Thursday, December 25, 2008

White Christmas

It's still a little dark, but heavenly....
Merry Christmas!

Nothing Seems Too Tender in San Francisco's Underworld

Disclaimer: Some readers may find this post offensive.

I don't go out much anymore. I used to love to hit a bar on a Friday night to open the weekend, maybe even catch some live music, or better yet, get some dancing in. When I moved to Alaska, where people actually smoked in bars, any inkling towards nightlife came to a screeching halt.

Nowadays, I tend to find most bars deeply depressing. Particularly under the judgement of daylight, these smoky-sweet dungeons are akin to wandering the Vegas black-jack tables long after those who still have money in their pockets have gone home, when the joyful shrieks of a winner's bride have twisted into a quiet, but sharp, "Honey, no!" as he pulls a still-sparkling diamond from her finger. Each town has it's hole. When I was in college in San Luis Obispo, it was McCarthy's, famous for it's regulars who settled into their assigned chairs while students rushed past it's smoked-glass window to chemistry and calculus classes. Here in Homer, we have a few such watering holes, places where sitting in the wrong seat up at the bar might make folks a bit uncomfortable.

For whatever reason, all I wanted when I arrived at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco was a drink. Just a beer, and not in my room. I'd arrived on a red-eye from Anchorage and was leaving early in the morning to attend a Permaculture class a couple of hours north of the city. Old college friends had long since left the crushing expense of San Francisco, and I hadn't yet used the couch-surfing network, so I used some travel points to book a "low-budget, upper end" room in the heart of the city. It was a Holiday Inn, yet it had no bar. Not yet dissuaded, I searched the web for a spot I could pop out to for a drink.

It had been nearly two decades since I'd spent any time in San Fran, and even back then, I knew a few districts quite well, and others, not at all. The Holiday Inn was in the Financial District (BART station proximity was a must), but typical for city business districts, it was absolutely dead at night, even on a Friday. My search results turned up the typical meat market, grind fests popular with the 20-somethings, but one odd entry caught my eye: The 21 Club.

I have a confession. If you hadn't guessed, I am a voyeur. I am and always have been fascinated by society's fringes. Not just watching from the edges, but interacting with those at its heart. I've chatted up more than my share of prostitutes, pan-handlers, and street people who overnight in the forested parks of the city. And in Vegas? I really did watch a man pull his wife's ring from her finger as she tried to muffle her enraged protests. Once, an old boyfriend and I spent the night tucked into a window box in the heart of San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, because we couldn't pay for a hostel. I can't imagine doing this alone, but within the safety of our twosome, we were both fascinated by the seething life in the restless night.

That's why this review of the 21 Club drew me in:
When I contemplate suicide, I go drinking here. The bar tender is a jolly ol' guy who pours a mean stiff drink. The patrons are surly, belligerent, full-time alcoholics. When you sit there and you're drinking a greyhound that taste like it could pull the the paint off a muni, watching young girls hawk rocks to toothless men, wearing hospital bands, while a woman squats between a Buick Skylark and Caprice Classic to either pee, or base some caine, or both, all with the sound track off some angry vet arguing with some professional drunk about which Cat Stevens song to play on the #%^@ jukebox, you know you're alive, and it feels great.

The 21 Club was on Turk Street, about 8 city blocks from the hotel. It was 1 o'clock in the morning. I was alone. One reviewer noted that it was a really, really good idea to take a cab there, and tip heavily to have it come back for you.

In the end, I didn't go. The shrieks from the angel on my shoulder pierced a little too loudly for me to ignore.

But I did head that way the next morning. I had a few hours before Jodi, the gal who'd offered me a ride to the class, would pick me up. At about 9 in the morning, I ambled toward Turk Street.

I love the rapid shift in microcosm that defines deep urban living. It's as if someone forgot to install the sliding glass doors that separate the city's extremes. From the Financial District, I roamed through Little Saigon before I landed in the Tenderloin. There was no transition: straight from the warm scent of Pho to the rancid odor of day-after alcohol, the Tenderloin offers no welcome and asks no forgiveness. I'd never heard of this district, but it was evident that it was home to the city's rejected, dejected, disposable, and disposed.

Liquor stores sported bold-print signs in 72-point font that made the message clear: NO ALCOHOL SALES BEFORE 8 AM! NO EXCEPTIONS! A man wrestled a woman's purse from her shoulder. At first she resisted, then she cuddled close to him, surrendering, nuzzling into his neck while he took what he wanted from her bag. People were everywhere, scattered and battered along the sidewalks. Clusters of men passed brown paper bags, or cigarettes, or a sandwich wrapped in white deli paper, back and forth. A woman touched up her make-up in a side-view mirror. A couple, arm in arm, pleaded with each other, "No you do it, baby" and "But I did last time, baby." The pulse of people pushed me through the crowded sidewalks.

I spied a woman in a bus shelter across the street. She was frighteningly skinny, a mere x-ray of the human form, shoulders, hips, and knees. Her pants, probably a Size 2, looked way too big. She looked like she was screaming. I crossed the street to go over to her, but as I got closer, I heard nothing. Her mouth was fully open, her lips stretched tight above the tops of her teeth, gums exposed, a silent shriek, nearly splitting her bruised face. She had an outer layer on, jeans, but they were down around her ankles.

"Are you OK?" I asked. She merely swayed back and forth, sitting on the bench, the jeans binding her feet. "Are you OK?" I repeated. She looked at me, but made no indication there was anything she wanted, or at least not that I could give her. This close, I could see her split lips, small spots of crusted blood at the edges, and her thickly-coated tongue. Her eyes looked wild, but it was probably because she couldn't close her mouth. God, it must hurt. "Well," I said, "I hope you're OK."

I walked on, feeling completely useless. Why hadn't I at least offered to help her pull her pants up? She probably couldn't look down with her mouth stuck open that way. Was it lock-jaw? And why were her pants down? What on earth had happened to her? I couldn't stop thinking about her, but I continued on.

I found the 21 Club, right on the corner, it's large glass windows just as one reviewer had described them, eyes into the city. It was open, but I no longer wanted to go in. It would have been enough reality in the wee hours, watching the darkness draw people in, but I wasn't up for it in the daylight. Next door, a liquor store was doing a booming business by 9:30 AM, and in the two or three minutes that I stood near the store front, I overheard a heated exchange between a customer and a man I presumed to be the owner, something to do with credit. Tough place to do business....

A few doors down from the liquor store, I passed a clear-glass fronted shop. Its window was packed - packed - with piles of books and magazines, stacked to the ceiling. The front door was open, so I went in. There was barely room to walk through the maze of piles. Towers of books teetered on the dusty floor, and several stacks of magazines had spilled across it. It looked like they had been there a very long time.

"Well, dear, this place isn't on your Greyhound Tour of the city. Aren't you a few blocks out of your way?" The shop owner - an oddity in this neighborhood in plaid pants, button-down sweater, and thick, black-rimmed glasses - eyed me across a stack on what I supposed was the check-out counter, long ago, before it, too, had become home to yet more scattered books and magazines. "What are you looking for?"

"If I told you, could you find it in here?" I was tempted to toss out a title.

"It doesn't matter. I'd find something you want." Dismissing me, he went back to arranging something amidst the stacks. Someone wandered in, clearly a "regular" in the neighborhood. "Get outta here!" the shop-owner yelled, pushing the man right back out. "Geez, these poeple wander in here like it's a public latrine or something."

"Maybe you should close the door," I offered.

"I wanted the door shut, it'd be shut!" Ok.

I actually found a couple of titles that struck my interest, Aldous Huxley's The Genius and the Goddess and Sam Brumbaugh's Goodbye, Goodness, a title that seemed particularly poignant at the moment. I paid for my books and went back out into the noise and stench of Friday night's morning after.

Definitions for tenderloin include the tenderest cut of the loin, composed of the Psoas major muscle along the central spine, and a city district known for vice and graft. Interestingly, the psoas is a critical factor in our ability to walk upright.

It's so easy to forget that people who barely survive exist, when I live in the quiet, snow-blanketed peace of my neighborhood, but I know these elements are around me. More subtly perhaps, but they're there. Anchorage has Fourth Avenue, and walking through the city's parks - or even outside a friend's back yard - I find people tucked into cardboard, rolled into wool blankets, and shivering through the night, who somehow manage to wake in the morning. Homer's discarded are tucked somewhere I've yet to tread, but they, too, are here, perhaps even camped within the woods and hills that I snowshoe.

Economists tell us that the world cannot take care of everyone, that someone must always fall through the cracks so that the rest of us can live in relative ease. That has always sounded like a cop-out to me, the voice of comfort refusing to venture outside it's own personal beam of sunlight. Walking through the Tenderloin was disturbing to me, but it was also a community, filled with people who are connected by the tentacles of the city. Though the image of the silently shrieking woman is with me still, I was looking forward to Permaculture class, where we'd explore solutions to need on many different levels.

I filled my cup with coffee from the liquor store, took one swallow, and tossed it in the curb, my gut still curdling. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered in my hair as I threaded my way back through dim-sum parlors and barber shops to catch my ride on Market Street.

I'm afraid I took no photos of the Tenderloin during my visit, but I hope you'll get a feeling for the place from this guy's slide show I found online. The site owner says the photo collage was inspired by Rick Smolan, but I can't find out the name of the person who actually put this together.

In a similar vein, this excellent piece by my friend Adam Burke, an independent radio producer, wanders a level deeper into terrain like the Tenderloin, but that exists out of sight of the city, in the subterranean homeless community of Las Vegas's storm drains.

And on a more positive note, the permaculture principle that states "the problem is the solution" is exemplified here in this man's invention, the EDAR (Everyone Deserves a Roof)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Looking Back to Move Forward

Every owner-builder I know sings the same mantra: If I had it all to do over again, I'd do everything differently. Don't get me wrong - I love my home, and am very thankful for it, especially as "the American Dream" eludes so many. Still, it's extremely hard to learn so many new techniques and realize that you could have done everything so much better. Not bigger, not fancier...but better.

Some of you know that I attended an intensive building workshop this summer at Solar Energy International (SEI) in Paonia, Colorado. Our primary instructor, Laura Bartels, is an amazing straw bale builder and the energy behind Green Weaver, her design, consulting, and education business in Carbondale. Laura had just returned from our nation's capital, where she had been working with Builders without Borders to build an eco-friendly information kiosk at the US Botanical Garden, and deliver free presentations and hands-on workshops to get these ideas out to the public.

Assisting Laura, we had Doni Kiffmeyer and Kaki Hunter, a husband-wife design-build team who specialize in earth bag buildings in the tradition of Cal Earth's Nader Khalili, who passed this year. Between our three instructors, we learned the age-old techniques of earth-bag building (1st photo), adobe brick making (2nd photo), straw bale techniques, mixing plaster (3rd photo), and making cob (4th photo). The common element in all of these techniques? Earth, of course. This area of study is often called earthen architecture, or earthen building, which is more accurate than "natural" building.

You might wonder why trees are absent from this curriculum. It's not that timber building is un-natural. Done correctly, it can even be sustainable. For example, the spruce bark beetle plague of the Kenai Peninsula converted miles of open forest to fields of dead conifers. As the beetle worked its way southwest, the lush and verdant spruce forests that defined the region turned to a rust-red brush-stroke across the horizon. These beetle-kill spruce have provided the lumber to build our homes, and the BTUs to warm them. I used the beetle-kill timber to side my home (5th photo). But with the best of that wood used and only the rotten remaining, procuring lumber from Canada or the Lower 48 is costly on multiple levels.

The benefits of working with earthen materials are myriad, but I most appreciated that they were local, and that I could use some of these techniques with the very soil on my own land in Alaska. For example, my property consists of a shallow clay lens, and there is lots of sand nearby, too. If I ever get around to building my root cellar, I could use the clay I excavate to fill earth-bags for the root cellar walls. With plywood at $50 a sheet, and concrete blocks at $15 each, using my own soil to build the walls sounds pretty sweet.

There is a building trend sweeping the western states and parts around the world, but there's not a whole lot about it that's new. In the US, straw bale dates back to 1886, with a one-room school house in Bayard, Nebraska. Cob is known back to at least the 13th century in England. Then there's adobe: California's magnificent missions, Chapel San Miguel in New Mexico, which was built in 1620, and the magnificent towers of South Yemen. So, the natural building "trend" is nothing new, it is simply a rebirth. Check out this tour of natural buildings here in the USA.

What's particularly tricky about working with these earthen materials is that there is no magic formula. Everyone wants the perfect recipe, but there is none. It's unique to each soil type, and that goes beyond merely the moisture, sand, clay, and gravel content. Each of those elements can have different binding properties based upon the parent material (like silica), the grain size and shape (round? angular?), the elasticity of the clay component, and a variety of other properties that define how well it binds. So, there's no way around testing your soil and experimenting to get just the right consistency. What's the right consistency? Alas, that comes with experience, that magic "je ne sais quois" that only the trained hand can detect.

There's a trick when it comes to working with earthen building materials if you live in cold climates. Earthen buildings breathe. The whole mechanism by which they keep mildew from forming and critters from embedding is by moisture transfer - a concept that is completely foreign to modern building science for high-latitude regions. In colder places, buildings are designed to be very tight, to keep heat in, and to keep "glaciers" from forming on the roof and eaves. Our buildings can be so tight that indoor air quality problems arise from the lack of ventilation. Vapor barriers are built into the system to prevent any moisture movement. Of course, if the vapor barrier fails, it's just as likely that you're locking moisture into your structure. Tight, vapor-barrier construction conflicts directly with the "breathable" quality of earthen materials. If you want to build an earthen addition to your home, or add a straw bale skin to increase your R-value, you'll mate two incompatible systems - one that depends upon zero moisture transfer, and one that relies on nearly complete moisture transfer. So for now, we cannot mix these techniques without taking on a tangible risk for rot, mold, mildew and, ultimately, failure.

Oh, if I had it all to do again.....

So for 5 days, we learned the inner science of clays, plasters, coatings, pigments, stability, emerging building codes, ensuring breathability, securing bales, load-bearing versus non-load bearing techniques, and more. I left with so many ideas, and the hope that I can somehow build an earth-bag greenhouse on to the southern aspect of my home. If not that, I at least hope to build a few cob benches, like these whimsical creations in Toronto's Dufferin Park. And at City Bike in Portland, Oregon. And the inspiring design flexibility and creativity that these techniques encourage, as shown in this video tour of cob features.

Check out this cool video, where natural building architect Scott Kelly walks us through a state-of-the-art efficient, low embodied energy office building.

It's hard not to be excited about this trend in perfecting and updating these techniques that, though not quite lost, seem to have been hiding from us for the past few generations.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Road Less Traveled, part II

NOTE: be sure to read Part I first.

The delicious Eel RIver passes through California's ancient redwoods and eventually feeds the Pacific. It's shallow enough to dive to its sandy bottom, and deep enough to jump in from the banks. It's swift enough to enjoy a mildly vigorous upstream swim, but calm enough to simply float downstream to another town. Rejuvenated by a long swim in the peace of the river, I was ready to get back on the road. I called Bijou to join me and we headed back up the bank. As instructed, I stopped just below the ridge and called out "Blind man! Blind man!"

It was silent but for the occasional snap of a bullet in the distance. "BLIND MAN! BLIND MAN!" I yelled.

"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
The call ricocheted through the woods.

The process repeated itself, until it seemed each member of the battalion had ceased fire. The familiar voice of the group leader called out "OK! Clear! Come on up!"

I had just popped over the ridge, when the unmistakable zing of a bullet whipped through the tree tops. I just caught Bijou's collar as she pounced back towards the river.

"@!#%!@!" he screamed, "I said hold your fire, @^#%!^&"
"Sorry..." someone replied, feebly.
"Are you ready NOW?"

"OK, CLEAR! Come on up!"
"Are you sure?" I ventured.
"We're sure, gal, come on up."

Cautiously, I peered into the woods as I stepped onto the trail, but I saw no one. With Bijou in tow, I bolted all the way back up the trail to my truck, calling "thank you" as I ran.

Safely back in the truck, I sat at the wheel for a moment, shook my head, kicked the ignition, and left Redway behind as I continued down the Redwood Highway. "What a trip."

Several days later, I picked up a hitch-hiker outside Ukiah, a few hours north of San Francisco. He looked young, a little bit dirty, but harmless. He was a bag-head, as a friend describes the hippie boys who tuck all of their hair into woven wool, sack-like hats.

His name was Scott, and coincidentally, he was from Redway.

"Oh my God, I have got to tell you this crazy thing that happened to me." I reiterated my Eel River swimming saga.

"I'm not surprised," Said Scott. "I've only heard talk of those guys, they're something of a rural legend. I believe you stumbled upon the Humboldt County militia." Scott went on to describe a group of Humboldt County locals who believe that the time of a resource-based ground war is imminent. They fear food and water shortages that will send a surge of the urban masses up toward the relatively plentiful water, soil, and land in the redwoods. The militia has plans to counter the assault by taking out all access routes from the surrounding areas. You know, blowing up highway bridges, blocking waterways, and protecting air space. Huh. It sounded to me like the stuff of rural legend, but then again, I've heard folks in Wasilla, Delta Junction and the outskirts of Fairbanks at least SPEAK the same sentiments - I'm not sure if anyone is acting on them. Just a quick web search on the concept of a Humboldt militia yielded some pretty out-there info, such as this futurist's vision of the Humboldt Nation.

"You don't understand," Scott said. "California is at war right now. Between the pot growers and the corporate farmers and the folks who just want to raise a family, there is a lot of competition for resources here."

I started paying a little closer attention. For example, in Hopland, CA, a town formerly known for it expansive fields of hops, but that is now home to extensive vineyards that serve the upscale tasting scene, I noticed hand-made signs posted in the grocery, bar, and coffee shop. The notices were pushing a proposition to repeal Proposition 215, which had essentially legalized possession of up to 25 mature plants for personal use. Locals were rethinking its legalization, as problems arose, including the life-threatening issue of water use in the parched region.

A few days later, I was traveling a segment along the coast and picked up one of those fascinating left-end of the dial pirate radio stations. It was a call-in program, and yet again, coincidence ruled. The discussion over the repeal of Prop 215 was getting ugly. Callers, who seemed to consist largely of those who supported the decriminalization of pot, were furious, and wanted - yikes! - government intervention. One man raged about how his well had gone dry from the increased water use within the aquifer. A mother seethed that her children couldn't walk to the school bus anymore, as their previously small town became a seasonal host to 'unsavory" workers hired to harvest the pot. One caller started a whole string of angry listeners with a discussion about the Drug Enforcement Agency presence in Eureka. "They're telling us they're here for training, but there are like, 100s of these guys here! I mean, we need help, yes, and we want help, but our town has become a police state!"

Only hours later, I was passing through Eureka. Low and behold, I was stuck behind a large, UPS-style box truck, government green, with the DEA seal clearly printed on the back door. Whoa. I flipped on the local radio station in time to catch the news of a DEA raid somewhere in Humboldt County. One witness who lived in the neighborhood where the raid occurred decried the effort. "We're a family, we live here. They screamed at my wife, they scared my kids, and no one would tell us what was going on. This is NOT helping things."

A couple months later, I read of a raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in Culver City.

Holy cow, I thought. Scott was right: there WAS a ground war going on in Cali.

So maybe the idea of a local militia wasn't as out there as I had thought.

I didn't know what to make of it. What I do know is that, though I saw nothing in the larger media, something was going on in Mendo and Humboldt this summer and people were getting twitchy. I could certainly see how "stealing" someone's water, truly or just perceived, could be intuited as an assault. Yet the men I met at the Eel River were kind, friendly, and made me feel safe. Seriously - I felt absolutely no threat from them. Could these same men really be capable of rallying a ground war to defend what they see as rightly theirs? I don't think I'd want to be the one on the front to find out.

The Road Less Traveled, part I

Caveat: I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted, but I’ve decided to throw chronology to the wind and simply post events both current and since my last post, and try to be more habitual. Thanks for your tolerance!

A wrong turn so often takes us down a road we probably wouldn't have chosen but that, once there, we're glad we didn't bypass.

Some of you know that I took a 2-month long road trip this summer. It didn’t go unnoticed that, after living in Alaska for 16 years, I finally decided to make the pilgrimage down the Al-Can during the record highest fuel prices the US has seen. There’s no need to get into my motivation, but it was an excellent opportunity to collect a complete set of fuel economy data for Ellie May, my trusty road-trip steed. A 1994, 4-WD, extended cab Toyota pick-up truck, complete with beater camper shell ($35!), and loaded to the hilt with myself, living-out-of-the-truck gear, the dog, and the occasional passenger, I was amazed at how she performed against her industry rating of 19 mpg hwy/16 mpg city. Check out the data.

I’d been on the road for nearly two weeks during a searing heat wave that had no intention of easing it’s grip on the parched earth of southern Oregon and Northern California. Those of you who know this area of the Pacific Coast realize that it’s beauty is typically shrouded in dense fog and its cliff-lined shores are pummeled by winds that turn a day of beach-going into an inadvertent beauty treatment as the sand sloughs any exposed skin layer into the sea. Yet, even the coast was burning with 90°F+ (32°C+) temperatures. As I continued southbound, the highway wandered inland where the heat intensified.

The sea-foam green body of the Eel River winds back and forth beneath Highway 101, aka the Redwood Highway, and it teased me with its siren call to cool off in its luscious waters. Ah, yes. But each time I spied an access to the river, I had already passed the turn-off. Getting a bit impatient, I elected to hop off at the next exit, regardless of its name or destination. As luck had it, I spied a side road complete with a group of trucks parked at what certainly appeared to be a trailhead.

Towel – check. Swim trunks – check. Water – check. Dog – check. I nearly danced down the path toward the river, delighting in the refreshing calm to come. Suddenly, the staccato shout of gunfire erupted from somewhere deep in the trees. Kids with toy guns, my immediate assumption, was dispelled as a shower of leaf debris fell around me. I stopped – “Hello?”

“Blind man! Blind man! Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” echoed throughout the woods. “Hello!” I shouted again. One by one, a small group of men appeared from the woods, dressed in camo gear and eerie black combination hood-face shields, and assembled around me. One came forward and lifted his face shield. The others followed suit, though they stayed back a bit, forming a semi-circle around me. They were adults but for a couple of young boys, that were maybe 10 or 11 years old.

“Uh, I’m looking for the river, but I guess I took the wrong path.”

“Are you aware that we’re firing live 300 meter per second rounds?” the group leader demanded. Don’t quote me on that velocity, but that’s what I thought he said. And no, I wasn’t.

“Well, I suspected something was up when the leaf shrapnel fell on me. Look, it’s hot, I’ drove down here from Alaska, and I just wanted to cool off in the river, but it’s no problem, I’ll just go back the way I came - ”

Suddenly friendly, the group leader interrupted me. He explained that the Eel River was right down the path, not 5 minutes away, the waters were safe, and that I should go on down. He explained that I would be perfectly safe down there. It was extremely unlikely that I would encounter anyone else (no kidding?), and that I should enjoy my swim. Then he described our safety plan.

“When you’re ready to come back, just be sure you wait right below the top of the river bank and call out ‘blind man, blind man!’ Don't move until you hear me yell ‘clear, come up!’ before you come back on the trail.” One of the men had brought out a cooler they had stashed somewhere, and he offered me a pop and a pork sandwich. Though I declined, I appreciated their hospitality.

I admit I was a bit wary, but Alaska is a gun state, and I didn’t feel threatened by these guys at all. I just never expected to come upon a scene like this in California. Wasilla? Kenny Lake? Sure, but Humboldt County?

Thus briefed, Bijou the Wonder Dog and I skipped down the path and off to the peace of the river where, surprisingly, the gentle flow of the river buffered any sounds from the highway in the distance or from my personal guard unit in the forest above. To be continued….