urban jungle

towering vine, Springwater Corridor

So I was walking along the Springwater Corridor over the weekend, admiring the overgrowth, reminded of how the Northwest is temperate rainforest—like Hawaii and Vietnam, only colder. Growing up in the Oregon high desert where the sun shines year long, to me moss, slugs, and rhododendrons still seem exotic. Bikers whizzed past. A few joggers huffed by. I was the only walker (it's a long trail).

cat town, Springwater Corridor

And then I spotted under an electric tower a set of plastic storage bins with holes cut in the front, lined with straw. A couple of cats were watching me to the right of the tower, one a black tuxedo and the other a brown-black tabby. Our eyes met. They froze. I reached for my camera. They ran into the undergrowth and hid, the scaredy-cats. I managed to capture just one shot. But somebody must have wanted for the stray cats along the Springwater Corridor a cozy place to escape the rain. With as much trouble as my roommate and I have had getting our respective female cats to endure each other's presence in the last couple years, I wonder, though, about the cat fights for dominance over the little plastic houses under the vine tower.

cat-town tabby, Springwater Corridor

The yellowed, dead foliage at the bottom of the towers, by the way, isn't natural but from pesticide sprayed along the railroad track. That can't be good for the poor feral cats, to be neighbors to a poison trail. Damn you, Agent-Orange Monsanto, and your toxic Roundup, you and the rest of the agro-drug-pushers, you modified-seed-monopolist thugs, you purveyors of unnatural hormonal bovine growth, trails of Superfund sites in your wake.

But the F.D.A., buyers, and users are also to blame. Go America! No one can stop your willful self-destruction. Why don't we just douse all the trees in the remaining U.S. forests with Agent Orange and Roundup, grind them up, and start feeding them to cows? Oh, and maybe we could round up all the stray cats and dogs in the country, grind them up, and feed them to cows? What else can we feed to cows in addition to "rendered animal parts," genetically-modified corn, genetically-modified soy, "poultry litter," and artificial hormones to make them grow into big, strong hamburger? Any ideas? Anyone?

engulfed pole


herbs meet canning jar

fresh oregano in Kerr jar

Because a previous tenant planted oregano in the garden sometime back, by now it is a well established clump, producing enough for me to gather handfuls of leaves at a time, unlike the smaller herbs in pots on my balcony that I snip sparingly, with apologies to the little shoots. After cutting some oregano last week, I had a brainstorm when I realized my Prepara "herb-savor" was already full of garden flat-leaf parsley and I wasn't going to need all the oregano I'd gathered. Eureka! Pull out a wide-mouth canning jar, rinse the herbs off, tuck them into the jar, root-side down, add a little water, and screw the lid on—a glass herb saver. It's so simple. Why didn't I think of this sooner?

However, Googling the topic, I learned I'm not the first to have this particular lightbulb switch on: I'm joining the herbs-in-Mason-jars bandwagon, its merits sung by at least one "Christian homemaker." (Maybe homemakers, home all day, have more time to think about this kind of stuff?)

Anyway, I'm loving chopped fresh oregano in that baked polenta I mentioned. I can't imagine cooking without herbs, and readers are familiar with my fetish for Kerr jars. So on this topic, over the long weekend I read the first two books in a series recommended by a friend for its themes of ingenious thrift wrapped in humorous, vernacular dialogue, the characters three raucous old women who join forces as roommates, live in a San Diego junkyard called Noah's Ark, have adventures in bountiful poverty, tend towards matchmaking, and drink beer all day. I'm not exaggerating—the word 'beer' sits on almost every page, the ladies claiming they need beer to think, refresh, unwind, accompany all food, celebrate, and wake up/cure hangover. Mary Lasswell's descriptions of frugal yet delectable wartime meals are almost enough to make me return to meat eating, her characters' head-to-hoof menus of fresh vegetables, herbs, cheeses, and iron-rich animal parts sounding fully contemporary. Nestled into the herb-gardening and canning description below, the historical tidbit Lasswell tosses off concerning WWII U.S. internment camps struck me by its offhandedness (and pardon the vintage slur):

Mrs. Rasmussen dug up the back yard and planted a Victory garden—vegetables were no longer so plentiful in the markets with all the Jap vegetable-growers shut up in camps.  She had rows of herbs for seasoning: every spicy and savory thing that would grow.  In between bouts of cultivating and watering, she rounded up all the empty jars she could find in the junk-yard.  Her cucumbers would soon be ready to pickle and she would have loads of guavas for jelly . . . . —Mary Lasswell, High Time, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1944, p. 38

graffiti politics, Springwater Corridor

How domestic fashion cycles. Gardening, cooking, and canning are hip again, seventy years on. The only thing that changes, it seems, is the ethnicity of the vegetable growers. Seventy years from now, in a world of increasing desertification, will Americans be picking bok choy for China, America the new Mexico?



puddle, SE PDX

ice-cream graffiti, SE PDX

school bus near OMSI

face on lichen, Springwater Corridor

tower nest, Springwater Corridor

Pac-Man & fish, Oaks Bottom trail


gone to seed

red and olive graffiti

A friend said the other day I'm capturing a bit of "the seedy underbelly of Portland" in this blog, in addition to the small domestic and thrifting adventures I call my life, because of all the shots of vines climbing over rusty, graffiti-ed buildings and such. What can I say? We're headed down, roller-coaster-like, the steep incline of a global environmental collapse. And I live in a half-industrial part of town. And I have an off-norm, run-down, lived-in, used-and-abused aesthetic streak. What's old, worn, and experienced are what catches my eye, captivates my attention.

SE PDX shed

But this isn't the place for outright seedy. For seedy, check out Philadelphia-based poet Linh Dinh's photo-essay blog, State of the Union. That's some seedy.

I've considered taking shots of the homeless camps under the Hawthorne Bridge, but it seems an invasion of privacy, the little they have. Yet people who live in public are performance artists of a kind, reminding the rest of us daily, with their cardboard, sleeping bags, walnut faces, and shopping carts, of the thin line between shelter and street, so I might reconsider.

A block down the street yesterday on a walk, I was checking my phone when a man crossed the street towards me, saying, "Ma'am, could I ask you a favor? I don't mean any harm." He looked homeless, probably late-stage alcoholic by his wavering gait, and his eyes were blue, scared, and sad. He asked if I could give him a dollar fifty. I told him I was sorry but had no money on me (the truth). He mumbled something like "Thank you" and wandered off.

One of my uncles died a homeless, bipolar alcoholic. The homeless issue is complex and emotionally loaded. They are the outcasts, rejects, misfits, crazies, addicts—the vulnerable. We fear what they represent—failure, loss. We fear the mirror they hold up: This could happen to you. So passersby feign blindness, toss bills in guilty bribe (go away, leave me alone), or tell them to get a job.

homeless camp, Springwater Corridor, PDX

In any case, Portland's not exactly known for seedy. Portland's gone and gentrified, say all the folks who've grown up here, at least west of 82nd Avenue. Portlanders are known for being overeducated and underemployed service-industry workers who tweak their art or music in their off hours (and most of their hours are off), while turning up a lip or eyebrow at the tech yuppies whose sweet-potato hash, free-range oxtail, and organic coffee they're slinging. Or else they're viewed from across the country as the urban-gardening, backyard-chickens-raising, blackberry-jam-from-alley-vines-making, neo-hippy crowd, something along the lines of Sara Tetreault's GoGingham.com, a Portland blog I recently heard about on the Multnomah County Library's Web site, promoting a talk on "Stylishly Frugal Living." There's a reason for the TV show Portlandia. Portland's only weird to those who don't own canning equipment, bike to work, or keep a set of amplifiers in the basement.

view of Ross Island Bridge & downtown Portland

Sorry, but I can't do straight frugal-family living, lacking the requisite two kids plus husband, and I'm not into the music-and-beer scene because half my extended family are alcoholics (see future memoir). What interests me in this blogging practice are the cracks in any attempts to live more simply, the misses, the partial successes and outright failures, and the will to keep trying, despite all the flaws. I guess you could say I'm a little seedy myself, and that's okay. When plants go to seed, they are preparing for transformation.  


Darigold, Inc.

Darigold puddle, PDX

One of the sights on my walks between Brooklyn and downtown Portland is an old dairy cooperative, now the local plant of Darigold, Inc., headquartered up in Seattle. Darigold Portland has been doing some site demolition the last few months, cleaning up. Part of the old site had been being used by a dog-food producer, and one can imagine what that smelled like, walking by in the heat of summer (since dogs will eat what people won't). But the dog-food production seems to be gone.* A local fertilizer producer, Concentrates, Inc., had also been renting space on the site, but they moved out last fall down to Milwaukie.

I wish now I had taken pictures of two large yellow silos, the rust peeling in large chunks off the sides. They loomed above me, apocalyptic, every time I walked past. I hadn't known they were scheduled for destruction, a missed photo op. The location photos in this post were taken a month ago, and the deconstruction debris has since been cleared, old storage buildings on the east side making way for something new, something unannounced, something coming. Shiny metal Milky Way trucks are parked on the north side of the fenced and gated area, waiting for processing within the modern Darigold buildings on the west side, while Darigold-branded freight trucks haul out the packaged goods through a gate on the southeast side, usually at night.

Darigold demolition

Darigold markets itself as "one of the nation's largest agricultural cooperatives," producing "seven billion pounds of milk every year," including all the usual "value-added food ingredient solutions," more commonly known as dairy products, from butter, yogurt, and cheese to whey and milk powder for constructs like baby formula and protein supplements.** An occasional customer, I happen myself to be spreading Darigold butter this week on no-knead bread baked yesterday. (There had been a crazy-cheap butter sale at WinCo a few months back, and I bought three pounds for the freezer).

Darigold-buttered no-knead bread

Though Darigold's history is indeed as a farm cooperative, with Darigold employees union members, a darker side can be found under certain barn roofs, the United Farm Workers charging that cow milkers aligned with the Ruby Ridge Dairy in eastern Washington are being discriminated against for seeking union representation to combat alleged employer abuses (e.g., let them drink water from the cow troughs), with suits being filed, petitions being delivered, and big-boss Darigold refusing to weigh in. Even Occupy has marched. The moral of the story may be that even cooperatives can grow corrupt once they balloon to corporate size, the nature of bureaucracies and top-heavy administrators to wax aloof when workers are viewed from high-up offices, a detached, bird-like perspective in which humans begin to resemble ants, interchangeable.

This is the stuff of which Kafka wrote, men waking one day to find themselves morphed into insects, wronged in and by their own bodies, men walking the halls of red tape, following rules and systems with no logical purpose. The indifference of bureaucracies and corporations that care (if corporate personhood could be granted emotion) only for stockholder profits and CEO bonuses has created a dilemma for the modern worker, the job losses and financial frustrations of trying to hold a middle-class (read: working-class) life together under current conditions revealing cracks in the system that more Americans are falling into en masse for the first time since the Great Depression.

And those who still have relatively well paying full-time jobs are often loaded with the duties of others who've quit in attrition or been laid off, the remaining workers often laboring after their colleagues have disappeared at what used to be two or three jobs now under one position/title, those workers typically going unreplaced to save the company money. Why pay two or three employees when one will do, as long as the grumbling stays limited to his or her family?

I suspect many of those who still have "good jobs" tend to believe on some level that those who don't possess fatal character flaws, deserving their fate of un- or underemployment—wrong personality, wrong degree, wrong networking, wrong work ethic, wrong company, wrong timing. One day, however, no one will be immune to the economic changes of globalization, the lying promises of greater prosperity for all when the truth is that in capitalism, most profits funnel up as long as someone in the world is willing to work for less or take on the work of absent others to feed themselves. Most workers are complicit in this oppression. And most of us are ignorant of how deep and pervasive the new system has spread, for it thrives in the dark like mycelia.  

old Darigold plant, PDX

Let the light in.

old dairy cooperative building

*Note: I remember seeing a dog-food sign through the fencing but haven't yet found Internet proof.

**Note: For the "value-added food-ingredient solutions" source, click on the High Quality tab on the linked Web page.


Sunday stroll

evergreen fractals

fire hydrant

running shoes on wire

purple orb

dumpster with graffiti

backyard fence

manhole cover (S is for India)




dubious art

SE 9th Street overpass, May 2012

Last August, a group of Brooklyn volunteers spent a few weekends painting and stenciling sections of the SE 9th Street pedestrian/bike bridge over Powell Avenue with paint donated from Miller Paint and a plan overseen by a local artist, in an effort to stop graffiti, take back the neighborhood, and gussy up the concrete walkway. This grant-funded "mural" is the result: a set of random color groupings and oddly placed black animal stencils (e.g., pig sitting on goose), growing on its own each month and competing with the unfortunate community art project into a combination of leftover paint, mistaken intentions, and fresh layers of graffiti. I'm liking the mural a little more each day, now that the taggers are back. They have begun again to scrawl their poetic messages, brief philosophical reminders, such as the word 'funeral' drawn on a crow, or the word 'scab,' a crust on a wound, or a person who will work for less pay than what unions demand. How many are playing scab these days, our worth forgotten for a bit of bread?

stencils, graffiti, and blackberry vines

crow, labeled

pig, geese, and greenery

butterflies and fish


neighbors and angels

dandelion fuzz

Of course, I jest. I would never kill the new neighbors. I just want them to pack up and move back where they came from, Hawaii, I think.

The previous neighbors were perfect: a youngish couple and a polite boy who looked maybe eight or nine, and a dog. They were a quiet crew and kept to themselves. I had no clues about the plump, thirty-something, bearded man with glasses, but the woman was a "hot vice principal" per Gardener M., who lives on the other side of me. Sometimes I'd see the VP out in the neighborhood jogging in yoga pants and baseball cap or taking the dog for a walk, her long, honey hair glowing in the sun, shining in rain. Even their medium-sized dog was quiet. On warm evenings, the woman would shoot hoops with the boy, who called her by her first name (B—), so she probably wasn't his mother, though who knows. One time, soon after they moved in, the French doors open, I happened to hear the woman say to her husband/partner/boyfriend, their voices wafting like dandelion fuzz on a breeze, "I can't believe we're in the middle of the city." They seemed so humbly grateful—and they were so charmingly quiet. Theirs is a two-story, shingled old house, with a covered patio back of the garage, including (yes, I'm jealous) a long brick barbecue and fireplace, complete with chimney. We never actually met, let alone said good-bye, though we were on smiling "hello" terms. A few months ago, they moved quietly out of the green house next door one Saturday because they were only renting and their landlord, the new neighbor, decided to move back in.

view of the neighbors

One would think the new situation would be similar to the old: a lanky man with a few arm tattoos (some kind of doctor, says Gardener M.) in his 40's; a petite 20-something, dark-haired, almond-eyed woman with a high voice; a little girl, age three or four; plus two dogs. But no. Lord, no. Add a motorcycle revving in the driveway for five minutes before The Man roars off down the street. Add two large dogs barking at the intruder next door (me) every time I go down to the garden to cut kale or do some watering. Add The Man or The Woman yelling at the barking dog, "Daisy! Stop that! Get in here!" Add The Man singing along loudly to reggae beats while cutting something—wood, I imagine—with an electric saw. Add voices so carrying that one can hear entire family conversations, such as:

"We're going to walk to the park at OMSI." (Woman to Man's visiting Mother—my best guess)
"Walk to OMSI?!" (Mother-in-law's reply)

Note: Walking to OMSI (the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on the southeast waterfront) from here takes 15 minutes max, 20 if one were a turtle. (See previous-previous post.)

And they, like me lately, seem to be always home. If The Man is a doctor, he doesn't seem to have a doctor gig. He's always outside calling to his wife/partner/girfriend in the house or replying loudly to the little girl's frequent cry for "Daddy!" I know the new people next door are not the worst neighbors ever. The worst neighbors ever would be cooking meth in the basement, letting the yard go to weeds (like mine), painting the house purple with hot-pink trim, and singing along, thirty close friends at a time, to polka late at night in the backyard while barbecuing disappearing neighborhood cats and squirrel shot off the electric lines, the pelts drying from a rope in the front yard. In fact, these new neighbors are probably decent folk who aren't intending to be annoying with their dogs, motorcycle, and projecting voices. They're just loud and can't help it.

Though most people read 'quiet' as code for boring, it tends to reveal, if one waits long enough, a rich internal life opening like a flower blooming out of sight. Quiet people may one day surprise us. Loud people never will; antics (yawn) are expected. But no one, I say no one, will ever compare to the former tenants next door, those perfect neighbors for whom I will forever yearn, seeking their faces in crowds, never again encountering their angelic like.

cherub with gnome-fairy


blue island in a sea of red

hoop, no game (PDX, October 2007)

Last night I was out networking. (Funny, huh?) A new colleague had invited me to a meeting of the Portland Chapter of the IMA's Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business, the last meeting before their summer break. (Apparently, there's less interest in summer networking. Maybe in summer, people are out networking on yachts.) Of course, attending such an event is not my normal Tuesday night, which for this school term would involve, oh, I don't know, staring at the computer screen some more at the kitchen/dining/office/prep table. Instead, I found myself in a small conference room, the Kamm Room to be exact, at the Multnomah Athletic Club. (FYI, family MAC membership is $10,200 via lottery, plus unspecified dues—'cause most people have 10 large lying around in a drawer to drop at a gym/social club—wait, that's the point of being exclusive, right? It keeps the riffraff out. Silly me.)

My hair up, I wore a (thrifted) blue linen dress, (thrifted) tan linen jacket, thin silver hoop earrings (half-off at Macy's), leopard-print heels (the ones from Nordstrom Rack that students joke about stealing off my feet on the way to my car), carried a Luisa Cevese Riedizioni bag (eBay), walked with head high, and thought money thoughts. The front-desk host sent me upstairs with a smile, so the whole blending-in thing must have worked well enough.

just like Berkeley (PDX, October 2007)

In my mind, I was there to spy on another professional tribe, a word person observing numbers people interact. I was handed several business cards but had no shiny paper trinket to offer in exchange because my $10 business-card order was placed online earlier that day and will take two weeks to be shipped from the Netherlands (or rather, from China) one week from Canada. Who knew one needed business cards to be taken seriously? The closest thing my working-class family had to business cards were checks with which we paid electric and grocery bills—name, address, and phone number printed right there on the check—see? Oh, it's not the same thing? What's a social club again? That's like church, right, where the Kentucky-Fried-Chicken-franchise-owner Mormon bishop hands out KFC jobs if asked?

Lesson 1: Marx was right—the class system is real. And the class secrets and rules of the clubs are intended to keep the money in the family.

church steeple (PDX, October 2007)

Don't worry—the accountant tribe was friendly and my head was in no danger of being cut open and my brains eaten. Instead, they served me complimentary salad and fruit tart. The numbers person eating with knife and fork next to me will be headed this month to Hawaii on a free trip from his company, a perk received every year because he crunches numbers in the wholesale-travel field. (At in-service a couple weeks ago, my name was drawn for a free XL school-logo-ed T-shirt. Go team! That's as good as a trip to Hawaii, right?)

Pearl sign (October 2007)

The keynote speaker stood up towards the end of the meal, during coffee, an economist working for the State of Oregon, Christian Kaylor, Workforce Analyst. While eating my fruit tartlet, I took notes like a good anthropologist. (Yum, that tartlet tasted so much creamier than monkey brains.) I should have picked up his handout, but he kept saying everything was on the Web site. He presented slides of charts and graphs and bullet lists showing recent trends in the Portland economy—hard data he left for others, "sociologists," to speculate about regarding the why's. He worked the crowd with little jokes, mild self-deprecation. I wondered if he'd taught Economics 101 in grad school because he seemed so comfortable up there presenting in his flat-front khakis and button-up shirt and glasses. (Rule #1 of teaching: Never let 'em see you sweat.) He said he'd just bought a house.

condo with crane (PDX, October 2007)

According to Kaylor, in Portland, "If you don't have a bachelor's degree, you don't work" because 42% of Portland-area residents are college grads, 48% of those who live in Portland proper. The unemployment rate for my age bracket (25-44) is 11.6%. Job growth is equal to population growth at 1%, meaning there's really no job growth going on at all. Politicians are battling over semantics. Kaylor himself seemed particularly puzzled (he said he "understands about 80% of it") by his discovery that since about 2005, virtually all the growth in the city of Portland has been from childless people with bachelor's degrees ages 25-44, and they all want to live close-in—PDX northwest, northeast, inner southeast, but not, definitely not, no way José, in the suburbs. (See previous post.)

PDX street (October 2007)

Kaylor was essentially describing the ex and me, as if he'd broken into our condo and searched our files, read our bank statements, and interviewed our friends on the sly—except my ex has an associate's and I have a master's, only the ex makes bushels more money in computer engineering while I'm in English teaching, but the degrees cancel each other out to a bachelor's each, so there you go, the profile. Kaylor also said those "nonnatives" who've been coming to Portland are systematic about it, also considering other (let's use the words: liberal/green) places around the country "with co-ops" like the state of Vermont, Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York.

What Kaylor kept dancing around by holding onto his numbers is that choosing a city is like picking a mate. One desires similar interests or life will be dull or full of strife. If one partner likes Nascar and beer, while the other prefers wine and hiking, then hang on for the ride. If any sociologist wants to start breaking down Kaylor's data with qualitative interviews, e-mail me. I fit the profile. However, things get a little complicated when one considers that I was born in California, raised in southern Oregon, lived abroad, lived for nine years in California as an adult, moved to Portland at the end of 2007 (i.e., was priced out of the Bay Area), but have ancestors who've lived in Oregon since the mid-1800's, including one of the first Willamette Valley hops growers, and I have a little Native-American blood in me. How exactly should we define "native," Mr. Kaylor?

park fence (PDX, October 2007)

In any case, Kaylor said "10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 each day," and "retirees are the fuzzy area" in the shrinking labor pool because many are having to retire earlier than they'd like "for health reasons," while many others see no clear retirement date ahead, having lost so much in their 401K's, and still others will have only social security to retire on, nothing more. He also said the median wage in Portland is $18/hour, and he joked with the crowd of accountants, saying he sure "hoped everybody in the room was making more than $18 an hour." Gasp, how awful. Ha! Wink, wink.

street art (PDX, October 2007)

Lesson 2: The Numbers Tribe has more money than the Word Tribe. In fact, the Numbers Tribe lives in a different world altogether, though I'm certain no attendee last night was a member of the 99%.

Kaylor also stated that since baby-boomer teachers have begun retiring and will continue to retire, education is a future growth field in Oregon, despite recent cutbacks in education funding. The WorkSource site offers PDF "Education Pays!" posters, proclaiming that college graduates earn far more and have less unemployment in a lifetime compared to high-school graduates.

But what Kaylor didn't talk about, what few talk about, is that education doesn't pay for most teachers themselves—not in the U.S., not now, probably not ever. Teachers are on average the least-paid group around, considering their amounts of education: in Oregon, at least, required master's degrees on top of standard bachelor's degrees, and at the college level, often doctoral degrees atop all that, plus continuing education requirements for K-12 teachers the length of their careers. Where's the comparative analysis of the amount of education a person in various fields has compared to salary? Teachers, I suspect, will sit at the bottom of the pay scale per education level. Talk to some teachers. I don't know any wealthy ones, unless they have a spouse in a different field. Teachers have the most formal education of any group I know, other than MBA-managers, therapists/counselors, lawyers, and doctors. But teachers make less than the rest, usually far less. Fair? Those who can't do, teach? We get what we deserve? We aren't in the right networks? We weren't born in the right class? We don't need to get paid because we love our work so much we'd do it for free?

road closed (PDX, October 2007)

Lesson 3: Statistical averages inevitably contain exceptions. Sometimes even a master's or doctoral degree is near-worthless in an economy.

Portland Baroque Orchestra banner (October 2007)

What's my advice to youth, a teacher speaking her truth from experience? Never ever earn a degree, let alone two, studying words or art or music. Redline those programs from schools. They don't pay. Numbers pay. Numbers are all that matter here in America. No one told me. My parents never went to college. So instead of numbers, when I was young and choosing a major, I blindly picked English, my native language, the study of words and metaphors that feed me, that assure me I'm not alone here, spinning on this blue island in black space. Others are like me. We have a club. It's called literature, and it's open to everyone.


walking the line

aspen bark

Last month, Slate published a four-part series called "America's Pedestrian Problem," detailing the history of walking in the U.S. and lamenting why so few of us now do. I've been mulling this over because though I consider myself a walker and during periods in the past have walked for an hour every day with a partner, I've been walking far less than I'd like to each week ever since getting a job that required driving (or lengthy, convoluted public transportation).

My home address rates a "Walker's Paradise" walk score of 92/100, though I can currently only afford this "close-in" area by living with a roommate, a common situation in U.S. cities these days, even for those well past college age. And I've witnessed and had enough relationships to know it's not the smartest idea to shack up with a lover mainly to save on rent. So because of my roommate, I can walk to the edge of downtown Portland in 30 minutes, along the river past OMSI and across the Hawthorne Bridge, a scenic view of the city. Brooklyn itself offers coffee shops, restaurants, schools, and grocery stores all within walking distance. I'm close to several bus lines (though I hate jerky, noisy buses). And in three years, they'll have installed the new Milwaukie MAX line in the neighborhood (I love quiet, sleek trains).

But because of where I currently work in the southeast suburbs of Clackamas, it's much easier (and cheaper) to pick up groceries at WinCo on 82nd and store them in the trunk on the way home than walk twenty minutes to New Seasons or People's Co-op and lug loaded canvas bags home, straining my arms and shoulders. And though I usually walk downtown to the library once a week, since cutting out even secondhand discretionary spending the last couple of months, I have a hard time just taking off down the street for a half hour for exercise with no ulterior purpose, doodle-ee-doo. Go for a walk? For no reason? Without an errand? Without someone to talk to? And all this is from a self-labeled walker.

hole in the wall

I've also been reflecting on an interview last week in the New York Times called "The Surprising Shortcut to Better Health." NYT health-and-fitness writer, Gretchen Reynolds, says research shows that what's far more important than regular workouts is regular movement, even something as simple as standing up while talking on the phone. And gardening counts. According to Reynolds, "Humans are born to stroll." She wants to redefine exercise as "moving around." She says walking is the easiest thing to do to improve health and prolong life, and if one can't walk, then swim. This makes logical sense when remembering that our ancestors roamed the earth as hunters and gatherers, continually seeking new food sources, browsing, grazing, following herds—moving. They weren't sitting on their rumps all day at a desk and then on the couch at home in front of the TV, munching Cheez-Its.

metal door

Living in Korea, I passed groups of old people doing tai chi mornings in the park, slow and gentle regular movement. In Korea I also had a fit, muscular boyfriend who did a few tae kwon do kicks every morning for exercise, and that was it—no gym-going, no running, no sweating, just a few high kicks every day, plus a lot of walking to and from work and to and from the bus stop or train, and a lot of healthy traditional eating: a little tofu, a ton of vegetables, white rice, some sea food, a little meat, a few eggs, no dairy, no sugar, no junk food. In western and central Europe, too, during the two periods I lived and visited, I witnessed far more daily walking than I see in the U.S.—and not the for-exercise-with-sneakers kind but to get from place to place to shop, for errands, to see friends. New York City's like that because of being so densely populated on that little island. But in the rest of America, we've had room to spread out, and boy have we, including our plump rumps.

monkey puzzle

Without naming names, I know (and like) a fitness aficionado, a regular runner and volleyball player, who lives only six short blocks from her boyfriend but drives over to see him. I've joked with her that she'd rather run than walk, and she agrees—she says walking's too slow. Now I'm all for variety of people and their preferences. But really? Six blocks?

paint splatters

Me, I like the idea of exercise as movement. One thing I enjoy about teaching is that I'm standing and moving around in the classroom and taking the stairs between classes, not sitting in a chair all the time. But if switching to writing or editing full-time, a full-on desk job, what will happen to my ass? The novelist Haruki Murakami solved the stationary-for-hours writer problem by taking up marathon running, a way for him to meditate and exercise at the same time. Too bad I hate running, all that sweating and panting in spandex, almost as embarrassing a display as latex sex in public. But I like walking and moving (and sex, for that matter). When I broke a pinkie toe last fall and hobbled around for weeks till it healed, I realized how much I missed walking fast on my long legs.

There's more to see when living in slow motion, compared to the rushing view of the world from a car window: the textures of buildings and trees, the play of light and shadow on a sidewalk, the rustles of leaves and breezes, scents wafting up from a sewer drain or jasmine bush. Human bodies have evolved to get about on foot, not on four wheels. Every afternoon, an old woman in my neighborhood, probably in her 80's, walks past the house with her cane on the way to the eastbound bus stop on Powell. She returns a couple hours later, carrying a near-empty Safeway bag. She moves slowly, her shoulders bent, pausing to rest with a hand on her hip every few blocks. But she smiles to fellow pedestrians, says hello, and wears makeup and bright colors, her gray hair upswept and marked with a black headband. I want to hear her life story. I want to be mobile on foot when I'm 80. Someday I'll give up the car for good—maybe as soon as I get that desk job.

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