21 March 2009


Yesterday's mail crushed any remaining qualms about moving to Canada. We received the annual notice of the increase in our health insurance premium. It's rising from $412/month to $466.50/month, or by $654/year. That's a 13% increase. And the insurer (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) again raised our annual deductible, this time from $5,700 to $6,000. So if we had medical costs, we'd pay $11,598 over the next year out of pocket before the insurer paid one dime.

Our last three annual premium increases have averaged 19% (including a huge increase in 2007 when I had the gall to reach age 50). Next month we'll begin paying a premium 69% greater than the premium we paid in January 2007 when we signed on with this insurer. And we're relatively healthy. We've cost the insurer $300 per year each in 2007 and 2008--the amount our insurer will pay toward an annual physical exam, deductible notwithstanding. If the 19% average annual increase we've experienced persists until I'm eligible for Medicare at age 65 (assuming Medicare hasn't long gone bust), our annual premium would reach $45,144

Blue Cross/Blue Shield's partial explanation of the premium jump? "Covered individuals are using more services." Wow. In other words, if y'all would just stop seeking medical care, then we could  slow down the rate of increase in the cost of the insurance that you'd then never need because you'd not be seeking medical care anyway. I've know of no bigger racket outside of Las Vegas.

Yep, in Canada a part of the taxes we'll pay, as well as a relatively modest, income-adjusted monthly premium, will go to pay for the country's universal health insurance system. Since per capita healthcare expenditures in Canada are one-half of those in the U.S., and since Canada ranks above the U.S. by virtually every measure of healthfulness, I'm guessing we'll come out ahead.

11 March 2009

We're Moving to Nanaimo

Well looks like we're moving. For me the major deciding factors, in more or less order of importance, are:
  1. The idyllic setting here and much wild-ness and ready opportunity for outdoor adventure and commune on Vancouver Island
  2. The huge appeal of being covered by a first-world health insurance system.
  3. As best I can tell, by and large, Canadians don't admire and aspire to ignorance, belligerence, and arrogance--in other words, they're civilized, mostly.
  4. The much more sensible lifestyle (compared to a city/suburb) we can adopt here while still being able easily to enjoy city fun in nearby Vancouver. (I see this part as a welcome return to the lifestyle I enjoyed when I lived in Frederick, Maryland in the 1980s: Baltimore and D.C. were close, but not too close, while Frederick offered a charming downtown, parks and services within an easy walk, and a small-town atmosphere.)
  5. The climate is much milder than Minnesota's, something I think will become more important, even for cold-loving me, as we get old(er).
  6. My penchant for prudent adventure and shaking things up periodically.
Our goal is to move August 1st. I'll be back in Minnesota April 3rd. Laurie will spend a couple of weeks with family in California, then join me. We've got A TON of stuff to do to prepare to move. If we decide to try to sell (vs. rent) the house, we'd like to get it on the market no later than June 1st, and I needn't mention the stress level associated with trying to sell a house in the U.S. right now. Somehow we'll get it all done. Or we won't, and in the end it won't matter anyway. :-)

07 February 2009


With only eight weeks left before the Gentrys reclaim their condo, our minds are shifting from letting things percolate to making a decision soon about moving permanently. I’m not sure of the best way to make what feels like a rather life-defining decision, but we’ve been talking intermittently about discrete pieces of the puzzle, in hopes that will somehow help gel a complete picture. Some thoughts settled include:

§      We've established some momentum in cultivating contacts, both social and employment, so that argues for moving as swiftly as possible, if we decide to move here. It won’t take long for new acquaintances and potential employers to forget about us if we slip off their radar for several months.

§      I think we both feel ready to live in a much smaller community than the Twin Cities. I would add I’m ready--in fact I always have been--not to live in a suburb with its inherent dependence on the car to accomplish anything and constantly (from May to September in Roseville) roaring gas-powered lawnmowers. (My first thought after reading about the infrastructure focus of the latest economic  stimulus measure was 'great--that'll screw up traffic in the Twin Cities for the next decade.') Of course many wonderful smaller communities exist in the U.S.; I can think of none, however, that come close to rivaling Nanaimo’s rare combination of setting, charm, affordability, opportunity, and climate.

§     The likelihood of either one of us getting decent jobs in the Twin Cities seems low for the foreseeable future. I could get on at FamilyMeans if they need a counselor, but Laurie’s prospects are probably more directly tied to the near catastrophic general economic conditions. Though Canada’s economy seems now to be heading sharply downward as well, the banking system is solid. And we have made progress on finding paid employment here.

§      Speaking for myself, there’s a feeling of isolation here, which partly I like, but does have a downside. Traveling between Nanaimo and most of the U.S. is an all-day, somewhat complex project, and costly. I think if we moved here I’d expect no visits from family and friends--at least not more than one at most from the more adventurous and well-heeled--and, realistically, we may have to accept that our visiting trips might be less frequent. That’s a big negative, in my mind.

§      Of course there are important elements about our Twin Cities life we’d miss. Friends, naturally, but also the metro’s stellar bike path system, generally beautiful weather for half the year, our porch (not to be underestimated), ice fishing’s availability, Minnesota Public Radio, lakes, cheap beer. On the other hand, there’s much about the U.S., which I needn’t go into here, I’d be greatly relieved to be away from.

§       In my opinion, the U.S.’ health insurance system stinks so badly, particularly for us, that its deficiencies alone are nearly enough reason to live in another country. We would both like to work part-time, which typically means no health insurance benefit. So we buy insurance, and the premium jumps 10-15% annually even while the insurer cuts back on coverage. Health insurance and out-of-pocket healthcare costs are about double our second largest family expense, though we’re both mostly healthy. I resent bitterly that either one of us should feel compelled to work full time just to get a health insurance benefit. And even doing that would not be a solution. If either one us became seriously ill, we’d be trapped in the full-time job because no insurer would then sell us health insurance directly. Or, worse, if we became too ill to work (or were laid off), we'd have no choice but to pay exorbitant Cobra premiums just at the time our income were dramatically reduced and we needed health insurance most. (This is precisely the reason health issues are the #1 cause of bankruptcy in the U.S.) Canada’s healthcare system is far from perfect, but in my opinion it’s much better, especially for us, than the U.S. system, which I’d characterize as inhumane, unsustainable, and  grotesque. For those who ignorantly dismiss Canada’s system as “socialism": Compared to the U.S., Canada achieves better health outcomes, by virtually every measurement, while spending half per capita nationally on healthcare. What else matters?

§      Mainly in Laurie’s mind, there’s a question of whether we can adequately support ourselves here. High-paying jobs are rare at best, and the cost of living may, overall, be higher. (We're still crunching numbers on that question.) It seems many people get by cobbling together a patchwork of part-time and often temporary endeavors. We’re unaccustomed to this mind-set about paid employment, but many locals seem almost to revel in the creative challenge of figuring a way financially to live in “paradise,” as they call it.

Meanwhile winter seems already over, as periods of sunshine have grown noticeably the past couple of weeks and temperatures are routinely in the high 40s.

20 January 2009

U.S. Inauguration Day

I watched today the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s CNN-like (though much less inane, admittedly a very low bar) coverage of today’s inaugural events. Observing the inauguration of a new American President from a foreign perspective vividly elucidated a rather amorphous, for this American, sense of the space the U.S. occupies in the psyche of at least a slice of the 95% of the planet’s inhabitants who aren’t Americans.

Right or wrong, Canadians as a whole are greatly relieved, I would say, at the end of the Bush/Cheney regime and excited by Barack Obama. Having spent 50 years in America, where events like power transitions outside of the U.S. are ignored except for isolated speculation on how Americans’ fortunes might be affected, it’s astonishing to see the intense focus of the Canadian domestic media, and presumably Canadians, on U.S. politics. For at least this American, exposure to Canadians’ perspective is not just 'foreign' but a humbling illumination of my own inbred arrogance.

Though every country including Canada of course has its own political leaders and internal issues over which its citizens engage, people everywhere depend also on the U.S. for progress, ideals, solutions, and moral leadership. In short, many people worldwide look, at some level, to the U.S., for better or worse, for hope. Though they are perhaps often horrified by what the U.S. does, the messes it makes, and the destruction it doles out, I think many free-thinking citizens of the world mostly, at core, have faith that somehow, some way, Americans will muddle through and once again shock the world by their capacity to, how ever fitfully, restore hope and squelch fear. I think Canadians are excited by Barack Obama because, again right or wrong, they believe his election ratifies what they yearn to believe is truest about America.

So my “take away” from inauguration day: I’m not sure Americans collectively fully grasp, think about, or care about their potential constructive power to uplift, to lead by example, and to inspire. It’s arguably the U.S.’ largest untapped--and wholly sustainable--resource.

18 January 2009

Departure Bay

We took advantage of a rare sunny day recently to walk 'up Island' from our borrowed condo to Departure Bay, a distance I would guess of about 6 kilometers. Though the temps were in the 40sF, with little wind and a bright sun, it surely felt springlike, a nice mid-January respite. People were lounging on the beach and, seemingly as always, gathered just to soak up the serenity and watch the ferries come and go. In some of the photos you can see a heavy fog bank over the Georgia Strait, blocking the view of the mainland's Coastal Mountains. Also visible in all but the last photo is 9-acre Jesse Island, presently for sale for US$5.9 million.

13 January 2009

My Walk

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On most days I, or often we, enjoy a particular walk of perhaps 4 kilometers. From our borrowed condo I walk east toward Newcastle Channel and, adjacent to the clustered white masts of the Nanaimo Yacht Club, pick up the Queen Elizabeth II Promenade segment of the seawall pedestrian & bike trail. I follow the trail ‘down island’ along the north end of the Nanaimo Harbour waterfront, watching for wildlife, checking the views of Protection Island, Newcastle Island, and the Coastal Mountains on the mainland (when it’s clear), and puzzling over boating activity on the water. I now recognize many of those walking in the opposite direction as seawall trail regulars, probably people who live in the neighborhood. Many of the people with whom I exchange 'hellos' have British accents, particularly the older folks. After crossing a footbridge spanning the Millstone River (and next to a road overpass under which homeless folk are always gathered) where it empties into Nanaimo Harbour, creating a fresh/salt water estuary frequented by seals and aquatic birds, the trail turns left and traces the north and east perimeters of Maffeo Sutton Park. In Maffeo Sutton I pass a small, blue bandshell (a frequent site of teenaged Hacky Sack), the terminal for the ferry that seasonally carries people to and from Newcastle Island, and a kiddie park. Sometimes I see “the cat guy” in Maffeo Sutton. He walks briskly with a calico cat perched, seemingly content and stable, upright on all four legs on one of his shoulders. Cat-guy has trained his feline to accept a leash, so he lets it romp safely in the park. Maffeo Sutton blends into Georgia Park and the trail follows a white, arched bridge that spans the waterway connecting Swy-A-Lana Lagoon with Nanaimo Harbour. I pass a long, thin, L-shaped pier jutting into the Harbour from which a few crabbers nearly always are tending traps. Often I’ve seen a bald eagle by now. I think one or more pairs nest on Newcastle Island. As I approach the downtown Harbourfront, I pass the seaplane terminal and a high-rise of condominiums under construction, often noisily, with the aid of a huge crane strapped to the corner of the building for stability. I imagine the tremendous view the solitary crane operator must have. I pass the few, mostly empty (in winter) restaurants and shops along the harbourfront--The "Tea On the Quay" tea shoppe, a gift shop and gallery, and Javawocky coffee shop. About half the time, and no matter the time of day, I see the same gentleman sitting in the same Javawocky seat--front corner stool at the window--drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. We make eye contact, and perhaps he finds my repeated presence in this location as curious as I find his. I pass the offices of the Port of Nanaimo authority (the organization that runs the harbour), a giant compass point display embedded in the sidewalk, and two floating restaurants, closed for the season: Trollers Fish & Chips and Penny’s Palapa. Then I detour into the “boat basin,” treading on a floating wood-plank dock to which boats of all sorts are moored. There are commercial fishing and crabbing boats, pleasure boats, sea kayaks, and an armada of tiny, mostly ragtag boats, some (barely) motorized, some not, used mainly I think by residents of Protection Island to commute to downtown. The boat basin dock ends at Cameron Island, which is not now an island, but perhaps was before being developed to accommodate a large condominium complex comprising three buildings, one 20+ stories high. I walk the circumference of Cameron Island, pass another pier where huge yachts, often displaying American flags, sometimes are tied up. If I’m lucky, I’ll pause on the east side of Cameron to watch the Gabriola Island ferry put in or load up and depart, or to guess the function of other big commercial vessels nearby. Now I head for downtown. I cross Front Street and into the Port Place Mall, which offers three attractions (for me): a grocery store, a post office, and a public restroom. I exit the other side of the mall, (always) pass the front entrance of the Great Canadian Casino next door, and head north via downtown’s Commercial Street, which I pick up at the intersection with Terminal Avenue, near the south end of the very new and controversial Vancouver Island Conference Center. I walk through downtown along Commercial, passing first the 100% vacant street level retail space built into the Conference Center. The economy's condition and prospects do not encourage new retail business. Nanaimo’s downtown is charming, nonetheless. It’s not trendy or touristy, decrepit enough to make it real, but prosperous and diverse enough to inspire interest. Sometimes I stop at the library and, when the city's apparently highly literate and well-informed homeless population isn’t monopolizing them, read Victoria’s Times-Colonist, the Vancouver Sun, or the Globe & Mail newspaper. One day I stopped for a haircut at the His & Hers Hair Centre and was gratified to be offered what I’ve silently desired for years from barbers: a bald guy’s discount. Though the posted haircut price was $14, the barber would accept only $5, saying, “I didn’t do anything, really.” How could I argue? Another morning I stopped for the $4.99 breakfast special at Tina's Diner. Besides the great meal, I got my mood properly set for the day thanks to the cook's affinity for a greatest hits CD by (Canadian) Neil Young. At the north end of downtown I take Church Street back to Front and a view again of the harbour, the islands, and the Coastal Mountains (when it’s clear). I take the sidewalk along Front back to the Maffeo Sutton parking lot, where I pick up the seawall trail and retrace my path back to the condo. Sometimes I walk back on Newcastle Avenue, which parallels the seawall but is perhaps 10 meters higher and so gives a different, somehow grander, perspective on the vista.

03 January 2009

(Nearly) Random Rambling

New Years and the approaching midpoint of our housesitting term seem justification enough for some reflection. Nearing the merciful end in 1979 of the chemical engineering curriculum at the University of Illinois, I told a headhunter in a letter that he should assume I’d live nowhere east of the Mississippi River. Though I’m sure he consequently joined the ranks of the many baffled by my so-called priorities, he helped me secure a nice job offer in Missoula, Montana. I turned it down, deciding instead to enroll in two-year graduate school. Four years, a severe economic recession, and a graduate degree later I ecstatically accepted a job offer (with an annual salary 25% less than I’d been offered in Missoula) in Germantown, Maryland, a suburb of D.C. and a good piece east I reckon of the Mighty Mississippi. I lived and worked in the D.C. area for eight years, then in 1991 pulled up stakes, again with my sights set westward. For months I toured the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, northern California, and, as a side trip, Minnesota. (While in Port Angeles, Washington, I felt a tug from a, I imagined, wild and exotic Vancouver Island just a ferry ride away, but couldn’t’ spare the funds for the fare.) Though in love with the grandeur and self-reliance of the American West, I chose Minnesota, for reasons I cannot explain well other than perhaps I’m a Midwesterner at core. The Mississippi River winds through the Twin Cities; in symbolic honor of my 1979 pledge, I made sure to live west of the River--if only by a few miles--until marriage’s pleasurable compromises resulted in a move back to the east side.

Why am I thinking about this stuff now? I’ll be aged 52 years on my next birthday, and I wonder whether I should want to fulfill my long-held desire to live in The West “before it’s too late.” By that I don’t mean before I’m dead, but rather before my joints freeze and my only remaining interest in geography is the location of the nearest bathroom. Nanaimo is about as far west of the Mississippi as one can get in habitable North America, but “laid-back” seems more applicable to Vancouver Island than “self-reliant” (not that there’s anything wrong with that J ). There is grandeur and beauty aplenty here, that can’t be argued, but the similarities to the American West more or less seem to end there, which is not necessarily all--or even mostly--bad. It just is. 

Living, even for two months, in a city of 80,000 instead of a large, auto-centric metropolis has helped me realize I’m getting sick of being near 3 million people all the time, even if they are Minnesotans. It tends to clog things up and make simple tasks--like going anywhere--regular nuisances. The slightly cool winters in Minnesota haven’t bothered me, but there’s a reason Arizona and Florida overflow with old folks transplanted from cold climates they once tolerated if not loved. But Minnesota and the Twin Cities have much going for them--beautiful and plentiful parks and lakes, tremendous cycling infrastructure, two city downtowns each with a distinct appeal, Mannings Bar, the longest active streak (dating to 1972) of any U.S. state not voting for a Republican presidential candidate, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, ice fishing, Pig’s Eye beer, to name a few. There’s no other U.S. metro area in which I’d prefer to live; I’ve been very happy with the choice I made in 1991.