11.30.2014

meeting the Pow-Wow Tree

Oregon Heritage Tree sign: Pow-Wow Tree

On the first partly sunny day in what felt like weeks, the housemate and I took his mom's dog for a walk down by the river. I forgot to take a picture of this photogenic shiba inu (though you can see her here a couple years ago), but I finally met (if you can say that about a piece of living wood) the Pow-Wow Tree, Gladstone's two-hundred-thirty-eight-year-old bigleaf maple tree that was a former meeting place of local native tribes and that also once hosted, so to speak, the first Oregon State Fair. My friend has lived in this town since August, so I'd walked past that tree multiple times while visiting without stopping and reading the sign, too distracted by the Tele-Tales sign to the right of it and unaware that this particular "Tele-Tale" was about the old tree since the Tele-Tales sign itself references Mt. Hood, which is not exactly in the neighborhood. (Sorry—nobody my age or under is going to dial a voice recording to access local history; phones are Internet-connection devices.)


Pow-Wow Tree, Gladstone, OR

The Pow-Wow Tree looks her age: gnarly, shaggy, craggy, mossy, and one-eyed. But she's still standing, and that's all that counts. 

The Clackamas riverside only a couple months ago was lush and verdant in jewel greens and blues and the wheat yellows of late summer. Half-naked people were jumping off cliffs into the swimming hole or wading in the rocky shallows to cool off. Now the trees and bushes are skeletal and the river is running high, fast, and muddy. Even the dog wouldn't go in.


PGE water level warning sign, Clackamas River


amputated tree, Clackamas River

I got extra miles in by zigzagging the entire trip to avoid getting caught in the dog leash because said dog was so excited to sniff and pee on everything on both sides of the path. (Seriously, how big can a dog's bladder be? She never ran out of the stuff. Oh, and she also doesn't like other dogs. She once picked up a smaller dog in her mouth and thrashed it around like a chew toy. How can a dog be antisocial?!) The sun raised the temperature by about twenty degrees (hooray for nuclear fusion!), but when the clouds blanketed the river, brrr, cold! Rain misted my eyeglasses, making it hard to spot rainbows, if there were any.

After dropping off the dog (Bye, dog!), on the way home we stopped into the local library for the first time, a tiny but friendly branch offering free candy for those who used self-checkout. (Too bad I hate Tootsie Rolls.) By then, having forgotten that I'd finally found my stash of gloves when unpacking that morning, my hands were so cold they felt more like claws, barely able to grasp a book.

Bright side: At least I got some fresh air and exercise while stumbling upon the locally celebrated Pow-Wow Heritage Tree. Dark side: I miss summer and dream about skipping town.

11.27.2014

a Clackamas County Thanksgiving for two

simple Thanksgiving table, 2014

This may have been my most relaxed Thanksgiving ever and certainly one of the smallest and quietest, just the housemate and me. There was no company to entertain, nothing to dress up for—only a morning of doing laundry, tossing a ball down the hall over and over to please my cat, prepping casseroles, and slipping dirty dishes into the dishwasher. The housemate's family was either out of town or otherwise engaged. My family is down in southern Oregon. So we cooked for two. The best part of Thanksgiving, anyway, is the leftovers.

Funnily enough, he didn't want to be bothered with wrangling a whole turkey just for himself (me being vegetarian), so he roasted a chicken instead the night before and made himself some boxed-mix stuffing and homemade gravy, as well as a big bowl of roasted-garlic mashed potatoes with fresh thyme. I made a butternut squash gratin, roasted Brussels sprouts, and a double batch of the ubiquitous American green bean casserole (only my family always adds grated cheddar). Oven roasting is my favorite cooking method, by the way—all that toasty flavor for so little effort.


Thanksgiving plate on secondhand Dansk dish, 2014

Since neither of us much likes pie other than pecan, for dessert—which we also ate as an appetizer while waiting for the vegetables to roast, having skipped breakfast—I'd whipped up a batch of cranberry-corn muffins, a tweak of an old Martha Stewart blueberry-muffin recipe. (For substitutions, use three whole eggs, half a cup of butter, and a variety of whole-grain flours, including one-third cornmeal, mixing the wet cranberries with extra sugar, and sprinkling the wet muffin tops with raw sugar before baking.) It's almost like eating cake.

Listening to NPR while cooking, I heard a story about Northwest cranberry producers having a hard time breaking even these days, the cranberry market flooded with oversupply. The cranberries I used were indeed Northwest grown but had been stashed in the freezer for a year (and were still good). So let's all eat up more cranberries, which not only taste sour-lovely and look like rubies but also help prevent UTI's. At just two dollars a pound, we can support local coastal fruit growers and boost kidney function at the same time!


cranberry-corn muffins

As for gratitude this year, I'm grateful for my furry tabby, who squeaks instead of meows and acts younger than her age; for a warm home out of the rain and a bedroom without a spare freezer in it; for recently halving my expenses; for a paid holiday in which to cook and putter around the house; for my few good friends and for now living with one of them; and for the chance to, in a way, start over, yet again. So I toast you with my glass of Martinelli's sparkling cider: Happy Thanksgiving! And thank you.

11.13.2014

good-bye, downtown: hello, small town

old brick apartment building aside new construction (April 2014)

Good-bye, downtown Portland and quaint old brick apartment building. I'll miss your original hardwood floors, public squares, walking conveniences, and ready public transport. I won't miss your construction noise, rising rents, or major earthquake hazards—or the Multnomah County Arts Tax, which should have just been tacked onto property taxes like everything else. (If you can afford to lease a house from a bank for 30 years, you can be the ones who hand over a little extra money for finger paint, clay, and a few more certified teachers. Some of those kids at the low-income school in NoPo I work at also need rain boots, winter coats, and parents who don't let them watch Walking Dead or Sharknado at age seven, but that may be asking too much from taxpayers.)


original hex-tile entrance with blown seed pods (downtown Portland, April 2014)


evening building shadows with birds (downtown Portland, July 2014)

Anyway, so I'm all moved. To celebrate, I took my first official suburban outing as a Gladstone resident the other evening when we walked to the post office and the grocery store. I now live in a small town swallowed up by an expanding metropolis, population 11,500. The police and fire departments, city hall, post office, and library are all more or less in the same block. I dare you to find a sidewalk in the residential areas. Night walks require flashlights. And the predominant profession in town seems to be barber/hair dresser. I've escaped Portland's gentrifiers, at least; Gladstone's too far away from the city center for hipsters.


varied downtown Portland architecture at sunset (September 2014)


hail on hotel luggage cart from downtown café window (April 2014)


downtown rainbow, March 2014 (iPhone photo)


downtown Portland construction (July 2014)

The new place itself, a low-ceilinged 1980s duplex with washer-and-dryer, dishwasher, and garbage disposal in unit as well as a water heater right next to the bathroom instead of three floors of old rusty pipes down—hot heaven, sweet bliss!—is a mess, stacked boxes piled everywhere like some kind of hillside Brazilian shantytown. I'm sleeping in an old military mummy bag, waiting for my night-owl friend and new housemate to refinish the mid-century bed and dresser we did a trade for and that he'd promised would be done by the time I moved in. On the plus side, he cooks all the meals and even packs my lunches, unasked—perks I didn't even have when I was married!


eastbound TriMet bus sign (June 2014)

Also a bonus, my newly-frisky cat currently lives in a Cat Wonderland of hidey-holes and towering tunnels. But I still haven't figured out where she naps, she doesn't come when called, and I'm terrified she's going to slip into the secondhand Miele dryer when I'm not looking. (I knew a family growing up in my hometown whose cat got roasted that way—in the dryer amid a load of warm towels.) She could also slink outside when our backs are turned and get decapitated by the family of raccoons that prowls the driveway in the wee hours. But other than the fear of murdered cat and my terribly long commute, things are going fine in our little alternative family. Any stray bits of mothering instinct fall on my tabby, who eats carpet fuzz. Pictures of the new town will follow eventually, when things at home start looking a little less cardboard shack.

11.08.2014

thrifty moving

used moving boxes via Craigslist

The other day, I did an actual count and realized I've lived in at least 21 separate dwellings so far in my early-middle-aged life. That means I've almost doubled the American average of 11.7 moves, with additional household moves still ahead. So to me the moving process feels almost normal: Here I go again. I suspect the wanderer bug runs in my genes.

As a college student, I made use of my mom and step-dad for their helping hands, car trunks, and truck beds, packing things up with free newspaper and needing only a few boxes because of not owning more than a bedroom's worth of stuff, plus some basic kitchen and toiletry items. (Newsprint I later stopped using since it smudges everything—hands, glasses, vases—and moving is dirty enough, but at least newspaper is cheap or even free.)


shadows on used moving box

Then when I was married, I did what most lower-middle-class Americans do when moving: I went to U-Haul and bought a box of pristine packing paper, new plastic mattress bags, and sets of small, medium, and large brand-new moving boxes, packed the stuff up myself, and then paid movers to heft it up or down stairs and into and out of the rental truck because the ex and I had few local friends to ask for help, and our families were scattered across different states, mine at least seven hours away. (A big burly mover wearing a back support one time asked me as he was carrying a big cabinet on his back down a set of stairs to always please unload my filing cabinets before moving, for which I still feel mortified.) We did that a couple times, paying for movers. I believe it cost around $2,000 for us to move up from the Bay Area to Portland in 2007, which to me now is a mind-blowing amount but was definitely less than what our possessions were worth used—though not a lot less. Yet it was still cheaper to move them than replace them, which is the most important thing to consider when moving: Is the stuff worth less than it costs to store or move? (Rich people can of course just pay other people to do their dirty work for them. But paying for storage units is just silly; a storage unit means a person has too much stuff.)


woven baskets (natural storage)

But then my personal and financial circumstances changed. I returned to begging for boxes from grocery stores, which worked out okay, though such boxes are not made for household moving, sometimes containing air-holes; plus, things like banana boxes might contain dried-on sticky fruit juices. Liquor and wine boxes are much better for moving than produce boxes, both stronger and cleaner; though on the small side, they're at least easier for someone like me to carry herself. Grocery stores will also give away larger boxes that once held things like paper towels and toilet paper. But the begging process can take time and multiple trips to multiple stores on select days specific to different stores.

What's even better is using Craigslist to find free boxes. You can certainly pay for used boxes and packing materials on Craigslist and save money compared to buying them new, and for some, this is the easiest way to go: one big load and twenty dollars up front. But if you have more time than money and temporary access to a large vehicle, you can also find people willing to give their boxes away for free just because they want them out of their garage "TODAY!!!" or simply to be generous. That is community reuse.


free Craigslist moving box

The free boxes and packing paper I've gotten on Craigslist are invariably clean. (Dirty ones, of course, I just wouldn't use. Do double-check any boxes labeled "kitchen" or "bathroom" for stains, as they might have contained seeping liquids.) Cardboard boxes are made to be reused multiple times, so it's not only cheaper to do so for the individual but better for the environment: fewer trees needing chopping, fewer chemicals polluting the waterways, and so on. I used to store my moving boxes whenever I had the space, knowing I'd need them again. But since, as long as the global economy keeps tick-tock-time-bombing along, there will always be a fresh crop of moving boxes, it's better to free up that living space and declutter by passing those used boxes on to someone else in a big reuse cycle.

I've been sitting here writing this morning in a mostly empty apartment (while I should have been packing), sunlight streaming in the main window. I downsized a queen mattress through the magic of Craigslist into a full-size futon to free up a little bedroom space. I'm selling off the pricey vintage chocolate velvet mohair down-wrapped sofa and instead bought a funky ethnic-print cotton velour sofa for cheap from my favorite thrift store (no, it doesn't have bugs, and yes, we're steam-cleaning it), one I won't worry so much about ruining and that's deeper and better for lounging, though still in my favorite tuxedo style. Most of my furniture has been or will be sold off and the remainder—the metro shelving, woven storage baskets, the teak bookcase, a small wooden chest, a couple lamps, a few mirrors and pictures, my plants—moved in multiple trailer loads over a few weeks on evenings between rainstorms. (Though I usually try to move house during the summer when the weather's clear, this particular move was unexpected and poorly timed, so we've had to dodge clouds.)

It's a major boon having a good friend who's a furniture refinisher with big muscles, a hand truck, moving dollies, and his own trailer. A former teacher, Jeff half-jokes that in his new reseller profession he's just a glorified furniture mover. But this way, I didn't have to rent a truck. In between packing up my kitchen, I'll be planning how to pay him back—maybe partially in back rubs.


red geranium (November 4, 2014)

Moving house is chaotic and stressful, no matter how organized we are. Personally, moving always makes me feel inadequate—not strong enough, not energetic enough, not minimal enough. No matter how much stuff I sell or give away, when faced with all those stacked boxes, it still feels like I have far too much, my mind scrolling through cultural metaphors of drowning and being weighted down. Possessions are literally weighty, their mass felt every time we lift a box—physics in action.

But even though the process is hard—living in limbo for weeks, hands roughening like sandpaper, muscles straining, the to-do list a mile long—I appreciate moving house regularly because it forces me to reexamine my life as evidenced in my possessions. Our stuff is proof of who we are or were or want to be: our interests, taste, personalities, and propensities. Why keep stuff for a dropped hobby? Or, in reverse, where's the stuff for the hobby we've always wanted to try? Do our belongings represent the life we want to be living? Do we like the life we're living now? That's worth some extra self-reflection.

So for me, it's the staying in one place beyond a couple years that starts to feel weird. Eventually I'd like to change that. I'd like to feel at home somewhere, put down roots, grow a garden, collect more friends—all while reducing my overall acquisition of stuff. This last month, amid all the downsizing, I've been devouring library books on tiny and hand-built houses, books by Lloyd Kahn, Dee Williams, Paul Oliver, Ryan Mitchell. In giving up so much of the furnishings Americans are trained by corporate marketers to buy out of manufactured need (You are full of holes: Fill them with purchases), I seek a light at the end of this messy tunnel—a little dream home to make real.

11.02.2014

too much stuff

wooden message blocks via the Goodwill Outlet

As I write this, I'm sitting with my tabby cat on a shared vintage floor pillow woven with real fur strips and wool (and she very obviously doesn't have a problem with dead-animal fur because she sits on this thing as much as she can, now that the sofa is gone), using my former entryway trunk for a table. Empty used boxes and huge bags of preowned packing paper line the walls. Half of the stuff visible in my recent apartment tour posts is by now already gone: either moved to my new place, sold off, or soon-to-be-sold.

Life's a work in progress, right? But that includes our changing mindsets and philosophies. Sometimes as the years tick along, priorities change. As much as I've enjoyed collecting all this pretty stuff, I am now facing having to offload much of it. I'll essentially be moving a one-bedroom apartment into one bedroom since my friend currently has a two-bedroom apartment full of his own stuff. I'm just lucky he's being flexible and agreeable and willing to sell off some of his own less-than-loved belongings. (It helps that he's a vintage reseller used to turnover.)

The problem with owning stuff, even thrifty, somewhat sophisticated vintage stuff, is that it accumulates almost as fast as the dust bunnies under my former chocolate mohair sofa where the vacuum head didn't reach. Shopping in thrift stores and buying secondhand things that mostly were made in the USA way back in the day when America still made things doesn't remove me from the consumerist loop. Even living in a modest 500 square feet, I was still buying stuff I didn't need to fill space I didn't use to fit a certain standard aesthetic, i.e., because otherwise the place would "look funny."

In the developed world, it's so easy to acquire things. That's what drives American consumer culture, the bulk of our GDP. It's much harder getting rid of those things. Faced with that workload, I initially felt overwhelmed—depressed, even—by all I owned that needed to be sold, though it became easier when taken piece by piece, one Craigslist posting at a time.

Once I'd made the decision to share housing again with the goal of saving to own my own small (or tiny) home outright, I began looking at all the stuff in this apartment through that lens. It's like when a kaleidoscope pattern shifts with just one turn or click. So much had been bought (thriftily, yes) just to fill space rather than because it was actually used or needed, despite in-denial protestations to the contrary. Did I really need seven large vintage mirrors? Did I need a whole queen-sized bed for just one petite person? Did I actually require a dining table if I ate most meals on the coffee table and never had more than one friend over at a time, despite daydreams of hosting dinner parties? Did I need a vintage secretary hutch if I always did my writing feet-up on the sofa? Did I need the armchair I never sat in? Did I need a whole long closet full of clothes and shoes? Obviously, no.

Suddenly, every time I walked past something I owned that I didn't really love, I'd pick it up and set it in a large basket that had become the get-rid-of pile, which quickly morphed into two piles, and then three. At the same time, I began posting bigger items—furniture and furnishings like lamps, pictures, and mirrors—on Craigslist, figuring if they sold, that would be one less thing to move. I have nothing against donating to charity shops or using consignment stores for resale. I have a small bag headed for Goodwill myself. But in the past, all that stuff would have just been donated to Goodwill. Then years later I learned (lightbulb!) I could take the better quality stuff to a local consignment resale shop, with hopes to recoup a fraction of the cost.

But this time (bigger lightbulb!), I'm selling my unwanted stuff myself piece by piece for a profit, even though it takes more time. Why? Because I can. Because I have time. Because I have a better grasp now of what secondhand things are actually worth. Because I want the money more than I want the stuff. This should be the price, anyway, for buying things we don't really love or change our minds about later: finding a good home for something in the hands of someone who wants and will use it. Though I've always culled my possessions regularly, doing it larger-scale feels almost reckless, certainly counter-culture, and somehow more freeing—this time especially since I don't intend to replace the stuff I'm getting rid of (with a couple of notable exceptions). That is downsizing.

And you know what? This process has actually been making me feel happier. Each Craigslist buyer has come to my building really wanting whatever it's been that I'm selling: a big funky lamp, a vase, a chair, a mirror, a coffee table. The transactions have involved meeting new people face-to-face, even for just a bare minute, and shown me that most people are basically decent—despite how flaky some people on Craigslist can be—and that the ones who communicate well and show up when scheduled are more or less like me, and we're all just trying to make life a little nicer for ourselves and our families.

Another large benefit of collecting and selling in the secondhand market is that older things tend to hold or even increase their value compared to cheaply made newer things (think IKEA products). So far, I've made a modest profit on everything I've sold. As my reseller friend Jeff said the other day, "You've already become a vintage reseller without even trying." Who knew? Now I've got a new side gig.

What's funny in all this is that I could easily have chosen a studio apartment in this building and saved myself $135 a month in the last fifteen months (i.e., $2,015), if it weren't for my dining table. When I think back on it now, having a big housing decision (studio versus one-bedroom) like that hinge on one piece of furniture seems more than a little silly, though it wasn't just the dining table but what the dining table represented—dinner parties with friends—and the fact that I would gain two walls of windows instead of one wall and thus double the light, which for me was huge. But was it worth $2,015? These are the kind of questions more of us should be asking ourselves: Is it (whatever I'm spending my life doing) worth it?

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