echoes of Christmases past

Early this week, on a quiet morning to myself in which I should have been doing some chores, instead I re-watched our family home movies, converted five years ago from badly deteriorated 8mm to DVD. Most of the films were from the late 1960's, back when my parents lived in California and before they had children and were only responsible for a beloved, silky-haired black dog named Tikki. Most were of family Christmases in Oregon and California and road trips to the Southwest and down into Mexico with my maternal grandparents and various aunts, uncles, and older cousins. My then-young father didn't understand the cinematic importance of the slow pan, so the scenic vacation shots are rather dizzying. (He also just happened to take plenty of shots of my mom's rear end. Ah, young love.)

So many of the coupled relatives in the films have since split and remarried into new configurations, at least once if not twice, or are now dead—or both. Yet it's breathtaking to see dead family members reanimated in remembered postures and gestures, these clips from past moments. I miss them. Life takes so much away in this circle in which we're spun. Daily life can be hard—enduring less-than-ideal jobs and struggles with money, health, and relationships. So such rituals are important, even if your family, like mine, is half crazy: gathering together, remembering, forming new memories—layering meaning—for it shouldn't all be mere endurance, or what's the point? 

Despite the needed alone-time afterwards to regroup and reflect (equally important for an introvert like myself), there's nothing social I enjoy more than cooking with and for friends and family, conversing, sharing, laughing, and playing—though, admittedly, for me such occasions are too infrequent because of busy schedules and physical distances. But all the secondhand goods I collect year-round to build a comfortable nest only serve this central purpose: warming and nourishing myself and loved ones, making life a little brighter and sweeter.


the 2013 holiday gift awards

pocket convex mirror reflection: kitchen pantry storage

I was already in cull mode again well before Christmas, taking another bag of mostly clothes to Goodwill on Christmas Eve day. Post-Christmas, I'll be hosting family guests for a few days, so today is all about a little early spring cleaning and reflection to start wrapping up the year.

Though I've always enjoyed the Christmas season—the lights, the songs, the small kindnesses—I dread gift exchanges. Because I'm picky, it's rare to get exactly what I want, unless I stoop to handing out a list, and even then, people often veer from said list. So by this age, I tend to prefer receiving nothing—or else consumable treats such as candles and chocolate. (And who knows how desirable my own gifts are to others, though I enjoy giving them.) Still, sometimes people surprise me. So here are my personal 2013 holiday gift awards—tongue-in-cheek, of course.

 1. Most Enigmatic

mirror compact message: "You have everything you need right here"
This was a surprise gift from a friend-of-a-friend. When I thanked her, saying, "How did you know I needed a pocket mirror?" she asked intently, her blue eyes piercing, if I'd read the message. I'm trying to ignore the specific gift context (which is too complicated and personal to explore here) and focus on the more general meaning: Be content with what you have. That's a hard one. This gift, which I suspect was not purchased but gathered from a corner of her house, also wins for most philosophical and economical.

2. Best White Elephant

secondhand gift: vintage Cuisinart Pro Custom 11 (Model DLC-8S)

Because my friend Jeff, his mom, brother, and sister-in-law have turned secondhand resale into their family business, they all go thrifting regularly and often. And since I've been wanting a real Cuisinart food processor for ages and since Jeff's mom had two extra ones just lying around, waiting for resale, I ended up with the yellow one, which runs perfectly, has all its parts, and only needed a good scrub. (It's disgusting how inadequately many people clean their appliances, dried food gunk left stuck in all corners. Just use a hot, soapy rag right after cooking, sheesh!) Jeff's mom thinks she paid around seven dollars for this one—quite a steal. This gift also ties for most practical with #3.

3. Best Gift to Self

new eyeglasses order receipt

Long delayed and right before Christmas, I finally went to the eye doctor after seven or so years, now that I have vision insurance, ordering myself a new pair of eyeglasses and new contacts. Self-care? Check.

4. Most Decadent

box of chocolates

The winner was actually the Belgian chocolate box my sister sent, but those are already gone (ahem). After eating this box, I'll be going on a diet (of the "eat less, exercise more" kind). The homemade cookies Jeff's mom gave me came in a close second—delicious but fortunately made with shortening, making them easier to decline.

5. Most Masculine

mahogany teakwood scented votive

If candles can even be said to be masculine, this scent wins, smelling like aftershave. Whenever I walk anywhere near the bathroom, I find myself wondering where the strange man is hiding.

6. Best Meal

still life: onions, garlic, and butternut squash

Though my mom's potato salad recipe is the best ever—full of mustard, dill, and vinegar—crowning the Christmas Eve buffet, Jeff's garlic-thyme mashed potatoes at Christmas dinner were delectable, my own wee Brussels sprouts cut from the stalk and oven-caramelized in yet another Le Creuset pan were naturally sweet and endearing, and I was told Jeff's prime rib was melt-in-your-mouth tender (though to me it just looked like dead, bleeding cow). I don't have a photo, so you'll just have to trust me.

Here's hoping you, too, are enjoying a memorable holiday week!


free holiday tree

vintage red ball ornament on bare branch

A few Saturdays ago on my way to the post office, I noticed a couple of branches fallen after a storm off the old ginkgoes in one of the parks, but the branches were too large and there were only two. So after my errand, I headed back uphill, when around the perimeter of a parking lot I noticed some smaller branches fallen on the ground. I picked up a couple and then a few more, and then began seeing them everywhere, not only on the ground under the big trees but fallen onto the trimmed, interspaced bushes underneath the trees. I kept collecting, gleaning branch after branch of unknown tree limb—tree fingers, really—until I had a large armful, ignoring the glances from passersby who I'm sure were wondering why this clean woman in a wool cap and poncho was gathering kindling in the AAA parking lot.

I carried them over the mushroom stand at the farmers market, which was fortunately at the lower edge of the relatively uncrowded market (it being chilly), and then toted them up to my apartment without too much doorway wrangling. The hard part became arranging them in my big round glass vase with the narrow bottom, without its tipping over. It was a messy process, the branches full of yellow lichen and green moss, shedding dirt, so after I was done, a good vacuum pass was required. And while I preferred the look of the branches in the glass vase, I couldn't keep it from tipping and so finally stuck the whole thing inside one of my large baskets, after dumping out the knitting supplies.

reflection in glass teardrop ornament

Jeff later had the bright idea of finding some white sand to anchor the glass vase, and that would look lovely, but I haven't yet gone searching for white sand and probably won't bother. In any case, my "tree" was free.

vintage red ball ornaments on gleaned branches

Thanksgiving weekend, on the one precious day all to myself, I pulled out my grandmother's red ball ornaments I remember hanging off her green artificial tree each year, and hung them from these bare tree branches, adding some glass raindrop ornaments I've had for years—minimal, elegant, and unexpected. The table arrangement takes up half my main room, but since I don't yet have chairs and can't use the table for dining, so what? My holiday tree looks best at night, lit by candles and vintage lamps, but even at midday on the coldest day of the year, it brings good cheer.

 tree branch arrangement with glass teardrop and red ball ornaments

However, for those who don't feel like gathering fallen tree branches this frigid December, free Christmas trees can be found on Craigslist. Checking the free section occasionally for kicks, I've seen two different free-pine-tree posts for the Portland area in the last couple weeks: one, a guy who was giving away scores of real, thinned forest trees he was calling "Charlie Brown trees" like the ones my family would cut with a permit in the southeastern Oregon mountains decades ago, and the other, someone who had bought a large Douglas fir but really had wanted a noble fir. Ever a theme on this blog, someone's surplus (or indecision) could become another's gain when that person thinks outside the Christmas-tree lot.



backlit main-room window, glass mesh

I came home on a wet Sunday afternoon after visiting friends to find a homeless man in a pulled-down knit hat and dirty brown coat sitting hunched over on his side, passed out in the building entryway. He never stirred when I moved past, put my key in the lock. I thought about calling the manager but figured the guy was drunk and harmless. Homeless people curl up in many doorways downtown in their thick sleeping bags, on their cardboard, especially in front of churches. But this was the first at my doorstep. We're having record lows in Portland this week—in the teens.

Then last night, I found out my neighbor came home the other day to a young homeless man passed out on our floor outside the elevator. She tried calling the manager, who didn't answer, and then the cops. What's next? I'll come home to a man sleeping outside my apartment door? Let me in. It's cold.

At a freeway exit I pass every night on the way home, transitioning from carpool to MAX, I see an old woman walking up and down at the stoplight, her sign saying she's in her 80's and needs help. She wears a head scarf over her white hair and layer upon layer of clothing, bundled up ten times her size, a plastic bottle of water and a wheeled white shopping cart stashed at the corner, tucked under the overpass guardrail, her job every night to beg from commuters on their way home who take pity on a poor old woman out in the dark, in the cold. Is this the future? Is this the best we can do?


lessons from Diana Vreeland

handknit poncho with red sleeves (image effects via Poladroid)

1. Never take self-portraits on a Saturday morning when you don't feel like putting on eye makeup.

handknit poncho, side

2. Photograph FO's (handknit "finished objects") outside, if you want to actually be able to see the clothes, and so what if you have to fiddle with the tripod when the temperature barely hovers above freezing?

handknit poncho, back faux seam, with storage creases

3. Find another place to store some of said handknits so that your sweaters all don't end up oddly creased from being stuffed inside a too-small bureau drawer. (And stand up straight!)

handknit gray wool poncho, squared off

4. Stop eating so much dairy and dark chocolate, even if they are winter mood enhancers.

gray poncho handknit from thrifted Patons Classic Wool via Goodwill

5. Since you refuse to smoke as a weight-loss measure, at least keep your fingers busy with more knitting.

handknit poncho with Poladroid effects

6. If the automatic self-timer photos are underexposed and grainy, do overemphasize flaws by way of Poladroid.

handknit gray poncho, rear view

7. Trust your instincts, why don't you?


field guide: Alder Street

SW Alder Street: The English Dept. & Canoe

I never left my apartment all weekend, which was bliss. However, a couple weekends ago, feeling more than a little cooped and restless after a similar homebody Saturday, I headed out at dusk with my camera to stroll down Alder Street, one of my favorite streets in Portland. These are not my best photos, some even slightly blurry, but they capture (I hope) the evening mood, time when the world starts going quiet and still, internal, like birds at roost.

church steeple and birds over ginkgoes at dusk

Alder & Co. sign

Alder & Co. interior

If new to town or just visiting, be sure to pop into Alder & Co. and Canoe to browse home goods at two of the loveliest stores in town. Find luxurious yarn to whip up handmade holiday gifts down the street at Knit Purl.

Canoe interior

Adonde dinnerware in Canoe window

Alder Street sidewalk sign

wall of scissors in hair salon window, Alder Street, Portland

Get your hair done. Find a warm coat at Mercantile. Try on a new pair of boots at Johnny Sole. Then when hungry, graze globally down at the 10th Avenue food carts or, to escape the drizzle, duck inside Tasty n Alder, downtown cousin to Northeast Portland's excellent Tasty n Sons and Toro Bravo. 

Johnny Sole window, Portland, OR

Mercantile Portland window display

lion head gracing building entrance, Alder Street

Moonstruck Chocolate Café window

Have dessert at the local Moonstruck Chocolate Café or—and this I recommend—detour just one block over to SW Morrison and 6th Avenue to pick up some luscious European pralines from Leonidas, flown in fresh each week from Brussels, where I first had them at age 18. Do try the Manon Blanc, a hazelnut-and-coffee crème within white chocolate—mmmmm. But be forewarned: Leonidas closes early on weekends, at 5 p.m. Then walk off all the food and chocolate people-watching while heading down towards the river or over to Pioneer Square.

Leonidas storefront, SW Washington Street at SW 6th Avenue (one block from Alder)

You will rarely find me buying anything on Alder Street myself, but window-shopping and daydreaming are always free for poor folks like me.


real things, light and dark

thrifted vintage brass Stiffel table lamp with black-and-gold patterned shade

Two of my favorite designer-stylists take dueling positions on light. I first saw British designer Abigail Ahern's evolving London home spotlit on Design*Sponge several years back and was awed by her depth of color and scale play, juxtaposing big and quirky pieces like gigantic, oversized floor lamps and convex mirrors with more traditional elements like huge bowls of fake flowers, or by painting an ornate round antique table a high-gloss teal. She coats her walls and ceilings with a smoky deep blue or charcoal and then adds a shot of hot pink or neon yellow or lime somewhere in one of the furniture pieces or on a decorative object like a giant letter propped on a layered shelf, the effect being highly dramatic and often surreal. Even her beloved dogs look like big shag rugs. Pictures of her rooms make me want to step inside and curl up right there in the photo with a book and a cup of tea, though I might not make it more than a page or two into my book because of staring around at everything, trying to piece it all together before yawning and falling asleep wherever I'm sitting, like a narcoleptic, because everything's just so very dark and intimate. It makes sense that a Brit from a land of gray drizzle would seek to create cozy spaces. But though her rooms are bold, mysterious, and inspiring, she seems completely uninterested in natural light, turning her back on the sun like the Victorians as if to say, "There isn't enough of you on this northern island, but who needs light, anyway?" Ahern's the perfect designer for vampires.

unmade bed with oversized philodendron at window

By contrast, Morgan Satterfield of Brick House fame is a full-blown neo-mid-century modernist. Her rooms explode with the warm light of the southern Californian desert. Living in Hemet, a small town between Palm Springs and Los Angeles, she has local access to some of the best, freshest modernist secondhand sources on the planet. She paints her walls white and fills her spaces with sleek vintage designer teak pieces, upcycled or repurposed DIY projects, bold-leaved green house plants (real ones), handmade pottery vases that might or might not contain succulents, and bohemian streaks of Turkish kilims in pillows or rugs, with bare dashes of bright color, mostly orange or yellow, punctuating all the gold, brown, and khaki neutrals. (Ahern claims she herself once tried going Scandinavian modern but grew "bored," white being nothing but dull to her.)

repurposed handmade ceramic pendant light

Both designers have a casual, chatty blogging tone, and their distinct verbal styles are easily apparent. Satterfield flings out words like "ain't", "yo," and "bam"—little punches of exclamation—and loves her fragments, while Ahern's daily early-morning posts stream together in run-ons, punctuation strewn about in guesswork. In their defense, these talented women's strengths are in visual, not written, language, but at least their voices, like their design points of view, are clear and invite dialogue.   

Both designers also sell stuff. It seems you can't make a living in the design world without putting your name on a few products. Ahern has her own eponymous London shop and also sells online and holds design workshops. Her mass-produced line of products for England's Debenhams department-store chain contains things like colorful letters made to look like those off real vintage signs, neon-colored fake-antique ornate mirrors, and animal-sculpture lamps with frilly bright shades on their heads, which would be quirky if a one-of-a-kind reuse project, but an army of behatted rabbits and penguins and ersatz marquee letters in mass production? Sorry, but that's so Nat-Berkus-for-Target—yet another designer selling out to a giant chain.

vintage oversized ceramic herringbone-patterned table (floor) lamp with handles

Why fill a home with ubiquitous made-in-China crap within a limited decorating budget and time frame when instead you could surround yourself over time with personal, quality items found piece-by-piece, each containing real, lived-in history—untold, unknown stories hidden inside one's own collector stories like some antique puzzle box with a secret compartment? But, as with anything meaningful, collecting takes effort, time, and commitment. The negative side of this philosophy means I still have no dining chairs and can't host any dinner parties until I do, unless I seat everyone on the floor around the coffee table. But I'm waiting until I can afford beautiful vintage chairs.

vintage brass Stiffel lamp detail

For reasons aesthetic, financial, and environmental, I absolutely prefer used and repurposed objects to new ones, just as I prefer live plants and flowers—in other words, the real thing. In the last year, Satterfield has opened an online shop called Camp, in which she sells small quantities of jewelry and household items she (so far) hand-produces, such as necklaces, repurposed military-fabric throw pillows, stark contemporary lighting, and leather cabinet pulls. Satterfield's sustainability philosophy is thus closer to my own than Ahern's. Ahern couldn't seem to care less about handmade or vintage reuse as guiding principles except when they add an interesting "layer" to the overall mix in her rooms. Still, much as I admire Satterfield's restrained taste and enviable estate-sale and eBay skills, Ahern is the true risk-taking genius, despite her narrow desire to convert everyone to "the dark side."

unlit large vintage brass lamp against bare white wall in afternoon light

Personally, it's interesting seeing my little apartment come together as I collect pieces over time, almost as if watching the process from the outside. The bedroom, for example, is still the least complete room—though, per a recent dream, I'm planning a wall of vintage beveled mirrors aside the bed, gathered one by one. I only buy secondhand pieces that speak to my gut, but sometimes my gut doesn't match the assumptions in my head, like: Huh, I always thought I was more of a sleek modernist at heart, but look at all the texture, sheen, shape, and pattern leaking in. Who knew I'd one day own a pair of gold pheasants?

thrifted vintage gold pheasants (salt and pepper shakers)

I do agree as Ahern insists that the best, most interesting rooms present a "friction" of contrast: tons of texture, multiple focal points, an asymmetrical mix of heights, styles, numbers, and sources, and the drama of the unexpected. The question is, can only darkness and color be dramatic or can white and light hold a mystery all their own, as a sheet of crystalline snow blankets a winter field?

thrifted silverplated scrollwork tea light holder


my man, fry pan

thrifted red Le Creuset frying pan

Look how handsome is my newly acquired Le Creuset cast-iron frying pan, so slender yet rugged in stoplight-red enamel. My friend Jeff found him for me at Goodwill, secondhand but dapper as new. And he's already taught me a new French vocabulary word: teck (teak), tattooed right there on his handle in manly capitals.

thrifted Le Creuset frying pan, side view

He's older than I first thought—not of Le Creuset's current line, but modeled after one of their vintage designs—so he has a little age and experience, which is good. (Young, unblemished things are boring.) And not only is he my type, dark and sizzling, but he's also considerate: with his enameled interior, I won't have to worry about rusting him out or need to season him after use as with plain cast iron. Nor will he hurt me, blister my poor palms on hot metal, because his handle grip is made of wood. 

Le Creuset frying pan bottom, still marked with the $15 (XV) Goodwill price

On my side, I promise not to overheat him or scratch him with metal utensils. I will scrub him clean immediately after each use and put him to bed in comfort on padded cork.

thrifted Le Creuset 10.5-inch fry-pan bottom, size 26

Okay, enough of the double entendre. Frankly, now that I own four Le Creuset pieces—the green pot, the small black pot, the tiny brown saucepan, and this red skillet—I'm running out of cupboard space and need to research how to hang a shelf or heavy pot rack safely from lath and plaster.  

thrifted Le Creuset frying pan with wooden handle

As I've said before, Jeff and his mom, both now in the resale business, have amazing luck finding Le Creuset at Goodwill. Honestly, I don't know their secret (other than regular day trips) because the only Le Creuset I've ever seen at Goodwill—and I've been a thrifter longer than they have—are a couple of pot lids, though I did spot that brown saucepan at the ReStore all by myself. Jeff was counting them all up the other day and says he and his mom have between them found at least 20 pieces of Le Creuset at Goodwill in the last couple of years, some of which they've resold, some they've kept for themselves, and some they've traded or given to me.

But what neither Jeff nor I can figure out is why people are simply donating Le Creuset to Goodwill. No, I never use this. Just give it to Goodwill. Are they crazy? Do they not know how much these pots and pans cost brand-new, or the secondhand value of brightly colored, quality, imported enameled French cast iron? Were they given these pieces as unasked-for Christmas gifts and never used them? Was someone hoping his or her partner would one day learn how to cook? Was this beautiful frying pan sitting in the back of someone's cupboard or hanging from a rack as mere kitchen décor until the owner decided to redecorate: Okay, now everything in this kitchen is going to be . . . blue and copper, French Country!

These pots and pans will outlive us all, by the way. Plus, even if we managed to break one (which really only ever happens from improper use), Le Creuset offers a lifetime warranty on their products: send a damaged piece back and they'll ship off a new one. How's that for customer service? (In your face, China!)

secondhand red Le Creuset frying pan, side view

Come on, people: this is pricey, beautiful, highly functional kitchen equipment, not decoration, not storage space for mouse droppings at the back of a cupboard. Whoever you are, GW donator, I personally believe you must be insane to prefer your generic, toxic Teflon pan to this cherry Le Creuset skillet, but thank you most sincerely for being absolutely nuts. I will cherish your castoffs and my life will be all the better for your discards. Merci beaucoup!


ripe, riper, ripest

ripe organic Bartlett pears in bowl at windowsill

After working in an elementary school for over a year now, I can testify that Portland Public Schools are trying (via a USDA-funded program) to make kids eat more raw fruits and vegetables. In addition to what's served at breakfast and lunch, the kids also are given a fruit or veggie snack in the late morning, delivered, at least at our school, by the special-needs kids in a blue bag hung from the classroom doors: plums, baggies of grapes, tangerines, whole pears, apples, jicama slices, baby carrots, even occasionally something the children have never seen before. Teacher, is this an apple or a pear? This is progress from my own elementary-school days of spaghetti and canned khaki-green beans (much of which was at least prepared in-house) and certainly progress from the 1980's when ketchup became a vegetable and the 1990's when kids were eating fast-food and vending-machine food at school.
Unfortunately, much of what I see the kids eating now—in other words, our taxpayer money—ends up in the garbage. One, the kids aren't given enough time to eat their meals or snacks because the school schedule is so tight. Sure, most of these kids are getting a free breakfast, but they usually have only 10 minutes or less to eat it (!). And they're eating lunch before rushing out to recess. Compare this study on the significant nutritional and economic benefits of serving school lunch after recess rather than before to reports of French children who eat lengthy, multicourse handmade meals at school with napkins and silverware like civilized people, rather than our processed, rapidly gobbled finger foods. (The cafeteria mess at work last year in the after-school program after a three o'clock "dinner" of fried chicken, lettuce, and orange quarters would have to be seen to be believed.) Two, American kids have become notoriously picky. Raisins? Ew. Almonds? Blech. Lettuce? That's for rabbits! Three, servings can be too large. For example, most six-year-olds can't eat a whole pear for a snack. And four, the fruit is usually not ripe. Sorry, kids: only apples and Asian pears are supposed to be crunchy. Let's go wash off that tooth you just lost.

ripe organic Bartlett pears

Americans have mostly forgotten what ripe fruit tastes like—fruit so juicy it drips down the chin, soft and sweet along the tongue. Ripe fruit is too difficult for transporters and commercial kitchens to handle because it tends to bruise or otherwise fall apart. On the rare occasion I eat out, I hardly ever order a dish that comes with fresh fruit because, most of the time, the melon will be rock-hard and taste like moldy cardboard, the apples will taste like citric acid (used to preserve their color), and everything will need to be sawed on with a knife.

So because it's almost impossible to buy ripe fruit, one must develop patience and plan ahead. Go ahead and purchase those hard green Bartlett pears. Just don't eat them. Wait. Put them in a favorite bowl and watch their colors change over the week like autumn leaves, turning from green to gold. Then when the pears are ripe—yellow, with a softer give to the skin, a hint of puckering at the stem, and maybe a rosy blush—store them in a pretty bowl in the fridge. (Beware, though, that perfect ripeness is a fine line: wait too long and they'll start rotting at the core.) I use my fall-and-winter pears mostly in morning soy-milk smoothies and oatmeal but also sliced as an after-dinner dessert.

ripe, blushed organic Bartlett pears

Waiting for ripeness—fruit you actually look forward to eating—means if you want to eat seasonal fruit like pears this weekend, you will have bought them last weekend. Ripeness requires rotation. Keep the new set of fruit developing on the counter and the ripe ones in the fridge, ready to savor. Meanwhile, sadly, schoolkids and most everyone else will continue to believe that pears are green and crunchy.


autumn reds

thrifted red rubber clogs in wet leaves

red vines with raindrops on green metal overpass rail

red maple leaf after a passing shower

red leaves and blue berries on white stone wall

climbing horizontal red vines on white stone wall

bare trees reflected on red car hood

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