nasturtiums in progress

potted nasturtiums in full sun, five weeks old

Optimism sometimes works. Remember how I planted nasturtium seeds five weeks ago, not knowing if I would even be able to afford to stay in my apartment long enough to watch them flower? Well, look at them now, the little green babies.

I had to replant partway through, after coming out to the balcony one day and finding half of the shoots nipped off at soil-level. We think the culprit was a blue jay who's been nosing around and squawking. My cat needs to take fewer naps, I'd say.

nasturtium shoots, post-blue-jay attack

But since July has been mostly warm and sunny here in Portland, the plants are growing quickly. (After I sent a cell phone photo a couple weeks ago to my friend Jeff, his texted comment was: "There are lily pads in your dirt.") I might have over-planted the pot, but I was aiming for a thick cascade of trailing leaves and blossoms, come late summer. And with any luck, they will reseed themselves for next year, just as the lobelia did off a pot on the railing last year, now mingling among the nasturtiums, a future mix of blue and orange flowers for my troubles.

Speaking of gains out of troubles, here's some math for you:

2 English degrees + 1 global recession/depression + 77 job applications / 4 months = 1 steady, 30-hours-a-week job

Yes, that's right. I landed a job, the training starting next week. It's even a job doing good things in the world, rather than bad. And there are even some health benefits and lots of unpaid vacation time, perfect for writing, to look on the bright side. For now, at least, I'll keep teaching evenings at the college. It is all such a relief, and I feel humbled and grateful. It shouldn't be this hard for an educated person to find employment in modern society. But I'm proof that it can be.

ladybug upside-down on nasturtium leaf

Often in the job hunt, I felt like the ladybug I rescued one day from inside the house and dropped off on a nasturtium leaf. I came back to find her circling the edge of the leaf over and over, round and round, with no hope of heading anywhere outside the track she was crawling until she decided to spread her wings and take a leap.

ladybug on nasturtium leaf

Last week I was helping Jeff with his big garage sale (and sadly, kept forgetting my camera to document the process). This week, with only a few teaching hours, I'll be treasuring this one jeweled week of nearly stress-free summer vacation before the new job starts, lounging in the sun under a hat with a library book, going for walks to cut sweet peas and pick blackberries, blending up smoothies, practicing with the camera, knitting while watching films in the evening. I might even make it over to one of the mountains for a day hike.

Money is the root of so much worry and strife. One needs enough of it to cover the basics of food, shelter, safety, and health in order to enjoy rather than endure life. Otherwise, the mind centers on bare survival. And there's no fun or summer joy in that.


old bike, new home

vintage turquoise 1960's Columbia Roadster

Why would I want to sell this lovely vintage bicycle in a summery shade of turquoise, one might ask? The answer is: because a vintage single-speed is damned heavy. I took this bike (that was formerly my mother's) out for a spin a couple years ago on the Springwater Corridor, and afterwards my legs were sore for three days. Obviously, that would have made for some great leg workouts, but it was also not fun, especially over the slightest inclines—unlike the much longer bike ride I took one time with a friend on a borrowed ten-speed on that same trail that gave no muscle-cramp aftermath, just smooth sailing. Biking should be fun. And Portland isn't all flat.

So today this bike was sold, with help from Craigslist, to a woman named Luna with short hair and a wide smile, who wanted exactly this kind of bike for herself for riding with her daughter on flat trails. We even negotiated a deal because she wanted to dress it up with a basket and tassels. And she even said, after riding it around the block, that this bicycle wasn't heavy compared to other vintage bikes she's tried. Hooray!

This kind of reuse makes me happy. A perfectly functional vintage bike in barely ridden condition sitting in a garage or basement collecting cobwebs makes no one happy and only takes up space—far better the bike be ridden as designed, on a sunny trail under blue skies, new tassels flying.

vintage Columbia Roadster bicycle label

And now I can start trawling Craigslist for a used ten-speed. . . .


urban blackberrying

blackberry arbor, SE Portland

Last weekend I went blackberrying . . . a few blocks down the street. The first rule of blackberrying, of course, is that the sweetest, ripest, biggest ones are always out of reach. So the first berry patch I came to teased me from overhead with vines so lush they stained the sidewalk under my feet. But I couldn't reach them without a ladder as they were overhanging someone's old garage, so I moved along down into the industrial area between Powell and the train tracks to a patch growing beside a telephone pole between sidewalk and street. It was a Sunday evening, so businesses were closed and cars were few. I could forage without fear of being bothered by anything other than thorns (of which there were plenty) and spiders (of which I saw none).

blackberry patch growing near a telephone pole

blackberry close-up

Though this activity is perfectly legal, I still felt a bit subversive, plucking wild city fruit, free produce one pays good money for at the grocery store. For me, such foraging is the best kind of gardening: gathering in a local harvest I never once had to weed or water. And it happens simply by looking around our public spaces and seeing what's familiarly edible. For Portlanders, the Urban Edibles site is a useful resource, mapping a growing, local database. For those who prefer a more formal experience, the Portland Fruit Tree Project coordinates volunteers to harvest fruit that homeowners for whatever reason can't access or don't want, donating the first-quality fruit to local food banks, volunteers then buying for cheap the leftover bruised or otherwise damaged grades, usually for preserving.* Or one can contract a guided urban foraging tour from private experts around town (see, for example, details in the Spring 2012 issue of Edible Portland, pp. 44-49). Similar organizations and events are sprouting in many cities and communities.

gleaned urban blackberries

I filled a bowl of gleaned berries and walked the few blocks home, leaving them on the counter for a couple days until I had time to blend them up into smoothies for breakfast: blackberry with unsweetened almond milk, banana, a few small kale leaves from the garden beds, a spoonful of honey, and a few ice cubes. You can call me Ms. Modern Hunter-Gatherer, but my grandparents would scoff. They would call such food sourcing common sense.

blackberry smoothie

*Note: I actually volunteered with the PFTP a couple of summers ago while a harvest party was being recorded by Destination DIY, a local public radio show. You can hear the Season 1 snippet here.


experiments in nondairy sorbet: mango-mint

mango-mint sorbet w/ strawberries and blueberries

Yesterday was a big day, an ice-cream-and-cake kind of day, only I can no longer eat the sugar, dairy, wheat, and eggs in ice cream and cake because of the anti-inflammatory diet. So instead I made nondairy sorbet in that thrifted-yet-new, $5 Donvier ice cream maker found at Goodwill last fall.

I didn't use a recipe, figuring I'd just make a fruit smoothie and freeze it up. It worked: a bag of frozen mango chunks, a can of light coconut milk, a couple long glugs of unsweetened vanilla almond milk, a few mint leaves, and clover honey to taste, blended together and then frozen. So the rest of the summer will be spent concocting sorbet flavors (among other things).

If only sugar weren't such a chronic, addictive poison, insidious contributor to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, the lovely disease triad of the Western diet, life would be truly sweeter. Unfortunately, it would be better for Americans, myself included, if life became less sweet.

When I arrived home late last night from class and opened the fridge, hungry after not having eaten in nearly twelve hours, I found a box of organic raspberries and a ripe plum sitting on the fridge shelf under a note penned my new housemate: "Birthday treats, almost like ice cream and cake." And they were.


how to make dried, oily, salty leaves, aka kale chips

kale chips

Popcorn used to be my former salty-snack preference when watching movies, but for now, at least, I can't eat corn. Neither can I eat potatoes, so potato chips are also out. But I can eat kale, and it's growing in the garden downstairs. So this is another of those late-to-the-food-trend posts. Kale chips are old news by now, but I hadn't tried them before this evening. The taste and texture remind me of dried Korean seaweed sheets but with a little less sea. Hey, anything oily, crunchy, and salty probably will trigger pleasure in the brain, right?

Because the weather's warm and to avoid burning the leaves to charcoal (see some of the comments here), I used a recipe in The Oregonian, whose author, Sara Bir, makes a convincing case for a return to lower oven temperatures as in olden days. I also found that tossing the torn kale leaves with the olive oil and salt right on the baking sheet worked just fine. (Lacking a dishwasher, I'm always looking for ways to avoid unnecessary dishes.) And though some recipes call for parchment paper, it's not needed; the dried leaves come right off the baking sheet like bits of paper.

kale leaves for chips, prepped & unbaked

The hardest part of the process was rinsing the tiny gray aphids off the textured underside of the dinosaur (lacinato) kale leaves, this being organic, pesticide-free kale from our yard, which means I'm eating at least a few dead bugs as extra protein. The leaves were then torn into pieces and spun in the salad spinner, the oil and salt rubbed in by hand on the baking sheets (and so a great, easy, hands-messy cooking project for kids, FYI), and then the two sheets popped into the oven for an hour. I had snipped enough kale for two separate batches over two hours. And don't worry about the kale leaves touching each other because it all shrinks up when it dries like those Shrinky Dinks plastic craft-project pieces from the 1970s.

Or if this sounds like too much work and time (poor you, to be so busy), you could always pay Whole Foods and the like $7.49 for a 2-ounce bag of locally made Pacific Northwest Kale Chips in four flavors.


my cat eats flowers

gleaned sweet peas in a thrifted vase

To confess, I haven't felt much like blogging of late because right now there are too many unknowns contingent on other unknowns for comfort. Evenings, I've retreated to books and film, knitting a cabled wool cardigan in pieces with the French doors thrown open and a candle flickering, while watching Burn Notice and the last few seasons of Weeds on Netflix, soothed by the repetition of stitches. Plus, I've committed myself to taking the camera off auto mode and into manual. As evident from the underexposed photo above, I don't know what I'm doing yet with exposure and believe post-production to be cheating. But I have a library book for this, and if I could teach myself to knit from a book, I can learn the relation between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, though both photography and knitting contain an awful lot of numbers.

I'm also bored of food. Instead of eating for pleasure, I'm now eating mainly to keep from passing out in public. And though the vegan converts in Forks Over Knives claim they feel more energized, I just want to sleep in every morning. But maybe that's the depression talking.

In other news, it's now sweet pea season, and despite the efforts of city maintenance workers, who mowed down the weed field at the bottom of the SE 9th Avenue overpass last year, the hot-pink sweet peas have crept back, pulled up by their tendrils above the evergreen shrubs. I pick a fresh bunch every few days on my way home from errands. They're sitting on my coffee table, nibbled on regularly by my cat, who likes to chomp on flowers. Neither roses nor sweet peas are safe from her pearly fangs, though she left the wild daisies alone, maybe because they smell like dog poop.

And though I returned to Goodwill last week for the first time in months, I bought nothing and instead have been culling again. When life feels chaotic, remove clutter. Return to essentials. While searching for an old sales receipt for a furniture piece I'm selling on Craigslist, I felt shame for how frivolously the ex and I were spending ten years ago. He was buying video games and café meals multiple times a week. I was buying expensive groceries and retail-priced clothes. For dates, we ate regularly in restaurants, went out to movies with popcorn and soft drinks, and bought sex toys from a sly, women-owned shop, all a lifestyle I no longer have or want. Thanks, but I'll take my gleaned, free sweet peas in a 75-cent thrifted West Elm vase and my media from the library and an eight-dollar-a-month Netflix subscription. And whatever's wrong with a cucumber?

In class last night, we covered the chapter on stress management, and one young man joked only half seriously that every class he's had in his business program has discussed stress reduction, even in Microsoft Excel, saying the school must be worried the students would crack. I laughed and said, no, that life's just stressful, work impinging on the personal and vice versa. I asked them to list 10 things they enjoy doing, that make them feel good or happy, and then to write down why they're not doing them more often. We all had sex on the list. Some of our pleasures required other people's participation, like back rubs. Others required more money than we now have, like snowboarding and traveling. But some were so simple, like climbing into clean sheets after a shower. I should stop scolding my sweet house cat for eating flowers because, really, if I had to eat brown turkey-and-fish kibbles every day, I'd be biting on silky pink petals, too.



stray lobelia in rosemary pot

Life is unpredictable. Diets can change radically in a day. One roommate will move out and another in. Plants can pop up in unexpected places, unnoticed till they flower, announcing themselves in color, like the blue lobelia now growing in the rosemary pot on the balcony. The last several days I have been weighing two opposites, metaphorically holding one binary in each hand: optimism and pessimism. Do I act as if things will turn out well, a new and better chapter about to start, begin, for example, searching Craigslist for that used men's 10-speed I've been wanting for years, birthday present to myself? Or do I begin prepping for upheaval, sensing the snake paused, tongue flickering, at the opening of my burrow? Should I put up the simple black metal IKEA curtain rods bought months ago to hang the sheer, white, linen-cotton panels thrifted nearly six months ago, or should I return them unopened for a refund? Should I buy a packet of nasturtium seeds for the large, empty planter on the balcony and wait for the green discs to shoot up and then the edible, peppery, orange flowers to bloom and trail down among my potted herbs as the heat rises, or should I begin selling off everything I own?

thyme-bloom straggler

Logic says to be cautious, prudent, practical, to start packing. But my gut says to act as if. And so yesterday on the way with a friend to a writers' group, we stopped at the co-op for fresh berry-ginger juice at the Sip food cart, while I ran inside the store to grab a packet of nasturtiums—because nothing is more hopeful than a handful of seeds.

Uprising Seeds packet, "Trailing Mix" Nasturtium

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