12.27.2016

Christmas Le Creuset gratin pan

vintage Flame Le Creuset gratin pan

My good friend and roommate, Jeff, gives the best gifts: my chef's knife, my vintage Cuisinart food processor, my red frying pan, my green Dutch oven, my smaller black Dutch oven, and this Christmas a big (36 cm), shallow vintage Le Creuset enameled cast-iron gratin casserole dish. He says he found it on eBay one day at 3 AM, made a bid, went to bed, and woke up as the winner. When the heavy package arrived this month, I asked teasingly if he'd gotten me a Le Creuset gratin dish, and he said, "Hell, no. They're too expensive." He lied, leaving me gleefully surprised when I opened the box.

He must have grown tired of me begging him for one of the two Le Creuset gratin dishes he'd found at thrift stores for himself, a 32 cm white one and a 28 cm Flame one. His white one cost just seven dollars (!) because some Goodwill employee hadn't recognized what it was, the brand imprint being faint on the bottom enamel. This new (old) gratin dish in Le Creuset's traditional 'Flame' color is bigger than either of his. I was sure he'd keep the largest one and give me one of his smaller ones, but nope: I get to keep the big one. And just one of these dishes is all I need.


vintage Le Creuset gratin pan in "Flame" (bottom view)

Le Creuset doesn't make this classic style of handled cast-iron oval gratin dishes anymore, only their Signature oval bakers with cut-out handles or stoneware ones made in Thailand or China. But the cast-iron low-profile ovals made in France are perfect for roasting vegetables, my favorite way to eat Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. And the 36 cm size should hold a whole head of cauliflower pieces or a big batch of halved Brussels sprouts. Thickly sliced mushrooms are also wonderful roasted with garlic and a little wine or wine vinegar and herbs. These types of roasted veggies taste fabulous atop baked polenta or tossed with garlic, olive oil, and a grated hard cheese into cooked whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, or pearl barley.

Baking dishes like these can be found secondhand on eBay at a fraction of their new retail price. If you're extremely lucky, you might find one someday at a local thrift store for even less. For roasting, the even heat and ease of cleaning of French enameled cast-iron can't be beat. And what a lovely way to cook through the cold winter months. . . .


(Thank you, Jeffrey! xo)

12.25.2016

Christmas cemetery

peace sign, Rolling Hills Cemetery

One set of parents lives within walking distance of the cemetery where my mother's parents, brothers, and several extended family members are buried. The cemetery residents have a great view, so to speak, of the eastern mountains of the Klamath Basin. One of these mountains sat behind me most of my childhood years, the reason why mountains for me feel protective and mysterious, while vast stretches of flat plains feel disorienting, lacking, and dull. My grandparents' plots look out over this mountain they used to live under. They preferred the high desert, moving back here after a brief stint in rainy Portland during WWII.


view of Pine Grove from Rolling Hills Cemetery

Growing up, I refused to see the beauty in this landscape of juniper, sage, and sparse pines, preferring the golden oak hills of California where my father's parents lived or the thick-treed mountains of the Cascades, the lush green of the Willamette Valley, or the flat horizon line over at the coast, where the sun sank each night into the depths of the Pacific. I couldn't wait to live in cities. I tracked airplanes high in the sky, wishing myself aboard. I left this place, seeking adventure (not that I've never been back). Yet the older I get and the less time I spend here, maybe a few days a year, the more beautiful my hometown seems—the natural geography itself, not the human settlement. The town is still poor and the weather too cold.


bird house with angels, Rolling Hills Cemetery

When I visit, I often walk over to the cemetery alone, across a highway, in a kind of pilgrimage. This time, there was a thin layer of snow and no one in sight. The plastic flowers were dusted white, the trash bins full of rotting bouquets. What struck me were the cemetery's new marketing signs for "Family Estates," "Private Estates," and "Value Estates," as if the cemetery were miniaturized suburban developments with gated communities for the wealthy. (Even in death we find status markers.)


Private Estates sign, Rolling Hills Cemetery


snowy pine needles


Family Estates sign, Rolling Hills Cemetery


Christmas trees, Rolling Hills Cemetery

While most Americans have been busy buying gifts and baking cookies this holiday season, I've been thinking about how in past decades, let alone centuries, I would by now be well on the way to dead, the cancer slowly spreading each progressive year from lymph node to lymph node, eventually reaching my organs, finally causing great crushing pain. And then I, too, would be lying near my grandparents, my closed eyes or cremated dust (depending on whether my family followed my wishes) in view of the childhood mountain. This is a sober, morbid, humbling reminder to be grateful I am still alive like the rest of you. It reminds me to take more risks, to be more present, to leave, somehow, some kind of legacy. The hero's journey is a spiral, returning and leaving, returning and leaving, finding one day, perhaps, peace.


No Trespassing sign


two llamas and a sheep


brown llama


fenced goat


white llama

On the way back to the house, two llamas, a sheep, and a goat walked up to the corner of a fence in a field—which sounds like the start of a dirty joke but isn't. The goat was friendliest, sticking its nose through the wire and licking my hand like a dog. The sheep was most circumspect, staring frozen in the background. The llamas with their lovely long lashes approached cautiously, but I couldn't remember if they bite (they don't). It started to snow, big wet flakes in our hair and faces. I laughed at the silly goat, called them all pretty, told them I was sorry I didn't have food for them. I sounded exactly like my mother.

12.19.2016

how to sell your extra stuff on eBay

sold on eBay: vintage yellow Dansk Kobenstyle casserole pot found in a free box on the street

Instead of Christmas shopping this year, with all its expense and stress, I've been Christmas selling. It's different from a No-Spending Year or Buy-Nothing Challenge in that you can actually make back a bit of the money you've already spent as a capitalist consumer. It also gives you positive environmental karma by promoting secondhand reuse, returning perfectly functional objects to the reuse stream, rather than further depleting Earth's nonrenewable resources—objects like electronics or carved marble kitchen-utensil holders.

When I returned from my summer in London, completely broke and facing more medical bills, I immediately signed myself up on eBay and started selling spare clothes, shoes, kitchen items, and small decorative objects, most of which I had picked up inexpensively in thrift stores and later changed my mind about but that were too hard (usually meaning too small) to sell locally on Craigslist. The biggest advantage of selling pre-owned (aka used) household items on eBay and Amazon is their huge national—even international—customer markets, making sales for smaller or more niche items easier and faster than selling in a local market.

Selling on eBay really means having your own small business in microcosm, which in itself is a useful learning experience if, like me, you've never owned a business. It can thus become a safe, inexpensive way to test out desire and aptitude for self-employment. You can have only three things for sale or three hundred, but you still must offer a good product at a good value and keep customers content by providing good customer service. Because eBay and PayPal have been around so long, they've made the complex pricing and shipping aspects relatively easy by offering suggestions based on similar items. Payments are automatic via PayPal. eBay and Pay take their cuts, of course, but it's worth it and far cheaper than swallowing the costs of leasing a brick-and-mortar shop space.


sold on eBay: Brooks Brothers shirt purchased by the pound at Goodwill Outlet


sold on eBay: tote bag hand-crocheted from yarn made with plastic bags


sold on eBay: vintage teak salad bowl, refreshed with spoon oil


sold on eBay: Ralph Lauren handknit linen sweater

Things you'll need to become an eBay seller are:
  • eBay account
  • eBay app
  • PayPal account
  • smartphone with camera
  • free USPS Priority Mail envelopes and boxes (ordered online)
  • reused empty boxes
  • free reused packing materials
  • measuring tape or ruler
  • clear packing tape
  • scissors
  • box cutter
  • digital kitchen scale
  • bathroom scale (if selling larger items)
  • computer printer
  • black ink cartridges
  • copy paper


sold on eBay: brown Dansko heeled clogs


sold on eBay: Women's Columbia jacket found in a free box on the street


sold on eBay: Banana Republic Outlet Women's linen button-front shirt purchased by the pound at Goodwill Outlet

Once your supplies are in place, you can start selling. Here are some quick-start tips learned over the last few months as an eBay seller:

:: Order free Priority Mail envelopes and boxes from the United States Postal Service (usps.com).

:: Customers prefer receiving items quickly, even cross-country. Try to mail things out the same day or the next day to limit handling time. USPS is most accessible and usually the best-value shipper. Ship Priority Mail on most things for faster delivery, including tracking and basic insurance. Heavy items can sometimes be shipped in Flat Rate boxes or travel Parcel Select. Estimate shipping costs carefully by weight and measurements before listing to avoid losing money on shipping. The goal is not to make money on shipping, but rather not to lose money.

:: eBay currently has an easy international shipping option called "Global Shipping" in which the seller mails the item domestically to a processing center in Kentucky, and then eBay handles the international shipping processes and costs on their end. You can enable this option to increase sales.

:: People have become used to "free shipping" from big retailers like Amazon. Shipping is never actually free, but if you can build "Free Shipping" into your item pricing, all the better.

:: Take photos on your phone and upload them directly to the eBay app. Photos should be taken from multiple angles, preferably in natural light, and include close-up details of any flaws.

:: Describe objects in detail in the listing, highlighting any flaws. Buyers should know exactly what they're getting. It's far better that an object arrive in better-than-expected condition than the reverse.

:: Source packing peanuts and bubble wrap for reuse from local businesses. Reuse newspapers as fill.

:: Wrap and pack objects carefully to prevent breakage or other damage. Use extra packing material to keep objects from shifting around in transit.

:: Most clothing items will fit in a Priority padded flat-rate envelope with no need for other packing material.

:: For all but the most experienced or volume sellers, the eBay phone app is easier for managing listings—because simpler—than the eBay website itself.

:: Avoid auctions on most things. Instead, list items as "Buy It Now" with "Best Offer" and as "Good Till Canceled." Research other people's listings and do experiments because how you list items will depend on what you're selling. If it's a highly desirable item you know for certain will sell within a week, do an auction. Otherwise, skip auctions to save yourself the hassle of relisting items every week as well as eBay's listing fees. 

:: eBay will almost always side with buyers over sellers. Keep this in mind when making decisions or resolving issues with buyers.

:: Provide feedback on buyers only after they've given feedback on you as a seller. Aim for 100% positive feedback by making the customer happy, even if they're in the wrong. As in life, most people are well intentioned.

:: eBay via PayPal will hold funds until you've established yourself as a reputable seller. After a few months of positive transactions, money will be released to your PayPal account more quickly. You can transfer money easily from PayPal to a bank account.

:: Boxes, packing materials, and merchandise all take up physical space and require solid organizational skills, so carve out a space in your home that's easily accessible but out of the way, ideally in a spare bedroom, home office, or garage.


sold on eBay: West Elm vase (bottom view)

If you have the time and energy, you can make more money selling your unwanted stuff on eBay than at a garage sale and often more than on Craigslist. I wish I had started selling my more valuable discards on eBay years ago, rather than donating them to Goodwill for free. Now I know better. With more Americans making less than our parents did (or do), despite having more education, and with cost of living increasing faster than incomes, especially in coastal urban areas, you, too, might one day need to become more creative in funding the basics of life.



(Note: Thank you to the Portland friends who've mentored me as an eBay seller, demystifying the process. I'm passing along their hard-won selling tips, as well as those learned on my own.)

12.18.2016

handknit mittens for snow days

thrifted-yarn wool mittens in progress

Portland shuts down when an inch of snow falls. Cars lie askew, abandoned on streets. Evening commutes double or triple in length. Because snow is relatively rare here, unlike rain, it's imprudent to spend tax money on an entire fleet of snow plows and sanders. It's also a much wetter, heavier snow here than in much of the dry West, often with a combination of freezing rain. (And I know this because I grew up in the high desert of southeastern Oregon where it snows regularly.) Most Portlanders don't own snow shovels or understand the importance of shoveling driveways and sidewalks before snow turns into compacted ice. Instead, we'd rather use the occasional snow as an excuse to shut school and stay home, binge-watching Netflix and drinking hot chocolate while knitting mittens. Or wait, is that just me?

I don't knit much anymore, but when I do return to simple projects like these, I remember why I taught myself to knit in the first place (i.e., I needed something to do while my ex played first-person-shooter video games nights and weekends in his "office"). Basically, creating a useful, warm clothing accessory is much more productive than sitting on the sofa for hours not creating a useful, warm accessory. And now my roommate and I can drive up to the mountains this week and play in the deep snow, maybe even trek to and bathe in one of the local hot springs. Now that's a winter break I can subscribe to.


12.09.2016

mostly white (checking boxes with DNA)

public art, Grosvenor Square, London (August 2016)

I always check the White box on race or ethnic forms. My whiteness is as obvious as the pale shade of foundation I don't wear or the amount of sunscreen and brimmed hats needed to keep me from turning pinkish-red in summer. 

And yet there are the family stories. My mother has always claimed her paternal grandmother had the coarse, wavy black hair and flaring nostrils of a part-negress. Growing up, I was told I was part-Blackfoot on my dad's side and part-Cherokee and Sioux on my mom's side, that my mother's father was one-eighth Indian, so she was one-sixteenth. But there was no documentary evidence. Supposedly the paper proof lay buried in the files of a cousin on a detached, incommunicado side of the family. These tall tales of brown ancestry were told with an offhanded pride, along with religious instruction that darker skin revealed a Biblical mark of shame and sin. The male tendency towards destructive drink on my mother's side of the family, for example, was attributed largely to proof of Indian blood.

Whenever I've read of an Indigenous desire that the Whites go back where they came from, I've sympathized but wondered where exactly I would go back to. Some of my family strands have lived in North America for hundreds of years. They interbred, intermingled. My hobby-genealogist mother always listed our European ancestry as a mantra: Danish, Dutch, English, Scots-Irish, French, “and German on your Dad's side.” Whenever asked by acquaintances about ancestry, I jokingly called myself a European mutt. I was spoken to in German on a Lufthansa flight home in the early 1990's, after my first trip to Europe, the German flight attendant scanning the passenger list. The European plot thickened only recently when the Internet revealed that my surname means “little stick” and is actually a Swiss German name. And it has only been in the last year that the lightbulb clicked on over my head when I realized my paternal grandmother's surname, Dailey, was clearly Irish—scourge of the English, land of my native tongue. So once again, as a European-American, where specifically would I hypothetically return?


Eero Saarinen-designed U.S. Embassy, London (August 2016)

Solution? DNA testing. A cousin had herself and her son genetically tested and found a long-lost relative this way. Feeling impulsive this fall after a complicated mammogram, I ordered a health and ancestry kit online from 23andMe, spat saliva into a tube, sealed everything up, and sent it away again in the mail. Less than a month later, while recovering from surgery, I was sitting on the sofa between my mother and step-father with my laptop, saw notification of test results in my inbox, and signed into 23andMe.

I am officially . . . 99.7% European. The question about where in Europe to return—if this North American ever returns—is now solved, for I am 40.5% British and Irish, the largest ethnic percentage. (How ironic it is that these two cultures are genetically lumped as one, considering the historical racialized wars between the Irish and their British overlords.) Perhaps my very DNA is why England felt so familiar when I visited the island this past summer for the first time; more probably it was because of all the British literature and media I've consumed my entire life. Yet Britain has chosen Brexit in a decision I witnessed while on British soil, making a post-colonial return to the increasingly nativist motherland even less likely.


grazing sheep, England (August 2016)


small-town English street scene (August 2016)

But there is the rest of Northwestern Europe, shuffled together (92.8% total), if they'd have me. I have less specific French, German, and Scandinavian ancestry than my mother led me to believe, just under 10% French and German combined (as if those two neighbors have much in common) and barely over 5% Scandinavian (the Danish great-great-grandmother). Perhaps most surprising was the 2.8% Southern European ancestry finding, wholly absent in family lore. Maybe this is why I've always been drawn to the Mediterranean region. And how about this little fact: I am more Sub-Saharan African (.2%) than Native American (.1%). That means I have a West African slave ancestor as well as an Asian ancestor who long ago crossed the Bering Straits.

I am also a teensy bit Ashkenazi Jewish (.1%), my genes escaping the Holocaust only to founder upon chosen childlessness. Could the Danish and Jewish parts of me be the ones drawn to lighting candles against the cold, dark winter? I also have more Neanderthal traits than 75% of the 23andMe gene pool—less than 4% of my DNA—making me "less likely to sneeze after eating dark chocolate" and granting my family less back hair than the average human. Maybe strangest of all is the <.1% “Unassigned” that couldn't be identified at all, continuing the genetic mystery.


English rose (August 2016)

Whiteness is a cultural mark of unearned privilege, a privilege that cannot be overstated and continues to have devastating historical, political, social, and economic implications for people of color around the world. I fully reject the beliefs and aims of white supremacists, the rebranded "alt-right." While I cannot change my predominantly Northwestern European ancestry—nor would I, for it is my known identity—I am equally proud of the other, disparate ethnic parts of me that have added diversity over time through mixture. I am a stronger human as a genetic mutt, a walking United Nations alliance—though still 99.7% white.

12.08.2016

the doors of Crete

arched door with vine, Crete (July 2016)

The older Crete villages are flecked with colorful household doors, mostly in shades of Mediterranean blue-green. Walking around the hillside villages, I encountered lovely doors, some arched, some square. The paint was often weathered and flaking and may have had a rusty metal ring attached, adding to the charm. Some doors were ajar, cracked open in the blazing-hot mid-summer, yet nothing could be seen from the alleys into the blackness within. Outside one door, I heard the sounds of chickens squawking.

Small-town Greece, when viewed from a passing tourist's peripheral, outsider lens, reveals more of an absence than a presence, more mystery than story. It was hard at times to tell much difference in population between the ancient Minoan settlement ruins and the old whitewashed hill towns. In the midday heat, people were off at work, perhaps, or sheltering away from the fierce sun, not strolling the streets like an American idiot. And yet when walking through the towns, snapping photos, I felt myself watched, my steps witnessed by invisible eyes—a tourist performing for an audience of locals.
 

blue balcony door with grape vines, Crete (July 2016)


wooden window shutters, Crete (July 2016)


rusty gate, Crete (July 2016)


rusty metal door ring, Crete (July 2016)


peeling door paint on door ajar, Crete (July 2016)


blue & green arched door, Crete (July 2016)


red door with blue gate, Crete (July 2016)


12.04.2016

the anything-pots of Crete

flowers in plastic jugs, Crete (July 2016)

Greece, despite its ancient glories and deep influences on Western culture, has shipwrecked in modern times on the shores of German-ordered austerity measures, the overspent country still heavily in debt to the European Union and the IMF, its economy dependent in large part on tourism. In some of the old hill towns in Crete, my sister and I walked past many abandoned houses in various states of disrepair. Along the highways, new block cement structures often sat half-finished, rebar pointing raw to the sky, as if their builders had been called away on an emergency.

I was awed by the crumbling beauty of these old white-washed towns, humbled by sights of flowers planted in any readily available vessel. Yes, there were some traditional clay pots, but more often I would see bright red, yellow, orange, or pink flowers nestled in a plastic bucket or jug with the top cut off. I felt shame and regret for having purchased two new big glazed-clay pots for herbs last spring because it was not frugal, not using what I already had—definitely not in the theme of secondhand use like Crete's repurposed pots.


flowers in rusty metal tins, Crete (July 2016)


shell of an old house, Crete (July 2016)


marigolds in broken clay pot, Crete (July 2016)


plant pots & blue door, Crete (July 2016)

Crete's use-what-you-have gardening style is a lesson from the vanguard of enforced economic austerity but also a model for consciously stepping back from Western over-consumption. Not everything needs to match. Not everything must even be made of "natural," organic materials. Creative acts—even the simplest ones like reusing a plastic bucket or jug or metal tin and filling it with soil and seeds and poking a hole in the bottom for drainage—mean greater happiness. Flowers will bloom in any sunny pot.


first impressions of Crete, Greece

abandoned house with brick oven, Crete (July 2016)

This past July around my birthday I dipped down from London to Crete. Years ago I had been gifted a free time-share exchange week from one set of parents that had never been used. And because it's much cheaper to fly within Europe than to and from, it was a relatively inexpensive trip. My younger sister flew over to join me for the week. We rented a small bright-blue car, and she became the driver. I couldn't really comfortably afford a vacation-within-a-vacation, but I'd just finished half a year of cancer treatment six months before, so who cared about a little thing like money? I needed to feel like I was living, not just surviving. And when traveling, one feels memorably alive, experiences and impressions intense.


hanging grapes, Crete (July 2016)

The Mediterranean has always called to me. I had been to Italy once with my college best friend in my early 20s, to several famous Italian cities, the Amalfi Coast, Anacapri. I hadn't expected to ever see Greece, and yet there we were, zipping around hills of old olive groves in our little blue car with views of ancient ruins and the sea beyond, to the sounds of Greek pop music on the radio and the quiet roar of cicadas whenever we stopped for photos. Once past the Heraklion airport, it was love at first sight.


ancient Minoan ruins of Gournia, Crete, Greece (July 2016)


olive trees, Crete


Minoan rooms, Vassiliki, Crete (July 2016)

We parked and photographed the ruins of Gournia and climbed around the remaining walls of Vassiliki on our way southeast to the hotel. We saw grapes hanging along a wire fence, the white shell remains of thousands of tiny snails, the shed skin of a snake. I wore a secondhand leather cowboy hat against the hot sun, the cicadas like a background orchestral track. We kept grinning at each other.


rock shadow self-portrait, Vassiliki, Crete

Six months later, life is . . . harder again, nearing winter in the gray, wet, chilly Northwest. I am recovering from the national election and reconstructive surgery, drowning in medical bills, despite a Gold-level insurance plan. I went back on my anti-depressant. I am, as we say, at a crossroads, seeking direction. Some days, I feel like an animal in a cage. I fear what this level of stress could do for cancer recurrence. The problem with vacations is that they give you only a taste of freedom. In my mind I return to Crete where I was temporarily safe and warm, buoyed aloft by the salty waters of an older, calmer life.


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