Friday, December 31, 2004

Nerds vs. Islanders

I made an interesting connection while talking with people after Thanksgiving dinner. We were in an old goat shed that had been remodeled so that the floors were tiled with terra cotta and the ceilings still showed the original beams and roofing. The walls were plastered and it was brightly lit. I was talking about how elements of life out here would never have been dreamed of in the culture that I grew up in. So many people here have built their own houses with their own hands. So many people use outhouses or have no bathrooms at all. So many people use wood stoves to heat their homes. So many people have water catchment units to provide most of their running water. So many people garden and can and dehydrate and that is their main food source. Sp many people use the barter system whenever they can to get what they need. So many people spend so little of their lives working for money.

That is the essence of the difference of life out here compared to the life I knew in the suburbs. In the suburbs, people work and earn money that they spend on providing the essentials of life for themselves. Here, people try to spend as much time as possible providing those essentials of life for themselves, so they do not work as much. In both places, some people work to live and other people live to work. Essentials of life are food, clothing, housing, warmth. When I lived in Westchester, I paid people to clean my house and mow my lawn and shovel my driveway. I picked up dinner on the way home from work. I shopped a lot. I worked sometimes 60 hours a week and that gave me a salary that made me comfortable enough to hand that money over. I’ve been aware of that mentality because I work about 38 hours a week here and that seems like a lot to most people. I work that much right now, because I do not feel comfortable having less than that amount of money in reserve in my bank account and I have rent to pay. I do not have the time to cut my own wood to heat my house, so I will be hiring someone to do that for me this winter. That is also seen as odd to a lot of people here. I see it as a slow transition. I am attracted to the do-it-yourself lifestyle choice of the islanders because I think it may be more satisfying to me. There is less distance between me and the essentials of life. Mrs. Jakalski taught me that when Voltaire ends Candide by saying, “Come, let us cultivate our garden,” he means much the same thing.

This leads me to the connections I made between the known and the unknown. I do not know this island life. I am learning it. I do, however, know nerd sub-culture. I love them. Most of you know this about me. From Ben Merbitz and Eric Dahl to my ex-husband, I have attracted nerds and have been attracted to the weird little lives that they lead. I was telling the group at Thanksgiving dinner about a guy that I was friends with who makes his living off of Ebay by buying role-playing game paraphernalia in bulk and parceling it out for profit. He was so successful that he was able to move out of his parents’ basement and get his own apartment, which seemed to lead directly to getting a girlfriend. It’s the Nerd American Dream. Bill Gates would be proud. The added bonus to this story is that all of this success was possible from money earned – not by selling his soul and giving up all of his free time – but by immersing himself in something that he loves: games like Dungeons and Dragons. And, he really only has to work 15 or 20 hours a week. I think Alan said, “Wow, that sounds just like my American Dream.” There is the connection between the known and unknown.

Alan lives in a house that he helped his friends build while they are in Florida buying and repairing a boat that they will sail back here. The house has an outdoor shower and no bathroom. An outhouse is available for bowel movements and that waste is turned into fertilizer. Since urine added to the mix makes that process difficult, one must use the great outdoors for urinating. The water for the kitchen is supplied from catchment tanks and the heat is from a wood-burning stove. I’m not sure where the electricity comes from, but he’s looking into installing solar power. He also has a trailer with no power or water that he is going to haul up the hill to the top border of the property so that sometimes he can hike up there for the night so that he can sleep within sight of a beautiful view. He’s looking to buy or trade for this trailer that Jeff has so that he can build another little portable house, like a gypsy’s trailer. In the summer, Alan is a sea kayak guide, which he loves, and then in the winter, he works no more than 12 to 15 hours a week building his own business of taking care of people’s property when they are off-island. This lifestyle in uncannily like that of my former friend’s. The only difference is that nerds can’t really leave the power grid. Other than that, there are striking similarities:

- Both sub-cultures are outside of the mainstream. You could not plop the members directly into the suburbs without causing a situation somewhat like Edward Scissorhands.
- Both islanders and nerds will eschew both hygeine and fashion in pursuit of their respective goals.
- Both groups are dominated by men. A saying here is that when women first arrive, they look around and say, "The odds are pretty good here." After awhile, this reverses itself to,"The goods are pretty odd here."
- The men in both groups are often not interested in the few women that are involved since the women tend to be a little more masculine and can eschew both hygeine and fashion as well. This is a little less prevelant on the island.
- Both nerds and islanders tend to have trouble with authority figures. General examples include the hacker phenomenon for nerds and the blatant marijuana culture on the island.
- Members of both groups are usually pretty fanatical. Moderation is not a word generally associated with someone who eats only organic foods, composts everything and uses his own shit in his garden. LARP is a well-known acronym for live action role playing: enough said.
- Time alone is key in both worlds. Writing code takes hours and hours of trial and error to learn. Building all of the essentials of living in the wild is not a quick or easy process. Simply building the fences for the garden or digging the outhouse is lengthy.
- Both sub-cultures have gathering places for the anti-social to occasionally interact with others. Renaissance Faires, conventions, Barterfest, and Phish concerts are popular.
- As aforementioned, both islanders and nerds have an intense desire not to work but are usually fairly industrious.
- Sub-cultures generally have a jargon or shared inside knowledge. While any nerd can laugh at a story that involves a clumsy elf, he won't recognize the humor in a story about a raki master losing his focus.
- Generally, both nerds and islanders are called to their lifestyle from a very early age.

So, what have we learned from all this? Well, I am comforted that some of my old experiences are valid in this new adventure. I also reinforced to myself that I have a lot to learn yet about island life because it was easier to come up with examples for nerds than for islanders, even though I know that the general comparison was true. IT further refines the mission for my time on Orcas.

Stunning poetry

Many of you know that a man named Vance Gilbert is one of my favorite performers ever. Apparently, while I've been doing my Walden-thing, he has come out with both a DVD and a new CD. Daniel was a great brother and got me both for Christmas, plus he downloaded a CD of one of Vance's concerts at Schuba's that both of us apparently missed. At two previous concerts that he and I attended, I was reduced to tears by the utter poetry of the song "Unfamiliar Moon." For awhile, he did not record it, because he was trying to get a pop singer to buy it. Therefore, when he sang it at concerts, I could not sing along in my head and got to be struck by the words as fresh and new. While the version on the new album is lovely, it is missing the stark simplicity of the live version, which is just voice and guitar and performance, which always brings out nuances of emotion, especially at a Vance concert. As he says on the live disc, "A Vance Gilbert concert is like the elusive butterfly of love. Good luck." I thought I'd share the words with you.

Unfamiliar Moon
from Unfamilliar Moon
Unfamiliar moon
Stars are out of place
Everything is new
Everything is changed
Like a baby child
Just has to cry
When he sees it for the first time
And he don't understand
Now that there's no you
Everything is new
Like this unfamiliar moon

That can't be our song
Those aren't the words I know
The melody's all wrong
But the DJ says
"That's just how it goes"
Like a child has to learn
On his own
You get too close to a bird
And she'll be gone
Now that there's no you
Everything is new
Like this unfamiliar moon

This can't be my house
How can this be home?
I don't recognize it
Each step to the front door
Is higher than I've known
It's like climbing up a mountain
'Cause now I climb alone
Now that there's no you
Everything is new
Like this unfamiliar moon

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

What do you do for fun around here?

Being in retail positions, I have recently been fielding a lot of questions from people around my age that are visiting the island about what it is like to live on the island. I find this to be a lot of fun. I usually give them a brief run-down of my personal history with the island that goes something like this, "Before I say anything, let me first explain that I moved here about four months ago from the suburbs of Chicago." And they say, "Chicago! How did you get here from Chicago?!?" So, I do a little explaining about the anonymous suburbs and needing a change and falling in love with the island after visiting because of it's really dominant sense of community, plus, it's just incredibly gorgeous around here. Then, I answer questions about what's different here than other places because I have that neat newcomer perspective. Often, the conversation comes around to the opening question. The answer, as clich├ęd as it may seem, is that we make our own fun, especially in the winter. People create events. I thought that for my own sake and for yours, I might list the events that I've attended so far, starting with the most recent.

-Orcas Choral Society Concert featuring Vivaldi's Gloria
-Potluck soul food dinner at Charles's apartment. Charles runs the take-out Asian food place, so soul food made everyone stretch a little. I took cornbread.
-Artisan's Faire
-Happy Birthday Holly and yea-for-you Rhonda potluck dance party at The Grange
-Happy Birthday Bridget and porch-warming. I sang all of the words to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" around that campfire, leaving the poseurs behind in my lyrical dust.
-Thanksgiving potluck
-Good-Bye Malcolm party at Alan's
-Rachel's baby shower
-Community Halloween Dance at the Oddfellows Hall
-Pre-Halloween party at Callalloo with reggae-funky band
-Various Sauna Nights at Alan's


It's interesting to look at several works of art from the same person and to find recurring themes or types of characters or colors or moves. Once this happens, a signature is created and that person's personality becomes a part of the art. Think of Bob Fosse, chairs and well-placed sequins or Hemingway's barely-there use of language. On Aaron Sorkin's two TV shows, The West Wing and Sports Night, one can see some obvious passions that sneak through like powerful women, nerdy but cute guys, and people walking while they talk. He has also written a character in each who is fascinated by the weather: Sam Seaborn to some extent and Jeremy Goodwin to an extremely dorky extent. I would be interested in speaking with one of them now so that they could explain this freaky weather that exists here on the island.

Let me explain: both today and yesterday I have been walking around town wearing just a wool sweater and possibly a pashmina. That's all I really need for casual walking from place to place. There was a little spitting rain at times and some wind (they all seem to think it's a lot) but not enough that I needed my rain jacket. When I realized this, I started looking around and realized that almost all of the flowers still had blooms. Geraniums, daisies, even roses. Most of the plants have fall evidence, such as the ripening hips of the roses, in addition to the budding and blooming flowers but I walked by a lilac bush today and it looked like a spring bush with all new buds covering it. It's phenomenal. Now, of course, some days it's colder and I need to put on a jacket and certainly I want lots of layers if I'm going to be out for any extended amount of time but it hasn't frozen once here. Jeff is still harvesting kale from his garden. It certainly does not feel like Christmas is next week. Of course, it doesn't get light until after 8:00 in the morning and it's dark at around 4:00 in the afternoon. But, my boogers aren't freezing and I don't have to put on a hat, coat, scarf and gloves to get something out of the car. It's kind of neat.

Don't ask me why all this is like this. It has something to do with being in the rain shadow of a mountain and being surrounded by water, which warms the air. That's the extent of the explanation that I can offer you. If you want more, you'll have to turn to Sam or Jeremy.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Is this what the founders intended for the Grange hall?

This past weekend was the Artisan's Faire at the Oddfellows Hall here on the island. Basically, all of the local artists set up little funky booths (more artistic talent in their displays than in one of my thumbs) full of their stuff and so that islanders can shop locally for Christmas instead of giving their money to the great maws of Wal-Mart. I got to walk around, engaging in a little retail therapy and also getting ideas for what to make for my Christmas presents. (In all fairness to myself, I do try to buy examples of the ideas that I steal.) And, let me tell you, if there is anyone out there who has ever felt envious of my crafty ability and somewhat dexterous fingers, I'm not worth it. I am a rank amateur next to the talents that exist on this island. If I wanted to be fancy, I could call myself a dilettante, but even that word doesn't communicate the wealth of artistic training that I lack. So, I ended up with some beautiful hooks made by a guy that I didn't even know was a blacksmith but who I see at the Exchange all the time; some ceramic ornaments because I'm always a sucker for ceramics; a beautiful little pin that was hand-drawn by Maria, the partner of the guy who started the Exchange; the cool-beaner bookmark that is further building the desire within me to decoupage; a leather wristband from the same lady (she used the scraps from her hand-made books); and three way-cool magnets that Janine (pronounced Yuh-neen) gave me the secret how to make. Now, you'll just have to guess what's for whom. Last Wednesday, there was a porch-warming birthday party at Bridget's house that she built out of a gazebo kit. While there, we were invited to another party on Sunday night. That's the party that I started this blog to tell you about. (It was a similar party to the Halloween Dance, but I never got that one typed. Maybe I'll go ahead and give it to you out of order later.) Basically, two of the women that had booths at the Artisan Faire rented out the old Grange meeting hall (which is slowly being converted to a neat theater/dance hall and which I had visited earlier in my stay for a six-year-old ballet recital of international dances) and hired three DJ's to throw a Artisan's Faire blowout potluck dance party. It was Holly's birthday and Rhonda had just secured a 5-year lease with right of first refusal to renew on a prime piece of farmland where she is going to start a permaculture farm. The invitation flyers were all different with neat images and funky phrases, but lacked a time or date. Those were then spread by word of mouth. :-) They wanted to celebrate so they decorated the hall with tea lights, beaded plastic silver garland (as part of the tea light centerpieces), blue tincture glass bottles with wildflowers and mismatched vintage-like cloth tablecloths. I took the apple dip that my Aunt Janice taught me with six pounds of sliced apples in lemon juice. The last time I took that for someone's birthday at Glenbard, people ate the apples but not the dip because the dip seemed too unhealthy. Here, they loved all of it, which amazed me because it's one of those one-cup-of-everything housewife dips. Here, I guess those kind of Betty Crocker things are a novelty. They asked for $5 at the door, on your honor, provided Wizard of Oz stamps for you to prove your honor and everyone came. Almost all of the people that I am starting to get to know through Jeff were there and some new people whose faces I know from the stores, too. No one got babysitters and all generations were represented. After dinner, there was enough space on the hard-wood dance floor and even the 18-month-old understood that you just have to move to the music. It wasn't even incongruous that people sang along to the original "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge / we're trying not to lose our heads / uh-huh, uh-huh, ha" since I bet that most of them learned it, like I did, from the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature or as a part of a study of Afro-Global music. The whole evening reinforced to me that this island IS the community I've been looking for.

Grandma wins again

When I was eight, my Grandma Murphy tried to teach me to knit while we were on vacation at Sleepy Hollow in Michigan. We decided upon a sweater vest of alternating stripes of black and white. It was a perfect plan in that it was fairly simple but allowed for some creative input from me. Plus, since it was the Eighties, a sweater vest was not quite so dorky as it sounds now. Of course, my childhood lack of an ability to finish what I started unless it was a book (piano lessons, collecting erasers, cross-stitch of Grover, a complicated plan for keeping track of how many times I had seen movies such as Star Wars and Caddyshack) interfered. I still have the remnants of that project in a plastic shopping bag hanging from a doorknob in my bedroom. The black and white acrylic balls of yarn and a 12 inch by 18 inch square of stripes are all that remain. When it bacame obvious that I wouldn't complete the sweater, Grandma asked for the needles back.

New topic: For as long as I can remember, Grandma has stated that when Grandpa died, she was going back to the Lutheran Church. She always insisted that she only attended the Presbyterian church for his sake. Plus, she would remind us occasionally that the Lutheran cemetary would always welcome her when the time came. The fact that after anyone sings the first line, "A migh-ty for-or-tress i-is our god," any Murphy can sing, "A bul-wark ne-ver fa-ay-ail-ing" is testament to the tenacity of her belief. That song (words and music by Martin Luther) is her only request for her funeral. However, my grandfather died last New Year's and Grandma, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to darken the doors of the Danville Lutheran Church.

So, what's your point, Rebecca?

I have begun knitting a hat and have joined the Lutheran Church here on Orcas Island.