The bicycle wars of Seattle

Seattle has an international reputation as a bicycle-friendly city. Certainly, bicycling is a significant part of the local culture. I see more adult cyclists on the streets here, even in bad weather, than anywhere else I have lived. The powers-that-be who market the city to the world clearly cultivate that image as another example of how Seattle is cool and green and different and outdoorsy and, given its northern latitude, surprisingly mild in the winter, even if a tad wet.

But in my fourth month of being New To Seattle, I perceive something a little different–and a little darker. I see a love-hate relationship growing between the citizenry in general and that sub-section who choose to tool around town regularly on two wheels and their own energy. Continue reading

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You know you’re from Seattle when …

Major cities, as well as the people within them, all have their distinctive collective characteristics. These can be geographical, climatological, cultural, psychological, economic, law-abiding, political, racial, behavioral, culinary or of other dimensions too numerous to list but which are daily fodder for rants on cable TV and talk radio.

Seattle–along with its residents–is certainly no exception. Indeed, I think the peculiarities of the self-styled Emerald City (a surprisingly unoriginal moniker, officially adopted less than 30 years ago, which Seattle shares with Eugene, Syracuse and a place in a certain movie starring Judy Garland) are so numerous there may be more defining elements here per capita than just about any big city that comes to mind.

Not in Seattle any more

And I say this as someone New To Seattle from the Los Angeles area, where there is no shortage of trenchant observations (many from the lips of Jay Leno) about how the City of Angels is, uh, a little different than other places. But, of course, L.A. has a whole lot more people to help make it so.

In my three months here, I have been compiling a list of how Seattle and Seattleites are cut from a different cloth. Here are my primary sources: (1) asking people I encounter, (2) using my own senses (eyes, ears, etc.), and (3) trolling the Internet. Okay, my research methods won’t win any of the science Nobel Prizes being awarded this week, and certainly not the Nobel Peace Prize. But at least I am still alive. And it’s really all just opinion. In any event I will have material aplenty for the next party that someone dares to invite me to.

So, you know you’re from Seattle when you:

  • Get up in darkness and get home from work in darkness.
  • Welcome the jobs has created but are still mad you have to pay a sales tax when purchasing a book online.
  • See no contradiction between holding very liberal political beliefs and working for a defense contractor.
  • See no contradiction between being very green and driving a very large SUV.
  • Complain about society’s unmet needs but nevertheless vote against a state income tax. Continue reading
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Vitamin D and other things they advertise in Seattle

You can tell a lot about the nature of a region by what gets advertised.

In the Los Angeles area, where I lived for seven years before becoming New To Seattle, the electronic media was always full of ads for cancer hospitals and rehab centers. The former category is probably not surprising given the Los Angeles basin’s poor air quality. It’s been that way for a very long time. Nearly five centuries ago, in 1542, Juan Cabrillo, the first Spanish explorer to sail up the California coast, noticed the lingering cloud around the future City of Angels caused by fires in the villages of the indigenous Indians (who eventually all were killed or run off) and actually named the offshore waters the Bay of Smokes.

As for rehab centers, they seem to be as much a product of L.A.’s heady mix of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous wealth. Given the smoggy atmosphere, the joke goes, the best place to observed burned-out stars is not in the heavens with a telescope but at the Betty Ford Clinic.

In Seattle, I also hear ads for rehab centers and cancer treatment facilities, which, like the spots in L.A., are a little long on evocative language and a little short on, shall we say, documented outcome probabilities. Not nearly as many ads as in L.A., though. But my focus in this post is on marketing I haven’t encountered elsewhere that seems, ah, distinctive.

Like for vitamin D.

Although the days are really getting shorter, they’re still bright most of the time. But as everyone has told me, the sun will disappear within a month or so, not to emerge in any sustained way until next summer. In what seems to be a sign of the seasonal change to come, I have started hearing ads on the radio for stores selling containers of vitamin D, which the body can synthesize from exposure to the sun but can’t when it’s cloudy all the time.

It’s been clear to me that people in Seattle obsess about the sun, or lack thereof, during the legendarily long winters. (Whether that prolonged darkness accounts for the widely believed proposition that Seattle has a high suicide rate is a topic I hope some day to explore.)  So I guess “sunless in Seattle”–there I go again–is behind the vitamin D push. Continue reading

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Okay, you Texas patriots, at least spell his name right

This post has nothing to do with Seattle except for the fact that, New To Seattle, I live here now. It has a lot more to do with what seems to be a gaggle of Texas boosters, perhaps inspired by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s current presidential bid or maybe the Tea Party movement. They wax eloquent in print and online about one of the Lone Star State’s most historically celebrated  heroes–but can’t spell his name correctly.

William Barret Travis

I’m talking about William Barret Travis, commander of the Alamo in San Antonio. Surrounded by the Mexican Army, the 26-year-old Travis famously wrote a letter on February 24, 1836, “to All Texans and all the Americans in the World” in which he declared, “I shall never surrender or retreat .. Victory or death!” He and his men indeed died, but the letter and its ensuing refrain–“Remember the Alamo!”–is credited with helping to rout the Mexicans just six weeks later, leading to Texas’s eventually incorporation into the United States.

The Alamo leader’s middle name is spelled with one T. However, it is frequently misspelled with two Ts. Google “William Barret Travis”–the correct spelling–and you get 53,000 hits. But Google “William Barrett Travis”–the wrong spelling–and you still get 16,000 hits.

Why do I even care? My name happens to be William Barrett–with two T’s. When I twice lived in Texas starting in 1980, I used to get asked a lot if I was kin. I am not. But because of our name similarity, I have followed this issue for a long time and have written about it previously. But errors now seem to be on the upswing. Continue reading

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The usual suspects of Seattle (plus one)

Forbes Magazine, where I work, came out today with the 2011 edition of the Forbes 400 list. Seattle and environs are represented at roughly the national average among the famous roster of the richest Americans. There are seven entries. One is back after an absence. The names are of little surprise even to someone like me, who is New To Seattle and somehow has missed making the Rich List for each of its 30 years of existence.

Bill Gates (Wikipedia)

–No. 1 Bill Gates. $59 billion. Up $5 billion from last year, mainly because he’s got 75% of his wealth in something other than Microsoft.  But that’s still less than the 12% average increase among Forbes 400 members. Nevertheless, he’s Numero Uno in the U.S. for the 18th straight year.

–No. 13, Jeff Bezos. $19.1 billion. Up by $6.5 billion–an astonishing $18 million per day –from last year’s $12.6 billion. Sweatshop conditions at may have helped. And that’s after his aerospace firm’s unmanned spacecraft blew up during flight last month.

–No. 19 Steve Ballmer. $13.9 billion. Up by $800 million from last year’s $14.5 billion. The Microsoft boss is having to deal with a flat stock price.

–No. 23  Paul Allen. $13.2 billion. Up a tad from last year’s $13 billion. Over a decade his wealth has declined 20% as he moves more heavily into real estate development.

–No. 117 James Jannard. $3 billion. Flat over the past year. But this San Juan Islands resident is taking the money he made in sunglasses and making a splash in Hollywood.

–No. 273 Craig McCaw. $1.6 billion. Down $50 million from last year as he encountered problems with his telecom and other investments.

–No. 331, Howard Schultz. $1.3 billion. Starbucks shares have doubled like a caffeine high, returning its CEO to the Forbes list after a three-year absence. He also has a book out, Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, ghostwritten by Joanne Gordon, one of my former Forbes colleagues.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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Witless in Seattle

It started way back in 1993 when movie actor Tom Hanks played a grieving widower who found it hard to get some shut-eye while living on a Lake Union floating home until he met Meg Ryan. “Sleepless in Seattle” became a national catchphrase, doing as much to keep the U.S.’s northernmost major city in the public consciousness as the Space Needle or the TV shows “Frasier” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

You still see everywhere plenty of references to “Sleepless”–or, more often, silly plays or puns on it. Frankly, headline writers just can’t give it up. From this year alone: “Sleepless in St. Louis” appeared over a newspaper medical advice column in Missouri about insomnia. “Sleepless in Beirut” led a story about that violence-plagued city’s surprisingly active night life. “Sleepless in Shuttle” was a London newspaper’s grammatically challenged effort to caption an item about a malfunctioning alarm clock in outer space.

Thanks to the often-hapless athletic teams in Seattle–which Forbes recently declared the country’s “most miserable sports city“–visiting scribes who think they are being original are fond of writing about “sleepless” local fans.

Brutal candor requires that I plead guilty as a serial offender. My Forbes story two years ago about the merry swindlers of Washington State’s second-largest city carried the print headline “Sleepless in Spokane.” (The more blunt title over the identical online version: “Fraud: Scam Capital of America.”) And after I became New To Seattle this summer, one of my earlier posts about the poor street signage hereabouts was entitled “Signless in Seattle.” Then, of course, there is the headline over this post.

Still, in my judgment, nowhere has the popular Nora Ephron-directed movie resonated more loudly in commerce, culture and the subconscious than in the environs of Seattle itself. Continue reading

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The weedy blogs of Seattle

The 2009 demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer along with the considerable downsizing of the surviving Seattle Times is helping to make Seattle a hot house for local blogs seeking to fill the void. I’m aware of at least three dozen in town that try to provide some kind of news on a regularly updated basis.

And why not? Seattle has a literate, information-hungry population, people here do seem interested in what’s going on, and everyone is wired.  Television news by design is only going to hit the high points (especially if it involves a gruesome death). Aside, perhaps, from San Francisco, it’s hard to imagine a place in the country more conducive right now to development of solid Internet-based news sources.

I’m not counting any blog that is an arm of more traditional print and electronic news media, or, in the case of Seattle PI, was once the traditional news media itself before owner Hearst Corp. ran it straight into the Puget Sound outside its windows. Nor am I including the blog you’re reading right now, Modesty aside, it does not purport to convey anything beyond the warped musings of its proprietor (me) and in any event is updated barely once a week.

But like all hot houses, the Seattle blog firmament to me contains a lot of weeds. At best, it is a wildly untrimmed scene with occasional bursts of color.

As I write this, the lead item in My Wallingford is about a back-to-school party thrown by Trophy Cupcakes. This is news? Magnolia Voice, which serves the neighborhood where I live, is leading with a picture of a scary-looking dog available for adoption. Across Elliott Bay, it must be a really slow news day: West Seattle Blog is topped by–and I quote–“Three views of tonight’s sunset.”

For my money, the best blog in Seattle by far is Seattle Bubble. As its name implies, the blog, run by Tim Ellis, is dedicated to the proposition that Seattle real estate, although considerably down in price, is still wildly pretty overvalued. The site serves up sophisticated data and charts while entertainingly and witheringly playing piñata with the boosterish monthly press releases of the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. Sure, the blog operates in a niche. But real estate is a pretty big niche. When you chat up anyone at a party in Seattle, it’s like the Loch Ness monster; the topic of real estate keeps coming up.

This blog is truly a joy to behold. Continue reading

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They still drive politely in Seattle–and still not very well

This is an update to my August 14 post in which I, being New To Seattle, marveled about the exceedingly polite local drivers and the stark contrast with a 2010 Allstate Insurance study ranking them among the country’s worse.

Seattle drivers still amaze me daily with their civility. But on Thursday, Allstate came out with its 2011 report, which said the locals have gotten a lot worse on the safety front.

The insurance giant ranked Seattle 147th of 193 large cities in driver safety. That’s in the bottom quarter. Last year, Seattle was 128th. Allstate says it uses a two-year average. Since that means it’s not just what happened in the past 12 months, and Seattle still managed to fall 19 clicks, there’s a pretty good chance next year’s rank will be even worse.

Seattle won the coveted contest to be named the Puget Sound’s most dangerous city for driving. It vaulted ahead of both Bellevue (145th, down from 134th last year) and Tacoma (141st, down from 136). On the other side of the Cascades, Spokane fell from 29 to 40 but still easily mustered Washington State’s safest showing.

Allstate’s metric is essentially how often drivers crack up their cars. So I guess the combined implication of the Allstate report and my own observations is that drivers who whack one another go out of their way to be solicitous. Apparently, they have had a lot of experience in such stressful situations.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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Talking trash in Seattle

As I previously have pointed out, before becoming New To Seattle, I was warned the complex trash recycling rules would drive me nuts. This has proven to be largely true, but partly for an unexpected reason: Some of the people working in the system don’t have the greatest grasp on them, either.

This was hammered home during August when I happened to be outside my house on trash pick-up day as a truck came by and its operator dumped into his vehicle my “garbage” container. That’s the catch-all bin for most of the stuff that doesn’t go into the recycling or yard/food containers.  I had put into garbage the many empty clear plastic prescription vials generated by our dog’s final illness, which I also have written about.

The driver–a very nice man–spotted me and said kindly all those clear vials should have gone into the recycling bin. “No plastic of any kind goes into garbage,” he said. Fine by me, I said, except that seemed to contradict what I had seen a day earlier when I consulted the city’s official web site. (You can look at the relevant language by clicking here and decide who’s right.)

“Don’t worry,” he said. “The rules are confusing. I don’t understand them, either.”

Terrific! In Seattle one needs an engineering or English degree to fully comprehend trash pick-up rules. So maybe it wasn’t all that surprising in July when a man’s torso was found on the conveyor belt at a Seattle recycling plant. Continue reading

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Sense of humor in Seattle seems to be elusive

One day in July, while waiting in a long, sloooooow check-out line at a Bartell Drugs store, I started chatting with the guy next to me. Mentioning my New To Seattle status, I said, “Before I arrived, everyone told me that July here would be a wonderfully dry and sunny month. Everyone!”

At that particular moment, it was pouring outside. I quickly turned to address the rest of the line, which, of course, had been eavesdropping. “Everyone lied!” I declared, before breaking out in a wide grin.

To put it mildly–and honestly–my effort at humor was a bigger bomb than Hiroshima. No one in the line laughed. Not a peep. Most pretended not to have heard me (which, since I have a loud voice, was not plausible). I heard some tongue-clicking. A few shot me daggers with their eyes.

A very touchy crowd.

Henny Youngman in drier times

Now, I don’t claim to be Henny Youngman, the legendary comic famous for one-liners like, “Take my wife–please.” But friends and even foes tell me I’m funny, and I know how to deliver a punchline. For decades I’ve deliberately and routinely used humor in casual conversation and to make points. I’m often my own butt. Indeed, as a long-time referee of youth soccer matches, I’ve been known to disarm coaches and parents who think I blew a call by closing my eyes and gesturing with my arms like I’m feeling my way in the dark. If they start laughing, they stop yelling.

So far, this hasn’t worked for me in Seattle. For instance, I’ve had scant luck with jokes about the sweep and complexity of the local trash recycling rules. But that might have something to do with my calling my new home the People’s Republic of Seattle.

So I may have to revise my m.o. My initial judgment is that a collective sense of humor here is m.i.a.

Sure, there are comedy clubs and The Seattle Salmon, a new local humor site. But I find Seattlites to be a tough audience when it comes to getting someone to crack a grin. Continue reading

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Seattle’s funky Fremont area is named after a war criminal

As the self-styled “Center of the Universe,” Seattle’s inner-city Fremont neighborhood relishes its quirky, if dated, reputation as a haven for artists and those with counterculture inclinations. There’s a 16-foot-high statue of Lenin rescued from behind the fallen Iron Curtain, surely one of the very few erected in the U.S.  Under the Route 99 bridge sits the Fremont Troll, an 18-foot-high statue (its picture adorns the top of this blog) of a creature clutching a real Volkswagen Beetle.  Each year, the summer solstice is ushered in with a clothing-optional parade of bicyclists.  I think it fair to say Fremont’s political leanings skew a bit to the left, even by the standards of liberal Seattle.

John C. Frémont

Which to me, being New To Seattle from the Los Angeles area, makes the neighborhood’s handle all the more fascinating. That’s because Fremont is named after a war criminal in California who later had the distinction of being the very first presidential candidate of the Republican Party a century and a half ago.

Technically, the Fremont neighborhood is named for Fremont, Neb., the hometown of two real estate promoters who headed West and co-founded the separate city in 1888 (which Seattle annexed three years later). But Fremont, Neb., itself, and by extension its Seattle namesake, is christened for John C.  Frémont (1813-1890), whose accent acute today is frequently dropped. In the middle of the 19th century he carved out quite the national and even international reputation in a variety of realms–military, politics and business.

Plus a little wartime murder. Not just once, either. Continue reading

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Seattle drivers are very, very polite, but are they any good?

See end of this post for an update

It was three decades ago, but I still remember the story in the Houston Chronicle. It ran when I moved from New Jersey to Houston in 1980 to take a new job. A local driver shot dead another driver who had passed him in a funny way on a freeway. Just pulled out a gun and bang! The story was about the criminal trial. The jury convicted the gunman, all right–but not of first-degree murder. Second degree! Apparently, Texas law recognized in some small way that you pass someone funny at your peril. Coming from a state with strict gun laws where motorists routinely gave one another the finger while making crude comments (maybe because of those strict gun laws), the story made quite an impression on me.  Ever since, I have been a model of decorum behind the wheel.

As someone New To Seattle, it turns out I have a lot of company here. Seattle drivers as a whole are the most polite and considerate I have ever encountered in the U.S.  I am struck by this almost every time I am out and about. Seattle drivers are not aggressive to one another, they often stop for pedestrians even if it’s not a marked crosswalk, they generally respect bicyclists (this definitely was not true in Houston or suburban Los Angeles, two places that I’ve lived and biked in) and they smile a lot. Really. It’s certainly a far cry from Albuquerque, where during 12 years of residence I was the victim of three different hit-and-run accidents. Continue reading

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The dark underside of Seattle elections

Despite the controversy over the 2004 squeaky-close Washington gubernatorial election, with its post-election discovery of uncounted King County absentee ballots, I don’t know that Seattle is any big hotbed of stolen elections. The city certainly doesn’t have the infamous reputation in that regard of Cook County, Ill, where for decades death was not necessarily a major impediment to exercise of the personal franchise around Chicago.  And the people who oversee elections in Seattle are surely a cut above what I witnessed 35 years ago as a young newspaper reporter in my native Camden County, N.J., then, at least, one of the country’s most politically corrupt jurisdictions. There, the county Board of Elections in Camden was chaired by a fellow who ended up convicted four times of serious crimes touching upon honesty.

Sherril Huff

Still, being New To Seattle, I found it a real eye-opener to read the inside front page of the official voters guide I recently received for the August 16 primary and special election. Sherril Huff, King County’s elected elections director (try saying that quickly five times), felt compelled to list all kinds of “security measures” concerning the upcoming vote, which will be conducted entirely by mail.

The recitation in her letter was so long and detailed it makes me think election fraud, or at least its potential,  just might be a continuing problem around Seattle. But judge for yourself. After the jump, here verbatim is Huff’s published list sent to every single registered voter–including me–in Washington State’s most populous county: Continue reading

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Signless in Seattle

Nearly 30 years ago, I lived for a spell in Cairo. Finding addresses around Egypt’s teeming, 20-million population capital city was challenging, due in no small part to problems with street signs. I could read the right-to-left Arabic okay. But many of the signs were incomprehensible because they were faded, missing paint or covered with dirt. Directional signs with arrows often pointed in the wrong direction, either because they had been spun around a bit over time or had been poorly designed. Much of the citizenry–and, eventually, I–navigated more by using urban landmarks like odd-shaped buildings, mosques, waterways and even, in a desert environment, trees.

I never again encountered such confusion over official street signage and a need for landmarks–until I became New To Seattle. From my perspective, the only differences here are that it’s Mount Rainier off in the distance instead of the Great Pyramids, and Puget Sound as a watery reference point rather than the mighty Nile.

Brainless in Ballard

More than a few Seattle signs are weathered to the point they simply can’t be read. One example (of many) can be found along 11th Avenue NW in Ballard three blocks north of the Fred Meyer store. Many years ago, the sign on the northwest corner said it was NW Ballard Way. It’s virtually unreadable now; see for yourself here in the photo to the right. But everyone going to Fred Meyer knows to turn at the gaudy Jack In The Box restaurant (exactly the landmark I was given when I first asked for directions to there.)

Does Ballard get any respect from whoever controls the signs? Two blocks farther south on 11th Avenue NW, the street sign at NW 45th Street is almost completely obscured by a railroad crossing signpost.

Exit Nowhere

Heading north on Elliott Avenue W out of Belltown, one encounters (right) a freeway-style sign for, among other destinations, the Magnolia Bridge. It overhangs the right lane and reads “Exit Only” with an arrow pointing straight down. The positioning clearly implies the lane goes to the bridge. But it doesn’t. You have to make a 90-degree right-hand turn. Even worse,  you have to guess where.  It isn’t at the first street sign after the overhang. It’s at the second–but it’s not marked unless you jerk your head sharply to the right at the exact right moment to catch another sign off in the distance.

Another well-kept secret involves Seattle’s most controversial road, the Alaskan Way Viaduct heading south from Belltown along the waterfront. That this leads quickly and easily to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport does not appear to be indicated for miles.

In discussing my perceptions with some of my now-fellow Seattlites, I found that the lousy signage is well known. “You’re lucky to be learning the streets now,” I was told. “Wait until you try to read dirty signs in the winter when there’s no sun and it’s dark by 3 p.m.” (Having driven around Seattle in early February looking for a house, I heartily agree; I kept missing turn after turn, especially on the edges of downtown.) Continue reading

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My dog’s death in Seattle trigggers thoughts about economics

Roswell in 2009 at “age 91”

Of all the places I’ve lived–and that’s a bunch–it’s hard to top Seattle when it comes to a local love for dogs. With so many residents having two or three, I frequently observe more canines walking along sidewalks than humans. Since I became New To Seattle this summer, the number of dogs I see on a daily basis beats anything I witnessed when I lived years ago in New York City. And that’s a place so dog-driven it forced enactment of one of the nation’s first pick-up-after-your-pooch laws. To me, man’s best friend in Seattle seems more popular than even iPhones.

I, too, was a Seattle dog owner–for all of 10 days. That’s when we made the very difficult decision to put down Roswell, our basset hound so friendly she actually purred like a cat every time someone rubbed her stomach or pet her head.

Reference works say 50% of bassets die from bloat, cancer or heart problems.
Rozzie had all three, and then some, including, as it turned out,  insurmountable stomach issues. They left her in a coma before we authorized a shot of pentobarbital, which humanely stopped her breathing in less than 10 seconds.

It fell to me to be the family witness to her passing.

Roswell (named after the town in her native New Mexico infamous for a bogus alien spaceship crash) died six weeks short of her 15th birthday. That’s more than three years longer than the lifespan of the average basset, and 104 in dog years. So she had a pretty good ride. That’s especially true if you don’t count the day a decade ago when a boxer bolted out of a house along the Albuquerque street named for Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. and tried to take off one of her floppy ears.

The purpose of this post is not to lament the passing of a gentle, affectionate dog or to elicit sympathy from acquaintances and total strangers in my new place of habitual abode. It’s to ponder the economics of dog ownership and the trade-offs that entails.

Why explore dogs? Well, it’s considered bad form to openly put a value on the life of a human. Of course, this is done quietly across the country all the time in wrongful-death lawsuits, government rule-making and private-sector decision-making on safety issues like whether there should be more steel in that tiny car.

Even though they become family members, dogs are a lot easier to discuss, even if just as emotionally. And the issues bear more than a passing similarity to the great national debate over health care costs and insurance (for humans) and, more broadly, the proper allocation of limited resources.

Obama and Boehner, pay attention!

Thanks to the magic of a 20-year-long Quicken file and my bean-counter personality, I know to the penny what Rozzie cost since her birth in Albuquerque on September 2, 1996. The total: $36,846.24. That included the $250.00 we paid for her on October 18, 1996, six weeks after her birth, and the expenses attendant to her final illness, about which more in a bit.

The average yearly cost was $2,456.42, or slightly more than $200.00 a month. If that seems high to you, that seems high to me, too. But it’s not just because we lived seven years in high-cost California, where some greedy veterinarians marking up the expensive drugs they sold routinely violated state law by refusing to give written prescriptions that could be shopped around for a lower price. Continue reading

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Is Comcast headquartered near Lake Woebegon?

Even before I became New To Seattle from California, I received lots of well-meaning advice and warnings about the world awaiting me. Watch out for bicycle groups riding at midnight. Trash pick-up rules will drive me nuts. Avoid at all costs the Fremont Bridge, the country’s most active drawbridge.

The list goes on (and will be fodder for future posts). But there’s one warning I heard more than any other: It will take Comcast numerous visits to get it right.

For me the jury is still out on nocturnal cyclists, waste disposal and double-leaf bascule spans just 30 feet up. But I can tell you from personal experience the conventional wisdom I received around Puget Sound about Comcast is spot on.

In its effort to provide me with cable TV, Internet and telephone under its Xfinity brand name, the company’s cable guys have been out to my house three times. The second visit lasted more than four hours. I still don’t have everything working exactly the way I want. But we’re getting closer.

Philadelphia-based Comcast is the nation’s largest cable and Internet operation, a major provider of home telephone service and majority owner of NBC Universal. So it’s an extremely easy target for critics. But I came to Seattle as a satisfied former Comcast customer who had found the company’s service very reliable in two other places I’ve lived, New Mexico and California.

That may yet prove to be true in Seattle, which is quite the Comcast stronghold. But for me the jury is still out. Continue reading

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Why is Seattle so defensive about its weather?

A rainy day in Seattle

A rainy day in Seattle (Image by Michael Holden via Flickr)

If there’s a U.S. city more defensive about its weather for no good reason than Seattle, I’ve yet to visit it.

What other conclusion can I draw? I’ve had essentially the same conversation with almost every person I’ve chatted up—checkout clerks, neighbors, total strangers–since moving to Seattle in June. It goes something like this:

Me: “I’m New To Seattle. Just moved here.”

Other Person: “Oh, from where?”

Me: “Los Angeles area.”

Other Person: “Oh, you came at a good time. But don’t expect the nice weather you’re about to get for more than a few months. We get a lot of rain here, and not much sun.”

A variation on this theme: “Enjoy it while it lasts, because it won’t last too long.”

A few people have even felt the urge to apologize to me for the climate change that awaits me, like they worked for God or the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. One worried employee at a Fred Meyer store actually asked if I had brought along rain gear, as though nowhere else in the country experiences precipitation.

It’s as if I’ve moved to a city full of lawyers determined to make sure I couldn’t sue on the basis of false representations about the climate. Continue reading

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My quirky test for gauging the economy in Seattle

DOL logoYou can take the measure of a local economy in any number of ways. The unemployment rate. Job growth. Real estate prices and housing starts. In Seattle, cruise-boat boardings. Economists weigh all kinds of statistics when they issue their ponderous periodic judgments, which you then learn about in what’s left of the news media if you haven’t tuned out.

Me, I have a much simpler procedure for determining how things are going in the here and now. In fact it consists of a single number applied on a one-time basis.

I call it the DMV Test. And by that measure, the Seattle area is still hurting. Badly.

Let me explain. In most other states DMV means Department (or Division) of Motor Vehicles, and it’s where a newcomer generally goes to get a driver’s license. Here in Washington State, it’s called the Department of Licensing, because the agency handles a lot of other permissions having nothing to do with motoring, like notaries public, morticians and, believe it or not, kick boxers. But DOL doesn’t work for me (it sounds like a raunchy text message abbreviation), so for this post I’ll stick with DMV.

Since I’m New To Seattle–hey, that’s the name of this blog!–and fresh from California, I had to get a Washington State driver’s license. Which brings me to my DMV Test for measuring any new economy in which I suddenly find myself immersed: How long does it take me from when I arrive at the licensing office to when I leave with a new driver’s license in my wallet?

Before I answer, a little perspective both professional and personal. In my experience, the longer the lines and the longer the wait at the DMV, the better the economy. That’s because people are rushing in from other places to take new jobs–hopefully better than the ones they left behind–often as part of the perception of boom times. So the DMV Test is an inverse measure: the lower the minutes count, the worst the economy.

Of course, all booms lead to a bust, but that’s a topic best left for another post.

As a journalist who has moved around a lot, I have considerable experience getting a driver’s license. Continue reading

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