Victoria Wander (Day 11)

After so much eating over the past few days, I cleverly planned to start this day with a long, leisurely bike ride, curated by The Pedaler Cyclery. Detouring through the back neighborhoods and beaches of eastern Victoria showed me a new side of this beautiful city, and my excellent guide, Charlie, filled me in on a plethora of fascinating history.

Willows Beach, Victoria BC. Photo by kajmeister.

Keep Yer Potatoes Outta My Pig

Y’all know that I love a good story, so I’m going to steal most of Charlie’s, but I have to say if you are ever in Victoria–and don’t you think you must go after everything I’ve said?–please do take a tour with these folks. I was immediately seduced and, for the first time in several days, it was not by bacon. I fell in love with the electric bike. I like a long ride, but my knees have not been cooperative in recent months. Yet all you do with these little contraptions is up the power a little and whup-up-up, bob’s your uncle, you’re up the hill and still pedaling. We meandered hither and yon through beautiful neighborhoods and park, first stop over to Finlayson Point where Charlie started spinning tales.

Guide Charlie at the swanky Oak Bay Marina. Photo by kajmeister.

Did you know that the U.S. and Canada nearly had shots fired over–a pig? It was June 1859, which Americans who paid attention in school will note was right before the outbreak of our Civil War. Despite the belligerence of a previous President ( Polk: 54.40 or Fight!), the U.S./Canada boundary had been set at the 49th parallel of latitude, which was cleanly below Vancouver Island and what is now also the city of Vancouver. But there was a problem.

Sailors out of Puget Sound needed a clean channel through the Straits of San Juan de Fuca and Georgia to move north. The people on the boats also needed to know where territorial waters ended, since those lines can differ from land ones. The U.S. favored a boundary closer to Canadian land while the Canadians, or rather still the British, wanted to extend the line further into the waters. And what about the islands?

Disputed territories in 1859. Canadians favored the blue, Americans the red. Compromised on the green. Photo from wikipedia.

The story goes that there was an Irish-Canadian and an American pioneer both living on San Juan Island, in disputed territory. The Irishman let his pigs wander where they might and one kept eating the potatoes farmed by the other fellow, until one day, American Lyman Cutler shot the pig. After all, it was, “Eating my potatoes!” Charles Griffin’s response: “Then you should keep your potatoes out of my pig!”

Both British and Americans brandished weapons and mustered troops on the island. This was after the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, when Americans were still shooting everything that moved and military enthusiasm hadn’t yet been dampened by brothers killing each other. George Pickett commanded the Americans, four years before he would lead the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The British redoubt was fortified by Henry Robert, who later created Robert’s Rules of Order. The two sides eventually created an uneasy truce, with a hundred soldiers stationed on each side of a fence a wee bit less dangerous than the Berlin Wall. After a dozen years passed in lazy joint occupation, Kaiser Wilhelm I was asked to mediate, and he sided with the Americans, ceding San Juan Island to the U.S. rather than the pigs.

Trafalgar Park, facing Olympic National Park, where we visited last week. Photo by kajmeister.

Bone House

Our bike ride pressed on, and we passed through two separate cemeteries on the way to the next coastline. The first, Ross Cemetery, was named for the first independent woman landowner in British Columbia, Isabella Mainville Ross. She was a Metis woman, daughter to a French-speaking fur trader and his Ojibwe wife. She in turn married another fur trader working for the Hudson Bay Company (which, as I mentioned yesterday, owned everything nearby at the time). During her husband’s absence and after his death, Isabella was well-known for her strength as a businesswoman and bargainer. Once when she was trading furs, some people came in and drew knives on her children. She chased them out of the shop and kept on about her business. There are many strong-willed women whose names thread throughout the plaques next to the men’s.

As we continued on past gravestones of Isabella and Sir James Douglas, Charlie was telling me that the deer in Victoria had become pretty brazen. I myself had seen one the night before walking up the driveway where we were staying, and it could hardly be bothered to move out of the way. Passing the headstones, sure enough, here came a four-point buck, nonchalantly sauntering by. Apparently, they think they’re elk here, and certainly in the cemetery, at peace with the spirits. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

Meanwhile, we came upon a more remote patch of green, sparser, overlooking the water. This was the Chinese cemetery, which has its own history. When the earliest Chinese immigrants came to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s, they were kept as segregated as possible, including in death. They were buried in a separate part of Ross Cemetery initially, some in graves simply marked “Chinaman No. 1” and in a portion nearly at sea level. During raging storms, some of these graves were simply swept out to sea.

In 1903, these graves were dug up and moved to a new location purchased by the Chinese Benevolent Association. This cemetery was bleak and, at the time, overlooked a deserted beach (which now sports million-dollar views by the surrounding Oak Bay and Victorian Golf Club). Guangdou Chinese burial practices for these folks also required they be exhumed after seven years and stored in a “bone house.” Ultimately, the remains would be shipped to the ancestral home of the deceased in keeping with tradition and also to send them where they would be more honored. That practice halted during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 and the bone house remains of 900 people were reburied in the 1960s. They still have the view.

Home of the British Columbia Lieutenant Governor. Photo by kajmeister.

Impressive Buildings, Ignominious End

We cycled right through the drive way of the home of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. The quiet, well-manicured gardens are publically-maintained and, therefore, freely open to the public. We also enjoyed the views from Craigdarroch Castle, built by a Dunsmuir from Scotland, to entice his wife Joan across the planet to this end of the north. Finally, we landed behind the Victorian legislative buildings, designed by Francis Rattenbury who also designed the Empress Hotel.

Rattenbury was a 25-year old immigrant from Leeds when he submitted his drawings under the name “A.B.C. Architect” and won the competition to design the British Columbian Parliament in 1891. While the project surpassed the budget by nearly double, the grand Romanesque style fit the idea of the times. My guide Charlie said that because the architecht wanted the multiple domes atop to be as green as possible, he had the workers pee on the domes and when that wasn’t enough, he got them to gather buckets of horse urine from the local stables to speed the process. Somehow it seems a fitting way to inaugurate the houses of Parliament.

Also, because the project went over schedule, the electrical work wasn’t finished at the time of opening. To compensate, the electrician also strung lights around the outside of the building, which creates that magical nightscape view (see yesterday’s post) so famous on Victoria postcards.

Francis Rattenbury received dozens of commissions and had a well-respected architectural career. Unfortunately, his busy lifestyle and wandering eye caused him to leave his first wife and children, apparently abruptly shutting off their electricity and services while they were still living there. He took up with a twice-married younger woman, but that relationship soured, too, and she took up with their chauffeur. In the end, Rattenbury was found with his head bashed in, the chauffeur and Anna both went to prison, and Anna took her own life even after being acquitted.

The good part of the story is that Rattenbury’s son John also became an architect. He was not in favor of the ostentatious style favored by dad, so he actually went off to study under Frank Lloyd Wright and eventually joined the group of Taliesin Architects in Scottsdale, Arizona.

But Don’t Raise Your Pinky

In a fitting end to the story and our trip, we went off to have High Tea at the Empress Hotel, that other local building designed by our infamous architect. This iconic structure was built on a bog, filled in by the owners to extend waterfront property. As a result, the hotel a century later is sinking, which is why you can see today that the front windows sit below sea level.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed tea in traditional grand style. High tea is so named because it requires sitting at a table, rather than on a couch or settee, which usually means it includes meat in a sandwich or hot foods, rather than just scones. Also, by the way, these were proper scones, a cross between shortbread and a southern biscuit, layered and flaky. Whatever we get in the U.S.–those dry, triangular wedges–are not scones. Those are skonz in the same way that Hot Pockets are pies. Just as Southerners deploy the white gravy, the English break out the clotted cream. We might have licked the spoon and the bowl, but no evidence remains.

Ready for High Tea? Five-fingered grip, please. Photo by kajmeister.

A friend suggested I remember to raise my pinky, which I did. Then, I looked it up, and oops! Raising a pinky when drinking tea is not protocol but rather a sign of snobbishness. Originally, cultured people ate their scones and biscuits (cookies, my American friends) with three fingers, while working people used five fingers. But everyone drank tea with a firm, five-fingered grip. Use your whole hand.

Especially to wave goodbye to Victoria. Time to head back down south.

The Hottest Ticket in Town

The Divine Sarah Bernhardt playing Cleopatra, the original transformational theater experience

Transformational! G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)! You’ve never experienced anything like it!

Gobblyedook? Hyperbole? No, as you might guess, these were some of the Facebook comments about Hamilton, which we enjoyed seeing in San Francisco last week, despite the exaggeration and hoopla surrounding its existence. This is not a review of the show, about which you most likely already have an opinion, but it got me to thinking about the other It Performances and Artistic Experiences that also left long shadows from say fifty, a hundred, or even longer ago.

Contrary to some recently held beliefs, Hamilton is not the only theater experience that has ever been deemed life-changing. It was only about fifty years ago that musicals themselves were transformed by the introduction of contemporary music, young people, and irreverent ideas, in the first true rock musical, Hair. A century ago, there was a single person–and her rival–who changed all of theater. Still further back, there was a guy who changed how people wrote, what people read, and even how people think about Christmas. There are all sorts of ways to influence the arts.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House…

The musical Hair premiered off-Broadway in 1967, before moving to Broadway for a very popular, if critically tepid, run. When it migrated to London’s West End in 1968, the start was delayed until changes were made to the Theatres Act in order to allow for the nudity and profanity. Then, it ran in London for nearly 2000 performances.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who also appeared in the show, the musical explored the controversial themes that exploded across headlines the late Sixties: the youth counterculture, opposition to the war, air pollution, racism, free love, and bureaucratic oppression. The songs are joyous and sarcastic, hummable tunes of subversion. We had the album at home when I was nine, and I loved it. Of course, there was no place to actually look up the words to the lyrics, so imagine my dismay at 23, when I finally realized some of the words I was singing in the tune “Sodomyyyyyy…..”

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Trigonometry: Secant-ing out New Life in Ancient Civilizations

Plimpton 322 from

It’s irresistible. The siren song of Wikipedia calls to me. All I was trying to do was find out which Greek invented trigonometry. Was it Pythagoras and his bean-renouncing cult or someone else? And I come across this enticing little tidbit, a curious little reference which, to a history buff is like the smell of fresh cookies…

Based on one interpretation of the Plimpton 322 cuneiform tablet (c. 1900 BC), some have even asserted that the ancient Babylonians had a table of secants.[8] There is, however, much debate as to whether it is a table of Pythagorean triples, a solution of quadratic equations, or a trigonometric table.

Wikipedia: History of Trigonometry

Much debate? Some have asserted? This sounds like historical mystery to me. I was instantly overjoyed at the thought of poking around to see if anyone denounced anyone else in the public square or started fistfights or wrote long letters to the editor of scientific journals about how their enemies were cretins who didn’t know a hypotenuse from a hippopotamus. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Don’t Be Afeared, it’s Just Math

First, a few definitions. Even if you’ve never taken trigonometry or if the very word causes you to put a blanket over your head, don’t worry. Imagine that it’s a warm sunny day in Greece (or Babylonia or Sumeria or Egypt) and you notice that the pillar of the nearby temple, next to where you are sunning yourself, throws a shadow. Since you like to measure things, you get out your handy measuring stick and you measure the length of the shadow. You know the length of the pillar. You start doing calculations.

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Who in the Heck is Harriet Quimby?

Posed photo Harriet Quimby
Photo at

Harriet Quimby was the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, the first woman to fly at night, and the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She was a pioneering journalist, who wrote for San Francisco newspapers and ultimately as a staff writer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a widely-read New York paper. Quimby also wrote several movie screenplays for D. W. Griffith. Known as the “Dresden China Aviatrix” because of her stature and fair skin, she cultivated a daredevil persona that led to commercial endorsements and earned six-figure fees for appearing at Air Meets. Her career kept her too busy for marriage. She died at age 37 in a tragic accident at an air show.

Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Amelia Earhart, citing Quimby’s legacy as a role model

I was playing a game where you have to generate names of things starting with specific letters. Ready? Think of Auto Models, Occupations, Ice Cream Flavors, Scientists, and Countries of the Eastern Hemisphere starting with ….Q. (Quest, Quartermaster, Quince–yes, there is quince flavored ice cream, ugh pass on scientist, Qatar). I was really stumped on Q-named Scientists. Internet lists only mention three: statistician Adolphe Quetelet, astronomer Thabit ibn Qurra (who was known as Thabit, so really doesn’t count), and Harriet Quimby. Ah, the entrance to a cyberspace rabbit hole.

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Are We Not Proud?

As 2019 is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and the 49th anniversary of the San Francisco LGBT Pride March, this seems the perfect essay topic to round out the month of June. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the first time I marched in pride, the 26th year since I was at the 1993 Million Queer March in Washington D.C., and the 7th year since the last time I did that slow walk down the mile or so on Market Street in June, tweeting on a whistle, waving my rainbow flag, and wishing I could sit down soon.

American Pride, American Anti-Pride

Our unique cultural history is full of expressions of pride and also full of disapproval. After all, some of the original European settlers were Puritans, “thrown out of every decent country in Europe,” as Bill Murray says in Stripes. Puritans were excessively anti, weren’t they? Plus the Catholics. Pride is the first and, therefore, worst deadly sin. Being proud in some religious interpretations meant you were unwilling to surrender–theoretically to a higher power–but logistically to the control of the straight white man standing on the pulpit.

It’s always seemed a bit ironic that the Puritans were seeking religious tolerance in the New World so that they could practice their religious intolerance, but we’ll let history sort that part out. Certainly, the New World liked the tolerance part of it and established that clear separation in government between church and state, which started to let different attitudes about sinning and behavior–including pride–blossom throughout society. When the writer of the Declaration of Independence becomes a Deist, fire and brimstone speeches naturally become less popular.

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

At the same time, these new Americans in 1776 were ecstatic about the nation they were bringing into being. John Adams wanted “pomp and parade” and fireworks, and the United States has celebrated just so for centuries now. Americans love to revel in their pride of country on July 4th, now replete with parades and festivals. It’s coincidental that the holiday comes right after LGBT Pride Month, but great that we can continue the celebratory spirit.

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