March 15, 2013 at 11:19 am | In just_so | 3 Comments

From my breakfast perch, I can see a beautiful heritage house across the street. The lovely owner runs a home-based daycare.

This morning I watched parents in various makes of cars hurl themselves to the curb, gently and with apparent attention shepherd their children inside, …then run back nearly headless to the cars that would take them to their minutely scheduled lives:

To catch the train to work in Boston?
To take the highway to work in suburban office parks?
To go to a local job?

Where were they all off to, in such a great hurry?

Of course I remembered that I used to do this myself, before I (sort of kind of involuntarily) opted out of that rat race.

commuter rail train boston mbta



Last month I had one of those very blue periods where what should be a broad horizon shrinks down to a tiny speck that feels like a dark, dark hole in the ground.

I’m happy to report that my brain managed to adjust itself and I don’t feel entirely rotten at present. But these things do come and go, as many of you know. One of my sisters calls it having “das arme Tier” (except she’ll say it not in high German, but in an exaggerated Rhineland dialect, “dat aahme Dier”): that poor dear.

weathervane signage

You can have that damn poor dear, you see. And when you do, she’s going to make sure you feel that it’s like that. Exactly like that.

(Note for monolinguists: Tier means animal, here meant as creature. Dier is dialect: in the Rhineland, hard sounds tend to soften: t becomes d, ich becomes ish. In Berlin, on the other hand, pronunciation is harder: ich becomes the famous – infamous? – ick.)

I think it’s ironic that, just as “the poor dear” sticks with me (and to me, sometimes), I also have a special memory of another concept: the Lebenskünstler or life artist. He or she is a person who escapes constricting social norms and manages to live life on her own terms.

In a super-ramped up consumerist world, we may be forgiven if we conflate Lebenskunst (the art of living) with lifestyle and therefore as something we ought to be able to buy.

Money sure is useful (and a validation of oneself, if one is paid for what one does), but Lebenskunst is not just a lifestyle thing.

It’s mostly an attitude, a perspective, and a question of creativity.

In one sense, it’s about being able to count one’s blessings – although, again using my memories as an example, counting blessings or having an attitude of gratitude is something my tribe made fun of, often. Really often. Gratitude, schmatitude. Gratitude was for weaklings, and for optimistic fools who ended up being happy to tend their own gardens – instead of going out there and Doing Something Important. So we made fun. I’m not sure we really understood the corrosive effect on ourselves of our sarcasm. But I think we did it because we assumed that some things were basic social and human rights, and that it was ridiculous to be grateful for anything-and-everything. (People have argued about this for centuries.) I suspect, too, that sarcasm and gallows humor was also a shield – and perhaps a lance – against the poor dear. Today I’m more inclined to conclude that tending one’s own garden isn’t the worst of all possible worlds – provided you have your little plot, that is.

The Lebenskünstler is creative about gratitude, and uses it to build. She’s no hapless naif, or poor dear. He has a sense of style – and therefore a lifestyle – but isn’t a slave to consumption. She builds (creates) with what she’s given, and sometimes that’s the short end of the stick. No matter. It’s a matter of philosophy, and consolation. Most of all, Lebenskunst is about creativity and using what you’ve got.

bridge pilingsGive her half a chance, and my poor dear tells me I’ve got nothing. I have to tell her to shut her uncreative trap. My poor dear makes fun of the Lebenskünstler swanning about, the one who’s busy making plans and creating (largely imaginary) worlds.

The poor dear doesn’t want anyone actually to create anything. At this point I have to show my poor dear the door, although she’s feisty and incredibly difficult to shove away. But push I must, because my poor dear does nothing to help me get anywhere, or even help me get started.

She is the worst rat race in the whole universe because she makes me compete against her, which is no contest at all because she’ll triumph.

The Lebenskünstler must learn to subtract. Ask any sculptor and she’ll tell you that subtraction is as valuable a creative technique as addition. It’s time once again to give the poor dear a Lebenskunst make-over.

No man is an island. How come communities are?

November 15, 2012 at 6:28 pm | In guerilla_politics, ideas, just_so, land_use | Comments Off on No man is an island. How come communities are?

I don’t like every article published by City Journal – too often, I can imagine conservative think tank folk nodding their heads while reading its jeremiads about popular culture and decline, particularly as the articles describe how that decline is hastened (so they would argue) by “liberalism.” In other words, it’s often just a tad too ideological.

But I really liked Michael Anton’s piece, Tom Wolfe’s California. Anton points out that Wolfe, who’s seen as quintessentially belonging to New York City, spent a lot of time in California – seminal time, in fact.

In City Journal‘s grand tradition of California-bashing (the magazine does like to mention frequently that the state is a basket case, although I have no idea what they would like California to become… Florida?), we learn that in the 1960s Wolfe recognized in California’s incipient “statuspheres” (those subcultures fixated on surfing or pimping out and drag racing cars, etc.) the trends (downward, of course, this being City Journal) that would soon be embraced by the whole (declining) USA. (It just makes you wanna shout “yee-haw!” and go rustle up some cattle, drill for oil, and ride a horse into a healthy Texas sunset, don’t it…? /snark)

But seriously. Anton’s article is a great read – and it makes this reader want to get her hands on Wolfe’s books, to re-read some as well as read others for the first time, in either case with Anton’s insights into Wolfe front and center. Given our current passage through an economic age of sharp divisions (fabulously gilded on the one teeny-weeny tiny hand, soiled and dragged through the gutter on the rather over-large other), Anton’s analysis of what Wolfe wrote about money is especially interesting.

The economic boom after World War II resulted in a middle class that was rich, which in turn had a profound effect on how culture shaped up in California. As Anton notes, “But the thing about California’s middle class, especially at the time Wolfe began his investigations, is that it’s weird.” And a little further down: “All that money, freedom, and sense of limitless possibility have the same effect on California writ large as they do on people who rocket overnight from steelworker’s son to superstar. Out pours everyone’s inner weird.”

Between these two observations, there’s the following – and this is what really grabbed me, because after ten years of living on an actual island (one that was quite weird, too) I’m very interested in the phenomenon of “islanding” generally:

There is, in California, an inherent strangeness that has always attracted loners, dreamers, and outliers. Hemmed in on all sides by mountains, forests, deserts, and the sea, California is an island in every sense but the literal, with its own distinct climate, air, soil, flora, and fauna. Geographically and culturally, California is a world unto itself. [emphasis added]

“…an island in every sense but the literal”: there’s the key thing, for me. How does it happen, this “islanding”? What makes communities self-referential and relatively immune to outsiders? Not too long ago I heard the term “island” applied to a neighboring Boston North Shore municipality. The town in question is definitely not an actual island. The unflattering implication, however, was that people who come from or move to this place are (or become) islanders, and that their world-view changes.

Does it mean that islanders (real or figurative) become too convinced of their own importance, uniqueness, singularity? Do they care less about those not “on the island”?

What’s the balance between tradition and innovation on an island? How does change happen? Is “balance” between these two possible or desirable in the first place? What do communities (municipalities, cities) need to do to avoid islanding? My first thought here is allow more immigration and increase density, get people to rub up against one another. But my “real island” experience also taught me that once the island mindset is in a place’s DNA, it infects newcomers, too. If you live on an island – real or figurative – you will go native, believe me.

And what about modern versions of islanding, as described in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort? Is this just an instinct we have, one which we repeat whenever we clump together? Probably. Then how do we make sure it doesn’t i-s-o-l-a-t-e us? Can you isolate (hah, there’s that word again) the island DNA and inoculate against it?

Seems like an important thing, ’cause if it goes too far, you end up in a bubble, unable to perceive beyond the limits (and illusions) you’ve constructed. Even Republican ideologues ought now to understand that danger.

My Victoria friend Jarren Butterworth contemplating “Too many islands,”
photo ©Lena Vorontsova
(used with permission)

Road warriors

November 13, 2012 at 10:11 am | In cities, education, just_so | Comments Off on Road warriors

The other day I saw a car with New Hampshire license plates and a school sticker from a nearby private school parked in my neighborhood. I surmised that the driver, an attractive early-40s woman who was fiddling with her phone, was in all likelihood the parent of a student at the well-regarded school. The school is about five minutes from my house, but the closest New Hampshire town is about 30 miles away.

Gotta say, that lady really gave me pause.

Warning: boring personal stuff ahead – go to below the map to skip…

[Also, see Addendum at bottom of post]

In 2002, my family and I moved away from the same neighborhood and city on Boston’s North Shore to which we then returned in 2012. We had begun homeschooling in 2000, and by 2002 we opted to live in Victoria, Canada (the capital city of British Columbia). One of the great benefits of moving to Victoria was that it got us out of the car.

Before we moved I used to spend a lot of time driving my kids around: to school, to extra-curricular classes, to other people’s houses. It was a lifestyle that continued even after we started homeschooling. It seemed that any place anyone wanted to go to required a car (not least because, aside from the commuter rail into Boston, public transportation isn’t exactly a great alternative around here).

After our move to Victoria in 2002, all that stopped. The children instead walked, biked, or bused to most of the places they needed (or wanted) to go, whether it was the Victoria Conservatory of Music (VCM), the YMCA, the library, or, later, a year of high school or university.

Downtown was just a few blocks from our house in one direction, and in the other lay densely populated residential neighborhoods. We could walk to three full service grocery stores, a couple of bakeries, a spring-through-fall farmers market, movie theaters, live theaters, the opera, the art gallery, parks and beaches, shops, restaurants and coffee shops in “villagenodes, Chinatown, Old Town, and more. If the walk was too far, there was a bus, and if that was too limiting, there were bikes. And of course there was also the car, and we used it. But not excessively.

I am dead serious when I say that getting out of the car was the best thing we did for our kids. Seeing the road warrior with the New Hampshire plates and a kid in a North Shore school hammered home just how different our ten years in Victoria were, compared to the nonchalant embrace of pavement that’s so common here.

If I pick South Hampton NH as the closest point across the state line, the daily trek to that private school in Beverly Massachusetts is ~33 miles. The drive will take between 45 minutes to an hour, if conditions are favorable. The parent may or may not be heading to points further south, adding to her journey. At any rate, the road-warrior-in-training kid has almost two hours of vehicle time per day, five days a week.

Hard to comprehend.

Equally difficult to fathom from a more urban perspective is the no doubt low-density, probably homogenous, possibly wooded-but-suburban enclave this youngster is growing up in. When my kids walked downtown to the VCM, they encountered the homeless shelter next door, and, sadly, the junkies shooting up outside the music building. And along most of the downtown streets, they often ran a gauntlet of panhandlers. This wasn’t a good thing, but it gave them a perspective on life choices – and life disasters. They developed a feel for how to engage (or not) with street life, and how to feel safe (and not paranoid). You sure didn’t want to engage the tweaking meth-head falling down on the sidewalk, but it was ok to respond to the panhandler’s sometimes sarcastic passive-aggressive/ sometimes genuine “have a nice day” with “you, too, man,” …even when you didn’t give him or her any money.

It’s not the case that my kids only saw junkies and beggars on Victoria’s streets (although the downtown seemed to have more than its fair share): my point is that they saw many people who were not like them, who were different. Admittedly, Victoria (which is an expensive place to live) is predominantly white, and if not white, then Asian. Minorities really are a minority. But even within that mostly white population, there’s diversity – in age, income, outlook and lifestyle.

If, on the other hand, you live a good chunk of each day in your car, you’re perforce isolated from other human beings. The car creates a bubble and barrier around you, cuts you off from experiencing the humanity that’s past your windshield. That’s why drivers can be so rude: it’s like being online – you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing to someone close up, face-to-face.

If on top of that your home is a house in an area without sidewalks, where you must drive to buy basic necessities, your contact to “different” people is even more limited. And until you’re able to drive yourself, your dependence on mom or dad for any sort of mobility is cast in bronze – or whatever extruded material car makers use these days.

I’ve often wondered why parents drive their kids to school – there are so many reasons. Now I wonder why someone would drive their kid +/- 33 miles to school. And maybe I can guess why: because at this particular school, the student will find all the lovely qualities missing in other areas of her life:  a sense of belonging to something larger, a well-curated feint at diversity, community outreach (soup kitchens, etc.).

This school will produce a well-rounded graduate with all the right extra-curricular achievements – like community service in diverse social settings, so crucial to the college application. Why those good things aren’t baked into our built environments, however, is a conundrum. Something is backward here.

Addendum, Nov.14:

Just a thought, but you know how we’ve been hearing that sitting down for large chunks of our daily 24 hours is shaving years off our lives? And you know how recent reports say that life expectancy is actually declining for (some) Americans (i.e., young people today will live shorter, rather than longer, lives than their parents)? Maybe all that sitting around in cars – starting at very young ages – is a contributing factor to bad health in more ways than we ever suspected.

Unfinished business on North Williams

April 24, 2012 at 11:16 pm | In just_so, Portland | 2 Comments

An evening walk on North Williams in Portland

It’s 10pm, I leave the building I currently reside in to take my dog Jigger outside. We walk down two flights of stairs and arrive on the street – North Williams, of which 3 or so blocks are now considered trendy. I walk past Che’s food cart and Soundroots School of Music toward the next intersection.

Across the street I hear conversation and laughter coming from the sidewalk tables at Pix Patisserie (the site of yesterday’s carnage).

Why grass?

As Jigger dawdles along, sniffing for edible morsels (road sushi, we call it), I look down at the sidewalk and see the almost knee-high grass growing ragged in the muddy strips along sides of buildings and in the sad little space between paved sidewalk and paved road. It’s nearly knee-high because this is the kind of neighborhood where almost no one does any upkeep.

And suddenly, as I wonder why in hell grass is even growing here (and why does it have to look so scraggly), I’m reminded of my many midnight visits to coffeehouses in Schwabing, a neighborhood in Munich.

No matter what time I visited, the cafes were always filled with people – posers, models, artists, writers, film-makers, business jocks – you name it. At 2 in the morning, skinny city girls with high fashion allure ate luscious tortes, perhaps the only meal they consumed all day. They made a show of it, and it was worth seeing them eat.

For those beautiful girls, a song:


(And for those who don’t get the reference, The Cure set to music a Baudelaire poem about street people looking at rich people feasting in cafés, and a painter named Manet may have been inspired by that poem.)

Meanwhile, back on the sidewalk I’m standing on…

There simply wasn’t any grass, nearly knee-high or not, growing out of place on those Munich boulevards, which were sealed against the elements and designed for city shoes.

Class or race? Class and race.

Looking at North Williams, with its odd mixture of poverty, sad suburbanism, unfinished urbanism and vaguely emerging urban vibe-ness (but still trapped in all the outward signs of decrepitude and a deep and troubling history of racial strife – read, white oppression), I suddenly had to think of that bastard Édouard Manet and his paintings of the Parisian banlieues (suburbs).

The art historian T.J. Clark made a big deal of those unfinished edges of Paris in his book, The Painting of Modern Life, and rightly so. As I walked, taking in that godawful grass, the horrible admixture of muck and vegetation, rotting clapboard on an old house, bits of trash, and the “emerging” hipster vibe emanating from Pix or from The Box Social across the street, I suddenly felt like some displaced Parisian in …oh, Batignolles perhaps, strolling along the Avenue de Clichy when it was quiet – before, you know, that American got there and caused a ruckus. No doubt there was near-knee-high grass on the roadsides there, too, and, mixed in with a sparse sampling of interesting cafes, a bunch of ugly, half-falling apart buildings of relatively recent vintage. Because in neighborhoods like that, nothing is built to last – and it shows.

It’s official: I hate Portland Oregon

April 23, 2012 at 4:43 pm | In just_so, local_not_global, notes | 4 Comments

As I write this, I’m shaking – with shock and with indignation.

I have a Cairn Terrier named Jigger. He’s 14 years old, he’s deaf, he’s very very mellow, and he prefers to spend his time nosing around for food. He’s not territorial or bad-tempered, and is in fact one of the happiest, “jiggiest” dogs you’ll ever meet.

He grew up socialized around other dogs and has never picked a fight with another mammal, excepting the raccoons that live in the back garden of the house we used to own in Victoria British Columbia. He’s never been in a fight with another dog, not even a cat (once, in Rockport Massachusetts, a shop cat swiped him across the nose, but he just wanted to run away, not fight).

But in Portland in the past few months, I have met more neurotic, unsocialized dogs than I can count. It’s the norm for owners here to forbid their dogs from interacting with other dogs on the sidewalks or even in the parks. The one exception to this is that some dog owners take their pets to the “off leash” areas in parks, but even those areas are not frequented much. Eight times out of ten, when you pass one, it’s empty. Of course that might be on account of all the shitty weather you get in Portland.

Anyway, we finally got some warmth and sun in the last few days. Jigger is older and less likely to want long walks anyway, so this afternoon the spouse and I just went around the block with him and then sat at the shady chairs and table set out by Pix Patisserie across the street to have some coffee, and to let Jigger enjoy some more “outdoor” time without forcing him to walk in the afternoon heat.

I’ve mentioned before (on Facebook) that I think Portlanders don’t know how to keep dogs or socialize them properly (our neighbors seem to think their Fox Terrier is a cat that can be left alone at home for hours upon hours on end, for example), but this afternoon’s experience took the prize.

I’m still shaking.

We’re sitting at a table, Jigger is resting under my chair. He has his back turned to the rest of the sidewalk. He’s deaf, and therefore is oblivious to approaching noises. An older woman who looked, frankly, like a demented bat out of hell, approaches with four (4!!!) Scottish Terriers – one of which is wearing a muzzle. That should have been our warning, I suppose.

As they approach, her dogs see Jigger (who hasn’t seen them, nor heard them), and before I know what’s happening, one of them has set upon him and is biting the hell out of him, dragging him into the middle of the Scotty pack. Then the others have at him. I jumped up and started pulling dogs off my dog, but the stupid asshole of a dog owner just fucking stood there instead of moving on! They were biting his side, his ears, anything they could get a hold of. Every time I got one dog off, another would lunge. The spouse got into the act, and I managed to pick my dog up. Another Scotty got a hold of his tail and bit it, literally hanging on my dog’s tail with his teeth, and I nearly dropped my dog – who was by now in a total panic. I’ve never seen him so panicked.

I picked my dog up again, my husband is trying to pull these shitty, vicious creatures away, and the emotionally retarded excuse of a dog owner is just fucking standing there, mouth open, instead of helping to pull her dogs away and fucking move on! I was wishing for an extra pair of legs with which to kick her dogs at this point.

Then the waiter from Pix comes running out and for some reason assumes that the dog I’m holding and cradling, the dog I’m trying to pull away from his attackers, is attacking me! What an idiot. It must be the typically endless rain that softens their brains. So he’s pulling Jigger off me and nearly strangling him in the process (Jigger was of course on the leash, which by now is wrapped 15 times around me and god knows what else – the poor dog is choking by now).

Finally the asshole woman has moved away a few paces and I grab my dog again, trying to calm him (he is freaking out and crying), and I ream her out. She then actually tried to accuse us of being responsible for not telling her that we had a dog with us (can you believe this???), and I remind her with as many expletives as I can that my dog was resting under my chair, minding his own business, and that she’s parading down a fucking PUBLIC sidewalk with a team of neurotic, vicious, ill-socialized terriers.

Meanwhile, my chin is bleeding from where Jigger’s claw strafed it in his struggles, and my legs are cut up from the other dogs (I was wearing a skirt since it was warm).

Like I said, I have never met so many badly socialized dogs as in Portland, and it is due, every single time, to the owners not having a fucking clue. These people should not be allowed to have dogs – they clearly do not understand dog psychology nor understand that dogs need to be socialized with other dogs.

For example, one afternoon, at Jamieson Park in the Pearl, a guy apologized because his dog came up to mine and was friendly, wagging his tail, wanting to play. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry, he hasn’t learned yet not to go up to other dogs.” And I thought, “right, you nutcase – you’re going to socialize your dog right out of being friendly with other dogs, aren’t you, you moron?” I mean, he actually apologized for the fact that his dog did something totally friendly and natural. In a park. On a stroll. On a Sunday afternoon.

No shit, Sherlock, you’re gonna make a great dog daddy. Not.

This afternoon’s incident is just the icing on the cake. Four dogs attacking my dog (at least one of them was muzzled), and the asshole of an owner just standing there, dumbfounded. I don’t want to live in a neurotic, anti-social town like this.

I would say Portland is for the dogs, but that would be an insult to dogs.

Jigger last year, at Gonzales Hill in Victoria BC


A new year: what’s my tree?

January 1, 2012 at 8:52 pm | In authenticity, creativity, just_so | 1 Comment

Today I have no weekly Diigo links post on offer – I spent so much time on the road, and then resettling back into having the kids “home,” that reading fell by the wayside.

Note the scare quotes around the word home… We’re all quite unsettled, living in temporarily rented furnished quarters, without any of our familiar stuff  (utensils, tools, books, and/or equipment). It’s a bit like camping, albeit somewhat more comfortable.

But settled it ain’t.

The crush of what’s called The Holiday Season, spent alone, weighed much less heavily on the spouse and me, and consequently we felt quite liberated. But it wasn’t that much fun to drive around on Christmas Day, increasingly desperate as we looked for an open restaurant …knowing on top of it that the next day we would get up early so we could drive to Vancouver to meet our daughter at the airport (and the next day, our son)…

There’s a word that comes to mind – not one I particularly like since it has been associated with bad politics, but here it is: deracinated. I currently feel deracinated because of course I am uprooted (I’m totally in flux).

While you can uproot yourself anytime, doing so at the end of December – The Holiday Season – undeniably throws a peculiar seasoning into the mix. On the one hand, I experienced feelings of relief at being off the hook with regard to conforming to holiday rituals I can’t stand or believe in anyway, but on the other there was just a smidgen of regret at having my “fluxity” or deracination coincide with a seasonal marker that insists on traditions and O Christmas Tree roots…

Man-oh-man, the damn tree. Even in my non-Christian childhood household, the tree ruled – a veritable power-plant, no pun intended…

But on the question of power and energy, consider this: when I was pregnant with the first off-spring (and then again with the second), I had enough energy or strength to uproot trees. Seriously: I was a goddamn Amazon.

Of course, these days I think that I’d kill to have those energy levels because so often I feel like I’m stagnating as opposed to growing (like a tree). But that metaphor of uprooting trees interests me. Translate the phrase to German (that land from whence the Christmas tree hails), and “feeling strong enough to uproot trees” is: ich könnte Bäume ausreissen, and it’s a common expression.

Tear that tree out by its roots (deracinate yourself, ’cause change is good) …but then be sure to put it on display and pimp it out with lights. Because nothing says “change it up!” better than a tree that’s …well, you know: all lit up. It’s unnatural, when you think about it. But ever so human.

It’s a symbol. The uprooted tree, decked out in lights: a metaphor of your energy, and your (possibly aggressive?) ability to plant yourself (procreate) wherever you need be. A marker of your brand (lit up, pimped out, gorgeous), and simultaneously a memento of what you used to be: stuck in one place, rooted – before a human bent on deracination decided that designing nature would improve on it. How right she was.

The tree is dead. Long live the tree.

Satire speaks the truth

December 8, 2011 at 9:15 am | In just_so, Portland | 2 Comments

So now I’ve been in Portland for about one-and-a-half weeks, and it’s time to ask myself whether I’d want to stay.

Is it pleasant? Yes.

Funky? Ditto.

Something I want to embrace? …Not so sure yet. (Not to mention vice versa: would Portland want me? Where do I fit in??)

Portland reminds me of Victoria BC – which is pretty funny, because everyone I told in Victoria that I would go to Portland for a spell squealed about how wonderful Portland is.

Both cities seem mellow, generally speaking. But they also strike me as low in energy: the general vibe is set to yin. Pleasant enough, but what I learned in Victoria is that all yin all the time is a velvet rut.

Just to put a counterpoint to that: Vancouver is brashly all yang, its tall and pointy and sharply glassy highrises a fitting built form mirroring the mountains that reach to the heavens.

Not so Victoria. And not so much Portland, either. Like I said: yin. That’s my impression, anyway. Sue me if I change my mind next week or discover that I’m totally mistaken because the sun might come out, forcing the city to get its yang on.

My impressions so far are based on Portland’s east sides – its Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods, not the downtown business district. I get a “yin” feel from the streets, in the way people dress. I used to joke that in Victoria everyone ends up looking like a schlump because there exists a peculiar kind of fashion entropy: no matter where you moved from, you eventually drift into a variant of the Birkenstock-and-socks mode. In the PNW (Pacific Northwest), which in winter is wet and dank, schlumpy-ness often looks a bit …well, mossy. Think temperate rain forest, spring fiddleheads, and endless vegetative growth with near-zero die-back in winter. It fits with the environment.

Looking sharp just doesn’t rank that high.

In contrast, consider Joni Mitchell’s The Boho Dance, where she sings about the cleaner’s press that was always in her jeans – you see, LA-based Joni was born a Prairie girl. The Prairies have real seasons, and naturally hard winters with blinding sunshine. The kind of weather that makes you keep your nose clean… or take out your ironing board. But when it’s overcast and drizzling, sharp creases disappear.

What is it about places like Victoria and Portland, I wonder?

Well, imagine my delight when I came across this article in Atlantic Cities, Why I Love My City: Carrie Brownstein on Portland. Who hasn’t seen Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia, and laughed along? Her observations about Portland resonated with what I’ve often thought about Victoria.

On the landscape / creativity interchange, Brownstein notes, “It’s really about what the Pacific Northwest is. There’s a relationship between the internal and external landscape that inform the creativity.” Check.

On city rivalry (and here the interviewer is asking about Portland’s relationship to Seattle, but if you know about the Victoria-Vancouver rivalry, this will really register): “One trait people in Portland [insert Victoria] have is that we feel very special. I think both cities [Portland + Seattle / Victoria + Vancouver] have a strong sense of entitlement and uniqueness. Portland [Victoria] has perhaps more sensitivity.” …Oh, …yeah. Big yeah.

On newcomers and NIMBYs (well, that’s not what Brownstein calls them, but, you know: people who come to a place, changing it the way anthropological observers change their objects of study, but then insisting that the place has to stay as it was in perpetuity now that they’ve arrived and that it cannot bear additional change): “People discover Portland in a certain way and resent what it becomes later. Everyone has this insecurity about Portland like, ‘when does it arrive?’ and that comes with growing pains …”

On Portland’s work ethic: “There are a lot of people who are here to do less work. [laughs] You can stall out quickly in Portland if you’re using a coffee shop as an office. If you’re trying to get something done, you have to be careful not to hold a meeting at a bar or making a point of seeing three movies a day. The city really enjoys its downtime.”

Yin. Very very yin.

Downtown Portland with Mt. Hood in the background (image from Wikipedia)

Why seasonal mash-ups are a rip-off

November 9, 2011 at 6:44 pm | In advertising, authenticity, just_so | Comments Off on Why seasonal mash-ups are a rip-off

Yesterday, Sara White tweeted seeing her first Christmas tree in a shop window. She wrote that, coming on so early in the season, it felt like an assault on the eyeballs. I responded that I too intensely dislike marketing’s jump-the-gun approach to flogging “seasonal” wares.

In fact, I really dislike it. (Curmudgeon alert!)

Once upon a time, boys and girls, there was (in the US) this great non-religious always-on-a-Thursday holiday called Thanksgiving, which – pace, ye critics of consumerism – was followed by a Friday that kicked off the official “Holiday Season” (including frenzied shopping, but also – thanks to Martha Stewart – frenzied crafting).

On Thanksgiving Day itself, most stores were closed,  and if you didn’t work in retail, you could look forward to a 4-day weekend because businesses other than retail shut their doors till Monday. While Thanksgiving involved a lot of food preparation (and often travel), which could get hectic, a key point (imo) was that it slowed you down for a brief period. At least it did so for a short spell, before unleashing the concentrated fury, …er, pardon me: excitement, of the December season.

Well, no more.

Not only are most stores open on Thanksgiving, which, in a thankless race to the bottom, they must be to “compete,” but the start of the Holiday Season (ok, let’s call it the Christmas Season) is signaled earlier and earlier.

Some years back when I still lived in Boston, I walked into Lord & Taylor and was confronted by cheap Hallowe’en decorations on one side of the aisle, Christmas do-dads on the other, and a few Thanksgiving centerpieces in …well, the center. Talk about an assault on the eyeballs…

Why is this a rip-off?

The reason these seasonal mash-ups are a rip off is this: they rob you of cadence and of a sense of time.

Sure, our sense of time is likely just some weird construct that’s as artificial as anything else – we all seem to age at different rates, we experience time differently, we’ve all experienced periods when time flew and also others when it seemed to stand still.

So why do I think there’s a cadence – or sense of this likely-fluid thing called time – to which we might want to adhere, at least sometimes? Why not celebrate an 18th birthday when we’re 45, or Christmas in summer, or Thanksgiving in October? The Australians don’t have a problem with Santas on beaches, and Canadians seem to manage with Thanksgiving in October – on a Monday, no less. How do they manage? They pretend it’s Thanksgiving all weekend and just have their “special” meal, like, whenever, man – some do it on Saturday, most on Sunday, a few traditionalists on Monday. It is a seriously boring and disappointing holiday, but American Thanksgiving has gone the same route because of retail pressures: you can’t count on everyone being “free” to celebrate it on Thursday late afternoon anymore.

When we get a big enough group to agree on a time concept, it does make time feel more real, though. Thanksgiving used to be a real time marker: it signaled a brief family time and slowing down, followed by a starting gun for the race to the Holidays. Then, after New Year’s Eve and Day were over, the Season was officially over. If you were Martha, you left for the Bahamas on Dec.26 and came back to the office on Jan.2. (Well, one can dream… And, oh, I plan to celebrate my 18th birthday at the end of next month, heh.)

The freedom to experience time at one’s own pace is great – it’s terrific if you can “do” Thanksgiving on any day of the long weekend! Except it’s not as intense because the tension has gone out of the thing and it feels slack.

But also irritating, because you’re bombarded with a lot of media to “celebrate” the …um, what were we celebrating again? And are we doing it alone or with others?

Well, I posted a “curmudgeon alert” at the outset. Let me know if you think fluid holidays let you dance to your own beat or whether you miss the cadence of fixed Seasons.

Still hobbling along…

October 11, 2011 at 7:35 pm | In health, just_so | 3 Comments

And now it’s three weeks, give or take a day, that this mystery ailment has limited my mobility: I’m referring to my possibly-stress-fractured right foot, which still hasn’t significantly improved. As I wrote on Sept.28, an x-ray failed to reveal a fracture – and I was actually quite happy about that …probably because I thought I’d be tripping the light fantastic within a week since, surely, there was no fracture. Right? Well, my glee was premature.

Turns out I needed a bone scan after all.

Earlier today, I went to the hospital to get an injection of radioactive phosphorous, and several hours later my foot bones were scanned for about 30 minutes in three 10-minute increments: both feet together, once in pigeon-toe position; then side-by-side from the side; and finally flat on the plate, filmed from top and bottom.
While it will be another week before I can return to the walk-in clinic for the doctor’s assessment, I did get a peek at what the technician was producing for the radiologist who will read my scans. Did not like what I saw.

First, the good-interesting part, the science (as understood by unscientific me): The method for getting the images is ingenious – from what I gathered, the radioactive material (quite a minimal amount) emits …well, radioactivity, which the camera can then pick up, over 10 minute increments (times 3, for a total of 30 minutes). This in turn creates a composite of what’s going on in the foot: where in the foot is the osteo-related cellular activity going gang-busters, for example, and where is it just chugging along in business-as-usual mode. Think of it as a webcam on a live event. In an x-ray, tissues and bones are bombarded by a single “large” dose of radiation all at once, which the camera snaps quickly. But in the scan process I underwent today, it’s sort of the reverse: the camera works slowly, capturing the tiny amount of radioactivity that’s actually in my system, and which is making visible what’s happening with the bones (maybe that’s the phosphorous part?, I don’t know). It captures this over time, and all that data is put together to create an image. Neat! 🙂

But now for the part that’s bad-mysterious: from the scans, even I could tell that there were two major problem areas in the right foot. The heel (which, interestingly, had been giving me problems for months – like plantar fasciatis, yet not), and the tarsal (cuboid) area right across the foot were clearly in trouble. Both areas lit up like xmas trees.

I plan to walk for decades to come. Sure hope we can figure out not just that there’s something broken, but also how to make sure there’s no repeat performance once it has healed.

On the comic relief front: after injecting me with the radioactive phosphorous (which is done in the hospital’s nuclear facility – I kid not, scientists don’t mince words), the technician cautioned me to stay away from pregnant women and told me not to coddle babies (no problem). She also said that if I were to travel through airport security in the next week or so, I might alarm the security personnel. For some reason, this made me want to book a flight right away.

When I went back in the afternoon, a man was lying on a gurney – he didn’t seem conscious. While I sat in the waiting area for my scan, he woke up, calling for a nurse. He needed to urinate, so the nurse provided him with a plastic bottle …which her colleague then took from her, saying (no joke) that she needed to dispose of it since the contents were radioactive.

This of course made me wonder how I’m contributing to toxic waste in the CRD when I go to flush my toilet at home…

I also asked how much I was costing the system with my scan and was pleasantly surprised to learn that my procedure was only at the ~$400 mark. Well done, BC Medical. But if I had my druthers, I’d prefer not to cost you a dime…

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