field trip: Airstream Adventures NW

red Airstream light

"Get your coat right now. We're gonna go look at an Airstream." Jeff and I had been into the dealership at Airstream Adventures Northwest a few years back when it was up farther north on the west side of McLoughlin, back when he was debating whether he could shuck renting by living in one. He scrolled through Craigslist listings, daydreaming for months about fixing up an old 1960s model as a sleek aluminum-skinned tiny home—even going so far as asking a good friend if he could park a trailer in the guy's side yard. (The answer was no.) But Jeff eventually decided he had too much stuff he was unwilling to part with—a whole three-bedroom-house-plus-garage-worth of stuff—to embrace the Airstream lifestyle.

Airstream styles, old and new

Airstream logo

Fast forward a few years. Jeff's brother and sister-in-law have lately been watching some TV show whose main character lives in an Airstream trailer and decided, out of the blue, that they wanted one (good product placement, Airstream marketing team!)—which explains our field trip to the Gladstone Airstream dealership.

Airstream Adventures Northwest sign

Two weeks ago, Jeff's brother bought a used Airstream (at around $200 a month for 15 years) preowned by a doctor couple who themselves had traded up their older trailer for a newer (used) model. It has an upgraded large wall-hung TV, a fridge, sink, stove with burners, shower, toilet, dining area (that converts into a bed), lounging area (that converts into a bed), and a bedroom in back. The interior is predominantly tan with tan vinyl flooring and tan carpet in the bedroom.

They are a family of four: two adults and two kids. The kids were ricocheting around the talking adults like bouncy balls in the yard of the dealership, while the salespeople looked askance. The girl said, "I don't want to sleep in the Airstream. I want to sleep in the tent with grandpa." The boy, I'm guessing, has mixed feelings about camping because it interferes with his video game time.

This is a family that goes camping maybe once a year. The wife admittedly hates camping and spends most of her time, I've been told, watching DVDs in the tent—hence the Airstream purchase, a temporary home on wheels for those who dislike tent camping and need electric entertainments 365 days a year. It seems a pricey decision for one camping trip a year, so presumably they will be planning more long-weekend trips into the mountains.

rows of Airstreams

Jeff is possibly the most excited of all because he can borrow their Airstream whenever he wants without fifteen years of payments. Jeff himself owns a six-person tent with a queen air mattress. He loves camping, whatever the form, usually camping with groups of friends each summer (though he's never yet taken me camping). I am just the observer in all this.

One of the salespeople, an older woman with long blond hair asked if Jeff was my husband, probably calculating whether we would become future buyers in a family competing for who had the newest and biggest Airstream. I told her no, that we were roommates and friends and that I was planning to build a tiny house. Sensing an opportunity, she said some people use Airstreams as tiny houses. (But as we know, I've already considered and discarded that idea.)

Because their cleaner wanted to get the trailer done, the saleswoman ushered us back into the main showroom where we popped into a tricked-out Mercedez-van-cum-motor-home (called the Touring Coach, not my taste) and a new Airstream Bambi (so cute!). Airstream Adventures Northwest also has a partnership with Pendleton as evidenced in the Pendleton display corner and Pendleton accessories decking out the model trailers. It's a good match, the shiny new Airstream surfaces softened by all the Pendleton patterns, colors, and textures.

Pendleton accessories in Airstream-converted Mercedez van

Pendleton display corner at Airstream Adventures NW

vintage Airstream cooler

When it was clear the paperwork had all been signed and we were wearing on their patience, we spilled out of the Bambi and ushered the kids out the front door. I lost Jeff for a couple minutes as I was snapping the last few photos. He had wandered somewhere out into the south lot among the rows of trailers.

Airstream reflections

line of new Airstreams

Of course, if I ever were to own a travel trailer, an old gutted and rehabbed Airstream would be it. The vintage models are aesthetically fabulous in their streamlined mid-century faith in technology and progress. Yet there is something a little sinister in a line of new silver Airstreams with their dark-tinted wraparound front windows, all lined up like good soldiers, their eyes and thus intentions masked. I shivered a little before climbing into the Jeep.


recipe: instant oatmeal mix

instant oatmeal mix in Kerr jar with vintage aluminum funnel

The year after my divorce I ate homemade oatmeal for breakfast every morning. I worked from home then, teaching online, so making "slow food" was easy. I had time. To save on dish cleanup, I'd zap it in the microwave in a lidded glass bowl, which technically isn't slow food but slower than instant oatmeal. I would add raisins, cinnamon, and chopped nuts, or I'd sprinkle in coconut and flaxseed along with a chopped pear, or grate up a small apple with nuts and a dash of spice. It was inexpensive and healthy comfort food during a difficult year.

Since I stopped working from home (at an isolating job I hated), my workdays grew a lot longer and busier. I currently leave the house at 6 AM and don't get home before 5 PM or even hours later, if I have an appointment, which, post-cancer treatment, I often do. Such a schedule makes breakfast (and lunch and dinner) harder.

One of my coworkers often boils water in an electric kettle and makes herself a packet of oatmeal for a scarfed-down breakfast before our students start showing up. Store-bought instant oatmeal packets aren't the healthiest breakfast option but far better than eating donuts, crayon-colored cereal puffs, or frozen fake soy meats with a million ingredients. So after seeing a box of instant oatmeal at Grocery Outlet earlier this month for a dollar, I gave the meal a try and found it an easy way to eat a little more in the morning besides a cup of coffee and a few gulps of protein shake while downing my vitamins—and at a more reasonable time (8 AM at work) than 5 o'clock in the morning when I get up. But when my box of oatmeal ran out, I figured I would DIY my own mix.

instant oatmeal stored in Kerr canning jars

Many instant oatmeal mix options are floating around on the Web. This post is really more of a guidepost than a new recipe. I consulted Martha Stewart's recipe and one on a site called MOMables. Martha Stewart toasted her oats before dumping them in the food processor. MOMables didn't do any fussy toasting but added powdered milk when Martha didn't. I wanted an all-in-one mix that didn't require toting milk to work, so I toasted my oats and added the last of some powdered milk I wanted to use up. For this first batch, I stirred in dried sweetened cranberries, ground flaxseed, and a little cinnamon but not enough to overpower.

instant oatmeal mix, cooked

The resulting oatmeal is creamy enough, not too sweet, and with a more hearty taste and texture than that in processed packets. Without the powdered milk, it's basically my granola recipe, minus the oil. I consider it a successful experiment.

Instant Oatmeal Mix

4-6 cups rolled (old-fashioned) oats
1-2 cups powdered milk (*optional)
1/2-2/3 cup brown sugar (or maple sugar, turbinado, coconut sugar, etc.)
1 cup dried fruits (e.g., raisins, cranberries, blueberries, cherries)
1 cup seeds or chopped nuts (e.g, ground flax, chia seed, sliced almonds)
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)
1/2-1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2-1 tsp. spice to taste (e.g., cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla powder)

Toast the oats on a sheet pan for 15-20 minutes till light golden brown, stirring once or twice for even toasting. Let cool. Then pulse the toasted oats in a large food processor until as fine as desired (a mix of fine and coarse textures is good). In a large bowl, stir together the processed oats, dry milk, sugar, salt, and other add-ins. Store in sealed glass canning jars. (Makes about 10 cups of mix.) Keep the mix in the freezer if not planning to use it up anytime soon.

To serve, add boiling water to a portion of mix in a bowl, stir, and wait a few minutes for the mix to hydrate. (For thicker oatmeal, use less water; for thinner oatmeal, use more.)

*Note: For vegans, skip the powdered milk and add a little soy or nut milk when serving. 

What do you eat for a quick, healthy breakfast?


tiny house planning

Gladstone tiny house, front

You might remember reading hints that I'm planning to build a tiny house. Thanks to cancer, I now have the builder lined up: my step-father, who generously volunteered taking on the project. According to my (slightly annoyed) mother, he's been spending all his free time the last few months researching tiny houses. He texted me just this week asking if I'd like a tiny Japanese soaking tub for a shower base. "Why yes, I do!"

As yet, we are still in the early planning phase. Post-cancer treatment, now that I've gone back to work after six months' leave living off the savings that had been meant for the tiny house, it's up to me to work and save (starting from scratch again, sigh) to buy the trailer, building materials, appliances, and all interior and exterior finishes. My step-father will provide the labor on evenings and weekends down in Altamont, Oregon, possibly with extra help from my youngest brother, who has lately turned himself into a house-flipper and landlord. I expect I'll somehow be shuttling materials down south from time to time on long weekends.

Portland, with its greater population and Nike and Intel wealth, has many more secondhand resources than my impoverished small hometown, of which I plan to take advantage. By regularly scouring Portland Craigslist, Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, and the ReBuilding Center, I should over time be able to find relatively inexpensive quality countertops, flooring, tile, windows, lighting, and the like to build a custom tiny house. Even better will be discarded materials sourced for free. Since I'll have more time than money, salvaged materials will be the priority whenever possible. Fortunately, reusing what already exists is also better for the environment.

Up to now, I mainly have an inspiration board via Evernote for a simple, modern, boho cabin-themed tiny house and a growing list of ideal specifications:

  • shed design
  • corrugated metal roof
  • solar panels
  • passive solar construction
  • rainwater cachement system
  • composting toilet
  • exhaust fan
  • many high windows (for light and privacy) 
  • storage stairs to lofted bedroom
  • vaulted ceiling at entrance
  • tankless hot water heater (?)
  • European stacking W/D
  • smoke alarm
  • CO detector
  • fire extinguisher
  • kitchen storage
  • butcher-block kitchen counter
  • small magnetized knife rack
  • undivided kitchen sink
  • garbage and recycle bin under-cupboard storage
  • two-burner stove
  • small oven
  • small apartment fridge with freezer
  • small microwave (for reheating leftovers quickly)
  • small dishwasher
  • underfloor heating
  • tiled shower with bench and built-in alcoves
  • Japanese soak tub shower "floor"
  • wired-in lighting (white globe pendants)
  • efficient built-in closets and storage
  • L-shaped sofa bench with built-in wheeled coffee table
  • enough floor space for yoga
Having pared down my possessions over a year ago to my favorite, most useful things, I have the decor ready to go, things like baskets, a small kilim rug, a sheepskin for the sofa bench, a Thonet chair, an Albini rattan footstool, a DIY wall hanging and thrifted art, handmade pottery, a few geodes, small houseplants—all the things I live with seen in pieces on this blog over the years. What I need is the building structure. But this is no small thing: building even a tiny house is a big project.

And that's especially true when challenging cultural norms. My mother, for example, is skeptical of the tiny house concept. Most of my childhood we lived in mobile homes not by choice but financial necessity, first a single-wide and then a double-wide trailer made with thin walls and cheap particleboard, fiberglass, and vinyl finishes. Compared to typical prefab construction, traditional houses or condos are made from sturdier materials, but they are also much more expensive, requiring for most people 15-30 years of mortgage with interest and a commitment to place.

And that is what many baby boomers don't quite understand: their stable post-WWII consumerist lifestyle is just about over. While the Arctic is melting, the rest of us, even many baby boomers themselves, are finding it increasingly harder to stay in the middle or even working class (cf. Bernie Sanders). For single folks and a few hardy couples tired of enriching landlords' pocketbooks, tiny houses can offer the best of both worlds as well as a kind of financial life raft on a changing, ever more crowded and costly planet: the affordability of a mobile home with the higher quality materials of a stick-built house. The trade-off is of course space: the dimensions for a house of what will fit on a road, preferably without requiring special wide-load permits.

Let's talk for a minute about space. Having lived abroad in both Europe and Asia, I've experienced firsthand how Americans generally have an inflated requirement for living space compared to citizens of other countries. Many homes being built in the U.S. are massive compared even to homes in the near past. As a single person, I don't need a three-bedroom house. I also found a 500-square-foot apartment a little too big. But for the record, I'm not interested in a teeny-tiny home like tiny-house pioneer Dee Williams' wee pad but one as spacious as possible under road constraints. Even small electric washers and dryers and dishwashers, for example, just make life easier, freeing up time for other things, like writing. But the nice thing about building a custom tiny or small home is that everyone gets to decide such priorities for herself.

I had first considered building a shipping container house, since those prefab structures are by design practically indestructible and pre-sized for road transport. But they are also much less mobile than tiny houses on wheels—unless you happen to own a crane and a semi-truck and trailer—being heavier and involving relatively high construction costs for even basic modifications to the steel shell.

Some folks opt for living in an RV as a ready-made tiny house. But for me, RVs, designed for temporary living, don't have enough of the comforts of home and wouldn't be able to fit enough of my downsized possessions. I need more customized space than an RV or converted bus or Airstream offers.

If I had lots of money, I could buy a ready-made A-frame mountain cabin like this one. If I already owned land and planned to stay on it, I might build a cob house (like this elfin one), straw bale cottage, or Earthship, using natural and recycled materials, rain cachement, and passive solar principles like walls of south-facing windows and polished concrete floors. Eco building concepts I still want to follow when possible in my tiny house.

tree bark closeup

Another basic building design maxim is using what is natural to one's local environment. What the Northwest has are trees, which implies building with wood, instead of the adobe, straw, or brick more suitable to sunnier climes or less earthquake-prone regions. I am increasingly drawn to the idea of living in a pinewood cabin with white walls.

Not knowing what the future holds, to me mobility is crucial to the concept of home and security. With my vagabond history, I can't even fully commit to staying here in Portland long-term, let alone Oregon. My wooden house will need wheels. 

I've seen a few tiny houses around town. The rest must be hiding—meaning off my current bus and MAX lines and therefore out of sight. There's a little one under construction in Brooklyn off McLoughlin with a shingled exterior. There are a few scattered in northeast Portland around Mississippi and Williams. There's the famed tiny house hotel, Caravan, up on Alberta. Tiny houses are sprouting up these days like mushrooms to fill gaps in affordable housing on the West Coast and elsewhere. In Portland and other places, tiny houses are a logical form of city infill and a way to skirt combative Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) issues.

Gladstone tiny house, back

So far, the only tiny house I've seen in Gladstone is a teeny tiny house that doesn't appear to be inhabited. It's parked on a side street off East Arlington, convenient for the owners since most of the side streets here don't have sidewalks. I was finally brave enough to snap a few quick photos a couple weekends ago. It appears to be some kind of commercial cook space, but for what I have no clue. I like its mixed materials, especially the corrugated metal roof (aluminum? steel?). That's a feature I want on my own tiny house to amplify the sound of rain and since metal roofs are strong and durable.

Something I worry about when planning my own tiny house is the possible lack of privacy involved in living in something so novel and outside the norm, especially since the most likely space to site it in the short-term will be on someone else's city lot. A wall of high windows might help with privacy—so will curtains and a strong door.

Inspiring tiny homes like this beautiful one in North Carolina or architect Macy Miller's tiny house in Idaho take full advantage of space and light. The tiny homes I'm drawn to on the Net are the ones that feel personal to their owner, who typically helps design the space according to specific life needs and priorities, rather than something generic picked from a builder's catalog.

Machinists-Boilermakers Federal Credit Union, Gladstone

Until I can save up enough to buy the trailer, framing, roofing, insulation, and windows, I'll continue my research and design phase, mapping out what I want my home to look and feel like. I want it to feel cozy, restful, light-filled, humble, and peaceful, a haven from the world outside and a space in which to dream and create.

How small a home could you live in?


recipe: fresh pear cake with coconut

fresh pear cake with coconut

Last weekend we had some of Jeff's extended family over for homemade pizza and board games. (Smart Ass and Cranium are big hits!) I love hosting company not just for the food, laughter, and conversation but because it motivates house cleaning, something we usually need more of around here.

We also needed a dessert. I had several soft and bruised Harry & David Royal Riviera gift pears in the fridge drawer, desperate for salvage. Fresh pear cake to the rescue! The pears too ripe to eat raw worked fine baked (though one, sadly, I had to compost whole as it was a mushy mess).

This is a simple recipe cut from a magazine (Sunset, maybe?) years ago submitted by Elsa Kleinman in Topanga, California, that I've tweaked by subbing whole-grain flour, a little cornmeal for texture, and unsweetened coconut. For a dessert cake, add a little extra sugar and butter, using half-and-half or cream instead of milk. Or for a lighter coffee cake, use milk, less butter, just two eggs, and no extra sugar. While the little three-year old cousin didn't like it (Jeff suspects because it's "too adult" and not sickeningly sweet), his mother, who bakes the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever had, said the cake tasted "gourmet," and that's about as good a food compliment as it gets.

Fresh Pear Cake with Coconut

2-3 T. butter
1 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
1/4 c. cornmeal
1/4 c. unsweetened coconut (plus more for dusting)
3 eggs
1 c. sugar (preferably turbinado)
1/2 c. milk, half-and-half, or cream
pinch of salt
3 large ripe juicy pears (e.g., Bartlett, d'Anjou, Comice)

Butter a round baking dish and evenly sprinkle it with sugar. Slice, core, and peel the pears. Blend eggs, sugar, milk, and salt, then adding the dry ingredients (including the coconut) until well combined. Fold half the pears into the batter, scraping the batter into the pan. Fan the remaining pears over the top and dot with small chunks of butter. Bake at 350 degrees F on the bottom oven rack (to prevent excess browning) for just under an hour, checking with a toothpick or knife edge for a clean crumb. Dust the top of the cake with a layer of coconut while still warm. Slice thinly and serve warm or at room temperature. Covered with plastic wrap, it will keep for a few days out on the countertop or for well over a week in the fridge.


sleep more

fallen camellia bloom, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 7, 2015)

While enjoying a lazy Saturday morning with coffee and my usual media, I ran across this article whose New York Magazine author suggests that the best New Year's Resolution is to get more sleep since sleep affects pretty much everything else. I've never been a big believer in New Year's Resolutions, only in resolutions—or even in a budding impetus to change, burgeoning desires, repeated nudges, an eventual pivot in focus that might bloom anytime during the year. Change is hard and often fruitless.

One thing I need to change is sleeping more when working. My paid job will start up again on Monday after a half-year hiatus during breast cancer diagnosis and treatment that included two surgeries and radiation and for which I am gratefully done. (Cancer treatment is itself a job, but that's another story.) Because TriMet added the Orange MAX line in September, rerouting multiple southeast Portland Metro bus lines, and because I gave up my car three years ago, my work commute up to St. Johns has gotten even longer this school year (thanks, TriMet), meaning I'll need to leave the house well before 6 AM to get to work by 8 AM. And that means getting up at 5 AM, which means that if I want eight hours of sleep, I'll need to go to bed at 9 PM. While that was always the goal with this job, it rarely happened.

Is it just me or does nine o'clock feel like a bedtime for children, not adults? That's why I would usually find myself lingering at the computer or in front of an escapist Netflix show to wind down till ten, or eleven, or twelve, or even one in the morning (gasp!) before hitting the pillow. And then I'd pay for it the next day. Yet four or five or even six hours of typical sleep isn't healthy at all. Lack of sleep is linked to all kinds of health problems, including weight gain. When I don't get enough sleep, I feel guilty—among other negatives. And what I don't need as a cancer survivor is more guilt on top of poor sleep.

branch buds, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 7, 2015)

My acupuncturist has been gently suggesting I mirror the earth's natural cycles to increase health, saying human bodies respond chemically in circadian rhythms to have more energy in the morning that tapers off later in the day as the sun wanes, and that our bodies pay a price for contradicting the cycles of the sun. I quoted him reports that creative people tend to be night owls. He said that may be true, but there is a trade-off in health. Well then!

For my health, at least while I have this job, I aim to be in bed on work nights at 9 PM. That means no more falling asleep while watching a British murder mystery and dragging myself squint-eyed and cranky into the bathroom to brush my teeth. It means the bedtime routine of cleansing and lotions will need to start by 8:30 PM and become more intentional, more ritualized. It means I can treat myself to a cup of herbal tea and extra reading in bed, to nuzzling my cat, and maybe adding in a little meditation, yoga, or journaling. I expect imperfection but also know if something isn't working, one must try something else to get different results. (It also means I'll be saving up for a car again.)


on linen sheets and having enough

Rough Linen sheet set

This fall, soon after my duvet-kicking post, my fairy godmother—meaning my sweet Texas cousin Corinne—gifted me with a set of linen sheets. Not just any sheets, these are the luxurious linen sheets from Rough Linen handmade in Marin, California, that I'd once blogged about wanting. The packaged arrived out of the blue on my doorstep in mid-November. The package was beautifully wrapped in tissue and brown ribbon, the sheets a crisp off-white. I'm pretty sure I squealed.

Tricia Rose or her shipping elves had tucked in a lavender bag and a sample of a special liquid wash (which I haven't yet tried). On the bed, the sheets are fabulously rumpled. The two flat sheets are over-sized with extra room for tucking compared to standard sheet sets. The linen somehow keeps me cool and warm at the same time. Over time, they should soften with wear and washing since, compared to densely woven cotton, the pillowslips are still a tad rough on the face. But I don't mind. This is the fabric of kings.

rumpled linen bedding

There are very few objects I want at this point in my life, aside from a (used) car and a (tiny) house, and virtually nothing I need. After cancer, having been touched by the inevitability of death and loss, to me intangibles like health and love and family and friendship and travel and peace become ever more important. Though I might not find linen sheet sets at the thrift store, I find other pretty secondhand things all the time, so after six years of regular thrifting, I have enough—enough baskets and vases and shoes and clothes and art. Enough is a good feeling.

It doesn't mean I never buy things. I brought home another small handmade thrifted vase and a few pieces of well made secondhand clothing just this week. I still have too much—which is why I should probably start a shop at some point to save from the trash the nicest things I find but don't have room in my own life for.

It actually hurts to walk into a big-box store and eye the rows and piles of shiny new junk I will later see at Goodwill. So much at the thrift store eventually ends up at the dump, anyway, because of the sheer volume of what Americans consume and discard. If more people knew this, would they consume less and more thoughtfully? How can a consumer-driven economy survive if not driven by, stoked by, advertising's all-pervasive messages of insecurity: not beautiful enough, not clean enough, not thin enough, not rich enough, not fast enough, not big enough, not cool enough.

I wish for the new year that more of us could find our own sense of enough. Enough means contentment with who we are, what we have, what we do—now. Enough means feeling gratitude for what we have rather than focusing mainly on what we lack that others have. Enough is the antidote for envy: I am enough, just as I am.

Anna cat in profile on bed

But if there is a gap in what is, a discontent, that feeling of lack, then right there is the point at which to turn and ask ourselves why. For example, do we want an upgraded phone because somebody else got a new iPad? Or do we want a Pendleton shirt when we really just want to go camping? And maybe then we work to fill the underlying gap, whatever it is: needing more adventure, more alone time, more learning, more fun with loved ones. Maybe we really do need a new phone because the old one has reached its limits of planned obsolescence. Maybe we really do need a car because spending four hours a day on public transport is ridiculous and unhealthy. Or maybe what we need instead is a different job.

I love my new linen sheets. Because of their quality, they will likely outlast me. I am humbled by the unexpected gift, its expense but more importantly its thoughtfulness. (Thank you so much, Corinne!) Each night I am linked, in a sense, to my cousin, to the web of family, to the fabric's growers and weavers and sewers, to the plant and the earth and sun, all for which I am grateful. But the cotton sheets I had—still have—were enough.

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