Thursday, August 30, 2007

What's up doc?

Not much, it would seem, given my lack of blogging inspiration. Summer weather continues to tease us, showing up for a day or two and then disappearing. Toby continues to self-mutilate, driven mad by his itchiness (the only solution the vet can offer at this point is a short course of prednizone, and the prospect of Toby on a drug that my sister described as "how I would imagine cocaine" is daunting, but I'm about ready to give in.) I have a nice mix of work. I'm not exercising at all. Enrico has become inspired to write a book. We have a wasp nest in front of our house. We have arranged to replace some windows and the back door for a staggering amount of money. Our very sheltered and fortunate life goes on.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The continuing quest for empathy

I have a tendency to draw connections between things, sometimes odd ones - a system thinker, if you will. At times these mental connections bring an unexpected flash of empathy for something completely outside my direct experience. Like SeaFair providing an opportunity to practice empathy for people who are bombed - not like that one takes a great mental leap, but you get my drift.

Toby is having a terrible summer for the allergic itchies; we had him at the vet for a spot between his toes that took nearly three weeks and a lot of antibiotics to heal. Now he's created a nasty spot on his face, the second-worse location after the feet because it is also a place that's hard to keep dry (around the jowels) AND it has the added bonus of being a spot that he can rip to shreds with his foot, and not just lick. So poor Toby has spent a lot of time this summer with a big plastic cone around his head, which he hates.

And we spend a lot of time protecting him from himself, which we hate. Stop that, Toby. Come here so I clean or spray or trim your wound, Toby. You can't go outside without your plastic cone, Toby. We try to give him a break from the cone but that means constant vigilance, leaping for the foot before it can reach the face.

Recently Enrico and I watched the movie Iris, the story of author Iris Murdock and in particular her death from Alzheimers. And then on Sunday there was this article in the paper, about the efforts of our rather progressive state to make disabled people get jobs. It was pitched as a civil rights issue, that people should have the ability to do jobs equal to their potential; lively brains should not waste away stuffing envelopes just because the body is limited. Disability benefits will be cut for those who do not make the effort. However, the article also profiled people with the mental abilities of a two-year-old, who need constant attendants and just to prevent them from hurting themselves through their spastic or compulsive flailing; what possible employment would they find, their caretakers asked?

Beyond their disbelief, parents also expressed panic at the potential loss of other benefits: organized activities for their children, as well as respite care to relieve the parents of constant, vigilant caretaking.

And it was here that I had a flash of insight from our summer with Toby. I thought of how irritated and exasperated I become when I am telling him to LEAVE IT for the 87th time, when he flails and bucks me while I try to clean his wounds and I think, for heavens sake I'm HELPING you here, is a little cooperation and appreciation so much to ask?

And that's just with a dog. For something minor. Imagine magnifying that up thousands of times, to a child with disabilities or a spouse with Alzheimers, and having constant, relentless duties, vigilance, perhaps with somebody who shows no ability to understand or appreciate what you're doing, who treats you like the enemy even when you're trying to help. Imagine that there's no end in sight other than through death or institutionalization. It absolutely boggles the mind.

There's a scene in Iris when her Alzheimer's is quite far gone, but she is still living at home, cared for by her husband John (nicely played by Jim Broadbent). Iris gets away, and the police come to the house, and we see it through their eyes: filthy, with rotting food and piles of dishes and heaps of trash everywhere. And you want to say to the police, you don't understand, you don't see what this man has had to face. Sure, he could make different choices; he could put Iris in a home, he could hiring a cleaning lady. But unless we've walked in those shoes, who are we to judge?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


For most of my life, I could not have multiple books going at the same time. I could focus on one, and only one book, there could be absolutely no jumping back and forth between a couple. The only exception to this iron rule was textbooks, or required readings for school; somehow that was ok, to have a required book and a leisure book going on parallel tracks. But even that had its limits. If the required book was a work of literature, I couldn't have a second work of fiction for my leisure book, for example. It was this whole set of rules that seemed to just come embedded in my software. I didn't consciously choose them, I didn't understand them, yet I knew them to be inviolable.

I used to marvel at Enrico, who would have numerous books in process - heaped by the bedside, stacked in some inscrutable piling system on the bookshelves. He can set one aside for months at time and then come back to it. If I do that, I have to start again at the beginning, which is why I've never made it past 2 Chronicles in the Bible. Wait, which kingdom was Judah, again?

At some point, I changed. I now have sloping heaps of books by my bedside. A really good page-turner will still dominate my attention, but often I have a work of fiction; some nonfiction about a good cause or social ill, often something I can only take in limited doses lest my blood start to boil; and something soothing or reflective or spiritual to calm the humors right before sleep. If the fiction is heavy, I might need something wacky or feel-good to balance it out. If the nonfiction is heavy, I might need a good murder mystery. I require a balanced portfolio of reading options.

This is pretty much a complete turn-around in my reading personality. Is it just something that happens with age? Have my interests become broader? Has my attention span been shortened by the Internet? It seems very peculiar.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Oh the rain rain rain came down down down

Where the hell is summer this year? Rainy and 59 degrees again this morning. I'm wearing fleece and slippers, people. FLEECE AND SLIPPERS.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The view from the other side of the fence

We are doing a project for a local foundation, advising them on a grantmaking program within our area of expertise. I cannot possibly count the number of grant proposals I've written over the years. I left so-called "permanent" employment in part to escape having to write any more of them. It becomes so terribly tedious, telling your story over and over again in the pursuit of money. So to read proposals from the other side of the fence, so to speak, is an interesting experience.

The foundation received applications for roughly seven times the amount of money that they have to give away. Our task at this point in the process is to deliver a "long list" of proposals that we think the foundation should read and choose from. We're just talking getting it down by half, leaving the final decisions and some large philosophical choices up to them.

But man, even that is darned hard. I want to keep the really fabulous proposals, because they are, well, fabulous. And I want to keep the basket cases, because they really need the money. But that's already a lot, and in between are a bunch lot that are just fine, really, who am I to say that they don't make the top cut? But I can empathize with these people, I've done their jobs before; quite a few of them are colleagues whom I know and respect. All of the organizations do wonderful, important, inspiring work. A few claim that they will hire our firm to work for them if they get the grant (fortunately, I don't like to work very hard, so that's far less likely to induce bias than you might expect).

I'm not going to make the final decisions here - not even close - but already I have learned that giving away money is a lot harder than it sounds. And then of course I think about how much our government spends in Iraq every day, and for less than one percent of a single day's expenditures on the Iraq War, I could fund every single one of these proposals - fabulous, messy, run-of-the-mill, all of them.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Thank-yous for the day

1. To the woman who stopped to help me, and hung around for an hour, when I locked my keys in the car today. With the engine running. In 85-degree heat. In front of a fire hydrant.

2. To the vice president of the board of my current employer, who happened to walk by that EXACT STREET CORNER a few minutes later, for not telling everyone at work what a dunderhead I am.

3. To AAA. If you'd like me to do one of those commercials with dunderheads in embarrassing situations calling for emergency road assistance - you know where to find me.

4. To the Seattle police for not driving by while I happened to be blocking that fire hydrant.

5. To the AAA emergency assistance guy, for telling me that they solve this exact problem approximately 500 times per month, and I am not in fact the biggest dunderhead on earth.

6. To Subaru, for building a car whose fan can keep a running car cool for a full hour in the sun in 85-degree heat.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Neglected news, and a WWJD moment

I forgot to report that I did finally meet the owner of the property across the street, site of the arson fire and home of Garry the Exceptional Oak (in case you missed these thrilling tales, see here, here and here). He showed up one day with a buddy and I went over to talk to him. He seems very nice and swears that he will preserve Garry, who he says is featured in some book about the history of Seattle. He figures he'll buy a copy of that book and put it on the counter of that house when it's finally built and up for sale. Maybe that will help him get more money to make up for the fact that he'll have to build a pretty small house on that lot in order to preserve Garry.

He also said he found out about the arson fire when a neighbor got his phone number off the Land Use Notice sign and called; neither the police nor the fire department contacted him. That made me feel a little badly that I hadn't just called the guy myself.

Shortly before my first encounter with the owner, there was a man over there salvaging scrap metal out of the house. You really have to see the place to imagine how unpleasant that sounds. The house is blackened and smelly, with jagged debris all over the ground, and probably some asbestos dust in the air - and on this particular day it was hot. The guy looked old, and tired, and like maybe he lived out of his van. He was dragging bits of metal out and busting it apart with tools that didn't look quite adequate to the job, and heaving it into his van alongside a big bag of empty soda cans.

Last week, this guy was back, along with a buddy who stopped by periodically. But this time I didn't see much work going on. The guy mostly sat in his van, and he and his buddy stayed up late at night chatting on the street. The next morning we realized they had slept in their cars out there, and by the second evening I faced a dilemma. Do I call the police and hassle these guys? When confronted with an old man who makes a living salvaging scrap metal from dangerous wrecks with crappy tools, I'm not sure I want to make his life harder just because it makes me uncomfortable to see him on my tidy middle-class street, you know what I mean? I had a sincere "What Would Jesus Do?" moment, and not in the weird sense of those little bracelets, but in the sense of questioning how I should behave towards unfortunate people who make me want to look away.

But they were drinking and doing some drugs out there, which I normally don't get all hysterical over so long as there's no dealing going on, but given the recent spate of criminal activity and that fact that these guys seemed to be sort of homesteading over there, I finally picked up the phone and called the property owner.

Had he authorized this guy to work at the house, I asked? Yes, the guy saw the house was being torn down and asked if he could do some salvaging. Well, I said, they appear to be living in their cars out there and are rather loud at night; could the owner give me any sense of how long I might expect them to stay? There was a long pause. I'll be right over, he said. And he was.

So I guess it was a good choice, because I learned that the owner is serious and responsive and not particularly interested in pissing off the neighbors. And it got the guys out of here without having to sic the police on them, which really, wouldn't have been the highest and best use of law enforcement resources. Those poor guys don't need to be in jail; the gang of professional burglars cleaning out my entire neighborhood do. But still, it nags at me a little, the right thing to do in such circumstances.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Crime wave revisited

Last night the Seattle police department sponsored a "Night Out" against crime, where they encourage people to have block parties to talk about neighborhood safety/crime issues. Some of our neighbors hosted one, and it turns out that Holy Hannah, we really are having a crime wave! Six houses have been burglarized in the past month, somebody's car was blown up (!), and then of course there's the slew of car crime I've noticed and, you know, THE ARSON ACROSS THE STREET. According to the police, our whole neighborhood is seeing an unprecedented encroachment of crime, all the way down to the big luxurious houses on the lake.

So for the first time, I find myself involved in a good old fashioned neighborhood block watch. Nothing has been organized yet, but things got started last night when we all exchanged names, phone numbers and emails. For the first time since we moved here 10 years ago, we will have the names and contact information of nearly all our neighbors, which seems like a very nice thing. I talked to neighbors that I've only nodded hello to before. And, we agreed we're going to start calling the police about absolutely everything that happens, in the spirit of the squeaky wheel. Plus, since I work from home a lot during the weekdays, I should probably get out around the block more during the day, just to keep my eyes open.

I guess I'll do a few things around our property for better security. I don't like having to think about crime and safety, I have never really done so before in our ten year here, except for the ongoing annoyance of car vandalism which I guess I just think of as an unavoidable part of city living. I don't much like the feeling. But it felt good to get together with our very diverse neighbors and declare our intention to reclaim our street. And when Enrico and I talked about it, there are really only a couple of things that we'd be upset about losing in a robbery - the computer, purely for the annoyance factor, the limited jewelry that I have inherited from beloved aunts, and the collection of personal stuff that would enable complete identity theft. The 12-year old television, the 20-year old stereo, the DVD player that doesn't record right - not too worried about that. So that feels empowering too, because we can do some additional things to secure those few items we really care about, and free our brains from thinking about the rest.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Ethics of Food, Part II

I have been thinking a lot more concretely about the challenge of sustainable living, partly because of the general increase in chatter about climate change, partly because a committed group of people at my church are pushing us all to really, really think about how we are living the UU 's Seventh Principle ("Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part"). My recent increased reflection is not at all due to those stupid concerts last month, however. Those were just lame.

We're pretty environmentally conscious folk, Enrico and I, but my thinking has been pushed quite a bit by joining a CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, where you buy a "share" of food for the season from a local farm. We have a half-share each of vegetables, fruit and eggs, which we pick up at our neighborhood farmer's market every Wednesday. (This particular farm also sells meat, and we have gleefully entertained the thought of buying a half hog for the dogs, but alas, we'd have nowhere to store it.)

This all came about because the aforementioned church group was educating us on the enormous amount of fossil fuels consumed just by shipping food. Plus there have been a couple of books recently written by people who have experimented with a strictly local or organic lifestyle, mostly notably Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by the illustrious Barbara Kingsolver. There's a group that challenges people to spend one month living on the "100-Mile Diet," a diet of things produced within 100 miles (local variants include the 150-mile diet and the Washington state diet, which for Seattelites open up considerable fruit, grain and dairy options from east of the Cascades). We're tempted to give it a try, and there's a local organization sponsoring a Seattle effort; their Web site provides tips on where to find specific foods, restaurants that would meet the rules, etc. Of course, I would have to give myself at least one major exception: Coffee.

Meanwhile, this growing awareness of ethical choices in consumption are in my mind every time I buy something. My love affair with Trader Joe's has faded, as I simply cannot bring myself to buy their frozen pizzas any more, imported from Italy. I just don't need to burn that many fossil fuels for a frozen pizza. Sometimes, the choices seem complicated. When you're at the grocery store, how do you trade off organic versus local versus recyclable packaging? Our wooden patio furniture is losing its finish from our wet summer; is it more ethical to paint it with nasty chemicals to preserve it longer, or let it rot faster and consume more wood furniture over the years? Is it better to live in a dense urban area, relying on mass transit and remote food sources, or take up a fat plot of land in the country where you grow your own food but drive a lot? And it's hard to know how significant some of these measures are. I've been skipping my shower on laundry day, to balance the hot water consumption - if everybody did that, what kind of difference would it make?

And yes, I know you can assuage your conscience by paying into a "carbon offset" fund (e.g. you pay someone to invest in a renewable technology that exactly offsets the amount of carbon emissions you generate by, say, flying to visit your sister) - but that seems fishy to me. My carbon has still been emitted, right?

Perhaps the biggest question comes around cost. I used to think that "frugal" living was part of the solution, on the theory that materialism drives overconsumption as well as socioeconomic disparities. When I took a break from work a few years ago, I was a master a bargain-hunting. But many of those bargains break all the sustainability rules - the organic stuff is always more expensive, and the cheapest goods are made in China which, politics aside, require a lot of fossil fuels to arrive at my doorstep. I've been trying to buy local cheese and man, that can be really expensive. Is the sustainable lifestyle inherently elitist? Or is it incumbent on those of us with the financial means to pay the sustainable living premium? In the long run, would this create better and more efficient markets that are financially accessible to more people? Perhaps this is the true cost of living on Earth, but tell that to someone trying to raise a family in Seattle on minimum wage.

Anyway, this is long and rambling, but that's how the whole thing feels. We'd like to craft a life that's in balance with the Earth, but it's a complicated business.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Back from the Great Hot North

I had a fabulous trip to southern Alberta, which was considerably hotter than Seattle. I returned bearing many family stories, as well as three slim school notebooks containing the diary of my great-great-aunt written in 1889 at the age of 16. I have already read them all, and I must say, 16-year-old girls are amazingly similar in any era. She writes about boys, clothes, school, feuds with her girlfriends, the weather, and what she eats. While this may not be of massive historical significance, it is a window into daily life in Winnipeg at that time. I will have to return the notebooks, and hopefully I can help their owner find them a good archival home, because it would be a shame for them to molder.

I enjoyed the most gracious hospitality you can imagine from this distant cousin and her husband, who knew me not at all and yet welcomed me with complete warmth. I pored through two large boxes of photos, letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and of course, the journals. I filled in some gaps in the family story - particularly about the adventurous aunt who emigrated to New Zealand - and heard an alternative hypothesis for Why Julius Rutabega Changed His Name. I got a quick lesson in the many aboriginal peoples of northern Canada (as much of the far-north family, including my hostess, are of Inuit or other native Canadian origin).

Moxie and I really should buckle down and start writing this damn book, already, because you can spend endless amounts of time on research. But truly, some of the stories - well, you just couldn't make this stuff up. Case in point: one of the 11 siblings in this family we're studying died in 1922 in a dog-sled accident. Family lore says that there were several dog-sled teams crossing the north arm of Great Slave Lake, with Frank and his youngest daughter in one sled and his wife and son ahead of him. Frank's sled broke through the ice, and his companions worked valiantly to pull him out; you have a matter of minutes to survive in water that cold. His rescuers later recounted that they could have saved him, except that they were trying to pull him out by one arm because he was holding onto his little girl with the other arm. With his frantic wife and son looking on, the men begged Frank to let his daughter go and give them both arms, knowing that time was running out and that the child most likely was already lost; but he refused. When they finally did manage to extract him from the water, he was still clutching his little daughter tightly in one arm, and they had both perished. That arm of the Great Slave Lake was renamed Frank Channel in his honor.

Truly, truth is more interesting than fiction.