Rainy Day in Astoria

We drove out to the coast today, just needing to get out of town for a day. I spent most of the drive out reading Bleak House in the back seat. It’s the second time I’ve read it and though I’m only about 50 pages in, I’m already somewhat annoyed with one of the main characters–and I can’t remember if she gets more interesting!

It’s a cool, rainy day. This isn’t much of a surprise, since it’s February in the Pacific Northwest. The Man has lots of reading to get done for his class this weekend, so we’ve actually spent most of the day at a coffee shop here. Funny, we’d probably have done pretty much the same thing if we’d stayed in Portland. Yet the change of scenery makes it seem more interesting and less stressful in a way. It’s almost like we’re on vacation and there’s no itch to get home and do chores, or go grocery shopping, or make plans for later with friends.

Coffee Shop

As soon as we got out of the car, we could smell the ocean. It’s a smell I miss from my time living in the Other Portland. And Astoria definitely has a similar feel to that other small coastal city several thousand miles away on a different ocean. We’ve talked about moving to a small town for a few years after he graduates so that he can get a portion of his loans forgiven by working in a underserved community. Part of me thinks I could live in a place like Astoria for a few years, but I’m not sure if that’s realistic. Astoria is even smaller than Portland, Maine. It’s one thing to spend a day or two here feeling like I’m on vacation. It would be quite another to be here year round. Maybe if I were ever to become a full-time writer or had a job that I could telecommute for, but I think that I would find living in a small town like this quite challenging. I very much value the chance to be anonymous in a city, the ability to go somewhere and not run into everyone you know in the space of 10 minutes.

So, maybe living in Astoria–or any other small town–isn’t really in the cards. Maybe we’ll need to find an underserved community that’s close to a big city. Or maybe we’ll need to spend a few years not living together. Or maybe I’ll need to be flexible and look at it as an adventure.

The rain is relentless and comes in waves. Barely a drizzle one moment and pouring down hard the next. We probably won’t walk over to the house from The Goonie’s or the school from Kindergarten Cop on this visit. We’ve been there and done that before besides. I’m fortified with caffeine and starting to itch a bit to get back on the road soon. The Man recently found out that he needs glasses, especially when he drives at night, so I get to drive home. I’d rather drive while there’s still some day light left. But this coffee shop is warm and cozy and provides coloring books and colored pencils and mellow music.

But we’re not really on vacation. And we’re not really living here. Just visiting. And we need to go home and do the dishes at some point.

Advertisements

Architecture is important

I just read an article in the New York Times suggesting how to resurrect the grandness of the old Penn Station (A Proposal for Penn Station and Madison Square Garden). If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be in the current Penn Station, you know that any change could only be an improvement.

The first time I took a train into New York, I was probably 12 or 13. It was the week after Christmas, and the last Christmas that I can remember that my dad’s entire side of the family was all together–all the aunts and uncles and cousins. The aunts and uncles and cousins decided to take a day trip into New York, so we drove down to Connecticut, where some other relatives lived (a great-aunt and uncle, I think), and we took the Metro-North train into the city. I was disappointed that the approach to the terminal was made through tunnels and that there were no grand vistas of the New York skyline to be seen. My disappointment was paid back many times over, however, when we disembarked at Grand Central Terminal. The platform was nothing special, but walking up to the main concourse of the station was incredible. It was probably the first time that I’d ever been in such a large interior open space. And there were stars painted on the ceiling! Thinking back, it occurs to me that many of those stars were probably no longer visible at night in New York even when the station was constructed in the early 20th century. Now, I wonder how many people stop to enjoy the view that they never get anywhere else in the city.

My memories of the rest of that day in the city are a haze of department store holiday windows, snow, enormous buildings, laughing with family, and the want to spend more than just a day in New York. But coming and going via Grand Central is firmly fixed in my mind. It lived up to the mystique I had already associated with it and with the rest of the city from books and movies and television. What an amazing gift to be able to come and go daily through such a wonderful space as that!

Eight or ten years later, I took the train again into New York. I was in college now and was going to spend some time with a friend in Brooklyn before we took the train back together to Montréal. I knew that my Amtrak train would leave me at Penn Station and not Grand Central, but can you imagine my crushing disbelief at being confronted with the reality of Penn Station? I distinctly remember coming up from the platform into the claustrophobic crush of those bland, low ceilings and thinking, “Huh. There must be another level up before the main concourse.” Sadly, no. That was the main concourse. I was so very confused. Why would anyone ever want to be in this building? It was so bland and enclosed and so decidedly NOT Grand Central Terminal. I couldn’t understand how such a city as New York could ever have such a rail station as Penn. It seemed a cruel joke. As one architectural historian lamented, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

And so it’s nice to read that there are still people who realize the horror of the current Penn Station when compared to what came before, and who hope that we might end that reign of horror in the near future.

If anyone ever tells you that architecture doesn’t matter, please bring them to the concourse of Penn Station, which today looks like this:

Penn Station, Main Concourse

And show them a picture of what this replaced:

Old Penn Station

And ask them which one they’d rather be standing in today.

Food Politics and Gender Politics

I just read a post on Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics, about Walmart’s new front-of-package “buy me” logo. Though the FDA hasn’t moved forward on putting together a system of front-of-package labeling to mark healthy and unhealthy food products, Walmart is going for it. The article suggests that the criteria for deciding which products receive a “Great for You” label are actually fairly stringent, which is a good thing.

But that’s not what caught my attention in this post. What caught my attention was the pull quote from the Walmart press release announcing this new labeling on their store-brand products:

Walmart moms are telling us they want to make healthier choices for their families, but need help deciphering all the claims and information already displayed on products…Our ‘Great For You’ icon provides customers with an easy way to quickly identify healthier food choices…this simple tool encourages families to have a healthier diet.

“Walmart moms.” Not, “our customers” or “Walmart families”, but specifically Walmart moms. It may be true that moms are the doing the majority of food shopping at Walmart, but phrasing like this precludes the possibility that anyone else in the family might have opinions or input into food choices. Do “Walmart dads” not care what their families eat? If this were a press release about a new power tool rating system, would we be hearing about what “Walmart moms” think? Probably not.

I get it. I understand traditional gender roles and how embedded they are in our culture. I just wish that they weren’t. I wish that dads were also seen as caring about their families’ health. And I wish that moms were seen as caring about power tool safety. And I wish that gender didn’t play into this at all. I wish that I were reading about “Walmart parents” caring about the health of their families.