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Paradise Terrestre, Six Years On…

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’ (Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus)

Six years ago today, after a whirlwind search for houses in the San Juan Islands, a short courtship with a restaurant in Friday Harbor (and the acquisition of a dear friend), various excuses to obligations in Seattle, and lots of packing, I piloted north onto the ferry and took possession of my house on Rocky Bay, at the northeastern end of San Juan Island.  I’ve recounted that story before, many times, so I’ll spare everyone the details tonight.  

In past retrospectives, which I re-read tonight over a glass of Bandol rose while coals heated and the oven baked away, I’ve recounted the travails of “becoming” an islander, and my various joys and misgivings along the way.  This year, I have less to say, because while I no longer come home and jump and cackle in glee at where I find myself living (as happened so often in the earliest days), I also don’t take for granted my island home.  It takes less than two days in Seattle before I get frustrated with traffic and crowds and lines, and wish I was home where we have no traffic lights, only a handful of stop signs, and where crowds are a feature of a few short weeks in deep summer.  

My social connections on the island continue to both winnow and deepen, as one expects.  In early days I went to parties, often facilitated by my good friend Madden, and hosted parties where I often didn’t know three quarters of the people who came to my house.  Today, I am more comfortable, and more selective about how I spend my time, since I know how fleeting the good weather is, how fleeting the evenings alone on the deck reading can be, and who I really connect with.  That is proper, and a sign of settling in to a community, although in the last year or two I interpreted it (wrongly, as it turned out) as a sign of possible pulling away or disaffection.  It is, instead, a sign that I understand what my community has to offer and what I value the most.  

Whether I return to the island by car, feeling the steel gangplank of the ferry under my wheels, or by plane, feeling the Kenmore Cessnas twist and then settle onto the runway after wheeling and looping over my island home, I still feel a surge of excitement and energy knowing that I’ve returned to someplace that definitely feels like home.  For all its challenges, travails, and frustrations, my days here are still wonderful and precious and there have been precious few days in the last six years when I’ve wondered whether this was the right decision. 

I am, and remain, an “islomane,” and a member of the subspecies which finds our coldish, moss-and-fog infested, whale-visited islands in the middle of the Salish Sea, continually enchanting and alluring.  I raise my glass to the next six years.  

The dynamics of the debt ceiling endgame

I’m still sort of amazed at the amount of commentary that seems to skirt the basic issue here. The hardliners in the House are, dominantly speaking, the House freshman. The class of 2010, that were driven by the “Tea Party” insurgency, and won their seats by beating incumbents in primary elections.

They’re not afraid of criticism from the left — even when that “left” is an organization as staunchly business-oriented and traditionally Republican as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They’re afraid that later this year, their local base, and local Tea Party organizations, will “primary them from the right.” They’re afraid, in other words, that someone else will repeat the process on them. Paint them as going to Washington and selling out. So the “Class of 2010” will probably remain largely intransigent in this process.

What seems to mystify everyone is why Boehner seems to keep courting them. He knows this. Every political strategist in the country knows this.

The problem is, Boehner will only pass a bill by working around, not with, the Class of 2010, by and large. And the calculus on this is simple. He needs House Democrats to vote for the final bill, and more moderate, longer-term House Republicans. Folks that are slightly less afraid of being reverse-primaried.

But this means making a deal with Democrats involved. Which is almost as bad as agreeing to raise taxes willingly. Which means that the final deal, if indeed one happens, puts Speaker Boehner at risk of losing the Speakership — great risk — and equally great risk of being primaried from the right himself and losing his seat in 2012.

And he knows this. So he’s going to wait until the last possible second. Because he’s got to make the worst decision a politician can make. He’s either going to be an ex-Congressman who saved the U.S. credit rating and helped avoid an even greater Depression, or he’s going to be sitting Speaker who presided over further economic collapse, credit downgrade, and a host of other catastrophes.

And that’s a terrible place to be. If he makes the former choice, I would suggest that we all give him the props he deserves, because he will have committed career suicide, in order to do what’s right for the country. And whether I like Boehner and his beliefs, someone who’s willing to do that deserves our respect.

And if he decides to walk off the cliff with the Class of 2010, then he, and they, will deserve their place in history. And it won’t be a good one.

Paradise Terrestre, Five Years On…

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’


 

Five years ago today, I steered an overfull Land Rover north in the early morning mist to catch the ferry in Anacortes and take possession of my house on San Juan Island.  My belongings would largely follow a month later, after small renovations and frenzied trips south to pack and prepare for the moving truck.  But the first weeks as an islander were magical.  The house was empty apart from evidence of construction and small enclaves of domesticity — a futon, a card table, and some deck furniture.  I virtually lived on the deck for weeks, in shorts, in warm weather that now seems a fond memory.

As I have written in years past on this day, my island home matures from innocent idyll to complex daily reality, and my fondness for it changes as well, acquiring both depth and sharp edges, as I negotiate a middle ground between deep involvement and the fondly remembered invisibility and anonymity of my first days.  Coming, as I do, from urban America, I find that in order to live in my woodsy enclave on the quiet, almost people-free, waters of Rocky Bay and the Waldron-Orcas-SJI confluence, I have signed up to live in a classic “small town,” for better or worse.

In my annual paean to island life, on the anniversary of my northward migration, I quote Lawrence Durrell’s book, “Reflections on a Marine Venus,” which I reread each year as this date approaches.  This year, I read it, but I find that I no longer associate it with my island home.  This is a sad thing, since my islomania continues unabated, and I fully agree with the sentiments Durrell expresses.

But the tone of Durrell’s islomania, expressed in the language of the early 20th century educated British expatriate, is no longer my tone.  Durrell speaks as a visitor, fundamentally.  He speaks as one coming from a foreign culture, enjoying his contact with the new and the different.  He speaks as one kind of islander, visiting another kind of islander.

As I sit here on the deck tonight, listening to the music playlist that accompanied my trip on the ferry and landing in Friday Harbor, and after re-reading the first pages of Durrell’s book — paragraphs that virtually defined my journey north — I find myself writing a very different “annual report” than usual.  I sat down thinking that I would give the usual “trip report.”

Instead, I find myself eulogizing, and drawing to a close, the words and metaphors which defined that journey.  The motivations and events which led me here are in the past.  I am deeply involved in my community, sometimes more than I have time for or would like.  But that involvement disallows the perspective of the expatriate, the viewpoint of one who loves a place, but will soon move onward.  Durrell’s words will continue to have deep meaning for me, but it’s time to retarget them outward, to places I hope to visit and enjoy.

For the island, five years on, is nothing more or less than….home.  With all of the pleasure, comfort, frustrations, and occasional pain that this denotes.  

Followup on Solid Waste

To follow up on my previous comments, I want to note and celebrate the leadership of Bob Myhr (Council District #6, Lopez) on this issue.  Not only is he speaking out about the impact that the $5 gate fee will have on the willingness to recycle, but he is strongly opposed to the “Zero Station” plan and will continue to oppose it.   Bob’s position is that we need 3 transfer stations (which may not be full “tipping floors”) on the three biggest islands for garbage and recycling.  How it gets funded, and how it moves from those facilities to leave the county, are open issues.

I strongly agree and support Bob in this line of reasoning, and I urge other islanders to consider supporting this and demanding a real plan we can consider and, if needed, vote upon.

A friend just wrote and said that I should also note that the unintended consequences of a “zero” or “one” policy need to be thoroughly discussed.  On islands with no transfer station, we will see a rise in illegal roadside dumping, attempts to dump trash and recycling in the dumpsters of local businesses, and so on.  We will see a drastic drop in our recycling.

And regardless of how much San Juan Sanitation increases their service level, we all have the occasional garage clean-out, or old refrigerator, or construction debris to deal with.  Where will this material go when we have no transfer station on our island?

The Council seems to suggest that this material will end up in our pickups, on the ferry, off to some other island or the mainland.  I suspect much of it won’t, and our islands will become thinly veiled dumpsites, but badly policed and uncontrolled dump sites.

Perhaps someone from the Visitor’s Bureau, the real estate profession, and other aspects of the tourism industry ought to weigh in on the issue and explain the importance of a clean, beautiful county to our local economy….

Reflections on the best bartender in America: Murray Stenson

Nicole and I didn’t go to Tales of the Cocktail this year, having between us two backlogs of work and wanting to save our money for trips this fall and next spring/summer.

But we did wander into Zigzag Cafe last Saturday night, knowing that nearly everybody in town was at Tales, but that Murray had decided not to go. So we knew we could get the best cocktail experience in town for an hour or so before we headed off to an outside table at Place Pigalle.

Murray wasn’t there. Erik served us, and we had a terrific experience and met new cocktail enthusiasts (as we always do sitting at Zigzag). A month or so ago, when I asked Murray if he was going, he smiled a secretive and sardonic smile and alluded to not wanting to get involved in all that, and being sort of pissed about the nominations. I didn’t ask further, but I assumed he was alluding to the fact that not a single West Coast bar made the nomination list this year (a criminal shame, given the quality of what Daniel Shoemaker is doing, not to mention many others).

After a delightful discussion about cocktails, Continental philosophy, and many other topics with Erik and our newfound friends at the bar, we headed off to Pigalle, and enjoyed a terrific dinner and sunset on the patio. Midway through, Nicole and I poked at our iPhones and told each other, “Murray won American bartender of the year.” Suddenly it all made sense.

Not only was Murray not at Tales to avoid the attention that seems to embarass him so much, but he wasn’t even behind the stick at Zigzag that night. Not that he won’t have to endure many, many nights of his peers and customers congratulating him, but in characteristic fashion he avoided spectacle.

I can’t add much to the rivers of digital ink now being spilt in adjective-laden paen to the local Hercules of the shaker and bottle. I haven’t known Murray for decades, except in the old days as a barely noticed presence at Il Bistro, in days when I was far more concerned about the wine list.

But for those who haven’t spent time at the counter with Murray, you’re missing something very special. The skills Murray possesses are not necessarily what you expect. With sufficient research and the willingness to chase down ingredients, and the near-OCD-ridden hobbyist attitude that comes naturally to those who work with computers or software for a living (especially those that write the latter), it’s not hard to mix a technically amazing cocktail, or wax loquacious about the late 19th century history of the Martini.

Heck, it’s not even hard to stump Murray by naming an obscure cocktail you just quarried out of some book. Nor does Murray follow any of the “rules” of modern craft cocktailing — I mean, good god, the man doesn’t even measure!

But none of us go to sit at his bar because we care about those things. Murray is a master of his craft, of course. But most of all, he’s a master of hospitality. Not only does he keep dozens of people happy with superbly made cocktails at all times, but he’s keenly and almost supernaturally aware of dozens of conversations happening simultaneously. More than once, Murray has been at the other end of the bar, mixing drinks for a different party, and someone I’m hanging out with will ask about an ingredient or ask for my preference in gins for this particular cocktail, for example. Just in passing, you understand.

Five minutes later, often after the conversation has moved on to other topics, Murray silently places glasses in front of everyone in our party and pours a tasting sample of the ingredient, or a comparison between gins so folks can see the differences. He heard the whole thing — the question, my answers, the interest level of the people — from across the bar while doing five other things. He heard *everyone* and their conversations, and is ready to expand horizons, satisfy curiosity.

And ready, always, to build loyalty, especially in those who are loyal customers in return. I suspect that many of us now think of ourselves less as “customers” of Murray’s, and more as “ambassadors,” our job being to find those friends whose interests and sensibilities will vibrate in sympathy to this peculiar and rare treat, and introduce them, so that they can begin their relationship with the place, with the staff, and most importantly, with the Best Bartender in America.

Thank you, Murray, and whether you’ll admit it or not, this is well-deserved. Expect to be congratulated a fair bit, because I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel the same way.

Updated Personal History of Personal Computing

For a long time now, I’ve been keeping track of all the personal computers in my life.  I started on my original Radio Userland blog in early 2003 (now defunct, though I want to give a shout out to Dave Winer, a true pioneer), and continued here in various incarnations.  In that most recent 2008 post, I count roughly 27 computers I had exclusive use or ownership of, and 2 that were “categories” of computers I used (UW Computer lab, Wisconsin computer lab).

Since then, I’ve slowed down.  The MBP 17″ labeled “#1” is now sold on eBay.  The Mac Mini is decomissioned, awaiting refurbishment and redeployment, and the Air has turned into my “backup laptop,” quiet except in an emergency and resident in the laptop bag in my office, periodically refreshed and sync’d with Dropbox.  The current lineup is:

Macbook Pro 15″ Unibody, Core i5, 8GB RAM and SSD

This is the best laptop I’ve ever had.  I’m holding essentially a 4 processor, 8GB RAM machine with ultrafast disk in my hand, and if you measure the curve from here back to the beginning, it’s exponential.  When I became an NSF Graduate Fellow in 1989, part of the award in addition to tuition and stipend was a few minutes of supercomputer time on one of the NCSA supercomputers.  I’m pretty sure nothing I could have done with those minutes would be out of reach with this laptop, and more.  This thing is, pace Andy Clark, literally part of my mind.  I’m brain damaged without it.

Mac Apple TV

This replaced the Mac Mini downstairs, and does the job better, once you hack Boxee onto it and get used to the hacks to get third-party movies and video.

Mac Apple iPad

This really is the next-generation tablet and handheld we’ve been waiting for.  So if it bugs you that it’s an Apple fan product, wait for a knockoff that actually does all the functions well.  That’s Android to iPhone, by the way, so revel in your late-adopter ethos.  But the iPad really untethers computing from the traditional computer, and is pretty much what Donald Norman has been talking about for decades, not to mention Alan Kay.  And Gutenberg would have loved this fucking thing.

Basically, I’m going to call this 30 personal computers I’ve had during the course of my life.  I’m not counting the literally thousands of servers, or phones, etc that I’ve had, been responsible for, been around, or cursed at.  This 30 is a solid and serious trajectory of computing within one individual’s life.  And one I’m proud to describe and have.