Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Flattery of Anonymous Followers - Part II

From time to time, I like to pause with the quotidian accounts of life at Venice Beach to consider the nature of writing and blogging itself. Especially when, like today, the weather has again turned cold, nasty and rainy, which means Alma and I shall be trekking to the mall for our daily walk.

I happened to take a look at the blog's statistics this morning and was struck by how worldwide the audience has become. There have been several visitors from Russia, from Slovenia and from Malaysia (among other places) since I began. It is so flattering that people from these different parts of the world are spending time with my words. I stop occasionally to wonder about what these visitors from distant lands find in my blog that brings them to it. I cannot believe that my words alone explain the draw. Perhaps it is Alma's wonderful beach photography that pulls them to the blog. Perhaps it is the mythic lure of California. Perhaps some combination of all the above. Or perhaps these foreign visitors merely skim the blog's contents before heading off to the proverbial greener pastures. (The statistics function on does not indicate how long a given visitor remained on the blog or, more importantly, whether they actually read any of the words.) Still, a delicious thrill steals through me when I think that someone from Denmark or Australia has read one or more of my posts.

I do wonder what Thoreau would have made of the technology of blogging, had he lived to see it. Methinks today that Thoreau would be one of those we see pushing a shopping cart down the boulevard, if he were not safely ensconced in some sinecure in academia. Today's world would have even less use for Thoreau than his own world did. That said, the universal demoratic quality of blogging would mean that Thoreau could get his message out to the world, provided he had access to the internet even at a public library. Thorea did view himself as something of an evangelical for his worship of nature, so I think he would probably not have completely disapproved of the blog as a means to publish to an ever-wider audience.

Foreign visitors notwithstanding, the vast majority of my readership appears to hail from the United State and from Canada. Even there, though, I know for a fact that one of my readers lives in landlocked Kansas. Perhaps she feels the same lure of the sea that I feel, the lure of the waves that drew me out here from the midwest 16 years ago, never to leave. As for my other American visitors, I can only wonder at what they find of interest in this humble blog. I welcome any comments any visitor wishes to leave and will attempt to address any relevant concerns raised therein in future posts.

To my readers, though, I thank you most sincerely. It means the world (no pun intended) to me to have you reading my words. Even though we may never meet in person, even though I may never even know your names, merely knowing you are out there and paying attention makes it all worthwhile.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Seagulls, Birdbrains and Freedom

Alma and I returned to our beloved beach yesterday for the third day. Even though rain did not fall while we were walking, the skies were mostly cloudy and the weather was cold and windy. Not the most pleasant of walks. Added to this, the run-off from storms of the week earlier had left a thin residue of garbage at the high-water mark. About the only saving grace was that the solid clouds were broken up at the far horizon so that, when the sun finally set at 4:50, we saw a beautiful sunset.

While we were walking north of the Washington Boulevard pier to the small breakwater a 1/2 mile north, I noticed that an enormous number of seagulls had congregated on the beach. The weather was so cold and windy that even the gulls seemed a bit intimidated by it. We try to walk in such a way that we disturb the gulls as little as possible. But yesterday, they had occupied the stretch of beach upon which we walked and so our path intersected where they stood.

The wind was so strong that when one of the gulls would start flying, it would almost hover in place and gradually drift lower until it made a soft landing in the sand. Really quite elegant and the gulls seemed to achieve this hovering effect with very little discernible effort. The gull simply extends both wings straight out from its torso with legs extended beneath it. Not the prettiest of sights but. again, the gulls' sprezzatura is noteworthy.

One of the gulls had what I think was a small rubber superball. It would climb about 30 feet into the air and drop the ball onto the beach, after which the gull would dive upon the bouncing ball and re-capture it in its beak. This particular gull's efforts had drawn the attention of a few other gulls who, no doubt thinking the super ball a sea creature of some sort, kept trying to poach the superball from it.  Result: a lot of squawking and pecking at one another's bums and feathers.

Which led me to point out these bird-brains to Alma. We both laughed at their stupidity. But then I had a realization. Alma pointed out that these birds do not have bosses and they can pretty much do whatever they want when they want. Their food needs seem pretty much handled by the food refuse from the beach communities. They are beholden to no one.

If these birds are so stupid, how come they don't have to work and we (I) do? In other words, who are the real bird brains? Bears thinking about, I would say.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 2010

The torrential rains we had been having tapered off on Thursday, such that Alma and I were able to return to the beach on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The weather appears today to be returning to its inclement nature, but I think we will get one more day in today.

Alma and I never did finish the tree about which I posted earlier. We simply ran out of time and each leaf was taking me about 30 minutes to finish. With some 44 leaves that would have meant close to 24 hours straight working only on the tree. So Alma has moved it back into the art studio to rethink the project and perhaps re-purpose it.

I did learn from it that there's a reason why I am not a plastic artist. I lack the patience for the detail work. I sure enjoyed getting to experience what artists and craftspeople have to go through and learned enough to ratify that it's not for me. Strange because I really enjoy the painstaking nature of cooking, but for some reason, working on arts and crafts projects makes me want to take up smoking again.

I hope all my readers, both regular and occasional, had a good holiday season this year. Alma and I are getting ready to leave now to go down to the beach, so I will be resuming my regular commentaries shortly.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Tree Tradition

What do you get when you combine 7 inches of rain, a writer, an artist and cabin fever? Well, the jury is still out, but this writer has been dipping his toes into the fathomless depths of artistic creation this week. The weather has been so dreary and, after a minor squabble over my lack of sufficient holiday spirit, Alma suggested I think of something, anyhing, to make Christmas better this year. Being a Spartan in the land of plenty, I pretty much have everything I need or could want. So the only thing I could think of to make Christmas better was for me to help Alma make this year's tree.

And now the back-story: Alma is allergic to conifers, so we can never have a real tree in our place. In fact, she is so allergic that merely driving by one of the ubiquitous Christmas tree lots will set her off in a fit of wheezing and teary-eyed misery. Whence has developed our one and only Christmas tradition -- each year, Alma thinks up and then makes a new tree. One year she fashioned a tree completely out of origami. Another year she made one from coat hangers that she unbent and then rebent to form the shape of a tree.

Bottom line: it's always fun as Christmas approaches to speculate about what Alma will come up with for her tree. This year, as might be expected, Alma came up with the idea of a beach-themed tree that would use recycled materials and materials we had found during our walks at the beach. By the time I offered to help, Alma already had the frame of the tree created from wire and celluclay:

Near the base of the tree, a terra cotta flower pot that Alma has had for years, you can see some of the leaves which are cut from clear plastic lids that one gets in the containers at the grocery store when purchasing food items from the deli. The first thing I had to do was trace the pattern of a leaf on a piece of clear plastic and then cut the leaf out of the plastic. Actually, one of these deli lids had enough surface area for four such leaves. So I began with five deli lids and traced four leaves per lid, so that I cut out a total of 20 leaves.

Then the real fun began, because the leaves had to be wavy but the plastic had begun as rigid sheets. So once the leaves were cut from the plastic, Alma used a lighter to heat each one just enough so she could mould it into a shape of 3 right-angled folds, so that the two-dimensional plastic cut out transformed into a three-dimensional piece. Next we had to stand at the stove holding a piece of wire over a burner until the wire was glowing red hot. We then inserted the tip of the wire piece through the plastic, in effect drilling (or melting) holes in the plastic, so that Alma could attach each leaf to a branch by using florists wire threaded through the holes.

That was Monday. Fast forward to yesterday. We started the day by making ornaments from sea shells. Alma had collected a massive number of sea shells of all sizes and shapes over the summer months. Alma had decided that we would use glitter glue to decorate the shells in a holiday motif. Here is where the first SNAFU surfaced.

Alma had intended that we write holiday messages like "Peace" and "Joy" on the surfaces of the larger shells, using the colored glitter glue. However, after Alma had used the green glitter glue pen to write "PEACE" on the surface of one of the larger shells, she observed that the glue started to run down the shell, so that the writing became almost indecipherable. It became evident that these glitter glue pens (made by a company called 'RoseArt'), while perfectly appropriate for small children who lack a lot of manual dexterity, are not well suited for any type of fine detail work. The glue tends to come out in spurts and gobs and it does not matter how much or little pressure one applies to the glue pen. So we were reduced to decorating the shells in rather abstract fashion with green and silver glitter glue. The shell-ornaments turned out absolutely gorgeous -- the angels of Christmas must have been watching over us -- but without the written messages that Alma had originally intended they convey.

I felt like I was rediscovering my inner child while using these glitter glue pens. There is something about getting dirty and making a mess in a controlled setting that creates warm fuzzy feelings, even if the project threatens to consume our entire living space at times. And the glitter glue that was stuck to my fingers when we were done decorating the shells peeled and washed right off. In fact, this whole process has allowed me to re-connect with the child in me who used to be able to create without fear of being mocked or belittled.

While I was finishing up the shells, Alma was attaching the remaining leaves to the tree and starting to celluclay its branches so we could hang ornaments from the branches. Without the celluclay on them, the wire branches tend to droop precariously under the weight of the ornaments. This introduced a second SNAFU, however, because it takes time for celluclay to dry and harden. We tried to compensate by placing the tree in front of our gas fireplace in hopes that the heat from it would hasten the drying process. Alma also tried using her portable hair dryer to see if she could spot dry especially problematic areas. However, I am not sure the drying and hardening process is happening as quickly as Alma wishes it.

The last thing I did before going to bed last night was to prepare the top piece -- a starfish cut from the same plastic as the leaves -- by using a glue and acrylic mix to paste white tissue paper to each side of it.  Actually, I did only one side and Alma finished up the second side and cleared a couple of my blemishes.

We still have a lot of work to do and it will be touch and go whether the tree is ready by Christmas. We now have to apply the same tissue-paper treatment that I used on the starfish top piece to each of the 44 leaves, so it will be a busy next couple days. But hey, it's only Wednesday, right? Alma has grown so vexed with the complexity of this tree that she swears this will be the last one she ever does. Actually, though, the process of making the tree may constitute our second or even third Christmas tradition. Because it seems that every year we have a minor or major squabble about my lack of Christmas spirit -- fortunately, we seem to get past the squabble before Christmas Day gets here -- and every year Alma swears she will never do another tree. But after enough months have gone by, Alma always returns to making a new tree. But hey, what's Christmas without at least a few traditions? Traditions, like beauty, rest in the eye of the beholder.

Here is a picture of Christmas Tree 2010 as of 9:00 a.m. PST December 22

 Stay tuned for further photographic updates!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bad Weather is Here

If you have not been following Southern California's weather recently, we have been experiencing very heavy rainfall and cold temperatures. I would estimate that in the past 4 days we have gotten more than 5" of rain. And they say the worst is still on its way and will arrive in the next couple days. This may be the wettest winter I have ever personally seen in Los Angeles.

So Alma and I have not walked at the beach for the past few days (since last Thursday). We returned to the Westside Pavillion on Saturday, went nowhere yesterday and went back to the Westfield Culver City mall today for our walks.

Given that this past weekend was the final weekend before Christmas, I was not surprised to see activity at the mall picking up a bit. There was definitely more foot traffic and it took quite awhile to get a parking space. But I don't think that one weekend of high activity will rescue the economy. It's way too little way too late. The Atlantic Monthly has an article whose title ("Retail Sales Are Back, but the Jobs Aren't") suggests that businesses' revenues are starting to recover, even though unemployment continues to stagnate at about 10%. Well, with consumers constituting 70% of the economy and with unemployment hanging at 10%, I don't see how business can remain strong. Tepid but not strong. The Atlantic disagrees. We shall see.(

Alma and I have started making a Christmas tree together. I will have more to write about it tomorrow (along with pictures of the tree in progress). It is a Christmas tree made out of recycled materials and with a beach theme, so I think you will find it fits right in with this blog.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Coming Deluge

We were able to walk down by the beach yesterday, after having skipped beach walks in favor of the Westfield Culver City Mall on Tuesday and Wednesday when the weather turned nasty. Yesterday we squeaked in a walk under partly cloudy skies. It may be our last walk on the beach for a few days, as the weather people are warning of a new major storm system moving in.

Sure enough, when I woke up this morning, the skies were all clouded over and grey. While it has not yet begun to rain, the skies look as though they could open up at any time. All of which means we will be returning to the Mall again today and probably this weekend also.

Did I mention that I am really starting to detest walking at the mall? There are only so many observations one can make about the economy sucking and only so many times one can see empty storefronts, overweight shoppers, unnecessary garbage before it all starts to blend into one giant ugly mess. I predict that the retail sector is going to plunge after the holidays - how many athletic shoe companies, cell phone providers or fine jewelers does a country need, after all? Right now, it is obvious to me -- less obvious to Alma -- that there is an excess of supply and a shortage of demand. The retailers can keep up pretenses through the end of the holiday season. But, based on what I see on my walks in the Mall, very few shoppers are buying anything other than necessities.

Alma and I walk daily not just for her art or for material for my blog. We walk daily for exercise. And our efforts have paid off. Alma and I have each lost about 15 pounds since we began this latest regimen. However, keeping the pounds off requires that we walk each day, no matter what the weather. We have put off doing any Christmas shopping for each other until now, so these next few days, our Mall visits will have a purpose beyond strictly exercise.

I hope the sun and decent weather return soon, though.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Abandoned Flip Flops

During our walks on the beach these past few months, Alma and I have found many strange abandoned articles, ranging from a fire extinguisher (talk about taking owls to Athens or coal to Newcastle!) to women's cosmetics (I'm talking the big, vanity-scale bottles of eau de toilette) to full-scale outfits of clothing (talking shirts and pants together).

But few man-made items we find are so weird as the spectacle of abandoned flip-flops. When we find them, we tend to find them in batches. Yesterday, for example, Alma found two and a half pairs. They come in all shapes and sizes -- one of the pairs Alma found yesterday belonged to a very little girl, as judging from their petite size and Little Mermaid imaging overlaid on top of pink soles. Another pair belonged to an older boy, as they were longer and had some sort of moto-cross insignia on them. But, as often as not, we will find flip flops that belong to adults, seemingly abandoned without a care. The half a pair was an adult-size flipflop, black with some neon colored design on it.

Now why we would find abandoned flip flops is a subject of endless conversation and theorizing for Alma and me. One theory we have is that they are from boats that pitch a little too violently, sending flip flops over the edge to wash up eventually on the beach. Except that, all too often, we find complete pairs of flip-flops. While the sea might cause a boat to tilt to such an angle that one or both flip flops washed off the deck, would that same sea cause both flip flops to wash up on the beach in close proximity to one another?

Another theory we bandy about in jest is that exposure to the California sun causes people to lose their minds entirely and simply abandon things they came to the beach with. This theory holds some attraction, but it presumes that people who abandon their flip flops have other footwear available to them for the walk across the sand and back to their cars wherever they might be parked. (There are beach parking lots, so presumably one could abandon one's flip flops, walk across the sand bare footed and reach one's vehicle in the beach lot without having to walk a long distance on paved surfaces.) But we find too many single flip flops for this to explain the matter entirely.

As often as not, the flip flops appear brand new, unmarred by any significant wear and tear. Sure, we find the occasional flip flop whose strap has broken from over-use or stress. But the flip flops we found yesterday all appeared to be in very good shape, as if their owners had abandoned them while the flip flop was still usable.

I do not mean to single out flip flops entirely. I have also found expensive leather sandals down there in the past. Again, while not flip flops, we are talking sandals (and pairs of sandals) in mint condition. The type of footwear one might expect to pay upward of $30-40 for. Simply amazing.

A final possibility is that flip flops and sandals are left on the beach whose owners fully intend to recover them after taking a walk. But then the sun sets and finding the flip flop one left in full expectation of returning them becomes a far more daunting proposition. However, this theory does not explain the curious case of the abandoned single flip flop. It is probably best that some things remain a mystery.

If you have lost or abandoned your sandals down at Venice Beach during these past six months, you can take consolation in the knowledge that Alma is busy turning them into found art. Or rather, the straps of the sandals. Yesterday, as we walked, Alma pulled the straps free from the soles and kept the straps, while chucking the soles onto the sand beyond the high-water mark. (The trash cans are so far removed from the part of the beach where we walk as to make putting the soles into the trash too time consuming for a walk intended to conclude before the sun sets. The authorities of Los Angeles County put the trash cans so far away from where the crowds congregate as to provide a disincentive to folk to police their garbage. More on this in a later post.)

If one or two great works of art emerge from the abandoned flip flops, that will immortalize them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Decline and Fall of American Consumerism: The View from the Trenches (Part IV)

Alma and I wanted to see the new release of Shakespeare's The Tempest. And we had to buy a Christmas gift or two today. So we headed back over to the Westside Pavillion whose Landmark Theater was showing the movie. (I will write more on the movie tomorrow but suffice it for now to say that it is well worth watching.) Since we were going to be at the mall anyway for the movie and the gift, we decided to do our walk there today. And I had promised a few posts earlier that I would update you about what I saw on a 2nd return visit to the WP.

We arrived at the WP at about 2:30 p.m. in order to put in our 90-minute walk before the movie began at about 4:30. The WP's layout resembles that of the Westfield Culver City Mall, about which I have also posted previously. 3 stories, the uppermost of which is partially occupied by a food court. However, the WP is far more upscale than the Westfield CC Mall, anchored on one end by Macy's (which it has in common with the Westfield CC Mall) but anchored on the other end by Nordstrom's. (The Westfield CC Mall is anchored on one end by Target and Best Buy and on the other by J.C. Penney, but it also has a Macy's mid-mall on the bottom two stories.)

How shall I put it? Activity at the WP in mid-afternoon on the Saturday just two weeks before Christmas was decidedly muted. Sure, there was more activity today than there had been a few days ago when we went there mid-week. But big-name outlets like Zales, Foot Locker and Sleep Number had 0 customers on multiple passes by each establishment. The Mall was even more of a ghost town after the movie had concluded and we returned to it to buy the gift. Alma seemed to think what we were seeing was normal for this point in the holiday shopping season. But I couldn't help wondering if California's 12.4% unemployment rate might be casting a pall over holiday shopping this year. With 1 out of 8 able-bodied workers out of work and probably another 3 out of 8 worried they might lose their jobs, it's a surprise that any of these shops is able to stay open.

Just as we were concluding our walk today, Alma and I witnessed a site that still bothers me. As we headed towards Macy's on the first floor, I happened to notice two uniformed Los Angeles police officers escorting a middle-aged woman in handcuffs towards us. In her mid- to late thirties, the woman was dressed conservatively in white slacks and a yellow top. She did not look like one of the homeless waifs one sees constantly in Los Angeles but also did not look like Nordstom's material either. Decidedly average looking, nothing exceptional. The two male officers passed us with the woman in cuffs between them. I turned to look and observed that they were walking her the full length of the mall towards the end anchored by Nordstrom's.

Alma and I turned to one another and our reaction seemed near unanimous. "That's not cool," I said. "There's no need whatsoever to humiliate and degrade this person by making her walk exposed to public view for the entire length of the mall." Alma agreed and said she thought the woman had probably been arrested for shop-lifting.

I expressed astonishment that anyone would risk shop-lifting at this time of year when security is apt to be tighter than usual. Alma quickly rebutted me "Oh no," she said. "Even if she is unemployed, I can see that if she has kids, they expect Santa to bring them something. I can just see some dough-eyed kid saying, 'What's Santa going to bring me this year, Mom?'

As we continued to walk, we each grew more incensed that this person, no matter her social standing, should have been forced to walk the length of the mall exposed to public view. Alma said she thought the fact that the two LAPD officers were men and the alleged perpetrator was a woman allowed them to think there was nothing wrong with what they were doing.

So when we reached the Mall's Concierge and Welcome service, we mentioned to one of the "hosts" there how unseemly we had found the whole matter. This host was quick to make excuses for what we had seen. First she said, "Sir, if it was LAPD we don't control what they do." We continued to protest that the LAPD had no business perp-walking this person through the mall to humiliate and degade her.

"They could have taken her out of the building through Macy's," I said. "They didn't have to make her walk the entire length of the mall in public in handcuffs."

Then the host said, "Sir, i was unemployed and I never shop-lifted." I pointed out that I was not saying that shop-lifting was justifiable but that I was objecting to the LAPD pulicly humiliating a citizen when there was no need for them to do so. She fell back on the "We don't control the LAPD" line as Alma and I walked away, me saying that what they had done and the Mall allowing it was the height of 'tacky' and very 'declasse' (classless), I could just tell that this person who had to be working class was decidedly not getting why what we had seen was so offensive.

However, after the movie was over, Alma and I somewhat undermined our high horse when we returned to purchase the gift for our friend at Brookstone. I only remembered how offended we had been after we were in the car and heading home. I hope this woman we saw is able to salvage something of worth from this holiday season and can only say that we wish her well and that her troubles dissipate.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sea Life Abounds

After a weekend of cold and cloudy, the weather turned nice again on Monday. Alma and I thus resumed our walks down on the beach Monday and yesterday. We have been trying to arrive down there no later than 3 p.m. so that our walks will conclude either right before or right after the sun sets at 4:45 p.m. The past two days have been no different in that regard. At 3 p.m., the tide seems to be at its lowest, such that probably 20 yards of hard-packed sand, mud and surf wash is exposed.

The weather has been so changeable lately that few people spend any time on the sand. So for the past few weeks, we have been limited to collecting pretty much only what the sea has to offer in the way of interesting rocks and sea shells. On Monday, Alma found several interesting shells and rocks but yesterday, it seemed as if the ocean had washed the beaches clear of most of the noteworthy shells and rocks. Even the man-made garbage seemed a little lighter than usual yesterday. I only had to pick up one or two plastic bottles, where normally I would pick up as many as ten on a single walk.

I mention this because yesterday, when we reached the Villa Marina jetty, we could almost walk all the way out to the end of jetty, the tide was so low at about 4 p.m. As we neared the jetty, we saw a starfish on the sand, a medium size specimen, about 3 feet from the water's edge. Yesterday marked the first time either of us had seen a starfish of any size at the beach:

After Alma had taken the picture above, she lifted the starfish up. We could see the little suction-cup thingies on the bottom still moving, so we knew that starfish was still alive. Alma put the starfish back in the water and we continued our walk towards the jetty.

When we reached it, we both noticed that the tide was so low we could walk on the sand almost out to its end. When we reached its tip and all along the way, I noticed these strange, mushroom-looking appendages on the rocks.

"Those are anemones," Alma said. "And look, they're still alive." She reached out with the sole of her boot and touched the top of one lightly. Sure enough, the appendage contracted in on itself, almost like a Venus Flytrap or like the floral creature in Little Shop of Horrors. There must have been thousands of them attached to the rocks and holding on for dear life for the return of the high tide. Alma took pictures of the rocks with anemones attached, but none of the photos came out very well. But if you can imagine a giant blackish-grey damp boulder with what look like 100s of blackish-grey mushrooms growing out of it, you will have the picture, I think.

In between some of the boulders, stagnant pools of water remained and in those pools we could actually see individual anemones fully opened up:

What astounded me though is that, attached to these same boulders and right in the midst of all the anemones, many starfish of varying hues and sizes had also attached themselves:

An entire colony of starfish must live right by the jetty. But Alma and I had no idea either anemones or starfish lived there until yesterday:

We may think of it as "our beach" and some of us may even claim to live "at the beach." But really, we are mere transients compared to the real locals, these anemones and starfish. They have lived here far longer than man has although, in fairness, they have only lived at the jetty since it was constructed in the late 1950s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

These anemones and starfish exhibit such a quiet unassuming elegance. Amidst all the human activity, they quietly live and thrive. I hope they contiue to live there long after homo sapiens have departed the scene. And I certainly hope Alma and I see them again in the future.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Disposable Culture

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The weather took a turn for the worse over the weekend, and Alma and I spent a couple days at the Westfield Culver City Mall. I thought we would have to buy her a new laptop, as it seemed her Toshiba had crashed after only 13 months. But we took the laptop into Best Buy and a member of the Geek Squad determined that Alma's laptop had been attacked by a virus.

This despite the fact that we had purchased Norton software to protect against viruses. So the guy from Best Buy's Geek Squad tells me I can either pay Best Buy $200 to remove the viruses or wipe out everything that was stored on the laptop and restore from system backup disks. He did not tell me to contact Norton and at the time it did not occur to me to do so. Instead, I restored Alma's laptop from the system backup disks. After the restore had completed successfully, I happened to remember that Norton had charged my card $59.99 for 2010-11 just a couple weeks ago. So I said to Alma, "I'm going to contact Norton and get my money back, since they did not protect your computer." Alma had far less polite things to say about Norton.

Well, I contacted Norton today after having located the email receipt they sent me for the credit card charge. I did not actually speak to anyone. I did the whole thing via a chat window online with someone whose patronym suggested he was in India. He tried to save me as a customer but I told him it was too late. So Norton says it is refunding the $59.99 to my card for its non-existant security.

In its place I will install Microsoft Security Essentials on Alma's laptop. It's a free software program from the folks at Microsoft. Word is it is better than Norton and, at $0.00, would have to really suck to be worse than Norton.

But here's the thing: between futzing with Alma's laptop, the two trips to Best Buy and the time required to restore from the backups, I figure I spent at least 4 hours. So while I'm really glad we saved the $350-$400 I thought we would have to shell out for a new laptop, I spent so much time on it that it almost became worth it to replace the computer with a new one and simply scrap the old one.

This is "planned obsolescence" at its most stark and manipulative, when it becomes more expensive in terms of time required to troubleshoot and repair a piece of technology than simply to buy that same piece brand new. It is this contemporary disposable culture that I think would absolutely enrage Thoreau. We inhabit an America fundamentally changed from Thoreau's America and our decadence is nowhere more evident than in this disposable mentality that seems everywhere always.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Does Technology Free Us or Enslave Us?

The weather having turned chilly and cloudy again, Alma and I returned to the Westfield Culver City Mall yesterday for our walk. Since we were there anyway, we decided to go to Best Buy and Radio Shack to check out new laptops or netbooks for Alma. The Toshiba laptop that Alma had been using only lasted about 13 months, exactly one month more than its warranty, before dying an ignominious death. Why is it that any time I buy an extended warranty I never use it but any time I heed the warnings of consumer advocates and don't buy the extended warranty, the equipment craps out? There must be some perverse law at work in the universe. We saw some reasonably priced laptops and netbooks yesterday and are heading back today to either buy a new one or have the Geek Squad diagnose and repair the Toshiba.

Since we were at the mall, and since we are now using photography on this blog and on Alma's website, we also decided to see what was available in cellphone cameras, to see whether there might be newer cellphones with better cameras than the ones we currently use. It turns out there are, but they come with a major catch: to get one for free or at a discount, you must sign up for a 2-year plan with a $15/month supplemental data plan. If you don't want to be roped into a 2-year contract with the $15/month kicker, you must pay $3-500 for the phone. The data plans are designed for people who use their phones to surf the web and who do various web-based activities on their phones.

Neither Alma nor I use our phones for this. We basically require our cell phones to be available for emergency calls and we use our cell phones to take photos. We do not need to post Facebook status updates or keep the entire civilized world tweeted and twittered about our current whereabouts. We checked out Best Buy, Radio Shack and three phone vendors in the mall (Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile). They all offered basically the same quid pro quo: to get a phone with a decent camera (5 megapixels and image stabilization), we would have to sign up for a 2-year plan with a mandatory data plan or we would have to pay at least $2-300.

Why would this be? We were talking about this and speculating why we would be required to sign up for a $15/month data plan to get one of these phones with a good camera. After some too and fro, we decided that the reason the mobile providers can require the additional data plan is that they are marketing themselves primarily to younger people who are increasingly comfortable maintaining their online presence while mobile. In fact, yesterday, in walking the mall, we spotted several people (all younger than ourselves) walking through the mall and texting or surfing while walking.

This got Alma exercised: "I'n not against young people," she said. "And I'm not against technology.  But I am against people walking around with their heads up their asses because they have to be on the grid every second of every day." I think Alma laid bare the crux of the issue: why does everyone now feel they have to be "on the grid" at all times?

I realize we may be starting to sound like old curmudgeons, the kind of elderly folks who just dont' "get it." Truth to tell, I am misanthropic enough that I don't have anyone whom I want to send text messages to. When I am walking at the beach, my senses are fully occupied with the glories that Mother Nature has to offer. So I would not text or blog or tweet while at the beach or while at a mall.

I also know that  cell phones are great in an emergency situation. But have cell phones cost more lives than they have saved? Yes, people who are in car accidents can use the phones to call for emergency assistance -- heck, I've used my cell phone for that very purpose more than once. But how many accidents and deaths have occurred because a driver was texting or surfing the web while driving?

I sometimes wonder what that other curmudgeon Thoreau would make of our society. Would he embrace technologies like the Internet and cell phones or would he retreat into an even more extreme asceticism? Somehow, I don't think that Thoreau would place much stock in the value of constantly being on the grid. I suspect he would probably not approve of Alma and me each having a cellphone in the first place. He simply would not buy the rationale that one needs to stay connected while on the go.

In Walden, Thoreau wrote that we run the risk of becoming prisoners of our possessions and that our technologies may actually become the instruments of our enslavement:
The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature . . . He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain tops. But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.
And I wonder what Thoreau would say about Alma's laptop dying after only 13 months of use. I doubt he would take kindly to our consumer culture's "planned obsolescence," where repairing an old laptop is more expensive than simply buying a new laptop and where the knowledge and skill to make the repairs is limited to an ever-shrinking circle of geeky specialists. Thoreau constantly preached a gospel of 'self-reliance,' and in that context, today's world would probably have him checking himself into an insane asylum.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas Comes Early

Anyone who knows Alma knows that only a fool comes between her and Christmas. So when she said to me that this year she would be making a "beach tree," I just saluted and said "Yes ma'am." And now for the backstory: Alma and I do not have many Christmas traditions of our own except for one very special one. Because Alma is highly allergic to conifers, she cannot have a real tree. If there is going to be a tree, it must be artificial. Or man-made. And thus has developed our one tradition that each year Alma makes a different tree.

One year, for example, Alma made a tree completely from origami. Another year, she took coat hangers and unbent them, then refastened them in the shape of a tree with lights strung on it. It's always something I look forward to, seeing what type of tree she will come up with and what I will be expected to do to help make it happen.

I'm not too sure exactly what this year's tree will look like. In fact, I'm still a little sketchy on the details. But I know it will include sea shells for ornaments and a starfish for the top piece. And something about plastic cut into the shape of seaweed leaves. I just go "Uh-hunh" and trust that, as in years past, this year's tree will turn out awesome.

This is all by way of saying that yesterday we walked on the beach looking for beach material that could be turned into a tree and accompanying decor. So in addition to looking for seashells for ornaments, Alma also was finding beautiful pieces of sea glass, in various colors. On the walk southward from the Washington Blvd. Pier, the ocean had thrown up many pieces of sea glass almost as if it had anticipated that Alma would need them for her tree and holiday decorations.

While we were walking south, I noticed in the distance several small birds skimming the surface of the ocean and flying in circles just beyond the point where the waves break. From past experience, I suspected that they were flying out there because there were dolphins in the vicinity. Sure enough, when I trained my eyes on the water's surface, I saw the tell-tale dorsal fins of arcing dolphins or porpoises. What was amazing yesterday, though, is that the dolphins were very close to the shore, probably no more than 40 yards out. At times, they seemed so close that, if I closed my eyes and reached out my hand, I could almost touch them.

And, goodness, there must have been 10 of them in the pod. At one point, I saw three of them emerge simultaneously from the water in unison. "It's like being at  Sea World," I said to Alma, "but without the $60 admission fee and the cloying messaging." Alma at one point giggled like a school-girl. "Look at them go," she exclaimed as the dolphins skipped out of and over the water. The bigger (presumably older) dolphins in the pod would move more slowly, more gracefully, as they arched their backs and their dorsal fins. Every once in awhile, I would see a monstrous waterspout pop up from the waves as one of the pod exhaled to get a new breath. There were 2-3 young, small dolphins and they were a real treat, as they would completely emerge from the water, almost like stones were being skipped along the surface of the ocean.

Indeed, there is something incredibly magestic about seeing dolphins in the wild. While I may be projecting my own feelings onto them, they seem to exude an exuberance as they frolic in the waves. As we walked southward on an all but deserted beach, it seemed like the pod of dolphins travelled southward accompanying us. Was it mere egoism on my part to think that the dolphins were syncing up their route southward through the bay in step with Alma and my southward march? They were not doing it for anyone else because, for all intents and purposes, the beach was entirely deserted and the dolphins were performing only for Alma and me.

After a certain point, Alma made me walk 5 paces behind her so that, in my gawking at the dolphins, I did not inadvertently obliterate any valuable sea stuff with appeal to her. (This after I crunched a couple shells under foot while not watching where I was stepping.) We continued our walk southward. And then, suddenly, like an apparition from out of a fog, emerged a figure riding a one-speed bicycle on the hardpack. When he got closer, I was able to see the top hat on his head. Sure enough, it was our friend and unsung hero Josey Peters using his biccycle to pick up garbage along the beach again.

This time when our paths crossed it was like old friends meeting once again, even though we had only become acquainted these past couple months. I told Josey about the blog and that I had written a post about him a couple weeks earlier (see my November 24 post "Josey Cleans Up Our Mess" at
Josey promised he would read it the next time he had internet access. Because he has lost his job and is living out of his RV, he has only sporadic internet access. A friend lets him shower and store belongings at an apartment close by but Josey is one of the economy's recent rejects. He is making lemonade out of his lemon though and it is lemonade that all of southern California can drink.

When we bumped into Josey, the sun was beginning to set. "That's one of the best things about this job," he said. "The sunsets." And indeed we had a doozy. There were very few clouds in the sky, but there were a few low-slung cigar-shaped clouds right above the western horizon. After the sun had dipped beneath the horizon, those clouds seemed to catch fire, to be shining a bright orange-red color. And the effect lasted a good 20 minutes.

So I have to say I think my Christmas came early this year. Even though I am unemployed, at least as traditional economists define the term, it's not all negative -- my unemployment compensation check arrived in the mail on Tuesday (a couple days late because of the Thanksgiving holiday) and with these checks I am able to maintain our basic expenses. And, because I am not cooped up in an office or factory all day, I get to see these magnificent displays put on by Mother Nature.

To those of my regular readers, I am sorry I missed a day in posting. Alma's laptop finally crashed once and for all, so she and I have been sharing my laptop. We had a couple scheduling hiccups with it yesterday, so I am only now able to post this latest report. Alma and have reached a modus vivendi of sorts and take turns with the sole remaining laptop an hour at a time. So I should be able to resume regular posting forthwith.