contemporaries on a shelf

Alice Munro section, Central Library, Portland, OR

Okay, yes, I still read paper books. I don't see that changing. I like their heft in my hands, the dead-tree smell that brings back summer-vacation reading long into the growing dusk because I was too engrossed in the story, too far escaped from my own small, pained family life, to get up off the floor and switch on a light.

What others may not know is that I don't buy books anymore. Oh, I'll pay for a secondhand reference book here and there, to learn a skill or otherwise help myself, but that's it. Years ago I transitioned from full-price trade paperbacks to black-lined hardcover remainders and then, eventually, to free, borrowed books—but oh the guilt when I pass my library card under the digital scanner, deactivate the theft-prevention device, stuff the book(s) in my tote bag, and walk right out the front door, passing the security guard as if nothing at all criminal just happened.

But it did, does. I've long decided my answer to the "What one book would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island" question would be a dictionary because I could never choose just one favorite author or book, so with a dictionary at least I could make up my own stories among all the words—and learn more words, those abstract containers of meaning. Books and stories, real and made-up real, are my favorite things in the world. But I don't pay for them. I don't align my values with my dollars. Instead I buy clothes and food and health care because those aren't free. How did books become free (via public taxes), but U.S. health care is still for profit? How did our culture decide that wordsmiths aren't worth much? Because we all make meaning with language? Because we all send e-mails and with words make other people do things? Because any monkey can write?*

My day/night job involves teaching adults who on average dislike, if not outright hate, writing to write better, er, "more effectively." I tell them in this information age we're all writers, no matter what job we might have, but since only the professionals have editors, we must learn to better revise and edit ourselves because, fair or not, we are judged on our written communication. Yet while that's the truth, it's only partial. Because while the culture may nod to quality writing, it normally pays next to nothing for such skill, compared to, say, mutual fund management or computer engineering or surgery—maybe because artists, whether painters, novelists, or screen writers, need to create, and nobody pays us to breathe.

E. L. Doctorow section, Central Library, Portland, OR

E. L. Doctorow unfurls wistful trips back in time.

Lorrie Moore section, Central Library, Portland, OR

Lorrie Moore makes me snicker while wanting to cry, while Alice Munro (see image above) captures in her portraits of women their whole lives in a scene.

Haruki Murakami section, Central Library, Portland, OR

Haruki Murakami, who describes the most mundane details of a day—getting dressed, making lunch, tying shoes—juxtaposed with surreal fantasy dimensions (like talking sheep), is always checked out at the Multnomah County Central Library.

*Note: At a school I taught for some years ago, a white administrator said to a black administrator that "any monkey can do it," meaning teaching. The black administrator took offense.



sky half-empty/full, June 2010

Over the weekend I came across a post on Brent Hunsberger's Oregonian blog, It's Only Money, titled "Rack up the savings at thrift stores and join the crowd." The article explains how more Americans have been shopping secondhand—and oh what deals can be had!—because of the Great Recession and because prices of goods and services (gas, food, health care, etc.) keep rising, though wages, for those lucky to have any, generally have not (unless one works at Intel).

None of that is news to me. I began thrift shopping exclusively—no more Target, no more Macy's, no more Stewart+Brown sales, no more eating out (though I was tired of that, anyway)—after an upheaval in my own finances in 2009, namely a divorce, which traditionally has proven worse for women's pocketbooks than men's, though the gap appears to be narrowing. (While I'm two degrees more formally educated than the ex, I'm in education and he's in Web engineering, allowing him to earn 10 times what I make per hour—my career-choice error, obviously.)

Hunsberger also reports that Goodwill is rolling in money, their take up 41% the last several years, overshadowing lesser-known stores like Deseret Industries. I'll just add from experience that DI, while presenting slim pickings for women's clothes—Mormon women not exactly known for their fashion sense (and I can say that since I once was one)—offers some of the best thrift-store prices around town on housewares. Or maybe that, too, is logically expected from a gang of traditional homemakers.

The Hunsberger post's range of comments, however, is even more enlightening. Some commenters get political, suggesting putting one's secondhand dollars into the coffers of smaller, local charities with more transparent and direct community benefits like Albertina Kerr, William Temple, and Community Warehouse. Goodwill/GICW administrators are skewered for placing themselves in the top 1% income bracket. Yes, do read that again: Goodwill's top-level employees are rich. The Salvation Army is slammed for being anti-gay. Some people recommend the clothing prices at Value Village. One commenter scoffs at the idiocy of believing secondhand-clothing shopping offers better deals than shopping new on retail clearance, especially when thrift-store styles are seasons if not years old. One commenter shivers at the thought of wearing dead people's clothes. Another commenter reflects on the general benefits of secondhand reuse/recycling.

Here are some of my own lessons learned at the thrift store the last several years:
  • Be courteous (e.g., don't block others with your cart, don't leave trash lying around on shelves, don't take parts out of boxes without putting them all back, don't let kids run around in the glass aisle).
  • Be flexible and shop off-season for some of the best finds (e.g., sundresses bought in winter, overcoats in summer).
  • Be alert and thorough. Somebody, for example, may pick something up in housewares, change her mind, and set it down in toys. 
  • Take your time. I usually allot an hour or two of browsing per store.
  • Browse regularly. If you stop into your favorite thrift stores in town each week, you're more likely to find treasures than if you thrift only occasionally. 
  • Be open to possibility. Though you may have a current list of wants/needs, you'll likely find something else entirely. 
  • Be selective. Do you really like the item and will you use (or sell) it? If not, pass. Somebody else may need or want that thing more.
  • Expect sometimes to leave a store with absolutely nothing. Consider thrifting a cheap form of entertainment, examining items and reflecting on their use and history. You don't have to buy anything.
  • Scan well for damage and stains. If an item can easily be cleaned or mended, fine; if not, pass. More will come along.
  • Always try clothes on and only buy what you look and feel good in. Sometimes a piece will surprise you either way. Again, be open.
  • Buy quality. Such items will often outlive us.
  • Buy American, or European, or whatever. This is one big benefit of consuming vintage: preglobalization, there were more options than "made in China."
  • Keep goods in rotation by culling your own possessions regularly. If your tastes have changed or you no longer use something, sell or give it away. Free up space—mental and physical—for new opportunities.

Shopping this way has forever changed me, making me a more conscious and selective consumer. Over time, I have found quality pieces at thrift stores the likes of which I can't afford retail. But even if I could again afford retail prices, why pay for all-new when thrifting is an adventure, a treasure hunt, and lesson after lesson in history, economics, design, and ecology?

Even so, because of increases in thrift-store traffic and prices (discussed tongue-in-cheek here), the next stage of thrifting for me will be tracking down weekend garage/yard sales and estate sales. The stage after that might be becoming a freegan. And after that, maybe I'll become so weary of objects that, monk-like, I'll own just one bowl and spoon. But I doubt it.


Day 2 Spanish omelette leftovers

modified Spanish omelette, Day 2*

So last night I had a weird romantic (not sex) dream about Jamie Oliver in which his wife had gone crazy, the kids were nowhere around, and he and I played admire-the-celebrity-chef in a restaurant kitchen before the dinner crowd arrived. Since while I do admire Mr. Oliver's pasta-making speed and willingness to call Americans fatty but have never thought of him that way, and because in real life I'm involved with a blond cook who's been challenging me to move a whole lot faster in the kitchen, I suspect the dream was a kind of transference.

Also, it was pointed out to me by said local cook that my post yesterday was missing the two most important pictures: the steaming casserole and a slice of tortilla plated. (But I was hungry after all that food chopping, gardening, and picture taking!) So there you go. As a result of guilt over skipping photographing my modified Spanish omelette/tortilla so I could stuff my face with it, my subconscious sent me on a long, involved dream about dating Jamie Oliver.

linen napkin, thrifted (the other 11 are intact)**

*Note: The dishes are thrifted Heath Ceramics, of which I'll talk more soon.

**Note: The mustard-linen napkin is also part of a thrifted set: 12 for $8 at Goodwill a year and a half ago, all unstained, though one has a chewed-up edge. Maybe someone was hungry.


spring eggs

clay egg crate, thrifted

I found the above egg holder at the Clackamas Goodwill a couple months ago for $3, which made me inordinately happy, though since I prefer brown, free-range hens and their eggs to white (something about pasty, caged chickens), technically a white ceramic crate would better contrast with brown eggs. But I found a clay crate instead (though haven't yet come across its like online for sourcing) and that's okay.

For Monday brunch, I made a modified Spanish omelette/tortilla, inspired by Anna Thomas' in The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two, pages 268-69.

  1. Wash the last of the small, "new," now-limp fingerling potatoes dug up from the garden beds last October, removing their protruding eyes, peeling off any noxious green skins, and cutting them into small dice.
  2. Chop an onion, and slide the potato and onion parts into a pan sizzling with olive oil.
  3. Add a generous dash of paprika, a handful of crumbled garden oregano (dried and plucked last summer), sea salt, and fresh-ground pepper.
  4. Cover the pan, stirring when remembering to limit sticking.
  5. Smear a dab of butter around a round, low, white baking dish with one's fingers.
  6. When the potatoes are tender, scrape the mixture into the casserole and mingle among the spiced potatoes and onion a chopped hunk of leftover cheddar.
  7. Beat six brown eggs with more salt and fresh pepper and pour the eggs over the casserole. (Rinse and save the shells in a small, plastic-lidded, stainless-steel bowl kept at the back of the fridge).
  8. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees, until the eggs are puffed and bubbly and no longer runny, as detected with judicious knife thrusts.
  9. While the omelette is baking, run down to the garden beds, pull some weeds, and scatter months of accumulated, lightly-crushed eggshells around the kale starts bought and planted too late in the summer to have provided any real leafy-green winter bounty and which the slugs have already begun chomping on. (Ideally, the sharp-edged shells will provide slug deterrence and eventual post-decomposition soil calcium.)
  10. Let the omelette rest for five minutes and then eat while blogging and drinking yet another cup of microwaved café au lait.

eggshells on kale

egg-yolk daffodils



daffodil, focused

The last year or so has been giving me recurring lessons in focus—what I seek out and obsess over like a dog with a bone, gnawing on the thing till it's gone, or a cat batting a live mouse (pick a metaphor), instead of letting the thing just be, instead of switching focus for a while, instead of turning attention back to what I've been ignoring on purpose because it's hard.

daffodil, unfocused

Maybe "so much depends" not on Dr. Williams' red wheelbarrow but a yellow daffodil against a gray-patterned wall on a Saturday afternoon following a parade of drums and bagpipes and old black police cars and baby-boomer baton twirlers wearing silver-spangled leg warmers celebrating Frank, a former police officer and resident of Brooklyn, who is not dead.

Do we get what we want once we stop wanting, but only when the wanting has bent us prostrate before our powerlessness over desire and fulfillment? Or do we root out the desire, sniffing along the forest trail like a pig on truffles? In the hunt for truffles, might we sometimes uncover morels, and is that enough? Must we all build a Web presence to prove we exist? Must the daffodil be caught on camera to tell how it once bloomed like the sun or yolk of an egg? Foreground and background, back and forth—how tired one's lenses must be after 100 years of automatic focus. I didn't realize when I sold my sofa how much a camera would teach me to see, the product and process of two machines, biological and mechanical-digital.

Happy birthday, Frank.


DIY postcard bookmark tutorial

blank postcards

When I was young and already a heavy book addict, my great-aunts would gift me bookmarks—the ones with tassels displayed on racks by the checkout counter at bookstores, usually of cats and flowers (though bookmarks seem to have gotten all fancy since the 1980s). But even the cheapest ones have always been rather pricey for a piece of card stock and some twisted string, unless one chooses the perforated book o' bookmarks (but who likes those little nubs?).

Years ago I had a lightbulb moment and realized the postcards I'd bought when traveling or picked up free as advertisements (see the Miss Navajo card above and the Houghton Mifflin "bookcard" found in a used hardcover copy of The Handmaid's Tale) that were just sitting in a drawer could become bookmarks, more substantial than scraps of paper, less bulky than metal hooks, less fiddly than ribbons with dangling trinkets, and less dangerous than the top-loaders, bookmarks shaped like elaborate paperclips that fit onto a page and often tear, bend, or otherwise imprint the page.

postcards from Provence, Spain, and San Francisco

While this idea of making bookmark corners out of postcards wins points for cuteness and upcycling, the design would probably function for me like the clips. For me a plain postcard, whether handwritten and postmarked or blank and unused, tucked neatly into a book, is all I need.

postmarked postcards

Here's how to transform a postcard into a bookmark in five easy steps:
  1. Remember where you stashed your travel postcards or the postcards received from friends on vacations of which you were jealous, e.g., that honeymoon to Bali or Paris or the family road trip along Route 66.
  2. If you've thrown all your old postcards away or never had any in the first place because the only posting your friends do is on Facebook, ask an older (i.e., "youth-challenged") person to cull from their stash; buy some at thrift stores for cheap (e.g., Goodwill on SE 6th Ave. in Portland sells donated blank postcards at five for a dollar); or pick up advertising freebies around town. Tip: Bookstores, libraries, museums, clubs, and art galleries are excellent sources for free postcards because artistic types tend to preserve old-school forms of advertising.
  3. Place the postcard gently between the pages of the book you're reading at the page you're on. WARNING: The purpose of a bookmark is to hold your place in the book (just like the person you pay to hold your place in line), so be very careful at this stage of the process. Otherwise, you might lose your place entirely and, worst-case scenario, be forced to start reading the book from the beginning. To repeat, a paper book won't automatically perform this step for you!
  4. If you yourself are youth-challenged, now remove the library receipt or torn envelope from your last electric bill that you'd been using as a temporary bookmark, which worked just fine.
  5. Chuck your Kindle or Nook in favor of this hip, vintage paper technology.

Moe's Books postcard in Isak Dinesen's Last Tales


Breaking News: PDX Thrift-Store Prices Up?

plaid wool scarves, thrifted*

My thrifting buddy, Jeff, and I have been thinking during our separate and joint trips around town lately that prices seem to have spiked. Every outing, one of us or an overheard customer will say, "They want $X for this?!" Last week, Jeff bought a brown-plaid, wool Pendleton scarf for $10 at the Broadway Goodwill, but he hesitated a long while first because the price should have been closer to $5. On the other hand, right next to the Pendleton scarf, Goodwill was selling a purple synthetic scarf for $7, so in that light, the $10 scarf was the better deal.**

10174 SE 82nd Ave., Happy Valley, OR

Jeff, who conveniently lives near the big Salvation Army store on 82nd, has also noticed that their more recently donated clothing, currently marked with red tags, is being priced at two-and-a-half times the former amount, and the older jeans and such have been on sale a lot lately. Nose sniffing a story, this reporter followed her source to Salvation Army a few days ago (see here re Homer Simpson) and discovered a pair of nowhere-near-new DKNY capri jeans tagged at $25, when formerly similar items used to be priced around $10-13. Everywhere we looked, the newer clothing items—and not all were esteemed brands—were being priced about 2.5-times higher than their older counterparts. Since more people are buying secondhand in these harder economic times, there appears to be a plot afoot in Portland to maximize nonprofit profits. You heard it here first.

But despite the used-clothing inflation price hike in progress at the Happy Valley Salvation Army, and because it was 50%-off day, I did score the following during my, er, reporting trip: a pair of men's (small) Nordstrom pajama pants for $1.75 (yes, I wear men's pajama pants); a medium-sized, white-ceramic, West Elm bud vase for .75 (original price tag: $16); a vintage-looking, cropped, black-mohair, three-quarter-sleeved cardigan with a high, wide, Audrey-Hepburn collar for $2 (though it needs mending repair on an elbow and the old lining seam-ripped out, neither of which should be difficult); a small AirBake sheet (replacing the one the ex took, perfect for broiling toast and sandwiches and washing up in my small kitchen sink) for $1.25; and three pairs of circular aluminum knitting needles for .25 each. I'll help with the math: $6.50 total.*** That's thrift.

yard daffodil (free), West Elm vase (75 cents)

*Note: The red and brown scarves pictured are Pendleton; the others are from various Irish, Scottish, and American woolen mills.

**Note: The Pendleton site is currently selling new merino plaid scarves for $19 on winter clearance.

***Note: For comparison, that's also about the cost of two drinks plus tip at a local coffee shop, my favorites being Case Study Coffee and Ford Food + Drink.


visions of shipping containers danced in her head

Columbia River, Astoria, Oregon, 2011

For years now, I've had this dream of living in a set of two or three shipping containers, artfully arranged in a U or L with an inner courtyard (because I'm that kind of introvert), or maybe stacked off-center, whole ends and sides removed and replaced with expansive windows. And this is even after residing my first 16 years in a double-wide mobile home and vowing never again (unless it were a vintage Airstream, but that's another post).

Brooklyn Yard, Portland, OR

Many have talked elsewhere about the benefits of this type of re-purposing. Shipping containers past their ocean-voyaging lifespan (which is about one trip since it's cheaper to buy new than ship them back to China empty) need a place to retire. Like the baby boomers, they're still tough and sturdy and hard to blow over. They come with graphics and real-time weathering. If one lives near an international port, they can be bought cheap, under $2,000 each. The buyer only needs a plot of land, a thorough understanding of local building codes, some serious construction skills (e.g., sandblasting, welding), and maybe a hazmat suit.

train to truck, Brooklyn Yard, Portland, OR

What's wrong with the existing housing market, one might ask? Most people live in secondhand homes built and lived in by other people first, right? The answers for me are cost, cost, and cost. I have no desire to pay down a 30-year mortgage after saving for years for a meager down payment. And I, like most commoners, can't drop hundreds of thousands of dollars upfront for a set of house keys. Let's be frank—people who "own" houses in the U.S. are actually leasing-to-own since, truly, for most of the mortgage years, the bank owns the puppy and woe be to the mortgagee who happens on hard times. She might end up sleeping in her baby-boomer parents' spare bedroom or in a cardboard box under a bridge, thanks to current economic conditions wrought by global finance, paid-off politicians, and decent Americans who've been spending too much time a) working, b) watching reality TV, and c) remodeling their kitchens and bathrooms piece-by-piece from Home Depot.

It's not so much that I yearn to live in a long rectangle again, but that it seems a way for the rectangle to be mine in a way a typical American house could never be. Yes, ancient DIY home-building methods like adobe and straw bale are options. Yes, modernists have played around with prefab steel, aluminum, and glass. Yes, there are tiny houses the size of some people's closets. I own a copy of Dwellings by Paul Oliver, a classic text about the many different types of structures people inhabit around the world; I should probably read it.

parked shipping container, Happy Valley, OR


on the topic of tchotchkes

Exhibit 1: tchotchkes, Goodwill Superstore, SE 6th Ave., Portland

My thrifting pal, Jeff, and I have a running joke in which we compete to spot the most awful secondhand item in the store that day, usually some knickknack, though the other night at the Salvation Army store on 82nd, this pair of Homer Simpson slippers won (i.e., the wearer inserts feet into Homer's mouth and gets stared at by Homer's vacant googly eyes while padding around the house in yellow clown shoes). Inevitably, at least early on in the joke, one of us would ask rhetorically, "What does this reveal about Americans to the Chinese factory worker making assembly-line copies to infinity of this piece of sh-t every day?" Now, we simply pick up or point to the offensive piece, no words needed.

Of course, good taste is relative. The core philosophy of secondhand consumption is that one person's trash is another's treasure, the entire reason the reuse system works. But seriously, view Exhibits 1 and 2. . . . I rest my case.

Exhibit 2: knickknacks, Goodwill Superstore, SE 6th Ave., Portland


local geometry

tree puddle, Brooklyn, Portland, OR

horse ring, Brooklyn, Portland, OR

barbed-wire fence, Brooklyn, Portland, OR

blossoms, Brooklyn, Portland, OR

Portland Futsal exterior wall tiles, Brooklyn, Portland, OR

Brooklyn Yard, Portland, OR

Note: These shots are from Saturday's morning walk. 

Note to self: Take the camera.


field trip: Albertina Kerr

Albertina Kerr, Portland, Oregon

Though I've passed the Albertina Kerr house many times since moving to Portland, yesterday was my first visit. The building itself, on the National Register of Historic Places, is partially brick, one of my favorite building materials and something I love about old Portland architecture, despite unreinforced masonry being a poor building choice for earthquake country here in the Ring of Fire. I also have a thing for red doors.

swaddled-baby window motif, Albertina Kerr, Portland, OR

This strangely S&M-looking (or maybe it's just me?), swaddled-baby window motif (anyone know the correct architectural term?) signifies the origins of the Albertina Kerr nonprofit as a nursery for hopeful adoptees and day care for the pesky single mothers of the pre-birth control and pre-legal-abortion eras next to whom most other women of those days appeared moral and upstanding by comparison. How times have changed. Per their Web site, Albertina Kerr now funds foster care and other services for people with developmental and mental health challenges via the proceeds of its restaurant and shops served by volunteers. (I just noticed their sign's wrong because they're now open on Saturdays.)

Albertina Kerr signboard, also open Saturdays 10-3

I can't comment on the food, but the volunteers I spoke with were friendly and helpful. As I was admiring a set of light-gray, hemstitched-linen napkins and place mats at the Economy Jar, the estate shop full of vintage china, crystal, jewelry, embroidered linens, and other posh items, a volunteer approached to ask if I ever watched the Antiques Roadshow because the sideboard I was standing in front of was made by the Keno Bros. furniture line. (I hadn't heard of the Keno brothers till I went home and looked them up, though at the time I nodded and smiled appreciatively.)

After the Economy Jar, I skipped the Gift Shop altogether because the first item I picked up hanging outside the gift-shop room, a scarf, was made of rayon in China. One can do better.

Instead, I headed over to the Thrift Shop out back in a lower, newer building I believe I heard a volunteer say used to be the administration building. It now houses a couple rooms of household items and one of books, but most of the merchandise are clothing and accessories for women, though there's one room for men. And the women's clothing seems suited (an intentional pun—there were many suits, though none in my size) for older women. Now that I think of it, I didn't see any kids' stuff, so I'm wondering if I missed a floor.

The day I was there, they were having a bag sale: fill a big colored-plastic bag for $12 or a bigger bag for a few dollars more. A Thrift Shop volunteer hinted I should take advantage of the sale, but my minimalist side kicked in and I couldn't bring myself to fill a bag with things I didn't want. So I left Albertina Kerr with only a secondhand soup cookbook (because I live on soup in winter and love some of the vegetarian soups in this book in the same series) and the peep-toed spring/summer heels below. Though I rarely ever buy used shoes, having been reared by a germophobe and because feet sweat, for $10 I couldn't resist. Trust me, they're even cuter on.

Nina peep-toed heels, made in Spain, thrifted

And yes, Albertina Kerr, the real, dead woman, was one of those Kerrs, at least by marriage. I've been thrifting Kerr canning jars for years—but only Kerr jars, never Ball jars. That's because I like the simple cursive "Kerr" imprint better than the overflowing-fruit-basket design of the rival Ball jars. Go ahead and call me uptight. I just wonder if Albertina liked cute shoes as well as children.

Kerr jar filled with Cedar Creek Grist Mill cornmeal


armored up

thrifted women's red rubber rain boots for sale here

The other thing that struck me about the Bill Cunningham documentary was his comment—when asked how he could spend his life photographing NYC high-society and street clothes when there are so many other, more weighty things a person could focus a camera on, starving children in Africa and all that—that clothes are the "armor" we wear to weather life. I'd never thought of clothing quite that way before—protection from rain and temperature and prurient eyes, yes, but not as daily armor, with its connotations of scaly metal and leather, the stuff of samurai and the Crusades and dragons.

Cunningham is most interested, he says in the film, in characters—those individuals who are completely fearless originals, like the former-Nepalese diplomat who had a suit made from his former, floral-brocade (or so I remember it) sofa, or "the dandy" who thickly line-draws his eyes and eyebrows and is never seen in public without a hat.

I will never be dedicated like Cunningham or Scott Schuman to the study of human armor, but I did consider, before choosing to study English, a career in psychology, archaeology, anthropology, or interior design. So no wonder I'm now blogging about all these things in a close-up, local-is-political, homebody sort of way. For me, clothing is, if anything, camouflage, a way for an introvert like myself to blend into a crowd, protection from predators, the most dangerous of whom, as some of us remember from grade school, being other, warped humans. However, I suspect that the extroverted characters are in a way also hiding, their flamboyance a clown mask of sorts: Look here, over here, not there!


buttons, buttons, who's got the vintage buttons?

vintage vegetable-ivory buttons

One thrifting tip others have talked about before is refreshing secondhand clothing with new, or better yet, old buttons. I don't always do this, but sometimes it's necessary, as with this cream wool, Gap kimono cardigan found at the Burnside Goodwill for $7 a while back. (Yes, I cut off the made-in-China tags with a seam ripper.)

Gap wool cardigan, thrifted, tags removed, buttons replaced

The original buttons were a cheap, bright-white plastic. So I switched them out with some vintage tagua-nut buttons purchased in a lot of 200+ a few years ago on eBay for more (about $22 with shipping) than I would be willing to pay now. But they are lovely. They're actually carved and dyed palm nuts, aka corozo, also called palm or vegetable ivory, a formerly popular material left decades ago in the dust of plastic's race to synthetically substitute everything, even women.

I didn't have four identical buttons, so I selected for similar color and size. The top reddish one did bleed a little during hand-washing, but it's not that noticeable, even up close. The only real problem with the sweater now is fitting my winged arms into a winter coat.

However, avoiding button-dye bleeding during hand-washing is important—unless you're one of those people who's asking why someone would spend so much time and mental energy on something as minimally important to life as buttons, in which case I would retort, "Did you not see those buttons spilled artfully on the table above?" I actually ruined the handknit neck warmer below and its buttons by soaking it with the vintage leather buttons on. (What was I thinking, washing leather?) But I'm also not about to be cutting off and sewing buttons back on every time I need to hand-wash something, so maybe that's also when the dry cleaner should be called.

dye-bled neck warmer with vintage leather buttons


mended and hand-washed

mended, hand-washed sweaters

Above are two hand-washed, mended sweaters, and only one is mine. I'm not going to instruct on how to mend clothes, just that I do it, even though I hate it. My perfectionist side resists the make-do, the not-quite-right, but my frugal and environmental sides win out in the end. My mending pile can sit for months before I finally force myself to tackle it. Yet after, I feel all smug.

mended knit wool hoodie cardigan, thrifted*

The problem with being a knitter is that friends may ask one to fix a sweater's loose seam, dropped stitch, or other hole.

mended hole in M.K.'s black cashmere house cardigan**

And I will do so in the spirit of interdependence, since my friends help me out in other ways according to their skill sets, and since fixing-what-can-be-fixed and saving-what-should-be-saved rather than throwing it on the dump heap is simply good form. Last weekend I also mended the seam in a thrifted linen jacket, the seam of a thrifted cotton-knit J.Crew pullover, and two holes in a big, heavy, intricately-cabled, forest-green, wool-alpaca, made-in-Ireland pullover my friend Jeff found recently at Salvation Army for $3; he wouldn't have bought it if he hadn't known I could fix it—but he also works on my car when needed, so we're even.

sweater suds

I will, though, describe how I wash my woolens, knit or woven. If the item is small enough, it gets dunked in a stainless-steel mixing bowl of shampoo suds in lukewarm water (hair is hair). Then it sits for a while, sometimes a half hour, sometimes a whole day, depending on my mood and schedule. Then the dirty water gets poured into the sink, while the water in the woolen item is gently pressed or squeezed out, never twisted or wrung. Then the piece is dunked again in cooler, clean water and repeated as needed till the suds are gone. If the item is large, like a blanket, I will soak it as above but in the washing machine, and then let the machine spin it out, again rinsing as needed—but avoiding the agitation cycle which could felt/full the piece to a stiff child-size. To repeat, the enemies of woolens are hot water combined with agitation.

Then the item is rolled up in a clean bath towel, stomped on (I'm not kidding), and laid flat to dry, preferably smoothed out, gently tugged into shape, and arranged on a sweater rack, though a clean towel on a table also works fine (but be sure to prevent moisture damage to the table). Do avoid hanging damp knits, which will stretch them out, but one can hang-dry most wovens, taking care not to create funky lumps from a clothes hanger, clothes pins, or shower rod. A knit item will sit till dry, turned if needed, and then it is folded and stored, preferably in cedar to prevent insect damage. Martha Stewart agrees with the above process in principle.

Before I learned to knit, I used to dry-clean everything wool or silk. However, hand-washing is really not that much work (unless you're washing for a family, in which case, teach them how to fish), it saves money, and shampoo smells much better and is less toxic than most dry-cleaning chemicals. I do, though, take to the eco-dry cleaner my very best or most complicated clothes: silk evening/party dresses, black wool suit, other things with linings, and a plaid-wool pleated skirt, which, gulp, costs more to clean and press ($12+) than I paid for it secondhand ($8).  

*I found the gray wool hoodie cardigan recently at the Powell Goodwill, and talked the price down from $10 to $7 because of the hole in the seam I would have to mend (now done).

**My good friend/neighbor/unofficial master gardener has been waiting on this repair for at least six months, if not closer to a year. (Sorry, M.K.!)


field trip: Cedar Creek Grist Mill

Cedar Creek Grist Mill, June 2011

Because this week is cold, wet, and gloomy here in Portland, I'm returning in memory to a warmer month (June) and a bit of local travel. The Cedar Creek Grist Mill, not far from Portland in Washington State, has been milling grain with waterpower since 1876.

millstone, Cedar Creek Grist Mill, WA

Volunteers in overalls and work boots detail the mill's history and then give a hands-on demonstration, milling whole grains from Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukie, Oregon, into whole-wheat bread flour, pancake flour, and cornmeal that, when parceled still friction-warm into paper bags, visitors can take home for free, along with recipes—though preferably in exchange for a welcome donation to museum operations. I carried home and stored in my freezer (in 29-cent Goodwill-thrifted Kerr jars) bread flour and cornmeal, the latter of which makes good polenta. (I'm still working on my bread skills.)

cornmeal, Cedar Creek Grist Mill
The mill also hosts special events throughout the year, including butter-churning, wool-spinning, and (most years) apple-cider-pressing. I'm hoping to return this year on May 26th for the Spin In, along with a forest picnic. Sound fun?

wheels, Cedar Creek Grist Mill, WA


the art of disorder

repurposed pigpen fencing

Last night I watched the Bill Cunningham New York documentary and was struck by at least two things, one of which I'll mention now: artists like Mr. Cunningham are often messy, collecting creatures in their personal habitat, non-minimalists, just as Ray Eames was described by former underlings in Eames: The Architect & the Painter—an obsessive curator of life whose office functioned as a prop room for the Eames' films and other projects. (Sadly enough, I also learned watching the Eames documentary recently that their private life was equally messy, Charles a prototypical, charismatic charmer who would have left Ray for at least one other woman—just as he'd left his first wife for Ray—had the much-younger paramour not been friends with them both and whose conscience pricked.) Because of therapy and because I teach a class in which students create a Life Map (a visual representation of their values, goals, and dreams on poster or PowerPoint), for the purposes of wish fulfillment and sending one's desires out into the Universe, I have been trying the last year or so to let myself be messier, at least on one wall.

I don't know if anyone else has an inspiration board made of pigpen fencing and thrifted vintage wooden clothespins (via the Burnside Goodwill two years ago), but if she does, my idea for it was born as follows.

My then-husband and I were living in an L-shaped condo complex, when a young woman moved in next door after the place had been sitting empty for months (because of bad views and a glutted market). Until then, our two cats had had free reign of the shared back balcony that was split by only a wrought-iron rail. But now the neighbor's pug was sneaking over and depositing his daily doo on our side, while our cats were still roaming the whole deck, owning the place as cats do, such trespass seeming to me impolite, though not as rude as piles of dog dung. The neighbor was pleasant and apologetic, hopping the fence to come scoop the poop, but still, "good fences make good neighbors." (Just try telling that to pets.)

There was much discussion with friends and family members about fence reinforcement. My step-father's solution won, so on his next visit he brought a length of black-spray-painted pigpen fencing and those black-plastic ties police use for cheap wrist restraints that must be cut off to come off. We secured the fencing to the wrought iron, snipping a few squares to fit. And we felt proud of ourselves for our puzzle-solving monkey brains (or at least I did)—until I noticed some days later that our non-fat cat was squeezing herself around the fence in a rather precarious way (though we were only on the second floor) to access the neighbor's side of the balcony to stare out per usual at the facing neighbor's sad guard dog who barked all the time because he never received any attention other than food shoved at him twice a day.

But before we could conceive of fence-plan B, the balcony-sharing neighbor suddenly moved out, back to a livelier part of town, she said, no offense. And then we moved out, and we became I, and I was left with a big wire grid without pig or purpose. So one inspired day, lacking wall art, I hammered a nail in the plaster of my new room, hung the fence vertically, and pulled out my bag of secondhand clothespins. I like that the piece forms net-like waves and valleys, reminding me of computerized 3-D grid illustrations of Einstein's theory of relativity or the mathematical skeletons of video games—numbers and planes in motion. And the wooden clothespins make gentle clips.

Part of me, though, wants to file and store away the few hanging papers, postcards, and necklaces, tidy up. There isn't much color, either—note the sepia effect and word-heavy inspirations. But I'm working on it. Someday I'd like to take a drawing class and learn to fill blank pads with lines and form. Maybe the older I get, the less I'll say. Or maybe I'll take up typography, words viewed through a microscope, form over content. Life offers so many narrative twists. "Man plans, God laughs"—and still we dream.

geese formation, Sauvie Island, October 2011

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