AFFORDABLE HOUSING? THINK INSIDE THE BOX…A REALLY SMALL ONE

by Geoff Olson

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So you and your partner have decided to move into a tiny house or van! Congratulations!

In your search for affordable housing you’ve discovered Vancouver Craigslist is the rental market equivalent of The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, you’re not Katniss and your partner’s not the crossbow-wielding hunk whose name escapes me. You are idealists but also realists, ready to cram for the local lifestyle exam.

The living options are tight in The Most Liveable City On Earth.™ Like many of your millennial friends, all you have to launder is a Glad Hefty bag of clothes recovered from your parents’ place, rather than a duffel bag of filthy lucre hoovered from a dodgy offshore business.

Yet you know the lifestyle squeeze is worth it. You’re ready to think inside the box: a very small one!

Tiny houses come in many varieties: laneway homes, microsuites, nanostudios, storage containers, and refurbished Porta Potties. Vision Vancouver is now putting out bids for “Traffic Circle Homes,” little luxury structures set in residential street intersections. These highly affordable units will combine the style of a detached home with the security of constantly circling motor vehicles.

Each Traffic Circle Home will come with a complimentary Lululemon Yoga mat bearing an inspirational quote from local condo-flogger Bob Rennie!

Style-wise, every thinking woman knows that anything small is “cute.” A Tudor-style home the size of a Nissan Armada is absolutely darling. A Santa Fe duplex no wider than a children’s plastic pool is to die for. Ergo, a condo complex with units smaller than a gnat’s navel must be totally awwww-some.

In fact, “quantum homes” are already on the drawing boards of big developers. According to its promotional material, “Whoville On The Fraser,” exists “in a fog of probability like Schrodinger’s cat, with amenities unknown until completion!”

No doubt fuddy-duddy skeptics will debate the classical solidity of the microscopic Whoville units, while the smart set will jump at a sure-fire investment opportunity.

On to vans. Cynics may dismiss living in a van as “homelessness” rather than an edgy lifestyle option. Don’t buy it. Your aging metalhead cousin from Merritt – the one who did up his Ford Econovan with shag rug, dingle balls, and airbrushed babes in breastplates  – was simply ahead of the curve. In fact, there is a wide range of makes and models available for every mobile lifestyle, from app-developer-on-the-brink-of-a-buyout to artist/hoarder-in-automotive-residence.

As any Breaking Bad binge-watcher knows, a well-appointed camper van can offer a dead-serious setup for the career-minded netrepreneur. The overhead is low, both literally and figuratively. You can turn your home on wheels into a craft beer nanobrewery, a pop-up tattoo parlour, or a palm-reading/Tarot boutique. You can even draw potential customers your way by parking your van near a busy Pokestop!

However, you may find that “cute” gets cumbersome over time, what with your elbows and knees constantly banging against interior furnishings. There may not even be enough room for your essential oils or your partner’s ukelele. That’s the downside. On the upside, you won’t have to get out of bed to put a pot of coffee on the hotplate – assuming your hipster boyfriend isn’t already using the one remaining outlet to blowdry his topknot.

As the weeks shade into quarterly visits to the auto repair shop, you will surely find that involuntary simplicity is the way to go – and grow – with your partner. Enjoy the vast stretches of silence punctuated by the smallest of small talk.

Smile, it’s all part of globalism. You’re shrinking your ecological footprint while your politicians, policy-makers, beancounters and banksters “bring the Third World home,” in the words of MIT media critic Noam Chomsky.

You may sometimes ache for the domestic wilderness of your childhood. Ditch the nostalgia: old school detached homes, with their confusing warren of rooms full of mementos gathered over years of conspicuous consumption, are the relics of an unsustainable middle class past.

However, once your parents pop their Crocs, you’ll likely inherit their win along with their Winnebago. Be patient.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 25

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BIBLIOMANIA

by Geoff Olson

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80 boxes of books. That’s what I carted from one residence to another in a recent move. This was after culling hundreds of books: selling some at second-hand bookstores and abandoning others, like orphans, at nearby recreation centres.

In this and past moves I’ve tried to whittle down my collection beforehand, yet it still keeps expanding, like some Japanese sci-fi monster that balloons under an onslaught of ammo. Perhaps it would be a good idea for me to read the books I already own before buying more….or at least use my library card more often, as an antidote to hoarding.

“Why don’t you get a Kindle?” people invariably ask me. The device can hold up to 3500 books, I’ve learned. So I could easily fit a book collection of my size onto one Kindle, and free myself of digital age deadweight – but at what cost to reacquire the books in electronic versions?

Here’s the thing. Some long-out-of print titles are still unavailable in electronic format. They may never see the light of “paperwhite.” Among them are the kinds of books I’m fond of: the obscure, the strange, the subversive.

I’m also not entirely confident that the infinitely copyable nature of digital media is a total safeguard against either Big Brother or Big Bother. For example, controversy erupted in 2009 when Amazon customers discovered that a particular title had disappeared right off their Kindles. The title, ironically enough, was George Orwell’s 1984. Jeff Bezos’s behometh deleted the book without warning when the publisher backtracked on offering an electronic edition.

This anecdote stands as a singular data point, highlighting the “Cloud” hanging over electronic media. Print-bound books can be burned or pulped, but it takes effort to locate every last copy of a given title. In contrast, networked digital files can be ferreted out and disappeared en masse at the press of a key.

Just one more reason to hang on to lots of hard-copy books, insists the excuse-hungry mind of the bibliomaniac.

Then there’s the ephemeral nature of binary information. Formats change, and electromagnetically stored data can be corrupted in a matter of years. Ask anyone who’s ever kept and lost valuable files on floppy discs.

One more thing about the Cloud. Like anyone else, the Internet and mobility has seriously cut into my book reading. I’ve trained my brain to expect a tiny dose of dopamine every time my cell phone beeps or the email icon lights up on my tablet. And God (or Google) only knows how much Buzzfeed-style listicles have crippled my attention span.

An old-timey print volume will never tempt me with clickbait items like, “You’ll Never Believe What these 80’s TV Hotties Look Like Now”. That’s what makes a thick volume seem intimidating: its demands on your attention. I’m old enough to remember when getting or giving a book as a gift – particularly in hardcover – was a big deal. Now it’s more like a dare. “When do you expect me to read this? For Cripes sake, couldn’t you have got me something I have time to spend with, like a scarf?”

I already have enough on my shelves to keep me occupied. For example, I have read only seven books cover to cover in the past year (thanks, Internet). I have read perhaps a dozen more partway through. Let’s say that’s thirteen books in total. At this rate I’ll complete the several hundred unread books in my collection within thirty or forty years. And that’s without acquiring more. The numbers are not good for a guy my age.

At least there’s precedent for this. The French author Anatole France once wrote of his response to a guest who asked if he had read every book in his collection: “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” (I’ll bet that joke killed in 19th century ceramic circles.)

I came across Anatole’s quip in an online PDF of philosopher Walter Benjamin’s thirties-era essay, “Unpacking My Library.” So I regard the Internet no so much in competition with the books on my shelves as complimentary: it caulks in the gaps of my knowledge base with an inexaustible Pollyfilla of PDFs, podcasts, blogs and listicles.

Now excuse me, I must check out “25 Dogs Who Are So Cute, But So, So Dumb.”

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 11

A MEETING WITH GARRY

I rounded a corner on a dusty hiking trail, and there they were on a grassy rise: gotcha!

I wasn’t hunting Pokemon, but rather a sparse deciduous tree, Quercus garryana. The Gary oak’s habitat is limited mostly to Washington, Oregon, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

I walked up to a moss-covered oak, sat down under it’s gnarled limbs, and looked out to a sunlit stretch of Vancouver Island.

The species is named after Nicholas Garry, a 19th century deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Victoria’s Oak Bay, in turn, took its name from these twisting pillars of phylum and phloem. And for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to my leafy friend as “Gary.”

 
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According to Parks Canada, Garry oak woodlands support more species of plants than any other land-based ecosystem in British Columbia. Quercus garryana has a lifespan of up to 500 years, and the District of Oak Bay has a $10,000 fine on the books for anyone who cuts down or damages their iconic tree.

Gary is likely a centenary youngster, but he appears to have the gravitas of a stately sequoia or wizened Jericho tree. Sitting at his base it occurred to me the more I learn about human beings the more I like trees.

Don’t get me wrong; people can be perfectly delightful, one-on-one. They’re not all that bad in small groups either. But beyond a certain number all bets are off.

Ballistic missiles, reality television, fiat currency, megachurches, safe spaces, cheese in a spray can: all spawn of networking hairless apes. In contrast, trees in groups – a forest – constitute nothing more dangerous than a canopy. All our geologically recent isms, from absolutism to Wahhabism, lie outside their leisurely photosynthetic enterprise. Trees and plants mastered solar power well before our ancestors were tree shrews.

Trees and plants also utilize the mycelial networks of fungi – the world’s first Internet –  to mediate the interspecific exchange of nutrients. The green crowd figured out the thorny problem of resource distribution millions of years ago. In contrast, humans are still trying to puzzle out how to efficiently direct aid to regions struck by earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and international banking.

Scientists insist that biological evolution has no definitive progressive direction. I think we can say the same for cultural evolution. As our consumer electronic devices get smarter, we appears to be getting dumber. For example, the owners of mobile phones are now being led around like cattle by their own apps. The Pokeman-chasing fellow who risked electrocution by leaping onto the tracks at a Canada Line station is not an outlier. There’s plenty of other reports of couch potatoes activated by “augmented reality” into witless encounters with their urban environments, like the wanted man in Michigan who was arrested in his pyjamas while playing Pokemon Go outside a Milford police station.

Such tales makes plants ability to stay put in un-augmented reality all the more admirable.

The botanical crowd don’t seem do much of anything, but that’s only because they occupy a different temporal realm. Most have experienced surprise at the liveliness of plants seen in time-lapsed footage, but this goes beyond tendrils trembling towards sunlight. Scientists are now discovering that almost every behaviour we attribute to animals has a variant in plants – just at a slower pace.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, I encourage you to snap up a copy of Brilliant Green: The Surprising History of Plant Intelligence, by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola.

Among their findings is that Charles Darwin was correct about the radicle, or root tip of a young plant: it functions as a kind of botanical brain, altering its direction of growth before contact with rocks and other obstacles. Plants have up to twenty senses as opposed to humans’ five. These includes senses for gravity, humidity, and electromagnetic fields.

As I relax at Gary’s base, perhaps I’m just a blur to him: a momentary flash of funky animal pheromones. Trees are playing a long game, based not on the megahertz cycles of the microchip but rather the seasonal shifts of the sun. With the world of humans unravelling from our own short-term thinking, it seems we could still learn a thing or two from the time-tested wisdom of trees.

The Vancouver Courier, July 28