domestic voyeur

red door with white scroll-detail railing between ivy, NW Portland

I am, I confess, a sort of Peeping Tom. Whenever I go for a walk in the evening or drive by a lit-up house or apartment building, I glance in, peeking from the sidewalk or street. Who are these people? What are their lives like? What are their dreams? Whom do they love? And why are they exercising at 10:30 at night? Why do some people keep old flea-infested couches stacked up on their front porch, or windows blocked by a crush of dying, yellowed plants, or plastic toys and broken chairs strewn across the lawn, while others . . . don't? So of course I also spy on people online. Who doesn't? So much is spread out here on the Net for all to see who care to look. We all love a good story, even if we have to make most of it up.

white pansy, March 2014

front yard: parked car with graffiti and flags, NW 21st, Portland, Oregon

These are some of my favorite home tours on the Web, places I keep returning to over the years for inspiration:

1. Window to the Soul

I've long loved the space interior designer Rebekah Sigfrids and her former design team put together for herself in Cincinatti, Ohio, several years back. (Per her Twitter account she now appears to be living in NYC.) The tension between elegant and rustic materials—an old church pew in the bedroom, ethereal Etsy art leaned against the walls atop an IKEA console and an antique buffet, vintage trunks, a black marble Saarinen dining table, a striped rug, a cowhide lounger, a light-gray herringbone-tiled Carrara marble bathroom, and artfully arrayed touches of pink in the bedroom—is rarely achieved this masterfully, proof that neutral minimalism can be warm, inviting, sexy, saintly, and a little mysterious all at the same time. 

wisteria arbor, NW Portland

2. Living Outside the Box

Some people, usually visual artists, know exactly which unusual objects and proportions make for a striking, one-of-a-kind home. Simon Cavanough and Anna-Wili Highfield's Sydney, Australia, home does this to effect, even as simply as the large yellow balloon floating off a chair in the kitchen, decor choices that include some of her haunting, mask-like animal sculptures made from cotton rag and his more practical props, such as airplanes, juxtaposed with draped mosquito netting over the beds and quaint old fireplaces in corners. They could almost be living on a movie set, which wouldn't be a bad thing, depending on the movie. I would love to own one of Highfield's pieces, particularly the crows, which look like something out of the Hitchcock film, if anyone ever wants to send me one. (This is not your typical bird art satirized in Portlandia, by the way.)

3. Quirky Details in a Tight Space

Colleen Kelly, a consultant and freelance writer with a personal blog called The Style Heist full of useful tips, has a stylist's eye for detail and makes every inch count in her (former) small yet sophisticated D.C. studio highlighted on Apartment Therapy. Her plant-stand side tables inspired me to thrift something of the kind for my own place.

unknown flowering bush, March 2014, Portland

4. Hollywood Glam in Australia

Interior designer Sarah Davison styled up for herself a glamorous but livable Deco-era home in Sydney, Australia, that feels more like old Hollywood than Crocodile Dundee—not that I've ever been to Australia. (Some of the most original tours on Design Sponge are in fact Australian, e.g., see #2, no offense.) Of course the diva in me adores the giant round mirror in the living room, the masses of roses, the tall candles, the Bertoia Diamond chair, the large amethyst chunk sitting on the coffee table, two types of herringbone floors, and her belief in "touches of black." I'm not a fan of the entire apartment (e.g., the birds-and-bamboo screen on one of the walls, the slight green-and-yellow jungle vibe in the kitchen), but it'd be a lovely place to airbnb, if you could. In fact, the place reminds me of a posh hotel, the kind that leaves flowers on the table and whole chocolate bars on your pillow—which is actually the problem I have with interior designers in general, trained to create overly formal matchy-matchy spaces that can be beautiful but sterile—meaning the most natural interior decorators tend to be fine artists or stylists.

pink lilac tree, NW Portland

5. Masters of Vertical Storage

David and Im Schafer won Apartment Therapy's Small Cool Space Contest way back in 2006 and to my mind have never been topped. Their former San Diego loft space would never work without the Jolly-Green-Giant-sized ceilings—or their architecture training—and their ingenious use of wall space makes their loft experiment feel like some kind of tall mid-century ship, but that's also what makes it so novel. It's interesting that the competitor whose entry they themselves liked, Ivar, was a seeming minimalist, essentially their opposite, despite all their obsessive organization.

6. Textile Mix

Design director and artist Gregory Beauchamp combines thrifted textiles and rugs, old wood, vintage oil paintings, and lush houseplants into a desert-bohemian artist mix full of light in Venice Beach, California, though looking at his beloved ratty vintage office chair is a little like finding yourself a passersby at a car accident: you stare even though you try not to.

yellow sidewalk graffiti scrawl, NW Portland

7. Modern Playhouse

Interior designer Cecile Carré's house in Barcelona, Spain, is like a Case Study House turned day care—but in a good way. Actually, the only things I love about this house are the dining room and the living room adjacent to the patio where I could probably spend my life, apart from changing up all the furnishings. This is more a house where I appreciate the overall indoor-outdoor family mood and physical structure rather than the objects themselves, a place that's personal, well lived in, and well loved—the very definition of home (and an exception to the rule mentioned in #4).

8. French Explorer

Ooh là là! French antiques, intricate off-white moldings and rosettes, giant gilded mirrors above the fireplaces, leather trunks and sunken seats, large old black-and-white maps spread like wallpaper, and herringbone wood floors under acres of books, all mixed with a marble Saarinen dining set, a tiny IKEA-ish kitchen, and a large record collection all put together by historical landscape architect Gabriel Wick (and proving that a designer is a designer, no matter the medium). Could a French apartment be any more perfect—meaning without any feminine brights and florals?

white house, NW Portland

9. Bohemian Treehouse

Here's another bohemian abode, but one for a freelance interior designer, Kristin Korven, and her musician partner Derek James in Laurel Canyon in the Los Angeles hills: large round mirror, giant wrought-iron crystal chandelier, library wall, ethnic rugs and textiles, wood floors, fireplace, brick walls, orange, brown, black, mustard, red, and fuchsia tones, old maps, bentwood, antiques, a touch of MCM, tons of plants, draped turquoise jewelry—of course I'd like this one. Part of its appeal is that according to the owners, the space has evolved over time through additions to the original cabin and shows its age like an old film star full of dark secrets (and yet another exception to the rule in #4).

street brick exposed under asphalt, NW Portland

10. Eames House

And of course the sneak peek of all sneak peeks would be Ray and Charles Eames' Case Study No. 8, the house of all houses designed by the most modern renaissance artists of all artists (the architectural credit also including Eero Saarinen). I can't say I admire all of Ray Eames' sometimes traditional and magpie-cluttered decorative objects that appear in photos well after their move-in (like blue-and-white china and dull floral arrangements); however, she was photographing them in much the same way as so many food and design bloggers today. Plus, the overall effect of the house is still revolutionary—since most American home owners are still living in low-slung bungalows and ranch houses. If a house is a kind of necessary cage, I'd rather have ceilings soaring above and walls of books and windows—the more exterior window the better. 

mossy stairs with iron gate, NW Portland

See any themes in my choices? Okay, your turn.


field trip: William Temple House Thrift Store

William Temple House Thrift Store: wall sign with vines

Part of me wants to keep William Temple House Thrift—or WTH as I refer to it in texts with my friend Jeff—a secret all to myself (as if I'm the only one who shops there), but how selfish is that? So I'm sharing. WTH is my favorite thrift store in Portland, not that I haven't found great deals at other stores, like Teen Challenge (TC) down in Milwaukie or the many branches of Goodwill (GW). But WTH has long been my favorite secondhand shop in town, one I walk over to most weekends, now that I'm living downtown.

First, prices on many items are on the low side compared to GW and especially considering WTH's uptown location on NW Glisan between NW 21st and NW 23rd, a block from Trader Joe's (TJ). Merchandise rotates frequently. I regularly find high-quality clothes here, often on the sales racks at 50% or 75% off the ticket price, meaning I sometimes find beautiful, like-new oversized linen button-downs for around $4 or Saks-designer dresses for $12. It's rare that I leave WTH without something in hand, even if it's just a cheap staple remover whose curved metal teeth remind me of snake fangs, something I've long wanted as a simple way to keep from nicking my fingernails when removing the occasional staple but could technically live without—and have for years. But for 15 cents on sale, why not add that tool to my home office?

William Temple House: suit jackets and swimsuits

William Temple House: green-topped vintage desk

The WTH furniture selection is large and varied, offering beat-up antiques, the occasional mid-century piece in need of refinishing (like my Drexel hutch), heavy vintage desks made of solid wood and dovetailed joints, and many upholstered-oak chairs from the 1980's (which, by the way, will soon be making a decorating comeback, if you want to get the jump on a future trend—I'm already seeing hipster types snatching them up).

William Temple House chair lineup

The last couple weekends, there sat two vintage No. 14 Thonet bentwood chairs with peacock seat designs, the black Thonet stamp visible on the underside, only a little rickety and waiting to be claimed for $65 each by some lucky thrifter in search of a design classic.

William Temple House Thrift: vintage Thonet No. 14 bentwood chair with peacock seat design

The WTH art selection is also better than at most thrift stores, with many original paintings and numbered prints which Jeff sometimes resells at a markup in his space over at Hawthorne Vintage to those with deeper pockets and less time.

William Temple House Thrift: art, rugs, shoes, accessories

During this last trip to WTH, Jeff bought a big vintage plywood console with copper hardware and tons of storage, the top of which he'll be refinishing and under which he'll affix four large vintage industrial casters found a few months ago over at the Beaverton ReStore. It'll be a great, functional piece for resale at Hawthorne Vintage, once rescued.

William Temple House Thrift: vintage blond-veneered plywood console

William Temple House Thrift: tag specials

While GW sales change weekly, WTH discounts older merchandise by rotating their color tags monthly: white, yellow, green, orange. Sometimes waiting for the tag-change day can pay off with additional savings, but as with all thrifting, if you really like something, don't wait. If it's something special, most likely someone else is eyeing it, too. I lost out that way once at WTH on a vintage Deco Seth Thomas clock, which looked almost exactly like my great-grandmother's, priced at $40. Even though Jeff had gotten to the store for me the morning of the color-change day (the first of that month), according to a clerk another customer had swooped in and snagged the clock not 30 minutes before for $20 (proving that the earliest bird does pluck more worms).

As a fun bonus, the last three days of each month, WTH customers can draw slips of paper from a little box giving them extra savings at the cash register, adding a little gamble to the transaction. Maybe you'll get an extra 10% off or possibly 50%—who can say? It just may be your lucky day.

William Temple House Thrift: Customer Appreciation Sale window sign

William Temple House Thrift: front window display

On top of all this, the Episcopalian WTH store isn't overtly religious—unlike TC or Salvation Army with their Christian-music selections and, for TC, Sunday closures. The WTH clerks are also low-key and helpful when needed, smiling but asking no questions as I snapped photos for this post after making a purchase last weekend: a lightweight wool tunic ($7) and a large vintage beveled oval mirror for the bedroom, also for just $7. (If you read the blog, you already know about my mirror obsession, particularly with round ones.)

William Temple House Thrift Store finds: vintage beveled oval mirror, vintage Stiffel brass lamp, orchid cachepot

William Temple House Thrift: "All Sales Are Final" sign

One downside to thrifting at WTH, unlike GW, is that all sales are final, no returns or exchanges allowed, so be sure to try on clothes and think through purchases beforehand: wants, needs, and likes. For me, the no-return policy hasn't been an issue so far.

William Temple House Thrift Store, 2230 NW Glisan, Portland, Oregon

Perhaps WTH will become your top thrift store in Portland, too. If so, maybe I'll see you there. Regardless, here's to the thrill of the hunt and the rewards of reuse.

What's your favorite thrift shop in Portland?


natural, local Easter eggs

carton of green & brown backyard eggs

Easter doesn't really do much for me now that I can buy as much dark, fair-trade chocolate as I want year-round and no longer have to wait for my grandmother's yearly gift of a large, hollow milk-chocolate bunny broken into pieces and consumed within a week of receipt. Instead, I view Easter as a relic of old pagan solstice rites involving the end of winter and rebirth of plant life, celebrating the young shoots of our primary food sources and the lengthening, warming days spinning at the sweet spot in our solar system allowing for such life—not too hot like Venus, not too cold like Mars. Eggs are not only perfect nutrition, fat and protein, but symbols of life itself, promise of growth and birth, maturation, death, the end contained in the shell of its beginning. Children poke under bushes, amid green grass, searching for metaphor. But if egg hunts, chocolate bunnies, and Sunday services with hymns and tall crossed tales make you happy, go for it.

My friend Jeff brought over a carton of green and brown eggs this weekend, gifted by a friend of his who owns a set of backyard chickens over in southeast Portland. The naturally colored eggs nestled in the carton remind me how I never dye Easter eggs—and don't need to—not when they look like this. These are eggs that don't need makeup. (White eggs from white chickens creep me out, by the way, probably because they represent the pinnacle of avian factory farming: slave birds stuffed into cages with no waddling and squawking about a farmyard on two legs, no pecking in the grass for bugs, only the image of fluffy yellow baby chicks tumbling down a conveyer belt, their elders behind bars—all like something out of a sci-fi story, only real.)

local green & brown eggs, Portland, OR

This was my first time eating green eggs (which shed new light on the Dr. Seuss book, Green Eggs and Ham)—or rather, one green egg and one brown—and they were both delicious, even more flavorful, more egg-like, than organic free-range eggs bought at the store. I made fried-egg sandwiches for brunch on Saturday with a thin slice of Tillamook Cheddar on toasted whole-wheat English muffins spread with mayonnaise and dashes of hot sauce, garnished with local Northwest Gala apple slices: simple and tasty. Another favorite way to eat eggs lately has been as goat-cheese and asparagus omelets served with spring greens.

Here are more celebrations of chickens, eggs, and their calcium-rich shells from past posts:

And for those who do like dyeing and decorating eggs, how about trying the boiled onion-skin method or other natural plant dyes rather than using artificial dyes that find their way into the water supply and do who knows what to our bodies? In any case, even if you don't care much for eggs—and I have a friend whose daughter is allergic—may you, my peeps, be granted lots of chocolate in your Easter basket.


out and about in Portland, Oregon

cherry blossoms and bridges, Waterfront Park, Portland

An old friend far away said the other day, after I'd mentioned some of the things I've been doing lately for socializing and inspiration, that I have "such a cool life." She was referring to my attending the Portland Art Museum's free night, the fourth Friday of each month; book readings at Powell's down the street, like Lorrie Moore's last week; an occasional free Pink Martini concert over at Pioneer Courthouse Square; monthly Willamette Writers speaker meetings at the Old Church. Her statement took me aback because I tend to believe the opposite, that my life should be larger, more interesting, making me reflect on how perception is relative, how things appear from a distance, from the outside, versus up close. I mean, seriously, this friend lives in London, which dwarfs Portland with over 240 museums showcasing a long, rich history of conquest, empire, and postcolonial tensions, and where many of its world-class museums like the Tate Modern and the National Gallery are free, while our provincial Portland museums and private gardens charge anywhere between $10-15 dollars per adult—unless one slips in during the rare and crowded free days. Who's jealous of whom here?

tethered lion, NW Portland

Oregon grape blossoms, March 2014

spilled gumdrops (DOTS), downtown Portland sidewalk

I'm a natural homebody: I must force myself to take to the streets. Living downtown has made such things easier because now I'm closer to the central action here in Portland, one of the most hipster cities in America, its influential quirks lampooned on TV. So, yes, I've been making more of an effort to expand my little life in the provinces. Now that the weather is warming, that effort will extend into the outdoors.

phone pole with staples, March 2014, NW Portland

thorns, SW Portland

green graffiti, SW Portland

Burnside Bridge and cherry blossoms, March 2014

On Sunday afternoon, after a morning meeting and then a little thrifting and some walking errands, I decided to spend a couple hours outside. The weather was insanely nice for April last weekend, low 70's, with clear blue skies, the warmest of the year so far. I sat outside the art museum against a wall in the sun, under a hat, in sandals, then in bare feet, typing an e-mail with my thumbs, actually growing hot for the first time in six months, wearing a black linen shirt and dark jeans. (I love that I have museum grounds as my backyard.) I decided not to feel guilty for not tackling other, more pressing things on the to-do list. Sunny, warm weekends are infrequent in this temperate rainforest climate, so Portlanders must seize the day. The sun kept dropping. I picked up and moved along the wall to follow it, knowing the rain would return soon enough, until I was sitting on a South Park Blocks bench, listening to pigeon coos. I should do a little nothing more often.

Here are more things I aim to do in future springs and summers:

Tom McCall Waterfront Park cherry blossoms, March 2014

What do you do in and around Portland, Oregon?


little luxury: staying home

brick wall, empty building

After commuting all week, gone for half of each day, I treasure the rare weekend days I can just stay home, with no social commitments, no errands—not that I want to spend every weekend this way but that they are a gift. (My friend Carol understands.) Last weekend, I didn't even leave the apartment. To an extrovert, that's likely the equivalent of a week in bed with a wrenched ankle, a broken TV, and a lost cell phone, but for an introvert, long stretches of hours alone at home are pure luxury.

split-leaf philodendron shadows

As a side benefit, I spent no money those two days. I watched little media, only the beginnings of a couple different movies while eating dinner. I listened to music while doing chores and browsing the Web, did a lot of reading and thinking. And I wrote.

Sunday, I snipped the large shell buttons off a rough-silk shirt thrifted for the price of a cup of café coffee a while back from William Temple whose color (red) doesn't flatter me and then sewed those buttons onto a black linen jacket thrifted a couple months ago at Goodwill. (See how these things work? Mix, match, fix.)

white brick wall

Then I ironed a whole pile of clothes, eight pieces to be exact, half of which were new-to-me secondhand linen shirts and jackets to now incorporate into my wardrobe (ironing being one of those tedious but necessary chores I tend to put off as long as possible). The last couple seasons I've been wearing a lot of dark-colored, oversized, masculine linen and silk button-downs with slim jeans and boots or heels and a black leather cuff picked up for 50 cents down at Teen Challenge. Maybe I associate middle age with androgyny, or maybe it's just unconsciously following a broader trend. No matter how many clothes I own, I get bored unless I can mix and match constantly. I apparently can't buy any more clothes, however, because I've run out of hangers. (And I own a lot of hangers—the ex left me all of his.) Oh, such problems.

Maintaining a wardrobe is so much easier than handling people. I've been snappish with a good friend lately over something that's none of my business; people must make their own decisions and live with the consequences. And I confronted a difficult, rude coworker this week, asserting my needs, which felt satisfying. I expect relations won't change, but avoiding the person and swallowing my frustration hadn't been working, so I tried something different. We're all natural scientists, experimenting on each other, right? What will happen if I do this, say that? So I poked the snake, prodded the porcupine. He cannot shoot me a face full of quills again for no good reason with no consequences. That era is over.

red tulips

I bought myself a four-dollar bundle of grocery-store tulips the other night. If flowers never solve anything—and I hate the idea of flowers as apology, as if pretty petals could substitute for hard words—they at least brighten a room. The rest will work itself out over time. When we are ready to change, we change.


writing on the bus

brick façade, Portland, OR

I've been writing longhand on the bus, a forty-five minute ride, first on spare pages in my red Moleskine planner and then on yellow legal paper. Who knew such a thing was even possible? My rushed handwriting these days looks like something off a prescription pad, barely legible even to me. This is not rough drafting but pre-drafting. In a way, I'd rather the bus commute took hours—because then I'd see some progress. Instead, I must content myself with minutes, drips upon drops, trusting a stalactite will eventually form: proof of potential, record of history, untangling of mysteries. Sometimes I still read. Sometimes I'll put headphones on, plug them into my phone, and stare out the window at the sunrise from the bridge while crossing the river, or, once, at the back of a man's neck, wanting to lick it. (Don't worry: he was more or less my age and looked employable, except wearing a gray hoodie, his slicked-back hair dark with threads of silver, still damp from his shower.) Sometimes I'll close my eyes, rocked and jolted by the brakes, and listen to my breath, nearly dozing. It all depends on the morning.

old door with mail slot, downtown Portland

In honor of introspection, writing, and reading in public, here's a list of favorite memoirs and short-story collections from the two best literary genres. Even talented, skillful novelists one races to the finish rarely serve up a decent ending. Theater is like putting people on stilts or giving them clown noses and sending them about their day—exercises in exaggeration—while poetry, of course, has gone the way of the top hat. All that's left are memoir, film, and the short story. Both film and short stories—the good ones, anyway—are like ships in bottles, a whole life condensed into a few pages, which can only be done by someone with the soul of a poet, the ear of a musician, the eye of a painter, the wit of a playwright, and the insight of a shaman. That is art. Memoir sells better, though; everyone likes a little voyeurism, the prostitution of privacy for art.

Women dominate the short form, in case anyone's wondering. I'll be adding more titles as I remember them. They're in no particular order except for Nabokov, whom no one can top.


Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
The Liar's Club by Mary Karr
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
D.V. by Diana Vreeland
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Autobiographical Novels

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn
My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard 

Short Stories

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Pastoralia by George Saunders
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I Want to Show You More by Jaime Quatro
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Binocular Vision & Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
anything by Alice Munro
The Collected Stories by Mavis Gallant
The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor
Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr 

sunset shadows, downtown Portland

By the way, Lorrie Moore will be reading from her new story collection, Bark (now on my library queue), at Powell's downtown on April 11th at 7:30 PM. She swims in the cream atop all the published milk. See you there?

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