don't step on my blue snake shoes (going carless: part 3)

secondhand, like-new B.P. (Nordstrom Brass Plum) blue-green leather snakeskin-print flats

It's official: I'm carless. The Volvo was driven off yesterday by a newly licensed 16-year-old kid who lives up on Mt. Hood with his parents and wanted "something that wasn't a Subaru like all my friends have." (I didn't own a car till I was 27.) His dad, who supervised the transaction, said sheepishly he was sorry I had to sell my car (to someone young enough to be my son). I said something about a useless master's degree. It all feels like punishment for being an English major—not in the zapped-from-above sense but a basic consequence of the market, the price of ignoring supply and demand.

But thanks to my English-major skills of analysis and interpretation of symbols, this last year can be viewed as a full-blown midlife crisis, only instead of buying a new red Porsche, I signed on the line for a used blue Volvo. But then costs mount. Reality hits. And one has to figure out how to un-sign, backpeddle, humble oneself among the rattling, tin-can reek of the poor, frugal, and mentally and physically challenged on American buses and hoof around on foot, loaded up with grocery bags like a mule.

And all this walking leads to another first-world problem: the cutest, sexiest shoes, i.e., those with heels, are the least comfortable. And at 40 and single, feeling even a little bit sexy when gravity has begun its intractable pull is crucial. For older women, comfort always wins, but I am not there yet. So my new thrifting quest will be to hunt down sexy walking shoes, if that isn't a complete oxymoron. These like-new, blue-green leather, barely-glittery, snakeskin-print flats from Nordstrom's B.P. line ($2.50 at Goodwill) might fit the bill when the weather warms, but for now I'm alternating between flat-soled Hunter rain boots and heeled Hunter rain boots, depending on the state of my right first metatarsal. (Guess which pair is cuter, more work-appropriate, and more painful?)

But you know who rescued me from my evil lien holder? No, not some guy in a pinstriped suit (I'm long past belief in Prince Charming). No, not either set of parents (though I was tempted to ask)—not this time. My credit union, that's who.

A few years ago I got fed up with paying my bank—one of those massive conglomerates that created the housing bubble and its burst and our subsequent Great Recession—fees each month for letting them use my money (which admittedly wasn't much but still) to further their nefarious speculative schemes, allowing them to stock every corner of the country with ATM's. I had one of those free checking plans with fine print, the print being that I would be charged a fine if my checking account dropped below $1,000. Pre-divorce, because my Web-engineer ex made ten times what I do, it was never a problem. Post-divorce, with my underemployed adjunct-teaching income, the checking account soon became a problem. Switching to a credit union was the solution.

Instead of paying fees to a bank because of being poor and underemployed, my credit union deposits a dividend into my checking account every month at a rate higher than any bank interest rate—if I fulfill a certain number and kind of debit, wire, and online transactions each month, which is easy to do. A credit-union teller even gave me personal encouragement in my job hunt last summer during a low point: "Something will come along when the time is right" (whatever that means, except something did come along, just in time). Most recently, when trying to figure out how to sell my car private-party without owning the title, a credit-union loan officer told me, "No, there are no fees for this personal loan or early repayment. We want our members not to be in debt but save money."*

What kind of upside-down world is this when most Americans have been convinced that debt is good and savings are bad, that all-fees-all-the-time big national banks are better value than small, local co-op credit unions? "Why," I asked the guy who was setting up my wire transfer, "don't more people know about credit unions? My parents were credit-union members when I was young, but they never talked about why." "We're nonprofit," he said. "We don't have big advertising budgets. We get most of our members by word-of-mouth."

Do the research. Compare interest rates. Compare fees. Make the switch to a local credit union. Compare customer-service experiences past and present. Then spread the word. There are quiet, bright-shining knights all around.

And this spring, strolling around town in my blue snake shoes, maybe I'll click my heels like Dorothy and wish like the lion for courage to effect my own transformation. 

*Note: Getting the lien into my name cost me $28.75, $18 for the wire transfer and $10.75 for a week's worth of compound interest—well worth it to slip the monkey off my back.


homemaking in pieces

thrifted Heath bowl with Oregon walnuts, thrifted handmade bowl with mandarin oranges

I've been thrifting again off and on the last couple months, bringing home various striped long-sleeved T-shirts for layering; an olive-green/bisque Heath Ceramics Chez Panisse Line side bowl with a pre-glazed flaw I can live with ($2 at Goodwill, $37 if new and not seconds); a couple pairs of barely worn high heels ($10 and $7 at Goodwill); a basket to corral my bedside hand cream, vitamins, and notebooks ($2 at Goodwill); and a vintage "Art Expo '85" print I can find nothing about online, which I snatched up last weekend from the newly opened Teen Challenge thrift store down in Milwaukie, on sale for $2.50 (plus the $1 donation I got talked into). The print reminds me of both the Bay Area where I was born and later lived for many years, and of Oregon, where I grew up and have since returned to, places of water and trees, mountains and clouds.

thrifted vintage print: Art Expo '85

(How's the above shot for self-referential?) Today, all by myself, I figured out how to separate the puzzle pieces of the metal frame, brushed off the two tiny bugs that had gotten pressed between glass and print, and sprayed and wiped down the glass, only to find when I'd screwed and clipped everything back together that I'd also framed a couple carpet fuzzes and a cat hair. But they're only noticeable when one's nose is to the glass and in direct light. I can live with those flaws, too.

After a long, stressful week full of decisions and limbo, it's good to be home with my cat, camera, and stretches of quiet hours in which to cook soup and bread for the week ahead, check off tasks, and daydream.

frosted web, Portland, Oregon, January 2013


back to basics

no-knead bread

When life gets complex and decisions need making, and all I want to do is crawl under the covers and hide, bread is simple. So is soup. So in preparation for a busy week ahead in which I'm back to two jobs with a long commute, I stayed home on a Sunday in my pajamas and made both bread and soup, a new one, fresh green pea, and a favorite, Armenian red lentil.* All three meals were simmered or baked in the new Le Creuset pot. (Thank you again, Jeffrey.)

All day I've been reflecting on the tacky, nouveau-riche family in the documentary Queen of Versailles, so lazy and entitled the kids let their pet fish and lizard starve to death in murky tanks while meandering among uncountable piles of pedigreed dog shit strewn around their super-sized McMansion after the servants were downsized, the lecherous, emotionally abusive patriarch hunkered away like an ogre among towering stacks of paper in his den, while his tarnished trophy wife totters around barefoot with her fake boobs popping out. The film presents a rather devastating metaphor for early 21st-century American culture. (If we don't see ourselves therein, we are as blind.)

This week I've been reading Morris Berman's Dark Ages America, which among many things talks of the American frontier as collective escape hatch allowing our forebears to run away in perpetual immaturity from the restrictions of living in community, living with roots, the ties that bind. Each day I fight the impulse in my genes to flee and start over elsewhere, which of course never works. (I'm old enough to have learned that.)

And I've been thinking about the rhetorical game in Nathan Englander's short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank": Which of my loved ones and neighbors would risk their lives to hide me from Nazis—and which would not? And would I them?

Dishes have been done (by hand) and put away. As on most winter evenings, I have a candle burning, jazz on the radio playing low, and green tea cooling in a mug. It's 8 p.m. and already time to head for bed, to read myself to sleep because 5 a.m. comes too soon. My little cat will curl most of the night somewhere along the warm hills of my body as we wait for the sun to return.

*Note: The Armenian soup recipe in the linked article calls for "juice of 12 [sic] lemon," a typo for 1/2 which would make the soup inedible.


secret hoards

my two-pallet corner (behind the post) of our shared basement

Meet my basement hoard. I have two pallets' worth of stuff that doesn't fit in my two small closets upstairs, though most of one pallet is only a stack of empty moving boxes. The two stacked chairs I'm keeping temporarily for a friend, and they're holding a box of walnuts to shell. There are two space heaters, one bought and one given, which I should sell after realizing they weren't saving money on the electric bill over the old baseboard heaters. There's a narrow, under-the-bed plastic bin holding wrapping supplies. There's my sleeping bag. There's a big basket of miscellaneous, lesser-used kitchen items, along with more empty boxes. There's an outbox bag of things to consign. My laundry basket sits on a green Rubbermaid bin of mementos and old letters, much of which I should recycle. In the corner on the low metal shelving are my cat carrier, extra cat food, and a bag of onions and garlic. Some of my more delicate laundry is hanging to dry from the overhead rack. That's about it. The other stuff in the photo isn't mine.

I show you this hoard because I've spent a good chunk of my two-and-a-half-week, unpaid vacation helping a friend move, at his request. We did some purging beforehand at my insistence, filling five big boxes, two for consignment, two for Goodwill, and one for family members. But unlike what one would expect before an impending move—a lot of culling and wrapping with newspaper, moving tape, and U-haul boxes—this period mostly involved our playing rummy, doing crosswords, and making homemade pizza. That was because my friend a) hadn't wanted to move and, unbeknownst to me, b) never intended to start packing until just before moving so he could live as long as he could in an intact house. This procrastinated packing method, which I don't recommend, made moving day acutely painful for all involved, so painful and time-crunched that after 11 hours, I had an urge to go home and start throwing out half my own stuff—and we all know I already have less stuff than many Americans, constitutionally and on purpose. My home is a regular revolving door of things in, things out. For proof, compare the scene below with one from a few years ago and another from six months ago in the same space.

bedroom reading nook with temporary ottoman (an upended planter with a throw pillow on top)

While I'm no Martha Stewart, queen of the label machine, I do have the reputation in my social circle of maintaining an organized home. In fact, some friends have suggested I take up professional organizing. I could indeed. I could use my common-sense knowledge of the benefits of baskets, wire shelving, Goodwill, and consignment stores to help others declutter and downsize. After all, January is the premier time in America for organization and slimming down, since most people are looking around at their Christmas hauls and wondering where to put everything, including what to do about the few extra pounds around their bellies or hips.

We have begun the month of resolutions: I promise to become a fitter, healthier, tidier person after all that shameful holiday gluttony. Apartment Therapy even holds a month-long home detoxing event each year called the January Cure, full of advice and tips for cleaning and organizing. Magazines such as Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living publish lists of organizing tips throughout the year. But most people know this stuff already, even intuitively: if cupboards, drawers, and shelves are full to bursting and causing stress, something must be done. Most people can order their chaos themselves, when they prioritize it.

my clothes closet, work-in-progress

So the biggest problem for professional organizers must be the clients themselves since the people most in need of professional help are the least likely to seek it: the ones who drag boxes of DVDs, unread books, college papers, and dirty old shoes around town with them on each move, the ones who store old cars, dirt bikes, and half-working stereos at friends' houses like large souvenirs (I will force you to remember me by tying you down with the physical dregs of my life), the ones who stumble into trouble with new lovers because of never in twenty years going through their junk drawers and tossing out phone numbers of girls they once talked up at a bar and don't remember.

The sentimental, keep-everything types must challenge even professionals. Do you use it often? Do you really like it? Those are the two main culling questions. It's the sentimental stuff that gets in the way, that we don't quite know what to do with, like high school yearbooks and childhood art projects. I can easily convince a person to donate an inferior can opener when a better one is lying beside it in the drawer, but it's much harder to make him paw through a box of old papers and photos, especially when a box of playing cards lies on the kitchen table for work breaks.

evolving space: main living area (January 1, 2013)

And then there are the hoarders, the full-on possession addicts in need of therapy. While I was wrapping up kitchen items with saved (free) newspapers on Saturday, I came across a December 9th headline in The Oregonian: "When things consume a life." I ripped out the article for later, the story of an old, legally blind Portland woman, a hoarder known to city officials after various complaints over the years from frustrated neighbors, who caught fire from a heating pad in her piles-stacked-to-the-ceiling home and died of extensive, third-degree burns. You can read journalist Anna Griffin's article online under the more prosaic title, "Hoarder killed in North Portland house fire lived in plain sight, leaving a trail of questions."

I've been mulling over the reporter's rhetorical question, "Why didn't anyone save her from herself?," as well as one firefighter's answer: "People have the right to live how they want, even to their own detriment," as well as an admission by the old woman's clergyman that she was "a very difficult person . . . [who] expected everyone to adjust to her." These statements are classic themes in the world of substance addiction, so it makes sense that they would apply to other forms of addiction like hoarding or obsessive-compulsive germophobia: difficult people whose addictions affect themselves and others negatively but who must ultimately choose to save themselves.

At what point do people become addicted to their possessions? At what point do the eccentricities of addicts cross a line and harm others? And at what point, if at all, do others have the social right or obligation to step in to mediate? While I'm reflecting on these questions, I'll continue weeding through my closets, those few private spaces I can control.

entryway/broom closet, work-in-progress

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