1.31.2015

what I'm liking this weekend

sunlit dining room (housemate's hand-me-down mid-century modern dining set + vintage lamp)

  • sunshine . . . in January . . . in Portland, Oregon
  • gift-return policies
  • clean sheets via our thrift-store Miele washer/dryer
  • leftover homemade mushroom pizza alongside baby spring greens
  • wishes for a printed Fog Linen zippered Bonica pouch
  • daydreams of a studio space like this
  • the new battery for my old watch
  • shopping from the mending and ironing pile
  • how the alligator pear became the avocado
  • my new Lola natural-bristle dish brush (replacing this)
  • alternative Super Bowl Sundays
  • three-day weekends!

1.24.2015

used piano

secondhand Yamaha PSR-195 keyboard

No matter the downsizing, humans need a certain amount of stuff just to live—at minimum, a roof for shelter, clothing and bedding, various tools, and a cooking pot—it's all part of the bargain for giving up full-body hair and fiddling with fire. And though not yet a minimalist, I'm actually happier with my stuff now that I've pared it down to just the things I like and use most (with the caveat that my entire kitchen is currently boxed up in the garage, waiting for the day I have my own place again).

But the search for used stuff has for me the last few months gotten a lot less interesting as Something to Do on a Saturday Afternoon. It's almost a maxim that the less often one visits thrift stores, the more crap they seem to have, tchotchkes like carved wooden camels missing half a leg, dirty rugs, chipped plates. The flaws magnify, spread. Or maybe it's that after thrifting weekly for years, the offerings all start looking the same—another broken knickknack, another dirty rug, yet another chipped plate. Or it could be I'm just tired of squeezing past the piles stacked here in the hallway between the main room and the bathroom of things still needing to be photographed, uploaded, and sold off.

But I'd like to think this secondhand ennui is because I've evolved, shifting into wanting more experiences than things. If I were charting it, my level of new experiences the last few years has dipped lake-bottom low. Post-divorce poverty and high gas prices haven't helped—no more bed-and-breakfasts in the countryside over long weekends, no day trips up to the mountains or down to the coast in search of snow or waterfalls or sand. Pathetic. Dull.

OPEC to the rescue! Gas prices have fallen to $1.99 a gallon here lately in Portland, an oil refinery desert, because the Arabian sheikhs are so flush with cash they can undercut the market and steamroll over Venezuelan protestations in efforts to hobble the emerging North American fracking industry (which was its own fuck you to the Saudis). But who cares about blowing through the remaining oil reserves, melting the ice caps, and advancing the Sixth Extinction? Low gas prices means as soon as my housemate's burnt leg is back to normal, I might once again be able to head up to the mountains some weekend, possibly for some first-time snowshoeing. (Horseback is no longer really an option under highway conditions and technically I would be carpooling.)

Yet of course objects versus experiences presents a false dichotomy. Particular objects are required for certain experiences: think a whisk and an oven for baking, a surfboard for surfing, a suitcase or backpack and a map for travel, lumps of clay and a wheel for pottery making, a pad and pen (or a stick and some dirt) for drawing, tools and wood for woodworking, and so on.

And since one of the things on my bucket list is playing the piano in a casual, mediocre way—after lazy dawdling instead of practicing over the few months I had lessons as a child (because I didn't want to repeat stupid scales, I wanted to produce whole bright songs) and then tinkering a bit on my own during high school with my grandmother's hand-me-down piano that smelled like secondhand cigarette smoke—I would need a piano. But I have no room for a real piano. My younger sister, who copied my tinkering and somehow turned learning to read music and play the clarinet in band into becoming a church pianist and organ accompanist, all without private lessons, has an expensive digital piano at home for practice. I've secretly been wanting one of my own, for more tinkering. As with daily crosswords, playing music exercises the brain. Plus, like yoga, cooking, or knitting, it just feels good, the body's senses engaged. Our combinations of hobbies make us who we are, don't they? And I've been watching way too many well written, entertaining television series lately for downtime; the problem with TV is its passivity and inactivity. Television in excess lets us avoid life. Tick-tock goes the clock.

So downtown after work one Friday on the way home, after stopping into William Temple House Thrift Store for the first time in weeks, I spotted an electric piano on a stand over by the furniture section. And because my stamp card with them was full, I got the piano for a mere five dollars, after using up a $25 gift certificate. It doesn't have 88 weighted keys or even a sustain pedal (yet), but it is a Yamaha. And after a good cleaning, it's possibly better than new because it was almost free. So here's to using objects for new—or newly dusted off—experiences.



Edited to add: I ended up reselling the keyboard because it didn't have 88 keys. Real pianos are best. Lesson learned.

1.10.2015

field trip: Lan Su Chinese Garden in winter

winter koi pond reflections, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Having lived in Portland for over seven years now, I've seen most of the city's handful of paid tourist attractions at least once: OMSI, the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Craft, the Oregon Zoo, the Japanese Garden, the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden. Being poor, I mostly visit on the occasional public free days. But I'd never visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden till this week when I learned they were offering free tickets with canned-food donations to the Oregon Food Bank. So I did a little stopover downtown on the way home from work, walked the few blocks to the walled park, and dropped off two cans of evaporated milk, gaining entry from two smiling attendants bundled up for the cold.


(unknown plant), Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


emerging leaf bud, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


mossy pebbled path, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


rose hips against the pond, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Frankly, I've never felt an affinity to Chinese culture or aesthetics (not to mention its top-down, dissent-silencing politics, which has even been creeping into U.S. academia through Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes), at least as translated by most Chinese-American restaurants, which is how most Americans experience China—though the Chinese do have a way with the wok to produce perfectly crisp-tender vegetables. (And yes, I have visited China, if five days in Hong Kong and Macau during a typhoon in the late 1990s counts.) I don't believe in fortune-tellers, auspicious numbers, eating tiger penises for virility, blessings bestowed by first-born sons, or rooms decked from floor-to-ceiling in garish lucky red and gold. Confucius was far too patriarchal for feminist tastes, influencing various cultural misogynies such as concubinage, foot binding, and the current Chinese gender imbalance—excess young men nicknamed "bare branches"—as a result of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions, as in India. It's also regrettable ecologically that Chinese skies are thick with coal and other toxins in their efforts to modernize, the country (along with India) now hoarding the bulk of the factories of the globalized world. Ironic then that above Portland's Lan Su Chinese Garden on Wednesday, the skies were not even rain-cloud-gray as usual but a crisp clear blue.


drooping (willow?) tree against tiled roof, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


tree leaf buds in sun, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


dwarf Camellia 'Winter's Rose', Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


Camellia close-up, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Fortunately, in the Lan Su Garden, the focus is on the plants, lovely even when bare-branched in chilly January. I walked the stone paths amid the crowd, dodging children and couples snapping self-portraits on their phones, the garden comprising one small city block, walled to the outside like traditional Chinese compounds, its designers having created a maze of rooms with upswept-tile roofs lining the interior and a large pond crossing the center on a diagonal. Skipping the gift shop and tea room, I looked for koi but found none, some apparently having been killed by low temperatures last winter; perhaps the garden directors had given the fish temporary shelter elsewhere, large koi being rather pricey to replace, or maybe the fish were just hiding. On the east side of the garden, I sat on a chilled concrete bench finishing the last few pages of a library book, watching a hummingbird perched unmoving in the tree above me, more still than any hummingbird I'd ever seen, almost frozen in place, until it flew clicking across the courtyard and began to sip from a camellia blossom.


Camellia profile, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


herringbone path, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) branches against curved doorway, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

In that same garden, near the Covered Walk to Celestial Hall of Permeating Fragrance (Westerners could never dream up such cloying names) I was arrested—literally stopped in my tracks—by the delicate sweet fragrance of something like jasmine or honeysuckle (in the dead of winter!), which my nose followed to a pale-yellow-flowered bush around the corner called wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), blossoms the Chinese once used, like lavender in the West, to scent linens.


flowering Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)


Flying Dragon, aka Japanese Bitter Orange (Poncirus trifoliata), Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

In Portland's Chinese Garden, at least, flora trumps politics. And rare free days for American public museums and gardens are indeed lucky—though such places should really be free to citizens year-round. If the U.S. withdrew from all its preemptive wars and shuttered its military bases in the developed world, it would have money for trifles such as free museums (as in the UK) and a national health care system, like England's, Canada's, and Australia's. Maybe it takes the fall of an Empire—like America into the deepening pockets of China—for priorities to shift and a more mature civilization to appear. Till then, all one needs is to offer up a yearly can of food to the gods of capitalism.

1.03.2015

15+ tips for selling on Craigslist

bare tree at dusk (December 2014)

Since moving (temporarily) to the suburbs in November, I seem to be photographing nothing but trees. They and the geese feeding down by the river are the best things here in the land of strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and car lots. Nature is formed with branches, tentacles, dendrites, fingers, estuaries—ways to connect with other things. Trees use and store our carbon, exhaling oxygen, the stuff of mammalian life, give and take—something like Craigslist, the updated techno version of newspaper want-ads or community bulletin board, with some folks selling and others buying, discarding and accumulating, round and round. (Ironic then that in the background on the TV in front of me glows a postmodern version of a fireplace, complete with crackling sounds, digital conflagration of wood.)

Craigslist (CL) is proof that even city dwellers are interconnected in community, living among so many other strangers just like them, performing the same kinds of actions, wanting and acquiring the same kinds of things. Craigslist also shows that material goods can have a much longer lifespan than corporations and their marketers would have us believe in their efforts to perpetuate the buy-use-dump cycle. Developed-world economies are addicted to growth, to new production via the rapacious use of Earth's resources—hollowing out mountains, chopping down forests, polluting the air and water supply—which all depends on citizens identifying primarily as consumers and debt-spending most of their meager incomes on goods and services they can't afford.


Portland Craigslist homepage screenshot

While downsizing the last few months, I've sold more items on Craigslist than ever before, making me not exactly expert but experienced. The goal hasn't been to get rich through selling off unwanted household items (it's not like I'm selling nontraditional mortgages or derivatives!) but to become more streamlined while not losing money, to own what's both beautiful and everyday useful, thereby rejecting the massive number of objects that aren't (or are simply too much of a good thing). It's another way of saying, "No, thank you" to consumer culture.


bought & sold on CL: Marcato Atlas 150 pasta machine

I am proud of having made it through the gauntlet that is the American holiday shopping season with a net loss of stuff: coffee table, armchair, mirror, painting, dining table, lamp, pasta maker, and more all gone. The few items I did add to my possessions were thoughtfully purchased, more or less needed but certainly wanted, and justified by offloading a larger amount of stuff I no longer want back into the reuse stream (via Craigslist, Goodwill, and in the near future, eBay). Net reduction and increased savings—those are the linked objectives.


sold on CL: vintage oil painting

Here's just one example of how this worked. I had decided to downsize my bed from a queen mattress to a full-size futon to free up a bit more bedroom space (futons are also easier than mattresses to wrangle when moving or changing bedding). My mattress was a free family hand-me-down, and since because of its age (late 80's) it wasn't worth much of anything, I offered it up (unstained) for free on Craigslist, where it was snatched up almost immediately; my reseller friend Jeff then dropped it off nearby for a delivery fee worth his time (i.e, a small profit). Win-win.

Meanwhile, I'd found a full futon on a sturdy metal frame off Craigslist for $100; the description had listed the item as being a high-quality futon made by a local company, which had been used only occasionally in a guest room and that the sellers now wanted to downsize immediately in their new house. As a result, the price was reasonable and they were happy to see it go, as they'd already bought a new twin futon and frame for their tiny spare room. (No joke—Jeff was tying my futon down onto his trailer while we watched the couple carry their new smaller futon from their car into the house.) The full futon was spotless, barely used, at the exact quality level I had wanted, and was even made by the same local company, Cotton Cloud, I had considered buying new from—but was a few hundred dollars cheaper than it would have been brand-new. Win-win.


sold on CL: vintage gold velvet chair & vintage ceramic herringbone lamp

However, I didn't want the futon frame or its seafoam-green cover, so up they went on Craigslist as a set. But when that didn't attract any inquiries within a week, I reposted the cover and frame separately. Bingo. The clean-condition cover sold for $30, far less than they cost new. The frame alone (which through research I'd learned had cost about $300 new) took a few weeks to sell after the price was dropped to $80 to a family wanting to spiff up a spare room for holiday guests by lifting their existing mattress up off the floor. (On the same day, I'd also gotten an offer of $20 over the asking price, plus a delivery fee, but for convenience I chose the buyer willing to pick it up.) Win-win.

In other words, because of Craigslist, I offloaded an old mattress and made $25 (or Jeff did, rather) and replaced it with a barely used, high-quality futon and made $10. Tell me what store will pay customers to take away their merchandise. That's the magic of Craigslist, though not nearly as exciting an anecdote as the paperclip-turned-house story.


sold on CL: vintage oval mirror

So for those weary of overstuffed homes and empty savings accounts, I offer the following basic tips for selling on Craigslist, in no particular order:

  • Use a Craigslist account. This will save all kinds of time with a record of one's posts for editing, renewing, and reposting. The Craigslist interface isn't perfect (e.g., saving drafts would be nice), but who can complain when it's free?
  • Write succinct descriptive phrases. Unless this is an antique or vintage item with a unique personal story, avoid relating where it comes from or why it's no longer wanted unless that information proves the thing was hardly ever used (even better if it was your grandfather's but never used). Nobody cares about ownership history unless it's a car. Secondhand buyers would rather pretend whatever they're buying is virtually new and dusty only from sitting at the back of a closet in its original box.
  • Edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Who wants to deal with someone who sounds like an idiot? As proof from the seller's side, here's an actual texted conversation (probably with a second-language speaker but still confusing) about an item I was selling in December:
Potential Buyer: How much is the low [sic] you can sale [sic] the pasta machine [sic]
Me: That's a firm price. Thanks for asking.
Potential Buyer:  How far you [sic] live from 185 in Beaverton / I'm thinking to [sic] buy it [sic]
Me: I'm between Milwaukie & Oregon City in Gladstone, right near the 205 freeway, near the intersection between [X & Y]. I don't know Beaverton well, but if you're talking about Village 185, Google maps says it would be about 40 minutes, if taking 205 (depending on traffic). Would that work for you? I'll be available anytime after 5 pm tonight or tomorrow. [Note that I'm doing all this person's research for them and my approximate address was already mapped in my CL listing.]
Potential Buyer: Oo sorry to [sic[ far [sic] next time this bey [sic]
Me: [thinking, WTF?!] No problem. Good luck in your search. 
  • Take good photos in natural light whenever possible. They'll help the item stand out in the crowd, also hinting that the seller has taste, pays attention to detail, and takes care of his or her belongings. Offer multiple angles.
  • Note any flaws up front. No one likes that type of surprise. It will save hassles and haggles down the road.


sold on CL: vintage Rival Crock-Pot with lid chip

  • Price items competitively. That will require some quick research to see what prices others are asking for similar items. If you are confident of the market value, remain firm. But do expect to make less on CL than what items may sell for on eBay simply because the local market is smaller, unless you happen to live in a large metropolitan area.
  • Expect a little bargaining and price accordingly. Some people will pay the stated price unquestioned—especially if they know it's already a good deal—but many will ask for a discount. It all depends on the item's current value and how quickly you need it gone.
  • Include a range of contact information. Some people prefer using the phone, others e-mail, and still others texts. Give buyers contact options as well as a first name. Don't assume everyone's a stalker or ax murderer. Most people are decent and more or less like you or me.
  • Be safe. Try to meet in public. When I lived in an apartment, I met buyers downstairs in the lobby or in front of the building, carrying items down to them whenever possible, or else planned to have a friend over at the meeting time. It also helped that most buyers brought a friend with them and didn't come alone. If the item is too big to haul around easily, ensure housemates or neighbors are around within earshot.
  • Expect flakes. Many people on Craigslist act rudely, either not replying to messages or, the more egregious social error, not showing up as scheduled and not acknowledging the breach in etiquette with an explanation or apology. Sadly, it's all part of the process. Never assume any inquiry, series of "I love it! I want it!" e-mails or texts, or even a scheduled appointment will lead to an actual sale, but do meet obligations on your own side. Karma will out. Lowering expectations will reduce disappointment if things don't work out, and often they don't until they do. There's always another buyer later, in the right venue.
  • Deal locally and don't hold items any longer than a day or two. First-come, first-served (cash only) should be the only policy. I've had the worst luck with people living outside the metro area because, while Craigslist sales are always uncertain, longer physical distances inevitably increase the risk of transportation issues, delays, and someone backing out. Stay local! (This also eliminates most scams.)
  • Keep listings live until the sale goes through. Never delete a posting or let a posting expire until the money is in hand and the deal is done—similar to not calling off a job hunt after just one interview. If a sale falls through, other potential buyers could already be lined up and waiting in the wings.


sold on CL: West Elm vase

  • Model decent behavior using the Golden Rule. Respond promptly. Be fair and honest. Don't flake. 
  • Sell bigger items first (unless making quick money is the goal, in which case, sell the most valuable things first). If the goal is clearing out the garage or attic or spare bedroom, for example, start with the biggest thing—like an old trunk, unused ping-pong table, or spare sofa—to begin freeing up physical space. Focusing on moving the biggest (or most expensive) pieces will make the most impact and motivate further culling and selling.
  • Part pieces out, if selling something as a set isn't working. More money can be made this way. Someone might want one piece and someone else another. (See the futon frame/cover story above.)
  • Be patient. Items might take weeks or even months to sell. Drop prices each week when reposting, if necessary, and if something never attracts any attention—no inquiries at all—consider alternate options: eBay, garage sale, or possible charity donation. Even one inquiry on an item means it will most likely sell eventually.
  • Expect redundant questions. Even if the answer is already right there in the item listing, such as measurements or location, you still may receive questions on that point, further proof that many people no longer read in any detail.
  • Live in a central location or keep the item there, if at all possible. My CL sales dropped dramatically once I moved away from downtown, which was centrally located, out to the suburbs. I've lost a few sales simply from being "too far" away (like 40 minutes—see the text conversation above) from the buyer.
  • Offer delivery, if feasible. Delivery is also occasionally requested even when not offered since not everyone owns a vehicle or a large enough vehicle. Being flexible on this point can increase the odds of sales, especially on larger items or if non-centrally located.

Anyone else have any good Craigslist resale stories or tips to share? 

Despite all my Craigslist sales and dwindling piles over the last few months, I do still have several boxes and bags full of smaller stuff to sell on eBay, the next venue. Stay tuned for further adventures in secondhand resale. And good luck with your own!

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