West

For the first time in well over two years, I skipped one. A post, that is.

We’re creatures of habit, and for me it’s critical to write here every weekend—not only do people expect it, but it focuses my mind. So I was upset and surprisingly guilty for the omission. But I was raised a Catholic—a quick confession, two Hail Marys, ego te absolvo, and you’re good to go.

As it happens, on Saturday I was on a clam farm in northern Puget Sound, and the tide waits for no man. I had a great taste of the frontier life of the northwestern United States. Pickup trucks have replaced the horse and cart, but the work is hard, and people depend on themselves—no one expects anything from the government.

In fact, in rural areas such as this, no one even talks about the government, only about what the community does—and occasionally about the silly government things that hinder community activities.

This is big country, run on self-reliance and ibuprofen.

In one tide, we brought in five thousand pounds of clams—that’s about two thousand three hundred kilos, worth just over nine thousand dollars—not bad for a day’s work. I had to leave on Sunday, but the farmer did two more tides, although Monday was mainly clean-up. All told, twelve thousand pounds of clams in the three day harvest.

In Europe, the American sense of humor isn't as well-recognized as it should be. This is partly due to the Brits, who think they have an exclusive on the subject.

In Europe, the American sense of humor isn’t as well recognized as it should be. This is partly due to the Brits, who think they have a monopoly on the subject.

There were four of us on Saturday, three on Sunday, and two on Monday. In the U.S., labor costs are high; when I was driving up to Seattle two days ago, or rather crawling along I5, the freeway that goes all the way from Tijuana to Canada, city workers were striking for a fifteen dollar per hour minimum wage. For an eight hour day, that works out at over two thousand six hundred bucks a month,

Over four times minimum wage in Portugal, and this is for kids that work in McDonald’s. And that multiple is artificial, due to the weak dollar. Larry Summers is on record as a non-believer in QE: if he becomes the new Fed chairman, as seems likely, then the US may finally stop printing money. That, and the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, will push up the greenback.

In terms of buying power, the multiple will be closer to ten, given it costs forty dollars to fill a gas tank, and food and drink are cheaper than in Lisbon. Even wine is cheaper; for the first time in my life, I brought back two bottles of American tinto—some of my French friends will be crying sacrebleu.  The bottles in question are from the Snoqualmie vineyards in Washington State. Don’t take my word on points (both price point and score).

As usual, I was cut off from Europe, and even the Spanish train wreck had less prominence than the Treyvon Martin verdict. I did learn a new word, coined to describe the extemely obese, and by that I mean people who weigh anywhere between three hundred and six hundred pounds. At that scale (sorry), the person is diagnosed as bariatric.

Like barometer, the word is rooted in the Greek ‘bar’—a Google search yields close to eight million hits. A nurse explained to me that one of the first challenges is removing patients from their beds, using custom-made gurneys, often after demolition work to enable the person to fit through the doorway. Nursing staff in turn develop chronic back pain from the effort of turning bed-ridden patients, in a vicious circle of disability and cost.

Two of the industries that flourish in that market are the foods that help put on the weight, and the surgery that removes it. If you excuse the pun, I can imagine the pressure that exists to encourage the ever-greater purchase of food. The U.S. is a land of ingenuity and enterprise, so you can find bariatric matresses that will deal with the turning, to avoid manual effort and bedsores.

As the developing world prospers, bariatrics become a symptom of new-found wealth. India now has an estimated sixty million, equivalent to the population of the U.K. The web abounds with Indian clinics vying for the opportunity to perform gastric band surgery and other procedures for weight loss. On the other side of the equation are the fast food chains, exporting the American dream to Asian nations, and converting ordinary folk into calorie nightmares.

For a person to go from a weight of twelve and a half stone (80 kg) to six hundred pounds (270 kg) over a period of ten years, a daily intake of almost one and three quarter pounds (750 g) of food would be needed. While that is a gross excess, a simple mass-based calculation is not accurate, because it doesn’t include the caloric value of the foods—anyone who’s ever considered a diet knows that.

Snacks are one of the culprits, together with sugary drinks. As usual, I was consuming wine in the U.S. but I never got a complimentary refill, whereas the good people I was with drank iced tea with free top-ups.

A Dungeness crab who made his way under the netting to feast on Manila clams. As the crab tries to escape, it pushes its carapa<e against the hard plastic net, causing the lesion. After a time, the plastic penetrates the shell and the animal dies. Nature takes no prisoners.

A Dungeness crab who made his way under the netting to feast on Manila clams. As the crab tries to escape, it rubs its carapace against the hard plastic. Eventually the scar becomes an open wound and the crab dies. Nature takes no prisoners.

When I was up in north Puget Sound, I saw the signs for Fidalgo island, undoubtedly named after a Portuguese sailor. Almost all the scientists I met were involved with shellfish farming directly—usually they owned farms. One guy told me he hired pickers with records. Criminal? Yup. Men who worked for piece rates, a couple of days a week. People who no one else would touch, and who might well be back in jail but for this opportunity.

Some will probably have been in prison for offenses related to cannabis. But now Washington State, together with Colorado, have legalized pot, and this is sprouting a host of cannabis cafes. On my early Sunday drive through the deserted roads of Samish Island, wending my way to the interstate, I tuned into the local radio station. Religion is never far from you in America, from bumper stickers to TV preachers, so I was amazed to find myself listening to a round table discussion on pot recipes.

A perfectly serious lady described how she extracted the THC (tetrahydro cannabinol, the active substance in pot) and proceeded to incorporate it not just in the traditional brownies, but as a psychoactive ingredient in your Sunday roast. That’ll get the kids to table in no time. And I imagine the two states will see a boost  in snack sales.

In my travels, both in North Carolina and Washington, I didn’t meet a single family that didn’t own a boat. One guy had six. But the highlight was a man who was sorting oysters, with water up to his thighs. He told me he’d had nine heart attacks and beaten cancer once.

He’d lost thirty-five pounds, and was still double my size. And he had the best hat in the world: born to fish, forced to work.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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