welcome to cancer

wild sweet pea bouquet

This is about the last thing I ever expected to be talking about to an unidentified number of anonymous strangers, especially when I am not anonymous. But I have breast cancer. And it's hard to pretend otherwise, even if it means opening up a door I'd rather not enter. Cancer simply takes over, wrests away control—or maybe only the illusion of control.

It's like I've been grabbed unwilling and pushed into a raft floating down a river. I don't know where I'm going or how bumpy the rapids will be or how long the trip will take or whether I'll make it all the way out to the big open sea. Right now I'm just in the middle of the stream, high up in the mountains, and I can't get out of the boat. It's easy to ask, Why me? I'm the one who doesn't smoke, drink, or do drugs, the one who walks a lot, avoids caffeine and meat, eats plenty of vegetables, beans, nuts, and healthy oils, takes daily vitamins, and visits the doctor for preventative care, the one who rescues house spiders—WTF? But I don't know that there is a why. One theory is a period of acute stressors. But no one knows. Lots of people are stressed and don't get cancer. Or maybe I've killed too many ants.

You never think such things will happen to you, though awful things happen to people every day: car accidents, shootings, rapes, beatings, natural disasters, trips and falls, toddlers found floating in pools—let alone all the nasty diseases that can sprout within the body or jump between bodies. Sometimes the unthinkable does happen. And then you're marked, set apart from everyone else—given notice. It has already begun shifting my perspective. Though we are all, in a way, the walking dead, some of us are . . . more so.

A lifetime is finite. Cancer is scary because it taps you on the shoulder and whispers, "You will die." I don't know when. None of us does. But it will happen. Everyone we love will die. And nobody wants to think about that. Nobody wants to hear about cancer. I certainly didn't. Those were the articles I didn't read, the news programs I avoided. I'm already bored of the topic, and it's only just begun. Yet death is what gives meaning to all the simple little things, all the small beauties and pleasures around us. Thinking about death can help us live in the present, instead of sleepwalking, to remember and choose what's most important—which, usually, is other people.

So I'll spare you the gory details. But this is happening. And it's changing me.


summer drink of choice: iced peppermint tea

peppermint tea with ice crystals

What gets me through hot summer days is not the Cuban mojito, the colonial British gin and tonic, or even classic Southern sweet tea, but an icy glass of unsweetened peppermint tea. It's all I'm wanting to drink lately (because one should not live on grapefruit soda). And it's easy.

I boil enough water in the microwave for a couple tall glasses, sticking a teabag inside the cold water up front (since I have a habit of forgetting about hot water in the microwave and remembering only when everything's gone tepid). But if you have a kettle that whistles like a freight train and you prefer the stovetop, go right ahead and brew it in a pretty teapot.

chilled peppermint herb tea

Since I've been off caffeine for a couple years now for health reasons (it makes my heart race), this brew-and-leave-it-to-cool method is even better for a longer steeping of herbs that would be a negative done with true tea, long steepings only making Camellia sinensis bitter. My favorite herbal tea is Oregon-grown peppermint, found easily from companies like Portland's Stash Tea or Colorado's Celestial Seasonings but which could also be brewed from loose-leaf herbs—maybe even from mint grown in one's own yard! Mint is a known summer refresher, though of course equally tasty when steaming hot in winter.

If you prefer sweetened tea, feel free to add a little honey while the water's hot. I find the mint has an innate sweetness needing nothing else.

When the brewed herbal tea has gone lukewarm or even warm (but not hot), I'll pour it into glasses and stick them in the freezer where it will freeze solid and the glass will go all misty and opaque. Then I'll rotate my batches of tea from the freezer to the refrigerator or counter as needed.

It's been so hot off and on this summer—thanks to another world-record-breaking year for heat—that even a completely frozen glass of tea will melt fairly quickly, enough for me to sip slowly, watching the ice core bobbing in the center of the glass. No need for ice cubes! How's that for a nice trick that, with any luck, will also remind everyone that the world's glaciers and ice sheets are all melting?

cold peppermint tea: thawed (left) & frozen (right)

So I hereby nominate peppermint tea as the official Northwest drink above craft beers and small-batch locally roasted coffee, ready to soothe, comfort, and enliven us year-round, even through the massive overdue earthquake everyone's talking about (yet again) when we're all drinking from rivers and rain barrels and cutting down every tree in town for fuel. Dried peppermint would be a lightweight, cheap addition to any emergency kit.


file cabinets for bedroom storage

bedroom: metro shelving & file cabinets

The other day I talked about the option of replacing traditional dressers with steel metro shelving units for increased storage and flexibility. But what if you don't like the shiny commercial-kitchen look of the chrome wire and tubing? Here's another option: standard metal file cabinets.

Filing cabinets can be picked up secondhand at most thrift stores, usually for under $20, depending on condition. HON is an enduring, quality American brand, though vintage defunct brands can also be found with luck or patience.

While the two black filing cabinets in my bedroom (gleaned for free from a former employer upgrading their office furniture) store paper files and office supplies and act as a plant stand for my giant split-leaf philodendron, metal file cabinets could also work as not just desks but alternatives to standard dressers. Their long, deep drawers can hold many stacks of t-shirts, jeans, socks, and underthings. Tall ones would maximize vertical space, lower ones could double-duty as nightstands, while wider legal-size cabinets would maintain more of the look of a traditional dresser. I prefer standard black cabinets over standard beige or gray, but they could also be painted in fun or custom colors.

Have you ever used a file cabinet as a dresser or nightstand? Would you?


first tomato harvest

homegrown tomatoes on vintage bench

Our tomatoes have gone crazy this summer, jump-started by the weird heat wave in June. They're so big they've shot up past their cages, with some branches drooping heavily, bent over the top wire and pointing towards the ground. So this evening we tied up the tallest branches with twine, attaching them loosely to some pipes on the side of the house. With luck, that will hold them for a while. And now I better understand why it's called a tomato vine.

homegrown Roma tomatoes, close-up

This is the first harvest of the year. Even though we bought one Roma, one Russian Black heirloom, and one cherry tomato, the smallest tomatoes on the vines are these Romas. So it seems the labeling got mixed up and we ended up with no cherry. Cherry tomatoes, I've found, are the safest size to grow here in the Northwest when the growing season varies but tends to be on the short side. But not this year. This year, anything goes. We've even got hot peppers outside in a pot (given us by Jeff's mom) ready to eat . . . in mid-July.


rethinking a dresser: metro shelving in the bedroom

metro shelving dresser

Don't you love it when you realize that doing something "the way it's always been done" can be reconsidered? That was the gift that traveling and living abroad gave me in my young adulthood: the realization that human cultures have separately evolved many different ways of living and that the American or Western ways aren't the only ways or necessarily the best ways. For example, most world cultures don't eat sweet foods for breakfast but dishes like leftover stews or fish and rice with pickled vegetables. And even between the U.S. and Europe there are smaller differences like built-in closets versus freestanding armoires or 110/120-volt electrical current versus 220/240-volt. I'm not reinventing the wheel here, only asking whether everyone needs a traditional dresser. Can there be more flexible ways to store clothes than the standard lowboy or highboy? The answer is, of course, yes.

Years ago when I lived in California, I bought a well-made Mission-style cherry dresser built by Bentwood (now Roguewood), a southern-Oregon company located not far from where I grew up. The dresser was tall and its many drawers dovetailed from solid cedar—a practical moth protection. It served me well for 14 years. But being all solid wood, it was heavy to move—and I moved a lot. And since it had no legs to raise it up off the floor, it was also visually bulky, while I was living in small spaces. So as I prepared to move downtown two years ago, I sold the Mission dresser on Craigslist.

Because my style preferences had also changed, instead I longed for a vintage mid-century lowboy dresser, first trying out a small Lane highboy on loan from my reseller friend Jeff and then buying a large lowboy from him at cost last winter (see below). The lowboy wasn't top quality and was made of American walnut veneer rather than the more desirable teak, but it had the right lines. We oiled the piece until its finish smoothed out and little nicks and scrapes, earned over time, became less noticeable. I used it for months until one day last week when I had an epiphany: What if I sold the dresser?

before: vintage mid-century walnut 9-drawer lowboy dresser

In a tiny house, I will have no room for a traditional dresser. So what if I just used my second metro shelving unit instead, at least for now? Chromed steel metro shelving units are fairly inexpensive—around $100 new at Costco—while offering the benefits of flexible customization, durability, and mobility. They clean up quickly with only a rag and squirt bottle, no refinishing required. Being commercial grade metal, they also hold a ton—up to 800 pounds per shelf. Since the units are on casters, they're also easily moved—if not heavily loaded. (I bent a caster that way once moving a loaded unit over carpet and had to replace it; never move a loaded unit over carpet!) And the shelves are fully adjustable and can be broken down into manageable pieces for compact transport, a feature especially appealing to a petite person like myself who moves households a lot. Honestly, I can't extol the benefits of these metal units enough—they're so versatile that I'll probably try to use at least one in my future tiny house.

metro shelving unit #1: the extended closet (in afternoon light)

metro shelving unit #1: the nightstand (in morning light)

I've been using a wire metro shelving unit since 2009 when it became a kitchen and then in 2013 an entertainment center and then in 2014 my nightstand and extended closet (see photos above). Then this spring I bought a second unit from Costco ($90, cheaper than the used ones I saw on Craigslist at the time) to better organize the remaining small items waiting to sell on CL, as well as function as a linen closet of sorts in our long hallway. And then I realized I could sell my vintage MCM dresser and use that second metro shelving unit as my dresser.

Minimalists might want simply to fold and stack their clothes and such on the open shelves and be done with it, everything clearly visible. But the key for me to making the unit work as a dresser was the use of baskets for drawers.

Baskets and hooks are a closet's best friends. I've long loved a good basket. Woven grasses, vines, or bark add homey texture to a room and aren't just for country decor (e.g., think of the modernist Franco Albini ottoman). There's good reason art museums display tribal basket collections; humans have been making baskets for storage presumably longer than they've been making clay pots. Baskets are functional art, easily picked up secondhand for much less than retail. (Do search for clean baskets, unbroken and unstained.) Even though my baskets don't match, their natural shades of tan and brown still complement each other in a casual way. And the baskets also help soften up the unit's cold metal.

metro shelving unit #2: top shelves

Rounded baskets make a nice contrast sitting among all the right angles. Those on the topmost shelf hold knitting supplies (not that I'm knitting much anymore). The white globe on the top shelf will eventually be hung as a pendant in the dining room, but it needed a temporary safe spot. And the black shoeboxes on an upper shelf I've had seemingly forever, found at a discount store many years back; they neatly hold random household items most people stash in the drawers I lack, things like spare lightbulbs, shoe polish, old photos, and extra hooks and picture hangers. I've even got my bathroom towels stacked on this shelving within easy reach from the doorway.

metro shelving unit #2: middle shelves

secondhand goods: woven baskets, petrified wood, vintage Swedish teak tray, and ceramic egg carton jewelry dish

myrtlewood bird on thrifted marble slab

metro shelving unit #2: bottom shelves

Though rounded baskets are pretty, rectangular baskets do hold more stuff and fit better on rectilinear shelves. However, large baskets in good condition are harder to find secondhand. I already had several thrift-store baskets available for reuse as drawers for this shelving unit but needed a few more to hold the rest of my clothes, things better folded than hung, like socks, sweaters, t-shirts, and underwear. I found a couple more medium-sized baskets last week. And my housemate kindly loaned me two big ones he doesn't need until I can thrift a couple more. (Keep in mind that I'm the one who turned him onto baskets in the first place.)

after: metro shelving unit #2

After I filled the baskets with categorized clothes, it was time for some styling—the addition of pretty but functional decorative pieces. The throw pillows from the bed I never get around to properly making now have a place on the bottom shelf off the floor. There's a stack of reference books for inspiration, topped by a thunder egg. My perfume and jewelry lie on a narrow vintage Swedish teak tray perfectly sized for the shelving, and I placed candles and my carved myrtlewood bird on a recently thrifted marble slab that also exactly fits the shelf. (Sometimes you just luck out when thrifting.) As always, the styling will evolve as I move things around and switch things out. For instance, even since I took these photos, I've already draped a cream woven-wool vintage table runner with macrame-style fringe over the lowest basket to help protect my sweaters.

As an added bonus, both the file-cabinet "table" and my bedroom closet have more space now—not only because of hanging my shoes on the wall but also by shifting out some closet items (like the big basket on the bottom shelf) and moving my knitting baskets to the top of this shelving. I like my room even more now than with the big walnut dresser; the space is more functional. So while this set-up might not be for everyone, it works for me—even if it's a little overkill to have two of these units in a small bedroom. A metro shelving unit is the ultimate piece of furniture, suitable for far more than the garage or kitchen.

Would you ever consider getting rid of your dresser?


big wind chimes

secondhand wind chimes

On a marathon thrift-store day last week, my housemate found a large set of wind chimes, which he hung on the side of the house. We were worried the thing would be so loud and constant it would drive us crazy, but so far it only rings occasionally, like a gentle, welcome surprise. Low tones have always felt more calming to me than higher-pitched tones (meaning I prefer the oboe to the flute and the cello to the violin), and these are fairly low-toned chimes because the tubes are so big and long. The overall feeling is almost meditative—like a taste of living in a Zen monastery. And who doesn't need more peace and well-being?

clapper of thrifted wind chimes

wind catcher, thrifted chimes

Christmas treetop with background wind chimes

(However, we might need to rethink the chimes when winter storms return.)


repurposed: galvanized shelving unit in the garden

potted geraniums on galvanized shelving unit

I showed you my closet with the new shoe rack. But then what to do with the old thrifted IKEA shelving? The house is full up.

before: potted geraniums on walkway

My first impulse was to sell the lightweight galvanized unit on Craiglist, though being so cheap to begin with, it would only garner a few bucks. But then as I was carrying it outside to take photos, I thought about wanting to use more interior vertical storage tricks like hooks and hanging baskets outside in our small rental yard, starting with simple ones like trellising a jasmine plant by the mailbox and tying up the crazy-climbing tomatoes to some exterior pipes by the electric meters. So instead I set the shelf against the wall by the front door, transferring my potted red geraniums—blooming again for their third summer!—onto the shelves. I can add even more plants later. One lanky geranium sprig snapped off in the process, so I dunked it in a versatile Kerr canning jar where, just maybe, it might grow roots.

geranium branch in canning jar

Reuse and creative repurposing by thinking outside the box make me happy and a little proud. What's funny is that this Hyllis shelving unit was designed for indoor/outdoor use, and I didn't know it—only that galvanized steel tubs and such weather fine outside. The shelving unit might need to be moved later to make way for a bench in that spot. But for now, I already like our plain concrete walkway that much better.

hanging shoes on the wall

bedroom closet with wall-mounted shoe rack, left side

I've been unhappy with my shoe storage for years. In former apartments, my shoes sat upright on boxes and bamboo mats on the closet floor beneath my clothes, though in my most recent downtown apartment I also had a rotating shoe rack in the entryway for dressier shoes (though tennis shoes and boots were still hidden away on the bedroom closet floor). The rotating rack was an improvement in organization but didn't fit in my narrow closet, and I also didn't like staring at the bottoms of scuffed, dirty shoes.

In this latest duplex apartment, the galvanized IKEA shelving unit thrifted from Goodwill a couple years ago (that I'd used for bathroom storage in my walk-in closet downtown) had morphed into a shoe shelf standing in my bedroom closet.* It worked but took up most of the space on that side of the closet, crowding my clothes on the other side. Plus, the unit's shelves are spaced wide apart, leaving big gaps of air between layers of shoes—all meaning there was too much wasted space in my one precious closet. And even though I've culled possessions and sold off most of my furniture, including, most recently, my dresser (gasp!—more on that later), one still needs clothes and shoes and a hiding place to stash a suitcase and the cat carrier.

bedroom closet, left side

But last week I scored a brand-new-in-box, wall-mounted, 18-pair shoe rack at DI—still the cheapest thrift store in town—for just three dollars: a gleeful find. To give credit where due, my housemate actually spotted the wire rack for me while we were shopping together. (He grabs things for me to consider, and I do the same for him.) He'd thrifted and installed for himself in his master-bedroom closet a similar rack a few months ago, one I'd envied, so he knew a good organizer when he saw it. I thanked him profusely.

Then on Saturday he drilled the wire rack into the studs on the left side wall of my closet (shameful secret: I still haven't learned how to use a drill), freeing up space. The rack could also have hung over a door, but my closet is too narrow for that and my bedroom door has already been claimed by an over-the-door rack holding clothes that have been worn but aren't quite ready for washing. The only shoes that don't fit on the new rack are my boots, but I only have a couple pairs of those at this point, and they tuck under the rack quite nicely. My hanging clothes can now breathe. Ahhh.

bedroom closet, right side

Don't want a wire wall rack? Here is a list of even more creative ways to store shoes. I especially like the idea of shoes on old ladders (found or built) or in antique glass display cabinets—though not all of us have that kind of space or that many beautiful pairs of heels.

How do you store your shoes? Are you happy with your shoe-storage system?

*Yes, I do hate the cheapo doors and carpet in this place, but it's a rental and just temporary.


styling a vintage cart

vintage metal cart in dining room

One of the perks of rooming with a vintage reseller is trying out a revolving array of furniture. As a dealer, he can choose what to keep temporarily or permanently and what to resell immediately (although this could also be true for anyone, thanks to Craigslist). Pieces in his home are for the most part transient—other than his great-aunt's cherished mid-century modern dining table and chairs—placeholders until something better comes along.

Since most of my own furniture either has been or is in the process of being sold off in preparation for going tiny, for the last eight months and counting I've been living primarily among things that aren't mine, for me a novelty since I've always been something of a nester with more furnishings than my housemates. But though it's always hard negotiating shared personal space, it's infinitely better crashing in the pad of someone with similar taste who owns things you can bear to look at each day.

As one example, in a corner between the galley kitchen and the dining area he'd placed a small mid-century modern rounded triangular table topped with a big lamp (pictured here). And then above the table we'd hung my black-and-white signed 1990s photography print of a pile of striped squash picked up at Eastmoreland's Neighborhood Garage Sale last year. The corner table looked okay but wasn't terribly useful, other than being a surface for a lamp; plus, the dining room felt too leggy.

But last month he switched out the table with a vintage pale-yellow, three-shelf rolling metal cart. Brilliant! Why didn't I think of that? Carts are handy countertop extensions with vertical storage—moveable open-faced cabinets. (He'd actually found two similar metal rolling carts this spring at local thrift stores within a short time of each other, selling the white one and keeping the warmer yellow.) This cart is a huge improvement over the little table because now besides the lamp, there's a place for his cookbooks, his thriving pothos plant, and ripening summer fruit or winter squash stored on handmade thrifted pottery. The cart also better fits the space, transitioning neatly between the (cheap) kitchen cabinets and the dining room window and adding some contrast to all the nearby wood grains. Plus, its being on casters makes for easier floor cleaning. So though much of the apartment is still full of furniture refinishing projects, at least the dining room is tidy and visually restful.

vintage metal cart, styled

To style a kitchen cart for extra storage, round up the following pieces (secondhand whenever possible):

  • a vintage or industrial cart from a local thrift shop or Craigslist
  • big handmade pottery bowls and platters
  • a healthy living plant or vase of fresh flowers
  • fruit and vegetables needing ripening
  • a large art print or painting
  • a pile of favorite cookbooks (and why keep any other kind?)
  • a lamp (if needed)
  • items of different textures (e.g., pottery, metal, paper, fabric, stone, wood)
  • a random, fun decorative object (here: a vintage Mexican onyx bookend standing guard)

Hang the art (low). Then play around with the cart materials until you find a practical combination using a range of object heights. Vary the textures. Avoid clutter. Think about pops of color, which can even come from the cookbook covers and fresh produce. And use the natural power of odd numbers (without getting too obsessive). Cocktail bar carts, of course, are popular for dining rooms or living rooms. Some people use their kitchen carts to store big appliances like stand mixers, microwaves, or juicers. Similar styling principles apply. The best decorating is functional as well as visually appealing—with easy-to-clean surfaces and a dab of quirkiness. Now go find a cart!


too hot to cook

store-bought heirloom tomatoes*

As a news brief for folks just back from vacation, at home but busy celebrating naked bike rides, legal weed, and Supreme-Court-sanctioned gay marriage, or for those outside playing with fireworks on the slip and slide while eating burgers and potato salad, in fact much of the Northern hemisphere, not just Portland, is currently experiencing a heat wave in early summer, from the entire Western U.S. to Europe to East Siberia. That's right, Siberia.

In my almost-eight years in Portland, I've learned that Summer here typically teases with a weekend heat spike in May, flies south for the whole month of June when it's usually gray, cool (60s), and drizzly, and then actually shows up for its regular gig on July 5th. But not this year.

Oregon's mountain snowpack has already melted off, a month earlier than usual. Oregon and Washington are both under drought conditions (keep in mind that the bulk of both states are not lush temperate rainforests but high deserts in rain shadows east of the Cascades), though not in quite as bad shape as California with its historic drought (and that sad impact on agriculture). Reservoirs and rivers are running lower than normal, with higher water temperatures killing fish. And extra-dry conditions mean the West coast is lined up for an especially strong wildfire season, which has already begun.

So my sense of normal has fallen askew. I grew up with wildfires and endangered fish in the Oregon high desert—that isn't new, only aggravated. But lengthy Portland heat waves in early summer? Heightened droughts, dwindling water supplies, and spreading fires as the new normal in the Willamette Valley? What's next, a big earthquake? Rain in August? (It almost never rains here in August.) As global warming effects ramp up, I can only remind myself of the reasons why I moved farther north in the first place. But on days like today, I wonder if I moved far enough north. . . .

organic California avocado

A few mornings ago when it was still cool-ish in the house, I cooked up a pot of chickpeas and then made a traditional version of hummus, as well as a kale salad, and that's what I've been eating since: salads, with melon or a little grapefruit soda as dessert. I've used the hummus as a dip with lightly fried sliced zucchini or as the dressing for a spinach salad with sweet red, orange, and yellow peppers, sweet Persian cucumbers, kalamata olives, and canned artichoke hearts. Or I'll slap together a pita sandwich with mayo, cheese, scallions, homegrown sprouts, tomato, and avocado. These are the summer foods I usually crave in August . . . except that late-summer came early this year.

So though appetites may have wilted and energy levels melted in all this heat, I've rounded up some summer recipes from the archive to spark menu ideas—because everyone needs to eat at least a little bit each day, even when it feels like an oven outside.

*And yes, I have been known to spend extravagant amounts of money on heirloom tomatoes. How can you not when they look and taste better than all others?


DIY bird feeder

DIY hanging bird feeder with sunflower seeds

This week while reorganizing the garage, my housemate found a bag of sunflower seeds leftover from last summer's softball season and handed it to me. "Bird feeder!" I cried, running inside and rummaging around in kitchen cupboards for a suitable seed tray.

Then I remembered his stash of old European enameled cast-iron pot lids with no pots. This red one happens to be Belgian Descoware, beloved brand of Julia Child and since bought out by Le Creuset. With luck, it should be heavy enough that the birds won't tip it over. But then there are also raiding squirrels to consider, though I don't see many squirrels around this place, mostly birds.

So I had the pot-lid tray and checked the idea with the lid's owner, who gave the okay. If you read the blog, you might remember the little jute plant hanger I made in 2013; sadly, the pretty hot-pink cotton accent thread bled over time onto the jute tail, so it's been out of commission since I moved. But now it has a new purpose: to hang the vintage pot lid from a cut-off knob of that blue spruce tree the old neighbor biddy hacked to pieces. (The other day, I spotted her chopping away at her rear neighbor's laurel hedge. And she wasn't even cutting it straight but on a curve arcing back into the neighbor's property. Madwoman! Somebody needs to retire her clippers.)

This simple feeder will be another experiment for the little neighborhood birds who have been flying in to sip from our new DIY birdbath off and on throughout these hot days. Let's see if they find the striped sunflower seeds. If they do, I'll buy some better seeds—black oil sunflower seeds that are easy to crack, higher in fat, and thus famed for attracting the most birds. But when the rains return come fall, that'll be another chapter of the story.

Better yet would be to simply grow some sunflowers next year. Or maybe we still have time to plant some black oil sunflowers this year since it's been so weirdly hot and dry in early summer. Stay tuned for more bird adventures. . . .

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