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.