Good Causes

Too many calls to action have left me exhausted.

One thing for which we can thank the internet is that the world now seems to be enjoying a surfeit of good causes, causes that vie for my attention, try to get me to join or support them in some way. It seems like a constant stream of recruitment messages finds me through email, social media and the web. They cajole me to sign a petition, share a polemic, join someone in their moral anguish. Like a conscript in an endless war, I am to be marshaled from front to front in the ongoing struggle of some cause against another.

Here is a list of causes that have asked that I rise to the ramparts this summer:

GMO labeling
Gun rights
Clean water
Transgender people (gay people are passé)
Local farms
Gun control
Bans on drilling, fracking, and shipping petroleum
Black lives
Religious freedom
The Confederate flag
The right of Nicholas Constantine Soukeras to name his first-born son Spyridon (really)
Assisted suicide
Free speech
The suppression of Michael Vick, Kanye West, and Planned Parenthood
Two women in India
The extradition of an extractor of teeth (say it 3 times, fast)

This is just a partial list, and of course it doesn’t include the door knockers selling raffle tickets, Jesus, and frozen New York steaks. And what happens when election season rolls around? You can add robo-calls to the mix. And the media, already full of offended women and bald patriots, will blare further entreaties. A nationwide Iron Mary of exhortation.

Listen, people, it’s too much. Everyone is pushing something. And it’s all noble and tax-deductible, of course, and everyone seems properly righteous when they make the case that they’ll improve society. But then it turns out they disagree with one another and you have to decide. The only thing they agree upon is that it’s important, and urgent, that you take their side. Too many decisions. Too much responsibility.

Do we really want to live like this? Must we all be Don Quixote? Walden Pond, anyone? I have to admit that hermitry attracts me in this environment, but it means I’d have to give up my cell phone. Alternatively, I could try to improve society myself with a crusade to limit causes, but I have no idea how to go about it. I imagine there’s a tax deduction in there, though.

The Metaphysics of Facebook

Informational Satori is upon us. We can all leave, now.

Dried flowers on the beach

Some people post stuff eighty times a day on Facebook, you get buried under their pictures of babies and food, their petitions and political outrage. Some people hardly ever post: once a year, someone tags them at a barbecue. I suppose I fall somewhere in between. Mostly I keep stuff to myself, because I figure no one gives a shit anyway. But every once in a while, I am motivated to share something or other that resonates within my particular universe.

These posts occasionally provoke a few comments, but sometimes they do not. My universe resonates differently from every one else’s. Perhaps someone is lurking, reading with indifference or even disdain, insufficiently moved even to Like. Or maybe there’s no one there at all.

The internet encourages us to surround ourselves with spheres of interest which become more narrow and exclusive with time. And as we age, as our friends dwindle and die, those that remain go their own ways into their own spheres. Perhaps there is no longer any overlap. At first, I despaired at this thought.

I asked myself, if I post something on Facebook and no one reads it, did it really happen? Or is it, like the tree falling in the forest, some sort of Schroedinger conundrum into which my life has fallen. I can look and verify that the post is there, of course, but maybe that’s part of the same hallucination. And if you were to look, you would play the role of the cat, reducing possibilities.

But then I realized that this open-ended flow is, in fact, a sort of informational satori: information for its own sake. The info-verse swirls around me, and I seek silent illumination, no longer burdened by the need to actually interact with others. As more and more of my posts elicit no response, I approach digital Nirvana.

People — Friends — are no longer necessary. We live in a world where I can post a message that no one will read while, at the same time, a marketer’s robot caller is leaving a message on my answering machine that no one will listen to. The informational loops exist without us, and will continue to exist long after we are gone.


While waiting for the doctors to be done.

I am sitting in the lobby of the hospital at UCSF’s new campus at Mission Bay, waiting. This place is the strangest blend of the elegant and the crude. In the surgery waiting room, a relatively small space that seats a couple of dozen people, there are three wide-screen TVs along one wall. They sit about 3 feet apart. All three are turned on, to different channels, three different action movies. Thus, I find myself downstairs in the quiet lobby, where I shall spend the next 10 hours.

These buildings are beautiful, their fixtures state-of-the-art. There is artwork all over the place, some of it stunning, some obviously the output of physician-photographers. Or their friends. The city of San Francisco, in its wisdom, has decreed that new construction must include a budget for art. From there to selection committees is but a short step.

Here in the lobby atrium there is a mural, two stories high and about 10 feet wide, a digital photo printed on glass. It represents tree branches with leaves and buds and is comprised of five panels, assembled to form a vertical pent-tych, if that is a word. At this scale, you can see the sharpening artifact from across the street. Some of the buds must have moved during the exposure: they are outlined in blue, something the photographer apparently did not see a need to fix, it’s become part of the art. Having nothing better to do, I examine it from close up, noticing that the luminance noise has been removed, replaced with a fine Photoshop grain. Earlier today, as the patient was being prepped, I saw less ambitious, framed photographs and paintings upstairs in the waiting rooms and hallways. I really liked some of them. Maybe I’ll walk around later to look.

A couple of visits ago I tried the cafeteria, but it wasn’t very good. There are also two coffee stands on the ground floor that serve a decent-tasting beverage that just fails to wake me. It’s not labelled decaf…I don’t know what the problem is. Fortunately, I discovered a cafe two blocks down with good coffee and decent sandwiches. I sat there this morning and fed a pigeon. I’ll probably go hang there this afternoon when I get tired of looking at artwork. The doctors all wrote down my cell phone number, are supposed to call me with updates. I would go home to sleep, but I have been asked to contribute karma from closer range. Om.

Glen Champ for Governor

A gubernatorial candidate has a refreshing approach to the job

US and California flagsI got my Voter Information Guide for the primaries in the mail the other day. After studying it, I decided to support Glenn Champ for Governor. Each of the candidates had submitted a short statement describing their political philosophy, and Mr. Champ’s read, in its entirety: “I’m the only candidate that will clean up the mess by holding elected officials accountable to the Constitution that will improve our economy. www. champforgovernor. com”. I immediately liked a man who would not let syntax stand in the way of his beliefs.

Curious, I visited the website. There was a biography of Mr. Champ, who is a contractor in the town of Tollhouse, California. He attended Sierra High School, but “would not stand for the unbiblical, communist, socialist, curriculum brain washing in college.” In addition to other syntactic surprises, the website also features a link to a preview for a forthcoming movie called “It takes a criminal to catch a criminal,” but at first I couldn’t figure out why.

Mr. Champ’s political philosophy is also described. He is refreshingly opposed to ” ungodly legislation drafted by demonic terrorist extremists own agenda”, a stance taken by no other candidate. As governor, he would throw out both Boxer and Feinstein (parasites!) and “appoint constitutional officers in their place”. He will also lower prices for everything. In order to achieve this, he points out, it is necessary first to fix the judges. I’m not completely clear on why this is the case, or even what it means, but he argues quite forcefully that it makes no sense to address other problems before confronting this one. That is why other reformers have failed.

I decided to offer Mr. Champ my support. I wrote to him and asked for campaign literature, a sign to put in my window, that sort of thing. In an effort to blend in, I capitalized the occasional word and threw in some random punctuation. I ended my note with “Please send me a sign”, thinking that a nice touch. A few days later, some bumper stickers arrived in the mail, along with envelopes for money, should I wish to contribute. There was also a flyer with more grammatical howlers than I can begin to list here.

Unfortunately, I may have to withdraw my allegiance. I am reconsidering my endorsement in light of an article in the LA Times, which pointed out some aspects of his resume that were omitted from the website. Such as the 12 years he spent in prison for voluntary vehicular manslaughter. Or his conviction for consorting with underage prostitutes. These details do shed some light on why he wants to fix the judges, and he did point out in the article that his criminal past might be an asset in dealing with career politicians. Nevertheless, I may switch my allegiance to the guy who wants to overhaul the prison system with “evidence-based healing.” Or the guy who wants to (this is his complete sentence) “Repeal train and water tunnel to solve water issue.” It’s great living in California. We have so many choices.

Extended Vacation Rentals in Japan

We found long term rentals in Kyoto and Fukuoka.

If you’re traveling abroad for any extended period of time, hotels and endless restaurant meals can take a toll on your budget. When you want to spend a few weeks or more in a single place, one idea is to look for an apartment with a kitchen that can be had on a short term rental. Vacation rentals by owners (VRBOs) and airBNB sublets are common solutions, but in Japan, and especially outside of Tokyo, such places can be hard to find. We found one that caters to tourists in the Kyoto suburbs, and another in Fukuoka that is used mostly by Japanese salarymen.

Apple House is a tiny cottage operated as a vacation rental by Hiroko and David James.  Apple House KyotoWe rented it in February as a cheaper alternative to hotels for our monthlong stay in Kyoto. David met us at the train station and showed us there the first time. We had to walk the last part of the way: Apple House is located on a street too narrow for cars (deliveries come by motorcycle), flanked by a narrow canal.

Downstairs, a minuscule kitchen led to a freezing porch with a clothes washer and a couple of clotheslines. These were a bit tricky to use: we would put our washed underwear on them and it would freeze and become rigid overnight. In the summer humidity, I was told, it would simply remain wet. We spent very little time on the patio. Inside, there was a living room with a propane heater. A steep staircase led upstairs to two bedrooms with tatami floors, and futons upon which we slept.

 Apple House Tatami Room

_FireTruck100223_0046_LRWe shopped locally in Sugakuin for food. We were eating salmon every night: you could buy a steak in the market for 3 bucks. We got to know our neighborhood, a bedroom borough mixture of new houses and brick apartments in close proximity, and old truck farms interspersed on a hillside above the city. There were hidden treasures: an old temple on the hillside, with an ancient fire truck in the yard; a country residence belonging to the emperor, with manicured winter gardens. And a half hour ride on the number 5 bus got you to downtown Kyoto.


In Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu, we could find no similar VRBO. But we did manage to unearth Tenjin Success, a large tower of efficiency studio apartments which seemed to be part of a nationwide chain. Japanese companies often station employees far from home for long stints, and these apartments, designed for single occupancy, meet their need for cheap housing. Since the units are not marketed to tourists at all, enquiries in English may frighten the staff and be ignored.

Fukuoka towersThe Tenjin area was a congested nest of apartment towers, with restaurants and nightclubs on narrow streets by another river. On the fringes of more fashionable areas, it was in walking distance to everything and had a couple of great izakayas. Fukuoka, a far more autochthonous city than Kyoto, is more attuned to  tourists from Korea and China than from the west. It’s attractions are limited, but it made an excellent hub for rental-car explorations of the island of Kyushu.

Astoria (Oregon)

Oregon’s down-at-the-heels port city on the Columbia

Astoria Column detail
Native Lives

I was a kid who would look on maps and see another Astoria, on the other coast, the Pacific, and who wanted to go there. The map showed a port city, some distance downstream from Portland, and I imagined there were ships in addition to brick buildings like the Astoria I was growing up in, on the Atlantic. This year, finally, I went to that other Astoria.

Fort Astoria was a fur trading post built by the John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company in 1811. There is a 125 foot column in a park on a hill that overlooks the city. It was put up by the Astor family in honor of themselves and sports a mural depicting  scenes from the lives of the natives that their ancestors displaced. Those who climb the interminable spiral staircase are able to see all the way to Megler, Washington (unless there is fog), which is said to be inspiring.


View of Astoria-Megler Bridge
View from Coxcomb Hill

Down below is the town, a riverfront harbor city hit hard by recession, dog-eared home of the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival. There are a few brick warehouses near the docks but, unlike the Astoria of my eastern provenance, the buildings here are mostly paint-starved wood.


Megler-Astoria Bridge at dusk
Evening Fog
Freighter passes under the Astoria-Megler Bridge

The Astoria-Megler Bridge across the Columbia dominates the town, towering over the main road whether you’re coming from east or west. A tiny park at the river’s edge clings to the base of the final tower on the Oregon side. It features plaques welcoming visitors to Astoria and more murals celebrating displaced aboriginals.

When in Astoria, one simply must take pictures of the many wooden posts in the river, soulful remnants of rotted docks. I learned this by researching my trip on Flickr, where enthusiasts may find many excellent contributions to the genre. These are mine. Click to embiggen.

River Posts
Soulful Remnants I
Posts in Columbia River
Soulful Remnants II

Hayden Bridge

A covered bridge in Oregon offers a photo opportunity

On a back road in north west Oregon, this old bridge spans the Alsea River. Every online resource that I consulted (2) assured me that it is of Howe Truss construction, so I want to be sure to pass that information along. The trusses are the triangular shapes that bear the load. William Howe came up with a design made of wood and metal, handsomely executed here.


The bridge was first built in 1918, at which time it was smaller, with rounded openings. These were enlarged in 1946 during a refit to accommodate heavier traffic (lumber trucks; the Cascades were/are being raped). The plaque says it was refurbished again in 2003, and my exhaustive research on Google revealed that it needed extensive repairs after a lumber truck ran into it in 2006. Can’t seem to make these things wide enough for lumber trucks.

There was no one around on the day that we happened by, so I set up my tripod in the middle of the road and tried to take a picture of the inside, which shows a really neat ceiling and the triangular trusses. Not that I had any idea what they were at the time.

Shot at 1/4 sec, f11 with the Nikon 28-200 zoom at 28mm. A speedlight just out of sight on the right threw additional light on the ceiling, The trees in back were almost blown out on the raw file, burned them back in photoshop.

The Water Tower

Inside the dome of the Capitol Hill water tank

The water tower sits on top of a hill in Volunteer Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. I hiked up there early one morning hoping for pictures from its vantage above the city, but the fog was thick and I couldn’t see 5 feet. The place was deserted. I climbed a winding staircase to the gallery at the top of the tank, a small, domed chamber. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department refers to it as an observation deck, however, since the windows appear not to have been cleaned since the tower was built in 1906, I suspect that observation is difficult even on clear days.

The room is only a couple of dozen feet across. I squeezed the tripod into the narrow passage on one side of a fenced-in central area. With the camera in vertical format, I took sets of 12 exposures, six across the top and six below. Later these were assembled in Photoshop. Shot with my widest angle lens, somewhat anemic in this regard, the Nikon 28-200 at 28mm, 2 sec at f/22, ISO 200.


Water tower panorama

Chihuly Gardens

Dale Chihuly’s followers have produced a colorful forest of similar forms.

chihuly glass sculpture Last summer we spent a few days in Seattle, a grunge-hipster city of street markets, art, and a whole lot of beer. One of the attractions we visited was Chihuly Gardens, a museum of forms created by students of glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. It’s located in the Space Needle complex downtown and was predictably overrun with camera-laden tourists like me.

The exhibits consist of dark mirrored spaces filled with brightly colored plant-like forms. These are arranged in large arrays punctuated by the occasional bowl, with dramatic lighting to enhance the effect. There is also an outdoor garden, where the lighting is less dramatic, generally a bleak sun filtered through Seattle’s rain. A few species of glass frond seem to thrive in the fog.

InChihuly glass sculpture garden fact they are the same few species that also dominate indoors. Although the initial impression given by the museum is one of diversity, this is achieved mostly by the use of color. Probably only a dozen different glass forms populate the whole place.

After visiting the museum, you can grab lunch next door at the Collections Cafe, where an erudite clientele takes part in a fare heavy on blue cheese burgers and garlic fries under a ceiling lined with hanging accordions (are they playing suspended chords?). Seattle, it must be noted, is also home to the Petosa Accordion Museum. The name of the cafe is probably an allusion to what seems to be the pervading ideology of the complex: admission to the museum is $19. It’s free if you’re under 3, but if you break it, you buy it.