Surveiled

I took my regular walk in my neighborhood this morning. It was Sunday, already hot at 10:00 am, and super quiet. No one was around except for the odd car driving by.

Suddenly, I heard a cheery, female voice. “Hi!” it said. I looked around, but didn’t see anyone.

“You are being recorded,” said the disembodied voice.

Ugh. Really? I thought. I couldn’t see a camera anywhere, and it wasn’t clear whether the voice came from my right or left. It sort of came from… above?

I continued on my walk, knowing that to someone, I looked as horrible as I do on those self-checkout cameras at Target. I was glad I wouldn’t see the footage, but I was also a little ticked. I wasn’t on anyone’s property, I was in the street, a good six feet from the curb to avoid parked cars — there are no sidewalks in this part of our apparently heavily-monitored neighborhood.

I get it. It’s 2022 and we are on camera almost everywhere we go — malls, grocery stores, gas stations, and drive thru windows. I accept that, because I understand the business owners are trying to protect their property and employees from robbers or vandals. Even though I try hard not to look at myself in the self-checkout monitor screens, I understand why they’re there.

I even understand Ring doorbells. If I’m on someone’s property, I have to accept the owner’s wish to record me. I don’t like it, but I get it. I can’t tell you how many Amazon packages I’ve thought about stealing until I saw the camera. I could be making bank, but those Ring videos thwart me every time. So yeah, I do understand the need to guard your home.

What I experienced this morning is different. It’s a little bit scary, slightly dystopian, and irritating. Where does it end? How much can we surveil our streets until we feel safe? Our boring, middle class, suburban Los Angeles neighborhood is already pretty safe by any standard. Aside from the occasional Fast and Furious wannabe teens doing donuts late at night, it’s rare to see a police car on our streets.

The next logical step in this constant-surveillance future we’re ushering in is recording and monitoring activities going on inside our homes. After all, couldn’t law enforcement protect us better if they could stop crime before it happens? You never know what’s going on in that house across the street. Isn’t it our right to know if there’s evil lurking behind those closed doors? What if it — gasp — gets out?

After all, we already have our homes stuffed with Nest thermometers, Alexa devices, and pet monitors. The structure is in place. We only need a few loud, self-righteous politicians to stir things up, creating new laws to “protect” us from ourselves. And, with every set of ten cameras you install, you get a free set of pearls to clutch.

In ten years, no one will think I was exaggerating.

Charge!

I was just thinking about all the things I charge around my house:

  • Razor
  • Laptop(s)
  • Phone
  • Earbuds
  • Mouse
  • Keyboard
  • Car

These things use very little electricity to stay charged. Living in Southern California, it seems crazy that we don’t have solar panels on our roof. Since we don’t own the house, it doesn’t make sense to pay for them. When we do own our home, that will be a priority.

In the meantime, I’ve been wondering about portable solar chargers. Mostly for emergencies, but also just because it’s an interesting idea.

Helping but not helping

Lonely chair and weeds photo by Adam Tagarro

Our yard is a mess.

Okay, it’s mostly fine but we have a lot of weeds, and the grass — where it exists — is dry and crackly. I’m okay with this for the most part because we live in super dry Southern California and it turns out that the natural landscape is not a golf course. I checked.

Don’t tell the neighbors and don’t get me started on overwatering.

We have a citrus tree, a Japanese Maple, a Loquat tree, a large green bush of some kind, a Rosemary bush that is approximately the size of Rhode Island (it even has its own government), and various other plants like lavender and… other stuff.

The funny thing is, we rarely water any of it. Somehow it’s all getting water anyway, and even if it’s coming from the irradiated groundswells of the old RocketDyne plant, they seem to be doing okay.

But the weeds.

They suck and I hate them. Sometimes I manage to coerce my 14-yr old into helping me pull them. Sometimes I wack them out of spite, and other times I spray them with a natural weed killer made from vinegar — I have a restraining order against RoundUp and it is not allowed within 50 feet of my body.

Either way, it’s for me to handle and I do have a plan, even if the plan is slightly slapdash and sometimes not working at all. And while I don’t like the weeds taking over the yard, they’re just weeds. Our landlord disagrees, but he is among the Southern-California-was-originally-a-Mayan-golf-course believers, so unless there are no weeds and a bright green lawn, he is not happy.

Today was one of those days when I put on my landscaper’s uniform (Trader Joe’s long sleeve crew tee, old Calvin Klein pants, hiking boots, floppy hat) and pretend that I’m not just trying to justify the purchase of the gardening tools I’ve collected. As I’m working away, our neighbor’s (real) landscaper shows up. This guy hates seeing me pull and wack weeds. I think it’s actually painful for him. He’s come over a few times and offered to let me borrow his gas-powered weed wacker (ours is electric). It’s like that scene in Three Amigos where Jefe swaps his gun for Ned’s.

Today, he pulled up, saw me using my little Ned gun weed wacker, waited until I went into the backyard, and started cutting down all the weeds I had left behind. Most people — normal, rational people — would have shrugged and said, “Well, at least the neighbors are paying for it,” and gone to take a shower.

Me? I got mad. I went out and told him to stop. I tried to explain that I had a plan (such as it is), and I had intended to spray the smaller, live weeds I hadn’t wacked so they would die and I could get rid of them later. While he understood the words coming out of my mouth, they did not make any sense to him. “I’m just trying to help you,” he explained. I thanked him and told him I appreciate the gesture, but really, I have a plan. He looked at the weeds, then he looked at me like I just said that aliens come down from space and handle my yard work. Then he shrugged and left.

There’s a scene in some movie (Up, maybe?) where a Boy Scout is trying to earn his Helping Old People badge, but he ends up doing things like helping an old lady cross the street when she didn’t even want to be on the other side.

Helping, but not helping.

Another notable example of helping not helping happened many years ago. Our family was eating at an Italian restaurant. We ordered one of the only pasta dishes on the menu that was vegetarian. When it arrived, it had little chunks of something in it. Was it meat? We asked. The owner said, “Yes! I added some pork in there for you. Don’t worry, it’s no extra charge.” He thought we couldn’t afford the meat.

Helping, but not helping.

Most humans want to help whenever they can. It’s a lovely trait. But before jumping in with your rescue pants on, it’s good to consider a couple of things:

  • Is help wanted?
  • Is it the right kind of help?

The only way to find out is to ask. And it’s also good to ask because there are also a lot of people who have a hard time asking for help. I’m one of them.

I want to be grateful for the free pork, but I don’t eat meat. I want to say thank you for chopping my weeds, but I had another plan. I want to be relieved that I got help crossing the street, but I was waiting for the bus on the other side.

Get off my lawn

A pair of feet jumping off a lush, green lawn. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.

Phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst…

On one of my morning walks in our suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, I took a detour around a home where a mass of sprinklers was dousing the lawn in little arcs. The lawn was green, lush and beautiful. If I played golf, I probably would have been tempted to tee up. Instead, I skirted the yard and went into the street to avoid getting my ankles splashed and my feet wet. Puddles formed on the sidewalk and the excess water not soaked up by the grass and dirt ran down the street in little streams.

Rather than pause to revel in the splendorous high pile of Kentucky blue grass, I thought about the fact that Southern California is in the middle of another drought year. As I watched the water run down the gutter, I imagined how much of it could have been used for drinking, cooking or bathing. Like the two expensive SUVs parked in the driveway, the lawn seemed like just another upper middle class trophy. Look! the lawn seemed to boast, they are doing so well they can even let their water run down the street!

Don’t get me wrong, I love grass. I love trees and thick, green forests. I grew up partially in the midwest, where lawns were ubiquitous. Unlike in the Southwestern desert, they didn’t need much tending to keep them going. They got plenty of rain and shade from the tall, mature trees in the neighborhood. It was a rare occurrence for my parents to put out the sprinkler on a scorching summer day to water the yellowing patches in the yard. For us kids, running through the sprinklers was an exciting rite of passage, a signal that school was still months away. It was also likely defeating the purpose as we trampled the grass on every pass. Somehow it always grew back anyway.

When I was ten, we moved from Chicago to Phoenix and I was full of questions. If it’s a desert, where will we get water? Will we have water? What if we run out? My vision of the desert at the time was taken from old TV and movies, where someone was always dying of thirst or covered in dust. I was surprised and relieved to find that our new home was in a suburb not unlike the one we just left. We had showers, sinks, toilets, running water and eventually even a pool. We were going to be okay.

Our yard, however, was a completely different story. It was covered in little rocks. There was a small tree and some bushes, but the ground cover was definitely not play-friendly. In fact, we were lectured not to ever walk or run through the yard because we would disturb the black plastic sheeting underneath that was keeping the weeds from growing. Because I was bad at listening, or following rules, or maybe just because I was ten, one of my favorite pastimes was running at full speed and seeing if I could clear the bush in the middle of the yard. Once my activity was discovered, I was given the job of pulling the weeds that were now popping up all over the place. If pulling weeds out of grass is annoying, digging your knuckles into sharp rocks is torturous.

A house in suburban Phoenix with rocks in the front yard.
A recent photo of the house where I grew up in suburban Phoenix. It looked almost exactly like this in 1980.

It didn’t take long for me to stop worrying about where our water came from. I splashed around in our pool without a care of water sources. I was satisfied after I learned that we had plenty of water because it was piped in from the Salt and Verde rivers, as well as the Colorado River. Plenty!

That’s still the case today. Phoenix largely gets its water from outside sources. Similarly, Los Angeles gets the majority of its water from the Owens River Valley, which in turn depends on snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas. If there’s little to no snow pack in the winter, there’s a drought in the spring and summer.

These systems worked okay when there weren’t almost 4 million people needing fresh water. It’s getting increasingly hard to serve such a huge (and growing) population. It’s fascinating to me that a majority of people seem to live as if the supply is endless. I don’t know if it’s willful ignorance or a genuine misunderstanding of the environment in which we live. It’s also both amusing and maddening that we blame avocado and almond crops for greedily sucking up all the water, when my own observations have shown me:

  1. Several cars waiting in line at the local car wash, all of them without a speck of dirt
  2. The aforementioned over watering and maintenance of golf-course level lawns
  3. The massively wasteful animal agriculture industry. If you’ve ever driven on I-5 through central California and held your nose for several miles, that’s what you smelled. But sure, almonds are evil.
  4. Overshowering, when George Carlin’s “four key areas” method works just fine.

Aside from just being cranky about the water waste from lawn maintenance, I am fascinated by the fact that in spite of all the gorgeous green carpet I see in our neighborhood, I notice one odd thing. I never see anyone actually using the lawn. No one ever sits on them, naps on them, or plays on them. They are purely decorative.

When we moved into our current home, the lawn had been very carefully built and maintained so as to attract renters like us. I admit that it worked. However, my just-spent-four-years-in-Oregon sensibility changed when I realized how much water we were losing every time the sprinklers came on. We slowly dialed it back until our landlord started complaining about how some of the grass was dying. To appease him, we dialed it back up until we started noticing mushrooms growing in the yard. So back down it went. We wondered how the trees and bushes could thrive without much water, but the grass could not. Our neighbors have beautiful rose bushes and other plants but they never water their yard at all. I started looking at my favorite yards, the ones with dirt and colorful desert plants, and decided that was really the way to go. Over the years our landlord has softened on the grass issue. We water the plants in the front yard with a hose a couple times per week, but I even wonder if maybe they’re getting enough water from the ground anyway.

Sometimes I miss the “accidental” green lawns of Germany, Chicago, or Oregon. I also miss the desert of Arizona. When I think about missing those things, I realize that what I miss is experiencing them for exactly what they are. I’m starting to understand what I used to hear people say about Los Angeles being fake. It’s not the people and it’s not Hollywood. It’s the day-to-day manufacturing of a different environment instead of experiencing the one we’re in at the moment.