6.27.2012

vindicated but still underemployed

storm clouds, gray skies, June in Portland

In my inbox last week was a link to a Chronicle of Higher Education article called "Underpaid and Restless: Study Presents 'A Dismal Picture' of Life as a Part-time Professor." This week the article is available for free, but last week, only the teaser was viewable. I would have read the article when it was fresh, but as a part-time college instructor I can't afford a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, so instead I read the original 53-page report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), titled, "A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members." Here's a summary of the findings from the original (p. 4):

Ironically, it appears that those increasingly responsible for educating the undergraduates who reap this earnings premium [of postsecondary education] are themselves excluded from the economic benefits of advanced educational attainment.

I've already written about this fact of highly educated teachers being shunted off onto a dead-end job track and being told to like it or lump it because schools can always find somebody willing to work for the administrators' pocket change. And one can't blame the part-timers too much for taking such treatment since many have now over-educated themselves into marginal employment outside academia. Here's another juicy quote from the CAW survey (p. 4):

Although most faculty members serving in contingent positions hold a master’s degree or higher and almost all hold at least a baccalaureate degree, their earnings are not remotely commensurate with their training and education, particularly when compared with professionals with similar credentials in other fields. The gap is particularly striking for faculty members serving in part-time positions.

In addition, the CAW survey claims that for-profit institutions (like the one I'm teaching for) pay adjuncts the least of any type of college (p. 11):

With one exception, pay increases by institutional type within each sector. One clear deviation from that pattern is the pay per course in for-profit institutions, which is significantly lower than pay per course in not-for-profit institutions, public or private.

crumbling brick mausoleum, Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland

If my true hourly teaching rate, once grading and prep time are factored into my classroom face-time wage, is equivalent to working at McDonald's, why not just sign up to work at McDonald's? But I don't, because who wants to work at McDonald's? Coming home smelling like French-fried, artificially flavored beef fat for minimum wage is for those who lack high school diplomas and immigrants who can't speak English, right? Generation X and those even younger were told if we got college degrees, we wouldn't have to work at McDonald's. Isn't that what we all still tell kids? As the report mentions, more Americans are seeking some level of college education because all the studies show that on average a college education will award the earner more money over a lifetime than a high school education. We've entered the knowledge economy, after all: brains not brawn. That's why we're seeing books like Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys and articles like The End of Men, claiming that women are pulling ahead of men, on average, in college education and the workforce.


MAX bridge under construction, Portland

So more teachers are needed to head all those classes of mostly girls, assign and grade all those papers, mark up all those tests. However, governments, federal and local, are at the same time increasingly unwilling or unable to give schools more money for education (though they can always borrow more money for wars, bridges, buildings, and more administrators). So schools need to cut costs somewhere in order to pay for all those needed instructors. And where do companies cut costs first? Their employees, of course—because payroll comprises such a large chunk of any budget (employees, remember, are the ones doing the actual work). Colleges can't rid themselves of masses of teachers to cut payroll when they in fact need more of them, but they can change the job type from full-time to part-time and eliminate benefits. And that's what they've done.


MAX construction at SE 17th Avenue, June 2012

Another way for an organization to cut payroll costs is to hire more assistants and fewer professionals. This is happening in public K-12 schools where less educated, lower paid classroom assistants are hired to help certified teachers handle increased class sizes (due to inadequate state tax revenues and Federal funding). Similarly, in the highly profitable medical field, medical assistants increasingly replace nurses because nurses know more about the human body after four years of nursing college and are thus more expensive to employ. (The largest career program at the school I'm currently teaching for is medical assisting, a year-and-a-half program.)

Colleges (and increasingly governments) are thus following the lead of the private sector, seeking more contract, outsourced, and, when possible, less skilled labor to cut employee costs: hence the swelling of the contract adjunct faculty ranks. According to the CAW survey, 75% of all U.S. college teaching is now part-time or non-tenure track (p. 1). Gone, as I've said before, are the days of the cushy professor job. Once the baby boomers retire, many of those 25% tenured jobs with offices, sabbaticals, summers off, and health benefits will be phased out, guaranteed.


strike signs, SE 9th Avenue overpass, Portland

The only way this is going to change, dear fellow part-time instructors, is if we stop teaching as adjuncts. And practically, that means most must stop teaching, period. Schools aren't going to magically start tossing us more money or awarding us health care. Even union organizing wouldn't change the new part-time, contract nature of the profession, though it would be interesting to see people try. The CAW survey claims wages, benefit rates, and professional support for adjunct instructors are generally all higher at institutions with union representation (pages 11, 13-14)—which, of course, is the point of unionizing: to demand higher wages, more benefits, and better working conditions. Adjuncts like myself must wake up and opt out after finding other sources of incomeno more part-time teaching. Stop. Just stop. (I'm talking to myself.) One can't live on part-time teacher wages, and from everyone I've talked to who has ever done it (or read stories here), it's nerve-racking trying to cobble together full-time hours from different schools, one's car becoming one's office between campus commutes.

Part-time college teaching is only viable for those who already have full-time jobs, who are just picking up some extra income on the side (at the school I teach for, the side-job adjuncts tend to be accountants), those who want to keep their hand in after retirement (a former high-school math teacher I know), or those who are supported by a partner's income and want a little something to do to get out of the house (I don't know any instructors like that). The rest of us just need to drop out.

But it's not only teachers whose education is undervalued, as the following (partial) job posting I came across here a few weeks ago shows. Please note the hourly rate.

Qualifications:
· College degree, preferably with English, journalism, or computer concentration or equivalent experience.
· Basic understanding of HTML, content management systems, and online media.
· Solid writing, editing, research, and communication skills.
· Detail-oriented with the ability to meet deadlines effectively and multitask.
Pay is $10/hour.

What's minimum wage now, $8.80 an hour here in Oregon? And a four-year English degree with computer skills is worth $10 an hour? The only logical conclusion is that college has become a racket for humanities and social science degrees, for the liberal arts as opposed to clear vocational tracks. Liberal arts for any but the upper middle class with their entrenched social-club networks are a straight track to the poorhouse. Unless one selects a college degree with a guaranteed career track, one will likely be making just over minimum wage. People in this depressed economy are finding jobs because of who they know, how outgoing they are, or because they've already done that exact job before on an established career track. That's it. Those are the secrets to finding jobs in contemporary America. Anyone who wants to change careers probably needs to start her own business. Signing up for additional vocational schooling may lead to a more secure job down the road but certainly guarantees tens of thousands in debt in the bargain.


dead tree, Portland

Someone kind and well meaning implied recently that my current fiscal situation is a direct result of my attitude, that I'm dwelling on the negative, that if I instead will positive thoughts out into the universe, positive is what will return to me; in other words, this person subscribes to the pseudoscientific Law of Attraction. Thanks, college degrees, for providing me with the analytical skills and ability to detect and call bullshit where I see it, thereby undermining my own success—because no one likes a downer.

Instead, I should be smiling all the time (though it's true that studies say the brain gets confused by this and thinks one is actually happy), doing more yoga (well, yes, it does feel good to stretch), listening to upbeat music (which does help my mood), dancing around my apartment (dancing is indeed fun), and telling myself, "An interesting full-time job offering a living wage is on its way. It will be here any day now." Tossing my long, shiny hair as in the old L'Oreal commercial, I'll repeat over and over, "Because I'm worth it." Optimism still rules America. And so what if pessimists are statistically more likely to be right.


train overpass, SE Portland

Still, even pessimists can press onward, dogged, persistent, because they know tenacity, passion, intelligence, wit, and skill are also sometimes rewarded. And so I am trying to hold to what mythologist Joseph Campbell says in the biographical documentary, The Hero's Journey, as I bang my head against walls, networking, writing, hunting, and hoping:

. . . I have a firm belief in this now, not only in terms of my own experience but in knowing about the experiences of other people. When you follow your bliss, and by bliss I mean the deep sense of being in it and doing what the push is out of your own existence, you follow that and doors will open where there were—you would not have thought there were going to be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anybody else. And there's something about the integrity of a life and the world moves in and helps.

6.25.2012

field trip: Eastmoreland Garage Sale 2012

sidewalk chalk sign, Eastmoreland, Portland

This past weekend was the 27th Annual Eastmoreland Garage Sale, a huge, two-day neighborhood yard sale held each June. My friend Jeff and I went for the first time last year and decided to make it an annual outing. Some people sell hot dogs, burgers, and cookies to raise money for schools or charities. Kids have lemonade stands. Portable toilets can be found down at Duniway Elementary School. But most of all, it's just fun (for those of us who like used stuff) to walk around peeking at other people's discards. And deals can be had—better than at the thrift store.

Last year, I spent a whopping $1.25. At one house, I picked up an unused 25-cent Moleskine address book to replace my well used shabby one, only to have Jeff ask, "Do you really need that?" He keeps everything on his iPhone, but I'm old enough and contrary enough that I do at times prefer paper. The memory still makes me chuckle. Then later in the day at another house, Jeff heard me gasp because I'd just spotted a Heath Ceramics teapot, a white one with removable leather-wrapped copper handle, retailing new in different shades each year for $190. (Nope, that wasn't a typo.) This one has a small chip on the interior of the pot that can't be seen from the outside, but the sellers only wanted $1 for it, one whole dollar. It was a good day for thrift.


garage sale Heath teapot, $1

We learned last year, after wandering around more or less lost and directionless, that marked sale maps detailed with numbers, addresses, and descriptions can be picked up at the Eastmoreland Market. So that's where we met up this year on Sunday at 10 AM, aiming straight for the box of maps sitting outside the closed grocery store. Last year we went on Saturday, a sunny, warm day. However, this Saturday it was pouring much of the day, so because we didn't feel like getting drenched, we opted for Sunday, and the weather rewarded us for the wait. What we found out this year, though, is that only a quarter or third of the sales continue through Sunday, meaning we missed most of the sale, though many of the Sunday vendors were dropping prices. Seriously, Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association, why isn't that kind of information up on the Web site? Couldn't someone put up a PDF of the map, too, or at least indication of where to locate the official maps (because buyers and even some sellers kept asking us where we got ours)? Need I volunteer?  


sample yard sale, Eastmoreland Garage Sale 2012, Portland

Prior to starting, we circled all the numbers on our map of Sunday sales and took a more thorough, planned route than last year. Sellers were friendly and eager to complain about the rain the day before, how they got soaked through. One woman said she'd changed shoes three times. Several said by the time the rain stopped later in the day, they were worn out, their hearts no longer in it.

In any case, this year each of us spent just a dollar for almost five hours of fresh air, strolling conversation, and yard browsing. Jeff bought a large, poster-sized beveled mirror he's going to build a frame for, and I bought a pristine hardcover, which I'll resell after reading. In any case, though we didn't find much to buy, the stuff wasn't really the point. It was also good research for the individual garage sale Jeff's planning for July. We learned, for example, that the "fill a bag for a dollar" trick rapidly moves merchandise. The buyers at that house were grabbing and stuffing all around us. Maybe they planned to resell the items at their own garage sales this summer.


Little Free Library, Eastmoreland, Portland

While Jeff was storing his new, rather dusty mirror in my trunk, I happened to stick my hand down into the back seat pocket of the used car I bought months ago and fished up a bunch of Crayola markers, remnants of somebody's family life. So we added them to the pile of books in the Little Free Library box around the block (sorry, I don't remember the street or address, but such boxes appear to be a growing trend across town). And we saw free-roaming chickens in someone's front yard.


free-roaming chickens, Eastmoreland, Portland


putting-green lawn, Eastmoreland, Portland

And I stopped and marveled at one lawn that stood out from all the others (we watched an older woman pulling into the driveway, driving a champagne-colored Buick), smooth and trim as a putting green. It reminded me of a passage in a library book I finished recently, British naturalist Richard Mabey's Weeds, in which he remarks as a side note on the strange fascination Americans have (compared to Brits) with highly manicured, weedless lawns. I guess that's what all the June rain is for—green lawns and green pears.


green-and-red pear, Eastmoreland, Portland

6.21.2012

straw in the berries

strawberry heart

Yesterday, I bought a bale of straw at the feed store on Johnson Creek Boulevard on the way to work. When I went up to the counter and said, "I was told you have straw," I was imagining a bale about half the size it turned out to be. I paid for it sight unseen, and then after the older man said he'd bring it out to the car, I went outside to open the trunk.

Before I even noticed he'd come up behind me, the man had swung the bale into the trunk as I watched pieces of straw scatter over the carpet. Then he slammed the hatch down while I was still mesmerized by the mess, making my careful placement of paper bags over the floor of the trunk laughable. I managed a "Thank you," and then he was gone. Fortunately, the car was unlocked because my keys somehow had ended up under the straw bale. Driving the rest of the way to work, my car began to smell like a mowed hayfield. With any luck, I didn't just give my car fleas. (And I still have a trunk of loose straw to vacuum up.)


straw bale in car trunk

A neighbor happened to be borrowing the lawn mower from our garage right when I was pulling out the bale in the driveway. He asked if I were having a hoedown.

"No, it's straw for the strawberries."
"Really? Huh. Why?"
"Oh, there are slugs. . . ."
"Does straw help with that?"
"I don't know. Maybe."

He looked at me as if I were crazy but offered to help carry the bale to the backyard before proceeding with his grass mowing. Meanwhile, his wife came out into the yard. She's a gardener. She, too, indicated I was misguided, stating more bluntly: "Professional growers don't do this. They just keep their beds very clean. Make sure this straw comes out before the rains come in fall, or it'll kill them." She also informed me there are urban-homesteading stores around town selling smaller bales (though probably for the same price as this huge one).


straw-mulched strawberry bed

Now, mind you, I hadn't actually Googled beforehand the rationale for mulching strawberry beds with straw. I normally research such actions before taking them. But I hadn't this time, and I wasn't sure why. So as I was pulling straw off the giant bale and stuffing it between the crowded plants, I kept wondering if I were crazy, wasting an hour of my life on a useless act, maybe even harming my already productive strawberries by encasing them in dead stalks. You see, I was operating linguistically, semantically. If the name for this early-summer berry contains the word 'straw,' then the two morphemes must be conjoined for good reason, no? Language is purposeful. Farmers, who work from dawn to dusk, wouldn't just make words up because they sound nice.


strawberries, dangling

So when an eighth of my bale was tucked among the berry plants, and after I'd hacked back the oregano in another bed, filling three paper bags (the ones the straw was sitting on in the car) with herbs in need of tying up and drying, and after trying to rake up the stray straw off the lawn with my fingers and failing, lacking a proper rake, and after dragging the now-loose bale into the old detached garage, I finally got around to looking up whether in fact there's any solid basis for mulching strawberries with straw. And there is. Straw helps keep dirt and fungus off the berries and helps the soil retain moisture. However, the increased moisture might make the slug problem worse, though I might not have to worry about watering as often later in the summer when the rain halts. Also, the folk 'straw' etymology is false. Words, alas, can't be trusted.

6.20.2012

squirrel eats cherries

squirrel reaches for cherry


squirrel grabs cherry


squirrel tastes cherry


squirrel eats cherry

lentils in salads

vegan lentil salad with avocado

Okay, so I mentioned that new-to-me Le Creuset pot, and I mentioned the new food restrictions and that at this point I'm eating almost vegan, except with honey (my apologies to bees). But what I haven't mentioned is that I used the Le Creuset pot for the first time on Friday to cook up a batch of French green lentils for a salad. French green are my favorite lentils because uncooked they look like dragon scales or tiny turtles. Plus, they hold their shape well when cooked. David Lebovitz claims they must be lentilles du Puy, but imported French lentils are out of my budget, so the domestic bulk kind work for me. Lentils, if you don't eat them already, are much quicker to cook than beans and a cheap source of vegetable protein. I had been planning to make a batch of this salad anyway, only adding feta (sigh).

This is a modified version of a dish my foodie friend Holly made me years ago in California out of the Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. It was delicious, like everything she's cooked for me, and I asked for the recipe, making it at least once every summer since. Moosewood's original recipe calls for—in addition to celery, sweet bell pepper, and parsley—sun-dried tomatoes (which I can't eat now), minced red onion, and ground fennel in the dressing. But instead of the last three items, I used canned artichokes, scallions, and no fennel. In the past, I've substituted dill for the fennel, which also works well, though this time I had neither. And I added a handful of raw pumpkin seeds for crunch.


French green lentils, uncooked

The point is that cooked lentils of any color other than split or red (which turn to mush), make for a tasty, hearty salad or side dish, summer or winter. Just simmer rinsed lentils for no more than 15-20 minutes (keep testing so not to overcook), along with a little olive oil, a pinch of paprika, a couple garlic cloves, bay leaf, and some thyme. Then drain them, saving the broth as a nice cup or two of liquid nutrients (just add some salt and maybe some curry or cumin). And then toss the cooked, drained lentils, along with assorted chopped raw, roasted, or sauteéd seasonal vegetables, with your favorite dressing (this one was olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, paprika, minced garlic, salt, and pepper), and in summer serve over a bed of greens, topping the dish off with crumbled feta or diced avocado.

Avocado, by the way, has become over the weekend my new cheese—if only avocado trees grew in Portland—and if only I could think of other things to make since I ate the same meal four days in a row. If you have a favorite protein-filled vegan dish fit for a strict anti-inflammatory diet, please point me to it. Yesterday I sautéed some diced extra-firm tofu in extra virgin olive oil with curry powder and minced garlic, and then braised some chopped garden kale on top of that. Now what? It's time to pull out the cookbooks for inspiration.

6.17.2012

field trip: Lone Fir Cemetery

departed 1878, "Cynthia, wife of," Lone Fir Cemetery

After hearing bad news, I often head out for a walk. The thing about cemeteries, unlike famous rose gardens, is they tend to be relatively empty of tourists—my kind of place. Last night, though, in this pioneer cemetery in inner southeast Portland called Lone Fir, I kept seeing trickles of people carrying lawn chairs and striding purposefully somewhere towards the center. Across the way, I could see a tent and tiki torches and people standing around them. Finally, I asked an older, slower moving couple what the event was. At first the lady in a gray braid didn't hear me and nodded, but when I asked again, she said it was a production of Hamlet. I considered drifting over onto the grass behind the lawn chairs because the signs said the show was free, but by 7 PM, I was having a sneezing fit and so skulked away, out of courtesy. Instead I wandered around in the muggy pre-dusk, reading gravestones and snapping pictures.


Lone Tree Cemetery mausoleum

Kerr mausoleum detail, Lone Tree Cemetery

Sorry, Portland, but with the exception of the "MacL—"/Kerr mausoleum larger than my own digs, I've visited more colorful pioneer cemeteries in the West than Lone Fir, with markers revealing more detail, more of the story. The most interesting thing to me about this cemetery is the juxtaposition of old and new, that people are still being planted 150-plus years after the first residents were blanketed with lawn. Now those tucked to bed appear to be mostly immigrants from the former U.S.S.R., their headboard preferences being black upright stones showcasing the dead person's face laser-etched with a smile (or not, for some of the grimmer, kerchiefed babushkas), names and memorials described in Cyrillic.


Lone Fir headstone fashions: 1882 (center), 1927 (right), contemporary (left)


half of the Fokshas at Lone Fir

In the image above, Mr. Foksha is not yet a resident of Lone Fir, but he's pictured with his dead wife, Vera, planning ahead.


Fournier headstone, Lone Fir Cemetery

Because I have a useless, partial reading knowledge of French, I can inform you that the above gravestone reads more or less like the English others in Lone Fir but with perhaps less than average sentiment: "Here lies A. Fournier / Born in Vidauban, France .var [?] / Died 1 February 1882 / at the age of 58 years / Erected by his widow / Esther Fournier." Both it and the family triptych below reveal an outmoded patriarchy with an overshadowing father-figure flanked by dependents.


the family Nordstrom, Lone Fir Cemetery

Below is what happens when a person is planted too close to a tree, or vice versa: one reposes off-kilter, tilted by upthrusting roots.


graves tilted by tree roots, Lone Fir Cemetery


illegible gravestone, Lone Fir Cemetery

Above, a grave marker was so weather worn I couldn't read it, other than the faint word "aged" and a guess at the year "1828." Compare that with the contemporary, colorful, Day-of-the-Dead-themed, laser-etched headstone below of "Joel Weinstein / Famous Publisher." (No offense intended, just a question, but if one were famous, would that need to be stated?)


here lies Joel Weinstein, Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland


"Joel Weinstein / Famous Publisher," Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland, OR


B is for baby?, Lone Fir Cemetery

For the record, I wish to be cremated and my ashes placed under a tree in the mountains, preferably one not in danger of clearcutting and preferably near a brook. My family, particularly my mother, if I die before her, would rather they drain my blood, inject me full of embalming chemicals, glue my eyelids closed, stitch my mouth shut, and paint me with creams and powders to give a look of pink health asleep, rather than decomposition, and then bury me in a shiny-veneered, satin-lined wooden box within an anaerobic cement sarcophagus in a cemetery in my hometown, the kind with ground-flush headstones for easy mowing, the kind of cemetery where the Roundup flows freely and mourners display little American flags, pinwheels, and plastic floral bouquets. If kitsch is your thing, fine. But it isn't mine. I opt out.


Paul Lind's Scrabble gravestone, defaced, Lone Tree Cemetery

Because my family are Mormons, as Christians (of a kind) they believe we'll all be resurrected, and though per Cowper, "God works in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform," resurrection's probably easier if one's rotted bones are at least sifting together in one place than their carbon scattered to the wind, deposited in the sea, or taken up into a living tree. If you haven't read Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death Revisited, I highly recommend it. Long gone are the days of the natural dead lying in domestic state before being buried in a simple pine box or wrapped in a sheet and placed as deep beside the pioneer trail as the diggers could go before nightfall to prevent the loved one being clawed up and eaten by wolves. As Mitford detailed in her classic exposé, revised before her death, U.S. funeral culture enriches yet another mega-corporate industry, its toxic wonders to perform on as many people as will sign up for preneed.


carved marble handclasp, Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland

Near the end of my stroll in Lone Fir Cemetery, I spotted a crow on the grass on the east side, head down, covered in flies but still breathing. He looked down for the count. I sat nearby in sympathy. He was dying alone, the vultures upon him.


almost-dead crow, with flies

But after a few minutes, he (I don't know why I thought of this crow as male, but I did) shook the flies off and stood up. A miracle! Or maybe he was roused by that other crow who'd swooped in, cawing at me in warning from the tree above us, as if I were molesting his mate. So I stood up and moved on. Good luck to you, Crow, being on your last legs and all. But do avoid that group in basketball jerseys barbecuing over on the north side.


crow, resurrected

6.16.2012

more silver linings

2-quart black Le Creuset pot, bartered

Yesterday started the first full day of the new restrictive anti-inflammatory diet. So I looked for bright spots. First, the sun was shining, always a mood booster. Also, as of this week, I now own a black Le Creuset pot via barter with my friend Jeff, whose mother has an uncanny knack for thrifting Le Creuset at Goodwill. She's found four or five pots in the last six months since he turned her onto the sport, all in different sizes and colors, including a rare eggplant-shaped casserole, while all I've ever seen at Goodwill are a couple stray lids. This black casserole wears a black resin rather than stainless-steel handle, and it's only a 2-quart size, but it's perfect for cooking grains or lentils, and I love it. I traded him a couple Crate & Barrel bentwood chairs leftover from my marriage, which he's been borrowing since December and which to me are just baggage, so we're both happy.

He also overwintered my three little red geranium plants for me, one of which started blooming this week. They're still recovering from getting hung over the railing a couple months ago, after having been coddled inside for six months, while spring did its usual bipolar mood shifts, but I'm seeing some new green leaves popping out. And yesterday I saw my first hummingbird of the year, hovering over the petals before blitzing off.


red, overwintered geraniums

Another bright spot in the day was finding, on my way out to the parsley, that a handful of raspberries were ripe, the first of the year, the starts donated a couple years ago by my friend Sarah, who has a large and well trained raspberry patch (unlike mine, the canes of which have entangled themselves in the dead rosemary bush, but I guess that works, too). Nothing says "Summer's here!" to me like raspberries because as a kid, when school was out in June, I could either be found lying somewhere in the house or yard with a book or standing out in my grandparents' raspberry patch next door, plucking and eating warm berries off the vine.


garden haul: parsley, dandelion crowns, and raspberries

And the last bright spot of the day (other than slipping into the library right before closing time) was finding that the strawberries in the bed downstairs, despite the biggest and best being bored into by slugs because I still need to locate some straw, do not (yet) contain the tiny white worms they did last summer, which a student Googled the other day for me in the lab at school and found to be fruit fly larvae. Gross. But they're not here yet, so that's a silver lining, especially when the cut strawberries will be bathed in a little clover honey.


garden strawberries

6.15.2012

inflamed

moving train, Brooklyn, PDX

Life just keeps getting more challenging. It's like I've leveled up, if life were a video game, the monsters faster and with more teeth and claws. I found out yesterday at the doctor's, after stocking up on milk and Greek yogurt the night before, that to help "manage" my newly diagnosed, long-under-the-radar skin condition, that rosy rash that has kept coming back, worse each time, for over three months, in large part because of stress, I should avoid dairy products—along with wheat, corn, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peanuts, pork, beef, coffee, tea (except green and white), carbonation, alcohol, sugar (except honey and maple syrup), fake sugars, and shellfish.

And everything I eat should be organic, if possible, which I had been doing for years, only giving it up six months ago to save money (because it does). And I should avoid the sun and spicy foods. In addition to an expensive ($148-175) antibiotic cream my HMO plan won't cover in co-pay until I rack up $1500 a year in medical bills, I am now on an anti-inflammatory diet, something like this one, but stricter. So I spent a good chunk of yesterday afternoon sorting through my food supplies and culling out the forbidden, which I'll be giving to friends who aren't as stressed and inflamed.


train in motion, Brooklyn, PDX

The silver lining to all this is that I'll most likely be losing weight without trying, not that I'm a whale now or anything, but weight loss would be welcome since stress tends to put a few pounds on. And with any luck, one of these days I might get my complexion back.

6.14.2012

city of roses

Royal Sunset rose (1960), Ladd's Addition, East Garden

Portland's Rose Festival bloomed last weekend. I heard fireworks one night the weekend before, a reminder that it was coming. Then my roommate asked Saturday if I was attending the parade. "No, I don't feel like leaving the house." (See previous posts.) Actually, I've never attended any Rose Festival events, though I've seen some of the dragon boats racing for practice on the river these last several weeks. I've never seen the Starlight Parade or boarded ship during Fleet Week or been on any sponsored runs (I don't run). It rained a lot on Saturday, anyway, if I remember right, so everyone watching the rose parade must have been huddled under umbrellas, feet in puddles.

It's dangerous to plan outdoor events in Portland with fixed dates until after fourth of July through September, our summer. The day before the event might be sunny and warm, but the next, the big day of the wedding, the party, or the garage sale, often is cold and wet through some overnight cloud spell cast by the ocean. It's almost guaranteed to fall that way, if one plans ahead. Portlanders either need forecasters able to predict a year in advance or events with no set date, only a range: "Our event will be held the third week of June on the sunniest, warmest day. See you then!"

Almost every yard in Portland contains at least one rose bush (ours has two, a yellow and a soft red), making the big gardens less of a pull for locals. I've never been to Portland's largest and most famous International Rose Test Garden when it's in bloom, only in winter when the bushes are bare and pruned, standing like gnarled hands stuck into the ground, waiting for sun. This decision is partly from contrariness but also because once I stumbled onto the Peninsula Park Rose Garden when I lived in northeast Portland and learned that it's the oldest rose garden in town, I knew I never needed to seek out the tourist trap on the hill (though it's lovely, I'm sure). Peninsula Park has almost as many roses (9,000 compared to 10,000 plants, though with far fewer varieties), a WWI bandstand, old brick paths, and a large old fountain. In other words, it's a popular place for wedding photos. Since I moved to the southeast part of town, I'm now near Ladd's Addition Rose Garden, a garden in pieces, where I walked the other night in the quiet before dusk, which at this time of year is after 9 PM as we near the summer solstice.

Ladd's Addition is the strangest subdivision I've ever seen, more a diagonal maze than gridded blocks, though the organization comes to makes sense after a while. But I admit at first I got lost quite a few times in the maze. I'm fairly good with maps and directions and general landmark orientation, but one time I remember striding south towards home on a diagonal shortcut but then somehow finding myself up on Hawthorne Avenue at the northwestern boundary. Oops. For this reason the design can't be called efficient, but this island in a sea of standard, right-angled bungalow grids seems to keep the riffraff out (surely I'm not the first person who's gotten lost in Ladd's Addition), so maybe that was the truer purpose: a fence of confusion.

The subdivision is centered by a round lawn with rhododendrons (that night I saw a group of people standing around on the lawn with upright bikes but didn't get close enough to tell what they were doing), with four smaller rose gardens at the compass points from center, all with roundabouts, uncommon features in North American city planning, unlike Europe. Ladd's is one of the posher areas of town, with big old houses fronted by large trees and backed by crisscrossed alleys where residents hide their recycling bins and garages, the unpretty stuff. Most of the houses are well manicured and likely not by the owners themselves (if they can afford these houses, they can afford gardeners), though one encounters an occasional outlier dragging down the neighborhood with their weeds, peeling paint, and rubble piles. There's even an organization, Friends of Ladd's Addition (FLAG), that bands together to save diseased old trees and deadhead the garden roses all summer, recruiting volunteers for Saturday morning clipping sessions, a campaign called Off With Their Heads, aiding the single official city gardener assigned to all the beds.


Medallion rose (1973), Ladd's Addition, South Garden

I walked to each rose garden in turn, west to north to east to south. There was someone sitting alone on a bench in two of the beds, two middle-aged women walking, talking, and sniffing roses in another, and a couple of crows in trees standing guard like museum security in the south garden, cawing frantically every time I bent over to smell or photograph a rose, protecting the collection. As soon as I stood upright, their caws lessened, and as soon as I walked away, they stopped cawing altogether. I felt like an intruder, a somehow-criminal, especially knowing crows can recognize human faces. So I wondered if they'd confused me with an alterego, some look-alike nemesis roaming town doing deeds nefarious to crows who then pass the information along to their murder.

My favorite color for roses, though not necessarily for other flowers, is a peachy-pink blush. In my world, geraniums should be lipstick-red and roses should be blush—not pink, not peach, but riding the line between. There are two in Ladd's Addition, a rose from 1960 called Royal Sunset in the East Garden and one from 1973 named Medallion in the South Garden. None of the roses I stooped over—blush, red, white, yellow, or purple—seemed to exude much scent, nothing like the old pink rose bush in front of the big post office in northwest Portland that I happened across once, the scent worthy of burying a face in, a car stopping and the driver informing me the bush was old and a little bit famous. So the other night while the sun sank, on a partly cloudy day without rain, I had my own private rose festival, and I can have it again any day I want until the roses fade.

6.12.2012

adventures in poverty

hardcover copy of Studs Terkel's Hard Times, with tea*

In early 2009, towards the end of my marriage, I picked up a Book Club edition of Studs Terkel's 1970 collection of interviews on the Great Depression, Hard Times, at the Old Lahaina Book Emporium in Maui. Sadly, per Yelp, the used bookstore seems to have closed this year, with Barnes and Noble scooping up stray customers. I've only read about fifty pages of Hard Times so far in the last three years because it's 530 pages of hoofing-barefoot-down-to-the-soup-kitchen depressing, with interviewees saying things like, "I think everybody should have a job, and the Government should see that they get a job" (p. 80). But right now, it's the kind of reading I need. For those who haven't heard, yesterday the Fed published the results of a survey claiming median family net worth for Americans has fallen back to what it was in 1992, since middle-class wealth is largely tied up in housing stock and we all know how that bubble popped. The poor are still poor and the very rich have grown richer, but the middle class is still on the downslide.

Here I am talking about money again, when coming out as a poor person in America is worse than farting in church. Poverty in the fabled land of opportunity reflects poorly on the American Dream as well as the failed individual, although as Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says, equality of opportunity, i.e., upward mobility, has become even less true in the U.S. than "in any advanced industrial country for which there are data." (Oh, by the way, did you hear the Nobel Prize committee is giving laureates a pay cut?)

On a phone call with the Oregon unemployment insurance (Metro UI) office yesterday, I found out I make too much to qualify for unemployment, even though it was a WorkSource Employment Center employee who had advised me to file based on underemployment. The phone representative said, "Well, but it's not common to make that much per hour, so he must not have known the details." (She apparently isn't familiar with WorkSource analyst Christian Kaylor's median-wage figures.)

U.S. unemployment insurance, for those who may not know, is calculated based on how much a person earned the previous year. Having worked full-time that prior year means the person will receive a larger UI check than a person working part-time because UI is something an employer pays, and full-time employment means more UI taxes dropped into the state's UI pot. But the unemployment amounts, whether full-time or part-time, are calculated based on minimum wage. I make more per hour than minimum wage as an instructor, hence working even quarter-time per week, I earn more than the allowed part-time employment amount and thus don't qualify for UI. It's mind boggling because the amount I'm making this month barely covers my rent and utilities (and remember, I already have a roommate and our apartment is, shall we say, modest).

The next step, the upbeat woman on the phone said, was to call 211, the number for Oregon Assistance. I'd never heard of it. Tra, la, la. I dialed 211. Here stood the entrance into the dark forest of official poverty, the bare trees that pull up their skirts to follow you creaking on tiptoeing roots. And when you stop and turn, mumbling, "This ain't Kansas and I want to go home," their branched arms cross like swords barring the way behind—or so it felt on that nightmare phone trip.

What I learned firsthand yesterday on the phone, rather than simply knowing it from reading articles as my wont, is that there is no social safety net in America. Maybe there never was much of one, compared to, say, Sweden's, but what was is in shreds now. And if you fall, prepare for a bump on the head. The Department of Human Services will sign you up in person for food stamps via ID, income statements, and preferably your actual SSN card, if you qualify, though according to their online calculator, I do not because I earned too much last year . . . (sorry—I can't stop laughing), and they can also arrange for application to the Oregon Health Plan, but only for pregnant women and children—and there's a waiting list even for the swaddling crowd. But if you need help with anything else, it's all been privatized.

For help paying utilities, St. Vincent de Paul will offer a $100 one-time grant if you show them a cut-off notice. I did a mental double-take on that one because I've never seen a cut-off notice, but I've heard about them and they're bad—they mean the lights and heat get shut off. I told the woman on the phone, between sobs, that I wasn't quite there yet. Wiping away tears, I said, "I don't want assistance. I just want a job. And I have a master's degree!" "I know," she said, "These are hard times." I felt sorry for the woman, having to listen to the likes of me five days a week between the hours of eight and five. For help with rent, there are two private agencies, Transition Projects, which 211 claims takes calls the first three days of the month, and Self Enhancement Inc., a program that, per 211, will accept calls on the first Monday of each month, but only between 9-9:30 AM. Ridiculous, no? I must be joking, exaggerating, only I'm not. I took notes.


Old Lahaina Book Emporium bookmark in inscribed copy of Terkel's Hard Times

Last night at work, I found out the guy who hired me for my current job will be laid off at the end of this term, along with a few other full-time employees, because enrollment at his campus for his program is at zero—and all this while the higher-ups talk of opening a larger, shinier campus in a secret location yet to be announced (though everybody already knows), aiming to compete with the big boys of for-profit education by undercutting prices. If this school survives, they'll just get bought out by bigger fish. I've seen it before. But it may not get that far because heads are already rolling.

So the moral of the grim story is, to quote the current home page of Transition Projects: "[A]t any point in anyone's life[,] they [sic] can become homeless." When you are settling down for bed tonight, brushing your teeth, turning out the lights, climbing under the covers with maybe a warm body beside you (or not), remember to be grateful for what you have. Remember to maintain your social network, and not the Facebook kind but the handful of people who will answer your calls or call right back, who call to check in and check up, who will listen even when you're crying and raging. Be thankful for basics like food, shelter, and love. There's no guarantee they will last. Possessions come and go. Jobs are won and lost. Health fails. Lovers change their minds. Change is the only constant. And we are each only as strong as our network.


*Note: The teacup is vintage thrifted Heath Ceramics, gifted to me as a set of three yesterday by my friend Jeff.

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