Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ohh. Canada?

Sometimes I feel that we are from some small protectorate. Americans see us as quaint, a kind and compliant folk, but a little like the perpetual adolescents living in the upstairs bedroom, who haven’t had to take on the full responsibilities of adulthood: grappling with racial strife and inner city crime, policing the globe with a massive military, shouldering the mantle of world pop culture.
Granted the population of California is similar to that of our whole country. But still, we’re big—I mean square miles (oops, kilometers) wise. Still most Americans don’t seem to notice us. Take our election. I didn’t talk to a single person here who realized that, just like them, we were having an election. Kim and I spent the big night huddled around our computer, listening to a bad CBC stream that kept looping back on itself. (Though it hardly mattered, as apparently the election looped back on itself.) Mainly we were on pins and needles hoping our friend Briony would take the Gulf Islands, Saanich seat (she lost after a close race). I also had great hopes that the vote for the environment strategic voting approach might have made a difference. But, though we were deeply disappointed at the outcome, it still felt that the election unfolded through measured debates.

At a friend’s here the other day I noticed that she had an enormous map of British Columbia on her office wall. That would not be unusual I guess if she’d actually ever been to BC. “What’s that for?” I asked.
“That’s so I can think about where we’ll move to…” I looked puzzled.
“In case the Republicans get in and introduce the draft.” (Her twins, Sam and Helen are 10). “Next time it’s going to include girls as well as boys!”
Perhaps, I thought, Americans are thinking of us more than we suspect. Like these two vowing to move to Canada if Sarah Palin becomes VP.

It is hard for most Canadians to believe, but there are actually people here who haven’t noticed that McCain’s choice of running mate is from the lunatic fringe. And though I gnashed my teeth at the division of the left in our election, there is something about this deep polarization between two parties that seems to force people into extremes, leaving little room for subtle discourse. No, I am glad I am a Canadian, even though, in the end, the only person here who commented on the outcome of our election was Jon Stewart. Oh, and Gordon Lightfoot.

I was so excited when I realized that Gordon Lightfoot was performing just ten minutes walk away from our marina. “Kim, do you know what this means?”
He looked at me blankly. “I may finally get to see Gordon Lightfoot sing "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy". Another blank look, which meant he was forced to hear me sing it from beginning to end (O.K. I forgot a few lines.)
I phoned my good friend Nancy (who has lived in California for several years).
“Nancy, I’m going to see Gordon Lightfoot!”
“No way!...there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run...” She launched right into it…
I’m not a member of Gordon’s fan club, but his music was the soundtrack for some heady years of my life. And though he kind of slid a little into country there was still something about him—rough around the edges, a little coarse even, but then those poetic lyrics. And, of course, the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Now I know the Canadian railroads where built by oligarchs on stolen land, but somehow that song always gives me goose bumps.
Gordon never did sing it last night. The man who walked onto the stage would not have been able to get through half of it. He spent 6 weeks in a coma after an aortic aneurism a few years ago. It was a year before he picked up his guitar and this is his first tour since. He was bone thin, and his voice, frankly, was shot. After the first song, I was worried for my fellow countryman. But the audience, a packed house of determined fans, with that American warmth and generosity, cheered right through to the end of the two hour concert. As we turned to go, three young men looked at him with adulation.
“Too bad he didn’t play the Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” one said.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Painting Palms

Palm Tree, Nassau, Winslow Homer

The only book I brought along from my studio is “Winslow Homer Watercolors”. If I could paint like anyone it would be Winslow Homer, his strong compositions, economy of brush strokes, and clear color. I find myself constantly admiring the palms here. They are so graceful and limber in the wind and carve such strong shapes against the sky.

moonrise over palms, San Diego

I have been trying to identify some palms growing along one of the streets we ride every day. They caught my eye because of the strange flowers, palm pom poms I guess you could say. They are most interesting just as the flowers are emerging, like presents being slowly opened. The wrappings unfold and drop onto the streets like sheets of building materials.

Also strange are the cones of the cycads buried in domes of decorative leaves, heavy and soft as felt. I find the diversity of plants here wonderful and bewildering—basically the streets, gardens, and parks are stuffed with plants from all over the world, especially Australia, South Africa and the Mediterranean. To see some of these check out sandiegoplants

Sunday, October 12, 2008

a windy day

street art San Diego

It's been windy the last couple of days--a relief from intense heat during the week. They tell us that September and October are the hottest months of the year here (sea fog rolls in in the summer). Fall here is also the time of the year when the famous Santa Ana winds, which blow from the hot interior can sweep fires through the dry hills. Anyone with homes up away from the city lives in fear of this combination of heat and wind. Down here, at sea level, the wind was welcome. Yesterday we actually got out for a sail for the first time since we tied up here. We joined the other day San Diego boats, sailing back and forth, back and forth in the harbour.
It was fun to see it by day though, as we arrived in the city in the dead of night. Apart from day sailors in the harbour, there are tourists lining the rails of a few sleek x-America's cup boats. At first they look very impressive, but then you notice that the sails are moldy, and they rarely have them all up. Once these boats are finished one race season, they are obsolete and too expensive to keep up. We got a look from afar at the new America's cup trimaran "BMW Oracle" leaping off the waves at breakneck speed, reefed down, in 15 knots of wind.
By the way, we managed to sight the other "most famous American boat" on this trip too--on our offshore passage just south of San Francisco--monstrous sails emerging from the mists, visible for miles. It was the superyacht Maltese Falcon, just arriving home in the US, 2 years after it was built in Europe. Apparently it's already for sale, for a mere 150 million euros.

Today we set off in the wind on our bikes for a little expedition to town (about half an hour away). That's where we saw the bicycle wind piece--the wind was ripping through the sculpture, sending the bike wheels spinning like mad. This installation is one of about 12 along the waterfront--they all have the same base--each artist was given the task of making a vertical sculpture. Somehow, like butterflies and teapots, the constraints of the design make the differences seem more delightful and ingenious.

tile bench

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sharkey's Pier

fishing buddies

Sharkey's Pier

Brown Pelican, waiting for scraps

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rooster, Tapestry
Joseph Domjan

A Temporary Life

"Don't Look at Me" 
Tony Oursier

Museum of Contemporary Art,
La Jolla

We have been in San Diego for more than a week now. Angus and Tavish have returned home. 
I had heard that port life is mostly about fixing the things that were broken while sailing and so far that seems to be true. We are also getting some things installed for the next leg of our journey. A bimini for shade from sun, a watermaker, an extra autopilot. Kim spends a lot of his time on short visits to various businesses to talk to experts and sales people.
A few days ago we moved from the transient dock and now have a slip in a regular marina—fewer dogs and derelict boats, but not nearly so entertaining. It’s like living in a leafless fiberglass forest. Though nature tries its best to intervene. Every day a flock of itinerant starlings rushes in from the palms along the beachfront and settles on the masts, chattering and happily shitting all over the blinding white boat decks. Every so often a boat owner arrives, curses and hoses down the mess. Along the edge of the breakwater where the tide moves sluggishly in and out its 5 or 6 feet, little flocks of sandpipers and Marbled Godwits with amber-coloured bills probe the mud. An osprey flies over often and once in awhile a pelican drops among the masts, fishing between the dock fingers.
As for the human community on Shelter Island, there are the people who work at the marinas, hotels, and beaches, and the people who use the marinas, hotels, and beaches. At the end of the day many of them leave. At night, other than the snapping shrimp, we feel like the only living things.
Beyond Shelter Island and all its boat businesses though, of course, is a real neighbourhood. The streets wind up a hill planted with palms, hibiscus, jasmine and eucalyptus. The air smells resinous. So far we have found: an excellent wine store, an internet cafĂ©, a couple of good restaurants, an artisan bread shop, a video store, and a drug store. For our first week here, that was our world. Then we got second hand bikes! Now we ride 15 minutes to shop for groceries. And three days a week I ride straight up the hill to a yoga studio. I was very happy to find La Playa Yoga. It is in a private home, and looks out into a sunny garden and beyond to a sliver of ocean. The teacher is blond and willowy, and the women are very nice and smile and ask me questions about myself and I’m sure none of them are Republicans. Even though I know I will not have time to make good friends here, it was a relief to find a place which feels personal. Usually when Kim and I travel we do not stop for long, which solves most of the question about what to do next. But staying in a place for two months is very different. For the first time in a very long time I find that I have to actively make a life, give it direction and content. I am used to doing this. But I have realized that the infrastructure of my home life: time, materials, my studio, but most importantly, my community, allows me to spend so much time working alone.
Now I have wireless on the boat and can talk to friends and family via email and the blog every day.  Also we have a few friends and family of friends here who have invited us out. Yesterday, Tracy, the sister of our Portland friend Terri, drove us around the area, pointing out spectacular walks, the local library, where to get a good martini, great Mexican food, a pair of running shoes...
A couple of visits to galleries have been wonderful.  Saw “Don’t Look at Me” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla (a beautiful, once private home, perched on cliffs looking over the sea). The face on the figure was a video projection (which gazes at the viewer and says things like “don’t look at me, go away, I’m not here…”). It was mesmerizing, a strange combination of the highly realistic and the obviously formless.
One of my favourite museums here is the Mingei, a craft museum in Balboa Park. I will go back again to see the jewel-like prints (some of which have been made into huge tapestries) of the Hungarian artist Joseph Domjan.
Off to see the San Diego Watercolour Society’s International Show…

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dock Life

We arrived in San Diego (a week ago) at 4 am, straining to find the red and green corridor of navigation lights superimposed on all the lights of the city.
There was a surprising amount of harbour activity in the wee hours of the morning: fishermen, police run-abouts, military patrols roaming the edges of the Point Loma Naval Base, panning great spotlights over its brushy slopes. Just inside the harbour mouth is the “Transient Dock”, the public dock.
We tied up and had a celebratory dram of scotch and sleepily congratulated each other on making it to our destination. The docks were quiet but gradually we realized the water around us was crackling. It sounded as if someone had lit cedar kindling under the boat. We poked our heads above decks, we leaned out over the water, we took Kim’s stethoscope out and held it to the hull. Finally, baffled, we fell into our bunks and slept until 9 (well trained by now to sleep in 4 hour watch stretches!).
The public dock in San Diego is at the end of a long thin peninsula of land called Shelter Island. Looking down into its quiet waters, one sees a forest, a watershed of masts. There are said to be 15 marinas and 7000 boats in San Diego. There are sloops and ketches, schooners, and motor yachts, micro and mega yachts, stripped down racing boats and gin palaces. And here’s the thing, there’s nowhere to go. Past the harbour is open ocean; the nearest islands are over a day’s sail away. But that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. On the weekend, the bay is a traffic jam of boats sailing back and forth, back and forth.
When you get tired of that you can shop for boat things. Shelter Island is one of the world’s major yacht centres. There are brokers and maintenance yards; there are chandleries and stores where you can contemplate upholstery, water makers, navigational instruments, refrigeration, canvas, carpentry, charts, books, tackle, sat phones and radios; there are painters, carpenters, fiberglassers, sailmakers, riggers, and people to maintain engines, plumbing, and electronics. In other words it is guy heaven.
There are women on the boats at the dock of course, but they don’t wander with a glass of beer or a cup of coffee, lean on each others’ boats shooting the breeze, they don’t spend hours talking about hull shape, this self-steering or that navigation system, the best configuration of sails and solar panels.
The transient dock turned out to be the place where almost everyone who arrives in San Diego first ties up. This time of year most boats are on their way to Mexico. You can spot the veterans by the amount of gear hanging off their rails: barbeques, extra gas tanks, solar panels, kayaks, generous awnings. Circadia, with her simple light lines and spindly radar pole looks naked.
The transient dock is also the place where permanent denizens of the harbour mooring buoys come to pump their tanks, get fresh water, charge their batteries, and have a shower (you can stay there 10 days out of every 40). They are recognizable by their leathery skin and their derelict boats.
Almost every boat on the transient dock seems to come with a dog, Chihuahua, border collie, pit bull… When a new boat comes in they all start barking at the newcomer on the bow.
But there are other life forms on the dock. By day great blue herons pace thoughtfully. Green herons hunch over bowsprits. And at night the black crowned night herons stand under the lights, gazing steadily into the water with their ruby eyes.
And, oh yeah, we did finally figure out what the strange static in the water was: beds of snapping or pistol shrimp, tiny critters only a couple of inches long. One claw is super-sized and comes with a thumb-like thing. The military first took an interest in them. A commander of a US submarine in 1942, suggested that “the Japs may have some newfangled gadget that they drop” to make so much underwater chatter. Since then someone figured out that the claw creates a bubble of water, which snaps when it breaks. Under the boat, and on the pilings, as I write, hundreds of snapping shrimp are at work—or whatever it is—speculations are it is both defensive and stuns prey. Check out Wikipedia for some amazing underwater footage.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

San Diego Rooftops, sunset

San Diego

Japanese Friendship Bell--entrance San Diego Harbour