tiered hanging basket in shower

Artists and poor people know that limitations can spark creativity. Can't criticize communism without getting shipped up to Siberia to toil for decades in a hard-labor camp? Layer your metaphors; talk around the elephant in the room watching from the corner. Can't afford fresh vegetables on your minimum-wage paycheck after paying for rent and electricity? Find a church giving away free bruised produce every Saturday. Living outside the box is usually the more interesting solution, anyway—the less crowded, more scenic route on which you might see live deer rather than roadkill.

A small example of this effect happened last weekend. I was annoyed by my soap bottles falling out the back of the chrome shower caddy I'd picked up for free on the sidewalk a few years ago. Things were dropping off the caddy because it was designed to have a wall at its back, meant to hang on a showerhead protruding from drywall. Well, my current walls are lath and plaster, 100 years old, and my showerhead rests on a chrome frame surrounding a clawfoot tub (none of which I'm complaining about). But in this case, standard suburban form did not fit function.

bathroom showerhead reflection

before: chrome shower caddy

But then while out thrifting on Saturday, I ran across yet another three-tiered hanging wire basket. You might remember this one now hanging in the kitchen. Hanging baskets make simple, inexpensive vertical storage for small, tight spaces. Plus, it was only three dollars. No more shampoo bottles falling into the weirdly unfinished abyss under the tub. And all it needed was a good wipe-down with some rubbing alcohol and a little untangling.

shower-caddy solution for a clawfoot tub: hanging wire basket

sponges in hanging wire basket

Now my bathing supplies are corralled into three stacked baskets, hanging from a single IKEA S-hook, while the chrome caddy is hanging off a coat hook in The Garage, holding my iron. Problem solved.

What are some creative solutions thrift stores or yard sales have sparked for you?


skinned (or how to thrift a cowhide pillow)

leopard-print cowhide pillow cover, thrifted

Love thrift store prices but not so keen on most secondhand style? Here's how to turn a $3 thrift-store pillow into a $35 pillow you'll adore (though not quite as much as when it was just $3).

secondhand printed cowhide pillow

  1. First, get lucky and happen upon a genuine leopard-print cowhide pillow at your favorite local thrift store for only $3. (What am I missing?, you wonder. I never see secondhand pillows this cool. Too bad I can't hand-wash it.)
  2. Take the pillow cover—cowhide on the front, black wool felt on the back—to your local dry cleaners. 
  3. Endure indirect criticism from the possibly vegan sales clerk: "You got it for next to nothing at the thrift store? Let's hope it's not giraffe."*
  4. Be told it might take several weeks to clean because they have to send leather goods out of state. Estimated cleaning cost: $40.
  5. Wait a few weeks, never receiving a This-is-how-much-the-cleaning-will-cost/Do-you-still-want-to-proceed call as promised.
  6. Return to the dry cleaners post-rare-snowstorm, forking over $32. (At least it wasn't $40.)
  7. Wait a couple more weeks, debating about whether to go ahead and machine-wash-and-dry the feather pillow insert or switch it out since the insert's cover is of thin, cheap-quality cotton, so quills are poking out all over, making the insert look more like a plucked turkey than a pillow.
  8. On laundry day, wash-and-dry the charcoal wool-felt Calvin Klein pillow cover you've had for at least twelve years and never quite liked.
  9. Stuff the old feather pillow back into the clean gray-wool cover.
  10. Slip the gray wool pillow inside the cowhide cover; zip things up.
  11. Prop the new-to-you leopard-print pillow against the $25 secondhand gold velvet chair you'll one day replace, admiring the subtle jolt of both pattern and texture added to your main room.
  12. Ponder how a pillow can cost more than a chair.

printed cowhide pillow, secondhand

*Note: I would never want an animal, let alone a baby animal, let alone a wild or endangered animal, killed to make a pillow or anything else. But since cows are killed for meat, I do use their skins sparingly, mostly as shoes and mostly secondhand. And yes, I do sometimes think about the Nazis turning the human skins of Jews into lampshades.


bucket list

thrifted handwoven basket (2013 Mother's Day gift)

Life can be a river one drifts without a raft, dodging and hitting sunken rocks and overhung branches, spinning in whirlpools without an oar—or else a craft one steers on that river, seated high enough above water level to avoid at least some of the rapids ahead. Or life can be spent watching other people sail past on a hot day in August, whooping from their inner tubes while the observer sits dry on the bank, plucking grass stems and scrawling her initials in the dust. Or else life is riding that inner tube, whooping over rapids and getting soaked. Or maybe life is all of that at once. In any case, my life feels as if it has been passing me by for years, a train or bus or plane I missed—vroom, vroom—me left holding my bags at the station, standing in the rain out of breath, a violin player busking in the corner with sad strings.

I found myself staring up at a plane this week, wishing I were on it. That's a bad sign or maybe a good one. I don't know. I used to do that all the time, wishing I were up in the air, heading anywhere else. It means I'm restless again, dissatisfied. Things need to change. At least I know now I'm the only one who can change them—no shining knights, no princes, no fairy godmothers, not even a green cricket. But how?

My first impulse is usually to sign up for a teaching gig someplace exotic, somewhere I've never been, like Vietnam or Tunisia. (Run away, run far away.) But I've tried that, and it doesn't work—though it does shock the system, the personal status quo, and for some, like Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), may hook a bestselling book deal. I came close to running away again a few years ago, but having a cat worked as an anchor this time, the thought of keeping her in quarantine for months—to her, innocent years in prison—holding me like a blue balloon tied to the ground.

I'm in the wrong profession. Never a passion, teaching was only supposed to be temporary. I can't commit.

The oft-quoted line from Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day," which I first encountered in Strayed's Wild, has been whispering in my ear all month: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life." God, the pressure! Tick, tock. Halfway over. Too dull. Too ordinary. Too unfulfilled. Be dead soon.

Whole blogs, books, and movies exist whose sole focus is bucket listing, like "10,000 things to do before you die." Here's my own current bucket wish list. Some goals are obviously easier to achieve than others, and some are less about the process than the result:
  • Earn my living as a full-time writer
  • Publish well received short stories, essays, memoir, and novels
  • Land an interim day job (something interesting, decently paid, and to which I could walk to work)
  • Learn to draw
  • Become fluent in French
  • Study Spanish
  • Take piano lessons
  • Join a local choir
  • Reside briefly in Paris
  • Live in New York City
  • Visit the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito, California
  • Travel to London, Spain, Greece, North Africa, Argentina, Vietnam, Cuba, and more of Italy (especially Rome) 
  • Get fit (not just thin)
  • Own my own house/apartment/condo/flat outright
  • Host and attend regular dinner parties with a close circle of mutual friends
  • Bump into a soul mate
  • Watch fireflies

Though I can't stand the half-grown-male tone of Cracked.com, I recently read David Wong's popular post, "6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person" (linked from this article), and he's right: We are only what we do. It doesn't matter if I think beautiful thoughts, dream big, and have lovely intentions. Nobody cares. Without action, I'll be sitting on the bank of the river forever, invisible and overgrown by moss.

Putting "writer" as the profession on my tax return is what I want most in life—outside of the generic but vital goal of "being happy," which for me is largely, circularly based on my becoming a professional writer, which also means valuable yet intangible things like following my dreams, trusting my gut, finding courage, and facing fears. Writing and reading, those conjoined twins, have always been my passions. If writing is not what I'm meant to do (whatever that means when one lacks the concept of a universal overseer), it's what I'm built for, hardwired for in personality, training, and ability. It's what I've always wanted and been most afraid of—my very own dragon.

And, oh, the fears. A former childhood friend asked me when we were in our mid-thirties, "If you were going to be a writer, wouldn't you be one already?" (Rawr.) She was also an aspiring, unpublished writer, so perhaps she was talking to herself. But then there are models of renowned authors like Penelope Fitzgerald who started their careers much later than this, so there is still hope. Plus, a seven-year-old student, future artist, gave me one of those head-tilted, object-assessing looks the other day with her big green eyes and asked if I were "a teenager" because my "skin is pink" and I'm "thin" and "don't have gray hair or wrinkles." Of course, seven-year-olds think even teenagers are old, and she was probably just buttering me up for a sweeter birthday present next week, but it's true I'm at least half young, if no longer a young adult. There should still be time.
As for most anything else, the first step in writing is just showing up. Most writers speak of writing as a craft, a practice that must be honed daily, like shoe repair or carpentry. Just show up.

Seventy-five years ago, Virginia Woolf argued persuasively that a woman writer in particular needs "money and a room of her own," psychological and physical space to herself separate from the demands of men, children, family, and society. Like many, I've never had both kinds of space at the same time. One can have money or time but rarely both, unless the person is wealthy or kept by a spouse, trust fund, inheritance, or insurance settlement. But for now, a room of my owncheck.

That leaves money. Most contemporary writers either need financially supportive spouses (which usually doesn't work for reasons of power dynamics and the simple economics of the modern two-income requirement for a bare middle-class lifestyle) or day jobs—fitting the writing in on the side, meaning at 4 a.m., while on the bus, at lunch, or just before bed. I inadvertently tried the first route, the spouse, and so am trying the second route (again), the full-time day job with its independent accounting. However, my current day jobs (one boss, two locations) and all the commuting take up most of the day, all but about an hour after dinner before bed on weeknights (though I haven't yet tried writing at 4 a.m., while on the bus or train, or when eating a sandwich).

These are old daydreams requiring action. I figure I should be more intentional, more businesslike, about this life-change process, something like Dave Bruno's 100 Thing Challenge or Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project, a life plan in chart form, regimented and accountable, which is why I'm talking about it, rather than keeping it, as in the past, a secret. It's scary, sharing dreams with strangers, opening secrets to the light. But I want the dreams themselves to take form and flight, instead of, the rest of my life, staring up at the sky at airplanes.


leave the machines be

vintage waffle iron, interior with patina

My friend Jeff and I spent six hours yesterday trying to get my wireless connection running again after switching out the modem. And this was all because, to save eight dollars a month, I had decided to give Comcast back their modem I'd been renting for years and instead use an extra modem of Jeff's. Don't ask why I'd never gotten my own modem before now—who knows? It's probably because I've only now figured out the difference between a modem and a router.

Quite obviously, I'm not the most technical person, and neither is Jeff, but at least he can rewire a lamp and install a car stereo system. However, we both know the best technical support on the planet comes from a simple Google search. Fortunately, after a couple long calls with Comcast to convey and reassign the MAC ID, the new-to-me modem was working and we could at least wire my laptop directly into the WAN to ask all the fine Apple customers on the Mac forums how they got their solid amber lights on their AirPorts to turn green.

We tried every trick we could find, other than messing with the DSN's, doing a hard reset to factory settings several times, plus resetting the Motorola modem itself to factory settings, and so on. Jeff even called up a computer-guru friend to run things by him. Either the router wasn't talking to the modem or the router had fried, even though it was only eight months old. "It can happen," said the computer guru. Finally, Jeff got the amber light to turn green, which mainly involved unplugging, waiting, and replugging wires in a certain order and time frame a bunch of times and reconfiguring the network ID and password.

vintage 1930's Seneca waffle iron

Meanwhile, depressed and frustrated, with the guilty refrain "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" looping in my head, I'd taken a break to de-stress by cooking a pot of white-bean-and-kale soup and whipping up some whole-wheat waffle batter (because Jeff had for some reason been craving waffles for weeks).

After the wireless seemed to be working again, the LED light green, he joined me in the kitchen, ladling batter into a vintage Art Deco waffle iron with Bakelite handles, a hand-me-down from a friend, a 1930's Seneca machine that still worked perfectly. We marveled how products used to be built to last rather than self-destruct in planned obsolescence. The red "on" light (as if you couldn't tell the iron was on from the escaping steam and burning hot metal) was simply a glass dot, window to the glowing element inside the top cover—ingenious. So, waffles in hand, we sat down at my coffee table and turned on the Apple TV and Netflix to watch another episode of the diabolical series House of Cards, only to have the connection fizzle after less than a minute of dialogue. I checked my laptop connection; some sites loaded quickly, some slowly, and then nothing but blank pages. Can't find server.

Dejected and beaten, we agreed to just let technology drop for the night and instead eat waffles, play cards, and meet up in the morning for a trip to the Apple Store, so they could test my router to see if it needed replacing (and all to save eight dollars a month). After getting creamed at gin rummy, I said thanks and goodnight to Jeff and turned off the surge protector, shutting off all power to that whole tangled, embarrassing cord-pile of spaghetti in the living room corner in a last-ditch effort at resolution since at least one Google user had mentioned that leaving everything off overnight magically made everything work together in the morning.

So we all slept: machines, cat, and human. I woke this morning, expecting to face that solid amber warning light, that digital refusal to talk, to let me talk. Yesterday was illogically stressful, reminding me how dependent I've become—most people have become—on Internet connectivity and, like addicts, how crazy one can become without it—and even when a person has it but not as accustomed, without wires. Jeff and I had joked, Remember when the Internet was just a bunch of newsgroups? Remember when you had to ask somebody older or else break open an encyclopedia set or go to the library if you wanted to learn something? Remember when mail required stamps? Remember when everyone had landlines? Remember?

vintage waffle iron settings

I turned on the power strip this morning, heated up some coffee and half a waffle in the microwave, glanced back at the router and saw . . . a glowing green light. Who knew? The key to making machines get along is to leave them powerless and alone for hours in the dark—show them exactly who's boss.


love & marriage

vintage wedding paper dolls, 1966

I ran across these photos in my digital stash over the weekend, taken a couple years ago for my friend, Jeff, who was reselling these vintage wedding paper dolls printed in the U.S.A. in 1966. They seem topically appropriate for Valentine's Day, a holiday I mostly ignore, except that I found myself standing in the candy aisle at Target the other night, trying for far too long to decide between candy hearts and chocolate kisses.

Children, at least, believe in love and expect sugar. So I bought candy and cut out a few red paper hearts during lunch yesterday, taping them to the chalkboard beside my desk. All the colorful, cluttered posters of butterflies and underwater seascapes and the paper flowers strewn around my kidney-shaped desk are for them, their view each day during our sessions, their imagination. I prefer facing the large window overlooking the courtyard garden, still in hibernation, glancing up at the sliver of gray—sometimes blue—sky, or dry leaves whirling in the wind, or raindrops falling, or, if lucky, snow, or maybe a squirrel or bird on the roof.

Anything I would have to say on the topic of love and marriage would be snarky, bitter—a layer of verbal scab crusted over a raw red wound (what can happen when dreams die). So all I'll say is that maybe someday, one day, years from now, perhaps, just possibly, I might believe again in one or the other, though both might be too much to ask for.


what to eat

vintage Hall China bowl set, resold

The last month or so, I've been obsessing yet again about what to eat. Am I eating the right things? Should I be adding something or subtracting? What am I doing wrong? I must be doing something wrong. . . . Right?

For the record, "diets" as such make me wary after experiencing America's ridiculous nonfat craze I dove into headfirst while in college in the early 1990's when I first went vegetarian, losing at least 20 pounds within a few months, while many others in my dorm were gaining some of the "freshman 15." (What else can one's body do but suck out stored fat cells when a person isn't eating any dietary fat?) Some youth rebel by partying every night and opening their legs to strangers; I gave up God and fat. My grandmother, mother, and great-aunts all kept shaking their heads at me: "The body needs fat." But society was saying I didn't. The advertising message was right there on every label on the grocery-store shelf: no fat, zero fat, skim, nonfat. Fat is bad. Fat makes you fat. But, as always, life is more complicated.

After claiming fat was bad for a decade, nutritionists and health care officials then modified the claim, scientists having further analyzed types of fats and their effects, finding the hydrogenated trans fats corporations had been stuffing consumers with since the 1950's downright toxic and now hidden away, tucked down at the very bottom of the pile. (Poor Crisco, once king.) Saturated animal fats became sandwiched between trans fats and polyunsaturated vegetable fats, with monounsaturated fats like olive oil used in Mediterranean cuisines now sitting atop the fat pyramid. I suspect the real hierarchy should instead be mono, then saturated, then poly, then trans—or even saturated before mono—since humans have been eating animal fats like lard long before processed vegetable oils. Regardless, all the grocery-shelf options have since modulated, becoming low fat rather than nonfat, where they've more or less stayed. So most Americans still believe fats are bad, except in small quantities, and eat them guiltily.

Jeff's homemade pecan pie with whipped cream, Thanksgiving 2013

At the same time as all of this, the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy, began to reclaim whole, real fatty foods that included local eggs, organic dairy (cream, butter, milk, buttermilk, cheeses), liberal amounts of extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, olives, nuts, and wild and locally raised organic meats. Many Americans began to learn or relearn that the real stuff simply tastes better and is in fact healthier than the fake stuff in moderation—which means one can't go around eating whole sticks of butter and dumping cream on everything. But who'd want to do that, anyway? Moderation is key. Plus, as Julia Child said ages ago, "fat carries flavor," making proteins and complex carbs even more pleasurable. Just ask the French.

vintage French Villeroy & Boch "Delicious Apple" creamer, resold

I've lived in Europe and Asia where people are generally much slimmer, walk more for daily errands, and eat smaller portions than Americans. The Koreans I lived among, for example, don't historically eat any dairy or sugar (other than the gummy, barely sweet steamed rice balls served on holidays and special occasions as dessert), eating far less dietary fat and processed foods overall and many more vegetables, while Europeans do eat dairy and more meat, but, like Asians, also tend to eat less processed foods and more regular home-cooked, family meals. My friend, Stephanie, who lives in London and lived for years in Switzerland and France says "Americans are weird about food" and that "the French have got it right." From her observation:

They eat when they are hungry, they eat food that is absolutely delicious, and if they indulge, they allow themselves, and then the next day or so they eat a salad to make up for it. They don't deprive themselves, they don't gorge, they eat reasonable portions. And they don't exercise—the way we Americans think of it—they just walk everywhere, all of the time.

For the most part, cultures with longer, more rooted histories than ours seem to have found easier balances with food (and exercise). They simply eat, communally, what they've always traditionally eaten, rather than following the latest fad diet based on the latest scientific studies—which are typically funded and marketed by corporations vested in turning cheap agribusiness commodities into huge profit makers, both at the grocery store and the pharmacy. As a result, eating a variety of whole, home-cooked, minimally processed, plant-based foods in moderation—long touted by food experts such as Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, and Michael Pollan—has seemed to me the healthiest, most logical diet, though I still haven't wanted to return to eating animals, despite all the studies showing, for example, major health benefits accrued from regularly eating wild fish.

miner's lettuce, school garden, winter 2014 (iPhone photo)

Then a year-and-a-half ago, I was diagnosed with rosacea, my then-doctor suggesting an anti-inflammatory diet, which meant I virtually became vegan for six months (excepting honey). But it was difficult to completely give up Western staples like wheat and corn, dairy, eggs, potatoes, and tomatoes, let alone sugar, which also made dining out or eating as a guest nearly impossible, the inconvenience making me eventually give up the diet after not seeing significant changes in my skin or physique.

Then I had the weird heart-racing episode this past October, with many subsequent lab tests and even a trip to a cardiologist, none of the doctors able to pinpoint a cause. They claim it's neither something I'm doing (like eating too much salt or fat) nor avoiding (strenuous exercise) and that I'm actually very healthy, other than the iron anemia.

But that doesn't make sense. Why would I be experiencing symptoms of inflammation, the body's sign that something is out of balance, if nothing were amiss? I know I should be aerobically exercising more. I should be avoiding sugar. I should be eating more vegetables and raw foods (even as a vegetarian). I should be eating more protein. I should be taking more supplements and returning to exclusively organic food. I should be having more sex. I should be socializing more, having more fun, feeling more connected and loved. I should be writing more. I should avoid so many "should's." And I should otherwise be reducing stress with yoga and naps and meditation and avoiding such things as twelve-hour workdays. Most of these I've been consciously working on. But what if I've also been poisoning myself without knowing?

vintage chemical bottles with glass stoppers, resold

picnic tables at Pier Park (iPhone photo)

A few weeks ago at the library I picked up neurologist David Perlmutter's The Grain Brain, which cites recent study after study (many of which he claims haven't yet been adequately publicized) arguing the contemporary Western carbohydrate-rich, low-fat diet, particularly wheat, gluten, and sugar—combined with inadequate aerobic exercise—is making us sicker than ever as a society, spiking diseases and inflammatory syndromes from head-to-toe, including all the top skyrocketing diagnoses, from diabetes, obesity, various autoimmune disorders, depression, anxiety, and heart and vascular conditions to ADHD and Alzheimer's—even likely impacting autism.

sunbathing sea lions, Astoria, Oregon, September 2011

The guy is dead-serious (he's even had his own PBS special), and the book is downright scary—if everything can be believed. He wants everyone to give up all gluten, all processed carbs, starches (including corn, potatoes, and yams), sugars (even honey and maple syrup) other than limited quantities of whole fruit, and all vegetable oils and soy products. He recommends seven supplements: alpha-lipoic acid, coconut oil, DHA, probiotics, resveratrol, turmeric, and vitamin D. He wants the majority of one's diet to be fat (!) since the brain lives on fat. And he wants everyone to commit to regular, increasing amounts of exercise and good sleep. Plus, he also advises that people get tested for food intolerances and self-check for reactions to non-gluten grains.

doe with fawn, southern Oregon, August 2011

He certainly has his critics, even from the Paleo crowd, primarily that no one in prehistory could ever have been eating as much fat as he recommends and that modern hunter-gatherer diets vary widely due to geography and available resources. What I scratch my head over most is what I remember from Anthropology 101 about all the roots and tubers that modern hunter-gatherers eat. In other words, surely humans have been eating starches for tens of thousands of years, as well as dairy for semi-nomadic herders and disparate seasonal amounts of foraged fructose—just not our contemporary highly processed starches and sugars. After all, we're cousins of chimps, and chimps, too, are omnivores. But unlike many Americans, chimpanzees—who eat primarily fruit, leaves, flowers, seeds, berries, and then smaller amounts of small animals, even baby monkeys—are not exactly picky eaters.

chopped raw Swiss chard stems & garlic, Thanksgiving 2013

A few weekends ago, while over at the Southeast Sixth Avenue Goodwill (this particular store having the largest and best thrift-book selection in town), I passed through the diet and health section. I stopped and scanned the titles, essentially running the gamut of fad diets from the past twenty-to-thirty years: Macrobiotic, Jenny Craig, NutriSystem, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Raw, Dr. Phil, Dr. Weil, Dr. Oz. (See here for a broader historical perspective on fad diets, and note particularly the riffs on cigarettes, sleeping pills, and cotton balls as weight-loss methods.) For the record, Dr. Perlmutter, his book published just last year, wasn't in evidence yet at Goodwill. But the trip was a reminder about perspective—seeing the bigger picture. Theories and health proclamations, like clothes, go out of style. Remember when eggs were deemed evil? Sorry, but these latest extreme gluten-free, no-carb, mostly-meat, mostly-fat trends all seem like yet more picky, frenzied, hyped, unbalanced fad diets that will one day be proven unsound.

garden sunflower, September 2012

I've been vegetarian for over half my life (which, granted, is its own version of picky), after veering away from the flavorless, stringy, cud-chewy slabs of meat in the college cafeteria and gravitating over to the salad bar with all those pretty colors and textures. And I've never looked back, never missing meat (though I admit at the grocery store, I sometimes glance twice at a log of hard, dry salami and I did enjoy dipping lobster tails in clarified butter). I've long known I personally function better and weigh less if I eat more protein and fat and limit—but not completely forgo—the complex carbs. Most of the snacks Perlmutter recommends, I already eat and love as main-course vegetarian ingredients—eggs, cheese, hummus, avocado, nuts, and olives—with dark chocolate for dessert (p. 247). He's right that Americans usually find it much easier to grab a sugar-loaded grain snack than something more nutrient-dense. Societally, we're eating too many refined, processed carbs. And he's also correct that most of us should be getting more exercise and sleep.

honeybee on bloom, June 2012

But another critique I have of both Perlmutter's high-fat diet and the high-protein Paleo argument is that most traditional cultures around the world, like the Koreans I lived among, don't eat nearly the amount of meat or fat he or other low-carb diet proponents recommend. Koreans use meat mainly as a flavoring, which is why as a vegetarian I had the hardest time eating there of anyplace I've ever traveled, despite the many vegetable dishes: small amounts of meat or seafood were bobbing or mixed into almost everything, from soups to sauces. Also countering his argument, the Japanese (and I've traveled there, too) eat plenty of fish but little dietary fat and are considered as having one of the healthiest food traditions based on longevity and disease statistics.

Because animal flesh is generally much more expensive than plants and grains, it is used in many world cuisines more as a flavoring or celebratory treat—like killing a goat or chicken when company comes. Koreans, for example, don't eat their famous specialty bulgogi barbecue every day; it was originally meant for royalty. That's why people around the world, more often than eating meat, eat cheaper yet highly nutritious proteins like legumes and eggs. But as countries develop, meat consumption rises. Everyone wants to be king.

backyard chickens, Eastmoreland, June 2012

Here's a little secret. I ate a serving of fish a couple weeks ago for the first time in over twenty years. My meat-eating friend Jeff cooked it for me, and he's an even better cook than I am. However, it took three meals to swallow that single serving of fish down, and I hated . . .  every . . . bite—the taste, the texture, the very idea of it. I felt sad and guilty that some poor, deep-Arctic wolfish was killed just so I could gag it down as an experiment.

Because I've been worrying so much about my health the last several months, I'd been wondering if perhaps I should start eating fish again occasionally, thinking maybe I've been missing some key nutrient only available in animal protein that isn't showing up on all those expensive blood tests. And fish and shellfish, lacking legs, are thereby the least "animal," so to speak, meaning fish tacos are a known gateway drug back to meat-eating for vegetarians whose doctors tell them they're anemic. (Mine, though, actually said my being vegetarian will be beneficial in the long run and to just pop a daily iron pill instead.)

However, happening with students upon some pictures at school last week of certain kinds of fish with awfully human-looking teeth—so human they could almost be posted in a dentist's office as a reminder to floss—it's much easier now to imagine our fishy ancestors who first crawled out of the swamps onto land on their fin-legs, making me even less interested in eating fish again. The eyes-like-mine issue about eating animals that used to get to me most, doesn't anymore; now it's their teeth.

Oregon alpaca farm, July 2010 (Kodak Easyshare photo)

Plus, what would happen if everybody in the world, billions of people, started eating large quantities of meat daily, especially eating exclusively grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish and organically raised pigs and chickens and so on as Dr. Perlmutter and the Paleo proponents recommend? It simply isn't sustainable. In fact, it's laughable. The oceans are already close to being fished out and rain forests—the planet's lungs—chopped down in part to raise cattle for beef. This is essentially the argument Frances Moore Lappé made in Diet for a Small Planet forty years ago. Unfortunately, according to long-term thinkers like Stephen Hawking, humanity's only real solution is to find another planet to consume. (I'd prefer Homo sapiens died off as a failed branch of the evolutionary tree, like the Neanderthals, letting the dolphins, whales, elephants, chimps, and octopuses vie for world supremacy—or rather, for what's left of it.)

old rusty truck in overgrown Brooklyn driveway, Portland, June 2013 (iPhone photo)

But returning full-circle back to weight, few people in developed countries, even in America, used to be obese. Just look at any old photos from thirty or more years ago, even the ones in our own family albums. Fat people were the exception, not the rule. The underlying reasons Americans are so large today, with increasing rates of disease and food allergies, are likely just twofold: most Americans no longer cook primarily at home from scratch with whole, organic foods and don't walk or move around enough—simple as that.

In fact, two of the "nine lessons" of longevity learned from Dan Buettner's cross-cultural research done in the so-called Blue Zones—locations around the world with high concentrations of healthy, active centenarians—are "eating less" and eating more beans than meat, while another lesson is to "move naturally" throughout the day in work and play (in gardening, walking, biking, cleaning, and so on), rather than scheduling an exercise session. The other takeaways from healthy elders involve regular relaxation and stress release, having a sense of life purpose, practicing some form of spirituality, and maintaining a close-knit social and familial network. (And living in warm, mild, beautiful climates on islands or coasts—from Okinawa to Greece to Italy to Costa Rica to the Seventh-Day Adventist pocket in southern California—surely doesn't hurt.)

Berry Good Produce & Nursery, Portland, Oregon, April 2012

vintage French mouli-julienne vegetable shredder, resold

Sadly, eat from scratch and move around a lot isn't sexy and doesn't sell many books or push any products. In our sped-up computer culture, when most jobs require sitting at a desk all day and everyone who can is working forty-plus-hour weeks, often with long commutes as the cherry on top, aiming for that shrinking middle-class lifestyle—or simply, like me, to keep afloat—it's also easier said than done. Americans are not just fat and inactive, but fat, inactive, and increasingly lonely. More tragically, these unhealthy dietary, stationary, and isolating habits have been spreading around the world like a virus. So the future just might look like the subversive Pixar film Wall-E, with balloon-like people hovering over a trashed planet, wheeled about in automated chairs while sipping Big Gulps, eyes glued to giant, pulsing screens.


snow day

former coffee tablescape

As snow blankets and muffles Portland, I've been home on the sofa, feet up, my cat curled on my legs, savoring this rare snow day, taking time to reflect and refocus. I'm a natural-born, formally trained critic with big, brown dagger eyes and a razor tongue, who often forgets to retract her claws, to smile and say thank you.

Though today goes unpaid, I'm grateful for the extra, unexpected hours here at home since yesterday afternoon—home, my favorite place—and so what if the video-game-controller-throwing-and-swearing neighbor dude upstairs has a fondness for bass-heavy beats, making me fantasize about banging on the ceiling with a broom, while knowing I should just gather the balls to walk the flight up, knock on the door, and politely ask him to turn things down? (Café de Paris simply can't compete.)

pigeons foraging on downtown MAX rails

winter-white orchid

As snow flurries have fallen and whipped in the wind for the second day in a row, I'm grateful for working heat and gas, for being home during daylight hours (!), for food in the fridge, and for the winter-white orchid sitting on my coffee table that has not one but two stems of blooms, a two-for-one orchid jackpot.

current coffee tablescape

And this rare regional snow we're having means the Cascade snowpack will have grown several feet by storm's end, meaning we're in much-reduced risk of a drought like the one engulfing California, my beloved natal state whose water levels are the worst in 500 years, a terrible omen for future food prices, considering how much U.S. produce and dairy comes from California. Alas that the early-spring buds I photographed last weekend have since frozen, casualties of this upslung tropical moisture called the Pineapple Express, mixed with Arctic air, but at least Oregon now has a bigger cache of frozen water, high in the mountains, held in reserve.

snowy windowsill
(And please, snow veterans, do give Portland a break from all the city-shuts-down-at-first-snowflake talk. Unlike other parts of the West, Midwest, Northeast, or even Eastern Oregon where I grew up, this town isn't equipped for snow and, quite interestingly, never has been. In 2008, I remember watching someone cross-country skiing—as some are doing this weekend and will do in Southeast tomorrow—down the middle of an empty, snowed-in street and seeing another steep hilly street turned into the neighborhood sledding spot in Northeast Portland during the freak December snowstorm, when traffic halted for days in a city with few snowplows, businesses lacking rock salt or sand, and homeowners without snow shovels.) 

early-spring leaf bud, February 1, 2014

Looking beyond the snow, I am grateful for the visual inspiration devoured each precious weekend on sites such as Rue Magazine, Anthology Magazine, and Kinfolk Magazine. I'm thankful for regular people willing to share the mundane beautiful bits of their lives like the artistic duo of 3191 Miles Apart, whom I've admired for years, as well as the varied creatives around the world whose homes are profiled each week on Design*Sponge. They remind me that creativity can happen in an instant, beauty in a moment, and that it can also take years of hard work—and that it's worth it.

Portland graffiti advice

freeway-bridge graffiti

I'm inspired as well by the consistently good writing on blogs like Sweet Juniper, Orangette, and (my friend Carol's) Hellish Handbasket, as well as the library books that feed me each week. I'm currently reading Northwest author Cheryl Strayed's bestselling Wild, memoir of her summer solo-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail when in her mid-20's, a feat that strikes me as both blazingly brave and fantastically stupid. Next up on my library queue is Strayed's collection of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, acclaimed for its author's vulnerability. I'm also humbled and grateful friends and family keep encouraging me to write—to really write, aside from this chattering blog. And I'm thankful for this blog as a practice. Writing is nothing but practice.

dirty handprints

And finally, I'm thankful I didn't come home the other night to a dead pet or the sirens and flashing lights of a fire truck, my cat having jumped down from one of her favorite perches atop the kitchen cabinets, accidentally kicking one of the gas-stove burners on. Unlit, the eggy gas had permeated the apartment for who knows how long. Coming home from work, I could smell sulfur all the way down the hall, wondering which neighbor had the leak. Um, me. Before I could rush back down to the teachers strike vote rally with my camera, I first had to fling open all the windows on a 20-degree night to air the place out and then tape down all the stove knobs with masking tape, a temporary fix. (Anyone have any other ideas?) At least I haven't yet been found dead in my sleep, killed unintentionally by my cat. So there's that.

spring flower buds, February 1, 2014

Spring will come. Cherish this now.

the political looms personal: Portland teachers strike vote

Schnitzer Concert Hall marquee, February 5, 2014

Portland Public School (PPS) teachers voted Wednesday night at the Schnitzer Concert Hall to strike, with a planned walkout on Thursday, February 20th, during a week in which students will already be missing school for a day or more (President's Day on Monday, the 17th, and a scheduled late-opening or teacher development day on Wednesday, the 19th, depending on the school). For kids whose parents support the picket line, the teachers strike will feel like a string of snow days or spring vacation sprung early: no school, no homework, and lots of TV and video games. But for adults, the strike is far more complex.

pink blow-up flamingo below Schnitzer marquee, February 5, 2014

blow-up flamingo, Schnitzer marquee, February 5, 2014

Just before the vote two nights ago, supporters rallied outside the Schnitzer. I witnessed maybe 50-100 people, mostly young adults, out in the below-freezing cold holding signs, chanting, singing, speechifying, and otherwise displaying support for the teachers. One young woman even carried aloft a blow-up pink flamingo in honor of the school-board members' recent flockings. An observer, I listened to someone singing a classic protest song, noting a handful of IWW members in attendance, holding their large, red-and-black banner. Cars passing up Broadway honked in sympathy. News vans had been parked on the street since early morning when I left for work. A bareheaded, clean-cut man milled around in a wool dress coat, holding a long, thin reporter's notebook, before returning every few minutes to the warmth of the ArtBar next door, monitoring happenings through plate glass. A thirty-something woman in a long down coat walking past turned to her companions to ask, "Flash mob?" (Okay, so not everyone follows local news.) A police car drove by without stopping. And through it all, a lone security guard strolled back and forth, back straight, shoulders out, keeping watch.

Portland teachers strike vote: rally attendees, security guard

Photographers with long-lensed cameras documented the evening, crouching for good angles, as the temperature kept dropping, by then in the low-20's. Passersby held their smartphones above their heads, capturing video. Unfamiliar with shooting at night and unsure if my own images would be anything but blurry, I pressed the shutter again and again. After about a half hour, despite wearing an undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, two thick wool sweaters, a down vest, down jacket, jeans, a ski-worthy hat, two pairs of socks in tall, sheepskin-lined Hunter boots, two thick wool scarves, and wool fingerless gloves atop leather gloves, my fingers had gone numb. A little after seven o'clock, the teachers having all grouped inside the Hall, the rally wrapped up, banners rolled, signs drug off. The oft-closed block of SW Main Street between the Schnitzer and the Winningstad Theatre emptied rapidly, people dispersing. Attention shifted towards the remaining strike supporters led by someone with a bullhorn standing in front of the front Schnitzer entrance. My fingers barely able to click the lens cap back on my camera, I turned and walked the few blocks home to dinner.

Schnitzer Concert Hall marquee, February 5, 2014

Fittingly, I pass the Schnitzer Concert Hall nearly every morning on my way to the bus shuttling me to work in a long, roundabout route, an hour's commute northwest up to St. Johns, one of the poorer parts of town. As I've written about before, a year and a half ago I quit adjunct teaching for technical colleges for a more stable job working inside a public elementary school, college teaching as a profession having crashed onto the proverbial rocks, broken up into a million underemployed, underpaid adjuncts. By contrast, the teachers I talked to yesterday at school felt moved and humbled by the numbers filling the Hall that night, overwhelmingly aligned in their primary goal of class-size reduction. The difference? They'd formed a union: the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT).

If you're a regular reader or friend, you know I currently work inside a PPS school as a private contractor, paid with foundation grant money. My colleagues and I teach students with reading difficulties one-on-one in four North Portland (read: poor and minority) public elementary schools. In our separate schools, we form little islands of outsiders surrounded by certified PPS classroom teachers and specialists. We don't have to attend staff or teacher-development meetings, extracurricular family nights, act as outside greeters in freezing weather, or perform any of the myriad daily-weekly-monthly-quarterly-yearly tasks required of PPS teachers. But, then, neither are we paid anywhere nearly as well as they or have their health care and leave benefits, let alone a pension. Like step-siblings, we're members of the public-school family—but as watery relations rather than blood, meaning we don't get invited to the teachers' occasional after-work happy hours and we don't get all the memos.

Even so, this strike topic isn't just something I read about every morning during breakfast like most Portlanders. There's no distance for me on this one. If the strike vote can't pressure the school board to concede within the next week and a half on the teachers' core demand for class-size reduction via more hiring, the strike will affect me and many others, unintended repercussions rippling in the sea called public education. Everyone who works in the schools, union or not, private or unclassified, must now take sides. There is no neutral anymore, no Switzerland—not for the PAT. And according to PAT sources, most of the district subs won't be breaking the strike, leaving the district stranded and schools doing little more than babysitting with movies and coloring pages in the gym. A teachers strike will create national-newsworthy levels of chaos.

street scene, Portland teachers strike vote, February 5, 2014

So why haven't I posted anything about the strike before now? Why have I been so quiet when I used to rant and rage about the state of higher education in this country and the lowly status of teachers in our culture? Well, that's because I've since had a stable job and health insurance to lose. I've been crossing my fingers for months during these protracted negotiations that it wouldn't come to this, knowing deep-down it probably would, since that seems to be how life works. Often, the things we dread most do happen, so we can face our darkest fears—as if there were some Great-Guru-in-the-Sky charged with our individual personal growth (a concept I don't buy).

One of my fears has been: Will I have the courage to back up my mouth in support of unions and refuse to cross the coming picket line, knowing I could potentially lose my job or an unpredictable amount of income, possibly careening me into debt, since, single and privately employed in education, I have little savings from years of underemployment, modest income, and recent medical bills, with no union at my own back? This teachers strike won't benefit me in any way. It will only hurt, something like giving myself a lifetime of paper cuts all at once, just for fun.

But at least I'll be able to look myself in the mirror. Yesterday, my school's union rep thanked me, her usually cheerful face showing all the signs of fatigue, when I told her privately I wouldn't be working through the strike. The same day, a fourth-grade teacher told me she'd understand if people have to work, but she'd rather they supported the teachers. Other teachers have said the same thing. So this decision—this act of refusing to cross a picket line—means something. It matters.

Schnitzer Concert Hall, back-door marquee, February 5, 2014

Last week, I came across the following adage in Brené Brown's book, Daring Greatly: "Jump, and the net will appear." Butterflies flutter in my gut at the thought. The original quote by 19th-century American naturalist John Burroughs actually uses the older, more quaint word, leap: "Leap, and the net will appear." And so, eyes open, I leap.

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