hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Monday, November 30, 2009

Strange Sights

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Temporary Relief

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks in A Big World

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


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

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

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

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

Much discontent. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How Did I Get Here?

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sign Still Becoming

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Septic System Meeting, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Community Meet-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Civic Matters (and a Little Weather)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Canada Is Different

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Parks and Libraries Prevail

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Elegiac Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

Best Little Town in the World

Not, alas, Point Roberts.  But I also live half the time if not in, at least next door to/a mile down the road from, the best little town in the world.  Really.  Last month, while we were up on the Sunshine Coast, it was announced that the town of Gibsons, B.C. had been named ‘The Most Liveable Town in the World’ in the 'Communities Under 20,000' category.  The Mayor and a pair of Most Liveable Town Officials went to the Czech Republic to get what appeared in the photo of the event as one of those medieval necklaces of heavy golden chain that European City Mayors used to sport (like Dick Whittington, who if I recall correctly was ‘twice Lord Mayor of London Town’).

There is, however, something faintly suspicious about this whole drama.  The award, it is said, is a United Nations-Recognized International Award for Liveable Communities.  What does that ‘recognized’ mean?  (And why does 'liveable' have that first e?)  Further, according to the Coast Reporter, the local newspaper, the award was received largely because Gibsons has developed a neighborhood plan with a ‘geoexchange system’ (got me), which system will ‘be used to heat local homes and businesses with minimal carbon emissions and provide a source of revenue for the town.’  Now exactly how that makes Gibsons the ‘most liveable town in the world’ is pretty mysterious, I’d think.  The plan and the geoexchange, whatever it is, do not yet exist other than on paper. 

Much of the credit for the award should go to the Parks and Culture Director, said the Mayor, because it was her idea to apply for the award.  Next year, perhaps, she could nominate the town to receive a Nobel Award of some sort.  Then they could all go to Sweden to receive it.  It all seems a little goofy and a little risky.  This is an area which only a few years ago unelected pretty much all the Regional District Directors who thought it was a cool idea to have the District pay for them all to go to Central America to visit the District’s sister city. 

Nevertheless, the hard-working, dutifully-traveling Gibson’s Planning Director reported that the experience was ‘very rewarding,’ and concluded, ‘ I think it’s validation of everything that we’ve done and we’re on the right track in terms of the work that we’re doing.’

This story was on the top half of the front page of the weekly paper.  On the bottom half of the front page, the story was about the immediate resignation of a Gibsons (‘Most Liveable Town under 20,000 in the World’) Council Member (who didn’t go on the trip to the Czech Republic).  He’s leaving because  of his ‘frustration with how the current Council works.’  Apparently everyone doesn’t agree about the award and what it’s validating.  Maybe an award for most entertaining small town politics in a town under 20,000?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Loose Ends

The Magazine Exchange:  Kris, who runs the library, has made everything better.  She obtained a rolling cart from the main library and the magazines for exchange can be left on the cart and the librarians will take it in when the library closes and bring it out when the library opens.   That limits the exchange a bit I suppose since it means only during the library opening times, but better than nothing, and actually very good.  I told Kris today that I would check it at least once a week while I am on the Point to make sure that it is not overflowing and to prune if necessary.  This ought, however, not to turn into extra work for the librarians, so it would be a good idea for everyone who uses it to attend to the tidiness factor, as well. 

The Community Events Sign:  Well, the roof is not yet there, but there are an awful lot of trusses for something that is only about a five-foot span.  I imagine the roof will be made of granite or marble or something like that in order to bear down sufficiently on those trusses.

Economic Development Plan #3001:  I had seen this  For Sale sign frequently, but somehow never quite focused on the hotel plan possibilities.  A few years ago, there was talk of a race track on this property, I believe.  How much more interesting even would a hotel be, right there across from the post office and the USA gas station, and adjoining the community events sign!  Lots of lots and buildings for sale in Point Roberts right now.  Perhaps many hotels as well as B and B’s, motels and maybe even boarding houses.  Transitory Housing R Us. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

Economic Development Plan #3,000

On the schedule today was a visit to the monthly Taxpayers’ Association (TA) here in Point Roberts.  I don’t often go to their meetings because I think they must meet when I’m not here.  But they met and I’m here.  And there is news, of sorts.

When I got there, a tad late, one attendee was waxing—well, not rhapsodic, but perhaps the opposite of rhapsodic: frenentic?—on the topic of Whatcom County’s desire to kill us all by urging us to get H1N1 vaccinations, even though the County doesn’t have many doses with which to target us, and even though we are feeling deprived about not having them.  Just the gentleman’s point, though: the County was encouraging us to have shots that would risk our lives, and he wished the Association to protest this County action.  If anyone produces minutes of the meeting, I imagine the gentleman’s views will be accurately recorded, if not in full detail.

It is very hard, I find, to know quite what to do when people up here—and not just a few of them—wish to convey their somewhat unusual views at considerable length to others.  You nod (that’s the yes-yes nod), and then you think about responding but decide ‘not a good idea’ very quickly, and then you begin to nod (as in the dropping off to sleep nod).  The only honest response I could make would be so profoundly impolite that I could not probably make it.  So there you are.  You just put it in the minutes.

And then we talked about trash (that is, trash collection or more specifically no-trash-collection) a bit.  Is there light at the end of the tunnel?  ‘None whatsoever,’ was the reply of the TA Director most attuned to the topic.  But we talked about it some more anyway.  One of the things I like about the trash collection problem is that we are stuck with a problem which appears to be so profoundly unique and complex that it can never be solved.  Everyone wants to solve it but no one is able to solve it; not even the people who appear, more or less, to have the power to solve it.  Perhaps it is actually insoluable; perhaps there is no actual trash collection anywhere else in the world and that is why the problem is so hard.  I seem to remember that we used to have it, but then I get things wrong in my memories now and then.  Perhaps it is only a dream; perhaps we have never had and thus very probably never will have trash collection.  First, let us focus on going to the moon, say, or requiring people to have their septic systems inspected.

And thus did we segue into the TA's final topic of the evening.  Some time ago, the County, along with other counties in Puget Sound, I was told, passed uniform enabling legislation requiring that everyone in those counties with septic systems be required to have a septic system inspection from a certified inspector beginning this year.  Presumably, they’ve spent the last year getting those inspectors certified.  They’re employees in the private sector and the County did not establish fees for this service, so you pay what they charge which, according to the street, is in the vicinity of $200-$250, which is a little steep for a simple inspection. 

Up here in Point Roberts, there are no sewers; there are only septic systems, so every house and business on the Point must have this inspection.  In mid-October, we got a letter saying we had till early December to get the inspections done and if we didn’t do it by then, our moms were going to be very disappointed and our dads were going to be very angry, and so just get it done.  It also sent us a list of local certified outfits: four of them in Point Roberts.  Now, there are maybe 1800 water hook-ups (at least that’s the number I got from the Water Board in 2004, and more have been added since then).  I assume if you have a water hookup, you are likely also to have a septic system.  Which means that in about sixty days, 1800+ inspections are to be conducted by four companies/individuals (none of them employ even tens of inspectors, certainly).  That's going to be a scheduling nightmare, I'd think.  And if you figure an average charge of $200 (which is underestimating, from what I've heard), that looks to me like almost half a million dollars of new spending in Point Roberts and on Point Roberts businesses in only two months.  Merry Christmas, indeed!

Now that’s an economic development plan if I ever heard of one.  Although it’s a little narrowly focused, I’d think.  It will have spillover, of course, because if systems fail, then systems must be repaired or replaced.  Good economic times in 2010, as well.  This, I’d think, is an issue with very long legs.  We have not heard the end of this.

And if the letters to us from the County were the first act, in two weeks we are going to get the second act when a member of the County Council and a member of the County Counsel’s office come to explain this to us in one of those big community meetings.  Monday, November 16, 7 pm, Community Center.  After that event, everything will be illuminated.   If I were a betting person, I might believe we'd be illuminated, but I doubt if we are going to be pleased.