4.29.2012

concentrated

wall tile, SE Milwaukie Ave., PDX

I can't verbalize exactly why the green, white, and burgundy wall tile on a building in Brooklyn, Portland, reminds me of the feel of the documentary, The Cats of Mirikitani, or specifically Mirikitani's drawings, something whimsical about the colors and the gridlined pattern perhaps. The subject of the documentary, Jimmy Mirikitani, descended from a samurai clan, he says, grew up in Hiroshima, endured U.S. internment as a Sacramento-born U.S. citizen during WWII, survived the loss of his entire family (or so he thought), spent years of drifting around the East coast working as a cook, and as an aged, homeless street artist, inhaled the toxic fumes of the NYC 9/11 bombing, experiencing in one life more than most anyone. And yet all he wanted was to work and be recognized as an artist.

But life is rarely easy for artists, even the most talented or successful. Remember how Van Gogh chopped off his ear and Hemingway shot himself? And then there's De Kooning and Dorothy Parker and Fitzgerald and Joyce and Faulkner, and on and on. Penelope Fitzgerald, that late British bloomer, was married to an alcoholic. Jackson Pollack was an alcoholic. Jimmy Mirikitani cooked for Jackson Pollack. In many ways, artists are drama magnets. But this is a generalization. Artists are the only ones aside from self-help gurus who (are willing to, compelled to?) express their angst in public, while regular folk suffer with and maybe overcome addiction or emotional distress in comparative silence.


"Im [sic] still putting the hero back into heroin"

I was drawn to the Mirikitani film because I've been fascinated with this aspect of WWII history (not that anything about WWII isn't fascinating, from Nazis to Spam) ever since I found out ten years ago that I'd grown up only 30 miles from the largest WWII internment (aka "relocation") camp in the U.S.—and it was never talked about in my Oregon hometown, though Klamath Falls was the nearest town of size to the camp, right over the state border. Nobody ever said. While researching a writing project, I stumbled on the Tule Lake memorial site by a group hosting pilgrimages for former internees and followed the Internet trail for a time.

Then two years ago (surrounding that funeral I mentioned) on a day trip to the Lava Beds for some light spelunking with visiting cousins from Texas, I suggested we stop at Newell (population 500) just below the town of Tulelake (population 1,000) to see the memorial. We hadn't packed a lunch for the outing, so everybody was starving and far more interested in stopping for hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes at a roadside diner on the way back to Klamath, so I had about three minutes with the car running and didn't take any pictures. There wasn't much left to see, it seemed, a plaque, a fenced-off building or two—nothing like the rows and grids of the camp barracks in the wartime photos that housed 18,000 people, certainly not the level of physical evidence I saw at Auschwitz. Soon after the war ended and the Tule Lake camp shut down, it was all dismantled so everything could return to farmland, to normal. 

Internment of U.S. citizens happened in my backyard, so to speak, and it could happen again, during another world war, during widespread natural disasters we can see coming, during increasingly extreme battles of moral philosophies, vying worldviews, struggles over scarcer resources.


pavement pool, PDX

Meanwhile, bird die-offs are being reported this spring in the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, death from avian cholera due to overcrowding as the wetlands dry out. Low precipitation in the high desert means everyone starts fighting over water: the potato and alfalfa farmers, many of whom have been family-farming for a century thanks to government land grants via massive reclamation and canal-irrigation projects; those fighting for the endangered fish, suckers in Oregon and salmon downstream in California; and those supporting the birds, "legally last in priority," who use the refuge wetlands as a migratory stopover or local home (for the latter read: bald eagles, our once-endangered national bird). The louder disputes some years make national news. And we haven't seen anything yet. Remember, experts claim future wars will be fought over water, not oil.


orange-yellow flower

Mirikitani sketches from memory koi and turnips and cats and peonies and the Tule Lake Segregation Center in winter and Hiroshima in flames. He draws them in color over and over, different versions, same themes, beauty, peace, horror, and loss. Which human-made horrors are still ahead? Science fiction tries to predict what historians and artists after Mirikitani will document.

4.25.2012

aspirations on display

metro-shelf kitchen

I couldn't live where I'm living without the chrome metro-shelving unit I found on Craigslist and drove out to Hillsboro to pick up before I moved in. I think I paid about $65 for six eighteen-inch-deep shelves, with casters. The woman I met, who was using the shelving for craft storage in a spare room, warned me while her male partner was helping me load up the pieces in my car against doing that ever again, coming alone to a Craigslist meet-up! But I needed that shelving because the kitchen in this 1908-house-turned-duplex was probably once a closet. Our kitchen/closet is lined with floor-to-ceiling cupboards, except that they still only hold one person's cooking wares. So mine are on display in the main room, for which I've gotten teased for being anal/tidy/organized. I choose to think they're jealous.

In the photo above, one can see four partial shelves, but trust me, every square inch of the unit is stocked. I even hung mugs and my set of measuring cups from a package of IKEA S-hooks along the edges. I'd rather have more space between things, but space is what's premium.

Lined along the backs of two shelves are stacks of square Anchor Hocking glass jars in different sizes, the original third or half of which I bought new at a hardware store in Berkeley years ago and the rest I've collected secondhand at Goodwill over time for $3-4 a piece. The square shape stacks well and makes for attractive display of dried fruit, barley, oatmeal, popcorn, dried pasta, rice, lentils, and beans. But they're not airtight. I keep flour and nuts in the freezer in Kerr jars. I also use a few secondhand French and Italian canning jars, more stackable than the Kerr jars and more airtight than the Anchor Hocking jars.

A small thrifted square wicker basket on the bottom shelf contains a few canned goods next to strainers, baking sheets, and a stock pot. A set of thrifted flour and sugar containers, probably from the early 1980s, arranges my cutlery and cooking utensils. Various bowls, one of which my sister made in ceramics class, hold garlic and onions and, in summer, ripening fruit. The big brown Heath casserole I found minus its lid for $4 at Goodwill a year ago. It retails for $130 new with lid. I love how the orange interior sets off dressed and glistening salad greens, as if glowing from within. More recently I've thrifted some small Spanish cazuelas, a dollar each, to use for appetizers and candle holders.

In addition to the six deep shelves, I also keep miscellaneous kitchen items like Kerr jars, waxed paper, and cloth napkins stashed in a metal Hon legal filing cabinet found secondhand in Oakland for $30. (I remember getting into a polite little spat in the thrift store with a thirty-something dad who was letting his toddler son stomp around in the bottom drawer, as if that's what filing cabinets were for. The guy called me "lady"—"Look, lady"—in that tone meaning "bitch" because I called his son "dirty," though I meant his shoes. Honestly, I almost never have conflicts in public.)

If I never had people over, I would only need one bowl, one plate, one mug, one glass, one fork, one spoon, one knife, if that. But I like having friends over for food and conversation. I imagine a future outdoor space scented with pots of herbs and climbing jasmine, shaded by vine arbors, baking smells coming from a brick oven, candles and paper lanterns flickering at dusk, strings of lights, bottles of wine, friends gathered around a large wooden table, someone playing the guitar, children darting, communal laughter.

Our possessions are often our aspirations, the life we want to be living. And so we buy exercise machines that collect dust in corners because we want to become fit and muscular and wear smaller clothes (to feel lovable, desirable). And so we buy books on skills to acquire like photography or gardening or cooking (to feel talented). We buy motorcycles at age 60 (to feel young again). We buy flatter TV's (to feel more successful). We take tropical vacations (to feel free from a 9-to-5, 50-weeks-a-year job). And I furnish a full kitchen in a small rental unit for the lush outdoor dinner parties I haven't yet had. How much of it is real? And how much pretend?

The word 'aspiration' at its core means breathing, taking in. On my laptop screen a digital sticky note reads: "Happiness = relationships, connectedness, purpose, physical activity, & growth." I got that from somewhere in the last couple of years. Do our acquisitions support our aspirations, or are they substitutes from fear of doing? Are we living as if counting down the breaths, creating the life we want now instead of waiting for some perfect set of circumstances that will never come? Do we use what we own to become healthier, kinder, more knowledgeable, more rested, more sexual, more content (note the irony), more assertive, more grateful, more loving, more active, more reflective, more confident—happier? Or are we still waiting?

4.23.2012

cavemen and polar bears

orange dumpster, Brooklyn, PDX

I want Werner Herzog's job, accessing the inaccessible (the Amazon, Antarctica, the Chauvet Cave) to muse on planetary decline—minus the German accent. Only of course there's no replacing Werner Herzog. Over the weekend, I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams (though not in 3-D, which gives me headaches), and though I'd seen media shots of some of the cave paintings when they were discovered in the 1990s, the close-ups on film left me awed—the sureness of line, the charcoal shading along limestone contours, the herds in motion along the walls where torches once flickered. These images were drawn not by cavemen but men, protomodernists. Only most of the animals they hunted, ate, knew so intimately they could project them from memory for ritual purposes no longer exist in the same form at this latitude, if at all: ibex, wooly mammoth, lions, wild horses, rhinoceros, cave bears, panthers, hyenas.

The only certain human reference in the cave paintings, aside from handprints, is a female figure with the head of a bison and the lower half of a woman. The experts Herzog interviewed displayed similar female-shaped fertility totems excavated from that period in Europe—all headless females with large, sagging breasts, bulbous bellies, and wide hips. Where the head should have been was a little knob, presumably to attach to a cord to wear around one's neck. Leave it to paleolithic men to focus only on the necessary woman parts. Yet for those of us who feel at times we're attempting relationships with emotional Neanderthals, not much has changed in 37,000 years. How strange to imagine Homo sapiens coexisting with Neanderthals, who themselves did not make figurative art.

And leave it to Herzog to end the film on a postscript about albino crocodiles patrolling an artificial greenhouse swamp 20 miles from Chauvet Cave, thriving, if mutating, in the bathwater from a nuclear plant along the same river that 30,000 years ago was glaciated.


Polar Cryogenics ("since 1972"), Brooklyn, PDX

Yesterday I walked through a different part of Brooklyn than usual and noticed a specialty-gas company founded in 1972, Polar Cryogenics. The more a species specializes (e.g., ice bear), the more likely it is to become extinct. Adapt or die. Polar bears are now mating with grizzlies in the permafrost, as Neanderthals once did with humans, some of their genes still mingled with ours. In the meantime, the human generalists of Russia, Scandinavia, Canada, and the U.S. are massing in the Arctic, ready to vie for the melting territory, its submerged fossil fuels, and new shipping lanes. That is, of course, before all the methane releases, the frozen remains of tropical biomass, palm trees once swaying at the poles. And they may again.

Till then, till the Earth's climate warms exponentially, restless explorers can excavate urban dumpsters, those stinking caverns of forgotten consumption, the middens of postmodern humans.

4.21.2012

junk stop

garbage dump in building crack, SE Woodward St., PDX

Years ago I lived with a great-aunt for a while. She kept a clean, tidy home, though like most Americans, her three-bedroom condo closets were filled to bursting with stuff. Everybody has her rituals and if they work, do please continue. But when they don't, when they create frustration and stress, it's time to consider forming new habits. Both my great-aunt and my sister at different times over the years have complained to me about the chore of going through their respective stacks of mail. They get mail and pick out the important pieces, bills and correspondence. The rest piles up. Eventually they feel guilty, and then they take a half hour or hour to go through the tall junk-mail stack each month or two, sighing and grumbling. But there's another way.

We all know the post office still exists only because of junk mail since no one's writing letters anymore, and while I feel regret about that because I don't want the public mail service to disappear, junk mail is a sad waste of trees and time. For me, the mail chore becomes far easier when I do two things: 1) reduce the input, and 2) file and recycle daily. It only takes a couple minutes a day to review mail, tear off one's address into little pieces (which tearing offers the side benefit of venting frustration), dump what's unwanted into the recycling bin, and file away anything needing to be saved or acted on (assuming one's organization system is already in place).

But what about the free coupons, one might ask? My mother, when I was growing up, stored batches of coupons in envelopes, along with budgeted cash, and shopped at three or four different grocery stores for the best buys on her cheddar cheese, ground beef, and canned spinach, making sure to use up her coupons before they expired. Many frugal people still do the same.

Yet I avoid coupons for the same reason I avoid as much marketing exposure in my day as I can. That's why my phone number's on the National Do Not Call Registry. That's why I use the free Adblock Plus extensions for Firefox and Chrome, which remove most advertising from my line of Internet sight. Cutting coupons and spotting loss leaders are not how I want to spend my life—plus, most of the products in such ads are for highly processed foods. On top of that, driving from store-to-store uses a lot of gas, which now costs over $4 a gallon. The point is these are choices we make.

This week three catalogs arrived in the mail, which somehow struck me as odd, so that must mean my past efforts at reducing unwanted mail have been working. So I signed into Catalog Choice, a free service that does the work to remove one's name from catalog and junk-mail lists, and added those company names to my list. Simple.

As Anna Fahey noted, though I've been crowing often about secondhand finds to promote their value in an attention-deficient culture obsessed with new, the blog is fundamentally about living more simply. For the record, the two best books I've read on the topic of simple living are Janet Luhr's Simple Living Guide and Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's Your Money Or Your Life. The Center for a New American Dream also offers free information on simple-living topics on their Web site. Simple living is a way of taking back control of one's life and making more conscious choices about what we value and what we give up for what we value. If a person wants to spend her disposable income on sports cars or traveling or a five-bedroom house or seven children, she can—if she accepts the price, the trade for some other life experience. We are not just consumers. We are citizens. We are workers. We are neighbors, friends, family members, lovers. Our lives do not need to be defined like Pac-Man by consumption.

Last night I watched Lars von Trier's Melancholia, a haunting metaphor of depression, in part, with the ultimate depressor (or savior, depending) a giant flyby planet about to crash into the Earth, one consuming the other. While waiting, Kirsten Dunst's depressive character, Justine, someone for whom having "everything" (brilliant career, beautiful husband, bountiful money) is still not enough, claims that life on Earth is evil and no one should grieve its end.

Without getting too philosophical, I suppose I disagree. To me life is ugly and beautiful both, with part of the beauty arising from its pain and injustice—but it all just is. There is no making sense. There is only how living things react or respond to change, to the life cycle, to horrors from within and without, to the expected and unexpected. And in between are the small pleasures, the moments of comfort and fragments of transcendence to hold to as long as they last, like ice floes in the melting Arctic. And the "magic cave" that makes it all bearable are one's companions, loving and hating them at the same time because they are different, because they have their own will, because they do not bend to ours. We need them and hate them for it. 

And so I hate the image above that I captured yesterday evening when walking back from the library, the scene of a garbage dump in the high, narrow, graffiti-ed space between two commercial buildings in Portland's Brooklyn. Why would someone choose to mark territory in a building crack full of tires? What does that say about poverty and lack of opportunity, about our species and how we care for each other and our spaces, or about me since I find the colors and juxtapositions somehow lovely—bright language, that marker of humanity, floating above the trash?

4.20.2012

overexposed

tulip in full sun

Where, on this thrifting blog, one might ask, did all the secondhand objects go right around the time the blog received its first bit of publicity (thanks, Anna!)? Why instead is the blogger posting pictures of bread and buildings and shadows and flowers and ranting about the class struggle? Good questions.

Part of it is that I write and photograph what I'm actually doing and thinking. This is real life, edited. Part is that don't want to overthink this blogging practice with too much planning or editing since blogging should more or less be spontaneous in the way of an e-mail or travel journal (Web + log)—more impromptu than a peer-reviewed article but less than a text or tweet. Written communication is going the way of the haiku, by the way, only with less reflection: Here's what I said (tweet)! Look what I saw (Instagram)! Where are we going for dinner (FB)? And part of it is that right now I'm looking for additional work, which rarely puts me in a good mood because self-marketing is hard for an introvert, though we're usually the most productive employees, or so says Susan Cain.

The dirty not-so-secret of the secondhand market is that many people in the market, hipsters and their Halloween costumes aside, don't have other options. It is one thing to experiment with curbing consumption by choice, a noble act, and another thing to arrest nonessential purchases because the bank account is low. So I haven't been going to Goodwill much lately. And yes, I could and will photograph more of my stuff, but at present my mind's on résumés and cover letters and job boards, my hair standing on end over postings specifying higher hourly wages for office-assistant duties requiring an A.A. degree than what I earn as a college instructor. I so have the wrong letters after my name—anybody want to trade?

(Note to self: Research to see if anybody credible is working on a time machine that can send you back to the date when you selected your major. Then write in all-caps on a piece of paper to tuck in your pocket before you enter the machine: "DON'T GET AN ENGLISH DEGREE! NOTHING FROM THE HUMANITIES! Computer Engineering, Accounting, Nursing—all okay! Otherwise, oh lover of truth and beauty, you will become penniless and self-aware!")

I need to go cool down now in a quiet place. My apologies.


Mission Statement

Here I offer
singing flowers and bright words,
though some drip red.

4.19.2012

what if the ants unionized?

sidewalk ants in shadow

A couple years ago at a family funeral, I sat at a table with a side of the family I see only at funerals. That branch of the family tree is more educated than the rest, and one is in fact a college professor and department head at Oregon State (OSU). Making conversation over salad and casserole, I offered that I was considering pursuing a Ph.D. but wasn't sure. Both the Professor and his wry wife shook their heads, "No, no, no." "Not," said the wife, "unless you really want to research your subject." "The days of a cushy professor job with an office, a minimal teaching load, sabbaticals, and summer vacations are over," the Professor said. He has been told to hire more and more adjuncts to replace full-time professors like himself who cost the university too much with their salaries and retirement and health benefits—those disappearing full-time job benefits most baby boomers have taken for granted, the workers' perks unions fought for before said unions were targeted for annihilation.

Aware of my plight, a writer friend (whom I would link to if I could) recently pointed me to the Adjunct Project, which presents an ever-lengthening Google spreadsheet detailing the wages and working conditions of part-time college instructors across the U.S. (Psst.) The school I teach for is on the list. (Shhh.)

Of course it's never been good bourgeois form to talk about money. But without such documentation made public, no student, paying what they do now in tuition, whether in public or private school, would believe the tiny fraction of their tuition that most of their instructors—who, let's remind ourselves, possess at minimum a master's degree—these days actually get paid, while high-level administrators keep giving themselves raises. With college now a full-blown racket, a college-administrator acquaintance mentioned the other day she's considering working a weekend job on top of her full-time job because the student loans for her master's program (which degree benefits her day job and employer, by the way) were coming due—that or she might apply for a Ph.D. program, which would simultaneously defer and compound her student loans. Another friend owes around $80,000 for a master's degree, and though he has a full-time teaching job, he can't afford the student-loan payments on top of rent and food, so his retired baby-boomer parents are paying off the debt with their social security and pensions. And yet another teacher friend is over $100,000 in student-loan debt for an English graduate degree (but she's on her own with this one, no parental assistance)—that's right, not law, not medicine, English—the current lingua franca every globalized body in the world now speaks, so ubiquitous that native-English-speaking countries believe its study is worth nada. This is how the U.S. values educators and education? Educate them into debt. Keep them poor and uncomplaining. Mice (remember from Steinbeck?) live on crumbs.


Portland IWW poster, 9th & Powell

Mice, ants—pick a metaphor. What if the worker ants organized? What would that world look like? The ants might carry signboards: "We built this anthill from the ground up with our own antennae and without any breaks or weekends and all for the queen's larvae!" Except, of course, an ant colony functions as a superorganism with division of labor necessary for the survival of the whole. "The ants go marching ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah." Let's all keep talking impolitely and thus subversively about money, shall we? Who has it, who doesn't, whose labor, whose rewards, and why?

4.18.2012

New Yorker reject

brick windows, PDX

Downtown on errands a few days ago with my camera, I remembered a building with which I will now illustrate a poem sent to the New Yorker a while back in a moment of daring. The author (I) was in a lower, sadder place then. But that's what poetry is for, no?


Census Year

These nights I sleep at three or four,
awake in the silent hours after the trains howl past,
the cat circled on your pillow,
wet leaves in the teapot,
a candle stub flaming towards entropy.

In a dream you stood on a dry dune
watching as the tide ebbed,
while I in my high rubber boots
scuffed at the froth
of an imagined surf.

At the sea bottom
fish swim through the eyes of sailors,
the molded bisque sockets gazing up through the indigo
toward faintest motes of sun.

They say a trilobite’s eyes were stones,
the calcite of bluffs and monuments purified
into crystal prisms,
their sisters pearls.

Downtown on the faces of old-storied buildings
arched window fronts hang in the air,
their panes filled with brick
secrets,
while on this side of the river,
posted before the tracks
a sign warns of remote-controlled operators—
steel owls racing blind through the dark.


 2.9.2010

4.14.2012

weekend to-do list (or, how simple life is without children)

bread, p.b., and honey on thrifted Heath
  1. Bake no-knead bread that had been resting overnight.
  2. Eat breakfast (fresh bread with peanut butter and honey that caramelized all over the plate in the oven because I was busy multitasking).
  3. Steam-bake four potatoes smeared with olive oil, paprika, salt, fresh pepper, and a garlic clove, wrapped up in foil, one of which will become lunch.
  4. Soak two cups of chickpeas that will transform into a curried chickpea-cauliflower-and-potato soup on Monday.
  5. Walk downtown to the Central library (about 45 minutes).
  6. Drop off a library book (The Sense of an Ending, a short novel recommended for its take on personal history, faulty memory, secret lives, and the contrast between self-conceptions and how others see us, a book I liked better than Geoff Dyer did).
  7. Pick up a new library book (nothing's ready on hold so I'll browse the fiction and "Lucky Day" sections).
  8. Walk 15 minutes further over to NW 21st Avenue to drop off at the cobbler my vintage thrifted Kerr pumps, the heel tips of which disintegrated into little black pieces scattered around the carpet the first time I tried wearing them a week ago (fortunately, I didn't make it out of the house).
  9. Walk the hour-plus home (errands plus exercise).
  10. Help a friend cull for his upcoming garage sale.
  11. Help another friend with her craft and organization projects.
  12. Attend a group meeting.

thrifted Nina peep-toed pumps, minus heel tips

Last night I watched Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Heartburn for the first time, another layer on the childbearing theme that cropped up more than usual this week. (Since strict Mormons don't allow themselves R-rated movies, I still have a lot to catch up on from the 1980s.) If you haven't seen the Ephron/Nichols film, Streep and Nicholson's characters, both writers, fall in love, get married, and have kids, and though friends have warned Streep ahead of time about Nicholson's cheatin' ways, the marriage falls apart. As Streep's father-character says, "If you want monogamy, marry a swan." (As a side note, I was amused to see my friend Jeff's vintage Cuisinart, which he swears by as the food-processor-above-all-food-processors, at work in a cooking scene in the film, the one in which she whips up the infamous key-lime pie.) In the meantime, Streep's character spends most of the film waddlingly pregnant.

Many of my friends have had or are having kids. However, nobody's crying or throwing a tantrum at my house. Nobody's pooping on the floor—except my cat (territorial power issues have developed between her and the roommate's older, fluffier, meaner-but-declawed cat, leaving my cat to sniff, "Okay, if you're going to run down from the attic and trap me in the bathroom as soon as you hear me scratching in my litter box, I'm going to sneak up and poop all over the floor in front of your litter box when you're napping—so there!"). There's nobody I have to bathe or dress besides myself. Nobody's wiping sticky food mess all over my clothes and furniture. I don't have to vacuum and mop after every meal. I have time to write and take a two-hour walk with my camera. Not to offend my friends with kids, but children usually entertain me for short periods and then I am bored.

My mother claims everything's different when you have your own (hint, hint), and in fact I did feel differently about my very smart youngest brother, who could beat me regularly at UNO when he was three and I was 16. But that's not a gamble I'm willing to take. I resent the implications in the Babble founders' TED talk I watched the other night that my childless life has less meaning. Or maybe on some level it does and I'm missing out on a crucial life perspective. But it's the life I prefer. Some of us should be allowed to observe child rearing from a distance, helping out occasionally (but only occasionally). But all luck and happiness to those who choose otherwise. At least we do have choices now—all hail to birth control. (And now I know why "Coming Around Again" always made me cry.)

4.12.2012

life in the cracks

driveway chard

A few blocks down the street, there's a house with a Portland-typical raised bed next to the driveway. Last summer, I noticed that not only was an array of Swiss chard growing in the planted bed, along with other vegetables, trained and trellised and tidy, but also a stray was pushing up from one of the driveway cracks. All summer during neighborhood walks, I checked to see if the stray chard was still there. It was. And then winter came and I stayed mostly indoors and forgot about the chard, a hardy plant that can endure cold, wet northwest winters before blooming and going to seed. This week, the rain temporarily halted and the sun out, I took my camera for an evening walk and found the red chard still standing in the driveway, an evident honored stray not to have been cut and eaten or run over by a car for a whole year. Whoever owns the house must marvel as I do at the vagaries of the plant world, the mysteries of the garden.

Whenever I see a pine tree bent like plumber's pipe, growing out of the side of an embankment along a highway, or a cliff stand of evergreens fronting the ocean, their needled branches frozen landward, as if running in place from wind and storm, I see the will to life. Living things can't help but try to grow, such as they can, even when conditions are far from ideal.

Many of my students are like that chard and those trees, coming mainly from the lower socioeconomic spectrum: sometimes children of addicts; sometimes former addicts themselves; often children of divorce with all its psychological and economic correlations; sometimes victims of domestic violence; sometimes divorced; usually single mothers with at least one kid, wanting to build a more secure financial future for their child(ren). I don't ask; sometimes they tell. The most stable are typically, with exceptions, married.

What the students may not know is that many of their instructors are also like those trees for similar reasons, fish (to switch metaphors) misfit by social class and family background for larger, more esteemed ponds. Yet I've never so much enjoyed conversations with such interesting, quirky coworkers anywhere else. We have master's and law degrees but the part-timers get paid near minimum wage, once prep and grading is factored in because that's what the market will bear. And that's probably something the students don't know, either, considering how much they pay in tuition.

Society would label the majority of our students "poor white trash" (most are white and poor), ignorant of or indifferent to how hard it is to overcome class boundaries, how hard it is to create healthy relationships without proper models. Even some of the students themselves joke about having grown up in "Incestacada" or Felony Flats. We tend to blame individuals over poor environmental conditions, believing everyone should pull herself up from her bootstraps, believing the myth that everyone can become a success if only she works hard enough, the lie that those among us in society who make the most money are the hardest-working, smartest, and most deserving, rather than sociopaths and those who've most often witnessed early models of investments and returns and dividends—multiplication of wealth rather than impoverishing division—and those who've typically had lifelong models of intact families, along with house-down-payment benefits of trust funds and inherited estates, even when modest—in other words, generations of success, rather than first-time-in-the-family college-goers aiming for an upgraded $30K career in which to assist doctors or lawyers via tens of thousands in student-loan debt they can only hope to someday repay—because the alternative is continuing to manage a fast-food chain or work retail at the mall, unable to earn enough working full-time to pay bills, let alone save for the future.

One can even see the generational-success pattern among some artists, those confident they can craft a career from art because their parents also were artists with portfolios. That belief of success from personal witness is powerful magic—compared to being told that maybe, just maybe, if one gives 110% for the boss, one could become a secretary, bank teller, or manager of Taco Bell. These are the differences in expectations between classes.  

Westerners are still feeding themselves so many lies about what is now possible, what one can expect of the future. The other night while driving to work, I was listening to NPR's story about low educational achievements in Portugal, the least educated country in Europe. The lead anecdote involved two friends, one of whom dropped out of high school as over two-thirds of Portuguese students do (!) to work in a shoe store, and the other who went to college, graduated, couldn't find work as a nurse (!), and now (drumroll, please) . . . sells shoes alongside her high-school-dropout friend. That's like college graduates in the U.S. working at Starbucks, happy for a job with health insurance.


purple flowers growing in the crack between basement and driveway

More austerity, the rich want? Those gorging on cake want the rest of us to eat stale crumbs? One day, when living conditions worsen, when more people grow hungry, the working class will again march, resist, revolt. Just wait. We are hardy, like chard.

4.11.2012

bees collapsing from overwork

honeybee with pollen

The other evening on a walk, I passed under some white-flowering trees and after snapping a few close-ups of blossoms, I noticed I wasn't alone: honeybees and at least one bumblebee were gathering pollen above my head, ignoring me. It was hard to capture any bee shots, though, because as soon as one landed on a new blossom, the worker bee would dive into the flower cup and disappear, only her wiggly rump showing. I got a bit dizzy with all the turning around and looking skyward under the tree.

I've only been stung once in my life (in a car as a kid, if I remember right), so maybe I'd feel differently if I had to carry around an epinephrine pen to prevent sudden allergic death, but I like bees. Someday I want to have bees of my own. They signal to me the business of life—spring is here, work to do. For Christmas last year, I even bought my friend Dan a shipment of hibernating Mason bees since he's a biologist and his house pets aren't cats and dogs but a California Kingsnake and an Old World chameleon (so running out of pet food for Dan means picking up some live crickets and pink baby mice).


clover honey in thrifted Kerr jar

And though it's a form of slavery or simple theft to use some other creature's unrewarded labor for our own benefit, bears do it, too, lapping up that sweet golden liquid when they find it. I like honey and peanut butter (and butter) on toast, honey in oatmeal, honey in homemade chai and granola. I've bought local honey from the co-op and lately non-local honey from WinCo, whose signs tell customers not to open the wooden lids on the honey boxes at the back of the store because bees might fly out (a fib, of course).


backlit bird nest

But imagine a world where there are no blossoms and no bees and no fruit or nuts or cotton or clover and and thus far less food to divide among seven-to-soon-ten-billion humans, most of whom believe they deserve to eat and reproduce. This is the world we are creating in our confidence that we can manage nature with disregard for eons of minute natural-selection processes and the web of complex relations between the animate and inanimate. James Lovelock, who decades ago postulated Gaia Theory, that the earth functions like a living organism, believes at age 90 that all we can do now is "enjoy life while [we] can" since the thinking apes have already triggered a massive climate restructuring of the planet and we will only be coming along for the destructive roller-coaster ride, soon cognizant of how little control we have over anything other than Thanatos (death) and taxes, despite our comparatively large mammalian brains and opposable thumbs. Apes, like bees, are social creatures, but soon whose colony will collapse? Every outing with my camera I, like everyone else, am documenting what once was.

4.09.2012

masked citizens on the march

secondhand Venetian mask, soon for sale

Over the weekend walking along Glisan in northwest Portland, a friend and I watched a homeless person rolling down the lawn of the Beth Israel synagogue, after having thrown or dropped (I didn't see that part) an empty beer bottle, shattering it onto the sidewalk in front of us. He was wearing an earflap cap, a winter jacket, and a bulky backpack, and was having trouble keeping upright, off-balance like an ant carrying a beetle. He ended up on his knees at the edge of a crosswalk, playing with gutter twigs. Maybe he was high. Maybe he was drunk and high. But he was far enough off the sidewalk and into the street that he could have been hit by a car. I asked a young couple who'd been walking their dog and who had parked themselves across the street at a bus bench, their eyes moving between the homeless man, their dog, and their phones, if they'd called for help, and they had. The bearded man joked that he was clocking the 911 response time "which [wa]sn't good" and that he'd stopped and asked the man with the backpack if he needed help, and the man said he did. Other people passing by glanced at the crouched man but kept walking or driving, or so it seemed. In search of a restroom, my friend and I crossed into Couch Park, whose small inclines hid the street scene from view. When we returned to the intersection, the homeless man and the couple with the dog were gone, as if it had all been imagined.

When should one interfere in such a situation? Isn't it every person's right to escape life in some way—whether checking out through evening television watching, all-night video gaming, temporary intoxication, or permanent suicide? And what about regular, standard denial, that which one chooses to see or ignore, selective vision? Lately I've been reflecting on social façades, mine and those of people close to me. Yes, I'm happy in my marriage. Of course I can afford this lifestyle. Oh how sad is that person's addiction, but certainly I don't have any of my own.

How are so many of us still pretending we don't know the U.S. economic recovery is valid for only the 1% or that the planet is well past the tipping point for massive climate restructuring and that contrary to neoliberal economic growth policies, "the earth is full?" If 1% of a society is living on champagne and caviar, while the rest is in varying degrees struggling to pay for food, gas, mortgage/rent, and health care while maintaining the mask that everything is proceeding as normal, comme il faut, whose ultimate fault is that? Yet if the 99% had been born in the one percent's shoes, would we act as greedy and deserving, all the pie for me? Yes. We're talking about human nature, after all. That's why we regulate.


Venetian mask close-up

It's time to take off the masks, wouldn't you say? Or else put on another.

4.07.2012

daffodil graves (aka storing food waste in the fridge)

wilted daffodils & coffee grounds in thrifted Glad container ($1)

Growing up, I lived next door to my maternal grandparents. After saving up for and building a modest dream home in the semi-rural country in the early 1970s, they owned an acre-and-a-half in which to spread out and garden, including a big mound in the backyard of eggshells, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and vegetable peelings—in other words, compost that my grandfather turned with a shovel every so often. This wasn't something they ever talked about in the look-what-I-do-to-be-green way people do these days, but rather something they were simply used to doing, like reading the newspaper front to back or making their own household cleaners with vinegar and ammonia. These were folks who'd lived through the Depression, and they'd built themselves a windowless cement root cellar for home-canned goods between the two-car garage and the rest of the large basement that stored an extra refrigerator (the old kind that had to be defrosted periodically), a large top-loading freezer, and everything else they'd ever owned since the Depression, including a spare set of furniture, a huge radio, and a domed travel trunk holding glass-eyed, curly-haired dolls, tiny leather button boots, and a small painted cast-metal dog. 

When I moved into my current apartment two-and-a-half years ago, my then-roommate, a vegan who works for a local food co-op, was already composting, keeping a big lidded bucket under the sink. While composting is an ancient recycling method, in domestic practice it can become a smelly mess. The winter after I moved in, we stopped composting because the black plastic compost bin out back was full, its contents not breaking down fast enough because of the long months of wet cold (or maybe we weren't aerating it enough). Then that roommate moved out, a new roommate moved in, and still everything vegetable headed into the trash . . . 

until one day last fall, when the City of Portland rolled out a new composting program, allowing us to dump food waste—even meat and pizza delivery boxes—into the big green yard-debris bin, which is now collected every week and regular garbage every other week.* The City of Portland has spent over a million dollars on the program, with part of our tax funds buying each household a smallish brown plastic bin with a hinged lid and handle that, at least in my home, has been collecting dust in the attic since the day the City compost elves left it on the doorstep.


Portland Composts!

Apparently, some local households have been having trouble getting accustomed to the new composting system—but not us—because we have two secret weapons: a plastic food-storage container and the refrigerator.

Easy Composting in Six Steps:
  1. Ignore the brown pail the City of Portland gave you. Donate it. Or do as my neighbor does and store kids' toys in it, or use it to store something else—anything but food scraps.
  2. Choose a medium-sized plastic food container with a tight-fitting but easily opening lid. You probably already have one somewhere around the house that could be put to this use. The container size will depend on your scrap needs and fridge space. 
  3. Label the container "Compost" or "Don't Eat!" with a permanent marker if someone in the household might think it holds edible leftovers. (That would be gross.)
  4. Dump all compostable scraps in the container, replace the lid, and keep it in the fridge, repeating this step till it's full.
  5. When the container's full, run it outside and dump the contents into the green yard-debris bin.
  6. Quickly wash out the plastic container and then return it to the fridge, somewhere easy to see and grab.

And that's all there is to it. Any moderately sized, tight-lidded Tupperware, Rubbermaid, Glad, or other plastic (or glass) food-storage container will work. Since I don't like storing edibles in plastic and gave all my plastic food containers away some time ago, last September I picked up a looks-like-new, square GladWare container at Goodwill for $1, and it came with one lid and two bottoms.

So enjoy your new way to temporarily store food waste that doesn't make a mess under the sink or stink up the kitchen.** You can thank my friend Jeff, whose simple, brilliant idea this was and something he's been doing for years. And if you have a compost bin or mound of your own out back, this refrigerator way-station method will work for that, too.


*Note: Remember that other countries and some U.S. cities have already been separating food waste from landfill trash for years. In my opinion, government should make us all pay for garbage as they do in South Korea—you should have seen all the ajummas (married, middle-aged women) out sorting their trash and recycling in front of the apartment buildings on trash day to make their garbage bags as small as possible—garbage on a diet. Trust me, their trash and recycling system works, though circa 1950s America in gender dynamics.

**Note: Let's all work to avoid letting good food go to waste before it's eaten. Americans are notorious for this.

4.05.2012

no-knead II

solo no-knead bread

Home alone, it still workedthe planned modifications of half whole-wheat bread flour and half all-purpose (AP) flour, with a bit more salt and baked (at 500 degrees for 30 minutes with the lid on and then 15 off*) in my thrifted vintage French White Corningware 2.5-liter casserole (not shown, but see here), and an even longer (like triple) "rotting" (fermentation) time because of my current split-shift work schedule. And Jeff's been playing around with bread even more than I have this week, making a pizza-flavored herb-and-garlic loaf I sampled warm from the oven the other night (yum) and fermenting up a cheddar-cheese-bread test as we speak. He's even started a sourdough culture. I think the bread bug bit.


no-knead bread w/ butter & freezer soup on thrifted Heath Ceramics

For lunch yesterday, my slices tasted soft, warm, buttery, wheaty, and crunchy-crusty, dipped into some steaming, homemade white-bean-and-barley-vegetable soup (read: defrosted and microwave-reheated soup that I'd made a month or more ago, ate for a week, and still had enough leftover for two Kerr quart jars in the freezer), sprinkled with freshly shaved Parmesan. Truly, this bread is easy and cheap (flour, water, salt, yeast). And, crazily enough, the messiest part is just cutting into the finished loaf, crumbs and cornmeal crackling and flying around the counter as the knife saws back and forth. I'm sure kneading dough for 10 minutes the usual way is a great arm workout, but with Lahey's method, I actually have bread to eat for lunch rather than fleeting fantasies of becoming a baker.


*Note: The bottom was a little overdone, so in future I'll reduce the baking time.

4.04.2012

Bandolino blues

vintage pumps, thrifted

Let it be known I'm officially retracting my long-held personal injunction against buying secondhand shoes after finding two cute pairs in great shape within two-and-a-half weeks. These vintage, never-worn (!), turquoise, made-in-Italy (not China, not Brazil, not even Spain), Bandolino low-heeled leather pumps I found Tuesday at the Clackamas Goodwill for $4.99, a steal—until I looked more closely at the blue tag while waiting in line behind a white-haired woman buying a ceramic figurine of a lady with upswept hair and a pink-flounced ball gown (said the clerk, "And she even has all her fingers. You don't see that often").


vintage, made-in-Italy heels, thrifted

Since it is now green-tag week at Goodwill in the Portland area, last week these lovelies the color of the Aegean Sea could have been mine for $2.50. But at least they hadn't already been pulled from the shelves and shipped off to the Bins (aka Goodwill Outlet) after the tag-color change on Sunday, something for which the Clackamas Goodwill is known—the not keeping to official culling schedule—at least to me because in the past I've asked and the managers won't give customers the previous week's half-off-clearance price, though the item shouldn't even still be in the store.


vintage, unworn Bandolino pumps, thrifted

If one looks closely at these shoe shots, one can see tiny raindrops. Last month was the wettest month ever in Portland, Oregon, though the rest of the country has been breaking seasonal high-temperature records and Texas has been having rampaging, early-season tornadoes. Our local government has been patting themselves on the back for upgrades to the sewer system that have prevented overflows into the Willamette River, despite all the rain and although four overflows are legally allowed per year. I'm going to wear my new blue shoes (and just how does one polish future scuffs in such shoes, by the way—with colored pencil?) to work, and every time I look down at my feet, I'll pretend I'm lounging on a Greek island in the Mediterranean.

4.03.2012

sad-iron Tuesday

vintage sad iron, prow view

There's something about an old iron that reminds me of a ship charging across the waves—of the Atlantic, obviously, carrying to America Europe's "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." But the sad ship above gets its "tempest-tossed" weight from asbestos, adding another layer of pulmonary meaning per the famous Statue of Liberty poem. The iron is soon for sale, and after Curious Geoff bought it, he opened up the bottom to see what was shaking around. Inside, the iron reads: "Asbestos Sad Iron." Fun for the whole family, this household-tool toy (or toy-sized household tool?) is. Surely the original asbestos only adds to the antique resale value?


"PAT. May 22 1900"

What's also interesting here is that the 1900 patent probably revolved around the wooden handle upon which women burned themselves far less than earlier metal ones. Although this sad iron is circa 1900, the part I remember most clearly from the 2002 PBS pioneer-life reality-TV show, Frontier House, was one of the women saying life on the ol' 1883 homestead was about as hard and repetitive as it could get, while at least one of the men was claiming he was having such a grand time in the 19th century building chicken coops and fences and such that he'd (almost?) rather not return to his 21st-century life. How's that for gender imbalance?

Imagine domestic life regimented by a daily household-chore schedule: Monday for washing, Tuesday for ironing, and so on—lather, rinse, repeat—with nothing enduring to show for one's labor. My maternal great-grandmother, born in the late 1800s, still operated on such a schedule, and as a married woman even into the 1920s did laundry for the Baldwin Hotel in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and cooked daily for not only her own family of nine but her husband's parents and some of his adult siblings as well. Cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning—cleaning bodies, cleaning clothes, cooking three meals a day, all with wood or coal and no electric machines. No wonder only middle- and upper-class women of that era tended to become hysterical, whether from shaking the bars of their patriarchal cages or frantic from inadequate orgasmsworking-class women were simply too busy.


"Oreg 4046 Cosney" (?)

But I digress. Like the Cosneys (see photo), my grandparents scratched their SSNs into household objects, such as the pair of leather-strapped binoculars my grandmother brought out from the mustard metal cabinet between kitchen and dining room with which to spy from her second-story windows on the single-story neighbors. (She had no ill will—she was just bored in her oxygen-cord-dragging, TV-watching retirement.) Nowadays, such possessive marking would be an open invitation to identity theft. Ah, the good old days, when nobody knew about the carcinogenic properties of asbestos and children cut their own willow switches for whippings. In 112 years, will our great-great-grandchildren scoff at our ignorant, ubiquitous use of plastics or something that hasn't even made the list of suspected-things-for-some-future-generation-to-worry-about?

4.02.2012

no-knead need

no-knead bread, uncut

I know I'm years late to the no-knead bread party, but oh, what a party. I brought the AP flour. Jeff had the Dutch oven (or six, rather). The flour, water, yeast, and salt mixed together with my own little fingers sat on his counter in a bowl covered by a towel for about 16 hours.* Then the next day, we did the magical pour-the-dough-onto-a-cornmeal-sprinkled-towel-and-fold-it-over-four-times-like-wrapping-a-package trick, letting it sit for another four hours (because we had other things to do on a Sunday). 


no-knead bread in red Le Creuset

Then after running errands, we rolled the dough off the towel into a 500-degree, preheated 4.5-quart oval Le Creuset,** steamed it with the lid on for 21 minutes, then with the lid off for another 17+ minutes (to get all those crusty shades of brown), and let it cool out of the pan on a rack for 30 minutes before sawing it in half and smearing it with butter for the taste test. It needed some salt. But the bread itself was crusty and hard with a soft, pockmarked crumb.


no-knead bread, halved

Oh, the pleasures of fresh, warm, homemade bread. My mother made white and whole-wheat bread the kneaded way in metal loaf pans when I was young, as many Mormon mothers in the 1970s did, and then when she got older in a bread machine she and my step-father use occasionally, eating most of the year store-bought, plastic-bagged sandwich loaves, preferably on 99-cent sale. I tried out their machine for the first time this last December, making two loaves, one white and one half-wheat with extra vital wheat gluten. Each machine loaf smelled like bread (I gave them away, though I heard they were good) but looked like a tall brown chef's hat with a hole in the bottom where the hook was.

But no-knead bread looks and tastes artisan, as if one just spent $5 at a Euro-bakery—and takes so little effort. Jeff and I cut more thick slices and smeared them with a creamy, baked spinach-and-artichoke dip his mother had been given from a city-food gleaner she knows from church. (The dip wasn't past the expiration date and is apparently made by Walmart.)


gleaned, prepared food to accompany fresh bread

Sadly, we ruined the gleaned mac-and-cheese (origin unknown). Headed out to the backyard to take some photos before the evening light faded, I asked Jeff if he had any bread crumbs on hand to dress up the mac he was pouring into the unwashed, still-warm Dutch oven the bread had so cleanly popped out of. And only after the baked bubbly goodness was dotted with butter and broiled tan did we both smell the bread crumbs' rancid, chemical odor—Jeff said like turpentine. He scraped off as many of the bread crumbs as he could and stored the messy rest in his fridge. (As of the next day, so far neither of us is dead or even in stomach fits from those few bites of toxic bread crumbs.)


no-knead bread, top-down

But never mind the failed, churched-up macaroni—just look at that loaf of bread! Surely Jim Lahey deserves some kind of Nobel prize for his contribution to humanity. This morning, my bread-making confidence sky-high, I started another batch of Lahey's dough at home, using half AP and half whole-wheat bread flour and adding another quarter teaspoon of salt to the recipe. Having no bright-enamel-over-cast-iron Dutch oven myself, I'm going to use my thrifted 2.5-quart, Pyrex-lidded French White Corningware casserole (from back when Corningware was still made in the U.S. and didn't explode in the oven). And I'm about 90% sure the modifications will work.


*Note: We used 1/3 tsp. of active dry yeast, after doing some quick Web research on instant yeast vs. ADY.

**Note: In our research, we'd also heard of exploding Le Creuset knobs, the plastic ones safe only to 375 degrees, so Jeff switched it out for a chipped plastic one he had on hand, though nothing happened to it at 500 degrees. To be cautious, use a stainless-steel replacement knob for the Le Creuset Dutch ovens. Myself, I'm partial to the Flame, Black Onyx, and Dune shades of Le Creuset. As a bonus, the retired Black Onyx shade comes with a stainless knob for color contrast. Do, friends, family, and fellow countrymen, feel free to gift me one of those black beauties. I'll make you some bread.

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