Monday, August 31, 2009

Escaping Armageddon

Kim Meyer suggested this new name for my blog... and I think I'll take her suggestion, for at least as long as Los Angeles is burning.

I have never had to deal with the California wildfires up close. The nearest I've come is when Griffith Park caught on fire back in 2007, which is when I took this background picture from the parking lot at work. We saw the flames on the hillside, but were never personally affected. My sister, Amy, had to evacuate last year when the fire showed up in her San Diego neighborhood. She described her experience eloquently on Weekend America on NPR (click here to listen).

I hope all of you back in Los Angeles are holding up okay. I know how disturbing it is not to have fresh air to breathe, and for those of you who are waiting to hear if you have to flee your homes, I can't even imagine the suspense. My thoughts are with you all.

Southern California is prone to a sobering number of natural disasters. Devastating earthquakes, wildfires, floods and mudslides are all common occurrences - in fact, a year going by without all three would be unusual. In his disturbing Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis even offers convincing evidence that tornadoes could be added to the list of predictable catastrophes in the southland. John McPhee describes the eerie cycle of dry weather, fire, torrential rain, and cataclysmic debris flows in The Control of Nature. (I've quoted this book before, but it really is fascinating!) With startling regularity, McPhee writes, heavy rainstorms are actually drawn to recent burn areas. This ensures maximum devastation since there is little underbrush to deter the flow or even healthy soil capable of absorbing the moisture. The pattern repeats itself time and again, and yet Californians still have no effective way of mitigating or preventing the destruction.

Is this the punishment Southern Californians get in return for their year-round beautiful weather? Or is it always beautiful? Clearly there have to be enough storms large enough to wreak havoc on a regular basis. Maybe it's because we have such a sunny view of things that we don't prepare adequately for the hard times. Southern California has always presented itself as a temperate paradise; to prepare for storms and disasters would be to admit that things aren't always perfect. But once the rain begins, it doesn't take an expert to see how very ill-equipped Angelenos are to handle the elements. Drivers continue their wonted practice of accelerating until an obstruction presents itself in their path. Unfortunately, streets that haven't been wet in a long time are much slicker than anyone expects, and suddenly there are accidents everywhere, turning freeways into parking lots. On the city streets the gutters fill up in less than an hour, and intersections are flooded to dangerous levels. On the other end of the thermometer, when temperatures soar, brownouts dot the city as residents lucky enough to have air conditioning switch them on and leave them on. Those of us who live(d) in older buildings find ourselves sweating it out in 90+ degree temperatures INDOORS. How is it still acceptable to sell or rent a building without a/c? Just as with the rains, it seems there is a collective agreement to forget those few days (weeks!) of the year when we are all severely uncomfortable.

It seems other states are forced to plan for inclement weather, since it affects the entire population for weeks or months on end. Although I haven't been here long enough to observe the full range of nature's challenges, I have noticed a few ways in which Boise seems well prepared for the elements. Peter's parents live in a community in Meridian that doesn't have any gutters next to the sidewalk. Instead, the strip of lawn bordering the street is sloped down in the middle to collect water and irrigate at the same time. (I'm sure Amy, who is a landscape architect, can provide more insight into this technique.) Furthermore, every building I have entered so far has been air conditioned, and we haven't experienced any power outages yet. The summer heat is so intense and so persistent that a less robust power grid would be untenable.

We enjoyed our first thunderstorm the other night. We saw several flashes of lightning and heard the thunder in the distance, and I opened the back door to get a whiff of that lovely pre-rain smell. (It's not as lovely when you're surrounded by cow farms, by the way. More on that later.) Turning back to Peter, I heard a strange noise. "Where's the cat?" I asked him. "I hope she doesn't get caught in the rain!" The family who lived here before us left their pets behind, and they were adopted by the neighbors. But one kitty in particular remembers that this was her original home, and she'd been hanging around that evening. "She's already inside," he told me, and pointed to Her Lounging Highness, already getting comfortable on his pillow. She wasn't a moment too soon, because as soon as I closed the door the rain started coming down and it sounded like the End of Days. Pretty soon our back yard was covered with little marble-sized hailstones. The hail only lasted a few minutes, and the storm eased not long thereafter. But it made me so happy to experience that again, the purple stormy sky and the moody grumblings from above. It's been a long time for me. It never rains in L.A.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

10 good things and 1 bad thing about Idaho so far

Like most people, I have a hard time dealing with change. I can usually see the negative side of a new situation very clearly, and it takes me much longer to appreciate the advantages. I cry whenever I get a new hairstyle. Upon hearing that I have landed a new job, I immediately mourn the loss of my free time. When I move to a new apartment, I zero in immediately on the tiny shower, the loud neighbors, the late-night cockroach parties.

But I'm trying really hard to look at the bright side of this decision to move. After all, it's a choice I made for myself, and I may as well make out of it what I want, right?

So for my first blog post about Idaho, I'm going to challenge myself to be positive. Here's a list of ten things that I'm enjoying about my new home state. And just to indulge myself, I'm going to allow one little complaint at the end. We wouldn't want to go overboard with the whole Pollyanna thing, after all.

10 good things about Idaho

1. The climate is dry.
I really do think this is the top advantage so far. It's hot, but it honestly makes a huge difference that it's not sweltering. Evenings are cool and rosy, and the mornings are crisp. During the day I'm mostly in air conditioned spaces, anyway. But when you're outside, the heat doesn't envelop you like a wet blanket. You can almost avoid feeling it if you sit still enough.

2. It's QUIET.
It's 10:30 pm right now, and all I can hear is the TV in the other room and the occasional dog barking outside. I cannot hear any cars or buses driving by, parties in a nearby bar, helicopters circling endlessly overhead, or neighbors yelling into their cell phones. I realize that the lack of exciting night life could easily be construed by some as a disadvantage, but this is the list of GOOD things. Stay tuned. I'm sure I'll be in the mood to complain someday soon.

3. The colors are brighter.
I don't know if it's the lack of smog (which, by the way, is not as lacking as one might think, but again... that's a story for a later post (I'm really doing well with this optimism thing, aren't I?)), BUT the colors here seem really bright and saturated. It's the same sense I get when I go home to San Diego.... like someone washed my windshield when I didn't realize it was dirty. The lawns all look unrealistically green, and the sky at midday is the most intense blue. It's a lot like Los Angeles during Santa Ana conditions, but without the devil winds putting a wild look in everyone's eye.

4. Driving is almost pleasant.
I went downtown yesterday and had no trouble navigating anywhere, whether I had the address or not. Everywhere I went, there was a parking space right in front. I used my iPhone to help guide me most of the time, and never worried about getting pulled over, because guess what! It's not against the law here yet! Mwahahahaha. Apparently Idahoans either haven't had enough traffic incidents sparked by cell phone usage, or they really mean it when they say they don't want the government running their lives.

5. People are courteous.
If you see someone on the street, they say hi to you. Even people you don't know! Even kids! If you ask for help, Idahoans will help you readily. Today we were waterskiing and our boat motor kept dying. Several people stopped by to ask if we were okay, or if they could do anything to help. And they really meant it! This guy on a wave runner was about to try to tow our huge, 8-person boat to shore. In contrast, Peter was once broken down on the Sacramento River for hours and not a single person stopped to help.

6. There's lots of space.
Houses are set at a decent distance from one another. This seems to be true across the economic spectrum. Even cheaper houses are relatively large, and they all have a decent amount of yard space. It would be pretty hard to accidentally see your neighbor naked here. Let's just say that is not the case where I've lived in the past.

7. There's an abundance of outdoor activities.
I'm not going to say that I didn't have amazing outdoor opportunities in California. That's one of the things I love so much about L.A. But here in Boise things seem somehow more accessible and MUCH less crowded. In under an hour you can drive over to a local lake to waterski, head up to Bogus Basin for snowboarding or snow skiing, or drive downtown for a lovely bike ride along the greenbelt. In any of these places you'll find others doing the same thing, but not in droves. And so far I haven't seen anyone attempt these sports while wearing miniskirts and kitten-heeled flip-flops.

8. It's more laid-back.
I know Southern California is supposed to be chill. But that was not my experience while I was there. In L.A. everyone seems to be trying to get ahead, shoving others out of the way and never looking back. I may not have enough experience in Boise yet to say this for sure, but people here do seem more patient, less intense, and more aware of the people around them.

9. Idaho has seasons!
I've been warned. I know that snow means more than snowmen and sleigh rides. But somehow, knowing that winter is coming makes it okay that it's so hot right now. It's probably because I spent my formative childhood years in places with four distinct seasons, but I feel so much more connected to the earth when everything around me is changing. I can't wait for fall!

10. Peter is here.
This is all so much easier with a partner. We can look at each other knowingly when someone exclaims at the price of a $25 entree, and we can cry on each other's shoulders when we realize this is our last bag of Trader Joe's Nuts About Raspberries & Chocolate Trek Mix. Of course it also helps that he's so good at fixing things and so willing to jump out of the U-Haul to shout directions at me when I accidentally get on the offramp at a busy intersection in Las Vegas. I hope I can repay him for all of this. If there are cockroach parties at our new house, I won't say a word.

1 bad thing about Idaho
And now, here it is, my one complaint about Idaho so far.

Yes, it's carrot slaw. And yes, it features not only raisins but also mini-marshmallows. They might have this in other locations, but I believe it is a favorite local delicacy. And it is NOT OKAY.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Things I will not miss about L.A. Item #1: Smog

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was apprehensive of the smog. Little did I know, at the time, that I had already experienced what could be considered the poorest air quality in the United States. I received my undergraduate degree from the fair Pomona College, a lovely oasis in the midst of an endless suburban sprawl referred to, with a characteristic Californian mixture of fondness and sarcasm, as the "Inland Empire." According to Wikipedia, the Inland Empire rates worst in the U.S. for particulate air pollution standards (although the San Joaquin Valley still comes in last for overall air pollution). I had a friend in college who was obsessed with the smog and kept track of the daily-changing visibility of the nearby mountains. Despite the sometimes annoyingly predictable nature of his running commentary, I have to admit that he had a point. There were times that the neighboring Mt. Baldy, the foothills of which one could reach by an easy bike ride, was not even visible.

Los Angeles County is not all that much better. It's our pollution, after all, blown by the friendly ocean breezes, that causes our eastern suburbs to sink so low on the pollution scales. Apparently the geography is much to blame. It's something about the way the mountains trap the pollutants we create instead of letting them wash away harmlessly over the desert. John McPhee describes it thus in his fascinating chapter on Los Angeles in The Control of Nature: "Early in the day, it is for the most part the natural sea fog. As you watch it from above through the morning and into the afternoon, it turns yellow, and then ochre, and then brown, and sometimes nearly black -- like butter darkening in a skillet." It's not until you get out of it that you can appreciate the full magnitude of its impact. If you arrive in Los Angeles by airplane, you can see it, like a yellow blanket, covering the city. It makes you want to hold your breath as you descend into LAX. I've also observed it from the Angeles Crest mountains, returning from a camping trip. It's hard to believe that you are voluntarily returning to such an obviously unhealthy atmosphere. I've also seen it from only 26 miles across the sea. When Peter and I took a weekend trip to Catalina Island, we could barely see the mainland for all the "atmosphere." Is this really the air we choose to breathe on a daily basis?

One day Peter drove me to work. As we exited the freeway in Burbank, I exclaimed at how beautiful the mountains looked. "Beautiful?" he asked. "How can mountains look beautiful?" I struggled to express how inspiring it was to see the details of the canyons and valleys, the contrast of the morning light with the remaining shadows of the previous night. What I realized was that I hardly ever saw the mountains from this point of view. I resolved to prove my point, and packed my camera in my purse. Every day for two weeks or so, I snapped a picture at the same intersection. You can see the results below. Peter's point was that a mountain is a mountain, regardless of how many particulates hang between you and the geographical feature in question. But my point was that you can't enjoy the beauty of the scenery if you can't see it at all. Here are some of the pictures I took, with the clearest ones at the end. I'm sure you will have to admit, as Peter did, that after seeing nothing but a vague smudge in the distance every day, a sprawling mountain vista is a startling, and pleasing, surprise.


This is why smog is one of the undeniable features of Los Angeles that I have to say I will not miss. I'm hoping to feel pain as my lungs get accustomed to the crisp Idahoan mountain air. I expect to see the adjacent mountains in Boise, even when I'm not snowboarding down their pristine slopes. And if I can't see them, then it better be either the middle of the night or a really loud thunderstorm.