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Monthly Archives: September 2018

Quixotically Tilting at Linear Windmills

 

 

 

 

I have said that if I were to jump out our second floor window I would never reach the ground. Our otherwise reasonably unobstructed view of the Olympic Mountains is filtered through a mess of overhead wires that would act like a net, if I leaped precipitously from above. You can hardly see the sky when you look up from our street corner. It is the visual equivalent to a swarm of vuvuzela; impossible to ignore and menacingly ugly in a primal reaction sort of way; an indoor-outdoor jail of our own making. Still, it is just one familiar aspect of many, now normal residential streets in Seattle, obliterating the sky, but bringing the pleasures of modern civilization to our homes.

As neighborhoods grow, a nest of overhead wires gradually proliferates, and it seems that no one notices. But then, you do. At first, you are looking at the glorious, sweeping view of the Olympic Mountains. And then, before you know it, as if in a horror movie about man-eating vines, you are swallowed in coursing black lines that blot out the sun and pull you back, helplessly into the abyss.

As we were renovating our house in 2010, the view had become a freshly integral part of our investment. So, the filter of spindly black wires stood out in stark contrast in the foreground of my mind. I became determined to wipe out this web as if cleaning the attic of an old house. Toward the seventh month of the renovation, I thought that I would, in a disarmingly sweet, it-takes-a-village, maternal way, find out who was playing with these wires, leaving them willy-nilly all over our yard, and get the delinquent company technicians out to clean up their mess.

For years, there has been one, particularly annoying wire, lower than our second floor, invading our air space, running diagonally across our front yard to our neighbor’s house. This offending wire was like an indelible stain on a favorite shirt, or spinach in your front teeth on a first date, and could be grabbed with one jump from the excavated mud mounds that lay in our yard (the BMX course that would be transformed into a beautiful garden). This enemy wire was reminiscent of one in a film called “Toby Dammit” in which the Devil, disguised as a little girl in a white dress, uses a wire, stretched across a road, to cut off people’s heads. This wire made me mad like a little dog on a leash. And now, the contractors hinted that this wire was possibly illegally installed and thus awakened my inner Don Quixote. Like a prince breaking through the thick rose bush brambles in a fairy tale, I started cleaning the air to save the day.

I want to share and untangle the bureaucratic mess for you. It turns out that there are three organizations contributing to the cacophony of lines crisscrossing the urban horizon in Seattle: telephone (Qwest), cable (Comcast), and electric (Seattle City Light). Each has multiple wires stretched from pole to pole and crossing like a demented Cat’s Cradle in between. The power company also has a primary cable that runs from an oversized, Dairy Queen ice cream cone-looking thing to another, to a box that looks like a garbage can hanging high on another pole. All of this, of course, powers our music systems, streams our movies, loads our games. Your great, new, sleek, sexy techno stuff is fueled by a backroom of spaghetti. It is like having NASA equipment powered by a hamster on a wheel. It so lacks elegance and is entirely devoid of creative design imagination.

In the case of our house, there are wires rushing east/west, north/south, and from pole to pole in every direction, strung across streets in diagonal lines that drape through trees like bunting, and wires that parallel larger wires but then take off perpendicularly toward each house like the abrupt goodbye of a bad relationship. Wires are strung side by side like the shaky drawing of an artist with palsy. Wires meet in a bunch like herpes sores. Wires are crumpled together like a landfill or like snakes in a crypt scene in “Indiana Jones”. Wires caw at us with vague mockery and instill doubt. “Clear sky? Nevermore!”, they jeer.

One day, I called the various originating companies and got a recording at each, telling me to put in my account number (which I did not have) and wait for the next available operator, who was another relentless recording. Eventually, I got through to live humans and was proud to be able to succinctly tell why I was calling. However, most thought that I wanted service to my house. A young guy at Qwest was particularly hard to convince. He kept trying to sell me packages and put in new service. Finally, with much persistence, I settled for a partial understanding and got him to agree to send a technician.

My impossible dream of all of the technicians arriving on the same day, empathetically commiserating about my compromised view, and agreeing to put it all underground, for the whole neighborhood, for free! was quickly vanquished. Instead, Qwest sent me on an Alice in Wonderland tour of their phone departments, Seattle City Light sent me on a walkabout, and Comcast sent me on a musak-buffered, Magical Mystery Tour. I spoke with Joe, Joe’s supervisor, Steve, Tim, George, Mike, Scott, Chris, Carole, Beau, Deanna, Amy, Sean, and others. Every person was accommodating, patient, and polite. But none saw more than a pinhole of the whole picture and my wider and more objective observations were unheeded. Although I seemed to be getting somewhere, it was like working a hopelessly complicated maze. I was making progress, but, at any time, I might turn into a dead end and have to start over.

At one point, I had to reschedule a June 29th Comcast appointment and was told that they had already met me and done the work days earlier. This reminded me of a time I called a taxi in San Francisco, waited two hours, called the taxi company a number of times, and was told that they had already picked me up!

I got a Comcast appointment for one day “between 3 and 5”, got to the house on the appointed day by 2:45, waited, and then, when no one arrived, called at 4, at 4:50, and 5. We have all had this experience. The technician was finishing another job that “took longer than expected” and would come over “soon”. I called at 5:30. Eventually, a Comcast truck drove past and I ran after it, shouting. The truck miraculously returned. Still, it was not the right man, but it was a technician — a man who wore eyeglasses that were 1 ¼” thick. (I wondered how someone, certainly almost legally blind, could safely work twenty feet up in the air with high voltage wires.) Then, the original technician arrived. It was after 6 PM, and I had to leave. As I drove off, they were fixing the diagonal “trespassing line” that stretched across our yard to our neighbor’s house.

The next day, I saw that the line now draped across my neighbor’s yard like a string of pearls on a sexy, low hung décolleté. Anyone mowing the neighbor’s lawn would be hung if they weren’t watching carefully. Was this The Revenge of the Comcast Technicians? Oddly, when I saw my neighbor later and pointed out the low-slung line in her yard, she said she hadn’t noticed. As I said, you don’t notice wires until you do.

Throughout the following year, I was on first name terms with the technician in charge of power in our neighborhood. I liked Bill. He agreed with me that the lines were too low and too many. He actually lifted and simplified the lines over which he had control so that cable and telephone lines could also be raised. This helped, and for a while, the last two sets of lines did not crisscross and cast menacing shadows in front of my south-facing windows.

After my hard work, the lost hours of productive, potentially income-producing time, the dragon blood on my sword, and the sweaty efforts of the team of Merry Men I assembled to follow me in my tiny quest, only two lines were removed and one line was moved.

In the years since then, I have retired my weapons while more and more lines have been added in every direction. I know that I sound whinny. I know that I should be happy to have a house, power, and data, despite the twisted compromises. I have seen images of places like Bangladesh where the sky is entirely obliterated by wires and I know that this is the least of their challenges and may actually be a welcome symbol of progress. I know that I should count my blessings. But, like tele-marketing calls and unsolicited emails which are also nothing compared to the Big Picture issues, this is a modern day equivalent to bamboo shoots under the fingernails for me. I think that this obliteration of urban skies is the result of a lack of good general design education in the United States, which if required, would mean that power line installers would have the eyes to see the physical patterns and results of their work.

I have to stop writing now because I see some other windmills to tilt. But you can call me, because my line is installed.

Smash the Screens – a Parent’s Lament (story draft)

(I uncovered this 2009 draft I wrote as I was recently looking through some old files.) 

 

A couple are attending an event at school, watching their kid perform. They are sitting next to another couple, watching their child, who is also performing. They strike up a conversation (they are already acquaintances, not friends, although it is obvious that they like each other and have a lot in common). One couple proudly proclaims that they do not let their kids watch TV and that they do not even have cable. The other couple says that they too do not have cable and that TV watching is only allowed in the house on weekends. The mother of this couple adds though that their youngest child gets around this by watching TV on the computer. The computer is allowed in the bedroom because the child ostensibly uses it for homework. But they find him up watching hulu often; that is, watching TV on the computer.

Switch scenes. The second couple at home.

It is nighttime. The mom is knocking on the kid’s door. The kid is not responding. The mom says “I want to respect your privacy, but it is late at night and we want to go to bed.” The kid says “Just a sec.” It takes considerably more than a sec and the parent has to ask numerous times. Finally, the kid opens the door a little. Agrees to go to bed “soon”. The mother has to ask a few times. The father comes upstairs, knocks on the door at 11:30 or so, and tells the kid firmly that he must go to bed. The kid gets angry but finally agrees. The father goes to bed. About a half hour later, the kid opens the door, turns on the hall light, goes to the bathroom, opens and closes doors loudly, and so on. Goes back into his room and the light is still on when the mother wakes up at 1:30. She knocks on the door. The kid is angry and says that the mother should let him make his own decisions because, after all, she is always saying that she wants him to be more independent and to tell him what to do is hypocritical. The mother pleads “But it is 1:30 in the morning on a school night!”. “Ok”, the child agrees. I will just watch five more minutes. The mom goes back to bed. At 2:30 she is awaken again because the light is on. Finally, at close to three o’clock, the child is asleep. The mom falls asleep and almost immediately is awakened at 6:15, just before her alarm goes off. She looks out the window and sees a few other houses with their lights going on.

Somehow, it turns out that the entire town is having the same issues. The kids like the same shows and do the same things. Even the older child in this family – although not addicted to tv – plays on Facebook and texts all night. The parents in this town are completely strung out. They all look haggard and weak.  It turns out though that this is true in the next town too. In fact, it is true in the state, in the country, all over the world.

Finally, the parents can’t take it anymore and they revolt. They take all of the computers, TVS, and cell phones, and they toss them out. They throw them out while the kids are at school. They grab them out of the kid’s hands. Landfills become piles of electronics. Kids are shell shocked and all they can do is watch, stunned. There is a frenzy of activity as parents take back their lives like revolutionaries in historic wars.

It reaches a peak and then calm persists. The next scene, the original parents are at the kitchen table. They no longer have dark circles under their eyes. The family is with them and they are all playing Boggle. Later, the mom is typing this story on the computer that she keeps hidden in her closet.

 

 

 

Plastics

PLASTICS

I usually sleep reasonably well. But I didn’t sleep well last night. I woke up various times. Probably, this because I got into bed too early as I tend to do these days. I get into bed and I binge watch something on Netflix or Amazon or HBO. Sometimes that is fun. Sometimes though, it makes me feel guilty. I do read books, but I would probably be reading more if it weren’t for the guilty pleasure of binge watching streamed shows. I almost entirely assuage my conscience by reasoning that the shows are clever and well produced. There are a lot of good shows available now. And I do need a break from politics and responsibilities. But the guilt mostly comes from the fact that I long to PRODUCE more than consume. I know that the clock is ticking.

But that isn’t what I mean to talk about.

I did not sleep well last night because I am concerned about our planet. At one point, I woke up and thought about how I use plastics in my life. And I thought about how I might improve myself. I want to “check myself before I wreck myself” (paraphrasing a Zach Galifianakis character in a boy flick). I am taking stock again. I wonder if it would help the planet if each of us took a moment to reflect upon this.

Although I have almost entirely stopped using plastic bags from stores, and my dry cleaner has been handing out re-useable covers to protect the clothing in transit (I purchase fewer and fewer clothes that need dry cleaning anyway), and I no longer buy facial products with microbeads, and although stores no longer automatically put things in plastic bags, etc… there is still a lot of plastic in my life, much of which has added up over the years, and much of which still winds up in landfills, waste-to-energy plants, or even possibly in oceans and in the air.

Plastics can be helpful as it lightweights products in transit which means that there is less fossil fuel used to transport products, and it also helps protect certain products from damage or destruction, before or after purchase, so that there is less overall waste. It has made great medical and technological advancements possible. But, I would like to use less plastic because I like the earth and the animals on it and I would like to be part of a solution, not a problem. Yet, even as a relatively conscientious consumer (who tries to consume less and better), I find that I cannot yet avoid using plastics as they show up without my control in products I consume.

What really bothers me is when wilderness-product companies have the smallest of plastic hooks holding their tags to their clothing, since these are companies that build their identity on promoting that they are ecologically minded. And it does erode confidence when a cosmetic company professes to care about your skin or health but then uses one-use plastic as the container for their products, and worse, use multiple polymers of plastic with plungers, for instance, that cannot be recycled. It undermines their message, at the least.

So, as I said, I am taking stock. I wonder if we all take stock and then maybe communicate with companies, could we produce and use less plastic, keeping it out of our water and air and the animals who need both? Here is a list of plastics I use.

Toothpaste tubes
Moisturizer tubes
Toothbrushes
Makeup holders/containers and brushes
Toilet seat and lid
Parts of this laptop
Coffee maker parts
Food containers (the containers I use and reuse to store food, like Tupperware)
Materials in certain clothing (makes them more stretchy)
Telephones
Remote controls
Occasional ziplock bags
Newspaper bags
The little parts for your nose on eyeglasses
Food containers (the containers they came in, like cottage cheese or yogurt)
Milk containers (or even the little spouts of the non-plastic cartons)
Bandaids
The patch inside me for the hernia from years ago
Hairbrush, comb, shampoo and other hair product bottles
Credit cards
phone case (and parts?)
Plastic bags to cover clothing in storage or from the cleaners
Packaging wrapped around certain foods at the store
Plastic bags and containers that I am given with take-out food
Containers/Packaging that come with products (molded plastic that is only for display and pre-purchase use)
Pieces and pieces of hardware used for furniture, pens, key holders…
Parts of my house: radiant flooring tubes, PVC pipes, parts of lighting, wiring, etc.
Fitbit parts
Clock parts
Connectors on clothing tags (hold tags to garments until purchase)
Technology wire covers
Fiber optics
Car parts

What about you?

In this regard, there is little we have control over other than not accepting a bag at the store, or by buying in bulk, or trying to avoid buying anything plastic, and certainly avoiding anything obviously overpackaged. Perhaps the next step is to pressure stores by leaving packaging at the store for them to deal with (and then they can pressure the manufacturer)? Any other ideas?