graduated from Saint Lawrence University, a New York institution up on the Canadian border, and hockey was the only thing to watch for about 5 months of the year. Also, I can see the puck against the ice.)

So, the fact that today is a great American celebration in which we all participate by gathering with our friends in front of a giant TV and eating a lot of high calory snack food, or even a lot of high calorie main dish food, and drinking a lot of beer: well, it’s largely lost on me because I don’t have a TV, don’t know anyone nearby who has a giant one, or if I do, don’t know anyone with a giant TV who is watching the Superbowl, and don’t drink beer. So disappointing. So out of it.

But this past week—the Internet will help you to do anything—I ran into a series of links about food that would be just terrific for eating while watching the Superbowl. One link led to another, of course, and while I’m not sure that all of the things I saw were intended for the Superbowl Nosh Fest, here’s what I found on offer that captured my fancy: barbequed turkey wings (those chicken wings are so 90’s and also so tiny); a 2-pound mat of woven bacon stuffed with sausage and an additional pound of cooked bacon, which is then rolled up and either barbequed or grilled, and then I assume you just use your hands to slather it around on yourself; and fried cheese.

This is a nice range of choices, I think, so for tonight, in celebration of Superbowl Sunday and just to feel a part of things, I fried some cheese and ate it with my fingers. This recipe involves cutting a thick slice of some kind of cheese—I used jack and cheddar, but I imagine some kinds work better than others--and cooking it over a medium-low flame in a non-stick frying pan for 8 minutes. At the end of the eight minutes, it’s turned into a very thin, crispy kind of cracker-like item. You mop up the extra oil with a paper towel before you eat it. Which probably can’t be done with the roasted bacon mat stuffed with sausage: that’s said to come in at 5,000 calories per recipe. Awesome! Just like the Superbowl. But the fried cheese is pretty nice, too.