Thursday, March 19, 2009

Driving for coffee

So it's been almost a year since I last wrote - it's not that I haven't been traveling much (Nova Scotia, Ontario, France, Edinburgh to name a few...). It's just that I haven't felt the overwhelming need to share any stories. My trips were either work-filled, or so busy I couldn't bare a minute in front of the computer (when the choice is having a cappuccino and attempting to read Le Monde in a Parisian cafe or posting on a computer, the choice is obvious). But now I find myself in a 70s-era temporary building that has become a chemistry laboratory - a windowless, poorly air-conditioned and sorely in need of a paint job laboratory, that is - in lovely Riverside, California. Note the sarcasm on lovely. And I desperately, desperately feel the need to vent.

Riverside, California is a kind of fascinating place - in that slowing down by a car accident type of fascinating. It's the far-inland part of the general LA basin. So no ocean next door to clean out the air or provide some respite from the concrete. In its defense, there are some beautiful mountains in the background of Riverside that I can kind of see through the particulate haze - and some smaller, rocky hills behind the University where I'm currently based. But the Riverside haze is interesting... Not just from an atmospheric chemistry perspective - which I won't try explaining here, but it really is legitimately interesting - but from a life style perspective. Cars contribute significantly to the LA area air quality. This isn't an earth-shattering statement to anyone who has traveled around here: you need a car to do ANYTHING.

To me, the worst example of this comes at lunch time. You cannot walk to a sandwich shop or cafe. You have to drive. Let me make this clear: from a research laboratory on a university campus in a large city, you have to DRIVE to get coffee. My recent graduate student self finds this appalling. It's not like we're in an isolated lab several miles from the nearest building, as is the case for, say, the Atmospheric Sciences department at CSU. We're in a city, for crying out loud. I dcided that I needed to go for a walk, so tried to find a coffeeshop. All I got for my pains was a lung filled with dust and car exhaust. Mmmm... Tasty....

The second, highly symoblic example of car culture in SoCal (that's Southern California, and should be said with a slightly deprecating tone of voice by anyone who was lucky enough to have lived in NorCal, like myself) is the fact that the university entrance is actually a highway overpass. Yes, the roads leading to the university have to go under the 60 (which forms the western edge of the university). So the big "University of California Riverside" sign is painted on the overpass. Now, to give credit to the landscape (urbanscape? concretescape?) planners, the overpass is painted a warm dusty brown that matches the hills in the background. But that doesn't escape the fact that it's a highway overpass.

Did I mention that this lab is next to the Plant Pathology greenhouses? That means that the buildings next door are filled with dying tomato plants and citrus trees. Symbolic? Perhaps.

Now, I don't want to give Riverside a completely negative veneer. There are some very, very positive things about this town. Not positive to make me eager for a return (if you hadn't noticed), but positive enough to allow me to find the whole experience amusing. First... smog = beautiful sunsets, so every evening I walk out of the lab, look west, and see a glorious pink sky. Made even more pink by my oversized sunglasses that give me the necessary wannabe-starlet look that you need around here. But really, the sunsets are lovely. Ah, Rayleigh scattering... Next, is the friendliness of the people. While in Boulder it took months for my local coffee shop to learn my name, it took two mornings for the Starbucks lady (yes, Starbucks - I was running late and didn't have time to go anywhere else) to learn my name. Granted, she has managed to add an extra syllable to it somehow, but it's close enough and I appreciate it.

And, perhaps most importantly, the people I'm working with are really very nice and have infinite patience with my crotchety instrument with its electronic guts spilling out into their hallway. (Of course, if we could have moved the instrument into all the dead space in the middle of the lab, then I wouldn't have needed to take up the entire hallway, but apparently that wasn't feasible). The instrument drama of ungrounded wires, loose computer cards and the need to disconnect the keyboard to save data to my hard drive is a story for another day, but suffice it to say that I finally have made everything work well enough that I shouldn't need to come back...